1 August 2016-08-01

Jaeden Lieberher in Midnight Special


Out This Week


Midnight Special (E One, cert 12)

I’m a sucker for a deduction film, and in Midnight Special we are asked to deduce first what’s going on, and then what sort of a movie it is. This being a Jeff Nichols film, Michael Shannon is the star – as he has been in four of five Nichols films to date (Nichols’s latest, Loving, also a Shannon number, has not arrived here yet) – and he brings his brutish compassion to bear on a story that looks, at first, to be an abduction drama. Shannon, we deduce, is the abductor of a child, and on the run from the law and a religious community headed by Sam Shepard, a charismatic and mean son of a bitch, we deduce, from the few snatches of dialogue Nichols lets us earwig. So is Shannon the bad guy, or is it Shepard? Is it abduction at all, or a rescue? Or something more complex? A glimpse of the kid in question – in ear defenders and goggles – and we realise we’re wrong on both counts, and the film is barely underway. Would it spoil things too much to say that there is some sci-fi in here, and that Shannon is like a grown-up version of the kid trying to help ET get home? It probably would, if plot were all this film were about. But it’s also examination of the power of faith, as Nichols’s films so often seem to be, but also a deft display by a film-maker who knows what certain “tells” mean in certain genres – sci-fi loves its bright lights, for instance – and uses them to confound and delight. Put in simple English, you can achieve an awful lot of wow for very little outlay if people aren’t expecting it (I’ve vaguely recalling the great offbeat British sci-fi film Skeletons here, where much was done with stuff culled from a junk shop). Er, back to Midnight Special – Shannon’s really big idea being that where faith and reason meet, that’s sci-fi. Beautifully constructed, played by Shannon the caring dad, newcomer Jaeden Lieberher as the wide-eyed kid, Joel Edgerton as a dim cop along for the ride and Kirsten Dunst doing a faint echo of Martha Kent, Superman’s earth mother. Enough, enough – watch this ambient, elegant and inspirational film.

Midnight Special – Watch It/Buy It at Amazon




Where to Invade Next (Dogwoof, cert 15)

I know I’m not the first to point out that the title of Michael Moore’s film is entirely misleading. But has anyone else seen any of this material before? I know I have, though I’m not sure where or how. I’ve seen, in other words, Michael Moore trawling the schools, hospitals and welfare systems of other countries – Europe, mostly – for ideas to take back to the US. In Italy he learns of the country’s generous system of holidays, in France it’s the fine school meals (scallops with a curry sauce, lamb skewers with couscous, followed by ice cream, then cheese – chips only twice a year). In Finland, home to the best education system in the world, he discovers the kids do precisely no homework, nor are they taught to a test. Germany has workers on the boards of companies such as VW. Slovenia has free education. Tunisia has free women’s health clinics. Portugal treats drugs as a health problem rather than as criminality. And so on. Good points, well made. Much as I’m politically inclined to agree with Michael Moore, I’ve found his last few films hectoring, as if he’d forgotten that an assertion isn’t an argument. I’d forgotten how vastly entertaining he can be when he’s on his game. And he is here, mixing up large dollops of himself doing the grand tour of foreign cities and meeting dignitaries and working Joes with copious archive designed to entertain and illuminate. Don’t expect Moore to point out that Italy, for example, is on the verge of bankruptcy, though he does, in passing, point out that US citizens do get most of the stuff that the countries he visits have as of right, but they have to pay for them privately. And then, boy, do they pay.

Where to Invade Next – Watch It/Buy it at Amazon




Sing Street (Lionsgate, cert 12)

Once director John Carney goes back to Dublin for another charming musical about a boy winning a girl’s heart with song. Unlike Carney’s Begin Again – which starred Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo – we’re back with the unknowns, with Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Conor, the geeky kid whose life is mapped by the gruesome Christian Brothers, a similarly thuggish school bully Barry (Ian Kenny) and the collapse of his parents’ marriage. Until he espies a girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and, instantly smitten, tells her he’s in a band to impress her. Working at warp speed, he gets one together, learning how to play, sing and write songs all the while ribbing and being ribbed by his mates. So, Irish, get the band together, tunes, craic and so on… The Commitments, we’re thinking. Except, clearly understanding that comparisons will be made, Carney makes the guys in Sing Street as unlike the proto-musicians of Alan Parker’s film as he can. Conor is the sort of kid who’s easily influenced, and this being the 1980s, he’s falling under the musical and style influence of a different band each week – now he’s aping Duran Duran, then it’s The Cure, Spandau Ballet, even Hall and Oates. The whole thing is entirely likeable, the leads are highly believable and the will they/won’t they chemistry of Conor and ideal girl Raphina is particularly well caught – she’s older than him and Conor is fighting against the current. Again, as in Once, Carney has written the songs too. Again, they lack the hooks of good pop songs and could do with a trim but, hey, whaddyagonnado? Warm-hearted flyaway entertainment.

Sing Street – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Dheepan (StudioCanal, cert 15)

I was resisting the Palm d’Or-winning Dheepan because I’d heard it was a film about the “immigrant experience”. My heart beats as compassionately as the next man’s who’s just signed up to the costless conspicuous altruism of a change.org petition, but even so I was wary. It’s going to be worthy, it’s going to be grim. Hang on, it’s by Jacques Audiard, who turned a story about an amputee and her carer into the gripping Rust and Bone, who made a film about a Muslim prisoner into the unmissable A Prophet. He’s done the same with Dheepan, which follows a “family”, strangers until the demands of the UNHCR throw them together, as they adjust to a sink estate in Paris after life in a refugee camp Sri Lanka. Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) the tough Tamil killer is now a janitor, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) his sharp-eyed pretend-wife gets a job caring for the disabled father of the estate’s thuggish Mr Big, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) the child they’re now raising – a blood relative of neither – turns out to be smarter than the pair of them, more emotionally connected too. So we watch as people who we don’t know – and who at first don’t know each other – do the equivalent of buying something second hand at a market: they turn it this way and that. This, quite honestly, would have been enough for me, but beneath that is the rumbling uncertainty about Dheepan’s past. Was he a bad guy who killed people wholesale, or was he just caught up in the Tamil Tiger conflict and is now happy to be living in safety in France, as he says? And, as the local thugs start to flex their muscles even more than usual, we realise that Dheepan’s true nature is in fact the nub on which the whole film turns. Audiard’s DP Éponine Momenceau has some interesting tricks in her palette, adapted from those “fade to black” iris effects we used to see in silent cinema. So occasionally a scene will end with the picture fading away, a significant detail being the last thing to go. Though to be honest, the film is so well set up, written and played by its cast that these tricks, enriching though they are, aren’t what it’s all about.

Dheepan – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Warner, cert 12)

Christopher Nolan did not write or direct this long-awaited superhero bake-off; he’s only the executive producer. But it feels like a Nolan film, looks like one, broods like one. In fact, we’re told, it’s a Zack Snyder film, though I prefer to see Snyder as the gun for hire here, reporting back to his masters and having his course trimmed until… finally… in the ultimate big showdown, he’s given his head and… well, it becomes a Zack Snyder film. Loud, big and drowning in CG.

Whoever takes ownership, it’s a superhero film unlike any of the other recent batch, certainly unlike Marvel’s primary-coloured output (this is DC, let’s not forget). But first let’s get out of the way the playground question of who’d win a fight between Superman and Batman, between a godlike being and a guy in a cape. Duh, is the answer, and the film carefully doesn’t go there. Instead, it baits its trap with a long, rambling plot about Batman trying to undermine Superman’s reputation as well as his super powers. Here’s where Jesse Eisenberg’s disappointingly babbling Lex Luthor – Renfield’s to Batman’s Dracula – comes in. Green kryptonite figures here, too, but there’s way more intrigue, co-writers Chris Terrio and David Goyer having clearly decided Sturm und Drang is the way to go. This is entirely appropriate for a Nolan (sorry, Snyder) movie, and Watchman DP Larry Fong and soundtrack composer Hans Zimmer gamely chip in with lakes of shadow and hanging walls of Shostakovich pastiche – it’s big, it’s dark and it’s clever, particularly the bubbling sub-text of whether the citizens of Gotham, Metropolis (and by extension us too) should be signing up for superheroes at all.

The buy-two-get-one-free offer means Gal Gadot turns up as Wonder Woman, and she’s impressive enough in terms of sheer presence to bust Henry Cavill’s Superman to third place, leaving Ben Affleck in top spot, his jowly, unshaven, bitter, middle-aged Batman being my favourite iteration of the Caped Crusader since Adam West. I watched the Ultimate edition, which adds about half an hour of extra footage to the theatrical version. And judging by the way it spins out one storyline, then heads off to spin out another, another and then another – this going on for about two hours – it’s entirely understandable why this movie didn’t do so well in the cinema at cutdown length. How do you trim something that’s built like a Jenga tower? Don’t worry, fight fans – the last hour is all action, the first fight on the card being Batman v Superman followed by a lumbering mute General Zod v Superman. The whole thing is highly immersive and there’s even a bit of levity and that old joke about the inherent absurdity of capes – bum tish! Bring on Wonder Woman.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (Universal, cert 12)

Like a kebab found on the dining table the morning after a night out, MBFGW2 seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the unasked-for and the indigestible duking it out for supremacy. But let’s not forget MBFGW1, which was also unasked-for and yet went on to become the biggest grossing romantic comedy of all time – no, I don’t believe the figures either, especially as the Mel Gibson romcom What Women Want and Will Smith’s Hitch are numbers two and three. But if boxofficemojo.com says it’s true then there must be a grain of something in there. The writing was MBFGW1’s big weapon, that and a message about the importance of family, plus screenwriter/star Nia Vardalos had the good grace and sense to share the funny lines around among her talented cast. Those ingredients and that cast are all back and animate this follow-up, which kicks off as the daughter resulting from MBFGW1 is ready to spread her wings, while mum Toula (Vardalos) and dad Ian (John Corbett) negotiate both the imminent empty nest and a slight flatness in their romance. As for a plot peg, that’s the discovery that Toula’s mother and father (Lainie Kazan and Michael Constantine) had, by some administrative error, never actually got married way back when, which necessitates a bit of Hollywood toing, froing and general busyness. Vardalos’s realisation that the extended family forces – allows? – even middle-aged offspring to act like kids is the energetic mainspring of the fast-moving semi-farce, which again has the wit to give support players their head – game Aunt Voula’s sex advice (“shave everything”) being the most obviously funny, but look in the background and there’s Bess Meisler as the black clad grandmother running through a series of silent movie gags, her face an exquisite Buster Keaton deadpan. It is details like this that help hide the fact that Corbett has nothing to do except stand around and swing his arms, and that there’s a bit of stereotyping going on that ethnic groups with a bit less self-confidence would probably consider a hate crime. Very, and unexpectedly, enjoyable.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Hardcore Henry (EV, cert 18)

Hardcore Henry is a Russian pov Bourne movie about a man with incredible skills and amnesia trying to find out who he is. It being pov, we never see who he is, just what he does – he runs, he shoots, he lunges, he hangs off things, he runs up bridge supports and he kills people, all before breakfast. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the film, though the objection by some critics that “this thing has been done before” – as long ago as 1947’s The Lady in the Lake, one pointed out – is to ignore that the inspiration for Hardcore Henry is not other movies, but shoot-em-up games.

But would you “watch” a shoot-em-up that someone else is playing? That’s clearly been the discussion in pre-production and director Ilya Naishuller and producer Timur Bekmambetov (whose grunge-energised Night Watch is clearly an influence) have come to the sensible conclusion that the answer is no, and so they’ve loaded up on colour. Colour in this case coming from a madly varied soundtrack (Cole Porter, Hildegard of Bingen, the theme from The Magnificent Seven and Leo Sayer are on there), scantily clad girls on – yawn – poles, drugs, a camp villain (Danila Kozlovsky) who bears a passing resemblance to Julian Assange, and Sharlto Copley, doing his extravagant accent thing in a range of roles that straddle the good/bad divide. There is some serious good stunt work in here, and some beautifully conceived and engineered set pieces and the pace genuinely never lets up. Henry really is hardcore too, in fact he appears to be indestructible. Which might explain why, half an hour before this film had ended, I had completely lost interest.

Hardcore Henry – Watch it/buy it at Amazon










© Steve Morrissey 2016






25 July 2016-07-25

Lauren McQueen in The Violators


Out This Week


Disorder (Soda, cert 15)

Like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Disorder is a love story masquerading as something else – a home-invasion thriller, in this case – and so is the perfect date movie for traditionally minded peeps. The casting is bang on. Matthias Schoenaerts, an expert in beefy angst, is ideal as a security guard with PTSD falling for trophy wife Diane Kruger – Kruger’s “because I’m worth it” ex-model coolness actually being a real advantage here. The bit of posh going for a bit of rough is hardly a new idea, but director/writer Alice Winocour stokes the tension early on, setting many scenes in tight little corners, and even when she doesn’t her camera is up close to the face. As for the home-invasion element, it’s brilliantly suggested that this is nothing less than the growing feeling between these two people, no less of a threat than actual living malefactors because Kruger is the wife of an arms dealer, a man it doesn’t do to be on the wrong side of. It’s a power ballad with the volume turned down, a film about the torture of falling in love – watch Schoenaerts in all sorts of mental torment when one of his security buddies turns up and starts flirting outrageously with his employer. As to actual plot details, I’m not convinced that we need to know anything about the arms dealer’s nefarious goings-on, just so long as we know he’s shady and someone’s out to get him. There’s just a bit more plot here – Schoenaerts and Kruger going through incriminating documents and so on – than seems strictly necessary. That’s a niggle, a piffling one, which won’t ruin a drama that’s been beautifully conceived, crafted and played.

Disorder aka Maryland – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (Dogwoof, cert 18)

The “look at the pictures” line is from US senator Jesse Helms who, as the curtain is rising on Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary, is standing in front of Congress with a series of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs – among them the one with a big black cock hanging out of a pair of trousers in the snap amusingly titled Polyester Suit, another a self-portrait of photographer Mapplethorpe with a bullwhip up his ass – urging the government to ban them on the grounds that they are obscene. What follows is a meat and potatoes – if you’ll forgive the expression – “life and work” documentary about Mapplethorpe, with talking heads of friends and family, telling us how a madly ambitious bright kid went to art school, graduated in 1967, went to live with his girlfriend Patti Smith in the Chelsea Hotel in 1969 and then, in the 1970s, came into his own after graduating from making collages using porn (because no one else was doing it) to shooting the porn himself (because it was cheaper than buying the stuff). We get plenty of good gossip about life in 1970s NY, from the likes of Debbie Harry and Fran Lebowitz. We meet some of the people he photographed – Ken Moody and Robert Sherman, the yin and yan black and white guys in a series of photo studies – and we hear about Sam Wagstaff, the rich older lover who enabled Robert Mapplethorpe’s career. Along the way we learn of the dark side – that he was only interested in people if they could help him, and hear of his ruthlessness from old lovers, his younger brother (still clearly a loving sibling in spite of shabby treatment). But as for discussion of the work itself, there’s only the “we’re not worthies” of curators and the like, and not a single voice on the sidelines to add shade and, dare I say, make things more interesting – Mapplethorpe’s quality control in technical terms was simply bad and when he had nothing else to say he’d reach for kitsch classical Greece and Rome. It’s a useful reference work for anyone wanting an introduction to the man and his milieu but it’s perhaps most valuable in capturing the moment – though this is only dealt with in passing – when photography emerged from beyond the pail to become a valued, and valuable method of artistic production. Mapplethorpe’s career – early 1970s to his death in 1989 – tracked, fuelled and was made by that development.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Dr Strangelove (Criterion, cert PG)

I only intended to watch five minutes of this Criterion restoration of Kubrick’s 1964 nuclear satire, just to see how good the picture quality was, then stayed to watch the whole thing. We all know the story – a crazed US army general (Sterling Hayden) launches a rogue attack on the USSR, which triggers the response of their unstoppable Doomsday machine… kaboom. What I’d forgotten is how explicatory the film is. But what explication! In scene after scene of brilliantly written dialogue – hawkish General Buck Turgidson to his love-toy secretary, mad General Ripper to British wingman Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), bomb-carrying B52 captain Major “King” Kong to his flight crew, Turgidson to President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), Soviet ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull) to the President, then finally doomsday adviser Dr Strangelove to everyone assembled in the war room – we are carefully guided down through circles of hell from absolute innocence towards inevitable total annihilation. It’s shot in black and white, and perfectly, so carefully judged that it has a newsreel veracity to this day, it is awesomely tight and fast – it may be wordy but they all count – and the casting is so good that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the roles. Notice, for example, Tracy Reed, the only woman in the film, only in it for five minutes, yet her character is vital and Reed plays her with depth, charm and intelligence. Sellers’ three roles dominate the film, but Sterling Hayden and George C Scott as the two bullish generals – one obviously nuts, the other only a squeak away – give as good as they get, and everyone involved understands how to play satire – never, ever let on it’s a comedy. OK, so maybe Sellers as Strangelove – one half failed Nazi experiment, one half Henry Kissinger in utero – missed that memo.

Dr Strangelove – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Violators (Bulldog, cert 15)

Shot on the forlorn streets where Birkenhead dock-working families used to live, debut writer/director Helen Walsh’s grim-up-north drama has lots going for it, but it’s the instant-star turn by Lauren McQueen that really earns it a right to be seen. She plays feisty beautiful teenager Shelly, a girl who early on is offered drugs for “a suck”, and from the disdainful look on her face this is not the first time. So when grimy pawn shop owner Mikey (Stephen Lord) sets his cap at her, she at first gives him the cold shoulder, until he starts to tantalise her with hints that he can help her escape this mean locale. Over the road from Shelly’s house, meanwhile, is handsome and around-the-same-age Kieran (Liam Ainsworth), a fine upstanding member of the cadets who has an eye for Shelly, as she has for him, if she’d only admit it. And floating on the fringe is Rachel (Brogan Ellis), a strange kid from the right side of the tracks who insists on being Shelly’s new best friend, in spite of the fact that they have little in common. Something, we sense, is amiss here. In some senses Shameless without the humour, the drama finally kicks into some sort of shape when we learn that Shelly’s sexually abusive dad is about to be let out of prison, forcing her into decision time – run off with Mikey, or at the very least accept his protection in return for sex on the back seat of his Range Rover, or turn to Kieran, or even possibly Rachel. It’s a beautifully made film – its expressionistic sound design really stands out – though it’s a touch in thrall to the bleak allure of the drill-straight streets of Birkenhead, which slows things down a touch, and maybe it isn’t working against those kitchen-sink stereotypes quite as hard as it thinks it is. But if it’s anything it’s a starmaking vehicle for McQueen, whose every gesture means something. Poor Brogan Ellis, no mean actress herself, can’t keep up.

The Violators – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The End of the Tour (Sony, cert 15)

In the mid-1990s Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky went on a five day road trip with newly hot writer David Foster Wallace, shortly after the publication of the book that had made his name – Infinite Jest. After a run of book signings and long talks back at Wallace’s base, meeting students at the lit course he taught and a few of his friends and fellow road warriors, Lipsky returned to base and transcribed the interview, then turned it into his piece, and then a book of his own, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. The End of the Tour essentially does that transcription yet again, inserting Jesse Eisenberg into proceedings as Lipsky and Jason Segel as the shambling bandana-wearing Wallace, a man happy to talk about pretty much anything. And that’s what the film is – talk – about the joys of trashy food and Die Hard, dogs versus girlfriends, journalism versus real writing, the underlying theme being the simulacrum versus the real, and the one below that being “how to live the good life”. It’s a fascinating film, even if you don’t dig Wallace. And, just as you’re getting to the “is this it?” point, it starts to develop into a psychodrama. As the road trip continues, Lipsky’s journalistic need to play cute with his interviewee, laugh too much at his jokes and be generally overweening starts to shade into something darker. Does Lipsky want to be Wallace? Both actors bring much to the roles, though in different ways. Eisenberg excels at playing creepy nice guys – see The Social Network – who’ve turned passive aggressive behaviour into an art. Segel, too, is interesting, as a vastly intelligent man who hides behind a wall of chat, of quips, of cow-eyes, all the while manoeuvring, sumo-like, for domination. The film worships at the altar of Wallace without ever quite telling us why we should. Though this verbatim technique does get us close and we do actually edge towards the artist – how he thought, why he wrote – and that’s pretty damn unusual.

The End of the Tour – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



Landmine Goes Click (Icon, cert 18)

Is Landmine Goes Click a failure? That depends on what you think it is. Because it starts out as one thing and ends up as another. The simple premise is as follows: three friends are out hiking in Georgia (former Soviet Union). Two men, one woman. Alicia and Daniel are an item. But Alicia has also, we learn in an opening piece of dialogue, been sleeping with fellow vacationer Chris, and now regrets it. Within minutes Chris has stood on an unexploded landmine. If he takes his foot off it, he’s toast. The landmine has been planted by Daniel, we learn an instant later, and at this point there’s not much point in telling you much more, except to say that a local turns up to help, but there’s a price that help and it’s extracted from blonde, leggy Alicia – this is presumably karmic payback by the gods of genre for her infidelity. In this role, as the randy Georgian – all smiles one minute, threats the next – Kote Tolordava proves to be the making of the movie, which runs through a few clichés about the former Soviet bloc (lawless, uncouth) as it teases out a series of powerplays between all concerned. It also doesn’t hurt that the hairy, lairy Tolordova resembles porn-hedgehog Ron Jeremy a touch. This is a well made film on the horns of a dilemma – its USP is its title and it isn’t really about that. There’s a second plot, though it would be spoilerish of me to reveal what it is, suffice to say the whole film would have been improved if it had got to it quicker. However, Landmine Goes Click is loaded with the atmosphere of an area where Eastern Europe shades into landscapes of fairytale beauty. Its soundtrack – tolling, brooding noises rather than music as such – is memorable and effective too. There are good things here.

Landmine Goes Click – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



The Girl King (Peccadillo, cert 15)

A Swedish film about a very Swedish subject – Queen Kristina, the 17th-century monarch who dragged her country towards humanism and away from the clerics. Greta Garbo is most famous for playing the role, in the 1933 film of the same name (though they spell it Christina). And it’s interesting that in Malin Buska, who plays Kristina this time around, there are clear reminders of Garbo – the stillness, the sense of melodrama in the features. It is, as films set in royal courts often are, all about intrigue, though the intrigue in this case is manifold – many of Kristina’s court are against her because she is a moderniser and a woman, there are international forces out to weaken her, religious interests who are unhappy about her turn to humanism or, worse, Catholicism, and then there’s the sexual intrigue when it’s discovered that the monarch has a thing for the ladies. Enter Sarah Gadon, and a piece of information I’ve withheld so far – the film is in English. It’s full of great actors doing a lot of actorly swishing – Michael Nyqvist as the Queen’s Richelieu-like devious Chancellor, Hippolyte Girardot as the devious French ambassador, Martina Gedeck as the Queen’s permanently furious mother – and the location work (particularly at Turku Castle, Finland, standing in for Stockholm’s Kronor Castle) is breathtaking. But something isn’t quite right in The Girl King. There’s a lot of warp (characters, plots) but not much weft, and by the time Mika Kaurismäki’s film declares itself to be over, and has even given us a money shot in the high puritanical style of Carl Theodor Dreyer to convey that we have been watching your actual quality, there’s the distinct feeling of much setting up and not an awful lot of working through. Sumptuous it undoubtedly is, though.

The Girl King – Watch it/buy it at Amazon








© Steve Morrissey 2016






18 July 2016-07-18

Catherine Frot as Marguerite



Out This Week


Marguerite (Picturehouse, cert 15)

The story of the socialite who sang like a scalded cat is also told by the film Florence Foster Jenkins. But this is France, the singer has been renamed Marguerite and instead of Meryl Streep there’s Catherine Frot in the lead role as the rich woman whose wealth buys her the appreciation – grins set to “fixed” – of her retinue of hangers-on in the select musical soirees she finances out of her own pocket.

I’ve not seen FFJ, but have heard that it doesn’t go for the easy joke at Jenkins’s expense. If that’s true then director Xavier Giannoli and co have taken the same tack with Marguerite – the woman has the soul of an artist; it is her grand tragedy that she doesn’t have an artist’s pipes too. But does Marguerite know how piercingly awful her voice is? Frot keeps the cards tight to her chest in a masterly performance, just one of many in a brilliantly written film, also a fabulously made one of the sort “they don’t make any more”.

By the time it’s over, as Marguerite has arrived at her debut in front of the great unwashed for the total humiliation the film has been teasingly leading us towards, we realise we know everyone involved – the husband (André Marcon) whose face says “please when will this farce end?”, the servant (Denis Mpunga) who ministers to Catherine (ordering bouquets and pretending they’re from admirers) with mad devotion, the singer (Michel Fau) hired to coach her, the ingenue (Christa Téret) whose pure singing voice is everything Marguerite’s is not. There’s even been a Rocky-style training montage to that Michael Nyman piece of cod Baroque.

As a period drama, Marguerite has wit and depth, style and substance, it’s beautifully shot and makes British efforts like The King’s Speech seem one-dimensional. All this and it’s fabulously entertaining too.

Marguerite – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Witch: a New England Folktale (Universal, cert 15)

We’re in the Arthur Miller world of The Crucible for this tale of a pious family rent asunder by the suspicion of witchcraft.

We meet the family, fairly recently arrived in 1630s New England, of zealous man and wife William and Katherine, older children Thomasin and Caleb, plus Mercy and Jonas, a lively pair of young siblings who have little to do until an injection of gunpowder irrationality is required towards the end. By the time we get to that end we’ve watched as a family has pulled together trying to eke a living from the hard ground, until Katherine’s newborn baby is stolen – spirited away by Indians is the suggestion, in some gruesome montage of cutting and blood-smearing. Things post-traumatically fall apart as the accusatory finger is pointed. Amid dialogue heavy on the “thee” and “thine” but never incomprehensible, director Robert Eggers builds a tough, believable portrait of a family under stress – the bluff, decent William, the maudlin hysterical Katherine, the oldest daughter Thomasin, all pious eyes and wanton lips, the son Caleb who admires his dad but is stirred by his sister’s budding breasts. And the other two who, as I say, don’t matter right now.

The force of the drama falls on Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin, and she’s remarkable as the wanton yet god-fearing daughter. Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie as mother and father, well, those two are fail-safe choices. But it’s the production design and conjuring of a world that The Witch is all about, one where goats might be devils, where chicken’s eggs contain dead foetal birds and where the woods stir with unknown dangers. While DP Jarin Blaschke lays on the shadows and lights the sets in the manner of Rembrandt – who was working around this time – Eggers dabs Eau de Poe hither and yon, the Grimms get an outing and, once matters start to build towards a feverish crescendo, even Ken Russell’s hysterical-theatrical The Devils seems a reference point.

Strip away all of that, though, and there’s still a four-square family drama of almost kitchen-sink solidity underneath. Perhaps that’s why The Witch works so well.

The Witch: a New England Folktale – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Trust (Signature, cert 15)

Everyone seems to dig the joys of genre in this feature debut for the talented Brewer brothers – Alex and Benjamin.

They certainly do, in this strange comedy about two useless, low-status, belittled cops who decide it’s their turn to be the bad guys and so stage a daring heist from set-up to execution to fallout. As do the stars, Elijah Wood and Nicolas Cage. It’s constructed like a straight heist movie, except every scene is comedically punctuated, if not punctured, by some tiny detail happening in the background, or a look on the face of Cage or Wood, or perhaps just a word pronounced in a strange way – Cage says “whacky” at one point, somehow getting about four vowels in there – and that was enough for me. Or Cage ringing Germany from the USA to order the drill bit necessary to get into the vault where all the loot is stashed. There is no logical reason for this, unless the intention is to hear Cage having a go at speaking German for about a second, a bit more comedy.

It’s a drily funny film in the buddy-cop tradition, faintly reminiscent of the Wahlberg/Ferrell movie The Other Guys maybe. Gonzo is the idea, and who better than Cage, who gets right in there and rolls around in it, leaving Wood to do the straight man stuff, which he does with flair.

There have been Marmite reviews, and I suspect that that’s because the film runs out of gas as it gets into the final stretch, the heist gets properly underway, and the joking is abandoned for some serious gangs’n’guns stuff. Fair enough, it can’t be denied that the film does go into limp mode, but by then I’d had my fun, had been entertained enough. And it’s nice to see Cage has still got it.

The Trust – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Zootropolis (Disney, cert PG)

It’s also known as Zootopia in some quarters, and there is a similarly undecided air of uncertainty hanging over the whole of this strangely dense film, all the more remarkable since it’s an animation by Disney.

Following a rabbit who wants to join the police force (“There’s never been a bunny cop,” she’s told), Zootropolis is set in a strange world where all the animals co-exist rather well, that is until sporadic violence starts breaking out among the normally sedate populace. Judy (voice: Ginnifer Goodwin), our wabbity hero, investigates, accompanied by a wily streetwise fox (Jason Bateman, and what an asset to this film his smart, sly but essentially decent personification is) and this viewer started realising he’s watching a thriller that’s clearly watched Wallace and Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers, complete with smart visual allusion and noirish musical stabs.

Visually, the film is extraordinary, and the animators are clearly obsessed with the rendering of light. In the opening sequence in which Judy leaves behind her simple but honest folks and heads to the big city on a train, it passes through almost every lighting situation imaginable – snow, neon, light down tunnels, off the water, off clouds, dawn, dusk and midday, haze and bright sunshine. Watch this sequence and tick them off.

With Donald Trump hitting the ethnic essentialist button right now – “Muslims are like this, Mexicans are like that” – how interesting to see a film walking in the same territory. It’s no Animal Farm, but Orwell also hovers in the background, and while you might wonder about its philosophical flip-flopping, what it’s really trying to say and whether it really takes huge efforts of will for different types of animal (people) to live together, it’s a relief that Disney have realised there’s more to human motivation than following your dream.

Zootropolis aka Zootopia: Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story (Metrodome, cert 18)

Bang Gang is firmly in the “kids gone wild” style of film-making that’s been around since the 1950s. The sort of thing where pout is more important than plot and where big moral lessons are learnt by the end.

Here, it’s French kids from nice families indulging in wanton sex parties fuelled by drink and drugs, seen through the eyes of George, a Bardot-alike local hottie (instant star Marilyn Lima) and her more level-headed friend Laetitia (Daisy Broom). The venue for the parties is the home of well-to-do reprobate Alex (Finnegan Oldfield) – abandoned by his working mother to get up to whatever he wants (more moralising) – and taking full advantage. And that’s about it – the kids get together, take their clothes off and get down to it, while we are asked to admire Lima’s fine body as director Eva Husson proves it’s not just the male gaze that fetishises.

Behind the carnality, the beginnings of a love story are gathered together, as George gets let down by Alex and, from left field, local weirdo Gabriel (Lorenzo Lefèbvre) starts to edge onto the scene. Are George and Gabriel going to get together? Well they’re the physically most attractive people in view and it’s a film with a two plus two kind of simplicity, for all its fluid-swapping wrapping.

Yes, for all its YouTube-iness and focus on the connected world of phones, computers, instant messaging and internet porn, it’s an old-fashioned morality play with a fully operating double standard, dressed up by Husson, whose cool camera flourishes and impressionistic sound design lend it 21st-century style. There are many pluses – particularly the fine playing by its cast of mostly newcomers – but when it ends you might murmur, “is that it?”

Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Love & Peace (Third Window, cert 15)

A stupendously milquetoast salaryman in a moment of abject misery, after being ridiculed at work once too often, flushes his pet turtle down the toilet. The turtle, having floated down through the sewers, drifts into a strange zone ruled over by an old drunk tramp, where animals talk and toys come to life. Upstairs, our craven hero is transitioning, too, having been flukily discovered by a rock band and given a makeover by a record company, he is an instant pop/rock star. The turtle, homesick for his master, takes a magic pill and heads back overground, where he is going to help the star write songs and become even more of a star than he already is.

Er… bonkers, right? It’s a film by Sion Sono, whose usual fare – in Love Exposure, for instance – is stories about guys who take upskirt shots of girls. So he’s well off his beat here. Yet Love & Peace works because Sion (or Sono, I get confused) approaches his material with such honest enthusiasm. We get a ramshackle rock-biz satire upstairs, as our guy Ryo gets too big for his boots, and a child’s fantasy (done in Svankmajer-like thrift-shop stop-motion animation) down below, as the old drunk is revealed to be Someone Very Important Indeed.

The film even, at one point, starts to morph into a Godzilla movie, yet it’s all done with such cardboard-cutout simplicity that Noh theatre must figure in Sono’s (or Sion’s) intent.

I particularly liked the bit where Pikadon (the turtle is named after the Japanese word for a nuclear explosion) helps Ryo write lyrics by knocking books over and grabbing half a title here, half a title there – hey, that’s the cut-up technique, as famously used by David Bowie, I thought. Sion Sono is 55.

Love & Peace – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Truth (Warner, cert 15)

Truth tells the story of how in 2004, with a presidential campaign underway, CBS news anchor’s Dan Rather’s team, led by producer Mary Mapes, told the world that re-election hopeful George W Bush had – in so many words – dodged service in Vietnam, and then how Rather and Mapes lost their jobs when they were unable to stand the story up properly.

It’s a great story, of All the President’s Men kidney, and blow me if it isn’t Robert Redford as Rather. And rather a good job he’s doing too, catching the hokey gravitas of the professional interviewer, the steel of the longtime newsman, the wardrobe physicality of a man who turns his body when the rest of us might swivel a neck.

But the film is really about Mapes, and falls squarely on Cate Blanchett, who delivers another of her “stuff and nonsense” turns as an ice queen with a heart beneath that professional carapace, and one that Blanchett is going to reveal only when maximum impact can be guaranteed.

It’s her trick, and a good one, but sadly this is a lousy film, one made worse by its reminders at every turn of the dexterity and depth of All the President’s Men. It’s bad largely because there isn’t one procedural movie in here, but three – how George W evaded Vietnam, how the 60 Minutes show put together the story of Bush evading Vietnam, and finally how the investigation unravelled.

It’s too much in too little time. Which might explain why so many good people – Dennis Quaid and Elisabeth Moss, most notably – simply don’t have anything meaningful to do. Instead of being the story about a future president already calling in favours from powerful friends years in advance of “being democratically elected yadda yadda” – which is important and urgent – Truth instead becomes the story about a TV producer losing her job.

But Mapes is not ruined, she doesn’t have a terminal illness, she’s just been fired. Happens every day. It’s hard, ultimately, to get too aerated about it. Great story, though, and worth watching as an exercise in gleaning.

Truth – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


I am an Amazon affiliate



© Steve Morrissey 2016





11 July 2016-07-11

Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise


Out This Week


High-Rise (StudioCanal, cert 15)

JG Ballard’s dystopian novels – Super-Cannes, Cocaine Nights and High Rise among them – tend to be long on premise, short on follow-through.

That’s the case too in this film adaptation by Ben Wheatley, the British maverick director behind Sightseers.

Set in an entirely allegorical high rise block, Wheatley’s film follows Tom Hiddleston – dressed as so often in a slightly over-tailored suit – as he arrives to live in the block where the more social status you have, the higher up you live.

Just above Tom is foxy Sienna Miller, who is eager to lend Hiddleston her loins once she’s caught sight of his splendid body (extra status points for that) while he’s sunbathing on his balcony. Right at the top is the building’s architect – Jeremy Irons in another of his roles of haughty disain, and who better. While down in the bowels is rough oik Luke Evans, a horny-handed malcontent somehow involved in fomenting revolution.

Subtle as a brick it may be conceptually, but High-Rise is beautifully done, the standout being the 1970s production design, all boxy cars, brown wallpaper and the obsession with shag pile.

At first it appears that Wheatley is aiming for Clockwork Orange Kubrick, but as the film progresses and starts to lose narrative force, High-Rise starts morphing into something more like Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital (1982), a state-of-the-nation drama whose sour, blunt satirical stabs never quite cohered into effective drama.

In High-Rise, similarly, as if from nowhere, and for reasons we don’t understand, the lower orders are rising up against the guy at the top of the block and Hiddleston – a “brain expert” is how he’s amusingly described – is being asked to decide whose side he’s on.

If you buy Hiddleston as a member of the comfortable middle classes, then the metaphor for “what’s wrong with this society” (a New Left position, essentially, the middle classes mistakenly identifying with the their rich overlords) might hold. But even so the feeling persists that there’s a 20 minute chunk of this film sitting somewhere on the digital cutting room floor.

Entertaining enough, in other words, but what really was going on? Was that it?

High-Rise – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Mustang (Curzon, cert 15)

Because Mustang is a film from Turkey – a country declared by its founder Kemal Ataturk to be a western-facing, non-theocratic state – and because it’s about five beautiful easy-going Muslim sisters being put under virtual house arrest after being spotted cavorting innocently with boys, it’s had an easy time at western festivals and arrives here garlanded with awards and an Oscar nomination.

For sure there’s a propagandistic purpose behind Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s drama following this family of sparky beauties with extravagantly free-flowing hair as they are, one by one, shoehorned into wife-and-mother roles and married off. “The house became a wife factory,” says the youngest of the lot, Lale, through whose eyes this story – more nuanced than you might initially expect – plays out.

Which brings us to the matter of the cinematography (David Chizallet and Ersin Gok) and the soundtrack (Warren Ellis, of Grinderman and Bad Seeds fame). Both are achingly gorgeous and drip with the sort of honey you might drizzle over thick Turkish yoghurt.

Is this deliberate, as a counterpoint to what we’re watching – girls being brutally driven to hospital when it’s suspected their virginity might be compromised – to make the dramatic point even more forcefully? Or is it more a suggestion that the world of the arranged marriage has its sweet side? One daughter, the eldest, Sonay, does actually get the guy she wants. Or are the wafty visuals and floaty sounds a representation of the dreamlike childhood which these girls are leaving?

A bit of all three, I thought. Should you want to, you can take the film as an anti-religious tract, but really it’s more about conservative rural societies versus progressive urbanites rather than any “war on Islam”.

And you can ignore that idea too, if you just want an entertaining film for the night, full of attractive young women, thick with fine acting and with a couple of genuinely tense plot twists that almost propel it into the realm of the thriller.

Mustang – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



10 Cloverfield Lane (Paramount, cert 12)

So the word “Cloverfield” is in the title, which makes this an alien invasion drama, right?

Not so fast. We meet the heroine – cool Mary Elizabeth Winstead – in her car, then again waking up in the bunker of John Goodman. He claims there’s been an alien invasion and that, no, he hasn’t abducted her but saved her, that the air outside is poisonous, but not to worry since he has enough food down there to last them…. ooh, years.

Backing him up is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), the guy who helped this “blackbelt in conspiracy theory”, according to Emmett, to build the bunker and who is down there of his own volition.

So which is it – abduction or aliens?

Alongside the name JJ Abrams on the production credits is that of Drew Goddard, a master of this sort of genre tweaking (he wrote Cabin in the Woods, most memorably). And that’s what 10 Cloverfield Lane is, a film playing “guess the genre” with its audience.

So, in other words, I’m going to reveal no more plot details.

Winstead works well as a relatable independent-minded young woman, a notch up from the usual scream queen and the sort of character that Julia Stiles used to be the go-to for, and Goodman also reminds us why he’s in such demand – this is real tightrope stuff, with just a twitch or a slump of the shoulders he will give the game away. He never does. Though in retrospect…

So, beyond its genre trickery what do we have? A well made, brilliantly played and efficient film with lots of procedural detail about Winstead working her way towards the truth. Ultimately, though, it’s a shocker that’s the equivalent of a newspaper article which can’t quite live up to its great headline. A high concept thriller that can’t get past its high concept because its high concept, in a sense, is all it’s about.

Good, crafty, enjoyable fun on a bijou scale.

10 Cloverfield Lane – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




London Has Fallen (Lionsgate, cert 15)

Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down were such similar films that it’s easy to get confused. In the spirit of public service, I remind you that Olympus Has Fallen was the one in which sidelined security guy Gerard Butler saved US president Aaron Eckhart’s skin; in White House Down it was Channing Tatum doing the same for Prez Jamie Foxx.

Both were big and dumb but only one of them has made it to a sequel. No prizes.

So here we are, and from the title you’d expect London to be the locus of the same level of collateral devastation that was visited upon the White House last time. Now, while there is quite a lot of that going on here, the film is actually not too interested in the death of lots of Londoners or the destruction of many a picture-postcard landmark.

Because, hell, the US President (Aaron Eckhart again) is in town with his best bodyguard (Gerard Butler) and is under attack.

A battlefield movie is the result, with the two men scurrying from foxhole to foxhole across the UK capital while bad guys takes potshots at them.

It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But it isn’t, and that’s because director Babak Najafi is in charge and he shows the same gift for action and pacing that he brought to Easy Money II (a sequel as good as, if not better, than the original). Beyond a command for switching points of view and a restless camera influenced by video games, Najafi has the gimlet understanding that the dumber a film is, the faster it needs to move. And boy is this dumb and fast.

Also, Butler’s character has been tweaked to remove any shred of irony – never one of Butler’s strengths. Now his Mike Banning is little more than a boiling bucket of testosterone – in terms of balls, this icon of unparalleled masculinity outranks the president of the USA, and the clincher comes when a bunch of SAS guys (the toughest of the tough) turn up, order Banning to follow them, but instead end up falling in behind him, because his aura of manly command is just too impossible to gainsay.

Add in the reacharound scene that’s been edited out, surely, and it’s the world’s first covert-ops gay action movie.

Politics students will enjoy Butler’s cogent assessment of the bigger situation that’s playing out on the streets of Blighty – “Why don’t you guys just pack up your shit and go back to Fuckheadistan or wherever you’re from,” as he says to the leader of the terrorists seeking payback for the killing of his family by US drone.

Yes, dig deep and there is actually a surprisingly nuanced appraisal of recent US foreign policy vis a vis the Middle East. But mostly you’ll be watching our hero doing stuff like sticking a knife in an enemy’s eye socket or trapping him half in-half-out the door of a car as it speeds towards the brick pier of a bridge. Ouch.

London Has Fallen – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Anomalisa (Curzon, cert 15)

There are two conceits in Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman’s latest nervous breakdown as cinematic entertainment.

The first is that he’s used Disney’s rotoscope technique (see Snow White) – as did Richard Linklater in his drug-drama Waking Life – to create a two-dimensional, dull, affectless world.

The second is that all the featureless characters in this bland world of smalltalkers are voiced by Tom Noonan.

It’s the flatlining exteriorisation of the interior life of a customer services guru that we’re watching, one of only two people in the film not voiced by Noonan and played by David Thewlis as a professor in Cincinatti to talk about his book How May I Help You to Help Them.

Michael Stone (Thewlis) is a guy bridling against this sea of beige and desperate to reconnect to some, any, sort of feeling. He calls an old flame and when she turns up she is also voiced by Noonan and so Michael suggests the only thing that might break his mental logjam – whether it is him or them, we’re never entirely sure. He suggests sex. The old flame, still bitter about the break up years before, and possibly expecting dinner and a show first, tells him to sling his hook.

At which point he meets Lisa, who is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. “Anomalisa”, he calls her, because she is a bright, lively anomaly in this sea of acquiescence, though her name also suggests anomie, and this being Kaufman (who wrote Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, most pertinently), the name is probably mirroring Michael Stone’s lawless mental state – he’s hardly a good guy, and for all his woe-is-me moping his modus operandi is to use people and then ditch them – How May You Help Me to Help Me (which is, let’s face it, what corporate customer relations are really all about).

But never mind all that, is the film any good? Well, watching a depressed man walk towards nervous collapse has its fans, but I’m not one of them, though Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson’s vision is bleakly entertaining, and the pair of them throw in an undressing/seduction scene that is entirely gripping because it’s so believable.

Watch the film once and be beguiled. I doubt you’ll want to watch it twice.

Anomalisa – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Couple in a Hole (Verve, cert 12)

Like Snakes on a Plane, here’s a title that explains the plot of the film. A couple in a hole, where they’ve been living for some time.

Kate Dickie and Paul Higgins play the pair, a Scottish couple in France, we later deduce, after Karen (Dickie) gets ill and John (Higgins) heads into town to buy medicine. There he meets André, a helpful Frenchman (Jérôme Kircher) and the two make a very tentative bond.

The Scottish couple may well be living in a hole in the ground in the woods but it soon becomes apparent that only she really wants to be there; he is there to be with her, because he’s a loyal husband.

This strange small drama becomes a four-hander when we start getting glimpses of the Frenchman’s home life and of his wife Celine (Corinne Masiero) – “Why are you going to see them again?” she asks him mysteriously.

“Them?” “Again?” All is eventually revealed.

Director Tom Geens keeps his cards close to his chest in terms of plot and is similarly downbeat in his sunless shooting choices. It’s the scenes between John and André that make the whole thing worthwhile, as two intensely wary guys pace around each other unsure whether to commit to friendship – men, huh. Beautifully done.

The same care hasn’t been taken with the women, though, and both Karen and Celine could be put in a box marked “moody, distaff, weaker sex”. Hell, Karen’s the one who wants to live in a hole in the woods, even with winter coming on – you don’t get moodier than that.

So what’s it all about? Well that would be telling, but moodiness of one sort or another is what Geens is dealing, and with Portishead’s Geoff Barrow providing the soundtrack there’s more than enough on offer.

Though as things move towards a conclusion, the action speeds up, a hint of giallo hysteria is introduced and things slide towards 1970s horror – it all hinges on a twist. You can almost imagine Ken Russell being involved.

That’s not necessarily a good thing.

Couple in a Hole – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Papusza (New Wave, cert 15)

Here’s a biopic about the gypsy poet Bronislawa Wajz that’s so straightforward that someone, at some point, thought if might become a bit more enigmatic, more interesting, if its chronology were fiddled with.

How many Polish gypsy poetesses do you know of? So why either Joanna Kos-Krauze or co-director husband Krzysztof decided a fiddle was necessary is beyond me.

However… it’s the story of a girl born in poor-but-happy gypsy poverty, discouraged from any book learning because that wasn’t the gypsy way, but doing it anyway, and much later in life being discovered by Jerzy Ficowski, an outsider whose anthropological survey of gypsy life throws up this gem, Bronislawa (Jowita Budnik, as an adult) aka Papusza.

Shot in a beautiful, austere black and white which nods to the Polish New Wave and the compositional austerity of Carl Theodor Dreyer, the film is marred by its noble intention not to demonise gypsies. Instead it winds up romanticising (and patronising) them – sure, they’re naughty, these gypsy people, but in a rascally sense, nothing more.

Things pick up considerably when the film isn’t either showing the simple marvels of a life connected to rude nature, or enumerating the many injustices that gypsies suffer, and instead focuses on Papusza’s march towards becoming an author, her growing confidence and her conflict with her gypsy roots.

It’s also a secret love story – and here it is heartbreaking – of Papusza’s unwavering passion for Jerzy, who has a wife but possibly feels the same for Papusza.

But like most biopics about artists of any sort – musicians, occasionally excepted – what we don’t really get is a feel for the poetry, what drove her to write, what was Papusza’s inspiration.

Papusza – Watch it/buy it at Amazon







© Steve Morrissey 2016





4 July 2016-07-04

Géza Röhrig in Son of Saul


Out This Week


Son of Saul (Curzon, cert 15)

How do you make a film about the horrors of Auschwitz without it becoming exploitative misery porn? This Hungarian winner of the Cannes Grand Prix in 2015 does it by turning the horrors of the death camp into a near-pov experience, the militarily choreographed camera of director László Nemes and DP Mátyás Erdély hanging close by the face or shoulder of star Géza Röhrig as he goes about his duties as the member of a Sonderkommando group – Jewish prisoners recruited by the Nazis to do the dirty work (scrub blood away, pitchfork bodies into pits, empty ovens of ash and dispose of it in the river) – before they, too, become so much meat. It has the slenderest of plots: Saul, a man in a state of such horror overload that he’s become little more than a shuffling zombie, seeks a rabbi to bury one particular dead child, whose death he has become fixated on, while his fellow Sonderkommando members start to realise their time has come and that the only way out of this is to attack their heavily armed jailers. I say slender, but that’s enough plot for any film. But the plot is not foregrounded, nor the characters. Instead it’s the relentless piling up of gruesome effect, at the edges, in the background, always out of focus, as the factory-like death machine grinds away. For sure there’s a lack of emotional heart, and Röhrig portrayal of an inert man doesn’t help us “relate”. But that’s an artistic decision made by Nemes, a onetime assistant of Hungarian maestro Béla Tarr. And, like Tarr, if there’s something you can’t accuse Nemes of it’s of not staying true to his intense vision.

Son of Saul – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



Kung Fu Panda 3 (Fox, cert PG)

I have struggled to like any of the Kung Fu Panda films, or even remember moments from them. I struggle now to remember details from this third one, though my notes tell me that Jack Black was once again charming and in his element as the voice of Po, the mile-a-minute unlikely ursine martial arts master. They also tell me that the animation was again remarkable, and took great pains to place kung-fu style action in a world whose physics were constant – if a bear can jump from rooftop to rooftop in one scene, then we can draw conclusions about his strength, speed, flexibility and skills from that, and they remain constant all the way through. As for the “camera”, it also stays in the realm of the believable, aping kung-fu movies’ style tics, such as the mid-combat/mid-air freeze-frame, the flash pan, the rapid zoom and there’s even a nice vibration effect when something heavy hits the ground. The plot this time out revolves around Kai (voiced by JK Simmons) returning from the world of the immortal and setting about stealing the chi of all the masters of China. A potential disaster that Po must stop. It’s a smart film, dialogue-heavy, full of gags, and like Ice Age, which it’s beginning to resemble, it’s the side characters who are the most fun (when you have the likes of Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman and Seth Rogen on board you might as well use them; even Angelina Jolie acquits herself well). But…? For all the jokes, stunts and an almost pathological determination to get into scenes late and get out early – usually a good sign – there’s the feeling that the story has been told, that Po and co are done.

Kung Fu Panda – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Last Girl Standing (Icon, cert 15)

Last Girl Standing opens with a horror movie finish – girl in a white t-shirt being chased through the woods by a madman who has killed all her friends – and then goes on to ask a strange “what happened next?” question. What happens to the “final girl” when the horror film is over? At one level it’s absurd – because there is no such person outside of the film. At another, it’s an interesting way of spinning a new story, which this clever, edgy thriller does by focusing on traumatised Camryn (Akasha Villalobos) as she rebuilds her life after being subjected to gruesomeness on a grand scale. Into her McJobbing, withdrawn world comes Nick (Brian Villalobos), a nice sociable chap with a big circle of friends, and before you can say “oh no it’s happening again,” it is indeed beginning to happen again. But, dear reader, is it really? Playing the old “is she really under threat or just plain bonkers?” game, director Benjamin R Moody’s film knows its horror – shots down long roads evoke The Texas Chain Saw early on, while the soundtrack clanks and wheezes scarily before seguing into John Carpenter synth homage. The acting betrays the low budget but the Villaloboses are believable as a pair of young people who dig each other – which is handy, since they are married in real life. And mention needs to be made of Danielle Evon Ploeger, one of those Mia Wasikowska types who can look hot one minute, uncanny the next, a fact that Moody also exploits to the max. A slow starter, but it does get there, very satisfyingly if you like the sort of film that ends in a frenzy.

Last Girl Standing – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Strangerland (Kaleidoscope, cert 15)

Out in the sweltering Outback, a 15-year-old girl with easily opened legs goes missing, along with her younger brother. Her parents, played by Nicole Kidman as a wanton Blanche Dubois-like mother, and Joseph Fiennes as a father using iron bands of control to keep his rage in check, start eyeballing each other. He blames her, the daughter clearly being a chip off mum’s moist block. She blames him, the daughter is obviously reacting against dad’s harsh domestic regime. A clear nature/nurture stand-off is set up. But while Strangerland is examining the parents’ characters and relationship, two kids are missing out in the punishing heat, possibly dying. And I for one was wondering what the hell was happening to them. It’s a gigantic problem that this otherwise superb drama – brilliantly played, magnificently shot, with a discordant, keening sound design, fabulous side characters (Hugo Weaving particularly good as the local cop who’s also got his sexual hands full) – simply cannot overcome. Director Kim Farrant’s film has a sense of a civilised society with something dark lurking beneath vaguely similar to Ray Lawrence’s 2001 Aussie drama Lantana. There’s a touch of Walkabout, too, with Kidman perhaps fancifully as the middle-aged grown up Jenny Agutter, and Meyne Wyatt as the local lad Burtie, a slowpoke who thinks the missing girl is in love with him, injecting a bit of aborigine mysticism – who needs functioning rationality when you’re connected to the earth, and all that. As I say, a fabulous film at every level, apart, ahem, from dramatically. Approach with caution.

Strangerland – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Ones Below (Icon, cert 15)

The Ones Below is often described as being “by the writer of The Night Manager”, when in fact that book was written by John le Carré and David Farr only did the screen adaptation. I bring that up, in what sounds like a churl’s caveat, because there’s no trace of The Night Manager and its spy caper dynamics in The Ones Below, a taut, 1970s-flavoured horror movie written and directed by Farr and set, as they often were 40 years ago, among the middle classes of London. Clémence Poésy and Stephen Campbell Moore play the upstairs couple initially delighted to welcome David Morrissey and Laura Birn as their downstairs neighbours, a married couple who are – small analities aside such as shoes off outside the door and a garden tweezed to within an inch of sterility – just like them. Young, well-to-do and white. Of course it says everything about London property that comfortably-off people, too, are living in flats, rather than their own separate houses. But we must resist the temptation to see The Ones Below as some sort of survey of modern middle-class life. It isn’t, and the fairly thin characters, brought amply to life by the talented actors, are more vehicles for the plot – both women are pregnant, then one of them loses hers after an evening of chat and booze at the upstairs neighbours’ place, then relations are restored shortly afterwards, before things go very dark indeed. Morrissey and Birn get the best of it as the vaguely creepy downstairs couple, but director Farr’s triumph is to keep the register unsettling all along. Think one of Roald Dahl’s switchback Tales of the Unexpected spliced with a bit of Rosemary’s Baby. At which point, giving away too much of the plot, I withdraw.

The Ones Below – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Here After (Soda, cert 15)

A dour Swedish drama that reveals itself by degrees and then stops, The Here After gradually vouchsafes that its teenage protagonist Jon killed his girlfriend, served time and is now back in his small rural community, where no one is glad to see him. Except, maybe, one girl with a gothic turn of mind and a possible fetish for the ghoulish. A frustrating film, this, since, along with its reluctance to tell us exactly how John did what he did – was it violent outburst, drug-induced accident, sexual horseplay, funny turn? – the film moves at a glacial speed and is shot in the muted matt of Scandi-noir. And though this is probably meant to mirror the inert centre of a troubled dude who’s closed off even from himself, it doesn’t exactly help us understand what’s going on. Between the opening intro to John at the correctional facility and the eruptive finale – oh come on, all these grungey “blank kids” movies end this way, like some visual equivalent of a Nirvana song – we have been treated to glimpses of John’s home life, where his bewildered and angry father and sparky disruptive younger brother spin and wheel around the miscreant. The Here After works best as a family drama, in fact, and here Ulruk Munther (John), Mats Blomgren (his father) and the especially excellent Alexander Nordgren (brother Filip) really come into their own.

The Here After – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Zoolander No 2 (Paramount, cert 12)

A satire on the fashion biz that can persuade Anna Wintour, Marc Jacobs and Tommy Hilfiger to do cameos? No, it’s not biting, nor should any of them give up the day job, but we’re meant to be excited just by the fact that they’re there. That is the whole Zoolander shtick in essence: people hyperventilating about clothes. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson return as the dimbo himbo male models, now back on the runway after an enforced hiatus – like one of those Bond movie preambles where 007 has grown a beard – and they’re their usual likeable, amiable and amusing selves. I could go on about what’s wrong with this film in some big meta way – it won’t bite the hand that feeds it, and all that – but actually its weakness is simply that it’s poorly written. After it’s got the gang back together, the plot devolves into something like a Bond spoof – skip through a few exotic locations to find the evil genius mastermind (Penélope Cruz) – aiming for Mike Myers’s laserlike observational comedy and getting no higher than the Wayans brothers’ chuck-enough-mud approach. There are a few good moments, though, and I laughed like a drain at Benedict Cumberbatch as a non-gender-specific model called All who rejects “binary gender constructs”, which led to the joke that made me hit the pause button while I sat there giggling like a silly old silly. Billy Zane gets a great cameo as some sort of cool cosmic messenger, and Justin Bieber’s few moments were good fun and show him to have some self-awareness. Even Susan Boyle made me roll my eyes in mock pantomime appreciation. MC Hammer? John Malkovich? Kiefer Sutherland? Katy Perry? Sting? All turn up and are game enough to lambast their own contributions to popular culture. Will Ferrell, meanwhile, steals the entire film with his brief appearance as the monstrously camp Jacobim Mugatu. But…. jokes…. not enough… not really.

Zoolander No 2 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon







© Steve Morrissey 2016