29 August 2016-08-29

Zac Efron and Seth Rogen

 

Out This Week

 

 

 

Bad Neighbours 2 (Universal, cert 15)

You thought a sequel wouldn’t yield much? Well, I did. I was wrong.

There are lots of jokes in this follow-up, which has decided that being ballsy is the best way to go – jokes about people throwing up over each other, a physical gag about a girl going through a car window, one about putting Jews in ovens (OK, it’s in speech marks, but it is there). And the twist this time is that Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are now next door not to a frat house, but a sorority (headed by Chloe Grace Moretz) where the girls want to have what the boys were having – sexytime. And as Rogen and Byrne are trying to sell their house, and the prospective buyers won’t be digging deep to live next door to a nightmare, something’s gotta give.

Girls mean tampon jokes, of course. Girls also mean a willing audience for Zac Efron taking his shirt off, which he does in a good-natured “OK, if it’ll save the orphanage” kind of way. Female empowerment, that’s the vague vibe. The women don’t take their shirts off.

Neighbors 2 aka Bad Neighbours 2 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Golden Years (High Fliers, cert 15, DVD/digital)

Co-written by TV’s Nick Knowles, man of a million DIY projects, Golden Years is a Silver Cinema cash-in wanting some of those Best Exotic Marigold dollars, and stars a roster of familiar grey-haired British thespians in a story about oldsters doing banks jobs because they’ve been bilked out of their savings.

Bernard Hill and Virginia McKenna are the central married couple – he a symphony in beige, she the film’s secret weapon, displaying a knack for comedy you wouldn’t have expected after a lifetime of being associated with Born Free. Una Stubbs, Sue Johnston, Phil Davis, Simon Callow and Alun Armstrong help make it all bearable and, watched with the sort of parochial indulgence normally reserved for a jejune early 1960s Dirk Bogarde film – whose vibe of unlikely hi-jinks and comedy running it appropriates – there is enjoyment to be had.

Warning: there are references to “the other”.

Golden Years: Grand Theft OAP – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Captain America: Civil War (Disney, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Captain America and the other Marvel characters fall out at the beginning of what is amazingly the third outing for Marvel’s most featureless character, leading to a stand-off over whether the Avengers will or will not operate under the aegis of the UN.

It’s Hans Blix and the Iraq War all over again, except this time “Cap” as he is increasingly referred to by all and sundry – nope, still no personality, even with a nickname – finds himself on the side of the guys who don’t want to be corralled, while Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man heads up the other lot.

I could have got that confused, because once the opening yadda yadda is out of the way, this is a relatively straightforward series of increasingly dull fights, with many varied sounds – doyyyyaaaang, dddddrrrrrddr, bbbbrrrringg, swwoooossh-thwaaaackk – to indicate the versatility of Captain America’s shield.

Strangely, though it is featureless, it is not boring, that’s partly thanks to Robert Downey Jr, the de facto star of the film, tip-toeing sotto voce round poor Chris Evans and keeping things just about in balance.

Positives include a teenage Spider-Man (“that is awesome”), more for ScarJo’s Black Widow to do, well tied-together live action and CG, and the Irish accent of Iron Man’s on-board computer (“targeting system’s knackered, boss”). The 1940s smell of crepe and gabardine is overwhelming, though the clever-director Russo brothers and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely understand what dynamics are – one second an Avenger is being thrown from a high-rise building, the next he’s bitching about being stuck in the back of a VW Beetle.

Captain America: Civil War – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Pearl Button (New Wave, cert 12, DVD/digital)

The more you already know about Chile, the more you’ll get from Patricio Guzmán’s intensely elegant poetic documentary – which situates the country in the cosmos, then geomorphologically on the planet, before wheeling in to examine prehistory, recent history, especially vis a vis native tribes, then it’s in closer for modern politics – Allende, Pinochet and so on.

Working at the most macro level from space and the most close-up – a single drop of rain – this is an intensely beautifully shot film, passion leaking out at every seam. Of which there are a few.

The transition from the era of the native Indians, whose way of life, static for centuries, was disrupted first by European settlers and then most decisively by Pinochet, is abrupt and, indeed, bogus. And yoking the fate of the poor Indians to a more generalised critique of Pinochet – the rape, the torture, the hidden prisons – while undoubtedly impassioned, yields very little.

The Pearl Button – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Letters from Mother Teresa (Sony, cert PG, DVD/digital)

So you’re Juliet Stevenson and your agent rings up to say he’s got you the gig on a Mother Teresa biopic… You can imagine Juliet hitting the sauvignon blanc before the agent’s even rung off. She’s just, after all, been asked if she wants to play the wrinkliest woman who ever lived.

In fact Stevenson does a great job in an earnest biopic that starts back when India was leaving British rule and Sister Teresa was just setting out on her mission to heal and tend the sick. It’s a film with a budget for historical re-enactment, and with enough left over to hire Rutger Hauer and Max Von Sydow, neither of whom do very much as a couple of priests looking back over the saintly life from a present-day perspective.

Christopher Hitchens and other similar haters are unlikely to love its depiction of a frugal, honest and dedicated life, and though it’s very much the authorised version, it isn’t spam handed, and is sprayed in the kind of sanctity that Cecil B DeMille favoured all those decades ago.

Who was Mother Teresa? Neither the script, director, Hauer and Von Sydow, nor Stevenson know, which makes Stevenson’s poisoned-chalice performance all the more remarkable, the way she’s turned a series of internationally recognised tics into something resembling a character.

Against all expectation, not bad at all.

Letters from Mother Teresa aka The Letters – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

Alleycats (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Kinder souls than I have said nice things about Alleycats, a hilariously bad film about radical and sexy maverick London cyclists getting caught up in political intrigue, in a similar way that Enid Blyton’s Famous Five might once have done.

Everyone involved realises the Blyton blight is upon it, and so the swearing and sexual references have been dialled up in the mix, in the hope of drowning out the sound of lashings of lemonade and echoes of “wait till daddy hears about this” dialogue.

Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson is at the centre, as the sister of an aggressively antsy cycle courier who, having accidentally witnessed a killing that a member of parliament (John Hannah) was involved in, soon is dead himself.

And off she goes to investigate, calling her commune-dwelling renegade biker mates – scowling when they are not partying – to help.

Many montage sequences later, with a bit of actual plot valiantly trying to hold this bag of bits together, the bad man is led off, cursing under his breath at the pesky kids who brought about his arrest. Or was that Scooby Doo?

Good hairy footage of cyclists streaming across London is its one big plus. No, the idea isn’t a bad one either.

Alleycats – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

I Saw the Light (Sony, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Who was country singer Hank Williams and why should we watch a film about him?

I Saw the Light never really tells us, and so holes below the waterline a film that sinks as a result. It’s the familiar story – success brings women, booze and drugs, the loss of integrity and downfall (see Ray and I Walk the Line, and Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead for how it should be done).

Tom Hiddleston, god he tries so damn hard to be Hank Williams, but a miss is a good as a mile, and Hiddleston is missing, in every tiny unguarded slip of accent and loss of posture. In fact he’s damned by the opening line of the film, which is a monologue by record-biz guy Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford) about Williams being the sort of man who didn’t care if you liked him or not. And now here’s Hiddleston – his puppydog eyes and deprecating tilt of the head saying the exact opposite.

To be fair to Tom, in many ways it’s a fantastic karaoke performance which might be more forgivable if Elizabeth Olsen – as the witch-shrew wife that Williams probably deserved and was probably more sinned against than sinning – didn’t act him off the screen every time she has a chance.

The film, for all its budget, suffers from clean clothes/new car syndrome. And it suffers from a severe lack of bite – a string of failed relationships, boozy incidents and “sonofabitch” encounters is not drama; incident is not story.

How many big-selling records did this man have? How great was his output before he died aged only 30? In case you didn’t know, it was vast, amazing, prodigious… Williams was a true phenomenon, a 24 carat talent. No sign of any of that here. Though Hiddleston can sing, poor thing.

I Saw the Light – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

22 August 2016-08-22

Man-cub Mowgli and Baloo

 

Out This Week

 

The Jungle Book (Disney, cert PG)

A careful and clever live-action retread by Disney of their 1967 animated classic. Perhaps the cleverest thing Disney did this time round was to hire Jon Favreau, a director who seems, unlike the Zack Snyders of the world, to understand that wonder and awe are key components of films, especially those aimed at children and the child in us all – that first Iron Man movie, when Tony Stark is first getting to grips with his new suit, and is exhilarated almost beyond belief at the sheer simple sensation of flying, that’s the sort of thing Favreau does well. As for plot, it’s the same as the original Jungle Book, give or take, it being the mismatched buddy adventures of a hyperactive man-cub and his slow-poke bear associate. The voice cast is spot-on – Bill Murray as Baloo the bear, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera the panther, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the python and Christopher Walken as Louie the giant ape. Only Idris Elba, as Shere Khan the tiger, is a touch off, and that’s because Elba, not for the first time (Pacific Rim), seems to be working in a slightly different dynamic register from the rest of the voice cast. Songs: having been told it wasn’t a musical, there are in fact the big two breakouts from the original – The Bare Necessities (sung by Murray), and I Wan’nabe Like You (Christopher Walken), plus ScarJo being particularly effective singing Trust in Me as an attractive but deadly snake. It’s for kids, and the character of Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a charming bundle of life, scoring very low on the punchability scale, but there are odd jokes for the parents, such as King Louie being introduced, huge and swathed in shadows, as if he were Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. All in all, a really good, punchy, lively adventure with little time for sentimentality, set in a jungle that is so believable you’re never quite sure if it’s all CG or not. And best of all, there’s not a trace of eco-piety, Gaia pseudo-science or any of that hippie shit nature nonsense.

The Jungle Book – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Jane Got a Gun (Lionsgate, cert 15)

Jane Got a Gun has had some bad reviews, but it’s not a bad film. In fact it’s rather a good one. There are two reasons for the bad notices. First, its original director, the very cult (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) Lynne Ramsay, walked off the film on the first day, citing artistic differences with the producers and taking key members of the cast with her. Second, it isn’t quite the feminist movie that seemed to be promised by the presence of Ramsay. However, however… let’s look at what we have, rather than what might have been. And what we have is a very, very well made western with a High Noon slant, Natalie Portman playing the female whose former-outlaw and now wounded husband is being menaced by his old compadres, forcing her to seek help from sour local sharpshot Joel Edgerton. We learn, via a series of flashbacks and shared confessional moments between all three that there’s serious romantic history between Edgerton and Portman but that she, for good or ill, is sticking by her marriage vows and he, for all his evident surviving interest in her, can respect that decision. They’re decent folks in an indecent sticky corner and that’s the dramatic pivot, right there, by the way. It’s a good one, and it makes Jane Got a Gun more like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than many another western – because it’s a crypto-romance first and foremost. But let’s not get carried away with the Ang Lee comparisons. This is a well structured, handsomely shot and tenderly acted film that feels like it’s going to dive up Nicholas Sparks’s romantic avenue at any second – that scene with Portman and Edgerton in the hot air balloon? Really? And there is a lot of procedural detail fleshing out what life was really like in the Old West. And death – here presented as nasty, brutish and long. Personally I could have done without Ewan McGregor as the bad outlaw John Bishop, but he’s almost certainly better than Jude Law (Ramsay’s choice) would have been. Yup, not bad at all. File alongside (though slightly below) Kelly Reichardt’s female-centric western Meek’s Cutoff.

Jane Got a Gun – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Tank 432 (Kaleidoscope, cert 15)

A fascinating low-budget British film which starts out looking like a war movie. A ragtag bunch of soldiers advance on a farmhouse, with one of their number injured and a pair of orange-clad, hooded prisoners along for the ride. After checking that the place is empty, they advance, frightened, some of the men almost panicking, taking their prisoners with them. All seems as we might expect, except two of the soldiers are played by Michael Smiley and Gordon Kennedy, both men in their 50s. Their ages jar and tell us that something is not quite right here. This instant unsettling is all that’s required to keep us fully focused – trying to work out who these people really are, who their “cargo” prisoners are, and what exactly is going on. It’s a post-apocalyptic world, maybe? The prisoners are hostages, maybe? Aliens? I’m not going to spill the beans. And in any case after this short and pungent setup, the action transfers to the inside of the tank of the title (it’s also known as Belly of the Bulldog), and they stay there right to the closing credits – the soldiers, the hostages and a gibbering girl they’ve picked up en route. This setting is inspired, and allows writer/director Nick Gillespie to stoke up the drama and turn what looked initially like a war film into something closer to a psychological study of people under pressure, much of it, we learn, self-imposed. It’s a horror film, the imdb tells us, and Ben Wheatley (ABCs of Death, Sightseers) is named as one of the executive producers. But though there is the odd grand guignol moment, it’s not really a horror film at all, more a clever Roald Dahl-style mystery with a good payoff, told with economy, a lack of frills, and a very keen attention to editing – a good editor (Tom Longmore here) proving he’s worth much more than a cast of decent actors (and so much cheaper!).

Tank 432 aka Belly of the Bulldog – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Colony (Signature, cert 15)

Emma Watson and Daniel Brühl play the German couple – he a political activist and supporter of Salvador Allende, she an air hostess – caught up in the coup of 1973. After being tortured by Pinochet’s men till his mind has half gone, he winds up in the Colonia Dignidad, a religious cult run by a wild-eyed demagogue as a back-scratchy favour to the junta. She, despairing of ever getting help from the suddenly cowed left-wing Allendists, sets off to help him, swapping her chic hostie gear for a grey shift and looking like Maria from The Sound of Music.

Watson, who appears to have been to the same life-coach as Keira Knightley, seems clear-eyed about her strengths and weaknesses. She knows, as Keira did starting out, that the camera has a fascination with her. She also knows she’s not the world’s greatest natural actor. So she works at it. And she gets better. Even so, there’s far too much fierce furrowing of brows (“Concentratibus!” – bum tish) in this entirely bogus, if not actually mendacious drama which purports a) to have something to do with the appalling culture of political assassination that existed in Chile under Pinochet. And b) to also be about the actual Colonia Dignidad, a religious cult responsible for torture and the mass abuse of children, among other things. Neither aspect really gets a look-in; both are there as a kind of wallpaper proclaiming serious intent. And in the same way Brühl – actual hard-hitting acting talent – is used as a kind of beautiful magician’s assistant, a distraction from the fact that what we’re watching is a horror movie.

If we’re being kind we could ignore the fact that this is a package more than likely dreamed up by Watson’s people, who seem, like Daniel Radcliffe’s people, reluctant to place their star in something that is genuinely interesting and different – there are a thousand European directors who would sell children to have either of them, and think what a transformative effect they’d have on the box office. Instead Watson and Radcliffe end up in stuff like this – which, in a meeting with marketing people, can be sold as ticking various boxes. Hot-button, Political, Engaged, Brand Watson, yadda yadda. The clothes – ooh, big giveaway there, Emma – are lovely, with Watson looking as just-so (and ice-queen hot, as per) in cabin-crew crimplene as she does in Sister Emma gabardine. Michael Nyqvist – clearly Udo Kier wasn’t available – rolls his eyes and slicks his greasy mad hair back and is properly, vastly entertaining as the cult leader Paul Schäfer. But… and here’s the thing. It’s all a true story. Children were raped. People were tortured and killed. It was an unholy alliance between church and state. One tiny scene where Schäfer wanders towards some stalls where boys are showering, you’d never guess. I doubt there were screenings for the survivors.

The Colony aka Colonia – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Touched with Fire (Metrodome, cert 15)

Katie Holmes’s return to acting in high-profile roles reminds us that she’s pretty good. She’s playing a poet, Carla, a bipolar woman who crashes and burns, finds love inside a mental hospital, and then tries to live with similarly up/down lover Marco (Luke Kirby) outside in the real world, to the huge displeasure of both sets of parents. Both Carla and Marco are fruit-loop barking. Or “touched with fire” as the film has it. They’re on the manic-depressive, bi-polar spectrum, if you prefer no less damaging but much more clinical language. And that, right there, is the film’s claim to virtue – it makes the point that it’s not about what we call mental illness but how we treat it – the idea here being bipolar is normal, or is at least one strand among many in the weft and woof of life. The story is based on the experiences of writer/director Paul Dalio’s own experience of being bipolar. But behind him stands Kay Redfield Jamison, whose non-fiction book claims that many of the artists we so admire – Van Gogh, Byron, Woolf, Schumann – were manic depressives, and that they wouldn’t be so creative if they weren’t. That this mania, this illness, bestows an intensity of focus that’s beneficial, though also dangerous – playing with fire. Jamison also turns up in a cameo to make the point herself, and boils the whole film down into a single paragraph of sound-bitey goodness. As to the film, well without wishing to give too much away, it laudably deals with that thesis in the personifications of Carla and Marco – she wants to “handle” it (with medication, though reluctantly), he wants to live it. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to feel life with full emotion,” he says to her at one point, as they try to hash, in maybe one scene more than is strictly necessary, the whole thing out. It would be a Lifetime afternoon movie if the performances weren’t so intense, and if it didn’t make this clever point rather adroitly – We all accept the madness of love as an undoubted “good thing”. Why not the madness of madness?

Touched with Fire – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Arabian Nights Part 1 (New Wave, cert 15)

Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’s Our Beloved Month of August did strange things with genre and category, starting out as a factual documentary and ending up as a clear fictional love story. He confounds the box tickers again with this madly overblown state-of-the-nation drama colliding actualité into a swirling Scheherezadian fantasy. His gliding camera first of all shows us the dilapidated docks at Lisbon, then some beekeepers talking about their craft, then Gomes and his film crew going about their work – film-making is a craft too – before, in voiceover, Gomes wonders whether he can make a film about the vast lavishness of the Arabian Nights and yet stay true to what’s going on in Portugal post-the 2008 financial collapse. That way, he concludes, lies madness. And then off he goes and does just that, at first effectively intertwining documentary tales of daily life in Portugal and some dramatic reconstruction of the activities of the international financial Troika sent to “stabilise” the country (ie ruin it with now discredited austerity economics) with episodes more recognisably from the 1001 Nights. At times they overlap – such as when the members of the IMF and World Bank are all given, in The Tale of the Men with Hard Ons, permanent erections (cue wistful look from the Portuguese finance minister, the single female in the group), a gift which they soon find irksome.

Gomes’s interjections to one side, the film soon settles into two distinct strands – real people telling their stories and then the more obviously fantastical stuff, though in The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire, the fictional and the documentary seem hopelessly interwoven, as is the Gomes modus operandi.

So, there’s formal audacity, though it’s not that audacious since Gomes has done it – to great acclaim – before. What else? Some beautifully observed moments of everyday life. Some gorgeously worked up Pasolini-style recreations of the old Arabic stories. As for it all hanging together, it doesn’t. Though there are two more instalments to go, and Gomes did intend the entire thing to be watched en bloc. I, for one, will be going into the next two with antenna waving, suspicious that showmanship is edging into hubris, and that Gomes is more or less making it up as he goes along.

Arabian Nights Part 1 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Demolition (Fox, cert 15)

Apart from Young Victoria, which he must have done to pay the bills, the films of Jean-Marc Vallée have been demonstrations of the skill of a film-maker who has an uncanny understanding of camera movement, the rhythm of shots, the pacing of a scene and how everything ties together in the edit suite. It’s what lifted Wild from being an interesting film about a young woman trekking into something altogether more immersive and almost majestic (and helps explain why Reese Witherspoon got so completely behind it – she believed). Demolition… hmmm… The remarkable ability is there, but here it’s yoked to a story that doesn’t need it. Is so slight, in fact, that it might make a decent short. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the high-flying something in some swank profession who loses his wife in the (opening) car crash, and whose life falls apart as a consequence. “Suddenly, everything is a metaphor,” he states in voiceover, as, far too metaphorically, he starts literally disassembling his life around himself – forcing his father-in-law (Chris Cooper) to fire him, before taking up with a kid with a confused sexuality (hello Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y.) who helps him to take his house apart with power tools – starting with the fridge/freezer before moving on to the big stuff, including the walls. And on it goes, like a faint echo of that non-comedic Will Ferrell film Everything Must Go.

Vallée’s film-making is exquisite, his camera and editing as ever are masterly, and he builds in a strange and compelling dynamic to what is, in effect, an expressionistic outward display of inner devastation. Except it all looks so much fun, and that lizardy smirk playing across Gyllenhaal’s lips doesn’t help things either. Scenes from a Meltdown, you could call it. Or Arid Exercise in Search of a Better Screenplay. Naomi Watts, as one of the piers Gyllenhaal bangs up against hoping to be thrown a line, Chris Cooper as the furious, bereft father and Judah Lewis as the kid strangely in love with 1960s and 70s rock (Vallée was born in 1963) are all great, too. But…

Demolition – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

15 August 2016-08-15

Hirota and Taeko realise they're in love

 

Out This Week

 

Only Yesterday (StudioCanal, cert 15)

It’s 25 years since Isao Takahata directed this touching animation for Studio Ghibli. Only now, thanks to a fresh revoicing by a cast including Daisy Ridley, has it arrived on these shores. The Force etc etc. As with Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies it takes a while to get its hooks in and also goes into slightly darker territory than Takahata’s stablemate Miyazaki would. The focus however remains the same – a girl finding her way, this being the story of Taeko, a woman haunted by memories of her younger self. We see, in flashback, her childhood at school where she isn’t very good, and at home where she is considered “not normal” by her family. And also as an adult with self-esteem problems who meets and falls for a delightful organic farmer Toshio (Patel). The child is the father of the man is the big idea. As with Miyazaki there’s a fascination with European culture, Bulgarian, Greek and Hungarian Gypsy music all featuring prominently on the soundtrack. And again as with Miyazaki the animation is deceptively simple, all the better to wow us when Takahata so chooses – that lovely light effect of two trains passing in the night, or the simpler but no less affecting one of young Taeko falling in love for the first time at school and her cheeks, and those of her inamorato, reddening at the realisation. Lump in throat stuff. Takahata’s other stylistic trick is to ply us with observational detail – during the school flashbacks there is much discussion about whether Taeko and schoolfriends have started their periods or not; later Takahata fixates on the harvesting and processing of safflowers for red dye (surely some connection). And then he whams us with an emotion so direct and pure that we’re disarmed. It’s a ploy he uses about four times and it works each time too. It’s an exquisite, complex and wonderful film. Quite why it’s taken 25 years and Ridley’s Star Wars heft to make it happen for US and UK audiences is mystifying. Ridley, in case you’re wondering, is fantastic – listen to her voice as Taeko and Toshio get closer. It’s the sound of total beguilement. Hers, and ours.

Only Yesterday – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Eye in the Sky (E One, cert 15)

I was put off Eye in the Sky by the trailer, which sold it as yet another drone-attack thriller along the lines of Good Kill (or any number of documentaries on the subject). In fact it’s a far more astute work, and picks out the military, short-term political and ethical implications of launching a remote strike on a terrorist safe house in Kenya while an innocent girl sells bread right outside, a clear piece of collateral damage waiting to happen. And for all the fleshing out that director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert do to hide the fact – backstory here and there, some business with a hula hoop and the girl’s loving father, less of a zealot than he’s letting on to the killjoy local Islamists – the girl is never more than a mechanical, a component of the trolley problem that is at the centre of this film. Which revolves around the question: is it OK to kill a girl, a nice girl, a feisty, intelligent and pretty girl who belongs to a local hard-working, loving family, to secure a greater aim? Arguing the toss, and brilliantly in every case, are Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox as the two drone pilots out in a facility in the Las Vegas desert, while in London hardass military commander Helen Mirren and attaché go-between Alan Rickman try to get short-termist politicians to shit or get off the pot, these last two vying for the prize of coldest heart of the week. There are no false heroics, there is no taking the easy way out, and none of the actors overdoes it. There is some overt tension building, while niceties such as percentage chances of a clean kill are discussed and various war-crime protocols are invoked and quietly laid aside. It’s nice to see Gavin Hood, whose Tsotsi was brilliantly executed, returning to form (and in Africa) after a couple of journeyman Hollywood films. Also nice to see Rickman get the last word – “Never tell a soldier he does not know the cost of war” – in what was his last film.

Eye in the Sky – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Miles Ahead (Icon, cert 15)

Director/star Don Cheadle’s drama about jazzer Miles Davis’s drug years is one of the best music biopics in years. Even if it doesn’t entirely gel, there is so much good stuff, so many great tracks on this album, you might not care. It takes the old journalistic-interview structure – Miles being interviewed by Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) – and does something new with it, by folding the journalist into the story. Good story too, of Miles being spaced off his face, opening the door to desperate freelance scribbler Braden, then getting into all sorts of scrapes with him – drugs, guns, girls, mendacious music-biz execs – while a MacGuffin of the hunt for the master tape of Davis’s latest album leads us through a series of scenes painting Davis as king of the bad boys, jazzers, let’s not forget, having written the book that the rock guys later borrowed and never returned. So many scenes stand out – an early one in which Davis pulls a gun in a record company meeting; when he meets, in one of many flashbacks, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), his soul mate and later his wife, and borrows a 20 dollar bill off the girl he’s with to write his number on and give, all flash bravado at someone else’s expsense, to Frances; when Davis and Braden head off to buy cocaine off a rich white kid, and basically turn the guy over with wit and a lot of style. Davis was a cruel and unusual gentleman, and for much of the time that’s being covered here (the late 1970s) also a drug-addled no-hoper. And though it’s there on the screen, director Cheadle back-pedals slightly on the bad stuff, concentrating on the wild creative side of the man who claimed, with some justification, to have changed music “five or six times”. And he respects both Davis’s genius – “it takes a long time to learn to play like yourself” Davis says at one point – and the music. And Cheadle shows a light touch – hence the funny and furious car chase to Davis’s parping, surely a first. McGregor is fine in a role that requires him to play a sideman, mission accomplished, but it’s Michael Stuhlbarg who stands out, as a reprehensible tough-nut music-biz A&R man who’d sell his mother for a ringside seat at the boxing. Mention, too, must be made of Roberto Schaefer’s cinematography, and the way the visuals so often ape 1950s record sleeves and their tendency to give black skin tones that matt-purple cast, like these people were from ancient Carthage. Big props to Cheadle, who not only directed and co-wrote, but stars and also plays trumpet – that’s Davis’s old buddies Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock in the band, alongside Cheadle in typical Davis Fly-Guy apparel, over the end credits. And Cheadle gets that gruff rasp just right too.

Miles Ahead – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Knight of Cups (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Like some refugee from the 1970s, Terrence Malick continues making arthouse films as if he were Moses coming down off the mountain. Last time, in To the Wonder, it was Ben Affleck wandering around vacantly like a drug casualty, with Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams thrown in for eye candy. Here, it’s Christian Bale as a Hollywood screenwriter cradling the mother of all existential crises, while sexy women of all sorts try to console it the fuck out of him. Emphasis on the fuck. The camera is on a near-silent Kubrickian perma-glide as Bale traverses lens-flary beaches, glitzy Hollywood parties and various high-end hotel bedrooms and Vaughan Williams, Arvo Pärt, Beethoven, Debussy and Bruch are wheeled out to convince us we’re watching something significant. Two years in post-production this film has been, and if it sounds like I’m going into Yoda speak there, fat chance – if only Malick would get along with such directness.

But you can’t fault the beauty of the visuals. Every single second has been tweaked and primped until it looks almost airbrushed. Only perfume adverts get this much attention these days. The tone is confessional, with Bale providing a voiceover, while Malick drops us into discrete scenes from his life – all improvised, apparently – where the likes of Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto and Teresa Palmer attempt to fill the yawning meaninglessness of existence, but only Portman comes close. Giving a structure to all this freeform visual chewing gum is the Tarot, with Malick weightily subdividing his noodling into chapters – this one’s The Hanged Man, this one The Hermit, this one Judgement, and so on. We have to be impressed by Malick’s Woody Allan-like ability to snag high-tone actors for his productions. Look, in a blur-on, there’s Antonio Banderas and Ryan O’Neal (a Kubrick reference) at a party full of beautiful women and sweaty middle aged men.

A modern day Pilgrim’s Progress is what it is. And at the level of expressionist existentialism it has to be admitted – through teeth so gritted they threaten to turn to powder – that you can feel Bale’s anhedonic, anomic detachment. That poor rich man. Apart from the occult, two other obfuscatory cultural tropes from the 1970s seem to be Malick’s artistic touchstones in Knight of Cups – the withheld revelatory promise of guru culture and the oneupmanship of jazz rock. All bow before Malick, if you’re cool enough to understand what he’s about.

Knight of Cups – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Criminal (Lionsgate, cert 15)

Kevin Costner reaches for some of Liam Neeson’s geri-actioner bucks but rather than a fairly bare-assed copy, he goes down the route Sean Penn did in The Gunman, trying to stick a fancy brolly into something best served straight up. It’s not without its enjoyments, though, and many of them come from Costner, who reveals, like a late-stage Ralph Fiennes, an unexpected gift for comedy, playing the half-stupid perma-jailed lag who is injected with the memories of top spy-guy Ryan Reynolds and is then sent off on a mission in London as the mind of a younger, smarter, hotter and – key point – more metrosexual guy tries to do the driving. Complicating things, and adding what director Ariel Vroman and his producers clearly think is a bit of Bourne glamour, are Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Gal Gadot and Alice Eve, some trying to help him, some working against him, others just hired because they look pretty.

So, it’s Taken taken for a meandering walk, right? Pretty much, and if it’s all a bit slow-moving and a bit too talky, there is the unexpected delight of Costner’s performance as a very bitter, angry and dangerously stupid man fighting to hang on to himself while a suave superspy fights for control of his personality. Watch Costner buying pain relief in a pharmacy, then saying “Cheers,” to the woman behind the counter. “Cheers? Who the fucks says cheers,” he deadpans. Fun.

Criminal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Identicals (Arrow, cert 15)

Also known, perhaps more usefully as Brand New-U, Identicals tells the Dickian (Dickish?) – Philip K Dick-inflected, if you will – story of people who have other existences in other places, thanks to a faceless organisation which, instead of asking you to change your useless personality, inserts your uselessness into a brand new life. Put like that – with all the hi-tech flim-flam stripped away – this looks like a preposterous proposition, does it not? But let’s not get too hung up on the plot, which no one involved seems too bothered about. Instead let’s go with the mood, which director Simon Pummell is both concerned with and good at, especially early on where he introduces us to our two protagonists – Joe (Lachlan Nieboer) and Nadia (Nora-Jane Noone) – as they are being attacked by abductors in their house. Reacting quickly, Joe clubs one of the masked abductors and, removing the mask, finds it/he/she has the face of Nadia. She, it seems, was a replacement for the old Nadia, who … and I get confused here, so forgive me… was about to be swapped out, a process Joe has now accidentally interrupted. Putting to the side for the rest of this review the fact that what’s actually happening here is the complete opposite of what the film’s offer is – this is a new person in the old life, not a new life for the old person. As we strenuously keep any thought of Arnie Schwarzenegger out of our heads, Joe is soon having an implant and is then inserted into a Brand New World, where he hooks up with someone who is either the old Nadia with a mind-wipe, the new Nadia waiting for re-assignment, or some other version of Nadia, and gets to ask her just what the hell she was playing at, those sentiments having been suitably rewritten in sci-fi-speak. And, against all expectation, at this point I became interested.

The line between the real and the fake is an endlessly fascinating subject, because it is never just about the object under study (“Is it a real Picasso?”) but also about all of us as players in a cultural system, and here Pummell cannily heaps on references to Blade Runner (When does the android become human?), Hitchcock’s Rear Window (Is that a real murder?) and Vertigo (Is that simulacrum real?). It’s an idea-rich film, in other words, in keeping with Pummell’s oeuvre to date – such as Shock Head Soul, his leap-in-the-dark “poetic documentary” about Daniel Paul Schreber, a theoretician of madness, and Bodysong, his found-footage documentary about the human body – though not so rich as to justify the pace, which seems to have been set so the slowest in the room can keep up. Big ambition, partial achievement. Still, a fascinating attempt at ambient hard sci-fi.

Identicals aka Brand New-U – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Men & Chicken (Arrow, cert 15)

Not long ago seen attacking 007’s testicles with a thick rope, here’s an almost unrecognisable Mads Mikkelsen in a strange freakshow comedy that saves its best reveals to the end. In the spirit of non-spoilerism I can tell you little more than the fact that Mikkelsen is kitted out with a harelip, a raging libido and virtually no intelligence at all, and that he heads off on a kind of road trip with his more professorially minded brother to a remote island to find their mad-scientist father and instead meet hitherto hidden members of the family. What then transpires is something like the Three Stooges go to Gormenghast, except there are more than three dimbos, and in Mervyn Peake’s gothic imagination, turkeys, pigs, bulls and, yes, chickens, did not feature so extensively. Is it funny? Not really, though writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen has a real gift for the grotesque, and knows how to ladle out the revelations so that just as you’re coming to terms with the sight of a man beating another man senseless with a stuffed animal, Jensen introduces the idea of these maladjusted brothers hitting the local old-folks home to pick up “chicks” for sex. In terms of acting, Mikkelsen is just one among the many great turns (take a bow David Dencik, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Søren Malling and Nicolas Bro) none of whom ever quiver so much as an eyelash towards the camera. A Carry On film it is not. And Jensen’s decision to shoot the whole thing with the pace of a drama, rather than a comedy, means that the big final WTF reveal, when it comes, is genuinely disturbing. It’s worth waiting for. I’d watch this again.

Men & Chicken – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

 

8 August 2016-08-08

James and Zoe share a tender moment in These Final Hours

 

Out This Week

 

 

These Final Hours (The Works, cert 18)

A “last day of the world” film like we used to get around the turn of the millennium. It’s made on the cheap but with lots of skill and attitude, the attitude being largely borrowed from Mad Max. Actually, it’s about three genres in one and they successfully fold together as we follow James (Nathan Phillips of Wolf Creek) who is on a coming-of-age road trip on the very last day of the world’s existence. The question the film poses, and James asks of himself eventually when he’s got his priorities straight, is: am I going to be an asshole right to the end? Trying to pick the meat of this from the bones of a plot that makes a good fist of keeping us off balance – Who’s this girl Zoe who James is shagging early on, if not his girlfriend? If Zoe is his girlfriend, why is he leaving her and heading off to a grungy party somewhere else? If Vicky, the girl there, is in fact his real girlfriend, why’s he having flashbacks to Zoe? Who’s the little girl at the party James decides to take under his wing, and why so protective all of a sudden – the world’s about to end, isn’t it? All is eventually revealed, and satisfyingly, to a soundtrack of party-animal music, to drugs that “take the edge off, mate” – taking the edge off being one of the things the film ponders – while a very up-close camera and some clever work in the edit suite makes very much of very little. Although essentially focused on Phillips, Jessica De Gouw as Zoe, Kathryn Beck as Vicky and Angourie Rice as the little mite Rose, Zak Hilditch’s film is more of an ensemble piece than at first seems the case, and it’s noticeable how often a little look from a character at the fringe of a scene either confirms or disturbs the mood. The only real question to be asked about this excellent bijou thriller is – how come it’s taken three years to get a home-ent release in the UK?

These Final Hours – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Eddie the Eagle (Lionsgate, cert PG)

Two things are going on in this knockabout biopic about Eddie the Eagle, the useless British skijumper who won people’s hearts at the 1988 Olympics, much as the Jamaican bobsleigh team did at the same Games (and immortalised in the film Cool Runnings). The first is the resurrection of a familiar British comedy type. George Formby and Norman Wisdom are both early iterations of Eddie: the good-natured gump whose pluck, decency and vim – and other qualities exemplified by other old-fashioned words – trump the current top attributes of brawn, hotness, smarts and cool. The other is that director Dexter Fletcher has decided to use the film as a Hollywood calling card. Don’t expect edge, in other words. Those two boulder-sized caveats to one side, this is a very standard “triumph of the nerd” following the serially challenged Eddie Edwards from childhood to manhood – though puberty doesn’t seem to have overly intruded – his burning urge to be an Olympian never once dimming as he tries a succession of sports, landing on ski-jumping because here, in the UK at least, there is literally no competition. And I mean not a single person. Taron Egerton plays Eddie, proving he’s better than he appeared to be in the woeful Kingsman, though it’s essentially the same role, the same film – gimp makes good. And it’s in the actors where this film’s heart, and any claims to averageness, lie. Hugh Jackman, even playing the boozy former-somebody loser who reluctantly agrees to be Edwards’s coach, is about as potent a raw infusion of star quality as any film could hope for, and there’s nice homegrown Coronation Street-style to-and-fro between Kevin Allen and Jo Hartley as Eddie’s entirely divided parents. She’s all for the “follow your dream” stuff; he’s more “What? Even if you’re shit?” Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Deacon Blue, Hall and Oates are on the soundtrack, the naff end of 1980s music being about right, and Christopher Walken gets a walk-on so brief he hasn’t got time even for a shuffle or to pull a watch out of his back passage. Though director Fletcher does give us a sense of the sheer awesomeness of skijumping, this is in almost every respect a very prosaic, a very earthbound film.

Eddie the Eagle – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Tale of Tales (Curzon, cert 15)

Like something from the 1960s, a compendium of 17th-century fairytales by Giambattista Basile firmly in the European tradition– dark, disturbed and not necessarily all “happy ever after” – with the likes of Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones and John C Reilly to help international buyers take an interest. Pasolini and Fellini are invoked immediately in the opening sequence as we follow a troupe of jugglers into the first story, about a king (Reilly) and his barren wife (Hayek) who manage to make a baby by some magical jiggery-pokery involving a virgin, a sea monster and the eating of its heart. Cut to Jones as a king of a different kingdom, and his neglectful relationship with his own daughter, his majesty preferring instead the company of a pet flea, who grows large and fat on his indulgence. Cut to another King (Cassel), a debaucher who falls for the singing voice of an old crone (Hayley Carmichael) believing her to be a soft-skinned virgin, which she eventually, magically becomes. Lust, envy, covetousness, selfishness, trickery, ugliness – it’s hardly Disney, unless you’re talking about Snow White and Pinocchio. The tales work towards finger-wagging conclusions and punishment is meted out according to the crime in a world whose nearest reference point would be the 1960s East German TV series The Singing Ringing Tree if it weren’t for director Matteo Garrone’s stunning locations, all in Italy, apparently, though heavy with the dust and monumentalism of North Africa (Pasolini again). The stories do not hang together, nor do they pretend to, and there are some genuinely ugly moments of gore, such as when the sister (Shirley Henderson) of the rejuvenated woman (Nymphomania’s Stacy Martin) has the skin flayed from her body hoping it will make her young too. It’s not edge-of-seat stuff, though never less than fascinating, not least because we’re watching a genre long presumed dead live again.

Tale of Tales – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Holding the Man (Peccadillo, cert 15)

Neil Armfield’s last feature film was 2006’s Candy, which put us inside the druggy relationship between Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish. Holding the Man is a better, more subtle film, if less full of fireworks, and tells the story of a couple of guys who meet at school, become lovers and – it being the 1970s when it all kicks off – eventually meet the Grim Reaper in the shape of Aids. We’ll gloss over the fact that both Ryan Corr (flamboyant Tim) and Craig Scott (quieter, more masculine John) are too old to be playing teens, because the main bulk of the film takes place later on. It’s a tale not just of an enduring relationship but of changing times, and of the relationship within those changing times – the basic plot of the romantic war movie (a searing relationship set against a turbulent backdrop etc etc) – and dropping in an out of the picture are a host of famous Aussie faces showing faith with Armfield. Guy Pearce and Kerry Fox are Tim’s parents, horrified but accepting of their son’s “persuasion”. Anthony LaPaglia is John’s angry, never accepting dad, Geoffrey Rush blurs on – as he did in Candy – to steal a scene as Tim’s drama teacher, suggesting in the smallest of speeches and a turning on and off of gay tics that a man can comport himself as a slab of beef if the situation so demands, even if he is in fact a bag of mince. Romantic early sex (done in suggestion rather than full-frontal show-and-tell) gives way to bathhouse debauchery, the 1970s become the 80s and eventually the 1990s and though the arc is familiar, the nuance is not. Armfield (working off Tim Conigrave’s memoir) pointing out that, yes, Australia is militantly heterosexist, but not uniformly so. In fact, where we least expect it, at the Jesuit school where Tim and John first hook up, there is a rough, bantering acceptance of Tim’s entirely open sexuality. We’ve all been to school. We all know this does happen. Being gay isn’t the crime here, it’s being a pansy. Very Aussie.

Holding the Man – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

The Brand New Testament (Metrodome, cert 15)

God resides in Brussels in this smart Belgian farce always balancing on whimsy’s rim and actually focusing on His daughter – who escapes to Earth to set about gathering disciples about her, much as her brother Jesus did. Once she’s escaped the drab bedsitter conformity of Paradise, off Ea (Pili Groyne) goes on a road movie of sorts, collecting her followers, having first told everyone on Earth the exact date of their death, nice touch. Don’t worry, the God angle is a feint and the film is really a gentle instructive on living lives to the full – as we meet each of Ea’s chosen six (12 is too unwieldy, Jesus has told his sister), they’re all people coming to terms with some obstruction, often self-imposed. Aurélie (Laura Verlinden) is a hot babe with a false arm and low self-esteem, Jean-Claude (Didier De Neck) has spent his entire life in a boring job, Marc (Serfe Larivière) is sex-obsessed, François (François Damiens) is death obsessed, Martine (Catherine Deneuve) is so depressed she doesn’t know what to do, Willy (Romain Gelin) has been progressively poisoned by his parents and now in his own end of days he’s decided he wants to become a girl. A fairly representative bunch, then. Deneuve’s name stands out, of course, and is worth an extra mention because she gets a scene in bed with a gorilla. And there’s surely a constituency for that. But you come to this film because, once its got its shaky opening scenes out of the way, it keeps delivering twists of a life-affirming sort. It’s bitty but they’re good bits, kitsch but not lazy kitsch and it has a refreshing take on God (Benoît Poelvoorde), who visits tribulations on humanity not because he’s a vengeful deity, it’s more because he’s just a bit bored and, like many a middle-aged man, has gone a bit sour. Yolande Moreau – of course it’s her – plays God’s wife (I don’t remember God having a wife in the Bible, but nor did he get stuck inside a laundromat washing machine), and there’s a lot of sousaphone-style comedy music recalling charmless 1970s films. Yes, it does all sound dreadful, doesn’t it, but trust me it’s not. Vaguely a visual take on the Eric Bazilian song made famous by Joan Osborne What If God Was One of Us (you know – “Just a slob like one of us”), it knows what whimsy is and it rushes towards it, headlong, puppy style and shakes it nearly to death.

The Brand New Testament – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Hard Stop (Metrodome, cert 18)

A “hard stop” happens when the police hit you with a guns-cocked-no-discussion arrest. They performed one of these on Mark Duggan in Tottenham in 2011. In the fray, Duggan was killed, the media duly reporting that he’d fired a gun at police. This turned out not to be true, though a firearm was found some feet away from his body. Riots broke out in Tottenham and erupted elsewhere in the country. £200 million of damage was caused in London alone. That’s the background to this documentary following two guys heavily involved in the riots – Marcus Knox Howe and Kurtis Henville. In fact as we meet Marcus he’s waiting to see what sentence he’s going to get for his involvement. Somewhere round here I wrote in my notes “a portrait of two guys, as a way of explaining the riots? Really?” And this is exactly what George Amponsah’s documentary is, for good and ill. Marcus is the more eloquent of the two, filling us in on details about local grievances, that the police are anti-black essentially, and have been on vengeance jag ever since the death of PC Keith Blakelock on the Broadwater Farm estate in 1985 – exactly the same area. It was then and is now “an oppressive racist police force,” as one activist describes it, before going on to opine that “… we gave them a bloody good hiding.” Kurtis, meanwhile, is the under-educated, over-cocky black man of stereotype, trying to get a job and getting knocked back, trying to hold a family together, but finding that having to work so far from home in the job he eventually does get adds an extra burden most of us wouldn’t tolerate. It’s a portrait, not so much of the Duggan case and the riots, but of the dry tinder that needs only a spark to ignite – under-educated people with low expectations, finding drug dealing one of the few lucrative opportunities on offer, and then bridling when even that is taken from them. In its equation of crime with lack of opportunity, there are remarkable similarities with the recent US doc on life on an American Indian reservation, Seventh Fire. And like Seventh Fire, it’s not a breezy ride. Would you want to live on Broadwater Farm? I wouldn’t, and I live in an area once dubbed the Murder Mile.

The Hard Stop – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Southbound (StudioCanal, cert 18)

V/H/S, Phobia, the ABCs of Death – the compendium horror movie walks among us again, as it did in the 1960s. But there is more of a point to it in the age of home-consumed entertainment, when the break between each tale allows pizza to be hoisted to face and the bong to be relit. This Carpenter/Corman-inflected anthology makes a token attempt to link all four tales together, and starts with a pair of guys out in the desert being menaced by hovering creatures yet seemingly incapable of escaping the flyblown town they’re in. This leads into tale the second, about a VW camper (how 1970s) of girls who break down, are picked up by a nice couple, who are too nice by half, of course. And, after a lot of Tupperware set design, the action shifts to a deserted hospital where things get genuinely unpleasant and the pizza probably sits hovering in mid-air for a few minutes. Hold that skunk! And then we’re into another story set in a bar and loosely modelled on From Dusk Till Dawn, before we’re into a home-invasion horror finale that lifts the magician’s hat to reveal – ta daa – a link to the first story. Southbound has the good sense to keep moving, understands the importance of production design, and that John Carpenter’s synth noodles were an inspired way to soundtrack a horror movie. The film’s unifying theme appears to be people who never quite appreciate just how fucked they are – we can all buy into that, right? – and if there’s a slight variation in quality (in other words the hospital bit is so scary it throws the rest into the shade) that is something you might well be thankful for.

Southbound – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2016 Steve Morrissey