3 October 2016-10-03

Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult in Equals

 

Out This Week

 

 

When Marnie Was There (StudioCanal, cert U)

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the guy at Studio Ghibli who isn’t Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, this is Japanese animation studio’s final, so Ghibli say, film. And it’s a typically sweet, anglophile story about a typically bereft child called Anna finding typical solace in the supernatural realm – a ghost, called Marnie, who lives in the big deserted house over the bay from Anna’s aunt and uncle. Adapted from Joan G Robinson’s Norfolk-set classic, it’s slow-moving and less loaded with drama than Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies or Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, but it’s undeniably sweet, and charms with its familiar Ghibli-style animation – 2D, pastel, with a focus on a particular detail in each frame counterpointing the otherwise deliberate simplicity. Like Takahata’s 1991 offering Only Yesterday, it saves itself for its big finish, and sidesteps suspicions of slightness when it starts tying up threads and resolving emotional arcs in the sort of style that would be mawkish elsewhere, but in Ghibli’s hands comes across as almost unbearably poignant. Must be the big eyes of those kids.

When Marnie Was There – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Equals (Icon, cert 12)

Not exactly accorded the red-carpet treatment by the critical community, who seem to have the same downer on the magically versatile Kristen Stewart as the online trolls, this is a neatly accomplished, deliberately downbeat sci-fi romance. That’s a hellish combo of genres to juggle. A touch Barbarella in its modernity, a bit Logan’s Run in its two-against-the-world arc, this decidedly old-school offering casts an almost androStewart and Nicholas Hoult as a pair of drones in a clinical dystopia where emotions have been, you guessed it, outlawed. Except, them both being so hot and all, their natural human proclivities break through the programming and medication and they fall heavily for each other. Equals is at its best as a love story, really, and director Drake Doremus (who has previous with Breathe In and Like Crazy) goes in close on the faces of Stewart and Hoult as they’re hovering on the brink, and completely catches that obsessional moment in the lizard brain that anticipates the realisation that we’ve gone and fallen for someone. That’s it, really, the simplest of simple films about the most powerful of emotions, with a bit of a Romeo and Juliet finish to add a touch of drama. To Doremus’s massive credit, he points all his guns in the same direction – everything (the washed-out look, futuristic Singapore locations, the soundscape, the soundtrack, framing and focusing decisions) all work in the service of the film. It’s written by Nathan Parker, who also wrote Moon, and I suspect that his spare high-concept approach simply hasn’t taken hold with as many people as had been hoped. More fool them.

Equals – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Angry Birds Movie (Sony, cert U)

The strangest thing about the brightly animated Angry Birds Movie is that it’s aimed at the 40-plus market, from its choice of Black Sabbath as the intro music, to gags about The Shining, digs at hippies and so on. The other odd thing about it is that it’s actually very good. Picking up on John Lydon’s “anger is an energy” observation, it focuses on Big Red, the furious avian of the title, who we first meet in one confrontational situation after another, destroying stuff, losing his shit and so on, until, after a particularly OMG incident at a child’s birthday party, he ends up in an anger management class where he meets the fellow outsiders who are to become this film’s band of dysfunctional heroes. Enter some refugee pigs seeking asylum. And in most other films this would also be the point where drippy philosophical buzz terms – “inclusivity”, “diversity”, “mutual respect” “rainbow yadda” – would be bandied about like as if humans weren’t, you know, generally speaking already fairly co-operative. However, in The Angry Birds Movie the pigs are actually a marauding gang of heartless incomers – you’d suggest they were Islamist avatars, except, being pigs and therefore haram, they’re probably not – and Big Red’s job is to point out to his dipshit fellow countrybirds the danger lurking beneath their beaks. Enough plot, except to say that it all builds satisfyingly towards a big action finish. Jason Sudeikis’s facility at comedy outrage makes him an ideal voice for Big Red, the side characters aren’t just there as Disney bolt-on comedy sidekicks and writer John Vitti (Larry Sanders, SNL, The Office) keeps the jokes coming, many of which wander all over the demarcation line of political correctness. It’s not for kids, though they’ll probably enjoy its energy, and the character of Big Red, who is a direct descendant of Mr Punch. That’s the way to do it.

The Angry Birds Movie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Mother’s Day (Lionsgate, cert 12)

Take me out and shoot me, I enjoyed Mother’s Day. It’s the very last film written and directed by Gary Marshall, who wrote for The Lucy Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Happy Days before moving into directing such unhip offerings as Beaches, Pretty Woman and, lately, even less critically well received holiday-themed feelgood comedies (Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve) of which this is the last. Each of his recent films follows the same format – a string of stories, each with a feelgood arc, each anchored by whichever famous actor can spare a minute from binge-eating for two days’ work. This time around it’s Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, Timothy Olyphant, Kate Hudson, Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Garner and, er, Jack Whitehall who are scattered through a story focusing on Hudson, her family, and their coming-to-terms with “modern life” – gay relationships, white women marrying brown-skinned men, this thing called Twitter and so on. Marshall the writer tries hard, and for an 80something you have to applaud him. But the film works because of the quality of its players – Aniston and Roberts, love them or hate them, are hellishly good at what they do. And as it goes along – Aniston adjusting to divorced life, Roberts as a TV host regretting giving up a child for adoption and so on – its insistence that the world would be a nicer place if we’d all just be a bit more honest… and hugs! hugs!… does make it almost sick-makingly cute. Love, Actually, I thought, as it wheeled towards the end and Britt Robertson started to edge into Aniston/Roberts “force to be reckoned with” territory.

Mother’s Day – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Founders (Spectrum, cert PG)

A well-researched, culturally pertinent documentary about the founding of the Ladies Professional Golf Association in the US in 1950, with lots of talking head interview with the four survivors – Louise Suggs, Shirley Spork, Marilynn Smith, Marlene Bauer Vossler – of the original 13 renegades. And they’re a spunky foursome, providing real seasoning to well sourced archive footage, which takes in the LPGA’s predecessor, the WPGA, and focuses quite hard on Babe Didrikson (later Zaharias) the Olympic all-rounder whose fame and effortless ability gave the professional women’s game the media profile it needed, but whose self-aggrandisement and lack of social graces alienated her from some of her fellow players. It’s a fascinating snapshot of golf in days of yore, when it was a rich, white Christian man’s game. And tells in miniature the story reflected in all post-War sport, of women banding together to break through a social barrier into the world we inhabit now. Zooming up to the present day, when prize money still isn’t on a par with that in the men’s game, it beats its drum quietly but insistently and respectfully.

The Founders – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

The Last King (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Looking and structured like the BBC show Merlin – declamatory speech, action, declamatory speech – The Last King is a Norwegian film about lusty, beardy Dark Ages guys who do mighty battle with double-headed axes in an attempt to prevent a bad guy from usurping the throne of the rightful ruler, a swaddled child. Look for a conversation about whether a baby is automatically the best choice as king and you won’t find one – this is blood and thunder drama validating royal life as automatically as it dispatches the grunts in the lower ranks, though there are some fine scenes out in the snow, where a man on skis is shown to be the superior of a man on horseback more times than seems necessary. Good actors – familiar faces Jacob Ofterbro and Nikolaj Lie Kaas among them – don’t get much to do, and the whole thing looks like a pilot for a TV series that would probably wear out its welcome before the end of season one. Some good, bloody fights though

The Last King – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Alice Through the Looking Glass (Disney, cert PG)

Remarkably, a sequel to the exhaustingly dull Alice in Wonderland, with Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and the gang returning, though Tim Burton is now replaced by James Bobin as director. Bobin makes no better a fist of it than Burton, though it’s not his fault this dramatically featureless CG-heavy phantasmagoria is so dull. That’s down to the one-thing-after-another screenplay by Linda Woolverton who, having junked most of the original plot and possibly out of desperation, decides to give the Mad Hatter a back story and some daddy issues, FFS. She also bookends the story with a Pirates of the Caribbean-style maritime adventure, Mia Wasikowska’s Alice now being a sea captain, wouldn’t you know, Woolverton’s reputation for writing strong female characters (Beauty and the Beast, Maleficent) clearly overwhelming her good sense. A pity, because Alice is a genuinely interesting character, tough, smart, self-reliant, and Wasikowska uses everything in her considerable armoury to make her substantial enough to carry the film. The trouble is, the film is just too damn long and not enough happens until we creep into the last act, when the action picks up and there’s a race-against-time dash for the finish – time and its paradoxes being what this very Doctor Who-inflected storyline ends up being about. God knows what Lewis Carroll would say about the cursory treatment given to Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas) and Humpty Dumpty, and the complete absence of the Walrus and the Carpenter and the Jabberwocky. Curiouser and curiouser. As for names, Depp does not disgrace himself and his weird fluting/grating Scottish (?) accent is madly funny at times. Rhys Ifans, as Hatter Sr, and Sacha Baron Cohen, as Time Itself, grease the track, while Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts, borrows most of Miranda Richardson’s shtick from Blackadder. Looks fantastic, is entirely pointless.

Alice Through the Looking Glass – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

 

26 September 2016-09-26

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys

 

Out This Week

 

Love & Friendship (Curzon, cert U)

Sly arch social observer Whit Stillman meets a very similar property in Jane Austen, in his adaptation of her novella Lady Susan – about a dangerous sexbomb widow trying to get both herself and her daughter married off to money. As with all Stillman films it is immensely talky, and Kate Beckinsale is in it too, as she was in 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, and is rather excellent as a younger, sexier weaponised version of Austen’s Mrs Bennet, mouth always on the go, eyes all over the room as she jockeys for social position. It’s a fiendishly plotted thing, all stratetic plays by Beckinsale’s Lady Susan, sharing her confidences with Chloë Sevigny’s interloper American while an asteroid belt of dim men circulate, not one of them clever enough to see what she’s up to, or if they are clever enough (in the case of Xavier Samuel’s rich, dashing Reginald DeCourcy) they’re out-argued by the brain they keep in their pants. Think Dangerous Liaisons, to an extent. Smart, and self-consciously so.
Love & Friendship – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

The Nice Guys (Icon, cert 15)

Who knew Russell Crowe was so good at comedy? He teams up with Ryan Gosling – Oliver Hardy to Gosling’s Stan Laurel (though Abbott and Costello are in there too) as a pair of LA private eyes bumbling about and trying to solve a case of Maltese Falcon impenetrability in 1970s LA but too useless to really make any headway, except by complete accident – they stumble across dead bodies and run into bad guys quite literally. Smart writing by Shane Black who is taking the genre he ruled in the 1980s – of mismatched buddies quipping their way to a happy ending as they did in Lethal Weapon – and racking the comedy up about 12 notches. Setting it in the 1970s, when Black came of age, is a masterstroke too – Black has this in his waters, and it’s shorthand for a time when actions (by actions I mean drugs and sex) had no consequences. But really it’s about funny lines (“You know, kid,” says an at-bay Crowe to a mobster who’s trashing his house, “when I get that gun off you it’s going to be your dinner.”), sexy girls, cars being totalled, fist-fights, and a lot of people falling through glass roofs. For some reason Black does like his glass roofs. The Temptations, Earth Wind and Fire and Al Green on the soundtrack are a nice bonus too.
The Nice Guys – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

Departure (Peccadillo, cert 15)

We first meet teenage Elliot (Alex Lawther) kissing himself in the bathroom mirror and wanking into the basin. He’s on holiday with his mother (Juliet Stevenson), a fragile woman who seems to be packing away their French retreat for the last time – divorce pending?? – while Elliot spins around the local countryside, eventually falling in with slightly older, sexy lout Clément (Phénix Brossard, a star in the making), for whom he has a piledriver sexual crush. Mind you, so, eventually, does the mother… Alors. A beautiful, poetically intense coming-of-age drama is the result, the debut by Andrew Steggall and it speaks of great things to come. It’s written with an observer’s ear – when mum asks son “How did you get so big?” smart-arse Elliot answers “Incrementally” – and keeps most of its dramatic balls in play in tantalising fashion. Beautifully shot too, with a plaintive atmospheric soundtrack in keeping with DP Brian Fawcett’s picture-postcard shots. Lovers of property porn will grow misty over the South of France locations, and Stevenson is (again) quietly fantastic as the mother who knows a lot more than she’s letting on to her son and, eventually, his useless father.
Departure – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

Fire at Sea (Curzon, cert 15)

A remarkably deadpan documentary about the Italian island of Lampedusa, on the way to which, we are told in a prelude to this otherwise commentary-free film, 15,000 asylum seekers have perished on the open seas. It’s a twin track approach – we follow life on this by-European-standards relatively poor island where boys make slingshots, doctors see patients, old grannies cook squid stew for their fisherman sons, while out on the seas, calmly and efficiently, Italian ships pick up boat after boat stuffed with sick, thirsty refugees and process them through the centre on Lampedusa. There is no voiceover but the point being made is clear – Europe is something special, even this poor corner of it, and outsiders are desperate to get to it. The lack of address to camera is fascinating and though most similar documentaries find a stylistic explicator – a garrulous guide, a graphic, an excerpt from a book – director Gianfranco Rosi does no such thing, relying on the rhythms of his edits and the juxtaposition of his images to make his point for him.
Fire at Sea – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

Hangman (Signature, cert 15)

Found footage, a phrase to make the heart sink, but there is a bit of a wrinkle in this latest example, from director Adam Mason. Jeremy Sisto and Kate Ashfield play the couple with two kids who all head off on holiday and return to find that their house has been broken into. The police come, they go, and life returns to normal, though the family are unaware that the intruder has wired the entire house with hidden CCTV cameras. The film now consists of the family being watched while the intruder, the Hangman of the title, cuts from camera to camera and we watch him watching them. It’s undeniably creepy, and Mason and co-writer Simon Boyes find ways of ringing the changes, though it’s undeniable that the middle section is just too long and I started to hanker for an explanation of the title, Hangman. And then it comes…
Hangman – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

Monk Comes Down the Mountain (Sony, cert 15)

A big budget, Hollywood-leaning kung fu movie, superbly shot, exotic of location, lavishly choreographed, all of which we kind of expect from Chen Kaige. The titular monk (Wang Baoquiang) comes down off the mountain – a bit too much the Jackie Chan buffoon for life in those rarefied heights – and proceeds to take up with a series of masters. These masters have a tendency to die, but no matter, they’re just linking material between one spectacular fight sequence after another, and provide just enough grit to convince us that very bad guy Yuen Wah is in fact a very bad guy. The USP of this film is its clever integration of superb physical fighting, expert wire work and eye-catching CG. There’s a bit of love interest and even the odd gun or two, both of which are unusual for martial arts movies, and the clear attempt to wow with aesthetics suggests that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is working as some sort of template. For me it was all about kung fu taken to magical levels – big balls of energy being rolled up by one martial arts master or another, huge geysers of water being diverted by nothing more than the application of two flat palms thrust forward. If you also love that sort of stuff – like the bit in the last Harry Potter film where Maggie Smith and all the wand-wielding wizards of Hogwarts came out for the big showdown with Voldemort – this is for you.
Monk Comes Down the Mountain – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

Cat People (Sony, cert PG)

Cat People was made for buttons in 1942, was directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton, who had been hired by RKO expressly to churn out high quality low budget horror that could take on Universal (who were ruling the roost with various Frankensteins, Wolfmen, Mummies etc). It’s short, at 73 minutes, and packs in a lot – archetypally bland (think Patrick Wilson) leading man Kent Smith picks up smouldering hottie Simone Simon at the zoo. Before you can say “but she’s dangerous” they’re husband and wife, though they never get to consummate the marriage because she’s convinced she’s actually a cat person – being from Serbia having something to do with it – and that intimacy will unleash the beast. Tell that to a shrink, you might think, which is exactly what she does, Tom Conway playing the almost absurdly urbane doctor, Freudian to the tips of his moustache. It’s a great “rotten to the core” role for Simon which, while it doesn’t actually paint women in the finest colours, does at least give them some agency, which is more than you can say for most modern movies. Meanwhile, Tourneur and master DP Nicholas Musuraca play with the shadows, the sets (that’s the staircase from The Magnificent Ambersons, apparently) and one cute set-up after another. Seen from all these decades on, its claim to watchability – disregarding the really superb restoration of this Criterion release – doesn’t rest on its thin plotting or wobbly acting but on its style, of which it has an awful lot.
Cat People – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

19 September 2016-09-19

Blake Jenner and Zoey Deutch

Out This Week

 

 

Everybody Wants Some!! (E One, cert 15)

About perfect, Richard Linklater’s ode to university life when he was a lad is a portrait of 1980s guys just hanging out and having fun, getting laid, listening to music, crashing parties and playing sports. Not much work gets done. It’s done in an Altman-esque overlapping style, pumps music of the era onto the soundtrack and is thick with cultural references to make us feel like we’re there – Space Invaders games as recreation, My Sharona on a car radio, the Burt Reynolds moustache still a non-ironic look. There are no big names and you’d be tempted to think Linklater is aiming for realism, but really he’s going for genre realism, hence that token black guy in a group of jockish dudes, a clear nod to the films of the era. Plot? The slightest, but it’s cute as we follow Jake (Blake Jenner) and Beverly (Zoey Deutch) as they make eyes and hook up, then try not to let on how hot they are for each other though they so are. A lot of whooping, a lot of hell yehs, it’s so freeform it could just kind of go on for ever. The spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused, we’re told. Seems about right. Freedom, that’s what it’s about. And being young. Simple. Brilliant.

Everybody Wants Some – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Friend Request (Warner, cert 15)

The “stalked by Facebook” film is now a genre staple (see Unfriended, Ratter). Director Simon Verhoeven (no relation to Paul) squeezes new drops of freshness from it with a stalky chiller about a popular girl at college who befriends a needy supergoth and then lives to regret it – no spoilers. Verhoeven paints such an explicitly positive, sunshine-dappled, running-shoes-and-stretches picture of super-friended Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) that it’s hard not to feel there’s irony somewhere in that depiction. And as Laura starts getting messages from what appears to be beyond the grave, there’s a sense that this got-it-all girl is perhaps finally getting something she deserves, a comeuppance. It’s a German film, though made in English with very US looks and actors. It’s got pace, it’s got decent actors, it’s got mood. It isn’t particularly novel, but something in there is stirring.

Friend Request – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Money Monster (Sony, cert 15)

George Clooney is a TV share tipper – the sort who recommends buys, sells and holds with, literally, a song and dance – who is taken hostage by gun-toting unhappy punter Jack O’Connell, while producer Julia Roberts looks on from the gallery and, a pro to her cuticles, ensures the whole sorry mess is broadcast to the world. Jodie Foster makes one of her occasional forays into directing in what looks initially like a storming satire, or a comedy, or a tragedy, we’re not sure. And it’s nine tenths there, the “miss as good as a mile” evaluation being in the eye of the beholder. Sticking in my eye was Jack O’Connell, normally good, terrible here as the overwrought gun-waving representative of the free-market jetsam who – not in this film anyway – doesn’t really get to have his day. Mister Deeds Goes to Washington is in there, with George’s super-slick Gorgeous George personality gradually morphing into James Stewart as bad banking guy Dominic West is increasingly brought into the frame and held to account, while O’Connell has to manage the harder task of turning into Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon as his scheme goes cock-eyed. Roberts, as so often, is perfect – capable, professional, human. Watch it as a farce, rather than as a reckoning with capitalism’s ills, and it’s a fun diversion. I’m not sure that’s what Foster had in mind though…

Money Monster – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Author: The JT Leroy Story (Dogwoof, cert 15)

It turns out that the feted author JT Leroy wasn’t the teenage HIV+ son of a truckstop whore at all, but 35-year-old female Laura Albert, who didn’t exactly intend to take the hipster world for a ride. But everyone from Debbie Harry, Gus Van Sant, Bono, Asia Argento, Lou Reed, Billy Corgan and Michael Stipe paid homage of one sort or another when she started publishing books like Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. But take them for a ride she did – until a bit of old-fashioned journalistic research by the New Yorker’s Stephen Beachy and the New York Times’s Warren St John blew her story out of the water, and it was revealed that JT Leroy was in fact being played at public appearances by Albert’s sister-in-law Savannah, and that the publicity-averse real author was generally on hand at these initially rare but increasingly events – as the “manager” or “PA” or some such. Does it matter that it was a woman and not a man who wrote these incendiary works (“It says Fiction on the cover”, as Albert points out)? And if so why? Not points dealt with in this documentary which sticks close to a chronological timeline of the entire messy affair – from largely self-hating Albert first coming up with the pen name (which, after all, is all it was) of Terminator to her final unmasking in 2006. No post-reveal assessment is made of the books either. Maybe it’s felt that they speak for themselves. However, most revealingly, and unintentionally, Author is an almost perfect emperor’s new clothes story about members of the rockerati clutching Leroy close like a security blanket. It says more about them, in a way, that it does about her. Which is why so many of them are furious this documentary was ever made.

Author: The JT Leroy Story – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (Soda, cert PG)

Why? Why would we be interested? The question remains unanswered even after this documentary about Ingrid Bergman has drifted to a close. Its USP is the wealth of behind-the-scenes film material, home movie footage shot by Ingrid’s own family and by the star herself through her life – from the days when she was just starting out as an actor in Sweden, and was already a phenomenon, to her final capitulation to cancer in 1982. Yes, home movies, so we see Ingrid and her kids in a lot of swimming pools, be warned. It also means we don’t see much of Ingrid at work, or hear much about what she thought about fellow stars – Bogart was “interesting”, apparently. This home movie footage is linked by talking-head commentary from most of her children, none of whom say she was a terrible mother who abandoned them every time this “independent spirit” met a new man, though oldest daughter Pia Lindström comes close, and Isabella Rossellini isn’t far behind. What did she think of Victor Fleming, who directed her in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Joan of Arc – is there a suggestion of an affair? Or photographer Robert Capa, with whom she was in love? Or Italian director Roberto Rossellini, who she famously ran off with and scandalised an easily scandalised world in 1948? We have no idea. Some footage of Isabella in conversation with Liv Ullmann and Sigourney Weaver threatens to get interesting, then it’s back to the pools and the swimming caps and diving boards. As a portrait of an almost supernaturally fresh, pretty and vivacious girl (look at that Hollywood screen test!) whose face seemed to become almost unbearably sad as she got older, it does have value. Otherwise, a missed opportunity.

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Blue Dahlia (Arrow, cert PG)

Often seen as a failed film noir, The Blue Dahlia is an immensely nuanced film from 1946 starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Neither of them the greatest actors in the world, but they had something together, these short blonds, and it’s all on the screen in this beautifully restored thriller. The plot: Johnny (Ladd) returns from the war with two pals, George (Hugh Beaumont) and Buzz (William Bendix), though Ego, Id and Superego will do as nicknames. Id has such bad PTSD (see, nuanced) that he can’t function unless he’s using his fists, and while cultured doctor Superego tries to placate him, Johnny heads off to re-connect with his wife, only to find her dressed in a silver sheath, hosting a drinks party in the middle of the day and very thick with Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva) the owner of local club the Blue Dahlia (pronounced “Daah-lya” throughout). In short order the floozy wife is dead. But who killed her? In Raymond Chandler’s original treatment it was the PTSD guy Buzz wot dun it, and it’s written into almost every acting and directorial decision in the film that that’s who it was. But, government pressure produced a last-minute change in the screenplay, which is often considered by critics to be a cop-out. I’m not sure why. The joy of watching the film isn’t its whodunit aspect – it never is with Chandler – but watching his emotional switcheroos, the whip-bang dialogue and the occasional eruptions of fairly volcanic violence. Apart from that – watch it for the smoking, the hats, and DP Lionel Lindon’s beautiful lensing of the cold, dark wet streets.

The Blue Dahlia – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

Robinson Crusoe (StudioCanal, cert PG)

Crusoe’s story from the point of view of the animals he shares his desert island with. A parrot, a goat, a gecko, a hedgehog, a woodpecker, a something (armadillo? sloth? no idea). Just one of each, which will make no sense to either Noah or Mr Darwin. There’s a desperately upbeat insistence on everyone just getting along, and the idea is that everyone would if it weren’t for the feral ship’s cats who come ashore when Crusoe is shipwrecked on his island. And… er… that’s it. The animation is interesting, if rendering engines are your thing, the decision to avoid big-name voice casting seems entirely justified (ie it is generally unjustified in other films), though there’s a suspicion that the non-names have been given Ray Romano, Queen Latifah and various other Ice Age voices as a reference. Unlike Hollywood product – this is European – it doesn’t do cultural reference jokes for the adults and there is no ELO on the soundtrack. It’s bright, it’s lively, it’s for eight year olds.

Robinson Crusoe – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12 September 2016-09-12

Imogen Poots and Anton Yelchin, Green Room

 

Out This Week

 

 

Green Room (Altitude, cert 18)

Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to his debut subjects a band of likeable punk nobodies to sustained extreme attack by a gang of neo-Nazi thugs. If it doesn’t quite suck the air out of the lungs as his brilliant Blue Ruin did, that’s because Saulnier to his credit is trying something new. Blue Ruin was an exercise in controlled, prolonged dread; in Green Room he’s seeing if he can pull the legs off the spider, re-attach them, then pull them off again. And repeat. Strangely enough he can. There are name actors here – Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots and Patrick Stewart, who underplays nicely as the big daddy Führer of this bunch of murderous miscreants. But it’s all about the creation and dissipation of fear, as the band first find themselves under attack in the “green room” of some out-of-the-way venue, then use it as a refuge, then as a base from which to launch a counter-attack, then retreat to it when the going gets bad – and so on. There is some gruesome body horror, as people get limbs broken, and craft knives, machetes and guns, as well as fire extinguishers, sticks and whatever comes to hand are pressed into use. Not for the squeamish.

Green Room – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The World of Kanako (Metrodome, cert 18)

Director Tetsuya Nakashima delivers a madly chaotically badass bit of fun about a very badass cop (Kôji Yakusho). How badass? He rapes his own estranged wife, thinking this is reasonable payment for the task at hand – finding his own missing schoolgirl daughter. Otherwise, it’s a Get Carter plot overlaid with an ambience inspired by the 1980s French cinema du look – style is all, visuals have been sweated over, many attractive young women are on display. And as with the cinema du look, there’s a Beatrice Dalle-like crazy bohemian chick at the centre, in this case it’s the cop’s daughter herself (Nana Komatsu), a wayward young miss whose exact crimes and misdemeanours have to be disentangled from the various unreliable accounts of her actions. Watch this for its technical bravado – not just the way Nakashima collages together styles (drug sequences go all trippy, there are diversions into anime) – but the way he can hold onto many points of view. At one point the story is coming at us from five, six, seven, eight points of view – in rapid edits, and yet all is entirely comprehensible. Bravura stuff. And Nakashima’s use of 1970s soul and the throwaway suggestion that this is all set in some alternative universe existing only in a film-maker’s imagination, that’s fairly brilliant too. Again, not for the squeamish.

The World of Kanako – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Life Feels Good (Matchbox, cert 15)

In a dramatisation of a true story, Dawid Ogrodnik plays Mateusz, the Polish guy born with cerebral palsy, who grows up aware of the world around him but treated as a “vegetable” by the outside world and, to an extent, even by members of his own family. Not his parents, who shower him with love and devotion. We follow Mateusz from infancy to full maturity, hoping along the way that it isn’t going to turn into My Left Foot, because we’ve seen that story before. And it doesn’t, though Ogrodnik should win some sort of Daniel Day Lewis award for his performance as the locked-in Mateusz, the only sign of whose florid inner life is his sexual fixation on women’s breasts. By turns tragic, funny, wistful, frustrating and just plain gripping, Life Feels Good avoids the many emotional traps of this sort of film, largely by focusing on specific details of the period – 1980s Poland still locked in the Communist era to the current time with all the blandishments and perils of free-market Europe. And it avoids easy do-gooding too – there are people out to use Mateusz for their own confused ends, such as the volunteer visitor at the hospital who shows him her bosom and winds up engaged to be married to Mateusz. Cue much pursing of lips by his parents and hers. Feelgood shot through with grit. Exploitational but it’s earned it.

Life Feels Good – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Embrace of the Serpent (Peccadillo, cert 12)

Like watching Apocalypse Now, but from the point of view of a local native, Embrace of the Serpent is a heart of darkness journey up the Amazon. Except it’s two journeys, 30 years apart. The first follows Theo (Jan Bivoet), all a-jitter like Ben Gunn as he “opens up” the region to the white man as he’s taken up river by be-loinclothed pudding-bowl-coiffed native Karamakate (Nibio Torres). The second follows a similarly bearded, though less wild-eyed white man (Brionne Davis) as he’s taken up the same river by the same man (now played by Antonio Bolivar) decades later. Compare and contrast is the idea, and the comparisons aren’t in the white man’s favour as director Ciro Guerra pulls incidents from actual diaries of the era (1900-ish, then 1930 or so) and points, like one of Scrooge’s ghosts, at the devastation wrought by the blundering incomer, who has no idea of the fine balance he’s upsetting – the Christian mission turns from a place of brutal but ordered severity to the site of a gabbling murder cult, for instance. Apart from one hallucinogenic sequence, the whole thing is in black and white, the better to capture the spirit of old photos of the time. It’s more subtle than you might expect, less white-is-bad dogmatic than you might expect too – both sides are out for what they can get, but the power relations are heavily stacked. This is anthropology, for sure, but it’s not entirely the brown-skins who are under examination.

Embrace of the Serpent – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Summertime (Curzon, cert 15)

If Jean de Florette were remade as a lesbian drama, it might look like Summertime. It tells of pretty farmer’s daughter Delphine (Izïa Higelin) heading off to Paris in the heady early 70s, meeting chic Parisian political firebrand Carole (Cecile De France), falling for her, then attempting to continue the relationship back at the farm in rural Nowheresville. It does not go well, but it does at least not go well with buckets of sunshine spilling through the fields, in a world where farmwork seems to consist largely of pitchforking sheaves of hay off a tractor and up into a hayloft. It is all a bit unspeakably backlit, and there’s no hint of sweat, grime or chaff spiking the pink bits as the ladies get it on most tastefully, director Catherine Corsini clearly being of the opinion that if she can just make it look nice fewer people will get upset. Heroic crusading lesbians going it alone in the teeth of fierce opposition is the idea. Snipes to one side, it is very pretty, beautiful in fact, with fabulous acting (look at Noémie Lvovsky, as the farmer’s-wife mother to Delphine) that’s almost obscured by the picturesqueness. Lovely, if a touch predictable.

Summertime – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

A Hologram for the King (Icon, cert 12)

A Hologram for the King is directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), who is too cerebral for Hollywood, and stars Tom Hanks, who’s clearly no dunce. Together they tell the story of the slightly superannuated salesman (Hanks) sent to an Emirates state, where he’s to sell a software system (or something) to Sheikh McGuffin, or whatever his name is. On this hot, sandy armature Tykwer, Hanks and Dave Eggers (on whose book it’s based) hang a fish-out-of-water essay on globalisation and the decline of the West, a straight-out “dine beneath the stars with the Bedouin” travelogue – of the sort you might buy in the lobby of any UAE hotel – and a cross-cultural romance, between Hanks, suffering with a lump on his back (never described as the white man’s burden, though that is what it is) and the pretty doctor (Sarita Chowdhury) who treats it and who happens, wouldn’t you know it, to be just at the last knockings of an exhausting divorce and in need of the ministrations of a good man. That’s a lot of meat, salad and pickles to pack into any shawarma and the filling, tasty though it is, does come spilling out from all directions. Extending the metaphor beyond the advisable, Hanks plays the garlic/chilli sauce that’s meant to bind it all together into a tasty whole. He can’t quite manage it, but that’s because the task is beyond the human. Strangely, though it doesn’t work on any level, it’s entirely enjoyable, not least because Tykwer makes it all, as he generally does, look beautiful, clean and crystal sharp.

A Hologram for the King – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Gridlocked (Kaleidoscope, cert 18)

Party like it’s 1989 with this guiltily enjoyable action meatfest, starring mechanically recovered Dominic Purcell as a special-ops beef mountain caught up in a shitstorm when he goes back to visit his old fellow badasses, having taken along with him for the ride a Hollywood brat (Cody Hackman – is that even a real name?) as part of some penal restitution program the actor has volunteered for rather than spend time inside. Big breath. That’s a familiar sounding 1980s premise, and this film keeps it coming with a cast list including Vinnie Jones, retired WWE fighter Trish Stratus (doing Aliens-lesbian-chick-with-big-gun stuff), an extended cameo by Danny Glover who reminds us that Lethal Weapon is responsible for quite a lot (does he utter the “too old for this shit” line? – I cannot divulge) and a DP (Pasha Patriki) who loves blue and orange gels. And who didn’t back in the day? The writing is a bit pants, bobbins even, but director Alan Unger – he of Relentless, Mancode, Pinned, movies named after failed downmarket man-scent – knows his way around a camera and an edit suite and delivers some good hollow gruesome laughs, the best one at the expense of Jones. You could probably make one of these at home yourself, by taking bits of the Lundgren/Van Damme/Seagal oeuvre and shaking them up in a bag. Subtle as a full-frontal lobotomy, the enjoyment comes from trying to work out whether we are laughing at Purcell and crew, or whether they are laughing at us.

Gridlocked – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 September 2016-09-05

Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins

Out in the UK this week


Florence Foster Jenkins (Pathe, cert PG)

Tackled recently in the French film Marguerite, the story of Florence Foster Jenkins – the tone-deaf 1930s New York socialite who insisted she could sing – gets another trot around the block courtesy of Stephen Frears. Frears makes it a less pathetic, more screwball story, as if Fred and Ginger had stepped out for a minute, to be replaced by a non-dancing Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant – actually, there is a dance moment, and it’s there, deliberately, to underline what Frears and this film are about.

As with Marguerite the joke is on us rather than her, her inability to hit a note or negotiate any tune being a tragedy deeply felt by all concerned. Streep is good, but Hugh Grant is the star, as the devoted husband who, in spite of his floozy mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) on the other side of town, is in love with his wife and wants to spare her humiliation (possibly only because she’s stacked with cash, an idea left dangling). Those downturned eye corners, Hugh, are finally doing some work.

Screwball is pursued rigorously and all the characters are types – the brute, the fairy, the kept woman, the maestro, the silly matron, and so on. The Emperor’s New Clothes also hovers as an archetype, and we follow Jenkins as she heads towards a concert at Carnegie Hall, encouraged by sycophants, loyal employees and her paid rehearsal pianist (Simon Helberg), where triumph or tragedy awaits. Which is it to be? How will we react? Is someone going to shout foul? Will the glassware be up to it? Tragic, funny and rather marvellous. Hate to say it, but Marguerite has the edge – the personal cost to the braying diva is more keenly felt –  and I bet Frears is kicking himself.

Florence Foster Jenkins – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Suburra (Kaleidoscope, cert 18)

Sit tight, watch hard – the plot of Suburra takes a while to become fully operational and there are many strands, including one including The Pope, who is there as a kind of bookend, this all supposedly happening in the run-up to Pope Benedict’s surprise announcement of his abdication in 2013.

A Catholic End of Times story, then, folding corrupt government officials and violent rival gangs around and through a piece of land on the coast near Rome, where a fortune can be made if only the area can be re-zoned and it can be turned into a mini Vegas. The actual mechanics involve a flaky member of parliament (Pierfrancesco Favino) whose night of drugs and sex ends in tragedy. Enter the local gypsy mafia, enter the more traditional Italian mafia, enter rival politicians with their own agenda, enter an ageing mafia fixer (Claudio Amendola – it’d be Harvey Keitel in any US remake) to try and knock all these heads together, and you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry, sort of thing.

It’s intensely, glitteringly stylish in a way that’s almost Sorrentino-esqe at times, and director Stefano Sollima stages a decadent party à la The Great Beauty to show he too can turn it up. But Sorrentino isn’t about plot, whereas Suburra is, and Sollima shows he’s a nimble choreographer of precisely staged shootouts and knows how to stage violence so the psychological is as important as the physical. 

So, it’s unequivocally brilliant? No. And that’s because it’s all just a touch too familiar. But it is done with such panache it’s hard to complain – the gothic score alone is worth watching the film for. And you could carp about the subordinate role of women if this were an equal opportunities showcase, though even here Sollima pulls a neat switcheroo, late on. And how it rains. Style in the way of content? Oh, go on, just a bit. A hell of a thing though.

Suburra – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Our Kind of Traitor (StudioCanal, cert 15)

As the Tinker Tailor film demonstrated, but which many bunkered film reviewers won’t admit, John le Carré doesn’t work well at filmic length; he needs TV’s six-plus hours to play out all those storylines, and to consolidate his message of spying being a slow, sordid and unglamorous exercise, more about data management than derring-do.

Film adaptations of TV works obviously have to cut something, so they tend to cut all the boring stuff, not realising that in the case of le Carré they’re cutting the meat. And if you’ve seen TV’s The Night Manager, starring Tom Hiddleston, you’ll realise what a superior work it is, for all the above reasons, when compared to Our Kind of Traitor, which is the same story flipped.

There it was Hiddleston as the out-of-his-depth new recruit to spying, inserted into an arms dealer’s coterie. Here’s it’s Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris as the husband and wife rookies getting involved with a Russian middle-man (Stellan Skarsgård) and an off-the-books British spy sting being run by Damian Lewis.

“A bit Bondish” seems to be the idea, and director Susanna White does what she can in lush locations, particularly in North Africa and Money Europe, though she does have a TV director’s obsession with watching cars grind to a halt outside buildings.

Damian Lewis is the best thing in it, as a young Smiley character trying to keep all the balls (and possibly his soul) in play, and not quite succeeding on every count. Skarsgård, again, is a marvel, here as a bearish extrovert trying by sheer force of personality to keep the hounds of fate at bay. Harris – cast because she was Miss Moneypenny – can do little with a character that’s barely there. McGregor is again, as in The Ghost, playing one of those blank-slate ingenues and succeeding, a feat, I think, at 44. That caveat about le Carré needing air apart, it’s a fine spy thriller.

Our Kind of Traitor – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

The Closer We Get (Somewhere, cert PG)

Like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, Karen Guthrie’s documentary is all about her family. And like Stories We Tell, it takes a while to actually establish where the story is, but then, suddenly, we realise Guthrie has her hooks in as the focus slips from Karen’s sick, suddenly ancient mother, to her father.

For the most part it’s a sweetly domestic tale of one Scottish family, in Largs, where Karen has returned, after years in London trying to become something in the film biz, to film her mother – still well – for a project about the family, one which changes direction when mum has a stroke, then again when a spoilerish something about her father is revealed.

The father’s story is the thread that tugs us through the story, it being about the man who went into the world, and was changed by it, while the women to a large extent stayed at home. This double focus is fascinating – the sharp mother, the bluff dad who went to work in Africa – and it’s particularly noticeable how easily the camera detects something we might not in real life. That the mother’s sharp edge is there as a protection from being hurt; the father’s bluffness a cover for being found out.

Karen’s soft-voiced narration is a blessing, and becomes beautifully contrapuntal as, in circle-of-life style, she starts to pull all the threads of this family’s story together as Malcolm Middleton’s evocative harmonium-plus-synths score builds to a jangly crescendo. Strong meat.

The Closer We Get – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Paramount, cert 15)

Tina Fey drops about 50 per cent of her comedy persona to play a bored journalist who signs up for a stint in Afghanistan, gets entirely embroiled in what’s going on over there, and ends up as one of those weird flak-jacketed war correspondents who jump out of helicopters by day and do vodka shots by night.

This is a big old movie with a budget, stars and locations and it has clearly not lived up to expectations. That’s because it is, for all its Afghani credentials, a Vietnam war movie with all the clichés in place – no one said “love you long time” but it was close. I wondered if it was the sort of film a liberal comedian has to make, perhaps having made one too many cracks about a stupid war at a party, only to be confronted by an angry “what are you going to do about it, then?” patriot? Maybe.

There’s lots to like in its series of brilliantly strung-together scenes with no real throughline – Martin Freeman is surprisingly brilliant as a tough sweary, boozy jock, Margot Robbie (I nearly said Kidder, pardon my 1970s) as a ballsier-than-the-guys tough nut rival correspondent, Billy Bob Thornton, badly used (and symptomatically) as a general wheeled on to deliver pith – “This war’s like fucking a gorilla,” he says at one point. “You keep on fucking till the gorilla wants to stop.”

The movie, for all its many great performances (Fey best of all) and superb atmosphere, feels a bit like that too.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Road Games (Icon, cert 15, DVD/digital)

A very 1960s-style horror about an English guy meeting a French girl out hitch-hiking. He speaks English, she speaks French and the movie pretty much stays with the Franglais, in what seems at first like an irritating gimmick, but eventually becomes integral to the plot of this nicely turned bit of something.

Road Games should actually be called Genre Games, because we’re never quite sure what sort of horror it is – ghosts, serial killers, mad psychos, torture porn? But as things move on, and the couple are picked up by a wildly scatty French guy (Frédéric Pierrot – a welcome face from the French TV series The Returned) with a nervous English-speaking wife back at their lavish pile in Picardy, things become very 1960s, as mannequin heads, trophy animals, empty rooms, ventriloquist’s dolls, all the discombobulating paraphernalia of an episode of the TV series The Avengers in other words, are wheeled out for effect.

Fans of the Rover P6 (design inspired by the Citroen DS, appropriately) will enjoy watching it being flung around corners as the film builds towards what can only be described as a “running around and screaming” finish. An interesting genre exercise.

Road Games – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

People of the Mountains (Second Run, cert 15)

This gorgeous film has been fabulously restored so the blacks smoulder and the whites ping. Which is fitting because István Szöts’ 1942 drama is considered to be a jewel of Hungarian cinema. It tells the romantic pastoral tragedy of a Transylvanian family trying to make ends meet against a backdrop of tough eked-out existence, made worse by a landgrab forcing peasants into increasingly shocking living conditions. The focus is peasant couple Csutak and Anna, whose struggles to bring a child into the world are compounded by Anna’s beauty, which makes her the target of a lusty local land overseer and the fulcrum on which this sorry tale plays out.

It is a tale of woe, and there is a lot of it, and perhaps there is more plot than one film should be asked to bear. But never mind that. Focus instead on the gorgeousness of the cinematography of Ferenc Fekete, who treats us to vista after vista of the most gorgeous alpine beauty – light spilling over mountains and through trees, mist sitting like an army blanket in valley bottoms, you can almost taste the purity of the air.

The nearest reference, clearly, is Leni Riefenstahl’s visions of heroic nature and blood-and-soil purity in The Blue Light, made before she went off to work for Hitler. This film, though, didn’t find favour with the Nazis, who banned it because of its excessive reliance on Catholic religious motifs. Their loss.

People of the Mountains – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2016