Two of Us

Madeleine and Nina

I was intending to watch Two of Us (aka Deux) a few weeks ago and in fact did watch a film called Two of Us, just not this one. That one was a zombie movie set in Thailand. This one is a tense human drama set in Paris. Do not confuse.

Although both feature a pair of women in the central roles, the females in the Thai movie were young women. The women in question here are both pensioners, a pair of secretive lesbians who have lived next door to each other for decades. To be more precise they have both lived in the apartment of Madeleine (Martine Chevallier), while Nina (Barbara Sukowa) has kept her own neighbouring place on as an empty shell, just to keep the heterosexual facade intact.

Two of Us is all about that fiction being exposed to the cold blast of reality after Madeleine gets ill, ends up in hospital and then winds up back at her apartment with a live-in carer. There’s no room for Nina in this equation, a situation only made worse by Madeleine earlier having bottled the decision to out herself to her son and daughter to clear the way for her and Nina to head off openly to Rome together.

Though closeted and fearful, Madeleine is the more sympathetic of the two. Nina has the luxury of being the single operator. No one will get hurt when she declares her orientation. For Madeleine, coming out involves rewriting decades of her children’s history, facing down (or owning up to) the suggestion that she’s been lying to them all this time, and dealing with the charge that she never really loved their father.

Anne with her mother Madeleine
Anne with her mother Madeleine

The drama builds carefully in stages – will Mado (as Nina calls her) tell the grown-up kids? Will the hospitalisation and convalescence flush the secret into the open? And then, just to add jeopardy, will Nina be found out when she starts sneaking into the apartment of the semi-paralysed Nina to grab precious moments with the woman she loves while the live-in carer is asleep? When will the other shoe drop?

Nina and Mado are yin and yang characters. Sukowa, star of the epic Berlin Alexanderplatz and a clutch of other torrid outings by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, plays the hotter, impetuous “fuck’em” side of the equation. Chevallier, an acclaimed theatre actor (and once the wife of Nicolas Cage’s dad, August Coppola), plays the cooler, more reticent and fearful of the two. Chevallier has the harder task, having only her eyes to act with once her character has been cruelly struck down.

Chevallier is helped along by a sound design that’s bold and expressionistic – crows caw (foreboding), the washing machine goes into a spin cycle (mounting tension), an unattended frying pan sizzles (danger), a teaspoon is banged on the side of a cup repeatedly (irritation).

People living in the woke, post-gay world probably won’t find an awful lot to get animated about here. There isn’t much dramatic meat on the bones, and director Filippo Meneghetti’s decision to shoot the film as an everyday drama about nice bourgeois women – warm lighting, spacious genteel apartment, cosy daily rituals – runs counter to the dramatic direction of travel, though his reasons for doing it this way are understandable.

Lives that are complete in themselves is the aim. Which necessarily means making an enemy of Mado’s son and daughter – who might be wilfully hiding from something they could have guessed at before now – as well as the sullen carer Muriel (Muriel Bénazéraf), more of a piece of work than she at first appears.

So high stakes tension isn’t the destination. That said, Meneghetti does try to up the stakes right near the end, when Nina’s exasperation boils over and she decides it’s time to dig deep and find her inner commando.

Two of Us – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

Lad: A Yorkshire Story

Alan Gibson and Bretten Lord

When Dan Hartley was a lad, growing up in Yorkshire, he struck up a relationship, a friendship, with Al Boughen, a park ranger working for the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Lad: A Yorkshire Story, dedicated to Boughen, who died in 2010, is a tribute from the older Hartley, now a writer and director, to the man who mentored him at a crucial stage of his life.

In Hartley’s film Dan is now called Tom and is played with real charm by Bretten Lord (bringing to mind another Yorkshire lad, David Bradley, in Ken Loach’s 1969 film Kes). Tom is a 13-year-old with a life on a familiar course – hanging with his older brother Nick, tinkering with the car with dad David, but mostly just getting on with the business of growing up in the vast craggy outdoors of the Yorkshire Dales.

Everything changes when, early on, David dies, and with him goes his decent wage working at the local quarry. The bank move in on the house. Foreclosure threatening, Tom decides direct action is needed, “borrows” a tractor with a muck-spreader attached and pancakes the outside of the bank with slurry.

This lands Tom in trouble with the law and as a penance for his misdeed he is given a community service order, winding up on the moors under the gimlet eye of park ranger Al (Alan Gibson), a bluff Yorkshireman of the old school – hear all, see all, say nowt etc.

All that’s a preamble for the film proper – the redemptive tale with Al becoming a flinty surrogate dad to Tom – but the strength of Hartley’s story is that it soft-pedals this side of things, almost treating this relationship and its arc as a given. Cups of coffee are drunk from flasks, dry-stone walls repaired, rural paths rehabilitated, often in companionable silence, in sequences that are close to being montage. Hartley relies on us to know what’s going on.

The bank is sprayed with much
Muckspreading as revenge!

There’s space for two other side stories. Al has a granddaughter, Lucy (Molly McGlynn), a womanly 16 to Tom’s boyish 13 and with a wild eye. A fledgling romance is dangled as a possibility but that age disparity is surely insurmountable. And there’s Tom’s mum, Sarah (Nancy Clarkson, excellent), who decides that if driving a truck at the quarry is the only way to make money round these parts – as her dead husband did – then she’s going to get herself a heavy goods vehicle licence and get a job, whether it is “woman’s work” or not. Needs must.

There are acting wobbles here and there, especially at the edges, but the centre – Tom, Al, Sarah, Lucy – is solid and dependable, touching without ever becoming mawkish. They’re not big on extravagant displays of emotion in Yorkshire and this film reflects that.

Hartley and his DP David Mackie are keen to get in as many stunning vistas from the Dales as possible. The wide open scenery craggy with limestone escarpments, fields full of sheep contained by drystone walls, hillside roads winding along what were once most likely drovers paths. It’s clearly scenery shaped by a human hand, but the way geology pokes through adds a severity to the lushness.

These picture postcards tend to slow the pace down a bit, and the knock-on from that is that not every element of the story gets enough space to develop – Tom’s relationship with his brother Nick feels central at one point… and then it isn’t.

But the big heartedness of the film is undeniable. This is the labour-of-love movie made in honour of a man who had a big impact on a boy at a crucial moment – who taught him to be a man, essentially. A lovely and touching memorial.

Lad: A Yorkshire Story – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate


Jesper and Klaus

When is the best time to watch Klaus, an animated film aimed at the 2019 Christmas market? In February 2021, obviously. Though why not? Here in London there’s snow on the ground and the coronavirus is keeping a lot of people indoors still. Just add a piece of dense fruit cake and a glass of decent whisky and absolutely why not?

It’s the story of how Santa Claus became Santa Claus, or Father Christmas if you like, since the two characters are now almost one. Not the Santa story as we already know it. Actually, come to think of it, do we already know it?

Whether we think we do or we’re sure we don’t, Klaus finds a spot in the woodwork into which it can fit a whole extra bit of lore – the new bit is all about Jesper (voice: Jason Schwartzman), the spoilt grown-up son exiled by his rich and permanently disappointed dad to the snowy remote town of Smeerensburg and ordered to stay there until he has revived its postal service. Not kill a dragon or find a grail but a task all the same.

Smeerensburg is at war with itself, a generations-old feud between rival clans the Ellingboes and the Krums having roped in all of the town’s residents, who devote all their energies to vendettas. No one writes letters or posts them. The post office is a wreck, the local teacher (voice: Rashida Jones) has turned the school into a fishmonger’s and so none of the kids can write. Civilisation, in essence, has broken down. It is a dark miserable place.

Blundering about like the entitled brat he is, Jesper eventually half-accidentally half-coercively takes his first letter off a sad child. It’s destined for a gruff and scary old hermit who lives out of town. Klaus (JK Simmons) lives in a shack full of toys for the children he never had. After much vamping of the getting-to-know-you sort between Klaus and Jesper, delivery is completed and a rubicon is crossed. Klaus is not scary or mean, it turns out, so much as a very sad one.

This tiny act of engagement has unintended consequences, which soon ripple out and start to multiply. And when the townspeople see the positive benefits that flow from kindly actions, the pace quickens. Reluctantly at first, but at increasing speed, almost everyone stops being mean.

Klaus‘s main conceit is that the whole Santa shebang comes about as a series of unconnected events, more accident than design. The naughty and nice list. The red Santa suit. The flying reindeer and sleigh. The delivery down chimneys. All explained, quickly, satisfying, in terms that are less magical and more practical (though still a bit magical, in case you’re worrying that Klaus is killing the wonder of Christmas).

Mrs Krum and Mr Ellingboe
Mrs Krum and Mr Ellingboe

Co-director Sergio Pablos is an old Disney hand, having worked in what’s called the Disney Renaissance era on films like Aladdin. He reaches back to that era and hand-drawn techniques from even further back, all the way to Snow White, for a computer-assisted old-school animation reminding us how expressionistic Disney used to be – Smeerensburg, for example, isn’t just a town, it’s a brooding, sagging bag of dark and angular shapes.

With his shaggy beard and wooden toys, Klaus comes across almost as an artisanal hipster while Jesper is more your MBA-wielding consultant using advertising razzmatazz to hook Klaus up to an existing brand – Christmas – and exploit it for its vertical and horizontal marketing synergies. At one point Jesper, explaining to the town’s children the win-win of going along with the whole Christmas thing of being nice to each other, is deliberately represented as if he were a drug pusher at the school gate.

The locals are not forced into doing Christmas, they’re gentled into it. Klaus is nudge theory in bite-size chunks.

The name Klaus rhymes with house, by the way, rather than pause, a nod to the myth’s supposed Nordic origins (Saint Nick himself was Turkish). It’s a declaration that this is an origin story, which it obviously is. Klaus’s big achievement is to peel back the layers and yet also keep them intact. It’s undeniably a smart movie, though the really sharp stuff is front-loaded. Once Jesper and Klaus have got the Christmas show rolling, there’s no real doubting which way this is heading, the Ellingboe and Krum elders’ attempts at derailing terrorism to one side.

The arc is from the novel to the familiar, from the smart to the cheery, from piping hot to glühwein warm. Goodwill to all cotton-wools a film that doesn’t attain the classic status it looks initially like it has in the bag. As for the notion that it’s a Christmassy remake of Kevin Costner’s mad folly The Postman – mailman restores civilisation to post-apocalyptic world single-handed – surely not.

Klaus – get the music from the film at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

Little Fish

Olivia Cooke and Jack O'Connell

Not to be confused with the 2005 movie of the same name starring Cate Blanchett, Little Fish puts a twist on one of the those big films about two people in love told against a torrid backdrop of war, ditching raging conflict in favour of a global pandemic. In early 2021 this sounds very timely, but the story the film is based on is ten years old. In any case the “torrid backdrop” isn’t the focus here. This is a film for those in love with love.

The meet-cute is bare bones. Emma (Olivia Cooke) meets Jude (Jack O’Connell) on a beach. They stare at each, they smile at each other, they chat to each other, they’re clearly both instantly smitten. It is genuinely cute.

In traditional romantic love story style of the sort that comes in pink covers, he’s a buccaneering individualist, she’s in the caring professions. Photographer/vet – you can work out which is which.

Also in traditional romantic love story – or even Love Story – style, one of them is going to get ill and/or die, the sweeter the love, the deeper the loss.

The second big introduction is to the pandemic – NIA it’s called, Neuro-Inflammatory Affliction, a disease that’s wiping the minds of different people in different ways. Some just get a bit scatty, others forget so completely what they are about that there are bizarre effects – like the marathon runner who simply forgets to stop running. But for the most part NIA’s progress seems to mimic Alzheimer’s, a progressive loss of memory to the point where the identity of the sufferer begins to fall away – we are, to a large extent, our memories.

Emma and Jude in a pet shot
Emma, Jude and a lot of little fish

So of course one of these two lovely people is going to get NIA and the other is going to watch impotently, metaphorically offering up burnt offerings to the gods and reading all the books on the subject in an attempt to keep it at bay. The sufferer, meanwhile, is going to dissemble like crazy, hiding the effects of the disease’s progress via an escalating series of cribs, tricks, cheats and lies

Though Little Fish is interested in the lovers rather than the pandemic, around the edges director Chad Hartigan conjures up a pungent world of disinformation, fear and hysteria, quack cures and weird coalitions of the ignorant. Some of the superficialities are now familiar – people in masks – but most of it is a reminder that Covid-19, while bad, could have been a lot worse.

The other world Hartigan conjures is that of the indie romance – music, tattoos and big moments in small places. Jude asks Emma to marry him in a pet shop, where the two of them are watching the little fish that gives the film its title. It’s a goldfish, a creature not associated with a prodigious memory. A joke, surely, in a film not full of them.

This is a world of shallow-focus photography, which does double duty in suggesting both the warm, fuzzy and “us”-focused nature of the first burst of love, but also the soft edges of memory loss. Keegan DeWitt’s gentle, lilting score works the same territory. Most of the music in Little Fish has the treble turned down.

It’s set in Canada, I think, though the concentration on the two main characters is so tight that we could be almost anywhere. The acting is as it should be: intense and fierce, the more so, perhaps, because the film stands or falls on the performances. Which is another way of saying that not an awful lot happens, and what does happen plays out at its own unhurried pace.

Cooke – about to step into a role in the Game of Thrones sequel House of the Dragon (she’s not a million miles away in looks from Emilia Clarke) – will probably attract some Throners. But, be warned, ye Goths and other dark-clothed lovers of pandemic disaster fare, this is not the movie for you.

The film it’s closest to is another two-hander, Perfect Sense, in which Ewan McGregor and Eva Green played lovers being slowly deprived of one sense after the other. Barely seen and critically cold-shouldered, the 2011 film now seems ahead of its time. Anyone for a pandemic double bill?

Little Fish – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate


Saint Maud

Morfydd Clark as Maud

Where are the jokes about Muslims then? the gammon-faced men shout at “liberal left” comedians making jokes about Christianity. They might have a point. But when it comes to films there is no shortage of ones about radicalised Muslims, from the serious (A Prophet) to the comedic (Four Lions). Which makes Saint Maud rather different, a drama about a young woman whose religious experience is transcendent, though not always in the generally accepted sense.

It joins the likes of Requiem (the 2006 film starring Sandra Hüller) and Stations of the Cross (the 2014 film starring Lea van Acken) on a shortlist of powerful recent films about Christianity’s downside. All three are about vulnerable young women in the grip of religious fervour, with belief acting as an analogue for the social pressure on women to conform, if that’s how you want to see it.

Saint Maud can be watched as a simple spooky story, however. About a young nurse taking care of a former dancer, now chemo-bald with stage four spinal lymphoma – “a bit of a cunt”, the woman’s previous palliative nurse, clearly busting to get away, tells Maud as she gets out of Dodge as fast as she can, leaving Maud to cook and wash and tend to her patient’s every need.

We know Maud is religious because we have been introduced to her in interior monologues (she’d probably say dialogues) with God. Though, as she chattily tells Him, she has little time for “creative types as they tend to be rather self-involved.” Says the entirely self-involved Maud.

In fact this is a story of self-involvement so intense that it’s pathological, destructive and dangerous. However, things are breezy at first, the intense Maud and the bohemian Amanda managing to strike up some kind of friendship. Amanda, scoffing initially at Maud’s devoutness, softens after a while and even seems to have moments where she too experiences what Maud increasingly seems to be experiencing – religious ecstasy.

Maud levitating
Moving in mysterious ways

Two great performances make all this – the way these very different women bend towards each other – entirely believable. I’ve yet to see Jennifer Ehle – as smoky, drinky libertine Amanda – come up short in a role (from bonnet-y Pride and Prejudice to power-dressy Zero Dark Thirty is quite a range). Morfydd Clark ducks the easy win of making Maud a nutter, though is clearly disturbed at the very least, and also shows us the positive side of belief – the timid Maud, when she feels the spirit move her, can be remarkably forceful and forthright.

And in the central section when a lot more is revealed about Maud’s past, Clark switches in and out of personality – up, down, hot, cold, rational, bonkers, lost, calculating – at an impressive speed.

I’m trying to avoid giving the plot away, because this is a narrative driven as much by its story as the characters, though mood forms a third leg – that big gloomy house of Amanda’s, shot as a cavernous tomb-in-waiting by DP Ben Fordesman, who is also adept at using his nervy, swooping camera to suggest Maud’s mental confusion, or is it religious fervour, or are they the same thing?

Adam Janota Bzowski’s soundtrack is also intensely subjective and pumps and heaves and blips away electronically, more suggestion of mental states out of the norm.

At one point Saint Maud does start to look like it’s opening itself to the criticism of the gammony blokes – we’ve seen this sort of thing before and it doesn’t seem too challenging to suggest that Christians are delusional – but then writer/director Rose Glass switches gear for a finale that pushes Maud to the limit of ecstatic self-involvement and beyond. Things get bloody, there’s a hint of The Exorcist and then things gets really, shockingly, grim. And there Glass leaves us – high and horrified, expressionistically transcendent, both inside Maud’s head and also observing her from outside. What a finish.

Saint Maud – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

The Night

Babak and Neda


A Farsi-language horror film from the Iranian diaspora, writer/director Kourosh Ahari’s The Night is the latest entry on a very short list of crossover hits, most notably headed by A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

Ahari left Iran aged 18 and moved to the US but remains fascinated with the hold the past has over the present. His short Generations took a more straightforwardly drama-based approach to a “when did it all go wrong” analysis of one man’s life. The Night swerves into genre but is actually doing something similar.

At its simplest, it is a film about one couple’s bad night at a hotel. Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and wife Neda (Niousha Noor) have spent the evening with a group of fellow Iranian migrants to America who, like them, are all doing well in their adopted country. But rather than stay the night after an evening flirting with decadent western stuff like booze, the slightly fractious couple decide to “head home” with their infant child. They are in fact going to spend the night at a hotel but don’t tell their hosts for fear of offending them.

En route, the couple’s car appears to run over a cat (horror klaxon) but there’s nothing under the car when they look. At the hotel, a gloomy place like a boutique version of The Shining’s Overlook, the night receptionist (George Maguire, star of Generations) is unctuously solicitous (horror klaxon) as he runs the couple through a shortlist of do’s and don’ts, incuding something about a button to open the front door, which might as well come with an on-screen message saying “this detail will pay off in act three”.

And up we go, to their room, where certain elements of the film start to come together in a “things go bump” sort of way. The opening quote about the existence of multiverses, the recently acquired his-and-hers matching tattoos of an arcane symbol, their vulnerable child and their even more vulnerable relationship.

A terrified Neda
A terrified Neda

Hosseini and Noor are both very good at this, having started off the film smiling at each other through slightly gritted teeth, as the night at the hotel throws one spooky element after another at them – who is that child in the corridor? what are those noises upstairs? are they the only people in this hotel? – they are entirely plausible as a couple who deal with pressure not by pulling together but by pulling apart.

Like that film Open Water where a couple on a diving trip end up out at sea being menaced by sharks – and start bickering! – Babak and Neda turn on each other. As the weird events become more disturbing, secrets from their past start to emerge. The horror might be more internal than either of them is prepared to admit.

The hotel is evocatively conjured by DP Maz Makhani and sound designer Casey Genton. Dark as a cave, even with the lights on, there are pools of shadows everywhere. The sounds of a night-time building – creaks, clanks, distant hums, ticking, scratching, gurgles – are put to good use in Casey Genton’s sound design.

It’s a strongly made film, in other words, tightly played, though there’s an insistence to the soundtrack music suggesting a lack of faith in the material at some level. Ahari doesn’t seem sure if he’s heading out into J Horror territory – a spooky bathtub – or in to something more psychologically complex. In the end neither side of the equation quite gets its full due.

The multiverse idea – different realities and timelines assert themselves at various points – seems to be picked at rather than attacked with gusto, which is disappointing (though, god knows, Christopher Nolan has got this territory fairly well covered).

Films that turn on the question “is this really happening or is it imaginary?” have to provide an answer at some point, or come up with some devious way of not answering. The answer The Night provides won’t satisfy horror fans who like to do the black runs, but for those on the nursery slopes it might just do.

The Night – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate


Let Them All Talk

Meryl Streep in spectacles

Meryl Streep, Candice Bergman and Dianne Wiest star in Let Them All Talk and even before it’s started the names alone seem to suggest two possible outcomes.

It’s either going to be an American version of one of those British Dame Dramas, in which various theatrical Maggies or Judis are arranged fragrantly and tastefully, with the odd “fuck” thrown in to show the noble ladies are still down to earth.

Or it’s going to be a female version of one of those Four Old Dudes Go to Vegas comedies, in which the once hip gracefully accept they’re now in the hip-replacement demographic, with the odd “fuck” thrown, possibly of the physical sort, just to show the guys have still got some sort of it.

Streep plays the grand dame writer Alice Hughes, heading across the ocean on a liner even grander than herself, the Queen Mary 2, a modern Cunard ship of the old school, accompanied by two old friends from university days, Roberta (Bergen) and Susan (Wiest), her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) and her agent, Karen (Gemma Chan).

It’s not quite as easy as that though. The crossing is paid for by the publisher, hoping that Alice’s current book is going to be a sequel to a monster seller, though Alice is keeping her cards very close to her chest on that front and these days rather favours difficult, challenging work, which doesn’t sell. Karen is on board entirely unbeknown to Alice, more as a spy than an agent, especially once she starts connecting with nephew Tyler on the downlow, who can’t believe his luck, him being a bit dweebie and all. And the friends – who in fact have barely seen each other in decades – aren’t entirely sure why they’ve been invited, especially Roberta, who has an ancient beef with Alice.

Add to that a mystery man who is regularly glimpsed leaving Alice’s suite in the morning and the presence of another author on board, a massively popular Robert Ludlum type (Dan Algrant), and the bones of a farce start to appear, with aspects of both the British Dame Drama and the Four Old Dudes comedy.

Note to self: if you ever for some reason are invited to take a trip on an ocean-going liner, please buy some new clothes before you go. There is opulence and quite a lot of formality on display here. Director Steven Soderbergh shot the bulk of the film on board the actual Queen Mary 2, some guerrilla style, some carefully staged, the paying passengers acting as extras and adding ocean-going authenticity.

A jaunty thriller, Agatha Christie meets Woody Allen in his Manhattan Murder Mystery years, is the result, with most of the characters play-acting a version of themselves while pursuing their own hidden agenda, particularly Bergen’s Roberta and Chan’s Karen, though everyone is at it to some extent, except for Algrant’s Kelvin Kranz, the writer of whodunit mysteries really the only straight shooter on board.

Diane Wiest and Candice Bergen
Diane Wiest and Candice Bergen

The needle between Roberta and Alice – when is that iceberg going to be struck? – is enough to keep the whole thing afloat while we watch exquisite technicians at work. Not just the actors but also Soderbergh, who gives everything that high Soderbergh sheen, Ocean’s 11 style, on an actual ocean, with the chill-lounge soundtrack adding plump luxuriousness. The camerawork and editing (both also Soderbergh, using pseudonyms) – little drop-in sequences of life on board a vast liner – also open up what could just as easily have been staged in a couple of rooms, and would translate fairly easily to the theatre.

Wiest comes into her own more as things go on but is mostly there as a sounding board for Bergen’s bitter Roberta, and as a buffer between the two other women, Bergen unfazed by Streep as a character and as an actor. Lovely to watch, particularly as everyone is improvising their lines as they go. Chan and Hedges must have been sweating bullets against this formidable threesome, but they’re both excellent in tricky roles that demand finesse and downstage playing.

It’s an examination of friendship, blah blah, in the way that all artistic product has to be something deeper than it appears on the surface. But in fact the joy of Let Them All Talk isn’t to be found in any “deep” meaning at all. That’s all left in the realm of the speculative.

In the same way that a Swiss watch, or an ocean-going liner is entirely unnecessary, there is no real need for this film to exist, though it is at the same time a stately example of precision craftsmanship of the highest order.

Get music from the movie Let Them All Talk at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate


Finding ’Ohana

Hana, Pili, Casper and Ioane

’Ohana is the Hawaiian concept of family or home and in Finding ’Ohana a couple of ethnically Hawaiian New York brats discover its true meaning back “home” in Oahu.

They’re looking for something else: lost pirate treasure which, according to an old journal belonging to their grandpa Kimo (Branscombe Richmond), can be found by following a number of clues, in much the same way as you might follow clues if you were geocaching. Handily, one of the two siblings is all about the geocaching.

But let’s meet the family, as they say in game shows – Grandpa is living under a mountain of debt which his widowed dughter and frazzled single mom Leilani (Kelly Hu) has arrived back on Oahu to try and wipe out… by selling up in Brooklyn, if necessary. Then there’s her button-bright daughter Pili (Kea Peahu) and handsome but jockishly useless son Ioane (Alex Aiono), neither of whom want to be there, both of whom see themselves as New York kids with the sort of street smarts that set them apart from slowpoke Hawaiian locals.

These include juvenile hottie Hana (Lindsay Watson) and her friend Casper (Owen Vaccaro), doubly benighted on account of his specs and his ginger hair. “Ginge,” as Ioane calls him, instantly regretting it when it turns out Hana is very much Team Casper.

We can park the parent and grandparent generation almost immediately. Once the family has arrived and been introduced to Grandpa, he’s conveniently hospitalised, and what with his daughter keeping a bedside vigil and phone reception being patchy, she’s pretty much out of the story too.

Which leaves Pili, Ioane, Hana and Casper as a foursome off the leash and available for any passing adventure. I refer you back to the old journal in grandpa’s possession.

Hawaiian lore gives the film a flavour and we learn of nightwalkers (spirits of fallen warriors), the concept of kapu (sacred places) and of ’ohana itself. But if you peel back the sunshine and the beautiful locations and get down to the level of DNA Finding ’Ohana is Treasure Island meets Indiana Jones with a sprinkling of that special sort of acting you get in Disney Channel productions (this is made for Netflix, but even so), as if everyone involved were trying to impress a half-blind, half-deaf talent scout.

Ke Huy Quan and Kelly Hu
Ke Huy Quan and Kelly Hu

Smarter eyes than mine – thank you Trivia section of the imdb – will have spotted that Ke Huy Quan, the cute kid from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (long since all grown up), has been brought in as a lucky charm in a minor role. He was also in The Goonies, which was a misfit-kids-pirate-treasure kind of thing too.

Having worked out clearly what exactly it is that they’re making, director Jude Weng and writer Christina Strain just get on and do it, bouncing over any small obstacles in pursuit of the bigger picture. Fall down a chute in an underground cave system? No worries, the diamond sharp laval rock will not cut your bare legs to ribbons. And Finding ’Ohana is also very sure that its focus is Pili, and what an asset the smart and extremely likeable Peahu is here.

Smart decisions have been taken too, like the flashback sequences speculating on key moments in the pirates’ story as they hid the treasure all those years ago, all voiced by the kids in 21st-century “peace out”, “that is so dope” speak while the pirates themselves wave their hands and lean left and right suburban gangsta style. Funny.

The Hawaiian locations are spectacular and gorgeous, to the point where you wonder why the islands aren’t used more – Lost and Jurassic Park might have been shot there but the islands were standing in for other places, as they mostly do. Key sequences in the caves, as things get particularly Indiana Jones – ancient machinery, boulders, dangerous creatures – were shot in Thailand, Hawaii’s caves being mostly “kapu” and so out of bounds.

We learn a bit. Thanks to Casper I now know that the phosphorescent cretures lighting up one set of caves are called dinoflagellates, and thanks to Grandpa’s invoking of ancestors and the importance of place we’re given a fast, fun and entertaining introduction to ethnic essentialism, which is what the kids, it turns out, are really “finding”.

Get music from the movie Finding ’Ohana at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Barb and Star order cocktails in the pool

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is not funny. It’s lots of other things – warm and friendly, accessible and energetic, but funny it ain’t. It’s billed as a comedy. And it’s written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who wrote Bridesmaids. But it’s still not funny. Strange.

It gets off to a strong and funny start – an American Korean kid (Reyn Doi) cycling down a suburban street lip-syncing to Barbra Streisand’s Guilty while delivering papers. And stays funny when the film swerves into different territory as Yoyo (Doi) is granted admittance to the underground lair of an evil mastermind, Dr Evil in most respects, except that Kristen Wiig (unrecognisable) is playing the megalomaniac Dr Lady and Jamie Dornan is in the Robert Wagner henchman role. Dr Lady has a plan to unleash a million very poisonous mosquitoes on the Florida beach resort of Vista Del Mar as payback for some ancient grudge.

And then we meet Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig), dim-witted midwestern BFFs who loooove to chat, and the film falls to the ground with a splat and, struggle as it might, that’s where it stays. It plugs on gamely though, well there’s money at stake, like a morning-show radio DJ who thinks that using a “comedy voice” makes things automatically funny.

Jamie Dornan in shades
Edgar incognito

The plot shoos Barb and Star away from a gaggle of friends who have the potential to make the film Bridesmaids 2 and off to Vista Del Mar on vacation, just as it’s sending Dornan’s Edgar there to supervise the unleashing of the deadly insects. And there Barb, Star and Edgar run into each other. Barb and Star being middle aged ladies while Edgar being Jamie Dornan, they instantly have the hots for him, though the lovelorn Edgar’s heart belongs to Dr Lady, who is cool on him to the point of murder because she’s a twisted self-absorbed egomaniac. 50 Shades payback.

There are bright spots. To Mumolo and Wiig’s credit the observational gags keep coming at an almost Airplane speed at times, though many… drum roll… fail to land. The humour is off to the side, in the background, under the breath – perhaps the film would be funnier second time round – though Jamie Dornan shows a gift for comedy and a willingness to take his shirt off and play against his Christian Grey persona of the domineering sexy bastard.

Andy Garcia turns up, for a bewildering cameo, as does Reba McEntire, lending the whole thing a frantic “throw enough mud” air.

All this goofing about, plus the bright sun and the talented support players means at times it’s almost like watching Pink Panther outtakes. Good natured. Everyone’s having fun. Really funny if you’re there and involved somehow. Otherwise…

Wiig and Mumolo are a good double act but vamping cannot hide the the fact that they have chosen the wrong comedy targets. Two middle aged women from the midwest whose fashion sense goes about as far as culottes – this is hardly punching up.

Bridesmaids was funny because it had fun with the institution of marriage, with a day full of potential disaster, and with people who’ve gone a bit nuts with the whole wedding thing. It also benefited from Melissa McCarthy’s comedy genius, not to mention the light touch of director Paul Feig and producer Judd Apatow. Who knows what scattershot scenes in this film McCarthy might have rescued or ideas Feig, a writing/producing/directing triple threat, might have improved if he’d been in charge here too.

He’d probably also have had an early word about the concept of two metropolitan comedy writers – the “elite” if you will – launching into blameless midwesterners whose only real crime appears to be to have been born a bit dim.

Not funny.

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

Never Gonna Snow Again

Maria on the massage table

Remember the days when you’d never get a popular film star to work on a TV series? The reverse happened when co-directors Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert were casting Never Gonna Snow Again. They wanted Alec Utgoff, of American TV series Stranger Things fame, to take pole position in their film but would they be able to persuade him to take a step down?

They did and, beyond the profile he brings, you can see why they wanted him. The story is about a masseur from Ukraine who has a number of clients in a rich gated community in Poland. He massages, they open up to him. That’s it. Except for the fact that Zenia (Utgoff) might possess genuine magical powers rather than the more usual “healing hands”. In an opening sequence easily missed because it’s so low key, he obtains an exit visa in his home country by apparently hypnotising the official handing them out, after having answered, when asked what languages he speaks, “all of them”.

But, as I say, we more or less forget that odd, semi-magical opening because what follows is mundane to the point of desperation. In Poland, where he lives in a grim tower block, Zenia makes a living visiting wealthy clients. He puts up his table. The client climbs on. Zenia does his thing. The client then passes the folded money payment to Zenia in a semi-embarrassed rush – the illusion of something other than a financial transaction having been shattered – and Zenia moves on to the next client.

There’s the drunken slattern Maria (Maja Ostaszewska); the man dying of cancer (Lukasz Simlat) who doesn’t have a name but whose hot wife, Wika (Weronika Rosati), does; the woman who loves her bulldogs so much Zenia ends up massaging one of them; a retired ramrod soldier; and on they go. Some of them fall in love with Zenia, some confide, others fall fast asleep.

Alec, Wika and Wika's husband
Wika’s husband doesn’t stand a chance

Utgoff fits this role well for three reasons: he’s Ukraine-born; he’s physically strong and flexible, with a physique like a dancer’s; and he’s able to pull off a performance of enigmatic… what is it? Amusement? Bemusement? Probably a bit of both.

He has plenty to be amused and bemused about, and that’s what Szumowska and Engler’s film is interested in, the detached lives of the people who all live in similar houses – big grand white suburban palaces – behind the sentry post that keeps the riff-raff out of the gated community.

They’re miserable. Their lives are atomised. They have swapped human warmth and idiosyncratic contact for weird passions and obsessions. Security guards on Segways patrol the streets but otherwise there’s barely a soul abroad, apart from people walking dogs, all of whom say the same thing to Zenia when he encouters them – “Don’t be scared, that’s just how he says hello”.

Szumowska’s last film (Englert was DP) was 2019’s The Other Lamb. Never Gonna Snow Again (Sniegu juz nigdy nie bedzie in the original Polish) continues its move away from a dramatic style of film-making into something more thoughtful.

There’s a touch of Robert Altman’s jigsaw style – the parts start to add up to something – and nods to the poetics of Tarkovsky, whose Stalker also featured an enigmatic incomer of guru-like aspect, a film both directors have name-checked in interviews.

Szumowska and Englert were born when Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain and are clearly uneasy about the trade-offs their fellow Poles have made with the vast increase in wealth, especially the ones who have retreated into privatised spaces. Uneasy but not scornful. This isn’t withering social satire in the way Lindsay Anderson once might have done it, it’s more gentle, like a massage, in fact, and at certain points in the film – the flat shooting style, the muted lighting, these featureless bland houses – an ASMR mood almost starts to take over.

This spaced-out lightheadedness makes it easier for the co-director/writers to fold reality into memory, myth, folk wisdom, urban legend and the supernatural.

We’re back with Zenia’s magical powers again, so barely hinted at that it’s easy to forget they were ever in the mix. But they are, and they give Szumowska and Englert a brilliant way of bringing to a conclusion a story which, without the supernatural element, feels like it just might have run on for ever.

© Steve Morrissey 2021