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



29 August 2016-08-29

Zac Efron and Seth Rogen

 

Out This Week

 

 

 

Bad Neighbours 2 (Universal, cert 15)

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Warning: there are references to “the other”.

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

The Pearl Button – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Against all expectation, not bad at all.

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleycats – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

22 August 2016-08-22

Man-cub Mowgli and Baloo

 

Out This Week

 

The Jungle Book (Disney, cert PG)

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

The Jungle Book – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Jane Got a Gun (Lionsgate, cert 15)

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

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

 

 

 

Tank 432 (Kaleidoscope, cert 15)

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

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

 

 

 

The Colony (Signature, cert 15)

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Touched with Fire (Metrodome, cert 15)

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

Touched with Fire – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Arabian Nights Part 1 (New Wave, cert 15)

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Demolition (Fox, cert 15)

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

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

Demolition – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

15 August 2016-08-15

Hirota and Taeko realise they're in love

 

Out This Week

 

Only Yesterday (StudioCanal, cert 15)

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

Only Yesterday – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Eye in the Sky (E One, cert 15)

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

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

 

 

 

Miles Ahead (Icon, cert 15)

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

Miles Ahead – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Knight of Cups (StudioCanal, cert 15)

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

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

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

Knight of Cups – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Criminal (Lionsgate, cert 15)

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

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

Criminal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Identicals (Arrow, cert 15)

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

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

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

 

 

 

Men & Chicken (Arrow, cert 15)

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

Men & Chicken – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

 

8 August 2016-08-08

James and Zoe share a tender moment in These Final Hours

 

Out This Week

 

 

These Final Hours (The Works, cert 18)

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

These Final Hours – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Eddie the Eagle (Lionsgate, cert PG)

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

Eddie the Eagle – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Tale of Tales (Curzon, cert 15)

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

Tale of Tales – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Holding the Man (Peccadillo, cert 15)

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

Holding the Man – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

The Brand New Testament (Metrodome, cert 15)

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

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

 

 

 

The Hard Stop (Metrodome, cert 18)

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

The Hard Stop – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Southbound (StudioCanal, cert 18)

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

Southbound – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2016 Steve Morrissey

 

 

 

 

1 August 2016-08-01

Jaeden Lieberher in Midnight Special

 

Out This Week

 

Midnight Special (E One, cert 12)

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

Midnight Special – Watch It/Buy It at Amazon

 

 

 

Where to Invade Next (Dogwoof, cert 15)

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

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

 

 

 

Sing Street (Lionsgate, cert 12)

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

Sing Street – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Dheepan (StudioCanal, cert 15)

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

Dheepan – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

Hardcore Henry (EV, cert 18)

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

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

Hardcore Henry – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016