Out in the UK This Week
The Past (Artificial Eye, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)
After Fireworks Wednesday and A Separation, something more muted from Asghar Farhadi, a drama set in France rather than Iran as the previous two were, about Marie (Bérénice Bejo) a beautiful but flighty woman finally giving the kiss-off to ex-husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) while lining up a new man, Samir (Tahar Rahim, the lead in A Prophet). It sounds like a soap and it’s undeniable that Farhadi’s genius knack for naturalism seems to have slightly abandoned him this time. What makes The Past still unmissable is the devious plotting – the ex seems like such a nice guy, the new man like a bit of a brute, and he’s got a comatose wife to factor into the equation, and the reason why she’s comatose in the first place… ay ay ay. Farhadi is also doing something really unusual with the form. Dramas are all, pretty much always, about what happens next, the forward movement. The Past is about being stuck, held by the past, held by our commitments and feelings. In a world where we are consistently being told that living in the moment is the most important thing there is, Farhadi’s film quietly, powerfully disagrees.
Lone Survivor (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
A two hour war film set in Afghanistan with a one-hour central sequence that functions like a film within a film. That’s the bit where Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch are attacked by the Taliban and their bodies are subjected to disintegrating attack by sustained bullet onslaught. It’s an astonishing sequence, long, brutal, bloody and ugly, with few words spoken apart from “ow, fuck” as another bullet hits meat and bone. Director Peter Berg wants to show us something else as well: how situations like these turn even highly trained men desperate, disoriented, panicky. He entirely succeeds. So sit out the standard war-movie introduction to the guys, all the usual big-bollocked swaggerers, and also indulge the last half hour set in an Afghan village, which is there because the story is a true one, though it doesn’t help the film very much. Tobias Schliessler’s cinematography is bright and clear and gorgeous, and he and Berg even give us the odd “Malick moment”, backlit grasses glowing in the sun against which the bloodshed looks even more gruesome.
Out of the Furnace (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
The visual equivalent of one of those Bruce Springsteen blue-collar laments, Out of the Furnace is chocker with acting talent and was clearly intended for great things. However, it didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. It is, once it’s declared itself, a revenge thriller with an almost insane amount of set-up. This would be unbearable if the set-up wasn’t handled so well, at a steady pace it refuses to be deviated from. Plot: Christian Bale is the solid working guy trying to keep fiery dim brother Casey Affleck out of trouble. But Affleck is in bigger trouble than he knows because his bare-knuckle fights for much-needed cash are about to take him into the orbit of Woody Harrelson – a very very dark Harrelson at that. The acting is of a piece with the rhythm and looks of the film: steady, sure, just a tiny bit heightened, with Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard all easily as good as the leads. But it’s Harrelson who steals the film as a thug with extreme animal cunning in this mesmerising 1970s-flavoured drama of extreme Americana that sets out to simmer rather than cook.
Vanishing Waves (Autonomy, cert 18, DVD/digital)
Also known as Aurora, this Tarkovsky-flavoured Lithuanian sci-fi drama asks big questions about memory and identity – see Solaris for more on that. It gets its hooks in early, in a portentous opening sequence in which a black screen is displayed as scientists in voiceover discuss the dangers of messing about in the neural networks of the brain. Which is exactly where guinea-pig Lukas (Marius Jampolskis) journeys, once he’s strapped on an electrode-covered skullcap and lowered himself into a float tank, Altered States style. What he finds inside his own head is a woman (Jurga Jataite), a gorgeous one he is soon doing all sorts of pleasurable things with. The film, meanwhile, is taking us on a journey to the overwrought end of sci-fi, wrapped in a fatalistic love story with extra helpings of doom. They get a bit slow here and there, these neural meetings between him and her, but back in the lab the pace is quicker, actions have real consequences and there’s even a bit of enjoyment to be had from the actors talking English, which some of them appear to reading phonetically. It’s an unusual film, worth watching at the very least for its occasional moments of sheer visual virtuosity – wait for the remarkable, visionary “running” sequence towards the end of the film. Tarkovsky would probably approve.
Cuban Fury (StudioCanal, cert 15, digital)
So here’s Nick Frost, usually Simon Pegg’s sidekick (Pegg does put in a tiny cameo) breaking out on his own, playing a fat loser who is shaken out of his torpor by the arrival of an attractive woman (Rashida Jones) at work. Outgunned at every level by the office lothario (Chris O’Dowd, funny) he reaches back into his traumatic past for the tools to woo her, having discovered she attends salsa classes. He, you see, was a junior dance champ who bottled it in the … enough plot already. All you need to know is that this very familiar looking story isn’t bending itself into weird shapes trying to hide the fact. But it has no real heart, uses clever camerawork to hide Frost’s lack of expert dance skills, leaves four key characters (including Rashida Jones, most unforgivably) as sketchy presences and is badly paced too. If it makes it to the finish line with at least one thumb up, then that’s because of Nick Frost’s sheer blokey likeability.
Robocop (StudioCanal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
José Padilha made Elite Squad, a film about a no-shit police force in Rio De Janeiro kicking the favelas into shape. So he looks like the man to direct this remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic about a police force composed of stern hi-tech robots. It’s an origins story, with Joel Kinnaman (of the Swedish thriller Easy Money – worth hunting out) as the cop who becomes a hybrid robot after an explosion separates most of his body from his upper torso. This stuff, the nuts and bolts of putting together a cyborg, with Gary Oldman as the decent scientist in charge and Michael Keaton as his money-grabbing boss, this is all highly satisfying. Less convincing is the relationship between RoboCop and his wife, Abbie Cornish again playing the wilting female, something she’s not very good at. Even less satisfying is the film’s refusal to take on board the fact that, in the 27 years since Verhoeven’s film, the surveillance society has arrived so any satire about all-seeing law enforcement needs to acknowledge that fact. And even more distressing is Padilha’s command of the action sequence – really poor. And this from the guy who did it so well in Elite Squad. Still, it looks nice, all shiny and futuristic. But otherwise, sadly, it’s RocoCrap.
Last Vegas (Universal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)
So someone goes into a Hollywood pitch meeting and said “Let’s send Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman to Las Vegas for a geriatric Hangover kind of comedy”. The chestnut-coloured heads hear the four big names and someone asked the question “What happens when they get there?” The reply is something like, “Oh, you know, stuff.” Last Vegas isn’t terrible terrible – the actors are a guarantee of that. But its jokes are weak (old guys need to pee, they don’t know who 50 Cent is) and it has no real plot, no throughline, unless you count a contrived romance involving Mary Steenburgen (who has rendered herself unrecognisable with cosmetic surgery). This throws all the onus on the cast, and to their credit they glow like incandescent lightbulbs about to burn out. Verdict: Hollywood tries to make a film about being old, and can’t.
© Steve Morrissey 2014