Out in the UK This Week
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
Like a cornier Peter Greenaway, Wes Anderson gives us tableaux, picture-postcard symmetry, exquisite control of his mis-en-scène, in a black forest gateau of a movie, set in Europe between the wars, the last great age of decadence. Its revelation is that Ralph Fiennes can do funny, as the charming but crooked concierge with a finger in every pie (and most of his aged female guests) who is accused of murder when one of his ancient paramours is found dead. Whether he did it or not is immaterial. Anderson has, by the time we get to this point, pretty much abandoned storytelling in favour of whipped cream montages and caricature cameos, as if he were directing a musical from Hollywood’s golden era, minus the tunes. Anderson has a genius for storytelling (Bottle Rocket, Moonrise Kingdom) but either thinks he’s beyond all that now or is somehow re-inventing the whole notion of narrative – the tricksy story within a story within a story opening is just the first of many conceits. Stand back and marvel at the cast. Though as Anderson throws Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, F Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan and Léa Seydoux into the mix – there are many many more – the law of diminishing returns applies punishingly. First 25 minutes a feast of rococo madness, the following 75 grating arch posturing.
Miss Violence (Metrodome, cert 18, DVD)
I’ve heard Miss Violence described as being along the lines of Dogtooth. It’s Greek, that’s for certain. But whereas Dogtooth used a depiction of one weird family’s life to make a broader point about all child-rearing being essentially coercive, Miss Violence isn’t making any such grand points. Instead it’s the story of one family, seemingly normal, ruled over with a rod of iron by an outwardly amiable grandfather who knows how to work the authorities like a pump organ. Organ being the operative word in that sentence – I will say no more. It’s a grim trudge of a movie, brilliantly played, never less than totally gripping, and it even has a payoff that seems to suggest that its director, Alexandros Avranas, has a highly tuned though macabre sense of humour. Highly recommended.
Goal of the Dead (Metrodome, cert 18, DVD)
Nothing to do with George A Romero’s oeuvre, this is another proof that when the French do genre, they really go for it. It’s a zombie movie, of course, about a big Parisian football team visiting a lower league team’s ground, the birthplace of one of the big team’s players, Sam (Alban Lenoir). The locals, of course, now hate Sam for having abandoned them, and for having banged everything female on his way out. But one villager hates him even more, his old rival Jeannot (Sebastien Vandenberghe), a mountain of meat who has also, just before kick-off, become a zombie. That, essentially, is the first ten minutes of a film that’s got a lot of plot, but pays it out with an eye on Shaun of the Dead, and also is smart enough to make interesting points about modern footballers, modern football and modern identity – local, national, global, racial, religious, and whatever else there is. The gore is excellent too, particularly if, like me, you don’t think there’s nearly enough bilious vomit in zombie movies these days. A real game of two halves.
Man of Tai Chi (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
Keanu Reeves’s existence as anything at all in the movie world has always raised questions. Can he act? Is he dumb? No one asks these questions about Bruce Willis, and he made Hudson Hawk, for pity’s sake. Wandering back onto the point of the review, Keanu has gone and directed a film, casting in the lead Tiger Chen, the ball of cool martial arts fury who taught him to fight in The Matrix. Keanu himself turns up as a baddie organising lethal fight clubs, into which he wants to recruit the good-as-gold Chen. Which he does, while a tough-cookie female cop (Karen Mok) sniffs around trying to work out where the bad smell is coming from. There’s nothing specifically wrong with Man of Tai Chi, though Reeves doesn’t seem to have settled on a directorial style (John Woo, Jackie Chan, Clint Eastwood and Wong Kar Wei are all in there), and his characters are a touch under-developed. And great as the hugely impressive Chen is in the series of fights staged well by Reeves, bravura displays of charisma are not his thing. But, as a bonus, we do get to see the nearly 50-year-old Keanu showing us that the “I know kung fu” line from The Matrix still just about applies – he fights. In short, it’s all here, more or less, but it just needs the volume turning up a touch. Maybe next time.
The Sacrament (House, cert 15, DVD)
If you’ve seen The Innkeepers, or Ti West’s contributions to The ABCs of Death or V/H/S you’ll know that he’s a film-maker attuned to atmosphere and street-smart dialogue. Which makes this found-footage horror film based on the so-called Jonestown Massacre of 1978 – nearly 1,000 followers of a cult leader drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid – slightly mystifying. It’s, you know, OK, but nothing more, with West never quite managing to build the atmosphere he should. And that’s with old friend and actor/director Joe Swanberg on board as one of a trio of video journalists heading off to the lushly tropical compound where a cult religious group has claimed the sister of one of them as its own. She is played by Amy Seimetz, another of West’s clique, and she also does no wrong as the far-too-upbeat right-hand woman to the scary leader (a nicely folksy Gene Jones) of the community, known only as “father”. Was West bored? Lacking in inspiration? Possibly – the “scary Christian community with intimidating patriarch” idea is hardly exciting unexplored territory.
The Trials of Cate McCall (Solo, cert 15, digital)
Now that Kate Beckinsale’s ass-kicking days as a Lycan-slaying advert for rubberwear are behind her, she’s started moving into what her agent probably calls “serious acting”. Here’s a case in point: a potboiler about a lawyer (Beckinsale) on the case of a woman unjustly imprisoned for murder and her attempt to get the accused set free. Cate is an alcoholic, a bad mother and a lawyer with a history of putting the wrong person behind bars. A threefer of actingness, everybody. Depth. Joining Beckinsale to growl while she scowls winningly is Nick Nolte, as McCall’s gopher and Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. Yup, unlikely. The whole thing looks and feels like a pilot for a TV series that would be canned about four episodes in, with Beckinsale doing catalogue work in a variety of ever-so-casual loose-fitting garments, as if to say, “look, no rubber”. Flippancy aside, the too-easy-to-be-true case does indeed turn out to be something more interesting, and the plot makes a turn about halfway in that makes the whole thing just about worthwhile. Meanwhile, Beckinsale and Nolte have an easy chemistry that makes you wonder how the TV series would shape up. If it ever got to episode five.
The Book Thief (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
Anne Frank was the Jewish girl stuck in an attic in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, feverishly writing her diary and hoping that one day she’d grow up and fall in love with a boy. Or even just survive. But there’s not much cinematic mileage to be had from the story of someone stuck in one place the whole time and writing – too passive. Coming to the rescue is this adaptation of Marcus Zusak’s best-seller, starring Sophie Nélisse as Liesel, the young daughter of a Communist (not a Jew), learning to read (not writing a book) in the cellar (not the attic) of the kindly German couple who have taken her in after her mother’s arrest and, we assume, execution. The sense of compare and contrast is heightened when Liesel’s guardians also take in a handsome Jewish lad, and while he festers in hiding, Liesel is able to run about, go to school, cook up a semi-sweet romance with the blond German boy down the road, live a life in which locations and tracking shots and extensive set-dressing are not only necessary but obligatory. A German/US co-production in English that all too willingly sucks at the teat of history’s victors, The Book Thief is unwilling to credit its viewers with the knowledge that the Nazis were a bad thing. Another mysterious lapse is its decision to have everyone speaking in a Cherman Akzent – including the German actors who probably don’t normally do ziss. Stalwarts Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson make efforts to make the whole thing ring true. But they’re undercut by an unnecessary voiceover by the unimpeachable Roger Allam as Death (the book’s narrator, never properly integrated here), a mawkish score, sets that are just too clean and nice, chocolate-box cinematography and every bit of cinematic artificiality, contrivance and cliché that Downton Abbey director Brian Percival could find. In a phrase, this is inept and gruesomely twee.
The Book Thief – at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014