Out in the UK This Week
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
Films that frontload their action, especially films that are big-screen event movies as all the X-Men series are, often do so because, secretly, they know they’re small-screen channel-hoppers. So when the seventh X-Men movie in 14 years kicked off with a big action sequence, I started scribbling “lack of confidence” in my notes.
I was totally wrong. Director Bryan Singer might be lacking for friends in Hollywood right now – what with “twink party” allegations and all – but he’s absolutely on his game here. Maybe, in fact, he feels like he’s got something to prove. For starters, his decision to send Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine back to the 1970s is a masterstroke – no decade looks more alien and weird right now, with its waterbeds, chopper bikes and cigarette billboards that blow smoke rings. But what’s really impressive is how Singer weaves together the action 40 years back – with young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X (James McAvoy) effectively trying on their personas for size in a plot that involves an evil Peter Dinklage (excellently malevolent) trying to wipe mutants out – with action back in the present.
Some of the many, many characters do almost nothing – Ian McKellen simply stands around in a billowing cape, magnificently, while Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde just crouches with her hands on either side of Wolverine’s head for the entire movie (that’s the other Wolverine, the one who isn’t in the 70s) – but Singer doesn’t yield to the temptation to give all the characters something to do and something to say, the bane of many an X-Men movie.
Most of all there’s a complete understanding of what makes these comics so good in the first place – images going where words cannot – all woven together with a real eye for the power of intelligently used CG, plus well chosen and evocative music (particularly a brilliantly apposite use of Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle). Highly impressive, it’s probably the best X-Men to date.
X-Men: Days of Future Past – at Amazon
Finding Vivian Maier (Soda, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD, digital)
This documentary about a 1950s/60s nanny who, unbeknown to anybody, was one of America’s most formidable street photographers tells an intriguing story and functions as an elegy both for this mysterious woman and the era when the US was at its most alluring. John Maloof is the focus of much of the film, the guy who stumbled across some of Maier’s work at a house-clearance auction and bought it, because he was after “old photos” to illustrate a college thesis. Maloof barely understood what he had until he posted a few of Maier’s pictures online and they went viral.
Formally, Maier’s work is in the Diane Arbus/Lisette Model tradition, though Maloof (who also directs the documentary) steers away from any comparison, or suggestion that her work was derivative. And if there are two other criticisms to make about this fascinating film, the first is just that – a lack of critical distance on the part of the director (who just happens to own Maier’s photographs now and so stands to benefit from positive publicity), the second being that Maloof is more interested in the life (many “who knew?” former employers are interviewed) than the work. What an irony, considering how much of the work there is, and how closely Maier guarded her private life.
Finding Vivian Maier – at Amazon
Walesa: Man of Hope (Metrodome. cert 12, DVD)
From Poland’s grand old man of cinema, Andrzej Wajda, a great, old-school biopic about Lech Walesa that starts with a classic 1960s opening – an Italian journalist in the back of a taxi – then proceeds by “how we got here” flashbacks sparked by her interview with the leader of the Solidarity trade union when he was still a worker but already a world personality.
Wajda has made two previous Man of… films, 1977’s Man of Marble and 1981’s Man of Iron, both of which covered earlier events at the Gdansk shipyard where Walesa was employed, and which gave birth to Solidarity. Here, Wajda seems concerned to get events laid down in the right order and with the right emphasis, Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Poland being shown as a key moment, particularly his delivery of a prayer ending with the line “Let your Spirit descend and change the image of the land… this land”. But Wajda is strong on analysis too, making it clear that Walesa’s strength was to use the rhetoric of the Communist Party as a weapon in the fight for justice and freedom.
Here he’s really aided by Janusz Glowacki’s script, which isn’t just strong and even occasionally amusing, it takes pains to point out that Walesa was clearly a “cometh the hour, cometh the man” figure. Karl Marx would approve.
Walesa: Man of Hope – at Amazon
Grand Central (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD/digital)
Silkwood meets Room with a View – sort of – in a French drama about an itinerant worker (Tahar Rahim) who takes a job in a nuclear power station and falls for the girl (Léa Seydoux) of one of his colleagues. And since close co-operation in a nuclear plant is not only necessary, but vital, this is going to lead to all sorts of meltdowns, especially as attitudes in the plant are beyond macho.
Rahim reminds us of his likeable everyman presence, Seydoux that she’s a sultry sexbomb who somehow combines the cool of Deneuve with the heat of fissile material, and director Rebecca Zlotowski alternates clinical hi-tech interiors with pastoral interludes (this is the Room with a View stuff) out on the Cotes du Rhone. Ignore the damp squib ending – really? really? – and enjoy the ride.
The Golden Dream (Peccadillo, cert 12, DVD/digital)
A gaggle of Guatemalan kids head for the US border – object: illegal ingress – in this tough and unsentimental drama that touches the usual bases. It’s saved from cliche by its strong performances, particularly Karen Martinez as the budding girl who’s disguised as a boy (to prevent rape), and Brandon López as a scowling 14-year-old with the swagger of someone with sizeable cojones.
Do not expect uplift: this is a tale of woe punctuated by terror and repeated swindlings and populated by scar-faced men and sad-eyed women. But it has a documentary thoroughness and a delight in the telling tiny detail. And at least twice it will catch you off guard with a punch to the emotional solar plexus.
Begin Again (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know that this is about a down-on-his-luck music producer (Mark Ruffalo) who regains his love of the business after clapping eyes on a struggling singer-songwriter (Keira Knightley) in a boozy club.
There’s a Notting Hill ambience to this surprisingly sweet Judd Apatow production that doesn’t quite hit Richard Curtis heights, but it is better than the trailer is letting on. That’s mostly because of the performances – Keira sings and does it well and spits out the feisty-girl lines with conviction. Adam Levine (of Maroon 5) plausibly plays the scumbag popstar boyfriend who dumps Keira because he’s got hotter fish to fry now he’s hitting the bigtime. Cee Lo Green amusingly plays off his image as an entourage diva. Meanwhile Ruffalo decides to play the raddled has-been as Robert Downey Jr, all jangle and tic. There’s even James Corden, as Keira’s big British pal, adding a welcome enthusiasm, this being all about nice guys, and gals, finishing first.
Jersey Boys (Warner, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
Watching Jersey Boys, Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the Broadway show about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, I imagined Eastwood going out to see it on Broadway with his current escort, then going backstage afterwards to congratulate the cast. When asked if he liked it, Clint might have growled something about liking it so much that he’d decided to put it on screen, and that, no, he wouldn’t change a thing, and that all the stage cast must be in it.
And that more or less looks like what Clint has done. Because this is a bare-bones translation, which must have Clint’s legendarily productive mentor Don Siegel chuckling approvingly in his grave. Because it just damn well does the show right here, in front of the camera. Do you want to know the plot? Dodgy Jersey boy Tommy De Vito forms a band in the 1950s, which Valli joins once they discover his god-given falsetto voice, setting the stage for a power struggle that rolls down the years as their zippy close-harmony sound starts to shift units. Valli (John Lloyd Young) might be the name, but Vincent Piazza, as De Vito, is the focus of the story, because Valli is too strait-laced and honourable (or so the film insists) to be interesting.
So much for that. Is it any good? It’s fine, it’s good, it’s OK. Personally, I’d have preferred it if the boys weren’t ten years too old (Young being a carryover from the stage production, on account of his voice, and setting the age benchmark). The Four Seasons are meant to be One Direction-young, after all. And I’d have preferred it if they’d used the original recordings of Big Boys Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man etc, which just have that extra Valli zing. And I’d have preferred it if Clint had been sterner about the back-of-the-room performances, another carryover.
Jersey Boys – at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014