Out in the UK This Week
The Babadook (Icon, cert 15)
The Babadook is a horror story about a nervous lone mum with a hyperactive and emotionally fractious six/seven-year-old child who was born the day his father died… in the car which crashed rushing his labouring wife to the hospital. If that isn’t the backstory to something psychologically intense, then what is? The Babadook has a lot going for it – the sombre production design and the creepy drawings in the book about the ghoulish Babadook that the mother ill-advisedly reads to her child as a bedtime story are just for starters. But it succeeds mostly, like all the best horror films, because it taps into a deep basic fear. And it does so while pulling an elegant switcheroo, in terms of its horror focus. Which is why somewhere around halfway in you might be feeling, as I did, that you’d seen the likes of this before (creepy kids are horror staples, and this does seem to be inspired at some level by The Innocents). And then the Babadook, ie the true focus of the film, reveals itself. And oh yes I could see why this film comes so highly recommended. Terrifying.
Fury (Sony, cert 15)
Writer/director David Ayer’s film are often about male camaraderie in extremis – see Training Day and End of Watch. Fury continues the theme in a drama about a tank crew in the dog days of the Second World War just trying to hold it together until the fighting ends, though the last stragglings of fanatical Nazism are conspiring against them. What does and doesn’t happen in Fury isn’t as important as its relationships – Brad Pitt heads the cast as the battle hardened but essentially avuncular Wardaddy, leader of this tank crew, Logan Lerman is the rookie from whose point of view we are introduced to the guys, Shia LaBeouf is impressive as a dead-eyed grunt who’s seen too much, but by the time we get to Michael Peña, Ayer has kind of given up on defining characterisation. But then the dehumanising effect of war is at least part of what Fury is about – shots of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves, people’s heads in a combat zone popping open like water melons, basins of blood being chucked onto the soil in field hospitals. This faintly plotless film – they’re “heading for Berlin” – doesn’t give Ayer quite enough of a hook to hang his usual concerns on, and on two key occasions (one is the “taste of how things used to be” interlude halfway through, the second is the slightly inexplicable “death or glory” finish) Ayer goes into painting-by-numbers war-film mode. But the relationships are still fascinating, its doggedly unglamorous approach is refreshing and it’s learnt from Downfall the importance of sound design in a war film – when that ordnance starts coming in, you really feel it.
The Book of Life (Fox, cert U)
One of the best animations I’ve seen since Pixar stopped being good, The Book of Life is produced by Guillermo Del Toro and clearly carries his DNA. And it juggles pretty well a story that takes place on multiple levels – in the present where a museum guide is telling a rough and ready gang of urchins the story of Manolo and Joaquin, a pair of Mexican lads from back in the day who jockeyed for the favours of the beautiful Maria. And behind that another story of two ancient immortals, Xibalba and La Muerte, who take bets on which boy is going to win. So why is it so good? First, the animation, which isn’t technically too special, but really makes claims with its sheer artistry, beautiful spaghetti western colour palette, delight in rococo characterisation (especially older people, who are often a jumble of features, warts, potato noses and moustaches) and anarchic action – a touch Bugs Bunny, a fair bit of Ren and Stimpy. Then there’s the use of music, which mixes jaunty and enjoyable new compositions with well chosen existing tunes done mariachi style – from Radiohead’s Creep to Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, plus Bizet, Beethoven, Grieg and Mozart. But a lot of it is because it deals with death, through the prism of the stories surrounding Mexico’s Day of the Dead, in a way that manages to be positive without becoming too metaphysical or soppy. And the voice talent is pretty good too, particularly Ice Cube as the Candle Maker – the immortal who adjudicates between La Muerte (Kate Del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) when their bet runs a little awry. Highly recommended for any age group.
Love, Rosie (Lionsgate, cert 15)
An adaptation of one of Cecelia Ahern’s chick-lit novels, which usually feature lovely girls and unattainable males, Ahern’s light touch, wit and knack for everyday language separating hers out from innumerable romances which do just the same. Here Lily Collins is the girl, a bright, trembling and gorgeous thing not above having meaningless sex with a stranger, being a 21st century creature, while Sam Claflin, who’s obviously done the Hugh Grant rom-com course, dithers and stutters his way through the whole film as the boy who got away, but who remains very bestest friends with Rosie from the other side of the Atlantic. The trailer tells the whole story perfectly – they’re childhood friends who should become sweethearts but he goes off to America and instead of following him out there she gets accidentally pregnant and decides to keep the child and stay in the UK, while he goes through a succession of wildly attractive girlfriends and has a fabulous life out there as she bumps along the bottom over here and misses him like crazy. Deep breath. And if it’s just plot you’re after, the trailer is actually all you need to watch. Clearly a film of this sort is not aimed at a middle-aged saddo such as myself but I felt for the leads, could pick up on the warm glow that director Christian Ditter bathed everything in – did the middle-class British life ever look cosier? – and the will they/won’t they business is stretched repeatedly to breaking point but never quite snaps. As tremulous as a petal it may be, but that, surely, is the point.
The Way He Looks (Peccadillo, cert 12)
Meanwhile, romance of a different sort, and again tremulous, but for a different reason. Because this is a gay romance and seems determined not to scare the horses with actual, you know, doing it, and instead settles for moony longing – though I think there might have been a suggestion of a hand moving under a blanket at one point. Maybe. The story of a blind Brazilian kid Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) whose galpal Gia (Tess Amorim) really fancies him, though he doesn’t like her in that way, a feeling reinforced when new kid Gabriel (Fabio Audi) joins their class, so attractive he becomes the focus of all the girls’ lust. How Leo and Gabriel finally get together is what the film is about, fairly obviously, and it’s all done in such a straightforward way – like a daytime Australian soap – that its lack of guile is disarming. Add to that fresh performances and a roster of characters who are all, at all times, exactly what they appear to be – Leo’s overprotective parents, say – and you’ve a slight, unthreatening film delivered without any side whatsoever. But why is Leo blind, you might ask? It’s got to be a metaphor, surely – for not seeing what you truly are, perhaps – though even that is dealt with in such a matter-of-fact way that, you know, it might mean nothing at all.
Keeping Rosy (Metrodome, cert 15)
Keeping Rosy isn’t a story, it’s four different stories that by rights shouldn’t be together in one film. In the first one we meet Maxine Peake, a high flying executive too busy to have kids who is suddenly fired and goes home to find that her cleaner is smoking (and she’s been told about the smoking) and appears to have stolen a bottle of champagne from her employer’s fridge (which only contains champers and sushi – nice touch). After a quick altercation with the cleaner something awful and spoilerish happens and story two begins, with Peake now dealing with the consequences of what’s just gone down, quite literally. Within ten minutes story three has begun, and Peake and her Money London apartment are again its focus, and like story two it has no real thematic connection to the earlier stories. By story four, The Inbetweeners‘ Blake Harrison has turned up, playing an Iraq veteran who now knows what Peake has been involved in and wants quite a lot of money to keep his mouth shut. Things pick up here, partly because Harrison plays a blinder as the bad guy, partly because it looks for a minute as if all four plots are going to somehow cohere. They don’t. But there’s enjoyment to be had from the always great Peake, holding together what looks like a 1940s woman-in-peril melodrama that’s been subjected to some sort of postmodern messing about.
United We Fall (Metrodome, cert 15)
Casting about for another film to review this slightly thin week, I read a few critiques of United We Fall, which aims to do for superannuated Manchester United footballers what Spinal Tap did for old rockers – take the piss. Opinion seemed divided quite evenly into lovers and haters. I’m with the lovers. Not because all the jokes about a quintet of players reminiscing about the 2010 season work, but enough of them do. And its actors are really very good – James Rastall as the dumb one, Ryan Pope as the chippy northern one, Jonathan Broke as the erudite, intelligent and decent German goalie, Jack Donnelly as the cock-blocking Beckham type always out to extend his brand, and Matthew Avery as the wildly enthusiastic African one who learnt how to play football kicking a human head into a bucket. Director/writer Gary Sinyor has had a patchy track record since 1992’s Leon the Pig Farmer (it includes the 1999 Chris O’Donnell romcom The Bachelor so “patchy” is being kind) but he keeps things moving at a pace here, surely aware that the mock-doc is hardly conceptually novel, nor is pointing out that footballers are often self-serving, overpaid racist homophobes. But what can I say – I laughed, frequently.
United We Fall – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2015