23 February 2015-02-23

Out in the UK This Week

Serena (StudioCanal, cert 15)

After Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper clearly have decided they can do no wrong, and so overreach themselves with a Depression-era Gone with the Wind-level epic about a wilful woman and a powerful man thrust together against a backdrop of urgent social blah.

Susanne Bier directs, and it’s clear that the further this highly talented Dane gets away from the boilerhouse domestic dramas she’s so good at (Brothers and After the Wedding), the bigger her films, the less powerful they become.

There is a lot to like here – the mist rolling over the Smoky Mountains locations where the story plays out of the mad and ultimately dangerous passion between logging mogul Cooper and flinty feisty Lawrence (in the title role), the beautiful panoramic lensing by Morten Søborg, a great cast including an overacting Robert Newton-esque Rhys Ifans as the local man of the mountains who becomes Serena’s lapdog killer, Toby Jones as the proto-ecologist sheriff, and so on.

But look again at the story, where so many plotlines are started but never go anywhere (all the talk about Brazil, for example), characters (Ifans, Jones and Ana Ularu as the girl Cooper fathers a natural child with) who are picked up and dropped as and when.

And it’s not just Ifans who’s overdoing it – Lawrence has taken the bait and gone for a full-blown mad woman role, munching scenery in finest Barbara Stanwyck style, while Cooper is trying, I suspect, though failing, to be Clark Gable.

Hey ho, Cooper and Lawrence have another film in the works, Joy, with David O Russell (director of American Hustle and Silver Linings) so let’s see how that goes.

Serena – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Jack Strong (Metrodome, cert 15)

Jack Strong is unusual because it tells a classic Cold War spy story in classic Cold War style. No Bourne handheld here, or rhythmic speech to match the rhythms of the soundtrack music. This is old-school dolly shots and key grip movie-making.

And very good it is too, as the story of Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, Poland’s most famous spy, is told against a backdrop of the decades when the Solidarity trade union started exposing a weakness in the socialism of the Eastern Bloc. That weakness being nationalism. Because Kuklinski’s story – the decent guy/family man/hardworking army colonel – is presented as one about a patriot who realises that the fortunes of his country and those of the Soviet Union are not necessarily aligned. And so, guilty at his role in the suppression of the Prague Spring and increasingly nervous about the nuclear build-up between West and East, Kuklinski starts to work for the Americans.

Though Patrick Wilson turns up as Kuklinski’s CIA control, this is a Polish film largely for Polish people – its portrayal of national leader General Jaruzelski as a more sympathetic character than is usual (his dark glasses always gave him a Strangelove aspect) surprised me. And I found this political aspect of the film – whether it is revisionist or just honest I really wouldn’t know – every bit as fascinating as the old cat and mouse/dead letter drops stuff that is the meat and drink of the old school spy thriller.

Well worth a couple of hours of your time, I’d say.

Jack Strong – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Life Itself (Dogwoof, cert 15)

With movie theatres teetering on the edge of oblivion – finally smudging the distinction between cinema and home entertainment/TV irrevocably – it looks like Roger Ebert might go down in history not just as the most famous film critic in the world to date, but ever.

Ebert was an enthusiast, a champion, and among the many little joys of Steve James’s film is meeting some of the film-makers (Martin Scorsese among them) who owe Ebert their careers (as did James – his remarkable documentary Hoop Dreams was taken up by Ebert, who blew at the ember until it glowed).

It is in most other ways a standard doc – archive footage, a chronological timeline of Ebert’s progress from bumptious college newshound to accidental film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, his Pulitzer, his TV shows with Jean Siskel, with whom he had an initially fraught relationship (hilarious outtakes of them winding each other up) and his ascent to the position as “the definitive mainstream critic in American letters,” as the New York Times‘s AO Scott describes him.

Along the way there’s the stories of the drinking and the girls, the late blooming love with his wife, Chaz, and the cancer that first took his jaw and later his life. If you were reading Ebert’s reviews up to the point where he suddenly, seemingly, just ceased, the sight of him hooked up to tubes, the remains of his jaw just flapping in the breeze, his voice a Hawking croak, will make you marvel again at the supreme facility of a man who could still turn out such beautifully polished work with one and a half feet in the grave.

Life Itself, the clue is in the title, isn’t just a documentary about the life of a critic, it’s a film about dying, but going down elegantly, with all cannons still firing.

Life Itself – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

Nightcrawler (E One, cert 15)

Jake Gyllenhaal takes on another thin-lipped whackjob role, donning eyeliner and looking gaunt as Louis Bloom, the sociopath who discovers that he’s good for pretty much nothing in this world except… getting ambulance-chasing TV coverage. Having no real interest in people gives Bloom a real edge. Trampling over victims’ dignity and personal grief, playing hardball with other, rival LA cameramen as he shoots “if it bleeds, it leads” nighttime footage for whichever TV station is prepared to pay for it. Though, for the sake of dramatic economy that tends to be Rene Russo, a TV producer whose bad ratings make her a willing recipient of ghoulish footage from “the Nightcrawler”.

As the title suggests, in style this is a 1950s “ripped from the headlines” crime drama, and somewhere in the mix the great news photographer Weegee must be an inspiration. Robert Elswit keeps the cinematography stygian, handy for Russo who must be decades older than any actual dewy-skinned 21st-century TV producer.

However, it’s Elswit who mostly delivers the class, in a drama which fancies itself as profound and revelatory – hold the front page: news organisations can be a little flaky. Or is it a study of a twisted moral midget?

Gyllenhaal’s good, and god how he works the hyperactive tic shtick, but he’s dramatically negated by writer/director Dan Gilroy’s decision to shoot this all in Hollywood Valiant mode – lens choices, edits, focus and blocking are pointing towards this man being a hero. Or is that irony and I need a 101 on satire?

Nightcrawler – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Pictures of the Old World (Second Run, cert E)

It’s since been voted “the best Slovak film of all time”, but when this remarkable 1972 documentary was made it was shot in the country then known as Czechoslovakia and the life it showed didn’t please the Communist authorities, fervent in their denial of there being any poverty at all in the people’s republic. It’s one of the simplest films in construction, being a series of interviews with old people, intercut with vox pops about the most important things in life (health, as if you didn’t know).

To be old in 1972 meant you’d been born in the 19th century and lived through two world wars, massive social change and technological revolution. And here they are, these old peasants in the Tatra mountains, still smashing the ice on a trough of water to have a morning wash. Hard work. There’s the guys who crawls everywhere since a farm wagon fell on his legs 25 years before – “No man ever touched the ground so much,” he says with resignation. Or the shepherd milking ewes by hand. “I can barely walk now,” says another old-timer, clutching his cat grimly for companionship. “I’m going to die this year. I can feel it. I was a strong guy. But now I’m done for.”

What faces they have, what lives they lead. And yet, in a small tender scene in which old guys in a shack drink local distilled spirit and talk about the loves of their youth, it’s immensely touching too. Full of pity, a lovely film.

Pictures of the Old World – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Tommy (Arrow, cert 15)

What a strikingly beautiful woman Moa Gammel is. Here the blonde Swedish actress plays a gangster’s moll back in town, a stark contrast as she bustles about in a world of middle-aged and often ethnic men, gangsters at one level or another, and tries to sort out some unfinished heist-related business on behalf of her husband, Tommy, mere mention of whose name makes the toughest nut blench.

Tommy is, we suspect from the start – something in Gammel’s nervousness – dead, and the delight in this bit of Nordic noir is waiting for the brutes to find out, and for the protective aura of Tommy’s malice to suddenly pffft.

This is an immensely sleek and cool thriller. So cool, in fact that it often forgets that it’s meant to be a thriller at all. But it’s intriguing to see a man’s world from this woman’s point of view, where only her marital status and her sheer damn sexiness are keeping her alive. Medieval, almost.

Tommy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Effie Gray (Metrodome, cert 12)

Effie Gray tells the story of Euphemia Gray, the middle class Victorian girl who married the art critic John Ruskin but later got involved in a scandalous affair with John Everett Millais, one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters championed by Ruskin.

As the film relates, the marriage to Ruskin was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation, and the apocryphal story goes that when Ruskin saw his wife’s pubic hair on their honeymoon night, he was so disgusted that he could never go near her again – the statues of antiquity came with no such undergrowth. However, Emma Thompson’s script shies away from such lurid tittle-tattle, preferring instead to cast Ruskin as a super-aesthete and/or possible closeted homosexual.

Poor Greg Wise (Thompson’s real-life partner) should get some reward as the prissy Ruskin, so meanly drawn, so waspishly played that sympathy is entirely with Gray, as surely is the purpose of a film that bears her name.

Dakota Fanning, as the redoubtable Gray, again (as in Now Is Good) puts so much mental energy into getting her English accent right that there’s nothing left for actual acting, again leaving a bit of a hole at the centre of the film.

It’s interesting that the film is concerned, at least tangentially, with the Pre-Raphaelites, since British period movies so often share the Pre-Raphaelites’ concerns and methods – Effie Gray is well lit; its subject matter is high tone; it’s full of well boned women of elevated social class; and it’s edifying, tasteful and liberal in the noblesse oblige sense. As is too often the case, in other words, it’s hack work masquerading as art, and a dull old slog.

Effie Gray – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2015

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