Out in the UK This Week
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Lionsgate, cert 12)
Jennifer Lawrence works the adenoids in the third dump of Hunger Games literalism, in a series that has consistently mistaken event for drama. Being the first of two parts, Mockingjay was never even aiming to line up all its battalions, send them into battle and bring them safely home again. But even so, this is a very thin outing for Katniss and co – now she is being groomed as the mascot of the rebels and as such is off out with a camera team making propaganda TV infomercials. How very quaint – TV, camera crews, a world where there is still broadcast television at all. In an attempt to find something good to say about this film, this entire series, I point you at the high concept – it’s the latest in a long run of recent films that see young people in an Ayn Rand universe (it’s the government that’s the bad guy in a world strangely devoid of corporations) attempting to start a revolution (Divergent, The Maze, The Giver). But mostly I point you at the cast, which must rate as the very finest assemblage of talent ever to be so poorly used – Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks. And thank god for Banks, as the dizzy stylist Effie Trinket, a little jewel of humour and fun in an otherwise dour trudge through Dystopia 101. Josh Hutcherson continues to be representative of everything that’s wrong – his character is underwritten, there is no chemistry between his Peter and Katniss, he’s a humourless black hole of wit. For fans only.
Amour Fou (Arrow, cert 12)
There’s a hint of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey about Jessica Hausner’s biopic about Heinrich Von Kleist, the German romantic poet who committed suicide in 1811 and persuaded a pretty young woman who take a bullet with him. In other words Hausner twits the man, portrayed as the aesthete poet par excellence, and whose pronouncements on the baseness of the world are not laughed out of the house every time he makes them because all of Germany is in the grip of this new philosophy privileging feeling over reason. “French” is how these ideas are described throughout, Hausner never stooping to overtly portraying the 19th century through 21st-century eyes. Instead she nudges us – Kleist himself (Christian Friedel), a small, whey-faced mournful man with a “slap me” demeanour; his love poetry, a list of lousy synonyms; and his ludicrous attempt to talk a woman he’s just met at a dinner party to form a suicide pact with him. Around this there are quack therapists advocating blood-letting as therapy; constant discussion among the aristocracy of the new notion of taxing those at the top; and the fact that a servant, tall and dressed in red so you can’t miss her, is constantly working while these rich layabouts sit about and gripe. It all adds up to a bone dry satire, beautifully observed, impeccably decorated (but were those flat-matt painted surfaces really always so pristine?) and candle-lit, and played so exquisitely that we actually sympathise with these people, even as we smile at their oafishness. And while Hausner’s intention is to deracinate a philosophical movement the better to examine it, there’s a lovely coda at the end, where she appears to acknowledge that she is being a touch facetious. It’s just a song sung by a young woman, a heavingly romantic one. But it’s a thing of real beauty and after it Hausner cuts straight to black as if to say, “Romanticism produced beauty too – so sue me”.
The Internet’s Own Boy (Spectrum, cert 12)
A documentary telling the story of Aaron Swartz, the American child prodigy who was on a computer at two years old, was helping draft the RSS protocol at 13, co-drafted the Creative Commons protocols at 15, got involved with the launch of Reddit and was dead aged 26, having hanged himself while awaiting trial for hacktivism. His hacking of the JSTOR database was his downfall, after he was arrested by the FBI for illegally downloading academic journals which Swartz believed shouldn’t charge for access at all, since much of the work contained in them had been funded by taxation, charities or volunteer organisations. Swartz saw it as the “wealth of human knowledge” being locked away. And put like this, it’s a hard argument to refute. However, I would have liked someone to have a try. This very US style of documentary – openly partisan – runs into trouble when there is a strong counter-argument (copyright theft, intellectual property and so on) that’s not being made, and eventually the silence starts to roar. That said, this is a fascinating story about a fascinating individual – Tim Berners Lee wrote him a poem, for god’s sake. And in the archive footage of Swartz appearing on TV to explain his actions and reasoning, we see a guy who wasn’t just incredibly gifted but also very switched on to modern media practices. He’d have happily defended his position, I suspect. And would probably have come out on top.
My Old Lady (Curzon, cert 12)
The ageing demographic of western countries is manifesting itself cinematically in two different genres – one is the “geri-actioner”, in which Liam Neeson or other guys run around on stiff knees. The other is this sort of thing, a Best Exotic Marigold comedy that’s gentle to the point of limpness. Maggie Smith plays the “old lady” living in a Paris apartment which broke American Kevin Kline has inherited from his dead dad and which, he thinks, he can now sell for a packet. Not so fast. Smith, under a “viager” arrangement with Kline’s dad, has the place for life. And so they square off, the old dear and the younger (Kline is 67 though playing 57) man, with the grand dame’s daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas) thrown in to add a plot wrinkle and a grey-pubed focus for Kline. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? It’s not all that bad, director Israel Horovitz managing to open out his own play into something almost cinematic – Paris lovely, the apartment charming and so on. What he also brings from the theatre is one of the grand clunking analogues – the old dear, it turns out, isn’t just squatting in Kline’s apartment, she has some claim to part of his history too. This is there to bolster claims to seriousness, but it brings with it entire scenes where one character simply sits there and tells another character something – the theatre does love its speechifying. Things start to drag. However, you don’t employ Oscar winners for nothing and Smith heaps on the charm while Kline does a lot of emphatic physical work (ie clowning).
Starry Eyes (Metrodome, cert 18)
How do Hollywood actresses get gigs? They give producers and casting directors blow jobs, don’t they? This we all know. And Starry Eyes takes it as a starting point for a satire on Hollywood that would be dull and obvious if it hadn’t decided to go all in. Alex Essoe plays the young beauty whose life among a similar group of struggling, bitching, fornicating stars-in-waiting is beginning to get as unbearable as her McJob at a place called Taters – Hooters without the class. Then she’s called in for an audition on a film called The Silver Scream, is propositioned by the old goat of a producer, and co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer get busy referencing 1980s horror (with the odd nod to Rosemary’s Baby). They even go so far as to use a synth soundtrack in the John Carpenter style (and how right Carpenter was about the synth’s suitability for horror – simple, direct and uncanny). Things get bloody, they get intense, there is screaming, there is murder, there is even the pulling out of fingernails and other delights I won’t ruin by disclosing. It all gets very gothic and quite funny – Hollywood producers may be mercenaries but devil-worshipping cock-sucking zombies? In its stylistic borrowings think of it as a popcorn version of the pastiche-as-arthouse The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. Does that help? Oh well.
The Remaining (Sony, cert 15)
The Remaining is produced by Affirm, the division of Sony dedicated to producing films for evangelical Christians. So any theological debating points thrown up by it are probably best taken up with Affirm/Sony, rather than Christianity or God. Because it’s a film about the End of Times, and what happens after the trumpets have sounded and the Rapture has happened and all the righteous have been taken up into heaven. What happens to “the remaining”, you see. Alexa Vega gets star billing and while she’s actually upright she plays a bride whose wedding day it is, the most important day of her life just happening to coincide with a trumpet blast which immediately causes all the churchgoing folk to drop dead, kaboom. Decent, non-churchgoing folk are left behind. Meanwhile, outside, buildings start falling down and wingéd semi-visible creatures start picking off the survivors. Way to go, God of Love. Soon, Vega’s character has sustained an injury and so spends the rest of the film on a gurney out of the action. So, two days work for Vega, Affirm get a star on the billing (if you can remember Spy Kids… her), everyone’s happy. This is a well made, well acted film with a couple of good shocks. But by far the most fun is to be had watching the producers shoehorning in the Christian element and tying themselves in knots doing so. My favourite was the bit where the Pastor (John Pyper-Ferguson, giving it the full Russell Crowe) mocks Tommy (Johnny Pacar), one of the people we’re rooting for even if God isn’t, for suggesting that this apocalypse could be an alien invasion. Is what the pastor is suggesting any less fanciful?
Sweet Smell of Success (Arrow, cert PG)
A 1957 film about the gossip industry hung off the character of Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), the bottom-feeding “cookie full of arsenic” agent bringing titbits to the big noise of the day, newspaper columnist JJ Hunsecker. Hunsecker is supposedly based on Walter Winchell, doyen of the form from the early 1930s to late 1950s, and the script is co-written by Ernest Lehman, who had been a Sidney Falco for Winchell. Burt Lancaster plays this big wheel with too much affection for his sister as a sociopath closeted queen. And it’s a good act, but Curtis is better, throwing himself entirely into the role of the amoral louse in an attempt to escape beauty casting. It didn’t work because the film was a flop, and so Curtis went back to playing clean-limbed leads in roles he was too old for. Director Alexander Mackendrick brings the shooting economy he learnt at the Ealing Studios to this late-era film noir with pristine monochrome looks courtesy of DP James Wong Howe, and a mean streets jazz-flavoured score by Elmer Bernstein and Chico Hamilton. Like a Marx brothers film, Sweet Smell of Success gives too much time to a side-issue love story between Hunsecker’s 19-year-old sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and jazz guitarist Steve (Marty Milner) who don’t do much more than simper and glower. The film no longer works as a searing exposé – how could it? – nor really as a drama about possible sexual deviancy. But as a snapshot of a period it’s a triumph, the decision to shoot out on the night-time streets and in the clubs and bars entirely vindicated by the end product. That’s been cleaned up and rescanned at 4K from the original negative (black and white being much more stable than colour) and though I wondered about the gamma values – were the whites just a touch dark? – this could be in keeping with the film’s murky themes.
Sweet Smell of Success – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2015