Out This Week
Appropriate Behaviour (Peccadillo, cert 15)
The New York Neurotics Club – founder member Woody Allen, recent arrivals Lena Dunham (Girls) and Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) – gets a new member in the shape of Desiree Akhavan, who gives us a smart, self-deprecating comedy about a slightly deadbeat woman struggling in a mumblecore world where everyone else seems to be doing OK. Playing, in Larry David style, a version of herself, Akhavan is Shirin, the bisexual daughter of immigrant parents who can’t or won’t come out to mum and dad, and whose private life is a shambolic mess like the rest of her life. The meat of the film is a chronologically messed-with analysis of Shirin’s relationship with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), which goes from sweet and hot to cold and contemptuous as we watch. From Maxine’s point of view, anyway. Shirin remains puppy-dog needy throughout, her bisexuality making her just twice as desperate. Akhavan’s writing is seriously good – there’s an edge-of-seat quality to every scene as we are teased with one wrestle for power after another, though how rarely anyone acknowledges that that’s what they’re doing. And the acting is seriously good too. Appropriate Behaviour swings constantly between exuberance and embarrassment, building to a brilliant portrait of life in your 20s – how great it is and how bloody awful too.
It Follows (Icon, cert 15)
Rather than following, the huge reputation of this film preceded it, to the point where I was quite surprised by what I saw when I put it on. I knew it was a horror film about some sort of thing that followed a person, in slow zombie style, but I’d expected just that – a zombie film, with running and screaming and what have you (the trailer stoked this delusion). Instead I got a much moodier film than expected – mining a 70s/80s vibe, with a John Carpenter meets Wendy Carlos synthy soundtrack (courtesy of Disasterpeace) and the deep pastels of Mike Gioulakis’s cinematography making much of the cosiness of the American suburb where it’s set, and the young woman involved (Maika Monroe, touchingly vulnerable). The plot – thing follows person – “it’s slow but it’s not dumb”, as one victim says, until that person can pass the thing on to another person by sleeping with them. A straightforward metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases, then. So straightforward in fact that it’s barely metaphorical at all. The power of the entire film comes from this directness – of plot, and theme. And mood – director David Robert Mitchell matching his film’s pace to that of the stumbling creature who might shift shape but is always a touch under-dressed, in underwear or nightwear, which has the effect of keeping us straining, in scene after scene, for the first glimpse of the thing as it comes from out of the distance through the crowds, long grass, car park, cinema rows, wherever. Nice subjective camera too, all those moody dollies and pans.
Jupiter Ascending (Warner, cert 12)
I’m just recovering from the madwoman’s breakfast that was Cloud Atlas and here’s the Wachowskis again, with another “more is more” offering. The plot is a loose rerun of The Matrix – but this time Mila Kunis is the nobody who doesn’t realise she’s a somebody, an immigrant Russian cleaner who turns out to be the princess of some planet far far away. Yes, the Wachowskis have also got Star Wars in their sights too – you can’t fault them for ambition. Channing Tatum takes the Carrie-Anne Moss role, as the guide to the new world who falls for his charge (of course he does – you don’t cast Tatum and not throw in a romantic subplot). Whereas Eddie Redmayne goes Hugo Weaving, the baddie who likes to roll the words around his mouth rather than just spit them out. The same applies to the whole film, which is astonishing to look at, but rolls everything around a bit before trying to build it into a towering pile of froth, every surface embellished, every corner decorated. If there’s a crocodile, then it has to be a talking crocodile, and a talking crocodile with wings. I didn’t mention that Tatum flies about on gravity boots, or that he is a cross between a man and a wolf and has pointy ears. For what reason? Who knows? It’s highly enjoyable, until it collapses from a case of over-compressed storyline-itis, though its insistence on its own importance would have got it in the end anyway. Really, and this is something a lot of film makers are getting wrong right now, it should be a TV series.
Force Majeure (Artificial Eye, cert 15)
Force Majeure has a setup so powerful that, in a sense, the film never really recovers from it. It’s no spoiler – the trailer does it, and the film gets its big idea out into the open within scant minutes of the opening credits anyway – to tell you straight up that it’s about a nice holidaying Swedish family who, as they have lunch in a mountain restaurant one day, are suddenly threatened by what looks like an approaching avalanche. The wife makes a mad lunge for the kids. But the dad grabs his iPhone and runs away. The “avalanche” over – they got only the preceding fog of snow – dad returns, the family continues with its lunch. Except mum is now not speaking to dad, and won’t even look him in the eye. He’s continuing as if nothing has happened. She is appalled and is questioning everything she thought she knew about this man – his suitability as a husband, as a father, the very nature of maleness – while he pulls variations on the “What? What?” response. There are other side characters introduced to get this discussion more fully into the open – a cusping middle-aged woman holidaying on her own and indulging in the sort of sex tourism you associate with men, a 40something friend of the husband and his new, younger version of the woman he left – but they feel like nothing more than writerly devices. But at its core are these two people and their big argument – why can’t a man be more like a man, to paraphrase Professor Higgins – and it’s a vibrant, interesting one couched in such a way that you’re never sure whether the film is a conservative re-affirmation of maleness, or an ironic comment on the same. Or you could just watch it for the Let the Right One In-style cool interiors and blasts of mountain snow.
Chappie (Sony, cert 15)
Neill Blomkamp was hailed as a fresh new voice in genre cinema when he arrived with District 9, which recast the alien invasion movie as a parable for apartheid in South Africa. Hollywood sucked him up, he gave them Elysium, in which his vision of a futureworld divided into the haves and have nots was eventually swamped by 1980s action-movie noise. Chappie is both the much vaunted “return to form” and “return to his roots”, another go round the block with the dystopian sci-fi movie, but this time back in South Africa, and with a budget he’d have killed for when making District 9. Anyway. And…? He’s made Terminator as panto. Oh yes he has. Dev Patel is the Buttons character, a lanky, larky programmer who has written a program that confers self-awareness, which he inserts into a broken police droid marked for disposal. This sentient robot is then stolen by some very skanky criminal exponents of the Zef style (after the white trash who used to ride around in Ford Zephyrs way, way back in the day) and trained to be their own secret weapon. Blomkamp says he had the idea of a robot being kidnapped while he was listening to the South African rave-rap band Die Antwoord. Putting literalism where his money is, he’s cast members of Die Antwoord Ninja and Yolandi as the Mad Max-alike low-lifes who get their hands on the discarded but super-capable Chappie, teach him how to talk Zef, gangsta-walk, how to accessorise with bling, hold a gun, and so on. All very amusing. There’s a nature v nurture thing going on here, Blomkamp firmly in the nurture camp, and his villain, played by Hugh Jackman, the sidelined cop with mad plans for even more hi-tech oppression, is on the nature end – his justification for his policing methods (in a nutshell: oppress the shit out of everybody) is that the people on the streets are rotten to their DNA. Talking of which, as a social commentary this film is quite bizarre – Chappie, for example, is an avatar for the oppressed black people of South Africa, and with or without surrogate mother Yolandi reading him The Black Sheep as a bedtime story, we’d have worked that out. But there are no active black characters in this film (Chappie himself is played by Sharlto Copley, taking an Andy Serkis mo-cap role for the team). Otherwise, this is an intensely interesting film undermined by its relentless snark – it’s caviar, that stuff, you don’t need much.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Fox, cert PG)
No one is dirt poor and no one dies of heat stroke in this Sunday night sequel to the original, which reunites the majority of the cast (not Tom Wilkinson, and Penelope Wilton is only in it for a minute). It also introduces Richard Gere to the franchise, and uses what the target audience will recognise as the Hotel Inspector plot from Fawlty Towers as a device. Is Gere one? Or isn’t he? Having wanted to shoot myself while, and after, watching the first one, and then having been surprised to find everyone else in the world seemed to like it (as long as everyone is patronised by a film, that’s OK, it seems), I was pleasantly surprised by this second one, which has a loose Ealing feel, a few good one-liners and pretty much leaves the actors to do their work – Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup as the pensioner Brits whose anteroom-to-death sojourn in pension-friendly India is complicated by a few minor bumps to be ridden over. Dev Patel’s progress towards marriage with the beautiful Sunaina (Tina Desai) is also blocked by a leaf on the line, and even enterprising Patel’s mother (Lillete Dubey) gets a romantic storyline – prizes for everybody, inclusiveness all round, a very British sense of fair play, unless you actually examine things too closely. Because it’s still “don’t they talk funny and I wouldn’t drink the water and you can’t get Bovril” and all that. Never mind racism; the Indians are perfectly capable of looking after themselves. It’s the Brits I was worried about.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (Soda, cert 12)
We’re told that this film is based on the true story of a Japanese woman who loved the film Fargo so much that she went off to America and tried to find the money that Steve Buscemi was seen burying in the snow towards the end of it. These are the acts of a clearly mentally disturbed woman, and I’m never really sure what the point of films about mentally disturbed people is, unless they are trying to show things from their point of view – which this film doesn’t. So, that off my chest, this deluded, depressed Tokyo salarygirl throws in the job after being insulted by the boss once too often, and jets off to snowy Minnesota to get rich. She meets a succession of quirky “characters” in what turns into a road movie, the writing/directing Zellner brothers occasionally delivering a Coen brothers-alike corridor or hotel lobby, while cinematographer Sean Porter keeps the looks matt and flat, in the now standard Let the Right One In style. Waitresses, motel clerks, shop girls, retirees, a bumbling cop – there’s a deliberate focus on the people of low status, at a wintry time of year, in a state no one ever gets too excited about. It’s no surprise to find that Alexander Payne is involved as a producer, given his fascination with road movies, unvisited locales and the sort of characters most films ignore. There’s a kind of quirky humour to it all, recalling David Byrne’s True Stories, from all those years ago. This film has won a bunch of awards, from festivals all over the world, but it didn’t do a thing for me. The story was novel, but its indie treatment, delivered with a hint of condescension, was the same old same old.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2015