Out This Week
The Voices (Arrow, cert 15)
Marjane Satrapi has made a good film about a man with appalling schizophrenia. That she’s chosen to make it into a comedy, and has cast Ryan Reynolds as the disturbed guy who believes his pet cat and dog are talking to him shows she doesn’t lack for ambition. I suspect a lot of people won’t like The Voices at all, because a comedy about a man who likes to dismember people, and who is shown sawing them up and packing them neatly into many stacked Tupperware boxes like so many packed lunches, is, let’s face it, a bit gruesome. And he’s the “hero”. But Reynolds is excellent at shifting register depending on whether he’s on the meds or not, and Satrapi makes enough oblique references to Hitchcock’s Psycho to make it clear where she’s coming from. And since Psycho had female stars who shouldn’t die but do, step forward Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick as Reynolds’s co-workers who… but I’m saying too much. A strange film, which starts and ends with a musical number, because – hey.
The Gunman (StudioCanal, cert 15)
It’s easy to laugh at The Gunman, because it’s directed by Pierre Morel, who directed Taken, and is essentially Taken all over again, except with Sean Penn instead of Liam Neeson as the man with a “very particular set of skills”. Sean wants us to know he is more of a star than Neeson, more of an intellectual, is also an Oscar-winner, and a caring, sharing humanitarian kind of man as well, the Angelina Jolie of male actordom. And the laughs come from watching Penn’s assessment of himself turning a straightahead meat-and-potatoes actioner into something with bits hanging off everywhere – more exotic locations, more backstory for Penn, an “ethical” setting in the war-torn capitalist playground of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and so on. But it’s a geri-actioner at heart, though Penn does a number of shirt-off scenes just to remind us that he is, in fact, still hot at 55. Go, girl! Plot: After his past as a hired gunman starts to catch up with him, reformed bad guy Penn starts killing people who now seem out to kill him. Stars: Penn, Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance, Idris Elba (no nobodies for Mr Penn). It is all entirely enjoyable, even watched straight as an actioner rather than as a diagnostic of Hollywood ego, and producer Sean Penn has even organised enough money for Morel to stage a big Hitchcockian finish in a bullring which, like the whole film, is entirely unnecessary.
Suite Française (E One, cert 15)
Frenchwoman Michelle Williams falls for decent Nazi Matthias Schoenaerts in occupied France in exactly the sort of nuanced, intelligent drama you’d expect from BBC Films. You’d expect Kristin Scott Thomas to be in it too, and here she is as Williams’s waspish mother-in-law, trying to keep the young woman away from Jerry’s Teutonic member until her brave soldier son comes back from the war. If the Second World War taught us anything, it’s that culture does not make us better people – the Nazis wept as they listened to Beethoven, then shovelled more innocent people into the ovens. However, this is a BBC production – and the BBC’s raison d’etre is cultural edification – and, wouldn’t you know it, Schoenaerts turns out to have been a composer before the war. His tasteful Chopin-like compositions are the sign of his inherent decency, as well as the prompt for Williams to lower the flag of hostility, and her knickers. Get beyond all this guff – nice people in pretty rural countryside, virtue obvious, middle classes triumphant etc – and there’s a more morally complex class-focused drama playing out somewhere beneath the chocolate box visuals, and Schoenaerts seems to be having a lot of fun playing Lt Bruno von Falk as a young Erich von Stroheim. You can almost see the neck brace.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch… (Artificial Eye, cert 15)
The Swedish director Roy Andersson is an arthouse Benny Hill, a deadpan humourist whose sketch-like films show normal people in absurdist situations, or is that vice versa? He kicks off the last of his Living Trilogy (Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living being the other two) with three swift vignettes about dying – a man with ridiculous hair keels over at home while extracting a cork from a wine bottle; a dying woman in a hospital bed has the handbag she is clutching tightly to her person wrestled from her by one of her elderly children; a man lies dead on the floor in a self-service cafeteria and the cashier tries to give his food away (it’s already paid for). Then on we go to longer mini-stories, and after a while the characters starting to recur – viz Charles XII of Sweden, who turns up in a very 1950s-looking cafe on horseback, with troops and retinue. You don’t get extras, or passers-by, or lush locations in an Andersson film. It’s a very controlled flatlining kind of aesthetic, lit without shadows, devoid of snappy interchange or banter, this time building towards a tableau of woe. Much as I loved his earlier films in this series, this one didn’t grab me. I found it too distant, his point either being too obvious (middle class modern life, hey) or too abstruse (the way the past continues to intrude into daily life). Think of Tati without the laughs – though I quickly have to say Tati doesn’t make me laugh – and with a political agenda which, the more explicit it gets, the less revelatory it seems. And on top of this, I suspect that Andersson’s affectless shtick has been so widely recycled by admiring indie film-makers that its novelty has kind of worn off.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films (Metrodome, cert 18)
How the heart used to sink, back in the VHS day, when the words Cannon Group, in fuzzy electric blue, came up on the screen. This fabulous documentary tells the story of the two Israeli guys behind it, cousins Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus, who arrived in Hollywood after a few big hits, bought up the ailing Cannon and set about making films like a pair of schmutter merchants in the rag trade – “never mind the quality, feel the width”. They did the Death Wish films, they gave Chuck Norris a career, Dolph Lundgren has them to thank for his heyday. “There were cinemas out there that needed to be filled with something – and that’s what Cannon did,” says one happy talking head. This film is full of happy talking heads, in fact, full of stories about the guys’ have-a-go enthusiasm and half-baked artistry – how Franco Nero, star of Enter the Ninja, had no idea what a ninja even was. How Cannon’s epic, Sahara, appeared to be an unholy mix of Lawrence of Arabia, Blue Lagoon and The Great Race. Good films got made entirely by accident, it was all financed on dodgy money, they made the late career of Michael Winner (a weird, insecure and brutal man, says Alex Winter, one of many articulate witnesses to the Cannon madness gleefully spilling the beans). If it all sounds a bit like scapegoating, Mark Hartley’s film does come up with a few positives – Zeffirelli, Cassavetes, Godard and Schroeder all made films for Golan and Globus. The Cannon business model – sell the product before the product even exists – is now standard Hollywood practice. And the “Go-Go boys” were early into the realisation that the future was genre. Fascinating and highly enjoyable.
The Wrecking Crew (Wienerworld, cert E)
One of the reason why American records of the 1960s sounded so good was that – ever since Frank Sinatra’s big successes of the mid 1950s at least – US record companies had taken pop music seriously, and had lavished fantastic studios and top-of-the-range recording gear and producers on it. In Britain, 1960s beat combos got two-track decks and whoever could be spared from the novelty records department to oversee them – Decca producer George Martin had been recording Peter Ustinov and The Goons before being waved towards the Beatles. The Americans also had really fine session musicians, such as the subject of this documentary. The Wrecking Crew is a name which the LA musicians it embraces never used themselves, since they weren’t a crew and didn’t work together as a unit. Instead they were a loose agglomeration of top rank musicians who would turn up and lay down backing tracks for Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis, Sonny and Cher, the Byrds or the Beach Boys. They were Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. They were the guys who made the Mission: Impossible TV theme music chirp. This is both their story and the story of one of their number, Tommy Tedesco, a crack guitarist who had long retired when his son Denny decided to make the film, and had died before it was completed. Denny’s MO is to sit the guys he can still find, including likeable, voluble bassist Carole Kaye (much used and admired by Brian Wilson), down at a table and to record them reminiscing, and intercut with archive footage and photographs. It makes for a fun, lively time, though Denny over-estimates the proportion of decorative banter that can be carried without a solid timeline and there aren’t enough examples of how the Crew did what they did – reveal their input on Good Vibrations, for example. He also lavishes too much attention on his dad at the expense of the others. The title of the item is The Wrecking Crew, after all, and that is kind of what I was expecting. For all the sense of an opportunity missed, this is still fascinating, the story of 1960s pop – of bands who couldn’t play and professionals who could. Mickee Dolenz of the Monkees pops up at this point, as do Peter Tork, Cher, Herb Alpert, Nancy Sinatra and Glen Campbell (a member of the Crew who went on to have success of his own).
© Steve Morrissey 2015