Out This Week
Mommy (Metrodome, cert 15)
In bad drama people say just what they think; in real life they rarely do. Xavier Dolan, usually referred to as a wunderkind, understands this, and in this grungy new drama he pushes that realisation to the max with a story about Steve, a disruptive ADHD kid and his flaky mother. It’s an urgently brilliant film, that never dips into the well of mawkishness reserved for “social issue” films. And that’s even with an extra “issue” added – the next door neighbour, a former teacher whose nerves are shot to shit, who becomes the friend of this dysfunctional duo. The performances are gritty, the dialogue shocking (“I’m not being racist – he is a nigger,” says Steve in a typical outburst against a cab driver), and Dolan sets up a couple of scenes that are so intense I actually had to remind myself to breathe. In a small but brilliant cast, it’s probably wrong to single out Suzanne Clément for her amazing turn as the shell-shocked, stuttering, fragile neighbour Kyla – a counterpoint to the angry, agitated Steve that’s tender and obviously manipulative, though it never feels that way. You might also take issue with the attention-seeking way Dolan changes the aspect ratio of the picture from square to widescreen, to reflect Steve’s advance towards inner equilibrium and “normal life”. But, again, you might not. Either way, this is unmissable.
The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (Paramount, cert U)
Wow. It’s taken 11 years for the Spongebob guys to make a sequel to his last film. It was a success, so I’ve no idea why so long. However, it’s worth the wait – there are about ten good jokes in the first five minutes alone, while live-action-element Antonio Banderas’s story about a pirate seeking a game-changing talisman is set up, before we shift to life below the waves. There, the simply animated Spongebob and his crew riff on the “there is no I in TEAM” mantras of the McJob culture in a story about the secret formula of the Krabby Patty – fast food so addictive even those at death’s door clamour to eat it. Spongebob works because it mainlines a vein abandoned by the other big players – the Looney Tunes world where shtick and the surreal rub shoulders, and pungent social comment is dispensed with a wink and a “hey”. Disney should make films like this, but can’t, being in hock to the notion that the global megacorp can only be a force for good – they simply couldn’t come up with a greed-personified character like Mr Krabs, it would ruin the merch roll-out in fast food chains. Disney probably wouldn’t go for Spongebob’s appalling, glass-etching laugh either.
Face of an Angel (Soda, cert 15)
It sounds like all sorts of wrong, but Michael Winterbottom’s take on the Meredith Kercher/Amanda Fox case actually turns out to be really worth watching. That’s largely because he abandons any afternoon-movie melodramatics about who did what to whom and instead explores the meta-level about whether we can ever know what happened. To do this he sets up two loosely interconnecting stories. In one Daniel Brühl plays a director with a string of flops to his name, hoping that a dramatisation of this case can give him the hit he so badly needs. In the other there’s Kate Beckinsale as a door-stepping journalist who uses charm and animal cunning to get her story. Over this, sweetly, Winterbottom starts playing out a Dante and Beatrice story, with Brühl’s director cast as a kind of latterday warrior-poet, student-waitress Cara Delevingne as the floaty virginal creature he is smitten by – you might well be too, her performances is one of remarkable gangly unaffectedness. If the meta-ness, the narrative layers, and the enquiry after truth, or how the search for it distorts it, reminds most strongly of Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy adaptation, A Cock and Bull Story, there are also obvious echoes of Charlie Kaufmann’s “struggling to write the film” movie Adaptation too, and some visual reminders of Roeg’s Italian film Don’t Look Now – reality and truth again a concern there. So what about poor 21-year-old Meredith Kercher, who died in Perugia in 2007 and whose life has been reduced to a footnote in Foxy Knoxy’s? In a coda Winterbottom deals with that too, as if to say that airy philosophising is all very well, but let’s spare a moment for someone to whom something tangible and horrible did happen. It’s a very humane, beautiful and tender way to wrap things up in an altogether intensely accomplished drama.
Housebound (Metrodome, cert 18)
Good films are coming out of New Zealand right now, though they often seem to be comedic takes on established genres. What We Do in the Shadows took on the vampire movie, and quite a lot of the Twilight/Underworld appurtenances that have been strapped to it. Housebound does the same for the haunted house movie, yet somehow manages to be both funny and chilling. Morgana O’Reilly plays Kylie, a feisty young woman who, falling foul of the law, is ordered to wear an ankle tag and spend eight months cooped up in the house of her mother. This is particularly handy for us, because her mother is played by Rima Te Wiata, a brilliant comedy actress who can inflect a whole sentence with new meaning by a final raise of the eyebrow or a rapid-pan swivel of the eyes. The film is essentially a back and forth between mother and daughter as they move through the house trying to work out where various knocks and bangs are coming from, mindful of the fact that the house used to be some kind of juvenile institution. I did mention that the house was large and rambling? The film is a bit too, but it moves at pace and it’s funny. It also has an early Peter Jackson (of Braindead era) approach to splatter, an inventive way with household appliances used as weapons and it has that bald Kiwi matter of factness – “You can’t punch ectoplasm”, Kylie is told at one point, as if she had been trying to use an SDS drill bit in a standard chuck. Entirely enjoyable.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (StudioCanal, cert U)
Isao Takahata is the other guy from Studio Ghibli, the one who isn’t Hayao Miyazaki, Takahata being the one who directed Grave of the Fireflies and Pom Poko – so no slouch. Like Miyazaki, he seems fascinated with the wisdom of children, and in this story about a princess born magically out of a piece of bamboo, and then exploited for social advancement by her adoptive peasant parents, we’re in fairly familiar territory. It’s a beautifully realised world, a pre-industrial, sylvan idyll. There are thematic analogues of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, of a feisty child finding its way in a strange world. Of style, too, Takahata keeping it Ghibli-familiar with a rustic watercolour palette and technique, with there generally being one thing in each tableau that Takahata wants our eye drawn to – a leaf, a rivulet, a shock of hair. After a while, once Kaguya has grown up at lightning speed and been educated to princess level thanks to the heaps of money she can magically produce, the story transitions into something like a Scheherazade tale of a beautiful young woman trying to keep suitors at bay by using her wits, while her parents conspire to get her married into nobility and pronto. She, meanwhile, starts to long for the simple folk she grew up with. I know Princess Kaguya has had a lot of great reviews, but to be honest this Ghibli fan thought that while it was charming at the beginning, and again at the end, Takahata’s storytelling slowed down for no good reason in the middle, and I found myself checking my emails and glancing at stories from the daily papers. Sorry.
Adrift: People of a Lesser God (Simply, cert E)
This is the summer when the media are reporting on Africans risking their lives to get to Europe any how – usually by boat. But it’s been going on for some time, and was certainly well established when Dominique Mollard set out to make a “one man and his camera” documentary about the phenomenon in 2010. His preamble states that 60,000 sub-Saharan Africans made it to Spain between 2005 and 2009, and that more than half went via the Canaries, which lie 100 kilometres off the coast of Morocco. That’s a long way in a tiny pirogue, stuffed to the gills with queasy Africans, most of whom have never seen the sea before, and don’t realise that it can get very cold and wet out there. “Once you’ve reached a certain level of suffering, you can do anything” says one of Mollard’s interviewees. And if his documentary has a real value, it’s this: it puts a human face on a statistic; and explains why people risk death when supreme indifference (at best) awaits them at the other end. The emigrants call the trip to Europe “the fight”, tellingly, though it has to be said that there’s also a fight to be had with this documentary, which at 100 minutes is 20 minutes too long. Sure, Mauretania is interesting, and the people there have that long-boned grace of which supermodels are made. But there’s much too much of it, and things only really pick up once Mollard has sated his travelogue appetite and is positioned in the back of the boat, from where he can watch the tired, poor, huddled masses of illegals yearning to breathe free and bouncing over the waves to, they hope, a better life.
Robot Overlords (Signature, cert 12)
Gillian Anderson and Ben Kingsley are the unnecessary adults lending a patina of maturity to what is in effect a modern manifestation of a Children’s Film Foundation adventure set in world where the robots have landed and the populace is confined to its suburban dwellings (handy when your budget isn’t so large). Our four kid heroes, in effect, rise up against the robot overlords and their human interlocutor, Ben Kingsley, but the key line of dialogue is “Let’s find dad; he’ll know what to do” – which could have been lifted direct from a CFF film of the early 1970s. In fact the vibe is even more old fashioned than that, with director Jon Wright going for a Second World War atmosphere – communal spirit evident, knees-ups surely just a minute away – which the Isle of Man location really lends itself to. Kingsley, as ever, gives it his all, huffing away like the pantomime villain he’s essentially playing, while Anderson is the stay-at-home mum he’s leching after, and who pines for the dad, absent, of course, as is necessary in these things. Our four kids are the Handsome One (Callan McAuliffe), the witty Ron Weasly type (James Tarpey), the snot-faced-kid-from-Love-Actually type (Milo Parker) and the hot-girl-in-training (Ella Hunt). All as it should be. The robot effects won’t give Roland Emmerich sleepless nights and if my tone sounds a bit snarky, the film itself is anything but. And that, really, is its big sell – its honest-to-goodness wide-eyed air of just getting on and doing it.
Robot Overlords – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2015