7 September 2015-09-07

Out This Week

John Wick (Warner, cert 15)

Like some kind of undead film star, Keanu Reeves manages magnificent returns every few years – Speed, The Matrix and now John Wick, a super-sleek bit of badass comic-book adaptation relying heavily on Reeves’s blank persona (no one does it better) for much of its appeal. He plays a retired hitman so frightening that, we’re shown, even incredibly hard hardmen blench when they hear he’s on the warpath – after some damn fool goes and kills the pet dog that was the only reminder of his dead wife. And that’s all you need to know about the plot.

The screenplay is incredibly smart, a collection of simple scenes of Wick in deadly pursuit bolted together with ruthless efficiency, and some neat little ideas, such as the club for people like Wick – where hitmen, assassins and bad guys and gals of every stripe can hang out without fear of being offed. And Reeves is very good too at suggesting that Wick is past his best, that muscle memory is performing tasks that the body isn’t quite up to.

After a while directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch abandon all sham and admit they really want to make a 1980s movie – out come the grinding metal guitars and overhead shots of highrise buildings, technology is fetishised and an implacable Terminator-like foe (Willem Dafoe) arrives on the scene. But there are also throwbacks to the 1940s in femme fatale Adrianne Palicki, whose jaguar eyes are as dangerous as any weapon. Keanu gets one big speech, in which he explains just why he’s so angry. It’s a Clint Eastwood “make my day” kind of thing. And both he, and it, are terrible. Can’t wait for the sequel.

John Wick – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Pitch Perfect 2 (Universal, cert 12)

I didn’t expect to like Pitch Perfect 1. But even though I did, I wasn’t expecting to like this unnecessary sequel. But I did too.

It opts for a chapter one, page one version of the sequel – do the same film again – with our plucky a cappella singers the Barden Bellas now setting out on an another impossible quest, once again against insuperable foes, in a classic underdog story with a classic solution.

Why it works is because it works hard at making it work – right from the opening gag about Rebel Wilson’s vagina being flashed to President Obama at some prestigious soiree where the Bellas are performing, the event that takes the Bellas from hero to zero and allows the film to start climbing again.

After that, new director Elizabeth Banks just keeps piling it on – the witty interchanges between the two airhead commentators at a cappella competitions (played, again, by Banks herself, and John Michael Higgins, who gets the film’s best lines), the side stories of Anna Kendrick working as an intern at a vastly up-itself record company run by a total dick, and never over-extended forays into territory which might make for a second sequel, such as the introduction of new girl Hailee Steinfeld, and the revelation that there’s a Barden Bellas alumna group of mom singers (another spin-off?).

Anna Kendrick is just a touch astringent, which might help combat the potential sugar rush, Rebel Wilson is a touch underused, and the whole thing is strikingly unblack – one token black lesbian in the group, who clearly can sing, barely gets enough lines to establish that she is a lesbian, or even black. This in a film relying heavily on black culture for music content – Tina Turner, Beyonce, Montell Jordan.

But for all that it has zip and jokes, which wouldn’t work without the songs and the performances, which are genuinely, hairs-on-the-neck good, especially those of the Bardens’ great rivals, Das Sound Machine, a German a cappella outfit who sing Muse’s Uprising like a cross between Kraftwerk and a unit of Stormtroopers. Never forget, eh.

Pitch Perfect 2 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

A Royal Night Out (Lionsgate, cert 12)

The supposedly true story goes that on VE night in 1945, young Princess Elizabeth crept out and joined the celebrating hordes of Londoners for a night of revelry, possibly the only time in her life when she’d have been able to do such a thing incognito.

So what went down that night? This comedy, on one bended knee, deferential to the point of “oh FFS”, imagines it for us. The tone is set early on by Rupert Everett, playing George VI as a fruity Prince Charles, all strangled larynx and twisted brows, a pantomime turn not at all matched by Emily Watson, who seems keener on nailing the Queen Mum (if that doesn’t sound totally wrong) and manages it.

But the action’s not with them, it’s with young princesses Lilibet (Liz’s pet name) and Margaret – casting here reversing reality by having the prettier Sarah Gadon playing the future queen, Bel Powley her naughty sister.

It’s very much a case of “oh crikey”, “I say”, “how jolly decent of you”, “what larks” and all that, as the two young women are separated and end up in different parts of London, with Margaret getting the comedy knockabout stuff in Soho with tarts and spivs, Liz getting a more dignified quasi-romantic story with Jack Reynor, as an angry, possibly AWoL soldier with pronounced republican tendencies.

Like all similarly-themed films since The Queen, it very much asserts the natural superiority of royalty, emphasises the burden of power and the sacrifice of duty, and even tries the old “they’re a lot more democratically inclined than we give them credit for” line.

Though there seems no reason for its existence, other than as a nice bit of heritage film-making practice for director Julian Jarrold (an old TV hand who also directed Kinky Boots), it’s pleasant enough, funny enough and energetic enough, and Sarah Gadon is really rather spiffing as the future queen. Members of the Workers Revolutionary Party might want to give it a miss.

A Royal Night Out – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Rosewater (The Works, cert 15)

People who think that movies need to be more like real life need to tread carefully. Take Rosewater, the debut film by Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show fame. It’s clearly angry and has an important focus, but it’s meek and underwhelming in effect. Perhaps because it’s closer to real life, and liberties have not been taken with the truth, in the same way that they were with its subject.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays the Iranian-born Newsweek reporter who was arrested after Iran’s Amadinejad v Mousavi elections in 2009 and held prisoner for 118 days while he was grilled, blindfolded, about the “spying” he was doing for the West. His captors were probably just razzing him and his paymasters – we don’t know.

As Maziar Bahari, Bernal is very convincing, playing a weak everyman who just wants to get out alive, and is haunted by the spirits of two members of his family – the father (Haluk Bilginer) tortured in the same prison by the Shah’s men for being a communist; the sister (Golshifteh Farahani) who is root and branch the political firebrand he isn’t.

Doing the dirty work is Kim Bodnia as Javadi, a torturer who smells of rose water and who might be less of a brute beneath the fragrance, or more. Bahari should be the emotional focus of this film, but his character moves not one iota – maybe that’s the way it was in real life too, but it’s no excuse –  throwing our hopes onto the bullet-headed Javadi for some psychological development… a story, in other words. Are we watching a The Lives of Others tale of the jailer who realises he’s the one really in prison? Sadly, just as this particular dramatic kite starts to fly, Stewart pulls it back to earth, and treats us to some late-event comedy, as Bahari realises he can explain all his mysterious diary dates as visits for a “special massage”. And isn’t the frustrated jailer interested in that? Here, Stewart is essentially insisting that the main course is out of the way, so we can all kick back and have a bit of fun. But nothing has happened. And nothing is what continues to happen right to the end of this strangely drama-free film. Which is presumably why, at someone’s insistence, Stewart inserts a sonorous “they cannot win” epilogue voiceover at the end, making noises about the essential moral weakness at the heart of dictatorships. It’s the film in microcosm, which asserts rather than demonstrates.

Rosewater – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Bait (Metrodome, cert 18)

A small, TV level shocker made by Dominic Brunt, who some people will know as the guy who plays Paddy Kirk in the long running British soap Emmerdale. If not, then get to know him now. Because Brunt is building a nice, niche second career, if Bait (previously known as The Taking) is evidence. I haven’t seen his previous film, a zombie allegory called Before Dawn, but have heard good things.

But to this film… a couple of struggling women running a cafe in a windy market are charmed when a smalltime local venture capitalist offers to lend them the money to get a shop and expand. Except he isn’t the genial philanthropist he appears, and suddenly the string of brutal little episodes with which Brunt has been larding this hitherto fairly soapy narrative begin to make sense. The ostensibly meek Jeremy is a loan shark of psychopathic persuasion who likes to bleed his clients dry. And off we go on a luge of increasing tension – the women try to bank left, Jeremy is already there; they slalom right, ditto. When the money runs out, they offer him sex. When that’s no good… well, that’s the finale right there.

There are some digressions into family life which Brunt uses to try and anchor the film to some recognisable reality, and to act as a reference point for when things get tasty later one… which they do.

The film isn’t perfect, with Brunt missing a couple of opportunities to build tension, but Victoria Smurfit is rather fine as the brassy blonde Bex and Joanne Mitchell is too, as her mousier, more sensible friend Dawn. But it’s Jonathan Slinger who makes it compelling, with a performance of extended sleaze which morphs nicely into a hyperbolic Freddie Krueger-like turn, eventually shifting Bait from psychodrama to a full-on head-slammed-in-the-door, this-fucker-will-not-die climax which involves both women stripping down to their scanties for no reason whatsoever. Big genre winks all round.

Bait – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Catch Me Daddy (StudioCanal, cert 15)

An out-and-out racist white guy (Barry Nunney) and his slobby, cokehead older partner (Gary Lewis) join forces with four Asian guys to find and retrieve Laila, the sister of one of them, who has run off with her white boyfriend, Aaron. The kids are in love, but the family’s honour has been besmirched. Compromise is impossible.

Director/co-writer Daniel Wolfe plays these two groups off against each other – the lovey-dovey kids hoping they can make a go of things and the increasingly angry guys on their tail. On both sides characters are powerfully sketched – Laila works at a hairdresser’s sweeping up, likes milkshakes made with Milky Way and Fizz Wiz, dances to Patti Smith’s Horses; Barry the racist likes to piss on his hands before meeting the Asian guys and shaking theirs. The Asians? Not so much character detail.

Catch Me Daddy is a powerful subject analysed in a one-sided way. What is this “honour”? Why is it important to this family? We never learn. The love of Aaron and Laila – we get plenty of that. We even get the stirrings of conscience from coke-addled Tony, who finally steps up when it dawns on him what the brutal Asian foursome’s agenda really is.

Wolfe climaxes the film halfway through with a shocking death and then struggles to pick up the tension again, while highly sought-after cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Fish Tank, Philomena) aims for a dark oppressive look. That was Ryan’s intention, I’m sure, but a “can’t someone switch a light on?” thought kept bobbing into my head as I strained to see what was going on, especially as a chase developed which saw runaways and pursuers charging about on the Yorkshire moors in cars.

This film is well made and very well acted, but the premature climax is a problem, and really, if everyone is being honest, it’s a knockabout horror movie – the Muslims as a kind of Texas Chain Saw kind of family – not a serious exploration of hot-button social themes.

Catch Me Daddy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2015

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