Out This Week
Song of the Sea (StudioCanal, cert PG)
The Irish tricolour is firmly nailed to the mast in the follow-up to Tomm Moore’s animation The Secret of Kells – opening and end credits are in Gaelic – a whimsical tale of a young lad unaware that his dumb younger sister is in fact a kelpie, a mythical sea creature. Moore has set out to do the things with animation that Pixar rarely does, using its possibilities in a more expressive, impressionistic way, recalling Studio Ghibli and Sylvain Chomet, though the resolutely 2D approach also contains echoes of Noggin the Nog and other Smallfilms productions. The story is pure Ghibli though – children, separated from parents, off on an adventure together, in the company of enchanted animals, a quest story that’s simple and easy to digest. The same can’t quite be said for the tendency towards Oirishry – Brendan Gleeson (as lighthouse keeper dad) lays it on thick, to be sure – and there’s that slight tugging suspicion that by recoursing to old legends based in an undisputed ethnicity, Moore is ducking some of the discomforts of multi-cultural identity (part of what might be called the shadowy “ethnic European” tendency of the past decade or so). But while the viewer’s focus is on the animation there’s unlikely to be a quibble, because it is genuinely lovely, free and fluid. The way, for example that the Old English sheepdog accompanying the children will turn into a teardrop when sad, or the way the father’s gigantic protecting hand resembles a large homely ham. I had deep misgivings about The Secret of Kells, and its espousal of the “feel, don’t think” mantra – the Star Wars legacy. Song of the Sea is all about feeling too, but this time with our eyes open, using the evidence of the senses. So, if a kelpie is what your daughter or sister appears to be, you should give consideration to the fact that it might be true. Here endeth the lesson.
Palio (Altitude, cert 12)
From the producers of Senna, the blurb said somewhere, as if that meant anything at all. Except in this case it seems to. Because Palio is a similarly urgent, fascinating documentary, and it combines knowledge about a world most of us know nothing about, with a simple story of an underdog trying to have his day. The world is the Palio, the horse race run in Siena twice a year, in costumes and under conditions that can’t have changed much since the 15th century. And the men are a young buck called Giovanni Atzeni, the protégé of one-time champ Bastiano, and the reigning 13-time king of the course, Bruschelli, a wily, tough ball of gristle whose face betrays his nervousness at the arrival of this upstart, who looks, it must be said, like not much of a threat at all. Maybe Bruschelli’s anxiousness is down to his being a middle-aged man in a young man’s game. And what a game it is – a brutal hurl three times around a track the size and shape of a large city roundabout (albeit one hedged by beautiful Renaissance Italian buildings), at each of whose tight corners horses are likely to skid off, jockey might career into walls, the tangle of horses might collapse in an almighty pile-up of bone and muscle. The whole thing is rigged, in Italian style quite openly, with moneyed jockeys able to pay lesser riders to hold back or obstruct an opponent. And the rules include being able to beat a rivals horse repeatedly across the muzzle with your whip, not to mention punching, kicking, whatever it takes during the race’s brief 90 second-ish duration. Director Cosima Spender carefully gentles us into the world, so that by the time we see the first of the two races, we know exactly who the men are, and how the race is run. I was so gripped it was as if I had backed one of the riders. And then, for the second race (which I initially thought was a bridge too far), she does it again. No knowledge or love of horses or horse racing required.
The Beatles 1 (Apple, cert E)
Here’s a fairly simple proposition – that Beatles CD of remastered US/UK number ones which came out about 15 years ago, its visual equivalent. The CD sold by the containerload and I suspect this DVD/Blu-ray will too. What you get is the promo vid to each song. But hang on, some will say, weren’t promo vids invented by Queen with Bohemian Rhapsody? No, they weren’t, though the myth persists, largely because of the cannibalistic nature of TV documentary research. Digression over. Here, simply arranged with a simple bright red intertitle card announcing each one, are the hits from 1962’s Love Me Do to 1970’s The Long and Winding Road, the early years mostly composed of black and white TV footage, or promos shot in the studio. These have cleaned up spectacularly, and look great, even though many have clearly used originals from the days of 405-lines TV. When 1966’s Paperback Writer kicks in, shot on colour film, the effect is electric. If you like the Beatles, you’ll already have a favourite. If you don’t, you might be surprised to note how tight the band is, how driving Ringo’s drumming is on Day Tripper, those uncanny and unique harmonies that Lennon and McCartney were so adept at in the early days, and how we’re witnessing the invention of the modern world of lifestyle as we watch four lads initially presented as working lads, banging away on their instruments, straining for the high notes. By the later promos, they’re just, you know, hanging out. The second disc contains the B reel material, which hasn’t been subjected to same fanatical level of restoration.
Brand: A Second Coming (Metrodome, cert 15)
The last film I saw by Ondi Timoner was 2009’s We Live in Public, her exhaustive and fascinating documentary about Josh Harris, one of the first wave of internet entrepreneurs. Compared to Harris, Russell Brand is nowhere near as interesting, though there’s obviously mileage in the story of a comedian/junkie whose ADHD restlessness has driven him towards politics – fame is the lure, we’re led to believe, as it possibly was when Brand embarked on a Hollywood career, or married Katy Perry. The film divides into two halves – the story so far (in brief: raised by his mum, abandoned by his spitting-image cheeky-chappie dad, who took him to hooker parties when Russell was 16, an early show-off, a self-starting stand-up who played to empty rooms, early success, total drugs flame-out, rehab, Sachsgate etc etc). Then it’s on to where he is now, a political conversion prompted by a Comic Relief visit to Africa, where he spent some time with Kenyan kids who sorted rubbish on a gigantic festering dump. This ultimately led him to write his book, Revolution, which he understands will ostracise him from the very media who made him. “I’ve got a limited life now, using the machinery of my old life to promote my new life,” he says, astutely, before blowing into some US TV daytime news show and completely dominating it like a circus ringmaster or music-hall MC – the styles of entertainer he most closely resembles. At some level Brand is a dreadful foghorn of a man. But he’s a useful foghorn – at the GQ Man of the Year awards when he pointed out that one of its sponsors was Hugo Boss, who made uniforms for the Nazis, he made clear the reacharound relationship of the media and big business. It’s a free media, as we’re often told, but it’s their free media. In the same way Brand is “a narcissist, but I’m your narcissist”, he yodels to a crowd at one of his shows, a mix of comedy and consciousness-raising that situates Brand in the line of Bill Hicks, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. We see Brand hashing out the relationship between fame and integrity with Katy Perry (while they were married), with Stephen Merchant, David Lynch and Mike Tyson. Apart from his honesty about his dishonesty, it’s this boundary-crossing restlessness that is the most interesting aspect of the man, why he’s so derided in some quarters (for getting involved in the New Era housing demonstrations in East London, for example) and written off in others. Jeremy Paxman, who snottily interviewed him on TV, reckons that when it comes to politics “he’s divined something that people feel”. And he’s right, something’s is amiss with politics right now, and neither left nor right (nor even those labels) can fix it. “Don’t follow him, for god’s sake,” laughs one of Brand’s friends in this fascinating documentary with a tendency, like Brand, to ramble. The friend is probably right.
Technotise: Edit & I (Simply, cert 15)
A mix of the glorious and the not so great, this grungy animation from Serbia – an event in itself – is like an episode of Scooby Doo as written by a rogue team of escapees from 2000AD comics. It’s obsessed with war, fixated on pneumatic female breasts and centres on a hot female student on a Alice-like Wonderland quest (after having a memory chip implanted to help her pass exams) in Belgrade in 2074. Slobodan Milosevic turns up in a flashback, and there’s the lingering suspicion that the whole thing is in fact an allegory about the recent Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian nastiness. A feeling reinforced by the distinctly retro look of some of the hover-vehicles. Is that a Trabant? The animation is tasty though, in the way it shifts perspectives in a highly dynamic way, and its use of expressionism to convey inner thoughts sets it in a distinctly European animation tradition, a welcome change from the pursuit of realism which Pixar and wannabes seem to be on. Take an E and watch it – if the title weren’t clue enough, it is all a bit 90s.
Self/less (EV, cert 12)
Tarsem Singh is a bloody good lighting cameraman who should never have been given a directing gig. After The Cell, The Fall, Immortals and Mirror Mirror – all dire – he returns with his latest go at film-making with an in-theory-fascinating story about a billionaire buying a young man’s body. Ben Kingsley is the mortally ill billionaire, Ryan Reynolds the young man, an empty vessel who has been grown in a hydroponic tank and is lying there ready to be personated. Personised? Of course, it turns out that the whole “grown in a tank” story is bollocks and in fact Reynolds is a mind-wiped real person with a history and everything, which the billionaire, now inhabiting the limber body, sets out to find. Hang on, you might think at this point, why is a mega-rich man who has shown not the beginnings of an interest in humanity suddenly discovering a soul at this point? Has his brush with death humanised him? Or his proximity to someone else’s more virtuous – because simple and poor – existence? Singh allows Reynolds to give us no clue. Instead, after some fun scenes in which the old/young man – in superhero-first-discovering-powers style – puts his new bod through its paces (sex and fast cars), it seems content to devolve into a basic running/shooting chase thriller. Singh is a wood/trees director. Individual scenes are fine – a car chase here, some action there, a lot of Apple product placement pretty much everywhere. But he’s no idea how to weld things into a whole. Nor has he any idea where the drama in any given scene is, or should be. In one tiny, emblematic moment, we see a car driving into a gas station, an establishing shot which takes Singh about eight edits, of which seven are unnecessary. And, for all its neatness of concept, great looks, occasional action highlight, fine acting, choice locations, and so on, that’s the story of the whole film – flabby. Cut out half an hour and we might be getting somewhere. Another Tarsem Singh movie is already in development. Please God.
Self/less – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2015