Out This Week
Minions (Universal, cert U)
By the end of the first Despicable Me film, Gru, the archetypal bad guy, had been exposed as a bit of softie, which left Despicable Me 2 with nowhere to go, in terms of jokes about bad guys wheezing despicably and mwah-ha-ha-ing their way to world domination. But Gru’s Minions were still funny, and in this surprisingly lively, amusing, inventive spin-off, they get to show they can be funny at feature length, in spite of not being able to speak. Well, they do speak, but it’s a kind of Esperanto done with expressive voices and telegraphed emotions – Pingu, the Clangers and Shaun the Sheep territory. And Geoffrey Rush (in a voice cast including Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan and Jennifer Saunders) provides an explicatory narration so fruity he could be juiced. I doubt this is really a kids movie, since nearly all the jokes are about the gap between expectation and reality – and disappointment is adult territory – but they’ll probably enjoy the early stuff, a potted history of the Minions (helping dinosaurs, cavemen, ancient Egyptians, Dracula, Napoleon – despicable all, apparently). Before it winds us up to almost the present day, with the Minions trying to attend a Villains Convention in 1960s Orlando, Florida. This decision to stick with the logic of the initial idea – they’re minions, and they crave a nefarious master – is the film’s engine, and delivers all the narrative drive the film needs. But really, it’s all about the writing, and directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin’s team of jokesmiths, who have toiled long into the night to introduce sight gags every few seconds, then given themselves enough breathing space to have fun – what is a sumo wrestler doing in Queen Elizabeth’s retinue? For that matter, what is Queen Elizabeth doing in this film, and why does she live in a Disney castle? Like The Lego Movie, this could and probably should be watched multiple times.
Hollywood Banker (Bulldog, cert PG)
The standard prejudices about Hollywood – by people who know nothing about Hollywood, and fostered by people who do but have an axe to grind – is that the creatives are good; it’s the money guys who are bad. Hollywood Banker upends that cart with a ridiculously informative, well researched and really rather nice film about Frans Afman, the dapper, urbane Netherlands financier who came up with (along with Dino De Laurentiis, his partner at the time) the pre-sales system, which has transformed movie-making since the 1980s. By taking the unmade film out on the road and seeing how many distributors they could get to finance it, Frans and Dino effectively reduced the risk at their end of the production chain. In this way When Harry Met Sally, Terminator, Rambo, Platoon and Dances with Wolves were all made. So were a raft of films by Golan and Globus, who took the idea to the next level. Along with Electric Boogaloo: the Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, the recent doc about the Go-Go boys (the title of yet another film about the period), Hollywood Banker tells the story of 1980s and 1990s Hollywood film, though here the stars and directors are lining up to sing Afman’s praises, rather than snicker. A decent guy, a gent, a mensch, a “class act” says Mickey Rourke, Afman was the son of culture-loving people and got into the film industry entirely by accident after De Laurentiis came to him needing a bank account. He was the antithesis of the ballsy dealmaker – in fact again and again we hear of how he’d send money to save a production, then deal with the paperwork later. His word was his bond. Kevin Costner is most effusive, pointing out how Afman financed Dances with Wolves when no one would touch it (first time director, subtitled, an unfashionable genre, very long). Oliver Stone and Paul Verhoeven are also full of warm words. This is clearly a legacy work, since it’s made by Afman’s daughter and with Frans’s help as he’s dying of pancreatic cancer. And maybe there is more dirt to find on the man than Rozemyn Afman has dug up, particularly in the details of the Credit Lyonnais/Carolco/Giancarlo Paretti/MGM fiasco which shook Hollywood in the early 1990s (the story behind which became the basis for Get Shorty). But Rozemyn Afman is a warm and personable interviewer and watching the likes of the usually guarded Costner opening up, it’s clear she’s good at it (it helps, of course, that she grew up in these people’s swimming pools). This film, in effect, is the autobiography Frans Afman wanted to write, but never quite managed. And it, like him, is a charmer.
Maggie (Universal, cert 15)
If Let the Right One In is the maudlin vampire movie par excellence, Maggie aims for a similar tone vis a vis the zombie movie. And it largely succeeds. Abigail Breslin stars as the daughter becoming a “necro-ambulant”, Arnie Schwarzenegger is the loving dad who knows that the disease is slow moving but that one day she will go full zombie and will have to be killed. We’re reminded constantly that he’s a man handy with an axe and a firearm. But he’s a long way from Standard Operating Arnie – the sort who kills people by the score without blinking. Here the instruments of mercy-killing are regularly in view, cleverly reinforcing the doomy “one day… one day soon” vibe that hangs over the whole film. Also clever is the way director Henry Hobson uses Arnie – he’s still no actor, but in terms of sheer likeability he’s hard to beat, and this aspect of his nature is played up. Around this father and daughter is a world carrying on as normal, through a zombie apocalypse. The health system hasn’t broken down, oddly, and a resigned spirit of relentless compassionate triage and merciful euthanasia and has taken hold. Teenagers still go out and drink around a campfire, as Breslin’s Maggie does at one point, where both her and an old flame who is also on the way to zombiedom talk about what’s coming in “this sucks” terms. Life going on is the strangest and most remarkable thing about the film – Maggie painting her fingernails though the arm they’re connected to is rotting. Zombie films are usually metaphors for something, and 20 years ago this would have been all about Aids. Now? A more philosophically existential bid to stay human, perhaps? Hence Arnie – Mr Skynet? Just thoughts. I don’t know. It’s probably there, though it’s really not that sort of film. Too downbeat and muted to do anything so declamatory. Quietly, grimly effective though.
I Believe in Miracles (Universal, cert 12)
Brian Clough is the English football manager who, looking back on his achievements, said, “I wouldn’t say I was the best football manager in the world. But I was in the top one.” This supreme confidence, headline-grabbing mouth and undoubted brilliance made him a gift for feature writers, talk show hosts and now, film-makers, since this must be the third film in a recent years to hash through the life of one of the game’s most colourful characters. Expertly collaging together interviews with Clough’s team, archive footage and a string of soul-disco crossover hits from the era, the film runs through, one more time, Clough’s remarkable return from the dead. He’d been sacked by Leeds United in 1975 (events covered in the Michael Sheen film The Damned United) and found himself being courted by Nottingham Forest. He took the job at this underdog team languishing halfway down the second division (this was the days before the Premiership, so equates to the Championship today). “It changed overnight,” said former NF player Ian Bowyer, one of many in the team who by their own admission were journeymen, sulkers and moaners. Two seasons in charge and Clough and assistant (and secret weapon) Peter Taylor had taken NF into the First Division (ie the Premiership today) and then went on to win the League Cup, then astonished everyone by winning the European Cup. The following season Forest won the European Cup again. The story of how Clough did this is fantasy montage-sequence stuff, as we’re told of training consisting of walks along the river, the lads all going for a drink together, Clough’s team tactics consisting of him saying “You get the ball, you kick the ball. If you can’t play, give it to someone who can.” “There was no plan,” says one player, indicating that Clough seemed to do it all by sheer charisma. Gary Birtles, we hear, didn’t train with the others. Instead, he played squash with Clough – that was his training. Hard man Kenny Burns recalls Clough always calling him Kenneth. “Only him and my mum called me Kenneth.” It’s a portrait of a manager who didn’t show fear in the changing room. When pushed, he pushed back, and he had one arrow in his quiver that the film doesn’t even bother to mention – as a player he’d been a phenomenal goal scorer (251 goals in 264 games, and it would have been much higher if he hadn’t had been invalided out of the game). The documentary fascinated me, and I have barely any interest at all in football. If you are interested in the game, I dare say this is unmissable. And if you’re a Notts Forest fan, I’m not sure how many Christmases this equates to. Granted, once we get to the point where Clough and Notts Forest have won the European Cup there’s a certain repetitiveness to seeing them doing it again. And at a certain point it becomes more about watching balls fly past goalies’ outstretched arms than the interpersonal whirlwind of Clough’s unorthodox managerial style. But director Jonny Owen and his editor weld together the players’ commentary with archive footage so skilfully, it feels like a demonstration of show-don’t-tell film-making – that mini essay on John Robertson, who “couldn’t tackle a fish supper” according to Archie Gemmill, but whose remarkable skill at getting a ball past a man without even touching it is conveyed in a brilliant composite of examples. And that, pretty much, goes for the whole film – the right images welded to the right words. A great film.
The Legend of Barney Thomson (Icon, cert 15)
I resisted watching this. Why, I’m not sure. Robert Carlyle is a remarkable actor, one of the few who can play big softies and frightening psychopaths with equal conviction. But here he’s directing and I knew his debut film was set in Scotland, his native country, and I suppose I just thought I might be getting a sentimental load of sub Ken Loach realism grafted to a Full Monty style comic jaunt. I was wrong to resist. It’s a film to savour, a macabre pantomime about a deadbeat barber who accidentally kills the boss who was about to fire him for scaring away the customers by being boring. Carlyle does it “grim up North Britain” style – apart from his scurfy barber’s shop it’s a milieu of ducks on the wall, that Green Lady picture, dog races, bingo, uncouth cops. And there’s Barney’s mum, played as an unrecognisable hag by Emma Thompson, a lifetime of disappointment on her face and a cigarette permanently in her mouth. There’s Ray Winstone, as a Cockney copper who hates the locals and affects not to understand a word they’re saying. What Barney and the mum actually do with the body of his dead boss is pure Joe Orton and while the panto shenanigans are going on, Carlyle entertains us with jaunty camera angles to indicate mental disorientation, a twangy guitar on the soundtrack and some visual nods to films we might have seen (The Third Man is referenced quite heavily, just for a bit of fun). It’s shot too much against the light – which used, in the 1970s, to indicate that you had a budget and film to spare because it’s so hard to do. Now it just looks like a pointless stylish tic. But that’s actually my only quibble with it. Tom Courtenay, James Cosmo, Ashley Jensen and Martin Compston all breeze on, and add their own tang. Highly enjoyable.
Magic Mike XXL (Warner, cert 15)
Well if it ever was an XXL it must have shrunk in the wash, because this sequel to the “Channing Tatum takes his clothes off” original is very unimpressive as a package. Newbies need to know that it’s still loosely based on Tatum’s time as an exotic dancer, and that it chooses the “getting the gang back together” form of sequel, sending the bickering dancers off on a road trip of pretty immense pointlessness. No one involved at the writing/directing/producing end seems to know what to do in terms of plot (scant) and character development (none), and the bump and grind sequences, when they come, are as much a relief as a diversion. Ah, the “dancing”? It’s very good again, particularly the big finale, shot, I suspect, at a real convention, where the fans deliver much needed hysterical atmosphere as various professional strippers do their thing. These apart, it’s a film of comings and goings, meetings and greetings, “Hey dude” hellos and “Later dude” goodbyes, with just enough female interaction thrown in to safeguard against accusations of being, you know, gay porn. Not that anyone is uncomfortable with the idea of gayness etc etc. Love interest Amber Heard is the best thing in it, again proving she’s a natural in the Sienna Miller mould. And Gregory Jacobs, here the director but really more a second unit man, fails to demonstrate any real grasp of the bigger picture – individual scenes cohere, the whole doesn’t. Or maybe I’m asking more of it than it’s offering. Channing Takes His Clothes Off being the entire happy meal.
Best of Enemies (Dogwoof, cert 15)
In 1968, instead of spending vast sums covering the political conventions properly, struggling ABC network got in pundits Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Jr to discuss what had gone down. The shows they featured on have since become legendary, largely because of the mutual hostility of the two men, who quickly departed from any pre-agreed agenda and went at each other hammer and tongs. Democrat Vidal believed Buckley to be a fascist; Republican Buckley knew Vidal to be gay and in the opening show refers to him as “feline”, before coming out with the full range of insults – whose ad hominem nature lost him the entire debate – further down the line (I won’t ruin it). In opening remarks, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s documentary claims that these encounters were important because they laid the foundations of today’s culture wars in America. But the directors don’t actually pursue this line of argument, and prefer instead to focus on this pair of puffballs – one bouffant, the other reptilian – insulting each other. It’s great fun, though it’s a case of more heat than light. Was Buckley himself gay, as Vidal later went on to assert, as the pair of them took their slanging match first into the magazines and then to the courts? We don’t know, and we probably don’t care. But the pair of them are most remarkable florid, learned and able speakers, who can launch into a sentence without a safety net, against whom the modern talking heads commenting from a distance (including Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky) come up second best. As for who really won – it’s an open call.
Best of Enemies – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2015