Out This Week
Aferim! (StudioCanal, cert 18)
In spite of the fact that it won the Silver Bear at Berlin, Aferim! had no proper cinema release in the UK, and even its home entertainment release is a muted affair. What a terrible shame that is, because it’s a hell of a film, a powerful wonder following a cop and his son on a rambling journey through 1830s Romania. Shot in a slightly mucky black and white – easier to get period settings right when colour isn’t a problem – it’s a Don Quixote meets Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon affair, with the chase after an absconded Gypsy (Toma Cuzin) providing the loose frame of a rambling plot. Because of this slave story aspect, it’s also possible to read it as a cockeyed Romanian take on Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and there are definite moments when writer/director Radu Jude’s screenplay rolls around in the comic possibilities of language, QT style. Such as when cop Costandin (Teodor Corban) and son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) happen upon a priest at the side of the road. “Gypsies,” Costandin asks the priest, “are they human or are they the devil’s spawn?” And out comes a long, hilarious, non-stop racist rant from the man of god – “Hungarians eats a lot, Germans smokes a lot, Arabs has many teeth, Armenians is lazy, Serbians cheats a lot… Gypsies gets many a beating. Gypsies must be slaves.” Tarantino would be proud. Keenly satirising the modern return to an ugly European nationalism, Jude manages to avoid the tendency of picaresque dramas to be formless and gradually winds us into the world not just of the bluff, boozy Costandin, an Oliver Reed of a man, and Ionita, a tender soul, but also into the life of Carfin, the Gypsy they eventually apprehend. This leads to a gruesome and entirely gripping finale in which the other focus of Jude’s satire – money – snaps wincingly into focus. With its period setting, Aferim! clearly doesn’t sit easily with other great films from Romanian New Wave (a long list includes Child’s Pose, Tuesday, After Christmas, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, The Death of Mister Lazarescu), which might explain why it’s been so overlooked. But it’s a modern morality tale all the same, and a great one at that.
Vacation (Warner, cert 15)
I had grim expectations of this reboot of the old Chevy Chase franchise. But I laughed so hard in the first ten minutes that my prejudice just curled up and died. And the jokes were varied too – over the opening credits there were clickbait-style photos of holiday photo fails (people throwing up on a rollercoaster, sort of thing). Then we met Ed Helms as Rusty Griswold, a pilot on a dowdy domestic service, Griswold’s job allowing writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M Goldstein to show that they could do Airplane! gags (turbulence leading to Griswold repeatedly feeling up one of the female passengers). And this was followed by an introduction to the Griswold family and in particular the younger son Kevin (Steele Stebbins) whose ragging of older brother James (who, he insists, has a vagina) is both awful and very funny. Stebbins continues to be the funniest thing in the film as Rusty and wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) take the family off on a re-run of the family holidays of yore, when he and dad would go to frowzy theme park Walley World. The circle is complete, the reboot has reached back to the time when Chevy did exactly the same thing. It seems that whether it’s Norman Wisdom or Adam Sandler, there is a real constituency for comedies in which half-men are repeatedly mocked for being half-men. I’m not part of that constituency, and at some point during Vacation the accumulated weight of the failures of Rusty and older son James (Skyler Gisondo), due to a lack of balls or brains, started to make me feel sorry for them, rather than find them funny. As if to rub it in we have Chris Hemsworth as the boorish hyper-successful husband of Rusty’s sister (Leslie Mann), a character we’re also clearly meant to laugh at, though the writers have more sympathy for him than they do for Rusty. Maybe they’re as transfixed by his big comedy cock sticking through his Calvin Kleins, as is Rusty’s wife Debbie, in a scene familiar from the trailer. So – Vacation is furiously hilarious to start with, and keeps the ante high with its jokes about Albanian cars, omigod gags about paedophilia and properly toilet humour about bathing in shit (a callback to the “floating turd” of Chevy-era Vacation movies). But kicking people who are down doesn’t make me laugh, and the attempt to redeem these utter dorks – with character arcs, sentimentality and the like – doesn’t fit a film that’s selling itself as a breezy anarchic whoosh.
Eden (Metrodome, cert 15)
Mia Hansen-Løve’s drama about the rise and fall of a French DJ is heavily based on the career of her own brother, Sven, who co-wrote the screenplay with her. The arc is 1992’s hedonist raver to 2012’s has-been, with a suggestion that Paul (Sven’s avatar, played by Félix de Givry) and pal Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) are the guys who were always one step behind Daft Punk, in terms of talent, timing, cool and success. You might expect a film about the house/acid house scene – rave to grave, maybe – to be frenzied and always driving forwards. Instead, the Hansen-Løves give us something altogether more chilled: discrete moments from a life, delivered obliquely, forcing the viewer to fill in the blanks. There are endless scenes of coming and going, with Greta Gerwig and Brady Corbet arriving and going in starry cameos, real-life DJs Terry Hunter and Tony Humphries turning up as themselves, then going, Kate Moss and Adrien Brody name-checked at one point as having “just been in” to one club or another. I’m not sure this episodic structure works, and it seems that Mia Hansen-Løve is trying to do for the rave years what her husband Olivier Assayas did for the early 1970s with Something in the Air (aka Après Mai). Assayas pulled it off, majestically, but the Hansen-Løves don’t. Not only is the film too reverential and solipsistic, it fails to explain the attraction of club culture – you’d never guess the idea was the generation and consumption of euphoria. As the years fly by in jumps, the action shifts from France to New York, to Chicago and back to Paris, where, finally, Eden actually turns into something worthwhile, as Paul’s life spins out of control after a mind-breaking melange of the usual (hot but horrible women, great but destructive drugs, wild but useless friends and a critical depletion of the raw animal spirit) and he hits crisis point. Is it worth sitting through the first bit to get to the second? Well, there are lots of small touches that make it clearly the work of someone who’s been there, and MH-L has a fabulous way with actors – you forget they are actors, in other words. Is that enough?
The Bad Education Movie (EV, cert 15)
The Bad Education Movie is Holiday on the Buses with a couple of shots of Jack Whitehall’s ballsack thrown in for extra texture. In other words it lazily takes a British TV comedy, sends everyone involved off to somewhere cheap and cheerful, raunches things up a touch because this is da movies, and then introduces a couple of character actors to try and give the impression of the whole thing having a big-screen life of its own. It’s good fun, if you’re in the mood for a day of kiss me quicks and an STI. And if you’re not up on Whitehall’s shtick, it’s essentially Ricky Gervais’s – the boss who’s a tool but doesn’t realise he is one. This time though the boss is a teacher, though Whitehall plays the appalling Mr Wickers with such enthusiasm he can bounce the entire film over various gaping holes. Iain Glen is a good choice as drafted-in welly, playing the hard-nut leader of the Cornish Liberation Army that Wickers and his kids run into after they abandon the boring itinerary put together by severe PTA member Joanna Scanlan and instead go to the pub. Cue a series of jokes which might, if we’re being charitable, be satirical swipes at the current state of permanent terrorist alert. Though the film is actually happier when it’s rolling around in the world of the visual gag – like the one about a holy relic consisting of a saint’s foreskin which resembles a pork scratching. I think that’s a first.
The Wolfpack (Spectrum, cert E)
This 90 minute thing is a curse sometimes. Here’s a delightful and fascinating documentary that would be perfect at 60 minutes, but at 90 it’s just a bit flabby. And it tells such an interesting story, about a lively family of New York kids who have been brought up in almost total incarceration by their parents. Well, not total imprisonment, but subject to a sort of extreme home-schooling, if you will – some years they’d leave the house maybe nine times, others not at all – forcing the kids to become friends with each other and create their own entertainment. This came in the shape of their own filmed homages to films they revered – Reservoir Dogs being easy, Batman requiring a costume made from yoghurt pots and cardboard, The Godfather a bit more commitment in the acting department. Commitment is something the Angulo family have in spades, whether it’s the parents’ determination to keep their kids safe, or the kids’ to their DIY art. Beyond its initial reveal, the film doesn’t have much to say, perhaps because it doesn’t want to finger the parents, with whose permission the film has clearly been made. We can draw our own conclusions, though. That the South American-immigrant father was a tinpot tyrant who persuaded his timid Mid-Western wife, using a mix of hippie bullshit and old-school patriarchalism, of the wisdom of living away from the world and raising their kids in a kind of secluded purity. And, strangely, that the bright, engaged teenage kids don’t seem to have suffered too much from their ordeal. In fact their screen-fixated, isolated upbringing might make them more suited to the world outside than something a bit more normally normal.
Un Homme Idéal (StudioCanal, cert 12)
Mathieu (Pierre Niney), a crappy writer with a day job doing removals, happens upon an old diary while he’s doing a house clearance of a dead man’s apartment. It’s a vivid account of the former inhabitant’s time as a soldier in Algeria as the country was trying to throw off the French colonial yoke. Plagiarising the diary wholesale, Mathieu becomes an overnight success and soon is living the high life, with a hot girlfriend in the shape of Ana Girardot (of The Returned) as the icing on his cake. Things get interesting while he is sojourning with her BCBG parents in the South of France, where he is meant to be hammering out his follow-up novel, but is of course finding it tough. And then the “I know what you did last Summer” letters start arriving, at exactly the same time as the godson of his girlfriend’s parents is beginning to wonder if this writer is in fact all he says he is. Un Homme Idéal, aka A Perfect Man, plays out like an inversion of a Hitchcock film – our guy is guilty, even though we’re on his side – with similar gloss and awed attitude towards beautiful women. But Hitchcock would never have jeopardy coming from both a blackmailer and a suspicious godson at the same time, and this weird double attack doesn’t do the film any favours, though it must be said that writer/director Yann Gozlan and co-writers Guillaume Lemans and Grégoire Vigneron do eventually streamline things a bit with a character cull. No spoilers. Perhaps best watched as a comedy that never cracks a wink.
Black or White (Signature, cert 12)
If you’ve ever seen The Postman, Kevin Costner’s mad epic in which Costner’s postie single-handedly brings about the re-establishment of western civilisation after an apocalypse, you’ll know that his death-or-glory leanings didn’t die with Waterworld. Here, he’s the producer and star, and sets out to sort out the entire race problem in the US. FFS. No matter what you might say about his vaingloriousness, he’s absolutely fantastic as the grandfather trying to retain custody of his mixed-race granddaughter (Quvenzhané-cute Jillian Estell) after the death of her mother, while Octavia Spencer, as the girl’s father’s mother, is the black grandma convinced the little girl should live with her own kind – since white America will always see the kid as black. Spencer is also great, indeed when is she not? But Black or White is a courtroom drama – since the custody issue eventually resolves itself into a legal battle – that won’t simply get on and be a courtroom drama. Instead it gives us backstory and character studies, all beautifully done, for sure, of the lives of Costner and Spencer and the people who orbit them. It makes a show of being racially even-handed with much equivalence – between Costner’s drink problem and the crack habit of his granddaughter’s wayward dad (André Holland), between comfortably wealthy lawyer Costner and go-getting entrepreneur-in-her-own-garage Spencer, between his casually superior (though unfailingly not racist) attitude and her high-handedness. It all gets a bit wearing, this “on the one hand/on the other” and it’s noticeable that the film is at its best when it lets its actors fly – particularly Spencer, who does hellish spitfire like nothing on earth. Small shout to Paula Newsome as the judge presiding over the unruly courtroom where black and/or white is eventually to be resolved. Every time she opens her mouth the film kicks up a gear, and doubles the impression that what this really needed was to be set entirely in her bailiwick. But then that’s Costner – overreaching.
Black or White – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2015