22 February 2016-02-22

Out This Week

Spectre (Fox, cert 12)

Trope is what they should have called this film, rather than Spectre, though god knows the spectre of so many old Bond movies hangs over a film which, in reviewing terms is worth about two out of five stars if seen as a standalone film, but four as a mash-up.

The usual recent writing team of John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (Bond writers since The World Is Not Enough) is augmented this time by playwright Jez Butterworth, whose knack for snappy dialogue made Edge of Tomorrow into something worth listening to as well as watching. Here, this quartet send Bond off to Mexico for a Day of the Dead opener of spectacular Bond-trumping action before getting down to a nitty gritty plot that pits old-school spies, such as 007, against not just a supervillain in the shape of Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld, but also new-fangled 360-degree-eavesdropping, as practised by a government near you. 007 backs Edward Snowden shock.

Hoyte Van Hoytema’s camera goes for the stygian look that made Let the Right One In such a lickable item. And ignore the newspaper articles crafted from wish-fulfilment that Monica Bellucci is somehow a better Bond girl than Léa Seydoux. There is no contest – Seydoux has all the equipment and know-how, and turns it on and off as necessary, though to be fair to Bellucci, she doesn’t get much screen time.

So, yes, the familiar elements – Bond girls, supervillains, locations and action, including action on a train, on a boat, in a helicopter (oh my god), on skis and at the villain’s lair. There are black-clad villains, a white cat, a plane losing its wings and carrying on regardless, in a manner reminiscent of Roger Moore and the motor boat in Live and Let Die.

It’s really clear why Bond nuts aren’t so keen on Spectre – this film is not extending the brand. But then the previous Bond, Skyfall, didn’t either, it merely hit the reset button which, let’s face it, had been hit as recently as 2006’s Casino Royale.

But for those of us who generally get fidgety about 40 minutes into a Bond movie, as location number three is introduced and the good or bad Bond girl slips into something a bit more deadly, this superb plate of delicious cold cuts works a treat.

And notice that scene – Seydoux asleep in the bed, Craig gallantly upright in a chair in the small hours and watching a mouse scurrying out of a hole and across the floor. “Who are you working for?” he deadpans.

It’s a beautifully written and played moment, which gives us just a second’s respite from the Bondage, before it all starts up again; the equivalent of a big deep breath and a wink.

Spectre – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

The Survivalist (Bulldog, cert 18)

So, Irish post-apocalyptic drama anyone?

The Survivalist is something very special indeed, and like Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf has no truck with the idea that after some devastating civilisation-ending event, we might go back to a prelapsarian world. Instead writer/director Stephen Fingleton opens with a shot of our lone protagonist (Martin McCann) burying somebody, his appalling ratty cornrow mullet hairstyle on its own an indicator that life as we know it has ended.

Into his hardscrabble world – imagine The Martian set in a damp Irish glade – enters an older woman (Olwen Fouere) and a girl of maybe 15 (Mia Goth), looking for some pickings from the vegetables he’s growing out here where the marauding gangs won’t find him, maybe. Mother and daughter, maybe grandmother and granddaughter, maybe no relation at all.

The deal, it soon becomes clear, since they have nothing else he wants, is food for sex, and it’s not with the old dear.

Without giving too much of the plot away, this sets in train a very tense dance between the two parties, who engage in an “everything is transactional” relationship which lasts considerably longer than Survivalist (as the imdb calls him) had reckoned on, in which love, art, beauty and the other appurtenances of civilised life have no place, and the nomadic rather than the sedentary have the upper hand.

There is no music on the soundtrack, the shooting style is clear and direct with little in the way of tricksiness in lighting, lenses or edits. This throws a big burden on the actors, who are all superb, but most praise has to go to Goth as the young girl Milja, who should win an award just for the look on her face when her body is being sold off for a few turnips – she’s not happy, her expression says, but needs must.

This taciturn, stark and utterly gripping film really has something to say about relationships between people – that perhaps we can’t help ourselves, that we just imprint, like newborn chicks – and it ends with a massive kicker which is well worth hanging on for.

The Survivalist – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Taxi Tehran (New Wave, cert 12)

Like Ai Wei Wei in China, the Iranian Jafar Panahi knows what it is to be gagged by his government, but also understands the special privilege that being an artist confers – even oppressive government don’t want to be seen as being overtly being nasty, so they often gift their artist dissidents a simulacrum of free expression, where a simulacrum is a lot better than what non-artist dissidents are getting.

This means that Panahi, whose work has always engaged at an ideological level with the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran, has carried on making films, in spite of the fact that he’s essentially banned from doing so. In fact you might have seen 2006’s Offside, a pithy and gripping tale of girls trying to go and watch a game of football (not allowed). This got Panahi into trouble with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Or 2011’s This Is Not a Film, which was smuggled out of Iran on a thumb drive.

At first glance you might also say that Taxi Tehran (aka Jafar Panahi’s Taxi) “is not a film”, since it appears to be simply a report from the camera Panahi has fixed to his dashboard recording conversations with people he picks up as he taxis around Tehran. But even the first shot – camera facing forward towards the street where the men clearly dress western-style while the women are veiled – is telling us something interesting about the society Panahi is documenting. And as this cunningly crafted film – the mock doc that dare not speak its name – proceeds, each one of Panahi’s fares tells us more about his homeland and the heavy manners it lives under.

Whether it’s a hawker of pirated videos (pointing out to the authorities that the prohibition on Hollywood movies doesn’t work), or his niece treating Panahi to some of her classwork on making a “distributable” (ie government sanctioned) film, or the old friend whose shop has been turned over, knows who did it but won’t turn them in (because death is what awaits the miscreant under this grim system), every “fare”, every encounter engages directly with the regime, in the guise of being just people in a cab talking about stuff.

En route we learn, mostly from the niece but also the “flower lady” who gets in towards the end, a disbarred lawyer we discover, that a “distributable” movie must feature respect for the scarf, no contact between men and woman, no sordid realism, no violence, that the good guys should have saints’ names, that discussion of politics and economic issues should be avoided. And so on.

By the end of the film, in a most remarkable fashion, as Panahi and niece leave the car and something rather shocking and believably real happens, we realise Panahi has systematically broken every single one of the rules that have been explained to us, and in ways that even the regime would find it hard to condemn. All the while smiling and shrugging disarmingly. He’s an immensely clever man, this Panahi.

Taxi Tehran aka Jafar Panahi’s Taxi – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Arrowhead (Metrodome, cert 15)

Since there are mixed reviews for this Australian sci-fi, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I slid the review disc into the machine.

But I was really extremely pleasantly surprised. Because what Arrowhead turns out to be is a massively accomplished work of old-school sci-fi – Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, John Carpenter’s Dark Star, Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running and George Lucas’s THX 1138, plus a bit of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, all seem to be in there – made for very little money indeed, its intensely alien look enormously helped by the fact that writer/director Jesse O’Brien had the Australian desert to use as a backdrop.

For the rest of it… well, not very much in the way of tech or effects. I suspect one rather neat moment was crafted using tissue paper soaked in Vaseline. But… to the plot… which shadows that of The Martian, in that it sticks a lone fugitive up on an empty planet with only a partially on-side talking computer for company.

The film is about the struggle for existence, which is pushed into more potentially biological territory when our guy (Dan Mor, whose impossibly toned upper body is like something off a Men’s Health cover) is joined by a female astronaut (Aleisha Rose’s slender figure turning the heads of those not already turned by Mor’s).

But there’s no coupling – and here it’s interesting to note how wary sci-fi is of romance, compared to other genres – of any sort. Instead O’Brien merely strikes a spark between these two stranded astronauts, while keeping his main focus on the maintenance of a sense of external threat… there’s something sentient out there, possibly out to get them, but what is it?

This is an intensely plot-driven film, which moves into scenarios involving limb regeneration, shape-shifting, time dilation and stuff I’m not going to tell you about… because that’s what the film is for.

Arrowhead is massively ingenious in its use of the simplest effects for maximum impact, with O’Brien reminding us that a bit of smoke and a couple of well placed lights can do more in the way of imaginative atmospherics than all the CGI of Industrial Light and Magic.

At the time of writing, this great little film has 4.6/10 on the IMDB. The wisdom of crowds, eh.

Arrowhead – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (Dogwoof, cert 15)

Lisa Immordino-Vreeland cut her teeth making a documentary called The Eye Has to Travel, about her grandmother-in-law Diana Vreeland. Now she’s doing a similar service for Peggy Guggenheim, who was probably the pre-eminent collector of modern 20th-century art.

Luckily for Vreeland, in 1978-79, Jacqueline Weld interviewed Guggenheim at length for a biography she was writing, and those audio tapes provide a lot of first-hand testimony in this telling of a fascinating story – of the black sheep of a fabulously wealthy clan who knew the big names of 20th century art.

A New Yorker by birth, Peggy really got going after moving to Paris in the 1920s, where she hung out with Toklas and Picasso, Pound and Joyce, before opening a gallery in Cork Street, London, before the Second World War. It was the War which enabled her to assemble her astonishing collection. As Hitler’s tanks rumbled across Europe, art prices tumbled and Peggy, advised by Marcel Duchamp (“My great teacher”) charged over to Paris where she was able to go shopping, snapping up works by Miro, Giacometti, Tanguy, Brancusi, Picasso, Mondrian et al for a paltry total of $40,000.

Later, she worked the same trick again in the US, where she discovered and championed Jackson Pollock (after being nudged by Mondrian), as well as Motherwell, De Kooning and Rothko. Those two lists of names are the reason why she is so important, and it’s interesting to note that the famous Guggenheim Collection in New York is only as full of goodies as it is because Peggy gifted her uncle Solomon (whose collection it ostensibly is) the bulk of her collection, which his adviser on art, Hilla Rebay, had earlier deemed to be trash.

As for Peggy the woman, she wasn’t much of a looker but she enjoyed sex with most of the artists she championed, but lacked a maternal instinct, which left disastrous scars on her two children, Sindbad and Pegeen.

This largely chronological biography paints a picture of a sad and lonely life, the art apparently being something of a comfort to a woman who for all the advantages of her birth seriously lacked confidence. It’s also something of a thumbnail sketch of 20th-century art as its centre of power swung from Paris to New York.

It’s a solid endeavour that offers little in the way of surprises – if you already know Peggy’s story – though the sight of Robert De Niro turning up as one of the many authoritative talking heads (both his parents were artists and both were shown by Guggenheim in her Venice gallery) did catch me unawares.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

The Smuggler (Trinity, cert 15)

A fat-faced people-pleasing waster (co-director and star Angus Sampson) is persuaded to act as a drug mule, heads off to Bangkok where he dutifully swallows a gutful of drug-filled condoms, then is detained at customs on the way back into Australia.

Certain he’s carrying something, the police haul him off to a motel and wait for nature to take its course – twice, to be really sure. That’s the first few minutes of The Smuggler (aka The Mule) dealt with. The rest of it watches and waits as Ray wrestles with his gurgling guts while the cops smoke and drum their fingers.

“Fuck that,” says cop Hugo Weaving, “I’m not waiting here all night for this cunt to take a dump” – a line which distils the flavour of this strange Oz offering that is played by all concerned as if it’s a comedy but contains no jokes, not even black ones. As Ray writhes on the greasy sheets – he’s told the cops he’s allergic to laxatives, so can’t be given one, to preserve his human rights – a collection of interested parties develops around him: police and a defence lawyer, his harridan mother, the local Mr Big who financed the drugs jaunt, plus the old mate who’s not sure if he should heed Mr Big’s command and kill his friend.

Set against the background of Australia winning the Americas Cup in 1983, being victorious – is it going to be the cops or Ray who wins out? – is the theme.

But the treatment, the treatment, that’s what’s so odd, and what makes this film so discomfitingly watchable. I see Leigh Whannell co-wrote it and he also co-stars, as Ray’s old mate. He of Saw fame. Torture porn. Makes sense. It’s the closest genre that this unsavoury film fits into. Especially when Ray starts, in the dead of night on about the fifth day, to feel like he really can’t hold everything in any more. No spoilers, but let’s just say it all gets a bit messy, several times, and in several different ways.

The Smuggle aka The Mule – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

The Benefactor (Arrow, cert 15)

The benefactor of the title is Franny (Richard Gere), a wealthy philanthropist who within minutes of this film opening has helped accidentally cause the death of his old friends, has become estranged from their daughter (Dakota Fanning) and become a Howard Hughes-like recluse up in Manhattan. Roll opening credits.

Once these are dispatched with, we meet an older, whiter-haired Gere, mojo seemingly restored, re-introducing himself into the life of Olivia (Fanning) and new husband Luke (Theo James). Re-introducing himself a little too intrusively, if they’re being honest, which they’re reluctant to be, since Franny’s cash is being splashed most magnanimously in their direction.

This tale of gross emotional manipulation hands a good role to Gere, whose career at this point is still ranging wide – with films like The Hoax, The Double, Arbitrage and The Second Best Marigold Hotel (not saying nothing, Robert De Niro).

Gere does well as the humanitarian with a dark side and some pains have been taken to present Franny as a complex man rather than just a bad one. Watch the scene where Franny takes Luke out for a wild night of partying and ecstasy-taking and you’ll be convinced Gere has actually taken it – that moist gleam.

What undermines the whole enterprise, though, is the constant shifts of focus: we’re seeing it all from Franny’s point of view, then from that of Luke and Olivia (though Fanning is actually barely in the film) when things would be more dramatic if they stuck with one party or the other. Is bad editing to blame? A screenplay rewritten to appeal more to a youth demographic, or pander to Gere the star? Perhaps just bad directing?

Whatever it is, what has the potential to be a fine Foxcatcher-like drama about the way financial largesse distorts relations at both ends of the transaction ends up being little more than an afternoon melodrama. Gere is rather fantastic though. Here’s to his late-career renaissance.

The Benefactor – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2016

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