Out This Week
Carol (StudioCanal, cert 15)
Todd Haynes’s biggest success to date has been 2002’s Far from Heaven, the period-fanatical story of forbidden gay love giddy with the melodrama of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and starring Dennis Quaid, Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert. It’s tempting to see Carol as an attempt to repeat the trick, since it’s another period-fanatical story of forbidden gay love. But instead of man-on-man love, this time Haynes goes for woman-on-woman, and decks everything out in the colder, lonelier and butcher tones of an Edward Hopper painting – no Tupperware pastels here. It’s also a tale of love across a class divide, Cate Blanchett being the money, Rooney Mara the shopgirl she falls for. But not content to leave it there – Haynes loves his excess – there’s also a feeble side story of Mara discovering photography and learning to express herself. She develops, in more ways than one, allegory-lovers. Carol moves at the pace of a Perry Como record and is all over-engineered cars, booths in restaurants, tightly run department stores and clothes that are tailored to fit people who must also fit in.
“What a strange girl you are; flung out of space” says Blanchett to Rooney as the pair suddenly realise they have fallen badly for each other. Lovers of love scenes won’t be disappointed – they’re fabulous, touching, beautifully directed and played, and used to make Haynes’s point subtly – when love is this overwhelming, for it to be seen as dirty or illegal seems unnatural. The original story is by Patricia Highsmith, and if Carol has a fault it’s in comparison with other Highsmith adaptations – The Talented Mr Ripley or Strangers on a Train, for example – where love heading in an illicit direction is linked to a driving thriller plot. There’s no such coupling here, just the story of Blanchett possibly losing custody of her child to her husband, who knows what she is and is bridling at the fact that he’s lost not just his chattel but an aspect of his manhood. Kyle Chandler, as Carol’s husband, is actually quietly remarkable, not so much a 1950s husband, but a personification of the sort of actor who might have played a 1950s husband – slick, bland and well fed. The whole of this tender, regretful Brokeback-ian tragedy is a bit like that too.
Beyond Beyond (Lionsgate, cert PG)
A fabulous animation from Sweden, dubbed into English, and recalling the Studio Ghibli of Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle with its story of a parentless youngster having adventures in a fantastical realm. Here the youngster is a rabbit, and he’s off to see the wizard – a Feather King, in fact – who might not even be the boss of his own kingdom, since there is dark mention of a creature called Mora, a tentacular beast that lurks at the bottom of a bottomless well. How much more plot do you want? All you need to know is that Jonah the rabbit gets into scrapes, most of them brought on by his shifty sidekick Bill, a bluff and impetuous seadog (voiced by a booming Jon Heder) who puts the Feather King in a box, abolishes all the rules and… enough. No, what you do actually need to know is that the animation, though very simple, catches motion brilliantly in three dimensions and renders the reflection and refraction of light in a way that Pixar might find interesting. The flashes of absurdity and the veneration of steampunk technology are Ghibli again, and if there’s one more thing director Esben Toft Jacobsen might have got from the Japanese masters, but hasn’t, it’s to give the story enough time for its telling. At 78 minutes, this is simply too short.
Bridge of Spies (Fox, cert 12)
Bridge of Spies starts out a great film, but like so many Steven Spielberg movies ends up being merely a good one. It is a great story though, and true, of an insurance lawyer (Tom Hanks) who gets embroiled in the case of a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance, Oscar-winning though not doing an awful lot), and is then co-opted by the US government to organise the spy swap of this communist for the American Gary Powers. History factoid: Powers was a U2 pilot shot down in his reconnaissance plane over the USSR and found guilty of spying by a Soviet court. The actors are magnificent, the sets on a scale that only Spielberg can afford, there’s a Spy Who Came In from the Cold sexiness that’s very much of the moment, lots of tense procedural action and lashings of modern relevance in its theme of the importance of protecting constitutional liberties particularly in times of external threat. Lots of good things, in other words. And two great stories, which get roughly half of the film each. In part one we get Rylance’s fatalistic spy Rudolf Abel’s arrest, his meeting with state-appointed lawyer James B Donovan (Hanks) and Donovan’s Hanksian good-guy insistence on playing it by the book to ensure a fair trial – against universal opposition, including his own family – all the way to the Supreme Court. In part two there’s Donovan’s arrival in Berlin just as the Wall is about to go up, and his negotiations with both East German and Soviet delegates to secure the release of his man (men, in fact, but let’s not go into that here). The two stories don’t really have anything to do with each other, and Rylance’s disappearance for most of the second half of the film admits as much. Two separate films – one a barnstorming courtroom drama, the other a great spy thriller – could and perhaps should have been made out of the material. Or a TV series. But Spielberg doesn’t do TV, not directing anyway. It’s our loss, and his too, especially since the Coen brothers had a hand in the dialogue, which prowls around Hanks’s latterday Jimmy Stewart yard dropping snappy lines. And is it too much to ask Spielberg to change his composers? Thomas Newman’s horns and strings – as if Yankee Doodle Dandy has been slowed right down and shifted into a wistfully uplifting minor key – it’s really not working any more.
Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (Lionsgate, cert 12)
As a lovely woman I was talking to last week reminded me – “it’s not for you”. The “it” was this sort of film, the latest in the big wet wave including Divergent, Maze Runner, The Giver, all of which seem in thrall at some level to Ayn Rand and her peculiar vision of a grave new world where there’s just big bad governments and oppressed citizens – not a global megacorp to be seen, bless. Then, having – in a manner typical of a middle-aged man who’s on his fourth drink – asserted that the entire Hunger Games series was for young women who’d not yet had sex with a man, another lovely woman chipped in with an “or a woman”. And hit the nail right on the head. Because for all the talk in these films of little (ie young) people fighting the man, there is nothing as tightly, uniformly in its box, or as propagandistically rigid as the YA movie, and the novels they’re based on. Hey ho: we live in conservative times, said the guy from the 1970s. The film, though, the film. Ha! It’s not bad at all, director Francis Lawrence marshalling his considerable budget into a series of well choreographed, tense action sequences as Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss makes her advance on Donald Sutherland’s President Snow and the Capital. I fell asleep for an entire hour in the first Mockingjay film, and it didn’t seem to harm it much. But this time I was gripped by the driving action if not the characters. JLaw (do we still call her that?) has little to do apart from pull resolute three-quarter-profile poses, allowing us to conjecture at what point exactly in the film’s shooting she had her nose done, Sutherland is fine as a Bond baddie manqué and still doesn’t really have enough screen time, Julianne Moore as the rebel leader lets the cat out of the already half-open bag with a character shift towards the dark side, nicely done too. At the cadet level, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman (if it’s CG, it’s good CG), Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci could all be deleted and the film wouldn’t suffer. Leaving us for the most part with Josh Hutcherson, a bale of sullen waterlogged straw who should be the film’s emotional core but is actually its biggest liability. Francis Lawrence knows it, as I’m sure does Hutcherson himself. Plot? Katniss et al advance on the Capital, there are some bloodless battles, Snow indulges in skulduggery, has a small moment of minor victory near the end, before Katniss… come on.
Welcome to Leith (Metrodome, cert 15)
Not to be confused with the dour, misfiring Proclaimers musical Sunshine on Leith, Welcome to Leith is a documentary about a rural North Dakota hamlet with a population of 24. That’s 25 once a “lonely old guy”, as one resident puts it, called Craig Cobb moves in. What the town don’t know is that Cobb is a vicious white supremacist and is in Leith to buy up all the town, create a thriving community of pure-blood Nordics, Nazis and Klan members and so on. And soon they start arriving, as Cobb and co lead a simultaneous bid to take over the local government. It’s always tempting – especially if you’re an urban, fairly liberal Brit like me – to think of Americans out in the back of beyond as being pretty far to the right. Maybe they are, compared to me. But if that is the case then what happens next is a sign of just how much further to the right Craig Cobb and his followers are. Because the townsfolk simply aren’t having any of it, and band together in the most joyous show of “they shall not pass” solidarity, standing behind the town’s single black face, who suddenly becomes something between a hero and a mascot as the townsfolk attempt to run Cobb out of town. The really fascinating thing about this documentary by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K Walker is that it’s the white supremacists who use the language of civil rights, the sort that Martin Luther King might understand, while the good folk of Leith are shown quite clearly bending the local laws to deny Cobb and his cohorts a place to live. So the bad guys are the good guys and vice versa? Not exactly. And even if the bad guys are the good guys, the supremacists are particularly adept at shooting themselves in the foot. Enter Cobb’s lieutenant Dutton, whose inbred-hayseed persona is like something out of a Coen brothers movie. And there’s a particularly enjoyable scene where Cobb is on a daytime talk show with a black host (Trisha, Brit viewers will recognise), where an analysis of his DNA doesn’t quite come back with the result he’d expected.
The Good Dinosaur (Disney, cert PG)
Disney cuteness is like a Nazi virus: very hard to kill, tending to get about a bit. There’s a touch of it here in Pixar’s animation about a family of dinosaurs who cultivate crops (see: cute), live in a Monument Valley kind of landscape and aspire to the sort of nuclear-family lifestyle that was culturally on its death bed back in the days of Bewitched and The Addams Family. If you’re allergic to cuteness, don’t worry, it is just a touch, and once Pixar have eased us into this ridiculous set-up, they pretty much go with the logic of it, sending fearful dino-youngster Arlo off on a sinew-stiffening adventure in the company of a man-child named Spot. The name’s appropriate because Spot behaves like a dog – walking on four legs, communicating in grunts and howls, using his sense of smell a lot and, er, wearing a loincloth. It is the flights of fancy – a rhino with a Buddhist mindset, the accidental consumption of hallucinogenic fruit, tyrannosaurs who herd buffalo – that make The Good Dinosaur an enjoyable adventure, even if you’re wondering who exactly it’s for (the lively nine-year-old in us all, I concluded). The animation is as you’d expect from Pixar, who are doing clever things tweaking real-life footage and using it as a background, particularly effective when Arlo and Spot are hurtling down rivers or soaring through the air, as happens when the baddie pterodactyls show up. The music makes frequent references to the muscular soundtracks of Elmer Bernstein, which is appropriate since the message is that toughness comes from being exposed to, and surmounting, challenges. Not a bad message for our cotton-wool age.
Black Mass (Warner, cert 15)
Goodfellas meets The Departed in a gangster movie that knows it’s deep in Scorsese territory and isn’t quite sure whether to run towards or away from daddy. Johnny Depp goes dark and take-me-seriously bald-pated to play real-life gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, a “ripe psychopath” as cop boss Kevin Bacon describes him, being recruited by FBI operative Joel Edgerton to bust open rival gangs in 1970s/80s Boston. The corruptible cop is actually the more interesting character, and Edgerton the better actor – for all Depp’s attempts to play Bulger straight, odd nano-flashes of Captain Jack Sparrow keep intruding – and as a film it’s one I blew hot and cold over, pastiche not being a particular favourite. In fact, Black Mass at about the three-quarters stage started to feel a bit like a Joe Pesci impersonation competition – Edgerton going for the squeak and the hair, Depp going for the menace, and he even gets a “funny how?” scene. DP Masanobu Takayanagi is kept busy with gels and lighting trying to steer the whole thing away from comparison with you know who and the cathedral-esque score by Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL) works up a mood of bad shit coming this-a-way with the organs and strings. If you just can’t get enough Goodfellas, the parking lots, bodies-in-the-trunk, don’t-ask-don’t-tell wife, kind-to-grannies, Catholic church, parties, swank bars and so on, you’ll probably love Black Mass. But there’s the sense of a pass being fumbled, stories missed, avenues left unexplored. Look out for Corey Stoll, playing a new FBI chief, a character introduced towards the end of the film to sort out the stink, and tell me the film shouldn’t have been about him. He’s a refreshing, tough-guy actor too.
Black Mass – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2016