30 May 2016-05-30

Out This Week

The Club (Network, cert 18)

Chilean film-maker Pablo Larraín’s seething drama is set in a remote safe house where a group of disgraced Catholic priests are living under the steely eye of capable nun Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers). Life is simple and ordered, with the only bit of excitement coming from the racing of the priests’ greyhound at a local track, though the priests themselves are symbolically watching the race from a distance, through binoculars. This cosy life of the exiled pariah changes when new priest Father Mathias (José Soza) arrives and, having been read the rules – no self-flagellating, no self-pleasuring, no contact with anyone outside – he resignedly settles in, complaining bitterly that he doesn’t think he should be there with all these other twisted weirdos. Unfortunately for the holier-than-them Mathias, local fisherman Sandokan (Robert Farías) has seen him arrive, and is soon standing outside the refuge shouting graphic details about being sexually abused by him as a child. Soon, a shocking incident has occurred – no spoilers – and the Vatican has responded by sending in a fixer to shut things down. Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso) is a clinical Jesuit with a background as a shrink.

The film really starts here, as a powerplay between the silken, strict Jesuit and the priests, with Sister Monica as a separate dramatic struggle since she, Garcia realises, is the smartest of the lot, sharper mentally even than him.

Like the Kevin Bacon film The Woodsman, The Club sets out to an extent to get us into the paedophile mindset, not so much to understand what drives it as to outline the predicament of people who have it – who, honestly, would choose to be turned on by kids, knowing the social penalty for such feelings? – but The Club also obliquely examines the Catholic Church’s attitude to sex, and how its insistence on chastity (no sex) and celibacy (no marriage) for priests is a cause of the paedophile problem. Before the less forgiving out there wonder why Larraín is trying to get us to feel sorry for a bunch of dirty old fucks, there is a corrective – and I don’t just mean in the milky shooting style of DP Sergio Armstrong, whose light in the lens is a touch mannered but understandable. It’s in the omnipresent Sandokan, the grown-up altar boy whose rantings about priestly semen and foreskins first precipitated the incident that brought the steely Garcia down upon the fold. But even here… it’s complicated… Sandokan’s character and, by extension, human sexuality. I will say no more except that this is a great and complex film – a cold crime thriller with a far from guiltless Garcia as its investigating cop (an echo of so many creepy cardinals in Alonso’s performance) – which takes a difficult subject and tries to unpack it rather than rush to justice.

Larraín, in films such as Tony Manero and No, has shown himself to be an adroit chronicler of the skewed interplay between the big institution and the individual. Here he’s taking on the Catholic Church, which has known for at least 800 years, as we learned in Alex Gibney’s documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, that it has a paedophile priest problem. Larraín’s film goes further, showing how the Church has dealt with it – and the duty of care to abused children or even abusive priests doesn’t feature at all.

The Club – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Dad’s Army (Universal, cert PG)

Sadly, Dad’s Army isn’t a bad film. I’d so wanted not to like it, believing that the UK needs to face forwards rather than backwards, and that its myths about Britain “winning the war” need challenging, not serving up for afternoon tea. But hey, Toby Jones, Bill Nighy and Michael Gambon – doing on-the-nail impersonations of Arthur Lowe as pompous Captain Mainwaring, John Le Mesurier as superior Sergeant Jones and Arnold Ridley as dizzy Private Godfrey – they’re hard to resist. Throw in Catherine Zeta Jones as a lady journalist and double agent – c’mon, CZJ doesn’t play goodies – and there’s enough plot in there to keep things perking along for 100 minutes as the oldsters, physically substandard and shirkers of the Home Guard do their domestic bit to fight the Nazis, while the men fall out among themselves over a middle-aged glamourpuss. CZJ slips into what once would have been a Joan Collins role as into a silk negligee, and in the spirit of our times the female content all round has been beefed up – there are roles for Sarah Lancashire, Alison Steadman, Annette Crosbie and a particularly finely bittersweet Felicity Montagu, as Mainwaring’s verging-on-lesbian butch wife. Tom Courtenay (Corporal Jones), Blake Harrison (“silly boy” Private Pike) and Daniel Mays (spiv Private Walker) are also all present and correct. Staying resolutely in the past is the comedy – “I saw that, Jack Jones” says Steadman at one point to the butcher/corporal, “You just slipped her a sausage”. And survivors of the original 1970s TV sitcom Ian Lavender and Frank Williams turn up too. And wasn’t that Oliver Tobias? God knows what foreigners will make of it.

Dad’s Army – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Rams (Soda, cert 15)

Another of those bleak, wide, elemental Icelandic dramas – see Of Horses and Men for one of the best films of the past few years, or TV series Trapped – another fettling of the unsexy into something compelling. Here, it’s all about sheep-rearing brothers who haven’t spoken for decades – one guy called Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), the other Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), whose matted hair and beards make them resemble the animals they look after and whose enmity is made plain in a brilliant scene at a local sheep beauty competition, where Kiddi wins first prize for one of his Bolstadur sheep, a geographically specific breed. The brothers, though they haven’t spoken for 40 years, still have a bond – Gummi’s sheepdog will take handwritten notes to Kiddi, which is how Kiddi finds out that Gummi thinks his winning ram has scrapie. This is a degenerative brain disease akin to mad cow disease and means the entire flock will have to be slaughtered, wiping out the breed and the man’s whole reason for living – he’s too old to start again once the area has eventually been declared clean again. So, why have the two fallen out? Is this really the end for the Bolstadur sheep? There’s a semi-comedic note to the playing of the two brothers which isn’t entirely in keeping with the subject of the film, but director Grimu Hákonarson generates a belt of poignancy for these old-timers whose last few years of productive life have suddenly been taken away from them. And the flat, matt cinematography really suits a primal storyline that builds towards a highly dramatic and tender finish. Highly recommended.

Rams – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

600 Miles (Soda, cert 15)

600 Miles proceeds via a series of blindsidings, the first being that its apparent main character, Carson (Harrison Thomas), a scuzzball trying to buy a gun to protect himself on a cross-border smuggling run, is not the film’s focus at all. That’s his sidekick, the Mexican Arnulfo (Krystyan Ferrer) who, we learn through a series of encounters with older tougher guys, is possibly gay, maybe just a bit stupid, completely out of his depth. And then the focus shifts again to Tim Roth, as a plodding government agent specialising in gun trafficking, clearly on the trail of these two wannabe desperados. In an early scene taking place at a gun fair, all the big positives of this film become clear in one second, as Roth chats to a guy he knows running the stall, then casually adds in a “Hey, Greta,” to the woman (Harris Kendall) also behind the counter. She says, “Hey” back at him and it’s so casual, too casual, that we know there’s a back story there. The  film advances by similar tiny telling gestures, until the 600 miles of the title are explained, as Roth, tied up in the back of the car, is driven by Arnulfo to meet the kid’s uncle for a showdown which can’t end well for somebody. It’s only on this drive that I started to get twitchy – Is it all getting a bit propagandistic? Is this another tale of a silly kid doing the wrong thing for what seems like a good reason (money)? Yes, and no. But debut director Gabriel Ripstein sticks with his MO – drop us in and let us work it out – and Alain Marcoen’s camera, like the screenplay and actors, works by micro nudges, and the film is still parcelling out revelations beyond the big bloody finish and into a coda that is worth hanging on for because it’s so confounding.

600 Miles – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Dark Signal (Kaleidoscope, cert 18)

The giallo revival (eg Amer, Tulpa – Perdizioni Mortali and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears) continues with this contribution from Wales in a chiller about brutal murder and supernatural goings-on at a remote radio station. It’s a twin track tale – a sulky sultry radio DJ on her last night in one segment and a naive Polish immigrant out on a minor robbery job with a man we assume to be her boyfriend in the other – which only really starts to get interesting when a clear connection is made between the two. Bridging that gap is Cinzia Monreale, a woman with the looks and vintage of an original giallo bombshell, as a psychic who believes that the old AM radio signal is trying to tell her something. Around this point the killing gets going, director Edward Evers-Swindell starts bathing everything in an exotic red glow, and the beautiful large eyes of both lead women (Siwan Morris, familiar from TV show Skins, and Joanna Ignaczewska) are used to spooky and enchanting effect. There are some chilling old-school physical shocks, highly effective misdirection involving a sinister James Cosmo (such a great actor) and enough vinyl hitting turntables to keep the diehard hipster happy. Not to mention leather hot pants. All is not perfect: there’s a distinct flappiness about the script (Morris is a supposedly cool DJ yet addresses her listeners as “folks”), some wobbly acting and the odd bit of straightforward bad directing. But, on the whole, Dark Signal is a respectable entry in this neo-canon, and a welcome alternative to the many reality-based horror films that have assailed us since The Blair Witch Project changed the way things are. An analogue film in a digital world.

Dark Signal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Snoopy and Charlie Brown: the Peanuts Movie (Fox, cert U)

Peanuts always left me cold. Too cute. Not cynical enough. I know it became something like the most syndicated cartoon strip in the world, in its long run, and I suspect that if you loved Charles M Schulz’s characters, you’ll love this similarly cute, corny, brightly coloured animation true to the original. The film’s task is to translate something that works in three/four static panels – a setup and deadpan payoff – into something that works at feature length. Co-writers Craig and Brian Schulz (son and grandson of Charles) have decided to do it just the way dad did it – A bit of Story A (Charlie Brown smitten when Red-Haired Girl joins the class), a bit of Story B (Snoopy), a fair bit of Story C (Snoopy’s imaginative flights of fancy battling the Red Baron), then fill in the gaps with the minor characters such as Lucy, Woodstock and Marcie. Though I found it neither funny nor profound, I enjoyed Snoopy’s sequences with the Baron a bit – as I did in the original strips – because they introduced action, drama and pace. And I kept wondering about Charlie’s hair, which was fine on the page suggested by a pencil squiggle at the front. As a moving character, however, Charlie looks bald. Has he had chemotherapy? Is he related to Benjamin Button? The mind wanders.

Snoopy and Charlie Brown: the Peanuts Movie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Our Brand Is Crisis (Warner, cert 15)

This Grant Heslov/George Clooney-produced drama stars Sandra Bullock as a political wonk trying to win an election in Bolivia for an unelectable patrician candidate. And by god… she… no spoilers! Clooney himself was originally intended to take the role played by Bullock, or so we hear, and if this is so (since most “was going to” speculation is just noise), my guess is that he passed for two reasons: the political chicanery was too close in tone and content to his The Ides of March; and the script just wasn’t good enough. Sold as a satire, and comporting itself as such, Our Brand Is Crisis is actually closer to a redemption drama for its star, who plays “Calamity Jane”, a highly respected political fixer who has been beaten in the last four campaigns she’s run by machiavellian Billy Bob Thornton, the guy the other side have hired. Director David Gordon Green has been given the gig, and brings in a tidy looking Hollywood movie, his regular DP Tim Orr giving everything a 1970s glow, that decade being the spiritual home of the political satire, which this, as I’ve already said, so wants to be. So why isn’t it? A political satire, I mean. Lack of substance, of detail about how wonks do their jobs, in short, though there is some great stuff early on about Bullock planting stories against her own man (Joaquim de Almeida, pugilistically believable) in an attempt to get him to fight dirty, this grandee’s only chance of winning against his man-of-the-people rival. Pity, it’s a hell of a cast – apart from Thornton, who has barely any lines (again, a satire would have bigged him up), there’s Zoe Kazan, Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, all of whom probably thought they were signing on for something more balls-out. The Ides of March 2 – The Ides of April? Oh well. Next!

Our Brand Is Crisis – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2016

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