Out This Week
Midnight Special (E One, cert 12)
I’m a sucker for a deduction film, and in Midnight Special we are asked to deduce first what’s going on, and then what sort of a movie it is. This being a Jeff Nichols film, Michael Shannon is the star – as he has been in four of five Nichols films to date (Nichols’s latest, Loving, also a Shannon number, has not arrived here yet) – and he brings his brutish compassion to bear on a story that looks, at first, to be an abduction drama. Shannon, we deduce, is the abductor of a child, and on the run from the law and a religious community headed by Sam Shepard, a charismatic and mean son of a bitch, we deduce, from the few snatches of dialogue Nichols lets us earwig. So is Shannon the bad guy, or is it Shepard? Is it abduction at all, or a rescue? Or something more complex? A glimpse of the kid in question – in ear defenders and goggles – and we realise we’re wrong on both counts, and the film is barely underway. Would it spoil things too much to say that there is some sci-fi in here, and that Shannon is like a grown-up version of the kid trying to help ET get home? It probably would, if plot were all this film were about. But it’s also examination of the power of faith, as Nichols’s films so often seem to be, but also a deft display by a film-maker who knows what certain “tells” mean in certain genres – sci-fi loves its bright lights, for instance – and uses them to confound and delight. Put in simple English, you can achieve an awful lot of wow for very little outlay if people aren’t expecting it (I’ve vaguely recalling the great offbeat British sci-fi film Skeletons here, where much was done with stuff culled from a junk shop). Er, back to Midnight Special – Shannon’s really big idea being that where faith and reason meet, that’s sci-fi. Beautifully constructed, played by Shannon the caring dad, newcomer Jaeden Lieberher as the wide-eyed kid, Joel Edgerton as a dim cop along for the ride and Kirsten Dunst doing a faint echo of Martha Kent, Superman’s earth mother. Enough, enough – watch this ambient, elegant and inspirational film.
Where to Invade Next (Dogwoof, cert 15)
I know I’m not the first to point out that the title of Michael Moore’s film is entirely misleading. But has anyone else seen any of this material before? I know I have, though I’m not sure where or how. I’ve seen, in other words, Michael Moore trawling the schools, hospitals and welfare systems of other countries – Europe, mostly – for ideas to take back to the US. In Italy he learns of the country’s generous system of holidays, in France it’s the fine school meals (scallops with a curry sauce, lamb skewers with couscous, followed by ice cream, then cheese – chips only twice a year). In Finland, home to the best education system in the world, he discovers the kids do precisely no homework, nor are they taught to a test. Germany has workers on the boards of companies such as VW. Slovenia has free education. Tunisia has free women’s health clinics. Portugal treats drugs as a health problem rather than as criminality. And so on. Good points, well made. Much as I’m politically inclined to agree with Michael Moore, I’ve found his last few films hectoring, as if he’d forgotten that an assertion isn’t an argument. I’d forgotten how vastly entertaining he can be when he’s on his game. And he is here, mixing up large dollops of himself doing the grand tour of foreign cities and meeting dignitaries and working Joes with copious archive designed to entertain and illuminate. Don’t expect Moore to point out that Italy, for example, is on the verge of bankruptcy, though he does, in passing, point out that US citizens do get most of the stuff that the countries he visits have as of right, but they have to pay for them privately. And then, boy, do they pay.
Sing Street (Lionsgate, cert 12)
Once director John Carney goes back to Dublin for another charming musical about a boy winning a girl’s heart with song. Unlike Carney’s Begin Again – which starred Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo – we’re back with the unknowns, with Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Conor, the geeky kid whose life is mapped by the gruesome Christian Brothers, a similarly thuggish school bully Barry (Ian Kenny) and the collapse of his parents’ marriage. Until he espies a girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and, instantly smitten, tells her he’s in a band to impress her. Working at warp speed, he gets one together, learning how to play, sing and write songs all the while ribbing and being ribbed by his mates. So, Irish, get the band together, tunes, craic and so on… The Commitments, we’re thinking. Except, clearly understanding that comparisons will be made, Carney makes the guys in Sing Street as unlike the proto-musicians of Alan Parker’s film as he can. Conor is the sort of kid who’s easily influenced, and this being the 1980s, he’s falling under the musical and style influence of a different band each week – now he’s aping Duran Duran, then it’s The Cure, Spandau Ballet, even Hall and Oates. The whole thing is entirely likeable, the leads are highly believable and the will they/won’t they chemistry of Conor and ideal girl Raphina is particularly well caught – she’s older than him and Conor is fighting against the current. Again, as in Once, Carney has written the songs too. Again, they lack the hooks of good pop songs and could do with a trim but, hey, whaddyagonnado? Warm-hearted flyaway entertainment.
Dheepan (StudioCanal, cert 15)
I was resisting the Palm d’Or-winning Dheepan because I’d heard it was a film about the “immigrant experience”. My heart beats as compassionately as the next man’s who’s just signed up to the costless conspicuous altruism of a change.org petition, but even so I was wary. It’s going to be worthy, it’s going to be grim. Hang on, it’s by Jacques Audiard, who turned a story about an amputee and her carer into the gripping Rust and Bone, who made a film about a Muslim prisoner into the unmissable A Prophet. He’s done the same with Dheepan, which follows a “family”, strangers until the demands of the UNHCR throw them together, as they adjust to a sink estate in Paris after life in a refugee camp Sri Lanka. Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) the tough Tamil killer is now a janitor, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) his sharp-eyed pretend-wife gets a job caring for the disabled father of the estate’s thuggish Mr Big, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) the child they’re now raising – a blood relative of neither – turns out to be smarter than the pair of them, more emotionally connected too. So we watch as people who we don’t know – and who at first don’t know each other – do the equivalent of buying something second hand at a market: they turn it this way and that. This, quite honestly, would have been enough for me, but beneath that is the rumbling uncertainty about Dheepan’s past. Was he a bad guy who killed people wholesale, or was he just caught up in the Tamil Tiger conflict and is now happy to be living in safety in France, as he says? And, as the local thugs start to flex their muscles even more than usual, we realise that Dheepan’s true nature is in fact the nub on which the whole film turns. Audiard’s DP Éponine Momenceau has some interesting tricks in her palette, adapted from those “fade to black” iris effects we used to see in silent cinema. So occasionally a scene will end with the picture fading away, a significant detail being the last thing to go. Though to be honest, the film is so well set up, written and played by its cast that these tricks, enriching though they are, aren’t what it’s all about.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Warner, cert 12)
Christopher Nolan did not write or direct this long-awaited superhero bake-off; he’s only the executive producer. But it feels like a Nolan film, looks like one, broods like one. In fact, we’re told, it’s a Zack Snyder film, though I prefer to see Snyder as the gun for hire here, reporting back to his masters and having his course trimmed until… finally… in the ultimate big showdown, he’s given his head and… well, it becomes a Zack Snyder film. Loud, big and drowning in CG.
Whoever takes ownership, it’s a superhero film unlike any of the other recent batch, certainly unlike Marvel’s primary-coloured output (this is DC, let’s not forget). But first let’s get out of the way the playground question of who’d win a fight between Superman and Batman, between a godlike being and a guy in a cape. Duh, is the answer, and the film carefully doesn’t go there. Instead, it baits its trap with a long, rambling plot about Batman trying to undermine Superman’s reputation as well as his super powers. Here’s where Jesse Eisenberg’s disappointingly babbling Lex Luthor – Renfield’s to Batman’s Dracula – comes in. Green kryptonite figures here, too, but there’s way more intrigue, co-writers Chris Terrio and David Goyer having clearly decided Sturm und Drang is the way to go. This is entirely appropriate for a Nolan (sorry, Snyder) movie, and Watchman DP Larry Fong and soundtrack composer Hans Zimmer gamely chip in with lakes of shadow and hanging walls of Shostakovich pastiche – it’s big, it’s dark and it’s clever, particularly the bubbling sub-text of whether the citizens of Gotham, Metropolis (and by extension us too) should be signing up for superheroes at all.
The buy-two-get-one-free offer means Gal Gadot turns up as Wonder Woman, and she’s impressive enough in terms of sheer presence to bust Henry Cavill’s Superman to third place, leaving Ben Affleck in top spot, his jowly, unshaven, bitter, middle-aged Batman being my favourite iteration of the Caped Crusader since Adam West. I watched the Ultimate edition, which adds about half an hour of extra footage to the theatrical version. And judging by the way it spins out one storyline, then heads off to spin out another, another and then another – this going on for about two hours – it’s entirely understandable why this movie didn’t do so well in the cinema at cutdown length. How do you trim something that’s built like a Jenga tower? Don’t worry, fight fans – the last hour is all action, the first fight on the card being Batman v Superman followed by a lumbering mute General Zod v Superman. The whole thing is highly immersive and there’s even a bit of levity and that old joke about the inherent absurdity of capes – bum tish! Bring on Wonder Woman.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (Universal, cert 12)
Like a kebab found on the dining table the morning after a night out, MBFGW2 seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the unasked-for and the indigestible duking it out for supremacy. But let’s not forget MBFGW1, which was also unasked-for and yet went on to become the biggest grossing romantic comedy of all time – no, I don’t believe the figures either, especially as the Mel Gibson romcom What Women Want and Will Smith’s Hitch are numbers two and three. But if boxofficemojo.com says it’s true then there must be a grain of something in there. The writing was MBFGW1’s big weapon, that and a message about the importance of family, plus screenwriter/star Nia Vardalos had the good grace and sense to share the funny lines around among her talented cast. Those ingredients and that cast are all back and animate this follow-up, which kicks off as the daughter resulting from MBFGW1 is ready to spread her wings, while mum Toula (Vardalos) and dad Ian (John Corbett) negotiate both the imminent empty nest and a slight flatness in their romance. As for a plot peg, that’s the discovery that Toula’s mother and father (Lainie Kazan and Michael Constantine) had, by some administrative error, never actually got married way back when, which necessitates a bit of Hollywood toing, froing and general busyness. Vardalos’s realisation that the extended family forces – allows? – even middle-aged offspring to act like kids is the energetic mainspring of the fast-moving semi-farce, which again has the wit to give support players their head – game Aunt Voula’s sex advice (“shave everything”) being the most obviously funny, but look in the background and there’s Bess Meisler as the black clad grandmother running through a series of silent movie gags, her face an exquisite Buster Keaton deadpan. It is details like this that help hide the fact that Corbett has nothing to do except stand around and swing his arms, and that there’s a bit of stereotyping going on that ethnic groups with a bit less self-confidence would probably consider a hate crime. Very, and unexpectedly, enjoyable.
Hardcore Henry (EV, cert 18)
Hardcore Henry is a Russian pov Bourne movie about a man with incredible skills and amnesia trying to find out who he is. It being pov, we never see who he is, just what he does – he runs, he shoots, he lunges, he hangs off things, he runs up bridge supports and he kills people, all before breakfast. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the film, though the objection by some critics that “this thing has been done before” – as long ago as 1947’s The Lady in the Lake, one pointed out – is to ignore that the inspiration for Hardcore Henry is not other movies, but shoot-em-up games.
But would you “watch” a shoot-em-up that someone else is playing? That’s clearly been the discussion in pre-production and director Ilya Naishuller and producer Timur Bekmambetov (whose grunge-energised Night Watch is clearly an influence) have come to the sensible conclusion that the answer is no, and so they’ve loaded up on colour. Colour in this case coming from a madly varied soundtrack (Cole Porter, Hildegard of Bingen, the theme from The Magnificent Seven and Leo Sayer are on there), scantily clad girls on – yawn – poles, drugs, a camp villain (Danila Kozlovsky) who bears a passing resemblance to Julian Assange, and Sharlto Copley, doing his extravagant accent thing in a range of roles that straddle the good/bad divide. There is some serious good stunt work in here, and some beautifully conceived and engineered set pieces and the pace genuinely never lets up. Henry really is hardcore too, in fact he appears to be indestructible. Which might explain why, half an hour before this film had ended, I had completely lost interest.
© Steve Morrissey 2016