Out This Week
When Marnie Was There (StudioCanal, cert U)
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the guy at Studio Ghibli who isn’t Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, this is Japanese animation studio’s final, so Ghibli say, film. And it’s a typically sweet, anglophile story about a typically bereft child called Anna finding typical solace in the supernatural realm – a ghost, called Marnie, who lives in the big deserted house over the bay from Anna’s aunt and uncle. Adapted from Joan G Robinson’s Norfolk-set classic, it’s slow-moving and less loaded with drama than Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies or Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, but it’s undeniably sweet, and charms with its familiar Ghibli-style animation – 2D, pastel, with a focus on a particular detail in each frame counterpointing the otherwise deliberate simplicity. Like Takahata’s 1991 offering Only Yesterday, it saves itself for its big finish, and sidesteps suspicions of slightness when it starts tying up threads and resolving emotional arcs in the sort of style that would be mawkish elsewhere, but in Ghibli’s hands comes across as almost unbearably poignant. Must be the big eyes of those kids.
Equals (Icon, cert 12)
Not exactly accorded the red-carpet treatment by the critical community, who seem to have the same downer on the magically versatile Kristen Stewart as the online trolls, this is a neatly accomplished, deliberately downbeat sci-fi romance. That’s a hellish combo of genres to juggle. A touch Barbarella in its modernity, a bit Logan’s Run in its two-against-the-world arc, this decidedly old-school offering casts an almost androStewart and Nicholas Hoult as a pair of drones in a clinical dystopia where emotions have been, you guessed it, outlawed. Except, them both being so hot and all, their natural human proclivities break through the programming and medication and they fall heavily for each other. Equals is at its best as a love story, really, and director Drake Doremus (who has previous with Breathe In and Like Crazy) goes in close on the faces of Stewart and Hoult as they’re hovering on the brink, and completely catches that obsessional moment in the lizard brain that anticipates the realisation that we’ve gone and fallen for someone. That’s it, really, the simplest of simple films about the most powerful of emotions, with a bit of a Romeo and Juliet finish to add a touch of drama. To Doremus’s massive credit, he points all his guns in the same direction – everything (the washed-out look, futuristic Singapore locations, the soundscape, the soundtrack, framing and focusing decisions) all work in the service of the film. It’s written by Nathan Parker, who also wrote Moon, and I suspect that his spare high-concept approach simply hasn’t taken hold with as many people as had been hoped. More fool them.
The Angry Birds Movie (Sony, cert U)
The strangest thing about the brightly animated Angry Birds Movie is that it’s aimed at the 40-plus market, from its choice of Black Sabbath as the intro music, to gags about The Shining, digs at hippies and so on. The other odd thing about it is that it’s actually very good. Picking up on John Lydon’s “anger is an energy” observation, it focuses on Big Red, the furious avian of the title, who we first meet in one confrontational situation after another, destroying stuff, losing his shit and so on, until, after a particularly OMG incident at a child’s birthday party, he ends up in an anger management class where he meets the fellow outsiders who are to become this film’s band of dysfunctional heroes. Enter some refugee pigs seeking asylum. And in most other films this would also be the point where drippy philosophical buzz terms – “inclusivity”, “diversity”, “mutual respect” “rainbow yadda” – would be bandied about like as if humans weren’t, you know, generally speaking already fairly co-operative. However, in The Angry Birds Movie the pigs are actually a marauding gang of heartless incomers – you’d suggest they were Islamist avatars, except, being pigs and therefore haram, they’re probably not – and Big Red’s job is to point out to his dipshit fellow countrybirds the danger lurking beneath their beaks. Enough plot, except to say that it all builds satisfyingly towards a big action finish. Jason Sudeikis’s facility at comedy outrage makes him an ideal voice for Big Red, the side characters aren’t just there as Disney bolt-on comedy sidekicks and writer John Vitti (Larry Sanders, SNL, The Office) keeps the jokes coming, many of which wander all over the demarcation line of political correctness. It’s not for kids, though they’ll probably enjoy its energy, and the character of Big Red, who is a direct descendant of Mr Punch. That’s the way to do it.
Mother’s Day (Lionsgate, cert 12)
Take me out and shoot me, I enjoyed Mother’s Day. It’s the very last film written and directed by Gary Marshall, who wrote for The Lucy Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Happy Days before moving into directing such unhip offerings as Beaches, Pretty Woman and, lately, even less critically well received holiday-themed feelgood comedies (Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve) of which this is the last. Each of his recent films follows the same format – a string of stories, each with a feelgood arc, each anchored by whichever famous actor can spare a minute from binge-eating for two days’ work. This time around it’s Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, Timothy Olyphant, Kate Hudson, Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Garner and, er, Jack Whitehall who are scattered through a story focusing on Hudson, her family, and their coming-to-terms with “modern life” – gay relationships, white women marrying brown-skinned men, this thing called Twitter and so on. Marshall the writer tries hard, and for an 80something you have to applaud him. But the film works because of the quality of its players – Aniston and Roberts, love them or hate them, are hellishly good at what they do. And as it goes along – Aniston adjusting to divorced life, Roberts as a TV host regretting giving up a child for adoption and so on – its insistence that the world would be a nicer place if we’d all just be a bit more honest… and hugs! hugs!… does make it almost sick-makingly cute. Love, Actually, I thought, as it wheeled towards the end and Britt Robertson started to edge into Aniston/Roberts “force to be reckoned with” territory.
The Founders (Spectrum, cert PG)
A well-researched, culturally pertinent documentary about the founding of the Ladies Professional Golf Association in the US in 1950, with lots of talking head interview with the four survivors – Louise Suggs, Shirley Spork, Marilynn Smith, Marlene Bauer Vossler – of the original 13 renegades. And they’re a spunky foursome, providing real seasoning to well sourced archive footage, which takes in the LPGA’s predecessor, the WPGA, and focuses quite hard on Babe Didrikson (later Zaharias) the Olympic all-rounder whose fame and effortless ability gave the professional women’s game the media profile it needed, but whose self-aggrandisement and lack of social graces alienated her from some of her fellow players. It’s a fascinating snapshot of golf in days of yore, when it was a rich, white Christian man’s game. And tells in miniature the story reflected in all post-War sport, of women banding together to break through a social barrier into the world we inhabit now. Zooming up to the present day, when prize money still isn’t on a par with that in the men’s game, it beats its drum quietly but insistently and respectfully.
The Last King (StudioCanal, cert 15)
Looking and structured like the BBC show Merlin – declamatory speech, action, declamatory speech – The Last King is a Norwegian film about lusty, beardy Dark Ages guys who do mighty battle with double-headed axes in an attempt to prevent a bad guy from usurping the throne of the rightful ruler, a swaddled child. Look for a conversation about whether a baby is automatically the best choice as king and you won’t find one – this is blood and thunder drama validating royal life as automatically as it dispatches the grunts in the lower ranks, though there are some fine scenes out in the snow, where a man on skis is shown to be the superior of a man on horseback more times than seems necessary. Good actors – familiar faces Jacob Ofterbro and Nikolaj Lie Kaas among them – don’t get much to do, and the whole thing looks like a pilot for a TV series that would probably wear out its welcome before the end of season one. Some good, bloody fights though
Alice Through the Looking Glass (Disney, cert PG)
Remarkably, a sequel to the exhaustingly dull Alice in Wonderland, with Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and the gang returning, though Tim Burton is now replaced by James Bobin as director. Bobin makes no better a fist of it than Burton, though it’s not his fault this dramatically featureless CG-heavy phantasmagoria is so dull. That’s down to the one-thing-after-another screenplay by Linda Woolverton who, having junked most of the original plot and possibly out of desperation, decides to give the Mad Hatter a back story and some daddy issues, FFS. She also bookends the story with a Pirates of the Caribbean-style maritime adventure, Mia Wasikowska’s Alice now being a sea captain, wouldn’t you know, Woolverton’s reputation for writing strong female characters (Beauty and the Beast, Maleficent) clearly overwhelming her good sense. A pity, because Alice is a genuinely interesting character, tough, smart, self-reliant, and Wasikowska uses everything in her considerable armoury to make her substantial enough to carry the film. The trouble is, the film is just too damn long and not enough happens until we creep into the last act, when the action picks up and there’s a race-against-time dash for the finish – time and its paradoxes being what this very Doctor Who-inflected storyline ends up being about. God knows what Lewis Carroll would say about the cursory treatment given to Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas) and Humpty Dumpty, and the complete absence of the Walrus and the Carpenter and the Jabberwocky. Curiouser and curiouser. As for names, Depp does not disgrace himself and his weird fluting/grating Scottish (?) accent is madly funny at times. Rhys Ifans, as Hatter Sr, and Sacha Baron Cohen, as Time Itself, grease the track, while Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts, borrows most of Miranda Richardson’s shtick from Blackadder. Looks fantastic, is entirely pointless.
Alice Through the Looking Glass – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2016