17 March 2014-03-17

Out in the UK This Week

The Counsellor (Fox, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

A scene early on in Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s film about a high-flying attorney (Michael Fassbender) who decides to take a walk on the wild side has the counsellor locked in the office of an Amsterdam diamond trader (Bruno Ganz), where the two discuss gems and their flaws. They might as well have been discussing the film itself, a brilliant work of almost-arthouse thriller minimalism with a flaw that’s obvious without the aid of a jeweller’s loupe. But first the good stuff, and there’s tons of it – Fassbender smiling, swaggering as the attorney who’s had enough of simply serving the super-rich and so has set up a get-rich-quick drugs deal. The film is essentially a series of “meetings with rich people” all of them frightening – Javier Bardem as a playboy in party-animal clothes, Brad Pitt as a softly spoken dealmaker, Cameron Diaz as the distillate of pure evil, a Bond villainess who keeps leopards as pets – each one leading the counsellor towards the abyss. The flaw is Penelope Cruz-shaped. Nothing wrong with her performance. She’s as assured and brilliant as the other big names, playing the girlfriend of the counsellor whose love for the big fella is as pure as it is wanton, nice touch. Unfortunately for us, we start off in the company of both the counsellor and his inamorata, and stay following their story for quite some time, which sets the film off in entirely the wrong direction. Because this is about him, not them. Still, if you can overlook this problem, what Scott and McCarthy deliver is a film shimmering with the sort of gloss you’d expect from a director who earned his stripes making adverts, with McCarthy’s spare rhythmic prose (Pitt speaks it so well it’s almost poetry) providing a metronomic, hypnotic drive towards… well, that’s enough plot. Though it’s been dismissed in some quarters, this is Scott’s best film since Thelma & Louise, or even Blade Runner (those of you shouting “but what about Prometheus” need to grow up). As long as you can overlook that flaw. A diamond trader might even pass it off as a feature.

The Counsellor – at Amazon

Parkland (Koch, cert 15, digital)

This unusual drama starts in a familiar place and ends up somewhere else entirely. Kicking off with the assassination of JFK – as seen through the eyes of Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), the guy whose cine footage provides the historical image of the events that day – the film shifts focus to the Parkland hospital where the dying/dead president was brought, where doctors and medical staff (played by faces including Zac Efron and Marcia Gay Harden) try to bring him back to life. It then shifts focus twice more – first onto the progress of the Zapruder footage through the photo labs (accompanied by CIA heavy Billy Bob Thornton, excellently muted) and then back to the Parkland hospital, where Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong) is brought in, the assassin having himself been felled by the bullet of Jack Ruby. As an attempt to deal with a timeworn topic in a fresh way, Parkland is successful. As an ER-style ensemble drama, it’s also effective – the frenzied scenes as the president is first brought in and the staff try to revive him are particularly gripping. Also, everyone is on best acting behaviour – no upstaging by the famous of lesser names. It’s the final portion, with Oswald’s family, particularly his mad-as-a-beehive mother (another brilliant evil-matriarch turn by Jacki Weaver) – which asks us to feel the pain of the Oswald family – that’s going to be hardest for some to accept. Not because it’s an odd ask, but because it ends the film on such a blue note.

Parkland – at Amazon

Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Artificial Eye, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

The lesbian sex is the grabby selling point of this Palme d’Or winning film from Abdellatif Kechiche. And, yes, if you’ve ever wanted to know exactly how lesbians actually do it, then this is the film for you. But looking beyond what are quite protracted scenes of naked intimacy, what this film is really about is the sentimental education of a young girl, played here spectacularly by Adèle Exarchopoulos, who we follow from the schoolyard onwards, the film clearly looking like it’s part one of a bildungsfilm series. Unlike a porn film, it has a plot. In fact it has lots of plot, this being the zig-zagging progress of a sweet girl into womanhood through a series of relationships – the boyfriend who isn’t really her type, followed by blue-haired siren who lures her into a tempestuous relationship which forms the core of the film. To the left and right of this we have parents, friends, colleagues, possible new partners, jealous old partners, everyone interwoven fantastically skilfully by Kechiche, whose brilliant Marseille-set drama Couscous now looks like a dry run for this long, far more ambitious film.

Blue Is the Warmest Colour – at Amazon

Escape Plan (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The pitch for this film was probably as simple as “Sly and Arnie… in a film together. Kerching.” Well, once upon a time, maybe. But time has moved on and Stallone and Schwarzenegger are now old guys whose knees don’t work any more. But just in case the sight of these mighty oaks of action simply being in the same frame together (the Expendables stuff doesn’t count) isn’t getting the juices going, someone has sat down and worked out a very complicated plot with a twist, about a pair of guys in prison, one of whom (Stallone) is a professional prison-break expert imprisoned against his will, the other (Arnie) is an international financial mastermind blah blah blah. The prison is very hi-tech, the banter is very enjoyable, we get to hear Arnie speaking in German, there’s a twist at the end that you can see coming from before the film starts and the whole thing is just a touch overplotted, overwritten, overcooked. A simple prison escape drama, that would have been more fun. Even on those knees.

Escape Plan – at Amazon

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lionsgate, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

J-Law and Josh “the plank” Hutcherson continue their adventures in bloody reality gameplay in part two of the series, which continues in the “one damn thing after another” style much loved by young-adult films. I’m not saying there’s no plot – plenty happens – but there’s no arc, unless “Katniss stays alive” is it. These whines aside, it’s a zippy and efficiently told story – Katniss and Peeta are taken on a tour of the various districts, having won the first hunger games battle to the death, where revolutionary stirrings are afoot, before President Snow (boo, hiss) decides to rid the world of those pesky kids by staging another hunger games, invoking some arcane law to make it happen. Again it’s the side characters who really impress – Stanley Tucci as the gushing TV host, again it’s gladiatorial Rome meets post-industrial Detroit in its look, again there’s a message of TV as the opium of the masses, again Toby Jones is badly underused, and again Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson are fabulous as Katniss and Peeta’s minders. It’s all very efficient, but it just never quite catches fire.

The Hunger Games – at Amazon

Empire State (Lionsgate, cert 15, DVD/Blu-ray/digital)

It’s Greeks, not Italians, who power this New York gangster/heist film that otherwise is in thrall to Scorsese’s “you talking to me” output. Liam Hemsworth plays Chris Potamitis, the immigrant’s son who winds up as a security guard at a shoddily run facility where the money brought in by the trucks is stashed overnight, one mangy dog and a few half-focused CCTV cameras being two legs of the security tripod that Chris himself is the third leg of. All goes uneventfully until Chris’s hot-headed friend (Michael Angarano, looking like he’s been sniffing glue) decides he wants to hit the place. It’s a true story, of the US’s biggest ever cash heist, and it’s based on Potamitis’s own account of the story (he’s also the film’s producer). Whether that accounts for the slight hole in the middle of this film where the guilt should be, I don’t know. But it’s an enjoyable – competent but nothing more – drama that benefits from Dwayne Johnson’s input as a laidback but deadly earnest cop. He just gets better and better.

Empire State – at Amazon

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (StudioCanal, cert PG, Blu-ray)

The film that was midwife to a whole clutch of films about dudes who’re none too bright, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is now 25 years old and will probably be making a certain constituency feel suddenly most egregiously ancient. Yes, Keanu when he was still really young. And he’s really infectiously great as either Bill or Ted, whatever, Alex Winter copping the unenviable task of bowling along in his wake. Watched again, B&TEA looks most like an exercise in tone – all that “most heinous”, “bogus” “be excellent to each other” and so on. In the extras that accompany the film – which, in case you didn’t know, is about two clueless ignoramuses time-travelling through history and picking up famous names to help them complete a class assignment – writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon confide that, yes, that’s exactly what it was. While working on stand-up, the two of them invented a pair of dumb teenage characters who’d riff back and forth in a kind of stoner/valley/surfer speak which satirised the increasing ignorance of contemporary youth, especially as regards current affairs. Nicely, though, nicely. And that’s the key thing about the characters Bill and Ted (Matheson and Solomon admit that they wrote the dialogue first, then just went through alternating the names Bill and Ted; it didn’t matter) their huge good nature fills the gap where their brains should be. And it’s that dopey feelgood that makes it work still, all these years later. Air guitar.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure 25th Anniversary Edition – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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