23 September 2013-09-23

Out in the UK This Week

Byzantium (StudioCanal/cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Ah, the burden of being a vampire. It’s been done to death in the movies recently but Neil Jordan is at the helm here and knows how to spice things up. Here he adds a touch of the same mix he used on The Company of Wolves nearly 30 years ago. In other words there’s added social critique, class and gender being the targets of both Jordan and writer Moira Buffini. Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton are the two vampires searching for a new home, the former a Let the Right One In waif, the latter a lusty Hammer horror vamp – both of them poor girls from the 18th century wronged by their social superiors and condemned to wander down the centuries. Anyone who has seen either actress in anything will already be thinking “but that casting is absolutely perfect”. And so much of this film is – pasty Caleb Landry Jones as a haemophiliac, Jonny Lee Miller as an utter cad and rotter, Tom Hollander as a silly teacher. The fact that much of the action takes place in a rundown old hotel on the rundown British seaside. The way that Jordan understands how to extract maximum wow from Arterton’s figure (many directors try but fail). The shift in gear towards the end as Jordan marshals everything for a climactic showdown he and Buffini have been teasing us with from the get-go. Great, fabulous, 360 degree entertainment.

Byzantium – at Amazon

Black Rock (Metrodome, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

OK, so Katie Aselton, actor, director, partner of indie king Mark Duplass, has made a revenge horror movie, about three attractive girls (Aselton, Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth) on a secluded island who suffer bad stuff at the hands of three lairy guys. So what difference does it make when a woman is behind the lens, these revenge movies usually being the preserve of men with a developed interest in women’s saucy bits? Well, Aselton does seem interested in turning things on their head, to an extent. The girls are not all loveliness and virtue – one of the friends having slept with the guy of one of the others, way way back. Nor are they entirely blameless – it’s a bit of cockteasing that starts the guys off on their murderous rampage. On the other, more traditionally exploitative, hand two of the three girls (guess which) take all their clothes off because that’s the way to warm up when you’re wet. Or something. Its amusing nudity aside, Black Rock is a competent, atmospheric exercise in film-making that never quite fully engages the emotions. Maybe that’s because of the games Aselton and co-writer Duplass are playing. I’m not sure. Which more or less doubles as a verdict on the whole thing. I’m not sure.

Black Rock – at Amazon

Stories We Tell (Curzon, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Being a fan of Sarah Polley’s work as an actress and as a director, I was looking forward to this documentary by her about the life and premature death of her vivacious actress mother. And though it initially looks like little more than a stylish, intelligent home movie by someone who, you suspect, is a little too fond of herself, there’s some meat in here too. Not least the way Polley starts off telling one story – “here’s my lovely, beautiful mother in an array of grainy footage from the 1970s” – and then springs another story on us, the “who’s my real dad?” mystery. Stories We Tell is arch, for sure, but at least its contrivance is worn quite overtly. What makes it also worth a peek is the way that Polley manages to pull off the same trick – swapping one story out for another one entirely – at least twice more. And as she does she starts calling into question a lot of what we’re watching. Is that really her mother in the old footage? If so, who is the woman we see in hair and make-up with the director over the end credits? And yes, as the film progresses, things do tend a bit towards the meta, the refuge of the scoundrel. Misgivings aside, I remain a fan.

Stories We Tell – at Amazon

Populaire (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Since Down with Love, the Renee Zellweger/Ewan McGregor 1960s “sex comedy” pastiche of 2003, there’s been a steady trickle of similar films. Populaire being the latest, French, example. It stars Romain Duris as the sexist boss, Déborah François as the girl whose horizons stretch as far as being a secretary and no further. And like some French version of a Richard Curtis romantic comedy, the girl has a cute trick up her sleeve – she’s a demon typist. And before you can say asdf;lkj (the home keys on a typewriter), she’s become his ticket to fame, as proud boss of a competitive typist who is, quite possibly, unbeatable. Populaire is frivolous, it’s retro-charmant, it’s the visual equivalent of lounge music. And Duris is in it. And Duris can do no wrong, even when he’s required to do little more than pull a variety of “boff” faces. What Populaire isn’t, though, is fully sure of what exactly it is about. So it flails a bit – one minute it’s a beautiful period drama, the next it’s pastiche. The same problem afflicted Down with Love. Approach with caution.

Populaire – at Amazon

Shun Li and the Poet (Artificial Eye, cert 15, DVD)

Sounding like a film set in ancient China, but actually one set in modern Italy, Shun Li and the Poet follows the travails of an illegal Chinese immigrant woman who finds herself working in a quayside bar with an ageing clientele. One of those gentle dramas whose strong suit is the observation of daily ritual, Andrea Segre’s film is at its best dealing with Shun Li’s regulars rather than the woman herself – what they drink, how they drink – and observes almost dispassionately as one local (actually, he’s from former Yugoslavia, for reasons which mean nothing initially) forms a tentative bond with the quick witted, self-contained but homesick barkeep. Zhao Tao is a fabulous actress, delivering a performance of deceptive simplicity, which is matched by the spare score of accordion, piano, clarinet – simple, wistful, deceptive. Where the relationship between the ageing Yugoslavian and the younger Chinese woman leads is in spoiler territory but I can say that it isn’t what the light performances and soundtrack, the airy, sunny locations have been suggesting. Making this an honest, sweet natured drama with real issues bubbling away beneath its slow-moving surface.

Shun Li and the Poet – at Amazon

La Notte (Eureka, cert 12, Blu-ray)

La Notte was made in 1961 and is the last of Michelangelo Antonioni’s black and white films, before he moved into lush colour for Il Deserto Rosso and his three English language films, Blow Up, Zabriskie Point and The Passenger. But what black and white this is, gorgeous, and in this Blu-ray debut, it’s brighter, sharper, has improved contrast and there’s a lot more visible on the left and right of the screen than in previous iterations. The vibrant cinematography is in stark contrast to the arid interior lives of the married couple (played by Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau) at its centre, who we join as they start to flirt with the idea of infidelity, in an attempt to keep their union viable, or to precipitate its ending. That “good life gone bad” theme makes it sound like this is Antonioni’s take on Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but La Notte is a far more internal film, as Antonioni’s films usually were, a portrait of emotional desolation, delivered by two actors with faces ideally suited to the task. And there’s Monica Vitti, at her most alluring, as the escape ladder that Mastroianni starts climbing. Not much happens in La Notte – the classic complaint against Antonioni – but what does cuts to the quick.

La Notte – at Amazon

Dead Man Down (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The received wisdom is that a Colin Farrell film is fine as long as Farrell’s not doing all the lifting (so, In Bruges is good, Total Recall is not). Here Farrell is the star, in a gangster movie with bizarre arthouse aspirations, playing a Hungarian who has spent years eliminating his accent, in the process picking up an Irish one, wouldn’t you know. This intensely private gangster strikes up the most unlikely of unlikely relationships with a timid young woman (Noomi Rapace) who eventually puts pressure on him to get payback against the man who caused her to be scarred in a car crash. The reason why she is able to strongarm this hoodlum is because she has witnessed him killing someone in his apartment one night. And on it goes, the unlikelihood. Talking of which, meet Rapace’s mother – played by Isabelle Huppert, for reasons which must have something to do with director Niels Arden Oplev’s ancient adolescent fantasy, because she serves absolutely no purpose in this film, good though Huppert always is (and, if you want to see someone genuinely doing something with absolutely nothing, this is where to look). Nothing in this film really makes sense – Rapace is meant to be French, but clearly isn’t; Farrell seems to be a mastermind of electronic gadgetry, but only when it suits the plot’s purposes; he has a giant lock-up warehouse out in the city somewhere, yet lives in the meanest accommodation. I’m dignifying this movie by going on about it. It looks like it ought to be something, it’s very well done, but the bottom line is that not for a single second is anyone believable nor does anything ring true.

Dead Man Down – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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