Out in the UK this week
Side By Side (Axiom, cert 15, DVD)
A documentary about the digital revolution in movie making that runs through the whole process – first the workings of the old photochemical technology which was king for more than 100 years and then on to how digital has changed everything, from cameras and acting, to editing and effects, the print and the projector. His Matrix experience apart, Keanu Reeves initially seems an unlikely guide to the whole thing. But he’s not just a voiceover, he’s the interviewer and producer of the documentary and it’s probably thanks to his clout that it gets access to pretty much anyone it wants. Scorsese, Lucas, Cameron, Lynch, Boyle, Fincher, the Wachowskis, among many many others. He’s a good interviewer too, adding warmth to what might otherwise have been a dry technical exercise. At one point there’s a lovely scene in which a young kid, maybe seven years old, is asking Keanu about one of the SFX scenes in The Matrix, and Keanu patiently explains it to him as if he’s never done it before. In a later chat Keanu giggles conspiratorially with Greta Gerwig as they discuss watching movies on smartphones. Kindred spirits, you suspect. Whether you are interested in digital cinema or don’t care how movies are made as long as they’re good (fair enough), Side by Side presents a digestible précis of the digital revolution we’re living through, a revolution which has changed every aspect of the production and consumption of culture, be it games, films, music, books, whatever.
Les Misérables (Universal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)
The story of an ex-felon in revolutionary France being hounded down the decades by his ex-jailer has been packing them in at theatres since 1980 and was one of the most keenly anticipated musicals to get the Hollywood treatment. I might as well just say, in the interest of full disclosure, that I hated this. In an attempt at even-handedness, I will say that director Tom Hooper has managed to keep the intimacy of the theatrical experience while adding the shock-and-awe dynamics of cinema. The cast, also, is very good, particularly the non-famous turns brought over from the stage show. As for the stars, Hugh Jackman can sing, Russell Crowe can bark convincingly, Anne Hathaway does pretty good stuff with her Oscar-winning performance of the Susan Boyle song (Oscar would doubtless say that she won the Oscar for much more than that. But quite honestly there isn’t much more than that). Best thing in it is Sacha Baron Cohen’s rambunctious, tuneful number that recalls Lionel Bart. And talking of Bart, let’s get to the fact that Les Mis has no tunes – the sung-through score is all tickle and no thrust – and I yearned at almost every second for it to break into “Consider Yourself” or anything else from Oliver!, which it did feel at every turn as if it was about to do, possibly because that’s where writers Boublil and Schönberg found their initial inspiration. Helena Bonham Carter (playing Baron Cohen’s equally crooked wife) has a fine old time working the cock-er-ney shtick left over from Sweeney Todd, all five winks to camera and ostentatious adjustment of undergarments, while earnest young men mount barricades and doe-eyed women sing keeningly. I am honestly mystified by Les Mis’s reception, on stage and on screen and hope I never have to see this again.
Broken English (Moviolla, cert 15, DVD)
It is a source of amusement in some quarters that Nick Cassavetes churns out such sweet crowdpleasers as The Notebook, the sort of thing that would have his indie-godfather dad, John, spinning in his grave, so the keepers of the Cassavetes flame would have us believe. Meet Nick’s director sister, Zoe, who works pretty much the same territory in Broken English, a film that’s taken five years or so to get any sort of release. I’m not sure why, though the fact that its central character is a dizzy old silly, desperate to just meet a guy and have kids and settle down might have something to do with it, it hardly being “on trend” to present women as romantic jellies. Working hard to put some iron into the spineless heroine is Parker Posey. And it’s a testimony to her brilliance that she just about manages it, as the story takes her from drinking too much and sleeping too easily with unsuitable guys in the USA, to an entirely unrealistic liaison in Paris, France, trademarked home of this sort of thing. Slightly more neurotic, slightly darker than the standard love plot, Broken English is an interesting example of cinema’s most reviled genre – romance – trying to get back on its hind legs.
The King of Pigs (Terracotta, cert 15, DVD)
Old school, almost Scooby Doo-style animation is used freshly in this South Korean drama about a couple of adults harking back to a disturbing incident from their schooldays. It takes quite a long time for this ultimately slightly wet film to reveal what that incident actually is, and how the two guys reminiscing were involved, but between opening and closing credits we’ve been treated to inventive manipulation of a now neglected style of animation, which works rapid edits, camera spins and close-ups to great effect.
The Sessions (Fox, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
On paper sounding like something unbearably worthy – Catholic guy paralysed from the neck down hires sex therapist so he can get laid – The Sessions is actually anything but. The reasons are mainly the script, which is funny and wise and presents our under-copulated hero (played brilliantly by John Hawkes) as a man who just happens to be immobile rather than as a character defined by disability. The rest of the cast are pretty near perfect too – Helen Hunt as the therapist and William H Macy as the devout man’s priest (gamely, wistfully listening as his parishioner delivers graphic reports from the road to full penetration and simultaneous orgasm). Sex, morality, relationships, handled intelligently, with wit, and without overbearing moralising.
Hors Satan (New Wave, cert 15, DVD)
Bruno Dumont, director of Hadewijch, works the same territory again in Hors Satan, an almost terminally French tale of a girl out in the boonies, faintly goth/emo in her dress sense, who forms a strong connection with a shaman-like silent stranger who lives seemingly out in the open air. Where this leads is the point of the film, and Dumont’s interest in religious levels of devotion and existential integrity are well to the fore. And as with Hadewijch he uses natural sounds as a soundtrack to add psychological complexity. Personally, I had to stop halfway in to watch Dick Van Dyke dancing with the penguins in Mary Poppins just to get some air back in my head, but there’s no doubting Hors Satan’s force and its earnestness.
Frozen Silence (Metrodome, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
Here’s a Spanish film about the troops Franco sent off to help Hitler fight the Russians. A war film, then? Actually, no. Though convincingly dressed up in the snow and ice of the Eastern Front, Gerardo Herrero’s drama is actually a police procedural, and follows a civilian cop, now a private, as he investigates a series of mysterious ritualistic, faintly Seven-flavoured deaths. It’s an unusual setting for this sort of thing but one which really helps when the script occasionally dips into TV vanilla.
© Steve Morrissey 2013