Out in the UK This Week
The Conjuring (Warner, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
A family living out in the boonies is terrorised by a demon spirit in this moody horror film directed by James Wan and written by twin brothers Chad and Carey Hayes. The Hayes brothers are in their 50s but Wan wasn’t even born when The Exorcist was released in 1973. But he’s definitely seen the film; The Conjuring is an exercise in Exorcist atmospherics – all rosaries, Latin and vomit. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson play the weird earnest, hucksterish exorcists, Farmiga deliberately going for Ellen Burstyn in her performance, Wilson wisely staying away from any suggestion of channelling Max Von Sydow. Meanwhile inside the house where the demon infestation is going on, Wan shows us he has also seen The Amityville Horror and, just for high-tone kudos, Don’t Look Now. It is all very well done, if a touch underwritten, but then Wan also got the mood pretty well right with his previous 1970s horror homage, Insidious. And it makes a change from the Saw films, which is what Wan made his name with.
Fireworks Wednesday (Axiom, cert 12, DVD)
Made in 2006 but only getting a release now, off the back of the Oscar-winning A Separation, this similarly domestic, similarly brilliant drama by the Iranian master Asghar Farhadi follows Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti), a prospective bride from a poor traditional background, into a middle class household, where she works as a cleaner while the well-to-do couple’s marriage falls apart around her. As with A Separation, Farhadi spins several stories together with effortless style – the wife, the husband, the hairdresser, the girl, and various other minor characters who all arrive fully formed on screen. It is so brilliantly acted that you have to keep reminding yourself that you’re not eavesdropping, and so well plotted that you are gripped to the end. As for its message – in spite of the devout opening intertitle which reads “For the love of God”, Farhadi is pointing out quietly that Islam needs to drop some of the non-Koranic codes if it’s going to survive in the modern world. Roohi can’t ride on the back of a motorbike wearing a long, flowing chador without it getting caught in the wheels, which is what happens in the film’s opening scene. Watch out for that chador – it keeps popping up.
2 Guns (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
2 Guns is dumbass entertainment done well, which asks for and gets charismatic performances from its stars, Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington. They play the pair of crooks who turn out to be not quite who they say they are – and neither knows who the other guy really is either. If it looks like a thriller at first – the gunplay, the wiseass dialogue, director Baltasar Kormákur’s love of an overhead shot – it’s actually a farce, with the action accelerating as the film progresses, and more and more characters arriving to make things even more deliberately confusing. Talking of which, pantomime performances from Bill Paxton as a very hardass CIA guy and Edward James Olmos as the suave, cruel and loquacious baddie help it to swing along, while the soundtrack lays down wah-chukka-wah sounds just to deliver an extra nudge in the ribs. Add pizza and enjoy.
This Ain’t California (Luxin, cert 12, DVD)
When is a documentary not a documentary? This Ain’t California is a good place to start answering the question. On the surface at least it’s a documentary about the skateboard scene in Eastern Germany, the communist bit, back in the 1980s. And a very good one it is too. Telling the story of a group of friends who get back together in 2011 (ish) to mourn the death of one of their number, it cuts between camp fire reminiscence and old Super 8 film shot by one of the group. The focus is on Denis “Panik” Paraceck, who went from being one of the young boys learning to skateboard to a very cool teenager dude at the back end of the 1980s, good cheekbones, peroxide hair and a maverick streak making him very popular with the girls. And there is a lot of footage, as well as photographs, and the odd bit of animation to fill in the odd gap as we hear the story told of how the childhood friends went from streetskaters to competitors at the skateboarding championships in Prague, where they met Western idols, as well as becoming magnets for the Stasi, always wary of the latest fad from the decadent West. It’s the story of communism undermined by its inability to adapt, the old “Levi’s won the Cold War” slogan recoined. In fact there is so much grainy old footage that it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that some of it might have been added afterwards, faked up to look like it’s from the 1980s. And what about the people around the camp fire, reminiscing? It seems some of those might not be real people either, the director Marten Persiel admitted under close questioning at some festival screening (Berlin, I think). As for Panik – well it turns out he’s played by a model called Kai Hillebrand. But hang on a sec. He’s the main character, and if he’s not real, then that throws the status of his “friends” out the window too. And the footage. The whole thing, in fact. Which doesn’t make this “documentary” any less enjoyable or informative.
Leviathan (Dogwoof, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)
Here’s an impressionist, wordless documentary that simply couldn’t have been made a few years ago. Relying on the digital camera’s ability to get into difficult corners, endure more aggressive handling, perform in more extreme conditions, under lower light, it charts the tough existence for the guys, and even tougher time for the fish and shellfish, on a trawler in the North Atlantic. And what a bloody business it is – the nets come up, the fish come out. If they are skate they are held up by one guy, the wings hacked off by another guy, the remainder of the beast then chucked over the side. If cod, then it’s heads off and downstairs to the ice, the head slopping about on the wet deck before it too goes over the side. The camera is on the deck with the fish’s head, on the crest of the wave as the chum slops off the deck and back into the ocean, where phalanxes of seagulls provide escort, waiting hungrily. We hear no speech, there is no voiceover, there aren’t even that many shots – the camera holds focus on one guy for about five minutes as he sits below deck, exhaustedly half-watching a bit of TV, before eventually nodding off onto his chest. Then it’s back up to the deck, the chum, the waves, under the waves even, for more clanking and churning, shucking and chucking. In the Old Testament, Leviathan is a sea monster. Very appropriate.
Kick-Ass 2 (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/VOD)
“OK you cunts… Let’s see what you can do now!” That line, spoken by Chloë Grace Moretz in the first Kick-Ass film, said everything you needed to know about it. Coming from the mouth of a 12-year-old girl, it was shocking and very very funny. Moretz is still the funniest and best thing about this sequel with a similar plot – average earnest Joes donning stupid superhero costumes to give their life more meaning. But it doesn’t have the balls of the first film, and also hasn’t taken on board what was obviously wrong with the first film (extremely funny though it was). To wit: the Kick-Ass character. Nothing wrong with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s playing of him, it’s that Kick-Ass is just a dim bulb. He isn’t interesting, nor is his superhero alter-ego. His nemesis, who has decided on a name-change – Red Mist to Motherfucker – does a little better, largely because he’s played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse at full snivel. Yes, there are good moments, in spite of the absence of writer Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn this time round, but nearly all happen when Moretz is on screen, shouting “Game on, cocksuckers” or some such at bewildered villains, in a style she’s learnt from Nicolas Cage (whose absence is also really keenly felt). And she just isn’t on screen enough.
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (Fox, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)
The faintly mythological franchise returns, with Logan Lerman back as Jackson, a Harry Potter who’s half Greek god rather than half wizard. And Potter is the clear template for this opportunistic and dull adventure that clearly doesn’t command the respect of the studio, or else they’d have shelled out for better CGI. The story: Percy discovers he has a half-brother – those gods do get about – a cyclops called Tyson (played by Douglas Smith) who would actually be an attractive young man if it weren’t for the single eye in his head. A bit of convenient magic later and the single eye has been masked, allowing teenage girls who don’t go for Percy to fix their passions on Tyson, who is a junior league Chris Hemsworth. And off they go, the trio of the boring Percy, the dumb Tyson and the smart Annabeth (Alexandria Daddario) – same attributes as the Potter heroes – for an adventure which devolves at every opportunity into by-the-numbers action-movie sound and fury. It is nothing other than a half-blood Potter done less well, though a well imagined sequence inside a monster’s belly does suggest that someone somewhere is trying. Perhaps they’ll be given their head in the next instalment, announced abruptly at the end of this unconvincing 100 minutes.
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters – at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2013