10 March 2014-03-10

Out in the UK this week

In Fear (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

In Fear is a great little movie with a cast of two for most of it, Iain De Caestecker and Alice Englert as a couple who barely know each other but are now off to a festival together in Ireland. He’s driving, she’s wondering, antennae flapping, why he’s booked the pair of them a preliminary night in an out-of-the-way hotel. Except that, no matter how often they follow the signs, they just don’t seem to be able to find the hotel. Taking this as its starting point, director Jeremy Lovering lashes together a titanic raft of increasing creepiness from the simplest of ingredients – their in-car interaction, the road outside, the trees, the desolate countryside. Like the best films of this sort it’s all done with smoke and mirrors – creepy camera angles and a moody soundtrack. Lovering makes even the swoosh of a windscreen wiper sound full of foreboding. Connoisseurs of the “a couple and a car” genre will note that this is a vast improvement on 2007’s Wind Chill, which worked a similar setup into a supernatural corner it never quite came back from. In Fear doesn’t go there. Instead it prefers its shocks to be flavoured with real human. Which makes for something more crazed, gothic, believable and ultimately more satisfying.

In Fear – at Amazon

The Butler (EV, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

With so many Hollywood movies cheating at their equal opportunities casting – black actors often in positions of high status within the film but having no real dramatic heft – Lee Daniels’s latest film looks like it’s reversing the situation. The Butler stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, the lowly and patient butler to eight US presidents, from Eisenhower onwards, whose tenure of office ran alongside efforts by black American citizens to enjoy the civil rights their whiter brethren took for granted. The presidents are all played by big names – John Cusack as Nixon, James Marsden as Kennedy, Alan Rickman as Reagan etc – and not one of them has any dramatic input worth speaking of. Which is refreshing. That’s not to say that The Butler is exactly brimming over with drama focusing on Gaines – though his struggles with his son, who joins the Black Panthers while Gaines waits for the presidents he serves to do the right thing, are the philosophical heart of the piece. Like Gaines himself, Whitaker subsumes himself in his role, leaving the grabbier displays of acting to others – Oprah Winfrey is fantastic as his wife, David Oleyowo ditto as his son, and Yaya Alafia does herself a ton of favours as a spitfire skank Black Panther. Daniels livens things up every now and again with a fight, a spat, a bit of trademark melodrama (he made Precious and The Paperboy, let’s remember). Even so it’s hard to escape the fact that this is heritage film-making peddling a profoundly toe-the-line message.

The Butler – at Amazon

Short Term 12 (Verve, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

A film set in a kids home that doesn’t feature the workers sexually interfering with their charges, that’s unusual enough. But one that doesn’t go for fireworks, aims instead for something approximating real life (actual real life being a bit boring) that’s doubly unusual. Brie Larson, everyone’s indie, up-and-coming darling right now, is the star, playing Grace, the supersussed young woman looking after kids who aren’t really that much younger than her in the home known as Short Term 12 – the name Holding Tank presumably already being used somewhere else in the municipality. Destin Cretton’s film doesn’t set out to do anything other than show us people and tell us their stories – Marcus the angry rapper, Sammy the weird withdrawn kid who’s always making a run for it, Jayden the sulky superbright new girl whose behaviour rings a bell in the head of Grace. Cretton might be a Christian, I don’t know. I say this because he seems determined to go for uplift, clean resolution, redemption. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, considering what you normally get with films set in institutions for kids, his approach is radical. And his film is beautifully acted, intelligently directed and a bit of a one-off.

Short Term 12 – at Amazon

Drinking Buddies (Sony, cert 15, DVD)

So, an indie-ish sort-of romance with a dark undertow that casts Olivia Wilde as the only girl working in a microbrewery, Jake Johnson as one of the brewers, a guy she gets on with really well, shares lunch and confidences with. She likes beer, he likes beer. They are meant for each other, obviously. But each has a partner. For him it’s Anna Kendrick, playing a peevish girlfriend just this side of slappable; for her it’s Ron Livingston, a pursed lip older guy who’s just this side of shootable. So when are the two going to get it on? This is the lure that writer/director Joe Swanberg dangles before us. And doesn’t he dangle it? Giving us endless shots of Wilde being cute, sniffing her armpits to check she doesn’t smell when she thinks no one is looking. The problem being that Olivia Wilde’s armpits couldn’t smell if the hollows had been used for scooping processed anchovy waste for a week. She’s too damned… she’s Olivia Wilde. If you can buy the fact that Johnson – playing a nice guy with a normal sex drive and two eyes in his head, no religious impediments, no gay inclinations that we’re made aware of – wouldn’t make some sort of move long before Swanberg excellently pulls the rug out from under our feet, then I entirely recommend this film. If you can’t, you’ll be shouting “get on with it” as I was.

Drinking Buddies – at Amazon

Motorway (Arrow, cert 15, DVD)

Ever since the British handed Hong Kong back to the Chinese in 1997 the movies coming out of what was once one of the world’s cinematic powerhouses have changed in character – if I see one more film about the Three Kingdoms making the point that powerful government is what China really needs. Anyway, here’s Motorway to remind us what Hong Kong used to produce before everything went fu manchu moustache. It’s a fast-paced cop actioner like they used to make in other words, with synth drums on the soundtracks, night shoots drenched in blue light. And the plot… well that’s a throwback too, to a Lethal Weapon story of a cop on the verge of retirement and the hotshot who thinks he knows all the tricks in the book. But mostly Motorway is a series of rubber-burning car stunts interspersed with flavoursome character scenes – rookie tries to pick up babe in poolhall; Danny Glover guy teaches rookie a cool car stunt – and these are genuinely terrific. The static drift – nudge-driving a car round a corner while moving at zero miles per hour is particularly impressive, especially if volcanic plumes of smoke are your thing. And unlike some rubber-burners, Motorway does stop to point out here and there that this stuff is actually dangerous, that innocent people get killed when nutters run around in powercars (the Mazda S13, prominently). That the communists have decided to wake up the Hong Kong film industry is a great thing, and while Motorway isn’t perfect, it’s a great start.

Motorway – at Amazon

Ender’s Game (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

A voiceover from somewhere in the future informs us that kids, by virtue their video-game savvy, are much faster, more visual, more co-ordinated than their elders, and so have been selected as the warriors who will save planet earth from attack by giant alien antlike things. With that established we’re into a sort of Bugsy Malone in space, and what must be the most insufferable sci-fi film for decades. The story of Ender, the wee kid chosen, Harry Potter-like, because of his special talents by a wise old guru – Harrison Ford, not so much acting as sneering his way through what’s clearly a “take the money and run” role – is familiar in its arc. Ender is chosen, he joins the ranks, he is subjected to initial humiliation before winning the grudging respect of all who encounter him, largely by specialising in the sort of insubordination that would get any recruit in any military organisation taken out and shot. Asa Butterfield plays Ender, and I spent much of the film trying to work out whether it was Butterfield or Ender who was giving off the odour of priggishness. As for the script – insistent, repetitive, uppity, boring and just plain through-the-fingers dreadful. Enter Ben Kingsley – who was in Uwe Boll’s Bloodrayne so knows how to keep a straight face – as some sort of fabled pilot, and the film does actually start to improve. It improves again as it moves into its final third, and the live action is increasingly displaced in favour of a swarm of game imagery. In its last five minutes it improves yet again, and it becomes apparent that it is Ender who is the appalling insubordinate cock-chafing snot and that Butterfield has just been playing him as written. Bring on part two.

Ender’s Game – at Amazon

Mouchette (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray)

Mouchette is by a good stretch Robert Bresson’s most easily digested film. The monochrome classic from 1967 is a masterpiece of compression, introducing us in its first five minutes to the young loner Mouchette, her sick mother, severe father, pinched teacher, a gamekeeper and a poacher, and Luisa, the hottie who works at the local bar whom both gamekeeper and poacher would like to ensnare. Wandering like a holy innocent through all these stories is the wretched Mouchette, whose encounter with both rivals for Luisa’s affections while walking home through the woods sets her up for an outcome that Red Riding Hood would recognise. Though it’s still clearly there, in Mouchette Bresson is insisting less severely on the “anti-acting” style his films are noted for. And maybe his story-telling is a touch less severe too – there is the odd embellishment; not everything is left to our imaginations to fill in. But on the whole it’s Bresson down the line – rarely a line of dialogue when the scene can do without; the sound tells the story or the picture does but never the twain. And even when it comes to sound, it’s either dialogue or the ambient noise that’s doing the hard work, again never both. This restoration reminds us of the power of black and white when a film has been made by a cinematographer (Ghislain Cloquet) who knows how to squeeze all the tones from the restricted palette – entirely appropriate for Bresson too – and is so well done it will bear magnifying glass scrutiny.

Mouchette – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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