11 November 2013-11-11

Charlie Hunnam in Pacific Rim

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Pacific Rim (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Guillermo Del Toro, everybody, which raises expectations – Pan’s Labyrinth and Cronos being not too shabby. And Hellboy being a yawn but at least a formidably realised one. Throw a director of that ability at a story about alien creatures rising up out of the Pacific and waging war on humanity – who wage it right back with huge robotic leviathans controlled by human drivers – and the result should be something fairly awesome, shouldn’t it? And Pacific Rim actually is awesome up to a point. We have Charlie Hunnam showing his formidably sculpted abs. We have Idris Elba as the hard-bitten boss of the human fighters, who appears to be acting in a different (better) film than the other actors and the script (“Plasma cannon! Now!”) are delivering. And we have a gimungous budget that has been lavished on stupendous sets and amazing special effects. In terms of ambition Del Toro is going for Blade Runner grunge and Alien primalism. He throws in references to 2001 and Godzilla, and gives us some light relief in the shape of Ron Perlman as a dodgy dealer in alien bits and pieces. It’s in Perlman’s too-brief sequences that the film springs to life, because it has wit and a story to tell. As for the rest of it, it’s a series of badly shot action sequences in which one indistinct gigantic thing in the ocean attempts to dismember another indistinct gigantic thing in the ocean. Transformers on a seaside holiday. As for Ramin Djawadi’s soundtrack – Hollywood, enough with the orchestras, for god’s sake.

Pacific Rim – at Amazon

The Great Gatsby (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Like a beautiful Bugatti without an engine, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz age masterpiece has all the looks that money can buy. But it just sits there, doing nothing. Luhrmann follows the book to the letter in terms of plot – we meet callow Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the wannabe; his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), the old money; and we meet mysterious new-money recluse Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). We then follow these characters through a series of events depicting the wild times of the post First World War era, when prosperity was loosening morality. More particularly we watch as Gatsby sniffs after Daisy, while the old money sniffs out the new, with intent to expose its posturing. It’s a brilliant piece of storytelling, with beautiful dovetailed plotting, and Luhrmann is wise not to mess with it. But he just doesn’t know what to do with the narrator – Carraway – through whose saucer eyes the whole ambiguous story in the book is told. So he does what the director of Moulin Rouge does best – he piles on the spectacle, the excess, calls up Beyonce, Lana Del Rey and Will.i.am to suggest how thrillingly modern those Jazz Agers were. But this isn’t a modern story, it’s a story about old money and old school morality rising up and biting an interloper in the ass. Eliding the eras by referencing the collected works of Jay Z doesn’t help anyone with anything. The total effect is inertia, no matter how good all the actors are – and they really are, Edgerton in particular as vengeful, not-as-dim-as-he’s-painted Tom. Like I say, beautiful, going nowhere.

The Great Gatsby – at Amazon

8½ (Argent, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Widely considered Fellini’s masterpiece, , is essentially La Dolce Vita II, another tour of the sweet life, through the eyes of a director who wants to make a new film but is so blocked by the success of a previous film, and surrounded by the blandishments of the film biz – girls, mostly – that he’s distracted to the point of stasis. It’s a meta film, perhaps the first, that puts Fellini’s own story – he really didn’t know how to follow La Dolce Vita but knew he had to do something – right there on the screen. Early on a funny little character – a critic, I suppose – pops up to point out that the film Fellini is making in the film (but also the one we are watching – it’s less confusing than it sounds) “lacks a central conflict or philosophical premise… making the film a chain of gratuitous episodes, perhaps even amusing in their ambiguous realism.” As we watch Marcello Mastroianni, the Fellini avatar, dripping about impotently, that “ambiguous realism” provides the other motor of the film – Fellini’s interest in Jungian analysis. A dream sequence opens the film and there’s a dream sequence always on hand to offset what might otherwise look a bit too much like a diary of “here’s what I did yesterday” events. Mastroianni essentially reheats his turn from La Dolce Vita, the dark shades and impassive face linking together the dreams, the chat, the fantasies, the looming faces of actresses and casting agents, producers and writers, priests and circus characters (the dreams again). It is all an elaborate bluff, a superb meringue dressed up in the most fantastic style – the hats alone are worth seeing this film for, as are the mamma mia looks of Anouk Aimée and Claudia Cardinale in their prime. At one point Mastroianni declares “I’m going to get everything in; even a tap-dancing sailor” – and, bang on cue, there he is, the tap-dancing sailor. It is somewhere round here that the suspicion dawns that really is just a “chain of gratuitous episodes”. But then Fellini starts to pull everything together into a coherent whole. He pulls back a bit and, with a magician’s flourish, pulls off a double reveal – on the one hand we see Fellini the human, a despicable turd. On the other he reveals Fellini the director. Brilliant. Unique.

8 1/2 – at Amazon

Silence (New Wave, cert PG, DVD)

We’ve all heard of Slow Food. Here’s a Slow Film. About an Irish sound recordist (Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride) who returns to his native country with one of those big fluffy mikes, a pair of headphones and his recording gear, and sets about making recordings of silence – more explicitly areas unaffected by humans. With ambient sound very high in the mix, we get a lot of wind, birds, rustling, water running over rocks, frogs plopping into pools. It is massively, unashamedly poetic – our man Eoghan, with his fierce shock of Daniel Day Lewis greying black hair stopping occasionally to talk to the sort of souls you meet in Ireland: loquacious thoughtful characters versed in poetry, men capable of an impromptu song. Meanwhile, the odd clip from Man of Aran, Robert Flaherty’s famous 1934 documentary pop up here and there, another film about a life under threat, old ways on the brink of extinction. I was happy to watch this film, it’s strange and unique in the way it welds documentary intent to a (barely) fictional structure, as Man of Aran did. But I’m not sure I want to watch the thousand other films it’s going to inspire.

Silence – at Amazon

Easy Money (Lionsgate, cert 15, DVD)

It’s called Snabba Cash in its original Swedish, a great title for a film that comes with a “Martin Scorsese Presents” endorsement. Telling the story of broke student Johan (Joel Kinnaman) whose problem is that he has the looks of the high-born Aryan, for want of a better word, but not the wherewithal. So he’s minicabbing by night, dressing up by day in smart posh clothes so he can mix with his social superiors in increasingly luxe locales. It can’t go on. So when the boss of the cab firm he’s working for offers him “easy cash”, he jumps in. And is soon waist deep in gangsterism and mixing with ethnicities his cash-rich friends would shun. The Scorsese connection becomes obvious later, as Johan finds his loyalties sorely tested, The Departed-style. Easy Money has TV looks and, like TV, sets up a large number of stories – Johan, his minicab boss, an escaped Hispanic criminal, a tough gangster on the road to redemption – as if a ten-part TV series had been squashed into two hours. Yet it just manages to hang on to its central idea – which way is our nouveau desperado going to go? – right to its beautifully edited showdown finale.

Easy Money – at Amazon

More than Honey (Eureka, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)

A documentary about honey bees – what we do with them, how we’ve turned them “from wolves into poodles” in the words of an American enthusiast who now keeps killer bees (which are not killers at all, he also points out). “The bees are in trouble. They’re dying all over the world,” John Hurt intones sonorously early on in Markus Imhoof’s documentary which hasn’t bothered to rework its script as it translated it out of the original German. So when Hurt says “As a child I…” it takes some time to realise that he doesn’t mean “me, John Hurt” he means “him, the guy who wrote the script – Markus Imhoof”. This irritation to one side, this is an erratic piece of work which flies haphazardly around the globe, starting in America, where bees are freighted around the country almost the entire year, pollinating fruit trees in California, then Washington, then Dakota, then back to California. No wonder diseases, when they strike, spread. We touch down in Switzerland, where there is a deliberate and puzzling attempt to equate their attempt to keep bee populations pure with the racial politics of Hitler. Then we’re off to China, where Mao’s “kill all sparrows” policy (they were eating the grain) led to a plague of insects. Which led to a massive insecticide policy. Which led to the extinction of bees. Now people pollinate trees by hand. Amazingly. Without bees we’d all be dead, Hurt informs us. Running as a leitmotif in this often fascinating film is the attempt to explain why bee populations the world over are in trouble. It never quite is explained, though it seems humans are probably the bad guys. We usually are.

More Than Honey – at Amazon

The Internship (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are the two sales guys who get laid off and so, in desperation, go to work as interns at Google, where their brand of bloke-ish bonhomie, jockish humour and lapdancey inclusiveness wins over the supergeeks. Does that fly for you as a concept? It didn’t for me, largely because it sounds like the wish-fulfilment fantasy of pre-internet generations who just about manage to get their heads around MySpace when, pfft, it’s become Facebook, or Bebo, or … oh it’s all so confusing. Here’s the big “however”. Vaughn and Wilson are always likeable, and they are good at the bonhomie, jockish backslappiness and so on, and there actually are a few funny gags in here (which feel like they’ve been injected later by a script doctor but hey). What’s interesting about this film, nowhere near as terrible as the snottier reviews suggest, is that it’s made with Google’s “help”. So we can assume that what we see of the culture inside Google Hauptkontrolle is what they want us to see. And it’s frightening. The zeal of the employees, the dronelike fixation on the corporate, the uniformity of attitude – it’s all a bit North Korea. And considering that between this film being greenlit and finished Google’s image had gone from “does no evil” to “does whatever it wants” that is kind of interesting too. As for the actual film – yeh, s’OK. Look out for Will Ferrell’s cameo, best thing in it, beltingly funny.

The Internship – at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2013





The Best Films I Saw in 2013

The cast of You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet
Updated 2013-12-30

 

Here they are, the best films I saw in 2013. It’s a Top Ten job with the best in no particular order, followed by a list of films that made the top ten at some point in the year, then got bounced. This is not a Best of 2013, let me quickly point out, just the best films I’ve seen this year. So a film everyone else has seen but I haven’t won’t be here (I’ve not seen American Hustle yet, f’rinstance). And there might be stragglers from 2012 in here which caught up with late. It really is “the best films I have seen this year”. If you’re wondering what to do with that Amazon voucher and your tastes generally aren’t multiplex, this might be a useful place to start.

 

1. You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012, dir: Alain Resnais)

Alain Resnais, now in his nineties, proves there’s life in the new wave dog yet with an amazingly convoluted meta-drama based on two Anouilh plays, thick with formal experiment and managing to weld classical theatre to 21st century techniques. Amazing, and you can bet it made both Lars Von Trier and Todd Solondz chuckle too.

 

2. Aurora (2010, dir: Cristi Puiu)

The Romanian Cristi Puiu made The Death of Mr Lazarescu and also stars in what might be considered a follow-up, a film that tells a story while also running an audit on the current state of the homeland. The story: a very odd one, following what must the dourest hitman (Puiu) through concrete-coloured Bucharest as he goes about his often incredibly mundane business. Shot in long takes, in blue light, in the most unprepossessing of locations, with many shots half through doorways and focusing on the main character and him alone, it’s unique, remarkable and often quite baffling.

 

3. The Heat (2013, dir: Paul Feig)

Because no one is funnier than Melissa McCarthy right now, a buddy-cop comedy in which Sandra Bullock plays the uptight FBI agent reluctantly partnering a wildcat local cop (McCarthy). The plot is slender, but is just enough for Bridesmaids director Paul Feig to hang a few funny set pieces off. Better than that it gives a chance for the two actors to riff rude, with McCarthy inevitably getting the better of Bullock when it comes to being the swearier and more prepared to make herself look a fool. Fancy Bullock being in the best comedy of the year and its most popular sci-fi (which is not on my list because I haven’t seen it yet, for shame).

 

4. Angel & Tony (2010, dir: Alix Delaporte)

Big aah, a simple, short love story about a troubled beautiful young woman and the shy, fat middle-aged fisherman she rather unexpectedly hooks up with. Rather simply, this one’s all about the transformative power of love and is about as bloody lovely as films get.

 

5. I Wish  (2011, dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s drama is ostensibly about a kid who wants to make a wish, and believes that by making it at the exact point where two bullet trains’ paths cross, it is sure to come true. In fact he’s just the starting point for a whole series of lightly interconnected transgenerational stories, which the writer/director joins and rejoins. Everything about this film shouts genius – the placing of the camera, the casting, the acting, the editing. It’s also one of the sweetest films, so full of hope and life, I’ve ever seen.

 

6. The Kings of Summer (2013, Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

A coming-of-ager that has the raucous “fuck you” comic edge of Superbad and the elemental undertow of Stand By Me, The Kings of Summer is about a group of boys who head off to the woods one summer, mostly to escape their obnoxious, bullying, clever-clever parents, but partly just to do a bit of growing up. There they trap animals (or make out that they do), grow facial hair, invite girls over and get their hearts broken. It’s strange to find a film that intercuts comedy and heartache so well, that catches that great feeling of freedom that total irresponsibility allows, and which punctuates these switches between the two ends of the dramatic spectrum with contemplative “Ozu shots” of prairies and water and flowers, set to a soundtrack that manages to be both familiar and leftfield.

 

 7. She Monkeys (2011, dir: Lisa Aschan)

A Swedish drama that’s all about girls, power, sex and equestrian vaulting. Expect no fluffy bunnies in this one – in one of its twin-track stories we have a five-year-old girl sexually grooming her older babysitting cousin; in the other a butter-wouldn’t-melt blonde making a sumo-style All About Eve assault on a rival. Cool, unusual, brilliant.

 

8. Sightseers (2012, dir: Ben Wheatley)

A pair of incredibly dim British caravan enthusiasts set off on a tour of esoteric sites of special interest – museums dedicated to pencils or trams etc – and indulge in increasingly psychotic episodes of murder for light relief. A deadpan Natural Born Killers that will have you snorting liquid down your nose.

 

9. The Gatekeepers (2012, dir: Dror Moreh)

The best documentary I saw this year comes from director Dror Moreh, who somehow managed to get all the surviving former heads of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet to talk to him. What he have is little more than a series of talking heads explaining to Moreh how Shin Bet operates. But it is the way that Moreh structures the entirely stereotype-busting revelations dropping from these guys’ mouths – and they each look like a Bond villain of one sort or another – that makes this “jaw to the floor” viewing.

 

10. Silver Linings Playbook (2012, dir: David O Russell)

David O Russell’s sweet but never cute drama about a guy fresh from the funny farm (Bradley Cooper) and his burgeoning relationship with brassy fellow medicatee (Jennifer Lawrence). Underneath the warty carapace this is perfect Hollywood – everyone gets what they deserve, big lessons are learned, there’s silver linings all round, in fact. Or you could just watch it for the performances – Lawrence so good that she forces Robert De Niro to act. Even Chris Tucker puts in a great performance.

 

 

The “Nearly” List

The Sapphires (2012, dir: Wayne Blair)

We keep being told about the revival of the musical (clinkers like Chicago usually), so how come this one about a girl group of aborigine soul singers on a tour of 1960s Vietnam isn’t better known? It’s got songs, jokes, a bit of love and a standout Chris O’Dowd in the lead role. And it’s a true story.

 

Thale (2012, dir: Aleksander Nordaas)

Made for nothing yet looking like it cost millions, this Norwegian horror fantasy about a couple of police clean-up guys who find a mythical creature out in the cellar of a shack in the woods has plot, characters, looks, tension and, a few seconds of ropey CGI apart, is almost perfect.

 

Elena (2011, dir: Andrey Svyagintsev)

Andrey Svyagintsev’s throttled-back thriller about a woman in Russia, her boorish rich husband to whom she’s little more than a nurse, and her Soviet-throwback son and his family, a bunch of layabouts living out in the tower blocks.

 

Mama (2013, dir: Andrés Muschietti)

One of the seven thousand films Jessica Chastain made in the last year or so, Mama is a superior horror film that welds together the haunted house and malevolent-child genres and then throws a lot of switched sympathies into the mix. Watchable as an exercise in genre manipulation alone, or as an out-and-out horror movie, or as a bravura exercise in visual effects, this is one of the best mainstream horror films in years.

 

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012, dir: Alex Gibney)

Close to The Gatekeepers for “well stap my vitals” revelations is Alex Gibney’s remarkable documentary about paedophilia in the Roman Catholic church, how the organisation has been aware for at least 1,700 years that the vows of celibacy and chastity tend either to attract weirdos or make people weird. And that the Church has, by virtue of its institutional power, been able to subvert secular legal systems. This is a gobsmacking documentary of the old-fashioned pavement-pounding sort whose conclusions are that, lovely Pope Francis or no, in terms of moral authority the Catholic church is a busted flush.

 

Shell (2012, dir: Scott Graham)

A star is born, in the shape (the face, mostly) of Chloe Pirrie, the focus of this lugubrious drama about a girl who works in an out-of-the-way petrol station owned by her father. Shell is the girl’s name, it’s the name of a petrol company too, a passing customer jokily quips to the girl, who responds with a deep lack of engagement. Which is what the film is about  – is she going to engage? With Adam, a guy in a hot hatch? With a passing travelling salesman? Possibly with her own father? God forbid. But on this slender “who?” and “when?” director Scott Graham hangs a powerful film as austere and dour as a low church chapel.

 

In the House (2012, dir: François Ozon)

François Ozon doesn’t make dumb films, and in In the House he’s made a film that on one level is about a superbright, sexually precocious, unsettlingly androgynous schoolboy (Ernst Umhauer) who starts writing increasingly personal stories for his teacher (the brilliantly disconcerted Fabrice Luchini). Before long the teacher is hooked, the boy has become a cuckoo in the nest, the wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) is discombobulated, and Ozon has crafted a drama of the sort you can imagine Jacques Derrida and fellow post-structuralists enjoying with beer and a pizza.

 

Byzantium (2012, dir: Neil Jordan)

Neil Jordan does something excellent with the vampire movie in Byzantium. He manages to weld the lush overheated velvet of the Hammer horror, all heaving bosoms and the male gaze, to the austere IKEA ambience of Let the Right One In. As two (possible) sisters of competing vampiric sensibilities we have Gemma Arterton (the busty, Hammer lust-bucket) and Saoirse Ronan (self-assembly vampiric waiflet). Add an abandoned seaside hotel in off season, a few luckless male victims, a couple of bounders and rotters who arrive from the girls’ past to help deliver a rousing Hollywood ending, and you’ve got a film that grips by the throat, teases, entertains and beguiles.

 

8 ½ (1963, dir: Federico Fellini)

This restoration of one of Fellini’s most famous films reminds us what a clever man he was, as well as a consummate film-maker. Taking as its starting point the non-starting Fellini after he had finished La Dolce Vita, it tells the story of a blocked director who hasn’t got the faintest idea what to do next. Which all sounds very indulgent and unnecessarily arthouse, until you actually watch as Fellini slowly starts to spin his on-screen phalanx of actors, make-up people, producers, the director’s diversions, dreams and fantasies into something elaborate, fantastical and even at times funny. Marcello Mastroianni is the Fellini stand-in, and the film is really helped by the presence of Claudia Cardinale and Anouk Aimée, about the hottest women on the planet back in 1963.

 

The Wall (2012, dir: Julian Pölsler)

A weird and wonderful re-imagining of Robinson Crusoe. But instead of a man, it’s a woman (Martina Gedeck). Instead of an island it’s the landlocked country of Austria, inside which a woman on a bit of a weekend break, or something, suddenly discovers that she’s locked inside her rural idyll by an invisible wall. And there she stays for years, making friends with various stray animals, writing her diaries, musing on what it is to be human, alone. A deceptively simple but wonderfully told story, which raises the question of how any of us might cope if suddenly cut off completely from civilisation. And Austria looks pretty fantastic too.

 

Broken Circle Breakdown (2012, dir: Felix Van Groeningen)

Bluegrass music in Belgium provides the sweetener for what looks for one awful moment like it’s going to be a film about a child getting a terminal disease and dying. A child does actually get a terminal disease but that isn’t really what this artfully shot, pungently written drama – about a much-tattooed beauty (Veerle Baetens) striking up a relationship with an ex-punk (Johan Heldenburgh) and becoming a singer in his bluegrass outfit – is about. And god can she sing.

 

Fireworks Wednesday (2006, dir: Asghar Farhadi)

Finally finding its way to some sort of release off the back of the Oscar success of his A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s 2006 drama patrols a similar border, the one between traditional Islam and the blandishments of the West, and doesn’t so much wag his finger as point out the areas that are going to chafe. A simple story about a naive young girl who finds herself working for a family who seem to have adultery issues – and she’s about to get married herself – it is so well written, well cast and unobtrusively shot that it feels less like watching a movie more like eavesdropping.

 

Child’s Pose (2013, dir: Calin Peter Netzer)

Romania continues to come up with brilliant films, such as this dour drama about a horrible entitled mother trying to get her horrible ungrateful son off the charge of killing a poor child by dangerous driving. As much a portrait of the haves and have-nots of Romania and how justice is entirely in the service of only one of them (guess which), it is also a remarkable drama that withholds its true intentions. Hold on for the extended final sequence, when the mother goes to visit the dead child’s grieving parents, while the son waits out in the car, and remember to keep breathing.

 

The House I Live In (2012, dir: Eugene Jarecki)

Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about the sheer mess of US drugs policy points out the government has spent $1 trillion on the “war against drugs” since President Nixon initiated it, with the result that recreational drug use has changed not a jot. A well researched doc with the right talking heads, attitudinal but never strident.

 

Small Town Murder Songs (2010, dir: Ed Gass-Donnelly)

A drama that asks us to look at the character of an upstanding cop in a Mennonite community and divine the man he used to be – and it isn’t pretty. Peter Stormare’s hangdog features and impassive thousand yard stare make this hellish unusual type of film even more enjoyable.

 

The Queen of Versailles (2012, dir: Lauren Greenfield)

The documentary that asked us to feel billionaire pain, and succeeded. Starting out simply as a film about the building of the biggest private residence in the US, the enterprise somehow became something much more incisive – a story about financial mess we’ve all been going through, seen from the most rarefied of positions. Entirely fascinating.

 

Rust and Bone (2012, dir: Jacques Audiard)

Always making a bad film (Nine, Public Enemies) bearable and a good film (Inception, Contagion) better, Marion Cotillard is on absolute white hot form in this potentially blubbery drama about a woman who loses her legs and the bouncer (equally remarkable Matthias Schoenaearts) who gives her back her taste for life.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013