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.
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.
8½ (Argent, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
Widely considered Fellini’s masterpiece, 8½, 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 8½ 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.
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.
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.
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.
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