16 December 2013-12-16

Emma Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, Will Poulter and Jason Sudeikis in We're the Millers

Out in the UK this week

 

 

 

We’re the Millers (Warner, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Having turned up in small roles in good films (say, Friends with Money), in big roles in bad films (The Bounty Hunter), Jennifer Aniston finally makes a film in which she is a star and it is good and funny. She plays the poledancer pretending to be married to smalltime weed seller Jason Sudeikis, so they can smuggle a shitload of marijuana over from Mexico into the US, posing as an average family riding around in an RV. Along for the ride (and a cut of the cash) are street hustler Emma Roberts and dweeb Will Poulter. It’s basically your “gang of self-interested assholes become a loving unit” drama and most of the best jokes are about the distance between the roles they’re playing and the people the “Millers” really are – so Aniston saying “suck a dick” while smiling like she’s Mrs Perfect. If there’s a problem to the film it’s that as the “Millers” start to become emotionally connected – if that is a spoiler then you really haven’t ever seen a Hollywood film, have you? – the entire basis for the comedy has been negated, but by that time there are a whole load of banditos and other sons of bitches on the Millers’ tail and things are rolling towards the end anyway. Don’t dwell too long on the “I’ve still got it” scene in which Aniston does some actual erotic dancing – it’s painfully embarrassing. Instead enjoy her and Sudeikis’s ability to milk a line for laughs.

We’re the Millers – at Amazon

 

 

 

Child’s Pose (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD)

Another great film from Romania, Child’s Pose is all about a scheming mother trying to get her son off the charge of killing a child in his car. Whether he was drunk, or on the phone, or driving too fast, or whatever, is immaterial, what’s fascinating about this film is watching a horrible woman trying to pull the levers of corrupt power – she has money, and connections – while her even more horrible, sullen 30something son behaves like an overgrown kid, all expectation and appalling passivity. It is a brilliant attack on modern attitudes regardless of what country you’re from, and a vivid portrait of a country waist deep in corruption and unable to bridge the gulf between the haves and have-nots.

Child’s Pose – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Long Goodbye (Arrow, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Of a piece with Chinatown, this 1970s detective noir with deliberate use of 1940s Los Angeles locations stars Elliott Gould as Raymond Chandler’s white-knight detective Philip Marlowe. The plot is typical Chandler skimpiness, just enough to propel Marlowe from one laconic set piece to the next. Some of these contain Nina Von Pallandt and Sterling Hayden (another 1940s reminder) as a blowsy wife and alcoholic Hemingway-esque writer husband who have hired Marlowe. Others contain Jim Boulton as Marlowe’s friend Terry Lennox, who either has or hasn’t killed his own wife and is now either living in Mexico or is dead somewhere. It barely matters what the plot is, since the film is essentially an opportunity for Marlowe to crack wise (and Gould to occasionally corpse as he’s doing it). If the foreground is all Chandler (and adapter Leigh Brackett), the background is pure Altman and is a tableau vivant of 1970s life – the girls who live next door to Marlowe, their constant drug use, their frequent nakedness, all being an amusing comment on where LA’s head was back then. It is now, as it always was, a strangely inconsequential film, though it remains a beautiful reminder of a bygone age, and of Gould at a time when he had the world at his feet. What the hell happened there?

The Long Goodbye – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Vicious Kind (Moviolla, cert 15, DVD)

If Adam Scott has made his way by playing a series of effete if not gay young men, he seems determined to prove he can play the whore-mongering, angry, all-male kind of guy in this unusual drama which takes the structure of the Hollywood romance and then messes with it. Scott is Caleb, the rancid piece of work who reluctantly turns up to help his brother Peter (Alex Frost) out of a tight fix, catches sight of his girl (Brittany Snow) and is immediately smitten. What sort of a girl is Emma though? The nice, decent girl that the Peter believes she is? Or is she more the dirty slut that Caleb tells her she is? And what sort of a way is that to speak to your brother’s girlfriend, or to woo a woman? Things carry on pretty much in this sort of vein – horrible Caleb, nice Peter, virgin/whore Emma – right through to the entirely satisfying end of this small but perfectly formed film that is really enhanced by the acting of all concerned. Scott is predictably excellent, and there’s JK Simmons playing the boys’ dad with his usual panache. But it is Brittany Snow who is on eye-opening form as the will she/won’t she Emma.

The Vicious Kind – at Amazon

 

 

 

Pandora’s Promise (November Films, cert 12, DVD)

Once upon a time all environmentalists were anti-nuclear. Now they seem, all of them, to be pro. What happened? Robert Stone’s documentary sets out to tell us, and asks those who have switched from one side to the other to explain themselves. So we have Stewart Brand, of the Whole Earth Catalogue fame; Gwyneth Craves, author and protester; Mark Lynas, the “hard-core activist”. And so on, a whole stream of talking heads who in essence make the following argument – nuclear power is bad, but global warming is worse, so we must accept nuclear power (ancillary corollary – renewables can’t plug the gap). What this long and insufficiently argued film then does is make this point again and again, in between giving us a history of nuclear energy and the incidental prediction that the fast breeder reactor will be our saviour. Unsatisfying and badly structured though it is, Pandora’s Promise is full of fascinating stuff – such as the community that is now living back around the Chernobyl plant, where the Geiger counter is registering radiation levels lower than the background radiation levels in plenty of non-nuclearised parts of the world. Or the fact that half of the US’s power generation by nuclear power is from the reprocessing of old USSR warheads. But the main impression that the documentary gives, sadly, is that the environmentalists were wrong in the first place – unscientific and over-emotional in their conclusions that “nuclear must be bad”. And that they’re wrong again now. And I don’t think Stone was setting out to say that at all.

Pandora’s Promise – at Amazon

 

 

 

11.6 (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD)

I’ll watch anything with François Cluzet in, a French actor as capable of playing serious drama as he is at comedy (see Untouchable). Here he’s at his most intense as Toni Musulin, the security guard who stole €11.6 million in France’s “crime of the century”. It’s a true story – Musulin is still in prison as I write – turned into a slow-burn drama which sticks close to the facts. And which comes with a healthy, if badly bolted on, class-warfare subtext – Toni and his fellow minimum-wage security guards are being badly dicked about by their corner-cutting bosses, hence Toni’s elevation to national-hero status when he simply drove off with the van full of the Banque de France money he was meant to be looking after. It also helped that no one was in love with the banks when the modern-day Robin Hood pulled his uniquely simple heist in 2009. Muted to the point, occasionally, of stasis, this is an unusual drama that asks us to guess the exact motivation for the Ferrari-loving Toni, and which comes with a similarly chilled soundtrack – all post-club synths and hushed electro.

11.6 – at Amazon

 

 

 

When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun (Arrow, cert 15, DVD)

Here’s a documentary that tells the story of the occupation of Tibet by the Chinese, who have been there since 1949. It has a soundtrack by Philip Glass (which I think is a Glass soundtrack recycled from elsewhere) and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. It has access to the Dalai Lama, notable names such as Richard Gere (laugh all you like at the “activist and humanitarian” tag but he does at least turn out for the rallies) and it gives some screen time to the opposing point of view – that Tibet belongs to China, and in any case why is everyone so keen on supporting a medieval theocracy? It’s a largely form-free affair, composed of far too many talking heads saying the same thing too often, though it does at least give air to the political debate that has gone on since the Dalai Lama embraced the “middle way” of working with China. Cultural genocide is the charge brought against China, and it seems, on the evidence presented here, to be one most people would accept. But what would a “free Tibet” run by the government now in exile do with all the Han Chinese who now live in the country – up to 70 % of inhabitants of Lhasa, the capital – many of whom were born there? Send them “home”?

When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun – at Amazon 

 

 

 

© 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