26 May 2014-05-26

Oscar Isaac sings in Inside Llewyn Davis

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

Inside Llewyn Davis (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

The Coen brothers specialise in films about absence or lack – The Man Who Wasn’t There being the most obvious exemplar. Inside Llewyn Davis is about a folk singer on the Greenwich Village circuit just before Bob Dylan turned up and electrified – joke intended – the scene. It  stars the hitherto obscure Oscar Isaac as the struggling singer who just lacks that last, magical quarter of an inch of whatever it is that makes an artist break through. It’s heartbreak in slo-mo, in other words, and to some extent it’s unwatchable, if you find beautifully crafted, brilliantly acted films unwatchable. Why doesn’t Llewyn Davis make it? There’s really no point in me saying what I think the answer is, since that’s the knot the film worries away at. As it does so, there’s Carey Mulligan as a boho folkie revealing yet another side to her talent, the mellifluous pipes of Davis, bringing to life the songs of Dave Van Ronk, on whose experience the film is based. And there’s the mis en scene of the Coens, the look of New York in the early 1960s looking like it was lifted straight off the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album. And isn’t that a sly casting choice, getting F Murray Abraham, Salieri to Tom Hulce’s Mozart in Amadeus, to play the role of the man who tells Isaac he just isn’t good enough? A sorrowful moment in a film that’s essentially one awful disappointment after another, in a journey towards oblivion.

Inside Llewyn Davis – at Amazon

 

 

 

Willow Creek (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, DVD)

I don’t want to watch any more found footage films, especially one that seems to be explicitly out in the Blair Witch woods. However, having seen Willow Creek, about a couple who go in search of Bigfoot – him an enthusiastic wannabe TV presenter (hence the camera), her more sceptical – I have to say that director Bobcat Goldthwait has managed to squeeze a last smidgeon of toothsome entertainment out of the tube. He’s also obviously seen Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, and noticed that watching people walking towards their doom is grimly fascinating. Goldthwait also adds in a bit of verity by having his actors, Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson, actually posing as real people making their own real film about Bigfoot. Either that or the interviews with people en route to the couple’s appointment with fear are so well acted it’s uncanny. Verdict: nothing new to see here, but that doesn’t mean Willow Creek isn’t scary.

Willow Creek – at Amazon

 

 

 

8 Minutes Idle (Luxin, cert 15, DVD)

Coming across as a lo-fi Richard Curtis rom-com, except Curtis doesn’t do jokes involving semen-filled condoms, 8 Minutes Idle is a funny and incredibly likeable British film set in a call centre, where browbeaten co-workers flirt with each other to pass the time when they’re steering hapless callers up one blind alley after another. Tom Hughes is its hero, a shiftless and homeless minimum wager secretly sleeping in the office and trying to make a move on the office hottie (Ophelia Lovibond), something she might, or might not, welcome. The film feels like it’s written by people who actually have worked in a call centre, are young, have working hormones and understand that taking the odd drug isn’t a one-way ticket to hell. And the casting is really very good – Antonia Thomas as a saucy, spunky co-worker, Montserrat Lombard as the sexually predatory boss, only a couple of years older than the others but it’s a crucial couple of years. And in the background, as a running gag, the sound of callers constantly losing their rag because their needs are not being serviced. Short and sweet.

8 Minutes Idle – at Amazon

 

 

 

August: Osage County (EV, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Tracy Letts wrote Killer Joe – a lunge into Tennessee Williams territory. And he’s cranking out more, though less successful, melodrama with this overcooked offering which he also directed. Look at the cast. Meryl Streep as the dying matriarch, Sam Shepard as her husband, Julia Roberts and Julianne Nicholson as daughters, Benedict Cumberbatch as a cousin, Abigail Breslin as a grand-daughter, Chris Cooper as a brother in law. If I go on (Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, the exquisite Margo Martindale) it’s only to demonstrate that people obviously think Letts is a thing. I’m not so sure. This is an exercise in mad overacting by nearly all concerned. Streep is funny and about as good as it’s possible to be, playing a vicious old hag presiding over a weekend of truth and lies as the family gathers to say goodbye to dear old Dad (Shepard, in it for less than five minutes) after he kills himself. Following close behind is Martindale, as her semi-stoked sister, and Julia Roberts brings a touch of humanity to the role of the caring sister who acts as our go-between. I won’t go into the plot, which is needless to say all about forbidden relationships, as Tennessee Williams dramas tend to be, but it centres on Cumberbatch, who is about as terrible in this as I’ve ever seen him. Though otherwise there isn’t much for the men in this drama to do apart from sit back and watch the fur fly and the chicken fry.

August: Osage County – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Hidden Face (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

Going all the way back to the original gothic novels – locked rooms, mad women in attics and moody men striding about purposefully – The Hidden Face is a good looking Spanish horror set in Bogota, Colombia, where a Byronically highly strung orchestral conductor (Quim Gutiérrez) is having a lively sex life with his attractive new girlfriend (Martina García). What happened to the previous one though? She ran off, according to a video message she left behind. Though the police are not convinced. And the new girlfriend is beginning to wonder too. Thunder and lighting crash at all the right times, the ladies take off their clothes attractively and the Nazis make a discreet appearance to add another layer of menace in this entirely satisfying piece of densely plotted entertainment that takes the viewer up, over, under, through and out, never short-changing, staying true to character and to genre expectations.

The Hidden Face – at Amazon

 

 

 

Nashville (Eureka, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

It was never described in these terms when it was first released in 1975, but Nashville is a musical. Robert Altman says as much in one of the two interviews that accompany the remaster of this masterpiece, a multi-stranded affair about country stars converging on Nashville, where the broken dreams of the 1960s are about to meet embryonic Reagan-era politics. If you’ve ever wondered whether Lili Tomlin or Henry Gibson or Keith Carradine had actually been in a good film, here’s your proof, Tomlin as the careworn wife of bumptious political hick Ned Beatty hovering on the edge of an affair with a relentless womaniser (Carradine), while a bewigged has-been (Gibson) gentles towards the exit a career based on twangy patriotic tearjerkers. Some of the singing is terrible, not always because it’s meant to be, but the bands playing behind the singers are excellent, and Altman’s technique – so many stories, so much layering of sound – is about as polished as it would ever be. I’d forgotten Jeff Goldblum was in Nashville, as a hippie on a chopper trike, and how good Geraldine Chaplin was as the dreadful women “from the BBC” trying to interview one person while keeping an eye out for anyone more famous. With cameos from blur-on stars Elliott Gould and Julie Christie as themselves, Nashville has a time-capsule quality to it now. Shot just before America celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, we’re in a world before Aids, terrorism and today’s gigantic disparities in wealth, when the American dream seemed more attainable, more credible, and yet, in Altman’s eyes at least, still worth interrogating.

Nashville – at Amazon

 

 

 

Squatters (Sony, cert 18, DVD/digital)

Kelly and Jonas, a pair of street dwelling skanks (Thomas Dekker and Gabriella Wilde) break into the home of a wealthy couple (Richard Dreyfuss, Nancy Travis) who have gone on holiday. The duo reinvent themselves entirely, hacking off their matted hair, easing themselves into borrowed clothes, nipping into the garage to take the Porsche out for a spin. It cannot last, of course, and when the house’s real owners come back… actually, when the house’s real owners come back, the film lurches from the entirely improbable to the majorly ludicrous. The writing is to blame – “You’re shit, Kelly. You’re trash, just like me,” shouts Jonas, in one of the film’s crappier moments of unwitting lip-quivering melodrama, a line that is trying to suggest that Squatters is a meditation on the difficulty of escaping one’s past, when neither Dekker nor Wilde ever looked like hobos in the first place. On the upside, this is a glossy, good looking film, Wilde acts Dekker and his lovely dark eyelashes into a corner, and it’s nice to see Richard Dreyfuss on screen again. Last time I saw him was in a cameo in Piranha, where he was having some fun at the expense of Jaws. Now there’s a film – Piranha, I mean. Kidding.

Squatters – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

7 April 2014-04-07

Martin Freeman in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

One book, three films – there’s something almost Tolkienesque in that phrase, don’t you think? Against expectation I enjoyed the first instalment of The Hobbit, even though every fibre of my being had been rebelling against the idea of Peter Jackson turning a slim book into three long movies. I can’t say the same for part two, which follows Bilbo and the dwarves on their quest to reclaim Erebor, their kingdom beneath the mountain, which is an exercise in time-wasting until Smaug himself arrives. Every shot, every scene is padded, even the most inconsequential locale getting its own establishing shot, ostensibly to establish it as a space where high drama is to be played out but in fact just to tick away a few more seconds. The music is loud and insistent and has also been designed to convince us that what we’re watching is thrilling, though nothing can make dwarves floating slowly down the river in barrels exciting. Another irritant is the amount of “Gwingwin yeugh na gwingwi” chat by orcs and elves and whatnot. The CG is, frankly, sub-standard, and Jackson relies far too heavily on it – but then that is a criticism of his entire Tolkien output and is probably the main reason why the films are not going to age well. It’s not all bad though. After an hour of poncing about, the film does actually get going as Gandalf takes on Sauron in a fight. Meanwhile, below the big mountain, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, continuing to be an engaging turnip) takes on Smaug the giant dragon, puts the ring on and takes it off again, on, off, on, off, while the dragon slithers around in the vast heap of treasure it has accumulated. It’s all quite thrilling and good fun and is a reminder that the strength of the original book was to mix the scale of the epic with the agility of the fairytale. A fact Jackson and team have almost entirely forgotten.

The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug – at Amazon

 

 

 

Oldboy (Universal, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

The original Old Boy, directed by Park Chan-wook in 2003, is a brillant revenge thriller of rococo madness much loved by those who’ve seen it. And if you haven’t, you should. This Spike Lee remake has come in for a bit of a bashing for one reason or another. Much of it, I suspect, by people who simply want to demonstrate that they are familiar with the original. There’s a bit of oneupmanship going on, in other words. Because Lee’s version really isn’t bad at all. Sticking pretty close to the original story, we follow our “hero”, a fuck-up on a royal scale, as he is kept in solitary confinement for 20 years by person or persons unknown. On his release, off he goes to take revenge on whoever did it to him, never really wondering why it happened in the first place, or what his jailer’s ultimate intention was. Josh Brolin is a brilliant ball of anger as our main man – at first an asshole, later the implacable foe – Sharlto Copley plays the devilishly bad villain, using an accent that even a Bond villain would find a touch over the top. And there’s Samuel L Jackson in there too, as another of Brolin’s enemies, dressed like some medieval punk pope and utilising the persona that Mr Tarantino helped create. Fans of the squid-eating scene in the original film will be disappointed with the remake, though there is an echo of the brutally choregraphed hammer-fight. And the product placement for Apple stuff (really, the ingenious things you can do with an iPhone) comes thick and fast too. Ultimately, it’s less pure, less conceptually driven, than the original, though Lee dredges everything with his usual good looks and reminds us he’s a really good thriller director, in case we’d forgotten he also made Inside Man.

Oldboy – at Amazon

 

 

 

Easy Money II: Hard to Kill (Icon, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The first Easy Money – aka Snabba Cash – came with a “Martin Scorsese Presents” endorsement and lived up to it entirely. It was fast, dirty, brilliantly shot and edited, and the cast, all unknown to me, completely fit the bill. The sequel, somewhat unexpectedly, is just as good. There’s less of a class element this time, our blond callow Swedish lad having learnt his lesson last time out that the only way you can become old money is by being born old money. Actually, he learns it one more time at the beginning of this film, when the computer trading program he has been working on in prison has been stolen by his “business partner”, an old money guy. This throws the baby-faced JW (Joel Kinnaman) back into bed with the motley ethnic crew we met in the first film – a Serbian, a Spaniard, a Lebanese – each cast because his facial features look like they were crafted on a lathe. What follows is an hour or so of familiar gangs-guns-drugs storyline spiced with delicious cross and double-cross, new director Babak Najafi keeping the pace up while cinematographer Aril Wretblad and editor Theis Schmidt work some double-act magic – this really is a film to watch and admire technically as well as narratively. In fact it’s all good – cast, plot, technicians, the lot. Can’t wait for the next one.

Easy Money II: Hard to Kill – at Amazon

 

 

 

Sparks (Image, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Something of a curiosity, this adaptation of Christopher Folino’s graphic novel tells the story of a 1940s superhero and makes up in plot what it lacks in budget. And it really really has a plot – so convoluted that I’ll just tell you that Sparks falls in love with a woman with super powers, then loses her, then takes up with another woman with super powers who, to bed Sparks, takes on the form of the old girlfriend. Meanwhile, as a result of a toxic-spill accident, a man whose DNA is half crocodile… I could go on but the nub of it is Sparks’s love for Lady Heavenly, who believes that Sparks is a quitter and so not worthy of her. Chase Williamson and Ashley Bell make for a credible lead couple, even if Williamson isn’t that great an actor and his stubble doesn’t look convincingly 1940s. But what’s really unusual about the film – and will probably decide whether you give it the thumbs up – is how earnest it is. It delivers Chandleresque dialogue (“She was the kind of woman whose first name you instantly wanted to add to your last”), and a 1940s Dick Tracey-style score as if it had never been done before. There’s not a wink, not even a Superman half-wink. It’s Sin City done straight, in other words, and on a thousandth of the budget.

Sparks – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Summit (Metrodome, cert E, DVD)

On one day in August 2008 11 climbers died on the face of K2 as they were trying to get to the summit, or get back down from it. Nick Ryan’s documentary attempts a Touching the Void retelling of the story, mixing talking-head reminiscence with drama-documentary recreation. K2 is the world’s second highest mountain but much harder to climb, largely because of the vast overhanging glacier which can break off at any time, killing everyone below. On the day in question, thanks to prolonged bad weather, there were 15 teams of various nationalities waiting to head for the summit. The result was a bottleneck, some bad decision-making, some lost-in-translation panic reaction, real heroics, stupid gestures and a lot of dead people. Ryan uses a lot of original footage – the quality of even an iPhone video in 2008 means he’s got plenty to choose from – and he has access to the people who matter, both the survivors and the relatives of those who didn’t make it. I could have done without the historical angle which threads the story of legendary Italian climber Walter Bonatti through the documentary in an attempt to link the current controversy about whether some of the climbers acted bravely or foolishly to Bonatti’s 1954 ascent, which was also wreathed in dispute. Not because Bonatti’s story isn’t interesting, but because it adds nothing to the main thrust. And I could have done with less of the blame game being played by relatives and loved-ones who weren’t there and who hadn’t made the climber’s basic contract with fate. That, too, adds nothing.

The Summit – at Amazon

 

 

 

Teenage (Soda, cert E, DVD/VOD)

Because of his definitive book on punk, England’s Dreaming, the writer/academic Jon Savage has always been associated with the late 1970s. The joy of Teenage, the film about a later book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, is that it winds further back in time, away from that over-patrolled era, to 1904, when legislation was first brought in to restrict the use of children in British factories. Until then working people were seen as children until the age of 12, but became adults as soon as they entered the factory gate. It’s in the space opened up by the law that the idea of the teenager took root. This film covers its first flush, from that definitive time in 1904 to its attainment of self-awareness in 1945. But I’m making it sound boring, when in fact this film – whose archive footage should win its researchers all the awards going – bounces along to a soundtrack mixing music of the era with a kind of electronic boogie, while voiceover (Ben Whishaw for the UK youth, Jena Malone for the American, Julia Hummer for the German) helps make it a more international affair – the styles and music from America being crucial, then as now. The inclusion of a German voice is interesting, especially when it’s remembered how teenage ideals of health, youth and freedom played into the Nazi ideology. It helps to remind us that, though the film is pretty much a youth fanboy, the kids are not always alright.

Teenage – at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

31 March 2014-03-31

Donald Pleasence does the scary in Wake in Fright

Out in the UK this week

 

Klown (Arrow, cert 18, DVD)

Spun off from a taboo-baiting Danish TV series of the same name, this comedy sends a couple of mismatched buddies on a road trip, bromance style, with a 12 year old boy in tow. What this dim bulb and his raging egomaniac friend get up to can best be described as shenanigans, with the jokes usually having a sexual focus – I think this has the most audacious and literal sight gag I’ve ever seen. Klown is full of the sort of stuff that you can imagine the writers room on a Vince Vaughn/Ben Stiller movie coming up with and then deciding it wouldn’t be wise to use. Would that be the ass-fingering, the buttfucking or the jokes at the expense of the size of the 12-year-old’s penis? All of the above. The film does betray its TV sketch origins, but it is redeemed by the fact that its stars, Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen, are as fearless as they are funny. And they are very funny.

Klown – at Amazon

 

 

Wake in Fright (Eureka, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

I’d heard good things about Wake in Fright before I watched it, and was intrigued about a film I’d never heard of, from the birth of the Australian new wave. And because it featured Donald Pleasence, whose stary shtick wasn’t yet worn out in 1970. It was even better than I’d anticipated, this gritty Ocker classic with drop dead cinematography follows a prissy teacher who is probably expecting a bit of genteel R&R in the Christmas break. Instead he finds himself in a place called Bundanyabba – “the Yabba”, as a taxi driver calls it, “best place in Australia” – where he is subjected to “aggressive hospitality” at the hands of the locals, who drag him from one testosterone soaked haunt to the next. The Wicker Man with sunshine is the chaotic idea, with director Ted Kotcheff and cinematographer Brian West supplying wonky but beautifully composed visuals that completely add to the mood of disorientation. Pleasence is surprisingly unhammy (which you can’t unfortunately say of star Gary Bond), as “doctor of medicine, tramp by temperament… and alcoholic” (cue big wide-eyed smile) and helps the film towards its gruesome, bloody and brilliant conclusion.

Wake in Fright – at Amazon

 

 

Powder Room (Universal, cert 15, DVD)

A simple but pungent British farce set in the ladies toilets at a nightclub one hectic night of sex, confession and tears. Powder Room started life as a stage play, When Women Wee, and it’s actually at its best when it’s left alone to carry on being just that – director MJ Delaney’s occasionally Guy Ritchie-stylistics don’t help it much. But they can for the most part be ignored, leaving star Sheridan Smith to ping about between old friends, an ex-boyfriend, various underage acquaintances, and the trophy friends she is hoping to impress with her entirely made up fabulous new life (no prizes for guessing how that all works out). Smith looks a tiny bit older than the friends  she’s meant to be contemporaries of, but she gets away with it by sheer force of commitment. She’s abetted by dialogue that aims to tell it how it is, sister, the references to “hot sausage”, descriptions of anal sex from the female end, a less than glamorous view of love (“Some guy we went to school with wanked on your leg – that is not love”) being spat out by a cast (Jaime Winstone, Kate Nash, Oona Chaplin among them) who look like they’re having a good time.

Powder Room – at Amazon

 

 

Carrie (Fox, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The remake of Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic is apparently closer in spirit to Stephen King’s original book (which I haven’t read). But I’m still not convinced it needed remaking at all. Chief problem is Chloe Grace Moretz  as a shrinking violet being picked on by all and sundry at school. Meanwhile at home she’s being tormented by her mad religious mother (Julianne Moore). I just don’t buy Hitgirl – catchline “OK you cunts, let’s see what you can do – being such a wimp. And nor, judging by Moretz’s occasional lapses, does the actress herself. As for the plot, it remains familiar – Carrie discovers she has telekinetic powers of a fearsome sort (much more fearsome than in De Palma’s day of costly FX) and unleashes them after being hideously humiliated at the prom. I won’t say how, though I’m sure everyone reading this knows. Kimberly Peirce is in charge of direction and turns in a moody, well paced product that doesn’t snag as it goes. Even so, the way she echoes so often both the production design and camera angles of De Palma’s original suggests this is gun-for-hire work, the studio presumably having recruited her because of her girl-under-threat breakthrough Boys Don’t Cry, only to deny her the chance to really flex her muscles.

Carrie – at Amazon

 

 

How to Survive a Plague (Network, cert E, DVD)

A documentary about Aids in the 1980s doesn’t exactly cause a mad dash towards the bluray player – it’s a familiar story without a happy ending. But this one is kind of different. It tells the story of how gay Americans organised, fought the system (and often each other) and slowly, by becoming the experts in the field, forced a reluctant pharmaceutical and governmental establishment to deliver better Aids drugs. The breakthroughs of the early 1990s, which came about mostly by using a cocktail of already existing drugs, turned HIV/Aids from a death sentence into something more akin to an annoyance. The film’s strength is its abundant archive footage – the fractious meetings, the appalling callousness of certain politicians who seemed more interested in how the disease was acquired than what it did, the relentless protesting, placarding and civil disobedience necessary to get the logjam moving. Talking heads from the drugs industry, particularly Merck, who seemed to lead the way, deliver scientific backbone. And there’s interviews with HIV-positive activists then and now – some didn’t make it – which add emotional piquancy. And how healthy they look, by and large, 30 years on. Well done, everybody.

How to Survive a Plague – at Amazon

 

 

Dom Hemingway (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

It seems that every few years Jude Law tries a cockney geezer routine. It didn’t work in Alfie, the woeful remake of the 1966 Michael Caine film. And it doesn’t work here either. Law plays a lairy hardman who we first meet getting a blowjob from a prison inmate, a scene which establishes Dom – “they should study my cock in art classes” – as a swaggering, dangerous firecracker, before he’s released back into the wild. There he reteams with Dickie, an old aide-de-campe, played by Richard E Grant as a Withnail who’s fallen slightly on hard times. These early scenes as Dom and Dickie get re-acquainted are very enjoyable. But more is to come as the pair of them head off to meet a Russian gangster – Demian Bechir again excellent here – where Hemingway’s extreme version of masculinity butts heads with the Russian’s, leading to the film’s outstanding moments of drama and comedy. After that the film simply runs out of gas, introduces by way of a “Plot B” the estranged daughter (Emilia Clarke, of Game of Thrones) Hemingway is trying to become reconciled with, and starts to disappear up the avenue of mawkishness.

Dom Hemingway – at Amazon

 

 

Frozen (Disney, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD/Download)

I had heard great things about Frozen. “Disney’s best animation in 20 years” and so on. So it came as something of a disappointment to discover how mediocre it was. The Snow Queen crossed with Pixar’s Brave – feisty girl heads off to save her ice-generating sister in some frozen region – it’s unremarkable as a story, and only really picks up when the comedy snowman Olaf is goofing about on-screen, which thankfully he does quite a lot. Frozen has songs too, which reminded me of that Eric Idle song spoofing generic Broadway “The Song That Goes Like This”, numbers that always rise to an affirmative honking high note before dwindling away to a “little old me” ending. Animation addicts might like Frozen though – it’s a complex mix of various techniques and the 3D is well rendered, the nature and water effects are excellent and there are some lovely touches, such as dandelion clocks floating in the breeze, which left me wishing there’d been more. Its real stumbling block though is how 2D the characters are – unmemorable, drippy even. And considering that they’re meant to be ice hardened, that’s just not right.

Frozen – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

24 March 2014-03-24

Marine Vacth in Jeune et Jolie

Out in the UK this week

 

 

Jeune et Jolie (Lionsgate, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Being hot is like a weapon. That’s what director/writer François Ozon’s drama about a French schoolgirl’s double life as a hooker seems to be saying. Ozon casts beautiful Marine Vacth as Isabelle, his teenage temptress, in a story that sees Isabelle offering her young bedflesh for cash to older gents, some of whom are nice, while others are only too keen to abuse their power. Meanwhile, at home, the girl’s beauty goes unremarked upon, until exactly what she’s been doing with it becomes apparent to mum, stepdad and their various friends, who react as if someone shouted “fire”. Ozon pits this carnal power against something potentially as strong, the ideal of romantic love – Isabelle falls in love. And then he metaphorically stands back to let them fight it out. How fitting that for the film’s coda Charlotte Rampling, once one of the most desired women on earth, turns up to administer a cool lesson in the dynamics of sexuality and time. Jeune et Jolie does not say much, especially for an Ozon film, but it does say it eloquently. And in the form of Vacth it also says it beautifully.

Jeune et Jolie – at Amazon

 

 

 

Fire in the Blood (Network, cert E, DVD)

An angry documentary that falters at the start thanks to a murky timeline. But once it gets going it tells a remarkable and disquieting story about drugs companies and their power. The focus is on the Aids crisis in Africa and how Big Pharma tried to stop selling generic drugs to the legions of people dying there. Largely, it seems because they are black. Dylan Mohan Gray’s film really takes flight when he starts wheeling out the facts. The next time a drugs company tells you it needs to charge big money for pills because that’s how it funds R&D, remember that in fact most spend only about 1.3% of profit on research. And that 84% of worldwide drugs research is funded by governments and other public sources, not drugs companies, or so the film says. Fire in the Blood’s passion finds a heroic human focus in the figure of Yusuf Hamied, the Indian generic drugs manufacturer who broke the logjam by making Aids drugs from scratch, buying in the raw ingredients on the open market. He then sold the cocktails at somewhere around cost to African governments who had declared Aids a national emergency – a stroke learned from the US during its mini anthrax crisis – which allowed them to suspend patent agreements with the drugs companies. This lowered the price per treatment per person per year from $15,000 to $350. In a sinister coda we learn that the companies have since moved the goalposts. Drugs patent agreements no longer come under the aegis of national government legislation, because Big Pharma lobbied hard to have them included in the global World Trade Agreement talks. So next time there’s a similar crisis the Hamieds of the future won’t be able to act.

Fire in the Blood – at Amazon

 

 

 

Philomena (Pathe, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Steve Coogan finally comes good as an actor in this mismatched-buddies road-trip drama about a cynical journalist escorting a sweet elderly Irish woman in her search for the son she gave up years before, at the prompting of evil nuns (is there any other sort these days?). But then he is in the company of Judi Dench, a generous performer, and he’s being directed by Stephen Frears, who has a charmed light touch. Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, the real-life journalist, and writer of the book on which the film is based, who was forced to abandon his career as a political spin doctor and go back to being a jobbing journo. It’s to Sixsmith’s credit that he paints himself as a bit of a twat, a nobby member of the London mediarati whose last wish would be to accompany an ageing simple soul on a dreaded “human interest story” in search of her son. It’s this dynamic – he really is a cock-chafer; she takes a packet of Tunes and some custard creams on a car trip – that is the beating heart of the film. Some of the dialogue is twinklingly funny – “Martin, do you have a chocolate on your pillow,” Philomena asks excitedly after they check into a mid-range hotel. And though Dench’s Irish accent wanders here and there, her comic delivery – “I didn’t even know I had a clitoris, Martin,” – is never in doubt. As for the plot – horrible nuns, searching high and low, trip to America, where they discover the long-lost son is… well, that’s spoiler territory. I watched it with my Irish Catholic mum, who ventured the opinion that nuns aren’t as bad as they’re being painted in films at the moment. Philomena, the film and the woman, seems to agree.

Philomena – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Missing Picture (New Wave, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)

Is The Missing Picture a documentary? I’m not sure. It’s directed by Rithy Panh, a Cambodian who uses his camera to tell his own story, of growing up in Cambodia just as the Khmer Rouge arrived in the 1970s. Whether it’s a documentary or not, it’s a remarkable film that mines Panh’s awful past to tell the story of what happened – the starvation, the forced labour, the executions – with Panh using his own homemade clay figures to fill in the gaps where archive footage cannot or will not go. When I say homemade figures I mean lots of them, hundreds, possibly thousands. It looks like some sort of stunt at first, but Panh has lavished such care and attention on them – there’s his brother in a Hawaiian shirt, an entire village assembly, a mock-up of a movie studio, people working in the fields, at the market, everyday scenes from before and during the “occupation” by the obsessively Marxist Pol Pot, aka Brother Number 1, and his mad gang. It’s a sorrowful film, not an angry one, with a quiet considered commentary that only emphasises the grimness that was visited upon this country of gentle souls.

The Missing Picture – at Amazon

 

 

Saving Mr Banks (Disney, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Saving Mr Banks tells a great story not very well. Set in the early 1960s it picks us up at the point where Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has finally persuaded PL Travers (Emma Thompson) to let him turn her book, Mary Poppins, into a film. He’s been trying for 20 years. She is broke and so hs finally agreed, though she demands, and gets, script approval, a power she proceeds to wield with a dictator’s sense of fair play. This aspect of the film – Disney’s irresistible force against Travers’s immovable object – is intensely satisfying, Hanks almost brimming over with sly folksy bonhomie while Thompson counters with a frosty asperity that makes her the anti-Poppins – sour, self-centred, snobbish, child-hating. Who’s going to win? We know it was Walt, of course. But how? Why? Because, the film tells us, Disney tapped into Travers’s own insecurities brought about by her own experience with her father. And in flashbacks that pepper the film and soon outstay their welcome, we’re introduced to young PL, in Australia, where her useless father (Colin Farrell) is to turn a good thing bad with his drinking and his incessant wild fantasising.

Saving Mr Banks – at Amazon

 

 

 

Diana (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel is best known for his film Downfall, about Hitler’s last days in Berlin. This film about Princess Diana in the months after her divorce from Prince Charles is a drama about another famous person in a bunker. And as with Hitler so with Diana, Hirschbiegel taking some pains to present the human face behind the myth – Di giving the staff the night off, making herself beans on toast and, most crucially, pursuing the handsome doctor she’s accidentally bumped into at a nearby hospital and smuggling him back into Kensington Palace. This romance, between Diana and Dr Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews) is the peg on which this portrait is hung. Presumably because Khan doesn’t have the legal clout to remove himself from the film’s gaze – notably there’s not a single royal personage or person of real public profile in this film. The dead princess’s legions of fans might like it; I doubt anyone else will really be interested in a jump through familiar headlines, the princess being portrayed as a giddy young woman with Mother Theresa tendencies. Naomi Watts tries – I don’t think I’ve ever seen her work harder – but she gets no further than the public perception of the woman. Same with the film.

Diana – at Amazon

 

 

 

Don Jon (Warner, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

I’ve heard Don Jon praised by people I respect (Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve, for one). But though I admired its intention and have a lot of time for its stars, it left a bad taste in the mouth. But big props to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, its star, writer, director, for deciding to tackle the issue of porn-induced emotional anhedonia, JGL’s character being the Don Jon of the title, a playa and porn addict whose hit rate with the ladies takes a deep dive after he falls for Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a totally hot ice queen he meets at the club. Leaving to one side the fact that this is the most ungenerous piece of writing for a female character I’ve seen in years – Johansson’s Barbara is a cockteasing nasty, smallminded bitch – Don Jon’s real problem is that it keeps telling us the same thing again and again. We see DJ affected by some new development (usually something Barbara did), his voiceover tells us about it, his friends greek-chorus it, his parents turn it into an issue, then the look on his sister’s face amplifies it further, until finally we hear about it all over again as DJ kneels in the confessional. Ah yes, the confessional. I could also entirely do without the New Jersey guys-in-their-singlets business and all the sub-Scorsese/Abel Ferrara Catholic bullshit. There is good stuff in here – when is JGL ever bad? – he’s tackling the right subject and he’s unafraid to present guys as feral when it comes to women. But so much doesn’t work. I’m not even going to mention what goes down once Julianne Moore turns up.

Don Jon – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

17 March 2014-03-17

Michael Fassbender and Javier Bardem in The Counselor

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

The Counsellor (Fox, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

A scene early on in Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s film about a high-flying attorney (Michael Fassbender) who decides to take a walk on the wild side has the counsellor locked in the office of an Amsterdam diamond trader (Bruno Ganz), where the two discuss gems and their flaws. They might as well have been discussing the film itself, a brilliant work of almost-arthouse thriller minimalism with a flaw that’s obvious without the aid of a jeweller’s loupe. But first the good stuff, and there’s tons of it – Fassbender smiling, swaggering as the attorney who’s had enough of simply serving the super-rich and so has set up a get-rich-quick drugs deal. The film is essentially a series of “meetings with rich people” all of them frightening – Javier Bardem as a playboy in party-animal clothes, Brad Pitt as a softly spoken dealmaker, Cameron Diaz as the distillate of pure evil, a Bond villainess who keeps leopards as pets – each one leading the counsellor towards the abyss. The flaw is Penelope Cruz-shaped. Nothing wrong with her performance. She’s as assured and brilliant as the other big names, playing the girlfriend of the counsellor whose love for the big fella is as pure as it is wanton, nice touch. Unfortunately for us, we start off in the company of both the counsellor and his inamorata, and stay following their story for quite some time, which sets the film off in entirely the wrong direction. Because this is about him, not them. Still, if you can overlook this problem, what Scott and McCarthy deliver is a film shimmering with the sort of gloss you’d expect from a director who earned his stripes making adverts, with McCarthy’s spare rhythmic prose (Pitt speaks it so well it’s almost poetry) providing a metronomic, hypnotic drive towards… well, that’s enough plot. Though it’s been dismissed in some quarters, this is Scott’s best film since Thelma & Louise, or even Blade Runner (those of you shouting “but what about Prometheus” need to grow up). As long as you can overlook that flaw. A diamond trader might even pass it off as a feature.

The Counsellor – at Amazon

 

 

 

Parkland (Koch, cert 15, digital)

This unusual drama starts in a familiar place and ends up somewhere else entirely. Kicking off with the assassination of JFK – as seen through the eyes of Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), the guy whose cine footage provides the historical image of the events that day – the film shifts focus to the Parkland hospital where the dying/dead president was brought, where doctors and medical staff (played by faces including Zac Efron and Marcia Gay Harden) try to bring him back to life. It then shifts focus twice more – first onto the progress of the Zapruder footage through the photo labs (accompanied by CIA heavy Billy Bob Thornton, excellently muted) and then back to the Parkland hospital, where Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong) is brought in, the assassin having himself been felled by the bullet of Jack Ruby. As an attempt to deal with a timeworn topic in a fresh way, Parkland is successful. As an ER-style ensemble drama, it’s also effective – the frenzied scenes as the president is first brought in and the staff try to revive him are particularly gripping. Also, everyone is on best acting behaviour – no upstaging by the famous of lesser names. It’s the final portion, with Oswald’s family, particularly his mad-as-a-beehive mother (another brilliant evil-matriarch turn by Jacki Weaver) – which asks us to feel the pain of the Oswald family – that’s going to be hardest for some to accept. Not because it’s an odd ask, but because it ends the film on such a blue note.

Parkland – at Amazon

 

 

 

Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Artificial Eye, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

The lesbian sex is the grabby selling point of this Palme d’Or winning film from Abdellatif Kechiche. And, yes, if you’ve ever wanted to know exactly how lesbians actually do it, then this is the film for you. But looking beyond what are quite protracted scenes of naked intimacy, what this film is really about is the sentimental education of a young girl, played here spectacularly by Adèle Exarchopoulos, who we follow from the schoolyard onwards, the film clearly looking like it’s part one of a bildungsfilm series. Unlike a porn film, it has a plot. In fact it has lots of plot, this being the zig-zagging progress of a sweet girl into womanhood through a series of relationships – the boyfriend who isn’t really her type, followed by blue-haired siren who lures her into a tempestuous relationship which forms the core of the film. To the left and right of this we have parents, friends, colleagues, possible new partners, jealous old partners, everyone interwoven fantastically skilfully by Kechiche, whose brilliant Marseille-set drama Couscous now looks like a dry run for this long, far more ambitious film.

Blue Is the Warmest Colour – at Amazon

 

 

 

Escape Plan (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The pitch for this film was probably as simple as “Sly and Arnie… in a film together. Kerching.” Well, once upon a time, maybe. But time has moved on and Stallone and Schwarzenegger are now old guys whose knees don’t work any more. But just in case the sight of these mighty oaks of action simply being in the same frame together (the Expendables stuff doesn’t count) isn’t getting the juices going, someone has sat down and worked out a very complicated plot with a twist, about a pair of guys in prison, one of whom (Stallone) is a professional prison-break expert imprisoned against his will, the other (Arnie) is an international financial mastermind blah blah blah. The prison is very hi-tech, the banter is very enjoyable, we get to hear Arnie speaking in German, there’s a twist at the end that you can see coming from before the film starts and the whole thing is just a touch overplotted, overwritten, overcooked. A simple prison escape drama, that would have been more fun. Even on those knees.

Escape Plan – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lionsgate, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

J-Law and Josh “the plank” Hutcherson continue their adventures in bloody reality gameplay in part two of the series, which continues in the “one damn thing after another” style much loved by young-adult films. I’m not saying there’s no plot – plenty happens – but there’s no arc, unless “Katniss stays alive” is it. These whines aside, it’s a zippy and efficiently told story – Katniss and Peeta are taken on a tour of the various districts, having won the first hunger games battle to the death, where revolutionary stirrings are afoot, before President Snow (boo, hiss) decides to rid the world of those pesky kids by staging another hunger games, invoking some arcane law to make it happen. Again it’s the side characters who really impress – Stanley Tucci as the gushing TV host, again it’s gladiatorial Rome meets post-industrial Detroit in its look, again there’s a message of TV as the opium of the masses, again Toby Jones is badly underused, and again Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson are fabulous as Katniss and Peeta’s minders. It’s all very efficient, but it just never quite catches fire.

The Hunger Games – at Amazon

 

 

 

Empire State (Lionsgate, cert 15, DVD/Blu-ray/digital)

It’s Greeks, not Italians, who power this New York gangster/heist film that otherwise is in thrall to Scorsese’s “you talking to me” output. Liam Hemsworth plays Chris Potamitis, the immigrant’s son who winds up as a security guard at a shoddily run facility where the money brought in by the trucks is stashed overnight, one mangy dog and a few half-focused CCTV cameras being two legs of the security tripod that Chris himself is the third leg of. All goes uneventfully until Chris’s hot-headed friend (Michael Angarano, looking like he’s been sniffing glue) decides he wants to hit the place. It’s a true story, of the US’s biggest ever cash heist, and it’s based on Potamitis’s own account of the story (he’s also the film’s producer). Whether that accounts for the slight hole in the middle of this film where the guilt should be, I don’t know. But it’s an enjoyable – competent but nothing more – drama that benefits from Dwayne Johnson’s input as a laidback but deadly earnest cop. He just gets better and better.

Empire State – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (StudioCanal, cert PG, Blu-ray)

The film that was midwife to a whole clutch of films about dudes who’re none too bright, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is now 25 years old and will probably be making a certain constituency feel suddenly most egregiously ancient. Yes, Keanu when he was still really young. And he’s really infectiously great as either Bill or Ted, whatever, Alex Winter copping the unenviable task of bowling along in his wake. Watched again, B&TEA looks most like an exercise in tone – all that “most heinous”, “bogus” “be excellent to each other” and so on. In the extras that accompany the film – which, in case you didn’t know, is about two clueless ignoramuses time-travelling through history and picking up famous names to help them complete a class assignment – writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon confide that, yes, that’s exactly what it was. While working on stand-up, the two of them invented a pair of dumb teenage characters who’d riff back and forth in a kind of stoner/valley/surfer speak which satirised the increasing ignorance of contemporary youth, especially as regards current affairs. Nicely, though, nicely. And that’s the key thing about the characters Bill and Ted (Matheson and Solomon admit that they wrote the dialogue first, then just went through alternating the names Bill and Ted; it didn’t matter) their huge good nature fills the gap where their brains should be. And it’s that dopey feelgood that makes it work still, all these years later. Air guitar.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure 25th Anniversary Edition – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

10 March 2014-03-10

Alice Englert and Iain De Caestecker in In Fear

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

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

3 March 2014-03-02

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Gravity (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/Download)

By now you will already know whether the Oscar-winning Gravity is the sort of film you want to watch, or watch again. It’s had so much publicity and so many reviews that there’s no point adding anything. So I’ll just tell you that I got stuck getting up out of my chair watching this film. I was going to pause it and grab a drink and as I was halfway up the debris from the space satellite struck space-walking rookie astronaut Sandra Bullock, blasting her off into almost certain annihilation. Something like 20 minutes later I was still in the same position, crouched in an extreme lean-forward, almost not breathing. That tense. Other things? The way the film constantly instructs us in Newtonian physics – Bullock grabs a fire extinguisher to douse a fire and the equal/opposite reaction blasts her backwards with rocketlike force. George Clooney’s seasoned cheesy senior astronaut plays the Hollywood hero stereotype like Heifetz on his Stradivarius. Talking of which, the soundtrack swerves what I usually refer to in my notes as the “bloody strings”. I love Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography – has anyone since Kubrick shot space this clean and white/black? And it’s surely no coincidence that Bullock is often shot in the same way that Kubrick shot the space child, with light spilling over the edges. Gravity is one of the rush of “single person in jeopardy” movies right now – Tom Hanks in Mr Phillips, Robert Redford in All Is Lost, Martina Gedeck in The Wall. Why that? Maybe a realisation that corporate capitalism doesn’t seem to come running when you’re back’s to the wall – unless your wallet’s open? Best sci-fi film of the last 10, 20, 30, years. Easy.

Gravity – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Patience Stone (Axiom, cert 15, DVD)

A beautiful Afghan woman looks after her husband, who is comatose thanks to a bullet lodged in his head. Most of her fellow villagers have fled what is close to being a war zone. But she can’t go, because he can’t be moved. So, isolated, fearful, she talks to him though he can’t hear her. At first it’s about the worries of the day, increasingly about her hopes and fears, eventually about her dissatisfaction with her marriage to him, a man on the cusp of old age. She talks about her background, how her sister was given away to a man by her father to pay his gambling debts, the woman’s lot in a male dominated society. The woman is visited by militia men, and to avoid being raped tells them she’s a whore. One of them, the stutterer, comes back later, and offers her money, desperate to sample the wares he believes she is hawking. And here’s where Atiq Rahimi’s already interesting and sparse film – for most of it just a couple of actors, one with his eyes closed – starts to edge into unexpected territory. Unlike the Saudi film Wadjda, which took an “isn’t it awful” approach to the situation of women in Islam, The Patience Stone is keen to explore both sides of the coin – what Islam denies but also what it supplies. Some people won’t feel entirely happy with this, with where this woman – her character is credited simply, totemically, as “the woman” – ends up. But this denial of an easy ending is really what the film is all about.

The Patience Stone – at Amazon

 

 

 

Dead of Night (StudioCanal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

This five-part 1945 horror film from the Ealing studio is credited with being the grand-daddy of the compendium films, a genre still very much alive, on the evidence of V/H/S and its like. Four of Ealing’s finest directors contribute – Alberto Cavalcanti (twice), Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer. Of the four filmettes, the most famous is Cavalcanti’s The Ventriloquist’s Dummy, a creepy tale in which a sweating Michael Redgrave is increasingly upstaged by his wooden dummy, who seems to want to run off with a rival ventriloquist. It’s good, but more effective is Robert Hamer’s The Haunted Mirror, a remarkably simple story about a mirror whose reflection shows a scene of a different room, a different life from that of the room it’s currently hanging in. They’re all fine campfire tales in fact, and the atmosphere of over-egged storytelling is enhanced by the cast of slightly stagey actors. Add to that the scenes of relentless cigarette smoking, the huge amounts of tweed involved in the tailoring of all concerned and Dead of Night is as evocative of a bygone age as rickets. And the way that Basil Dearden fuses the stories together, with a linking narrative that finally pays off handsomely in a weird Powell and Pressburger finale, makes for an entirely satisfactory entertainment, even at this extreme distance.

Dead of Night – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

For Those In Peril (Soda, cert 18, DVD)

George MacKay has the big head and good looks of a star in waiting. He was a convincing romantic foil in How I Live Now, and is called on to do a less heroic sort of acting in this Scotland-set narrative about the lad who is branded a Jonah after he survives the loss of a boat at sea. The sole survivor. Everyone else dead, including his brother. Director Paul Wright’s film then delves into the psychological disintegration that this loss brings about, playing moody tricks with the camera, providing strong dislocatory imagery and painting a powerful picture of the nastiness of the small rural community when it turns against someone – shades of The Wicker Man. But mostly he just follows the lad around as his behaviour becomes more erratic. As well as the easier job of acting increasingly weirdly, McKay is also required to externalise internal emotion. And he does it admirably in a drama that could do with a touch more action to accompany the moody intensity.

For Those in Peril – at Amazon

 

 

 

The English Teacher (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, DVD)

One of those films that just ends and you look around the room in a “wha?” attitude, The English teacher stars Julianne Moore as the teacher, Michael Angarano as the former pupil she is now helping to stage a play he’s written. He has maturity issues, confidence issues, daddy issues. Those, and her hang-ups – commitment seems uppermost – ensure that this comedy has plenty of fuel to keep it going. Or it would if writers Dan and Stacy Chariton were more certain of what exactly they’re trying to create. With performers like Moore, support from a peerless Nathan Lane as a camp drama teacher, Greg Kinnear as the uptight dad of the not-quite playwright, plus a deadpanning Jessica Hecht and Norbert Leo Butz as a master/blaster head teacher and her deputy, and with everyone playing at megaphone level, director Craig Zisk seems to be leading us in the direction of farce, or at least a comedy of manners. Then… I don’t even know what. It’s as if the Charitons suddenly decided to head for a happy ending, and pronto. Which is all very nice – and I’m not knocking this film in terms of performances, the odd fun joke, it even has Lily Collins doing a superior entitled bitch turn. But something’s not right when a film sets off in one direction but ends up somewhere else, without any announcement. Was it re-edited or re-written on the hoof because someone got cold feet? To try and win the Collins demographic? No idea. Mystifying.

The English Teacher – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Devil in the Woods (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, DVD)

Fans of Stephen Moyer’s True Blood appearances will not be disappointed if they come to Devil in the Woods expecting looney tunes. Mr Moyer delivers, as the dad who takes his family off to the woods, but is already rolling his eyes before he’s got the 4×4 started. By the time dad and family have reached The Barrens (the film’s alternative title) where the Jersey Devil is rumoured to disport him- or herself, Moyer is glowering like a crazed preacher, his body language suggests he needs restraining and the entire film is leaning towards the ridiculous. Then director Darren Lyn Bousman, famous for doing a few of the Saw sequels, gets busy, cranks up the camera, speeds up the storytelling, wheels out the odd monster, drafts in the forces of law and order, and subjects the family – quaintly they’re called the Vineyards – to demonic attack. It being a horror film there’s got to be a busty babe in a white T shirt somewhere in the mix. This being a film starring a middle aged man, the busty babe is his middle aged wife, played by Mia Kirshner. Is 37 middle aged? Well it’s not 17, is it? I liked this aspect, the milf-y final girl, an attempt to construct a different sort of horror universe, all part of some project hatched by the film’s co-producer (Stephen Moyer) to brand the film’s star as hot, perhaps. I also liked Moyer’s mad performance which aims for the sky and wildly overshoots. It’s really the funnest thing in this otherwise novelty-free, f-grade horror held together almost entirely by froth.

Devil in the Woods aka The Barrens – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2014 Steve Morrissey

 

17 February 2014-02-17

Jake Macapagal, Metro Manila

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Metro Manila (Independent, cert 15, VOD)

A friend of mine used to know Sean Ellis, the director of Metro Manila, when he was an assistant to photographer Nick Knight. And there being nothing quite so irksome as the success of those even halfway close to us – I’m kidding, though not much – I was prepared to hate this, Ellis’s film debut, and was ready to file it alongside the many other failed attempts by stills photographers to join the movie guys. I was wrong. This is a great film. Made with a keen eye for detail though not photographically showy at all – the usual curse – it follows a dirt-poor Filipino family into the big bad city, where they are scammed, punked and hornswoggled to the point of destitution. Mum ends up working in a dancing bar, where the nine-year-old daughter is being eyed by the bar owner as a whore in waiting. Dad, after a few false starts, gets a job working as a bullion driver. And here is where the film takes wing, as it morphs into a thriller following the naive ex-farmer as he is groomed for something dubious by his fellow security guys. That’s enough plot to give a flavour of a film that’s not the misery-fest its “poor refugees from out of town” opening scenes suggest, a fact reinforced by Jake Macapagal’s constantly evolving and remarkably natural performance as the green rookie with hidden depths.

Metro Manila – at Amazon

 

 

 

Blue Jasmine (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD, download)

Woody Allen changes tack with something approaching a socially engaged drama, about a super-entitled rich bitch (Cate Blanchett) learning to slum it with her sister (Sally Hawkins) after her life with crooked wheeler-dealer Alec Baldwin (who better?) has come crashing down. “He lived like a big shot on other people’s money,” says Hawkins a propos Baldwin in a film that might be about the recent financial crash and how those who experienced it are gearing up for a round two.

And it at least tangentially is, though Allen is after something else in his portrait of Jasmine – a fantasist who may not know much but she does know that self-delusion plus money looks very much like self-belief. Things go better with cash. Even the human mindset.

Blanchett’s performance as the teary Xanax- and Stoli-quaffing monster is interesting – she’s clearly overacting just enough to get Oscar interested (which has proved to be the case). Much better is Sally Hawkins as Ginger, her decent but exasperated sister, in a thankless role as the one who stayed close to her working class roots and is therefore blameless.

So who’s the bad guy here? Jasmine – who struggled to escape, and is even now, desperate and busted, going to night school to try and escape again? Or Ginger – who stayed and is about marry a big-mouthed cartoon Italian (Bobby Cannavale) who is only three days away from sitting around all day in a singlet and shouting at her?

Blue Jasmine – at Amazon

 

 

 

Bad Grandpa (Paramount, cert 15, download)

Johnny Knoxville works the “same but different” groove in this spin-off from Jackass that adds a gotcha plot to the stunts he used to pull with Wee Man, Steve-O and Bam Margera. Ostensibly a drama about an old guy on a cross-country trek with his grandson, the film parks this concept about every ten minutes for scenes that involve Knoxville in deep disguise as Bad Grandpa getting into the sort of scrapes that ask a lot of the great American public.

The great American public mostly come through. But it’s when they don’t that the film gets really interesting and Knoxville’s bravery becomes most apparent.

So, the opening scene of him getting his dick caught in a soda machine, and passers-by alternately trying to help or point and laugh, that’s a gently amusing warm-up. But the sequence where supposedly 80-year-old Grandpa starts undressing in a bar full of women waiting to be entertained by oiled black bucks, that’s through-the-fingers funny. Especially when Bad Grandpa’s impossibly low-hanging balls start swinging, the women start screaming and the dancers start lining up to take a swing back.

Accompanying him on this frequently hilarious journey is Jackson Nicoll, a fearless nine-year-old who thinks nothing of telling people in a doctor’s waiting room that his mother is a meth whore, but whose big moment comes when he gets into disguise and enters a pageant for pre-pubescent girls.

“I’ll switch off when it stops being funny,” I told myself at the start of Bad Grandpa. I watched to the end.

Bad Grandpa – at Amazon

 

 

 

This Ain’t California (Luxin, cert 15, DVD)

This Ain’t California is a drama posing as a documentary. Not a mockumentary seeking to poke fun, not a pretend found-footage affair, but a film that goes out of its way to pose as a documentary about a bunch of East Germans, now around 40, meeting up to discuss their youth. In particular the youth of one of their number, Denis aka Panik, a 1980s kid who became a skateboarding legend on the streets of East Berlin, where disapproving passers-by would shout the German equivalent of “this ain’t California”.

The local secret police, the Stasi, weren’t too happy about the bleach-blond hair, the cap-sleeve shirts and the slaloming through the cityscape either, though as one of Panik’s old mates points out, skateboarding and the communist East weren’t that out of sync – kids have always liked things that roll “and there certainly wasn’t a shortage of concrete.”

Panik’s rise to urban notoriety is one half of the story, the other less obvious half is Panik’s now 40something friends who have spent evenly lives evenly split between communism and capitalism. They’re an interesting exercise in compare and contrast, which is precisely what they do in scenes around the camp fire when they’re not reminiscing about Panik.

On top of all this is the familiar story of communism brought down by Levis, aka consumer expectations that the state couldn’t meet. Some people won’t like the fact that Marten Persiel’s film looks like a documentary (I jotted down “is this for real?” in my notes only halfway through), some won’t notice. It’s a good story well told which ever way you lean.

This Ain’t California – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Fifth Estate (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The rise and fall of Julian Assange – the founder of Wikileaks whose outing of corrupt Icelandic bankers, Swiss technocrats enabling super-rich tax-dodgers, and the helicopter crew who fired on unarmed journalists in Afghanistan made him a pop-up pop hero.

Bill Condon’s film is based on the book of former Wikileaks number two Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played here with his usual intelligence by Daniel Brühl).

On to Benedict Cumberbatch, as Assange, so convincing that within five seconds of his first appearance as the white wizard of Wikileaks it might as well be the man himself. Which will doubtless make Assange fume.

What will make Assange fume even more is the pseudo-interview with Assange (ie Cumberbatch) right at the end, who launches a tirade against a film that he (ie Cumberbatch as Assange, though it is Assange’s stated view too) claims was out to get him. Just one of many ploys designed to persuade us that the film isn’t out to get him, that we’re watching an even-handed drama, and that the man himself has been given some right of reply.

On top of all this, let’s note that the film makes no mention of those Swedish rape allegations etc – so it must be on Assange’s side, right? Not quite. Note how every single person in this film who isn’t called Assange seems to be on the side of virtue – and that includes Laura Linney as a bright, smart and trustworthy US government wonk and her measured, considerate sidekick Stanley Tucci (who does precisely nothing, but does it brilliantly, as usual) – journalists, fellow Wikileaks personnel, in fact everyone is just so wholesome and decent.

What we’re getting here, in short, is a hatchet job, though a fascinating one, because it works so hard yet so subtly to hide its true nature. And it’s a good thing the process is so fascinating because watching people tapping on screens and doing the West Wing walk-and-talk does begin to pall after a while.

The Fifth Estate – at Amazon

 

 

 

John Dies at the End (Eureka, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Don Coscarelli hasn’t made a film since 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep, which was a comic horror imagining a retired Elvis and an elderly JFK (who is incidentally black) being monstered by a mummy in an old folks home.

John Dies at the End shows Coscarelli hasn’t lost his sense of the absurd, since this one features a young black character called Robert Marley, a dealer of a drug called Soy Sauce that seems to bend the time/space continuum in all sorts of weird shapes.

There’s not much point laying out too many plot details, apart from to say that Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes play a pair of young ghostbusting paranormalists who have ingested some of this Soy Sauce and are now finding that door handles turn into penises, a telephone conversation can be had by picking up a bratwurst, and that frozen meat has developed a tendency to assemble itself into some sort of chill-cabinet zombie monster thing.

This is in fact just the beginning – talking dogs, cops with exploding eyeballs, white fuzz “infecting every man, woman and child”.

John Dies at the End is an incoherent bag of a billion mad ADHD ideas but it lacks, same as Bubba Ho-Tep, an organising intelligence. If you are on Soy Sauce yourself, you might love it.

John Dies at the End – at Amazon

 

 

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A contender for the best musical out of France ever, Jacques Demy’s 1964 film, the second of a romantic trilogy (1961’s Lola and 1967’s The Young Girls of Rochefort are the other two), is also a brilliant showcase for the music of Michel Legrand.

If you know Legrand from The Windmills of Your Mind (theme to both versions of The Thomas Crown Affair), his aching, string-driven score to this teary romance won’t be unfamiliar. And there’s plenty of it, because Cherbourg is entirely sung through, like an opera – no spoken speech whatsoever. Think Les Misérables, but better.

As for the plot, that’s operatic too – beautiful young Geneviève (Catherine Deneueve) falls in love with her handsome lover Guy, who is promptly shipped off to fight in the war in Algeria, leaving the whoops-pregnant young girl to the machinations of her mother, who quickly marries her off to that nice Roland (Marc Michel) who has been making big rich eyes at her.

If opera isn’t your bag, don’t worry too much. The colour co-ordinated sets and costumes are clearly inspired by the work of Hollywood greats such as Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli. The singing is glorious too, though Deneuve herself does not sing. In fact all the key players are dubbed, but then so was Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and it didn’t do that film any harm.

Scanned from three black and white separation masters which Demy had had struck because he knew the Eastmancolor was going to fade, this 50th anniversary restoration is as good as it’s ever going to look. And if it’s not as contrasty or solid as Technicolor, that’s maybe appopriate for a very pastel-coloured film featuring a fragile-looking lead in Deneuve and powered by a plot about love not conquering all.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

3 February 2014-02-03

Roxane Mesquida grabs lunch in Kiss of the Damned

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

 

Kiss of the Damned (Eureka, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

There’s a scene early on in Xan (daughter of John) Cassavetes’s vampire film in which a man (Milo Ventimiglia) with the hots for a woman he’s just met (Joséphine de la Baume) is pawing at her passionately through the centimetres-wide gap in her intruder-chained door. What Paolo doesn’t yet know is that Djuna is a vampire who’s struggling with her vow to stay off human blood, which is why she’s reluctant to unchain the door and let him in. Cassavetes shoots the encounter from above – their arms snaking through the gap, his head thrusting forward, their mouths meeting in erotic hunger – an unusual point of view that makes the entire scene animalistic and sexy. What a relief. For all the leather-on-Beckinsale-butt of Underworld, all the Lautner-abdominals of Twilight, recent vampire-werewolf-whathaveyou films have all been a bit chaste. Yes, even Byzantium, and that featured Gemma Arterton, who could recharge dead car batteries with a glance. Refreshingly, Kiss of the Damned journeys even further into Sexytown with the introduction of a sister (Roxane Mesquida) to Djuna who is far more uninhibited when it comes to blood (and nudity) in a film that has been balls deep in 1970s Euro vampire homage from the opening twang of its soundtrack, its first disorienting quick-pan. Mario Bava, Jess Franco and Jean Rollin are the obvious reference points, but so is the lush bourgeois corruption of a Bertolucci, the kinetic camera of a de Palma. The clothes are by Chanel (well, sometimes), Maria Callas is always warming up in the wings when the experimental-boing-and-Morricone-strings brigade aren’t dominating the soundtrack and Anna Mouglalis plays senior vampire of this very femme, very fatale world with devastating hauteur and a guttural “daaahlink” accent. Cassavetes and crew even get the furniture right. Fantastic.

Kiss of the Damned – at Amazon

 

 

 

Prisoners (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Incendies was a sensational film that turned the situation in the Middle East into a thriller, without cheapening anybody. Trying something like the same manoeuvre in reverse for an encore, director Denis Villeneuve takes a sensational situation and plays it for its nuances. Hugh Jackman plays the father of a kidnapped girl, Jake Gyllenhaal is the cop on the case, Paul Dano is the local oddball who is suspected of the crime – though the police can’t lay a finger on him. At this point, having laid out what is clearly a very familiar stall, things take off, with Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski taking these genre staples and confounding our expectations at almost every turn. So what are you expecting? A vigilante dad taking the law into his own hands? A cop with a messed-up past? A villain who’s too obvious to actually be a villain? The answers, in no particular order, are yes, no and gotcha. Like Incendies this is a long film (153mins), but it is extremely fleet of foot. If there’s a quibble, it’s that unlike Incendies it does not save its best move till the end, preferring a standard genre finish (the loquacious villain), though the acting by the leads is so sensational that no one is really going to bother about a flaky last five minutes. As for the support (Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Viola Davis and Maria Bello) that’s none too shabby either.

Prisoners – at Amazon

 

 

 

About Time (Universal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/DD)

I was just writing the words “Groundhog Day” in my notes while watching this rom-com when writer/director Richard Curtis headed me off at the pass with a line spoken by Bill Nighy to screen son Domhnall Gleeson – dad has just told son that all the men in the family can go back in time – “Big lesson number one,” Nighy says, “all the time travel in the world can’t make someone love you.” By the end of the film, during which Gleeson has gone back in time repeatedly to gain access to the fair heart of Rachel McAdams, I’m still convinced that Curtis suddenly realised he was rewriting Groundhog Day and then tried to veer off in another direction. But the degree to which About Time isn’t Groundhog Day is exactly the degree to which it isn’t as good. Which is to say “quite a lot”. This is probably the point where it makes sense to say that I’m a Curtis fan. But I couldn’t settle with this film. About Time is a clear case of two love stories trying to operate in a space that’s only big enough for one. Its marquee one is between McAdams and Gleeson, but thanks to bad screen chemistry this never gains traction. Which throws the focus on the father/son love story between Nighy and Gleeson, which is touching but doesn’t get enough screen time. Mr Curtis, you’ve got enough money, why not just write a brilliant film for Bill Nighy and be done with it? Other standard gripes against Curtis – the smug boho-bourgeois lifestyle on display, the presence of an unnecessary female ditz (going all the way back to Charlotte Coleman in Four Weddings), his directorial tendency to enter scenes too early and leave too late, the unnecessary shots – these I can live with. But I really really don’t need to see another best man speech.

About Time – at Amazon

 

 

 

Thanks for Sharing (Koch, cert 15, DVD/DD)

Nice Mark Ruffalo plays a recovering sex addict, sharing Sexaholics Anonymous sessions with fellow devotees-of-the-groin Tim Robbins, Pink and Josh Gad, in this reteam for The Kids Are Alright writer Stuart Blumberg and Ruffalo. So how funny do you think sex addiction is? Blumberg et al aren’t entirely sure and so play at least one third of the film for laughs, the bit focusing on the Jonah Hill-like Gad, as a doctor whose penchant for upskirt shots and relentless masturbation is about to ruin his life in much the same way it has for the rest of the group. Ruffalo plays the guy who’s seen the dark side and is now on the way back to the light, his reward being a relationship with squeaky bunny Gwyneth Paltrow. Which leads to the next question – how does a recovering sex addict manage a sexual relationship with a regular partner? The film isn’t quite sure about this either. Attempting the sort of ensemble drama the French are so good at, and getting at least three-quarters of the way there, Blumberg’s film loses focus the further it gets away from Ruffalo and Gad. And that’s tough on Robbins and Pink, who are both interesting and exciting enough to warrant a film of their own. Each. Or maybe Blumberg went and saw Steve McQueen’s Shame, a film about sex addiction that goes to the dark side, and just kind of… you know… gave… up.

Thanks for Sharing – at Amazon

 

 

 

Wadjda (Soda, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Halfway through Wadjda I felt like shouting – OK, I get it, it’s not much fun being a woman in an Islamic country. I say halfway but it’s absolutely and abundantly clear that that’s what the message of this Saudi Arabian drama is going to be from the minute we’re introduced to the feisty, bright young Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) who yearns to own a bicycle – girls who value their honour don’t ride bikes! – and is shooed away from chatting with a local boy, a fellow 10-year-old (I’m guessing), by the clearly sex-obsessed Islamic police. What follows in this beautifully acted and made drama is a depressing series of scenes – Wadjda being slapped down in school, her mother being sideline by a husband who wants another wife, the whole thing building towards a well signposted climax we’re clearly all meant to get behind. As an affirmative statement about the role of women in Arab countries, Wadjda is excellent, but as drama it’s propaganda, simple as.

Wadjda – at Amazon

 

 

 

Romeo & Juliet (EV, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

An old-school Romeo & Juliet, with Shakespeare’s original play streamlined by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes, shot in Verona, among other gorgeous Italian spots. And if it’s got anything that, say, the Baz Luhrmann 1996 version (starring Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes) doesn’t have it’s the locations. As for the rest of it – it’s a strangely off affair. The story of young love, warring clans and the tragic outcome of the mixing of the two is tellingly at its best when it shifts focus away from the titular lovers and onto the fighters – Ed Westwick’s scowling Tybalt in particular, though Christian Cooke’s Mercutio runs him close. Even further away from the main action we have Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet, Lesley Manville as Nurse and Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence, all of whom threaten to steal the film at any moment from the two leads. Douglas Booth is an improbably handsome Romeo – half pre-raphaelite muse, half Nureyev – but if he has fire in his head or loins it’s hard to see it here. As for Hailee Steinfeld, so brilliant in True Grit as young protagonist Mattie Ross, she’s simply not been rehearsed enough by director Carlo Carlei, and her line readings are lost in mumbling or are perfectly audible but obviously make no sense to her. When Juliet says “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” she means “Why do you have to be a Montague?”, because “wherefore” means “why. And if you can’t get that right, there’s no real hope for the rest of it.

Romeo & Juliet – at Amazon

 

 

 

Wings (Eureka, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

I haven’t actually tried Mr Skin for the brief nipple shot of Clara Bow that you get in Wings, the very first winner of the Best Picture Oscar (its equivalent, at any rate) back in 1927. Bow was one of the most famous actresses in the world at the time, and is by one hell of a long way the best thing in this film that is actually about two guys – a swell and an average Joe – who join up to fight in the First World War, train to become pilots, and then indulge in all manner of aeronautical combat before heading for the tearjerking finale. A silent movie that’s been beautifully restored – considering it was thought lost at one point – it’s the easiest film in the world to follow whether you’re able to read the intertitles or not, thanks to the simple fact that Hollywood has barely deviated from the formula ever since. Pearl Harbor is pretty much the same movie. An observation I need to follow with another one – this film’s director, William Wellman, could eat Pearl Harbor’s Michael Bay for breakfast. No, the aerial dogfights aren’t going to make you sit forward in your seat as if you were watching Gravity – that stuff just doesn’t work any more, even with the Handshiegl-process orange flames added back in by computer trickery. Nor are you going to really root for either of the guys, who are closer to 2D than seems strictly necessary (as for the “starring Gary Cooper” credit on the cover, he’s in it for two minutes max). But Wellman’s flying, fluid camera is remarkable even now. As is Bow’s freshness, even after all these decades.

Wings – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

20 January 2014-01-20

Alexandra Holden, Lake Bell and Fred Melamed in In a World

  

In A World (Sony, cert 15, DVD)

Writer/director/producer/star Lake Bell’s debut takes a real life event – the death of voiceover king Don La Fontaine (the guy whose every trailer started “In a world…”) – and builds an almost Woody Allen-ish comedic story around it, about the pretenders jostling for his crown. Onto that it bolts a sentimental story of young under-achieving vocal coach Carol (Bell) and her difficult Oedipal relationship with her dad (Fred Melamed), a big noise in the voiceover biz. And off the side it hangs a “will they/won’t they” romance between Carol and studio whizz Louis (Demetri Martin). And then, as if that weren’t enough, just to the side of that it twin-tracks the story of Carol’s dizzy sister (Michaela Watkins) and her really nice, funny boyfriend (Rob Corddry). That’s a lot of stories. But they manage to jangle along together towards a satisfying finish in this funny feisty comedy mixing the freshness of indie with the sleekness of Hollywood because the focus is mainly on Carol, and largely because it is written and performed at screwball speed and with no time for cutesy girls with sexy baby voices – one of the film’s clear girl-power messages. Is In a World perfect? No. But it is very good, and the odd untied loose end, the occasional not entirely believable relationship actually doesn’t matter that much when a film moves this fast and with this much sass.

In a World – at Amazon

 

 

Computer Chess (Eureka, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

For a good ten minutes at the beginning of Computer Chess I thought I was actually watching a documentary made in the 1970s, about computer geeks at a competition to see whose program plays the best chess, all shot on that weird blurry black and white TV video which was about back then. But then I remembered that it was a film by Andrew Bujalski – often credited as the inventor of mumblecore – and I reset my expectations to “mock-doc comedy”. A couple of days later I reset them again. Because this really is an immensely smart film with a lot to say, hidden inside what looks almost like a verité offering about socially clueless people all meeting up, the sort of people who go to pieces the moment they look up from their keyboard. And it’s set in the 1970s because that’s when the culture we live in now was born – geekworld. Against that Bujalski sets the dominant culture of the day, the letting it all hang out, druggy, sex-is-compulsory world of the late 1970s. It’s the old romantics versus the new puritans, the roundheads versus the cavaliers. Negotiating these twin poles are programmers Peter (Patrick Riester), a new nerd in town, and Mike Papageorge (Miles Paige), the braggart who spends much of his time wandering the hotel looking to get laid. Where they go, what they do, the people they bump into – a geek girl in a tight stripy 1970s sweater who just hasn’t noticed how big it makes her breasts appear, the super-officious competition organiser, a couple who fancy swinging the night away – that’s how the film passes its time. And every encounter is golden.

Computer Chess – at Amazon 

 

Hours (Signature, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Poor Paul Walker. He became an increasingly unimportant element in the Fast and Furious franchise and was visibly being hustled towards the exit in the last, rather good, instalment of the series, playing second banana to relative newcomer Dwayne Johnson, his dialogue reduced to a series of “what he said” lines. But he’s left behind him proof that he actually could act, a decent thriller that’s also an indication of where Walker might have been heading in the future. It’s a one-hander, more or less, with a slightly tubby Walker playing a new dad whose wife dies in labour just moments before Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans. Leaving dad literally holding the baby – no, not literally, she’s in an incubator – while around him pandemonium breaks out, the hospital is evacuated, the power goes off, and a string of “it just got worse” incidents test his ingenuity and resolve. Whether the baby die or not is the maguffin keeping this film moving towards its big melodramatic 1950s finish, while Walker (also the film’s producer) demonstrates a likeability, pluck and depth that were never on display while he was razzing a Dodge Charger or Chevrolet Camaro up and down the strip. Pretty pretty good.

Hours – at Amazon

 

 

Kelly + Victor (Verve, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Boy meets girl for mephedrone and erotic asphyxiation in this explicit Liverpool-set drama strong on mood, avoiding “ferry across the fucking Mersey” (as director Kieran Evans puts it in the extras Q&A) cuteness. Avoiding cuteness all round in fact. Unless you count the love story it tells, which is genuinely touching. Because what Kelly + Victor does do rather nicely, once it’s introduced us to two youngish people who meet at a club full of dancing druggies and then go home to Kelly’s, where she inducts him into a whole world of pleasurable pain, is introduce us to them again, as people who are totally overwhelmed by love, as if they were rushing on something that came in pill form. I haven’t read the British Board of Film Classification’s ruling on why it’s been handed an 18 certificate but I guess it’s either for the relentless language, the relentless nudity, the drug-taking, or the scenes of strangling, cutting with broken glass and other S&M stuff that the two committed actors (big shout to Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Julian Morris) have signed up for.

Kelly + Victor – at Amazon

 

 

Museum Hours (Soda, cert 12, DVD)

The sight of Mary Margaret O’Hara as one of the actors in industry outsider Jem Cohen’s fusion of documentary and drama is just one of the signs that Museum Hours isn’t going to be your average movie. O’Hara has released only two albums in a career lasting more than 30 years, but those are the stuff of legend (allmusic.com calls her Miss America “a work of mad-scientist genius”). So, to the film itself, a work of pensive observation about a visiting Canadian (O’Hara) being taken under the wing of an art gallery guard (Bobby Sommer) in Vienna. He tells her he used to manage rock bands, back in the day. She listens to these and other stories, smiles, is taken to coffee, shown about town, smiles some more. Meanwhile, Cohen plays about with our expectations, dropping in moments of pure documentary – I doubt anyone in this film apart from O’Hara and Sommer is an actor, apart from the naked people who turn up in a fantasy sequence (more playing about). Museum Hours isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea (lemon, no sugar), but it’s part of a new emerging field, where the boundaries between – mumblecore and documentary, or overground and underground, or gallery and cinema – all meet and blur. And once you’ve re-attuned expectations accordingly, it seems to reveal itself as an invitation to understand the simple joy of looking. I think.

Museum Hours – at Amazon

 

 

White House Down (Sony, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

If you’ve seen Olympus Has Fallen, in which sidelined spy guy Gerard Butler saves POTUS Aaron Eckhart, you, like me, have had your time severely wasted. But wait till you see White House Down, in which sidelined spy guy Channing Tatum saves POTUS Jamie Foxx. It’s even worse, though it takes a good 45 minutes to establish its uselessness, and then another half an hour before it finally enters hilariously must-see terrible territory. The plot: Tatum is a sidelined spy guy, Foxx is the Obama-alike President, all folksy shit and windbaggery, and the White House is attacked. And Tatum saves him. Is that a spoiler? Only if you think that in a Roland Emmerich film – the director who blew up the White House in Independence Day but didn’t kill Prez Bill Pullman – the president is going to get killed. It is grim and unpleasant to bring up Emmerich’s nationality here, but a German making a film that is so in thrall to the cult of the leader, well, he should just have asked for a rewrite. The film badly needs one anyway, unless you are really interested in the chain of command once a president is missing presumed (by all but Channing) dead, or have a fixed desire to have the 25th Amendment explained. Short answer: once this film got greenlit on the strength of its nine word pitch it just didn’t know what to do to fill its 131 minutes of running time and so does the action movie equivalent of jazz hands – helicopters, explosions, guys running around, stuff. Things to note in case you take one of the many invitations to nod – Channing keeps his top on, though there is a hose-down scene strongly reminiscent of the opening to the 1996 Pamela Anderson vehicle Barb Wire; Jamie Foxx deliberately and depressingly opts to swap presidential shoes for trainers at one point, thus reassuring the brothers that… oh, you know; there actually are really good actors in this (nothing against Tatum and Foxx, but Richard Jenkins, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods). Anything else? I did say it was skullfuckingly stupid, right?

White House Down – at Amazon

 

 

The Colony (E One, cert 18, DVD)

Who does not love Laurence Fishburne? Morpheus himself dignifies this post-apocalyptic survival thriller that actually stars Kevin Zegers. Playing the wise, rumbling leader of a snowbound colony in a world destroyed by humanity’s foolish fiddling with nature, Fishburne is a reassuring guide through the first half of this movie, the bit where it looks like it’s going to be a reworking of John Carpenter’s The Thing. The good bit. Then, Fishburne, Kevin Zegers, titular star on account of Zac Efron-y looks, and a bunch of guys in what might as well be Star Trek red shirts head off to another colony where… I’ll leave the plot there. But I will warn you that things take a dive, and the film slips from being a tense thriller set in a well conceived dystopia to something more akin to an action movie, except director Jeff Renfroe apparently can’t direct action. But never mind, because Renfroe and co-writers slip a gear again, switching genres into something more like a zombie movie. And then again into torture porn, possibly having talked themselves into believing that they’re “confounding genre expectations”, when a wiser head (ie mine) would have told them to stick with the good stuff early on.

The Colony – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 
  
All titles out in the UK week commencing 20 January 2014