13 January 2014-01-13

Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

The Great Beauty (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

You don’t need to have seen Fellini’s La Dolce Vita to appreciate The Great Beauty, but it might make for a more rewarding experience if you have. The 1963 film told the story of a writer who has been seduced away from his noble calling to become a cynical journalist specialising in celebrity tittle-tattle. Paulo Sorrentino’s 2013 film imagines him at the end of his career, still a journalist, even more world weary, after decades of success, a name all over Rome, with a gnawing absence where his oeuvre  – or at least his second novel – should be. It’s a beautiful film, full of swooping camerawork, full of the sort of faces that would have tickled Fellini – as if chosen to demonstrate the effect of one deadly sin or another. Scene after scene is a standout. The rooftop party sequence alone, right at the beginning of the film, is one of the most exciting, ridiculous and yet believable things I’ve ever seen, a vision of excess danced out by wealthy Romans short and tall, young and old, ugly and beautiful, all out to have the very best of good times. In a succession of suits tailored to emphasise his long, languid limbs Toni Servillo, Sorrentino’s go-to actor, plays Jep Gambardella, the modern equivalent to Fellini’s Marcello Mastroianni. It’s a performance of marble impassivity and arch hauteur that perfectly matches what Sorrentino is doing with his camera, his luxurious pacing, his constant suggestion of super-abundance. Does the film itself become a bit too much? Sadly, it does. As if just a bit too in thrall to its subject, it tickles here and there where it should punch. This is sniping though, because the minute this film of two hours and 20 minutes finished I wished it hadn’t. The next day I watched it again.

The Great Beauty – at Amazon

 

 

Piercing Brightness (Soda, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Oh dear, pigeons. The debut film by longtime artist and debut director Shezad Dawood has all the hallmarks of a student production – what it is with pigeons and students I don’t know – but then within about five minutes I’d completely dropped my objections and surrendered to Dawood’s pretty damn fantastic alien movie that sets out to make the world we inhabit look as alien to us as it must do to them – the aliens, I mean. Set in Preston, Lancashire, made for two bags of chips, it’s a lovely piece of trippy North of England film-making recalling Skeletons in its offbeat vibe, The Man Who Fell to Earth in its otherworldly feel. The plot reveals itself slowly, so I won’t over-explain, except to say that it’s about aliens who come to Earth to find the aliens who were dumped here years before. What has become of them? Have they gone native? That’s the crux of this lo-budget work of ingenuity made with real cinematic skill. The soundtrack is good too – subsonics, aural washes, whooshes, languid shrieks, really evocative. I spotted a snatch of Gong in there (space-rock trainspotter that I am), though Acid Mothers Temple seem involved too, in the music and, I suspect, at an inspirational level. A great addition to the lo-fi sci-fi genre, file it next to The Arrival of Wang and Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.

Piercing Brightness – at Amazon

 

 

Promised Land (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The plot to Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero – oil man arrives at Scottish island intending rape of land, pillage of culture, and is enchanted – has been lifted for this Gus Van Sant film about frackers. Which is more nuanced about frackers than coming out and saying “they’re just plain bad”. Though these guys are bad. Even when played by the super-charming Matt Damon and Frances McDormand at their very most winsome, as the ever-so-friendly advance guard encouraging a rural community to sign away the fracking rights to the evil megacorp the duo represent. Looking dangerously like the sort of TV movie that comes with a message that smalltown values are best, Promised Land offers more than that, mainly by lining us on the same side as the bad guys (damn their charm) and by throwing a plot curve ball just when we think we know which way things are going. If it shortchanges McDormand slightly – her character is by far the most interesting yet underwritten one in the film – that’s indicative of the film’s only real weakness. It leans a little hard on the stereotypes. But then didn’t Local Hero? Just a bit?

Promised Land – at Amazon

 

 

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

Much anticipated, especially by those who sat through The Chronicles of Riddick, actor/producer Vin Diesel and director David Twohy’s attempt to refind the formula they mislaid after making Pitch Black is a lot of skanky, stubbly, guns’n’grunts fun. For those who don’t understand what I’m talking about, Pitch Black was a neat, tough sci-fi actioner starring Diesel as a pissed-off criminal with acute nightsight who came into his own when the twin suns started set on the alien world he and his guards were on and the night creatures started emerging. The Chronicles of Riddick was something similar, plus 17 tabs of acid, one pair of electrodes to the testicles, all of Diesel’s runaway ego and every bit of input from every member of every Riddick chatroom ever. It was epic cack. Even with Judi Dench in it. For the reboot, some 13 years after the original, Twohy and Diesel are back, the neat, tough plot is back and, even though producer Diesel has not risked much of his own money on it (nor anyone else’s judging by the discount SFX), so is some of the grit that made Pitch Black worth a look. Plot: a bunch of mercenaries are out to claim a bounty by recapturing the convict Riddick, a man who eats raw meat, a man who has tamed a crazy wild creature of the benighted planet he is stuck on. In fact there are two sets of mercenaries out to get him. Surely to god that’s enough? Of course it isn’t. Gruntwise, we have the inhospitable planet, the stubbly scowling mercenaries, post-apocalyptic grunge, hideous weaponry and creatures that are all teeth and leathery bits. Sole woman is played by Katee Sackhoff, who compensates by having even bigger balls metaphorically than the other guys, who all stand perpetually like goalkeepers. So yes, someone’s idea of a display of undiluted testosterone, mixed with radioactive human growth hormone. Riddick, it turns out, is short for ridiculous.

Riddick – at Amazon

 

 

You’re Next (Kaleidoscope, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Cult horror guy Adam Wingard turns up on those compilation ABCs of Death and V/H/S movies and seems always on the verge of being the next Eli Roth or someone. So how does he handle a “guys out in the woods” horror story? Competently, and with a few good twists is the answer, You’re Next being the story of a rich family meeting up at their isolated holiday home, whereupon they are beset by murderous men in animal masks and are killed one by one. The End. Yes, that is the plot, but Wingard has some tasty reveals before the end credits roll. And the family in question appears to have made its money by selling arms, so we’re primed for more unpleasant reveals, plus some even more unpleasant payback. All you have to do is guess who “final girl” is going to be. Don’t expect a great script, or for it to add up in terms of human psychology. But I put that down to Wingard teasing the genre’s weaknesses, generous soul that I am.

You’re Next – at Amazon

 

 

In Real Life (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

Once upon a time the internet was going to be the great democratising saviour of humanity. Now the prevailing wisdom seems to heading in the other direction. Pursuing that line of thought, brilliant documentarian Beeban Kidron’s alarming and alarmist film asks the big question – who exactly is in control of this internet thingy – as it interviews a series of what might loosely be called victims of the ravening technology. So we meet wee teenage lads who are familiar with bukkake, milfs and hentai. We meet the nice young girl who seems to have had sex with five guys just so they’d return her BlackBerry. We meet the teenage boy destined for Oxford University who instead seems to have fallen into a big hole marked “gaming”. They’re all interesting, intelligent, self-aware people (OK, not so much the girl, who seems a bit of a loser), and then we meet a whole slew of talking-head experts who are wheeled on to say in Latin and Greek what we’ve just been told in plain English – that this shit is all fucked up. Then Julian Assange turns up, to tell us how bad Google is/are. The grimly creepy Toby Joe Turner, aka YouTube phenomenon Tobuscus, turns up to offer some apercus spiked with  Butt-head chuckles and faux self-deprecation. And like a breath of fresh air sci-fi author Cory Doctorow offers the opinion that Facebook is psychotic and that it will die. Personally I can’t wait for it to go down and take Twitter with it, down to wherever Bebo and MySpace now reside. Snooping, bullying, porn, addiction, they’ve all been around since the year dot. What’s different now is how culturally unprepared we are for these new, internet forms of old distractions, though maybe this film, and others like it, are part of that mental realignment that ensures we can at least work out how to all get along together nicely.

In Real Life – at Amazon

 

 

 

Winter of Discontent (New Wave, cert 15, DVD)

A drama from Egypt, about the events that unfolded in Tahrir Square that led to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and the Lotus Revolution. And given the way that they eventually did turn out – the army seem now to be back in charge, the elected president deposed – it is perhaps only fitting that Winter of Discontent is a little muted, mournful and strangely lacking in hurrahs. We see the events of early 2011 through the eyes of three people: a wiry activist who survives torture but is mentally scarred; the guy in charge of his torturing, a sleek functionary with a happy home life; and a pushy TV news anchor, whose personal ambition suddenly seems inappropriate when weighed against what’s going on outside. As I said, Winter of Discontent is a little eventless, though where it does deliver is in its suggestion of atmosphere, in its portrait of the bravery of those who sought to overthrow Mubarak, and in the way it shows the workings of power – not through direct coercion but by the acquiescence of everyone who gains if things stay the way they are.

Winter of Discontent – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

6 January 2014-01-06

Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz in Upstream Color

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

 

Upstream Colour (Metrodome, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Shane Carruth’s belated follow-up to his brilliant 2004 film Primer is a weird mix of body-horror and love story, the story of a woman (a rather good Amy Seimetz) infected by some parasitic worm who is hypnotised and then robbed while under the influence. Well, that’s the first bit anyway. After that she seems to be falling for some guy she’s met (played in a bit of Ben Affleck casting by Carruth himself), the whole thing told in the language not of film but of advertising – overlaps, quick cuts, montages, while a Sigur Ros-style soundtrack (a band advertisers love) bleeps and sighs. It’s a trippy montage of a film whose serpentine plotting and references to Thoreau’s Walden: Life in the Woods seem there partly for the sake of obscurity, and if it’s not quite as great as Primer, it is full of fabulous images, scenes and sequences that make it a compelling watch.

Upstream Colour – at Amazon

 

 

 

Frances Ha (Metrodome, cert 15, Blu-ray-DVD)

If you’re like me and have always been slightly suspicious of Greta Gerwig standing on one foot while twisting the other, doing ingenue turns in one indie boho flick or another, prepare to swallow those doubts as she puts in a spellbinding performance as a ditz on the make in New York. If director Noah Baumbach’s tender character study could be called Annie Hall by way of TV’s Girls, it’s Gerwig’s Frances who invites the positive comparisons as the dance student who doesn’t quite realise that she’s not going to make it in the city that never sleeps, and that all the people she hangs out with are either more talented, richer or better connected than she is. This “we know but she doesn’t” tension is what powers the film, and it’s what makes us watch and fret as Frances blunders downwards, forever downwards. Will she have a moment of corrective self-realisation? Watch and marvel at what an amazingly sweet, well observed, brilliantly played, magically written (by Gerwig and Baumbach) film this is. And in black and white too – no idea why.

Frances Ha – at Amazon

 

 

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

I resisted watching this film, I must admit. I’ve become tired of Toni Collette, don’t give much of a stuff about Steve Carell, especially when he’s doing straight acting work. I was wrong to doubt either of them, they’re just fine in this coming-of-age tale about Duncan (Liam James), a teenage boy having a “this sucks” holiday with his useless mum (Collette) and her douche of a new guy (Carell) in some awful holiday town. It’s a small, sweet and beautifully acted film that hands a nice role to a “hasn’t she grown” AnnaSophia Robb as the hot girl next door. Meanwhile Alison Janney is predictably brilliant, and predictably underused, as the blowsy boozy mother of said hotty, and Sam Rockwell again just about steals the film as the swimming-pool big noise whose bluster hides a fatal lack of ambition.

The Way Way Back – at Amazon

 

 

Insidious Chapter 2 (E One, cert 15 Blu-ray/DVD)

James Wan, of Saw fame, continues with his 1970s homage/rip-off with this continuation of Insidious 1 which actually picks up pretty much exactly where Insidious 1 leaves off. Which means more haunted house-y, Exorcist-y pastiche, with nods to Psycho in the character of mother-fixated Josh (Patrick Wilson), whose trip into the other world at the end of the last film has resulted in him returning to this world with an unwanted passenger. Thankfully, Wan (and collaborator Leigh Whannell) have brought back the best characters from Insidious 1 too – Lin Shaye as the spooky “I see dead people” medium, plus the two weird paranormal investigator Specs and Tucker (Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson, both of whom have obviously seen the fabulous no-budget British film Skeletons). We have been here before many times but Insidious 2 makes up with technique what it lacks in plot originality, with Wan’s fluid camera and lighting delivering tons of atmosphere rather than out-and-out scares.

Insidious Chapter 2 – at Amazon

 

 

Lords of London (Kaleidoscope, cert 18, DVD)

Now this is one bloody odd film. A British/Italian co-production that claims to star Ray Winstone, it does in fact star Glen Murphy (me neither) as a dead gangster who appears to be in a limbo that resembles a Cinzano advertisement – scooters, pouting girls, peasant grandmas in black sort of thing. Ray Winstone is in the film, briefly, in flashbacks by the dead gangster to his dear old dad, who used to pull people’s teeth out using an interesting cheesewire technique that was new to me. So, Ray Winstone torturing people in 1950s flashback London, his son in a flashforward Italian limbo, where events from his past, and even his own father as a young thug in training, come back to haunt him. Enter Murphy’s mother, as a dropdead mama mia, and things get a bit oedipal. How is it going to play out? That would ruin the entire film, which is a strangely gripping mix of gangster tale and ghost story. Bloody odd.

Lords of London – at Amazon

 

 

What Maisie Knew (Curzon, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The story of two seriously self-involved parents and the daughter ping-ponging between them, What Maise Knew is the latest in a line of indictments of 1970s attitudes dressed up as a drama. Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore are estranged mum and dad – she a rock star (no, not convincing) whose like of loud music alone seems to mark her out as a bad mum. As for Coogan, he’s your typical feckless bastard whose wandering eye lights upon the girl’s nanny (Joanna Vanderham). And it is a face that the camera also likes to rest upon, so much so that you wonder in the first half of the film exactly why it’s doing it. Enter Alexander Skarsgård, as rock-star mum’s toyboy, and the film’s true intent begins to become clear. This is not just about Coogan and Moore, but about Vanderham and Skarsgård too – though it takes a hell of a long time getting round to erecting its fourway face-off. Having watched Frances Ha the night before, this just seemed a bit diagrammatic in comparison, more about cultural positions (1970s harpies on one side, serious sensible lovely optimistic young people on the other) than about real people. Which just left Onata Aprile, as Maisie, pretty much the only character who seemed believable, worth rooting for.

What Maisie Knew – at Amazon

 

 

Peacock (Lionsgate, cert 12, DVD)

Imagine Norman Bates without the murder and you’ve got this drama starring Cillian Murphy as a crossdresser in 1950s smalltown America, a nervous penpusher called John who becomes Emma, a confident, sociable woman behind closed doors. Until a train derails and ends up in the garden, threatening John/Emma with exposure. A train ends up in the garden… yes, it does seem a bit extreme. But then there’s a lot of that sort of thing in this entirely unbelievable drama that somehow manages to force a bad performance out of Ellen Page, as a young mum who was being supported by John’s dead mother (I never worked out why). Buying into the credibility deficit with a bit more panache is Susan Sarandon as a local mover and shaker whose mouth seems constantly to be on the verge of mouthing “but you’re a man”. Which ultimately is this film’s problem, no matter how good Murphy is at conveying the impression of a psyche falling apart – or a psycho in waiting – there’s nothing he can do about the adam’s apple or stubble.

Peacock – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

16 December 2013-12-16

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

Out in the UK this week

 

 

 

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

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

We’re the Millers – at Amazon

 

 

 

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

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

Child’s Pose – at Amazon

 

 

 

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

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

The Long Goodbye – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Vicious Kind (Moviolla, cert 15, DVD)

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

The Vicious Kind – at Amazon

 

 

 

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

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

Pandora’s Promise – at Amazon

 

 

 

11.6 (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD)

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

11.6 – at Amazon

 

 

 

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

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

When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun – at Amazon 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

 

9 December 2013-12-09

See what I mean about mood? James Wan's The Conjuring

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

The Conjuring (Warner, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A family living out in the boonies is terrorised by a demon spirit in this moody horror film directed by James Wan and written by twin brothers Chad and Carey Hayes. The Hayes brothers are in their 50s but Wan wasn’t even born when The Exorcist was released in 1973. But he’s definitely seen the film; The Conjuring is an exercise in Exorcist atmospherics – all rosaries, Latin and vomit. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson play the weird earnest, hucksterish exorcists, Farmiga deliberately going for Ellen Burstyn in her performance, Wilson wisely staying away from any suggestion of channelling Max Von Sydow. Meanwhile inside the house where the demon infestation is going on, Wan shows us he has also seen The Amityville Horror and, just for high-tone kudos, Don’t Look Now. It is all very well done, if a touch underwritten, but then Wan also got the mood pretty well right with his previous 1970s horror homage, Insidious. And it makes a change from the Saw films, which is what Wan made his name with.

The Conjuring – at Amazon

 

 

Fireworks Wednesday (Axiom, cert 12, DVD)

Made in 2006 but only getting a release now, off the back of the Oscar-winning A Separation, this similarly domestic, similarly brilliant drama by the Iranian master Asghar Farhadi follows Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti), a prospective bride from a poor traditional background, into a middle class household, where she works as a cleaner while the well-to-do couple’s marriage falls apart around her. As with A Separation, Farhadi spins several stories together with effortless style – the wife, the husband, the hairdresser, the girl, and various other minor characters who all arrive fully formed on screen. It is so brilliantly acted that you have to keep reminding yourself that you’re not eavesdropping, and so well plotted that you are gripped to the end. As for its message – in spite of the devout opening intertitle which reads “For the love of God”, Farhadi is pointing out quietly that Islam needs to drop some of the non-Koranic codes if it’s going to survive in the modern world. Roohi can’t ride on the back of a motorbike wearing a long, flowing chador without it getting caught in the wheels, which is what happens in the film’s opening scene. Watch out for that chador – it keeps popping up.

Fireworks Wednesday – at Amazon

 

 

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

2 Guns is dumbass entertainment done well, which asks for and gets charismatic performances from its stars, Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington. They play the pair of crooks who turn out to be not quite who they say they are – and neither knows who the other guy really is either. If it looks like a thriller at first – the gunplay, the wiseass dialogue, director Baltasar Kormákur’s love of an overhead shot – it’s actually a farce, with the action accelerating as the film progresses, and more and more characters arriving to make things even more deliberately confusing. Talking of which, pantomime performances from Bill Paxton as a very hardass CIA guy and Edward James Olmos as the suave, cruel and loquacious baddie help it to swing along, while the soundtrack lays down wah-chukka-wah sounds just to deliver an extra nudge in the ribs. Add pizza and enjoy.

2 Guns – at Amazon

 

 

This Ain’t California (Luxin, cert 12, DVD)

When is a documentary not a documentary? This Ain’t California is a good place to start answering the question. On the surface at least it’s a documentary about the skateboard scene in Eastern Germany, the communist bit, back in the 1980s. And a very good one it is too. Telling the story of a group of friends who get back together in 2011 (ish) to mourn the death of one of their number, it cuts between camp fire reminiscence and old Super 8 film shot by one of the group. The focus is on Denis “Panik” Paraceck, who went from being one of the young boys learning to skateboard to a very cool teenager dude at the back end of the 1980s, good cheekbones, peroxide hair and a maverick streak making him very popular with the girls. And there is a lot of footage, as well as photographs, and the odd bit of animation to fill in the odd gap as we hear the story told of how the childhood friends went from streetskaters to competitors at the skateboarding championships in Prague, where they met Western idols, as well as becoming magnets for the Stasi, always wary of the latest fad from the decadent West. It’s the story of communism undermined by its inability to adapt, the old “Levi’s won the Cold War” slogan recoined. In fact there is so much grainy old footage that it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that some of it might have been added afterwards, faked up to look like it’s from the 1980s. And what about the people around the camp fire, reminiscing? It seems some of those might not be real people either, the director Marten Persiel admitted under close questioning at some festival screening (Berlin, I think). As for Panik – well it turns out he’s played by a model called Kai Hillebrand. But hang on a sec. He’s the main character, and if he’s not real, then that throws the status of his “friends” out the window too. And the footage. The whole thing, in fact. Which doesn’t make this “documentary” any less enjoyable or informative.

This Ain’t California – at Amazon

 

 

Leviathan (Dogwoof, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)

Here’s an impressionist, wordless documentary that simply couldn’t have been made a few years ago. Relying on the digital camera’s ability to get into difficult corners, endure more aggressive handling, perform in more extreme conditions, under lower light, it charts the tough existence for the guys, and even tougher time for the fish and shellfish, on a trawler in the North Atlantic. And what a bloody business it is – the nets come up, the fish come out. If they are skate they are held up by one guy, the wings hacked off by another guy, the remainder of the beast then chucked over the side. If cod, then it’s heads off and downstairs to the ice, the head slopping about on the wet deck before it too goes over the side. The camera is on the deck with the fish’s head, on the crest of the wave as the chum slops off the deck and back into the ocean, where phalanxes of seagulls provide escort, waiting hungrily. We hear no speech, there is no voiceover, there aren’t even that many shots – the camera holds focus on one guy for about five minutes as he sits below deck, exhaustedly half-watching a bit of TV, before eventually nodding off onto his chest. Then it’s back up to the deck, the chum, the waves, under the waves even, for more clanking and churning, shucking and chucking. In the Old Testament, Leviathan is a sea monster. Very appropriate.

Leviathan – at Amazon

 

 

Kick-Ass 2 (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/VOD)

“OK you cunts… Let’s see what you can do now!” That line, spoken by Chloë Grace Moretz in the first Kick-Ass film, said everything you needed to know about it. Coming from the mouth of a 12-year-old girl, it was shocking and very very funny. Moretz is still the funniest and best thing about this sequel with a similar plot – average earnest Joes donning stupid superhero costumes to give their life more meaning. But it doesn’t have the balls of the first film, and also hasn’t taken on board what was obviously wrong with the first film (extremely funny though it was). To wit: the Kick-Ass character. Nothing wrong with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s playing of him, it’s that Kick-Ass is just a dim bulb. He isn’t interesting, nor is his superhero alter-ego. His nemesis, who has decided on a name-change – Red Mist to Motherfucker – does a little better, largely because he’s played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse at full snivel. Yes, there are good moments, in spite of the absence of writer Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn this time round, but nearly all happen when Moretz is on screen, shouting “Game on, cocksuckers” or some such at bewildered villains, in a style she’s learnt from Nicolas Cage (whose absence is also really keenly felt). And she just isn’t on screen enough.

Kick-Ass 2 – at Amazon

 

 

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (Fox, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

The faintly mythological franchise returns, with Logan Lerman back as Jackson, a Harry Potter who’s half Greek god rather than half wizard. And Potter is the clear template for this opportunistic and dull adventure that clearly doesn’t command the respect of the studio, or else they’d have shelled out for better CGI. The story: Percy discovers he has a half-brother – those gods do get about – a cyclops called Tyson (played by Douglas Smith) who would actually be an attractive young man if it weren’t for the single eye in his head. A bit of convenient magic later and the single eye has been masked, allowing teenage girls who don’t go for Percy to fix their passions on Tyson, who is a junior league Chris Hemsworth. And off they go, the trio of the boring Percy, the dumb Tyson and the smart Annabeth (Alexandria Daddario) – same attributes as the Potter heroes – for an adventure which devolves at every opportunity into by-the-numbers action-movie sound and fury. It is nothing other than a half-blood Potter done less well, though a well imagined sequence inside a monster’s belly does suggest that someone somewhere is trying. Perhaps they’ll get their head in the next instalment, announced abruptly at the end of this unconvincing 100 minutes.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

2 December 2013-12-02

Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives

Out in the UK This Week

 

Only God Forgives (Lionsgate, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

After Bronson, Valhalla Rising and Drive (not to mention the Pusher trilogy) director Nicolas Winding Refn’s cool yet feverish look at violence and masculinity continues with a story set out in the badlands of Bangkok, where moody Ryan Gosling plays Julian, the brother expected to avenge the death of his intensely violent older brother Billy (Tom Burke). But the slightly more sensitive Julian balks, which brings into play his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), a tough old bitch as elemental as any out of Greek tragedy. It also brings into play a retired cop (Vithaya Pansingram), an automaton of remorseless brutality. Together and separately, all three waltz towards a bloody finale. Neon-lit, tricked out with gliding cameras, and with the odd pause for a song, Only God Forgives wears its debt to David Lynch on its sleeve. But both Gaspar Noë and Alejandro Jodorowsky (also mentioned in the credits) are spiritually in the mix, Noë’s Into the Void informing the lurid cityscapes, Jodorowsky inspiring the alienated psychedelics. There’s Peter Greenaway too, in the symmetrical composition, and Scorsese – in fact it’s like Goodfellas at quarter speed. It’s for cinephiles, in other words, and lovers of the lush, intense, taciturn and grisly. A gorgeous, ugly film.

Only God Forgives – at Amazon

 

 

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Steve Coogan’s most famous creation gets a movie of his own, in which North Norfolk Digital’s mid-morning jock is called upon to do some siege negotiation after a fellow DJ (Colm Meaney) goes gun-crazy. That’s the plot, but what about the jokes? Well, the good news is that they are in there – Coogan’s ability to nail the prattle that comes from the mouths of people paid to produce hot air is second to none. And with lines like “Can a binman expect a Christmas tip when he’s point blank refused to take away a broken toaster?” Coogan clearly has the writers on board too. But the film suffers from the same problem as the DJ himself – stretch it beyond its natural life (the link between records in the DJ’s case) and it starts to gasp a bit.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa – at Amazon

 

 

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (Independent, cert 18, DVD)

The three girls who have been sentenced to two years in a Russian gulag for making a noise in a Moscow church are the subjects of this remarkably even-handed documentary. We learn the back stories of Nadia (the hot one – sorry), Maria and Ekaterina, whose balaclava-clad performance in the cathedral of Christ the Saviour got them arrested and, eventually sentenced. How they’re politically against Vladimir Putin, who they see as a dictator. How they were objecting to the closeness of Church and State, hence the cathedral protest. How Russian public opinion clearly isn’t on their side – “they walked into Russia and took a shit” – says one scarf-wearing woman at a rally against them. Feelings run high not least because the church the Pussy Rioters performed in has only just been rebuilt after being dynamited by Stalin in the 1930s, because the Church is clearly not aligned with the state as far as the older generation is concerned. It’s a fascinating film, as much a portrait of brave young women who got more than they bargained for as it is of Russia being dragged backwards into the modern world.

Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer – at Amazon

 

 

Man of Steel (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Having enjoyed the Brandon Routh Superman reboot of 2006 – most people did not – I was expecting not to enjoy this one, since most people did. I didn’t enjoy it. Telling the story of Superman’s origin, his journey from planet Krypton to planet Earth, his dad, his adoptive parents, his transformation into the Man of Steel, it follows in most respects the Christopher Reeve film from 1978. One major deviation from the original being that Clark Kent isn’t working for the Daily Planet yet, and Lois Lane already knows he’s Superman. The reason why this huge change has been made to the story becomes clear around halfway through the Man of Steel. It’s because this is not a stand-alone film at all; it’s a warm-up for 2015’s Batman vs Superman, which will deal with the Daily Planet/Lois/Metropolis years in full. Talk about a shitty way to make movies. Talking of which, Zack Snyder is director, bringing the same blind spot for spatial geography and failure to punch a story along that he demonstrated on 300. These monster caveats aside, Cavill doesn’t let the team down as Superman, Russell Crowe is convincingly authoritative and benign as Jor-El and the special effects are of the awesome variety. I noticed Christopher “string it out” Nolan’s name had a story credit. Figures.

 Man of Steel – at Amazon

 

 

Planes (Disney, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)

I’d heard bad things about Planes – that it’s a Disney attempt at a Pixar property, Cars with Wings. Which is exactly what it is. Anthropomorphic airplanes having adventures and stuff, with the focus falling on Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook), a cropduster from nowheresville who follows his dream to become a racer etc etc. It is true that the animation is not Pixar standard. In fact it looks like a Pixar film that hasn’t been through the final hi-def treatment. But that apart, Planes is zippy, there are some interesting sequences – Dusty falling into the sea was unusually realistic – a fair bit of technical detail (drag, ailerons, power/weight ratios) which might intrigue the young techie. And it deals with war and death in unexpected ways too. Reset your expectations, think very young and this is a rather good film.

 Planes – at Amazon

 

 

Looking for Hortense (Arrow, cert 12, DVD)

This stagey, overstuffed French comedy of urban bourgeois manners has a farce structure – people doing improbable things at an increasingly hectic pace – and is kicked off by a wife (Kristin Scott Thomas again) asking her husband to ask his dad, a judge, to fast-track the papers of a Serbian woman working for a friend. I think that was the drift. Jean-Pierre Bacri is the guy asking his dad, but here’s the thing – Bacri is clearly a man in his 60s, so how old is the father meant to be? Why is he still working? Are we watching a farce about ageing government functionaries, or is this simply a case of miscasting, Bacri being a generation too old? It might seem like a hiccup but I couldn’t find much else in the film to latch on to – the Serbian character is underdeveloped, a 40something dressed like a teenager (so it could be about age), the patrician old functionary who has a conversation with his son in which he reveals that he has sex with men, but isn’t homosexual – what is that all about? Looking for Hortense is full of great performers, and is the sort of drama in which each individual scene is beautifully constructed and played, but what it was all “about” is eluded me. Over to you.

Looking for Hortense – at Amazon

 

 

The Lone Ranger (Disney, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

With Pirates of the Caribbean, Gore Verbinski took the pirate swashbuckler, and knowing that no one would swallow it without a mixer, served it as a comedy. In came Johnny Depp as the comedy sidekick to Orlando Bloom’s vaguely Errol Flynn-like man of swagger. The Lone Ranger attempts the same move, taking the western, playing it for laughs and bringing in Johnny Depp as comedy sidekick to Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger. For a good hour or so this looks like it’s going to go somewhere, Verbinski bringing a bit of that fizzy Rango wildness to a meta-western that has Morricone/Leone twangy guitar, John Ford locations, a baddie called Butch Cavendish (not that far off Cassidy), a guy who looks like General Custer, Helena Bonham Carter as an everywhore with parasol. And very good all this is too. But there are a host of tiny mis-steps – some of them fatal – that really undermine the film. Why have it all as a flashback? Why take William Fichtner, one of the very best bad guys in Hollywood, and then disguise those lean, frightening features? Why doesn’t Verbinski get in someone who understands CGI special effects, since he clearly doesn’t? And why hasn’t Johnny Depp decided what type of act he’s aiming at – is it olde style comedy injun (white man speak with fork tongue)? Or is it more your Joss Whedon “Whatever” Indian? He wobbles between the two. And the film is an hour too long. File next to Wild Wild West.

The Lone Ranger – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

 

 

25 November 2013-11-25

Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock in The Heat

Out in the UK this Week

 

 

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

There aren’t many female buddy-cop comedies. This one, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), recalls the Lethal Weapon antics of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and stars Sandra Bullock as the one trying to play it by the book, and Melissa McCarthy as the out and out slob prepared to take any risk because, hell, law and order is a dirty old business. Suit pants versus sweat pants, basically, with a plot that’s immaterial – it has something to do with guns and drugs, as per – but it’s just enough to bus the girls from one amusing set piece to the next, with Bullock and McCarthy doing what looks like a lot of improv riffing as they go. Along the way it stops for set pieces that look like they have been ordered in by somebody’s people – the initially distrustful duo bond over a night of  drinking, the disco scene where McCarthy has to refashion Bullock’s uptight outfit so she can fit in, the scene where they hang a guy off a fire escape by his feet. They’re funny enough, but they pale next to the rest of it, the bits where Bullock and McCarthy basically lean back and call each other names. The language is ripe, it is foul and it is very funny. And what really helps this film become the funniest comedy I’ve seen in a long time is the strength of the support cast – again and again scenes which would be throwaways in lesser comedies become belters thanks to inspired casting and playing by even the bittiest of bit players.

The Heat – at Amazon

 

The Wall (New Wave, cert 12, DVD)

A woman on holiday in picture-postcard Austria one day bumps into an invisible wall while walking down the road. Everything else in the world seems normal, but she can’t get through this barrier. People on the other side seem to be frozen still. As Martina Gedeck, in almost constant voiceover, recounts what happened over the next few days, weeks, months and… well it looks like years… the notion that The Wall is some kind of offbeat sci-fi is gradually replaced by the realisation that it is a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, played out by a woman instead of a man, and on an “island” in the middle of a landlocked country. It’s an unusual, simple and fascinating film which, like the Tom Hanks Cast Away movie – except prettier – offers us at first little more than the sight of a human being doing the necessary to keep body and soul together. But then it goes a step further, and we watch our castaway forming relationships with the animals also stuck on the inside of the bubble she’s in and wondering about what it means to be human, adjusting to her fate. And that’s it – simple, beguiling, a real gem.

The Wall – at Amazon

 

The Broken Circle Breakdown (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD)

I remember thinking at one point that this film was going to be another of those “and then the kid dies of cancer” movies. Which is what it looked like for a while. I suspect that even as a terminal-illness weepie it would be a good one, because of its basic set-up – she’s a much-tattooed woman forming a love-at-first-sight relationship with a Flemish bluegrass singer, joins the band, marries him, has kid, kid gets cancer. But because of scrambled chronology which pushes the themes (love, religion, rationalism) rather than the plot to the fore, this drama has a real emotional tug. It has several things in its favour – Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh’s entirely convincing performances, Ruben Impens’s exquisitely careful cinematography, which just amplifies ever so slightly what’s going on. And the music – those bluegrass harmonies are bewitching and Baetens can really sing.

The Broken Circle Breakdown – at Amazon

 

The World’s End (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The last of the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (along with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) sees Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s characters off pub-crawling with zombies in the town of their birth. It’s a “getting the gang back together” comedy that mines the first film for attitude and the second film for observations on smalltown life. The zombie idea – are they technically zombies? Alien zombies perhaps? – is a brilliant metaphor for that feeling of returning to your home town and finding everything just as you left it yet entirely different. And the first half of the film works that territory expertly. But it’s when the zombies/aliens/whatever finally announce themselves that the film seems to run out of jokes. I suppose they were all used up by Shaun of the Dead.

The World’s End – at Amazon

 

Red 2 (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

So, the gang of Retired Extremely Dangerous operatives is re-assembled, again, with Willis, Mirren, Malkovich and Mary-Louise Parker joined by Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins (the ham is hanging from the rafters) for a multi-national plot in which military hardware, car chases and absurd villains vie for screen time. Two things early on set the tone – the opening shot is of a supermarket trolley with a wonky wheel. Shortly afterwards we meet Steven Berkoff in chinkie-Chinaman make-up – he’s only missing the Charlie Chan moustache. There are a lot of these films around at the moment – how long before a film with the title Superannuated 1980s Action Hero hits the screens? But if the first Red film spent so much time winking to the camera that it forgot to actually nod to a plot, this sequel has learnt from those mistakes. As per the last one, much of the humour is of the “aren’t we a bit old for this shit” variety. But a cast this illustrious really does know how to polish what in lesser hands would be a turd, there’s some sensationally over the top carnage, the heroes are improbably indestructible and everyone involved seems to be having fun. I think they might squeeze one more of these out before the joke goes flat. Quick, quick, The Expendables 17 is probably already mapped out in Sylvester Stallone’s Psion Organiser.

Red 2 – at Amazon

 

Despicable Me 2 (Universal, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)

Despicable Me 1 was a complete movie. The villain, Gru (as in Gruesome, I imagine), had by the end of it become the good guy. The arc was completed, the story was done. So what are writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio going to have Gru do in the sequel? The answer is: they don’t have the faintest idea. The baldie Dr Evil approximation is ostensibly the focus, but the plot about Gru being recruited by the Anti-Villain League to deal with some super-villain is thin at best. And the romantic sub-plot featuring Lucy (voice: Kristen Wiig) doesn’t ding many dongs either. In some respects this sequel is about Gru’s Minions – the squeaky little fellas who are soon to get their own spinoff movie. But really DM2 isn’t about them either. Luckily for Paul and Daurio, directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud are also back on board and they do have a plan – fill the film with the sort of animated mayhem that Chuck Jones used to pack the Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry and Roadrunner shorts with. This makes for inspired moments, and they crop up often enough that you can almost forget that the story is… just a bit meh.

Despicable Me 2 – at Amazon

 

Heaven’s Gate Restored (Second Sight, cert 15, Blu-ray)

A good, long, immersive film telling the story of a rich Harvard guy (Kris Kristofferson) who becomes the champion of the poor out in the wild wild West, Heaven’s Gate was butchered by the studio then filleted by the critics when it was first released in 1980. Directed by Michael Cimino – who was given a bottomless budget after the success of The Deer Hunter – the film destroyed United Artists and brought to a close the New Hollywood era of grown-up films directed by dope-smoking long-hairs. So here it is back at epic length, thanks to a fabulous restoration job (you used to be able to see the joins – not any more), and it’s immediately clear from the very first sequence, a huge, impressive crowd scene set in Harvard, what Cimino is up to. An hour and a half (of three and a half hours) later – every scene a money shot, every scrap of scene-setting requiring hundreds of extras, immensely complicated camera shots, amazing sets and John Ford locations – and the pomp of the whole thing has become oppressive. It’s also around this time that another of the film’s shortcomings becomes abundantly clear – Kris Kristofferson is a Mount Rushmore of a man, but he’s no actor. He can’t do interiority. And he needs to be able to do it because his character is so badly underwritten. As are all the characters in this film – John Hurt, as the gilded Harvard youth gone badly to drink, a young Christopher Walken warming up Johnny Depp’s cheekbones and much of his acting style, Isabelle Huppert, Sam Waterston, Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke (when he still had a light, pleasant voice). That is an immense cast of talent, so good they go some way towards repairing the deficiencies in the writing. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography goes most of the rest of the way, this surely being a contender for the best photographed film ever made. For Zsigmond’s skill, talent, graft and the huge budget that must have been lavished on his set-ups alone, this film is a must-watch. As for the rest of it, it’s OK, it’s fine, neither the revealed masterpiece that some claim nor a calamitous mess.

Heaven’s Gate – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

18 November 2013-11-18

Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine

Out in the UK This Week

 

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

The X-Men series has been lacklustre, with too many characters chasing too little plot (X-Men First Class being the exception). But The Wolverine bucks that trend thanks to its tight focus on Hugh Jackman as the wolfman with the salon-sational nails and its decision to just chuck us straight into the plot, just like the comic books do. Japan is the focus, a grungy dirty Japan, where bearded, trashed Wolverine is just trying to forget all that superhero stuff and get on with a normal life. But, as is the way with these things, his past comes back to get him, in the form of a Japanese prison guard he rescued from atomic annihilation at the end of the Second World War, a man who wants what the Wolverine has. What this leads to is what the film is about, so I’ll go no further. What I will say is that James Mangold was a great choice to direct, a man who understands that it’s human drama not superhuman leaping about that makes the best superhero films tick. Though that doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand the power of good visuals. Enter ninjas, Ron Perlman in wisecracking badass mode and a mighty scene in which a man operates on his own heart.

The Wolverine – at Amazon

 

Night of Silence (Verve, cert PG, DVD)

Proof that Turkey is one of the hotspots of film-making right now, this film by director Reis Çelik is a one-room drama with a very playwrighty feel to it. The subject matter and the acting are what save it. In the room we have a gnarly old lag just out of prison and an impossibly young girl, his new bride (Dilan Aksüt). She’s maybe 14. The marriage has been arranged for him as a kind of thank you for taking the rap for a long-ago crime. We then watch as they dance around each other, the old man and the girl, for an entire night of what looks very much like Scheherazadian climax deferral – he proposes, she disposes, the pattern repeats itself. As said, the acting is gorgeous, particularly the way Ilyas Salman’s face suggests the thousand-and-one disappointments of the old guy, and the camera dances about trying to put some movement into a situation that’s physically static though psychically frenzied. And, considering it’s dealing with a Muslim country, and marriage at its most unequally “arranged”, the fact that the film doesn’t wander into newspaper “social issue” territory is a real plus too.

Night of Silence – at Amazon

 

Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger (E One, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)

When Martin Freeman starred in the first Nativity film, who would have thought he’d be too big to turn up in the sequel. But when Bilbo calls… So here’s David Tennant as a replacement in what, plotwise, is a fairly standard re-run of Nativity 1 – our underdog schoolkids don’t stand a chance in a choir competition they are entered in but they set off to take part anyway. The surprise of Nativity 1 was twofold – that it was funny, and that its undoubted star, Marc Wootton, playing an almost frighteningly over-involved teaching assistant, wasn’t the titular star. Wootton has more to do this time around, playing the unhinged funny guy to Tennant’s extremely straight guy as they take the kids across Wales (by bus, foot and donkey – spot the nativity play reference) to the eventual showdown at the singing competition. Tennant plays two roles, for reasons which probably seemed fun at the time, the jokes are still funny and the kids, who are improvising (as are the adults, I think – Tennant almost corpses a couple of times) are adorable. But the film is a good half hour too long, the culprit being the songs, which are terrible. A day in the edit studio and this is a really good film.

Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger – at Amazon

 

Mary Poppins 50th Anniversary Edition (Disney, cert U, Blu-ray)

Uncle Walt was still alive when Mary Poppins was made. Watching it again for the 50th anniversary edition I was struck by how carefully Disney in those days set everything up. Mary herself doesn’t arrive for a while. By then we’ve already met Burt the chimney sweep and the kids, a gruff local copper, Mr and Mrs Banks – him a stuffed shirt, her a suffragette – the housekeeper, the retired sea captain down the road who fires the big gun, his whipping boy, the exiting ex-nanny, a line of prospective new nannies, various ladies who enjoy watching Burt play and lark about. We’ve met a lot of people. We’ve also had a few songs. No film these days would hang about so long before introducing its main character, its real plot. But then films in those days were made for captive audiences who had paid to see a film, had heard from others that it was good, and weren’t likely to bolt just because a titular character hadn’t arrived in scene one. Springboarding off this slow start, Mary Poppins bounces into its key central sequence, the Jolly Holiday with Mary inside the chalk drawing, and then goes just a tiny bit flat towards the end in comparison. Mary Poppins doesn’t finish on a big number, which is probably the only negative thing you can say about it, and what we’ve had before then has been “practically perfect in every way” – Julie Andrews typecasting herself for ever as a prim proper thing, Dick Van Dyke the epitome of gangly charm as Burt the chimney sweep. As for the “50th anniversary edition” aspect, the Blu-ray I watched didn’t look significantly different from how I remember Mary Poppins, didn’t seem unduly sharp, bright, cleaned up or anything.

Mary Poppins 50th Anniversary Edition – at Amazon

 

Milius (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD)

Right at the end of this inept film about screenwriter and occasional director John Milius it gives us the information that should have been at the beginning – the “who is this man and why should I watch this documentary” bit. For those who don’t know, Milius was considered the brightest of the bunch that included Scorsese, Spielberg, De Palma, Coppola, Lucas. And most of them line up, along with Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, to heap praise on the man who wrote the “feel lucky, punk” scene from Dirty Harry, the Indianapolis scene from Jaws, who wrote Apocalypse Now. OK, so one entire movie – a classic, granted – and some rewrites, a couple of so-so movies he directed himself, that’s not a huge body of work in 40 years. Milius himself turns up to explain this, claiming that Hollywood is a left-wing town and that there is no room for right-wingers such as himself (he loves a gun, a cigar and favours the Rhodesian ridgeback breed of dog, cuddly old John). That’s right, Hollywood is a left-wing town – though in what sort of world patriotism, smalltown values, looking out for yourself, pursuing the American dream and militarism constitute a left-wing worldview, I really don’t know. And all those Noam Chomsky films, the ones about redistribution of wealth that seem to be clogging the multiplexes, it’s hard to get a film about guns, or killing people, made these days. Anyhow, back to Milius who, it seems, has been working on a film about Genghis Khan. Yes, he’s working on a film, everybody, at which point the penny really drops. This isn’t a biography, it’s an advert.

Milius – at Amazon

 

Monsters University (Disney, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)

What the hell has happened to Pixar? Its downward drift continues with this prequel to Monster’s Inc. which reunites the voice talent (Billy Crystal, John Goodman) but not, crucially, the creative team. And as you can guess from the title, it’s about Mike and Sulley meeting at the Monsters University, where they’re both outcasts who have to fight to show what they’re made of. And so on. Perhaps I’m being too harsh – the animation on this film is superb, it really is, with gorgeous detail, backgrounds and foregrounds really beautifully working together. There’s even a bit of expressionism – Pixar doesn’t usually go in for this sort of thing – in a sequence reminiscent of 1940s-style cop dramas, all torchbeams in the darkness. What Monsters University doesn’t have is laughs. It’s zippy, I’ll give it that, and for seven year olds it’s going to function just fine as a wacky adventure. But the crossover appeal just isn’t there, in spite of Goodman and Crystal bouncing off each other brilliantly, as they did in Monsters Inc., and Helen Mirren providing the voice of the testy Dean Hardscrabble. Maybe there was no intention all along of appealing to adults. In which case I’ll shut up.

Monsters University – at Amazon

 

Stuck in Love (Koch, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Ooh yuk, this is a grim film, an indie-ish Raymond Carver-like drama of middle-class inadequacy which has Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Connelly as divorced parents, Lily Collins as the up-and-coming young writer daughter, Logan Lerman as the geeky kid who’s really into her though she’s just not into him. Stuck in Love is a refugee of the indie films of the noughties, lacking only the hand-drawn graphic interludes to score the full monty. Josh Boone directs competently but you can’t say the same about his writing, which is one draft away from skeletal note-taking exposition. The characters, in other words, are as dull as shit. And when they’re not being dull they’re the sort of odious self-regard specialists you’d run a mile from in real life. And the actors all know it. So they compensate with earnest over-acting. Yuk.

Stuck in Love – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

4 November 2013-11-04

James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride in This Is the End

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

This Is the End (Sony, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Armageddon, aka The Rapture, arrives at a big Hollywood party thrown by James Franco in an in-jokey comedy whose USP is that everyone involved plays a version of themselves. The big names are Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen and James Franco (natch), with Jay Baruchel as our entry point, playing the sort of Jay Baruchel who is slightly intimidated by the bigger stars. Cameos are the big thing there – Rihanna pops in for a minute, Michael Cera has fun with his image as a total dude being fellated and rimmed simultaneously by a pair of babes while doing a monster line of coke. But that’s the party bit, the fun bit. Once the actual end of the world arrives things cool down a bit, the joke starts to wear thin and we start looking around for actual comedy, rather than in-jokes. There is some, thanks to Danny McBride and Craig Robinson (probably the best thing on display) providing most of it. I forgot to mention that Emma Watson does a similar thing to Cera, playing off her good girl Harry Potter image. So, yes, it’s a Wayans brothers movie, more or less, give or take.

This Is the End – at Amazon

 

Camp 14: Total Control Zone (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, DVD)

There really isn’t much to see in this documentary, and its makers know it, hence the animated inserts they use to liven up the tale told by Shin Dong-Hyuk, a North Korean who had the misfortune to be born and raised in a labour camp, until he made a break for it. Not that the story itself needs titivating – it is a jaw-to-the-floor tale of deprivation, unusual and cruel punishment, plus a devotion to a wonky ideology that saw, for example, Shin shopping his mother and brother to the camp authorities for talking about escape. What happened to them I won’t detail here, because it forms the centrepiece of a story of quite remarkable unpleasantness. Intercut with Shin’s story is the testimony of two former functionaries, one an administrative official, the other a guard who delighted in hurting people – “Why did I behave that way? I was 21, 22, I had stars on my shoulders… and a gun… if I didn’t like someone I just shot them.” Like I say, jaw-to-the-floor stuff.

Camp 14: Total Control Zone – at Amazon

 

 

The Night of the Hunter (Arrow, cert 12, Blu-ray)

Here’s the blu-ray debut of the only film ever directed by Charles Laughton. The only film not just because Laughton was a terrible drunk but because it was a terrible flop and Laughton was broken by the reception it got. Critics seem to have trouble placing Night of the Hunter but in genre terms it is not unadjacent to Southern Gothic – men of questionable sexuality, women taut with unsatisfied urges, innocent children and Christianity seen from the dark side. Telling the story of two children who know the whereabouts of their dead father’s ill-gotten loot, it hands Robert Mitchum one of the roles of his career, as the preacher with Love and Hate tattooed onto the fingers of each hand, an ex-jailbird determined to wring the location of the money from the children he has now become stepfather to. Onto this basic story Laughton and writer James Agee (though how much of his script is in the finished work is hotly disputed) tack all manner of folksy Mark Twain-esque touches, dreamy expressionism, and the famous nightmare slo-motion chase along the riverbank that’s once seen but never forgotten. This is a film with standout shots (thanks to Stanley Cortez, who worked with Orson Welles) memorable dialogue, instances of remarkable acting (Shelley Winters vibrating with lust) but it sticks in the memory most because of the off-key tone it sets, the mood it creates. It is a classic.

The restoration… to come

The Night of the Hunter – at Amazon 

 

 

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (StudioCanal, cert 12, DVD)

Haewon (Jeong Eun-Chae), the girl at the centre of this odd offbeat drama is somebody’s daughter. In fact we meet her mother early on, just after we’ve witnessed Haewon bumping into Jane Birkin on the street, in a cameo that must rank as one cinema’s more unusual, because it’s so pointless. Though is it? Because we’re then treated to a story about a beautiful girl being handed life on a plate and still not being that happy about everything – the wannabe actress/model Haewon is having an affair with a teacher/director, though he’s not easy about declaring their relationship publicly. No matter, Haewon is beautiful, and has soon found another suitor, a Korean now installed as a professor at an American university. Composed largely of Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight walkie talkie shots, with various South Korean landmarks acting as backdrop, this is an intensely verbal film yet features one extended sequence of protracted social embarrassment in a cheap eatery that makes the film worth hunting out. As for the rest of it, it’s certainly an unusual theme, but I’m not convinced the film has that much to say about it.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon – at Amazon 

 

Pinocchio (Koch, cert U, DVD)

Does the world need another Pinocchio? Maybe not, but this is an Italian version (revoiced in English) and Pinocchio is an Italian story, so why not. If you’ve seen the Disney Pinocchio, this covers much of the same territory, plus a whole other lot, at breathless speed. So one minute Pinocchio is being carved from a talking lump of wood, the next he’s a rascally marionette, the next he’s meeting a talking cricket, consorting with circus folk, in school, in jail, being bilked by a wolf, with a dog, flying on a pigeon’s back. It’s exhausting, though if you have ADHD you might keep up. And the same goes for the animation, which is really excellent, though it does keep changing styles to match the various changes of plotline – some Disney, some Ghibli, some Expressionism, some Yellow Submarine psychedelia, a bit of Marvel, and on it goes. And I didn’t even mention the songs, which are bouncy and really rather good. Does it form a cohesive whole? No, of course it doesn’t.

Pinocchio – at Amazon

 

 

Bula Quo! (Universal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Status Quo have been cranking out their three-chord boogie for longer than most people care, yet this is their first film, made long after their heyday and clearly aware of the fact, hence its many jokes at the expense of Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt’s extreme age. So, Quo in Fiji, in a plot that is familiar if you’ve ever seen the terrible Morecambe and Wise film That Riviera Touch (hapless Brits entirely out of their depth away from their country involved with men who are not only dastardly criminals but foreigners). Jon Lovitz plays the baddie killing people for fun at Russian Roulette parties, Craig Fairbrass is the guys’ minder/tour manager, so at least there are two people on hand to do some proper acting, something you could never accuse Parfitt and Rossi of managing. Three if we include Laura Aikman, who is not just pretty but pretty good at playing the new girl hired to… I’m not even that sure. Aikman is the proverbial breath of fresh air in a film that threatens to grind to a halt every ten minutes or so, between scenes of Quo doing their live set, Quo running from bad guys, Quo trading funny quips. “It’s a bomb”, says one, motioning to a ticking timebomb disguised as a doll. “It’s a doll,” says the other, apparently contradictorily. “It’s a blow-up doll,” they say together, scarpering. I laughed. It’s that sort of film.

Bula Quo – at Amazon

 

 

Weekend of a Champion (Universal, cert PG, DVD)

We’ve had Senna, we’ve had Rush, both big successes. So how about a documentary about Jackie Stewart at the 1971 Grand Prix in Monte Carlo? Shot at the time by Frank Simon, it shows us Stewart driving his mate Roman Polanski around the track, then going on to win the race the next day. For F1 nuts there is probably something to be gleaned from Stewart’s analysis of the track, and what gear he’ll be selecting as he takes this corner or that. And nostaligiacs might get a warm fuzzy glow watching Stewart and his wife walking like royalty down towards the pits in 1971 – the thing about F1 in the 1970s is that it was all very glam, because deadly. Tacked on to the end of the original documentary is a shortish conversation between Stewart and Polanski filmed in Cannes this year. They’re still friends and it’s Polanski who pushes Stewart into talking about how much effort he put into getting F1 to start valuing drivers’ lives. The 60s and 70s were “when motor racing was dangerous and sex was safe” is how Stewart says older drivers ruefully describe those days. After that, the two guys drive once again round the track, as they did in 1971, noting the changes the decades have made. And in between the amiable banter and the purr of the engine, you can definitely detect the sound of padding being applied to bulk this enterprise up to its 80 short minutes.

Weekend of a Champion – at Amazon

 

 

28 October 2013-10-28

July Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight

Out in the UK This Week

  

Before Midnight (Sony, cert 15, DVD)

After Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), this is round three for cinema’s most romantic couple, as played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. They’re now married with two kids and living in France, but we catch up with them holidaying in Greece where they have the time and space to do what they do best – talk – while we get to watch and wonder. In round one he met her on a train journey through Europe and they fell for each other. The film’s USP was the way Delpy and Hawke’s characters interacted – they talked the way intelligent, educated people do, using cultural collateral as part of the armoury of love. In round two they met again, by accident, ten years later and, in spite of themselves (both were now committed to others) fell for each other again, again to the sound of ideas being traded, art being discussed, intellectual foreplay a-gogo. So what is director/co-writer Richard Linklater going to do with them this time? The deed is done, the auction over, there is no romantic journey left for them. So instead Hawke and Delpy act out the dance of the bickering couple, still hot for each other in some ways but no longer convinced the other is the best they could have managed, maybe. This is an entirely different proposition, because for all the chat about art and poetry and death and love, the first two films were in essence prolonged teases. That tactic won’t work this time. But, knowing that a couple in freefall is about as much fun as that Jennifer Aniston/Vince Vaughn film The Break-Up, Linklater throws in an awful lot of window-dressing – lovely Greece, some fascinating supporting characters, a mix of young and old, all of which comes together over an elegant lunch in a breeze-kissed arbour where table talk flashes with rapier wit. It is stab-yourself-in-the-face awful. But then, having done his best to deliver some feelgood, Linklater lets Hawke and Delpy off the leash to talk and walk, fight and make up. And here, once again, the magic takes hold.

Before Midnight – at Amazon 
 
 

Twixt (Metrodome, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Francis Ford Coppola rejuvenated by technology shock. Twixt is a weird, not always successful but fabulously entertaining experiment in lo-fi film-making starring a fat, pony tailed Val Kilmer as a shitty writer of second-rate witch books who finds himself in the sort of gothic American backwoods where Vincent Price and Edgar Allen Poe might be neighbours. Teaming up with local sheriff Bruce Dern he sets out to solve a mystery about missing girls and ghostly apparitions – here’s Elle Fanning in whiteface with big bloody red eye makeup. Alternating between this world of broken dreams, a marriage falling apart (Joanne Whalley, Kilmer’s ex wife, plays the bitch current wife trying to squeeze more cash out of him in shrill Skype conversations), and the nighttime gothic of Kilmer’s drunken nightmares, we’re in what looks like a cross between Coppola’s Dracula film and his Rumble Fish – black and white, camp horror, all very stylised. Dern is great, Kilmer is better than he’s been for decades and the film seems to understand something that lots of bigger budget efforts don’t – something like this is meant to be fun.

Twixt – at Amazon

 
 

Call Girl (Artificial Eye, cert 18, DVD)

If you’re with me on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and thought the best thing about it was its brilliant evocation of the 1970s, then you might enjoy Call Girl, also made by a Swedish director (Mikael Marcimain) and set in 1970s Sweden, where a girl neglected by her mother is slowly inveigled into the world of prostitution by the other, older girls at the children’s home she has been sent to. As I say, the evocation of 1970s mood is brilliant, the look is perfect, the soundtrack also evokes that odd grimy glamour of the decade of clunky platform shoes and feather-cut hair. Technically, everything in this film is perfect, Marcimain’s direction is sensitive and sensible, the acting is entirely brilliant with Pernilla August as the blowsy madam at the very top of a long list of great performances. Sound design. Cinematography. It’s all great. However, the story itself, the children’s home, how it intersects with the world of prostitution, how that intersects with the world of politics, how that intersects with the world of national security, and how that eventually involves the police, bringing us all the way back to the children’s home – and what all of these have to do with the ultra-liberal sexual climate of the time – is either just too complicated a rigmarole to effectively get onto the screen, or the screenplay just hasn’t worked out a way to manage it.

Call Girl – at Amazon

 
 

Stand Up Guys (EV, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Now entering their anecdotage, Al Pacino and Christopher Walken have a certain amount of amusement with their legacy in this loveable, useless, ragged, funny, rubbish, glorious sort-of comedy that also drags in Alan Arkin, only to kill him off just as we’re warming to his performance (this seems to be a regular fate for Arkin, ever since Little Miss Sunshine). The joke is the 1970s – the cars, the attitudes, the drugs, the clothes –  with a never underacting Pacino playing an old crook getting out of jail and being met by his old retired friend Walken who, unbeknown to Pacino, has been sent to kill him by the Mr Big Pacino got on the wrong side of decades before. If this sounds like the précis for a great thriller, it is, but it’s played for yuks of a Smokey and the Bandit sort – Viagra features prominently (Pacino at one point is in the hospital with the sort of comedy erection straight out of Harold & Kumar). Played straight it would be great; played entirely for laughs it would be great too. Instead it keeps switching gear. Are we meant to care that Walken is meant to be killing an old friend? Or is it all just a big laugh? If you can get over that hump in the road, there are lots of great moments (Arkin, Lucy Punch as a grinning whorehouse madam, Vanessa Ferliton as a girl the guys find naked in the trunk of a car). Pick through this one – there are tasty bits.

Stand Up Guys – at Amazon

 
 

The Bling Ring (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Based on the true story of a gang of LA teenagers who robbed the houses of the rich and celebrated – Lohan, Hilton, Patridge, Bloom – Sofia Coppola’s latest look behind the curtain at imaginatively challenged, intellectually inert rich people stars an entirely believable Katie Chang and Israel Broussard as the kids doing the nocturnal burglary, while the likes of Emma Watson (wobbly), Taissa Farmiga (better) and Claire Julien (quietly excellent) form their dumb, privileged skank gang. Coppola gets a lot of things right – the way the girls walk the runway walk the entire time, the fact that partying, dancing, drinking and getting high is actually a helluva lot of fun. The film has been accused of being as lite as the people it portrays, but maybe what the people want who offer that sort of criticism is some more overt condemnation of the bovine culture of the “bite me” “OMG” world of bitchery and fawning that is celebworld and its even more ridiculous fanbase. But it’s all there, it really is. A more valid criticism is that films about airheaded valley girls have been done before, and Coppola isn’t saying much that hasn’t already been said. Though that Emma Watson does look like she really knows how to party.

The Bling Ring – at Amazon

 

 

Our Children (Peccadillo, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

I’d watch almost anything with Niels Arestrup in, and he’s again excellent in this French drama about a lovely young couple (Tahar Rahim, Emilie Dequenne) who fall in love, get married and have children, all the while living under the roof of the guy’s adoptive father (Arestrup), a doctor who might not be as benign as he seems. As the years progress, Murielle (Dequenne) changes from a bright, fun, modern woman to a neurotic maddened shrew thanks to the combined efforts of four children, and a tacit unholy alliance between husband and his adoptive dad. Until, snap, something bad happens. What’s unsettling about Our Children is not how it depicts the chokehold being applied – that is all too clear and a fearful watch – it’s the way it seems to by degrees suggest that Islam is to blame (her husband is a Muslim). And yet, in terms of the evidence of the film in front of us, it isn’t. I’m all for a discussion of Islam’s complicated relationship with women, but this is clearly a film telling a story of patriarchy, which stops now and again to brandish a veil, or some other signifier of Islam, hoping for a reaction. This is not a bad film, in fact it’s an interesting one, with great performances (Arestrup as ever). But even after an ending that was shocking and yet appropriate it left a funny taste.

Our Children – at Amazon 

 
 

Now You See Me (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

As part of their Las Vegas stage show four supercool magicians, led by a David Blaine-ish Jesse Eisenberg, rob a French bank and distribute the millions of euros of loot to an ecstatic audience. The money really has gone from the bank; this is the real deal. How did they do it? What will they do next? Are they the modern-day Robin Hoods they appear? And other entirely appropriate questions. Woody Harrleson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco make up the rest of the foursome; Mark Ruffalo is the cop on their case, Mélanie Laurent is the Interpol cop sent to help/hinder him; Michael Caine is the eminence grise backing them; Morgan Freeman is the media-hungry nemesis determined to bring them down. Yes, that’s a lot of names, and in this film they all get their own bit of plot. And once director Louis Leterrier has got the opening half hour of lean-forward “what the hell” audacity out of their way – breathtaking stuff, genuinely – all those actors, all that plot turn what was initially a lean, slick piece of showbiz sleight-of-hand into a rabbit too fat to be pulled out of the hat.

Now You See Me – at Amazon

 
 
© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

 

 

 

21 October 2013-10-21

Brad Pitt in World War Z

Out in the UK This Week

 

The Conspiracy (Arrow, cert 15, Blu-ray)

Mock-doc of the week is about two film-makers (Aaron Poole and James Gilbert), a pair of cocky guys who think it would be kinda cool to turn the camera on a local conspiracy nut who harangues office workers with his loudhailer. The Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group, the CIA, whatever’s going, being his currency. So far, so standard. Quick namecheck of Alan C Peterson, who is very very good as the stumbling, bumbling, frothing ranter. But at about 15 minutes in, this standard piece of “what’s true/what’s not” mockuwhatnot morphs into something altogether different, after the guys’ amateur fulminator disappears and the two start to take over his investigations into a shady secret society, the Taurus Group. At this point we stay stylistically in mock-doc world but thematically we enter the terrain of The Wicker Man. As James and Aaron work their way further into the murk, the film becomes almost unbearably tense, genuinely shocking and yet manages to hold on to a few revelatory thrills right to the end. A cracking conspiracy thriller.

The Conspiracy – at Amazon

 

 

 

World War Z (Paramount, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Yet more zombies. And as if we needed proof that they have indeed taken over Hollywood, here’s Brad Pitt in zombie-killing mode as an international deadbuster dressed in the most casual of fatigues, advising governments as a globetrotting UN ambassador for badassery. World War Z is big budget rubbish. Good fun here and there, it has some interestingly novel ideas (the zombies can’t hear you, so if you go on tippie toes and don’t breathe, you stand a chance). And it takes an inordinately long detour into Israel, where that big wall they’ve been building against the Palestinians turns out to be a great bulwark against ye zombie horde. Marc Forster directed Quantum of Solace and possibly expected to do Skyfall, and all through World War Z we keep getting overtones of 007 (there’s even a John Barry-lite score). All of which in a better movie – the hearing business, the Israel propaganda business and the 007 sour grapes business – would be a royal pain in the ass. But take all that away from this movie and, to be honest, you’d have Peter Capaldi and a bunch of scientists talking biopathogenic exposition in a government lab in Wales, a handful of visually arresting images of zombies swarming in Israel and not much else. My, but doesn’t it look great. And Brad’s beard and hair, man…

World War Z – at Amazon

 

 

The Deep (Metrodome, cert 12, DVD)

This is a genuinely odd film that leaves you guessing even after it’s finished. Not in terms of plot but in terms of genre. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur, back in his native Iceland after the not particularly great Contraband (a remake of his slightly better Reykjavik-Rotterdam), it’s about Gulli  (Olafur Darri Olafsson), a big, drinky bear of an Icelandic trawler fisherman whose boat goes down in February, with the loss (eventually) of everyone on board. At which point Gulli sets his face towards the shore miles away and starts swimming. Is it a spoiler if I tell you whether he gets there or not? Not entirely. Because the fascinating thing about this true story is not so much the epic swim or the biological “impossibility” of anyone surviving immersion in water that cold for that long, but what Kormákur does with the material. Turning initially from a rock-solid and flavour-filled portrait of Icelandic fishermen, which I would happily have watched as it was, into a thriller, then a psychological study, then almost a sci-fi film and finally into something almost classifiable as poetry, it’s a film that starts loud, ends gorgeous and hits nearly every change of tone plumb centre. As for the ending dedication to the trawlermen of Iceland, brilliant.

The Deep – at Amazon

 

Curse of Chucky (Universal, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

The evil doll from the Child’s Play film hasn’t actually been on screen for about ten years. Which is probably a big enough gap for viewers, and for Don Mancini, the writer/director who doesn’t seem anxious to work on much else. This is the sixth outing since the first one in 1988, this one starring Fiona Dourif as the poor girl stuck in a wheelchair on whom Chucky is going to focus his malevolence and foul mouth. If it’s a better film than 1998’s Bride of Chucky (though less camp than 2004’s Seed of Chucky), that’s largely down to solid production design and Mancini’s brisk directorial style rather than original content. Chucky was always a tiny, doll spin-off of Freddie and/or Jason, and that era is long gone now. And you kind of know a series is hitting exhaustion when the world and his wife starts taking over directorial/star duties. Fiona D being the daughter of Brad, voice of Chucky, and all.

Curse of Chucky – at Amazon

 

 

The East (Fox, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Sound of My Voice was all about a cult being infiltrated by outsiders. It was directed by Zal Batmanglij and starred Brit Marling as the cult leader who might or might not be from “the future”. Now, in The East, Batmanglij and Marling attack the same idea – a cult – from the other end, Marling now playing the innocent inveigling herself into an eco-terrorist outfit. But if Sound of My Voice was largely a success because Batmanglij and Marling kept a lot of things off the table, The East fails for the same reasons. Like, for instance, how come a spy working for a private organisation is so naive as to not understand what eco-terrorists stand for, on at least some level? How can a supposed member of an eco-terrorist outfit regularly leave the group she’s infiltrated, to report back to base (Patricia Clarkson), have some snuggle time with her boyfriend, and then check back in without anyone asking her where she’s been? There’s also a touch of opportunistic borrowing going on, Alexander Skarsgård’s cult leader feeling like a copy of John Hawkes’s sinister smiling demagogue in Martha Marcy May Marlene. As for gang member Ellen Page, who feels as if she has been bolted on simply to deliver the Ellen Page quantum, she may be only 25 but that naive kid shtick isn’t working any more.

The East  – at Amazon

 

 

Hummingbird (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A movie about down-and-out Jason Statham picking himself up out of destitution in London and going to work for a Chinese triad boss, becoming a Jesus figure to the poor to expiate the guilt he feels over his time in either/or Afghanistan/Iraq. Before saying how problematical this Jason Statham film is, let me say how much I love Statham films. At their best they are an artform in themselves, all of them understanding implicitly that what movies do best is move, while Statham understands that the best thing he can do is just stand there, simmering. But back to Hummingbird (more sensibly called Redemption in some countries), which does not work, partly because it is trying to “fix” what does not need fixing by taking the plot of Dirty Pretty Things (written by Steven Knight, who writes/directs here) about two dislocated souls in down and dirty London and tacking it onto a Statham action movie. And partly because Knight may be great at many things but directing is not one of them, no matter how much help he’s getting from DP Chris Menges, clearly on an instruction to “do some Christopher Doyle stuff” with all the coloured gels. As for the subplot about Statham falling for a nun, and her falling for him, can we not leave that to the Sound of Music?

Hummingbird (aka Redemption) – at Amazon

 

 

Summer in February (Metrodome, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Talking of things that don’t work, how about Dominic Cooper as the roaring Edwardian bohemian painter AJ Munnings, a carousing kind of chap who actually existed (hated Modernism, thought Picasso couldn’t draw, all barely touched on here lest it frighten the horses) and in between dashing off canvases that expressed his genius, bedded whatever took his fancy. Over there is lovely Emily Browning (of Sleeping Beauty and on her way to wherever she wants to go). And on the other side is Dan Stevens (of Downton Abbey fame), a toff with a soft spot for the gel. That’s “gel” with a hard G, because this is a terribly and typically British film, full of great actors – Cooper is great, Stevens too, and Browning. Everyone is great in fact, though Hattie Morahan, in a teeny tiny role, is so great that the film goes into the psychological deep end every time she speaks. And it all looks so fabulous too, all that charging around on horses, buying beer in the pub on tick, while the strings and oboes and the odd cello saw away on the soundtrack. As for the plot – will Ems go for posh Dan or almost as posh Dom? Will she go for loot or art? The call of the wild or the call of the mild? In its determination to leave no clichéd situation unturned, no character over-developed, Summer in February is, as they might say in Downton, a damnably dull affair.

Summer in February – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013