14 December 2015-12-14

Toma Cuzin as the escaped Gypsy in Aferim!

 

Out This Week

 

Aferim! (StudioCanal, cert 18)

In spite of the fact that it won the Silver Bear at Berlin, Aferim! had no proper cinema release in the UK, and even its home entertainment release is a muted affair. What a terrible shame that is, because it’s a hell of a film, a powerful wonder following a cop and his son on a rambling journey through 1830s Romania. Shot in a slightly mucky black and white – easier to get period settings right when colour isn’t a problem – it’s a Don Quixote meets Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon affair, with the chase after an absconded Gypsy (Toma Cuzin) providing the loose frame of a rambling plot. Because of this slave story aspect, it’s also possible to read it as a cockeyed Romanian take on Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and there are definite moments when writer/director Radu Jude’s screenplay rolls around in the comic possibilities of language, QT style. Such as when cop Costandin (Teodor Corban) and son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) happen upon a priest at the side of the road. “Gypsies,” Costandin asks the priest, “are they human or are they the devil’s spawn?” And out comes a long, hilarious, non-stop racist rant from the man of god – “Hungarians eats a lot, Germans smokes a lot, Arabs has many teeth, Armenians is lazy, Serbians cheats a lot… Gypsies gets many a beating. Gypsies must be slaves.” Tarantino would be proud. Keenly satirising the modern return to an ugly European nationalism, Jude manages to avoid the tendency of picaresque dramas to be formless and gradually winds us into the world not just of the bluff, boozy Costandin, an Oliver Reed of a man, and Ionita, a tender soul, but also into the life of Carfin, the Gypsy they eventually apprehend. This leads to a gruesome and entirely gripping finale in which the other focus of Jude’s satire – money – snaps wincingly into focus. With its period setting, Aferim! clearly doesn’t sit easily with other great films from Romanian New Wave (a long list includes Child’s Pose, Tuesday, After Christmas, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, The Death of Mister Lazarescu), which might explain why it’s been so overlooked. But it’s a modern morality tale all the same, and a great one at that.

Aferim! – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Vacation (Warner, cert 15)

I had grim expectations of this reboot of the old Chevy Chase franchise. But I laughed so hard in the first ten minutes that my prejudice just curled up and died. And the jokes were varied too – over the opening credits there were clickbait-style photos of holiday photo fails (people throwing up on a rollercoaster, sort of thing). Then we met Ed Helms as Rusty Griswold, a pilot on a dowdy domestic service, Griswold’s job allowing writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M Goldstein to show that they could do Airplane! gags (turbulence leading to Griswold repeatedly feeling up one of the female passengers). And this was followed by an introduction to the Griswold family and in particular the younger son Kevin (Steele Stebbins) whose ragging of older brother James (who, he insists, has a vagina) is both awful and very funny. Stebbins continues to be the funniest thing in the film as Rusty and wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) take the family off on a re-run of the family holidays of yore, when he and dad would go to frowzy theme park Walley World. The circle is complete, the reboot has reached back to the time when Chevy did exactly the same thing. It seems that whether it’s Norman Wisdom or Adam Sandler, there is a real constituency for comedies in which half-men are repeatedly mocked for being half-men. I’m not part of that constituency, and at some point during Vacation the accumulated weight of the failures of Rusty and older son James (Skyler Gisondo), due to a lack of balls or brains, started to make me feel sorry for them, rather than find them funny. As if to rub it in we have Chris Hemsworth as the boorish hyper-successful husband of Rusty’s sister (Leslie Mann), a character we’re also clearly meant to laugh at, though the writers have more sympathy for him than they do for Rusty. Maybe they’re as transfixed by his big comedy cock sticking through his Calvin Kleins, as is Rusty’s wife Debbie, in a scene familiar from the trailer. So – Vacation is furiously hilarious to start with, and keeps the ante high with its jokes about Albanian cars, omigod gags about paedophilia and properly toilet humour about bathing in shit (a callback to the “floating turd” of Chevy-era Vacation movies). But kicking people who are down doesn’t make me laugh, and the attempt to redeem these utter dorks – with character arcs, sentimentality and the like – doesn’t fit a film that’s selling itself as a breezy anarchic whoosh.

Vacation – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Eden (Metrodome, cert 15)

Mia Hansen-Løve’s drama about the rise and fall of a French DJ is heavily based on the career of her own brother, Sven, who co-wrote the screenplay with her. The arc is 1992’s hedonist raver to 2012’s has-been, with a suggestion that Paul (Sven’s avatar, played by Félix de Givry) and pal Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) are the guys who were always one step behind Daft Punk, in terms of talent, timing, cool and success. You might expect a film about the house/acid house scene – rave to grave, maybe – to be frenzied and always driving forwards. Instead, the Hansen-Løves give us something altogether more chilled: discrete moments from a life, delivered obliquely, forcing the viewer to fill in the blanks. There are endless scenes of coming and going, with Greta Gerwig and Brady Corbet arriving and going in starry cameos, real-life DJs Terry Hunter and Tony Humphries turning up as themselves, then going, Kate Moss and Adrien Brody name-checked at one point as having “just been in” to one club or another. I’m not sure this episodic structure works, and it seems that Mia Hansen-Løve is trying to do for the rave years what her husband Olivier Assayas did for the early 1970s with Something in the Air (aka Après Mai). Assayas pulled it off, majestically, but the Hansen-Løves don’t. Not only is the film too reverential and solipsistic, it fails to explain the attraction of club culture – you’d never guess the idea was the generation and consumption of euphoria. As the years fly by in jumps, the action shifts from France to New York, to Chicago and back to Paris, where, finally, Eden actually turns into something worthwhile, as Paul’s life spins out of control after a mind-breaking melange of the usual (hot but horrible women, great but destructive drugs, wild but useless friends and a critical depletion of the raw animal spirit) and he hits crisis point. Is it worth sitting through the first bit to get to the second? Well, there are lots of small touches that make it clearly the work of someone who’s been there, and MH-L has a fabulous way with actors – you forget they are actors, in other words. Is that enough?

Eden – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

The Bad Education Movie (EV, cert 15)

The Bad Education Movie is Holiday on the Buses with a couple of shots of Jack Whitehall’s ballsack thrown in for extra texture. In other words it lazily takes a British TV comedy, sends everyone involved off to somewhere cheap and cheerful, raunches things up a touch because this is da movies, and then introduces a couple of character actors to try and give the impression of the whole thing having a big-screen life of its own. It’s good fun, if you’re in the mood for a day of kiss me quicks and an STI. And if you’re not up on Whitehall’s shtick, it’s essentially Ricky Gervais’s – the boss who’s a tool but doesn’t realise he is one. This time though the boss is a teacher, though Whitehall plays the appalling Mr Wickers with such enthusiasm he can bounce the entire film over various gaping holes. Iain Glen is a good choice as drafted-in welly, playing the hard-nut leader of the Cornish Liberation Army that Wickers and his kids run into after they abandon the boring itinerary put together by severe PTA member Joanna Scanlan and instead go to the pub. Cue a series of jokes which might, if we’re being charitable, be satirical swipes at the current state of permanent terrorist alert. Though the film is actually happier when it’s rolling around in the world of the visual gag – like the one about a holy relic consisting of a saint’s foreskin which resembles a pork scratching. I think that’s a first.

The Bad Education Movie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Wolfpack (Spectrum, cert E)

This 90 minute thing is a curse sometimes. Here’s a delightful and fascinating documentary that would be perfect at 60 minutes, but at 90 it’s just a bit flabby. And it tells such an interesting story, about a lively family of New York kids who have been brought up in almost total incarceration by their parents. Well, not total imprisonment, but subject to a sort of extreme home-schooling, if you will – some years they’d leave the house maybe nine times, others not at all – forcing the kids to become friends with each other and create their own entertainment. This came in the shape of their own filmed homages to films they revered – Reservoir Dogs being easy, Batman requiring a costume made from yoghurt pots and cardboard, The Godfather a bit more commitment in the acting department. Commitment is something the Angulo family have in spades, whether it’s the parents’ determination to keep their kids safe, or the kids’ to their DIY art. Beyond its initial reveal, the film doesn’t have much to say, perhaps because it doesn’t want to finger the parents, with whose permission the film has clearly been made. We can draw our own conclusions, though. That the South American-immigrant father was a tinpot tyrant who persuaded his timid Mid-Western wife, using a mix of hippie bullshit and old-school patriarchalism, of the wisdom of living away from the world and raising their kids in a kind of secluded purity. And, strangely, that the bright, engaged teenage kids don’t seem to have suffered too much from their ordeal. In fact their screen-fixated, isolated upbringing might make them more suited to the world outside than something a bit more normally normal.

The Wolfpack – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Un Homme Idéal (StudioCanal, cert 12)

Mathieu (Pierre Niney), a crappy writer with a day job doing removals, happens upon an old diary while he’s doing a house clearance of a dead man’s apartment. It’s a vivid account of the former inhabitant’s time as a soldier in Algeria as the country was trying to throw off the French colonial yoke. Plagiarising the diary wholesale, Mathieu becomes an overnight success and soon is living the high life, with a hot girlfriend in the shape of Ana Girardot (of The Returned) as the icing on his cake. Things get interesting while he is sojourning with her BCBG parents in the South of France, where he is meant to be hammering out his follow-up novel, but is of course finding it tough. And then the “I know what you did last Summer” letters start arriving, at exactly the same time as the godson of his girlfriend’s parents is beginning to wonder if this writer is in fact all he says he is. Un Homme Idéal, aka A Perfect Man, plays out like an inversion of a Hitchcock film – our guy is guilty, even though we’re on his side – with similar gloss and awed attitude towards beautiful women. But Hitchcock would never have jeopardy coming from both a blackmailer and a suspicious godson at the same time, and this weird double attack doesn’t do the film any favours, though it must be said that writer/director Yann Gozlan and co-writers Guillaume Lemans and Grégoire Vigneron do eventually streamline things a bit with a character cull. No spoilers. Perhaps best watched as a comedy that never cracks a wink.

Un Homme Idéal aka A Perfect Man – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Black or White (Signature, cert 12)

If you’ve ever seen The Postman, Kevin Costner’s mad epic in which Costner’s postie single-handedly brings about the re-establishment of western civilisation after an apocalypse, you’ll know that his death-or-glory leanings didn’t die with Waterworld. Here, he’s the producer and star, and sets out to sort out the entire race problem in the US. FFS. No matter what you might say about his vaingloriousness, he’s absolutely fantastic as the grandfather trying to retain custody of his mixed-race granddaughter (Quvenzhané-cute Jillian Estell) after the death of her mother, while Octavia Spencer, as the girl’s father’s mother, is the black grandma convinced the little girl should live with her own kind – since white America will always see the kid as black. Spencer is also great, indeed when is she not? But Black or White is a courtroom drama – since the custody issue eventually resolves itself into a legal battle – that won’t simply get on and be a courtroom drama. Instead it gives us backstory and character studies, all beautifully done, for sure, of the lives of Costner and Spencer and the people who orbit them. It makes a show of being racially even-handed with much equivalence – between Costner’s drink problem and the crack habit of his granddaughter’s wayward dad (André Holland), between comfortably wealthy lawyer Costner and go-getting entrepreneur-in-her-own-garage Spencer, between his casually superior (though unfailingly not racist) attitude and her high-handedness. It all gets a bit wearing, this “on the one hand/on the other” and it’s noticeable that the film is at its best when it lets its actors fly – particularly Spencer, who does hellish spitfire like nothing on earth. Small shout to Paula Newsome as the judge presiding over the unruly courtroom where black and/or white is eventually to be resolved. Every time she opens her mouth the film kicks up a gear, and doubles the impression that what this really needed was to be set entirely in her bailiwick. But then that’s Costner – overreaching.

Black or White – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9 September 2013-09-09

Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man 3

Out in the UK this week

 

Iron Man 3 (Disney, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/VOD)

Drawing a veil over the fact that Avengers Assemble was in effect Iron Man 3, the official Iron Man 3 arrives with Jon Favreau bumped from directing duties and Shane Black in the writing/directing chair. Black wrote the Lethal Weapon films and, blow me, if he hasn’t turned Iron Man – one of the best superhero franchises of recent years, thanks to its understanding of the sheer exhilaration of being able to do cool stuff – into a leaden, clanking 1980s action movie. Yes, Black can fashion a quip, and Robert Downey Jr is certainly the man to deliver them, but Black can do little else. Iron Man 3 is inept at the level of direction, shoddy in terms of story and, worst of all, boring. Slow, badly photographed, over-reliant on big set pieces (and apart from one, even they’re not that great), it threatens to get good when Downey Jr’s Tony Stark is forced into making an emergency exit from his mansion and touches down in nowheresville where he has to get along without the Iron Man suit for a while. Enter a cute kid – another 1980s action movie staple – and exit any vestige of self-respect that Black might have had. It might just be a pastiche, a joke, I suppose, though Black is wandering uncertainly between tropes that were worn out in the 1980s and those that expired in the 1970s. There is even a big finish in an industrial complex, for god’s sake. It wasn’t just me – I watched this with a friend who also loves big noisy superhero movies. He kept turning to me and pulling the wha? face.

 

Iron Man 3 – at Amazon

 

 

Suspension of Disbelief (Verve, cert 15, DVD)

There are two Mike Figgises – the crowdpleasing one who directs Leaving Las Vegas or the odd episode of The Sopranos, and the other one, the one who’s interested in the role of fiction in a world of mediated reality – the one who made the almost impenetrable Co/Ma. And as soon as the quote from the theoretical psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung came up at the beginning of Suspension of Disbelief it was obvious which Figgis we were getting here. Jung’s quote suggests that the notion of “suspending disbelief” is erroneous, that people become far more engaged in fiction than that, and in fact “write” themselves into any drama they’re consuming. Cut to the excellently urbane Sebastian Koch (of The Lives of Others), playing a writer whose wife has disappeared, whose daughter is now starring in a film he scripted, who gives lectures on the nature of fiction at a local college, who is being investigated by a policeman who thinks the writer might be the killer of a girl who has recently disappeared. The copper himself has written a whodunit. The dead girl’s twin sister turns up – or is it the girl herself? It all gets very tangled. Meanwhile, as dramas within the drama unfold, Figgis deploys all sorts of Brechtian distancing techniques to stop us identifying at any emotional level with what’s going on, as if he’s testing Jung’s hypothesis – let’s see them “write” themselves into this, then, Carl. This is the same sort of maddening tricksiness he used in Co/Ma. But whereas Co/Ma  was co/ma-inducing, Suspension of Disbelief is actually rather gripping. That’s because the spine – featuring Koch, the writer and his dastardly deeds – is a proper whodunit, and because there are some great nuggetty performances, from the likes of Frances De La Tour, Kenneth Cranham and the underused Julian Sands, all delivered bewitchingly in a style of heightened realism by a director who is clearly liberated by lightweight digital technology.

 

Suspension of Disbelief – at Amazon

 

 

21 and Over (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The leads are Miles Teller, fast-talking dude, Skylar Astin, the nebbish buddy and Justin Chon, the swotty Asian friend the other two take out for the night before his very special university interview and get totally utterly wasted. More importantly the director/writers are Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who wrote The Hangover and seem to think they can run the same script through the equivalent of a synonym machine and get away with it. They can’t. The leads are likeable, though Chon (whose character is referred to by his full name, Jeff Chang, throughout – which did tickle me) is effectively out of the movie 20 minutes in, leaving the other two to dry-hump the memory of Zach Galifianakis and one of the other straight guys from The Hangover. Any one of the Harold & Kumar films is a better bet on every level.

 

21 and Over – at Amazon

 

 

Eden (Clear Vision, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/VOD)

One of two girls-in-the-sexbiz dvds this week, this one kicking off with a teenage girl being hoiked out of the boot of a car and put to work in a whorehouse full of sex slaves out in the middle of nowhere. Beau Bridges is the boss of the place, nicely effective in the handful of scenes he’s in, leaving the majority of the film to be played out between Matt O’Leary, as a badass in training, and Jamie Chung, as the girl unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a taut, simple and non-exploitational film, well acted, which resists the urge to pull Hitchcock tricks when it could, and maintains dramatic tug by asking the question early on – is our nice kidnappee going to embrace the dark side or hold on to her identity? As for the soundtrack and the cinematography – extremely interesting, drifty, hazy with sweet Americana, and adding a disquieting almost-question about the nature of human worth in a culture too in hock to the dollar.

 

Eden – at Amazon

 

 

The Body (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A man hears that his rich wife’s dead body has disappeared from the morgue before anyone had a chance to perform an autopsy. Did he steal it, so no one would find out that he’d poisoned her? Or did she know what he was up to, fake her own death and has now done a runner to start life a new somewhere? Or is she dead and there’s a ghost on the loose? This Spanish horror-that-might-actually-be-a-police-whodunit has an intriguing plot, plenty of atmosphere and enough talking to keep the United Nations going for a year. Plot? Also, too much. Actors, rather good – Belén Rueda (of The Orphanage) makes a top-class bitch of a wife, José Coronado a fascinating odd policeman with the obligatory terrible past, Hugo Silva the young buck whose wife’s money isn’t enough to keep him from straying. And though the payoff does actually deliver, really rather well, along the way there have been far too many points where you’ll be shouting at the screen “what policeman would let a murder suspect go alone into a room and use his mobile phone?” Not once, not twice, every five/ten minutes.

 

The Body – at Amazon

 

 

 

Ikarie XB-1 (Second Run, cert 12, DVD)

Ticking all the boxes for people who like their sci-fi subtitled, in black and white, over 50 years old and from behind the Iron Curtain – the bakelite radio crowd – this seminal Czech film hums with a bleep-and-booster soundtrack, features wobbly cardboard space stations and stops every now and again to make an attack on capitalism. But but but. It’s really rather remarkable. Based on a Stanislaw Lem story (he of Solaris fame) and set in 2163, it’s set on spaceship heading for Alpha Centauri, a vessel full of happy, healthy people who eat futuristic food, exercise their well toned bodies in a lavish gym, have respect for the learning of their elders, and obey their wise leader, who in turn is attuned to the needs of his crew. You can read that as a vision of communism’s promise for the future, or of what it’s failing to deliver now – take your pick. And you can see Ikarie XB-1 as the clear rip-off point for Star Trek, whose focus on interaction between the member of its crew, its philosophical captain and its “brave new world” optimism is lifted wholesale from Jindrich Polák’s beautifully imagined film, which looks and sounds better than ever thanks to a crisp restoration.

 

Ikarie XB-1 – at Amazon

 

 

 

Cherry (Koch, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

A corrective to the relentless “mea non culpa” of the Amanda Seyfried film Lovelace is this Boogie Nights drama also known as About Cherry, written by an ex porn star and starring Ashley Hinshaw as a smalltown girl who goes into the porn biz with an access-all-areas attitude. Hinshaw is excellent and probably rather brave, and the interesting cast includes Dev Patel (the guy from back home who secretly loves Cherry), James Franco (the rich guy who falls for her) and Heather Graham (the lesbian director who shows her the ropes). The view of the porn biz it paints is refreshing – though Lorelei Lee’s screenplay’s insistence on a relentlessly non-coercive, non-exploitational, female-centric industry does smack of protesting too much. Cherry’s porn experience is so lacking in conflict, nastiness, or badness of any sort, in fact, that the drama ends up with a gaping hole in the middle. Insert your own witty punchline here.

 

Cherry aka About Cherry – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013