9 February 2015-02-09

Luke Evans as Vlad the Impaler in Dracula Untold

Out in the UK This Week



Dracula Untold (Universe, cert 15)

Dracula gets the superhero treatment, bagging an origin story that places him somewhere between Batman and Superman – Batman’s damaged psyche (the Turks want to take his son) and Superman’s special powers (thanks to a “gift” from an ancient cursed beast that lives in a dark cave). It’s the story of the 15th century Romanian/Wallachian ruler Vlad the Impaler, not such a bad guy if you ask many an East European, who claim he was more bark than bite, a sentiment this film largely goes along with, until his mwah-ha-ha transformation, at least. Shot in Northern Ireland and with Game of Thrones looks, it stars Luke Evans as the enlightened humanist Vlad and Sarah Gadon as his wife, a Hammer Horror female modelled on Ingrid Pitt. For the baddies there’s Dominic Cooper looking splendidly plush as Mehmed the Turk, whose Janissary army wants Vlad’s son – more as a token of his fealty than for the son’s contribution to any war effort. This is the incident that prompts Vlad to resort to desperate measures, his visit to the beast in the cave, his “temporary” adoption of supernatural strength, speed, shapeshifting and the rest of the vampire panoply. It’s a maddening film, dabbling in incendiary ideas – Islamic threat, the notion of Christianity as a playground fantasy – and then dropping them as soon as it’s picked them up. But once it’s got its giant slabs of exposition out of the way in early scenes, it settles down to being a sumptuous period drama – the costumes are particularly ravishing – with some effective battle scenes. Top marks to Charles Dance, as the aged master vampire (or whatever he is), a properly sinister presence the film could really do with more of.

Dracula Untold – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Palo Alto (Metrodome, cert 15)

Gia is the latest Coppola to take up directing (she’s the grand-daughter of Francis) and she’s opted for a subject and treatment not unlike her cousin Sofia’s feature debut, The Virgin Suicides. Fairly bored rich suburban kids getting into trouble, in other words. Looking back at The Virgin Suicides, Sofia managed to draft in James Woods, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito while rising stars Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett added youthful vigour. Gia has gone for an approach that fuses name and youth – this cast is full of Hollywood siblings, Jack (son of Val) Kilmer, Emma (niece of Julia) Roberts, Christian (son of Michael) Madsen. There are more. It’s a bit of a stunt, this casting, but in the case of the two leads it works really well, Jack Kilmer and Emma Roberts playing likeable teenagers of the drink-puke-screw variety who really should be together but callow youth and other distractions keep getting in the way. The whole thing is based on short Cheever-esque stories by James Franco, who takes an effective supporting role as the charming but skanky football teacher with an eye on young Emma. There’s a strong sense that we’ve seen all this before, but Coppola handles it all well, gets good performances out of her cast and crew and manages a couple of directorly touches just to show the film’s not using the “classic 1970s director” preset on some iDirect software. It’s a warm-up for the next stage of her career, and not a bad one.

Palo Alto – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




What If (E One, cert 15)

Does anyone want to see Daniel Radcliffe as a romantic lead? I honestly doubt it, but there are a few “aahs” to be had from this romcom co-starring Zoe Kazan – and thank god it does. It’s the boy-meets-girl-but-she’s-already-got-a-boyfriend story which asks the question – can a man and a woman just be friends? When Harry Met Zoe, you could say (Harry Potter? Zoe Kazan? OK, OK). Prompting a lot of mooning about on Radcliffe’s part, the grammar nerd called Wallace who meets witty wallflower Chantry at some party that’s otherwise full of woo-hoo jocks and cheerleaders, and then meets her man (Rafe Spall, very funny), who warns our bijou hero that he’d “better not try and put your penis into her vagina”. And the screenplay drops little wit-bombs like this to keep us awake while it engineers the two “friends” into positions where, yes, he might consider doing just that. But Wallace is a decent guy, and Chantry is a decent girl and, no, this wasn’t setting me on fire either. But it is a nice film, if that isn’t too wet an adjective, gentle and periodically funny, even if it’s so self-effacing, like Wallace’s character, that you want to give it a slap.

What If – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Maze Runner (Fox, cert 12)

Another contender for the YA movie crown, this one set in a vast volcanic crater where young men live together in Lord of the Flies fashion until it comes their turn to run into the a deadly maze alive with murderous beasties. Or have I got that wrong and the young man who eventually does run into the maze does so against orders? I really can’t remember that well, and I think it’s the fault of the film, rather than my memory, because what The Maze Runner actually seems to consist of is a series of confrontations between our rebel hero Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and the rest of the lads. They are to varying degrees happy to live in this zoo and accept its strictures; he’d rather live in the free world, the jungle. It is at base another Ayn Rand screed against over-powerful government, though big ideas are a mere pretext for its true ambition – to divert some of those Hunger Games dollars its way. But it’s undeniably done well, with energy and a good cast – Dylan O’Brien a believable hero, Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Will Poulter standing against him, Kaya Scodelario (styled to look like Kristen Stewart) as token and largely pointless girl. More on the way.

The Maze Runner– Buy it/watch it at Amazon




Life after Beth (Koch, cert 15)

A cross between Warm Bodies and Shaun of the Dead, Life after Beth is a sharply written zom-com with lots of jokes and a great cast – Dane DeHaan as the grief-stricken guy who is overjoyed to discover that his dead girlfriend Aubrey Plaza isn’t quite as dead as she at first appeared. And what’s more she seems to like him a lot more passionately than she did when properly alive. Set, like Shaun of the Dead, in a well drawn stultifying suburbia, it derives much of its humour from that same disjunction, between the bland everyday and the bizarro, but also from its mode of delivery, which is Australian daytime soap – “She’s a zombie?”, rising inflection, says DeHaan to Plaza’s parents (John C Reilly, Molly Shannon, both straight-faced throughout). Aubrey Plaza throws herself into the role as the young woman who doesn’t actually realise she’s a zombie, who shouts “shut up you bitch” at DeHaan, licks his face and rubs her nethers into his groin to try and get him to fuck her. There’s nothing hornier than a freshly dead zombie, it seems. These little bits of lore – she is also immensely soothed by smooth jazz – sit nicely against the slew of Jewish zombie jokes that writer/director Jeff Baena gets off his chest as more of the undead return from the grave – “What happened to all the Formica” says one member of the walking dead on returning to the house that used to be her home. Very funny, highly inventive. Highly recommended.

Life after Beth – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Enemy (Curzon, cert 15)

Jake Gyllenhaal reteams with Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve for a paranoid arthouse melodrama about a lecturer who becomes fixated on an actor who looks exactly like him. Exactly exactly. So the lecturer seeks out the actor and it all kicks off. More plot description than this would ruin a very plot driven film, but of course at one point person A is going to pretend to be person B – you’d feel shortchanged if he didn’t. But will one kill the other? Take his wife? Assume his life permanently? Effect some massive swindle-switch? Watch and see, enjoying on the way Villeneuve’s nods to Hitchcock’s “innocent man” theme and his conjuring of a mood that’s about 50 per cent David Lynch, spiced with elegant visuals and a haunting soundtrack that are on their own a joy to behold.

Enemy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Overnighters (Dogwoof, cert E)

The Overnighters gets a bad case of Capturing the Friedmans towards the end, as it tries to produce a gotcha ending that changes the entire nature of the film. It doesn’t quite work and sits uneasily on what has been a fascinating documentary about a Lutheran pastor who is trying to give shelter to the many incoming males who are turning up in his North Dakota town hoping to pick up work locally in the fracking industry. Jay Reinke is a nervous, righteous and perhaps a touch self-righteous man who is standing alone against his entire town, who really don’t want him to be helping the homeless – “they have no intention of building anything,” says one stone-faced member of his congregation. “These people, they rape, pillage and burn and then they leave.” Another puts it differently – “This is not my home any more.” And there you have it, the illegitimate fear-mongering and the legitimate regret, the negative reaction to immigrants the world over. Most of the immigrants are skill-less blue-collar men in late middle age who are having one last go at making it after a life of failure and regret, and watching Reinke trying to hold back the townsfolks’ negativity (and his family’s veiled hostility) while pleading with the overnighters to keep their heads down and noses clean is what makes this admittedly overlong film such gripping, if often grim, viewing.

The Overnighters – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





© Steve Morrissey 2015


Adam meets Anthony in Enemy


If there is such a thing as “what the hellness” then Denis Villeneuve’s latest film absolutely has it. But then the French-Canadian does have form. With Incendies Villeneuve managed to turn the conflict in the Middle East into a thriller with a reveal that disconcerted and amazed. In Prisoners he made us feel bad for suspecting that a lank haired, stuttering, educationally subnormal Paul Dano was a paedophile, and then made us feel bad for cutting such an obvious wrong’un too much slack.

The tricks are more playful in this latest exercise in duplicity. As with Prisoners, Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal, this time as Adam, a history professor who suddenly spots his spitting likeness in a movie he’s watching one night on his laptop when he should be snuggled up with his wife.

Instead of thinking “oh, that’s odd” and leaving it at that, Adam does a little digging, finds a few more films his doppelganger has been in, finds his agent, tracks down where he lives and then tentatively arranges a meeting, not realising that Anthony, the initially spooked actor also played by Gyllenhaal, might also have an agenda. Bizarrely, both men, when they meet, are so alike that there really is no gap between them, from the way they style their beards to the way they speak and react. And their partners (Adam’s is Mélanie Laurent; Anthony’s Sarah Gadon), each a good-looking blonde having a little relationship difficulty with her partner, seems to have the same problem too.

We’re very much in the sort of territory that late 1940s noir loved to wallow in – dark psychology, fractured personality, dreamscapes and hints of sexual deviancy. I haven’t mentioned the little vignettes that Villeneuve drops in of naked women in what looks like animal masks (it’s dark) slinking down long corridors? I have now.

At what point does the film leave reality behind? The answer is that it never really engages with it. It’s built inside a hall of mirrors – in real life there would be a thousand tells that would distinguish one person from another; here, Anthony even has a scar on his chest where Adam does. It doesn’t add up.

The plot is not the point though. It’s a vehicle for the mood of the thing. Has any recent film looked this queasily yellow? The colour of madness, cowardice, jaundice and death allied to a soundtrack of mournful clarinet, growling bassoon, honks of brass and nervous strings. The script is sparse, roads are empty, public spaces barely occupied, dialogue scarce but loaded. David Lynch is in there, in other words, though this is more “inspired by” than “lifted from”. And almost as proof here’s bizarro muse Isabella Rossellini as Anthony’s coolly unmaternal mother. Or was it Adam’s? Or are they the same person?

See it as an existential quest movie if you like – what is it that we are all searching for? Would having a doppelganger conveniently justify all our dark secrets, or scare the shit out of us? Both possibilities are examined in the closest that Gyllenhaal has got to this territory since Donnie Darko.

As for the ending, which suddenly makes all the psychological undertow overt in one laugh-out-loud shot, it’s Villeneuve’s raining-frogs-in-Magnolia moment, an abrupt full stop that signifies that he’s finished playing with us and we can all get back to whatever it was we were doing before. It’s going to irritate the hell out of people who haven’t been watching closely enough.

Enemy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2014