15 September 2014-09-15

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive


Out in the UK This Week


Only Lovers Left Alive (Soda, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Jim Jarmusch arrives in genre territory with this achingly hipsterish take on the vampire movie – finally, one for the grown-ups – full of arch jokes about eternal bloodsuckers. I went into it thinking that surely the Lou Reed of cinema, with the perfectly cast Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as Adam and Eve, a pair of centuries-old vampires, is going to make the film that 1983’s The Hunger should have been. And he has. Keats, Iggy Pop, Franz Kafka and Buster Keaton are all name-checked approvingly in a dry, drole story about Tangier-domiciled Eve responding to an emergency call from a suicidal Adam in Detroit and heading off to visit him, only to find that her sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska, too briefly, but perfect) is joining them to disrupt things. It’s full of deadpan jokes – Adam asking Eve is she wants to go and see the Motown Museum, Swinton replying “I’ve always been a bit of a Stax girl myself,”, the eating of blood ice lollies as a special treat (“Blood on a stick!” purrs Adam. “Bloody delicious,” replies Eve), the fact that the pair travel under the names Stephen Daedalus and Daisy Buchanan. And it only occasionally hits a bum note – Eve’s occasionally too exposition-laden chatter. Swinton looks fab with big hair and David Bowie cheekbones, Tangier and Detroit are both gorgeously photographed by Yorick Le Saux and Jarmusch ranges wide in his cultural references, heavy in the mix being Joe Orton, though the gothic jokiness of Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers is in there too. About perfect.

Only Lovers Left Alive – at Amazon




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

An unusual kind of Arnie film, written and directed by David Ayer, who made a decent and thoughtful action thriller with End of Watch (and Street Kings, for that matter). He hands Mr Schwarzenegger a good baddie role as a bent DEA cop whose team are all suddenly getting killed, because one of them has made off with the mob’s money. Sabotage opens strong, with a The Raid-style action sequence, then is turned down to a simmer during which Arnie and his gang – who all have boiled-in-testosterone names such as Monster, Smoke, Grinder etc – essentially insult each other in good-natured badass bantering style, top marks going to Mireille Enos, whose foul mouth actually manages to trump the boys. The often fragrant British actress Olivia Williams turns up as a ball-breaking Southern cop on the murder case, and she’s actually very good at it. Williams gets the career-high line of saying to Schwarzenegger “don’t be such a girl”, which made me laugh anyway, though she has more amusing scenes with Harold Perrineau, as her fellow cop, the running joke being that he’s got the hots for Arnie. It’s a funny film, ridiculous even, though it kind of knows it’s ridiculous and probably even knows that there are too many characters chasing too few plot points. It even throws in an iconic Arnie ending. Not quite descending into molten metal, but certainly playing with the hasta la vista iconography.

Sabotage – at Amazon




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

The plot of Titanic is repurposed for a sword-sandal-and-molten-lava epic, with Game of Thrones-er Kit Harington as the slave making warm eyes at feisty nobleman’s daughter Emily Browning in Pompeii, just minutes before its gigantic volcano is about to explode. This is a big dumb pudding of a film, studded with unexpectedly good things. Chief among these is Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, as Harington’s tough, noble gladiator buddy, who in a just world would have been the film’s star. And there’s Kiefer Sutherland’s choice of accents – one of his dad’s, I thought, from a box marked “strangled theatrical”. And he gets to utter the line, “Kill them, kill them all!” Did I mention he played a baddie? The SFX are done on the cheap, though director Paul WS Anderson manages to pull off a few moments of awesomeness – some of the gladiatorial fights, the way the volcano’s ash falls like a dirty blizzard – though most pleasingly he’s made a film that has pace and doesn’t get bogged down in its romantic moments. He’s learned a lesson from those Victor Mature films.

Pompeii – at Amazon




The Two Faces of January (StudioCanal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

My cheap shot at this film is that it’s The Untalented Mr Ripley. That’s not a fair estimation of its qualities, but it is, like Ripley, an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith book about a trickster getting himself into a tight spot, with just a waft (almost invisible) of homo-erotic underplay between its two male leads. And it looks like Ripley too. Those gorgeous early 1960s shots of Greece, where scamming small fry Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is taken up by scamming big fry Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his sexy wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), and is then locked in one of those “till the death” threeway struggles after MacFarland implicates him in a murder that he committed. Director/adapter Hossein Amini certainly knows how to make a good looking film – this is sumptuous to the nth degree, with Mortensen looking fabulous in his white suit and hat, all lizard-like Richard Widmark/Michael Douglas, while Dunst also looks very upscale in her tailored boho outfits, cut to fit just so. The hair, the make-up, the locations – we switch from Greece to Istanbul as Amini shifts his homage from Anthony Minghella to Alfred Hitchcock for the big chase finish – the lighting, the quality of the air, nothing can be faulted except for the fact that Amini has failed to locate us properly on the side of Isaac’s Rydal (and Isaac’s typically affectless performance really doesn’t help here either). So though this film is entirely enjoyable, it never grips like a thriller should.

The Two Faces of January – at Amazon




Frank (Curzon, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Frank Sidebottom (YouTube here) was a punk George Formby (YouTube here) with a chirrup of a voice emanating from a giant paper mache head, which would ham out ironic music hall versions of Sex Pistols numbers. This almost-biopic using very little of Sidebottom’s (real name: Chris Sievey) own, real story plays out as a drama seen through the eyes of a new recruit to Sidebottom’s band, a hapless soul (Domhnall Gleeson) who wants success, who wants to write good songs, whereas the rest of the band (played by the likes of Maggie Gyllenhaal and François Civil) actually court the obscurity which, they feel, will validate them as real artists. Thus, in Jon Ronson’s script, we have one of the great dilemmas of all bands – to be “interesting” or to go for the money, or to attempt to square the circle. On these terms, this film is totally successful. As an entertainment, you can’t help feeling that, like Sidebottom’s band, it’s deliberately chucking away its best tunes –  that’s Michael Fassbender as Sidebottom, and regardless of what you’ve read elsewhere about the enormity of his performance, it honestly could be anybody. But hey, that’s medium and the message in total harmony, is it not? Approach with caution.

Frank – at Amazon




Vamps (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

The USP of Vamps is that it’s the Clueless duo writer/director Amy Heckerling and star Alicia Silverstone reuniting. And the tone is relentlessly similar – smart, side-of-the-mouth observations on life, love and footwear. Clueless used the high school flick to do its work; here Silverstone and Krysten Ritter play a pair of vampires who share an apartment, the running joke being that Silverstone is pretending that she was “turned” in the 1980s, as her friend was, whereas in fact it was 1840. So she’s busking valiantly every time the conversation turns to Ozzie Osborne or The Cure. It’s full of fun performances – Ritter is an effortless star and Silverstone graciously gives her the floor, Malcolm McDowell is amusing as Vlad the Impaler, now just another member of Sanguines Anonymous like most of the rest of them, and devoted to knitting (still with the sharp implements, he points out), while Sigourney Weaver again reveals her genius for comedy in a hyperventilatingly mad performance as Cisserus, the baddest of the bad vampires. Clearly, judging by the shocking SFX, no one had any real faith in the film, but in spite of its too-muchness (characters, plotlines, slightly antiquated smarts) it just about works.

Vamps – at Amazon




American Interior (Soda, cert 12, DVD)

This is a gently bonkers film made by Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys, who essentially has gone on a solo tour, but instead of giving his devoted fans the back catalogue, gives them a PowerPoint display, with the odd half-written song in between. Like his last film, it’s about the Welsh presence in the Americas, Separado! being about the diasporic Celts of Patagonia, American Interior shifting the gaze north to the USA. Rhys is on the trail of an ancestor, John Evans, who was part of the first push to open up the interior, when everything west of the Mississippi was Spanish and the Native American still ruled the roost. It’s part travelogue, part snapshot of Rhys’s fans, many of whom are fervent Welshophiles, part concert movie and part history of the under-represented – Rhys takes several side turnings to talk to Native Americans, though soft-pedals the connections between them and the Welsh as small nations oppressed by superpowers. All shot in black and white with just the odd splash of colour, it’s a relaxed, ambling, shambling corrective to the normal run of films, which seem madly rampant in comparison.

American Interior – at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2014





Maggie Gyllenhall, Michael Fassbender (possibly) and Domhnall Gleeson in Frank


Frank Sidebottom was the stage name of musician Chris Sievey, whose Frank was a cult novelty act that toured students unions etc in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s, singing chaotically shambolic versions of well known tunes (it could be Kylie, it could be the Sex Pistols) in a wheedling high-pitched determinedly uncool accent. Frank wore a gigantic papier maché head and made much of the fact that he was from the equally uncool Timperley in Cheshire. I saw him perform once, in the University of London Union, and the memory is with me still.

Jon Ronson, the journalist who co-wrote the screenplay on which Lenny Abrahamson’s film is based, was the keyboardist in Sidebottom’s band. And though the comic meander in front of us is from the viewpoint of a new keyboardist who joins Frank’s ramshackle band of outsiders after the previous one has flamed out, the story this tells works at the level of fable, not fact. It’s not a biopic. Metaphorically, Frank is a big papier maché head.

The affable, shaggily friendly Domhnall Gleeson is our guide, Jon (name entirely coincidental, of course). And he leads us through the flatlining progress of a band who court obscurity rather than success, who would rather die than be famous. We see the first shaky gig after Jon joins them, which collapses after one number. We eavesdrop as the band write and rehearse a new album in a skanky holiday park in Ireland, burning through Jon’s money while treating him with contempt because he’s trying to write songs – songs! We watch as Jon and avant-garde bitch and Theremin player Clara fight for Frank’s ear. We journey with them to the SXSW festival in Texas, where, thanks to Jon’s tireless tweeting, the band suddenly stands on the verge of something they’re entirely unprepared for.

And all the time Frank wears the head – on stage and off – the totem of his creativity, his apartness. Frank is the story of artistic bohemians for whom obscurity is a badge of honour, those doughty souls who though they’d never admit it are more in hock to the image than the work. Beautiful losers, to misappropriate the title of Leonard Cohen’s novel.

Ronson’s decision to dispense with the specifics of Sievey’s/Sidebottom’s life means there’s a universality to Frank. Even so it’s going to come as a shock to some that it’s Michael Fassbender inside that big boggly head (though you could easily convince me otherwise). And that Maggie Gyllenhaal has been persuaded to play Clara. Or, indeed, that Scoot McNairy, fresh from 12 Years a Slave, didn’t have other things to do.

Maybe Ronson and co-writer Peter Straughan’s oddball-packed screenplay for the George Clooney film The Men Who Stare at Goats persuaded the actors to sign on. Maybe they were all fans of the poetic emptiness of Lenny Abrahamson’s trio of brilliant Irish films – Adam & Paul, Garage and What Richard Did.

But how to evaluate in terms of a star rating a film that sets out to sabotage itself? I remember that evening 20 years ago watching Sidebottom perform. He was bloody hilarious for about 15 minutes, wackily charming for the following two or three numbers, but then the absence (who’s inside the head? why is he doing this?) started to grate slightly, before the lack of real purpose – neither aiming for the transcendent hit of beautiful music or the intellectual high of a new insight – began to grate. As with Sidebottom, so with Frank. Where’s the tune, in other words.




© Steve Morrissey 2014