The Angels’ Share

Paul Brannigan in The Angels' Share

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

5 March

 

The Proclaimers born, 1962

On this day in 1962, the brothers Charlie and Craig Reid were born in Leith, Scotland. Later known as The Proclaimers, the identical twins were in a string of punk bands before forming their own band in 1983. One-hit wonders in many parts of the world, thanks to their song 500 Miles, the brothers have had a number of hits in their home country, ever since their debut tour, supporting the Housemartins in 1986. The song Sunshine on Leith is the anthem of Hibernian FC, of whom they are fans, and Charlie and Craig lent support to keep Hibs out of the hands of Wallace Mercer, a businessman who also had connections to Heart of Midlothian FC, the team’s city rivals. The Proclaimers continue to tour and release albums and continue to support causes they feel strongly about. A jukebox musical, Sunshine on Leith, consisting solely of their songs, was created by Dundee Rep, and was so successful that it was adapted into a film with the same title.

 

 

 

The Angels’ Share (2012, dir: Ken Loach)

The obvious choice here would have been Sunshine on Leith, the musical based on The Proclaimers’ music. But it’s a missed opportunity – who turns the joyous 500 Miles into a dirge, for god’s sake? Instead let’s look at this Ken Loach film which uses 500 Miles as an uplifting sonic sting in a film that’s all about redemption. The film moves quickly out of what might be called traditional Loach territory – serial juvenile offender Robbie (Paul Brannigan) becomes a young dad, is beaten up by his girlfriend’s uncles, works on the community payback scheme – into something altogether more upbeat once Robbie has been introduced to the sublime nuance of proper good whisky. In the film’s key scene our guy is soon conducting his own informal whisky tasting at home, an evening of discussion, discourse, appreciation, education, while his unreconstructed mate lies on the sofa farting, watching the TV and eventually trying to down the spittoon in which Robbie and his fellow proto-connoisseurs have been depositing their leavings. For a Loach film this whole idea – edification through the finer things – seems almost a heresy. He’s spent much of his career more or less pointing out that middle class affectation is part of some great conspiracy to keep working people in their place. Maybe Loach is getting old and soft and a bit sentimental, but his decision to propel Robbie from one social position to another gives his film an arc. And it allows Loach and writer Paul Laverty to examine a phenomenon we don’t see much in films – the way that global luxury brands often operate hugger mugger with the socially deprived. So, leftist credentials endorsed. But hang on a minute, what about the plot? Yes, plot. Robbie, having become something of an expert – a tiny wee bit of an expert only but it’s enough – finds himself visiting a whisky distillery, where an opportunity for him to combine his old skill, thievery, and his new one, fine whisky connoisseurship, presents itself. Loach and Laverty, once they’ve abandoned the grimly familiar, dive wholeheartedly into part two of the story, which combines the Caledonian whimsy of Whisky Galore, the roguish scruffiness of That Sinking Feeling with the tweedy fraternity of Local Hero. If none of those films mean anything to you, how about The Full Monty meets Trainspotting?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another example of Ken Loach’s late-career embrace of Hollywood genre
  • A real sense of the joyousness of whisky tasting
  • A fun comedy with something to say
  • The subtitles will help when the local dialect becomes impenetrable

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Angels’ Share – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Route Irish

John Bishop in Route Irish

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

16 January

 

 

Operation Desert Storm starts, 1991

On this day in 1991, in what is now known as the First Gulf War, the troop and weapons mobilisation operation known as Operation Desert Shield came to an end and Operation Desert Storm, the invasion of Iraq, began. The invasion had been prompted by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, to seize oil fields and territory that Iraq claimed were rightly theirs – a dispute that went all the way back to when the borders between the two countries were drawn by the British in 1922. Kuwait and the international community didn’t take Iraq’s side in the dispute. More importantly nor did Saudi Arabia. And so a coalition led militarily by the US but sizeably funded by the Saudis set out to reverse the situation. The first stage of Desert Storm consisted of winning the battle in the air. This was easy. The US and partners flew 100,000 sorties and dropped 88,500 tons of bombs, and largely eliminated Iraq’s military infrastructure. The war was essentially over before any ground troops went into action, with a ceasefire being announced within 100 hours of the ground assault starting on 24 February. Because of the air superiority, and the way images from tactical strikes on Iraqi targets were relayed to TV broadcasters, the war became known as the video game war. And because of the limited ground assault, reporting was largely restricted to what the US military wanted the world’s broadcasters to see. One consequence of this lack of real “news” was the promotion of Coalition military commander General “Stormin” Norman Schwarzkopf to pin-up boy.

 

 

 

Route Irish (2010, dir: Ken Loach)

Route Irish is the Ken Loach film for people who don’t like Ken Loach films. What looks like a deliberate attempt by Loach to move away from the social realist, documentary-style films for which he’s been known since the 1960s, the film looks like it’s shaping up to be a bromance but is in fact a political procedural. So far, so Hollywood. It is the story of Fergus (Mark Womack) a security contractor in the seond Iraq war who is trying to find out what the mate Frankie (John Bishop) he recruited into the firm really died from, rather than accept the bland official explanation. It’s a fascinating film in many ways, not least because it’s essentially a big thriller made for a tiny budget. But also because it sees Loach embracing what might be called the YouTube/Skype look, the internetty thing, without going too crassly shakycam. Politically Loach is in interesting territory too – he patriotically points out at one point, for instance, that it was the Americans who were doing the waterboarding, not the Brits. This is probably untrue, and certainly unfair. If a country is going to get involved in a war then it owes it to its allies to take its share of the shit as well as the glory, no? As for those “contractors” – the name Loach and regular screenwriter Paul Laverty never dare speak is “mercenaries”, which is what they were. Do these beefs get in the way of an energetic, angry film that’s been deliberately edited to leave us grasping for information, in the same way Fergus does? Not in the slightest. And in its original decision to tell us the stories that The Hurt Locker and The Green Zone don’t tell – of the outsourcing of war to private companies who aren’t burdened with explaining themselves to their electorates – it enters a territory more film-makers really should be exploring.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Loach’s best film in some years
  • Comedian John Bishop’s brief but lively appearance as Frankie
  • Old dog Loach learns new tricks
  • An untold story worth telling

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Route Irish – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney in The Wind That Shakes the Barley

 

 

A polemic rather than a drama, about a blameless Irish lad who becomes a Republican after seeing with his own eyes what the British are up to. Cillian Murphy plays the lad, peaceable to the point of cowardice, the prospective medical student who is caught up in the struggle to get the Brits out of Ireland in the 1920s. His brother (Pádraic Delaney) meanwhile heads off in the other direction – initially bellicose but softening his stance when a political compromise (a “sell out”) is brokered. Director Ken Loach’s film is partisan to the point of ludicrousness – at one point the Brits are depicted swooshing by in cars with their heads tilted upwards in the cinematic shorthand reserved for Nazi officers. Worse than that the film is also quite stupendously dull. Though it has received good reviews in quarters where any fight against colonial powers, any depiction of the Irish as good, any kicking of the Brits (it was a long time ago, guys) gets nodded through. Loach, generally a director at his worst when he’s wagging the finger, efficiently brings writer/collaborator Paul Laverty’s dry screenplay to life, a mix of battles out in the overcast countryside and verbal jousts back in the bars, courtrooms and churches of the urban landscape. Murphy is saddled with a one-ply character and is incapable of doing much with it. The blame here is squarely with Laverty, whose last feature-length collaboration with Loach was Ae Fond Kiss, another conversion of a social issue (marriage between a white woman and Asian man) into leaden drama.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Wind That Shakes the Barley – at Amazon

 

 

 

15 April 2013-04-15

Mathilda Paradeiser and Linda Molin in She Monkeys

She Monkeys (Peccadillo, cert 12, DVD)

Vaguely marketed as a lesbian drama, this is in fact an instant classic of the twisted coming-of-age genre, a superbly taut story of a teenager called Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser) who meets a similarly blonde, similarly athletic girl (Linda Molin) while learning equestrian vaulting. Meanwhile, at home, Emma’s five-year-old sister is making her first advances into the world of sexual strategy. Friendship and rivalry, sex and power duke it out for supremacy in this superbly photographed, coolly understated Swedish drama recalling Let the Right One In in look, tone, ambition and effect. A gripper.

She Monkeys – at Amazon

 

The Spirit of 45 (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

Ken Loach’s hymn to the founding moment of the UK’s welfare state at the end of the Second World War. It’s a mix of documentary footage from the miserable 1930s, through the years of nationalisation, on to the privatisation initiatives of the 1980s, then on again to the present day, plus talking-head testimony from people who were there. What with the recent death of Margaret Thatcher, architect of the financial world we currently inhabit, it couldn’t be more timely. Loach delineates well the status quo ante of the 1930s – children in poor families sharing their bed with their siblings and vermin – and catches well the optimism of 1945. He then gives us the emotional case for socialism. The problem being that one of the key arguments against socialism is that it is too emotional and doesn’t deal with the world as is. If there is a hard-headed case for socialism, Loach doesn’t seem to want to make it. The result is woolly reminiscence and passionate assertion. There is the odd talking head who has facts at hand – for example that the NHS used to spend about 6% of its budget on administration; since the beginnings of the current privatisation-by-stealth process that figure has more than doubled. This documentary needs more facts like that.

Seven Psychopaths (Momentum, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

After In Bruges, writer/director Martin McDonagh goes for another trashy, pulpy, loquacious comedy of fuck-uppery and throws Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken together as a trio of numbnuts on the road to a big shootout ending out in the desert somewhere, as is prescribed in the B-movie Homage Handbook. McDonagh has over-reached himself here, imagining he can take on Charlie Kaufman in mind-melding meta-referential plotting and Quentin Tarantino in dudeish dialogue. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to like – it is a very funny film, with Christopher Walken (playing a cravat-wearing dog-kidnapper) getting the best of it, Rockwell running him close and Farrell intensely likeable as the sanest of the three of them, an alcoholic writer, loser and chancer of the first water.

Pitch Perfect (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/download)

Mean Girls meets Glee in the sort of film Lindsay Lohan used to make before her breasts started running her life. Instead we have nice, sweet Anna Kendrick as the new member of a university a cappella outfit whose novel ideas for the group keep getting blocked by queen bee Aubrey (Anna Camp). Pitch Perfect is probably aimed at the demographic most in touch with their inner bulimic and the rest of us are probably going to get fixated on the fact that everyone in it is about ten years too old, that there are unresolved plot strands all over the place and that none of the romantic stuff has any resonance. Does it matter? Not really. The singing is genuinely brilliant, there are some great one-liners and also some very funny performances, Rebel Wilson, doing a Melissa McCarthy nasty fat girl thing being a standout.

Blood Simple Directors’ Cut (StudioCanal, cert 18, DVD)

The Coen brothers’ first film could also be their best, a violent, funny, brilliantly plotted story of love, death and double-cross held together by M Emmet Walsh’s seedy sweaty detective. Some of the camera angles – ground-level shots of walking feet mostly – remind us of the visual trickery that was one of the beguiling hallmarks of the Coens in the early days. Some of the dialogue also suggests a worrying future development – characters that simply won’t shut up (see The Ladykillers, Gambit). But you can’t fault the Coens’ style, their storytelling technique or their commitment to cinema – in Blood Simple the pictures really do tell the story.

Abandoned (High Fliers, cert 15, DVD)

Jeremy Piven and Elizabeth McGovern’s names are on the DVD box but it’s Thomas Dekker, of Heroes fame, who is actually the star of this film. He plays the dad who leaves his three-year-old child in the car unattended for ten minutes. Child somehow gets out, wanders off in the snow and dies. That’s the first 15 minutes of the film dealt with. What comes next is akin to being lifted out of a film and dropped into the middle of a particularly torrid TV soap – characters (including Piven and McGovern) pop up all over the place, they all have issues, they’re all prone to speaking their mind rather more than happens out in the real world. Abandoned spins these many many characters and their stories together well, though the initial business about the death of the child does seem to get lost somewhere on the way. Dekker, still looking like he’s wearing eye-liner though he isn’t, is obviously trying to broaden his range. Good luck, Thomas.

Abandoned (aka Angel’s Crest) – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013