2 March 2015-03-02

Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple in Horns



Out in the UK This Week



Leviathan (Artificial Eye, cert 15)

Not to be confused with the clankingly atmospheric 2012 documentary about trawler-fishing, this Leviathan is something like a retelling of the story of Job – a man who has the lot being tested in his faith as he loses it all. As we open, Kolya has a beautiful wife, a lovely beachside property, a teenage son and is respected in his community. Over the next two and half hours we watch most of it being stripped from him – in fact as Andrey Zvyagintsev opens his film there’s already trouble hemming Kolya in on most sides. The question is: which faith is it testing? The answer seems to be his belief in President Putin’s Russia, increasingly a mini-me version of the Soviet Union. We see plenty of the workings of the legal system as Kolya tries to prevent the parcel of land he owns being compulsorily purchased by the local mayor. But we also see plenty of the workings of the local mayor (a brilliantly sleazy Roman Madyanov), a bullyboy gangster who drives around in a convoy of black 4x4s. Leviathan has been heaped with awards at festivals, but for my money his previous feature Elena worked better, having a touch of humour missing here and a central character (a former nurse who has clearly married an old rich man for money) who was both allegorical and entirely human. Here, the relentlessness of the vision of modern Russia – vodka-sodden, relying on tough old industry, sunless, bleak, corrupt, pitiless – recalls the British kitchen sinkers of the early 1960s, as does its story, about a man trying to escape his milieu but held back by his status and by those around him.

Leviathan – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Mr Turner (E One, cert 12)

This is Mike Leigh’s second entire departure from his usual territory – modern Britain – the last being the fabulously entertaining serio-comic caper Topsy-Turvy, about Victorian composing double-act Gilbert and Sullivan. But he’s gone back even further this time, to paint a portrait of JMW Turner (1775-1851), one of Britain’s true greats, the artist who signalled art’s shift from the portrayal of external reality to the representation of mood. Timothy Spall presents Turner as a bluff cove with little time for social nicety, an exterior erected to prevent his heart of gold from being tarnished by time-wasters, flatterers, bores, pedants, spongers and the usual pilot fish of success. And Leigh then plonks this rather gauche figure into a situation strongly reminiscent of The History of Mr Polly – Turner finds a woman of simple, good nature (Marion Bailey) who loves him for what he is, and he opens up like a flower. They are never married, and in the era this was a problem, but it doesn’t impact the film much, which cunningly ducks the issue for the most part. Leaving it as a series of observations of Turner as he goes about his business – how he (or his doting father) prepares his paints, how he meet prospective buyers, how he does research for the Fighting Temeraire picture by strapping himself to a ship’s mast in a storm, how he puts the finishing touches to a painting even as it’s hanging in a gallery ready for exhibition. Unusually, a film about the work, not the life, closer to Martin Provost’s 2008 biopic Séraphine than Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life. Refreshing, that, especially the way Leigh keeps reinforcing what he’s up to by regular juxtapositions of sublime art with mundane reality (Turner spitting on his canvas to gain an effect, or asking his housekeeper Dorothy Atkinson to get rid of some dead bluebottles). There’s a touch of panto about it all, as there was with Topsy-Turvy (and often is in Leigh’s work) but a lightness of touch which keeps the pathos at bay and Spall’s Turner this side of caricature.

Mr Turner – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Pride (Fox, cert 15)

Since The Full Monty in 1997, the UK has churned out likeable feelgood comedies in which the benighted occupants of one blue-collar region or another would regain their self-worth by various means, often accompanied by a symbolic affirmation of a sort of personalised boutique socialism (see Saving Grace, Lucky Break, Calendar Girls, Greenfingers, On a Clear Day just for starters). So the heart sank a little when Pride fell onto the doorstep, the story of how a metropolitan group of gay and lesbian activists in 1984 reached out to miners during the yearlong strike in Thatcher’s Britain and forged some sort of uneasy alliance with them. Double sinking at the sight of the name Matthew Warchus, another theatre director, and so doubtless heading in the same direction as Stephen Daldry, who turned his back on the boards to direct Billy Elliott – self-worth, regional, socialism, affirmation… and dancing.

All the elements are there in spades in Pride. But what I wasn’t expecting was such a sharp script, such likeable performances, and jokes, funny ones. The casting is very good too, with names like Paddy Considine, Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy passing themselves off very nicely as members of the Welsh mining community opening their arms, with varying degrees of affection, to the ragtag group of screaming flamers who descend upon them offering money they’ve collected in London – one oppressed group to another. The arc is absolutely obvious – lessons learnt on both sides – and the film never sets up a conflict that can’t be solved with a snappy comeback, a cup of tea or a dance breakout (see Dominic West as the most flamboyant gay in the village and grin from ear to ear). It wears its politics, sexual and otherwise, lightly, as if it weren’t just mainlining The Full Monty, but also the Carry On tradition (Staunton’s bustling, matronly dispenser of beverages and wisdom could so easily have been played by Joan Sims in a different era). And a word about Ben Schnetzer as the activist-in-chief, name unknown to me, but who is in fact the star of the piece, a performance so right it could have come straight out of the 1980s, from militant trouser length, to agit-prop flounce and a fast mouth that’s given the film’s best lines.

Pride – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Horns (Lionsgate, cert 15)

After December Boys, The Woman in Black and What If, among others, I have more or less lost any interest, if I ever had any, in seeing a film starring Daniel Radcliffe. But he’s got a lot of money and could probably finance his own movies (don’t, Daniel, don’t) so we’ll probably be seeing a lot more of him until he decides to give up. At least in Horns he’s in his comfort zone, since it’s a supernatural-flavoured lightly comedic film that’s more Joss Whedon than JK Rowling, with a plot about a guy accused of murdering his girlfriend who suddenly sprouts horns. Are these an indicator of his guilt? Not exactly. Instead they exert a devilish truth-telling effect on anyone he comes into contact with – the local doctor admits he wants to get off his face on oxycontin, his mother tells him she doesn’t want him to be her son any more, and so on. All slightly shocking and very amusing. Our hero decides that this bizarre development might help him get further in finding out who killed his girl (Juno Temple, in flashback, once again waving her breasts about in an “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” performance) than the police, who have already decided Dan is their man. At this point the whole thing morphs into a detective procedural, with Radcliffe as an unlikely though winning investigator. It’s directed by Alexandre Aja, who is closer to the pop cultural zip and wink of 2010’s Piranha 3D than the overt horror of 2003’s Switchblade Romance, but even he can’t stop the third act of reveals and explanations from bogging down into one damn thing after another. In total, though, it’s  impressive how well the film plays both to and against the Potter aspect of the Radcliffe baggage, with a lot more wit than you might expect.

Horns – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




School of Babel (New Wave, cert E)

After the slightly overcooked 2010 movie, The Tree – Magic Realism 101 – Julie Bertuccelli returns to familiar territory with a documentary covering similar thematic ground to her thoughtful 2003 drama Since Otar Left – ethnicity, identity, cultural assimilation and the effects on individuals of what future ethnographers might call “the great migration”, which is transforming Europe and the world right now. But with such a light touch that it’s perfectly possible to watch this film without any of the issues intruding. Because all we see is a Parisian reception class full of children of all sorts of ethnicities – Wolof, Ukrainian, Arabic, Susi, Portuguese, and that’s just the start of it. And coaxing them towards proficiency in French a barely seen teacher of heroic patience and immense pedagogical skill. To encourage them to talk, and therefore to learn, Brigitte Cervoni – to whom the film is dedicated – gets the kids to tell stories of life back home, how things are different in France, or the same. And interspersed with these glimpses of the class lessons we meet the parents, at a parent-teacher evening, almost all of them desperate for their kids to be up to speed in the language of this new country, to fit in. So much for communities keeping to themselves, you think, as you also wonder to what extent Bertuccelli’s editing is making a political point. A passing thought, because the kids are so engaging, so delightful, and often so sad – “Miss, he’s crying” is a refrain you will get used to hearing. This is a gorgeous and uplifting film, and Bertuccelli introduces us so stealthily to the kids that when they go in to an exam to see if their French is good enough for them to join the big school, you’re entirely rooting for them. And a few scenes later, as Mme Cervoni bids her class farewell, you, too, may well be the focus of the “Miss, he’s crying”.

School of Babel – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Sound of Music 50th Anniversary (Fox, cert U)

As Lady Gaga’s medley at this year’s Oscars shows, The Sound of Music endures. The film, too, does go on a bit, being an entire act too long, as the Nazis arrive and the Von Trapps and Maria flee. But there’s no doubting its iconic status. This and the previous year’s Mary Poppins cemented Julie Andrews’s image as being primness personified and must have harmed her career. It certainly defined it, and more – there’s only one Mary Poppins and there’s also only one Maria, no matter how many stage revivals there are, Andrews having stamped her mark right through both films. If most hit musicals boast one good tune (Chicago), and timeless classic musicals maybe three or four (Singin’ in the Rain), The Sound of Music has between six and eight numbers whose very titles will almost universally bring the songs flooding back (The Lonely Goatherd, Climb Every Mountain, Edelweiss, Do-Re-Mi, Favourite Things). The two-disc set contains a new documentary about Andrews returning to Salzburg, Austria, though the film itself looks very much like the restoration from five years ago – great detail, lively contrast but a touch too much red in Andrews’s blonde hair for some tastes. So if you’ve already got that one, you’ve got to work out whether that new doc, an hour long, is worth springing for one more time.

The Sound of Music 50th Anniversary – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Dying of the Light (Signature, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

A film about a CIA agent with the sort of dementia that’s liable to make him behave extremely erratically, starring Nicolas Cage as said man, directed and written by Paul (Taxi Driver) Schrader? This sounds like a recipe for brilliant, chaotic madness, and possibly a fine film too. Sadly, we’re not going to see that film, because the studio re-edited the entire thing, adding a rhythmic orchestral soundtrack to try and turn Dying of the Light into something more Bourne-like, destroying Schrader’s and Cage’s film in the process. Everyone involved had signed standard non-disparagement agreements which forced them to stay shtumm on the subject. But Cage and Schrader, co-star Anton Yelchin and exec producer Nicolas Winding Refn, got around that by posing in T shirts expressing their disgust.


Nicolas Cage, Anton Yelchin, Nicolas Winding Refn and Paul Schrader in the non-disparagement T shirts


Backstory over, is the film any good? In parts, though its plot – CIA guy with frontal temporal dementia goes in search of the crazed member of the Muslim Brotherhood who tortured him years before, only to find that he’s also mortally ill – invites easy metaphors. America is as sick as the people it’s chasing, and it has a nasty touch of amnesia too, and all that. And while it’s in this mode the film, shot largely in Romania, which has rarely looked so glam, is fascinating, intelligent and knotty, and justifies its looks and exotic cast (Irène Jacob, more at home in a film by Malle, Rivette, Antonioni or Kieslowski than a US spy caper). What the re-edit can’t hide is that it’s a very middle-aged film – Yelchin as Cage’s gopher notwithstanding – with themes that suggest Schrader is trying to address the boomer generation. How, 1960s people, did we let this last 20/30 years of constant warfare happen? How did we go from being the bright new hope to this interfering international bully? What happened? Well that’s what I think Schrader was going for, though you have to sieve the gloop to find the chunks in what is, as it stands, a fairly pointless film. As for whether the “original” would have been better, who knows?

Dying of the Light – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2015




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