Out This Week
Theeb (New Wave, cert 12)
Jordan’s contender for this year’s Best Foreign language Oscar is, somewhat unexpectedly, an old school adventure story, the sort of thing Rider Haggard would recognise, set in a Lawrence of Arabia desert and starring Jacir Eid as a Bedouin kid. Eid is an untrained actor, as are most if not all of the excellent cast – goodies and baddies – and the plot is a basic dash across the desert, away from bad guys and towards a well which a floppy-haired English interloper wants to visit, for reasons probably nefarious. A sealed box provides a bit of a Maguffin, the cinematography knows that David Lean has been here before and so contents itself with sweeping up around the edges, and the soundtrack moves often into a lush, slow Brahms/Wagner territory as Theeb is subjected to most of the standard threats of the genre – sun, dehydration and bandits, all beautifully folded together to produce a drama of escalating tension. Adding a hint of spice is the First World War lurking in the background, the disintegration of the Ottoman empire and the arrival of the railway, a disruptive technology which has driven previously upstanding Bedouin men to the dark side. Will this cunning film win the Academy Award? Who can tell, though the Foreign language Oscar is generally the only one where absurd politics, tokenist voting and outright fantasy aren’t in the driving seat, and a great film generally wins. This could do it.
Terminator Genisys (Paramount, cert 12)
We should have guessed, when Arnie started doing all that social media PR before the launch of Terminator Genisys – playing a living waxwork at Madame Tussaud’s, tweeting about cycling around London – that the film sucked. Lacking any clear idea what it should be about, the fifth in the series goes for a multiverse approach, adding to the concepts we’re familiar with in the previous films (no, let’s be honest, the first two films) – in other words the awakening of Skynet and its attempt to secure its present (ie our future) by going back into the past (our present) and removing John Connor from the equation. Arnold Schwarzenegger is of course back, as both an old cyborg and a CG-airbrushed more recent arrival from a different future, and the line “I’m old, not obsolete” is bandied about quite a lot, in the hope it might become some sort of ironic catchphrase. Emilia Clarke is the best thing in the film, glowering fiercely as Sarah Connor and catching Linda Hamilton’s roid-rage attitude. Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke and JK Simmons (an Oscar last year, now back at work as usual like an “it won’t change me” lottery winner) are all thrown into the blender along with visits to the years 1984, 1997 and 2017 and there are a lot of the sort of special effects which were impressive when we were still impressed by special effects. A couple of chase sequences apart, it’s a lifeless, soulless, confusing and outright dull film, the sort of thing that might well indeed have been created by some entity with a titanium skeleton and not much stretched over it. As a couple of episodes of the Sarah Connor Chronicles, it might have passed muster.
Spy (Fox, cert 15)
Having done Bridesmaids and The Heat together, writer/director Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy finally put her in sole starring position in a spy spoof that would be a lot funnier if it just acknowledged that Mike Myers has been here/done this and just recycled Austin Powers’ jokes instead. In fact it does, at times, because isn’t that little sketch about McCarthy being fitted out with fiendish spy gadgets – most of them disguised as embarrassing haemorrhoid preparations – not an indirect lift of the Powers’ penis pump gag? But, first things second, the plot being that McCarthy is the backroom wonk forced out into the world of derring-do when suave Bond-like field operative Jude Law is killed. Along for a shadowy ride is disavowed agent Jason Statham – playing an absurd version of his normal bullet-headed “you twot, what a pair of vaginas” character in a parody so close that you can sense he’s slightly concerned it’ll tarnish Brand Stath. He’s very funny, in fact, and provides the film with its best moments, when they should by rights have gone to McCarthy, whose ability to riff profane feels tacked on here. Other flavours in this enjoyable if non-essential comedy are Miranda Hart doing her latterday Margaret Rutherford act of dithering and winking to the camera, Rose Byrne as an evil and hot Bulgarian villainess, Bobby Cannavale as a weapons hungry terrorist, Peter Serafinowicz as a randy Italian who’s probably got a “ciao bella” tattoo on his penis, Allison Janney as a funny spin on Joan Allen’s woman-with-balls character in the Bourne films. Everyone, in other words, is an expert at what they do. The result, however, just kind of lies there, a touch limp, as if no one involved had noticed that spy films already spoof themselves.
Pasolini (BFI, cert 18)
Having watched director Abel Ferrara do great things with little more than a single camera and two actors in his Dominic Strauss-Khan take-down, Welcome to New York, I had great expectations of Pasolini. Both men, Ferrara and Pasolini, are ripe for revival (with Ferrara, in his mid-60s, still young enough to make more classic films, if he wants to). So, yes, that is the sound of a gigantic “But” and a general sense of disappointment wheeling into view, because Pasolini doesn’t quite seem to know what it’s there for. Is it a story about an Italian artist, Catholic by birth and left wing by enculturation, plotting his next artistic move after the heady 1960s have evaporated into the arid 1970s? Or is it the story of a gay man in a stridently heterosexual society who gets beaten to death on the beach after taking one cruise-by assignation too many? Ferrara brings up Pasolini’s politics, and hence his art, only to use them as a kind of window-dressing, leaving us outside staring in at a film-maker with a unique and still influential style. So, instead, mostly we get the man, and in the shape of Willem Dafoe, an actor probably as good as you’re going to get as Pasolini, a sleek, fastidious if austere intellectual with a lively bullshit detector and an aversion to flattery. Ferrara’s most interesting, though not successful experiment, is to construct a kind of homage to Pasolini’s style of film-making inside the film, and cast Pasolini’s real-life former lover, Ninetto Davoli, as middle aged man – a Pasolini avatar – engaging in some bacchanalian celebration in which the “gays and the lesbians come together and they procreate their race” – love the typically wonky translation. All you’d need is a leggy Arab lad and golden dildo and you’d have the full fondue. Though it doesn’t really work, this is a small but beautifully crafted film, shot in stygian browns, a filigree work that’s quite lovely in spite of its sepulchral tone. And for that, and Ferrara’s evident renaissance, let’s give thanks.
Death of a Gentleman (Spectrum, cert E)
There are two films inside this documentary by bloggers Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber. One is the film the cricket enthusiasts set out to make, about the five day “Test” game and how it’s being tested itself by the arrival of the more baseball-like 20-20 game. Then there’s the film that eventually started to emerge – about a cabal inside international cricket’s governing body apparently trying to kill the five-day game as part of a covert plan to take control of international cricket for financial gain. What Collins and Kimber should have done, when they realised they had this bigger story on their hands, is sat down and worked out whether Film A and Film B were compatible. In tougher, kill-your-babies mode they probably would have jettisoned all the material about Ed Cowan, the upcoming Australian cricketer who says “Test cricket, for me, is the game” (Film A) and instead focused more on the deliberate suffocation of the game (Film B). On this tack, we get quite a bit on dubious Giles Clarke of the English Cricket Board, and on oleaginous N Srinivasan, the cement magnate at the top of India’s cricketing board of control. But really we need more about the murky machinations of recent years, and which have only redoubled since the International Cricket Council moved its headquarters to Dubai – that greensward emirate. Collins and Kimber, in late reveals, tell us that most of the national cricketing countries of the world are denied financial support by the cash-rich ICC . And that China (where cricket is extremely popular, perhaps surprisingly) gets next to no ICC funding to develop the game. The current arrangements are the result of some stitch-up between bad guys England, Australia and India, we’re told, in what looks like some Freudian late-colonial fever dream with reach-around benefits. Whether you agree with me about film B (corruption) over film A (sad decline), what we have here is a very overstuffed documentary. However, whichever way you slice it, the stink is unmistakable. Football, it seems, isn’t the only sport rotten from the top down.
Barely Lethal (Signature, cert 12)
Something isn’t quite right about Barely Lethal, starting with a title suggesting it’s aimed at internet porn-surfers, when in fact it’s a high school movie working the John Hughes Breakfast Club angle, with a bit of Mean Girls referencing thrown in for the purpose of keeping things slightly up to date. Inching into Jennifer Lawrence/Shailene Woodley action-heroine territory is Hailee Steinfeld, as a teenage ninja who gives up tutelage under Samuel L Jackson and instead tries to make a go of it as a normal girl at a white-sliced high school. Cue “being a regular teen is harder than being a badass assassin” jokes. The film is well scripted, with bags of smart lines that play to and against the expectations of this sort of thing – jocks and nerds, embarrassing sex-talking dads, rake-thin bitches – given fresh impetus by the super-assassin twist. If only the direction were as nimble – there’s a spam hand at work in Kyle Newman, who should either study hard (and quickly) or get out and do something different.
Enchanted Kingdom (Universal, cert E)
There are two ways to go for a nature documentary aimed specifically at people who aren’t interested in nature documentaries. One is the approach best seen in 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi, which piles on image after image in an attempt to arrive at a bliss overload – wow, isn’t the planet amazing! The other is the old Disney tactic of turning animals into human stand-ins with a “this cute little fella” voiceover. In Enchanted Kingdom, a BBC documentary narrated by Idris Elba in Beneficent Oz mode, there seems to be a determination to do a bit of both. As the camera roams restlessly from the bottom of the African ocean to the top of Mount Kenya, we are treated to image after spectacular image, with Elba occasionally dropping the omnipotence to make a joke about a wildebeest sniffing a fellow animal’s bum. Sections of the film could be pulled out and used as five-minute demonstrations of the BBC’s amazing skill at this sort of thing – those strange mountain plants that wrap up warm as the freezing night air arrives, then unzip in the morning as the tropical sun comes up; that crocodile lying 99 per cent submerged, an eyeball away from a drinking wildebeest. Personally, I wanted more facts and less of the Disney-esque soundtrack, and there is no real overarching story, no connection between the barracuda in the ocean and the sidewinder snake in the desert, apart from the African setting. Like I said, a nature doc for people who don’t do nature docs, though the footage, the footage…
© Steve Morrissey 2015