Out This Week
The Jungle Book (Disney, cert PG)
A careful and clever live-action retread by Disney of their 1967 animated classic. Perhaps the cleverest thing Disney did this time round was to hire Jon Favreau, a director who seems, unlike the Zack Snyders of the world, to understand that wonder and awe are key components of films, especially those aimed at children and the child in us all – that first Iron Man movie, when Tony Stark is first getting to grips with his new suit, and is exhilarated almost beyond belief at the sheer simple sensation of flying, that’s the sort of thing Favreau does well. As for plot, it’s the same as the original Jungle Book, give or take, it being the mismatched buddy adventures of a hyperactive man-cub and his slow-poke bear associate. The voice cast is spot-on – Bill Murray as Baloo the bear, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera the panther, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the python and Christopher Walken as Louie the giant ape. Only Idris Elba, as Shere Khan the tiger, is a touch off, and that’s because Elba, not for the first time (Pacific Rim), seems to be working in a slightly different dynamic register from the rest of the voice cast. Songs: having been told it wasn’t a musical, there are in fact the big two breakouts from the original – The Bare Necessities (sung by Murray), and I Wan’nabe Like You (Christopher Walken), plus ScarJo being particularly effective singing Trust in Me as an attractive but deadly snake. It’s for kids, and the character of Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a charming bundle of life, scoring very low on the punchability scale, but there are odd jokes for the parents, such as King Louie being introduced, huge and swathed in shadows, as if he were Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. All in all, a really good, punchy, lively adventure with little time for sentimentality, set in a jungle that is so believable you’re never quite sure if it’s all CG or not. And best of all, there’s not a trace of eco-piety, Gaia pseudo-science or any of that hippie shit nature nonsense.
Jane Got a Gun (Lionsgate, cert 15)
Jane Got a Gun has had some bad reviews, but it’s not a bad film. In fact it’s rather a good one. There are two reasons for the bad notices. First, its original director, the very cult (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) Lynne Ramsay, walked off the film on the first day, citing artistic differences with the producers and taking key members of the cast with her. Second, it isn’t quite the feminist movie that seemed to be promised by the presence of Ramsay. However, however… let’s look at what we have, rather than what might have been. And what we have is a very, very well made western with a High Noon slant, Natalie Portman playing the female whose former-outlaw and now wounded husband is being menaced by his old compadres, forcing her to seek help from sour local sharpshot Joel Edgerton. We learn, via a series of flashbacks and shared confessional moments between all three that there’s serious romantic history between Edgerton and Portman but that she, for good or ill, is sticking by her marriage vows and he, for all his evident surviving interest in her, can respect that decision. They’re decent folks in an indecent sticky corner and that’s the dramatic pivot, right there, by the way. It’s a good one, and it makes Jane Got a Gun more like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than many another western – because it’s a crypto-romance first and foremost. But let’s not get carried away with the Ang Lee comparisons. This is a well structured, handsomely shot and tenderly acted film that feels like it’s going to dive up Nicholas Sparks’s romantic avenue at any second – that scene with Portman and Edgerton in the hot air balloon? Really? And there is a lot of procedural detail fleshing out what life was really like in the Old West. And death – here presented as nasty, brutish and long. Personally I could have done without Ewan McGregor as the bad outlaw John Bishop, but he’s almost certainly better than Jude Law (Ramsay’s choice) would have been. Yup, not bad at all. File alongside (though slightly below) Kelly Reichardt’s female-centric western Meek’s Cutoff.
Tank 432 (Kaleidoscope, cert 15)
A fascinating low-budget British film which starts out looking like a war movie. A ragtag bunch of soldiers advance on a farmhouse, with one of their number injured and a pair of orange-clad, hooded prisoners along for the ride. After checking that the place is empty, they advance, frightened, some of the men almost panicking, taking their prisoners with them. All seems as we might expect, except two of the soldiers are played by Michael Smiley and Gordon Kennedy, both men in their 50s. Their ages jar and tell us that something is not quite right here. This instant unsettling is all that’s required to keep us fully focused – trying to work out who these people really are, who their “cargo” prisoners are, and what exactly is going on. It’s a post-apocalyptic world, maybe? The prisoners are hostages, maybe? Aliens? I’m not going to spill the beans. And in any case after this short and pungent setup, the action transfers to the inside of the tank of the title (it’s also known as Belly of the Bulldog), and they stay there right to the closing credits – the soldiers, the hostages and a gibbering girl they’ve picked up en route. This setting is inspired, and allows writer/director Nick Gillespie to stoke up the drama and turn what looked initially like a war film into something closer to a psychological study of people under pressure, much of it, we learn, self-imposed. It’s a horror film, the imdb tells us, and Ben Wheatley (ABCs of Death, Sightseers) is named as one of the executive producers. But though there is the odd grand guignol moment, it’s not really a horror film at all, more a clever Roald Dahl-style mystery with a good payoff, told with economy, a lack of frills, and a very keen attention to editing – a good editor (Tom Longmore here) proving he’s worth much more than a cast of decent actors (and so much cheaper!).
The Colony (Signature, cert 15)
Emma Watson and Daniel Brühl play the German couple – he a political activist and supporter of Salvador Allende, she an air hostess – caught up in the coup of 1973. After being tortured by Pinochet’s men till his mind has half gone, he winds up in the Colonia Dignidad, a religious cult run by a wild-eyed demagogue as a back-scratchy favour to the junta. She, despairing of ever getting help from the suddenly cowed left-wing Allendists, sets off to help him, swapping her chic hostie gear for a grey shift and looking like Maria from The Sound of Music.
Watson, who appears to have been to the same life-coach as Keira Knightley, seems clear-eyed about her strengths and weaknesses. She knows, as Keira did starting out, that the camera has a fascination with her. She also knows she’s not the world’s greatest natural actor. So she works at it. And she gets better. Even so, there’s far too much fierce furrowing of brows (“Concentratibus!” – bum tish) in this entirely bogus, if not actually mendacious drama which purports a) to have something to do with the appalling culture of political assassination that existed in Chile under Pinochet. And b) to also be about the actual Colonia Dignidad, a religious cult responsible for torture and the mass abuse of children, among other things. Neither aspect really gets a look-in; both are there as a kind of wallpaper proclaiming serious intent. And in the same way Brühl – actual hard-hitting acting talent – is used as a kind of beautiful magician’s assistant, a distraction from the fact that what we’re watching is a horror movie.
If we’re being kind we could ignore the fact that this is a package more than likely dreamed up by Watson’s people, who seem, like Daniel Radcliffe’s people, reluctant to place their star in something that is genuinely interesting and different – there are a thousand European directors who would sell children to have either of them, and think what a transformative effect they’d have on the box office. Instead Watson and Radcliffe end up in stuff like this – which, in a meeting with marketing people, can be sold as ticking various boxes. Hot-button, Political, Engaged, Brand Watson, yadda yadda. The clothes – ooh, big giveaway there, Emma – are lovely, with Watson looking as just-so (and ice-queen hot, as per) in cabin-crew crimplene as she does in Sister Emma gabardine. Michael Nyqvist – clearly Udo Kier wasn’t available – rolls his eyes and slicks his greasy mad hair back and is properly, vastly entertaining as the cult leader Paul Schäfer. But… and here’s the thing. It’s all a true story. Children were raped. People were tortured and killed. It was an unholy alliance between church and state. One tiny scene where Schäfer wanders towards some stalls where boys are showering, you’d never guess. I doubt there were screenings for the survivors.
Touched with Fire (Metrodome, cert 15)
Katie Holmes’s return to acting in high-profile roles reminds us that she’s pretty good. She’s playing a poet, Carla, a bipolar woman who crashes and burns, finds love inside a mental hospital, and then tries to live with similarly up/down lover Marco (Luke Kirby) outside in the real world, to the huge displeasure of both sets of parents. Both Carla and Marco are fruit-loop barking. Or “touched with fire” as the film has it. They’re on the manic-depressive, bi-polar spectrum, if you prefer no less damaging but much more clinical language. And that, right there, is the film’s claim to virtue – it makes the point that it’s not about what we call mental illness but how we treat it – the idea here being bipolar is normal, or is at least one strand among many in the weft and woof of life. The story is based on the experiences of writer/director Paul Dalio’s own experience of being bipolar. But behind him stands Kay Redfield Jamison, whose non-fiction book claims that many of the artists we so admire – Van Gogh, Byron, Woolf, Schumann – were manic depressives, and that they wouldn’t be so creative if they weren’t. That this mania, this illness, bestows an intensity of focus that’s beneficial, though also dangerous – playing with fire. Jamison also turns up in a cameo to make the point herself, and boils the whole film down into a single paragraph of sound-bitey goodness. As to the film, well without wishing to give too much away, it laudably deals with that thesis in the personifications of Carla and Marco – she wants to “handle” it (with medication, though reluctantly), he wants to live it. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to feel life with full emotion,” he says to her at one point, as they try to hash, in maybe one scene more than is strictly necessary, the whole thing out. It would be a Lifetime afternoon movie if the performances weren’t so intense, and if it didn’t make this clever point rather adroitly – We all accept the madness of love as an undoubted “good thing”. Why not the madness of madness?
Arabian Nights Part 1 (New Wave, cert 15)
Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’s Our Beloved Month of August did strange things with genre and category, starting out as a factual documentary and ending up as a clear fictional love story. He confounds the box tickers again with this madly overblown state-of-the-nation drama colliding actualité into a swirling Scheherezadian fantasy. His gliding camera first of all shows us the dilapidated docks at Lisbon, then some beekeepers talking about their craft, then Gomes and his film crew going about their work – film-making is a craft too – before, in voiceover, Gomes wonders whether he can make a film about the vast lavishness of the Arabian Nights and yet stay true to what’s going on in Portugal post-the 2008 financial collapse. That way, he concludes, lies madness. And then off he goes and does just that, at first effectively intertwining documentary tales of daily life in Portugal and some dramatic reconstruction of the activities of the international financial Troika sent to “stabilise” the country (ie ruin it with now discredited austerity economics) with episodes more recognisably from the 1001 Nights. At times they overlap – such as when the members of the IMF and World Bank are all given, in The Tale of the Men with Hard Ons, permanent erections (cue wistful look from the Portuguese finance minister, the single female in the group), a gift which they soon find irksome.
Gomes’s interjections to one side, the film soon settles into two distinct strands – real people telling their stories and then the more obviously fantastical stuff, though in The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire, the fictional and the documentary seem hopelessly interwoven, as is the Gomes modus operandi.
So, there’s formal audacity, though it’s not that audacious since Gomes has done it – to great acclaim – before. What else? Some beautifully observed moments of everyday life. Some gorgeously worked up Pasolini-style recreations of the old Arabic stories. As for it all hanging together, it doesn’t. Though there are two more instalments to go, and Gomes did intend the entire thing to be watched en bloc. I, for one, will be going into the next two with antenna waving, suspicious that showmanship is edging into hubris, and that Gomes is more or less making it up as he goes along.
Demolition (Fox, cert 15)
Apart from Young Victoria, which he must have done to pay the bills, the films of Jean-Marc Vallée have been demonstrations of the skill of a film-maker who has an uncanny understanding of camera movement, the rhythm of shots, the pacing of a scene and how everything ties together in the edit suite. It’s what lifted Wild from being an interesting film about a young woman trekking into something altogether more immersive and almost majestic (and helps explain why Reese Witherspoon got so completely behind it – she believed). Demolition… hmmm… The remarkable ability is there, but here it’s yoked to a story that doesn’t need it. Is so slight, in fact, that it might make a decent short. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the high-flying something in some swank profession who loses his wife in the (opening) car crash, and whose life falls apart as a consequence. “Suddenly, everything is a metaphor,” he states in voiceover, as, far too metaphorically, he starts literally disassembling his life around himself – forcing his father-in-law (Chris Cooper) to fire him, before taking up with a kid with a confused sexuality (hello Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y.) who helps him to take his house apart with power tools – starting with the fridge/freezer before moving on to the big stuff, including the walls. And on it goes, like a faint echo of that non-comedic Will Ferrell film Everything Must Go.
Vallée’s film-making is exquisite, his camera and editing as ever are masterly, and he builds in a strange and compelling dynamic to what is, in effect, an expressionistic outward display of inner devastation. Except it all looks so much fun, and that lizardy smirk playing across Gyllenhaal’s lips doesn’t help things either. Scenes from a Meltdown, you could call it. Or Arid Exercise in Search of a Better Screenplay. Naomi Watts, as one of the piers Gyllenhaal bangs up against hoping to be thrown a line, Chris Cooper as the furious, bereft father and Judah Lewis as the kid strangely in love with 1960s and 70s rock (Vallée was born in 1963) are all great, too. But…
© Steve Morrissey 2016