26 September 2013-09-23

Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias and Nick Robinson in The Kings of Summer

Out in the UK This Week


The Kings of Summer (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

An immensely smart coming of age film pitched somewhere between Stand By Me and Superbad (ie dark undertow, with jokes). And it’s entirely on the side of the kids, whose decision to go off and live in the woods, leaving their sarcastic, obnoxious, bullying, superior parents clueless as to where they’ve gone, is never presented as the callow act of peeved teenagers. Out in the woods, our junior heroes build a rudimentary house, set about sourcing food (sometimes from supermarket bins), grow wispy beards. Meanwhile the film sets about building a dreamy, trippy, sunny song of summer and innocence, with a sweet soundtrack to match. Balancing drama and comedy brilliantly, pausing here and there for beautifully composed “pillow shots” (they are surely a cineastic reference to Ozu?), The Kings of Summer is brilliantly acted all round, and features starmaking performances by Gabriel Basso, comedic genius Moises Arias and Nick Robinson. It only falters slightly – dialling back from brilliant to merely very good – as it hits the third act, as it struggles to return the guys back to the status quo ante (their initiation into manhood complete), and us back to earth.

The Kings of Summer – at Amazon


The Iceman (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Michael Shannon plays Richard Kuklinski, the contract killer so coolly ruthless he was known as the Iceman, and who operated in the New York area from the 1960s until his arrest in 1986. The big sell of this film being that his family had no idea about how daddy Kuklinski really made his money. It’s a sign of Shannon’s exponential rise, especially since 2011’s Take Shelter, that this fairly small-scale gangster movie can attract stars such as Winona Ryder (the wife), Chris Evans (the psycho that Kuklinski goes into a side business with), Ray Liotta (the gang boss he works for), David Schwimmer (a schlemiel whose bad tache and pony tail mark him out for an early exit) and James Franco (an even sharper exit). As for Shannon’s performance, it’s a real dead-eyed turn, so good that it almost manages to hide the fact that there’s not much of a plot here, other than “guy kills other guys because he’s asked to”. As for an analysis of the Iceman’s psyche, Shannon tries to give us one, but he’s hamstrung slightly by a script that wants to keep us onside – ie it wants to make this a film that sits in the genre marked “gangster” rather than “serial killer”. As I say, watch it for Shannon.

The Iceman – at Amazon


Citadel (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

Here’s a film that’s a lot better than its current 5.3 IMDb rating, starring rising British star Aneurin Barnard as a milquetoast being victimised by hoodie-wearing feral kids in the high rise he has the misfortune to live in. In fact the film opens with Barnard’s wife being somewhat ridiculously done to death by said hoodies, who stick a syringe in her pregnant belly, just to make sure she’s dead, and to make sure we’re appalled. They’re faceless hoodies, by the way, and after a while it becomes slightly more clear that this isn’t a grim British kitchen sinker at all. It’s a grim zombie movie. This becomes totally, abundantly clear once the great James Cosmo turns up as a swearing rancidly angry priest with a mute kid in tow. Priests and mute kids being legal tender in the horror genre. If it’s not an even passable kitchen sinker, Citadel is not perfect as a horror either, though director/writer Ciaran Foy is doing some very interesting things, melding the concrete-cool of Let the Right One In with pissy reek of Attack the Block.

Citadel – at Amazon


Frankenstein’s Army (E One, cert 18, DVD)

I’ll admit I was slightly struggling for films this week and only picked up Richard Raaphorst’s horror movie because there wasn’t much else about. I’m glad I did. Though initially I was all internal groans – oh god, not another found footage film. This one at least had a novel twist. It was ostensibly shot by a Soviet documentarian following troops as they advance across Poland, chasing the Nazis back towards Berlin. Or was it Czechoslovakia? It doesn’t really matter. And nor does the fact that the found footage idea is not even followed through that rigorously. Because Raaphorst and his co-writers have come up with some ingenious ways of extending the life of the Frankenstein story, in the shape of a descendant of the Baron called Viktor (an energetic, committed Karel Roden), a Nazi taking bits of humans and merging them with all sorts of bits of jetsam. And so we have what looks like a walking washing machine, a teddy bear with a man’s head, half a giant lobster. “Only the Nazis would think of something like this – sewing people together, giving them knives for hands,” says one of the Soviets at one point. It’s a raw piece of nonsense, it really is. But there’s genius in the detail.

Frankenstein’s Army – at Amazon


Paris-Manhattan (Cinefile, cert 15, DVD)

The films of Woody Allen are a key reference point for this cute French romcom about an attractive, intelligent young woman who has a lot of trouble getting a man. Improbable, I know, but the French seem to be working the Richard Curtis Improbability Machine harder than most right now. Not to mention the Richard Curtis Charm Device. Because this is an immensely likeable if entirely unbelievable piece of fluff, sewn together with real care and attention, featuring the likes of Anita O’Day singing Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered on its jazzy soundtrack. Alice Taglioni is its star, the available babe mentioned above, and Patrick Bruel is the Serge Gainsbourg-faced older guy she ends up playing footsie with. Woody Allen turns up in a cameo, looking like he’d been talked into it in the corridor outside, and he’s all over the plot too (a Woody Allen poster on Alice’s wall offers her advice, à la Play It Again Sam, and there are clear plot lifts from his films, some more obvious than others). At some level I clearly shouldn’t be recommending something as cheesy, contrived, manipulative as this, but I do, because of the leads. I liked them therefore I liked it. Simple as.

Paris-Manhattan – at Amazon


The Brass Teapot (Koch, cert 15, DVD)

Juno Temple’s breasts. She clearly thinks she can build a career on them. And so does the director of this weird Hollywood drama about a couple whose struggle through the current economic downturn ceases when they find a magic teapot, an Aladdin’s lamp that grants wishes, but only when someone in its proximity feels pain, whether it’s physical, emotional or whatever. Within minutes of the teapot turning up the couple is living the high life and the film is in deep trouble. Is it trying to say nice people shouldn’t be helped out of financial misery? It’s not sure. Is it trying to say that money that’s not properly earned is somehow immoral? It’s not sure of that either. And so it hovers, while Temple and co-star Michael Angarano attempt to hide their desperation and the director’s eye tracks the clock towards the magic 90 minutes. Doubtless it worked better in its original form as a 22 minute short (I haven’t seen it), but the fact that this is actually ten minutes longer than it needs to be for business purposes (though an hour longer than necessary for dramatic purposes) is down to director Ramaa Mosley’s blind faith that more shots of Temple in her scanties will somehow make this film work.

The Brass Teapot – at Amazon


Outpost 11 (101 Films, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Outpost 11 is a lighthouse movie. That is to say it’s a film about a small number of people trapped in a confined space, quietly going insane until… boom! Set in a parallel steampunk reality, it follows a trio of what look like First World War British soldiers – a drug-sniffing, masturbating corporal, a dithery private and a capable captain – doing some never-quite-specified monitoring in the Arctic while the war rages out in the wide world. It’s a world of candlestick telephones, VHS tapes, clunky 1980s headphones, sci-fi spiders, a big brass engine-room which thrums away musically. This is an ingeniously cobbled-together world, slightly redolent of charity shops and Dr Who, with the plot accent firmly on the “what the hell is going on?”. I won’t say what the hell is going on, not least because I still wasn’t sure by the end. I was sure that this is a confident film-making debut by director Anthony Woodley, who understands how to work with what he’s got, rather than against it, who knows how to conjure mood, and who has learnt the lesson that suggestion – what is that weird squeaking creature pulled out of a filter at one point? – creates better atmosphere than any SFX effect.

Outpost 11 – at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2013







The Best Films I Saw in 2013

The cast of You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet
Updated 2013-12-30


Here they are, the best films I saw in 2013. It’s a Top Ten job with the best in no particular order, followed by a list of films that made the top ten at some point in the year, then got bounced. This is not a Best of 2013, let me quickly point out, just the best films I’ve seen this year. So a film everyone else has seen but I haven’t won’t be here (I’ve not seen American Hustle yet, f’rinstance). And there might be stragglers from 2012 in here which caught up with late. It really is “the best films I have seen this year”. If you’re wondering what to do with that Amazon voucher and your tastes generally aren’t multiplex, this might be a useful place to start.


1. You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012, dir: Alain Resnais)

Alain Resnais, now in his nineties, proves there’s life in the new wave dog yet with an amazingly convoluted meta-drama based on two Anouilh plays, thick with formal experiment and managing to weld classical theatre to 21st century techniques. Amazing, and you can bet it made both Lars Von Trier and Todd Solondz chuckle too.


2. Aurora (2010, dir: Cristi Puiu)

The Romanian Cristi Puiu made The Death of Mr Lazarescu and also stars in what might be considered a follow-up, a film that tells a story while also running an audit on the current state of the homeland. The story: a very odd one, following what must the dourest hitman (Puiu) through concrete-coloured Bucharest as he goes about his often incredibly mundane business. Shot in long takes, in blue light, in the most unprepossessing of locations, with many shots half through doorways and focusing on the main character and him alone, it’s unique, remarkable and often quite baffling.


3. The Heat (2013, dir: Paul Feig)

Because no one is funnier than Melissa McCarthy right now, a buddy-cop comedy in which Sandra Bullock plays the uptight FBI agent reluctantly partnering a wildcat local cop (McCarthy). The plot is slender, but is just enough for Bridesmaids director Paul Feig to hang a few funny set pieces off. Better than that it gives a chance for the two actors to riff rude, with McCarthy inevitably getting the better of Bullock when it comes to being the swearier and more prepared to make herself look a fool. Fancy Bullock being in the best comedy of the year and its most popular sci-fi (which is not on my list because I haven’t seen it yet, for shame).


4. Angel & Tony (2010, dir: Alix Delaporte)

Big aah, a simple, short love story about a troubled beautiful young woman and the shy, fat middle-aged fisherman she rather unexpectedly hooks up with. Rather simply, this one’s all about the transformative power of love and is about as bloody lovely as films get.


5. I Wish  (2011, dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s drama is ostensibly about a kid who wants to make a wish, and believes that by making it at the exact point where two bullet trains’ paths cross, it is sure to come true. In fact he’s just the starting point for a whole series of lightly interconnected transgenerational stories, which the writer/director joins and rejoins. Everything about this film shouts genius – the placing of the camera, the casting, the acting, the editing. It’s also one of the sweetest films, so full of hope and life, I’ve ever seen.


6. The Kings of Summer (2013, Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

A coming-of-ager that has the raucous “fuck you” comic edge of Superbad and the elemental undertow of Stand By Me, The Kings of Summer is about a group of boys who head off to the woods one summer, mostly to escape their obnoxious, bullying, clever-clever parents, but partly just to do a bit of growing up. There they trap animals (or make out that they do), grow facial hair, invite girls over and get their hearts broken. It’s strange to find a film that intercuts comedy and heartache so well, that catches that great feeling of freedom that total irresponsibility allows, and which punctuates these switches between the two ends of the dramatic spectrum with contemplative “Ozu shots” of prairies and water and flowers, set to a soundtrack that manages to be both familiar and leftfield.


 7. She Monkeys (2011, dir: Lisa Aschan)

A Swedish drama that’s all about girls, power, sex and equestrian vaulting. Expect no fluffy bunnies in this one – in one of its twin-track stories we have a five-year-old girl sexually grooming her older babysitting cousin; in the other a butter-wouldn’t-melt blonde making a sumo-style All About Eve assault on a rival. Cool, unusual, brilliant.


8. Sightseers (2012, dir: Ben Wheatley)

A pair of incredibly dim British caravan enthusiasts set off on a tour of esoteric sites of special interest – museums dedicated to pencils or trams etc – and indulge in increasingly psychotic episodes of murder for light relief. A deadpan Natural Born Killers that will have you snorting liquid down your nose.


9. The Gatekeepers (2012, dir: Dror Moreh)

The best documentary I saw this year comes from director Dror Moreh, who somehow managed to get all the surviving former heads of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet to talk to him. What he have is little more than a series of talking heads explaining to Moreh how Shin Bet operates. But it is the way that Moreh structures the entirely stereotype-busting revelations dropping from these guys’ mouths – and they each look like a Bond villain of one sort or another – that makes this “jaw to the floor” viewing.


10. Silver Linings Playbook (2012, dir: David O Russell)

David O Russell’s sweet but never cute drama about a guy fresh from the funny farm (Bradley Cooper) and his burgeoning relationship with brassy fellow medicatee (Jennifer Lawrence). Underneath the warty carapace this is perfect Hollywood – everyone gets what they deserve, big lessons are learned, there’s silver linings all round, in fact. Or you could just watch it for the performances – Lawrence so good that she forces Robert De Niro to act. Even Chris Tucker puts in a great performance.



The “Nearly” List

The Sapphires (2012, dir: Wayne Blair)

We keep being told about the revival of the musical (clinkers like Chicago usually), so how come this one about a girl group of aborigine soul singers on a tour of 1960s Vietnam isn’t better known? It’s got songs, jokes, a bit of love and a standout Chris O’Dowd in the lead role. And it’s a true story.


Thale (2012, dir: Aleksander Nordaas)

Made for nothing yet looking like it cost millions, this Norwegian horror fantasy about a couple of police clean-up guys who find a mythical creature out in the cellar of a shack in the woods has plot, characters, looks, tension and, a few seconds of ropey CGI apart, is almost perfect.


Elena (2011, dir: Andrey Svyagintsev)

Andrey Svyagintsev’s throttled-back thriller about a woman in Russia, her boorish rich husband to whom she’s little more than a nurse, and her Soviet-throwback son and his family, a bunch of layabouts living out in the tower blocks.


Mama (2013, dir: Andrés Muschietti)

One of the seven thousand films Jessica Chastain made in the last year or so, Mama is a superior horror film that welds together the haunted house and malevolent-child genres and then throws a lot of switched sympathies into the mix. Watchable as an exercise in genre manipulation alone, or as an out-and-out horror movie, or as a bravura exercise in visual effects, this is one of the best mainstream horror films in years.


Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012, dir: Alex Gibney)

Close to The Gatekeepers for “well stap my vitals” revelations is Alex Gibney’s remarkable documentary about paedophilia in the Roman Catholic church, how the organisation has been aware for at least 1,700 years that the vows of celibacy and chastity tend either to attract weirdos or make people weird. And that the Church has, by virtue of its institutional power, been able to subvert secular legal systems. This is a gobsmacking documentary of the old-fashioned pavement-pounding sort whose conclusions are that, lovely Pope Francis or no, in terms of moral authority the Catholic church is a busted flush.


Shell (2012, dir: Scott Graham)

A star is born, in the shape (the face, mostly) of Chloe Pirrie, the focus of this lugubrious drama about a girl who works in an out-of-the-way petrol station owned by her father. Shell is the girl’s name, it’s the name of a petrol company too, a passing customer jokily quips to the girl, who responds with a deep lack of engagement. Which is what the film is about  – is she going to engage? With Adam, a guy in a hot hatch? With a passing travelling salesman? Possibly with her own father? God forbid. But on this slender “who?” and “when?” director Scott Graham hangs a powerful film as austere and dour as a low church chapel.


In the House (2012, dir: François Ozon)

François Ozon doesn’t make dumb films, and in In the House he’s made a film that on one level is about a superbright, sexually precocious, unsettlingly androgynous schoolboy (Ernst Umhauer) who starts writing increasingly personal stories for his teacher (the brilliantly disconcerted Fabrice Luchini). Before long the teacher is hooked, the boy has become a cuckoo in the nest, the wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) is discombobulated, and Ozon has crafted a drama of the sort you can imagine Jacques Derrida and fellow post-structuralists enjoying with beer and a pizza.


Byzantium (2012, dir: Neil Jordan)

Neil Jordan does something excellent with the vampire movie in Byzantium. He manages to weld the lush overheated velvet of the Hammer horror, all heaving bosoms and the male gaze, to the austere IKEA ambience of Let the Right One In. As two (possible) sisters of competing vampiric sensibilities we have Gemma Arterton (the busty, Hammer lust-bucket) and Saoirse Ronan (self-assembly vampiric waiflet). Add an abandoned seaside hotel in off season, a few luckless male victims, a couple of bounders and rotters who arrive from the girls’ past to help deliver a rousing Hollywood ending, and you’ve got a film that grips by the throat, teases, entertains and beguiles.


8 ½ (1963, dir: Federico Fellini)

This restoration of one of Fellini’s most famous films reminds us what a clever man he was, as well as a consummate film-maker. Taking as its starting point the non-starting Fellini after he had finished La Dolce Vita, it tells the story of a blocked director who hasn’t got the faintest idea what to do next. Which all sounds very indulgent and unnecessarily arthouse, until you actually watch as Fellini slowly starts to spin his on-screen phalanx of actors, make-up people, producers, the director’s diversions, dreams and fantasies into something elaborate, fantastical and even at times funny. Marcello Mastroianni is the Fellini stand-in, and the film is really helped by the presence of Claudia Cardinale and Anouk Aimée, about the hottest women on the planet back in 1963.


The Wall (2012, dir: Julian Pölsler)

A weird and wonderful re-imagining of Robinson Crusoe. But instead of a man, it’s a woman (Martina Gedeck). Instead of an island it’s the landlocked country of Austria, inside which a woman on a bit of a weekend break, or something, suddenly discovers that she’s locked inside her rural idyll by an invisible wall. And there she stays for years, making friends with various stray animals, writing her diaries, musing on what it is to be human, alone. A deceptively simple but wonderfully told story, which raises the question of how any of us might cope if suddenly cut off completely from civilisation. And Austria looks pretty fantastic too.


Broken Circle Breakdown (2012, dir: Felix Van Groeningen)

Bluegrass music in Belgium provides the sweetener for what looks for one awful moment like it’s going to be a film about a child getting a terminal disease and dying. A child does actually get a terminal disease but that isn’t really what this artfully shot, pungently written drama – about a much-tattooed beauty (Veerle Baetens) striking up a relationship with an ex-punk (Johan Heldenburgh) and becoming a singer in his bluegrass outfit – is about. And god can she sing.


Fireworks Wednesday (2006, dir: Asghar Farhadi)

Finally finding its way to some sort of release off the back of the Oscar success of his A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s 2006 drama patrols a similar border, the one between traditional Islam and the blandishments of the West, and doesn’t so much wag his finger as point out the areas that are going to chafe. A simple story about a naive young girl who finds herself working for a family who seem to have adultery issues – and she’s about to get married herself – it is so well written, well cast and unobtrusively shot that it feels less like watching a movie more like eavesdropping.


Child’s Pose (2013, dir: Calin Peter Netzer)

Romania continues to come up with brilliant films, such as this dour drama about a horrible entitled mother trying to get her horrible ungrateful son off the charge of killing a poor child by dangerous driving. As much a portrait of the haves and have-nots of Romania and how justice is entirely in the service of only one of them (guess which), it is also a remarkable drama that withholds its true intentions. Hold on for the extended final sequence, when the mother goes to visit the dead child’s grieving parents, while the son waits out in the car, and remember to keep breathing.


The House I Live In (2012, dir: Eugene Jarecki)

Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about the sheer mess of US drugs policy points out the government has spent $1 trillion on the “war against drugs” since President Nixon initiated it, with the result that recreational drug use has changed not a jot. A well researched doc with the right talking heads, attitudinal but never strident.


Small Town Murder Songs (2010, dir: Ed Gass-Donnelly)

A drama that asks us to look at the character of an upstanding cop in a Mennonite community and divine the man he used to be – and it isn’t pretty. Peter Stormare’s hangdog features and impassive thousand yard stare make this hellish unusual type of film even more enjoyable.


The Queen of Versailles (2012, dir: Lauren Greenfield)

The documentary that asked us to feel billionaire pain, and succeeded. Starting out simply as a film about the building of the biggest private residence in the US, the enterprise somehow became something much more incisive – a story about financial mess we’ve all been going through, seen from the most rarefied of positions. Entirely fascinating.


Rust and Bone (2012, dir: Jacques Audiard)

Always making a bad film (Nine, Public Enemies) bearable and a good film (Inception, Contagion) better, Marion Cotillard is on absolute white hot form in this potentially blubbery drama about a woman who loses her legs and the bouncer (equally remarkable Matthias Schoenaearts) who gives her back her taste for life.



© Steve Morrissey 2013