9 May 2016-05-09

Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson in Room

 

Out This Week

 

 

Room (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Starting with 2004’s Adam & Paul, then continuing with Garage, What Richard Did and even in the comedic, less typical Frank, director Lenny Abrahmson has given us a series of intense psychological dramas examining human relationships under stress. Room continues the trend with a story about an abducted woman living in a shed with her son, he being the result of a rape by her abductor. The facts of the situation are dripped out in an un-explicatory way and keep things real, though it’s the current situation rather than the headline-grabbing aspects of the situation that fascinate Abrahmson: how the mother keeps her sanity; how she explains the world to her son, particularly the fact that this isn’t the entire world (luckily the TV helps here); and most of all, how and when should she switch from being nurturing, protective mother to a drill sergeant preparing the boy for escape? Having known that Room was “a film about an abducted mother and her child” before watching it, I was surprised to discover it is in fact as much if not more about what happens after the pair make their bid for escape. Constructed in three distinct acts – before, after and a very brief finale (staying away from spoilers here) – each gives Brie Larson an opportunity to do that strange thing she does, whereby she establishes some sort of unmediated link between herself and the audience. Not only did she win an Oscar for her performance, but she won it so convincingly that everyone knew she was going to win it before the nominations had been announced. I’m saying no more about this fascinating, surprisingly unmelodramatic drama – which continues to pay out new revelations and insights right to the very last shot – except that you should watch it.

Room – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Hateful Eight (EV, cert 18)

Quentin Tarantino’s best movie? For my money that’s Jackie Brown, and it’s largely because his tendency to sprawl is held in check by Elmore Leonard’s tramline plot. Here, as in most of his films, it’s all QT, and boy does he get medieval. At some level it’s a reworking of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians – a bunch of strangers gathered together in one place (a snowy refuge/chandler’s/coaching stop called Minnie’s Haberdashery in this case), where skulduggery is afoot and lives will be lost. How that happens is the fun of the piece, and I’ll say no more about it. Christie’s original title for the story was Ten Little Niggers, of course, as Tarantino knows very well, and it partly explains the relentless use of the word, which is liable to give the politically sanctimonious an attack of the vapours, the focus being Samuel L Jackson. This is another of his full-bore Tarantino larger-than-large performances. But then every one of the Eight – which includes Jennifer Jason Leigh as a runaway outlaw, Kurt Russell as a bounty hunter, Walton Goggins as the new sheriff of the town they’re all heading for, Michael Madsen as a slow cowpoke, Bruce Dern as a retired Confederate general and Tim Roth as an affected English hangman – is huge. It’s a western with a megaphone, a comedy with a straight face, even the title, one-upping The Magnificent Seven, tells us that. As for the rest of it – large! – from the 70mm Panavision cinematography, the mere fact of an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, the roadshow print that included an intermission. Oh, and there’s more than eight of them too, Demián Bichir making a particularly fine comedic Mexican, with a strangled, ridiculous accent you’ll want to sample for your voicemail. The bloodletting – it’s spectacular and ridiculous and awful, once it gets going and vastly enjoyable if you like that sort of thing. A genre film, playing with genre, introducing nothing new, Tarantino having now become something like a jazz soloist parping away and throwing out treats. And sparks.

The Hateful Eight – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Lesson (New Wave, cert 15)

As the Bulgarian drama The Lesson kicks off, a teacher is writing “Someone has stolen my wallet” in English on the blackboard and saying the words out loud. It’s an English lesson, we suppose, but within a few seconds we realise we’ve been wrongfooted and, no, the teacher really has had her wallet stolen, and she’s trying, in the context of the English lesson, to get the culprit to own up. Another click along the road in this fascinating, detail-rich drama and we’ve met the teacher’s husband, a feckless boozer who seems to be living out in a caravan parked at the front of their house. We’ve also started to meet a series of enforcers, all of whom want money off her, or him, or both of them. If we don’t know much about Margita Gosheva’s hard-working nameless teacher, we do know she’s in deep financial shit, and for the rest of The Lesson we follow her as she tries to pull herself back from the edge – to an agency where she does some translating but never seems to get paid, to her estranged father and his new hot bimbo girlfriend, to a loan shark who gives her money but with a lot of strings attached. If you remember that scene at the end of Argo, where tense moment is piled on tense moment as we wait to see if the Iran hostages are going to make it out of the country, The Lesson pulls a similar dramatic stroke. Every time this woman thinks she’s out of the woods, writers/directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov hit her with something else. And it really works, all the more because the setting is so domestic and drab and Gosheva keeps her features set just so, like a woman who is used to holding things together, though maybe not at this level. A simple, honest film, believable, tough, offering no cheesy getouts, no false heroics. And if you want to read it as an allegory about the recent financial crash, and what respected figures get up to when their backs are against the wall, Grozeva and Valchanov quietly offer that as a possibility, too.

The Lesson – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Janis: Little Girl Blue (Dogwoof, cert 15)

I’ll just say straight out that I don’t like Janis Joplin’s voice. In fact I think it’s horrible. Not as an instrument – because she really did have the pipes – just the way she played it, all those screechy harmonics virtually obscuring the note she was actually aiming for. This documentary about the rock singer who seems to be disappearing into obscurity – unlike Jim, or Jimi, more like Brian, maybe – seeks to bring her back into the light, to assert that she was in fact one of the greats. Whatever you think of the voice, it is a great story – product of a town that still had a KKK chapter, scorned kid at school, voted ugliest man at university by her nasty fraternity peers (“Made her cry. Saddest thing I ever saw, really was,” says old friend Powell St John), she discovered she had a voice and lit out for California in the early 1960s. It is in many respects a standard clips’n’quotes documentary, siblings lining up alongside old friends (“She was real dangerous to take to a bar” says J Dave Morley), now all cusping on old age, to tell the story of the girl who became famous in a band, was bigger than the band, but had a habit that was bigger than her – in a very male-dominated world Janis drank and injected with the best (ie worst) of them. It’s an “almost made it through the bad times” tale that’s bound to draw comparisons with Amy Winehouse’s – both dead at 27, both still to do their best work – though it’s not a comparison that the film itself makes. Things remain admirably rooted in period. In spite of many clips of Janis talking on chat shows, usually Dick Cavett’s (and he pops up to confirm that they may indeed have had a thing going on), the sense of the woman isn’t quite there. This, I suspect, is because the chronically insecure Janis herself didn’t know quite what she was – “All I’ve got now is strength,” she says, coyly comparing her voice to that of Otis and Ella. “If I keep going maybe I can sing.”

Janis: Little Girl Blue – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Speed Sisters (Dogwoof, cert E)

More inspirational women, this time four Palestinian young gals who race cars for a living, and cop a lot of flak for doing so. Marah, Noor, Mona and Betty (plus team captain Maysoon) all come from different backgrounds and are the first Arab female racing team in the world. Some are Muslim, others Christian, but richer or poorer all experience the full weight of patriarchy telling them they can’t do what they are doing. And yet, and this is this film’s most charming aspect, we see teenage lads and grown men looking on in awe as the ladies put their cars through their rubber burning paces. Director Amber Fares introduces a bit of grit into the pearl – tension between Marah and Betty, the media savvy one who’s slightly less interested in being a team player than the others – and the “political situation” in Palestine is always there in the background. She also shows that the judges who administer the races aren’t above a bit of rule-making on the hoof, blatantly, and never to the girls’ advantage, it seems. It’s a fascinating documentary that bounces along to the rhythms of its Palestinian pop soundtrack. If there’s a niggle it’s that what’s going on at the races themselves is never really that explicitly laid out – a bit of the sort of storybuilding seen in Cosima Spender’s horse-racing doc Palio wouldn’t have gone amiss. The likeability and sheer – and how’s this for the wrong word – chutzpah of the girls is, however, undeniable.

Speed Sisters – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Welcome to Me (Precision, cert 15)

In the recent Daddy’s Home, a sap of a stepdad (played by Will Ferrell) was the butt of an entire 90 minutes of jokes about his inadequacy as a parent compared to easily superior biological dad Mark Wahlberg. Kicking a decent guy who is down is rarely if ever funny, and so it proved (the odd set-piece notwithstanding). Welcome to Me wades in similar waters, being a comedy about a nice but clearly mentally unhinged woman (Kristen Wiig) who, after winning a lottery bonanza, commissions a struggling TV station to make a series of shows entirely about her – Oprah is the idea, though Wiig’s Alice Klieg will enter on a white swan and then do and say pretty much whatever comes to mind. It’s car crash TV. And, amazement of amazements – it works! I mean both the TV show and the movie. Why, though? Well, the TV show because Klieg, though bats, is fresh and free of TV bullshit. The movie, because it’s not mean, Wiig is good at this sort of wide-eyed naive character and everyone gets a taste of the whip – the TV station bosses (James Marsden and Wes Bentley), online producers (a particularly fine Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh), Klieg’s shrink (Tim Robbins), everyone. And Wiig’s playing is just right: ironic but not pathetic – “Ladies and gentlemen, meatloaf cake with mashed sweet potato icing…” she ta-daas at one point in one of her shows, before later moving on to the live neutering of dogs. The self-help culture, and the way TV takes armourless types (think Susan Boyle) and does ghastly things to them is the real target, rather than Klieg – which rhymes with Wiig, and chimes with her career to date, playing characters which are gentle twists on herself. Here the twist is a lack of cultural capital – “I was born in 1971 and started using masturbation as a sedative in 1991,” is how her prepared statement to the press goes, which she reads out when the news of her jackpot win first goes public. The news item is cut short right there. The film, light as air, but packing some interesting ideas about TV as therapy, deserves to be watched to the end.

Welcome to Me – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Tulpa – Perdizioni Mortale (High Fliers, cert 18)

I believe that the backstory to Tulpa is that the director showed it at some festival, bristled at the negative feedback, then took the film away and altered it, removing the dubbed English and restored the original Italian, added subtitles, trimmed here and there. The result is a very respectable giallo pastiche, full of gore, softcore sex, bathed in the colour red, and with cheesy saxophones on the soundtrack. If you’re not familiar with giallo the first scene sets out the stall pretty well – a swarthy chap invites a fit young woman into his hotel room with a tilt of the head. Within minutes the pair are indulging in S&M, with him as the M – tied face down on the bed. A few minutes more and he’s dead by an unseen hand. Cue opening credits and a tinkly harpsichord theme tune. As for plot… I’m tempted to say it’s just a series of beautiful woman being killed in contrived ways (one on a fairground horse which is propelled into razor wire, round and round it goes until her face is a porridge of blood and her eye has popped out, another young woman getting hot fat thrown in her face before she’s staked through the heart – that kind of thing) but in fact it’s about this hoity toity hottie (Claudia Gerini) who, after a day of high-powered executive stuff at an office full of people from the 1970s – this includes fending off the advances of her old goat of a boss – likes to unwind at an S&M club. And it’s her partners at this club who are all dying in razor wire/boiling fat incidents. Like genuine giallo from four decades back it is all staggeringly inept, and there isn’t the tiniest smile from anyone involved (don’t invite the audience to laugh or they’ll never stop), but the style is off the scale, and it does, as it wends its way towards its big bloody finish manage to work itself into a dreamy crescendo of mad bloodletting to a great soundtrack, the mixing of which is one of this odd, enjoyable film’s great strengths.

Tulpa: Perdizionia Mortale aka Tulpa: Demon of Desire – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

29 February 2016-02-29

Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan slow dance in Brooklyn

 

Out This Week

 

 

James White (Soda, cert 15)

Josh Mond was a producer on Martha Marcy May Marlene and now makes his feature debut with the sort of grown-up seriously accomplished filigree drama that more or less guaranteed no cinema release in the UK – wot, no guys in costumes? Instead here it is in what used to be the ignominious “straight to DVD” category. There’s a long ramble to be had here about the best films these days being more likely not to get theatrical releases, but let’s not go into that now. Instead let’s take a look at the film, which stars a seriously good “from the inside out” performance by Christopher Abbott as White, a 20something slacker dude first encountered having recently lost his dad, in emotional freefall, and with his mother (Cynthia Nixon, all Sex and the City sins forgiven) now handed the black spot by cancer. Mond gives us scenes from White’s life and leaves us to connect them up. James grieves, he drinks at a club, he gets into a fight, he goes on holiday to Mexico, meets a foxy woman, they take an acid trip together, they have sex, they get married. All done matter of fact, simply, yet Mond’s Altmanesque decision not to join all the dots forces us to lean in and commit to the film. Where does it go? Is James’s faintly louche life going to lead this good-hearted-but-wrong-headed guy right off the rails? Or is he going to hit the straight and narrow? Can he see that this girl he’s lucked into is way too good for him? Is he going to fight to keep her? Or not? Is mum going to get sick again? Yes, it’s simple. But it’s intense. James White feels very much like real life. Webslinging does not feature.

James White – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Brooklyn (Lionsgate, cert 12)

In every generation of my Irish family going back to at least the mid-1800s, one or more of us has gone to make a life in the USA. My brother lives there currently, also an uncle and aunt, and before them one of my grandfather’s brothers, and there was another Morrissey before him, at which point the trail goes a bit cold, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one more before that, propelled by the potato famine of the 1840s. But even with this personal connection, I was reluctant to watch this film starring Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, the Irish colleen heading for 1950s New York, away from a lovely though threadbare Ireland and towards a bustling New World of possibility. The grim thought of it being Angela’s Ashes Part 2. Well, I was wrong on every count there, because Brooklyn functions, at some level at least, as a corrective to Alan Parker’s rain-lashed 1999 adaptation of Frank McCourt’s memoir, director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby dredging everything with light and fairy dust, donning the rosy specs as lovely new arrival Eilis encounters a well meaning priest (in the shape of avuncular Jim Broadbent), a severe but twinkling landlady (Julie Walters doing her old lady thing), gossipy girls, strapping but decent lads, everyone and every thing gleaming like a jewel in a New York that’s civilised and with civic institutions as solid and functional as the big square buildings they’re housed in. It seems odd to describe the acting as lovely, but it is, with beautiful old-fashioned touches from Ronan, Ethan Emory (her Italian boyfriend in New York) and, best of all, Domhnall Gleeson as the lad back in Ireland who would tempt Eilis away from her new life. Just the way Gleeson stares at his boots or picks up a pint makes him look like someone from another era, and that’s analogous for the whole film, which attempts to situate us, rosiness to one side, inside the minds of people who lived those lives back then – deferential to the church and authority of whatever sort. Any suggestion that there’s a coded message to politicians of today – a country built on the back of immigrant sweat, whoever heard of such a thing – must be pushed to the back of the mind.

Brooklyn – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Intern (Warner, cert 12)

Here’s Robert De Niro in a kindly old chevalier role as a 70-year-old returning to the workplace – like a shark it’s keep going or die, he reckons – as a suited-and-booted intern working for tech-head and reluctant equal-opportunities employer Anne Hathaway. It’s a comedy and it’s fairly charming and it’s De Niro, so we expect a bit of coasting too, and it’s a Nancy Meyers film so it’s observational comedy of a faintly Nora Ephron-esque sort with its weight firmly on the side of the older party. So, no, there’s no inappropriate relationship between Hathaway and De Niro. Instead he gets to teach her, and everyone around him, how to live, and that gadgets (a digital clock, pens, a calculator in his case; the computer, tablet and smartphone in theirs) have nothing to do with it. It’s about old school manners and respect, in a nutshell. The PJ O’Rourke book Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut is its philosophical foundation, and there is the constant suggestion that Meyers is trying too hard – the scene where company masseuse Rene Russo gives De Niro a quick shoulder rub at his desk and he indicates to his co-workers that he has an erection…There are several other moments when you might want to make the gag sign too, but on the whole this is a decent exploration of largely unexplored territory, played well by its leads, though I could do without its lessons in gender politics in the 21st century, from a Hathaway who suddenly gets an attack of “authorial voice” while drunk – it’s why can’t a man be more like a man, in a nutsack, sorry, nutshell. No, that terrible Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson Google film was called The Internship.

The Intern – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Sleeping with Other People (Icon, cert 15)

Described by its writer/director as ‘When Harry Met Sally… for assholes’, Sleeping with Other People is a standard rom-com dressed up in slutty clothes. Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie are the updated Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, a couple who meet at a sex-addicts group and decide that, since they fuck up every relationship based on fucking, they’ll not go there. Cue extended cinematic foreplay by writer/director Leslye Headland as the two dance the will they/won’t they while talking almost exclusively about sex and trading tips such as the best way for a woman to masturbate. These supposedly “I can’t believe he/she just said that” moments might have the founding fathers of Hollywood turning in their graves but they’re unlikely to shock Generation Tinder. Sudeikis is well cast as a guy who could, let’s face it, be easily mistaken for a sex pest, and Brie is just as good as him at making the dialogue – and there’s a lot of it – seem to bubble out of the mouth like… searches for inappropriate simile and decides to drop it. Ernst Lubitsch would understand what’s going on here. And he’d appreciate that it’s hard to get this sort of thing right, and that messing with the screwball formula doesn’t generally work. But, in spite of all its sex-toy trappings, Sleeping with Other People does follow the strict old-time recipe – the gendered roles (he’s a tech start-up king, she teaches young kids), the ricochet repartee, the funny sidekick, the romantic impediment, and so on. It’s beginning to sound like I didn’t like it. But I did. Lots. It’s a romantic comedy that works as a romance and as a comedy. That’s not too common.

Sleeping with Other People – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Deathgasm (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Deathgasm is a comedy, of course, one about 1980s Australian teenage lads discovering that their revered heavy metal is, as the Christian fundamentalists used to suggest, a front for Satan himself. But is it any more than a funny title and a neat idea? Yes, as it happens, because writer/director Jason Lei Howden sets up a love triangle subplot to act as an ancillary motor. So as wimpy hero Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) leaves the stifling security of his uncle’s house – he’s there because his mother is now locked up after being “caught sucking off Santa in a mall” – and sets out on a quest to discover how a local metal hero, a forbidden dark dirge and an outbreak of zombiedom are all related, his “friend” Zakk (James Blake) is also trying to inveigle his way into the pants of Medina (Kimberley Crossman), the unattainably hot girl Brodie is keen on, even though she’s his cousin’s squeeze. That’s a love quadrilateral, technically, I realise. Other things in Deathgasm’s favour include a cheery approach to gore – when Zakk’s mechanic dad becomes a ravening monster, he and Brodie drop a car engine on his head, leading to Zakk opining that it’s probably the way dad would have liked to go. And Medina gets more to do than just stand there pointing her chest at the camera – she’s handier with an axe than the guys anticipate. Plus there’s sex toys used as offensive weapons – imagine trying to beat a zombie to death with a big prosthetic penis. In fact this clever crossing and re-crossing of the comedy/horror fault line is what gives this film its gas. If you’ve ever even vaguely nodded along to anything inspired by one of Tony Iommi’s lolloping basslines, this is probably for you. If you don’t know who Tony Iommi is, shame on you.

Deathgasm – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Visit: an Alien Encounter (Metrodome, cert PG)

The last film by Michael Madsen – not the actor – was called Into Eternity and detailed the massive engineering project designed to facilitate the underground storage of nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years. Until long after our civilisation is finished, in other words. Its most notable aspect was the way it interrogated scientists and engineers about their attempts to future-proof their warning systems – what sign might a human from the 47th century recognise as meaning “Danger – Radioactivity!”? The Visit: an Alien Encounter proceeds in similar fashion, asking questions of scientists, military men and bureaucrats about how they would handle the arrival of a visitor from outer space. Did you know the UN has a department for Outer Space Affairs? Mazlan Othman is its director and is one of the people Madsen interrogates, posing as an off-screen alien to whom Othman delivers her answers. Other officials Madsen grills in similar style include the chair of the Panel on Planetary Protection, the director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, an astro-biologist, an expert on space law, an engineer at the International Space University – institutions and job descriptions that are all new to me. Perhaps this film’s most singular success is the way it shines a light on this shadowy area of human strategics, Madsen effectively creating a work of cinematic long-form journalism as he tries to tease out from the experts exactly what would happen if ET showed up. And the answer he comes up with… well I’m not going to spoil the enjoyment of watching. But I will say that sci-fi movies of the 1950s seem to provide the basic templates. And that the human tendency to panic when we don’t understand something doesn’t bode well. There’s a touch of the conspiratorial tone of an Adam Curtis documentary here, and Madsen is hamstrung to a slight extent by the lack of killer visuals that made Into Eternity such a wow. Even so, this is a fascinating and also faintly chilling exploration of a subject that should, you’d have thought, have been done long before this.

The Visit: an Alien Encounter – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Lesson (Frightfest, cert 18)

The Lesson is an odd film in that it starts off being about one thing – a gang of feral kids who delight in vandalising and bullying – but then it slips into something else entirely. The something else is torture porn, and why this late-arrival at a very tired party works so well is because it spends so long introducing its two key characters. There’s Fin (Evan Bendall), handsomer and smarter than his even thuggier older brother (Tom Cox), whose girlfriend (Michaela Prchalová) is forever giving Fin the eye. And there’s Joel (Rory Coltart), the cock-of-the-walk nasty piece of work. These two lads are horrible, but their unpleasantness springs not from innate evilness, rather it’s from the shitty way they in turn have been treated at home. So when Mr Gale (Robert Hands), the hapless teacher these lads have been routinely humiliating at school, bangs them over the head, hauls them off to his lair, cable ties them to a desk, then gets the DIY tools out for “the lesson”, our loyalties are fairly evenly split. Writer/director Ruth Platt does another bit of even cannier splitting in writing that catches both the rhythms of the chavvy lads and the stream-of-consciousness rambling of the erudite-but-bonkers Gale as he delivers a lecture on subjects he could never cover in class, ranging from Milton to Blake, Rousseau, Hobbes and Charlotte Bronte. “What does inspiration mean, Tindall?,” he asks Fin at one point. “Ten seconds or I nail your hand to the desk.” And on it goes in this manner – questions and punishment, like old-school teaching with extreme prejudice. Shot up close and obviously on a low budget, with simple blue and yellow lighting effects like a 1980s Smash Hits cover and a soundtrack that was probably put together in someone’s bedroom, this film could never have been made before the digital revolution. But here it is, handsome and solid, gripping and smart, funny and horrible, a feature debut deserving to be seen.

The Lesson – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Stephen Morrissey 2016