Out This Week
Tomorrowland (Disney, cert 12)
When did we give up on believing in the future? Can we believe again? Writer Damon Lindelof sets out to tackle the turn to postmodernism – the most significant philosophical cultural shift in the West for a century – in a big, multiplex popcorn film. George Clooney is postmodernity incarnate, who as an eager, inventive little boy called Frank went to the 1964 New York World’s Fair (the high point of modernity and its showcase event) and met a young girl called Athena, was wowed both by her and by the scientific marvels he saw there. Then was wowed some more when he was granted access to an even more spiffy world where cars flew and people wore figure-hugging fashions, no one was obese and everyone seemed happy. Cut to 40 or so years later, where disappointed Frank – the future didn’t turn out the way he expected – is being tracked down by a sparky Casey (Britt Robertson), the latest person recruited by that same little girl to try and kickstart the future again. Many many adventures are had as this little team of Frank, Casey and Athena head off on a Wizard of Oz style quest and eventually meet the Wizard aka Nix (Hugh Laurie), the guy with the answers to the whole stalled future problem. It’s perhaps this “wha?” aspect to the plot – the big idea – that has prevented so many reviewers from giving this film its full due. Quite simply, and quite unfairly, Tomorrowland has been judged to a higher standard than, say, an Avengers movie, and so on Rotten Tomatoes, or wherever, its scores are a bit disappointing. Because, my god, this is an exhilarating ride: fun and visually a wow, thoughtful and smart, with so many upsides that you want to grab those “meh” reviewers and ask them what exactly it is that they want. In Britt Robertson we have the perfect girl-next-door heroine (and how often does a young woman carry a film?), Clooney dons a Harrison Ford persona as the gruff but essentially decent grown-up (referring to Casey as “kid” in finest Han Solo style), director Brad Bird serves the whole thing up as a feast of visual CG/live action crossover so accomplished that it’s hard to see the join, and by going for 1960s retro-modernist styling, he’s pretty much futureproofed the film too. Lindelof, meanwhile, has space for digressions – the scene in a shop selling sci-fi fanboy memorabilia stands out – has fun with history, and even deals with an overt bit of product placement by Coca Cola with a deft deflection. Downsides? I don’t share Disney’s faith in the orchestra for soundtracks, but then Daft Punk can’t be everywhere, and, yes, the big finale is a bit of an emotional gush. But I bet it brings a tear to your eye. Because, in this film, more or less every target Lindelof and Bird set out to hit, they hit.
Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner, cert 15)
This was never going to be easy – relaunching a franchise which was tied heart and soul to the punk ethos. But director/co-writer George Miller, realising the adaptability of what he’d created in the 1980s, and with just the tiniest tinker under the bonnet, turns out a Mad Max for the 21st century, one that’s absorbed the Fast and Furious and the Bourne franchises and is ready to race it out across photogenic Australian desert all over again. And that’s all this is – a race. Tom Hardy spends much of the early part of the film trapped in an iron mask – a little joke about the number of “mumbling” roles? – leaving the film pretty much to Charlize Theron, as the driver and honcho of this gigantic behemoth of a truck which is being pursued by a “very bad man” (Theron’s words, and another Miller joke, about the perfunctoriness of his script) who wants the harem of escaped lovelies she has in tow. Few words are said, many scowls are exchanged, and Miller gives us desert sequences and lots of action, much pedalling to the metal, lithe clambering under the truck moving at speed, and Nicholas Hoult as an eye candy Max-in-training. But forget the skeletal bad guys, in fact it’s the attention to mechanical detail that is the most gratifying thing about this film, and why it works so well. Miller tells us how things work, why they stay together rather than flying off into space, which makes it all the more gratifying when they actually do fly off into space, or barrel off into the desert in flames. He gives us a mechanical ballet, frequently set to a classical or operatic soundtrack, and his camera and editing choices work at the level of poetry of a particularly kinetic sort. Occasionally you can spot that the big truck is moving a lot slower than is suggested, and now and again you might spot a model being used, but these details are forgivable, I’d say, because the mood is right, the pace is right and the title is right too – this is all about fury.
Turbo Kid (Lionsgate, cert 15)
Retro in every respect, from the VHS style opening credits, to its “this is the future – this is 1997” serious voiceover, its Rocky style theme music of strangled vocals and screaming guitars, down to the casting of the fabulous Michael Ironside, the villain in Total Recall, as another villain here, the overlord of some post-apocalyptic world where water is in short supply and Ironside’s Zeus (hey, aim high) controls it. In this skanky world of privation moves The Kid (Munro Chambers), a teenager with a love of comic books, in particular tales of Turbo Rider, a mythical personage who turns out to have been real after all – The Kid finds Turbo Rider’s downed superhero vehicle and dons his apparel, at roughly the same time as he comes into the orbit of Apple (Laurence Lebeouf), a pretty girl of staggering naivety but so big-hearted the Kid is strongly inclined to let her tag along. Together these two, obviously, are going to fall in love and take on the might of Zeus and his henchman Skeletron, save the day, free the water and so on. Give this one a few minutes, because at first its obvious cheapness and the wobbly acting might have your hand hovering over the stop button. But once it finds its feet it’s a real charmer – a film smiling from ear to ear as it warmly homages the era it’s pastiching. The leads are unaffected, the jokes are witty – ranging from tiny allusions to Soylent Green to physical comedy about unintended consequences, such as an assailant rushing towards Kid and Apple with the intention of knifing them, tripping over and stabbing himself through the eye. Which brings us to the gore, which is spectacular and cartoonish – bodies cut up as if by a mad butcher fly through the air, blood cannonades out of neck wounds, and so on. And everyone – everyone – rides a BMX bike, as if this were BMX Bandits remade by Peter Jackson in his Bad Taste era.
Danny Collins (E One, cert 15)
Just when you think Al Pacino will never do anything worth watching ever again, along comes Danny Collins, a supreme example of Pacino at his best, playing a coke-snorting, brandy-chugging rocker getting his mojo back. The backstory is based on a true one – about John Lennon writing an up-and-coming musician a letter in the early 1970s, a few lines of encouragement plus an observation about the important things in life (Imagine no possessions, being the gist). But… the letter went unreceived for decades. As in real life, so in this film, ageing, sold-out, lounge-lizard Collins gets the letter, bought for him by his corny, loveable manager (Christopher Plummer, again just pulsing out charisma), a letter which forces him to appraise his life thus far. Sickened with what he’s become, he checks into a cheap (for him) hotel and starts trying to write a few songs, stuff from the heart. The songs all sound like Imagine crossed with My Way, and that tone of mawkish “love me and my tiny violin” does tend to pervade the film. So when Collins tries to reconnect with his son (Bobby Cannavale) – product of a one-night stand many years before – the breast-beating tom-toms get going, when what we clearly most want to see is Al turning the charm right up, singing a few songs (he’s not bad), having a bantery relationship with hotel manager Annette Bening (touching and believable – because she resists) and the general “we’re not worthiness” of the civilians Collins comes across as he moves through the unfamiliar world of the cheapish hotel lobbies he’s now chosen to inhabit. With an edit this would be a classic in the It’s a Wonderful Life vein. Even without one, it’s a lovely film, particularly if you’re a Pacino fan. And aren’t we all when he’s on form?
London Road (Spirit, cert 15)
Something a bit different – a musical based on an actual spree by a serial killer in Ipswich in 2006. Steve Wright killed five women, all prostitutes, and the events and the effect it had on the residents of the rundown area of London Road were turned into a piece of musical verbatim theatre by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork, with Rufus Norris directing at the National Theatre in London. It was a big hit, so a film version always seemed likely, even though this isn’t going to be everyone’s idea of a comfy night out, or in. First let’s dispense with Tom Hardy, who should be renamed Tom Hardly, because he’s barely in this filmed version, appearing as a cab driver for a few minutes near the beginning, then again for a few seconds near the end. Olivia Colman, surely the hottest thing on British TV right now, is in it, though, as one of the many curtain-twitching residents being interviewed and singing their remarks, often directly to camera. Rufus Norris remains the director of the film, graduating from the more soap-based “grim report from the suburbs” drama of his last film, Broken, to show himself a dapper director of the musical – his camera has fluidity, his lively ensemble numbers work as well as his more mournful solo pieces, often shot on sofas in living rooms, where the likes of Colman or Anita Dobson (formerly of EastEnders) express some often rather uncomfortable opinions – about the dead girls being slags, and worse. Sympathy is there, but it’s in short supply and is mostly supplied by sung testimony from the girls themselves. Musically you’d pitch it on Sondheim’s lawn – rhythmic and extrapolating the cadences of the news bulletin or “well I never” gossip exchanged over back garden walls to create melodies. Because of this fidelity to source, London Road works very well, though it’s a strange and macabre experience. Fascinating is the word so often used for this level of “entertainment” – where the subliminal is doing a lot of the dramatic driving – and fascinating is what I’ll reach for here, too.
The Physician (Arrow, cert 15)
And now for something very familiar – a big old school, cast-of-thousands epic that straddles continents and reaches back into a past epoch. Well, close half an eye and we’re there, because this is a German production (by Ufa, no less, studio of Murnau, Lang, Sternberg and Lubitsch) and so hasn’t quite the budget of a big Hollywood piece. But then I’m not so sure Hollywood would be quite so keen to embrace what Ufa are up to here, which is a defence of rationalism, the enlightenment and learning, as told in the story of a young medieval English orphan (Tom Payne, another capable Hugh Dancy type) who winds up being the student of the great Islamic polymath, physician and scholar Ibn-Sena aka Avicenna (Ben Kingsley). It is a lovely unashamed work of filmic theatre and I thoroughly enjoyed every cent of its slightly paltry $36 million budget, particularly the early scenes, where Payne’s Rob is taken under the wing of travelling huckster/barber Stellan Skarsgård and is taught the basics of the trade – which include amputations between the carousing and wenching. This medieval background is painted in more detail than anything that follows, the drama then moving at pace as Rob abandons the mud and misery of England for the ringlets and skullcaps of the Jews, moving rapidly on to the camel jockeys of the Middle East as he makes his way into Islamic territory – circumcising himself en route – so he can pass undetected as an infidel. Everything is done in the broadest of sweeps and you’re either going to give it a by – as I did – or object to the speed of the storytelling. Having met and been taken on by Avicenna, Rob invents the study of anatomy, for instance, divines the vectors of bubonic plague, pleads for religious relativism with Zoroastrians. So, yes, it’s a bit schematic, but Kingsley delivers gravitas as Ibn-Sena, standing in for Jack Hawkins or Rex Harrison or Peter Ustinov. I could do with less of Olivier Martinez, the wickedly handsome Frenchman who is currently Mr Halle Berry, as the dastardly local Shah. But he’s actually totemic of the whole thing, which is unafraid to just block out the entire drama and leave us to add the nuance. Maybe it was the Moroccan locations I liked so much.
Shooting for Socrates (Soda, cert PG)
In 1986 Northern Ireland, on one of their momentary David and Goliath jaunts, took on Brazil in their last Group D game of the World Cup in Mexico. They lost, of course. Is that a spoiler? I don’t think so, because if this tiny team had won, it would have been etched in the annals of football legend unto the crack of doom. Suffice to say that they played and didn’t disgrace themselves. I’m not sure the same can be said about this film, which has good intentions but doesn’t seem to know how to go about creating what is trying to be a feelgood Full Monty knock-off. It’s a strong cast though, with John Hannah as charismatic manager Billy Bingham, and the likes of Richard Dormer and Conleth Hill providing the sort of thespian welly that the screenplay seems coy about delivering. We’re reminded, for example, in frequent flashbacks to the working-class streets of Northern Ireland, that there is a religious/ethnic divide, which has fuelled years of strife, in snapshots of life inside a nice Protestant family and a nice Catholic family, each just trying to make the best of a bad situation. Do we learn, though, that the football team – which this film is meant to be about – also contained Catholics and Protestants? We do not. And there – life in microcosm, conflict on the field of play, teamwork, better together than apart – are the metaphorical pegs on which to hang this film, which instead swings back and forth between “back home” and the preparations for the big game, desperately trying to tie the two distinct geographies together. Manager Billy Bingham’s wife features, for no reason that makes any sense, unless the film is actually about him, and I’ve missed something. All in all it’s about as convincing as the large number of bad 1980s wigs on display. As for Socrates, it’s the Brazilian player the title refers to, not the philosopher, though god help us if there isn’t an attempt to tie those two together as well.
© Steve Morrissey 2015