Tom and Buster the elephant

There’s the bones of a true story inside Zoo, a light British cocklewarmer about a boy who, during the Second World War, spirited a baby elephant away from his local zoo and housed it in a back yard until danger from the Luftwaffe had passed.

So, no, this is not to be confused with Robinson Devor’s bizarre 2007 documentary Zoo, about men who like to have sex with animals, or even We Bought a Zoo, though this is undoubtedly as light-hearted, entertaining and uncool as Cameron Crowe’s 2011 bauble.

We’re not in California but in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where Tom’s zookeeper dad has been called away to war, and his mum is always busy, throwing Tom onto his own resources, one of which would be working at the zoo if its grouchy owner Mr Shawcross (Ian McElhinney) would only see things Tom’s way. And then, with raids by German bombers threatening, the British army are sent in to kill the animals, to prevent the dangerous ones from rampaging through the streets should the zoo take a hit. This much is true.

And so Tom, distraught that animals are being slaughtered for little reason he can see, gets together a gang of misfits like himself, kidnaps Buster the elephant and stores it for the duration at the house of local eccentric Denise Austin. Denise is played here by Penelope Wilton, though in reality the actual Denise – who did exist, it was the kids who didn’t – was a much younger woman and only died in 1997.

Denise and the kids
Meet the gang

That’s it, in essence, a ripping Enid Blyton-style story of resourceful children, absent parents, an adventure seized and a door into the adult world of independence opened. This is a film without side, simple, enjoyable and full of lovely performances by faces new and old. Toby Jones is the most recognisable name, but he’s just a marquee tease really, only in it for a few minutes, playing a curmudgeonly gatekeeper not keen on pesky kids. Think of him as a blue cheese dressing or crispy bacon bits.

Wilton takes on the adult-in-chief duties and is as dependably brilliant as ever, able to squeeze a tear out of moments that might be unbearably mawkish in someone else’s hands, as the lonely old dear whose life is given new purpose. Ian McElhinney, only recently off Game of Thrones as the granite warrior Barristan Selmy, is an imposingly stern zoo boss.

Everyone is just right, in fact, and that extends to the kids – Art Parkinson (another Game of Thrones alum) as the plucky Tom, Emily Flain as his will they/won’t they possible love interest, Ian O’Reilly as the dim bulb Pete, James Stockdale (great comedy chops) as Mickey, the brother Pete’s ashamed to admit he has, on account of Mickey’s unusual appearance, even Glen Nee, who’s only in it for brief moments but cuts through effectively as a school bully. Buster the elephant is played by Nellie the elephant. No argument there.

Everything is where it is, the machine has been oiled, we just sit back and watch it work. Some laughs, some sighs, some thrills, some pleasure.

If you’re looking for an extra layer of meaning, I’m not sure there is any, though writer/director Colin McIvor, a graduate of the University of Ulster in Belfast, does use the word “bombings” rather than “bombing” at one point – the Luftwaffe conducted nightly bombing raids on the Belfast shipyards; it was the paramilitaries of the Troubles who were responsible for bombings. So if you want to see the kids’ noble mission to prevent injury happening to the animals as some kind of feelgood read-across to the Good Friday Agreement, that (admittedly tenuous) connection is there too.

Zoo – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Why Don’t You Just Die!

Andrey throws the TV

The trailer does not lie. Why Don’t You Just Die! (Papa, sdokhni in the original Russian) is a camp melodrama awash with blood, gruesomeness, novel ways of hurting people and comic-book cruelty. It’s as if all the horrible things that ever happened to Wile E Coyote were bundled together and then brought to the screen by a Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez in one of their Grindhouse jaunts.

The opening shot: a young man with a fantastically broken nose (Aleksandr Kuznetsov, and that’s his real nose) is waiting outside an apartment with a hammer behind his back. The door after much knocking opens. It is a bullet-headed man (Vitaliy Khaev). Andrey, the young man’s girlfriend’s father, looks like a man who eats children for breakfast. Matvey (Kuznetsov) goes in, and the two of them eye each other, each waiting for the moment when the violence will commence.

It comes soon enough. And before the opening credits have even rolled we’ve seen plenty of gratuitous blood-letting, wanton violence and creative destruction – personal fave was Matvey being poleaxed by a big old CRT television, which Andrey has thrown into Matvey’s face while it was still switched on.

After the credits, the power tools come out, limbs are broken and there’s murder most lurid. As for plot, that stays in the background while the violence is afoot, but reasserts itself when it abates – something about Matvey’s girlfriend Olya (Evgeniya Kreghzhde) insisting that her father, the bullet-headed corrupt cop Andrey, raped her when she was 12. There’s one other principal character, a fellow cop called Evgenich (Mikhail Gorevoy), who turns up just when things look like quietening down, plus Elena Shevchenko as Andrey’s wife, Tasha, who makes one cup of coffee, one cup of tea but otherwise pretty much stands there with her mouth open for the entire film attempting to scream.

Stars Aleksandr Kuznetsov and Vitaliy Khaev
Stars Aleksandr Kuznetsov and Vitaliy Khaev

Around halfway through it looks like the bloodletting has stopped, but it’s only pausing for breath and things soon get going all over again in time for a sensationally gorey finale. Everyone is either bleeding, soaked in blood or dead.

In Grindhouse style, director Kirill Sokolov and his talented DP Dmitriy Ulyukaev bathe everything in gorgeous gel colours – bright reds, greens, oranges, to emphasise the visuals with exaggerated comic-book compositions. Soundtrack composers Vadim QP and Sergey Solovyov also display a talent for gorgeous pastiche. Their reference points include Saint Saëns though they’re mostly in the business of crafting the finest Ennio Morricone deepfakes – mariachi trumpets, choirs, bells, twanging guitar, the full fistful.

This is director Sokolov’s feature debut, after a handful of shorts, and if there is one criticism you could make of Why Don’t You Just Die! it’s that it’s not the most drama-laden of films, it’s a thought experiment. That said, apart from the gore, it does compensate with some moments of laugh-out-loud physical comedy – at one point I laughed harder than I think I have all year (and I’m writing this at the end of December). There are even (for a film like this) some almost subtle bits of visual play, like the cutaway from the insanely bloody crime scene that sets off round two of the film to a kebab shop where doner meat is being sliced from off the pole.

There are probably digital effects in the mix but the whole thing looks like it’s been done physically – god knows what sort of technicians you hire in to get arterial spray this good, but Sokolov and his production team have found them.

And all done with only five main players and on three/four room-sized sets. Way to go, Kirill.

Why Don’t You Just Die! – Watch it/buy it on Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

First Cow

King-Lu and Cookie out in the woods


Kelly Reichardt’s films often operate at two levels. At the surface one story plays out, while somewhere to one side, and often as a comment on the first story, something different is going on. First Cow could really be called First Love, since it’s the story of two men who meet in difficult circumstances and then form a bond that lasts until death.

What it looks like, though, especially at first, is a western, a story of a cook who’s travelling with hard-bitten fur trappers. They’re all out in the forest and there isn’t enough food. And even if there was, the trappers don’t seem to like what the cook’s been serving. There’s a suggestion that they just don’t like him. He’s just too diffident, withdrawn. One evening, after yet another slanging match about the “vittlin’” has died down, Cookie (John Magaro) chances upon a runaway Chinese man in the woods, hungry and desperate not to be given up to a band of Russians looking for him.

Cookie keeps King-Lu (Orion Lee) safe from harm and, later, they deepen their acquaintance at a frontier town where the two of them just happen to meet again.

Reichardt’s image of the frontier is a familiar one, especially if you’ve seen her Meek’s Cutoff. It’s dirty and lawless, but there’s also a keen focus on domestic detail: the wooden buckets, the thick, warm clothing, rough planks, sacking, things made from other, recognisable, things, like the whisk that Cookie uses when he and King-Lu go into the cake business – it’s made of little sticks tied to a bigger stick.

The cakes are the product of King-Lu’s restless drive to make money, somehow, anyhow. But to make these cakes, which look a lot like donuts, Cookie needs milk, and the only source of that is the only cow in this part of the world, and it belongs to the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), whose the conduit through which all good and bad things pass. Round here he is the law.

Which explains the title, it’s the first cow in the area, and brings us to the bit where the trouble starts. The Chief Factor is a cruelly utilitarian man like something out of Dickens – “Any question that cannot be counted is not worth the asking,” he says self-importantly to an Army captain he’s entertaining and attempting to impress (with cakes!).

What the First Factor doesn’t know is that the reason why his cow is not giving as much milk as he expected is because Cookie and King-Lu are sneaking into his field each night and milking it.


Toby Jones as the First Factor
Toby Jones as the First Factor


A showdown, a reckoning, is obviously going to come, but Reichardt’s interest isn’t so much much in this story as the way of life in this bustling town, where all manner of ethnicities have come to buy, sell or trade.

Thanks to Reichardt’s regular DP, Christopher Blauvelt, it’s a dark world, of densely gloomy interiors, faintly reminiscent of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller and definitely worth watching either on a big screen in a dark cinema, or at least at home with the lights all turned off.

Also barely creeping into view is the deepening relationship between King-Lu and Cookie – who picks a bunch of flowers to brighten up King-Lu’s crude cabin when he’s invited to move in.

Is it a gay love story? Maybe, maybe not. Relationships aren’t always sexual, but as Reichardt’s camera patiently details the minutiae of Cookie and King-Lu’s daily life, we’re watching something tender being put together in front of our eyes.

Since the film opens with the discovery of a pair of skeletons in the forest by a 21st-century mushroom forager, we have strong suspicions where the story of King-Lu and Cookie is going, and once they’ve embarked on the nightly illicit milkings, we’ve got a pretty good idea how they get there.

One of the marvels of this incredibly understated film is that somehow Reichardt builds real tension in a series of late scenes set out in the woods, where Cookie and King-Lu are being pursued (but not particularly urgently) by the First Factor’s men.

And there Reichardt leaves them, in a sudden fade to black, as if to say “this film isn’t about the chase”. And it isn’t.



First Cow – Watch it/buy it on Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2021



4 January 2013-01-04

Toby Jones in Berberian Sound Studio

Out in the UK This Week

Berberian Sound Studio (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

“A dangerously aroused goblin prowls the dormitory” – a line that says it all from the never-seen film that soundman Toby Jones is working on in Peter Strickland’s follow-up to the brilliant, Romanian-set Katalin Varga, a brilliantly overheated, Italian-set homage to 1970s “giallo” horror. Really worth watching with headphones on, this one.

Berberian Sound Studio – at Amazon


The Imposter (Revolver, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

One of the most gripping films of 2012, a semi-documentary about how a 20something French juvie managed to pass himself off as a missing 16-year-old from Texas. And why the family bought it. A remarkable film that I’d just about got my head around, when off it went in another quite a different and shocking direction.

The Imposter – at Amazon


Grabbers (Sony, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

If you could cross the TV comedy series Father Ted with a big-budget Hollywood monster movie, this no-budget Irish tale of pissed-up yokels having a close encounter of the absurd kind would be it. This is a superbly cast and directed film and deserves to become a real cult gem.

Grabbers – at Amazon


You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (StudioCanal, cert PG, DVD)

Anyone with a love of the arch, the meta, the theatrical will love Alain Resnais’s masterly retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story as a play within a play within a play, embracing a stack of interesting themes, not least the ageing of the boomer generation, one self-defined by youth. It’s got a cast of big names, headed by Michel Piccoli, and shows that even at the age of 90, Resnais, director of 1959’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, has still got it.

You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet – at Amazon


Take This Waltz (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The always excellent Michelle Williams plays the dithery wife being tempted by the artist over the road, while Seth Rogen plays it straight as her apron-wearing, recipe-writing stay-at-home house-husband in a drama from director Sarah Polley which, like her more potent Away from Her, examines a relationship under stress.

Take This Waltz – at Amazon


Partners in Crime (StudioCanal, cert 12, DVD)

The French director Pascal Thomas takes an Agatha Christie story, adds 1960s sports cars, glam European locations and loads of Hart to Hart “playboy detective” nonsense then leaves boulevardiers Catherine Frot and André Dussolier to get on with it. Gorgeous to look at, and sleep through.

Partners in Crime – at Amazon


Jackpot (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

This is more Joe Orton than Jo Nesbo, who wrote the original book, a jokey oompah-oompah about a bunch of criminals who win the lottery and then start killing each other. It’s Scandinavian, it’s bloody and if you’ve not OD’d on Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, there are worse and far less entertaining ways of watching people die.

Jackpot – at Amazon


© Steve Morrissey 2013