20 October 2014-10-20

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Two Days, One Night (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A French factory hand (magnificent Marion Cotillard) has a weekend to persuade her colleagues to do without their cash bonuses and keep her on instead. As much a portrait of a woman battling depression and low self-esteem as a condemnation of modern employment norms – what kind of scumbag boss dodges a bullet by making his employees take those sort of decisions? – it has a high concept, a big name in the lead, clear heroes and villains and an “if you try hard enough you can win” throughline. In other words it’s the Dardenne brothers’ most Hollywood film to date. But it is a Dardennes film all the same – subtle and restrained, with the drama flowing from character rather than the diktats of some screenplay-writing guru.

Two Days, One Night – at Amazon

 

 

 

Cold in July (Icon, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

The writing/directing duo of Jim Mickle and Nick Damici made Mulberry Street (aka Mulberry Virus on Zombie Street), a no-budget horror done with zip and flair. Cold in July hares off up a different avenue – two different avenues in fact. At first an essay in the mechanics of the dark sinister thriller, it kicks off brilliantly with Michael C Hall’s shit-scared householder confronting an intruder and accidentally killing him when his gun just goes off. Then it builds as the father (Sam Shepard) of this smalltime thief arrives on the scene to exact some retribution. Then gets more complicated as a few deft plot twists involving the local (bent) police are introduced. And then… it slides off to the left with the arrival of Don Johnson as a dandyish Southern cop called Jim Bob. Johnson is great and so is this character. Just not in this film. However, wobble absorbed, Johnson slightly back in his box, the film then swaggers (with an absolutely unforgiveable use of the slo-mo walk from Reservoir Dogs) towards an entirely satisfying splatter finale. Look out for Wyatt Russell, as the shitbag son of Shepard. We’ll be seeing him again.

Cold in July – at Amazon

 

 

 

Welcome to New York (Spirit, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Abel Ferrara’s best film since Bad Lieutenant, Gérard Depardieu’s best in decades too, opens with some intertitles telling us that it isn’t based on the case of a certain French financier (ie Dominic Strauss Kahn). Then goes on to say that it is… that it isn’t… that it’s kind of exploring what happens when this sort of thing happens to this sort of man blah blah blah. It sounds like a bit of legal chicanery but in fact Ferrara and Depardieu are as good as their word and give us a psychological study hung on the story about a sexaholic French financier visiting Manhattan whose inappropriate dealings with “housekeeping” (the current nice term for a maid) land him in legal hot water. The film breaks into three parts – an extended opening orgy sequence, the central humiliation of the dead-eyed Monsieur Devereaux (Depardieu) being led through the admirably even-handed US legal system, then a bunch of scenes in which the until-now potential future president of France has to explain his behaviour to his ambitious wife (Jacqueline Bisset, a tigress who hasn’t been fed). A character seen from three very different angles, then, with Depardieu astonishingly good at each turn, though it’s only in the last Depardieu/Bisset scenes that staginess starts to creep in to a film that’s avoided the “you speak, I react” style of theatricality. It looks like Ferrara has shot it all on one camera, though this never feels like a gimmick, more the appropriate beady eye to observe an affectless sociopath at work. Brilliant.

Welcome to New York – at Amazon

 

 

 

Maleficent (Disney, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Perfect casting, obviously, Angelina Jolie as the wicked fairy who curses Aurora aka Sleeping Beauty. We get the backstory – how Maleficent became so narky. Nominative determinists might suggest that if you’re named Maleficent at birth then that might play a part. But it seems it was a man’s fault – Sharlto Copley playing the young swain who responds to a “whomsoever shall bring me the wings…” challenge from his dying king by cutting off Maleficent’s magnificent pair. At this point Jolie’s recent double mastectomy springs unbidden into the mind, at the same time as a sort of admiration for the clankingly obvious feminist imagery – men clip women’s wings, that’s what they always do. But these are crass thoughts and should be put back in their place by the most toweringly evil and awe-inspiring character to come out of Disney since Snow White’s wicked queen – the pre-publicity was certainly banging this drum. Instead Maleficent comes across as merely an angry woman who’s just a bit misunderstood. What a downer. And because of this chasm between expectation and delivery, and the read-across from the actress onto the character,  the amazing work done by armies of CG illustrators – who have given the Technicolor ambience of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood a Lord of the Rings tweak – passes by slightly unnoticed. As does Elle Fanning’s note-perfect pantomime turn as the gamine princess brought up in the woods by a trio of good fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville being the thankless equivalent of Disney’s comedy animal sidekicks).

Maleficent – at Amazon

 

 

 

Watermark (Soda, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)

Watermark is a documentary lying at the intersection of two traditions. One is the “isn’t nature awesome” of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisquatsi, in which a series of high def images of Planet Earth pile up to create their effect. The second is the “isn’t humanity slightly sinister” of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread, in which the human tendency to turn everything into an industrial process – in that case food production – is shown at its most mechanistic and frightening. As with food, so with water in Watermark, a series of astonishing (and astonishingly hi-def – shot at 5K resolution) images all to do with the way humans use and abuse this most basic resource. Switching from the Xiluodu Dam, to the desertified river bed of the Colorado river, to the tanneries of Bangladesh, to the tiered paddies of China, to the Kumbh Mela on the Ganges, to the disappearing Texas aquifers, it is a series of gob-smacking images one after the other. Climate change is soft-pedalled – “if the climate is changing, then we need to know how and what we can do and what we can do about it” is the line. But the tacit throughline, barely detectable, is of scarcity and value – prepare for war, in other words.

Watermark – at Amazon

 

 

 

Belle (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

A bonnet-y drama dealing with slavery and starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a “mulatto” girl brought up in the very highest British society at the end of the 18th century. And, what’s more, in the house of the judge (played by Tom Wilkinson) who will end up sitting in judgment on the Zong case – in which a ship’s captain throws his negro slaves overboard and then claims on the insurance for his loss of “cargo”. This ever-so-handy personal-is-political twin-track plot being gifted to writer Misan Sagay by history – Belle existed, the Zong case happened, and the high-court judge who tried it was indeed Belle’s guardian. This is top-drawer British costume drama, with visiting Canadian Sarah Gadon fitting in seamlessly among what you might call the usual suspects (Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson). The sets look as good as the people, the screenplay works hard to avoid the “Good-day-Earl-of-Plymouth-who-has-the-ear-of-the-king” dialogue. And it tries to stay true to the mores of the past as it follows Belle into the foothills of romance. And here, only here, it stumbles, as a modern love story and the “follow your heart” credo intrudes into a world determined by status.

Belle – at Amazon

 

 

 

Filmed in Supermarionation (Network, cert PG, DVD)

An affectionate and, if you were around, warmly nostalgic documentary about the output of Gerry Anderson, the man who gave us Thunderbirds. It’s a clever collation of old footage, wistful reminiscence by the people who worked with Anderson and his wife Sylvia on various TV puppet shows – from Torchy the Battery Boy and Four Feather Falls, to Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and The Secret Service. So many documentaries seem so uninterested in the nuts and bolts but Stephen La Rivière’s well researched film spends time on technique – how voice syncing worked, how the “puppets can’t walk” problem was circumvented, the high speed camera and its crucial role in filming special effects, rolling roads, rolling backdrops, Barry Gray’s superlative music (though it doesn’t answer the mystery of why Gray never worked for anyone else). And so on. We also get the behind the scenes wrangles over production, and constant reminders that Anderson’s drive towards realism was propelled by a disdain for puppets – he wanted to be a real film producer, goddamit – and that as soon as he could, he moved on to live action (which isn’t covered here). Would any of it mean much if the shows mean nothing to you? I doubt it. But if they do…

Filmed in Supermarionation – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

The Best Films of 2014

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

 

Of the 350+ films I saw this year, these are the best ones. Some of them were released last year and I’ve been a bit slow getting round to them. Some of them were released even longer ago. The criteria are – I watched them in 2014 and I liked them. That’s it.

 

 

 

The Best

 

Computer Chess (2013, dir: Andrew Bujalski)

Andrew Bujalski, inventor of mumblecore, proved there’s life in the old beast yet with this retro-verité drama about geeks meeting in the 1980s to pit their programs against a chess-playing computer. Shooting on original video cameras in fuzzy-edged boxellated black and white, Bujalski catches the moment when the let-it-all-hang-out era died and our brighter, geekier world was born.

 

In a World… (2013, dir: Lake Bell)

A comedy of modern manners strung onto a plot about voice artists vying for the throne of the newly dead king of the hill. The savviest, screwballiest Hollywood comedy in years came from left-field, from writer/director/star Lake Bell, playing the daughter of a famous voiceover artist trying to get out from under dad’s reputation. It’s sentimental in all the right ways too.

 

The Canyons (2013, dir: Paul Schrader)

The sensational Lindsay Lohan’s “right, I’m back” movie is also Paul Schrader’s best for decades, a turning over of the paving slab to see what low-lifes slither about beneath. It’s The Canyons, not The Hills, so don’t expect Hollywood to come out smelling of anything but bad drugs, mercenary sex and broken dreams.

 

Stranger by the Lake (2013, Alain Guiraudie)

Don’t watch if you can’t take the sight of gay male sex. If you can you get a remarkable French drama about a killer at large on a nudist beach where homosexual omerta guarantees him a free ride, in any way he fancies. It’s beautifully composed, dramatically as taut as you like and even the soundscape is a thing of wonder.

 

Under the Skin (2013, dir: Jonathan Glazer)

How odd that Scarlett Johansson suddenly cornered the female sci-fi market (with this, the Avengers movies, Her and Lucy). This is the best of the bunch, with ScarJo playing a killer (in every sense) alien who cruises round Glasgow, Scotland, enticing men into her white van and then taking them back to her lair. Shot painstakingly with real, unsuspecting Glaswegians picked up off the street playing the dupes, it’s a triumphant return to movies for writer/director Jonathan (Sexy Beast) Glazer.

 

Of Horses and Men (2013, dir: Benedikt Erlingsson)

There are scenes in this elemental Icelandic movie that you will never have seen before, some hilarious, others just jaw-droppingly wha? It’s a unique rural drama that seems to suggest that people are at their happiest and least stressed when they behave most like animals. Watch that young woman swish her tail when the visiting Spaniard shakes his mane. Brilliant.

 

Norte, The End of History (2013, dir: Lav Diaz)

A four hour epic shot in long continuous beautifully framed takes, about a rich young law student and the poor street-pedlar woman whose life he affects maximally without even realising what he’s done. Wait two hours for the first “what the hell just happened” moment, and then another 90 minutes for the second, while a new (to me) master Lav Diaz casts his spell.

 

 

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013, dir: Jim Jarmusch)

If you were going to cast the supercoolest vampire film ever, you’d want Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in it. And you’d want Jim Jarmusch to direct it, wouldn’t you? That’s exactly what you get with this aching paean to immortal hipsterism shot in crumbling Detroit and labyrinthine old Tangier. No one ever says “I feel so very very tired,” as they do in cornier movies, but that’s the spirit. Plus jokes, hipster jokes.

 

 

Goodbye to Language (2014, dir: Jean-Luc Godard)

At one level Jean-Luc Godard’s boy-meets-girl drama of collaged visual styles and overlapping dialogue looks like the result of using every preset on Final Cut Pro software; at another it’s a brilliant exercise in trying to reformulate film syntax. Genius.

 

Edge of Tomorrow (2014, dir: Doug Liman)

Tom Cruise as a soldier repeatedly being killed, each time back to life a little bit tougher, sharper, wiser in Doug Liman’s sci-fi extravaganza that looks, feels, smells like something Arnold Schwarzenegger would have graced in the 1980s.

 

Welcome to New York (2014, dir: Abel Ferrara)

Abel Ferrara’s drama about/not about Dominic Strauss Khan and his sexual escapades in New York looks like it was shot entirely on one camera, stars Gérard Depardieu and Jacqueline Bisset and suggests obliquely that the people who run the planet are sociopaths.

 

 

 

 

 

Honourable mentions

 

Gary Bond sinks a beer in Wake in Fright
Gary Bond sinks a beer in Wake in Fright

 

Wake in Fright (1971, dir: Ted Kotcheff)

A restored 1971 Australian classic about a nice schoolteacher having a wild weekend of up-close Ocker masculinity out in the Outback of the Outback.

 

Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013, dir: Abdellatif Kechiche)

Lesbian sex was its big sell but it’s the acting that’s the thing in this slow (as in Slow Food slow) French drama about a young girl’s sentimental education.

 

Klown (2010, dir: Mikkel Nørgaard)

The Danes do comedy in this road movie about two inadequate blokes and a ten-year-old boy on a “tour de pussy”. Inappropriate comedy fans, this is for you.

 

All Is Lost (2013, dir: JC Chandor)

Robert Redford is all at sea on a sinking yacht in the virtually wordless thriller from JC Chandor, who made the banking business sexy with Margin Call and proves lightning does strike twice here.

 

Fossil (2014, dir: Alex Walker)

A British couple in trouble are befriended by a lovey-dovey twosome in this four-hander that looks good, hits a few deep notes and goes as badly whacked-out as outsider-couple dramas generally do.

 

Back to the Garden (2013, dir: Jon Sanders)

Really? A film set in Kent (the “Garden of England”) and made for nothing? Yes, and you won’t find a better recent film about confronting that moment when you realise your parents’ generation are dead and your lot are next.

 

Dallas Buyers Club (2013, Jean-Marc Vallée)

Part of the McConaissance, with Matthew McC as the homo-hating cowpuncher who discovers he’s HIV+ and breaks the law to fix himself. A brilliant exercise in Hollywood storytelling economy.

 

The Past (2013, dir: Asghar Farhadi)

Asghar Farhadi casts The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo as the woman about to marry for the third time, to a man with a wife in coma. How the wife ended up in the coma is what this subversive, complexly plotted drama is all about.

 

The Lunchbox (2013, dir: Ritesh Batra)

A Mumbai desk jockey gets the wrong lunchbox at work and starts up a relationship with the neglected wife who prepared it. Life-changes all round in this lovely romance made with a very light touch.

 

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (2013, dir: Danis Tanovic)

A dirt-poor Roma man tries to get medical help for his pregnant wife in this immensely sweet drama that comes with this seal of authenticity – it really happened, and to this lovely couple.

 

The Lego Movie (2014, dir: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)

The incredibly smart Lego people got Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of 21 Jump Street to script/direct their movie, a fast-moving Star Wars-y affair with Liam Neeson and Will Ferrell its standout voices. Four viewings necessary.

 

Starred Up (2013, dir: David Mackenzie)

The best British jail drama since Scum, all those years ago, with a starry turn by Jack O’Connell as the new lag running into all the usual bad stuff inside. Spectacular.

 

Locke (2013, dir: Steven Knight)

Tom Hardy sitting inside a car for 90 minutes and making phone calls. That’s all there is to this super-high-concept drama that screws more tension out of the situation than you could imagine possible.

 

Blue Ruin (2013, dir: Jeremy Saulnier)

A hillbilly milquetoast is forced into an unlikely revenge-driven killing spree in a drama that grips from the first second and holds you there till the grisly end.

 

The Counselor (2013, dir: Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s loquacious drama about a high-flying lawyer who hasn’t realised he’s swimming with the sharks (Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt). A sleek, ratchet-like thriller of pitiless inevitability.

 

Sofia’s Last Ambulance (2012, dir: Ilian Metev)

So simple, so effective, a documentary that follows a Bulgarian ambulance team and focuses entirely on them, never the people they’re treating. Tight, unusual, very humane.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014, dir: Bryan Singer)

The best of the X-Men movies gains a position in this list because of director Bryan Singer’s sheer ability to keep so many stories, characters and settings constantly in play. And his observation that the 1970s might as well now be an alien universe is interesting too.

 

 

 

 

The Underrated

 

Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Julian Morris in Kelly + Victor
Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Julian Morris in Kelly + Victor

 

Kelly + Victor (2012, dir: Kieran Evans)

A nice lad falls for a totally fucked up girl in this brilliantly acted, nicely observed Liverpool drama about a boy, a girl and a lot of bondage gear. No “ferry across the fucking Mersey” (the director’s words) visible. Hoo-fucking-ray.

 

Seduced and Abandoned (2013, dir: James Toback)

An exquisite and slyly clever documentary that’s not really a documentary at all, about old mates Alec Baldwin and James Toback talking to the movie world’s money men at Cannes. Fascinating, proper inside-Hollywood reveals.

 

Bad Grandpa (2013, dir: Jeff Tremaine)

Johnny Knoxville deserves the Sacha Baron Cohen award for bravery for the audacious stunts he pulls off as the titular grandpa, and Jackson Nicoll – what, 10-years-old maybe? – even more for his turn as the grandson. Yes, it’s a Jackass movie and that ship has sailed, but it’s also a very funny, one-of-a-kind affair.

 

Metro Manila (2013, dir: Sean Ellis)

A poor Filipino family moves to the big bad city and what looks like a drama about the innocent getting monstered turns into one of the best heist films of the year. Brilliantly made, brilliantly acted.

 

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012, dir: Colin Trevorrow)

Aubrey Plaza, one of those girls who can go from hot to not in the blink of an acting eye, dominates this no-budget smartly written mumblecore sci-fi about a rookie journalist chasing down a pudgy middle age guy who claims to have built a time machine. Fabulous.

 

Oldboy (2013, dir: Spike Lee)

Hated because a) it’s not as good as the original and b) people like to kick Spike Lee, who proves here he’s an intelligent, accomplished gun for hire, while Josh Brolin excels as the asshole incarcerated by person(s) unknown for 20 years and now wanting payback.

 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013, dir: Ben Stiller)

Ben Stiller’s brilliantly crafted reworking of the story that Danny Kaye made a hit film with in 1947 – about a geek whose rich fantasy life starts to invade his real one – is too unclassifiable to hit the “best of” lists.

 

8 Minutes Idle (2012, dir: Mark Simon Hewis)

A simple British comedy about a Bristol call centre that’s clearly been written by someone who’s worked in one – the cameraderie of the drones is palpable, their maddened boredom too. And star Tom Hughes is great as a post-Uni slacker working out what to do next.

 

The Monuments Men (2014, dir: George Clooney)

OK, so it’s not a Tarantino movie. But George Clooney’s amiable comedy about a crack team saving art before the Nazis destroy it isn’t meant to be. It’s meant to be Von Ryan’s Express/Hogan Heroes reimagined. Job very much achieved.

 

The Invisible Woman (2013, dir: Ralph Fiennes)

Felicity Jones is surely going to get an Oscar one day, but this film actually belongs to Ralph Fiennes (who also directs) playing her lover, Charles Dickens, as the world’s first media celeb. It’s a sweet film about love, in the end, with intelligent digressions.

 

Felony (2013, dir: Matthew Saville)

A gritty Oz cop melodrama written by its star, Joel Edgerton, the supercop who fucks up one night and spends the rest of the film getting further and further in the shit as he tries to wriggle free. Tom Wilkinson contributes another of his sneakily intelligent peformances as Edgerton’s superior.

 

All This Mayhem (2014, dir: Eddie Martin)

If you’ve never heard of the Pappas brothers, Ben and Tas, this excellent and shocking documentary about their 1990s rise and fall is well worth the ride, even if you’ve no interest whatsoever in skateboarding.

 

God Help the Girl (2014, dir: Stuart Murdoch)

A strangely 1960s-ish and intensely cute love letter by Belle and Sebastian frontman/director Stuart Murdoch to his star, Emily Browning, here fetishised in a boy-meets-girl Scottish musical recalling – if you’re fanciful – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

 

Chef (2014, dir: Jon Favreau)

Jon Favreau is one of the great under-revered directors of our era, and Chef – a road movie about a celebrity chef getting his mojo back – is exactly the sort of easy-looking, effortlessly digestible charmer he seems to be able to knock out at will.

 

Mystery Road (2013, dir: Ivan Sen)

An Aborigine cop tries to find out who killed an Aborigine girl – with stone-faced resistance from his white co-workers – in a beautifully shot Down Under cowboy thriller with one of the best shootout finales ever committed to film.

 

The Congress (2013, dir: Ari Folman)

Waltz with Bashir director Ari Folman pushes animation even further this time, with a psychedelic meditation on fantasy and reality starring Robin Wright as an actress who is digitised and inserted into any set-up the imagineers fancy. Highly highly unusual.

 

 

 

The Overrated

 

Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd in Prince Avalanche
Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd in Prince Avalanche

 

Prince Avalanche (2013, dir: David Gordon Green)

Two guys paint a road and David Gordon Green swerves back into George Washington territory in a film that’s Waiting for Godot with Girl Trouble. Tim Orr’s camera is lovely, 1970s and sun-dappled, but there’s a hole where the meaning should be.

 

Blue Jasmine (2013, dir: Woody Allen)

Another of Woody Allen’s overhyped “returns to form”, this time featuring a relentlessly over-acting Cate Blanchett as a super-entitled bitch whose ship has sailed. Watch instead Sally Hawkins.

 

Thor: The Dark World (2013, dir: Alan Taylor)

Everything that’s wrong with bad superhero films in one film – too many characters, too much gobbledegook, a lack of humour, though Tom Hiddleston’s Loki remains a fun watch. More to come (sigh).

 

The Butler (2013, dir: Lee Daniels)

Lee Daniels’s epic about the black butler (Forest Whitaker) to a whole bunch of POTUSes attempts to square the radical tradition with the gradualist conservative move towards black civil rights. Proficient, nothing more.

 

Saving Mr Banks (2013, dir: John Lee Hancock)

How Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) strongarmed PL Travers (Emma Thompson) into letting him film her Mary Poppins. The leads are genuinely fabulous and brilliant, but all that Travers backstory? Really?

 

Frozen (2013, dir: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee)

On my own here, I know, a triumph for lovers of adenoidal singing of the sort of Broadway songs that Eric Idle spoofed so brilliantly with his Song That Goes Like This. The snowman and reindeer are funny but the central characters, what utter drips.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, dir: Wes Anderson)

It still hasn’t sunk into Wes Anderson’s head that a) a little whimsy goes a long way and b) it has to be in the service of something, if only a good story. Here, though Ralph Fiennes is joyously funny as a devious owner of an old Mitteleuropean hotel, as a film it’s Sachertorte with cream, then more cream.

 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014, dir: Marc Webb)

Marc Webb’s second pop at Spider-Man is immeasurably worse than the first, fails to weld live-action into increasingly cartoonish set-ups, has too many villains, and feels like little more than a franchise placeholder or a sop to fanboys who will buy any old crap.

 

22 Jump Street (2014, dir: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)

The jokes were all done in 21 Jump Street – and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s extensive running gag in the closing credits, in which they trail the franchise’s development all the way to 34 Jump Street: Return of the Ghost – shows they know it. Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum remain a hot combo though.

 

And if you want to watch or buy any of the films, this Amazon link will allow you to do just that – enjoy!

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014