Out in the UK This Week
The Signal (E One, cert 15)
An underrated sci-fi adventure about three young hacktivists who are abducted by aliens and then wake up in a clinical facility where Laurence Fishburne and co – all in hazmat suits – are looking after them. We arrive at the facility about 15 minutes in to the film, so I haven’t given away much of the plot, which uses tropes of Close Encounters, The Matrix and Vincent Natali’s Cube to great effect. Director William Eubank ties it all together with clean and precise direction of his stars (Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cook, Beau Knapp), and the Mogwai-meets-Wendy Carlos soundtrack by Nima Fakhrara lifts it yet another notch. If I were being picky I’d say it moves from the “getting to know you” first act to the “let’s get out of here” third act with not very much actual development – plot or character – in between. But this time it’s forgivable, because this is a good story well told, with a sparing use of special effects which, when they hit, have a neutron-bomb precision and effect. Ignore whatever else you’ve read about this – some people only wake up when Tom Cruise or Marvel or DC are involved in something – it’s very well worth checking out.
What We Do in the Shadows (Metrodome, cert 15)
Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement takes on the vampire genre, rescuing it from the damp grasp of the Twihards etc and lighting a fire under its cape. Feeling like a series of sketches just about held together by a loose narrative, the action follows a group of undead bloodsuckers who house-share in New Zealand, who go out together in the evening to clubs, where one night they meet and befriend a human, whom they decide not to eat/drink/kill/whatever. That’s it in terms of plot, enough to link the various jokes together, which involve one or other of the vampires, who handily represent most manifestations of the type – one’s a pale, shivering Nosferatu (called Peter), another a Vlad the Impaler, another knits rather camply, and so on. And when these jokes threaten to pall, Clement and co-writer/director/star Taika Waititi brings in the werewolves, the big joke here being that the antipathy between the two groups (Twilight again, but also Underworld) is essentially schoolyard yah-boo stuff. This allows Rhys Darby to utter the film’s funniest line, which I won’t ruin by repeating. It’s a very funny film, and even though it feels like it’s about grind to a halt at any second, it never does.
Snow in Paradise (Curzon, cert 15)
The snow is in fact cocaine, half-inched by cadet criminal Dave right at the start of this geezer drama, the ramifications of which echo right to the end. No, the world doesn’t need another London criminal drama, but this one punches well above its weight. That’s largely because of Frederick Schmidt’s tough yet tender playing of Dave – a star is born, surely – because the film has a plot which uses Muslims as an interesting, atypical (these day) spiritual counterweight to the venality out in the big bad world, because director Andrew Hulme impressionistically locates us in Dave’s head as his life goes from shit to bust, and because of Kevin Pollard’s heavily jazz tinged soundtrack. It’s not your typical geezer pleaser, in other words, as if Hulme has set out to make an anti-Guy Ritchie film, and succeeded.
Kon-Tiki (Soda, cert 15)
Destined for release in 2012, this Norwegian adventure about the making of national hero Thor Heyerdahl has taken a while to hit any sort of screen. And halfway through, as directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg give us an overhead shot of a whale shark cruising menacingly beneath his balsa wood boat, you understand why – 2012 was the year of Life of Pi. Heyerdahl’s adventure used to be the stuff of childhood mythologies – how this Norwegian anthropologist set out to prove that the Polynesians had crossed the Pacific using Palaeolithic technology – and it lends itself to a big screen treatment. All those handsome blond men, the blue sea, the sun, big marine beasts, phosphorescence, flying fish, epic storms, desertlike calms and so on, all the paraphernalia of the ocean-going adventure. And it is adventurous, even if the budget doesn’t quite stretch to the sort of period accuracy we now demand – especially in the early, money-raising sequences in a supposedly 1940s New York – and even if some of the actual adventurers, especially as they start to disappear behind variously ginger beards, become interchangeable.
Predestination (Signature, cert 15)
A few years ago Ethan Hawke made Daybreakers with the Aussie Spierig brothers. It was an unusual take on the vampire genre – the vampires were in charge and it was humans who skulked around the edges. The Spierigs are doing something similarly offbeat with the time-travel story, and they’ve got Hawke back involved, as a time-travelling bar tender listening to the strange late-night story of one of his patrons. He turns out to have been born a she, and has journeyed through time attempting to … what, exactly? I’m not sure, but starting a story with a “once upon a time there was this time-travelling hermaphrodite” is so unusual that our interest is piqued. This strange creature’s story is certainly wild, like a Douglas Sirk film on some bizarre modern drugs – mad improbability, emotional turmoil, despair, redemption, all done in flashback and intoned in gruff tones by the remarkable Sarah Snook, who looks like a 21-year-old Leo DiCaprio. If she always also somehow resembles the beautiful woman she is, Snook is nevertheless sensational as this time travelling curiosity, while the Spierigs’ decision to tell us that time travel was invented in 1981 tips the wink as to what they’re about – this is idea-rich, plot driven sci-fi of the sort that the 1980s excelled in (Terminator, Total Recall), and if it never ever looks “real” (the bar the entire story is told from looks lifted from a daytime soap where the script has indicated “Bar: interior”), that’s because the Spierigs are playing with the pastiche, rather than trying to get it right. So, as they head towards the climax and the time paradoxes start to fall over each other, there’s no point complaining that “it doesn’t all add up”. Audacity is the whole point. Watch back to back with Daybreakers. Why not?
Black Sea (Universal, cert 15)
A submarine adventure set in a sea where the Nato/Russian empires catch and starring Jude Law as the sea dog getting a motley crew of superannuated good old boys and unfashionable ethnics together to find Nazi gold. It’s The Italian Job meets every submarine adventure you’ve ever seen – the law states you can’t set a film on a sub without there being some deep-sea jeopardy. To the clearly recession-influenced script, writer Dennis Kelly adds plenty of paranoia – as befits the man who gave us Utopia on TV – and has a great if mostly underused cast to help him out. Why cast actors of the calibre of David Threlfall, Scoot McNairy and Grigoriy Dobrynin only to waste them? To secure funding, I suspect (a Brit, an American and a Russian, respectively). Only Aussie Ben Mendelsohn cuts through, but then he is playing a bit of a wild-eyed loon whose increasingly unhinged behaviour precipitates the crisis that sends the vessel to the bottom of the sea – that’s no spoiler, surely. Ultimately, as Law gets a touch of Mad Captain’s Disease and things go a bit Hunt for Red October, it’s clear that this is a collation of tasty cold cuts that needs a unifying theme or a look or a chutney to hold it all together. Director Kevin Macdonald seems fresh out of all of them.
Maidan (Dogwoof, cert E)
Footage from Maidan Square, Kiev, as the pro-Europe demonstrations of 2013 morphed into the anti-government revolution of 2014, the ramifications of which we’re still watching. Notably, there’s no commentary at all, just a camera in the crowd watching fairy statically. It’s the atmosphere that stands out – like a free festival, it’s full of ramshackle, impromptu outbursts of song and good cheer, all comers are welcome, the fringe dwellers are in there with the mass, call-and-response eruptions of “Glory to the Ukraine; Glory to the Heroes” are common. On the downside the lack of organising principle means a lack of plot, and your interest in (“enjoyment of” seems to be the wrong phrase in the circumstances) of this report from a key moment in recent European history will depend on your political engagement. For me, as with news reports from the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s, I’m struck by how obviously European this former Soviet colony looks – those streets could be Berlin or Paris or Madrid. And how, as the government increase the pressure and bring in water cannon and tear gas, how much like an older Europe Sergei Loznitsa’s camera makes it look – of the wide, people-strewn higgledy-piggledy canvases of Hieronymus Bosch.
© Steve Morrissey 2015