Out in the UK This Week
Chef (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
The US TV show Diners, Drive Ins and Dives seems to be the inspiration for Jon Favreau’s warm-hearted comedy – which is simple, fun and just works. The story of a jaded high-flying chef who rediscovers his mojo working on a food truck, it’s put together with Favreau’s usual under-estimated skill (he writes and directs as well as stars), and he drafts in a few famous names (Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara, Robert Downey Jr, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt) for what look like “I promise you, one day’s work, max” appearances. Though welcome, none of them are essential. Dealing incidentally with our culture’s internet-driven “always-on-ness” and its risk aversion, as well as the quantity theory of child-rearing (the chef has his neglected son in tow as he drives his truck around the country), it drops in its smart observations the same way it uses its name cameos – like tastebombs. A familiar feelgood recipe served with a flourish.
Mystery Road (Axiom, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
This is an excellent and very old school “down these mean streets a man must walk who is not himself mean” film noir, which once upon a time would have starred Bogie or Mitchum or Dick Powell. Now it stars Aaron Pedersen as the aborigine copper in a very white Outback who is on the case of the murder of an aborigine girl, and none of the locals (including Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten and Jack Thompson) could care any less about it, on account of her colour. Mystery Road‘s excellence stems from this simple, driving set-up, the economy of Ivan Sen’s writing and direction, and Pedersen’s precisely measured, typically Marlowe-esque performance as the detective whose head is not turned by either threat or promise. Though he dresses like a cowboy, complete with white hat. The Outback’s big, open landscapes are used to great effect, Sen stages scenes within aborigine townships – rarely glimpsed on film – which add an extra flavour, and he even gives us a finale that puts a remarkable spin on the old shootout finish. This is genre served neat with a twist. Can’t wait for Sen’s next.
The Fault in Our Stars (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)
A film that falls into the “this one really isn’t for you” category, because I’m not a teenage female virgin. If I were, would I fall swooningly for this story of two teenagers with cancer falling for each other? I think it would depend how much I identified with its stars, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort (who played brother and sister in Divergent). Woodley is clearly the better actor, though Elgort has the harder role, of the swaggering cock whose brash exterior hides a heart of gold. And for others reading this who also fall into the “it’s not for you” category, its story – of the two meeting, falling, going to visit their favourite author in Amsterdam and on to a tragic end, I can say no more – is just enough to keep the interest up. At heart a self-help homily, The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t quite have the emotional authenticity of The Spectacular Now (which also stars the gifted Woodley and which has still amazingly not been released in the UK) but it’s a tender and sincere film and less mawkish than Now Is Good, which covered similar territory.
Wolf (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD)
This slightly self-consciously (shot in black and white!) down-and-dirty Netherlands drama about a kickboxing Moroccan petty thief running into girls-gangs-guns trouble threatens almost at every turn to become a running cliché. In fact that’s the way I saw it. So, I stopped watching because I realised I was tired, and I came back the next day. And with a fresh eye open to the nuance of the performances, appreciative of the pacey writing and the tight editing, I could see that it was riding the clichés, not drowning in them. Following two friends – the wayward but possibly decent-at-heart fighter Majid (Marwan Kenzari) and his sneaky motormouth mate Adil (Chemseddine Amar) – it is suffused with a sense of impending doom, which periodic eruptions of violence and sex only heighten. Kenzari is a charismatic performer, Amar a fine actor and they’re joined by Bo Maerten, all Bardot lips and Loren curves, as the va-va-voom in Majid’s life.
God Help the Girl (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)
Re-calibrate your movie settings before watching this lo-fi musical, the feature debut of Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch. Because, as you might expect from a man whose Scottish band’s name references a 1960s French children’s book and TV show, we’re spiritually five decades back, Murdoch’s film being full of the impishness of A Hard Day’s Night and the austere beauty of the French New Wave, with hints of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s thrown in for wistful colour. Emily Browning is Murdoch’s Catherine Deneuve, a young woman who’s run away from treatment in a mental health facility and who we follow as she gets a band together in the neglected social spaces and rehearsal backwaters of Glasgow. In keeping with its influences, Browning and fellow travellers have the habit of bursting into song every five minutes – which also takes some re-calibration. But give it a while… it’s a sincere and sweet affair and its songs and coltish almost-optimism do eventually strike a root into the soul. In the interim, its fetishisation of Browning face, her lips in particular, give you something to look at.
Tony Benn: Will and Testament (Praslin, cert 12, DVD)
“I got a death threat the other day. I have haven’t had one in ages. I was so chuffed…” says Tony Benn, the British politician once dubbed “the most dangerous man in Britain” by one of the tabloid papers. Benn is speaking as an old man, towards the end of the filming of director Skip Kite’s project to record Benn’s life story, which ended with his death earlier this year. It is, in essence, an extension of Benn’s own diaries, which give his version of events. It follows Benn from service in the Second World War, to parliament after it, to ministerial office in the 1960s and 1970s, to his post-parliamentary career as a left wing firebrand – “I’m leaving parliament to devote more time to politics,” he famously said, with typical wit. There are touching glimpses of Benn’s personal life – his devotion to his wife – his verdicts on various leaders of the Labour party (he never understood why Kinnock denied his own beliefs, is harsh on Blair for turning Labour into a Thatcherite party). But no mention of the European Union – which Benn was against as an undemocratic organisation. No dealing with the charge that it was Benn and his ilk who made the Labour party unelectable in the 1980s and forced the Thatcherite turn of his party. No analysis of Benn’s ability to back into the spotlight, cup of tea in one hand, pipe in the other, “who, me?” look of surprise on his face. In fact the modern politician Benn most resembles is Ukip’s affable, blokeish Nigel Farage. I wonder what he’d make of that? A lovely eulogy.
The Killing Fields (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray)
A Blu-ray digital restoration of the most British (director, producer, writer, cinematographer, supporting stars) of the war films from the Vietnam era. The Killing Fields pulls two dummy moves. For a start it isn’t about Vietnam at all, but about Cambodia, though from the way director Roland Joffe marshals his characters and scenes – the evacuation of Phnom Penh looking much like many cinematic evacuations of Saigon – you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a Vietnam movie. And it’s not really about its lead character, Sam Waterston, as the New York Times reporter still trying to get stories out of the wartorn capital as the Khmer Rouge advance. It’s about his translator/fixer Dith Pran (played by Haing S Ngor) and what happens to him after the Americans leave and he is left behind as the Khmer Rouge start on their regime of cultural renewal (ie destruction). This double feint – essentially an attempt to sell a film about one thing/person as a film about another – does The Killing Fields no favours. However, Bruce Robinson’s screenplay gives the film a newsreel urgency, which Chris Menges’s cinematography replicates. But these can’t prevent a high-minded stodginess setting in, and there’s the distinct sense that Joffe has set out to show that the Brits are every bit as good as the Americans at this sort of large-scale film-making. They’re not – and it’s obvious in every mass crowd scene and even in the sound design when the bullets start flying (was that really a ricochet from a John Wayne movie?). Quibbles, perhaps, because this is still an important film, powerful in individual scenes, impressively played (a young John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Spalding Gray and Craig T Nelson) and it’s worth remembering that Haing S Ngor was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge and only agreed to make the film so the world would know what happened in Cambodia.
© Steve Morrissey 2014