10 November 2014-11-10

Léa Seydoux and Tahar Rahim in Grand Central

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Films that frontload their action, especially films that are big-screen event movies as all the X-Men series are, often do so because, secretly, they know they’re small-screen channel-hoppers. So when the seventh X-Men movie in 14 years kicked off with a big action sequence, I started scribbling “lack of confidence” in my notes.

I was totally wrong. Director Bryan Singer might be lacking for friends in Hollywood right now – what with “twink party” allegations and all – but he’s absolutely on his game here. Maybe, in fact, he feels like he’s got something to prove. For starters, his decision to send Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine back to the 1970s is a masterstroke – no decade looks more alien and weird right now, with its waterbeds, chopper bikes and cigarette billboards that blow smoke rings. But what’s really impressive is how Singer weaves together the action 40 years back – with young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X (James McAvoy) effectively trying on their personas for size in a plot that involves an evil Peter Dinklage (excellently malevolent) trying to wipe mutants out – with action back in the present.

Some of the many, many characters do almost nothing – Ian McKellen simply stands around in a billowing cape, magnificently, while Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde just crouches with her hands on either side of Wolverine’s head for the entire movie (that’s the other Wolverine, the one who isn’t in the 70s) – but Singer doesn’t yield to the temptation to give all the characters something to do and something to say, the bane of many an X-Men movie.

Most of all there’s a complete understanding of what makes these comics so good in the first place – images going where words cannot – all woven together with a real eye for the power of intelligently used CG, plus well chosen and evocative music (particularly a brilliantly apposite use of Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle). Highly impressive, it’s probably the best X-Men to date.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – at Amazon

 

 

 

Finding Vivian Maier (Soda, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD, digital)

This documentary about a 1950s/60s nanny who, unbeknown to anybody, was one of America’s most formidable street photographers tells an intriguing story and functions as an elegy both for this mysterious woman and the era when the US was at its most alluring. John Maloof is the focus of much of the film, the guy who stumbled across some of Maier’s work at a house-clearance auction and bought it, because he was after “old photos” to illustrate a college thesis. Maloof barely understood what he had until he posted a few of Maier’s pictures online and they went viral.

Formally, Maier’s work is in the Diane Arbus/Lisette Model tradition, though Maloof (who also directs the documentary) steers away from any comparison, or suggestion that her work was derivative. And if there are two other criticisms to make about this fascinating film, the first is just that – a lack of critical distance on the part of the director (who just happens to own Maier’s photographs now and so stands to benefit from positive publicity), the second being that Maloof is more interested in the life (many “who knew?” former employers are interviewed) than the work. What an irony, considering how much of the work there is, and how closely Maier guarded her private life.

Finding Vivian Maier – at Amazon

 

 

 

Walesa: Man of Hope (Metrodome. cert 12, DVD)

From Poland’s grand old man of cinema, Andrzej Wajda, a great, old-school biopic about Lech Walesa that starts with a classic 1960s opening – an Italian journalist in the back of a taxi – then proceeds by “how we got here” flashbacks sparked by her interview with the leader of the Solidarity trade union when he was still a worker but already a world personality.

Wajda has made two previous Man of… films, 1977’s Man of Marble and 1981’s Man of Iron, both of which covered earlier events at the Gdansk shipyard where Walesa was employed, and which gave birth to Solidarity. Here, Wajda seems concerned to get events laid down in the right order and with the right emphasis, Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Poland being shown as a key moment, particularly his delivery of a prayer ending with the line “Let your Spirit descend and change the image of the land… this land”. But Wajda is strong on analysis too, making it clear that Walesa’s stregth was to use the rhetoric of the Communist Party as a weapon in the fight for justice and freedom.

Here he’s really aided by Janusz Glowacki’s script, which isn’t just strong and even occasionally amusing, it takes pains to point out that Walesa was clearly a “cometh the hour, cometh the man” figure. Karl Marx would approve.

Walesa: Man of Hope – at Amazon

 

 

 

Grand Central (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD/digital)

Silkwood meets Room with a View – sort of – in a French drama about an itinerant worker (Tahar Rahim) who takes a job in a nuclear power station and falls for the girl (Léa Seydoux) of one of his colleagues. And since close co-operation in a nuclear plant is not only necessary, but vital, this is going to lead to all sorts of meltdowns, especially as the climate is beyond macho.

Rahim reminds us of his likeable everyman presence, Seydoux that she’s a sultry sexbomb who somehow combines the cool of Deneuve with the heat of fissile material, and director Rebecca Zlotowski alternates clinical hi-tech interiors with pastoral interludes (this is the Room with a View stuff) out on the Cotes du Rhone. Ignore the damp squib ending – really? really? – and enjoy the ride.

Grand Central – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Golden Dream (Peccadillo, cert 12, DVD/digital)

A gaggle of Guatemalan kids head for the US border – object: illegal ingress – in this tough and unsentimental drama that touches the usual bases. It’s saved from cliche by its strong performances, particularly Karen Martinez as the budding girl who’s disguised as a boy (to prevent rape), and Brandon López as a scowling 14-year-old with the swagger of someone with sizeable cojones.

Do not expect uplift: this is a tale of woe punctuated by terror and repeated swindlings and populated by scar-faced men and sad-eyed women. But it has a documentary thoroughness and a delight in the telling tiny detail. And at least twice it will catch you off guard with a punch to the emotional solar plexus.

The Golden Dream – at Amazon

 

 

 

Begin Again (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know that this is about a down-on-his-luck music producer (Mark Ruffalo) who regains his love of the business when he claps eyes on a struggling singer-songwriter (Keira Knightley) in a boozy club.

There’s a Notting Hill ambience to this surprisingly sweet Judd Apatow production that doesn’t quite hit Richard Curtis heights, but it is better than the trailer is letting on. That’s mostly because of the performances – Keira sings and does it well and spits out the feisty-girl lines with conviction. Adam Levine (of Maroon 5) plausibly plays the scumbag popstar boyfriend who dumps Keira because he’s got hotter fish to fry now he’s hitting the bigtime. Cee Lo Green amusingly plays off his image as an entourage diva. Meanwhile Ruffalo decides to play the raddled has-been as Robert Downey Jr, all jangle and tic. There’s even James Corden, as Keira’s big British pal, adding a welcome enthusiasm, this being all about nice guys, and gals, finishing first.

Begin Again – at Amazon

 

 

 

Jersey Boys (Warner, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Watching Jersey Boys, Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the Broadway show about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, I imagined Eastwood going out to see it on Broadway with his current escort, then going backstage afterwards to congratulate the cast. When asked if he liked it, Clint might have growled something about liking it so much that he’d decided to put it on screen, and that, no, he wouldn’t change a thing, and that all the stage cast must be in it.

And that more or less looks like what Clint has done. Because this is a bare-bones translation, which must have Clint’s legendarily productive mentor Don Siegel chuckling approvingly in his grave. Because it just damn well does the show right here, in front of the camera. Do you want to know the plot? Dodgy Jersey boy Tommy De Vito forms a band in the 1950s, which Valli joins once they discover his god-given falsetto voice, setting the stage for a power struggle that rolls down the years as their zippy close-harmony sound starts to shift units. Valli (John Lloyd Young) might be the name, but Vincent Piazza, as De Vito, is the focus of the story, because Valli is too strait-laced and honourable (or so the film insists) to be interesting.

So much for that. Is it any good? It’s fine, it’s good, it’s OK. Personally, I’d have preferred it if the boys weren’t ten years too old (Young being a carryover from the stage production, on account of his voice, and setting the age benchmark). The Four Seasons are meant to be One Direction-young, after all. And I’d have preferred it if they’d used the original recordings of Big Boys Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man etc, which just have that extra Valli zing. And I’d have preferred it if Clint had been sterner about the back-of-the-room performances, another carryover.

Jersey Boys – 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