19 January 2015-01-19

Ellar Coltrane as Mason, from five to 18

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Boyhood (Universal, cert 15)

As I write Richard Linklater’s ambitious drama is picking up Golden Globes like it was made of Velcro and looks like it’s heading for Oscar glory too.

So what’s the deal? At first glance it looks like a gimmick, following the same actors for 12 years, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette from their lush prime into early middle age, Ellar Coltrane as the boy of the title, who is five when Linklater turns the camera on, 18 by the time he’s done. So is Boyhood drama or structured reality?

It’s actually another go at the sort of freewheeling relationship drama of Linklater’s Before (Dawn, Sunset, Midnight) trilogy. But the added extra, what gives Boyhood its tang is that we share the sense that most parents have of wondering/worrying how Mason is going to turn out, as young Mason goes from the child wearing Spider-Man pyjamas to the young adult taking psychedelics out in a canyon with college friends.

The same sense of trepidation applies to the film – at halfway through I was beginning to worry whether it wasn’t a stunt. But by the end, as Linklater starts to tie more and more threads together, time has lent its perspective and we can see that this is not just about Mason: it’s also a circle-of-life story involving his estranged parents and his sister (Lorelei Linklater).

On top of this, over the dozen years Linklater taps the zeitgeist too – in the way that writer David Nicholls managed with One Day (the book, not the film) – playing us in with Coldplay’s Yellow and out with Family of the Year’s Hero. Perfect choices for a perfect film.

Boyhood – Buy it/watch it on Amazon

 

 

 

The Equalizer (Sony, cert 15)

A fistful of years ago Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua teamed up to make Training Day, a dark cop drama that also gave a nice role to Ethan Hawke, as the squeaky rookie.

It’s nice to see that Washington has revived the Fuqua of old – a string of stinkers including King Arthur and Olympus Has Fallen were suggesting the director might have gone for good – because what we have here is also dark and urban and jangles with an almost 1980s vibe.

The plot bears little relation to the TV series on which it’s based, the one starring Edward Woodward as TV’s fattest action man. But the idea is the same – Washington is a vigilante do-gooder, but his routine of small acts of restitutional justice is thrown into the blender when a Mr Big’s sadistic henchman gets on his case.

Like the old feminist teabag – the one that only reveals how strong a woman is when it’s in hot water – Washington’s hero only discloses the full range of his skills once Marton Csokas (as a proper whackjob foreign nasty) starts pushing him to levels of Jason Bourne cat-and-mouse.

It’s a pre-Bourne film in most ways though – Fuqua and cameraman Mauro Fiore (who also worked on Training Day) working the tracking shots and crepuscular lighting, the detail-rich sets into something Edward Hopper-esque, while Washington and Csokas play the two key characters like something out of Noh theatre, elemental.

The result is a brutal, fascinating reworking of almost every cliché in the book, the genre polished till it gleams (and a gigantic middle finger to Liam Neeson’s geri-actioners). And who knew that Denzel was so good with power tools (you might want to look away).

The Equalizer – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Obvious Child (Koch, cert 15)

Jenny Slate plays Donna, the stand-up comic whose shtick is to ramble on about what’s going on in her life.

As Obvious Child opens we see where this can get her: unhappy about the fact that she’s just flagellated him as well as herself in her set, her boyfriend dumps her right after she’s got off the stage, right there in the unisex toilets.

Donna is the sort of comedian who gets a laugh talking about her vagina, and the film basks in the same warm shallows, squeezing mirth out of farting, peeing in the street and Donna’s gal pal informing her that she’s going to do “a big stinky shit” while they’re having the sort of frank emotional conversation that men can only manage in the brief moment between downing a bottle of vodka and passing out.

Into this world of frank exchange and life-as-material, writer/director Gillian Robespierre injects a one night stand with a new guy, a geeky sort who wears a scarf and a woolly hat, and an unwanted pregnancy.

Obvious Child has been taken up in some quarters for political reasons, because it doesn’t take the movies’ usual moral route vis a vis termination nor indulge in hand-wringing once Donna decides what she’s going to do. Though I enjoyed it more as a stealth screwball rom-com – a Not Bringing Up Baby, perhaps, which seems almost reluctant to reveal just how sweet it is.

Obvious Child – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Stations of the Cross (Arrow, cert 15)

Something of a formal epic, Dietrich Brüggemann’s German drama has an almost tableau vivant simplicity to it.

In 14 scenes, captured on a lock-shot camera, he follows a modern German teenager who is a member of a breakaway Catholic sect – big on the Latin mass and the weakness of the flesh – as she undertakes her own Stations of the Cross, the progress in stages of Jesus Christ from Last Supper to crucifixion.

Each station is marked by a solemn intertitle – “Jesus falls for the first time”, “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus” etc – Brüggemann teasingly showing us how this might work out in the modern world as Maria (Lea Van Acken) essentially starves herself to death in order to show her total dedication to the denial of the body.

Call it an examination of religiosity if you like, but though it’s undeniably an achievement in terms of formal rigour and austere beauty, in its desire to generate antipathy towards rather than understanding of its characters it’s hard to see Stations of the Cross as anything other than propaganda. Yes, we nod sagely, the narcissism of fundamentalism (as we look sideways towards the Middle East). Powerful, though, undeniably.

Stations of the Cross – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Zulu (Anchor Bay, cert 15)

I’m not sure of the gestation of this film, but there’s was probably quite a lot of activity passing over the desk of Orlando Bloom’s agent. Because this appears to be is Bloom’s attempt to re-launch his career.

Now pumped, unshaven and tatted and swigging from a bottle a little too often, he’s the Mel Gibson-style maverick cop to Forest Whitaker’s methodical Danny Glover, a pair of battle-scarred South Africans who can add “living with the aftermath of apartheid” to the usual run of cop-drama clichés.

This is no comedy, no Lethal Weapon, but thanks to Jérôme Salle, director of the lush, Bond-like Largo Winch, it’s a good-looking, bright and sharp film, with the added vibrancy that shooting in the full sun brings, and Salle keeps things moving as one stock scene piles up on another.

The plot has something to do with missing street kids, a Mr Big and the development of a drug so bad that it turns lab rats into ravening cannibals, an amusing scene updating the Reefer Madness nonsense for the modern era.

But it barely matters. Watch it as a drinking game is my advice, one swig for a “give me your badge” style box-ticker, another for every time you spot Bloom trying too hard.

Zulu – Watch it/buy it from Amazon

 

 

 

A Walk among the Tombstones (E One, cert 15)

Liam Neeson’s latest geri-actioner is a functional, competent detective movie, 1970s pastiche, with the big fella moving from one Marlowe-esque setup to the next like a latterday Jim Rockford, cracking wise and then getting beaten up for his trouble.

The plot revolves around drug traffickers and disappearing women and Neeson’s private eye is saddled with a streetwise teenager (Brian Bradley, aka the rapper Astro of X Factor USA), a likeable presence who sparks well with Neeson, even if the entire role could be excised without doing the film any harm.

Er… that’s it. No, hang on, director Scott Frank (who adapted Get Shorty, though here is working from a Lawrence Block novel) has a good eye for grubby New York locations – vacant lots, hoardings, rundown buildings. Like I say, 1970s pastiche.

A Walk among the Tombstones – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Giver (EV, cert 12)

Give me a second while I get something off my chest.

The whole Young Adult thing, of which The Giver is a prime example. Does it not seem strange that young adults, rejecting childishness, turn their backs on fairy tales and move on to stuff like this, or The Hunger Games, or Twilight? That, in other words, they swap tales of real psychological complexity and symbolic depth for something this vapid and numbingly literal?

Rant over. The Giver stars Brenton Thwaites as a teenager who lives in a bright, clean futureworld where everyone obeys the rules and order is maintained by a system of mass medication, Thwaites being the one who is obviously going to buck the system. This dystopian future clearly fuelled by Ayn Rand fever dreams is well delineated by director Philip Noyce and his set builders, while Jeff Bridges (good guy) and Meryl Streep (bad guy) add a smell of quality to the affair.

But it’s slipshod in every other aspect, from particulars of its world-building (for example, the way that the insistence on precision of speech is picked up and dropped according to the diktats of the story) to the routine first act, rushed second one and a finale that promises action then fails to deliver it. Dull and tin-eared.

The Giver – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

5 May 2014-05-05

Juno Temple and Emily Browning in Magic Magic

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Like Father, Like Son (Arrow, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

A couple of years ago Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda made an enchanting film called I Wish, about two separated brothers, the importance of family ties being its theme. With Like Father, Like Son he’s similarly sure-footed and on the same turf but is coming at it from a slightly different direction. The story of the Nonomiyas, a well-to-do couple who discover that their five-year-old son isn’t actually their son at all – a mix-up in the maternity ward – this drama is all about the competing values of rearing over blood. The white-collar family discover that the owner of an electrical appliance store has their kid, and they have his. What’s more, the blue-collar Saikis are a really relaxed nice sort of family, who value time with their various offspring, while the Nonomiyas are uptight, demanding, constantly straining for “their” child to achieve, their whole attitude summed up in dad’s obsession with piano practice. This situation – swapped kids, class aspiration, hothouse parenting – is ripe for drama, and Koreeda milks it for all its worth. Should these two families keep things the way they are, swop kids, or what? In Koreeda’s hands what could easily have been a midweek TV weepie becomes an essay on the quantity theory of family – we love people not because they are the fruit of our loins but because we’ve spent time in their company. Both families are beautifully sketched, but the burden of the acting falls on Masahuru Fukuyama, who plays Mr Nonoyima, and does a brilliant job of making the unyielding father a figure of some sympathy. If it’s not the lake of joy that I Wish was, that’s because the subject matter was never going to allow that, but Like Father, Like Son is a fascinating film that will jerk tears from the driest of eyes.

Like Father, Like Son – at Amazon

 

 

 

Fossil (Drakes Avenue, cert 15, DVD/digital)

Here’s a promising debut by a director called Alex Walker, a four-handed drama about a couple of bickering Brits (John Sackville, Edith Bukovics) who have their fractious holiday in a very pleasant French gîte disrupted by the arrival of a loud American (Grant Masters doing a dudish Jeff Bridges thing) and his young girlfriend (Carla Juri). Over the next few days there’s a lot of drinking, some arguments conducted in loud whispers, a touch of cross-couple transgressive flirting and a very bad spoilerish thing happens too. For sure, we’re never not aware of the contrivance in the screenplay, which forces people to stay together in close proximity when they most probably wouldn’t. And not all the acting is that great either, though Sackville’s peevish Brit Paul pulls off the difficult feat of being unlikeable yet engaging. But Walker keeps the pace up, builds tension deliberately, delivers the heat and even the smells of the Dordogne setting. And when it comes time to switch from pent-up internal emotion to external action, the release – though nasty – is weirdly cathartic.

Fossil – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Railway Man (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

A trainspotter (Colin Firth) meets a pretty and forthright woman (Nicole Kidman) on the train in 1980s Britain. They get talking. They get on. There’s a spark. Within 20 minutes or so of screen time they are in fact married. And about five minutes after that, the trainspotter is having a full-on psychotic episode in which he imagines he’s back in the Japanese PoW camp where he spent the Second World War. What we have here, in other words, is a Second World War drama wrapped in something fluffy, in an attempt to attract another audience quadrant. One minute we’re back in the camp where brutality is meted out on a regular basis. Then we’re back in the present, where a decent woman is attempting to deal with a husband who clearly has post-traumatic stress disorder. Kidman, in fact, doesn’t have much to do, because this part of the story – the modern bit – doesn’t really serve much of a purpose until the film hits the home straight and the railway man (do you see?) heads off to the Orient to confront his past. Firth, however, is as reliable as ever as a decent, cool gent seething with repressed horror, and Jeremy Irvine is pretty good too as his younger self, even incorporating a few trademark Firth tics into his performance. Ultimately, The Railway Man is a bit dry, a bit muted, a true story that needed to be told. Perhaps just not in this way.

The Railway Man – at Amazon

 

 

 

Magic Magic (Koch, cert 15, DVD/digital)

A cabin-in-the-woods horror done as psychological study. The cast is a kind of an indie supergroup of young talent – Juno Temple, Michael Cera, Emily Browning, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Agustin Silva. Silva, actually, is the director’s brother and so makes the group by way of special dispensation. But nepotism or not, he’s very good, as the alpha male of a gang of holidaying friends, into whose midst has been dropped the extremely nervous cousin (Temple) of the hot girl (Browning). In normal cabin in the woods films the jeopardy is all external. Here it’s inside the cabin – whether it’s Cera’s ADHD weirdness, Moreno’s cold hostility or Browning’s self-absorption, all of them just short of pathological. And it’s inside the head of the increasingly fraught newcomer, who basically just falls apart as the film builds towards its odd shocking climax. I’d love to say Magic Magic is a successful film, but it isn’t really. The Chilean locations are refreshing, mood is conjured effectively with off-kilter camera angles and a brooding score, and Cera’s almost unhinged performance really adds to the weird jangling mood. But that ending, straight out of leftfield, just does not compute.

Magic Magic – at Amazon

 

 

 

Child of God (Signature, cert 18, DVD)

Though best known as an actor, James Franco has directed more than 20 movies in the past eight/nine years. Child of God comes in at number 18 or so, and is an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel about a hillbilly simpleton whose activities see him wandering, almost accidentally, from the fringes of civilised society into the full grip of outlawdom. Expect no famous faces and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see Tim Blake Nelson as the local sheriff, and Franco himself turns up in the tiniest role, presumably so someone in marketing could put the words “starring James Franco” on the posters. Instead there is the amazing sight of Scott Haze as wildman Lester Ballard, a ball of dim fury who we meet being thrown off his daddy’s land by the auctioneer who is selling up. This is Haze’s film – he’s in every shot – and it’s an acting tour de force. Franco, for his part, has enough confidence in his ensemble to let them get on with it, and they reward him with uniformly good performances. If he has less success getting McCarthy onto the screen, it’s the same problem Billy Bob Thornton had with McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and John Hillcoat had with The Road – McCarthy’s rhythmic prose translates too often to the screen as just plain repetitive – so let’s not be too hard. Instead let’s look forward to the arrival on DVD of Franco’s As I Lay Dying and on the big screen of his Bukowski, both of which also feature Scott Haze. Franco clearly feels he has a tiger by the tail.

Child of God – at Amazon

 

 

 

Zulu 50th Anniversary Edition (Paramount, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

The 50th anniversary restoration of Zulu reminds us, if we’d forgotten, what a fantastic looking film it was in the first place. Photographed by Stephen Dade in Technicolor and 70mm Technirama in the bright sun of South Africa, it rivals David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia for sheer screen brilliance. It made a star of Michael Caine too, here playing a high-born officer bridling at being given orders by a lieutenant (Stanley Baker) who is his social inferior. If we need another reminder that Caine cannot do accents, here it is, but otherwise he’s a riveting presence as Gonville Bromhead, who, along with Baker’s Lt. Chard, will eventually rally his men into a defence against the thousands of Zulus who are poised to flick the Brits into eternity. Made just as Britain was upping the pace on disposal of its colonies, dismantling its empire faster than you can say “bankrupt”, Zulu catches the ambivalence of the imperial legacy. Which makes for a much better film – this is no one-sided attack of savages against the godly civiliser – the “white man’s burden” is not too much in evidence.

Zulu – at Amazon

 

 

 

We Are the Freaks (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

A “last summer before adulthood” coming of ager, set in Birmingham, UK, centred on a loose group of friends, who seem to have little in common apart from a love of drugs and easy sex. The time is the 1980s, when writer/director Justin Edgar, a Birmingham boy, would have been growing up. And, we presume, his central character, the likeable and laddish Jack, is partly autobiographical. Edgar does an awful lot of things that a writer/director really shouldn’t – too many overhead shots, too much voiceover, there’s even the dreaded address-directly-to-camera that was once the wink-wink refuge of the ironic scoundrel. Some of this is forgivable – Edgar is working with a budget of zero – and as his story of the “freaks” and their messy relationships, gatecrashing of parties, run-ins with girlfriends, would-be girlfriends and a drug dealer called Killer Colin (another lovely mental performance by Michael Smiley) continues, it gradually becomes clear that, against all expectations, this is rather a good film. It is funny. The characters are likeable. Their story is interesting. The acting is actually very funny. The no-budget in-jokes twitting film conventions are actually quite good jokes. Towards the end it slightly loses faith in itself and becomes a touch silly, a bit unbelievable. But that’s not enough to sink it. Think The Last Picture Show as rewritten by The Inbetweeners and you’re about there.

We Are the Freaks – at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014