Out This Week
A War (StudioCanal, cert 15)
The Danes do Afghanistan in a bloody, tense drama that takes a left turn about halfway through. That’s after we’ve been given a long immersive bath in war at its foggiest, leadership at its most difficult, focusing on Pilou Asbaek’s company commander Claus Pedersen as he takes his men out on patrol after a particularly bloody IED incident has left one of them with no legs below the knee, and his men having shown little enthusiasm for the “rebuilding the country” speech Pedersen has just given. After this, it’s a fairly familiar, though undeniably suspenseful journey through the dust, the evasive looks of the locals and the first-meets-third-world dynamic familiar from films such as Restrepo. Director Tobias Lindholm constructs action sequences brilliantly – one in which the Danes coolly and from an almost impossible distance follow a faraway Afghani as he plants an IED is a lesson in procedural lock-and-load tension. And there are human touches, too, as a desperate father comes to Pedersen begging for shelter, telling him that the fact that the Taliban now know the Danes helped his family means they’re all dead – grim scenes. All this, though, is merely a preamble, and rather a long one, for a court hearing brought after Pedersen has called in air power to bomb a village where his men got cornered in a fire fight. Were his reasons for requesting it by the book? Tough calls are then subjected to clinical scrutiny in a Danish court, where people who have never been faced with any difficult decisions work themselves into heroic postures over human rights – what sort of justice can obtain in a war zone being the film’s big idea. So, a halfway-house affair, neither a blood-and-guts war film nor a scalpel courtroom drama. Something different, you could say, and a decisive something that marks out A War as being more than just a johnnie come lately to the Afghanistan War party, a film about war that eschews almost entirely the usual false heroics.
Black Mountain Poets (Metrodome, cert 15)
I’m not sure if Black Mountain Poets succeeds or fails, because I’m not sure what sort of film it’s trying to be. Or maybe the problem is mine and Alice Lowe is where I’m coming undone. She was the co-writer and co-star of the dark, awful, bizarre, hilarious comedy Sightseers and so I expected perhaps something dark, awful etc etc of Black Mountain Poets, something pointedly satirical too. None of these wheels ever really start spinning… and yet… Lowe and co-star Dolly Wells play a pair of opportunistic scammers who steal a car and, realising it belongs to a pair of cult sister poets, decide to pass themselves off as the dippy pair – whose impractical attempts to recover from the setback (pointing in the air, gaping like fish) are a running-joke through the rest of the film. Which plays out in Wales, where a weekend gathering of poets awaits the sisters in something approaching awe. I won’t go into the plot any further, except to say that if you’re expecting potshots at wannabe bards, there are a couple, though not as many as you might think. Nor, particularly, are the two miscreant imposters subjected to the sort of hammering you might expect – these two have just enough self-knowledge to realise they are a pair of useless fucks. The whole thing plays out like one of those early French and Saunders sketches when you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to see if they’re going to dry – Wells and Lowe never quite do. And instead of pointed satire we get… redemption of a sort, love of a sort, a warm, gushy feelgood movie in fact. With mud and a few bits of bracken caught in its woolly jumper.
The Forgotten (Metrodome, cert 15)
The Forgotten has alums of long-running British soap EastEnders both in front of and behind the camera, and is similarly obsessed with “faaaamly” and life at the sharp end. The setting is a sinkhole estate where cowed teen Tommy (Clem Tibber) moves back in with his scamming, violent dad Mark (Shaun Dingwall) and forms a puppy-dog attachment to local girl Carmen who works in a caff – Elarica Gallacher, whose spanner gob, cheekbones and hauteur beguile the camera. A poltergeist film, of sorts, then plays out, and what a great bolt-of-lightning idea that is, to set such a thing in a council flat where the electricity has been disconnected and damp wallpaper is hanging off the walls. It really helps, too, that there’s a score of moody electronica to pump some atmosphere into those already dark, suggestive corners where… something lurks. For some, this attempt to weld the supernatural to a form that makes claims to realism is never going to work. I found the relationship between the foxy Carmen and pasty wimp Tommy harder to swallow, particularly the scene where they get stoned together and share confidences (ie back story), before the banging… but let’s not go there. And that sort of banging is clearly not on the cards anyway. Yes, imagine EastEnders done as a ghost story – scutters, lowlifes, the police, dodgy geezers aplenty – and try strapping The Amityville Horror to it. Yeh…
Yakuza Apocalypse (Manga, cert 18)
Takashi Miike used to be a force to reckon with but has gone right off the boil in the last ten years or so. So is Yakuza Apocalypse back up there with 1999’s Audition, or 2001’s Ichi the Killer and The Happiness of the Katakuris? The simple answer is no, though there are plenty of flashes of the old Miike genius in a film that starts out like Goodfellas meets Fight Club – as labile Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara) embarks on series of trials that will make him like his indestructible hero, yakuza bad guy Genyo Kamiura (Riri Furanki) – then introduces a zombie element as the gangsters all become zombies and the “civilians” (non-yakuza) all go badass. The big problem here is that we’re so deep in genre territory that there’s no real reason for anyone who isn’t a devout zombie nut to concern themselves with the movie. Nor does Miike seem interested in dragging non-devotees through with anything resembling an interesting storyline – once he’s beyond the “I always wanted to be a yakuza” stuff at the beginning. However, he does bring something new to the fight scenes though – shot very close up and with few edits – which makes for visceral p.o.v. punch-outs. If masculinity in crisis hadn’t been done a thousand times already, Miike might be on to something here, though Miike on a bad day is better than most other directors on a good one. This isn’t a thought-through film, but rather a mad run-through of often disconnected ideas. But there are ideas in there, and images. Those scenes of guys sitting round in a knitting circle, and of Riri Furanki (billed as Lily Frankie), the yakuza who simply, by force of sheer will, refuses to die, are unusual, powerful and fun.
Mercury Plains (Signature, cert 15)
The publicity material accompanying this film (on the DVD cover) shows Scott Eastwood pointing a gun in a shot highly reminiscent of father Clint’s in Dirty Harry. Mercury Plains then proceeds to tell us the story of Mitch (Eastwood) the smalltown boy recruited into a gang located in Mexico, where he takes part in one illegal hold-up or heist after another, working for “the Captain”, a loquacious bad man played by Nick Chinlund, whose hot girlfriend (Angela Sarafyan) Mitch is obviously going to boink at some point. So there we are, down Mexico way, with Mitch hanging with a bunch of bad guys and doing bad stuff for no real reason, apart from the large wedge of cash the Captain has promised. This, surely, can’t be right – Dirty Harry might have been unorthodox, but he killed bad guys because he was an avenging angel of natural justice, not because he was a thief. There’s nothing heroic about what’s going on here and early on in Mercury Plains it becomes clear that someone’s had a think about this and come up with a solution to justify a white knight hanging with all these bad hats. And that solution is… Mitch pulling a series of “really not happy” faces after, for example, an innocent man dies gruesomely on the first job the gang goes out on. Any half decent person would high-tail it back to the US and live till the end of their days in virtuous poverty. This problem – or epic fail at the conceptual stage, if you prefer – turns Mercury Plains from being a potentially interesting story about the attractions of the gang life into either a portrait of a coward or, more accurately, nothing at all. In its favour? The sharp, bright cinematography, Mexican locations and mariachi-flavoured soundtrack are flavoursome and Eastwood takes his shirt off enough times to make a Mercury Plains: the Drinking Game an option.
The Timber (Lionsgate, cert 15)
Snowy westerns seem to be quite the thing these days – see The Hateful Eight. I bet Anthony O’Brien, the director of The Timber, has had that comparison made before, and winced. Because for all Tarantino’s idiosyncrasies, no one doubts that he really can direct. O’Brien, sadly, can’t. And there’s such a promising story here – of a couple of guys off on some quest to find a runaway, heading off into the snows, out to a gold prospecting camp, into make-do-and-mend America where life is cheap, grudges linger and every stranger is met with rifle barrel. James Ransome and Josh Peck play the two brothers heading out into the wild beyond, on a journey that has a vague Apocalypse Now arc. The mysterious figure they’re after turns out to be William Gaunt, who is something of a shock as a Colonel Kurtz figure, but makes a good fist of it as the old timer who’s as loquacious as he is prodigal. There’s nothing to be said against the cast at all, in fact, though I bet Elisa Lasowski wishes there’d been more coherence to her role as one of the brothers’ stay-at-home wife, being hounded by the rapacious local banker keen to foreclose on their homestead. I say “one of the brothers” because it was so hard to get a handle on the who and the what and the why in this film, a fact compounded by O’Brien and co-writers’ decision to jumble the chronology (hey, if Tarantino can do it, right?). In The Timber, characters arrive and leave unannounced, spring up from nowhere, and O’Brien fails even at the simplest level to delineate people geographically in a scene. Is that maybe arthouse, as some commentators suggest? Ineptness, I thought, though I did like the film’s images, courtesy of cinematographer Phil Parmet, and the production design, whose tough grandeur brought suggestions, just a little, of Kristian Levring’s massively under-rated The Salvation. Which, I suspect, is the direction O’Brien hoped his film was headed.
© Steve Morrissey 2016