Out This Week
In the Heart of the Sea (Warner, cert 12)
Why have one sea adventure when you can have them all? Though ostensibly about the incident that inspired the writing of Moby Dick, In the Heart of the Sea also takes shots at Jaws, Mutiny on the Bounty and Robinson Crusoe in a tale of a whaling ship’s adventures, only some of which are whale related. Chris Hemsworth stars – and possibly that’s a strangled Boston accent or a Clark Gable impersonation – as the first mate of a whaler out of Nantucket whose ship is pounced on by a great white whale. The story is all set out in “dark and stormy night” flashback by Ben Whishaw (as writer Herman Melville on the research trail), teased out of old salt Brendan Gleeson over a long session of whisky and reminiscence. But in fact Ron Howard’s film ranges far and wide, diluting what might have been a simple man v beast adventure with various side stories – of the class conflict between oikish first mate and entitled captain (Benjamin Walker), of a shipwreck, of a desperate long-haul navigation in lifeboats, of cannibalism at sea… and so on. Howard has an eye for detail and we get plenty of the sort of thing that enhanced the Master and Commander film. So if it’s ropes running through windlasses, futtock shrouds, mizzen tops and the setting of stunsels that floats your 19th century sea-going vessel, you’ll already most likely know the derivation of the phrase “Nantucket sleigh ride” (it’s when the harpooned whale sets off for the horizon, or possibly the sea bed, dragging the whaling skiff along with it). The CG work varies from the extraordinary to the terrible, but then that’s normal for films relying heavily on digital effects. And there’s a touching faith in the dignity of humanity, so much so that you expect to see Spencer Tracy fetch up in oilskins at any minute. Not a classic, but a fine Sunday afternoon movie. The sort you can doze off to for half an hour and it doesn’t really make much difference.
10,000 Saints (Universal, cert 15)
The modern “blended family” is the multiplane focus of this funny ensemble drama which kind of centres on Ethan Hawke, as a flaky old toker who, in scene one, is informing his son that the reason why mommy is so angry with daddy is because daddy has got mommy’s best friend pregnant, and oh, by the way, you’re adopted. Cut to years later, the son is now a teenage Asa Butterfield and is about to receive a visit from the daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) of dad’s current squeeze (Emily Mortimer), a visit which ends up with the young woman pregnant by the young lad’s best friend, Teddy (Avan Jogia). It’s the late 80s, Aids is almost as rife as promiscuity and the hardcore scene is loud and proud, and in particular “straight edge” hardcore, the version practised by youngsters who reject the countercultural sex-and-drug imperative. Emile Hirsch is its embodiment, the brother of Teddy creepily (because chastely?) insisting that he look after the pregnant girl after Teddy dies unexpectedly. Co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini bring the same vivid fascination for the underbelly, for life at the margins, as they did in their paean to comic-book artist Harvey Pekar in 2003’s American Splendor, and there’s a gothic tilt, a slightly heightened ordinariness of the settings, much as you’d find in Pekar’s celebration of the drab. In a film full of great things, which really catches a culture at a turning point, Ethan Hawke is the standout and gets all the best lines, as the impish and awful ganja-growing father who’d be a great guy if he weren’t such a skank.
Man with a Movie Camera (Eureka, cert E)
Often described as the best documentary ever made, Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent film was shot in Russia as Stalin was moving towards taking total control and, to some extent, it is a justification of the importance of movie-making – as demonstration of the achievements of Soviet art, as weapon of propaganda and, notably, as a mechanical process rooted in the same soil as the heavy industry that the Man of Steel was in the process of fetishising. Interesting though all this is, contextual even, why the film scores so consistently highly in polls is because it’s a fascinating historical record and a remarkable artistic and technical achievement. Though Vertov (born: Denis Kaufman) and his cameraman brother Mikhail Kaufman are clearly virtuosos, it’s the rhythm of the editing by Vertov and wife Elizaveta Svilova that gives the film its enduring appeal and makes it seem still remarkably modern. As for the techniques on display – Vertov tries everything from montages and freeze-frames, to close-ups, dissolves, animations, composites and mirror shots. These are a bit gimmicky, for sure, but Vertov was trying to make a work of art that stood on its own term, and didn’t borrow from the already mature forms of theatre or literature. He succeeded, and in the process invented many of the techniques and much of the film language still in use today. So what do we actually see? People, in short – at work, at play, on the streets, in trams, with prams, on planes, bathing naked in the sea daubed with mineral mud, giving birth, upright dead in an open coffin on the way to funeral, off on the way to a wedding, injured and being decanted into an ambulance. All human life is here, as the News of the World slogan used to have it. And like popular journalism, The Man with a Movie Camera is part of that great democratising urge of the 20th century – which went so wrong so often, but so right here. The restoration in the Eureka version I watched is by Amsterdam’s EYE Film Institute and Lobster Films and is astonishingly good, pristine almost, and it’s complemented by a soundtrack by The Alloy Orchestra that is driving and percussive and mixes the electronic and orchestral to dramatic effect. This is still a great film.
Hitchcock/Truffaut (Dogwoof, cert 12)
In 1962 François Truffaut interviewed Alfred Hitchcock, offering the popular but critically under-rated director the opportunity to be feted as a genius. Hitchcock took the bait and in 1965 the resulting book, Hitchcock/Truffaut, was published, inspiring a generation of film-makers. “It took a weight off our shoulders – said we could go” is how Martin Scorsese puts it in this documentary about the book about the man. If that sounds a bit too removed for some tastes, then Kent Jones’s film probably is. But there’s plenty in here to like, especially if you’re interested in the director of Psycho, Vertigo, The 39 Steps and… (insert own favourite here). Jones has lined up an impressive who’s who of directors to bulk out the snatches of the two men in conversation (mediated by a translator), with David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Schrader, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Richard Linklater among the names in “we’re not worthy” crouches. Hitchcock points out that he was a silent film-maker first, that “silent pictures are the pure motion picture form” and that his films are all about geography. Hence his “all actors are cattle” line (heard here), since all his stars needed to do was be in the right place at the right time and speak the lines – Hitch’s elaborately storyboarded set-ups did all the rest. Well, that’s the idea, and if you want a contrarian point of view about all that, you’ve come to the wrong place. “A theoretician of space” is how Assayas describes Hitchcock, and if you’ve ever toyed with the thought that film-makers are visual people and perhaps aren’t so verbally gifted, this is the film to knock that notion out of the park. Fincher in particular is marvellously erudite – I don’t think I’ve heard the word “umbilicus” used before. But, most of all, no matter how many famous faces line up and speak, it’s the strangely leaden falling cadences of Hitchcock’s own utterances that make this what it is.
Made in France (Soda, cert 15)
Made before the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, an intertitle tells us, this French thriller is about a moderate Muslim journalist (Malik Zidi) going undercover in a jihadi cell. Our man, Sam the journo, is the most devout member of the gang, one of the few who can read the Koran in its original language, in fact. This is a nice touch. But having started off cleverly, Nicolas Boukhrief’s film then somewhat lets the side down by presenting the gang’s leader, Hassan (Dmitri Storoge), as a boggle-eyed hothead surrounded by equally familiar types – the zealous bourgeois convert (Francois Civil), the guy with simply too much hyperactive energy (Nassim Si Ahmed) and the one who’s getting mad/even with some one or thing in his past (Ahmed Dramé). The temptation is to see this as a French, non-comedic version of Chris Morris’s film Four Lions and the plotline is pretty similar – Hassan tells his guys he’s been ordered to organise some terrorist outrage and they fall in with his plans, much to Sam’s increasing alarm. The difference is that this film is not a comedy and that since it was made hundreds of French people have died in appalling terrorist outrages. But it is a very good thriller of the “sweaty mole” sort. As an analysis of what drives jihadi action in Europe… mmmm… its propagandistic impulse gets in the way.
Daddy’s Home (Universal, cert 12)
Here’s a funny comedy built on such foul foundations that it’s fighting a poison in its own system. That it doesn’t drop dead is down to the expert playing of Will Ferrell, as the almost intolerably decent stepdad, and Mark Wahlberg, as the “real” father who’s effortlessly superior in every way (cool, charisma and cock size) and now back from wherever to stake a claim on his ex wife and kids. Watching a decent sap losing ground no matter what he does isn’t my idea of fun, but there are still some laughs to be had in this misanthropic film – watching Ferrell electrocuting himself while trying to top Wahlberg at skateboarding, almost every line uttered by Thomas Haden Church, who plays Ferrell’s boss at the cool jazz station where he works, and loves nothing better than to detain people with inappropriate stories about his own relationship fuck-ups. Bobby Cannavale also amuses as Ferrell’s fertility doctor (stepdad is firing blanks after a tragic but sadly rather funny accident with a dentist’s X ray machine). Sterility as comedy? Emblematic of the film.
Exposed (Signature, cert 15)
Here’s a three-legged dog of a movie. The front paws consist of Keanu Reeves as a gruff troubled cop trying to find out who killed his partner. The single back leg follows Isabel (Ana de Armas), a pious Hispanic primary school teacher who keeps seeing… if not dead people, then supernatural creatures at the very least. How do these two stories interact? And do either of them really have anything to say about story strand number three, featuring a small girl being abused in some unspecified way? I do know the answer to those questions, but I’m not sure that screenwriter Gee Malik Linton quite did, since there were some weirdly gaping plot holes in this film. Around halfway in, Keanu, wondering if a ring found at the scene of the crime might contain some clue as to its owner, takes a look on its inside surface, where he sees the name “Isabel” engraved. No one at the cop shop, it seems, had bothered to look at this vital piece of evidence properly before. This sort of WTF-ery happens throughout, and by the time the film ended – with a “there you are, all wrapped up” flourish – it still felt as if one or more pieces of information were missing. Debut director Declan Dale conjures mood nicely, but all in all Exposed didn’t do enough actual exposing.
PS. I’ve since discovered, thanks to a blog by Mark Kermode, that the film has been cut to ribbons and was originally titled Daughter of God. He has seen the original, I have not. Here are his conclusions.
© Steve Morrissey 2016