Out in the UK This Week
The Lego Movie (Warner, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)
Normally I watch a film and take notes as I go. With The Lego Movie I hardly managed any, because there was so little of the film that wasn’t packed to bursting with stuff – action, jokes, new characters, new twists on old characters, yet more awesome blocky Legotastic animation. The Lego Movie doesn’t make the Wreck-It Ralph mistake. Instead it sticks to a simple plot and pursues to the end. Which is… The Matrix meets Star Wars – the nobody who becomes the somebody who can save the world. The voice work is fun, with Liam Neeson growling away as the cop who quite literally has two sides to his character – Good Cop and Bad Cop. Will Ferrell is also amusing as the despicable President Business, the boss of a megacorp who also happens to be president of the world. So, yes, under the hiding-in-plain-sight exhortations to buy Lego – including on-screen catalogue numbers at crucial moments – there’s a cultural critique. Whoever at Lego hired in Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) to write and direct deserves a big cigar. Made of Lego.
20 Feet from Stardom (Strike, cert 12, DVD)
The documentary about the importance of the backing singer focuses pretty hard on the rock era – so plenty of talking-head we’re-not-worthies from Jagger, Springsteen and Sheryl Crow in the direction of Cindy Mizelle, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton and a host of little-known but big-voiced black (mostly) women (mostly) who gave the reedy rock dudes some bottom. And top. But the strength of this doc isn’t in the famous names, it’s in the singing, the sort that makes the small hairs run up and down the body in a Mexican Wave. A particular high point was hearing the story of Merry Clayton being woken up to go and put the “rape… murder… it’s just a shot away” vocals on the Rolling Stones’ best record, Gimme Shelter – her turning up at the studio in her curlers and pyjamas, no idea who the Stones where, and giving it a tentative go, before being encouraged by Jagger to let rip. And then we hear her vocal, with all the backing track cleared out of the way… and … woof! Lovely stories and epic singing aside, the film also tries to sing a sad song about how hard it is to make the move from background to spotlight, a B side to the undoubted fabulousness of the voices on display.
The Battery (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)
Good god, the zombie movies, like the zombies themselves, keep coming. And good ones too. Like The Battery, an elegant no-budget job faintly reminiscent of The Road that drops us in with two guys who used to play baseball together but have now, we surmise, been on the post-apocalyptic road in the backwoods killing zombies for a long time, so long that they have become blasé about the killing and are heartily sick of the sight of each other. Among the things to enjoy here are the performances of writer/director/star Jeremy Gardner and producer/star Adam Cronheim as the guys – one picky, the other slobby – plus the now-almost-novel sight of slow-moving, dumb-as-plankton old-school zombies. The humour’s fresh too, and used sparingly but very effectively, adding to the feeling that, in Gardner, we’re in the presence of what can only be called a good old-fashioned story-teller. Yes, The Battery does some flagrant time-wasting, but then, in zombieworld, time is something there seems to be a lot of… until suddenly there isn’t. If you follow me. No spoilers.
Visitors (Metrodome, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
Godfrey Reggio directed Koyaanisquatsi over 30 years ago and has ploughed the same furrow pretty much since, with Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naquoyqatsi (2002) delivering hi-def collages designed to show us our delightful, beautiful planet and humanity’s often baleful impact on it. Visitors continues in similar vein, with a series of beautifully lit and assembled monochrome shots of humans as they interface with technology… though we see only the human(s) head on, not the machine(s). The effect is hypnotic, especially with Philip Glass’s metronomic score thrumming away on top. However, the sense of something not particularly important being said at great length is all-pervasive, and personally I’d rather eat my own face than watch another Reggio film, but beauty it certainly has in spades.
The Zero Theorem (Sony, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
How long has it been since a genuinely good Terry Gilliam film? Even 1985’s Brazil was, let’s face it, a bit dull here and there. But let’s get on with The Zero Theorem, which is similar to Brazil in its steampunk Christmas pudding richness and its critique of mass society. It again reminds us that Gilliam at his worst comes across as a brilliant set designer who’s got above himself and that he only functions really well when he’s strait-jacketed by a tight story. Which writer Pat Rushini has not given him here. Instead Rushini fellates the director with a series of oven-ready Gilliam scenarios – mixed metaphors ahoy. Plot: computer drone Christoph Waltz is given a complex meaning-of-everything calculation called the zero theorem to take home and crack, freelance style, in his own, lavishly bohemian dwelling, a former church complete with a font as the kitchen sink. He gives it his best shot but is constantly distracted by people, most of whom are company spies. But never mind the plot, because no one else in the film seems that bothered, how about the gorgeously appointed church? It’s the best thing in the film, or would be if Gilliam didn’t have an eye for a hot female – Mélanie Thierry reminding us that nurses really would look better in white rubber outfits, as long as they looked like Mélanie Thierry to start with. These twin peaks apart, this is a Russian salad of individually tasty items glopped together with Gilliam’s manic-depressive but now too-familiar fantasies. They’re still impressive, these flights of fancy, but as David Thewlis (as Waltz’s chippy boss) says at one point, as if critiquing Gilliam’s chuck-it-all-in approach – “Everything adds up to nothing.”
Need for Speed (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)
With the Fast and Furious franchise now the most successful thing Universal has ever produced, with $2.3billion and counting to its name, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to steal its wheels. So here we are with the Dreamworks attempt, about a crack racing crew and their race in a street-racing car to a street where they will race the car. Plot established, this is a cut-and-shut affair that hasn’t got the balls to go all-in on F&F’s properly multiracial casting. So white-guy rivals Aaron Paul (hooray) and Dominic Cooper (boo) take the leads, and blonde girl Imogen Poots takes the mouthy female part. It looks nice, really slick, though little of what happens makes sense – this is a dirt-poor street racing crew who can somehow afford the services of a Cessna airplane and pilot? Its tone is all wrong too – F&F is essentially songs in the key of bitch; NfS never rises above a whinge. What’s more it uses the up-a-ramp-flip stunt as if it had just invented it. And it kills its only properly interesting character (played by star of the future Harrison Gilbertson) early on. Oh dear that was a spoiler. What we have here is a 21st century Cannonball Run, the 1981 Burt Reynolds movie that was an admission by its star and everyone involved that they had too much money and hated the audience.
© Steve Morrissey 2014