Out in the UK This Week
Starred Up (Fox, cert 18, DVD/Blu-ray/digital)
Starred Up is a British prison drama, a phrase that usually strikes fear into the soul. But this one is an exception. Jack O’Connell isn’t the only reason for it, though he’s convincing as a young lag toughing his way to the top. The script pulls its weight too, with lots of tiny details – like our guy peeling off his top before some argy-bargy and dousing himself in baby oil so the screws can’t get a hold of him – and an awareness that a prison drama only has a certain number of places it can go (the showers, the top dog’s cell, the therapy session, the bent screw’s psyche), and then goes there with attitude. It’s boy to man stuff, brutal and brilliant, as a user review I’ve just spotted on the IMDb page succinctly has it. Yes, brutal and brilliant. Highly recommended.
The Double (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD/Blu-ray/digital)
You’ll know Richard Ayoade from TV’s The IT Crowd and maybe from his first film, the geek romance Submarine. The Double sees him adapting Dostoevsky’s short story about a milquetoast whose world is invaded by his double. The double looks the same in every way but his supremely confident behaviour is a goad to the original, who becomes properly miserable when the interloper starts making eyes at his own heart’s desire. Ayoade has the cast – Jesse Eisenberg effortlessly good as both men, Mia Wasikowska again brilliant as the librarian and object of Simon/James’s desire. And he has the look – Terry Gilliam, Franz Kafka, David Lynch and Takashi Miike wriggling like puppies in a sack in this steampunk world of dead technology, alienation and dim-bulb lighting. He’s got the music too, insanely chirpy Japanese pop keeps bursting through the psychological disruption. It does all sound very quirky, doesn’t it? And if there’s a black mark to put alongside the one for The Double being a drama unsure how comic it wants to be, it’s its sense of straining a bit too hard. Just a teeny bit.
Black Narcissus (Network, cert U, Blu-ray)
I popped this on just to check how the restoration looked. The colour was flashing a bit here and there, as if the red gun was misfiring, though the sharpness of the image and the breathtaking imagery entirely compensated. If you don’t know it, it’s the 1947 Powell and Pressburger classic melodrama about nuns (including Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron) being driven crazy by sublimated lust out in the Himalayas, where they have gone to deliver god and charity to the poverty stricken populace. But, again, I stayed right to the end, noticing this time how the entire film is about disruption – no matter what good work or selfless deed the nuns try and do, some worldly imperative gets in the way. And the figure of David Farrar, as the local representative of the British Empire, coming and going on a tiny donkey like a latter-day Jesus, what a brilliant touch. Look closely and you can tell it’s all shot within a few miles of London: cumulonimbus clouds like that are a giveaway. And whether the red gun on my TV was clipping, the test disc I watched it on was a bit iffy (happens all the time) or, surely not, the restoration just got a bit patchy here and there, this is still hands down one of the best examples of cinematography ever – step forward Jack Cardiff.
Half of a Yellow Sun (Soda, cert 15, DVD/Blu-ray)
For his directorial debut, tyro playwright Biyi Bandele goes for the big one – Gone with the Wind – telling a story of love in a time of tumult in his adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel. The film is at its most impressive in its depiction of a class of people who are almost never seen on film – optimistic, affluent, secular Nigerians keen for their country to have all the benefits of 1960s progress. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton are its embodiment, Odenigbo (Ejiofor) the technocrat teacher at a concrete and glass university, Olanna (Newton) the well-spoken daughter of a manufacturer of who’s done well for himself. Newton is oddly off in this film, never quite convincing in the way that Ejiofor is, though there are a whole raft of great performances down the pay grade – John Boyega as Odenigbo’s faithful servant, Onyeka Onwenu as his loudly superstitious and devious mother, Anika Noni Rose as Olanna’s brash, self-serving sister. The problem with the film, for all its many undoubted pluses, is that it’s all introduction and no main speaker – the civil war of Nigeria and the Biafra crisis barely registering when that, surely, is what it’s meant to be all about.
Labor Day (Paramount, cert 12, DVD/Blu-ray/digital)
Labor Day is probably going to be one of those The Notebook films. Slavishly worshipped by one constituency, derided by another. It’s the story of how a recluse single mother is brought back in touch with her intimate side after an escaped convict holes up in her house for the Labor day holiday weekend, tutoring her son in manly skills, fixing stuff around the place, generally being the ideal husband and father, as if beamed in by aliens. It’s nuts and it’s glorious at the same time, and it’s another example of Kate Winslet’s seeming single-handed attempt to resurrect the spirit of Joan Crawford in her Mildred Pierce era. Josh Brolin is the guy. Could anyone be better? It’s doubtful, and without these two stars the entire thing would be snortworthy. With them it still has its moments – the now notorious peach pie scene, reminiscent of the potter’s wheel in Ghost, plus the repeated shots of taps leaking, baths running over, water gushing… yes, we get it, a woman has her needs. Smutty? Not for a nanosecond. In fact the whole things aches with tastefulness – the exquisite lighting, the restrained decor, the elegant soundtrack. Some PhD student is probably already writing a thesis on it already, how it’s Bonnie and Clyde rewritten as a suburban psychodrama by Raymond Carver, or something. Which it kind of is, if you’re hyperventilating. And if you’ve watched it more than twice, you probably are.
Pioneer (Arrow, cert 15, DVD/Blu-ray)
This Norwegian thriller about the race in the 1970s to extract oil from Norway’s sea bed claims to have Wes Bentley as one of its stars. In fact he’s barely in it and could be removed entirely without changing the film in any way whatsoever, since we’d lose only about three minutes, and in any case Bentley has no bearing on plot, tone or other characters. Why’s he there then? To sell the film abroad, I suppose. Though to be fair to the producers, the film does need all the help it can get. And it starts so well too, with a whole series of atmospheric shots following two Norwegian divers in a bathyscape down to the bottom of the North Sea, where they are to make preliminary excursions to see whether a pipeline at such depths is feasible. In these early scenes there’s a tonne of fascinating technical detail, a genuine sense of trepidation and the men we’re following, played by Aksel Hennie (excellent in Headhunters, pretty good here) and André Eriksen, are worth rooting for. But then it abandons all this and devolves instead into a standard thriller that needs ten TV hours to get its story out in the sort of detail that would make it interesting. Edge of Darkness is the basic idea – big bad corporations messing with people’s lives – and if you haven’t seen the 1985 BBC series starring Bob Peck, or Utopia, Channel 4’s current counterpart, then you should. I wouldn’t bother with this.
Rio 2 (Fox, cert U, DVD/Blu-ray/digital)
Not being a fan of Rio 1, I wasn’t looking forward to Rio 2. Still, the sequel at least has a go at a kind of logical plot development, the two blue macaws who got together in the first animated adventure obviously not being able to do that again. So, the writers send them off to the jungle, for what looks like a re-run of Madagascar but turns out to be something far busier and worthier… saving the rainforest from loggers blah blah blah. As with Rio 1, Jemaine Clement is so good as the bad guy Nigel the cockatoo that he throws everyone else into the shade, voice artistes Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway not helping by making the leads, Blu and Jewel, a pair of drips. Nor are matters helped by the fact that Christine Chenoweth, voicing Nigel’s poisonous tree-frog sidekick and would-be amour, is the film’s second most interesting character. However, the music is an improvement on the first and there are a couple of enjoyable samba-heavy tunes, and the animation is psychedelic and full of incidental detail. Which is the film’s problem in a brazil nutshell – it’s all frame and no picture.
© Steve Morrissey 2014