Out in the UK This Week
Ida (Artificial Eye, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
Pawel Pawlikowski’s thematic follow-up to 2004’s My Summer of Love is a drama about a novice nun in early 1960s Poland, made in the style of a Polish film from the early 1960s – black and white, old-school Academy ratio (or close), bleak but pungent Eastern Bloc locations. The arthouse stylistics are really the only exception you might take to the film – brilliantly done though they are – because they introduce a barrier between the audience and what is essentially Sideways minus the wine and sunshine, a sometimes comic road trip about this young woman, who discovers she is not by birth a Catholic but a Jew, and who then heads off with her newly discovered slattern aunt (a former Party official who can switch into commandant mode when necessary) to find the family home. This, because they are Jews and it’s less than 15 years since the end of the Second World War, isn’t going to end breezily. Pawlikowski’s “wrong” framing, with significant objects cropped out of shot, fluorescent lights and the tops of trees often visible when the person who is talking isn’t, is a perfect visual analogue for the attempts by these two women to find out what happened to their family – the facts keep swinging out of reach. The actresses are a) magnificent (Agata Kulesza as the smoky, drinky older woman) and b) luminous (Agata Trzebuchowska as the nun with a face to stop pacemakers). So she’d be the Paul Giamatti one then? I knew that Sideways comparison wasn’t right, but Ida is at least as good a film. At least.
Guardians of the Galaxy (Disney, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
Everyone had some knowledge of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor when Marvel launched them as film franchises. The Guardians of the Galaxy are the ones that only the fanboys know about, a collection of oddballs whose line-up changed significantly in the mid noughties but was fluid even before then, their storylines designed to work the space operatics more than the earthbound heroics. Whether Marvel will ever get all the Avengers and the Guardians together, as rumours have suggested, seems fairly unlikely now, given that the current superhero wave is nearly spent. However, enough flannel – the film. Notice the casting of a bald Karen Gillen, Doctor Who’s one-time assistant, in a minor role, Dr Who’s running-this-way-and-that-shouting-exposition-as-we-go-blinking-furiously-and-wisecracking formula seeming to be what writer/director James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman are after here. Doctor Who and Star Wars – the double act of grunting tree creature Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and voluble Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) being clearly reminiscent of R2D2/C3PO, while Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill aka Star Lord is a near-carbon of Han Solo, and Zoe Saldana as a green Princess Leia figure whom Quill is going to try and bed also ticks the tried-and-true box. Completing the line-up is Drax, with WWE wrestler physique and thesaurus English. Plot: some villain is collecting orbs, in an attempt to re-combine the six singularities that existed before the Big Bang, with the intention of destroying the universe. Bland enough, but there are little taste bombs, including Quill’s love of old 1970s music and Benicio Del Toro as baddie The Collector (Karl Lagerfeld will be flattered), though the cameos by John C Reilly and Glenn Close are disappointing and pointless. In fact there is too much that is disappointing – Tyler Bates’s second division score (a homage to John Williams’s Star Wars homage to 1930s space adventures, if you will), the film’s wildly variable CG, its lack of sexual frisson. But there is the odd good joke, the odd cute death. Worth a go, if you like this sort of thing.
Particle Fever (Dartmouth, cert E, digital)
Part of the BBC documentary strand Storyville, this excellent crash course in the Higgs Boson – and why it’s important – is dressed up as a documentary about the people who love and care for the Large Hadron Collider. In fact it tells us very little about the collider, apart from the fact that it’s a 17 mile circular construction beneath the Franco-Swiss border and that it fires protons travelling at near warp speed at each other, and then watches to see what happens as they tear each other apart. And that it uses magnets to give the protons the necessary velocity and guide them. Among the people we meet are Monica Dunford, a post-doctoral student who got a job at the LHC (as everyone calls it) just one year before they went for “first beam” in 2008, a chatty, likeable woman with a gift for simplifying – it’s Dunford who describes the entire experiment as essentially just smashing two things together and seeing what flies off. Two other characters are worth watching from their first appearance. There’s David Kaplan, a physics theorist, watching keenly as the experimental theorists (there’s a clear professional tension between the two groups) do their stuff, hoping that the Boson’s existence will be proven and that this will validate his entire life’s work on supersymmetry. And Nima Arkan-Hamed, a maverick theorist who’s been swayed by the notion of multiverses, who’s waiting to see what value the Boson has – if it’s where he expects it to be, then the experiment has told us something less concrete but potentially more chilling: that the laws of the universe might only hold true in our bit of it. But never mind that, you want to see physicists rapping and dancing at the celebratory party to launch the LHC, right? Indeed you don’t. A really superior documentary that will leave you feeling a whole lot more knowledgeable than you were before, put together with real skill (and yes, that Walter Murch in the credits is indeed the Walter Murch of Apocalypse Now).
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
The second in the rebooted series loses James Franco and Frieda Pinto, gains Jason Clarke and Keri Russell and is set five years or so after the first film, with most of humankind wiped out and humans and apes staring at each other, Cold War style. Will they go to war, that’s the thrust of it, played out as an internal struggle for power – on the human side it’s good Clarke and Russell versus necessarily nefarious Gary Oldman; on the ape side it’s noble Caesar (Andy Serkis, in simian suit) versus damaged, dangerous Koba (Toby Kebbell). No matter what you’ve heard about the wonderful, sensitive and surely Oscar-worthy acting by Serkis, it matters barely a jot that it’s him (or Kebbell), could be anyone in fact. What matters slightly more is the way that the plot seems bolted together just any old how – the humans are thrown into dangerous proximity to the apes when they set out to fix a hydro-electric dam in order to restore power, seemingly not having heard of solar. And what matters most is a tendency of old Apes films reasserting itself, with Dawn playing out as an extended civics lesson for those who’ve just learnt the meaning of the word allegory (see also The Hunger Games). What this means in practical terms is… apes on horseback. However, director Matt Reeves does know how to inject the grease of action into the driest of scenarios – he did make Cloverfield, after all.
Mood Indigo (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
Having the stakes, garlic, crucifixes and silver bullets ready for whimsy, when it turns up, and not being a member of the Eternal Sunshiner Church of Michel Gondry, I was ready to dislike Gondry’s return to his native France for an adaptation of Boris Vian’s cult novel L’écume des jours (Froth on the Daydream being just one of its variously translated titles). The plot is pure Love Story – attractive boy Romain Duris meets attractive girl Audrey Tautou, they have a delightful whirlwind courtship, then she gets terminally ill. The difference being that it’s Love Story as reworked with Wallace and Gromit claymation cutes, Jan Svankmajer stop-motion grotesques, Jacques Tati physical farce, with the trippiness of The Magical Mystery Tour and the disruptiveness of Delicatessen thrown in as an extra. Pianolas that play themselves, a pet mouse that’s clearly a man in a mouse costume, knitted internal organs, cancer depicted as a flower. It’s entirely expressionistic, with every internal emotion bubbling up into an on-screen visual, and it avoids the charge that whimsy is a simulacrum of invention – the visuals are genuinely, fizzingly inventive. However, all that action and invention does tend to push the humans into the background, with the result that Mood Indigo comes across as more of a brilliant exercise than a touching human drama.
You and the Night (Peccadillo, cert 18, DVD/digital)
A group of French people gather in an apartment – a beautiful woman called Ali, her partner Matthias, a woman referred to simply as the slut (la chienne), a man called the stud (l’étalon), a teenager (l’adolescent) and a maid. The woman’s partner is dead and has been brought back to life, we later learn, and the orgy this group have gathered for is part of a vitalisation process designed to keep him alive. As the group prepare for their evening of pleasure, they make small-talk, tell their life stories, while being served drink, MDMA, whatever they want, by the maid, who is actually an effeminate man dressed in a maid’s outfit. What we have here is some distant relation of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, played out as an camp arthouse joke. Pasolini’s eroticism, Bergman’s austerity, Argento’s operatics and Von Trier’s (Dogville period) obstructive playfulness are all hinted at, in a film that – like The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, which works a similar terrain – has some magical moments and some you just have to sit through. Whether you include the sight of Eric Cantona’s penis in the former or latter category is up to you – he plays “the stud”, and does it well, having clearly been promoted out of the Vinnie Jones Former Professional Footballer League. The penis is a fake, a funny one. Sums up the film.
White Reindeer (Matchbox, cert 15, DVD/digital)
A genuine oddity, White Reindeer has the looks, the lighting, the cast and the knitwear of a churned-out Christmas TV movie. But within a couple of scenes its focus, cute blonde realtor Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman), has crashed madly off into different territory, after her TV weatherman husband is murdered in the run-up to Christmas. She then discovers that the browser on his computer is full of “nasty chocolate teen” bookmarks, that he had a “nasty chocolate teen” girlfriend, too. So they meet, Miss Blonde and Miss Dark (played by beautiful, subtle, commanding Laura Lemar-Goldsborough – a genuine find), and they become Unlikely Afternoon Movie friends, shoplifting and getting drunk and snorting cocaine together. Suzanne takes to lying at home on the sofa, smelling her farts. “I just feel like I was in love with a made-up person,” Suzanne confides afternoon-movie-ishly at one point to Patti, another new friend, who is also hiding the sort of suburban secrets that the Lifetime Channel doesn’t deal in. Patti’s husband is played by Joe Swanberg, who is part of that Adam Wingard/Amy Seimetz/Chadd Harbold agglomeration of low-budget provocateurs/rising talents knocking out great stuff right now. However, stick me in the “undecided” camp on this one – it’s the glib emotional arcs of the movies churned out for Lifetime etc that irk me the most, not their white-bread settings, and White Reindeer isn’t offering an alternative to those.
© Steve Morrissey 2014