Out in the UK This Week
Boyhood (Universal, cert 15)
As I write Richard Linklater’s ambitious drama is picking up Golden Globes like it was made of Velcro and looks like it’s heading for Oscar glory too. So what’s the deal? At first glance it looks like a gimmick, following the same actors for 12 years, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette from their lush prime into early middle age, Ellar Coltrane as the boy of the title, who is five when Linklater turns the camera on, 18 by the time he’s done. So is Boyhood drama or structured reality? It’s actually another go at the sort of freewheeling relationship drama of Linklater’s Before (Dawn, Sunset, Midnight) trilogy. But the added extra, what gives Boyhood its tang – as young Mason goes from the child wearing Spider-Man pyjamas to the young adult taking psychedelics out in a canyon with college friends – is the sense that most parents have of wondering/worrying how Mason is going to turn out. And the same trepidation applies to the film – at halfway through I was beginning to worry whether it wasn’t a stunt. But by the end, as Linklater starts to tie more and more threads together, time has lent its perspective and we can see that this is not just about Mason: it’s also a circle-of-life story involving his estranged parents and his sister (Lorelei Linklater) too. And on top of this, over the dozen years Linklater taps the zeitgeist too – in the way that writer David Nicholls managed with One Day (the book, not the film) – playing us in with Coldplay’s Yellow and out with Family of the Year’s Hero. Perfect choices for a perfect film.
The Equalizer (Sony, cert 15)
A fistful of years ago Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua teamed up to make Training Day, a dark cop drama that also gave a nice role to Ethan Hawke, as the squeaky rookie. It’s nice to see that Washington has revived the Fuqua of old – a string of stinkers including King Arthur and Olympus Has Fallen were suggesting he might have gone for good – because what we have here is also dark and urban and jangles with an almost 1980s vibe. The plot bears little relation to the TV series on which it’s based, the one starring Edward Woodward as TV’s fattest action man. But the idea is the same – Washington is a vigilante do-gooder, but his routine of small acts of restitutional justice is thrown into the blender after a Mr Big’s sadistic henchman gets on his case. Like the old feminist teabag – you only know how strong a woman is when she’s in hot water – Washington’s hero only reveals the full range of his skills once Marton Csokas (as a proper whackjob foreign nasty) starts pushing him to levels of Jason Bourne cat-and-mouse. It’s a pre-Bourne film in most ways though – Fuqua and cameraman Mauro Fiore (who also worked on Training Day) working the tracking shots and crepuscular lighting, the detail-rich sets into something Edward Hopper-esque, while Washington and Csokas play the two key characters like something out of Noh theatre, elemental. The result is a brutal, fascinating reworking of almost every cliché in the book, the genre polished till it gleams and a gigantic middle finger to Liam Neeson’s geri-actioners. And who knew that Denzel was so good with power tools (you might want to look away).
Obvious Child (Koch, cert 15)
Jenny Slate plays Donna, the stand-up comic whose shtick is to ramble on about what’s going on in her life. As Obvious Child opens we see where this can get her: unhappy about the fact that she’s just flagellated him as well as herself, her boyfriend dumps her right after she’s got off the stage, right there in the unisex toilets. Donna is the sort of comedian who gets a laugh talking about her vagina, and the film basks in the same warm shallows, squeezing mirth out of farting, peeing in the street and Donna’s gal pal informing her that she’s going to do “a big stinky shit” while they’re having the sort of frank emotional conversation that men can only manage between downing a bottle of vodka and passing out. Into this world of frank exchange and life-as-material, writer/director Gillian Robespierre injects a one night stand with a new guy, a geeky sort who wears a scarf and a woolly hat, and an unwanted pregnancy. Obvious Child has been taken up in some quarters for political reasons, because it doesn’t take the movies’ usual moral route nor indulge in hand-wringing once Donna decides what she’s going to do. Though I enjoyed it more as a stealth screwball rom-com – a Not Bringing Up Baby, perhaps, which seems almost reluctant to reveal just how sweet it is.
Stations of the Cross (Arrow, cert 15)
Something of a formal epic, Dietrich Brüggemann’s German drama has an almost tableau vivant simplicity to it. In 14 scenes, captured on a lock-shot camera, he follows a modern German teenager who is a member of a breakaway Catholic sect – big on the Latin mass and the weakness of the flesh – as she undertakes her own Stations of the Cross, the progress in stages of Jesus Christ from Last Supper to crucifixion. Each station is marked by a solemn intertitle – “Jesus falls for the first time”, “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus” etc – Brüggemann teasingly showing us how this might work out in the modern world as Maria (Lea Van Acken) essentially starves herself to death in order to show her total dedication to the denial of the body. Call it an examination of religiosity if you like, but though it’s undeniably an achievement in terms of formal rigour and austere beauty, in its desire to generate antipathy rather than understanding towards its characters it’s hard to see Stations of the Cross as anything other than propaganda. Yes, we nod sagely, the narcissism of fundamentalism (as we look sideways towards the Middle East). Powerful, though, undeniably.
Zulu (Anchor Bay, cert 15)
I’m not sure of the gestation of this film, but there’s was probably quite a lot of activity passing over Orlando Bloom’s agent’s desk. Because this is Bloom’s attempt to re-launch his career. Now pumped, unshaven and tatted and swigging from a bottle a little too often, he’s the Mel Gibson-style maverick cop to Forest Whitaker’s methodical Danny Glover, a pair of battle-scarred South Africans who can add “living with the aftermath of apartheid” to the usual run of cop-drama clichés. This is no comedy, no Lethal Weapon, but thanks to Jérôme Salle, director of the lush, Bond-like Largo Winch, it’s a good-looking, bright and sharp film, with the added vibrancy that shooting in the full sun brings, and Salle keeps things moving as one stock scene piles up on another. The plot has something to do with missing street kids, a Mr Big and the development of a drug so bad that it turns lab rats, in one amusing Reefer Madness scene, into ravening cannibals. But it barely matters. Watch it as a drinking game is my advice, one swig for a “give me your badge” style box-ticker, another for every time you spot Bloom trying too hard.
A Walk among the Tombstones (E One, cert 15)
Liam Neeson’s latest geri-actioner is a functional, competent detective movie, 1970s pastiche, with the big fella moving from one Marlowe-esque setup to the next like a latterday Jim Rockford, cracking wise and then getting beaten up for his trouble. The plot revolves around drug traffickers and disappearing women and Neeson’s private eye is saddled with a streetwise teenager (Brian Bradley, aka the rapper Astro of X Factor USA), a likeable presence who sparks well with Neeson, even if the entire role could be excised without doing the film any harm. Er… that’s it. No, hang on, director Scott Frank (who adapted Get Shorty, though here is working from a Lawrence Block novel) has a good eye for grubby New York locations – vacant lots, hoardings, rundown buildings. Like I say, 1970s pastiche.
The Giver (EV, cert 12)
Give me a second while I get something off my chest. The whole Young Adult thing, of which The Giver is a prime example. Does it not seem strange that young adults, rejecting childishness, spurn fairy tales and move on to stuff like this, or The Hunger Games, or Twilight? That, in other words, they swap tales of psychological complexity and symbolic depth for the vapid and numbingly literal? Rant over. The Giver stars Brenton Thwaites as a teenager who lives in a bright, clean futureworld where everyone obeys the rules and order is maintained by a system of mass medication, Thwaites being the one who is obviously going to buck the system. This dystopian future clearly fuelled by Ayn Rand fever dreams is well delineated by director Philip Noyce and his set builders, while Jeff Bridges (good guy) and Meryl Streep (bad guy) add a smell of quality to the affair. But it’s slipshod in every other aspect, from particulars of its world-building (the way that the insistence on precision of speech is picked up and dropped according to the diktats of the story) to the routine first act, rushed second one and a finale that promises action then fails to deliver it. Dull and tin-eared.
© Steve Morrissey 2015