Out in the UK This Week
Interstellar (Warner, cert 12)
I wasn’t a fan of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films – too long, too much yak, humourless, over-insistent and with a poor grip on action – so I wasn’t exactly warming up a welcome for this much hyped slide sideways into space fantasy. How wrong was I? This is the best “hard sci-fi film” for decades, so grand in scale that it dwarfs Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway. McConaughey is the star, playing the retired Nasa astronaut heading back into space after years kicking his heels on a world heading towards annihilation. There he finds that, out on the edge of a black hole where time, space and the laws of everyday physics break down, the cosmic and the entirely personal intersect. Through McConaughey, Nolan sings a quiet lament for the death of the space race’s philosophical underpinning in the white heat of modernism, carefully using special effects and music in a quietly awesome, deliberately Kubrickian way. This he yokes to that sense of trembling on a threshold that Tarkovsky was so good at, and offsets these two “epic” influences against a folksy Star Trek humanism, McConaughey’s flyboy space pilot being about 50 per cent Captain Kirk and 50 per cent Flash Gordon. And though some criticism can be levelled at the way Interstellar ends (no spoilers at all about plot), this too, I thought, was deliberate, a harking back to the sort of 1950s film which ended with an epilogue in which loose ends were tied up by some guy with a pipe and a reassuring haircut before the titles rolled. Full of fascinating scientific procedural detail (how do you slingshot around a black hole?), packed with ideas, superbly constructed, thrilling, adept at juggling several storylines simultaneously, and with a grip on special effects that puts Nolan in a league on his own… you get the idea.
St. Vincent (EV, cert 12)
A comedy starring Bill Murray. Now there’s a loaded phrase. Murray has been in so many “nearly” films that even his most ardent fans know that his films need approaching with caution, but that good or bad, Murray himself will be playing a blinder. St. Vincent is nearer than most to being what the fans want – a comedy in which a vulnerable kid is left in the hands of the most inappropriate man in town, played by Murray as a ghost of Charles Bukowski (drink, hookers, lack of respect for the herd). So what’s the arc? The kid learns a thing or two, and the man is gently humanised by the experience? That’s the fellow. Stifle that gentle groan for a minute because though it’s undeniable that the film heads exactly where you think it’s going to go from the first second that grouchy Vincent meets his new neighbour (Melissa McCarthy impressively toning it down) and her kid (Jaeden Lieberher, and what a find he is), the film does it with a slightly knowing twinkle. That’s why, I suspect, Naomi Watts is overdoing it wildly as Vincent’s Russian hooker girlfriend, while Chris O’Dowd also plays to the stereotype a touch as the kid’s Catholic priest teacher with a good line in snappy humour. The result is warm and gently funny, with a great big slobbery sentimental finish arriving just when the comic stuff has been played about as far as it can go.
Doc of the Dead (Altitude, cert 15)
A documentary about zombies. A fairly light-hearted one, all told, though it talks to all the right people – from Simon Pegg and George Romero, to Bruce Campbell, Stuart Gordon and make-up supremo Tom Savini. Though mostly fixed on the sort of zombie flick that came along in the wake of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) – with everything from 28 Days Later to World War Z and shoot-em-up games up for discussion – it also ventures a bit of historical context. 1910’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari was an early instance, before the zombie film settled down into being mostly about race – black men dehumanised by voodoo (ie naked black lust) menacing virginal white women, as in 1932’s White Zombies. Then we learn of the “alien zombie” movies of the 1950s such as Invisible Invaders and Plan 9 from Outer Space, which showed that fear about racial annihilation had been replaced by fear of nuclear annihilation. The zombie is an endlessly adaptable metaphor, it seems. There’s plenty of interesting stuff in here, with Romero particularly coherent and intelligent on the subject of the field he helped create (though he himself wouldn’t accept Night of the Living Dead as a zombie film until the Cahiers Du Cinema boys declared that that’s what it was). Most notably he talks about the zombie film as a sign that there is frustration abroad – it’s a cultural warning. However, this is an 81 minute film that could easily lose 20 minutes. There’s no need for the digression into the cellars of survivalists preparing for the apocalypse. And there’s also no need for the jokey phoney adverts, though of course it’s understood that director Alexandre O Philippe is only trying to stop things bogging down in heavy debate. Make the doc you want to make, Mr Philippe, and then the people will come – possibly shuffling and with outstretched arms.
Get On Up (Universal, cert 12)
This biopic about James Brown has a screenplay by Jes and John Henry-Butterworth that’s aiming for poetic compression – everything we know about James Brown is shown to us only once (he takes crack once, he beats his wife once, he goes on the run from the law once, he gets put in jail once, he recklessly waves a gun around once, tax avoidance is mentioned once… and so on), all of these irruptions springing from Brown’s psychologically compromised childhood (his mother walked out and he was raised in a brothel). However, director Tate Taylor is trying to make a tasteful “standard” biopic, along the lines of Ray – dolly shots and character arcs and pretty lighting and period detailing – but the Butterworth’s screenplay, particularly that yo-yo timeline, needs something more experimental, dynamic, funky. Chadwick Boseman is better as Brown the man than Brown the performer – sloppy spins – though how anyone is expected to capture the sheer dynamism of Brown at his peak is beyond comprehension. The key reference point here is in Taylor’s recreation of the TAMI Show in 1964, when Brown, irate because the Rolling Stones were getting top billing, put on a display so pyrotechnical that they were afraid to follow him. To digress slightly, this is a case of “print the legend” or so says Mick Jagger in a documentary you can find here about Brown’s life. Get On Up (also co-produced by Jagger, interestingly) is ultimately a missed opportunity: it’s no use as a primer on Brown’s extraordinary career because it lacks details and pussyfoots around its subject, and its headline-hopping superficial approach means that the great developments (he invented funk music, for god’s sake) don’t get the weight they deserve. But if you do already know the Brown story, this is, damning summation, a pleasant enough entertainment.
The Grandmaster (Metrodome, cert 15)
I’ve already reviewed this film about the celebrated Ip Man at length, here. I’m pretty much of the same opinion now as I was then – it’s no good. I’ve never particularly subscribed to the “good things are in it” take on a film. The first question to ask is: does it work dramatically? If it doesn’t then occasionally there might be some mitigating factor – if a film is bravely experimental or it’s dealing with a subject no one else will touch – that stops it getting a big thumbs down. But generally speaking I don’t care how lovely something looks (and this does), how big the stars (they don’t come much bigger than Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi in Chinese cinema), how celebrated the director (and Wong Kar Wei is without doubt one of the genius directors), or how technically superior its individual elements (fight scenes choreographed by legend Yuen Woo-ping). This is a four hour film that’s been cut back to two, and in the process most of its coherence and drama and magic has been kung-fu’d to death.
Wooden Crosses (Eureka, cert PG)
Made in 1932 using techniques which must have been groundbreaking then, this remarkably fluid and still very effective war film is often hailed as one of the best of the genre. It follows, in what is now a standard formula, a group of “just guys” into the trenches of the First World War, then into a battle that is still a marvel of mis-en-scène, man-movement and camerawork, and finally into a cemetery where writer/director Raymond Bernard gives the guys a pitiless big finish reinforcing the “war is hell” set-ups that have come before. Thanks to a 2014 restoration, you’d barely guess this film was 80-odd years old. A few midtones might have slipped on the way but overall it’s bright and crisp with good contrast. The sound is more problematic, though oddly it’s only speech which sounds a bit tinny (no big deal for subtitle readers); the whump whump of ordnance in the battle scenes comes through loud and clear. This is important, because though Bernard is interested in his characters (Charles Vanel and Antonin Artaud are among the men playing them), he’s more focused on getting across the disorienting effect of battle, the way it unmoors men. Some fall apart, others discover wells of calm heroism. “You’re going to lose two fingers,” one soldier is told after being hit with a bullet. “It’s OK, I’m no pianist,” he quips.
Pelo Malo (Axiom, cert 15)
In the Venezuelan slums, a pretty young woman who has lost her job as a security guard is consumed with worry about her son. He’s a pretty young thing, and his obsession with his “bad hair” (the film’s title in Spanish) awakens in her the fear that he is gay. Of course she dresses this up as a general fear for his future – what life for a gay lad in those macho purlieus – but the look of distaste on her face tells another story, and the fact that she has Hispanic looks and the son takes after his absent African-featured father is another count against him. It’s the acting that should draw you towards what would, in another age, have been called a kitchen sinker – Samuel Lange Zambrano and Samantha Castillo, as son and mother, are so natural and believable that Pelo Malo almost has a documentary quality. Nelly Ramos, as the boy’s grandmother, wickedly encouraging him to flame on – we suspect it’s a way of getting at the woman who took her own son away – takes the film up what looks like a potential Billy Elliot avenue. But there’s no such easy redemption here, and by the end the look on the boy’s face suggests that his belief in fairy tales might be shattered for ever. An unusual, psychologically gruesome corrective to the usual happy-ever-afters.
© Steve Morrissey 2015