Out in the UK This Week
Annie (Sony, cert PG)
The “Black Annie” this has been called. With the button-cute Beast of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhané Wallis in the lead as Annie and Jamie Foxx in the Daddy Warbucks role and with Jada Pinkett and Will Smith producing, you could call it that, if these things matter to you. If they don’t, what you get is perhaps the epitome of the “turn that frown upside down” musical, carefully updated – Annie is no longer an orphan but a foster kid, Foxx is a cell phone billionaire, a couple of new songs have been added to the familiar ones (Hard Knock Life, Tomorrow, I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here), and a light glaze of hip hop has been applied throughout. The story remains the same – can the little parentless girl with a big heart find someone to look after her? In spite of all the good things in it, Annie has picked up a number of negative reviews, though they’re often from the same people who thought Chicago was a finely sung, expertly danced affair, when in fact it looked and sounded like a panic at an abattoir. This is a much better film and musical than the 1982 version, though things do admittedly go badly deeply wrong in the big chase finish. But until then the songs have entertained, its singers have been in good voice (some tweaked with autotune), the performances – Cameron Diaz’s mad, badly directed turn apart – have been right on the money, and there have been two carefully orchestrated emotional moments when director Will Gluck has demanded stinging eyes and a lump in the throat and got them. From me, anyway. This Annie, panned in advance of viewing in many quarters, I suspect, will have a second coming.
Frequencies (Signatures, cert 15)
Frequencies’ early scenes take place at a bizarre school for geniuses where the unspoken rules of social status have been turned into written test results so no one makes any mistakes and cosies up to someone inappropriate, at the school or in later life. And yet somehow the very high frequency Marie-Curie Fortune and the negatively endowed Isaac Newton Midgeley do indeed swing into each other’s orbits, which sets off a desire in him to have her – in any way he can. The result is romance of the Notting Hill sort – him blundering dunce, her unattainable hottie – done as low budget sci-fi with the odd acting wobble, Daniel Fraser playing the engaging adult Isaac, while Eleanor Wyld as the grown-up Marie-Curie is the sort of blonde frosty-knickered lovely who has men chewing their knuckles. We’ll be seeing a lot more of them, as well as writer/director Darren Paul Fisher, who has not only come up with a good idea but also knows how to flesh it out with believable supernerd dialogue. It’s the Big Bang Theory without the jokes, with a squirt of Misfits hormones, if you like. The whole thing is packed with Big Ideas (free will and determinism, language as a viral meme, the source of creativity) and yet is entirely accessible, though towards the end Fisher throws in a Secret Service subplot that smacks of kitchensink-itis.
Dumb and Dumber To (Universal, cert 15)
Sneaked onto DVD with barely any fanfare, the proper sequel to 1995’s Dumb and Dumber pretty much carries on where Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels left off – being astonishingly stupid and generating lowbrow laughs, in a loose road movie comedy vaguely about finding a kidney for Harry (Daniels). Because the leads are very good at it, this is a surprisingly funny film. What’s more, the Farrelly brothers have drafted in the Hot Tub Time Machine writers Sean Anders and John Morris to supplement work done by them and frequent collaborators Bennett Yellin and Mike Cerrone. In the process a little button marked “genuine bad taste humour” has been flicked back to the on position – so jokes about intruding on parents’ grief at the death of a child, how to react when you realise your daughter has started menstruating, old ladies’ vaginas, Aids (hey, remember the 1990s?). But most breathtaking is the treatment they dish out to Kathleen Turner – kicking off with Lloyd and Harry mistaking her for a man and going pretty much down the “my oh my what happened to your looks” route from there. She gives it back, in spades. And is, in fact, the film’s standout, the funniest thing in it.
The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (Warner, cert 12)
Though he can never be forgiven for turning a thin book into three dialysis-necessitating instalments of sword-and-sorcery, beard-and-balderdash, Peter Jackson’s last tranche of hobbitry is actually a surprisingly nimble affair, especially considering that it is, as the title suggests, little more than a big battle. I’m going to say no more about it than the following, which apply to a greater or lesser extent to all of Jackson’s runic oeuvre, since by now you’re either down with all the “Bolg, spawn of Azog the Defiler” stuff or you’re not. Here goes: very nice to see Christopher Lee as a sprightly ninja wizard this time out, thanks to the magic of CG; Billy Connolly’s arrival as a dwarfish clan leader finally injects a few seconds of humanity and humour into what has been too often a constipated journey; Cate Blanchett, Evangeline Lilly and all the female roles should simply be cut out (tweedy Oxford don Tolkien didn’t know what to do with women either); Jackson’s faith in CG is misplaced and his films are already looking as ropey in places as 1949’s Samson and Delilah, when Victor Mature wrestled a stuffed lion; the fantasy thing is over – we now want science, not magic (see Gravity, Interstellar and any number of low-budget, idea-rich sci-fis, including the above Frequencies, for proof); that helicopter shot of the high New Zealand mountains, with their sparkling air, that’s over too. Next!
Exodus: Gods and Kings (Fox, cert 12)
Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood spent so much time and effort explicitly NOT referencing Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood that in the end the trumpeting of the elephant in the room drowned out everything else. Exodus: Gods and Kings – about Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt – repeats the mistake. Starting with an unwieldy title designed to distract, it then proceeds down a path that prefers rational explanation to divine intervention as it tells the story of the emancipation of the Chosen People – avoiding comparison with Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments like the… er… plague. Thus the parting of the Red Sea is shown as a tidal phenomenon, the manifestations of frogs, locusts and what have you are similarly waved away as eco-system malfunctions rather than god’s hand at work. As for Moses (played by an unremarkable, only semi-gruff Christian Bale), well he’s the leader of a rebel army, Moshe Dyan (or some other warrior leader of modern Israel) in biblical garb, while Joel Edgerton’s Pharaoh is essentially the callous CEO of Egypt Inc (“From an economic standpoint alone…” he prefaces one reply to a request to set the Jews free). Though not many modern male execs wear eyeliner, I grant you, at least in public. Ridley Scott knows what he isn’t doing – DeMille – but that isn’t exactly a plan. So he defaults, as he does in these situations, back to advertising-man mode. This means that individual elements of Exodus are well done – the plagues are nicely handled, with animal carcases piling up everywhere. But Scott repeatedly relies on long, directorly crane shots taken at a grandiloquent “you don’t get this on TV” pace (note to Scott: you do), which Alberto Iglesias’s score echoes with a sub-Wagnerian trembling that strikes into epic mode when it can get hold of anything. But generally, like Scott, Iglesias is just flapping about, vamping. Apart from its representation of God as a small kid, a rare good idea in a screenplay thrown together with a casual regard for grammar, this is a lousy, boring film that makes 40 years in the wilderness seem entirely understandable.
Big Eyes (EV, cert 12)
Amy Adams plays the artist Margaret Keane, Christoph Waltz the husband who claimed her “big eyed” paintings were his in Tim Burton’s muted, pretty biog which sees him returning to the 1950s Tupperware moodboard which gave him his biggest artistic success – Edward Scissorhands. What to say about Big Eyes? Adams doesn’t really know what to do with Keane – whether to play her as an utter dimbo or as a woman under extreme psychological duress. Did Margaret go along with the deception because that way she became rich (ie she was a hero of sorts), or did Mr Keane browbeat her to such an extent, using his undoubted gift of the gab, that she just acquiesced (ie a victim)? Waltz, for his part, seems to be mainlining one of Disney’s Wolf characters – all eyebrows and drool. A half-hearted feminist screed is the result either way. More poignantly, here’s a story about an artist being denied ownership of her work, presented by Tim Burton, an auteur now in bed with the Weinsteins, the “fixers” of films with a golden touch for the middlebrow. That’s a much more painful and much more gripping life-mirrors-art story right there.
Field Punishment No 1 (Odyssey, cert 15)
Field punishment No 1 is being tied to a forward-leaning pole on tippy toes and being left out there in the weather all day – and if it’s snowing out there, then… It’s the treatment meted out to Archibald Baxter, one of the Kiwi conscientious objectors that this clearly made-for-TV film focuses on. The time is the first World War and the place is the front line in France, where conscripts from all over the British Empire have been shipped, whether they want to fight or not. Peter Burger’s film works hard to dispel any notion that the conchies in question are cowards or sissies – Baxter is portrayed as a man’s man as robust of mouth and strong of arm as any other. The war he’s attempting not to fight is the senseless-waste-of-human-life version familiar from most films about the First World War, and the guys he’s standing alongside are the recognisable “lions led by donkeys”. Vaguely English Patient in structure – privation recalled from a hospital bed – it’s a well acted film (Fraser Brown is a stoic, Buddha-like Baxter, Byron Coll impressive as the gobbie, socialist version of the refusnik objector) and full of little details that hit home (the way the fighting men’s faces are covered in sores). Though this true story is slightly marred by the slightly hagiographic tone.
© Steve Morrissey 2015