Out This Week
Kajaki (Spirit, cert 15)
To find a really good, really British war film (so, no, not Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down or Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, both of which are in any case over-rated) you have to go back a very very long way. Or watch Kajaki, which is out right now. It’s a simple, brutal and unflinching portrait of the gruesomeness of war, the camaraderie of the fighters and the raw bravery in the face of sheer terror that extreme situations bring. Told with the straightahead simplicity, and bleach-bright looks that bring to mind Ice Cold in Alex, it follows a detail of British soldiers from 3 Para as they venture into a minefield to rescue one of their number, who has had his leg blown to rags after stepping onto an IED. Tom Williams’s script catches the “stop staring at me arse, ya throbber” casual and relentless homophobia of the men, the utter boredom when nothing’s going on, the kicking in of training and protocol once it’s action stations. Director Paul Katis screws the tension to breaking point and keeps it there, using the pitiless glare of the sun to make the point that even without bombs underfoot, these men are in a place that will kill them in short order anyway. I could go on, about how the banter makes sense when the men’s backs are to the wall, how heroism doesn’t look any less heroic when it’s also stupid, how the brave aren’t necessarily the best looking, and they don’t necessarily get rewarded for it, but that would be to ruin a great film that at only one moment – and I put it down to an acting wobble (the unknown-to-me cast are generally excellent) – seemed film-y. Best plonk yourself down and engage with it.
Jauja (Soda, cert 15)
Coming out of Jauja (pronounced How-ha, in the Spanish way) – an in many ways simple film about a Danish-speaking father looking, The Searchers style, for the daughter who’s absconded with a handsome young soldier – was a real “what the hell was that about?” experience. It’s set in 1890s South America, so director Lisandro Alonso’s decision to shoot it in 4:3 format, and with rounded frame edges clearly visible, might be justifiable as a harking back to the silent movies of the time. As might his single lens choice – nothing anamorphic or what have you going on here – a bog standard piece of glass, with Lisandro staying almost entirely in long and medium shot the whole time. Nor is he moving the camera very much. But he is shooting in colour, so the whole “silent movie” thesis teeters at this point. There’s little dialogue, lots of natural sound, as surveyor Viggo Mortensen, clad in heavy coat and boots in the heat, heads away from the leering, sexually frustrated group of soldiers who have protected him and his lust-object barely-pubescent daughter, and into the Argentinian version of the Outback, where he undergoes a series of ordeals, often lit in a melodramatically strong way that gives the finger to naturalism, while the terrain gets more desolate and the surreal begins to encroach. Jodorwsky, I put in my notes, with a couple of question marks afterwards. By the end, as the character Ingeborg is suddenly being addressed by the actress’s name, Villbjørk, you might well be looking around the room with a puzzled look too.
Girls Against Boys (Arrow, cert 15)
Austin Chick keeps threatening to make a great film. In 2002 there was the threeway relationship drama XX/XY, starring Mark Ruffalo as a bedhopping jerk. In 2008, his August was a state-of-the-nation address through the avatar of sexytime jock Josh Hartnett. Is Girls Against Boys a case of revenge on Chick’s hithero male-as-protagonist oeuvre? Because it’s a rape-revenge drama that sees poor wee thing Danielle Panabaker taken under the wing of sashaying vixen Nicole LaLiberte as she heads off on some extreme payback for Panabaker’s violation on the stairs of an apartment block. Chick isn’t sure if this is grindhouse or not. He gets the power tools out at one point and it’s only a matter of time before a samurai sword makes an appearance. But there are also touches of visual poetry – don’t laugh – in Chick’s shooting style. And the way he keeps layering feminism with post-feminism, with lesbianism, and then throws in some Donovan tracks from the 1960s, is almost enough to convince that this isn’t some exploitationer with a college degree. But exploitationer it is, Chick’s obsessive focusing on Panabaker’s face (beautiful lips, interesting angles) gives the game away. However ideologically muddy Chick tries to make the water, however vengeful the grrrls, the male gaze is all over this one. Nice try though.
The Loft (Signature, cert 15)
There are quite a few “in their wildest dreams” films out this week (see below). First up is a remake by Erik Van Looy of his 2008 Belgian film about a gang of married men whose clandestine shagpad is compromised by the presence of a dead female. Whodunit? One of the guys? One of their wives? The girl herself? In the fantasies of all concerned at the production/direction end, this is one of those hard-boiled early Neil LaBute dramas – Your Friends and Neighbours, say – crossed with The Usual Suspects. A lot of misogyny and a fair bit of investigative flashback and forward in an attempt to muddy the water more than is strictly necessary. And hide the fact that this is a dialogue driven and very stagey work. Karl Urban, James Marsden, Wentworth Miller, Eric Stonestreet and Matthias Schoenaerts (the only survivor from the original) are the guys, and they’re all just fine. As is the script and set-up – with everyone concerned (mostly original writer Bart De Pauw) making it a cute exercise in the mass distribution of red herrings and in the ousting of skeletons from closets. But the whole thing goes on too long, and as each revelation turns out to be something of a feint, the law of escalating melodrama/diminishing returns starts to apply.
The Gambler (Paramount, cert 15)
The wildest dream of The Gambler is that it’s a patch on the 1974 original, starring James Caan. Now it’s Mark Wahlberg playing the cynical, possibly suicidal, floridly deadbeat English professor, who whiles away his evenings away from work getting further and further into debt with local bad men. But he can win it all back at the tables, right? Of course he can’t. Or can he? This sort of cat and mouse goes on for an entire film. William Monahan’s adaptation of the 1974 film shows the same love of verbosity that he brought to Scorsese’s The Departed (you suspect that Monahan thinks the finest dialogue scene ever written was the “You can’t handle the truth” outburst by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, because he seems constantly to be tonally aiming there). Wahlberg is good in this, which is a shame, really, but even more of a shame is that the film throws away Brie Larson, as one of Wahlberg’s students – we’re told she’s a genius writer, but there is no evidence of any character at all. The girl as catalyst but not agent – how very 1970s (here, Mr Monahan, is where your interference might have helped). Around these two are a rake of character actors giving it maximum R&B – Jessica Lange, Michael Kenneth Williams, Richard Schiff (squeezing a few welcome laughs out of his single scene), John Goodman. All are flavoursome and in a less flabby film (one without an added subplot about Wahlberg seconding gifted sports scholar Anthony Kelley to help him with a betting scam) might have added enough grit to gain real traction.
Trash (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
In Stephen Daldry and Richard Curtis’s drama about rubbish-picking Brazilian favela kids who find a wallet containing enough good stuff to change their futures, the intention is clearly Slumdog meets City of God. But there isn’t a single moment of emotional involvement (Curtis clearly should stick to the rom coms), no “stakes”, as we now say, and Daldry’s decision to shoot the dirt-poor milieu heavily filtrated and beautifully lit entirely undermines his young actors, whose fabulous, loose-limbed, snot-grinned performances are the sole reason to watch. Martin Sheen and Rooney Mara, clearly on “two days, max” contracts, play a priest and a church volunteer whose purpose in the country makes more sense than their presence in the film. Plot: heretofore mentioned wallet gets the boys to charge all around the city, and they go to places high and low, pursued by bad men and the law – I can’t remember why – thus offering the armchair viewer a cross-section of a city they’re never likely to visit. Before watching it, I’d heard a review of this film on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row and thought the guest reviewer (Larushka Ivan-Zadeh, I think) was being a bit harsh – the Daldry/Curtis backlash, and all that. Having watched it, I think she was being lenient, Daldry’s weakness as an action director only compounding his initial aesthetic gaffe. But it goes on. There’s a scene where Gardo, the darkest skinned of the boys steals a bag at a train station – up comes the rap music, FFS. “It’s all crap carp carap” my notes state, my fingers doing to the words what Daldry and Curtis have done to the valiant young actors’ performances and the meticulous work of the technical crew. Trash by name…
Mortdecai (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
Saving the worst till last, the latest stop on Johnny Depp’s descent through Dante’s rings of hell reminds us that he thinks he has a gift for comedy. Here, taking his cue from the British TV series The Fast Show (on which he once made an almost successful guest appearance), he plays the sort of character who works best at catch-phrase length, a dandified British toff who might be original and funny if we hadn’t had three films from Mike Myers featuring Austin Powers, not to mention 50 years of James Bond spoof. So, Mortdecai is a secret agent of sorts, has a wife (Gwyneth Paltrow again excruciating as a frigid sex goddess), and an aide-de-campe (Paul Bettany – actually rather good, because he’s putting on a performance, not just messing about in the dressing-up box, Johnny). Permutate these three through various Bond-ian situations and you about have it. I laughed twice, truth be told, and one time it was Depp who prised the chortle from me, so perhaps I’m being harsh. Mortdecai’s real problem is its lack of energy – fatal to match British upper class languour in this respect – and the fact that it doesn’t have a very funny script. Why didn’t the producer (one J Depp) get The Fast Show’s Paul Whitehouse to do it? As it is Whitehouse just got a couple of cameos. Which was nice.
© Steve Morrissey 2015