Out This Week
Mr Holmes (EOne, cert PG)
A bit of a something and nothing here, with Ian McKellen playing a crusty 90-something Sherlock Holmes coming to terms with the loss of his faculties, wrapping up an old unsolved case (in flashback) and putting his remaining wits in the service of cracking an even greater enigma – himself. McKellen has been here before, in Gods and Monsters, when he played Frankenstein director James Whale at the ignominious end of his life. And so has director Bill Condon, who also directed the 1998 film, and again proves himself to be a deft stylist of wipe-clean period drama – Holmes’s ancient house, his beautiful garden tricked out with beehives, the setting on the English South Coast, all of it is gorgeous to beyond an estate agent’s wet dream. Laura Linney is probably the biggest surprise. She’s so good as Holmes’s peasant-level skivvy – and mother of his last amanuensis, a mini-me Watson (Milo Parker) – that you forget she’s a native New Yorker and stop monitoring her softly rolling accent. It may be that the locations, the sets, the acting is the main thing to take away from Mr Holmes, but there’s also a gently subversive tug too, a dynamiting of the legend, calmly, slowly, with the pretty pictures and all the actorly fuss working as a kind of misdirection. Nothing and something.
Jurassic World (Universal, cert 15)
“A Colin Trevorrow Film” it says proudly and in gigantic letters at the end of this latest slab of dino-action, as if Steven Spielberg weren’t pulling the strings in the background. It’s a playful acknowledgement by Trevorrow that he’s been a gun for hire, having only a few minutes ago been in charge of nothing bigger than the fabulous no-tech sci-fi slacker comedy Safety Not Guaranteed. And now… here he is with Jurassic World, a picture for anyone who wanted another Jurassic Park movie. Every aspect of it – its looks, its actors, its situations, relationships, dialogue, jeopardy, special effects, even colour grading – is consistent with the other films. Sure, there are differences. Here it’s Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard as the surly dino-wrangler and the wonky dinosaur theme park boss thrown together when a genetically modified creature escapes. And the bad guys are new ones too – Irrfan Khan as the megacapitalist owner of Isla Nublar, Vincent D’Onofrio as a redneck hunter with connections to the military. There are also clear advances in the technology too – most notably in the way the camera moves so nimbly around scenes in which computer generated dinosaurs and live-action humans are comped together remarkably (the style of the animation, rest assured, is still classic Jurassic Park). But they’re for the most part surface differences in a film which itself has been comped together from a trainspotterish checklist of Jurassic tick boxes. Trevorrow blows hard to get some of the small human details that made Safety Not Guaranteed (good name for this film too, obv) such a charmer, most of them coming from the wry observational mouth of Jake Johnson, whose moment is now surely upon us.
Buttercup Bill (Trinity, cert 18)
Buttercup Bill is a work of feverish Southern Gothic, tinged with Outsider Art naivety and fragrant with dabs of David Lynch. It stars Remy Bennett and Evan Louison as a brother and sister with a relationship so close that they’re surely at some point going to get down to it. What sort of brother and sister visit a lapdancing club together? Why aren’t the normal taboos in place? The answer is contained in the film, hinted at in the opening shots, pretty much completely divulged by the final scenes. And though there’s a tendency to say the same thing again and again, in lines often swallowed by Bennett (call it naturalism), Ryan Foregger’s cinematography drenches everything in gorgeousness – an achievement for a handheld film – and co-directors Bennett and Emilie Richard-Froozan build sexual and dramatic tension satisfyingly while little stabs of “authentic” music (blues, old soul, gospel) add a jangling counterpoint. It’s the first collaboration of these directors, also the first by new producing outfit Blonde to Black Pictures, the brainchild of Emma Comley and Sadie Frost. Well done, everybody.
Cooties (Universal, cert 15)
Cooties is a black comedy about kids at a primary school catching a disease from chickens and becoming murderously bloodthirsty and turning on their teachers – our heroes. It moves quickly and amusingly in its first, “set-up” half, then slows down a bit as it tries to turn this hapless harried faculty – including Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill and Leigh Whannell – into a crack team. I laughed a lot in the first half – at the idea of a superbrattish kid called Patriot, because he was born on 9/11; at Wood’s meek teacher deciding to be on first name terms with the kids, writing CLINT on the blackboard, and them shouting back “CUNT”; at the security guard outside watching the escalating mayhem through the haze of the psychedelic mushrooms he ingested just before things got squawkish. In part two I enjoyed Rainn Wilson as an angry blue-collar jock gradually becoming more likeable, though that’s a structural problem for the film, which also isn’t sure how to handle two unlikely heroes, Wood and Rainn. Most of all I liked that it tapped into a fear that must stalk teachers’ nightmares – that if the kids organised, they would be unstoppable. And I liked that the film acknowledged this threat properly – there are some seriously gruesome deaths visited upon the kids, who all deserve it.
The Arms Drop (Dogwoof, cert E)
Originally titled Våbensmuglingen in Denmark – you don’t need Google Translate to see the words Weapon and Smuggling in there (though I did check) – this is a mostly English language documentary about a missionary called Niels Holck who, shocked at the West Bengal government’s atrocities against the Ananda Marga sect, in 1995 decided he was going to arm them. He contacts Peter Bleach, a British arms dealer with close connections to the British Secret Service, who arranges the shipment, Holck not realising that Bleach is keeping all the relevant authorities in the loop, and that he (Holck) is going to be arrested when he touches down in India after having made the arms drop. Where did Holck get the money from? We don’t know. Is Bleach quite who he says he is/was? We also don’t know. So when Holck goes on the run and Bleach instead ends up in an Indian jail – for years – disavowed by his country, we’re never really sure whether Bleach is an innocent man caught out in a game of realpolitik, or an arms dealer concocting a story to get himself off the hook. This lack of clarity pervades the entire film, which clearly fails as an “explains it all” document. But, with lots of archive news footage of the case – especially the very impressive Bleach briefing international camera crews on the fly in the seconds he has walking into and out of various Indian courtrooms – plus some dramatic reconstruction, plus extensive interviews with the two men now, we get a picture of a Kafka-esque labyrinth of claim and counter-claim, of international intrigue and “life is cheap” decision-making at the highest level. It’s like a James Bond film with all the glitter and product-placement hosed off. Well, maybe not exactly, but if it tells us anything, it’s that the much-vaunted separation of powers of democratic systems, be they in the UK, India or Denmark, only holds true when it doesn’t matter.
The Arms Drop – Not yet available anywhere (not even on the Dogwoof site, where it should be)
The Look of Silence (Dogwoof, cert 15)
The follow-up to Oscar-winning documentary The Act of Killing is more of the same – tales of political genocide in 1960s Indonesia, where groups of barely disciplined thugs killed “communists” (anyone who wasn’t toeing the line) in massive numbers – maybe a million people. This time, though, director Joshua Oppenheimer, clearly responding to the odd claim that he’d turned mass death into entertainment, approaches from the victims’ side. In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer used the grand deceit of getting the killers to act out scenes from 1970s Hollywood movies – Pacino and De Niro were popular – and it did provide some ghoulish, saucer-eyed laughs, but also relaxed his interviewees to the point of extraordinary frankness. Here, there’s no such curtain to duck behind or emerge from. Nor is Oppenheimer very present, except as a camera operator and facilitator for a man called Adi, an optician who often uses the ophthalmic eye test (“is it better like this, or like this?” – that one) as a way of getting close to the people he wants to talk to, the men responsible for killing his brother Rami all those years ago. Adi’s ancient mother warns him against stirring up trouble, and Adi’s calm probing does again and again raise the ire of the old murderers, and those of them who still wield power make no bones about threatening him. But his patient and impassive approach also garners some remarkable admissions – what a woman’s breast looks like when it’s cut off, how the drinking of human blood stops a man going crazy from all the killing, and finally, how his brother’s killers killed Rami – in matter of fact fashion they discuss how they slit his throat, stabbed him multiple times and cut off his penis. “He was probably a good man, but what could we do? It was a revolution.” True, this film doesn’t have the structural ingenuity of the original, its gimmick, but it’s still remarkable to see men talk so openly and calmly about killing, with not a trace of remorse.
The Cut (Soda, cert 15)
Here’s an ambitious drama about the Armenian holocaust that loses its way a touch as it widens out to become more about the Armenian diaspora, then widens a bit further to become about diasporas in general and pretty much falls apart. As with the Armenians, its bounty is scattered on the wind. Tahar Rahim stars as the blameless blacksmith – a son of toil, a decent, honourable family man who loves his kids and so on – who gets caught up the First World War, as the Ottomans side with Germany against Russia. This bit we understand. But from here on, it becomes increasingly unclear as to who is doing what to whom, when, and why, except that our man, Nazaret, is in the thick of it all. Maybe director Fatih Akin – in his English language debut – is making a point about the fog of war. We see women raped and men pressganged into armies, thugs cutting everyone’s throats, and our man somehow surviving but losing his ability to speak, then becoming an itinerant worker in a soap factory, before discovering his family might still be alive… cue massive change of focus as Nazaret sets off for lands over the sea. It’s all bewildering and just a touch “so what?” and it’s anyone’s guess as to when, or even if, the genocide is being carried out. Drama is also thin on the ground. Akin shoots it all in the most photogenic of settings, initially in dry, dusty Turkey and points east out to Lebanon, while Alexander Hacke’s (of Einstürzende Neubauten) brooding score channels Brian Eno in his chiming synths era. It’s worth it for these aspects alone, and because Akin is a gifted director of flair and guts. I’d say for Rahim’s performance too, though he’s so hobbled by the decision to make him a mute that he’s essentially undone, notions of silent universal victimhood be damned.
© Steve Morrissey 2015