Out This Week
99 Homes (StudioCanal, cert 15)
The subprime meltdown done as Faustian pact, with Andrew Garfield as a naive jobless carpenter going to work for the unscrupulous property developer – it’s Michael Shannon vaping like a maniac – who repossessed his home. Before long, Garfield too is behaving like a monster, or heading that way, in writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s latest long cool look at life at the bottom (see Man with Cart or Goodbye Solo). Having been a lacklustre Spider-Man, Garfield has something to prove and does so in spades, aware of the fact that in Shannon he’s in the presence of serious acting muscle. No one can ultimately win against the Devil, which is who, in essence, the charming and dangerous Shannon is playing. And Bahrani’s message is pointed, political and at one point erupts directly out of Shannon’s mouth, in a big “America was built by bailing out the winners” speech, the developer’s every-man-for-himself justification for being such a badass. So, a great film? Almost. Bahrani struggles with a big problem – the bad guys have all the best tunes – and when he tries to shift focus onto the good guys, suddenly introducing a handsome and blamelessly heroic Tim Guinee to act as some last minute pity-stimulant, it all feels a bit forced. However, 99 Homes has the epic in its sights, and most films shot on a few suburban plots wouldn’t even countenance such a thing.
Legend (StudioCanal, cert 15)
US director Brian Helgeland proves that Guy Ritchie isn’t the only director capable of doing gangster pantomime with his sumptuous rollick into the 1960s gangster demi-monde of the Kray twins, the East End villains who continue to fascinate from beyond the grave. Tom Hardy plays both brothers, gay fat psychopath Ronnie and sleek business-head Reggie. It’s stunt casting but Hardy pulls it off with a wink, and in any case the film is most concerned with Reg, Ronnie being pulled on and off as a bogeyman pantomime dame whenever the film threatens to get dull. Helgeland wrote and directed 2001’s A Knight’s Tale and the mix is similar here – a bit of music, a bit of comedy, a bit of name-dropping (Shirley Bassey, Joan Collins and Harold Wilson) though about one scene in three ends with claret on the axminster. The script is written in TV soap style – people saying what mean – so when Reg’s bird Emily Browning wants to say “You’re a gangster, and you’ll always be one,” then that’s exactly what she says. So, expect real life and you’ll be disappointed, but that’s not to say the film isn’t smart and urgent. And in its undertow, as sympathies are gradually shifted away from “sane” Reggie and towards “mad” Ronnie, it really has something to say about personal responsibility. Who, when one of these brothers really can’t help himself, is really the mad one, or the bad one?
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (Fox, cert 12)
Not being a fan of most of the Young Adult films that have come along in the past few years – especially the dystopian Hunger Games/Divergent/Giver sort of thing that seems to have Ayn Rand on the writing team – and having not exactly warmed to the first Maze Runner film, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed part two. I think that’s because writer TS Nowlin and director Wes Ball possibly feel the same way about these sort of films as I do, and have worked hard to prevent this one from being yet another “one damn thing after another” sequence of chase and chat. Following on from the end of part one, which saw Dylan O’Brien and motley crew escaping from the maze to make a go of it out on the outside, we’re now out in the big wide world where the whole maze concept is junked, as is the Lord of the Flies discussion about civilisation versus chaos, the zoo versus the jungle. Instead, a zombie movie, give or take, takes hold, once Aidan Gillen and Patricia Clarkson have been wheeled on, done some cackling, then wheeled off, and our gang have escaped from a place that seemed to offer salvation (like your parents might) only to discover that the world is in fact a bad place full of bad things as they head across the dystopian Scorch (ie desert) to another safe haven. A Lord of the Rings safe/jeopardy/safe/jeopardy structure asserts itself, and though the casting is ostensibly United Colors of Benetton in its ethnicity, it’s young, gifted and white O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster and new recruit Jacob Lofland who get most of the agency. Kaya Scodelario looks hot in her white T shirt and Wes Ball seems fascinated with her breasts, but she gets little to do, as in part one, and has to suffer the double indignity of watching another new arrival, Rosa Salazar, playing the ballbreaking female lead role that should by rights be hers. Giancarlo Esposito, as a louche renegade leader, and Alan Tudyk, fruitiness turned up to 11, help with the overall impression that what we’re watching is straw being spun into gold, and it’s all aided enormously by the fact that everyone on screen can act. I liked it. And I’m still surprised about that.
Everest (Universal, cert 12)
From 1992 onwards, professional outfits started offering what were in effect package holidays to the top of Everest – if you had the cash, they’d get you to the summit. This way madness lay, apparently, and as Everest the movie kicks off, we’re in 1996, when a real-life catastrophe did happen, thanks to too many inexperienced people being on the mountain at the same time. Add bad weather and the whole thing tips over into multiple disaster. Though Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal and Keira Knightley are all higher up the pecking order, it’s Jason Clarke who carries the dramatic weight of this film, as a decent, honourable climbing-outfit boss trying to keep things sensible and, when start going badly wrong, risking his life trying to get his climbers, and those of rival outfits, off the mountain and back to safety. Baltasar Kormákur is the director, his “swimming in the frozen Atlantic” movie The Deep having presumably won him this gig, and he does a good job setting things up – life at base camp looks like one boozy festival. Make the most of it; this side of the film is the best bit of it. When the various climbing teams and faintly disdainful Sherpas get up on the mountain itself, it frequently gets difficult to work out who is who – this must also have been the case in 1996, but being in hock to the truth isn’t always a good idea. Oh, hang on, Sam Worthington is in Everest too, and actually seems to have found his niche here, as a properly masculine guy whose true character isn’t exposed until things go bad. Kormákur is good with the small touches – climbing Everest, he seems to be saying, is how rich guys like Texas Billy Big Balls Josh Brolin get the midlife crisis out of their systems – and he drops in some fascinating technical touches, such as the bit where a helicopter yaws about madly because there just isn’t enough air at that altitude to provide lift, no matter how fast the rotors spin. That’s a bit like the film in toto – swinging about a bit, never quite convincingly airborne.
Aaaaaaaah! (Icon, cert 18)
Out in the woods are two men. One is sobbing as he throws a picture of a woman to the floor. The men take turns to piss on it. Then one of the men (Tom Meeten) wipes a tear from the eye of the other man (Steve Oram) and then a driblet of piss from his cock. Yeee-aaaah, what do we have here? Cut to a house where a hot young woman (Lucy Honigman) is idly looking at a celebrity magazine, while her husband (Julian Rhind-Tutt) drinks lager and assembles flatpack furniture. Neither speaks, just grunts. Aah haa – the old fashioned critique of suburban bourgeois behaviour, presumed extinct since Luis Buñuel died, appears to be alive and well in writer/director/star Steve Oram’s absurdist dramedy conducted entirely in grunts and animal actions. Spike Milligan is probably another influence, as is Benny Hill, in a film first shown at London’s Frightfest, though Aaaaaaaah! is clearly more comedy than horror. There’s a kind of ramshackle glory to this mad grand concept in which everyone behaves like chimpanzees – mounting from behind is a regular occurrence – and it’s not at all clear how any of the household appliances might have been manufactured, or how this sub-articulate species is running the civilisation whose fruits are in evidence all around them. Put that small gripe to one side and enjoy a world utterly without nuance – alpha males take what’s theirs; beta males are either sent off to live in the garden (as deposed alpha Julian Barratt does) or act as henchmen and piss-driblet wipers for the alphas. Too long, even at 79 minutes, it’s also massively disdainful of how normal people live, but there are many joys to behold, not least Noel Fielding having his penis bitten off, or Steve Oram trying to mount Toyah Willcox, and the bouncy soundtrack (by Willcox’s husband Robert Fripp) is another reason to watch. File alongside Sightseers, the brilliant deadpan satire Oram wrote with Alice Lowe (who cameos).
Life (E One, cert 15)
Life is Anton Corbijn’s fifth feature as a director and what a pityfest it is. Telling the back story of one of the iconic photographs of all time, it centres on the relationship between snapper Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) and James Dean (Dane DeHaan) as they get to know each other and build towards that famous Times Square shot of Dean walking hunched against the elements with a cigarette sticking out of his chiselled face. Like Control, Corbijn’s Joy Division movie, it’s a story about an artist – two artists, in fact – trying to stay true, while the forces of evil commerce (Stock’s agent in one case, studio boss Jack Warner in Dean’s) try to pursue the easy buck. Corbijn makes a whole load of terrible decisions – chief among these is the casting of DeHaan, who is a great actor but simply too plubby in the chops to play a person whose jawline is about 70 per cent of his appeal. Then there’s the decision to start the film off as a Douglas Sirk-style crypto-gay exploration of Dean’s sexuality – when Dean and Stock first meet the tone is distinctly flirty – only to swerve away from that and into another exploration, of a character who’s become very familiar in culture since then: the drawling icon of cool, a character worn with diminishing returns by rock stars from Dylan and Lennon to whoever’s hot next week. Who was the real Dean? The film’s not sure, and it’s not sure either if the film is actually about him or about Stock, the up-and-coming photographer hustling to get a shot into Life magazine. And we’re not sure whether it’s even about Stock, or more about Corbijn, who made his name as a photographer, since scene after scene deals with the observational nature of photography and Corbijn appears to get confessional about the passivity of looking rather than taking part – Life as opposed to life. Corbijn restarts the film several times, the most successful bit being when Dean and Stock go back to Dean’s home town, and we finally get some sense of a real person. And then he restarts it again, in a more poetic vein right before the end credits roll. The overall impression of both men is that they’re a miserable pair of spineless egos seeking self-gratification and glory over honour. If that’s the film Corbijn honestly intended to make, then this is, in fact, a masterpiece. But I doubt it.
Irrational Man (Warner, cert 12)
Irrational Man is Woody Allen’s 147-billionth movie and a very familiar trudge it is. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as an existentially bored philosophy professor and Emma Stone as the young student who throws herself at him. In a plot that feels like something Allen might have doodled on a napkin, or written for the New Yorker, Phoenix comes up with a novel way of shifting the monkey on his back – he kills a stranger who is making another stranger’s life a misery. Since there is no way the prof can be attached to the victim, there is the high likelihood that he is literally going to get away with murder. The joy of the film comes from watching Allen push Phoenix and Stone around what is essentially a hole – how would Stone even know Phoenix is involved in nefariousness since he doesn’t tell her? – and there is a certain ingenuity to the solution Allen comes up with, which involves co-star Parkey Posey, as a sexual libertine, depressive co-worker desperate for Phoenix to take her, rather than the younger, hotter, brighter model. Yes, some joy from that, and from the acting, which is fantastic, Phoenix somehow having found a way to play the Allen avatar who is always the focus of Allen’s movies without actually using Woody’s tics or speech rhythms, and Stone every bit as good as Posey as the two love rivals. It’s a little arid, though, a little lacking in humour, and the constant voiceover speaks of a writer who simply couldn’t be bothered giving it one last rewrite. As for Allen’s big idea – “Trust your instincts… not everything can be grasped by the intellect”, as Phoenix opines at one point, this is wheeled out as if Moses had brought it down off the mountain, when in fact it’s the message behind almost every mainstream Hollywood movie since Star Wars.
© Steve Morrissey 2016