Out This Week
Nina Forever (StudioCanal, cert 18)
If you ever saw the funny, dark and intelligent UK TV series Utopia – conspiracy nerds discover there really is a gigantic conspiracy going on – you’ll already know Fiona O’Shaughnessy, who played the mysterious and sexy lynchpin Jessica Hyde. She’s mysterious and sexy again in this comic horror about a dead woman (O’Shaughnessy) materialising zombie-like in the bed where her clearly-not-grieving-enough ex (Cian Barry) is making the two-backed beast with the new girl (Abigail Hardingham) he’s hooked up with. These two are loved up, but their new relationship has to weather repeated re-appearances by the crack-voiced, dead girlfriend, who develops the habit of turning unannounced at their most intimate moments to piss over everyone’s picnic – “Basically,” Nina opines to new girl Holly, a trainee medic, “you’re Florence Nightingale sharing with Linda Lovelace”. Written and directed by the impressive Blaine brothers, Ben and Chris, Nina Forever does that very difficult thing of being both gruesome and funny, though it’s the jokes that get the upper hand, and they’re often of a sexual nature: the threesome scene – two living humans, a dead one and a bed soaked in blood – is inspired. But the Blaines also have an interest in exploring grief which lifts the film beyond genre – we meet the dead girl’s still-traumatised parents, played with real tenderness by David Troughton and Elizabeth Elvin. O’Shaughnessy, in other words, isn’t the only one who’s on the money. Both Hardingham and Barry are talented performers too. For sure, the premise has run out of travel before things wind to a close, but it does have something to say, and it retains its mad comic energy to the end. And, of course, it’s a zombie thing with some naked goings-on. There is a constituency for that sort of thing, I believe.
Suffragette (Fox, cert 12)
Suffragette tells the story of downtrodden Edwardian skivvy Carey Mulligan and how she reluctantly but with increasing enthusiasm joins the suffrage movement and campaigns for women’s votes. Written by British TV warhorse Abi Morgan (The Iron Maiden, River), it’s made very much in the BBC costume drama style – things are a touch clean, there’s an upstairs downstairs noblesse oblige to class relations and the casting has tone: Helena Bonham Carter, Romola Garai, Natalie Press and Anne-Marie Duff, all very much as you’d expect. Meryl Streep does what looks like a morning’s work as Emmeline Pankhurst, but she’s worth whatever she was paid because we really do believe that here was a woman who inspired loyalty and dedication beyond the call of duty. As for the rest of it, it hangs on Mulligan’s performance as the washerwoman who decides enough is enough. She is again, as she has been in so many recent films (Far From the Madding Crowd, Inside Llewyn Davis, Shame, Drive) rather excellent – committed, nuanced and she even rolls out the barrel for a style of Cockney accent that must have been researched from films of yesterdecade. No one speaks like this no more, mister. You might be sensing that there is a big “but” coming. There is. Because, as we enter the final furlong, and the film switches to the race meeting where Emily Wilding Davison (Press) notoriously throws herself under the king’s horse, the big question raises itself – why are we following Woman A (Mulligan) when it is Woman B (Press) who gets the big from-nowhere dramatic finish, a development that seems to rob both of them of some glory? And the other usual questions that raise themselves in films of this sort – which retroactively back the winning party (in this case suffragettes) rather than explore the mindset of the time – quietly line up behind.
Frankenstein (Signature, cert 18)
Bernard Rose has had a two-pronged career. There’s the jobbing director responsible for such genre classics as Candyman. And there’s the passionate pursuer of solo projects, such as his series of films based on the works of Tolstoy made with Danny Huston. If you haven’t seen Ivansxtc, The Kreutzer Sonata and Boxing Day, I can highly recommend them all. As for Anna Karenina and 2 Jacks, also Tolstoy adaptations, I haven’t seen them, so you’re on your own there. Both the literary and the horrible come together in Frankenstein, a retelling of the old story which moves the monster-making action to a present-day techy California where, as the film opens, scientists Danny Huston and Carrie-Anne Moss (look out for the clear references to The Matrix in her opening moves) are bringing to life a human they have made somehow – 3D printing and DNA sequencing and whatnot. What then plays out is a story remarkably faithful to Mary Shelley’s original – there are even narrated excerpts from her book – with visual allusions to James Whale’s classic 1931 movie adaptation of the story, as this great lumbering creature initially of great physical beauty (Xavier Samuel well cast here) is driven mad by mistreatment and, running increasingly amok, bumps into Candyman himself (Tony Todd as a kindly blind, blues-playing panhandler – nice work) en route to exposing the folly of man playing god. Rose was an early adopter of digital cameras and has always explored their possibilities more cleverly than many directors – I bet this film didn’t cost much but it never looks cheap. And what Rose saved on sets and name actors in supporting roles he has spent on make-up. And don’t those buboes, pustules and weeping abscesses look great!? Frankenstein the movie charges off the blocks and is scary, exciting and even funny in parts. It doesn’t quite manage to sustain any of these atmospheres right to the very end, with the distinct impression gaining ground that Rose has become so interested in the read-across from Mary Shelley to our own age that he is slightly losing focus on old-fashioned dramatic tension. However, it’s never less than fascinating. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a Rose fan.
I Survived a Zombie Holocaust (Matchbox, cert 15)
Imagine what would happen if real-life zombies came upon a film set where a zombie film was being shot, a lousy one at that. That’s the idea behind this ingenious low-budget New Zealand comedy horror that’s sat down for a long weekend and watched fellow Kiwi Peter Jackson’s early gambols through prairies of schlock, particularly 1987’s Bad Taste and 1992’s Braindead. And out came this, a poorly acted, and not always well directed guffaw into the abyss. But energy, the saving grace of Jackson’s films, is much in evidence and there’s a certain mad gleam in the eye as we follow dweebish runner and wannabe scriptwriter Harley Neville on his first day at work as he encounters stock comic film-biz people. The twattish director, the actor who never comes out of character, the definitely-not-gay leading man, the bimbo with twin assets. That “not noticing there’s a zombie holocaust getting underway” idea is Shaun of the Dead, of course. And knock-off though that is, the antipodean tendency to dig deep for the really bad taste laugh is in this film’s favour. For example, in one really funny scene the hot actress from the film within the film (it’s Reanin Johannink) is attacked by real zombies while taking, much against her hoity-toity wishes, a dump in the woods. On hearing approaching zombie grunts, she assumes someone is getting off at the sight of her on her haunches easing one out – “Are you touching yourself?” she chirpses. Just me? How about a man pissing blood from his zombie-infected cock? Oh go on. It’s only one hour ten minutes long, and even then it’s a bit overlong.
The Last Witch Hunter (E One, cert 15)
Though he was great in 2000’s under-rated low-finance drama Boiler Room, Vin Diesel became a big star thanks to three genre films that followed it – Pitch Black, The Fast and Furious and xXx. All were action-hero vehicles and all had franchise potential, but for various reasons, some of them related to the inflation of Diesel’s ego, he only made it into the second of one of those, the Pitch Black sequel entitled The Chronicles of Riddick. And what a steaming mess that was. Interestingly, having managed to revive his career by returning to the F&F franchise, Diesel has also returned to the genre roles that were once suddenly beneath him, first with a further instalment of the Pitch Black franchise, the cheap sci-fi pantomime Riddick, and now with The Last Witch Hunter, which inserts Diesel yet again into a dark world full of lore, Game of Thrones hairstyles and supernatural arcana (there’s an xXx reboot on the way too, apparently). Michael Caine is here too, as the immortal Diesel’s venerable right-hand man, a priest much given to expository monologuing – “Witches live among us,” Caine tells us early on, sketching Diesel’s day job as the man who keeps malevolent forces in check. Later, when Diesel is explaining that, hundreds of years earlier, he and his kind “took all the most powerful witches that ever lived and put them in one place,” Caine handily deadpans “The Witch Prison”, lest we not understand what a place of incarceration full of witches might be called. Did Caine wink to camera? I think he might have done. I exhort you to take it at that level – as a big laugh with everyone having a mighty time in the dressing-up box, not least Diesel who in flashbacks to medieval times seems to be a Viking. The plot is a wafer, and Caine’s role is to be an Alfred to Diesel’s Batman. But there’s also Elijah Wood, as a younger priest, a kind of Frodo to Diesel’s Gandalf, if I might mix my movies. Either way, Diesel is endlessly charming, his refusal to play the race game (Viking? Doesn’t matter) one of the many refreshing things about this strange fallen and resurrected star, while in Rose Leslie we have a feisty young witch/wench sidekick who appears by devious magic to have summoned about half of Kristen Stewart – the smart, sulky-mouthed top half. No one has Stewart’s legs. And it’s a Young Adult film that isn’t in thrall to Ayn Rand, the last witch herself. Remarkable.
Goddess of Love (Signature, cert 18)
It was Barbara Creed who coined the phrase the “monstrous feminine” – the tendency for the female of the species to be routinely represented by the patriarchy as being more deadly than the male. This Medusa/Gorgon figure and its variants have been less evident on screen ever since Glenn Close’s best-in-show performance as the bunny-boiling Alex Forrest in 1987’s Fatal Attraction. So fair play to Goddess of Love, which seeks to get back to the business of properly demonising women by reviving the mad, psycho witch-bitch in the shape of Venus, a lapdancer who, after becoming super-obsessed with one of her johns, goes totally over the top when he goes a bit cold on her. It’s a to-the-hilt performance by writer and star Alexis Kendra, who has the kind of supertoned body that demands to be seen – and is, repeatedly – rolling around in bed, on the pole at the club, doing hash pipes, sobbing into her drink and masturbating furiously as the 33rpm record in her retro and rather lovely apartment belts out a mournful song. Give that woman an award, or a robe, or possibly a bone. And give this film a chance to get through its flatly directed opening section, and let a few of the amateurishly played early scenes drift by too, because really this is all about Venus losing her cool and going gonzo, while director Jon Knautz screws up the courage to go full 1980s and reveal that he’s a big fan of David Lynch. All those dark corridors, the subjective camera, the paranoia. There will be blood.
Bill (Universal, cert PG)
Sell to a pre-existing audience is the cinematic watchword of our times, it seems. So where Marvel and DC, 50 Shades and Harry Potter have cleaned up, surely there can be room for the Horrible Histories gang – 25 million book sales and counting? Well the British TV series has run for 15 years now, so a movie spin-off also seems overdue. And here it is, sticking close to the irreverent formula that has made it a success. Bill is a tongue-in-cheek history of William Shakespeare, and how he went from being a useless lute player of old Stratford town to the accomplished of playwrights in “that London”. The plot offsets Bill against a range of colourful characters – the creaking old Queen Elizabeth (Helen McCrory), her fiendish undercover rival King Philip II of Spain (who is always addressed as “King Philip the Second of Spain”), her comically nefarious masterspy Sir Francis Walsingham, dissolute fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe, the flaky self-regarding Earl of Croydon (not Crawley, as everyone keeps saying, but Croydon – one of the film’s funny running jokes), plus cutpurses and hawking mendicants in a livelier, dirtier view of Elizabethan street life than you might expect for a film aimed at kids. The history actually isn’t bad, and the playing (familiar TV actors Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Ben Willbond, Laurence Rickard and Jim Howick all taking many roles apiece) is tossed off with Blackadderish brio, though the film seems slightly in awe of its subject – or possibly isn’t willing to fill in the yawning gaps with speculation – which leads to a slightly wan, if not dull Shakespeare. However, bright easily distracted tweens should love it. And their parents might hover longer in front of the TV set than they expected to as well.
© Steve Morrissey 2016