Out This Week
Steve Jobs (Universal, cert 15)
Walking in to watch this film on the last day of the London Film Festival, I was struck by the number of people in the cinema, waiting for the lights to go down, who were absorbed in their tablets, phablets, phones and whatever. We all live in Steve Jobs’s world now, and the case could be argued that collectively we have become those people in Apple’s famous Ridley Scott Big Brother advert of 1984, the ones striving to be freed from tyranny by technology. Coming at this film from the other direction, there’s the Google-financed movie The Internship, starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, which failed spectacularly to notice that attitudes to global megatech were changing. We might have loved Google when the film was greenlit, but by the time it hit theatres, we’d become worried about their ubiquity and over-reach. Director Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin show they’re fully aware of both points of view in Steve Jobs, three snapshots of the life of the Apple co-founder – the 1984 launch of the Macintosh (complete with Scott advert); the 1988 public unveiling of Jobs’s post-Apple computer for NeXt (the company whose operating system would eventually save Apple, the company who’d just fired him); and Jobs’s announcement of the iMac in 1998, the piece of kit that would signal Apple’s dramatic turnaround. The arrival in Jerusalem; the Crucifixion; and the Resurrection from the Dead, if we’re getting biblical. Michael Fassbender’s performance is controlled and locked down, another way of saying he can’t really get a glove on Jobs. And I’m not sure Sorkin and Boyle do either – they assert that Jobs was right about “end to end” computing, where the company controls the whole product, software and hardware. This point is moot, and if we look at Apple today, it looks like it’s about to run into the same problems as it did in the 1980s with its “my way or the highway” approach. People chose the highway back then; they might do again. I wouldn’t buy Apple stock. But back to the film. It’s full of great stuff, its three acts allowing the same characters to be pushed on in new configurations, like some hi-tech mummer’s play – Kate Winslet as Jobs’s right hand woman and the film’s explicator-in-chief; Seth Rogen as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, the warm to Jobs’s cool, the conscience to his calculator; Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, the head of Pepsi brought in by Jobs and who would eventually fire him from Apple, somehow avuncular and steely at the same time. Sorkin is in full walk-and-talk West Wing mode with a screenplay that barely stops for breath, never loses its grip; and director Danny Boyle shows that his 127 Hours – a film conjuring something out of nothing – was just a warm-up for a drama that takes place entirely backstage. Curtain up… and it’s over. Worth noting that both Sorkin and Boyle are old theatre guys. They’re in their element here.
The Lady in the Van (Sony, cert 12)
So you’re wary of Maggie Smith’s old dowager shtick, and maybe the thought of another Alan Bennett screenplay directed by Nicholas Hytner (after The Madness of King George and The History Boys) feels like the offer of yet another bourbon biscuit. But the two knights and the dame pull it off grandly as they tell the story of ancient derelict Miss Shepherd, who ended up living in a van on Bennett’s driveway from the 1970s to her death in 1989. Once we’ve got the little frisson out of the way of being able to buy a three-storey property in bohemian Camden, London, for £13.5K in 1970 – now, maybe two million – and been introduced not so much to characters as the sort of British character actors who make you want to chuck another log on the fire (Frances De La Tour, Roger Allam, Selina Cadell), it’s shoes off, stretch legs and relax. And does Smith deliver, all cracking flute and comedy pauses as a woman so brusque and ungracious that, Alex Jennings’s cardigan-y Bennett divines, there’s a lot of hurt and damage buried way down in there somewhere. This theme – let’s be a bit nicer to each other, especially those who seem to least deserve it – is the film’s emotional and mechanical heart. There is a bit of playwright-y stuff that can be happily ignored, such as Bennett’s keenness on doubling – Miss Shepherd’s impoverished solidity is contrasted with Bennett’s own mother’s curtain-twitching fragility; and Bennett himself is split into two separate characters: the man and the writer. In spite of myself, I was grabbed, especially by the screenplay’s odd Edwardian wistfulness – Camden was built around then, Miss Shepherd must have been born in that era, and there’s always something of Elgar’s mournful stateliness about Bennett’s cadences – and by Smith’s limber boggle-eyed tour de force as Miss Shepherd.
Among the Living (Metrodome, cert 18)
When it comes to horror the French offer us a quality-over-quantity proposition – see 2008’s Martyrs or 2003’s Switchblade Romance if you are a doubter. The original title of Among the Living is Aux Yeux des Vivants, and there is definitely a nod to Les Yeux sans Visage aka Eyes without a Face in this story of three naughty French schoolboys – upper, middle and working class – who intrude on the dealings of a cannibal man-beast and so become his/its implacable target. No, there’s nothing of the plot of Eyes without a Face here, but there is something of its atmosphere, the way writer/directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury repeatedly ramp up tension, carefully using lighting and a visceral soundtrack to wind us up and then let us go, wind us up and… Other things to like include the creature design of Klarence the half-human whatever – nice use of the mangina, guys, or whatever the hell that thing was – and a masterly ability to switch genre. One minute we’re in the realm of the psychological thriller, the next we seem to have entered the world of full-on gore, before things switch again into something more Spielbergian as the focus finally settles on Victor, the middle class kid battling Klarence when it/he finally arrives at his family home for some chase and chop. I think there’s even a BMX bike at one point. Tense? Very. But unusual. Bustillo and Maury leave a few threads hanging (what did exactly happen to Victor’s friends Dan and Tom?) and they seem happy to set up what looks like a clear focus for the bloody goings-on – an abandoned film studio – only to let it go. Perhaps they’re playing with Hollywood as much as with us.
Curtain (Icon, cert 15)
Also known rather more boringly as The Gateway, this neat, short, no-budget horror movie has the most astonishing and astonishingly simple premise: a shower curtain that’s a portal into another world. Danni Smith and Tim Lueke star as a pair of charity chuggers trying to save the whale. She moves into a new apartment and discovers, the next day, that the newly installed shower curtain has disappeared. Another day, another curtain gone. And on it goes, until Tim (his character’s name as well as his own – that sort of movie) hits upon a ruse, and writes a message on the curtain: if you find it, phone this number. And off we go on what is about the best film that could be made for nothing, a simple piece of great storytelling about likeable, resourceful heroine Danni (also her character’s name) just trying to work out what the hell is going on while committed, hot-for-her Tim does his ineffectual best to help. It’s all done for the most part without violence or boo shocks, a minimum of gore, and director Jaron Henrie-McCrea doesn’t keep swinging his shakycam away from the action to catch glimpses of his female star’s breasts. What can I say about the acting? It’s a bit flimsy, as if the actors didn’t always have time to get into character, perhaps as a result of a guerrilla film-making timetable. It doesn’t matter much, since Curtain relies on plot, and like a lot of decent US indie horror films these days, feels like it might have taken a few cues from Doctor Who.
Mississippi Grind (E One, cert 15)
I was never really convinced that writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had shaken drug addiction by the scruff in the 2006 Ryan Gosling drama Half Nelson, and here they are doing gambling in a road movie/bromance starring Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds. If there was a gay angle you might be better able to understand what had sparked this sudden friendship between cocksure loquacious Reynolds and taciturn insecure Mendelsohn. Or if one of the guys were scoping the other out for some short of shakedown, maybe. As it is we have to take it on trust that Curtis (Reynolds) would just kind of glom onto Gerry (Mendelsohn) and together they’d hit the road, heading for the bright lights of the gambling boats and betting on anything, anything at all, as they go. Fleck and Boden make gambling look attractive in a simple animal way – the lights, the lifestyle, the avoidance of sunshine, all of it seeming immensely exciting, heavy with atmosphere, the duo’s real achievement. Butch and Sundance, Midnight Cowboy and Rain Man all sprang to mind as I watched the impressively swaggersome Reynolds keeping up with Mendelsohn, who is almost undone by a character who is so internalised that there’s almost nothing to latch onto, for him or us. It’s a portrait of a pair of losers and loners who have found some sort of companionship as they drift towards an uncertain future. But even as it ended, and I’m not going to say how it does, I still wasn’t sure why Curtis was interested in a man like Gerry. Maybe Curtis was betting on the relationship too, I don’t know. All I do know is that as an essay on addiction, I preferred Shame.
Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (Paramount, cert 15)
The latest arrival from Shaun of the Dead World takes great pains to disguise its provenance, kicking off with a funny Iggy Azalea lip-sync and then throwing much amusement at us – an undead cat, a zombie on a mobility scooter – as it tells a comic tale of three boy scouts taking on a zombie horde. It’s actually a high school rom-com in structure, with Tye Sheridan, Logan Miller and Joey Morgan as the three nerds who will never, ever be cool, on account of their membership of the scouts, finding that various skills learnt from camping, obtaining badges in knots and what have you, stand them in very good stead when things suddenly go rather apocalyptic. Enter the guys’ unwitting (and the movie’s) saviour, Sarah Dumont as a high school dropout now working as a stripper at local club Lawrence of Alabia (go on) and finding she’s a born natural when it comes to permanent termination. Dumont gamely points her chest wherever director Christopher Landon judges most suitable, and though there’s just a tiny look of “I’m really doing this as a favour, Chris” in her eye, it’s noticeable that the film falls flat every second she isn’t on the screen. As for the rest of it, toothsome young people in beach wear, a duet of Britney’s One More Time… with a zombie, a zombie penis stretched to infinity and beyond. It’s conceptually a case of been there, seen that, but it’s done with real bounce, fun, a lot of wit and the scout guys are given just enough Spielbergian juvenile-hero moments to give the thing an arc, but not so many that you want to hurl.
The Hallow (E One, cert 15)
More a highly efficient Hollywood calling-card than a great horror movie, The Hallow is an Evil Dead-style “things in the woods” feature that also half wants to be an Amityville film, about mum, dad and baby being monstered by creatures out in the back of beyond because they’ve… well let’s just say they don’t like strangers round those parts. Those parts being somewhere in Ireland, though director Corin Hardy moves mountains to try and make it look like Oregon, or somewhere else that’s densely wooded, full of pickup trucks and people in check shirts. Starting off vaguely in Wicker Man meets Local Hero territory, it introduces us to marrieds Adam (Joseph Mawle) and Clare (Bojana Novakovic) and the unfriendly locals before night falls, things get ugly and the source of what at first seemed like aggressive poltergeist activity manifests itself. Somewhere around here Hardy starts to lose control of his film, unsure which of the various films already mentioned he’s meant to be making. Technically he never loses it, hence the “calling-card” summation, whether we’re talking about his actors, his command of the camera or the special effects, which come increasingly to the fore as the couple’s baby … not the baby! … becomes the target of the evil.
© Steve Morrissey 2016