Out This Week
Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (Lionsgate, cert 15)
And it is literally that… Pride & Prejudice… and zombies. Once the famous preamble – lightly scrambled – was out of the way, and I had been apprised of the fact that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains, it was straight into the tale of Elizabeth, if not the most beautiful then certainly the smartest of the Bennet daughters, and her growing relationship with dark, thunderous Mr Darcy. Lily James and Sam Riley play it straight as Elizabeth and Darcy, and Sally Phillips and Charles Dance also fit so neatly into the traditional roles of garrulous, mercenary Mrs Bennet and the humane, other-worldly paterfamilias that you could easily drop them into, say, the Joe Wright/Keira Knightley P&P without damage to any of the parties. For what is, let’s face it, a one-joke concept, director Burr Steers, cinematographer Remi Adefarasin and production designer David Warren are lavishing an awful lot of time, money and effort on this film – everything looks right, feels right, albeit with a steampunk twist (I don’t think Jane Austen went into fortifications against zombie attack very much). Steers, best known filmically for 2002’s Igby Goes Down, a slackerish uptown Catcher in the Rye-flavoured comedy, is usually dismissively referenced as a member of the Gore/Kennedy clan (uncle Gore Vidal, aunt Jackie Kennedy) and there’s a strong whiff of the aristocrat’s dread of the working classes –the zombies are urban and threaten the life and land of the rural privileged set. Bare subtext to one side, watch it for the screenplay, which pulls off a number of brilliant masterstrokes – when Elizabeth and Darcy finally get to their declarations of love (surely no spoiler), it’s done as a fight. Sure, a woman who can kick ass does rather undermine Jane Austen’s point, which was to show the ways in which women wield power who have none overtly to wield, but the joys of genre provide ample recompense.
Evolution (Metrodome, cert 15)
Twelve years after her Innocence, another transfixing, faintly bewildering, ghoulish film about childhood from Lucile Hadzihalilovic, longtime collaborator with Gaspar Noë (she helped write his brilliant Enter the Void). And again we’re gripped by the otherworldliness of it – a town of white cubic houses set in a landscape of black laval sand, a place full of grown women and pre-pubescent boys, no men. “Why am I sick?” asks Nicolas (Max Brebant) of his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) who gives him drops every day before sending him off to his room, a spartan Van Gogh-ian chamber with a bed and a chair. We suspect that Nicolas isn’t sick, and that the drops he’s being given are to retard puberty, a suspicion reinforced when he’s taken to the doctor for having made some risqué drawings (a dead boy he claims to have seen floating at the bottom of the sea while out swimming) and is sent to the local hospital – again no men, only women, and a dark, clanking place out of Dr Mengele’s imagination. Trying to “read” Innocence was one of its joys – it was about how society turns girls into women, I thought – and the same fun can be had in watching a film about young boys trying to break through into manhood, while surrounding females hold them back. It doesn’t seem a very feminist point of view and at one point Hadzihalilovic cuts to a scene on the shore at night, where women moan ecstatically and roll around together naked in an insensate orgy – women, huh, seems to be the idea. Cinematographer Manuel Dacoss brings the eye for darkness he exhibited in The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears to a film whose look – sepulchral, alienated, horrible – is one of its standouts. Short, 80-something minutes, almost dialogue free, perhaps a distant gothic cousin of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, this gruesome and paranoid film is body-horror done with an eye for beauty which somehow just makes it all feel all the more unsettling.
By the Sea (Universal, cert 15)
You’d have thought that a film starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie would be getting some PR attention for its home entertainment release in the UK. Nothing. No press preview copies. Not even a press release to say it was coming out. On this evidence, you’d expect the film to be a dog. But By the Sea doesn’t bark at all. In fact it’s a much better film than Jolie’s Unbroken, which almost had the press machine throwing a piston rod. It’s about a married couple whose relationship is in trouble arriving in a French coastal town one hot summer. He’s a blocked writer desperate to give things another go; she’s a mopey madam who does little apart from drape herself over furniture and moon over some recent tragedy. It’s an archetypal cicada-hot place and they’re an archetypal couple out of the American fantasy of France somewhere round the mid-20th century. Soon Roland, our pussy-whipped Ernest Hemingway manqué, has made a friend in local barkeep Michael (Niels Arestrup), while Vanessa has made tentative contact with the newlyweds (Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud) in the apartment next door, a couple she can hear banging away all hours of the day. And she can see them, too, once she discovers there’s a peephole on her side of the wall. What then plays out is a strange voyeuristic drama in which the jaded couple are slowly brought back to life by the energy of the newlyweds as Roland and Vanessa sit by the hole together and peek – a bit like watching porn together on the internet, before the internet, because though it’s never too specific about when By the Sea is set, it seems to be the 1970s. In many ways it’s a vampire movie, with Jolie as the languid master and Pitt as a fussing Renfield, that’s dressed up as the sort of thing Alain Delon might once have appeared in. And there is the suspicion that Jolie is proudly saying, “Look, my husband is the modern Delon,” though in truth Delon was more handsome than Pitt. And Jolie’s nipples, too, are presented as evidence of Europhilia throughout this cool, slow drama. Indeed, they almost have their own rampant character arc. By the Sea is not perfect – there are some terrible moments of heavy-handed symbolism – but it is an interesting, intelligent and well made movie. Twenty minutes off the running time wouldn’t have hurt it at all.
Grimsby (Sony, cert 15)
Another short-short comedy from Sacha Baron Cohen, at 83 minutes about the same running time as the Ali G, Borat, Brüno, and Dictator movies. But he packs plenty in, and seems to be testing – in iconoclastic Chris Morris style – how far comedy can go before it breaks down. Which is a bit of blow if you’re after knob gags. But first the plot… Nobby, a chav (Cohen) with Liam Gallagher haircut and big-balls swagger, is reunited with Sebastian (Mark Strong), his long lost brother, now a supersuave superspy. The stage is set for fish-out-of-water and mismatched buddy humour, which SBC is happy to supply. And there are many jabs at the working classes and their low expectations – Nobby’s kids (fathered with Rebel Wilson, who’s in the film for no justifiable reason) are named Skeletor, Django Unchained and Gangnam Style. Grimsby isn’t short of laughs – though the Mayor of Grimsby is unlikely to be naming a street after Sacha Baron Cohen any time soon – but it isn’t sure if it wants to be an out-and-out Bond spoof, which it does fairly well over short bursts, or if it’s really about going for bad-taste broke. This switch between low comedy and conceptual pushing of the boundaries of taste is the film’s most ambitious gamble, and it pulls it off, just about. Though it’s not exactly covered in glory. Which brings us to the elephant bukake joke…
Triple 9 (E One, cert 15)
Triple 9 is a lousy movie masquerading as a good one, a film full of names who mean something, turning in performances that are beneath them. It starts out looking like your smart gangster thriller, with a neatly shot botched heist turning out to be the work of cops, not criminals. We’re in Atlanta, Georgia, where local gang boss Kate Winslet (Russian accent set to “variable”) is soon ordering another job which will have at its heart the killing of a cop, such an act immediately triggering a massive police response that will allow the criminals on the other side of town to heist away unmolested. It’s a good B movie idea, padded up way beyond its slender frame by heavy-hitting actors – Casely Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson and Aaron Paul all feature, and Gal Gadot wanders on for a minute, symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with this over-inflated production – she simply shouldn’t be there. DP Nicolas Karakatsanis works from the Christopher Doyle style book, making it all look gloriously dark, with many pools of splashy coloured light to glam things up, while director John Hillcoat, unaccountably off his game, wracks his brain wondering how to squeeze yet another unnecessary overhead shot or cutaway into almost every scene. It’s a crime thriller and a cop thriller and a story of ethnics and gangs, of immigrants and religious outsiders, trust and deceit and in a ten-part TV series (which is what it really should be), it would have enough space to breathe. The Wire’s David Simon could run the show, maybe. All this said, if you can hang on to the end, it’s got a great mean-streets big finish, and there is a tiny part for an actor called Michelle Ang who is going to be something someday.
I Am Belfast (BFI, cert 15)
Documentaries about cities seem to be in vogue, and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg and Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City (about Liverpool) have set the bar. Mark Cousins matches them with a tender and elegiac poem to Belfast, which he left years ago, regretfully, it seems. The conceit is that Belfast is played by actor Helena Bereen, as a 10,000 year old woman who wanders the streets, observing modern life, while in voiceover she recites history, makes observations, cultural comments, laments, with occasional interjections by a close-miked Cousins. This all sounds a bit twee, and it’s true that the whole thing could have been produced for the local tourist board. But Cousins has an eye for the marginal that lifts the film beyond booster fanboy business and he has a willingness to engage with the Troubles (“And then, like a tracking shot, the iceberg hit. We fought each other.”) It’s a piece about the power of place, and a work of a sort of cultural reclamation, with an ethnicity based on geography not tribalism – we’ve seen how badly that can go wrong in Northern Ireland. Interspersing archive footage with new stuff, Christopher Doyle handles the cinematography and conjures beautiful colours from what must be one of the UK’s flattest visual palettes – those overcast skies and streets of redbrick terrace don’t lend themselves easily to beauty – and David Arnold provides the music, ambient religious you could call it. Poetic, celebratory, a letter home from an exile to a world he can never recapture.
The Forest (Icon, cert 15)
The excellent Natalie Dormer is a member of the Game of Thrones cast and has her work cut out trying to inject something into this horror film about a woman arriving in Japan and setting out to find her sister, who has disappeared in the Aokigahara Forest. The forest, it turns out, is not just a beacon for wannabe suicides but is also possessed by unclean spirits, who prey on the vulnerable and bend even the tentatively unhappy towards the dark side. Dormer – as sister Sara (she also plays missing sister Jess) – is one such girl, of course. Good horror films work at the level of primal fear, but fear of losing one’s twin sister isn’t a fear most of us can identify with, which throws the film onto its second plan of attack, which is jump-scares. We meet Eoin Macken, a journalist helping Sara negotiate the forest, but who might be love interest or a bad guy, or maybe he’s being manipulated by the spirits too, the film doesn’t seem to be able to make its mind up. Similarly, it isn’t sure if this is a ghost story or a psychological horror. It doesn’t make much difference because either way The Forest is not frightening. In fact it’s fairly terrible, with Dormer only managing to rouse herself from dreams of the next season’s Thrones antics a couple of times to, you know, act. I see David Goyer (Batman Begins etc) is one of the producers. These low-budget genre quickies are harder to knock out than it looks, eh David?
© Steve Morrissey 2015