Out This Week
Son of Saul (Curzon, cert 15)
How do you make a film about the horrors of Auschwitz without it becoming exploitative misery porn? This Hungarian winner of the Cannes Grand Prix in 2015 does it by turning the horrors of the death camp into a near-pov experience, the militarily choreographed camera of director László Nemes and DP Mátyás Erdély hanging close by the face or shoulder of star Géza Röhrig as he goes about his duties as the member of a Sonderkommando group – Jewish prisoners recruited by the Nazis to do the dirty work (scrub blood away, pitchfork bodies into pits, empty ovens of ash and dispose of it in the river) – before they, too, become so much meat. It has the slenderest of plots: Saul, a man in a state of such horror overload that he’s become little more than a shuffling zombie, seeks a rabbi to bury one particular dead child, whose death he has become fixated on, while his fellow Sonderkommando members start to realise their time has come and that the only way out of this is to attack their heavily armed jailers. I say slender, but that’s enough plot for any film. But the plot is not foregrounded, nor the characters. Instead it’s the relentless piling up of gruesome effect, at the edges, in the background, always out of focus, as the factory-like death machine grinds away. For sure there’s a lack of emotional heart, and Röhrig portrayal of an inert man doesn’t help us “relate”. But that’s an artistic decision made by Nemes, a onetime assistant of Hungarian maestro Béla Tarr. And, like Tarr, if there’s something you can’t accuse Nemes of it’s of not staying true to his intense vision.
Kung Fu Panda 3 (Fox, cert PG)
I have struggled to like any of the Kung Fu Panda films, or even remember moments from them. I struggle now to remember details from this third one, though my notes tell me that Jack Black was once again charming and in his element as the voice of Po, the mile-a-minute unlikely ursine martial arts master. They also tell me that the animation was again remarkable, and took great pains to place kung-fu style action in a world whose physics were constant – if a bear can jump from rooftop to rooftop in one scene, then we can draw conclusions about his strength, speed, flexibility and skills from that, and they remain constant all the way through. As for the “camera”, it also stays in the realm of the believable, aping kung-fu movies’ style tics, such as the mid-combat/mid-air freeze-frame, the flash pan, the rapid zoom and there’s even a nice vibration effect when something heavy hits the ground. The plot this time out revolves around Kai (voiced by JK Simmons) returning from the world of the immortal and setting about stealing the chi of all the masters of China. A potential disaster that Po must stop. It’s a smart film, dialogue-heavy, full of gags, and like Ice Age, which it’s beginning to resemble, it’s the side characters who are the most fun (when you have the likes of Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman and Seth Rogen on board you might as well use them; even Angelina Jolie acquits herself well). But…? For all the jokes, stunts and an almost pathological determination to get into scenes late and get out early – usually a good sign – there’s the feeling that the story has been told, that Po and co are done.
Last Girl Standing (Icon, cert 15)
Last Girl Standing opens with a horror movie finish – girl in a white t-shirt being chased through the woods by a madman who has killed all her friends – and then goes on to ask a strange “what happened next?” question. What happens to the “final girl” when the horror film is over? At one level it’s absurd – because there is no such person outside of the film. At another, it’s an interesting way of spinning a new story, which this clever, edgy thriller does by focusing on traumatised Camryn (Akasha Villalobos) as she rebuilds her life after being subjected to gruesomeness on a grand scale. Into her McJobbing, withdrawn world comes Nick (Brian Villalobos), a nice sociable chap with a big circle of friends, and before you can say “oh no it’s happening again,” it is indeed beginning to happen again. But, dear reader, is it really? Playing the old “is she really under threat or just plain bonkers?” game, director Benjamin R Moody’s film knows its horror – shots down long roads evoke The Texas Chain Saw early on, while the soundtrack clanks and wheezes scarily before seguing into John Carpenter synth homage. The acting betrays the low budget but the Villaloboses are believable as a pair of young people who dig each other – which is handy, since they are married in real life. And mention needs to be made of Danielle Evon Ploeger, one of those Mia Wasikowska types who can look hot one minute, uncanny the next, a fact that Moody also exploits to the max. A slow starter, but it does get there, very satisfyingly if you like the sort of film that ends in a frenzy.
Strangerland (Kaleidoscope, cert 15)
Out in the sweltering Outback, a 15-year-old girl with easily opened legs goes missing, along with her younger brother. Her parents, played by Nicole Kidman as a wanton Blanche Dubois-like mother, and Joseph Fiennes as a father using iron bands of control to keep his rage in check, start eyeballing each other. He blames her, the daughter clearly being a chip off mum’s moist block. She blames him, the daughter is obviously reacting against dad’s harsh domestic regime. A clear nature/nurture stand-off is set up. But while Strangerland is examining the parents’ characters and relationship, two kids are missing out in the punishing heat, possibly dying. And I for one was wondering what the hell was happening to them. It’s a gigantic problem that this otherwise superb drama – brilliantly played, magnificently shot, with a discordant, keening sound design, fabulous side characters (Hugo Weaving particularly good as the local cop who’s also got his sexual hands full) – simply cannot overcome. Director Kim Farrant’s film has a sense of a civilised society with something dark lurking beneath vaguely similar to Ray Lawrence’s 2001 Aussie drama Lantana. There’s a touch of Walkabout, too, with Kidman perhaps fancifully as the middle-aged grown up Jenny Agutter, and Meyne Wyatt as the local lad Burtie, a slowpoke who thinks the missing girl is in love with him, injecting a bit of aborigine mysticism – who needs functioning rationality when you’re connected to the earth, and all that. As I say, a fabulous film at every level, apart, ahem, from dramatically. Approach with caution.
The Ones Below (Icon, cert 15)
The Ones Below is often described as being “by the writer of The Night Manager”, when in fact that book was written by John le Carré and David Farr only did the screen adaptation. I bring that up, in what sounds like a churl’s caveat, because there’s no trace of The Night Manager and its spy caper dynamics in The Ones Below, a taut, 1970s-flavoured horror movie written and directed by Farr and set, as they often were 40 years ago, among the middle classes of London. Clémence Poésy and Stephen Campbell Moore play the upstairs couple initially delighted to welcome David Morrissey and Laura Birn as their downstairs neighbours, a married couple who are – small analities aside such as shoes off outside the door and a garden tweezed to within an inch of sterility – just like them. Young, well-to-do and white. Of course it says everything about London property that comfortably-off people, too, are living in flats, rather than their own separate houses. But we must resist the temptation to see The Ones Below as some sort of survey of modern middle-class life. It isn’t, and the fairly thin characters, brought amply to life by the talented actors, are more vehicles for the plot – both women are pregnant, then one of them loses hers after an evening of chat and booze at the upstairs neighbours’ place, then relations are restored shortly afterwards, before things go very dark indeed. Morrissey and Birn get the best of it as the vaguely creepy downstairs couple, but director Farr’s triumph is to keep the register unsettling all along. Think one of Roald Dahl’s switchback Tales of the Unexpected spliced with a bit of Rosemary’s Baby. At which point, giving away too much of the plot, I withdraw.
The Here After (Soda, cert 15)
A dour Swedish drama that reveals itself by degrees and then stops, The Here After gradually vouchsafes that its teenage protagonist Jon killed his girlfriend, served time and is now back in his small rural community, where no one is glad to see him. Except, maybe, one girl with a gothic turn of mind and a possible fetish for the ghoulish. A frustrating film, this, since, along with its reluctance to tell us exactly how John did what he did – was it violent outburst, drug-induced accident, sexual horseplay, funny turn? – the film moves at a glacial speed and is shot in the muted matt of Scandi-noir. And though this is probably meant to mirror the inert centre of a troubled dude who’s closed off even from himself, it doesn’t exactly help us understand what’s going on. Between the opening intro to John at the correctional facility and the eruptive finale – oh come on, all these grungey “blank kids” movies end this way, like some visual equivalent of a Nirvana song – we have been treated to glimpses of John’s home life, where his bewildered and angry father and sparky disruptive younger brother spin and wheel around the miscreant. The Here After works best as a family drama, in fact, and here Ulruk Munther (John), Mats Blomgren (his father) and the especially excellent Alexander Nordgren (brother Filip) really come into their own.
Zoolander No 2 (Paramount, cert 12)
A satire on the fashion biz that can persuade Anna Wintour, Marc Jacobs and Tommy Hilfiger to do cameos? No, it’s not biting, nor should any of them give up the day job, but we’re meant to be excited just by the fact that they’re there. That is the whole Zoolander shtick in essence: people hyperventilating about clothes. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson return as the dimbo himbo male models, now back on the runway after an enforced hiatus – like one of those Bond movie preambles where 007 has grown a beard – and they’re their usual likeable, amiable and amusing selves. I could go on about what’s wrong with this film in some big meta way – it won’t bite the hand that feeds it, and all that – but actually its weakness is simply that it’s poorly written. After it’s got the gang back together, the plot devolves into something like a Bond spoof – skip through a few exotic locations to find the evil genius mastermind (Penélope Cruz) – aiming for Mike Myers’s laserlike observational comedy and getting no higher than the Wayans brothers’ chuck-enough-mud approach. There are a few good moments, though, and I laughed like a drain at Benedict Cumberbatch as a non-gender-specific model called All who rejects “binary gender constructs”, which led to the joke that made me hit the pause button while I sat there giggling like a silly old silly. Billy Zane gets a great cameo as some sort of cool cosmic messenger, and Justin Bieber’s few moments were good fun and show him to have some self-awareness. Even Susan Boyle made me roll my eyes in mock pantomime appreciation. MC Hammer? John Malkovich? Kiefer Sutherland? Katy Perry? Sting? All turn up and are game enough to lambast their own contributions to popular culture. Will Ferrell, meanwhile, steals the entire film with his brief appearance as the monstrously camp Jacobim Mugatu. But…. jokes…. not enough… not really.
© Steve Morrissey 2016