Out This Week
Only Yesterday (StudioCanal, cert 15)
It’s 25 years since Isao Takahata directed this touching animation for Studio Ghibli. Only now, thanks to a fresh revoicing by a cast including Daisy Ridley, has it arrived on these shores. The Force etc etc. As with Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies it takes a while to get its hooks in and also goes into slightly darker territory than Takahata’s stablemate Miyazaki would. The focus however remains the same – a girl finding her way, this being the story of Taeko, a woman haunted by memories of her younger self. We see, in flashback, her childhood at school where she isn’t very good, and at home where she is considered “not normal” by her family. And also as an adult with self-esteem problems who meets and falls for a delightful organic farmer Toshio (Patel). The child is the father of the man is the big idea. As with Miyazaki there’s a fascination with European culture, Bulgarian, Greek and Hungarian Gypsy music all featuring prominently on the soundtrack. And again as with Miyazaki the animation is deceptively simple, all the better to wow us when Takahata so chooses – that lovely light effect of two trains passing in the night, or the simpler but no less affecting one of young Taeko falling in love for the first time at school and her cheeks, and those of her inamorato, reddening at the realisation. Lump in throat stuff. Takahata’s other stylistic trick is to ply us with observational detail – during the school flashbacks there is much discussion about whether Taeko and schoolfriends have started their periods or not; later Takahata fixates on the harvesting and processing of safflowers for red dye (surely some connection). And then he whams us with an emotion so direct and pure that we’re disarmed. It’s a ploy he uses about four times and it works each time too. It’s an exquisite, complex and wonderful film. Quite why it’s taken 25 years and Ridley’s Star Wars heft to make it happen for US and UK audiences is mystifying. Ridley, in case you’re wondering, is fantastic – listen to her voice as Taeko and Toshio get closer. It’s the sound of total beguilement. Hers, and ours.
Eye in the Sky (E One, cert 15)
I was put off Eye in the Sky by the trailer, which sold it as yet another drone-attack thriller along the lines of Good Kill (or any number of documentaries on the subject). In fact it’s a far more astute work, and picks out the military, short-term political and ethical implications of launching a remote strike on a terrorist safe house in Kenya while an innocent girl sells bread right outside, a clear piece of collateral damage waiting to happen. And for all the fleshing out that director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert do to hide the fact – backstory here and there, some business with a hula hoop and the girl’s loving father, less of a zealot than he’s letting on to the killjoy local Islamists – the girl is never more than a mechanical, a component of the trolley problem that is at the centre of this film. Which revolves around the question: is it OK to kill a girl, a nice girl, a feisty, intelligent and pretty girl who belongs to a local hard-working, loving family, to secure a greater aim? Arguing the toss, and brilliantly in every case, are Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox as the two drone pilots out in a facility in the Las Vegas desert, while in London hardass military commander Helen Mirren and attaché go-between Alan Rickman try to get short-termist politicians to shit or get off the pot, these last two vying for the prize of coldest heart of the week. There are no false heroics, there is no taking the easy way out, and none of the actors overdoes it. There is some overt tension building, while niceties such as percentage chances of a clean kill are discussed and various war-crime protocols are invoked and quietly laid aside. It’s nice to see Gavin Hood, whose Tsotsi was brilliantly executed, returning to form (and in Africa) after a couple of journeyman Hollywood films. Also nice to see Rickman get the last word – “Never tell a soldier he does not know the cost of war” – in what was his last film.
Miles Ahead (Icon, cert 15)
Director/star Don Cheadle’s drama about jazzer Miles Davis’s drug years is one of the best music biopics in years. Even if it doesn’t entirely gel, there is so much good stuff, so many great tracks on this album, you might not care. It takes the old journalistic-interview structure – Miles being interviewed by Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) – and does something new with it, by folding the journalist into the story. Good story too, of Miles being spaced off his face, opening the door to desperate freelance scribbler Braden, then getting into all sorts of scrapes with him – drugs, guns, girls, mendacious music-biz execs – while a MacGuffin of the hunt for the master tape of Davis’s latest album leads us through a series of scenes painting Davis as king of the bad boys, jazzers, let’s not forget, having written the book that the rock guys later borrowed and never returned. So many scenes stand out – an early one in which Davis pulls a gun in a record company meeting; when he meets, in one of many flashbacks, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), his soul mate and later his wife, and borrows a 20 dollar bill off the girl he’s with to write his number on and give, all flash bravado at someone else’s expsense, to Frances; when Davis and Braden head off to buy cocaine off a rich white kid, and basically turn the guy over with wit and a lot of style. Davis was a cruel and unusual gentleman, and for much of the time that’s being covered here (the late 1970s) also a drug-addled no-hoper. And though it’s there on the screen, director Cheadle back-pedals slightly on the bad stuff, concentrating on the wild creative side of the man who claimed, with some justification, to have changed music “five or six times”. And he respects both Davis’s genius – “it takes a long time to learn to play like yourself” Davis says at one point – and the music. And Cheadle shows a light touch – hence the funny and furious car chase to Davis’s parping, surely a first. McGregor is fine in a role that requires him to play a sideman, mission accomplished, but it’s Michael Stuhlbarg who stands out, as a reprehensible tough-nut music-biz A&R man who’d sell his mother for a ringside seat at the boxing. Mention, too, must be made of Roberto Schaefer’s cinematography, and the way the visuals so often ape 1950s record sleeves and their tendency to give black skin tones that matt-purple cast, like these people were from ancient Carthage. Big props to Cheadle, who not only directed and co-wrote, but stars and also plays trumpet – that’s Davis’s old buddies Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock in the band, alongside Cheadle in typical Davis Fly-Guy apparel, over the end credits. And Cheadle gets that gruff rasp just right too.
Knight of Cups (StudioCanal, cert 15)
Like some refugee from the 1970s, Terrence Malick continues making arthouse films as if he were Moses coming down off the mountain. Last time, in To the Wonder, it was Ben Affleck wandering around vacantly like a drug casualty, with Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams thrown in for eye candy. Here, it’s Christian Bale as a Hollywood screenwriter cradling the mother of all existential crises, while sexy women of all sorts try to console it the fuck out of him. Emphasis on the fuck. The camera is on a near-silent Kubrickian perma-glide as Bale traverses lens-flary beaches, glitzy Hollywood parties and various high-end hotel bedrooms and Vaughan Williams, Arvo Pärt, Beethoven, Debussy and Bruch are wheeled out to convince us we’re watching something significant. Two years in post-production this film has been, and if it sounds like I’m going into Yoda speak there, fat chance – if only Malick would get along with such directness.
But you can’t fault the beauty of the visuals. Every single second has been tweaked and primped until it looks almost airbrushed. Only perfume adverts get this much attention these days. The tone is confessional, with Bale providing a voiceover, while Malick drops us into discrete scenes from his life – all improvised, apparently – where the likes of Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto and Teresa Palmer attempt to fill the yawning meaninglessness of existence, but only Portman comes close. Giving a structure to all this freeform visual chewing gum is the Tarot, with Malick weightily subdividing his noodling into chapters – this one’s The Hanged Man, this one The Hermit, this one Judgement, and so on. We have to be impressed by Malick’s Woody Allan-like ability to snag high-tone actors for his productions. Look, in a blur-on, there’s Antonio Banderas and Ryan O’Neal (a Kubrick reference) at a party full of beautiful women and sweaty middle aged men.
A modern day Pilgrim’s Progress is what it is. And at the level of expressionist existentialism it has to be admitted – through teeth so gritted they threaten to turn to powder – that you can feel Bale’s anhedonic, anomic detachment. That poor rich man. Apart from the occult, two other obfuscatory cultural tropes from the 1970s seem to be Malick’s artistic touchstones in Knight of Cups – the withheld revelatory promise of guru culture and the oneupmanship of jazz rock. All bow before Malick, if you’re cool enough to understand what he’s about.
Criminal (Lionsgate, cert 15)
Kevin Costner reaches for some of Liam Neeson’s geri-actioner bucks but rather than a fairly bare-assed copy, he goes down the route Sean Penn did in The Gunman, trying to stick a fancy brolly into something best served straight up. It’s not without its enjoyments, though, and many of them come from Costner, who reveals, like a late-stage Ralph Fiennes, an unexpected gift for comedy, playing the half-stupid perma-jailed lag who is injected with the memories of top spy-guy Ryan Reynolds and is then sent off on a mission in London as the mind of a younger, smarter, hotter and – key point – more metrosexual guy tries to do the driving. Complicating things, and adding what director Ariel Vroman and his producers clearly think is a bit of Bourne glamour, are Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Gal Gadot and Alice Eve, some trying to help him, some working against him, others just hired because they look pretty.
So, it’s Taken taken for a meandering walk, right? Pretty much, and if it’s all a bit slow-moving and a bit too talky, there is the unexpected delight of Costner’s performance as a very bitter, angry and dangerously stupid man fighting to hang on to himself while a suave superspy fights for control of his personality. Watch Costner buying pain relief in a pharmacy, then saying “Cheers,” to the woman behind the counter. “Cheers? Who the fucks says cheers,” he deadpans. Fun.
Identicals (Arrow, cert 15)
Also known, perhaps more usefully as Brand New-U, Identicals tells the Dickian (Dickish?) – Philip K Dick-inflected, if you will – story of people who have other existences in other places, thanks to a faceless organisation which, instead of asking you to change your useless personality, inserts your uselessness into a brand new life. Put like that – with all the hi-tech flim-flam stripped away – this looks like a preposterous proposition, does it not? But let’s not get too hung up on the plot, which no one involved seems too bothered about. Instead let’s go with the mood, which director Simon Pummell is both concerned with and good at, especially early on where he introduces us to our two protagonists – Joe (Lachlan Nieboer) and Nadia (Nora-Jane Noone) – as they are being attacked by abductors in their house. Reacting quickly, Joe clubs one of the masked abductors and, removing the mask, finds it/he/she has the face of Nadia. She, it seems, was a replacement for the old Nadia, who … and I get confused here, so forgive me… was about to be swapped out, a process Joe has now accidentally interrupted. Putting to the side for the rest of this review the fact that what’s actually happening here is the complete opposite of what the film’s offer is – this is a new person in the old life, not a new life for the old person. As we strenuously keep any thought of Arnie Schwarzenegger out of our heads, Joe is soon having an implant and is then inserted into a Brand New World, where he hooks up with someone who is either the old Nadia with a mind-wipe, the new Nadia waiting for re-assignment, or some other version of Nadia, and gets to ask her just what the hell she was playing at, those sentiments having been suitably rewritten in sci-fi-speak. And, against all expectation, at this point I became interested.
The line between the real and the fake is an endlessly fascinating subject, because it is never just about the object under study (“Is it a real Picasso?”) but also about all of us as players in a cultural system, and here Pummell cannily heaps on references to Blade Runner (When does the android become human?), Hitchcock’s Rear Window (Is that a real murder?) and Vertigo (Is that simulacrum real?). It’s an idea-rich film, in other words, in keeping with Pummell’s oeuvre to date – such as Shock Head Soul, his leap-in-the-dark “poetic documentary” about Daniel Paul Schreber, a theoretician of madness, and Bodysong, his found-footage documentary about the human body – though not so rich as to justify the pace, which seems to have been set so the slowest in the room can keep up. Big ambition, partial achievement. Still, a fascinating attempt at ambient hard sci-fi.
Men & Chicken (Arrow, cert 15)
Not long ago seen attacking 007’s testicles with a thick rope, here’s an almost unrecognisable Mads Mikkelsen in a strange freakshow comedy that saves its best reveals to the end. In the spirit of non-spoilerism I can tell you little more than the fact that Mikkelsen is kitted out with a harelip, a raging libido and virtually no intelligence at all, and that he heads off on a kind of road trip with his more professorially minded brother to a remote island to find their mad-scientist father and instead meet hitherto hidden members of the family. What then transpires is something like the Three Stooges go to Gormenghast, except there are more than three dimbos, and in Mervyn Peake’s gothic imagination, turkeys, pigs, bulls and, yes, chickens, did not feature so extensively. Is it funny? Not really, though writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen has a real gift for the grotesque, and knows how to ladle out the revelations so that just as you’re coming to terms with the sight of a man beating another man senseless with a stuffed animal, Jensen introduces the idea of these maladjusted brothers hitting the local old-folks home to pick up “chicks” for sex. In terms of acting, Mikkelsen is just one among the many great turns (take a bow David Dencik, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Søren Malling and Nicolas Bro) none of whom ever quiver so much as an eyelash towards the camera. A Carry On film it is not. And Jensen’s decision to shoot the whole thing with the pace of a drama, rather than a comedy, means that the big final WTF reveal, when it comes, is genuinely disturbing. It’s worth waiting for. I’d watch this again.
© Steve Morrissey 2016