Out in the UK This Week
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)
One book, three films – there’s something almost Tolkienesque in that phrase, don’t you think? Against expectation I enjoyed the first instalment of The Hobbit, even though every fibre of my being had been rebelling against the idea of Peter Jackson turning a slim book into three long movies. I can’t say the same for part two, which follows Bilbo and the dwarves on their quest to reclaim Erebor, their kingdom beneath the mountain, which is an exercise in time-wasting until Smaug himself arrives. Every shot, every scene is padded, even the most inconsequential locale getting its own establishing shot, ostensibly to establish it as a space where high drama is to be played out but in fact just to tick away a few more seconds. The music is loud and insistent and has also been designed to convince us that what we’re watching is thrilling, though nothing can make dwarves floating slowly down the river in barrels exciting. Another irritant is the amount of “Gwingwin yeugh na gwingwi” chat by orcs and elves and whatnot. The CG is, frankly, sub-standard, and Jackson relies far too heavily on it – but then that is a criticism of his entire Tolkien output and is probably the main reason why the films are not going to age well. It’s not all bad though. After an hour of poncing about, the film does actually get going as Gandalf takes on Sauron in a fight. Meanwhile, below the big mountain, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, continuing to be an engaging turnip) takes on Smaug the giant dragon, puts the ring on and takes it off again, on, off, on, off, while the dragon slithers around in the vast heap of treasure it has accumulated. It’s all quite thrilling and good fun and is a reminder that the strength of the original book was to mix the scale of the epic with the agility of the fairytale. A fact Jackson and team have almost entirely forgotten.
Oldboy (Universal, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)
The original Old Boy, directed by Park Chan-wook in 2003, is a brillant revenge thriller of rococo madness much loved by those who’ve seen it. And if you haven’t, you should. This Spike Lee remake has come in for a bit of a bashing for one reason or another. Much of it, I suspect, by people who simply want to demonstrate that they are familiar with the original. There’s a bit of oneupmanship going on, in other words. Because Lee’s version really isn’t bad at all. Sticking pretty close to the original story, we follow our “hero”, a fuck-up on a royal scale, as he is kept in solitary confinement for 20 years by person or persons unknown. On his release, off he goes to take revenge on whoever did it to him, never really wondering why it happened in the first place, or what his jailer’s ultimate intention was. Josh Brolin is a brilliant ball of anger as our main man – at first an asshole, later the implacable foe – Sharlto Copley plays the devilishly bad villain, using an accent that even a Bond villain would find a touch over the top. And there’s Samuel L Jackson in there too, as another of Brolin’s enemies, dressed like some medieval punk pope and utilising the persona that Mr Tarantino helped create. Fans of the squid-eating scene in the original film will be disappointed with the remake, though there is an echo of the brutally choregraphed hammer-fight. And the product placement for Apple stuff (really, the ingenious things you can do with an iPhone) comes thick and fast too. Ultimately, it’s less pure, less conceptually driven, than the original, though Lee dredges everything with his usual good looks and reminds us he’s a really good thriller director, in case we’d forgotten he also made Inside Man.
Easy Money II: Hard to Kill (Icon, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
The first Easy Money – aka Snabba Cash – came with a “Martin Scorsese Presents” endorsement and lived up to it entirely. It was fast, dirty, brilliantly shot and edited, and the cast, all unknown to me, completely fit the bill. The sequel, somewhat unexpectedly, is just as good. There’s less of a class element this time, our blond callow Swedish lad having learnt his lesson last time out that the only way you can become old money is by being born old money. Actually, he learns it one more time at the beginning of this film, when the computer trading program he has been working on in prison has been stolen by his “business partner”, an old money guy. This throws the baby-faced JW (Joel Kinnaman) back into bed with the motley ethnic crew we met in the first film – a Serbian, a Spaniard, a Lebanese – each cast because his facial features look like they were crafted on a lathe. What follows is an hour or so of familiar gangs-guns-drugs storyline spiced with delicious cross and double-cross, new director Babak Najafi keeping the pace up while cinematographer Aril Wretblad and editor Theis Schmidt work some double-act magic – this really is a film to watch and admire technically as well as narratively. In fact it’s all good – cast, plot, technicians, the lot. Can’t wait for the next one.
Sparks (Image, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
Something of a curiosity, this adaptation of Christopher Folino’s graphic novel tells the story of a 1940s superhero and makes up in plot what it lacks in budget. And it really really has a plot – so convoluted that I’ll just tell you that Sparks falls in love with a woman with super powers, then loses her, then takes up with another woman with super powers who, to bed Sparks, takes on the form of the old girlfriend. Meanwhile, as a result of a toxic-spill accident, a man whose DNA is half crocodile… I could go on but the nub of it is Sparks’s love for Lady Heavenly, who believes that Sparks is a quitter and so not worthy of her. Chase Williamson and Ashley Bell make for a credible lead couple, even if Williamson isn’t that great an actor and his stubble doesn’t look convincingly 1940s. But what’s really unusual about the film – and will probably decide whether you give it the thumbs up – is how earnest it is. It delivers Chandleresque dialogue (“She was the kind of woman whose first name you instantly wanted to add to your last”), and a 1940s Dick Tracey-style score as if it had never been done before. There’s not a wink, not even a Superman half-wink. It’s Sin City done straight, in other words, and on a thousandth of the budget.
The Summit (Metrodome, cert E, DVD)
On one day in August 2008 11 climbers died on the face of K2 as they were trying to get to the summit, or get back down from it. Nick Ryan’s documentary attempts a Touching the Void retelling of the story, mixing talking-head reminiscence with drama-documentary recreation. K2 is the world’s second highest mountain but much harder to climb, largely because of the vast overhanging glacier which can break off at any time, killing everyone below. On the day in question, thanks to prolonged bad weather, there were 15 teams of various nationalities waiting to head for the summit. The result was a bottleneck, some bad decision-making, some lost-in-translation panic reaction, real heroics, stupid gestures and a lot of dead people. Ryan uses a lot of original footage – the quality of even an iPhone video in 2008 means he’s got plenty to choose from – and he has access to the people who matter, both the survivors and the relatives of those who didn’t make it. I could have done without the historical angle which threads the story of legendary Italian climber Walter Bonatti through the documentary in an attempt to link the current controversy about whether some of the climbers acted bravely or foolishly to Bonatti’s 1954 ascent, which was also wreathed in dispute. Not because Bonatti’s story isn’t interesting, but because it adds nothing to the main thrust. And I could have done with less of the blame game being played by relatives and loved-ones who weren’t there and who hadn’t made the climber’s basic contract with fate. That, too, adds nothing.
Teenage (Soda, cert E, DVD/VOD)
Because of his definitive book on punk, England’s Dreaming, the writer/academic Jon Savage has always been associated with the late 1970s. The joy of Teenage, the film about a later book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, is that it winds further back in time, away from that over-patrolled era, to 1904, when legislation was first brought in to restrict the use of children in British factories. Until then working people were seen as children until the age of 12, but became adults as soon as they entered the factory gate. It’s in the space opened up by the law that the idea of the teenager took root. This film covers its first flush, from that definitive time in 1904 to its attainment of self-awareness in 1945. But I’m making it sound boring, when in fact this film – whose archive footage should win its researchers all the awards going – bounces along to a soundtrack mixing music of the era with a kind of electronic boogie, while voiceover (Ben Whishaw for the UK youth, Jena Malone for the American, Julia Hummer for the German) helps make it a more international affair – the styles and music from America being crucial, then as now. The inclusion of a German voice is interesting, especially when it’s remembered how teenage ideals of health, youth and freedom played into the Nazi ideology. It helps to remind us that, though the film is pretty much a youth fanboy, the kids are not always alright.
© Steve Morrissey 2014