Out in the UK This Week
Safety Not Guaranteed (Vertigo, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
Since The Puffy Chair I’ve been a sucker for anything connected with the Duplass brothers. Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly’s film stars Mark Duplass as a nerdy shelfstacker guy who puts an advert into a paper asking for a companion to go time-travelling with him, “safety not guaranteed”. But we pick the story up from its other end, as we follow aspiring journalist Aubrey Plaza, lead writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) and supernerd Arnau (Karan Soni) as they head out into the boonies to track down the obvious whackjob for their magazine, humiliation probably guaranteed. Mumblecore goes sci-fi, kind of, is the big (or small) idea, and the film works so well because Plaza’s brand of winsome cynicism (“you’re dangling my vagina out there like bait,” she says to Jeff at one point) and Duplass’s overgrown slackerdom are so appealing, even though this sort of thing really has been chased to an early grave. Sci-fi/time travel nuts won’t find a lot to get sweaty over, but it’s a nicely observed human drama that offers emotional arcs for nearly all concerned. And the ending is something of a surprise too.
Thor: The Dark World (Disney, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/Digital)
If Kenneth Branagh’s original Thor film reflected the light-heartedness of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby’s 1962 creation, Alan Taylor’s follow-up picks up the other strand and dives into the mythos, albeit Whedonesquely. Hence the complicated plot, with one strand featuring Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) mortal love interest Natalie Portman, another featuring her sidekick Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard and Jonathan Howard (the earthly scientific contingent), yet another featuring a malevolent being called Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) whose henchmen creatures usefully have tusks, to mark Malekith out as a baddie in case the sulphurous fumes hadn’t alerted you. And yet one more strand incorporating the domestic set-up of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Frigga (Rene Russo) and the now-imprisoned Loki (Tom Hiddleston), an Asgardian naughty kid who’s been sent to his room. As you might expect from a Game of Thrones director, Taylor has no trouble keeping all these storylines in play though he lavishes special attention on the interactions between Loki and Thor. As in the original comic, so in the film. Strangely, for all its pluses, this isn’t an awesome superhero movie. Even the big special effects sequences are a bit meh. That is down in part to the only really weak link – Malekith, an underwritten Star Trek baddie aiming to destroy the universe with a sneer. But Thor: The Dark World is at least engaging. And you couldn’t say that for Iron Man 3.
The Last Days (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)
From Spanish sibling directors David and Alex Pastor, whose last film, Carriers, was about a viral pandemic, another film about a viral pandemic. Do not worry, it is a good one, drawing a lot of its power from the way that a sudden massive change in circumstances can make obvious what is almost hidden in daily life. In this case absurd power relations. We are following the scrabble through Barcelona’s subterranean tunnels and sewers of a slightly devil-may-care computer programmer (Quim Gutierrez) and the outside axeman (José Coronado) brought in to fire half the workforce at the company he had been working at till disaster struck, two guys who under normal circumstances would have little to say to each other now forced to co-operate in order to survive. The Pastors capably build a world in total chaos, where men are walking around holding rats by the tale (dinner!) and where meeting a stranger is a fraught event. It’s a familiar journey, in many way, of a callow young man and a more strategically inclined older guy, with The Last Days definitely more powerful in its first meet-and-greet phase than in its second half, when they grudgingly start to respect each other and even have a heartfelt conversation about their failings as men. Mismatched buddies go Children of Men, yes, that’s about it.
Mister John (Artificial Eye, cert 15, DVD)
Working in the same territory as the Gosling/Refn film Only God Forgives, writer/directors Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s dreamy, deceptively lulling film follows a Brit (Aidan Gillen) out to Singapore where his newly dead brother has left behind a bar eponymously named Mister John’s. It’s a girls/booze/what-have-you kind of bar at the top end of sordid, or bottom end of glam. Mister John has also left behind a Singaporean wife, plus a gaggle of dodgy expats and goodtime local girls keen to lay hands on Mr Gerry, as they inevitably call the new arrival. The question that the film poses is: is Mr Gerry going to tidy up his brother’s affairs and then return to his fairly shitty life back home? Or is he going to be seduced into stepping into the dead man’s shoes? Actually, scratch that Gosling/Refn reference. This isn’t an exercise in neon slo-mo, though it does share a lot of the operatic ambitions of Only God Forgives, and also renders many events as a waking dream – I was frequently wondering whether Mr Gerry was a dead man too; he just didn’t know it. As the final credits rolled, what I had become convinced of was that Lawlor and Molloy are excellent film-makers in search of a bigger, better subject. Until that comes along this fascinating, mysterious film full of passive flaky men and dynamic destiny-shaping women will just have to do.
One Chance (EV, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)
The story of the rags to riches rise of Paul Potts, winner of TV talent show Britain’s Got Talent in 2007 with his range of operatic songs and his backstory of woe – Pavarotti, no less, told him he was no good – is brought to the screen by producer Simon Cowell, no less. For this reason alone it would be easy to hate One Chance. But Cowell is nothing if not smart and has bought in talent – Justin Zackham, writer of The Bucket List and The Fastest Man in the World. And David Frankel, director of The Devil Wears Prada and Marley and Me. So, one who writes about men with a dream, the other who directs largely female-centric feelgood. Smart. The killer app is James Corden as Potts. Corden is impossible not to like when he’s being likeable, easy to hate when he’s being a cock, but he’s on extremely likeable form here as the fat kid from South Wales who always had a dream etc etc. Alexandra Roach plays the girl he met internet dating and who became his instant life partner – true story, apparently. And the story itself. It’s Billy Elliot, more or less, impossible to hate, no matter how manipulated you feel afterwards. Again, smart.
Machete Kills (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
I only watched this because there was a shortfall of decent new DVDs out this week, the first Machete having drained my enthusiasm for life itself. The original, Robert Rodriguez’s excuse for lazy, tired, moneygrabbing film-making, was criticproof – it was meant to be terrible because grindhouse was terrible, so the theory goes. The theory stinks. I’ve seen Undercover Brother, so know how well written, intelligent and funny old genre knockoff can be. But on to this Machete, which is a vast improvement on the first, until it runs out of gas at an hour in. Up to then we’ve had Danny Trejo as the mythical Mexican force of nature making Schwarzeneggerish pronouncements such as “Machete don’t Tweet”, all very amusing, as a string of famous people wander across one weapons-grade scene of bandito badassery after another. Jessica Alba, Lady Gaga, Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson. There’s even a faux trailer to kick things off which jokily claims to feature Leo DiCaprio as “the man in the silver mask”. Other funny moments include a “put on the 3D glasses now” sign flashing up on the screen as Amber Heard takes her clothes off. She’s a major baddie, by the way, and we don’t actually get to see her take her clothes off. Best thing in it by a long way is Demian Bichir, playing a giggling Mexican crime lord with two personalities, both of them on the mental spectrum. And some of the action is fun in a ridiculous way – Machete jumping out of a helicopter into the back of a speeding boat, then using a harpoon gun to wind an assailant up into the rotors of a chopper. That. But on the whole it’s a further example of Rodriguez’s category error – a bad action movie is just as dumb as a good action movie. Making fun of the dumb is shooting fish in a barrel, which is one stunt I don’t think I saw Machete attempt. Did I mention Cuba Gooding Jr? And Antonio Banderas? And Vanessa Hudgens?
Classe tous risques (BFI, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
The 1960 film that is supposed to bridge the gap between the well made traditional French film of the 1950s and the edgy chaotic New Wave. As such it’s about a slightly older guy than the New Wave dealt with, a beefy career criminal (Lino Ventura) on the run who in short order we see pulling a desperate job, making good his escape, before his family and partner in crime are gunned down in front of him in a shootout with the police. Director Claude Sautet choreographs all this with grace, charges ahead with pace and shoots everything in the sort of stunning black and white (apart from one fuzzy moment this is a beautifully restored film) that perfectly suits the cool jazzy soundtrack. Enter Jean Paul Belmondo, minutes away from everlasting fame in Godard’s A Bout de Souffle, and the film doesn’t so much grind to a halt as embark on an “after the break” part two featuring Belmondo and a girl he rescues by the roadside as he drives the fugitive gangster back to Paris. Where the film embarks on part three, the bit where the meaty and violent Ventura is let down by his old compadres and has to organise one desperate “last job”. This three part zigzag is the enemy of a film that is cool and excellent in so many ways – the set design is meticulous and fascinating; the casting is as brilliant as the way that Sautet sketches characters large and small with the sort of economy Tarantino should study; Sautet’s sense of filmic geography is perfect; and he’s cast Belmondo, an instant star from the moment he slouches onto the screen.
Serpico (Eureka, cert 18, Blu-ray)
Made in a hurry and featuring a star in a hurry, this is the film that most endeared Al Pacino to a generation of filmgoers back in the early 1970s, with his portrayal of the fresh faced cop who grows his hair, who won’t take backhanders, and who suffers for his principles. He’s a hippie in the belly of the beast – “You look like an asshole with dentures” one of his superiors tells him when he reports for work at a new precinct in beard and beanie hat, smock shirt and flared trousers. Serpico goes to the ballet, attends night school, hangs out with artists, he drinks tea. In police eyes he’s a faggot. To audiences watching him back then he was a hero sticking it to the man who, ultimately, stuck it back to him. Looked at now, more than 40 years on, Serpico is a more complex figure. He’s deliberately naive, passive when he shouldn’t be, self-righteous, priggish, failings you could lay at the door of the counterculture too, at its worst. This makes for a more interesting film than the basic billing suggests, vindicates Pacino’s acting choices, and reminds us how good the man used to be before he disappeared into his own firmament. Amazingly, the film was actually shot backwards chronologically, Pacino starting with long hair and beard and having it trimmed as he went. So his transformation from puppy-eyed, duck-voiced rookie to a rebel with a cause and a swagger is all the more remarkable. Sidney Lumet’s leisurely pace, shooting on around 100 New York locations with cinematographer Arthur Ornitz, plus Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler’s tight screenplay put this right up there with All the President’s Men in terms of early 1970s film-making with real craft as well as crusading zeal. True story too.
© Steve Morrissey 2014