Out in the UK This Week
Upstream Colour (Metrodome, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)
Shane Carruth’s belated follow-up to his brilliant 2004 film Primer is a weird mix of body-horror and love story, the story of a woman (a rather good Amy Seimetz) infected by some parasitic worm who is hypnotised and then robbed while under the influence. Well, that’s the first bit anyway. After that she seems to be falling for some guy she’s met (played in a bit of Ben Affleck casting by Carruth himself), the whole thing told in the language not of film but of advertising – overlaps, quick cuts, montages, while a Sigur Ros-style soundtrack (a band advertisers love) bleeps and sighs. It’s a trippy montage of a film whose serpentine plotting and references to Thoreau’s Walden: Life in the Woods seem there partly for the sake of obscurity, and if it’s not quite as great as Primer, it is full of fabulous images, scenes and sequences that make it a compelling watch.
Frances Ha (Metrodome, cert 15, Blu-ray-DVD)
If you’re like me and have always been slightly suspicious of Greta Gerwig standing on one foot while twisting the other, doing ingenue turns in one indie boho flick or another, prepare to swallow those doubts as she puts in a spellbinding performance as a ditz on the make in New York. If director Noah Baumbach’s tender character study could be called Annie Hall by way of TV’s Girls, it’s Gerwig’s Frances who invites the positive comparisons as the dance student who doesn’t quite realise that she’s not going to make it in the city that never sleeps, and that all the people she hangs out with are either more talented, richer or better connected than she is. This “we know but she doesn’t” tension is what powers the film, and it’s what makes us watch and fret as Frances blunders downwards, forever downwards. Will she have a moment of corrective self-realisation? Watch and marvel at what an amazingly sweet, well observed, brilliantly played, magically written (by Gerwig and Baumbach) film this is. And in black and white too – no idea why.
The Way Way Back (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)
I resisted watching this film, I must admit. I’ve become tired of Toni Collette, don’t give much of a stuff about Steve Carell, especially when he’s doing straight acting work. I was wrong to doubt either of them, they’re just fine in this coming-of-age tale about Duncan (Liam James), a teenage boy having a “this sucks” holiday with his useless mum (Collette) and her douche of a new guy (Carell) in some awful holiday town. It’s a small, sweet and beautifully acted film that hands a nice role to a “hasn’t she grown” AnnaSophia Robb as the hot girl next door. Meanwhile Alison Janney is predictably brilliant, and predictably underused, as the blowsy boozy mother of said hotty, and Sam Rockwell again just about steals the film as the swimming-pool big noise whose bluster hides a fatal lack of ambition.
Insidious Chapter 2 (E One, cert 15 Blu-ray/DVD)
James Wan, of Saw fame, continues with his 1970s homage/rip-off with this continuation of Insidious 1 which actually picks up pretty much exactly where Insidious 1 leaves off. Which means more haunted house-y, Exorcist-y pastiche, with nods to Psycho in the character of mother-fixated Josh (Patrick Wilson), whose trip into the other world at the end of the last film has resulted in him returning to this world with an unwanted passenger. Thankfully, Wan (and collaborator Leigh Whannell) have brought back the best characters from Insidious 1 too – Lin Shaye as the spooky “I see dead people” medium, plus the two weird paranormal investigator Specs and Tucker (Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson, both of whom have obviously seen the fabulous no-budget British film Skeletons). We have been here before many times but Insidious 2 makes up with technique what it lacks in plot originality, with Wan’s fluid camera and lighting delivering tons of atmosphere rather than out-and-out scares.
Lords of London (Kaleidoscope, cert 18, DVD)
Now this is one bloody odd film. A British/Italian co-production that claims to star Ray Winstone, it does in fact star Glen Murphy (me neither) as a dead gangster who appears to be in a limbo that resembles a Cinzano advertisement – scooters, pouting girls, peasant grandmas in black sort of thing. Ray Winstone is in the film, briefly, in flashbacks by the dead gangster to his dear old dad, who used to pull people’s teeth out using an interesting cheesewire technique that was new to me. So, Ray Winstone torturing people in 1950s flashback London, his son in a flashforward Italian limbo, where events from his past, and even his own father as a young thug in training, come back to haunt him. Enter Murphy’s mother, as a dropdead mama mia, and things get a bit oedipal. How is it going to play out? That would ruin the entire film, which is a strangely gripping mix of gangster tale and ghost story. Bloody odd.
What Maisie Knew (Curzon, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
The story of two seriously self-involved parents and the daughter ping-ponging between them, What Maise Knew is the latest in a line of indictments of 1970s attitudes dressed up as a drama. Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore are estranged mum and dad – she a rock star (no, not convincing) whose like of loud music alone seems to mark her out as a bad mum. As for Coogan, he’s your typical feckless bastard whose wandering eye lights upon the girl’s nanny (Joanna Vanderham). And it is a face that the camera also likes to rest upon, so much so that you wonder in the first half of the film exactly why it’s doing it. Enter Alexander Skarsgård, as rock-star mum’s toyboy, and the film’s true intent begins to become clear. This is not just about Coogan and Moore, but about Vanderham and Skarsgård too – though it takes a hell of a long time getting round to erecting its fourway face-off. Having watched Frances Ha the night before, this just seemed a bit diagrammatic in comparison, more about cultural positions (1970s harpies on one side, serious sensible lovely optimistic young people on the other) than about real people. Which just left Onata Aprile, as Maisie, pretty much the only character who seemed believable, worth rooting for.
Peacock (Lionsgate, cert 12, DVD)
Imagine Norman Bates without the murder and you’ve got this drama starring Cillian Murphy as a crossdresser in 1950s smalltown America, a nervous penpusher called John who becomes Emma, a confident, sociable woman behind closed doors. Until a train derails and ends up in the garden, threatening John/Emma with exposure. A train ends up in the garden… yes, it does seem a bit extreme. But then there’s a lot of that sort of thing in this entirely unbelievable drama that somehow manages to force a bad performance out of Ellen Page, as a young mum who was being supported by John’s dead mother (I never worked out why). Buying into the credibility deficit with a bit more panache is Susan Sarandon as a local mover and shaker whose mouth seems constantly to be on the verge of mouthing “but you’re a man”. Which ultimately is this film’s problem, no matter how good Murphy is at conveying the impression of a psyche falling apart – or a psycho in waiting – there’s nothing he can do about the adam’s apple or stubble.
© Steve Morrissey 2014