In A World (Sony, cert 15, DVD)
Writer/director/producer/star Lake Bell’s debut takes a real life event – the death of voiceover king Don La Fontaine (the guy whose every trailer started “In a world…”) – and builds an almost Woody Allen-ish comedic story around it, about the pretenders jostling for his crown. Onto that it bolts a sentimental story of young under-achieving vocal coach Carol (Bell) and her difficult Oedipal relationship with her dad (Fred Melamed), a big noise in the voiceover biz. And off the side it hangs a “will they/won’t they” romance between Carol and studio whizz Louis (Demetri Martin). And then, as if that weren’t enough, just to the side of that it twin-tracks the story of Carol’s dizzy sister (Michaela Watkins) and her really nice, funny boyfriend (Rob Corddry). That’s a lot of stories. But they manage to jangle along together towards a satisfying finish in this funny feisty comedy mixing the freshness of indie with the sleekness of Hollywood because the focus is mainly on Carol, and largely because it is written and performed at screwball speed and with no time for cutesy girls with sexy baby voices – one of the film’s clear girl-power messages. Is In a World perfect? No. But it is very good, and the odd untied loose end, the occasional not entirely believable relationship actually doesn’t matter that much when a film moves this fast and with this much sass.
Computer Chess (Eureka, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
For a good ten minutes at the beginning of Computer Chess I thought I was actually watching a documentary made in the 1970s, about computer geeks at a competition to see whose program plays the best chess, all shot on that weird blurry black and white TV video which was about back then. But then I remembered that it was a film by Andrew Bujalski – often credited as the inventor of mumblecore – and I reset my expectations to “mock-doc comedy”. A couple of days later I reset them again. Because this really is an immensely smart film with a lot to say, hidden inside what looks almost like a verité offering about socially clueless people all meeting up, the sort of people who go to pieces the moment they look up from their keyboard. And it’s set in the 1970s because that’s when the culture we live in now was born – geekworld. Against that Bujalski sets the dominant culture of the day, the letting it all hang out, druggy, sex-is-compulsory world of the late 1970s. It’s the old romantics versus the new puritans, the roundheads versus the cavaliers. Negotiating these twin poles are programmers Peter (Patrick Riester), a new nerd in town, and Mike Papageorge (Miles Paige), the braggart who spends much of his time wandering the hotel looking to get laid. Where they go, what they do, the people they bump into – a geek girl in a tight stripy 1970s sweater who just hasn’t noticed how big it makes her breasts appear, the super-officious competition organiser, a couple who fancy swinging the night away – that’s how the film passes its time. And every encounter is golden.
Hours (Signature, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
Poor Paul Walker. He became an increasingly unimportant element in the Fast and Furious franchise and was visibly being hustled towards the exit in the last, rather good, instalment of the series, playing second banana to relative newcomer Dwayne Johnson, his dialogue reduced to a series of “what he said” lines. But he’s left behind him proof that he actually could act, a decent thriller that’s also an indication of where Walker might have been heading in the future. It’s a one-hander, more or less, with a slightly tubby Walker playing a new dad whose wife dies in labour just moments before Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans. Leaving dad literally holding the baby – no, not literally, she’s in an incubator – while around him pandemonium breaks out, the hospital is evacuated, the power goes off, and a string of “it just got worse” incidents test his ingenuity and resolve. Whether the baby die or not is the maguffin keeping this film moving towards its big melodramatic 1950s finish, while Walker (also the film’s producer) demonstrates a likeability, pluck and depth that were never on display while he was razzing a Dodge Charger or Chevrolet Camaro up and down the strip. Pretty pretty good.
Kelly + Victor (Verve, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)
Boy meets girl for mephedrone and erotic asphyxiation in this explicit Liverpool-set drama strong on mood, avoiding “ferry across the fucking Mersey” (as director Kieran Evans puts it in the extras Q&A) cuteness. Avoiding cuteness all round in fact. Unless you count the love story it tells, which is genuinely touching. Because what Kelly + Victor does do rather nicely, once it’s introduced us to two youngish people who meet at a club full of dancing druggies and then go home to Kelly’s, where she inducts him into a whole world of pleasurable pain, is introduce us to them again, as people who are totally overwhelmed by love, as if they were rushing on something that came in pill form. I haven’t read the British Board of Film Classification’s ruling on why it’s been handed an 18 certificate but I guess it’s either for the relentless language, the relentless nudity, the drug-taking, or the scenes of strangling, cutting with broken glass and other S&M stuff that the two committed actors (big shout to Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Julian Morris) have signed up for.
Museum Hours (Soda, cert 12, DVD)
The sight of Mary Margaret O’Hara as one of the actors in industry outsider Jem Cohen’s fusion of documentary and drama is just one of the signs that Museum Hours isn’t going to be your average movie. O’Hara has released only two albums in a career lasting more than 30 years, but those are the stuff of legend (allmusic.com calls her Miss America “a work of mad-scientist genius”). So, to the film itself, a work of pensive observation about a visiting Canadian (O’Hara) being taken under the wing of an art gallery guard (Bobby Sommer) in Vienna. He tells her he used to manage rock bands, back in the day. She listens to these and other stories, smiles, is taken to coffee, shown about town, smiles some more. Meanwhile, Cohen plays about with our expectations, dropping in moments of pure documentary – I doubt anyone in this film apart from O’Hara and Sommer is an actor, apart from the naked people who turn up in a fantasy sequence (more playing about). Museum Hours isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea (lemon, no sugar), but it’s part of a new emerging field, where the boundaries between – mumblecore and documentary, or overground and underground, or gallery and cinema – all meet and blur. And once you’ve re-attuned expectations accordingly, it seems to reveal itself as an invitation to understand the simple joy of looking. I think.
White House Down (Sony, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)
If you’ve seen Olympus Has Fallen, in which sidelined spy guy Gerard Butler saves POTUS Aaron Eckhart, you, like me, have had your time severely wasted. But wait till you see White House Down, in which sidelined spy guy Channing Tatum saves POTUS Jamie Foxx. It’s even worse, though it takes a good 45 minutes to establish its uselessness, and then another half an hour before it finally enters hilariously must-see terrible territory. The plot: Tatum is a sidelined spy guy, Foxx is the Obama-alike President, all folksy shit and windbaggery, and the White House is attacked. And Tatum saves him. Is that a spoiler? Only if you think that in a Roland Emmerich film – the director who blew up the White House in Independence Day but didn’t kill Prez Bill Pullman – the president is going to get killed. It is grim and unpleasant to bring up Emmerich’s nationality here, but a German making a film that is so in thrall to the cult of the leader, well, he should just have asked for a rewrite. The film badly needs one anyway, unless you are really interested in the chain of command once a president is missing presumed (by all but Channing) dead, or have a fixed desire to have the 25th Amendment explained. Short answer: once this film got greenlit on the strength of its nine word pitch it just didn’t know what to do to fill its 131 minutes of running time and so does the action movie equivalent of jazz hands – helicopters, explosions, guys running around, stuff. Things to note in case you take one of the many invitations to nod – Channing keeps his top on, though there is a hose-down scene strongly reminiscent of the opening to the 1996 Pamela Anderson vehicle Barb Wire; Jamie Foxx deliberately and depressingly opts to swap presidential shoes for trainers at one point, thus reassuring the brothers that… oh, you know; there actually are really good actors in this (nothing against Tatum and Foxx, but Richard Jenkins, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods). Anything else? I did say it was skullfuckingly stupid, right?
The Colony (E One, cert 18, DVD)
Who does not love Laurence Fishburne? Morpheus himself dignifies this post-apocalyptic survival thriller that actually stars Kevin Zegers. Playing the wise, rumbling leader of a snowbound colony in a world destroyed by humanity’s foolish fiddling with nature, Fishburne is a reassuring guide through the first half of this movie, the bit where it looks like it’s going to be a reworking of John Carpenter’s The Thing. The good bit. Then, Fishburne, Kevin Zegers, titular star on account of Zac Efron-y looks, and a bunch of guys in what might as well be Star Trek red shirts head off to another colony where… I’ll leave the plot there. But I will warn you that things take a dive, and the film slips from being a tense thriller set in a well conceived dystopia to something more akin to an action movie, except director Jeff Renfroe apparently can’t direct action. But never mind, because Renfroe and co-writers slip a gear again, switching genres into something more like a zombie movie. And then again into torture porn, possibly having talked themselves into believing that they’re “confounding genre expectations”, when a wiser head (ie mine) would have told them to stick with the good stuff early on.
© Steve Morrissey 2014
All titles out in the UK week commencing 20 January 2014