Out in the UK this week
Rush (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/VOD)
Recognising a good thing when he sees it, director Ron Howard sticks with Frost/Nixon writer Peter Morgan for this entirely satisfying, largely factual re-run of the rivalry between 1970s Formula 1 stars Niki Lauda and James Hunt. There’s tons to like in this film – Chris Hemsworth makes an excellent Hunt, and Daniel Brühl is actually an even better Lauda. But it’s Morgan’s screenplay which is the thing of wonder. Managing to tell the real story of the dramatic “couldn’t make it up” 1976 Formula 1 season and yet bouncing along simultaneously on the sort of good versus evil dynamic that Hollywood demands, Morgan’s screenplay clearly paints Hunt the Shunt as the drawling sex-god hero, the devil-may-care posh Brit cavalier to Lauda’s Teutonic rat-faced roundhead – the film’s title isn’t a four letter echo of Hunt’s name for nothing. But it also provides enough information for a more accurate reading – that Lauda was clearly the better driver and the real hero of a season that saw him crash and literally burn, and yet come back from near death to try and win the driver’s title. As for the rest of it, the writing and casting apart, Ron Howard seems to feel at home in the 1970s and catches the dangerous, sexiness of Formula 1 back then. Strangely, it’s only the race scenes that are slightly underwhelming, though Morgan and Howard make them short enough to keep even F1-agnostics on side. Otherwise, this is fast, exciting titanium-bottomed entertainment.
The Selfish Giant (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
A pair of non-achieving schoolkids from homes with the social services permanently camped outside embark on a spree of low-level crime and opportunistic totting – a roll of copper cable off the railway here, an abandoned cooker there. They leave behind a life of knuckling down at school and passing your exams, a life they’re clearly not equipped for – Swifty (Shaun Thomas) is overweight and dim, his compadre Arbor (Conner Chapman) twitches furiously when he’s not on his ADHD medication. And, in the brutal, filthy scrapyards of Yorkshire they start finding their niche. Generally speaking, the heart sinks when a film is set in the North of England. Too often it’s a case of plucky, plain-speaking “poor but happy” folk ducking and diving to make ends meet, to a soundtrack of violence, swearing, ugliness, dirt and misery. All are evident in The Selfish Giant. And yet somehow, Clio Barnard, also director of the extremely brilliant but also “grim up north” drama/documentary The Arbor, comes out smelling of roses rather than chip shops. Partly that’s because of the acting by the two first-timers and the odd recognisable face (such as Sean Gilder, who you may remember as Rat Pit Game Master in Gangs of New York. No?). And partly that’s because Barnard allows glimpses of beauty among the squalor. But mostly it’s because she expertly plants an ominous seed early on that suggests things are not going to work out well for these boys. I will say no more.
Sunshine on Leith (EV, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)
Dexter Fletcher’s debut film was a the rather excellent Wild Bill, a great urban western set in the East End of London. So why not follow up with a musical, eh? Taking the bittersweet songs of 1980s Scottish band The Proclaimers and hanging them on a story about soldiers returning from Afghanistan to a life in Scotland that offers one heartache and the other joy, Fletcher has gone for the jukebox approach of Mamma Mia! And he’s hit pretty much all the problems Mamma Mia! hit – the squeal as a song is shoe-horned into a tight space, the variable singing voices of actors (Jason Flemyng and Jane Horrocks among the crowd of newbies), plus song-and-dance big numbers which demonstrate that the big-screen choreographic genius of yore has been lost. But if you accept that Fletcher’s going for a democratic, kinda scrappy ambience, and that Peter Mullan is never going to sing like Bing (actually, he’s not at all bad) and that the big finishing number (it’s 500 Miles, of course) is going to be more flashmob than Busby Berkeley, then Sunshine on Leith deserves a hearing by all musical lovers. Who get a cameo of Charlie and Craig Reid – aka The Proclaimers – chucked in for fun.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/DD)
With dark locks, pale skin and features sculpted from ice, Lily Collins is gothic enough of aspect to play Clary Fray, the heroine of Cassandra Clare’s series of young adult novels. And the butt-kicking Fray is a refreshing arrival for anyone who, starting about halfway into the second Twilight film, wanted to punch Bella Swan’s face in and not stop until about an hour after the last film had ended. Clary Fray is actually closer to Harry Potter than Swan, a half human/half mythical Shadowhunter muggle who doesn’t realise what she is until she witnesses a full-blooded Shadowhunter (Jamie Campbell Bower) killing some nefarious demon at a nightclub, an event she alone, of all the others present, is able to see. Soon, she’s been Potterishly inducted into a world of mystery and danger, and is gazing longingly upon the beautiful countenance of Shadowhunter Jace (Bower), to the Twilight-ish chagrin of her adoring fully human best-buddy Simon (Robert Sheehan). It’s very easy to do that sort of thing all the way through this first Instrumental instalment – here’s the Dumbledore equivalent, there’s the ancient rivalry between immortal beast A and immortal beast B. But City of Bones escapes the easy charge of photocopy plagiarism by managing to be sexier than Twilight, punchier than Potter. In addition it delivers epic miles of backstory at speed, between bursts of action and incident, interesting new characters and regular changes of venue. And get this – the effects aren’t all CG, and they’re all the better for it. And Lily Collins’s Clary is a recognisable person, fun, funny, smart and incredibly brave. This could run and run.
The Epic of Everest (BFI, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)
The restoration of Captain John Noel’s 1924 film of the British Mount Everest Expedition is an unexpectedly majestic affair. Unexpectedly because the film was made a long time ago, when you’d expect the mixture of big cameras and the harshness and verticality of the Himalayas to be a bad fit, to say the least. And because it’s a silent film, and so lacks contextual narration and location soundtrack. Or maybe it is the lack of sound that makes the film so majestic, forcing us to view the mountain in its savage beauty, the quaintness of the Sherpa women with their fantastic braided hairstyles, the almost comical juxtaposition with British Empire chaps in solar topees and gabardine jackets heading for the third British attempt at the summit of the world’s highest mountain, 29,000 feet above sea level. Simon Fisher Turner’s new score helps enormously too, adding bleak moans and yak bells into his largely ambient soundscape, which is never intrusive, entirely right. The expedition is notorious because of the fate of its two leading lights – George Mallory and Sandy Irvine – and there they are, rugged, cheerful young men leading a caravan of 500 men and animals towards death or glory. Death, as it happened. But mostly it is majestic because Noel got it right, in shots which pushed his lenses to the limit, in his careful framing and structuring of the film, in the fact that he never overdoes the stiff upper lip, and with intertitles that are to the point and redolent of the attitudes of yesteryear. When Mallory and Irvine are finally declared missing presumed dead, Noel’s intertitle reads: “what better grave for men who have lived in nature than a grave of pure white snow?”
Hannah Arendt (Soda, cert 12, DVD)
Hannah Arendt was a fascinating political theorist who came up with the notion of “the banality evil” after watching Adolf Eichmann (the “desk murderer” as the Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal later called him) giving evidence at his trial in Israel in 1961. Eichmann’s defence was that he was just doing his job and Arendt, taking him at his word, started to formulate her thesis – a simple lack of humanity, of being fully engaged in the world, is all that’s necessary for people to do unspeakable things, not a pair of horns and a metaphysically wicked moral sense. This outraged her fellow Jews, got her ostracised by many in fact, as did her observation in the pieces she wrote for the New Yorker that Jewish leaders in effect aided the Nazis in their exterminatory endeavours by their overly acquiescent attitude. Margarethe von Trotta’s film goes into all this, at length, and struggles to make a human drama from what was and is an extremely heated debate. Barbara Sukowa as Arendt looks every centimetre the mid-20th-century intellectual – smoking, tweedy, focused, politicised. And around her wheel an array of actors depicting friends and family in New York, older friends and comrades in Israel, while Klaus Pohl plays philosopher Martin Heidegger, with whom Arendt had a student fling, before he came out for Hitler. Do we need to know about the fling? Not at all. But it adds a sexual frisson to this bookish drama that only becomes fascinating as Arendt comes increasingly under attack.
The Banshee Chapter (101, cert 18, DVD/VOD)
I think Zachary Quinto might have put some money into The Banshee Chapter. Judging by the looks of it, it wasn’t very much. But if he did then it was money well spent. Because what writer/director Blair Erickson and writer Daniel J Healy have come up with is a decent splicing of the political conspiracy thriller with the old fashioned “don’t go into that cellar” horror story. Katia Winter plays the fit girl in the figure hugging T shirt, a journalist trying to find out what happened to her old university pal, a guy who managed to get hold of some of the drugs that the US government were using in their mind-control experiments of the 1960s (cut to actual footage of President Clinton admitting that, yes, this did go on) and was never seen again. On the way our investigator picks up raddled old countercultural writer Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), a drinky druggy gun-happy Hunter S Thompson in all but name, and off they go together into dark places, where hands reach out through the stairs, faces appear at windows and shrieking things suddenly wheel into view more often than seems strictly necessary. Boo! Is there anything groundbreaking going on in The Banshee Chapter? No. But Erickson’s decision to shoot almost everything in near darkness and in quasi found-footage style really helps with the mood of disorientation, Katia Winter is the sort of plucky woman you want to survive and if you’ve ever had a soft spot for Hunter S Thompson’s acidulated bullshit, well Levine’s performance helps things along too.
© Steve Morrissey 2014