Out in the UK This Week
Like Father, Like Son (Arrow, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
A couple of years ago Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda made an enchanting film called I Wish, about two separated brothers, the importance of family ties being its theme. With Like Father, Like Son he’s similarly sure-footed and on the same turf but is coming at it from a slightly different direction. The story of the Nonomiyas, a well-to-do couple who discover that their five-year-old son isn’t actually their son at all – a mix-up in the maternity ward – this drama is all about the competing values of rearing over blood. The white-collar family discover that the owner of an electrical appliance store has their kid, and they have his. What’s more, the blue-collar Saikis are a really relaxed nice sort of family, who value time with their various offspring, while the Nonomiyas are uptight, demanding, constantly straining for “their” child to achieve, their whole attitude summed up in dad’s obsession with piano practice. This situation – swapped kids, class aspiration, hothouse parenting – is ripe for drama, and Koreeda milks it for all its worth. Should these two families keep things the way they are, swop kids, or what? In Koreeda’s hands what could easily have been a midweek TV weepie becomes an essay on the quantity theory of family – we love people not because they are the fruit of our loins but because we’ve spent time in their company. Both families are beautifully sketched, but the burden of the acting falls on Masahuru Fukuyama, who plays Mr Nonoyima, and does a brilliant job of making the unyielding father a figure of some sympathy. If it’s not the lake of joy that I Wish was, that’s because the subject matter was never going to allow that, but Like Father, Like Son is a fascinating film that will jerk tears from the driest of eyes.
Fossil (Drakes Avenue, cert 15, DVD/digital)
Here’s a promising debut by a director called Alex Walker, a four-handed drama about a couple of bickering Brits (John Sackville, Edith Bukovics) who have their fractious holiday in a very pleasant French gîte disrupted by the arrival of a loud American (Grant Masters doing a dudish Jeff Bridges thing) and his young girlfriend (Carla Juri). Over the next few days there’s a lot of drinking, some arguments conducted in loud whispers, a touch of cross-couple transgressive flirting and a very bad spoilerish thing happens too. For sure, we’re never not aware of the contrivance in the screenplay, which forces people to stay together in close proximity when they most probably wouldn’t. And not all the acting is that great either, though Sackville’s peevish Brit Paul pulls off the difficult feat of being unlikeable yet engaging. But Walker keeps the pace up, builds tension deliberately, delivers the heat and even the smells of the Dordogne setting. And when it comes time to switch from pent-up internal emotion to external action, the release – though nasty – is weirdly cathartic.
The Railway Man (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
A trainspotter (Colin Firth) meets a pretty and forthright woman (Nicole Kidman) on the train in 1980s Britain. They get talking. They get on. There’s a spark. Within 20 minutes or so of screen time they are in fact married. And about five minutes after that, the trainspotter is having a full-on psychotic episode in which he imagines he’s back in the Japanese PoW camp where he spent the Second World War. What we have here, in other words, is a Second World War drama wrapped in something fluffy, in an attempt to attract another audience quadrant. One minute we’re back in the camp where brutality is meted out on a regular basis. Then we’re back in the present, where a decent woman is attempting to deal with a husband who clearly has post-traumatic stress disorder. Kidman, in fact, doesn’t have much to do, because this part of the story – the modern bit – doesn’t really serve much of a purpose until the film hits the home straight and the railway man (do you see?) heads off to the Orient to confront his past. Firth, however, is as reliable as ever as a decent, cool gent seething with repressed horror, and Jeremy Irvine is pretty good too as his younger self, even incorporating a few trademark Firth tics into his performance. Ultimately, The Railway Man is a bit dry, a bit muted, a true story that needed to be told. Perhaps just not in this way.
Magic Magic (Koch, cert 15, DVD/digital)
A cabin-in-the-woods horror done as psychological study. The cast is a kind of an indie supergroup of young talent – Juno Temple, Michael Cera, Emily Browning, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Agustin Silva. Silva, actually, is the director’s brother and so makes the group by way of special dispensation. But nepotism or not, he’s very good, as the alpha male of a gang of holidaying friends, into whose midst has been dropped the extremely nervous cousin (Temple) of the hot girl (Browning). In normal cabin in the woods films the jeopardy is all external. Here it’s inside the cabin – whether it’s Cera’s ADHD weirdness, Moreno’s cold hostility or Browning’s self-absorption, all of them just short of pathological. And it’s inside the head of the increasingly fraught newcomer, who basically just falls apart as the film builds towards its odd shocking climax. I’d love to say Magic Magic is a successful film, but it isn’t really. The Chilean locations are refreshing, mood is conjured effectively with off-kilter camera angles and a brooding score, and Cera’s almost unhinged performance really adds to the weird jangling mood. But that ending, straight out of leftfield, just does not compute.
Child of God (Signature, cert 18, DVD)
Though best known as an actor, James Franco has directed more than 20 movies in the past eight/nine years. Child of God comes in at number 18 or so, and is an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel about a hillbilly simpleton whose activities see him wandering, almost accidentally, from the fringes of civilised society into the full grip of outlawdom. Expect no famous faces and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see Tim Blake Nelson as the local sheriff, and Franco himself turns up in the tiniest role, presumably so someone in marketing could put the words “starring James Franco” on the posters. Instead there is the amazing sight of Scott Haze as wildman Lester Ballard, a ball of dim fury who we meet being thrown off his daddy’s land by the auctioneer who is selling up. This is Haze’s film – he’s in every shot – and it’s an acting tour de force. Franco, for his part, has enough confidence in his ensemble to let them get on with it, and they reward him with uniformly good performances. If he has less success getting McCarthy onto the screen, it’s the same problem Billy Bob Thornton had with McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and John Hillcoat had with The Road – McCarthy’s rhythmic prose translates too often to the screen as just plain repetitive – so let’s not be too hard. Instead let’s look forward to the arrival on DVD of Franco’s As I Lay Dying and on the big screen of his Bukowski, both of which also feature Scott Haze. Franco clearly feels he has a tiger by the tail.
Zulu 50th Anniversary Edition (Paramount, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)
The 50th anniversary restoration of Zulu reminds us, if we’d forgotten, what a fantastic looking film it was in the first place. Photographed by Stephen Dade in Technicolor and 70mm Technirama in the bright sun of South Africa, it rivals David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia for sheer screen brilliance. It made a star of Michael Caine too, here playing a high-born officer bridling at being given orders by a lieutenant (Stanley Baker) who is his social inferior. If we need another reminder that Caine cannot do accents, here it is, but otherwise he’s a riveting presence as Gonville Bromhead, who, along with Baker’s Lt. Chard, will eventually rally his men into a defence against the thousands of Zulus who are poised to flick the Brits into eternity. Made just as Britain was upping the pace on disposal of its colonies, dismantling its empire faster than you can say “bankrupt”, Zulu catches the ambivalence of the imperial legacy. Which makes for a much better film – this is no one-sided attack of savages against the godly civiliser – the “white man’s burden” is not too much in evidence.
We Are the Freaks (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)
A “last summer before adulthood” coming of ager, set in Birmingham, UK, centred on a loose group of friends, who seem to have little in common apart from a love of drugs and easy sex. The time is the 1980s, when writer/director Justin Edgar, a Birmingham boy, would have been growing up. And, we presume, his central character, the likeable and laddish Jack, is partly autobiographical. Edgar does an awful lot of things that a writer/director really shouldn’t – too many overhead shots, too much voiceover, there’s even the dreaded address-directly-to-camera that was once the wink-wink refuge of the ironic scoundrel. Some of this is forgivable – Edgar is working with a budget of zero – and as his story of the “freaks” and their messy relationships, gatecrashing of parties, run-ins with girlfriends, would-be girlfriends and a drug dealer called Killer Colin (another lovely mental performance by Michael Smiley) continues, it gradually becomes clear that, against all expectations, this is rather a good film. It is funny. The characters are likeable. Their story is interesting. The acting is actually very funny. The no-budget in-jokes twitting film conventions are actually quite good jokes. Towards the end it slightly loses faith in itself and becomes a touch silly, a bit unbelievable. But that’s not enough to sink it. Think The Last Picture Show as rewritten by The Inbetweeners and you’re about there.
© Steve Morrissey 2014