Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

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The Face Of An Angel

Director Michael Winterbottom Stars Daniel Brühl, Kate Beckinsale, Cara Delevigne UK/Italy/Spain 2014 Language English, Italian (with some subtitles) 1hr 40mins Colour

The Trip To Italy’s paranoid, coked-up cousin

If you’re looking for something that’s going to tell you the ‘truth’ about the murder of Meredith Kercher, this isn’t it. The circumstances of Kercher’s death, and the subsequent trials of Amanda Knox, are (as it openly concedes) the starting points for this film. But the question of guilt, and the particular facts of the case, are not the business of The Face Of An Angel. If it’s ‘about’ anything, it’s writer’s block, depression, early onset midlife crisis and the effects of being estranged from your family. Oh, and Dante and Beatrice.

How does that connect with the death of a young woman? Thomas Lang (Daniel Brühl) is the director whose career has stalled while that of his ex (and the mother of their daughter) has soared. Trying to get back on track, he’s got a deal to make a film based on the murder of an English student, Elizabeth Pryce (Sai Bennett) in Siena. A Rome-based correspondent and author, Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale), agrees to given him an introduction to the case, driving him up to Siena where Jessica Fuller (Genevieve Gaunt) and Carlo Elias are appealing against their convictions for Elizabeth’s murder. 

As Thomas pops between Siena and London, it becomes clear pretty soon that he isn’t interested in making a true-crime film. What kind of film he wants to make is less clear, to the (understandable) frustration of various people he has meetings in with in London. All he seems to know is that he would like get Dante’s Divine Comedy in there somehow. Meanwhile, in Siena he meets helpful student/waitress Melanie (Cara Delevigne) and the sinister Eduardo, a well-connected local character who may well know more than anyone else about the case, but Thomas is reluctant to accept his help. The longer Thomas spends in Italy, the more he unravels. His own demons (increasingly literally rendered by Winterbottom) are amplified by his hefty drug use and also his ill-disguise disgust at the reporters covering the case – a process with which he is at least somewhat complicit (I don’t think it’s an accident that Daniel’s ire is directed at the Daily Mail freelancer). 

If the The Face Of An Angel absolutely isn’t a dissection of a crime, what is it? For a chunk of the running time, a writer’s block nightmare in the spirit of Barton Fink or The Shining. But most of all, it’s a Michael Winterbottom film. The shots are beautifully composed, and it’s (as so often with his work) meta-fictional. 

Maybe more surprisingly, it’s repeatedly reminiscent of his recent comedy The Trip To Italy. Lots of scenes taking place on hotel terraces with incredible views? Tick. Lots of scenes of men in hotel rooms having awkward long-distance conversations with their estranged families? Tick. A scene of one of the characters singing along to the music playing in the car? Tick. A pilgrimage to sites associated with a literary hero(es)? Tick. Scenes satirising film business meetings? Tick. Our antihero staring in an alienated manner through the windows of his icily cool London flat? Tick. There are, however, it’s true, no Michael Caine impressions here.

For some of the press, the big news about the film is the fact that Cara Delevigne is in it. She’s fine – a very natural, sparky presence. Her character is a bit more problematic – initially she’s Thomas’ unofficial guide/fixer, which is fine. But as time goes, she becomes more of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl – a whirl of positive energy offering a Thomas a possible redemptive path out of his self-defeating depression and paranoia. I feel I should expect a bit more of Winterbottom, although this kind of characters do crop in some of his films. As for Brühl and Kate Beckinsale, I think they’re both well cast – not for the first time, he makes a character more likeable than the writing allows, while she does plausible veteran reporter.

The Face Of An Angel has had some harsh reviews, but I think – not for the first time in Winterbottom’s career – some of those critics were just looking for the wrong film. Like a fair portion of his work, this looks at showbiz and the media. If that seems to insiderish for you, walk on by. But take it on its terms, and the film works – it’s sharp and occasionally funny and obsessive and spooky. 

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Ocho Apellidos Vascos (Spanish Affair)

Director Emilio Martínez Lázaro Stars Clara Lago, Dani Rovira, Karra Elejalde, Carmen Machi Spain 2014 Language Spanish, Basque (with English subtitles) 1hr 38mins Colour 

The tricky nationalism question treated as a frothy romantic farce

Within a couple of years, Spain as we know it could have broken into pieces. The Catalans, fuelled by some genuine grievances dating back to Franco’s dictatorship and the usual deluded nationalist toss, are scheming their escape. And if the Catalans – whose flag even uses exactly the same colours as the Spanish one, just with more stripes – gain independence, what of the Basques, who speak an unrelated language so foreign that one of its most used letters, k, barely exists in Spanish? (There is, somewhat inevitably, a ‘k’ joke in this film).

All that political ferment is the backdrop for this cheery, daft romcom. Amaia (Clara Lago) is in Seville enduring a hen weekend even though her wedding has been called off. When Rafa (Dani Rovira) one of the waiters in a flamenco bar, starts doing a stand-up routine of (weak) jokes about Basques, she starts heckling. Their impassioned row leads them to his bedroom, but she crashes out before anything happens. Next morning, she vanishes, leaving her handbag. Lovestruck, he decides to return in person to her small Basque town. Once there, he ends up having to impersonate a typical Basque, called Antxon.

This is a film that deals freely in crude stereotypes. The Andalusians hug everyone, are super-expressive and sex mad. The Basques are uptight. ‘You made him wait for three weeks before you got off?’ a stunned Rafa asks Amaia when she’s talking about her ex-fiancé. ‘It was three weeks before I have him my number,’ she corrects. 

Rafa assumes that most Basques are terrorists and all are nationalists. They assume that Sevillans are foppish ne’er-do-wells. Basques eat ridiculous amounts of food, Andalusians love olives, etc etc. In the south, they’re addicted to hair gel, in the Basque country they just hack their own barnets… This would be tiresome if the film wasn’t consistently funny, but fortunately it is. It has enough charm to get away with this stuff. 

Ocho Apellidos Vascos also has just about enough charm and pace to get away with a plot that demands almost total suspension of disbelief. In a small town, nobody questions the appearance of a guy claiming to be a local who they’ve never seen before? And Rafa repeatedly manages to wriggle out of situations where his inability to speak more than a dozen words of Euskara, the Basque language, is about to be exposed.

I can imagine some Basques being offended by this film. It makes them seem pretty gullible. It also suggests that some fairly hardcore Basque families speak Castilian Spanish at home. Clara Lago, the female lead, isn’t actually Basque, although everyone else who plays a local is. The director comes from Madrid, although one of the screenwriters is Basque. 

Still, that’s their problem, not ours. And this is an enjoyable film, if very lightweight – it’s the kind of film that if it was in English, you wouldn’t expect to turn up at a film festival, something pretty much made clear by the stars who make a surprise cameo appearance. (The English title is terrible, by the way – what’s wrong with ‘Eight Basque Surnames’?) A number of people have suggested that if you don’t speak Spanish, and aren’t that familiar with the country’s issues and hang-ups, this film is a bit of non-starter. I’m not in a great position to judge, but nor am I entirely sure about that – I think smart people here could sketch in their own analogies (Essex boy goes to Ulster?). And there was a lot of laughter at the screening I was at – I have no idea if it was all Spanish speakers. But it’s true, with comedy, much more than drama, speaking the language usually helps.

Meanwhile, in Spain, Ocho Apellidos Vascos been a huge hit, with a sequel on the way. Here’s hoping its simple ‘we’ll get along once we spend some time with each other’ attitude catches on with the public in Spanish’s restive nations. 

I saw Ocho Apellidos Vascos at the 2014 London Film Festival

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Stray Dog

Director Debra Granik Stars Ronnie Hall, Alicia Hall USA 2014 Language English, Spanish (with English subtitles) 1hr 38mins Colour 

Gruffly moving, funny portrait of a classic American character

Meet Ronnie ‘Stray Dog’ Hall – biker, Vietnam vet, activist, small businessman, family man, pet owner, all this and a fair bit more. This documentary lets us spend time with a fascinating, complicated person. It’s easy to guess what the appeal for director Debra Granik was – see this grey-bearded biker in his stars-and-stripes bandana and you might think you know what his take on the world is… and you’d probably be at least half wrong. That’s not clear straight away, partly because of the narration-free, interview-free approach. It takes time for the film to reveal where it’s going, although occasionally the editing does lift the lid on the agenda. After one of the very many memorials for fallen comrades that Ronnie attends, during which the speaker has praised America’s repeated heroic interventions on the side of freedom, we cut to Ronnie in a therapy session, discussing his experiences in Vietnam in a way that just destroys the claims made in the scene before.

There are two main threads to the film: Ronnie’s relationships with his fellow veterans – and the families of veterans – acting as formal and informal support to them, while occasionally gently undermining bits of their collective creed.

The other is his relationship with his complicated family, including his Mexican wife, Alicia – his Spanish is as imperfect as her English, but they clearly love each other. Then there’s his daughter from his first marriage, and her daughter… His patience and rough-hewn wisdom seem inexhaustible, but this isn’t about a saint.

There are some funny moments, many following the arrival of Alicia’s sons, Jesus and Angel. There’s a terrific lost-in-translation conversation when one of the 19-year-olds is keeps explaining to one of Ronnie’s old buds that in Mexico City you can at least walk to the shops – here in this trailer park in remote Missouri you need a car to do anything. ’Must be glad to be in America,’ says the gringo, again and again. And their faces being confronted with a overcooked meat-and-two-veg meal…

The look of the film is functional – there’s no fancy camerawork, which probably suits an account of one of the crumbling corners of the American heartland, where the luckier people live in houses with rotting floors, while others make do with their vans. Granik directed the superb feature film Winter’s Bone, which is how she met Ronnie, and has an eye for this world.

Although the film starts with some big rides, there is little in the way of biker mythology. There’s more on the  world of the veterans – including their unbreakable belief that there are still American POWs rotting in Vietnam and Laos. Then again, as Ronnie says, no one comes back from war unchanged. Some psychologists might say the MIAs they are looking for are themselves.

This is a warm and heartfelt film, but one that still allows for some very harsh truths.

I saw Stray Dog at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival

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Only Angels Have Wings

Director Howard Hawks Stars Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell USA 1939 Language English, some Spanish 2hrs 1min Black & white 

"It’s like being in love with a buzz saw’

Did the movies glamourise smoking? It’s hard to argue otherwise after watching a film like this, where cigarettes are at the heart of communication – not just a crucial part of flirting, but signalling trust, forgiveness, redemption… What more could you do for a dying friend than place a cigarette between his lips? Or reward a man for his bravery and loyalty than help him smoke because he’s temporarily lost the use of his hands? It’s hard to think of another film, except for The Sweet Smell Of Success, in which matches carry such symbolic weight. 

Of course, you drink as you smoke, and there’s certainly a lot of booze in this film, shot after shot of whisky. And wrapped up in the drinking and the smoking is love, the love of a tough guy for the women feisty enough to stand up to him, but also ’love’ is the word the film uses to describe how a bunch of men doing an insanely dangerous job – one nobody outside their circle can comprehend - feel about each other.

The place these men are gathered is Barranca, a port in Ecuador. The problem is that between the sea and the interior of the country lies a socking great mountain range, and so a group of American pilots are making a perilous living flying the mail over to the other side. 

We’re introduced to all this via Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a nightclub entertainer who is exploring town during a brief stop-off by the banana boat. A couple of the pilots try to pick her up, and during an eventful evening she learns first hand all about the drama of their lives, and – fatefully – gets an introduction to their boss, Geoff Carter (Cary Grant). 

I don’t tend to deal in absolutes, but there’s probably no one I’d rather see on screen than Cary Grant, and no director whose movies I enjoy watching as much as Howard Hawks’*. Grant may not have been the most obvious choice to play the most fearless (and superficially hardhearted) of a gang of flyboys, and he is burdened with a bad hat, but then he’s just the man you want in scenes sparring with Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth. 

Much of the film takes place in the hotel out of which the airline operates, where the pilots and ground crew do their smoking and drinking and sporadic attempts at womanising. 

In between, we join them on big dramatic flights. Yes, there are some shots that are clearly models, and others that feel fairly studio-bound, but at least one sequence – the flight to the mine – still looks terrific and exciting. In any case, the flying sequences work if you care about these people. 

And these people care about each other – Jeff and his old buddy Kid (Thomas Mitchell) and eccentric, sentimental business partner Dutchy (Sig Ruman) and mechanic Sparks (Vic Killian) and the rest – all the while knowing that the odds are that at least a couple of men in the room would be dead within the year. I’m happy with the conventional critical wisdom that nobody was better at this stuff than Hawks – the jailhouse scenes in Rio Bravo may be the supreme example.

Of course there’s a different way of looking at all of this, at the machoism, at the business of deadly jobs. The Wages Of Fear, brings a sharply cynical take to a similar story – the two films would make a phenomenal double bill.

The writing is often cracking – even if you can see an inspiration for Airplane in places – and the direction is beautifully efficient. Thrills, (a lot of) spills, gags, simmering sexual tension, proper stars who dominate the screen, and some terrific songs**, all marshalled by a man who might just have been the finest director ever – when critics talk about the golden age of Hollywood, this is what they mean.

I saw Only Angels Have Wings on the glorious big screen at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival

*David Thomson once wrote that if he was shipwrecked and save only 10 films to watch, they would all be ones directed by Hawks.

**Think Wim Wenders introduced Cuban son to cinema with the Buena Vista Social Club? Not so…

 

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A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Director Ana Lily Amirpour Stars Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi Marshall Manesh USA 2014 Language Farsi (with English subtitles) 1hr 39 mins Black & white

Strange things are happening in a dusty Iranian backwater

While I was watching this film, there was a comparison that was lurking on the edge of my mind. Yes, I got the David Lynch thing – it’s a while since the flame of a Zippo has been so fetishistically filmed. And it’s easy to see why this has been compared to Jim Jarmusch’s movies. That Arash (Arash Marandi), the male lead, models himself on James Dean is obvious. But there was something else – and then I got it. For a lot of the time, this feels like a graphic novel – it has a lot of those strong, slightly static images, and conjures up both Frank Miller and Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez*. 

That feeling is strongest in scenes involving the unnamed title character (Sheila Vand). In her flat, with bobbed hair and a Breton shirt, she’s like a waify nouvelle vague heroine. But out in the dark streets in her chador, she’s tiny but mysterious and menacing. Just what is she up to, and why would she venture freely through scary Bad City, where the bodies are (literally) piling up? And what does have to do with Arash, half swaggering, vintage- Thunderbird-driving hipster and half clueless, confused kid?

For all the reference points, A Girl… doesn’t quite feel like anything else. Much of the time, as I’ve suggested, it’s hyperstylised but it can also – in the scenes with Arash and his junkie father (Marshall Manesh), for instance, feel quite raw. It can seem largely plotless, yet a number of very dramatic things happen. It’s familiar then alien. One of the stars was a regular on one of the biggest TV shows of recent years – I absolutely didn’t recognise them.

This unsettling mix might have to do with its origins. A lot of people at the screening I was at had erroneously assumed that this is an Iranian film. It’s not. It’s an American indie film, shot in California. But one made by a (LA-based) director from an Iranian family, set in (an imagined) Iran, in Farsi (Persian) and with a soundtrack of strange (largely Middle Eastern) pop.

It looks stunning - there have been a whole bunch of beautiful black and white movies in recent years, and this is up there with the best of them in visual terms.

Occasionally, it risks tipping over into hipster absurdity, paralysed by its own sense of cool. But at times – for instance, Arash’s attempt to walk home under the influence of ecstasy – it’s rather wonderful. It gets right more it gets it wrong - the result is weird and memorable. 

(There’s a great cat in it, too).

*Ah, that now all makes sense

I saw A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night at the 2014 London Film

Festival

 

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Betibú

Director Miguel Cohan Stars Mercedes Morán, Daniel Fanego, Alberto Ammann Argentina/Spain 2014 Language Spanish (with English subtitles) 1hr 40 mins Colour

More bad things happen in Buenos Aires in this stately thriller 

What would be scarier for the residents of a gated community to learn - that someone managed to break in and kill a resident, or that one of their neighbours was a murderer? Is relegation to the second tier of Argentinean football fixed by a huge conspiracy? And why does a hugely intelligent, grown-up woman still end up having a meal with her slimy, married ex-lover when she blatantly knows better?

These are just a few of the questions this richly enjoyable thriller takes the time to ponder. Because unlike, say, A Most Wanted Man, this is a film that earns its right to take things slowly.

It opens with the murder of a rich man who had widely suspected of killing his wife. Knowing how big the story will be, the ambitious editor of El Tribuno*, Rinaldi (José Coronado), rents a house in the country club development where the deaths took place, and hires his former mistress, Nurit Iscar (Mercedes Morán), ‘the Dark Lady of Argentinean literature’, to live there and write a series of columns about the context of the crime. To do the straight reporting, he forces his young(ish) crime correspondent Mariano (Alberto Ammann) to work with his grizzled predecessor Brena (Daniel Fanego), the veteran with all the tricks. 

The three gradually become a little team, and the combination of Nurit’s novelist’s eye, Brena’s wiliness and contacts and Mariano’s familiarity with social media soon gets them (dangerously) ahead of the cops in the investigation.

There is a lot that is familiar here, but the elements are put together in a slightly different way than you might expect. For instance, Mariano and Brena soon get past their initial antipathy, with the film allowing that both old-fashioned cuttings libraries and the web are both useful places to go looking for clues. 

My favourite characters are Nurit’s support system, her two friends who spend more time in her home than she does and try to stop her from messing up her personal life. They feel like they’ve nipped in from a late ’80s Almodovar film, which is a good thing.

Betibú** is an elegant film (albeit one with good swearing),an unabashedly middle-aged film (even Mariano is in his late thirties – only a youthful compared with his fiftysomething colleagues), a writerly film. It’s a movie that benefits from being set in Argentina, where there really is a history of bad things happening, as opposed to, say, Stieg Larsson’s paranoid fantasies. 

The inevitable comparison is with El Secreto De Sus Ojos (The Secrets In Their Eyes), with which it shares producers and a general vibe, but that’s harsh one, because El Secreto is an outstanding film, one of the best of the last 10 years, and this is (‘merely’ would be insulting) pretty good. Which is easily good enough.

*He claims that Latin American profits are keeping the Spanish mother company in business – instead of Australia, should The Guardian be invading the Brazilian market?

**Spanish speakers – the title does mean what you think it means… it’s all fully explained in the film.

I saw Betibú at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival

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Dear White People

Director Justin Simien Stars Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P Bell, Dennis Haysbert USA 2014 Language English 1hr 40mins Colour

Sharp campus comedy

What kind of film is this? At moments it’s an angry satire confronting what it sees as the stubborn underlying racism of America’s elite institutions, at others it feels more like a John Hughes movie, looking at four kids trapped by the roles they are playing (in some cases of their own making, in others not). And it’s very much in the tradition of the American campus movie, with feuding houses and scheming senior staff members. It has echoes of rawer indie movies of quarter of a century ago, but despite a reportedly low budget, it’s slickly shot, got an experienced cast and convincing locations.

We’re at (fictional) Ivy League college Winchester University, and our main four black students are geeky gay Lionel (Tyler James Williams), an aspiring reporter with a huge afro who likes Mumford & Sons; Troy (Brandon P Bell), a smooth young politician destined for great things, following the path laid down for him by his father, the college dean (Dennis Haysbert); Coco (Teyonah Parris*), who really, really wants to be a big star, but has no apparent talents; and, last but very much not least, Sam White (Tessa Thompson), the light-skinned, ultra-cute film student whose provocative radio show gives the film its title (sample moment: ‘‘Dear White People, the minimum requirement of black friends needed not to seem racist has just been raised to two – and your weed man Tyrone does not count.’)

Each of them gets their own storyline, which – along with rivalry of the dean and the college president and the activities of the school’s Harvard Lampoon-like magazine staff – means there is a lot of plot to pack as the film moves towards its big showpiece climax. Occasionally, it’s a little too busy, but motors along nicely.

Director Justin Simien, whose feature debut this is (and it does feel like a first film) clearly has a bunch of points he wants to make, about the persistent racism at the top, about the nastiness inherent in the people who believe that are bravely confronting so-called political correctness and about the many tensions and contradictions with the black ‘community’. 

The crucial thing is that the film is funny – not something you always get in a satire. Although this deals with some of the same stuff as, for instance, Spike Lee’s seething Bamboozled, it has jokes, proper jokes. It’s a script that’s packed with references, from Frank Ocean to Ingmar Bergman (plus an interesting take on Gremlins as a racial allegory) – it probably helps if you can pick up on at least a few of them. 

Some bits work better than others – Coco’s storyline is a bit weak, although she does get some decent lines. And the stuff with the dean and the college president is a bit tired. But Tessa Thompson is terrific as sweet-faced troublemaker Sam, and whenever she’s on screen, all is good.  She’s actually 31, but looks convincingly 10 years younger, and this feels like it could be a career-making part. Tyler James Williams, who was the star of the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris, is good too as the awkward Lionel. And Brandon P Bell is perfectly cast as the over-groomed (in many ways) but secretly conflicted Troy.

So yes, there are a few scenes that could have been tidied away, and it’s a film that is trying to do lots of different things at once, but Dear White People is acute, provocative and consistently funny. 

*She plays Dawn in Mad Men, but is almost unrecognisable here.

I saw Dear White People at the 2014 London Film Festival

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10 Good British Films From The Last 20 Years

Poor British film. Bashed by academic critics, periodically talked up by idiots in the media and the government while being trashed by other (or sometimes the same) idiots in the media, its health assessed due to completely random and irrelevant factors such as how many British films turn up at Cannes or get Oscar nominations in any given year.

British film is, it’s true, a bit of an underachiever both at the box office and critically, considering the size of the population. The somewhat mysterious fact is that while the British people massively prefer homegrown TV*, they lean strongly American in their moviegoing habits. 

Still, there are and always have been good British films. And measured at least one way, this is one of the happier eras for British cinema, with a number of directors, from Edgar Wright to Shane Meadows to Ben Wheatley, being able to sustain decent careers working mostly or wholly in this country. 

So here’s an absolutely not definitive selection of 10 British films from the last 20 years that I like. I’ve restricted it to one film per director.


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Brothers of the Head (2005)

One of those films set in the 1970s that really feels like it was made then, too. It’s a weird, queasy, haunting tale of conjoined twins in a proto-punk band, told as a fake documentary (as almost everyone writing about it said, it most certainly isn’t a mockumentary). The directors, I’d forgotten, were American, but it’s firmly a British film. Unsettling and compelling, it’s one of those movies that tempted critics into claiming it was destined for cult status, that it would be thought of like Performance, say. But it hasn’t happened. Maybe its time just hasn’t come yet…

Small Faces (1996)

Nothing (directly) to do with the East End mod legends, but set in the ’60s, this is about a bunch of kids getting involved with gangs in Glasgow. For all the occasional horrifying violence, it’s a sweet, funny, moving film about a close-knit family. With the odd explosion and razor slash.

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

You could make the case that Secrets & Lies or Vera Drake are heftier pieces of work, but this is the Mike Leigh film I’ve most enjoyed watching since 1994. Sally Hawkins does an amazing job making a character who should be bloody irritating not annoying. Like a couple of other films on this list, it gets extra points from me for a) being filmed in parts of London I know and b) crucially, feeling like those places.



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Last Resort (2000)

A Russian mother and son turn up in Britain and get dumped in a holding camp on the south coast. At which point you may be picturing a film long on political finger-wagging and short on warmth and cinematic beauty, in which case you would be very wrong. A lot of the things you might expect to happen do happen, but it’s how they are treated that makes the film constantly surprising and rewarding. There’s a great early performance from Paddy Considine, who was also in director Pawel Pawlikowski’s equally excellent My Summer Of Love.

Attack The Block (2011)

People with a horror of public transport, or those who bury themselves in their headphones on buses, may find this strange, but there are few things I enjoy more than listening to the kids on the top deck of the No3 from Brixton to Crystal Palace talking. And Attack The Block is kids from the bus pitched into a John Carpenter movie about an alien attack in Brixton. It’s funny, it’s scary, it’s exciting and, in a way, it’s political.


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Orphans (1998)

Peter Mullan got a lot of attention for his second film as a director, The Magdalene Sisters and some good reviews for his third, NEDS, but for my money his best by far was his little-seen debut, Orphans. It’s a dark comedy about four grown-ups uncomfortably gathered together after the death of their mother. It takes place over 24 hours and has a strange, macabre vibe to it. So it’s funny, but definitely not lighthearted. Again, it’s a film that feels very rooted, in this case in an old-fashioned, Catholic, violence-prone Glasgow.

A Field In England (2013)

One of the problems some* British people have with British films that recognising an actor as ’him off the telly**’ diminishes whatever they’re in, shrinks it back down. One way round that is to make films that are at once so strange, and so undeniably cinematic in their look, that you forget what else the cast have done. That’s certainly the case for Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic Civil War flick, as disorientating 90 minutes as you’ll ever have. Read a full review

Wonderland (1999)

The careers of Michael Winterbottom and Shane Meadows could be seen as either glorious flukes or rebukes to other British filmmakers – struggling to get your second picture in a decade off the ground? Mike’s on his second this year… I think that’s to Winterbottom’s credit, rather than everyone else’s discredit. Not all the films he makes are great or even any good at all (9 Songs), but he’s made some terrific ones along the way. Wonderland probably seems a bit of its moment now (Altmanesque multiple storylines, handheld cameras), but I found it moving and involving and acute.



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The Low Down (2000)

It’s easy to excuse British cinema’s struggle to compete when it comes to, say, action movies. Less so when it comes to films that mostly consist of people chatting. There have been good British low-budget films, just fewer of them than you might expect. Jamie Thraves’ debut was possibly as close as this country has come to a classic US indie movie – it’s an unhurried and smart, cool in an unforced way, dropping us into the life of an under-achieving, under-motivated Dalston*** resident played by Aidan Gillen. The lack of plot is its strength – many smaller British films try to cram too much in. This one doesn’t.

Fish Tank (2009)

So, yes, Fish Tank is an often grim film about bad things happening to a girl from an Essex council estate. But that description makes the film seem so much duller and more one-dimensional than it is. Like Last Resort, there is joy and a sense of wonder here too, not least in the main characters love of dancing to classic hip hop. 

Not forgetting: Hunger – Steve McQueen’s radical account of the last days of Bobby Sands is so much better than 12 Year’s A Slave; Nil By Mouth – Gary Oldman’s awesomely bleak, semi-autobiographical look at one of the shittier corners of South London; An Education – precocious teen misbehaves in ’50s London, charming but sharp; Under The Skinfull review here.

*Not the audience who rushed to see the Alan Partridge or Inbetweeners movies, obviously.

**The casts of many foreign language films are packed with them off telly too, but their faces tend to be less familiar - or at least they were before the days of Borgen and Montalbano.

***Before the area became a hipster cliche, although the characters are indeed arty, young and white.

 

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Permanent Vacation

Director Jim Jarmusch Stars Chris Parker, Leila Gastil, John Lurie USA 1980 Language English (with a bit of Spanish) 1hr 15mins Colour

Jim Jarmusch’s student film. Approach with caution

You know those really early episodes of The Simpsons in which the characters look more sketched than drawn and Homer not only sounds completely different, his personality hasn’t emerged yet? You can see traces of what was to come but so much of the good stuff isn’t there. That’s roughly where Permanent Vacation – made while he was at NYU – stands in relation to Jim Jarmusch’s later work. It’s a hint of the future, but it’s missing so much of what matters. 

In outline, though, it sounds deceptively close to his later films. It’s very short on plot, and consists almost entirely of a young man (Chris Parker) wandering around New York City and encountering strange people. He is, as you might imagine, the picture of thrift-shop cool, and he’s mad about old jazz.

But although there are scenes that could have come from Stranger Than Paradise or Down By Law, there are many that are very different in tone. A large part of the problem is Parker, who was – the director has said – basically playing himself. Jarmusch appears to have been enthralled by this latter-day beat, petty criminal and self-educated thinker. Unfortunately, he comes across as a crashing bore, spouting the usual ’you can’t tie me down’ clichés, only vaguely mitigated by the fact he looks about 12. Since he’s in every scene of the film, that’s a problem. 

Then there are the people he meets. Everything that isn’t visual or musical in Jarmusch’s work could be boiled down to: ’Bumped into this chick/cat… Man, what a character!’ 

Here, though, the characters are either severely mentally ill or catatonically hip. Neither are entertaining to spend time with, yet nor are you going to get any insight into their lives. Various anecdotes are preceded by ’Funny story…’, but they never are. Lacking here, but present in Down By Law or Dead Man or Ghost Dog, is a sense of humour along with a generosity of spirit.

Permanent Vacation does have a value, and it’s an ironic one because Jarmusch is one of those film-makers who tries to create his own, distinctly non-topical world. What you see here is a document of the extraordinary condition of New York City at the start of the ’80s, when sizeable chunks of lower Manhattan looked – as a couple of the characters suggest – as if a war had been fought there. Parker drifts amid the ruins, walks down streets with pot-holes that are like canyons. It would have been hard to imagine then the stiflingly affluent NYC of today. Parts of it then were hellish – dirty, dangerous, unpredictable – but it was ideal for a young musician/film-maker like Jarmusch. It was a great time and place for art, for all sorts of music, for comedy and for low-budget movies*… It’s no surprise that Jarmusch’s most recent film, Only Lovers Left Alive, visits the even more wrecked landscapes of Detroit.**

Permanent Vacation is a transparently immature film, filled with the kind of self-important moodiness that people often grow out of  – and luckily Jim Jarmusch soon did. 

*The movies bit is explored in the entertaining, if factually erratic, documentary Blank City. For art and music, it’s worth checking out the narratively weak but historically fascinating features Downtown 81 (aka New York Beat Movie) and Wild Style. 

**There is an excellent chapter on the fetishisation of modern ruins, and the tricky politics thereof, in Mark Binelli’s The Last Days Of Detroit.

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A Most Wanted Man

Director Anton Corbijn Stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe, Grigoriy Dobrygin  UK/USA/Germany 2014 Language English, Arabic (with subtitles) 2hrs 02mins Colour

Corbijn! Le Carré! PSH! Nap time!

There’s slow, and there’s slow. And then there’s Anton Corbijn slow, a lack of pace that seems designed purely to torture the viewer. Corbijn’s previous film, The American, contained several extended sequences of distant aerial shots of a car driving on mountain roads with multiple hairpins. Beautiful, in a way, but dull. So dull.

You can see what drew Corbijn to the work of John Le Carré. Le Carré is a writer of patient books in praise of patient men.  The second of the BBC’s peerless TV adaptations of his work, Smiley’s People, contains an episode that largely consists of the title character driving to Charlton, having a low-key chat there, and then driving back to Chelsea.

Which is to say that the very reasons that Corbijn wanted to make this film are the reasons he should never have been allowed to make it. Because while there are some interesting things to watch, as a piece of drama, let alone a thriller, it’s a complete non-starter.

Here, for what it’s worth, is the set-up: Issa, a young Chechen (Grigoriy Dobrygin), turns up in Hamburg illegally and eventually (no rushing) comes to the attention of both Günther (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the head of a small, shadowy German counter-terrorism unit, and Annabel (Rachel McAdams), a beautiful, young, idealistic* human rights lawyer. As Günther does, it seems safer for the audience to assume that Issa is up to something – he seems clueless, immature, damaged… But that could be just right for a suicide bomber, right? And what’s his business with Tommy (Willem Dafoe), the aristocratic heir to a once-dodgy private bank?

Meanwhile (this being Le Carré), Günther is involved in a bureaucratic turf war with rival departments and, of course, the bloody Americans (Robin Wright).

The casting may have alerted you to the language issue – Corbijn has gone for the old-fashioned option of having people speak English in German accents to indicate they are speaking German. Of course, the novel is written in English, and there are many terrific films – including this year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel – where the suspension of disbelief allows us to put aside linguistic hang-ups. But I find it does bother me these days with, say, war films and political thrillers, where a literal sense of reality is fairly crucial. 

Mind you, there is plenty that is implausible here – mostly to do with Günther’s team. While he is baggy and flabby and dishevelled, his small team are young and good-looking and extremely slick, able to know what is happening everywhere and be just where they are needed instantly despite there seeming to be only six of them and Hamburg being a big old place.  

Talking of Hamburg, Corbijn’s use of the city is the best thing about the movie. It’s a top to bottom (literally, in some ways, from high-rise hotel coffee bars to strange basements) exploration of a messy modern city, taking us to scruffy but appealing old bars and to gentleman’s clubs, from the parts of town where illegal immigrants can disappear to the gorgeous glass-walled home of Tommy the banker, from the bustling still-vital port to the post-industrial space of a warehouse conversion. Ignore the story and just watch the pictures and it makes a useful companion piece to a film that Corbijn has unsurprisingly cited as a reference point for this one, Wim Wenders’ Hamburg-set classic The American Friend.

So what of the big name cast? They can’t do much with the material, and you do keep expecting there to be more to do for the characters played by Dafoe, and especially Daniel Brühl, to justify their presence.  This kind if casting can be a distraction. It’s a pity that this is one of the last films that this is one of the last films that Hoffman – the greatest screen actor of his generation – made. He’s fine – though slightly hamstrung by the accent – as the hard-drinking, hard-smoking, crumpled-yet-charasmatic Günther, but it’s not a great role.

It’s become a cliche, but TV tends to do this stuff better** – from those great BBC Smileys to State Of Play the underrated US conspiracy thriller Rubicon. On TV, you’d have time to make Günther’s struggles with his colleagues – and the politics of it all – interesting rather than annoying. 

Corbijn seems to be enthralled by the big European art-house directors of the past – Wenders, Antonioni – but he’s picked up all of their bad habits and few of the good ones. His sole trick – here and in The American – is draining a thriller of action and pace, but he adds nothing, no strangeness, no invention, no humour. The scenes are largely conventional, but dragged out. The result is stupendously boring.

*In fairness, she’s not nearly as annoying as the young, beautiful, idealistic etc woman played by Rachel Weisz in the film of The Constant Gardener.

**TV can also do this stuff badly – see the BBC’s dismal recent An Honourable Woman.

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