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We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
The Son of all Fears
It must be a right old laugh down at the Parent and Baby screenings these days. In the past month we've had vacuous career-and-baby juggling comedy I Don't Know How She Does It, a film so patronising, so reductive and so formulaic, that if one were to set about it with a buzzsaw, its arterial spray would drip down the wall to form the single coagulated word 'Generic'. And we've had Abduction, in which a young man discovers the woman he thought was his birth mom is actually an imposter. (Which somehow brings to mind this reviewer's new favourite joke: What did the boy say to the stepladder? 'I hate you – you're not my real ladder!!')
And trailing behind, like a foot-dragging teenager on a family holiday, here's a startling adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin from the former mistress of Scottish miserabilism, Lynne Ramsay. Hateful, homicidal and sharp as an arrow head, Kevin Khatchadourian is one of the great literary monsters of our time, a furious, physical manifestation of his career-mum's own ambivalence towards motherhood. But is Kevin really just a born-Satan? Or the inevitable result of bad parenting?
Shriver's novel craftily allows for dual, even simultaneous readings, although Ramsay's adaptation, less psychodrama than impressionistic horror, pretty much nails its genre colours to the mast from the outset. And all those colours are red. Fittingly, the film's dominant palette is the colour of murder, represented in almost every frame: a fire alarm; a pool of strawberry jam, insolently seeping from between two chaste white slices; a supermarket shelf of tomato soup cans, against which Eva (an excellent Swinton) splays herself, a sunken-eyed rabbit frozen in the death-stare of public outrage.
Screen Kevin is eeeeevil, no question – and he's going to make poor Eva pay and pay for her non-maternalism. "I'm going straight to Hell, eternal damnation, the whole thing" she blithely informs a pair of doorstepping missionaries, and she's absolutely correct. Whether he's cheerfully cultivating computer viruses the way others collect matchboxes, or leering at her like a satyr after she accidentally walks in on him masturbating, so relentless is Kevin's high dudgeon the film often risks tipping over into comedy. At any moment, you half expect him to pull a marmot out of a sack and start quoting Lebowski: 'I am a nihilist! I believe in nothing!' While his wolfing down of a lychee with hideous lip-smacking relish, mere minutes after his ridiculously angelic little sister has lost an eyeball in a highly suspicious cleaning fluid accident, is pure Hannibal Lector – a step too far in an otherwise carefully controlled film, steeped in Kubrickian menace.
A monster movie at heart then, but a smart one. Eva may be superficially presented as just another victim, yet locked together in some sick symbiosis with her son (brilliantly played by three actors, including a superbly saturnine Ezra Miller), she has more in common with him than either would care to admit. And tellingly, unlike Kevin's dupe of a dad or sap of a sister, mum's the only one this little devil ever shows his true face to. As the former proprietor of the Bates Motel once noted, "A boy's best friend is his mother."
It takes guts, too, to commence a movie with its single most powerful sequence: a squirming, orgiastic Valencian festival scene, in which a euphoric Swinton, arms outstretched in cruciform, is baptised in the juice of pulped tomatoes – as crimson as the walls of Gladstone High after Kevin has lain down his crossbow; as scarlet as the vengeful paint that splatters Eva's porch in its aftermath. In a film laden with visual riches, nothing ever quite tops it.
A prime candidate for a 'If you've been affected by any of the issues raised in this programme' tag, Exile sees Simm's disgraced hack flee to his Lancashire hometown for the first time in 18 years, to discover his once idolised reporter dad destroyed by Alzheimer's – along with a hideous buried scandal.
Befitting the title, both father and son are exiles – from their careers, from sense, from truth; here, investigative reporting makes a fine metaphor for a crusade against the corruption of memory, and the pursuit of identity itself.
Essentially a three-hander between Simm (cornering the brooding everyman corner), the wonderful Colman (playing it straight) and the mighty Broadbent, the latter's portrayal of this terrible condition must be among the most devastatingly accurate ever placed on screen. Shocking and extremely moving, with a final scene that's – ironically – quite unforgettable.
"We were outcasts of our own micro-society" observes the doomed protagonist of Barbet Schroeder's 1969 cult curio. Specifically, he's talking about being a junkie, during an era when hash and LSD were considered more conducive to peace and love. But he could also be talking about More itself.
Pink Floyd aficionados may know it, if at all, for the band's soundtrack (even then, the film manages to misspell Dave Gilmour's name); but compared with classic head fare like Easy Rider or Performance, More is something of a bejewelled footnote.
Says Schroeder, it's "less a story of its time, more a timeless tragedy", and this contemporary staging of the Icarus myth is indeed an eternal tale of crash and burn. And yet this fascinating document positively reeks of the late-1960s from every pore. Exquisitely photographed (on location in Ibiza), and seductive and patience-testing by turns, it's a trip alright, but a smarter and more sober one than you'd expect.
What's Good for the Goose (1969)
Norman Wisdom meets the hippies
Sod yer Jodorowsky's or David Lynch's – is this not the strangest movie ever made? Actually, the Jerry Lewis comedy Slapstick of Another Kind probably takes that honour – but this comes close.
From purveyor of violent kitsch Menahem Golan, this sees mild-mannered banker Timothy Bartlett (Wisdom, in his final film) getting turned on by the flower power generation, including a scrumptious Sally Geeson, down at the 'Screaming Apple' Discotheque and having it off with them to a grooveadelic soundtrack by The Pretty Things.
Unlike the reactionary Carry Ons there's not a euphemism in sight: here it's all, "Do you want to have sex?", though at the same time this utterly encapsulates the British reality of sex in a Rita and Sue kinda way: however day-glo the trousers, or far-out the argot, the end result still spells a good-old bunk-up with giggling and Y-fronts in a Southport hotel room.
Fascinating in all sorts of ways; and ultimately, surprisingly smart and touching, too.
Some things in life take very little effort. Puking. Sneezing. Bumping into things. And also, sadly, fudging comedy. Especially black comedy, which walks a razor wire at all times. Misjudge or miscast it, and you risk taking a tumble into the critical abyss of Very Bad Things.
Such is the case with Super, a sort of covered-market Kick Ass, in which Rainn Wilson's nebbishy cuckhold is 'fingered by God' one day and transforms into 'The Crimson Bolt', a psychopathic masked avenger prone to brutally braining miscreants (or queue jumpers) with a wrench.
Tonally, it's terribly uneven; as a self-fulfilment satire, it's unoriginal and laboured; while a shrill performance from Ellen Page playing an equally damaged sidekick hardly helps matters.
If you're looking for a moving, melancholy and darkly hilarious look at vigilantism, you'd do worse than track down Christian Watt's brilliantly quirky Channel 4 documentary 'Superheroes Of Suburbia.' By contrast, Super just doesn't deliver on its title.
Pawn in the game
"Poets do not go mad" said GK Chesterton, "but chess-players do." Bobby Fischer, Jewish son of a card-carrying Communist, may have started out representing the entire Free World at chess during the Cold War, but he ended his days a paranoid, self-exiled anti-American – and vociferous anti-Semite.
This sad, startling, and often brilliantly compelling documentary doesn't, or cannot, explain how the troubled Grandmaster tumbled so completely through the looking-glass. However, audiences will draw their own conclusions about what happens when children are denied childhoods, then left to become lost forever in a game that prompts furious leaps of logic... and, perhaps, a certain paranoia.
Garbus previously co-directed 1998's superb 'The Farm: Angola, USA' about lifers at America's largest maximum security jail. And for Fischer, chess seems to have been both liberator and gaoler. "I used to play against myself" he once said. "I almost always won." Archive footage captures him aged 15 playing 46 matches simultaneously, "wiping away opponents like flies"; a changeling child for whom life will never touch normality again. In later years, he'll pose for a LIFE photographer, bobbing cross-legged in a swimming pool, defying gravity, before trooping back to a tiny hotel room, alone.
Fascinatingly, we learn there's a long history of chess-casualties. One fellow claimed to have played God, via his wireless set. (God lost). As a featured chess-pert suggests, start thinking outside the box, and you might well find yourself "unable to get back into it".
There's a dispiriting scene towards the end, in which a ranting Fischer is confronted at a news conference by sportswriter Jeremy Schaap, whose journalist father Dick once wrote that Fischer hadn't "a sane bone" in his body. "From what I can see", adds Jeremy, "I see nothing to disprove his case." Fischer is momentarily stumped, lost for words. Checkmate. As Chesterton observed, it's not creativity that screws you up, but logic.
Going on holiday by mistake
Few films in recent years have polarised audiences and critics quite as much as Archipelago, Joanna Hogg's follow-up to her much-lauded debut Unrelated. If the critics have had near-universal raptures over its long, very long, static wide-shots and natural murk, for many audiences it's simply the Emperor's new fashion range – arse-achingly pretentious art-twaddle.
Well, I say it's great: a superbly photographed, acidly funny dissection of class snobbery and familial dysfunction en vacance, where invisible elephants stampede through the guest rooms, and every infinitesimal gesture counts.
The characterisation is spot on, from Hiddleston's painfully wet young man to his moist-eyed mother, filling the watery void of her life with watercolour lessons. Easy targets perhaps, but less fish in barrels and more akin to the lobsters their poor holiday cook prepares: seemingly inert, then writhing in silent agony as Hogg turns up the heat.
The Messenger (2009)
Knocking people up the wrong way
Two-thirds into The Messenger, Woody Harrelson's grizzled Desert Storm veteran ironically puts his finger on part of the reason why Hollywood's Iraq war dramas have been such flops. As he tells Ben Foster's young, traumatised war hero, "In Vietnam, those guys got laid six ways from Sunday". Bosnia? "Best brothels in the world." But Iraq? "All that religious bulls**t – and nobody getting laid. That's half the reason everybody's so angry!"
Crudely put, Iraq isn't sexy. Iraq is too recent, too raw, too alien and frankly too illegal for most cinema-goers to regard as entertainment. Even the prospect of Jason Bourne in Baghdad couldn't save Green Zone from scooping less than a handful of sand at the box office. And if The Hurt Locker proved the bankable exception, all it really proves is that people prefer their action movies as apolitical as possible. Actually, the best films being made right now about the wars in the middle-east are documentaries – which is also problematic, as American audiences usually look forward to those about as much as getting their feet blown off by an IED. As a US army private remarked in 2007, Iraq "is a reality show everybody's bored of."
What The Messenger does is to bring the war back home again in a very literal and jolting way. Foster and Harrelson play emissaries for the Angel of Death. As a Casualty Notification team it is their hideous assignation to ring doorbells and unmake somebody's day. These soldiers may be deactivated from combat, but together they're as lethal as a pair of hollow points – one weathered and scratched, the other, freshly popped out of the mould, repeatedly strolling into zones packed with emotional time-bombs... and heavily pregnant girlfriends.
It's never anything other than absolutely horrible. And strangely, calls to mind Alan Clarke's short film Elephant – a succession of near-wordless sectarian executions in Northern Ireland. With their long, static takes, both pictures have a voyeuristic quality, but where Elephant is coolly dispassionate, The Messenger means to shake you like a rag doll, and does so.
As a character study and dark sort of buddy movie, it works very well. There's something of the young Sean Penn about the excellent Foster, straining to reach out to the world, while the testosterone-squirting Harrelson, whose bald dome and beady eye makes him look even more like a walking erection, personifies the confluence between lust and war with every utterance: "I'd like to strap her on and wear her like a government-issue gas mask" he notes of a passing barmaid.
If there's a certain over-familiarity about its scenes of men hurting themselves in small rooms to speed metal soundtracks, or limping dazedly around supermarket aisles longer and wider than Death Valley, well, perhaps that's unavoidable: this is now cinema's official depiction of PTSD. The film does lose focus after Foster ignores procedure ("Don't touch the N.O.Ks!") and falls for Samantha Morton's army widow – a beautifully understated performance, despite having to parrot such clunky Oscar-bait as "His shirt smelled of rage and fear. It smelled of the man he had become, over there. You know?"
In his 1959 novel The Tin Drum, Günter Grass conjures up a swanky post-war nightspot called The Onion Cellar, where emotionally constipated Germans pay through the nose to perch on crates and ritually slice onions until they're swimming in crocodile tears. Back then, Grass was satirising Germany's inability to grieve following its numbing defeat. Today, Hollywood is harvesting onions as fast as it can – yet the more onions it lobs at audiences, the more audiences duck.
Perhaps years from now, a drama will be made that perfectly articulates the Allied experience of Iraq, as The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now did with Vietnam. The Messenger isn't that film, but it's among the better ones.
Holy Rollers (2010)
We Call It Hasiiiiieeeeed
How's this for a story? For sixth months between 1998 and 1999 one million Ecstasy tablets were smuggled into New York from Amsterdam by a tiny cartel. The young mules were able to sail through customs on account of looking exactly like law-abiding Hasidic Jews – yarmulkes, rekels and all. But these were no dime-store disguises. They really were Hasidic Jews, looking to make some extra gelt. One was even arrested after refusing to ride a bus on the Sabbath, giving cops extra time to catch them. What a great idea for a film, you say? Well now.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Sam Gold, a wide-eyed restless Yeshiva from Brooklyn, who dreams of marrying the girl up the street and busting out of his old man's garment business. After his Bad Hasid neighbour (Bartha) offers him a gig ferrying "medicine" to the States, he's soon mingling in nightclubs with pill-popping gentiles, falling for the boss's moll, and symbolically and literally severing ties with his community by cutting off his sidelocks. What's the betting he's heading for some kind of fall?
The Yiddish word Aroysgevorfen refers to that which is thrown away, wasted – and so it is with this promising set-up. As Jewish crime pictures go, it was never exactly going to be Once Upon a Time in America, but what could have been a fascinating film about what happens to a person's sense of identity when they so dramatically stray from their faith all but renders Hasidism a gimmicky hook to hang a dull, trite redemption tale on. They may as well have used circus clowns. Sam appears to make the transition to international MDMA-runner without a tremor, while there's zero sense of the sheer trouser-filling, slippery-palmed panic accompanying the actual business of drugs-smuggling. Like the Golem of Jewish mythology, Holy Rollers has feet of clay.
One Day (2011)
Yes, entirely predictably (well, you probably guessed as much from the trailer), they made an utter pig's ear of it.
As Dex, Jim Sturgess is decent - nails the look, and the accent (both of them). Rafe Spall, as hapless wannabe comedian Ian is also fine - although there isn't a scintilla of genuine anguish about him when he's dumped, but hey, it's not his story right? (To be honest, it's a wonder they didn't simply represent him with a balloon on a stick.)
It does have a few reflective moments of stillness, which are incredibly welcome - mostly concerning Dex and family (if the book was arguably slanted more towards Emma's side of the story, here it favours Dex) - but they're all too rare.
All too rare, because this one zips along like it's left the iron on (no mean feat in an 108 minute movie), galloping toward the denouement so that any emotional investment we might have made in it is almost completely wiped out. 1997, for example, literally lasts a swimming pool length. I know book-to-film adaptations bowdlerise to an extent, but this is absolutely ridiculous.
There's also an argument to be made about the wisdom of letting writers adapt their own screenplays. Perhaps some sense of objectivity is lost in the process. Oddly enough, a previous David Nicholls' TV mini-series called 'I Saw You', starring Fay Ripley, is practically a warm-up for One Day, and is absolutely wonderful - very worth tracking down. That was in three parts. If the makers of One Day hadn't been so concerned with making a quick buck (usual story), this would have benefited from a mini-series of its own. But then, of course, there's no money in Telly.
At its worst, the film's truncation manifests in a reliance on phone calls between the pair, which makes it seem as if Sturgess is frankly *stalking* Anne Hathaway.
*That* twist, at least, is intact, and somewhat shocking. But in the same way a sudden glimpse of a mink being flayed alive in the middle of a Disney cartoon might be.
Couldn't they have found one single British actress for crying out loud? Yes, I know only too well about the need for overseas investment. But you're not looking at Anne Hathaway thinking, 'working-class Northener' you're distractedly thinking, 'Isn't that... Anne Hathaway, working in a Tex Mex restaurant in Camden?'
Romola Garai, who plays Sophie, would have done better - dressed-down a bit. (Or as often suggested, Carey Mulligan.) And how do they pull off Hathaway being only subtly attractive? Oversize specs. Because, you know, specs always make people look *dowdy*, apparently. I'm not even going to talk about her accent. You've heard it. It ranges from Angela's Ashes to... well, to Hathaway's own American accent, in fact.
The more I think about this, the crosser I get. Film Emma never has any tawdry affairs, as in the novel, as it wouldn't suit her martyred character - and it wouldn't suit the fragrant Hathaway. A layered, interesting character becomes a 2-dimensional pouter; pure and nun-like. Just waiting around for Dexter to be ready, waiting for him to finally come around, and save her tormented soul. It's repulsive, actually - and *totally* a betrayal of her character and the spirit of the original.
In short, it's not the very worst film in the world - it's just completely and utterly unremarkable; Sub-Richard Curtis, which is something this lovely and moving book just isn't.
127 Hours (2010)
I am a Rock
A few years ago, while boarding the tube, I missed my footing and fell down the gap between the platform and the train. Just in time, I managed to hook my elbows onto the carriage floor, while performing the can-can from the waist down. I knew I had only seconds before the unthinkable happened... and then a young French tourist with a big red rucksack hauled me inside.
The point being: at no stage did I feel like I was in a Danny Boyle movie. Time steadfastly refused to hyperventilate, while reality in general resolutely failed to fracture into a series of dizzying hyperkinetic edits. No banging tunes. If I'm honest, it was just really, really embarrassing.
But 127 Hours is most decidedly a Boyle picture: if being trapped underneath a rock for nearly a week must feel a trifle monotonous, you wouldn't guess it from his take on Aron Ralston's memoirs. Comparisons with Touching the Void are inevitable – Aron's mishap even occurred the year Kevin Macdonald's film was released. Yet unlike 'Void, this is a weird sort of premise for an action film, in which the subject is Standing Still more often than Running and Jumping (or Crawling and Swearing). You can't blame the director, then, for wanting to jolly things along with those funny little tics of his.
Ralston, played with immense conviction by James Franco, is the devil-may-care mountaineer who made headlines in 2003 after falling through a crevice and getting pinned against a canyon wall by a dislodged boulder – truly, a destiny with density. Some might call that unlucky. Or, like the delirious Ralston, firmly believe that "From the minute I was born, every breath has been leading me to this crack in the surface of the Earth. This rock has been waiting for me all my life."
At this stage, it probably wouldn't have been useful to point out to him that life is essentially meaningless, a bunch of random events inviting any number of feeble interpretations, and thus ultimately a bad joke played on those foolish enough to ascribe innate structure or pattern to it. That probably wouldn't have helped. All the same, we can at least entertain the notion that any and all such events present opportunities for random acts of senseless kindness – or courage. As re-enacted in the film's skilfully-edited money shot, Ralston's sole stab at survival means rendering himself deficit to the sum of one right arm. (This reviewer's screening was at 9.30 in the morning, perhaps not the best time to catch a horribly authentic self-amputation. Then again, when would that optimum hour be?)
The film is bookended by images of vast crowds – in triplicate; the screen splitting three ways to accommodate the great churn of humanity, from whom reckless Ralston will deliberately extricate himself – and then, in the way of Boyle movies from Trainspotting to The Beach, desperately attempt to rejoin.
There's also cackling irony in the fact that while Ralston's trapped, the screen fair teems with other people, via memories of his family, past girlfriends – even premonitory visions of a future son. If you were wondering how fellow cast members slotted into such a solitary story, they're all down there in Blue John Canyon, in James Franco's bonce.
Yet strangely, he never seems so alone as during those first few moments following his extrication. Baptised in blood and sweat, he is transformed into a spirit as mighty, as elemental, but just as isolated, as that vast ancient canyon. That boulder didn't just happen to Ralston; he faced the old bastard on equal terms. And gave it the finger.
Enemies of the People (2009)
No gain in keeping, no loss in weeding out
This is my film of the year. I urge you to see it, especially as it isn't getting a DVD release until July 2011. You won't necessarily thank me for the recommendation, however, because it is bloody hard going. It has a terrible power, near-unparalleled among this year's offerings, and is draining rather than simply 'numbing' – possibly because of the sheer humanity involved.
The film's co-director Thet Sambath is an investigative reporter from Cambodia who has obtained something rather astonishing: frank and detailed confessions from former Khmer Rouge footsoldiers, mainly uneducated farmers, who helped turn their already battered country into a charnel house between 1975-1979. Against a backdrop of genocide trials for party leaders, this patient, methodical and remarkably gracious journalist, whose own family was purged, hears how ordinary men and women sowed the Killing Fields with the bones of their countrymen and littered the rivers with dead children. Some are filled with shame, although others believe Buddhism will save them.
"The flesh made a boiling sound as it decomposed" one recalls matter-of-factly. Elsewhere, an old man giggles as he mock-manhandles a young friend, miming with a plastic knife how he'd slit each throat. Everything is at once hidden and in plain sight: executions were carried out at dusk by torchlight, while the semantics of genocide are familiarly abstract – "problems" were "solved", but nobody seems to know where the orders came from. Cannibalism was rife. The effect is akin to chatting with psychopathic inmates in the beautiful grounds of some high-security psychiatric hospital.
When brutal regimes such as this one are over, they become fodder for academic papers or retrospective documentaries. Sambath states that what he is doing is "not for journalism... (but) for history", providing an explicit archive for a new generation of Cambodians who, until last year, were not required to be educated about this chapter from their recent past. The result is shocking, humbling, and utterly unforgettable.
I'm Still Here (2010)
You can barely trust the hand in front of your face these days – and you probably shouldn't. Clearly, the truth has Clegged it. Reality shows? Scripted. Talent contests? Fixed. Documentaries? Mockumentaries.
2010 alone saw the release of three dubious docs – Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and I'm Still Here – the last, purporting to lift the lid on Joaquin Phoenix's celebrity meltdown, a story preoccupying gossip columns ever since he put down his razor and announced his intention to pursue a rapping career instead. The media built bonfires. The Internet made Molotovs. And David Letterman got some "batting practice" in.
The film's certainly an eye-opener. Surrounded by salaried "friends", a sobbing, puking Joaquin festers away in his house on the hill, ordering coke 'n' hookers to go, while pestering a patience-tested Sean Combs to produce his atrocious hip-hop. Occasionally, he'll venture out to rap for hordes of cell phone-waving ghouls, while media furies repeatedly hurl buckets of acid at him. It's hideous and hilarious.
However, when Casey Affleck revealed that he and his brother-in-law had simply been staging a two-year-long art project about celebrity, the reaction was somewhat surprising. Far from applauding their audacity, and Phoenix for the performance of a lifetime, many journalists seemed almost personally offended by the deception – as if Joaquin and Casey, the El Dude Brothers, had dropped by their houses and screwed their wives on the front lawn. Phoenix and Affleck were holding a mirror up to the spiteful snakes, and the view wasn't pretty.
Critics who lauded Sofia Coppola's movies about jaded, burned-out actors, practically crucified Affleck for his 'real-life' study of the same. I'm Still Here is a brilliant, unrepeatable one-off, one of the most savage deconstructions of the fame machine ever made, which couldn't actually have been made prior to the way the media operates today. Whether it was a hoax or not was the least interesting thing about it. Yet, news agendas being crude as oil, the only thing the hacks had wanted to know was: 'Is Joaquin joa-kin?'
Today's actors love to erect quote marks around themselves, but the deliberately self-immolating Phoenix pushes way beyond that; his apparent commitment to hip-hop mirroring a real-life commitment to his method masterclass, reaching a public apogee on Letterman, during which he virtually disappears into his suit like some bizarre Victorian parlour trick. Both host and guest are walking a tightrope of improvisation – but only one of them has a safety net.
In a closing 'Rosebud' moment, our Citizen Caned wades through the river he swam in as a boy, baptising himself in the consoling, amniotic waters of adolescence. It's an achingly beautiful sequence, marking Affleck out as a director with great potential. As for Phoenix, he's now made his peace with the machine. 'Still Here', guys! No harm done. Business as usual. Meanwhile, we can only pray Mel Gibson will turn around any day soon and shout "Punk'd ya!"
Certain phrases work upon film critics in the same way vuvuzelas will in the ears of unsuspecting Chelsea Pensioners. Among the most radioactive ("Directed by George Lucas"; "A Platinum Dunes Production") is the seemingly innocuous: "From the Producers Of
" Trust me, 99 per cent of the time this tagline denotes the exact opposite of a seal of quality. It gives me little pleasure, then, to report that Hierro hails "from the producers of Pan's Labyrinth and The Orphanage" – both standard-bearers for the new wave of Spanish-language chillers. The presence of subtitles isn't always indicative of a Horribilis Superior.
Like The Orphanage, this is another addition to the increasingly popular 'Where's Wally' sub-genre: Maria (Elena Anaya) is travelling with young son Diego to the eponymous real-life island, Europe's southernmost point, when he mysteriously vanishes on board the ferry. Six grief-stricken months later she's recalled to the island, where a boy's body has washed up. Nightmares, visions and fleeting glimpses of Diego soon follow. Are the islanders harbouring a secret? Is Maria going crazy? Or what?
Sadly, this simplistic psychological thriller is desperately underwhelming stuff – no mean feat in a movie containing full-frontal nudity and flaming morgue corpses (gosh, these 12A films are a bit racy!) – with a mandatory twist and some half-hearted jump-scares. Meanwhile, the ridiculously over-the-top musical cues and strident celestial choruses made this reviewer want to leap from his seat and tear out the cinema speakers with his bare hands.
On the upside, there's some very pretty, elemental cinematography (that strange, strange island, with its blackened beaches and volcanic turrets, is the movie's real star). Perhaps an almost inevitable Hollywood remake might help flesh out the plot. Or not. Probably not. In any case, I won't be holding out for a Hierro.
Due Date (2010)
The Healing Schlub
A few years ago the film critic Nathan Rabin identified a stock character he dubbed 'The Manic Pixie Dream Girl' – those kooky kittens, often played by Zoe Deschanel (truly, the Katy Perry of Indiewood), who save soulful male protagonists from themselves. Well, I fancy there exists a male equivalent of the MPDG, who I'm calling 'The Healing Schlub.' A staple of screwball road comedies, these cheerfully disgusting stoners help steer their hard-ass co-passengers towards emotional closure with their man-child antics. The late John Candy specialised in them, and in Due Date Zach Galifianakis once again lollops up to the plate.
Here he plays beardy-weirdy Ethan Tremblay, resembling (like all Healing Schlubs) a space hopper rolled in Jägermeister, dog hair and pretzels. Cursing his luck for having hitched an emergency ride with him is uptight architect Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr.), racing across America to be present at his first baby's birth.
In other words, it's Planes, Trains and Awfully Familiar Stuff; and although the movie's tagline is 'Leave Your Comfort Zone', we pretty much know where we're headed. Still, RDJ automatically adds value to anything he's in, plus Galifianakis is virtually reprising his hilarious breakout role from The Hangover – a wonderfully inventive treat for the Sideways generation, also directed by Todd Phillips. So what could possibly...?
Oh, everything. What a horrible misfire we have here: clichéd, mean-spirited, as amusing as a bed-locked fart, and tonally all over the road – swerving like a narcoleptic driver (or four scriptwriters) between lanes of slapstick, contrived pathos, and misguided gross-out. And generally, just terrible, terrible writing. (At one point the pair drive an all-too publicly stolen police car from the Mexican border to the Grand Canyon and nobody follows them.)
It's no wonder Downey Jr. – straitjacketed in second fiddle – looks cross, because, as usual, none of this is actually the cast's fault. All the same, Galifianakis might experiment with leaving his own Comfort Zone quite soon, lest he's written off as a one-trick Schlub.
Saw 3D (2010)
One Jigsaw that should never be put back together
As the late serial killer Jigsaw might say, let's play a game. A computer game. And when you've tired of that, why not visit Thorpe Park, and try 'Saw: The Ride', the biggest G-Force roller-coaster ride in Europe. Then afterwards, perhaps pop across to 'Saw Alive' - "the world's most extreme live action horror maze," which, according to the PRs, "will make the grotesque fiction of the films a reality". In Thorpe Park.
And finally, and perhaps least importantly of all, there's the films. Oh yeah, them. Only the world's most successful horror franchise according to the Guinness Book of Records. As if the world, and all its doings, was something to cheerlead for.
Anyway, Saw 3D purports to be the last in the series (the words 'chinny' and 'reckon' spring to mind for some reason) - more to do with failing box office receipts than anything approaching a conscience - so, as the vast iron gears of the Saw franchise finally grind to a halt (fingers crossed), let's strap on our plastic bibs and utility mittens and get through this, one more time.
Those of you who've been following this torturous soap opera will know that the keeper of Jiggy's legacy, Detective Hoffman (the delightfully named actor Costas Mandylor), has torn himself out of his reverse bear trap and is presumably looking to kick seven shades out of John Kramer's treacherous widow Jill (Betsy Russell). That would be a correct supposition.
Meanwhile, a survivor of one those fiendish flesh-flaying traps, Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flanery), has started his own 'Jigsaw Survivors' self-help group, and is currently doing the chat show circuit, complete with his own PR and media lawyer in tow. But is he all he says he is?
What we're witnessing here isn't just the death of a franchise that has knowingly traded in utter crud year after year, but also a sort of self-loathing mea culpa, as it gasps its last. Because the most significant thing about Saw 3D isn't the 3D (it's awful, like all 3D films), it's those PRs and media lawyers. Who die, horribly. And via some of the skankiest, nastiest, "Heath Robinson is real annoyed"-style contraptions yet.
This is satire, clearly - something the hermetically sealed series only thought might be cool to employ in the penultimate movie, when, with mischievous relevancy, it fed a bunch of insurance executives and lenders into the traps during 2009. Satire suited Saw. But, too little too late.
Wanna see something way creepier than Saw 3D though? As you enter the left hand entrance of Screen 5 of London's Vue Cinema, West End, where I caught this particular screening, take a sharp right and check out the low ceiling, slightly to the right of the neon Exit sign. Because - I kid you not - smeared all over it, is what looks like a massive bloodstain. I sat directly under it all the way through the film, and I swear I felt it dripping.
Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Painted Her Toenails Black
Ah, the Millennium Trilogy – otherwise known as The Good, The Bad and the Unbelievably Boring. Well, I say 'Good'; to clarify, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in which a hack and a hacker take on evil Swedish industrialists (they're neo-Nazis! And serial killers! They're neo-Nazi serial-killers!), is only fractionally more readable than the scriptures of Dan Brown.
But in truth, all of Stieg Larsson's posthumous bestsellers – shaggy dog stories with particular emphasis on the shag – fair groan with the self-same Mogadon exposition and naff throwbacks. Tattooed, bisexual computer hackers kitted out like Camden cybergoths? Seriously, what year is this again, 1995?
Inevitably, this shockingly profitable pulp has spawned some equally successful if wretchedly pedestrian made-for-TV movies, containing some of the most mystifying subtitling in history, and with sequel The Girl Who Played With Fire, a deranged lurch into James Bond-style silliness – "Yes Meester Blomquist, my giant blonde henchman feels no pain, mwahahaha!" Here's the final chapter in which Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is recovering in hospital after being turned into a salt shaker by her old man. However, with both the law patiently waiting to arrest her, and her donkey-dumb half-brother Ronald Niedermann (Micke Spreitz) itching to finish her off, Salander's troubles are hardly over.
Meanwhile, that pervy old journo Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), the kind of man who'd pester a damp patch on the wall if it was shaped like a bra, fights to clear her name, before she eventually hauls her tormenters to court. All of which is so life-sappingly drawn-out, the Grim Reaper actually hung around long enough to pop a 'Sorry you were out' card through my letterbox.
This is one final course of Europudding that may leave audiences feeling less satisfied than simply bloated. And a prediction, then: from a purely dramatic point of view, David Fincher's Hollywood remake, starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig, will give the material a badly needed kick up the bum. And hopefully reignite the debate: that a purportedly 'feminist' franchise, featuring a kick-ass babe who "sometimes looks 14" and gets breast implants at one point to "improve the quality of her life", doesn't half like to linger over graphic images of raped and murdered females.
Also, a suggestion: how about if movies and novels that exploit pronounced psychiatric illness or carry scenes of violence against women for entertainment purposes donated half their profits to mental health charities or rape crisis centres? Crazy idea, I know.
Mute Nostril Agony
"The End – I hate that song" mutters the girlfriend the other month. "But it's a work of staggering genius!" I cry. "It's The Doors" she says. "When I was 17, everyone I knew had that bloody poster on their door. Or that plinky-plonky sixth-form poetry on their turntable." During the 1980s, especially, The Doors' legacy could pretty much be boiled down to that bloody poster of that bloody awful man, and a workaday cover of People Are Strange in The Lost Boys.
So I tell her about The End. Why it matters; why it's important. I boozily tell her about the Apollonic and the Dionysiac, the Oedipus myth, the ritual murder of priest-kings, the Golden Bough, Nietzsche, Heart of Darkness and Jung's dark night of the soul. I namecheck Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, TS Eliot and his Hollow Men. I use the word 'existentialism.' I explain how all the above feeds into the lyrics for The End. And when it's all over, she says "Well, I suppose it's okay then." Two weeks later, while watching the new Doors documentary When You're Strange, I discover it's a song Jim Morrison had written about breaking up with his high-school sweetheart.
Few groups occupy a territory between the arcane and the mundane as conspicuously as The Doors. You know the party line: Morrison was an "electric shaman", leading his tribe into an elevated state of consciousness during communal gatherings (had Morrison been born in Wakefield, his opening incantation might have been "Is ev'rybody in? Let the bingo begin!").
For many others, The Doors' sound is akin to that of a grizzled barfly barking obscenities over music resembling the theme tune to ITV's Tales of the Unexpected. The hideous 'Touch Me', in particular, sounds like something a cheesy 1960s comedian might sing over his sketch show credits. Don't get me wrong, I like some of their songs. But very often, it's mute nostril agony.
Still, there are enough 'Boomers around to keep stoking the myth. When You're Strange is the first feature-length documentary about the group, and comprised exclusively of archive footage (no talking heads) and outtakes – flotsam to be reemployed and placed in service. Essentially, it's an unimaginative VH1-style profile with pretensions.
The narration, coolly uttered by Johnny Depp – an actor who clearly wishes he'd been born in 1950, and whose voice-over has belatedly replaced the director's own in what you'd have to conclude is a pretty astute marketing move – is sheer Colemanballs: banal and often factually incorrect. Morrison, we're told, "is both innocent and profane, dangerous and highly innocent. No-one has had this exact combination before." Seriously? Elsewhere, "The youth movement catches fire, making everyone over the age of 30 a cultural enemy." So, that's counter-culture heroes Leary, Burroughs, Warhol and Bucky Fuller immediately show-trialled out of the picture then. Almost despite itself, it'll occasionally throw up a grimly arresting image: Nehru jackets with Peter Sellers specs; Ed Sullivan lurching around like something from an Ed Wood picture; ghoulish audiences paying to watch a car-crash, repeatedly chanting 'Light My Fire' at a snarling drunk who can't stand up.
A delighted Ray Manzarek calls this the "anti-Oliver Stone"; he's very much not a fan of The Doors, the movie. Yet, laughable as that film is, it does at least have some lunatic life to it. Ironically, there is nothing here as purely exhilarating as Stone's 10-minute recreation of the infamous 1969 Miami concert, in which Val Kilmer alternately alienates and galvanises the crowd. The best rockumentaries – Dig, Oil City Confidential – have charismatic live-wires at their centres. When You're Strange has a dead lizard.
The Scouting Book for Boys (2009)
The Go-Between meets Ace in the Hole
So who was she, the girl you desperately tried to convince yourself was more like the sister you never had? The one who locked you in the toy box of her heart like some dependable old teddy with a glassy stare and a permanently knitted frown, as she parcelled out her favours in front of you? For David (Thomas Turgoose), being that "brotherly" best friend to Emily (Holly Grainger), a girl he's known all his life, just won't cut it anymore. Focusing on adolescent urges turned jealous, possessive and cancerous, The Scouting Book For Boys describes a day-glo dream plummeting into nightmare.
As it opens, the teenage pals are depicted at their Norfolk coastal resort leaping between rows of caravan roofs at sunset: a gorgeously photographed shot perfectly encapsulating the giddy rush and risks of youth. For now, everything is ice creams and waterslides, sunshine and sherbet. There's even that Noah and the frickin' Whale hit on the soundtrack, and you can't get sunnier than that. Then things start turning crap: when an unwilling Emily is packed off to live with her divorcée dad, David helps her hide out in a cave on the beach. ('How to hide yourself' being a section in Baden-Powell's near-eponymous handbook.) But Emily's motives for lying low are more complicated than David imagines. And when the truth is uncovered, the film takes a lurching left turn into Hell-by-the-Sea.
Director Tom Harper and writer Jack Thorne (Skins) have both dealt with wayward adolescence before, and have proved extremely skilled at getting inside those scheming little brains. If the film's adult characters behave like dangerously overgrown children, the kids think they're grown-ups way before their time. Wearing an expression like a bruised knee, Turgoose continues to build on a diminutive but hugely impressive CV; while Grainger, playing slightly younger than her actual age, and sharing superb chemistry with her co-star, is just brilliant: equal parts girlish, manipulative and naïve. Like its protagonists, this is capricious, nuanced drama; just when you think you've a handle on it, it twists out of reach like a flipping fish. Catch it.
"This time he didn't bring sandwiches"
You know how you get those dodgy stalls selling knock-off perfumes which sound a bit like the original ("'Methadone', luv? It's just like 'Opium'")? Well Chloe – which is also the name of a perfume – is a knock-off of an earlier film, a French number called Nathalie, from 2003.
This remake's written by Erin Cressida Wilson, who also penned indie hit Secretary; and Canadian-Armenian indie darling Atom Egoyan directs – or atomises – it. Oh, and it's produced by Ivan Reitman, responsible for My Super Ex-Girlfriend and Space Jam. Uh Houston? We may have a problem. But all in good time.
Egoyan's known for his chilly, Pinterish dramas, often shot through with dark eroticism. Brains for balls. Exotica, for example, might be set in a strip club, but it's the equivalent of having a lap dancer subject you to intense psychoanalysis for nearly two hours. And for the first half hour, Chloe feels like the sort of sophisticated psychosexual thriller which, back in the day, you can easily imagine being molested in a verbal ménage a trois by Paulin, Parsons and Pearson on the Late Review.
Julianne Moore plays Catherine, a flinty, sexually-frustrated gynaecologist married to Liam Neeson's handsome music lecturer, whose adoring young female students hang off his every crotchet. After Catherine suspects him of playing hide the flute, she hires the eponymous call girl (Amanda Seyfried, with a face like a Disney goldfish) to flirt with him and report back. You would, wouldn't you. And as Chloe relates their encounters in increasingly forensic detail ("We met in the park again, this time he didn't bring sandwiches") to an increasingly turned-on Catherine, the hunter becomes voyeur, then prey. Turns out there's something missing from both their lives that can't be filled by marathon sessions of Come Dine with Me.
Yet just as there's a single defining moment in every doomed relationship when the blinkers finally fall off, you can practically set your watch at the point this slides into Single White-silliness, then absurdity, then hysteria, with a plot twist that comes galumphing in iron boots over the hill booming "How may I disappoint you today?"
Moore's much the best thing in this, but writhes haplessly within the trashy constraints of the B-movie script. Chloe proves once again that jumping into bed with Hollywood producers only leaves art-house directors with a bad taste in the mouth and an embarrassing little rash in the morning.
What an adorable little film this is. Razor-sharp too, which ironically helped it fall squarely between the cracks during that non-summer of 2009; but then, unlike the director's Superbad, the touching, semi-autobiographical Adventureland was always going to be a trickier sell. Opening with the Velvets' 'Here She Comes Now', and marinated in the spirit of Richard Linklater rather than Judd Apatow, it's unashamedly aimed at the smart kids – a crisp glass of white to Superbad's premium-strength lager.
Though set in 1987, it's also distinctly unlike the usual "I Heart the 1980s" retro-cizes: here, Falco's deathless 'Rock Me Amadeus' is the eternal, sadistic soundtrack to Eisenberg's McJob in a grungy amusement park, staffed by fellow overachieving, under-waged misfits; Martin Starr being standout as the pipe-smoking Joel – every inch 'Robert Crumb: The Wonder Years.' One more thing: switch off exactly five minutes before the credits, and this'll retain its fantastic authenticity uncorrupted.
Banlieue 13: Ultimatum (2009)
Ghetto Fabulous Sequel
It mightn't entirely surprise you that David Belle, creator of 'Parkour' and star of District 13 and this follow up, isn't the finest actor in the galaxy. But then we aren't really here to admire his Uncle Vanya. A human tree frog, Belle makes Jason Bourne look arthritic. All that's required of writer-producer Luc Besson is to spin preposterous, half-arsed plots around Belle's 'running, jumping and rarely standing still' shtick to create 90 minutes of stupefying spectacle, a delirious, laugh-out-loud no-brainer.
But if the original could have benefited from even less story than it actually had, this one's certainly ironed out the problem. "I don't like it when you think", Leito (Belle) cautions supercop partner Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), and the audience, which is absolutely fine with us. This time they attempt to thwart the French secret service, who are killing cops to inflame an already ravaged District, then waiting for it to blow so they can erect penthouses amid the ashes. "It's like Iraq" sneers a gang leader, making the allegory explicit. Actually, it's like Robocop. But who cares about originality when you've got stunts?
Like two halves of some super-evolved organism, if Raffaelli's the upper muscle, Belle's the dancing feet – although it's Damien who disguises himself as a shapely lapdancer to foil the dealers. With so much homoerotic tension here it makes you wonder if all those 'faggot' insults flying around are a smokescreen: at any moment, you can imagine the pair falling to the floor, covering one another with tiny kisses.
The Hide (2008)
Catch this pigeon
When Sandra left him, he slept under his model railway; the bedroom held too many memories. Now Roy Tunt ("not a twitcher, an ornithologist") is holed up in his hide, binoculars in one hand, chicken-paste sandwiches in the other, waiting to tick off a sighting of the elusive Sociable Plover, a bird that hides among others. When a mysterious stranger (Campbell) shows up, with a tattooed neck and a gun under his coat, everything changes.
The Hide is directed by Marek Losey, grandson of Joseph, purveyor of elegant, chilly, often bleakly funny psychodramas like The Servant. On this evidence, the fruit has barely tumbled from the bough. Reprising his role from the stageplay, MacQueen is especially brilliant as the fusty Tunt – something like a shaved real-ale drinker, with all the beer irrigated out of him. It's stagey, sure. But which also guarantees some exceptional characterisation and dialogue.
The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
"Do you have anything specific in mind?"
In the sci-fi thriller Westworld, customers paid small fortunes for the chance to blast android gunslingers away or sleep with animatronic prostitutes (distinguishable from humans only because of their slightly wonky hands. Hand jobs were probably on the house).
Here, fat cats are likewise sold an enticing fiction – a simulacra of intimacy from a New York escort with a face like a Botoxed kitten (real-life porn star Sasha Grey). Unlike most sex workers, Chelsea will kiss, cuddle, tousle their hair or do whatever it takes to replicate 'the girlfriend experience', for a price. (Disappointingly, there are no scenes where she starts shouting at them in the middle of Ikea.) Soderbergh's chilly, pseudo-documentary suggests there's a bigger price being paid on both sides.
Set during the run up to the 2008 Presidential election, with America sliding into recession, everybody here is hustling or being screwed over, psychically undone by a rapacious capitalism that has seen them transform themselves into branded fembots or soulless greed-borgs. In place of genuine conversation, clients can offer only short-term financial advice; while Chelsea's dream of bagging her very own Mr Big turns out to be a suppositious investment.
Yet there's the nagging feeling that we too are being sold a pup: sleekly stylish but numbingly repetitive slurry. Halfway through this reviewer's screening, proceedings shuddered to a premature climax and a little red face peered round the door. "Sorry" said the projectionist. "We've been showing the reels in the wrong order." Nobody had been any the wiser.
"Do you want to play?"
She calls herself Esther. She wears ribbons round her wrists. And she gives the whole concept of adoption a bad name. (No way is this film a sly dig at a certain pop star.) Overshadowed by some ludicrous controversy, and undermined by a cheesy ad campaign – "You'll never guess her secret"? Let's define 'never' in the age of Google, shall we? – the real reveal is how much fun this psycho-thriller actually is.
Like its subject, Orphan's a precocious brat of a movie, boasting smart subtexts and performances that have no right being as good as they are, including a genuinely disquieting turn from Isabelle Fuhrman. Little girls, of course, are absolutely terrifying. That's why Kubrick used not one but two of them in The Shining.
Only trouble is, like all little show-offs, it eventually starts playing up, pratting about, and ultimately outstays its welcome. Enough now. Mummy wants a nap.