Broken (UK, 2012)

Growing up is hard

Growing up is hard

Apparently Everton’s Bill Kenwright stepped in with £200k to save this production and it’s unsurprising, as he’s obviously a man of good taste, that the film is a wonderful melodrama. Tim Roth, Cillian Murphy and Rory Kinnear all grace this film with typically convincing performances but key to the film’s success is debutant, Eloise Laurence. She plays Skunk who’s about to start secondary school and lives on a particularly stressed crescent. Most of the aggro is provided by Kinnear’s Bob, who doesn’t so much as over-protect his three daughters, as bulldozers destruction if there’s any hint that his eldest has had sex.

Such is the stuff of melodrama, especially when you add absent mothers to the mix; grief at school; mental health issues; diabetes. It might have resulted in an overwrought, even by melodrama’s standards, concoction but – the ‘near death experience’ aside – theatrical director Rufus Norris keeps the histrionics on the right side of credible. I liked that even the ‘villains’ are shown to have reasons for their behaviour. The characters are all more than two-dimensional.

I haven’t seen Roth since 2005’s Dark Water (US) and it’s good to be reminded what a spellbinding screen presence he has. It’s also good to see Murphy stepping out of Hollywood to support the British film industry; I’m sure they both took deferrals on this low budget film.

This is one of the best ‘coming of age’ films I’ve seen for sometime, based on Daniel Clay’s novel, and I strongly recommend it.

In the Flesh (UK, 2013)

Grief and Prejudice

Grief and Prejudice

Broadcast last March (on BBC3) this superbly put together, short (three episodes) television series tweaks the zombie genre by considering what happens after… the zombies are cured. Shot in the north west (Lancashire Pennines by the look of it) In the Flesh considers what happens when the re-humanised zombies return to their communities and, as you might expect, there is a lot of grimness up north. However, equally predictable, there is a lot of compassion.

What’s impressive about In the Flesh isn’t just the highly successful spin on the genre, but the superb execution. It’s slightly invidious highlighting anybody from the cast, who play what could have seemed ridiculous to the hilt, but Emily Bevan (above) shone as the young woman who wasn’t going to wear make up to make her appear human; she was going ‘au naturelle‘. As the series was about grief and prejudice, the emotions were ones that the cast, and audience, could readily engage with. It was the human aspects that, unsurprisingly, were the most gripping. Using the zombie genre successfully allows the human condition to be ‘made strange’, allowing us to think anew about what might, otherwise, become cliche.

There’s a second series in the offing, hopefully it will be as well crafted as the first.

Stake Land (US, 2010)

Not just what it says in the title

Not just what it says in the title

Imdb reports that this film cost $650k to make, if that’s the case then it is an incredible achievement because it looks as good as any post-Apocalyptic movie road movie I’ve seen. Co-written by director Jim Mickle and star Nick Damici, the emphasis is less on the genre elements of a world threatened by vampires, who act like zombies, than the melancholy associated with post-civilisation life. There are plenty of genre elements and I’m guessing they couldn’t get a good distributor as the box office was dreadful. The film offers more than enough of gore and grue to appeal to its core audience.

Damici plays Mister, the paternal vampire killer who shepherds Martin, and various others who join them, north to the (maybe) mythical New Eden. Amongst the others is Kelly McGillis’ Sister (she is a nun), who retains her star charisma of her eighties heyday. It was startling to see a (albeit former) Hollywood female star with grey hair! She looked great.

Mister might have been simply an over-bearing ‘silent, macho’ type but this is leavened by a beautiful moment when, after they join a community trying to hold ‘things together’, he picks up a toddler to dance with. In a post-Apocalyptic world, you want men of violence on your side! The film is also Martin’s ‘coming of age’ story, which is also handled with tenderness and care.

True to genre tradition, there is no explanation regarding the plague that’s brought about the apocalypse but it is striking the truly terrifying villains of the film are Christians. Or more specifically, those nut jobs who welcome the Apocalypse as evidence of God’s dissatisfaction with the world. These neo-Nazi racists drop vampires from helicopters to infect ‘non believer’ communities. It’s comforting to think that such looney types exist only in America but that’s not true. In the UK, this weekend, a UKIP (a nationalist party) councillor said that the floods in southern England were caused by the legalisation of gay marriage…

Only once in the film, the climactic battle against the chief bad guy, did I think the genre elements got the better of the realist portrayal of how things might be. That’s quite an achievement and I’d rank this film above The Road as one of the best post-Apocalyptic films around.

Take This Waltz (Canada-Spain-Japan, 2011)

Making the most of life?

Making the most of life?

I did realise that Michele Williams is a superb actor, she was by far the best thing in My Week with Marilyn, and had excelled in Meek’s Cutoff, but I was unprepared for her brilliance in Take This Waltz. Her character, a slightly kooky woman, Margot, unsettled after five years of marriage, could have been difficult to sympathise with; however, Williams’ performance means that issue is not a question. Her husband, an excellent Seth Rogan, doesn’t understand that marriage doesn’t make the relationship, he says there’s no point asking how she is as he knows everything about her. What he doesn’t know is that she’s fallen for a neighbour, a charismatic artistic type, and the film charts her efforts not to give up on her marriage.

Writer-director-producer Sarah Polley mostly makes  this ‘will they/won’t they’ narrative entirely convincing. There’s enough ambiguity in the relationships for us not to be entirely clear about characters’ motivations, which is suitable as many people in life are not sure about their motivations either. There’s a virtuoso shower scene when women of all shapes and sizes talk about their lives. The contrast between Williams’ ‘perfect’ nubile body and the older women’s, reminds us that we all will age. Incidentally, the aqua-robics session that precedes this is hilarious.

The ending is suitably ambiguous. Without ‘spoiling’, we are left with questions about Margot’s future that are left unresolved.  I was also left with absolute admiration for Williams and am going to give Blue Valentine another chance; I think I let Ryan Gosling put me off that film far too early on.

As an aside, I recently watched Only God Forgives (2013, Den-Thailand-Fr-US-Swe) which, along with Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines (US, 2012), showed Gosling doing his inarticulate (maybe ‘catatonic’ is a better word) male schtick. To be fair Pines was redeemed, in part, by Bradley Cooper, but please if you’re going to dramatise male stupidity, make it human like Rogan’s portrayal of Margot’s husband. Then again, I’m not sure that we aren’t meant to admire the Gosling characters. Only God Forgives did feature fabulous cinematography and a fantastic Cliff Mansell score, both wasted on meaningless crap.

The 7.39 (UK, 2014)

The cost of infidelity

The cost of infidelity

This BBC two-parter of a David Nicholls script boasts two of my favourite actors: David Morrissey and Olivia Colman, ably supported by Sheridan Smith. Actually it’s Colman who’s the support and I was worried, after episode one, that she would be wasted in such a small role. Morrissey and Smith become friends on the titular 7.39 hour-long commute to London and if what follows is predictable, the way it is portrayed is not. Two people behaving unfaithfully, without intending to, in an entirely convincing way.

Nicholls’ novel One Day (2009) was brilliant in its creation of convincing characters and he repeats the ‘trick’ in this TV film. The development of Carl and Sally’s (or should that be Sally and Carl’s?) relationship is entirely logical, if immoral. We can condemn their behaviour at the same time as understanding why they behaved in the way they did. Colman, of course, it turns out wasn’t wasted and her blistering attack on her perfidious husband blew out of the screen and, I’m sure, resonated with many women (probably less men) throughout the country.

I liked the way Smith’s Sally was as much, and possibly more, the one who pushes for an ‘affair’ and how she is the one who, in the end, sees it for what it is. I also loved the marvellous ambiguity on Morrissey’s face at the end when he sees Sally two years after the affair had ended: ‘is he happy for her and/or sad for himself?’

Best of 2013

Films/TV released last year

I think it’s clear that television is sometimes as visually rich as cinema though, of course, it cannot compete with picture quality and size (I see most films on television anyway). The growth of cable television in America (AMC, HBO, Showtime), that doesn’t need to pander to advertisers, has enabled long form narrative to thrive and there is no longer, from actors’ perspectives, the idea that TV is inferior and symptom of a declining career. In combining the media I’ve decided to double the length of this list.

  1. Borgen – series 3
  2. Borgen – series 2
  3. Gravity
  4. Before Midnight
  5. Broadchurch (tv)
  6. The Hour – series 2
  7. Philomena
  8. McCullin
  9. Lore
  10. Spiral (Engrenages) – series 4
  11. The Returned (Les Revenants) (tv)
  12. The Fall (tv)
  13. The Impossible
  14. Silver Linings Playbook
  15. Stories We Tell
  16. Compliance
  17. A Hijacking
  18. Stoker
  19. The Challenger (tv)
  20. Blackout (tv)

Films seen last year

  1. Pan’s Labyrinth
  2. Bringing Up Baby
  3. The Hunt
  4. Gravity
  5. Before Midnight
  6. We Need to Talk About Kevin
  7. Battle for Haditha
  8. Even the Rain
  9. The Reckless Moment
  10. I Saw the Devil

Books of the Year

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Mark Fisher
A Kind of Loving, Stan Barstow
The Great Gatsby, F.Scott Fitzgerald
The Conductor, Sarah Quigley
Nod, Adrian Barnes
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Granta 120 – Medicine
Sleepless in Hollywood, Lynda Obst
Clampdown: Pop-cultural wars on class and gender, Rhian Jones
The Status Civilization, Robert Sheckley

Albums of the Year

  1. Josephine, Portrait
  2. Dan Deacon, America
  3. Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight
  4. Monoswezi, The Village
  5. Warsaw Village Band, Nord
  6. Goat, World Music
  7. Vine: Symphonies (BiS)
  8. Oddarrang, In Cinema
  9. Empirical, Tabula Rasa
  10. KT Tunstall, Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon

Live Events

  1. Light Show, Hayward Gallery
  2. Rokia Traore, Howard Assembly Rooms – Leeds
  3. Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, Alan Janes – Victoria Theatre, Halifax
  4. The Pitmen Painters, Lee Hall – Alhambra, Bradford
  5. Cabaret – Alhambra, Bradford
  6. Chagall, Modern Master – Tate, Liverpool
  7. Visions of the Universe – National Maritime Museum
  8. Mark Thomas, People’s Manifesto – Trades Club, Hebden Bridge
  9. Glam! The Performance of Style – Tate Liverpool
  10. Stornoway, Trades Club – Hebden Bridge