Mesrine (Jean-François Richet, 2008)

This is actually two films, Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number 1, but I’m treating them together because, despite being quite different in tone, they were made together and should be watched together. The first film takes in the late 60s and uses split-screen both as a narrative tool and as a stylistic reminder of the times. The second film, covering most of the 70s, is much more gritty – rather appropriately again. There is a superb cast in both, and with some overlap, with actors of the calibre of Depardieu in supporting roles, but Cassel as the charismatic and probably deranged criminal dominates both films.

Killer Instinct tells of the anti-hero’s grounding in violence, in the French-Algerian war, and how Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) (pronounced “Mey-reen”) translated his capacity for this into a criminal career, becoming a notorious bank robber and repeated escapee from top-security prisons while cultivating an almost totally undeserved mythic status as a kind of Robin Hood. The film clearly shows his ability, determination and charisma but, while it is often great fun, it doesn’t sugar-coat that Mesrine was a criminal, a robber who exploited his lovers and friends and used violence whenever it suited him, and was perfectly willing to kill if it suited him also. That his victims tended to be police and military and his fellow-criminals, rather than bystanders and other members of the public at large, was almost incidental to each crime, even if it was crucial to the growth of his reputation. By targetting banks and casinos, Mesrine was able to pretend that he was on the side of “the little guy” even as he came to believe he was superhuman.

In contrast, Public Enemy Number 1 is much darker in tone. Mesrine starts to believe his own myth and, as a consequence, he becomes more dangerous, to himself, to his friends and colleagues and to the public at large. He seems to have moments of clarity, when he knows how his life will end – as do we, since we saw this at the very beginning of the first film – but at others, he seems to be in a fantasy world where he is indestructible and will always win. As he keeps committing crimes and keeps evading capture, the probability of his dying violently approaches 1 – and, deep down, he knows this.

Over the two films, we see a man who might be a psychopath become a feted pop-culture “hero”, his stock rising even as his sanity becomes more doubtful, and we see how he burns out the affections of those around him; there is only so long sane people can hang around someone with little regard for staying alive. And yet the last fifteen minutes, as we approach the ending we already know must come, is still unbearably tense.


The Waterboys (21 March 2012, Leeds Town Hall)

This was very nearly one of the very best gigs I’ve ever been to but, through no fault of the band, it fell a little short.

This was an unusual gig format, in that the first half was a medley of earlier songs with then an interval followed by songs from the new album, An appointment with Mr Yeats. Normally you’d expect it to be the other way round, or else old and new songs alternating. Kicking off with Rags established a high tempo and this kept up until midway through the first half, when they slowed it right down with one of my favourites, The Girl in the Swing, picking up again with The Pan Within, and shortly afterwards we got the interval.

The second half kicked off with the album’s opener, The Hosting of the Shee, although, unlike many of this kind of show, they didn’t stick to the album order throughout and it was in the slower numbers that the problems really began.

Firstly, the venue. I’ve praised Leeds Town Hall before, for both the Unthanks with brass band and for the screening of the Silent Clowns but, here, it was wrong. The Waterboys are a folk-rock act and we needed to be standing, not sitting in neat little rows, for those rowdier songs and it meant that the band had to work a little harder to get the atmosphere right.

The set-up also led to the second problem and that was a couple of the other punters. There was a disabled area to the front right, which is perfectly laudable except that it got occupied by a hairy stoner hippie muppet and his girlfriend who wanted to dance, drunkenly reeling around and, as they were directly in front of me, this was rather distracting. This wasn’t too bad in the first half but, after the interval, they were joined by a bunch of drunken arseholes who were more interested in checking the football scores on their mobiles, and loudly discussing them, than listening to the concert. All but one of them fucked off, but this last one carried on chatting with the muppets, infuriating in the quieter songs, until Scott stopped the gig and asked if they wanted the band to play quieter so he wouldn’t be interrupting their chat and then told them to “shut the fuck up”.

From that point, the gig and my mood improved again. For the encore, we got Don’t Bang the Drum and, inevitably, The Whole of the Moon. At this point, quite a few people left, possibly because of travel needs (it was getting a bit late) but possibly because they’d got what they came for. Those of who stayed got a second encore, finishing with a rousing, raucus Fisherman’s Blues to leave the gig having enjoyed, overall, a terrific night.


Black Sheep (2006 Jonathan King)

Black Sheep

A New Zealand horror comedy riffing on American Werewolf in London, but transposed to an NZ sheep farm for extra silliness. I recall seeing the trailer for this at a cinema and laughing quite a lot but, not getting the chance to see it at the time, I waited until the DVD came out and snapped it up cheaply. Since then, a couple of people told me it was pretty bad so I wasn’t at all sure I’d like it.

It starts off with one of the most absurd and outrageous backstory setups imaginable, as one brother traumatises another with a sheep-themed evil prank, made worse by a terrible coincidence. Cut to present day and the traumatised Henry (Nathan Meister) is visiting his elder brother Alex (Peter Feeney) on the family farm, intending to sell up and put some ghosts to rest. In the meantime, two environmental activists, Experience (Danielle Mason) and Grant (Oliver Driver), are planning to break into the experimental breeding station Alex has set up and find out what secretive genetic nastiness he’s been conducting there.

It will hardly come as a surprise to anyone seeing this film that the environmentalists’ break-in goes awry and, as a result, the sheep turn nasty – effectively “were-sheep” – and no-one really need worry about spoilers, since everything is pretty much signposted from the off; there are precious few surprises here. But I really did enjoy this. Despite there being a fairly high ‘splatter count’, the film had a real sense of fun. There are clichés galore – the reluctant hero, the good woman who comes to love him, the sensible housekeeper who dispenses sage advice, the solid worker and childhood friend who assists the good fight, the mad and irresponsible scientist who ‘plays God’, the race against time before a local infection is spread worldwide, the last minute help arriving ‘unexpectedly’, and many more – but they’re all handled knowingly and playfully rather than cynically or crassly.

Also pleasing, the misanthropy and misogyny that is too often evident in horror seems utterly lacking here. Victims are not slaughtered or tortured to suit a political or moral agenda. There are villains and they get their comeuppance, of course, but the film doesn’t take its own ‘messages’, such as they are, at all seriously. It is, rather bizarrely, a really nice film.

Black Heaven

Black Heaven

I was alerted to this movie last year by a review in the website
Brutal as Hell whose review suggested some possible influence from David Lynch. As I tend to like French films and also Lynch, this seemed a likely winner for me. And it opens in bright sunshine as young lovers discover an item that shortly lead to a much darker, more dangerous world running parallel to their own – very Blue Velvet.

So, Gaspard (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet ) and Marion (Pauline Etienne ) are the young couple who find a phone in a changing room at a lido in the south of France, where they are both staying. The phone has messages saved from someone called “Dragon” to the owner of the phone, a woman called “Sam” whose beautiful face is displayed on during an incoming call, which Marion answers. Dragon, not realising who he’s speaking to, enigmatically says that they need to meet so they can be together at “The Black Beach”. They coincidentally see Sam, meeting a man they presume to be Dragon, and follow her secretively, slowly getting drawn into Sam’s world. Gaspard takes things further, intrigued by Sam and investigates on his own, and so encounters the online roleplaying game of “Black Hole”, which takes him into further danger.

I can’t help feeling that the DVD distributors are miss-selling this film a little. The game element, while important to the plot and very well realised, is very much secondary to what is happening in ‘meat space’ but you wouldn’t get that impression from the DVD box information, which treats this as a techno-thriller. What we are actually presented with is a minor French thriller, with the online gaming element as an interesting twist but no more. But for me, that’s enough. It’s got a nice, creepy feel to it, its sense of menace building throughout the developing situations, and for which Gaspard is ill-equipped to navigate as his, often poor, choices draw him deeper into mysteries and personal danger.

It’s worth a watch, certainly, but it’s hardly Tron, as the box might suggest, and nor is it Lynch.

District 13: Ultimatum (Patrick Alessandrin, 2009)
Or Banlieu 13: Ultimatum, if you prefer, since this is a French movie.

This is a sequel, so a few words on what’s come before. In the first film, a no-nonsense cop Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) and petty thief Leito (David Belle), both possessed of superhuman agility and fighting prowess reluctantly team up to prevent a ‘dirty bomb’ from being launched from the eponymous District 13, a wall-enclosed and ghettoised district of Paris, left to rot by corrupt and heartless government and in the grip of gangsters and warlords. At the end of the film, the grateful and shamed government agrees to pull down the wall and re-integrate the District into the rest of society.

This film picks up three years later and nothing has changed, for the better at least. The government has reneged on its promises and District 13 is worse than ever, with the warlords even stronger, though divided on ethnic lines and dealing drugs to the outside world through corrupt agreements with police. The heads of the army and a special unit of police, DISS, agree to corruptly plot the utter destruction of the district in order both to assert an authoritarian control over its dissident elements and to hand over prime real estate to a property company (rather crudely named “Harriburton”) at a knockdown price, pocketing bribes themselves and also delivering a new district of middle-class voters in the prettified new version of the district. The president, a beleaguered but noble figure, is kept in the dark as the police kill some of their own and dump the bodies in amongst the gangs in order to manufacture evidence of cop-killing among the gangs and trigger a war between gangs and police that will justify their ethnic cleansing. It is up to Damien and Leito, now friends, to uncover the plot, unmask the plotters and to save the District.

The first film was great fun. Its politics, plotting, dialogue and acting were all patchy but the chase and fight sequences were spectacular, both leads being leading experts in Parkeur. If you’ve seen a totally enthralling chase where those taking part bounce up, over and down buildings in an implausibly, yet clearly real, agile manner, chances are Belle or Raffaelli were involved, since the world of Parkeur comprises few people who can really deliver at this level. But Luc Besson co-wrote the first film and wrote this one on his own, and all the worst traits of Besson’s writing are evident here. Even at his best, Besson is style over substance and this film is crass, absurd and dull whenever the leads aren’t running or hitting things – and they don’t do nearly enough of either. Even when they do, there is an element of it feeling forced, probably because the writer and director haven’t invested enough feeling of genuine threat for us to care. For anyone who enjoys action-adventures, watch the first film – give this one a miss.

Richard Herring – ‘What is Love?’ (King’s Hall, Ilkley, 11 March 20120)

Coincidentally coming just over a week after seeing Stewart Lee, I got to see the other half of the 90’s double act and saw a very different act. Where Lee’s act is studiously intellectual and rigorously structured, Herring has a more ‘traditional’ stand-up style, with a rat-a-tat delivery and more obvious jokes. There are points of similarity, of course; given that Lee’s book refers to how some of his mannerisms (such as addressing himself as if he were another person) are straight substitutions for Herring’s part in their double-act, it is clear that working together involves some influence, and it’s reasonable to suppose that it would flow both ways.

Some of the subject material and political standpoint is also similar – again not surprising for people who were friends before they were a double act – such as raging against tabloid journalism and right-wing bigotry. But Herring’s act is much more personal and autobiographical, with family and relationship stories forming the peg for this act. There is some philosophical musing and it’s clever; a maths joke about Ferrero Roche chocolates slyly slips in some serious maths and this is key to the act’s appeal for me – it wears its intellectualism lightly. There is a fairly loose structure, allowing Herring to range through anecdotes all around his theme, but always coming back to the central topic. It was certainly more structured and polished than his internet radio show, AIOTM – thankfully, since, while that was interesting, it was very haphazard.

It really is fun to watch Lee and Herring’s separate acts so closely together, as a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise (as well as simply being entertained and amused). Lee creates an exaggerated version of a sour intellectual pedant and carefully crafts a tight routine which undercuts that joke figure whilst maintaining an intellectual rigour; Herring produces the persona of a likeable pervert , more immediately and overtly running himself down, whilst also aiming to intellectually challenge his audience, albeit surreptitiously.

If I’d had some cash on me, I’d have got a signed copy of the ‘Fist of Fun’ DVD to look back at their early act for some more fun research, particularly as one sketch was directly referenced in this show. As it is, I’ll have to head on to and buy online though, at £25 for six episodes (plus bonus material), it might have to wait until I have a bit more cash.

Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky 1972)

Solaris Tarkovsky

I’d read and heard that the Clooney/Soderbergh version of this was perhaps a better movie than this earlier Russian one, and is also supposed to be closer to Lem’s novel, but also that this is perhaps the more interesting film and that, and the fact that this is the longer movie, decided for me that I would watch this one first.

The concept is that humans have put a space station above an ocean on the planet Solaris, which appears to demonstrate signs of potentially intelligent life and attempts to communicate with the station’s occupants. However, the humans on board the station are behaving erratically and the information coming back is vague and confused so they send out a psychologist, Kris Kelvin (Banionis) who was friends with one of the occupants, to see if he can sort out whatever problems are interfering with the research and get some results back to Earth. When he arrives, Kelvin’s friend has already committed suicide and the remaining two scientists, Snaut and Sartorius, are secretive and brittle. Then Kris is confronted with what appears to be a manifestation of his ex (and dead) girlfriend, Hari (Bondarchuk), and the behaviour of the other scientists becomes more clear. Is this an attempt by the planet to communicate with the humans? If so, is it benign or a form of attack, since it seems so emotionally perilous? And what is the status of this new Hari herself? Is she, or could she be, ‘real’?

The film is slow and long – no doubt about that, at 167 minutes – and it won’t appeal to devotees of action and plot but it is not self-indulgent and the cinematography was beautiful, even if a couple of special effects here and there look rather dated. I loved it. It was thoughtful, meditative and slightly dream-like but always with questions about what was happening left for the viewer to decide, or to leave open, according to taste. A beautiful, thought-provoking and cryptic film.

The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)

The Descendants

I’d seen trailers for this before watching other films and, to be frank, it looked terrible; the montage made this movie look saccharine and clichéd. Its generally good reviews, and the fact that it was directed by Payne, suggested I give it a bit more leeway but the deciding factor in going to see it was that UK cinema releases seem to have gone into a bit of a barren patch; after months of having to decide which film I want to see most, I now have the problem of trying to find a film I want to see at all.

Anyway, the setup. Matt King (Clooney) is a lawyer in Hawaii where he is the trustee for a plot of virgin land owned by his family and has the task of deciding what to do with that land once new regulations kick in forcing the trust to disband. A variety of conglomerates want to build hotel complexes and it appears that the least worst option will be to sell it to a Hawaiian company who plan a golf complex and hotel – the beauty of the land will be defiled but the locals will benefit financially. At this crucial time, his wife has an accident whilst water skiing and goes into a coma and Matt is forced to look after his two daughters, Alexandra and Scottie, and face the revelation of his wife’s infidelity and the fact that, but for the accident, he would have been facing a request for divorce (I don’t think this is a spoiler, given that all the publicity and reviews seem to focus on this).

Trying to find his wife’s lover, for reasons Matt himself doesn’t really seem to understand, he takes his daughters on a trip to the island of Kauai and, while there, meets up with some of his cousins and visits the land due to be sold and shows Alex and Scottie the unspoilt bay where he camped as a child, where his eldest daughter Alexandra (Woodley) camped with her mother and where his youngest, Scottie (Miller), complains that she will never get to visit.
The film is much better than the trailer. Clooney is excellent, restrained and understated. Some reviewers appear to think he is too handsome for the role, and that Matt should be more slobby; I don’t see why this should be the case, unless there is some source novel that paints him that way, though I suspect people simply want the hero of a Payne film to look less Hollywood. The two daughters are also terrific and the ensemble really look and feel like a family. The addition of Alex’s friend, Sid (Nick Krause) is slightly contrived and weak but is there for a reason and probably works overall.

The theme, other than the simple story of a family coming to terms with loss, appears to be about the transience of life and our responsibilities to both the past and the future – the title of the film is not coincidental.

It’s a gentle and moving film but not syrupy, or at least not too syrupy, and I was thoroughly glad I got to see it.

The Woman in Black (James Watkins, 2012)

The Woman in Black

Hammer’s back!

The film opens with children playing in a Victorian / Edwardian nursery and then ominous music and… something happens.

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young widdower (and we’re still in period England), struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife in childbirth, and trying to raise the son from that birth whilst his career as a lawyer is at its last ebb. He is given instructions from his employer that he must buck up his ideas or lose everything and so heads off from London to the north east, to the sole and grand house on “Eel Marsh Island”, a tidal island along the lines of Lindisfarne or St Michael’s Mount, accessable at low tide but a true island when the tide comes in, to sort through the papers of the recently deceased owner to make sure he has the final version of her will. On arrival, the locals are in a desperate hurry to get rid of him.

One of the first new films under cult UK Horror label “Hammer” since it ceased production nearly thirty years ago, this has quite a few of the signature ‘calling cards’ of classic Hammer films, though with significantly better production values than many of them. It has a young hero, somewhat ignorant of the world but with some emotional baggage, it has a period setting (the house, particularly, is beautiful). The hero is periodically trapped in a scary location, much scarier at night with daytime providing background to scares to come (like so many Dracula and other vampire films), and it relies on a creepy atmosphere punctuated by occasional sudden surprises, rather than tons of gore, for its horror.

This film reminded me:
Children can be creepy.
Dead children are very creepy.
Antique children’s dolls and toys are the creepiest.

Racliffe is fine in the lead role – I’ve not really followed the Potter franchise, so I don’t have any baggage there but he seems a more than capable actor – and there are ‘name’ actors in Janet McTeer and Ciaran Hinds to play off, making the chills all the more effective for having been set up well. Despite the 12A rating, this is by far the scariest film I’ve seen in a while, something I only realised later in the evening when I had to walk down a poorly lit and lonely path on the edge of town…

Stewart Lee (St George’s Hall, Bradford 1 March 2012)

Lee chooses the music that plays while the auditorium fills up prior to his coming on, so the use of “Autobahn” by Kraftwork, going into something by Neu, gives a pretty broad hint that there might be some element of repetition, and this is of course picked up later in the show.

I saw Lee’s act a year or two back and this one picked up on familiar themes from that previous gig and from his tv shows – Jeremy Clarkson, right wing abuse, misleading reportage, ‘The Big Society’, the persona he’s created as a right-on-but-oddly-misinformed leftie – but this act was much refreshed, and to good effect. As usual, there was much about the thematic nature of the routine itself, picking up on his TV exposure to mock sections of the audience’s supposed inability to follow it due to only having been brought by friends, who might be so naive as to expect ‘jokes’, and referred to his relationship with the audience as ‘a war of attrition’. A section in which he read out internet abuse he’d found, much of it calling him ‘smug’, was particularly funny, both highlighting his lack of appeal to the mainstream and puncturing the accusation of smugness whilst playing up to it. There are layers upon layers in this act.

The venue itself seemed to have a warmth and character, much more suited to comedy than the starker stage of the West Yorkshire Playhouse where I saw him previously and, despite Lee’s mock complaints about how badly the act was going down, the audience seemed more receptive to it, at least from where I was sitting. There were sections which dragged a little, in which a joke seemed to be stretched beyond its usefulness, but Lee does this very deliberately in order to set up bigger laughs later on; nothing is wasted, the act is very lean.

He also has several pops at a variety of big-name comics, though we aren’t expected to take this too seriously, it simply being another riff on his own pretended failings as an elitist act. Even so, this is comedy for people who do like to think while they laugh, who don’t want to switch off when being entertained.