It has been difficult to keep up the earlier pace of blogging, due to an abnormally heavy workload this term. I’m hoping things will ease off towards Christmas and in the New Year – I wouldn’t want to deprive the world of my opinions for too long. It has also been hard to see new movies, though this afternoon I’m off to see Paul Leni’s Waxworks, and there’s a Hong Sang-Soo retrospective happening locally that should tick a few boxes in the old-movie department. As a stop-gap, here are some brief reviews of a few things I’ve managed to see at the multiplex next door. They are in no way connected, except that none of them works well on a triple bill with any of the others.
Burke and Hare
It’s an Ealing Studios production. It’s a horror-comedy directed by John Landis, one of the very few directors who, with An American Werewolf in London, managed to make an actually scary-and-funny horror-comedy (he is also the owner of one of my favourite self-descriptions: “I put the ‘b’ in ‘subtle'”). It’s a veritable pop-up book of cameos by people you might remember from decent, inoffensive movies and TV shows. It stars Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, and co-stars Tim Curry, Bill Bailey, Tom Wilkinson (it’s good to hear him not doing a rubbish American accent for once), Jessica Hynes, Hugh Bonneville, Christopher Lee, Jenny Agutter, Reece Shearsmith, Ronnie Corbett (contrary to critical consensus, I didn’t find his performance delightful – he seemed uncomfortable with his line readings) and a host of other “national treasures”: there’s even a scene in which Michael Winner (calm down, dear – he gets killed very quickly) suffers a horrible fate in a massive vehicular crash. All of these reassuring credentials are supposed to inspire confidence (“hey, I quite like all of those people!”), but should really set off alarm bells warning that this is one of those desperate messes that conglomerations of minor British film/TV talent can turn out to be: they’re all having fun with their friends and keeping busy by trying not to mention that they were all free because everyone else in Britain was making Harry Potter and the Deathly Reviews, but for onlookers it’s a clumsy farce with an identity crisis.
I suspect it was planned as a knockabout comedy with real darkness, oscillating in tone from morbid to slapstick to create a discomfiting good-cop-bad-cop blend of soothing nostalgia and unfamiliar terror. Instead, it’s just uneven and ill-judged. Take, for example, the relationship between Simon Pegg’s Burke and Isla Fisher’s Ginny, a call-girl, actress and proto-feminist. Their tentative romance is played out through that very British device of having their sexual encounters continually thwarted, postponed or otherwise interrupted. What is never made clear is whether Ginny is leading him on, or whether we’re supposed to think she is being “proper”, thus confirming that she doesn’t see him as just another client, and this failure to identify how we should respond to their relationship makes the characters’ conclusion (“I did it all for love”) difficult to see as the fitting end to that arc. I was reminded not of Ealing Comedy, but of other puddings of talent such as (please stop me if this is an unhappy memory) the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, also directed by an American visiting the UK in search of new ideas (in this case Paul Morrissey in his first film since breaking free from Andy Warhol), also wasting a pair of likeable, compatible leads, also mishandling a classic story, and also unendingly crap. So, if I tell you that Burke and Hare also looks like it was made in the 1970s, you have to promise that you won’t try to interpret that as a compliment.
After Happy-Go-Lucky, this is the second film in a row for Mike Leigh in which the stable contentment of the protagonists proves unsettling to those around them. Maybe the third if you agree that Vera Drake counts, with its blunt depiction of a caring woman having her spirit swiftly stomped by inflexible authority. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play a married couple whose easygoing bond is unshakeable in the face of the friends and acquaintances who drop by to chip away at their resolve to no avail with their neuroses and dissatisfaction. Tom and Gerri clearly love one another, but express no dependency or demand, a fact that can’t help but seem unfair to the middle-aged, single lush Mary (Lesley Manville), who seems too desperately dependent to ever find someone she can depend on. Having done his time showing how middle-class aspiration barely conceals ammo dumps of inadequacy, self-doubt and spasmodic rage, or how miserable loners will always struggle Leigh may now have turned his attention away from the secretly morose towards the openly, sincerely convivial. This is not to say that Another Year is a light or even optimistic film; it is built around a four-season structure, meaning that it follows a rather obvious progression from golden spring to funereal winter, and the best-adjusted survivors are those who inure themselves to change and fluctuation, tuning out the deleterious influences of the drunken, weepy charges who crash on their couches and leach off the security of their family unit.
For those who find Mike Leigh’s films overtly mannered, nervy and, let’s face it, too fussily acted, this may be his least nauseating film in a long time. It doesn’t fall back on a final, explosive catharsis, and it pits its two competing sensibilities (neediness vs self-sufficiency) against one another in the form of two distinct acting styles (hyperactive vs contained). Only Lesley Manville risks overbalancing things with her twitches, tipsy slurring and needling helplessness, but at least her performance is doing the work of challenging the relative composure of other characters (climaxing in her halting encounter with David Bradley’s taciturn Ronnie). Leigh’s working methods with actors are now well-known, though still sometimes mistaken for improvisation; the cast develop the characters over a period of several months, but by the time the cameras roll, every word, beat and gesture is mapped out and memorised. There’s a danger that too much planning might choke off the spontaneity of what began freeform and ended up disciplined. He is still fond of long takes and an inconspicuous visual style that builds almost every shot around the actors, but there are some lovely deviations, most notably in a golf sequence that is all bright colours, long sunset shadows and canted angles. I just wish he would cut loose and mix up the formula a little more often.
This film was propelled into cinemas with plenty of good will built up from a magnificent trailer that promised a Hollywood-underdog, low-budget alien invasion story with the chilling central image of thousands of people being vacuumed up into the sky by alien spacecraft. It even has a voguish motif of restricted narration – it takes place almost entirely inside one L.A. apartment block, with the characters gleaning whatever information they can about the destruction outside from gaps between the blinds and a single telescope that had previously been used for spying on the neighbours. Unlike Cloverfield, Signs and District 9, which all managed to make their alien wars more frightening by limiting the view of the protagonists (and the spectators), Skyline can’t be bothered keeping up the facade and descends into a pale imitation of Independence Day. For a while, I was prepared to believe this was ironic and knowing, but it soon became clear that the box-ticking in the list of clichés was simply a lack of ideas, not an attempt to bring down the formula from within. There’s a scene where the characters argue over whether or not to stay holed up in the apartment until the whole thing blows over, or flee to the ocean. Pick any of the following phrases and rearrange them in whatever order you fancy, and you’ve got yourself a reconstruction of the scene: “I say we get the hell out of Dodge”, “those things are still out there!”, “if we stay here we’re a sitting target for those things”, “we don’t know what those things are capable of”, “he’s right”, and so on. You’ve heard every line before.
Keeping the characters indoors, like a feature-length bottle episode, and requiring them to look away from the spectacular devastation (the aliens hypnotise their victims with a dazzling, beautiful blue light) should have been both a self-reflexive, tantalising denial of spectacle (as it happens, that telescope can capture some amazingly cinematic, hi-def images and transmit them to a giant-screen TV) and an excuse to focus on character development as their enmities and suspicions all rise to the surface under pressure. Instead, Skyline sits around the house wishing it was somewhere else watching the aliens blow stuff up, pining for a bigger budget: i.e. it doesn’t make a virtue of its limitations, but instead tries to act like on of its bigger, smarter cousins. By the end, you’ll be pining for the relative wit and humour of a Roland Emmerich. It goes somewhere perverse and potentially interesting in its dying minutes, but what can you say about a film with a promising ending, except “too little too late”? There are SPOILERS in the next, and final sentence, so stop reading if you don’t want to know how Skyline ends. It turns out that the aliens were using human brains to power their species; it would have been interesting to explore that idea further – what are the implications of a species that needs to hybridise itself in this way to survive?