Any film featuring a cameo from BBC children’s programme stars The Wombles, plus Roxy Music star Bryan Ferry as a serial killer deserves full marks for originality; Neil Jordan’s serio-comic tale about the journey of transgender waif Patrick ‘Kitten’ Braden is an idiosyncratic one-off. Played by a well-cast Cillian Murphy, Braden is searching for his mother, with Liam Neeson’s priest amongst those he meets on his travels. Murphy has looked good and done little in a series of big budget films (Inception, Transcendence),but Breakfast on Pluto gives some idea of what he’s capable of. Jordan has fun with the musical and fashion styles of the 1970’s, but at the heart of the film is a plea for understanding of transgender issues that’s well-delivered without recourse to piety or pathos.
The late Bob Hoskins finds an ideal foil in Judi Dench for this slight but amusing BBC drama, which takes the war-time action of the Windmill strip-club in London’s Soho as its subject. Stephen Fears has made entrepreneurial duos something of a speciality in films like My Beautiful Launderette, and Mrs Henderson lovingly recreates the milieu in which Vivian Van Damm and Laura Henderson kept their club open despite the bombs falling outside. Popular singer Will Young croons a couple of vintage songs including The Girl In The Little Green Hat, and Christopher Guest has a neat turn as Lord Cromer. Frears handles the nudity with taste; the aim is nostalgia rather than exploitation, and Mrs Henderson is about as genteel a film about stripping as might be imaginable.
Serial killer films are not a new invention; the story of John Christie is one of Britain’s most notorious examples. Adapting Ludovic Kennedy’s book on the subject, Hollywood veteran Richard Fleischer adapts a deliberately drab, procedural style that finds an ideal centre in Richard Attenborough’s performance as Christie. Killing again and again for sexual kicks, it’s a turn highly untypical of Attenborough’s usual work, but he rises to the challenge, making Christie a fascinating but repellent character. John Hurt and Judy Geeson do good work as the husband and wife who unwittingly stay at Christie’s property, and a hanging scene, supervised by real-life executioner Albert Pierrepoint, adds to the gloomy sense of authenticity.
A refreshing alternative to the usual summer popcorn movies, Super 8 harks back to the 80’s style of Gremlins or The Goonies, as a group of children with a penchant for making home-movies discover an alien presence which has escaped from a government train which derails near their town. Writer/director JJ Abrams does a nice job in conjuring up the feel of 1979, and the scenes in which the kids create their own movie are lovingly done, with the final result playing engagingly over the final credits. Kyle Chandler also does nice work as an investigating cop, and while the final confrontation with the alien goes on too long, Abrams manages to pull out a few emotive plot-points that stop it from becoming a CGI-fest. Super 8 is a charming and light-hearted blockbuster for a age when bombast has become the norm.
There’s not much in director Michael Schroeder’s CV to suggest he was capable of pulling off an off-beat valentine to the movies like The Man in The Chair; the director of Cyborg 2 pulled off a career high when he pulled together an accomplished cast including Christopher Plummer, Robert Wagner and M Emmet Walsh as a group of Hollywood veterans who get together to help young aspiring LA film-maker Cameron (Michael Angarano) realise his dream. Schroeder over-eggs the flashy style of the direction, but coaxes strong performances from his cast, particularly Walsh who has a nice scene in which he discovers the value of the internet in a public library. Wagner also has a strong turn as a mogul who funds the enterprise, but Plummer takes centre-stage; his performance here as Flash is arguably better than his Oscar-winning turn in Beginners.
After his superb debut with Monsters, it’s easy to see why Gareth Edwards would be handed the chance to make a big budget version of Godzilla. Unfortunately, the tricks that worked so well for him in Monsters don’t play out so well here; the shots of debris-strewn vistas, intercutting news broadcasts and quarantine zones are all replicated, but to much less potent effect. The main problem is that the various trailers raise expectations of a rather different movie than Edwards delivers; the emphasis on Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody character proves misplaced, since the lead turns out to be a bland Aaron Taylor-Johnson who has little personality other than his wish to rescue children, and Elizabeth Olsen and Juliette Binoche barely feature. Johnson plays Ford Brody, a bomb-disposal expert who proves his worth when a conflict between radio-active monsters prompts a nuclear response from authorities. The result feels like a bait-and-switch on a monstrous scale; the trappings aside, the 2014 Godzilla features most of the qualities that make the original films barely watchable, from the instant recognition by all parties that Godzilla is a well-meaning guardian of nature to the monster-tag-team wrestling match that proves that millions of dollars of CGI can look no better than men in rubber suits. With much of the techo-babble unwisely handed to Ken Wantanabe and Sally Hawkins, Edwards’ version of Godzilla is low on fresh ideas or personality; a pity because the opening scenes, including a neat credits sequence, promised so much more than just another hokey monster movie.
Horror in British cinema has a classy past; this influential portmanteau film from Ealing studios glides by like a Rolls Royce. Part of the charm is the directness; Dead of Night doesn’t use pop culture references or homage to other directors; the stories are raw, simple and effective. While the ghostly golfing tale is really just light relief, the opener, about a racing driver who has a premonition of his own death, is striking and shocking in all the right ways. Based on a 1906 short story by EF Benson, it sets the mood nicely for Alberto Cavalcanti’s chilling Christmas party and Robert Hamer’s haunted mirror, both of which have a strange poetry of their own. And if Cavalcanti’s final sequence is the most iconic, with Michael Redgrave as the ventriloquist who loses a battle of wits with his dummy, the wraparound story ties the whole package together perfectly, adding a strand of philosophical horror that pulls the meta-narrative together in a highly original way.
Andrei Tarkovsky is a fairly unique proposition as a director in that his films are so consistent; the Russian director only made masterpieces, and Solaris is probably his best known. Adapted from the 1962 book by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris is a sci-fi epic, although for Tarkovsky that doesn’t mean cute robots and fireballs, but at least ninety minutes of people standing in fields reciting poetry to each other before the action leaves earth. Patience is rewarded, and once psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) gets into space, the reflection gives way to a confrontation with ghostly figures from the pasta and the future. These are generated by Solaris, a sentient planet below the space station Kelvin inhabits, and the alien contact he experiences is closely related to his own personal experience. As philosophical as sci-fi gets, Solaris is a meditation, difficult but rewarding; it’s notable that Steven Soderberg’s remake with George Clooney, well-intentioned as it is, don’t have the same narrative pull; somehow it’s the lengthy gaps between the words that make Tarkovsky’s vision so enduring.
Writer/director Todd Field followed up In The Bedroom with an equally dark but just as compelling drama, featuring Kate Winslet as Massachusetts mother Sarah who embarks on clandestine afternoon meetings with Brad (Patrick Wilson). Their initially chaste meetings, while their children play at a local park, gives way to a torrid romance, despite their family ties, and engenders a secret that affects the way they see the community around them. That disaffection becomes important as Brad’s friend Larry is suspicious of local outcast Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), who lives with his mother and has a complex set of mental health issues relation to women and young girls in particular. How the community treat Ronnie becomes mixed up with Sarah and Brad’s covert affair, and final few scenes of Little Children are intense and powerful as deception leads to consequences. Little Children is melodramatic at times, but the 134 minute length is justified by the eloquent way that Field draws out the mores of the suburban community, and engenders sympathy for Sarah and Brad and their fight against the common denominator of loveless marriages. A woman’s picture in the old style, Little Children is an accomplished adult drama.
Wes Anderson’s films have often been divisive; his studied quirkiness can come off as annoying or smug, and the potential for visual tweeness is sometimes at odd with his willingness to confront the darker side of life. Starting out as a cheerful homage to the underwater adventure of Jacques Cousteau, The Life Aquatic ducks and dodges down a number of surprising side-lines, and mixes bright character comedy with dark shafts of poetic realism. Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, a bobble-hat sporting oceanographer who is searching for the shark that killed his friend. His crew, including Ned (Owen Wilson) and Klaus (Willem Dafoe) have anxieties about Steve’s mission, and when the adventure leads to mutiny and an encounter with pirates, Steve’s ability to hold his crew together proves crucial. The colourful depiction of on-board life allows Anderson to showcase his gift for comedy, while a selection of David Bowie songs performed by Seu Jorge add to the whimsical charm. But The Life Aquatic builds to stark tragedy; the bitter-sweet comedy of Steve Zissou’s life is perfectly encapsulated in an early scene in which he carries a fish in a glass through the streets. Caught in a bubble of visibility, he wrestles with his own inner demons in a public way, and earns the respect of his brothers for the way he internalised the cruelty of nature and learns to find his own personal accommodation with death. A little knowledge of Cousteau’s own life is the key to Anderson’s darkly comic masterpiece.