Film reviews

Nothing is all
All or Nothing, dir. Mike Leigh.

From the opening shot down a slippery nursing home corridor where a flat-footed girl mops with dark dedication, to the radiant closing sequence at her fat brother’s bedside, this is consummate film-making. Every movement, every image, every flicker of human experience counts.

All or Nothing has the raw humanity of Leigh’s 1996 Palme D’Or winner, Secrets and Lies; its characters might live on a squalid 21st-century English housing estate but Leigh invests them with the depth and vulnerability that distinguished the 19th-century characters in Topsy-Turvy, his cinema biography of Gilbert and Sullivan. He uses his extraordinary ensemble of actors rather as Ingmar Bergman did, gratifying audience expectation (yes, it’s Timothy Spall again, but even better than last time. How can a hangdog slouch with bad teeth be so mesmerising?). But then Leigh goes further, extracts more.

Phil (Spall) is a taxi driver. Life passes through his mini-cab in a Chaucerian shuffle (remember the photo sessions in Secrets and Lies?—this is even better). His pretty, sour wife Penny (Lesley Manville) has lines on her face that signify forbearance turned to contempt. Their mop-wielding daughter Rachel (an heroic performance from Alison Garland) is stolid and withdrawn. Their son Rory (James Corden, also splendid) is overweight, hyperaggressive and stuck in a dead end of expletives.

Phil and Penny’s friends and their kids are equally stymied in life—sporadically employed, alcoholic, hopeless, violent, perverse, defensive (the children especially). But Leigh’s great gift is his ability to peel through layers of predictability to the core of ordinary people (he restores integrity to that much abused adjective ‘ordinary’). Never sentimental, never easy in his explorations, he is chronically alert to signs of life and love—a fine addiction for a film-maker—and he has the technical wits and gifts to render them on screen. All or Nothing is true to its title. It’s risky, dark, triumphant, and even better, I’d hazard, than Secrets and Lies. Don’t miss it. 

Morag Fraser

Punching the rough
Punch Drunk Love, dir. P.T. Anderson.

Adam Sandler is best known as a comedian. (Well, I’m sure that’s what he puts on his tax return, anyway.) In a string of box office hits, he has perfected an unvarying comic persona: the nerd as hero. The classic Sandler character is an infantile man, struggling with suppressed rage, but who is nevertheless sweet natured.

Punch Drunk Love finds Sandler trying to adapt this stock-in-trade act to create a performance with real emotional depth. In this sense, P.T. Anderson’s film is really just another ‘Adam Sandler vehicle’—despite the pedigree of its director. Anderson is the acclaimed director of the sprawling, Altmanesque hits Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but in this relatively short and beautifully made film he has chosen to concentrate almost totally on one character: Sandler’s Barry Egan.

Barry has issues. His seven sisters have taunted him all his life, he is crushed by loneliness, and at moments of emotional extremis he will lash out violently. He sells bathroom equipment for a living, occasionally uses a phone sex line, and is busily buying thousands of Healthy Choice Puddings as a means of acquiring frequent flyer points.

Despite these eccentricities, Barry manages to attract the attention of Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a beautiful and sophisticated woman. It’s probably the film’s greatest flaw that we never really get to understand Lena. If she’s attracted to Barry she must have a story of her own.

As in all his pictures, Anderson’s framing of shots, use of music and storytelling ability are idiosyncratic and breathtakingly effective. But whether the film works for you or not will probably depend on your response to just one line. When the operator of the phone sex line, Dean Trumbell (played magnificently by Philip Seymour Hoffman), attempts to blackmail Barry, our hero sets out to confront him. Standing face to face with his potential nemesis, Barry tells him he now has the strength of ten men because he is in love.

If by this stage of the film, such an apparently cheesy line resonates for you, then Anderson and Sandler have made a film that works. If it merely sounds like a cheesy line being said by a comic actor way out of his depth, then Punch Drunk Love will have hit the canvas. For me, the film just manages to win on points.

Brett Evans

Bean meets Bond
Johnny English, dir. Peter Howitt.

The Johnny English character is well known to British TV viewers because of a series of commercials done by Rowan Atkinson (above) for a bank. Their theme is Mr Bean meets James Bond: an English version of Naked Gun. Some bright spark decided to make them into a movie and here it is. The plot is a veritable lace curtain of holes, but works because everyone seems to be having a rather good time. John Malkovich does a thorough job of the villain, Pascal Sauvage, billionaire private-prison proprietor with an execrable French accent and designs on the British throne. Sauvage’s fiendish masterplan to make Britain into (gasp!) a convict colony for the rest of the world carries irony that will not go unnoticed here of all places. Natalie Imbruglia is quite good as Lorna Campbell, a nubile karate-kicking Bond heroine. But the focus is ever on Atkinson: even as the camera lingers on Imbruglia’s lovely face, we’re hypnotised by the rubber-faced vulnerabilities of her acting partner, scene-stealer extraordinaire. And that, strangely, is sufficient. You can have an amusing and harmless evening because you can indulge in a bit of Francophobia, the only PC prejudice. You can laugh at British royalty and pomp—in fact this film has barrels full of political fish to shoot. Atkinson’s magnetic bumbling keeps you in your seat through this most feather-light of plots. And some of the send-ups are really funny, in a Naked Gun, Fast Forward sort of way. To describe them would deprive you of the small surprises and wincing embarrassments that are so essential to daft comedy, so I won’t. If your chosen films are all dark, serious and complexly intelligent, don’t waste your money. But if you want a painless laugh or two, take the kids. 

Juliette Hughes

Amnesia man
The Man Without A Past, dir. Aki Kaurismaki.

There are few film-makers who can handle small stories with the grace of Aki Kaurismaki. His ability to find meaning in the merest breath of life is his great and rarely matched talent. The Man Without a Past is a fable about strange, unanchored people, negotiating the rickety but promising world around them.

An unnamed man (Markku Peltola, above right with Kati Outinen) sits on a train heading for Helsinki—he smokes, he sits, he smokes. Like the smoke gently blowing around the carriage we drift into Kaurismaki’s tale, without words, without overbearing direction. Nothing is laid out for inspection: rather, we are nudged into the story.


Once in Helsinki, the unnamed man is badly beaten and left lying in a park. The muggers rifle through his bag. They find a welding mask. Leaving the man for dead, they put the mask over his face and lay his suitcase across his chest. Like a man fallen from space, the hero lies dying. But miraculously, the unnamed man rises from death and finds himself, historyless, among a community of fringe dwellers, living in shipping containers rented to them by a gruff night watchman.

Amnesia is not a new device in the annals of cinema history. But Kaurismaki’s idiosyncratic style squeezes something richer and more exacting out of the idea than has been seen in a long time. It is not just a metaphor for a new beginning—rather it enables his characters to trace the simplicity of their deepest, unspoken desires. The unnamed man does not stumble upon euphoric revelation, rather he discovers a sublime melancholy. At one point he says simply, ‘I’ve had misfortune’, and we believe him.

This film is not neat; it moves around unexpectedly and with a mad disregard for any kind of Hollywood slick. But if an unnamed man falling in love with a withdrawn Salvation Army Officer—played with deadpan perfection by Kati Outinen—can be communicated by his holding her hand on a sofa in a shipping container, I say throw slick out the window. 

Siobhan Jackson

 

 

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