Danny Says

A decent, competently-made documentary by Brendan Toller about the life of Danny Fields, a mover and shaker – here described as a ‘connector’ – in the American music scene for most of the 1960s and 1970s. Your enjoyment will probably depend on your interest in the cultural stories of the era, as the film describes in reasonable detail Danny’s time spent with Andy Warhol and The Factory in-crowd, his life as a pop magazine editor, his subsequent years as a talent scout with Elektra – he says he’s the guy that told the label to release The Doors’ Light My Fire as a single – and his long-standing friendships with Nico, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, David Bowie and more. He also managed The Ramones during their early years, so you can see there’s a lot of rock mythology to fit in here, but Toller does a decent job of paying as much time as possible to it all. Fields is an intelligent guy with a varied career behind him, so his interviews are enjoyable to listen to, and the other talking heads are engaging, interesting figures in their own right: Judy Collins, Iggy, Lenny Kaye, Wayne Kramer, Alice Cooper, Jonathan Richman and more all say nice things about the subject. The animations that are used occasionally feel a bit cheap and scrappy, though maybe that’s understandable for a Kickstarter-funded project. (***)

Cake

A necessarily dreary drama starring Jennifer Aniston as Claire Bennett, a woman suffering from chronic pain, which is both serious in nature and perhaps tied to her ongoing grief at the earlier, offscreen death of her only child. Aniston – who probably ought to get more roles like this, unless she’s just deliberately ignoring them – is impressive, simultaneously making you dislike her character through some of her words and deeds, but also reminding you through her physical performance of Claire’s extreme discomfort, which goes some way to explaining the way she treats others, most notably her maid and helper Silvana (Adriana Barraza). That central performance is the reason for recommending it; but otherwise it’s a meandering affair that throws a number of other figures into the mix who mostly fall flat, perhaps due to a lack of screen time, perhaps for other reasons. Sam Worthington, for example, is blank and dull as a kind of beefcake silver lining dude; Anna Kendrick is too chipper and upbeat for her role as a former member of Claire’s chronic pain support group; and William H Macy gets a mere minute to convince as Claire’s ex-husband, and understandably fails. (**)

The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä Mies)

Unsurprisingly, sports films – and boxing movies in particular – are filled with characters who have an incredibly strong will to win. Think of the pummellings the modern-day gladiators dish out and endure in the likes of The Fighter, Raging Bull and Southpaw, for example, before those very same boxers get back in the ring for another match. Narratives usually lead to some watershed moment in the ring, with slow motion blow-by-blow delivery of the action, sweat flying and bones crunching. Or think of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky as he sweats through yet another exhausting training montage, desperate to recapture former glories, particularly as he moves into his 50s and his waist expands. Y’know, Rocky, you really don’t have to put yourself through this any more…

The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki is very much an anti-boxing movie (though it’s not, for clarity’s sake, anti-boxing per se). In real life Mäki was a very successful amateur Finnish boxer, competing in the Olympics before later turning professional. He fought Davey Moore in Finland for the World Featherweight Title in 1962, only to lose in two rounds, and this beautiful black and white film by Juho Kuosmanen is set during the run-up to that bout, as well as its immediate aftermath. Really, though, the film is about the relationship between Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) and his girlfriend Raija Jänkä (played with a huge dose of warm-hearted charm by Finnish singer-turned-actor Oona Airola). This is in a developmental stage when Mäki is handed a shot at the world title, and it’s clear where his priorities lie; the fight receives lots of attention in Helsinki and beyond, meaning Mäki must spend less time with the love of his life and more time half-heartedly negotiating press conferences, pre-event balls and other related gatherings. Olli’s temporary trainer Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff), a former fighter who tasted glory himself, cannot understand why his charge is so ambivalent towards the upcoming match. For the audience it’s obvious: what we have here is a man who is good at what he does but he does not have the drive to get to the very top, and doesn’t like to be in the limelight; though due to cinematic conventions regarding success, we question why – is there something fundamentally wrong with this character? (Oddly enough, with that in mind, a character who I think closely resembles Mäki is Adam Driver’s poet Paterson in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson.)

It’s a light, unassuming but thoroughly entertaining film, the hand-held camerawork and the boxing gym locations bringing to mind Shane Meadows’ low-key debut TwentyFourSeven, though the images here are crisper and several scenes involving large numbers of people have been blocked beforehand, which adds to the more professional-looking edge. The main performances are excellent, and there’s an uplifting, unassuming feel to this underdog story that I liked very much. I thought I was done with boxing movies, which often seem to have turned into parodies of themselves of late, but this is a gem that quickly disarms anyone who mistakenly approaches it with weary cynicism. (****)

The Wailing (Gokseong)

I saw a flurry of positive reviews at the end of 2016 for this disturbing horror by South Korean director Na Hong-jin. Currently showing at the time of writing on Netflix in the UK, it’s a fairly long and extremely creepy film that starts off as a kind of black comedy with a plot that hints towards zombieism, before gradually turning into something much darker, slowly revealing its true nature during quite startling and well-constructed second and third acts. Our protagonist is Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a portly policeman in a South Korean mountain town who must investigate when locals suddenly become ravaged by disease and turn aggressive towards their friends and family. At first a virus is suspected, and then – oddly – an extra-strong magic mushroom is thought to be the cause; later, suspicion starts to fall on a quiet, private Japanese man, newly arrived in the area, played quite impressively by Jun Kunimura. This could be an allegory for Korean racism, or Korean attitudes to Japanese people in particular, and weirdly there also seems to be an implicit criticism of specific Japanese technology and the fetishisation of certain products; it becomes apparent, though, that something much more sinister is afoot, though I won’t say any more on that here. Na – who also wrote the story – constantly wrong-foots the viewer and even manages to keep the mystery going until the very end of the film, with various revelations ensuring you’ll probably want to go back and watch The Wailing again for earlier clues in the narrative. It’s beautifully shot by Hong Kyung-pyo, who has captured many luscious images of South Korea’s mountainous landscape, and superbly edited by Kim Sun-min, with a couple of standout sequences that cross-cut between various locations in a superb, frenetic fashion. It feels a touch derivative during the first half an hour, but eventually this becomes a bold, unsettling horror that will stay with you. (****)

Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto Del Fauno)

A rewatch, and the first time I’ve viewed this dark fairy tale since it was in cinemas, just over ten years ago. It’s still as magnificent as I thought it was back then, which is perhaps testament to Guillermo del Toro’s flair for writing a good story and for creating striking, scary creatures (and yes, I am including Sergi López’s brutal Captain Vidal in that monstrous bracket). A modern masterpiece. (*****)

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

A rather classy drama by David Lowery about a mother (Rooney Mara) and her relationship with two men: a jailbird on the run and the father of her child (Casey Affleck), and a local cop (Ben Foster), who happens to be the man who was shot and wounded during a standoff involving Affleck and Mara’s Bonnie-and-Cylde-esque criminals. It’s small-scale, intimate and very well performed, with Keith Carradine, Remi Malek and Nate Parker impressing alongside the three main cast members. There are echoes of the work of Jeff Nichols and Arthur Penn here, of Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller, and most obviously of early Terrence Malick, with a reliance on scenes set during the magic hour that brings the cinematography of Days Of Heaven to mind. An impressive debut, and after the slight detour of last year’s Pete’s Dragon, I’m interested to see Lowery’s next film A Ghost Story, which reunites Mara and Affleck. (***½)

Swallows And Amazons

Philippa Lowthorpe’s take on Arthur Ransome’s much-loved novel is a good-natured throwback, in which four young siblings form a gang while on holiday in the Lake District (‘The Swallows’), only to become embroiled in an adventure involving a rival group (‘The Amazons’) and some rather silly business about spying and secret agents on the cusp of World War II. I used to lap this kind of thing up when I was 10 or 11 years old, but I wonder whether it will seem a little slow and boring to kids today, who are generally more used to films that are bigger, faster and louder. Kelly MacDonald, Andrew Scott and Rafe Spall play the adults, and they’re joined by Harry Enfield and Jessica Hynes as a couple of gruff Cumbrians; one of the biggest shames is the latter pair are never really afforded the opportunity to cut loose. (**½)