Antigang (aka The Sweeney: Paris, aka The Squad) (Rocher, 2016): This routine cops n’ robbers thriller was released as Antigang in France, The Squad in some other territories and the terribly-named The Sweeney: Paris in the UK (because it’s a French remake of Nick Love’s dire 2011 film The Sweeney, itself a big screen, modern take on the gritty, London-set 1970’s cop show of the same name). Anyway, it opens promisingly enough, with Jean Reno’s grizzled cop (relationship problems / heavy drinking / they don’t like his methods / but he gets results) extolling the virtues of Johnny Hallyday before he and his team carry out a raid on some generic, balaclava-clad criminals, but really that’s pretty much all that happens during the next 90 minutes (minus the chat about Johnny Hallyday). It’s far too repetitive, with a large number of one-note, completely underdeveloped characters, and it’s all fairly dull as a result. Reno’s usual on-screen charisma seems to have gone walkabout.
Sleeping With Other People (Headland, 2016): A reasonably funny New York-set romcom, and it’s nice to see a decent film role for Alison Brie, who has produced so much excellent work for TV in recent years, most notably Community, Bojack Horseman and Mad Men. Jason Sudeikis I’m less fond of, but he’s OK here, I guess, as a sort of chirruping lummox. They play a couple of thirtysomethings who once slept together at college before meeting cute years later at a ‘love addicts’ meeting; they become ‘good friends’ despite the fact they’re clearly perfect soulmates and attracted to one another, but neither of them makes a move and instead they both sleep with other people, as the title makes abundantly clear. Then, instead of the predicted ending, an alien race invades Earth and makes Brie’s character their new queen before dismembering Sudeikis’s bro in an alarmingly disgusting fashion, with entrails flying across the screen left, right and centre. Possibly.
Irrational Man (Allen, 2015): When Woody Allen’s 2016 film came out recently I realised I hadn’t yet seen his 2015 film, and on balance I’m quite glad I got round to it. Irrational Man isn’t a classic, by any means, but neither is it the kind of Allen film that has fans tearing what remains of their hair out or hammering on the wall with their fists, bemoaning the lack of a latter-day Annie Hall or Crimes & Misdemeanours. It begins in a familiar way, with Joaquin Phoenix’s downbeat, uninspired professor Abe Lucas starting a new job at a fictional, well-to-do New England college. We’re firmly within the (mainly) white, chattering upper classes, once again, and Abe’s arrival on campus is preceded by a reputation for boozing and womanising, so you can probably see where this is going to go. Love blooms as he enters into an affair with Emma Stone’s smart student (and Parker Posey’s fellow teacher), but as it happens things take an unexpected turn when a random conversation in a diner is overheard, and our prof suddenly becomes inspired again, albeit in a bad way. Allen has made better, of course, but ah this one’s OK.
Mavis! (Edwards, 2016): A ‘what it does on the tin’ kind of music documentary about Mavis Staples: it’s unassuming, with filmmaker Jessica Edwards mainly placing her faith in archive footage of performances by the subject, as well as some more up-to-date concert film and newly-filmed anecdotal interviews. And Staples is a genuinely entertaining raconteur, mostly talking with enthusiasm and an infectious smile plastered across her face, though there are some tears when she discusses her late bandmember Pops Staples. There are numerous other talking heads, too, including Bob Dylan.
Janis: Little Girl Blue (Berg, 2016): By contrast, Amy Berg’s documentary about Janis Joplin is a little more ambitious, though arguably it has to cover less, considering that Joplin died aged 27 and her musical career lasted for less than a decade. It’s sad, in the same way Joplin’s life was clouded with sadness (the film does nothing to challenge this legend), but there are excellent performances here amid the discussions of her struggles, most notably in DA Pennebaker’s footage from the Monterey Pop Festival, which finishes with an impressed Mama Cass mouthing ‘wow’ in the crowd. Some of Joplin’s diary entries and once-private letters home are read aloud by Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, whose own nearly-breaking voice with all its life-lived-on-the-road experience makes her a well-chosen narrator. The film feels thorough, and seems to be well-researched.
Tallulah (Heder, 2016): A Netflix original release directed by Sian Heder, who previously wrote for the service’s hit TV show Orange Is The New Black. Ellen Page plays a drifter who decides to steal a baby from a stranger in a New York hotel room; Alison Janney is her former partner’s mother, offering shelter and help while she’s unaware of the baby’s true origins. Neither looks entirely comfortable to me as the film lurches awkwardly from one melodramatic scene to the next but they’ve garnered plenty of praise for their performances, so I guess I’m missing something.
Eddie The Eagle (Fletcher, 2016): A deliberately corny, deliberately schmaltzy underdog sports film containing a Chariots Of Fire-referencing soundtrack that made me want to bang my head against the wall. Lots of people seem to have responded well to Dexter Fletcher’s third movie as a director – it’s the highest-grossing British film of 2016 at the time of writing, though Bridge Jones’ Baby will probably beat it – so this miseryguts appears to be out of step with the general consensus yet again; however I’d had enough of the gentle feelgood factor after five or ten minutes and the tone and performances grated thereafter. Taron Edgerton tries hard with some facial gymnastics, Hugh Jackman is just terrible, and I’ve rarely enjoyed watching Keith Allen. I remember the fuss around Eddie The Eagle and the Calgary Winter Olympics well, and his is certainly a very unusual and interesting story, but there was something inherently tragic about the guy and the film never once tries to explore this angle. Instead he’s just painted as a sweet-natured but incompetent, buffoonish simpleton, which matches the convenient image peddled by the British tabloid press in 1988. Weirdly, though, there’s a bit when Christopher Walken does a monologue that sounds like the ‘watch-up-his-ass’ speech from Pulp Fiction. He appears in a couple of scenes with Jackman, and it’s impossible to determine who has the bigger dollar signs in their ‘just-pay-me’ eyes.
Theeb (Nowar,2015): I found this drama interesting from a cultural perspective – this is the first film I’ve seen that’s set in Jordan, and my knowledge of the country’s early-20th Century history isn’t particularly great. (Um…that’s an understatement.) The story is fairly straightforward, with skirmishes and other incidents involving a British soldier and some bandits largely seen through the eyes of the titular young boy (Jacir Eid), an orphaned nomad, and there are a couple of extremely gripping scenes involving shootouts during the second act. These follow a slow, inauspicious beginning and precede a more reflective final third. I’ve seen it described as a ‘Bedouin western’ here and there; I’m not sure if that phrase has come from the director or someone else involved with the making or distribution of the film, but it seems a little reductive to me, given that it’s using the most American of genres to describe filmmaking that’s resolutely from and about the Arab world. I guess Theeb does invite the tag by subverting that particular genre on occasion: in the final scene, for example, the usual western shot of a lonesome adult hero riding off into the sunset on horseback is replaced by a young kid wandering slowly into the desert atop a camel.
The Immigrant (Chaplin, 1917): Is this one of the first films made about the American Dream? Some initial boat-based shenanigans – complete with wonky, nausea-inducing camerawork – give way to a smartly-played restaurant scene as Chaplin’s Tramp arrives in the US. He’s on the make throughout, but it’s the sweet-natured scenes with Edna Purviance that are the most memorable and affecting. Eric Campbell’s timing as the Head Waiter is impeccable.
Krigen (A War) (Lindholm, 2016): Like his earlier films, this Oscar-nominated drama by Tobias Lindholm (The Hunt, A Hijacking) wrestles with complex moral issues and also places much weight on the shoulders of one man (a Danish Army Officer, played by Lindholm regular Pilou Asbæk). It’s a tense and emotional picture that’s set partly in Afghanistan – where we see some of the dangers and situations faced by the Danish army, in scenes that are almost completely drained of gung-ho heroism – and partly in Denmark. Asbæk gives a very good performance as a Commanding Officer who is court-martialled after ordering an airstrike on Taleban forces that results in civilian casualties, and his scenes in Afghanistan in the middle of war are particularly gripping. Where last year’s Kajaki focused on one patrol in a relatively small area in Helmand Province, this feels slightly more expansive, attempting to wade through murky legal waters relating to expected behaviour during conflict, as well as examining (slightly more generally) the western coalition occupation of the country. That said, this is another film about the country and this particular war where Afghan characters are once again marginal. Faring better is Tuva Novotny, who has a critical role as Asbæk’s wife. Rather than a stock partner-back-home who pops up intermittently to remind audiences of what is at stake for the Danish men who are fighting abroad, her role is substantial and her continuing struggles back in Denmark are not understated, which is not something you could say about most war films, and certainly not about any that have covered the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s excellent, though it does lose steam during the second hour when it becomes a court procedural.