Saturday 16 December 2017

Movie reviews: Mississippi Grind, Maya the Bee, Listen to Me Marlon, The Last Witch Hunter, Taxi Tehran, The Legend of Longwood

On dicey ground: Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds let it roll and gamble it all in thriller 'Mississippi Grind'.
On dicey ground: Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds let it roll and gamble it all in thriller 'Mississippi Grind'.
Any with way: Slayer Vin Diesel is losing the head
Fare play: Jafar Panahi, who is banned from making movies by the Iranian government, poses as a taxi driver and makes a movie about social challenges in Iran.

Hilary A White, Aine O'Connor.

Reviewed this week are Mississippi Grind, Maya The Bee, Listen to Me Marlon, The Last Witch Hunter, The Legend of Longwood, and Taxi Tehran.

From Cool Hand Luke to The Cooler, gambling in cinema has a long and rich tradition. Peopled by Mafia dons, mathematicians and compulsive no-hopers, it is a fecund ground for human drama, a place where life metaphors are never far away from high-stakes perspiration and endeavouring to play the hand you've been dealt. 

Mississippi Grind reminds you of such a lineage without contributing greatly to it. The writer-director partnership of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden serve up fine performances from Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds amid a grubby cruise through lowlife USA and life-altering throws of the dice. It's all perfectly pitched and evocative but it only smoulders without ever breaking out into a real flame.

Any heat comes from the routinely excellent Mendelsohn as Gerry, a ruinous gambler who comes by Curtis (Reynolds), a younger, more charismatic version of himself. The pair form an alliance and set off to take the gambling world by storm. The foundation of their bond seems tenuous, particularly in light of their differing attitudes to gaming. For Curtis, it's all fun and games and you bow out before an eye is lost. For Gerry, a sickness is at the heart of his self-desolation, one that takes him dangerously close to oblivion. They pair up so effortlessly that you start to wonder is Curtis simply Gerry's fantasy alter-ego, which at least would have been novel.

Watch out for Analeigh Tipton and an unrecognisable Sienna Miller in thankless supporting roles as hookers with hearts of gold. PPP


Now showing

Maya The Bee

Cert: G

Maya (voiced by Coco Jack Gillies) is an impetuous tomboy (tombee?) who breaks out early from her nursery cell within the bustling hive with a thirst to get stuck into life. When she walks in on a plot by Buzzlina Von Beena (Jackie Weaver) to overthrow the Queen, she is quickly banished from the hive. Joined by fellow outsider Willy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), she learns much about the wider world and debunks the myths that she had been fed about rival hornets, fiddle-playing grasshoppers and other fauna. 

Everything about Alexs Stadermann’s preschooler-grade animation is sweet and round and colourful. But for those adults roped into minding the little ones in an Omniplex for an hour and half, don’t expect Pixar here; the word “bee” is wedged into everything in a litany of poor puns that would be above even the lowliest sub-editor (the awful obligatory musical number reveals lines like “shake your bee-hind” etc).

We can sniff all we like at the dearth of well-penned belly laughs and the loose interpretation of beehive dynamics, but the truth is Maya The Bee is strictly for children under the age of six, most of whom will get a buzz (sorry) out of its simplistic fable of a young bee having lots of gentle adventures in the sunny undergrowth. There will be nary a thought for Waldemar Bonsels’s 1912 source books. This is about capitalising on the success of the 2012 TV series and nothing more. PP


Now showing

Listen to Me Marlon

No Cert

In his previous films, Stevan Riley has shown his skill at melding narrative, archive and images to make a piece of history come to life. In Listen to Me Marlon he does the same but because of the extraordinary source material it feels a little messy at times. However, that seems appropriate, for this is much more autobiography than biography. Riley, although writer, director and editor, is really curating Brando’s own version of himself via the audio tapes that the actor made throughout his life.

With the full co-operation of the Brando estate, this is the first time the hundreds of hours of tapes have been heard; these are Brando’s own changing thoughts on acting, fame, his life, family and himself. They are also an attempt to find peace for a busy and troubled mind, attempts that included self-hypnosis, from which the film title comes. Riley illustrates them with film clips, home movies, TV appearances and, eerily, a digitised version of Brando’s head that was made for Superman; the effect is remarkable. Brando (inset) was a hugely skilled actor with a reputation for being difficult; this almost autobiography reveals him to be clever, pensive, sensitive, riddled with guilt, honest, self-aware but not self-pitying, a perfectionist who perhaps fought to master his craft because mastering life proved so difficult. He was also a social activist long before that was a popular Hollywood thing to do, indeed he was much criticised for his involvement with the civil rights movement.

His sex appeal onscreen was easily equalled in life; he is shown flirting mercilessly with interviewers and co-stars alike and is thought to have fathered 16 children. The film’s 100 minutes open and close with the most tragic episode in his life, when his son Christian shot and killed his half-sister Cheyenne’s boyfriend, Dag Drollet. Christian ended up in jail, Cheyenne dead, Brando broken.

It’s a pity that this has such a limited release because it’s a remarkable insight into a fascinating man, who despite all of his intelligence, self-knowledge and analysis could not seem to fully make sense of life or manage to construct happiness either for himself or for those around him. . It’s a must-see for actors and Brando fans, but just as appealing for anyone with even half an interest in humans. PPP


Light House, Opens Oct 30

The Last Witch Hunter

Cert: 12A

Nolanistas will baulk at the suggestion but this daft and cumbersome supernatural actioner bears patches of similar plumage to Christopher Nolan’s massive Batman trilogy. We find a husky-voiced, moneyed vigilante (Vin Diesel, in this case), whose supremacy is brought into question by the revival of an arch nemesis. There’s a city to be saved and nice old Michael Caine is on hand to impart some limey slaps on the back.

That’s as far as comparisons to Nolan’s iconic films go, because The Last Witch Hunter is unlikely to be spoken of again once its time in auditoria passes. That’s not to say Breck Eisner’s CGI-heavy romp is no fun — there is a daft abandon here that is hard to stay mad at — it’s just utterly insubstantial, a cut-price knock-up cobbled together from sub-par scraps (Constantine, Blade, John Carpenter’s Vampires).

We know Diesel (Fast And Furious) can’t really act so it’s just as well he has little to do here other than murmur slowly and look tough in the face of ghastly demons. He plays Kaulder, doomed to an eternity slaying renegade witches after being cursed by the Witch Queen.

Back then, it was all snowy wastes and preposterous beards, but now Kaulder lives in 5th Avenue opulence and is dressed by GQ. A truce between witches and mortals has been broken somehow so he teams up with sassy witch Chloe (Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie, one of a tiny handful of non-dastardly female characters) to fix the bad-witch wagon. Elijah Wood’s creepy priest assists.

If you can forgive Diesel’s hopelessness, the lame dialogue, and the fact you can see around every plot corner from a distance, The Last Witch Hunter is tolerable. It releases ample fireworks throughout its litany of silliness to justify the purchase of overpriced popcorn and sugary beverages. PPP


Now showing

Taxi Tehran

No Cert

In 2010, on a fairly vague charge of subversion, Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from film-making for 20 years. He served three months before he was released but he was denied access to the tools of his trade. He has nonetheless made three films since then. Taxi Tehran, the least downbeat of those, has won him many prizes this year and whilst seemingly simple, is a good-humoured act of defiance.

Panahi plays a taxi driver, a fairly inept one who doesn’t know the routes or how to charge fares and asks people to get out and get a different cab. This and the system of taxi-sharing mean that there is a broader range of passengers in his cab than might normally be the case. It is never stated overtly whether the film is scripted or spontaneous but it becomes apparent as it runs its course that the passengers are not random and have at least been prompted. Each one raises a different issue about life in Iran, issues that Panahi has dealt with in his previous works, and that got him into trouble.

His first passengers debate the death penalty, a DVD bootlegger discusses censorship, an injured man wants to make a will so that his (hideously wailing) wife will inherit his property instead of his brothers. These laws are all based on Sharia so presumably the two elderly sisters who believe their very survival depends on the timely release of two goldfish are introduced to suggest the randomness of belief.

Some of the passengers recognise Panahi and there are several references to his films. Perhaps that is to suggest that attempts to silence him haven’t worked, or perhaps not. That’s one of the difficulties with the film, not all of the metaphors are clear. There are, however, many clear references to how film-making is no longer the preserve of a few. The entire film is recorded on his taxi dashcam, which he can direct at passengers, himself or out the window. There are references to camera-phone filming and security footage and when his tweenage (real life) niece (Hana Saeidi) gets in the car she, too, has a camera.

The niece has a school project to make a film and with it a long list of dos and don’ts, all of the rules around making a film that is “screenable” or “unscreenable”, which she reads out to her uncle. Amongst the edicts is one to avoid “sordid realism” an edict against which she stumbles within moments of beginning her project. The final passenger, a female human rights lawyer, pulls all the threads together, acknowledging that to do so is sordid reality.  On the surface innocuous, this is a subversive and brave film.


Oct 30 IFI

The Legend of Longwood

Cert: PG

Mickey Miller (Lucy Morton, inset) moves from New York to the fictional Irish village of Longwood with her mother (Thekla Reuten) and younger brother. Her father went missing in the Middle East years ago and her leg is banjaxed following a riding accident. She’s brave, smart and gets on well with horses. If this sounds like the perfect heroine for younger female viewers to get behind, then it’s no accident. This German-Dutch-Irish co-production came second in its category at last year’s Giffoni Film Festival, Europe’s largest children’s film event. Michael Garland of Dublin’s Grand Pictures and director Lisa Mulcahy knew exactly what they were up to.

Mickey settles uneasily in Longwood (Enniskerry and its surrounds, basically), harrumphing about her new environment until she encounters the Black Knight, a local ghost who haunts the sleepy village.

She learns of a link between this apparition and a beautiful herd of white horses seen near Longwood Castle. She snoops around, and uncovers corruption, supernatural phenomenon and age-old legends in a cocktail of fantasy adventure that generally finds its target.

Mulcahy (Red Rock, The Clinic) herself hibernicised the tale penned by Dutch writer Nadadja Kemper and creates a fairytale version of modern Ireland. It’s full of twee charm and makes great use of autumnal north Wicklow, but unravels a little towards the end under the weight of its own ambition.

Hilary A White.

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