Out in the UK This Week
Birdman (Fox, cert 15)
And coming right out of the sun to bag this year’s Best Picture Oscar, a director whose films had become increasingly up themselves, and a star whose career looked increasingly over, in one of the most purely enjoyable yet also intelligent films in years. It’s a reminder of the sort of film Hollywood used to produce in the 1930s, with screwball comedy clearly the inspiration for this backstage farce about a once-upon-a-time superhero actor (Michael Keaton) and his attempt to re-invent himself by acting in, producing and directing a stage performance of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, having discovered levity since 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful, keeps the camera constantly in motion – I read somewhere that the entire film is all one continuous shot, but if it is it isn’t distractingly so – while Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts and in particular Edward Norton all play monstrous versions of fragile egomaniac actors.
A heady blend of absolute artificiality and an in-your-face realism, the film works in juxtapositions – screen or stage, popularity or status, backstage and frontstage, acting and reality. What it isn’t is even vaguely what the marketing suggested it was – some sort of comedy about a faded superhero. And yet it is that too. I didn’t mention Emma Stone or Zach Galifianakis, both also remarkable in an entirely accessible film that’s about as arthouse as Hollywood gets.
The problem with most biopics is the dread tendency to hop from one headline to the next. The best ones – such as Hunger, Lawrence of Arabia or Ray – tend to be about people we don’t know that much about.
And what exactly do we know about Stephen Hawking? That he’s been in a wheelchair with some degenerative disease which was meant to have killed him off decades ago, and that he’s immensely clever, at some sort of Einsteinian cosmological level, and that he wrote a book, The Brief History of Time, that nobody read. Not much, in other words.
Which is possibly why this is one of the few biopics that works really well. I must say I wasn’t expecting this at all, what with The Theory of Everything being from Working Title, who seem to have been in a bit of a lull lately (I Give It a Year, Les Misérables, The World’s End, About Time – I realise I’m on my own with most of this list). But WT’s straight-ahead, mainstream tendencies are just right for this story about two people from old-school middle classes – jumpers and classical music – who meet at Oxford university and marry and have children. And then one of them becomes a world class physicist even as his body starts to pack in. And the other, she becomes the stay-at-home wife and all-purpose saint (let’s not forget that the film is based on the memoirs of Jane, the first Mrs Hawking).
Eddie Redmayne delivers more than just an Oscar-baiting Dalek in a wheelchair. His performance is canny. While still fully mobile, for instance, he gives us a foreshadowing of the famous Hawking rictus, which informs us that it’s the residue of an impish grin. Felicity Jones, meanwhile, takes another step closer to a future Oscar with her turn as the brightly practical Jane.
It’s a nimble film, ironic considering who it’s about, flitting from one revelatory episode to another, never banging a drum when a whisper will do – How exactly did Hawking father those children when he could barely move? Did Jane and Stephen have a tacit understanding about her womanly needs being satisfied elsewhere? Was Hawking’s relationship with his nurse (Maxine Peake) and future second wife based on a shared interest in porn? It’s all there, but in tasteful dead flat shades that won’t frighten the horses.
The Duke of Burgundy (Artificial Eye, cert 18)
I’ve seen three films by Budapest-domiciled Brit Peter Strickland. The first was Katalin Varga, a remarkable revenge movie shot in a pastiche East European style. Then came the giallo pastiche of Berberian Sound Studio. Now, another pastiche, this time of the sort of lesbian-tinged dramas turned out by the likes of Jess Franco in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The story follows two women who live in seclusion in an old aristocratically appointed house – one is the haughty grande dame (Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen), the other (Chiara D’Anna) is the slave she makes demands of. And when her servant makes a mistake, then there’s a sexual price to pay. It’s the sort of film where keyholes figure prominently, everyone speaks in that post-dubbed Euro-arthouse style, boots are worn, massages given, a seamed stocking is removed, dust hangs in the air and the light flares in the lens as the camera zooms in, where the voice of a breathy popstrel lilts on the soundtrack, where two bodies arch in … you get the idea.
Strickland adds a wry plot twist – which I won’t give away – but even so the law of diminishing returns is in operation with The Duke of Burgundy (a character who never appears and is never even referred to). Strickland’s budgets are getting bigger, along with his ambition, but he spends so much time getting the look right – the “trainspotting” as he calls it – that he seems to have forgotten about crafting an engaging drama. Copy Franco by all means, but remember he was a fabulous stylist but lousy at dramatics. And, Peter, no nipples. Why not?
Dreamcatcher (Dogwoof, cert E)
The ho’s and pimps stereotype of rap video gets a handbrake turn in documentarian Kim Longinotto’s profile of the remarkable Brenda Myers-Powell, the former prostitute who now patrols the streets of Chicago trying to persuade working girls to join her Dreamcatcher Foundation. She wants to help them “catch a dream”.
Without exception the women she meets are victims of poverty, bad education, exploitation, addiction or desperation, or they’ve just wound up on the streets having been more or less groomed for the job since birth. Most of them look beat up. Myers-Powell indefatigably dons wigs and fine clothes to tour schools and conventions, talking to the at-risk and the professionals, about her work on what is the sex-worker equivalent of the AA program.
Longinotto has good access – we see plenty of Brenda, at home, flopped on her bed; we meet the guy who used to be her pimp, and who now works for her (Myers-Powell observes with a laugh). If we perhaps get more of the Myers-Powell domestic situation than seems strictly necessary, as part of a package about a fireball on a mission it’s acceptable. How effective Myers-Powell actually is, we never find out.
I Need a Dodge! Joe Strummer on the Run (Tindog, cert E)
In the early 1980s, having thrown most of the Clash out of the band, Joe Strummer fled to Spain, where he laid low for a few months licking his wounds. You couldn’t do this now, of course; Twitter brooks no holidays. And while there, off the radar entirely, he started hanging out with various up-and-coming musicians on the local scene, the band 091 most notably.
A documentary consisting of perhaps too much reminiscence by the band members – who must have been very young then because 30 years later they’re still only in early middle age (or it’s the Mediterranean diet) – this fits neatly into that “wilderness years” category created by Richard Olivier’s fabulous Transit Ostend doc, about Marvin Gaye’s time hiding out in the Belgian ferry port.
Except director Nick Hall doesn’t have the footage that Olivier had. In fact he’s got a cassette recording of Strummer being interviewed on Spanish radio, plus all those talking heads, the British ones (eg the members of Clash 2 and Strummer’s former partner Gaby Salter) now in their rock anecdotage, the Spanish still hunched in an echo of the “we’re not worthy” poses they must have been pulling in Granada way back when.
Linking all these elements is the half-hearted story of Strummer’s missing Dodge car which might exist now only as a bit of rock apocrypha – certainly no one can agree on what colour it was. But, you know, it works. It isn’t a particularly expertly made film. It’s more in the “chuck it together and we’ll come up with a tune as we go” punk ethos. But it has something to say about the man and the times. Or maybe it’s just that it’s achingly nostalgic. And maybe that’s enough.
Late Phases: Night of the Wolf (Metrodome, cert 18)
I’ve enjoyed a few films Nick Damici was involved in. On watching Late Phases, I remembered that it was Damici’s writing I’d admired (Mulberry Street, Cold in July and Stake Land all injecting bite into potentially routine horror-genre fodder). Here, he’s acting. Nothing wrong with his acting either. But in all honesty I don’t think I can recommend this werewolf movie, though it does have a neat twist – the shapeshifting lycanthrope is targeting the old, not the young. Damici plays the Vietnam-veteran tough bastard moving reluctantly into a gated community full of geriatrics, where he’s patronised by the local police and drooled over by ladies who behave as if the only other man they’ve seen in years is the cosmetic surgeon.
All very promising, this mix of characters, the setting and the potential questions it poses – When do you finally admit that you’re old old? In what small ways are the old made to feel as if they’re just in the way? And how in particular is approaching the end of life going to impact the boomer generation, carriers of the mythic torch of youth?
Writer Eric Stolze and director Adrián García Bogliano touch on these ideas only to abandon them, unfortunately. Instead they focus on the werewolves. Here, bad creature effects let them down. And they let themselves down too: having failed to detail exactly this old soldier’s erection of elaborate Home Alone defences when he realises the creatures are coming, we’re denied the joy of procedural set-up and delivery as the traps are sprung.
Fellini Satyricon (Eureka, cert 18)
This gorgeous, plausibly grainy 4K restoration of Fellini’s 1969 “sci-fi” movie about ancient Rome looks very much like Fellini’s attempt to out-Pasolini Pasolini – the handsome young men, the sexual goings-on, the lush mis-en-scène, the North African touches. But it lacks Pasolini’s gaiety (in every sense of the word) and is, for all its visual merits, heavy-handed in terms of satire (pre-Christian Rome is like post-Christian modern Italy, you say?).
Telling the story of the long-legged Encolpio (Martin Potter) and his teasing falling-out with his friend Ascilto (Hiram Keller), and then digressing into stories within stories, it looks like a director deliberately pandering to the arthouse porn crowd, Fellini injecting a sex scene every few minutes, when he’s not getting a man into a loincloth or a woman into a headdress. Or is he advertising for a job as a theatre designer?
When it came out, with Fellini’s name attached and La Dolce Vita and 8½ behind him, it was almost impossible to point out that this film is dramatically inert – and Fellini certainly keeps the camera swinging and the actors laughing their big operatic laughs and lunging at each other, as if that way we might not notice what’s not going on. But the “tell” is in the title – look, it is by I, the great Fellini, he says, protesting too much.
Looks good, though, undeniably. Would it have been improved if Terence Stamp had been in it, instead of Potter, which was the original intention? A touch, perhaps.
© Steve Morrissey 2015