Out This Week
The Revenant (Fox, cert 15)
Last year Alejandro González Iñárritu won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscar for Birdman. The gongs have clearly gone slightly to his head and he now thinks he’s Terrence Malick. If there’s one thing this thrilling, frequently brutal and historically fascinating film doesn’t need is slo-mo glides through the awesomeness of its natural beauties – grandiose waterfalls, snowy wastes, virgin forests and the like. But we get them anyway, and if you’re feeling gracious, you might take them as a palate-cleanser between attacks by Indians, bears and the elements as 1820s fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) fights his way from a severe ursine mauling and almost certain death out on his ownsome in the wilderness back to civilisation and a showdown with human nemesis John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). DiCaprio, bathing in Iñárritu’s glow, won an Oscar for what is a good performance, certainly a lot better than Tom Hardy’s, which is another of his bewildering mumbling affairs with a fair bit of Robert Newton’s Long John Silver thrown in for… fun? Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is the real star of the show, Lubezki alternating his luxe YouTube pov style with up-close-and-very-personal details such as the water bubbling out of Glass’s punctured trachea when he takes a swallow of water, a problem soon fixed by applying gunpowder to the hole and igniting. This sort of stuff – eating buffalo liver warm, making a fish trap out of stones – are what give the film its claims to specialness, lessons learned from 12 Years a Slave that it’s historical specifics that make audiences sit up and take notice. Ignore the breathing on the camera lens – Iñárritu pulls this stunt twice – and other flowery poetics, and there’s a great film here.
Victoria (Curzon, cert 15)
An even greater film is Victoria, by new-to-me director Sebastian Schipper. It follows a young Spanish woman having the night of her life in Berlin – meeting a bunch of lairy lads, falling for one of them, getting involved in a felony, and the fallout from that – and what makes it remarkable is the fact that it’s all shot in one take. That’s two hours and 20 minutes of seat-of-pants choreography of actors, camera and crew. It sounds like a gimmick but it’s artistically justified since this is a long heady rush of a night as it happens to a new-in-town impressionable character – one pause (ie edit) and Victoria (Laia Costa) might think twice and know she’s in over her head. The acting – by Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski, Burak Yigit and Max Mauff – is remarkably fresh and street-real, though it’s Costa and Lau who carry the burden of the film, as the woman and man whose developing relationship also gives the film heart. Look closer and it’s clear that though this is shot in real time, all manner of liberties have been taken with dramatic time – Victoria and Lau’s punchy Sonne at one point go to the cafe where she works to open up for early trade, manage a bit of “getting to know you” business, he leaves, returns with his crew, leaves again, all in the space of around five minutes. Again and again the same compression trick is pulled, with things happening much faster on screen than they ever could in real life. The result is a film with grip, agility and flow, and makes Aleksandr Sokurov’s fabulous “one shot” movie, Russian Ark, look mannered by comparison.
Spotlight (E One, cert 15)
If you’ve ever wished there could be more films like All the President’s Men, you’re in luck, because here’s Spotlight. The similarities start with it being a story about crusading journalists whose competitive camaraderie helps them nail a big story. But they don’t end there – this is a true story set in a city whose history and culture (Political Washington in the case of the 1970s film, Catholic Boston here) dictate what the story is and erect obstacles to the investigation. And both feature someone called Bradlee – Ben Bradlee in the case of All the President’s Men, the executive editor of the Washington Post as Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate story; Ben Bradlee Jr (his son) in Spotlight, the editor at the Boston Globe responsible for the investigation that uncovered not just the city’s paedophile priest problem, but the Catholic Church’s cover-up of it. I’m going to stop comparing the two films now, except to say that William Goldman’s screenplay for ATPM was a masterpiece of silken exposition, and so is Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer’s here (Singer wrote whole chunks of The West Wing, so he knows how to do this sort of thing). In fact so good is the writing that it throws the actors into the shade a touch. Or, fairer, the actors subsume themselves to the grander purpose of the film, and what a job Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams do as the frontline journos, while Liev Schreiber (as editor Marty Baron) and John Slattery (as Bradlee Jr) are also magnificently right for their roles. This is one of those films where everything just clicks – Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup as competing lawyers also ideal – in so satisfying a way that it’s easy to under-estimate how perfectly crafted everything is. And consider this – there is nothing essentially new being revealed here, since we’ve all known about these scandals now for some years. Which makes the manner of the telling of this in-many-ways standard procedural story all the more remarkable. No melodrama or false histrionics either.
Youth (StudioCanal, cert 15)
Though he’s clearly some kind of movie-making genius, I’m beginning to wonder if Paolo Sorrentino’s writing is getting in the way of his direction. Or possibly vice versa. In films such as The Consequences of Love, The Family Friend, Il Divo, This Must Be the Place, The Great Beauty (the ones I’ve seen, in other words), a sometimes austere but always languid beauty has been evident. But is the tempo of the verbal interchanges between characters slowing things down a touch? Or is it the exquisite stately visuals? Which is another way of saying that halfway through Youth I was convinced it was a masterpiece, but by the end it felt as if Sorrentino had dropped the ball. In structure it’s Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. There, a TB convalescent sat up a mountain in an alpine sanatorium and had long, searching conversations about the big questions in life. Here, the convalescent is Michael Caine, aping the owlish neck swivels and lizard gazes of Sorrentino’s stylish muse, Toni Servillo, and doing it brilliantly. Except Caine’s retired British composer isn’t recovering from sickness, he’s just old, recovering from youth, if you will. Alongside, to engage in debate about impending death and the life lived well (or not, which is the point) are a string of busted males – among them Harvey Keitel’s faded yet raging film director and Paul Dano’s Ryan Gosling-alike tyro film star. And bullshit-detecting females – Rachel Weisz as the composer’s upset daughter, Jane Fonda as the angry star of Keitel’s next film, the stunning Madalina Diana Ghenea, who, clothed or naked, seems to be there to make everyone else look bad, and Paloma Faith as herself, a bit of baroque fun being had with a pop promo Sorrentino creates for her in a fantasy sequence – it’s Madonna on stilts, essentially, and as eye-popping as it is amusing. The men are deluded or phonies, the women are real. The sanatorium, though, is at another level of artificiality and Sorrentino keeps dropping in shots of towels folded into swans, people bent over in steam rooms, stupefied, unmoving, glimpsed through fogged windows. It’s a statuary vision of hell, of sorts, of Death in Venice (another Mann story), a slow dissolve in the most gorgeous of settings, to the rhythms of Fellini, Sorrentino’s default setting, even if the director this time around saves the Full Sorrentino (a coming together of beautiful setting, dramatic lighting, swooping camera and nano-precise edits) only for his dream sequences. And Fellini’s films often smelt of despair. If Youth smelt of anything it would be, bitter arthouse irony, formaldehyde.
Mavis! (Dogwoof, cert E)
Mavis! is the story of 75-year-old Mavis Staples, one of the Staple Singers and solo artist, which starts off with a tiny clip of Mavis warming up with her band backstage, and introduces us to her voice, a big, sensual moose of a thing which she’s been using for 60 years to make a living. You don’t see Bob Dylan turning up to testify in many documentaries about singers, but he does here, it turning out that Bob wanted to marry Mavis back in the early 1960 – “We got pretty friendly about that time,” he says, coyly – when she sported a Diana Ross straight hair style and looked quite the thing. “I’m just everyday people. I’ve never been on a star trip,” she says now. And though she’s saying it from the back of a limo, we suspect it’s true, her ever-present sister Yvonne’s pursed lips alone enough to keep her grounded. It’s the tiny moments that make Jessica Edwards’s affectionate documentary worth seeking out. Such as Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who’s largely responsible for her late career renaissance, playing back some of the mixes he’s done on old recordings by Pops Staples – guiding force of the Staple Singers until he died in 2000, aged 85 – and we see Yvonne and Mavis singing along too, so deep into the music that they sing oblivious to the fact they’re doing it. It’s a lovely film about a great singer, and details such as her tough early life in South Detroit, early introduction to Martin Luther King, and the Staple Singers’ embrace of rock music (not without resistance from the gospel mainstream), which would be the sell for a lesser talent, well, they add colour but they aren’t the reason to seek this out. The reason is the music. “If you don’t see me singing, look for me in heaven,” says Mavis, and this “gospel rough” (Chuck D’s assessment) voice isn’t lying.
Dirty Grandpa (Lionsgate, cert 15)
Lots to be wary of here. Robert De Niro’s track record with comedy – I don’t count pulling an upside down smiley face as comic chops, sorry. Zac Efron’s smug Adonis routine. The fact that Dan Mazer is the director, Mazer having been behind the terrible romcom I Give It a Year. And then there’s the whole high concept, of a randy widower heading off to spring break with his unwilling straitlaced grandson. But then hang on a minute – De Niro’s seriously sour wedding speech in Joy was one of that over-praised film’s standout moments, Efron does at least poke fun at his buffness, and I Give It a Year might have been a film full of horrible people but there were at least some very funny moments (another wedding speech, notably, this time by Stephen Merchant). “Like Abercrombie fucked Fitch,” is how Efron is described early on, by Zoey Deutch, who, along with Aubrey Plaza, are the gal-pal duo who provide love interest for Efron and, remarkably, De Niro. De Niro’s Dick Kelly, not realising he is tangling with a girl who has a thing for older men, tries one of his many “ew” lines on Plaza as the foursome are discussing the golf game he is about to have with Jason (Efron) – “Obviously I’ve got the bigger 3 wood”, he snickers, comparing himself to his grandson. “Good,” replies Plaza. “Maybe, Professor, you can use it to knock your balls into my vagina.” And there it is – the film’s claim to glory. Dirty, funny writing. As for the rest of it – Midnight Run Slight Return, you could say, though De Niro never shouted “Party till you’re pregnant” at Charles Grodin, nor did Grodin take his top off as much as Efron. But a couple of mismatched guys travelling from Point A to Point B, properly filthy jokes, a standout turn by Jason Mantzoukas as a manic drug dealer. And Plaza, who’s got a gift for comedy that is rare. And didn’t we get to see De Niro rapping? And Dermot Mulroney with dicks drawn all over his face? Oh, go on!
Journey to the Shore (Eureka, cert 15)
Emotionally inert since her husband died some years before, a Japanese piano teacher is overjoyed when he simply returns to their apartment one night, apparently none the worse for wear, though dead all the same. They set off on a journey together, the living woman and her dead, though vibrant, chatty, engaged man, visiting other couples in a similar situation – one dead, one alive, sometimes witting, sometimes not. An intensely grounded supernatural movie is the result, a zombie film without the shuffling or the screaming, with emotion held at trembling distance, while a sub-Wagnerian shimmering soundtrack threatens at any point to burst into tears. Fabulous actress Eri Fukatsu, meanwhile, works the many registers at her disposal to suggest the emotions that might be competing in the psyche of a grieving woman who has her husband back – but why, and at what karmic cost? Writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, meanwhile, using lectures in physics given by the returnee as a conduit, dabbles in the realm of quantum mechanics – if many worlds are possible, then one in which the dead are alive isn’t beyond the credible – and Kurosawa clearly intends for his film to be a long, deep meditational bath. Too slow for me, though. Too stone-faced. Maybe I have no soul.
Journey to the Shore – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2016