Out in the UK This Week
Gone Girl (Fox, cert 18)
Authors are often not the best adapters of their own work for the screen, because they’re too close to the original – Norah Ephron’s Heartburn (a novel and film about her disintegrating marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein) being the classic example. But Gillian Flynn does an impressive job turning her smash novel into a big screen property, keeping most of the plot curlicues, and maintaining for as long as possible the “did he/didn’t he” structure. Ben Affleck plays the husband painted by every shred of evidence turned up by the police as the murderer of his disappeared high-maintenance wife (Rosamund Pike). It’s another example of solid, heavily procedural glossy film-making by director David Fincher – who has been doing this sort of thing well since Seven at least (The Social Network and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also rely on Fincher’s adeptness at procedure). “Solid” might seem a bit flimsy as an adjective of praise, but it’s the solidity in every quarter that stands out – Affleck and Pike’s performance, as well as those of Neil Patrick Harris (as a creepy former beau of the “gone girl”), Tyler Perry (as the hotshot lawyer the husband hires to save his skin). Other little enjoyments include the fact that the women are almost always smarter than the men, though not necessarily nicer, and that guilt and innocence increasingly become a matter of media perception, outflanking facts and the workings of the legal system.
Maps to the Stars (E One, cert 18)
After the period drama A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg returned to social satire with Cosmopolis, but Maps to the Stars feels much more like the Cronenberg of old compared to that filigree chamber piece. The King of Venereal horror is what they used to call him and there’s plenty of venereal action going on in this drama, mostly courtesy of Julianne Moore as the fading Hollywood star crashing her career towards oblivion. Though the film is more about the super-dysfunctional family of her masseur, played by John Cusack – his appalling child-star son (Evan Bird), his deranged daughter (Mia Wasikowska), his fragile bird partner (Olivia Williams). Creepiness is the overall tone and chilliness is the emotional temperature – you don’t come to a Cronenberg film hoping for characters to warm to or identify with. It’s grand guignol stuff, in other words, with Cronenberg reminding us that he was David Lynch before David Lynch was David Lynch. And if it never quite attains Sunset Boulevard levels of blackness in terms of what it actually says about Hollywood, Bruce Wagner’s script has some jaw-dropping dialogue reflecting the sociopathic solipsism of its characters and there are moments of genuine yuck that will stick with you. Again, Julianne Moore – give that woman a gong.
In Order of Disappearance (Metrodome, cert 15)
Great title, hugely entertaining film, a Norwegian/Swedish co-production borrowing heavily from Mr Tarantino, and starring Stellan Skarsgård as a snowplough driver who goes on a payback rampage after his son is killed – but coolly, methodically, as you’d expect from someone who is used to keeping his vehicle on top of an icy road. The hunt rattling the nests of two gangsters – the prissy loquacious vegan known as the count (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen), whose henchmen are constantly exchanging glances behind his back (highly amusing) and the gruff aged and much scarier Serbian mobster known as Papa (Bruno Ganz) who says very little at all. Both men brilliantly cast. Director Hans Petter Molland and DP Philip Øgaard have opted for a bright, clean and sharp shooting style in keeping with the crisp, snow-stacked rural Norwegian locations, this crystalline look butting heads with some highly rococo deaths. I see that Roy Andersson, director of such oddities as You, The Living and Songs from the Second Floor, has a producer credit, which might partly explain the film’s straight faced whackness, and if it at times is a little too in hock to Mr T, it does at least channel the man with wit. Such as the scene where a couple of Serbian gangsters are having a time-killing conversation in a car, discussing the merits of Norwegian prisons – the “warm food” and “no rapes” getting the matter-of-fact thumbs up.
The Rewrite (Lionsgate, cert 12)
If you’ve ever seen Hugh Grant being interviewed you’ll have worked out that he isn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm for the acting thing, is cool about making movies and seems to particularly hate doing the publicity round. And instead of stretching himself – his appearances in Cloud Atlas perhaps notwithstanding – he prefers to stay locked into the persona that arrived fully formed with Four Weddings and a Funeral. He’s a long way from being Britain’s hottest actor these days, yet the surprising thing about Grant is that his films remain, you know, OK. Here’s a case in point, a typically Hugh romcom in which Grant plays the cynical beaten screenwriter who winds up at a university teaching students who hang on his every word, though he himself doesn’t believe writing can be taught and is disdainful of anything that doesn’t come with instructions for undressing. The arc is obviously Hugh Redeemed, and the agent if not angel of redemption is Marisa Tomei, in another of those perky everygirl roles in which she’s smiley and smart, as the one mature student to somehow slip onto the old curmudgeon’s course. Expect not very much and you might laugh out loud, as I did – Grant can still deliver a line like almost no one else, is a master of interaction, and has geniuses of the craft to interact with – Alison Janney and JK Simmons, as faculty members. For those who remember Leslie Phillips’s “ding dong” comedies, this is essentially one of those, with Simmons as the amiable friend and Janney as James Robertson Justice in a skirt. It’s the fourth collaboration between Grant and Marc Lawrence (they previously did Two Weeks Notice, Music & Lyrics and Did You Hear about the Morgans) and Grant clearly feels comfortable with the writer/director. But he’s getting on a bit now and his romcom shtick is going to start looking creepy pretty soon, as he moves through his 50s. This is a funny, enjoyable film. But for Hugh it’s time for a rewrite of his own.
Violette (Soda, cert 15)
Biopics about artists of any sort are generally underwhelming, but about writers particularly so. This one about Violette Leduc isn’t, and that’s because co-writer/director Martin Provost also uses it as a way of casting sidelong glances at a group who continue to fascinate – Sartre, de Beauvoir, Genet and so on. Actually, Sartre doesn’t appear at all, is merely referred to (even more sidelong) but Simone de Beauvoir features heavily once the belittled, abused and ferociously ugly (Leduc’s view of herself) Violette has shed a spare man, embraced her bisexuality, learned to trust her judgment when it comes to writing and gradually been accepted by the post-War Parisian boho community she aspires to be part of. Provost gets the period look right – dark, muted colours, clothes designed to keep people warm in underheated houses, hairstyles that don’t need washing too often – and plaudits to production designer Thierry François for making not one bit of it assert itself. Everything is where it is because that is where it is meant to be. But at the heart of the film is a compare-and-contrast of two entirely different women – Leduc the homely, unkempt, unravelling and unthreatening; de Beauvoir the patrician, sleek, high tone and severe, with both Emmanuelle Devos and Sandrine Kiberlain excellent as Leduc and de Beauvoir. It’s the second “outsider” artist film by Provost, and if you haven’t seen Séraphine, about primitive painter Séraphine de Senlis, and enjoy this, then you probably should.
The Face of Love (Signature, cert 15)
A woman much in love with her husband of 30 years is bereft when he dies. Then, five years later she espies his exact spitting image and, against her better judgment, tracks down the man and sets out to woo him. Annette Bening and Ed Harris are the duo (Harris playing both the dead and the new man) and their names ought to be some guarantee of quality, you’d have thought. But there’s a tastefulness and restraint to this drama that holds it back – he’s a painter, she’s a friend of the local museum, don’t ya know. What The Face of Love needs to understand is that it’s a yodelling 1940s melodrama, rather than a deep psychological study, a treatise on grief, or some such. Symptomatic is Robin Williams as the widower neighbour of Bening who carries a torch for her, a character so underwritten he could be excised entirely without making any difference to the film.
Ganja & Hess (Eureka, cert 18)
Cult auteur Bill Gunn’s unique, beautifully composed 1973 drama was financed by a production company expecting a blaxploitation movie to feed off the success of 1972’s Blacula. Instead Gunn gave them a film that faces entirely the other way – not to the urban, “I’m black and I’m proud” self-imposed apartheid of the time, but to an entirely different version of blackness, one that positions black people as people first, black second. That’s not to say Gunn is denying blackness – there’s African chant, gospel and blues on the soundtrack – but his key character, Dr Hess Green, the anthropologist who has picked up the thirst for blood while researching African tribal customs, speaks standard English, listens to string quartets and has old masters on his walls. He’s a citizen of the world. Shall I tell you the plot? I don’t think so: you just need to know that the other person in the title, Ganja (frequent Gunn collaborator Marlene Clark), is a haughty beautiful woman who will have a severe impact on this latterday, supercool (though not superfly) Dracula (Duane Jones, star of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead), and that Sam Waymon (brother of Nina Simone) plays the chauffeur and also supplies the excellent gospel singing. And also that the word “vampire” is not mentioned once and there are only a couple of blink-and-miss-em blood-drinking moments. This is not for gorehounds.
A note about the picture: there’s a hair in the gate in the opening scene and it conjures the very worst “uh ohs”. But get past that, the early 1970s use of rapid zoom, and the intense grain of the image (it’s shot on 16mm, though I’d readily believe anyone who told me it was Super 8) and it’s obvious that Gunn has an artist’s eye for composition and a natural editor’s feel for the rhythm of a scene. It’s so good, in fact, that I wondered whether there wasn’t a business opportunity for someone to do a shot-for-shot remake on better film stock. Then I discovered Spike Lee just has (called Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, apparently). Much much more than just a historical curio, this restoration is a complete eye-opener, a fascinating, enjoyable film, a one-off and something of a classic.
Ganja & Hess – Buy it/watch it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2015