Out in the UK This Week
The Congress (StudioCanal, cert 15)
With Waltz with Bashir, director Ari Folman used Tintin-esque animation as the visual clothing to a set of sober taped interviews between himself and the buddies he’d served with in Israel’s war against Lebanon. The Congress does similar unusual things, propelling Robin Wright – playing an actor called Robin Wright who has elected to have herself digitised and therefore immortalised – into an animated world when she attends “the congress”, the occasional gathering of other fictional figures. The real world looks like a workaday real world, as lived by rich Hollywood, leading to the suspicion that Folman is remaking Andrew Niccol’s digitised-actors dud S1m0ne. But the “congress” is a piece of animation where the Yellow Submarine and the Furry Freak Brothers, Robert Crumb and Banksy, Picasso and 2000AD comics all vie for space, where a never-named Tom Cruise (the only other surviving actor, apparently) rubs shoulders with Jesus, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali, while octopuses wave at passing Mississippi riverboats afloat on a crimson sea. Psychedelic? Just a bit. What Robin actually does in this place, and the way that plays out when Robin eventually returns to the real world, turns out to be something of a damp squib, sadly, but Folman’s concept and his technical achievement are breathtaking – and two out of three ain’t bad.
Goodbye to Language (StudioCanal, cert 15)
And talking of technique – Jean-Luc Godard shows that he’s been given Final Cut Pro for Christmas in his latest film, in many ways a return to the sort of film he made in the early 1960s (he’s just turned 84 as I write), A Bout de Souffle, for example. Except he’s taken a story so simple it’s barely there – a man, a woman, their little fights and love-making – and attempted to present it without resorting to standard filmic tropes, instead using different qualities of digital input, a tsunami of post-production techniques and an almost haphazard approach to editing. “Those who lack imagination take refuge in reality,” says the opening intertitle, and shortly after we see a man reading a book about Nicolas de Stael, the abstract pioneer being a clear indicator as to what’s going on here. Is Godard waving “goodbye to language” with this abandonment of film-making convention and embrace of lo-tech, laptop-editing? I think he’s trying hard to get outside the box – abandoning realism, going for expressionism. It’s a strange and remarkable film that’s best absorbed rather than watched and a stunning reform to maverick form.
Charlie’s Country (StudioCanal, cert 15)
If Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout took a couple of “civilised” white kids and threw them into the aborigine Outback, Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country takes the same aborigine (David Gulpilil, who co-wrote) and sticks him in the white man’s world. Gulpilil is now 60 rather than the 18 he was when he worked with Roeg in 1971, though still wiry and strong, his hellishly expressive face lending dignity to a story that hits all sorts of racist buttons – “blackfellas” being lazy, drunk, awkward, angry, sly etc. And that is the story it tells, of Charlie getting into scrapes, into trouble with the police, going on a days’ long bender, having little in the way of ambition and so on. Yet, slowly, and it is a slow (you might say elegiac) film, it puts us in the aborigine’s place, gives us some sense of his world view, without either condescendingly over-prioritising his “difference”, or indulging in too much liberal guilt. Sentimental, for sure, but not mawkish. Nicely done.
The Expendables 3 (Lionsgate, cert 12)
By the end of Expendables 2, it looked like Sly Stallone had put together yet another franchise, like Rocky and Rambo, that was going to run and run, there being a never-ending supply of cheap ageing action heroes who, repackaged like sub-prime mortgages, can be sold on in bundles to yet another generation nostalgic for whatever was going on 20 years before. By the end of Expendables 3… it looks like he’s blown it. Why introduce Wesley Snipes as the latest member of the old crew – half looking as if he’s been on the crack pipe, which lends exactly the sort of demented gleam that makes this franchise such fun – only to dismiss him and the rest of them, only to bring in a younger crew of relative nobodies (apologies to Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, Ronda Rousey and Kellan Lutz, but you’re not Jason Statham or Dolph Lundgren, not even Terry Crews, in fact). And then to get the new crew into trouble, forcing Sly to get the old team back together. The whole film reeks of this sort of time-wasting, from the endless montage sequences, to the relentless walky-talky sequences, to the unnecessary cameos by Harrison Ford and Arnie Schwarzenegger. Kelsey Grammer injects a bit of vim, as does Mel Gibson as a whacked-out bad guy, and Antonio Banderas overacts manfully as a 40something with painful adolescent enthusiasm to join the team. Yes, but what’s it about? Oh, you know, the usual – guys, guns and shitstorms that need sailing into. Except this time Stallone has accidentally sailed into Steven Seagal territory.
Still the Enemy Within (Lace, cert 15)
A useful documentary about the 1984 UK miners strike. It’s pretty much a straight history, using archive footage and talking-heads testimony from those at the sharp end – the miners, their wives and the many people who supported them – taking as its starting point the strike in 1974 that prompted Prime Minister Edward Heath to call an election, foolishly asking the country to decide once and for all who ran the country, him or the miners. The country chose against him (which the miners perhaps took as a signal that it had voted for them). Fast-forward to the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979 and her decision to break the unions, starting with the miners, a campaign that the government mounted with military precision. Stocks of coal were built up in preparation, a tough new Coal Board boss (the industry was still nationalised in those days) was brought in, trouble was fomented, the miners went on strike, and stayed out for a year. And in the end, as history recalls, they lost. The title is from the mouth of Mrs T, who referred to the miners as “the enemy within”, and if there is one complaint against this film, which is admirable in the way it marshals its facts and its many eye-witness speakers, it is that it replays the strike from the familiar position – noble miners defending their communities on one side, the rapacious Conservative government on the other. Little mention of North Sea oil, which had just started coming onstream, little analysis of broader union relations, the solvency or otherwise of the country (its debt overhang from the Second World War, the loss of Empire), the shift from a Keynesian to a more Chicago-school economic model. Nor of the claim now being made by economist Thomas Picketty and others that strong unions, far from being a drain on a country, are in fact vital to its success. “We. Were. Right,” says the appropriately named Norman Strike, a former miner, sad and angry at the same time. “We lost. But we were right.”
Diplomacy (StudioCanal, cert 12)
The last film I saw by Volker Schlöndorff’s was The Tin Drum, in 1979. So what’s the director of one of my all-time favourite films up to 35 years later? The answer is: making an entirely stagebound two-hander starring Niels Arestrup as General von Cholitz, the Nazi in charge of Paris, and André Dusollier as the French-born Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling. The film follows the one fateful night when, on Hitler’s express orders, Cholitz had all of Paris rigged with explosives, and Nordling tried to persuade him not to blow it to smithereens, using all the argument and oratory at his considerable disposal. This is an example of the well-made play, turned into a film in old-school style by Schlöndorff, who puts all his faith in his actors. Arestrup, usually brilliant, seems reluctant to play a tough Nazi who has been through a war as a successful warrior, while Dusollier is burdened with a cypher role as the representative of all that’s best about western civilisation. However, the story is true – though the disputes still rage as to whether von Cholitz was ever really going to give the order to detonate – and at this level at least, it’s a fascinating film.
Finding Fela (Dogwoof, cert E)
Alex Gibney uses the documentary form to shine a light on people who bask in the shadows, whether it’s big business, with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, or Lance Armstrong in The Armstrong Lie. Finding Fela continues the tradition, though the shadows here are created by most of the world’s lack of interest in African culture, rather than any shyness on the part of Fela Kuti, the Afrobeat pioneer and political activist who lived life right out in the full glare of publicity and government disapproval in Nigeria. But hang on a minute. Gibney also seems to be making a documentary about the Broadway musical Fela! and how it is “finding” its way towards the staging of a show about this talented, charismatic and contradictory man. And Gibney continues in this vein – first archive and talking-head footage about how Fela, from a well-to-do family, took the prevailing Hi-Life style of West Africa, added jazz and good belt of Black Panthers politics and created Afrobeat. Then a bit of backstage at the Broadway show, where choreographer and artistic director Bill T Jones is trying to explore the truth of Fela, through Fela!. As Gibney flip-flops back and forth, the question arises – does one illuminate the other? And the answer becomes clear soon enough: not even slightly. The sound you can hear is not the exuberant free-form of Afrobeat, but of a ball being dropped. Kuti was such an interesting man too – a pipecleaner thin sexist, married to 27 women, politically brave, musically beyond talented, mother-fixated, charismatic, sex-driven, a believer in magic with a penchant for Elvis jumpsuits who declared his own compound an independent country, who stayed in Nigeria even though he knew it was dangerous, and paid the price for it. And no matter how good the Broadway show is, there is the ringing suspicion that it’s included here because Gibney simply believe that Fela on his own would sell. Bad faith.
© Steve Morrissey 2014