Out This Week
Still Alice (Curzon, cert 12)
Most disease of the week films operate on the same principle as Facebook posters who ask you to Like something or sign a petition – they’re daring you to say you don’t like puppies, or don’t want a cure for cancer, to out yourself as horrible. In Still Alice we meet Alice, an intensely capable linguistics professor (Julianne Moore), as she’s struggling for the right word while delivering a lecture, this being the blood-in-the-hankie sign that something serious is amiss. Her condition goes rapidly downhill from there. Moore is predictably good – tough, believable, often head-on to camera – and is surrounded by agile actors, including Kristen Stewart as the sulky daughter, Alec Baldwin as the uxorious husband. But it’s her story, and one of decline, with the standard piano and string quartet soundtrack to play on our heartstrings, though writer/directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (who died shortly after the film debuted) steer Alice away from pristine saintliness and toward dirty humanity – that’ll be the “pissing the jogger bottoms” scene. Perhaps that’s what won Moore her Oscar. If you like a good old bawl or believe watching people in distress makes you some kind of humanitarian, be my guest.
Difret (Soda, cert 12)
Beautiful 14-year-old Ethiopian girl Hirut (Tizita Hagere) is abducted on the way home from school, raped and the told she is to marry the man who has just violated her – all according to local tradition. He clearly thinks she is going to take this lying down, so to speak, but she doesn’t, and makes a run for it when he leaves a door ajar, taking his gun with her. Minutes later he is dead, and she is being accused by her abductors of murder – their actions against her only a crime in a rights-based western culture. Enter beautiful feminist lawyer Meaza (Meron Getnet) to fight Hirut’s corner and the stage is set for a clash of men and women, the old ways and the new. Director Zeresenay Mehari may have watched a few too many episodes of Perry Mason and other creaky US TV shows to satisfy the died-in-the-wool ethnic cinema brigade, but she irons out the odd moment of ragged amateurism and flatlit glibness with fabulous performances from her small but impressive cast, and a keen eye for a well placed camera. Nor is she blind to the call of tradition – this is no good v bad screed, though it’s clear where Mehari’s sympathies lie. A fascinating and true story which also opens our eyes to the beauty of rural Ethiopia, a country often associated (in my mind, at least) with famine and hardship.
Black Coal, Thin Ice (StudioCanal, cert 15)
“Echoes of Tarantino and Fincher”, it said on the press release, a lift from the Daily Telegraph’s review. But the director I most got a sense of from this film was John Huston. Because what we have here is a very old-school noir, with a tricky plot and trickier dames and a troubled but virtuous cop trying to work out who’s killing the dismembered men who keep turning up in the coal heaps outside power stations in various parts of China. This focus on dirty industry reinforces the Hustonesqueness, as does director Diao Yinan’s use of night-time shooting in the sort of rickety locations that must be on the point of disappearing from rapidly modernising China – an old ballroom whose dancers shuffle in the glow of a red bulb, a cafe with wipe-clean surfaces where basic food can be bought for basic prices, a street where an ice-truck is delivering to houses who have no refrigerator. Diao even throws in a bit of back-projection where he doesn’t actually need to, as if to further nudge us. And like The Maltese Falcon, the plot doesn’t matter as much as the mood; who actually did it is a kind of irrelevance – the fascination of the man (Liao Fan) for the doll-like, possibly black-widow dame (Gwei Lun Mei) is what really matters. And the cold, the intense wintry cold, which makes every utterance in the outdoors rise in a plume of condensing vapour, like truth becoming momentarily visible, then… pfft.
Lauda: the Untold Story (Bulldog, cert PG, DVD/digital)
Having no interest in Formula 1 but an admiration for the Ron Howard/Peter Morgan film Rush, about the (largely manufactured) rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, I approached this documentary about the Austrian driver with ambivalence. But it turns out to have been worth the time. Lauda features heavily in recently recorded conversation, as do most of the important team mates and rivals of the time. The time being the 1970s, “when motor racing was dangerous and sex was safe,” as Jackie Stewart once said. Lauda’s spectacular crash in the 1976 Grand Prix at Nürburgring – which saw his car spin off the track, hit a wall at 200kph, burst into flames, then get hit by another car, consigning the driver to a hospital where the last rites were read – acts as some kind of fulcrum for a film that wants to be both about Lauda and racing safety, and it makes a pretty good fist of keeping the two balls in play. Why it succeeds so well is because it has a German interest in how things work, in facts, rather than glamour – so we get an interesting history of the Nürburgring (a job creation scheme by Kaiser Wilhelm II, not a Hitler project, as I’d thought). We get a nice potted history of Lauda, himself, which has plenty of pre-crash footage shot from Austrian TV to rely on. We get a chapter on motor-racing’s evolution – from open roads to race tracks. And a section on how Lauda and others (Jackie Stewart quite important here) started to address the issue of a world-famous F1 driver dying pretty much every season, because there weren’t enough marshals, tracks were inherently unsafe, and there was no adequate medical help if something did go wrong. “At no point in my career did I ever consider death”, says former F1 driver David Coulthard, one of many contributors (including Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg) who benefited from the campaigning of the generation who came before them. But again and again the film comes back to Lauda, still smart, quick and incredibly cool, and with a wit so dry that it’s often hard to tell that he’s being funny. He makes this film the joy it is.
Hyena (Metrodome, cert 18)
A frustrating mix of the terribly familiar and the refreshingly brutal, Hyena is further hamstrung by its need to give everyone involved something to say. This is possibly because so many of its support players – Stephen Graham, Neil Maskell, Richard Dormer – are so brilliant at what they do that they really deserve to be given some air. They do – just not here. The star, though, Peter Ferdinando, he can carry on doing in film after film what he’s doing here and I’ll be perfectly happy. It’s the old bent cop act, this one being so far into bad-guy territory that we have only a ghost of an idea how deep he has gone. Or if we are fairly sure how far in he’s waded – he’s hoovering up piles of cocaine, is buddies with Turkish heroin smugglers, loves a bit of violence, and so on – we’re not sure if he’s exhausted by his duplicity. If duplicity it is. All very fine until Dormer’s internal affairs cop starts poking his nose in, and old buddy Graham – now the head of European vice – sets Ferdinando off on a date with reckoning. It’s all set in the purlieus of a believably seedy West London, has a nicely nervy soundtrack by the director Gerald Johnson’s brother Matt (aka The The) and looks great, but it needs either letting out a bit more, and turning into a TV series, or taking in an bit, focusing more on Ferdinando and less on his team of weird operatives – watching ripped-to-the-tits, straight, middle-aged guys dancing to Sylvester’s Do You Want to Funk is genuinely funny, but if this isn’t their story, then do we need to see so much of them? However, a wild ride with some glorious moments.
Second Coming (Kaleidoscope, cert 15)
In the UK, as in the US, being black is still too often seen only as a social issue. How refreshing, then, to get a story about a black family whose skin colour is entirely incidental; it’s just an aspect, not the entire identity. And as if to shuck off the whole “social problem” label, writer/director Debbie Tucker Green goes one stage further, injecting a touch of magic realism into a film whose MO, superficially, looks to be the entire opposite. Because what this looks like is a kitchen-sinker, in which the wife (Nadine Marshall) realises she’s pregnant and the husband (Idris Elba), when he finds out, completely loses it – he hasn’t “been near her” for months. If you were to dramatise that bit in the bible where Mary tells Joseph she’s pregnant with the child of God himself, Green seems to be saying, it would look a lot more like this than all that “behold, unto us a child is given…” of scriptural familiarity. Do they sit comfortably together, these two dramatic styles – the highly realistic and the supernatural? The dialogue rattles along at such a speed – semi-improvised? – that I was looking for subtitles which my review disc didn’t have. And the otherworldly aspect is introduced so obliquely that you could easily miss it. To answer the question, I’m not entirely sure. But that might be my prejudices – how dare black people in blue-collar London, speaking slang and what have you, stray from the kitchen sink, unless it’s to buy drugs or a knife. The acting I was more comfortable with – it’s really fantastic, Marshall and Elba banging back and forth off each other, Kai Francis Lewis as their nature-loving son on whose face register the emotions the others are often withholding. A star of the future.
The Admiral: Roaring Currents (StudioCanal, cert 15)
Old Boy’s Choi Min-sik turns up in a “hasn’t he aged” role as Admiral Yin, a Korean naval hero famous for defending the country against a Japanese fleet, by using the “roaring currents” of local waters (a whirlpool included) to turn his 13 ships into a force that could take on around 300 of the enemy’s. Clearly made for home consumption, it’s a big old Sunday afternoon epic, with Yin presented as the stoic, silent commander who keeps his cool as his cabinet are mutinying around him, and organises a fightback that none can understand. If Yin is virtue personified, his foes are almost laughably villainous, and it helps immeasurably that Japanese headgear often resemble Darth Vader’s (George Lucas lifted quite a lot of inspiration from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, so it figures). But never mind the people, this film is all about the battle, and when it finally comes it is long and well staged, bloody and indeed ingenious. A few more establishing shots would have made clearer exactly who was doing what and when, and there are a couple of plot strands that are so thin it’s almost as if director Kim Han-min is saying, “Yeh, a woman who cannot speak, you know what emotional register I’m aiming for – you fill in the gaps.” But Kim does establish flavour, and he’s good on technology – propulsion was by ranks of oarsmen sweating below decks; firearms are beautiful and matchlock-operated; arrows carrying fiery payloads are used when cannon can’t be swung into action. If that sentence has woken up your inner battle nerd, this film, heavy with ragged CG though it is, is probably for you.
The Admiral: Roaring Currents – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2015