Out This Week
Dear White People (Signature, cert 15)
A sharp, smart and almost breathless satire on race, racism, post-racism and the whole damn thing, set in an American university where an all-black college asks the question that all black people are asked in some way… integrate or segregate? This basic question – hard enough – is further complicated by the people it’s being asked of: the entitled, preppy student president (Brandon P Bell), the chippy mixed race DJ (Tessa Thompson) whose Dear White People radio show offers snarky advice on the state of current racial politics (“Dear white people, the minimum number of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count”), the Afro-sporting kid (Lionel Higgins, a star) asking himself what mainstream black culture actually has to offer a gay nerd such as himself, and Coco (Teyonah Parris), the girl from the hood who wants fame, money, bling, – economic rather than racial freedom. Writer/director Justin Simien takes a similar balls-out approach to Spike Lee in Bamboozled. That also asked questions rather than sought answers, and turned over a few stones to reveal ugliness beneath. “Black people can’t be racist,” says Thompson’s Sam at one point, making a point that can be argued till the end of time, and simultaneously exposing this film’s one flaw – there’s so much contentious material, so densely packed, that you long for a bit of air. It’s certainly not coming from either of the potential sources of ventilation – the cabal of privileged white kids who run the satirical campus magazine, and the black reality-show TV producer looking for a firebrand of controversy to appear on his show. That flaw is a niggle. This is a brilliantly conceived, brilliantly written, funny, serious film.
Still the Water (Soda, cert 15)
A swanlike film of extreme grace, though it’s thrashing away beneath the surface, Naomi Kawase’s coming-of-ager follows two cusping-teenage Japanese kids into the world of first love. If you’re not a fan of the pathetic fallacy, whereby interior emotions are signified by exterior events, stay away. Because waves crash and winds howl, rain falls in torrents, and out on the ocean the typhoon builds as the beautiful and precocious Kyoko tries to persuade bicycle-riding Kaito to be her guy. She’s even got sex on the agenda, something, Kawase suggests, this girl might have learned off an abusive relative. Kaito has sex on the agenda too – he’s pissed off because dad’s no longer around and his mother is shagging around – “at your age it’s disgusting”. This sounds – the unruly weather, the sexual agenda, generational discord – like the recipe for something brutish and unsubtle, but in fact the wonder of this almost Malickian film is how subtle and gorgeous it is. Kawase flows scenes together fluidly, interspersing dramatic encounters with the dynamic equivalent of pillow shots – water gushing, traffic teaming, crowds rushing. To the languor of Malick, the poetry of Ozu, the unfettered emotion of Douglas Sirk, I’m going to add one more – the subliminal manipulation of Claire Denis. By which I mean that by the time this quite wonderful film has ended, you’ll have experienced something, have been transported somewhere, and you won’t be quite sure just how Kawase did it.
Love Me Like You Do (Lionsgate, cert 12)
About halfway through this one – about a freedom-loving railroad-riding guitar-toting hobo starting a tentative affair with a now-domesticated former minor music star, I realised I wasn’t watching a film at all. I was watching a rebranding exercise for its two stars. Ben Barnes, all covered in beard to hide the world-beating physiognomy, wants to be taken seriously as an adult actor, not as some himbo striking male-model poses in the company of a talking lion. Katherine Heigl wants to get away from romantic comedy, or possibly just wants a portion of the career potential back that seemed to be there after Knocked Up propelled her up the charts, and then 27 Dresses and a run of other duds took her down again. Barnes’s Ryan is a surprisingly clean singer just passing through Middle America en route for Portland; Heigl’s Jackie is in the middle of a messy divorce, is hurting inside and could do with a guy to put his arms around her. Aimed squarely at white-picket America and with made-for-TV looks, it’s got the unrequited longing of a Nicholas Sparks romance, the homespun folksiness of The Waltons and the musical style of Mumford and Sons, whose facial hair Barnes also borrows. Heigl, easy to hate, is actually very good at playing wounded women. Barnes… well he’s got a good singing voice but I’m not convinced he’s so great at psychological depth, though towards the end, after fairy dust has been sprinkled all around, he does tidy up the beard a bit to give us a squint at those cheekbones.
Pickup on South Street (Eureka, cert PG)
A sparkly restoration of Sam Fuller’s 1953 Noo Yoick crime drama starring Richard Widmark as a pickpocket and Jean Peters as the dame heading to a rendezvous with the Soviets, in her purse a microfilm of nuclear secrets. Of course he steals them, thinking they’re something much more easily tradable. The secrets are a McGuffin – this is the story of a man from the wrong side of the tracks and a woman who’s made the wrong choices. They’re destined for each other – if the various cops and spying agencies can be sidestepped – but along the way he’s going to smack her in the mush and she’s going to respond with a purr, Thelma Ritter is going to turn up as a stool pigeon and the word “Commie” is going to be bandied about a lot. Meanwhile the camera is swinging about on TV studio cranes, cops are drinking whisky while they’re doing the filing, the men are all wearing hats and the women are winking suggestively (to the audience as much as to the man they’re with) to indicate sexual congress is about to take place. It’s all immensely theatrical, nothing wrong with that, though Fuller tends to overdo the declamatory speeches, and the jazzy Ellingtonesque score helps give it exactly the sort of feel you want from something bearing the names Fuller, Widmark, Peters and Ritter. Peters is particularly good – a wounded toughie halfway between a film noir femme fatale and a more modern woman – one with agency. And she’s got a face that can take a close-up. Those eyes. And hasn’t Fuller spotted them? A classic B movie crime drama now polished so its blacks hum and its whites ping.
A Funny Kind of Love (Kaleidoscope, cert 18)
A Funny Kind of Love is a compendium film pretending not to be, looking at sexual fetishism and how suburban it generally is. “I want you to rape me,” says wife Maeve to husband Paul, kicking off the first story. We cut to Richard and Rowena, whose sex lives are jazzed up when Rowena discovers she is turned on by crying. Cut to Phil and Maureen, whose sex lives revolve around a big fat zero until he discovers his penchant for fucking her while she’s asleep. And pinging about between these three couples is Steve, the new local resident who is obliged by law to apprise his neighbours of the fact that he’s a paedophile, which he does with a smile and a “nice to meet you” gift – some golliwog gingerbread men. Writer/director Josh Lawson pushes all these characters a satisfying extra comedic mile, apart from Sex-Offender Steve (who’s gone far enough already), in sketches that betray his background as a TV comedy writer. And right at the end, as if to confound that impression, he drops in an entirely unrelated story about a telephone operator who works at a signing relay for deaf callers – she speaks to them in sign language in vision over Skype then vocally relays the message on to its intended non-deaf receiver. Routine work, until she gets a call from a deaf man who wants to have phone sex and asks her to be the go-between. And what a great little story this is – of shifting powerplays at one level, genuine social discomfort (and comedy) at another, as the focus swings from horny Sam, to embarrassed Monica to practical Sonya. This comes to a head when Sonya has to momentarily take a break to feed her demented elderly mother and asks Monica to fill in. But I’m telling you the plot when I should be telling you to check out the film. The earlier stuff… funny. That last bit… inspired.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (Metrodome, cert 15)
A competent remake of the 1976 slasher whose referencing stretches to inclusion of actual footage from the original. So you get the infamous “death by trombone” sequence. The original film was based on a genuine series of murders carried out by a masked killer who worked by night, and director Alfonso-Gomez-Rejon also refers back to this original 1940s period too, to keep things more meta than meta. Refreshingly, he also keeps the “you fuck, you die” 1970s slasher morality of the original film, so as soon as you see a pair of panties slip or a head bobbing in the front seat of a car, you know that the masked man can’t be far away. So old school it’s new school, if you’re being generous. Gomez-Rejon also goes for a half-hearted discussion of whether horror films about real incidents are prurient – Bible thumpers shouting “real people died here” outside the drive-in where the 1976 film is shown once a year in the town where the actual murders happened (am I losing you?). It’s all very clever, though the film itself works perhaps best at this academic level, not so much because of this meta-approach, but because Gomez-Rejon is too keen to use it as a showreel. His lighting, camera and editing skills are all shown to great effect, but they’re in the service of the films he’d like to make in the future, not the one we’re watching now.
She’s Funny That Way (Lionsgate, cert 15)
Playing into and out of his film with Fred Astaire signing different Irving Berlin songs, the eternally nostalgic Peter Bogdanovich’s deliberately old-fashioned screwball comedy reminds us that he once directed What’s Up, Doc. Taking what might be described as the Barbra Streisand role here is Imogen Poots, her horrible Brooklyn accent the only real flaw in her performance as a call girl who bangs a theatre director (Owen Wilson), only to bump into him later at an audition after she’s decided she wants to pursue her dream and act. He’s with his wife, an actress (Kathryn Hahn). Who is being pursued by a fellow actor and ex-lover Rhys Ifans. Who saw Poots leaving Wilson’s room on the fornicatory evening in question. Poots is also being pursued by an elderly judge and his private detective, and is soon also being courted by the play’s writer, whose girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston) is an entirely unempathetic therapist, one of whose clients is the judge. And so on. In the best sort of screwball comedy these characters would dovetail neatly. They don’t quite here. But the actors are on their game, and get laughs where the script doesn’t have any, while Bogdanovich works hard at spinning all his elements into something resembling a froth. Enjoyable, if hardly essential.
© Steve Morrissey 2015