31 August 2015-08-31

Out This Week

Phoenix (Soda, cert 12)

Nina Hoss and Christian Petzold have made six films together, of which I’ve seen only one – the outstanding left-field supernatural thriller Yella. Phoenix builds its drama in a similar way to that 2007 movie – withholding a piece of information and asking us to guess what exactly is going on.

Here, we’re in a quasi-Vertigo story, with Hoss as Nelly, a Jewish woman who’s having facial reconstruction surgery in the immediate rubble-strewn aftermath of the Second World War in Germany. Why? We’re not sure. Though the fact she’s been in “the camps” is surely significant. And chilling. And what sort of a clinic is offering reconstructive surgery anyway? And to whom? Nazis on the run?

All questions writer/director Petzold leaves hanging, as does Hoss, in her borderline inert yet intense performance. Petzold then takes this physically and psychologically damaged woman and, in a brilliant bit of story contrivance, re-introduces her to her husband, who doesn’t realise that she’s his wife, but sees in her someone facially close enough to his wife to pass as her. With a devious plan up his sleeve he sets about moulding her into the image of the “dead” woman. And Petzold and Hoss start unwinding a huge metaphor for the German nation’s restoration of the status quo ante, and how silence about awful war crimes was both necessary and convenient.

The Jews, meanwhile, had a different cultural landscape to negotiate, their identity having been forged, to an extent, by Adolf Hitler. All this going on quietly while the Frankenstein story of Nelly and her creator grippingly unfolds at its own unhurried pace, and builds towards an exquisite climax where everything suddenly comes together. After which, his job done, Petzold immediately fades with a dramatic flourish to black.

It’s a remarkable and utterly satisfying way to end a complex and thrilling film constructed, as was Yella, like a magician’s trick.

Phoenix – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Body (Matchbox, cert 15)

Built something like a trolley problem, Body takes three girls of varying character, gets them drunk at Christmas, “the most wonderful time of the year”, puts them in a stranger’s house, which they’ve broken into, then has them get involved in a terrible accident, in which an innocent person dies.

What to do with the body? Well, why not call the cops, is what we’re all asking. And, writer/directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen just about come up with an answer – because the girls are in a stranger’s house and they’ll be automatically accused of having killed the housesitter (or whoever it is). And they’re drunk and have been smoking weed which muddies the water, not to mention their thought processes.

Basic situation established, Berk and Olsen then throw the three young women into a variety of exculpatory shapes – they come up with a “he was trying to rape us” story, and so it becomes necessary for the hottest of the three (Helen Rogers, since you ask) to get a bit mussed up, which entails the ripping of her T shirt – a rack used to mean something else in horror, I’m sure – while the most vampish (Alexandra Turshen) makes increasingly lurid suggestions, and the most moralistic one (Lauren Molina) squeaks “let’s go to the cops” at various volumes.

The fact that the dead guy is played by Larry Fessenden, a cult figure in horror circles, will tell those in the know that Berk and Olsen have a few more twists up their sleeve, none of which I can reveal. But this a nice (ie short) pungent film which maybe doesn’t say anything too significant about the plasticity of morality, or whether to trust girls with great tits, but it does it with speed and a wink.

Body – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Girlhood (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Minus the lesbian sex, Girlhood takes the same arc as Blue Is the Warmest Colour – ie the sentimental education of a young French girl. Except the girl in this case is black and from the hood (title explained) and her choices are in a different register.

So we meet the wannabe academic Marieme (fabulously natural Karidja Touré) as she’s being denied a place in high school and instead is offered a range of skivvy vocational courses. Thwarted, knocked about at home, she transforms, little by little, from timid, passive and bookish into a tough ball of gristle, like the other fly girls on her estate.

Girlhood‘s actors are all remarkably fresh, and bring real depth to their roles. This band of sisters live in a mean world and need to be tough, and so they are. They rip the bras of other girls in fights, they intimidate shop assistants in the mall; they are formidable and frightening. But among themselves, they’re just young girls and are sweet with each other, get up to all the midnight feasting and sleepover-y behaviour you’d expect. There’s a beautiful scene in which – admittedly drunk and high – they all lip-sync to Rihanna singing “shine bright like a diamond” and the camera catches them bathed in blue light, dark skin glowing. But they won’t shine, this lot, will they?

Tomboy director Céline Sciamma is otherwise sparing with the beauty shots, and uses music in tight stabs too, to express the boundless landscape of these girls’ fantasies. What other girls might call realistic life chances. A welcome layering in a film that can, at first glance, seem a bit familiar.

Girlhood – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Contracted: Phase 1 (Primal Screen, cert 18)

I can tell you the bare bones of Contracted, but little more than that. Because writer/director Eric England’s film is as much about what sort of beast it isn’t as what sort of beast it is.

It’s a simple but effective plot though, of a timid, recently out lesbian who’s pissed off with her girlfriend, and so gets drunk at a party. Drunkenness leads to chatting with some guy by the fridge and before long she’s banging him in the back of a car.

By the next morning it’s already clear that she’s picked up something. Over the next few days, things get a lot worse very quickly – vaginal bleeding leads to hair falling out, bloody lesions of the eyes, and so on.

Kids, just say no, appears to be the message, if this is all about picking up STIs, or of being true to your sexuality, or even of not “experimenting” with sexuality at all. These are all possibles in a cheaply put together, occasionally improbably written, sometimes fairly badly acted film that moves at speed, with some beautifully horrible make-up effects (I doubt there’s much CG) and a few great “ew” moments – such as when the falling-apart Sam (Najarra Townsend), working as a waitress, manages to deposit a fingernail in a customer’s salad.

Even though things end in a mad hysterical rush, during which the guignol is particularly grand, it’s worth hanging on for the last scenes, which deliver a horror coup de theatre that Eric England is never going to be able to use again. Contracted: Phase 2? Surely not.

Contracted: Phase 1 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Medium Cool (Eureka, cert 18)

Haskell Wexler is one of a small clique of cinematographers you could call legendary. And Medium Cool is one of his rare forays into directing. It didn’t do well on its initial 1969 release, but has become something of a cult item since, a film about the hot, in every sense, summer of 1968 and how the high politics of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King played into the low action on the streets, a summer of protests, riots and political chaos at every level. Look at today’s “culture wars” and snort.

And there’s Robert Forster, an old guy now but in his prime here as a thrusting, democratically inclined TV news reporter trying to take the culture’s temperature – from the mostly white women on the gun ranges learning to shoot to defend themselves (ie their property), and from the angry black guys spouting black power slogans, some hot air and much sense out in the bad parts of town.

Wexler ties all the strands together with a story about Forster’s reporter getting close to Eileen (Verna Bloom), a recent arrival in Chicago, an attractive hick woman with a pigeon-racing son whose dad is in Vietnam and possibly isn’t ever coming back.

And at first the large chunks of documentary footage shot outdoors seem daunting (oh no, not another 1968 MLK/RFK film, I thought). But give Wexler time to weave his tale, because what starts to emerge is an “Altman before Altman” film of overlapping dialogue, irony, symbolism, sudden fascination with a seemingly non-important detail. And onto that a clear examination, a “Michael Moore before Michael Moore” fascination, with the causes of violence in America. Wexler also does a little bit of chronological tinkering, introducing the sort of foreshadowing that’s often seen as the invention of Nicolas Roeg in Don’t Look Now. And yet here it is some years earlier.

You could ignore all those stylistic/thematic/technical/philosophical innovations and still enjoy this film as an almost-documentary, shot as crisply as these days are ever going to look (especially in the brilliant Eureka Blu-ray I watched the film on), of a key moment in modern American society, when things got so bad in Chicago that the tanks were sent in and martial law was effectively declared.

As Eileen wanders the streets looking for her lost son, among actual protesters and in front of actual soldiers, here it all is. And the music, by a then fairly unknown Frank Zappa – whose contention that being a peace-loving hippie was a stupid response to the political situation – couldn’t be more apposite. A classic – way ahead of its time and yet entirely of it.

Medium Cool – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (BFI, cert E)

Chuck Workman, so Wikipedia tells us, is the guy who puts together the In Memoriam section of the Oscars, honouring recently fallen Academy comrades. There’s something of that spirit in his documentary about Orson Welles, which is so keen not to speak ill of the dead that it loses sight of some of the story – since, if Welles wasn’t difficult, or mendacious, or immoral, or bad/wrong in some way, how come he struggled so hard to get his films made?

You’d have to go at this assemblage of talking heads new and archive with an archaeologist’s brush to uncover an answer. And even then the only one on offer is a vague “he was a bit late on set now and again”. This is a great pity, because what the world wants is a rounded portrait of this complex character. And the good stuff in this film is good.

There is a lot of unfamiliar footage, Workman doesn’t mess about with chronology and takes us through Welles’s career from the precocious schoolboy to the clapped-out bon vivant dead at 70, pausing at his radio years, his Mercury Theatre successes, before moving on to Hollywood where Welles became, yet again, an immediate sensation, there’s the European wilderness period, and the slight return as an indie maverick before the term had been coined.

Workman uses lots of clips from Welles’s films, drops in scenes from a couple of Welles biopics (Christian McKay’s turn as Welles in Me and Orson Welles; Liev Schreiber’s in RKO 281), copious footage from the many TV interviews Welles gave (unreliable as sources of information, we’re told) and the odd backroom moment about the actual nuts and bolts of film-making – Robert Wise pulling “what? what?” faces as he’s explaining how he recut The Magnificent Ambersons at the studio’s behest; Charlton Heston recalling that it was his idea to give Welles the gig on Touch of Evil (Welles completely rewrote it); editor Walter Murch showing us why that film needs to be put back the way Welles intended – why Welles’s version works, and the studio’s doesn’t, in effect.

I wanted more of this stuff. If the guy was great, show us how, don’t just blow cigar smoke up his ass, as too many of the talking heads (among them Bogdanovich, Spielberg, Lucas, Costa-Gavras, Richard Linklater, Paul Mazursky) are doing. It’s a fine Welles 101, but this “destitute king” as Jeanne Moreau beautifully puts it, deserves better.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Monsters: Dark Continent (E One, cert 15)

The original Monsters film smuggled a lovely It Happened One Night love story past the defences of the sci-fi/horror crowd. Alien creatures hardly featured at all, turned up in the distance, and were a metaphor for, probably, immigration.

Little of the wit, barely any of the original personnel and none of the inventive use of a tiny budget remain in this sequel, which has cash, an extensive and solid cast, decent SFX and no real idea what to do with itself.

It’s a war film set in the Middle East where a troupe of standard-issue grunts are fighting some version of the Taliban/Al Qaeda/Ansar Dine/Isis/Who Knows while out in the sands, big extraterrestrial creatures make sport with any humans they come across. If this seems odd – who fights a human foe when there’s a huge, sophisticated, unstoppable and hostile extraplanetary one right over there – it’s no odder than the title (which Continent, exactly?).

And if the action takes place in a weird double-headed world, the plot itself isn’t sure if it’s trying to be The Deer Hunter – here are the guys back home, here they are out fighting in the desert – while the action sequences are more a case of Black Hawk Down, all carnage and mayhem.

There are some pretty pictures of men out in the searing heat, all mirage shimmers and white sand, and we meet Sofia Boutella, a woman of an exotic beauty to get the dogs barking in the night. But I never said this was a bad looking or badly made film. It really isn’t. But its metaphor – this time we’re the monsters, the invaders – simply goes nowhere and the film has no reason to exist beyond the delivery of paychecks to people with good technical skills.

Monsters: Dark Continent – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2015

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