Out This Week
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (E One, cert 18)
The 1970s are the setting for this intriguingly 1990s-flavoured semi-comedy about a teenage girl (Bel Powley) who starts having an affair with the randy boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) of her fairly lackadaisical mother (Kristen Wiig). Taking the now familiar line that the 1970s attitude to sexual liberation bordered on the creepy, it would in fact be no sort of film at all if it had been made back then – “nothing to see here” and all that. The 1990s flavours come from the fact that Powley is something of a budding cartoonist, with Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky her countercultural idols, and the screen tends to pop into life with cute representations of her work much as 90s indie screens tended to. The early 1970s were in many respects the 1990s in utero – the drugs, the bagginess – and Brandon Trost’s loose cinematography seems happy there, in a soft-edged world where light breaks between people’s faces, Skarsgård sports a moustache designed to catch food and Wiig is the mother whose feminism doesn’t stretch so far that she can’t instruct her daughter in how to use her body to catch a man. It’s brilliantly acted, with no hint of satire in the performances and this refreshing lack of 20/20 hindsight brackets it to some extent with Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air. Director Marielle Heller is similarly adept at her music choices – we expect T Rex and Iggy Pop, but Frankie Miller!? A girl power film of real distinction.
45 Years (Curzon, cert 15)
Andrew Haigh’s debut, Weekend, put the new relationship of a gay couple under intense scrutiny. The result was electrifying. If 45 Years is slightly less so, that’s because the relationship under examination this time around – it is in many respects the same film – is a very old one, between a couple who live out in a terrain much like their marriage: the flat apparently sunless Norfolk Broads as autumn shades into winter, where the faraway bark of a dog is broken by mist-wreathed bare trees. So much for the pathetic fallacy being dead. Into this featureless but not unhappy marriage building towards the celebration of its 45th anniversary with a big party Haigh then drops a depth charge. One day Geoff (Tom Courtenay) receives a letter about a girlfriend he knew back in the 1960s. More than this I really can’t reveal, except that this letter and the door it opens onto the past forces his controlling but kindly wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling) to reconsider the entire basis of their lives together. Haigh sets up the characters and relationship with almost audacious economy, keeps total control of the entire film throughout, in terms of sound, light, mood and rhythm, leaving the two actors to do their thing. And though I’ve never quite gone the bundle on Rampling that some do, she really has her moments of thespian majesty in this film, though Courtenay, it must be said, has more of them. Like Michael Haneke’s Amour, this is as much a film about physical decline as the persistence of emotional attachments, and like Amour, it comes with a sting in the tail that reminds us that the oldies are just people – still funny, still passionate, perhaps still dangerous.
Love (Curzon, cert 18)
The Argentinian controversialist Gaspar Noé opens this film with a shot of a naked couple, his hard dick in her hand, his thumb up her cunt. She wanks him off till he comes, all done in a lockshot, beautifully lit by master cinematographer Benoit Debie. We then cut forward in time, to the same man, now living with a different woman and their child. He’s older, he’s settled, but he’s deeply unhappy at the loss of the old girlfriend, and for the rest of the film we’re in his thoughts as he reminisces, essentially, about all the great stuff they did, the many great fucks they had, going backwards, backwards, until eventually we get to their meet-cute. And cute it is. Two things are immediately obvious – that Noé is back on the highly subjective style of narrative that was so apparent in his mad psychedelic thriller Enter the Void, and that he’s still hung up on that reverse chronology, as he was in Irreversible, the brutal rape drama that made his name. But most of all it’s about the sex, between the one who got away, appropriately named Electra (Aomi Muyock) and Murphy (Karl Glusman), an American in Paris aspiring film-maker whose two pronouncements on the subject – “I want to make movies out of blood, sperm and tears,” and “My biggest dream… is to make a movie that represents sentimental sexuality” – tell us entirely what’s going on here. Noé turns up himself, in a small role as Electra’s former boyfriend, and the child Murphy eventually has with new woman Omi (Klara Kristin) is called Gaspar, so self-referentiality is all part of the bigger idea. Noé’s Enter the Void is one of the must-see films of recent years and Love really is almost as powerful. If it doesn’t always hit paydirt, it achieves what it sets out to do – to represent the sheer almost heart-stopping effect of sex when it happens with someone you love and they love you back with an equal intensity.
Straight Outta Compton (Universal, cert 18)
Ice Cube and Dr Dre are the producers of this rags to riches story about the making and breaking of NWA, the LA band that seemed to settle the East Coast/West Coast rap beef once and for all. It’s worth remembering that fact as we watch what is in effect a whitewash of their reputations – it’s Eazy-E who’s painted as the bad guy as Cube, Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella get together in the late 80s LA burbs, are signed up by machiavellian Jerry Heller (another sweating/grinning turn by Paul Giamatti) of Ruthless Records and go on to make music history. If NWA’s music had swagger, humour and ire, so has this film, but it’s really to the credit of O’Shea Jackson Jr, Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell as Cube, Dre and Eazy-E (the other two barely get a look-in) that this by-the-numbers music biopic has any real individuality at all. No, that’s unfair to director F Gary Gray, who imparts the whole thing with a loose, amiable and entirely appropriately loping rhythm. You’ll see girls, you’ll see parties, you’ll see dumb brutal cops and you’ll see niggaz wit attitude. You won’t see drugs, girls being disrespected or anyone being beaten up (unless it’s Suge Knight doing it). Entirely one-sided? For sure. Entertaining? As hell.
No Escape (E One, cert 15)
A chase thriller with a bit of geopolitics strapped on for currency, with megacorp employee Owen Wilson, wife Lake Bell and kids all pitched into a “fourth world” country which erupts into an Iranian-style “kill all Americans” street revolution just as the family are checking into the swish hotel with a big “We welcome Jack Dwyer” (Wilson) headshot on an easel by the front door – which in an instant has become a Wanted poster. It’s a nice touch, the seeds of the Dwyer family’s destruction having been sown by their hegemonic culture’s over-reach. But never mind that, director John Erick Dowdle and co-writer brother Eric don’t lay on the politics too thick, and prefer to concentrate on chase dynamics. What they end up with is a beautifully constructed series of intense physical dashes through jeopardy interspersed with arrivals at places of sanctuary, only for that safety to be proven illusory. The Dowdles’ previous output has been mostly horror – Devil, Quarantine and As Above, So Below all spring to mind – but there’s always been a strong thriller element. That’s right up front here, of course, and it’s accentuated further with Christopher Doyle-style neon hues courtesy of Léo Hinstin’s cinematography, an atmospheric gamelan soundtrack (shades of Anton Karas’s zither in The Third Man, perhaps) with the curve ball coming from Pierce Brosnan as a jokey, Bond-alike “British CIA” guy.
American Ultra (EV, cert 15)
Remember Chronicle, a superhero drama which took a conceptual leap – imagine if our “heroes” were in fact just slackerish average high school kids? Chronicle’s writer Max Landis (son of genre joker John) is up to something similar here, taking the Jason Bourne character of the amnesiac spy and re-imagining him, again, as a slackerish average stoner, in the shape of Jesse Eisenberg. Joining him on the sofa of life is Kristen Stewart as his equally bong-tastic babelicious girlfriend. And there they might have stayed, in reefer-y bliss if a nasty bit of factional in-fighting at the CIA hadn’t switched his status from “sleep” to “kill”. Eisenberg and Stewart play it entirely straight, as a couple of kids who have no real idea what the hell is going on, while around them a series of support players (Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo) play it for laughs – director Nima Nourizadeh should have gone with Eisenberg and Stewart’s decision, I reckon. The result is a cheesy entertainment full of ridiculous moments, some big laughs, at its best when its “revenge of the nerds” aspect is to the fore. It’s not the calamity some critics seem to have suggested, who were unhappy, perhaps, that Stewart and Eisenberg could be associated with anything you might call straight-ahead fun.
Love & Mercy (Sony, cert 12)
Bill Pohlad is the son of a billionaire and this is his second film in 25 years. A picture of him on his imdb page shows a man with sad eyes and I wonder if that’s what attracted him to Brian Wilson. There’s plenty of good things in this film about the Beach Boys genius who disappeared into psychosis and eventually came out of it with his muse entirely vanished (my view, not the film’s). Two of them are the performances of Paul Dano, as Brian in his pomp, just as he’s building up to creating Pet Sounds, his sonic masterpiece, and John Cusack, as the older Wilson, a hesitant man who clearly once did have his own mind but has now lost it. In fact there’s good things all around – another on-the-nose Elizabeth Banks performance as the bright, beautiful and possibly on-the-make Cadillac salesperson who catches the older Wilson’s eye, and Paul Giamatti as Dr Eugene Landy, the shifty shrink who “saved” Wilson by taking over his life. Pohlad captures well the pitiless way of working in the pre-digital recording studio, where everything had to actually be done for real, and nimbly points out where Wilson’s genius lay in a simple scene in which young Brian hammers out God Only Knows on the piano, the complex chords counterpointing the purity and simplicity of the melody. What Pohlad hasn’t quite worked out is who the film is for. If you’ve grown up with Wilson, this story – the breakdown, Landy, the second coming – is familiar. If you haven’t, then Pohlad really doesn’t tells us why we should care. In fact the real story, it seemed to me, is told by the new Brian Wilson song that plays out over the end credits. It is bland and reinforces my suspicion that Wilson fled to drugs and “madness” because he was artistically played out and couldn’t face that fact. That story is here in this film, though perhaps out of deference to Wilson, Pohlad forces you to read between the lines to catch it.
Love & Mercy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2016