25 April 2016-04-25

Out This Week

Joy (Fox, cert 15)

Joy tells the story of Joy Mangano, a real-life Mrs Mop who, as a young woman, invented the Miracle Mop and who went on to become the CEO of her own company. When we meet her, Joy is the bright kid whose early promise and dreams of further education and so on haven’t worked out, and is now the Mrs Fixit of a family of dysfunctional no-can-do’s.

Director/screenwriter David O Russell breaks the film down into two halves. In part one, done in a screwball comedy style and speed, we meet Joy (Jennifer Lawrence), her flaky ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), flakier father (Robert De Niro), flakier still mother (Virginia Madsen) and rock-solid grandmother (Diane Ladd). It’s a fabulously choreographed, meticulously played extended farce, with excursions into the past, further excursions into Joy’s fantasy world, even further excursions into the world of the TV soaps her mother is always watching, plus a musical number, just in case we hadn’t caught on that David O is piling it on.

Then, not quite from out of nowhere but almost, Joy invents her mop, David O pulls a handbrake turn and the film swings into affirmatory triumph-over-adversity mode as Joy prototypes her invention, raises cash and tries to get the thing on TV, where we meet Bradley Cooper, as the QVC honcho initially not too sure of this backwoods hick and her invention, but liking in his gut what he sees – it’s pure “what made this country great” corn.

The switch of genre is initially mystifying and unsettling – the cynicism of screwball has been replaced with the optimism of a modern-day fairytale – and it takes a while to adjust. But Lawrence has the goods, the adversities to be overcome are run through in an almost archetypal way – she’s not quite slaying dragons, but unscrupulous money men and shitty suppliers come close – and there’s an almost Citizen Kane level of mythologising going on, the mop being Joy’s Rosebud.

I’ve tried one of those mops and it was, you know, OK. And I’ve had the same feeling with all of the Russell-Lawrence-Cooper films (Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle being the other two), arriving expecting awesomeness, going away entertained. Hey, “entertained” is OK.

Joy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Next to Her (Saffron Hill, cert 12)

OK, so Next to Her is a tough sell when its proposition is stated this baldly – it’s a film about a teacher looking after her mentally challenged sister at home. But it resists so many of the traps that films like this can fall into. It isn’t grimly shot, and it has an eye for the small beauties of everyday life. Cinematographer Amit Yasur’s compositions and lighting, in fact, are straight from Dutch still-lifes here and there. Nor does it fall into the trap of painting the able-minded sister as overweeningly virtuous, or at the mercy of a cruel system that couldn’t care less.

Nuance is the word for what I’m suggesting. And real humanity. And drama crafted from believable raw details. Perhaps these three virtues spring from the fact that key character Chelli, is played by Liron Ben-Shlush, who not only wrote the screenplay but has a sister at home with some of the problems shown by Gabby (Dana Ivgy) in the film.

Chelli, it becomes clear once she starts to form a relationship with hunky sports teacher Zohar (Yaakov Zada Daniel), is getting something out of the relationship she has with her dependent sister that isn’t entirely healthy – there’s a co-dependency of sorts going on, and Gabby has become, in fact, one of the definers of Chelli’s character, for good and ill – ill, as far as Zohar is concerned. A tough, unsentimental and credibly played drama that switches off in surprising directions.

Next to Her – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Uzumasa Limelight (Third Window, cert 15)

One of Charlie Chaplin’s later films, Limelight, tells the story of an ageing vaudevillian facing up to mortality and befriending a rising star, the whole thing crescendoing in the sort of bittersweet gush that gets Chaplin regularly marked down. Limelight is also a grimly sober film, so it’s no surprise it’s rarely included in round-ups of Chaplin’s best.

Ken Ochiai takes Chaplin’s story and pretty much translates it wholesale to Japan, changing only the profession of the protagonist – he’s now one of the extras regularly used to die convincingly in martial arts films, here hitting the home straight as the long-running TV show that’s been his regular gig for most of 40 years is cancelled.

Seizo Fukumoto is fabulously dignified as the venerable and remarkably limber Seiichi, a man in his early 70s realising the game is up, and falling in a never-expressed love with the shy ingénue (Chihiro Yamamoto) he’s tutoring.

What a lovely and painfully sad film this is, though I do agree with one comment I saw on the imdb that the ending is very long. In fact Uzumasa Limelight starts coming to an end with something like 45 minutes to go, leaving Fukumoto with plenty of time for farewells and various curtain calls.

Chaplin knew that the word “Limelight” contains an echo of the word “Twilight”, and there’s such a strong flavour of a human being hitting the end of the line that most people aren’t going to give this much of a go. This beautiful, bittersweet film is well worth it though.

Uzumasa Limelight – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Innocence of Memories (Soda, cert 12)

Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk has devoted himself to documenting the disappearance of old Istanbul, where he lives, and in particular the places where the Islamic East and Humanist West chafe. Innocence of Memories is director Grant Gee’s attempt to get Pamuk onto the screen as he is on the page – warm and nostalgic, detailed and deep, kind and yet severe – and he largely succeeds in what is, in effect, a reworking of Pamuk’s 2008 book The Museum of Innocence, which is also the name of Pamuk’s idiosyncratic museum dedicated to disappearing and disappeared Istanbul.

So the film of the book of the museum – some kind of first, surely, with the lovely silken voice of Pandora Colin providing much of the narrative linkage as Gee’s camera glides about nighttime Istanbul while Pamuk’s loose romantic tale about Kemal falling in love with Füsun plays out.

Diversions are taken – into the stunning photography of 85-year-old Ara Güler, most notably, but we also meet a ferryman, a rag picker and various other Istanbul denizens, as this strange work of psychogeography (the sort of mythologising Peter Ackroyd or Will Self do for London) plays out.

Gee isn’t interested in making the images compelling, and this would work almost as well as a radio play. But then we’d lose the thing that Gee is good at – making his images float on air.

Innocence of Memories – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Miss Hokusai (All the Anime, cert 12)

More enchanting loveliness, the story of Miss Hokusai, the painter daughter of Katsushika Hokusai (aka Tetsuzo), 19th-century painter of The Wave, posters of which adorn many a student wall.

So, why the daughter and not the man himself? Because it allows director Keiichi Hara to explore dynastic families, and how ideas are transmitted down the generations, in this case the notion of the serious artist, a concept to which both Hokusai and daughter O-Ei (that’s Miss Hokusai to you) subscribe. What’s remarkable artistically about the film is how it takes a style of animation that is in sophistication probably outstripped by Scooby-Doo and does remarkable things with it – a dog’s ear flapping in a strong wind, a candle flame shuddering. And it makes a case for sensuality as a useful avenue of artistic exploration – the father constantly pointing out to the daughter that she’s not really up to snuff in that sort of thing because she has no personal experience of sex.

And that arc – Miss Hokusai being courted by various gentlemen keen to pop her cherry blossom – is what this strange and serious and fascinating film explores.

Miss Hokusai – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

It Happened One Night (Sony, cert PG)

Legendary US legacy imprint Criterion arrive in the UK with a handful of films from their back catalogue of 800 or so. It Happened One Night is the one I chose to watch, largely because I remember watching it about 15 years ago when it debuted on DVD and being spellbound by it.

Frank Capra’s 1934 film is often cited as the first screwball comedy. What’s remarkable, even 80-odd years on, apart from the crisp restoration, which only blurs in a few scenes where first-generation material clearly wasn’t available, is that it’s still one of the best – fast and smart, as they all should be, with the two characters perfectly drawn in thumbnail sketches, perfectly contrapuntal, Clark Gable the hothead roustabout journalist who’s just been fired, Claudette Colbert the imperious runaway heiress he happens upon by chance on a bus heading for New York.

“Excuse me, lady,” Gable says to her when it appears she’s stolen his seat on the bus, “but that which you sit upon is mine.” And there it is, the proprietorial claim on her ass being all that’s necessary to generate all the “will they/won’t they?” tension such things require.

Made in the teeth of the Depression, with the Hays Code not yet doing its worst to US movies, this film might also be seen as an attempt by Hollywood to promote social cohesion – minted Colbert claims she’d swap all her wealth “in a moment to be a plumber’s wife” as her and Gable play verbal footsie with each other across the US.

The casting is perfect – Gable can and does play pretty much all the registers (drunk? maybe a bit of overplaying there), and Colbert is a perfect foil, but it’s the depth of the support playing that’s really impressive – from the bossy millionaire dad (Walter Connolly) to Shapeley (Roscoe Karns), the nosy guy on the bus who discovers the secret of the lady travelling incognito, and that there’s a big reward riding on her.

It’s traditional in reviews of It Happened One Night to mention the censor-baiting “Walls of Jericho” scene, a long set-up to a bawdy final pay-off. So there, I have. Less often mentioned is that Gareth Edwards’s brilliant no-budget monster movie, Monsters, borrows the entire plot pretty much wholesale. So it didn’t just work in 1934, but also in 2010. Good legs.

It Happened One Night – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

The Danish Girl (Universal, cert 15)

The story of the first recorded male to female transsexual, or how Danish artist Einar Wegener became, from the 1920s onwards, Lili Elbe.

Oh, The Danish Girl – misbegotten and miscast, inadvertently hilarious – in a post-Bruce/Caitlyn world unsure of what it’s meant to be about, did at least look as if it had got one thing right. And that was the casting of Eddie Redmayne as Einar/Lili, Redmayne being a man whose delicate features and fine cheekbones, it was assumed, made him perfect for the role. But then someone went and cast Alicia Vikander as his wife, struggling artist Gerda.

Vikander is by a very very long way the best thing in this film, and has an easy mastery of the Helena Bonham Carter boho posh accent. But next to Vikander, a creature so exquisite she makes other beautiful women appear dowdy, Redmayne – even in full female slap, masquerading as Gerda’s sister when they go to a ball together – looks like a builder.

Poor Eddie, sensing that the organic cogs needed to propel this film are failing to mesh, responds with one of those weird drag performances that “the movies” are meant to lap up. Tootsie and Mrs Doubtfire, maybe, but in fact Redmayne appears to be channelling Les Dennis’s comedy impersonation of Mavis Riley in Coronation Street – no, that’s not a good thing when we’re meant to be taking all this business very seriously.

In a film supposedly all about getting down to the nitty gritty, everything in The Danish Girl is gussied up, twee, tinkly, and gruesomely decorous. I loved Sebastian Koch’s gender re-assignment doctor, one moment of sanity in a film flailing for the shore, but as to the rest of the casting – Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw – it’s an ornamental use of actors for their names rather than what they actually do.

The early suggestion that Vikander is actually a gender bender too – cigarettes smoked through a holder – is parked and hopes are dashed that we’re going to get a carriage-clock disquisition on sexual roles. The entire promising  theme is discarded, in fact, much as poor Einar discarded his own genitals. Leaving painfully little to… grab hold of?… sink one’s teeth into?… and so on and so on. “Mad fucking bullshit nonsense…” is what I wrote at one point in my notes. But really I was just annoyed at the waste of my time. At bottom, and entirely appropriately, the film is a drag.

The Danish Girl – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2016

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