Out This Week
Bone Tomahawk (The Works, cert 18)
Someone somewhere described this as The Hills Have Eyes done as a western. That’s a good enough as a shorthand, but what that logline doesn’t quite capture is the amount of love and care – set design, locations, clothes, hair and make-up are all exquisite – that have been lavished on what is effectively a horror movie. And it’s off to an immediately strong start as we meet a pair of murdering robbers slitting a victim’s throat before they accidentally wander into an Indian bone cemetery. Bad shit happens in there, but we don’t find out exactly how bad until the film’s end, by which point we have spent time with the sort of group John Ford might have got together – smart principled sheriff Kurt Russell, uxorious husband Patrick Wilson, loyal wheezy deputy Richard Jenkins, dandy libertine Matthew Fox – all of them having headed off to find a woman abducted by the Indians as she was tending to one of the surviving robbers (David Arquette) we met at the get-go. Tarantino’s puckishness is all over the film. In the best sort of way this is film proud of its widescreen verbosity, though unlike a lot of QT wannabes, writer/director S Craig Zahler takes time painting in characters before setting them all in motion. Zahler also has a cunning eye and his camera frequently suggests threat with just a tiny movement up or down, as if someone were just peeking or has just peeked over the top of something. And he isn’t afraid of charges of racism – his Indians are no noble savages nor repositories of justified anger or subjugated pride; they’re fucking evil, insane, inbred wacko, frightening and their hygiene isn’t too good either. If it’s gruesome you’re after, here’s your film. I don’t think I’ve seen a man turned upside down and then cleft in twain (with a bone tomahawk, I believe) before. But I have now and I won’t be forgetting in a hurry. Yup.
Our Little Sister (Curzon, cert 15)
Three older sisters take in the half-sister they never knew they had in Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest tender drama about family life. Koreeda’s sphere of interest is in the ties that bind – in Like Father, Like Son it was two sets of parents who had unwittingly raised each others’ children; in I Wish it was two separated brothers trying to reunite. And in Our Little Sister he does exactly what he did in his other films, which is to create a drama which in almost anyone else’s hands would be mawkish and unbearable. Why it isn’t is why you keep watching – it’s a story about real people. The three/four sisters are believably drawn and beautifully acted, impeccable playing being such a feature of Koreeda films that you wonder how he does it. Each of the main characters has their own gravitational field and drags the story towards themselves in a tremendously natural, organic way. Beyond this central phalanax are perfectly weighted minor characters – the ailing cafe owner down the road who’s a second mother to the girls; their real mother, who, it turns out, was as useless at parenting as their father was, though she and they only realise how much as the film progresses. Everyone is in flux, everyone is on a journey, yet Koreeda anchors everything tightly with observations that it’s memories of other people and the rituals we have inherited or establish as we travel through life which give our lives meaning and purpose. Shot in the crispest, artlessly artful way by Mikya Takimoto, it’s a clear-eyed, gentle re-assertion of the conservative view of family life, as gentle, supportive and enabling. And it’s remarkably emotional. Some films work you towards a teary finish; Our Little Sister had squeezed moisture out of my cynical, cracked face after only 15 minutes.
Heart of a Dog (Dogwoof, cert E)
“This is my dream body,” artist/performer Laurie Anderson announces in her slightly robotic voice as a charcoal image of her familiar face and tousled hair appears on the screen, “The one I use to walk around in my dreams.” It’s a typically simple, direct and unsettling intro to a film that’s actually about – superficially at least – her rat terrier Lolabelle, whose death has nudged Anderson (who also lost partner Lou Reed not too long back) into a reflective frame of mind. A tiny “uh oh” surfaced in my mind. Please, no more arthouse kookiness. I had under-estimated Anderson, who slowly assembles something like Guy Maddin’s personal dreamlike collage My Winnipeg, except here it’s centred on her a dog not a city. Anderson uses old footage, new footage, recollections, animations, little songs, musings from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. There’s a lot of loss in here, and though Anderson never refers to Reed, he appears in a blink-and-miss-him moment in a bit of old holiday footage, sitting happily on the sand. But Anderson does talk about the loss of her mother, of her friend Gordon Matta Clark, a sculptor who died young. “Feel sad but don’t be sad,” is the advice she was offered by a Buddhist teacher, and it seems like properly sensible advice and is, in a sense, what her film is about. What I hadn’t expected was humour. There are vignettes of Lolabelle playing the piano, something Anderson taught her after the dog went blind. “We made a Christmas record together,” Anderson recalls. “Which was… (comedy pause…) pretty good.” Lou Reed turns up singing the outro song, Turning Time Around – a maudlin, playful, conversational, questioning song which pretty much sums up the whole film.
Trumbo (E One, cert 15)
The true story of Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), Hollywood’s highest paid writer until the Communist witch hunts of the 1940s and 1950s brought him low. He came back, of course, thanks in large part to Kirk Douglas – who in the late 1950s was breaking apart the studio system almost with his bare hands – hiring him to write Spartacus. Douglas insisted Trumbo’s real name be on the credits, rather than one of the many aliases Trumbo had been working under (and winning Oscars, as he did for Roman Holiday). Here’s a film with many undoubted pluses. Bryan Cranston, borrowing the cadences of John Huston, for one. Helen Mirren as poisonous gossip baggage Hedda Hopper for another. It name-drops like crazy – Lucille Ball and Gregory Peck (the good guys), John Wayne, Edward G Robinson (bad guys). But boy is it boring. And it starts way, way too early in Trumbo’s life, choosing to lay out the whole business of his blackballing, when it’s Trumbo’s return to glory that fascinates. A film about a writer that hasn’t worked out a way to tell his story well is some sort of tragedy – why not just do the earlier part of his life in flashbacks? Worse is the short shrift given to the likes of John Wayne, who is demonised here in just the same way as… you follow my drift. And the “poor Dalton” routine would be fine if his story was yoked to wider politics. But it isn’t. And it’s hard to feel really sorry for guys who are still rich, just not as rich as they once were. Louis CK as one of the “fellow traveller” members of the Hollywood Ten of blacklistees shows he’s a great actor (again), Diane Lane, as Mrs Trumbo, is again in a wife-and-lover role when she’s so much better, and Michael Stuhlbarg is fabulous as Edward G Robinson. He’s the film’s true tragic figure, because he did the wrong thing and knew he was doing it – and it’s written all his face. Great story, properly duff movie.
Nasty Baby (Network, cert 15)
We know Kristen Wiig best of all, probably, from Bridesmaids. But there’s more to her than just funny. In the recent Welcome to Me she somehow pulled off the almost impossible, a biting satire on narcissism whose central character was mentally ill – making fun of the loony always a tough sell. In Nasty Baby something similar is going on, this being about a group of fairly unpleasant New York hipsters – Wiig’s character rides a push scooter, nuff said – trying to have a baby. Wiig’s character Polly is at first trying to get pregnant by Freddy, a performance/video artist whose subject is himself. But when his sperm count turns out to be too low (God trying to say something?), she switches to Freddy’s boyfried, Mo (Tunde Adebimpe). What we’re never really sure of is who the baby is for – her or them? It’s a kind of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City kind of affair, though with far less glad-handing of its characters going on, a far less benign author being behind it all, in the shape of Sebastián Silva, who writes and directs and plays the uptight entitled Freddy. It’s a hard film to like because, Mo excepted, its characters are pretty foul, and its semi-improv (I’m guessing) style means there’s a tendency for characters to wave their hands, as improvisers do when they’ve nothing to say. Silva is onto something though, in his examination of the weird detached lives of hipsters and their often absurd pursuit of the authentic – a crackling log fire on the iPad? Sergio Armstrong’s loose, urban cinematography gives everything a bit of grip, which fellow Chilean Silva accentuates with a late-arrival murder, just to add extra grit. It’s worth hanging on for it. It really crystallises what the whole thing is about.
Point Break (Warner, cert 12)
Well it is nearly 25 years since Kathryn Bigelow did it, so maybe it is time for a remake of Keanu/Patrick Swayze crime thriller whose tagline was “100% Pure Adrenaline”. Edgar Ramirez is in the Swayze role as the extreme-sports criminal mastermind and philosophical meathead Bodhi, Luke Bracey takes the Keanu part as Utah, the daredevil (retired) cajoled by the FBI into going undercover to bag him up. Both are well cast. Bracey is beefy, and has salt-kissed blond hair, Ramirez has charm aplenty. Both do a fair bit of dick-measuring in their early scenes together, before the film moves into Bond-style location-switching action-stunterama – on bikes and surfboards, in wingsuits, on snowboards and hanging off sheer mountain faces. You cannot fault the action sequences, and director Ericson Core has clearly taken a few pointers from Justin Lin’s direction in the better Fast and Furious films (five and six, since you’re asking). Fans of Teresa Palmer will be disappointed with the brevity of her appearance and by what appears to be an unnecessary boob job. As will fans of Ray Winstone, who is little more than Utah’s driver, though he does have a go at a Michael Caine impersonation, and there is fun to be had in watching him fail. Yeh, it’s an unnecessary film, but it’s exhilarating and enjoyable too. A bit of light in Bracey’s eyes would probably have improved things a bit more.
Scott of the Antarctic (StudioCanal, cert U)
A Blu-ray debut for Britain’s first Technicolor film, released in 1948 to great acclaim (“a saga that reaches to the marrow of the bones” said the New York Times), and now restored to glory. Everyone knows the story – Captain Scott (John Mills) sets off for the South Pole about the same time as Amundsen, a Norwegian rival. Scott uses ponies for transport, while Amundsen uses dogs. “Dogs, dogs and more dogs,” we see Scott being told when he’s asking for advice on how to do it before setting off. Refreshingly, there’s no attempt to hide why the expedition failed. Scott had the advice; he ignored it. He died, and so did good men with him. For all the snow and ice and talk of temperatures of 60 below, this Ealing production conveys no real sense of the extreme cold endured by the men on their expedition. Emotionally, however, watching this bunch of stiff upper lips heading for certain doom remains extremely effective. Drawing heavily on Scott’s diaries, it is also admirably brisk, with the Technicolor rendering it simultaneously more modern-looking (sharp, bright) and more antique (the plain weird sepia-acid colours). Three cinematographers – greats Jack Cardiff and Geoffrey Unsworth, plus outdoor specialist Osmond Borradaile – don’t help unify a visual palette, nor does the occasional library shot. They’re blots on an otherwise pristine landscape. Because this is a very good film, thanks to an understanding by director Charles Frend and writers Walter Meade and Ivor Montagu of what it is all about – the last hurrah of the imperial mindset, when a captain commanding a hungry, tired and desperate crew could say “Well, lads, only 900 miles to go,” and not cause an instant mutiny. Watch James Robertson Justice’s character, stricken with terrible infection and soldiering on with only an “I’m alright, sir”, and the wretchedness – even on an obvious film set – is almost unbearable.
Scott of the Antarctic – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2016