Out in the UK This Week
Two Days, One Night (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
A French factory hand (magnificent Marion Cotillard) has a weekend to persuade her colleagues to do without their cash bonuses and keep her on instead. As much a portrait of a woman battling depression and low self-esteem as a condemnation of modern employment norms – what kind of scumbag boss dodges a bullet by making his employees take those sort of decisions? – it has a high concept, a big name in the lead, clear heroes and villains and an “if you try hard enough you can win” throughline. In other words it’s the Dardenne brothers’ most Hollywood film to date. But it is a Dardennes film all the same – subtle and restrained, with the drama flowing from character rather than the diktats of some screenplay-writing guru.
Cold in July (Icon, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
The writing/directing duo of Jim Mickle and Nick Damici made Mulberry Street (aka Mulberry Virus on Zombie Street), a no-budget horror done with zip and flair. Cold in July hares off up a different avenue – two different avenues in fact. At first an essay in the mechanics of the dark sinister thriller, it kicks off brilliantly with Michael C Hall’s shit-scared householder confronting an intruder and accidentally killing him when his gun just goes off. Then it builds as the father (Sam Shepard) of this smalltime thief arrives on the scene to exact some retribution. Then gets more complicated as a few deft plot twists involving the local (bent) police are introduced. And then… it slides off to the left with the arrival of Don Johnson as a dandyish Southern cop called Jim Bob. Johnson is great and so is this character. Just not in this film. However, wobble absorbed, Johnson slightly back in his box, the film then swaggers (with an absolutely unforgiveable use of the slo-mo walk from Reservoir Dogs) towards an entirely satisfying splatter finale. Look out for Wyatt Russell, as the shitbag son of Shepard. We’ll be seeing him again.
Welcome to New York (Spirit, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
Abel Ferrara’s best film since Bad Lieutenant, Gérard Depardieu’s best in decades too, opens with some intertitles telling us that it isn’t based on the case of a certain French financier (ie Dominic Strauss Kahn). Then goes on to say that it is… that it isn’t… that it’s kind of exploring what happens when this sort of thing happens to this sort of man blah blah blah. It sounds like a bit of legal chicanery but in fact Ferrara and Depardieu are as good as their word and give us a psychological study hung on the story about a sexaholic French financier visiting Manhattan whose inappropriate dealings with “housekeeping” (the current nice term for a maid) land him in legal hot water. The film breaks into three parts – an extended opening orgy sequence, the central humiliation of the dead-eyed Monsieur Devereaux (Depardieu) being led through the admirably even-handed US legal system, then a bunch of scenes in which the until-now potential future president of France has to explain his behaviour to his ambitious wife (Jacqueline Bisset, a tigress who hasn’t been fed). A character seen from three very different angles, then, with Depardieu astonishingly good at each turn, though it’s only in the last Depardieu/Bisset scenes that staginess starts to creep in to a film that’s avoided the “you speak, I react” style of theatricality. It looks like Ferrara has shot it all on one camera, though this never feels like a gimmick, more the appropriate beady eye to observe an affectless sociopath at work. Brilliant.
Maleficent (Disney, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)
Perfect casting, obviously, Angelina Jolie as the wicked fairy who curses Aurora aka Sleeping Beauty. We get the backstory – how Maleficent became so narky. Nominative determinists might suggest that if you’re named Maleficent at birth then that might play a part. But it seems it was a man’s fault – Sharlto Copley playing the young swain who responds to a “whomsoever shall bring me the wings…” challenge from his dying king by cutting off Maleficent’s magnificent pair. At this point Jolie’s recent double mastectomy springs unbidden into the mind, at the same time as a sort of admiration for the clankingly obvious feminist imagery – men clip women’s wings, that’s what they always do. But these are crass thoughts and should be put back in their place by the most toweringly evil and awe-inspiring character to come out of Disney since Snow White’s wicked queen – the pre-publicity was certainly banging this drum. Instead Maleficent comes across as merely an angry woman who’s just a bit misunderstood. What a downer. And because of this chasm between expectation and delivery, and the read-across from the actress onto the character, the amazing work done by armies of CG illustrators – who have given the Technicolor ambience of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood a Lord of the Rings tweak – passes by slightly unnoticed. As does Elle Fanning’s note-perfect pantomime turn as the gamine princess brought up in the woods by a trio of good fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville being the thankless equivalent of Disney’s comedy animal sidekicks).
Watermark (Soda, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)
Watermark is a documentary lying at the intersection of two traditions. One is the “isn’t nature awesome” of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisquatsi, in which a series of high def images of Planet Earth pile up to create their effect. The second is the “isn’t humanity slightly sinister” of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread, in which the human tendency to turn everything into an industrial process – in that case food production – is shown at its most mechanistic and frightening. As with food, so with water in Watermark, a series of astonishing (and astonishingly hi-def – shot at 5K resolution) images all to do with the way humans use and abuse this most basic resource. Switching from the Xiluodu Dam, to the desertified river bed of the Colorado river, to the tanneries of Bangladesh, to the tiered paddies of China, to the Kumbh Mela on the Ganges, to the disappearing Texas aquifers, it is a series of gob-smacking images one after the other. Climate change is soft-pedalled – “if the climate is changing, then we need to know how and what we can do and what we can do about it” is the line. But the tacit throughline, barely detectable, is of scarcity and value – prepare for war, in other words.
Belle (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
A bonnet-y drama dealing with slavery and starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a “mulatto” girl brought up in the very highest British society at the end of the 18th century. And, what’s more, in the house of the judge (played by Tom Wilkinson) who will end up sitting in judgment on the Zong case – in which a ship’s captain throws his negro slaves overboard and then claims on the insurance for his loss of “cargo”. This ever-so-handy personal-is-political twin-track plot being gifted to writer Misan Sagay by history – Belle existed, the Zong case happened, and the high-court judge who tried it was indeed Belle’s guardian. This is top-drawer British costume drama, with visiting Canadian Sarah Gadon fitting in seamlessly among what you might call the usual suspects (Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson). The sets look as good as the people, the screenplay works hard to avoid the “Good-day-Earl-of-Plymouth-who-has-the-ear-of-the-king” dialogue. And it tries to stay true to the mores of the past as it follows Belle into the foothills of romance. And here, only here, it stumbles, as a modern love story and the “follow your heart” credo intrudes into a world determined by status.
Filmed in Supermarionation (Network, cert PG, DVD)
An affectionate and, if you were around, warmly nostalgic documentary about the output of Gerry Anderson, the man who gave us Thunderbirds. It’s a clever collation of old footage, wistful reminiscence by the people who worked with Anderson and his wife Sylvia on various TV puppet shows – from Torchy the Battery Boy and Four Feather Falls, to Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and The Secret Service. So many documentaries seem so uninterested in the nuts and bolts but Stephen La Rivière’s well researched film spends time on technique – how voice syncing worked, how the “puppets can’t walk” problem was circumvented, the high speed camera and its crucial role in filming special effects, rolling roads, rolling backdrops, Barry Gray’s superlative music (though it doesn’t answer the mystery of why Gray never worked for anyone else). And so on. We also get the behind the scenes wrangles over production, and constant reminders that Anderson’s drive towards realism was propelled by a disdain for puppets – he wanted to be a real film producer, goddamit – and that as soon as he could, he moved on to live action (which isn’t covered here). Would any of it mean much if the shows mean nothing to you? I doubt it. But if they do…
© Steve Morrissey 2014