Out This Week
Selma (Pathe, cert 12)
Martin Luther King’s life done as a triumph, not the usual tragedy, the focus being the series of marches King led from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. These effectively rode a coach and horses through the prevailing practice of disenfranchising Negros by making registering to vote all but impossible. Up in Washington DC are two tricky customers – the conniving though not entirely venal President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, not over-reaching himself) and his homunculus, FBI boss J Edgar Hoover (another eel-like turn by Dylan Baker), while down in Alabama operates the strategically astute, tactically sharp King. Like last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, the success of the film comes down to good old fashioned Hollywood screenwriting, Paul Webb’s tight script sketching in background, putting just enough flesh on characters, running us through the events at a pace that never feels rushed. Oddly ignored by the Oscars, David Oleyowo has somehow become meatier, bulkier, looks like a man who likes his grits and gravy. He’s remarkable as King – smart, focused, proud. It’s a black film, Wilkinson and Baker notwithstanding, not a white film pretending to be black (see The Help), and inevitably tends to hagiographise King and his retinue. It’s also a simple film, low in budget (maybe that’s why Oscar wasn’t interested), lacking special effects, almost a TV movie in looks. But it works. What more is necessary?
Shaun the Sheep Movie (StudioCanal, cert U)
A movie about the sheep who was first introduced in the Wallace and Gromit film The Wrong Trousers, which I have seen a thousand times, as an result of having a young son at the time it came out. It’s the Babe: Pig in the City plot (defenceless animal goes to town to bring back the farmer) and it’s done without voiceover or any speech at all. So no, there’s no actual explanation as to why animals want to hasten the return of the man whose job is to send them off to the abattoir. Sound effects and music and voiced grunts do most of the work of missing dialogue, the meticulously realised mis-en-scene of the animation doing the rest – this is urban Britain as most of us city-dwellers live it, of car parks and bus stations, traffic gridlock and a multiplicity of ethnicities. And very pointedly multi-ethnic too, directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak nailing their colours to the mast there. The question for me, as I started watching, was “who is this for” – the music choices (Elton John, Primal Scream etc) seemed to be those of a man in his 50s, the cultural allusions (Silence of the Lambs, Taxi Driver and a lot more) ditto. By the end, having been genuinely delighted by its wit, and reassured that it hadn’t lost that Wrong Trousers whimsicality and inventiveness, the question had become “who is this not for?”.
I Am Big Bird (Spectrum, cert E)
Caroll Spinney is the now-81-year-old who has been playing Sesame Street’s Big Bird since the 1960s, and this is his story. It’s a very sweet one, and for some stretches of Spinney’s tale – interested in puppets as a kid, a spell in the forces, early TV work in Bozo the Clown, then spotted by Jim Henson, followed by wobbles in his early days as a Muppeteer, until Big Bird takes off – I was asking myself, so what? And after a few more minutes of Spinney’s story, I stopped carping and started enjoying the way the documentary cross-sectioned recent history from an entirely refreshing angle – whether it was a reminder of Sesame Street’s transracial casting, Big Bird being in China with Bob Hope, to the offer of an orbit of the Earth on the Space Shuttle (the one that exploded, Big Bird being replaced by doomed teacher Christa McAuliffe at the last minute). On top of that it’s a story of a genuinely nice man, his home life with his kids, the bungee jumps and the waterskiing and the puppet shows. Spinney talks a lot about his life, his love for his wife and his hippie-ish philosophy, and his colleagues say so often that he is in fact also Big Bird in real life that you start to believe them (Spinney is also Oscar the Grouch, about whom less is said). He has no plans to retire, even though, you sense, some of those around him wish he would. His understudy, Matt Vogel, retains a poker face throughout.
Inherent Vice (Warner, cert 15)
Having been compared to Robert Altman on numerous occasions, Paul Thomas Anderson finally jumps in with both feet in something approaching a homage to Altman’s 1973 Philip Marlowe thriller, The Long Goodbye. Here, Joaquin Phoenix is the stoner PI in search of weed and answers and running into the hangover from 1960s hippiedom – astrology and spiritual coaches, ouija boards, Neil Young songs, zipless fucks and walking around in bare feet. If you’re in the mood for a takedown of that sort of thing, it’s a good one. If you’re like me you might think Anderson is decades late, as was Thomas Pynchon in his original novel. Pynchon’s Dickensian names – Agent Flatweed, Puck Beaverton, Petunia Leeway, Sauncho Smilax Esq – remain, as do the similarly large characters (Josh Brolin as a cop with a fondness for popsicles resembling black cock, Martin Short as the cocaine doctor, Benicio Del Toro as a fairly useless lawyer). Phoenix is again very good as the button smart dude trying to function against an overhead of cannabis, and ace cinematographer Robert Elswit loads up the visuals with that bright, bright light that characterised films of the era (Chinatown is another strong reference). The individual elements of this stoned soul picnic are unimpeachable. Dickens would have stitched them together with a stronger throughline.
Lost River (E One, cert 15)
So, Ryan Gosling directs a movie and the world stands back, sort of hoping he’s going to disgrace himself. He doesn’t. But by the end, the question asked at the beginning – is this a stylish, left-field film by someone trying something different, or an exercise in pastiche by someone taking a short cut to auteur glory? – has been answered. “A film by Ryan Gosling” it says at the outset, rather than the wankier “A Ryan Gosling film”, because in all honesty this is Benoit Debie’s film, the cinematographer who gave Gaspar Noë’s Enter the Void its remarkable, trippy kaleidoscopic looks and who, I’m guessing, also persuaded Harmony Korine that the girls in Spring Breakers would look extra special in hot neon bikinis. Debie does love his neon and his trademark colours are all over this very Lynchian tale of a mother (Christina Hendricks) and her son (Iain De Caestecker) in crumbling Detroit – he’s running wild and daily runs the risk of being taken down by the gang which has declared that it and it alone has scavenging rights in the dilapidated city. She, meanwhile, fearful of losing her house, is taking a job in a bizarro cabaret, on the recommendation of her bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) – who seems also to own the club. It’s this club that’s the site of most of the Lynchian goings-on, where sexual and aggressive underbellies are exposed and a popular song is sung in ironic fashion by someone you wouldn’t expect to sing a song. Eva Mendes also dons a basque for a bit of gory burlesque (“Look who I’m married to!” Gosling appears to be boasting. Don’t hate him). Blue Velvet’s power came from the fact that Lynch was making ironic comment on the standard ironic critique of America – pointing out that America’s moment had passed, though no one had yet noticed. What is Gosling doing? A “what he said”, I think. Visually, it’s an impressive exercise in sepulchral, crepuscular style, with lots to enjoy in the performances – Mendes and Mendelsohn, an unrecognisable and excellent Matt Smith as the local gang boss. Gosling has got all his artschool gothic out in one big go, and made a pretty picture while doing so. It’s his next film that will be the real test.
Far from the Madding Crowd (StudioCanal, cert U)
The bad things in John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel are only minor – Julie Christie is, at 26, too old and too knowing to play Bathsheba, the rural temptress whose beauty and wilfulness are a weapon that she can’t quite control, viz the three stunned/maimed men who trail in her wake. Alan Bates has a wandering accent and isn’t quite yokelish enough, as Gabriel Oak the shepherd. Terence Stamp’s Sergeant Troy seems to have his roots in the East End rather than the West Country, and lacks the crisp deportment you expect of a military man. Peter Finch is, however, practically perfect as the local squire hoping class and cash will work on Bathsheba where devotion (Gabriel) and sheer animal magnetism (Troy) have not quite. Which brings us to the great things – Schlesinger’s direction and Nicolas Roeg’s cinematography constantly situating the characters in nature, reminding us they are all subjects of a power beyond comprehension. Richard Rodney Bennett’s score, which also stirs dissonances into the bucolic rapture, a foreshadowing of The Wicker Man maybe. Frederic Raphael’s script, a marvel of concision, its episodic structure also suggesting something like the Stations of the Cross – except here all characters are tested and chastened. Derided for its trendy casting when it first came out (Stamp and Christie were thought to be the “Terry and Julie” of the Kinks single Waterloo Sunset), it is the film’s archaicisms that let it down the most – the post-dubbed dialogue knocking the life out of many scenes, especially earlier in the film; and the appalling use of soft on Christie’s face. The restored version I watched was beautiful to behold, but Christie is so besmeared with Vaseline effects that I wondered if it was an artefact introduced by the software.
The Interview (Sony, cert 15)
TV guys Seth Rogen and James Franco go to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-Un in the comedy notorious for getting caught up in the whole Sony hacking debacle around Christmas. It’s a terrible film, the unfunniest comedy about dictatorship since Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator. But let’s not forget that Baron Cohen’s character was fictional, Kim Jong-un actually exists, and as well as being a butt of jokes for the free world’s media is also responsible for the deaths of thousands, if not millions, of his fellow countrymen. A fuller review of the film is here.
© Steve Morrissey 2015