The Wall

Martina Gedeck in The Wall

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

1 February

 

 

Alexander Selkirk rescued, 1709

On this day in 1709, a Scottish sailor named either Alexander Selkirk or Selcraig was rescued from an island in the South Pacific. But the model for Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe wasn’t the victim of a shipwreck. In fact he’d asked the captain of the privateer (ie pirate) ship he was sailing on, the Cinque Ports, to leave him on the uninhabited island known as Más a Tierra in the Juan Fernández archipelago about 700km off the coast of Chile. Known since his youth as a quarrelsome sort, Selkirk had been loudly protesting against the state of the leaky vessel and had gone so far as to say that he’d rather be left on the island than go any further on the boat. The captain of the Cinque Ports, taking him at his word, left him there. He was there for four years and four months, living off wild goats and abundant fruit and vegetables, evading capture twice when Spanish ships landed, fashioning new clothes out of goat skins when his own clothes wore out (his father had been a tanner, so that knowledge came in handy). He also built two shelters – one for sleeping, one for cooking – and tamed wild cats to keep him safe from the marauding rats. When the he was finally rescued by William Dampier, in whose convoy he had originally sailed, Selkirk’s physical and mental condition amazed Dampier, who made him second mate. Selkirk returned with a vengeance to life as a privateer and discovered when he returned to his home country in 1711 that he was famous.

 

 

 

The Wall (2012, dir: Julian Pölsler)

A woman who has probably been spending a quiet weekend away from the hustle of modern life in a secluded valley in Austria gets ready to return to the daily grind when, bang, she walks into what seems to be an invisible wall. As she tries to work out what it is, we are trying to work out what sort of film we’re watching. Sci-fi? No explanation is ever given. Instead we watch as a 21st century woman with polypropylene walking gear, a solid Mercedes and very little else is reintroduced to a different sort of existence as one day peels into the next, then becomes a week, a month and so on. She is utterly alone and at first does what we all might do. She patrols the perimeter of the wall, trying to call out to people she can see through it, but they are frozen in time. She drives her car into the wall, which gets her nothing except a totalled vehicle. And, gradually, she starts to adapt. It’s a Robinson Crusoe story, in short, with Martina Gedeck playing the castaway, narrating in voiceover from a position some considerable time in the future how she learnt a, b and c. If you’ve ever seen the French 1960s TV series starring Robert Hoffmann as Crusoe, The Wall will strike you as familiar, particularly its voiceover – almost godlike in its calm, philosophical, omniscient-narrator style. This is a remarkably simple film with a powerful emotional tug that asks us quite simply to connect with this ill-prepared woman, to follow her on her journey (as we also did with Tom Hanks in the most interesting section of Cast Away) from jeopardy to self-sufficiency both physical and emotional – the domestication of animals, her befriending of a crow, a cow, a dog, a cat. Gedeck’s calm, almost poetic reading of what must be this woman’s (we don’t learn her name) journal makes it the perfect film for students of German, the pristine shots of the savage beautiful landscape will have the Austrian Tourist Board handing out copies of the DVD and the one-woman performance as a whole is a thing of magical restraint. I have a funny feeling this film, which was almost entirely disregarded film in English-speaking countries, is going to have a long tail.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Robinson Crusoe reinvented
  • The cinematography, clear as a mountain stream
  • The performance by Gedeck, best known for The Lives of Others
  • The antithesis of an action movie

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Wall – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

25 November 2013-11-25

Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock in The Heat

Out in the UK this Week

 

 

The Heat (Fox, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

There aren’t many female buddy-cop comedies. This one, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), recalls the Lethal Weapon antics of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and stars Sandra Bullock as the one trying to play it by the book, and Melissa McCarthy as the out and out slob prepared to take any risk because, hell, law and order is a dirty old business. Suit pants versus sweat pants, basically, with a plot that’s immaterial – it has something to do with guns and drugs, as per – but it’s just enough to bus the girls from one amusing set piece to the next, with Bullock and McCarthy doing what looks like a lot of improv riffing as they go. Along the way it stops for set pieces that look like they have been ordered in by somebody’s people – the initially distrustful duo bond over a night of  drinking, the disco scene where McCarthy has to refashion Bullock’s uptight outfit so she can fit in, the scene where they hang a guy off a fire escape by his feet. They’re funny enough, but they pale next to the rest of it, the bits where Bullock and McCarthy basically lean back and call each other names. The language is ripe, it is foul and it is very funny. And what really helps this film become the funniest comedy I’ve seen in a long time is the strength of the support cast – again and again scenes which would be throwaways in lesser comedies become belters thanks to inspired casting and playing by even the bittiest of bit players.

The Heat – at Amazon

 

The Wall (New Wave, cert 12, DVD)

A woman on holiday in picture-postcard Austria one day bumps into an invisible wall while walking down the road. Everything else in the world seems normal, but she can’t get through this barrier. People on the other side seem to be frozen still. As Martina Gedeck, in almost constant voiceover, recounts what happened over the next few days, weeks, months and… well it looks like years… the notion that The Wall is some kind of offbeat sci-fi is gradually replaced by the realisation that it is a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, played out by a woman instead of a man, and on an “island” in the middle of a landlocked country. It’s an unusual, simple and fascinating film which, like the Tom Hanks Cast Away movie – except prettier – offers us at first little more than the sight of a human being doing the necessary to keep body and soul together. But then it goes a step further, and we watch our castaway forming relationships with the animals also stuck on the inside of the bubble she’s in and wondering about what it means to be human, adjusting to her fate. And that’s it – simple, beguiling, a real gem.

The Wall – at Amazon

 

The Broken Circle Breakdown (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD)

I remember thinking at one point that this film was going to be another of those “and then the kid dies of cancer” movies. Which is what it looked like for a while. I suspect that even as a terminal-illness weepie it would be a good one, because of its basic set-up – she’s a much-tattooed woman forming a love-at-first-sight relationship with a Flemish bluegrass singer, joins the band, marries him, has kid, kid gets cancer. But because of scrambled chronology which pushes the themes (love, religion, rationalism) rather than the plot to the fore, this drama has a real emotional tug. It has several things in its favour – Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh’s entirely convincing performances, Ruben Impens’s exquisitely careful cinematography, which just amplifies ever so slightly what’s going on. And the music – those bluegrass harmonies are bewitching and Baetens can really sing.

The Broken Circle Breakdown – at Amazon

 

The World’s End (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The last of the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (along with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) sees Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s characters off pub-crawling with zombies in the town of their birth. It’s a “getting the gang back together” comedy that mines the first film for attitude and the second film for observations on smalltown life. The zombie idea – are they technically zombies? Alien zombies perhaps? – is a brilliant metaphor for that feeling of returning to your home town and finding everything just as you left it yet entirely different. And the first half of the film works that territory expertly. But it’s when the zombies/aliens/whatever finally announce themselves that the film seems to run out of jokes. I suppose they were all used up by Shaun of the Dead.

The World’s End – at Amazon

 

Red 2 (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

So, the gang of Retired Extremely Dangerous operatives is re-assembled, again, with Willis, Mirren, Malkovich and Mary-Louise Parker joined by Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins (the ham is hanging from the rafters) for a multi-national plot in which military hardware, car chases and absurd villains vie for screen time. Two things early on set the tone – the opening shot is of a supermarket trolley with a wonky wheel. Shortly afterwards we meet Steven Berkoff in chinkie-Chinaman make-up – he’s only missing the Charlie Chan moustache. There are a lot of these films around at the moment – how long before a film with the title Superannuated 1980s Action Hero hits the screens? But if the first Red film spent so much time winking to the camera that it forgot to actually nod to a plot, this sequel has learnt from those mistakes. As per the last one, much of the humour is of the “aren’t we a bit old for this shit” variety. But a cast this illustrious really does know how to polish what in lesser hands would be a turd, there’s some sensationally over the top carnage, the heroes are improbably indestructible and everyone involved seems to be having fun. I think they might squeeze one more of these out before the joke goes flat. Quick, quick, The Expendables 17 is probably already mapped out in Sylvester Stallone’s Psion Organiser.

Red 2 – at Amazon

 

Despicable Me 2 (Universal, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)

Despicable Me 1 was a complete movie. The villain, Gru (as in Gruesome, I imagine), had by the end of it become the good guy. The arc was completed, the story was done. So what are writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio going to have Gru do in the sequel? The answer is: they don’t have the faintest idea. The baldie Dr Evil approximation is ostensibly the focus, but the plot about Gru being recruited by the Anti-Villain League to deal with some super-villain is thin at best. And the romantic sub-plot featuring Lucy (voice: Kristen Wiig) doesn’t ding many dongs either. In some respects this sequel is about Gru’s Minions – the squeaky little fellas who are soon to get their own spinoff movie. But really DM2 isn’t about them either. Luckily for Paul and Daurio, directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud are also back on board and they do have a plan – fill the film with the sort of animated mayhem that Chuck Jones used to pack the Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry and Roadrunner shorts with. This makes for inspired moments, and they crop up often enough that you can almost forget that the story is… just a bit meh.

Despicable Me 2 – at Amazon

 

Heaven’s Gate Restored (Second Sight, cert 15, Blu-ray)

A good, long, immersive film telling the story of a rich Harvard guy (Kris Kristofferson) who becomes the champion of the poor out in the wild wild West, Heaven’s Gate was butchered by the studio then filleted by the critics when it was first released in 1980. Directed by Michael Cimino – who was given a bottomless budget after the success of The Deer Hunter – the film destroyed United Artists and brought to a close the New Hollywood era of grown-up films directed by dope-smoking long-hairs. So here it is back at epic length, thanks to a fabulous restoration job (you used to be able to see the joins – not any more), and it’s immediately clear from the very first sequence, a huge, impressive crowd scene set in Harvard, what Cimino is up to. An hour and a half (of three and a half hours) later – every scene a money shot, every scrap of scene-setting requiring hundreds of extras, immensely complicated camera shots, amazing sets and John Ford locations – and the pomp of the whole thing has become oppressive. It’s also around this time that another of the film’s shortcomings becomes abundantly clear – Kris Kristofferson is a Mount Rushmore of a man, but he’s no actor. He can’t do interiority. And he needs to be able to do it because his character is so badly underwritten. As are all the characters in this film – John Hurt, as the gilded Harvard youth gone badly to drink, a young Christopher Walken warming up Johnny Depp’s cheekbones and much of his acting style, Isabelle Huppert, Sam Waterston, Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke (when he still had a light, pleasant voice). That is an immense cast of talent, so good they go some way towards repairing the deficiencies in the writing. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography goes most of the rest of the way, this surely being a contender for the best photographed film ever made. For Zsigmond’s skill, talent, graft and the huge budget that must have been lavished on his set-ups alone, this film is a must-watch. As for the rest of it, it’s OK, it’s fine, neither the revealed masterpiece that some claim nor a calamitous mess.

Heaven’s Gate – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

The Best Films I Saw in 2013

The cast of You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet
Updated 2013-12-30

 

Here they are, the best films I saw in 2013. It’s a Top Ten job with the best in no particular order, followed by a list of films that made the top ten at some point in the year, then got bounced. This is not a Best of 2013, let me quickly point out, just the best films I’ve seen this year. So a film everyone else has seen but I haven’t won’t be here (I’ve not seen American Hustle yet, f’rinstance). And there might be stragglers from 2012 in here which caught up with late. It really is “the best films I have seen this year”. If you’re wondering what to do with that Amazon voucher and your tastes generally aren’t multiplex, this might be a useful place to start.

 

1. You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012, dir: Alain Resnais)

Alain Resnais, now in his nineties, proves there’s life in the new wave dog yet with an amazingly convoluted meta-drama based on two Anouilh plays, thick with formal experiment and managing to weld classical theatre to 21st century techniques. Amazing, and you can bet it made both Lars Von Trier and Todd Solondz chuckle too.

 

2. Aurora (2010, dir: Cristi Puiu)

The Romanian Cristi Puiu made The Death of Mr Lazarescu and also stars in what might be considered a follow-up, a film that tells a story while also running an audit on the current state of the homeland. The story: a very odd one, following what must the dourest hitman (Puiu) through concrete-coloured Bucharest as he goes about his often incredibly mundane business. Shot in long takes, in blue light, in the most unprepossessing of locations, with many shots half through doorways and focusing on the main character and him alone, it’s unique, remarkable and often quite baffling.

 

3. The Heat (2013, dir: Paul Feig)

Because no one is funnier than Melissa McCarthy right now, a buddy-cop comedy in which Sandra Bullock plays the uptight FBI agent reluctantly partnering a wildcat local cop (McCarthy). The plot is slender, but is just enough for Bridesmaids director Paul Feig to hang a few funny set pieces off. Better than that it gives a chance for the two actors to riff rude, with McCarthy inevitably getting the better of Bullock when it comes to being the swearier and more prepared to make herself look a fool. Fancy Bullock being in the best comedy of the year and its most popular sci-fi (which is not on my list because I haven’t seen it yet, for shame).

 

4. Angel & Tony (2010, dir: Alix Delaporte)

Big aah, a simple, short love story about a troubled beautiful young woman and the shy, fat middle-aged fisherman she rather unexpectedly hooks up with. Rather simply, this one’s all about the transformative power of love and is about as bloody lovely as films get.

 

5. I Wish  (2011, dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s drama is ostensibly about a kid who wants to make a wish, and believes that by making it at the exact point where two bullet trains’ paths cross, it is sure to come true. In fact he’s just the starting point for a whole series of lightly interconnected transgenerational stories, which the writer/director joins and rejoins. Everything about this film shouts genius – the placing of the camera, the casting, the acting, the editing. It’s also one of the sweetest films, so full of hope and life, I’ve ever seen.

 

6. The Kings of Summer (2013, Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

A coming-of-ager that has the raucous “fuck you” comic edge of Superbad and the elemental undertow of Stand By Me, The Kings of Summer is about a group of boys who head off to the woods one summer, mostly to escape their obnoxious, bullying, clever-clever parents, but partly just to do a bit of growing up. There they trap animals (or make out that they do), grow facial hair, invite girls over and get their hearts broken. It’s strange to find a film that intercuts comedy and heartache so well, that catches that great feeling of freedom that total irresponsibility allows, and which punctuates these switches between the two ends of the dramatic spectrum with contemplative “Ozu shots” of prairies and water and flowers, set to a soundtrack that manages to be both familiar and leftfield.

 

 7. She Monkeys (2011, dir: Lisa Aschan)

A Swedish drama that’s all about girls, power, sex and equestrian vaulting. Expect no fluffy bunnies in this one – in one of its twin-track stories we have a five-year-old girl sexually grooming her older babysitting cousin; in the other a butter-wouldn’t-melt blonde making a sumo-style All About Eve assault on a rival. Cool, unusual, brilliant.

 

8. Sightseers (2012, dir: Ben Wheatley)

A pair of incredibly dim British caravan enthusiasts set off on a tour of esoteric sites of special interest – museums dedicated to pencils or trams etc – and indulge in increasingly psychotic episodes of murder for light relief. A deadpan Natural Born Killers that will have you snorting liquid down your nose.

 

9. The Gatekeepers (2012, dir: Dror Moreh)

The best documentary I saw this year comes from director Dror Moreh, who somehow managed to get all the surviving former heads of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet to talk to him. What he have is little more than a series of talking heads explaining to Moreh how Shin Bet operates. But it is the way that Moreh structures the entirely stereotype-busting revelations dropping from these guys’ mouths – and they each look like a Bond villain of one sort or another – that makes this “jaw to the floor” viewing.

 

10. Silver Linings Playbook (2012, dir: David O Russell)

David O Russell’s sweet but never cute drama about a guy fresh from the funny farm (Bradley Cooper) and his burgeoning relationship with brassy fellow medicatee (Jennifer Lawrence). Underneath the warty carapace this is perfect Hollywood – everyone gets what they deserve, big lessons are learned, there’s silver linings all round, in fact. Or you could just watch it for the performances – Lawrence so good that she forces Robert De Niro to act. Even Chris Tucker puts in a great performance.

 

 

The “Nearly” List

The Sapphires (2012, dir: Wayne Blair)

We keep being told about the revival of the musical (clinkers like Chicago usually), so how come this one about a girl group of aborigine soul singers on a tour of 1960s Vietnam isn’t better known? It’s got songs, jokes, a bit of love and a standout Chris O’Dowd in the lead role. And it’s a true story.

 

Thale (2012, dir: Aleksander Nordaas)

Made for nothing yet looking like it cost millions, this Norwegian horror fantasy about a couple of police clean-up guys who find a mythical creature out in the cellar of a shack in the woods has plot, characters, looks, tension and, a few seconds of ropey CGI apart, is almost perfect.

 

Elena (2011, dir: Andrey Svyagintsev)

Andrey Svyagintsev’s throttled-back thriller about a woman in Russia, her boorish rich husband to whom she’s little more than a nurse, and her Soviet-throwback son and his family, a bunch of layabouts living out in the tower blocks.

 

Mama (2013, dir: Andrés Muschietti)

One of the seven thousand films Jessica Chastain made in the last year or so, Mama is a superior horror film that welds together the haunted house and malevolent-child genres and then throws a lot of switched sympathies into the mix. Watchable as an exercise in genre manipulation alone, or as an out-and-out horror movie, or as a bravura exercise in visual effects, this is one of the best mainstream horror films in years.

 

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012, dir: Alex Gibney)

Close to The Gatekeepers for “well stap my vitals” revelations is Alex Gibney’s remarkable documentary about paedophilia in the Roman Catholic church, how the organisation has been aware for at least 1,700 years that the vows of celibacy and chastity tend either to attract weirdos or make people weird. And that the Church has, by virtue of its institutional power, been able to subvert secular legal systems. This is a gobsmacking documentary of the old-fashioned pavement-pounding sort whose conclusions are that, lovely Pope Francis or no, in terms of moral authority the Catholic church is a busted flush.

 

Shell (2012, dir: Scott Graham)

A star is born, in the shape (the face, mostly) of Chloe Pirrie, the focus of this lugubrious drama about a girl who works in an out-of-the-way petrol station owned by her father. Shell is the girl’s name, it’s the name of a petrol company too, a passing customer jokily quips to the girl, who responds with a deep lack of engagement. Which is what the film is about  – is she going to engage? With Adam, a guy in a hot hatch? With a passing travelling salesman? Possibly with her own father? God forbid. But on this slender “who?” and “when?” director Scott Graham hangs a powerful film as austere and dour as a low church chapel.

 

In the House (2012, dir: François Ozon)

François Ozon doesn’t make dumb films, and in In the House he’s made a film that on one level is about a superbright, sexually precocious, unsettlingly androgynous schoolboy (Ernst Umhauer) who starts writing increasingly personal stories for his teacher (the brilliantly disconcerted Fabrice Luchini). Before long the teacher is hooked, the boy has become a cuckoo in the nest, the wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) is discombobulated, and Ozon has crafted a drama of the sort you can imagine Jacques Derrida and fellow post-structuralists enjoying with beer and a pizza.

 

Byzantium (2012, dir: Neil Jordan)

Neil Jordan does something excellent with the vampire movie in Byzantium. He manages to weld the lush overheated velvet of the Hammer horror, all heaving bosoms and the male gaze, to the austere IKEA ambience of Let the Right One In. As two (possible) sisters of competing vampiric sensibilities we have Gemma Arterton (the busty, Hammer lust-bucket) and Saoirse Ronan (self-assembly vampiric waiflet). Add an abandoned seaside hotel in off season, a few luckless male victims, a couple of bounders and rotters who arrive from the girls’ past to help deliver a rousing Hollywood ending, and you’ve got a film that grips by the throat, teases, entertains and beguiles.

 

8 ½ (1963, dir: Federico Fellini)

This restoration of one of Fellini’s most famous films reminds us what a clever man he was, as well as a consummate film-maker. Taking as its starting point the non-starting Fellini after he had finished La Dolce Vita, it tells the story of a blocked director who hasn’t got the faintest idea what to do next. Which all sounds very indulgent and unnecessarily arthouse, until you actually watch as Fellini slowly starts to spin his on-screen phalanx of actors, make-up people, producers, the director’s diversions, dreams and fantasies into something elaborate, fantastical and even at times funny. Marcello Mastroianni is the Fellini stand-in, and the film is really helped by the presence of Claudia Cardinale and Anouk Aimée, about the hottest women on the planet back in 1963.

 

The Wall (2012, dir: Julian Pölsler)

A weird and wonderful re-imagining of Robinson Crusoe. But instead of a man, it’s a woman (Martina Gedeck). Instead of an island it’s the landlocked country of Austria, inside which a woman on a bit of a weekend break, or something, suddenly discovers that she’s locked inside her rural idyll by an invisible wall. And there she stays for years, making friends with various stray animals, writing her diaries, musing on what it is to be human, alone. A deceptively simple but wonderfully told story, which raises the question of how any of us might cope if suddenly cut off completely from civilisation. And Austria looks pretty fantastic too.

 

Broken Circle Breakdown (2012, dir: Felix Van Groeningen)

Bluegrass music in Belgium provides the sweetener for what looks for one awful moment like it’s going to be a film about a child getting a terminal disease and dying. A child does actually get a terminal disease but that isn’t really what this artfully shot, pungently written drama – about a much-tattooed beauty (Veerle Baetens) striking up a relationship with an ex-punk (Johan Heldenburgh) and becoming a singer in his bluegrass outfit – is about. And god can she sing.

 

Fireworks Wednesday (2006, dir: Asghar Farhadi)

Finally finding its way to some sort of release off the back of the Oscar success of his A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s 2006 drama patrols a similar border, the one between traditional Islam and the blandishments of the West, and doesn’t so much wag his finger as point out the areas that are going to chafe. A simple story about a naive young girl who finds herself working for a family who seem to have adultery issues – and she’s about to get married herself – it is so well written, well cast and unobtrusively shot that it feels less like watching a movie more like eavesdropping.

 

Child’s Pose (2013, dir: Calin Peter Netzer)

Romania continues to come up with brilliant films, such as this dour drama about a horrible entitled mother trying to get her horrible ungrateful son off the charge of killing a poor child by dangerous driving. As much a portrait of the haves and have-nots of Romania and how justice is entirely in the service of only one of them (guess which), it is also a remarkable drama that withholds its true intentions. Hold on for the extended final sequence, when the mother goes to visit the dead child’s grieving parents, while the son waits out in the car, and remember to keep breathing.

 

The House I Live In (2012, dir: Eugene Jarecki)

Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about the sheer mess of US drugs policy points out the government has spent $1 trillion on the “war against drugs” since President Nixon initiated it, with the result that recreational drug use has changed not a jot. A well researched doc with the right talking heads, attitudinal but never strident.

 

Small Town Murder Songs (2010, dir: Ed Gass-Donnelly)

A drama that asks us to look at the character of an upstanding cop in a Mennonite community and divine the man he used to be – and it isn’t pretty. Peter Stormare’s hangdog features and impassive thousand yard stare make this hellish unusual type of film even more enjoyable.

 

The Queen of Versailles (2012, dir: Lauren Greenfield)

The documentary that asked us to feel billionaire pain, and succeeded. Starting out simply as a film about the building of the biggest private residence in the US, the enterprise somehow became something much more incisive – a story about financial mess we’ve all been going through, seen from the most rarefied of positions. Entirely fascinating.

 

Rust and Bone (2012, dir: Jacques Audiard)

Always making a bad film (Nine, Public Enemies) bearable and a good film (Inception, Contagion) better, Marion Cotillard is on absolute white hot form in this potentially blubbery drama about a woman who loses her legs and the bouncer (equally remarkable Matthias Schoenaearts) who gives her back her taste for life.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013