Out This Week
Marguerite (Picturehouse, cert 15)
The story of the socialite who sang like a scalded cat is also told by the film Florence Foster Jenkins. But this is France, the singer has been renamed Marguerite and instead of Meryl Streep there’s Catherine Frot in the lead role as the rich woman whose wealth buys her the appreciation – grins set to “fixed” – of her retinue of hangers-on in the select musical soirees she finances out of her own pocket.
I’ve not seen FFJ, but have heard that it doesn’t go for the easy joke at Jenkins’s expense. If that’s true then director Xavier Giannoli and co have taken the same tack with Marguerite – the woman has the soul of an artist; it is her grand tragedy that she doesn’t have an artist’s pipes too. But does Marguerite know how piercingly awful her voice is? Frot keeps the cards tight to her chest in a masterly performance, just one of many in a brilliantly written film, also a fabulously made one of the sort “they don’t make any more”.
By the time it’s over, as Marguerite has arrived at her debut in front of the great unwashed for the total humiliation the film has been teasingly leading us towards, we realise we know everyone involved – the husband (André Marcon) whose face says “please when will this farce end?”, the servant (Denis Mpunga) who ministers to Catherine (ordering bouquets and pretending they’re from admirers) with mad devotion, the singer (Michel Fau) hired to coach her, the ingenue (Christa Téret) whose pure singing voice is everything Marguerite’s is not. There’s even been a Rocky-style training montage to that Michael Nyman piece of cod Baroque.
As a period drama, Marguerite has wit and depth, style and substance, it’s beautifully shot and makes British efforts like The King’s Speech seem one-dimensional. All this and it’s fabulously entertaining too.
The Witch: a New England Folktale (Universal, cert 15)
We’re in the Arthur Miller world of The Crucible for this tale of a pious family rent asunder by the suspicion of witchcraft.
We meet the family, fairly recently arrived in 1630s New England, of zealous man and wife William and Katherine, older children Thomasin and Caleb, plus Mercy and Jonas, a lively pair of young siblings who have little to do until an injection of gunpowder irrationality is required towards the end. By the time we get to that end we’ve watched as a family has pulled together trying to eke a living from the hard ground, until Katherine’s newborn baby is stolen – spirited away by Indians is the suggestion, in some gruesome montage of cutting and blood-smearing. Things post-traumatically fall apart as the accusatory finger is pointed. Amid dialogue heavy on the “thee” and “thine” but never incomprehensible, director Robert Eggers builds a tough, believable portrait of a family under stress – the bluff, decent William, the maudlin hysterical Katherine, the oldest daughter Thomasin, all pious eyes and wanton lips, the son Caleb who admires his dad but is stirred by his sister’s budding breasts. And the other two who, as I say, don’t matter right now.
The force of the drama falls on Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin, and she’s remarkable as the wanton yet god-fearing daughter. Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie as mother and father, well, those two are fail-safe choices. But it’s the production design and conjuring of a world that The Witch is all about, one where goats might be devils, where chicken’s eggs contain dead foetal birds and where the woods stir with unknown dangers. While DP Jarin Blaschke lays on the shadows and lights the sets in the manner of Rembrandt – who was working around this time – Eggers dabs Eau de Poe hither and yon, the Grimms get an outing and, once matters start to build towards a feverish crescendo, even Ken Russell’s hysterical-theatrical The Devils seems a reference point.
Strip away all of that, though, and there’s still a four-square family drama of almost kitchen-sink solidity underneath. Perhaps that’s why The Witch works so well.
The Trust (Signature, cert 15)
Everyone seems to dig the joys of genre in this feature debut for the talented Brewer brothers – Alex and Benjamin.
They certainly do, in this strange comedy about two useless, low-status, belittled cops who decide it’s their turn to be the bad guys and so stage a daring heist from set-up to execution to fallout. As do the stars, Elijah Wood and Nicolas Cage. It’s constructed like a straight heist movie, except every scene is comedically punctuated, if not punctured, by some tiny detail happening in the background, or a look on the face of Cage or Wood, or perhaps just a word pronounced in a strange way – Cage says “whacky” at one point, somehow getting about four vowels in there – and that was enough for me. Or Cage ringing Germany from the USA to order the drill bit necessary to get into the vault where all the loot is stashed. There is no logical reason for this, unless the intention is to hear Cage having a go at speaking German for about a second, a bit more comedy.
It’s a drily funny film in the buddy-cop tradition, faintly reminiscent of the Wahlberg/Ferrell movie The Other Guys maybe. Gonzo is the idea, and who better than Cage, who gets right in there and rolls around in it, leaving Wood to do the straight man stuff, which he does with flair.
There have been Marmite reviews, and I suspect that that’s because the film runs out of gas as it gets into the final stretch, the heist gets properly underway, and the joking is abandoned for some serious gangs’n’guns stuff. Fair enough, it can’t be denied that the film does go into limp mode, but by then I’d had my fun, had been entertained enough. And it’s nice to see Cage has still got it.
Zootropolis (Disney, cert PG)
It’s also known as Zootopia in some quarters, and there is a similarly undecided air of uncertainty hanging over the whole of this strangely dense film, all the more remarkable since it’s an animation by Disney.
Following a rabbit who wants to join the police force (“There’s never been a bunny cop,” she’s told), Zootropolis is set in a strange world where all the animals co-exist rather well, that is until sporadic violence starts breaking out among the normally sedate populace. Judy (voice: Ginnifer Goodwin), our wabbity hero, investigates, accompanied by a wily streetwise fox (Jason Bateman, and what an asset to this film his smart, sly but essentially decent personification is) and this viewer started realising he’s watching a thriller that’s clearly watched Wallace and Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers, complete with smart visual allusion and noirish musical stabs.
Visually, the film is extraordinary, and the animators are clearly obsessed with the rendering of light. In the opening sequence in which Judy leaves behind her simple but honest folks and heads to the big city on a train, it passes through almost every lighting situation imaginable – snow, neon, light down tunnels, off the water, off clouds, dawn, dusk and midday, haze and bright sunshine. Watch this sequence and tick them off.
With Donald Trump hitting the ethnic essentialist button right now – “Muslims are like this, Mexicans are like that” – how interesting to see a film walking in the same territory. It’s no Animal Farm, but Orwell also hovers in the background, and while you might wonder about its philosophical flip-flopping, what it’s really trying to say and whether it really takes huge efforts of will for different types of animal (people) to live together, it’s a relief that Disney have realised there’s more to human motivation than following your dream.
Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story (Metrodome, cert 18)
Bang Gang is firmly in the “kids gone wild” style of film-making that’s been around since the 1950s. The sort of thing where pout is more important than plot and where big moral lessons are learnt by the end.
Here, it’s French kids from nice families indulging in wanton sex parties fuelled by drink and drugs, seen through the eyes of George, a Bardot-alike local hottie (instant star Marilyn Lima) and her more level-headed friend Laetitia (Daisy Broom). The venue for the parties is the home of well-to-do reprobate Alex (Finnegan Oldfield) – abandoned by his working mother to get up to whatever he wants (more moralising) – and taking full advantage. And that’s about it – the kids get together, take their clothes off and get down to it, while we are asked to admire Lima’s fine body as director Eva Husson proves it’s not just the male gaze that fetishises.
Behind the carnality, the beginnings of a love story are gathered together, as George gets let down by Alex and, from left field, local weirdo Gabriel (Lorenzo Lefèbvre) starts to edge onto the scene. Are George and Gabriel going to get together? Well they’re the physically most attractive people in view and it’s a film with a two plus two kind of simplicity, for all its fluid-swapping wrapping.
Yes, for all its YouTube-iness and focus on the connected world of phones, computers, instant messaging and internet porn, it’s an old-fashioned morality play with a fully operating double standard, dressed up by Husson, whose cool camera flourishes and impressionistic sound design lend it 21st-century style. There are many pluses – particularly the fine playing by its cast of mostly newcomers – but when it ends you might murmur, “is that it?”
Love & Peace (Third Window, cert 15)
A stupendously milquetoast salaryman in a moment of abject misery, after being ridiculed at work once too often, flushes his pet turtle down the toilet. The turtle, having floated down through the sewers, drifts into a strange zone ruled over by an old drunk tramp, where animals talk and toys come to life. Upstairs, our craven hero is transitioning, too, having been flukily discovered by a rock band and given a makeover by a record company, he is an instant pop/rock star. The turtle, homesick for his master, takes a magic pill and heads back overground, where he is going to help the star write songs and become even more of a star than he already is.
Er… bonkers, right? It’s a film by Sion Sono, whose usual fare – in Love Exposure, for instance – is stories about guys who take upskirt shots of girls. So he’s well off his beat here. Yet Love & Peace works because Sion (or Sono, I get confused) approaches his material with such honest enthusiasm. We get a ramshackle rock-biz satire upstairs, as our guy Ryo gets too big for his boots, and a child’s fantasy (done in Svankmajer-like thrift-shop stop-motion animation) down below, as the old drunk is revealed to be Someone Very Important Indeed.
The film even, at one point, starts to morph into a Godzilla movie, yet it’s all done with such cardboard-cutout simplicity that Noh theatre must figure in Sono’s (or Sion’s) intent.
I particularly liked the bit where Pikadon (the turtle is named after the Japanese word for a nuclear explosion) helps Ryo write lyrics by knocking books over and grabbing half a title here, half a title there – hey, that’s the cut-up technique, as famously used by David Bowie, I thought. Sion Sono is 55.
Truth (Warner, cert 15)
Truth tells the story of how in 2004, with a presidential campaign underway, CBS news anchor’s Dan Rather’s team, led by producer Mary Mapes, told the world that re-election hopeful George W Bush had – in so many words – dodged service in Vietnam, and then how Rather and Mapes lost their jobs when they were unable to stand the story up properly.
It’s a great story, of All the President’s Men kidney, and blow me if it isn’t Robert Redford as Rather. And rather a good job he’s doing too, catching the hokey gravitas of the professional interviewer, the steel of the longtime newsman, the wardrobe physicality of a man who turns his body when the rest of us might swivel a neck.
But the film is really about Mapes, and falls squarely on Cate Blanchett, who delivers another of her “stuff and nonsense” turns as an ice queen with a heart beneath that professional carapace, and one that Blanchett is going to reveal only when maximum impact can be guaranteed.
It’s her trick, and a good one, but sadly this is a lousy film, one made worse by its reminders at every turn of the dexterity and depth of All the President’s Men. It’s bad largely because there isn’t one procedural movie in here, but three – how George W evaded Vietnam, how the 60 Minutes show put together the story of Bush evading Vietnam, and finally how the investigation unravelled.
It’s too much in too little time. Which might explain why so many good people – Dennis Quaid and Elisabeth Moss, most notably – simply don’t have anything meaningful to do. Instead of being the story about a future president already calling in favours from powerful friends years in advance of “being democratically elected yadda yadda” – which is important and urgent – Truth instead becomes the story about a TV producer losing her job.
But Mapes is not ruined, she doesn’t have a terminal illness, she’s just been fired. Happens every day. It’s hard, ultimately, to get too aerated about it. Great story, though, and worth watching as an exercise in gleaning.
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© Steve Morrissey 2016