Out in the UK This Week
Foxcatcher (E One, cert 15)
Not unlike Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra in many ways, Foxcatcher tells a similar true story of a young impressionable man being taken up by an older man and being groomed, things all falling apart when the young man says “enough”. With Soderbergh the spotlight was on strapping Scott Thorson and his gay relationship with Liberace, whereas Foxcatcher focuses on potential Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz and the strange grip that the super-rich amateur wrestler John du Pont, owner of the Foxcatcher gym, had over him. The hoo-haa surrounding the film is generated mostly by the really rather remarkable performance by Steve Carell as du Pont – mouth-breathing, unsettling thousand-mile stare, creepy tics. Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz isn’t too much of a stretch from the admirable Tatum we’ve seen before – he’s a beefy guy, after all. What is more impressive is seeing Mark Ruffalo also entirely convincing as Mark’s older brother, coach and similarly jockish wrestling dude. The names Sienna Miller and Vanessa Redgrave also figure in the credits – the former in it so little that fans might feel aggrieved, the latter there to add an old-school Freudian mother-love angle as the patrician parent John du Pont simply can’t live up to (shades also of Behind the Candelabra). To be honest, the film drags a touch in the middle and resolves itself shockingly though not entirely satisfyingly – but then that’s real life for you (look up Mark Schultz or du Pont on Wikipedia if you want to ruin the film). It’s not as good as its rep, in other words. But it is a good film, and excellent as a portrait of the otherness of the extremely wealthy, and the way in which, by deferring to these weird creatures, we ordinary mortals foster their self-belief and grant them power.
Turned Towards the Sun (Matchbox, cert E)
Even people who don’t read the Daily Telegraph acknowledge that it’s head and shoulders above its rivals in several respects. One of those is its obituaries section, which makes a specialty of old guys and gals who die in relative obscurity but whose earlier lives were beyond remarkable. They’re war heroes, quite often, and this documentary about 90-something poet Micky Burn functions much like a Telegraph obit as it winds back the years on this fascinating man. I don’t want to give too much away, because there is so much more than we see at first glance – just some really old guy having his hearing aids checked out at the hospital. Or second glance – Burn was one of the soldiers who sailed on a suicide mission into the Nazi-occupied port of St Nazaire in the Second World War and tried to blow it sky high. Or third glance – he was a prisoner in Colditz (“fucking place”, he calls it), where he operated the famous radio in the attic. Fourth glance – he talks in French to French journalists keen to interview him on the anniversary of the St Nazaire raid; in German to the tour guides on his first return to Colditz. Fifth glance – he has an unusual sexual history, and the further you go into that, the stranger it gets. Sixth – he saved the life of Audrey Hepburn, and the name-dropping doesn’t end there. I’m going to stop there because one of the joys of this lovely documentary is the way it parcels out its revelations. Expertly made by Greg Oliver, it trumps the documentary he co-directed on Lemmy of Motorhead (called Lemmy: The Movie) because Burn’s life is much, much more fascinating than that of one of the real hellraisers of rock. And also, because Burn realises he’s at the end of a long haul – “I’m old and feeble,” he giggles when he can’t even get the lid off a jar of instant coffee, “and near my end” – and this makes him remarkably, astonishingly frank. His poetry isn’t bad, either.
The Last Survivors (Kaleidoscope, cert 15)
Also known as The Well, The Last Survivors is a post-apocalyptic thriller with more going for it than you might expect from a budget this low, a cast list this sparse. It flips the usual dynamics of these sort of things, with a female lead (Haley Lu Richardson) as Kendal, one of the last survivors of a ten-year drought that has seen rapacious corporations moving to secure the last few non-privatised sources of water. Inside, pale and suffering from kidney disease, is her children’s home “brother”, Dean (Booboo Stewart, pausing before stardom in a remarkably minimal role). While out somewhere in the parched landscape is ten-year-old Alby (Max Charles) who trumps even Kendal for wariness, tenacity and resourcefulness. If you’ve seen the German post-apocalyptic thriller Hell, then you’ll recognise an influence on the bleached-bright looks of The Last Survivors. There’s also a grungy Mad Max thing going on too, to the point that I was surprised it wasn’t an Australian production. It’s a simple film but an admirably simple one – we know who the bad guys are, there is enough of a Macguffin (the search for a distributor cap which will allow the survivors to escape) and even when the bad guys lapse into Tarantino-villain loquaciousness, the actors speaking the lines manage to undercut the verbiage with low-key performances. Nice touch. Nice film, in fact. Looking forward to director Thomas S Hammock’s next.
Unbroken (Universal, cert 15)
I’d heard bad things about this directorial effort by Angelina Jolie. So I was surprised when at first it delivered a strikingly effective battle sequence out in the Pacific. And almost immediately after that a tense claustrophobic crash-landing onto an aircraft carrier. Then there followed a fairly brisk bit of establishing childhood back story – this is a biopic about Second World war hero and athlete Louis Zamperini (a blameless Jack O’Connell). And then there’s a bit about Zamperini taking part in the 1936 (aka Hitler) Olympics. Moving forward again we see Zamperini and the crew of another plane ditching into the sea, whereupon we get a story of survival on a life raft – catching fish, rationing water, sunburn, storms, rain, sharks, and so on. Around about here the misgivings are starting to solidify – this is all a bit bog standard, no? And then on to another stage in Zamperini’s life, as he is captured by the Japanese, and Jolie gets another genre to sink her teeth into – the PoW drama. Which she tackles like all the other sections thus far, with efficiency and not a spark of originality. And on it goes, with expectations raised that any second we’re going to meet the cruel unfeeling Japanese commandant, that our hero is going to be doing a lot of solitary, that at some point he’ll be forced into a Christlike posture in some echo of Cool Hand Luke. It all comes to pass. This would be admirable were it still 1966, or if Jolie gave us some hint that her pastiches have a purpose beyond the erection of a religious shrine to old Hollywood by one of its dynastic clanswomen.
The Asylum (StudioCanal, cert 18)
The Asylum goes by two other names: Exeter and Backmask. Someone in the producer’s office was clearly worried about this film. They have every reason to be. It is, after all, very familiar – a gang of largely anonymous party-animal teenagers go to an old asylum where they are monstered most royally by a malevolent spiritual presence. And yet, in spite of the fact that you can call the plot shots in advance and could set up a drinking game for the “who’s going to get it next” deaths, the whole thing is rather watchable. I’m still not entirely sure why, but I think it’s because the film knows exactly what it is, and just gets on with the job it has to do as briskly as possible. In this it is aided by Marcus Nispel, who brings a German efficiency (sorry for the national stereotype, but he does) to the direction, which gets in fast and doesn’t hang about. But it’s not all nuts and bolts – there is a grippingly choreographed exorcism scene and some freaky horror touches which nod to The Exorcist (Nispel also directed the remakes of both Friday 13th and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre so knows his stuff). Most noticeably, in spite of the fact that the film has its complement of hot girls, one of whom even slips her bra off under her T shirt during a game of strip poker, Nispel heroically resists sexualising the young women. Instead he concentrates on the gore. And this might be why I like it: a priest head first through a car windscreen, toothbrushes plunged – handles first – into someone’s eyes, a fair bit of blunt object trauma. And then it’s the outro credits with the band Quarantine thrashing away, their music – slick, energetic – matching a film whose smart dialogue makes it clear that it’s seen Cabin in the Woods and is carrying on regardless. Give everyone involved a cigar.
National Gallery (Soda, cert 12)
Though the name Frederick Wiseman seems to be one to bandy about in a culturally knowledgeable way, I’d never heard of the 84-year-old documentarian before. It was the cachet of the name that prevented me from dismissing out of hand what looked initially like an incredibly old-school fly-on-the-wall documentary about the UK’s storehouse of Old Masters, the National Gallery in London, as the sort of thing the BBC might have produced in the early 1970s. It can’t be avoided that, at three hours, you could get most of a TV series out of it, or that, with its front-and-back-of-house approach it harks backwards – the janitor and the conservator, the marketing people and the gallery director, the guys who hang the works and the people who queue to see them – all presented without voiceover, without fuss. Also old school is the fact that it’s interested in what people do rather than what they are – don’t come here looking for fireworks as background niggles become conflagrations on camera, there aren’t any. Instead Wiseman relies on a simple fact: that the gallery is a fascinating place, full of people passionate about being there, and the ones who work there have jobs that are interesting in and of themselves (who knew how hard it was to get the lighting right on a Da Vinci, or that modern conservation work on paintings is done on top of a layer of lacquer, so future generations with more advanced knowledge or techniques can strip it all off again?). And Wiseman, by returning constantly to the same well-to-do class of person, whether in the viewing public or behind the scenes, is also making a point about culture, prestige and power. Also very 1970s.
© Steve Morrissey 2015