Out This Week
The Dressmaker (EV, cert 12)
Husband and wife team Jocelyn Moorhouse (director/writer) and PJ Hogan (co-writer) hit us with a curious mix of the comic, the tragic and the romantic, a flawed star vehicle for Kate Winslet, delivering a vaudevillian spin on her latterday Joan Crawford shtick as the troubled Aussie who returns to the Outback to make fabulous dresses for the town that exiled her years before. It’s the sort of town now familiar but once the antithesis of Aussie grunt – of Priscillas and Muriels, camp characters one and all who yearn, how they yearn, to cross-dress and lip-sync to a series of trash hits. Actually, The Dressmaker could do with a few tunes. It feels as if this is a mad old glory has been deprived of the one vital missing ingredient which would meld the various storylines and characters – Dior-trained mistress of gown production Myrtle (Winslet), her sweary, fruity old mum (Judy Davis in a role so vibrant you wish the film had been built around her), Liam Hemsworth as a lusty swain, crossdressing cop Hugo Weaving (revelatory, a prince of mince), Sarah Snook as the local frump transformed by Myrtle’s gowns into an Outback Princess, the crook-backed ancient perv of a doctor (Barry Otto). And on they go, an array of comedy grotesques with names like Pratt, McSwiney, Harridiene and Dunnage. At the back of the entire thing, knocking everything off kilter, is a serious story about young Myrtle and the boy she apparently killed when young. Knocking it back down again as it tries to get up gasping is the dangled possibility of a romance between Hemsworth and Winslet. Davis and Weaving are the saving of a film that isn’t actually salvageable, the switches in tone being too frequent, too abrupt and too mutually exclusive. Had Moorhouse and Hogan stuck with what the film initially looks like it wants to be, a western spoof of the sort James Garner used to make, maybe there’d be something here to celebrate. Maybe they looked at the drubbing that Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West got and just bottled it.
Güeros (New Wave, cert 15)
Güero, we’re told by an onscreen definition before the film gets underway, means an unfertilised egg or a pale and ineffectual man. A wuss? A pansy, maybe? Whatever spin we put on that bald definition, we believe it applies to Tomas (Sebastián Aguirre), a light-skinned kid by Mexican standards, a naughty boy sent off to stay with his older brother by his wits-end mother. Though his darker-skinned brother Federico (Tenoch Huerta) goes by the nickname Sombra (shadow), we realise pretty quickly that he is probably the güero: a limp, feckless student who drinks at breakfast and is taking no part whatsoever in a raucous student protest and sit-in, the sort of event that seems associated forever with radical 1960s politics. Unlike his girlfriend, Ana (Ilse Salas), a firebrand who Tomas, Sombra and Sombra’s likeable friend Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris) meet as director/writer Alonso Ruizpalacios sends them off on a grand chase after a cult rock star called Ephigmenia, but who might as well be called Godot or McGuffin, as the film develops into an urban road movie and something of a tribute to the early work of Jim Jarmusch, Stranger Than Paradise in particular. Shot in high-key, close-up black and white and in the 4:3 format that seems to have become the new hip shape, this is a highly atmospheric film, given to visual and aural giddiness at key moments, the better to conjure the impression that we’re getting this all through Tomas’s naive eyes and ears. Things get a bit meta at one point, when a clapperboard comes into view and someone starts making a comment about the film’s screenplay (“bad”, he opines). Later Sombra has a small speech about “fucking Mexican cinema – they grab a bunch of beggars, shoot it in black and white and claim they’re making an art film.” Ho ho. As well as Jarmusch, Truffaut is in there too, and the very New Wave-y focus on youth, the emphasis on incident rather than plot, the interest in political engagement rather than consumption is all very reminiscent of another era, a feeling reinforced by Ruízpalacios’s use of old Mexican chansons. Well worth checking out.
Emelie (Icon, cert 15)
It’s clear Emelie is a good film – a case of sit back and stop worrying – within its first few seconds, with its opening scene of a young woman being abducted by someone in a mysterious black car. The camera stays back, dialogue is unintelligible, and in the half an indistinct minute of this short lockshot the seeds of a very creepy thriller have been sown. The action then cuts to a nice middle-class home, where a husband and wife are off out on a date night, leaving replacement babysitter Anna to look after kids Jacob, Sally and Christopher. Anna (Emelie, in fact) is the kids’ idea of a dream guardian – she’s a bit naughty, but such a libertine that even the kids after a while start wondering if she’s really babysitter material. Then we see Anna/Emelie unplugging the router, taking the laces out of the kids’ shoes… and it all kicks off. With its Hitchcockian device of keeping the audience more in the know than its victims, Emelie is the best “bad babysitter” movie I’ve seen for years, and Sarah Bolger is so on top of her role that she even pulls the occasional Rebecca De Mornay face – Emelie has The Hand That Rocks the Cradle in its sights. Advancing in dread jumps, writer/director Michael Thelin knows how to hit our buttons – I don’t want to get too spoilerish, but the family hamster doesn’t come out of it all too well – keeps the dialogue to a minimum, the lighting simple, characters few and the action almost entirely in the claustrophobic domestic space. This bathyscaphe atmosphere is reinforced by a soundtrack that’s full of alimentary gurgles. The result is a threat level that stays constantly high, Thelin managing to conjure that relentless-pursuit feeling that pervaded most of the first Terminator.
Peter De Rome (Peccadillo, cert 18)
Here’s a fascinating and really rather sweet documentary about Peter De Rome, the pioneering film-maker who has recently become the first pornographer to have his films preserved by the British Film Institute. What the BFI are getting for their archives is a selection of films made from the 1960s till the arrival of Aids kicked away De Rome’s enthusiasm – it just wasn’t party time any more. For the most part this is a straight chronological account – De Rome (real name, amazingly) born in Juan-les-Pins in 1924, raised in England, blissfully lost his virginity aged 11, then worked as a publicist in the film business, first in the UK, then in the US, where he started making erotic 8mm shorts. As talking heads author Rupert Smith and the BFI’s Brian Robinson point out, De Rome put stories in his films, and it’s this, as well as his Cocteau-esque tendency to go a bit dreamy (Buñuel’s surrealism is in there too) which makes him notable. Cock, after all, can be found anywhere, though there’s plenty of it in De Rome’s films. He died in 2014, aged 89, but is full of impish spirit in the interviews here, and it’s tempting to think that it’s this tidy energetic man as much as his work that impressed Andy Warhol, whose collaboration with De Rome never bore any fruit – De Rome found Warhol’s languid detachment a bit trying, it appears. This is a lovely documentary which cuts disconcertingly between half-timbered picture-postcard Sandwich on the English south coast, where De Rome lived out his later years, and shots of fully-timbered often black penises being thrust hither and yon. In between we get the last filmed appearance of Greta Garbo (from out of De Rome’s New York apartment window), and the first porn film shot on a living, breathing New York Subway train, guerrilla-style and handheld in more than one sense.
Prey (101, cert 15)
A gaggle of beautiful young people on holiday in Panama, keen to do more than the shooters-and-hooters usual, head off into the jungle, the boys in their shorts, the girls in their spaghetti strap tops. It cannot end well, and doesn’t, as an ogresome whatever starts picking them off like snacks at a conveyor belt restaurant. Prey goes by another title, Indigenous, and though there is the very vaguest of attempts to ground the mayhem in ancient lore – that myths about scary creatures shared by all humanity have some basis in reality – the film, like the two titles battling for pole position in some competition to find the blandest of the bland, has nothing new to say. The surfer dudes take off their tops to show their muscly bods, the girls are likewise scoped for their best angles. And undoubtedly attractive as everyone is, it’s hard to separate them out. This is the sort of film in which someone says “Everybody calm down. I’m sure there’s a rational explanation for all this.” It’s the sort of film in which people will insist on splitting up, when we all know… That’s not to say there isn’t good stuff here. In spite of the almost disdainful attitude of the producers to what they’re actually making, Alastair Orr’s direction is suspenseful, the music and sound effects work hard to ring the changes and the acting is effective and committed. It’s an enjoyable and efficient exercise in genre. Good enough for you?
Rocco and His Brothers (Eureka, cert 15)
What with The Leopard being one of my favourite films, I was teed up for Rocco and His Brothers, Luchino Visconti’s 1960 drama, especially as lavishly packaged by Eureka and now restored – supervised by no less than the original DP, Giuseppe Rotunno, now in his 90s, and also the DP on The Leopard. Both pictures tell the story of a family on the move – a noble family on the skids in The Leopard; here, a migrant peasant family from the south trying to make a go of it in the hostile north, a family shakily on the up. Both star Alain Delon, and feature Claudia Cardinale, and have gorgeous Nino Rota scores. The similarities don’t stop there but they do start to tail off, since Rocco and His Brothers is a more explicitly neorealist film given to moments of ejaculatory melodrama. As we follow the various family members establishing themselves in snowy Milan, the film’s main drama springs from the two brothers Rocco (Delon) and Simone (Renato Salvatori) tangling tragically over the prostitute Nadia (Annie Girardot). Girardot is by a long stretch the best thing here, and manages to negotiate the stylistic shifts required by the screenplay – it helps that her tart-with-heart character is meant to be a loose cannon – and Delon is also impressive, not least his face, composed entirely of acute angles that the camera loves. As does, we suspect, the director. Though it’s a harder film to engage with than The Leopard, it’s worth watching for Visconti’s command of mood and tone. Here’s a film that starts fairly light, shot mostly indoors and concerning itself with a feminine domestic realm but winds towards dark, exterior, masculine concerns. By which I mean it ends up a big Greek, fraught, murderous tragedy as Rocco and Simone head towards a showdown. And the fact that both are boxers, Simone a plugging professional, Rocco a naturally gifted amateur, tells us what’s really at the heart of all of this. Coppola has clearly watched it and its influence is all over The Godfather, and you could fancifully suggest the two main characters in Scorsese’s Mean Streets are related to Rocco and Simone – the natural and the blowhard. However, for all its good looks and fine musical score, brilliant performances, grand themes and even relevance to the world we live in now (what more pertinent than migration?), I found it a hard watch, its styles tugging in two entirely different directions – the realist stalls and the melodramatic gods, in theatre terms.
Time Out of Mind (Altitude, cert 15)
The renaissance of Richard Gere proceeds apace in a documentary-flavoured drama by Oren Moverman, who continues his homage to the 1970s evident in Rampart and The Messenger in this tale of a homeless man drifting down, down, down. We meet George (Gere) asleep in a bath in an apartment and shortly thereafter evicted. We’re not sure why. He moves out onto the streets and starts to negotiate life out there, his fancy overcoat granting him an amount of latitude most homeless people don’t get – he can enter and hang around in warm places. But once the coat’s gone, he’s a bum like the rest of the bums, moving blankly into one shelter or hostel after another, making a kind of friend in fellow “reduced” person Dixon (a sparky Ben Vereen), whose near-constant monologue makes up for the fact that George doesn’t say very much at all. Brooding. Moverman gives it the long lenses and ambient city soundscape you’d expect from a lover of Altman, there are many shots through glass of one sort or another to emphasise alienation and Moverman has access to actual homeless shelters. I have to say that as I walked to work the day after watching it, it made me think about the guy begging outside the station. How did he get there? What chance of escape once there? So it works at that level. The always excellent, and excellently antsy Jena Malone plays the bitter estranged daughter George has made a hash out of raising, and without her this film of the very most minimal of arcs would have none at all. Why is George living in this reduced way? More to the point, why is Moverman so reluctant to show us that he’s a drinker? Is he trying to keep us all on board? Gere, without overdoing the “look how shitty I look” theatrics, gives it his all, though we need a bit more knowledge about George to put structure into a film that feels like it could go on wandering, aimlessly, until the end of time. Though that, probably, is the point.
© Steve Morrissey 2016