Out This Week
Room (StudioCanal, cert 15)
Starting with 2004’s Adam & Paul, then continuing with Garage, What Richard Did and even in the comedic, less typical Frank, director Lenny Abrahmson has given us a series of intense psychological dramas examining human relationships under stress. Room continues the trend with a story about an abducted woman living in a shed with her son, he being the result of a rape by her abductor. The facts of the situation are dripped out in an un-explicatory way and keep things real, though it’s the current situation rather than the headline-grabbing aspects of the situation that fascinate Abrahmson: how the mother keeps her sanity; how she explains the world to her son, particularly the fact that this isn’t the entire world (luckily the TV helps here); and most of all, how and when should she switch from being nurturing, protective mother to a drill sergeant preparing the boy for escape? Having known that Room was “a film about an abducted mother and her child” before watching it, I was surprised to discover it is in fact as much if not more about what happens after the pair make their bid for escape. Constructed in three distinct acts – before, after and a very brief finale (staying away from spoilers here) – each gives Brie Larson an opportunity to do that strange thing she does, whereby she establishes some sort of unmediated link between herself and the audience. Not only did she win an Oscar for her performance, but she won it so convincingly that everyone knew she was going to win it before the nominations had been announced. I’m saying no more about this fascinating, surprisingly unmelodramatic drama – which continues to pay out new revelations and insights right to the very last shot – except that you should watch it.
The Hateful Eight (EV, cert 18)
Quentin Tarantino’s best movie? For my money that’s Jackie Brown, and it’s largely because his tendency to sprawl is held in check by Elmore Leonard’s tramline plot. Here, as in most of his films, it’s all QT, and boy does he get medieval. At some level it’s a reworking of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians – a bunch of strangers gathered together in one place (a snowy refuge/chandler’s/coaching stop called Minnie’s Haberdashery in this case), where skulduggery is afoot and lives will be lost. How that happens is the fun of the piece, and I’ll say no more about it. Christie’s original title for the story was Ten Little Niggers, of course, as Tarantino knows very well, and it partly explains the relentless use of the word, which is liable to give the politically sanctimonious an attack of the vapours, the focus being Samuel L Jackson. This is another of his full-bore Tarantino larger-than-large performances. But then every one of the Eight – which includes Jennifer Jason Leigh as a runaway outlaw, Kurt Russell as a bounty hunter, Walton Goggins as the new sheriff of the town they’re all heading for, Michael Madsen as a slow cowpoke, Bruce Dern as a retired Confederate general and Tim Roth as an affected English hangman – is huge. It’s a western with a megaphone, a comedy with a straight face, even the title, one-upping The Magnificent Seven, tells us that. As for the rest of it – large! – from the 70mm Panavision cinematography, the mere fact of an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, the roadshow print that included an intermission. Oh, and there’s more than eight of them too, Demián Bichir making a particularly fine comedic Mexican, with a strangled, ridiculous accent you’ll want to sample for your voicemail. The bloodletting – it’s spectacular and ridiculous and awful, once it gets going and vastly enjoyable if you like that sort of thing. A genre film, playing with genre, introducing nothing new, Tarantino having now become something like a jazz soloist parping away and throwing out treats. And sparks.
The Lesson (New Wave, cert 15)
As the Bulgarian drama The Lesson kicks off, a teacher is writing “Someone has stolen my wallet” in English on the blackboard and saying the words out loud. It’s an English lesson, we suppose, but within a few seconds we realise we’ve been wrongfooted and, no, the teacher really has had her wallet stolen, and she’s trying, in the context of the English lesson, to get the culprit to own up. Another click along the road in this fascinating, detail-rich drama and we’ve met the teacher’s husband, a feckless boozer who seems to be living out in a caravan parked at the front of their house. We’ve also started to meet a series of enforcers, all of whom want money off her, or him, or both of them. If we don’t know much about Margita Gosheva’s hard-working nameless teacher, we do know she’s in deep financial shit, and for the rest of The Lesson we follow her as she tries to pull herself back from the edge – to an agency where she does some translating but never seems to get paid, to her estranged father and his new hot bimbo girlfriend, to a loan shark who gives her money but with a lot of strings attached. If you remember that scene at the end of Argo, where tense moment is piled on tense moment as we wait to see if the Iran hostages are going to make it out of the country, The Lesson pulls a similar dramatic stroke. Every time this woman thinks she’s out of the woods, writers/directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov hit her with something else. And it really works, all the more because the setting is so domestic and drab and Gosheva keeps her features set just so, like a woman who is used to holding things together, though maybe not at this level. A simple, honest film, believable, tough, offering no cheesy getouts, no false heroics. And if you want to read it as an allegory about the recent financial crash, and what respected figures get up to when their backs are against the wall, Grozeva and Valchanov quietly offer that as a possibility, too.
Janis: Little Girl Blue (Dogwoof, cert 15)
I’ll just say straight out that I don’t like Janis Joplin’s voice. In fact I think it’s horrible. Not as an instrument – because she really did have the pipes – just the way she played it, all those screechy harmonics virtually obscuring the note she was actually aiming for. This documentary about the rock singer who seems to be disappearing into obscurity – unlike Jim, or Jimi, more like Brian, maybe – seeks to bring her back into the light, to assert that she was in fact one of the greats. Whatever you think of the voice, it is a great story – product of a town that still had a KKK chapter, scorned kid at school, voted ugliest man at university by her nasty fraternity peers (“Made her cry. Saddest thing I ever saw, really was,” says old friend Powell St John), she discovered she had a voice and lit out for California in the early 1960s. It is in many respects a standard clips’n’quotes documentary, siblings lining up alongside old friends (“She was real dangerous to take to a bar” says J Dave Morley), now all cusping on old age, to tell the story of the girl who became famous in a band, was bigger than the band, but had a habit that was bigger than her – in a very male-dominated world Janis drank and injected with the best (ie worst) of them. It’s an “almost made it through the bad times” tale that’s bound to draw comparisons with Amy Winehouse’s – both dead at 27, both still to do their best work – though it’s not a comparison that the film itself makes. Things remain admirably rooted in period. In spite of many clips of Janis talking on chat shows, usually Dick Cavett’s (and he pops up to confirm that they may indeed have had a thing going on), the sense of the woman isn’t quite there. This, I suspect, is because the chronically insecure Janis herself didn’t know quite what she was – “All I’ve got now is strength,” she says, coyly comparing her voice to that of Otis and Ella. “If I keep going maybe I can sing.”
Speed Sisters (Dogwoof, cert E)
More inspirational women, this time four Palestinian young gals who race cars for a living, and cop a lot of flak for doing so. Marah, Noor, Mona and Betty (plus team captain Maysoon) all come from different backgrounds and are the first Arab female racing team in the world. Some are Muslim, others Christian, but richer or poorer all experience the full weight of patriarchy telling them they can’t do what they are doing. And yet, and this is this film’s most charming aspect, we see teenage lads and grown men looking on in awe as the ladies put their cars through their rubber burning paces. Director Amber Fares introduces a bit of grit into the pearl – tension between Marah and Betty, the media savvy one who’s slightly less interested in being a team player than the others – and the “political situation” in Palestine is always there in the background. She also shows that the judges who administer the races aren’t above a bit of rule-making on the hoof, blatantly, and never to the girls’ advantage, it seems. It’s a fascinating documentary that bounces along to the rhythms of its Palestinian pop soundtrack. If there’s a niggle it’s that what’s going on at the races themselves is never really that explicitly laid out – a bit of the sort of storybuilding seen in Cosima Spender’s horse-racing doc Palio wouldn’t have gone amiss. The likeability and sheer – and how’s this for the wrong word – chutzpah of the girls is, however, undeniable.
Welcome to Me (Precision, cert 15)
In the recent Daddy’s Home, a sap of a stepdad (played by Will Ferrell) was the butt of an entire 90 minutes of jokes about his inadequacy as a parent compared to easily superior biological dad Mark Wahlberg. Kicking a decent guy who is down is rarely if ever funny, and so it proved (the odd set-piece notwithstanding). Welcome to Me wades in similar waters, being a comedy about a nice but clearly mentally unhinged woman (Kristen Wiig) who, after winning a lottery bonanza, commissions a struggling TV station to make a series of shows entirely about her – Oprah is the idea, though Wiig’s Alice Klieg will enter on a white swan and then do and say pretty much whatever comes to mind. It’s car crash TV. And, amazement of amazements – it works! I mean both the TV show and the movie. Why, though? Well, the TV show because Klieg, though bats, is fresh and free of TV bullshit. The movie, because it’s not mean, Wiig is good at this sort of wide-eyed naive character and everyone gets a taste of the whip – the TV station bosses (James Marsden and Wes Bentley), online producers (a particularly fine Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh), Klieg’s shrink (Tim Robbins), everyone. And Wiig’s playing is just right: ironic but not pathetic – “Ladies and gentlemen, meatloaf cake with mashed sweet potato icing…” she ta-daas at one point in one of her shows, before later moving on to the live neutering of dogs. The self-help culture, and the way TV takes armourless types (think Susan Boyle) and does ghastly things to them is the real target, rather than Klieg – which rhymes with Wiig, and chimes with her career to date, playing characters which are gentle twists on herself. Here the twist is a lack of cultural capital – “I was born in 1971 and started using masturbation as a sedative in 1991,” is how her prepared statement to the press goes, which she reads out when the news of her jackpot win first goes public. The news item is cut short right there. The film, light as air, but packing some interesting ideas about TV as therapy, deserves to be watched to the end.
Tulpa – Perdizioni Mortale (High Fliers, cert 18)
I believe that the backstory to Tulpa is that the director showed it at some festival, bristled at the negative feedback, then took the film away and altered it, removing the dubbed English and restored the original Italian, added subtitles, trimmed here and there. The result is a very respectable giallo pastiche, full of gore, softcore sex, bathed in the colour red, and with cheesy saxophones on the soundtrack. If you’re not familiar with giallo the first scene sets out the stall pretty well – a swarthy chap invites a fit young woman into his hotel room with a tilt of the head. Within minutes the pair are indulging in S&M, with him as the M – tied face down on the bed. A few minutes more and he’s dead by an unseen hand. Cue opening credits and a tinkly harpsichord theme tune. As for plot… I’m tempted to say it’s just a series of beautiful woman being killed in contrived ways (one on a fairground horse which is propelled into razor wire, round and round it goes until her face is a porridge of blood and her eye has popped out, another young woman getting hot fat thrown in her face before she’s staked through the heart – that kind of thing) but in fact it’s about this hoity toity hottie (Claudia Gerini) who, after a day of high-powered executive stuff at an office full of people from the 1970s – this includes fending off the advances of her old goat of a boss – likes to unwind at an S&M club. And it’s her partners at this club who are all dying in razor wire/boiling fat incidents. Like genuine giallo from four decades back it is all staggeringly inept, and there isn’t the tiniest smile from anyone involved (don’t invite the audience to laugh or they’ll never stop), but the style is off the scale, and it does, as it wends its way towards its big bloody finish manage to work itself into a dreamy crescendo of mad bloodletting to a great soundtrack, the mixing of which is one of this odd, enjoyable film’s great strengths.
© Steve Morrissey 2016