Out This Week
Wild (Fox, cert 15)
Apart from The Young Victoria (which was a hack job done for cash, I suspect), the Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée has had a good run of interesting films since his breakthrough with 2005’s C.R.A.Z.Y, and then more recently with Café de Flore and Dallas Buyers Club. All have showcased his knack for allying music (often 1970s – he loves glam rock) with well crafted images. His lighting, composition and editing are generally exquisite. Vallée is a great storyteller, and uses all his skills brilliantly in Wild, a film that sounds potentially like either a monumental drag – a woman reconnecting with herself on a gigantic trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. Or, perhaps something only marginally more enticing – a reheat of the Mia Wasikowska film Tracks, which was also about a young woman finding herself on a long hike (across the Outback, in that case). But Vallée and his star, Reese Witherspoon (who also produced this film) find their own way, telling the story of Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon), a young woman who has simply done too much too young and now needs a spiritual steam-clean. It’s a simple film in terms of story – woman with large backpack walks 1,000 miles – but far from it when it comes to the bespoke work Vallée has done on it. For example, his flashbacks to Cheryl’s former life start off as almost subliminally rapid drop-ins, only stretching out to give us more detail once the woman herself is starting to come to terms with her own mistakes and beginning to re-appraise her relationship with her life-affirming, deceptively tough hippie mother (Laura Dern). Generally, these sort of “spiritual” journey dramas are naked moneygrabs on the gullible masquerading as self-help (as are most self-help books), but I love this film, which demonstrates that it’s not what is shown that makes a film powerful, but what is withheld. Witherspoon’s performance is an intelligent one, as stripped back as her face is of make-up. But I can imagine another actress – Kristen Stewart, say – being in Wild and the film being just as good. You can’t say the same about the director.
What’s Left of Us (Peccadillo, cert 15)
Hell is other people, according to Sartre’s existential play Huis Clos, one of the apparent inspirations for this Argentinian drama which reinforces the point by placing these “other people” in a world of marauding zombies after some unspecified apocalypse. They’re in a house in the middle of nowhere, these two guys and a girl whose exact relationship to each other only becomes clear over the course of the film – and even then not explicitly clear. But what is obvious from the start is that Ana and Jonathan are an item, that gooseberry Axel has the hots for Ana, and that she has been giving him reason for thinking that way. This is a theatrical three-hander tricked out to look like anything but – flies, presumably feasting on the glut of rotting flesh outside, are legion; the threesome’s abode is a junkshop assemblage of air locks, spy holes and microphones hung to catch the first sound of approaching zombies; Axel is on a project to tattoo his entire body, perhaps as a gaudy mating display for Ana, perhaps because he’s lost his mind. What’s Left of Us, also known as The Desert, needs good performances to stop it looking like a stage production struggling to take cinematic wing, and it gets them, particularly from Victoria Almeida as the pivotal Ana, a complex, conflicted character played by an actress who can flash from hot to not in the beat of an eyelash. Warning: there are almost no zombies in this film. So not everybody is going to be happy. But if a boilerhouse drama about intense human relationships is your bag, Christoph Behl’s debut feature should hit the spot. Let’s hope he soon does more.
Drone (Spectrum, cert 15)
Styled DRONE with crosshairs over the O, this is a cool and fairly comprehensive documentary about modern warfare’s most contentious weapon – “flown” by kids in a bunker in the American boonies, who drop tightly targeted bombs on kids in Waziristan. “We sat in a box for nearly 12 hour shifts… I remember watching a wedding… it was just point and click.” This from Brandon Bryant, who’s been getting death threats since blowing the whistle on life at the blunt end, a former star operator with 1,626 drone kills to his name, but who now turns up at the UN to spill his tormented guts. On the other side we meet survivors of drone attacks in Pakistan, who are lobbying to have international arrest warrants issued against US agents (good luck with that). We are introduced to the hatchet faced smiling recruiters who tour game-playing conventions looking for candidates with good hand/eye coordination. And we meet Andy Von Flotow, the boomer-age drone manufacturer whose “young guys…heh… whachyagonnado? shrug” looks like one from a man wrestling with his conscience. The world needs this sober Norwegian documentary, which gives the opposing side a minute to make its case (drones give their pilots the luxury of time, something real, airborne pilots with a payload don’t have) before laying before us the secret memos that show just how imprecise drone attacks can be. Drones are cheap, though, and as this cool, instructive doc winds to a close, the point is made that we’re coming to the end of a decade when only the US had them. Anyone can get hold of them now. Be afraid.
Discopath (Metrodome, cert 18, DVD)
We’re in the middle of a serious movie love-in with the 1970s, as film after film of pastiche proves. Discopath joins the pack, a serial killer horror made in something like the grain-n-grunge style of Basket Case, but with a high concept so ludicrous that it forces everything else in it to be seen as comedy. It’s about a serial killer who is driven to murder by the sound of disco music – you could guess that from the title – with Jérémie Earp-Lavergne looking like a young Christopher Lambert as he lollops around removing the heads from lesbian schoolgirls (I did say this was 1970s pastiche) before popping them on a record turntable and giving them a spin. Quite what the point of this sort of thing is, I don’t know, but then I had the same thought nagging at the back of my brain while I was watching The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, a 1970s pastiche no one is ever likely to match, though Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy comes close. Those two were both homages to Euro-horror titillation, this is much more urban and American, with its Saturday Night Fever suits, guys running down alleys in slo-mo, cops who like donuts, an 8-track player at one point, and a plot that seems to resolve itself with curiously little detective work having been done. Discopath is only 75 minutes long. Because by then director Renaud Gauthier knows he’s trying our patience. Get out while you’re ahead, eh?
The Train (Arrow, cert PG)
Restored so its deep-focus black-and-white images pop, and the off-kilter camera angles yaw even more extravagantly, this great John Frankenheimer thriller stars Burt Lancaster as the initially bureaucratic, eventually patriotic French train driver steering pillaged artworks out of France and back to Berlin as the war winds to a close. It asks questions such as “how many lives is a Matisse worth?” without actually answering them (as if that were possible), an intellectual layer over what is basically a cat-and-mouser between Lancaster and the great Paul Scofield’s Nazi officer, a cultivated art lover being slowly maddened by the prospect of defeat. Three big influences on the film are the procedural detail of Jules Dassin’s caper thriller Rififi (1955), the sweat-and-dread atmosphere of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953) and the 1950s nocturnal train photography of O Winston Link – big plumes of smoke, locomotives shooting along tracks lit by what must be vast fields of lights. Maurice Jarre’s score, meanwhile, debuts musical stings which would later be mined by Lalo Schifrin for his Mission Impossible work. In fact, see the whole thing as a noirish blueprint for M:I – both the 1960s and Tom Cruise incarnations – and you can’t go far wrong.
Broken Gardenias (TLA, cert 15)
Hiding its eagerness under a blanket of nerdery, this lesbian road movie overdoes the mismatched buddies – one (Alma S Grey) a geeky garden centre worker crippled with shyness, prone to room-silencing jokes, the other (Ashley Morocco) a short-haired, rough dikey dike. But it’s part of a new (to me) wave of lesbian and gay movies that aren’t so much interested in sex as relationships, this one drawing inspiration from early Jim Jarmusch in its deadpan delivery and framing, and tendency to jump-cut out from what feels like the middle of one scene to the middle of another. There’s an eavesdropping quality. So, this duo, they hitch-hike their way to LA, getting lifts from a succession of kooks and sex pests, where director Kai Alexander and writer Grey have a few half-hearted pops at the land of me-me-me, shiva dancing, getting in touch with your spirituality just as soon as you’ve had your teeth bleached, and so on. It’s not a perfect film – it’s desperately underdeveloped in terms of character and plot – but it’s reaching for authenticity and honesty and it has a gigantic heart.
© Steve Morrissey 2015