Out in the UK This Week
Clouds of Sils Maria (Artificial Eye, cert 15)
Olivier Assayas follows Something in the Air, his largely autobiographical personal meditation on the aftermath of the events of May 1968, with a different type of dramatic reflexivity. Clouds of Sils Maria is a meditation on acting, performed by a trio of actors at the top of their game. Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz are the three, all channeling vague versions of themselves. Stewart plays the personal assistant to Binoche, an actress now about to play the older role in a remake of the punishing two-hander that made her name years before. But who to play the younger role? Together, after a bit of international jet-setting and entourage-ing about, master and servant hit upon Jo-Ann (Moretz), a bad-girl actress currently riding genre movies to the top, and whose CV sounds not unlike the real-life Stewart’s. Though in the film for the least amount of time, Moretz is the most believable of this talented threesome. Perhaps because, over Assayas’s crypto-commentary on acting, young actors, living life in the public eye and so on, he lays a kind of meta-distancing effect by having Binoche and Stewart give slightly stilted line readings, unless their characters are meant to be acting, as when PA Stewart helps Binoche rehearse, in which case they’re remarkably believable. It’s a strange, very meta, very French thing to have them do. Stewart won a César (the French Oscars) for her role, the first non-French woman to do so. And since the film is, really, about her, and she is never less than magnetic (which she can’t help) and committed (which she can), it is kind of appropriate. Watch the scenes where her boss is about to meet Moretz for the first time, and Stewart gives her a crib sheet briefing on the actor. It is essentially her own story (fucking up in public, breaking up with a big name actor etc). Then try and work out whether discomfort on Stewart’s face is acting or not.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (StudioCanal, cert 18)
To be bracketed with Let the Right One In, Byzantium and Only Lovers Left Alive as an essential recent vampire film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is shot in California but is in effect an Iranian movie – everyone wears traditional garb, everyone speaks Persian. It tells two stories – of a lonely female vampire, and of a troubled son of a junkie dad, whose car is repossessed by a local dealer sick of carrying the father’s debt. The Vampire as Victim is the idea (like Let the Right One In), with a hint of the “more in regret than in anger” bloodletting of Only Lovers Left Alive in the way that our mournful Undead (Sheila Vand) reluctantly, and only when all else has failed, decides to suck blood in a manner that recalls that awful “jumping sack” moment from Audition. Its black and white, almost Sebastião Salgado looks and slight naiveté recall early Jarmusch, and it has Jarmusch’s drollery too – wait for one of the most spectacular meet-cutes between the two key players and I guarantee you’ll smile if not laugh out loud (no spoilers). And notice something that director Ana Lily Amirpour clearly also has – that the traditional black jilbab and a flowing vampire cape aren’t exactly that dissimilar. If vampire films are always a metaphor for something, here it appears to be the dulling of consciousness – you’ve only got one life; please live it! And if vampire films generally tend, like vampires themselves, to overstay their welcome, this does rather overdo the lingering arthouse pans through the night-time demi-monde here and there, though to be honest the cinematography is so spectacular (how can you shoot against naked white light like that?) that you might well let that go.
While We’re Young (Icon, cert 15)
Childless metrosexual couple Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts meet Adam Horovitz and Amanda Seyfried – hipper, younger versions of themselves – and they start to hang out. Stiller is a documentary maker struggling for the next hit, Horovitz is in the same game but is on the rise. Both men genuflect before Charles Grodin, Watts’s father and revered old man of the form. Once he’s got these biographical details in place, writer/director Noah Baumbach unleashes a satire that has a Billy Wilder ferocity in a film structured like Steve Martin’s LA Story. The superb first half takes potshots at modern life (the midlifers and their iPhones and Wikipedia; the hipsters and their vinyl and typewriters, and so on) and the oldies’ unwillingness to admit youth has flown. Then there’s the more straightforward conservative second half, when life lessons are learned, plot ends are tied up and a homily delivered. Horovitz emerges as the star of the piece, as the younger man, whose wide eyes hide the fact that he is actually a player on the make. What’s the message? Grow up, it seems, the real barbs being aimed at the ones being greedy – ie Stiller and Watts. Seen another way, it’s all about that Jewish New York attitude that drives new generations to take the familiar and rework its meaning – so now Rocky 3, Baumbach’s little joke, is an interesting cultural text. All summed up in a final montage where Baumbach contrasts the viewpoints of three different generations of film-maker – same material, different cultural meaning – to dazzling effect.
That Sugar Film (Soda, cert 12)
What’s odd about That Sugar Film is how closely it cleaves to the Super Size Me format – one man goes on a special diet for x days and reports back the results – and yet how it almost fucks it up. Australian documentarian Damon Gameau gives us a preamble about his how his hot girlfriend first encouraged him into the ways of healthy eating and now, pregnant with their first child, how she’s trepidatious about his big idea – to consume the same amount of sugar that the average Australian does, but without resorting to the obviously sugary things. So, no cola, instead fruit juices; no cakes, instead lots of low-fat “healthy” foods which, Gameau tells us, use sugar to replace the missing calories, mouthfeel and hit of the fat that isn’t there. So, off he goes, down Morgan Spurlock Avenue, having first had his body calibrated by a team of people in white coats. Gameau bulks out his experiment with detours – to the aboriginal community who ran a healthy eating program with spectacular results, until it was shut down by the government; to the 17 year old kid whose addiction to Mountain Dew (37 teaspoons of sugar in a 1.5 litre bottle) has reduced his teeth to stumps; with a bit about the work done by nutrition scientist Ansel Keys, who demonised fat and exonerated sugar; to some investigative rummaging into the funding of much nutritional research by Big Sugar. And so on. In spite of the fact that Gameau quite blatantly drops his “healthy diet” experiment at one point, to pig out on white sugar – making a point about the 40 teaspoons a day the average Australian unwittingly consumes – the scientific results after 60 days are stark. Even though he’s consumed the same number of calories, and eaten only OK stuff (his mad Al Pacino-style dive into sugar to one side) his liver levels are off the scale, his body fat is way up, his cholesterol is through the roof and his waistline is up 10cm. In truth, That Sugar Film looks like propaganda for the high fat diet – Gameau’s vague description of what his normal diet consists of would seem to place him in the paleo camp (meat, fat, vegetables, little starch or sugar). And in some ways I wish that that’s the film he’d made – except a man who’s doing a Super Size Me cannot make a film about switching to a diet he’s already on. Another thing: in exactly the same way that Morgan Spurlock never said to his partner when she aired her concerns about his consumption of a billion Big Macs, “But honey, I’m doing this for our future – to make our fortune,” the same unspoken subtext hangs heavy throughout the film. Interesting findings though, and I also learned about the concept of TOFI (Thin Outside, Fat Inside) and that Gameau has no idea how bad a rapper he is.
Listen Up Philip (Eureka, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
A portrait of extreme artistic narcissism, starring Jason Schwartzman as Philip, a young version of the Great American Novelist, and Jonathan Pryce as the mentor he leans on, an older version of the same. Philip Roth is the template, apparently, and there’s a novelistic voiceover spoken with well modulated, wry “I see what you don’t” gravitas by Eric Bogosian, a jazzy kind of soundtrack, a resort to Maysles brothers’ handheld sun-in-the-lens style of beat-cinematography – like the Great American novel, it’s all very 1950s/1960s. And like Schwartzman’s Philip, it’s hard to like. It’s also hard to work out whether Listen Up Philip’s slightly arch, self-important tone is another satirical stab at the Great American Novel or whether writer/director Alex Ross Perry is simply disappearing up his own assessment of himself. At bottom, once Schwartzman and girlfriend Elisabeth Moss have split up – which is all the paper-thin plot consists of – and Jonathan Pryce has revealed himself to have feet of clay, it slides into what many attempts at the Great American Novel slide into – a campus novel of failed hopes and self-sabotage, Pryce being particularly good here. Is it worth watching? I wouldn’t want to watch it again, but it’s a rare film that comes right out and says that artists are assholes, that their obsessions are often self-obsession lightly disguised, or that the public’s obsession with them ignores the demand end of the equation – there are lots of people engaged in artistic work; society chooses who “fits” and discards the rest. The attribute of brilliance is accorded to the successful, not necessarily the gifted. Artistic production as delusional private enterprise – discuss.
Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (Mediumrare, cert 18)
A cult item from 1991, now restored the better to be able to see the wounds. It’s a distant cousin of Kung Fu Hustle, a hybrid of pantomime, kung fu and the splatter movie, and follows the Bruce Lee-like Riki (Fan Siu-Wong) into prison, where he has to fight the malevolent drug-baron Mr Big to retain his self-respect, and, being pretty, his ass. No, no, it’s really not that sort of film. Instead it’s the sort where one of Mr Big’s thugs runs at Ricky, and Ricky, having taken off his shirt to reveal his splendid abs, slashes him with a knife, forcing the assailant to pull out his own intestines from the gaping wound and attempt to strangle Ricky with them. Don’t expect psychological depth – there’s isn’t a move or action, reaction or set-up that doesn’t spring from nowhere – this is a Golden Harvest production and they generally paddle in those waters. Nor is there any sort of throughline. One minute it’s machine guns our hero is fighting against, the next he’s in a dungeon being filled with liquid concrete. You’ve got to admire the energy, and its audacious physical effects, and its ridiculousness. That’s not bad for starters.
Get Hard (Warner, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)
Plot: rich white guy Will Ferrell is about to go to jail for some major financial irregularity. How can he avoid being bumfucked to death? He employs the services of a carwash guy who works in the garage beneath his office. This guy, being black (it’s Kevin Hart), will know what to do to prevent anal penetration, and other degradations. And off we go with Get Hard – one half jokes about race, one half jokes about gay sex. And when those two wells run dry, there’s also the fact that Ferrell is very tall and Hart is quite small. Like Ferrell’s character, this is a tremendously flabby film, but there are genuinely funny jokes in among the folds, not that you’ll be congratulating yourself on your sophistication for laughing at Ferrell’s demonstration of the storing of shivs up the rectum, or his attempts at trash-talk (“I’m gonna punch you in the fuck”), or Hart cajoling him into learning how to suck cock – “When life puts a dick in your mouth, you make dickade,” Hart says to him. “Dickade doesn’t sound like a significant improvement over dick,” Ferrell replies. I laughed. I’d have laughed a lot more if it had been about 20 minutes shorter.
© Steve Morrissey 2015