Out This Week
Love & Friendship (Curzon, cert U)
Sly arch social observer Whit Stillman meets a very similar property in Jane Austen, in his adaptation of her novella Lady Susan – about a dangerous sexbomb widow trying to get both herself and her daughter married off to money. As with all Stillman films it is immensely talky, and Kate Beckinsale is in it too, as she was in 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, and is rather excellent as a younger, sexier weaponised version of Austen’s Mrs Bennet, mouth always on the go, eyes all over the room as she jockeys for social position. It’s a fiendishly plotted thing, all stratetic plays by Beckinsale’s Lady Susan, sharing her confidences with Chloë Sevigny’s interloper American while an asteroid belt of dim men circulate, not one of them clever enough to see what she’s up to, or if they are clever enough (in the case of Xavier Samuel’s rich, dashing Reginald DeCourcy) they’re out-argued by the brain they keep in their pants. Think Dangerous Liaisons, to an extent. Smart, and self-consciously so.
The Nice Guys (Icon, cert 15)
Who knew Russell Crowe was so good at comedy? He teams up with Ryan Gosling – Oliver Hardy to Gosling’s Stan Laurel (though Abbott and Costello are in there too) as a pair of LA private eyes bumbling about and trying to solve a case of Maltese Falcon impenetrability in 1970s LA but too useless to really make any headway, except by complete accident – they stumble across dead bodies and run into bad guys quite literally. Smart writing by Shane Black who is taking the genre he ruled in the 1980s – of mismatched buddies quipping their way to a happy ending as they did in Lethal Weapon – and racking the comedy up about 12 notches. Setting it in the 1970s, when Black came of age, is a masterstroke too – Black has this in his waters, and it’s shorthand for a time when actions (by actions I mean drugs and sex) had no consequences. But really it’s about funny lines (“You know, kid,” says an at-bay Crowe to a mobster who’s trashing his house, “when I get that gun off you it’s going to be your dinner.”), sexy girls, cars being totalled, fist-fights, and a lot of people falling through glass roofs. For some reason Black does like his glass roofs. The Temptations, Earth Wind and Fire and Al Green on the soundtrack are a nice bonus too.
Departure (Peccadillo, cert 15)
We first meet teenage Elliot (Alex Lawther) kissing himself in the bathroom mirror and wanking into the basin. He’s on holiday with his mother (Juliet Stevenson), a fragile woman who seems to be packing away their French retreat for the last time – divorce pending?? – while Elliot spins around the local countryside, eventually falling in with slightly older, sexy lout Clément (Phénix Brossard, a star in the making), for whom he has a piledriver sexual crush. Mind you, so, eventually, does the mother… Alors. A beautiful, poetically intense coming-of-age drama is the result, the debut by Andrew Steggall and it speaks of great things to come. It’s written with an observer’s ear – when mum asks son “How did you get so big?” smart-arse Elliot answers “Incrementally” – and keeps most of its dramatic balls in play in tantalising fashion. Beautifully shot too, with a plaintive atmospheric soundtrack in keeping with DP Brian Fawcett’s picture-postcard shots. Lovers of property porn will grow misty over the South of France locations, and Stevenson is (again) quietly fantastic as the mother who knows a lot more than she’s letting on to her son and, eventually, his useless father.
Fire at Sea (Curzon, cert 15)
A remarkably deadpan documentary about the Italian island of Lampedusa, on the way to which, we are told in a prelude to this otherwise commentary-free film, 15,000 asylum seekers have perished on the open seas. It’s a twin track approach – we follow life on this by-European-standards relatively poor island where boys make slingshots, doctors see patients, old grannies cook squid stew for their fisherman sons, while out on the seas, calmly and efficiently, Italian ships pick up boat after boat stuffed with sick, thirsty refugees and process them through the centre on Lampedusa. There is no voiceover but the point being made is clear – Europe is something special, even this poor corner of it, and outsiders are desperate to get to it. The lack of address to camera is fascinating and though most similar documentaries find a stylistic explicator – a garrulous guide, a graphic, an excerpt from a book – director Gianfranco Rosi does no such thing, relying on the rhythms of his edits and the juxtaposition of his images to make his point for him.
Hangman (Signature, cert 15)
Found footage, a phrase to make the heart sink, but there is a bit of a wrinkle in this latest example, from director Adam Mason. Jeremy Sisto and Kate Ashfield play the couple with two kids who all head off on holiday and return to find that their house has been broken into. The police come, they go, and life returns to normal, though the family are unaware that the intruder has wired the entire house with hidden CCTV cameras. The film now consists of the family being watched while the intruder, the Hangman of the title, cuts from camera to camera and we watch him watching them. It’s undeniably creepy, and Mason and co-writer Simon Boyes find ways of ringing the changes, though it’s undeniable that the middle section is just too long and I started to hanker for an explanation of the title, Hangman. And then it comes…
Monk Comes Down the Mountain (Sony, cert 15)
A big budget, Hollywood-leaning kung fu movie, superbly shot, exotic of location, lavishly choreographed, all of which we kind of expect from Chen Kaige. The titular monk (Wang Baoquiang) comes down off the mountain – a bit too much the Jackie Chan buffoon for life in those rarefied heights – and proceeds to take up with a series of masters. These masters have a tendency to die, but no matter, they’re just linking material between one spectacular fight sequence after another, and provide just enough grit to convince us that very bad guy Yuen Wah is in fact a very bad guy. The USP of this film is its clever integration of superb physical fighting, expert wire work and eye-catching CG. There’s a bit of love interest and even the odd gun or two, both of which are unusual for martial arts movies, and the clear attempt to wow with aesthetics suggests that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is working as some sort of template. For me it was all about kung fu taken to magical levels – big balls of energy being rolled up by one martial arts master or another, huge geysers of water being diverted by nothing more than the application of two flat palms thrust forward. If you also love that sort of stuff – like the bit in the last Harry Potter film where Maggie Smith and all the wand-wielding wizards of Hogwarts came out for the big showdown with Voldemort – this is for you.
Cat People (Sony, cert PG)
Cat People was made for buttons in 1942, was directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton, who had been hired by RKO expressly to churn out high quality low budget horror that could take on Universal (who were ruling the roost with various Frankensteins, Wolfmen, Mummies etc). It’s short, at 73 minutes, and packs in a lot – archetypally bland (think Patrick Wilson) leading man Kent Smith picks up smouldering hottie Simone Simon at the zoo. Before you can say “but she’s dangerous” they’re husband and wife, though they never get to consummate the marriage because she’s convinced she’s actually a cat person – being from Serbia having something to do with it – and that intimacy will unleash the beast. Tell that to a shrink, you might think, which is exactly what she does, Tom Conway playing the almost absurdly urbane doctor, Freudian to the tips of his moustache. It’s a great “rotten to the core” role for Simon which, while it doesn’t actually paint women in the finest colours, does at least give them some agency, which is more than you can say for most modern movies. Meanwhile, Tourneur and master DP Nicholas Musuraca play with the shadows, the sets (that’s the staircase from The Magnificent Ambersons, apparently) and one cute set-up after another. Seen from all these decades on, its claim to watchability – disregarding the really superb restoration of this Criterion release – doesn’t rest on its thin plotting or wobbly acting but on its style, of which it has an awful lot.
© Steve Morrissey 2016