Out in the UK This Week
The Great Beauty (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
You don’t need to have seen Fellini’s La Dolce Vita to appreciate The Great Beauty, but it might make for a more rewarding experience if you have. The 1963 film told the story of a writer who has been seduced away from his noble calling to become a cynical journalist specialising in celebrity tittle-tattle. Paulo Sorrentino’s 2013 film imagines him at the end of his career, still a journalist, even more world weary, after decades of success, a name all over Rome, with a gnawing absence where his oeuvre – or at least his second novel – should be. It’s a beautiful film, full of swooping camerawork, full of the sort of faces that would have tickled Fellini – as if chosen to demonstrate the effect of one deadly sin or another. Scene after scene is a standout. The rooftop party sequence alone, right at the beginning of the film, is one of the most exciting, ridiculous and yet believable things I’ve ever seen, a vision of excess danced out by wealthy Romans short and tall, young and old, ugly and beautiful, all out to have the very best of good times. In a succession of suits tailored to emphasise his long, languid limbs Toni Servillo, Sorrentino’s go-to actor, plays Jep Gambardella, the modern equivalent to Fellini’s Marcello Mastroianni. It’s a performance of marble impassivity and arch hauteur that perfectly matches what Sorrentino is doing with his camera, his luxurious pacing, his constant suggestion of super-abundance. Does the film itself become a bit too much? Sadly, it does. As if just a bit too in thrall to its subject, it tickles here and there where it should punch. This is sniping though, because the minute this film of two hours and 20 minutes finished I wished it hadn’t. The next day I watched it again.
Piercing Brightness (Soda, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)
Oh dear, pigeons. The debut film by longtime artist and debut director Shezad Dawood has all the hallmarks of a student production – what it is with pigeons and students I don’t know – but then within about five minutes I’d completely dropped my objections and surrendered to Dawood’s pretty damn fantastic alien movie that sets out to make the world we inhabit look as alien to us as it must do to them – the aliens, I mean. Set in Preston, Lancashire, made for two bags of chips, it’s a lovely piece of trippy North of England film-making recalling Skeletons in its offbeat vibe, The Man Who Fell to Earth in its otherworldly feel. The plot reveals itself slowly, so I won’t over-explain, except to say that it’s about aliens who come to Earth to find the aliens who were dumped here years before. What has become of them? Have they gone native? That’s the crux of this lo-budget work of ingenuity made with real cinematic skill. The soundtrack is good too – subsonics, aural washes, whooshes, languid shrieks, really evocative. I spotted a snatch of Gong in there (space-rock trainspotter that I am), though Acid Mothers Temple seem involved too, in the music and, I suspect, at an inspirational level. A great addition to the lo-fi sci-fi genre, file it next to The Arrival of Wang and Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.
Promised Land (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
The plot to Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero – oil man arrives at Scottish island intending rape of land, pillage of culture, and is enchanted – has been lifted for this Gus Van Sant film about frackers. Which is more nuanced about frackers than coming out and saying “they’re just plain bad”. Though these guys are bad. Even when played by the super-charming Matt Damon and Frances McDormand at their very most winsome, as the ever-so-friendly advance guard encouraging a rural community to sign away the fracking rights to the evil megacorp the duo represent. Looking dangerously like the sort of TV movie that comes with a message that smalltown values are best, Promised Land offers more than that, mainly by lining us on the same side as the bad guys (damn their charm) and by throwing a plot curve ball just when we think we know which way things are going. If it shortchanges McDormand slightly – her character is by far the most interesting yet underwritten one in the film – that’s indicative of the film’s only real weakness. It leans a little hard on the stereotypes. But then didn’t Local Hero? Just a bit?
Riddick (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
Much anticipated, especially by those who sat through The Chronicles of Riddick, actor/producer Vin Diesel and director David Twohy’s attempt to refind the formula they mislaid after making Pitch Black is a lot of skanky, stubbly, guns’n’grunts fun. For those who don’t understand what I’m talking about, Pitch Black was a neat, tough sci-fi actioner starring Diesel as a pissed-off criminal with acute nightsight who came into his own when the twin suns started set on the alien world he and his guards were on and the night creatures started emerging. The Chronicles of Riddick was something similar, plus 17 tabs of acid, one pair of electrodes to the testicles, all of Diesel’s runaway ego and every bit of input from every member of every Riddick chatroom ever. It was epic cack. Even with Judi Dench in it. For the reboot, some 13 years after the original, Twohy and Diesel are back, the neat, tough plot is back and, even though producer Diesel has not risked much of his own money on it (nor anyone else’s judging by the discount SFX), so is some of the grit that made Pitch Black worth a look. Plot: a bunch of mercenaries are out to claim a bounty by recapturing the convict Riddick, a man who eats raw meat, a man who has tamed a crazy wild creature of the benighted planet he is stuck on. In fact there are two sets of mercenaries out to get him. Surely to god that’s enough? Of course it isn’t. Gruntwise, we have the inhospitable planet, the stubbly scowling mercenaries, post-apocalyptic grunge, hideous weaponry and creatures that are all teeth and leathery bits. Sole woman is played by Katee Sackhoff, who compensates by having even bigger balls metaphorically than the other guys, who all stand perpetually like goalkeepers. So yes, someone’s idea of a display of undiluted testosterone, mixed with radioactive human growth hormone. Riddick, it turns out, is short for ridiculous.
You’re Next (Kaleidoscope, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)
Cult horror guy Adam Wingard turns up on those compilation ABCs of Death and V/H/S movies and seems always on the verge of being the next Eli Roth or someone. So how does he handle a “guys out in the woods” horror story? Competently, and with a few good twists is the answer, You’re Next being the story of a rich family meeting up at their isolated holiday home, whereupon they are beset by murderous men in animal masks and are killed one by one. The End. Yes, that is the plot, but Wingard has some tasty reveals before the end credits roll. And the family in question appears to have made its money by selling arms, so we’re primed for more unpleasant reveals, plus some even more unpleasant payback. All you have to do is guess who “final girl” is going to be. Don’t expect a great script, or for it to add up in terms of human psychology. But I put that down to Wingard teasing the genre’s weaknesses, generous soul that I am.
In Real Life (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)
Once upon a time the internet was going to be the great democratising saviour of humanity. Now the prevailing wisdom seems to heading in the other direction. Pursuing that line of thought, brilliant documentarian Beeban Kidron’s alarming and alarmist film asks the big question – who exactly is in control of this internet thingy – as it interviews a series of what might loosely be called victims of the ravening technology. So we meet wee teenage lads who are familiar with bukkake, milfs and hentai. We meet the nice young girl who seems to have had sex with five guys just so they’d return her BlackBerry. We meet the teenage boy destined for Oxford University who instead seems to have fallen into a big hole marked “gaming”. They’re all interesting, intelligent, self-aware people (OK, not so much the girl, who seems a bit of a loser), and then we meet a whole slew of talking-head experts who are wheeled on to say in Latin and Greek what we’ve just been told in plain English – that this shit is all fucked up. Then Julian Assange turns up, to tell us how bad Google is/are. The grimly creepy Toby Joe Turner, aka YouTube phenomenon Tobuscus, turns up to offer some apercus spiked with Butt-head chuckles and faux self-deprecation. And like a breath of fresh air sci-fi author Cory Doctorow offers the opinion that Facebook is psychotic and that it will die. Personally I can’t wait for it to go down and take Twitter with it, down to wherever Bebo and MySpace now reside. Snooping, bullying, porn, addiction, they’ve all been around since the year dot. What’s different now is how culturally unprepared we are for these new, internet forms of old distractions, though maybe this film, and others like it, are part of that mental realignment that ensures we can at least work out how to all get along together nicely.
Winter of Discontent (New Wave, cert 15, DVD)
A drama from Egypt, about the events that unfolded in Tahrir Square that led to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and the Lotus Revolution. And given the way that they eventually did turn out – the army seem now to be back in charge, the elected president deposed – it is perhaps only fitting that Winter of Discontent is a little muted, mournful and strangely lacking in hurrahs. We see the events of early 2011 through the eyes of three people: a wiry activist who survives torture but is mentally scarred; the guy in charge of his torturing, a sleek functionary with a happy home life; and a pushy TV news anchor, whose personal ambition suddenly seems inappropriate when weighed against what’s going on outside. As I said, Winter of Discontent is a little eventless, though where it does deliver is in its suggestion of atmosphere, in its portrait of the bravery of those who sought to overthrow Mubarak, and in the way it shows the workings of power – not through direct coercion but by the acquiescence of everyone who gains if things stay the way they are.
© Steve Morrissey 2014