Saturday, 25 February 2017

Coming Soon to a Peripatetic Projector Near You: Part 1

I’ve seen a few of Flicks in the Sticks picks in the past year. I looked forward to Hell or High Water (Dir. David Mackenzie, US, 2016) – currently nominated for 4 Oscars. There was a steady stream of independent films from America’s dark heart a quarter-century ago – the American outback, big blue skies, black humour, determined criminals and jaded detectives: Red Rock West (1993), The Last Seduction (1994), To Die For (1995). Some of them starred Jeff Bridges: American Heart (1992). He’s on top Jeff Bridges form here – playing a less sympathetic character than, say, his country music performer in Crazy Heart (2009). I don’t recall any genre business involving a soft drinks vending machine but the comic relief cameo in an eatery was good work.

We’re in present-day Texas. (It was filmed in New Mexico.) Bridges first came to attention in The Last Picture Show (1971), summarised online as: “In 1951, a group of high schoolers come of age in a bleak, isolated, atrophied West Texas town that is slowly dying, both culturally and economically.” Those characters would be in their 80s today and, if they had an opportunity, no longer living in West Texas. Hell or High Water focuses on two brothers in their 40s (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) robbing a chain of banks they believe is robbing them, whilst two Texan Rangers (Bridges and Gil Birmingham) visit various ghost towns in pursuit. It’s not 1951 and there’s not much for anyone to look forward to.

Gil Birmingham is a Comanche actor. I was delighted to see a realistic role for a Native American in an American small town movie. I have been introduced to the short stories of Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene) and Louise Erdrich (Chippewa) in the past year. There are many tribes but it doesn’t take too much effort to get it right. Not that Jeff Bridges’ character cares about that. Soundtrack by Nick Cave and The Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis. It’s all good.

There is a fascinating work of 1936 British science fiction / modern art called Things to Come – produced by Alexander Korda, directed by William Cameron Menzies, written by H. G. Wells, starring Ralph Richardson. It predicted a 30-year war 5 years after it was made. Three years later Menzies was directing sequences in Gone with the Wind. This has nothing to do with Things to Come (Dir. Mia Hanson-Løve, France/Germany, 2016). I saw Isabelle Huppert advertised on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as “The French Meryl Streep”: some people adore everything she does. Huppert has been extremely productive recently: 8 movies in the past 2 years with another 6 in production. These range from as-silly-as-you-make-it Valley of Love, opposite a barrel-gutted Gérard Depardieu sweating buckets in Death Valley, an estranged couple reunited by their son’s final wishes, to Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s much-anticipated latest, to Souvenir, where she plays the (fictional) runner-up in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. Many of those film critics who got to see Elle during 2016 put it in their Top Ten of the year.

Watching Violette (2013), the bio-pic of French writer Violette Leduc, where the audience is invited to give itself a point for every one of her friends they’ve heard of, I identified the three act structure of several, recent, women’s movies depuis la France. Act One – great personal misery. Act Two – great personal achievements. Act Three – walking holiday in a place of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Huppert’s character’s circumstances alter and, after a mis-step or two, she responds to new challenges. Will she adapt to changing times? This is the plot of most dramas. Does it tell us much about present-day France, the careers and relationships of women approaching retirement age, family life or current trends in philosophy and publishing? I don’t think so. Is Huppert very watchable for 100 minutes? As ever.

Talking of communes: Captain Fantastic (Dir. Matt Ross, US, 2016). And I’m sure this American family would relish a debate with the French anarchists from Things to Come. It stars George MacKay as Viggo Mortensen’s character’s eldest son. You may remember MacKay from Pride (2014) – he was the shy, young man with the camera. He was 21 in that; he’s 19 in this. In the British movie he’s required to drink pints of beer in various clubs. In Hollywood he climbs a cliff, plays acoustic guitar to a solid standard, delivers long speeches involving political theory like he understands their differences and carries off a very demanding yoga routine. He’s ripped. He’s good. I hope he gets a big role now he’s made the ‘eligible virgin in a mini-bus’ part his own. Can Eddie Redmayne OBE kill a stag?

In a year of thin (English language) movies Captain Fantastic offers plenty to cogitate. A society of six people isn’t big enough to find solutions for every disagreement. It keeps credible: serving wine to children; reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus to a six-year old; replacing Christmas with Noam Chomsky Day. Haven’t we all. And the movie side-steps a number of blind alleys: it could have taken the ‘fish out of water’ or the ‘brainwashed cult’ route. There’s a nod to convention and it moves on. It’s not Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) – and The Courtyard must have sold a lot of stiff drinks that day. I’ve never seen a cinema empty so fast. It’s not Little Miss Sunshine (2006) either, whatever its trailer suggests – but there are several genuine laughs. Given that three generations challenge one another’s value systems, from positions of near incomprehension, there’s even a late-1960s, early-1970s counter-culture movie vibe. I predict, given recent events in America, that we will get more movies like this. I hope so.

Another family breakdown, another commune: Julieta (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 2016). It interweaves three Alice Munro short stories featuring the same eponymous character, played by Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, at different points in her life. I had an Almodóvar season of my own when this was released – so excuse me whilst I work out which bits belong to which Almodóvar. No extremely extrovert gay men in this one. The actors aren’t told to play it like a Spanish-speaking soap opera. His previous movie I’m So Excited! (2013) featured no subtlety whatsoever. That experiment must have refreshed him because, in part, Julieta explores the understated grief and guilt of an abandoned mother. Almodóvar loves his female characters best when they demonstrate their emotional strength. The male characters tend to offer them the opportunity – but not violently this time. A rebuffed suitor abandons his ‘research’ into ‘accidentally’ seeing Julieta again because he’d noticed he was at risk of becoming a character from a Patricia Wentworth novel. I like a minor character that’s self-aware. If you don’t know Almodóvar’s work Julieta is a fine place to start. And if you do, get ready to soak it up.

Robin Clarke
Festival Volunteer

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