La Danza De La Realidad (The Dance Of Reality) (Jodorowsky, 2015): Clearly a very personal film by Alejandro Jodorowsky, which is partly an exaggerated, dreamlike vision of his own childhood experiences and partly a kind of late life statement of reckoning. It includes performances by his three sons, one of whom takes on a pivotal role (effectively playing his own grandfather), with other family members dotted throughout the crew. There’s an element of frustration involved when viewing – you’re watching an interpretation of a dream or a series of faded, half-remembered memories made by a noted surrealist with a flair for bizarro, acid-soaked filmmaking, after all. However, I can say from experience that if you’re not adept at finding meaning within lashings of weirdness, The Dance Of Reality is still an enjoyable watch as long as you’re happy to sit back and gawp at one striking image after another.
The Dressmaker (Moorhouse, 2015): The comedy in this Australian comedy-drama grated, and the drama isn’t great. It’s a film that’s partly defined – or perhaps suffocated – by its array of eccentric characters and exaggerated, boggle-eyed performances, which quickly become tiresome. The setting is a small, dusty Outback town that’s still scandalised by an earlier child murder. The supposed killer returns from time away – played as an adult by Kate Winslet – and she subsequently injects some style into the local community with both her own appearance and the fashionable, glamorous dresses she makes, which become popular with the townsfolk; some locals can’t forgive and forget, though, and further deaths ensue. The costumes by Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson are colourful and attractive, and they (along with Winslet) briefly light up an otherwise drab drama. Too self-consciously wacky for my liking, though.
Urok (The Lesson) (Grozeva, Valchanov, 2015): For the most part a very good, tightly-controlled drama about a teacher in Bulgaria trying to pay off debts (missed mortgage payments initially, followed by repayments owed to an unscrupulous loan shark); she is forced, eventually, into dishonesty and theft, having spent most of the film trying to teach children in her English class a valuable moral lesson relating to stealing and honesty. I say ‘for the most part’ above because the ending is a bit of a stretch, even if it does neatly tie everything together. Margita Gosheva gives a fine lead performance, though, and there’s shared ground with the Dardennes, if you like their work.
The Great Escape (Sturges, 1963): I have no idea how many times I’ve seen John Sturges’ epic war film over the years, but it remains one of my favourites, and that’s possibly because the good humour of the first half eventually gives way to one of the more brutal, unforgiving, and utterly involving final acts you’ll find in these enduring ensemble capers. Of course no director today would be allowed to build up to the escape for so long, but Sturges carefully took his time establishing the characters and the dynamics that exist between them, which pays dividends as they make their break for freedom; we follow each individual story closely, waiting to get a new update on Hilts on his stolen motorbike, Bartlett and others on the train or Sedgwick as he slowly cycles to France. The scenes set in the POW camp are a delight, with British stiff-upper-lip defiance (Attenborough, Donald, Jackson, McCallum, Pleasance) mixing with American bluster and insouciance (McQueen, Garner, Coburn), and I just love how the film treads a fine line between being a fitting memoir to those who escaped (or who died trying to escape) from Stalag Luft III and being a piece of lighter, frothy entertainment. Magic cinema.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (Miller, Ogilvie, 1985): Regular readers may have noticed that I’ve recently been re-watching the original Mad Max trilogy, and this is the weakest part, though oddly it’s this one that George Miller used as a template for Mad Max: Fury Road (well, up to a point, anyway). The final act is decent, but the mess of sweaty torsos, gurning faces, bad acting and forced humour that precedes it hasn’t dated well at all, while the tribe of lost children sub-plot makes the Ewok bit in Return Of The Jedi look like Citizen Fucking Kane. It’s all a bit disjointed, a bit of fire has gone out of Gibson’s eyes by this point, and considering it’s in the title the thunderdome doesn’t actually feature much at all. Also, the stuntcasting of Tina Turner doesn’t work in the film’s favour, though I’m glad Miller opted for a female baddie for a change.
If… (Anderson, 1968): Lindsay Anderson’s film about an anarchic public schoolboy (Malcolm McDowell, extremely charismatic in his debut role) who turns on teachers, fellow pupils and other members of the community is a satire of the English public school system, and by association a swipe at the various professions or organisations that are traditionally linked to it, such as the church and the military. It also serves as an interesting state-of-the-nation piece for the late 1960s, when acts of civil disobedience were on the rise among students in the UK, as they were elsewhere across the globe; in this school rebellions and struggles that are taking place miles away are inspirational but also seized upon for their cool factor, with the iconography of various rebel leaders appearing on the walls of the students’ private rooms and spaces. And eventually the acts of these far-flung revolutionaries are echoed by one group of kids, who defy the old order, and the establishment, before eventually attempting to overthrow them with a brutal, bloody coup-in-miniature. If… is a strong, experimental drama, in which order and structure gradually surrender to primal urges, rebellion and chaos, and as the film progresses Anderson incorporates more and more flights of fancy and weird, dreamlike passages accordingly. The film stock changes constantly from monochrome to colour; initially this was due to financial constraints, but the director liked the shift and kept moving from one to the other throughout the rest of the film. It’s certainly jarring, but it’s another facet of this work that captures a period of change: it has often been said that this was the decade when Britain moved from black and white to colour.
Chronic (Franco, 2016): A stripped-back drama about a palliative care nurse (Tim Roth in his best performance in some years) whose dedication to his patients perhaps masks some kind of obsessive/stalkerish tendency, or is perhaps reflective of an addiction to grief or death, or it may even be a source of sexual pleasure; it’s not initially clear, but director Michel Franco gives us subtle clues in several well-constructed scenes that show Roth’s character at work – gradually shutting out his patients’ families – or awkwardly dealing with people during his own down-time. He may well be a chronic liar, too, but the film is rarely explicit on such matters. The camera remains still throughout, though there’s one simple but effective tracking shot at the end and another when Roth follows a young woman from her house and into a university campus. In fact a kind of stillness hangs over the film from start to finish, which dovetails with sterile-looking interiors (private bedrooms and living rooms resemble hospital wards) and a general lack of dialogue (or rather a prevalence of quiet). Like Roth’s performance, it’s understated, subtle and very good indeed.
The Ones Below (Farr, 2016): This is the kind of icy, nasty drama that occasionally seems to go down well with the bitterest of critics out there: two London couples who live above and below one another in the same building are both expecting their first child, but it being a film and all something goes horribly wrong and a spate of terrible, unlikely behaviour ensues. One of the problems, though, is that The Ones Below relies on one early scene and one late sequence in particular, and both will elicit laughs from unforgiving viewers on account of the acting. In the first instance a character takes a fall but it looks completely fake; in the second I’m afraid the performance by one of the film’s four leads just doesn’t cut it, and his reaction to two specific terrible events completely undercuts the drama. It’s not all bad, though. There’s quite a tight focus on the core plot with little space left for extraneous fluff, and the faintest whiff of Polanski abounds. Plus David Morrissey gets to play an insufferable prick, and he’s quite fun to watch at first. I hated his character so much.
Listen To Me Marlon (Riley, 2015): Stevan Riley’s documentary makes sense of hundreds of hours’ worth of audio recordings that were made (and left behind) by the late Marlon Brando. It’s a fascinating insight into a creative mind, and it also shows us to a certain degree how age and experience changes an artist’s approach, and also because a life has been condensed to 90 minutes it shows how such factors gradually alter a personality. The film opens and closes with an electronically-rendered talking head of Brando, which is a weird old sight, but much of the rest of it involves carefully-chosen film clips and home movie footage. It’s edited with intelligence and it flows beautifully, while Brando’s recordings are often insightful and always interesting.
Concussion (Landesman, 2016): Based on a true story, Concussion sees Will Smith’s unconventional and brilliant Nigerian pathologist going up against the might of the NFL after he finds evidence that men who repeatedly slam into one another during American Football matches suffer long-term damage to their brains. (I’d have thought that was obvious, but in real life the research by Smith’s character Bennet Omalu into chronic traumatic encephalopathy was apparently groundbreaking.) It’s a very predictable ‘underdog’ film, in the sense that the director concentrates on the discussions between the quiet, humble Omalu and the arrogant medical experts and powerful NFL bigwigs who have a vested interest in silencing him, and it comes as no surprise when our doctor-hero stands firm against the gathering naysayers (strings obligingly swelling on the soundtrack). The subject matter is a little dry, and I was a bit put off by the film’s pre-occupation with Omalu ‘becoming American’; not the ‘gaining citizenship’ element of the story, but the recurring theme that through his work and honesty the doctor came to embody Great American Traits, as if that’s all that this intelligent, well-qualified individual – who was doing very well as a Nigerian man with character traits he presumably developed in Nigeria and other countries thanks very much – ever wanted. It’s not a bad film by any means; just formulaic and (understandably) very serious. Smith is pretty good, and he is well-supported by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks.