September 12 Releases
Film of the Month: Holy Motors
Director: Leos Carax Stars: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue
Not quite the masterpiece mooted at Cannes this summer but French director Carax’s first feature length film in thirteen years scores thanks to its ambition, scope, and a fearless central performance from the formidably versatile Lavant. He is Monsieur Oscar, a man whose wealthy businessman appearance belies his real career: a cross between an assassin and a performance artist who may or may not be performing for hidden cameras. Oscar is chauffeured across Paris in a white stretch Limo (shades of ‘Cosmopolis’) by his faithful assistant Celine (Scob) who also provides him with his role-playing ‘assignments’. Equipped with a series of wigs and props, Oscar drops into a range of bizarre scenarios. In a dazzlingly beautiful early sequence he dons a motion capture suit and, in an update of Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’, performs a range of strenuous moves for an unseen director, before making virtual love to an actress. Other tasks include dressing up as a beggar; pursuing a lost love (Minogue speaking passable French) in a musical interlude; and, in what is already the picture’s most notorious sequence, dressing as the feral Monsieur Merde (yup, that’s Mr Shit) then kidnapping supermodel Kay-M (a game Mendes), and dressing her up in a makeshift burqa and munching on her hair. As this incomplete précis suggests this is a surreal homage to cinema in its myriad forms, in which Carax toys with the nature of identity and the shifting barrier between fantasy and reality, while nodding to King Vidor’s ‘The Crowd’ and ‘Eyes without a Face’. It is certainly not to all tastes; some are likely to find it pretentious, and the absence of a linear narrative means it does not quite sustain its two-hour running time, but there is something almost heroic about Carax’s unapologetic crazed vision.
Queen of Versailles
Director: Lauren Greenfield
This timely and surprisingly affecting documentary charts the effects of the financial crisis on a hugely wealthy family, focusing mainly on the titular figure of mother Jackie. As a young woman, Jackie, tired of her steady middleclass salarywoman lifestyle, upped sticks and moved to Florida where she became a beauty queen. Shortly after, she met and married the much older property magnate David Siegel and they started a family. When we first encounter them, David and Jackie, replete with eight or so kids, announce that they are about to commence building the biggest, most opulent house in the country inspired by the Palace of Versailles. Titters will be raised at the monstrously gaudy décor of their already existing properties, as well as the stretch limo family outings to McDonalds. Then the financial crisis hits and cracks begin to show as the family struggle to deal with the fallout. The narrative switches midway from darkly comic to genuinely depressing as the imposed cutbacks in servants result in the death of a pet and the family home becoming littered with dogshit, particularly as, despite their faults, Jackie and co do not seem such bad people. It’s a compelling tale of our times, even if a couple of sequences feel staged, most notably a trip to a car hire when Jackie enquires as to who their driver will be, and two scenes in which Jackie encounters a cash-strapped old friend. There is also a frustrating titbit left dangling in which David confesses that he was probably instrumental in delivering Bush Jr.’s last election victory but declines to elaborate as it was ‘probably illegal’.
Berberian Sound Studio
Director: Peter Strickland Stars: Toby Jones, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Cosimo Fusco
British director Strickland’s follow up to his debut, revenge drama ‘Katalin Varga’, is an ambitious but strangely inert psychological thriller, which also serves as a homage to the 70s Italian horror genre. Jones is Gilderoy, a middle-aged prickly and socially inept British sound engineer summoned to Italy to work on a Dario Argento-style horror movie about witches called ‘The Equestrian Vortex’. The behaviour of a bullying producer (Fusco) and the harrowing nature of the lurid material he is working on, along with a minor expenses issue which descends into Kafkaesque ordeal, take a toll on Gilderoy to the extent that the barriers between fiction and real life begin to dissolve. The picture is at its best when it pulls back the curtain to reveal the prosaic detail behind the horror, with stabbed vegetables serving as penetrated flesh, and the horrifying feral sounds of witches and goblins summoned up by luvvie voice artists. Strickland creates an impressively palpable feeling of claustrophobia in the first reel but is less persuasive in the reality-bending scenes leaving the viewer to ponder what Lynch or Polanski would have made of such material, while Jones’ Gilderoy is such an unappealing and mostly passive character that it is hard to be too concerned with his plight.
The Myth of the American Sleepover
Director: David Robert Mitchell Stars: Claire Sloma, Marlon Morton, Amanda Bauer, Brett Jacobson
A charmingly low key coming-of-age picture that recalls such films as ‘Dazed and Confused’ and ‘American Graffiti’, Mitchell’s film chronicles one night in the life of a group of teens in Michigan, at some unspecified pre-mobile phone time. Among the characters are a spirited punkette Maggie (Sloma, a real find) who, accompanied by her nerdy friend, bikes around town looking for fun; sensitive boy Rob (Morton) who pursues an elusive blonde he glimpsed in the supermarket; new girl in town Claudia (Bauer) who finds herself among the mean girls; and the slightly older Scott (Jacobson), who has recently returned from college and is pursuing one of a pair of blonde twins who has expressed an interest – although he’s not sure which one. While the latter scenario sounds like it belongs in a slicker, more mainstream picture, Mitchell broadly eschews Hollywood cliché as he and his young cast of non-professionals touchingly illustrate the joys and travails of characters taking the first few tentative steps into adulthood. Winningly naturalistic performances make up for the occasional shortcomings in the script.
Director: David Frankel Stars: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell
A pair of excellent central performances only partially redeems this glossy comedy drama from the director of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) are an ageing Omaha-dwelling couple who have been married thirty-one-years. After a hard day at the tax office Arnold is happy to doze off in front of the TV watching the golf, oblivious to his wife’s need for affection. Frustrated Kay withdraws $4000 from her savings to pay for a week-long marriage counselling course held by esteemed therapist Bernie Field (Carell) in the small town of Great Hope Springs. Arnold very reluctantly joins her. The sessions are beautifully played and at their best possess the intimacy of a fringe stage play, with Jones’ recognizably convincing mix of vulnerability and embarrassed spikiness particularly affecting. But the good work of the leads is constantly undermined by some broad comic set pieces, a supporting cast of annoyingly perky and supportive locals, and, most damagingly, an intrusive, self-defeating soft rock soundtrack laid on to provide emotional cues for the presumed hard of thinking. And the simplistic feel-good ending feels like a cop-out.
Director: Miguel Gomes Stars: Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira
This audacious cinematic diptych from Portuguese director Gomes is a bizarre, baffling but strangely affecting study of memory and the legacy of colonialism. The brief witty first segment has a jungle explorer who encounters the spirit of his former love as well as a melancholy crocodile in the wilderness (like you do). The second part takes place in contemporary Lisbon where compassionate Catholic woman Pilar (Madruga) thoughtfully drops in on her neighbours: the mentally deteriorating old woman Aurora (Soveral) and her overworked and put-upon African housekeeper. When Pilar tracks down Aurora’s Italian lover from the past, Gian Luca Ventura, the picture segues into its final segment, narrated by the Italian but otherwise dialogue free, which outlines Aurora (played in her younger incarnation by Moreira) and Gian Luca’s passionate but tragic love affair, conducted against the backdrop of colonial Africa. The realism in the Lisbon sequences contrasts with the epic sweep of the African scenes illustrating how our experiences can be romanticized through the prism of memory.
And the rest: Ray Winstone and Ben ‘Plan B’ Drew are Regan and Carter in geezer director Nick Love’s big screen adaptation of ‘The Sweeney’; A bootlegging gang is threatened by the authorities who want a share of their profits in ‘Lawless’, featuring Tom Hardy and Shia (so-called) LaBeouf; Woody Allen charts the lives and loves of residents, and some visitors to the eternal city, in ‘To Rome with Love’; Karl Urban is the law in new comic book adaptation ‘Dredd’; Keira Knightley redons the period frocks for Tolstoy adaptation ‘Anna Karenina’.