Looking back at the list of films I managed to notch up in February, I’m struck by how many of them veered towards the bizarre. For instance, there was The Prom, Ryan Murphy’s colourful film version of the Broadway musical about celebrity types injecting an acceptance of diversity into small-town America. The shopping-mall-set rendition of the Bible-basher-bashing Love Thy Neighbour (“There’s no way to separate / Which rules you can violate / Let’s hope you don’t masturbate”) certainly scored high on the weirdness meter. But it was several notches below the outright bonkers-ness of Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mark (Josh Greenbaum) which featured, amongst many other surprises, a talking crab, friendly sea spirits and the sight of Jamie Dornan delivering a (convincing!) Eurovision-style song-and-dance number containing the immortal lyrics, “Seagulls in the sand, can you hear my prayer?” Dornan was perhaps the best thing in this ludicrously enjoyable romp, striking just the right balance between straight and silly.
The sight of all those gorgeous Florida beaches in Barb And Star prompted me to seek out a British classic I’d never seen before: Shirley Valentine (Lewis Gilbert). And here too was a strangeness I hadn’t expected, in the form of the constant breaking of the fourth wall by the titular character. Theatrical though the device may have been, it worked extremely well and served to highlight the idiosyncratic, curiously aloof nature of Pauline Collins’ superb central performance.
Equally praiseworthy was Rosamund Pike’s turn in I Care A Lot (J Blakeson), another tale with more than its fair share of quirky weirdness, this time stemming from the entertaining clash between a cunning fraudster and a highly-strung crime lord. Top marks to Dianne Wiest too, for her role as the hapless, but not so helpless victim of all these shenanigans.
Strangeness of a very different sort was on offer in Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg), a sci-fi tale of an assassin who fulfills her contracts by taking over the bodies of others and effectively getting them to do her dirty work for her. I’m not sure the violence here needed to be quite as extreme as Cronenberg seemed to think it did (overly explicit visuals always run the risk of tipping into the comical), but it did serve to convey the visceral horror of the situations being depicted on screen.
Explicit visuals, albeit of the sexual variety, were the main selling point of Simple Passion, the Danielle Arbid film praised by some for providing a rare (in the world of cinema) expression of the female gaze. I wonder how many females would subscribe to that view, and whether most of them would agree that this was rather half-baked stuff, not especially strong on any gaze of any sort.
A much quieter curiousness appeared in Paul Greengrass’ News Of The World, wherein Tom Hanks’ travelling newsreader in 19th century America tries to restore an orphaned girl to her family. This was one of the month’s highlights, its picaresque format building up to a climax of moving restraint. Comparably quiet, but perhaps less memorable, was The Dig (Simon Stone) an account of the 1938 unearthing of the treasures at Sutton Hoo. As one might have expected, Ralph Fiennes’ and Carey Mulligan’s performances were the most notable aspects of an admirably unassuming piece of work.
Only two documentaries made it to this month’s list: Nose (Clement Beauvais’ woefully unsatisfying profile of Dior’s in-house perfumer; click on this link for the full review I posted over on the other blog) and The Capote Tapes (Ebs Burnough) which offered an absorbing, if ultimately insubstantial account of one of the 20th century’s most colourful public figures.
Finally, the month’s true stars. First, a re-watching of Mank, David Fincher’s period-perfect dissection of the writing of Citizen Kane’s screenplay. There is so much to admire in this study not just of old Hollywood, but also of the tension between maintaining integrity and giving in to less noble impulses. Despite a few moments of too-obvious exposition, Dear Comrades (Andrey Konchalovsky) turned out to be an excellent account of an especially scandalous incident in Soviet history which saw many innocent, civilian protesters gunned down by their own compatriots. Set on deprived Parisian estates in an-all-too-recent present, Les Miserables (Ladj Ly) showed – to devastating effect – that clashes between law enforcers and the populace are by no means a feature of yesteryear. And Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Zbanic) – the story of an interpreter trying to save her family from what would turn out to be the Srebrenica massacre – showed that so often the most terrible cruelties are those inflicted by ordinary people on their friends and neighbours. This was a harrowing piece of work, and if it doesn’t attract heaps of acclaim for its star, Jasna Djuricic, then there really is no justice in the world of movie awards. Do seek it out.
A postscript, which brings me back to the subject of strangeness. By far the most bizarre thing I watched in February wasn’t a film but a six-part BBC documentary: Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, directed by Adam Curtis. Like an extended version of his Hypernormalisation, this blended a biography of certain 20th century figures (including Jiang Qing, Michael De Freitas and Afeni Shakur) with eye-popping archive footage, odd musical choices and sonorous narration to put forward a Grand Explanation of how the world got to where it is now. I suspect many of its arguments could be challenged, but as a presentation of a singular vision of the development of the globe, it was irresistibly compelling, unsettling and convincing. Its title has certainly proved to be accurate in my case.