Peter Greenaway’s brief flirtation with the mainstream produced his most accessible and shocking film in 1989; although his usual visual tropes are on show, with nudity and fruit forming part of his painterly compositions, The Cook, The Thief is a chilling tale of gangsters and retribution. Michael Gambon is Albert, the crime-boss who uses his ill-gotten gains to live a gluttonous lifestyle, and Helen Mirren is his wife, who finds herself drawn to one of the patrons of the restaurant that Albert frequents. Writer/director Greenaway is a class act, but that doesn’t stop him from exploring the darker side of human nature in this violent, hypnotic film. It may be theatrical in conceit, but it’s a perfect analogy for the excesses of Britain in the late 80’s.
Biopics of writers have an inherent problem; how to dramatise the prose. Brian Gibson’s 1994 film deals with poet TS Elliot and his relationship with Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Adapted from Michael Hastings’ play, Gibson astutely casts two excellent actors, Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson as Tom and Viv, and focuses on how her gynecological problems caused havoc with their understanding of each other. The 1915 setting is carefully depicted, less for the period detail as the attitudes conveyed, with Viv’s mood-swings hard to explain in the polite society of the Bloomsbury group, and Tom’s writings not seen as a viable career. Tom and Viv is a delicate, realistic love story.
The lengthy struggle to get a film made often pays off handsomely; this film featuring the music of The Beatles was handicapped from the start by the band’s unwillingness to participate. Producer Robert Stigwood would not let his dream die; instead of The Beatles, Sgt Pepper features the Bee gees as a band battling against music industry corruption in a random plotline, interspersed with Frankie Howard attempting to take over the world with a race of androids. Everyone from Aerosmith to Peter Frampton to George Burns to Donald Pleasance to Steve Martin has incidental bits along the way, but none of it makes sense for a moment; it’s hard to imagine what Doris Day, Elton John or Barry Manilow could have added this this farrago, but they all turned it down. A benchmark for bad-movie fans, Michael Shultz’s film is a high concept that wilted spectacularly on the way to the big screen.
Another gem from writer and director Patrice Leconte, The Widow of St Pierre is a skilful melodrama which deals with the subject of the death penalty; set in Newfoundland in the mid 19th century, it features director Emir Kusturica as Ariel, a killer who is sentenced to death. The isolated community lacks a guillotine, and during the delay while one is sent from the mainland, Ariel wins over the hearts and minds of the locals, including Pauline (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Daniel Auteuil). He appears to be rehabilitated; so does he still have to die? Based on a true story, this is a chilly but accomplished drama, with strong performances and one incredible sequence in which Ariel rescues the township from a runaway house.
Providing exactly what the title suggests, Molly Bernstein’s documentary is a playful investigation of the popular magician and his art; as he discusses the various performers who have influenced him, Ricky Jay also reveals much about his own motivations. A scene in which a BBC reporter who professes no belief in magic tricks, describes her amazement at how Jay could produce a block of ice from behind his menu is a restaurant on a swelteringly hot day is all the most interesting for Jay’s unwillingness to share the secrets behind it. And there’s also plenty of rare Jay footage to enjoy; an appearance of the Dinah Shore show features amusing support from Steve Martin, who appears wise to Jay’s antics until a deft card trick puts him in his place. Deceptive Practice is a magic show with brains, a deft slight-of-hand that leaves audiences confused yet entertained.
Steve Zahn’s return to prominence via The Dallas Buyers Club is reason enough to exhume one of the sweeter films in the Minnesota- born actor’s resume. Zahn brings his easy charm to his role as Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr, an escaped convict who teams up with Harry (Jeremy Northam) who go under-cover as a gay couple in the small town of Happy Texas, where they become involved in a beauty pageant that tests their abilities to conceal their true orientation. Mark Illsley’s whimsical comedy is an amiable, good humoured affair, with support from William H Macy, Illeanna Douglas and Ron Perlman, and it’s a cheerful precursor to indie hits Little Miss Sunshine and Sunshine Cleaning.
Sex-traffiking is a subject that’s perilously hard to put on-screen; writer/director Megan Griffith does an admirable job in handling difficult subject matters in 2013’s Eden, a thriller about Eden (Jamie Chung), a young girl who is lured into a date, chloroformed, and finds herself in a remote farm where girls are hired out to local clients. Cooped up like chickens in a hen-house, their plight is a shocking one, but Eden is determined to escape, and she quickly realises that her relationship with captor Vaughan (Matt O’Leary) offers a chink of light, particularly once she realises the disconnect between Vaughan and his boss (Beau Bridges). Eden is a powerful violent film, but never takes cheap shots at Eden’s sexuality, managing to convey the desperate quality of her situation without revelling in the detail. While there are plenty of films that express male views, the pitifully small number of female directors around demonstrate how pervasive that mind-set is; Griffith deserves applause for reversing that process, and showing a woman turning the tables on her captors to rousing effect.