DECEMBER ROUNDUP 1 : The Call of the Wild, plus briefer comments on Cthulhu, Hohokam, etc

THE CALL OF THE WILD : [8/10] : US 07 : Ron LAMOTHE : 108m
nb : rating increased to 9/10 following second viewing, 15.Mar.08
seen on DVD in Sunderland, 6th December
   This disarmingly fresh, utterly engrossing documentary takes as its starting-point the tragic tale of Chris McCandless – the twentysomething adventurer whose lonely death in the Alaskan wilderness also forms the focus of Sean Penn's current fictional feature Into the Wild. But as well as addressing the specific details of McCandless's controversial life (and even more controversial demise), director Lamothe covers a surprisingly expansive amount of geographic and thematic terrain as he journeys cross-county – driving, then hitchhiking – in McCandless's footsteps.
   Indeed, the film becomes not so much about McCandless or Lamothe (though it's certainly to some degree a portrait of both) but a more general rumination on the ambitions and limitations of the generation to which both belonged (the picture is part-dedicated to 'Generation X') and also a celebration of rural America's more eccentric backwaters.
   At various points Lamothe's path inadvertently  intersects with that of Penn and his crew – producing some hilarious (and shaming) contrasts between Hollywood's methods and Lamothe's resolutely lo-fi approach. Not that budgetary and technical limitations make this any kind of rough-and-tumble affair: Lamothe, who provides genial, clear-eyed, articulate narration throughout, certainly knows how to frame shots and assemble a compelling narrative.
   He also allows himself one bit of virtuouso show-offery in a hyperkinetic 'Gen-X' montage of found footage from America's turbulent recent past, turbo-propelled by Nirvana's raucously-anthemic 'Breed'. Indeed, he shouldn't be too surprised if, as a result of this cracking debut, Big Bad Hollywood comes knocking on his door in the near future…   7.12.07

CTHULHU : [7/10] : US 07 : Daniel GILDARK : 116m
seen on DVD in Sunderland, 1st December
Clammy, enterprising chiller pays nifty tribute to H P Lovecraft – but, like Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness, it isn't based on any specific Lovecraft story as such (though there's a lot of The Shadow Over Innsmouth in here), rather it seeks to evoke a general Lovecraftian vibe in a modern-day setting. Clearly made on a restricted budget, but the picture looks consistently striking (palette: cobalt blues and greys), has numerous genuinely creepy moments, and builds steadily to a rather terrific last minute that makes you forget about whatever rough patches went before. Not one for hardcore Lovecraft purists, then, but for everyone else, very much worth a look. 11.12.07

HOHOKAM : [7/10] : US 07 : Frank V. ROSS : 72m
seen on DVD in Sunderland, 5th December
Oh no, not another zero-budget DV-shot study of a young couple's romantic travails. But this one stands out from the pack: nearer 30 than 20, the protagonists' lives clearly don't just revolve around each other – we see them separately, at work, as often as we see them together. In a series of economic, uninflected scenes a relationship is convincingly sketched and developed – proceeding in ways we don't expect and can't predict, without even a hint of melodrama or contrivance. And while Anthony J Baker (as ex-marine Anson) sports a particularly-unconvincing USMC tattoo, that's the only aspect of his terrific characterisation that doesn't ring 100% true. 11.12.07

HOW WE GET RID OF THE OTHERS : [5/10] : Hvordan vi slipper af med de andre aka How To Get Rid of the Others : Denmark 07 (copyright-dated 2006) : Anders RONNOW KLARLUND : 94m
seen at the Tyneside Cinema, Gateshead : 7th December : public show (paid  £7.00) – Northern Lights Film Festival
A promisingly Swiftian-satirical idea is developed with only partial success in this stagey black comedy, set in a near-future Denmark where the government (run by the theoretically left-leaning Social Democrats, as we're told more than once) applies Martial Law and sets about executing all those who don't make a net contribution to society. The opening and closing scenes pack a punch - but too much in the middle goes off-target, with unhelpful, melodramatic subplots getting in the way and results that feel naggingly like an over-ambitious sixth-form play. 11.12.07

JAR CITY : [7/10] : Myrin : Iceland 07 : Baltasar KORMAKUR : 93m
seen on DVD on train between London and Durham, 30th November
Engrossing thriller in the well-established, gritty-policier mode familiar from films, TV and middlebrow fiction on both sides of the Atlantic – but with a very specific Icelandic twist to the convoluted plot. Several deaths, a couple of decades apart, turn out to be connected to genetic researches carried out on the island-nation's population because of its unusually-restricted gene pool. The famously stark and beautiful terrain gets plenty of incidental exposure, but this is essentially a story of human weakness and persistence, very nicely played by a rock-solid ensemble. 11.12.07

MAURICE PIALAT - LOVE EXISTS… : [7/10] : Maurice Pialat – L'amour existe… : Fr 07 : Jean-Pierre DEVILLERS & Anne-Marie FAUX : 81m
seen on DVD in Sunderland, 2nd December
It's been 20 years since an unambiguously French movie won the Palme d'Or at Cannes: perhaps jurors remember the booing that accompanied Maurice Pialat's win for Under Satan's Sun in 1987. This commendably unconventional documentary goes behind the controversial public face of this most unusual film-maker to give some indication of his paradoxes, inspirations and methods. It doesn't claim to provide easy answers, instead combining interviews and footage (from Pialat's films and from his own favourites) to engrossing, illuminating effect. 11.12.07

THE WHOLE SHOOTIN' MATCH : [7/10] : US 1978 : Eagle PENNELL : 108m
seen on DVD in Sunderland, 3rd December
The Whole Shootin' Match was famously the film that inspired Robert Redford to create what we now know as the Sundance Film Festival – but let's not that hold that against it. Three decades on, the picture (a shambling tale of two blue-collar Texas blokes whose forties are looming over them like an insistent bald-eagle) retains an awful lot of unassuming freshness and charm. It works fine a two-pronged, carefully-nuanced character-study (with moments of genuine poignancy amid the laughs) but also has rather a lot to say about American families, entrepreneurship and masculinity along the way. 11.12.07

Neil Young

1. all films seen in the UK, and all timings approximate, unless stated otherwise
2. timings taken from the BBFC website are rounded to the nearest minute (i.e. 100min 29sec = 100min, but 100min 30sec = 101min)
3. an asterisk [*] in the rating indicates that film is not a feature (i.e. 0-39m = short; 40m-63m = medium-length; 64m+ = feature)