In a pretty limp week for mainstream DVD releases, two of the year’s most startling documentaries redeem the pile. The first, Notes on Blindness (Curzon Artificial Eye, U), bends the form most liberally, fusing archival material, performance and highly stylised cinematic trickery to movingly evoke the experience of sight loss. Taking a leaf from Clio Barnard’s similarly fluid The Arbor, directors James Spinney and Pete Middleton have enlisted actors to lip-synch to the audio testimonies of the late Australian theologian John Hull, who began going blind in his mid-40s, and his family, accompanying their first-hand memories with a wealth of inventive imagery and sound design to convey the more abstract aspects of his condition.
Taking a less subversive but no less lyrical approach to documentary form is Zhao Liang’s staggering Behemoth (New Wave, 15), which surveys both the vast mechanical spectacle and intimate human tragedy at work in a Mongolian coal mine. With calm but piercing scrutiny, Zhao’s camera gazes upon the damage wreaked by industrial labour on the landscape and the average worker’s visage alike; it’s a remarkable feat that sustains both the bigger and smaller picture to the end.
Neither film is one to seek out if you’re after a barrel of laughs. Alas, neither is The Boss (Universal, 15), a cramped, one-gear vehicle for the tinderbox talents of Melissa McCarthy, whose mere presence accounts for more laughs than the script she co-wrote. As a nightmarish, swollen-egoed businesswoman with an attitude and a kind of power-wombat hairdo, she has created a brilliant sketch-comedy figure of fun, ill served by the film’s predictably redemptive trajectory. It might, in fact, be less funny than Gods of Egypt (eOne, 12), a ludicrous sword-sandals-and-abdominals spectacle from the dwindling imagination of Alex Proyas, but that’s no endorsement.
Studiocanal’s run of notable direct-to-DVD releases continues with The Idol (Studiocanal, PG), the sunniest and most crowd-pleasing feature to date from Palestinian film-maker Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now, Omar). A loose biopic of Mohammed Assaf, the Gazan refugee who eventually triumphed on the Arab edition of Pop Idol, the film weaves more textured social nuance into its potentially schmaltzy premise than you might expect, though its feelgood kick is irrepressible.
Meanwhile, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune (Curzon Artificial Eye, 15), a tear-stained comedy of a couple-swapping, mixed-family household gone awry in the swinging 70s, never quite attains the bittersweet release it’s aiming for; there’s a little too much cruelty to its human contrivances.
I believed more in the outlandish character twists of Aloys (Eureka, 12A), a strange, affectingly melancholic tale of socially withdrawn detective led through the recesses of his own psyche by a mysterious anonymous caller, even if Tobias Nölle’s film feels like an over-expansion of an ingenious short. It’s not half as disorienting, however, as Remainder (Soda, 15), artist Omer Fast’s dizzy, sporadically dazzling existential psycho-thriller adapted from Tom McCarthy’s novel, which treads a fine line between intrigue and sheer inscrutability.
Among the week’s classic rereleases, with Bowie nostalgia still in full mournful cry, you hardly need to be reminded of the merits of Nicolas Roeg’s still-pristine, still-unsettling sci-fi The Man Who Fell to Earth (Studiocanal, 18), though a new 40th-anniversary restoration drives them home. But you might not previously have heard of Odds Against Tomorrow (BFI, 12), a tight, terse, politically loaded 1959 noir led by Harry Belafonte. It’s been deservedly dusted off for the BFI’s diversity-focused Black Star season, along with the jagged, jangly, New Wave-influenced jazz ramble Paris Blues (BFI, 12), memorably pairing Sidney Poitier with Paul Newman.
Finally, for discerning film lovers who missed out on the recent London film festival, Mubi.com is streaming some of the programme’s lower-key highlights. I’m particularly glad to see Further Beyond, the first documentary from the reliably fascinating Irish duo Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor (Mister John), among its picks. Having long harboured ambitions of making a biopic of 18th-century Irish adventurer Ambrosio O’Higgins, the film-makers arrived instead at this, a wittily sidelong, distraction-riddled look at their own tangled research process, tracing their subject’s steps from Eire to Chile while musing more discursively on the nature of immigration and identity. The biopic couldn’t have been as interesting.