The Ladykillers

 

 

 

Now that there’s a new team at Ealing Studios, using an illustrious old name to sell underweight product (St Trinian’s, Dorian Gray, Burke and Hare) it’s a good time to look back at 1955’s The Ladykillers, the last classic of the studio’s golden era. Its director, Alexander Mackendrick, also called the shots on Whisky Galore! in 1949 and The Man In The White Suit in 1951 and would go on to make one of America’s most rancidly brilliant satires, The Sweet Smell of Success.
But here the accent is definitely on the sweet smell of lavender water, as a group of robbers, led by Alec Guinness’s caterpillar-browed Professor Marcus, first fool an old lady into believing they’re a string quintet – who would suspect them of plotting a bank job? – before they fall out over how to do her in. Chaucer used the basic plot as one of his Canterbury Tales but the atmosphere here is pure 1950s Britain, a world of ration-book austerity and deference but with the smell of something new in the air – the “looking after number one” attitude of the 1960s. Ealing regularly pulled off this sort of trick – the collision of fuddy-duddy Britannia with go-getting modern Britain – and they usually delivered it with such finesse that each constituency came out of the cinema thinking their side had won. That’s clever, the genius of Ealing, in fact. Let’s hope the new Ealing guys are taking notes.

© Steve Morrissey 2010

 

The Ladykillers – at Amazon

 

 

 

In the Mood for Love

 

 

Escape the tyranny of the huge flatscreen TV for an evening and surrender to a slow-moving visual feast best seen on the big screen in a darkened room with lots of people barely breathing. They’re holding their breath for a variety of reasons. The gorgeousness of Christopher Doyle’s cinematography for one, depicting 1960s Hong Kong as a kaleidoscope of butterfly blues, resinous ambers and neon reds. The unusual focus of the plot for another – on the man and woman realising that their other halves are having an affair with each other. On the losers not the winners in the game of love, in other words. And on the awful, stomach-clenching feeling of a love – yes, they fall for each other – that dares not express itself. Why not? After all, they have every right. The answer is because it is 1962 and they’re in Hong Kong and because they are moral people to the core. Or possibly they’re just cowards. Though the more Wong Kar Wai takes us into their world, the more we lose track of our own. Little by little we too are living crowded lives in tiny back-to-back rooming-houses, lives that remain genial, decent, tolerable because everyone obeys the rules. And little by little, we start to accept the unrequited lovers’ explanations for their actions, or lack thereof. Wong Kar Wai has made films as beautiful since, but never as immersive or painfully romantic.
© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

In the Mood for Love – at Amazon

 

 

 

4 February 2013-02-04

 Out in the UK this Week

 

Untouchable (EV, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A rich white tetraplegic (François Cluzet) gets lessons in life from a lusty black guy from out of the projects (Omar Sy). Untouchable (Intouchables in French, and the plural is there for a reason) is the most successful French film ever but has generated at least as many accusations of racism as it has five star reviews. But, one joke about Barack Obama apart, this vastly entertaining, hugely feelgood, very funny and brilliantly acted film (Omar Sy’s is a “star is born” turn) touches more on socio-economics than race, unless you’re in the business of being professionally affronted. Either way, see it before Colin Firth turns up in the American remake.

Untouchable – at Amazon

 

Chained (Anchor Bay, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Superficially similar to the Austrian Fritzl/horror film Michael, Jennifer Lynch’s Chained tells of the home life of a serial killer (a scary Vincent D’Onofrio) as seen through the eyes of the boy he kidnapped years before. The routine sub-surface violence of suburbia seems to be a subtext, with Lynch presenting the relationship as one of extreme parenting rather than killer/victim. Unsurprisingly, Jennifer is the daughter of David, who touched on the same ideas in Blue Velvet. Like father like daughter then, you could say, though Jennifer does at least give us an all-out thriller finish.

Chained – at Amazon

 

Anna Karenina (Universal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Is director Joe Wright in love with frequent leading lady Keira Knightley? He’s certainly lavished attention on making her look ravishing in this Tom Stoppard adaptation of Tolstoy’s tale of a high-class woman ruined by her lustful relationship with a bounder. Beautiful, delirious, boldly theatrical and intelligent as it is, this version of Anna Karenina stands or falls according to whether you buy the casting of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the simply irresistible Vronsky. I didn’t.

Anna Karenina – at Amazon

 

Ballroom Dancer (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing with the Stars fans will enjoy this documentary about Vyacheslav “Slavik” Kryklyvyy (run that through a spellcheck), a onetime champion ballroom dancer on the comeback road in spite of his advanced years – he’s 34. Insights into the sheer athleticism of the discipline are what make this foxtrot into the world of competitive dancing worth watching. That, Slavik’s huge ego and his need to share everything on camera. Which is more than his partner wants to.

Ballroom Dancer – at Amazon

 

Everything or Nothing (Fox, cert 12, DVD)

“I only remember Goldeneye, the rest is a blur.” Pierce Brosnan joins his fellow 007s (Connery notably excepted) for a fascinating, though clearly authorised documentary covering the Bond phenomenon from Ian Fleming’s gestation of the idea at the back end of the Second World War right up to Bond’s most recent outing in Skyfall. John Barry’s music is all over the soundtrack, there’s lots of footage from Bond movies to help pep things up and even the odd “expert” talking head – hey, Bill Clinton. So, yes, things do get a bit corporate. But thanks to its decision to get a few long-running disputes fully into the open (who fell out with who, who took who to law), the documentary does manage to pack some weight too. It’s definitely more than just a DVD extra that somehow achieved escape velocity.

Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 – at Amazon

 

Taken 2 (Fox, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Talking of which, the rooftops of Istanbul, as seen in the opening sequence of Skyfall, turn up again in this sequel in which Liam Neeson’s family is once again monstered by some bad guys, forcing him to go into “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” mode. Neeson, once again, is excellent in an actioner churned out of Luc Besson’s film factory which will keep connoisseurs of the car-up-a-ramp action sequence happy at least.

Taken 2 – at Amazon

 

The Woodsman and the Rain (Third Window, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

A charming Japanese comedy about a bluff 60-year-old lumberjack and his developing odd-couple relationship with a 25-year-old director shitting himself at the thought of taking charge of a zombie movie. A lovely, warm comic drama, an Ealing-esque slow-burner.

The Woodsman and the Rain – at Amazon
© Steve Morrissey 2013

Dog Day Afternoon

 

 

Look at all those 1960s heist movies – gents with David Niven accents in cat-burglar outfits effortlessly walking out of Monte Carlo with a heist of diamonds. How different the 1970s heist movie. In the decade when it became apparent that, economically, everything was falling apart, director Sidney Lumet caught the mood perfectly in a bank job movie set in a city crumbling faster than most others, New York. And there’s Al Pacino as our hero. Not a normal bank robber, but a slightly rubbish one, married but gay, cackhandedly stealing money so his boyfriend can have a gender reassignment operation – sexual orientation being another one of those little things that seemed to be making its presence more strongly felt in the 1970s, and treated by Lumet with a remarkable lack of sensationalism. On the subject of which, there’s another crucial element in the film, the media. Not your question-and-answer merchants in trilbys but ravenning news-harpies whose presence doesn’t just distort reality, it creates it. Add to that Pacino’s haunted performance, one of four or so in the early 1970s that turned him into a star beyond the pillowy imaginings of a Cruise or a Pitt, and you’ve got one of the defining films of the era.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Dog Day Afternoon – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Phantom of the Opera

 

 

Gaston Leroux’s famous story of the Phantom – who lives in the bowels of the Paris opera house, falls for a pretty singer and wreaks terrible revenge when she won’t play footsie – seems to have a strange effect on artists. Leroux went super-gothic – very pretty girl, monstrous beast, subterranean caverns, stygian doom, death by fire and water and so on. And everyone since has more or less kept up the melodramatic pace, right down to Andrew Lloyd Webber – ‘the phantom of the opera is there/Inside your mind’ cackle, twirl. This 1925 silent film is actually the best of the lot – it’s got Lon ‘Man Of A Thousand Faces’ Chaney in it for a start. And there’s nothing decorous or abstract about his make-up – a grinning skull, a cavernous blowhole for a nose, eyes popping out of his face. Not pretty. Unlike our lovely heroine (Mary Philbin). And unlike the fabulous sets depicting the Opera House and the Phantom’s lair, shot in part in two-strip Technicolor – quite a sight in the silent era. Add to that a booming recording of Carl Davis’s reworked score, if you’re watching a recently restored print, and it’s quite a sound now as well.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

The Phantom of the Opera – at Amazon this is the Milestone version, the best of many available right now.

 

For the BFI version with the Carl Davis score mentioned above (warning: it’s Region 2 and expensive if you live outside the UK) click here.

 

 

The Leopard

 

 

Visconti’s masterpiece is one of the best examples of the period epic ever made, a film that makes Merchant/Ivory look like kids messing about with the dressing-up box. It tells of the arrival of democracy in Italy and the decline of the fine old aristocratic way of life, as seen through the eyes of the enigmatic head of an ancient Sicilian family. The shock of this Italian-language movie is the person playing that central role, a mutton-chopped Burt Lancaster, the actor who started life as a circus acrobat. Why was a man more associated with horses and the high wire, a man so often smeared in diesel, playing an aristocrat and standing on a set with Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon and Paolo Stoppa? The answer is a grubby one – 20th Century Fox would only bankroll the film if an American star were in it. And, having paid for it, they also felt free to redub and re-edit it, ruining it in the process. Here, back in Italian and at almost full length, its brilliance is restored. And no one in it is better than Lancaster, the Leopard himself – lithe, powerful, elegant as he contemplates the possibility/necessity of changing his spots. “My best work” is how he described it. It’s Visconti’s too.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

The Leopard – at Amazon

 

 

Come and See

Aleksei Kravchenko in Come and See

 

 

 

Best Of lists are designed to infuriate, obviously, to provoke debate. But even so, it seems beyond the realms of the credible that Elem Klimov’s Come and See only made it to number 71 when UK television’s Channel 4 ran a Best War Movies Ever poll a few years ago, while Ridley Scott’s fart in a biscuit tin, Black Hawk Down, sat happy at number 9. The 1985 Russian film is the best film about the Russian experience of the Second World War, one of a handful of real contenders for the best war film ever made. Following a tender 14-year-old (Aleksei Kravchenko) as he is first pressganged into joining a ragtag militia fighting the ruthless Nazis in Byelorussia, it follows a similar arc to Apocalypse Now – a journey into a heart of darkness, through scenes of increasing horror. But whereas Coppola’s film builds towards a Technicolor, operatic, hallucinogenic finale, with Klimov a more realistic end is the goal. In Come and See the dirt is not applied with a make-up artist’s brush and the bullets whistling by the terrified youngster’s head are often real. I remember seeing this shortly after it came out and coming out of the cinema filled with a mixture of shock and awe, to borrow a phrase from a later conflict. Klimov died in 2003 and never made another film, declaring that he’d “lost interest” in film-making. Could he, in any case, have topped this masterpiece?

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Come and See – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

28 January 2013-01-28

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Holy Motors (Artificial Eye, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

From Leos Carax, who only seems to manage one feature film a decade, a unique and remarkable French film that only starts to make sense towards the end, after Kylie Minogue has sung us a song. Like Pola X, his last (in 1999), it’s a highly gothic, amphetamine rave of a movie, a mad mix of situationist vignettes following Denis Lavant (who surely should get some award for sheer physicality) as he works his way through a series of disguises, one of which involves being dressed as a mad tramp and kidnapping a model from a photo shoot (played by Eva Mendes). To explain what the plot is about is to ruin it. Just watch it.

Holy Motors – at Amazon

The Queen of Versailles (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

What luck. When a documentary maker starts out making Documentary A, only to find that they’re sitting on top of a much bigger story. Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (nice Jewish family turns out unexpectedly to be anything but) being a prime example. Something similar has happened to Lauren Greenfield. On the way to making a film about “the biggest house in America” – said building being a self-confident, unashamed avowal of success or a nouveau riche monstrosity, depending on your class loyalties – her subjects, timeshare magnate David Siegel and his blonde trophy wife Jaqueline run smack dang into the financial crisis that’s now enveloped us all. Greenfield keeps the camera rolling and, as private jets are swapped for trips on commercial airlines, and Jaqueline’s jaw hits the floor when the Hertz guy tells her the rental car doesn’t come with a driver, we’re fed a fresh portrait of these recessionary times that asks us to feel billionaire pain. Why this works is because it’s the whole financial mess the western world is in boiled down to one fascinating, frequently boggling story.

The Queen of Versailles – at Amazon

Looper (Entertainment One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Brick was high-school noir, now director Rian Johnson and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt bring us future noir, a walk through Philip K Dick territory in which Gordon-Levitt plays a heartless hitman offing guys from the future. Until his own future self (played by a soulful Bruce Willis) arrives on the scene. Seen in some quarters as “the 21st century’s The Matrix” – wasn’t that Inception? – Looper efficiently does what sci-fi movies about the future do. It seemingly explores the paradoxes of time travel but mostly it just fucks with our heads. Initially cool, increasingly chaotic, ultimately slightly disappointing, this is nevertheless a worthwhile dystopian sci-fi. The 21st century’s Blade Runner. How’s that?

Looper – at Amazon

 

Ashes (Entertainment One, cert 15, DVD)

Ray Winstone as a hardman with Alzheimer’s – that’s the USP of this unusual gangster thriller also starring Jim Sturgess as Winstone’s son, who busts him out of the clinic and takes him on a road trip for one last hurrah. The whole thing plays like a cross between Rain Man (the trip) and Unforgiven (is Winstone going to recover his mojo and strap the guns back on?). But Ashes has a few twists up its sleeve that certainly got me leaning forwards. Sure, Alzheimer’s as a subject isn’t exactly going to revive the fortunes of Blockbuster but it does allow Winstone to stretch a bit and co-star Jim Sturgess, so out of place as Anne Hathaway’s beau in One Day, is right on the money here too.

Ashes – at Amazon

 

5 Broken Cameras (New Wave, cert E, DVD)

The cameras of the title belong to a Palestinian peasant whose land was cut in two by the Israeli security barrier. We get to see just how they got broken – a bullet is lodged in one, which gives you some idea. A nifty hook on which to hang a documentary and surprisingly the picture it paints of the Israeli army isn’t such a bad one. It’s the Jewish guys in hats and ringlets settling the Palestinian territory who don’t come out of this so well.

5 Broken Cameras – at Amazon

 

Paranorman (Universal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Not to be confused with Frankenweenie, though there’s definitely some Tim Burton in Paranorman somewhere, here’s an animated kiddie-flick in the new Aardman style (CGI pretending to be claymation) about a boy who can see dead people. It takes a hell of a time to get going but then manages a good 40 minutes of fast Roald Dahl-style ghostly fun before heading for the icky ending someone in a suit decreed. If you’re really young, you’ll probably like it.

Paranorman – at Amazon

 

Keep the Lights On (Peccadillo, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

A decade in the relationship of a New York gay couple – from frenzied early coupling, through crack pipes and promiscuity to… well let’s not ruin the ending. It’s a part-autobiography by writer/director Ira Sachs, and like his Forty Shades of Blue it’s got a distinctive tone of voice, is fresh, non-clichéd and very real. Apparently Sachs is doing a film about elderly gay guys next, starring Michael Gambon and Alfred Molina. Should be interesting.

Keep the Lights On – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

Eraserhead

 

 

 

David Lynch’s first full length film was made piecemeal between 1971 and 1977 and is the perfect visual accompaniment to an era obsessed with industrial decay – check out the music of Cabaret Voltaire or Throbbing Gristle for the aural equivalent. It follows a passive, expressionless man with a perpendicular hairstyle through a succession of grim, clanking scenarios back to his home, where his livid girlfriend and their newborn child – a cross between ET and something that might crawl up your urethra and start living in your insides – seem to be waging psychic war on him. Is he schizophrenic? Are we viewing these scenes from inside his mind? Lynch won’t say, never has. But as with so many films Lynch has made since, there appears to be a piece of information missing. If only we knew what it was, everything would make sense. And it’s this voyeuristic straining after the bits we can’t quite see as much as the puzzlement over the bits we can (what’s going on with the radiators in Eraserhead, for example) that has driven Lynch’s best films since, with Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and his last great film, Inland Empire, all eliciting similar murmurs of baffled appreciation. And here, in Eraserhead, is the motherlode.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Eraserhead – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Third Man

 

 

So much is right about the Third Man that could have gone so wrong. Producer David O. Selznick wanted it shot entirely on studio sets. Director Carol Reed disagreed and won, which is why it’s shot on the dank streets of post-war Vienna, a city as overrun with black marketeers as the film suggests. Selznick also wanted Noel Coward to play Harry Lime, the role eventually taken by Orson Welles. Perhaps Coward would have made a good “Third Man”, a shit trading penicillin to the highest bidder and damn the children who die as a consequence. But if Coward had taken the role, there wouldn’t have been the “cuckoo clock” speech, written by Welles, which makes the case that all human achievement is founded on suffering. As to the rest of it, who knows what would have happened once Selznick started getting his way – for the American release he changed Graham Greene’s opening monologue, which does in five minutes of scene-setting what some films can’t manage in an hour. It’s a masterpiece of concision. But then every aspect of the film says “masterpiece” – the writing, the directing, the casting, locations, Anton Karas’s zither score, the cinematography. It’s still regulary voted “Best British film of all time”.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

The Third Man – at Amazon