Mash

Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould

An on-screen statement, put there at the behest of a nervous film studio, claims this film is about the goings-on at a field hospital during the Korean War. That statement apart, this is obviously a film about Vietnam, a war the Americans had already lost at home, if not yet out on the field of battle.

Now, decades later, from the other end of the countercultural telescope, Mash’s relentless portrayal of the military hierarchy as being overrun by charlatans and buffoons seems a bit old hat.

But the director making it had earned the right to his opinion. Robert Altman was a veteran of the Second World War who’d gone on to become a maker of industrial films, exploitation films and TV dramas. Unlike the other hotshot countercultural guys of the early 1970s – Lucas, Spielberg, Bogdanovich etc – Altman was no long-hair. He was 45 when he made Mash and, by the by, he had very little hair at all.

This was his breakout movie and it sent its anti-authoritarian heroes – Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland as the two brilliant army surgeons with specialisms in skirt and the cocktail olive – straight to the A list.

Made in the now-customary but then revolutionary style of laying story upon story, dialogue overlapping all over the place, it drops the audience right into the thick of the action and then lets them work out for themselves what’s going on.

It looks only a touch less naturalistic now than it did in 1970 – very few people are as witty as scriptwriter Ring Lardner Jr makes these guys look – but the brilliance of Altman’s film-making holds up.

Mash – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013


Strong Language

 

 

 

London wunderkind Simon Rumley wrote, produced, directed and probably did the catering on this fantastic debut feature. As an exercise in storytelling it appears to be simplicity itself. Initially it’s little more than testimonies to camera from a bunch of young Londoners as they bang on about money, clubs, drugs, sex, food, drink and Blur (well, it was made in 1998) among other things. Then the stories from the unconnected talking heads start to coalesce and something much more disturbing starts to rear its ugly head. I won’t say more than that about the plot because Strong Language’s ta-daa moment is dramatic in the extreme. Which is not to belittle the acting, which is very street-real, or the film’s construction and editing, both of which are sophisticated and have the nervy energy of a big night out on ecstasy. It is in short a brilliant debut made for buttons and no amount of money could have improved it. Since making it Rumley has failed to kick butt in the way this film suggested he was about to. But he will. It is only a matter of time. At which point everyone will start looking back for evidence of his immense talent. It is here in the zeitgeist-tapping Strong Language, made when London was having another of its “coolest city on earth” moments. And yes, the title is something of a warning for those who have sensitive ears.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Strong Language – at Amazon

 

 

 

Cube

Julian Richings in Cube

 

 

 

Having worked as a storyboard artist on animated series such as Babar and Tintin, Vincenzo Natali was probably not top of the list to make his directorial debut with a sci-fi cult classic. But that’s what he did with Cube, a clean pure piece of sci-fi that could almost be said to have created a genre, the Aseptic White Room Thriller. See Duncan Jones’s Moon, for another classic of the genre. Cube riffs on Jean Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, throwing a jailbird, a maths genius, a cop, a doc, a cynic and an autistic guy together inside a hi-tech, homicidal, claustrophobic cube comprising interlocking sliding parts – think Jenga with anger issues. None of this motley gang knows how they got there, where they are, or how they’re going to get out. But what seems to become increasingly apparent is that they either hang together, or hang separately. It’s an elegant set-up and no amount of slack acting, diabolical script or one-ply characterisation can knock this simple but ingenious film off course. “Hell is other people” is Sartre’s most quoted line from Huis Clos (usually translated as No Exit). Natali points out that other people are the route to salvation too.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Cube – at Amazon

 

 

 

Sexy Beast

Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast

 

 

 

A simple story from first-time feature director Jonathan Glazer – an advertising hotshot who directed the famous Guinness “surfing horses” advert . It’s all about a retired tealeaf (make sure your dictionary of rhyming slang is beside you) being forced into one last job back in Blighty (as Brits of a certain vintage mock-affectionately call the UK). And right from its opening moments, featuring a glistening Ray Winstone in ludicrous yellow trunks flat out beside a Spanish swimming pool, Sexy Beast feels like a slice of your actual quality. The film is deliciously short but the pacing is so luxuriously slow and self-confident that initial groans – Oh God, not more Brit gangsters – just die unvented. And as for the performances… well, Winstone is, as always, the daddy. But wait till you see Ben Kingsley as the psychotic henchman sent to frighten Winstone off the Costa Del Crime and back to London. Is it Kingsley’s character that’s off the scale, or just his performance? – no one can quite decide. Sexy Beast did well in the UK but even better in the US. Quite simply it makes other Britcrim contenders of the time look like boys sent to do a man’s job.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Sexy Beast – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Dancer in the Dark

Björk and Catherine Deneuve in Dancer in the Dark

 

 

 

Is it “Unique” (CNN), “Heartbreaking” (The Independent), “Riveting” (Radio Times)? Or, perhaps, “Ludicrous” (Daily Mail), “Numbing” (Salon.com) or “Grim” (TV Guide)? Lars Von Trier’s low-rent, grainy tale of the Czech immigrant in the USA who is losing her sight, made according to the minimalist Dogme manifesto, won the Palme D’Or at the 2000 Cannes film festival. And even there fighting almost broke out in the audience.

What got everyone’s goat was Von Trier’s decision to couple his muddy shakeycam style to the most velour of Hollywood genres – the musical – and to cast the coolest of Euro sophisticats, Catherine Deneuve, as a factory worker. Adding to this deliberate provocation is the singing of elfin popsqueak Björk, which has always split the jury.

It is entirely typical of Von Trier to set out on a bold experiment and to try to work his way out of the box he’s put himself in – remember the “slaves love their masters” message of Manderlay, or Melancholia, definitely the most downbeat “end of the world” movie ever made. Remember also that Von Trier made a documentary in 2003 called The Five Obstructions, a challenge to his friend Jørgen Leth, to remake his film The Perfect Human five times, each time with a different obstruction of Von Trier’s devising.

That’s what we have here. The grit in the oyster of the artistic process. But does it produce a pearl?

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Dancer in the Dark – at Amazon

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Jesus’ Son

Samantha Morton and Billy Crudup in Jesus' Son

 

 

The son in question is played by Billy Crudup, a near schizo drug user on a no-brain road to nowhere. But never mind Crudup, wait till you see the performance by Samantha Morton. When she was cast in Sweet And Lowdown, Woody Allen’s uncharacteristically misogynist film, Allen had her playing a mute. Even so, she stole the film from under Sean Penn’s chiselled cheeks. Here it’s brave Crudup who’s standing too close to the flame. She plays the girlfriend, a hopeless smack-happy, grinning, winsome and overwhelmingly simpatico partner to FH (Crudup, who at the time seemed to be on the brink of something big). Together they bounce from balls-up to self-inflicted distress, shooting up all the way. If that sounds glum, be reassured, Jesus’ Son has its funny scenes too, hilariously funny at times. It also gets the early 1970s period about right and the support players are strong – Jack Black, Will Patton, Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary. But back to Morton, who is so good there’s the suspicion that someone upstairs decided that to keep the focus on the star she’s going to have to be struck dumb – hot dang, someone already did that. So instead Morton is killed off at around the halfway and point and the film immediately starts behaving slightly like a car that’s had the air let out of its tyres. It’s worth the ride before and after the jump.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Jesus’ Son – at Amazon

 

 

 

Snatch

Jason Statham and Brad Pitt in Snatch

 

 

Two years after Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie returned with a film that looked, felt and almost smelt the same. Except this time around the story is about bare-knuckle fighting and diamond heists, and Brad Pitt (for the ladies) is playing an Irish tinker, just one of a number of silly ethnic stereotypes, which include Russian gangsters, Jewish jewellers and  a Turkish boxing promoter called Turkish (played by Jason Statham, one minute before he launched his action hero career). Lock Stock traded in the same currency, you’ll remember. As well as Pitt, Snatch is studded with other non-British actors, such as Benicio Del Toro and Dennis Farina. Nevertheless it often feels closer to British comedies of the 1970s – The Confessions of… series or the On the Buses films – though you suspect that Ritchie thinks he’s walking in Tarantino’s shadow. Suck down the flash-harry camerawork and cheeky-chappie humour because the storytelling isn’t much to shout about and Ritchie’s politics are working hard at playing to the lads’ gallery – not very progressive. In spite of those shortcomings, most of which Ritchie would probably shrug off as deliberate or minor, Snatch has managed to pull off something far more outrageous than Madonna’s bra (you have to think your way back to the 1990s to find that line in any way amusing). It takes the most famous twisted British archetype – Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney in Mary Poppins –  feeds him on steroids and foul language and then stuffs him right back down the nation’s insatiable gannet-like throats. And how they – the lads, anyway – loved it. Most of the women were too busy reflecting on Pitt’s physique in the boxing sequence to notice.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 Snatch – at Amazon

 

 

 

The 13th Warrior

Antonio Banderas

 

 

A real proper old-fashioned Sunday afternoon film – epic in intention, ludicrous in execution. Considered to be unwatchable when it was test-screened, it was partially recast, rescored and reshot – by Michael Crichton, writer of the original book, who took over from John McTiernan, his Die Hard and Predator experience counting, apparently, for nothing. Crichton’s intervention doesn’t save it. Perhaps nothing could. Perhaps it was jinxed by the presence of Omar Sharif, an adornment of so many terrible films of a similar sort in days of yore. Or by his Nineties successor, Antonio Banderas. It’s an adaptation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf and Banderas plays Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan, a Muslim banished to the Nordic wastes for flashing his kohl-rimmed eyes at the wrong woman. Having been received by the oafish, drunken Vikings, he learns their language in a trice and is soon taking part in raiding parties, pulling on his sandals and strapping on chainmail with the best of them. Eventually this palls and so everyone heads off on a dragon-killing quest. Ahmed’s new chums, a sort of multinational Norse eleven – with guest turns from familiar Scottish and Irish bit-players – are all manly men and immensely likeable. The film is too, at some level, and has the sort of disregard for historical accuracy that we expect, and even demand, from Hollywood. The sword-on-sword action is probably McTiernan’s rather than Crichton’s work but neither director seems to have had much luck getting a performance from Banderas, who does little more than stand around looking moody. As for Sharif, he hated the film so much he threatened to give up acting, until wiser counsel (probably his accountant) prevailed. Does this not sound unmissable?

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The  13th Warrior – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

House on Haunted Hill

Geoffrey Rush in House on Haunted Hill

 

 

When you buy a Bentley – as you do – you’re not looking for a holographic dashboard, an in-car virtual chauffeur, or an ejector seat. You want walnut and leather everywhere. The same is true of some horror movies. House on Haunted Hill was originally directed in 1958 by William Castle, the man who fitted cinemas seats with buzzers, had skeletons drop from the ceiling. Castle was – in the best sense of the word, a horrible man. In 1958 wonderful Vincent Price was the star. In 1999 for this remake it’s the magnificent Geoffrey Rush – as a crazy millionaire called Price – complete with pencil moustache, cravat and lop-sided leer. The plot is familiar too. Some variously disposable young people attempt to stay all night in the spooky mansion, hoping to win $1 million if they do. They nearly all die. It’s a sleek, swishing and curiously well made film and apart from Rush’s character name being a nod to the original star there’s no irony, no Scream-style self-reference and, let’s be honest, no scares. But then House on Haunted Hill isn’t really a horror film – it’s a bespoke hand-tooled homage.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

House on Haunted Hill – at Amazon