Black Rock

Lake Bell, Kate Bosworth and Katie Aselton in Black Rock

 

 

Three young women are chased around an island by three crazed ex-soldier guys in Katie Aselton’s boo-goes-there horror story which would slot nicely into the big book of feminist films if it weren’t for the gratuitous (oh come on) nudity.

Not that there’s anything wrong with god-given nakedness. But back to the film. Directed by Aselton and co-written with her partner, Mark Duplass, Black Rock takes three old schoolfriends, Aselton, Lake Bell and Katie Bosworth, sends them off to a remote island they used to visit as kids, but not before pointing out that one of the three did something bad with another of the trio’s boyfriend some years back, and that the wound is still suppurating.

Out on the island, the girls (“women” doesn’t seem quite right; “ladies” definitely not) bump into three ex-army guys, one of whom is a vague friend of a friend. But things go from uneasily friendly to extremely nasty in a short time after a bit of booze, some unwise campfire flirting with one of the soldiers, a rape attempt and retaliation in the form of a big lethal rock to the skull.

The other two guys – we have just learnt that they got dishonourable discharges for some seriously nasty shit out in Afghanistan – decides for justice in the form of death.

But I’m telling you the plot when what all you want to know about is the nudity. Well, you could say that it is justified by the story Aselton is telling, since two of the girls have swum out to a boat, failed to get into it and are now back on dry land in wet clothes and the quickest way to get warm is… take your clothes off?

Does it last long? No. Does it matter? Maybe, because though Aselton is a good actress (though her showing in The Puffy Chair is all I’m going on) I’m not sure about her as a director.

But she’s competent enough for a cat-and-mouse thriller that flirts with themes of sex, power and violence – Should women be able to cocktease for ever and get away with it? Is sex a form of power that women use over women too? – only to abandon them as the film slides into its final third.

Director Aselton moves things along briskly, gets decent “girls together” performances from her cast and knows how to squeeze atmosphere from a restless camera, minimal rig and a soundtrack of strings and washy synths.

But I’m not sure it’ll be remembered for any of those things, so much as being the film in which a female director asked her cast to get naked because the script strictly demanded it.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Black Rock – at Amazon

 

 

A Trip to the Moon

The famous moon landing in Georges Méliès's A Trip to the Moon
 
 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

1 September

Generally speaking I’m going to choose historical events rather than movie events as a peg off which to hang the Film of the Day. But today is the first one so why not make an exception?

Debut Screening by George Méliès of A Trip to the Moon, 1902

On this day in 1902, the great showman, illusionist and restless inventor George Méliès gave the first showing of Le Voyage dans la Lune. It was the Star Wars of its day and a huge international hit. If it wasn’t the first sci-fi film ever made, it was, along with the Parisian’s other films, one of the first. It can also claim to be one of the first special effects movies. And on top of that it was also the first work to be designated as a World Heritage film by Unesco.

 

 

A Trip to the Moon (1902, dir: Georges Méliès)

Méliès took the basic idea from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (a gun club shoot a spaceship at the moon) and mixed it with HG Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (when they get there they find a highly civilised society) and turned it into a 17-minute feast of colour (hand-tinted), drama and special effects. Regardless of whether or not you think it still stands up, the image of the capsule hitting the Moon square in the eye is iconic – and the capsule itself strongly prefigures Nasa’s, which wouldn’t be designed for more than 50 years. Martin Scorsese drew heavily on the story of Méliès for his 2011 film Hugo, casting Ben Kingsley as Méliès.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Completely iconic – and Méliès’s most famous film
  • Genre movie-making, sci-fi movies and grandiose special effects films start here
  • It’s the film that sent Méliès bankrupt (after Edison copied it, made a fortune and wouldn’t pay any royalties)
  • This is what Scorsese was getting so excited about when he made Hugo

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

A Trip to the Moon (restoration of the hand-tinted version) – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

2 September 2013-09-02

Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson in Gimme the Loot

 

 

 

Gimme the Loot (Soda, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A debut movie by writer/director Adam Leon, someone with something to say, Gimme the Loot is appropriately about two black kids (skin colour is an issue) who do a lot of talking as they wander around a present-day New York like Belmondo and Seberg once wandered through Paris in A Bout de Souffle. Do not be put off by reference to the French New Wave, I’m just trying to say Gimme the Loot is energetic, fresh, nervy, in love with the idea of youth, full of lip and very hip. Reinforcing the idea is the soundtrack – cool 60s R&B, soul, jazz. And it’s about the have-nots making up for what they don’t have with what they do have – sass, style, sex. Starring Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson, the plot has something to say too – he meets a moneyed white girl (Zoë Lescaze, excellent) and comes away short-changed, she has similar low-scale adventures, until they both meet up for what looks like an extended flirt, a tease, an introduction to the idea that they might be in love but have spent their lives so trying to verbally outgun each other that they don’t quite know how to broach the subject. What a refreshing and lovely film.

 

Gimme the Loot – at Amazon

 

 

Star Trek Into Darkness (Paramount, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/VOD)

I loved the first of the Star Trek reboots – Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto and the whole damn crew doing their best Shatner/Nimoy etc while JJ Abrams sculpted a throbbing space adventure from the DNA of an exhausted franchise. This time, for reasons I don’t understand, Abrams is playing to the geek gallery, not realising that geeks don’t need playing to – they’ll make phasers from chicken bones. And worse than that he’s remade The Wrath of Khan, a seriously dull film not made any better this time round by the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan – that’s more Sherlockian nodding towards the geeks. Things to love include Pine’s continuing mad Shatner impersonation, Karl Urban’s even better Bones “Are you out of your cornfed mind?” McCoy and some big money special effects sequences out in space. Much as I love Simon Pegg I don’t love the way his Mr Scott wanders off accent – he cannae take it, it seems – nor am I particularly aroused by Abrams handing out a storyline to every single one of the familiar crew members, like a movie that cost this much money was some elementary school prizegiving. Looks like this franchise is going the way of the last one.

 

Star Trek Into Darkness – at Amazon

 

Blackfish (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

What happens when you take an “amazingly friendly” killer whale and lock it up in an oceanarium, confine it by night, force it to do stupid tricks for fish? In the case of Tilikum, the orca in Blackfish, it becomes a killer whale, literally. The brilliance of this documentary lies in the measured way that director Gabriela Cowperthwaite goes about assembling her evidence – she talks to guys who first caught orcas off the coast of California about 40 years ago, she talks to previous owners of Tilikum, who knew he was a killer, she talks a good number of ex-trainers at Seaworld Orlando, which is where Tilikum finally lost the plot and set about eating his bright, committed trainer, Dawn Brancheau. And Cowperthwaite knows how to structure drama – from 911 phone call replayed over the opening scene, when the operator is told that an orca has eaten a trainer and is simply stunned into silence, we are gripped. Moral: the animals don’t like being there, they’re not engaged in valuable scientific research – let them go.

 

Blackfish – at Amazon

 

Love Is All You Need (Arrow, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The ageing populations of Western Europe need their own romantic comedies, ones that reflect the pantechnicons of baggage that come with any midlife relationship. Enter Pierce Brosnan, still in ladykilling form as a wealthy grieving widower. And from the other side the delightful (and unknown to me until now) Trine Dyrholm as a love-damaged hairdresser who has no hair, thanks to recent chemotherapy. Nice. The original title in Danish translates as The Bald Hairdresser and tells us two things – first, that the Scandinavians have a much less mimsy way with words, and second, that the film is in Danish. Even Pierce Brosnan utters the odd word in “foreign”, as the action transfers from the cool north to sun-drenched Italy, where the romantic, comedic action plays out against the prospective wedding of his son and her daughter. Subtitle-phobes needn’t worry, the film switches frequently into English and the busy action, charming performances and great support acting means you’ll hardly notice. Susanne Bier’s film is much like a wedding, in fact – not necessarily everyone’s idea of a great day out but a lot of messy chaotic fun once you’re there.

 

Love Is All You Need – at Amazon

 

Mud (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Time to see Matthew McConaughey being acted off the screen by a pair of kids. Everyone, in fact, is outdone by the two young stars of Mud (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland – stars of the future), a kind of Huckleberry Finn meets Beasts of the Southern Wild drama set in Arkansas and revolving around a pair of lads and their relationship with some weird, though charming hobo (McConaughey), who may or may not be dangerous. Reese Witherspoon turns up, playing the charmer’s cockteasing lost love, lending the production the patina of class. And also suggesting that Mud is a movie for adults. It isn’t really, it’s for kids, the 12 certificate in the UK (PG-13 in the US) just about right for what is basically a primer in the ugly stuff that adults get up to. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, whose “storm’s coming” psychodrama Take Shelter is highly rated in some quarters, this is a flavoursome, folksy coming of age entertainment but at 130 minutes it’s a good 20 minutes too long.

 

Mud – at Amazon

 

What Doesn’t Kill You (Signature, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A movie that’s been sitting on the shelf since 2008, presumably because there were just too many Goodfella wannabe movies lining up for release. Which is what this is, being about two guys from Boston who become very small cogs in a low-rent local gangster operation – extortion, mostly – and what happens to them. So, in plot terms, nothing to see here. The acting is worth a watch though, since it’s Ethan Hawke and Mark Ruffalo, each goading the other to be better (and succeeding) and the MO is interesting too, since what we’re mostly doing is following these two dim bulbs as they walk and talk (mumble, in fact, subtitles useful) around the neighbourhood, edging further and further into Palookaville.

 

What Doesn’t Kill You – at Amazon

 

The Little Mermaid (Disney, cert U, Blu-ray)

1989’s The Little Mermaid is seen as marking the beginning of Disney’s renaissance, though there have been a few of those. To my aged eyes it has all the hallmarks of everything that’s wrong with Disney – the interchangeable bland handsome prince, the whining heroine who wants, how she wants, something (legs, in this case), the comedy sidekick animals, which, in The Little Mermaid, every single main character is equipped with. And Alan Menken’s songs (this was his first Disney), which might work on Broadway, where singing to the back of the room is a necessity, but just seem a bit declamatory and box-tickingly diverse in their musical styles. All that apart, there are some lovely visual sequences in here, which mostly happen when the story is shunted into the background and the animation teams are issued with a “vamp moodily” instruction, at which point the Disney of old – of the forest in Snow White, the flying elephants of Dumbo – comes to the fore. The good stuff. I can’t say much about the restoration, it looks fine, bright and crisp – does old-fashioned 2D animation really need that much restoration? Will the target audience, under 10s, really care?

 

The Little Mermaid – at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

 

Renaissance

Barthélémy Karas, as voiced by Daniel Craig, in the Anglophone version of Renaissance

 

 

 

Daniel Craig, Romola Garai, Ian Holm, Catherine McCormack and Jonathan Pryce? That’s quite a cast and it’s just for starters. And for a French anime-style sci-fi too, the “French” bit being the clue that the names are actually here to revoice Gallic product for Anglophone consumption. What they’re lending their voices to looks interesting though, a futuristic story about a kidnapped geneticist (Garai) who turns out to have the key to immortality. The USP of Renaissance is its look – the actors have all been motion-captured, then converted to the harshest black and white renditions of themselves.

This is unusual though hardly revolutionary: as a technique it can be traced back to Walt Disney’s Snow White, at least, and that was the 1930s. But whereas Disney used motion capture to render colour, nuance, shadow, movement, director Christian Volckman’s decision to go chiaroscuro robs his film of visual subtlety, background detail and even deprives the film of the expression on the actors’ faces – which is about 90 per cent of the reason for booking them in the first place, surely (this is not the place to discuss the hiring of “names” as voice talent in modern Disney productions, apart from to say it’s dubious).

I’m not denying the initial power of this visual look – for its opening sequences, up on the big screen, it is breathtaking to look at, to gaze upon, as Sin City was. But, as with Sin City, the look soon starts to feel like a gimmick. As for the screenplay – it is as flat as Tuesday in February, a collection of tough-guy clichés wrapped around a handful of scenes of gunplay, carplay, even foreplay (don’t get too excited). The idea is a graphic novel treatment of a film noir idea, Volckman and crew having made the mistake of thinking that noir – visually, morally – is all about the black and white whereas the good ones at least are really much more interested in what lies between.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Renaissance – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Cars

Lightning McQueen in Cars

 

 

Have the wheels come off at Pixar? Mawkishness now seems to have replaced energy and invention at the studio that… no hang on, this is the studio that once gave us Toy Story. Let’s not get carried away. But if Pixar have been known for anything it’s their ability to run sentiment and energy on a twin track, the result being a film with heart and drive. The plot of Cars suggests they’ve forgotten how to do this – we’re on the case of a self-centred hotshot racing car (voice: Owen Wilson) who loses his way and gets stuck in Radiator Springs, a small town where the good locals (all of whom are cars) teach him to love others and himself. Then, spiritually refreshed, he goes off and becomes a champ. Because that’s how champs are made, right?

I can’t believe that Pixar set out to make a film with something missing, but bizarrely that’s the theme of Cars too – our champ has lost his soul, he winds up in a town that’s lost its reason for existence (since it was bypassed by Route 66), where he finds a whole bunch of vintage vehicles (old tow truck, old VW Beetle, old Jeep and so on) who are all missing their youth.

Let’s not be too gloomy. The animation in Cars is quite amazing, the racing scenes show how far Pixar have come since they started making little films purely to demo software and there’s a glorious use of colour – reds in particular seem to bounce off the screen. Kids probably won’t care that it’s Paul Newman voicing veteran race car Doc Hudson, and they probably won’t be looking out for John Ratzenberger’s bits (he’s been in all the Pixars to date, I believe) or the tiny cameos by the voices of Michael Schumacher and Mario Andretti. But these little nuggets might keep their parents from checking their watch too often in a film that has the looks, the technique but seems to prefer preaching to storytelling.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

Cars – at Amazon

 

 

 

Miami Vice

Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in Miami Vice

 

 

So masculine it could be used an infertility treatment, Michael Mann’s feature length Miami Vice actually tells the same story that eventually ground down the TV series – Crockett (now Colin Farrell, then Don Johnson) and Tubbs (now Jamie Foxx, then Philip Michael Thomas) go undercover with a drugs gang, get so deep they’re not sure which way they’re facing any more, then refind themselves before screaming towards a guns-blazing finale, designer clothes looking immaculate. Built from what look like a series of high-end international aftershave adverts showcasing the very pinnacle of fast living, it is an out and out exercise in cool glamour. So was the 1980s TV series, of course, but Mann (who produced but never directed any of the TV series) seems out to show everyone concerned that this is how you do it.

“Maximum chromatic saturation” is how Mann describes the look. Full on, might be another. And it applies across the board. Gong Li puts on the stoniest of faces as the implacable villain, while the dialogue is either spat out at whipcrack speed, mumbled in that too-cool-to-enunciate way, or yelled. No one just speaks. Now take all that – the clothes, the guns, the guys, Gong Li, the unnatural vocal styling, then put some shades on it and throw it into a speed boat bouncing across the waves towards a Ferrari 430 Spider, all to a slinky electropop soundtrack. Everything in this film hums, seethes and purrs. It is a hell of an exercise in mood management. It’s so great, in fact, that you’ll hardly notice there’s no real plot.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

Miami Vice – at Amazon

 

 

 

Three Times

Shu Qi and Chang Chen in Three Times

 

 

 

Shu Qi and Chang Chen are the actors playing three different sets of lovers, in 1911, 1966 and 2005, in this unusually  beautiful film from director Hou Hsiao-hsien. All three stories take place in Taiwan and focus on love in different manifestations – love in its glorious first flush, love thwarted, and love carnal – to show how milieu and mores affect what is usually seen as an immutable, timeless emotion. In 1911 a republican activist gets caught up in the world of a concubine. In 1966 a military conscript falls for a hostess at a pool hall. In 2005 a photographer loses his heart to a singer. Hou places the 1911 story in the middle, in an approximation of a silent movie, a perfect form for the expression of love thwarted, unexpressed, held back. The other two more active, expressive stories act as bookends. All are beautifully observed and Hou makes no attempt to link them thematically. But they do all feature the same central actors, which does the work for him.

And that’s all there is to Three Times… love. It’s an oddly head-on way to treat a topic that provides the thematic meat for about 50 per cent of all movies. In fact you could almost see the whole love business as incidental, a string on which to hang period detail, production design and cinematography. Because if there is something that really makes this film stand out, apart from the beauty of actress Shu Qi, is its gorgeousness. Almost any second could be screengrabbed and stuck in Vogue. How strange that we don’t get to see more of Mr Hou in the West.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

Three Times – at Amazon

 

 

The Alibi

Steve Coogan and Rebecca Romijn in Lies and Alibis aka The Alibi

 

 

Also known as Lies and Alibis, this is one of those “who’s zooming who” comic thrillers – a bit of Tarantino dialogue, some swish Soderbergh camerawork, a twisty LA Confidential-ish plot. And Steve Coogan’s in it too. Yes, that does seem like a slightly odd casting decision – a Brit actor best known in the UK for his portrayal of gauche local DJ Alan Partridge. As with the best Coogan performances there’s a touch of Partridge in his portrayal of Ray Elliot, the head of a company which provides alibis for players in the game of sexual infidelity. Ray’s only rule is that his company won’t provide an alibi if a crime has been committed. A rule he keeps to faithfully until the son (James Marsden) of a very wealthy client (Josh Brolin) accidentally overdoes the erotic asphyxiation and kills a girl. Ray must now make the problem disappear, and the film starts its slide from light comedy to frantic caper.

Against Coogan’s British diffidence we have some very confident, megaphone even, American performances from a surprisingly mixed cast including Rebecca Romijn, Deborah Kara Unger, Henry Rollins and Selma Blair. Go further down the cast list and there’s John Leguizamo, Jaime King and Sam Elliott, so somebody at some point thought they had something on their hands. While there’s lots to like here, particularly the performances, the movie lacks the confidence of its initial premise. So as Ray finds himself increasingly out of his depth, wouldn’t you know it but his past life comes back to bite him in the ass too. Maybe Noah Hawley’s screenplay is aiming for complexity – a delicious Usual Suspects kind of vibe. What it achieves as we dash towards the finish line is a lot of running around and shouting – a farce, in other words.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

The Alibi – at Amazon

 

 

Neil Young: Heart of Gold

Neil Young on stage in Jonathan Demme's Heart of Gold

 

 

Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads film, Stop Making Sense, is one of the best concert documentaries ever made. Now he’s done the same favour for Neil Young, who was just recovering from a brain aneurysm when he delivered this two-part country set in Nashville. The title itself is something of a misnomer, or a hard sell (take your pick) since the first part of the concert is Young’s Prairie Wind album in its totality. It’s only in part two that Young gets the back catalogue out, mostly songs from Harvest, After the Gold Rush and Harvest Moon, his slight return to the acoustic-y banjo-y style of Harvest.

As with Stop Making Sense Demme starts slow, not with the empty stage/boombox this time but right up close, with lots of yellow filtration, the age written on the musicians’ faces being Demme’s focus, this being a look back from the mountain top at the path ascended. Young is also in reflective mood, as you might be if you’d been on an operating table only recently, and in confessional mood too – he owns up to being a country guy, admitting that he used to think of himself as a bit of a hippie (like it was some dark chapter in his life), and how, as soon as he earned enough money, he bought a farm. See, country. Hence the importance of Hank Williams’s guitar, which he now owns, and which Young spends quite a bit of time talking about on stage, in almost mystical terms. Between these bits of stage chat we meet members of the band, who seem to genuinely love the boss, then it’s back to the stage. There’s no point pretending that Young looks like the handsome, rangy guy he did in his youth. He doesn’t, in fact he looks like a seedcorn salesman.

But his looks are entirely appropriate. This is a folksy, unashamedly sentimental, nostalgic event, with Young telling stories of dads and daughters, the old times, the folly of youth. It is very poignant. As for the music, it is note perfect, with Emmylou Harris pitching in on backing vocals, helping the likes of pedal-steel king Ben Keith turn what could have been a run-through of familiar songs into an evening of lush, almost agonising sweetness. Yes, I’m a Young fan, but I’d never have expected that watching him on film would bring a tear to the eye.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

Neil Young: Heart of Gold – at Amazon

 

 

 

Enemy at the Gates

Jude Law takes aim in Enemy at the Gates

 

 

Here’s a mixed bag of European war movie that is trying to be Saving Private Ryan in its impressive opening scenes, but looks as if it realises it doesn’t have the budget and so scales back the action to concentrate on two lone snipers. One German, one Russian. It’s set during the battle of Stalingrad, in which more than two million people died – yes, two million – and so the decision makes some logistical sense, even if it shortchanges the Russians and their epic level of sacrifice. The fact that it does that is what got the goat of a lot of historians masquerading as film critics, who suggested that the film mocks the memory of the fallen. But wars are won by many individual acts of selflessness, which is where Jude Law, playing a Russian peasant, and Ed Harris, as a German aristocrat called König, come in. Both are expert marksmen, the former learnt to shoot to protect his flocks from wolves, the latter hunting deer on his estate. So as each tries to get the other guy in his sights in the burnt out and bombed out buildings of a once great city, we have a good-guy-versus-bad-guy story (the Russians being, unusually for an English-speaking war film, the goodies), a story where the antagonism is class-based, and a further one, if we’re looking really hard, that’s survival versus fun, perhaps even nature versus nurture.

Do we need a love story too? Because on top of this fascinating mano a mano struggle director Annaud (who is producer, director and co-writer) straps a romance, presumably in the hope of turning Enemy at the Gates into a date movie. Enter Rachel Weisz as a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s madness who becomes the apex of a love triangle between our Vassili (Law) and Commisar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) a party apparatchik who is turning reports on Vassili’s marksmanship into mood-bolstering propaganda. The answer to the “do we need a love story” question is no, of course, and it is to an extent the undoing of a film that is absolutely at its best when concentrating on the cat and mouse between slightly feral Vassili and König, his lordly nemesis.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Enemy at the Gates – at Amazon