Downfall

Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler in Downfall

 

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

 

 

1 October

 

 

Nazi leaders sentenced at the Nuremberg Trials, 1946

On the afternoon of this day in 1946, the individual sentences were read out at the conclusion of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. The defendants were all political and military leaders of the Third Reich, and were charged with a) crimes against peace, b) planning and waging wars of aggression, c) war crimes and d) crimes against humanity. Several notable Nazis were not present – Adolf Hitler, Martin Boorman, Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels. Three were already known to be dead; it was assumed Boorman was still alive. He was tried in his absence, was found guilty and sentenced to death. (In fact he was dead; his remains were found in 1972). Others who received the death penalty included Hermann Göring, Alfred Jodl, Joachim Ribbentrop and Julius Streicher. Other notables such as Rudolf Hess, Karl Dönitz and Albert Speer received prison sentences. Yet others (Hans Fritzsche, Franz Von Papen and Hjalmar Schacht) were acquitted. Though there had been war trials at the end of the First World War, the Nuremberg trials marked the first time that international powers presumed to act as the arbiter of justice. Great pains were taken that there shouldn’t be any accusation that this was a show trial – the defendants were all offered lawyers, were supplied with translators, and the trials took place with all the traditional outward trappings of justice. It is a process that has been repeated on signicant occasions since, most notably after the Balkan wars and the genocide in Rwanda.

 

 

Downfall (2004, dir: Oliver Hirschbiegel)

Downfall is based on the reminiscences of Hitler’s secretary, a young woman with the lovely name of Traudl Junge, who we actually glimpse for real as an old woman at the end of the film, all “who me?” wide eyes and “we didn’t know” rationale. It’s an appropriate appearance because at least 50 per cent of Downfall is about the German people’s complicity in the crimes of their government and how much guilt they should carry for them. The rest of it is about the last days of Hitler, down in the bunker as the Soviets approach, the whump whump of incoming ordnance terrifying loud and effective (this is definitely a film for the sub-woofer). It’s Youtube-famous for all the frothing that the brilliant Bruno Ganz does as the Führer, spittingly furious about everything and promoting reluctant generals to mastermind the final defence of Berlin while everything comes crashing down and the sensible are edging towards the emergency exit. Everyone in this aberrant-looking gang knows the game is up, but how do you tell a man this angry? Angry, but not insane. One of the many brilliant things that director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s breakthrough film does, which sets it apart from so many other war films, is to present the Nazi idea as the Nazis saw it – a positive plan for a sunny future, once the nasty problem of the Jews (and everyone else who stands in its way) has been taken care of. It sells Nazism as a positive, as it must have been sold to the German populace and everyone who could be loosely termed its power base. So Hitler is not portrayed as a madman, nor are his henchmen. In fact the scene where Mr and Mrs Goebbels set about the final solution for their own children, rather than live in a world without National Socialism, is touching, heartbreaking even. In the figure of Mrs Goebbels (a tough role for Corinna Harfouch) we have a normal woman led up an awful avenue by an off-kilter belief system. The film is full of such human touches – an attempt to have a drinks party while the ceilings shake, Hitler getting married to Eva Braun and being asked by the registrar, as part of the formal procedure, whether he has any Jewish blood. Normal people gone wrong, now rats in corner, led there by their own actions and decisions. The effect is quietly devastating.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The first German film about Hitler for 50 years
  • Bruno Ganz, a formidable performance that’s once-seen, never-forgotten
  • One of the most thoughtful films about German responsibility for Nazi atrocities
  • Because it’s better than The Sea Inside – which beat it to Best Foreign Language Oscar

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Downfall – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Lodger

Ivor Novello in The Lodger

 

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

 

 

30 September

 

 

Jack the Ripper Kills Twice, 1888

On this day in 1888, the London serial killer known as Jack the Ripper killed two women, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes. Stride had had her throat cut; Eddowes had also had her throat cut, part of her nose was missing, her right earlobe was hanging off and she had had her abdomen cut open and one kidney had been removed. They were victims number three and four of a five-kill run that had started on 31 August and run its course by 9 November of the same year. The Ripper’s identity was never revealed, which ruins the “he wants to be caught” theorising of any number of films and TV shows about serial killers. The novelist Patricia Cornwell has come to the conclusion in her Portrait of a Killer that the killer was the artist Walter Sickert, based on DNA evidence and Sickert’s interest in depicting naked women, in particular in his lurid painting The Camden Town Murder. However the field remains open, with a variety of names in the frame, in particular surgeons, on account of the Ripper’s accurate way with a knife, especially considering he was killing and eviscerating women mostly outdoors, on the hoof, at speed. Nor are we entirely sure that Stride was a victim, and there might have been an earlier victim not included in the canonical tally. However we look at it, it was a short reign of fear and, for a serial killer, a not particularly prolific one. In truth the reputation of the Ripper rests on something else – the development of a vibrant press, selling to a population that was increasingly literate (particularly since the 1870 Education Act). In fact one theory now asserts that the first letter claiming to have been written by Jack the Ripper was in fact penned by a journalist.

 

 

The Lodger (1927, dir: Alfred Hitchcock)

A mysterious man checks into a boarding house on a dark, foggy London night. Meanwhile, out on the streets someone called the Avenger is brutally killing blondes. Is it our mystery man? Does he have designs on the blonde daughter of the landlady? Within minutes Alfred Hitchcock, in the film that announced his breakthrough, has us hooked. The famous singer Ivor Novello plays the Lodger, a tall, dark and slightly effete man, Novello is ideal casting as the queer cove who might not be what he says he is. A notable film in many ways, not least because it’s Hitchcock’s first thriller, The Lodger is clearly the work of a director struggling against the constraints of the silent film, using everything to hand – newspapers, teleprinters, neon signs outside – to convey information in ways other than the dreaded intertitle. This “show don’t tell” approach would stand Hitchcock in good stead in his later career. But he’s also deploying a tactic he would use again and again – telling us just enough to get us onside as co-conspirators (we know stuff the film’s characters don’t) yet just withholding enough to keep us guessing. So is the lodger the killer? Is the lovely Daisy (June Tripp, billed simply as “June”) with the more straightforwardly masculine policeman boyfriend going to end up dead? This isn’t perfect Hitchcock, there is an awful lot of theatricality on display, but it is remarkable how quickly and efficiently Hitchcock gets his story going, and it’s also amazing how much of his mature work is already here, in embryo. There’s even a cameo by the man himself. Look out for him in the newspaper office.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Hitchcock’s first real “Hitchcock” film
  • Some beautiful expressionist montage work, hot from Hitchcock’s visit to Germany
  • Its kick of dark sexual criminality
  • If you’re lucky, you’re watching the restored version by the Scorsese Foundation and the British Film Institute with original colour tinting

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Lodger – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

La Dolce Vita

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita

 

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

 

 

29 September

 

 

Anita Ekberg born, 1931

On this day in 1931, Kerstin Anita Marianne Ekberg was born, in Malmö, Sweden. A model in her teens, Ekberg was Miss Sweden by the age of 19 and had a contract with Universal studios shortly afterwards. Howard Hughes, a keen student of the female form (or lecher, according to your viewpoint), and then owner of the RKO studio, was also keen on exploiting her talents, but Ekberg preferred to go horse-riding and take part in the sort of stunts that starlets in the 1950s got up to. More often seen in a bikini, or falling out of one, in a publicity shot than in an actual film studio, Ekberg was linked to a string of big showbiz names (Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power), but only managed to star in a series of lacklustre films, including Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin’s last film together, Hollywood or Bust, in which she played the Bust. She was the latest, and in some ways purest, of the blonde bombshells, who gained the appellation not because of their explosive figures – though that helps – but because bomb casings have a distinctive bustlike shape (in the minds of comicbook artists at least). Reductive though it is, it is entirely appropriate for Ekberg’s appearance in her most famous film, La Dolce Vita, a last hurrah made when her career was already on the slide. After which… The Alphabet Murders, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, and a string of even less memorable films.

 

 

La Dolce Vita (1960, dir: Federico Fellini)

Though you’d never have guessed it listening to the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, the 1960s belonged, in terms of cool and cultural impact, to music. Even so, there is some claim to be made that it was La Dolce Vita that ushered the decade in. Fellini’s film about the move from high to low culture, the arrival of the attention-deficit mindset, the abandonment of the avant-garde in favour of genre, it’s all here in La Dolce Vita, which tracks a week in the life of an intellectual who has forsworn the writing of his novel to grub an existence as a partying showbiz reporter. Marcello Mastroianni plays the man to a T and Anita Ekberg is there as everything that’s wrong with his world of sex, booze and wanton behaviour – the scene where she frolics in the 17th-century baroque Trevi fountain clad in a dress that emphasises her va-va-voom is essentially the film reduced to an image. If it were being remade now, you’d want someone like Lindsay Lohan in the role. The Catholic Church took a dim view of Fellini’s film, though it’s a deeply moral work at its core – Mastroianni hardly looks like a man who is buoyed up by his decisions – and the critics at Cannes gave it a standing ovation at its famous opening shot (a statue of Jesus Christ being airlifted out of the city) and again at the end.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Anita Ekberg’s most famous performance
  • The film that gave the language the word “paparazzo”, after an intrusive showbiz photographer
  • The non-linear narrative – common now, unusual then
  • One of the most widely referenced films –

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

La Dolce Vita – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Klown aka Klovn: The Movie

 

A lanky speccy guy is lying in bed reading when his wife crawls in beside him. “Would you like some yummy yummy?” she asks. Looking expectant, he immediately pulls back the duvet, to reveal white vest tucked into white underpants. He looks ridiculous. We laugh. And then he learns that when she said “yummy yummy” she meant chocolate cream puffs, not sex. We laugh again.

The tone is set for Klown, a comedy going large on the humour of male embarrassment, male emotional autism, male sexual foolishness, male dumbness in particular. Strangely enough, this sketch-driven comedy appears to be aimed largely at men.

Spun off from the taboo-skewering Danish TV series, the film went locally by the name of Klovn: The Movie, which is either a nod to Abba: The Movie, the first film to do the The Movie thing. More likely, the English language nomenclature suggests that Klown was aiming itself at a wider market.

What that market might be is apparent after a quick squint at the plot précis: after a few more amusing misunderstandings, Frank (Frank Hvam), our speccy guy, has agreed to take his 12-year-old nephew Bo along on a canoeing holiday organised by his horndog mate Casper. Frank hopes that this will prove to his pregnant wife, who is now threatening to leave him, that he’s father material. Casper (Casper Christensen) is furious. The entire holiday – the “Tour de Pussy” – is an excuse for him to get laid. Two guys, a kid, a canoe, a holiday, lots of paddling time to shoot the shit, this is definitely an excursion into Judd Apatow or Todd Phillips country. And if Klown ever got remade it would be Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller, or Stiller and Owen Wilson, or Wilson and Will Ferrell, or Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, or… or… or… who would be the barely-grown-ups in the boat.

The reason why this won’t get remade is because there would never be a scene in which Vince Vaughn (or any of the others) calmly has a piss with the 12-year-old replacement for Bo, and they discuss the size of the pre-pubescent boy’s penis. In fact a very large percentage of the film’s plot revolves around Bo’s penis, in particular its remarkable smallness.

It’s hard to imagine anything coming out of the US or the English-speaking world (Australia, maybe excepted) that would wade into territory like this with such abandon. Klown is produced by arch-provocateur Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa outfit, which explains a fair bit. In fact you can imagine  early script meetings consisting of a few guys sitting around, drinking beer and coming up with the most appalling scenarios, then another member of the team staggering back from the bar with a fistful of Tuborgs shouting “I can top that”. Hence the “pearl necklace” sequence, or the equally WTF buttfucking sequence, all topped off with the film’s final shot, the memory of which is making me laugh while I type this.

Women? Not many. Iben Hjejle – who was in High Fidelity a few years ago – is particularly good as the skanky Casper’s partner, able to blow from sweet to tornado in about half a second. But, like its US counterparts, this one is really all about the men.

I’m still not sure how funny it is. It knows where the taboos are and it heads for them like a pheromone-crazed moth. The performances are absolutely deadpan, which really helps, and director Mikkel Nørgaard (who worked on Borgen) knows when to end a scene and move on. Hang on, I stand corrected about the “will never get a remake” bit. Having just had a squint at IMDb, it looks like Hvam and Christensen are both involved in an English language remake of this film, called Clown. Whether it dares to go as far remains to be seen. After that the pair are working on Sacha Baron Cohen’s next film, The Lesbian. Now that’ll be interesting.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Klown – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

 

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

 

 

28 September

 

 

Death of Miles Davis, 1991

On this day in 1991, Miles Davis died. By his own estimation the Juilliard educated trumpeter, band leader and composer changed music “five or six times”. Whether that is true or not, he was there when bebop was being invented, and the same went for hard bop, orchestral jazz, modal jazz, jazz-rock and techno-funk, the last of which he tossed off almost as an afterthought, having come out of retirement after spending the late 1970s indulging his two addictions – drugs and sex. His 1959 album Kind of Blue is the best selling jazz record of all time, he was one of the snappiest dressers in the history of recorded music (in his early years), and one of the weirdest (in his later years), he was a mean boxer, a skilled basketball player and was the subject of some of the coolest photographs ever to grace an album cover. The fact that he was a grade A scumbag needs mentioning too, though the girlfriends he abused weren’t forced to stay with him (or they thought the tough stuff was a price worth paying), and the people he insulted might well have considered it something of an honour to have been bad-mouthed by one of the greats. When saxophone legend John Coltrane once complained that he didn’t know how to end a lot of long (I did not say rambling) solos, Davis said “Try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth.” The man also had a keen eye for talent – Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter – and Miles: The Autobiography is the definitive warts and all autobiography, what one fan on the Guardian website called “the confessions of a complete and utter turd.” And genius.

 

 

Jack Johnson (1970, dir: Jim Jacobs)

An edited down version of one of Miles Davis’s greatest records, the Jack Johnson Sessions, provides the soundtrack to one of the great boxing documentaries, about the first African-American to become world heavyweight champion. Deploying a playful style – a prototype Mohammad Ali – Johnson would toy with his opponents, mindful that the punters were keen to get their money’s worth, parrying their blows, boxing scientifically, defensively, before almost invariably winning the match with a few quick, strong punches to the head. It was because of Johnson’s dominance of boxing in the early 20th century that the term “great white hope” was coined, and it was applied to any white boxer who could be lined up to take on the “Galveston Giant”. This led to “the fight of the century” on 4 July 1910, against James J Jeffries (who had said, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a negro”), the result of which led to race riots. Fast-forward to 1970, the era of Black Power, and this documentary directed by boxing promoter Jim Jacobs, which tries to unpick the man from the myth. A mix of newsreel footage, stills, Johnson’s words spoken by an actor (Brock Peters), presents more than just the bones of the boxer’s life – the fights, the fast cars, the love of jazz, the marriages to three white women, his arrest and trial for offences against “morals”, his trips to Spain and Russia, a man whose eventual defeat in the ring in 1915 seemed to do little to break his spirit. It is an “I’m black and I’m proud” sketch, of its time, patchy, necessarily, but in many ways a more honest portrait than the film The Great White Hope, which also appeared in the same year.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the most distinctive film soundtracks ever
  • One of the great heavyweight boxers of all time
  • Director Jim Jacobs went on to co-manage Mike Tyson
  • Watch Johnson fight Jess Willard – it’s clear he threw the fight, as he always said he did

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

This film is not available at Amazon (and the DVD sleeve shot from the IMDB source is of Jack Johnson the musician, which is embarrassing. Apologies)

 

The great Miles Davis soundtrack album is available – at Amazon

And the epic original sessions are too – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

26 September 2013-09-23

Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias and Nick Robinson in The Kings of Summer

Out in the UK This Week

 

The Kings of Summer (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

An immensely smart coming of age film pitched somewhere between Stand By Me and Superbad (ie dark undertow, with jokes). And it’s entirely on the side of the kids, whose decision to go off and live in the woods, leaving their sarcastic, obnoxious, bullying, superior parents clueless as to where they’ve gone, is never presented as the callow act of peeved teenagers. Out in the woods, our junior heroes build a rudimentary house, set about sourcing food (sometimes from supermarket bins), grow wispy beards. Meanwhile the film sets about building a dreamy, trippy, sunny song of summer and innocence, with a sweet soundtrack to match. Balancing drama and comedy brilliantly, pausing here and there for beautifully composed “pillow shots” (they are surely a cineastic reference to Ozu?), The Kings of Summer is brilliantly acted all round, and features starmaking performances by Gabriel Basso, comedic genius Moises Arias and Nick Robinson. It only falters slightly – dialling back from brilliant to merely very good – as it hits the third act, as it struggles to return the guys back to the status quo ante (their initiation into manhood complete), and us back to earth.

The Kings of Summer – at Amazon

 

The Iceman (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Michael Shannon plays Richard Kuklinski, the contract killer so coolly ruthless he was known as the Iceman, and who operated in the New York area from the 1960s until his arrest in 1986. The big sell of this film being that his family had no idea about how daddy Kuklinski really made his money. It’s a sign of Shannon’s exponential rise, especially since 2011’s Take Shelter, that this fairly small-scale gangster movie can attract stars such as Winona Ryder (the wife), Chris Evans (the psycho that Kuklinski goes into a side business with), Ray Liotta (the gang boss he works for), David Schwimmer (a schlemiel whose bad tache and pony tail mark him out for an early exit) and James Franco (an even sharper exit). As for Shannon’s performance, it’s a real dead-eyed turn, so good that it almost manages to hide the fact that there’s not much of a plot here, other than “guy kills other guys because he’s asked to”. As for an analysis of the Iceman’s psyche, Shannon tries to give us one, but he’s hamstrung slightly by a script that wants to keep us onside – ie it wants to make this a film that sits in the genre marked “gangster” rather than “serial killer”. As I say, watch it for Shannon.

The Iceman – at Amazon

 

Citadel (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

Here’s a film that’s a lot better than its current 5.3 IMDb rating, starring rising British star Aneurin Barnard as a milquetoast being victimised by hoodie-wearing feral kids in the high rise he has the misfortune to live in. In fact the film opens with Barnard’s wife being somewhat ridiculously done to death by said hoodies, who stick a syringe in her pregnant belly, just to make sure she’s dead, and to make sure we’re appalled. They’re faceless hoodies, by the way, and after a while it becomes slightly more clear that this isn’t a grim British kitchen sinker at all. It’s a grim zombie movie. This becomes totally, abundantly clear once the great James Cosmo turns up as a swearing rancidly angry priest with a mute kid in tow. Priests and mute kids being legal tender in the horror genre. If it’s not an even passable kitchen sinker, Citadel is not perfect as a horror either, though director/writer Ciaran Foy is doing some very interesting things, melding the concrete-cool of Let the Right One In with pissy reek of Attack the Block.

Citadel – at Amazon

 

Frankenstein’s Army (E One, cert 18, DVD)

I’ll admit I was slightly struggling for films this week and only picked up Richard Raaphorst’s horror movie because there wasn’t much else about. I’m glad I did. Though initially I was all internal groans – oh god, not another found footage film. This one at least had a novel twist. It was ostensibly shot by a Soviet documentarian following troops as they advance across Poland, chasing the Nazis back towards Berlin. Or was it Czechoslovakia? It doesn’t really matter. And nor does the fact that the found footage idea is not even followed through that rigorously. Because Raaphorst and his co-writers have come up with some ingenious ways of extending the life of the Frankenstein story, in the shape of a descendant of the Baron called Viktor (an energetic, committed Karel Roden), a Nazi taking bits of humans and merging them with all sorts of bits of jetsam. And so we have what looks like a walking washing machine, a teddy bear with a man’s head, half a giant lobster. “Only the Nazis would think of something like this – sewing people together, giving them knives for hands,” says one of the Soviets at one point. It’s a raw piece of nonsense, it really is. But there’s genius in the detail.

Frankenstein’s Army – at Amazon

 

Paris-Manhattan (Cinefile, cert 15, DVD)

The films of Woody Allen are a key reference point for this cute French romcom about an attractive, intelligent young woman who has a lot of trouble getting a man. Improbable, I know, but the French seem to be working the Richard Curtis Improbability Machine harder than most right now. Not to mention the Richard Curtis Charm Device. Because this is an immensely likeable if entirely unbelievable piece of fluff, sewn together with real care and attention, featuring the likes of Anita O’Day singing Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered on its jazzy soundtrack. Alice Taglioni is its star, the available babe mentioned above, and Patrick Bruel is the Serge Gainsbourg-faced older guy she ends up playing footsie with. Woody Allen turns up in a cameo, looking like he’d been talked into it in the corridor outside, and he’s all over the plot too (a Woody Allen poster on Alice’s wall offers her advice, à la Play It Again Sam, and there are clear plot lifts from his films, some more obvious than others). At some level I clearly shouldn’t be recommending something as cheesy, contrived, manipulative as this, but I do, because of the leads. I liked them therefore I liked it. Simple as.

Paris-Manhattan – at Amazon

 

The Brass Teapot (Koch, cert 15, DVD)

Juno Temple’s breasts. She clearly thinks she can build a career on them. And so does the director of this weird Hollywood drama about a couple whose struggle through the current economic downturn ceases when they find a magic teapot, an Aladdin’s lamp that grants wishes, but only when someone in its proximity feels pain, whether it’s physical, emotional or whatever. Within minutes of the teapot turning up the couple is living the high life and the film is in deep trouble. Is it trying to say nice people shouldn’t be helped out of financial misery? It’s not sure. Is it trying to say that money that’s not properly earned is somehow immoral? It’s not sure of that either. And so it hovers, while Temple and co-star Michael Angarano attempt to hide their desperation and the director’s eye tracks the clock towards the magic 90 minutes. Doubtless it worked better in its original form as a 22 minute short (I haven’t seen it), but the fact that this is actually ten minutes longer than it needs to be for business purposes (though an hour longer than necessary for dramatic purposes) is down to director Ramaa Mosley’s blind faith that more shots of Temple in her scanties will somehow make this film work.

The Brass Teapot – at Amazon

 

Outpost 11 (101 Films, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Outpost 11 is a lighthouse movie. That is to say it’s a film about a small number of people trapped in a confined space, quietly going insane until… boom! Set in a parallel steampunk reality, it follows a trio of what look like First World War British soldiers – a drug-sniffing, masturbating corporal, a dithery private and a capable captain – doing some never-quite-specified monitoring in the Arctic while the war rages out in the wide world. It’s a world of candlestick telephones, VHS tapes, clunky 1980s headphones, sci-fi spiders, a big brass engine-room which thrums away musically. This is an ingeniously cobbled-together world, slightly redolent of charity shops and Dr Who, with the plot accent firmly on the “what the hell is going on?”. I won’t say what the hell is going on, not least because I still wasn’t sure by the end. I was sure that this is a confident film-making debut by director Anthony Woodley, who understands how to work with what he’s got, rather than against it, who knows how to conjure mood, and who has learnt the lesson that suggestion – what is that weird squeaking creature pulled out of a filter at one point? – creates better atmosphere than any SFX effect.

Outpost 11 – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trainspotting

Ewan McGregor in The Worst Toilet in Scotland

 

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

 

 

27 September

 

 

Irvine Welsh born, 1958

On this day in 1958, in Leith, Edinburgh, Irvine Welsh was born. Or was he? After a police arrest in 1996, just after fame had hit him like a heroin rush, the police revealed that he was in fact seven years older, so born in 1951. Or 1961, if the BBC’s Writing Scotland website is to be believed. But 1958 is what the author maintains (I say “maintains” though his own website is silent on the subject), so let’s stick with that. After growing up in nearby Muirhouse, Welsh moved to London in the late 1970s at the time of punk, played as a guitarist in a string of gob-spangled bands including Pubic Lice and finally moved back to Edinburgh, where he worked in the council housing department. Remembered as a well dressed young man who never seemed the worse for drugs, he was apparently destined to “go far” in local administration. All the while Welsh was writing short stories, many of which featured in local literary magazines. Trainspotting was his first novel, a tale of drug excess, depravity and skanky humour among a small group of heroin users, delivered in phonetic street-talk. The lack of moral centre, the refusal to be PC and tone it down made it one of those books read by people who don’t read books. Welsh, in effect, became the heir to the New English Library output of Richard Allen whose books (Skinhead, Suedehead etc) had had a similar effect a generation before. Secker and Warburg, his original publishers, were convinced it would never sell – the original print run was 3,000. Well, they were wrong there.

 

 

Trainspotting (1996, dir: Danny Boyle)

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television.” The soliloquy from Trainspotting, as spoken by Renton (Ewan McGregor), our likeable, voluble, eloquent guide to the more depraved side of Edinburgh life in Danny Boyle’s adaptation of the book. Having popped his head over the critical parapet with Shallow Grave, Boyle was propelled to international renown with Trainspotting, thanks to his ability (and that of screenwriter John Hodge) to safely transfer Irvine Welsh’s high energy, loud humour and foul mouth to the screen intact. With a largely Britpop soundtrack that wasn’t just cool but also appropriate (Iggy Pop, Primal Scream, Underworld, Blur, Leftfield), restless camera and some bravura stunts (Renton diving into The Worst Toilet in Scotland to rescue the opium suppositories), the effect was of a particularly nasty music video, or of a night of druggy excess, now exhilarating, now terrifying. McGregor’s heroin-chic cheekbones sold the film on posters, but great though McGregor’s performance is, Robert Carlyle as the insane Begbie is even better, one of the few instances of menace actually transmitting off the screen and into the audience. People took Trainspotting the film to their hearts the way they had the book, because it dared to say something that goes unsaid – the reason why people take drugs is because they enjoy it, simple as. And let’s not forget how funny it is – as Renton says about the group’s dealer, “We called him Mother Superior on account of the length of his habit.”

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Welsh’s best book, Boyle’s best film
  • Party like it’s 1996
  • A cast largely of unknowns at the start of interesting careers
  • Buckle up for the “Worst Toilet in Scotland” scene

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Trainspotting – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Manhattan

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in silhouette in Manhattan

 

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

 

 

26 September

 

 

George Gershwin born, 1898

On this day in 1898, the writer of Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, Someone to Watch over Me, Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess was born in Brooklyn, New York. A school dropout, Gershwin, born Jacob Gershowitz, was playing piano in clubs at the age of 15, published his first song when he was 16 and was writing shows by his early 20s. His breadth was amazing – Tin Pan Alley songs, entire Broadway and Hollywood musicals and his “folk opera” Porgy & Bess all poured from him, with Gershwin all the time studying to broaden his range (though notably Nadia Boulanger, Ravel and Stravinsky all refused to teach him, believing they had nothing to offer him). Gershwin’s music is marked out by the influence of jazz – melodically, harmonically and rythmically – but also by the desire to fuse “high” and “low” culture. Gershwin died during surgery to remove a brain tumour at the age of 38, having just written the score to the Astaire/Rogers film Shall We Dance. His music lives on, though whether Steven Spielberg will ever get round to making his proposed biopic remains to be seen (Zachary Quinto is down to play Gershwin). Until then we’ll have to make do with 1945’s Rhapsody in Blue, starring Robert Alda (father of Alan) as the man himself.

 

 

Manhattan (1979, dir: Woody Allen)

Though he got going in the mid 1960s, it was only around 1970 that Woody Allen got up to speed. Since then he has produced a film a year, give or take. It’s a huge body of work. And in polls for his best film, Manhattan is usually up  there with Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters. Like Midnight in Paris, another hymn to a place, it’s a vastly affectionate work, bursting with love, tempered by cynicism, about the denizens of Allen’s home town. Kicking off with the slinky, opening clarinet glissando of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Allen then presents us with a series of picture-postcard views of Manhattan. This is Manhattan as icon, as artistic hub, as inspiration. And, in true Allen style, having set us up, he sucker-punches us with a pay-off – the joke being that his characters are just small people with silly obsessions, human weaknesses, Allen himself playing the twice-divorced man foolishly dating a teenager (Mariel Hemingway) and then getting himself even more hopelessly entangled with the mistress (Diane Keaton) of his best friend (Michael Murphy). Shot in black and white by Gordon Willis, it’s a beautiful film, a romantic film, and a funny one, with Allen reserving his best lines for gags against himself, with sex and personal insecurity the usual subjects – “Let’s fool around,” the 17-year-old Tracy tells him. “Let’s do it some strange way that you’ve always wanted to, but nobody would do with you.” Well it made me smile.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Meryl Streep plays Allen’s ex-wife
  • The amazing cinematography of Gordon Willis
  • Allen’s best film?
  • The best film about New York

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Manhattan – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Valhalla Rising

Mads Mikkelsen (centre) in Valhalla Rising

 

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

 

 

25 September

 

 

The Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066

On this day in 1066, an Anglo Saxon army led by King Harold Godwinson went into battle against a Norwegian army led by Harald Hardrada. The English (ie Anglo Saxon) army numbered about 15,000, the invading army around 9,000. As the numbers suggest, the English won, though at a cost of at least five thousand men (estimates put the losses on the other side at around six thousand, or two thirds of the army). Why does this battle matter? For a start it marks the last time the Anglo Saxons would win anything – three weeks later Godwinson went into battle again, against the invading Normans at Hastings, and lost both his life and his kingdom to the invader William aka the Conqueror. This would have profound effects on the English language – it remains Germanic at base but as a result of that invasion it now carries a huge superstructure of Romance words. The battle also marks the end of what is known as the Viking Age, the era when extraordinary sailors and adventurers from Northern Europe would spread out across the world, leaving fair- and red-haired reminders of their presence in places as far-flung as Portugal, Ireland, Greenland and Turkey. The Vikings even got as far as Newfoundland, and probably spent 400 years trading with the indigent Native “Americans” (for want of a better word) – at least archaeological evidence of a Norwegian coin found in Maine seems to suggest as much.

 

 

Valhalla Rising (2009, dir: Nicolas Winding Refn)

After the success of Drive, the other films of the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn came under more scrutiny. Most, the Pusher trilogy and Bronson certainly, concern themselves with aspects of masculinity. As does Valhalla Rising, a remarkable film whose reputation will probably grow as the years go by. Brutal and dirty from the off, it stars Mads Mikkelsen as a mute, one-eyed Viking prize fighter reputed to have been “brought up from hell” and now being yanked about the hellish countryside by his owners from one brutal beat-em-up event to the next. In one early scene, Mikkelsen’s character has tied up his foe, who gives him his finest “damn you to hell” speech full of vitriol. In a Hollywood film this would be the cue for some bromantic “I respect a man who speaks his mind, yadda yadda…”. In Refn’s film it’s the cue for Mikkelsen to slice open the man’s belly and pull out his guts. If you like your films stygian, cloudy, bleak, rainy, pocked with flint, nordic as hell (I think it’s filmed in Scotland in fact), this is for you. But it doesn’t begin and end with hellish violence. Refn is actually more interested in the history than he’s at first letting on. The Crusades feature, as does the arrival of Christianity in a heathen land, as does – if I’m not mistaken (though it is hard to tell) – the discovery of America. It is fabulously, almost hilariously bleak, almost wordless, but there’s a scope to it which is as intense as Terrence Malick, though a Malick restricted to a drab palette of brown, grey and green. Mesmerising.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A refreshing dose of in-your-face brutality
  • Mikkelsen effortlessly trumping any number of pretenders – Tom Hardy, Gerard Butler and Viggo Mortensen can’t compete
  • An outstanding exercise in the creation of mood
  • The action movie meets arthouse, convincingly

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Valhalla Rising – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Shop Around the Corner

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart in a publicity shot for The Shop Around the Corner

 

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

 

 

24 September

 

 

CompuServe launches first consumer internet service, 1979

On this day in 1979, after ten years of supplying dial-up computer timesharing to businesses, CompuServe (originally Compu-Serve) started to offer something similar to the great unwashed. The service was called MicroNET and was sold through Radio Shack stores in the USA. It proved more popular than CompuServe had anticipated and by the following year had been renamed CompuServe Information Service. By then consumers could access news stories, stock quotes and weather reports and they could book airline tickets using only their computer. They could also chat in forums and communicate via a system which CompuServe called Email. Old hands will remember when CompuServe email addresses looked like this – 12345.678@compuserve.com – eight inch floppy disks, green monitors, data transfer rates of 300 baud (ie symbols per second). By 1981 CompuServe were riding high with 10,000 subscribers. These subscribers paid for the service by the minute and were served, for the most part, text-based information. By the early 1990s CompuServe were the biggest online provider in the USA. And then came AOL with its free CDs dropping onto doormats, offering a more graphic-based service and, most importantly, all-inclusive packages complete with generous time allowances. Though they didn’t yet know it, CompuServe had been served.

 

 

The Shop Around the Corner (1940, dir: Ernst Lubitsch)

The obvious email-related film is You’ve Got Mail (or M@il as it cutely insisted). But why not go back to source. Or at least the best movie manifestation of the play on which the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romcom is based? That’s Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, starring Hanks’s spiritual predecessor, James Stewart, and Margaret Sullavan as the two employees of a Budapest department store who can barely stand each other in real life but are falling in love by letter. The will they/won’t theys are further complicated by the fact that the two are not masters of their own destiny but employees. And the Budapest setting? A reminder that it was a Hungarian, Miklos Laszlo, who wrote the original play, and that the US was engaged in a war in Europe for the preservation of Western civilisation (does anyone still use the term “Western civilisation”?). The film is one of the finest examples of the famous “Lubitsch touch”, the melding of sweet and sour, sophisticated and brutal, the heroic and the comic – pretty much the way that successful romcoms are still made today. That doesn’t mean it’s not cute, schmaltzy and contrived. But with Lubitsch there’s always an awareness of the cuteness, schmaltz and contrivance. We’re in on the joke.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of four collaborations of Stewart and Sullavan
  • “Among the greatest of films,” according to the highly respected David Thomson
  • A great example of a film with “the Lubitsch touch”
  • The brilliant café scene, lifted almost intact for You’ve Got Mail

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Shop Around the Corner – at Amazon