2 December 2013-12-02

Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives

Out in the UK This Week

 

Only God Forgives (Lionsgate, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

After Bronson, Valhalla Rising and Drive (not to mention the Pusher trilogy) director Nicolas Winding Refn’s cool yet feverish look at violence and masculinity continues with a story set out in the badlands of Bangkok, where moody Ryan Gosling plays Julian, the brother expected to avenge the death of his intensely violent older brother Billy (Tom Burke). But the slightly more sensitive Julian balks, which brings into play his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), a tough old bitch as elemental as any out of Greek tragedy. It also brings into play a retired cop (Vithaya Pansingram), an automaton of remorseless brutality. Together and separately, all three waltz towards a bloody finale. Neon-lit, tricked out with gliding cameras, and with the odd pause for a song, Only God Forgives wears its debt to David Lynch on its sleeve. But both Gaspar Noë and Alejandro Jodorowsky (also mentioned in the credits) are spiritually in the mix, Noë’s Into the Void informing the lurid cityscapes, Jodorowsky inspiring the alienated psychedelics. There’s Peter Greenaway too, in the symmetrical composition, and Scorsese – in fact it’s like Goodfellas at quarter speed. It’s for cinephiles, in other words, and lovers of the lush, intense, taciturn and grisly. A gorgeous, ugly film.

Only God Forgives – at Amazon

 

 

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Steve Coogan’s most famous creation gets a movie of his own, in which North Norfolk Digital’s mid-morning jock is called upon to do some siege negotiation after a fellow DJ (Colm Meaney) goes gun-crazy. That’s the plot, but what about the jokes? Well, the good news is that they are in there – Coogan’s ability to nail the prattle that comes from the mouths of people paid to produce hot air is second to none. And with lines like “Can a binman expect a Christmas tip when he’s point blank refused to take away a broken toaster?” Coogan clearly has the writers on board too. But the film suffers from the same problem as the DJ himself – stretch it beyond its natural life (the link between records in the DJ’s case) and it starts to gasp a bit.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa – at Amazon

 

 

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (Independent, cert 18, DVD)

The three girls who have been sentenced to two years in a Russian gulag for making a noise in a Moscow church are the subjects of this remarkably even-handed documentary. We learn the back stories of Nadia (the hot one – sorry), Maria and Ekaterina, whose balaclava-clad performance in the cathedral of Christ the Saviour got them arrested and, eventually sentenced. How they’re politically against Vladimir Putin, who they see as a dictator. How they were objecting to the closeness of Church and State, hence the cathedral protest. How Russian public opinion clearly isn’t on their side – “they walked into Russia and took a shit” – says one scarf-wearing woman at a rally against them. Feelings run high not least because the church the Pussy Rioters performed in has only just been rebuilt after being dynamited by Stalin in the 1930s, because the Church is clearly not aligned with the state as far as the older generation is concerned. It’s a fascinating film, as much a portrait of brave young women who got more than they bargained for as it is of Russia being dragged backwards into the modern world.

Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer – at Amazon

 

 

Man of Steel (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Having enjoyed the Brandon Routh Superman reboot of 2006 – most people did not – I was expecting not to enjoy this one, since most people did. I didn’t enjoy it. Telling the story of Superman’s origin, his journey from planet Krypton to planet Earth, his dad, his adoptive parents, his transformation into the Man of Steel, it follows in most respects the Christopher Reeve film from 1978. One major deviation from the original being that Clark Kent isn’t working for the Daily Planet yet, and Lois Lane already knows he’s Superman. The reason why this huge change has been made to the story becomes clear around halfway through the Man of Steel. It’s because this is not a stand-alone film at all; it’s a warm-up for 2015’s Batman vs Superman, which will deal with the Daily Planet/Lois/Metropolis years in full. Talk about a shitty way to make movies. Talking of which, Zack Snyder is director, bringing the same blind spot for spatial geography and failure to punch a story along that he demonstrated on 300. These monster caveats aside, Cavill doesn’t let the team down as Superman, Russell Crowe is convincingly authoritative and benign as Jor-El and the special effects are of the awesome variety. I noticed Christopher “string it out” Nolan’s name had a story credit. Figures.

 Man of Steel – at Amazon

 

 

Planes (Disney, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)

I’d heard bad things about Planes – that it’s a Disney attempt at a Pixar property, Cars with Wings. Which is exactly what it is. Anthropomorphic airplanes having adventures and stuff, with the focus falling on Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook), a cropduster from nowheresville who follows his dream to become a racer etc etc. It is true that the animation is not Pixar standard. In fact it looks like a Pixar film that hasn’t been through the final hi-def treatment. But that apart, Planes is zippy, there are some interesting sequences – Dusty falling into the sea was unusually realistic – a fair bit of technical detail (drag, ailerons, power/weight ratios) which might intrigue the young techie. And it deals with war and death in unexpected ways too. Reset your expectations, think very young and this is a rather good film.

 Planes – at Amazon

 

 

Looking for Hortense (Arrow, cert 12, DVD)

This stagey, overstuffed French comedy of urban bourgeois manners has a farce structure – people doing improbable things at an increasingly hectic pace – and is kicked off by a wife (Kristin Scott Thomas again) asking her husband to ask his dad, a judge, to fast-track the papers of a Serbian woman working for a friend. I think that was the drift. Jean-Pierre Bacri is the guy asking his dad, but here’s the thing – Bacri is clearly a man in his 60s, so how old is the father meant to be? Why is he still working? Are we watching a farce about ageing government functionaries, or is this simply a case of miscasting, Bacri being a generation too old? It might seem like a hiccup but I couldn’t find much else in the film to latch on to – the Serbian character is underdeveloped, a 40something dressed like a teenager (so it could be about age), the patrician old functionary who has a conversation with his son in which he reveals that he has sex with men, but isn’t homosexual – what is that all about? Looking for Hortense is full of great performers, and is the sort of drama in which each individual scene is beautifully constructed and played, but what it was all “about” is eluded me. Over to you.

Looking for Hortense – at Amazon

 

 

The Lone Ranger (Disney, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

With Pirates of the Caribbean, Gore Verbinski took the pirate swashbuckler, and knowing that no one would swallow it without a mixer, served it as a comedy. In came Johnny Depp as the comedy sidekick to Orlando Bloom’s vaguely Errol Flynn-like man of swagger. The Lone Ranger attempts the same move, taking the western, playing it for laughs and bringing in Johnny Depp as comedy sidekick to Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger. For a good hour or so this looks like it’s going to go somewhere, Verbinski bringing a bit of that fizzy Rango wildness to a meta-western that has Morricone/Leone twangy guitar, John Ford locations, a baddie called Butch Cavendish (not that far off Cassidy), a guy who looks like General Custer, Helena Bonham Carter as an everywhore with parasol. And very good all this is too. But there are a host of tiny mis-steps – some of them fatal – that really undermine the film. Why have it all as a flashback? Why take William Fichtner, one of the very best bad guys in Hollywood, and then disguise those lean, frightening features? Why doesn’t Verbinski get in someone who understands CGI special effects, since he clearly doesn’t? And why hasn’t Johnny Depp decided what type of act he’s aiming at – is it olde style comedy injun (white man speak with fork tongue)? Or is it more your Joss Whedon “Whatever” Indian? He wobbles between the two. And the film is an hour too long. File next to Wild Wild West.

The Lone Ranger – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

 

 

Monsters

Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able in Monsters

 

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

 

 

1 December

 

 

Military Abolition Day, Costa Rica

On this day every year, the people of Costa Rica celebrate Día de la Abolición del Ejército (Military abolition day), as a reminder of the day in 1948 when President José Figueres Ferrer got rid of the country’s armed forces, in particular the standing army. Unusual in itself, this act was all the more remarkable when it is considered that Ferrer was a general who had just led an army to victory in the 44 day civil war in Costa Rica, which had been precipitated by the parliament refusing to accept that the opposition leader, Otilio Ulate, had won the election. Ferrer’s army toppled the government and president and he installed himself, not Ulate, as president of a military junta. The following year, having abolished the military in the interim, he oversaw the election of a new assembly and the drafting of a new constitution before standing down – at which point he handed power to Ulate. Costa Rica is one of very few countries that has no standing army. It has a small security force – civil guard, border patrol and so on – and spends the money it would have spent on the military on education and culture. In case of war, the United States has pledged to supply troops.

 

 

 

Monsters (2010, dir: Gareth Edwards)

It’s not what it is, it’s the way that writer/director Gareth Edwards does it that makes Monsters so good. It’s your basic travelogue love story… with monsters. The Clark Gable/Claudette Colbert classic It Happened One Night seems to be a reference point – she’s a swell, he’s an oik, a journalist seconded by daddy to get his rich kid daughter out of danger. So off he goes to a foreign land, picks her up, and then off they go, heading for the border, talking as they go, getting closer to each other, then bucking back a bit, encountering danger and getting close again. It’s shot handheld, Cloverfield style, with Edwards wafting in just a touch of CGI here and there to add the monster element. Which is how everything is handled – extremely delicately, nothing overdone. Its worldview is similarly competent – there is no real discussion of who the monsters are or where they’re from or what they do; this is a world in which monsters are a fact and everyone has got used to them. The only thing everyone is discussing is the Wall that is being built. Will it be enough to keep the monsters out of the US? The film is shot in Costa Rica but is supposedly set in Mexico, so it’s tempting to see the Wall as allegorical, and the monsters as the wave of immigrants ready to broach the border. But if that is Edwards’s suggestion, he keeps that on the down-low too. Considering how absurdly overblown most films of this sort can and do get – think where a Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer version would have gone – the low-key nature of Monsters can at times seem almost funny, as if someone’s having a joke. If it is a joke then the actors, Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, are in on it, delivering performances so dialled down that they threaten to disappear. That was deliberate, right?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The film that got Edwards the 2014 Godzilla gig
  • Costa Rica’s lush tropical scenery
  • A textbook example of turning a limited budget to advantage
  • The actors fell in love and got married in real life – big aaah

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Monsters – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

13 Going On 30

Jennifer Garner learns about adult underwear in 13 Going On 30

 

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

 

 

30 November

 

 

Thriller released, 1982

On this day in 1982, Michael Jackson’s album Thriller was released. As I write, it is the biggest selling album of all time. And with unified collections of music now a “take it or leave it” item displaced by technology it is likely to remain so. Thriller has sold around 60 million copies worldwide (estimate) and continues to sell. It was Jackson’s sixth solo album, his second as a mature artist in charge of his career, and because Jackson had renegotiated his royalty rate with his record company only the year before (after the success of Off the Wall) to give him 37% of wholesale profit, Thriller made him very wealthy. The album was significant in many ways – for the way it mixed black and white styles, for its lavish promo videos, for the way it broke the unofficial embargo against black artists on MTV. Jackson wrote four of the songs on the album, and used writer Rod Temperton and producer Quincy Jones as his secret weapon. But he also pulled in “names” such as Paul McCartney, Eddie Van Halen and Toto’s Jeff Pocaro. Though The Girl Is Mine was the first single released off the album – there were seven singles in all – it was the next single, Billie Jean, that made the album start to shift at over one million units a week. The album Thriller soon became, quite simply, a phenomenon, its sales being regularly reported on news TV. The single Beat It followed, corralling a rock audience with its Van Halen and Steve Lukather guitar work. Finally, when superlatives over the music and sales seemed to be peaking, the news of the 14-minute John Landis-directed video for the Thriller single started to leak out – the most expensive ever made, shot like a film, shown on TV in its own slot – and album sales went up again. There has never been an album/event like it since. It marked the peak of Jackson’s career.

 

 

 

13 Going On 30 (2004, dir: Gary Winick)

Like a lot of bodyswap movies, 13 Going On 30 doesn’t bear close scrutiny. What happens when a 13 year old girl wakes up in a grown woman’s body? Would she really get away with it, or blow the whole thing on her first encounter at work? Burst into tears. As with Big, or Freaky Friday, the best thing to do with this film is not to ask too many questions – no one seems particularly bothered that teenage Bella Swan is being courted by a man over 100 years old in the Twilight films, so why get hung up on this bit of escapist fantasy? That “sex with a minor” aspect is relevant: it had reared its head in Gary Winick’s previous film, Tadpole (cougar seduces 16-year-old boy), and here it is again as newly 30-ish Jennifer Garner – all cheekbones, knees and elbows – tries to get her head around being the editor of the magazine she adored as a kid, while forming a daddy-ish relationship with puppy-eyed Mark Ruffalo (non-threatening sexuality then a specialty). The film is, itself, a bodyswap, a conscious knock-off of a genre that was big in the 1980s, so it’s only appropriate that Jenna (Garner) went to sleep in 1987, only to wake up in the early noughties. And doubly so that the film’s standout scene sees Jenna being “uncharacteristically” enthusiastic for the song Thriller when it’s played at an office party, and leading her work colleagues through a step by step recreation of the zombie dance. But hang on a second, would a 13-year-old really be able to steer a magazine through the production cycle? You might as well ask whether a ten year old boy could run a toy company, as Big asked us to accept. Instead focus on the actors, in particular on Garner’s mile-wide smile, which is what sells the film.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Garner’s film breakthrough
  • Judy Greer’s performance as a neurotic career woman
  • Director Gary Winick’s faith in his actors
  • The 80s soundtrack – Vanilla Ice, Madonna, Belinda Carlisle

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

13 Going On 30 – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

 

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

 

 

29 November

 

 

The Zong Massacre, 1781

On this day in 1781 the Zong massacre took place. A Liverpool slave ship called the Zong got lost on the high seas en route for Jamaica and, running low on water, decided to throw some slaves overboard. On 29 November 54 women were thrown overboard. 42 men were jettisoned on 1 December and over the next few days a further 36 slaves were thrown into the sea. A further ten slaves threw themselves overboard as a protest against the inhumane treatment of their fellows. When it arrived at Black River, Jamaica, the ship had only 208 slaves on board, of the 442 it had left Accra, Ghana, with on 18 August. The ship’s owners then claimed insurance against their loss, which the insurers refused to pay. The ship’s owners then took the case to court, where they argued that the slaves were an insurable asset and that they had been thrown overboard to safeguard the rest of the cargo. The argument about the crew’s actions being murder was not entertained. Though the massacre on the Zong barely disturbed the millpond of public opinion, it did stir the conscience of Granville Sharp, a British Quaker who set about a campaign of writing to members of Parliament, clergymen and fellow Quakers. The Zong massacre and the reaction to it, in some quarters at least, became one of the early spurs to the development of the Anti Slavery Movement.

 

 

 

Lincoln (2012, dir: Steven Spielberg)

So gigantic has the presence of Daniel Day-Lewis become in a film that he often overshadows every other aspect of the production. That’s certainly the case with Lincoln which quietly manages to be Steven Spielberg’s most nuanced, and therefore interesting, film in years. Telling the story of the dying days of the Civil War and the growing pressure to emancipate the slaves, Spielberg, writer Tony Kushner and Day-Lewis paint a portrait of a man, make a sketch of the times and tell the story of the progress of the Thirteenth Amendment (to make slavery illegal) through Congress. Rarely has a film about the horse-trading and the pork-barrel politics required to get a law changed been so fascinating. And rarely has Lincoln been depicted in so revisionist a manner. OK, Spielberg isn’t above hokiness – the opener where a black soldier and a white soldier read the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln, who looks like he’s just stepped down from the Monument that bears his name – is pure Spielberg corn. But this scene also does a lot of expositional work in a very few minutes – we now know who this man is and what this film is about. That scene apart, as said, this is not the boilerplate Lincoln movie. No Saint Abe, instead Spielberg points out that underneath that almost painfully folksy exterior there was a party political tactician who could tack against his own prevailing beliefs in order to secure a greater goal. “If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… what’s the use of knowing True North?” is how Lincoln defends it. And there are plenty of allusions to modern-day politics, a touch of the Clinton era in the way the White House accounts are being investigated by Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens, a man of principle who, like Lincoln, has to weigh whether it’s better to compromise a belief to secure something for the greater good of the greater number. And it’s surely fascinating, in light of the Tea Party and Neo-Con colour of the Republican Party these days that it’s the Republican Lincoln who’s straining to amend the Constitution, while Democrats are blocking him at every turn. As for Day-Lewis, is it the great performance that everyone says? Well, it’s starry and it’s theatrical and if you go in for that sort of thing then yes it is great. But look out for Sally Field as Mrs Lincoln. She is required in one short scene to re-orientate the film away from politics and chicanery back towards emotion. And she does it. It’s an amazing piece of work.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Top level coffee table film-making
  • Janusz Kaminski’s sombre, shadowy cinematography
  • Spielberg atones for Amistad
  • The historical detail is exquisite and often quite brutal

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Lincoln – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Apple

Massoumeh and Zahra Naderi in The Apple

 

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

 

 

28 November

 

 

Navy Day, Iran

Today is Navy Day in Iran. It’s the day every year when Iranians remember Operation Morvarid, a tactical strike against the Iraqi Navy in 1980, which resulted in much of the Iraqi Navy being destroyed. The Iranians, using American built F-4 Phantoms and F-5 Tiger aircraft, attacked Iraqi airfields, while a task force of the Iranian navy attacked Iraqi oil terminals, and two missile boats blocked the ports of Al Faw and Umm Qasr and started heavy shelling. Careful planning, lightning deployment, plenty of back-up and the strategic defence of all units involved in the attack meant the Iranians dealt a savage blow to the Iraqi forces, who retaliated but found themselves outgunned, outflanked and without support when it was needed most. It is estimated that up to 80% of the Iraqi navy was destroyed, with the Iranians using weapons, planes and ships sourced while the regime of the Shah of Iran was an ally of the US. Both Iran and Iraq had recently changed regimes – Iran from the Shah to the Ayatollah Khomeini as a result of the Islamic revolution the year before; Iraq from the sickly Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr to the vigorous Saddam Hussein (who was supported in his efforts against Iran by the US).

 

 

 

The Apple (1998, Samira Makhmalbaf)

The Apple is the debut film by 17-year-old Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf, daughter of the revered director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who co-wrote the screenplay. It tells the story of two sisters whose Allah-fearing father has kept them locked away from public exposure for 12 years, lest the strong light of reality tarnish their immaculate souls. Enter a social worker, who seems to have the same iron grip on the lives of individuals as social workers do in much of the rest of the world, and dad has soon been strong-armed into letting the girls out. It’s an old meets new story, obviously. But the girls’ father isn’t a rogue, cruel, or particularly abusive, he’s just a poor, uneducated guy with a blind wife whose piety has got the upper hand. What’s doubly interesting, though, and this fact puts Samira into the same camp of socially engaged realist cinema as her father, is the fact that the family we are watching are the actual family that this happened to – they are re-enacting events from their own family story. As for the titular apple, it’s the thing the girls want most from the outside world, a simple choice it seems, until the symbolic significance of the apple is invoked – the apple is a symbol of life but also of sin. Not everyone will swallow Makhmalbaf’s polemic, though her methods are interesting and her grip on drama is undoubtedly strong. She’s a chip off the old block.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The uneasy mix of drama and documentary
  • The presence of the actual participants
  • After a slow start it really gets its hooks in
  • The debut of a talent with much more to say

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Apple – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

One of many torture scenes from Salo, 120 Days of Sodom

 

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

 

 

27 November

 

 

James Pratt and John Smith executed for sodomy, 1835

On this day in 1835, the last two men to be publicly executed for buggery in England were hanged outside Newgate Prison in London, where a fairly large crowd had gathered. James Pratt, aged 30, and John Smith, aged 40, had been discovered in flagrante in the room of another man, William Bonill, by Bonill’s landlord, who had become suspicious about the string of men who would visit him. By climbing into the loft of the next door building, the landlord had been able to catch sight of what Pratt and Smith were up to, and then confirmed his sightings by taking a peek through the keyhole of the room they were in, as did his wife. He then broke down the door to confront them. The penalty for buggery was death in those days, and had been since King Henry VIII had created An Acte for the Punysshement of the Vice of Buggerie, it is thought as a way of enabling him to confiscate large amounts of Church land under one of the act’s forfeiture clauses. This had become the Buggery Act in 1533, then the Offences Against the Person Act of 1828. Of the 17 people who were sentenced to death at the September and October sessions of the Central Criminal Court, all had their death sentences commuted, except for Pratt and Smith, who were hanged, in spite of the pleas for clemency by their wives. As a special newspaper printed and handed out just for the occasion put it, “The prisoners having been conveyed from their cells early in the morning, were at the usual hour conducted to the fatal spot, and soon after launched into eternity, amidst the yells & groans of the spectators.”

 

 

 

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini)

From the era when “arthouse” was often a synonym for “porn”, Pasolini’s most infamous film is hardly titillating, though it is brimming with nudity, sex and sexual perversion. In fact it can be seen as the antidote to the sort of film Pasolini had been making only a couple of years earlier – The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron – in which lusty young men with untameable erections would get into saucy scrapes with buxom wenches. You don’t get that with Salo. Instead it’s a tale of tyranny and sex, and the tyranny of sex, in an Italy ruled over by the Nazis, where a lawyer, a banker, a cleric and an aristocrat are at the head of a grand odious plan to lure comely young folk to a villa where they are subject to all manner of sexual degradation. Based on De Sade, it is designed to shock – the shit-eating scene does it for most people – but the intention isn’t to offend. Pasolini had a point about the pillars of society, all in cahoots, having a broadly similar harmful effect on the mass of the people. Whether his point needs to be quite so graphically expressed is the question – the film has barely been seen since it was made. Salo is banned in most countries, and even in those countries where freedom of expression is a constitutional matter it’s very hard to get hold of a copy of Salo. Because, in short, there’s just not much appetite for it. Still, if lines of dialogue such as “There are a thousand occasions when one does not desire a woman’s anus,” have piqued your interest, this Dante-esque descent to specially reserved circles of hell by one of the brightest talents of the intensely productive Italian cinema of the era might be your bag.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Pasolini’s last film
  • There’s real “I watched it” kudos
  • For a while DVDs of Salo became the most expensive in the world
  • Ennio Morricone’s jazz tinged soundtrack

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Byzantium

Gemma Arterton in Byzantium

 

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

 

 

26 November

 

 

Vlad the Impaler becomes ruler of Wallachia for third time, 1476

On this day in 1476, Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia became ruler of Wallachia for the third time.

His father, Vlad II, had become a member of the chivalric Order of the Dragon (Drache in German, Dracul in Romanian) in 1431. As the son, Vlad III carried the patronymic Dracula, son of Dracul (he signed himself Wladislaus Dragwlya).

Vlad III spent a good deal of his life asserting his claim on Wallachia. He was first installed as a ruler by the Ottomans – Vlad III had been brought up in the Sultan’s court as a hostage, to ensure his father’s loyalty to the Ottoman empire – and they put him on the throne to prevent encroachment by the Hungarians.

This failed. Vlad III secured his second reign by allying himself with the Hungarians against the Ottomans. He established strict rule over his new country, impaled any who stood in his way and built up a fiercely loyal special guard to protect him against assassination. This second period of rule was marked out by relentless conflict with the Ottomans who maintained that Wallachia was part of their Empire. To which Vlad responded by impaling any Ottoman soldier he found on his territory – the higher the rank, the longer the stake.

This made Vlad III a popular figure in Western Europe, where there were always worries about Ottoman plans for aggrandisement. However, Vlad III was finally routed by his own brother, Radu the Handsome, on behalf of the Ottomans, in alliance with Vlad’s own nobility.

Vlad III seems to have spent the years following his defeat as a prisoner in Hungary. In 1475 Radu died and Vlad immediately declared himself voivode (military ruler) of Wallachia. After only two months of uneasy rule Vlad III was assassinated. No one is sure exactly when, or where, or by whom.

Exactly how cruel Vlad III was, and how many of the tales of his evil deeds were political spin put about by enemies (and he had plenty) is hard to tell, though there are stories of babies being roasted and fed to their own mothers, and of 20,000 corpses impaled on the outskirts of Targoviste, Vlad’s capital, a sight which is said to have sickened the Sultan, himself a notable impaler.

 

 

 

Byzantium (2013, dir: Neil Jordan)

Since Bram Stoker borrowed the Dracula name for his 1897 novel, the character of the vampire has almost inevitably been gothic in character – favouring the night, pale, sickly of aspect, dressed in sombre colours, sexy, voracious.

Bucking that trend was the very modern, urban IKEA version found in Let the Right One In, the most influential vampire film of recent years/decades. Neil Jordan’s film is a beautiful collision of the two – on the one hand we have buxom gothic vamp Clara, played by Gemma Arterton. On the other there’s wispy Eleanor, played by Saoirse Ronan, who only drinks blood when she absolutely has to.

Are they sisters? Mother and daughter? Or eternal friends? The answer to that question is more or less the plot of the film. And while we’re following it we’re being given an object lesson in atmospherics by Neil Jordan, whose last dabble in this area was 1994’s Interview with the Vampire, starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise.

This is the better film, more sure of itself, less caught up in the machinations of stars and their agents. Thematically, though it’s closer to Jordan’s 1984 fairytale excursion The Company of Wolves – with the exploitation of women and class as a factor in daily (and eternal) life both ringing bells. As you might expect with a screenplay for The Company of Wolves by Angela Carter and for Byzantium by Moira Buffini, both feminists (though Buffini’s feminism is more oblique than Carter’s).

Taking notes from reactions to The Company of Wolves, perhaps, Jordan keeps his themes in the background, leaving front of curtain to the actors and production designers. And he is rewarded royally – it’s difficult to imagine better casting than Arterton and Ronan. Then there’s Caleb Landry Jones as a young man with haemophilia, Jonny Lee Miller as an utter bounder, Tom Hollander as a dithery teacher who believes Arterton might be interested in him (she is, Tom, just not in the way that you think).

As for Byzantium itself, a rundown seaside hotel somewhere on the South Coast of England, it’s a glorious rotten bundle of a place complete with an old cathode ray TV on which the girls watch old films – a Hammer horror vampire flick at one point. Very homely.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Fabulous production design by Simon Elliott
  • Really top class casting
  • Shame and Place Beyond the Pines cinematographer Sean Bobbit
  • Women as the vampires, not the victims

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Byzantium – watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

 

25 November 2013-11-25

Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock in The Heat

Out in the UK this Week

 

 

The Heat (Fox, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

There aren’t many female buddy-cop comedies. This one, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), recalls the Lethal Weapon antics of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and stars Sandra Bullock as the one trying to play it by the book, and Melissa McCarthy as the out and out slob prepared to take any risk because, hell, law and order is a dirty old business. Suit pants versus sweat pants, basically, with a plot that’s immaterial – it has something to do with guns and drugs, as per – but it’s just enough to bus the girls from one amusing set piece to the next, with Bullock and McCarthy doing what looks like a lot of improv riffing as they go. Along the way it stops for set pieces that look like they have been ordered in by somebody’s people – the initially distrustful duo bond over a night of  drinking, the disco scene where McCarthy has to refashion Bullock’s uptight outfit so she can fit in, the scene where they hang a guy off a fire escape by his feet. They’re funny enough, but they pale next to the rest of it, the bits where Bullock and McCarthy basically lean back and call each other names. The language is ripe, it is foul and it is very funny. And what really helps this film become the funniest comedy I’ve seen in a long time is the strength of the support cast – again and again scenes which would be throwaways in lesser comedies become belters thanks to inspired casting and playing by even the bittiest of bit players.

The Heat – at Amazon

 

The Wall (New Wave, cert 12, DVD)

A woman on holiday in picture-postcard Austria one day bumps into an invisible wall while walking down the road. Everything else in the world seems normal, but she can’t get through this barrier. People on the other side seem to be frozen still. As Martina Gedeck, in almost constant voiceover, recounts what happened over the next few days, weeks, months and… well it looks like years… the notion that The Wall is some kind of offbeat sci-fi is gradually replaced by the realisation that it is a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, played out by a woman instead of a man, and on an “island” in the middle of a landlocked country. It’s an unusual, simple and fascinating film which, like the Tom Hanks Cast Away movie – except prettier – offers us at first little more than the sight of a human being doing the necessary to keep body and soul together. But then it goes a step further, and we watch our castaway forming relationships with the animals also stuck on the inside of the bubble she’s in and wondering about what it means to be human, adjusting to her fate. And that’s it – simple, beguiling, a real gem.

The Wall – at Amazon

 

The Broken Circle Breakdown (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD)

I remember thinking at one point that this film was going to be another of those “and then the kid dies of cancer” movies. Which is what it looked like for a while. I suspect that even as a terminal-illness weepie it would be a good one, because of its basic set-up – she’s a much-tattooed woman forming a love-at-first-sight relationship with a Flemish bluegrass singer, joins the band, marries him, has kid, kid gets cancer. But because of scrambled chronology which pushes the themes (love, religion, rationalism) rather than the plot to the fore, this drama has a real emotional tug. It has several things in its favour – Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh’s entirely convincing performances, Ruben Impens’s exquisitely careful cinematography, which just amplifies ever so slightly what’s going on. And the music – those bluegrass harmonies are bewitching and Baetens can really sing.

The Broken Circle Breakdown – at Amazon

 

The World’s End (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The last of the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (along with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) sees Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s characters off pub-crawling with zombies in the town of their birth. It’s a “getting the gang back together” comedy that mines the first film for attitude and the second film for observations on smalltown life. The zombie idea – are they technically zombies? Alien zombies perhaps? – is a brilliant metaphor for that feeling of returning to your home town and finding everything just as you left it yet entirely different. And the first half of the film works that territory expertly. But it’s when the zombies/aliens/whatever finally announce themselves that the film seems to run out of jokes. I suppose they were all used up by Shaun of the Dead.

The World’s End – at Amazon

 

Red 2 (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

So, the gang of Retired Extremely Dangerous operatives is re-assembled, again, with Willis, Mirren, Malkovich and Mary-Louise Parker joined by Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins (the ham is hanging from the rafters) for a multi-national plot in which military hardware, car chases and absurd villains vie for screen time. Two things early on set the tone – the opening shot is of a supermarket trolley with a wonky wheel. Shortly afterwards we meet Steven Berkoff in chinkie-Chinaman make-up – he’s only missing the Charlie Chan moustache. There are a lot of these films around at the moment – how long before a film with the title Superannuated 1980s Action Hero hits the screens? But if the first Red film spent so much time winking to the camera that it forgot to actually nod to a plot, this sequel has learnt from those mistakes. As per the last one, much of the humour is of the “aren’t we a bit old for this shit” variety. But a cast this illustrious really does know how to polish what in lesser hands would be a turd, there’s some sensationally over the top carnage, the heroes are improbably indestructible and everyone involved seems to be having fun. I think they might squeeze one more of these out before the joke goes flat. Quick, quick, The Expendables 17 is probably already mapped out in Sylvester Stallone’s Psion Organiser.

Red 2 – at Amazon

 

Despicable Me 2 (Universal, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)

Despicable Me 1 was a complete movie. The villain, Gru (as in Gruesome, I imagine), had by the end of it become the good guy. The arc was completed, the story was done. So what are writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio going to have Gru do in the sequel? The answer is: they don’t have the faintest idea. The baldie Dr Evil approximation is ostensibly the focus, but the plot about Gru being recruited by the Anti-Villain League to deal with some super-villain is thin at best. And the romantic sub-plot featuring Lucy (voice: Kristen Wiig) doesn’t ding many dongs either. In some respects this sequel is about Gru’s Minions – the squeaky little fellas who are soon to get their own spinoff movie. But really DM2 isn’t about them either. Luckily for Paul and Daurio, directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud are also back on board and they do have a plan – fill the film with the sort of animated mayhem that Chuck Jones used to pack the Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry and Roadrunner shorts with. This makes for inspired moments, and they crop up often enough that you can almost forget that the story is… just a bit meh.

Despicable Me 2 – at Amazon

 

Heaven’s Gate Restored (Second Sight, cert 15, Blu-ray)

A good, long, immersive film telling the story of a rich Harvard guy (Kris Kristofferson) who becomes the champion of the poor out in the wild wild West, Heaven’s Gate was butchered by the studio then filleted by the critics when it was first released in 1980. Directed by Michael Cimino – who was given a bottomless budget after the success of The Deer Hunter – the film destroyed United Artists and brought to a close the New Hollywood era of grown-up films directed by dope-smoking long-hairs. So here it is back at epic length, thanks to a fabulous restoration job (you used to be able to see the joins – not any more), and it’s immediately clear from the very first sequence, a huge, impressive crowd scene set in Harvard, what Cimino is up to. An hour and a half (of three and a half hours) later – every scene a money shot, every scrap of scene-setting requiring hundreds of extras, immensely complicated camera shots, amazing sets and John Ford locations – and the pomp of the whole thing has become oppressive. It’s also around this time that another of the film’s shortcomings becomes abundantly clear – Kris Kristofferson is a Mount Rushmore of a man, but he’s no actor. He can’t do interiority. And he needs to be able to do it because his character is so badly underwritten. As are all the characters in this film – John Hurt, as the gilded Harvard youth gone badly to drink, a young Christopher Walken warming up Johnny Depp’s cheekbones and much of his acting style, Isabelle Huppert, Sam Waterston, Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke (when he still had a light, pleasant voice). That is an immense cast of talent, so good they go some way towards repairing the deficiencies in the writing. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography goes most of the rest of the way, this surely being a contender for the best photographed film ever made. For Zsigmond’s skill, talent, graft and the huge budget that must have been lavished on his set-ups alone, this film is a must-watch. As for the rest of it, it’s OK, it’s fine, neither the revealed masterpiece that some claim nor a calamitous mess.

Heaven’s Gate – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

A flashback sequence from Mishima

 

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

 

 

25 November

 

 

Yukio Mishima commits seppuku, 1970

On this day in 1970, the Japanese writer/actor/director Yukio Mishima disembowelled himself ritualistically, after having tried and failed to persuade troops at the Ichigaya barracks to launch a coup d’état to reinstate the Emperor’s supreme power. Shortly afterwards, as pre-arranged, his assistant attempted to decapitate him. When this failed, another assistant succeeded in severing Mishima’s head, then performed the same service for the first assistant, who had by now also disembowelled himself. Mishima’s real name was Kimitake Hiraoka and his act brought to a conclusion a life that had been devoted to the idea of the artist as a man of action. A precocious talent as a child, Mishima had shown early promise and had been writing from the age of 12. A novelist, poet and playwright by the late 1940s, Mishima had been a celebrity since his early 20s. He also took up acting, directing, singing and modelling in the 1960s. Though essentially gay, Mishima was strongly against what he saw as the effete culture of art and took up weight training and kendo, which he continued until the end of his life. He joined the Japanese armed forces aged 42, then formed his own private militia a year later, which was devoted to the idea of the Emperor as the divine essence of Japan. He saw himself as a modern samurai and patriot, and as a template for a new form of artist. Famous throughout the world, particularly in the United States, Mishima was considered for the Nobel prize for literature three times. He lost out in 1968, it is thought, because of his radical militaristic, quasi-religious politics.

 

 

 

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985, dir: Paul Schrader)

Better known as a writer (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ) than as a director, Paul Schrader’s work behind the camera has been wildly erratic but always interesting. See Adam Resurrected – Schrader’s screwy examination of Jewishness. Or The Walker – his quasi noir about his country’s moral malaise. Both are works dealing with difficult subjects and not entirely sure how to get onto the screen the ideas – possibly only half developed – buzzing around his head. With Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, he is on much surer ground, telling the life story of Yukio Mishima in three distinctive chunks. Chunk one shows Mishima’s formative years in black and white. Chunk two is Schrader’s version of significant moments from Mishima’s published oeuvre, all played out in a heightened realistic style in fizzingly bright colours. Chunk three is the last day of Mishima’s life, leading up to his suicide. Like other characters from other Schrader films, Mishima is the troubled hero, difficult, thrust towards a course of action most of us wouldn’t contemplate (think Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver) but which springs logically from his worldview. It’s a remarkable biography because it manages both to tell us about the man in a reasonably factual way, while also sketching in his psyche with poetic, expressionist touches. Schrader co-wrote it with his brother, who lived in Japan and had co-wrote Schrader’s first film, The Yakuza. The set design is by Eiko Ishioka – Dracula, M Butterfly and The Cell (terrible film, great looks) – whose colour sequences alone make the film worth watching. “When a man reaches 40, he has no chance to die beautifully,” says Mishima at one point. Though in Ishioka’s production design the ageing narcissist does at least go out surrounded by beauty, a beauty that, in Schrader’s vision, is analogous to a kind of purity of thought. Whether Schrader is holding such a model of humanity up as an example for the rest of us to admire and follow is never quite clear.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the best biopics ever made
  • Like or loathe him, Mishima is a fascinating character
  • Philip Glass’s thrumming score
  • It’s another take on Travis Bickle – self-mythologist, narcissist, nutter

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Paul Bettany and Russell Crowe in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

 

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

 

 

24 November

 

 

Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species, 1859

 

On this day in 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (to give it its full title).

Building on work by Joseph Hooker, Robert Chambers and others, Darwin rushed into print a book he had been mulling over for two decades, because he knew that the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had, quite independently, come up with theories remarkably similar to his own.

Written for the layman, the book set out Darwin’s observations and theories about the evolution of the abundance of different life forms on Planet Earth.

Evolution is no mystery and even the most creationist of fundamentalist Christians believe in it. It is nature’s version of something humans have been doing since the dawn of their own species – selecting desirable characteristics and breeding for them.

What makes Darwin’s break important is his suggestion that new species can develop from this evolutionary process. A species being defined as something that cannot breed with another (so a Jack Russell terrier is not a species, it’s just a variant of dog).

Breaking with the orthodox scientists of the day, who were almost all clergymen and believed in the ideas of “natural theology”, Darwin’s book was an immediate success because it gave voice to ideas that were already in the cultural ether.

Though he never wavered from his core theory, Darwin adjusted the text of his book with each new edition, borrowing, for example, the phrase “survival of the fittest” from Herbert Spencer as a poetic and pithy way of rendering the idea of natural selection (“fit” here in the sense that the survivor has fit into a niche, not that he/she has been working out).

In spite of some problems with the theory, many of which Darwin himself acknowledged, Darwin’s theories became, and have remained, the primary scientific model for describing the biology of the world we live in, and the place of human in it.

 

 

 

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003, dir: Peter Weir)

That long title, with a colon halfway through, is clearly saying something. What’s it’s saying is “franchise”.

But in spite of Russell Crowe’s strenuous attempts, Peter Weir’s adaptation of one of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels remains the only one in the series. Which is a great pity because it is an unusual and satisfying film, which sticks close to O’Brian’s schematic of spending as much effort on describing life on the ocean wave as in telling any “adventure on the high seas” story – with O’Brian there’s a fair chance you will come away actually knowing how to splice a mainbrace.

Crowe plays gutsy Captain Jack Aubrey, Paul Bettany is cerebral Dr Stephen Maturin, a scientific man much in the Darwin mould, and we follow them as they chase an enemy French ship through gales and calms, into a cannons-blazing battle and finally onto shore in the Galapagos.

Skilfully blending fascinating insights into life on sea – the sight of Crowe and Bettany playing string duets sticks in the mind – with rollicking old-school adventure of the sort Errol Flynn used to make, this is a big budget epic that treats the viewer with a certain amount of intelligence. Which is not how the viewer wants to be treated at all.

Master and Commander debuted not long after Pirates of the Caribbean had announced that the seafaring adventure was back with a bang. But unlike Gore Verbinski’s pirates-and-CGI pantomime, Peter Weir’s film lost a king’s ransom at the box office. So no, no franchise.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of Crowe’s best roles
  • A sensitive and respectful adaptation of one of O’Brian’s much loved books
  • Another intelligent movie from Weir (The Truman Show, Dead Poet’s Society)
  • Shot at sea on a real ship – and you can tell

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World – at Amazon

 

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