Carry On Cleo

Sid James as Mark Antony, Amanda Barrie as Cleopatra in Carry On Cleo

 

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

 

 

1 January

 

 

Julian calendar takes effect, 45BC

On this day in 45BC, or 708AUC (Ab Urbis Conditae – since the founding of the city) as it was known at the time, the Julian calendar was first put into effect. It had been introduced the year before by Julius Caesar, and replaced the Calendar of Numa (which had earlier replaced the Calendar of Romulus). The Julian calendar consisted of 365 days divided into 12 months with a leap year every four years. This means that a single year averages out at 365.25 days. The solar year is in fact a few minutes shorter. Because of this difference the Julian calendar gains three days every 400 years – so the coincidence of the longest day and midsummer on the calendar starts to slip. The Gregorian reform of 1582 corrects this slight but eventually problematic difference in the calendar and solar year by making a correction of 0.002% to the length of the year. It does this by making century years (100, 200 etc) normal years rather than the leap years they should be (because they’re divisible by 4) except when the century year is divisible by 400. Which is why the year 2100 will not be a leap year. Under the Julian calendar it would have been. Apart from this tweak in 1582, we’re still using the calendar that Julius Caesar would recognise as his.

 

 

 

Carry On Cleo (1964, dir: Gerald Thomas)

The Carry On series of 30-odd films made between 1958 and 78 had their highs and lows but Carry On Cleo is one of the best. The reason are various, but the fact that Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims – key members of the loose Carry On team – all had key roles is obviously a plus. So was the fact that the production was able to use the sets and props that had been built for the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton Cleopatra, before that film upped sticks and switched locations to Italy, where new sets were built – Sid James’s Mark Antony is actually wearing the costume Richard Burton wore as Mark Antony. Plus there was the input of Dennis Norden and Frank Muir, who wrote the single funniest line from any Carry On film, when Julius Caesar is being pursued by an angry mob and shouts “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me.” It helps too that Kenneth Williams is speaking the line, rolling his eyes and flaring his nostrils as the un-noblest Roman of them all. Apart from that one line, the rest of the script was by Talbot Rothwell, and he seems to have been inspired by the Norden/Muir contribution. Rothwell was at his best as a parodist (Carry On Cowboy, Screaming and Spying were also above average Carry Ons) but you wouldn’t ever lay the charge of intellectualism at his door. His writing is quick and fun, full of terrible puns and tortured wordplay and the cast attack it with energy, particularly Kenneth Williams (as Caesar) who in this film is probably as good as he’d ever be. The plot revolves around Mark Antony falling for Cleo (Amanda Barrie) and realising he’s going to have to kill Caesar if he is going to make her his. Meanwhile, two backward, skin-clad Britons, Hengist (Kenneth Connor) and Horsa (Jim Dale), are stirred into the mix to give the illusion of depth, and to give the plotlines involving the guys in togas a helping hand when Rothwell runs out of inspiration. The entire intention is to poke fun at sword and sandal epics of the time, which were, let’s face it, getting tired. Or as a title card after the opening credits has it: “Whilst the characters and events in this story are based on actual characters and events, certain liberties have been taken with Cleopatra.”

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A fine intro to the series
  • Kenneth Williams’s best Carry On performance
  • The most lush and lustrous entry in the series, thanks to the Cleopatra sets
  • Amanda Barrie as a dizzy bewildered Cleo

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Carry On Cleo – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

What War May Bring

Audrey Dana in What War May Bring

 

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

 

 

31 December

 

 

President Truman declares the Second World War over, 1946

On this day in 1946, the US President declared that hostilities had come to an end in the Second World War. Whether this means that the war itself ended on that day depends on your terms. The war in Europe ended on VE day (8 May 1945). Some suggest that the war ended with the defeat of Japan and the signing of an armistice, with VJ day (14 August 1945). Still others reckon the war can’t be termed over until the signing of the peace treaty with Japan (1951). And yet other more legalistic souls that the war with Germany couldn’t end until Germany was re-unified (1990). However, officially, according to Presidential Proclamation 2714, signed on 31 December 1946, this was the day that the war ended, that the state of war against Germany and Japan was lifted. So if you are an American who served in the Army only during 1946, you are considered a World War II veteran.

 

 

 

What War May Bring (2010, dir: Claude Lelouch)

Anyone for a meta war film? Sly old dog Claude Lelouch is completely in control of his material in this Second World War movie that looks like it was made back then, but clearly wasn’t. An attempt to sum up all WWII films, and choreograph them into some coherent whole, and to offer some cultural perspective on the whole thing, it’s a stop-start affair, a flashback film telling the story of a woman in the dock for killing her rich husband. Back we go to the 1920s and meet this Jewish girl’s family. Forward we go into the War itself, when Ilva (Audrey Dana) is simultaneously having hot sex with a Nazi and being part of the Resistance. The Americans arrive and Ilva falls in love with two GIs at the same time. We go forwards again, and end up in the 1960s, where a character like Claude Lelouch himself appears, films are being produced, the past is being junked and the future being made. If I’m sounding vague it’s because this is a weird pudding of a film. But wade in, to mix the metaphor, something Lelouch isn’t averse to doing (wading and mixing), and there is so much to enjoy as the old master plays out pastiches of Kubrick and Spielberg, and there’s even a nod to Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. To reduce a film that is all about what war may bring to a simple concentrate, the film’s message is that war is complicated, messy, and we have not been culturally equipped by life in peacetime to get a handle on it. Great selfless heroism one second can be followed by awful selfishness the next. You can love a Nazi and the Resistance. Two GIs simultaneously. War destroys and it creates – it created the peace-loving 1960s. But to reduce this wonderful, amazing film to its message is to miss its point a bit. It is a great piece of cultural sleight of hand, with Lelouch and long-time collaborator Pierre Uytterhoeven spinning this huge long storyline about Ilva together with another, about the cultural portrayal of the war. Until finally, in the third act, he starts to pull it all together, in a “here’s kind of where we are now, and here’s where I fit in” manoeuvre. It is hugely ambitious, hugely epic, yet at the same time it’s working to undercut the tropes of the epic (bad Nazis, brave resistance fighters, love, honour). It’s an old man’s film, a farewell in many respects – Here’s where I came in. Here’s what I made of what I was dealt. Time will reduce all of it to nothing. Maybe love will endure. Maybe not. Here, you tell me what you think. A masterpiece.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • It’s not his final film, but this is a farewell by a master
  • Audrey Dana, beautiful and talented
  • Lelouch asks whether, after all this time, we can separate the war from the myth-making surrounding it. Can we?
  • One of the directors of the French New Wave generation still making vital work

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

What War May Bring – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Boogie Nights

Mark Wahlberg and Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights

 

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

 

 

30 December

 

 

Jeff Lynne born, 1947

On this day in 1947, Jeffrey Lynne was born in Birmingham, UK. Jeff was an early starter and by the age of 16 had formed a band in Birmingham, called first The Hellcats, then The Handicaps, and finally The Andicaps. By 18 he had learnt the rudiments of the studio recording process after buying a Bang & Olufsen BeoCord 2000 reel to reel tape machine, and joined a band called The Nightriders, who changed their name to The Idle Race. In 1970 he joined The Move, at the invitation of former Nightriders/Idle Race member Roy Wood. Together with guitarist/singer Wood, and drummer Bev Bevan, also of The Move, Lynne formed The Electric Light Orchestra, a rock/classical hybrid band designed to function in tandem with The Move. In fact the ELO almost immediately replaced The Move, both in the affections of the founders, and musically. Both Lynne and Wood were multi-instrumentalists adept at studio production and both saw themselves as frontmen. By 1972 – in a clear case of “too many chiefs” – Wood had left, leading to Lynne taking full creative control of ELO. Lynne tempered the rockier edge of the band over time, and ELO became a pop band with an increasingly complex studio sound. ELO became one of the most successful bands of the 1970s, though they were never regarded as cool by music papers such as the New Musical Express. During the 1980s the band’s popularity began to wane and Lynne moved into producing, including for George Harrison on his album Cloud Nine, much of which was co-written by Lynne. This led to the formation of The Traveling Wilburys, with Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison. In the 1990s Lynne produced the Anthology albums for the surviving Beatles. Since then he has produced and written for Tom Jones, Aerosmith, Regina Spektor and Joe Walsh.

 

 

 

Boogie Nights (1997, dir: Paul Thomas Anderson)

Is Boogie Nights Paul Thomas Anderson’s best movie? Yes, he’s hit high notes since, with There Will Be Blood for instance, but Boogie Nights seems to have it all. And by “it all” I don’t just mean Heather Graham naked – at one point nearly every film seemed to feature Heather Graham naked. A souped-up version of his 1988 half-hour film The Dirk Diggler Story, it tells the story of the smalltown boy with a big asset in the trouser area, who becomes a porn star in its last golden age, when films were shot on real film, and had storylines. OK, so the storylines were as scant as Graham’s outfits but hey… Anderson conjures the period brilliantly and seems to make absolutely no wrong turns at all. Casting Mark Wahlberg, then still better known as Marky Marky of Calvin Klein underwear fame, was as brilliant as getting old Burt Reynolds to turn up and remind us what a real shit-eating grin looks like. Playing Jack Horner, Reynolds is folksy perfection as a porn producer who has borrowed half of Colonel Sanders’ finger-lickin’ shtick and gathered around him a surrogate family of performers, technicians, hangers-on, dealers, schemers, but not many friends. Boogie Nights is about the business of making porn, the production-line process of it, the people it sucks in and spits out, how the smart ones treat it as a job and how the dim ones are beguiled by it and ruined. Wahlberg, as Dirk Diggler, tightropes along that dividing line all the way through, surrounded by characters such as new best friend Reed (John C Reilly), sad-eyed assistant director Bill (William H Macy) and mother figure Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) who are all also negotiating the sticky path. The music of ELO fits the bill perfectly – bouncy, a touch of cheese – alongside a great clutch of poptastic tunes that dial us back to the late 1970s (Boney M, Andrew Gold, Hot Chocolate among them). Meanwhile Anderson’s camera also takes us back in time, in scenes that recall the roaming camera and complex long tracking shots of Robert Altman or Martin Scorsese. A film about the 1970s made in the style of the masters of the 1970s, with a big cast of well defined characters all with their own story arcs, that’s not easy. Following on from Hard Eight, PT Anderson’s mood piece about gamblers and other dwellers on the periphery, Boogie Nights announces the arrival in town of a new master.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Wahlberg’s breakthrough
  • Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film
  • A cast including Anderson regulars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, Alfred Molina
  • Robert Elswit’s cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Boogie Nights – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

A Matter of Life and Death

Marius Goring in A Matter of Life and Death

 

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

 

 

29 December

 

 

UK pays off Second World War debt, 2006

On this day in 2006, the last working day of the year, the British Government made the last of 50 payments to the US and Canada, money it had borrowed off them in 1945 at the end of the war, when the British economist John Maynard Keynes had been dispatched to Washington with the begging bowl. With the national debt standing at 180% of gross domestic product, the government had expected, or hoped for, a grant. Instead it was offered a loan, on terms of 2% interest annually, a rate that turned out to be quite advantageous to the UK in the long run. Britain had effectively bankrupted itself and its empire fighting the First World War, and at the end of the Second was so weakened that the empire simply started falling apart. Britain hastily divested itself of its colonies, granting independence almost as fast as members of the royal family could be despatched around the world to witness the lowering of the flag. Decades later, in 2006, the final payment of $83 million was paid from the UK to the US, and a loan which had initially been US$ 3.75 billion (plus US$1.19 billion from Canada) and grown to US$7.5 billion (US$2 billion for Canada) with interest was declared paid in full. The same cannot be said about loans made from the US to the UK after the First World War.

 

 

 

A Matter of Life and Death (1946, dir: Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)

Made when American GIs stationed in Britain were being portrayed as “overpaid, oversexed and over here”, this film takes the American boy/English girl stereotype that was pissing off so many fighting British Tommies and reverses it. So in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s deliberate pouring of oil on troubled waters it’s a British fighting man, played by David Niven, who falls for the American girl (Kim Hunter). The complication, in a film full of them, being that they only meet as Niven’s plane is hurtling towards earth, and even then it’s not a meeting in person – she’s a radio controller forced to listen to the pilot as he bails out, without a parachute, but not before he’s told her “I love you, June. You’re life and I’m leaving it.” But Peter Carter (Niven) doesn’t die. Miraculously. In fact he washes up on the beach just in time to catch June as she is cycling back to her billet, upset, at the end of her shift. And the two fall in love in earnest. But then Providence realises it has made a mistake – this man really should have died – sends an emissary to earth, who calls Peter to a court in heaven, where he has to go before a celestial court to plead his case. What will win out, divine bureaucracy or true love? The propagandistic intention of this film does declare itself a little over insistently in the third act, when Peter is being prosecuted by an American Revolutionary (Raymond Massey) and defended by the peruqued French Revolutionary emissary (Marius Goring) sent to earth to collect him. But in all other respects this film is a work of intellectual wit and technical brilliance – the way Heaven is in monochrome and Earth is in colour (“One is starved for Technicolor up there” says Goring on his arrival on this side of the eternal veil); the still incredibly impressive “stairway to heaven” (the film’s US title) that conveys people to you know where and back; the fabulously clipped and frightfully British attitudes on display; Powell and Pressburger’s evident love for their largely rural locations (always noticeable in their films); the freeze-frame sections; the strange “closing eye” special effect; the amazing modernist viewing portals from Heaven into its administrative heart below. If you have not seen it, you should. If you have seen it, you are probably now saying “but he’s forgotten the…”.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • In a brilliant career, this is one of Powell and Pressburger’s great films
  • Roger Livesey as bluff old cove Doctor Reeves
  • Cinematography by Jack Cardiff, one of the greats
  • Look out for Lois “Miss Moneypenny” Maxwell in a bit part

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Star Trek

Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana in Star Trek

 

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

 

 

28 December

 

 

Birth of Nichelle Nichols, 1932

On this day in 1932, Grace Dell (aka Nichelle) Nichols was born, in Robbins, Illinois, USA. Having studied in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, she first arrived in showbiz as a singer in a 1961 musical called Kicks and Co, then went on to have roles in Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess, before touring as a singer with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton’s bands. In 1964 she appeared in an episode of a TV series called The Lieutenant, produced by Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry cast her again in his next TV series, Star Trek, as Lieutenant Uhura. The series ran from 1966-69 and after it ended Nichols became an advocate for more racial and gender diversity at Nasa. Personnel her organisation helped recruit included Charles Bolden, the current Nasa administrator and Lori Garver, deputy administrator. She has also served on the board of governors of the National Space Society, a nonprofit educational organisation founded by Dr Wernher von Braun, aka “the Father of Rocket Science”.

 

 

 

Star Trek (2009, dir: JJ Abrams)

Just calling it simply Star Trek suggests either boundless arrogance, or that JJ Abrams and crew knew they had got it right. They so have. From beginning to end this reboot pays full homage to the original, aping its humour, its humanism, its folksiness and its out-there plotlines. The casting is flawless – Chris Pine plays William Shatner playing Kirk (sitting cross-legged on the captain’s chair, brilliant); even better is Zachary Quinto as Leonard Nimoy as Spock. Karl Urban also catches that suggestion of a tremor in his comic portrayal of DeForrest Kelley’s Bones McCoy. You can argue that Simon Pegg is the weak link as Scotty, but he might argue right back that he’s one of the few not aiming for impersonation. And Zoe Saldana as Uhura does seem almost improbably sexy, but then Zoe Saldana is improbably sexy, so what are you going to do? In terms of genre this is your origins story meets breathless actioner, with just enough time spent sketching in characters who are, let’s face it, already known to us. As to the CG effects, well much money and a lot of time has been lavished on them. Abrams seems fully aware that special effects in sci-fi movies are often a bit of a letdown – many directors seem to abdicate control when green-screen technicians get involved – and it is noticeable that the more complicated and intense the CG, the more Abrams insists on physical, balletically controlled work by the actors too – see the space jump scene, and then look up the actors’ anguished stories about dangling about in harnesses for hours on end. The story? No idea – after we’ve met the youthful, bratty Kirk, and the remainder of the gang of Sulu, Chekhov and so on has eventually been got together, it seems that it’s about the Romulans doing something dastardly involving the swallowing of planets using black holes, or something. Led by a relatively inconsequential Eric Bana as Romulan aggressor Nero, this entire plotline is the worst thing about the film. But then that’s a minor quibble. This is not a story about earthlings versus aliens, it’s a film introducing us to characters we already know, who are then observed easing themselves into positions we’re familiar with, while an appreciative audience claps as their guys arrive at each recognisable mark. Enter Leonard Nimoy as the old Spock, accompanied by a lump in the throat as he reads out the familiar “these are the voyages of the Starship enterprise” lines. We are all Trekkies now.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Because you missed Winona Ryder and Chris Hemsworth first time round
  • Of the 11 Star Trek films (up to this point), this is the best
  • Because Roddenberry wanted someone younger in the future to redo Star Trek “bigger and better”
  • The space jump scene

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Star Trek – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

 

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

 

 

27 December

 

 

Benazir Bhutto assassinated, 2007

On this day in 2007, Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party and a former Prime Minister of Pakistan, died in a bomb attack at a political rally in Rawalpindi. She was campaigning in the upcoming general election. A glamorous figure in Pakistani politics, she was the daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and had been elected Prime Minister at the age of 35, in 1989, the first woman to lead a Muslim country. Though because of the presidential system, Bhutto was constantly in a struggle for executive power with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who eventually dismissed her government. She was elected again in 1993, survived a coup d’état by renegade military officers in 1995, only to be dismissed again by the president (now Farooq Leghari) in 1996, on the grounds of corruption. She had returned only in 2007 after a period of self-exile, after coming to an understanding with President Pervez Musharraf that the corruption charges against her would be dropped. She arrived back in Pakistan on 18 October and there was an immediate attempt on her life, by a suicide bomber who killed 136 people and injured 450. On 8 December three gunmen attacked Bhutto’s office and killed three of her supporters. On 27 December, while standing up through the sunroof of her bulletproof car to wave to crowds after leaving a political rally, she was shot by a gunman and at the same time explosives were detonated. She died shortly afterwards, most likely as a result of head trauma caused by the blast. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility, though the Bhutto family has always maintained that Musharraf was aware of an impending attack by the Taliban but failed to pass on this knowledge to Bhutto’s protectors.

 

 

 

Zero Dark Thirty (2012, dir: Kathryn Bigelow)

“A lot of my friends have died trying to do this; I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.” The key line of dialogue spoken by Jessica Chastain around halfway through Kathryn Bigelow’s long film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden contains the film’s key word – spared. It’s biblical, from the account of the Passover. In the character of Pakistan-based CIA operative Maya (Chastain) – who believes Bin Laden is probably hiding in Pakistan in plain sight – we have the obsessive on the hunt for the fanatic, the leader of a one-woman holy war, a crusader against a jihadist. If screenplay writer Mark Boal is suggesting that the West too has become fanatical in its insistence on spreading its values around the world, he’s saying it by the mere existence of Maya. Look for any more critical political perspective and you’ll have to work for it – whether the use of torture is justified, ethically and practically, is introduced as an idea, then dropped fairly quickly, for example. These odd fleeting moments apart, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a film of nuance – the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad and that’s the end of it. Though it looks like a spy procedural – director Kathryn Bigelow has fully digested the lessons learned from the Bourne films – it is in fact a war movie. Context, history, realpolitik, they’re all pretty much absent, much as they were in Bigelow’s Iraq movie, The Hurt Locker, which also focused on the guys fighting the war rather than the war itself. Which is not to say it isn’t impressive – in the way it slowly and carefully introduces key players (in particular a brilliantly authoritative Jennifer Ehle – who’d have thought she was once Mr Darcy’s prim English love object in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice), in the way that it establishes story arcs that run for the decade it covers, from Maya’s first introduction and her bratty assessment of the situation – “Pakistan’s kinda fucked up” – to her increasing obsession with finding Bin Laden and her loss of comrades on the way. And finally, as we enter the home strait – showtime – we realise we have been carefully introduced to the Navy Seals who are eventually going to infiltrate Bin Laden’s compound at night, shooting as they go, in an extended 25 minute sequence which is impressive not only because it makes you catch your breath for the duration, but because it also has the real ring of truth about it.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • It engages with the controversy about evidence gained by torture
  • Its strong cast includes Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini
  • Jessica Chastain carries the entire movie
  • The raid itself – surely the most convincing ever filmed

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Zero Dark Thirty – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Nadia Tolokkonikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot

 

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

 

 

26 December

 

 

USSR formally dissolved, 1991

And suddenly, on this day in 1991, the Soviet Union suddenly simply ceased to exist. No nuclear bombing by the USA, no internal revolutionary rupture, it just shut up shop. The previous day President Mikhail Gorbachev had unfussily declared his office extinct and handed over the launch codes of the USSR’s nuclear weapons to Boris Yeltsin, the President of Russia. It was the logical final step of the process of glasnost (literally: openness) and perestroika (restructuring) initiated by Gorbachev in 1985, which had led to the increase of nationalist movements in Warsaw Pact states. This led to the revolutions of 1989 and finally declarations of independence of states incorporated into the USSR, starting with Estonia in 1990. The leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus had met secretly on 8 December 1991 and signed the Belavezha Accords, which were an agreement to dissolve the USSR and replace it with a Commonwealth (the CIS). Within two weeks eight of the remaining nine of the USSR states had agreed to join the CIS. At which point the Soviet Union was effectively in existence in name only. Russia became the inheritor state of the USSR. The Cold War officially ended.

 

 

 

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013, dir: Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin)

This documentary tells the story of the Pussy Riot women, who were sent to prison for making a noise in church. The noise they made was a punk song, with lyrics which denounced the connections that the established Russian Orthodox Church had with the state, and in particular Vladimir Putin. And the church they made the noise in was the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, a building which had been razed to the ground by Stalin, and whose rebuilding was seen, especially by believers, as one of the signs of the return of freedom to the former USSR. “They walked into Russia and took a shit,” says one angry babushka, protesting against the actions of the Rioters, whom this documentary clearly supports. Directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin go into the story of the three who were caught and arrested, most notably of Nadia Tolokonnikova, the situationist artist who we see, at one art event, naked, pregnant and being fucked from behind. If this sort of thing raises the suggestion that the Rioters are getting some silly juvenile urges out of their system, the glimpses we see of them behind bars, eloquently stating their case in court, and refusing to repent, even though they know that it means prison, redresses the balance. Whether their protest was ultimately effective, or possibly even damaged the cause of liberalism in the former USSR is another question that co-directors Lerner and Pozdorovkin tackle with some skill. These young women, who yoked Spice Girls’ exuberance with deeply held misgivings about the way their country was going, are the product of the new era that Gorbachev hustled in – the youngest, Nadia, was born as the Iron Curtain came down. For a snapshot of a country trying to come to terms with what that epoch-changing event meant, and still not sure just how much it wants to embrace the West, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer makes a useful primer.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Meet the Pussy Rioters
  • A brief history of Russia since the USSR ended
  • It’s not afraid to tell the other side of the story
  • It has access to the people who matter

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

12:08 East of Bucharest

Mircea Andreescu as Piscoci (left), Teo Corban as Jderescu (middle) and Ion Sapdaru as Manescu (right).

 

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

 

 

25 December

 

 

Nicholae Ceauşescu executed, 1989

On this day in 1989, Nicolae Ceauşescu, general secretary of the Romanian Communist party since 1965, president of the country since 1967, was tried and convicted by a military tribunal, then taken out and shot by a firing squad, along with his wife Elena. Only the previous month, in November 1989, he had been re-elected for another five years as leader of the Romanian Communist Party. Ceauşescu had taken the opportunity to denounce the spread of anti-Communist rebellion throughout Eastern Europe. On 16 December in the city of Timişoara an impromptu demonstration against the eviction of a priest from his flat turned into something much less focused and angrier when students joined in. The police and security services made things worse by firing on the demonstrators and killing people. On 21 December, at a staged open rally, Ceauşescu addressed 100,000 people and attempted to blame the Timişoara demonstration as being the work of fascist agitators. The crowd started to boo him and a “Ti-mi-şoa-ra” chant started to go up. A riot began to break out, and because the state broadcaster was transmitting pictures live, most of the country saw it, and Ceauşescu’s bewildered reaction to events beyond his control. Ceauşescu and his wife panicked and retreated into the building. The streets filled with people, and the army, police and Securitate secret police started firing on them. By the following morning the crowds had grown, and Ceauşescu had introduced martial law. Then it was discovered that the minister of defence, Vasilae Milea, had died under suspicious circumstances. It was widely believed he’d been killed for failing to fire on protestors. At a stroke, almost the entire army went over to the revolution. Milea’s replacement, Victor Stanculescu, also tacitly joined the revolution and suggested to Ceauşescu that he and his wife should flee by helicopter. This they did, leaving Bucharest by the skin of their teeth at 12:08 on 22 December. Three days later, having been apprehended, arrested and tried in a 90 minute hearing, they were dead. It was the only violent overthrow to happen in the revolutionary wave that swept through the Warsaw Pact countries in 1989.

 

 

 

12:08 East of Bucharest (2006, dir: Corneliu Porumboiu)

Where were you when Ceauşescu fled? And when exactly did you join the movement that ensured his overthrow? This initially dour, eventually gripping drama by writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu sets out to prick the bubble of self-congratulation that so many Romanians have been inflating every since the former dictator was bundled so quickly off the world stage. The films builds slowly, and divides its action into two halves. In the first part we meet a sad gang of people, all of whom live in Vaslui, a nowhere town (Porumboiu’s home town in fact), who are gradually being assembled to take part in a live TV phone-in to celebrate 16 years since 22 December 1989 – revolution day. Their lives are drab, their town is poor, but the young people at least seem to be looking forward with some hope. In particular we meet Mr Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), an alcoholic history teacher who claims he was at the heart of the revolutionary action on that fateful day. In part two that claim is tested, increasingly uncomfortably, as Mr Manescu and fellow “experts” sit in a live studio and caller after caller starts ringing in to dispute Manescu’s claim – was he really out on the streets with the crowds or was he somewhere else entirely, on his own, drunk? The 12:08 of the title is particularly pertinent. It’s the time Ceauşescu’s escape helicopter took off, the moment when the country realised that the hated dictator had either fled, or was about to be caught. So if you took to the streets after that time, you weren’t quite the revolutionary spirit you now claim you were. In fact, the film asks at a wider level, was there a revolution in the country at large at all? Or did the lumpen mass of people simply go along with the change in the same way they had gone along with Ceauşescu and his equally hated wife? Revolutionary opportunism has rarely been analysed with such surgical precision and wit. Shot in the flat, blank style reminiscent of the Communist 1980s, this is a wise, uncomfortable and a surprisingly funny film, and a satire well worth seeking out.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A bone dry satire
  • One of the great films out of Romania in recent years
  • Winner of the best first feature at Cannes
  • An intro to Porumboiu, writer/director of similarly brilliant Police, Adjective

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

12:08 East of Bucharest – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Beneath Hill 60

Mark Coles Smith as Billy "Streaky" Bacon in Beneath Hill 60

 

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

 

 

24 December

 

 

The Christmas Truce, 1914

On this day in 1914, an unofficial truce broke out, mostly between the British and German soldiers, at the Front in the First World War. It was the first year of the war and it had already become largely a static war fought from trenches. Troops had been dug in for months and had become familiar with their opposite numbers. As Christmas approached and the tug of hearth and home got stronger, men began to sing songs on both sides of no man’s land. Perhaps because the British and Germans would have been familiar with the tunes, if nothing else, of quite a few of the carols being sung, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day some men, tentatively at first, ventured into no man’s land, where they exchanged gifts with soldiers from the other side. Famously, football games were arranged and for a while a holiday spirit took hold. Though informal truces, especially among fighting men quartered close to each other for prolonged periods, are not unusual in war, the truce seized hold of the public imagination after first the New York Times and later the British papers reported it, their usual canine compliance eventually overwhelmed by the power of the “story”. The event became a plank in the building of a myth – of the futile war in which honest, decent men, “lions led by donkeys”, were sent to their death for little real purpose. The following year orders came down from on high that such fraternisation was to be nipped in the bud.

 

 

 

Beneath Hill 60 (2010, dir: Jeremy Sims)

How many Australian films can you name that are about the First World War? Beneath Hill 60 is one of a rare breed, and is a film well worth searching out for reasons other than scarcity. It tells the interesting story of the Australian tunnelling division composed of miners sent to blow up German fortifications and break the stalemate that existed on the Western Front in 1916. It’s a classic “the men, their task, its execution” kind of war film that misses a trick by avoiding the use of handheld – thus exposing too many unconvincing tunnels, and the odd flaky bit of acting. That nark apart it’s an effective claustrophobic piece, full of that comradely blunt speaking that Aussies seem to have made their own, and is in many ways an amalgam of the WW1 movie (men going over the top to certain slaughter) and the WW2 movie (skirmishes with Jerry). This means it comes with a few of those war movie ticks that seem unavoidable – the minor character who makes some hopeful statement about the future along the lines of “I plan to be a carpenter when this is all over” and who is consequently doomed to die within the next few minutes. The slightly unnecessary backstory of the lead character (Brendan Cowell as Oliver Woodward) with a girl back home. But in the end it’s the detail of the tunnelling that convinces, the sheer grunt and mechanics of it, and a few gemlike performances from people I’d never heard of before, such as Steve Le Marquand, bluntly effective as a bolshie sergeant. And ultimately, it’s about a lot of people sacrificing their lives for the greater good, and how that changed the survivors in ways we can’t imagine.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An Aussie First World War movie – unusual
  • A true story based on Oliver Woodward’s diaries
  • The filth of the Front well evoked
  • Cezary Skubiszewski’s score

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Beneath Hill 60 – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

500 Days of Summer

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer

 

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

 

 

23 December

 

 

Carla Bruni born, 1967

On this day in 1967, Carla Gilberta Bruni Tedeschi was born in Turin, Italy. The daughter of a concert pianist and a composer, and the grand-daughter of Virginio Bruni Tedeschi, founder of CEAT tyres, Carla grew up in France, where her family moved to escape threats from the Red Brigades, the terrorist group active in 1970s Italy. She studied art and architecture and became a model at 19, going on to become one of the highest paid in the business. In 1997 she abandoned modelling to devote herself to music. Her first album, Quelqu’un M’a Dit, came out in 2003 and was generally well received. She has produced a further three albums since, which are mostly filled with the sort of songs that you would expect of a supermodel – slinky, cool and sexy. In 2008 she married Nicolas Sarkozy, who was then the president of France. Her sister is the actress Valeria Bruni Tedeschi.

 

 

 

500 Days of Summer (2009, dir: Marc Webb)

Carla Bruni turns up on the soundtrack of this flyaway romance with a twist. The twist being that boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, but girl doesn’t fall in love with boy. What we then watch is the hapless, lovelorn Tom beating himself up over the girl, Summer, for the 500 days that they are “together”. So what’s so great about watching a story about failed love? Well, for starters it’s unusual. Then there’s the structure of the thing, director Marc Webb zipping us back and forward in the chronology (day 283 back to day 4 forward to day 300 and so on). Then there’s the fact that we see it all entirely through his eyes – so we’re hanging on with Tom as his hopes are raised and dashed, then dashed again. And when he’s up, he’s really up – the world comes alive, he is literally dancing in the street and a cartoon bird lands on his shoulder. That cuteness is reflected in the casting, the babyfaced Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Tom, Zooey Deschanel (who better?), playing the dizzy Summer. If there is a criticism about this ever-so-charming film, it’s that the character of Summer is never quite explained – why is she stringing this poor guy along? Is she a bitch? We never quite know. But then we are seeing things entirely from Tom’s perspective and it’s possible that we can’t know because he refuses to open his eyes. Other big pluses include the fact that Tom and Summer are intelligent, interesting and cultured people, the film nods to the shoegazing world of mumblecore without being overwhelmed by its self-obsession. And it’s got one of those soundtracks (including The Boy with the Arab Strap, Regina Spektor, Frank Black, Penguin Cafe Orchestra) which has obviously been put together by someone who knows their stuff. Marc Webb went on to direct 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, and turned it into a drama about love’s young dream too.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • All films featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt are worth a look
  • The great, and well chosen, soundtrack
  • It’s based on the writer’s Scott Neustadter’s real experience
  • A film unafraid to reference Bergman and Fellini, humorously

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

500 Days of Summer – at Amazon