The Wall

Martina Gedeck in The Wall

 

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

 

 

1 February

 

 

Alexander Selkirk rescued, 1709

On this day in 1709, a Scottish sailor named either Alexander Selkirk or Selcraig was rescued from an island in the South Pacific. But the model for Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe wasn’t the victim of a shipwreck. In fact he’d asked the captain of the privateer (ie pirate) ship he was sailing on, the Cinque Ports, to leave him on the uninhabited island known as Más a Tierra in the Juan Fernández archipelago about 700km off the coast of Chile. Known since his youth as a quarrelsome sort, Selkirk had been loudly protesting against the state of the leaky vessel and had gone so far as to say that he’d rather be left on the island than go any further on the boat. The captain of the Cinque Ports, taking him at his word, left him there. He was there for four years and four months, living off wild goats and abundant fruit and vegetables, evading capture twice when Spanish ships landed, fashioning new clothes out of goat skins when his own clothes wore out (his father had been a tanner, so that knowledge came in handy). He also built two shelters – one for sleeping, one for cooking – and tamed wild cats to keep him safe from the marauding rats. When the he was finally rescued by William Dampier, in whose convoy he had originally sailed, Selkirk’s physical and mental condition amazed Dampier, who made him second mate. Selkirk returned with a vengeance to life as a privateer and discovered when he returned to his home country in 1711 that he was famous.

 

 

 

The Wall (2012, dir: Julian Pölsler)

A woman who has probably been spending a quiet weekend away from the hustle of modern life in a secluded valley in Austria gets ready to return to the daily grind when, bang, she walks into what seems to be an invisible wall. As she tries to work out what it is, we are trying to work out what sort of film we’re watching. Sci-fi? No explanation is ever given. Instead we watch as a 21st century woman with polypropylene walking gear, a solid Mercedes and very little else is reintroduced to a different sort of existence as one day peels into the next, then becomes a week, a month and so on. She is utterly alone and at first does what we all might do. She patrols the perimeter of the wall, trying to call out to people she can see through it, but they are frozen in time. She drives her car into the wall, which gets her nothing except a totalled vehicle. And, gradually, she starts to adapt. It’s a Robinson Crusoe story, in short, with Martina Gedeck playing the castaway, narrating in voiceover from a position some considerable time in the future how she learnt a, b and c. If you’ve ever seen the French 1960s TV series starring Robert Hoffmann as Crusoe, The Wall will strike you as familiar, particularly its voiceover – almost godlike in its calm, philosophical, omniscient-narrator style. This is a remarkably simple film with a powerful emotional tug that asks us quite simply to connect with this ill-prepared woman, to follow her on her journey (as we also did with Tom Hanks in the most interesting section of Cast Away) from jeopardy to self-sufficiency both physical and emotional – the domestication of animals, her befriending of a crow, a cow, a dog, a cat. Gedeck’s calm, almost poetic reading of what must be this woman’s (we don’t learn her name) journal makes it the perfect film for students of German, the pristine shots of the savage beautiful landscape will have the Austrian Tourist Board handing out copies of the DVD and the one-woman performance as a whole is a thing of magical restraint. I have a funny feeling this film, which was almost entirely disregarded film in English-speaking countries, is going to have a long tail.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Robinson Crusoe reinvented
  • The cinematography, clear as a mountain stream
  • The performance by Gedeck, best known for The Lives of Others
  • The antithesis of an action movie

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Wall – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

3 February 2014-02-03

Roxane Mesquida grabs lunch in Kiss of the Damned

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

 

Kiss of the Damned (Eureka, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

There’s a scene early on in Xan (daughter of John) Cassavetes’s vampire film in which a man (Milo Ventimiglia) with the hots for a woman he’s just met (Joséphine de la Baume) is pawing at her passionately through the centimetres-wide gap in her intruder-chained door. What Paolo doesn’t yet know is that Djuna is a vampire who’s struggling with her vow to stay off human blood, which is why she’s reluctant to unchain the door and let him in. Cassavetes shoots the encounter from above – their arms snaking through the gap, his head thrusting forward, their mouths meeting in erotic hunger – an unusual point of view that makes the entire scene animalistic and sexy. What a relief. For all the leather-on-Beckinsale-butt of Underworld, all the Lautner-abdominals of Twilight, recent vampire-werewolf-whathaveyou films have all been a bit chaste. Yes, even Byzantium, and that featured Gemma Arterton, who could recharge dead car batteries with a glance. Refreshingly, Kiss of the Damned journeys even further into Sexytown with the introduction of a sister (Roxane Mesquida) to Djuna who is far more uninhibited when it comes to blood (and nudity) in a film that has been balls deep in 1970s Euro vampire homage from the opening twang of its soundtrack, its first disorienting quick-pan. Mario Bava, Jess Franco and Jean Rollin are the obvious reference points, but so is the lush bourgeois corruption of a Bertolucci, the kinetic camera of a de Palma. The clothes are by Chanel (well, sometimes), Maria Callas is always warming up in the wings when the experimental-boing-and-Morricone-strings brigade aren’t dominating the soundtrack and Anna Mouglalis plays senior vampire of this very femme, very fatale world with devastating hauteur and a guttural “daaahlink” accent. Cassavetes and crew even get the furniture right. Fantastic.

Kiss of the Damned – at Amazon

 

 

 

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

Incendies was a sensational film that turned the situation in the Middle East into a thriller, without cheapening anybody. Trying something like the same manoeuvre in reverse for an encore, director Denis Villeneuve takes a sensational situation and plays it for its nuances. Hugh Jackman plays the father of a kidnapped girl, Jake Gyllenhaal is the cop on the case, Paul Dano is the local oddball who is suspected of the crime – though the police can’t lay a finger on him. At this point, having laid out what is clearly a very familiar stall, things take off, with Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski taking these genre staples and confounding our expectations at almost every turn. So what are you expecting? A vigilante dad taking the law into his own hands? A cop with a messed-up past? A villain who’s too obvious to actually be a villain? The answers, in no particular order, are yes, no and gotcha. Like Incendies this is a long film (153mins), but it is extremely fleet of foot. If there’s a quibble, it’s that unlike Incendies it does not save its best move till the end, preferring a standard genre finish (the loquacious villain), though the acting by the leads is so sensational that no one is really going to bother about a flaky last five minutes. As for the support (Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Viola Davis and Maria Bello) that’s none too shabby either.

Prisoners – at Amazon

 

 

 

About Time (Universal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/DD)

I was just writing the words “Groundhog Day” in my notes while watching this rom-com when writer/director Richard Curtis headed me off at the pass with a line spoken by Bill Nighy to screen son Domhnall Gleeson – dad has just told son that all the men in the family can go back in time – “Big lesson number one,” Nighy says, “all the time travel in the world can’t make someone love you.” By the end of the film, during which Gleeson has gone back in time repeatedly to gain access to the fair heart of Rachel McAdams, I’m still convinced that Curtis suddenly realised he was rewriting Groundhog Day and then tried to veer off in another direction. But the degree to which About Time isn’t Groundhog Day is exactly the degree to which it isn’t as good. Which is to say “quite a lot”. This is probably the point where it makes sense to say that I’m a Curtis fan. But I couldn’t settle with this film. About Time is a clear case of two love stories trying to operate in a space that’s only big enough for one. Its marquee one is between McAdams and Gleeson, but thanks to bad screen chemistry this never gains traction. Which throws the focus on the father/son love story between Nighy and Gleeson, which is touching but doesn’t get enough screen time. Mr Curtis, you’ve got enough money, why not just write a brilliant film for Bill Nighy and be done with it? Other standard gripes against Curtis – the smug boho-bourgeois lifestyle on display, the presence of an unnecessary female ditz (going all the way back to Charlotte Coleman in Four Weddings), his directorial tendency to enter scenes too early and leave too late, the unnecessary shots – these I can live with. But I really really don’t need to see another best man speech.

About Time – at Amazon

 

 

 

Thanks for Sharing (Koch, cert 15, DVD/DD)

Nice Mark Ruffalo plays a recovering sex addict, sharing Sexaholics Anonymous sessions with fellow devotees-of-the-groin Tim Robbins, Pink and Josh Gad, in this reteam for The Kids Are Alright writer Stuart Blumberg and Ruffalo. So how funny do you think sex addiction is? Blumberg et al aren’t entirely sure and so play at least one third of the film for laughs, the bit focusing on the Jonah Hill-like Gad, as a doctor whose penchant for upskirt shots and relentless masturbation is about to ruin his life in much the same way it has for the rest of the group. Ruffalo plays the guy who’s seen the dark side and is now on the way back to the light, his reward being a relationship with squeaky bunny Gwyneth Paltrow. Which leads to the next question – how does a recovering sex addict manage a sexual relationship with a regular partner? The film isn’t quite sure about this either. Attempting the sort of ensemble drama the French are so good at, and getting at least three-quarters of the way there, Blumberg’s film loses focus the further it gets away from Ruffalo and Gad. And that’s tough on Robbins and Pink, who are both interesting and exciting enough to warrant a film of their own. Each. Or maybe Blumberg went and saw Steve McQueen’s Shame, a film about sex addiction that goes to the dark side, and just kind of… you know… gave… up.

Thanks for Sharing – at Amazon

 

 

 

Wadjda (Soda, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Halfway through Wadjda I felt like shouting – OK, I get it, it’s not much fun being a woman in an Islamic country. I say halfway but it’s absolutely and abundantly clear that that’s what the message of this Saudi Arabian drama is going to be from the minute we’re introduced to the feisty, bright young Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) who yearns to own a bicycle – girls who value their honour don’t ride bikes! – and is shooed away from chatting with a local boy, a fellow 10-year-old (I’m guessing), by the clearly sex-obsessed Islamic police. What follows in this beautifully acted and made drama is a depressing series of scenes – Wadjda being slapped down in school, her mother being sideline by a husband who wants another wife, the whole thing building towards a well signposted climax we’re clearly all meant to get behind. As an affirmative statement about the role of women in Arab countries, Wadjda is excellent, but as drama it’s propaganda, simple as.

Wadjda – at Amazon

 

 

 

Romeo & Juliet (EV, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

An old-school Romeo & Juliet, with Shakespeare’s original play streamlined by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes, shot in Verona, among other gorgeous Italian spots. And if it’s got anything that, say, the Baz Luhrmann 1996 version (starring Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes) doesn’t have it’s the locations. As for the rest of it – it’s a strangely off affair. The story of young love, warring clans and the tragic outcome of the mixing of the two is tellingly at its best when it shifts focus away from the titular lovers and onto the fighters – Ed Westwick’s scowling Tybalt in particular, though Christian Cooke’s Mercutio runs him close. Even further away from the main action we have Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet, Lesley Manville as Nurse and Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence, all of whom threaten to steal the film at any moment from the two leads. Douglas Booth is an improbably handsome Romeo – half pre-raphaelite muse, half Nureyev – but if he has fire in his head or loins it’s hard to see it here. As for Hailee Steinfeld, so brilliant in True Grit as young protagonist Mattie Ross, she’s simply not been rehearsed enough by director Carlo Carlei, and her line readings are lost in mumbling or are perfectly audible but obviously make no sense to her. When Juliet says “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” she means “Why do you have to be a Montague?”, because “wherefore” means “why. And if you can’t get that right, there’s no real hope for the rest of it.

Romeo & Juliet – at Amazon

 

 

 

Wings (Eureka, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

I haven’t actually tried Mr Skin for the brief nipple shot of Clara Bow that you get in Wings, the very first winner of the Best Picture Oscar (its equivalent, at any rate) back in 1927. Bow was one of the most famous actresses in the world at the time, and is by one hell of a long way the best thing in this film that is actually about two guys – a swell and an average Joe – who join up to fight in the First World War, train to become pilots, and then indulge in all manner of aeronautical combat before heading for the tearjerking finale. A silent movie that’s been beautifully restored – considering it was thought lost at one point – it’s the easiest film in the world to follow whether you’re able to read the intertitles or not, thanks to the simple fact that Hollywood has barely deviated from the formula ever since. Pearl Harbor is pretty much the same movie. An observation I need to follow with another one – this film’s director, William Wellman, could eat Pearl Harbor’s Michael Bay for breakfast. No, the aerial dogfights aren’t going to make you sit forward in your seat as if you were watching Gravity – that stuff just doesn’t work any more, even with the Handshiegl-process orange flames added back in by computer trickery. Nor are you going to really root for either of the guys, who are closer to 2D than seems strictly necessary (as for the “starring Gary Cooper” credit on the cover, he’s in it for two minutes max). But Wellman’s flying, fluid camera is remarkable even now. As is Bow’s freshness, even after all these decades.

Wings – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

Frida

Salma Hayek and Ashley Judd in Frida

 

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

 

 

31 January

 

 

Leon Trotsky exiled, 1929

On this day in 1929, Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, aka Leon Trotsky, was exiled from the country he had helped create. A member of the victorious Bolsheviks in the revolution of 1917 (having earlier switched allegiance from the Mensheviks), Trotsky rose quickly through the party, proving himself decisively in the civil war against the Mensheviks in 1918. Ideologically he was loosely aligned with Lenin, believed in mass democracy, permanent revolution and internationalism and was opposed to the “socialism in one country” of Stalin. Trotsky found his ideas and those of the Left Opposition increasingly marginalised in the USSR and was also out-manoeuvred by the far wilier Stalin, who would make piecemeal alliances with whoever was most useful to him on the way to the top. Though one of the first members of the ruling Politburo, the head of the Red Army and Lenin’s heir presumptive, Trotsky was nudged aside when Lenin died in 1924, though he remained a public figure long after he had lost political force inside the leadership. By 1927 he had been formally removed from power. And in 1929 he was deported, heading first for Turkey, then France, then Norway, then finally Mexico, where he wrote The Revolution Betrayed, in which he railed against the “degenerated workers’ state” run by an undemocratic bureaucracy which, he prophesied, would eventually be either overthrown by a political revolution or would turn into a capitalist class. In the light of 1989 and the rise of the oligarchs he seems to have been right on both accounts. On 20 August 1940, having survived an assassination attempt earlier in the year, Trotsky was attacked with an ice axe by a USSR agent. He died the next day.

 

 

 

Frida (2002, dir: Julie Taymor)

The role that Mexican Salma Hayek was probably born to play, that of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), she of the vivid paintings, the affairs with fellow artist Diego Rivera and exiled revolutionary Leon Trotsky, the bisexuality, the drug abuse and the infamous unibrow. Director Julie Taymor finds a way of locking all that together without going too low on one knee, and without bogging down in too much detail, in a film that looks very much like a labour of love for Taymor, though it obviously was one for Hayek too – years of lobbying, wads of her own money. The casting is the thing in this one: Hayek not only looks the part, she’s also a Mexican and unafraid to speak her mind, like Kahlo. But gaze too upon Alfred Molina as Rivera, a big tousled bear of a man brimming over with life and optimism. Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky. Even Edward Norton as Nelson Rockefeller. Reminding us that she’d been a roaring success with her counter-intuitive (masks, puppets) directing of The Lion King on Broadway, Taymor sprinkles a bit of magical realism here and there – such as when Kahlo has the terrible bus accident that broke her back, pelvis, ribs and collarbone and impaled her on an iron handrail, which pierced her womb. Some things don’t need spelling out too clearly. Cinema’s approach to the life of the artist is always a fraught affair. Why talk about the person at all if the art is the thing? And though the worked and reworked script does bog down in explication, seems hung up on the domestic arrangements of Kahlo and Rivera, and is shy of examining Kahlo’s motivations, Taymor makes up for it in the visuals. Why look for text when you can have image?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The classic Salma Hayek role
  • Director Julie Taymor’s fabulous command of imagery
  • Imagine Madonna in the lead – it nearly happened
  • The under-rated Molina – another great performance

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Frida – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Witchfinder General

Vincent Price

 

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

 

 

30 January

 

 

Oliver Cromwell executed two years after death, 1661

On this day in 1661, Oliver Cromwell was posthumously executed.

A member of parliament who had entered the civil war against the king, Cromwell had risen quickly to become on of the best generals on the side of the “roundheads”. In 1649, Cromwell was one of the signatories of the death warrant of King Charles I. In 1653, having led campaigns against the Irish and Scots, he abolished a quarrelsome parliament and became de facto monarch of the country. When he died five years later, in 1658, the title of Lord Protector went to his son, though Cromwell Jr would hold it for only a year, leading to the end of the Protectorate.

In the power vacuum that ensued, George Monck, the English governor of Scotland, seized the initiative, marched on London, restored the parliamentary system that had been in existence under Charles I and set about organising the restoration of the monarchy.

On 30 January 1661, 12 years after Charles I had been executed, Cromwell’s body was dug up from Westminster Abbey and was subject to a ritual execution. His body was then hung on chains at Tyburn (now Marble Arch) and his head was displayed on a pole outside Westminster Hall for the following 25 years.

Whether it actually was the body of Cromwell which was “executed” has always been moot.

 

 

 

Witchfinder General (1968, dir: Michael Reeves)

Set in an England where the fighting between Oliver Cromwell’s men and royalists has torn the social fabric, allowing opportunists of all sorts to make sport, this cult horror film comes at the real-life tale of witchfinder Matthew Hopkins from a typically 1960s direction – youth, sex and zoom lenses.

Ian Ogilvie is the callow member of Cromwell’s army, Vincent Price the witchfinder terrorising the people of Norfolk with his pointing finger, and Hilary Dwyer the soldier’s comely fiancée who catches the eye of the charlatan.

It’s a cult horror film for several reasons, not least the death shortly after it was made of its young director, 25-year-old Michael Reeves. And though Reeves is often over-rated by horror geeks he clearly had something about him. For example he managed to persuade Vincent Price to leave the full basket of fruit at home, wrangling a performance out of him that’s ripe rather than rotten (this wrangling is the subject of a brilliant and amusing BBC radio play by Matthew Broughton you can hear here).

Witchfinder General is the best of Reeves’s slim output of four films, a brutal and bleak treatise on terror that survives the poor acting and post-dubbed sound thanks to its psychological insight, measured treatment of its villain – Hopkins is a man led astray by power, not the devil – and an eye for a pastoral image.

It’s sometimes called The Conquering Worm in the USA, where it was sold as the latest in the line of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price. But though Poe wrote a poem called The Conquering Worm, and that title is tacked on the front of the DVD for its US release, this film has nothing to do with it. And unlike those Poe films, or almost any other horror film of the time, there is no supernatural element in Witchfinder General at all. As with The Wicker Man, with which it is sometimes lumped, the horror here is all man-made, psychological, political and very nasty.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Vincent Price playing it straight (ish)
  • A cult film from a cult director
  • Play “what would Reeves have produced if he hadn’t died”
  • British folk horror at its psychological best

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Witchfinder General aka The Conqueror Worm – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

Magic Trip

The original magic bus, whose name was Further

 

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

 

 

29 January

 

 

Mantra Rock Dance, 1967

On this day in 1967 one of the key events of the era of psychedelic rock, and the hippie era generally, took place. It was organised by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, who saw it as an opportunity for their founder, AC Bhaktivedanta Swami, to speak to a broader public than normal. The reason why there would be a broader public was because of the other people taking part – the bands Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company (lead singer: Janis Joplin), Moby Grape, beat poet Allen Ginsberg, LSD guru Timothy Leary and LSD manufacturer Augustus Owsley Stanley III (aka Owsley). Artist Harvey Cohen designed the poster (“bring cushions, drums, bells, cymbals”). It took place in the Avalon Ballroom, in Haight Ashbury, the San Francisco area most closely associated with the countercultural movement. 3,000 people turned up and were treated to a psychedelic “liquid light” show in the hall, before the Swami’s followers came on to sing hare krishna, followed by Allen Ginsberg’s introduction of the man himself, who then led more than two hours of chanting. This was followed by what you might call more traditional fare – rock bands playing rock music. Even though the hippies and the Hare Krishna’s had little in common apart from a declared love of peace, from this point on the two were welded together in some strange cultural lock-step.

 

 

 

Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Cool Place (2011, dir: Alison Ellwood, Alex Gibney)

A foundation myth of hippiedom and the countercultural 1960s is Ken Kesey and his Merry Prankster company’s 1964 trip across the USA in an old bus which they had painted psychedelically and christened Further. Continuing the theme, they shot the whole journey in brilliant colour, film which for years was missing. Kesey, at 29, had already written One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Somewhere a Great Notion and saw the bus, the journey and the film being shot as they went as his next great artistic move. Of the camera he says, “Shakespeare would have used it if he was alive today”, like the great showman and huckster he was. Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney’s documentary attempts to put that trip back together, from existing footage, with voiceover and interviews from the present time with travellers on the bus giving some wistful though never cynical backward-looking context. Also notably on board is Neal Cassady, Beat totem, Kerouac amigo, speed freak, and his jittering, always-on tic-driven personality is as much of a pain from all these decades later as it must have been at the time. Cassady apart, the overwhelming impression given is of a world of gigantic optimism, America in its pomp, with Kesey and co’s drug-fuelled hi-jinks-ridden journey both a celebration of the birth of a new countercultural moment and also its victory lap. In fact from this distance these proto-hippies don’t seem countercultural at all; they seem totally in tune with the sheer electric promise of the time. The camera on the journey spends a lot of time logging the “straightness” of the outside world as compared to the “they just don’t get us” out-there-ness of the acid-dropping travellers inside, but from this distance everyone looks cool – the cool cats inside and the Mad Men-suited “straights” outside. “We weren’t long-haired and we weren’t irresponsible,” Kesey remembers. And he also reminisces about how he got into LSD – he was training for the US Olympic wrestling squad at Stanford in 1959 when he was recruited by the government for an “experiment” – and how his attitude to drugs changed when it became fashionable. Kesey isn’t anti drugs, but he is anti a society that runs on drugs – perhaps that’s the Stanford man speaking. Or perhaps it’s just a man who recognises that there’s nothing more boring than someone else’s trip – the evidence is all too obviously here. The film isn’t all archive footage. Some of it is reconstruction, though it’s hard to work out what is and what isn’t – I reckon it’s when the picture gets sharp and steady, though that might be my prejudices – and the entire tone is of a wistful late-night look back while wiping down a table. Kesey had fun on the trip, met a lot of cool people en route, got arrested for marijuana as he got to New York, and never wrote another great book. Ruefully he admits that perhaps he fried his marbles. Though he maintains that his greatest work is the bus. Cut to a shot of the bus now, still recognisable but barely hanging together now it’s a lot further along up the road.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • From footage missing presumed dead
  • A trope of Western culture is born
  • Stanley Tucci’s never snide narration
  • Meet people called Stark Naked, Gretchen Fetchin and Zonker

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Lego Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out

Darths Maul and Vader face off in Lego Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out

 

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

 

 

28 January

 

 

Lego patents its brick design, 1958

On this day in 1958 the Lego company patented the brick design it had been working on for five years. Originally a company created by a carpenter in 1932 to produce wooden toys (called Lego from the Danish phrase Leg Godt – play well) Lego had been into the production of plastic bricks since 1947. By the early 1950s more than half of the company’s output was plastic. In 1954 Godtfred, son of founder Ole Kirk Christiansen, acting on a conversation he’d had with an overseas buyer, began working on the idea of a toy system, and set about re-engineering bricks that Lego already produced so that they would lock together better and be more durable. Using acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, a different plastic than the one the company had been using before, and experimenting with locking systems, Lego came up with the brick still in production today. A brick made in 1958 will interlock with a 21st century brick. Because of this, the high quality of the product, the fact that it is as versatile as the mind of the person using it, its indestructibility (a 2×2 brick can withstand a force of 4,240 newtons), Lego has escaped the stigma usually loaded on to plastic toys. More than 38 billion bricks are sold each year.

 

 

 

Lego Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out (2012, dir: Guy Vasilovich)

One of a series of Star Wars homages made by the Lego people, The Empire Strikes Out stands up well when compared to similar spoofs by Robot Chicken and Family Guy. But don’t expect a full-sized brick-built temple to George Lucas. Lego Star Wars is only 22 minutes long but it does pack a lot in. Certainly it’s for the sort of person who knows that Darth Maul didn’t appear in The Empire Strikes Back but it isn’t acutely necessary to be a nerd to get enjoyment from it. The plot is loosely about the emperor calling in both Darths (Vader and Maul) to smash the rebel alliance once and for all. But it’s really just an excuse to get a few of the potentially most comic characters of the Lucas-verse in the same place at the same time. Camp is the overriding tone, somewhere between old-school vaudeville and the fast-churn humour of the Airplane films. And the humour isn’t just directed at Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and the team but at Lego too – when the Dark Star is blown up, everyone just shrugs “we can rebuild it”. Big pluses are John Williams’s score being cleared for use (Lucas has clearly given the nod) and even the voicework of some fairly familiar actors – Anthony Daniels (aka C-3PO), Julian Glover, Brian Blessed, Ahmed Best (yes, Jar Jar Binks turns up). Perhaps the best joke comes in the standoff between Darth Maul and Darth Vader, when they both try the death grip on each other (I won’t ruin it). What’s actually remarkable, if you come to Lego Star Wars cold, is how far a few stuck-together bricky characters with stuck-on Lego hair can get along the road to true Star Wars respectability. Or is that just the final proof of how bad George Lucas’s direction of human beings was in the original films themselves?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • It’s funny
  • A taster for the full length Lego Movie
  • There are some bona fide Star Wars names in there
  • Walks the line between mockery and salute

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Lego Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

First Orbit

Yuri Gagarin

 

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

 

 

27 January

 

 

The Outer Space Treaty signed, 1967

On this day in 1967 the USA, USSR and UK jointly signed the Outer Space Treaty, more formally known as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. It is the treaty that seeks to impose some legal, agreed structure on regions beyond our own world. It is the first move towards Space Law. Its basic tenets are that no signatory state shall place nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction into Earth orbit. It restricts the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful endeavour, bans the placement of military installations on any extra-terrestrial body, and forbids any government from claiming sovereignty over any offworld planet or territory. The Universe, it asserts, is the “common heritage of mankind”. Though the treaty has since been ratified by most of the countries of the world, a follow-up, 1979’s Moon Treaty, has not been ratified by any country with the capability of space exploration.

 

 

 

First Orbit (2011, dir: Christopher Riley)

Yuri Gagarin was the first human to travel into outer space, his Vostok 1 spacecraft having gone up into the sky in April 1961, orbited the earth once, then returned Gagarin to the ground. The entire flight took 108 minutes and director Christopher Riley’s film does a simple thing: it seeks to recreate the flight. But how? There is no footage from Gagarin’s flight. The solution that Riley – who conceived the similary wonderful space doc In the Shadow of the Moon – came up with is to take footage from the International Space Station, on an orbit closely matching Gagarin’s and at the same time of day, and match it to the audio recordings made by Gagarin as he spun above the Earth. “If you want to hear someone saying ‘I’m feeling great’ in Russian a hundred and fifty thousand times, this is the film for you.” Thanks to InterArmaEnimSilentLeges, a user on the IMDb, for that comment. And InterArmerwhatsit does have a point. At some level this is a remarkably drama-free offering. We see actual, very grainy footage of Gagarin making the walk to the spacecraft, we see the rocket launch, then we cut to the modern footage, with Gagarin’s commentary, while Philip Sheppard’s Philip Glass-like soundtrack battles against the pops and crackles, and occasional snatches of the English language service of Radio Moscow fill in the odd gap. There’s no doubting that Gagarin is repeating himself, constantly telling ground control that he feels fine, he feels good, he’s ok. But it’s worth pausing here for a second. Gagarin really was the first to “boldly go where no man has gone before”. And no scientist really had any idea what the effect of all those G forces, the zero gravity, spooky invisible rays out in space, god knows what, would be. The reassuring mantra is Gagarin in a spacecraft the size of a large suitcase keeping constant contact, saying in effect, “I’m still alive…now…now…still alive now…and still alive now”. If he stops speaking, ground control will at least know exactly when he died. Useful knowledge. InterArmerthingie obviously didn’t like the film, and that’s fair enough, but I found the effect hypnotic. Actually to the point where I kind of fell asleep for a minute – the Earth spinning, the repetitive music, the rhythmic speech patterns. But here’s the thing. I remember this unusual documentary, having watched it when it was a big YouTube hit, and there are films I watched only four days ago that I only now know I’ve seen because I took notes.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Footage of Gagarin, a hero of humanity
  • First person into space!
  • See the earth drifting by – you might see your house
  • A unique documentary that at some level isn’t a documentary at all

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

First Orbit – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

27 January 2014-01-27

Ted Levine and Katia Winter in The Banshee Chapter

Out in the UK this week

 

 

 

Rush (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/VOD)

Recognising a good thing when he sees it, director Ron Howard sticks with Frost/Nixon writer Peter Morgan for this entirely satisfying, largely factual re-run of the rivalry between 1970s Formula 1 stars Niki Lauda and James Hunt. There’s tons to like in this film – Chris Hemsworth makes an excellent Hunt, and Daniel Brühl is actually an even better Lauda. But it’s Morgan’s screenplay which is the thing of wonder. Managing to tell the real story of the dramatic “couldn’t make it up” 1976 Formula 1 season and yet bouncing along simultaneously on the sort of good versus evil dynamic that Hollywood demands, Morgan’s screenplay clearly paints Hunt the Shunt as the drawling sex-god hero, the devil-may-care posh Brit cavalier to Lauda’s Teutonic rat-faced roundhead – the film’s title isn’t a four letter echo of Hunt’s name for nothing. But it also provides enough information for a more accurate reading – that Lauda was clearly the better driver and the real hero of a season that saw him crash and literally burn, and yet come back from near death to try and win the driver’s title. As for the rest of it, the writing and casting apart, Ron Howard seems to feel at home in the 1970s and catches the dangerous, sexiness of Formula 1 back then. Strangely, it’s only the race scenes that are slightly underwhelming, though Morgan and Howard make them short enough to keep even F1-agnostics on side. Otherwise, this is fast, exciting titanium-bottomed entertainment.

Rush – at Amazon

 

 

The Selfish Giant (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A pair of non-achieving schoolkids from homes with the social services permanently camped outside embark on a spree of low-level crime and opportunistic totting – a roll of copper cable off the railway here, an abandoned cooker there. They leave behind a life of knuckling down at school and passing your exams, a life they’re clearly not equipped for – Swifty (Shaun Thomas) is overweight and dim, his compadre Arbor (Conner Chapman) twitches furiously when he’s not on his ADHD medication. And, in the brutal, filthy scrapyards of Yorkshire they start finding their niche. Generally speaking, the heart sinks when a film is set in the North of England. Too often it’s a case of plucky, plain-speaking “poor but happy” folk ducking and diving to make ends meet, to a soundtrack of violence, swearing, ugliness, dirt and misery. All are evident in The Selfish Giant. And yet somehow, Clio Barnard, also director of the extremely brilliant but also “grim up north” drama/documentary The Arbor, comes out smelling of roses rather than chip shops. Partly that’s because of the acting by the two first-timers and the odd recognisable face (such as Sean Gilder, who you may remember as Rat Pit Game Master in Gangs of New York. No?). And partly that’s because Barnard allows glimpses of beauty among the squalor. But mostly it’s because she expertly plants an ominous seed early on that suggests things are not going to work out well for these boys. I will say no more.

The Selfish Giant – at Amazon

 

 

Sunshine on Leith (EV, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Dexter Fletcher’s debut film was a the rather excellent Wild Bill, a great urban western set in the East End of London. So why not follow up with a musical, eh? Taking the bittersweet songs of 1980s Scottish band The Proclaimers and hanging them on a story about soldiers returning from Afghanistan to a life in Scotland that offers one heartache and the other joy, Fletcher has gone for the jukebox approach of Mamma Mia! And he’s hit pretty much all the problems Mamma Mia! hit – the squeal as a song is shoe-horned into a tight space, the variable singing voices of actors (Jason Flemyng and Jane Horrocks among the crowd of newbies), plus song-and-dance big numbers which demonstrate that the big-screen choreographic genius of yore has been lost. But if you accept that Fletcher’s going for a democratic, kinda scrappy ambience, and that Peter Mullan is never going to sing like Bing (actually, he’s not at all bad) and that the big finishing number (it’s 500 Miles, of course) is going to be more flashmob than Busby Berkeley, then Sunshine on Leith deserves a hearing by all musical lovers. Who get a cameo of Charlie and Craig Reid – aka The Proclaimers – chucked in for fun.

Sunshine on Leith – at Amazon

 

 

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/DD)

With dark locks, pale skin and features sculpted from ice, Lily Collins is gothic enough of aspect to play Clary Fray, the heroine of Cassandra Clare’s series of young adult novels. And the butt-kicking Fray is a refreshing arrival for anyone who, starting about halfway into the second Twilight film, wanted to punch Bella Swan’s face in and not stop until about an hour after the last film had ended. Clary Fray is actually closer to Harry Potter than Swan, a half human/half mythical Shadowhunter muggle who doesn’t realise what she is until she witnesses a full-blooded Shadowhunter (Jamie Campbell Bower) killing some nefarious demon at a nightclub, an event she alone, of all the others present, is able to see. Soon, she’s been Potterishly inducted into a world of mystery and danger, and is gazing longingly upon the beautiful countenance of Shadowhunter Jace (Bower), to the Twilight-ish chagrin of her adoring fully human best-buddy Simon (Robert Sheehan). It’s very easy to do that sort of thing all the way through this first Instrumental instalment – here’s the Dumbledore equivalent, there’s the ancient rivalry between immortal beast A and immortal beast B. But City of Bones escapes the easy charge of photocopy plagiarism by managing to be sexier than Twilight, punchier than Potter. In addition it delivers epic miles of backstory at speed, between bursts of action and incident, interesting new characters and regular changes of venue. And get this – the effects aren’t all CG, and they’re all the better for it. And Lily Collins’s Clary is a recognisable person, fun, funny, smart and incredibly brave. This could run and run.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Epic of Everest (BFI, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)

The restoration of Captain John Noel’s 1924 film of the British Mount Everest Expedition is an unexpectedly majestic affair. Unexpectedly because the film was made a long time ago, when you’d expect the mixture of big cameras and the harshness and verticality of the Himalayas to be a bad fit, to say the least. And because it’s a silent film, and so lacks contextual narration and location soundtrack. Or maybe it is the lack of sound that makes the film so majestic, forcing us to view the mountain in its savage beauty, the quaintness of the Sherpa women with their fantastic braided hairstyles, the almost comical juxtaposition with British Empire chaps in solar topees and gabardine jackets heading for the third British attempt at the summit of the world’s highest mountain, 29,000 feet above sea level. Simon Fisher Turner’s new score helps enormously too, adding bleak moans and yak bells into his largely ambient soundscape, which is never intrusive, entirely right. The expedition is notorious because of the fate of its two leading lights – George Mallory and Sandy Irvine – and there they are, rugged, cheerful young men leading a caravan of 500 men and animals towards death or glory. Death, as it happened. But mostly it is majestic because Noel got it right, in shots which pushed his lenses to the limit, in his careful framing and structuring of the film, in the fact that he never overdoes the stiff upper lip, and with intertitles that are to the point and redolent of the attitudes of yesteryear. When Mallory and Irvine are finally declared missing presumed dead, Noel’s intertitle reads: “what better grave for men who have lived in nature than a grave of pure white snow?”

The Epic of Everest – at Amazon

 

 

Hannah Arendt (Soda, cert 12, DVD)

Hannah Arendt was a fascinating political theorist who came up with the notion of “the banality evil” after watching Adolf Eichmann (the “desk murderer” as the Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal later called him) giving evidence at his trial in Israel in 1961. Eichmann’s defence was that he was just doing his job and Arendt, taking him at his word, started to formulate her thesis – a simple lack of humanity, of being fully engaged in the world, is all that’s necessary for people to do unspeakable things, not a pair of horns and a metaphysically wicked moral sense. This outraged her fellow Jews, got her ostracised by many in fact, as did her observation in the pieces she wrote for the New Yorker that Jewish leaders in effect aided the Nazis in their exterminatory endeavours by their overly acquiescent attitude. Margarethe von Trotta’s film goes into all this, at length, and struggles to make a human drama from what was and is an extremely heated debate. Barbara Sukowa as Arendt looks every centimetre the mid-20th-century intellectual – smoking, tweedy, focused, politicised. And around her wheel an array of actors depicting friends and family in New York, older friends and comrades in Israel, while Klaus Pohl plays philosopher Martin Heidegger, with whom Arendt had a student fling, before he came out for Hitler. Do we need to know about the fling? Not at all. But it adds a sexual frisson to this bookish drama that only becomes fascinating as Arendt comes increasingly under attack.

Hannah Arendt – at Amazon

 

 

The Banshee Chapter (101, cert 18, DVD/VOD)

I think Zachary Quinto might have put some money into The Banshee Chapter. Judging by the looks of it, it wasn’t very much. But if he did then it was money well spent. Because what writer/director Blair Erickson and writer Daniel J Healy have come up with is a decent splicing of the political conspiracy thriller with the old fashioned “don’t go into that cellar” horror story. Katia Winter plays the fit girl in the figure hugging T shirt, a journalist trying to find out what happened to her old university pal, a guy who managed to get hold of some of the drugs that the US government were using in their mind-control experiments of the 1960s (cut to actual footage of President Clinton admitting that, yes, this did go on) and was never seen again. On the way our investigator picks up raddled old countercultural writer Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), a drinky druggy gun-happy Hunter S Thompson in all but name, and off they go together into dark places, where hands reach out through the stairs, faces appear at windows and shrieking things suddenly wheel into view more often than seems strictly necessary. Boo! Is there anything groundbreaking going on in The Banshee Chapter? No. But Erickson’s decision to shoot almost everything in near darkness and in quasi found-footage style really helps with the mood of disorientation, Katia Winter is the sort of plucky woman you want to survive and if you’ve ever had a soft spot for Hunter S Thompson’s acidulated bullshit, well Levine’s performance helps things along too.

The Banshee Chapter – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

Wag the Dog

Robert De Niro, Anne Heche and Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog

 

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

 

 

26 January

 

 

President Clinton denies “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky, 1998

On this day in 1998, a serving president of the United States responded to allegations that he had had sex with a woman other than his wife. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky” said Bill Clinton at the end of a White House press conference, with his wife standing beside him. Unfortunately for Clinton, there had been what most people would call a sexual relationship, and Lewinsky had a blue dress stained with the president’s semen to prove it. Later in the year, boxed into a corner, Clinton would admit that he had had an “improper physical relationship” and a relationship that was “not appropriate”. However he still maintained he had not had “sexual relations”. It appeared, on closer questioning, that Clinton considered “sexual relations” hadn’t happened because he had not had contact with Lewinsky’s “genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh or buttocks.” In other words giving oral sex was “sexual relations” but receiving oral sex was not.

 

 

 

Wag the Dog (1997, dir: Barry Levinson)

After the underwhelming overhyped appearance of 1970s film legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro “together for the first time” in Heat in 1995, it actually fell to director Barry Levinson to engineer an altogether more satisfying though similarly stellar, similarly 1970s collision with this pairing of De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. Working off a smart, cynical script by David Mamet and Hilary Henkin, Wag the Dog stalks satirically through the story of a US president caught with his trousers down just a few days before election day. Moving quickly to avert a disaster, a White House aide (Anne Heche) calls in tweedy spin doctor Conrad Brean (De Niro), all beard and reassuring avuncularity, who suggests they cook up a crisis in a foreign land no one cares about (hello Albania), invite the President to rattle his sabre, before moving swiftly to a resolution of said conflict, and a boost in the opinion polls. Brean then co-opts Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Hoffman) to stage-manage the entire phoney event – from commissioning a hokey song by Willie Nelson, to directing the “rescue” of a US military man supposedly held captive by those dastardly Albanians. And together – the wonk feeding the press with stories, the producer supplying the visuals – they proceed to wag the dog, public opinion. It’s surprisingly easily done, according to Mamet and Henkin, who milk the whole concept till the teat is flapping, then squeeze it a little more. The same can’t be said for Hoffman and De Niro, who bring just the right amount of screwball zip to roles that could easily go flat, Hoffman the permatanned Hollywood pro whose every production is essentially about himself, De Niro the trilby-wearing fixer with a bloodline going back to Machiavelli. It was all shot in just 29 days, and on a comparatively tiny budget. You could probably knock out 30 such films for one Michael Bay production. If anyone’s listening…

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman on screen together for the first time
  • The acerbic script
  • The “it could never happen, ooh it just did” scenario
  • Great support from the likes of Kirsten Dunst, William H Macy, Denis Leary and Woody Harrelson

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Wag the Dog – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

How to Start a Revolution

Gene Sharp and his book, From Dictatorship to Democracy in How to Start a Revolution

 

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

 

 

25 January

 

 

Police Day, Egypt

Today is Police Day in Egypt. It is held annually to commemorate the day when 50 police officers were killed, more wounded, after a spat between local Egyptian policemen and the colonial ruler, Britain, got out of hand. The officers refused to hand over their weapons; the British sent in the army and surrounded the police station where they were holed up. Result: nasty. It was possibly just another day in the life of a colonial power and its variously contented subjects, but the event got wider currency when a local man photographed the melee and got his snaps published, which led to riots throughout the country. Fast forward more than 50 years to 2009, when Hosni Mubarak was now the overlord and his police were seen as the villains, not the heroes, of the day. It was in that year that Mubarak decided to dedicate the 25 January as National Police Day, in memory of the dead from 1952, as a way of getting the country behind something they could all agree on, and as a thank you to a branch of the state Mubarak had relied on entirely – a state of emergency which suspended all constitutional rights, abrogated the rule of law and extended the powers of the police had been in force since Mubarak had become president in 1981. Inspired by events in Tunisia, it was also on this day, two years later, that activists chose to start protests against the actions of the police, in front of the Interior Ministry in Tahrir Square. The Egyptian Revolution was born.

 

 

 

How to Start a Revolution (2011, dir: Ruaridh Arrow)

A documentary about Gene Sharp, the world’s leading expert on nonviolent struggle. Sharp’s 198 techniques have been used all over the world in a variety of coloured uprisings (purple, velvet and orange). Number 32 is taunting officials. Number 30 is rude gestures. Number 44 is mock funerals. Number 133 is reluctant and slow compliance. Sharp, now in his 80s, physically doddery but still sharp as a tack, runs his Albert Einstein Institution with the help of Jamila Raqib, a passionate young Afghani woman who has been there since 2001. Before then it was pretty much just Sharp, on his own, since 1983. They’re a complementary couple – he’s self-effacing, gentle; she’s fiery, and the camera loves her a bit more. Also worth mentioning is Bob Helvey, the plain-speaking Vietnam veteran and retired US Army Colonel who has found common cause with Sharp (and who provides a bit of red meat for those worried the documentary is going to be all lentils and bran). Did Sharp’s book lead to the Arab Spring, or the downfall of Mubarak in Egypt? It is hotly contested in Egypt, and the film does not go there. But there were certainly people in Tahrir Square who had read Sharp’s work. Sharp wrote it at the request of Burmese who had spent 20 years fighting their military junta to no avail. And since then From Dictatorship to Democracy has become the standard work on nonviolence. But others might foreground Skype and Facebook (which director Ruaridh Arrow does mention). If the documentary struggles to make it towards the magical 90 minutes, and never really offers an argument against the activities of this genial genie, if it’s also a touch shady on who is funding Bob Helvey’s international jaunts (it’s one of those government backed organisations, the International Republican Institute – expanding “freedom throughout the world”) it’s hard to take issue if you’re as new to Sharp as I was when I first saw this film. And even if you don’t credit his book with causing the Arab Spring, at the very least it is full of hard-won insights. A codification of possibilities rather than a tactical A-Z, it’s a workbook rather than a blueprint. To take one point by Srda Popovic, one of the Sharp-o-phile activists who organised against Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian regime, you don’t throw stones at the police, you co-opt them. Another of Sharp’s techniques. Number 148 is mutiny. Number 18 is displays of flags and symbolic colours…

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A portrait of a little-known Nobel Peace Prize nominee
  • A self-effacing man with a huge global influence
  • Puts some international perspective on the Arab Spring and other struggles
  • Who knows when you might need the techniques yourself?

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

How to Start a Revolution – at Amazon