City of God

City of God, Douglas Silva

 

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

 

 

1 March

 

 

Rio De Janeiro founded, 1565

On this day in 1565, the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro was founded. The city’s full name was decided as São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro – in honour of the Portuguese king, Sebastian I, whose patron saint was also a Sebastian, and because it sat on the January River – so named because it had been discovered in 1 January 1502. After gold and diamonds were found in the area, Rio became a major centre of export and the Portuguese moved their Americas administrative centre there in 1763. It became important for a different reason when the Portuguese royal family and most of Lisbon’s nobles fled there in 1808, to avoid capture by Napoleon. Rio de Janeiro became, in fact, the official capital of Portugal for a while.

 

 

 

City of God (2002, dir: Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund)

Still looking astonishing, all these years after it first knocked the eyeballs out of anyone who saw it in 2002, City of God opens with a brilliant ground level shot of a chicken charging through the Cidade de Deus favela in Rio de Janeiro, the camera then somehow following this mess of squawking through narrow byways, on the way acquainting us with the film’s geographical territory in one of the most memorable establishing shots ever. It also sets the tone for the whole film, a rush of raw energy tracking life in the teeming favela through the story of Rocket, a gang member who we first meet as the chicken meets him. His life story is – in true Goodfellas style – of the young guy learning how to become part of a gang, pulling increasingly audacious strokes, earning his stripes. And yet none of this ever becomes bigtime or has any chance of doing so, because for denizens of the City of God, life revolves around the favela. The notable exception to this internal focus being the raid on a nearby motel organised by Li’l Dice, the friend of Rocket who is going to (barely) grow up to be one of the favela’s most feared gang leaders. And at the other end of the sociopath spectrum we have Upright Ned, a decent sort drawn into the life of the gang after his girlfriend is raped and his family murdered. None of these stories, nor the one of Rocket eventually becoming a photojournalist and escaping the favela, matter as much as the way that the picture is made. It’s a mass of colour and movement, whipcrack edits and bravura handheld camera designed to disorient and intoxicate. Both of which director Meirelles and cinematographer César Charlone achieve. Co-director Kátia Lund was in charge of schooling the actors, and you won’t find more naturalistic performances anywhere. Together Lund and Meirelles achieve something extraordinary: a story from the ghetto that is alive to the exotic difference of that world but doesn’t glamourise it. Yes, the colour palette Meirelles is working with – sunny, shocking yellow predominates – does tend to bathe everything in a gorgeous glow. But there’s no way you’d want to live in this place. Wait till you see the almost unbearable scene involving a group of small kids and a gun.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Based on the novel by Cidade de Deus resident Paulo Lins
  • The best film by Meirelles
  • César Charlone’s remarkable cinematography
  • See what got critics, festival-goers and awards committees raving

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

City of God – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Martyrs

Mylène Jampanoï and Morjana Alaoui in Martyrs

 

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

 

 

28 February

 

 

Beginning of the Waco Siege, 1993

On this day in 1993, the Waco siege got underway. It started when the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) tried to raid the headquarters of the Branch Davidian sect, a breakaway of the Seventh Day Adventists. Housed in a compound east of Waco, Texas, after their numbers had grown, the Branch Davidians had originally been founded by Victor Houteff in 1929. They believed in imminent apocalypse. On Houteff’s death in 1955, leadership passed to Houteff’s widow. Florence predicted that the world would end in 1959. When this failed to happen she lost control of the Branch Davidians. Benjamin Roden took over, and when he died his wife Lois took over. She had decided against her own son, George, becoming the leader and fixed instead upon Vernon Howell. This led to a schism in the Davidians, which came to a head in 1988 when George challenged Howell to a corpse-resurrecting competition and Howell hit back by alerting the law to the fact that George was violating graves. After a gunfight and a courtcase, George killed a Davidian and ended up incarcerated, guilty but insane. Howell took over Branch Davidian HQ in Mount Carmel, changed his name to David Koresh “for publicity and business purposes” and set about recruiting followers who would accept his strictures – the men were to be celibate; the women were to have sex only with him. On 27 February 1993 the Waco Tribune-Herald started publishing articles alleging child abuse and rape at Mount Carmel. This prompted the raid by the ATF, who were keen to seize weapons they believed were held there. Four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians died in the ensuing gunfight. Which prompted the siege which lasted 51 days. At the end of which the FBI launched a tear gas attack. A fire started and burnt down the Mount Carmel centre, killing Koresh and 74 people, others having died from gunshot wounds, either self-inflicted or otherwise.

 

 

 

Martyrs (2008, dir: Pascal Laugier)

Martyrs opens with Lucie, a young girl recovering from some terrible ordeal that appears to have occurred in an abattoir. We’re not sure exactly what has happened, but we do know that it’s horrible. The film then cuts to 15 years later with a now grown-up Lucie and Anna, the friend she made in an orphanage, knocking on the front door of a nice suburban house, where they kill mum, dad and the two kids with a shotgun. “Do you know what your parents did?” Lucie asks the young boy just before she shoots him. “Are you sure it was them?” asks Anna. Seconds later the tables have been turned again and Anna is on her own. Minutes later Anna is in a cellar where she discovers something more horrific than a roomful of slayed children. We’re a scant handful of minutes in and we’ve seen a victim become an aggressor become a victim in tense, bewildering style. And that’s just the beginning of the grisly fun and games. The French weren’t that well known for horror when Martyrs came out – there was Switchblade Romance, Trouble Every Day and a handful of others – but Martyrs really set the bar, particularly for the torture porn genre, which is where Martyrs usually gets lumped. It’s more than that though. It has relationships – the abused girl and the intense bond she has formed with another abused girl she met at the orphanage. It has psychology – how much of what’s going on is prompted by actual fact and how much has Lucie imagined as a result of the terrible trauma we’ve caught a suggestion of at the beginning? Most of all it has religious excess. And it’s this last that gives Martyrs its wild grotesque edge, though it would be spoilerish to detail how religion drives the plot, though a mysterious Catholic cult that fetishises transfiguration through pain – and the film’s title – are a hint. No, the French may not do horror too often, but maybe that’s a good thing when something as appalling (and compelling) as Martyrs is the result. Frequently shot dark with directional lighting, shallow of focus, often in close-up, with a soundtrack of sighs and whispers, Martyrs prefers grotesque collage to straightforward storytelling. In terms of torture porn, it easily outdoes the Saw franchise, not least because there is some higher reason for the madness on display. And though watching a big solid brute of a man beat the shit out of a tiny girl isn’t my idea of fun, Martyrs at least isn’t pretending to be a horror film when it’s in fact a sex film or a comedy thinly disguised, as is so often the case with this genre. No, Martyrs really is a horror film.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A contender for the best horror film of the past 50 years
  • The soundtrack by Alex and Willie Cortés
  • Spot the different DPs – Stéphane Martin, Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky, Bruno Philip
  • A thoughtful accompanying behind-the-scenes documentary

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Martyrs – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

 

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

 

 

27 February

 

 

Elizabeth Taylor born, 1932

On this day in 1932 Elizabeth Taylor was born, in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, UK. Her parents were American, originally from Arkansas, and her mother was a former actress. Often considered the last true star of Hollywood’s golden era – before TV made inroads in the 1950s – Taylor’s career started when she was nine, with There’s One Born Every Minute, followed up two years later with Lassie Come Home. Then came National Velvet, and at the age of 12 Elizabeth Taylor was a star. She remained, partly thanks to her violet eyes, double eyelashes, pale skin and shock of dark hair, an iconic star until she died. Her most significant run of films came in the mid/late 1950s, when she made Giant with James Dean (1956), Raintree County (1957) with Montgomery Clift, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) with Paul Newman, all of which earned her Oscar nominations, as did Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and Butterfield 8 (1960) which finally won her an Academy Award. Always a reluctant actress, Taylor became famous in the 1960s for her marriage to Richard Burton, in the 1970s for her marriage again to Burton, in the 1980s for her Aids campaigning work, and from the 1990s onwards for simply still being around – she had been an alcoholic, addicted to sleeping pills, had had a brain tumour, skin cancer, broken her back five times and had survived life-threatening pneumonia twice, once while making her most famous film, Cleopatra (in fact you can see a tracheotomy scar that the pneumonia necessitated in some of the shots). She died in 2011.

 

 

 

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966, dir: Mike Nichols)

We’ve all had nights like these but there are very few films about them. We turn up at someone’s house for dinner only to realise we’ve arrived at a delicate time. Our hosts’ relationship is in trouble, they’re drunk and instead of the evening of food, drink and convivial chat that we expect, we’re ushered into a war zone. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play Martha and George the married couple – she’s the daughter of the college president where he is now a professor sitting pretty. Meanwhile George Segal and Sandy Dennis play the young faculty couple invited over after a campus party for “one for the road”. It is Segal and Dennis who get to wear the tin hats and duck. When the film first came out, its censor-busting ripe language and its portrayal of a hellish night of increasingly drunken raving was seen as the screen manifestation of Taylor and Burton’s actual relationship, famously stormy. But the film is more than just a peek behind the celebrity curtain. It’s a fantastic tour de force of acting, in which Taylor shows she was not just as good but even better than Burton – he always said she was and here’s the proof. Edward Albee’s original play had been hailed as one of the best of the last decade (by the New York Times, among others) and director Mike Nichols and screen adapter Ernest Lehman don’t bother opening it out too much. For the most part they let Albee’s words and the performances do the work, and Nichols often puts his camera right in the face of either Burton or Taylor in full flow, so we can almost feel the spittle. Burton, playing the professor with a cosy life and a well of self-reproach to draw on, is as good as we’ve come to expect (he’d been similarly self-loathing in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold the year before). It’s Taylor who is the revelation, a foul-mouthed spitfire whose husband has not kept her in the style which her upbringing had led her to expect. Her performance also can be traced back – to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, when she was also an entitled dame with daddy issues. At the time it was the swearing that made the film so exciting, shocking, fun. Now it’s more the snap of the repartee (Martha: “You’re going bald.” George: “So are you.”) And the performances, so rapaciously ugly that they’re painful to watch even now. There’s a reason why this is so rarely shown on TV.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • All four actors were Oscar nominated for Best/Supporting gongs – a first
  • Haskell Wexler’s Oscar winning cinematography
  • The best of Burton and Taylor’s 11 films together
  • Director Mike Nichols’s debut

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Oath

Nasser al-Bahri, once Osama bin Laden's bodyguard

 

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

 

 

26 February

 

 

A bomb explodes in the World Trade Center, 1993

On this day in 1993, a bomb was detonated under the north tower of the World Trade Center. The bomb comprised urea nitrate, packed about with aluminium, magnesium and ferric oxide particles, boosted with nitroglycerine and dynamite, then surrounded by bottles of hydrogen to escalate the explosion into the thermobaric category. The intention was to knock the north tower over into the south tower, causing the World Trade Center to collapse. The operation was carried out by Ramzi Yousef and was financed by his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. When Ramzi Yousef was captured, two years later, in a guest house in Islamabad, he said, “Yes, I am a terrorist, and proud of it as long as it is against the US government and against Israel. Because you are more than terrorists: you are the ones who invented terrorism and using it every day. You are butchers, liars and hypocrites.” Six people died in the World Trade Center attack – a pregnant secretary, three maintenance workers, a travelling salesman and a restaurant employee.

 

 

 

The Oath (2010, dir: Laura Poitras)

Laura Poitras’s fascinating and remarkably unhysterical documentary is about two men, both of whom were once close to Osama Bin Laden. One was his bodyguard, Nasser al-Bahri (who went by the nomme de guerre of Abu Jandal), the other is al-Bahri’s brother-in-law Salim Hamdan who was once Bin Laden’s driver. Salim sits, as the film is made, in Guantanamo Bay, and we see nothing of him even after he is released, learning of his thoughts from extracts of letters home, while Poitras and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson fill the screen with moody shots of the prison and its environs. Which leaves us with the garrulous gift to a documentarian Al-Bahri, a conflicted man, still ideologically convinced that America is guilty of global terrorism, but who was so repulsed by the 9/11 attacks that he spilled his guts to US investigators. It is because of his evidence that the plane hijackers were named so quickly. The driver, Salim Hamdam, well he was really little more than a driver. He was eventually tried and acquitted on all but one of the charges laid against him, and that was a catch-all law created after his arrest to criminalise anyone who had offered “material support” to terrorism. This could apply to any western government, of course, though Poitras stays a long way back from making broad political points. Instead she focuses on the two men, mostly on al-Bahri as he drives a cab in Yemen, his face that of a man who has been shattered by what he has seen and knows. If the film has a hero it is Lieutenant Commander Brian Mizer, the military lawyer assigned to defend Salim, a fair-minded believer in the US Constitution, dressed throughout in impeccable military whites, who is convinced that what’s going on in Guantanamo is wrong, is not what the good guys should be doing. The Oath is not dramatic, nor is it saying much that’s new, and perhaps Poitras does give al-Bahri an easier ride than some documentarians would have done. But it does do what it set out to do, examine by implication wider notions – of the organisations all of us pledge allegiance to, whether by explicit or implicit oath – and it is a revelatory insight into the lives of quite obviously normal people who have found themselves on the inside of something quite extraordinary.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A focus on the lives of people close to Osama Bin Laden
  • A thoughtful examination of the existence of camps like Guantanamo Bay
  • A score by Osvaldo Golijov, sung by Dawn Upshaw
  • An insight into the mindset of jihadists

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Conspiracy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Quartet

Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith in Quartet

 

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

 

 

25 February

 

 

Enrico Caruso born, 1873

On this day in 1873, the Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso was born in Naples. He came from a large family and his father was a manual worker. Enrico was apprenticed to a mechanical engineer aged 11 but also sang in the church choir, where his voice stood out. He took up work as a street singer, performed in cafes and had soon graduated to soirees where he would literally sing for his supper. All the while he was studying singing and eventually made his debut aged 22 at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples. By the following year, 1896, he was having publicity photographs made. Four years later he was singing at La Scala in Milan, the most prestigious opera house in Italy, possibly Europe. Two years later he was singing at Covent Garden, London. A year after that he was at the Met in New York. Caruso arrived on the scene at the same time as sound recording was becoming widespread and his powerful yet lyrical voice eminently suited the limited dynamics of early recordings. All of his recordings were made acoustically, with the tenor singing directly into a metal horn which relayed the sound directly to a cutting stylus.

 

 

 

Quartet (2012, dir: Dustin Hoffman)

Dustin Hoffman did some uncredited directing on the 1978 crime drama Straight Time but Quartet is his first stab at real directing. And my god does he play it safe. Taking a play from Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) as his source material and drafting in a quartet of actors who can simply do no wrong – Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins – he proceeds, in the most unshowy fashion possible, to tell the story of a home for opera singers who are in their later years, where the arrival of newly retired diva Jean Horton (Smith) sets the cat among the pigeons. It seems that years before Jean (Smith) and Reginald (Courtenay) had been married, very briefly. Why it was so briefly no one seems very sure, not even Jean and Reginald, who still nurses a broken heart. Quartet explores those reasons but it’s also a story of age, coming to terms with mortality, the indignity of infirmity, its joys too, played out by stage thespians (even Connolly, least encrusted with gongs, is a stage man by training, being a stand-up comedian) who can bellow to the gods on a wet Tuesday evening. They know how to hold a room. It is to Hoffman’s credit that he prevents them from doing this. Michael Gambon, capable of stealing any film, even from under the noses of these illustrious gannets, he keeps in the background, as a makeshift impresario organising an evening of singing towards which the entire film points. On the way Hoffman, the most Method of actors, leaves it to these Method antichrists to do it their way. What’s doubly interesting is that as an actor he’s closely associated with Americana, the city and urban angst (Midnight Cowboy, All the President’s Men, Kramer vs Kramer) but here as a director he’s throwing in shots of English churches and the sun slanting over manicured lawns, while the soundtrack is a blancmange of woodwind and muted emotion. A couple of things Hoffman gets wrong – Reginald explaining to a gang of kids that opera is in fact just like rap, that’s likely to get the toes curling like a roller blind. There are also storylines set up that don’t pay off, not least in the shape of Gambon who seems almost criminally underused. But you get to hear Maggie Smith in handbag mode say “fuck off”, which is always funny. And Pauline Collins, as a twittery airhead, again shows her brilliance at stitching together a film with a performance. This isn’t the film you’d have expected from Hoffman, maybe, and it isn’t even remotely cool to like it. But it is a rather lovely film, an exercise in British understatement from the guy who once dressed up as Tootsie.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The cast includes real retired musicians and singers, who all perform
  • Hoffman’s proper directorial debut
  • A charming portrait of the life artistic and how it wrecks a normal decent life
  • So many good performances – Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Trevor Peacock, David Ryall

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Quartet – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Last Night

Sandra Oh in Last Night

 

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

 

 

24 February

 

 

The Battle of Los Angeles, 1942

On this night in 1942, with the US at war with Japan for less than three months, air raid sirens started wailing throughout Los Angeles county. A blackout was ordered. Air raid wardens were summoned. At around 3am the Artillery Brigade began firing machine guns and anti-aircraft shells at reported aircraft. Over the next hour over 1,400 shells would be fired. At 7.21am the blackout was lifted. Several buildings had been damaged; five civilians were dead – three in car accidents, two from heart attacks. No planes were downed, or even hit, as far as anyone could tell. By the next morning at a press conference, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was claiming the whole thing was a false alarm brought about by itchy trigger fingers and nerves stretched taut in expectation of a raid. In some quarters a cover-up was suspected – was there a Japanese base in Mexico? Were there Japanese submarines offshore? Was it a government-generated stunt designed to stiffen the sinews? A UFO? Or, as a report in 1983 seemed to suggest, just weather balloons?

 

 

 

Last Night (1998, dir: Don McKellar)

There are two Last Nights. There’s the stump-draggingly dull 2010 relationship drama starring Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington and Eva Mendes. And there’s this much more interesting apocalyptic drama. It arrived with a flurry of “the end is nigh” dramas just as the old millennium was ready to lay down its weary head and the Y2K bug was about to launch into a hissy fit which would turn all computers to scrap metal and swipe every plane from the sky. Or so we were led to believe. In Last Night we meet a bunch of couples on the last day of the world’s existence – there is no argument, it is definitely all over. Sandra Ho is stuck with a stranger (director Don McKellar) when she’d rather be with her husband; Callum Keith Rennie is nervously meeting the high school teacher (Geneviève Bujold) he had the hots for years before; David Cronenberg is a utilities functionary staying at his desk and keeping the lights (gas, actually) on. We meet other people, and their stories too, which play out mostly in a poignant key. It’s unexpected, because this isn’t a honking Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich version of the end of the world. It’s Don McKellar’s and he’s an actor and this is his feature debut and so he does what actor-turned-directors often do – he lets the actors act. These are touching stories – only the stony-hearted won’t buckle a touch at the sight of the mother holding Christmas for her kids so as to make their last day on earth a treat. Last Night could be accused of not being Bay/Emmerich enough, of being a touch anaemic, of there being too many people chasing too little plot. But it’s an unusual way to imagine the apocalypse, of humanity not going out with a bang but a well behaved whimper. Don McKellar is Canadian. Does that account for it?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The fine cast includes Sarah Polley
  • It asks the big question – what would you do?
  • No choppers, no gung-ho, no wisecracks
  • A lead role for Sandra Oh

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Last Night – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

24 February 2014-02-24

Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza in Safety Not Guaranteed

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Safety Not Guaranteed (Vertigo, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Since The Puffy Chair I’ve been a sucker for anything connected with the Duplass brothers. Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly’s film stars Mark Duplass as a nerdy shelfstacker guy who puts an advert into a paper asking for a companion to go time-travelling with him, “safety not guaranteed”. But we pick the story up from its other end, as we follow aspiring journalist Aubrey Plaza, lead writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) and supernerd Arnau (Karan Soni) as they head out into the boonies to track down the obvious whackjob for their magazine, humiliation probably guaranteed. Mumblecore goes sci-fi, kind of, is the big (or small) idea, and the film works so well because Plaza’s brand of winsome cynicism (“you’re dangling my vagina out there like bait,” she says to Jeff at one point) and Duplass’s overgrown slackerdom are so appealing, even though this sort of thing really has been chased to an early grave. Sci-fi/time travel nuts won’t find a lot to get sweaty over, but it’s a nicely observed human drama that offers emotional arcs for nearly all concerned.  And the ending is something of a surprise too.

Safety Not Guaranteed – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Thor: The Dark World (Disney, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/Digital)

If Kenneth Branagh’s original Thor film reflected the light-heartedness of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby’s 1962 creation, Alan Taylor’s follow-up picks up the other strand and dives into the mythos, albeit Whedonesquely. Hence the complicated plot, with one strand featuring Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) mortal love interest Natalie Portman, another featuring her sidekick Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard and Jonathan Howard (the earthly scientific contingent), yet another featuring a malevolent being called Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) whose henchmen creatures usefully have tusks, to mark Malekith out as a baddie in case the sulphurous fumes hadn’t alerted you. And yet one more strand incorporating the domestic set-up of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Frigga (Rene Russo) and the now-imprisoned Loki (Tom Hiddleston), an Asgardian naughty kid who’s been sent to his room. As you might expect from a Game of Thrones director, Taylor has no trouble keeping all these storylines in play though he lavishes special attention on the interactions between Loki and Thor. As in the original comic, so in the film. Strangely, for all its pluses, this isn’t an awesome superhero movie. Even the big special effects sequences are a bit meh. That is down in part to the only really weak link – Malekith, an underwritten Star Trek baddie aiming to destroy the universe with a sneer. But Thor: The Dark World is at least engaging. And you couldn’t say that for Iron Man 3.

Thor: The Dark World – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Last Days (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

From Spanish sibling directors David and Alex Pastor, whose last film, Carriers, was about a viral pandemic, another film about a viral pandemic. Do not worry, it is a good one, drawing a lot of its power from the way that a sudden massive change in circumstances can make obvious what is almost hidden in daily life. In this case absurd power relations. We are following the scrabble through Barcelona’s subterranean tunnels and sewers of a slightly devil-may-care computer programmer (Quim Gutierrez) and the outside axeman (José Coronado) brought in to fire half the workforce at the company he had been working at till disaster struck, two guys who under normal circumstances would have little to say to each other now forced to co-operate in order to survive. The Pastors capably build a world in total chaos, where men are walking around holding rats by the tale (dinner!) and where meeting a stranger is a fraught event. It’s a familiar journey, in many way, of a callow young man and a more strategically inclined older guy, with The Last Days definitely more powerful in its first meet-and-greet phase than in its second half, when they grudgingly start to respect each other and even have a heartfelt conversation about their failings as men. Mismatched buddies go Children of Men, yes, that’s about it.

The Last Days – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Mister John (Artificial Eye, cert 15, DVD)

Working in the same territory as the Gosling/Refn film Only God Forgives, writer/directors Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s dreamy, deceptively lulling film follows a Brit (Aidan Gillen) out to Singapore where his newly dead brother has left behind a bar eponymously named Mister John’s. It’s a girls/booze/what-have-you kind of bar at the top end of sordid, or bottom end of glam. Mister John has also left behind a Singaporean wife, plus a gaggle of dodgy expats and goodtime local girls keen to lay hands on Mr Gerry, as they inevitably call the new arrival. The question that the film poses is: is Mr Gerry going to tidy up his brother’s affairs and then return to his fairly shitty life back home? Or is he going to be seduced into stepping into the dead man’s shoes? Actually, scratch that Gosling/Refn reference. This isn’t an exercise in neon slo-mo, though it does share a lot of the operatic ambitions of Only God Forgives, and also renders many events as a waking dream – I was frequently wondering whether Mr Gerry was a dead man too; he just didn’t know it. As the final credits rolled, what I had become convinced of was that Lawlor and Molloy are excellent film-makers in search of a bigger, better subject. Until that comes along this fascinating, mysterious film full of passive flaky men and dynamic destiny-shaping women will just have to do.

Mister John – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

One Chance (EV, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

The story of the rags to riches rise of Paul Potts, winner of TV talent show Britain’s Got Talent in 2007 with his range of operatic songs and his backstory of woe – Pavarotti, no less, told him he was no good – is brought to the screen by producer Simon Cowell, no less. For this reason alone it would be easy to hate One Chance. But Cowell is nothing if not smart and has bought in talent – Justin Zackham, writer of The Bucket List and The Fastest Man in the World. And David Frankel, director of The Devil Wears Prada and Marley and Me. So, one who writes about men with a dream, the other who directs largely female-centric feelgood. Smart. The killer app is James Corden as Potts. Corden is impossible not to like when he’s being likeable, easy to hate when he’s being a cock, but he’s on extremely likeable form here as the fat kid from South Wales who always had a dream etc etc. Alexandra Roach plays the girl he met internet dating and who became his instant life partner – true story, apparently. And the story itself. It’s Billy Elliot, more or less, impossible to hate, no matter how manipulated you feel afterwards. Again, smart.

One Chance – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Machete Kills (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

I only watched this because there was a shortfall of decent new DVDs out this week, the first Machete having drained my enthusiasm for life itself. The original, Robert Rodriguez’s excuse for lazy, tired, moneygrabbing film-making, was criticproof – it was meant to be terrible because grindhouse was terrible, so the theory goes. The theory stinks. I’ve seen Undercover Brother, so know how well written, intelligent and funny old genre knockoff can be. But on to this Machete, which is a vast improvement on the first, until it runs out of gas at an hour in. Up to then we’ve had Danny Trejo as the mythical Mexican force of nature making Schwarzeneggerish pronouncements such as “Machete don’t Tweet”, all very amusing, as a string of famous people wander across one weapons-grade scene of bandito badassery after another. Jessica Alba, Lady Gaga, Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson. There’s even a faux trailer to kick things off which jokily claims to feature Leo DiCaprio as “the man in the silver mask”. Other funny moments include a “put on the 3D glasses now” sign flashing up on the screen as Amber Heard takes her clothes off. She’s a major baddie, by the way, and we don’t actually get to see her take her clothes off. Best thing in it by a long way is Demian Bichir, playing a giggling Mexican crime lord with two personalities, both of them on the mental spectrum. And some of the action is fun in a ridiculous way – Machete jumping out of a helicopter into the back of a speeding boat, then using a harpoon gun to wind an assailant up into the rotors of a chopper. That. But on the whole it’s a further example of Rodriguez’s category error – a bad action movie is just as dumb as a good action movie. Making fun of the dumb is shooting fish in a barrel, which is one stunt I don’t think I saw Machete attempt. Did I mention Cuba Gooding Jr? And Antonio Banderas? And Vanessa Hudgens?

Machete Kills – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Classe tous risques (BFI, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The 1960 film that is supposed to bridge the gap between the well made traditional French film of the 1950s and the edgy chaotic New Wave. As such it’s about a slightly older guy than the New Wave dealt with, a beefy career criminal (Lino Ventura) on the run who in short order we see pulling a desperate job, making good his escape, before his family and partner in crime are gunned down in front of him in a shootout with the police. Director Claude Sautet choreographs all this with grace, charges ahead with pace and shoots everything in the sort of stunning black and white (apart from one fuzzy moment this is a beautifully restored film) that perfectly suits the cool jazzy soundtrack. Enter Jean Paul Belmondo, minutes away from everlasting fame in Godard’s A Bout de Souffle, and the film doesn’t so much grind to a halt as embark on an “after the break” part two featuring Belmondo and a girl he rescues by the roadside as he drives the fugitive gangster back to Paris. Where the film embarks on part three, the bit where the meaty and violent Ventura is let down by his old compadres and has to organise one desperate “last job”. This three part zigzag is the enemy of a film that is cool and excellent in so many ways – the set design is meticulous and fascinating; the casting is as brilliant as the way that Sautet sketches characters large and small with the sort of economy Tarantino should study; Sautet’s sense of filmic geography is perfect; and he’s cast Belmondo, an instant star from the moment he slouches onto the screen.

Classe Tous Risques – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Serpico (Eureka, cert 18, Blu-ray)

Made in a hurry and featuring a star in a hurry, this is the film that most endeared Al Pacino to a generation of filmgoers back in the early 1970s, with his portrayal of the fresh faced cop who grows his hair, who won’t take backhanders, and who suffers for his principles. He’s a hippie in the belly of the beast – “You look like an asshole with dentures” one of his superiors tells him when he reports for work at a new precinct in beard and beanie hat, smock shirt and flared trousers. Serpico goes to the ballet, attends night school, hangs out with artists, he drinks tea. In police eyes he’s a faggot. To audiences watching him back then he was a hero sticking it to the man who, ultimately, stuck it back to him. Looked at now, more than 40 years on, Serpico is a more complex figure. He’s deliberately naive, passive when he shouldn’t be, self-righteous, priggish, failings you could lay at the door of the counterculture too, at its worst. This makes for a more interesting film than the basic billing suggests, vindicates Pacino’s acting choices, and reminds us how good the man used to be before he disappeared into his own firmament. Amazingly, the film was actually shot backwards chronologically, Pacino starting with long hair and beard and having it trimmed as he went. So his transformation from puppy-eyed, duck-voiced rookie to a rebel with a cause and a swagger is all the more remarkable. Sidney Lumet’s leisurely pace, shooting on around 100 New York locations with cinematographer Arthur Ornitz, plus Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler’s tight screenplay put this right up there with All the President’s Men in terms of early 1970s film-making with real craft as well as crusading zeal. True story too.

Serpico – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contagion

Gwyneth Paltrow not feeling too good in Contation

 

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

 

 

23 February

 

 

Mass inoculation using the Salk vaccine, 1954

On this day in 1954, Jonas Salk started the first mass trial of his polio vaccine in Pittsburgh. At the time polio was killing more children in the USA than any other communicable disease and it seemed to be getting worse – there were 58,000 cases in the USA in 1952, of which just over 3,000 died and just over 21 thousand were left with some disability, including muscle weakness, paralysis. Salk’s approach differed from that of other researchers – he used a dead polio vaccine, rather than a live one. And though most scientists thought his approach was wrong, several deaths of children treated with a live vaccine gave him enough room to operate. The trial saw 1.8 million children vaccinated. Ten months later the results were announced, on the tenth anniversary of the death of President FD Roosevelt, who had died of complications caused by polio. The vaccine was declared safe and effective. Vaccination on a large scale started immediately. By 1957 the number of cases had fallen to 5,600. By 1964 it was 121. Polio has been considered eradicated in the US since 1979. Currently there are only three countries where polio is still endemic – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

 

 

 

Contagion (2011, dir: Steven Soderbergh)

Of Steven Soderbergh’s three human health jeopardy films – Erin Brockovich, Side Effects and Contagion (four, if we include the Spalding Gray monologue movie Gray’s Anatomy) – Contagion plays most purely to the health scares of recent years, Sars, bird flu, H1N1 and so on. It is an expert piece of scaremongering which demonstrates JUST HOW SERIOUSLY we need to take this threat by sacrificing a big star right off the bat. It’s Gwyneth Paltrow, and any film that kills off Gwynie in its opening moments is obviously going to have its audience, who will also be salivating gruesomely as we see a flap of skin from her skull being pulled over her eyes as an autopsy is carried out. This is about five/ten minutes in, so I’m not spoiling much, honestly. It’s all part of a highly procedural film which, starting with the sound of someone coughing before any visuals have arrived on the screen, tracks a deadly disease around the world. More than that, it tracks the social ramifications of the disease’s progress – mass panic, martial law, crazy alternative therapies, social breakdown, the hegemony of rumour. It’s a disaster movie without any asteroid or iceberg to drive it forward. Instead we get the gigantic breadth of human reaction – from Jennifer Ehle’s wonkish scientist trying to figure out a cure, to Jude Law’s evangelist making money out of bogus alternative therapies and spreading the idea that the disease is caused by government conspiracy. Soderbergh excels at procedurals – see Ocean’s 11 – and also at keeping a whole load of plot plates spinning, and he’s totally in his element here. Adding a quasi-documentary feel to his portrayal of globe-spanning events, he switches the action from Atlanta to London, to Hong Kong, to Casablanca and back, bathing everything in that clinical matt sheen he’s so good at. If you’re looking for a big heartfelt film with a Shelley Winters moment (Poseidon Adventure fans) then you will be disappointed. Contagion is a slightly pitiless drama with a brainiac quality that observes human beings as a scientist might observe a bacillus down a microscope. Which is appropriate. And it does, let’s face it, make a change.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An alternative disaster movie
  • A big name cast including Matt Damon, Bryan Cranston, Marion Cotillard
  • An expert techno-thriller written by Bourne Ultimatum’s Scott Z Burns
  • Soderbergh’s beautiful clean cinematography (credited as Peter Andrews)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Contagion – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Princess Bride

Cary Elwes and Robin Wright in The Princess Bride

 

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

 

 

22 February

 

 

Ladislaus the Posthumous born, 1440

On this day in 1440, Ladislaus the Posthumous was born. His father, Albert II, had died four months before and so it was that Ladislaus became Duke of Austria and head of the house of Habsburg as soon as he arrived in the world. Ladislaus grew up under the protection, as a prisoner more or less, of Frederick V, who was the de facto ruler of Austria. Meanwhile John Hunyadi ruled Hungary in Ladislaus’s stead, and George of Podebrady fulfilled the same function in Bohemia. At the age of ten, Ladislaus swapped one guardian for another after Ulrich II, the Princely Count of Celje, freed the boy from Frederick V. Ulrich then took over ruling Austria in Ladislaus’s name. At the age of 13, Ladislaus was crowned King of Bohemia, and Ulrich became governor of Hungary. It was after commotion caused first by the murder of Ulrich by the Hungarian Ladislaus Hunyadi, then by Ladislaus the Posthumous’s reprisals against Hunyadi (he had him beheaded) that Ladislaus, aged only 17, died of a mystery illness. Poisoning was suspected at the time, though 20th century scientists ascertained it had been leukaemia.

 

 

 

The Princess Bride 1987, dir: Rob Reiner)

Director Rob Reiner was on something of a roll when he made The Princess Bride. The previous year he’d directed Stand By Me, one of the great films about teenagerdom. Two years later he’d make When Harry Met Sally, one of the great romantic comedies. Sandwiched between we have a film which didn’t quite fit an easy category at the time but now looks, in retrospect, like the template for Hollywood’s “kiddie films for grown-ups”. Like the other two mentioned films, The Princess Bride is brilliantly written, by the brilliant screenwriter William Goldman in this case, whose pet project it was. It tells the entirely fairytale story of a beautiful princess kidnapped by a ne’er-do-well and rescued by the stable boy she fell for years before, though he is now disguised as a pirate. Swordplay, giants, torture chambers, a wicked prince, a questing suitor, The Princess Bride is the full medieval sword and sorcery shtick, though Goldman relays it all at ironic distance – this is a story being read as a bedtime treat by grandfather Peter Falk to grandson Fred Savage, who is mostly concerned that the story might have kissing in it. The casting within the fairy tale continues to be spot on – Mandy Patinkin as a cheesy Zorro, Cary Elwes as the stable boy, handsome, clean of cheek and as blond of hair as the princess, Robin Wright. Billy Crystal and Carol Kane provide an extra layer of comedy as a pair of old necromancers who can bring the dead back to life, when they get the spell right. Looked at now The Princess Bride looks like a dry run for Shrek – a good story for kids with whispered side jokes for the adults. It glories in what Hollywood can do and it’s alive to its shortcomings too. Auteurists will lump it in with Reiner’s work, but it’s really Goldman’s film and his screenplay is bursting with writerly smartassery and plot curlicues (hence the pirate business). Depending on your point of view this either works against the forward drive of the film, or it enriches it, making this a film worth watching repeatedly. Certainly the performances are – Mandy Patinkin alone is worth tuning in for.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The template for future Hollywood product such as Shrek and Toy Story
  • One of Reiner’s golden run of movies including Spinal Tap and Misery
  • British comedian cameos by Peter Cook and Mel Smith
  • The finest hour of Cary Elwes

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Princess Bride – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Adaptation.

Nicolas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman

 

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

 

 

21 February

 

 

The New Yorker launches, 1925

On this day in 1925, The New Yorker magazine was launched by Harold Ross and Jane Grant. Intended as a cosmopolitan magazine for the urban sophisticate – and those who aspired so to be – it started out as a broadly humorous publication, though quickly shifted its focus towards quality fiction and long-form journalism, though its cartoons have remained a key feature. Unafraid to be thought of as intelligent, educated and interested in a magazine world that largely pretends to the opposite, it could take its pick of a certain type of writer – Hannah Arendt wrote her long-form piece on the trial of Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker, James Thurber contributed cartoons, Salinger, Nabokov and Hemingway sent in short stories.

 

 

 

Adaptation (2002, dir: Spike Jonze)

Adapted from a piece for The New Yorker by Susan Orlean called The Orchid Thief, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s film takes a distinctly New Yorker approach – intelligent and entertaining – to tell the story of… what exactly? At one level it is Orlean’s story, of a thief (Chris Cooper) so driven by his thirst for the rare exotic plant that he’ll pay anything, go anywhere, even kill to get hold of what he wants. On another level it’s the story of writer Charlie Kaufman struggling to adapt the New Yorker piece he has read into the film we are watching. And sitting side-by-side with that story we have Charlie’s brother, Donald, also a writer, but a pen-for-hire keen to bolt together a Hollywood blockbuster by following the screenwriting edicts of Robert McKee (played as a stiletto to the McKee system by Brian Cox). Both Kaufmans are played by Nicolas Cage and in real life Kaufman doesn’t have a brother called Donald, so we can kind of guess that Charlie is pulling a “two sides of the same coin” number here – sure he writes for pleasure, but he also wants to get paid. There is more plot than this, notably featuring Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean – with whom fictional Charlie has developed an obsession – plus John Cusack and Catherine Keener as themselves, sort of. The whole thing takes that reality/fiction/actor/character shtick worked so well by Jonze and Kaufman in Being John Malkovich (in which JM played a version of himself) about two levels further. It’s a virtuoso plate-spinning exercise, with Cage admirably suited by virtue of his independently swivelling eyes to play a man who is losing sleep, weight and neurons trying to work out where to go next. Personally, I don’t think Kaufman (the screenwriter) quite manages to extract himself (the character) from the tangle he eventually winds up in, though plenty think the ridiculous, funny guns-ablazing finale to the film is entirely appropriate. Robert McKee would probably love it.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Surely the Charlie Kaufman film par excellence
  • One in the eye for auteur theorists
  • Donald Kaufman gets a screen credit, even though he doesn’t exist
  • Look out for an uncredited John Malkovich

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Adaptation – at Amazon