Our Idiot Brother

Janet Montgomery and Paul Rudd in Our Idiot Brother

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

1 April

April Fool’s Day

In many countries, today is April Fool’s Day. It’s unclear where this day – nowadays often dedicated to the playing of practical jokes – has its origin, though there was a medieval Feast of Fools (28 December) and a Roman festival of Hilaria (25 March).
It is also possible that the old custom of celebrating the new year on 25 March (the weeklong holiday would end on 1 April) is involved somehow. Another theory sees Persia as the source of April Fool’s Day, the Sizdah Bedar tradition of going out and having fun on 1 April going back as far as 536BC.

Our Idiot Brother (2011, dir: Jesse Peretz)

The idea that there is something about the fool, the idiot, that we can all learn from is the motivating idea behind a film that looks for all the world like it was expected to do great things. It didn’t, but that doesn’t make Paul Rudd’s performance any less enjoyable.

Rudd plays Ned, the amiable hippie goof who is so dumb he’ll sell marijuana to a uniformed cop, because the cop asked him nicely. Ned finds it hard to operate in this world of half-truths, nods and winks. He is totally gullible, without guile. He’s a lovely guy. But he’s clearly a liability, which is why his parole officer speaks to him so slowly – anyone who sells grass to someone they know is a cop must be a fool, right?

Not entirely. There’s a Being There quality to director Jesse Peretz’s film and there’s a Chauncey Gardner (Ned is indeed an organic smallholder) aspect to Rudd’s Ned, though Peter Sellers’s last film clearly isn’t being used as a complete blueprint. Nor is Ned’s wide-eyed naivety used as a satirical light to expose the bullshit of others. This is a comedy about human foibles not villainy and as Ned bumbles around in the lives of his three sisters (Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer) and the men in their lives (Adam Scott, Steve Coogan, Hugh Dancy) his honest intentions, inability to remember what the lie was that he’s meant to be telling and social gaucheness have the sort of effect that actually only happens in films.

Yes, that’s a good cast, which is why it seems likely that better things were expected. And they’re all capable of handling the improvisational approach that Peretz has settled on. And there are jokes, often at the expense of the men (Coogan is a particularly enjoyable rotter), as Rudd’s Ned makes a mess of everything he touches, and in doing so makes everything actually quite a lot better.

Why Watch?

  • Rudd’s warm and wonderful performance
  • Great ensemble performances by a talented cast
  • Shirley Knight as the materfamilias
  • There’s a dog in it called Willie Nelson

© Steve Morrissey 2014

Our Idiot Brother – at Amazon

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

MPAA Not Rated Card

 

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

 

 

31 March

 

Motion Picture Code introduced, 1930

On this day in 1930, the Hollywood studios introduced a new code which laid out what was and was not acceptable in movies. It was a system of self-regulation which a scared Hollywood adopted after a series of widely reported scandals and after a number of risqué movies had prompted numerous states to introduce censorship bills. Rather than navigate through all this restrictive detail – what was fine in Iowa might not be in Texas – Hollywood bought off the objectors by introducing a code that satisfied nearly everybody. Working from a list of “don’ts” (eg sex, drugs, blasphemy, white slavery) and “be carefuls” (eg arson, murder, lustful kissing) hashed out by studio bosses, the eventual Code was drawn up by a pair of Catholics, Martin Quigley, editor of the Motion Picture Herald, and Father Daniel A Lord, a Jesuit priest. Broadly speaking it promoted morality, banned vice, deplored the mixing of the races, respected authority and the clergy, and stipulated that bad deeds should never be shown to be profitable. The result is that films from the late 1920s and early 1930s (the code didn’t get properly enforced until 1934) often seem a lot fresher and more modern than films made decades later. This Motion Picture Code, often called the Hays Code, stayed in force until 1968 when it was replaced by the MPAA’s rating system.

 

 

 

This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006, dir: Kirby Dick)

Who are the members of the MPAA and why are the criteria they use for rating films so obscure? These are the two questions that documentarist Kirby Dick asks in a film that scored a few headlines when it was release because it came to light that Dick had employed private detectives to find out who these powerful people are – that’s how secretive the whole process is. And the answers are important because moviemakers – especially indie ones whom Dick is most concerned about – routinely pour their heart and soul, often their life savings, as well as those of parents and friends, into making a film, only to find that it gets a dreaded NC-17 certificate, for reasons they can’t fathom. NC-17 means the mainstream media won’t advertise it, major cinema chains won’t book it, the big DVD companies won’t stock it. This matters less if you’re a major – studios and distributors seem to have access to the MPAA, which allows them to tweak here and there, in accordance with the board’s wishes. Dick lines up a host of talking heads who have come off worse in their dealings with the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) wing of the MPAA – Atom Egoyan, Kevin Smith, Kimberly Peirce among them – to ask why, for example, nudity is more acceptable when it’s heterosexual than when it’s homosexual, his film concentrating most on the shady line between the R (ker-ching) and the NC-17 (ker-plunk) ratings. In a meta-documentary turn, Dick submits his own documentary to the board. And gets a NC-17 rating. By far the most obviously exciting bits of Dick’s film is watching as his sleuths work out who the nine members of the CARA board are, though his complaint that they’re just “ordinary people” does seem unjustified – would industry insiders be better? – but shining a light on a secretive cabal who determine what people in America get to see has got to be counted as a public service. And he’s doing the rest of the world a favour too, since a film that bombs at home hasn’t the muscle to travel. Yes, Dick does complain too much and there’s the suspicion that some of the directors he interviews are using MPAA decision to excuse their own artistic shortcomings, but you can’t deny his film is an eye-opener.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Meet Jack Valenti, boss of the MPAA from 1968 to 2004
  • The thorough investigative approach
  • The views of directors such as John Waters, Darren Aronofsky, Matt Stone
  • Because sunshine is the best disinfectant

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

This Film Is Not Yet Rated – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Parkland

Zac Efron about to pronounce the president dead in Parkland

 

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

 

 

30 March

 

Ronald Reagan shot, 1981

On this day in 1981, after just over two months in office, President Ronald Reagan was shot outside the Washington Hilton. His would-be assassin was John Hinckley Jr, whose attempt on the president’s life seemed to be part of a plan to impress Jodie Foster, with whom he’d become obsessed after seeing her in the film Taxi Driver. Hinckley’s intention was not to kill Reagan but the President – he’d been focused on killing President Jimmy Carter when Carter was in office until being arrested on a firearms charge. Reagan just happened to be the man doing the job on the day in question. Hinckley loosed off six .22 calibre shots from a Röhm RG-14 towards Reagan as he left the Hilton at 2.25pm. None of them hit the president directly, though one ricocheted off his car and hit him in the chest. A policeman, a secret service agent and Reagan’s press secretary were also wounded (the last was paralysed), while Reagan was taken to George Washington University Hospital where he was said to be “close to death”. He recovered and was released from hospital less than two weeks later, his reputation as a toughie immeasurably enhanced.

 

 

 

Parkland (2013, dir: Peter Landesman)

There are plenty of big name actors in writer/director Peter Landesman’s debut movie – Paul Giamatti, Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Billy Bob Thornton – though all take a back seat to the story it tells. Parkland being the hospital where President Kennedy was brought on the day he was assassinated. It was also the hospital where JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was brought when he was brought down by Jack Ruby’s vengeful bullet a couple of days later. The film tells both tales, the former in a major key, the latter in a minor. Mixing things we know about the day – we meet Abraham Zapruder (Giamatti) as he’s excitedly preparing to take some 8mm footage of the President – with things we don’t, the film’s great strength is its behind-the-scenes “you are there” sequences, first when noble doctors are battling to save a man who is, effectively, already dead on arrival, later when Oswald (Jeremy Strong) is also brought in to the same room for pretty much the same routine by the same doctors. It’s the small touches that lend the whole thing a fascination that goes beyond the morbid – the tussles between various branches of the security service to “control” the situation, the sight of the “Kennedy’s” FBI detail being sworn to defend new president, Johnson (the office not the man being the thing). And at around 20 minutes in, that’s it, the president is declared dead, and the film switches to Oswald, his arrest, and the affect this had on his family – the appalled decent brother Robert (James Badge Dale), the batshit mother (Jacki Weaver, since Animal Kingdom the go-to actor for poisonous matriarchs). Thirty years ago a film that gave so much time to the killer, asked us to feel the pain of those near to him, would have been impossible to make, for all sorts of reasons. Now, Parkland’s struggle is getting us to empathise twice – first with a man who, for all his faults, is still bathed in a heroic aura. Then again with the weasel who killed him. Or if not sympathise with him, then his family, who we see burying him while the whole of America is watching the interment of the former president on TV. Efron, Giamatti, Harden and a solidly excellent Billy Bob Thornton as the man in black trying to co-ordinate mayhem, all take second place to that task, which Landesman achieves in muted fashion, because if he’d tried it otherwise, the film probably would never have been made.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The audacity of telling the story of both men
  • Barry Ackroyd’s period cinematography
  • The brilliantly chaotic editing of Markus Czyzewski and Leo Trombetta
  • The really solid cast includes Ron Livingston, Colin Hanks, Jackie Earle Haley

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Parkland – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

Slavoj Žižek in The Pervert's Guide to Ideology

 

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

 

 

29 March

 

First batch of Coca Cola made, 1886

On this day in 1886, Colonel John Pemberton made his first batch of Coca-Cola. It was a non-alcoholic version of his popular Pemberton’s French Wine Coca and he introduced it because Atlanta, where he was based, had just announced the prohibition of alcohol. Pemberton’s French Wine Coca contained alcohol mixed with psychoactive coca, caffeine-containing kola nut and the aromatic aphrodisiac damiana. Pemberton had originally formulated it as a way of weaning himself off an addiction to morphine he’d picked up after being injured in the Civil War. Like the European Vin Mariani, which it resembled and was probably modelled on, it was very popular as a nerve tonic. Coca-Cola (so called because it contained cocaine leaves and kola nuts) was initially sold as a medicine. In May 1886, Coca-Cola embarked on its first advertising campaign – “a valuable Brain Tonic, and a cure for all nervous affliction” – in the Atlanta Journal.

 

 

 

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012, dir: Sophie Fiennes)

The follow-up to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and director Sophie Fiennes’s documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema sees Žižek getting stuck into his theme immediately as he discusses “one of the great forgotten left-wing classics of Hollywood”, John Carpenter’s They Live. The film under discussion features a character called John Nada (ie nothing) who finds some glasses which show things as they really are. The conceit of this documentary is that Žižek launches into his dissection of the film from what looks like the set of They Live itself – a dark back alley where dirty deeds have either just happened, or are about to. Žižek states his thesis – that we live in a supposedly post-ideological society where we are positioned as “subjects of pleasure” and as such must indulge ourselves in order to lead a satisfying life. This, he contends, is the underlying ideology of our time. And he proceeds to deliver evidence of the ideology at work in a typically wide-ranging cultural analysis which jumps from one example to another at breakneck speed. So one minute Žižek is talking about The Sound of Music, the next about Coca-Cola (finding something sinister in the phrase “It’s the real thing”), then it’s a Kinder Surprise Egg, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the Norwegian killer Anders Breivik, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, on and on and on he goes. “What does the shark stand for?” he asks of Jaws. “What does the wreck of the Titanic stand for?” he asks of Titanic. To make this more than just a stodgy lecture, Fiennes reconstructs – as she did in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema – many of the sets. So Žižek talks about Jaws from the boat, about Taxi Driver from Travis Bickle’s bed. At one point he’s on Hitler’s plane. It’s all very disorienting, which is of course the point. It’s also vastly entertaining, if this sort of mad cultural analysis is your bag. And for those who are wary of bearded intellectuals, fearing they might pick up a taint of socialism from close contact, it must be said that Žižek is not your typical leftie. For all the bashing of Starbucks (“the ultimate form of consumerism”) and religion (“We cannot know what God wants from us because there is no God”), Žižek makes some refreshingly unexpected points – “the depressing lesson of the last decades is that capitalism has been the true revolutionising force”. And he offers as a take-away the sort of statement that seriously undermines the Hollywood offer – “the first step to freedom is not just to change the reality to fit your dreams, it’s to change the dream… and this hurts.”

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Slavoj Žižek, surely the most camera-friendly intellectual alive
  • Žižek has a sense of humour
  • His analysis of Titanic is like a plunge in iced water
  • Fiennes’s elegant visuals, always in the service of the words

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Errol Flynn in lancer's helmet in The Charge of the Light Brigade

 

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

 

 

28 March

 

Crimean War escalates, 1854

On this day in 1854, Britain and France declared war against Russia. Russia and the Ottoman Empire had been at war since October the previous year, when conflict had broken out ostensibly about the rights of Christians in the Holy Land – being restricted by Muslim Ottomans and being protected by Orthodox Russian if you accept the Russians’ diplomatic rhetoric. In fact the war was about territory, the Turks being on the decline after centuries of dominance in the region, the Russians keen to continue their expansion west into Europe and particularly south to the Black Sea, which offered them “warm water” ports which wouldn’t freeze in the winter. As one of the major planks of the foreign policy of both Britain and France had been the containment of Russia at least since the Treaty of Paris in 1815, both countries felt compelled to join after the Russians destroyed the Ottoman fleet at the Black Sea port of Sinope. With Russia now masters of the Black Sea, which led into the Mediterranean (which both Britain and France saw as “theirs”), the campaign to stop Russia focused on the Russian fortress Sevastopol, home of the Tsar’s Black Sea fleet, though battles were also fought in the Caucasus, the Baltic, the Pacific, the White Sea and Greece. The war continued until early 1856 with the loss of around 350,000 lives on all sides. It was the first European war to be photographed and the first to use the telegraph, which allowed rapid communications both on the battlefield and between the theatre of war and the public back home, via the newspapers.

 

 

 

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936, dir: Michael Curtiz)

The actual charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava (a light brigade being lightly armoured troops mounted on horses – ie no cannons) was a disaster, with under-armed men being sent off in the wrong direction thanks to a communications cock-up. So instead of taking on a retreating Russian artillery regiment they found themselves heading into the line of fire of a completely different artillery battery, this one dug in and ready to let loose. The result was a rout of the British, a change in public opinion back home, a famous poem by Tennyson and the birth of the “lions led by donkeys” myth. It’s the “lions” aspect that is played up in this swashbuckler by Michael Curtiz, who spends time hooking us in emotionally with the story of two brothers (Errol Flynn, Patric Knowles) fighting over the same girl (Olivia De Havilland) before hitting us with one of the most spectacularly staged battle scenes of the period. “A testament to the virtuosity of the second unit” is how critic Pauline Kael described it. There’s no point looking for historical accuracy. Indeed memos from Jack Warner suggest he was more concerned with the shade of Flynn’s moustache. And it’s not even as if the film has simplified the facts to make things easier for the audience. Much of the action takes place in India, where a roguish Rajah who is secretly working for the Russians can be factored into the confusing plot. Though of course the Charge itself took place in the Crimea, which is 2,500km or so away. Sticklers for history might counter that actually Britain was worried about Russian ambitions in her empire yadda yadda. Let them have the debate. Meanwhile, India is where Flynn, De Havilland and Knowles do their warm-ups before the big number, which is the whole point of the thing. This was the second of seven films on which Curtiz, Flynn and De Havilland would collaborate – between Captain Blood the year before and The Adventures of Robin Hood the year later. It’s the film that made Flynn a superstar.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Because Michael Curtiz’s films always are worth watching
  • One of the great Flynn-Curtiz-De Havilland movies
  • An early screen credit for Hollywood composing legend Max Steiner
  • That second unit work

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Charge of the Light Brigade – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

James Bond’s Testicles

Daniel Craig and Mads Mikkelsen in Casino Royale

 

 

Have you ever noticed how James Bond is always getting his balls interfered with? The world’s most virile spy is bursting with so much testosterone that women want to get their hands on them and can’t help but fall into bed with him. Men, on the other hand, feel so threatened they want to crush him/them. Either that, or his heterosexual payload intimidates them so much that they come over all gay – again and again 007 is beset by the world’s elite effete, men with an exaggerated interest in long-haired cats and their own clothes, and who treat beautiful women with a casual disregard. Most notably there was the dual shape of Mr Wint and Mr Kidd in Diamonds Are Forever.

Ian Fleming loved a bit of flagellation – Commander Bond, god that’s so domineering – and the odd young chap, if his wife’s letters are to be believed. So maybe he was unburdening himself of something when he wrote all those scenes in which Bond’s family jewels are jangled. As for 007 – a book by Daniel Ferreras Savoye called The Signs of James Bond: Semiotic Explorations in the World of James Bond points out what should strike all of us as obvious, that the double-0 is nothing less than a representation of a gentleman’s cojones, while the 7 is the number nearest in shape to a gun. Tangentially, this also offers an explanation for all the doubling tropes in the titles (Living Twice, Another Day, Not Enough, Again).

Here is my own brief exploration of the occasions when the generative organs of Bond, James Bond (again the doubling) have taken a crucial role.

 

 

Dr No

No what? The first film and already the case is closed.

 

Goldfinger

Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), the laser inching closer to the undercarriage of 007 (Sean Connery) – Bond: Do you expect me to talk? Goldfinger: No Mr Bond, I expect you to die. The threat to 007’s testicles generates the most remembered line of the series. Its most famous villain is later spoofed by Mike Myers as Goldmember.

 

Thunderball

Again, no comment necessary.

 

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Bond (George Lazenby), disguised as the androgynously named Hillary Bray, remarks that his family coat of arms has four balls on it. Later, one of the young women who heard his claims looks up and giggles “it’s true” after Bond drops his kilt.

 

You Only Live Twice

In the book Fleming devises an exquisite interrogation technique when Blofeld puts Bond, disguised as a deaf mute, on a bottomless chair over an active geyser and tells him his testicles are about to be blown to heaven. Being a deaf mute, Bond will be forced to just happily sit there and take in the scenery, won’t he?

 

Live and Let Die

Bond (Roger Moore) is again tied to a chair, where he is to have his finger cut off before the henchman moves on to more “sensitive parts”.

 

Never Say Never Again

Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) aims a gun at Bond’s (Sean Connery) crotch, asking him to guess where the bullet is going to hit.

 

Moonraker

Bond (Roger Moore) honours Jaws (Richard Kiel), the only henchman to turn up in two movies, by kneeing him in the groin, to a “clang” sound effect.

 

GoldenEye

The first meeting of Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and the new M, a woman (Judi Dench), draws the line from M: “If you think I don’t have the balls to send a man to die, you’re dead wrong.”

 

Casino Royale

Bond (Daniel Craig), naked, tied to a bottomless chair, is whipped with a knotted thick rope by Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) who aims it directly at his testicles. The film’s title sequence is of silhouetted men. The game at the card table is poker, Texas Hold ‘Em.

 

Skyfall

Javier Bardem’s Silva places his hand very high on the leg of Bond (Daniel Craig), suggesting either interest or threat. Maybe a bit of both.

 

Got anything to add? Be my guest…

 

James Bond 22 Film Box Set – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

31 March 2014-03-31

Donald Pleasence does the scary in Wake in Fright

Out in the UK this week

 

Klown (Arrow, cert 18, DVD)

Spun off from a taboo-baiting Danish TV series of the same name, this comedy sends a couple of mismatched buddies on a road trip, bromance style, with a 12 year old boy in tow. What this dim bulb and his raging egomaniac friend get up to can best be described as shenanigans, with the jokes usually having a sexual focus – I think this has the most audacious and literal sight gag I’ve ever seen. Klown is full of the sort of stuff that you can imagine the writers room on a Vince Vaughn/Ben Stiller movie coming up with and then deciding it wouldn’t be wise to use. Would that be the ass-fingering, the buttfucking or the jokes at the expense of the size of the 12-year-old’s penis? All of the above. The film does betray its TV sketch origins, but it is redeemed by the fact that its stars, Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen, are as fearless as they are funny. And they are very funny.

Klown – at Amazon

 

 

Wake in Fright (Eureka, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

I’d heard good things about Wake in Fright before I watched it, and was intrigued about a film I’d never heard of, from the birth of the Australian new wave. And because it featured Donald Pleasence, whose stary shtick wasn’t yet worn out in 1970. It was even better than I’d anticipated, this gritty Ocker classic with drop dead cinematography follows a prissy teacher who is probably expecting a bit of genteel R&R in the Christmas break. Instead he finds himself in a place called Bundanyabba – “the Yabba”, as a taxi driver calls it, “best place in Australia” – where he is subjected to “aggressive hospitality” at the hands of the locals, who drag him from one testosterone soaked haunt to the next. The Wicker Man with sunshine is the chaotic idea, with director Ted Kotcheff and cinematographer Brian West supplying wonky but beautifully composed visuals that completely add to the mood of disorientation. Pleasence is surprisingly unhammy (which you can’t unfortunately say of star Gary Bond), as “doctor of medicine, tramp by temperament… and alcoholic” (cue big wide-eyed smile) and helps the film towards its gruesome, bloody and brilliant conclusion.

Wake in Fright – at Amazon

 

 

Powder Room (Universal, cert 15, DVD)

A simple but pungent British farce set in the ladies toilets at a nightclub one hectic night of sex, confession and tears. Powder Room started life as a stage play, When Women Wee, and it’s actually at its best when it’s left alone to carry on being just that – director MJ Delaney’s occasionally Guy Ritchie-stylistics don’t help it much. But they can for the most part be ignored, leaving star Sheridan Smith to ping about between old friends, an ex-boyfriend, various underage acquaintances, and the trophy friends she is hoping to impress with her entirely made up fabulous new life (no prizes for guessing how that all works out). Smith looks a tiny bit older than the friends  she’s meant to be contemporaries of, but she gets away with it by sheer force of commitment. She’s abetted by dialogue that aims to tell it how it is, sister, the references to “hot sausage”, descriptions of anal sex from the female end, a less than glamorous view of love (“Some guy we went to school with wanked on your leg – that is not love”) being spat out by a cast (Jaime Winstone, Kate Nash, Oona Chaplin among them) who look like they’re having a good time.

Powder Room – at Amazon

 

 

Carrie (Fox, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The remake of Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic is apparently closer in spirit to Stephen King’s original book (which I haven’t read). But I’m still not convinced it needed remaking at all. Chief problem is Chloe Grace Moretz  as a shrinking violet being picked on by all and sundry at school. Meanwhile at home she’s being tormented by her mad religious mother (Julianne Moore). I just don’t buy Hitgirl – catchline “OK you cunts, let’s see what you can do – being such a wimp. And nor, judging by Moretz’s occasional lapses, does the actress herself. As for the plot, it remains familiar – Carrie discovers she has telekinetic powers of a fearsome sort (much more fearsome than in De Palma’s day of costly FX) and unleashes them after being hideously humiliated at the prom. I won’t say how, though I’m sure everyone reading this knows. Kimberly Peirce is in charge of direction and turns in a moody, well paced product that doesn’t snag as it goes. Even so, the way she echoes so often both the production design and camera angles of De Palma’s original suggests this is gun-for-hire work, the studio presumably having recruited her because of her girl-under-threat breakthrough Boys Don’t Cry, only to deny her the chance to really flex her muscles.

Carrie – at Amazon

 

 

How to Survive a Plague (Network, cert E, DVD)

A documentary about Aids in the 1980s doesn’t exactly cause a mad dash towards the bluray player – it’s a familiar story without a happy ending. But this one is kind of different. It tells the story of how gay Americans organised, fought the system (and often each other) and slowly, by becoming the experts in the field, forced a reluctant pharmaceutical and governmental establishment to deliver better Aids drugs. The breakthroughs of the early 1990s, which came about mostly by using a cocktail of already existing drugs, turned HIV/Aids from a death sentence into something more akin to an annoyance. The film’s strength is its abundant archive footage – the fractious meetings, the appalling callousness of certain politicians who seemed more interested in how the disease was acquired than what it did, the relentless protesting, placarding and civil disobedience necessary to get the logjam moving. Talking heads from the drugs industry, particularly Merck, who seemed to lead the way, deliver scientific backbone. And there’s interviews with HIV-positive activists then and now – some didn’t make it – which add emotional piquancy. And how healthy they look, by and large, 30 years on. Well done, everybody.

How to Survive a Plague – at Amazon

 

 

Dom Hemingway (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

It seems that every few years Jude Law tries a cockney geezer routine. It didn’t work in Alfie, the woeful remake of the 1966 Michael Caine film. And it doesn’t work here either. Law plays a lairy hardman who we first meet getting a blowjob from a prison inmate, a scene which establishes Dom – “they should study my cock in art classes” – as a swaggering, dangerous firecracker, before he’s released back into the wild. There he reteams with Dickie, an old aide-de-campe, played by Richard E Grant as a Withnail who’s fallen slightly on hard times. These early scenes as Dom and Dickie get re-acquainted are very enjoyable. But more is to come as the pair of them head off to meet a Russian gangster – Demian Bechir again excellent here – where Hemingway’s extreme version of masculinity butts heads with the Russian’s, leading to the film’s outstanding moments of drama and comedy. After that the film simply runs out of gas, introduces by way of a “Plot B” the estranged daughter (Emilia Clarke, of Game of Thrones) Hemingway is trying to become reconciled with, and starts to disappear up the avenue of mawkishness.

Dom Hemingway – at Amazon

 

 

Frozen (Disney, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD/Download)

I had heard great things about Frozen. “Disney’s best animation in 20 years” and so on. So it came as something of a disappointment to discover how mediocre it was. The Snow Queen crossed with Pixar’s Brave – feisty girl heads off to save her ice-generating sister in some frozen region – it’s unremarkable as a story, and only really picks up when the comedy snowman Olaf is goofing about on-screen, which thankfully he does quite a lot. Frozen has songs too, which reminded me of that Eric Idle song spoofing generic Broadway “The Song That Goes Like This”, numbers that always rise to an affirmative honking high note before dwindling away to a “little old me” ending. Animation addicts might like Frozen though – it’s a complex mix of various techniques and the 3D is well rendered, the nature and water effects are excellent and there are some lovely touches, such as dandelion clocks floating in the breeze, which left me wishing there’d been more. Its real stumbling block though is how 2D the characters are – unmemorable, drippy even. And considering that they’re meant to be ice hardened, that’s just not right.

Frozen – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

Mulberry St

Mulberry Street zombie

 

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

 

 

27 March

 

Typhoid Mary quarantined, 1915

On this day in 1915, Mary Mallon was quarantined for the second and final time. A carrier of typhoid who remained healthy herself, Mallon’s career as an itinerant cook meant she was perfectly placed to spread the disease. As she moved from position to position after arriving in the US from Ireland, she spread typhoid at every kitchen she worked in. 49 people came down with typhoid; three died. She resolutely refused to give any samples to health researchers, claiming that since she was healthy herself, she couldn’t be spreading illness. She had been quarantined once before, after typhoid researcher George Soper had published a five-year study into Mary’s movements in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They eerily matched a map of typhoid outbreaks – of the eight families that had hired Mary, seven had contracted typhoid. After her first quarantine Mary had promised to give up cooking for a living. She became a laundress. But it didn’t pay well so she returned to cooking, changed her name to Mary Brown and kept moving to evade Soper’s sleuthing. After an outbreak at Sloane Hospital for women – 25 cases, two deaths – Mary was finally tracked down (she’d done a bunk) to Long Island, was arrested and was then put in quarantine, where she remained until her death 23 years later.

 

 

 

Mulberry Street (2006, dir: Jim Mickle)

Jim who? No, the director isn’t very well known. Nor is the cast (Nick Damici, Ron Brice, Kim Blair?). But don’t dismiss this unusually grungy zombie movie about a gang of life’s less fragrant people ganging together after a virus starts turning fellow Manhattan residents into ratlike shuffling monsters. Things to like in this film which also goes by the more explanatory name of Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street are precisely the fact that these people are not your usual gang of chesty girls, buff guys + obligatory stoner. Instead they’re the people you don’t usually see being monstered in films – the old, the strugglers, the feckless, the fringe-dwellers. And Mickle and co-writer Damici spend a deal of time establishing character, disaster movie-style – we meet the residents of the house in Mulberry Street on the eve of their eviction to make way for gentrification, while news reports of an odd virus bubble in the background – before sending in the zombie apocalypse, which our gang of doughty battlers do at least respond to in a way that seems credible: they’re shocked to their core. The basic plot is [Rec] (guys stuck in a house), the basic style is handheld mumblecore, though with a Christopher Doyle-style injection of neon into the garish, junky production design, thanks to cinematographer Ryan Samul’s excellent shoestring work. Though you could watch and make a list of obvious references – the chaotic 1970s street vibe of Mean Streets, a bit of Nosferatu, John Cassavetes realism, the Living Dead films of George Romero, [REC], as mentioned – the film has a flavour all its own, a more CCTV style, which is down to the fact that it’s shot on the tiniest of budgets ($60K has been mentioned), hence also the no-name cast, most of whom aren’t even actors. Which is entirely as it should be. There is no Ethan Hawke or other former prettyboy doing the saving. It’s a bunch of oldish, fattish, regular guys and gals barricaded inside their building and making it up as they go along. Cutting to the chase, this is a zombie thriller in hock to a visual style. But it’s a good visual style. And it’s a good, tight, claustrophobic shocker suggesting Mickle, Damici and Samul have a bright (or do I mean dark?) future ahead of them.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Ryan Samul’s expressive camerawork and lighting
  • The feature debut by Jim Mickle
  • The soundtrack suits the characters – Love, Lee Hazlewood
  • Gritty 1970s-style horror

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Mulberry Street – watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Die Another Day

Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry

 

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

 

 

26 March

 

AE Housman born, 1859

On this day in 1859, Alfred Edward Housman was born, in Bromsgrove, UK. Most famous for his poetry cycle The Shropshire Lad, Housman was the son of a solicitor. His mother died when he was 12, on his birthday in fact, and Alfred became a bookish withdrawn child who excelled at academic subjects. He won a scholarship to Oxford, where he failed to get a degree, thanks to a mix of indolence, arrogance and infatuation with a fellow student, Moses Jackson. In spite of a lack of degree Housman wrote and published academic works about Greek and Roman writers in his spare time, and eventually gained such a reputation that he was made a professor of Latin at University College London in 1892. He proceeded to become a foremost textual critic with a reputation for intellectual rigour and a terrifying lecturing style. He was also quietly writing poetry and it came as a shock to colleagues when this academic “descended from a long line of maiden aunts” – as one fellow don described him – published The Shropshire Lad. In contrast to the facade of the severe academic, it was composed of simple, nostalgic, occasionally maudlin verses in the style of folk song. It was aimed at the heart not the head and has been in print ever since.

 

 

 

Die Another Day (2002, dir: Lee Tamahori)

“But since the man who runs away, Lives to die another day” are the lines from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad that provide the title for the 40th anniversary Bond movie. Being an anniversary Bond, the producers have peppered it with references to previous 007 outings, not least in the scene where Bond is conducted through Q’s underground workshop, where gadgets and relics from decades long gone are given another moment on camera – look, there’s Rosa Klebb’s shoe, that thruster pack from … quickly searches imdb… Thunderball. Halle Berry’s orange bikini and her slo-mo walk out of the sea onto the beach being another clear throwback, to Ursula Andress’s goddess-like arrival on the screen in Dr No, the first Bond movie. Die Another Day is the sort of film that is remembered for individual scenes rather than its plot – though its kickoff in North Korea, where a bearded Bond has been held and tortured for months was a shocker at the time (a real country! facial hair!). It’s also the film that gave us the laughable invisible car, Madonna’s attempts at acting, shocking CGI, lines of dialogue with the subtlety of a chemical cosh – “I take it Mr Bond has been explaining his Big Bang theory” and so on. Brosnan is a very good Bond who had the misfortune to arrive on the scene just as two great presences in the 007 universe were shuffling off. The first was the Soviet Union, which had barely shut up shop months before GoldenEye was mooted. The second was Cubby Broccoli, producer of every Bond film since the first, who was barely involved in GoldenEye and dead by the time the next one, Tomorrow Never Dies, hit the screens. Brosnan’s Bond has to contend with both of these upheavals – the re-arrangement of world affairs, plus the attempts by Broccoli’s daughter Barbara and stepson Michael Wilson to re-invigorate the franchise, the success of which would only become fully apparent once Daniel Craig took over. Until then we have Brosnan in his last outing as 007 – relaxed, funny – two Bond villains (Rick Yune, Toby Stephens), Bond girls (Halle Berry, Rosamund Pike, Madonna, if we’re being generous), extreme surfing, armoured hovercraft, and a henchman called Mr Kil.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Support cast including John Cleese (Q), Judi Dench (M) and Michael Madsen
  • David Arnold’s lush, John Barry-like score
  • Brosnan’s most relaxed performance as Bond
  • Halle Berry

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Die Another Day – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Don’t Look Now

Julie Christie in Don't Look Now

 

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

 

 

25 March

 

The founding of Venice, AD421

On this day in the year AD421, Venice was founded. Sited on 118 islands in a lagoon between the mouths of the rivers Po and Piave, Venice derives its name from the Veneti people who lived in the region in the 10th century BC, though the people who actually founded the city were more likely refugees fleeing the Germanic and Hun invaders who were flooding into Italy as the Roman empire fell apart. Today is traditionally taken as the day of the city’s founding because on this day in 421 the church of San Giacomo was dedicated. It still stands, though it was substantially rebuilt by order of the doge Marino Grimani after a fire destroyed much of the area.

 

 

 

Don’t Look Now (1973, dir: Nicolas Roeg)

It’s often remembered as the film in which Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie have sex for real for the camera, though that story smacks of brilliant PR rather than Perez Hilton-style tittle-tattle. But Don’t Look Now’s most talked about scene is important for another, more structural reason. It’s the way that in the editing of the scene the action keeps cutting between the present and the future. The story of John and Laura Baxter, a young married couple whose daughter has died in a drowning accident, Don’t Look Now has already shifted location from misty England to Venice where, as some sort of sublime joke, the Baxters are meant to be recovering from their loss in the world’s most watery city. He’s restoring a cathedral as part of his work; she’s quietly going nuts.
And it’s in the cutting that Roeg and editor Graeme Clifford signal Laura’s disintegration, the way they collage together images of the here and now with suggestions of what’s to come, or of this world of solid mass with an alternative world which is just out of reach. Enter two sisters, one of whom can “see” the Baxters’ dead daughter. Enter a priest, too worldly by half. Exit Laura, to sort out some problem back home. And here, after much suggestion and foreshadowing, the film goes into its most famous sequence, as the entirely rational John starts chasing around the spookily empty Venice after a hooded figure in a red coat just like the one his daughter was wearing the day she died. There’s nothing overtly “horror” about this film; it doesn’t do “boo” scares or feature mad axe-wielding psychopaths. It works on the senses in a different way, insidiously, by suggestion, the film built shot by shot like some baroque fugue – themes are stated, restated with embellishment, echoed, reversed, until (ta daa) we reach the final reveal. Plot junkies won’t like the ending. It’s too abrupt, seems like too sudden a change of direction. Yet as Laura glides away with the two mysterious sisters on boat across the water – allusion to Greek mythology surely deliberate – surely it’s the best ending possible for a film that’s been about the boundary between the solid and the ethereal.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Nicolas Roeg’s best film
  • Probably the most subtle gothic horror ever made
  • Perfect Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie
  • A masterclass in cinematography and editing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Don’t Look Now – at Amazon