Midnight Cowboy

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy

 

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

 

 

24 March

 

Robert Koch announces discovery of the cause of TB, 1882

On this day in 1882, Robert Koch announced that he had worked out what was causing tuberculosis, a disease so devastating that it went by several names – phthisis and consumption were also common. Until Koch started his research, it was widely believed that TB was a hereditary disease. But though Koch had observed that TB would often spread through families, its epidemiology was not uniform – poorer families tended to get it more than richer ones. We now know that TB is caused by a slow-growing bacterium, mycobacterium tuberculosis, which is carried by many people (one third of the world’s population is currently infected). But though it is infectious, it doesn’t progress to the full-blown disease in most cases. People who are fit and live in healthy, well ventilated environments resist it well; it is those with compromised immune systems who succumb. Koch’s suspicions that a bacillus was causing TB were prompted by his work on anthrax in farm animals, which had found that a bacillus – cultivable in the lab (ie his home) – was responsible. But he was only able to prove his TB thesis after getting a position at the German Imperial Health Bureau in Berlin, where he was able to identify, isolate and cultivate the tuberculosis bacterium. Having done that, it was on to cholera, another scourge, the methods for the control of which helped provide the blueprint for the control of all epidemics, still used today.

 

 

 

Midnight Cowboy (1969, dir: John Schlesinger)

Chekhov’s rule about guns in plays – “one must never place a rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off” – applies to the nth degree with coughing. A cough in a film generally means something more than just a cough. In films from Hollywood’s golden era it means the person coughing will be dead by the next scene, especially if they have been coughing blood. Midnight Cowboy isn’t from Hollywood’s golden era, which ended any time from the mid-50s back to the late-30s, take your pick, but it deals with death from TB, though differently. Telling the story of two young bucks on the make in New York City, the film stars Dustin Hoffman as street hustler Ratso, Jon Voight as Joe Buck, the cock for hire – a midnight cowboy – nervous about anyone finding out that he’s highly in demand by gentlemen of a certain persuasion. Must be the fringe jacket, though the cheekbones (which Voight would pass on to his daughter, Angelina Jolie) obviously help. That’s it, in terms of story – two guys, adrift, losers, hustlers, wandering around New York in the late 1960s in an era that’s suddenly different from the one Ratso grew up in, which offers sights that no one from Joe Buck’s rural hometown has ever seen. And here’s where the film gets either interesting or terrible, depending on your point of view. Interesting if you’re hungry for late 60s hipster parties, Andy Warhol-style blankness, throbbing cameras, the swinging sixties and all that. Terrible if you wish that John Schlesinger and his writers (including Waldo Salt) had made it more about the strange romance between the two stars, an analysis of Joe’s unexamined homosexuality, and less a tour of the fashionable parts of the Big Apple, places which these two losers would in all likelihood never have got to see. There’s the performances, though. Hoffman’s nervy, ADHD Ratso remains as alive now as he was in 1969; Voight is also remarkable as the more thoughtful and internalised of the two – it’s a harder role too, and he doesn’t have a cough to fall back on! Midnight Cowboy has not worn well over the years. Its shocking content – violence, the ugliness of street life, men having sex with other men – is no longer shocking. But it’s an interesting film, not just because of the standout performances, but because it is so clearly of its era and yet is also a clear harbinger of things to come.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Won three Oscars, none for the actors
  • One of the key films that made Dustin Hoffman
  • Harry Nilsson singing Everybody’s Talkin’
  • A John Barry score

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Midnight Cowboy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Star Wars

Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi

 

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

 

 

23 March

 

President Reagan proposes the Strategic Defense Initiative,

On this day in 1983, President Reagan announced a change in the country’s defence policy. Hitherto relying on a launch-on-warning (aka fail-deadly) response to attack – Mutual Assured Destruction – the US switched to a stated position of defending the country, not attacking an enemy: the Strategic Defense Initiative. Since the previous strategy had relied on a superabundance of ballistic nuclear weapons, the idea being that even if only a small percentage got through, the damage to the other side (the Soviet Union, generally) would be so great that nobody would even countenance a nuclear war, the new one needed something conceptually equally awesome. What was proposed was an umbrella of defence over the whole country, provided by tactical weapons able to bring down any incoming missile before it found its target. To achieve this the US proposed stationing some of its defence systems in space, hence the nickname Star Wars. Whether the initiative was truly part of a switch from quasi-offensive MAD to the defensive is moot – critics suggest that putting missiles in space, defensive or otherwise, just moves the arms race into space. Either way the announcement was largely a publicity exercise – no SDI system has ever been put into operation, nor do scientists believe one is yet possible, though the injection of government money into strategic weapons shield research has undoubtedly given the US an edge in the realm of advanced missile defence systems.

 

 

 

Star Wars (1977, dir: George Lucas)

A long time ago in a culture far far way, the progressive 1960s yielded to the conservatism of the 1970s. This change expressed itself in a variety of ways. In music it was punk – an effort to re-assert the diminishing dominance of rock’n’roll, which had ceased to evolve ten years earlier, and which now referenced only itself. In movies the focus went even further back in time, to the comforting good v evil space operas of the 1930s, Flash Gordon being a prime visual inspiration for George Lucas’s tale of a simple boy who discovers he is in fact the bearer of incredible gifts, gifts which will aid him in his forthcoming fight with the fount of all evil, somewhere up in space. If the story is elemental – it’s the same plot as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter – that’s because Lucas was drawing on memes (eg angels falling to the dark side) going back to the Bible at least. Lucas had read Joseph Campbell’s seminal work of comparative mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which makes the claim that most myths from all epochs and geographical regions share the same basic “monomyth” structure (hero goes somewhere magical, wins a victory, returns with new powers). So Luke Skywalker’s is the Jesus story and the Buddha story too. Lucas adds elements from Kurosawa’s most successful film at the box office, samurai actioner The Hidden Fortress, a touch of Freudian psychology (Skywalker’s oedipal mother-love is transferred to his sister; the film is awash with father figures he has to struggle against), some camp robots at the comedic fringes, a shitload of special effects, and voila, in terms of business and film culture probably the most important film of the past 50 years.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The film that changed Hollywood
  • The film that re-asserted Hollywood, after a decade of auteur directors (Spielberg, Coppola, De Palma, Lucas, Bogdanovich etc)
  • Darth Vader – all 12 minutes of him
  • Because Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin is, when not fully in shot, wearing fluffy slippers

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Star Wars Trilogy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Man on Wire

Philippe Petit 417 metres up between the towers of the World Trade Center

 

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

 

 

22 March

 

Karl Wallenda dies, 1978

On this day in 1978, Karl Wallenda, founder of The Flying Wallendas, a daredevil circus act, died aged 73. Born into a family of circus people in Germany, Karl had begun performing aged six. By 17 he had his own act, with his brother and girlfriend. By the age of 23 he was performing in the USA. Karl developed the seven-person chair pyramid (on a wire), which was a showstopping part of the Wallendas’ routine, and performed it regularly until it went wrong, killing two members of the troupe (Wallenda’s son-in-law and nephew), paralysing another (his son) from the waist down and injuring Karl’s pelvis. Karl performed the stunt again, though only rarely. Wallenda died after falling 121ft (37 metres) from the wire while walking between the towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel.

 

 

 

Man on Wire (2008, dir: James Marsh)

The title comes from the charge sheet of Philippe Petit after he was arrested for slinging a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and then walking between them. James Marsh’s brilliant film tells the story of Petit’s 1974 act of mad heroics similarly to the way a previous film, The Burger and the King, explored the relationship of Elvis Presley to food. In other words, there’s a serious intent beneath the playful storytelling. Marsh is blessed that Petit and his gang of guerrilla performers took miles of cine footage of their preparations – how they practised for one of the most audacious high wire act of all time (417m/1,368ft up) on a rope only a few feet above the ground in a field in France. For the rest he uses talking head reminiscence, dramatic reconstruction, footage of the walk itself, to present what feels very like a heist thriller – we meet the people (“the Australian”, “the Inside Man” etc), we learn of the plans, the equipment (the 200kg cable, the 8 metre balancing pole), the security to be circumvented, and then we get the execution of the deed itself.
Petit had come up with the idea of making the walk even before the twin towers were finished, aged 17, after reading about the building in a dentist’s waiting room. He worked his way up – practising on the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Warm-up acts out of the way, kinks ironed out of his technique, Petit achieved the big one on 7 August 1974. He was arrested after he’d made the traverse eight times, walking, dancing, laying down on the wire and kneeling to salute watchers during the 45 minutes he was up there. Later he’d remark that “I did something mysterious and magnificent and I got a practical ‘why?’ ”, a romantic Frenchman’s view of meat-and-potatoes America. Lending the whole film poignancy is the fact that the World Trade Center is no longer there, the victim of another prankster’s less amusing intervention. But though Marsh could have played up this aspect, he doesn’t, thankfully, leaving it to us to supply our own subtitles when he gives us a glimpse of the pass that Petit still has – “Observation Deck of the World Trade Center – Permanent.”

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Winner of the best documentary Oscar
  • An analysis of the times as well as the man, like James Marsh’s other documentaries
  • The fascinating enthusiasm of Philippe Petit
  • The new footage seamlessly integrated with the old

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Man on Wire – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

24 March 2014-03-24

Marine Vacth in Jeune et Jolie

Out in the UK this week

 

 

Jeune et Jolie (Lionsgate, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Being hot is like a weapon. That’s what director/writer François Ozon’s drama about a French schoolgirl’s double life as a hooker seems to be saying. Ozon casts beautiful Marine Vacth as Isabelle, his teenage temptress, in a story that sees Isabelle offering her young bedflesh for cash to older gents, some of whom are nice, while others are only too keen to abuse their power. Meanwhile, at home, the girl’s beauty goes unremarked upon, until exactly what she’s been doing with it becomes apparent to mum, stepdad and their various friends, who react as if someone shouted “fire”. Ozon pits this carnal power against something potentially as strong, the ideal of romantic love – Isabelle falls in love. And then he metaphorically stands back to let them fight it out. How fitting that for the film’s coda Charlotte Rampling, once one of the most desired women on earth, turns up to administer a cool lesson in the dynamics of sexuality and time. Jeune et Jolie does not say much, especially for an Ozon film, but it does say it eloquently. And in the form of Vacth it also says it beautifully.

Jeune et Jolie – at Amazon

 

 

 

Fire in the Blood (Network, cert E, DVD)

An angry documentary that falters at the start thanks to a murky timeline. But once it gets going it tells a remarkable and disquieting story about drugs companies and their power. The focus is on the Aids crisis in Africa and how Big Pharma tried to stop selling generic drugs to the legions of people dying there. Largely, it seems because they are black. Dylan Mohan Gray’s film really takes flight when he starts wheeling out the facts. The next time a drugs company tells you it needs to charge big money for pills because that’s how it funds R&D, remember that in fact most spend only about 1.3% of profit on research. And that 84% of worldwide drugs research is funded by governments and other public sources, not drugs companies, or so the film says. Fire in the Blood’s passion finds a heroic human focus in the figure of Yusuf Hamied, the Indian generic drugs manufacturer who broke the logjam by making Aids drugs from scratch, buying in the raw ingredients on the open market. He then sold the cocktails at somewhere around cost to African governments who had declared Aids a national emergency – a stroke learned from the US during its mini anthrax crisis – which allowed them to suspend patent agreements with the drugs companies. This lowered the price per treatment per person per year from $15,000 to $350. In a sinister coda we learn that the companies have since moved the goalposts. Drugs patent agreements no longer come under the aegis of national government legislation, because Big Pharma lobbied hard to have them included in the global World Trade Agreement talks. So next time there’s a similar crisis the Hamieds of the future won’t be able to act.

Fire in the Blood – at Amazon

 

 

 

Philomena (Pathe, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Steve Coogan finally comes good as an actor in this mismatched-buddies road-trip drama about a cynical journalist escorting a sweet elderly Irish woman in her search for the son she gave up years before, at the prompting of evil nuns (is there any other sort these days?). But then he is in the company of Judi Dench, a generous performer, and he’s being directed by Stephen Frears, who has a charmed light touch. Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, the real-life journalist, and writer of the book on which the film is based, who was forced to abandon his career as a political spin doctor and go back to being a jobbing journo. It’s to Sixsmith’s credit that he paints himself as a bit of a twat, a nobby member of the London mediarati whose last wish would be to accompany an ageing simple soul on a dreaded “human interest story” in search of her son. It’s this dynamic – he really is a cock-chafer; she takes a packet of Tunes and some custard creams on a car trip – that is the beating heart of the film. Some of the dialogue is twinklingly funny – “Martin, do you have a chocolate on your pillow,” Philomena asks excitedly after they check into a mid-range hotel. And though Dench’s Irish accent wanders here and there, her comic delivery – “I didn’t even know I had a clitoris, Martin,” – is never in doubt. As for the plot – horrible nuns, searching high and low, trip to America, where they discover the long-lost son is… well, that’s spoiler territory. I watched it with my Irish Catholic mum, who ventured the opinion that nuns aren’t as bad as they’re being painted in films at the moment. Philomena, the film and the woman, seems to agree.

Philomena – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Missing Picture (New Wave, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)

Is The Missing Picture a documentary? I’m not sure. It’s directed by Rithy Panh, a Cambodian who uses his camera to tell his own story, of growing up in Cambodia just as the Khmer Rouge arrived in the 1970s. Whether it’s a documentary or not, it’s a remarkable film that mines Panh’s awful past to tell the story of what happened – the starvation, the forced labour, the executions – with Panh using his own homemade clay figures to fill in the gaps where archive footage cannot or will not go. When I say homemade figures I mean lots of them, hundreds, possibly thousands. It looks like some sort of stunt at first, but Panh has lavished such care and attention on them – there’s his brother in a Hawaiian shirt, an entire village assembly, a mock-up of a movie studio, people working in the fields, at the market, everyday scenes from before and during the “occupation” by the obsessively Marxist Pol Pot, aka Brother Number 1, and his mad gang. It’s a sorrowful film, not an angry one, with a quiet considered commentary that only emphasises the grimness that was visited upon this country of gentle souls.

The Missing Picture – at Amazon

 

 

Saving Mr Banks (Disney, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Saving Mr Banks tells a great story not very well. Set in the early 1960s it picks us up at the point where Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has finally persuaded PL Travers (Emma Thompson) to let him turn her book, Mary Poppins, into a film. He’s been trying for 20 years. She is broke and so hs finally agreed, though she demands, and gets, script approval, a power she proceeds to wield with a dictator’s sense of fair play. This aspect of the film – Disney’s irresistible force against Travers’s immovable object – is intensely satisfying, Hanks almost brimming over with sly folksy bonhomie while Thompson counters with a frosty asperity that makes her the anti-Poppins – sour, self-centred, snobbish, child-hating. Who’s going to win? We know it was Walt, of course. But how? Why? Because, the film tells us, Disney tapped into Travers’s own insecurities brought about by her own experience with her father. And in flashbacks that pepper the film and soon outstay their welcome, we’re introduced to young PL, in Australia, where her useless father (Colin Farrell) is to turn a good thing bad with his drinking and his incessant wild fantasising.

Saving Mr Banks – at Amazon

 

 

 

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

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel is best known for his film Downfall, about Hitler’s last days in Berlin. This film about Princess Diana in the months after her divorce from Prince Charles is a drama about another famous person in a bunker. And as with Hitler so with Diana, Hirschbiegel taking some pains to present the human face behind the myth – Di giving the staff the night off, making herself beans on toast and, most crucially, pursuing the handsome doctor she’s accidentally bumped into at a nearby hospital and smuggling him back into Kensington Palace. This romance, between Diana and Dr Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews) is the peg on which this portrait is hung. Presumably because Khan doesn’t have the legal clout to remove himself from the film’s gaze – notably there’s not a single royal personage or person of real public profile in this film. The dead princess’s legions of fans might like it; I doubt anyone else will really be interested in a jump through familiar headlines, the princess being portrayed as a giddy young woman with Mother Theresa tendencies. Naomi Watts tries – I don’t think I’ve ever seen her work harder – but she gets no further than the public perception of the woman. Same with the film.

Diana – at Amazon

 

 

 

Don Jon (Warner, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

I’ve heard Don Jon praised by people I respect (Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve, for one). But though I admired its intention and have a lot of time for its stars, it left a bad taste in the mouth. But big props to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, its star, writer, director, for deciding to tackle the issue of porn-induced emotional anhedonia, JGL’s character being the Don Jon of the title, a playa and porn addict whose hit rate with the ladies takes a deep dive after he falls for Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a totally hot ice queen he meets at the club. Leaving to one side the fact that this is the most ungenerous piece of writing for a female character I’ve seen in years – Johansson’s Barbara is a cockteasing nasty, smallminded bitch – Don Jon’s real problem is that it keeps telling us the same thing again and again. We see DJ affected by some new development (usually something Barbara did), his voiceover tells us about it, his friends greek-chorus it, his parents turn it into an issue, then the look on his sister’s face amplifies it further, until finally we hear about it all over again as DJ kneels in the confessional. Ah yes, the confessional. I could also entirely do without the New Jersey guys-in-their-singlets business and all the sub-Scorsese/Abel Ferrara Catholic bullshit. There is good stuff in here – when is JGL ever bad? – he’s tackling the right subject and he’s unafraid to present guys as feral when it comes to women. But so much doesn’t work. I’m not even going to mention what goes down once Julianne Moore turns up.

Don Jon – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

The Infidel

Richard Schiff and Omid Djalili

 

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

 

 

21 March

 

New Year’s Day, Bahá’í calendar

If you’re a member of the Bahá’í faith, today is the first day of the new year. A religion that believes in one god, one spiritual source for all religions – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, whatever – and the equality of mankind, Bahá’í was only founded in the 19th century but has around five- to seven-million followers worldwide, spreading outwards from its foundational source in Iran. The largest grouping of Bahá’ís is in India. Right now it is probably the fastest growing religion in the world. It uses a solar calendar of 19 months of 19 days each, with four or five days extra between month 18 and 19 (the difference doing what leap-year days do in the Gregorian calendar used in most of the world) mopping up the leftover. New Year’s Day always occurs on the vernal equinox, when the sun is directly over the equator, and coincides with the Iranian new year. It is celebrated with music, dancing and feasting, though Bahá’ís vary exactly how they mark it depending on where they live, the faith being not particularly prescriptive.

 

 

 

The Infidel (2010, dir: Josh Appignanesi)

Britain’s most famous Bahá’í, and regular Hollywood villain, Omid Djalili plays Mahmud, the entirely secular Muslim having to pretend he’s really devout in order to impress his son’s prospective father-in-law. A fact that is made about a zillion times harder when he suddenly discovers that he was in fact adopted and that his birth parents were, in fact, Jewish. Cue a film about identity in the modern world that draws a lot of the same conclusions as did Chris Morris’s film Four Lions – place means more than race or religion – but does it a lot less confrontationally. The plot then follows Mahmud – real name Solomon “Solly” Shimshillewitz – on a voyage of ethnic discovery. Starting with a bit of soul searching, his casual anti-Semitism being a particular sticking point in his transition from Mahmud to Solly. We’re introduced to his neighbour, Lenny Goldberg (Richard Schiff, so good he threatens to destabilise the film) who agrees to school the Muslim in Jewish ways, so that when Mahmud visits the very old man he now believes is his biological father the shock of a Muslim son won’t kill him. Director Josh Appignanesi and writer David Baddiel then pretend that what follows isn’t a series of comedy sketches with only the limpest links – an American film would have brought in a writer to smooth out the transitions, create an emotional arc and all that. But it doesn’t matter much because Baddiel’s jokes are actually very funny, some of them in the Woody Allen/Mel Brooks tradition of twitting the Holocaust, many more in the style of stereotype music-hall Jewry – Fiddler on the Roof, a bagel, a shrug of the shoulders and an “oy”. There’s also a more measured, thoughtful film trying to struggle out between the jokes as The Infidel picks its way carefully through the cultural minefield, one that is struggling to assert an “and” version of notions of culture, religion and identity rather than an “either/or”.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Good jokes, written by one stand-up, delivered brilliantly by another
  • Soundtrack by Erran Baron Cohen, brother of Sacha
  • A comic handling of a delicate subject
  • The performance of Richard Schiff, hot from The West Wing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Infidel – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Frank

Maggie Gyllenhall, Michael Fassbender (possibly) and Domhnall Gleeson in Frank

 

Frank Sidebottom was the stage name of musician Chris Sievey, whose Frank was a cult novelty act that toured students unions etc in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s, singing chaotically shambolic versions of well known tunes (it could be Kylie, it could be the Sex Pistols) in a wheedling high-pitched determinedly uncool accent. Frank wore a gigantic papier maché head and made much of the fact that he was from the equally uncool Timperley in Cheshire. I saw him perform once, in the University of London Union, and the memory is with me still.

Jon Ronson, the journalist who co-wrote the screenplay on which Lenny Abrahamson’s film is based, was the keyboardist in Sidebottom’s band. And though the comic meander in front of us is from the viewpoint of a new keyboardist who joins Frank’s ramshackle band of outsiders after the previous one has flamed out, the story this tells works at the level of fable, not fact. It’s not a biopic. Metaphorically, Frank is a big papier maché head.

The affable, shaggily friendly Domhnall Gleeson is our guide, Jon (name entirely coincidental, of course). And he leads us through the flatlining progress of a band who court obscurity rather than success, who would rather die than be famous. We see the first shaky gig after Jon joins them, which collapses after one number. We eavesdrop as the band write and rehearse a new album in a skanky holiday park in Ireland, burning through Jon’s money while treating him with contempt because he’s trying to write songs – songs! We watch as Jon and avant-garde bitch and Theremin player Clara fight for Frank’s ear. We journey with them to the SXSW festival in Texas, where, thanks to Jon’s tireless tweeting, the band suddenly stands on the verge of something they’re entirely unprepared for.

And all the time Frank wears the head – on stage and off – the totem of his creativity, his apartness. Frank is the story of artistic bohemians for whom obscurity is a badge of honour, those doughty souls who though they’d never admit it are more in hock to the image than the work. Beautiful losers, to misappropriate the title of Leonard Cohen’s novel.

Ronson’s decision to dispense with the specifics of Sievey’s/Sidebottom’s life means there’s a universality to Frank. Even so it’s going to come as a shock to some that it’s Michael Fassbender inside that big boggly head (though you could easily convince me otherwise). And that Maggie Gyllenhaal has been persuaded to play Clara. Or, indeed, that Scoot McNairy, fresh from 12 Years a Slave, didn’t have other things to do.

Maybe Ronson and co-writer Peter Straughan’s oddball-packed screenplay for the George Clooney film The Men Who Stare at Goats persuaded the actors to sign on. Maybe they were all fans of the poetic emptiness of Lenny Abrahamson’s trio of brilliant Irish films – Adam & Paul, Garage and What Richard Did.

But how to evaluate in terms of a star rating a film that sets out to sabotage itself? I remember that evening 20 years ago watching Sidebottom perform. He was bloody hilarious for about 15 minutes, wackily charming for the following two or three numbers, but then the absence (who’s inside the head? why is he doing this?) started to grate slightly, before the lack of real purpose – neither aiming for the transcendent hit of beautiful music or the intellectual high of a new insight – began to grate. As with Sidebottom, so with Frank. Where’s the tune, in other words.

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

21 Jump Street

Channing Tatum bullies Jonah Hill in 21 Jump Street

 

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

 

 

20 March

 

Lee Scratch Perry born, 1936

Today in 1936, Rainford Hugh Perry was born in Kendal, Jamaica. Often dubbed “Little Perry” in his early days in the music business in the 1950s, on account of his 4ft 11in (1.49m) height, Perry got his start selling records for Coxsone Dodd’s sound system, before taking charge of some production duties. A studio natural, and a master of falling out with people, Perry left Coxsone’s employ and started working for equally legendary reggae man Joe Gibbs, before falling out with him and starting his own label, Upsetter, in 1968. His first single, People Funny Boy (an attack on Gibbs) sold well, and was notable for its aural texture, its use of a crying baby over the intro and the presence of a slower rhythm than ska enthusiasts were used to. Perry had released the first international reggae hit. During the 1960s and 70s on his Upsetter label, and with his Upsetters house band (which included the Barrett brothers before they went off to join Bob Marley and the Wailers), Perry produced a phenomenal amount of sonically distinctive music, under his own name and those of other bands. In the 1970s he built the Black Ark studio, home of much of Jamaica’s dub music. A steadfast promoter of marijuana until he gave it up (“if you smoke ganja too much it can eat your brain cells”), he told GQ magazine that “my great grandmother was the high priestess and my godfather was Melchizedek, the highest priest that ever lived.” Present-day collaborators include the Mad Professor, Bill Laswell, the Beastie Boys, Moby and Danny Boyle.

 

 

 

21 Jump Street (2012, dir: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)

On the face of it a movie version of a 1980s TV series doesn’t sound like comedy gold but 21 Jump Street really is. Starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as the babyfaced cops sent undercover into a high school, the film sticks with the TV show’s basic premise. Then it adds a twist – Jenko (Tatum) was a buff dim bully at high school and the focus of his tormenting was Schmidt (Hill), “not so slim Shady” (a sample taunt). Though neither is keen, they are forced into going along with the incognito mission to bust a synthetic drugs ring by their angry black captain (Ice Cube). He opens his introductory speech to them with the words, “I know what you’re thinking… angry black captain. It ain’t nothing but a stupid stereotype…” before pushing that stereotype so far it becomes hysterically funny, Cube ending his fusillade of ire with a magisterial, “So suck a dick.” Grudgeful, the two cops believe the gig is beneath them – though they’re clearly incapable even of mastering the easiest of official duties – but are forced to comply, arriving at the school to find that all the pursuits that were dweebish in their day have now become cool. Who’s interested in the environment, or being sensitive? “Fuck you, Glee,” is Officer Jenko’s (Tatum) verdict on the cultural shift. This almost throwaway analysis of changing times (“I partied with Robert Downey Jr when he was fucked up and a lot of fun,” says Schmidt’s mother at one point) is one of the reasons why this film works so well. It adds another level of humour beyond the sensational one-liners trotted out by almost everyone in the cast. And on top of that there’s the physical comedy. Hill and Tatum’s drug-taking sequence, where they run through the various stages – giggling, tripping, super ability, super confidence, complete breakdown and sleep – is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in years. So, yes, we knew Hill could do comedy. But it seems Channing Tatum can too.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Cameos by Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise, stars of the original series
  • Lee Perry’s Police and Thieves on a great, eclectic soundtrack
  • Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill’s very funny script
  • Ice Cube gets the biggest laughs

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Conspiracy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Locke

Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke

 

Steven Knight’s movie track record so far: when he only writes (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) very good; when he also directs (Hummingbird), not so good. For his latest film, Locke, he directs, and the results are enough to make you forgive Hummingbird, the misguided attempt to inject soul into Jason Statham.

 

Because Locke is very very good indeed. And it’s so simple, a high-concept piece – perhaps what you’d expect from one of the brains behind the quiz format Who Wants to Be a Millionaire – which simply sticks a man in a car and has him drive and answer phone calls, drive and answer some more. One man, one car, some voices coming over the bluetooth hands-free, that’s it.

 

That man is an engineer – an expert in concrete slab bases – who has had an erotic dalliance a few months earlier. Now, as a result of that night of drunken passion, he’s about to become a father; the mother is down in London, crying, desperate and lonely. His wife, unawares, is at home about to watch the football with his sons. She’s cooking sausages and has bought in “that German beer you like”. Meanwhile, his underling back at the vast project he’s overseeing is wondering where the hell the boss has gone on the night before a crucial and huge “pour” of liquid concrete.

 

All this is established in the first few minutes. Over the next 90 minutes we watch Locke deal with all that – technical details to do with concrete, rebars and shuttering, the fallout from his absence at work, the increasingly desperate mother-to-be in the birthing unit, the wife and family at home – in what could very easily be a radio play.

 

If it were we’d be denied Tom Hardy’s performance as the softly spoken Welshman Ivan Locke, a man in a white shirt with graph-check pattern, pullover, untrendy beard, who has dedicated his life to the eminently practical – the concrete, in fact – partly, we learn, as a way of coping with the memory of his drunken, wastrel father.

 

If the father – whom Hardy addresses in angry soliloquy – and his backstory threaten to break the otherwise straight-ahead linear thrust of Knight’s urgent film, he’s the only real distraction, and Hardy’s subtle change of gear in these moments shows he appreciates this danger too.

 

It’s Hardy’s film, obviously, the emotions moving across his face like clouds scudding across the moon. But the voice talent lined up to punctuate Locke’s long night-drive of the soul are uniformly believable too. I particularly liked Olivia Colman as the needy Bethan, mother of Locke’s child, and Andrew Scott as Donal, the slightly feckless Irish concretist with a liking for cider.

 

Steven Knight spoke at the screening I was at. There were only about 40 of us and he had bothered coming out to say about half a minute’s worth, so he must be proud of the film. He told us it was an experiment shot back to back ten times in eight days (or was it the other way round?) – “then we edited the best bits together”. Thanks to the restless editing (by Justine Wright) and the cinematography (by Haris Zambarloukos), which turns the blurred motorway lights, passing cars and brightly reflective windscreen into a metaphor for Locke’s rushing mind, we’re as good as in the car with him. Is the mild mannered gent going to hold it together, or erupt? Is he, in his distraction, going to crash the car? Read on…

 

Locke – Watch it/buy it now at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

I’m Not There

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan

 

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

 

 

19 March

 

Bob Dylan releases first album, 1962

Today in 1962, having dropped out of the University of Minnesota and relocated to New York City to visit the dying Woody Guthrie and break into performing, Bob Dylan released his first album. Eponymously titled Bob Dylan it had come about after Dylan had played harmonica on Carolyn Hester’s album in September 1961, and caught the eye of producer John Hammond. Hammond signed Dylan up to Columbia in October 1961 and within five months the album was done. It was a collection of folk standards, coffeehouse favourites plus two Dylan originals – Song to Woody (loosely based on Guthrie’s 1913 Massacre) and Talkin’ New York. The album’s personnel consisted of Dylan on vocals, guitar and harmonica, and that was it. The album failed to sell.

 

 

 

I’m Not There (2007, dir: Todd Haynes)

A film about Bob Dylan that uses a different actor to play the man in various stages of his career. Sounds fairly unremarkable on the face of it, the sort of thing that happens all the time. But Richard Gere as Dylan? An African-American (Marcus Carl Franklin)? A woman (Cate Blanchett)? Director Todd Haynes throws in Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw as the other three Dylans in a film whose stunt casting threatens to obscure its purpose – by adopting the freewheeling approach Haynes is trying to get closer to a character who has spent his life constantly creating and erasing his own myth. Well that’s the puff. Constructed as a series of episodes, with a different Dylan in each, the look and shooting style changing to match, this kaleidoscopic retelling of the Dylan biography avoids the trap of serving up familiar snippets. And when it does, it refracts them, twisting them into new shapes, much as Dylan himself twisted the fairly staid forms of folk into his own vehicle for expression.
Haynes takes Dylan pretty much at his own estimation of himself – cool, smart, honest, only occasionally a monster, while the famous songs (Idiot Wind, Like a Rolling Stone, The Times They Are A-Changin’ etc) are used as a commentary on the man’s life as he lived it. Some things really stand out – as if the multiple casting for Dylan wasn’t enough (though Todd Solondz had done something not too dissimilar with his Alice in Wonderland-esque Palindromes in 2004) – one is the way that Haynes presents the 60s as a strange, distant, other world. Which of course they are now – further away culturally than chronologically – but Haynes was among the first to put this observation on film. Another is the way that Haynes and co-writer Oren Moverman draw comparisons between the 1960s and the time of the Old West (usually, with the 1960s, it’s the Edwardians and all that Sgt Pepper militaria). As for the performances as Dylan, take your pick. Blanchett has been praised, though I found her self-conscious. But then maybe she’s meant to be; she’s playing Dylan at his most iconic – shades, skinny black suit, smart haircut, at just the moment when he became the most famous pop star in the world, an icon in silhouette. A lot of people reading this might not even realise how big he was – bigger and cooler than the Beatles. The film’s a bit about that too.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The stunt casting
  • Play “spot the reference” – was that Jodorowsky?
  • Some great Dylan music
  • Edward Lachman’s remarkably varied cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

I’m Not There – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Beauty Shop

Mena Suvari and Queen Latifah in Beauty Shop

 

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

 

 

18 March

 

Queen Latifah born, 1970

Today in 1970, Queen Latifah was born, as Dana Elaine Owens, in Newark, New Jersey. An outgoing girl with an interest in sport and acting, she sang in a baptist choir as a child, picked up the Latifah monicker aged eight, formed a rap group, Ladies Fresh, in her first year of high school. She was the beatbox. At the age of 18 Fab 5 Freddy was given a copy of her rap Princess of the Posse by DJ Mark the 45 King, which led to her being signed by Tommy Boy Music. Her first album, All Hail the Queen, was released the following year and sold a million. She immediately branched out, into jazz and soul music, production, management and property, as well as acting, in movies and on TV.

 

 

 

Beauty Shop (2005, dir: Bille Woodruff)

Queen Latifah’s commanding physical presence, sass and likeability are key to the success of a film that needs a good strong anchor. Looking initially like a female version of Barbershop – a very laidback film about black guys shooting the breeze and starring the likes of Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer – Beauty Shop actually does turn out to have a plot. And it’s the one about a woman following her dream, creating her own space, setting up her own beauty shop, in fact, after walking out on her impossible employer (played to the hilt by Kevin Bacon). Even so, this plottiness isn’t what the film is about: it’s a showcase for warm characters, fine examples of humanity, wise words, face-offs, home truths, talk-to-the-hand showdowns, the full deal – but no N words, no bitches and hoes, “except for the ones that don’t tip” says Gina. So while Latifah’s Gina is opening her new Shop, taking in her first customers, welcoming some old faces from the previous place and fighting off the dastardly attempts by Kevin Bacon’s character to hole her new enterprise below the waterline, all around her are wheeling characters saying their stuff, telling their story. It doesn’t sound like much, to describe it, but Beauty Shop is a real case of feeling the quality of the characters rather than measuring the width of the plot. Which is where the performers come in – Alfre Woodward, Djimon Hounsou (a bit of love interest), Alicia Silverstone (token white girl as Troy Garrity was token white boy in Barbershop), Mena Suvari (as an entitled bitch), Keshia Knight-Pulliam (as the girl running off the rails). All presided over by Latifah, who still hasn’t found a film that really puts all her talents to full use. Until one does come along, this will have to do.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Queen Latifah’s performance
  • A very funny Kevin Bacon
  • Mena Suvari’s bitch from hell
  • Warm ensemble playing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Beauty Shop – at Amazon