Black Swan

Natalie Portman in Black Swan


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



17 March


Rudolf Nureyev born, 1938

Today in 1938, Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev was born, on a train near Irkutsk, Siberia, Soviet Union. The son of a Red Army political commissar, he grew up in a small village in Bashkortostan and first learnt to dance Bashkir folk dances. His teachers encouraged him to go to Leningrad. He auditioned for the Bolshoi but became a member of the Kirov Ballet, which allowed him to travel widely in the West. Realising that his freedom to travel was about to be curtailed, Nureyev defected to the West while on tour in Paris, in 1961. By February 1962 he was principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, in London, where he danced with Margot Fonteyn, a partnership that would enhance both of their reputations. Their last performance together took place in 1988, when Fonteyn was 69 and Nureyev 50. A titan of 20th century dance, he also danced Swine Lake with a giant pig in his TV appearance on The Muppets.




Black Swan (2010, dir: Darren Aronofsky)

There used to be a girls comic in the UK called Bunty which would feature regular strips such as The Four Marys (four girls of different social classes, all friends together at a boarding school), Mum Knows Best (a girl’s fight against her over-protective parents) and Amazing Grace, Gymnast of the Future (no explanation necessary). Regularly appearing alongside would be ballet melodramas – The Phantom Ballerina or The Dancing Life of Moira Kent or Lisa, the Lonely Ballerina, just three of many. With a quick edit for sexual content, drug use and bad language, Black Swan would have fitted right in. The story of the sidelined ballerina who really really wants to dance but first has to overcome all manner of obstacles, not least her own lack of confidence, Black Swan is pure girls fantasy material and all the ballet clichés are here – the sadism of the life balletic, the bulimia, the controlling parent, the rivalry, bitchiness, the bitter older star, the rapacious choreographer, the lesbianism, perfectionism, and on it goes, one overheated item after another. Natalie Portman is the titular swan, the dancer finally given a shot as principal dancer in Swan Lake, and the movie tracks her progress towards finding her dark side, battling against the low opinion of others (and herself), the jealousy of others, the neuroses of the ballet world. The performances are worth hugging close to your chest – Winona Ryder as the older star just realising it’s all over; Vincent Cassel as the wild choreographer who wants it all; Barbara Hershey as the mad mother winding it all the way up to Joan Crawford; an effortlessly brilliant Mila Kunis as the sexy, confident and utterly untrustworthy friend. It’s a great big rampaging melodrama, the sort of thing Hollywood used to churn out in the 1950s, tear-stained, hilarious (if you’re that way inclined), an allegory for the transition from the fluffy bunnies of youth to the dark nastiness of womanhood. At the end, as Portman gets her chance to become the dark destroying Black Swan and dances for her life in a sequence choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, director Darren Aronofsky cranks up the editing, wheels the camera about and throws in one gothic revelation after another. This finish is highly reminiscent of another great ballet film finale, The Red Shoes, possibly as re-imagined by Douglas Sirk. Aronofsky, two years after another grand guignol peak behind the tatty curtain of public performance/private pain in The Wrestler, has done it again.



Why Watch?


  • A thumping great melodrama
  • Perfect casting, brilliant acting
  • It plays perfectly to and against Portman’s goody-goody image
  • Matthew Libatique’s bravura cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Conspiracy – at Amazon





Rudo y Cursi

Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna in Rudo y Cursi


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



16 March


The Wanderers FC win first FA Cup, 1872

Today in 1872, the London football club Wanderers won the first football association cup, the oldest football competition in the world. It was the first of three wins of the cup for the club. The FA Cup is a knockout cup open to all football clubs who are established enough, and with facilities enough, to take part. In 1871-72, being the first season of the cup, there was a piecemeal and eccentric series of regulations – Wanderers managed to get to the final having won only one of their four games because in those days a game ending in a draw resulted in both teams going on to the next round. The final was played at the Kennington Oval, Wanderers’ home ground (and that of Surrey County Cricket team, which it still is) where Wanderers beat the Royal Engineers 1-0. The following year, given a bye all the way to the final as a result of winning the previous year, Wanderers beat Oxford University 2-0. The club’s third and final FA Cup win came at the end of the 1877-78 season when they again beat Royal Engineers. Success was short-lived: the following season Wanderers were knocked out in the first round of the FA Cup; by the 1880-81 season Wanderers were unable to raise a team and so couldn’t compete. By the following year Wanderers had de facto ceased to exist, playing only one ceremonial game each year against Harrow School at Christmas. In 2009 Wanderers were reformed as a charity-raising team and went on to stage a rematch of the 1872 FA Cup Final with Royal Engineers at the Oval in 2012. They lost 7-1.




Rudo y Cursi (2008, dir: Carlos Cuarón)

Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna came to international prominence in the 2001 drama Y Tu Mama También and reteam for this footballing drama that also takes smalltown boys on a rites-of-passage journey. The journey in this case is also sex-soaked, but then it’s also dripping in cocaine, drink, beautiful women and all the other trappings of the high life. This being the story of two naturally gifted poor half-brothers on a banana plantation who are spotted by a talent scout who happens to be in the area and then whisked off to Mexico City, where one becomes a striker for one of the city’s teams, the other a goalkeeper for another. One (played by Bernal) winds up with the hottest woman in the country (played by Jessica Mas); the other (Luna) with the biggest cocaine habit. It ends badly for both. As a film Rudo y Cursi is a little schematic in its rise-and-fall dynamic, but as a shorthand for what hits a Beckham, a Messi or a Suarez it tells what must be a true story – of guys out of their depth, suddenly surrounded by everything that money can buy, squads of hangers-on, with only their families to turn to for escape and counsel, who are also clueless and are also entirely swept along in the whirlwind. Rudo and Cursi are ciphers, in other words, and the acting talents of Bernal and Luna are powerless in the face of a script that isn’t interested in fleshing them out. More interesting is the scout Baton – straw hat, grubby shirt, girl on each arm – the ultimate stereotype, though played by Guillermo Francella with loads of guile, charm and intelligence, the bridge between the rural poor and the blinging rich. In a world of widening chasms between rich and poor, the film could be seen as a metaphor for the pay-no-tax entitlement of the super-rich and their “go hang” attitude towards the rest. If it is, it is never overt. Another interesting absence, this time definitely deliberate, is the decision to show no football whatsoever. Even the crucial “it all hangs on this goal” sequence required in all sports movies is conveyed by a series of close-ups of spectators in the stadium, cuts to various locales in the country (bars, mostly). There’s nothing here to frighten the sport-o-phobe.



Why Watch?


  • See what Alfonso Cuarón’s younger director brother can do
  • Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna together again
  • A sports movie without (much) sport
  • Adam Kimmel’s cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Rudo y Cursi – at Amazon





17 March 2014-03-17

Michael Fassbender and Javier Bardem in The Counselor

Out in the UK This Week



The Counsellor (Fox, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

A scene early on in Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s film about a high-flying attorney (Michael Fassbender) who decides to take a walk on the wild side has the counsellor locked in the office of an Amsterdam diamond trader (Bruno Ganz), where the two discuss gems and their flaws. They might as well have been discussing the film itself, a brilliant work of almost-arthouse thriller minimalism with a flaw that’s obvious without the aid of a jeweller’s loupe. But first the good stuff, and there’s tons of it – Fassbender smiling, swaggering as the attorney who’s had enough of simply serving the super-rich and so has set up a get-rich-quick drugs deal. The film is essentially a series of “meetings with rich people” all of them frightening – Javier Bardem as a playboy in party-animal clothes, Brad Pitt as a softly spoken dealmaker, Cameron Diaz as the distillate of pure evil, a Bond villainess who keeps leopards as pets – each one leading the counsellor towards the abyss. The flaw is Penelope Cruz-shaped. Nothing wrong with her performance. She’s as assured and brilliant as the other big names, playing the girlfriend of the counsellor whose love for the big fella is as pure as it is wanton, nice touch. Unfortunately for us, we start off in the company of both the counsellor and his inamorata, and stay following their story for quite some time, which sets the film off in entirely the wrong direction. Because this is about him, not them. Still, if you can overlook this problem, what Scott and McCarthy deliver is a film shimmering with the sort of gloss you’d expect from a director who earned his stripes making adverts, with McCarthy’s spare rhythmic prose (Pitt speaks it so well it’s almost poetry) providing a metronomic, hypnotic drive towards… well, that’s enough plot. Though it’s been dismissed in some quarters, this is Scott’s best film since Thelma & Louise, or even Blade Runner (those of you shouting “but what about Prometheus” need to grow up). As long as you can overlook that flaw. A diamond trader might even pass it off as a feature.

The Counsellor – at Amazon




Parkland (Koch, cert 15, digital)

This unusual drama starts in a familiar place and ends up somewhere else entirely. Kicking off with the assassination of JFK – as seen through the eyes of Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), the guy whose cine footage provides the historical image of the events that day – the film shifts focus to the Parkland hospital where the dying/dead president was brought, where doctors and medical staff (played by faces including Zac Efron and Marcia Gay Harden) try to bring him back to life. It then shifts focus twice more – first onto the progress of the Zapruder footage through the photo labs (accompanied by CIA heavy Billy Bob Thornton, excellently muted) and then back to the Parkland hospital, where Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong) is brought in, the assassin having himself been felled by the bullet of Jack Ruby. As an attempt to deal with a timeworn topic in a fresh way, Parkland is successful. As an ER-style ensemble drama, it’s also effective – the frenzied scenes as the president is first brought in and the staff try to revive him are particularly gripping. Also, everyone is on best acting behaviour – no upstaging by the famous of lesser names. It’s the final portion, with Oswald’s family, particularly his mad-as-a-beehive mother (another brilliant evil-matriarch turn by Jacki Weaver) – which asks us to feel the pain of the Oswald family – that’s going to be hardest for some to accept. Not because it’s an odd ask, but because it ends the film on such a blue note.

Parkland – at Amazon




Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Artificial Eye, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

The lesbian sex is the grabby selling point of this Palme d’Or winning film from Abdellatif Kechiche. And, yes, if you’ve ever wanted to know exactly how lesbians actually do it, then this is the film for you. But looking beyond what are quite protracted scenes of naked intimacy, what this film is really about is the sentimental education of a young girl, played here spectacularly by Adèle Exarchopoulos, who we follow from the schoolyard onwards, the film clearly looking like it’s part one of a bildungsfilm series. Unlike a porn film, it has a plot. In fact it has lots of plot, this being the zig-zagging progress of a sweet girl into womanhood through a series of relationships – the boyfriend who isn’t really her type, followed by blue-haired siren who lures her into a tempestuous relationship which forms the core of the film. To the left and right of this we have parents, friends, colleagues, possible new partners, jealous old partners, everyone interwoven fantastically skilfully by Kechiche, whose brilliant Marseille-set drama Couscous now looks like a dry run for this long, far more ambitious film.

Blue Is the Warmest Colour – at Amazon




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

The pitch for this film was probably as simple as “Sly and Arnie… in a film together. Kerching.” Well, once upon a time, maybe. But time has moved on and Stallone and Schwarzenegger are now old guys whose knees don’t work any more. But just in case the sight of these mighty oaks of action simply being in the same frame together (the Expendables stuff doesn’t count) isn’t getting the juices going, someone has sat down and worked out a very complicated plot with a twist, about a pair of guys in prison, one of whom (Stallone) is a professional prison-break expert imprisoned against his will, the other (Arnie) is an international financial mastermind blah blah blah. The prison is very hi-tech, the banter is very enjoyable, we get to hear Arnie speaking in German, there’s a twist at the end that you can see coming from before the film starts and the whole thing is just a touch overplotted, overwritten, overcooked. A simple prison escape drama, that would have been more fun. Even on those knees.

Escape Plan – at Amazon




The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lionsgate, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

J-Law and Josh “the plank” Hutcherson continue their adventures in bloody reality gameplay in part two of the series, which continues in the “one damn thing after another” style much loved by young-adult films. I’m not saying there’s no plot – plenty happens – but there’s no arc, unless “Katniss stays alive” is it. These whines aside, it’s a zippy and efficiently told story – Katniss and Peeta are taken on a tour of the various districts, having won the first hunger games battle to the death, where revolutionary stirrings are afoot, before President Snow (boo, hiss) decides to rid the world of those pesky kids by staging another hunger games, invoking some arcane law to make it happen. Again it’s the side characters who really impress – Stanley Tucci as the gushing TV host, again it’s gladiatorial Rome meets post-industrial Detroit in its look, again there’s a message of TV as the opium of the masses, again Toby Jones is badly underused, and again Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson are fabulous as Katniss and Peeta’s minders. It’s all very efficient, but it just never quite catches fire.

The Hunger Games – at Amazon




Empire State (Lionsgate, cert 15, DVD/Blu-ray/digital)

It’s Greeks, not Italians, who power this New York gangster/heist film that otherwise is in thrall to Scorsese’s “you talking to me” output. Liam Hemsworth plays Chris Potamitis, the immigrant’s son who winds up as a security guard at a shoddily run facility where the money brought in by the trucks is stashed overnight, one mangy dog and a few half-focused CCTV cameras being two legs of the security tripod that Chris himself is the third leg of. All goes uneventfully until Chris’s hot-headed friend (Michael Angarano, looking like he’s been sniffing glue) decides he wants to hit the place. It’s a true story, of the US’s biggest ever cash heist, and it’s based on Potamitis’s own account of the story (he’s also the film’s producer). Whether that accounts for the slight hole in the middle of this film where the guilt should be, I don’t know. But it’s an enjoyable – competent but nothing more – drama that benefits from Dwayne Johnson’s input as a laidback but deadly earnest cop. He just gets better and better.

Empire State – at Amazon





Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (StudioCanal, cert PG, Blu-ray)

The film that was midwife to a whole clutch of films about dudes who’re none too bright, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is now 25 years old and will probably be making a certain constituency feel suddenly most egregiously ancient. Yes, Keanu when he was still really young. And he’s really infectiously great as either Bill or Ted, whatever, Alex Winter copping the unenviable task of bowling along in his wake. Watched again, B&TEA looks most like an exercise in tone – all that “most heinous”, “bogus” “be excellent to each other” and so on. In the extras that accompany the film – which, in case you didn’t know, is about two clueless ignoramuses time-travelling through history and picking up famous names to help them complete a class assignment – writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon confide that, yes, that’s exactly what it was. While working on stand-up, the two of them invented a pair of dumb teenage characters who’d riff back and forth in a kind of stoner/valley/surfer speak which satirised the increasing ignorance of contemporary youth, especially as regards current affairs. Nicely, though, nicely. And that’s the key thing about the characters Bill and Ted (Matheson and Solomon admit that they wrote the dialogue first, then just went through alternating the names Bill and Ted; it didn’t matter) their huge good nature fills the gap where their brains should be. And it’s that dopey feelgood that makes it work still, all these years later. Air guitar.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure 25th Anniversary Edition – at Amazon






© Steve Morrissey 2014



Jodie Foster in Contact


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



15 March


World Contact Day

Today is World Contact Day. It was declared as such by the International Flying Saucer Bureau in 1953. Since then it has used annually as an opportunity for all those interested in doing so to send a message telepathically to any extraterrestrial alien in space who might be interested in visiting earth. Not to be confused with World UFO Day (24 June or 2 July depending on who you talk to), it was originally intended by “contactees” as a way of establishing not just that entities from other worlds existed, but that they were friendly. The International Flying Saucer Institute was created by a Connecticut gentleman by the name of Albert K Bender in 1952. He shut it down in 1953 after the first World Contact Day, later claiming he had been visited by “men in black” – monsters from the planet Kazik – who had told him the terrifying truth about UFOs. The Canadian band Klaatu (named after the alien from 1951’s When the World Stood Still) would later set to music the message which IFSB members were telepathing – it begins “Calling occupants of interplanetary craft”. Later the Carpenters would cover it and turn into a worldwide hit.




Contact (1997, dir: Robert Zemeckis)

The sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke once said “either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” This attitude of thoughtful inquiry pervades Contact, an unusual sci-fi film about a radio astronomer (Jodie Foster) who has spent her entire professional life scanning the skies for signs of extraterrestrial life. Not that it has been working out too well for her – friends and colleagues think she’s borderline crazy even bothering with the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) program. As for taking it seriously… The reason why she does is complicated. It’s partly a search for the father (David Morse) who died when she was young. It’s partly a search for a god she doesn’t even believe in. These questions of psychology and theology are dotted through the film’s first two thirds, until some sort of contact is made (if that’s a spoiler then you’ve not read the film’s title), and are hashed about by some fine actors (John Hurt as a Howard Hughes-like billionaire, Tom Skerritt as a sceptical co-worker, James Woods and Angela Bassett as the government’s own men in black). But mostly Contact is an opportunity for Foster to put on a display of fierce focus – she does it so well – while the astronomer Carl Sagan’s script wheels out the big concepts and Robert Zemeckis’s cool, lush camera repeatedly suggests that humanity possibly isn’t worth a hill of beans. The love interest subplot with Matthew McConaughey isn’t necessary and towards the final third, which packs in a helluva lot in a short space of time, things do get a bit frenzied and just a touch ridiculous. Yet Jodie Foster’s commitment makes it work. It’s hard to imagine it working so well with anyone else in fact.



Why Watch?


  • Based on Carl Sagan’s book
  • Robert Zemeckis’s gift for FX
  • The support cast is first rate
  • Look out for a young Jena Malone as a young Jodie Foster


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Contact – at Amazon






Michael Emil and Theresa Russell in Insignificance


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



14 March


Albert Einstein born, 1879

On this day in 1879, Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, to Hermann and Pauline Einstein. His father was an engineer who founded his own company selling electrical products which ran on DC current, and would eventually go bust when alternating current won the so-called “current wars”. The son, too, was interested in invisible motive forces, the first of his 300 scientific papers being titled On the Investigation of the Ether in a Magnetic Field, aged 15. At 17 he was a student of mathematics and physics in Zurich, after which he struggled to find a teaching job and so took a position in a patent office. In 1905, aged 26, he completed his PhD. It was the year he also published four papers which altered the way humans think of the universe. These were on Photo-electric Effect, Brownian motion, Special relativity and Mass-Energy equivalence. He continued working at the patent office, approving or rejecting electrical inventions, until 1909, the year he became a teacher at Zurich. In 1919 Einstein became a world star after measurements during the solar eclipse confirmed that light from a distant star was indeed bent by the sun’s gravitational pull, as Einstein had predicted. Gravity, light and all energy were in fact related in a way that could be quantified. In 1921 Einstein received the Nobel prize for his work on photo-electric effect, his more important work (on relativity) having not yet been sufficiently digested by the Nobel committee and wider scientific community for them to acclaim it for what it was – an updating of the theories of Isaac Newton, whose picture hung on the wall in Einstein’s study.




Insignificance (1985, dir: Nicolas Roeg)

The director Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Terry Johnson’s play Insignificance got a lot of press attention when it debuted in 1985. Largely because it allowed the magazine supplements to drag out archive photographs of famous people. Because Johnson/Roeg’s film deals with the fantasy notion of film star Marilyn Monroe, the red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy, baseball king Joe DiMaggio and physicist Albert Einstein all finding themselves one hot night in a hotel room together where the public perceptions of who they are, rather than their real characters, are set in play against each other. Johnson did similar surface tricks with his plays Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick (about the Carry On team) and Hitchcock Blonde (about Alfred Hitchcock and one of his blonde leading ladies). This is really his film rather than Roeg’s, whose dreamy fractured gothic style doesn’t get to stretch its legs much here, once the odd premise has been established, in spite of Roeg’s tricksy editing, flashbacks and attempts to make the film more cinematic. With Insignificance it’s really OK to say that the plot is kind of insignificant – Monroe and Einstein work out the theory of relativity, McCarthy bangs on about commies, DiMaggio pulls “duh” expressions and loses his temper, realising he’s the dimmest bulb in the room. Instead it’s the performance (to quote another Roeg film) that matters – Theresa Russell’s unusually believable film star, Tony Curtis’s over-ripe senator, Gary Busey’s decent ballplayer, Michael Emil’s wide-eyed scientist. None of them is ever named – nor was the blonde in Hitchcock Blonde for that matter – and this ties in closely to what Johnson, possibly, is aiming for: an understanding of how we buy things off the peg because we like their glittery surfaces (with actresses as with theories of special relativity) and whether the surface actually bears any resemblance to what’s going on below. The film is about us, as much as them, in other words. And is possibly one of the reasons why, once the picture editors had run their Marilyn and Albert double-page spreads, the magazines never talked about the film again.



Why Watch?


  • Big questions
  • Theresa Russell’s performance
  • Film editor Tony Lawson’s fascinating interview in the extras
  • A rare example of playwright Terry Johnson on screen


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Insignificance – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





The Messenger

Ben Foster, The Messenger


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



13 March


Henry Shrapnel dies, 1842

On this day in 1842, Major General Henry Shrapnel, British army officer, died aged 80, at his home, Peartree House, Southampton, UK.

It was he who is supposed to have invented the “spherical case” bomb, which exploded in mid-air (there is every likelihood that it was in fact a French engineer called Bernard Forst de Bélidor). A hollow cannonball filled with lead shot, it was designed to inflict massive damage on people.

Until then cannonballs had been solid and had achieved maximum impact when used against ships – it was the massive splintering of oak that caused death and injury to the sailors, rather than the ball itself.

The new device was first demonstrated at the time of the siege of Gibraltar (1779-1783) but became decisive at the battle of Fort New Amsterdam (Surinam) in 1804.

As a result of this victory, a delighted British government granted Shrapnel an annual pension. Shells made according the Shrapnel principles continued to be manufactured only until the end of the First World War, though the fragmentation resulting from the explosion of artillery shells, and fragmentation in general, has borne Shrapnel’s name ever since.




The Messenger (2009, dir: Oren Moverman)

The film that seemed designed to welcome Ben Foster into the place next to current hipster princeling Ryan Gosling – as the thin-faced Steve McQueen and Paul Newman of our time – is almost a two-hander.

Though here Foster is paired up with Woody Harrelson, to play army officers whose duty it is it convey “the message” to the next of kin of people who have died in conflict.

It’s a story told in episodes, the effects of the news registering on the faces of one hapless character after another – Steve Buscemi blurs on, Samantha Morton hangs around a bit longer – while in fact the film is subtly dealing with the effects of grief on the men who have to deliver the news, how it forces them to confront mortality at one remove, and in some way spooks them – the tough outer shell, the gallows humour.

If Foster, the war hero properly pissed off at having to run around like some grim postman, is the latest iteration of the seriously moody actor (Gosling, Ed Norton) going all the way back to De Niro if not Brando, then Harrelson has decided to channel Robert Duvall in his Apocalypse Now pomp – tight, spruce, not to be messed with.

And that’s why the film is worth watching, to see two actors more or less playing other actors in a series of tough little scenes of intense emotion, and doing it brilliantly.

The film meanwhile, directed by a debuting Oren Moverman, whose Rampart (Harrelson as a Dirty Harry figure caught out of time) reinforces the idea that there’s a serious bit of 1970s worship going on with its choice of close shots, its human focus, its mood music.

That’s its downside too – that it is a mood piece which starts to wander once it’s established itself. Plot junkies might want to look elsewhere.



Why Watch?


  • The first film by Oren Moverman
  • Foster and Harrelson genuinely work well together
  • Harrelson in Duvall-mode shouts “Charlie don’t surf” at one point
  • Bobby Bukowski’s 1970s cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Messenger – at Amazon






Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace in Lovelace


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



12 March


Ron Jeremy born, 1953

On this day in 1953, the porn star Ronald Jeremy Hyatt was born, in Queens, New York, to a physicist father and a book editor mother. He studied acting and education at Queens College and City University, New York, and went on to become a teacher in special education. His heart lay in acting, so he left teaching to pursue his dream, working in several Off-Broadway productions before starting to supplement his income in porn movies after a girlfriend sent a photo of him to Playgirl. In the days before Viagra, Ron gained a renown for always being able to perform. This, and his work ethic – he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for most appearances in adult films – gained him the sobriquet “The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz”, also the title of his autobiography. He got his other nickname, “the hedgehog”, for other reasons.




Lovelace (2013, dir: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman)

If there is a porn industry fairytale myth, then Lovelace tells it – how the nice sweet virginal girl from nowheresville became a rampaging star in the industry. The film that made Linda Lovelace famous – Deep Throat – told the same story, about a sweet young thing who just happened to have a clitoris in her throat. Hey ho. Lovelace follows Linda (Amanda Seyfried) from chaste Catholic girl from Yonkers, New York, to pole position in the porn biz, telling us how she was picked up by a dastardly svengali (Peter Sarsgaard), groomed by various cheeses in the biz (special mention to Chris Noth as a crappy producer and Hank Azaria as a crappy director), treated fairly badly, then treated badly some more. Lovelace was the first porn star to cross over and become mainstream enough for Bob Hope to use her as material in his primetime TV routines, and the film has a lock on the look and feel of the era – late 60s/early 70s – catching the clothes, decor and attitudes like a film that’s watched Boogie Nights, which this film is obviously indebted to. If Lovelace the woman eventually called foul, and spent the latter half of her life insisting that she’d been largely hoodwinked into becoming the most visible and famous porn star who had ever existed, then the film essentially calls foul on the 1970s, pointing out that sexual permissiveness was a great thing for men, but lousy for women. Linda’s protestations were always suspect – anything to make a buck, I always thought. And so are the film’s, which claims to be following Linda Lovelace the human being. But though it lists her in the closing credits by her married name, Linda Marchiano, the film is interested in her only as Lovelace the porn star. Like the plot in a porn film, this aspect of the film is bogus. But it’s pretty good bogus: Seyfried is a wide-eyed wonder as Linda, the support cast is uniformly excellent, and co-directors Epstein and Friedman pull out all the film-school how-to books reconstructing 1970s shooting styles – the dolly shots, filtration, lenses and so on. And did I mention that Seyfried takes her clothes off a lot?



Why Watch?


  • Evokes the 1970s of oysters, cocaine and champagne
  • An unrecognisable Sharon Stone as Linda Lovelace’s mother
  • James Franco just about getting away with it as Hugh Hefner
  • Seyfried’s go-for-broke performance


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Conspiracy – at Amazon





The Pianist

Adrien Brody as Wladislaw Szpilman in The Piano


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



11 March


Roman Polanski charged with rape, 1977

On this day in 1977, the film director Roman Polanski was arrested on a charge of rape by use of drug. He was also charged with perversion, sodomy, a lewd and lascivious act on a child under 14 and with furnishing a controlled substance to a child under 14. Samantha Gailey was the victim, a 13-year-old he had been photographing as part of an assignment for French Vogue. The shoot took place at the actor Jack Nicholson’s house. Nicholson was away skiing. Polanski pleaded not guilty to all charges but later as part of a plea bargain deal changed his plea to guilty to the lesser crime of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse (ie statutory rape – sex with a minor who is sexually mature and “willing”). Polanski agreed to undergo psychiatric evaluation at a state prison for 90 days. But first he went to Europe to finish shooting on a film. He returned, spent 42 days at Chino State Prison, then expected to be put on probation, as the prosecuting attorney had been suggesting. When Polanski learned that the judge seemed to be inclined to jail him, he fled the US and has never returned.




The Pianist (2002, dir: Roman Polanski)

Roman Polanski’s films often deal with guilt. But in The Pianist he confronts the subject head on, in a film that’s personal in more than one sense. Polanksi was born in Paris but returned aged four with his parents to their native Poland in time to become embroiled in the invasion by the Germans. His city, Krakow, was ghettoised and his Jewish family were ultimately taken away to concentration camps, where they died. Roman survived.
The Pianist tells the story of a gifted artist, a pianist, who suffers a similar fate, his life, family, friends, city, everything is destroyed around him but he survives. The city is Warsaw, not Krakow, but the parallels with Polanski’s own life can’t be swept aside. Nor does the pianist (Adrien Brody) survive by wit, cunning or heroism. It’s just blind luck, for the most part, a touch of common sense, the determination to carry on – everyday human attributes, nothing special. It’s this that marks The Pianist out as different; it’s not a war film about the good people doing the heroic thing. It’s about flawed people, proud privileged people, getting by. It even introduces a decent German (played here by Thomas Kretschmann). For this reason the book on which the film was based – by pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman – was suppressed by the Soviets when they took over in Poland. Not simple and direct enough to serve as propaganda.
To make a drama work from so little in the way of heroics, we really to be invested in this character of the unheroic Szpilman. And we really are. Because Polanski has spent time detailing Szpilman’s solid bourgeois mitteleuropean life in Warsaw before things get nasty. He’s helped by the expressiveness of Brody’s face, a canvas of emotions, though it’s often more a bewildered “why me?” that’s painted on there than anything else. Polanski is also working at a philosophical level, his central figure being an artist – “the antenna of the race” as Ezra Pound put it – art at the time of the Second World War being one of the moral barriers between humans and animals. So much for that idea. And as Szpilman scrambles through the ruins towards the end of the film, after almost all of his city has been reduced to rubble, the look on his face is not the triumphal look of the survivor, but the troubled guilty look of the man who has lost everything, and yet is still here, a man whose ambition is still to play the piano on the radio even though playing the piano now means nothing beyond the prettiness of the notes.



Why Watch?


  • Polanski’s most personal film
  • A unique war movie
  • The remarkable scenes in the ruins of Krakow
  • Adrien Brody’s Oscar winning performance


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Pianist – at Amazon





10 March 2014-03-10

Alice Englert and Iain De Caestecker in In Fear

Out in the UK this week



In Fear (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

In Fear is a great little movie with a cast of two for most of it, Iain De Caestecker and Alice Englert as a couple who barely know each other but are now off to a festival together in Ireland. He’s driving, she’s wondering, antennae flapping, why he’s booked the pair of them a preliminary night in an out-of-the-way hotel. Except that, no matter how often they follow the signs, they just don’t seem to be able to find the hotel. Taking this as its starting point, director Jeremy Lovering lashes together a titanic raft of increasing creepiness from the simplest of ingredients – their in-car interaction, the road outside, the trees, the desolate countryside. Like the best films of this sort it’s all done with smoke and mirrors – creepy camera angles and a moody soundtrack. Lovering makes even the swoosh of a windscreen wiper sound full of foreboding. Connoisseurs of the “a couple and a car” genre will note that this is a vast improvement on 2007’s Wind Chill, which worked a similar setup into a supernatural corner it never quite came back from. In Fear doesn’t go there. Instead it prefers its shocks to be flavoured with real human. Which makes for something more crazed, gothic, believable and ultimately more satisfying.

In Fear – at Amazon




The Butler (EV, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

With so many Hollywood movies cheating at their equal opportunities casting – black actors often in positions of high status within the film but having no real dramatic heft – Lee Daniels’s latest film looks like it’s reversing the situation. The Butler stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, the lowly and patient butler to eight US presidents, from Eisenhower onwards, whose tenure of office ran alongside efforts by black American citizens to enjoy the civil rights their whiter brethren took for granted. The presidents are all played by big names – John Cusack as Nixon, James Marsden as Kennedy, Alan Rickman as Reagan etc – and not one of them has any dramatic input worth speaking of. Which is refreshing. That’s not to say that The Butler is exactly brimming over with drama focusing on Gaines – though his struggles with his son, who joins the Black Panthers while Gaines waits for the presidents he serves to do the right thing, are the philosophical heart of the piece. Like Gaines himself, Whitaker subsumes himself in his role, leaving the grabbier displays of acting to others – Oprah Winfrey is fantastic as his wife, David Oleyowo ditto as his son, and Yaya Alafia does herself a ton of favours as a spitfire skank Black Panther. Daniels livens things up every now and again with a fight, a spat, a bit of trademark melodrama (he made Precious and The Paperboy, let’s remember). Even so it’s hard to escape the fact that this is heritage film-making peddling a profoundly toe-the-line message.

The Butler – at Amazon




Short Term 12 (Verve, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

A film set in a kids home that doesn’t feature the workers sexually interfering with their charges, that’s unusual enough. But one that doesn’t go for fireworks, aims instead for something approximating real life (actual real life being a bit boring) that’s doubly unusual. Brie Larson, everyone’s indie, up-and-coming darling right now, is the star, playing Grace, the supersussed young woman looking after kids who aren’t really that much younger than her in the home known as Short Term 12 – the name Holding Tank presumably already being used somewhere else in the municipality. Destin Cretton’s film doesn’t set out to do anything other than show us people and tell us their stories – Marcus the angry rapper, Sammy the weird withdrawn kid who’s always making a run for it, Jayden the sulky superbright new girl whose behaviour rings a bell in the head of Grace. Cretton might be a Christian, I don’t know. I say this because he seems determined to go for uplift, clean resolution, redemption. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, considering what you normally get with films set in institutions for kids, his approach is radical. And his film is beautifully acted, intelligently directed and a bit of a one-off.

Short Term 12 – at Amazon




Drinking Buddies (Sony, cert 15, DVD)

So, an indie-ish sort-of romance with a dark undertow that casts Olivia Wilde as the only girl working in a microbrewery, Jake Johnson as one of the brewers, a guy she gets on with really well, shares lunch and confidences with. She likes beer, he likes beer. They are meant for each other, obviously. But each has a partner. For him it’s Anna Kendrick, playing a peevish girlfriend just this side of slappable; for her it’s Ron Livingston, a pursed lip older guy who’s just this side of shootable. So when are the two going to get it on? This is the lure that writer/director Joe Swanberg dangles before us. And doesn’t he dangle it? Giving us endless shots of Wilde being cute, sniffing her armpits to check she doesn’t smell when she thinks no one is looking. The problem being that Olivia Wilde’s armpits couldn’t smell if the hollows had been used for scooping processed anchovy waste for a week. She’s too damned… she’s Olivia Wilde. If you can buy the fact that Johnson – playing a nice guy with a normal sex drive and two eyes in his head, no religious impediments, no gay inclinations that we’re made aware of – wouldn’t make some sort of move long before Swanberg excellently pulls the rug out from under our feet, then I entirely recommend this film. If you can’t, you’ll be shouting “get on with it” as I was.

Drinking Buddies – at Amazon




Motorway (Arrow, cert 15, DVD)

Ever since the British handed Hong Kong back to the Chinese in 1997 the movies coming out of what was once one of the world’s cinematic powerhouses have changed in character – if I see one more film about the Three Kingdoms making the point that powerful government is what China really needs. Anyway, here’s Motorway to remind us what Hong Kong used to produce before everything went fu manchu moustache. It’s a fast-paced cop actioner like they used to make in other words, with synth drums on the soundtracks, night shoots drenched in blue light. And the plot… well that’s a throwback too, to a Lethal Weapon story of a cop on the verge of retirement and the hotshot who thinks he knows all the tricks in the book. But mostly Motorway is a series of rubber-burning car stunts interspersed with flavoursome character scenes – rookie tries to pick up babe in poolhall; Danny Glover guy teaches rookie a cool car stunt – and these are genuinely terrific. The static drift – nudge-driving a car round a corner while moving at zero miles per hour is particularly impressive, especially if volcanic plumes of smoke are your thing. And unlike some rubber-burners, Motorway does stop to point out here and there that this stuff is actually dangerous, that innocent people get killed when nutters run around in powercars (the Mazda S13, prominently). That the communists have decided to wake up the Hong Kong film industry is a great thing, and while Motorway isn’t perfect, it’s a great start.

Motorway – at Amazon




Ender’s Game (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

A voiceover from somewhere in the future informs us that kids, by virtue their video-game savvy, are much faster, more visual, more co-ordinated than their elders, and so have been selected as the warriors who will save planet earth from attack by giant alien antlike things. With that established we’re into a sort of Bugsy Malone in space, and what must be the most insufferable sci-fi film for decades. The story of Ender, the wee kid chosen, Harry Potter-like, because of his special talents by a wise old guru – Harrison Ford, not so much acting as sneering his way through what’s clearly a “take the money and run” role – is familiar in its arc. Ender is chosen, he joins the ranks, he is subjected to initial humiliation before winning the grudging respect of all who encounter him, largely by specialising in the sort of insubordination that would get any recruit in any military organisation taken out and shot. Asa Butterfield plays Ender, and I spent much of the film trying to work out whether it was Butterfield or Ender who was giving off the odour of priggishness. As for the script – insistent, repetitive, uppity, boring and just plain through-the-fingers dreadful. Enter Ben Kingsley – who was in Uwe Boll’s Bloodrayne so knows how to keep a straight face – as some sort of fabled pilot, and the film does actually start to improve. It improves again as it moves into its final third, and the live action is increasingly displaced in favour of a swarm of game imagery. In its last five minutes it improves yet again, and it becomes apparent that it is Ender who is the appalling insubordinate cock-chafing snot and that Butterfield has just been playing him as written. Bring on part two.

Ender’s Game – at Amazon




Mouchette (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray)

Mouchette is by a good stretch Robert Bresson’s most easily digested film. The monochrome classic from 1967 is a masterpiece of compression, introducing us in its first five minutes to the young loner Mouchette, her sick mother, severe father, pinched teacher, a gamekeeper and a poacher, and Luisa, the hottie who works at the local bar whom both gamekeeper and poacher would like to ensnare. Wandering like a holy innocent through all these stories is the wretched Mouchette, whose encounter with both rivals for Luisa’s affections while walking home through the woods sets her up for an outcome that Red Riding Hood would recognise. Though it’s still clearly there, in Mouchette Bresson is insisting less severely on the “anti-acting” style his films are noted for. And maybe his story-telling is a touch less severe too – there is the odd embellishment; not everything is left to our imaginations to fill in. But on the whole it’s Bresson down the line – rarely a line of dialogue when the scene can do without; the sound tells the story or the picture does but never the twain. And even when it comes to sound, it’s either dialogue or the ambient noise that’s doing the hard work, again never both. This restoration reminds us of the power of black and white when a film has been made by a cinematographer (Ghislain Cloquet) who knows how to squeeze all the tones from the restricted palette – entirely appropriate for Bresson too – and is so well done it will bear magnifying glass scrutiny.

Mouchette – at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2014



Zero: An Investigation Into 9/11

A computer simulation of one of the hijacked planes hitting the Pentagon


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



10 March


Osama bin Laden born, 1957

On this day in 1957, Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to the construction billionaire Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden and his tenth wife, Hamida Alia Ghanem. Osama’s father disposed of wife number ten and her child to an associate, and Osama ended up growing up in the household of Mohammed al-Attas, with his three half brothers and one half sister. A devout Wahhabi Muslim, Osama was educated at Al-Thager Model School, the model it was based on being the British educational one, this being a school for the sons and daughters of royalty, rich businessmen and the cultural elite. At King Abdulaziz University he studied economics and business administration, became interested in religion, poetry and horses, and played football. He was a fan of the British football club Arsenal FC. After leaving university in 1979 he used his own money to help fund the mujahedeen resistance to the Soviets in the war in Afghanistan, so found himself for a while on the same side as the Americans, who were also funding the mujahedeen through the CIA’s Operation Cyclone plan, which favoured militant Islamic groups over less ideological Afghan groups. Osama’s father had died in a plane crash in 1967. His half brother, Salem, who took over as head of the Bin Laden family, would also die in a plane crash, in 1988. Osama had five (some sources say six) wives and fathered more than 20 children as he made his spiritual journey from being a mainstream Arsenal fan to a jihadist with an arsenal of his own. He eventually founded the group that became known as Al-Qaeda in 1988. The Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, making Bin Laden a hero of the jihad.




Zero: An Investigation into 9/11 (2008, dir: Franco Fracassi, Francesco Tre, Francesco Trento)

Why, after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, did the twin towers fall down? And how come they fell so elegantly? Why, when the big Boeing 757-223 flew into the Pentagon, did that big plane with a wingspan of 38 metres leave a hole of only 5 metres in the side of the building? Why isn’t there evidence of the plane coming down caught on the (estimated) 83 CCTV cameras in the area? Why, in the other 67 “air emergency” incidents that had already taken place in US airspace in 2001, did the planes concerned get intercepted by air force fighters, yet on September 11th nada? This Italian documentary, revoiced into English, asks eye-witnesses and experts in metallurgy and building design, pilots, security experts and air traffic controllers for their opinion. “It doesn’t make sense,” is the reply most of them give. Franco Fracassi and Francesco Tre’s documentary is right to ask the questions – these, after all, are the fuel of conspiracy theories. And it has worked hard to get the experts to answer them, even the most diehard of whom is bewildered, mystified by the revelations thrown up in those days after 9/11. The testimony and educated opinion of these people is illuminating, even if all it shines a light on is yet more dust clouds. Why stir things up now, is the common criticism against the film, though you could just as easily take issue with its casual anti-Americanism, its unhelpful left-wing sentiment, without which this would have been a stronger film. If there was a conspiracy on that day to do despicable things on American soil, a conspiracy hatched at the highest level of government, it needs a cool, beady eye to examine the evidence dispassionately, something this film doesn’t quite manage. Still, it asks the questions. And they still haven’t been adequately answered.



Why Watch?


  • This is the 9/11 conspiracy documentary
  • It has access to experts, though not politicians
  • Its thesis – the official version of events is wrong
  • Contributions from Gore Vidal and Dario Fo


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Zero: An Investigation into 9/11 – at Amazon