Computer Chess

Patrick Riester in Computer Chess

 

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

 

 

9 March

 

Bobby Fischer born, 1943

On this day in 1943, the future chess grandmaster Robert James Fischer was born in Chicago, Illinois, USA. The son of a communist teacher and of either the physicist Paul Nemenyi or the biophysicist Gerhardt Fischer (the FBI believed it was the former), Bobby learnt to play chess aged six and became immediately fascinated with the game. He played against his first master, Max Pavey, aged eight and though he lost it led to an introduction to the Manhattan Chess Club, where he was tutored by William Lombardy, and then the Hawthorne Chess Club, where Jack W Collins was his mentor. By age 13 Fischer was playing 12-board simultaneous exhibitions. The same year he was being credited with having played “the game of the century” against International Master Donald Byrne. By 14 he was US champion. By 16 he had dropped out of school – “You don’t learn anything at school” he said. By 20 he was a multiple US champion with a profile in Life magazine. In 1960, aged 27, and having retired twice already, he set out to win the World Championship, which he achieved in 1972, beating Boris Spassky in a blaze of publicity at the height of the Cold War – the Soviets had had, until 1972, a lock on the world title. Fischer did not play another competitive game in public for 20 years, when he again played Spassky and, in spite of “playing the openings of a previous generation”, according to grandmaster Andrew Soltis, and unwilling to use computers to aid his game, unlike everybody else, he beat Spassky again. He died in 2008 of kidney failure, having spent the years since 1992 in exile from his home country.

 

 

 

Computer Chess (2013, dir: Andrew Bujalski)

Andrew Bujalski is often credited with having invented the mumblecore movement of lo-fi film-making that swept through indieworld in the mid-noughties. It was as refreshing as it was infuriating – not every actor is good at improvising, and making a virtue of that doesn’t make a bad performance better. But Bujalski sidesteps the entire genre with this film, which has all the hallmarks of a late 1970s documentary shot on archaic black and white video cameras. Yes, that’s exactly what mumblecore films looked like too, especially Bujalski’s, but he’s really gone the whole hog here, to the extent that it would be easy to watch for a good 20 minutes or more convinced that what you’re actually seeing is some resurrected documentary being shown as part of a “how quaint we were” retrospective. Bujalski is up to something far more intriguing. The focus of this supposed documentary is a competition held annually by computer nerds in an attempt to find out whose program is best at chess. Simple as. What it’s actually about, though, is the birth moment of the culture we inhabit now – nerdworld – and the death of the dominant touchy-feely culture exemplified by hippies, their free love, letting it all hang out and orgasm as a right. Bujalski focuses on a select few people at the event – Mike Papageorge, the antsy programmer, Shelly, the only woman there and the sort of full-on nerd who doesn’t realise that her tight stripey 1970s sweater really emphasises her breasts, though Mike certainly has. And Peter, a young, speccy programmer who is targeted by free-loving creep Dave and his fleshy belle (Cyndi Williams) – the scenes where they try to get Peter to indulge in a bit of harmless swinging are the film’s highlight, funny yet awful. The cinema loves the 1970s but Bujalski’s noticed something else about it, apart from the hair, clothes, cars and fondness for the colours orange and purple – he’s noticed how alien a lot of it looks now, the re-birthing therapy, the casual sexism, the regular drug-taking, the open marriages. And how seedy a lot of it looks from this end of the telescope. too. Which is why, I’m guessing, he shunts the film from bleachy black and white into a garish Super 8 Kodachrome look for a few minutes towards the end. Partly to demonstrate that there is life outside the airless motel where the weekend of human v computer v chess board is going on. Partly to show us the colour schemes in their full florid glory. Not everyone likes this film. I loved it.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great film and a real one-off
  • Myles Paige as Mike Papageorge
  • A comedy so bone dry it’s hard to work out if it is a comedy
  • It’s shot on Sony AVC-3260 cameras, a tube camera from the 1970s

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Computer Chess – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

How to Train Your Dragon

Hiccup rides Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon

 

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

 

 

8 March

 

Raymonde de Laroche is first woman with a pilot’s licence, 1910

On this day in 1910, Raymonde de Laroche became the first woman in the world to receive a pilot’s licence. The Wright brothers had only invented the heavier than air machine seven years earlier, and Louis Blériot had flown the 21 miles across the English Channel, thus proving that long-distance flight was possible, only the year before. De Laroche had learnt to fly after visiting the factory of the Voisin brothers, who manufactured planes in their factory in Chalons, France, in October 1909, where by force of character and a little chicanery she persuaded them to teach her. The following March she was issued with pilot’s licence number 36 by the Aero-Club of France. In July 1910 her plane crashed at a display of flying and she was severely injured. After two years of convalescence she recovered and resumed flying. In 1912 she and Charles Voisin were involved in a car crash, which killed Voisin. Denied the chance to fly in the First World War, she spent the years in service as a military driver. She herself died in 1919 while in training to become a test pilot, after the plane she was in nose-dived into the ground. Women of Aviation Worldwide Week is held around 8 March every year, in her honour.

 

 

 

How to Train Your Dragon (2010, dir: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders)

This CG animation is about a pasty young Viking who just wants to be to be one of the guys – in spite of the fact that he patently isn’t. Our guy is called Hiccup and his life is changed, as is the film, when he finds himself in a Daniel-in-the-lion’s-den situation – finds wounded dragon, frees wounded dragon. The dragon, believe it, is just a big softie who loves having his tummy tickled, is a misunderstood beast, in other words, and Hiccup and the winged creature are soon firm friends, Hiccup feeding Toothless fish. But, guess what, Hiccup’s mother and father, all Vikings in fact, want all dragons dead. Uh oh. If this sounds like the sort of film that makes you want to spew, that’s exactly how I felt about it at the start too. It had all the signs of the “be yourself” movie that Hollywood churns out with such regularity that you can’t help feel that they’re protesting too much. It also tries to post a metrosexual 21st century character back into the Viking era, rather than present us with a film about Vikings, and how different they are from us (which would be really interesting). And in addition it features a carnivorous dragon being fed on fish when what he probably wants is a chicken or goat – no animals, not even an animated one, was harmed in the making of this film etc etc. And yet there’s a reason why it’s spawned two sequels (so far). Two reasons, in fact. The first is the awesome flying sequences, clearly storyboarded and masterminded by somebody with a sense of the aerodynamic possibilities of dragon flight. The second is the way that animation’s powers of exaggeration and caricature are used in a way that’s refreshing these days when so many animation houses slave long into the night to make hair obey the laws of physics – so, more Bug’s Bunny than Pixar. There is a third reason, actually, and it’s the voice work by a team of famous names – Jay Baruchel, Craig Ferguson, Gerard Butler and more – who really rise to the challenge. They actually sound like they’re having fun rather than just taking the money and running.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The great voice talent
  • The flight sequences – in 3D if you can be bothered
  • Because the great cinematographer Roger Deakins is a visual consultant
  • So you can work out why Vikings have Scottish accents

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

How to Train Your Dragon – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Butler

Oprah and Forest Whitaker

 

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

 

 

7 March

 

Police attack Alabama marchers, 1965

On this day in 1965, a day that subsequently became known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers attacked civil rights demonstrators outside the town of Selma, Alabama. Between 500 and 600 demonstrators were marching to protest against the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black man who had been shot by a policeman after a previous civil rights march on 18 February. Any grouping of more than three civil rights campaigners had been declared illegal by a judge, and the local governor, George Wallace, went on to declare the march a threat to public safety. At Edmund Pettus Bridge the marchers met state troopers, backed up by the large number of white males who had been deputised only that morning. At the bridge the commanding officer ordered the demonstrators to go home and refused to discuss anything with the leader of the march, Reverend Hosea Williams. The troopers attacked the demonstrators, hospitalising 17 and injuring many more. The publicity generated by the event ensured that the next march, held two days later and led by Martin Luther King Jr, would be attended by nearly four times as many people.

 

 

 

The Butler (2013, dir: Lee Daniels)

The Butler is an example of a genre that’s usually stacked with well fed white people – the heritage drama – stacked with well fed black people. But being a story about black people in recent decades it inevitably dips into waters more political than you usually find in your average white heritage drama. It’s about the slow emancipation of black people, in other words. And following the old newspaper maxim that the best way to cover any awkward subject is to turn it into a human interest story, director Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong focus on the figure of Cecil Gaines, the poor black kid from the cotton-picking South who served in the White House in a variety of domestic roles for eight presidents from the 1950s onwards. A 50something Forest Whitaker struggles to look young under the presidency of Eisenhower, as the rookie butler who has swapped a life on the plantation – his mother raped, his father murdered – for the more genteel environs of the White House. But as we move on to JFK and Johnson, the age gap fades into insignificance as the butler butles (or whatever the verb is) invisibly while the various leaders of the free world discuss pressing events. Meanwhile, at home, Gaines is a severe but affectionate husband (to excellent Oprah Winfrey) and a tough-love dad struggling to bring his kids up to share his gradualist view of history. But one of his kids, brought up in the progressive, combative 1960s, becomes actively involved in the civil rights struggle. Too actively, as far as his father is concerned. Can a butler, a servant, make a contribution to the struggle? Is the “house nigger” (as Gaines is described early on) a man at all? These are the film’s big questions.
The answer is yes, as you might imagine. Don’t bother watching if you have any residual affection for the political stance of the Black Panthers, and other radicals who took more direct forms of action to secure their political objective. They’re not treated well. Not treated fairly, in fact. But though it would be easy to dismiss the film as a conservative screed, it’s the attempt to reconcile the twin prongs of black political progress that make it interesting.
Danny Strong’s screenplay is inspired by a Washington Post article about the real life of White House butler Eugene Allen, and together with director Lee Daniels he commits some of the cardinal sins of biopics – he tends to tell us stuff we already know, a tendency shared by Rodrigo Leão’s score, which also isn’t above deploying the musical equivalent of emoticons. Of the presidents, they’re all interesting in their way, though none has more than a blur-on appearance and a couple of lines to say. Alan Rickman’s Ronald Reagan, surprisingly enough, fares best of the lot of them, all twinkles and folksy avuncularity. But Daniels’s strength as a director is in co-ordinating groups of people, of keeping a lot of balls up in the air. It’s an assured piece of storytelling which only now and then heads into melodramatic territory, which as we know from Precious and The Paperboy is Daniels’s special area of expertise.
Look out for Jane Fonda – Hanoi Jane back in the day – as Nancy Reagan. That’s a joke, a conservative joke, the casting equivalent of a “not so radical now, Jane, eh?”. We live in different times, Lee Daniels’s times, not Hanoi Jane’s. “Slowly slowly catchee monkey”, that’s the film’s message. Or maybe “they also serve who only stand and butle”.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • See Forest Whitaker once again subsume himself to his role
  • The stunt casting of the presidents – John Cusack as Richard Nixon!
  • A history of the civil rights struggle from a different perspective
  • Great support from the likes of David Oyelowo and Yaya Alafia

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Butler – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Margin Call

Jeremy Irons in Margin Call

 

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

 

 

6 March

 

Alan Greenspan born, 1926

On this day in 1926, the economist Alan Greenspan was born in New York City. His father was a stockbroker and analyst but Alan initially seemed to be heading towards a career in music, studying clarinet at Juilliard, playing with Woody Herman’s band, before switching to economics. He gained a bachelor’s and a master’s in economics before becoming an analyst, then a consultant. In 1974 he was appointed by President Gerald Ford as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Greenspan was a member of the Group of Thirty (wise men of economics, essentially) in 1984 before becoming chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1987, a position he held until just before his 80th birthday in 2006. Greenspan was a monetarist, a rationalist and a follower of Ayn Rand, but he was first and foremost a numbers man. When the figures didn’t match the theory, it was the theory that was wrong. He admitted in congressional testimony in 2008, after the worst financial collapse since the great depression, that his belief in deregulation had been “shaken”.

 

 

 

Margin Call (2011, dir: JC Chandor)

Director/writer JC Chandor really seemed to come out of nowhere with this debut, a remarkable thriller about the financial collapse – who’d have thought such a thing possible – that boils everything down to one fateful night in one investment bank, where some geeky junior has suddenly realised that the numbers don’t add up and that fiduciary apocalypse beckons. The junior is a junior actor – Zachary Quinto – who spends the film accompanied by his more doltish chum Seth (Penn Badgley) who is there to explain any of the sticky stuff, of which there is remarkably little. The structure of Chandor’s film is remarkably simple – over the course of the night Badgley, Quinto and whoever they have picked up en route, are bussed from one meeting to another, constantly moving up the pecking order, from daily offices to executive suites, the plebeian to the patrician, the outer to the inner sanctum, up, up, up they go. At each level of this glass and steel edifice everyone has to get used to breathing a slightly more rarefied air. And there are a lot of levels. This is a film where all actors concerned seems to understand that what they’re doing is momentous; everyone is pulling out the good stuff. Early on we meet Stanley Tucci, as the lowest level of the big players, the guy who is fired in the opening scenes, shrugs and then goes home. Paul Bettany is the tic-driven, adrenaline-snorting salesman. Kevin Spacey is his superior, the first of the financial big players to make our stand-ins, Quinto and Badgley, a little loose bowelled, and the last who has any humanity (his dog is dying at home) left inside. Demi Moore plays another formidable executive, a woman in a man’s world who wears the glass ceiling almost as jewellery and so is not as frightening as the next guy up the ladder – Simon Baker, a brash street guy done good, a man who drank greed is good with his mother’s milk. We think we’re at the top already but then we go up one more, to meet Jeremy Irons, in the sort of role that Laurence Olivier would once have played, all affability and stiletto, the CEO of this mighty financial empire who has arrived at dawn in a helicopter like a bird of prey. It’s with Irons that the full dastardly logic of self-preservation plays out – he takes decisions that he knows will cause the market to collapse, but they will ensure that his firm will survive. It’s the small guy who is going to suffer, the same small guy who is left out of the reckoning when bonus season comes around. Chandor doesn’t rely on his viewer having even a slender grasp of economics to make this film work – it’s essentially a human drama about minnows awed by sharks. And doesn’t this world of big money look fantastic – the workers reduced to faceless drones while the fixtures and fittings have real character. A perfect film? Nearly. Maybe someday somebody will just tighten up the last third a touch, remove one of the too-many speeches that defend the way money guys do things, so it runs with the same pitiless speed as the first two thirds. Or maybe I’m just nitpicking. In a very short list of great films about money (Greed, Glengarry Glen Ross, Boiler Room, both the 1928 and 1983 L’Argent spring to mind), this is the best film about the 2008 crash, no question.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The arrival of writer/director Chandor, fully formed
  • A great cast on top form
  • A thriller from finance – remarkable
  • John Paino’s formidable production design

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Margin Call – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Angels’ Share

Paul Brannigan in The Angels' Share

 

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

 

 

5 March

 

The Proclaimers born, 1962

On this day in 1962, the brothers Charlie and Craig Reid were born in Leith, Scotland. Later known as The Proclaimers, the identical twins were in a string of punk bands before forming their own band in 1983. One-hit wonders in many parts of the world, thanks to their song 500 Miles, the brothers have had a number of hits in their home country, ever since their debut tour, supporting the Housemartins in 1986. The song Sunshine on Leith is the anthem of Hibernian FC, of whom they are fans, and Charlie and Craig lent support to keep Hibs out of the hands of Wallace Mercer, a businessman who also had connections to Heart of Midlothian FC, the team’s city rivals. The Proclaimers continue to tour and release albums and continue to support causes they feel strongly about. A jukebox musical, Sunshine on Leith, consisting solely of their songs, was created by Dundee Rep, and was so successful that it was adapted into a film with the same title.

 

 

 

The Angels’ Share (2012, dir: Ken Loach)

The obvious choice here would have been Sunshine on Leith, the musical based on The Proclaimers’ music. But it’s a missed opportunity – who turns the joyous 500 Miles into a dirge, for god’s sake? Instead let’s look at this Ken Loach film which uses 500 Miles as an uplifting sonic sting in a film that’s all about redemption. The film moves quickly out of what might be called traditional Loach territory – serial juvenile offender Robbie (Paul Brannigan) becomes a young dad, is beaten up by his girlfriend’s uncles, works on the community payback scheme – into something altogether more upbeat once Robbie has been introduced to the sublime nuance of proper good whisky. In the film’s key scene our guy is soon conducting his own informal whisky tasting at home, an evening of discussion, discourse, appreciation, education, while his unreconstructed mate lies on the sofa farting, watching the TV and eventually trying to down the spittoon in which Robbie and his fellow proto-connoisseurs have been depositing their leavings. For a Loach film this whole idea – edification through the finer things – seems almost a heresy. He’s spent much of his career more or less pointing out that middle class affectation is part of some great conspiracy to keep working people in their place. Maybe Loach is getting old and soft and a bit sentimental, but his decision to propel Robbie from one social position to another gives his film an arc. And it allows Loach and writer Paul Laverty to examine a phenomenon we don’t see much in films – the way that global luxury brands often operate hugger mugger with the socially deprived. So, leftist credentials endorsed. But hang on a minute, what about the plot? Yes, plot. Robbie, having become something of an expert – a tiny wee bit of an expert only but it’s enough – finds himself visiting a whisky distillery, where an opportunity for him to combine his old skill, thievery, and his new one, fine whisky connoisseurship, presents itself. Loach and Laverty, once they’ve abandoned the grimly familiar, dive wholeheartedly into part two of the story, which combines the Caledonian whimsy of Whisky Galore, the roguish scruffiness of That Sinking Feeling with the tweedy fraternity of Local Hero. If none of those films mean anything to you, how about The Full Monty meets Trainspotting?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another example of Ken Loach’s late-career embrace of Hollywood genre
  • A real sense of the joyousness of whisky tasting
  • A fun comedy with something to say
  • The subtitles will help when the local dialect becomes impenetrable

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Angels’ Share – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

3 March 2014-03-02

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Gravity (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/Download)

By now you will already know whether the Oscar-winning Gravity is the sort of film you want to watch, or watch again. It’s had so much publicity and so many reviews that there’s no point adding anything. So I’ll just tell you that I got stuck getting up out of my chair watching this film. I was going to pause it and grab a drink and as I was halfway up the debris from the space satellite struck space-walking rookie astronaut Sandra Bullock, blasting her off into almost certain annihilation. Something like 20 minutes later I was still in the same position, crouched in an extreme lean-forward, almost not breathing. That tense. Other things? The way the film constantly instructs us in Newtonian physics – Bullock grabs a fire extinguisher to douse a fire and the equal/opposite reaction blasts her backwards with rocketlike force. George Clooney’s seasoned cheesy senior astronaut plays the Hollywood hero stereotype like Heifetz on his Stradivarius. Talking of which, the soundtrack swerves what I usually refer to in my notes as the “bloody strings”. I love Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography – has anyone since Kubrick shot space this clean and white/black? And it’s surely no coincidence that Bullock is often shot in the same way that Kubrick shot the space child, with light spilling over the edges. Gravity is one of the rush of “single person in jeopardy” movies right now – Tom Hanks in Mr Phillips, Robert Redford in All Is Lost, Martina Gedeck in The Wall. Why that? Maybe a realisation that corporate capitalism doesn’t seem to come running when you’re back’s to the wall – unless your wallet’s open? Best sci-fi film of the last 10, 20, 30, years. Easy.

Gravity – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Patience Stone (Axiom, cert 15, DVD)

A beautiful Afghan woman looks after her husband, who is comatose thanks to a bullet lodged in his head. Most of her fellow villagers have fled what is close to being a war zone. But she can’t go, because he can’t be moved. So, isolated, fearful, she talks to him though he can’t hear her. At first it’s about the worries of the day, increasingly about her hopes and fears, eventually about her dissatisfaction with her marriage to him, a man on the cusp of old age. She talks about her background, how her sister was given away to a man by her father to pay his gambling debts, the woman’s lot in a male dominated society. The woman is visited by militia men, and to avoid being raped tells them she’s a whore. One of them, the stutterer, comes back later, and offers her money, desperate to sample the wares he believes she is hawking. And here’s where Atiq Rahimi’s already interesting and sparse film – for most of it just a couple of actors, one with his eyes closed – starts to edge into unexpected territory. Unlike the Saudi film Wadjda, which took an “isn’t it awful” approach to the situation of women in Islam, The Patience Stone is keen to explore both sides of the coin – what Islam denies but also what it supplies. Some people won’t feel entirely happy with this, with where this woman – her character is credited simply, totemically, as “the woman” – ends up. But this denial of an easy ending is really what the film is all about.

The Patience Stone – at Amazon

 

 

 

Dead of Night (StudioCanal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

This five-part 1945 horror film from the Ealing studio is credited with being the grand-daddy of the compendium films, a genre still very much alive, on the evidence of V/H/S and its like. Four of Ealing’s finest directors contribute – Alberto Cavalcanti (twice), Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer. Of the four filmettes, the most famous is Cavalcanti’s The Ventriloquist’s Dummy, a creepy tale in which a sweating Michael Redgrave is increasingly upstaged by his wooden dummy, who seems to want to run off with a rival ventriloquist. It’s good, but more effective is Robert Hamer’s The Haunted Mirror, a remarkably simple story about a mirror whose reflection shows a scene of a different room, a different life from that of the room it’s currently hanging in. They’re all fine campfire tales in fact, and the atmosphere of over-egged storytelling is enhanced by the cast of slightly stagey actors. Add to that the scenes of relentless cigarette smoking, the huge amounts of tweed involved in the tailoring of all concerned and Dead of Night is as evocative of a bygone age as rickets. And the way that Basil Dearden fuses the stories together, with a linking narrative that finally pays off handsomely in a weird Powell and Pressburger finale, makes for an entirely satisfactory entertainment, even at this extreme distance.

Dead of Night – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

For Those In Peril (Soda, cert 18, DVD)

George MacKay has the big head and good looks of a star in waiting. He was a convincing romantic foil in How I Live Now, and is called on to do a less heroic sort of acting in this Scotland-set narrative about the lad who is branded a Jonah after he survives the loss of a boat at sea. The sole survivor. Everyone else dead, including his brother. Director Paul Wright’s film then delves into the psychological disintegration that this loss brings about, playing moody tricks with the camera, providing strong dislocatory imagery and painting a powerful picture of the nastiness of the small rural community when it turns against someone – shades of The Wicker Man. But mostly he just follows the lad around as his behaviour becomes more erratic. As well as the easier job of acting increasingly weirdly, McKay is also required to externalise internal emotion. And he does it admirably in a drama that could do with a touch more action to accompany the moody intensity.

For Those in Peril – at Amazon

 

 

 

The English Teacher (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, DVD)

One of those films that just ends and you look around the room in a “wha?” attitude, The English teacher stars Julianne Moore as the teacher, Michael Angarano as the former pupil she is now helping to stage a play he’s written. He has maturity issues, confidence issues, daddy issues. Those, and her hang-ups – commitment seems uppermost – ensure that this comedy has plenty of fuel to keep it going. Or it would if writers Dan and Stacy Chariton were more certain of what exactly they’re trying to create. With performers like Moore, support from a peerless Nathan Lane as a camp drama teacher, Greg Kinnear as the uptight dad of the not-quite playwright, plus a deadpanning Jessica Hecht and Norbert Leo Butz as a master/blaster head teacher and her deputy, and with everyone playing at megaphone level, director Craig Zisk seems to be leading us in the direction of farce, or at least a comedy of manners. Then… I don’t even know what. It’s as if the Charitons suddenly decided to head for a happy ending, and pronto. Which is all very nice – and I’m not knocking this film in terms of performances, the odd fun joke, it even has Lily Collins doing a superior entitled bitch turn. But something’s not right when a film sets off in one direction but ends up somewhere else, without any announcement. Was it re-edited or re-written on the hoof because someone got cold feet? To try and win the Collins demographic? No idea. Mystifying.

The English Teacher – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Devil in the Woods (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, DVD)

Fans of Stephen Moyer’s True Blood appearances will not be disappointed if they come to Devil in the Woods expecting looney tunes. Mr Moyer delivers, as the dad who takes his family off to the woods, but is already rolling his eyes before he’s got the 4×4 started. By the time dad and family have reached The Barrens (the film’s alternative title) where the Jersey Devil is rumoured to disport him- or herself, Moyer is glowering like a crazed preacher, his body language suggests he needs restraining and the entire film is leaning towards the ridiculous. Then director Darren Lyn Bousman, famous for doing a few of the Saw sequels, gets busy, cranks up the camera, speeds up the storytelling, wheels out the odd monster, drafts in the forces of law and order, and subjects the family – quaintly they’re called the Vineyards – to demonic attack. It being a horror film there’s got to be a busty babe in a white T shirt somewhere in the mix. This being a film starring a middle aged man, the busty babe is his middle aged wife, played by Mia Kirshner. Is 37 middle aged? Well it’s not 17, is it? I liked this aspect, the milf-y final girl, an attempt to construct a different sort of horror universe, all part of some project hatched by the film’s co-producer (Stephen Moyer) to brand the film’s star as hot, perhaps. I also liked Moyer’s mad performance which aims for the sky and wildly overshoots. It’s really the funnest thing in this otherwise novelty-free, f-grade horror held together almost entirely by froth.

Devil in the Woods aka The Barrens – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2014 Steve Morrissey

 

Triangle

Melissa George in Triangle

 

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

 

 

4 March

 

 

The USS Cyclops disappears, 1918

On this day in 1918, the USS Cyclops disappeared at sea, with a loss of 306 crew and passengers. It remains the single largest naval disaster not involving enemy attack in US history. The ship was carrying manganese, an ingredient in munitions production, and so the suspicion was at the time that the ship had been sunk by the Germans, with whom the US was at war, though this has never been confirmed. The other theory is that the ship encountered a heavy storm after leaving Bahia, Brazil, bound for Baltimore, Maryland. The ship was probably overloaded with manganese ore and had a cracked cylinder in its starboard engine, which rendered the engine unusable. En route for Baltimore she made an unscheduled stop in Barbados, due to water being over the Plimsoll line, indicating overloading. The Cyclops left Barbados on the 4 March and was never seen again. No wreckage was ever found. The sister ships of the Cyclops, the Proteus and the Nereus, also disappeared in similar circumstances, heavily laden with metallic ore, in the North Atlantic during the Second World War. One theory has it that all three ships suffered catastrophic structural failure. Another posits that they were all victims of the Bermuda Triangle.

 

 

 

Triangle (2009, dir: Christopher Smith)

The British director Christopher Smith made a couple of promising pictures – monstered-on-the-London-Underground flick Creep, then monstered-in-the-woods feature Severance – before making this UK/Australian co-production, a monstered-on-the-high-seas movie starring Melissa George, who dons the white T shirt early on to denote that she is going to be “final girl”. Smith, though, is ahead of us, with a story that sticks very close to what we’re expecting before taking off with two unexpected and entirely welcome shunts sideways. The basic plot sees single mum Melissa George parking her autistic kid somewhere (safe? we’re not sure) before heading off for a day’s sailing with friends. The boat hits a terrible storm, capsizes and suddenly the friends find themselves grouped together on the upturned hull of the boat, terrified. Then, from out of nowhere, a hulking old liner passes by and they all get on. No one is on board, Melissa George is pulling the sort of spooked expressions her pillowy lips equip her for and then director/writer Smith pulls the first of his two plot dummies by visiting terrible murder on the assembled gang. I’m not going to say more than that about the plot, except that MG obviously survives – the power of the white T shirt – and that there’s another twist coming which will be sucked up by people who love parallel universes and time-travel paradoxes, an actress who is capable of playing bad, good, bewildered and scared and who have the patience to explain to the ADHD contingent just who is doing what to whom and why at any given moment. Concentrate, in other words. Continuing to tweak genre expectations right to the end, this offbeat sci-fi offering is Smith’s best film to date.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A skilfully plotted film from a talented director
  • Avoids the dreaded green screen and uses real sets when possible
  • On lots of “under-appreciated” films of the year lists
  • An early movie role for Liam Hemsworth

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Triangle – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Rampart

Woody Harrelson in Rampart

 

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

 

 

3 March

 

 

Rodney King beating caught on camera, 1991

On this day in 1991, one of the inaugural events of the age of citizen journalism occurred after paroled felon Rodney King was stopped by police after a high speed chase and then beaten by five officers. King was drunk and had been trying to outrun the police, knowing that arrest while driving under the influence would mean a violation of his parole and an immediate return to prison. George Holliday’s videotape of the beating of Rodney King was what made the event important. He’d switched his camera on just as police were tasering King for the second time; but it was the fusillade of baton strikes to King’s body as police deployed their “swarm” tactic – standard procedure against an unco-operative subject – that were eye-catching. Though King later sued the city of Los Angeles and was awarded $3.8 million dollars, plus expenses, the trial of the police for the use of excessive force resulted in them being acquitted. Riots broke out in Los Angeles, resulting in the death of 54 people, the arrest of 7,000, and millions of dollars’ worth of damage.

 

 

 

Rampart (2011, dir: Oren Moverman)

Rampart is the story of an old world cop in a new world he doesn’t understand, a Dirty Harry surrounded by diktats of appropriateness and proportionality. It’s also a very nice role for Woody Harrelson who, after playing an inbred hick shooting zombies in one film too many (or does Zombieland just feel like more than one movie?), reminds us that he’s also an actor. Harrelson plays the anachronism who listens to shock jocks, beats up witnesses, intimidates rookie female members of the force, is quite possibly married to a member of his own family (if I’ve got the fact wrong there, then I’m in the right area in spirit). His force nickname is Daterape, enough said. “I am not a racist,” says Rampart, after being hauled in for going a bit Rodney King on a black motorist he’s taken a dislike to. “The fact is I hate all people equally.” These lines appear in some of the most amusing sections of the film, when he’s being questioned by his concerned superiors, in particular Sigourney Weaver, whom he has also taken a dislike to, partly because he resents having a boss, mostly because she’s a woman. He is, in his defence of himself to her, “the one cop who gets it.” This is a cop up to his neck in dirt, in other words, because that’s the way it goes when you work the streets. The strength of Oren Moverman’s film, script by James Ellroy and Moverman, is that it doesn’t utterly condemn Harrelson’s David Brown. We see Brown swaggering on duty and kind of pathetic off duty. Moverman plants us in Brown’s head with his feverish camera movement and livid colours, lifts ambient sound quite high in the mix. We don’t love Brown, but we do understand him; we’re not rooting for him, but we are rooting for him not to get caught. Ned Beatty arrives, adding further weight to the idea that Rampart at some level is a 1970s love-in – but it’s not the timid Beatty of Deliverance, rather a nastier character, there to nudge us that, no, this is not the way police affairs should be conducted, never should have been in fact. Moverman handles his large cast of real pros with skill, though he could be accused of not having read the Don Siegel book of directing – a touch of Dirty Harry economy wouldn’t go amiss. But there’s absolutely no need to have background knowledge of real incidents at Los Angeles’s Rampart division – 70 cops in the anti-gang unit accused of corruption. This film boils it all down for us into the character of one very rancid man.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Woody Harrelson’s great performance
  • A supporting cast that’s just as good – Ned Beatty, Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Foster
  • Bobby Bukowski’s urgent cinematography
  • Beautifully done 1970s pastiche

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Rampart – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.

Tommy Rettig in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T

 

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

 

 

2 March

 

 

Dr Seuss born, 1904

On this day in 1904, Theodor Geisel, author and illustrator, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. He started to sign himself Seuss (his mother’s maiden name) while at Dartmouth College, where he was editor of the humour magazine Jack-O-Lantern. He’d been found guilty of the sin of drinking gin and in order to keep working on the mag after being barred from this extra-curricular activity started using a pseudonym. Having completed his Ivy League education he went to Oxford, in the UK, where he intended to study English. But he gave it up to concentrate on cartoons, which he pursued further after moving back first to Springfield and then to New York. He became successful working as a cartoonist drawing adverts – for Standard Oil, General Electric, NBC, among others – and published his first book, And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street – after much rejection, in 1937. During the Second World War he produced propaganda for the government, as a captain in the First Motion Picture Unit. His documentary on Japan, Design for Death, won an Oscar, as did his Gerald McBoing-Boing, for best animated short. His most successful period as a children’s author followed – Horton Hears a Who!, The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Though always pronounced “Syoos” by other people, the man himself pronounce his name “Zoice” to rhyme with “voice”.

 

 

 

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T (1953, dir: Roy Rowland)

As with the work of Roald Dahl, there’s a terrible tendency by the committees who produce movies to take out the more troubling stuff – the stuff that lends distinction. With Dahl it’s the dark humour; with Seuss it’s the fizzing surreal imagination. This 1953 film gets Geisel better than most – no, let’s not talk about Mike Meyers and the Cat in the Hat movie. It’s a surreal story about a kid who falls asleep while practising the piano and the dreams he has of being held prisoner by Doctor Terwilliker, the man who wrote the piano instruction manual that first sent him into the realm of Morpheus. After the bizarre storyline, the most notable aspect of the film is the brilliant production design by Rudolph Sternad, of the Terwilliker Institute, the Freudian nightmare piano-teaching prison where this poor fatherless boy is taunted by the sight of his mother setting up house with Dr T, the nightmare avatar of his own real-life tormentor. Just to pile on a bit more depth, Seuss and fellow scenarist Allan Scott invoke the the disorientation of Kafka, the guilt of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the expressionist camera angles of Fritz Lang and the chaos of the Mark brothers, to name but a few – anything that will add to the heady mix of unhinged tumult. The film marks some kind of high point for the fetishisation of psychoanalysis – Hollywood had been mad for it since the 1930s – and is also a rebuff to those who say that 1950s Hollywood was always conformist and conservative. Talking of which, there’s also the distinctly leftish, class-critiquing message tucked away in there too, which might explain why the film is not seen very often.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A starring role for Tommy Rettig – usually underdog to Lassie
  • Hans Conried as the dastardly Dr Terwilliker
  • Rudolph Sternad’s fabulous production design
  • The closest movies have ever got to capturing Dr Seuss

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T – at Amazon