Perfect Sense

Eva Green and Ewan McGregor in Perfect Sense

 

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

 

 

1 May

 

England and Scotland become the United Kingdom, 1707

On this day in 1707, the countries of England and Scotland officially became united in “one kingdom by the name of Great Britain” (according to the Acts of Union). By “England”, the acts included the country of Wales, which had become absorbed legally into England by the Laws in Wales Acts of 1535 and 1542. Though in terms of monarchy, the English throne had been seized by a Welshman, when Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) defeated Richard III in battle in 1485. This Tudor line persisted in England until 1603, when the Scottish Stuarts took over, James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England. The two countries continued to be considered separate legal and constitutional entities, though this “personal union” clearly paved the way for the two countries to become united.

 

 

 

Perfect Sense (2011, dir: David Mackenzie)

This dour and unusual sci-fi movie set in Scotland internalises the disaster movie almost entirely. Many hands feature in the production, but one of them is Zentropa, Lars Von Trier’s outfit, so the unexpected is to be expected. It’s a love story, about two people who meet just as a very odd slo-mo apocalypse is robbing humanity of its senses – first smell, then taste, then hearing, finally sight. Ewan McGregor plays a chef, Eva Green is a research scientist working on a cure for the problem, so both are intimately connected with the progress of the disease. As the film progresses, and people lose first their sense of smell and then taste, the chef’s restaurant obviously hits something of a bump in the road. Undaunted, well, very daunted but continuing anyway, its owner and kitchen staff come up with new ways to surprise and delight diners, focusing on texture rather than flavour, and the business comes back to life. They even get a glowing review in the local paper, which continues to be published.

In fact life, in spite of unrest and violence in other parts of the world glimpsed on TV, seems to be going on in this eminently practical part of the world. Which appears to be the film’s theme – that life goes on. The chef continues to ride around on his bicycle, the scientist keeps bombing about in her hot hatchback. Not for ever, of course, because the final loss – sight – will effectively make everyone in the planet a prisoner in their own body. And yet director David Mackenzie and writer Kim Fupz Aakeson have come up with a way of making even that awful fate less gruesome than it might be.

It was still too gruesome for many critics, though, who gave this film a terrible panning, those who noticed the film at all. And yet it is worth seeking out, for its intimacy, its focus on the two lovers (its lo-fi sci-fi romance would make it a good fit in a double bill with Gareth Edwards’s Monsters), its attention to detail, its strange optimism, and for the way its premise is worked through logically – in Nordic-noir-meets-dour-Scot style. As for the acting, this is real showcase stuff, and McGregor has the edge over Eva Green, who has probably never looked so sultry – those big panda eyes. One final thing. The sense of touch they retain, which justifies the frequent nudity.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A strange high concept sci-fi film
  • The support cast includes Stephen Dillane, Connie Nielsen and Ewen Bremner
  • Giles Nutgen’s intimate cinematography
  • That dark Danish attitude

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Perfect Sense – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Lore

Saskia Rosendahl as Lore

 

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

 

 

30 April

 

Adolf Hitler kills himself, 1945

On this day in 1945, Adolf Hitler, the Führer and Reich Chancellor of Germany, also the Reichsstatthalter of Prussia, killed himself. On 22 April 1945, Hitler had railed against his generals, having discovered that his orders for SS Obergruppenführer Steiner and his detachment to attack the Red Army had been flatly ignored. On 23 April, Prime Minister Göring, in a telegram from Berchtesgaden, pointing out that Berlin was surrounded by the Russians and Hitler incapacitated, suggested that he, Göring, should assume leadership of Germany. Hitler responded by having Göring arrested and removing him from all government positions. On 28 April Hitler discovered that his minster of the Interior, Heinrich Himmler, was secretly talking to the Allies in pursuit of a surrender. It was also discovered that Himmler’s liaison officer in Berlin, Hermann Fegelein, was attempting to flee Berlin, in civilian clothes and with foreign cash in his possession. Hitler ordered Himmler’s arrest and had Fegelein shot. The following day Hitler married Fegelein’s sister-in-law, Eva Braun. After a small wedding breakfast he dictated his will. Later that day he was informed of the execution of Mussolini. The following day the new Mrs Hitler took cyanide and killed herself, before Hitler shot himself with his own Walther PPK 7.65mm. Their bodies were carried above ground, doused in petrol and burned. Two days later Berlin surrendered.

 

 

 

Lore (2012, dir: Cate Shortland)

Australian director Cate Shortland turned Abbie Cornish into a star with her 2004 film Somersault. And she’s up to something fairly similar in Lore, a film about a similarly blonde girl (Saskia Rosendahl) having a similar sexual awakening in very dissimilar circumstance. Because Somersault took place in modern-day Australia and Lore takes place right after the end of the Second World War. And it’s about a pretty young thing who has grown up in a Hitler-loving family, and who is now trekking across country with her four siblings, because her parents have been arrested, in an attempt to get to safety and her grandparents’ house many days’ walk away. Shortland deliberately gives us the wild Germany of Hitler’s imaginings – full of birdsong, sun-dappled lanes, shady glens – and contrasts it with shots of raped women, refugees, soldiers on the rampage, pictures from the death camps, the ugliness of a post-war world and the ugliness inside Lore, a girl who knows no better. Where the ideology meets reality. Taking place in a country undergoing denazification, the film is about the denazification of one single person, most obviously in the scenes where Lore – all Aryan hairstyle and dirndl skirt – meets a Jewish teenage boy (Kai Malina), who saves the entire family by taking them all under his wing. Suddenly, in the post-War world, being a Jew has its advantages. As she showed in Somersault, Shortland is a dab hand at making girls look pretty and uses sexual awakening as a metaphor for knowledge. If the lusty stuff gets in the way of the film a touch here and there, at least this isn’t yet another of a long line of Good German Movies, praise be. The Germans in this film aren’t dupes who have been taken in by Hitler; they’re complicit, and guilt is written all over their faces. Similarly, Lore’s journey isn’t from darkness to light, it’s from ignorance to the very tiniest beginnings of understanding.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An unusually muted war drama
  • Saskia Rosendahl’s performance
  • The handheld cinematography of Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom)
  • A worthy adaptation of Rachel Seiffert’s novel The Dark Room

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Lore – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Ashik Kerib

Yuri Mgoyan in Ashik Kerib

 

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

 

 

29 April

 

Tariq ibn-Ziyad invades Iberian peninsula, 711AD

On this day in 711AD, the Muslim general Tariq ibn-Ziyad launched an attack on Spain – which was then operating under its Roman name of Hispania. He had set off from Morocco, pausing to assemble his troops on a large hill which was later named after him – Jabal Tariq (ie the mountain of Tariq) from where the name Gibraltar derives. Tariq was in cahoots with Julian, who governed the North African enclave of Ceuta, and whose daughter had been raped, so the story goes, by the Visigoth king of Hispania, Roderic. And so, inspired by revenge, Julian had entered a treaty with Tariq to convey him across the Mediterranean, land him at present-day Gibraltar, then called Mons Calpe (ie one of the pillars of Hercules). Tariq’s army consisted of 7,000 men, with 5,000 reinforcements supplied by Musa bin Nusayr, governor of North Africa. Roderic countered with a force reputed to be around 100,000. But he was defeated at the Battle of Guadalete, leaving Tariq to advance on to Cordoba, Grenada, Toledo and Guadalajara. Over the following decade most of what is now Spain came under Muslim control.

 

 

 

Ashik Kerib (1988, dir: Sergei Parajanov, Dodo Abashidze)

Ashik Kerib is one of the great weird wonders of film, made by one of its true uniques – Sergei Parajanov (the role of co-director Dodo Abashidze is disputed, but it’s unlikely he did very much). The Armenian Parajanov spent much of the 1970s in Soviet prisons, on charges of homosexuality and trading in religious icons. The nature of these charges is entirely pertinent. Ashik Kerib is soaked in religious iconography, but also has a homo-erotic element that probably aligns it with the films of Pasolini, its overt medievalism too. The plot? Ay ay ay. The tale of a travelling minstrel. No, hang on, it’s the tale told by the travelling minstrel. Possibly. Either way it doesn’t proceed by “showing not telling” as Hollywood does. Instead it’s a case of layers of suggestion, powerful symbolism, colour, as we follow Ashik Kerib on his journey from his hometown to make a fortune so he can get married. Almost immediately the minstrel is robbed, forcing him to wander like a tramp for 1001 days. Parajanov then holds up for our admiration and wonder a series of tableaux that are at first bewildering, eventually quite beguiling. Somewhere around 45 minutes in I gave up trying to “decode” it and just decided to yield to its splendour. I think that’s the point. It was the scene where the minstrel is in ropes being pulled along behind a horse. The camera has just panned across to a man playing a string instrument and a gaggle of other men, who look demented. It then pans back to the minstrel. And now behind him we see a line of men, all of whom appear to be doing some form of tai chi. Except they’re no good at it at all. In fact they all look like refugees from some local drinking establishment who have been asked five minutes before if they want to be in a film and then dressed in exotic turbans, baggy pants etc. Parajanov is aiming for an amateur medieval form of the surreal, and is essentially holding up a finger to the conventions of realism. And what a finger. Nothing synchs, instruments continue playing when people stop playing them; every set of extras looks shocked to be on film, as if they’ve been frozen by the director’s shout of “action”. Parajanov is twitting socialist realism, of course, which is why the authorities thought he was dangerous. But he’s just as obviously having a go at Hollywood realism and the tyranny of special effects. It’s Pasolini with extra helpings of exotica, film-making that appears to come from another world.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great film from a true one-off
  • Possibly Parajanov’s most accessible movie
  • It’s dedicated to Tarkovsky
  • It’s a film about film-making

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Ashik Kerib – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Mutiny on the Bounty

Clark Gable and Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty

 

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

 

 

28 April

 

The Mutiny on the Bounty, 1789

On this day in 1789, the year of revolution in France, some sailors on board the British ship HMS Bounty mutinied against their captain, William Bligh, and put him in a boat with 18 other members of his crew. The mutiny was led by Fletcher Christian, who had been promoted to sailing master by Bligh during the course of the ship’s ten-month journey from London to Tahiti. The ship’s mission was to take breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies, to see if they could be grown there and used to feed the slaves. Collecting the breadfruit, cultivating and preparing them for the long and hazardous journey took longer than planned and Bligh and crew had been in Tahiti for five months when it came to time to leave. Some of the men had formed associations with Tahitian women – Fletcher Christian had married one – and didn’t want to leave. Contrary to what films repeatedly portray, though the outward journey had been difficult, Bligh hadn’t been particularly severe; it was on the island that he became strict, administering floggings and picking in particular on Fletcher Christian. The mutiny happened 23 days after the Bounty had set sail on the journey from Tahiti to the West Indies, bloodlessly and with little commotion, when Christian and 17 others (of a crew of 42) forced the captain and those who wished to remain loyal to him (or didn’t wish to be branded mutineers) into the ship’s 23 foot (7m) launch. Bligh and company then embarked on a 47-day journey with no charts to Timor, a remarkable piece of seamanship. The mutineers sailed first for Tubuai, then went back to Tahiti. There Fletcher Christian and his crew kidnapped some women and set sail for Pitcairn Island, whose precise location was wrong on British naval charts, thus making them invisible, and settled down. Bligh made it back to England, where he wrote a report on the mutiny, before picking up another commission to sail to Tahiti with the purpose of introducing breadfruit to the West Indies.

 

 

 

The Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, dir: Frank Lloyd)

Anthony Hopkins is good in the 1984 version, The Bounty. But no one can hold a candle to Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh. Barking out lines such as “I’ll give you water, Mr Morrison – keel haul this man!” Laughton is the personification of the martinet in a version of events on HMS Bounty which doesn’t quite stand up to historical scrutiny. Still, history didn’t have Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian. Gable always lived in fear of his manly image being compromised and balked at the idea of wearing a ponytail and breeches as Fletcher Christian. However the character of Christian is at the deep end of the red-blooded pool, so Gable clearly thought the authentic touches worth the gamble. And he was right – this is the film which, on the heels of It Happened One Night, confirmed him as a major star. And, apart perhaps from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s Laughton’s most famous role too. Often not mentioned in despatches is Franchot Tone, who gets his moment in the spotlight towards then end, in courtroom scenes where Bligh attempts to get belated revenge on Christian. Until then it’s been a case of a hectoring captain (Laughton) subjecting a proud first mate (Gable) and a mollifying midshipman (Tone) to a daily regime of abuse on the high seas, until the Bounty weighs anchor in Tahiti, where things really kick off. In essence the film is about an unpleasant man attacking a hero, the drama coming from the audience trying to time the “enough’s enough” moment – we all know there’s going to be a mutiny, we just don’t’ know when. This is beautifully handled by all concerned – all three leads were nominated for Best Actor Oscars – while director Frank Lloyd makes the film look like it cost a fortune, which it did, especially in the scenes set in Tahiti (which is exactly where the Tahiti scenes were filmed). This is the best of the bunch of Bounty films. In the 1962 version you actually feel for Trevor Howard’s Bligh having to put up with the lisping, mumbling of Marlon Brando’s Christian, which undermines the villain/hero dynamic. The 1984 fares better, though there Christian is played by Mel Gibson, who still has half a foot in the detached anomie of Mad Max and can’t muster the sinew-stiffening persona he displayed in Braveheart. Here, we have Gable, a manly leading man repulsed by homosexuality (to a suspicious degree?) acting against an openly gay man who was having sex with his masseur in the trailer when not on set. These two really didn’t get on. No, if you want Mutiny on the Bounty, this is the one to watch.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • All three leads nominated for Best Actor Oscars (it went to Victor McLaglen in John Ford’s The Informer)
  • Shot largely on a real ship, it still looks impressive today
  • Clark Gable on the way to becoming The King
  • Look out for James Cagney as an uncredited extra

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Mutiny on the Bounty – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela and Gys de Villiers as FW De Klerk in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

 

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

27 April

 

 

Freedom Day, South Africa

Today is Freedom Day in South Africa. It marks the day in 1994 when South Africa went to the polls in the first national elections open to all races. Voting lasted for three days, with people lining up patiently in long queues to take their turn and get their hand stamped in indelible ink. The African National Congress won the election, with just over 62% of the nearly 20 million votes cast and, Nelson Mandela became the country’s president, its first black leader.

 

 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013, dir: Justin Chadwick)

On the day that this film had its world premiere in London – just as the screening was about to start, in fact – two of Nelson Mandela’s children, who were attending, learned that their father had died. The screening went ahead and when it had finished the audience were also told what had happened. There was then a spontaneous two-minute silence as a mark of respect for Mandela’s life. That sort of thing is fine in real life, but does no favours for a film, which needs to keep moving forwards and to stand on its own merits. More to the point, Mandela’s death eclipsed the film about his life. Which is a pity because it is a very good film – unusually good for a biopic. Reasons why are various, but director Justin Chadwick’s experience directing period drama for TV must be a big factor. He made the BBC’s Bleak House, an adaptation of Charles Dickens, so understands how important it is not be awe-struck in the face of the iconic. Idris Elba also seems to get this too. His Mandela is a very human person, even if he is forced, due to time restrictions, to jump quickly through the hoops and age very quickly – attractive partying lawyer in the late 1940s to political firebrand in the early 1960s to defiant prisoner to greying statesman in waiting – and Elba gets the voice (surely the most recognisable on the planet) just right. Chadwick meanwhile is in Richard Attenborough mode – crowd scenes, period detail, extravagant speeches, big events seen from a personal perspective – and for some the lack of more “politics” and the broad brush is going to seem like an opportunity missed. What exactly prompted white South Africa to start making overtures towards a man who was essentially tucked away out of harm’s way? Was it the international campaign to free him? The fall of the Iron Curtain? The sporting bans and pariah status of the country? We don’t find out.

To compensate we see more of Winnie Mandela’s story than a more timid film would have dared to cover. Winnie the fighter, who made some terrible decisions, is portrayed as the one who got her hands dirty while her husband had, to some extent, the easier option of being removed from that sort of dirty daily compromise – it’s easy to be virtuous when you’re out of the way of temptation. Naomie Harris is an amazingly good Winnie; better than Elba in fact, and in a far tougher role.

If you don’t know who Nelson Mandela is, or what he did, this film won’t fill in many gaps – it is necessarily an episodic jaunt through largely familiar territory. Where it excels is in its portrayal of the forging of Mandela’s noble character, how it was entirely infectious and won over the most sceptical, bitter foe. And it makes a slightly unfashionable case for leaders leading from the top down. It’s a tough genre, the biopic, with serial killers usually getting a better go of it than people like Mandela, who usually end up being treated as saints. It is to the film’s great credit that it doesn’t do that. Instead Long Walk to Freedom is, like the man himself, firm but fair.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Idris Elba and Naomie Harris’s great performances
  • An epic biopic beautifully handled
  • The taut screenplay by William Nicholson (Gladiator)
  • Justin Chadwick’s brisk unsentimental direction

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – at Amazon

 

 

 

28 April 2014-04-28

Robert Redford in All Is Lost

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

All Is Lost (Universal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

JC Chandor’s Margin Call was a brilliant debut, a great piece of storytelling which turned the complexities of the financial crash into a gripping human interest drama. Now he’s made All Is Lost, also a brilliant film, though as different superficially as they come. Instead of the high-tech, glass and steel, manmade world of finance, it takes place out on the high seas. And instead of a dialogue-driven screenplay there’s almost no speech at all. And yet a sense of jeopardy drives All Is Lost, as it did Margin Call, this newer film telling the tale of a lone yachtsman whose boat is holed after accidentally hitting a passing container (the seas are full of them, apparently), and who then spends the next few days trying to navigate, fix the boat, pump out the water, repair the radio and so on, while being battered by storms, menaced by aquatic wildlife and all the while sailing closer to the moment when he’s going to slide under the waves and die.

It’s obviously a film for lovers of adventure, but there is something here for nearly everyone else too. Robert Redford fans get to see him put in his best performance since the 1970s – and he barely speaks a word. Admirers of the older gent will marvel at Redford’s nimbleness. Now nudging 80, he’s able to climb over and under, shimmy, swim and perform various other feats that take us into spoiler territory. Lovers of cool intelligent cinematography will admire Chandor’s careful and unmelodramatic shots which slightly call to mind the vast oceanscapes of Life of Pi. And there’s even the meta-aspect of the entire thing – the white, blameless, resourceful, persistently optimistic ageing Wasp male caught up in a disaster that is none of his responsibility, piloting a large piece of luxury kit the likes of which the rest of humanity can only envy? Of course it is. Thankfully, Chandor simply puts this meta-business up on the screen and lets us take it down for inward digestion, if we want to. Meanwhile he’s drip-feeding us one of the simplest, most effective high-concept thrillers in years.

All Is Lost – at Amazon

 

 

 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/Digital)

When it comes to biopics, serial killers often get a better ride than the great and the good, who tend to be reduced to single-focus automatons or martyrs. So when the subject is already considered a saint? Amazingly, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom avoids almost all of the pitfalls of the biopic. It is surprisingly good, in other words. Following Mandela from his time as a rakish womaniser practising law in apartheid South Africa of the 1940s, to his political awakening, then his years of firebrand rabble-rousing, his incarceration in 1963 and, finally, his release in 1990, Justin Chadwick’s film has a lot of ground to cover. So it is necessarily episodic. Idris Elba is too young to play the older man but he makes a solid, uncontroversial and convincing Mandela. Naomie Harris, meanwhile, plays Winnie, the wife who would get into hot water while Nelson was doing time on Robben Island. If Elba is good, Harris is remarkable, and because of Winnie’s dalliance with the dark side (the tyre necklaces and so on) the film threatens at every point to become more about her than him – because his journey was essentially internal, which is not easy to put into pictures. Reminiscent of Richard Attenborough at his best – big, bold, unafraid to compress time – this is one of the best biopics for years.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – at Amazon

 

 

 

American Hustle (EV, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

God, I was looking forward to seeing this. Those trailers, all co-ordinated “we hustle” sashaying set to a Led Zeppelin shuffle, they looked so sexy and dangerous. In fact David O Russell’s drama about 1970s grifters digresses terribly into Scorsese pastiche early on and then loses itself in the fog. I’m so disappointed. It’s the story of a pair of con artists – tacky, toupee-wearing Christian Bale and slinky jug of sex Amy Adams, seconded by Bradley Cooper’s FBI guy in an attempt to break open an unholy alliance between the Mob and elected politicians. I think. I’m slightly unsure because the film seems more intent on getting its look right than telling its story. However, the look is where it excels and there is much cinematic joy to be had from ogling the clothes and admiring the sets, as well as taking in the prowling camera, the soundtrack, the greatness again of Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s blowsy pout of a wife. It just really isn’t what the trailer promised – which was a bang-bang pumping rock-style story. Instead it’s like its actual on-screen soundtrack – Monk, Ella, Duke and Sinatra – all jazz curlicues and moments of fitful brilliance sparkling among the modal vamping. It has those long, verbose scenes that have become de rigueur since Scorsese was thrown off the throne by Tarantino. And it does have really great performances all over the place, even the small ones – Louis CK as Cooper’s nebbish boss. Jeremy Renner as the local mayor, like a mini-me Liberace in his silly bouffant hair. It’s good, don’t get me wrong. But it meanders, it doesn’t motor. I feel conned. Appropriately.

American Hustle – at Amazon

 

 

 

Big Bad Wolves (Metrodome, cert 18, DVD)

Big Bad Wolves is a big bad film out of Israel. It’s a comedy so black that it actually feels wrong to bracket it with other comedies. Starting off with a child kidnapped by a paedophile and alluding, at one point, to the extermination of six million Jews via a scene in which the smell of burning flesh is conjured using a blowtorch and a handily trussed up paedo-suspect, it really isn’t messing about on the nursery slopes of bad taste. Tarantino loves it, so the press blurb says. And you can see why – the central sequence is essentially this one guy strapped in a chair while two other guys wax verbose about how they’re going to hurt him without killing him. Do they find the missing girl? I can’t say. Is it funny? Not even slightly. Is it good? A tough one. Though if you like your gruesome served up with a side order of whimsy, and a soundtrack that wouldn’t be amiss on Desperate Housewives, fill your boots.

Big Bad Wolves – at Amazon

 

 

 

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (Paramount, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

I’ve just re-read my notes to Anchorman 1 and my first impression was that it was a five minute Saturday Night Live sketch expanded to well beyond its terminal point. Anchorman 2 is exactly the same, a “let’s get the band back together” prelude eventually yielding to one absurd scenario after another in which Will Ferrell’s moustachioed TV newsman somehow becomes the hero of the hour in spite of the fact that he’s an idiot of the first water. This time around we’re in the 1980s, where Ron appears to be accidentally inventing Fox News and the entire rolling news format. That’s the end of the plot details bit. Returning guests include the original team of Ron’s dimbulb mates – Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner – and their often improvisational riffing really helps make this more than a one-man show. Also helping things along is the soundtrack, full of 70s/80s tunes chosen to make a point about the dopiness of the era – Ride Like the Wind, Muskrat Love and so on. I won’t mention the cameo-stuffed repeat of the fight scene from the first film, since it actually fails to strike any sparks at all, in spite of all those famous faces. Instead hold out for the blooper real, which only actually makes sense if you’ve watched the film. It is by far the best bit of the entire thing.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues – at Amazon

 

 

 

Bastards (Artificial Eye, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

The genius French director Claire Denis (see Beau Travail and just be amazed) doesn’t usually do “genre”. But that’s exactly what she’s up to with this revenge thriller that feels to me as if she’s pausing for breath and recharging the creative batteries. The basic story is Get Carter – a guy (the magnificently implacable Vincent Lindon) seeking payback to avenge the niece who’s been sexually mistreated by a ring of powerful men – though Denis loads the whole thing up with misdirection, a brooding score from Tindersticks, plus what seems like an unrelated story about the odd super-rich couple who live upstairs from Lindon, until watching the film starts to resemble the experience of our questing, uncomprehending hero. Whether he is a hero at all is also part of it. And who exactly the “bastards” of the title are seems also to be moot. It is probably going to be a little too cool and oblique for some tastes, but any film from Denis (White Material possibly excepted) is worth devouring.

Bastards – at Amazon

 

 

 

Ace in the Hole (Eureka, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

A restoration of Billy Wilder’s classic 1951 melodrama about a busted newspaperman who happens upon a great story – a man trapped in a mine – and then manipulates the guy and his rescue (prolonging it unnecessarily) to make the story better. Kirk Douglas plays the antihero, appearing in the opening scene in a broken down car being towed through a decent small town, for the metaphor hounds, before cutting through the rest of the film like a dose of caustic soda. It’s a great performance, which makes no sense for the first half hour or so – why is he shouting all the time? – but eventually the film starts to conform to Douglas’s character, bad, which is the entire point of the thing. The restoration is fantastic, better, even, for what it’s done to the brassy honk of the soundtrack than for the way it’s revealed Charles Lang’s original cinematography. Stark black and white, just like the morality on display. “I’ve met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my life.” says Jan Sterling, the dubious dame Douglas hasn’t yet slapped but will, “But you, you’re 20 minutes.” There’s plenty more where that came from, oh yes.

Ace in the Hole – at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

 

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

 

 

26 April

 

Anita Loos born, 1889

On this day in 1889, or possibly 1888, Corinne Anita Loos was born. Always cagey about her true age, Anita became best known for her comic novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She grew up in a theatrical family – her father managed a theatrical stock company – and she was performing on stage as a young girl. Her father wrote one-act plays for the company and a precocious Anita started turning them out too. Having seen an early silent film in 1911 she decided to turn her hand to a screenplay for one-reelers. Over the next few years she wrote 105 scripts, all but four of which were made into films. She moved to Hollywood, where she was put on the staff at Triangle Films by DW Griffith. Her scripts for Douglas Fairbanks made him a star and she became a star herself. She married John Emerson, who took the credit for much of her work, spent her money and had numerous affairs with other women. Loos claimed that at least his philandering allowed her to form relationships of her own. She became close to the intellectual HL Mencken, whose preference for bimbos rather than girls with brains became the theme for her most famous work, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which started life as a series of pieces for Harper’s Bazaar. It became the best-selling book of 1925 and a worldwide hit, and was made into a film in 1928.

 

 

 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953, dir: Howard Hawks)

The film about a pair of chesty dames with an eye on the main chance is also one of the great Technicolor movies, its larger than life hues the ideal fit for a story about two statuesque women, one out for money, the other for love. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell are the stars, both not so much edging into camp as diving in head first. Spangles, lip gloss, exaggerated curves, the feather head-dresses, it’s the stuff of a drag queen’s dreams, with Monroe as the dizzy romantic, Russell as her more case-hardened pragmatist, both searching for men, none of whom really get much in the way of screen time. The stars play lounge singers and the action takes place mostly on a ship bound for Europe, the ideal excuse and setting for a string of musical numbers, including the famous Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. That’s Monroe’s number, so iconic it became her signature. Russell, meanwhile, gets Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love, which she sings with a team of Olympic athletes in their gold lame swimming trunks. No, it’s not an intellectual film, nor does it make many claims to seriousness of any sort. But it’s unusual for its brash portrayal of the transactional nature of relationships – men want flesh, women want cash – and for the fact that it’s a pair of pally women at its centre, with Monroe and Russell opening the film with their “Just two little girls from Little Rock” number, which nails the absurdist colours to the mast – the last thing these girls are is little. This is the film that made Monroe a bombshell superstar and she has the persona perfected – breathy, dizzy, a woman so saturated in sexiness it’s a disability. Interestingly, its director Howard Hawks, who hated working on it, makes a fantastic job of only his second musical (the first being the Danny Kaye vehicle A Song Is Born), thus cementing his reputation as probably the greatest all-round director of Hollywood’s golden age, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ticking the musical box, alongside the classic comedy (Bringing Up Baby), the gangster movie (Scarface), the noir (The Big Sleep) and the western (Red River).

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Monroe and Russell, one of the great gal-pal double acts
  • Harry J Wild’s astonishingly vivid Technicolor cinematography
  • The gowns of William Travilla, known simply as Travilla
  • The Hoagy Carmichael and Jule Styne songs

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Road: A Story of Life & Death

The Road poster


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



25 April

Red Hat Day

Today is Red Hat Day. It is celebrated by members of the Red Hat Society, membership of which is open to any woman aged 50 or over.

It was started in 1997 when Sue Ellen Cooper of Orange County, California, USA, gave a friend of hers a distinctive red bowler hat as a 55th birthday present, along with a copy of the poem Warning, by Jenny Joseph. Its opening lines are “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.”

The hat, colour scheme and sentiment struck a chord and after Cooper had repeated the gesture several times, the first official Red Hat tea party was held on 25 April, and was attended by women dressed in red and purple. The society operates a bit like the Women’s Institute in the UK, as a social, cultural and benevolent society, and organises trips to the theatre, craft days, fund-raising events and the like.

It has been referenced in The Simpsons, has had a musical written about it and Cooper has written a couple of books about the society. There are now chapters in places as far afield as Ireland, Trinidad and Tobago and Ecuador.



The Road: A Story of Life & Death (2012, dir: Marc Isaacs)

The film that first brought British documentarian Marc Isaacs to critical attention was his first. Made in 2001, it was called Lift and it was simplicity itself – Isaacs stood in a lift in a tower block and pointed a camera at whoever came in. He’d ask the occasional question, just enough to prompt the interviewee, the sort of question that might seem invasive if it had been put a slightly different way, or by a different person, but for some reason Isaacs got away with it.

It was only a short but it made a mark. Since then he’s done people on buses (Travellers), people at a port (Calais: The Last Border). And now another film that seems to be about transition – The Road. Probably his most poignant film yet, it focuses on the Kilburn High Road in London, an area associated with immigrants (mostly Irish), where Isaacs follows the stories of several individuals, the sort of people who usually don’t feature in documentaries.

So we meet an elderly Jewish lady, a refugee of Hitler now living on her own since her husband’s death. And a Muslim man scratching a living working in a hotel. A former air stewardess organising a reunion of her old flying colleagues. An old Irish drinker. A small community of Buddhist monks. A new arrival in London, fresh off the boat from Ireland.

I don’t know how many people Isaacs initially followed, whether he had a bigger cohort which he winnowed down to the tasty ones, but the stories up on the screen are all intense, often terribly sad tales – mostly of being alone, often lonely. “I lost my way in the fog,” Billy the old Irish guy tells Isaac, explaining why his life is in such a mess, why he can’t cook, look after himself, or fit in anywhere.

Isaacs’ knack, as with Lift, is to gently probe, asking questions which are amazingly direct yet without malice. Are you lonely (the drinker)? What did you think when your husband ran off with your best friend (the stewardess)? Are you happier now that your husband is dead (the old Jewish lady)?

Isaacs has two further aces in his hand – he’s there to witness some astonishing, dramatic turns. Watching Billy the drinker so sick with alcohol that he has to drink vodka to stop the convulsions. Or the moment Peggy, the frail Jewish woman, falls over in the street, the sort of fall that can spell death for someone at that age. And there is the shock when two of his interviewees actually die, halfway through the making of the film.

It’s not all grim. The hotel guy is shown talking to his wife on Skype and is overjoyed at the prospect of finally meeting her for the first time. And in the shape of Keelta, the young Irish girl who opens the film, we see the immigrant who starts to come good – she’s working in a bar, making some money, and her voice is beginning to get her gigs singing Irish songs. She’s on the road.

Why Watch?

  • A beautiful, poignant documentary
  • Because Isaacs is one of the greats
  • Heartbreaking stories, brilliantly told
  • The non-usual suspects



The Road: A Story of Life and Death – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014



Troy

Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy

 

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

 

 

24 April

 

The fall of Troy, 1184BC

On this day in 1184BC, the city of Troy fell after the most famous battle of antiquity. The Trojan War had started after a Trojan, Paris, absconded with Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Helen was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in history and her love had been gifted to Paris by the goddess Aphrodite, as a reward for choosing her (Aphrodite) as the fairest of all the female gods – the so-called Judgement of Paris. Aphrodite had not mentioned to Paris that Helen was already married. Paris, it had been prophesied, would bring about the destruction of Troy. And so it came to pass that the Spartans set sail for Troy in Anatolia (present-day Turkey), where they laid siege to the city for ten years, during which time Paris was killed, as was his friend Hector. The war came to an end after the Greeks (aka Spartans) infiltrated the Trojan stronghold using a gigantic horse to gain entry, the being horse full of troops who sprang out under cover of the night, after the horse had been dragged inside. Who does that? Drags a gigantic horse into their besieged city after a war lasting ten years? However, legend says that that’s just what the Trojans did. This act of utter stupidity has given us the phrase “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” and also the techie notion of a trojan as a nasty thing hiding inside something seemingly harmless.

 

 

 

Troy (2004, dir: Wolfgang Petersen)

Troy gets a bad rap because it is a war movie that ends far from heroically. It ends with defeat, in fact. The fact that it was made by a German, Wolfgang Petersen, who had already made Das Boot, another war film in which defeat was a vital part of the offer, is what makes it an interesting film though, heroics being the prelude not to greatness, but to calamity. Petersen was born in 1941 in the German port town of Emden, which was almost totally obliterated in one night of bombing when he was three. But never mind the amateur shrink’s attempt to wed Troy to childhood trauma. Instead let’s look at the film, which pretty much removes the gods from the equation; this is human cock-up not divine conspiracy. On the Trojan side we have Orlando Bloom as Paris, and Eric Bana as Paris’s brother Hector. For the Greeks it’s a superbuff Brad Pitt (six months of training, apparently) as Achilles and Garrett Hedlund as his number two, Patroclus. Ultimately, though, the film is built around the Pitt v Bana showdown, before it goes on to divulge that the actual decisive event in the war was the construction, delivery and implementation of the Trojan horse. It was a Greek horse, of course, but this is not the place to argue. Instead let’s turn to the film’s weaknesses – the CG is just terrible, Orlando Bloom is completely unconvincing as Paris (the idea that he might have sat in judgement on goddesses is laughable) and Diane Kruger is no better as Helen, pretty though she is. There is no suggestion of what must have been a colossal passion to have caused a conflict so bloody and so long. On the other side of the scales the aged thespians show the young ones how it’s done, with Peter O’Toole in particular, and too briefly, seizing the screen as Priam of Troy, though Brian Cox and Brendan Gleeson acquit themselves well too. The fact that they’re all seasoned stage hands and are used to commanding a space tells us everything we need to know about what’s wrong with this film – Troy is an epic done with all the sound and fury ripped out. That is Petersen’s intention. And as the Greeks escape from the horse as the film enters its mournful last few minutes, and lay waste to everyone inside the fortified city of Troy, there is no gloating, no bugles, no glory. Unsurprisingly, this disappointed a lot of people.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Epic film, human frailty
  • A great cast
  • A beautifully dressed movie
  • A beautifully dressed (and undressed) cast

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Troy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Poseidon Adventure

Gene Hackman and the cast of The Poseidon Adventure

 

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

 

 

23 April

 

Ronald Neame born, 1911

On this day in 1911, a remarkable figure in cinema was born. Ronald Elwin Neame lived until 2010 and in his time was a cinematographer, a producer, writer and director. There are probably plenty of people who could line up a similar list of credits. But Neame was a cinematographer on Powell and Pressburger’s One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, a producer of Oliver Lean’s Oliver Twist, the writer of Lean’s Great Expectations and the director of The Poseidon Adventure, each one of them an important film, for different reasons. He also directed Judy Garland in her last film, I Could Go On Singing and won an Oscar for Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Having been born to a photographer and an actress, Neame had got an early leg-up in the movie business thanks to his mother’s contacts – she got him a job as a messenger boy at Elstree Studios. From there he rose on his own merits, working for Hitchcock on Blackmail as a camera assistant and then spending the 1930s honing his skill before making the unusual (at the time) slide sideways into producing as well as directing. He was a success at everything he did, proudest of the 1960 army drama Tunes of Glory, but always claimed that The Poseidon Adventure was his favourite film, because it made him a lot of money. He lived until he was 99 and put his longevity down to “two large vodkas at lunchtime and three large scotches in the evening”.

 

 

 

The Poseidon Adventure (1972, dir: Ronald Neame)

A huge old liner is crossing the ocean on New Year’s Eve. On board is a motley collection of idiosyncratic characters. And way below them are two tectonic plates, about to suddenly slip and cause a tsunami which will flip the ship over. Some people are going to live; some are going to die. Who exactly is going to survive is what the film is all about.
The Poseidon Adventure is a disaster movie, perhaps it is the disaster movie. Certainly there had been Airport two years earlier, which had a chunky disaster element and featured big name actors in a soapy drama with interlocking plots. But in The Poseidon Adventure the formula was perfected. The film is all about the disaster and it is all about the efforts to survive it. And it’s all about fading Hollywood glamour too. If you’re in the mood for meta-analysis – big ageing ship slightly past its glory years being threatened by forces unquantifiable at the end of an old year – it’s being offered on a slightly tarnished salver. If you’re not then there’s the cast, which consists of onetime stars, character faces who could never open a film, a few disposables, plus the magic ingredient – a rising talent. Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Stella Stevens, Leslie Nielsen and Roddy McDowall are the recognisables, Gene Hackman the emerging star who is going to lead them all to safety. Except they’re not all going to make it, not even with one of the few action-hero priests of cinema cajoling them. Even at this extreme distance from the making of the film it feels churlish to reveal which big name was going to croak before the end. But the Poseidon Adventure set the trend for that too – the “oh no, not Fred Astaire” moment when a much loved star drowns/fries/dissolves/whatever.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Hackman, one year after The French Connection, two years before The Conversation
  • The archetypal disaster movie
  • It’s still a good, tense ride
  • A guilty pleasure

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Poseidon Adventure – at Amazon