Tabloid

The Daily Mirror reporting of the story

 

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

 

 

1 June

 

Brigham Young born, 1801

On this day in 1801, Brigham Young was born, in Vermont, USA. This son of farming folk with four brothers worked as a travelling carpenter and tinker before marrying in 1824. He had become a Methodist in 1823, though was drawn to the Mormon faith when he first read the Book of Mormon on its publication in 1830. Two years later he joined the church, becoming a missionary and spreading the word in Canada and the United Kingdom. In 1844 Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saints movement (of which the Mormon church is a part) died, after being attacked by a mob while in prison. Young made an eloquent grab for power and became church president in 1847. However, Young’s position was constantly challenged by other claimants to the title, from other branches of the church. In addition Mormons in general were treated with suspicion, on account of their belief in polygamy, among other things. And so Young led the “faithful” on an exodus out of Missouri to the promised land of Salt Lake City, Utah, where he also became the area’s first governor and superintendent of American Indian affairs. Young remained at the head of the church until he was effectively deposed as governor by intervention by the US Army at the orders of the US President James Buchanan, whose “Utah Expedition”, designed to bring this theocratic region into line with the rest of the democratic USA, eventually became the year-long Mormon War. Young died in 1877, leaving behind 56 children, born to 16 of his 55 wives.

 

 

 

Tabloid (2010, dir: Errol Morris)

It’s true that, as one user review on the IMDB states, this is one of Errol Morris’s lesser efforts. But then we’re ranking Tabloid, about a strange newspaper story from the 1970s, alongside The Fog of War, his brilliant documentary about Robert McNamara, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary for Defense, or The Thin Blue Line, his even more brilliant polemic about a wrongful murder conviction in Dallas. So let’s get a bit of perspective. As to what the film is about, well that too is in the “lesser effort” category, being the strange tale of an American woman called Joyce McKinney and her infatuation with a Mormon, Kirk Anderson. How she followed him to England in 1977 and held him hostage for several days, using him as a sexual plaything, a use that, presumably, Anderson went along with. Morris is interested in the bare bones of what happened – how McKinney fell desperately for the chaste Kirk and then kidnapped him. But he’s also keen to work through the attitude of the newspapers that reported it gleefully on their front pages, day after day. The film is called Tabloid, not Joyce, or Kirk. And so we meet two key players – Peter Tory, an engaging newspaperman from the posh end of the pile, all suaveté and handmade shirts. And Kent Gavin, more your oily rag, an old school photographer with a line in investigation that puts most reporters to shame. It’s Gavin who teased out McKinney’s back story, how she managed to amass enough money to fly to England, where she pulled off her audacious stunt. The papers thought it was hilarious, of course, a man being held hostage and used as a sex slave by a woman whose mouth was a gift to the industry – “I loved him so much that I would ski naked down Mount Everest with a carnation up my nose if he asked me to,” being the front page quote that shifted newspapers back in the day. The concept of a man being raped was alien back then (indeed no law about male rape was then on the statute books).

Kirk is notably absent from the film, so we’ll never know if he was in fact kidnapped (the official story, hotly denied by McKinney) or whether he simply fancied a break from the strictures of the Mormon life. What we do get is McKinney, who is vastly entertaining and could compete in the talking Olympics, giving her side of events, as well as her meandering thoughts on animal welfare – Morris seems to have become interested in her as a result of a 2008 story about McKinney going to Korea to have her dog cloned (this is the man who gave us the pet cemetery film Gates of Heaven, let’s not forget). Since Tabloid was released, McKinney has been vocal that Morris stitched her up. What she’s complaining about is that Morris uses Kirk’s absence – brilliant documentarian that he is – to build a “did she/didn’t she” narrative, bolstered by interviews with a former Mormon and various other parties who were involved at the periphery. McKinney has a point, to a point. But from a viewer’s perspective, and the IMDB user is entirely right here, there is a real lack of material. Morris works his guts out with archive newsreel and home movie footage trying to disguise the fact Tabloid is really very little more than one talking head after another. And, using techniques the tabloid press would recognise, he builds his story, almost out of nothing. It’s a cracker.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Every Errol Morris documentary is worth watching
  • Joyce McKinney is an interviewer’s godsend
  • A tiny insight into Mormon life
  • An examination of tabloid newspaper practices and mores

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Tabloid – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

Louise Bourgoin in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

 

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

 

 

31 May

 

Ramesses II becomes pharaoh of Egypt, 1279BC

On this day in 1279BC, the king often called Ramesses (or Rameses, or Ramses) the Great, became pharaoh of Egypt. Known as Ozymandias by the Greeks, the pharaoh most remembered by history was a great military campaigner and a great builder of cities, temples and monuments. He became pharaoh in his late teens and ruled for the following 66 years. The Egyptian army consisted of about 100,000 men, and he used it to wage war against the Hittites and Nubians, routed the Sherden sea pirates who were harrying ships on the Mediterranean coast, thrust into modern-day Syria and Lybia. At home he undid many of the religious reforms of the Amarna period, returning Egypt to polytheism. After 30 years of rule, Ramesses himself became a god. He moved the capital of Egypt to a new city, Pi-Ramesses. He had many memorials to previous emperors remodelled to look like himself. He built Abu Simbel, the temples carved out of the mountainside, and the temple now called the Ramesseum, designed to keep the memory of Ramesses alive after his death, the “temple of a million years”, as well as a glorious tomb to the most important of his consorts, Nefertari. He died, in his 90s, possibly of an infection caused by a dental abscess, and was succeeded by his 13th son. His mummified body can now be seen in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.

 

 

 

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010, dir: Luc Besson)

Though Luc Besson started out as a director (early films include Subway and Nikita), in recent years he’s been so occupied with the production side of things that he’s not got behind the camera so much. He made an exception for this adaptation of one of Jacques Tardi’s comic books – big in France, ignored most every other place – about a kind of female Indiana Jones, daring, drily witty and so proud of bearing that almost all who encounter her bend to her will. Louise Bourgoin plays journalist and adventurer Blanc-Sec (Dry White, in French) and is charming, pretty and haughty enough to carry off the role (think young Mary Poppins rather than Edwardian Lara Croft). It’s a knotty, tangly plot, with Adèle on a “this time it’s personal” mission to save her comatose sister, aided by resuscitated Egyptian mummies, an old gent who knows how to waken the deeply somnolent and a pterodactyl swooping around Paris terrorising people. There isn’t a non-eccentric character in it, there is a lot of running around, it’s all shot with deep chocolate-box filtration and there’s a clever mix of physical, stop motion and true CG effects. It’s Jules Verne steampunk meets the whimsy of Amélie and Besson clearly wants it to work. So why have most people not heard of this charming, exciting, fun film? Maybe some of the swoops from inventive to kitsch are a bit maddening, and certainly the stabs at humour are, for the most part, utterly unfunny (seen one pterodactyl crapping on the head joke, seen em all). Or maybe for most people this just isn’t what you’d associate with a “French film” – where’s the long talky stuff, the gamine girls, the nudity? But, come on, you’ve got to admire a movie with this much drive and plot, and with a breakout performance that singles Bourgoin out as a talent to watch. It’s a better, more intelligent, more coherent film than Spielberg’s Tintin, which it superficially resembles. But will we ever see the last two legs of the trilogy which was originally intended? It seems not. Never mind, we’ll always have Paris (menaced by a flying dinosaur).

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great piece of entertaining adventure
  • Louise Bourgoin’s starmaking performance
  • Matthieu Amalric, almost unrecognisable beneath the prosthetics
  • The extraordinary production design by Hugues Tissandier

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Something in the Air

Lola Créton and Clément Métayer in Something in the Air

 

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

 

 

30 May

 

Charles de Gaulle dissolves the National Assembly, 1968

On this day in 1968, French President Charles de Gaulle, in the face of increasing street protests against his government and his personal style, dissolved parliament. The previous day he had fled the country, telling his prime minister, Georges Pompidou, “I am the past, you are the future. I embrace you.” No one knew where he had gone. With strikes breaking out all over the country and running battles taking place on the streets of Paris, revolution was in the air. Government officials were burning documents and ministers were arming themselves in their ministries. De Gaulle had in fact gone to Germany, to Baden-Baden, where he met with the head of the French military, Jacques Massu, who told the president that he had the support of the armed forces. Reassured, De Gaulle returned quickly to France and scheduled a meeting of the Council of Ministers. As up to half a million anti-Gaullists marched through Paris, De Gaulle took to the airwaves – all very reminiscent of his wartime broadcasts as leader of the Free French – and told the country that he was refusing to resign. Instead he dissolved parliament, called new elections and told the marchers that the army was outside Paris waiting for De Gaulle’s orders. Simultaneously a rally of around 800,000 De Gaulle supporters took to the streets. The revolutionary momentum faltered. In the elections of June 1968, De Gaulle’s party won its biggest ever victory.

 

 

 

Something in the Air (2012, dir: Olivier Assayas)

You don’t have to be in your mid 50s and familiar with the music of The Incredible String Band to enjoy Something in the Air. But it certainly helps. Director Olivier Assayas was – mid 50s, I mean – when he made this film, and his movie (called Après Mai or After May translated into English) is about what it was like growing up in the immediate aftermath of something momentous. A companion piece in many ways to Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, it follows the story of a bunch of people who were just too young to be involved in “the events” of May 68, but whose attitudes to everything bear their imprint. The revolution, they believe, is still just around the corner. It’s 1971 and Gilles (Clément Métayer) is balancing his aspirations to become a film-maker or painter with his street activism – distributing political newspapers, painting graffiti by night on the high school he attends. After his hot but not politically engaged girlfriend (Carole Combes) leaves him to pursue the good life in America, Gilles takes up with youthful firebrand Christine (Lola Créton), and together they explore each other, the zeitgeist and the very fact of being young – all of which seem in some way to be the same thing. They’re not, and that’s why Assayas’s film has universal currency. Because, as he tracks Gilles and Christine – first on an extended holiday to Italy, also seething with political possibility, then into getting jobs which slowly but surely incorporate them into “the system” – he teases out these differences. Assayas’s grasp of the period is total, whether it’s in his choice of the sort of music that doesn’t get onto the playlists of oldies stations (Dr Strangely Strange, Amazing Blondel, Kevin Ayers, Syd Barrett), or his catching of the mood of spooked optimism that haunted the 1970s. And he’s extremely generous about an era that a lot of people just mark down as the hangover after the party of the 1960s, noting that the loosening of shackles in the 1960s had encouraged a great flowering of experimental art and a genuine examination of fixed “certainties”. It’s a remarkably nuanced film which avoids rose-tints and is aware of the fact that “the coming revolution” was mostly a rebellion by nice kids who could fall back on their bourgeois parents when the going got tough. Something in the Air (a line borrowed from the Thunderclap Newman song of the same name, which proclaimed that “revolution’s here”) is a modern Barry Lyndon, a picaresque adventure that doesn’t end in triumph but is so textured it’s mesmerising.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another “you are there” historical drama from the director of Carlos the Jackal
  • The soundtrack including Nick Drake, Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart
  • Lola Créton’s performance
  • DP Eric Gautier’s sun-drenched cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Something in the Air – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

Scott Walker, seen in reflection in the recording studio

 

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

 

 

29 May

 

The Rite of Spring premieres, 1913

On this day in 1913, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s orchestral ballet The Rite of Spring premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, France, as part of a season of performances by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The reaction to it was instant and violent, with laughter greeting the opening bars of the introduction. This grew into a “terrific uproar”, according to Stravinsky’s autobiography. He also detailed how he watched from the wings as the choreographer, Nijinsky, was forced to shout out the step numbers to the dancers, who couldn’t hear the music. People in the audience began throwing things but the orchestra played on, managing to make themselves heard, though a commotion continued through the entire performance. Whether the disturbance was aimed at the rhythmic music or the often pagan movements of the dancers, or whether it was more the outbreak of hostilities between the more conservative and bohemian elements in the audience remains a moot point. The next day in the papers, the critics were split, Le Figaro calling The Rite of Spring “puerile barbarity” while the theatrical magazine Comoedia described it as superb. Others again thought the music wonderful and the dancing appalling. Stravinsky’s autobiography records that after the performance Stravinsky, Nijinsky and Diaghilev went for a celebratory dinner with Jean Cocteau.

 

 

 

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (2006, dir: Stephen Kijak)

The British-based American expatriate Scott Walker was a pop idol in the 1960s. Thanks to his good looks and baritone voice he had a string of hits with the Walker Brothers – named after him, though his real surname is in fact Engel. Then he went solo, making a number of critically hailed and artistically influential solo albums inspired to large extent by the chanson tradition of the likes of Jacques Brel. These were followed by a series of increasingly minimal and doomy avant garde albums. Both the Brel-flavoured and avant garde music made an indelible impression on David Bowie in the 1970s, who borrowed much of Walker’s angularity and swagger. When Stephen Kijak caught up with him for the making of this documentary, Walker had just released his first proper album, The Drift, for over ten years. Whether you buy into the idea of Walker as towering avant garde genius or not, there is something to see here. If you do it’s the sight of a man often described as a recluse being surprisingly open, honest, chatty and happy – human. If you don’t, then it’s his unusual attitude – an artist who makes absolutely no claims for the value of what he does. According to Walker, he does what he does because he enjoys doing it, that’s all. This unexpected and simple credo is one of the most refreshing things about a film that looked, from the title, like it was going to be all hagiography. There’s the personal stuff too, Walker’s fairly frank admission that “the imbibing”, as he describes the years of drinking too much, got in the way of his work. And some backstory – the early years of pop adulation, the attempts to keep the Walker Brothers going, their eventual demise in the 1970s after a botched comeback, the infighting.
Let’s not get carried away though, there are plenty of what you might call the usual suspects – Johnny Marr, Damon Albarn, Bowie (who is named as executive producer), Johnny Greenwood, Brian Eno – bending the knee in front of one of avant garde pop’s totemic figures, revered in Britain, largely ignored back home. Scattered between the we’re-not-worthies are insights into the way Walker works. These are fascinating too: the way he buries the melodic line of a song so the musicians and even the producer can’t find it, for instance. Or punches a hanging animal carcase to get the right percussive sound. Stravinsky, Ligetti and Gorecki can all be heard in the resulting opus – pop musicians are often not quite as “avant” as they are billed – but Walker undoubtedly has had an influence on how popular music is written and consumed.
For his part, Kijak clearly knows a thing or two about working in the language of film – the pacing of his shots and his editing are deliberately intended to create a hypnotic effect. This too is unusual in a documentary about a musician, which tend to take the backstage/onstage route. Do we in the end get to know much more about this man, still looking boyish as he goes into his seventh decade? Not particularly. But we do get to know a bit more about his music, and in any film about any artist what you really is to learn about the work, isn’t it?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A hypnotically constructed film
  • Walker’s engaging personality
  • The talking head endorsements
  • The strange, ethereal music

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Punk Syndrome

Pertti Kurikka and the band in The Punk Syndrome

 

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

 

 

28 May

 

Wendy O Williams born, 1949

On this day in 1949, one of punk rock’s most colourful performers came into the world. Named Wendy Orlean Williams when she was born in Webster, New York, Williams was a music student, playing clarinet at high school before dropping out at 16 and hitchhiking to Colorado. Over the next few years she sold string bikinis, worked as a cook in London, as a dancer with a gypsy troupe in Europe before arriving back in New York in 1976 and, after answering an ad in a paper, became a member of Rod Swenson’s experimental theatre troupe Captain Kink’s Theatre. Two years later, with Swenson’s help, she launched the Plasmatics, a performance-art shock-rock band with a penchant for chainsaws. Over the next few years she would repeatedly get into trouble with the law for simulating sex on stage and for being underdressed (insulation tape to cover her nipples not being thought clothing enough in some states), made a version of Stand By Your Man with Lemmy of Motorhead, appeared in the porn film Candy Goes to Hollywood, made an album with the members of Kiss as her backing band, and appeared in a number of underground movies, as well as producing several albums with the Plasmatics and as a solo artist. In 1991 she retired, moved to rural Connecticut and, like Brigitte Bardot, another notorious blonde, devoted her life to animal welfare. Life out of the limelight didn’t suit her and she attempted suicide in 1993 by hammering a knife into her breastbone. Her second suicide attempt in 1997 was by drug overdose. In 1998 her third attempt, by gun, succeeded.

 

 

 

The Punk Syndrome (2012, dir: Jukka Kärkkäinen, Jani-Petteri Passi)

Meet Pertti, Toni, Sami and Kari, four mentally disabled Finnish guys who have formed their own punk band, Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät (Pertti Kurikan’s Name Day), and who have, maybe surprisingly, found a degree of success with it. They’re a funny bunch, each a bit off in his own way – guitarist Pertti is obsessed with the seams in clothes for instance, lead singer Kari asks at one moment, a propos of nothing at all, “why do pedicurists exist?”. But they understand the basic rule of songwriting: lyrics have to be honest. Their big hit is “Decision-makers Are Cheaters”, a ditty about the indignity of living in an institution and not being considered sound of mind enough to make your own life choices. Another is “I Don’t Want to Live in a Group Home.” Fair enough. The fanbase is an odd mix too, of slightly aged punks, the pierced, the bewildered, the drunk and the occasional aging hipster who collects musical oddities to prove his hipster credentials, possibly. This documentary about the band, their lives back at the home, touring on the road, musical and personal arguments, isn’t that dissimilar from any film about any rock band. It’s done without commentary track, in verité style, backstage and onstage, features interviews with the fans, the entourage and the band themselves, and so on. Except this lot are frighteningly honest – “you can’t go on stage with shit in your pants” says one to the other just before they leap into action. At another point one of them says to Pertti, “You did a good job, Perrti” just after they’ve come off stage. “I know,” replies Pertti without any false modesty, “But I was nervous before going on stage.” This band are the ultimate outsiders and it would be easy to exploit them, see them as a freak show. It is to the directors’/writers’ credits that they don’t do this, instead they focus on the joy that music-making brings, though there is the lingering suspicion that some of the audience are there for the wrong reasons. But the purity and directness of what they do, lyrics such as “You’re not normal – no, no, no” saying it all, make a good case for the bands’ right to exist, perform and succeed. Rock and roll without the bullshit.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An unusual documentary
  • A rock’n’roll life inside an institution
  • The arguments and the touching friendship
  • The band’s unvarnished honesty

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Punk Syndrome – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Black Death

Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean in Black Death

 

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

 

 

27 May

 

Bubonic plague breaks out in California, 1907

On this day in 1907, bubonic plague broke out in California, USA. The disease had ravaged the known world twice before, first in the 6th century, the so-called Justinian plague. It then reoccurred most famously in the pandemic starting in Mongolia and spreading across Asia into Europe, killing a third of the population between 1340 and 1400, the Black Death. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries it had erupted frequently though less devastatingly, and even in the 20th century it was not unknown – Australia had 12 major outbreaks between 1900 and 1925. In 1907, San Francisco was just recovering from the 1900 to 1904 outbreak of plague – the third global plague pandemic had been raging since 1855 – which had been exacerbated by a mayor who wouldn’t admit there was a problem because he feared the impact on business, when a sailor crossing San Francisco Bay on a ferry was diagnosed with the disease. The plague took hold, with the New York Times reporting that “it looked for a time as if the city were to be decimated as was mediaeval Europe.” It was also around this time that the theory started to gain currency that bubonic plague was spread by rats. The city started a massive public health campaign, concentrating from 1908 on exterminating rats. By the following year the plague was gone.

 

 

 

Black Death (2010, dir: Christopher Smith)

Director Christopher Smith’s follow-up to the brain-befuddling Triangle – which ingeniously managed to mix time travel with child welfare – is another exercise in altered mindsets, this time locating us firmly in the Middle Ages, where plague is rampant and people will do the most irrational things to try and stop it. Sean Bean is the film’s star, a solid hunk of matter off which superstition is deflected, playing the leader of a band of trusties who are on a mission to find out why a certain small village has been immune to the depredations of the bubonic disease. Working to some extent in the tradition of Michael Reeves, of Witchfinder General fame, Smith locates us firmly within the ideology of the time and switches allegiances expertly between the Christians (led by the brutal Bean and his ideological warhorse, a monk played by Eddie Redmayne) and the no less brutal pagans (for that is what they are) led by the attractive Carice Van Houten, last seen in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. At almost every turn Black Death seems ready to plunge into the coconuts and excess of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, yet it never does. Some of that is down to Bean, playing it dourly straight as the utterly driven, entirely humourless leader of this weird gang of professional cutthroats. But most of it is down to Smith’s control of mood, the way he infuses everything with a feeling of portent and dread. So give the film a chance to get past its shaky start and its feverish rhythms. Once it slows down and stretches out it becomes a much more meditative, much more interesting analysis of life in a time so beset by an external threat – anyone could die, for no apparent reason, at any time – that it undermined all the certainties, gave birth to ugly extremisms. This also entails ignoring Bean’s oddly inappropriate mid-Atlantic accent. Surely his flinty native Sheffield voice would have been a better fit for a film dealing in merciless inevitability. Fans of Lord of the Rings will easily go for the beards on horseback ambience, but this film is really more in keeping with The Wicker Man‘s uneasy examination of the excesses of blind faith.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another interesting genre movie by Christopher Smith
  • Because it’s more interested in ideology than buboes
  • Old school, and effective, effects
  • Sebastian Edschmid’s appropriately murky cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Black Death – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Searchers

John Wayne in The Searchers

 

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

 

 

26 May

 

John Wayne born, 1907

On this day in 1907, Marion Robert Morrison was born, in Winterset, Iowa, USA. He was named after the Civil War veteran Marion Mitchell Morrison, and the young Marion’s middle name would be switched in favour of Mitchell when his parents decided to name their next son Robert. In any event Marion preferred the nickname Duke, which he picked up from his Airedale terrier pet, Duke – young Marion was initially Little Duke. Morrison went to the University of Southern California to study pre-law on a football scholarship, but a broken collarbone picked up while bodysurfing put paid to any hopes of playing football, and his university career too. Instead he started working at local film studio, in the props department before going on to pick up a few bit parts. He became friendly with director John Ford, who gave him work, but got his first starring role from Raoul Walsh, in 1930’s The Big Trail, though on Ford’s recommendation. Walsh also suggested the name change to John Wayne. The Big Trail, a big budget widescreeen epic, was a big bomb but it got Wayne noticed in the industry and he worked solidly in “poverty row” westerns for the next nine years until his breakthrough with John Ford and Stagecoach, in 1939. It made Wayne a star and he would remain one until he died 40 years later. Wayne did not serve during the Second World War, a fact he would later deeply regret, and which could always be used to call into question his increasingly strident patriotism – Wayne would turn down films if he thought them “unpatriotic”. The 1940s and 1950s was Wayne’s heyday, though he carried on playing “men’s men” right to the end – a cowboy, a pilot, a military man, a boxer, a detective, a sportsman, a vigilante, a gunman, a quencher of wildcat oil fires and Genghis Khan (not entirely successfully). In the Top Ten Money Makers Polls printed annually in the International Motion Picture Almanac – the truest real reflection of a star’s box office power – Wayne is still the actor with the most appearance, featuring on the list for 25 years.

 

 

 

The Searchers (1956, dir: John Ford)

John Ford’s The Searchers is a film that critics return to again and again. Not only because it features one of John Wayne’s best performances, and John Ford’s most iconic depiction of Monument Valley, but because the character at its centre is such an asshole. At a time when westerns were becoming increasingly revisionist, showing that the Indian or Native American was as much sinned against as sinning, The Searchers seemed to attempt to push this more enlightened view back into its box. The story is about Wayne’s Ethan Edwards searching for his niece (Natalie Wood), who has been kidnapped by the Comanches. He’s not out to rescue her though, he’s out to kill her, because she has become contaminated through exposure to Comanche ways. She’s become a redskin’s squaw – “The leavings of a Comanche buck” as Edwards puts it. What critics want to know is – what sort of a film are we watching? Is it a revenge thriller with sheer nastiness at its core? Or is it the journey of a bitter bigot towards redemption? Some people will always conflate the depiction of something with an endorsement of that thing, and in the case of The Searchers, about a racist killer hunting down a defenceless young woman who has been kidnapped, the suggestion regularly seems to be that the film is an endorsement of racism and the killing of the blameless. It isn’t, though in the shape of Ethan Edwards we are certainly being shown a man who doesn’t like Injuns. Is Edwards a psychopath, as Edwards’s travelling companion, the part-Comanche Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) increasingly comes to believe? It’s possible, though Ford and Wayne set up Edwards’s character so tenderly – he’s in love with his wife’s brother but only his eyes betray his emotion – that it takes us a while to realise that Edwards is not a representation of civilised society, in the way western heroes often are. Instead he’s an outsider, an obsessive whose side lost in the Civil War and is now busy consumed by another battle, and again he’s on the wrong side. For his part Wayne does what a man’s gotta do, and gives the lie to those who insist he can’t act – he’s as monumental as anything in Monumental Valley here, but with Wayne it’s all about the narrowing of the eyes. On a big screen easily read from the back in the dark, what more needs to be done? Wayne perfected the style of acting that Clint Eastwood would later borrow, and in The Searchers we also see the development of a style that Sergio Leone would appropriate – big, operatic, unafraid to take it slow, visually driven, iconic. The Searchers is a screen-grab sort of movie, in other words, and as it builds towards its climax, and Edwards closes in on his quarry after seven years of searching (two hours of screen time), the film itself becomes monumental. It’s no surprise that Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese referenced it relentlessly in their Taxi Driver.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The definitive John Ford film
  • The definitive John Wayne movie
  • Winton C Hoch’s cinematography
  • Its continuing influence

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Searchers – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Being Earnest

Edith Evans in The Importance of Being Earnest

 

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

 

 

25 May

 

Oscar Wilde convicted, 1895

Dead at the age of only 46, with possibly his best years still to come, Oscar Wilde’s life was changed by his conviction for gross indecency with men, on this day in 1895. Wilde had first gone to court after the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, had left his calling card at Wilde’s club, the Albemarle, with the words, “For Oscar Wilde posing somdomite (sic)” written on it. Wilde took this as an attack on his reputation, and sued Queensberry. Queensberry, famous for laying down the rules of modern boxing, responded vigorously, hiring private detectives who testified in court that Wilde was a prolific and flagrant homosexual who delighted in perverting young men. Wilde lost the case and on leaving the court was charged with sodomy and gross indecency (then as now “gross indecency” is a decorous term designed to spare blushes rather than establish facts). At his trial Wilde made a spirited defence of “the love that dare not speak its name” – intellectual Platonic love, or so he said. Wilde, and his lover Alfred Taylor, were sentenced to two years’ hard labour. Wilde’s health collapsed while he was in prison, as did his ear drum when he fell over weak from illness and hunger. Two years later, having been transferred several times, Wilde was released. He wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol while incarcerated but nothing else of note after he was released, claiming that he had “lost the joy of writing.” He died, poor and in exile, in a Paris hotel, of cerebral meningitis, brought on either by syphilis, or as the result of an operation, or as a consequence of the ruptured eardrum he’d suffered while in prison.

 

 

 

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952, dir: Anthony Asquith)

Written the year before he went to law to protect his name, Oscar Wilde’s best and funniest play is all about men who are pretending to be something they’re not. In the case of Jack and Algernon it’s a fairly harmless case of trying to have fun. Algernon does it by having an entirely fictitious and demanding sick friend, Bunbury, who can always be relied on to get Algy out of a boring social engagement. Jack, meanwhile, is known as reliable old Ernest when at home in the country, switching to his alter ego only when he’s up in the city. Or is it vice versa? Taking the idea that the trivial things in life should be taken seriously, and the serious trivialised, Wilde turned the sober, empire-building Victorian ideal on his head in a play that concerned early reviewers with its dearth of socially engaged themes. This lack of cultural specificity is exactly what gives it staying power, here, in Anthony Asquith’s 1952 adaptation and even in Oliver Parker’s adaptation, made another 50 years on. The Asquith version is ahead in every respect, not least because Asquith understands that to open up the drama – to make it more cinematic – is to kill it. Wilde had cut the play from four acts to three, deleted characters, polished every line, and there’s absolutely no need to start adding weight to something that floats as if on air. Michael Dennison and Michael Redgrave make a decent fist of playing Algy and Jack, and their romantic interests – both of whom are in love with the idea of being in love with a man called Ernest – are also charming in the hands of Joan Greenwood and Dorothy Tutin. But it’s in the support playing that Asquith’s Earnest triumphs. Edith Evans’s comedy trombone of a voice giving the line reading of the words “a handbag” immortality, Margaret Rutherford as dithery governess Miss Prism and Miles Malleson as goggle-eyed Canon Chasuble. Actually, it’s Wilde’s writing that is triumphant, his epigrams pushed to the point of absurdity – “I never travel without my diary,” says Gwendolyn, echoing Wilde himself, “one should always have something sensational to read on the train.” Thanks to the use of Technicolor (looking good in Criterion’s restoration) the film looks pin sharp to this day, with the appropriately exaggerated colours that Technicolor offers only really wheeled out in the case of Lady Bracknell, her outfits a match for her purple temper and delivery – “Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture,” she intones at Jack Worthing having found him on one knee proposing to Gwendolen. Notice the dive-bombing bird on her hat. There aren’t actually that many filmed productions of Wilde’s most famous play – previous versions were made for TV and are now all lost – this one by Asquith is now the oldest one left in existence. And the best.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • It’s stagey and proud of it
  • The perfect cast, headed by Edith Evans
  • The carefully used Technicolor
  • “A handbag”

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Importance of Being Earnest – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Paris-Manhattan

Alice Taglioni in Paris-Manhattan

 

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

 

 

24 May

 

Peter Minuit buys Manhattan, 1626

On this day in 1626, the German-born Peter Minuit bought the island of Manhattan off native Americans for 60 guilders (somewhere around $1,000 at 2013 prices). He had been sent to the New World the previous year by the Dutch West India Company to research possible new products to trade, and had taken over as governor general of the New Netherland colony. The tribe he bought the island off had little concept of anyone having a right to ownership of water or air and, being nomadic, their notion of the territorial right to land was also hazy. There is no record of the native Americans giving up Manhattan for a selection of trinkets, as myth has it, though in the sale of nearby Staten island clothes, agricultural tools, household appliances and musical instruments were all part of the transaction. In 1631 Minuit was suspended as governor general, most probably for lining his own pockets at the expense of the Company. Minuit went on to become governor of the New Sweden colony.

 

 

 

Paris-Manhattan (2012, dir: Sophie Lellouche)

In Woody Allen’s film Play It Again, Sam (he wrote though didn’t direct), Allen’s lovelorn and suddenly single character receives life lessons from Humphrey Bogart. In Sophie Lellouche’s romantic comedy Paris-Manhattan, her lovelorn and tragically single heroine Alice (Alice Taglioni) receives life lessons from Woody Allen, or his voice at any rate, lifted from some of his most familiar films, when she gazes at his poster on her bedroom wall. Alice is gorgeous, funny, clever and solvent, so the fact that she can’t find a man is one of those “only in the movies” situations, which Paris-Manhattan is deliberately all about. And the fact that there is a suitable guy, right under nose – the alarm installer who’s in her dad’s pharmacy more often than seems strictly necessary – is another one. Later on there’s a scene set at the family’s Friday night Sabbath dinner – the family is Jewish, of course – when Bruel’s Victor (how the alarm installer ends up at a family dinner is yet another one) makes an off-the-cuff remark about existence and nothingness, which gets Alice’s Allen antenna twitching, and from there it seems that love is a foregone conclusion. But not before Lellouche dumps a whole load of farcical obstruction in their way, to delay their progress. The obstructive business isn’t so much Woody Allen as Richard Curtis, though even non-believers in Mr Love Actually should admit that Curtis has the edge on Allen when it comes to rom-com, so let’s let that slide.

On the face of it, this is the sort of well dressed, well mannered, nice-looking bourgeois comedy which the French do so effortlessly, though they often travel as well as a tricky Bordeaux. This one works, largely because the two stars, Taglioni and Patrick Bruel, are entirely at home playing characters you really root for. Enjoyment also comes from a beguiling soundtrack – Ella sings Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered on a few occasions – and the fact that Lellouche has these two dancing the “will they won’t they?” to rhythms lifted from Woody Allen films. There’s more than a touch of Manhattan Murder Mystery in here, especially in the scenes in which Alice and Victor and Alice’s parents all start digging into the private life of Alice’s sister and break into her apartment. And is it a spoiler to say that Woody Allen turns up, too, in a cameo so short that it looks like somebody might literally have buttonholed him in a hallway and asked if he wouldn’t mind, you know, just speaking the lines on the card. Maybe he was in France, in the middle of Midnight in Paris, the dates are about right. However they got him in there, for the half a minute or so, he has barely got his Woody Allen shtick warmed up before the scene is over and he’s gone. It’s a nice detail in a film that is full of them, a film that, analysed coolly, is total fromage. File under guilty pleasure.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A light, bright romantic comedy
  • The winning performances of Alice Taglioni and Patrick Bruel
  • Woody Allen’s tiny cameo
  • The swinging jazzy soundtrack

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Paris-Manhattan – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

26 May 2014-05-26

Oscar Isaac sings in Inside Llewyn Davis

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

Inside Llewyn Davis (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

The Coen brothers specialise in films about absence or lack – The Man Who Wasn’t There being the most obvious exemplar. Inside Llewyn Davis is about a folk singer on the Greenwich Village circuit just before Bob Dylan turned up and electrified – joke intended – the scene. It  stars the hitherto obscure Oscar Isaac as the struggling singer who just lacks that last, magical quarter of an inch of whatever it is that makes an artist break through. It’s heartbreak in slo-mo, in other words, and to some extent it’s unwatchable, if you find beautifully crafted, brilliantly acted films unwatchable. Why doesn’t Llewyn Davis make it? There’s really no point in me saying what I think the answer is, since that’s the knot the film worries away at. As it does so, there’s Carey Mulligan as a boho folkie revealing yet another side to her talent, the mellifluous pipes of Davis, bringing to life the songs of Dave Van Ronk, on whose experience the film is based. And there’s the mis en scene of the Coens, the look of New York in the early 1960s looking like it was lifted straight off the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album. And isn’t that a sly casting choice, getting F Murray Abraham, Salieri to Tom Hulce’s Mozart in Amadeus, to play the role of the man who tells Isaac he just isn’t good enough? A sorrowful moment in a film that’s essentially one awful disappointment after another, in a journey towards oblivion.

Inside Llewyn Davis – at Amazon

 

 

 

Willow Creek (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, DVD)

I don’t want to watch any more found footage films, especially one that seems to be explicitly out in the Blair Witch woods. However, having seen Willow Creek, about a couple who go in search of Bigfoot – him an enthusiastic wannabe TV presenter (hence the camera), her more sceptical – I have to say that director Bobcat Goldthwait has managed to squeeze a last smidgeon of toothsome entertainment out of the tube. He’s also obviously seen Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, and noticed that watching people walking towards their doom is grimly fascinating. Goldthwait also adds in a bit of verity by having his actors, Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson, actually posing as real people making their own real film about Bigfoot. Either that or the interviews with people en route to the couple’s appointment with fear are so well acted it’s uncanny. Verdict: nothing new to see here, but that doesn’t mean Willow Creek isn’t scary.

Willow Creek – at Amazon

 

 

 

8 Minutes Idle (Luxin, cert 15, DVD)

Coming across as a lo-fi Richard Curtis rom-com, except Curtis doesn’t do jokes involving semen-filled condoms, 8 Minutes Idle is a funny and incredibly likeable British film set in a call centre, where browbeaten co-workers flirt with each other to pass the time when they’re steering hapless callers up one blind alley after another. Tom Hughes is its hero, a shiftless and homeless minimum wager secretly sleeping in the office and trying to make a move on the office hottie (Ophelia Lovibond), something she might, or might not, welcome. The film feels like it’s written by people who actually have worked in a call centre, are young, have working hormones and understand that taking the odd drug isn’t a one-way ticket to hell. And the casting is really very good – Antonia Thomas as a saucy, spunky co-worker, Montserrat Lombard as the sexually predatory boss, only a couple of years older than the others but it’s a crucial couple of years. And in the background, as a running gag, the sound of callers constantly losing their rag because their needs are not being serviced. Short and sweet.

8 Minutes Idle – at Amazon

 

 

 

August: Osage County (EV, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Tracy Letts wrote Killer Joe – a lunge into Tennessee Williams territory. And he’s cranking out more, though less successful, melodrama with this overcooked offering which he also directed. Look at the cast. Meryl Streep as the dying matriarch, Sam Shepard as her husband, Julia Roberts and Julianne Nicholson as daughters, Benedict Cumberbatch as a cousin, Abigail Breslin as a grand-daughter, Chris Cooper as a brother in law. If I go on (Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, the exquisite Margo Martindale) it’s only to demonstrate that people obviously think Letts is a thing. I’m not so sure. This is an exercise in mad overacting by nearly all concerned. Streep is funny and about as good as it’s possible to be, playing a vicious old hag presiding over a weekend of truth and lies as the family gathers to say goodbye to dear old Dad (Shepard, in it for less than five minutes) after he kills himself. Following close behind is Martindale, as her semi-stoked sister, and Julia Roberts brings a touch of humanity to the role of the caring sister who acts as our go-between. I won’t go into the plot, which is needless to say all about forbidden relationships, as Tennessee Williams dramas tend to be, but it centres on Cumberbatch, who is about as terrible in this as I’ve ever seen him. Though otherwise there isn’t much for the men in this drama to do apart from sit back and watch the fur fly and the chicken fry.

August: Osage County – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Hidden Face (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

Going all the way back to the original gothic novels – locked rooms, mad women in attics and moody men striding about purposefully – The Hidden Face is a good looking Spanish horror set in Bogota, Colombia, where a Byronically highly strung orchestral conductor (Quim Gutiérrez) is having a lively sex life with his attractive new girlfriend (Martina García). What happened to the previous one though? She ran off, according to a video message she left behind. Though the police are not convinced. And the new girlfriend is beginning to wonder too. Thunder and lighting crash at all the right times, the ladies take off their clothes attractively and the Nazis make a discreet appearance to add another layer of menace in this entirely satisfying piece of densely plotted entertainment that takes the viewer up, over, under, through and out, never short-changing, staying true to character and to genre expectations.

The Hidden Face – at Amazon

 

 

 

Nashville (Eureka, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

It was never described in these terms when it was first released in 1975, but Nashville is a musical. Robert Altman says as much in one of the two interviews that accompany the remaster of this masterpiece, a multi-stranded affair about country stars converging on Nashville, where the broken dreams of the 1960s are about to meet embryonic Reagan-era politics. If you’ve ever wondered whether Lili Tomlin or Henry Gibson or Keith Carradine had actually been in a good film, here’s your proof, Tomlin as the careworn wife of bumptious political hick Ned Beatty hovering on the edge of an affair with a relentless womaniser (Carradine), while a bewigged has-been (Gibson) gentles towards the exit a career based on twangy patriotic tearjerkers. Some of the singing is terrible, not always because it’s meant to be, but the bands playing behind the singers are excellent, and Altman’s technique – so many stories, so much layering of sound – is about as polished as it would ever be. I’d forgotten Jeff Goldblum was in Nashville, as a hippie on a chopper trike, and how good Geraldine Chaplin was as the dreadful women “from the BBC” trying to interview one person while keeping an eye out for anyone more famous. With cameos from blur-on stars Elliott Gould and Julie Christie as themselves, Nashville has a time-capsule quality to it now. Shot just before America celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, we’re in a world before Aids, terrorism and today’s gigantic disparities in wealth, when the American dream seemed more attainable, more credible, and yet, in Altman’s eyes at least, still worth interrogating.

Nashville – at Amazon

 

 

 

Squatters (Sony, cert 18, DVD/digital)

Kelly and Jonas, a pair of street dwelling skanks (Thomas Dekker and Gabriella Wilde) break into the home of a wealthy couple (Richard Dreyfuss, Nancy Travis) who have gone on holiday. The duo reinvent themselves entirely, hacking off their matted hair, easing themselves into borrowed clothes, nipping into the garage to take the Porsche out for a spin. It cannot last, of course, and when the house’s real owners come back… actually, when the house’s real owners come back, the film lurches from the entirely improbable to the majorly ludicrous. The writing is to blame – “You’re shit, Kelly. You’re trash, just like me,” shouts Jonas, in one of the film’s crappier moments of unwitting lip-quivering melodrama, a line that is trying to suggest that Squatters is a meditation on the difficulty of escaping one’s past, when neither Dekker nor Wilde ever looked like hobos in the first place. On the upside, this is a glossy, good looking film, Wilde acts Dekker and his lovely dark eyelashes into a corner, and it’s nice to see Richard Dreyfuss on screen again. Last time I saw him was in a cameo in Piranha, where he was having some fun at the expense of Jaws. Now there’s a film – Piranha, I mean. Kidding.

Squatters – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014