Gone with the Wind

Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind

 

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

 

 

22 June

 

David O Selznick dies, 1965

On this day in 1965, one of the great names of Hollywood’s golden era died. David O (the O meant nothing at all) had been born into a movie family in 1902 and arrived in Hollywood in time for the talkie era, in 1926. By 1931, having worked at MGM and Paramount, he was head of production at RKO, 1933’s King Kong being one of his big successes. He moved back to MGM where he oversaw a series of prestige productions, including Anna Karenina and A Tale of Two Cities. In 1936 he had become an independent producer, his standout hits in the next four years being A Star Is Born, Gone with the Wind and Rebecca. Having made the biggest film of all time, Gone with the Wind, and introduced Hitchcock to the USA, Selznick took a break, but in 1944 he returned to producing and writing films – Since You Went Away, Hitchcock’s Spellbound, The Third Man. He spent much of the rest of his life trying to top the success of Gone with the Wind, and furthering the career of his wife, Jennifer Jones, who starred in his nearest pass, Duel in the Sun. In 1948 he took another break, this time for nine years, aware that TV was the new kid in town. His return to movie production was A Farewell to Arms in 1957. It was his last film. He died of a heart attack, his career having peaked with Hollywood.

 

 

 

Gone with the Wind (1939, dir: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood)

Phew. Three directors. Everything about Gone with the Wind is excessive – books have been written just about the casting of it – but nothing quite outdoes Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara. David O Selznick knew that he had to get Scarlett right or else the film would fail. And he got it right. In terms of plot GWTW is really just a straightforward journey with Scarlett as she hits one adversity after another and overcomes it – either romantic (her men), financial (her beloved Tara plantation) or political (the Civil War that throws both of the first two into flux). The film is often discussed in terms of it being an epic love story set against a backdrop of the American Civil War, but Gone with the Wind is actually best seen as the portrait of an out and out bitch. And Leigh is quite punishingly majestic as the Southern belle whose beauty and birth leads her to believe she is entitled to everything. We’re in the Deep South of the slavery years and from the interactions between Scarlett and her house slave Mammie (Hattie McDaniel) it’s clear that in all of Scarlett’s dealings with men she expects the same as with Mammie – master or servant and nothing in between. Scarlett is the domineering sort who is after a new father figure. And if the man in question can’t deliver, she has no use for him.Scarlett demands the bended knee and gets it from nearly everyone she encounters. She does not get it from Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and as a consequence falls badly for him from the moment she first spots him lounging languidly at a barbecue and undressing her with his eyes.

This is a film about domination and being dominated – black and white, north and south, man and woman. “You need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how.” That’s Rhett’s big bold bid to get Scarlett in his thrall (ie bed). And Scarlett, sensing a man who will dominate her, who would rather give it all up (“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”) than play second fiddle, yields. Look around at everyone else – feeble Southern gent Ashley (Leslie Howard), his fluttering wife Melanie (Olivia de Havilland), Butterfly McQueen as Prissy, Thomas Mitchell as Gerald and everyone around them, second fiddlers all. As for the Yankee deserter who Scarlett meets on the road – she shoots him, partly because he’s the enemy, but also because he’s a coward, a weakling.

Gone with the Wind is also one of the great technical achievements of Hollywood. It’s a triumph of special effects, physical and otherwise. Watch it just to clock how many matte drawing and in-camera effects have been used, some of them so accomplished they’re still invisible (you can’t say that about the Lord of the Rings film, for instance, where every effect looks like one). Tara, O’Hara’s beloved home, is plywood and paper mache, though you’d never know. The burning of Atlanta scene saw Selznick himself pushing the plunger that detonated the buildings of the “back forty” and burning countless old sets used by Cecil B De Mille in the silent era. That’s how you mimic the burning of a city, by burning down something huge.
And it’s all caught in glorious Technicolor. The biggest film of its era, GWTW is still the biggest film of all time when inflation is taken into account. Bigger even than Avatar. There is a good reason for that.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The biggest film of all time
  • Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable
  • 10 Oscars
  • Released in 1939, Hollywood’s annus mirabilis

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Gone with the Wind – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

16 June 2014-06-16

Zoe Kazan and Jake Johnson in The Pretty One

 

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

The Invisible Woman (Lionsgate, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in a film ostensibly about the secret mistress of Charles Dickens. In fact it’s about Dickens himself. The Invisible Biopic, perhaps. Either way, Felicity Jones is Ellen Ternan, the actress who became Dickens’s lover while Ralph Fiennes plays Dickens, as perhaps one of the first true celebs of the media age, mobbed wherever he went, thanks to his appearance in daily newspapers, read avidly by the newly literate working classes. Both actors are as good as you’d hope (Jones, brilliant, Fiennes actually better than I expected), there’s a wealth of period detail, reminding us, for instance, that even washing yourself was a pain in Victorian era. And though the attempts to compare Dickens and Ternan to Great Expectations‘ Pip and Estella are entirely redundant, this is otherwise an immensely subtle, intelligent and interesting film with good performances (Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander) all the way down the line.

The Invisible Woman – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

The Pretty One (Sony, cert 15, DVD)

I’d never heard of Zoe Kazan before. She’s very good playing twin sisters – one a wallflower who lives with dad, the other the “pretty one” who’s a real estate agent making a go of her life. One of the twins dies, forcing the other one into impersonation mode, for reasons which can only be spoilerish if revealed here. What follows is a quite astute social commentary comparing the status-obsessed go-getting twin with the more home-loving natural one. It’s also a nice romance, with Jake Johnson again doing passable Joaquin Phoenix-lite duty, as the slackerish decent guy who falls for one twin while thinking he’s falling for the other. And it’s a comedy, with the jokes coming fairly fast, in spite of the fact that the film periodically stops to return to the cemetery. That’s really not a bad tally – drama, romance, comedy, all done well, freshly, with insight and genuine laughs. And you feel for the characters too. A hidden gem.

The Pretty Woman – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

The Monuments Men (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

George Clooney’s dramedy got a panning when it first debuted. Change your expectations and set the bar at the Kelly Heroes, Von Ryan’s Express level of Second World War knockabout and it’s an entirely enjoyable entertainment about a ragtag bunch of misfits hunting art looted by the Nazis. The tone is deliberately anti-Tarantino-esque and determinedly old school, the actors include Bill Murray, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville, and it moves at a genteel pace, allowing lots of interaction between the relaxed cast as the action shifts from France to Ghent to Brugges following the Nazis’ retreat back towards Berlin as the Thousand Year Reich comes to an end in just over a dozen (whoops). Just listen to its soundtrack, rat-a-tat snare drum, whistled theme tune in march time, and it tells you everything you need to know. Apply a cosy fire, a Sunday afternoon, a comfy chair, and sleep through.

The Monuments Men – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

The Motel Life (House, cert 15, DVD)

Creeping onto DVD without much fanfare is this incredibly muted film about a pair of brothers drifting perilously towards the danger zone of existence. Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff are the bro’s, the former the able-bodied responsible one putting his life on hold to take care of his leg-amputated brother, Dorff desperately believable as a man who knows he’s totally busted, maybe not today, but definitely sometime. Be warned: there isn’t much plot, but there is a ton of atmosphere – the film is as much about Americana as about the brothers and comes with all the accoutrements of a Willie Nelson or Bruce Springsteen song: a Dodge Dart, motel rooms, diners, booze, the blue collar life. Kris Kristofferson does one of his cameo mentor roles, Dakota Fanning injects a bit of femininity, but really it’s just the two guys and a will-they-won’t-they-make-it vibe. It’s good.

The Motel Life – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Endless Love (Universal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

This second stab at turning Scott Spencer’s novel into a film improves on the 1981 disaster starring Brooke Shields and is still about an uptown girl and a downtown guy meeting and falling in ecstatic, endless love. Now, Gabriella Wilde is the girl and Alex Pettyfer is the guy. The characters are meant to be teenagers but the actors are in fact both close to 25. And this matters because Pettyfer has spent so much time at the gym in the past few years trying to beef himself up precisely to get away from teen heartthrob roles such as this that he’s not even faintly credible as a decent young kid with a big bootful of charisma. The plot is “daddy does not approve” with Bruce Greenwood doing way more than is strictly necessary as the scowling father of the prospective-doctor daughter. So much so that the sympathies are more with him than this lovelorn duo. What is it about Spencer’s novel that makes film-makers stumble? Or maybe I’m just a bit old for it. Speaking of age, the sight of the beautiful Wilde – who is, it must be said, 100 per cent what she’s meant to be – constantly photographed in gauzy outfits, in a bikini, in a skimpy T shirt, that doesn’t hurt the film at all. And it does need all the help it can get.

Endless Love – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Raze (Koch, cert 18, DVD)

Take any womens-prison drama, then inject a plot about the inmates being forced to fight to the death. Then add former stuntwoman Zoe Bell as an inmate and you’ve about got this brutal actioner. Grisly it might be, but it’s also drama free. In fact the most impressive thing about the film is the sports bras that the combatants wear – this isn’t your titillating fest of jiggly bits, these sturdy support garments sternly inform us. On the other hand Raze isn’t much of a display of fighting either, since the whole thing has been made in the “fight edit” style that prefers post-production assemblage to actual fist and foot work. For god’s sake, directors everywhere, heed Fred Astaire and pull the camera back. The women are, for the most part, interchangeable, though Rebecca Marshall attracts attention by going for a Jack Nicholson overacting prize as Bell’s leering nemesis. If Raze has any broader value, it’s as a corrective to the women-as-victims stereotype. There isn’t a delicate flower in sight. Otherwise, forget it.

Raze – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

23 June 2014-06-23

Yaroslav Zhalnin as Yuri Gagarin in Gagarin: First in Space

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

 

Her (EV, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The film about the guy who falls in love with his computer’s operating system. Yes, that one, with Joaquin Phoenix as the guy, Scarlett Johansson as the voice of the OS. Spike Jonze takes this premise and has quite a lot of fun with it, working through logically how a man might fall in love with a machine: because he’s lonely, because phone sex with a computer is like phone sex with a human, because computers, like, rule our lives. And he also brilliantly details a world where this sort of event might not instantly book you a place at the funny farm. Best of all he constructs the film just like a rom-com – boy meets operating system, boy loses operating system etc. But alongside this story he runs a shadow plot, another familiar romantic trope from Hollywood, of the guy who can’t see that the girl right under his nose (Amy Adams, as the girl next door) might be the one for him. Much has been made of Scarlett Johansson as the voice, and she is as husky and sexy as Scar-Jo might be nuzzled up next to you. Irresistible, in other words. Less has been made of the fact that the whole film was made with Samantha Morton as the OS, the entire thing being revoiced in post production. No idea why. Either way the film is 40 minutes too long.

Her – Watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Exhibition (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Joanna Hogg’s third film is working in the same territory as the last two, Archipelago and Unrelated. In other words not much happens but it feels like something is about to kick off at any moment. It’s a remarkable dramatic trick to be able to pull off, and interesting how good female directors are at it (see Claire Denis or, in different territory, Kathryn Bigelow). Here we’re following a rich boho couple – he’s something like an architect, she’s an artist of some sort, they live in one of those modernist London houses everyone covets, they have no children, and a yellow Smart car. They have few friends but life is on the whole peachy. Except they’re just about to put the house on the market and we suspect that she (Viv Albertine, formerly of the Slits) isn’t quite as happy about it as he (Liam Gillick) is. And that’s it, for plot. Would you feel sorry for them? Most likely not. But using plenty of long static shots, and ambient sound from outside in “happening London” – scaffolders, sirens, car doors slamming – Hogg manages to suggest a world behind the world we’re watching, where every small encounter we see has enormous weight. Not one for exposition junkies.

Exhibition – Watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (Metrodome, cert 18, DVD)

Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Amer was a strange fever-dream homage to Italian horror of the early 1970s. This is another “neo giallo”, a bravura display of stylisation and astonishing technique  – split screens, extreme close-up, symmetrical composition, expressionist angles, zooms, rotates, lurid filtration, deep and shallow focus, negative images, stop-frame animation, and on it goes. This makes for a film that is really amazing to watch but almost impossible to get involved in. And considering that we’re following a man who has lost his wife in a big old Art Deco house and doesn’t know where to find her, that’s either the entire point of the piece (and it does feel like an artwork more than a movie) or its big failing. All the music is from films of the period, so there’s Ennio Morricone in there alongside Riz Ortolani and Bruno Nicolai. If you know who those last two are, you’ll go a bundle on this film. If you enjoy films where a doll’s head, a woman’s nipple and a pair of gloved arms holding a dagger could flash up on the screen at seemingly any moment, you’ll enjoy it even more.

The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears – Watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Gagarin: First in Space (E One, cert 12, DVD)

A couple of years ago we had Christopher Riley’s almost arthouse First Orbit, which was a real-time recreation of Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space. This Russian film gives us the full biopic of this brave man, though crucially seems more interested in the society he came from than the actual and frankly rather amazing space flight – made only a scant few years after the end of the Second World War. It’s a fatal mistake, and suggests that the film has been conceived as some Putin-ordained hymn to Russia’s Soviet glory years. Selfless cosmonauts, brave collective effort, looming industrial structures, a solid and avuncular leader in the shape of space-maestro Sergey Korolev (excellent Mikhail Filippov), heroic landscapes, massed choirs, the simple yet clean and pure life of the peasantry (sorry, collective farm workers), it’s all here. Leaving the details of the flight itself to fight for room. What a terrible shame, because whenever we are in the tiny capsule with Yuri (the facially similar and entirely well cast Yaroslav Zhalnin), the film abandons its propaganda and throws its script – seemingly written by the Politburo – out the window and goes into warp drive. If only it did it more often.

Gagarin: First in Space – Watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (Second Sight, cert 18, Blu-ray)

Like a lot of films from the 1970s, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is now staking a claim to some kind of classic status. No chance. There’s a lot of good things about it – iconic Clint Eastwood and still-young Jeff Bridges as knockabout heisters planning a big job. Writer/director Michael Cimino’s use of wide widescreen to its full advantage. The brilliant support playing by an unusually nasty George Kennedy and a very funny Geoffrey Lewis film as our guys’ second bananas. The way the film wallows in Americana – landscapes, cars, diners, good ol’ boys  – entirely without any self-consciousness (surely 1974 was the end of this era). Also, the tiny touches of absurdity which seem to have been lifted from Jodorowsky’s El Topo, such as Eastwood and Bridges hitching a lift with a guy whose trunk is full of white rabbits. All very flavoursome. But the jokey tone of the comedy undermines what is meant to be a thrilling heist, which in any case simply moves far too slowly. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is often held up as the film that Cimino got right. But in the glacial pace of the heist (hey, who needs something as mundane as a plotline when you’ve got majestic sweep?) we can see in embryo everything that was wrong with Heaven’s Gate.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – Watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

As I Lay Dying (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

James Franco’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness novel set inside the heads of a family of hick mourners taking their matriarch to her final rest. The book has been called unfilmable, most likely because it is an exercise in novel form. But Franco has a go anyway, possibly because he wants to be taken seriously, having unimpeachable cheekbones not being enough for some people. He also stars as one of the family, though it’s Tim Blake Nelson who makes the most impact, as a patriarch so dumb that there must be generations of inbreeding in there. And are those plywood teeth? Egads. The stylistics Franco uses, including relentless split screen and frequent addresses to camera by various members of the family, none of these work. But the cast give it their best shot, with Ahna O’Reilly particularly good as the secretly pregnant daughter, and Tim O’Keefe’s vibey country-twangy soundtrack helping reinforce Franco’s easy-going directorial pace. A for effort.

As I Lay Dying – Watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Sea (Independent, cert 12, DVD)

Another example of a book being able to do things that films can’t, The Sea is an adaptation of John Banville’s novel about a widower (Ciarán Hinds) going back to the Irish seaside town where, decades earlier, as a child, “something happened”. What it is isn’t revealed till the end of the film. And until that point we’ve been entertained by Hinds’s memories of a summer of enchantment with a bohemian family (headed by Rufus Sewell and Natascha McElhone) and by his current-day reality, testing the patience of the owner (Charlotte Rampling) of the guest house where he’s staying of and her only other guest, a mysterious retired military man (the slyly excellent Karl Johnson). Hold on to those performances, because the film simply does not connect to the inner turmoil of its central character. Result: nothing, nothing at all.

The Sea – Watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

The Human Centipede

Dieter Laser in The Human Centipede

 

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

 

 

21 June

 

Josef Mengele’s remains identified, 1985

On this day in 1985 it was finally ascertained that remains exhumed from a grave in Brazil were those of Josef Mengele. Later DNA testing in 1992 confirmed this original identification from dental records. Mengele had died after suffering a stroke and drowning while swimming in the coastal resort of Bertioga. He was 67 and had been living in South America ever since fleeing the concentration camp Auschwitz at the end of the Second World War, where his experiments on inmates had earned him the nickname the “Angel of Death”. Mengele’s special field of interest was twins and he performed any number of experiments to prove the supremacy of nature over nurture (the better to bolster the Nazi’s theories about racial supremacy). These included infecting one twin with a disease, amputating limbs, the injection of chloroform into the heart and in one particularly gruesome case the sewing together of Gypsy children to try and make conjoined twins. These unfortunates died of gangrene.

 

 

 

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009, dir: Tom Six)

When buzz about The Human Centipede first started being generated online, the film was being talked about as a new peak of torture porn, perhaps as the ultimate torture porn. In fact it’s an old form of torture porn, revived. As evidence, here’s Dieter Laser, as Dr Heiter, a smock-coated, severe Teutonic doctor, leather boots, gaunt face, long pitiless limbs, the twitch, the embodiment of the cruel Nazi medical man who’s putting his undoubtedly brilliant skills to fiendish ends. Admittedly, writer/director Tom Six has come up with something new for this updated Mengele to do, though it isn’t a long way from the Angel of Death’s original practices. He’s going to sew together three innocent tourists he’s kidnapped, the mouth of one connecting with the anus of the next, then that one’s mouth sewn onto the anus of the one in front. To make a centipede, one whose shit passes from first person to second to third. Why? To create an internet buzz, bums on seats, make a name for Six, make money, nothing more.

But what’s admirable about the way Six does it is that he follows his logic through mercilessly. The film lacks the guile it would have had if it had been made by Hollywood. We see naked women, but they’re naked because they’re being readied for an operation, the fact that we occasionally cop a glance of a sideboob more accidental than intentional (I’m absolutely not saying it’s not intentional though). The remorseless logic of the operation is followed through too – once three people are connected thusly, how do they interact? What happens if one wants to go left when the other wants to go right? What if something serious happens to one of them (like it hasn’t already)? Six also introduces a fascinating political element in the shape of the two cops who come to check out the mad doctor’s remote facility and who threaten to stop him in his tracks. The cops are clearly 1968 refugees – “Hitler’s children” – and what Six reserves for them shows that there’s a keen cultural intelligence at work. Like most torture porn films, The Human Centipede is really a comedy, Six coming up with increasingly horrible things to show the audience and then basically daring them not to groan. Laughter is the only way out. The cue being Dr Heiter breaking off from his medical work to expound at length on his strange domestic pet, the so-called Three-Dog. Yes, yes, yes, he’d worked up a prototype. Barking.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the most infamous films of recent years
  • Dieter Laser’s grim-faced performance
  • Tom Six’s ingenious screenplay
  • A very very dark comedy

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Sucker Punch

Emily Browning as Baby Doll in Sucker Punch

 

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

 

 

20 June

 

The Beatles’ Yesterday and Today Butcher cover, 1966

On this day in 1966, the Beatles released their eleventh US release, Yesterday and Today, a compilation of tracks from the three most recent British albums – Help!, Rubber Soul and Revolver (not yet released). The record became infamous because of its cover, shot by Robert Whitaker earlier that year, which depicted the band dressed in butchers’ aprons draped with pieces of meat and various parts of plastic dolls. In terms of conceptual art, it was ahead of its time (it’s in Damian Hirst and the Chapman brothers territory) and the band sold it to the record company as “our comment on the [Vietnam] war.” Capitol Records printed 750,000 copies of the butcher cover and it caused a stir even before it got to the shops. The record was immediately recalled, the order to pull it coming right from the top. Many of the covers were destroyed, going into landfill, but tens of thousands others were re-issued, with another, less offensive, image pasted over the top. Once word got out that the butcher cover was underneath these so-called “Trunk” copies, the race was on to find a way to remove the new image without destroying the old one. Ironically, “pasteovers” that have not been interfered with now command good prices, whereas “third state” covers (the anodyne image removed) are less valuable. An original shrink-wrap version of the original butcher cover, not tampered with either by the company or the public, now sell for multiple tens of thousands of dollars.

 

 

 

Sucker Punch (2011, dir: Zack Snyder)

If 300 is a light-hearted, cartoon-y take on hot young guys doing bloodthirsty things, then Sucker Punch is the female equivalent, a lurid modern-gothic bit of fun peopled by girls/women whose clothes are all a bit too tight, loose, skimpy or absent. But 300 is dumb shit compared to this, a mad kaleidoscopic mash-up of pop trash loosely held together by a video-game conceit: our fab five of fearless young women – Charlie’s Angels on crystal meth – are fired into one crazy situation after another (disarm the bomb, kill the dragon, defeat the Nazis etc), each situation preceded and precipitated by a dance by Baby Doll (Emily Browning) and accompanied by high-octane mixes of old school tunes by Marcus De Vries. So we get Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”, Roxy Music’s “Love Is the Drug”, among others. The effect is intoxicating, if you can take this sort of thing, possibly migraine-inducing if you can’t. Buried deep inside is an exploration of themes also handled by Lucile Hadzihalilovic in her overlooked and beautiful Innocence – the enculturation of young women. Both films, 300 and Sucker Punch, were directed by Zack Snyder, a man whose output up till this point has suggested that at his worst he’s a hack (Dawn of the Dead), at his best (flashes of this in Watchmen) a Hollywood player trying to move the artform onwards. His artform being the comic-derived, pulpy, over-caffeinated actioner. Sucker Punch is the apotheosis of this. But I haven’t mentioned the cast, apart from the always luminescent Browning – Abbie Cornish being the only one who doesn’t really fit in with Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung (Cornish too old? too above-it-all?). Nor have I mentioned that the action actually takes place on two levels of reality, up here in some kind of women’s correctional facility over which Carla Gugino presides while the girls suck air across their teeth. And then in the various rabbit holes that the plot dives down, where alter egos of the young women go to deadly work like some underdressed X-Women. We never actually see Baby Doll dance, but the idea that a young woman gyrating on a table top can create so much disruptive energy, enough to drive deadly combat, that’s brilliant. Because it entirely subverts the normal dynamics of action films, which are essentially about men giddy on heroic notions of saving the dancing girl. Here the women go to war, driven by something so powerful it cannot be shown. Unleashed by the concept, Snyder goes to work with the CG, which doesn’t even vaguely attempt to ape reality – the problem with too much CG work these days, from Pixar down. Instead he’s free to create impossible worlds where imaginary, though consistent, laws of physics hold sway. Yes, if you’re being snitty, Sucker Punch can be seen as an update of the erotic girls school or prison drama. There is a lot of lingerie. I’m not going to mount a defence of this aspect of it; I can’t. That doesn’t make the film any less brilliant. And having had the misfortune to watch Snyder’s Man of Steel, more hackwork, let’s just hope one day soon he gets back with the Sucker Punch programme instead of all this messing around with adaptations of previously existing “properties”.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great cast includes Jon Hamm, Oscar Isaac and Scott Glenn
  • Larry Fong’s intense cinematography
  • Snyder and Steve Shibuya’s inventive screenplay
  • The great Marcus de Vries/Tyler Bates soundtrack

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Sucker Punch – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The King’s Speech

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

 

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

 

 

19 June

 

Wallis Simpson born, 1896

On this day in 1896, Bessie Wallis Warfield was born in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was only a few months old and she was supported by various members of her father’s family, until her mother remarried, though it was her father’s brother who paid for her to attend Maryland’s most expensive girls school. Bright, ambitious and always well dressed, Wallis was popular and in 1916 she married a US Navy aviator, Earl Winfield Spencer Jr. An alcoholic and womaniser, her husband and Wallis had an on-off relationship with Wallis also having affairs. In December 1927 they divorced. Wallis then married Ernest Aldrich Simpson, a shipping executive, lost all her own money in the Wall Street Crash, but continued to be comfortable, thanks to her husband’s wealth. In 1931 she met Thelma, Lady Furness, who was the mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales, the heir to the British throne. As her husband’s money also started running out, Wallis was also becoming closer to the Prince and, in 1934 while Lady Furness was in New York, she took over her role as unofficial royal concubine. In 1936, the king, George V died and Edward became King Edward VIII. His relationship to the divorced Wallis (on the way to her second divorce when Prince Edward became king) caused a constitutional crisis – as head of the Church of England Edward could not marry a divorcee. Under pressure, Wallis agreed to give up the King. But the King wouldn’t give up her and abdicated his crown rather than not be with, in the slightly shocking words he used in his radio speech to the nation, “the woman I love”. Wallis and Edward married a month later, in June 1937, though were ostracised by the Royal Family. Becoming the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the couple moved around Europe, where they were constantly suspected of being Nazi sympathisers, before Edward was made the governor of the Bahamas for the duration of the war. Where they were again suspected of being Nazi sympathisers, or even spies. After the war they returned to France, where they lived for the rest of their lives. The Duke died in 1972, Wallis in 1986.

 

 

 

The King’s Speech (2010, dir: Tom Hooper)

In many ways a small and average film, The King’s Speech is lifted into another realm by its looks and its performances. The story of the man who wouldn’t be king, but who is suddenly thrust into the role by the hasty abdication of his brother, Edward VII, it’s a triumph-against-adversity tale of a stuttering king and also a tentative bromance – his relationship with the speech therapist preparing him for (jeopardy alert) the king’s big speech. These tentpoles in place, let’s take a squint at the look of the thing. Shot not in the usual sepia tones used for stories set in the past, but in bright rich colour, it also makes much of the new technology that was around at the time. In particular there’s a fetishisation of radio equipment, microphones, dials and switches. The 1930s, we see, are a staging post between the old and the modern. These people are more like us than we know.
As for the cast, Colin Firth is exquisite as the new king, Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen is a fiery ball of tenacity wrapped in fluff, a fierce terrier you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of. But it’s Geoffrey Rush who should win the plaudits, as the speech therapist whose profession requires him to establish a doctor/patient relationship, but whose bluff Australian character tends more towards the matey. His attempts to subvert or otherwise get around royal protocol are what give the film a lot of its entertainment value. Rush’s performance as a whole is majestic (if that isn’t the wrong word), so many tiny tilts of the head conveying so much withheld feeling and knowledge. Fellow Aussie Guy Pearce really isn’t bad either, as the possibly gay, certainly effete Prince Edward, a dim, self-centred, pussywhipped hedonist with few redeeming features.
Like The Queen, made four years before, The King’s Speech is unashamedly royalist. How bloody marvellous they are, these people – decent paragons of middle class values (playing with the kids before bed), humble, thrifty and so on. The film chimes entirely with our new conservative puritan age – reassuring, deferential, aspirational, apolitical, cosy. Tom Hooper’s camera catches it all with a slightly impressionistic brush but he’s not afraid to use the camera to express emotion when it’s needed – angular rooms standing in for exposition of spiky mood. Most of all Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler are to be praised for their decision to do it straight – storytelling this bold and clear isn’t anywhere near as easy as it looks.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Four Oscars, including Best Picture
  • A cast of real depth, including Michael Gambon, Jennifer Ehle and Derek Jacobi
  • Geoffrey Rush – Oscar nominated but losing to Christian Bale (for The Fighter)
  • Eve Stewart’s smart production design

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The King’s Speech – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Napoleon

Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon

 

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

 

 

18 June

 

The battle of Waterloo, 1815

On this day in 1815, the battle of Waterloo was fought, in what is now Belgium. On one side was a French army under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte, on the other the forces of the Seventh Coalition – Austria, Prussia, Russia and the UK – but most notably Prussia and the UK, under the command of the Duke of Wellington. The battle marks the end of Napoleon’s adventure in Europe, which had seen him expand the natural borders of France into Belgium, Holland, Italy and Germany, conquer and rule another set of nations around that central core (Spain, Naples, parts of Poland), and then finally strike alliances with the remaining powers in Europe (Prussia, Austria, Russia). He had abolished the Holy Roman Empire, swept away the remnants of the feudal system (which made him very popular with some people, not with others), standardised weights and measures, and expanded the libertarian aspects of the French Revolution across Europe. Back from initial exile on the isle of Elba, Napoleon had been fighting and winning a series of small battles against the Prussians and British in the previous few days as he drove towards Paris. Waterloo was the latest of them.

It didn’t last long – Napoleon had 69,000 men and attacked Wellington’s forces at noon. Wellington’s forces (67,000 men) stood firm. In the evening 48,00  Prussians arrived and broke through Napoleon’s right flank; Wellington seized the moment and thrust forward, scattering Napoleon’s forces as the went. The coalition troops continued their march on to Paris, where they restored King Louis XVIII to the French throne. Napoleon fled, originally intending to sail to the United States, but ended up surrendering himself to a British captain.

 

 

 

Napoléon (1927, dir: Abel Gance)

Abel Gance’s silent 1927 biopic about the life of one of France’s most famous sons stood, in the opinion of the New York Times in 1927, no chance of holding a candle to the man himself – “No camera is large enough to show so gigantic a figure without distorting the perspective, no lens exists with focus deep enough etc etc”. The original review continues in this manner for a while but does eventually point out that this does not mean the film is a failure. In fact James Graham’s report from the premiere in Paris heaps praise on director Abel Gance, his poetic vision, his artistry, his technical command, his avoidance of melodrama (for the most part), summing up with the verdict that the film is “a triumph of motion picture art”. Which is all very well, but had Mr Graham seen Gravity? In other words, does Gance’s Napoléon stand up today? The answer depends on the version you watch. The truncated versions, some running only 75 minutes, are simply too short, and are little more than a series of poorly connected scenes from a life. But longer versions, which clock in at anywhere from 235 to 330 minutes (yes, over five hours) justify the position on Sight & Sound’s Top 250 Films list (in the 2012 poll it’s number 144, two ahead of The Wizard of Oz). It earns that place by virtue of its technical achievement alone – Gance effectively invents CinemaScope in Napoleon, yoking together three movie cameras to shoot wide triptychs at key points of the film. The key points being the battles, of course. The film follows Napoleon from boyhood throwing snowballs at his schoolboy tormentors, shows him reinvigorating the battered French army, then on to glory after glory, culminating in his Italian campaign of 1796. The focus is on the positive – this is Napoleon the spreader of revolutionary values through Europe, not the despot who set himself up as emperor and starts aping the regimes he has just toppled. But Napoleon is maybe best seen as a prime exhibit in the case for silent film being its own art form, not some hobbled precursor to the talkies. Gance’s style is dynamic, thrusting, quick edits and fast camera movements combining to give the impression of energy and progress, the frequently tinted frames adding patriotic flag-waving scenes in red, white and blue (and sometimes all at the same time in the Polyvision sequences). As for Albert Dieudonné’s performance as Napoleon, it is as iconic as Mount Rushmore. God given is the translation of Dieudonné – you could say that about the whole film.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An entirely iconic masterpiece
  • Gance’s innovations
  • Gance’s mastery of editing
  • Albert Dieudonné’s definitive performance

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Napoleon  – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same

Zoinx (Susan Ziegler) and Jane (Lisa Haas)

 

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

 

 

17 June

 

Statue of Liberty arrives in New York, 1885

On this day in 1885, the Statue of Liberty, designed and made in France, arrived in New York. Depicting the Roman goddess of freedom Libertas, the statue was made in pieces, the first completed bits being the head and torch arm, and then shipped in crates to the USA, where the Americans had already built a pedestal in anticipation of its arrival. Its sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, had originally started work in the late 1860s on a gigantic torch-bearing statue designed to stand at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal. Nothing came of the project and Bartholdi turned his attention to the USA, noticing on his arrival by ship in New York on a scoping exercise that there was a large island perfectly poised to greet arrivals from the Old World to the New. The island was called Bedloe’s (or Bedlow’s) Island and as luck would have it was owned by the US government. The statue is hollow, being made of 90,800 kilos of copper around 2.4mm thick originally intended for anchoring to a brick pier inside. This plan changed when Bartholdi’s original structural collaborator died and Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) came on board. He decided that the statue would be better off anchored to a metal “curtain wall”. On its arrival in New York, the statue had to wait for the pedestal to be completed – fundraising had been fitful – and re-assembly didn’t start until April 1886. Work proceeded quickly and the statue was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland on 28 October 1886. The New York Daily News described it as towering “to the skies above all known statues of the present and the past”.

 

 

 

Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011, dir: Madeleine Olnek)

It’s a great title, but is Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (CLSASS) a great film? Yes, if you admire can-do spirit, wonky humour and a spaceship that appears to be made from a styrofoam burger box. Taking a twin-track approach, writer/director Madeleine Olnek drops us at the beginning of the relationship between Jane (Lisa Haas), an employee at a gift card shop, and Zoinx (Susan Ziegler), an alien who has left her home planet of Zots, possibly because she isn’t capable of corralling her feelings the way her fellow Zotsians can; though her two fellow space travellers seem to have fallen in love with each other, so who knows. Meanwhile, in a car parked around the corner, two unusual Men in Black are keeping an eye on things and having bi-curious conversations that veer between the uncomfortable and the hilarious. Made for nothing, in black and white and looking like it was shot guerrilla style, it’s faintly in the New York scavenger style of Basket Case – grungy, lots of street noise – and makes a virtue of its make-do-and-mend graphics, the Theremin on the soundtrack, all in homage to cruddy sci-fi B movies of the 1950s and 1960s. This is a frequently funny film (“the elders can perform intercourse on themselves,” we overhear) which uses aliens to make perceptive points about humans – in a conversation between two of the aliens we learn that the sea makes us humans sad, unless we are in love, in which case our whole outlook on life is so occluded (the aliens’ word) by emotion that we’re barely aware of where we are. We’re a piece of skin stretched over a bag of organs and driven by a motor of emotion, it seems. And it does seem like a good way to describe us, the bald-headed female aliens by contrast speaking in a flat matter-of-fact monotone the entire time, their gills hidden by high Elizabethan collars, their costumes looking like something run up on a sewing machine while the machinist had half an eye on a 1960s Star Trek episode. If you’re the sort of person who isn’t comfortable with gay stuff, sexual politics, modern life, don’t worry, it’s all kept very much in the background – the joke about one of the MiBs not liking cream filled donuts because he’s not comfortable with the way the cream shoots all over his face is about as knuckly as it gets.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Good, leftfield sci-fi
  • Come on – great title
  • Lisa Haas as Jane the chunky heroine
  • Great tinfoil SFX

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same  – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Splice

Come to mummy: Sarah Polley and offspring in Splice

 

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

 

 

16 June

 

Lord Byron and house guests read Fantasmagoriana, 1816

While on holiday in Switzerland in 1816, Lord Byron and his house guests grew sick of the weather of the “year without a summer”, as 1816 came to be known. Volcanic activity on the other side of the world and the historically low solar activity were precipitating famine in Europe, flooding in Asia and other weather catastrophes. But for this party it meant excessive rain, gloom and little to do. To entertain each other, they started reading a collection of German and French gothic stories called Fantasmagoriana. Published only three years earlier in French, the book contained stories with titles such as La Morte Fiancée (The Death Bride) and Le Revenant (The Revenant). The readers included Byron, Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, John William Polidori and Claire Clairmont. “We will each write a ghost story,” Mary Godwin remembers Byron commanding. And they did, Polidori writing The Vampyre, the first work of recognisable vampire fiction, while Godwin (with addenda by her future husband Shelley), inspired by the news of the great electric advance of galvanism, came up with Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus, after having “a waking dream” during which she imagined it, on 16 June.

 

 

 

Splice (2009, dir: Vincenzo Natali)

Why does RoboCop clump about like that, when he’s a cyborg who can jump great heights, has finesse when it comes to aiming a weapon and can run like a gazelle? The answer is: to remind us that he is a Frankenstein creation. Thud. No such sonic clues come from Vincenzo Natali, who spends a huge amount of time and effort distracting us from the fact that his story is about another Frankenstein creation – a hybrid human built by a nerd and his nerdy girlfriend. See, a couple, couldn’t be a Frankenstein story, could it? Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play the scientist couple and, from the first shots of a slightly overweight Polley, it’s obvious that Natali has pulled his crew in on a no-budget, last-minute, just-got-the-money-and-the-window arrangement. The weight comes and goes as the film progresses, doubtless because Natali was shooting asequentially. This is not an unfair pop at Polley, not at all. In fact it’s a hallmark of low-budget high-concept films that some or all of the actors look chubby – they’re in “downtime” and are often there to lend a name and do a friend a favour – before they go back on the punishing diets that make them lean lollipop heads. In this case Polley for a fellow Canadian, the director of the cult film Cube perhaps also having another little wonder up his sleeve. He does, with this story of scientists who splice DNA together to produce a hybrid human, incubate it, birth it, then stand back and watch as it – her, actually – develops at a freakish speed. Dren (that’s “nerd” backwards) then throws the “parents” into familiar roles – she is loving and protective, he more wary (surely he’s not asking “Is it mine?”) and in a quick succession of cute vignettes, Natali delivers the sort of “bringing up baby” film that families used to shoot on domestic Super 8, but here is caught on the brightest, most aseptic film stock.
Except this isn’t a “big aah” home movie; it’s a horror film, and what the couple have actually created is something that becomes more terrifying by the day. Dren grows at speed, letting on that she can breathe underwater at one point (there are other revelations, in spoiler territory) and subtly shifting her allegiances – as the scientists’ “little girl” arrives at puberty she falls for dad, starts to see mother as a rival (hello Doctor Freud). To reveal how it all pans out would destroy the fun of watching it, but as Splice moves towards its finale, it never quite ties up all the ideas it has let loose en route. Maybe that’s because the ethics of scientific experimentation on animal or human forms resists easy good/bad categorisation. Fixing a wonky heart is good; growing a second head isn’t. But if you can ignore that, and its generic running-around ending, this is a fabulous looking film, the two leads live up to their billing, as does Delphine Chaneac (yes, it’s a human being playing Dren, amazingly) and there has been a fascinating examination of what it means to be a human. It’s all about love, apparently. Well, it might be.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • There’s never a dull film from Vincenzo Natali, director of Cube
  • Tetsuo Nagata’s bright clean cinematography
  • Delphine Chaneac’s amazingly lithe performance
  • The remarkable effects work – CG and physical

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Splice – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood

 

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

 

 

15 June

 

King John “signs” Magna Carta, 1215

On this day in 1215, the king of England put his seal to Magna Carta (the Great Charter) at Runnymede, near Windsor, England. It is in effect a bill of rights, one forced on the king by feudal barons unhappy with the levels of taxation, John’s abysmal record when it came to fighting wars and his supine relationship to the Pope. Designed as part of a powerplay to unseat the king, it proposes limits to the power of the king, making that power more contractual in nature, and denies the king the power to act arbitrarily – he must act according to the law of the land. The late judge Lord Denning, who was given to grandiloquent pronouncement, once called it “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.” As soon as the barons had withdrawn from Runnymede, having got the agreement of the king, John renounced the most onerous passage of the charter (known now as Clause 61 – granting barons the right to seize the king’s properties, if necessary). The Pope also declared the Magna Carta null and void – how could a king chosen by God, sanctioned by the Church, be tethered? The Barons went to war against the king, during which struggle the king would die, of dysentery, while on the campaign trail. His successor, the nine-year-old Henry III, would be forced into re-issuing Magna Carta (now reduced from 61 to 42 clauses and with the seizure clause removed) in an attempt to remove the casus bellum. It worked, and a version of Magna Carta passed into law.

 

 

 

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, dir: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley)

In spite of the efforts of Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, it is the 1938 version of the story of Robin Hood that remains the one to beat. And, watching the Scott/Crowe film, you can see that they know it. Everything that the 1938 film does one way the 2010 film does another – Errol Flynn wears cloth, Crowe wears chainmail; Flynn sings his lines, Crowe grunts; Flynn is an air spirit, Crowe earth. I could go on, but let’s focus on the original, an “only in Hollywood” number made with wide-eyed sincerity and brilliant technique, shot in the most lustrous Technicolor and starring Errol Flynn, the Australian whose thighs alone would have won him the role (and to think James Cagney was meant to play Hood). Both Flynn and Technicolor were new to Hollywood, Flynn having become a star three years earlier with Captain Blood, followed by The Charge of Light Brigade. Casting is in fact this film’s great strength: Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, radiating wholesomeness and virtue; Basil Rathbone’s scheming Guy of Gisbourne; Claude Rains’s despotic Prince John. Even the merry men – Patric Knowles’s goodly Will Scarlett and Eugene Pallette’s Friar Tuck. Pallette’s Tuck is still the gold standard Friar, as Flynn is the gold standard Robin Hood. And what a lot of plot the film effortlessly compresses into its 100 minutes or so running time – from Robin Hood’s origins, to getting the band of followers together, to the love business between Hood and Marian, to the big swashbuckling finish in the castle, it’s the sort of thing that Peter Jackson would undoubtedly manage to stretch out to three three-hour films. Why does it all work so well? The casting, the brilliance and the economy of writing, the technical skill on display, they’re all important, not forgetting the music of Erich Korngold, whose pioneering style is still being copied by the Hans Zimmers and John Williamses and James Newton Howards of today. But it’s the way the film plays to the back row of the cinema, an upward tilt of the head here, a big bold gesture (Hood dumping a stag on the Prince John’s table, the splitting of the arrow scene), the swordplay, the swinging on ropes, all lit brightly and cleanly so it’s obvious what’s going on. And because, paradoxically perhaps for a film that is cod medieval to its plywood backdrops, the film has a mythic quality that unites it in some way with the lost legends going all the way back to the Green Man of English antiquity, where the just-about plausible and the surely supernatural jostle for precedence. We’re in no doubt either, which side Flynn’s Robin Hood is on – no dark psychological backstory for him, no issues with his parents, no “wrestling his demons” bullshit. How boring would that be? For answer to that question, see the Scott/Crowe film.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Technicolor – one of the best examples of it ever
  • Errol Flynn, still lithe, bright and handsome
  • Its superb support cast
  • Erich Korngold’s score

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Adventures of Robin Hood – Watch it now at Amazon