eXistenZ

Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh in eXistenZ

 

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

 

 

14 June

 

Charles Babbage’s difference engine, 1822

On this day in 1822, Charles Babbage presented a paper to the British Royal Astronomical Society. It was called “Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables”. What he was proposing was, in effect a mechanical computer. First conceived in 1786 by JH Müller, an engineer in the Hessian army, the difference engine was of interest to governments because it allowed them to produce tables (of whatever sort – tides, for instance) much more economically. To this end, in 1823 the British government gave Babbage £1,700 to make his engine. By 1842 they had given him more than £17,000 and there still was no machine. Partly this was because Babbage got bogged down in the detail, partly because he’d moved on to another project (the analytical engine) and partly because it was difficult, using the technology of the day, to work to the tolerances that the difference engine required. The difference engine  was only completed in 1991, with the ancillary printer (Babbage’s plan was to print direct from the machine, avoiding the errors introduced by typesetters – another astonishing concept) only finished in 2000. Both machines worked perfectly.

 

 

 

eXistenZ (1999, dir: David Cronenberg)

You used to know what you were getting with David Cronenberg. Generally roaming the territory where technological and the human body intersected, to gruesome effect, his films such as Videodrome, Scanners, Dead Ringers, Crash and The Fly all featured people being subject to what became known as “body horror”. These days Cronenberg has broadened his range to make fragrant delights such as the Jung/Freud costume drama A Dangerous Method, but back in the day “body horror” and Cronenberg were pretty much synonymous, even though other people (such as Shin’ya Tsukamoto, with his Tetsuo films) were wading in the same water. What make eXistenZ interesting is that it’s effectively his last gambol through the ooze where metal meets flesh, a fun bit of sci-fi about a computer game virgin being inveigled by the creator of a video game creator into “testing” it for her. Jude Law plays the neophyte, Ted, Jennifer Jason Leigh is Allegra, the uberprogrammer whose dabblings in the territory some say is reserved for God have earned her a fatwa from fundamentalist “Realists”. And of course Allegra has more in mind for the slightly blank Ted than just quickly going through the motions. They enter the reality of eXistenZ, a computer program so vivid that it feels and looks, even tastes, like another world. “Reality is all a construct” is the big idea, lifted from philosophy and worked into … I was going to say a meditation, but in fact Cronenberg is more turning the idea this way and that, seeing which way the light bounces off it most acutely. So after Law and Leigh enter the game they end up at a Chinese restaurant, where they order the special and it turns out to be very special indeed – strong stomach warning. From here Cronenberg takes us to the “gristle gun” scene, in which Law constructs a weapon out of body parts, an echo of the “bioport” we’ve already been introduced to (like a USB socket straight into the small of the back), a foretaste of the bullet in Allegra’s shoulder which turns out to be a tooth. As I said, there’s a rough and ready aspect to Cronenberg’s first entirely original screenplay since Videodrome, which was prompted by the ructions over Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, and the subsequent fatwa that put its author under a death sentence. But if it started in Cronenberg’s mind as an exploration of fundamentalism and relativism, it soon morphed into prime cuts of organic tech fantasy. Released around the same time as The Matrix, its special effects and its conceptual reach pale in comparison with the Wachowskis’, but Cronenberg’s film is ageing well, and in any case when you’ve got so much yucky content, who wants to see it all pin sharp? Enjoy.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A good cast – feisty Jennifer Jason Leigh, detached Jude Law
  • The slick trick ending
  • Ian Holm, Christopher Eccleston and Sarah Polley in the support cast
  • Carol Spier’s carnal production design

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

eXistenZ – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Shorts

Jimmy Bennett and Kat Dennings in Shorts

 

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

 

 

13 June

 

Kat Dennings born, 1986

On this day in 1986, Katherine Litwack was born in Philadelphia to a scientist father and a speech therapist/poet mother. Home-schooled, she graduated high school aged 14, four years after her first acting role in a commercial. By age 13 she’d turned up in an episode of Sex and the City, then had supporting roles in films of increasing weight until she got her own starring role in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, alongside Michael Cera. Bright and feisty, since then she’s specialised in the sort of girl who can go from geek to goddess with subtle shift of eyewear (see the Thor films), which can be put down to her pale skin (she refuses to tan) or to her reluctance to go down the obligatory blonde route.

 

 

 

Shorts (2009, dir: Robert Rodriguez)

A nerdy kid called Toe Thompson finds a magic wish machine, possibly left on earth by an alien civilisation, and sets about improving his life, starting by messing with the kids of his parents’ awful employer (played with a cackle by James Spader). Made by Robert Rodriguez in an ADHD style familiar from the Spy Kids films, this CG-heavy fantasy with a strong 1960s Disney vibe is aimed squarely at young teenagers, or younger, and also has something for any adult who occasionally just enjoys watching someone work who loves what they do. Rodriguez is having tons of fun with the technology, as our tweeny hero discovers what his wishing rock (The Adventures of the Wishing Rock is the film’s alternative name) can do – giant frankfurters, pterodactyls, crocodiles on their back legs, snot that grows to giant size. It’s not so much a story, more a series of sketches, which Rodriguez further fractures by shifting the chronology. This allows him to concentrate on (special) effects, rather than consequences, as the wishing rock is passed from hand to hand, wreaking magical havoc as it goes. There’s also a loaded critique of modern life – it’s all set in a wealthy suburb where parents don’t communicate with their children, where the local employer is a Steve Jobs-like computer tyrant determined to find the ultimate upgrade for his all-purpose black box called the Black Box. Meanwhile, lurking, is William H Macy as a scientist so obsessed with germs that he’s brought his son up in a bubble. Is this what we were trying to build? Is this how we want to live – isolated, obsessed with gadgets, risk averse, out of touch with our natural environment? The fact that Rodriguez is delivering this message via the medium of a massively technological film that must have been made almost entirely in post production is something the viewer is going to have to deal with. And it’s true that there’s very little characterisation here, beyond the level you’d find in your average cartoon, and the storyline is so thin it isn’t really there at all. But at the level of fun and mad ideas, Shorts works entirely, with Rodriguez using his adults (Macy and Spader are joined by Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer) well, his children better – look out for Jolie Vanier in a “watch this face” mini-me Christina Ricci performance as a girl called Helvetica Black (Hell for short). As I write, Shorts is pulling a majestic 5.0 on the imdb ratings, less than the pointless fantasy flick Eragon or the cringe-inducing Cats & Dogs. That’s just wrong.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The good cast includes Kat Dennings, James Spader and Leslie Mann
  • The ker-ay-zee CG effects
  • That Robert Rodriguez energy
  • It’s for the inner eight year old

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Shorts – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Good Bye Lenin!

Daniel Brühl

 

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

 

 

12 June

 

Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech, 1987

On this day in 1987, US president Ronald Reagan made a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, where the Berlin Wall erected in 1961 by the Soviets bisected the city, making the Wall and Berlin the symbol of the Cold War. The speech was made in honour of Berlin’s 750th anniversary and in a climate of increasing openness and freedom in the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc. The speech has a famous peroration “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” It was aimed partly at the leader of the Soviet Union, mostly at the world’s media and was a rhythmic and political echo of President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech made in 1963 just after the Berlin Wall had gone up. The line was either written by speechwriter Peter Robinson, and approved by Reagan in the face of opposition by his White House staff (according to Robinson), or it was added by Reagan himself to Robinson’s speech (according to Reagan’s chief speechwriter, Anthony R Dolan). Either way, just over two years later, the Wall was torn down, by people from East Germany rather than Mr Gorbachev.

 

 

 

Good Bye Lenin! (2003, dir: Wolfgang Becker)

A mother (Katrin Sass) in East Berlin in the days before the Wall comes down, sees her son Alex (Daniel Brühl) being beaten on TV by the police. The shock provokes some embolism, aneurysm, something, and she falls into a deep coma. While she’s out of the game, the Wall comes down, Communism ends, East Berlin is reunited with the West. Then, wonder of wonders, she recovers, though the doctors warn Alex that the slightest shock could kill her. And so begins a farce, in which the son tries make as if it’s still business as usual for the old regime, of which she was a fanatical supporter. As the old East Berlin is flooded with shiny new products from the capitalist West, Alex is forced into increasingly desperate corners trying to find the drab old stuff that his mother recognises, going dumpster diving to find discarded products, old East-bloc tat. And, a touch of luck this, Alex works selling satellite systems, so has access to the technology to make his own bogus, Communist-style news broadcasts, which he feeds directly to his mother at home.

Eventually, after increasingly frantic running around, of course the mother confronts the son with something he can’t explain – and then, as in all farces, we watch as the bait squirms on the hook. It’s the abundant adverts for Coca Cola, in Alex’s case. And how he explains it is a mark of the film’s success – it’s funny, clever, and sort of just about plausible. And it gives the film a third act.

Good Bye Lenin! is the key film in the cultural moment that came after the initial flush of liberation had waned and former East Germans were beginning to make an objective appraisal of what they now had, and what they had lost. This “Ostalgia” manifested itself often in kitsch ways – filthy old Trabant cars were suddenly cool again, as were tight T shirts emblazoned with GDR. And within only a few years it was gone – see The Lives of Others for a film that effectively said to the Ostalgiacs, “now just hang on a minute”. Cleverly having its cake and eating it, Good Bye Lenin! works whether the viewer has close knowledge of the workings of East Berlin under communism and regardless of political viewpoint because at its simplest it’s a comedy about generational change, and because jokes about hiding stuff from your mother is something that most of us can relate to. And because to a large extent our past, good or bad, is our identity, and that psychological knot is something we can all recognise too.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Rip Van Winkle updated
  • Recent history done with a light touch
  • An early appearance of Daniel Brühl (Rush)
  • The key Ostalgia movie

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Good Bye Lenin! –  at Amazon

 

 

 

 

American Gangster

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in American Gangster

 

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

 

 

11 June

 

John F Kennedy proposes the Civil Rights Act, 1963

On this day in 1963, the US president, John F Kennedy addressed the nation. In his speech he called for legislation with would give all Americans “the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public – hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores and similar establishments”. He also called for equality before the law when it came to voting. His proposals would outlaw discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin and effectively sounded the death knell for racial segregation – in buses, diners, schools, wherever. The US Constitution’s 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, guaranteeing equal protection under the law, had ventured into the same territory but it took the Civil Rights Act to finally make the change which made it illegal to treat African Americans (which is what both the 14th Amendment and Civil Rights Act were really all about) as second class citizens. The bill was written up and sent to Congress on 19 June, where it was reinforced. It then got bogged down on a procedural technicality in October in the House of Representatives, where the intention of some delegates was to keep it on ice indefinitely. The assassination of the president on 22 November 1963 made this blocking strategy untenable after the astute new president, Lyndon Johnson, in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, said “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” Johnson had his way, though there were still compromises before the bill was finally, tortuously signed into law on 2 July 1964.

 

 

 

American Gangster (2007, dir.: Ridley Scott)

What do Civil Rights mean for a black man? In director Ridley Scott’s slightly cheeky hands they mean the liberty to do just what everyone else has been doing, and that includes becoming a drugs kingpin. And the more you think of it, there has been a dearth of black drug lords on the screens – two-bit hustlers on street corners, plenty. That’s not the only thing going on in this fascinating drama starring Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, the Harlem heroin dealer importing drugs into the country on planes coming back from Vietnam, a smart guy on the rise; Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the honest (and therefore reviled by his fellows) cop on his case, the two men locked together in a dance towards the volcano’s edge. If that sounds entirely like your standard-issue cops’n’mobsters set-up, that’s exactly what American Gangster is, an exercise in stylistic pastiche. But it is a hell of an exercise. Running its twin-track stories in parallel – the gentleman gangster who’s good to his mother; the troubled cop who’s good to nobody, not even his “it’s me or the job” woman (Carla Gugino) – Ridley carefully builds the story, holding off a meeting of the two key players until near the end. This is one of those big finale showdowns, in which Washington and Crowe have one of those tense, long, actorly scenes that writers like, stars love and audiences tolerate. On the way to it, Scott gives Scorsese a soft pedal, though Frank Lucas’s mob-boss mom is a lift straight out of Goodfellas (is it any surprise to discover that Goodfellas writer Nicholas Pileggi is one of the executive producers?). Scott goes a bit harder on The French Connection  – that soft hazy, 60s/70s visual style is accurately captured, there’s a soundtrack straight from the Lalo Schifrin/Curtis Mayfield school of funky jazzy cool. You say derivative, I say homage. Whichever it is, Scott does it right, his actors and technicians do him proud and an intriguing story is told – a true one too – of a nobody who became a somebody by running a drugs empire the way you might run a department store (keep the staff and the customers happy). In the America of the Civil Rights era, the idea is, for the black man who wants a piece of the American Dream, this is one of the few ways to make that happen.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Steve Zaillian’s smart, incident-rich screenplay
  • The period look of Harris Savides’s cinematography
  • Marc Streitenfeld’s score
  • The muscular Washington/Crowe pairing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

American Gangster – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Lost Weekend

Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend

 

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

 

 

10 June

 

Dr Robert Smith takes his last drink, 1935

On this day in 1935, an alcoholic doctor called Bob Smith took his last drink. He was 56 at the time and had been drinking heavily since he was a college student, checking himself into drying out clinics periodically in an attempt to kick the habit. He had drunk through Prohibition, thanks to his access to medical alcohol and the profusion of bootleggers. And he’d drunk through nearly 20 years of his wife’s attempts to get him to cut down or stop drinking. It was his wife who encouraged him to attend meetings of the Oxford Group, a Christian organisation that believed in personal responsibility and moral re-armament. It was here that Smith met Bill Wilson, a “recovering alcoholic” (to lock into the language of the almost universally accepted paradigm) who had helped a number of people give up booze. As a result of talking to Wilson, Smith gave up drinking, relapsed badly, had a few drinks on 9 June to stop the shakes. Then, on the morning of 10 June he had a beer to steady his hand while he performed an operation. It was the last drink he would take. The two men, known as Dr Bob and Bill W, went on to found Alcoholics Anonymous.

 

 

 

The Lost Weekend (1954, dir: Billy Wilder)

Ray Milland’s finest hour is also one of the best films about addiction ever made. Milland plays the writer who tries to ease his way out of writer’s block by easing his way into a bottle of hooch. Except he’s not drinking just one or two; he’s the sort who goes on gigantic benders, “bats”, as he calls them, a word that will later take on a more sinister hallucinogenic hue. The action opens at the New York apartment Milland’s Don Birnam shares with his brother Wick (Phillip Terry). And from the look on Wick’s face as he announces that he’s going away for a few days, we know that he’s expecting Don to hit the sauce as soon as his restraining presence is out of the way. Even though Wick has found and disposed of Don’s hidden stash, Don does, on money he steals from the cleaning lady, leading to a weekend of drunkenness and degradation that is mortifying to watch. Billy Wilder and writing partner Charles Brackett inject a devilish glee into most everything they do. In The Lost Weekend it manifests itself in the way that they keep shooting bottles and glasses as if they were beguiling sirens calling Don to his doom.

The film so concerned temperance groups that they petitioned the studios not to release it. They were worried that a depiction of a man driven to the very edge by his excessive drinking would somehow encourage drinking. And in the blue corner there was the drinks industry, who offered Paramount $5 million to destroy the negative. Paramount wavered and Wilder’s pleas to release the film eventually won them over. What the critics, who raved over it, and the public got was an impeccably crafted work, the black and white cinematography by John Seitz running from deep focus naturalism to wonky expressionism as Don Birnam slides towards the chasm. It’s a sparsely populated film – the bottle is Don’s real concern, not other people – the characters who stand out being those who come between him and his true love. Apart from Phillip Terry as the concerned brother, we meet Jane Wyman as the supportive girlfriend convinced that Don is sick, Howard Da Silva as the barman whose say-so gets Don a drink, and Frank Faylen as a tough orderly at the drying-out tank where Don ends up. Certainly Milland never produced a finer performance, fictionally channelling Wilder’s real concerns about the drinking of Raymond Chandler (Wilder and Chandler had worked together on Double Indemnity) into a compassionate portrayal of a man who’s bright, smart but fatally weak.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The Wilder/Brackett screenplay
  • Milland’s best (some say his only) performance
  • John Seitz’s groundbreaking cinematography
  • Another great Miklos Rozsa score

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Lost Weekend – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

High Society

Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Louis Calhern in High Society

 

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

 

 

9 June

 

Cole Porter born, 1891

On this day in 1891, the songwriter Cole Porter was born. The only child of wealthy parents – his mother was the daughter of “the richest man in Indiana” – Porter showed early signs of musical precocity and was writing songs from the age of ten. Later, at Yale, where he studied English, music and French, he wrote 300 songs and several musical comedies. Moving on to Harvard to study law (his rich grandfather’s wish) he continued to write prolifically and eventually switched from the study of law to music, though he didn’t tell his grandfather. In Europe during the First World War, he met and married a rich divorcee, Linda Lee Thomas, in spite of being homosexual. They remained married until her death in 1954. On his grandfather’s death in 1923 Porter came into serious money. After an extended stay living in luxury in Europe, Porter returned to the USA. He had his first Broadway hit, Paris, in 1928, and continued producing Broadway hit shows and writing for Hollywood until the late 1950s. A riding accident in 1937 – his horse rolled on him, crushing his legs – meant he was in pain for the rest of his life and to some extent he worked to keep his mind off the pain. Unusual in that he wrote both tune and words for his songs, Porter’s work was marked out from the start by sophisticated wordplay, syncopated rhythms, clever rhymes and cheek – “Good authors, too, who once knew better words/Now only use four-letter words/Writing prose…/Anything goes – and his songs summon up the interwar years of increasing confidence and wealth, and of knowledge of the world beyond the window. His songs continue to be popular – Night and Day, Let’s Do It, Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.

 

 

 

High Society (1956, dir: Charles Walters)

High Society was almost the last thing Cole Porter wrote for Hollywood. It contains his last hit song, True Love, and as everybody knows is an adaptation of The Philadelphia Story. It’s not as good as The Philadelphia Story, lacking its wit and zip, but then how many films are? Instead it has Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Crosby had been the most famous voice in popular music until Sinatra stole his crown – “Frank is a singer who comes along once in a lifetime; but why did he have to come in mine?” Bing once famously joked. They are an interesting “as in life, so in art” pairing because they’re playing warring males whose chests swell every time Grace Kelly walks into the room. She’s the ice queen about to get married to a stiff (this thankless role going to John Lund), Bing is the ex husband, Frank the cocky reporter hoping for some harmless fluffy society gossip and snaps. There’s a waxwork torpidity to Sinatra and Crosby while they’re speaking, as if trying to outdo each other for nonchalance, but when they sing all the bells ring – their duet of Well Did You Evah (Porter rhyming “elegant” with “swellegant”) is one of the defining Hollywood musical numbers, as corny as it is witty. The support players do seem to have remembered that The Philadelphia Story was an acid satire, as well as a romantic comedy – so thanks to underused Broadway star Celeste Holm as Sinatra’s reporter sidekick, and former matinee idol Louis Calhern as the womanising inebriate Uncle Willie. There’s also Louis Armstrong, playing himself – that’s how high a society it is, when the bride’s father can get in the world’s most famous jazzman as entertainment – and Armstrong gets a couple of numbers too, including Now You Has Jazz (with Crosby) a showcase for the talents of his hot sextet, Satchmo’s scat singing. Ignore the fact that Armstrong is one of the creators of jazz and that Bing’s arm on his shoulder looks awfully like a patronising one (I don’t think it is but it’s there), he is an inspired addition to a film which works best when there’s a song on the lips of the cast – Frank’s duet with Celeste Holm of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, Bing’s duet with Grace Kelly of True Love. It’s a rich, plush, lush affair, full of orchestra, bright with Technicolor colours, and that’s Prince Rainier’s engagement ring you can see twinkling on Grace Kelly’s hand. This was her final film before sailing off to a regal life in the South of France. It’s that kind of film.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Bing and Frank
  • Louis Armstrong on top form
  • Last chance to see Grace Kelly (and Louis Calhern)
  • The great Cole Porter soundtrack

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

High Society – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

A Prophet

Niels Arestrup and Tahar Rahim in A Prophet

 

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

 

 

8 June

 

Death of the prophet Muhammad, 632

On this day in AD632 (10 AH), Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Adb Allah ibn Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim, aka Muhammad (spellings vary), died aged 62 or 63. Muslims consider Muhammad to be the last prophet sent by God to restore the original faith of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Until the age of 40 he had lived a comparatively normal life – a married man with a job – but after receiving a visit from the angel Gabriel (Jibril) he started preaching the word of God, in particular that it was important to surrender or submit (the Arabic word for that being “islam”) to the Almighty. In a comparatively short time – between the revelation and his death was just over two decades – Muhammad managed to convert all the tribes of the Arabian peninsula to Islam, the decisive event being his march on Mecca with 10,000 men, which he seized with comparative ease in a near bloodless battle. Shortly afterwards Muhammad died.

 

 

 

A Prophet (2009, dir: Jacques Audiard)

At around two and a half hours, this isn’t a short film, but there’s not an ounce of fat on it – every minute tells us something new, cranks up the tension just a little bit more. It’s a prison drama with a difference. Two differences, in fact. We’re in a French prison with Malik (Tahar Rahim) a young guy in prison for an assault on a cop. He says he didn’t do it. He’s wet behind the ears and is subjected to the usual bullying, but over the years he works his way up from being a nobody to king of the hill. Standard stuff. A cliché, on paper.

The two differences are the fact that Malik is a Muslim (and his religion has a role to play), and there’s a touch of magic realism too, in the shape of the convict he murders early on to earn his stripes coming back to visit him, standing silently in his cell. The murder is worth mentioning, because it’s a bloody brutal affair which Malik is ordered to carry out by Corsican crime boss César (Niels Arestrup) the Mr Big Malik is eventually going to depose – though neither of them can see that one coming. César has chosen Malik as his hitman, green as he is, because he has a liking for his pretty looks and probably wants to get a hold on him in more ways than one. From this unremarkable and very familiar beginning, director/co-writer Jacques Audiard spins a brilliant story, where every character has weight, actions have consequences, where there’s a real sense of Malik playing a very long game to get to the top, and where César is eventually outflanked not by an act of prison barbarity, but by Malik’s superior intellect and learning. There are nifty paradoxes too – the brutal murder Malik carries out being the catalyst he didn’t know he was waiting for, the few short minutes he spends with his unwitting victim infusing him with an understanding of the purpose of life. The murder most ugly is a humanising event.

Arestrup, never a bad performance and particularly good here, is all eyes and tiny gestures, a hard cold wily man used to life at the top. For his part Tahar Rahim is good in a much harder role, turning from a total blank slate (he can neither read or write when he arrives in prison) into a man of education, worldliness and power. Knowledge as power. An Arab man as a hero. Intellect rather than brute force winning out in a prison drama. Audiard, who performed similarly remarkable acts of subversion in his two previous films, The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Read My Lips, does it again with A Prophet, a contender for the best film of its year.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The two lead performances by Niels Arestrup and Tahar Rahim
  • Best film of the year? Arguably
  • Stéphane Fontaine’s distinctive cinematography
  • A great rock and rap soundtrack

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

A Prophet – Watch now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Million Dollar Hotel

Milla Jovovich in The Million Dollar Hotel

 

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

 

 

7 June

 

Groundbreaking of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1993

On this day in 1993, the groundbreaking ceremony of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame took place, in Cleveland, Ohio. It was attended by Pete Townshend, Chuck Berry, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), Dave Gardner (the Coasters), Billy Joel, Sam Phillips, Ruth Brown and Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum). The hall had been proposed in 1983 by Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, with a view to capturing an ephemeral art form – or of confirming that rock and roll wasn’t ephemeral at all, take your pick – and the first “exhibits” in the museum had been inducted in 1986. Originally inductees would belong to one of four categories: performers, non-performers, early influences and lifetime achievement. “Sidemen” were added in 2000. In year one Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley were inducted. Since then fewer have been admitted – Aretha Franklin arrived in 1987, the Beatles in 1988, John Lee Hooker in 1991, Janis Joplin in 1995, Parliament-Funkadelic in 1997, Michael Jackson in 2001, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in 2007, Abba in 2010, Donna Summer in 2013. Evidently, the induction committee’s definition of “Rock and Roll” is a broad one.

 

 

 

The Million Dollar Hotel (2000, dir: Wim Wenders)

Now here is a film entirely in thrall to the rock thang. Directed by Wim Wenders, who was born in 1945 – being born during the Second World War makes you the prime rock demographic – it has a story by Bono, of U2 fame, and is entirely fixated with rock’s regular obsessions: madness, freaks, the Man and the idea that the good guys are in fact really the bad guys. It has an issue with authority. It is in essence an Agatha Christie whodunit with every element bent out of shape, starting with Mel Gibson as a cop investigating a murder at a hotel populated almost entirely by weirdoes. Gibson’s Detective Skinner wears a back and neck brace. Because, we learn, of complications after surgery to remove a third arm growing out of his back. Of course. Skinner is trying to find who killed a billionaire’s son, played by Tim Roth for the few seconds he’s in the film before he tumbles to his death from the hotel roof. Did he jump or was he pushed? Wenders seems more interested in the characters in the hotel than with getting to the end of any process. But then it’s the Wenders way. So we meet Tom Tom (Jeremy Davies) an ADHD narrator tailing Skinner as he makes his enquiries. We meet Peter Stormare as a Beatles obsessive with a weird Liverpudlian accent. And most importantly we meet Milla Jovovich’s Eloise, a bookworm with a heart – she provides a cool if blank centre around which the film revolves. On the carousel are a group of fringe dwellers, the sort of actors we expect in a film like this – Bud Cort, Amanda Plummer, Jimmy Smits, Richard Edson, Julian Sands, Tom Bower. And the occasional one we really don’t – Gloria Stuart, nudging 90 when this was made and fresh from Titanic. It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? And it did get a fairly comprehensive pasting by the critics when it came out. But I think there is something more going on here than a middle-aged director making a “like, wow, man, the lunatics have, like, taken over the asylum” flick with a middle age rock star’s money. To some extent this is exactly what it seems, an indulgent celebration of the fringe. But rock wasn’t at the cultural fringe when this was made, except in the wild rock-stadium dreams of Bono, perhaps. It was increasingly an old guy’s game. And here we are in LA, the city without a centre, shot carefully by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael to show the cracks and the degradation, while Wenders adopts the stance and riffs hard on death, decay, anomie and nothingness. A very odd film, that might well need reappraisal.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Shot at the hotel on the roof of which U2 shot the video for “Where the Streets Have No Name”
  • The excellent soundtrack – Jon Hassell, Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno all contributing
  • Phedon Papamichael’s moody cinematography
  • Mel Gibson in a neck brace, in a film he described as “boring as a dog’s ass” – and he part-financed it

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Million Dollar Hotel  – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

9 June 2014-06-09

Casey Affleck in Out of the Furnace

 

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

The Past (Artificial Eye, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

After Fireworks Wednesday and A Separation, something more muted from Asghar Farhadi, a drama set in France rather than Iran as the previous two were, about Marie (Bérénice Bejo) a beautiful but flighty woman finally giving the kiss-off to ex-husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) while lining up a new man, Samir (Tahar Rahim, the lead in A Prophet). It sounds like a soap and it’s undeniable that Farhadi’s genius knack for naturalism seems to have slightly abandoned him this time. What makes The Past still unmissable is the devious plotting – the ex seems like such a nice guy, the new man like a bit of a brute, and he’s got a comatose wife to factor into the equation, and the reason why she’s comatose in the first place… ay ay ay. Farhadi is also doing something really unusual with the form. Dramas are all, pretty much always, about what happens next, the forward movement. The Past is about being stuck, held by the past, held by our commitments and feelings. In a world where we are consistently being told that living in the moment is the most important thing there is, Farhadi’s film quietly, powerfully disagrees.

The Past – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Lone Survivor (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A two hour war film set in Afghanistan with a one-hour central sequence that functions like a film within a film. That’s the bit where Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch are attacked by the Taliban and their bodies are subjected to disintegrating attack by sustained bullet onslaught. It’s an astonishing sequence, long, brutal, bloody and ugly, with few words spoken apart from “ow, fuck” as another bullet hits meat and bone. Director Peter Berg wants to show us something else as well: how situations like these turn even highly trained men desperate, disoriented, panicky. He entirely succeeds. So sit out the standard war-movie introduction to the guys, all the usual big-bollocked swaggerers, and also indulge the last half hour set in an Afghan village, which is there because the story is a true one, though it doesn’t help the film very much. Tobias Schliessler’s cinematography is bright and clear and gorgeous, and he and Berg even give us the odd “Malick moment”, backlit grasses glowing in the sun against which the bloodshed looks even more gruesome.

Lone Survivor – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Out of the Furnace (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The visual equivalent of one of those Bruce Springsteen blue-collar laments, Out of the Furnace is chocker with acting talent and was clearly intended for great things. However, it didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. It is, once it’s declared itself, a revenge thriller with an almost insane amount of set-up. This would be unbearable if the set-up wasn’t handled so well, at a steady pace it refuses to be deviated from. Plot: Christian Bale is the solid working guy trying to keep fiery dim brother Casey Affleck out of trouble. But Affleck is in bigger trouble than he knows because his bare-knuckle fights for much-needed cash are about to take him into the orbit of Woody Harrelson – a very very dark Harrelson at that. The acting is of a piece with the rhythm and looks of the film: steady, sure, just a tiny bit heightened, with Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard all easily as good as the leads. But it’s Harrelson who steals the film as a thug with extreme animal cunning in this mesmerising 1970s-flavoured drama of extreme Americana that sets out to simmer rather than cook.

Out of the Furnace – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Vanishing Waves (Autonomy, cert 18, DVD/digital)

Also known as Aurora, this Tarkovsky-flavoured Lithuanian sci-fi drama asks big questions about memory and identity – see Solaris for more on that. It gets its hooks in early, in a portentous opening sequence in which a black screen is displayed as scientists in voiceover discuss the dangers of messing about in the neural networks of the brain. Which is exactly where guinea-pig Lukas (Marius Jampolskis) journeys, once he’s strapped on an electrode-covered skullcap and lowered himself into a float tank, Altered States style. What he finds inside his own head is a woman (Jurga Jataite), a gorgeous one he is soon doing all sorts of pleasurable things with. The film, meanwhile, is taking us on a journey to the overwrought end of sci-fi, wrapped in a fatalistic love story with extra helpings of doom. They get a bit slow here and there, these neural meetings between him and her, but back in the lab the pace is quicker, actions have real consequences and there’s even a bit of enjoyment to be had from the actors talking English, which some of them appear to reading phonetically. It’s an unusual film, worth watching at the very least for its occasional moments of sheer visual virtuosity – wait for the remarkable, visionary “running” sequence towards the end of the film. Tarkovsky would probably approve.

Vanishing Waves – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Cuban Fury (StudioCanal, cert 15, digital)

So here’s Nick Frost, usually Simon Pegg’s sidekick (Pegg does put in a tiny cameo) breaking out on his own, playing a fat loser who is shaken out of his torpor by the arrival of an attractive woman (Rashida Jones) at work. Outgunned at every level by the office lothario (Chris O’Dowd, funny) he reaches back into his traumatic past for the tools to woo her, having discovered she attends salsa classes. He, you see, was a junior dance champ who bottled it in the … enough plot already. All you need to know is that this very familiar looking story isn’t bending itself into weird shapes trying to hide the fact. But it has no real heart, uses clever camerawork to hide Frost’s lack of expert dance skills, leaves four key characters (including Rashida Jones, most unforgivably) as sketchy presences and is badly paced too. If it makes it to the finish line with at least one thumb up, then that’s because of Nick Frost’s sheer blokey likeability.

Cuban Fury – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Robocop (StudioCanal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

José Padilha made Elite Squad, a film about a no-shit police force in Rio De Janeiro kicking the favelas into shape. So he looks like the man to direct this remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic about a police force composed of stern hi-tech robots. It’s an origins story, with Joel Kinnaman (of the Swedish thriller Easy Money – worth hunting out) as the cop who becomes a hybrid robot after an explosion separates most of his body from his upper torso. This stuff, the nuts and bolts of putting together a cyborg, with Gary Oldman as the decent scientist in charge and Michael Keaton as his money-grabbing boss, this is all highly satisfying. Less convincing is the relationship between RoboCop and his wife, Abbie Cornish again playing the wilting female, something she’s not very good at. Even less satisfying is the film’s refusal to take on board the fact that, in the 27 years since Verhoeven’s film, the surveillance society has arrived so any satire about all-seeing law enforcement needs to acknowledge that fact. And even more distressing is Padilha’s command of the action sequence – really poor. And this from the guy who did it so well in Elite Squad. Still, it looks nice, all shiny and futuristic. But otherwise, sadly, it’s RocoCrap.

Robocop – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Last Vegas (Universal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

So someone goes into a Hollywood pitch meeting and said “Let’s send Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman to Las Vegas for a geriatric Hangover kind of comedy”. The chestnut-coloured heads hear the four big names and someone asked the question “What happens when they get there?” The reply is something like, “Oh, you know, stuff.” Last Vegas isn’t terrible terrible – the actors are a guarantee of that. But its jokes are weak (old guys need to pee, they don’t know who 50 Cent is) and it has no real plot, no throughline, unless you count a contrived romance involving Mary Steenburgen (who has rendered herself unrecognisable with cosmetic surgery). This throws all the onus on the cast, and to their credit they glow like incandescent lightbulbs about to burn out. Verdict: Hollywood tries to make a film about being old, and can’t.

Last Vegas – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alien

Sigourney Weaver and cat in Alien

 

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

 

 

6 June

 

Alexis St Martin shot in the stomach, 1822

On this day in the 1822, a 20-year-old Canadian called Alexis Bidagan St Martin was shot in the stomach at close range at a fur trading post on Mackinac Island, Canada. He survived the musket blast and the wound healed, leaving a hole, a fistula, in his side which led right into his stomach. The man treating him, US army sergeant William Beaumont, noticed that all the food that St Martin ate was re-appearing from the fistula. Matters improved, St Martin’s digestion returned to normal though the wound healed to form a perfect conduit from the stomach to the outside world – the hole in the stomach had attached itself to the edge of the hole in the skin. Beaumont realised he had a window onto digestion itself, very poorly understood at the time, and set about a series of experiments which essentially entailed attaching bits of food to a string and dropping them in through the fistula into St Martin’s stomach. St Martin was a poor man and Beaumont had employed him as his servant, one of his duties being to put up with these experiments. They went on for the next 11 years. Beaumont published his findings, Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion, which was a groundbreaking work on the digestive system. Once out of Beaumont’s employ, St Martin moved to Quebec and refused to take part in any more experiments, though Beaumont frequently suggested it. Beaumont died in 1853; St Martin lived to be 78, dying in 1880.

 

 

 

Alien (1979, dir: Ridley Scott)

Is Alien the most important sci-fi film of the 1970s? No, that’s Star Wars, obviously. But, like Star Wars, Alien is trying to break free of the shiny new world of sci-fi that had been dominant until then, in which clean-limbed astronauts in pristine space gear had adventures in aseptic spaces, while computers whirred diligently in the background, doing the hard work. Star Wars did it by returning sci-fi to the world of 1930s serials – Flash Gordon being a prime reference – while Alien did it by going even further back, to the gothic haunted house horror. The modern iteration of the gothic haunted house horror is the “kids in the woods” movie. And what we’re watching in Alien is an absolutely standard crew of isolated individuals – jockish guys (one of them speccy and scientific) and a couple of girls (one of them feisty and hot) being slaughtered one after the other. The sort of thing you can see in a thousand permutation on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (from 1974).

Except Alien really is a film that’s more than the sum of its parts. Dan O’Bannon wrote the original story with Ronald Shusett, but the uncredited work of Walter Hill and David Giler is also significant, adding extra grunt where required – we’re in the world of “hard sci-fi”. The work of the artist HR Giger is key, his organic, knobbly, dirty designs for the alien inspiring the grungy ethos of the film. As for the actors, most of them could be swapped about – it doesn’t have to be John Hurt whose stomach is the incubator for the first alien we see, nor does it really have to be Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright or even Tom Skerrit doing what they do. They’re there, and so is much of their dialogue, to add a blue-collar atmosphere to a genre that, until then, tried to maintain that class disappeared on lift-off. But Ian Holm, as the methodical, company-droid no one knows is even a droid, his way with cool superciliousness makes him key. And so is Sigourney Weaver, who laid down the template for tough action heroines who also look good in their underwear. As for Ridley Scott’s direction, it’s a masterclass, first in character set-up, then in mood manipulation and shock management (the cat), and finally in misdirection – if we realise early on we’re watching a horror movie then of course it’s going to be Weaver who’s the “final girl” and of course she’s going to end up in a white T shirt, uniform of all “final girls”. But we don’t realise that.

In a world before DVD or even widespread VHS, Scott understands that his audience is in a big dark room together and that the only impression that matters is the one they leave with. So he’s got the licence to take it slow – no death-before-the-opening-credits stuff here. Alien is horror pastiche polished till it shines, then hidden beneath a sci-fi overcoat, then dirtied up. Along with other 1970s sci-fi films such as Dark Star and Silent Running, it marked the arrival of a new era in scuffed sci-fi. And let’s not forget that this crew of innocents – some much more innocent than others – are on a ship called the Nostromo, named after Joseph Conrad’s book. Another of Conrad’s books, Heart of Darkness, about another ship with a variously innocent crew, was being turned by Francis Ford Coppola into Apocalypse Now just as Scott was doing his thing with Nostromo. What would Conrad have thought about that?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the key sci-fi movies
  • The film that made Sigourney Weaver
  • HR Giger’s design work
  • Ridley Scott’s cool careful direction

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Alien – at Amazon