The Queen of Versailles

David and Jackie Siegel at home on the throne in The Queen of Versailles

 

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

 

 

5 June

 

John Maynard Keynes born, 1883

On this day in the 1883, the economist John Maynard Keynes was born, in Cambridge, to an economist father and a social reformer mother. A mathematics prodigy as a child, he won a scholarship to Eton College, then went to King’s College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics on a scholarship, graduating in 1904. After a short career as a clerk in the India Office, Keynes resigned and returned to Cambridge, where he started studying economics. By 1909 he had published his first article on economics. By 1911 he was editor of The Economic Journal. By 1913 he had published his first book, Indian Currency and Finance. During the First World War he worked at the Treasury, where his work in the field of currency acquisition and manipulation got him noticed. He was the Treasury’s representative at the Versailles peace conference at the end of the First World War. Keynes believed that penalising Germany too heavily for the war would lead to further conflict and that an economically strong Germany would be good for all parties. His views were ignored. He wrote The Economic Consequences of Peace as a result, which predicted disaster in Europe as a result of the peace of Versailles. Throughout the 1920s he argued against a currency fixed to gold (and lost) and for the depreciation of the currency to boost jobs at home and make goods more affordable overseas (and lost). His Treatise on Money followed in the 1920s, which pointed out that money, prices and jobs are all interlinked – if people aren’t spending, jobs will suffer. In the 1930s he wrote The Means to Prosperity, which concluded that governments had taken the wrong approach to the 1929 Crash and should have spent their way out of recession, an argument so counter-intuitive politicians (who in the main manage economies as if they were household budgets, ignoring the wealth generating side of the equation) still cannot grasp it. In 1936 he published his most famous work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, on which his fame as an economist rests. It is the bible of interventionist economist. As the Second World War came to an end Keynes became inaugural chairman of the World Bank and helped establish the Bretton Woods system, which ensured financial stability in the post War world. He also helped negotiate the huge loans that the US made to the UK at the end of the War. He died in 1946, his ideas in the ascendant, though he himself was toying with a revision of them – an injection of the “hidden hand” of Adam Smith, the classical liberal economist whose ideas about the beneficial workings of a free market he’d spent his lifetime arguing against.

 

 

 

The Queen of Versailles (2012, dir: Lauren Greenfield)

David Siegel is 74 and owns the biggest timeshare company in the world. Together with Jaqueline Siegel, his 43-year-old trophy wife and former beauty queen, he’s building the “biggest home in America”. And Lauren Greenfield’s documentary is there to watch it happen – the sushi bar, the bowling alley, the sauna, the baseball field, yadda yadda. It’s a place inspired by a visit to Louis XIV’s palace in Versailles, on the outskirts of Paris. Well, that was the original plan. Until reality intervened.
Like Capturing the Friedmans before it, which started out making one documentary but ended up with something quite different, The Queen of Versailles is massively derailed by a large fly in the ointment, to mix messy metaphors. Viz: the economic collapse, as a result of which the Siegels go broke. Not broke broke, just broke in billionaire terms, obviously. But it does mean that Jaqueline has to start flying in a normal plane with normal people, that she has to hire her own Hertz rental car (and is taken aback by the absence of a driver). It’s somewhere round this point that Greenfield’s documentary gains traction, morphing from a point-and-gawp exposé of the very wealthy and not entirely tasteful, with “rich people say the cutest things” fascination, and turning into something which everyone who was stung by the economic downturn can relate to – albeit in a metaphorical manner. The staff are laid off, Jaqueline has her Hertz moment, and soon the devastation is beginning to pile up – the pet lizard dies, the tropical fish are belly up in their tank, there is dog shit on the carpets in the house because no one is cleaning up any more. The superhouse is in mothballs.
There’s nothing more depressing than watching an already poor family going through hard times. But watching rich people trying to tighten the belt, selling stuff, doing without luxuries, that’s less invasive, because it’s all relative and they’re not down to the last buck and anyway they invited the cameras in, no duress. But it’s the same basic process – the initial inability to understand the severity of the situation, followed by the taking of half-hearted measures, followed by lethargy, then panic laced with fantasy recovery scenarios. Spicing this is the Siegels themselves, outspoken in the way that people are when they don’t have to watch their tongues – David claims his possibly illegal machinations mean he was “personally responsible for the re-election of George Bush in 2000”. Lauren, for her part, is worried about being over 40 – “He told me that when I hit 40 he was going to trade me in for two 20-year-olds”. Against this we have the Filipino nanny who is sending money back to her child at home. The last time she saw him he was seven. He’s now 26. And there’s the limo driver, who also used to be a multi-millionaire, owned 19 properties, now has nothing and is driving cars. For David Siegel the whole thing has been a reality check – “we need to live within our means. Don’t spend money we don’t have.” In this sense Jaqueline – big silicone tits, bottle blonde, a touch of work done on the face – is the perfect stand in for all of us. Overpumped, over-caffeinated, in the dark, a slightly desperate smile and living on the hog.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The perfect 2008 recession documentary
  • The access
  • The pithy, outspoken Siegels
  • The real drama of watching things fall apart

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Queen of Versailles – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Andy Lau in Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

 

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

4 June

 

Tiananmen Square Massacre, 1989

On this day in the 1989, one of the most recognisable images of recent decades flashed around the world as Type 59 tanks marched in single file through Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, while facing them stood a lone figure – “Tank Man”.

Protest had been gathering pace since April, when students had first gathered to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a liberal reformer. The mourning developed into a call for political and economic reform, more accountability, freedom of expression and democratic rights, and at first the government tolerated the protests. By May the protest was becoming national and on 20 May Deng Xiaoping, the country’s leader, decided to counter it with force, before the founding ceremony of the Tiananmen Democracy University could be held on 4 June. Martial law was declared and troops were mobilised, 300,000 of them focused on Beijing alone.

On 3 June state TV told residents to stay indoors as the troops moved in on Tiananmen Square from every direction. The army shot to kill, using expanding bullets, wherever they met with resistance, and when residents from apartment blocks tried to surround the tank convoy, the army opened fire on the apartment blocks. The killing infuriated city dwellers, who counter-attacked with whatever they had to hand. At the square, the students had decided on peaceful resistance. At 4am, the lights in the square went out and a loudspeaker announced that the square would be cleared. The lights came back on at 4.30am, the soldiers advanced up to a position 10 metres from the students. The first row of soldiers took up the prone position, their machine guns aimed at the students. Behind them was a row of soldiers with assault rifles. Behind them anti-riot police. And behind them the tanks. Many students decided to leave. Even so, among those who decided not to, many were injured and killed, and some were run over by tanks. The army even opened fire on the concerned parents of demonstrators who had gathered for news of their children. By 5 June it was, in most respects, over. “Tank Man” gave the world its image of Tiananmen, an image made possible by the fact that he was a single man; so many of the other protestors had been dispersed.

 

Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010, dir: Tsui Hark)

Films from China used in the main to mean films from Hong Kong – kung fu, gritty urban cop thrillers, action, chaos, fun. Then in 1997 the British gave Hong Kong back to the Chinese and films out of China started to mean something different. By and large they became fixated on events in the distant past, with storylines that reinforced continuity, the importance of strong leadership, the “Three Kingdoms” period of chaotic disunity in the 3rd century AD being a particular favourite.

This Detective Dee film has all the hallmarks. That doesn’t make it a bad film. In fact it’s a good one, stuffed with oddity – talking animals, great martial arts sequences, clockwork fighting machines that fly, magical logs that sail into the air, supernatural beings, people who burst into flames, and that’s just the first few minutes. It also has some good actors in it. For instance Andy Lau, as the exiled detective in AD689 brought back from purdah to solve an unsolvable crime, the mysterious deaths of two court officials which threaten to prevent the inauguration of Empress Wu (Carina Lau).

The story proceeds by moving from one super-elaborate set-up to the next: it’s daytime, night-time, Dee is in a forest, a palace, the town, the country, each location an abundance of props, costumes and characters as he tries to work out, using deduction, how the men met their end. It’s a highly elaborate Agatha Christie story, in essence, with all the silk and CG that Tsui Hark can muster, sometimes to the film’s detriment.

Buried beneath all the explosion, mystery and wonder is a political message – behold the empress, chosen by god, in covenant with the people, a tough but fair ruler, one who can learn, who can even respect its dissidents (of which Detective Dee is one). Tsui Hark, once the wunderkind of Hong Kong who seems to have found a new lease of life with this film, beats this message, the plot, the effects, the huge sets, the talking animals, the madness and outlandish characters (I didn’t mention the albino official? the one-armed construction supervisor?) into something resembling a whole. And while any film that starts with the spontaneous combustion of two people is obviously throwing down the gauntlet – to itself if no one else – it’s watching Tsui rise to that challenge that makes this example of batshit wuxia so enjoyable to watch.

Why Watch?

 

  • The always watchable Andy Lau
  • Sammo Hung’s wire-assisted fight scenes
  • The breakneck pace
  • The costumes and production design

 

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

Teeth

Bad idea: Jess Weixler and Josh Pais in Teeth

 

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

 

 

3 June

 

Valerie Solanas tries to kill Andy Warhol, 1968

On this day in the 1968, the feminist writer Valerie Solanas went to the Factory, artist Andy Warhol’s studio in New York, and fired three shots at him from a gun she had just bought.

Two missed and one wounded him. She also shot the art critic Mario Amaya and attempted to shoot Warhol’s manager, Fred Hughes, but the gun jammed. She then turned herself in to the police.

Solanas had in fact set out to shoot Maurice Girodias, owner of the Olympia Press – who had offered to publish her work – but hadn’t been able to find him, and so had altered course for Warhol, who had taken a film script of hers, Up Your Ass, and promptly lost it.

She was convinced both men were out to destroy her. Solanas had been supporting herself through prostitution while embarking on a career as an avant garde writer. Her most famous work is the SCUM Manifesto (which stands for The Society for Cutting Up Men), an extremist form of feminism which describes the average male as “obsessed with screwing; he’ll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.”

The Manifesto continues: “there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.”

For her crimes Solanas was sentenced to three years in prison, and spent a year of it in a mental hospital, where she received treatment for paranoid schizophrenia.

 

 

 

Teeth (2007, dir: Mitchell Lichtenstein)

Teeth is a film about a girl whose vulva bites – the vagina dentata of legend – made by Mitchell Lichtenstein, the son of the New York pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.

Mitchell is just about the right age (born 1956) to have experienced that first shock wave of feminism in the late 1960s, against which Pussy Riot and the like look like warm-up artists.

But I’m not telling you the plot – our girl, a sweet blonde called Dawn (Jess Weixler), a chastity advocate at her high school, finds herself drawn to Tobey (Hale Appleman), also a booster for virginity, an attraction which is going to lead to serious squirms later in the movie. Meanwhile, at home, Dawn has a stepbrother who lost the tip of his finger as a toddler. How he lost that tip can be guessed at, and whether he’s going to go back to where he lost it is another one of the small joys of this mad film.

The movie neatly divides into two parts – part one is a John Waters-inspired satire of modern suburban manners, and Weixler is all you could hope for as the dewy and lovely young woman simply trying to negotiate the murky waters of sex, inadequately armed with the “Just Say No” gang’s standard-issue weapon – ignorance.

In part two Lichtenstein goes for a kind of zombie bake-off excess, ladling on shocks, gore, OMG laughs and even the odd sputtering guffaw.

It’s not perfect – there’s the distinct impression that Lichtenstein is letting us know that he’s slumming it – but he’s clearly picked up a thing or two about striking visuals from his dad (or maybe his mother – who knows?) and Lichtenstein understands the value of dropping a severed penis into the mix when things start to flag, which they rarely do. And how accommodating that the most jockish of genres – we were pretty much at the height of the torture porn thing when Teeth debuted – should find room for a film that guys really, really won’t enjoy watching half as much as their girlfriends.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A good fun, bloody shocker
  • Jess Weixler’s perfect performance
  • A trenchant satire on the purity ring culture
  • A vagina with teeth

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Teeth – Watch it now at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

2 June 2014-06-02

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

 

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Dallas Buyers Club (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

He literally rides bulls, the hero of this refreshingly unsentimental Aids drama – comedy? – about a rampantly heterosexual Texas guy who discovers he’s HIV+. That’ll be the meth and hookers parties we see him indulging in. The hero of this film is its script – a taut, tight example of economical writing that arrives in each scene as late as possible, tells us just enough of what we need to know, before moving on. There’s no backstories either – bane of so many films these days. So notice how many characters in this film, people with speaking roles and everything, are not bogged down with a history. Leaving the floor clear for Matthew McConaughey, brilliant as real-life guy Ron Woodroof, Jared Leto, even better as the transvestite he eventually goes into partnership with, smuggling drugs into the USA because the FDA won’t approve life-saving medication. A true story, brilliantly told.

Dallas Buyers Club – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

The Armstrong Lie (Sony, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Still as slippery as a snake, multiple Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong comes as clean as he’s ever going to come about the drugs he used to win all those races. Documentarian Alex Gibney had spent some years making this doc when the revelations about Armstrong first came to light, forcing Gibney to handbrake-turn and make the film into something else. The hero-worship is clearly still in there, and to some extent that is justified. Maybe Armstrong is a cheat, but he’s clearly a punishingly fit human being. And his monumental repulsiveness acts as a service to humankind. To expose Armstrong, all manner of person comes out of the woodwork to explain how the doping, the transfusions etc, were done. And everyone was at it, of course – “don’t take a knife to a gunfight” as an ex member of Team Armstrong puts it. Fascinating, if a good 30 minutes too long. Luckily it’s the last 30 so you can just switch off at around 90 minutes in.

The Armstrong Lie – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Stranger by the Lake (Peccadillo, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

You see a man’s erect cock being wanked to orgasm in this gay-centric French film unafraid to show us what actually goes on at a secluded lake where men go to sunbathe and cottage. It’s a thriller, rather than a porn film, and a very well made one, director Alain Guiraudie building his murder story around three repeated establishing shots and an evocative sound stage (waves, birds, wind) to develop a rhythm that’s quite hypnotic. The theme is sex – safe or otherwise – and the idea that there might be more to life than just pleasure. If you can take the content, you’ll definitely admire the form.

Stranger by the Lake – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Grudge Match (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Clearly someone’s nine-word Hollywood pitch – put De Niro and Stallone in the ring together, Aging Bull and Crocky. And for the first half, the jokes come fairly hot and fast, about two guys who hate each other’s guts, who start lashing out every time they see each other, while generation iPhone stands around slackjawed, uploading it all to YouTube. Once it’s got this and its gags at the actors’ expense (De Niro the more gracious of the two – the jokes about his character’s poor career choices are unsettlingly near the mark), it dives into a pit of sentimentality that is so deep and all-encompassing it’s suffocating – the child you never knew you had? Are you kidding me? As for the fight finale. Give me a break, these guys can barely duck beneath the ropes.

Grudge Match – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

The Rocket (Eureka, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

A little boy in Laos is born, grows up in his village, before his entire family are displaced by a gigantic dam project. Modernity and its discontents are the subject of this drama by Australian director Kim Mordaunt, a film that can’t be faulted in terms of cinematography or casting, which is astonishing. Nor does it fall into the trap of painting the brownskinned people as being noble natives displaced by the evil white man. So why was I slightly impatient watching it? I think because it was paying lip-service to a type of Asian movie in which quicksilver drops of water roll off matt green leaves of a spectacularly vivid hue. When in fact it’s more your traditional Hollywood rites-of-passage tale that’s taken time disguising itself, time that would be better spent just getting on with it. Worth it for the cast though. As said, astonishing.

The Rocket – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Paramount, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Chris Pine is the fourth actor to play Jack Ryan – smart of mind, fast of fist, a CIA wonk who’s got it all. This is his origins story, and Pine is extremely likeable as Ryan. But it’s a dull, dull and stupid, stupid film. It would be tempting to blame Kenneth Branagh, who directed and also plays a Russkie villain made up of Cold War offcuts. In fact the whole film is offcuts – James Bond, Jason Bourne and George Smiley all being invoked as if by a Tibetan prayer wheel. Keira Knightley does the love interest and even gets a bit of a plotline, Kevin Costner plays Ryan’s control, and the film is to some degree bent out of shape by the need to include him in scenes where he simply shouldn’t be. This is most noticeable in the action sequences, where the camera cuts periodically away from Pine and to Costner. Does Costner have money involved? I don’t think this shambles is Branagh’s fault. He was a smooth and intelligent presence on the first Thor film. It takes studio experts to ruin something this conclusively.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

That Awkward Moment (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

I’ve read positive reviews about That Awkward Moment, a “bro’s not ho’s” comedy about three young men who make a pact not to get emotionally involved with women, out of loyalty to one of the trio, recently dumped by his wife. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby used the same plotline in the Road to… films. Digression aside, the three are played by Zac Efron, the buff hot one who has to fight the girls off; Miles Teller, the one who amuses them into bed; and Michael B Jordan, the sensitive lovelorn one who probably should get back on the horse. But it’s a terribly unfunny, unromantic film that seems to think men behaving like dicks makes them somehow adorable. This applies most to the smirking Efron, who is too glib to be likeable. And no matter which way Imogen Poots turns her performance, the relationship between her and Efron just does not take wing. Yes, relationship – the “comedy” in this film coming from the fact that none of the guys stick to the pact. Hilarious.

That Awkward Moment – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

Rome, Open City

Anna Magnani runs after her fiancee in Rome, Open City

 

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

 

 

2 June

 

The sack of Rome, AD455

On this day in the 455th year of the Christian or Common Era, Rome was sacked. Actually, this is a touch ambiguous, because Rome had already been pillaged twice before, in 390BC by the Gauls fighting the Roman in the Battle of the Allia; and in AD410, in the attack of the Visigoths led by Alaric. In AD455 it was the Vandal king Genseric who marched on Rome, claiming a peace treaty between himself and Emperor Valentinian III had been violated when Emperor Petronius Maximus had usurped Valentinian and seized the throne. Out of deference to Pope Leo I, the Christian Genseric kept the violence and looting to a minimum. Genseric threw open the gates of Rome, allowing beaten Maximus and his men to flee, then set about a systematic plunder of Rome’s wealth, which continued for 14 days. Much treasure was taken and many people were eventually sold into slavery in the markets of Carthage (North Africa), a Vandal stronghold. Genseric withdrew to Carthage, taking the wife and children of the deposed Emperor Valentinian III with him. The word vandalism has had a cultural significance since.

 

 

 

Rome, Open City (1945, dir: Roberto Rossellini)

Co-written in a week with his friends Sergio Amidei and an unknown Federico Fellini, Rossellini’s Rome, Open City was made in the teeth of adversity. Italy was in the final days of the Second World War. Its leader, Mussolini, had fled and was about to be taken out and hung from a lamp post. Rossellini, meanwhile, was making a film that marked a kind of Year Zero (a title he’d later use in another film, Germany Year Zero) of film-making. Looked at today it can be hard to see what the fuss was about – the neo-realist style, shooting out on the streets, using non-actors in key roles, that’s becomes absolutely standard. Back then it really wasn’t – films were made in studios, with heavy cameras, lights and teams of backroom technicians oiling the wheels. Yet, even without that initial shock of the new, this film works. Some of that is down to the fact that Rossellini is shooting in a city that has just been liberated by the Americans, ravaged, bombed out, its people shaken and hungry – there’s a definite documentary aspect. Then there’s Anna Magnani, a cabaret star on her way to being the same in film, as the fiancée of a Resistance fighter hiding from the Gestapo and later betrayed by someone in the organisation. Its most famous shot is of Magnani running down the road after a truck as the Nazis take her man away. Shot being the operative word in that sentence, the first of a series of dramatic shocks that spike the film. Can you imagine the power of this film, conceived while the jackboots were still on the streets, made on the hoof, guerrilla style, necessity forcing its stylistic decisions, then shown to a populace who had been subject to the “open city” of the Nazis (it’s a German way of saying “game over”) only a few months before, and unstinting in its depiction of the brutality of the occupiers? Some aspects of the film have dated now – the broad-brush Nazis were absolutely necessary then but not so much now; homosexuality is treated in the sort of way that might make a modern viewer flinch. Even so, it is the first film of the glorious renaissance of Italian movies after the war, this and Bicycle Thieves being the landmarks of the neorealist movement. Jean-Luc Godard, when asked about the origins of the French New Wave 20 years later, declared “All roads lead to Rome, Open City.” Rossellini would never make a film as powerful again.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An epoch changing film
  • Rossellini’s best film
  • An early sight of a future legend – Fellini
  • Anna Magnani’s starmaking performance

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Rome, Open City – at Amazon