Moonrise Kingdom

Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton and Bruce Willis in Moonrise Kingdom


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



1 August


First Scout camp, Brownsea Island, 1907

On this day in 1907, a camp organised by British national hero Lieutenant-General Baden-Powell to test the ideas he’d laid out in his book, Scouting for Boys, opened on Brownsea Island, just off the south coast of the United Kingdom. It lasted a week, and was made up of 20 or 21 boys of varying social backgrounds who spent their time camping, learning woodcraft, chivalry, lifesaving and patriotism. Each day started at 6am with Baden-Powell blowing a reveille on a kudu horn, after which the boys would have cocoa, do exercise, raise the flag and say their prayers. At 8am they had breakfast, followed by whatever subject had been chosen for that day, lunch, a siesta and then the afternoon activity. At 5pm the day would end with games, supper and a campfire, followed by prayers and bed. If they were lucky Baden-Powell would regale them with stories from his Africa campaigns. Out of this camp, deemed a success, and Baden-Powell’s book, the Scouting movement was born.




Moonrise Kingdom (2012, dir: Wes Anderson)

If the world falls into two camps – those who love Wes Anderson and those who don’t – include me firmly in the anti camp. But I make an exception for Moonrise Kingdom, which is a truly sweet story of young love tricked out in Anderson’s usual whimsy, except this time not to the point where your teeth hurt. It’s tempting to suggest that it’s the presence of Roman Coppola as Anderson’s co-writer that makes it such a winner. But then Coppola co-wrote The Darjeeling Limited, and that had all the worst Anderson traits – too arch, no plot, self-absorbed characters. Whatever it is, what the duo do here works, maybe because they put the usual deadpan dialogue into the mouths of babes, and the disjunction is so odd that it makes everything these two – the boy scout and the pubescent girl who run away together and mobilise an entire island to find them – sound as if Noel Coward himself had written their lines and given them elocution lessons. And the effect is charming and funny. Potentially irritating, admittedly, but it never seems to tip over.
Anderson also seems to be soft-pedalling the eccentricity when it comes to both key settings – one a household in 1965, where reading, classical music, the devouring of the daily newspaper are all normal pursuits of children who haven’t yet been got at by the counterculture; the other a boy scout camp ruled over benignly by Edward Norton. Anderson shoots it all lovingly too, warm and yellow, every scene gussied up in the most extraordinarily fastidious way. Clothes, furniture, decor, it’s all been thought about right down to the last hem.
The warmth spills over into the casting, though a cool look at the names in any other context – Norton, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton – and you might be expecting something hard-boiled, difficult or cynical. Norton’s casting as a scout master is inspired, and as with the too-earnest teenagers, throws up a “does not compute” error in the viewer that puts a smile on the face every time he turns up in his long shorts. There’s an even better long-shorts piece of casting later on… but I won’t ruin it. As for the rest, McDormand is Bill Murray’s wife and mother of the missing boy. She’s secretly having affair with local hayseed cop Bruce Willis, who at some point has to inform the local social services – in the shape of a character known only as Social Services (Tilda Swinton) – that a boy scout has disappeared and his foster parents don’t want him back.
A story of missing runaway kids and a storm coming in off the Atlantic is potentially the highest of high drama, or the shlockiest. But Anderson doesn’t play it either way. As with the against-the-grain casting he’s up to something, taking scenes familiar from a thousand films and shaping them anew. Hence that amazing moment when young Sam (Jared Gilman) is struck full-on by a bolt of lightning, thrown to the ground, and then immediately jumps up, cheerily says, “I’m OK,” and just carries on running. No one could survive that sort of electrical zap without the help of magic, surely? But magic is what Anderson, in his own unique way, is about.



Why Watch?


  • Any film with Bill Murray…
  • Harvey Keitel’s best cameo since Pulp Fiction
  • Robert Yeoman’s cinematography
  • A tender love story


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Moonrise Kingdom – Watch it now at Amazon





Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger Tides


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



31 July


Black Tot Day, 1970

Today in 1970 was the last day on which British sailors were issued with a daily rum ration. The ration had initially been beer – much safer than water – and had been set at a gallon (4.5 litres) a day in the 16th century. But that’s a lot of beer if there are a lot of men, and so the ration became a half pint of rum in 1655, after the British had secured whole chunks of the rum-rich West Indies. Drunkenness being a problem, the half-pint ration was mixed with water 1:4 and served twice a day. In 1824 the ration was halved to a quarter of a pint and in 1850 an admiralty committee recommended the ration be ended. However, it persisted until 1970, when it was decided that modern high-tech warships and alcohol didn’t make good bedfellows. On 31 July 1970, after the usual pipe of Up Spirits, the last rum ration was poured at 6 bells (11am), while some sailors wore black armbands. A can of beer was added to rations to compensate.




Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011, dir: Rob Marshall)

Well stap me vitals, a decent POTC movie. Yes, I believe the consensus is that this fourth one in the series is a bit of a dog, but that’s only because the consensus has been in hock to the unsustainable idea that the first three were any good. They weren’t. Number one was passable, though way too long. Number two was pantomime piracy without any jokes. Number three was an unforgivable three hours long (nearly) and still had trouble telling its story without breaks for exposition every few minutes. Which brings us to number four – which removes the bland and increasingly embarrassing Orlando Bloom and the implausible Keira Knightley, promotes Captain Jack Sparrow properly to the lead role and shaves all the shag off the POTC dog to reveal a lean, light questing beast. Penelope Cruz has been drafted in to spar with Depp, and they make a feisty bickering and possibly romantically inclined duo. Ian McShane is a devilishly piratical Blackbeard – “the pirate all other pirates fear” – joining Geoffrey Rush to make a duo of ancient mariners who understand that in this sort of film it’s all about swash, not swish. Talking of buckling, Keith Richards as Depp’s dad – and how many column inches did this bit of casting generate – is a waste of everybody’s time and is in the film so little that there’s the suspicion his performance is mostly on the cutting room floor. Round the edges, again having learned from the other films, is lively but not obstructive character support, with Richard Griffiths making a fabulously fruity King George. And Judi Dench turns up early on for a ten second cameo in the brilliant opening chase-through-London sequence, which probably would have gone on for an hour in POTC 3.
Perhaps best of all is the plot, which is exactly the sort of ridiculous story that salty sea dogs might tell each other on a stormy night on the high seas – sexy mermaids, silver chalices and a zombified ship’s crew all figure as Sparrow, Barbossa and Blackbeard chase across the oceans in search of a fountain of youth. And if the previous films relied too heavily on effects generated in post-production, new director Rob Marshall leans less heavily on them, preferring to set a lot of scenes at night, in the murk and the gloom, leaving a small space for the human imagination to work. There’s real sword fights. And even a bit of seafaring lore, a nod to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels (source of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).
It’s still a POTC film, so let’s not get carried away, but it’s a good one, far far better than might have been expected from a franchise this waterlogged.



Why Watch?


  • A dead franchise brought back to life
  • Penelope Cruz is the right foil for catwalk pirate Jack Sparrow
  • Ian McShane’s Blackbeard
  • Orlando Bloom isn’t in it


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – Watch it now at Amazon






Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová in Daisies


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



30 July


The first defenestration of Prague, 1419

Along with the Diet of Worms, the Defenestration of Prague is one of those events that make history students giggle. And as with exsanguination, which dresses up the base act of bleeding to death in a fancy Latinate term, defenestration is nothing more than throwing someone out of the window. It should be the defenestration at Prague, then, logically? Semantics to one side, the most famous defenestration of/at Prague took place in 1618, but the first time it happened was on this day in 1419, when an angry crowd led by a Hussite priest was marching towards a confrontation with the local authorities at the town hall when someone inside the town hall threw a stone at their leader, Jan Zelivsky. Now even more enraged, the crowd broke into the town hall and threw a judge, burgomaster and 13 members of the town council out of the window. They all either died from the fall or were killed by the mob on landing. The king of Bohemia, Wenceslaus IV, was said to be so shocked by the event that he died shortly afterwards. The event marked the opening shots in what became the Hussite Wars.




Daisies (1965, dir: Vera Chytilová)

When Vera Chytilová released Daisies, aka Sedmikrásky, in 1965, the communist authorities in Czechoslovakia immediately banned it. One glance at it and it’s obvious why – because Chytilová’s film is trying to connect Czechoslovakia up with the non-communist world and it’s flower-power moment, rather than the socialist realism of Moscow and its satellites.

A stylistic and thematic cousin of Jaromil Jires’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, it’s an intensely 1960s film, heaving with themes and tropes, styles and techniques that connect it up with the French New Wave, the psychedelia of California and the stop-go of Richard Lester.

And in a typical piece of 1960s mindfuckery, it’s about two teenage girls with the same name. Marie 1 (Jitka Cerhová) and Marie 2 (Ivana Karbanová) both spend pretty much the entire film going through society like a scouring pad – a duo playing at being naive but totally on the make, having a whale of time ripping off old guys, brushing off young guys, shocking the bourgeoisie, indulging in low-level pilfering while dressed in an Eastern Bloc version of Mary Quant mini-skirts, the King’s Road as filtered through Prague. The film climaxes with them at a banquet laid out for some party function, where they skitter about poking at dignitaries’ dinners and end up in a food fight.

As well as Chytilová’s nervous, constant changing of point of view, switching of film stocks and use of filtration over the lenses, sometimes dropped in halfway through a scene, there’s also the relentless use of advertising parody, plus sets that are replete with surreal imagery – apples all over the place, the wall hung with giant exotic leaves suggestive of … the Garden of Eden? Maybe.
Think of the way films in Europe or from America at the time were treating women – as sexual props – and these pre-feminist action girls are remarkable. They are the sole agents of their own destiny and when they’re not causing mayhem they’re regularly biting suggestively on phallic bananas, sausages or pickles, anything that can be pressed into service. As for the references to “yummy meat” and their coy, girlish behaviour, we are having our stereotypes tweaked by a director who has decided to go for broke.

Not everyone is going to go for its freeform madcappery and the excess does get a bit excessive. But it’s a short film, at 74 minutes, and there’s really nothing like it. And remember it’s a film from behind the iron curtain and resist the urge to see it as a satire on materialism, which it might be if it had been made in the West. The censors in Czechoslovakia, casting about for a reason, banned it because it was wasteful of food. And surely that was Chytilová’s whole point.



Why Watch?


  • A great debut by Vera Chytilová
  • Jaroslav Kucera’s amazing cinematography
  • Karel Lier’s fabulous sets
  • Part of the amazingly vibrant Czech new wave


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Daisies – Watch it now at Amazon





Morvern Callar

Samantha Morton and dead boyfriend in Morvern Callar


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



29 July


Mama Cass dies, 1974

On this day in 1974, Mama Cass Elliot, the large-size singer with the Mamas and the Papas, died from eating a ham sandwich. Except she didn’t. Die from eating a ham sandwich, I mean. Instead she probably died from extreme dieting, in an attempt to lose weight. She’d found fame with the Mamas and the Papas, singing songs such as California Dreamin’ and Monday Monday, and when the band split she embarked on a solo career. Her debut show, in Las Vegas in October 1968, was a disaster, Elliot barely being able to sing, partly because the six month crash diet she’d been on had given her acid reflux, which had burnt her vocal chords, partly because she was wasted on heroine. Her shows at the London Palladium six years later had been, by contrast, a triumph, with Cass getting standing ovations every night for her two-week residency. On 28 July she sang her final note, got her last curtain call, phoned Mamas and Papas bandmate Michelle Phillips, then went to bed and, aged 32, died in her sleep. She had been fasting four days a week in the run-up to the shows in an attempt to lose weight and this extreme dieting, coupled with the fact that her heart was suffering from “fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity” (according to the coroner who examined her) led to her death. There was a ham sandwich in her room, hence the rumour, but it was untouched. Four years later Keith Moon died in the same apartment, belonging to Harry Nilsson, at the same age.




Morvern Callar (2002, dir: Lynne Ramsay)

Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher was one of the knockout movies of 1999 and her feature debut. Morvern Callar could easily have been more of the same and everybody would have been very happy indeed, thanks very much. Instead Ramsay decided to go off in the direction that the end of Ratcatcher had indicated she might, into more subjective, impressionistic film-making. Samantha Morton, here only 25 and already a veteran and a legend, plays the bizarrely named Morvern Callar, a woman who wakes up one morning to find that her boyfriend is dead. It’s Christmas and he’s left her a suicide note propped up against the computer, but also on the hard drive is the manuscript for a novel he wants her to hawk around the publishing houses. Callar unwraps the presents, then goes out to work in a supermarket, leaving the dead body lying in its own blood in the house. Later, she comes home, then goes out for the night with her friend, gets drunk, has sex with some guy. It’s all very normal. Except that she has a dead boyfriend back at home. And the image that will linger from this film after all the others have faded is of the body and the Christmas tree lights winking on and off like some big ironic joke.
In a film that’s about being at the mercy of your situation, being passive because it makes rolling with the punches easier, Callar decides to delete her boyfriend’s name from the title page of his manuscript and write in her own. And then, having chopped the useless boyfriend into bits, she goes on holiday to a raving Ibiza, with her mate Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). And it’s here where Ramsay’s gift for colour and movement come to the fore, as a woman who is a watcher rather than a doer enters a milieu where it’s all about taking part, raving, expressing yourself, going crazy.
Ramsay and Morton are in a perfect lock-step, the former doing things with sound and colour that will deliver acid flashbacks to anyone who’s ever indulged in psychedelics, the latter being simply amazingly intense in her passivity, closed off yet oddly readable. Then things come to some sort of a loony head as Callar’s publishers meet with her out in Ibiza and…
Not everything works. But maybe it’s not meant to. Can you cut up a body and dispose of it so easily, just using a trowel? Would publishers of an unknown writer really give her £100,000 up front? The answers are no and no. But it doesn’t matter, because Ramsay has made parts one and two of this film so compelling, and in entirely different ways, that the uneasy landing on Planet Fact of part three can be forgiven. And in Morton Ramsay has one of the best actresses on the planet, whose magnetic effect goes beyond talent into the area of magic.



Why Watch?


  • Samantha Morton’s performance
  • The great debut of acting newbie Kathleen McDermott
  • The astonishing cinematography by one of the greats, Alwin Küchler (Hanna, Sunshine)
  • The only adaptation to date of an Alan Warner novel, amazingly


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Morvern Callar – Watch it now at Amazon





28 July 2014-07-28

Russell Crowe in Noah



Out in the UK This Week



Noah (Paramount, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Director Darren Aronofsky, having temporarily revived the career of Mickey Rourke with The Wrestler and then an entire genre – the tween ballet thriller – with Black Swan, goes for another challenge, the biblical epic. The story: a big flood. The man: Russell Crowe as a fundamentalist Noah. The tone: old school epic, with the odd arthouse break to remind us that Aronofsky once directed films like the overwrought Pi. Jennifer Connelly plays Mrs Noah in British Heroic voice, in what must be the least demanding role of her career. Surprisingly, bizarrely, very very little is made of the ark, the animals, the flood, leaving Emma Watson in what should be a subplot as the only real show in town, as the waif taken in by the Noahs and catching the eye of one of his lusty sons. Cue much fierce concentration by Watson, hoping this might be mistaken for chops. All in all, a mad mix of Mad Max and Cecil B DeMille.

Noah – at Amazon




Downhill (Crisis, cert 15, DVD)

Downhill takes the vibe of the Steve Coogan/Rob Brydon film/TV series The Trip/The Trip to Italy and presses it onto the story about four middle aged guys meeting up after decades to do the Lakes to Yorkshire coast-to-coast walk – 192 miles of bracing outdoors. The results are very nice indeed, probably moreso if you are exactly the sort of middle aged guy they are – disappointed, fond of a beer, a laugh, with a total rogue (the very funny Ned Dennehy) as one of your number, and still with an eye for a lady, though with virtually no chance of pulling one. This also sounds a bit like Sideways, doesn’t it, albeit a British one. And I’d bracket Downhill alongside it, as a gentle and funny film that also reminds us that one day we’ll be dead and that spending time with friends, just chatting and idling time away, is one of life’s great joys.

Downhill – at Amazon




We Are the Best! (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

Lukas Moodysson’s career goes up (Tillsammans, Lily 4-Ever) and it goes down (A Hole in My Heart, Container). We Are the Best! marks a new upswing – a story about three punk 13-year-olds in post-punk 1982 Sweden who decide to form a band, in spite of the fact they can’t play. Actually, one of them can and anyway not being able to play is the whole point of punk, is it not? This almost insanely cheery and brilliantly acted drama then follows the girls as they are bullied at school, ignored or teased by their parents, taken advantage of by older guys in bands. In short, it’s the full girls-in-music experience distilled into beautifully observed chunks, any one of which might stand alone as a very short film.

We Are the Best – at Amazon




Venus in Fur (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Roman Polanski casts his own wife (Emmanuelle Seigner) as a slatternly actress auditioning for a stern theatre writer/director (Mathieu Amalric, looking like a young Polanski) in an entirely stagy two-hander set in an abandoned theatre. The script she’s reading is the dramaturg’s adaptation of the Sacher-Masoch novella Venus in Furs and it is no surprise at all that soon she seems to be taking charge of the situation and he is under her boot. This being Polanski, the sexual is obviously up for some exploration. But this being Polanski, he’s playing with us: Polanski doing to his audience what the actress is doing to her director. Ideologically, it’s a film from the 1980s – the world is all constructs, reality is a series of fictions, identity is partial/mutable – and it is an entirely enjoyable little romp in the footnotes of sociology. What’s more, the actors appear to be enjoying themselves, and so does Polanski, who seems, here as in Carnage, to be increasingly favouring these one-room pressure-cooker dramas. He does them very well.

Venus in Fur – at Amazon




About Last Night (Sony, cert 15, DVD/digital)

This is a mixed bag. Depending on your view it’s either a remake of the terrible 1986 Rob Lowe/Demi Moore movie or another adaptation of David Mamet’s breakthrough play Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Either way it’s about sex and love, or sex versus love. On one side we have Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant as the gorgeous couple who are so much in love. On the other Kevin Hart and Regina Hall as the fuck-buddies who enjoy the hell out of each other’s company. You can guess what’s going to happen, or maybe you can’t. About Last Night has more dynamite scenes than you might expect, most of them featuring Regina Hall. It is full of the sort of language that’s going to give some an attack of the vapours, so if you can’t work out what “thigh muffs” are, or when they might be deployed, be warned. Tonally it asks us to repeatedly make the mental leap from Mamet-style hardball to the sort of romancey-wancey stuff you might associate with The Notebook. So, a very improvable film. However, it made me laugh and even left me with a tear in my eye. So who cares?

About Last Night – at Amazon




A Long Way Down (Lionsgate, cert 15, DVD/digital)

A disgraced radio DJ (Pierce Brosnan) decides to kill himself, goes to the top of a tall building on New Year’s Eve and is just about to jump when another would-be jumper (Toni Collette) turns up. Then another (Imogen Poots). Then another (Aaron Paul). As high concepts go, this is high on its own ridiculousness. But it doesn’t stop there, as one bit of “well, I never…” is followed by another bit of “now isn’t that a remarkable coincidence” and soon the unlikely foursome are all on holiday together, believe it or not. At this point, after the film has gone into its fourth set-up and is more than halfway over, it actually starts to get going, and finally allows Poots to take a breath – up until this point she has kept the entire thing going through sheer force of will and a life-shortening expenditure of cortisol. Suddenly, micron-thin characters take on enough weight for us to get a handle on them. We learn that Collette’s single mother has a disabled son at home whose needs have driven her to the end of her tether. And a bit more about Brosnan’s historical dalliance with an “I never knew she was 15” girl, and so on. As for Aaron Paul, after Need for Speed this is another example of someone with no observable charisma bafflingly managing to nail a career – must be the Breaking Bad Effect. But back to the movie, which ultimately needed to decide before filming had even started whether it was a comedy or a drama. In other words it’s a film that, like its protagonists, fails to jump.

A Long Way Down – at Amazon




Rapture (Eureka, cert 12, Blu-ray)

A black and white film from 1965, restored to such a sharpness that you can see powder on the face of its star, Patricia Gozzi, who is playing a French teenager who is refusing to grow up – and would most definitely not be wearing powder (see, the god of Blu-ray restoration he giveth and he taketh away). Or she was refusing to grow up, or acknowledge ownership of the pair of budding breasts that director John Guillermin is constantly directing us towards, until an escaped criminal (Dean Stockwell, rocking the James Dean look) turns up as a lure. What a weird and overcooked gothic melodrama this is, the sort of film in which our heroine will at one point shout “I’m mad. I’m mad” and run to the padlocked gates of the lunatic asylum, conveniently situated on a nearby hill. The sort of film where everyone speaks English but with the Peter Sellers Clouseau accent. The sort that goes for tilting cameras, deep focus, distorting lenses, chiaroscuro lighting. Is it any good? I wasn’t persuaded, though Gozzi is sensational, as is Gunnel Lindblom as the sexpot housekeeper – blowsy 1960s licence distilled into one female form. But it’s convinced it ranks alongside those Robert Bresson films about innocence, such as Au Hasard Balthazar, hence the phony French accents. Or maybe they’re there to distance Rapture from Brian Forbes’s Whistle Down the Wind, which is in faintly similar territory. Approach wearing a beret.

Rapture – at Amazon






© Steve Morrissey 2014




Life during Wartime

Paul Reubens and Shirley Henderson in Life during Wartime


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



28 July


Earl Tupper born, 1907

Who is Earl Tupper? He invented Tupperware, and was born on this day in 1907, in Berlin, New Hampshire, USA. After studying at Bryant and Stratton University, he went into business for himself, in landscaping and nursery, before the depression of the 1930s made him bankrupt. So he took a job with DuPont, where he found a use for polyethylene slag – a waste product from oil refining – reprocessing it and fashioning it into unbreakable containers. Later, he worked on the airtight lids and in 1938 he formed the Tupperware Plastics Company. The breakthrough for his company and Tupperware as a ubiquitous item came when Tupper, at the instigation of a saleswoman called Brownie Wise, moved the selling of his Tupperware out of shops and into people’s homes, where Tupperware parties hosted by company representatives took off. The parties were the first instance of “party-plan marketing”.




Life during Wartime (2009, dir: Todd Solondz)

Life during Wartime is Todd Solondz’s “quasi-sequel” (his words) to Happiness, the controversial rage against the tendency for American culture to go too hard on the Tupperware-Melamine-Apple Pie stuff and not talk about the other stuff. Happiness was Solondz’s Blue Velvet, a peeling back of the picket fence to see what’s lurking beneath. So what is Life during Wartime? The film’s opening four scenes give us some idea. In scene one we meet a man and a woman having a meal in a diner. All is going well until the waitress spits in the man’s face. “He doesn’t do that any more,” says the ironically named Joy (Shirley Henderson). “Do you?” Joy asks, once the waitress has gone. “Sometimes, at the weekends,” he meekly offers. Scene two is a date, Harvey (Michael Lerner), a middle aged man, is telling Trish (Alison Janney), the woman he’s out to impress, that he’s moved house to be nearer his son. “Oh that is so beautiful,” she says. “Well he’s a beautiful son,” he says. “You’re a beautiful father,” she says. “You’re a beautiful…” “Don’t say it,” Trish jumps in. And then, after one beat, she says, “Say it!” “Say what?” Michael replies. In scene three Trish goes home and has an entirely inappropriate conversation with her son, aged maybe nine, about how she got wet when Harvey touched her. In scene four a man (Ciarán Hinds) out of prison for something (we’ll find out later what) finds a pubic hair on his “freshly made” hotel bed. And on it goes, one disquieting scene after another, Solondz piling on the awkwardness and grossness. Scene four is when you might start wondering why most of these people have the same names as the characters in Happiness but are played by other people. Short answer: Solondz couldn’t get the other lot back, Philip Seymour Hoffman for one having become too busy/pricey. You might also wonder what Solondz is up to, when he’s going to explain himself. He never quite does, which either makes for an impressionist fugue of a social critique, or a frustrating string of unconnectedness that never quite adds up to anything. I’m in the latter camp, though I’m still recommending this film because its individual scenes are so striking, discomfiting and guiltily funny. But also because Solondz is on to something – he’s trying to unpick what you might call the hippie pax emotionala, the way we have all agreed to behave with each other ever since the previous arrangement – in place from the late Victorian era to the 1950s – fell apart, largely as a result of its hypocrisies being too huge to ignore. The modern hypocrisies include paedophilia and as in Happiness Solondz interrogates the zeitgeist, wonders aloud whether our too-easy, too-liberal mores might have a dark side. It’s a question worth asking.



Why Watch?


  • What a cast – including Paul Reubens and Charlotte Rampling
  • No one turns over a stone like Solondz
  • The genuinely funny, though dark, screenplay
  • Ed Lachman’s deliberately suburban cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Life during Wartime – Watch it now at Amazon





Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Jack Cardiff with a still of Audrey Hepburn


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



27 July


Vincent Van Gogh shoots himself, 1890

What is it that everyone knows about the painter Vincent Van Gogh? That he cut off his ear. And perhaps a lot of people also know that he killed himself. But it seems to have been forgotten that he shot himself.

But he did, on this day in 1890. Having lived in a variety of places in his native Netherlands, London and Paris, Van Gogh had finally moved to Arles in 1888, where he was to have the artistic breakthrough and produce the work he is still remembered for.

He was also behaving erratically, psychotically, as he had done his whole life. Earlier in 1890 he had called at a local brothel and given his severed ear to a girl called Rachel: “Keep this object like a treasure,” he had implored. On recovering in hospital, Van Gogh had returned home, but had soon admitted himself to an asylum.

On his release he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise to be near his doctor and his brother, Theo. He seems to have switched between mania and deep hallucinatory depression at this time, either producing huge amounts of paintings or barely functioning at all.

On 27 July 1890 he shot himself in the chest while out in the countryside, but the bullet bounced off a rib and missed his major organs. In fact he walked back to the auberge where he was staying, was treated by doctors, then went to bed, smoking his pipe.

His brother arrived the next day and found Van Gogh in good shape, but infection soon set in and Vincent died later that day. His last words were “the sadness will last for ever.”




Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010, dir: Craig McCall)

Jack Cardiff probably shot one of your favourite films. Having been the lighting cameraman who worked on everything from Black Narcissus and The African Queen to Conan the Barbarian and Rambo II, he covered a lot of the waterfront, bringing a distinctive eye and commitment to every project he worked on. This documentary about him is an unashamed homage to a man who was working until two years before he died, aged 95, in 2009, having joked to director Craig McCall four years earlier, aged 91, that he was finding it physically harder to do the work – “I’m going to have to scale it back in about ten years.”

It took 13 years for McCall to get this documentary finished, and along the way some of his interviewees – Charlton Heston, Richard Fleischer, Cardiff himself – died. But the 13 years weren’t wasted, as McCall managed to get Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, DP Freddie Francis and a raft of other famous names and/or faces to testify to the Cardiff effect. Chief booster is Martin Scorsese, who owns his own print of Sons and Lovers, one of the few films Cardiff also directed, and whose enthusiasm for the cinematographer is infectious.

If there is one thing to take away from Cameraman, it’s that to be any good at anything, it’s vital to have input from somewhere else. In Cardiff’s case it is painting, with Cardiff effusive in his love of Van Gogh, Turner and the impressionists – “the National Gallery was my film school” says Britain’s first cameraman to be trained to shoot colour. And the film really soars as Cardiff explains how, for example, he referenced Vermeer to get the look of Black Narcissus, a film which, along with other Powell/Pressburger films The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, are among the most beautiful Technicolor movies ever made.

But it’s only, mechanically, about moving lights about and getting huge cameras into position, all this cinematography lark. There isn’t, at bottom, much to say about one person’s artistic choices that the finished product hasn’t already said. It’s here that Cardiff comes into his own as a raconteur, telling stories about Henry Hathaway and Michael Powell, the prodigious drinking of Errol Flynn, how Bogart and Huston never got ill while shooting The African Queen in the Congo because they never drank anything but whisky.

And then there’s the archive – Dietrich and Monroe, Gina Lollobrigida and Ava Gardner. He knew how to light an icon. Even Cardiff’s home movie footage is pressed into service, and you realise that even with a Super 8 Cardiff was something else, one of those urbane, understated yet amazingly vital Englishmen of the old school. A gent.



Why Watch?


  • A fascinating documentary about a legend of the movies
  • The stars come out to pay tribute
  • Scorsese acknowledges his debt
  • Cardiff’s gossipy stories





Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff – Watch it now at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate



© Steve Morrissey 2014


The Killing Room

Chlea Duvall in The Killing Room


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



26 July


CIA created, 1947

On this day in 1947, the National Security Act was enacted by the US Congress.

Among other things, it created the Central Intelligence Agency, the successor agency to the Office of Strategic Services, which had been formed during the Second World War to coordinate spying against the Axis powers. The CIA is responsible for counterterrorism, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, intelligence, counter-intelligence and cyber-intelligence. In 1963 the CIA’s budget was $550million ($4.2 billion inflation-adjusted). By 2013 it was $14.7 billion. It is the only US government agency allowed to use “unvouchered” funds – those without any external oversight or accounting.




The Killing Room (2009, dir: Jonathan Liebesman)

The “four guys in a room” thriller suits our paranoid times of government snooping, wars waged patently on dishonest principles and the like. The Killing Room joins this expanding genre and is unusual for throwing a couple of proper name actors into the mix – this sort of thing also being notably cheap, it doesn’t tend to attract anyone you’d recognise.

Chloe Sevigny is the most standout of the well-known. But here’s the kicker – she’s not one of the victims being tantalised and tested by persons unknown; she’s one of the scientists making the labrats jump through hoops. Instead the unlucky foursome are played by Clea DuVall, Shea Whigham, Nick Cannon and Timothy Hutton, with the action jumping off when head scientist Dr Phillips arrives to greet the newbies, pulls out a gun and shoots one of them in the head, then beetles off to watch the reactions of the others on the monitors fed by the room’s wall-to-wall cameras. Why he did this, whether the others are going to die – and how – that’s what the film is all about. As to who dies right up at the beginning – take a look at the cast list and work out whose name isn’t that familiar.

Sevigny plays the rookie psychologist hired to run over the data produced by the experiment, and the other question the film is asking is: will she put up with this sort of extreme, illegal, bloodthirsty madness? Right up front in an intertitle we’ve been told that the film is inspired by the MKUltra program that the CIA ran – mind control, essentially – but it seems more informed by the Milgram Shock Experiment, which took volunteers and tested them to see how much pain they would inflict on a test subject if ordered to do so by a guy in a lab coat carrying a clipboard.

The Milgram experiment was deeply flawed in terms of its set-up, and it’s easy to suggest that The Killing Room isn’t a 100 per cent success either. But it is neatly constructed and it gives Peter Stormare a chance to once again delight us with one of his mad/evil turns as the unhinged Dr Phillips. Sevigny is required to look cool externally, while inwardly bottling her increasing turmoil, and pulls it off. There’s good work too by Timothy Hutton as the twitchiest and most intelligent of the experimentees.

For references, look no further than the cult Canadian thriller Cube, whose DNA seems to have been copied quite extensively. But there are also oblique references to the 1960s British spy TV series The Avengers, not least the fact that Stormare is referred to as “Mother” on several occasions, also the name of Avengers honcho John Steed’s male control at whatever shadowy British government agency Steed worked at when he wasn’t visiting his tailor.

As for the much-derided twist finish, it is completely ridiculous. You, along with me when I saw it, will be saying, “What, all that work just to achieve this?” However, the film does ask other uncomfortable subliminal questions, not least in its racial profiling and the way the whiter shade of pale Sevigny interacts with the duskier people she comes across. I will say no more except to say The Killing Room is worth a look.



Why Watch?


  • A taut psychological thriller
  • Chloe Sevigny, always a class act
  • Jonathan Liebesman’s crisp, clean shooting style
  • Guess the twist ending




The Killing Room – Watch it now at Amazon


I am an Amazon affiliate




© Steve Morrissey 2014




The Machine Girl

Asami and Minase Yashiro in The Machine Girl


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



25 July


Gavrilo Princip born, 1894

On this day in 1894, the man who started the First World War was born, in Obljaj, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to a family of serf farmers, Serbian Orthodox Christians.

Gavrilo Princip didn’t go to school till he was nine, but was bright and a quick learner. His brother, sensing a family member who could lift the entire clan out of poverty, encouraged Gavrilo to move to Sarajevo when he was 13, using money earned as a manual labourer to put his younger brother through merchant school.

Gavrilo became a passionate campaigner for Yugoslavian unification and against the rule of the Austro-Hungarians. Thrown out of school for political agitating, Gavrilo tried to join the Black Hand, one of the foremost Serbian guerrilla bands trying to rid the country of its imperial rulers. But they wouldn’t have him, on account of his size and puniness. However he did manage to join the Serbian Chetnik Organisation and was trained in bomb-making, swordsmanship and shooting.

With tensions rising in the area, the Austro-Hungarians declared a state of emergency in Sarajevo, which propelled Gavrilo and fellow conspirators towards the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor.

The attempt, on the morning of 28 June 1914, was a catalogue of failure, with none of the six assassins managing to hit their target. However, by a complete fluke, Princip happened upon the Archduke’s car as he made his way across town later. In fact it stalled right in front of him, giving him a shot on target from around 1.5m (5 feet).

His bullets killed both the Archduke and his wife.




The Machine Girl (2008, dir: Noboru Igushi)

Before the opening credits on The Machine Girl have even rolled we’ve met our heroine, Ami, a slip of a girl in a school uniform who has saved a young boy from menacing thugs by blowing them away with what looks like a First World War machine gun, apparently an extension of her arm. But not blown away just any old how. She does it by dismantling their heads bit by bit with a targeted line of bullets, fountains of blood gushing into the air, flops of gore hitting the camera lens.
The credits out of the way, the mood established, we roll backwards in time to discover how a nice meek Japanese miss became a ruthless bloodthirsty killer. Revenge is the answer, for the death of her brother, though really the plot is not the thing in this patchwork of grindhouse and anime held together with blood, gore and an eye for the absurd.

Here’s how she lost her arm: Ami went to the house of the bully who was tormenting her brother, to speak to his parents. They responded by deep-frying her arm. “It’s hot,” she observes. “It fried up nicely,” they reply.

And this is just where the madness is getting going, about 30 minutes in, once the framework of a plot has been established on which to hang the festoons of offal that follow.

How about a chef being fed a sushi of human fingers? Or a father being given a hair conditioner made of his son’s blood? (Is it any surprise to learn that the director used to churn out enema fetish videos?)

But unlike many more western stabs into this territory – the Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse experiments being the most high profile – The Machine Girl never lets on that it’s comedy.

This is all the more impressive when you consider that its lead character, Minase Yashiro, youthful “gravure idol” (a pin-up, basically), is making her debut, and never goes further than offering a hint of panty to satisfy the, let’s face it, largely male audience.

At various points the amputation does get a bit too much, but then the director rescues the film with another moment of bravura slaughter, climaxing in a finale that does special things with a bra the likes of which you probably won’t have seen before.

It’s a comic book collection of offcuts, a resource book of nastiness for Hollywood magpies to pick over, the deliberate 1970s production values, wilfully bad syncing, obviously poorly staged fights all adding to the sense that we’re being entertained as much by Iguchi’s (and our own) sense of cinema history as by the film itself. Those Female Convict Scorpion films of the 1970s have a lot to answer for.



Why Watch?


  • A kickass debut by Minase Yashiro
  • One of the most inventive gore feasts you will see
  • The brilliant practical special effects
  • The Japanese return the Grindhouse compliment


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Machine Girl – Watch it now at Amazon






Andrew Buckley and Will Adamsdale in Skeletons


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



24 July


Last Tsar of Bulgaria becomes prime minister, 2001

On this day in 2001, having been elected in a free and fair vote, the last Tsar of Bulgaria, Tsar Simeon II, aka Simeon Borisov Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, became prime minister of Bulgaria.

The monarchy had been abolished by the Communists in 1946 and the nine-year-old Tsar – the word derives from Caesar (more obviously if spelt Csar) as does the German Kaiser – had gone into exile, first in Egypt, then in Madrid. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, he applied for and was issued with a new Bulgarian passport. In 1996 he returned to his country, where he was feted by crowds hoping for a restoration of the monarchy.

Simeon responded by forming a political party, pointedly avoided the use of the title Tsar, and went on to win the elections in 2001 with 42.74% of the vote, on a platform of reform and the rule of law. Simeon’s was a largely technocratic administration and he moved to ally his country with the west – it joined Nato, applied for membership of the EU. In the 2005 elections his party scored 21.83% of the popular vote. In the elections of 2009 just 3.0%. After which Simeon resigned as the leader of his party.




Skeletons (2010, dir: Nick Whitfield)

You might not have seen the tiny British film Skeletons, but if you’ve seen Insidious, you’ve seen a film that’s seen Skeletons. The characters of Specs and Turner, the two odd ghostbusters? They are directly… influenced, let’s say… by Nick Whitfield’s great film, so full of tiny sparks of originality that it’s no wonder other film-makers said “I want a bit of that.”

Here, the original Specs and Turner are called Simon (Will Adamsdale) and Bennett (Andrew Buckley) and they’re a pair of characters who might have been scripted by a downbeat British Tarantino – Mr Fat and Mr Small – a dry, loquacious Laurel and Hardy who discuss everything under the sun except the exact nature of what they’re doing here and now.

We join these two on yet another job, at the house of a woman (Paprika Steen) whose pretty young daughter (Tuppence Middleton) has become mute. Simon and Bennett creak into action, first going through a long and baffling questionnaire – with questions such as “Have you ever assisted in an amputation?” – before getting down to work proper, finding skeletons literally in the cupboard and extracting secrets from hidden places.

Whitfield’s master stroke is to put all these characters, who seem fairly modern, into a setting that looks like the England of memory – as if the world of Brief Encounter had snapped back into life. The effect is to produce a forward-leaning “what the hell is going on” viewing experience.

We work out the answer gradually: these two guys appear to be representatives of some sort of agency who travel about fixing disturbances in the psychic fabric of the world, sending things back to where they should be. This they do with little magic tokens. A scrap of paper with a photo on it. A few stones. A pen. With a film, Whitfield has worked out already, it’s the audience who supply the fantasy, the director just has to give us the invitation to imagine. He does, and we do.

Jason Isaacs turns up for a few minutes in a cameo – he loved the film so much he became an unofficial booster – in a flat cap and tweed suit as some kind of management figure come to give his lads a bluff pep talk. But otherwise it’s a sea of largely unknown faces (though the excellent Steen is well known in her native Denmark), doing mysterious things in a downbeat way.

Its universe is complete and its logic works. So when either Bennett or Simon (sorry, can’t remember which) talks about one of the duo “going Bulgarian” we understand that this is not a good thing, and a quick blast of the eerie harmonies of the Bulgarian vocal troupe the Trio Bulgarka on the soundtrack nudge us, in case we’re a bit slow.

Variety didn’t like the film – “Skeletons fails to rattle any cupboards” they said – but in this case Variety are wrong. As an example of the British surreal – Harold Pinter meets the 1960s TV series The AvengersSkeletons is pretty much unbeatable. And it’s got some good jokes. And at one point someone in the special effects department has even sprung for a smoke bomb. Fantastic.



Why Watch?


  • A great debut by Nick Whitfield
  • A lot of love on the festival circuit
  • The Buckley/Adamsdale double act
  • An early sighting of future star Tuppence Middleton



Skeletons – Watch it now at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate




© Steve Morrissey 2014