The Man Who Knew Too Much

Colin Wallace

 

James Stewart? Doris Day? Alfred Hitchcock? No. Instead meet Colin Wallace, a retired real-life spook who got heavily involved in the UK government’s undercover operations in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, blew the whistle when his paymasters started asking him to start smearing democratically elected politicians, then wound up in jail on a ten-year stretch on a confected charge of manslaughter. Strangely, or perhaps it’s not strange at all, it’s a tale from recent history with an urgent contemporary relevance.

Michael Oswald’s documentaries to date have all sought to pull back the veil on the hidden workings of the world. Finance was the focus in 97% Owned, Princes of the Yen and The Spider’s Web but in The Man Who Knew Too Much Oswald concentrates on the shady world of everyday espionage and government overreach, the point where the elected administration of the day starts to fancy itself as the state – its “l’état c’est moi” moment.

Softly spoken Wallace talks us through his remarkable story – as the Troubles got underway, the Northern Ireland native was drafted in to the UK government’s psy ops team because of his local knowledge. From the early 1970s onwards he started using friendly journalists to drip-feed stories into the press, stories designed to destabilise the terrorists’ narrative. Some of these were lightweight, some bizarre – the glut of newspaper articles on satanism in the region were all Wallace, for example – others more routinely linked terrorism to the Vatican or the Soviet Union, whoever happened to be plausible. Disinformation, misinformation, anything that muddied the water.

Good at his job, Wallace’s technique for getting a story up and running was one that’s even more prevalent today in the world of all-pervasive social media. He would write pseudonymous letters to tiny local papers raising the issue of, say, satanism, then use those same letters as “evidence” of what was being talked about at a local level to punt the story further up the news chain. The entirely synthetic story would get legs.

 

One of Wallace's successful stories
One of Wallace’s successfully planted stories

 

Wallace’s story gets darker from here as it forks in two different directions. One involves a Loyalist organisation called Tara, headed by William McGrath, who operated a paedophile ring out of the Kincora Boys Home. The Northern Ireland authorities knew what was going on but were reluctant to hand a propaganda victory to the Republicans and so kept a lid on the organised abuse allegedly involving high-level officials, a scandal that continues to resonate.

The other is Wallace’s involvement with what became known as Clockwork Orange, an attempt in the mid-1970s by rogue elements inside the UK security services to destabilise the elected government by smearing politicians, all the way up to the prime minister.
A patriot but also clearly a believer in the rule of law, Wallace had not signed up to protect paedophiles nor to help facilitate a right-wing coup and so started to speak out. For his efforts he was fired and eventually wound up in jail, convicted on a trumped-up charge of having killed the husband of a woman he was said to be having an affair with.

He served six years before being released. More years went by before his conviction was overturned.

It’s a murky tale, at its sharpest in Wallace’s early days. The focus blurs as the story shifts to the boys home and the smearing of UK politicians. As the voluble Wallace becomes cagier (the chill winds of the Official Secrets Act), Oswald’s array of journalists and historians are called on increasingly to plug the gaps with informed speculation.

Wallace might be the focus of this film, but its actual subject isn’t him but the UK state. Nor is it even really the UK state, but elements within it acting on its behalf. These people remain unidentified, though Wallace knows many of the names – as recently as February 2019 Wallace was urging the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to answer some of the many unanswered questions. Silence.

Knowledgeable though Oswald’s witnesses are, the absence of key witnesses means the whole story cannot be told here. But a film about fake news, election tampering, a high-level paedophile conspiracy and the deep state, how much more contemporary relevance do you want?

 

 

Click here for screenings of The Man Who Knew Too Much

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Antarctica

Kimie Muroya and Chloë Levine

 

Antarctica is a Booksmart-style comedy about a couple of high school girls, friends who don’t fit in, cocky and standoffish as a defence against the scorn they get from fellow schoolmates. They are not cool.

They have fairly OK home lives which they think are horrible, a perfectly decent school life which they also think is horrible, and most of their woes are entirely self-generated. People refer to them as dykes, which they’re not

They sound like an awful pair of entitled bitches and in real life they probably would be, but in the hands of actors Chloë Levine and newcomer Kimie Muroya they’re charm personified – it really helps that Levine and Muroya have a hand-in-glove chemistry. The actors mesh as well as the characters.

Writer/director Keith Bearden gets us on side with them by putting the girls to the sword – Kat (Levine), sick of being shunned, and slightly charmed by peevish motormouth Stevie D (Steve Lipman), lets him have sex with her in the back of a car.

Stevie D, being a dick, spreads details of his conquest across that generic social media platform that movies use and soon everyone at school is treating Kat like a slut, which provokes Janet (Muroya) into violence against Stevie D.

 

The astronaut meets Janet
The (possibly imaginary) astronaut meets Janet

 

This being the sort of weird school where classes are being taught on the greatest US president of all time (Ronald Reagan) and the country’s biggest traitor (Bill Clinton), the girls both end up under heavy manners. Kat is sent to a sex rehab clinic mostly catering to horny old dudes (motto: Open Heart, Closed Zipper), while Janet is put on a lady tranquiliser called Femtrexl, which causes her to hallucinate that she’s being visited by an astronaut.

Neither of these things seem plausible, but then the high school comedy rarely seems entirely plausible, with attitudes to sex which seem, to anyone who grew up on this side of the Atlantic, to still be stuck in the 1950s.

Playing both to and against these genre expectations, Antarctica is a State of the Fucked-Up Nation comedy with the humour almost entirely of the TMI sort. For instance Kat’s mother (Chlea Lewis) admits at one point, in an attempt to promote a closer emotional bond with her daughter, that she didn’t really catch herpes from a yoga mat.

Most of the jokes land, some do not. In general, films about teenage ennui can get a bit wearisome – every character a Holden Caulfield, none of the writers a Diablo Cody – but Antarctica dodges that bullet through the sheer likeability of the young women, the actors’ gift for comic delivery (Muroya in particular) and by Bearden’s decision to include an oasis of cuteness in the shape of a local retirement home where there’s a weekly dance.

Cynical feelgood – it’s a sub-genre all of its own.

 

 

Antarctica is showing at the Raindance Festival

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Scare Me

Aya Cash and Josh Ruben

 

There are two interesting things going on in Scare Me, what looks at first glance (and probably deliberately) like a Stephen King-style horror story about a writer having a tough time of it out in a cabin in the woods.

Director/writer Josh Ruben also plays struggling writer Fred, here to crank out a horror tale that’s meant to save him from his humdrum job in advertising, though he spends more time doing impressions of Jack Nicholson in The Shining than actually writing.

Out for a run the next day, he meets Fanny (Aya Cash) who turns out only to be the hottest writer of horror fiction right now, her book Venus a runaway smash that’s been read by everyone, except Fred.

She makes it abundantly clear that she has no interest in him at any level. However, fate in the form of a power outage throws them together and they decide to play a game called Scare Me – taking turns to tell campfire shockers until the lights come back on.

Here’s where things get interesting. As Fred kicks off with a story about a werewolf, at first it’s just Fred, his gestures, reactions and vocal inflections that are conveying the story. But as he goes on, sounds, lighting effects and musical stabs from what we imagine this story would be like if it was a movie start to bleed into Fred’s one-man narration. In terms the ancient Greeks would understand, the mimetic (the “show don’t tell”) is invading the diegetic (the narrated story).

 

Josh Ruben gets into his role
Fred gets right into character. Picture: Sundance Institute

 

Fanny tells a story about an evil grandpa, Fred responds with one about a troll, and all the while this bleed-across is becoming more pronounced – lighting adds emphasis, an orchestra add drama, at one point in Fanny’s story she says “If this was a movie I’d dolly in real slow right now,” and the camera does just that.

It’s a neat narrative trick. There are plenty of films with both diegetic and mimetic elements (every flashback movie, every movie with a narrator in voiceover) but not many (any?) that do it in quite this way.

That’s writer Ruben’s trick. His second is to add in a gender-politics angle. Fanny is super successful; Fred is a beta male who wants to be alpha, but he’s also a guy who wants to be acclaimed as a writer rather than do the actual work. Fanny’s famous book is called Venus, which is where women are from, if you remember your 1990s slogans. This means Fred is from Mars, planet of war. No, the film does not have a happy ending…

Whether gender politics is really what’s going on here – rather than status politics pure and simple – is debatable, since that’s a porous boundary. Either way this isn’t meant to be a scary film. Instead it’s an exercise in form with trainspottery references for horror nuts which also calls for massive performances by Ruben, Cash and, eventually Chris Redd (the pizza delivery guy also gets involved), a livewire comedian with a pantomime style that fits right into the others’ increasingly excessive performances.

At one point, in fact, there are three people facing the camera essentially shouting out of the screen at the audience. That’s entertainment!

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Come As You Are

Grant Rosenmeyer, Ravi Patel and Hayden Szeto

 

In 2006 a Leeds-based American man called Asta Philpot visited a brothel while on holiday in Spain. He got laid. Nothing unusual there, except Asta was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that means he could barely move.

Having enjoyed himself and suddenly realising that he didn’t necessarily have to live the sort of chaste life that seems to be a disabled man’s lot, Philpot decided to organise a trip back to Spain with two friends, one legally blind, one paralysed after an accident, for more of the same. The BBC went along for the, er, ride, and turned the trip into a documentary, For One Night Only.

This formed the basis of a Belgian comedy originally called Hasta La Vista, aka Come As You Are. And now there’s this: an American film also called Come As You Are, about three guys – one with barely any movement below the neck, one paralysed from the waist down after an accident, the third legally blind.

If the characters are fairly true to the originals, the action’s been shifted to the USA and, Spain being a bit of a trek, the equal-opportunities brothel (slogan: “come as you are”) is now up in Montreal, where the French influence means a whorehouse is more likely to be a chi-chi place done up in fin-de-siecle style rather than a sweaty grip tacked on to the back of a lapdancing club.

Given that their conditions mean the three man are cared for by loving parents who’d be horrified at the sex-for-cash equation, doing a bunk is the answer and soon a road-trip movie is underway, with the three oddballs – barely friends until the trip is organised – and their two wheelchairs, luggage etc in a van and heading north to the fleshpots of Canada.

None of them can drive and so, along with the van comes a driver (played by Gabourey Sidibe), a woman with a very low threshold for bullshit and with a disability of her own, albeit an invisible one – diabetes.

 

Ravi Patel and Gabourey Sidibe
Breaking for the border: Mo and Sam

 

This could all be incredibly worthy, with talk of rights for disabled people and much justification of paying for sex, the exploitation of sex workers etc. But much like Philpot himself in YouTube interviews, all that is brushed to one side in breezy fashion in a film that basically says “why the hell shouldn’t they” and then gets on with being funny.

This starts from the get-go, with the Philpot avatar Scotty (Grant Rosenmeyer) waking up at home in bed with an erection and his mother (Janeane Garofalo) in very matter of fact fashion, and chirruping the entire time (she never stops talking), hauling the covers off him before transporting him to the bathroom where the washing of Scotty’s privates also get the comedic treatment.

What Scotty, Matt (Hayden Szeto) and Mo (Ravi Patel) can and cannot do is the source of the laughs – almost-blind Mo cannot, for instance, drive the van, even with Matt shouting out instructions and shifting the gears.

They’re a well balanced trio: Scotty, the bright-spark motormouth with a penchant for rapping his thoughts, Mo the 35-year-old virgin who calls this road trip a field trip because he’s a bit of a wuss, and handsome Matt, closest to a well-balanced disposition.

We probably didn’t need to meet Matt’s girlfriend early on and later the subplot about the parents giving chase once they realise what’s afoot, or achair, could be removed without harming the film much. This film is at its best in the van and on the road.

None of the actors is disabled (in the way their characters are) and this is probably an issue for some people – surely there are disabled actors out there who could do with the gig? – but Twitter seems cool with it. Maybe the comedy genre just isn’t seen as issue-y enough. But issues there are here aplenty, in particular the way disabled people are infantilised by those around them,  including their loved ones.

Writer Erik Linthorst’s light touch, director Richard Wong’s screwball zip and the breezy playing by all four (Sidibe becomes an increasingly vital part of the combo and is a real asset to the film) is enough to bounce the film over a feelgood/feelbad/feelgood ending which at first feels bizarre but in retrospect makes a lot of sense.

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Shirley

Shirley and Rose talking

 

Shirley is your madwoman’s breakfast, a seething mass of dramatic tropes held together by a distinctly 1940s Freudian thriller atmosphere and populated by characters from a hall of mirrors.

Elisabeth Moss plays real-life novelist Shirley Jackson (even Moss is cagey about how close her Shirley is to the original), the febrile, blunt-speaking, possibly clairvoyant novelist living on campus with her bumptious professor husband Stanley, played at full dervish by the ever-superb Michael Stuhlbarg.

Into their lives come young lecturer Fred (Logan Lerman in another vanilla male role) and his wide-eyed newly pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young, the actual focus of the film), just for a day or so while the new arrivals get settled into to their new lives in this cosy university town.

Circumstances, or possibly Stanley and Shirley, conspire against them, and soon Fred and Rose are living with the prof (specialism: folklore) and his neuraesthenic wife, cooking, cleaning, skivvying – Rose is actually doing the work, since Fred is… well Fred’s a man and it’s the 1950s.

What then plays out starts off by looking like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (nice young couple monstered by a theatrically intense older couple), then morphs into something closer to Rebecca (unstable Rose comes under the influence of the mercurial, Mrs Danvers-alike Shirley).

Or do I mean The Wicker Man (Rose as the lamb led to the pagan slaughter)?

Or even, as the brittle, brilliant Shirley and the pliable, friendly Rose get closer, Thelma and Louise

Take your pick.

But there’s more. Since the professor lectures in old myths ad folklore and Shirley is writing a book about a female student who went missing some years earlier, in the woods, dressed in a red coat, Red Riding Hood comes to mind, and in particular Angela Carter’s feminist reading of it (which became Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves).

 

Shirley in the bath
A long soak to get the horns clean

 

So we’ve got a pretty awful agoraphobic writer plagued by psychsomatic illnesses and given to Delphic utterances, a pregnant woman appalled and attracted to this monster, an overpowering older husband of aggressive chumminess, a dead girl, possibly also pregnant, references to Freud, mythical drop-ins (were those young women wound in and around a tree meant to be Muses, or Graces?), a soundtrack that breaks into Siren-style discordant harmonies now and again, a camera whose wide lenses are frequently right up in the face of Moss, who responds with a performance of banzai madness, and most of the action taking place in a house bathed in sepulchral gloom.

Histrionic, and then some, if you were on even a small amount of hallucinogens it would probably scare you to death.

Lerman and his character Fred are there to indicate how normal Rose is and how far she’s wandered away from the mean. The overbearing Professor, too, though an interesting character trying to control his wife with a mix of strong booze and manic bluster, is just a sideshow. The film is about the women and an older idea of the female as febrile, emotional, given to the vapours, in touch with the mystical, given to hysteria.

Confident post-feminist genre pastiche, a mirror held to the past, no further comment being necessary? A female director, Josephine Decker, writer (Sarah Gubbins adapting Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel), composer (Tamar-kali), production designer (Sue Chan), art director (Kirby Feagan) and a clutch of female producers would suggest so.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Back Roads

Harley and Callie confront each other

 

Having played the junior James Bond figure Alex Rider in Stormrider, and then a few teenage heartthrobs before bulking up to become a kind of Channing Tatum in waiting, Alex Pettyfer takes control of his own destiny by starring in his own film. It’s his directorial debut and a pretty good one, a knotty piece of American trash gothic about a family in trouble.

As we open, Pettyfer’s blood-stained Harley is being grilled by cop Robert Patrick. Why did you kill her, the cop wants to know. But the question this film actually asks is not why but who?

We know it’s a woman who’s dead, but which woman exactly? Harley’s life is full of women. There’s his mother, currently in prison for killing her husband, the three younger sisters Harley is now bringing up single handed, the therapist he’s seeing for reasons which become clearer as the film becomes darker, and the mother of one of Harley’s sister’s friends.

The film then unfolds in flashback and is as much a story about guilt and innocence as a murder thriller. More than that, it’s also the story of a family who are all dealing in different ways with the fallout from abuse – Harley is given to wild mood swings and is touchingly (wilfully?) naive. His almost invariably scantily clad sister Amber (Nicola Peltz) deals with the abuse by having sex with anyone, anyhow. For his other sister Misty (Chiara Aurelia) it’s an unhealthy interest in firearms. Only youngest sister Jody (Hala Finley) seems unscathed, though it’s all relative.

 

Harley in his work clothes
Harley drudges to keep the family together

 

How the kids got into this state is revealed as the film progresses, in a plotline neatly interwoven with the original one about who wound up dead.

The link between the two is Callie Mercer (Jennifer Morrison), the local MILF with the hots for Harley and with no idea what she’s getting into.

Adrian Lyne is one of the writers and was originally meant to direct. The legacy of that is evident in the sex scenes between Harley and Callie, sweaty with Fatal Attraction/9½Weeks steam.

Otherwise, it’s an elegantly directed film, cool and assured – perhaps too cool at times considering what we’re watching – and like a lot of actors who turn to directing, Pettyfer gives the cast its head. He’s rewarded with great performances all round – Morrison and Peltz are the standouts as women ambivalent about their sexual commodification. Hotness is power, after all.

Increasingly reminiscent psychologically of Gary Oldman’s directorial debut, Nil By Mouth, another dark tale of a family in extremis, Back Roads shares its conclusions about the effects of prolonged abuse – it bends things out of shape, and in ways that are not easily plotted on a graph.

Without revealing the denouement, I’m trying to say that things get very dark, histrionic even, as this film slowly transforms from being about the identity of the victim to the identity of the perpetrator, or perpetrators.

A word about Robert Patrick and Juliette Lewis. They’re often brought in to a terrible film to deliver a bit of cult cultural baggage, if nothing else. Patrick has no room to flex here – he’s a cop asking questions and gets about five minutes screen time. So does Lewis, but in her five minutes, even though she’s playing a woman in prison, she delivers one of those performances you don’t want to take your eyes off.

But this isn’t a terrible film. In fact it’s a pretty good one, especially if you like dark dramas about the devastating effects of sex when it’s let out of its box.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Camp X Ray

The new recruits are briefed

One of three 2014 Kristen Stewart films that seemed designed to shift her image out of Twilight territory and into something with a bit more actorly grunt, Camp X Ray works better as brand realignment than as drama.

The other two were Clouds of Sils Maria and Still Alice, the first a Juliette Binoche arthouse flick, the other starring Julianne Moore as an English professor with early onset dementia. In both Stewart was second billing to a major league dramatic actor and metaphorically sat at the feet of the star and took notes.

She didn’t have to do it. At the time she was one of the highest paid actress in the world (Forbes says number eight, having been number one in 2012) and is every bit as skilled as either Binoche or Moore. Here, though similar “rebranding” considerations are in play – this is a low-budget movie by a debuting director – she’s undoubtedly the star, playing Cole, a rookie private assigned to Guantanamo Bay.

There, flint-faceted Cole develops a friendship with one of the detainees (not “prisoners” she informs fellow rookie Rico early on, otherwise the Geneva Convention would apply to the detainees’ treatment), a garrulous, intelligent and sensitive man whose crimes are never enumerated.

Playing the Islamic detainee Ali, who we’ve seen snatched from his home, cuffed, hooded and transported by plane, boat and truck to Gitmo eight years before Cole has even turned up, is Payman Maadi.

Cole first meets Ali when she’s on library duty, and she and the prisoner (sorry, detainee) start discussing books. He likes a wide range of books, from Emily Dickinson to Harry Potter (no mention of the Twilight books). Here, and in almost all of their later scenes together, the film is fabulous. Essentially a fraught chamber piece, it’s about two people edging warily towards each other, testing boundaries, trading tiny scraps of emotion, with Maadi and Stewart clearly actors on the same “less is more” register.

The camera is fabulous too, right in their faces on either side of a pane of glass, to catch the nuances of a transactional micro-drama.

Cole with troublesome Mahmoud
Cole with the troublesome Mahmoud (Marco Khan)


As Cole becomes closer to Ali, she moves further away from her fellow US soldiers, notably Corporal Ransdell (Lane Garrison), a jockish asshole with scant regard for the dignity of the detainees, with Ransdell eventually taking action to prevent the Cole/Ali relationship going any further. It is a prison, after all.

We’re on course for a great film. But hang on… is Ali guilty of something? He’s a Muslim, though not a particularly devout one, and we learn that he was living in Bremen, Germany, before being subjected to extraordinary rendition. He seems like a nice man, but as a passing reference to Hannibal Lecter has already established, a few charming interchanges between an authority figure and a man in a cell can be misleading.

Without more knowledge about Ali, this is a film about a soldier getting friendly with someone and then getting pissed off when her job as his jailer gets in the way. Which is fine as far as it goes, but given that we’re in Guantanamo Bay, one of the most contentious sites of detention in recent decades, it’s reasonable to expect more than a drama about a soldier having a fit of pique, surely?

Talking of which, I don’t know much about Guantanamo Bay, aka Camp X Ray, but, here at any rate, the regime does seem to be majorly benign – the food’s a bit pedestrian, and they will force-feed you if you refuse to eat, but on the whole the prisoners are left alone, there is no torture, not even a mild interrogation.

It’s all a bit vanilla. Allied to the “Is that it, really?” aspect of Cole’s personal drama this is a great shame, because the acting by Stewart and Maadi has been both subtle and intense (the support players pretty damn good too) with director Peter Sattler keeping a grip on the dynamics until things get away from him in a speechy last act.

Still, it helps move our heroine – increasingly smoky-eyed and rosy-lipped for a soldier as Camp X Ray winds to a teary conclusion – out of K-Stew territory and into more adult regions.

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© Steve Morrissey 2020



God’s Own Country

Josh O'Connor and Alec Secareanu

 

It was reading about his highly anticipated 2020 film Ammonite that jolted me into the realisation that I’d never got around to seeing God’s Own Country, former actor Francis Lee’s 2017 debut as writer/director. It was on the must-watch list and then another load of must-watches came along and it got lost. Thanks to the imminence of Ammonite, amends have now been made.

“God’s own county” (not “country”) is what proud Yorshirefolk call England’s biggest (and once richest) administrative region, a sentiment not shared by the protagonist of this tale of big emotions played out on small canvases.

Johnny (Josh O’Connor) hates Yorkshire, he hates the family farm he works on with his increasingly ailing dad (Ian Hart) and severe nan (Gemma Jones), hates the fact he’s stuck there while other, luckier locals have gone off to university, the big city, wherever. When not grudgingly tending to the sheep, he’s either having quick bouts of joyless gay sex with whoever will do it with him – strictly no strings, he doesn’t want a relationship – or else getting absolutely hammered on booze.

Francis Lee is gay and grew up on a West Yorkshire farm next door to where this was shot, so this might be his own story, and being a debut you’d expect a bit of “write what you know”. Whether it is or not, Lee – who headed to the fleshpots of London as a young man but now lives back on the Yorkshire moors – has spotted that there’s a lot of dramatic tension to be had from the juxtaposition of being a young gay man and being a Yorkshire native, where stoicism is a way of life and “mithering” is something you never want to be accused of. Out and proud, it’s all a bit too demonstrative.

Johnny’s home seethes with emotions held in check – Dad is silent and furious, Nan is tight-lipped. “Hear all, see all, say nowt…” as the old Yorkshire saying starts.

Then along comes temporary Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) – a “Gypo” Johnny calls him – to help with the lambing for a week or so. He’s a dark, handsome stranger, a Heathcliff from Eastern Europe with a gentle touch when it comes to ewes in difficulty and robust enough to absorb Johnny’s open hostility.

 

Gheorghe washes while Johnny broods
Gheorghe washes while Johnny broods

 

They fall for each other, and we spend the rest of the film watching Johnny’s granite rejection of emotional attachment being worn down by a force he can’t control.

Neither man says much, but everything they do say is freighted with meaning. They call each other “faggot” as a term of endearment, because saying “I love you” is impossible, for Johnny at any rate. And they have fast, hard sex, rolling around in the mud outside in their first physical encounter, because that way it’s a physical rather than emotional act (and it makes the whole thing somehow more manly).

In a Hollywood film you’d probably get a big affirmative finish, perhaps even a musical number (joke) but though Johnny’s journey is epic and transformational, the fireworks are all internal – and here the acting by O’Connor in particular, but also Secareanu, Hart and Jones is exactly of a piece with the bleak cinematography (don’t expect sunshine), the gritty landscape and the flat interiors.

It’s not a one to ten sort of film, more a zero to one – binary – the biggest transformation of all.

God’s Own Country is regularly bracketed with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. But whereas the first is a gay drama (coming out, or whether to, is the issue), Weekend has gone beyond that (being out is the issue) while God’s Own Country is further along still – it’s a post-gay drama. Here, being a mardy Yorkshireman is of much more significance than sexual orientation.

 

God’s Own Country – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Noelle

Anna Kendrick in bobble hat and warm coat

 

Christmas movies. They’re churned out by TV channels, who plop a cute jumper on a couple of their botoxed, permatanned stars, add a bit of grog to a romantic plot involving the healing of a family rift – or something – and there you are, 90 minutes (perhaps 120 with adverts) of overlit fixed-grin cheer.

But when a Christmas movie works – A Christmas Carol (almost any one of them) or Elf – what a glorious thing it is, catharsis without the pain.

Noelle fits that bill. Borrowing heavily from Elf, it’s a feminist-lite tale of the girl who would be Christmas, Anna Kendrick playing the daughter of Santa Claus who, when the old fella dies, is overlooked as a contender for the job even though she’s got the skills the new Santa (Bill Hader’s Nick) lacks.

Nick can’t get down chimneys, is afraid of reindeer and can’t tell the difference between the naughty and nice kids. He’s wrong for the job. Noelle on the other hand… if only she weren’t a girl.

Writer/director Marc Lawrence reworks Elf’s “naive abroad” plot to send Noelle after Nick after he does a bunk and becomes a yoga teacher in Phoenix, Arizona – it’s warm and the North Pole is not – piling her into confrontations with everyday cynics like private investigator Jake (Kingsley Ben-Adir), a divorced dad slightly estranged from his young kid.

Emotionally, that’s an obvious open goal. This is Lawrence’s MO. In four films starring Hugh Grant (Two Weeks’ Notice, Have You Heard About the Morgans, Music and Lyrics and The Rewrite) he’s shown himself to be less interested in situations – they’re all corny – keener on using them as scaffolding for jokes.

And he’s good at jokes, most of them at the expense of Noelle’s helium enthusiasm, but Lawrence doesn’t forget to also pile on the skates, the hot chocolate, the open fires and chocolate boxery.

 

Shirley MacLaine as Elf Polly
Elf Polly looks familiar

 

Less successful, though you can’t fault Lawrence for trying, is his introduction of a wee subplot featuring a homeless mother (Marisa Nielsen) and her deaf daughter (Shaylee Mansfield), who are looking at the prospect of spending Christmas in a shelter. Lawrence’s “fix”? Give them an iPad.

In fact there are so many references to iPads it becomes a bit of a running gag. It’s almost as if Lawrence is buying at face value the story that the tech giants tell the world – we can fix it all – when it’s clear once homeless Lisa and daughter Michelle have taken delivery of their Christmas iPad that they’re still homeless.

Should we pile in on Lawrence for touching on a societal issue that can’t be fixed by yuletide present-giving, or praise him for raising it all and reminding us of how lucky most of us are?

Either way, I have not mentioned that Shirley MacLaine plays an elf, Noelle’s childhood nanny, who heads with her to Arizona, where she doles out severe advice and hides her pointy ears under a hat.

Yes, Shirley MacLaine. It is bizarre but inspired casting, MacLaine proving she’s still got the razor sharp timing that Billy Wilder exploited so well in The Apartment, made nearly 60 years before.

Like Elf, Noelle’s message is simple but heartfelt – listen to people, empathise, don’t be so clique-y.

Fast-paced, smartly written and without too much gush, it’s a proper Christmas movie whose strong women and failing men will probably infuriate a few conservatives. The Christians among them will need to think twice – Santa Claus is probably based on pagan god Wodan (or Odin), after all. Either way, a merry Christmas to one and all!

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Possessor

Andrea Riseborough

 

Stab a human being in a vital area of the body and what happens? In most movies, after one clean thrust a modicum of blood seeps decorously into an item of clothing and the victim promptly drops dead. But this is a Brandon Cronenberg movie and Brandon is the heir to David Cronenberg, king of the body horrror.

So when someone is stabbed in the neck in the pre-credits sequence to Possessor, the blood-letting is spumungous, nasty, frenzied and inconclusive – this victim isn’t going down without a fight. Even as he dies he’s summoning all his forces to keep the only show he has on the road. That’s what happens.

Remarkably, this is Brandon Cronenberg’s first feature – there have been a handful of shorts – since Antiviral, his 2012 feature debut, a cerebral incursion into dad David’s body-horror territory but with a critique of celebrity culture whose subtext made Antiviral all Brandon’s own.

Possessor is a touch of same/same and borrows not just a bit of dad’s 1999 wild ride eXistenZ, but also one of its stars, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays the control sending assassin Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) on missions into other people bodies, using “them” to perform some murderous deed before Tasya is ported back into her own world, where her body has been waiting Matrix-style, plugged into life support while her mind was gambolling murderously.

eXistenZ, quick recap, is about Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh lost inside a computer game. Possessor sends Riseborough Tasya off on “one last job” – to assassinate a tech squillionaire (Sean Bean), and his heir-presumptive daughter (Tuppence Middleton), in the guise of her wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend (Christopher Abbott), leaving him to take the rap so the client, a mysterious stepson, can instead inherit.

 

Christopher Abbott
Taking over from the halfway mark, Christopher Abbott

In Tasya goes, at which point Andrea Riseborough more or less exits the movie (boo) and the acting torch is handed to Abbott, who struggles to match Riseborough for sheer magnetic oomph – but then who doesn’t?

In “one last job” movies, the assassin rarely has an easy time of it, and so it proves here – Tasya gets stuck inside her host’s body and he starts fighting back to establish who has the upper hand.

There’s no point going into the rest of the plot except to say that there is an awful lot more blood, gore and splatter before the end credits. People do not die easily in Possessor. Eyes are levered from sockets, teeth are bent out of reluctant jaws. Tons of fun.

It’s a little like Christopher Nolan’s Inception without the budget and relies an awful lot more on imagination rather than tech wows for its effects.

Cronenberg Jr wrote and directs and has the right stuff in spades, particularly the ideas, and an eye for a striking image, which is two pluses more than a lot of directors have.

Even so I couldn’t help feeling that for all its moments of mad excess and cool procedure, BC never quite found a register to fuly meld the “job” movie with the fugitive thriller.

On top of that there’s a lunge at profundity with a discussion about human identity and culpability – who is the author of the act if the person is possessed (or ill, for that matter)? – which is not only a step towards Christopher Nolan too far but also a resurrection of a trope that’s been done to death, revived and done to death again.

I see no upcoming details for BC on the IMDB and hoping it’s not going to be another eight years before his next film. Niggles apart, there’s an awful lot to like, admire even, in Possessor, particularly if severed body parts (still twitching) are your thing.

 

Possessor – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020