The Hidden Fortress

Princess Yuki and General Makabe

The Hidden Fortress is a film by Akira Kurosawa and just that fact alone – “a film by Akira Kurosawa” – is enough to get it bracketed as an arthouse movie. Which is entirely ridiculous if you watch it, because there’s nothing difficult or abstruse going on here, no philosophical musing, no challenging style experiments to overcome or difficulties over character, plot or chronology.

It’s an out and out Saturday evening adventure movie with action, comedy, a pretty girl and a strapping hero. It’s that aspect of it, its entertainment value, that first attracted George Lucas to it when he was first scoping out his first Star Wars film. Great though Star Wars is, an arthouse movie it is not.

There are other similarities with Lucas’s film, though the whole “it’s based on The Hidden Fortress” argument takes things too far. This is a quest movie, there is an endangered princess and in its lead characters, venal, cowardly peasants Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) there are obvious templates for joined-at-the-hip robots R2D2 and C3PO. Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) is also an obvious role model for Princess Leia – feisty, brave, combat-ready and also struggling against enemy forces who would extinguish her blood line and with it the hopes of a lot of innocent people.

John Williams clearly listened to Masaru Satô’s soundtrack, though not as closely as Ennio Morricone did with Satô’s soundtrack to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo when he was scoring Sergio Leone’s remake A Fistful of Dollars.

But… no Darth Vader, no Luke Skywalker, no Han Solo, or anyone who might fit that bill. Instead there is Toshirô Mifune as legendary General Makabe. You could argue that Makabe is a composite: Obi Wan’s wisdom, Han Solo’s charm and swagger, but that is to put the cart before the horse. Getting our chronologies in the right order, Mifune is obviously modelled on Douglas Fairbanks, down to the fists-on-hips stance and the head thrown back in uproarious laughter.

For full enjoyment it’s actually best to leave the Star Wars comparisons to one side once those obvious borrowings have been taken into account, and follow Tahei, Matashichi, Princess Yuki and General Makabe on a grand adventure to spirit the princess and a hoard of gold across enemy lines, the first two doing it for the money, the second two for more noble reasons.

Kamatari Fujiwara and Minoru Chiaki
Kamatari Fujiwara and Minoru Chiaki

Kurosawa is a master of action. His crowd scenes are brilliantly choreographed (watch an entire platoon of soldiers flinch as one) and he’s also a dab hand at the action set piece – spears and samurai swords might not be light sabres but isn’t the way they are wielded incredibly familiar? Sorry, I’m comparing again.

Everyone overacts, which is to say they bark their (post-dubbed) lines, strike fierce poses and roll their eyes in the theatrical Japanese style whenever possible. Once you’ve tuned in to the idea – overdoing it – it’s all great fun. Join in at home.

Mifune was Kurosawa’s favourite actor and you can see why here. He exudes manliness, charm and natural authority and he’s the sort of person who can jump onto a horse and gallop off, samurai sword aloft, motionlessly ready to strike while the horse thunders away beneath.

Some of the Japanese notions of martial honour – we’re only alive when we fight and it’s better to die than to be allowed to live after losing – don’t quite map to the current zeitgeist, but on the whole this is a remarkably familiar sort of film, with incident, jeopardy, comedy and action all crowding in on each other like something from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Enjoy with pizza and a beer in other words. As for the subtitles – given that you’re reading these words they shouldn’t be too taxing.

PS: a word about the Criterion 2K restoration I watched. It’s spectacular. Not only is the image sharp and the monochrome shades incredibly nuanced, but it’s been resubtitled, and brilliantly, in a way that’s both up to date but unobtrusive. No one ever said “Get out of here,” in 1958 to mean “I don’t believe you,” but they do here. It fits the whole knockabout ethos perfectly.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Support the Girls

The cast of Support the Girls

Support the Girls is an Andrew Bujalski film and so comes loaded with expectation. He’s often cited as the “inventor of mumblecore”, the go-to genre for white hipsters of a certain age, the cultural late arrival at a party already full of shoegazey indie bands.

Since breaking into the scene with 2002’s Funny Ha Ha and consolidating his status with Mutual Appreciation, Bujalski has edged away from the brand he helped build. Beeswax disappointed many fans because it looked like an attempt to go mainstream. Then Computer Chess came along, a “revenge of the mumblecore” movie about chess-playing nerds. Bujalski vindicated.

Results was another shot at a Bujalski-meets-Hollywood movie, a look at the ethos of extreme positivity you run up against in the personal fitness business – the perma-smile of the self-helpers meets the communitarian perma-frown of mumblecore. Interesting, though it didn’t really work.

Bujalski gets it absolutely right with Support the Girls, another look at a locus of positivity and informality and Bujalski’s most accessible film to date. Again absent is the cardboard and string aesthetic but Bujalski has hung on to mumblecore’s loose improvisational feel for a film with a strong documentary vibe. Its subject matter, too, is prime doc material.

It’s a day in the life of a bar, called Double Whammies, one of those Hooters-style places offering boobs, brews and big screens. Beer comes in big pitchers, and the girls wear push-up bras and are always pleased to see you. More precisely, it’s a day in the life of Double Whammies’ manager, Lisa (Regina Hall), as she deals with another round of the same old same old – antsy and over-friendly customers, the TV breaking down, interviewing for a new server, an unexpected visit by the owner, a rat infestation and so on.

Haley Lu Richardson, Regina Hall and Shayna McHale
Maci, Lisa and Danyelle shout for joy

Support the Girls is full of proper actors giving big performances – the fabulous Hall is matched by Shayna McHayle as cynical firecracker Danyelle, and Haley Lu Richardson as stoked livewire Maci, exactly the sort of people you’d expect to meet if this were a real bar and this were a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

Against mumblecore’s slightly fey image, this is a film full of men’s men, who ogle women openly, and women who know they’re being ogled. The centrepiece is of the “girls” running a fundraising carwash, where much bosom is spread over a lot of sudsy windscreen. “Support the Girls” is what they have emblazoned on the bucket they rattle for contributions.

Graham Greene once remarked that it’s the writer’s vocation to be a protestant in a Catholic society and a Catholic in a Protestant one. To be contrary, in other words. In the era of increasing visibility and acceptance of trans rights, of fluid personal pronouns, Bujalski heads in the opposite direction to see if there’s something positive to say about men being men and women being women. He’s more a scout reporting back than an advocate but there’s a refreshing lack of grandstanding “author gets it off his chest” speechifying. Not the mumblecore style.

There’s an Altmanesque light touch on display, in other words, an “it is what it is” approach, comedy one second shifts into high drama the next, and back again. A course correction from the over-schematic Results, Support the Girls is an exercise in letting things hang as loosely as is humanly possible while still holding on to a throughline.

For all its strife and backchat, it’s a lovely affirmative film brimming with human warmth. You could watch it for that alone. Or the performances of the three central actors – Hall, Richardson and McHayle. You could even, push/shove, just watch it because there’s a lot of scantily clad attractive young women in it, beer optional.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Margita Gosheva as Julia

Slava is a brand of workaday watches once common behind the Iron Curtain, and certainly in Bulgaria where the 2016 movie Glory (Slava in both Russian and Bulgarian) is set.
Like The Lesson (Urok), the previous film by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, it’s a tragedy done as a kind of dry comedy of manners in which the ramifications of a petty foible, a tragic flaw on a tiny scale, are worked through to a pitiless conclusion.

The Lesson’s Margita Gosheva and Stefan Denolyubov also star, she as a PR wonk who works at the ministry of transport; he as the solitary railway worker who finds a big cache of money on the railway line one day and selflessly does the right thing by telling the authorities. Needing a PR stunt to change the narrative currently circulating about the ministry – it’s corrupt – Julia seizes on Tzanko’s story and attempts to turn this withdrawn, stuttering man into the modern equivalent of an old-school Soviet hero of the revolution. A media blitz follows, with Tzanko interviewed for TV and invited to the ministry where his old watch – a Slava, given to him by his father – is taken off him. Instead he is publicly presented with a “much better” new one (a piece of cheap digital crap), has his picture taken being congratulated by the minister and is then expected to run off home like a good boy.

And he would have done if Julia hadn’t in the process mislaid or lost his old watch, a fact which Tzanko will not let lie, even though he is by nature a retiring sort happiest in the company of his pet rabbits.

Working through the escalating consequences sparked off by the mislaid watch forms the bulk of the film, and though the watch is Tzanko’s, the tragic flaw is very much Julia’s. She’s simply too grand and full of her own self-importance to take this nobody seriously. When we first meet her she’s at the fertility clinic, where she pauses the doctor mid-flow to take a call, then pauses him again to make a call on her special work phone – two phones is one too many.

The two people could not be more different. Julia, power-dressing in clothes slightly too tight for her, works in communications; Tzanko, unkempt and shabby, has a stutter that makes communicating almost impossible. One freezing her embryos; the other cuddling up to a fertility symbol.

Tzanko finds the money
Tzanko finds the money

It’s not hard to work out where the writer/directors’ sympathies lie and this is reflected in the shooting style, with Tzanko getting the best of the glamour shots. Even though the entire film is done in realist, shoulder-high almost-documentary style, Julia’s settings are cold and aseptic, Tzanko’s home, while basic, is bathed in warm light.

There’s an obvious critique of status relationships going on here, with the added benefit, for Bulgarian audiences, of a cold hard look at life inside the official bureaucracy, which is operating to a very large extent using the Soviet-era playbook. Even so, and this is a feature of contemporary Bulgarian films compared to those from neighbouring Romania, the attitude to the old Communist regime is far more ambivalent – that old Slava watch might have been a bit basic, but at least it kept good time.

For non-Bulgarian audiences there’s slightly less to get hold of, though watching the consequences of silly bureaucratic bullshit playing out does have a familiar feel if you’ve seen Armando Iannucci’s TV series The Thick of It (or In the Loop, the movie spinoff).

It’s a snowball of a film gradually picking up speed (and mass). Unlike The Lesson, which had us locked in to its structure of grim inevitability and escalating panic, Glory takes its time announcing what it’s really about and then seems not entirely sure how far it wishes to push its premise into thriller territory. Perhaps concerns about realism are getting in the way.

Even so, there’s plenty to like in this second of Grozeva and Valchanov’s “newspaper clippings trilogy” of films inspired by real stories and it whets the appetite for the third (The Triumph). In the interim there’s also Grozeva and Valchanov’s The Father (not the Anthony Hopkins one), which in 2019 first introduced the world to the fearlessly brilliant Maria Bakalova, breakout star of Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm. Good things are coming out of Bulgaria.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Long Day’s Journey into Night

Luo walks the city streets

First things first: Long Day’s Journey into Night has nothing at all to do with the Eugene O’Neill play of the same name, or with any of the movie spinoffs. Confusion piled on confusion, or possibly mischief-making, when Gan Bi’s film first debuted in China, where it was marketed as a big multiplex romance, when in fact it is a beast of a very different colour. Audiences, to say the least, were not amused.

There isn’t much of a plot in this bizarre dreamy mystery, but what there is concerns a guy whose father has just died taking up the search for a woman he knew 20 years before. The one who got away. Wan Qiwen is the name of this exotic, mysterious beauty played with exotic mystery by beautiful Wei Tang, though Wan Qiwen’s name sounds entirely different in her native dialect, enough, almost, to suggest she’s a different person.

Luo (Huang Jue), who might or might not be an actual detective, is the guy on this cold trail, visiting one run-down dump after another – a seedy hair salon, a flea-pit cinema, a grimy restaurant, a sticky karaoke bar – getting conflicting reports (she moved away, she got married, she’s a singer in a karaoke bar) and becoming more and more obsessed with this memory/fantasy of decades gone by, though to be honest it’s quite hard to get a real handle on what this character feels since he’s so impassive.

And then, at around the halfway point, an hour in, up comes the film’s title – Long Day’s Journey into Night – and whatever purchase you thought plot had on this property is jettisoned entirely. The soundtrack of washy ambience becomes even more muffled and for the last hour or so we, and Luo, are in an entirely different place, an underworld which Luo literally descends into on a primitive aerial runway, like some latter-day Orpheus pursuing Eurydice into Hades, where fantasy, memory, loss and nostalgia combine.

Wan Qiwen is serenaded by Luo
Wan Qiwen is serenaded by Luo

What was mysterious is now unfathomable and at this point the best thing to do is let go and surrender to the experience writer/director Gan Bi has cooked up, as bits of the first half of the film – characters, lines of dialogue, actors – resurface in slightly different guises. Wei Tang, for example, is now playing a character called Kaizhen, a pool-hall manager, though one who can’t play the game. Is it really Wan Qiwen, just pretending to be someone else? Who knows?

This second half, shot in 3D (when you see Luo put on his glasses in the cinema, that’s your cue to put on yours) and done all in one continuous hour-long take, is where the film takes off, literally at one point, when Luo discovers that, in this floaty underworld, he can fly.

Gan has talked about the impression made on him of seeing Tarkovsky’s Stalker – which is about a journey to a place called the Zone, where wishes are granted – and Long Day’s Journey into Night is an obvious homage to that film’s ethereal, psychoanalytical and allegorical nature. And like Stalker, this film is about events that seem to be happening out of time – we’re in a recognisable here and now, though one with all sorts of things (screen tech, for example) missing.

To ring the changes, perhaps, Gan shoots with the sort of colour palette that would bring Tarkovsky out in a sweat – Wan Qiwen wears vivid green silk in the “real” world before the jump; Kaizhen wears bright red leather. Though in both realms the lurid colours are almost subsumed by the gloom (Tarkovsky would approve) that enfolds everything.

To Tarkovsky add David Lynch. Gan is in similar territory – cinema as a theatre of dreams – though this is no imitation. He’s also close in some respects to a director like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives also deals with the interaction of the unconscious and conscious worlds.

So, yes, the audiences expecting a straight up boy-wins-girl-loses-girl affair with meet-cutes and so on were understandably a bit put out. But in its own way it is also a love story, with most of the beats of the genre present, albeit heavily reworked. Gripping isn’t the word for the finished product, but the result is almost endlessly fascinating, like finding a beautiful shell on the beach and turning it over to see which way the light catches it. Worth watching more than once.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection

Mary Twala Mhlongo

Against the assertion of the title, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection does look like more like a death than a reanimation, of an individual, a way of life and a group of villagers in Lesotho who are being relocated before their village is flooded to make way for a dam project. It’s an impressive film in pretty much every respect, and it’s entirely understandable why the country decided to submit it for Oscars consideration, something they’ve never done before.

This Burial/Resurrection idea is handled almost as a kind of dry joke, since the film’s focus is an old woman who spends the entire film trying to die, after learning of the death of her only remaining son on his way back from working in the mines. Mantoa is played by Mary Twala Mhlongo – who died aged 80 in July 2020 – and in early scenes we see her putting on her finest dress, laying down in bed and hoping against hope that she doesn’t wake up the next morning. Later, she literally climbs into the grave she’s bullied the local gravedigger into digging for her, covers her head in earth and waits for annihilation… 

What’s eating her up isn’t just the loss of the entire family – one after one they have all died on her – but the loss of a way of life as the modern world intrudes and her village is prepared for evacuation. In particular she worries about the fate of those buried in the cemetery. The dead will die again, she frets.

The film is composed as a series of semi-impressionistic vignettes, expertly sewn together by director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, and he is blessed by Mhlongo’s performance as Mantoa, a stonefaced admonitory presence who appears in almost every scene, almost inevitably scowling at the latest developments, or pulling the “I’ve had enough of this shit” face and exiting. Leaving or about to leave. Meanwhile, more sneakily, clad in bright yellow overalls like little yellow ants, the dam engineers can be glimpsed at the edge of the frame, or in the background, taking their measurements and making their preparations.

Lesiba player Jerry Mofokeng
Lesiba player Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha

Shot by DP Pierre de Villiers, it is a beautiful, striking and richly lit film. From the opening shot of the lesiba player (Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha) who acts as a narrative, almost shamanistically omniscient voice, almost every frame could be screen-grabbed. It helps that the landscape of the region is almost absurdly photogenic. The overlapping sound design and score (by Yu Miyashita aka Yaporigami) are exemplary too, starting with the choice of the lesiba itself – perhaps the world’s only string and wind instrument – the sonics play an important role, adding both atmosphere and context. Mantoa loves to listen to obituaries on her radio, which crackles as if receiving messages from the great ethereal beyond. Later, when the local MP turns up to discuss the dam and relocation, obviously already a fait accompli, his bullhorn echoes and distorts his voice. Why is he even using a bullhorn?

Away from officialdom, the village by comparison appears to be a model of consultative, collaborative democracy. If you were going to level any accusations at this film, it would be in its portrayal of village life. Too cute maybe. Just a touch.

The little yellow antlike engineers are the future and they are unstoppable. There is a more nuanced discussion of the idea of progress than this bare-bones sketch might suggest, Mosese appearing to suggest that it isn’t progress itself that’s such a terrible idea, rather that the people left behind by it could be better compensated. This area, we’re told, was once called the Plains of Weeping, then the missionaries renamed it Nasaretha (Nazareth), soon it will be just a lake. Things change.

Dripping with local colour thanks to extensive use of local residents in supporting roles, this remarkable film didn’t in the end make the Oscar nominations shortlist. Which, when you look at some of the films that did make it, seems a touch bizarre. No worries. Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese will rise again.

This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

100 Years of… The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Caligari wakes up Cesare

Released in Germany in 1920 but not given an international debut until April 1921, in New York, German director Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has gone down in history as one of the most important films of the era, and the most important German expressionist film of all time. You can see its influence everywhere, in Citizen Kane, The Third Man and Shutter Island, to grab a trio of obvious borrowers, but though it’s much talked about, how many people have actually seen it?

What might come as a surprise 100 years on is that it didn’t meet universal acclaim at the time. Cultural historians still argue about whether it was a box-office hit or not. Critically, people at the time went both ways too, with film-makers of the calibre of Abel Gance (director of the epic Napoleon) loving it, while the likes of Russian genius Sergei Eisenstein declared it a dud.

Clouding the picture was the fact that the First World War had only recently ended and anti-German feeling was still running high in many countries.

Eisenstein, who did more than almost anyone to create a language of cinema, particularly hated Caligari‘s theatricality. He’s right. It looks like a theatrical piece, and is shot by Wiene as if he were recording a stage play rather than making a work of art in its own right. On top of that is the obvious theatricality of its sets, expressionist to an absurd degree, every angle wonky, barely a plumb line to be seen. Even the doors are triangular.

The actors, too, are from expressionist theatre, their performances pantomime exaggerations that bear no relation to “reality”. Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt are the key players, Krauss as the titular doctor, a carnival barker whose freakshow attraction is Cesare, a somnambulist who has been asleep in a box for the entirety of his 23-year-long life. That’s Veidt in heavy eye make-up and blanco face paint as the sleeper, who’d later be Bogie’s stiff nemesis Major Strasser in Casablanca but is here a lithe youth with the look of a ballet dancer.

Cesare with the abducted Jane

Theatrical sets? Just a bit

The plot is a whodunit, with Caligari and his sleeper somehow embroiled in a series of murders in the small town where their carnival is parked. The whole thing is set inside a framework as part of a story told by our narrator, Franzis (Friedrich Feher), and there’s a twist at the end that makes little impact on the enjoyment of the film, which comes from watching the mad sets and the amazingly florid over-acting of Krauss and his robotic somnambulant sidekick.

Fascinatingly, the credits claim it as “ein Film von” (“a film by”) Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, its writers. And it’s true that it was more their baby than the director’s – perhaps Eisenstein was suspicious about that too. But Robert Wiene has his moments, even though he works mostly in mid and long shots, throwing in the odd close-up of Caligari and Cesare to ramp up the sinister atmosphere when necessary.

Whatever else this is, it’s a very creepy film. That shot of Cesare hauling the sleeping beauty Jane (Lil Dagover) from her bed and carrying her off over the rooftops is brilliantly designed and executed – there were faintings in cinemas back in the day, apparently.

The version I watched, restored in 2014 with its original colour tinting, is in excellent shape. The first reel/act (of six) has been cobbled together from second-grade sources and is noticeably woolier looking than the rest of it, but once we’re on to reel two the image quality is exceptional. Though the restoration hasn’t removed every blemish, there is as much detail in the image as needed while the high contrast images – graded midtones aren’t this film’s thing – can be put down to expressionism’s love of the chiaroscuro.

Veidt and Krauss had a history of working together on films with sensationalist subject matter (their previous three outings had the titles Diary of a Fallen Woman, Opium and Prostitution) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is no exception. They’d go on to make a further seven films together, one of which alludes to Caligari in its original German title, Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, in English), another remarkable expressionist work and, though less groundbreaking and influential (nodding to Eisenstein), a much more filmic film.

The 2014 Kino restoration of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Shock Corridor

Peter Breck with Hari Rhodes

Shock Corridor is a great example of the indie writer/director Sam Fuller’s ability to make films with a social subtext that weren’t overwhelmed by worthiness. Not being a studio movie it’s got no famous names in it, and isn’t shot in colour (apart from a few drop-ins). Instead Fuller and DP Stanley Cortez (who was instrumental in making The Night of the Hunter so memorably sinister) opt for a breezy film noir style of harsh lighting that’s quick to set up, effective and cheap – together they turned the film out in ten days. It also looks great in the Criterion Blu-ray I watched.

A look at the plot tells us where Fuller’s real interest lay. It follows an investigative reporter into a mental asylum, posing as an inmate, to track down a killer. Ambitious Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is hoping that this story is going to be the one that will win him the Pulitzer Prize.

A reporter hopes to find a murderer and that’s a Pulitzer-winning story? It does not make any sense, and since Fuller was himself an ex-reporter, he knows it. But then we’re not here for the plot.

Knowing how to load on the lurid to keep audiences with him, Fuller introduces Johnny’s girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers). She’s a stripper, but to make Johnny’s madness convincing she’s going to pose as his sister and claim that he’s been having an incestuous relationship with her. No, that doesn’t bear much scrutiny either.

Johnny has been schooled in the right things to say (he’s a hair fetish, supposedly) by Dr Fong (Philip Ahn), a man with portraits of both Jung and Freud on his wall. The doc’s bona fides established, Johnny soon finds himself inside the asylum.

It’s a gentle regime at first. But the hydrotherapy and dance therapy give way to shock treatments and Johnny surreptitiously starts to interview three witnesses to the murder: Stuart (James Best), Trent (Hari Rhodes) and Boden (Gene Evans). In against-the-clock style he’s inching his way towards the identity of the killer while the treatments nibble away at his mind.

Constance Towers
Constance Towers as stripper Cathy

“Whom god wishes to destroy he first makes mad” runs the quote attributed to Euripides bookending the movie. Stuart, Trent and Boden are all mad. The first is a Korean War veteran who believes he’s fighting the Civil War, the second is a black man full of white supremacist “hate speech” (as we’d call it today) who thinks he’s a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the third is a nuclear and NASA scientist who now fills his days with childish drawings.

Somewhat schematically, it’s America that’s driven these three men mad – war, racism and impending nuclear catastrophe – and Fuller goes to town with these three characters, loading them up with lurid rantings and giving them plenty of screen time parcelled out in long takes. Rhodes in particular really gets his teeth into his unsettling role as the black man who hates black men. Tough stuff in 1963.

There are women. A ward full of “nymphos”, where Johnny accidentally finds himself at one point and is set upon by a ravening gaggle of attractive harpies who mostly look like they’re trying out as stand-ins for Elizabeth Taylor. It’s either an eyeroll or another instance of Fuller’s pitch for the lurid, take your pick.

This is not an exposé of an inhumane system. In fact the inmates are looked after fairly well. It’s not a warm-up for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where the insane people were the ones running the asylum. Here the insane are properly, melodramatically bonkers rather than the sedated-to-a-shuffle unfortunates you tend to meet in later films.

As Johnny advances towards the truth, and Cathy worries about his mental health, the pace remains brisk, the lighting stark and Peter Breck gets to show he’s a better actor than his career stats (TV work, mostly) suggest.

I won’t ruin the enjoyment by divulging the ending. Suffice to say that the movie itself eventually goes grandly and gloriously off its chump amid a mass breakout of scenery chewing. It’s all madly entertaining but Fuller has also delivered a swingeing social critique in plain sight and got away with it. He’d follow up the following year with The Naked Kiss, more lurid, socially attuned melodrama, with Constance Towers back as his star, playing a call girl who decides to become a teacher of disabled kids. Of course.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Dazed and Confused

Rory Cochrane, Jason London and Sasha Jenson

Dazed and Confused is Richard Linklater’s 1993 film doing for 1976 what George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) did for 1962. That is, it looks back fondly at a group of teenagers on the cusp of adult life on their last day/night of high school, while also observing how long ago it now all was, and in more than plain old years.

Like Lucas’s gang, Linklater’s crew are a mixed crowd of jocks and nerds, lookers and plain-Janes and Johns, sensitive souls and bozos, cool kids and the terminally awkward, kids whose best days are to come and those whose lives have already peaked.

The style builds on the loose, superficially disorganised approach of Slacker, Linklater’s film of three years earlier, which followed one person then another. Here it’s as if Slacker had watched Robert Altman and taken to heart that overlapping, collage, multi-stranded approach and then tried to go one better.

Linklater sets his film in 1976, the Last Year of Rock, before punk split the genre and rap arrived to announce a new era. Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, Peter Frampton and Black Sabbath all feature on the wall-to-wall soundtrack, much as music of an earlier era had in American Graffiti. The world is still white and male, or it is on movie screens. 1976 is the Bicentenary of the USA and also the moment when the ever-increasing wealth of the average person, the post-War consensus, was about to stall, before going into reverse. From the vantage point of 1993, when Linklater made his film, very few people had realised that 1976 was probably Peak USA. As with Lucas’s 1962, the year before Kennedy was assassinated, this is a watershed.

“Driving around, mostly,” is how one of Linklater’s characters responds when asked what she’s been doing all night. And this is part of the genius of the film. It looks like it’s nothing more than excitable teenagers driving around, doing a lot of talking, getting involved in initiation rituals, making out, drinking, smoking weed, all that stuff. Nothing momentous happens. See Slacker, or Linklater’s debut feature, 1988’s It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, for where this was coming from.

The cast of unknowns alone make it worth a watch. Jason London is as close as you could come to the star of this film, as Pink (his surname is Floyd, so it figures), the cool, inclusive, socially adept, good looking dude, a football player who also likes to party. London is also such an easy and obviously charismatic presence that it’s a mystery why he didn’t become a star (though he’s never stopped working, at a prodigious level). Compare some of the other unknowns in the cast – Matthew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck.

Jovovich is essentially the slightly drippy girlfriend who plays the guitar and doesn’t figure much, but the other three are more interesting. They’re as near as the film gets to proper villains – over-invested in the high school’s hazing rituals, nasty bullies for the most part. In McConaughey’s case, as Wooderson, he’s the older guy whose high school days were as good as it’s ever going to get.

Parker Posey
Parker Posey’s breakout role

The cast list insists Renée Zellweger is in it too, as Girl in Blue Truck. Further investigation required.

Linklater is a poet of the mundane. He weaves a spell with everyday ingredients, chat mostly. Think of his Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight) – two people talking. Or his sci-fi film, A Scanner Darkly, which turned a story by Philip K Dick (source writer of Total Recall) into a series of scenes in which people either sat around talking or drove around talking.

Some things in Dazed and Confused now seem odd. Jason O Smith as the token black guy. When Linklater returned to this era and subject matter in his 2016 university movie Everybody Wants Some!!, J Quinton Johnson played the same function, so maybe a recreation of the movie ethos of the 1970s might be more Linklater’s interest than the period itself.

By the end, as it introduces its stars in a montage of end credits with photos, there’s the sudden realisation that we’ve got to know a lot of people, and really quite well. The scale of Linklater’s achievement is suddenly apparent. Beneath the surface, while his characters have been packing more weed into a bong or chasing down a brewski, Linklater has been incredibly busy. It’s all going on here at the same time as nothing appears to be going on.

Dazed and Confused – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Father

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins

There’s a very watchable YouTube video in which, playing the publicity game, Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster discuss his most recent film, The Father, hers, The Mauritanian, and in between share a few memories of The Silence of the Lambs, among other things. During the half hour Zoom call Foster asks Hopkins, in so many words, about his “process”, how he approached his character in The Father, what preparation he did.

“None… really,” says Hopkins, blowing what’s left of Method acting out of the water with a couple of words. They’re even more impressive once you’ve seen the film, which is not an easy watch, be warned, unless you’re the sort who cheers along to the sight of one man at the end of his life losing everything he has thanks to memory loss, dementia, Alzheimer’s… it’s never exactly specified.

There have been films on the subject before, and they tend to yank great performances out of people. Julie Christie in Away from Her and Julianne Moore in Still Alice spring to mind. But they were both younger people. Hopkins is now in his 80s. Losing your marbles is one of the daily worries for people of his age – “being an old guy now I was able to easily fall into it” he half-jokingly puts it in the Zoom call.

It’s a gruesome, harrowing, awful fate and the brilliance of the script (adapted from Florian Zeller’s play by Christopher Hampton) is to put us right inside the mind of the person falling to bits. He’s become the camera, in essence. His daughter, Anne, is played by Olivia Colman one minute. Then the next she’s played by Olivia Williams. One minute the new carer – the latest in a long line – looks like Imogen Poots, the next it’s Olivia Williams again.

It’s confusing and, of course, it’s meant to be. That’s what he’s experiencing. Where does Anthony (as his character is called) live? Is it in his splendid mansion flat, or does he now live in his daughter’s place? The venue switches, abruptly. Why does Mark Gatiss keep turning up, a supercilious sneer (no one does it better) on his face, to bully the old guy? Is Rufus Sewell a son, a son-in-law, some other relation? Why is it chicken for dinner every night? Is Anthony’s doctor’s surgery really situated in the same building as his place, or his daughter’s place, or wherever he lives?

interviewing the new carer
Imogen Poots as the latest carer

And Anthony’s obsession with his watch. He’s mislaid it. Again. He must have it. It’s of prime importance. It’s never stated baldly, nothing is, but time is now exceedingly precious to Anthony, that much he does still know. And the watch, at least, is in his control.

If forgetting is awful, The Father’s other grim observation is that it brings with it another danger – suddenly remembering again, as Anthony does when, in a sudden moment of near clarity, he recalls his other daughter, the one who died. That’s why she never comes to visit.

It’s a film with awards-bait written all over it. Everyone in it is good, Williams, Colman and Poots particularly, but it’s Hopkins’s show and he gets to run the full gamut of emotions, from booming fury (no one better at that than Hopkins), to flirting boyishly with his new carer (Poots), to abject whimpering misery, crying on a nurse’s shoulder for his mummy.

Hampton (or Zeller, not sure which) has written Hopkins’s lines to a semi-theatrical rhythm, which suits his delivery brilliantly. There’s also the script’s occasional theatrical tendency for one actor to reiterate what another has just said – I have no idea why theatre does this – but then, like Michael Haneke’s Amour (a close cousin), this is a stagey film, set largely in the confines of several rooms.

The “Kafka problem” – how to tell the reader/audience that the unreliable narrator is unreliable without being ham-fisted about it – has been sidestepped thanks to the age of the central character. Dementia and therefore unreliability go with the territory.

“I feel like I”m losing all my leaves,” weeps the distraught Anthony at the end of what has been a powerful drama offering little in the way of comfort. I wanted to stop watching and at the same time couldn’t.

The Father – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Godzilla vs. Kong

Godzilla fights King Kong

It’s Godzilla vs. Kong but in all honesty it could almost be any Godzilla movie. There’s just something so interchangeable about them all. Grasping for a differentiator you might seize on “cult indie director” as a search filter – but that could be this one (director: Adam Wingard) or 2014’s Godzilla (director: Gareth Edwards). Or how about “the one with Kyle Chandler and Millie Bobby Brown”? Well that could be either this one or 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (they played the same characters). Or how about “the one with Michael Dougherty’s name on the writing credits?”. That could also be this one or Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, since they are franchise siblings. But if you swap out Michael Dougherty with another writer, Terry Rossio, then we’re down to either this one or the 1998 Godzilla. Yes, that one.

In fact you could probably, on a wet afternoon, daisy-chain all the non-Japanese Godzillas together in Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon style, going back to Marv Newland’s 1969 short Bambi Meets Godzilla (it’s 1m 38s long, very amusing and you can see it here on YouTube). What you get in almost every case is a lot of people dying while a monster does its stuff. Two monsters here, obviously, though Kong is the monster hero in Godzilla vs. Kong, a noble simian being returned to his original land, Hollow Earth – which necessitates a journey to the centre of the Earth by a team of scientist, who are hoping that they’ll also lure Godzilla back down there in pursuit of Kong, so they can then put the cork back in the bottle and skedaddle.

The scientists are played by Alexander Skarsgård as Nathan Lind and Rebecca Hall as Ilene Andrews, and are joined in some sort of observer role by too-hot-to-be-noble Eliza González as Maya Simmons, the tight-jumpered daughter of tech industry titan Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), plus Hall’s mute surrogate daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), who, in spite of having no dialogue beyond American Sign Language, is the only character in the whole thing worth watching.

Kaylee Hottle as Jia
Kaylee Hottle as Jia

This group inhabits one circle of operations. In the other are a Spielbergian trio of kids-against-the-man, conspiracy-theory podcaster Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry), earnest truth-seeker Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) and her obligatorily doughy and geeky friendzone-only pal Josh (Julian Dennison). The third circle is a lucha libre throwdown between King Kong and Godzilla. To put the relative chances of these creatures in context, the former struggles to escape from chains the scientists have put him in while he’s in transit, the latter is able to scythe through a battleship like it was butter. Having seen that, the judges should have just raised Godzilla’s right arm, paw, whatever and declared the fight conclusively won. But no.

Wingard is a good director and there is a good film in here, somewhere, centred on the search for the truth by group two (Bernie, Madison and Josh), since the whole territory of conspiracy theories and their followers, loss of trust in science etc, is fertile right now. Instead the focus is more on group one (the lab coats), who stand around pulling one “I am awed” face after another. The big hope that Hall and Gonzalez will go womano a womano over Skarsgard comes to nought. Two ladies fighting over a himbo, wouldn’t that be a thing?

It’s all shot dark, for big cinemas, as is the current style, which allows for a bit more latitude with the effects, which genuinely are awesome. The moment where the scientists’ “spaceship” journeying towards Hollow Earth has to do the equivalent of the Star Wars leap into hyperspace – some gravity-reversal rationale is offered – is properly spectacular.

But as for the fights between Godzilla and Kong. As said, I can’t see any real contest, and enjoyed them as much as I did the fights in Mega-Shark v Giant Octopus, which at least are meant to be stupid. Which is to say they are on a par with the fights in Pacific Rim – big, loud, confusing and dull. Thousands of people die; no one cares. At one point Mecha-Godzilla gets involved. Thousands more people die; no one cares.

2016’s Japanese Shin Godzilla remains the best of the modern Godzillas, since it had worked out how to sandwich a bit of Aaron Sorkin walkie-talky political business between its monster scraps. Here, by contrast we have Hall pulling a moue, Skarsgård going boss-eyed and Gonzalez crossing her legs attitudinally, very high up. Nice legs, bad attitude.

Watch it to see Chandler and Bichir, only recently underused in the George Clooney film The Midnight Sky, being underused again, though Bichir does at least get to pull a few Bond villain poses. Chandler’s job is to run around looking for his missing daughter, Madison, trying to inject a bit of human scale into this film, as he also failed to do in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

It’s not his fault. He’s outbellowed by Godzilla. Everyone is, including Kong.

How much do you want to buy some Godzilla vs. Kong merch? – Get it here at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021