Valley of the Gods

Josh Hartnett, Bérénice Marlohe and Keir Dullea

Valley of the Gods. What the hell was that? At around an hour in, Lech Majewski’s film starts to look like it’s developing a plot. But until then it’s been a series of scenes/scenarios/situations that don’t seem to be very connected at all.

In one we meet John (Josh Hartnett), a would-be writer trying to hash something out in the desert where the spirit of the Navajo are said to roam. In another a mute beggar on the street called Wes Tauros (John Malkovich), that rare thing – a beggar with a butler (Keir Dullea). Tauros is in fact not a beggar but the richest man in the world. In another a man called Tall Bitter Water, a spokesman for his fellow Native Americans anxious that his people come out at the right end of a deal currently being brokered by a company that wants to extract uranium from their land. And in another Karen Kitson (Bérénice Marlohe), a woman being sculpted into a facsimile of the rich man’s dead wife by a team of beauticians.

Things start to coalesce after the writer has a massive flame-out and winds up seeing a shrink (John Rhys-Davies), who suggests John start doing random things in an attempt to break his creative logjam. Which explains why John is next spotted bouldering out in the desert with all the pots and pans from his kitchen dangling beneath him on a rope. And why he is later walking blindfold backwards through a city street, where he narrowly escapes being knocked over by the same car as recently ran over the beggar/rich man, who is at this point sitting cross legged nearby and watching John’s progress.

John Malkovich
John Malkovich as the richest man in the world

John might have been called on to write Tauros’s biography, or what we’re watching might be the outpouring of his unblocked creativity, it isn’t really certain, but shots cutting back regularly to a furiously scribbling John out in the desert, shirtless, suggest something along those lines. The fact that Keir Dullea is in it, star of 2001: A Space Odyssey, immediately suggests Kubrick, and there is that definite detachment you get in a Kubrick film, though Majewski also has Paolo Sorrentino in his sights. This is a ravishing looking film with an operatic ambience, in other words, the cinematography (by Majewski and co-DP Pawel Tybora) making it worth a look alone.

Lovers of plot, forget it, this isn’t that sort of film. At one point a Rolls Royce Phantom V is launched into the night from a catapult made from drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci – that’s how rich Tauros is, and how rabid Majewski’s imagination.

For Malkovich all this sort of madcappery is business as usual, but for Hartnett it seems to be a dip back in the direction of oddball films like Lucky Number Slevin and I Come with the Rain which he started appearing in after deciding not to take the executive elevator to the Brad Pitt floor made available after the likes of actioner Black Hawk Down and romcom 40 Days and 40 Nights.

Majewski is a self-consciously arthouse director and everyone in this movie speaks in an arthouse movie way. Conversations never flow and consist mostly of non seqiturs. All apart from the Navajo, the only people who act and behave like rational human beings throughout. The land the uranium company wants to buy is called The Valley of the Gods, so it is their film, in a way.

“Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow,” quipped Noel Coward acidly when he saw the hot new talent on the set of 1965’s Bunny Lake Is Missing, but it’s Dullea who has the last laugh in this film. Almost. That privilege will probably go to the viewer who gets to the end, only to be confronted by a completely random shot of a giant baby stomping through the city and laying it waste. What the hell!

Valley of the Gods – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Jesse Eisenberg in white face make-up

Heartfelt rather than gut-wrenching, Resistance is an origin story. Not of a superhero, which is what origin stories usually concern themselves with. But of the world’s most famous mime, Marcel Marceau, who died in 2007 aged 84. This seems, at first glance, amazing in itself. After all, who’s interested in that? But it turns out there is more to Marceau, a lot more, than the white face make-up of his most famous character, the silent Bip the Clown.

He was born Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg, France, in 1923, which means Marcel was about 15 in 1938 when Resistance takes up his story. The Nazis are just over the border and Strasbourg is regularly receiving Jewish refugees from Germany. Not that Marcel really notices. He’s a self-absorbed philosophical sort, though he’s connected enough to the world to have spotted the pretty Emma (Clémence Poésy) and it’s to get into her good books that he starts to assist with the evacuees, helping to place them with local families. He also entertains them, with the cabaret act he’s trying to work up, in the spirit of his idol Charlie Chaplin.

At around 37 you’d think that Jesse Eisenberg would be a bit old to be playing a teenager, but he just about gets away with it, even though his mime skills aren’t that hot. Fair enough, Marcel is only on the nursery slopes. Nervy, nerdy, expressive though tight-lipped, Marcel is very much a familiar Eisenberg character.

Doctoring his name on his own passport – Mangel becomes the less Jewish Marceau – Marcel realises he has a skill for forgery and is soon helping the French resistance produce fake ID for the refugees. But that’s about as far as it goes for the pacifist Marcel until the entire city of Strasbourg is evacuated out to Limoges and infamous Nazi torturer Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer) shows up, en route to earning his nickname, the Butcher of Lyon.

Marceau, as he now is, becomes increasingly involved with the Resistance, doubling down on his commitment after Barbie gets hold of Emma’s sister, Mila (Vica Kerekes), and does unspeakable things to her, eventually becoming a key figure in the spiriting of thousands of Jewish children to safety in Switzerland.

Marcel tries to impress Emma with a trick
Marcel tries to impress Emma with a trick

Barbie is a brute, an absolutely appalling man and Matthias Schweighöfer (star of the nonsensical but entertaining TV seriesYou Are Wanted) gives it both barrels as the frothing über-zealot who we first meet beating a “homosexual Nazi” with a chair leg. Later, we’re introduced to Barbie’s torture chamber, which is full of the sort of hooked instruments you don’t want to look at twice. And yet writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz takes pains to present Barbie not as a monster but as a human being – Barbie has a child who he loves and whose future he frets about.

There’s a problem here. The film spends so much time in Barbie’s company that its centre of gravity starts to drift his way. Barbie is a horrible man, but because of the way he’s been written, and the way Schweighöfer is playing him, he’s also a compelling screen presence.

Also muddying the water a touch is Jakubowicz’s decision to tell the entire story in flashback. Ed Harris bookends the entire film as General Patton, introducing entertainment-hungry troops to Marceau’s first professional performance as a mime in post-liberation France.

There are modern resonances and Jakubowicz’s screenplay more than once takes time out to explain the Nazi rationale for exterminating the Jews, how they conspiratorially ran the world etc etc. The echo in a world of Soros bashing, QAnon nonsense and the like is astonishing.

Resistance has plenty of fantastically tense moments and a lot of fine acting. It’s full of expertly engineered set pieces, is lavish with period detail and tells a fascinating-because-true story. But for all of Eisenberg’s twinkling and the immense charm of his performance, his Marceau – a cheap gag but also true – never really speaks to us.

Resistance – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Cosmonaut Veshnyakov on the floor

Sputnik is a movie from 2020 set in the Soviet era. As well as having a fantastic story thick with allegorical possibilities, it also feels like a movie from the Soviet era –  as if it were riveted together from half inch steel plate.

There are touches of pure Hollywood too, not least in the character of its chief protagonist, the smart and businesslike Tatyana Klimova (played by the eye-catching Oksana Akinshina), a feisty shrink we first meet refusing to be made a scapegoat for some misdemeanour. Maverick credentials established (pure Hollywood), she’s soon been drafted in to take a look at a cosmonaut who’s recently arrived back on planet Earth after his mission went a bit awry.

Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) is being held in quarantine in a remote facility. He’s lucky – his fellow cosmonaut died gruesomely soon after their ship touched back down in Kazakhstan. Less luckily, there’s something living inside Veshnyakov, an extra-terrestrial thing that exits his body (spectacularly) at night to feed.

So, a little bit Alien, a little bit The Astronaut’s Wife, and a whole lot its own thing entirely. And that’s about as much plot as it’s necessary to know about Sputnik. The rest of the film consists of the shrink learning about the true nature of the creature inside the colonel, and wondering how much the colonel understands about what’s happening to him while he sleeps. He seems, by day, to be a normal human being, to the point where he’s beginning to ask awkward questions. He’s hero of the Soviet Union and deserves better treatment than this!

Perhaps the thing inside Veshnyakov is an allegory for communism – can you remove the Soviet State from Soviet Man? – perhaps it isn’t. Either way it adds a layer of interest to an already extremely interesting film, one glorying in the sweat and the stubble of the era, Maxim Zhukov’s cinematography layering a hellishly dark note onto the rain-lashed landscapes and the many shots of deserted scrubland. Sunny exteriors, which are a rarity since most of this film takes place at night, are only glimpsed tantalisingly, through a lace curtain for instance. Murk is the name of the game.

Konstantin and Tatyana
Konstantin and Tatyana

Oleg Karpachev’s score, all military drums and whale whistles and groans, is too loud, but maybe I just had the 5:1 mixdown all wrong (don’t get me started). Even high in the mix, it’s moodily effective, summoning both the Soviet era and the sci-fi ethos.

Eventually, the need to say something “important” about the Soviet era to the domestic Russian audience that’s clearly this movie’s target starts to get in the way of the visceral (in every sense), and what should be a straightahead sci-fi story, but Klimova’s lithe, fierce and intuitively intelligent character helps bounce the film over the boring bits, which only start to build into drifts towards the end.

Anton Vasilev as Yan Rigel, the institute’s technical boss, nose out of joint because of this new arrival who has a direct line to the top, is another nod to Hollywood, the passed-over male. He’s very good at it, and makes for a handy obvious villain candidate. And there’s a meaty role for Fyodor Bondarchuk, a one-man Russian movie industry – he writes, acts, directs, produces, is a TV host, owns a production company and is the son of Sergei Bondarchuk, a titan of Soviet cinema – as the institute’s director.

You could draw a parallel of sorts with Arrival. Both feature women doing detective work in an attempt to work out what an alien presence wants, but whereas Arrival was all bright lights and optimism, Sputnik is gloomy in the extreme, and maybe owes something to Vincenzo Natali’s “Frankenstein sci-fi” horror movie Splice. Whether talented director Egor Abramenko, in his debut feature, had seen Natali’s movie or not, Sputnik’s defining feature is its skilfull command of atmosphere.

Sputnik – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Bo Burnham: Inside

Burnham portrayed on a cross

The ceaselessly inventive new Netflix show, Bo Burnham: Inside is a comedy special making the most of the reduced fields of operations available during the pandemic. Burnham’s on his own. No audience. No crew. Just him and all the tech he can muster. If he didn’t inform us repeatedly, we wouldn’t guess. This is a 90 minutes of high production values and smooth edits.

If you’re below a certain age you’re more likely to know Burnham. Starting out with a few videos posted on YouTube, he began his rapid rise in 2006 aged only 16. By the time he was 19 he was having his own TV specials, touring, releasing albums and so on.

If you’re above a certain age maybe you’ll recognise him as Carey Mulligan’s (possibly not nice) doctor boyfriend in Promising Young Woman, or as the writer and director of excellent movie Eighth Grade.

Eighth Grade was billed as a comedy but it was far less about laughs than most comedies. The same applies here. The “jokes” are at the philosophical end of observational, so there might be sighs of recognition but actual big, loud laughs don’t come that often.

Burnham at work in his studio
Man at work: Bo Burnham

So, a man, a room, a light, a camera on a tripod, a laptop to edit stuff on, a glitterball, a phone for extra coverage and a funny lighting effect, some daisies possibly from the garden, and Burnham often in his underwear, his beard growth an indicator of how long he’s been in this studio/writing room. It’s remarkable how much material Burnham produces from such a limited set of tools.

He gets his defences in early, with introductory songs about male and white privilege before launching into a series of songs and spoken interludes laying out his own obvious interests: the role of tech in our increasingly isolated lives (FaceTime with My Mom), self-obsession (Sexting), workplace exploitation (Unpaid Intern), megamassive corporations and their CEOs (two songs about Jeff Bezos), the self-serving wokewashing of companies on the “ethical, social, green” trail (an interlude in which he poses as a brand consultant).

Perhaps the best in terms of sheer relentless inventiveness is White Woman’s Instagram, in which Burnham recreates countless cliches from the affirmative, me-focused, relentlessly positive, relentlessly nice, spookily woke end of the internet – fairy lights and glittery stars and pumpkins and cute dabs of white paint on the shoulder all feature. And perhaps the edgiest are the political songs, though he overdoes the synthetic anger to such an extent – the song about Jeff Bezos features the squillionaire fucking the wives and drinking the blood of other squillionaires’ wives – that it becomes more an exercise in comic overstatement than any call to the barricades.

Burnham burnt out five years ago, and then made a show about the debilitating panic attacks that forced him to stop work for a while. Make Happy was its name. Inside is dotted with moments where Burnham loses concentration, his self-assurance, wonders if he’ll get the show done, if he’s running out of material (he isn’t – it’s another version of Burnham’s attack-is-defence ploy) and at one point is glimpsed watching (I think, but I haven’t seen it) footage from Make Happy. It’s all part of the “welcome to me” Burnham experience.

Bo Burnham: Inside – Get the songs at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

John and the Hole

John looks into the hole

John and the Hole is a story written by Nicolás Giacobone, so there’s a weird element along with the everyday. He also wrote Birdman, which interspersed familiar scenes of an actor in crisis preparing for a show with moments where he’d be transformed into the superhero he’d played years before. In Biutiful, the 2010 movie starring Javier Bardem, the story of a man dying of cancer is interpolated with moments of magical realism.

John and the Hole does the same, but differently. At one level it’s a straightforward story of a 13-year-old boy who might be on the autistic spectrum – he’s certainly very closed off and has a knack for mathematics – who one night drags all his family out of their beds (we assume he’s drugged them) and deposits them at the bottom of a hole, a bunker started years before but abandoned before it was finished.

And he leaves them there, popping over occasionally with a bottle of water or some food, some warm clothes. Why? We have no idea, and since this kid is fairly unexpressive, we don’t really learn what’s going on in his head, just that he seems capable of some fairly cool, cruel behaviour.

And calculating. Impersonating the voice of his mother (Jennifer Ehle), he fires the gardener by phone. Taking the ATM card of his father (Michael C Hall), he takes big chunks of cash out of the bank account. He checks the balance in the savings account – there’s about $750K, so enough to keep going for a good while. He invites his gamer friend Peter (Ben O’Brien) over for a few days, so they can play games and swim in the pond, eat fast food and just hang out.

The family in the hole
Meanwhile, in the hole itself

The weird element, as if that wasn’t weird enough, comes in a parallel story strand which seems to have little bearing on the story of John and his family. Young mother Gloria (Georgia Lyman) is telling her 12-year-old daughter Lily (Samantha LeBretton) a story called John and the Hole. Later she’ll do something that mothers don’t generally do to 12-year-olds, something really really odd. These two only turn up a couple or three times and have maybe five minutes in total on screen.

The whole thing is an allegory of child-rearing? It might be. A parable? Possibly. If there’s a nag to be had at John and the Hole it’s its opaqueness, its wariness. Like John, the film isn’t letting on what it’s thinking. If it’s meant to be an exploration of a psyche it didn’t get very far, beyond sketching out the terrain.

It’s more a bizarre mood piece anchored by great performances. Jennifer Ehle is in that category of actors who are so good that they get overlooked by the big prizes – too good for an Oscar, because it doesn’t look like acting, the thing she does. The cliche is “inhabits the role”, so let’s go with that. Michael C Hall, understated, a sketch of a dad who might be angrier than he’s letting on. Taissa Farmiga as the daughter, again a thumbnail performance, as the daughter wide-eyed with fear but trying to keep a lid on it.

But it’s Charlie Shotwell as the oddbod John who is what the film is all about. His day to day blankness. His fascination with drowning as a way of trying to feel something, anything. Perhaps that’s why he’s put his family in the hole, as a goad to his emotions. Never a blink out of place, Shotwell is spot on as the odd kid who might be a sociopath, or a psychopath. His stilted dealings with the gardener, whose body language shouts “I’m wary of this weird kid”. His angular interactions with his mother’s friend, Paula (Tamara Hickey), who keeps popping by and is asking awkward questions.

It’s atmospherically shot on a narrow aspect ratio to suggest the closed-offness of John, maybe, with a soundtrack that consists mostly of single notes. John isn’t a harmony guy either. That requires interacting. Perhaps one film it’s close to, in terms of theme as well as look, is The Ice House, another story of a middle class family (two, in fact) in something of a hole.

Except far less happens in John and the Hole. Eventful this film ain’t. But then that’s kind of the point.

John and the Hole – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Lieberman and Popsíchal in a dugout

If you love the colour beige or taupe, can’t get enough fawn, dun and khaki, you’ll have an extra affection for Tobruk, the 2008 Czech movie written and directed by Václav Marhoul.

It’s his second, after the Philip Marlowe-spoofing Smart Philip (Mazany Filip) of 2003, and has little in common with the 1967 film of the same name directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Rock Hudson and George Peppard.

In fact it’s closer to The Red Badge of Courage, the 1951 war movie set during the American Civil War and starring Audie Murphy, since both are to greater (the older film) and lesser (this one) extents adaptations of Stephen Crane’s 1894 novel about a soldier finding he doesn’t have the right stuff and then wishing he, too, could have the red badge (ie a wound) marking out the brave guys who at least fought rather than ran.

One thing it does share with the 1967 film is the setting – North Africa – where a battalion of Czechoslovak volunteers did in reality assist in the fight against the combined forces of Rommel and the Italians during the siege of Tobruk. Here we’re following Privates Jiri Pospíchal (Jan Meduna) and Jan Lieberman (Petr Vanek) as the new recruits are inducted into their battalion – Pospíchal idealistic, likeable, outgoing, adept; Lieberman pragmatic, self-contained, recalcitrant, a bit useless – where the two men are turned from raw rookies into soldiers, and become loyal friends in the process.

Familiar stuff, all of it. The tough training regime, the pitiless sergeant, the boozy camaraderie of a weekend on leave, the small talk of the downtimes between – someone noodling away on the harmonica. What will you do after the war? Have you got a girl back home? If you’ve ever seen a war film you’ve seen this stuff. But Marhoul knows we have and does an expert job in compressing it all into about half an hour, leaving the bulk of the movie for an examination of the way men react when subjected to the test of being in mortal danger. Fight or run?

The battalion in action
The men in action

Everything, as suggested up top, is mid brown – the uniforms, the sand, the vegetation, the air thick with dust, which is partly down to the way the excellent DP Vladimír Smutný shoots it, but it goes beyond that. This isn’t a “bathed in glory” war movie (it can’t be) and Marhoul keeps everything in the mid range – emotions, actions, moments of high drama, the performances of his leads.

Where other directors might favour a big bang, Marhoul goes for the small detail – flies buzzing around a wound, the way even a large quantity of blood simply disappear into the thirsty sand in a second, or how a soldier takes a shower, standing in a basin while a fellow soldier tips water over his head from a cup.

Moments of high drama are few but they have impact. Shocks, when they come hit home – like a soldier having his legs blown clean off, or when our anti-hero suddenly comes across a dead soldier whose face is still being eaten away by insects, but Marhoul also has an interest in the sort of day-to-day physicality (like the mechanics of taking a shit) that you don’t get in a John Wayne movie.

Unshowy and unspectacular, all the way down to the direction, which doesn’t draw attention to itself. Marhoul, like the soldiers he’s following, is just doing his job, a man in service of his calling.

Lieberman is a Jew (“Jew boy,” he’s called when he first arrives) but though there’s obvious anti-Semitism, it’s also just a routine feature of army life, all part of fitting in and becoming a unit. In many ways this is more Lieberman’s story than Pospíchal’s, which is odd considering the way events are set to run.

Redemption is the ultimate destination, with both Lieberman and Pospíchal finding theirs in different ways, in a machine-gun emplacement where a show of extraordinary courage is suddenly required.

Admirable in many ways, particularly Marhoul’s bold treatment of generic material, Tobruk’s novel approach is fighting an uphill battle. The less-is-more ethos extends all the way to the acting style of Meduna and Vanek, which makes access to their characters tough going especially in the scant 100 minutes of screen time. What makes men run, or stay and fight, when push comes to shove? Tobruk isn’t the place for easy answers.

Tobruk – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Mondo Hollywoodland

Aaron Golden as Caesar

An alien from the fifth dimension lands in Hollywood (with a camera, handily) and takes a fact-finding tour with a skanky seller of psychedelic mushrooms. Mondo Hollywood is the result, a weird survey of the territory that makes half-hearted claims towards being a documentary.

Bizarre points to note before the tour gets underway: it’s exec-produced by James Cromwell (yes, that one) and Francis Ford Coppola is namechecked in the “special thanks” credits at the end. Bizarre because Mondo Hollywood has that “assembled in the garage” feel, almost as if it’s taken a bunch of random footage and attempted to weld it together into a story, as some kind of bet.

The old joke about California was that it was the muesli state – full of fruits, nuts and flakes. And as the well spoken, slightly over-enunciating alien (who we never see) is given the tour by drug-selling Normand Boyle (Chris Blim) we meet plenty of all three categories. Normand himself is a flake of the first order who spends downtime between excursions trying to gas the rats in his roof, using carbon monoxide from his car exhaust as a lethal agent.

It’s Normand, I think, who first uses the adjective “mondo” to describe what the alien is seeing, kicking off with the roomful of drug-taking skanks Normand hangs out with. Then on to Ted (Alex Loynaz), the motormouth producer whose life runs on cocaine. Paloma (Miranda Rae Hart), the actress with oodles of Instagram followers who’s trying to get her role in a movie rewritten. Caesar (Aaron Golden), who makes giant spheres – “I like to make stuff that speaks to me. And then I speak back to it.” His partner Naya (Palmer Jones), the “astrological priestess”. Daphne (Alyssa Sabo), the passionate antifa activist, arsonist and blader. Barry (Barry Shay), the ageing fitness instructor full of boilerplate encouragement. What links them all is their self-obsession and that they’re all in their own way weirdos. Mondo.

Two unidentified actors do yoga by the pool
These two, never identified, turn up from time to time

Over three distinct chapters (titled Titans, Weirdos and Dreamers), visually it veers from the chaotically shot and luridly lit to the crisp and clean. Sonically it’s an eclectic and never obvious mixtape of music from Borodin to 1960s garage. And narratively – as activist Daphne starts tracking down a neo-Nazi – it eventually starts to shape itself into something along the lines of a Raymond Chandler noir. Chandler being the bard of Hollywood (though a Brit), this is entirely appropriate.

You say “mondo”, I say “gonzo”. Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is in here somewhere. So, in the way it tracks a demi-monde, is Kenneth Anger. You could also point at the trash aesthetic of John Walters. Or the found-footage and rapid cutting of the 1980s Scratch Video movement.

A bit headache inducing, in other words, especially in its more hallucinatory moments, though it does settle down a bit once it’s done its warm-ups, and by the end Janek Ambros’s film has become relatively slick and easy to follow.

“Mondo, the language, the true cosmic language,” says producer Ted towards the end as Mondo Hollywoodland tries to sum up what we’ve learned. What have we learned? There’s nothing really being said here about Hollywood that hasn’t been said before, but Ambros and fellow writers Chris Blim and Marcus Hart have been properly entertaining and as a viewer you feel like you’ve been given “the tour”.

Mondo Hollywoodland is bookended by sped-up black and white footage from ye olde Hollwoode – with the likes Claudette Colbert and Charlie Chaplin blitzing by – and the main takeaway seems to be that here’s a place where the fictional has bled back into the everyday, to often amusing, sometimes disturbing, effect. If nothing else we learn how hard it is to live in Hollywoodland, a state of mind rather than a place. The sheer effort all these people put into leading their lives, whether it’s being a bitch all day, or a dealer, or a fitness coach. And being “on”. These people are all always “on”.

Mondo Hollywoodland – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Exchange

Tim and Stéphane

Director Dan Mazer edges further into the mainstream with The Exchange, an update on all those Michael Cera/Jon Heder-flavoured films from about 15/20 years ago – the geek shall inherit the earth.

Tim (Ed Oxenbould) is the Canadian nerd and self-styled teen intellectual with a love of films with subtitles, existentialist novels by Camus etc, who signs on to take part in a French exchange program. What he’s hoping for is someone “sophisticated, smart and worldly”… because French. What he gets is Stéphane (Avan Jogia), a jockish guy in bleach-look jeans who wants to talk about sex all the time.

Tim wears glasses, is despised for his pretensions by his classmates and can’t admit he has a thing for weird friend Brenda (Jayli Wolf). Stéphane wears cologne, is gregarious almost to a fault, and has no trouble with girls.

A familiar, but very well done odd-couple comedy is the result, with slightly cosy/claustrophobic smalltown Canadian life in the 1980s nicely caught by director Mazer, who lays The Cure, The Smiths, Run DMC all over the soundtrack just in case you’d not twigged.

Mazer co-wrote most of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G/Borat stuff and knows his way around the comedy of discomfiture. Sometimes this works, as it does here, and did also in the Robert De Niro/Zac Efron comedy Dirty Grandpa. Sometimes it doesn’t, as in I Give It a Year, a mismatched-couple comedy full of funny lines but so sour that it was hard to like.

Tim's parents
Meet the parents: Paul Braunstein, Jennifer Irwin

But Mazer isn’t writing here. It’s Tim Long, who’s done stints with The Simpsons and used to be a gag writer for David Letterman, so also knows his way around a gag. He was also, wouldn’t you know it, the producer on the animated TV spinoff of Napoleon Dynamite, a clear influence.

The two leads do exactly what they need to do – Oxenbould is a convincing nerd, Jogia is both likeable and amusingly irritating as Stéphane – and Jayli Wolf is something of a secret weapon as Brenda, both funny and sympathetic as the girl who shouts out whatever she’s thinking and who makes up terrible songs on the hoof.

The plot revolves around home and school, as these things tend to. At school there is one of those thick, self-regarding gym teachers (Justin Hartley); at home Tim’s exasperated parents (Paul Braunstein, Jennifer Irwin, both doing different variations on the comedy eyeroll) struggle with their “different” son – “gay” reckon the Beavis and Butt-head-influenced school bullies.

All that’s needed is some kooky animated overlays here and there – there are none, for the avoidance of doubt – and all the boxes would be ticked.

Stéphane’s influence on Tim is benign but takes a long time to have its effect (the length of the movie, in fact). He is a male version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the exotic creature (first named by critic Nathan Rabin, I think) who makes everything right by shaking it all up. He’s also “different” because he has a brown skin. Where exactly his parents are from is never specified but if you were going to pick fault with this film it’s its decision to bother with the whole race angle at all… especially when there are brown people in it already – the members of the Crowfoot tribe at the story’s periphery who get barely any dramatic purchase.

Can things be both dry and sweet? Wine, maybe not. But that’s what The Exchange is. A funny, almost corny, very nicely played comedy in which everyone concerned comes out a little better than they went in.

The Exchange – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Suicide Squad

Harley Quinn screams

The Suicide Squad, not to be confused with Suicide Squad from five years ago, fixes the mistake made by the 2016 movie, which got bogged down in plot. The Suicide Squad does that by not really having one. Or if it does it treats it as something to be vaguely referred to now and again, like a map by a driver who knows his way.

The driver here is James Gunn, who does just about everything right in this super-sequel follow-up to the Dirty Dozen of comicbook movies. The first film was quite simply terrible, though bursting with great things, a kind of satire on Marvel movies, if you wanted to see it that way, which not only lost its way in arcane storytelling but got weighed down carrying the baggage of its stars, Margot Robbie and Will Smith.

Smith has gone this time round, to be replaced by Idris Elba, as Bloodsport, boss of the Squad, and Robbie has been put slightly back in her box as the psychotic Harley Quinn – still important as a character, still brilliant as a performance – joined by John Cena’s Peacemaker (the “peace” of the graveyard rather than of “peace, love and understanding”), Ratcatcher 2 (Portuguese actor Daniela Melchior effective as a woman who controls rodents), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian, underused, perhaps because the character’s ability to spray the world with killer polka dots is too out there, even for this film), and shark-with-legs King Shark (played by Steve Agee, voiced by Sylvester Stallone). Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, craggy, pumped, looks like he’s been gorging on human growth hormone) joins them later, along with Alice Braga as the leader of a group of South American rebels trying to storm the enclave of the junta that’s taken over her tiny island country of Corto Maltese.

The Suicide Squad
Meet most of the team

A military coup in South America isn’t really the territory for superheroes, even ones this shonky, so add in some Nazis and a malevolent extraterrestrial, the connection between the junta, Hitler refugees and outer space being a mad-scientist character called Thinker (Peter Capaldi with what look like old radio valves stuck on his head).

Back at base, doing for the Squad what Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury does in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Viola Davis, again a standout as the badass with a “motherfucker” for every situation. Funny. The tone is relentlessly Guardians of the Galaxy, which Gunn also wrote and directed. Quippy rather than hilarious, but non-stop quippy, and with a focus on detail that really makes a difference. At one point the Squad go to a nightclub and every one of the extras looks exactly as they should, like sweaty and slightly skanky party people having such a good time they look almost bored with it all. And if you loved Groot’s vocabulary consisting of about one word (“Groot”), chances are you’ll also warm to King Shark’s command of the monosyllable.

As said, Polka-Dot Man feels a bit surplus to requirements but the rest of the cast interact brilliantly as Gunn runs the Squad through the superhero movie playbook – gunfight, fistfight, Reservoir Dogs slo-mo group shot, one-against-many encounter – with everyone bantering, bickering and quipping as they go. Robbie and Elba get the best of it, as you might expect, Elba being particularly good, and partly because he’s using his own London accent, a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone which makes every “For fuck’s sake” ring true.

It’s not really what it is, it’s how expertly and relentlessly well it’s done. Gunn is having fun, and breaks the fourth wall repeatedly, and in different ways. At one point, when the giant starfish Starro breaks free from his confines and starts menacing the city, Gunn deliberately references Godzilla, just because.

I thought I detected, in the sweatily exotic location where criminals rule the roost and the outlaws are the good guys, a whiff of Casablanca too. Fanciful, maybe, but The Suicide Squad also has Casablanca’s fantastic pace and plot compression. That, really, is what makes it so good.

The Suicide Squad Soundtrack – Buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Velvet Touch

Rosalind Russell and Leo Genn

In The Velvet Touch, a Broadway star accidentally kills the impresario who made her, in an argument about whether she should abandon frothy comedy (and him) and pursue a more noble career in the serious theatre.

That’s the opening scene dealt with. The rest of the film concerns itself with the fate of the actress. Will she get caught, confess the crime or get away with it?

Whether it’s to indicate her character’s superior opinion of herself or to mask her own incipient double chin, Rosalind Russell plays Valerie as a head-held-high kind of gal, an actress who fancied herself in an upcoming production of Hedda Gabler. But the impresario who made her, Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames), had other ideas, and was reluctant to let her go, not least because he was in love with his protégée, who over the years has proved to be a beddable as well as bankable asset.

But no more. Now Gordon is dead. Though suspicion is falling not on Valerie, remarkably, but on lesser actress Marian Webster (nicely hissable Claire Trevor), who used to be Gordon’s lover until Valerie came along. Marian can’t stand Valerie, and doesn’t mind telling her that to her face.

Written by Leo Rosten, who studied psychology at Chicago (where he met and befriended most of the founding fathers of neoliberalism, though that’s another story), The Velvet Touch is a portrait of a psychological process at work and requires Russell to blow hot and cold repeatedly, as a woman on the horns of an ethical dilemma. The fact that there is no actual ethical dilemma – Valerie obviously didn’t murder Gordon – means this is one of those “only in the movies” tangles concocted to satisfy the various moral codes still in play at the time rather than the needs of the story.

Russell struggles with the role, and since it’s a bit of nonsense it’s easy to sympathise. Rosten also seems to be trying to shadow the plot to Hedda Gabler a touch – woman tries to get out from under the domineering influence of men and become her own person – which is bold, and works most obviously in the film’s favour when it hits its climactic scenes and Valerie’s dreams come true as she plays Ibsen’s tormented heroine live on stage.

Dan Tobin, Rosalind Russell, Leo Genn and Sydney Greenstreet
Dan Tobin, Rosalind Russell, Leo Genn and Sydney Greenstreet

Sydney Greenstreet is Captain Danbury, the theatre-loving cop on the case. It’s a familiar Greenstreet role in some respects – hat and stick, courtly manners. He twinkles far more than you might expect if you only know him from Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon, and as the cop gently giving his suspects enough rope to hang themselves he’s like an early version of Columbo. Greenstreet is the best thing in it, and seems to relish playing the character of Danbury as a butterball of mischief.

Though it dips into out and out melodrama, the bare bones of The Velvet Touch are those of the well made play, in which smart people say smart things to each other. In the romance scenes Russell over-pronounces the “yieouw” in “I love you” in a way that would later become a parodic shorthand for theatre romance. And her “daahling” is pretty ripe too.

Why is it called The Velvet Touch? I have no idea, though Russell wears clothes in Dior’s fuller-figured, cinch-waited New Look style, which liked to flaunt its use of flashy fabrics after the austerity of the war years. Could it be that? Or is the “velvet touch” Captain Danbury’s?

It’s the directorial debut of Jack Gage, who only worked in TV after this, and this has some of the “mechanical” moments of TV of the era, the sense of cameras clunking in and out. Apart from that Gage does a good job, keeping things brisk and blocking the actors with an appreciation for the lighting of veteran DP Joseph Walker, whose Hollywood CV stretches back as far as 1919, and who’d lit a long list of classics including It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday (which also starred Russell).

As a film it’s unsure how psychologically noirish it really wants to be. Leigh Harline’s moody score goes there several times, his scrabbling strings indicative of Valerie’s fading grip on her sanity as guilt overwhelms her.

The Velvet Touch really isn’t quite sure which way it should turn. Its lead character doesn’t know what she should do. And Russell has doesn’t know how to play her. Uncertainty is really the key mood of the whole thing. Maybe that’s the way to appreciate it too.

The Velvet Touch – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021