Everything Everywhere All at Once

Michelle Yeoh in kung fu action

Starting with its title and ending at infinity, Everything Everywhere All at Once is a “more is more” kind of movie that looks as if it was designed to be the last word in multiverse sci-fi.

The plot is Matrix-shaped – nobody becomes somebody – but instead of a young dumb male as its protagonist, it’s a middle aged smart female, in the shape of Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a drudge of a wife, mother, carer for her elderly father who’s just been served with divorce papers by her fairly useless husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan).

And instead of being hunted by a sleek, black-clad, sunglasses-wearing Agent Smith, Evelyn and family are being pursued by tax auditor Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), an officious jobsworth who dresses in crimplene and polyester, her over-urgent breasts and pendulous stomach topped off with a fierce bob and comedy spectacles.

The opening scene starts off at a fierce pace, with Evelyn and Waymond switching languages from English to Mandarin, switching subjects, constantly in motion. Even before the multiverse stuff gets going this is a busy, frenetically paced movie which looks like it’s going to be an energetic family drama. But then, at the tax office, it becomes apparent that Deirdre might be deadly in more than one way, and that there are parallel universes to be taken into consideration. An epic, kung fu flickerbook of reality-jumping surreal Christopher Nolan-esque plotting takes wing which is impossible to describe in full, but let’s just say that in one of the alternative universes Deirdre and Evelyn have hot dogs for fingers, which is something you can’t imagine in a Nolan movie.

Stephanie Tsu as Joy
Joy is out for multiverse domination

The script was originally written with Jackie Chan in mind, but got reconfigured somewhere along the way and maybe that’s a good thing. Yeoh is ideally suited to the central role as the woman who discovers she’s a woman of many parts, and persons. It’s a showcase for someone with range – Jackie Chan is many things but an actor with range is not one of them – and Yeoh plays well against Curtis, who throws caution to the wind in a role that seems designed to mock her early years as “The Body”.

Talking of early years, aged 13 Ke Huy Quan was the kid Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and has troubled the IMDb very little since, but is also inspired casting as the dweeby Waymond – who in at least one of the different realities is much more your 007 type. Inspired because this film feels like it’s been designed to get geeks discussing histories and timelines and paradoxes and what such and such a moment really meant until the crack of doom.

There are a thousand visual jokes, the special effects are cheap but effective, the filmic allusions range from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Wong Kar Wei’s In the Mood for Love though behind it all is the sense that this is the sort of film that Stephen Chow might once have had a go at, though he’s barely done anything since the days of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle.

Instead it’s Daniels (as Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert bill themselves), the film-making writer/directors who gave Daniel Radcliffe a role that suited him in Swiss Army Man, a similarly mad and eclectically referential piece of left-field comicbook fun.

As Jamie Lee Curtis pointed out on one of the social media outlets, this isn’t a big budget movie and yet it accomplishes an awful lot with limited resources. The special effects team is only nine strong and yet at various moments the action is shifting between one multiverse and others maybe ten times a second.

You can pick a hole if you want to. What happened to the storyline in which Evelyn’s daughter Joy is revealed as an evil genius mastermind with domination of the entire universe as her goal? Pick away.

Everything Everywhere All at Once – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2022

The Bank Dick

WC Fields has a drink

The Bank Dick is one hour 12 minute of WC Fields doing what WC Fields does – comedy in an erratic, chaotic, incoherent and brilliant way. It’s barely a film at all, more a series of sketches linked together by the familiar Fields character, a dyspeptic layabout and drunk who spends so much time and effort trying to avoid work that it’s a full-time job in itself.

Loosely, and this is very loose, the “plot” follows the irascible shirker into and out of his favourite bar and then into and out of two different jobs. In one, he somehow becomes the director of a movie, merely by claiming to some wits-end producer type that he’d once directed Keaton, Chaplin, all the greats. Minutes later he’s on set with the bullhorn. It makes no sense.

Somehow, from here, he winds up becoming a bank detective (the film’s alternative title), and within minutes he has inveigled his potential future son-in-law, who works at the bank, into “borrowing” money from the safe to buy some shares in a get-rich-quick scheme (ie scam).

Some of the best scenes are between Fields and his screen family, a wife, a mother-in-law and two daughters, all of whom consider him to be totally useless and an utter liablity. The antipathy drips off the screen, with the youngest daughter, Elsie Mae (Evelyn Del Rio) getting some of the funniest moments as the kid who’s worked out that the best way to deal with her dad is to use violence. An exasperated Elsie Mae: “Shall I bounce a rock off his head?” Her mother: “Respect your father, darling. What kind of rock?” Fields here polishing his notoriety – “any man who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad” etc. Fields never said it, but why let facts get in the way of a good line?

Egbert Sousé and family
Egbert Sousé and family

Fields wrote the script and it’s full of verbal flights of fancy, bizarre surrealisms and ridiculous names. Fields goes by the name of Souse, pronounced Sooz-ay, we’re repeatedly told, because there’s an “accent grave on the final e” (it’s an accent acute, in fact, but that might be part of the joke). He frequents a place he calls the Black Pussy Cafe, which the studio insisted on changing to the slightly less pungent Black Pussy Cat Cafe. On the glass door of the cafe it’s obvious that the “Cat” has been added later. Fields completely ignores it.

His daughter’s fiancé is called Og Oggilby – “sounds like a bubble in a bath,” quips Fields. The newspaper he reads is The Lompoc Picayune Intelligencer (Lompoc, incidentally, was a town founded on temperance values, hence Fields’s choice of it as a target). The auditor who comes to check the bank’s books, suddenly giving the film some jeopardy and a recognisable dramatic shape, is J Pinkerton Snoopington. The script is written by Mahatma Kane Jeeves – Fields himself, using a terrible punning pseudonym.

But it’s the weird asides that really make it. At one point there’s a car chase, which director Edward F Cline partly lifts from a Buster Keaton film, and the hood of the 1930s car Fields is driving flies off into the air. “Magic carpet,” he exclaims, half under his breath, as it spirals into the air.

Having made his name on the vaudeville circuit, Fields was used to repeating the same joke night after night. And he has no qualms about repeating the same joke several times in the same film. The hat trick, where he accidentally either puts on the wrong hat or puts the hat on the wrong thing – not his own head, in other words – recurrs several times. It turns up in one form or another in most of his films. And it’s welcome every time because to watch it is to watch a master of physical comedian at work. Fields started out as a juggler – the “world’s greatest” was how he was often billed – and his light touch never left him.

Fields was 60 when he made this film and died of an alcohol-related haemmorhage on Christmas Day 1946. The Bank Dick, and the film that followed it, 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, are probably as near as we can get to Fields on film with the minimum of studio interference and being portrayed the way he wanted to be.

The Bank Dick – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2022


The troops in the First World War foxhole

Seven key players are spun through three different related scenarios in Foxhole, writer/director Jack Fessenden’s experimental-theatre approach to film-making. There’s more than a blank stage and a couple of chairs, but not much.

As if to prove that statement nuts, Fessenden opens with an overhead shot of a mass of dead bodies on a battlefield in what, it becomes apparent, is the American Civil War. The fog of war here is literal, the air is thick, visibility is low.

The camera comes to rest on a foxhole where a bunch of Union soldiers are digging themselves in and trading the sort of dialogue that soldiers trade in – testing the boundaries of insubordination, musing on whether loved ones back home are still true.

Into this space where age and rank have been the obvious dividing lines, Fessenden introduces a badly wounded black man. The other guys are white, perhaps it didn’t need saying, but now it does – a further dynamic, explored as the white guys debate what to do with the newly arrived Jackson (Motell Gyn Foster). Conrad (Angus O’Brien) is all for helping him as much as possible, Clark (Cody Kostro) reckons they should just leave him to bleed out, which won’t be long anyway. The older guys, meanwhile, have the same debate at a slightly more esoteric level, Wilson (James Le Gros) and Morton (Alex Hurt) to-ing and fro-ing about whether the guys should fashion a stretcher and schlepp the wounded man five miles back to a hospital tent. Maybe Jackson was a slave before war broke out. His changing “value” as a human being is weighed against his innate worth as a fellow soldier. There’s also his totemic worth – this war is being fought, at some level, to free people like Jackson.

In the Humvee
Trapped in the Humvee

The action shifts to the First World War. The same actors, a different trench, and a different situation, when a German soldier (Alex Breaux) stumbles into the foxhole where American soldiers are sheltering. Expediency says shoot him, the code of gallantry dictates that, as a prisoner of war, the German should be spared and sent to a internment camp. Again an ethical discussion, again Conrad all for mercy and Clark for severity, the older guys also breaking down into opposing camps as the debate heats up about what the real purpose of this war actually is and what human values actually mean if they cannot survive a test. It comes to a vote, at which point Jackson, fully alive and kicking in this scenario, comes into play.

Fessenden moves on to the Gulf War, the same guys, now joined by a woman (Andi Matichak). Time has changed some dynamics. Jackson is the sergeant, he’s in charge. The foxhole now comes in the form of a Humvee. But after getting caught up in an IED/ambush scenario the guys are soon as at bay inside this seemingly impregnable vehicle as they were in the previous scenarios – there’s a wounded man to take care of and another “situation” to be aired.

Fessenden’s DP Collin Brazie shoots all three scenarios in different ways – soft washes of colour for the Civil War, harsh black and white for the First World War, intense searchlight brightness in the Gulf. Some things change, some things don’t – war is hell and in each case men (and women) trained for grunt combat actually find themselves dealing with the sort of big questions that people back home never have to.

Giving it a touch of unity is the score, again by Fessenden, who keeps it minimilaist throughout – rat-a-tat drums giving way to a pared-back orchestra yielding to ambient drones as the scenario shifts through the years.

Whether this is a film about war or race is moot. The same question could be said about the tripartite structure and whether it adds anything. But all the same it’s an impressive piece of low-budget film-making by Fessenden, who as the son of a low-budget maverick all-rounder Larry Fessenden (who produces) was probably born to this, with strongly cohesive performances all round, perhaps most of all in the Humvee sequence, when the confines of an under-siege military vehicle finally help drag Foxhole off the stage and properly onto the movie screen.

Foxhole – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2022

Hell’s Angels

Planes dogfighting in the sky

Howard Hughes had almost finished his action-packed, stunt-driven epic Hell’s Angels, at vast expense, in 1928 when silent movies were suddenly made obsolete by the vast success of The Jazz Singer. So he did what any mega-rich tycoon who just happened to own a film studio would do – he remade it.

Out went his female star in the process. Greta Nissen was Norwegian and had a heavy accent, and so she became one of the first casualties of the talkies, which destroyed many an established career (which is what the plot of Singin’ in the Rain is all about, after all). In came unknown 18-year-old Jean Harlow to fill the gap, while Hughes also brought in the rookie James Whale to help direct the new talking sequences.

Hughes kept as much of the old silent film as he could. Which is why there are three directors named on the IMDb entry for this film (though only Hughes’s name is on the screen credits). It breaks down like this: Edmund Goulding shot the silent sequences set on the ground (sound has been added afterwards but you can easily make them out, not least because the frame speed is all wrong). Hughes shot all the aerial sequences; and Whale did all the new dialogue sequences.

The film is designed as a vast Hollywood entertainment, with all the major food groups – action, comedy, romance, drama – and tells the story of a Cain and Abel-alike pair of brothers, one a solid plodder, the other a dashing gadabout. The story kicks off in pre-First World War Germany, where dull Roy (James Hall) and feckless Monte (Ben Lyon) are carousing with their German friend Karl (John Darrow), a fellow Oxford student who’s going to find himself on the other side of the great divide when the lights start going out all over Europe.

Ben Lyon and Jean Harlow
Monte tries not to peer down Helen’s top

The story only half-heartedly follows Karl, who has mixed feelings about fighting against a country he knows and loves, and is much more interested in Helen, a va-va-voom temptress of almost biblical scale, played with all sirens wailing by Jean Harlow. Harlow clearly cannot act – James Whale shut down production for days to bring her up to speed – but she has all the wanton sexiness a true star needs. Who needs acting? Helen is boring Roy’s squeeze but the moment the rascally Monte claps eyes on her, and her on him, the sparks are flying.

Again, Hughes sets this up but he isn’t as full-throated in following the Roy-Helen-Monte threeway as you might expect, though there are enough scenes of Harlow’s tight young breasts loose under her sheer pre-Code dresses that we get the idea. Hughes was a tit man, let’s not forget.

What Hughes is really interested in is the aerial stunts. And once the story has engineered both brothers into signing up for the Royal Flying Corps (the forerunner of the RAF), he has all the pretext he needs.

Really, Harlow apart, these are the reason why the film still flies today. They are properly spectacular. An early taster, of a vast German airship heading to bomb London with Karl on board, is impressive enough – the way the Zeppelin moves like a whale between vast billowing clouds, the on-board sequences on sets that are marvels of art nouveau design and technical sophistication. But it’s the climactic aerial combat sequences that are what the film is really all about. Featuring First World War biplanes flown to showcase their manoeuvrability, they’re masterpieces of aerial choreography, cinematography and editing. Apart from an aerial bombardment sequence, which uses models, it’s nearly all done for real. And when you’re after realism, real wins every time.

Three pilots and one mechanic died in the making of this film and Hughes himself ended up in hospital after crashing a plane while trying to impress the ex First World War hotshots he’d hired as stunt fliers. They’d warned him the plane he was taking out was hard to handle but he went and did it anyway.

It’s a good-looking film and much of it was hand-tinted, not much of which has survived the intervening decades, though the early duel scene – Roy stepping up to trade swords with a cuckolded husband after the cowardly Monte flees Germany –  in a vibrant blue gives an indication of how vivid the film must once have looked (incidentally, the composition of this scene seems also to have impressed Ridley Scott, who borrowed its silhouette looks for The Duellists). For lovers of very early colour films there’s also a two-strip colour sequences set at the ball where Helen first meets Monte, which is the only non-monochrome footage of Harlow.

Monte, incidentally, is not the hero. The sexy guy may get all the girls but he doesn’t get any kudos. It’s the dullard we’re meant to root for. Hollywood would tweak this equation down the line. As for the bad, sexy blonde bombshell who could have any man, Harlow made the mould that’s still in use.

Hell’s Angels – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2022

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Nick Cage makes the palm hold fist salute

Hell yeh – The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is that sort of movie, a brash, fun one-joke affair with a concept strong enough to keep itself motoring until about half an hour from the end. Your mileage may vary.

The joke comes in two versions. One is the Larry David one about a person playing a near-facsimile of themselves. Nicolas Cage here plays Nick (note extra “k”) Cage, a mega-acting legend who decides to pack it all in and then ends up in a real-life version of a Nicolas Cage movie – Con Air variety.

The second iteration is borrowed from Adaptation (which Cage also starred in) and features a younger Cage double – floppy hair, black leather jacket, cocaine levels of enthusiasm – who pops up now and again to deliver pep talks to the older man. “I’m an actor,” says the older Cage defensively to his outraged younger self. “You’re a movie star and don’t ever fucking forget it,” screams Cage the younger, piling a fist into the older man’s face for emphasis.

The younger Cage doesn’t appear too often, which is handy because there’s enough to be dealing with already. A plot about Cage as a terrible ex-husband and father (to Sharon Horgan and Lily Sheen respectively) getting involved with a Cage superfan and mega-billionaire sort (played by Pedro Pascal) who might be the international criminal mastermind responsible for the kidnapping of… 

It honestly doesn’t matter. The plot is a tissue there to help soak up the sweat flung off by Cage as he launches into one spoof on his own screen (and public) persona after another. Writer/director Tom Gormican, who somehow persuaded Cage to star in his second feature (after the borderline unwatchable That Awkward Moment), has worked out that the public perception of Cage is that he’s an even bigger, more erratic and ego-driven character than any of the characters he plays, so why not cut out the middle man by having Cage star as himself.

Javi and Nick jump off a cliff
Javi and Nick jump off a cliff

Along the way there are all the things you want from a film like this. Most obviously the mad hair, the references to Cage’s dire mismanagement of his own personal finances, the wrecked marriages (he’s currently on number five) and the allusions to a back catalogue that veers wildly all over the place in terms of quality as well as genre – Guarding Tess (a sensitive two-hander with Shirley MacLaine), to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (a romance), to Face/Off (gonzo action comedy), to Mandy (revenge horror), to National Treasure (Indiana Jones meets The Da Vinci Code) to Con Air (gonzo action comedy in a plane), to Gone in 60 Seconds (cars, cars, and cars). Plus Cage’s ability to make fun of himself by doing it all with an absolutely straight face.

It’s surreal to such a degree that when Cage and possible bad guy Javier (Pascal) at one point take acid things actually calm down a bit. For a while.

Cage is a master of unspeakable dialogue and so gets to say things like “my nouveau shamanic acting ability”. Pascal acts as a foil, and he’s good at that, amplifying the nonsense but never getting in Cage’s light. Horgan squeezes some laughs out of an underwritten role as Cage’s long-suffering partner (ex-partner maybe) and Lily Sheen, daughter of Michael Sheen and Kate Beckinsale, tries not to look like she knows only too well what it is to be Hollywood offspring.

Apparently the home entertainment release will feature a segment that ended up on the digital cutting room floor featuring Cage doing a series of extracts from some of his big movies on a set mocked up to look like it’s been lifted from the German expressionist silent classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – one of the film’s running jokes.

“We’re back. Not that we went anywhere,” is another running joke, shared between Cage the younger and the older and actually pointing out how odd Cage’s career has been. A proper popular movie star when there aren’t many left and yet still also a cult item, a man who’s capable of turning up in one turkey after another and not losing his fanbase. Kabuki acting, he’s called it. There’s plenty of it here.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2022

Days of Wine and Roses

Jack Lemmon with drink in hand

You might know the title Days of Wine and Roses from Ernest Dowson’s 1896 poem Vitae Summa Brevis – “They are not long, the days of wine and roses/Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream”. Or you might know it from Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini’s Oscar-winning theme song to this film, made famous by Andy Williams, whose lines replay Dowson’s sentiments. “The days of wine and roses laugh and run away like a child at play/Through a meadowland towards a closing door… etc”.

If you’ve never actually seen the 1962 film that borrows the line for its title, it comes as a shock to discover that the “wine” Dowson and Mercer/Mancini were using metaphorically has been put to literal work in a highly strung drama about a pair of boozers dragging each other to the bottom of the bottle. Wine, ironically, is one of the few tipples they don’t go near.

The movie connects back to the great film about alcoholism, 1945’s The Lost Weekend, through its star, Jack Lemmon. The trail goes like this: Billy Wilder directed Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. Wilder also directed The Apartment, which starred Jack Lemmon. Lemmon takes the baton on into Days of Wine and Roses, shot in a monochrome that’s reminiscent of The Apartment and with a deliberate callback to it in early scenes set in an elevator – where Lemmon met-cute with Shirley Maclaine in The Apartment, and makes a romantic breakthrough in Days of Wine and Roses with icy secretary Lee Remick.

He’s a PR guy with the everydude name of Joe Clay, she’s a bootstraps kind of gal who resists the advances of Joe after meeting him at a party where Joe, a PR fixer, was brought in to provide girls to make the evening swing.

Joe likes a drink, so does everyone in his business – it’s a Mad Men kind of world. But Kirsten does not. Joe finds a way through her defences by ordering a brandy alexander for the chocoholic Kirsten. And before you can say sheets to the wind, both of them are seeing life through an upended glass.

Kirsten drunk
Kirsten likes a drink too

From here it’s marriage and a (neglected) daughter and a race to the bottom, on and off the wagon, Joe discovering Alcoholics Anonymous after losing one job after another, Kirsten being reluctant to come along for the ride. She likes a drink, dammit, and cannot countenance herself as a common, dirty alkie.

Those early scenes between Joe and Kirsten – where he is essentially grooming her – make for uncomfortable viewing. And Joe’s little phrase – “Magic time” – uttered whenever he has the first drink of the day, also has an ugly ring of truth about it.

John Frankenheimer directed the 1958 TV version and you might have expected him to take on the film version too. Perhaps Frankenheimer was considered “too TV” – he’d never directed a feature at this point – and so the gig went to Blake Edwards, who’d just made Breakfast at Tiffany’s and so knew how to turn challenging material (Holly Golightly is a hooker, after all) into popcorn.

(Ironically Frankenheimer would instead direct, one right after another, three of the most brilliant monochrome movies of the 1960s – The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and The Train.)

Edwards sprinkles glitter where he can. This is a lush and gorgeous looking film, though there’s no attempt to hide the reality of boozing. Lemmon and Remick both veer into “stage drunk” territory occasionally – laughing excessively, wobbling overly – but the presence of AA founder Bill Wilson on the set as a consultant clearly had an influence. Alcoholism is presented as a grim condition, with both Lemmon and Remick getting moments to go all-in on the sort of physical acting that usually attracts Oscar’s attention.

Oscar kept his eyes averted, though the Academy liked the theme song, which never once mentions straitjackets or 12-step pledges. Maybe Oscar was right to – Days of Wine and Roses is hard going as “entertainment”, hard-hitting and ultimately depressing, in spite of the brilliant performances of Remick and Lemmon.

Days of Wine and Roses – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2022

Broadcast Signal Intrusion

A black haired figure interrupts a broadcast

Broadcast Signal Intrusion is a horror film set in ye olden tymes when VHS was still standard-issue home-entertainment tech and people stood outside to smoke cigarettes. Before then they smoked inside; after then, they’d mostly given up.

So it’s the 1990s. But the film reaches further back, into the mists of the 1980s where, it seems, there were several instances of TV stations being hijacked by a “broadcast signal intrusion”, when pirates would break into shows, terrorist style. An old story that’s reheated by James (Harry Shum Jr), an archivist in a dimly lit TV library who becomes obsessed with these old events and is soon riffling through the shelves looking for more examples of these intrusions, which took the form of weird masked figures making garbled pronouncements.

James is convinced these hijackings of the airwaves have something to do with the abduction of young women. How he’s come to that conclusion is slightly lost in the weeds, though a local academic (Steve Pringle) who wrote a report on the phenomenon back in the day provides some connective material.

Director Jacob Gentry has some fun recreating one of the shows broken into – a 1980s robot-flavoured geekcom called Sal-e Sparks, which has a theme tune of honking sax and soft jazz electric piano and looks like it might be an antediluvian version of The Big Bang Theory.

Writers Tim Woodall and Phil Drinkwater’s story contains an echo of the 2014 Irish movie The Canal – archivist investigates a crime – and as James uses more tech trickery to cut through the fog of VHS tape, make the murky bright and the jumbled intelligible, there are hints that 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio might also be a plot reference point.

James tries to work it out
On the case: James

But really the mood Gentry is after is The Matrix on a budget, starting with his star, Shum Jr, who has Keanu-alike Asiatic good looks, and continuing with characters with “haunching over a keyboard” tendencies, a crepuscular colour palette, blipping terminals, a sense of conspiracy and even the odd phone booth. This might be going out on a limb, but was Gentry deliberately using a Jim Reeves song at one point as a subtle, surname nudge towards Keanu? Fanciful, surely?

Or maybe that’s all just part of the archaeological interest of Drinkwater and Goodall in the mining of culture. At one point a subterranean car park becomes significant (which is all very 1970s), at another Morse Code becomes a breakthrough part of the storyline.

Meanwhile, these dark-haired, pale characters glimpsed in these weird old broadcasts are J-Horror throwbacks, and provide stabs of shock in a film that just kind of flows along. Looked at coolly, there’s not much going on here. For the most part it’s a case of characters talking to each other on a number of low-budget sets, including what look sometimes like motel rooms pressed into service.

The individual elements – the actors, the sets, the plot, the lighting, the camera, the soundtrack – none of them is outstanding. I’m not saying they’re bad. The craft and acting is good – strong, skilled. But Gentry and the team are working within genre rather than trying to probe its extremities. No one is particularly flexing, though Ben Lovett’s score, often of discordant pianos or a distant trumpet, is furthest along the road to being out there.

What makes Broadcast Signal Intrusion interesting is the way that the elements connect up. It’s the mood that carries it through, over odd moments of subpar acting, through budgetary constraints that are clearly becoming a problem and over plot holes – what about those missing women?

Never mind the plot, feel the ambience, in other words. A wallow in atmosphere that manages to ride through its lack of cash, it tees us up nicely for what Gentry et al are going to do next.

Broadcast Signal Intrusion – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2022

Wild Strawberries

Old Isak and young Sara

Ingmar Bergman released both Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal in 1957. So not one but two classics for the ages in one year from the same guy, who wasn’t very well at the time and in fact wrote the screenplay for this film in his hospital bed. Not bad going.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that decay and death are the big idea, the story of a lonely old doctor on the way to pick up an honour whose ardently held and rather severe ideas about the way to live his life are challenged, even as he sits in the waiting room to Death.

As he travels by car, and prompted by a stop at the patch where he picked wild strawberries as a youth, the good doctor, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöstrom), starts to recall snatches of his gilded youth. Glimpses, moments, extended Proustian reveries, full-blown almost-hallucinogenic recreations of that time long ago, all idealised like crazy – so many pretty blonde young women, everyone dressed in white, the summer light sparkling off the water on the island where the family lived in a bright, gorgeous house and where young Isak had his heart broken by one of those pretty blondes, Sara (Bibi Andersson, aged 22, at her most heartbreakingly gorgeous).

Isak is accompanied on his trip by his icy, disapproving daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), wife of his similarly principled, cool and estranged son, Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand). Along the way they pick up a trio of hitch-hikers, a pretty blonde also called Sara (played again by Bibi Andersson), whose girlish lightheartedness and resemblance to the Sara of Isak’s youth throw him into reverie overdrive, while the rivalry for the fair maiden’s hand between her laddish companions, Viktor (Björn Bjelfvenstam) and Anders (Folke Sundquist), echoes that between the young Isak and his own brother, who got the gal.

On they travel, this motley crew, Marianne often driving while Isak repeatedly slips his mental moorings to live again in the past. At infrequent stops, they discuss subjects like the existence of god, the cosmic futulity of life and so on.

Isak and daughter in law Marianne
Isak and daughter-in-law Marianne

The transformational reverie/fantasy aspect of this film might come as a surprise if you only know the film from its reputation. They slightly recall It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol, though the intellectual references make this obviously a Bergman work and locate it most obviously in the late 1950s. A Dali-esque dream sequence early on, the Camus-like musings on Sisyphean struggle and the existential pointlessness of “it all”, a later fantasy in which Isak is subjected to an interrogation by An Authority Figure that’s straight out of Kafka. This is Beatnik 101.

It’s all beautifully played, in a style you might call heightened reality. Bergman wanted Sjöstrom for the lead and had to work hard to get him to agree to play it. A Swedish movie legend, actor and silent-movie auteur Sjöstrom was 78, unwell and wanted to live out what remained of his life (two years, as it turned out) quietly. But here he is, in the last role of his career, and probably the one he’ll be most remembered for. Thulin, Andersson, Björnstrand and Sundquist seem to understand the importance of his being there and raise their game. Meanwhile, in what are the film’s most touching scenes, Jullan Kindahl, as the doctor’s old housekeeper, Agda, outdoes them all in a few brief scenes shared with Sjöstrom, in which neither the employer nor the housekeeper admit that they have deep feelings for each other. Kindahl gives us volumes of backstory in a look.

Age meets youth and youth wins is the headline. Old dog learns new tricks. Stiff old stick lightens up. Bergman almost magically whisks sentiment into what’s really a simple story, and in the final scenes particularly the whole thing becomes entirely captivating. The film finishes with a shot by DP Gunnar Fischer (who’d also shot The Seventh Seal) of a picturesqueness so staggering it suggests that while life might, who knows?, be pointless it’s also beautiful. And that, Bergman seems to be suggesting, is plenty to be going on with.

Wild Strawberries – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2022


Angela at work

When did Zoë Kravitz get so good? In Kimi she’s not only the star of the film but almost the only person in it, and she has a grip like a tractor beam on the attention. It helps that she’s beautiful, of course, but there’s more going on here than that.

She plays Angela, a shut-in with a string of emotional conditions, among them germophobia, ADHD, paranoia, neurosis, which suits her job as a human hired to tweak the algorithm of a Siri-like virtual assistant. When someone shouts, “Kimi, you’re a peckerwood,” she’s the one who later adds definitions for “peckerwood” in Kimi’s onboard dictionary – Kimi is always listening. And the covid pandemic, which persists in the residual mask-wearing of the people she sees from her window, has only made her condition worse.

Steven Soderbergh directs and is his own DP, as usual, giving us visual references to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, while the screenplay by David Koepp recycles elements of another “eavesdropper thriller” – Antonioni’s Blow Up. Except, instead of our doughty hero having to decipher nefarious goings-on from a photograph, here Angela comes to believe that a woman has been assaulted, or worse, and that the evidence for that is contained one of Kimi’s recordings. A nice excuse for Soderbergh to indulge his love of tech in scenes where Angela runs the recording through various bits of electronic filtration until… 

Soderbergh can’t be unaware of the fact that his Contagion became very much the movie of the moment at the beginning of the covid pandemic, but he’s a long way from vainglory here, instead delivering a fine genre thriller that’s all about craft – this is a superbly shot and edited film, visually poetic even, with a soundtrack (by Cliff Martinez) that enhances the tension, and it does get tense.

Angela on the run
Angela at bay

For fun, there are reminders of 1940s noirish thrillers – dreamy, echoey-voiced dissolves – and a bit of Die Hard action heroics as the Amygdala corporation gets wind of what Angela has found and sends in the bad guys, forcing Angela into the aircon ducting, and other places. Even outside.

This aspect of the story – big bad megatech – feels like a rote bit of plotting, relying on huge coincidence to fuel a conspiratorial turn and not saying much about social media corporations and their owners that most people haven’t already thought. The #MeToo-style revelation also feels a bit crowbarred in and comes a bit late to be really meaningful. Koepp’s story was doing fine without them, though the writer/co-writer of Carlito’s Way, the original Jurassic Park, the original Spider-Man movie and Panic Room doesn’t need lessons from anyone.

What is interesting and different as an idea is the notion that it’s the most fearful – Angela – who actually turn out to be the most capable when the chips are down, because they’ve lived through the situations already a thousand times and are ready for them, at some instinctive level.

In her blue bob, Kravitz is on screen the entire time, often in cute close-up. Calling her “efficient” sounds like a bit of a put-down, but she puts in a pared-down, lean, no-frills performance designed to aid the forward propulsion of the drama and does it with skill, managing to generate empathy for a character it would be easy not to like. And to think in the recent The Batman, as Catwoman, there was little sign of what we get here – thrust into a proper leading role, Kravitz has raised her game.

The result is a Steven Soderbergh thriller that is so well made and performed that it might slip by almost unnoticed, the sort of film that appears almost to have made itself.

Kimi – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2022

Don’t Follow Me Around

Bruno, Vera and Jo hug

Don’t Follow Me Around (Komm mir nicht nach) is the second of the Dreileben trilogy set in a quaint old German town in the heavily forested state of Thuringia. Goethe, Schiller and Johann Sebastian Bach are all associated with the area, though nowadays it’s got more of a name for what doesn’t happen there rather than what does – it’s slightly left behind.

That apartness, a sense of not much going on, pervades Dominik Graf’s story centred on Jo (Jeanette Hain), a criminal psychologist brought in to help the cops in Dreileben, who are struggling with the case of the escaped murderer Molesch (who links all three stories). Having found that her “booked” hotel room was nothing of the sort, Jo has ended up staying with Vera, an old friend.

Jo, pretty, capable and a single mother, hasn’t seen Vera (Susanne Wolff), also pretty, capable and hooked up with the very likeable Bruno (Misel Maticevic), for some years. Vera is a designer, Bruno a writer, and their house is an ancient fixer-upper whose semi-decorated state reveals the layers of Germany’s history. Here’s socialism, says Bruno, pointing to some particularly shoddy wallpaper. And here’s Hitler. Barbarossa has already been mentioned earlier, by Jo’s nationalist dad, with whom she’s left her boy.

Anyone hoping for any continuity with the previous film is in for a disappointment. Graf is even less interested in the hook – the murderer – than Christian Petzold was in Beats Being Dead. This angle gets barely a look-in. Nor does he seem too interested in Hitler, socialism, Barbarossa. Once mentioned, they recede to the background.

Instead Graf uses Jo as a metaphor for the German national character – she’s a capable, slightly unbending but pleasant woman who might, beneath it all, be not quite what she seems. By contrast, German regional character – quaint food, charming customs – fares slightly better, with the local cops getting an easier ride from Graf and co-writer Markus Busch than the Jo, Vera and Bruno, members of what would now be called the metropolitan elite.

This entire exploration takes place in a very detached way, inside the cinematic equivalent of gloves, mask and hazmat suit, and veers off in a direction that’s unexpected. As Jo and Vera reminisce, catching up on the intervening years over glasses of wine, it turns out that they both knew the same guy back in the day. In fact they might have been sleeping with him at the same time. Both seem mildly amused by this gobbet of shared history. It’s all a while ago now, they reason, one of those things that happen when you’re young and lusty. They shrug. Or that’s the impression each wants to give.

Jo and Vera
A shared lover for Jo and Vera

German national versus regional character gives way to a disquisition on lust, love and passion, a point made specifically in a “signifying” speech by Bruno at one point, a speech obviously designed to lay out the theoretical underpinnings of the drama we’re watching. If this episode of Dreileben were an exam subject, Bruno’s speech would have the yellow highlighter all over it.

Many questions are asked, about this mystery man in the past, and his relationship with Jo and Vera. But most of all, though neither says it out loud, each wants to know whether they were the bit on the side or the main event. Bruno, meanwhile, smiles gnomically and refills the glasses, perhaps wondering if a threeway is coming his way.

It’s a less obviously mythical film than Petzold’s, though there are moments that seem fairytale-like, and offer a direct callback to the first film. Without getting too spoilerish, nudity and night-time are involved.

And talking of callbacks, that scene in the first film where Johannes and Ana are on a hospital bed and a mystery blonde walks past the open door and peers in – that mystery blonde is now revealed as Jo.

What with all this going on there’s barely room, time or any real interest in the “escaped murderer, cop on the case” aspect of the film. Graf and co-writer Markus Busch (who collaborated with Petzold on the first instalment) quickly tie up this loose end with a plot strand about Jo, having somehow found time to psychologically evaluate the perp, getting a local woman to act as a decoy.

It’s a strange, three-headed beast of a film, held together by the performances of Hain, Wolff and Maticevic, who stoutly hold the fort until Graf and Busch with an almost magician-like flourish end the whole thing with a moment of extreme emotional resonance, which, of course, we should have seen coming.

Don’t Follow Me Around – Watch it/buy it as part of the Dreileben box set at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2022