Pan’s Labyrinth

Doug Jones as the pale man in Pan's Labyrinth

It’s not every fantasy film that comes complete with a scene of a brutal fascist captain sewing his own face up, but that’s what you get in Guillermo Del Toro’s best film since The Devil’s Backbone (better, certainly, than Blade II and Hellboy). It’s a dark fantasy reminding us that the Grimm brothers’ original tales were cautionary and soaked in violence and full of the sort of dirty psychological motivation that Disney flirted with in Snow White and Pinocchio. However this youthful experimentation wasn’t to last, and as with the pot reefer and student politicians, Disney, it seems, never actually inhaled. More’s the pity.

No such cutes or evasiveness here, where things start off like some Iberian Alice in Wonderland suffused with the smell of boot leather and cordite, Ivana Baquero playing Ofelia, an 11-year-old stepdaughter (of said fascist captain) who is informed by a goat-faced faun one night that she is in fact not a poor semi-abandoned waif, but a princess. But to ascend to her underworld throne (if that isn’t a contradiction) she must first complete three tasks. The bonus is that she’ll also be re-united with her real father. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Franco regime has won the civil war but skirmishing continues, and even Ofelia’s household is politically divided. And her mother, heavily, hideously pregnant, is struggling in an airless upstairs room to propel the progeny of the remarkably unpleasant officer out of her uterus.

Menace hangs over everything – even the apparently benign faun comes equipped with horns. Some sort of a devil? An allegory of the choice being offered to the apolitical Spaniard, maybe, who was being asked to judge between the competing claims of falangists and republicans – both of whom have killed people? At another level, Del Toro is part of a trend against realism in recent film-making. The Dogme 95 boys Von Trier (The Idiots), Vinterberg (Festen), Levring (The King Is Alive) and Kragh-Jacobsen (Mifune aka Mifune’s Last Song) until this point were one of the few shows in town when it comes to formal experimentation – Dogme 95 films being characterised by lack of artificial light, soundtrack, fancy editing.

Lack is the last thing you’ll get in Pan’s Labyrinth. It is exotic, heady and artful, unafraid of excess, a baroque fantasy informed by the overheated look of films by other Mexican directors such as Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros) but also brushed by an almost extinct strand of European fantasy – Powell and Pressburger in the UK, Cocteau in France, Murnau in Germany, Švankmajer in Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic or the work that Francesco Stefani did on the East German TV fantasy The Singing Ringing Tree. It’s this mix of the fantastical, the bloody, the vital and the terrifying that makes Pan’s Labyrinth what it is. And not a whiff of whimsy in sight, praise be.

Pan’s Labyrinth – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Karoline Herfurth and Ben Whishaw in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

 

Having wandered off up arthouse avenue in recent years, with The Princess and the Warrior and Heaven, director Tom Tykwer delivers his most accessible film since Run Lola Run. It’s an adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s runaway best-seller about an 18th century peasant with an incredible olfactory talent and the trouble that that gets him into. The feted Ben Whishaw gives it plenty of Norman Wisdom/Lee Evans gaucheness in the lead, as the lad whose almost Asperger’s talent for one single thing, and a commensurate lack of social skills, drives him on a giddy flight to the dark side. And the supporting cast is notable, sumptuous even. Dustin Hoffman does an entirely inappropriate panto act as the perfumer who’s lost his spark, until Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Whishaw) comes into his life, while Alan Rickman adds some theatrical bottom as the number one man on Grenouille’s tail, the father of one of his victims. Because where Grenouille’s nose takes him is towards murder, as he tries to produce a scent that can catch the essence of truth, beauty and life itself by killing attractive young women and then macerating them in animal fat – essence de femme morte. If that sounds like a tall order and one doomed to failure, the film has a similar ambition and outcome, aiming to get Susskind’s authorial voice and Grenouille’s first person point of view onto the screen at the same time (John Hurt doing his John Hurt thing in voiceover). Tykwer lavishes a large proportion of his decent budget getting the stink and filth of the 18th century onto the screen, and agonises over his compositions, whether they are of gorgeous women such as Rachel Hurd-Wood or Karoline Herfurth (her vivid red hair alone makes the film worth a look) or seething masses of maggots and other signifiers of decay. But no amount of set-dressing can hide the fact that the book has died on the way to the screen. Ironically the film is simply too literal, and without Süskind’s authorial voice teasing us this way and that, it’s hard to dispel the nagging feeling that what we’re watching is the Tooth Fairy strand from Silence of the Lambs rendered in the style of an upmarket continental lager advertisement. As for the blackly comic turn Tykwer takes at the end, it’s a throws-hands-in-the-air get-out for a film that looks like it had no idea how to end.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer – Watch It at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Bathory: Countess of Blood

Anna Friel in Bathory: Countess of Blood

 

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

 

 

20 August

 

Hungary founded by St Stephen, 1000

On this day in 1000, Hungary was established as a country in the Carpathian basin by Stephen I. The area had been settled by semi-nomadic tribes out of the Urals, led by Arpad (c845-c907), and his descendants consolidated their power in the region. Stephen’s father, Géza (grandson of Arpad), had made peace with the Holy Roman Empire and started the process of turning the country Christian. Stephen, once he had dealt with a rival claim to the throne by Koppány, his uncle, continued the process, applying to Pope Sylvester II for the insignia of royalty, which he was granted. He was crowned on 25 December 1000 (or possibly 1001) and during his reign turned his country into a modern feudal state with Latin as its official language. Latin remained the official language of the country until 1844.

 

 

 

Bathory (2008, dir: Juraj Jakubisko)

If you know anything about the Hungarian countess Erzsébet Báthory (1560-1614) it’s probably that she was a female Vlad the Impaler – bloodthirsty and impossibly cruel. Not in this film she’s not. Played by Anna Friel as a beautiful, intellectual and artistic renaissance woman, Bathory is also sensitively democratic, a noblewoman who becomes the victim of a mad, male-dominated system driven by lust and war, and more lust and war. To say that revisionism is on the film’s agenda is to understate – revisionism is the film’s sole purpose. This doesn’t help the film much, which looks like a throwback to Soviet era film-making, for good and ill. On the upside, the sets and locations are magnificent, but there is more downside – the post-production is terrible, and is in fact so bad that it would undoubtedly have consigned the film to the distributor’s “never” shelf if it had been made in a different country. So, are we watching to poke fun at another country’s inadequacies? Not entirely. Bathory is the English-language debut of the highly respected veteran director Juraj Jakubisko and was the most expensive film ever made by Czech or Slovak cinema. It’s an absolutely prime example of a good film that’s been ruined by bad editing, dubbing and all the other tricks of the post-production suite, and is comprised of about 75 per cent horror of a particularly mad communist sort, a belt of Fellini (who admired Jakubisko), plus some odd giallo fantasy. No bathing in virgin’s blood though, which was the secret of Bathory’s perennial youth, according to legend, even if Friel does spend large swathes of the film naked. Instead there’s the story of a woman doing her best but caught up in the religious games of rival Christian groups – Catholic and Protestant – all part of a larger game about the future direction of the country. Bathory is clearly on the side of progress, learning and civilisation and in the first section of the three-part film we see her romancing Caravaggio (Hans Matheson), who in reality was gay and never left Italy, but hey. In part two she forms a relationship with a healer (director Juraj Jakubisko’s wife Deana). In part three Karel Roden arrives, the actor rarely the harbinger of benign developments in any film. Here he’s playing the Palatine Thurzo, and the countess’s widowhood makes her all the more vulnerable to his machinations. Cackle, swish.
Watch this film for a flavour of the one that got away – the gorgeous women, the impressive castles, the lusciously decorated medieval interiors, grand balls, sumptuous clothes. And the cinematography is equally glorious, Jakubisko and DPs FA Brabec and Ján Duris having a real eye for pastoral beauty. But the roller-skating monks, hallucinogenic drugs, the steampunk ambitions, these are as laughable as some of the cast’s reading of English (phonetic, I suspect).

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Anna Friel’s performance
  • Franco Nero’s King Matthias II
  • The lush cinematography
  • A multiple award winner

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Bathory: Countess of Blood – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger Tides

 

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

 

 

31 July

 

Black Tot Day, 1970

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

Why Watch?

 

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

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Skeletons

Andrew Buckley and Will Adamsdale in Skeletons

 

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

 

 

24 July

 

Last Tsar of Bulgaria becomes prime minister, 2001

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

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

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

 

 

 

Skeletons (2010, dir: Nick Whitfield)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Why Watch?

 

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

 

 

Skeletons – Watch it now at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enter the Void

Paz de la Huerta poledances in Enter the Void

 

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

 

 

8 July

 

Matthew Perry arrives in Edo Bay, 1853

On this day in 1853, Commodore Matthew C Perry’s four-ship squadron arrived in Edo Bay (Tokyo Bay today). Japan’s policy towards foreigners was one of total isolation, and had been since 1633 – the penalty for foreigners entering Japan, or Japanese leaving, was death. Perry was determined to open Japan up to US trade, and threatened the Japanese with bombardment to make his point. To demonstrate the superiority of US fire power, he fired on buildings in the harbour, then retreated. In the interim the Japanese fortified their garrison and quickly tried to build modern warships and cannons, but since no warship had been built for two centuries, and technological know-how came only from books (the Japanese were still using wooden cannons at the time), the efforts weren’t too successful. The following year Perry returned and, knowing they were licked, Japan grudgingly signed a Treaty of Peace and Amity, which opened the ports of Nagasaki, Shimoda and Hakodate to whaling ships. The Russians signed a similar treaty with Japan the next year.

 

 

 

Enter the Void (2009, dir: Gaspar Noé)

The director Gaspar Noé claims to have seen Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey more than any other film. Watching Enter the Void you don’t doubt it: it is an astonishing film of great technical accomplishment and vision – and its mind-trip psychedelic visuals only add to the impression that this is Noé’s Space Odyssey.
The weird shit starts coming at us from the screen with the opening credits, a cascade of a huge number of different exploding, pulsing typefaces that just on their own are worth watching the movie for – this is the title sequence that got a standing ovation at Sundance. We’re set up for something kaleidoscopic and epic, and once we’re into the film we get it – a headlong, headrush story, seen through the eyes of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) a young druggie American boy in Tokyo who is ambushed by the police, locks himself in a toilet, where he’s trying to flush away the drugs he’s carrying when he is shot. He dies. End of part one.
Part two replays what we’ve just seen, this time from a point of view just behind Oscar’s head, video game style, as Noé sketches in a bit of background about Oscar’s life, a few other people in his world, including his pole-dancing sister (Paz de la Huerta, looking hot enough for their relationship plausibly to be closer than a sibling relationship should be), his obsessions (The Tibetan Book of the Dead), how he got to this awful place and lost his life. Noé messes about with the chronology – a cheap trick quite often (as it arguably was in Noé’s own Irreversible), entirely justified here – as we flash forward to Oscar’s autopsy, the crematorium, the ashes. At one point Oscar even briefly comes back to life. Or is that later on? It’s that sort of film. And then Noé goes at Oscar’s story yet again, this time with a prolonged overhead shot that has “omniscient narrator” written all over it, or possibly it’s Oscar’s airborne spirit, or possibly that’s the same thing. This time we get more backstory still. But enough is enough in terms of plot.
The plot isn’t the film’s real achievement; instead it’s the visuals, with Noé working every trick of in-camera, lighting and post-production technique to simulate the drugged up milieu we’re meant to be moving in – DMT, MDMA, GHB and cocaine are all referenced. But it’s the form too, Noé treating the film as a palimpsest, with bits half-erased, written over, half-erased again, the same incidents and facts approached repeatedly from a different direction, a different point in time, as you might if way off your face on a cocktail of the above. Being a film set in Japan and dealing with multiple perspectives, this is the point where Kurosawa’s Rashomon should probably be mentioned. So, Rashomon.
By the end we realise we’ve seen a simple story told in the most astonishing way – we’ve learned how this guy ended up in this toilet at this time and died there. As for the film’s final shot, it’s again reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey and suggests… rebirth?… reincarnation? But gruesomely. Enjoy the ride.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Visually astonishing
  • The soundtrack by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter
  • Benoît Debie’s cinematography
  • Because the San Francisco Chronicle declared it “unbearable”

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Enter the Void – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Jaroslava Schallerová in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

 

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

 

 

4 July

 

Lewis Carroll tells Alice Liddell a story, 1862

On this day in 1862, the British writer, mathematician, photographer and logician Charles Dodgson told a story to a small group of children on a rowing trip. The children were the Liddells, the offspring of Dean Henry Liddell of Christ Church, where Charles Dodgson was eventually to become a deacon. Prompted to write it down, according to all accounts, by the four-year-old Alice Liddell, Dodgson did so, and in November 1864 he gave her a hand-written copy of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Fantasy literature pioneer George MacDonald, a friend of Dodgson, persuaded him to try and get it published. Macmillan took his book, and published it, under Dodgson’s pen name, Lewis Carroll. It was an instant success. He followed it up with An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, a mathematical work, published under the name of Dodgson.

 

 

 

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970, dir: Jaromil Jires)

If the past is another country, what about a film from another country, made under the hegemony of another political system, in an era very different from our own. I’m trying to say that Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is weird. Its theme for starters. In the same way that Lewis Carroll’s reputation has struggled against the modern obsession with his feelings for little girls, both as subjects for his books and his photographs, Jaromil Jires’s 1970 film deals with something we no longer address directly – menstruation, and the transition of a girl into womanhood. The problem for some modern viewers stemming from the fact that Jires presents the girl as a woman in embryo, sexual cunning hovering as 13-year-old Valerie make her gauzy, filmy, backlit way through a film that is an Alice in Wonderland tale of strange, symbolic encounters with things beyond her ken.
Valerie is dressed all in white. We meet her in her bedroom, decorated all in white, as a thief wakes her up. He’s stolen something valuable given to Valerie by her mother. By the next morning the valuables are back, but Valerie has had her first period and the town suddenly seems awash with pheromones, her budding femininity a lure for anything with a dick in its trousers. The town is also awash with missionaries and the carnival, each in their different way obsessed with sex. What is a girl to do? Yesterday she was playing with toys; today new play equipment seems to have been installed.
This hazy, dreamlike, quasi-surreal, relentlessly symbolic film could also not be made today because, rare exceptions apart, we don’t go in for surrealism or overt symbolism too much now (the white T shirt of the “final girl” in horror films being something of a throwback). Like the cult 1967 TV series The Prisoner, or the original The Wicker Man, in Valerie there’s a constant suspicion that another reality lies just out of reach, that things are about to break on through to the other side, as the Doors put it in song. The soundtrack reinforces that impression, the tinkly harpsichord so often being the signifier in films of this period of the metaphysical.
Strangely, considering all this blurry, referential, meta-whatsit business, the film is shot in the crispest, cleanest, most brightly coloured and most beautifully lit fashion. The Communist authorities at the time hardly went a bundle on this sort of abstract, symbolic, esoteric nonsense. They preferred black and white, socialist realism, proud young workers striving towards a better future and so on, not some child wandering among the vampires and demons, black magic and sexual mantraps that Jires is intent on putting in Valerie’s way. Doubtless the authorities were convinced that the Church in the film was no symbolic literary device, that Jires meant the film as an attack on the corrupting power of an institution inimical to the spirit of Communism. However, everyone living in any totalitarian regime becomes well versed in the double reading of every cultural artefact. They would have seen the Church here as representing the repressive state, the burning of heretics a reminder of the suppression of the liberally minded Prague Spring by Soviet tanks, which had taken place only two years earlier. In fact Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a product of that sudden loosening of the Communist grip, when it looked like Europe might return to business as usual. And as well as telling a story of a girl and her odd and surreal week, that is part of the film’s project, connecting Czechoslovakia back up to a wider Europe, with the Grimm brothers in its past, Hammer horror and giallo in its present, and who knows what in its future.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A cinematic one-off
  • The gorgeous cinematography of Jan Curík
  • The frail beauty of Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie
  • Alice in Wonderland coined anew

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders – Watch it now at Amazon

I have seen Second Run’s beautifully restored version and can recommend it

 

 

 

Sucker Punch

Emily Browning as Baby Doll in Sucker Punch

 

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

 

 

20 June

 

The Beatles’ Yesterday and Today Butcher cover, 1966

On this day in 1966, the Beatles released their eleventh US release, Yesterday and Today, a compilation of tracks from the three most recent British albums – Help!, Rubber Soul and Revolver (not yet released). The record became infamous because of its cover, shot by Robert Whitaker earlier that year, which depicted the band dressed in butchers’ aprons draped with pieces of meat and various parts of plastic dolls. In terms of conceptual art, it was ahead of its time (it’s in Damian Hirst and the Chapman brothers territory) and the band sold it to the record company as “our comment on the [Vietnam] war.” Capitol Records printed 750,000 copies of the butcher cover and it caused a stir even before it got to the shops. The record was immediately recalled, the order to pull it coming right from the top. Many of the covers were destroyed, going into landfill, but tens of thousands others were re-issued, with another, less offensive, image pasted over the top. Once word got out that the butcher cover was underneath these so-called “Trunk” copies, the race was on to find a way to remove the new image without destroying the old one. Ironically, “pasteovers” that have not been interfered with now command good prices, whereas “third state” covers (the anodyne image removed) are less valuable. An original shrink-wrap version of the original butcher cover, not tampered with either by the company or the public, now sell for multiple tens of thousands of dollars.

 

 

 

Sucker Punch (2011, dir: Zack Snyder)

If 300 is a light-hearted, cartoon-y take on hot young guys doing bloodthirsty things, then Sucker Punch is the female equivalent, a lurid modern-gothic bit of fun peopled by girls/women whose clothes are all a bit too tight, loose, skimpy or absent. But 300 is dumb shit compared to this, a mad kaleidoscopic mash-up of pop trash loosely held together by a video-game conceit: our fab five of fearless young women – Charlie’s Angels on crystal meth – are fired into one crazy situation after another (disarm the bomb, kill the dragon, defeat the Nazis etc), each situation preceded and precipitated by a dance by Baby Doll (Emily Browning) and accompanied by high-octane mixes of old school tunes by Marcus De Vries. So we get Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”, Roxy Music’s “Love Is the Drug”, among others. The effect is intoxicating, if you can take this sort of thing, possibly migraine-inducing if you can’t. Buried deep inside is an exploration of themes also handled by Lucile Hadzihalilovic in her overlooked and beautiful Innocence – the enculturation of young women. Both films, 300 and Sucker Punch, were directed by Zack Snyder, a man whose output up till this point has suggested that at his worst he’s a hack (Dawn of the Dead), at his best (flashes of this in Watchmen) a Hollywood player trying to move the artform onwards. His artform being the comic-derived, pulpy, over-caffeinated actioner. Sucker Punch is the apotheosis of this. But I haven’t mentioned the cast, apart from the always luminescent Browning – Abbie Cornish being the only one who doesn’t really fit in with Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung (Cornish too old? too above-it-all?). Nor have I mentioned that the action actually takes place on two levels of reality, up here in some kind of women’s correctional facility over which Carla Gugino presides while the girls suck air across their teeth. And then in the various rabbit holes that the plot dives down, where alter egos of the young women go to deadly work like some underdressed X-Women. We never actually see Baby Doll dance, but the idea that a young woman gyrating on a table top can create so much disruptive energy, enough to drive deadly combat, that’s brilliant. Because it entirely subverts the normal dynamics of action films, which are essentially about men giddy on heroic notions of saving the dancing girl. Here the women go to war, driven by something so powerful it cannot be shown. Unleashed by the concept, Snyder goes to work with the CG, which doesn’t even vaguely attempt to ape reality – the problem with too much CG work these days, from Pixar down. Instead he’s free to create impossible worlds where imaginary, though consistent, laws of physics hold sway. Yes, if you’re being snitty, Sucker Punch can be seen as an update of the erotic girls school or prison drama. There is a lot of lingerie. I’m not going to mount a defence of this aspect of it; I can’t. That doesn’t make the film any less brilliant. And having had the misfortune to watch Snyder’s Man of Steel, more hackwork, let’s just hope one day soon he gets back with the Sucker Punch programme instead of all this messing around with adaptations of previously existing “properties”.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great cast includes Jon Hamm, Oscar Isaac and Scott Glenn
  • Larry Fong’s intense cinematography
  • Snyder and Steve Shibuya’s inventive screenplay
  • The great Marcus de Vries/Tyler Bates soundtrack

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Sucker Punch – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Shorts

Jimmy Bennett and Kat Dennings in Shorts

 

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

 

 

13 June

 

Kat Dennings born, 1986

On this day in 1986, Katherine Litwack was born in Philadelphia to a scientist father and a speech therapist/poet mother. Home-schooled, she graduated high school aged 14, four years after her first acting role in a commercial. By age 13 she’d turned up in an episode of Sex and the City, then had supporting roles in films of increasing weight until she got her own starring role in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, alongside Michael Cera. Bright and feisty, since then she’s specialised in the sort of girl who can go from geek to goddess with subtle shift of eyewear (see the Thor films), which can be put down to her pale skin (she refuses to tan) or to her reluctance to go down the obligatory blonde route.

 

 

 

Shorts (2009, dir: Robert Rodriguez)

A nerdy kid called Toe Thompson finds a magic wish machine, possibly left on earth by an alien civilisation, and sets about improving his life, starting by messing with the kids of his parents’ awful employer (played with a cackle by James Spader). Made by Robert Rodriguez in an ADHD style familiar from the Spy Kids films, this CG-heavy fantasy with a strong 1960s Disney vibe is aimed squarely at young teenagers, or younger, and also has something for any adult who occasionally just enjoys watching someone work who loves what they do. Rodriguez is having tons of fun with the technology, as our tweeny hero discovers what his wishing rock (The Adventures of the Wishing Rock is the film’s alternative name) can do – giant frankfurters, pterodactyls, crocodiles on their back legs, snot that grows to giant size. It’s not so much a story, more a series of sketches, which Rodriguez further fractures by shifting the chronology. This allows him to concentrate on (special) effects, rather than consequences, as the wishing rock is passed from hand to hand, wreaking magical havoc as it goes. There’s also a loaded critique of modern life – it’s all set in a wealthy suburb where parents don’t communicate with their children, where the local employer is a Steve Jobs-like computer tyrant determined to find the ultimate upgrade for his all-purpose black box called the Black Box. Meanwhile, lurking, is William H Macy as a scientist so obsessed with germs that he’s brought his son up in a bubble. Is this what we were trying to build? Is this how we want to live – isolated, obsessed with gadgets, risk averse, out of touch with our natural environment? The fact that Rodriguez is delivering this message via the medium of a massively technological film that must have been made almost entirely in post production is something the viewer is going to have to deal with. And it’s true that there’s very little characterisation here, beyond the level you’d find in your average cartoon, and the storyline is so thin it isn’t really there at all. But at the level of fun and mad ideas, Shorts works entirely, with Rodriguez using his adults (Macy and Spader are joined by Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer) well, his children better – look out for Jolie Vanier in a “watch this face” mini-me Christina Ricci performance as a girl called Helvetica Black (Hell for short). As I write, Shorts is pulling a majestic 5.0 on the imdb ratings, less than the pointless fantasy flick Eragon or the cringe-inducing Cats & Dogs. That’s just wrong.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The good cast includes Kat Dennings, James Spader and Leslie Mann
  • The ker-ay-zee CG effects
  • That Robert Rodriguez energy
  • It’s for the inner eight year old

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Shorts – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

Louise Bourgoin in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

 

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

 

 

31 May

 

Ramesses II becomes pharaoh of Egypt, 1279BC

On this day in 1279BC, the king often called Ramesses (or Rameses, or Ramses) the Great, became pharaoh of Egypt. Known as Ozymandias by the Greeks, the pharaoh most remembered by history was a great military campaigner and a great builder of cities, temples and monuments. He became pharaoh in his late teens and ruled for the following 66 years. The Egyptian army consisted of about 100,000 men, and he used it to wage war against the Hittites and Nubians, routed the Sherden sea pirates who were harrying ships on the Mediterranean coast, thrust into modern-day Syria and Lybia. At home he undid many of the religious reforms of the Amarna period, returning Egypt to polytheism. After 30 years of rule, Ramesses himself became a god. He moved the capital of Egypt to a new city, Pi-Ramesses. He had many memorials to previous emperors remodelled to look like himself. He built Abu Simbel, the temples carved out of the mountainside, and the temple now called the Ramesseum, designed to keep the memory of Ramesses alive after his death, the “temple of a million years”, as well as a glorious tomb to the most important of his consorts, Nefertari. He died, in his 90s, possibly of an infection caused by a dental abscess, and was succeeded by his 13th son. His mummified body can now be seen in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.

 

 

 

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010, dir: Luc Besson)

Though Luc Besson started out as a director (early films include Subway and Nikita), in recent years he’s been so occupied with the production side of things that he’s not got behind the camera so much. He made an exception for this adaptation of one of Jacques Tardi’s comic books – big in France, ignored most every other place – about a kind of female Indiana Jones, daring, drily witty and so proud of bearing that almost all who encounter her bend to her will. Louise Bourgoin plays journalist and adventurer Blanc-Sec (Dry White, in French) and is charming, pretty and haughty enough to carry off the role (think young Mary Poppins rather than Edwardian Lara Croft). It’s a knotty, tangly plot, with Adèle on a “this time it’s personal” mission to save her comatose sister, aided by resuscitated Egyptian mummies, an old gent who knows how to waken the deeply somnolent and a pterodactyl swooping around Paris terrorising people. There isn’t a non-eccentric character in it, there is a lot of running around, it’s all shot with deep chocolate-box filtration and there’s a clever mix of physical, stop motion and true CG effects. It’s Jules Verne steampunk meets the whimsy of Amélie and Besson clearly wants it to work. So why have most people not heard of this charming, exciting, fun film? Maybe some of the swoops from inventive to kitsch are a bit maddening, and certainly the stabs at humour are, for the most part, utterly unfunny (seen one pterodactyl crapping on the head joke, seen em all). Or maybe for most people this just isn’t what you’d associate with a “French film” – where’s the long talky stuff, the gamine girls, the nudity? But, come on, you’ve got to admire a movie with this much drive and plot, and with a breakout performance that singles Bourgoin out as a talent to watch. It’s a better, more intelligent, more coherent film than Spielberg’s Tintin, which it superficially resembles. But will we ever see the last two legs of the trilogy which was originally intended? It seems not. Never mind, we’ll always have Paris (menaced by a flying dinosaur).

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great piece of entertaining adventure
  • Louise Bourgoin’s starmaking performance
  • Matthieu Amalric, almost unrecognisable beneath the prosthetics
  • The extraordinary production design by Hugues Tissandier

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec – at Amazon