John Le Carré Movie Adaptations Ranked, 2021

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

There is a lot of John Le Carré out there. The author wrote prodigiously, starting while he was still working as a spy for MI5 and MI6 in the late 1950s and only really stopped when he died, in December 2020. There are nine novels featuring his most famous creation, the retired master spy George Smiley, and another 17 or so (depending on how you count) other novels, plus short stories, essays, memoirs, articles written for newspapers (denouncing the war in Iraq, for instance) and screenplays (always adaptations of his own novels).

But there’s no getting round it, if you want a John Le Carré experience, the movies are probably the worst way to get one. The books are by far the best, because they give Le Carré space to lay out his worldview and spin his intricate webs. For the same reason – space – the TV miniseries also works well, with 1979’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Alec Guinness, probably unbeatable as the definitive screen Le Carré, though there’s also a lot to be said for 2016’s The Night Manager, starring Tom Hiddleston. After TV, the audio versions are the way to go, particularly the BBC’s excellent The Complete Smiley, featuring Simon Russell Beale as a very Alec Guinness-tinged George Smiley.

And after all that, the film versions. Le Carré is all about intricate plotting and texture, and the two-hours-ish running times of most big- or small-screen movies simply isn’t enough for the magic to exert itself. However, some pull it off, others don’t.

For the purposes of this rundown I’m including all the standalone Le Carrés, whether made for cinema or TV. They’re a mixed bunch, ranging from the exceptional to the diabolical.

I’ve watched them all (bar one) and here’s how I rank them, from worst to best, and why.



The End of the Line

A BBC standalone Le Carré made in 1970 as part of the Armchair Theatre TV strand. The Germans would remake it three years later as Endstation – both are two-handers about a clergyman and an older gent sharing a train carriage on a journey from Edinburgh to London. Both men are spies but neither is saying so. Ian Holm and Robert Harris take the leads in the British version, Hans Schweikart and Peter Striebeck in the German one. I’ve seen neither, so won’t comment.

The Little Drummer Girl

Like Florence Pugh, decades later in the TV adaptation, Diane Keaton was undone in 1984 by a confusing story about an actress being recruited by the Israeli secret service to undermine the Palestinian cause she so vehemently champions. How? Why? It’s probably best not to ask. Le Carré has tied himself in knots trying (and failing) to work his Cold War modus operandi into a new theatre of operations, the Middle East. It’s nicely, unfussily directed, by George Roy Hill, and there’s a chance to see a relatively restrained Klaus Kinski do his thing, as an Israeli version of George Smiley.

A Murder of Quality

George Smiley moonlights as a private detective in a straightforward 1991 TV movie whodunit that looks as if it’s made for Sunday evening audiences in need of reassurance. A young Christian Bale joins troupers like Glenda Jackson, Joss Ackland and Billie Whitelaw and though it’s a bland and unsurprising Le Carré, Denholm Elliott does manage to cut through as Smiley – lighter and fruitier than Alec Guinness’s, in a tale that all comes down to the fine distinctions between various castes of hidebound Brits.

The Looking Glass War

Ralph Richardson and Anthony Hopkins turn up in this 1970 Le Carré adaptation but it’s the relatively obscure Christopher Jones who’s the star, as the handsome sailor recruited to go behind the Iron Curtain to winkle out secrets. Jones is fine, even though his long-haired, Warren Beatty-esque character is patently absurd, a sign that the film is playing to the countercultural youth of the day, a decision which kills any chance of the film being a success.

A Most Wanted Man

John Le Carré’s stories are often about the dull plod of everyday spying. A film’s problem is to render that on the screen and yet keep some excitement there. Director Anton Corbijn drenches his 2014 Le Carré outing with stylistic flourishes similar to the ones he brought to The American – this is a very cool film – and he has a cast of spectacular international dimension (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl, Rainer Bock, Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe). But in the same way that Le Carré’s novels often struggled in the post 9/11 world, Corbijn struggles here in his attempt to inject a spark into a film that is in most other respects brilliant.

The Tailor of Panama

A real mix of the fine and the not so much in this 2001 adaptation of Le Carré’s excursion into Graham Greene territory – a central America full of sweaty generals and downmarket spies. Pierce Brosnan – between 1999’s The World Is Not Enough and 2002’s Die Another Day – shows there’s more than one spy in his acting arsenal, and the rest of the cast is genuinely interesting and includes Geoffrey Rush, the largely superfluous Jamie Lee Curtis and playwright Harold Pinter (in a rare screen role). As for Brendan Gleeson as a Panamanian freedom fighter – not his finest hour.


Naomie Harris and Ewan McGregor in Our Kind of Traitor
Naomie Harris and Ewan McGregor in Our Kind of Traitor


Our Kind of Traitor

Blameless prof Ewan McGregor and lawyer wife Naomie Harris get caught up in the money-laundering machinations of Russian oligarch Stellan Skarsgård in Marrakech in a textbook “Le Carré on the big screen” movie. It looks great, it’s sexy enough and the cast (including the excellent Damian Lewis) is great. With McGregor once rumoured as “the next James Bond” and with Harris (the current Miss Moneypenny) in the cast, it’s clearly aiming for a bit of 007 lustre. But there just isn’t enough air in there to let Le Carré’s textures interweave and so the full weight of the betrayal/loyalty theme is never quite felt.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

What played out over nearly 400 pages in print and nearly five hours on the TV suffers from being condensed to the point where the intricacies of what is surely John Le Carré’s most finely plotted story start to get lost. Still, there’s always Tomas Alfredson’s direction to admire, and the sheer 1970s look of the 2011 movie is probably unsurpassed – reel-to-reel tape recorders, nicotine-coloured ceilings, the full analogue world. Tom Hardy’s 21st-century speech patterns are a problem, but it’s a dependable cast – John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch.

The Russia House

For this doubter, both Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer are surprisingly effective in this 1990 adaptation whose USP was that it was shot in Moscow as Gorbachev’s Glasnost made it possible for lickspittle running dogs of capitalism to film there for the first time in decades. Connery is a tweedy, boozy publisher recruited by the British secret service, Pfeiffer the Russian he’s targeting. It packs a lot in, and director Fred Schepisi sometimes forgets that he’s making a spy thriller. But it’s a looker, in every sense.

The Constant Gardener

This 2005 adaptation of Le Carré’s “Big Pharma” novel still bears all the hallmarks of his spying oeuvre – duplicity, grinding bureaucracy, the personal cost of loyalty to an idea – and features a methodical, very Le Carré character at its centre. Ralph Fiennes plays the plodding diplomat kicked into life by the death of his activist wife (Rachel Weisz) in an Africa where Aids and corporate colonialism stalk the continent.

The Deadly Affair

Paramount owned the name George Smiley and so James Mason goes by Charles Dobbs in this excellent 1967 adaptation of Le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead. It’s directed at pace by Sidney Lumet, is photographed in appropriately stygian gloom by the great Freddie Young and its superb cast includes Simone Signoret, Harriet Anderson, Harry Andrews and Maximilian Schell.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

The first and the best of the Le Carré adaptations, largely because it sticks closely to what Le Carré was all about – compromised people in compromised situations. Richard Burton’s performance – as a drunk and broken man given another chance at redemption by playing a “defecting” spy sowing misinformation in East Berlin – is a great one, and of a piece with director Martin Ritt’s film making spying look about as unglamorous as it could get.




Almost all the screen Le Carré adaptations can be found on this Amazon page


Highly recommended: The Complete George Smiley radio dramas – also at Amazon


I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

100 Years of… The Three Musketeers

The musketeers and D'Artagnan join swords


You’d have thought that the silent The Three Musketeers from 1921 would be the first film adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s novel but it wasn’t. Depending on how you count these things it was around the seventh or eighth film version since 1903. It wasn’t even the first of 1921. That honour went to a French serial shot in 14 episodes, Les Trois Mousketaires.

But this one, directed by Fred Niblo and starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr, eclipses all the forerunners and most of the successors, largely thanks to the presence of Fairbanks, cusping 40 when he made this but leaping around and larger than life from the moment he hits the screen.

This happens once Niblo has got all his intrigues and plotting in place – the king (Adolphe Menjou) and Cardinal Richelieu (Nigel de Brulier) playing chess, the Queen (Mary MacLaren) being surreptitiously passed a billet doux by Lady Constance (Marguerite de la Motte) on behalf of the libertine the Duke of Buckingham (Thomas Holding), an exchange noticed by Richelieu’s accomplice Milady de Winter (Barbara La Marr), and which Richelieu intends to use to his advantage. The Queen isn’t interested in Buckingham but who cares about the truth when you’re trying to get a scandal going?

A historical aside. Buckingham really did get about. The English noble known as “the handsomest-bodied man in all England” at one point became Gentleman of the Bedchamber at the court of King James I, a role he too incredibly literally, according to court gossip.

But back to the French court of Louis XIII, where it’s obvious why the Dumas adventure has been adapted so many times. The characters – Louis, Richelieu and Milady in particular – are big, the story is very well known already (handy for a silent film) and the questions it asks about the ruling elite aren’t too troubling. If things have gone wrong it’s not because of the man at the top but instead is the work of some sibilant adviser pouring oil in his ear.

Richelieu is the pivot on which it all turns, in other words, as he is in all the adaptations that follow, and Nigel de Brulier is so good in the role he’d play it another three times – erect, slim-hipped, too courtly, too fastidious and with a tendency to stroke things malevolently, he’s the archetypal Bond villain from top to toe.

D’Artagnan gets one of the most laughable introductions in film history, Douglas Fairbanks sitting on the floor in D’Artagnan’s father’s house as if her were a limber teenager, when in fact he’s nudging 40 and already jowly. In fact Fairbanks’s attempt to hide his incipient double chin throughout is one reason why we remember him in a particular pose – face forward to camera, chin lifted high as if in a defiant “hah!”.

D’Artagnan now introduced, off he heads to Paris, having adventures along the way – all of them familiar from all the other Musketeer films – challenging everyone he meets to a duel, in essence, until he arrives in the capital and winds up doing the same with each of the Musketeers in turn, not realising they are the king’s finest swordsmen. All of which flip-flops when D’Artagnan and the Musketeers join forces after the Cardinal’s men arrive at the duelling ground where they were about to face off. “Four against three?” shouts one of the outnumbered Musketeers towards the Cardinal’s men. “Four against four!” D’Artagnan corrects, in a bit of dialogue that makes it intact into nearly every version.

The cast with Mary Pickford
The cast with Mary Pickford (bottom second from right)


It’s all done at breakneck speed, and Fairbanks is remarkable throughout. It’s in this first “D’Artagnan and the Musketeers join forces” scene that Fairbanks pulls off his famous one-handed vaulting spring. Though just watching him doing anything – like running up a vast flight of stairs – is to watch a very fit man in action.

Though the image is softish on the 95th anniversary edition I watched, and Niblo isn’t much of a director for close-ups – so much of this film is in long and semi-long shot – we are never in a moment’s doubt as to what’s going on. It helps that intertitles pop up regularly (too regularly for some) to fill us in on the latest plot turn.

The actors respond in kind. These are big, “back of the gallery” performances, declamatory, static, barely a nuance (though notice the king fingering his sword nervously at one point, Menjou managing one of the rare bits of proper film acting in the entire production).

It all, eventually, hinges on a piece of jewellery given to the Queen by the King. If she doesn’t wear it at a court ball it will be a sign that she has given it to Buckingham (she hasn’t, but that’s court intrigue for you) and D’Artagnan and the Musketeers need to race to England, rescue the jewellery and race back to Paris in time to save the day. England is a long way from Paris, and though the pace is breathless, the film slows right down here, as one scene of horses pounding along the highway gives way to another.

There have been plenty of Three Musketeers films since, the most famous being the Gene Kelly 1948 version (no need for Kelly to borrow Fairbanks’s pantomime physicality because he’d already done that), and the Dick Lester 1974 version. Less auspiciously there are the 1993 Bratpack one with Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland and the 2011 one with Logan Lerman, but all are united in sticking absolutely rigidly to the Dumas story and to the atmosphere of this 1921 version. Knockabout comedy, knockabout action, knockabout intrigue, romance and swordplay. It’s exactly the same tone of deadly earnestness with a wink and technical virtuosity with a shrug that the Mission: Impossible films are still pulling off today. Talking of which, Tom Cruise for D’Artagnan?





The Three Musketeers – Watch or buy the 95th anniversary edition at Amazon


I am an Amazon affiliate








© Steve Morrissey 2021






100 Years of… The Sheikh

Rudolph Valentino as the Sheikh


Rudolph Valentino had two big films in 1921. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by far the biggest grossing film of the year, was the one that made him a star. But The Sheikh was even more important. It made Valentino so famous that we still talk of him today, long after the auras of fellow stars like Norma Talmadge and Wallace Reid have faded.

The Four Horsemen gave Valentino the “Latin lover” tag but The Sheikh made it stick, something that Valentino – striving to have a varied career – struggled against before bowing to the inevitable in 1926 with Son of the Sheikh. In an intense but short time at the top, that was his last film. Though he didn’t know it at the time Valentino would die six weeks after it opened from an infection after an operation that should have been routine. He was 31.

Born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella, Valentino’s career blazed bright but short, his untimely death only polishing his now eternally young image. A gay icon (a “pink powder puff” according to one newspaper article at the time), a big hunk of masculinity, the Great Lover, hair brilliantined down – Vaselino, they called him – big, expressive eyes deliberately flashing to suggest high emotion, the ambiguous star.

1921 was a busy year, with five Valentino films in cinemas. As well as The Sheikh and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (a tale of love against the background of the First World War), he made Uncharted Seas (a B movie contractual obligation), The Conquering Power (a romantic drama based on Balzac’s novel Eugénie Grandet) and Camille (a torrid romance co-starring the equally exotic Alla Nazimova).

But, to The Sheikh, in those days pronounced Sheek rather than Shake – as evidence, the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (which eventually became Paramount) held a Sheikh Week in November 1921 to celebrate the success of the film and its star.

Trading on Valentino’s “exotic” (foreign) looks, the film plays an is he/isn’t he game with the persona of the sheikh, and of Valentino. Not – is he going to get the girl?, or is he gay?, but is he or isn’t he one of us?

Sheikh Ahmen Ben Hassan (Valentino) is a cultured ruler “upon whose shoulders have fallen the heritage of leadership” and as we meet him he’s making a pronouncement on arranged versus romantic marriages – “When love is more desired than riches, it is the will of Allah”, says the enlightened Hassan, which has already put him on the side of “us”.

The sheikh and Lady Diana
Seduction, desert style



To test this suggestion, enter Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres), flapper, libertine, 1920s gadabout, who infiltrates the Arabs-only casino where the sheikh is ensconced, their eyes already having sparked as he made his grand entrance on his way to the forbidden innner sanctum. Is she romantically interested in him, or is she just put out at being socially one-upped by an Arab? A bit of both.

Lady Diana is soon discovered, more flashing of looks between the two, which the sheikh follows up the next day by kidnapping Lady Diana while she’s out riding in the desert – alone, the fool.

Taking her to his desert HQ, the sheikh keeps her as his prisoner, not raping her (as per the original novel by Edith Maude Hull) but hoping by a series of commands and/or entreaties to win her heart.

And, really, that’s it, a gigantic will he/won’t she, with Adolphe Menjou arriving later in the proceedings, as a civilised old friend of the sheikh, to upbraid him for “stealing a white woman.” And just in case the “clash of civilisations” idea hadn’t got enough traction, a properly sinister Arab, Omair, later arrives to abduct the Lady (again), prompting the sheikh to ride to her rescue.

In narrative terms there’s little here to frighten the horses and even though a century has passed, there’s a lot that’s familiar. Everyone in the cast is introduced via an on screen credit and a posed shot to camera, the sort of thing US TV was still doing in the 1980s – “guest starring Martin Balsam”, pivots, flashes capped teeth kind of thing. And the plot beats, in particular the big “cavalry to the rescue” and “mano a mano duke-out” finale are still common currency.

As to the acting, Valentino is more nuanced than you might expect, though he is given to opening his eyes super-wide like an Indian deity, but then a lot of silent stars did. Well, they couldn’t raise their voices. Ayres is very good as the haughty English aristo riding for a fall and was in fact a big star… for as long as she was sleeping with the studio boss.

Menjou would be famous for much longer than either Valentino (dead) or Ayres (discarded), going on to turn up in films as different as A Star Is Born (1937 version with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March) and Kubrick’s Paths of Glory in 1957, still the same ramrod physique and moustache. Walter Long, who plays Omair the bandit, also had a long career, most notably as the heavy in various Laurel and Hardy films.

What’s most striking about the film, about many films from this era in fact, is just how lavish it is. The production design is brilliant and it’s obvious that Hollywood was awash with money. The cinematography too is remarkably crisp, bright, detail rich – I watched a Kino Lorber restoration and though there are a few blurry moments, by and large it’s excellent.

Wait for the end, and the shock reveal about the true nature of Valentino’s sheikh, a bit of racialised plotting designed to reassure but now looking at the very least hideously parochial. By which I mean out and out racist. But, hey, that’s Hollywood!





The Sheikh and Son of the Sheikh – in a restored double bill box set, available to buy at Amazon



I am an Amazon affiliate




© Steve Morrissey 2021




The Best Films of 2015

Caren Pistorius in Slow West

 

 

 

There’s a tendency among people who watch a lot of films to boost ones that stand out rather than ones that are good. This can lead to some perverse choices in the “best of” lists that proliferate at this time of year. So that probably explains the rogue nature of the list below – ha ha. If you’re expecting to find Spectre (not at all bad) or the latest Marvel movie or Jurassic World, look elsewhere. These are just the films, of the maybe 350 films or so that I’ve watched in the past 12 months, that jumped out and grabbed me. Some of them are 2014 releases.

 

 

 

 

Ten Best

 

 

Paddington (dir: Paul King)

Operating in Mary Poppins territory, this adaptation of Michael Bond’s books is charming, funny and clever, has jokes for kids and some more thoughtful though never intrusive observations for adults, integrates the animated bear from darkest Peru with the live action brilliantly and there’s even an action-star gag by support-playing baddie Nicole Kidman that’s aimed at ex-husband Tom Cruise.

 

Wild (dir: Jean-Marc Vallée)

The redemptive drama is a hard sell, but this one about a broken woman’s long trek to self-realisation works in every way. Reese Witherspoon is believably frail as the wee girl dwarfed by her huge rucksack (metaphor), director Jean-Marc Vallée uses music perfectly and does something many directors have forgotten all about – he structures his film visually, using the editing suite to full advantage. His compositional work is remarkable.

 

Ex Machina (dir: Alex Garland)

Just as we are realising that technology’s grip is icy, and Google might not be our friend, along comes Alex Garland’s directorial debut, a dystopian slab of hard sci-fi in which geeky Domhnall Gleeson falls for robot Alicia Vikander while hipster tech uberlord Oscar Isaac looks on. A three-hander – give or take – getting perfect performances from all concerned, and it glistens like a tiny, beautifully cut gem.

 

Kajaki (dir: Paul Katis)

A gaggle of British squaddies with names like Tug, Spud and Smudge wander into a minefield and suddenly their casually homophobic banter is replaced by focused professionalism and a sharp interest in staying alive. Gruesomely tense, horrific in its depiction of the damage inflicted by IEDs, is this the best British war film since Ice Cold in Alex? It’s a great war film by any standards.

 

It Follows (dir: David Robert Mitchell)

Sexual intercourse as an engine of death isn’t new in horror films, but It Follows finds a simple and brilliant new way of telling the story all over again – zombies who are “slow but not dumb” and might appear any time, any place, anywhere, dressed in nightwear or perhaps not very much at all. A lurchingly subjective camera, expressionistic framing and Disasterpeace’s Wendy Carlos-alike score help rack up the intensity even further.

 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (dir: Ana Lily Amirpour)

The Muslim jilbab as a kind of vampire’s cape – what a brilliantly observed idea that is in one of the strangest horror films of recent times, which combines something of the mass-observation aesthetic of photographer Sebastião Salgado with the disjointed cool of early Jim Jarmusch. Shot entirely in California, yet clearly a film about and for Iran, it’s a fascinating, Middle Eastern take on the Let the Right One In “innocent vampire” genre.

 

Slow West (dir: John Maclean)

Michael Fassbender’s astonishing run continues with this out-of-nowhere debut by John Maclean, an exquisitely wrought western making clear its debt to old pulp novels and their love of hard-tack glamour and salty danger. Tense as hell, in fact the whole film is one long, slow build towards a great finale. And it looks the business too.

 

Aferim! (dir: Radu Jude)

There hasn’t been a great Romanian film for about ten minutes, but here’s a slightly different sort than what we’re used to – a historical picaresque following an 1830s cop and his son as they seek to capture a Gypsy and return him to his owner, a rich boyar whose wife has been too free with her favours. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon inspires some of the look and pace of it, and Don Quixote is clearly also a reference, though Cervantes didn’t finish on as gruesomely gripping a high as this does.

 

Theeb (dir: Naji Abu Nowar)

It takes a while for it to sink in, but what we have in Theeb – as we follow the exploits of the youngest son of a Bedouin tribe in the Laurence of Arabia-era desert – is a story straight out of Rider Haggard territory. It’s the sort of ripping adventure that once upon a time emboldened Spielberg and Lucas to make Indiana Jones but is done without a cocked eyebrow here, with genuine danger, tough decisions, cruel fate and a bit of socio-economic background (the collapse of the Ottoman Empire) all adding spice.

 

Mommy (dir: Xavier Dolan)

With Tom at the Farm it became clear that Xavier Dolan was something of a genius. Mommy is further proof, a tough drama about the stumbling relationship of a flaky mother (Anne Dorval), her aggressive, firecracker ADHD teenage son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) and their nervous neighbour (Suzanne Clément). It wears its emotions out there on a selfie stick – “fuck off” in this film often means “I love you” – and there are at least two scenes so powerful you might have to remind yourself to breathe.

 

 

 

Honourable Mentions

 

Victoria Almeida in What's Left of Us
Victoria Almeida drives the boys crazy in What’s Left of Us

 

 

Appropriate Behaviour (dir: Desiree Akhavan)

The life and times of a second generation Iranian, or of a confused bisexual, or of a girl in the big city, or of a struggling 20something – Desiree Akhavan gets it all just right in this through-the-fingers New York comedy.

 

Maps to the Stars (dir: David Cronenberg)

Still Alice won her the acting accolades, but Julianne Moore is actually better in this return to nightmarishness for David Cronenberg, as a fading star and member of a family for whom the term fucked really doesn’t cover it. The Player meets Sunset Boulevard.

 

Life After Beth (dir: Jeff Baena)

Aubrey Plaza gives it her absolute all as a newly dead zombie trying to have a relationship with old boyfriend Dane DeHaan – who finds her a whole lot more into him than she used to be – in a genuinely inventive comedy made all the better by the presence of John C Reilly and Molly Shannon as Plaza’s concerned parents. Dead funny.

The Tribe (dir: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)

Shot entirely in Lithuanian sign language, acted by first-timers and set in a school for the deaf where a new boy finds that the descriptor “sex and violence” barely covers what’s going on, this film sounds like a stunt – and it obviously is to some extent – but it’s a stunt that works. And the lack of dialogue is no bar to understanding when emotion this direct and action this unambiguous is concerned.

The Babadook (dir: Jennifer Kent)

There’s a touch of The Innocents in this highly atmospheric Aussie horror about a mother driven to desperation by her needy child. Or is it the child we need to feel worried for? Sure, it goes slack in the middle, and becomes over-focused on telling us that writer/director Jennifer Kent has seen a whole load of old horror movies, but wait for the finale – barking, scary and brilliant.

 

The Book of Life (dir: Jorge R Gutierrez)

A Mexican flavoured animation with a Day of the Dead theme and a plot with a distinct Orpheus and Eurydice flavour – she’s dead and he goes after her into the underworld (ish). The visuals are spaghetti western meets Ren and Stimpy, the songs are jaunty and mariachi-flavoured and the voicework (Ice Cube in particular) is exemplary.

 

Pictures of the Old World (dir: Dusan Hanák)

“The best Slovak film ever made”, the reputation of Dusan Hanák’s disarmingly simple documentary from the early 1970s – about the dirt poor lives of ancient peasants up in the back of beyond – is entirely deserved. “I’m going to die this year, I can feel it,” says one old timer. And that’s what it’s about – quite starkly. Death.

 

Two Night Stand (dir: Max Nichols)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther, It Happened One Night and The Dick Van Dyke Show are all in the mix in this subversive comedy about a girl (Analeigh Tipton) who has hook-up sex with a stranger (Miles Teller) and then gets stuck in his apartment. Old-school screwball romance follows, charmingly, smartly and at speed.

 

Predestination (dir: Michael and Peter Spierig)

Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi story All You Zombies provides the backbone for the Spierig brothers’ follow-up to the similarly idea-crammed Daybreakers, a “guy walks into a bar” tale of a hermaphrodite (Sarah Snook) who walks into Ethan Hawke’s bar and tells him a story about time travel and the paradoxes that erupt from it. Refreshingly hard sci-fi.

 

Frequencies aka OXV: The Manual (dir: Darren Paul Fisher)

Strip away the romance and what is human courtship about? Status, clearly, according to this lo-fi, highly fascinating film about “what happens when a high frequency meets a low frequency” – hot, smart girl meets average guy, in other words. It’s patchily acted and a bit speechy towards the end, but there are enough ideas in this bizarre film for about 12 Hollywood blockbusters.

Turned towards the Sun (dir: Greg Olliver)

A simple and revelatory documentary about 90-something poet and Second World War hero Micky Burn, a long-form visual version of a Daily Telegraph obituary whose power lies in the richness of Burn’s Zelig-like life. He was – just one for-instance – the guy in the secret radio room at Colditz.

 

What’s Left of Us aka El Desierto (dir: Christoph Behl)

A simple but powerful Argentinian zombie movie about a girl, a boy and another boy all locked up together in a house while the world goes to hell in a handcart outside. And inside, it turns out, once sexual dynamics and the fallout of a fetid love triangle start to exert themselves. Victoria Almeida is a powerful and provocative lead, the sexy counterweight to the hothouse atmosphere of death.

 

Tusk (dir: Kevin Smith)

Kevin Smith reminds us how good he can be with a film about a guy (Justin Long) being turned into a walrus by a demented surgeon (Michael Parks) while his much-cheated-on girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) searches for him. A simple film, it somehow manages to be funny and appallingly gruesome at the same time.

 

Face of an Angel (dir: Michael Winterbottom)

Michael Winterbottom’s drama takes the bones of the Meredith Kercher/Amanda Knox case and constructs a brilliant meditation on the modus operandi of the media, as well as a modern-day Dante and Beatrice tale in which film-maker Daniel Brühl is smitten by virginal Cara Delevingne, as anyone watching probably will be too.

 

While We’re Young (dir: Noah Baumbach)

Not-as-young-as-they-once-were couple Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts try to keep up with hipsters Adam Horovitz and Amanda Seyfried in a very Jewish New York comedy – smart, dry, a touch bitter – about the importance of being not just true to yourself, but of doing this absolutely and totally properly.

White God aka Fehér Isten (dir: Kornél Mudruczó)

Kicking off with a quote by Rilke, this unique Hungarian film is like a Disney animal flick about the adventures of a mongrel, except done as existential sci-fi – what exactly would happen if dogs had the same degree of consciousness that humans have?

 

The Salvation (dir: Kristian Levring)

Director Kristian Levring used to be a Dogme man, but shouts “I’m so over all that now” with this remarkable western that’s like a fusion of Sergio Leone, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Aldrich, with a perfectly cast Mads Mikkelsen as a Clint Eastwood-alike quester after vengeance. If looks could kill…

 

Run All Night (dir: Jaume Collet-Serra)

Another of Liam Neeson’s geri-actioners, though this time he’s back with director Jaume Collet-Serra for a deliberately retro dash for the finish in which strong, silent Neeson takes on the good guys, the bad guys and eventually the whole of New York. Hugely overwrought, entirely satisfying, it’s genre done properly.

 

Still the Water aka Tutatsume no mado (dir: Naomi Kawase)

If Douglas Sirk had been Japanese he might have come up with this overheated love story about teenage lovers hedging towards full penetrative sex as the waves crash, storms rage and their families conspire against them. Leisurely, beautiful, lusty and lovely, an unusual mix of the entirely natural and the gigantically metaphorical.

 

Phoenix (dir: Christian Petzold)

The latest of a string of dark, intelligent films that director Christian Petzold and actor Nina Hoss have made together is a revenge drama set in the aftermath of the Second World War where Hoss, just released from a death camp, is recruited by her own husband to play his dead wife – he doesn’t recognise her, obviously – and she plays along. Oh deary deary me.

Marshland aka La Isla Mínima (dir: Alberto Rodriguez)

Stunningly good-looking policier about an ageing Franco-supporting cop and his younger more democratic sidekick investigating a murder out in the photogenic Guadalquivir marshes in 1980. Brilliantly acted and shot, with locations and music to match, it’s even got does a car chase in an entirely new way. Did I mention how good it looks?

 

Little Accidents (dir: Sara Colangelo)

Old school 1970s-style humane ensemble drama with a standout Boyd Holbrook as a survivor of a terrible mining disaster whose testimony about the event at an upcoming hearing are going to decide the futures of a whole lot of people in town. An ambling drawl of a movie, with Elizabeth Banks and Jacob Lofland almost as good as Holbrook, surely a star of 2016.

Turbo Kid (dir: François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoan-Karl Whissell)

Utterly on-the-nail pastiche of 1980s straight-to-VHS movie-making, a post-apocalyptic Total Recall meets Mad Max story of a BMX-riding kid, called Kid, gaining special powers, falling for a special girl (a special Laurence Leboeuf) and saving the world. Funny and gory, with in-jokes for nerds, and a fabulous John Carpenter-like soundtrack by Le Matos.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road (dir: George Miller)

Pedal-to-the-metal furious punk-funk madness, with a barely speaking Tom Hardy as Max, the road warrior on the road with badass Charlize Theron (the film’s real star) while director George Miller obsessively choreographs the relentless chase/action mayhem around them.

 

Tomorrowland (dir: Brad Bird)

Whatever happened to the futurism of jet packs and flying cars? Brad Bird answers the question with jaw-dropping visuals in a modern-day Wizard of Oz quest-adventure coolly received by critics with ass/elbow disassociation disorder.

 

Cop Car (dir: Jon Watts)

Another of those great Kevin Bacon movies he comes up with every few years, with our guy as a really bad cop on the trail of a couple of kids who have nicked his car, unaware there’s something in the boot they really don’t want to be discovering. A high-concept B movie of real distinction, lean, simple and with smart, believable dialogue, especially for the kids.

 

Palio (dir: Cosima Spender)

A remarkable documentary about the Palio, a horse race run in Siena, Italy, twice a year, which takes such pains to introduce us to its characters – chiefly, the young buck hoping to steal the grizzled champion’s crown – that when the race kicks off, you’re really in the medieval square with the riders.

Minions (dir: Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin)

After the boring Despicable Me 2, who’d have thought that a spin-off – the backstory of Gru’s little yellow helpers – would have worked this well. Brilliantly animated and written, it’s a breathless, idea-packed, funny, inventive animated comedy.

 

I Believe in Miracles (dir: Jonny Owen)

Even if you have no interest in the 1970s, or British football, or managerial legend Brian Clough, this documentary about his astonishing success and idiosyncratic style will have you hooked. “The most charismatic man I ever met,” says one former player, part of the team of underdogs he willed to European Cup success, twice.

 

 

And if you want to watch or buy any of the films, this Amazon link will allow you to do just that – enjoy!

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

The Best Films of 2014

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

 

Of the 350+ films I saw this year, these are the best ones. Some of them were released last year and I’ve been a bit slow getting round to them. Some of them were released even longer ago. The criteria are – I watched them in 2014 and I liked them. That’s it.

 

 

 

The Best

 

Computer Chess (2013, dir: Andrew Bujalski)

Andrew Bujalski, inventor of mumblecore, proved there’s life in the old beast yet with this retro-verité drama about geeks meeting in the 1980s to pit their programs against a chess-playing computer. Shooting on original video cameras in fuzzy-edged boxellated black and white, Bujalski catches the moment when the let-it-all-hang-out era died and our brighter, geekier world was born.

 

In a World… (2013, dir: Lake Bell)

A comedy of modern manners strung onto a plot about voice artists vying for the throne of the newly dead king of the hill. The savviest, screwballiest Hollywood comedy in years came from left-field, from writer/director/star Lake Bell, playing the daughter of a famous voiceover artist trying to get out from under dad’s reputation. It’s sentimental in all the right ways too.

 

The Canyons (2013, dir: Paul Schrader)

The sensational Lindsay Lohan’s “right, I’m back” movie is also Paul Schrader’s best for decades, a turning over of the paving slab to see what low-lifes slither about beneath. It’s The Canyons, not The Hills, so don’t expect Hollywood to come out smelling of anything but bad drugs, mercenary sex and broken dreams.

 

Stranger by the Lake (2013, Alain Guiraudie)

Don’t watch if you can’t take the sight of gay male sex. If you can you get a remarkable French drama about a killer at large on a nudist beach where homosexual omerta guarantees him a free ride, in any way he fancies. It’s beautifully composed, dramatically as taut as you like and even the soundscape is a thing of wonder.

 

Under the Skin (2013, dir: Jonathan Glazer)

How odd that Scarlett Johansson suddenly cornered the female sci-fi market (with this, the Avengers movies, Her and Lucy). This is the best of the bunch, with ScarJo playing a killer (in every sense) alien who cruises round Glasgow, Scotland, enticing men into her white van and then taking them back to her lair. Shot painstakingly with real, unsuspecting Glaswegians picked up off the street playing the dupes, it’s a triumphant return to movies for writer/director Jonathan (Sexy Beast) Glazer.

 

Of Horses and Men (2013, dir: Benedikt Erlingsson)

There are scenes in this elemental Icelandic movie that you will never have seen before, some hilarious, others just jaw-droppingly wha? It’s a unique rural drama that seems to suggest that people are at their happiest and least stressed when they behave most like animals. Watch that young woman swish her tail when the visiting Spaniard shakes his mane. Brilliant.

 

Norte, The End of History (2013, dir: Lav Diaz)

A four hour epic shot in long continuous beautifully framed takes, about a rich young law student and the poor street-pedlar woman whose life he affects maximally without even realising what he’s done. Wait two hours for the first “what the hell just happened” moment, and then another 90 minutes for the second, while a new (to me) master Lav Diaz casts his spell.

 

 

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013, dir: Jim Jarmusch)

If you were going to cast the supercoolest vampire film ever, you’d want Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in it. And you’d want Jim Jarmusch to direct it, wouldn’t you? That’s exactly what you get with this aching paean to immortal hipsterism shot in crumbling Detroit and labyrinthine old Tangier. No one ever says “I feel so very very tired,” as they do in cornier movies, but that’s the spirit. Plus jokes, hipster jokes.

 

 

Goodbye to Language (2014, dir: Jean-Luc Godard)

At one level Jean-Luc Godard’s boy-meets-girl drama of collaged visual styles and overlapping dialogue looks like the result of using every preset on Final Cut Pro software; at another it’s a brilliant exercise in trying to reformulate film syntax. Genius.

 

Edge of Tomorrow (2014, dir: Doug Liman)

Tom Cruise as a soldier repeatedly being killed, each time back to life a little bit tougher, sharper, wiser in Doug Liman’s sci-fi extravaganza that looks, feels, smells like something Arnold Schwarzenegger would have graced in the 1980s.

 

Welcome to New York (2014, dir: Abel Ferrara)

Abel Ferrara’s drama about/not about Dominic Strauss Khan and his sexual escapades in New York looks like it was shot entirely on one camera, stars Gérard Depardieu and Jacqueline Bisset and suggests obliquely that the people who run the planet are sociopaths.

 

 

 

 

 

Honourable mentions

 

Gary Bond sinks a beer in Wake in Fright
Gary Bond sinks a beer in Wake in Fright

 

Wake in Fright (1971, dir: Ted Kotcheff)

A restored 1971 Australian classic about a nice schoolteacher having a wild weekend of up-close Ocker masculinity out in the Outback of the Outback.

 

Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013, dir: Abdellatif Kechiche)

Lesbian sex was its big sell but it’s the acting that’s the thing in this slow (as in Slow Food slow) French drama about a young girl’s sentimental education.

 

Klown (2010, dir: Mikkel Nørgaard)

The Danes do comedy in this road movie about two inadequate blokes and a ten-year-old boy on a “tour de pussy”. Inappropriate comedy fans, this is for you.

 

All Is Lost (2013, dir: JC Chandor)

Robert Redford is all at sea on a sinking yacht in the virtually wordless thriller from JC Chandor, who made the banking business sexy with Margin Call and proves lightning does strike twice here.

 

Fossil (2014, dir: Alex Walker)

A British couple in trouble are befriended by a lovey-dovey twosome in this four-hander that looks good, hits a few deep notes and goes as badly whacked-out as outsider-couple dramas generally do.

 

Back to the Garden (2013, dir: Jon Sanders)

Really? A film set in Kent (the “Garden of England”) and made for nothing? Yes, and you won’t find a better recent film about confronting that moment when you realise your parents’ generation are dead and your lot are next.

 

Dallas Buyers Club (2013, Jean-Marc Vallée)

Part of the McConaissance, with Matthew McC as the homo-hating cowpuncher who discovers he’s HIV+ and breaks the law to fix himself. A brilliant exercise in Hollywood storytelling economy.

 

The Past (2013, dir: Asghar Farhadi)

Asghar Farhadi casts The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo as the woman about to marry for the third time, to a man with a wife in coma. How the wife ended up in the coma is what this subversive, complexly plotted drama is all about.

 

The Lunchbox (2013, dir: Ritesh Batra)

A Mumbai desk jockey gets the wrong lunchbox at work and starts up a relationship with the neglected wife who prepared it. Life-changes all round in this lovely romance made with a very light touch.

 

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (2013, dir: Danis Tanovic)

A dirt-poor Roma man tries to get medical help for his pregnant wife in this immensely sweet drama that comes with this seal of authenticity – it really happened, and to this lovely couple.

 

The Lego Movie (2014, dir: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)

The incredibly smart Lego people got Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of 21 Jump Street to script/direct their movie, a fast-moving Star Wars-y affair with Liam Neeson and Will Ferrell its standout voices. Four viewings necessary.

 

Starred Up (2013, dir: David Mackenzie)

The best British jail drama since Scum, all those years ago, with a starry turn by Jack O’Connell as the new lag running into all the usual bad stuff inside. Spectacular.

 

Locke (2013, dir: Steven Knight)

Tom Hardy sitting inside a car for 90 minutes and making phone calls. That’s all there is to this super-high-concept drama that screws more tension out of the situation than you could imagine possible.

 

Blue Ruin (2013, dir: Jeremy Saulnier)

A hillbilly milquetoast is forced into an unlikely revenge-driven killing spree in a drama that grips from the first second and holds you there till the grisly end.

 

The Counselor (2013, dir: Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s loquacious drama about a high-flying lawyer who hasn’t realised he’s swimming with the sharks (Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt). A sleek, ratchet-like thriller of pitiless inevitability.

 

Sofia’s Last Ambulance (2012, dir: Ilian Metev)

So simple, so effective, a documentary that follows a Bulgarian ambulance team and focuses entirely on them, never the people they’re treating. Tight, unusual, very humane.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014, dir: Bryan Singer)

The best of the X-Men movies gains a position in this list because of director Bryan Singer’s sheer ability to keep so many stories, characters and settings constantly in play. And his observation that the 1970s might as well now be an alien universe is interesting too.

 

 

 

 

The Underrated

 

Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Julian Morris in Kelly + Victor
Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Julian Morris in Kelly + Victor

 

Kelly + Victor (2012, dir: Kieran Evans)

A nice lad falls for a totally fucked up girl in this brilliantly acted, nicely observed Liverpool drama about a boy, a girl and a lot of bondage gear. No “ferry across the fucking Mersey” (the director’s words) visible. Hoo-fucking-ray.

 

Seduced and Abandoned (2013, dir: James Toback)

An exquisite and slyly clever documentary that’s not really a documentary at all, about old mates Alec Baldwin and James Toback talking to the movie world’s money men at Cannes. Fascinating, proper inside-Hollywood reveals.

 

Bad Grandpa (2013, dir: Jeff Tremaine)

Johnny Knoxville deserves the Sacha Baron Cohen award for bravery for the audacious stunts he pulls off as the titular grandpa, and Jackson Nicoll – what, 10-years-old maybe? – even more for his turn as the grandson. Yes, it’s a Jackass movie and that ship has sailed, but it’s also a very funny, one-of-a-kind affair.

 

Metro Manila (2013, dir: Sean Ellis)

A poor Filipino family moves to the big bad city and what looks like a drama about the innocent getting monstered turns into one of the best heist films of the year. Brilliantly made, brilliantly acted.

 

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012, dir: Colin Trevorrow)

Aubrey Plaza, one of those girls who can go from hot to not in the blink of an acting eye, dominates this no-budget smartly written mumblecore sci-fi about a rookie journalist chasing down a pudgy middle age guy who claims to have built a time machine. Fabulous.

 

Oldboy (2013, dir: Spike Lee)

Hated because a) it’s not as good as the original and b) people like to kick Spike Lee, who proves here he’s an intelligent, accomplished gun for hire, while Josh Brolin excels as the asshole incarcerated by person(s) unknown for 20 years and now wanting payback.

 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013, dir: Ben Stiller)

Ben Stiller’s brilliantly crafted reworking of the story that Danny Kaye made a hit film with in 1947 – about a geek whose rich fantasy life starts to invade his real one – is too unclassifiable to hit the “best of” lists.

 

8 Minutes Idle (2012, dir: Mark Simon Hewis)

A simple British comedy about a Bristol call centre that’s clearly been written by someone who’s worked in one – the cameraderie of the drones is palpable, their maddened boredom too. And star Tom Hughes is great as a post-Uni slacker working out what to do next.

 

The Monuments Men (2014, dir: George Clooney)

OK, so it’s not a Tarantino movie. But George Clooney’s amiable comedy about a crack team saving art before the Nazis destroy it isn’t meant to be. It’s meant to be Von Ryan’s Express/Hogan Heroes reimagined. Job very much achieved.

 

The Invisible Woman (2013, dir: Ralph Fiennes)

Felicity Jones is surely going to get an Oscar one day, but this film actually belongs to Ralph Fiennes (who also directs) playing her lover, Charles Dickens, as the world’s first media celeb. It’s a sweet film about love, in the end, with intelligent digressions.

 

Felony (2013, dir: Matthew Saville)

A gritty Oz cop melodrama written by its star, Joel Edgerton, the supercop who fucks up one night and spends the rest of the film getting further and further in the shit as he tries to wriggle free. Tom Wilkinson contributes another of his sneakily intelligent peformances as Edgerton’s superior.

 

All This Mayhem (2014, dir: Eddie Martin)

If you’ve never heard of the Pappas brothers, Ben and Tas, this excellent and shocking documentary about their 1990s rise and fall is well worth the ride, even if you’ve no interest whatsoever in skateboarding.

 

God Help the Girl (2014, dir: Stuart Murdoch)

A strangely 1960s-ish and intensely cute love letter by Belle and Sebastian frontman/director Stuart Murdoch to his star, Emily Browning, here fetishised in a boy-meets-girl Scottish musical recalling – if you’re fanciful – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

 

Chef (2014, dir: Jon Favreau)

Jon Favreau is one of the great under-revered directors of our era, and Chef – a road movie about a celebrity chef getting his mojo back – is exactly the sort of easy-looking, effortlessly digestible charmer he seems to be able to knock out at will.

 

Mystery Road (2013, dir: Ivan Sen)

An Aborigine cop tries to find out who killed an Aborigine girl – with stone-faced resistance from his white co-workers – in a beautifully shot Down Under cowboy thriller with one of the best shootout finales ever committed to film.

 

The Congress (2013, dir: Ari Folman)

Waltz with Bashir director Ari Folman pushes animation even further this time, with a psychedelic meditation on fantasy and reality starring Robin Wright as an actress who is digitised and inserted into any set-up the imagineers fancy. Highly highly unusual.

 

 

 

The Overrated

 

Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd in Prince Avalanche
Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd in Prince Avalanche

 

Prince Avalanche (2013, dir: David Gordon Green)

Two guys paint a road and David Gordon Green swerves back into George Washington territory in a film that’s Waiting for Godot with Girl Trouble. Tim Orr’s camera is lovely, 1970s and sun-dappled, but there’s a hole where the meaning should be.

 

Blue Jasmine (2013, dir: Woody Allen)

Another of Woody Allen’s overhyped “returns to form”, this time featuring a relentlessly over-acting Cate Blanchett as a super-entitled bitch whose ship has sailed. Watch instead Sally Hawkins.

 

Thor: The Dark World (2013, dir: Alan Taylor)

Everything that’s wrong with bad superhero films in one film – too many characters, too much gobbledegook, a lack of humour, though Tom Hiddleston’s Loki remains a fun watch. More to come (sigh).

 

The Butler (2013, dir: Lee Daniels)

Lee Daniels’s epic about the black butler (Forest Whitaker) to a whole bunch of POTUSes attempts to square the radical tradition with the gradualist conservative move towards black civil rights. Proficient, nothing more.

 

Saving Mr Banks (2013, dir: John Lee Hancock)

How Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) strongarmed PL Travers (Emma Thompson) into letting him film her Mary Poppins. The leads are genuinely fabulous and brilliant, but all that Travers backstory? Really?

 

Frozen (2013, dir: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee)

On my own here, I know, a triumph for lovers of adenoidal singing of the sort of Broadway songs that Eric Idle spoofed so brilliantly with his Song That Goes Like This. The snowman and reindeer are funny but the central characters, what utter drips.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, dir: Wes Anderson)

It still hasn’t sunk into Wes Anderson’s head that a) a little whimsy goes a long way and b) it has to be in the service of something, if only a good story. Here, though Ralph Fiennes is joyously funny as a devious owner of an old Mitteleuropean hotel, as a film it’s Sachertorte with cream, then more cream.

 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014, dir: Marc Webb)

Marc Webb’s second pop at Spider-Man is immeasurably worse than the first, fails to weld live-action into increasingly cartoonish set-ups, has too many villains, and feels like little more than a franchise placeholder or a sop to fanboys who will buy any old crap.

 

22 Jump Street (2014, dir: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)

The jokes were all done in 21 Jump Street – and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s extensive running gag in the closing credits, in which they trail the franchise’s development all the way to 34 Jump Street: Return of the Ghost – shows they know it. Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum remain a hot combo though.

 

And if you want to watch or buy any of the films, this Amazon link will allow you to do just that – enjoy!

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

James Bond’s Testicles

Daniel Craig and Mads Mikkelsen in Casino Royale

 

 

Have you ever noticed how James Bond is always getting his balls interfered with? The world’s most virile spy is bursting with so much testosterone that women want to get their hands on them and can’t help but fall into bed with him. Men, on the other hand, feel so threatened they want to crush him/them. Either that, or his heterosexual payload intimidates them so much that they come over all gay – again and again 007 is beset by the world’s elite effete, men with an exaggerated interest in long-haired cats and their own clothes, and who treat beautiful women with a casual disregard. Most notably there was the dual shape of Mr Wint and Mr Kidd in Diamonds Are Forever.

Ian Fleming loved a bit of flagellation – Commander Bond, god that’s so domineering – and the odd young chap, if his wife’s letters are to be believed. So maybe he was unburdening himself of something when he wrote all those scenes in which Bond’s family jewels are jangled. As for 007 – a book by Daniel Ferreras Savoye called The Signs of James Bond: Semiotic Explorations in the World of James Bond points out what should strike all of us as obvious, that the double-0 is nothing less than a representation of a gentleman’s cojones, while the 7 is the number nearest in shape to a gun. Tangentially, this also offers an explanation for all the doubling tropes in the titles (Living Twice, Another Day, Not Enough, Again).

Here is my own brief exploration of the occasions when the generative organs of Bond, James Bond (again the doubling) have taken a crucial role.

 

 

Dr No

No what? The first film and already the case is closed.

 

Goldfinger

Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), the laser inching closer to the undercarriage of 007 (Sean Connery) – Bond: Do you expect me to talk? Goldfinger: No Mr Bond, I expect you to die. The threat to 007’s testicles generates the most remembered line of the series. Its most famous villain is later spoofed by Mike Myers as Goldmember.

 

Thunderball

Again, no comment necessary.

 

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Bond (George Lazenby), disguised as the androgynously named Hillary Bray, remarks that his family coat of arms has four balls on it. Later, one of the young women who heard his claims looks up and giggles “it’s true” after Bond drops his kilt.

 

You Only Live Twice

In the book Fleming devises an exquisite interrogation technique when Blofeld puts Bond, disguised as a deaf mute, on a bottomless chair over an active geyser and tells him his testicles are about to be blown to heaven. Being a deaf mute, Bond will be forced to just happily sit there and take in the scenery, won’t he?

 

Live and Let Die

Bond (Roger Moore) is again tied to a chair, where he is to have his finger cut off before the henchman moves on to more “sensitive parts”.

 

Never Say Never Again

Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) aims a gun at Bond’s (Sean Connery) crotch, asking him to guess where the bullet is going to hit.

 

Moonraker

Bond (Roger Moore) honours Jaws (Richard Kiel), the only henchman to turn up in two movies, by kneeing him in the groin, to a “clang” sound effect.

 

GoldenEye

The first meeting of Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and the new M, a woman (Judi Dench), draws the line from M: “If you think I don’t have the balls to send a man to die, you’re dead wrong.”

 

Casino Royale

Bond (Daniel Craig), naked, tied to a bottomless chair, is whipped with a knotted thick rope by Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) who aims it directly at his testicles. The film’s title sequence is of silhouetted men. The game at the card table is poker, Texas Hold ‘Em.

 

Skyfall

Javier Bardem’s Silva places his hand very high on the leg of Bond (Daniel Craig), suggesting either interest or threat. Maybe a bit of both.

 

Got anything to add? Be my guest…

 

James Bond 22 Film Box Set – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Best Films I Saw in 2013

The cast of You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet
Updated 2013-12-30

 

Here they are, the best films I saw in 2013. It’s a Top Ten job with the best in no particular order, followed by a list of films that made the top ten at some point in the year, then got bounced. This is not a Best of 2013, let me quickly point out, just the best films I’ve seen this year. So a film everyone else has seen but I haven’t won’t be here (I’ve not seen American Hustle yet, f’rinstance). And there might be stragglers from 2012 in here which caught up with late. It really is “the best films I have seen this year”. If you’re wondering what to do with that Amazon voucher and your tastes generally aren’t multiplex, this might be a useful place to start.

 

1. You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012, dir: Alain Resnais)

Alain Resnais, now in his nineties, proves there’s life in the new wave dog yet with an amazingly convoluted meta-drama based on two Anouilh plays, thick with formal experiment and managing to weld classical theatre to 21st century techniques. Amazing, and you can bet it made both Lars Von Trier and Todd Solondz chuckle too.

 

2. Aurora (2010, dir: Cristi Puiu)

The Romanian Cristi Puiu made The Death of Mr Lazarescu and also stars in what might be considered a follow-up, a film that tells a story while also running an audit on the current state of the homeland. The story: a very odd one, following what must the dourest hitman (Puiu) through concrete-coloured Bucharest as he goes about his often incredibly mundane business. Shot in long takes, in blue light, in the most unprepossessing of locations, with many shots half through doorways and focusing on the main character and him alone, it’s unique, remarkable and often quite baffling.

 

3. The Heat (2013, dir: Paul Feig)

Because no one is funnier than Melissa McCarthy right now, a buddy-cop comedy in which Sandra Bullock plays the uptight FBI agent reluctantly partnering a wildcat local cop (McCarthy). The plot is slender, but is just enough for Bridesmaids director Paul Feig to hang a few funny set pieces off. Better than that it gives a chance for the two actors to riff rude, with McCarthy inevitably getting the better of Bullock when it comes to being the swearier and more prepared to make herself look a fool. Fancy Bullock being in the best comedy of the year and its most popular sci-fi (which is not on my list because I haven’t seen it yet, for shame).

 

4. Angel & Tony (2010, dir: Alix Delaporte)

Big aah, a simple, short love story about a troubled beautiful young woman and the shy, fat middle-aged fisherman she rather unexpectedly hooks up with. Rather simply, this one’s all about the transformative power of love and is about as bloody lovely as films get.

 

5. I Wish  (2011, dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s drama is ostensibly about a kid who wants to make a wish, and believes that by making it at the exact point where two bullet trains’ paths cross, it is sure to come true. In fact he’s just the starting point for a whole series of lightly interconnected transgenerational stories, which the writer/director joins and rejoins. Everything about this film shouts genius – the placing of the camera, the casting, the acting, the editing. It’s also one of the sweetest films, so full of hope and life, I’ve ever seen.

 

6. The Kings of Summer (2013, Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

A coming-of-ager that has the raucous “fuck you” comic edge of Superbad and the elemental undertow of Stand By Me, The Kings of Summer is about a group of boys who head off to the woods one summer, mostly to escape their obnoxious, bullying, clever-clever parents, but partly just to do a bit of growing up. There they trap animals (or make out that they do), grow facial hair, invite girls over and get their hearts broken. It’s strange to find a film that intercuts comedy and heartache so well, that catches that great feeling of freedom that total irresponsibility allows, and which punctuates these switches between the two ends of the dramatic spectrum with contemplative “Ozu shots” of prairies and water and flowers, set to a soundtrack that manages to be both familiar and leftfield.

 

 7. She Monkeys (2011, dir: Lisa Aschan)

A Swedish drama that’s all about girls, power, sex and equestrian vaulting. Expect no fluffy bunnies in this one – in one of its twin-track stories we have a five-year-old girl sexually grooming her older babysitting cousin; in the other a butter-wouldn’t-melt blonde making a sumo-style All About Eve assault on a rival. Cool, unusual, brilliant.

 

8. Sightseers (2012, dir: Ben Wheatley)

A pair of incredibly dim British caravan enthusiasts set off on a tour of esoteric sites of special interest – museums dedicated to pencils or trams etc – and indulge in increasingly psychotic episodes of murder for light relief. A deadpan Natural Born Killers that will have you snorting liquid down your nose.

 

9. The Gatekeepers (2012, dir: Dror Moreh)

The best documentary I saw this year comes from director Dror Moreh, who somehow managed to get all the surviving former heads of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet to talk to him. What he have is little more than a series of talking heads explaining to Moreh how Shin Bet operates. But it is the way that Moreh structures the entirely stereotype-busting revelations dropping from these guys’ mouths – and they each look like a Bond villain of one sort or another – that makes this “jaw to the floor” viewing.

 

10. Silver Linings Playbook (2012, dir: David O Russell)

David O Russell’s sweet but never cute drama about a guy fresh from the funny farm (Bradley Cooper) and his burgeoning relationship with brassy fellow medicatee (Jennifer Lawrence). Underneath the warty carapace this is perfect Hollywood – everyone gets what they deserve, big lessons are learned, there’s silver linings all round, in fact. Or you could just watch it for the performances – Lawrence so good that she forces Robert De Niro to act. Even Chris Tucker puts in a great performance.

 

 

The “Nearly” List

The Sapphires (2012, dir: Wayne Blair)

We keep being told about the revival of the musical (clinkers like Chicago usually), so how come this one about a girl group of aborigine soul singers on a tour of 1960s Vietnam isn’t better known? It’s got songs, jokes, a bit of love and a standout Chris O’Dowd in the lead role. And it’s a true story.

 

Thale (2012, dir: Aleksander Nordaas)

Made for nothing yet looking like it cost millions, this Norwegian horror fantasy about a couple of police clean-up guys who find a mythical creature out in the cellar of a shack in the woods has plot, characters, looks, tension and, a few seconds of ropey CGI apart, is almost perfect.

 

Elena (2011, dir: Andrey Svyagintsev)

Andrey Svyagintsev’s throttled-back thriller about a woman in Russia, her boorish rich husband to whom she’s little more than a nurse, and her Soviet-throwback son and his family, a bunch of layabouts living out in the tower blocks.

 

Mama (2013, dir: Andrés Muschietti)

One of the seven thousand films Jessica Chastain made in the last year or so, Mama is a superior horror film that welds together the haunted house and malevolent-child genres and then throws a lot of switched sympathies into the mix. Watchable as an exercise in genre manipulation alone, or as an out-and-out horror movie, or as a bravura exercise in visual effects, this is one of the best mainstream horror films in years.

 

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012, dir: Alex Gibney)

Close to The Gatekeepers for “well stap my vitals” revelations is Alex Gibney’s remarkable documentary about paedophilia in the Roman Catholic church, how the organisation has been aware for at least 1,700 years that the vows of celibacy and chastity tend either to attract weirdos or make people weird. And that the Church has, by virtue of its institutional power, been able to subvert secular legal systems. This is a gobsmacking documentary of the old-fashioned pavement-pounding sort whose conclusions are that, lovely Pope Francis or no, in terms of moral authority the Catholic church is a busted flush.

 

Shell (2012, dir: Scott Graham)

A star is born, in the shape (the face, mostly) of Chloe Pirrie, the focus of this lugubrious drama about a girl who works in an out-of-the-way petrol station owned by her father. Shell is the girl’s name, it’s the name of a petrol company too, a passing customer jokily quips to the girl, who responds with a deep lack of engagement. Which is what the film is about  – is she going to engage? With Adam, a guy in a hot hatch? With a passing travelling salesman? Possibly with her own father? God forbid. But on this slender “who?” and “when?” director Scott Graham hangs a powerful film as austere and dour as a low church chapel.

 

In the House (2012, dir: François Ozon)

François Ozon doesn’t make dumb films, and in In the House he’s made a film that on one level is about a superbright, sexually precocious, unsettlingly androgynous schoolboy (Ernst Umhauer) who starts writing increasingly personal stories for his teacher (the brilliantly disconcerted Fabrice Luchini). Before long the teacher is hooked, the boy has become a cuckoo in the nest, the wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) is discombobulated, and Ozon has crafted a drama of the sort you can imagine Jacques Derrida and fellow post-structuralists enjoying with beer and a pizza.

 

Byzantium (2012, dir: Neil Jordan)

Neil Jordan does something excellent with the vampire movie in Byzantium. He manages to weld the lush overheated velvet of the Hammer horror, all heaving bosoms and the male gaze, to the austere IKEA ambience of Let the Right One In. As two (possible) sisters of competing vampiric sensibilities we have Gemma Arterton (the busty, Hammer lust-bucket) and Saoirse Ronan (self-assembly vampiric waiflet). Add an abandoned seaside hotel in off season, a few luckless male victims, a couple of bounders and rotters who arrive from the girls’ past to help deliver a rousing Hollywood ending, and you’ve got a film that grips by the throat, teases, entertains and beguiles.

 

8 ½ (1963, dir: Federico Fellini)

This restoration of one of Fellini’s most famous films reminds us what a clever man he was, as well as a consummate film-maker. Taking as its starting point the non-starting Fellini after he had finished La Dolce Vita, it tells the story of a blocked director who hasn’t got the faintest idea what to do next. Which all sounds very indulgent and unnecessarily arthouse, until you actually watch as Fellini slowly starts to spin his on-screen phalanx of actors, make-up people, producers, the director’s diversions, dreams and fantasies into something elaborate, fantastical and even at times funny. Marcello Mastroianni is the Fellini stand-in, and the film is really helped by the presence of Claudia Cardinale and Anouk Aimée, about the hottest women on the planet back in 1963.

 

The Wall (2012, dir: Julian Pölsler)

A weird and wonderful re-imagining of Robinson Crusoe. But instead of a man, it’s a woman (Martina Gedeck). Instead of an island it’s the landlocked country of Austria, inside which a woman on a bit of a weekend break, or something, suddenly discovers that she’s locked inside her rural idyll by an invisible wall. And there she stays for years, making friends with various stray animals, writing her diaries, musing on what it is to be human, alone. A deceptively simple but wonderfully told story, which raises the question of how any of us might cope if suddenly cut off completely from civilisation. And Austria looks pretty fantastic too.

 

Broken Circle Breakdown (2012, dir: Felix Van Groeningen)

Bluegrass music in Belgium provides the sweetener for what looks for one awful moment like it’s going to be a film about a child getting a terminal disease and dying. A child does actually get a terminal disease but that isn’t really what this artfully shot, pungently written drama – about a much-tattooed beauty (Veerle Baetens) striking up a relationship with an ex-punk (Johan Heldenburgh) and becoming a singer in his bluegrass outfit – is about. And god can she sing.

 

Fireworks Wednesday (2006, dir: Asghar Farhadi)

Finally finding its way to some sort of release off the back of the Oscar success of his A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s 2006 drama patrols a similar border, the one between traditional Islam and the blandishments of the West, and doesn’t so much wag his finger as point out the areas that are going to chafe. A simple story about a naive young girl who finds herself working for a family who seem to have adultery issues – and she’s about to get married herself – it is so well written, well cast and unobtrusively shot that it feels less like watching a movie more like eavesdropping.

 

Child’s Pose (2013, dir: Calin Peter Netzer)

Romania continues to come up with brilliant films, such as this dour drama about a horrible entitled mother trying to get her horrible ungrateful son off the charge of killing a poor child by dangerous driving. As much a portrait of the haves and have-nots of Romania and how justice is entirely in the service of only one of them (guess which), it is also a remarkable drama that withholds its true intentions. Hold on for the extended final sequence, when the mother goes to visit the dead child’s grieving parents, while the son waits out in the car, and remember to keep breathing.

 

The House I Live In (2012, dir: Eugene Jarecki)

Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about the sheer mess of US drugs policy points out the government has spent $1 trillion on the “war against drugs” since President Nixon initiated it, with the result that recreational drug use has changed not a jot. A well researched doc with the right talking heads, attitudinal but never strident.

 

Small Town Murder Songs (2010, dir: Ed Gass-Donnelly)

A drama that asks us to look at the character of an upstanding cop in a Mennonite community and divine the man he used to be – and it isn’t pretty. Peter Stormare’s hangdog features and impassive thousand yard stare make this hellish unusual type of film even more enjoyable.

 

The Queen of Versailles (2012, dir: Lauren Greenfield)

The documentary that asked us to feel billionaire pain, and succeeded. Starting out simply as a film about the building of the biggest private residence in the US, the enterprise somehow became something much more incisive – a story about financial mess we’ve all been going through, seen from the most rarefied of positions. Entirely fascinating.

 

Rust and Bone (2012, dir: Jacques Audiard)

Always making a bad film (Nine, Public Enemies) bearable and a good film (Inception, Contagion) better, Marion Cotillard is on absolute white hot form in this potentially blubbery drama about a woman who loses her legs and the bouncer (equally remarkable Matthias Schoenaearts) who gives her back her taste for life.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Dogs in the Movies

Uggie the Jack Russell with co-star Bérénice Bejou in The Artist

 

 

 

 

Dogs. Yes, that’s right, dogs. I’ve probably already doubled the amount of traffic to this site just by writing the word “dogs” three times. Four times if you count that mention. Because people just love dogs (five). They can’t help themselves. It’s down to their dependability. A human being might let you down, but a four legged friend probably won’t eat you until you’ve been dead at least four days. A cat would probably tuck in while you were still warm. Trenchant insight aside, a dog’s loyalty and trainability make it a natural for the movies. A dog can be encouraged to do stuff that’s cute. Or, with a sign from off-camera, it will start barking in a menacing manner – though the wagging tail is a hell of a giveaway that the baying animal isn’t really a Nazi hellhound. The baying hellhound/wagging tail problem aside, a dog in a movie is almost always a good thing. Unless the dog’s name is in the title, then it’s often not a very good thing at all (I’m talking to you, Beethoven, K9, Marmaduke and Turner. Or was it Hooch?)

 

So here they are, the best films I can think of with dogs in them. Feel free to disagree.

 

 

 

The Artist (2011, dir: Michel Hazanavicius)

First, silent films are not a genre so The Artist cannot fit into the “genre” of silent films. Second, The Artist is not actually a silent film – it comes with a soundtrack, people. Third, throat cleared, it has a dog in it, a very cute Jack Russell terrier called Uggie, who has a Wikipedia page, and a rake of awards for his work, including the Palm Dog for The Artist, in which he plays Jack, the dog belonging to silent star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Tricks include walking on back legs and then, bang!, dropping dead. Apart from that Uggie mostly just does cute, bright, head-cocked, lots of running, the odd bit of tugging of trouser leg (“Don’t kill yourself, George Valentin”) and behaving like a Jack Russell, which comes naturally.

The Artist – at Amazon

 

Beginners (2010, dir: Mike Mills)

Uggie is not to be confused with Cosmo, who plays Christopher Plummer’s dog, Arthur, in Beginners. Plummer plays the old guy who, at 75, decides to come out as gay, now his wife is dead, much to the consternation of his son (Ewan McGregor). If Plummer’s performance is the best thing in Beginners, Arthur is actually the key to the movie, which is about commitment – Arthur being total commitment on four legs. Cosmo’s big trick in Beginners is just staring very intently, as if peering into the soul of the human sitting in front of him. And director Mike Mills uses this cannily, flashing up subtitles indicating what the dog is thinking. It’s a novel aid to storytelling, and very cute, obviously.

Beginners – at Amazon

 

Lassie (2005, dir: Charles Sturridge)

So ingrained is Lassie in the cultural fabric that the old “what’s that you’re saying Lassie; the kids are trapped in the old well?” line continues to be used as a shorthand for cheesy storytelling. The 2005 Lassie is interesting for a variety of reasons. It seemed to come from nowhere – there was no clamour for a Lassie film from any quarter. It did not feature a descendant of Pal (the original Lassie, whose bloodline had supplied Lassies to the motion picture biz from 1942 to 1999). And it was really surprisingly good, director Charles Sturridge crafting a story entirely without irony, utterly old-fashioned, the sort of adventure young children would lap up. And the cast was not what you’d expect either – Kelly Macdonald, Peter O’Toole, Samantha Morton. It’s heritage film-making, for sure, but undeniably a work of quality.

Lassie – at Amazon

 

The Man from Hell’s River (1922, dir: Irving Cummings)

This forgotten film from 1922 provided the first outing for Rin Tin Tin, a German shepherd who had been rescued from a First World War battlefield (War Horse, eat your heart out) and whisked back to Hollywood, where his on-screen exploits in 27 films made the breed globally popular. It is rumoured that Rin Tin Tin actually won the most votes for Best Actor in the first Academy Awards (the award eventually went to Emil Jannings). Whether that is true or not, what is without doubt is that Rin Tin Tin made a fortune for Warner Bros, turning the studio into a success. So, at some level, Rin Tin Tin gave us James Cagney, Bugs Bunny and Bette Davis, Casablanca, Goodfellas and the Harry Potter movies.

The Man from Hell’s River – not available at Amazon

 

Old Yeller (1957, dir: Robert Stevenson)

How many films have a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Old Yeller does. The story of a boy and his dog in mid-19th century rural America is one of the occasions when Disney got it right. And it’s the tragic ending that has seared it onto the memory of anyone who has watched it, along with the direction by Robert Stevenson, an expert Disney hand who would go on to direct Mary Poppins eight years later. Old Yeller himself was a blackmouth cur, a clever, good-natured, tough and robust breed initially used as a hunting and cattle dog. The sort of dog you’d want out with you if you were a young kid learning about life. And the film itself is like the breed – loveable and useful but tough when it matters.

Old Yeller – at Amazon

 

Bombón el Perro (2004, dir: Carlos Sorin)

From Patagonia, a miraculously sweet drama about an unemployed mechanic who is given a lumbering patrician example of the Dogo Argentino breed, a dog, he is assured, that will make him a fortune in stud fees. Except the dog isn’t that interested in the lady dogs. The dog is called Gregorio and at least 50 per cent of the film’s success is down to the way the big white beast sits in the passenger seat as Juan (first-time actor Juan Villegas) drives him about. The other 50 per cent is down to the way this beautifully crafted film presents a portrait of macho men (a little past their macho peak), friendship and dignity, and its use of wide, sun-baked Argentina vistas.

Bombón El Perro – at Amazon

 

The Wizard of Oz (1939, dir: Victor Fleming)

There’s not much to say about the Wizard of Oz that hasn’t already been said. But has anyone ever noted before that Toto (real name, disappointingly, is Terry) is the only creature, apart from Dorothy, who is consistent throughout? There are characters who only appear in Kansas (Uncle Henry), characters who only appear in Oz (Glinda), and characters who do double duty (Professor Marvel/The Wizard, Hunk/Scarecrow). Then there’s Dorothy and Toto. And Dorothy never lent her name to a 1980s rock outfit (or so the entirely untrue rumour goes).

The Wizard of Oz – at Amazon

 

Men in Black (1997, dir: Barry Sonnenfeld)

Exposition is the bane of so many films but in Men in Black, when Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent Jay (Will Smith) need a gigantic injection of plot information, Ed Solomon’s clever screenplay sends them off to meet Frank the Pug, a wisetalking canine version of Edward G Robinson who tells them who has done what with the Galaxy (the real galaxy, somehow shrunk to marble size) and how to get it back, more or less. In fact the film’s plot was changed halfway through shooting, but because Frank’s lines were all dubbed (dogs can’t really talk, apparently), it was possible to insert entirely different expository dialogue with no need to reshoot. And doesn’t it really help that while Frank is feeding plot info into the film, Tommy Lee Jones is trying to shake the life out of him? Pure exposition is rarely this much fun.

Men in Black – at Amazon

 

Frankenweenie (2012, dir: Tim Burton)

Tim Burton’s best film in years is a beautifully animated piece of kiddie gothic that reaches right back to a short he made in 1984, about a little boy who brings his dog back to life, Frankenstein style, by harnessing lightning. The little boy, obsessed with movies, something of a loner, is probably modelled on Burton himself, but the film is otherwise pumped full of references to the gorehounds of yore – such as Vincent Price and Peter Lorre – as well as the Universal monster movies of the 1930s. And, like Old Yeller, Frankenweenie presents a very gentle introduction to the concept of death for the very wee. The dog is called Sparky, of course.

Frankenweenie – at Amazon

 

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009, dir: Lasse Hallström)

Syrup is the director Lasse Hallström’s forte (he made an abortionist cute in The Cider House Rules, for example) and in this totally soppy story of a man and his faithful dog, he’s ladling it on. It’s a remake of a Japanese film called Hachiko Monogatari and stars Richard Gere as guy who persuades his wife (Joan Allen) to bend the “no more dogs” rule. Divided between Gere (the first half) and the Akita-breed dog (the second), it’s the sort of film that features an encounter with a skunk (with predictable results) and, though you’d never believe it, Gere looks like he’s having a good time. Honest to goodness stuff with a teary, lip-quivering third act.

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale – at Amazon

 

My Dog Tulip (2009, dir: Paul Fierlinger, Sandra Fierlinger)

Christopher Plummer again, absolutely perfect doing the narration for this film adaptation of the JR Ackerley’s autobiographical best-seller telling how, as an ageing, lonely gent, he is emotionally rescued by his relationship with a German shepherd. What marks out My Dog Tulip, apart from the delightful water-colourist style of animation, is its quirky matter-of-factness. It mentions all sorts of unmentionables that dog owners deal with every day – I’ve never seen a dog take a dump in an animated movie before. And as for the sections where Plummer discusses his dog’s anal glands or overtight foreskin, they’re something of a first too. And all done entirely without prurience, believe it or not, thanks to Plummer’s dry, droll, delivery.

My Dog Tulip – at Amazon

 

Red Dog (2011, dir: Kriv Stenders)

Like the best Australian films, there’s a bullshit-free quality to Red Dog which makes it highly watchable. Telling the story of a legendary kelpie cross, it’s also the story of early 1970s Aussie manhood, the fighting, the boozing, the plain-speaking, though done in a way that won’t frighten the children or their over-sensitive parents. Quietly making a case for gritty, stubbly old-fashioned masculinity – the virtuous side of it at any rate – it details how a mixed breed connected up a group of otherwise isolated itinerant workers out in frontier Australia, and how the dog formed a deep bond with one of them (played here by Josh Lucas). It’s a true story, too, and if you go to Dampier, Western Australia, you can see the statue to “the Pilbara wanderer”.

Red Dog – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

 

 

 

The Films of Paolo Sorrentino

Sabrina Ferilli and Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty

 

Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) is a portrait of Rome through the eyes of a world weary writer. It’s being hailed as Sorrentino’s La Dolce Vita and stars Sorrentino’s Marcello Mastroianni, Toni Servillo. It’s close to a masterpiece in other words, making this a good time to take a look at the career of Italy’s best film-maker right now. Firmly in the tradition of the 1960s generation of Fellini and Visconti, yet clearly his own man too, Sorrentino’s films are intelligent, engaged, stylish, beautifully made and intriguing – they’ve got the lot, in short.

 

 

 

One Man Up (2001)

Sorrentino’s debut feature also saw him team up with Toni Servillo for the first time, with Servillo playing an ageing crooner whose nightly ritual of sing-snort-shag is brought to a premature end when he’s caught having sex with an underage girl. Meanwhile in a parallel world of storytelling and despair, we follow a footballer whose assured future of playing and then coaching is brought to a premature end by injury. Transmuting these earthbound stories is Sorrentino’s approach – dream sequences, ballerinas, fish. Though not entirely satisfying, it’s an unusual Fellini-tinged debut which marked out Sorrentino as a man to watch.

One Man Up – at Amazon (no English subtitles)

 

The Consequences of Love (2004)

We’re following Toni Servillo again, who plays a mysterious and very quiet man who lives alone in a Swiss hotel, where he seems to be slo-mo-ing towards death with an entirely uneventful life punctuated by a regular delivery of cash and a regular injection of heroin. Meanwhile, an employee at the hotel (played by Olivia Magnani, granddaughter of Anna) has half an eye for him, an eye that might offer him a chance of life again. Or will it? From the opening shot, Sorrentino’s cool – in look, mood, lighting, style – and very Italian version of film noir is entirely gripping. That we’ve no idea what’s going on until the film is nearly over only makes Sorrentino’s triumph all the more complete.

The Consequences of Love – at Amazon

 

The Family Friend (2005)

We’re deep in a Fellini-esque world of grotesque in Sorrentino’s hugely ironical and highly digressive film about the “family friend”, a money lender who uses his financial heft to secure access to young female flesh. And what female flesh Sorrentino has assembled – take one look at Laura Chiatti and whistle “mamma mia”. And counterpointed against this female beauty is the figure of Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo), the ageing old lecher with dyed hair, a Gollum-esque walk, a wheedling voice. As with The Consequences of Love, Sorrentino creates a world populated by people who seem to be stunned by life, an absurd overheated world of farce run through a refrigerator.

 The Family Friend – at Amazon

 

Il Divo (2008)

Sorrentino’s political drama about Giulio Andreotti must be the best drama about a politician that’s been made for decades, possibly ever. Toni Servillo plays the reptilian Andreotti, the first prime minister after democracy was restored in 1946 and a politician who kept high office until the 1990s, and influence until he died in May 2013. It is the story of a modern Italian politician as a direct scheming descendant of the Borgias, a goodfellas story that manages to spill the beans on the how and who of Italian corruption in high places but does it with an operatic style so heady with gorgeous technique that the technique threatens to overwhelm its subject. Except that its subject is so superabundantly crooked that he can take it.

Il Divo – at Amazon

 

This Must Be the Place (2011)

Sorrentino’s first English language film saw him getting Sean Penn to dress up like Robert Smith of the Cure to play an ageing goth rocker whose round of self-absorption and tax exile in Ireland (where he is attended to by Eve Hewson, daughter of Bono) is broken by his decision to become a Nazi hunter. If that sounds odd enough as a set-up, this very peculiar road movie (stopping off for a song by David Byrne, whose True Stories is clearly a model), delivered in flat monotone by Penn throughout, eventually builds towards a feverish climax in which the good guys appear to be being painted as cruel and vengeful and the old Nazi they’ve tracked down is used as a receptacle for the milk of human kindness. Revenge is a dish best served not at all seems to be Sorrentino’s idea, in a return to some of themes and procedures of The Consequences of Love.

This Must Be the Place – at Amazon

 

There is also a box set worth having  here. It contains One Man Up (with English subtitles, unlike the standalone dvd), The Consequences of Love, The Family Friend and Il Divo.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

Dick Van Dyke on DVD

Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins

 

What a great thing Dick Van Dyke has been. First there’s that improbable name. Even more improbable, it’s his real name. Then there’s his legs, long and lean and made for comedy dancing and comedy pratfalls. And his smile – as wide as the screen and surely the biggest on TV, if we’re not counting that of Mary Tyler Moore, who played his screen wife. We tend to think of him as a TV performer – no less than three TV series have been named after him, including the seminal Dick Van Dyke Show of the 1960s, the direct descendants of which (via Mary Tyler Moore and James Burrows) are Friends and The Big Bang Theory. And then there’s his stints in a number of different shows (Diagnosis Murder, Murder 101) in which he played the doctor who’s also an investigator, a weird TV hybrid that also did quite well for Jack Klugman, as Quincy. But though a vaudeville man by talent and inclination and a TV man in terms of success, Van Dyke also made a string of interesting movie appearances, at least one of which needs no introduction.

 

 

 

Mary Poppins (1964, dir: Robert Stevenson)

Not even nominated. That’s what the imdb tells us of Dick Van Dyke’s performance in Mary Poppins. Julie Andrews won an Oscar, as did the effects artists, the film’s editor and the Sherman brothers for their music. But the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that should by rights have been Van Dyke’s went instead to Melvyn Douglas for his work in Hud. Why should Van Dyke have won it? Look again and notice how the movie jumps up about two gears when Van Dyke arrives for the central sequence featuring Chim-Chim-Cheree, Jolly Holiday and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and then drops back again once Bert the chimney sweep (Van Dyke) has moved back to the wings.

Mary Poppins – at Amazon

 

Divorce American Style (1967, dir: Bud Yorkin)

A 1960s “sex comedy” (as in “the battle of the sexes” rather than the sort of thing you get in American Pie) but this one has an unusually astringent streak. Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds play the couple whose marriage hits a bump after 17 years and they find themselves being rushed, American style, through divorce proceedings. Whether that rush was or was not an entirely good thing is what the film is all about, and the two leads play their roles with far less saccharine than they’re usually required to deliver. Funny, trenchant, charming and underplayed, Divorce American Style is an overlooked gem.

Divorce American Style – at Amazon

 

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968, dir: Ken Hughes)

Ian Fleming wrote the original novel, Roald Dahl did the screenplay, the James Bond production team made it and they lured the Sherman brothers over from Disney to do the music. No wonder Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – the soppy love stuff apart – looks so great and works so well. Dick Van Dyke’s Caractacus Potts gets more of the song-and-dance numbers he’d excelled at in Mary Poppins, though he’s not required to put on a British accent this time round (gor blimey). Look closely and it’s clear Van Dyke is no dancer. But the routines are tailored so well to his frame, and he attacks them with such enthusiasm, that it barely matters.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – at Amazon

 

The Comic (1969, dir: Car Reiner)

A labour of love for Van Dyke – who had read the eulogy at Stan Laurel’s funeral in 1965 – and Carl Reiner, who had been his producer on the Dick Van Dyke Show, The Comic is the riches to rags tale of a silent comedian whose brilliant career hits the skids. It’s based loosely on the life of Buster Keaton and plays straight to Van Dyke’s tendency to aim his performance at the back row. “Dick Van Dyke has the true manic feeling for the silent-comedy routines,” is how the critic Pauline Kael described it, and the film works best as it runs through the early life of Billy Bright (Van Dyke), essentially a montage of gags made famous by Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon, Turpin, Laurel and Hardy and the first generation of Hollywood funnymen. Too bittersweet to be considered a true comedy, The Comic also daringly attempts a portrait of a man with very few, if any, redeeming qualities and was part of Van Dyke’s never entirely successful quest to move himself into edgier territory.

The Comic – no DVD at Amazon, as yet

 

Cold Turkey (1971, dir: Norman Lear)

A tobacco company boss (Edward Everett Horton) offers $25 million to the town that can give up smoking for 30 days in a satire on smalltown manners that never forgets that it’s primarily going to be watched in smalltown cinemas. Which is another way of saying that the satire isn’t too stinging. Dick Van Dyke plays the local pastor, a man determined to get the town of Eagle Rock, Iowa (population 4006), singing from the same no-smoking hymn sheet, though for entirely selfish reasons. Cold Turkey’s big strength is the humour it draws from its supporting cast, who are more often than not great character actors. This was, for instance, the last time the great Edward Everett Horton ever appeared on screen.

Cold Turkey – at Amazon

 

The Morning After (1974, dir: Richard T Heffron)

A TV movie written by Richard Matheson, better known for sci-fi, from The Twilight Zone to I Am Legend. It deals with the crippling alcoholism of a PR man, played by Dick Van Dyke. Van Dyke had been an alcoholic for years himself, only going into rehab in 1972, and The Morning After was one of his ways of outing himself (still a very rare thing to do in the early 1970s). Perhaps armed with this first-hand knowledge the movie pulls few punches, showing alcohol to be not just a scourge in terms of health but a cause of the breakdown of relationships, family, self-respect. It did a lot to challenge the actor’s nice-guy reputation. The following year he was playing a villain in Columbo.

The Morning After – not availabe at Amazon, as yet

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013