The Prestige

Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige

 

 

After Insomnia and Batman Begins, big Hollywood numbers taken on to show studio willing – or so it seemed – Christopher Nolan is back to being master of his own destiny, writing with his brother Jonathan and also producing this lavish smoke and mirrors cat-and-mouser. Clearly an attempt to “do another Memento”, it’s about a pair of Victorian magicians in a “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” London, who once were bosom buddies but fell out after a trick went wrong and the wife of one of them died. And since that day they have gone on to different sorts of glory, but as deadly rivals, each trying to out-trick the other.

The title is explained early on, by Michael Caine, playing the Ingenieur, the backstage guy who devises and builds the magical apparatus for Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), the Prestige being the ta-daa bit of the trick when the lady is revealed as not being sawn in half at all. This has followed the Pledge (the lady is a lady) and the Turn (she is two halves of a lady), and, tricksy buggers that they are, Jonathan and Christopher Nolan have a prestige of their own up their sleeves. But if you haven’t worked it out by about halfway through the film, a long, long, long way before the Nolans pull the rabbit out of the hat, then my name’s not Harry Houdini.

My gosh there are a lot of stars in this film. As well as Jackman as the more successful of the two magicians, there’s Christian Bale as his rival Alfred Borden, a more spit and sawdust character than the refined Angier, though with one devastating trick, The Transported Man, in his repertoire that baffles audiences and confounds Angier. There’s also Piper Perabo as the doomed wife, Scarlett Johansson, underused as the new lovely assistant. There’s Michael Caine, of course, and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla – proving again that he simply can’t and shouldn’t act, though Bowie’s is just one of many terrible performances that populate this weary trudge of a film. In fact Caine is the only one to hold the attention, in a bit part so well played that you yearn for the film to be, in fact, about him.

That’s also because Caine gets to do the interesting stuff – explain how the tricks work. The backstage secrets. In front of the curtain, magic is about misdirection and wit, two missing ingredients in this film. Instead there’s plot, lots and lots of it. And baffling digression – for instance, Jackman’s visit to the scientist Tesla, considered to be a modern magician thanks to his myriad revolutionary patents and experiments with AC electricity. The Nolans also bang the narrative chronologically back and forth Memento-style, which muddies things even more, the suspicion creeping in about halfway through that what something this laden with “developments” should be is a TV mini-series. Not enough prestige, perhaps.

Most of all this murky-looking film lacks lightness of touch, legerdemain, as the French say. Magic, in other words.

 

The Prestige – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

The Night Listener

Robin Williams and Toni Collette

 

When he switches off the mouth, Robin Williams can be an incredibly effective actor. This is one of those turns, yet it’s ironically about a man who is a professional mouth, a DJ with a late-night show who uses his graveyard phone-in to tell and listen to stories. It’s another of Williams’s characteristics as an actor that he’s happy, let’s say willing, to play characters who either aren’t likeable or are downright nasty, One Hour Photo being the ultimate proof of that. Again ironically, he’s neither here, though he is playing a character despised in much of society – a gay man. There’s a dark almost Hitchcockian feel to the path that leads off from this starting position, as this avuncular “listener” with relationship problems of his own one evening takes a call which knocks a sense of perspective into his own rather meagre life. He learns about a 14-year-old boy who is dying of Aids, thanks to the years of sexual abuse he has been subjected to by his parents and their inner circle – for his eighth birthday this kid got syphilis. The story is a true one – not that of the boy, we’ve no idea about the bones of that case – but about this concerned man forced by a troubled conscience into trying to find then help this poor kid. All he’s got to go on is the prompting of the boy’s carer (Toni Collette), who is blind and so isn’t as much help as she might be. Or possibly, we realise as things wander along, it’s not even beginning to be as simple as all that. The original story is by Armistead Maupin, of Tales of the City fame, who gives himself just enough space to explore the territory he wants – whether it is possible for a middle-aged gay man to reach out and help a pubescent boy without social prejudices kicking in. He concludes… well, that’s the film and I won’t ruin it, having already said a bit too much. Because it is a very slight drama, just solid enough to carry its theoretical payload, but director Patrick Stettner and cinematographer Lisa Rinzler drench everything in an oversexualised creepiness, Williams and Collette both deliver as people whose lives on the margins – his sexually determined, hers by disability and job status – have had an effect on their personalities, and there’s a welcome colour-blind aspect to the multi-ethnic casting decisions. It feels real, in other words.

 

The Night Listener – Watch it/buy it now at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

Enemy

Adam meets Anthony in Enemy

 

If there is such a thing as “what the hellness” then Denis Villeneuve’s latest film absolutely has it. But then the French-Canadian does have form. With Incendies Villeneuve managed to turn the conflict in the Middle East into a thriller with a reveal that disconcerted and amazed. In Prisoners he made us feel bad for suspecting that a lank haired, stuttering, educationally subnormal Paul Dano was a paedophile, and then made us feel bad for cutting such an obvious wrong’un too much slack.

The tricks are more playful in this latest exercise in duplicity. As with Prisoners, Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal, this time as Adam, a history professor who suddenly spots his spitting likeness in a movie he’s watching one night on his laptop when he should be snuggled up with his wife.

Instead of thinking “oh, that’s odd” and leaving it at that, Adam does a little digging, finds a few more films his doppelganger has been in, finds his agent, tracks down where he lives and then tentatively arranges a meeting, not realising that Anthony, the initially spooked actor also played by Gyllenhaal, might also have an agenda. Bizarrely, both men, when they meet, are so alike that there really is no gap between them, from the way they style their beards to the way they speak and react. And their partners (Adam’s is Mélanie Laurent; Anthony’s Sarah Gadon), each a good-looking blonde having a little relationship difficulty with her partner, seems to have the same problem too.

We’re very much in the sort of territory that late 1940s noir loved to wallow in – dark psychology, fractured personality, dreamscapes and hints of sexual deviancy. I haven’t mentioned the little vignettes that Villeneuve drops in of naked women in what looks like animal masks (it’s dark) slinking down long corridors? I have now.

At what point does the film leave reality behind? The answer is that it never really engages with it. It’s built inside a hall of mirrors – in real life there would be a thousand tells that would distinguish one person from another; here, Anthony even has a scar on his chest where Adam does. It doesn’t add up.

The plot is not the point though. It’s a vehicle for the mood of the thing. Has any recent film looked this queasily yellow? The colour of madness, cowardice, jaundice and death allied to a soundtrack of mournful clarinet, growling bassoon, honks of brass and nervous strings. The script is sparse, roads are empty, public spaces barely occupied, dialogue scarce but loaded. David Lynch is in there, in other words, though this is more “inspired by” than “lifted from”. And almost as proof here’s bizarro muse Isabella Rossellini as Anthony’s coolly unmaternal mother. Or was it Adam’s? Or are they the same person?

See it as an existential quest movie if you like – what is it that we are all searching for? Would having a doppelganger conveniently justify all our dark secrets, or scare the shit out of us? Both possibilities are examined in the closest that Gyllenhaal has got to this territory since Donnie Darko.

As for the ending, which suddenly makes all the psychological undertow overt in one laugh-out-loud shot, it’s Villeneuve’s raining-frogs-in-Magnolia moment, an abrupt full stop that signifies that he’s finished playing with us and we can all get back to whatever it was we were doing before. It’s going to irritate the hell out of people who haven’t been watching closely enough.

Enemy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

The Tunnel

Bel Deliá and a dead person in The Tunnel

 

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

 

 

2 August

 

Tower Subway opens, 1870

On this day in 1870, the Tower Subway opened in London, UK. Running under the River Thames between Tower Hill on the north bank and Tooley Street on the south, it is a 1,340 foot (410m) tunnel and was the first built under a river expressly to carry a train. Though it caused a lot of excitement at the time, the tunnel was only narrow, at just over 6.5 feet (2.026m) wide, and its tiny train did not have much room for passengers. The company that built it went bust and the tunnel closed at the end of the year it had opened, though it re-opened shortly afterwards as a foot tunnel. This was popular, though narrow – “it is not advisable for any but the very briefest of Her Majesty’s lieges to attempt the passage in high-heeled boots, or with a hat to which he attaches any particular value,” wrote Charles Dickens after using it. In 1897, suffering a loss of traffic after a toll-less Tower Bridge opened just down the river three years before, it closed again. It was at first used for hydraulic power. Now it is used for water mains and telecoms cables.

 

 

 

The Tunnel (2011, dir: Carlo Ledesma)

The mock-doc horror movie has proved to be remarkably resilient, rumours of its death having been on the wind even as The Blair Witch Project was first taking wing. The Tunnel clearly owes a debt to the 1999 movie, but that isn’t a bad thing when it’s done this well. The story is a fairly straightforward one and it elegantly entirely justifies the constant presence of a camera – often a credulity-straining presence in this sort of film. Yes I’m thinking of Cloverfield. Because the group of unlucky souls we are following are an Australian news crew entering a network of disused tunnels to find out whether the stories of homeless people disappearing down there are true. The tunnels, it seems, are about to be converted into some vast underground water storage facility. And that’s all you need to know before plunging in yourself. What you’ll find is a film that has arrived late at the mock-doc party and a director (Carlo Ledesma) and writers (Enzo Tedeschi, Julian Harvey) who know they’re going to be judged to a much more exacting standard than the mock-dockers who have gone before. The conceit they wheel out being that we’re watching a post-event assemblage of material, put together for broadcast purposes – so interviews with the survivors, plus bits of YouTube and plenty of CCTV are spliced into the standard handycam footage of… well let’s just say bad stuff.
Whether we need convincing this much, I’m not sure, but the actors add another layer of believability. They’re uniformly excellent, notably Bel Deliá as a punchy, no-nonsense newshound. One of the others, Steve Davis, is in fact a cameraman and the footage we’re watching is the footage he shot. None of this would matter – nor would the fact that the film debuted on BitTorrent with viewers invited to pay what they thought it was worth – if the film wasn’t any good. But it is good, and is even confident enough to do not very much at all for a considerable amount of time (see: The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity for some reasons why this is a good idea) until bits of equipment start disappearing and someone suddenly goes missing.
The great advantage of low-budget shooting methods is that you don’t need to worry too much about special effects. And with the low light levels you’d naturally expect to find in tunnels, it doesn’t take much to generate proper “boo” shocks. Kudos to the writing/production team for deciding to shoot in subterranean Sydney, and for sticking hard to their original rationale. The result is a grim, creepy and atmospheric horror film worth watching at night in the dark on your own.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The crazy BitTorrent angle
  • The believable cast
  • The no-budget inventiveness
  • It’s scary

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Tunnel – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Killing Room

Chlea Duvall in The Killing Room

 

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

 

 

26 July

 

CIA created, 1947

On this day in 1947, the National Security Act was enacted by the US Congress.

Among other things, it created the Central Intelligence Agency, the successor agency to the Office of Strategic Services, which had been formed during the Second World War to coordinate spying against the Axis powers. The CIA is responsible for counterterrorism, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, intelligence, counter-intelligence and cyber-intelligence. In 1963 the CIA’s budget was $550million ($4.2 billion inflation-adjusted). By 2013 it was $14.7 billion. It is the only US government agency allowed to use “unvouchered” funds – those without any external oversight or accounting.

 

 

 

The Killing Room (2009, dir: Jonathan Liebesman)

The “four guys in a room” thriller suits our paranoid times of government snooping, wars waged patently on dishonest principles and the like. The Killing Room joins this expanding genre and is unusual for throwing a couple of proper name actors into the mix – this sort of thing also being notably cheap, it doesn’t tend to attract anyone you’d recognise.

Chloe Sevigny is the most standout of the well-known. But here’s the kicker – she’s not one of the victims being tantalised and tested by persons unknown; she’s one of the scientists making the labrats jump through hoops. Instead the unlucky foursome are played by Clea DuVall, Shea Whigham, Nick Cannon and Timothy Hutton, with the action jumping off when head scientist Dr Phillips arrives to greet the newbies, pulls out a gun and shoots one of them in the head, then beetles off to watch the reactions of the others on the monitors fed by the room’s wall-to-wall cameras. Why he did this, whether the others are going to die – and how – that’s what the film is all about. As to who dies right up at the beginning – take a look at the cast list and work out whose name isn’t that familiar.

Sevigny plays the rookie psychologist hired to run over the data produced by the experiment, and the other question the film is asking is: will she put up with this sort of extreme, illegal, bloodthirsty madness? Right up front in an intertitle we’ve been told that the film is inspired by the MKUltra program that the CIA ran – mind control, essentially – but it seems more informed by the Milgram Shock Experiment, which took volunteers and tested them to see how much pain they would inflict on a test subject if ordered to do so by a guy in a lab coat carrying a clipboard.

The Milgram experiment was deeply flawed in terms of its set-up, and it’s easy to suggest that The Killing Room isn’t a 100 per cent success either. But it is neatly constructed and it gives Peter Stormare a chance to once again delight us with one of his mad/evil turns as the unhinged Dr Phillips. Sevigny is required to look cool externally, while inwardly bottling her increasing turmoil, and pulls it off. There’s good work too by Timothy Hutton as the twitchiest and most intelligent of the experimentees.

For references, look no further than the cult Canadian thriller Cube, whose DNA seems to have been copied quite extensively. But there are also oblique references to the 1960s British spy TV series The Avengers, not least the fact that Stormare is referred to as “Mother” on several occasions, also the name of Avengers honcho John Steed’s male control at whatever shadowy British government agency Steed worked at when he wasn’t visiting his tailor.

As for the much-derided twist finish, it is completely ridiculous. You, along with me when I saw it, will be saying, “What, all that work just to achieve this?” However, the film does ask other uncomfortable subliminal questions, not least in its racial profiling and the way the whiter shade of pale Sevigny interacts with the duskier people she comes across. I will say no more except to say The Killing Room is worth a look.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A taut psychological thriller
  • Chloe Sevigny, always a class act
  • Jonathan Liebesman’s crisp, clean shooting style
  • Guess the twist ending

 

 

 

The Killing Room – Watch it now at Amazon

 

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

4

The infamous "drunken-vodka-breasts" sequence from 4

 

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

 

 

17 July

 

Czar Nicholas II and family executed, 1918

On this day in 1918, the former ruler of Russia, Nicholas Romanov, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, having had a disastrous reign during which he had presided over the collapse of his once-great country, was shot and killed, along with his family. He had abdicated the year before, after a series of military defeats and revolutions, culminating in the February Revolution of 1917. For a while his family had lived under house arrest but in comparative luxury, though rations had increasingly been tightened and servants had been dispensed with as the mood towards the former ruler hardened. He had asked the British for asylum, and this had been offered, only for his cousin, George V, to overrule the government. In the early hours of 17 July 1918, Nicholas, his family, doctor and three servants were woken, led to a basement room in the Ipatiev house in Yekaterinburg. They were told that they had been condemned to death by the Ural Soviet of the Workers’ Deputies. Nicholas objected and was immediately shot by Yakov Yurovsky, leader of a squad of Bolshevik secret police. After a few more shots to the chest, Nicholas died. In the meantime the rest of the squad started firing at the family and retainers. The children survived the longest, having so many jewels sewn into their clothes meant that some bullets couldn’t get through. Bayonets and bullets to the head soon finished the business.

 

 

 

4 (2005, dir: Ilya Khrzhanovsky)

Prepare to be dazzled. Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s debut starts with a hooker, a piano tuner and a meat salesman meeting in a bar in the early hours of the morning, where they’re telling each other an elaborate pack of lies about what each does for a living (hooker, piano tuner and meat salesman don’t come into it). This unique film then spins off into god knows what, a wider story about Russia, the stories it tells itself about itself, and the way a new world is constantly being created out of bits of the old. Perhaps. Working off a script by avant-garde veteran Vladimir Sorokin, director Ilya Khrzhanovsky presents us with a vision of Russia that might have been dreamt up by the CIA – the vodka, the heavy pork diet, evidence of heavy industry everywhere, gangsters all over the place, old babushkas cackling, drunk. And the dogs. And the police. Not so much a satire on Russia as a satire on satires on Russia, it’s a remarkable, overcooked richly seasoned stew of imagery, people, places and cinematography. Hungarian miserablist Béla Tarr gets the odd visual namecheck, especially in the long sequence in which the hooker Marina heads off to a village to try and find out what happened to her now-dead sister. What actually did happen to her sister isn’t important. In 4 (Chetyre in Russian) it’s mostly about the visuals, a near monochrome succession of beautifully nihilistic images that will either delight or infuriate (look up the usually measured Neil Young’s enraged review if you want the latter – here). Its most iconic sequence takes place in a gloomy room where a gaggle of old women are making the faces for baby-sized dolls. They do this by chewing hunks of bread, then forming the dribbly pulp into the features. As they work, they sing, old songs about Stalin, sentimental ditties. They talk among themselves, almost ignoring Marina, and the subtitling gets a bit sporadic here as well, as if the film is wandering off into the crones’ reverie too. The women get the vodka out, start getting drunk, begin to expose their breasts, laughing like crows as they pour vodka over the wrinkly empty pillows. They seem to be real people, these old dears, not actors, and they also seem to be really drunk, and it appears to be this sequence – the possible exploitation rather than the mammaries – that gets people exercised. Around this point Marina and what look like her sisters disrobe too, in a sauna sequence, yet no one in the criticsphere seems too bothered about that sort of exploitation.
It is all deliberately nightmarish and to describe it in terms of plot doesn’t really work at all. Orwellian is what these sort of fever dreams are often described as, and with the addition of some numerology – the number four is everywhere, from the quartet of curs hanging around in the street as the film opens, right to the end – the creation of an air of mystery seems to be the intention. But then isn’t mystery one of the key cliché constituents of the dark soul of old mother Russia?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A remarkable debut
  • Kirill Vasilenko’s atmospheric soundscape
  • The brilliant imagery
  • Marina Vovchenko’s performance

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

4 – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Oldboy

Josh Brolin in Oldboy

 

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

 

 

29 June

 

iPhone launched, 2007

On this day in 2007, Apple launched the first version of the iPhone. Until then, mobile or cell phones had been phones first, with a range of other capabilities – camera, email, mp3 player, internet access – tagging along behind. Apple’s creative breakthrough was to design the iPhone as a very small computer which also had phone functionality. This might look like a “six and two threes” explanation but what the iPhone did, which no phone had done before, was deliver a more integrated service, so the phone became in effect a Swiss army knife of the digital era: a mobile office with added leisure features which meant you could leave the house and work out where you were going, who you were meeting, how to get there and what you needed to know, all of this while en route, listening to Lana Del Rey as you went. The phone was an instant success and continued Apple’s return from the dead which had been signalled by the iMac, was continued by the iPod/iTunes, and finally completed by the iPhone. In fact the iPhone has become the tail that wags the dog, the operating system of Apple’s computers now looking like, and functioning like, the OS on the phone. To call the iPhone a success is to severely under-estimate what it has done – not only putting the two world leaders, Nokia and Blackberry, onto the critical list (Nokia phones sold off to Microsoft in 2013, Blackberry worth $82.4bn in 2008, $3.4bn at end 2013), but also creating the benchmark by which all other phones are judged, as well as the template for rivals (eg Android) to copy. When I say “copy”, I obviously mean “aspire towards”.

 

 

 

Oldboy (2013, dir: Spike Lee)

What a strangely negative reception Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 original, manga-based thriller got. A classic case of reviewers assessing a film for what it’s not, rather than what it is, Lee’s film certainly is not as powerful as the original – not as gothically badass in any direction – but it’s still a very good, expertly delivered, well told and periodically thrilling story that’s well worth your groats, shekels or dollars. The story – if you don’t know it from the original – is the same: a total asshole (here played by Josh Brolin) is imprisoned in one small room for 20 years. He has no idea why. He’s in solitary. Is fed, watered, taken care of, has TV access, but otherwise it’s him, the four walls and that’s it. And then, suddenly, he’s free again. And being a badass kinda guy, he heads off on a revenge jag to find the guy who imprisoned him, not for one second pausing to ask a simple question – is this sudden release all part of some wider, dastardly plan aimed specifically at punishing me further?
It is, of course, and it’s this tease of a plot that gives the film its dramatic drive. Helping it along are all manner of powerful little nuggets. Like that classic “fight in a very small space” sequence from the original. Lee chooses to reference it rather than recreate it – he’s smart, and knows that the original has been re-purposed so many times since the film debuted in 2003 that its original impact just isn’t there any more. Talking of impact, the hammer fight – I’ll just say “yes!”, with an extra exclamation mark! Modern brutalist gothic is Lee’s intention, and the cast stays on message – Samuel L Jackson in a kilt (again) and looking like some mad medieval pope, Sharlto Copley over-enunciating very amusingly as the extremely bad man whom Brolin (raw, animal, intense) eventually comes across, Elizabeth Olsen as the wafty wavery love interest who’s not what she appears. And notice that silent Chinese woman acting as Copley’s concubine (anyone know her name?), a racial stereotype lifted straight out of a penny dreadful or shilling shocker – or early James Bond films.
And on the subject of pastiche, it is often overlooked – because Spike Lee is so well known for his message films – just how in control he is as a journeyman director. And he is definitely giving us touches of Bond in among the other thriller references. Hitchcock too in his beautifully staged set pieces. As for the frequent use of the iPhone, which repeatedly bemuses the technically prehistoric Brolin – Satnav? Yellow Pages? A camera? – though it’s clearly a product placement buy-in (Apple possibly responding to Google’s slightly backfiring free ad of a film The Internship) it does at least locate us in the here and now, and confirms Brolin as the film’s ignorant underdog hero. Something the film does need, because it’s never that clear. No, it’s not as pure as the original, but Lee’s Oldboy is still a tense and intense thriller.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Who better than Josh Brolin to play a vengeful badass?
  • Copley’s excellent villain
  • The clothes (costumes: Ruth E Carter) really match the film’s mood
  • Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Oldboy – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Chinatown

Jack Nicholson bears the scars of combat in Chinatown

 

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

 

 

24 June

 

The Aqua Traiana inaugurated, 109

On this day in 109, the aqueduct the Aqua Traiana was put into service. Built on the orders of the emperor Trajan, it supplied Rome with fresh water. Rome’s appetite for water was huge and among the things the Aqua Traiana did was: help deliver drinking water for Rome’s one millions citizens; water for countless public baths including the massive Baths of Trajan overlooking the Colosseum; spectacular fountains; and other leisure uses including the Naumachia of Trajan, a huge basin used for staging naval displays; not forgetting the importance of water as the motive force in Rome’s many flour mills. Running 40 miles from the Lake Bracciano area to the north west, running overground on spectacular aqueducts and underground in brick tunnels lined with waterproof cement, it was a prime target for those wishing to attack Rome. The Ostrogoths cut the supply in 537 when they laid siege to the city. However, it remained in service for centuries. It was the last great aqueduct built in Rome and its remains can be seen to this day in the city. Indeed there are special “Aqua Traiana” tours.

 

 

 

Chinatown (1974, dir: Roman Polanski)

Chinatown is an old-school film noir about a good guy in a bad world trying to get to the bottom of some murky business. It matters not what the murky business is, pretty much, in the same way that it wasn’t very important what animated Raymond Chandler’s detectives, as long as they were out in the world, righting wrongs and cracking wise. But in this case it’s water – in Los Angeles, a town built in a desert, the person who controls the water supply is going to make a lot of money. Jack Nicholson plays JJ Gittes, the besuited private eye hitting resistance at every turn as he tries to find out why someone has turned up dead with his lungs full of water in an otherwise bone-dry area. The resistance comes mostly in the shape of John Huston’s Noah Cross, an old school patriarch given to thundering, quick with the blandishments, a powerful man with a biblical name for a reason. As many people have pointed out, one of Roman Polanski’s triumphs with Chinatown is to have made a film that (now, at least) looks to be of a piece with the famous noirs of the 1940s – The Maltese Falcon, often credited as being the first noir, was Huston’s directorial debut in 1941 and Polanski surely took a few stylistic notes off the great director whose casting is something of a coup. And yet it’s also clearly a movie from the early 1970s – Nicholson in a suit, wearing the hat, driving the big jalopy you’d expect from a man doing virtue’s work back in the day. The drama is propelled by Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray, a damsel in distress, with Nicholson’s Gittes the white knight (when we meet him he is wearing a white suit, in fact) hoping to protect her reputation, but finding that in trying to fix something in the here and now, he’s unearthing something far grubbier back in the past.
Small details take on huge significance in this film – the way that a gangster (played by Polanski himself) sticks a knife up Gittes’s nose and slits his nostril, the fact that Noah Cross can never quite remember Gittes’s name, Evelyn Mulwray’s strangely fluttering behaviour, always nervous; what she’s nervous about we only discover right at the end of the film.
In any assessment of Nicholson’s career, this period, from Easy Rider in 1969 to The Shining in 1980 will always be seen as key: when he did his best work; before the mannerisms set solid. Chinatown was made about halfway in, a year after The Last Detail, a year before The Passenger (when he played a mysterious journalist on the run from something). Chinatown is Jack as a human first, an inquisitive operator second, a principled guy third, the last one jostling with the first two for position. Nicholson’s line readings are courtly, and it’s a logical yet different way of expressing the same character that Humphrey Bogart played – “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero”, as Raymond Chandler once put it. Chinatown is 1974’s definition of chivalry.
As with the man, so with the place: Polanski chooses his Los Angeles locations as carefully as costume designer Anthea Sylbert dresses her actors, with an eye for the ancient – in LA ancient means a few decades – with Nicholson driving through the last remaining art deco relics in a city that is always presented as dry, harshly lit, the sun baking its wide streets.
It is in short a beautiful, desperate and almost languid mood piece, Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne dropping in just enough exposition and colour to keep the thing moving along. Its ending, when everything unravels at breakneck speed, comes as something of a shock, yet it makes total sense – all the masks are suddenly removed and everyone is revealed for what and who they are.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Noir, or neo noir, at its best
  • One of Jack Nicholson’s defining performances
  • The Oscar for Robert Towne’s screenplay (of 11 nominations)
  • Anthea Sylbert’s great costume design

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Chinatown – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Million Dollar Hotel

Milla Jovovich in The Million Dollar Hotel

 

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

 

 

7 June

 

Groundbreaking of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1993

On this day in 1993, the groundbreaking ceremony of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame took place, in Cleveland, Ohio. It was attended by Pete Townshend, Chuck Berry, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), Dave Gardner (the Coasters), Billy Joel, Sam Phillips, Ruth Brown and Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum). The hall had been proposed in 1983 by Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, with a view to capturing an ephemeral art form – or of confirming that rock and roll wasn’t ephemeral at all, take your pick – and the first “exhibits” in the museum had been inducted in 1986. Originally inductees would belong to one of four categories: performers, non-performers, early influences and lifetime achievement. “Sidemen” were added in 2000. In year one Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley were inducted. Since then fewer have been admitted – Aretha Franklin arrived in 1987, the Beatles in 1988, John Lee Hooker in 1991, Janis Joplin in 1995, Parliament-Funkadelic in 1997, Michael Jackson in 2001, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in 2007, Abba in 2010, Donna Summer in 2013. Evidently, the induction committee’s definition of “Rock and Roll” is a broad one.

 

 

 

The Million Dollar Hotel (2000, dir: Wim Wenders)

Now here is a film entirely in thrall to the rock thang. Directed by Wim Wenders, who was born in 1945 – being born during the Second World War makes you the prime rock demographic – it has a story by Bono, of U2 fame, and is entirely fixated with rock’s regular obsessions: madness, freaks, the Man and the idea that the good guys are in fact really the bad guys. It has an issue with authority. It is in essence an Agatha Christie whodunit with every element bent out of shape, starting with Mel Gibson as a cop investigating a murder at a hotel populated almost entirely by weirdoes. Gibson’s Detective Skinner wears a back and neck brace. Because, we learn, of complications after surgery to remove a third arm growing out of his back. Of course. Skinner is trying to find who killed a billionaire’s son, played by Tim Roth for the few seconds he’s in the film before he tumbles to his death from the hotel roof. Did he jump or was he pushed? Wenders seems more interested in the characters in the hotel than with getting to the end of any process. But then it’s the Wenders way. So we meet Tom Tom (Jeremy Davies) an ADHD narrator tailing Skinner as he makes his enquiries. We meet Peter Stormare as a Beatles obsessive with a weird Liverpudlian accent. And most importantly we meet Milla Jovovich’s Eloise, a bookworm with a heart – she provides a cool if blank centre around which the film revolves. On the carousel are a group of fringe dwellers, the sort of actors we expect in a film like this – Bud Cort, Amanda Plummer, Jimmy Smits, Richard Edson, Julian Sands, Tom Bower. And the occasional one we really don’t – Gloria Stuart, nudging 90 when this was made and fresh from Titanic. It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? And it did get a fairly comprehensive pasting by the critics when it came out. But I think there is something more going on here than a middle-aged director making a “like, wow, man, the lunatics have, like, taken over the asylum” flick with a middle age rock star’s money. To some extent this is exactly what it seems, an indulgent celebration of the fringe. But rock wasn’t at the cultural fringe when this was made, except in the wild rock-stadium dreams of Bono, perhaps. It was increasingly an old guy’s game. And here we are in LA, the city without a centre, shot carefully by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael to show the cracks and the degradation, while Wenders adopts the stance and riffs hard on death, decay, anomie and nothingness. A very odd film, that might well need reappraisal.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Shot at the hotel on the roof of which U2 shot the video for “Where the Streets Have No Name”
  • The excellent soundtrack – Jon Hassell, Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno all contributing
  • Phedon Papamichael’s moody cinematography
  • Mel Gibson in a neck brace, in a film he described as “boring as a dog’s ass” – and he part-financed it

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Million Dollar Hotel  – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Chemical Wedding

Simon Callow as a professor possessed by the spirit of Aleister Crowley

 

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

 

 

8 April

 

Aleister Crowley transcribes Chapter 1 of The Book of the Law, 1904

On this day in 1904, the British-born occultist Aleister Crowley was contacted by Aiwass, the messenger of the Egyptian god Horus, or so he claimed. Independently wealthy and the rebellious son of strict evangelical christians, the 32-year-old Crowley was in Egypt, having arrived there after an extensive world tour – he had already visited Mexico, Hawaii, San Francisco, Japan, Hong Kong, Ceylon, India and Paris. And en route he had climbed mountains (including the first attempt on K2), written a play based on Wagner’s Tannhäuser, written several books of poems, studied raja yoga and become a fixture on the Paris art scene, hanging out with the likes of Auguste Rodin and Somerset Maugham. So, a polymath. Or maybe just a dilettante. He had arrived in Cairo with his new wife, Rose, where they claimed to be a prince and princess and took apartments that suited their story. It was Rose who led him to Aiwass, claiming that the old Egyptian deities were waiting to make contact with him. Crowley wrote down everything the messenger told him and it became The Book of the Law, the foundational work of a new religion, Thelema, whose prophet was Crowley himself. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” was its dictum, and it chimed entirely both with the attitude of bohemian self-expression and of esoteric spirituality which were then asserting themselves.

 

 

 

Chemical Wedding (2008, dir: Julian Doyle)

Now then, what do we have here? A film about Aleister Crowley directed by a man, Julian Doyle, who once made a promo vid for metal rockers Iron Maiden. Doyle co-writes with Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of the selfsame outfit. And if you are now expecting a heavy metal nightmare, that is exactly what you get – shit, piss, cum and blood all featuring heavily in this fantastic pantomime examination of the occultist’s life. John Shrapnel, over-acting madly, plays Crowley, and a fabulously ripe Simon Callow plays the professor who accidentally conjures the spirit back onto the earthly plane, only for Crowley’s ghost to take up residence in the mild-mannered academic’s body, thanks to a bit of postmodern computer jiggery pokery. Enough plot already. The style is sub-Hammer – very florid, exquisitely terrible – and Doyle has virtually no control over his actors who, with the exception of Callow, are lousy. Callow is the reason to watch, as he puts on a booming one-man display of old school theatrical bombast. He’s fantastic, and coupled with a plot that is preposterousness itself, the entire effect is peculiarly bewitching. Dickinson and Doyle try to make a few serious points: about Einsteinian physics being the modern equivalent of alchemy. Schrödinger, the Uncertainty Principle, parallel universes and Stephen Hawking are all invoked too, more as window dressing than to prop up the plot. Did I mention the breasts? A film more in hock to the early 1970s than Crowley – required reading for any up-and-coming metaller back then – it does at least have a more enlightened attitude to nudity than you’d have got when Ozzy Osborne and his ilk were riding the pentagram. By which I mean that Callow takes his clothes off. Behold the belly of the beast!

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Add this to your list of cult nonsense
  • Another fabulous Simon Callow performance
  • How many heavy metallers can even write, never mind write a film?
  • Look out for Bruce Dickinson’s cameo

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Chemical Wedding aka Crowley – Watch it/buy it at Amazon