Zac Efron about to pronounce the president dead in Parkland


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



30 March


Ronald Reagan shot, 1981

On this day in 1981, after just over two months in office, President Ronald Reagan was shot outside the Washington Hilton. His would-be assassin was John Hinckley Jr, whose attempt on the president’s life seemed to be part of a plan to impress Jodie Foster, with whom he’d become obsessed after seeing her in the film Taxi Driver. Hinckley’s intention was not to kill Reagan but the President – he’d been focused on killing President Jimmy Carter when Carter was in office until being arrested on a firearms charge. Reagan just happened to be the man doing the job on the day in question. Hinckley loosed off six .22 calibre shots from a Röhm RG-14 towards Reagan as he left the Hilton at 2.25pm. None of them hit the president directly, though one ricocheted off his car and hit him in the chest. A policeman, a secret service agent and Reagan’s press secretary were also wounded (the last was paralysed), while Reagan was taken to George Washington University Hospital where he was said to be “close to death”. He recovered and was released from hospital less than two weeks later, his reputation as a toughie immeasurably enhanced.




Parkland (2013, dir: Peter Landesman)

There are plenty of big name actors in writer/director Peter Landesman’s debut movie – Paul Giamatti, Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Billy Bob Thornton – though all take a back seat to the story it tells. Parkland being the hospital where President Kennedy was brought on the day he was assassinated. It was also the hospital where JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was brought when he was brought down by Jack Ruby’s vengeful bullet a couple of days later. The film tells both tales, the former in a major key, the latter in a minor. Mixing things we know about the day – we meet Abraham Zapruder (Giamatti) as he’s excitedly preparing to take some 8mm footage of the President – with things we don’t, the film’s great strength is its behind-the-scenes “you are there” sequences, first when noble doctors are battling to save a man who is, effectively, already dead on arrival, later when Oswald (Jeremy Strong) is also brought in to the same room for pretty much the same routine by the same doctors. It’s the small touches that lend the whole thing a fascination that goes beyond the morbid – the tussles between various branches of the security service to “control” the situation, the sight of the “Kennedy’s” FBI detail being sworn to defend new president, Johnson (the office not the man being the thing). And at around 20 minutes in, that’s it, the president is declared dead, and the film switches to Oswald, his arrest, and the affect this had on his family – the appalled decent brother Robert (James Badge Dale), the batshit mother (Jacki Weaver, since Animal Kingdom the go-to actor for poisonous matriarchs). Thirty years ago a film that gave so much time to the killer, asked us to feel the pain of those near to him, would have been impossible to make, for all sorts of reasons. Now, Parkland’s struggle is getting us to empathise twice – first with a man who, for all his faults, is still bathed in a heroic aura. Then again with the weasel who killed him. Or if not sympathise with him, then his family, who we see burying him while the whole of America is watching the interment of the former president on TV. Efron, Giamatti, Harden and a solidly excellent Billy Bob Thornton as the man in black trying to co-ordinate mayhem, all take second place to that task, which Landesman achieves in muted fashion, because if he’d tried it otherwise, the film probably would never have been made.



Why Watch?


  • The audacity of telling the story of both men
  • Barry Ackroyd’s period cinematography
  • The brilliantly chaotic editing of Markus Czyzewski and Leo Trombetta
  • The really solid cast includes Ron Livingston, Colin Hanks, Jackie Earle Haley


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Parkland – at Amazon






Maggie Gyllenhall, Michael Fassbender (possibly) and Domhnall Gleeson in Frank


Frank Sidebottom was the stage name of musician Chris Sievey, whose Frank was a cult novelty act that toured students unions etc in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s, singing chaotically shambolic versions of well known tunes (it could be Kylie, it could be the Sex Pistols) in a wheedling high-pitched determinedly uncool accent. Frank wore a gigantic papier maché head and made much of the fact that he was from the equally uncool Timperley in Cheshire. I saw him perform once, in the University of London Union, and the memory is with me still.

Jon Ronson, the journalist who co-wrote the screenplay on which Lenny Abrahamson’s film is based, was the keyboardist in Sidebottom’s band. And though the comic meander in front of us is from the viewpoint of a new keyboardist who joins Frank’s ramshackle band of outsiders after the previous one has flamed out, the story this tells works at the level of fable, not fact. It’s not a biopic. Metaphorically, Frank is a big papier maché head.

The affable, shaggily friendly Domhnall Gleeson is our guide, Jon (name entirely coincidental, of course). And he leads us through the flatlining progress of a band who court obscurity rather than success, who would rather die than be famous. We see the first shaky gig after Jon joins them, which collapses after one number. We eavesdrop as the band write and rehearse a new album in a skanky holiday park in Ireland, burning through Jon’s money while treating him with contempt because he’s trying to write songs – songs! We watch as Jon and avant-garde bitch and Theremin player Clara fight for Frank’s ear. We journey with them to the SXSW festival in Texas, where, thanks to Jon’s tireless tweeting, the band suddenly stands on the verge of something they’re entirely unprepared for.

And all the time Frank wears the head – on stage and off – the totem of his creativity, his apartness. Frank is the story of artistic bohemians for whom obscurity is a badge of honour, those doughty souls who though they’d never admit it are more in hock to the image than the work. Beautiful losers, to misappropriate the title of Leonard Cohen’s novel.

Ronson’s decision to dispense with the specifics of Sievey’s/Sidebottom’s life means there’s a universality to Frank. Even so it’s going to come as a shock to some that it’s Michael Fassbender inside that big boggly head (though you could easily convince me otherwise). And that Maggie Gyllenhaal has been persuaded to play Clara. Or, indeed, that Scoot McNairy, fresh from 12 Years a Slave, didn’t have other things to do.

Maybe Ronson and co-writer Peter Straughan’s oddball-packed screenplay for the George Clooney film The Men Who Stare at Goats persuaded the actors to sign on. Maybe they were all fans of the poetic emptiness of Lenny Abrahamson’s trio of brilliant Irish films – Adam & Paul, Garage and What Richard Did.

But how to evaluate in terms of a star rating a film that sets out to sabotage itself? I remember that evening 20 years ago watching Sidebottom perform. He was bloody hilarious for about 15 minutes, wackily charming for the following two or three numbers, but then the absence (who’s inside the head? why is he doing this?) started to grate slightly, before the lack of real purpose – neither aiming for the transcendent hit of beautiful music or the intellectual high of a new insight – began to grate. As with Sidebottom, so with Frank. Where’s the tune, in other words.




© Steve Morrissey 2014



Black Swan

Natalie Portman in Black Swan


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



17 March


Rudolf Nureyev born, 1938

Today in 1938, Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev was born, on a train near Irkutsk, Siberia, Soviet Union. The son of a Red Army political commissar, he grew up in a small village in Bashkortostan and first learnt to dance Bashkir folk dances. His teachers encouraged him to go to Leningrad. He auditioned for the Bolshoi but became a member of the Kirov Ballet, which allowed him to travel widely in the West. Realising that his freedom to travel was about to be curtailed, Nureyev defected to the West while on tour in Paris, in 1961. By February 1962 he was principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, in London, where he danced with Margot Fonteyn, a partnership that would enhance both of their reputations. Their last performance together took place in 1988, when Fonteyn was 69 and Nureyev 50. A titan of 20th century dance, he also danced Swine Lake with a giant pig in his TV appearance on The Muppets.




Black Swan (2010, dir: Darren Aronofsky)

There used to be a girls comic in the UK called Bunty which would feature regular strips such as The Four Marys (four girls of different social classes, all friends together at a boarding school), Mum Knows Best (a girl’s fight against her over-protective parents) and Amazing Grace, Gymnast of the Future (no explanation necessary). Regularly appearing alongside would be ballet melodramas – The Phantom Ballerina or The Dancing Life of Moira Kent or Lisa, the Lonely Ballerina, just three of many. With a quick edit for sexual content, drug use and bad language, Black Swan would have fitted right in. The story of the sidelined ballerina who really really wants to dance but first has to overcome all manner of obstacles, not least her own lack of confidence, Black Swan is pure girls fantasy material and all the ballet clichés are here – the sadism of the life balletic, the bulimia, the controlling parent, the rivalry, bitchiness, the bitter older star, the rapacious choreographer, the lesbianism, perfectionism, and on it goes, one overheated item after another. Natalie Portman is the titular swan, the dancer finally given a shot as principal dancer in Swan Lake, and the movie tracks her progress towards finding her dark side, battling against the low opinion of others (and herself), the jealousy of others, the neuroses of the ballet world. The performances are worth hugging close to your chest – Winona Ryder as the older star just realising it’s all over; Vincent Cassel as the wild choreographer who wants it all; Barbara Hershey as the mad mother winding it all the way up to Joan Crawford; an effortlessly brilliant Mila Kunis as the sexy, confident and utterly untrustworthy friend. It’s a great big rampaging melodrama, the sort of thing Hollywood used to churn out in the 1950s, tear-stained, hilarious (if you’re that way inclined), an allegory for the transition from the fluffy bunnies of youth to the dark nastiness of womanhood. At the end, as Portman gets her chance to become the dark destroying Black Swan and dances for her life in a sequence choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, director Darren Aronofsky cranks up the editing, wheels the camera about and throws in one gothic revelation after another. This finish is highly reminiscent of another great ballet film finale, The Red Shoes, possibly as re-imagined by Douglas Sirk. Aronofsky, two years after another grand guignol peak behind the tatty curtain of public performance/private pain in The Wrestler, has done it again.



Why Watch?


  • A thumping great melodrama
  • Perfect casting, brilliant acting
  • It plays perfectly to and against Portman’s goody-goody image
  • Matthew Libatique’s bravura cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Conspiracy – at Amazon






Jodie Foster in Contact


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



15 March


World Contact Day

Today is World Contact Day. It was declared as such by the International Flying Saucer Bureau in 1953. Since then it has used annually as an opportunity for all those interested in doing so to send a message telepathically to any extraterrestrial alien in space who might be interested in visiting earth. Not to be confused with World UFO Day (24 June or 2 July depending on who you talk to), it was originally intended by “contactees” as a way of establishing not just that entities from other worlds existed, but that they were friendly. The International Flying Saucer Institute was created by a Connecticut gentleman by the name of Albert K Bender in 1952. He shut it down in 1953 after the first World Contact Day, later claiming he had been visited by “men in black” – monsters from the planet Kazik – who had told him the terrifying truth about UFOs. The Canadian band Klaatu (named after the alien from 1951’s When the World Stood Still) would later set to music the message which IFSB members were telepathing – it begins “Calling occupants of interplanetary craft”. Later the Carpenters would cover it and turn into a worldwide hit.




Contact (1997, dir: Robert Zemeckis)

The sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke once said “either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” This attitude of thoughtful inquiry pervades Contact, an unusual sci-fi film about a radio astronomer (Jodie Foster) who has spent her entire professional life scanning the skies for signs of extraterrestrial life. Not that it has been working out too well for her – friends and colleagues think she’s borderline crazy even bothering with the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) program. As for taking it seriously… The reason why she does is complicated. It’s partly a search for the father (David Morse) who died when she was young. It’s partly a search for a god she doesn’t even believe in. These questions of psychology and theology are dotted through the film’s first two thirds, until some sort of contact is made (if that’s a spoiler then you’ve not read the film’s title), and are hashed about by some fine actors (John Hurt as a Howard Hughes-like billionaire, Tom Skerritt as a sceptical co-worker, James Woods and Angela Bassett as the government’s own men in black). But mostly Contact is an opportunity for Foster to put on a display of fierce focus – she does it so well – while the astronomer Carl Sagan’s script wheels out the big concepts and Robert Zemeckis’s cool, lush camera repeatedly suggests that humanity possibly isn’t worth a hill of beans. The love interest subplot with Matthew McConaughey isn’t necessary and towards the final third, which packs in a helluva lot in a short space of time, things do get a bit frenzied and just a touch ridiculous. Yet Jodie Foster’s commitment makes it work. It’s hard to imagine it working so well with anyone else in fact.



Why Watch?


  • Based on Carl Sagan’s book
  • Robert Zemeckis’s gift for FX
  • The support cast is first rate
  • Look out for a young Jena Malone as a young Jodie Foster


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Contact – at Amazon






Melissa George in Triangle


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



4 March



The USS Cyclops disappears, 1918

On this day in 1918, the USS Cyclops disappeared at sea, with a loss of 306 crew and passengers. It remains the single largest naval disaster not involving enemy attack in US history. The ship was carrying manganese, an ingredient in munitions production, and so the suspicion was at the time that the ship had been sunk by the Germans, with whom the US was at war, though this has never been confirmed. The other theory is that the ship encountered a heavy storm after leaving Bahia, Brazil, bound for Baltimore, Maryland. The ship was probably overloaded with manganese ore and had a cracked cylinder in its starboard engine, which rendered the engine unusable. En route for Baltimore she made an unscheduled stop in Barbados, due to water being over the Plimsoll line, indicating overloading. The Cyclops left Barbados on the 4 March and was never seen again. No wreckage was ever found. The sister ships of the Cyclops, the Proteus and the Nereus, also disappeared in similar circumstances, heavily laden with metallic ore, in the North Atlantic during the Second World War. One theory has it that all three ships suffered catastrophic structural failure. Another posits that they were all victims of the Bermuda Triangle.




Triangle (2009, dir: Christopher Smith)

The British director Christopher Smith made a couple of promising pictures – monstered-on-the-London-Underground flick Creep, then monstered-in-the-woods feature Severance – before making this UK/Australian co-production, a monstered-on-the-high-seas movie starring Melissa George, who dons the white T shirt early on to denote that she is going to be “final girl”. Smith, though, is ahead of us, with a story that sticks very close to what we’re expecting before taking off with two unexpected and entirely welcome shunts sideways. The basic plot sees single mum Melissa George parking her autistic kid somewhere (safe? we’re not sure) before heading off for a day’s sailing with friends. The boat hits a terrible storm, capsizes and suddenly the friends find themselves grouped together on the upturned hull of the boat, terrified. Then, from out of nowhere, a hulking old liner passes by and they all get on. No one is on board, Melissa George is pulling the sort of spooked expressions her pillowy lips equip her for and then director/writer Smith pulls the first of his two plot dummies by visiting terrible murder on the assembled gang. I’m not going to say more than that about the plot, except that MG obviously survives – the power of the white T shirt – and that there’s another twist coming which will be sucked up by people who love parallel universes and time-travel paradoxes, an actress who is capable of playing bad, good, bewildered and scared and who have the patience to explain to the ADHD contingent just who is doing what to whom and why at any given moment. Concentrate, in other words. Continuing to tweak genre expectations right to the end, this offbeat sci-fi offering is Smith’s best film to date.



Why Watch?


  • A skilfully plotted film from a talented director
  • Avoids the dreaded green screen and uses real sets when possible
  • On lots of “under-appreciated” films of the year lists
  • An early movie role for Liam Hemsworth


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Triangle – at Amazon





Inland Empire

Laura Dern and fantasy girls in Inland Empire


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



9 February



Carole King born, 1942

On this day in 1942, the singer/songwriter Carole King was born, as Carole Klein, in New York.

A prodigious talent who was playing piano at four, she had formed her own band in high school. Writing songs from her early teens, she was a professional while still in college, where one of her ex boyfriends, Neil Sedaka wrote the hit Oh Carol for her in 1959.

It was however Jerry Goffin she married and went into songwriting partnership with. Together they wrote Take Good Care of My Baby, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow and The Locomotion, among 100 chart hits, including Aretha Franklin’s Natural Woman and James Taylor’s You Got a Friend. Her friendship with Taylor led to her expanding her solo work. After a split from her husband and a move to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, she released her second solo album, Tapestry, in 1971. Marking the high water mark of the early 1970s singer/songwriter boom, the album has sold more than 25 million copies and at the time of writing is still in the Billboard 200.




Inland Empire (2006, dir: David Lynch)

This is it, the last film made by David Lynch, who has since announced his retirement, though he continues to produce adverts for Dior, music videos for the likes of Duran Duran, his intention being to focus on music rather than film-making for now at least.

But it is the perfect Lynchian farewell, a gift for the fans who were hoping for something suitably weird from the director of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. And weird it undoubtedly is, like a film playing very loud in another room down a hotel corridor, and at its centre Laura Dern, who the IMDb insists is playing two character but it seemed to me more like three or four.

And here’s the difficult plot bit: Dern plays a fading actress who lands a part in an overcooked melodrama, discovers that it’s actually an unfinished project and that its original stars were murdered. As she journeys further into the identity of the character and the woman who originally played the part, she increasingly starts to disappear into her own inland empire. I think.

Shot on the hoof with no script, with a camera you could buy for buttons in a supermarket, Inland Empire was literally made up as it went along, Lynch shooting scenes that grabbed his fancy and then stitching them all together in post-production.

So of course it’s chaotic, dreamlike, artificial, infuriating and almost impossible to follow – are we watching Dern as the actress, as the character she’s playing, as the murdered actress, as a strongly imagined fantasy character? They’re all up for grabs.

Giant rabbits feature, would it be a Lynch film if they didn’t? Pop music, 1950s decor, non-sequitur dialogue, uneasy shifts between black and white and colour, between Poland and the USA, grotesque stylisation, foreign languages, Lynch keeps piling on the alienation until, poor viewer, you’re forced to abandon any attempt to wrest meaning from the whole thing and instead become a screen across which Lynch projects his neurotic psychodrama.

And at exactly this point, way way into the three hours that the film runs, it starts to make a sort of schizophrenic sense.



Why Watch?


  • David Lynch’s final film, so he says
  • Jeremy Irons and Justin Theroux’s supporting roles
  • Naomi Watts voices one of the giant rabbits
  • Goffin and King’s The Loco-Motion in an entirely new light


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Inland Empire – at Amazon





The Bourne Identity

Matt Damon and Franka Potente in The Bourne Identity


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



15 January



The Pentagon dedicated, 1943

On this day in 1943 in Arlington Virginia the Pentagon was dedicated.

At the time it was the largest building in the world. The home of the US Department of Defense, it was originally intended to be built on an irregularly pentagonal piece of land at Arlington Farms.

When it was learnt that this location would obstruct the view of Washington DC from Arlington Cemetery, where soldiers fallen in conflicts since the Civil War have been buried, the location was switched to the site of the defunct Washington Hoover Airport.

The design stayed pentagonal but was regularised. For similar reasons of not wishing to overshadow the buildings of the nation’s capital, the building was kept low. In keeping with the pentagon theme the building is five storeys high (there are another two below ground), has 17.5 miles (28.2km) of corridors and twice the number of toilet facilities you’d expect in a building of this size – one set for whites, one for blacks, though this particular piece of segregation was never enforced, thanks to intervention to President Roosevelt, who ordered that the Whites Only signs be taken down.

Similarly ominous is the 5 acre central plaza, nicknamed “ground zero” by staff during the Cold War, because this, they reckoned, was where the Soviet warheads would strike first.

Built during wartime, at a time when the US was abandoning its policy of isolationism, the Pentagon can be seen as the bricks and mortar expression of the country’s move towards a much more active, interventionist foreign policy.




The Bourne Identity (2002, dir: Doug Liman)

The breakthrough action movie of the new millennium, The Bourne Identity had actually been made once before, when it starred Richard Chamberlain as the amnesiac spy trying to work out where, who and what he is, while Jaclyn Smith – then still uppermost in the mind as one of Charlie’s Angels – plays the woman he kidnaps and forces to help him (Franka Potente taking the role in this version).

At around three hours long, thanks to its mini-series status, the original is a touch flabby and this reworking of Robert Ludlum’s original novel cuts out much of the fat to leave a lean chase thriller whose interest comes from watching a man of ingenuity trying to work out just what the hell is going on.

This time around Matt Damon plays Bourne and is well cast as the clean slate whose muscle-memory is tell-taling that there’s more to this guy than just some almost-corpse who’s been dumped at sea.

Who are the bad guys? The ones who threw him overboard? Or maybe the spy’s masters back at the Pentagon, in some shadowy project within a project, who are possibly just as unscrupulous. It’s also neverquite established just where on the evil/virtue scale Jason Bourne lies either. That, too, is part of his quest.

The film works best in its early scenes, when after washing up on a beach, Bourne is taken in by low-level police for questioning, while back in Arlington his masters are attempting to scramble all manner of dark forces when they realise they have a live one.

Director Doug Liman’s camera is working towards the shakycam/fast-cut style that became associated with the Bourne franchise and was copied by almost every other action movie. It’s inspired by the frenetic feel of 1998’s Run Lola Run (which had starred Franka Potente), and Paul Greengrass would supercharge it in the two follow-ups. (The Bourne Legacy, an attempt to continue without Damon and Greengrass isn’t worthy to touch the hem of an amnesiac spy’s garment).

As for support cast, the Chamberlain/Smith original had a few good baddies in it – Peter Vaughan, Denholm Elliott, Anthony Quayle – and this 2002 version keeps up with the idea of using thesps of a high standard and a touch of suaveté, plus a bit of movie-staple British villainy never hurts either. Brian Cox and Clive Owen satisfying the latter category, Chris Cooper and Julia Stiles the former. David Strathairn, Albert Finney and Joan Allen would all arrive at the waterhole in later movies.



Why Watch?


  • The film that rebooted the entire spy thriller genre
  • The film that rebooted Matt Damon’s career
  • The shadowy Treadstone unit is inspired by The Enterprise, set up to organise the Iran-Contra subterfuge
  • The great martial arts fights


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Bourne Identity – at Amazon






Franka Potente, Creep


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



10 January



London Underground opens, 1863

On this day in 1863, the world’s first underground railway opened in London, UK. It was called the Metropolitan Railway and it ran between several significant mainline railway stations – Paddington, Euston and King’s Cross – before terminating at Farringdon in the City of London. It was built to deliver workers to the booming financial and commercial heart of the country and empire, and was necessary because London’s too-numerous railway termini were removed from its centre. When railways had first arrived in the capital, none of the mostly aristocratic owners of central London real estate would countenance a railway station on their land – hence London’s major railway stations’ siting in less salubrious parts of town, on the periphery of the action. The Metropolitan Railway, driven by steam, lit by gas and wooden of carriage, was an instant success and carried 38,000 passengers on its first day. Plans were immediately fast-tracked to connect up other railway stations in London with a grand circular line (of which the Metropolitan Railway would become part). Because of the extreme difficulty of getting anything built in London without approval of influential landowners, much of this original line was built under main roads, using a “cut and cover” technique (dig trench, drop in tunnel using precast sections, cover over). These days London Underground aka the Tube has 270 stations, 55% of which are in fact overground.




Creep (2004, dir: Christopher Smith)

Six years on from Run Lola Run and only two years after The Bourne Identity, Franka Potente is once again being pursued, in this cheap debut feature from writer/director Christopher Smith. Potente plays Kate, though the name isn’t important, since she’s one of very few people actually in this film, which is about a slightly up-herself model booker who, after dropping down into the bowels of London to catch a Tube home after a PR event, starts being pursued by an ungodly creature, something of a cross between Nosferatu, Hellraiser’s Pinhead, and Texas Chainsaw’s Leatherface. What follows is a chase movie set in tunnels, a showcase of techniques by Smith, who demonstrates sound knowledge of J-Horror and early torture porn and shows he’s seen more Hammer horror and giallo than is good for a man. I’m not going to pretend Creep is a great film; it isn’t. In fact some of the acting is way off, and from talent who are usually a lot better. But it is the debut of an extremely interesting horror director – if you’ve seen Smith’s superior “slasher in the woods” follow-up, Severance, or his extremely good multiverse thriller Triangle, then you’ll know this is a writer/director who is worth watching. And though I say this isn’t a great film, it is full of great moments. At the screening where I saw it, a woman next to me periodically started screamed and started jiggling her legs about as if someone had grabbed them. Her boyfriend, meanwhile, was chortling. The attractions of horror explained in a nutshell.



Why Watch?


  • Debut of a great horror writer/director
  • Last “blink and miss him” performance by great British eccentric Ken Campbell
  • Ingeniously cheap
  • Old horror scares presented with a new twist


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Creep – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





Rear Window

James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window


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



8 January



François Grimaldi takes Monaco, 1297

On this day in 1297, dressed as a monk, François Grimaldi (more properly Francesco, since he was Italian) was admitted to the castle at Monaco. Known as Il Malizia, “the cunning”, Grimaldi’s plan was simple – get inside, open the gates and then let his men rush the guards. This he did, and once his men, including his cousin, Rainier, were in he took control. For four years he ruled over Monaco, until he was chased out by the Genoese. He was the first of the Grimaldi clan to try and establish a claim over the territory. On his death, his cousin (and stepson) Rainer became his successor and established the Chateau Grimaldi at nearby Cagnes. The present-day Grimaldis trace their lineage back to Rainier I, though he never held the fortress known as “the Rock”. That honour went to his son, Charles I, who regained control of it in 1331.




Rear Window (1954, dir: Alfred Hitchcock)

The second of three films that Grace Kelly (later Princess of Monaco) would make with Alfred Hitchcock, and the second that would appear in 1954, Rear Window is the go-to film when any discussion of Hitchcock’s voyeurism is on the cards, which it often is. The story of a photographer laid up with a broken leg, who whiles away his time by staring at the apartments opposite through a telephoto lens, it is also becomes a classic tale of Hitchcockian impotence when James Stewart’s Jeff witnesses what he believes was a murder. Whether it was or not forms the crux of the movie, but there’s another focus too – the teasing relationship between Jeff and Lisa (Kelly). She is sweet on him but his behaviour towards her is rather offhand; he’s keeping her at arm’s length, the cool, passive character compared to her hot, active one. While Jeff stares out the rear window over at the apartment of Thorvald (Raymond Burr) who may or may not have killed his wife, the camera stares at Kelly, in a series of swish outfits, pouting, coquettish, and the question forms in our heads – what is wrong with this guy? Why is he so obsessed with what he can see through binoculars, but not with what he could touch right in front of him? And later, combining theme A with theme B about as neatly as it can possibly be done, Hitchcock sends Kelly over to the facing block and inserts her into Jeff’s scopophilic fantasy. Now he’s interested, oh yes. Like a lot of the best movies, Rear Window has a simple, brilliant premise. In terms of cast and sets it’s simplicity itself. And as a metaphor for the theory that cinema is essentially a voyeuristic experience it’s near perfect too.



Why Watch?


  • Better than Rope or Lifeboat, this is Hitchcock’s best “one set” film
  • The restoration is a marvel, having brought a near-perished film back to life
  • Voyeurism in all its thrilling seediness
  • Better than the not-bad Christopher Reeve remake, or the Shia LaBeouf knock-off, Disturbia


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Rear Window – at Amazon





The Usual Suspects

Pete Postlethwaite, Stephen Baldwin and Gabriel Byrne in The Usual Suspects


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



2 January



Pete Postlethwaite dies, 2011

On this day in 2011, aged 64, the actor Pete Postlethwaite died of pancreatic cancer. It had been diagnosed in March 2009. Postlethwaite had already survived cancer once, having been diagnosed of testicular cancer in 1990, which went into remission after he had a testicle removed. An actor simultaneously of great force and nuance, Postlethwaite’s relatively uncommon name marks his family down as having originated in Postlethwaite in Cumbria, England (the name means Postle’s Farm). His relatively uncommon looks – huge bony cheekbones, honest putty nose, angry skin – were matched by his trajectory into acting. He was a drama teacher before becoming a repertory actor at the Liverpool Everyman and only came to film roles relatively late. But once he got noticed – most notably in Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives – he was off. Soon he was playing small parts in the biggest films (Jurassic Park), big parts in smaller films (In the Name of the Father) and anchored British classics such as Brassed Off, or Hollywood experimenta, such as Romeo + Juliet. However he is probably most fiercely, cultishly remembered by lovers of The Usual Suspects, where he brought a touch of mystery to the role of Kobayashi, the right hand man of the even more mysterious Hungarian mobster Keyser Soze. That he managed to stand out in an ensemble of scenery chewers/scene stealers such as Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Chazz Palminteri and Kevin Spacey probably says all that needs to be said about Postlethwaite’s ability to do the “presence” thing.




The Usual Suspects (1995, dir: Bryan Singer)

The Usual Suspects is one of those generational movies, like Heathers, or Apocalypse Now or The Social Network, that are seized first by people of a certain age, but whose greatness takes a while for others to appreciate. Roger Ebert didn’t like it much when he first saw it. He didn’t like the fact that the film was withholding information, and when it did finally show its hand, he didn’t much like what he saw. Fair enough. But so much of The Usual Suspects is not about what is revealed but in the way it is revealed. And by whom – five villains, five different stories about a hijacking in New York, all of them plausible, kind of. If the acting calls for actors with downbeat faces, or careers, or both, the template is straight from one of those old 1940s film noirs – The Big Sleep, perhaps – which deliberately weave and re-weave a plot until it becomes a mess of tangles. Drop into this the character of Keyser Soze, a man of mystery, a Turkish drugs baron so insanely committed to his trade as a gangster that when his children are kidnapped by rival mobsters, he kills them himself on the way through to get to the bad guys. Then he kills them, their wives, their children and still he isn’t satisfied. Or that, at least, is the story that’s told about him. Soze operates off screen, and the very fact that no two people can even pronounce his name the same suggests he might exist only as a legend, possibly. Is Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite), Soze’s attorney, really Soze himself? Might be. But then so could any of the “suspects”. But then so could Chazz Palminteri too, playing one of those hat-brim world-weary detective that the 1940s noirs loved so much. The film was the second collaboration of director Bryan Singer (X-Men, Valkyrie) and writer Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun, Jack Reacher), two men who understand smart, funny and violent, and the way each can be enhanced by the other. Sure, there’s more than a wave to Quentin Tarantino in there, in the way that The Usual Suspects mixes violence and comedy. It’s in the big “ahaa” reveal, when all is kind of explained, that it becomes clear what a smart movie The Usual Suspects is too.



Why Watch?


  • Singer and McQuarrie’s best work
  • Great ensemble playing by a bunch of actors chosen because they, like the characters they are playing, are on the skids
  • Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel (Three Kings, Drive)
  • To answer the “who is Keyser Soze?” question


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Usual Suspects – at Amazon