Hours

The meet cute: Paul Walker and Genesis Rodriguez in Hours

 

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

 

 

29 August

 

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

On this day in 2005, Hurricane Katrina touched down for the second time in Louisiana, USA.

The seventh most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded up to that point (three of the other six were also from the 2005 hurricane season), it was the costliest natural disaster the country has ever had to bear.

The hurricane had formed to the south east of the Bahamas on 23 August 2005, at which point it was termed a tropical depression. By the next morning it had developed into a tropical storm, and was given the name Katrina. As it moved towards Florida it gained in intensity, becoming a hurricane just two hours before it arrived between Hallandale Beach and Aventura.

It weakened over land, but once it was back over the Gulf of Mexico it picked up strength, growing from a category 3 to category 5 in nine hours. This unusually rapid speed of development was down to the unusually warm waters in the Gulf at the time.

At its peak, on 28 August, Hurricane Katrina was producing sustained wind speeds of 175mph (280kmh).

Its second touchdown was its most destructive. In all it killed 1,833 people. Many of the deaths happened in New Orleans, Louisiana, where the levee system designed to keep flood water away from the city failed, resulting in around 80% of the city flooding.

 

 

 

Hours (2013, dir: Eric Heisserer)

The saddest thing about Hours is that it came out just after its star, Paul Walker, had died. Sad because he’s very good in it, a revelation after becoming an increasing irrelevance in the Fast and Furious films, especially once Dwayne Johnson had arrived, a more obvious opposite number to Vin Diesel, giving Walker little to do except mutter “what he said” now and again.

Hours shows a between-projects slightly paunchy Walker trying to regain control of his career, in a small film that probably cost buttons to make and which requires him to actually act. He pulls it off. And in case you think this is fanboy talk, I never really rated him.

So, the plot: Walker plays a guy in New Orleans who loses his wife in childbirth. Then Katrina hits, the hospital’s power goes out and everyone is evacuated. Except for Walker and his new premature child, too delicate to move and inside a respirator with its own power source.

Except that the power source goes out and the respirator is now on a battery backup. Then that starts to malfunction. And the baby’s drip runs out. And so on.

Jeopardy, in other words, one new challenge after another for the man to solve or else his baby dies. This is what they call “stakes”, I believe, and Walker plays it well and for real. And largely in semi-darkness. Though we have seen him in the full light of day – in flashback scenes that show him and the baby’s mother meet-cuting, courting, falling in love, and so on. They’re lovely scenes, between Walker and Genesis Rodriguez, and if the stories are true that they were an item, it’s easy to believe (and makes the film even more poignant).

A couple of doctors (until they leave), Genesis Rodriguez and enough people to make up a dinner party for one scene, a couple of bad guys who arrive later on to add more jeopardy when Walker’s travails with machinery, power supply and medication are threatening to yield diminished returns, there really isn’t a very big cast for this film. And the set – a couple of rooms and an empty corridor. Lighting – barely.

Which means that the onus falls on Walker, who rises to the challenge, occasionally being a bit actorly, it’s true, but behaving for the most part as you’d expect a man in the situation to do – taking on responsibility, trying to keep panic at bay.

Eric Heisserer’s script does something similar, getting a bit Hollywood-melodramatic here and there, particularly at the end (no spoilers) which goes all out for a big finish, which it has entirely earned. But on the whole it’s a clever and tight piece of work that does an awful lot with very little – a high concept piece, in fact.

Hours isn’t a big film, but it is a good one. And that, at the end of the day (particularly at the end of the day) is really all you want.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of Paul Walker’s best (and last) films
  • A fine directing debut by Eric Heisserer
  • A screenplay that builds jeopardy expertly
  • Jaron Presant’s low-key cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Hours – Watch it now at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

I Come with the Rain

Josh Hartnett

 

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

 

 

23 August

 

Beginning of the Philippine Revolution, 1896

On this day in 1896, the Cry of Pugad Lawin, or Balintawak, took place. It marked the opening phase of the revolution in the Philippines against Spanish colonial rule, and refers to the skirmish between the Katipunan secret society – under Andres Bonifacio – and the Civil Guard loyal to the colonising power. The actual date of the “Cry” is disputed; it used to be officially marked on 26 August but since 1963 has been officially remembered on this day, when Katipuneros gathered in the Kalookan area and tore up their tax certificate, a “no taxation without representation” moment, to the accompaniment of patriotic cries to revolt. The “cry” itself (“grito” in Spanish) refers to the act of declaration – whether it is vocal, written or even psychological – and marks the “enough is enough” Rubicon that separates a law-abiding citizen from one who is determined to act against their oppressor. By 1898, Spanish military rule had officially ended in the Philippines. By 1902, the Philippines had fought and lost a war against the USA and had fallen under a new colonial power.

 

 

 

I Come with the Rain (2009, dir: Tran Anh Hung)

This is a recommendation for a very messy film, but one packed with such tantalising ingredients that it’s really worth a look. Or feasting your eyes on, because it’s that sort of film too. And it stars Hollywood’s own Josh Hartnett – who after the romantic comedy 40 Days and Nights in 2002 seemed to decide that he’d go off and plough a lonelier furrow than the one Hollywood had in mind. Well, here it is – long, deep and windy and very lonely, a thriller by the arthouse Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, shot largely in the Philippines but set largely in Hong Kong, and starring Hartnett – one of the few Western faces – as a detective heading to Hong Kong to find an heir to a Big Pharma corporation. When he gets there he learns that the son has become a faith healer who is literally taking on the diseases of all who attend his mobbed clinic, and is breaking out in stigmatic bleeding as he does so. Can the detective find him or will a local gangster (Lee Byung-hun) looking for his beautiful drug-addict girlfriend (Tran Nu Yen Khe) get there first?
The hunt for a charismatic leader who has built a new society with himself installed as a kind of Christ, this sounds like Apocalypse Now, to a degree, and Tran goes along with the notion, throwing in Elias Koteas as a babbling madman, explaining, excusing, mythologising, muddying the plot as a serial killer anchored in Los Angeles, which surely means he has no real connection to the rest of the film. The film also is like that, deliberately messing with space, logic and timelines in an attempt to lock-step with the messianic supernatural side of things.
Don’t expect to always understand what’s going on, in other words, and you’re also going to have to roll over and accept the massive and repeated use of sheer coincidence as a plot device. But some things are abundantly clear. We have no problem knowing who the bad guys are, for instance. We also cannot fail to be impressed with the visual beauty of the film, which astonishes at every turn, almost every shot composed in terms of colour, composition, light/shade and camera movement with a meticulousness which must have been maddening for anyone other than Tran. Some of the violence is bravura stuff that has already made its way into other more mainstream films. The scene where a victim is encouraged to get into a body bag, before he is beaten to death with a hammer while zipped inside. Neat and tidy brutality, that’s the way to do it, and with a metaphysical ironic joke for fun. Then there’s the car chase – the director of the achingly lambent Scent of Green Papaya showing he’s not just a pretty scenarist with a high speed chase in reverse. The scene where a bad guy shoots someone’s dog then uses it as a cudgel to beat its owner (yes, that’s the same ironic idea as the body bag, but let’s award marks for variety).
It’s a weird film, a beautiful one and, ladies and bents, Mr Hartnett takes his shirt off a lot to add a further layer of entertainment that Tran’s camera or the Radiohead soundtrack haven’t already provided.
I’d gone into this film having heard it was lousy and was shocked at how good it is. Not perfect but messy, as I say, or “a baroque action film” as Tran describes it. Most cop movies are about the imposition of order on chaos. Tran’s not sure it’s that simple.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Hartnett on the road less travelled
  • The cinematography of Juan Ruiz Anchía
  • Gustavo Santaolalla’s soundtrack (with Radiohead assists)
  • Koteas’s mad Taxi Driver-meets-Marlon Brando performance

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

I Come with the Rain – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Killer Joe

Matthew McConaughey and Juno Temple in Killer Joe

 

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

 

 

18 August

 

Lolita published, 1958

If you’re looking for a start date for the 1960s, you could do a lot worse than this: 18 August 1958, when Vladimir Nabokov’s novel was first published in the USA. Detailing the love of a middle aged literature professor for a 12-year-old girl, whom he has nicknamed Lolita, it had first been finished in 1953, but was turned down for publication by a string of publishing houses, finally seeing light of day only after Olympia Press in France, a publisher of pornography, printed it in 1955. In spite of its low key debut, it sold like crazy, and by the end of the year it had been praised by Graham Greene as one of the best books of the year. At this point customs officials in the UK were ordered to seize all copies entering the country. It was then banned in France too. On 18 August the controversial publisher GP Putnam’s Sons published it in the USA. Within three days it had gone into its third printing. Within three weeks it had sold 100,000 copies.

 

 

 

Killer Joe (2011, dir: William Friedkin)

As dumb families go, the Smiths take some beating. There’s Chris (Emile Hirsch), his stupid dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his dumb sister Dottie (Juno Temple) who want their estranged wife/mother dead so they can claim on the insurance money – something about a drugs debt. So they hire full-time cop and part-time hitman Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to do it, a man of slow-poke speech patterns, old world manners and dead eyes. Joe wants a “retainer” and, being dumb, the family goes along with the idea, until they realise that they don’t have any money. That’s why they want mom dead, after all. Joe suggests that instead of cash he’ll have Dottie, who has been dancing around the house braless in a T shirt while the negotiating has been going on and hasn’t been looking bad at all.
All this is set-up, and anyone who has seen William Friedkin’s The Exorcist will know that he’s good at laying out a trail of crumbs, luring us in and then … wham! What he’s setting us up for is entirely in spoiler territory, but let’s just say that Killer Joe spends the last two thirds of the film playing with this family who think they are running the gig, torturing them in one way or another, humiliating them, at one point making Ansel’s new wife (Gina Gershon) fellate a piece of fried chicken in a scene that will stick like crumb in the throat.
What sort of a film is it, that’s the question. An incendiary drama is how it’s usually described, but I reckon it’s a comedy, this family are simply too bone stupid to be the point of identification – they’re not “relatable”. It’s easier to relate to Joe. He’s suave and smart, horrible, for sure, but is only dishing out what this bunch of retards and potential proxy murderers, let’s not forget, have coming. Joe is an agent of natural justice. And the jaunty exit song, as the final credits roll, seems to be nudging the audience towards that interpretation too.
As for the acting. Well, this is one of the films that went towards the “McConaissance” of Matthew McConaughey. Two years before it was the dreck of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Two years later it was an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, having been impressive in The Paperboy, Mud and Magic Mike along the way. Hirsch and Haden Church are, you know, OK. They do what they have to do. It’s Gina Gershon as the slutty spanner-mouthed Sharla who impresses whenever Juno Temple isn’t holding the floor, her Dottie all Lolita eyed and girlie voiced, and swinging her breasts about in ways designed to madden and delight.
No, as a piece of Southern fried gothic, a pale Tennessee Williams drama of inadequate men and women undone by their sexuality, it just won’t do. But as a very dark comedy that never cracks a smile, Killer Joe is mighty fine indeed.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Juno Temple’s great performance
  • Part of the McConaissance
  • An interesting film from an interesting director
  • Is it a comedy?

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Killer Joe – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Snakes on a Plane

Samuel L Jackson in Snakes on a Plane

 

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

 

 

12 August

 

Cleopatra kills herself, 30BC

On this day in 30BC, Cleopatra VII Philopator, last pharaoh of ancient Egypt, killed herself. She was the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes and at first ruled alongside him, later ruling alongside her brothers Ptolemy XIII and XIV, the latter of whom she married. The Ptolemaic dynasty had its origins in Greece, the original Ptolemey having been one of Alexander the Great’s generals. The Ptolemaic era marked the decline of Greece and the ascent of Rome and one of Cleopatra’s strategic couplings was to have a son with Julius Caesar, who became co-ruler with her after her husband/brother Ptolemy mysteriously died of poisoning. Julius Caesar had met his end around the same time, so Cleopatra then aligned herself with Mark Antony, and bore him three children. But with Mark Antony she had chosen the losing side. Because in the struggle for a successor to Caesar, he lost out to Augustus (aka Octavian) and was defeated in battle at Actium. As a result Mark Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra followed her husband (who was incidentally already married to Octavian’s sister), clasping an asp to her bosom, as tradition has it. Her son, Caesarion, briefly tried to become pharaoh but was killed on Octavian’s orders. Egypt became a province of Rome.

 

 

 

Snakes on a Plane (2006, dir: David R Ellis)

Snakes on a Plane is a slightly bigger budgeted version of the sort of film that the SyFy channel churn out for buttons – Sharknado, Frankenfish, Dinocroc vs Supergator – where the accent is on fun and cheesy special effects are all part of the package. And if you’ve got a fading celebrity on board, then so much the better. No such thing here, though, since it’s Samuel L Jackson, very much still riding the wave that Quentin Tarantino got going with Pulp Fiction in 1994, who’s the main man here. He’s playing the badass cop taking a witness to a trial, a witness whose death in transit would be very much appreciated by the accused. Enter the snakes, and exit pretty much any remaining contact with reality. The set-up is borrowed entirely from 1970s disaster movies – we meet a bunch of people: the honeymooners, the uptight Brit, the mile-high couple, the kickboxers, the bimbo stewardesses, the gay steward. Some of them will make it, most of them won’t, and Samuel L will say “motherfuckin’” a hell of a lot.
There is no need to go into more plot than I’ve just laid out, with this film the title is the plot. In fact it’s almost the whole film, once the snakes get loose and start getting busy. One tiny detail – the snakes have been exposed to some gas which makes them extremely violent. “Well that’s good news… snakes on crack,” says Samuel L. Though Jackson looks like he’s doing his scenes in between shooting something else (he was making between five and ten films a year at this point, so it figures), his line readings are never less than brilliant – the notorious “Right, that’s it. I’ve had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane” being the motherlode, the line that got the internet jangling and sold the last few pre-bookings that hadn’t already been sold on the title alone.
The good news is that there is a tiny bit more going on, gratuitous sexual wounding, for example. One early victim gets a snake zonking straight onto her tit. A guy taking a leak gets one… yes, he does. More good news is that there isn’t a big message hiding in there somewhere, apart from the “if we all just pull together we might just beat this” which some overheated souls will see as socialism, but there’s not much anyone can do about that.
It’s dumb, it’s fun, you can half-watch and it still makes sense. Sometimes it’s exactly the sort of movie you want, when you’re tired, the pizza is really top notch and the beer is cold and you’re thirsty.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Samuel L Jackson – a tour de force
  • Dumb, but not stupid
  • Funny
  • All the right people die

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Snakes on a Plane – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Fifty Dead Men Walking

Ben Kingsley and Jim Sturgess in Fifty Dead Men Walking

 

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

 

 

7 August

 

Mata Hari born, 1876

On this day in 1876, a woman was born who became so famous as a spy that her name is still synonymous with sexy female treachery. Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in the Netherlands and died in front of a firing squad in Paris 41 years later. As a child she had been well educated by her well-to-do parents, but the family fortunes crumbled along with her parents’ marriage and by the age of 13 Margaretha was shuttling between relatives. At 18 she married an officer in the Dutch colonial army and moved to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia today). The marriage was not successful but Margaretha learnt to dance in the Indonesian style, joined a dance troupe and took the name Mata Hari. The family moved back to the Netherlands, where the marriage finally fell apart and Margaretha moved to Paris and joined a circus as a horse rider, later adding exotic dancing to her repertoire. She also assumed the identity of Mata Hari full time, passing herself off as a Javanese princess. By the time war broke out Mata Hari’s dancing career was over and she was better known as the mistress of various wealthy men. Being a neutral Netherlander she was able to travel freely during the war, and it was always assumed she was a spy. The British believed she was a French spy. The French however believed she was a German spy and, having intercepted messages which they believed identified Mata Hari as a spy with the code name H-21, arrested her in the Hotel Elysée Palace. She was tried, found guilty and shot by firing squad on 15 October 1917.

 

 

 

Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008, dir: Kari Skogland)

A true story told from the perspective of the man who lived it, a man who is still in hiding, somewhere in Canada if the stories are true. The man is Martin McGartland, who was a feisty young Catholic lad in the 1970s when he was recruited by the British Special Branch to do some spying for them. He’s spying against the IRA, “his people”, though the cocksure Martin isn’t really that into all the IRA stuff, since it puts a damper on his own freedom. To him, paramilitaries, of whatever stripe, are a plague. This is a film about McGartland (Jim Sturgess) and his handler Fergus (Ben Kingsley), about how a fairly normal, uninvolved young man gets drawn into the Special Branch’s orbit and becomes so deeply involved in “the struggle” that he must rue the day he first took the bait. We don’t need to know McGartland’s motivation. Maybe it was just curiosity. But once he’s in we know it: his handlers will expose him if he tries to back out. The only way out is to keep burrowing deeper.
Jim Sturgess, an actor who struggles in the wrong role (see One Day for evidence), is in his element here, playing McGartland as a very wary man in a performance that is superficially understated yet is robust enough to stand up to Ben Kingsley in a series of intense one-on-one scenes in which Special Branch Fergus coaxes and bullies the increasingly nervous McGartland to do his bidding. Matching Kingsley in any film is no mean feat; here it’s heroic. The film’s dramatic masterstroke is to keep this as a two-sided cat-and-mouse thriller. The other paramilitaries, the Unionists, don’t feature at all, which has the effect of depoliticising events to a great extent – we’re simply watching a mole and wondering how/when/if he’s going to get caught. Director Kari Skogland lays on the kneecappings, the beatings and the injustices early on, so we understand that it’s a dirty business. More than that, we understand the danger that McGartland is in. Skogland also has a good eye for atmosphere, procedure and the telling detail, the food and drink of any thriller. The casting of Rose McGowan might seem to work against this artistic decision to “keep it real” but she is in fact entirely convincing as an IRA babe who also might or might not be working for the British as a “Mata Hari”, as Fergus puts it.
Thematically and in terms of texture, Fifty Dead Men Walking is similar to Shadowdancer, and it got pretty much the same reception critically. Which is to say a bit “meh”. Is this because it doesn’t try to hammer home a message, doesn’t seem overly interested in good guy/bad guy dynamics? Quite probably. I find that to be one of its many strengths, though I could have done with a bit less of the melodrama and the shading into City of God-style dramatic lighting towards the end. The film doesn’t need it.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A really good Jim Sturgess performance
  • 1970s Northern Ireland convincingly caught
  • It’s morally complex
  • An unusual spy thriller

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Fifty Dead Men Walking – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

The Machine Girl

Asami and Minase Yashiro in The Machine Girl

 

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

 

 

25 July

 

Gavrilo Princip born, 1894

On this day in 1894, the man who started the First World War was born, in Obljaj, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to a family of serf farmers, Serbian Orthodox Christians.

Gavrilo Princip didn’t go to school till he was nine, but was bright and a quick learner. His brother, sensing a family member who could lift the entire clan out of poverty, encouraged Gavrilo to move to Sarajevo when he was 13, using money earned as a manual labourer to put his younger brother through merchant school.

Gavrilo became a passionate campaigner for Yugoslavian unification and against the rule of the Austro-Hungarians. Thrown out of school for political agitating, Gavrilo tried to join the Black Hand, one of the foremost Serbian guerrilla bands trying to rid the country of its imperial rulers. But they wouldn’t have him, on account of his size and puniness. However he did manage to join the Serbian Chetnik Organisation and was trained in bomb-making, swordsmanship and shooting.

With tensions rising in the area, the Austro-Hungarians declared a state of emergency in Sarajevo, which propelled Gavrilo and fellow conspirators towards the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor.

The attempt, on the morning of 28 June 1914, was a catalogue of failure, with none of the six assassins managing to hit their target. However, by a complete fluke, Princip happened upon the Archduke’s car as he made his way across town later. In fact it stalled right in front of him, giving him a shot on target from around 1.5m (5 feet).

His bullets killed both the Archduke and his wife.

 

 

 

The Machine Girl (2008, dir: Noboru Igushi)

Before the opening credits on The Machine Girl have even rolled we’ve met our heroine, Ami, a slip of a girl in a school uniform who has saved a young boy from menacing thugs by blowing them away with what looks like a First World War machine gun, apparently an extension of her arm. But not blown away just any old how. She does it by dismantling their heads bit by bit with a targeted line of bullets, fountains of blood gushing into the air, flops of gore hitting the camera lens.
The credits out of the way, the mood established, we roll backwards in time to discover how a nice meek Japanese miss became a ruthless bloodthirsty killer. Revenge is the answer, for the death of her brother, though really the plot is not the thing in this patchwork of grindhouse and anime held together with blood, gore and an eye for the absurd.

Here’s how she lost her arm: Ami went to the house of the bully who was tormenting her brother, to speak to his parents. They responded by deep-frying her arm. “It’s hot,” she observes. “It fried up nicely,” they reply.

And this is just where the madness is getting going, about 30 minutes in, once the framework of a plot has been established on which to hang the festoons of offal that follow.

How about a chef being fed a sushi of human fingers? Or a father being given a hair conditioner made of his son’s blood? (Is it any surprise to learn that the director used to churn out enema fetish videos?)

But unlike many more western stabs into this territory – the Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse experiments being the most high profile – The Machine Girl never lets on that it’s comedy.

This is all the more impressive when you consider that its lead character, Minase Yashiro, youthful “gravure idol” (a pin-up, basically), is making her debut, and never goes further than offering a hint of panty to satisfy the, let’s face it, largely male audience.

At various points the amputation does get a bit too much, but then the director rescues the film with another moment of bravura slaughter, climaxing in a finale that does special things with a bra the likes of which you probably won’t have seen before.

It’s a comic book collection of offcuts, a resource book of nastiness for Hollywood magpies to pick over, the deliberate 1970s production values, wilfully bad syncing, obviously poorly staged fights all adding to the sense that we’re being entertained as much by Iguchi’s (and our own) sense of cinema history as by the film itself. Those Female Convict Scorpion films of the 1970s have a lot to answer for.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A kickass debut by Minase Yashiro
  • One of the most inventive gore feasts you will see
  • The brilliant practical special effects
  • The Japanese return the Grindhouse compliment

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Machine Girl – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Canyons

Lindsay Lohan in The Canyons

 

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

 

 

22 July

 

Paul Schrader born, 1946

Today in 1946, the writer, critic and director Paul Schrader was born, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. The son of Calvinist parents, he was brought up strictly and didn’t see a film until he was 17. He studied theology, then went on to do film studies at UCLA Film School, having met the famous critic Pauline Kael by accident en route and become one of her critic protégés. His first screenplay, co-written with his brother Leonard, was The Yakuza, and became the most expensive script ever written. Next he wrote Obsession for Brian De Palma and Taxi Driver for Martin Scorsese. Not a bad one, two, three. Schrader’s debut as a director came with 1978’s Blue Collar, and he followed that up with Hardcore, based on his own Calvinist background. Since Schrader’s sensational debut he has continued to write (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Affliction) and direct (Patty Hearst, Touch, The Walker, Adam Resurrected), his films often touching cultural hot-button issues, often dealing intensely in guilt, redemption and the difficulty of doing the right thing in a bad world.

 

 

 

The Canyons (2013, dir: Paul Schrader)

The Canyons is a work of douchebag genius, Paul Schrader’s best film since god knows when also generating publicity headlines because of the presence of Lindsay Lohan in the cast. In the fickle up and down of public taste – as gauged by the highly selective mass media – Lohan had become a pariah, a laughing stock, when the film debuted, a “train wreck”. So the film got sidelined and Lohan’s brilliant, gutting performance got ignored. And she’s playing close to home too, as the ingénue on the outer rings of Hollywood who’s hooked up with some trustafarian asshole (James Deen, of porn star fame) hoping he’ll get her some gig somewhere, anywhere.
Schrader ushers us into the action having first shown us a series of stills of abandoned movie theatres. We’re living in a post-cinema world, seems to be the idea, before Schrader embarks on a genre of movie straight from the high water mark of cinematic culture – film noir. Tara (Lohan) used to be in a relationship with Ryan (Nolan Funk), but dumped him to be with Christian (name surely ironic, played by Deen), who now suspects that she has taken up with Ryan again (because she has) and is having her tailed, him tailed, everyone involved tailed, is reading her phone messages, and so on. That’s all the plot anyone needs to know.
If no one likes a porn star trying to go straight, then Schrader has cast the dubiously talented Deen perfectly, because he’s playing a nasty piece of work, someone who’s basically a psychopath who’s been kept out of real trouble by his cushion of wealth. Total control is Christian’s game, hence the most attention grabbing sections of the film, when he routinely invites random good looking people over for sex with him and Tara.
We see it all – in close-up his cock, her swinging breasts and corned beef legs (Lohan so suddenly middle aged for one so young), and further back the drinks by the pool, the swish cars. Whether Tara is going to carry on being a hostage to her own greed, wants to be a pampered pet or her own woman is ultimately what the entire film revolves around, Bret Easton Ellis’s screenplay a-bristle with deadpanning morality.
Schrader knows his films and his film-makers and his careful choice of old Hollywood locations means there’s always a hint of Sunset Boulevard in the mix – the Billy Wilder flick about Hollywood’s dark side that had Louis B Mayer so incensed he wanted Wilder tarred, feathered and horsewhipped. And the casting of Lohan is iconic too, since she’s the direct heir of Elizabeth Taylor at her peak – wanton, mascara-streaked, uncontrollable and on her day the best actress about. This is Lohan’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and if Taylor was then playing a spitfire drunk whose marriage (on-screen and off-screen to co-star Richard Burton) was on the rocks, then this peak behind the celebrity pages at a young woman who is told by her dominating boyfriend that “no one has a private life any more” is a case of same-same.
If you don’t like sleaze, you won’t like this film’s 1980s porn vibe. But even with an Easton Ellis script it’s undoubtedly a Schrader film – full of acid energy with the possibility of redemption as its key. Once a Calvinist…

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A brilliant Lohan performance
  • Hollywood’s underbelly
  • Too good for Sundance and SXSW, among many
  • A notorious movie

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Canyons – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Shadow Dancer

Andrea Riseborough in Shadow Dancer

 

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

 

 

19 July

 

IRA declare ceasefire, 1997

On this day in 1997, the Provisional Irish Republican Army declared that hostilities with Britain were over. It had come into being, in its modern form, in 1969 after increasing unrest over campaigns for more civil rights for Catholics had resulted in the mass deployment of the British Army in Northern Ireland. There had been several ceasefires before, most recently in 1994 when secret talks between the IRA and the British government had led to negotiations about proper talks to secure a settlement. When the British government announced that it wouldn’t go into talks with Sinn Fein (seen as the political wing of the IRA, though becoming increasingly distant from it) until the IRA disarmed, the IRA responded by calling off the ceasefire. A new government in 1997, one that didn’t need the votes of Ulster Unionists (who were against any compromise in Northern Ireland) to sustain itself, changed the mood again and the ceasefire was reinstated on this day in 1997. The ceasefire remained in place until the IRA later declared that it had given up the armed struggle and would work for its political aim of a united Ireland “exclusively through peaceful means”.

 

 

 

Shadow Dancer (2012, dir: James Marsh)

Written by Tom Bradby, an ITN reporter who cut his teeth in Northern Ireland, Shadow Dancer is rich in detail and drenched in the ambience of the time, when an askance look, talking to the wrong person, not being enthusiastic enough about the cause could all get you killed. Bradby’s elegant script and James Marsh’s direction brilliantly set up in a few minutes what many films can’t do in 90 – showing us how the violence of one generation is passed on to the next in a simple scene of a young girl called Collette witnessing her brother being shot and killed in 1970s Northern Ireland. The action then cuts to London in 1993, where Collette, now all grown up and embodied by Andrea Riseborough, is picked up by police after trying to leave a bomb on the Tube in London. Enter Clive Owen in another of his slick “operative” roles, as the MI5 man using charm and naked threat to make Collette become an informer. It’s an offer she can’t refuse. The trap is set.
But when is it going to spring? That’s the coil of tension hanging over Shadow Dancer, which takes the spy thriller genre and does strange things with it. For one thing the mechanics that drive more Hollywood ventures – precise plotting and procedure – is replaced by sheer naked luck. In Shadow Dancer things work out quite often not because of the planning or derring-do but because fate somewhere flipped a coin and it came out heads. Victory also goes to the guy who can think on his or her feet. This insistence on the ad hoc nature of fate is matched by the look of the film – shabby, in a word, whether it is the MI5 offices full of hulking old computers, thick with cigarette smoke, or back in Northern Ireland, where prosperity always lagged way behind the rest of the UK. Nasty particulars also drum up an atmosphere: for instance the scene where hard men casually line a room with plastic sheeting before any questions have even been asked of the person they want to have “a chat” to – it’s going to get bloody.
And there’s the always excellent Riseborough as a very peculiar sort of spy, one who is working against her own people, an IRA woman whose had too much of the Troubles but still isn’t entirely ready to quit. And because Riseborough plays it absolutely straight – to her fellow actors rather than the audience – we’re unsure how far Collette is prepared to take her collaboration with MI5. This lack of a firm handle on the motivation of Collette’s character is possibly what made the film less of an instant sell to some people. Is Collette a good guy or a bad guy? Come to that, what draws a man like Mac (Owen) to a trade like this? And is his boss, tough nut Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson) really the iron maiden she appears? Bradby’s script withholds, withholds, withholds, asking us to raise an “undecided” flag against nearly every character in the film, until finally as it deals out the final card, all becomes semi-clear, and we say “ahaa”. And then it all goes cloudy again – the fog of war swirls back in.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Andrea Riseborough’s performance
  • Tom Bradby’s great script
  • Real atmosphere of the place/time
  • Yves Angelo’s deliberately drab cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Shadow Dancer – Watch it now at Amazon