The Hunter

Willem Dafoe takes aim in The Hunter

 

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

 

 

 

9 July

 

 

 

Queen Victoria creates Australia, 1900

On this day in 1900, the world’s sixth largest country was created by the Empress of India, Queen Victoria. It had of course existed since it broke away from Gondwana around 150-180 million years ago, and had been inhabited by various groups of indigenous “Australians” for at least 40,000 years. And collectively the landmass had been called Australia, or a variant on it, since before it had even been discovered – the Terra Australis Incognita (Unknown Land of the South) of legend. But Australia had never existed as a political entity. Starting out initially as just one colony in New South Wales, it had grown piecemeal to become five self-governing Crown colonies. On 9 July 1900 Royal Assent was given to an act formally uniting the colonies into one federal government, which took power on 1 January 1901.

 

The Hunter (2011, dir: Daniel Nettheim)

There are a lot of great reasons to like The Hunter, but the way director Daniel Nettheim builds and sustains tension has to be the main one. It’s a real “who is this man, what is he doing, and is he going to get out alive” thriller that drops us in to its story and lets us work things out for ourselves.

Some things we do know. We know that Willem Dafoe plays the shadowy “hunter” Martin, a man with a high-velocity rifle hired by a shady organisation to go and kill a Tasmanian Tiger, an animal reputed to already be extinct. And, er, that’s about it. No, hang on, the shadowy organisation wants some bit of the animal, so it can take its DNA and do something with it, something despicable, we guess. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is the man, the gun and the fact that at some point, if Martin doesn’t get the results that the mysterious Red Leaf outfit want, then he’s probably going to become extinct himself.

The quest, the struggle, is elemental, almost prehistoric, and Nettheim and Dafoe spend a lot of time putting us on the hunter’s side, introducing us slowly to Martin, showing us his skill as a hunter – saturating his clothes with wood smoke so the animals won’t smell him coming, for example. The film is similarly saturated with flavour and relationships. For a loner travelling incognito Martin gets about a bit – striking up an increasingly intimate relationship with a pretty mother (Frances O’Connor) and her children (including the remarkable Morgana Davies), or a more prickly one with the semi-affable local guide Jack (Sam Neill). As for the locals, a bitter and foul-mouthed bunch of dirt-poor yokels who don’t much go for the fancy ways of an outsider, they have a hickory pungency that adds to the sense of threat.

Peel back the flaps and the structure is Apocalypse Now or something biblical – the lone man going up a mountain in search of something mythical. But it’s a muddy Apocalypse Now, and we’re never quite sure if Martin is a good guy, though Dafoe’s wise broad face leads us to suggest there might be goodness in there. Possibly. This not-quite-knowingness is the film’s strongest suit, and Nettheim and writer Alice Addison tease us with genre expectations too – the tension of a thriller, the deferred money shot of a quest film, the tease of a fledgling romance, the threat of a borderland quasi-western, the righteousness of the eco-drama. Which will come out on top? Will Martin survive? Does the Tasmanian Tiger even exist? What is going on? Nettheim keeps us hanging on right to the very end.

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The primordial cinematography of Robert Humphreys
  • A performance of psychological nuance by Dafoe
  • The Tasmania settings
  • Morgana Davies, star in waiting

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

The Hunter – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

The Grey

Liam Neeson in The Grey

 

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

 

 

2 July

 

Amelia Earhart disappears, 1937

On this day in 1937, the pioneering 39-year-old female aviator (aviatrix, if you prefer) disappeared on a flight circumnavigating the globe. Flying around the world can be accomplished by taking a variety of routes (Howard Hughes had “flown around the world” in 1938 by circling the northern hemisphere, and theoretically could be achieved by circling the North or South Pole, a minute’s work), but Earhart was planning to do it the longest way by circling the equator. Earhart had been breaking flying records almost since she had first learnt to fly, in 1920, her first record coming in 1922, when she broke an altitude record for an aviatrix. She had been famous since being part of a transatlantic flight in 1927 and had been dubbed Lady Lindy by the press, who were obsessed with pilot Charles Lindbergh at the time. Earhart was photogenic, and used her fame to win advertising deals, the money from which she used to finance her flying. In August 1928 she became the first woman to fly solo across North America and back. In May 1932 she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Between 1930 and 1935 she also set seven women’s speed and distance records. Her 1937 equatorial circumnavigation was intended to put her in the record books as a pilot first, woman second. Her first attempt stalled at the first leg after an equipment malfunction. Her second attempt, jumping from Oakland, California, to Miami, Florida and then on to South America, Africa, India and South East Asia, had taken her 22,000 miles (35,000km) with only 7,000 miles (11,000km) remaining. Her plane disappeared en route for Howland Island, a speck in the middle of the Pacific. Her plane went down in the Pacific, out of fuel and lost. Her radio signals were being picked up by a US Coast Guard ship, which was responding, but Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan – possibly because they didn’t understand the new radio navigation system – could not hear the ship’s reply, nor its instructions as to the whereabouts of the island. They were only five miles from the island, and were combing the ocean on a north/south line, but lost. In spite of the most expensive air and sea search in history, they were never found.

 

 

 

The Grey (2011, dir: Joe Carnahan)

On his way back to civilisation with a bunch of rowdies he has nothing in common with, a terminally fatalistic/seriously suicidal oil worker greets the fact that the plane he’s on is suddenly in dire trouble with a shrug. “You’re going to die,” the grizzled Ottway (Liam Neeson) tells a shit scared co-worker, “it will feel warm.” Director/co-writer Joe Carnahan then treats us to one of those intensely realistic air crashes that Hollywood has become adept at staging (Lost, Flight, United 93) – all chaos and panic, stuff dangling all over the place – and, boom, we’re on the ground, in the snow, with dead people scattered about. The survivors crawl out of the wreckage, only gradually realising that they’ve miraculously survived falling thousands of feet out of the sky only to die down here on the ground in the freezing cold, as they’re picked off one by one by a ravening pack of wolves who have smelt the mayhem and arrived to pick up some takeaway.
The prologue over, The Grey then settles down for the long haul, a cat and mouse movie using wolves and humans. If it’s Jaws with a pack-mentality foe, then Ottway is its Quint, a dead-eyed loner who is useless in normal situations where social niceties are required. But give him danger… And like Quint, Ottway’s strength is derived from the fact that he isn’t afraid to die, might even welcome it in fact. The strength of The Grey derives in part from the fact that we already know this, it’s been told to us just before and during the opening plane-crash sequence which at the time – since it was so lavish and well choreographed – looked like being what the film was all about. This piece of dramatic blind-siding really pays off as we enter this second, snowy phase of the film and Ottway and co are trying to survive while the wolves circle.
Don’t look at the wolves too closely. For some reason Hollywood seems stuck on the American Werewolf in London moodboard when it comes to depictions of our lupine friends. Instead watch the men, who we are introduced to individually, as in a war film, as they voice hopes and fears, talk about the big questions, as people tend to do in the movies when they’re faced with their own extinction. Personally, I could do without the gigantic drops into sentimentality which seem to act as punctuations between the more thoughtful disquisitions, and I’m not one of those people who think this is one of the best films of its year. But The Grey is a very good existential B movie – tight, lean, simple, gripping, and it keeps us hanging on till the end, speculating as to how long Ottway’s suicidal energy is going to act as a force field around him, wondering who’s going to die next. When. How. Right to the very last shot. Watch to the very end of the credits, in other words. Nicely done.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of Neeson’s great “geri-action” roles
  • Masanobu Takayanagi’s impressive cinematography
  • A barely recognisable Dermot Mulroney
  • Those unforgiving British Columbia (standing in for Alaska) locations

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Grey – 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

 

 

 

 

A Gang Story

Gérard Lanvin (centre) in A Gang Story

 

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

 

 

23 June

 

John Gotti jailed for life, 1992

On this day in John Gotti, boss of the Gambino crime family in New York City was jailed for life. Look him up on Google images and you’ll probably find his mug shot, taken when he was arrested in 1990, smiling fit to bust. Known as the “Teflon Don”, Gotti clearly didn’t expect to be held for long by the police. He’d taken the top seat after organising the murder of the previous boss Paul Castellano in 1985, having risen from being a youthful member of a street gang (Gotti’s early exploits, stealing cigarettes and hijacking truck trailers have a distinct Goodfellas flavour). He gained the “Teflon” sobriquet in the 1980s, having been acquitted three times in high profile trials, largely because he’d knobbled the jury. However, the flamboyant style of “The Dapper Don” and his unwillingness to keep his head down made it a point of honour among law enforcement authorities to nail him, and they poured considerable resources into keeping him under surveillance. In 1991, they got their moment when they played tapes of Gotti disparaging Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano to underboss Gravano himself. Gravano decided to turn state’s evidence and Gotti was arrested for murder, conspiracy to murder, racketeering, obstruction of justice, illegal gambling, extortion, tax evasion and loansharking. Gotti’s defence in court consisted of insisting that the Gambino crime family didn’t exist, had been conjured out of thin air by the authorities as part of some personal vendetta against himself. It didn’t wash. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole, and died there of cancer in 2002.

 

 

 

A Gang Story (2001, dir: Olivier Marchal)

Currently being remade with Liam Neeson in the lead role, A Gang Story (known as Les Lyonnais in its native France) saw co-writer/director and former policeman Oliver Marchal shifting attention from cops (in the films Gangsters, 36 Quai des Orfevres and MR73, plus the TV series Braquo) to robbers. Though based on the real-life memoir of gang boss Edmond Vidal, it’s a familiar story in many senses, the decades-long rise from petty thievery to extreme brutality, with the spoils going to the least squeamish, the most nearly psychopathic. If you’re looking for snatches of The Godfather or Goodfellas or other 1970s gangster movies, Marchal is happy to oblige, as he tells the story of young guys – one a Roma, the other French, another Greek – whose early purloining of a box of cherries, and subsequent arrest for it, forges a bond that would in later life push two of them to the top of Lyon’s most famous crime outfit. And then later still, test that bond with a dramatic late-stage cry for help. Marchal takes a flashback approach, as the guys we have become acquainted with in later life, iron grey and iron hard, creased and tanned, look back at the road they’ve travelled. But it’s no idle structuring device, this flashback, Marchal is trying to make several points: about age dulling the senses and the appetite; about the absolute importance over time of loyalty when there is no recourse to law; and about how easy it is to be a gangster when it’s just you, how much harder when there’s a wife and children to factor into the equation. Plus the fact that being an outlaw is all very well when you’re young and in the moment, but that, over time, the sheer plodding bureaucracy of the lawmakers will track you down.
The casting is, as ever with Marchal, totally on the money – Gérard Lanvin as the older but still brutally handsome Gypsy Momon, on whose cool the entire film is built, Tchéky Karyo as the Frenchman Suttel, while Dimitri Storoge and Olivier Chantreau play the men as young men on the make. Jean-François Richet’s more expansive Mésrine is a point of comparison, both being true stories anchored to a time in French history when organised crime, the apparatus of the state and European terrorism movements would form uneasy and fleeting co-operative alliances. And as in Mésrine full rein is given to production designers keen to do things with their 1970s mood boards of brown, taupe and orange. The drive-by shootings and killings are handled in a stylish, carefully orchestrated way and again we’re reminded that there’s a lot to be said for the Citroen DS as a getaway car. Yes, a familiar story, but cool, well told, deliciously dressed and with something to say.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Since Bob Le Flambeur at least, the French have made superior gangster films
  • Gérard Lanvin and Tchéky Karyo’s tough, charismatic performances
  • A gangster film made by a former cop
  • Boris Piot’s production design

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

A Gang Story – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Sucker Punch

Emily Browning as Baby Doll in Sucker Punch

 

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

 

 

20 June

 

The Beatles’ Yesterday and Today Butcher cover, 1966

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

 

 

 

Sucker Punch (2011, dir: Zack Snyder)

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

 

 

Why Watch?

 

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

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Sucker Punch – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Teeth

Bad idea: Jess Weixler and Josh Pais in Teeth

 

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

 

 

3 June

 

Valerie Solanas tries to kill Andy Warhol, 1968

On this day in the 1968, the feminist writer Valerie Solanas went to the Factory, artist Andy Warhol’s studio in New York, and fired three shots at him from a gun she had just bought.

Two missed and one wounded him. She also shot the art critic Mario Amaya and attempted to shoot Warhol’s manager, Fred Hughes, but the gun jammed. She then turned herself in to the police.

Solanas had in fact set out to shoot Maurice Girodias, owner of the Olympia Press – who had offered to publish her work – but hadn’t been able to find him, and so had altered course for Warhol, who had taken a film script of hers, Up Your Ass, and promptly lost it.

She was convinced both men were out to destroy her. Solanas had been supporting herself through prostitution while embarking on a career as an avant garde writer. Her most famous work is the SCUM Manifesto (which stands for The Society for Cutting Up Men), an extremist form of feminism which describes the average male as “obsessed with screwing; he’ll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.”

The Manifesto continues: “there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.”

For her crimes Solanas was sentenced to three years in prison, and spent a year of it in a mental hospital, where she received treatment for paranoid schizophrenia.

 

 

 

Teeth (2007, dir: Mitchell Lichtenstein)

Teeth is a film about a girl whose vulva bites – the vagina dentata of legend – made by Mitchell Lichtenstein, the son of the New York pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.

Mitchell is just about the right age (born 1956) to have experienced that first shock wave of feminism in the late 1960s, against which Pussy Riot and the like look like warm-up artists.

But I’m not telling you the plot – our girl, a sweet blonde called Dawn (Jess Weixler), a chastity advocate at her high school, finds herself drawn to Tobey (Hale Appleman), also a booster for virginity, an attraction which is going to lead to serious squirms later in the movie. Meanwhile, at home, Dawn has a stepbrother who lost the tip of his finger as a toddler. How he lost that tip can be guessed at, and whether he’s going to go back to where he lost it is another one of the small joys of this mad film.

The movie neatly divides into two parts – part one is a John Waters-inspired satire of modern suburban manners, and Weixler is all you could hope for as the dewy and lovely young woman simply trying to negotiate the murky waters of sex, inadequately armed with the “Just Say No” gang’s standard-issue weapon – ignorance.

In part two Lichtenstein goes for a kind of zombie bake-off excess, ladling on shocks, gore, OMG laughs and even the odd sputtering guffaw.

It’s not perfect – there’s the distinct impression that Lichtenstein is letting us know that he’s slumming it – but he’s clearly picked up a thing or two about striking visuals from his dad (or maybe his mother – who knows?) and Lichtenstein understands the value of dropping a severed penis into the mix when things start to flag, which they rarely do. And how accommodating that the most jockish of genres – we were pretty much at the height of the torture porn thing when Teeth debuted – should find room for a film that guys really, really won’t enjoy watching half as much as their girlfriends.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A good fun, bloody shocker
  • Jess Weixler’s perfect performance
  • A trenchant satire on the purity ring culture
  • A vagina with teeth

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Teeth – Watch it now at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

Black Book

Carice Van Houten in Black Book

 

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

 

 

23 May

 

Netherlands declares independence from Spain, 1568

On this day in 1568, the battle of Heligerlee was fought and won by the rebel army of William I of Orange, against the Duke of Alba, representative of the Hapsburg ruling dynasty. It marked the beginning of the 80 Years’ War for the independence of the Protestant Netherlands from Catholic Spanish rule. Though the rebels won the battle, they lost the campaign, due to lack of funds, and the rebellion sputtered out, only to flame up again in 1572. By 1581 the Netherlands were independent, though it took until 1648 for this to be recognised by Spain, who were at various times in the interim fighting a war against France, Turkey and England, all of whom wanted to prevent the Hapsburgs from becoming the dominant family in Europe. At a time when dynasties appeared to be the natural order in Europe, the Netherlands’ fight for independence marked a shift towards a different organising principle: the nation state.

 

 

 

Black Book (2006, dir: Paul Verhoeven)

Paul Verhoeven, born in the Netherlands in 1938, decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, where he made a run of hugely successful hit movies. Some were powerfully imagined sci-fi numbers (Total Recall, RoboCop), others trashy teases (Showgirls, Basic Instinct), some a bit of both (Starship Troopers, Hollow Man). For his return to his native country he’s gone back to the territory explored in Soldier of Orange – the Second World War – and is using all the tricks he learnt marshalling some of Hollywood’s moodiest actors and biggest budgets to tell a widescreen story of a singer called Rachel who, after seeing her entire family killed and then, in death, turned over for their valuables, infiltrates the Gestapo to pass information back to the Netherlands Resistance. Rachel is a Jew, and the name is a giveaway, so along with dying her hair blonde, she takes a gentile name, Ellis, and dives in. This is a story of clear goodies and baddies. Well it would be if Verhoeven hadn’t made it. Rachel/Ellis is obviously on the side of the angels, but otherwise there are more shades of grey in Black Book (choice of title obviously ironic) than you get in the average war film made by someone who actually remembers the Nazis inhabiting his home country, as Verhoeven does. Disconcertingly, the baddies turn out to have redeeming features. In the case of one appallingly bestial Nazi, he has the most gorgeous singing voice. In the case of local Nazi boss Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), he’s a cultured man, a stamp collector, obeying orders with a great deal of reluctance. The goodies, too, aren’t that great, there being something very dubious going on in the higher echelons of the Dutch Resistance. At one point, in fact, Rachel/Ellis is caught between both parties, accused by each of being a spy. What is a girl to do? Verhoeven also addresses that old saw, of the Jews being in some sense responsible for their fate, in the figure of this brave woman putting her life on the line every day to try and defeat Hitler and his henchmen.
As well as being a cracking wartime thriller, Black Book is a Verhoeven film, so there’s got to be nudity, though watch how it is used. Rachel/Ellis dyes her pubic hair – careful girl – so collar and cuffs will pass even intimate tests. There are a number of scenes in which naked Gestapo men make sexual sport with local Dutch girls. The girls are naked because they are chattels; the men are naked as a sign of their power. Yet in the scenes where Rachel goes to bed with Müntze, intending to do him injury but in fact falling for him, nudity turns into something more familiar – a marker of genuine intimacy. This lack of fear in the face of the naked body has always marked Verhoeven out, and may explain why some of the reviews for this film were a bit lukewarm; payback from the puritans. Though the critical herd mentality could be at play too – Verhoeven just isn’t hot any more. And nor are war films. Black Book is not perfect, there is a terrible squeezing of too much material into too small a space once the war ends and Rachel heads off fairly unnecessarily to a kibbutz, but Carice Van Houten’s performance is nuanced and magnetic and star-making, and Koch is as great as he ever is (you might have seen him as the lead in The Lives of Others). This is a film that deserves to be seen.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great Verhoeven film
  • Carice Van Houten’s performance
  • Sebastian Koch’s performance
  • The Netherlands’ most expensive movie to date

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Black Book – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Touch of Evil

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil

 

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

 

 

10 May

 

Rock around the Clock released, 1954

On this day in 1954, Bill Haley and His Comets released the single Rock around the Clock. It wasn’t the first rock and roll record – that was probably Rocket 88 by Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm (though the label credited Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, Brenston being Turner’s sax player) – and it was only moderately successful, hitting number 23 on the Billboard chart before dropping out completely after one week. Written in 1952 by Max Freedman and James Myers, it was first recorded by Sonny Dae and His Knights. Haley’s version was used in the film Blackboard Jungle – a drama set in an inner-city school and starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. It was at this point that the song became a success, rocketing back to the top of the Billboard chart and announcing the arrival of a new youth movement. Haley was 29 when he had the hit, quite old for a teenager. Meanwhile, in Memphis, a 19-year-old truck driver called Elvis Presley was warming up his pipes.

 

 

 

Touch of Evil (1958, dir: Orson Welles)

Touch of Evil is Orson Welles’s rock’n’roll film. Going large on transgression and youth culture, it places Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh as a pair of newlyweds on the border between Mexico and the USA, where Heston’s Mexican detective gets caught up in the investigation into a car bomb, in a sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll town ruled over by lumbering hulk of corruption Sheriff Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). The film opens with the most famous continuous take in film history, with blonder-than-blonde Leigh and a brownface Heston moving slowly towards the checkpoint, while behind them, and advancing every second, comes the car with a bomb (we know, they don’t) in its trunk. Over the next 100-plus minutes, Welles feeds us a soup of lust and licentiousness, law-breaking and trans-racial coupling that is still fairly unusual today, unheard of back in 1958. The studio cut the picture to ribbons and removed a lot of the ambient rock music from the soundtrack, though the version now available (around 111 minutes) is an approximation of what Welles originally envisaged, since it follows fairly closely the 58 page memo he sent to the studio after their first hack through his long, audacious and unsettling film.

Whether the memo expresses Welles’s real wishes or his best compromise is now academic; this “restoration” is all there is left. Not all is perfect in this iconic masterpiece – neither Leigh nor Heston can act, and Leigh in particular seems to be struggling with basic line readings. And Heston as a Mexican? Well, you might say, if he can play an ancient Judean… But then so much of this film is improbable, over-ripe – the casting, the acting, and what about the fact that Susan (Leigh) appears to have been raped by a local gang, an event dealt with almost as if it didn’t happen? The answer might be: the film isn’t really about her, or her husband, even though they are billed as its stars and the film follows them from the start. It’s about the shadowy Quinlan, the sweating gargantuan brought low by his own chicanery, not least his attempts to frame the newlyweds on drugs and murder charges. Other delights include an unbilled Marlene Dietrich, shot so carefully you’d never guess she was nudging 60, as the gypsy brothel keeper and soothsayer who Kane, sorry Quinlan, confides in. Don’t follow the spotlight, Dietrich’s presence seems to be saying, the real show in Touch of Evil is all going on in the wings.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A support cast including Dennis Weaver and Zsa Zsa Gabor
  • Russell Metty’s expressionistic monochrome cinematography
  • Henry Mancini’s score
  • Another Welles masterpiece

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Touch of Evil – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The American

Thekla Reuten and George Clooney in The American

 

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

 

 

6 May

 

George Clooney born, 1961

On this day in 1961, George Timothy Clooney was born in Lexington, Kentucky. Raised a Catholic in a showbiz family (father a news anchor, aunt singer Rosemary Clooney, mother a beauty queen), George was a bright student. He was also adept at sport and at one point wanted to become a professional baseball player. Instead he studied broadcast journalism, taking small roles as an extra on TV to make a bit of money on the side, turning up in shows such as Centennial and The Golden Girls before getting a semi-regular gig on the sitcom Roseanne. In 1994 he got his break playing Dr Doug Ross in the TV series ER. By the time he left the show in 1999 he was world famous. Clooney’s film career has been eclectic – gonzo grindhouse (From Dusk till Dawn), romcom (One Fine Day), comicbook adaptations (Batman & Robin), satire (Three Kings), musical (O Brother Where Art Thou?), caper (Ocean’s 11). He went into movie production with Steven Soderbergh, founding the Section Eight company, who have Insomnia, Far From Heaven and A Scanner Darkly on their credits, as well as a string of Soderbergh/Clooney films. After that he formed Smokehouse Pictures with Grant Heslov. Smokehouse films include The American, Argo and August: Osage County.

 

 

 

The American (2010, dir: Anton Corbijn)

Photographer-turned-director Anton Corbijn’s follow-up to Control, his film about British band Joy Division, wasn’t that well received. Perhaps it’s too stylish for some people. Too muted. It’s a “one last job” spy thriller in the glossy Euro tradition of the 1970s, all procedure, terse conversations, deadpan features, pregnant pauses, with The Day of the Jackal an obvious reference, a notion that’s reinforced the first time we see George Clooney’s Jack rapidly assembling a high velocity rifle from unlikely parts. Clooney is not only the star of the film but almost its entire point. As The American, a hitman of dubious honour possibly a little past his peak, Clooney’s gum-chewing, impassive features have to be searched for evidence of what’s going on below the surface. Is he a total cool professional? Have the years taken their toll? Is he about to snap and give it all up? It seems like an odd thing to say, but it’s Clooney’s lack of expression that drives up the tension in the film – Corbijn knows that, as seasoned viewers of films like this, we’ll make assumptions about the psychological state of the main protagonist. And he forces us to focus hard on Clooney’s face, yet witholds final evidence to prove or disprove those assumptions, as does Clooney. And then we actually get a plot point. It seems that someone close to this cool pro is a stool pigeon. Someone has sold him out. Who is it? Is the hitman about to get hit? That’s all there is to The American, until the final scenes set in a small Italian village, which feature a female assassin in a cat suit. Of course they do. This is a beautifully conceived and made film, it’s hitman arthouse, with stylistic homages to films of yore – the sex scene with lots of nudity is a clear throwback, but then so is Clooney’s early meeting with a mystery woman, a newspaper beneath her arm to indicate she’s his contact. Somewhere in the mix is a bit of Antonioni – the bleak existential despair, the beautiful empty vistas – such as we got in The Passenger. Then it was Jack Nicholson as an American drowning in empty European exotica; here it’s Clooney. Playing a character called Jack. Coincidence? Probably not

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great existential hitman thriller
  • Martin Ruhe’s shallow-focus cinematography
  • Craggy Johan Leysen as the American’s control
  • A beautifully stylish movie

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The American – at Amazon