The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael

Dan Spencer in The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael



A provocative and more or less relentlessly grim drama set in hoodie Britain that seems to ask the liberal establishment to look again at their “anything goes” attitudes.

Director Thomas Clay and co-writer Joseph Lang divide the world into two. One is middle class, in the shape of sleek celebrity TV chef Jonathan Abbott (Michael Howe) who whips up fancy food, lives in a lovely house, has a lovely partner and has a lovely life. Then we have Robert (Daniel Spencer). He lives in another part of the same small coastal town where there’s not much doing, but his parents are bringing him up to be a valuable member of society. He learns the cello, makes a passable stab at Elgar’s Cello Concerto but otherwise his life is a drab round of school/home/school/home. This is step up from the other local kids – for them it’s school/chip shop/war memorial/home. The middle-class idea being that one day the extra-curricular lessons will pay off, Robert will go to university, escape this place for ever, become middle class himself and get his hands on the good stuff – or that’s the trajectory written across the hopeful, fretting face of his mother (Lesley Manville).

And then he falls in with “the wrong crowd” among whom are Ryan Winsley as a feral hoodie, and Danny Dyer as an ex-con. Before you can say “who’s skinning up? Robert is in a world of drugs, petty crime, breaking and entering and much much worse. Without going into too much detail, the world of Robert and that of the TV chef’s wife (Miranda Wilson) – she’s pregnant – are going to intersect in scenes that should be preceded by a “look away now” warning.

Nuff said. She’s been doing a good job, Robert’s mum, inculcating the boy with Elgar, and in a blast to the sort of parenting that thinks kids turn out best, find their own way, if left to explore their own avenues, The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael stands like the ghost of Christmas to come – doomy, warning and with an “it doesn’t have to be this way” look on its face.

But does it have to be quite so gruesome? That is the question after watching the harrowing finale. Clay and Lang not only overdo it, but they make attempts at larger social points – as if they’re not already making a large social point – by having the run-up to the Iraq War playing on TV in the background throughout, while using Winston Churchill features prominently at a moment in a way that’s so overblown it’s embarrassing. As for influences, A Clockwork Orange and Funny Games are the most obvious, though both Kubrick and Haneke had better actors to work with – here the rule is that the older they are, the more likely to suck. The youngsters, though, are almost uniformly great, believable.

What holds it all together is the cinematography of Yorgos Arvanatis, whose long single takes conjure a bleak beauty out of the wind-scoured streets of Newhaven, as well as a strong sense of place and a portentous atmosphere.

Here’s a film which makes the odd tonal mis-step but in terms of intention and execution can barely be faulted. The fact that it’s been so hated on the festival circuit, with regular walkouts and hostile Q&As with director and writer, says everything externally that the film is trying to say internally – it’s against the status quo. What next for this talented writer/director duo?




The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2006






Ben Affleck and Diane Lane in Hollywoodland

Looking on paper like something better than it actually turns out, Hollywoodland is one of those films purporting to lift the lid on Hollywood, LA Confidential style. It tells the lightly fictionalised story of George Reeves (Ben Affleck) the man who played Superman on 1950s US TV, and asks the simple question – who done him in?

The answer is, at least partly, he did it to himself, this being a tale of an actor who’d appeared in Gone with the Wind and yet by the mid-50s was in a TV serial aimed at kids. The ignominy. If you need a lesson in counting your blessings rather than dwelling on what might have been, Hollywoodland is it.

To unpick the story of Reeves, we have Adrien Brody doing Citizen Kane-digging, as Louis Simo, a private investigator trying to work out the who and the what and the why. Was it suicide, which was the conclusion at the time? Or did Reeves’s mistress (Diane Lane) accidentally shoot him? Or did a Mob-connected studio boss (Bob Hoskins) order a hit on him? More to the point, do we as an audience care?

Director Allen Coulter asks us not to engage with the man, his plight and his fate, but with his own command of pastiche, and it’s here that the film’s stabs towards The Maltese Falcon, with Brody’s side-of-mouth gumshoe, start to get wearisome.

Affleck – only ten minutes ago the star of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor – is perfectly positioned to play a sad sack for whom things have not quite worked out, his hurt eyes telegraphing disappointment and a career that’s gone awry – could this be his attempt to hit the reset button after becoming better known for his private life than his screen work?

Brody’s detective Simo gets his own back story, which includes his own disappointments as a father and husband (several times over), and he’s a lively presence in a film that needs an injection of vitality, as is Lane as Reeves’s older-woman rich mistress, both shaking this often torpid essay in 1950s stylistics into something approaching life. Bob Hoskins does his usual quack/bark as the studio exec who is sharing his wife with Superman, though he doesn’t yet know it.

But they’re all distractions in what should be Affleck’s film, and the more lively they get, the further into the background the character of Reeves starts to slip. Something of a minor tragedy, because Affleck’s representation of flayed dignity, wounded ego, is well worth seeing.

Hollywoodland – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2006

The Night Listener

Robin Williams and Toni Collette


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


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




© Steve Morrissey 2006





Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Karoline Herfurth and Ben Whishaw in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer


Having wandered off up arthouse avenue in recent years, with The Princess and the Warrior and Heaven, director Tom Tykwer delivers his most accessible film since Run Lola Run. It’s an adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s runaway best-seller about an 18th century peasant with an incredible olfactory talent and the trouble that that gets him into. The feted Ben Whishaw gives it plenty of Norman Wisdom/Lee Evans gaucheness in the lead, as the lad whose almost Asperger’s talent for one single thing, and a commensurate lack of social skills, drives him on a giddy flight to the dark side. And the supporting cast is notable, sumptuous even. Dustin Hoffman does an entirely inappropriate panto act as the perfumer who’s lost his spark, until Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Whishaw) comes into his life, while Alan Rickman adds some theatrical bottom as the number one man on Grenouille’s tail, the father of one of his victims. Because where Grenouille’s nose takes him is towards murder, as he tries to produce a scent that can catch the essence of truth, beauty and life itself by killing attractive young women and then macerating them in animal fat – essence de femme morte. If that sounds like a tall order and one doomed to failure, the film has a similar ambition and outcome, aiming to get Susskind’s authorial voice and Grenouille’s first person point of view onto the screen at the same time (John Hurt doing his John Hurt thing in voiceover). Tykwer lavishes a large proportion of his decent budget getting the stink and filth of the 18th century onto the screen, and agonises over his compositions, whether they are of gorgeous women such as Rachel Hurd-Wood or Karoline Herfurth (her vivid red hair alone makes the film worth a look) or seething masses of maggots and other signifiers of decay. But no amount of set-dressing can hide the fact that the book has died on the way to the screen. Ironically the film is simply too literal, and without Süskind’s authorial voice teasing us this way and that, it’s hard to dispel the nagging feeling that what we’re watching is the Tooth Fairy strand from Silence of the Lambs rendered in the style of an upmarket continental lager advertisement. As for the blackly comic turn Tykwer takes at the end, it’s a throws-hands-in-the-air get-out for a film that looks like it had no idea how to end.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer – Watch It at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2006




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





Four Lions

Four of the five "four lions" prepare for the London Marathon


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



7 July


The London Bombings, 2005

On this day in 2005, a series of bombs went off in London, UK. 52 people were killed, more than 700 were injured. The bombs went off in the rush hour, just before 9am, on three Tube trains and a bus, all full of people. The three Tube bombs went off within 50 seconds of each other. The bus bomb exploded around an hour later. The bombs were carried onto the transport system by four men aged between 18 and 30, three of them from Leeds, one with a wife and young child, another with a pregnant wife. All of the men died in the explosions. In a videotaped statement made before they carried out the attacks, one of the men, Mohammad Sidique Khan, rationalised his actions thus: “Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate [sic] atrocities against my people all over the world… I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters.” As London mayor Ken Livingstone quickly pointed out in the aftermath of the bombings, Muslims were also the victims of the bombings.




Four Lions (2010, dir: Christopher Morris)

Describing Chris Morris as a comedian isn’t quite hitting the nail on the head. He’s a provocateur, the sort of man who finds something suspect and then pokes a stick at it to see what happens. In his cult TV series Brass Eye he got celebrities to sign up to a bogus campaign against paedophilia called “Nonce Sense”. He also whipped up a hysterical reaction to a non-existent drug called Cake (which affects a non-existent part of the brain called Shatner’s Bassoon), to the point where members of parliament were asking questions in the House of Commons.

In Four Lions Morris turns his gimlet eye on the demonisation of Muslims in a “comedy” that’s actually remarkably free of laughs, is often more an exercise in wrong-footing. So what does make Muslim guys carry out bombing atrocities – is the question Morris asks obliquely, as it follows the four “lions” planning an attack. There are in fact five guys, four who see themselves as the real deal, because they have brown skin and were born to Pakistani immigrant families. The other has red hair and the palest white skin, and is a convert to Islam. He’s the one the other guys pick on. Regardles of their family origin, all of them, from their top to their toes, are British to the very core of their being, from the way they talk to the way they dress and behave, though none of them see it this way, all preferring to paint themselves in the colours of the outsider (David Baddiel’s film The Infidel comes at this culture/ethnicity tangle from a different direction). Not for nothing has Morris called the film Four Lions, a reference to the three lions on the England football shirt.

The lions’ plot, once they hit upon one – they’re not very bright – is to take part in the London Marathon and to blow themselves up as they run. On the way we’ve learned that one of them wants to blow up a chemist’s shop, “because it sells condoms that make you want to bang white girls,” we’ve watched the guys trying to blow up a sheep, we’ve seen one of them punch himself in the face. Dumb.

In Morris’s world actions have unintended consequences, conversations veer wildly off track, stupid stuff happens by accident. He’s as much lampooning depictions of this sort of thing as the thing itself. Take the conversation they have about the atrocity they’re planning – the “should we or shouldn’t we?” conversation – in which one of the doubters is having second thoughts about blowing himself up. “Don’t ask your brain, ask your heart,” says Omar (Riz Ahmed) to Waj (Kayvan Novak), in a lightbulb moment taking inspiration from a billion Hollywood movies where feeling is prioritised over thinking. After a pause Waj says, “My heart says no,” temporarily dumbfounding Omar, and incidentally giving Hollywood the middle finger.

Why do people do these things, asks Morris. His answer: a cocktail of testosterone, the usual young man’s affected antipathy to anything he can’t master and stupidity, with Islam a very distant fourth, just about sticking the previous three together into something that is not really a coherent whole. Scoring few points for political correctness, and playing terrorism for laughs won’t be everybody’s cup of sweet tea, and Four Lions is also clearly suffering a bit from TV-sketch-itis. But as a corrective to the government and mainstream media message about radicalised Islam, it’s absolutely bang on.



Why Watch?


  • Co-written by Bain and Armstrong, of In the Loop
  • The brilliant cast
  • The laughs, when they come, are big
  • Look out for Benedict Cumberbatch


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Four Lions – Watch it now at Amazon






Timothy Olyphant in Hitman


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



26 June


First barcode scanned, 1974

On this day in 1974, a packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum became the first product to be scanned by a barcode reader for commercial purposes. The so-called Universal Product Code had been in development since the late 1940s, when Bernard Silver, a Pennsylvania graduate student at Drexel Institute of Technology had overheard a local supermarket owner bemoaning the fact that there wasn’t a system for automatically scanning items through a checkout. Drexel went to work, first using ultra-violet inks (they faded), then Morse code in which the dots were stretched to become lines, fatter ones being the dashes, thinner ones being the dots. Essentially, this is the system in use today, one hashed out by 1949, though there wasn’t affordable technology then to read the codes. Silver and his co-researcher Norman Woodland offered their patent to IBM, who didn’t offer enough money, the pair thought. Instead Philco bought it, who then sold it on to RCA. Meanwhile, coming from the scanner direction was David Collins, who had been working on a system for identifying railroad cars as they passed through certain checkpoints. Using blue and red reflective strips to act as a six-figure identifier, Collins’s system worked well enough for a New Jersey toll bridge to request something similar to log cars. Then the US Post Office asked for one for its trucks, and a pet food company, Kal Kan, asked for one for its cans. Collins decided to branch out, forming Computer Identics to work on the solution to a fast and error free reader. He came up with helium-neon lasers and a mirror as a solution. The US’s National Association of Food Chains brought the code and the scanner technology together and rolled out the barcode system nationally. However take-up was slow. By 1977 there were fewer than 200 grocery stores using it. But once it was shown that stores that used the barcode tended to have significantly higher profits (because the codes allowed them to have a better overview of their stock) there was a rush to adopt.




Hitman (2007, dir: Xavier Gens)

Many films are derived from computer games, but Hitman really makes no bones about it. Following the titular hitman, a cypher with a bald head bearing a barcode tattoo, as he blasts through one shoot-’em-up situation after another, Hitman is either an exercise in pure style, or a prolonged drag, depending on your attitude to console culture. Certainly Timothy Olyphant looks the part as Agent 47, a gun for hire whose upbringing – by an agency called the Agency, in some remote special ops orphanage – has uniquely prepared him for a life of repeated brutal assassination. As with all hitman films, we don’t join him to witness a series of flawlessly performed executions. Instead we pitch up at the point where it either goes wrong or he gives up or he gets killed. Or maybe all three. Avoiding obvious spoilers, what can be said is that Agent 47’s normally impeccable record is tarnished early on, as a hit against the Russian president goes wrong, it appears, which means he’s not just got the Russian secret service bearing down upon him, but his own guys, who don’t have much tolerance for failure.
It’s a chase movie, in other words, though it pauses as Agent 47 comes across a moody prostitute who has been held captive by the president’s drug-dealing (of course) brother. The prostitute is played by Olga Kurylenko, and whatever you might think about her acting abilities, there is no denying that Kurylenko is born to play a woman men will fight over. The two of them hook up, they run, they are pursued. At some point the woman offers herself to the man, perhaps more graphically than some puritan souls would wish. These early scenes between the two are fascinating because we’re watching a man trained to act like a machine realising there’s more to him than a termination program.
But never mind the emotion, what about the action? There’s lots of it. Lots. And the body count is relentless. Personally, I found this kill, kill, kill, approach strangely refreshing, liberating, as if James Bond had been released from laboured quips, raised eyebrows and unnecessary set-ups to just do what he does best. It lends the film an edginess that many films of this sort lack. We’re in the melee with our man, quick-cams to some extent borrowed from the Bourne films which, let’s face it, are at least partly inspired by video game swivels. Dialogue is minimal, peremptory, Olyphant and Kurylenko both understanding that their roles are subservient to the propulsive drive of the enterprise, to keeping it video-game real. Turn the music down if you must. It has an arcade game clamour that is entirely in keeping with the ambience director Xavier Gens is after but does start to grate after a while. And ignore Dougray Scott as Agent 47’s control. No one is sure what to do with him. He almost has a personality, for god’s sake.



Why Watch?


  • Another fascinating film from talented Xavier Gens (Frontiers)
  • Olyphant and Kurylenko perfectly cast
  • Laurent Bares’s nervy cinematography
  • Jacques Bufnoir’s brilliant production design


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Hitman – Watch it now at Amazon





American Gangster

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in American Gangster


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



11 June


John F Kennedy proposes the Civil Rights Act, 1963

On this day in 1963, the US president, John F Kennedy addressed the nation. In his speech he called for legislation with would give all Americans “the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public – hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores and similar establishments”. He also called for equality before the law when it came to voting. His proposals would outlaw discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin and effectively sounded the death knell for racial segregation – in buses, diners, schools, wherever. The US Constitution’s 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, guaranteeing equal protection under the law, had ventured into the same territory but it took the Civil Rights Act to finally make the change which made it illegal to treat African Americans (which is what both the 14th Amendment and Civil Rights Act were really all about) as second class citizens. The bill was written up and sent to Congress on 19 June, where it was reinforced. It then got bogged down on a procedural technicality in October in the House of Representatives, where the intention of some delegates was to keep it on ice indefinitely. The assassination of the president on 22 November 1963 made this blocking strategy untenable after the astute new president, Lyndon Johnson, in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, said “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” Johnson had his way, though there were still compromises before the bill was finally, tortuously signed into law on 2 July 1964.




American Gangster (2007, dir.: Ridley Scott)

What do Civil Rights mean for a black man? In director Ridley Scott’s slightly cheeky hands they mean the liberty to do just what everyone else has been doing, and that includes becoming a drugs kingpin. And the more you think of it, there has been a dearth of black drug lords on the screens – two-bit hustlers on street corners, plenty. That’s not the only thing going on in this fascinating drama starring Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, the Harlem heroin dealer importing drugs into the country on planes coming back from Vietnam, a smart guy on the rise; Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the honest (and therefore reviled by his fellows) cop on his case, the two men locked together in a dance towards the volcano’s edge. If that sounds entirely like your standard-issue cops’n’mobsters set-up, that’s exactly what American Gangster is, an exercise in stylistic pastiche. But it is a hell of an exercise. Running its twin-track stories in parallel – the gentleman gangster who’s good to his mother; the troubled cop who’s good to nobody, not even his “it’s me or the job” woman (Carla Gugino) – Ridley carefully builds the story, holding off a meeting of the two key players until near the end. This is one of those big finale showdowns, in which Washington and Crowe have one of those tense, long, actorly scenes that writers like, stars love and audiences tolerate. On the way to it, Scott gives Scorsese a soft pedal, though Frank Lucas’s mob-boss mom is a lift straight out of Goodfellas (is it any surprise to discover that Goodfellas writer Nicholas Pileggi is one of the executive producers?). Scott goes a bit harder on The French Connection  – that soft hazy, 60s/70s visual style is accurately captured, there’s a soundtrack straight from the Lalo Schifrin/Curtis Mayfield school of funky jazzy cool. You say derivative, I say homage. Whichever it is, Scott does it right, his actors and technicians do him proud and an intriguing story is told – a true one too – of a nobody who became a somebody by running a drugs empire the way you might run a department store (keep the staff and the customers happy). In the America of the Civil Rights era, the idea is, for the black man who wants a piece of the American Dream, this is one of the few ways to make that happen.



Why Watch?


  • Steve Zaillian’s smart, incident-rich screenplay
  • The period look of Harris Savides’s cinematography
  • Marc Streitenfeld’s score
  • The muscular Washington/Crowe pairing


© Steve Morrissey 2014



American Gangster – Watch it now at Amazon





A Prophet

Niels Arestrup and Tahar Rahim in A Prophet


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



8 June


Death of the prophet Muhammad, 632

On this day in AD632 (10 AH), Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Adb Allah ibn Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim, aka Muhammad (spellings vary), died aged 62 or 63. Muslims consider Muhammad to be the last prophet sent by God to restore the original faith of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Until the age of 40 he had lived a comparatively normal life – a married man with a job – but after receiving a visit from the angel Gabriel (Jibril) he started preaching the word of God, in particular that it was important to surrender or submit (the Arabic word for that being “islam”) to the Almighty. In a comparatively short time – between the revelation and his death was just over two decades – Muhammad managed to convert all the tribes of the Arabian peninsula to Islam, the decisive event being his march on Mecca with 10,000 men, which he seized with comparative ease in a near bloodless battle. Shortly afterwards Muhammad died.




A Prophet (2009, dir: Jacques Audiard)

At around two and a half hours, this isn’t a short film, but there’s not an ounce of fat on it – every minute tells us something new, cranks up the tension just a little bit more. It’s a prison drama with a difference. Two differences, in fact. We’re in a French prison with Malik (Tahar Rahim) a young guy in prison for an assault on a cop. He says he didn’t do it. He’s wet behind the ears and is subjected to the usual bullying, but over the years he works his way up from being a nobody to king of the hill. Standard stuff. A cliché, on paper.

The two differences are the fact that Malik is a Muslim (and his religion has a role to play), and there’s a touch of magic realism too, in the shape of the convict he murders early on to earn his stripes coming back to visit him, standing silently in his cell. The murder is worth mentioning, because it’s a bloody brutal affair which Malik is ordered to carry out by Corsican crime boss César (Niels Arestrup) the Mr Big Malik is eventually going to depose – though neither of them can see that one coming. César has chosen Malik as his hitman, green as he is, because he has a liking for his pretty looks and probably wants to get a hold on him in more ways than one. From this unremarkable and very familiar beginning, director/co-writer Jacques Audiard spins a brilliant story, where every character has weight, actions have consequences, where there’s a real sense of Malik playing a very long game to get to the top, and where César is eventually outflanked not by an act of prison barbarity, but by Malik’s superior intellect and learning. There are nifty paradoxes too – the brutal murder Malik carries out being the catalyst he didn’t know he was waiting for, the few short minutes he spends with his unwitting victim infusing him with an understanding of the purpose of life. The murder most ugly is a humanising event.

Arestrup, never a bad performance and particularly good here, is all eyes and tiny gestures, a hard cold wily man used to life at the top. For his part Tahar Rahim is good in a much harder role, turning from a total blank slate (he can neither read or write when he arrives in prison) into a man of education, worldliness and power. Knowledge as power. An Arab man as a hero. Intellect rather than brute force winning out in a prison drama. Audiard, who performed similarly remarkable acts of subversion in his two previous films, The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Read My Lips, does it again with A Prophet, a contender for the best film of its year.



Why Watch?


  • The two lead performances by Niels Arestrup and Tahar Rahim
  • Best film of the year? Arguably
  • Stéphane Fontaine’s distinctive cinematography
  • A great rock and rap soundtrack


© Steve Morrissey 2014



A Prophet – Watch now at Amazon





Mean Streets

Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets


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



12 May


Exile on Main Street released, 1972

On this day in 1972, one of the cornerstone rock albums of all time was released. Exile on Main St was the Rolling Stones follow-up to Sticky Fingers and the first album they had produced since extricating themselves from their contract with manager Allen Klein. The Stones had recently become tax exiles from the UK – and recorded much of the album in the south of France, at a villa Keith Richards was renting. Richards was a heavy user of heroin at the time, and his villa became a hub for visiting fellow devotees – country singer Gram Parsons and author William Burroughs were among those who turned up to shoot up. Much of it written while laying down sessions for Sticky Fingers, the album has the syncopated swagger and blues lope that the Stones had made their own. It is in many respects the classic Stones record, forming, along with the previous two releases – Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed – the high point of the band’s output. The band would never be this good again.




Mean Streets (1973, dir: Martin Scorsese)

One of the immediate realisations, on watching Mean Streets again decades after it hit the unsuspecting streets of criticdom, is how cheap it looks. Written by Scorsese and Mardik Martin in a car in the locations it would be shot in, and focusing on two punks in New York’s Little Italy, its low budget means it doesn’t have the gloss Scorsese has since become associated with. He’d been bubbling under for a few years by 1973, but this is the film that shot Scorsese to dominance, the one that confirmed the promise of Who’s That Knocking at My Door. It didn’t do Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro any harm either. The other thing about re-watching it all these years later – how young these two main actors looked, how in need of a few good dinners.
The seat-of-the-pants looks and lean features of its stars work to the film’s advantage, though, because it’s a movie about being cheap – being a two-bit hustler, a cut-price Romeo, a bottom-feeding extortioner for the Mafia. Keitel plays the fairly useless collector hoping to move up the ranks, De Niro is his childhood friend, a dangerous and unpredictable little toughie who seems to have learnt most of his mannerisms from half-remembered Jimmy Cagney movies. They are chalk and cheese these two – Keitel’s Charlie is useless and sensitive and overburdened by a sense of responsibility; De Niro’s Johnny Boy is violent, charming and unpredictable. Mean Streets essentially follows these two through the bars, pool halls and restaurants of Little Italy, waiting for something to snap, which of course it will. And let’s not forget the church (or the Church, if you prefer) because Charlie’s guilt is a key driver – over the black woman he dances with and wants to date but can’t because she’s black; over the epileptic sister of Johnny Boy who he secretly loves but can’t date because she’s marked as damaged goods; over the family business, extortion; over the fact that he can’t stick to the Commandments; over the fact that he can’t be himself. In 1973 this film was the shizzle – lots of it handheld, some of it slo-mo, lit in exaggerated colours to indicate psychology, with a soundtrack that used actual real hit music (the Stones, Eric Clapton and the Miracles larding a track full of operatic favourites) because Scorsese couldn’t afford a soundtrack, but also because it fits. This soundtrack business is normal these days but then it was revolutionary, as was the whole film, especially the way it depicts characters who seem to have taken the conscious decision to behave as if they are the star of their own B movie. In many ways it is the ground zero of modern film-making – without the elliptical dialogue, bravura editing, expressionistic camera and grungy milieu of Mean Streets what, for instance, would Tarantino look like?



Why Watch?


  • De Niro and Keitel
  • Scorsese’s real debut (forget Boxcar Bertha)
  • The great soundtrack
  • Look out for a cameo by Scorsese himself


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Mean Streets – at Amazon