Her

Joaquin Phoenix in Her

 

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

 

 

22 August

 

Storm botnet maximum, 2007

Today marks the day when, in 2007, activity by the Storm Worm Trojan horse reached its maximum. Having been identified in January 2007, the worm spread via emails with catchy subject lines such as “230 dead as storm batters Europe”. Once the recipient had clicked on it, the Trojan horse would go to work, replicating itself and emailing itself out to others as spam. No one is really sure where the Trojan horse came from – some suggest the US, others Russia – but it was designed to work on Microsoft Windows systems, turning each infected one into a bot. The network of bots, once established, takes orders from servers whose domain names change frequently. These servers also frequently re-encode the worm, making detection difficult. This makes the botnet efficient at both attack and defence; it can “know” when it is being attacked by anti-virus investigators and can even deny them access to the internet, taking them out of the game. It is estimated that on 22 August 2007 this activity reached a maximum, with 57 million infected messages being sent out in a single day. The Storm botnet went into decline in late 2008, though it probably wasn’t as a result of Microsoft’s efforts to flush out the virus with security updates, more likely it was the result of tools like Stormfucker (a “white” or “ethical” worm), which effectively uses the Storm Worm’s own protocols to make it disinfect itself.

 

 

 

Her (2013, dir: Spike Jonze)

Having read an article about a web application called Cleverbot, which uses algorithms to have conversations with humans, Spike Jonze decided the idea would be ideal for a film. Her is that film, the story of a guy who falls in love with his computer’s operating system. And it with him, or so it seems. The guy is played by Joaquin Phoenix and the OS’s voice is provided by Scarlett Johansson. And it all starts so easily, Phoenix’s Theodore deciding to buy the “world’s first artificial intelligence operating system”, and at first being amazed as it/she starts sorting out his life, decluttering, adding entries to his diary, getting his life back on track. To make his life more efficient the OS starts asking questions about Theodore’s likes and dislikes, wishes and desires. The recently divorced single man (day job: writing emotional messages for other people’s significant “together” moments) and the OS start to get to know each other. Gradually, this turns into something more personal. In as much as he can, Jonze makes Her a traditional romance – the meet cute, the walks in the park, the mad sex, the first argument, the flaming row, the break-up. Some of this he has to finesse slightly and force into a box it doesn’t quite want to go into (it’s the walk in the walk in the park rather than the sex which sat ill with me) but you can’t deny that Jonze is doing it absolutely straight. This is no comedy, no freak show, but an exploration of a human relationship with a thing which isn’t human – though the extent to which it isn’t human (or is) is definitely territory that writer/director Jonze is all over.
What sort of a world would it be where such a relationship was possible? Jonze builds it convincingly – it looks hi-tech (much of it is Shanghai), the fashions are different (high waisted trousers seem to be in), realistic 3D video games are the sort of recreation a man comes home to after a day at the office. But for the most part it’s a world of recognisable humans and recognisable relationships – we have already seen Theodore having phone sex with someone called SexyKitten (voiced by Kristen Wiig, whose “choke me with a cat”, shouted in the throes of a well simulated orgasm, is worth a snort).
Talking of orgasms, the fact that Johansson replaced Samantha Morton as the voice of the OS – in post-production, Morton having done the whole film from inside a padded plywood box – might have something to do with ScarJo’s sexy rasp. I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past Morton to be able to purr with the best of them – she can do most things – but Johansson is the perfect choice and the film marks out the beginning of her sudden moment as the go-to woman for sci-fi oddness – Under the Skin and Lucy were both just a moment away.
It’s a simple film, a romance, with a conceit that Jonze follows right through to the end, and there’s no point detailing all the plot – though there is even an attractive, real human girl next door (Amy Adams) who Theodore doesn’t take any notice of because he’s so infatuated with this unattainable woman/machine/thing. Watching Jonze play through these film clichés is actually the point of Her. Does an extended joke need to be two hours long? Absolutely not. There’s a better, punchier 90 minute film in here somewhere. But Jonze didn’t make that film, so let’s enjoy the one he did make.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another great everyman performance by Joaquin Phoenix
  • The peripheral casting (Kristen Wiig, Amy Adam, Olivia Wilde)
  • Scarlett Johansson’s note perfect performance
  • The cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Her – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Descendants

Shailene Woodley, George Clooney, Amara Miller and Nick Krause

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



21 August

Hawaii becomes 50th US state, 1959

Today marks the day when, in 1959, Hawaii became a part of the United States. It came about as a result of revolution which unseated the local Republican party, which had been in power in an almost unbroken run since the country had become a constitutional monarchy in 1887 (though that didn’t last long – it was shortly after annexed by the US in 1898 and became a Territory).

The Republicans had close ties to a number of companies known as the Big Five, originally sugar plantation owners and processors, whose oligarchic power allowed them to set high prices and make huge profits from the islanders.

The Big Five had imported labour to work the plantations, most of whom were denied citizenship and lived in camps. Their children, however, could become citizens, and became increasingly vocal as, at the same time, unionisation of the plantation workers started to lead to strikes in favour of higher wages and lower prices, political freedom and full rights.

In the 1954 elections this groundswell, and a Democrat party which had organised itself effectively, finally won a majority at the elections. The Democrats immediately set about changing the tax system, introduced a health insurance scheme, environmental protection and workers’ rights. President Eisenhower responded by appointing a Republican governor to veto many of the reforms, so the Democrats went all out for statehood. Which, after a 93% vote in favour on the islands, and against concerns that to admit Hawaii was to admit communists and the possibility of a dark-skinned senator, was granted in 1959.



The Descendants (2011, dir: Alexander Payne)

The Descendants is an unusual sort of comedy. A brain dead wife, a cuckolded husband – it’s not really a comedy at all. It’s built around George Clooney, reassuring us in voiceover as Matt King that he’s a good rich guy, rather than a bad rich guy – “you give your children enough to do something but not enough to do nothing” – having already laid out the mess of his life (adding estranged kids to the comatose, unfaithful wife). Clooney/King we’ve met, having been told that the estranged wife has had a boat accident and is now in hospital in a persistent vegetative state. His job is to pull the kids out of boarding school, bring them home, to say goodbye to their mother, and then…?

The film is part written and entirely directed by Alexander Payne and like his Sideways it’s a road comedy. Again like Sideways it’s gentle, but this time it’s ever so gentle; there’s no Thomas Haden Church to firecracker away. Instead there’s Clooney doing his dependable velvet thing, lots of lovely shots of picture-postcard Hawaii as Matt drives the kids from one encounter to the next, a soundtrack of either finger-picked guitar or a baritone singing Hawaiian songs.

They’re an odd contrast, this sun-kissed wave-lapping scenery and a brain-dead wife/mother plus familial bickering by Matt’s two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) who resent Matt’s valiant lone parent act. The throughline is a quietly stated double Maguffin – should the wife’s life support be switched off, in accordance with her wishes? And should the King family sell a valuable piece of real estate on the island? Selling will make a whole heap of cash, but it will end a tradition – this was the plot that first bound the family’s and Hawaii’s destiny together.

On the way to Matt’s do-or-die moment Payne entertains us with characters. He’s good at this. The daughters, Shailene Woodley full of teenage sarcasm, Nick Krause as he dudeish Sid, the spaced out boyfriend of Alex (Woodley) who isn’t as dumb as he’s making out. Matthew Lillard turns up, the lizard grin of yore bulked out with middle age, as the guy who’s been seeing Matt’s wife, possibly, Matt learns, while he was still trying to make a go of the marriage. Robert Forster is the wife’s father, angry and confused. Beau Bridges a member of the wider King family pressuring Matt to sell, reminding us how good Bridges is at affable malevolence.

In the end it’s a journey, around a beautiful territory, in the company of some interesting people, who meet other interesting people on the way. It’s almost possible to just take it all in as a travelogue with a bit more family business than you usually get. Remove the sotto voce Maguffin – the land deal, the insensate woman – and that is pretty much what it is. But with it in, and Clooney’s calm, almost hypnotic voice, Payne makes it a drama about the slow, almost tectonic emergence of a new land mass – Matt’s humanity, dignity, nobility.



Why Watch?

  • Another smart Alexander Payne comedy
  • George Clooney’s anchoring performance
  • The emergence of Shailene Woodley
  • The cinematography of Phedon Papamichael



The Descendants – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014


Bathory: Countess of Blood

Anna Friel in Bathory: Countess of Blood

 

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

 

 

20 August

 

Hungary founded by St Stephen, 1000

On this day in 1000, Hungary was established as a country in the Carpathian basin by Stephen I. The area had been settled by semi-nomadic tribes out of the Urals, led by Arpad (c845-c907), and his descendants consolidated their power in the region. Stephen’s father, Géza (grandson of Arpad), had made peace with the Holy Roman Empire and started the process of turning the country Christian. Stephen, once he had dealt with a rival claim to the throne by Koppány, his uncle, continued the process, applying to Pope Sylvester II for the insignia of royalty, which he was granted. He was crowned on 25 December 1000 (or possibly 1001) and during his reign turned his country into a modern feudal state with Latin as its official language. Latin remained the official language of the country until 1844.

 

 

 

Bathory (2008, dir: Juraj Jakubisko)

If you know anything about the Hungarian countess Erzsébet Báthory (1560-1614) it’s probably that she was a female Vlad the Impaler – bloodthirsty and impossibly cruel. Not in this film she’s not. Played by Anna Friel as a beautiful, intellectual and artistic renaissance woman, Bathory is also sensitively democratic, a noblewoman who becomes the victim of a mad, male-dominated system driven by lust and war, and more lust and war. To say that revisionism is on the film’s agenda is to understate – revisionism is the film’s sole purpose. This doesn’t help the film much, which looks like a throwback to Soviet era film-making, for good and ill. On the upside, the sets and locations are magnificent, but there is more downside – the post-production is terrible, and is in fact so bad that it would undoubtedly have consigned the film to the distributor’s “never” shelf if it had been made in a different country. So, are we watching to poke fun at another country’s inadequacies? Not entirely. Bathory is the English-language debut of the highly respected veteran director Juraj Jakubisko and was the most expensive film ever made by Czech or Slovak cinema. It’s an absolutely prime example of a good film that’s been ruined by bad editing, dubbing and all the other tricks of the post-production suite, and is comprised of about 75 per cent horror of a particularly mad communist sort, a belt of Fellini (who admired Jakubisko), plus some odd giallo fantasy. No bathing in virgin’s blood though, which was the secret of Bathory’s perennial youth, according to legend, even if Friel does spend large swathes of the film naked. Instead there’s the story of a woman doing her best but caught up in the religious games of rival Christian groups – Catholic and Protestant – all part of a larger game about the future direction of the country. Bathory is clearly on the side of progress, learning and civilisation and in the first section of the three-part film we see her romancing Caravaggio (Hans Matheson), who in reality was gay and never left Italy, but hey. In part two she forms a relationship with a healer (director Juraj Jakubisko’s wife Deana). In part three Karel Roden arrives, the actor rarely the harbinger of benign developments in any film. Here he’s playing the Palatine Thurzo, and the countess’s widowhood makes her all the more vulnerable to his machinations. Cackle, swish.
Watch this film for a flavour of the one that got away – the gorgeous women, the impressive castles, the lusciously decorated medieval interiors, grand balls, sumptuous clothes. And the cinematography is equally glorious, Jakubisko and DPs FA Brabec and Ján Duris having a real eye for pastoral beauty. But the roller-skating monks, hallucinogenic drugs, the steampunk ambitions, these are as laughable as some of the cast’s reading of English (phonetic, I suspect).

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Anna Friel’s performance
  • Franco Nero’s King Matthias II
  • The lush cinematography
  • A multiple award winner

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Bathory: Countess of Blood – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Patience Stone

Golshifteh Farahani and Hamidreza Javdan in The Patience Stone

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

 

 

19 August

 

Afghanistan independence, 1919

On this day in 1919, King Amanullah Khan declared Afghanistan a sovereign and independent country. His country had been at war with the British since May of 1919, in what is now called the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Until it started, the British had been attempting to keep Afghanistan out of the Russian military sphere by paying the Afghans huge amount of money. However, the Afghans had been taking money from the Russians too, playing one side off against the other. The First World War had changed everything. For one thing it had made Afghanistan realise that with the British at war and the Russians busy with a revolution, it could be an independent country in its own right. After the assassination of the pragmatic Habibullah, his successor Amanullah sought to enhance his claim as Amir against Habibullah’s brother, Nasrullah, by invading British India. The British won the conflict, but with twice the number of men lost. In the peace treaty that was signed between them, the British gained assurances that the border between Afghanistan and India, the Durand Line, was settled, and also stopped paying a subsidy to Afghanistan. Afghanistan gained its independence.

 

 

 

The Patience Stone (2012, dir: Atiq Rahimi)

What do women know that men never know? That’s the story behind The Patience Stone, a confessional drama based on the Persian tale about a stone you can confide in, happy it will never tell a soul what it has heard. Here the stone is a man, but he’s comatose and so has no idea that his wife is pouring out her heart and soul to him, partly to pass the time, partly to assuage the fear she feels at being trapped in an Afghani village being torn apart by factional fighting, partly through frustration. At first she doesn’t say much, talks about the passing of the day, trivial jobs that need doing, his condition, their marriage… and once she hits this point it is as if a small dam has been breached and it all starts coming out.
One woman talking to herself, it could easily get boring, except that writer/director Atiq Rahimi builds these soliloquies carefully, so they become increasingly frank, increasingly shocking, and they also start to cohere into the story of the woman’s life: how her sister was given away by her father to pay a gambling debt; how when her husband was away his brothers would secretively watch her bathe and would masturbate. And Rahimi punctuates the soliloquies with two visitations. The first is by the woman’s aunt, a more worldly woman, the full extent of whose worldliness won’t become apparent until much later on in some shock reveals. The second is a group of soldiers who blunder in looking for spoils of war and find a beautiful woman. And she, to protect herself, tells them she is a prostitute, knowing that being unclean in their eyes might save her from gang-rape. It works. But later, guilty and stuttering, the youngest and most handsome of the men returns with money clutched in his sweaty hand, to conduct some business.
In stark contrasts Rahimi reveals what the life of the woman (played by Golshifteh Farahani, her character credited only as “the woman”) is like without the presence of men, and then again with it. No polemic is necessary, all is entirely clear. She is a chattel.
There are more revelations and more twists than you might think possible from what is almost a one-handed, single-person film. But the drama is bolstered by Farahani’s careful paying out of this woman’s character, revealing her nature bit by bit, her luminous eyes and darting voice managing more expression than most actors can manage with everything at their disposal. You can see both why she is a sensation in Persian-speaking parts of the world, if only to audiences – she’s officially a persona non grata in Iran, thanks to films like this. The cinematography by Luc Besson’s DP, Thierry Arbogast, helps too, adding a slick sheen to locations that, to western eyes, are usually associated with dust, dirt and the squalor of the developing world. It confounds expectations, in other words. Which, in many ways, is the whole purpose of the film.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Golshifteh Farahani’s sensitive performance
  • The Moroccan locations (standing in for Afghanistan)
  • Thierry Arbogast’s cinematography
  • A festival and awards favourite

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Patience Stone – 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

 

 

 

 

Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival

The Isle of Wight Festival, 1970

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

 

 

17 August

 

Woodstock ends, 1969

On this day in 1969, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair ended. Billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music” it was held at a dairy farm near White Lake, New York. 32 acts had played to 400,000 people who had paid $18 in advance ($24 at the gate). Richie Havens had been the first act on and Jimi Hendrix was the last act, playing a two hour set that included his version of the Star Spangled Banner – shocking both to those who didn’t want to hear it desecrated and to those who didn’t want to hear anything so patriotic played. In fact Hendrix was playing from 9am to 11am on the morning of 18 August – overruns and flexible scheduling being at least partly what the festival was about. The entire event had originally grown from the notion that Woodstock might be a festival mostly featuring musicians who lived or worked in area, the promoters particularly keen to get Bob Dylan and The Band on board. This was not to be. On the day the festival started Dylan had embarked on the Queen Elizabeth 2 to sail for the UK and the Isle of Wight festival. Woodstock did OK without him.

 

 

 

Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival (1997, dir: Murray Lerner)

Murray Lerner’s film was a long time coming. Thanks a to a legal wrangle over who owed what money to whom, the film didn’t see the light of day until 1997. And how fitting that it was money that caused the delay. Because in among the performances by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Hendrix, the Who and the Doors, are moments that catch the irony at the heart of the hippie ideal – it’s the straights who make hippiedom possible. But first some details: held a year after Woodstock on a small island off the coast of the United Kingdom, it was the biggest countercultural/music event of its time, with estimates of attendance ranging from 600,000 to 700,000. Along with those already mentioned, Sly and the Family Stone, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Free, Jethro Tull and Miles Davis took part. Not a bad bunch of headliners.
If the Woodstock film catches a festival full of optimism and some complacency, Message to Love catches rock culture just as it moves from being a fun ad hoc arrangement into the new establishment. There is tension everywhere, between those outside who want the fences torn down so the festival can be free, and those inside who want everyone involved to get paid. Breadheads versus dopeheads. While performers are talking about peace and love on stage, their managers are engaged in full-bore argument backstage trying to make sure their man (or woman, in Joan Baez’s notable case) gets his/her due.
Lerner had already made a film about the Newport Folk Festival, so he knew what he was doing and what’s notable about Message to Love is how well shot and put together it is. For sure, Lerner plays up the tension – the locals, the police, the crowd, the performers are all shown at their worst (Joni Mitchell calling the crowd “tourists”; she means “peasants”), and funniest. He has an eye for a performance too. Not that Hendrix or the Doors were that incendiary – and both Hendrix and Jim Morrison would be dead within a year so it’s a shame – but Lerner’s beady eye catches exactly what it’s like to be watching an iconic performer at the wrong time of day (the Doors were on at something like 3am), with inadequate sound, bad weather and a grumpy lead singer. Actually, considering, the Doors are not at all bad.
So, the walls do eventually come down and the paying ticket holders (60,000 or so) are joined by the other 500,000 or so who haven’t paid. Making the best of a bad thing, the organisers decide to declare the Isle of Wight a “free festival”. It’s clear a lot of musicians aren’t going to get their money and that the organisers are heading for bankruptcy. Lerner catches it all in painful detail.
The festival has gone down in history as a desperate financial failure, but the film is a resounding success. Murray has it all as it goes rotten in front of his lens. It’s a good story, a great one in fact. And it’s a great film about the death of the 1960s ideal – funny how many of those there are. And it’s Hendrix, king of the era, whose song provides the film’s ironic title.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A brilliant story, well told
  • Iconic footage
  • Great music
  • Big artistic egos losing their temper

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Doors: When You’re Strange

The Doors pose on some steps

 

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

 

 

16 August

 

Elvis Presley dies, 1977

On this day in 1977, the King of Rock’n’Roll, Elvis Presley, died, an old man culturally and physically at 42. He had been physically in a steep decline since 1973, having overdosed twice on barbiturates that year. By 1977 he was fat and so dosed with drugs that he could barely talk on stage. He was suffering from glaucoma, liver damage, an enlarged heart and an enlarged colon. On the afternoon of 16 August, Elvis’s fiancée, Ginger Alden, found him on the bathroom floor dead. A lab report found his body contained 14 drugs, ten in “significant quantity”, though medical examiner Dr Jerry Francisco declared that death was caused by cardiac arrhythmia, before the autopsy and toxicology results were in. The autopsy case was re-opened in 1994, at which point it was declared that Presley had died of a “sudden, violent heart attack”.

 

 

 

When You’re Strange (2009, dir: Tom DiCillo)

A feature length episode of the TV series American Masters, When You’re Strange is probably the definitive documentary on The Doors and is certainly the antidote to Oliver Stone’s babbly The Doors. Its USP is the new footage it contains, most of it unseen before, and what’s more most of it very sharp, colourful and not at all old looking. Much of it shot in 1965, when Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore first got the band together, the footage confirms what was instinctively apparent back then – that California was about 30 years ahead of the world. You could literally pick up Morrison et al and drop them down in an other subsequent time (OK, maybe not the 1980s) and they’d fit in. Fittingly, it’s Johnny Depp doing the voiceover.
If Morrison was one of the rock gods, that baritone voice alone making him noteworthy, the band is one of the total rock bands. The new footage is threaded judiciously through more traditional ways of hiding the gaps by director Tom DiCillo – a bit of old archive here, photographs and a touch of reconstruction there, though notably there is no modern day talking head footage: that way less revisionism, perhaps. It tells the familiar story of the rise of a rock band, from meeting in film school, to playing in Los Angeles venues such as the London Fog and Whisky a Go Go, to their first big hit (Light My Fire) which earned them a $50,000 royalty cheque each. And as we watch we see Morrison declining, drunk and stoned on the Ed Sullivan Show, high on stage as the police literally stand guard over him while he sings – the law in attendance is surely the high point of rock’n’roll – to ensure he doesn’t do anything lewd, which wasn’t unknown. As Morrison gets more bloated, he ironically switched vocal allegiance from Elvis to Sinatra, a detail which makes you wonder what he would have sounded like if he’d come out of purdah in Paris, instead of dying there of heart failure caused by over-indulgence. And as Morrison did more drugs, so the albums took longer to record – 1969’s The Soft Parade taking nine months. However, The Doors’ last album, and most well known, LA Woman, took only about a week, and featured Jerry Scheff, of Elvis’s band, playing bass. A new start? Sadly not.
Of course the film is in groupie territory, shedding more heat than light on the Doors, but it does it slickly, is highly entertaining and anyway it’s hard to resist Morrison and the band at their best, which they are. As the credits prepare to roll, DiCillo runs a few statistics – the band were together for 54 months, they have sold over 80 million albums (it’ll be over 100 million by now) and their songs have never been used in a car commercial. Cut straight to the credits and the opening “I wanna tell you about Texas Radio and the Big Beat” of The Wasp.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • New footage of one of the great bands
  • Jim Morrison, the rock god template
  • It taps the zeitgeist
  • The music, man

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Doors: When You’re Strange – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Since Otar Left

Dinara Drukarova, Nino Khomasuridze and Esther Gorintin

 

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

 

 

15 August

 

Cave city of Vardzia consecrated, 1185

On this day in 1185, the cave monastery of Vardzia, on the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain in Southern Georgia, was consecrated by Queen Tamar of Georgia.

Building on the site, about 19 tiers high, had started a couple of years earlier, but excavation shows that people had been living there since the Bronze Age.

Tamar was a warrior queen and dedicated the site to the Virgin Mary after successes against the Muslim invader. Because of its height and its construction in the rock, the site was held to be as impregnable “as the wall of Alexander the Great”, as the Persian Hasan Bey Rumlu described it.

However, this proved not to be the case and it was taken, and sacked, by the Persian Shah Tahmasp I in 1551. The Ottomans arrived in 1578, the monks left and the site was abandoned.

Today, it is visited by people eager to see the construction itself – 242 rooms and a church in the western site; 165 rooms, including six chapel, in the eastern – and its famous wall paintings. It is a candidate for inclusion on Unescso’s World Heritage List.

 

 

 

Since Otar Left (2003, dir: Julie Bertuccelli)

The story of modern Europe since the Wall came down, Since Otar Left focuses on a family torn about by economics and is about migrant workers and the families they leave behind.

Though the story is familiar, it’s unlikely you’ll have seen it told as well as it is here, the acting at such a level that we’re entirely engaged with the three women Otar has left behind – the grandmother Eka (Esther Gorintin), the mother Marina (Nino Khomassouridze) and her eye-magnet daughter Ada (Dinara Droukarova).

Otar is Eka’s son, a doctor who went to Paris to make money working on a construction site. Since Otar left, the relationship with him has been the odd snatched call on telephones that don’t work so well since the communists lost power (says Eka), as well as the sum of money he regularly sends back.

And then, as often happens to migrant construction workers, Otar dies. Marina is worried that it will kill her aged mother if she finds out. And so the two younger women decide to keep the truth from Eka, in a plot development that feels as if the film is going to head into the comic territory of Good Bye Lenin!

It doesn’t, though. Instead director Bertuccelli and her gifted trio of actors spin a teasing story of two younger women holding out against the older woman, and then the older woman finding out anyway, because she’s been alive longer and simply has more guile than they do. Which leads to Eka deciding, once and for all, to settle the increasingly dubious fact of Otar’s existence by heading off to Paris, a place she hasn’t visited since the Second World War.

Bertuccelli has a history as a documentary maker, and also did time as an assistant to Kieslowski, Iosseliani and Tavernier, so you might expect her feature debut to be intelligent, focused and well crafted. But this beautiful? – the shots of Tbilisi could be hoovered up and re-used by a grateful tourist office. This well acted? – Gorintin is a total find (she was 90 when this was made and had only made her acting debut five years earlier), though all three actresses are remarkable in their interplay, as if they had known each other for decades.

There’s a documentary-maker’s eye, too, for their surroundings – the book-packed apartment they share, crammed with the belongings of women from three different generations – and Bertuccelli constantly stays away from the close-up. The film is about the women being in their environment and of their environment.

So what of Otar? Not much, to be honest. He’s the Macguffin that drives this beautifully observed character piece whose perfection would be complete if it stopped at the point where it is revealed that the old lady has trumped the other two. Or perhaps that would be too Hollywood.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Christophe Pollock’s sun-kissed cinematography
  • Esther Gorintin – a brilliantly understated comic actress
  • Tbilisi – a beautiful city
  • Perfect ensemble playing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Since Otar Left – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Our Beloved Month of August

Fábio Oliveira and Sónia Bandeira

 

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

 

 

14 August

 

Battle of Aljubarrota, 1385

On this day in 1385, the battle of Aljubarrota ended Spanish designs on Portugal and confirmed an independent throne in Portugal, under King John I. The battle was waged between John I of Portugal and his English allies on one side and King John I of Castile and his Aragonese, Italian and French allies on the other side. The situation had come about after the previous king of Portugal, Ferdinand I, had died without male issue and had declared that the crown would pass to his daughter, Beatrice, and her intended, Juan I of Castile. This would have seen the throne pass into Spanish hands, a situation the Portuguese nobility and merchant class were unwilling to accept. It fell to John, the bastard child of Ferdinand I’s father, Peter I, to seize the moment and begin hostilities against the Castilians. John appealed both to Portugal’s English allies and to the Church to recognise his claim and support him. England did and, honouring the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373, it sent troops hardened by the Hundred Years War to help John, now recognised inside Portugal as John I. The battle was defensive, with the Portuguese choosing the site – Sao Jorge near Aljubarrota – and waiting there for the Castilians to arrive, which they duly did. The Portuguese had the advantage of English bowmen and they dug pits and ditches to disrupt the Castilian cavalry. They also had the advantage of a clear view over the battlefield. When the fighting eventually started, around 6pm, the French and Castilian cavalry were soon in disarray, thanks to the Portuguese tactics, which led to a bloody pitch battle at close quarters. Before sunset the Castilians were on the run.

 

 

 

Our Beloved Month of August (2008, dir: Miguel Gomes)

Films that start as one thing and end as another tend to be irritating to but they do happen – the spoof superhero film that really wants to get its cape on and be a real superhero film being the most common. But how about a film that starts as a documentary and ends as a love story? That’s what This Dear Month/Our Beloved Month of August does – its title varies with region. We appear to be watching a traditional travelogue set in Portugal, which is extolling the virtues of this beautifully simple village, full of pious people who carry statues in the local religious parades. We hear about the local tradition of jumping off the bridge into the river at carnival and meet a local oddball who has hurt his ankle doing just that. Boom mics are in evidence, a documentary is clearly being made. And then we overhear two villagers discussing their “roles”. Hang on. Aren’t they “real” people? Are they having a joke about being in a film, daaahhling? Then we’re off again, taking in a lot of music by local MOR dance bands, the sort you get in the cosy restaurants of the Portuguese diaspora wherever they’ve made their home. It’s only later on that we realise that these bands form the bridge between the general travelogue and the specific story this clever and atmospheric film tells, about a female singer, her boyfriend and the girl’s jealous (and possibly incestuous) father.
This relationship might provide the bridge but the film is really about the slide from one genre to another, the feelings it stirs up in the viewer, this viewer anyway, as he goes from watching what he takes to be true (documentary), to what he challenges as true (the “staged reality” sequences beloved of shows such as Jersey Shore and The Only Way Is Essex), to what he can comfortably sit back and watch as “proper” fiction. It doesn’t stop there, either. Right at the end director Miguel Gomes pushes the film once more, into the fantastical, just a nudge, just enough to let the audience know that it’s being dicked about with again.
The entire effect is remarkable, making the film like no other I’ve ever seen, not even like the director’s follow-up, Tabu, which is another remarkable film about the expectations that genres set up. You might expect the feeling that Gomes engenders to be bewilderment, but in fact, because there’s something so perfect about the way Gomes has pulled it off, it’s more like elation.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Miguel Gomes announces himself as a great film-maker
  • Rui Poças’s cinematography
  • The sound design of Vasco Pimentel
  • Sónia Bandeira as Tânia

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Our Beloved Month of August – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

One, Two, Three

Cagney reprises the grapefruit scene from The Public Enemy in One, Two, Three

 

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

 

 

13 August

 

Berlin Wall goes up, 1961

On this day in 1961, Berliners woke up to a Berlin divided by a wall.

The capital of Berlin had been partitioned in the aftermath of the Second World War. Like the rest of Germany, but in microcosm, Berlin was parcelled out between the victorious powers – US, UK, USSR and France.

However, Berlin was entirely surrounded by Soviet territory, the allies’ parts of Germany being in the west of the country, and the fear amongst Berliners was that all of the city would be swallowed up by the Soviets.

Stalin had already tried this before, in the Berlin Blockade of 1948, when the Soviets shut the roads which connected West Germany through the Soviet sector and into West Berlin. The allies had responded with a massive airlift and in 1949 Stalin had capitulated.

However, the tone had been set and a huge brain drain out of East Berlin (and therefore out of the whole of the Soviet part of Germany, and indeed the whole of the Soviet Bloc) got underway with anyone who wanted to leave simply having to make it to Berlin.

On 15 June 1961 Walter Ubricht, effectively the GDR boss, had stated that “Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten.” (“No one has the intention of building a wall”). On the night of 12 August the border between east and west Berlin was closed and by the next morning workers had erected a physical barrier of fences and barbed wire along the 27 mile (43 km) barrier between the two zones.

The following day the concrete arrived.

 

 

 

One, Two, Three (1961, dir: Billy Wilder)

It’s said that after Billy Wilder debuted Sunset Boulevard, Louis B Meyer was furious with him for showing the ugly mechanical workings of the Hollywood dream machine – “You bastard,” Meyer reportedly shouted. “You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you.”

Wilder’s films always seemed to have that edge to them, of it not being entirely clear whose side he was on. One, Two, Three is his take on post-War Berlin, a farce played out lightning speed, so fast in fact that it takes two or three viewings to catch it all. It’s worth more.

Jimmy Cagney, 62-years-old but moving like a cat, plays CR MacNamara, the ambitious regional boss of Coca-Cola forced to babysit his American boss’s teenage daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) for two weeks.

She’s a dizzy thing, attractive and has soon fallen for East German communist Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz). No problem, thinks big Mac, I’ll incriminate the Kraut by planting the Wall Street Journal on him and get him arrested by the secret police.

It’s at this point he discovers that the girl is in fact pregnant with Piffl’s child. Going to Plan B, cobbled together on the run, Mac now has to somehow get Piffl out of jail and turn him into a Coke-swilling capitalist worthy of the young woman before Scarlett’s daddy arrives.

Strangely overlooked when Wilder films are discussed, perhaps because it moves so fast that a lot of people can’t follow it, the film does suffer from a topicality so current that a lot of the jokes are gone with 1961’s newspapers. But a lot aren’t, and the energy of Cagney is astonishing as he charges around Berlin, getting deeper and deeper into trouble, barking orders, entering scenes and then leaving before his presence has even properly registered.

Wilder was shooting on old turf – in Berlin where he’d lived before the war, and in studios in Munich where he’d also worked after transitioning from journalist to film-maker and before fleeing Hitler for Hollywood.

It’s possibly this journalist’s streak that gives the film its verve – tell the story straight and clear and don’t hang about is what the best sort of journalism is about, after all.

Though as with the best Wilder films there is a knot at the centre that Wilder is exploring along with the neuroses of his subjects, in this case American cultural imperialism, Cagney running all over Berlin like the gangsters he so famously used to portray, because he represents Coca-Cola and can do what he wants. Meanwhile, the East Berlin Wilder depicts is dour, flat, joyless.

Wilder was shooting as the Wall was going up, and while Andy Warhol was creating his iconic Coke bottle pop art. Coke, the great equalizer, in a city where, in the Soviet part of it at least, equality was supposed to be the biggest show in town.

You could dig around like this for hours, finding cultural significance. Luckily the film is so funny you probably won’t want to.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great and overlooked Billy Wilder comedy
  • A great and overlooked James Cagney performance
  • Horst Buchholz, one of the Magnificent Seven
  • A fine Cold War product

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

One, Two, Three – Watch it now at Amazon

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