Gerard Butler and Idris Elba in RocknRolla


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



06 September



Idris Elba born, 1972

On this day in 1972, Eve Elba gave birth to Idrissa Akuna Elba, who shortened his name to Idris after starting school in London’s Canning Town. A big kid at school, Idris had the status that went with it, was good at sport, interested in music, keen on acting, where he found he had the self-confidence to “disappear into the character”. At 14 he was a pirate DJ. At 16 he was a theatre stagehand and also did night shifts at Ford’s Dagenham factory. In his early 20s the acting took off and he went from playing the rogue in Crimewatch reconstructions, to picking up regular bit roles in long-running British TV series such as The Bill and The Ruth Rendell Mysteries before moving to New York. In 2002 he got cast in The Wire, as Stringer Bell, and his life changed. Since then he has played Luther in the BBC series – TV’s angriest cop – and has worked in film with directors such as Tyler Perry, Danny Boyle, Guillermo Del Toro and Ridley Scott. He is about to play Nelson Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom. With Elba, you suspect his best work is still to come.



RocknRolla (2008, dir: Guy Ritchie)

It’s not big, but it is clever, Guy Ritchie’s film about London gangsters and Russian mobsters getting in a lather about a painting is an exercise in straight-faced hard-boiled laughs. Not unlike his other films in fact. But this time out Ritchie has the confidence to more or less dispense with trivial detail such as believable plot or character. Rocknrolla is the sort of film where you know the cut of a man’s jib from the style of his syrup (that’s wig, in rhyming slang), or his dress sense, where the aforementioned painting is introduced as the most transparent of Macguffins, and has just enough presence to compress the many characters together into something resembling a story. This is an exercise in preposterous characterisation, with Idris Elba and fellow Brit contingent Tom Wilkinson, Gerard Butler, Thandie Newton and Tom Hardy doing the majority of the work. Meanwhile the US contingent – the likes of Jeremy Piven and Ludacris – are stapled in, the most obvious of “one morning’s work, honest” contributions which Ritchie, again, does nothing to hide. Can you make a coherent film like this? No, but you can make one that’s a lot of fun.



Why Watch?


  • Mark Strong’s ridiculous hair
  • Another great criminal mastermind role for Tom Wilkinson
  • Thandie Newton playing an accountant
  • Ritchie’s best cockney, mockney, whatever film since… possibly ever


© Steve Morrissey 2013



RocknRolla – at Amazon





If Not Us, Who?

August Diehl and Lena Lauzemis in If Not Us, Who


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



5 September



Kidnapping of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, 1977

On this day in 1977, the West German businessman Hanns-Martin Schleyer – a former SS officer who had risen to post-war prominence in the country’s employers organisation – was kidnapped in Cologne by the militant urban guerrilla group Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, as part of what became know as the German Autumn.

His kidnappers were hoping to use him, at least partly, as collateral to force the government to release jailed members of their gang, including prominent faces Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin.

While the gang moved Schleyer around, from Germany to the Netherlands and then to Brussels, the government played for time and refused to give ground.

Finally, 43 days later, after Baader, Ensslin and fellow RAF member Jan-Carl Raspe had been found shot dead in their high-security prison – a “collective suicide”, though Baader appears magically to have shot himself through the base of the neck, the bullet emerging through his forehead – Schleyer was assassinated by his kidnappers, tit for tat.



If Not Us, Who? (2011, dir: Andres Veiel)

An attempt to put the Red Army Faction into some cultural/historical context, focusing on the political awakening and increasing activism of Gudrun Ennslin (Lena Lauzemis), a young woman coming of age in the 1960s and of the opinion that fascism hadn’t been defeated by the fall of Hitler, in fact it was on its way back, thanks to the machinations of the West German state (and the rehabilitation of people like Hanns-Martin Schleyer).

The strongest feature of Andres Veiel’s film is that it asks us to imagine a country which was not only dealing with the youthquake sweeping the western world, but doing it in a situation where the older generation had little moral authority, thanks to the Nazi taint, where chickens bred by “not mentioning the war” were finally coming home to roost.

Let’s make no bones about it, this film is dry, it’s political, it’s earnest. But it also catches the headiness and optimism of the period and is astute in its analysis of the situation and its conclusions – that political edifices built on shaky foundations can become almost the exact opposite of what they set out to be.



Why Watch?


  • A subject ripe for frothing exploitation given a cool-headed treatment
  • A West German counterpoint to the East German-focused The Lives of Others
  • Lauzemis makes a for a very believable Gudrun Ennslin
  • No one gets an easy ride



© Steve Morrissey 2013



If Not Us, Who – at Amazon

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Los Angeles Plays Itself

An illuminated billboard at dusk

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

04 September Founding of Los Angeles, 1781

On this day in 1781 a group of 44 people (plus four soldiers) known as the Pobladores founded the “city” of Los Angeles. Or as it was known then El Peublo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles sobre el Río Porciúncula (the Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels on the Porciuncula River) – California (or Las Californias) being still part of the Spanish empire in those days.

The group comprised 11 men, 11 women and 22 children, and were a racially mixed bunch who had been recruited with difficulty in Mexico. The descendants of the Pobladores – many of whom became vastly rich on the huge tracts of land a grateful government granted them – now meet on this day every year to recreate the last nine miles of the walk into the city. And these days, having been silent on the subject for a long time, they’re not quite so touchy about their multiracial origins.

Sign reading "Jackie Chan's Rush Hour Was Shot Here"
Movie City

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003, dir: Thom Andersen)

A documentary for movie nuts, history hobbyists, lovers of cityscapes and LA fiends, Thom Andersen’s 169 minute essay on his home town is divided into three sections – Los Angeles (he hates the demeaning abbreviation LA) as backdrop, as character and as subject. With clips from more than 200 movies to back him up, Andersen does for LA (sorry) in some respects what Terence Davis does for Liverpool in Of Time and the City: composes a love letter that also exposes running sores, rights wrongs, busts myths and creates new mythologies.

Andersen might be an academic at the California Institute of the Arts, but this is no LA 101 overview, it’s a tightly argued, ideologically driven thesis about how his hometown has been cinematographically used and abused, how it’s the most photographed city in the world yet the least photogenic, how East Coasters like Woody Allen, or the countless disaster-movie producers who love blowing it up, just don’t get the place.

Against a barrage of excerpts from The Postman Always Rings Twice, Chinatown, LA Confidential, The Omega Man, Kiss Me Deadly, Blade Runner, even Laurel and Hardy movies, Andersen presents his ideas as a goad, as a starting point for debate. And he attempts to excavate the “real” Los Angeles that keeps on chugging along below the misrepresentation and cultural vandalism.

If you’ve read Mike Davis’s magisterial City of Glass, this is something like the visual counterpart. And if you don’t buy the general Andersen thesis, the movie clips alone are well worth the investment of time.

Why Watch?

  • It gives Los Angeles back to those who use it most
  • Andersen is intelligent, opinionated, crotchety and dry
  • Sacred cows (Woody Allen, Robert Altman) are slaughtered
  • There are a shitload of great clips

Anderson’s fascinating documentary is finally available to buy. You can get it here on Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

The Lion in Winter

Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lionheart in The Lion in Winter




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



03 September



Richard I of England crowned at Westminster, 1189

On this day in 1189 one of the most famous English kings was crowned in Westminster Abbey in London. Known as the Lionheart, because of his great courage in battle, he is often viewed romantically, especially if seen through the prism of the Robin Hood stories, in which his half brother John always gets the bad guy role and Richard is the paragon of virtue. Richard spoke French, not English (he was also the Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine, Nantes, Anjou, Gascony and so on – the idea of monarchy and nation being coterminous is something Richard wouldn’t have understood), he spent only six months of his reign in England, and while there initiated a great pogrom against the Jews. After which, ironically, he headed off on the Third Crusade to expel Saladin the Muslim from Jerusalem. No lover of England – “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer” – he was reputed to have had a homosexual affair with Philip II of France. Not quite the figure you meet in the movies then.



The Lion in Winter (1968, dir: Anthony Harvey)

This was only director Anthony Harvey’s second film, after a career as an editor (for Kubrick on Lolita and Dr Strangelove, among others). And what a theatrical beast it is – a literate costume drama focusing on 50-year-old Henry II’s decision-making over who was to succeed him. The candidates are oldest but faintly idiot son John (Nigel Terry), warlike Richard (Anthony Hopkins) and gentle Geoffrey (John Castle). To oil the wheels he’s released his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), from house arrest where she’s been languishing for ten years – he’s that kind of a guy. Meanwhile Philip II of France (Timothy Dalton) is complicating matters, wondering just which of the three lads is going to become king, so he can strategically marry his sister off to the lucky winner. But never mind the plot, look at those names. I forgot to mention that it’s Peter O’Toole playing Henry II, putting in a burning, intelligent performance that should have won him an Oscar (Hepburn did win one). Adding further heft is John Barry’s typically plaintive score (medieval 007 – it’s fantastic) and the cinematography is by Douglas Slocombe (everything from the Lavender Hill Mob and The Italian Job to Raiders of the Lost Ark).



Why Watch?

  • Hopkins, Hepburn, O’Toole – enough said
  • Like A Man for All Seasons, an unapologetically stagy drama
  • A rare example of a costume drama with great box office
  • Epic on almost every level



© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Lion in Winter – at Amazon






Peter Finch delivers his "mad as hell speech in Network


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



02 September



50th Anniversary of CBS Evening News


On this day in 1963 CBS’s flagship news show – broadcast since 1948 – assumed the title CBS Evening News. At which point it became US network TV’s first half-hour weeknight news broadcast. Walter Cronkite was its presenter (he’d taken over from Douglas Edwards the year before), a position he’d hold until 1981. A solid, progressive middle-American with natural gravitas, Cronkite became known as “the most trusted man in America” and the CBS Evening News became the country’s ratings-leading and most authoritative news broadcast. To this day when footage about the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, the moon landings or the Watergate break-ins is shown, there’s a fair chance that it’s Cronkite’s voice you’ll hear.


Network – (1976, dir: Sidney Lumet)

A prescient drama about the way news reporting on TV was heading, Network was also something of an elegy for the way it had been. Faye Dunaway won an Oscar for her portrayal of driven programming executive from the UBS network who’d do anything for ratings, and this was pretty much the last time she’d be in anything really of note, doing anything worth talking about. The same could be also said of William Holden, as news boss Max Schumacher, and of Peter Finch, as the crazed veteran news anchor who announces he’s going to kill himself live on air one night and gets a huge ratings boost as a result – Finch died before getting his posthumous Oscar. Sidney Lumet, an old TV hand, directs with a sure invisible hand and a real knowledge of the milieu, doing his best with Paddy Chayefsky’s furious script, which reaches for more than it can grasp. Tilt Network sideways and you’ve got Anchorman – but that’s another story.



Why Watch?


  • An epic Peter Finch performance, his last
  • Faye Dunaway at fever pitch
  • It’s a caustic satire whose predictions have all come true
  • A reminder of thoughtful, adult Hollywood film-making
  • Finch’s famous “I’m mad as hell” speech


© Steve Morrissey 2013


Network – at Amazon





A Trip to the Moon

The famous moon landing in Georges Méliès's A Trip to the Moon

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


1 September

Generally speaking I’m going to choose historical events rather than movie events as a peg off which to hang the Film of the Day. But today is the first one so why not make an exception?

Debut Screening by George Méliès of A Trip to the Moon, 1902

On this day in 1902, the great showman, illusionist and restless inventor George Méliès gave the first showing of Le Voyage dans la Lune. It was the Star Wars of its day and a huge international hit. If it wasn’t the first sci-fi film ever made, it was, along with the Parisian’s other films, one of the first. It can also claim to be one of the first special effects movies. And on top of that it was also the first work to be designated as a World Heritage film by Unesco.



A Trip to the Moon (1902, dir: Georges Méliès)

Méliès took the basic idea from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (a gun club shoot a spaceship at the moon) and mixed it with HG Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (when they get there they find a highly civilised society) and turned it into a 17-minute feast of colour (hand-tinted), drama and special effects. Regardless of whether or not you think it still stands up, the image of the capsule hitting the Moon square in the eye is iconic – and the capsule itself strongly prefigures Nasa’s, which wouldn’t be designed for more than 50 years. Martin Scorsese drew heavily on the story of Méliès for his 2011 film Hugo, casting Ben Kingsley as Méliès.



Why Watch?


  • Completely iconic – and Méliès’s most famous film
  • Genre movie-making, sci-fi movies and grandiose special effects films start here
  • It’s the film that sent Méliès bankrupt (after Edison copied it, made a fortune and wouldn’t pay any royalties)
  • This is what Scorsese was getting so excited about when he made Hugo


© Steve Morrissey 2013



A Trip to the Moon (restoration of the hand-tinted version) – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate