Perfect Sense

Eva Green and Ewan McGregor in Perfect Sense

 

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

 

 

1 May

 

England and Scotland become the United Kingdom, 1707

On this day in 1707, the countries of England and Scotland officially became united in “one kingdom by the name of Great Britain” (according to the Acts of Union). By “England”, the acts included the country of Wales, which had become absorbed legally into England by the Laws in Wales Acts of 1535 and 1542. Though in terms of monarchy, the English throne had been seized by a Welshman, when Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) defeated Richard III in battle in 1485. This Tudor line persisted in England until 1603, when the Scottish Stuarts took over, James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England. The two countries continued to be considered separate legal and constitutional entities, though this “personal union” clearly paved the way for the two countries to become united.

 

 

 

Perfect Sense (2011, dir: David Mackenzie)

This dour and unusual sci-fi movie set in Scotland internalises the disaster movie almost entirely. Many hands feature in the production, but one of them is Zentropa, Lars Von Trier’s outfit, so the unexpected is to be expected. It’s a love story, about two people who meet just as a very odd slo-mo apocalypse is robbing humanity of its senses – first smell, then taste, then hearing, finally sight. Ewan McGregor plays a chef, Eva Green is a research scientist working on a cure for the problem, so both are intimately connected with the progress of the disease. As the film progresses, and people lose first their sense of smell and then taste, the chef’s restaurant obviously hits something of a bump in the road. Undaunted, well, very daunted but continuing anyway, its owner and kitchen staff come up with new ways to surprise and delight diners, focusing on texture rather than flavour, and the business comes back to life. They even get a glowing review in the local paper, which continues to be published.

In fact life, in spite of unrest and violence in other parts of the world glimpsed on TV, seems to be going on in this eminently practical part of the world. Which appears to be the film’s theme – that life goes on. The chef continues to ride around on his bicycle, the scientist keeps bombing about in her hot hatchback. Not for ever, of course, because the final loss – sight – will effectively make everyone in the planet a prisoner in their own body. And yet director David Mackenzie and writer Kim Fupz Aakeson have come up with a way of making even that awful fate less gruesome than it might be.

It was still too gruesome for many critics, though, who gave this film a terrible panning, those who noticed the film at all. And yet it is worth seeking out, for its intimacy, its focus on the two lovers (its lo-fi sci-fi romance would make it a good fit in a double bill with Gareth Edwards’s Monsters), its attention to detail, its strange optimism, and for the way its premise is worked through logically – in Nordic-noir-meets-dour-Scot style. As for the acting, this is real showcase stuff, and McGregor has the edge over Eva Green, who has probably never looked so sultry – those big panda eyes. One final thing. The sense of touch they retain, which justifies the frequent nudity.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A strange high concept sci-fi film
  • The support cast includes Stephen Dillane, Connie Nielsen and Ewen Bremner
  • Giles Nutgen’s intimate cinematography
  • That dark Danish attitude

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Perfect Sense – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Gravity

Sandra Bullock in a space suit, Gravity

 

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

 

 

14 April

 

Sputnik 2 falls from orbit, 1958

On this day in 1958, the second satellite to be launched into Earth orbit, Sputnik 2, fell back to earth. It had been launched on 3 November 1957 and was carrying Laika, a samoyed terrier cross chosen for her good nature – the first animal launched into space. Sputnik 2 carried enough food, water and air to keep Laika alive for ten days, but because of a malfunction, the temperature inside Sputnik 2 got too high (104ºF/40ºC) and Laika died after a few hours into the mission, from heat and stress. If she had not died one version of events suggests she would have been euthanised before Sputnik began its re-entry into the atmosphere. Another is that she would simply have fried along with the capsule. Images of Laika in orbit are undoubtedly faked, or taken from later missions, since Sputnik 2 had no camera on board.

 

 

 

Gravity (2013, dir: Alfonso Cuarón)

About a third of the way into Gravity – a film about an astronaut struggling for survival after a space walk goes awry – Sandra Bullock, our plucky spacewoman, picks up a fire extinguisher and gives it a parp to put out a fire. She is instantly blasted backwards. Newton’s third law of motion – any action has an equal and opposite reaction – has been demonstrated. Earlier we have seen thrilling, brilliant demonstrations of the first law (an object keeps moving unless something stops it), and his second (it’s harder to stop a heavy moving object than a light one). And we’ll go on seeing Newton’s laws demonstrated again and again, right up to the very last shot of the film (no spoilers), when the film’s title comes up in big letters – GRAVITY – to explain why we’re seeing what we’re seeing.
If that sounds boring – a film about physics – then you’re probably a dullard and you certainly haven’t seen Gravity, which must be the best sci-fi film of all time, or in the reckoning at least. The opening sequence – Bullock out in space nervous, George Clooney reassuring her with his Gorgeous George voice – is a piece of conceptual, special-effects genius, put together with total skill so that everything from the camera to the script to the intelligent, largely orchestra-free soundtrack combines first to lock us firmly into the time, the place and the situation, and then to keep us there, with the hairs on the back of the neck standing to attention. I’m being deliberately cagey about the plot, because this is also a very plot driven film too, with almost every “crucial next move” being a life and death one, apart from the couple of breathers that director Alfonso Cuarón and co-writer/son Jonás Cuarón gives us. Basically, Gravity is like that bit in a film where someone is hanging over a precipice by their fingernails, extended to feature length.
As a piece of kinetic cinema Gravity is close to perfect in every way. The production design catches that inky black/blinding white space look that no one since Stanley Kubrick seems to have been too bothered with. Then there’s Bullock, in Tom Hanks mode as the everyperson thrust into extraordinary peril. And Mr Clooney, whose “coffeetime George” shtick seems to be a furball to some people’s enjoyment, is also bang on the money – he’s meant to be a highly experienced and slightly smug senior officer (not uncoincidentally male) and what Cuarón does with the expectations that this sort of persona generates is another masterstroke.
Talking of expectations, Cuarón again manages these brilliantly in the odd scene where Bullock goes into “hokey existential” mode – the “I wish I’d been a better person” stuff which so often features in films like this. Again, just as you’re setting the viewing controls to autopilot while this naffness plays itself out, Cuarón pulls the rug out from under the feet. And you can have that mixed metaphor for free.
OK, OK, so nothing can be that perfect. Objections? Let’s just say that you might be thinking, by about the third time that Bullock has avoided being blasted off into oblivion, that she’s been extraordinarily lucky. You might also start wondering just why there are so many American films about blameless individuals removed from any social and political context, embattled, fighting the entire hostile universe (Robert Redford is currently doing something similar on a boat in All Is Lost). You might balk at some of the Kubrick references – Bullock being shot as some sort of “star child”, a bright ring of light around her, almost translucent skin, innocent, only the thumb-sucking missing. None of it bothered me because none of it slowed down the film, which has decided that what the film is “about” must take second place to what it is, a riveting adventure told at breakneck speed whose intention is to put your heart in your mouth and keep it there. Job done.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Emmanuel Lubezki’s innovative breathtaking cinematography
  • Steven Price’s score – thrilling yet different
  • The winner of seven Oscars – the right seven too
  • The nods to SFX guru Douglas Trumbull (2001, Close Encounters)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Gravity – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Solaris

Natalya Bondarchuk in Solaris

 

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

 

 

12 April

 

Yuri’s Night

Today marks the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first flight by a human –a “man” back then –  into space and the first orbital flight of a manned (humanned?) vehicle, on 12 April 1961, on board the Soviet spaceship Vostok 1.

It is celebrated across the world as Yuri’s Night, in the astronaut’s honour. It’s also used to applaud similarly momentous space exploration milestones. Yuri’s Night was first held in 2001, on the 40th anniversary of human spaceflight, though the Soviet Union had been honouring Cosmonautics Day since 1962, which since 2011 has been called the International Day of Human Space Flight.

12 April was also the day in 1981 when Nasa made the inaugural launch of the Space Shuttle, possibly just coincidentally.

The first Yuri’s Night was masterminded from Los Angeles but featured events and parties globally, from Australia and the South Pole to Dublin and even Houston, home of Nasa.

 

 

 

Solaris (1972, dir: Andrei Tarkovsky)

Solaris, and in particular this original adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel by Andrei Tarkovsky, is one of the films it is essential to namecheck as a wannabe cinephile. That’s because it is long and slow and Russian and boring. At first glance anyway.

Solaris is a meditation on the nature of the soul as much as a sci-fi film. Hard work in other words. It’s been called Tarkovsky’s riposte to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (also long and slow, though metaphysical only flirtatiously).

The plot concerns the journey of a psychologist called Dr Kelvin to a space station where he finds mayhem, death and an alien intelligence capable of reading minds and putting flesh on the thoughts. Soon, Dr Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) has been confronted by a figure who is the spit of his dead wife, except she doesn’t have any of her memories, nor is she any more than Kelvin knows about her.

Here we enter the bit that Tarkovsky is interested in (he later admitted he wasn’t interested in the sci-fi bit at all): the spiritual essence of humanity, the specificity of love, the possibility that we’re all constantly duping ourselves.

Many of the same ideas crop up in a more digestible form in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, ten years later, a film which jogs along compared to Tarkovsky’s dawdle. Steven Soderbergh had a go at a Solaris remake 30 years later, and even his film, an hour shorter, with George Clooney as its star, put an impenetrable force field around the box office.

So don’t attempt the original unless you’ve got the time to stretch out with Tarkovsky and to embrace his poetics and his rambling philosophising. The rewards include some spectacular isolated scenes – the opening shots of our cosmonaut staring at reeds on earth, the exquisite “floating candles” in space later on.

Tarkovsky also throws in a few stunts that look positively Lynchian – where did that dwarf come from? And, of course, as a cinephile keen on clocking up “cool” points, you get to wear the Solaris T shirt.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Sci-fi, Tarkovsky style
  • Hugely influential in terms of tone
  • Tarkovsky’s most accessible film
  • Another great adaptation of Stanislaw Lem (Icarus XB 1, The Congress)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Solaris – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Melancholia

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland in Melancholia

 

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

 

 

10 April

 

Halley’s comet and earth at closest point, 837

On this day in AD837, Halley’s Comet got as close as it’s ever got to the earth, as far as records and calculations can tell. The comet has been tracked since at least 240BC and has re-appeared in the skies every 74-79 years, the variation occurring because of the gravitational effect of the different planets it meets on its journey. It travels around the sun elliptically, swinging between the orbits of Mercury and Venus before heading out to somewhere about the distance of Pluto from the sun, then returning. It is estimated, from calculations originally done by Isaac Newton’s friend Edmond Halley, who first suggested that this known apparition was an orbiting feature of the solar system, that the comet passed as close as 3.2 million miles (5.1 million km) from earth, in AD837, the huge tail display having filled up a huge part of the sky. Certainly, astronomers in China, Japan, Germany and the Middle East all recorded it. It is next due to be visible in our skies in 2061.

 

 

 

Melancholia (2011, dir: Lars Von Trier)

Lars Von Trier takes on the cosmic and the intensely personal in his lushest film to date, which opens with the beautiful, haunting and plaintive prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde before presenting us with an opening prologue composed of several highly stylised tableaux – birds falling from the sky, a mother sinking into the ground while carrying her child, a horse falling backwards. And with that he plunges us into a film which divides neatly into two parts. It’s a tale of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the former suffering from crippling depression, the latter a bright ball of fun. And, being Von Trier, he then turns these two jewels in the air, subjects their personalities to extreme testing, to see how the light reflects off their different surfaces. Justine he scrutinises on her wedding day – the best day of a girl’s life – a day that goes spectacularly wrong. Onto this quivering jelly he heaps shame and loss and appalling behaviour such as family can only deliver (Charlotte Rampling is an exquisite sour bag of piss as Dunst’s mother) to see what her psyche will make of it. The psyche ends up fucking some guy out on the hotel golf course, with Justine, we imagine, vaguely along for the ride. Then we hit part two and Claire. For Claire, the super-bubbly optimist, Von Trier has something special in store – nothing less than the end of the world, in the shape of a vast planet that has been hiding behind the moon but is now suddenly scheduled to hit the earth and blammo. How is upbeat Claire going to react to that? Does the naturally dour Justine have anything to offer by way of a philosophical footnote? Which of the two sisters does Von Trier side with? These are the questions asked and answered by part two.
Having made a clarion announcement with the Wagnerian opening, Von Trier continues by piling spectacle upon the emotional turmoil – we’re a million miles visually from Dogville and Manderlay – treating us to skyscapes of Kubrickian hugeness, a Twilight of the Gods such as only cinema can deliver. The performances are big too. And good – Dunst is revelatory as the tortured Justine, Gainsbourg is successfully cast against type as the bright button, there’s an outstanding display of gravitas by Kiefer Sutherland that shows us he can access Sutherland senior’s charisma if he wants to. And Udo Kier pops up early on, as he does in Von Trier films, totemlike, as the sort of wedding planner you might want at the end of the world. It’s a disaster movie, though like no other, the people continuing on with their silly obsessions, their prattling inconsequentialities, the concrete of their personalities being tested for signs of flexibility, or cracks, by something so big it calls everything into question. Melancholia is a great film.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Von Trier’s best film
  • Probably Kirsten Dunst’s best film too
  • Manuel Claro’s epic yet intimate cinematography
  • A support cast including John Hurt, Alexander Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Melancholia – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Chemical Wedding

Simon Callow as a professor possessed by the spirit of Aleister Crowley

 

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

 

 

8 April

 

Aleister Crowley transcribes Chapter 1 of The Book of the Law, 1904

On this day in 1904, the British-born occultist Aleister Crowley was contacted by Aiwass, the messenger of the Egyptian god Horus, or so he claimed. Independently wealthy and the rebellious son of strict evangelical christians, the 32-year-old Crowley was in Egypt, having arrived there after an extensive world tour – he had already visited Mexico, Hawaii, San Francisco, Japan, Hong Kong, Ceylon, India and Paris. And en route he had climbed mountains (including the first attempt on K2), written a play based on Wagner’s Tannhäuser, written several books of poems, studied raja yoga and become a fixture on the Paris art scene, hanging out with the likes of Auguste Rodin and Somerset Maugham. So, a polymath. Or maybe just a dilettante. He had arrived in Cairo with his new wife, Rose, where they claimed to be a prince and princess and took apartments that suited their story. It was Rose who led him to Aiwass, claiming that the old Egyptian deities were waiting to make contact with him. Crowley wrote down everything the messenger told him and it became The Book of the Law, the foundational work of a new religion, Thelema, whose prophet was Crowley himself. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” was its dictum, and it chimed entirely both with the attitude of bohemian self-expression and of esoteric spirituality which were then asserting themselves.

 

 

 

Chemical Wedding (2008, dir: Julian Doyle)

Now then, what do we have here? A film about Aleister Crowley directed by a man, Julian Doyle, who once made a promo vid for metal rockers Iron Maiden. Doyle co-writes with Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of the selfsame outfit. And if you are now expecting a heavy metal nightmare, that is exactly what you get – shit, piss, cum and blood all featuring heavily in this fantastic pantomime examination of the occultist’s life. John Shrapnel, over-acting madly, plays Crowley, and a fabulously ripe Simon Callow plays the professor who accidentally conjures the spirit back onto the earthly plane, only for Crowley’s ghost to take up residence in the mild-mannered academic’s body, thanks to a bit of postmodern computer jiggery pokery. Enough plot already. The style is sub-Hammer – very florid, exquisitely terrible – and Doyle has virtually no control over his actors who, with the exception of Callow, are lousy. Callow is the reason to watch, as he puts on a booming one-man display of old school theatrical bombast. He’s fantastic, and coupled with a plot that is preposterousness itself, the entire effect is peculiarly bewitching. Dickinson and Doyle try to make a few serious points: about Einsteinian physics being the modern equivalent of alchemy. Schrödinger, the Uncertainty Principle, parallel universes and Stephen Hawking are all invoked too, more as window dressing than to prop up the plot. Did I mention the breasts? A film more in hock to the early 1970s than Crowley – required reading for any up-and-coming metaller back then – it does at least have a more enlightened attitude to nudity than you’d have got when Ozzy Osborne and his ilk were riding the pentagram. By which I mean that Callow takes his clothes off. Behold the belly of the beast!

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Add this to your list of cult nonsense
  • Another fabulous Simon Callow performance
  • How many heavy metallers can even write, never mind write a film?
  • Look out for Bruce Dickinson’s cameo

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Chemical Wedding aka Crowley – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Mulberry St

Mulberry Street zombie

 

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

 

 

27 March

 

Typhoid Mary quarantined, 1915

On this day in 1915, Mary Mallon was quarantined for the second and final time. A carrier of typhoid who remained healthy herself, Mallon’s career as an itinerant cook meant she was perfectly placed to spread the disease. As she moved from position to position after arriving in the US from Ireland, she spread typhoid at every kitchen she worked in. 49 people came down with typhoid; three died. She resolutely refused to give any samples to health researchers, claiming that since she was healthy herself, she couldn’t be spreading illness. She had been quarantined once before, after typhoid researcher George Soper had published a five-year study into Mary’s movements in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They eerily matched a map of typhoid outbreaks – of the eight families that had hired Mary, seven had contracted typhoid. After her first quarantine Mary had promised to give up cooking for a living. She became a laundress. But it didn’t pay well so she returned to cooking, changed her name to Mary Brown and kept moving to evade Soper’s sleuthing. After an outbreak at Sloane Hospital for women – 25 cases, two deaths – Mary was finally tracked down (she’d done a bunk) to Long Island, was arrested and was then put in quarantine, where she remained until her death 23 years later.

 

 

 

Mulberry Street (2006, dir: Jim Mickle)

Jim who? No, the director isn’t very well known. Nor is the cast (Nick Damici, Ron Brice, Kim Blair?). But don’t dismiss this unusually grungy zombie movie about a gang of life’s less fragrant people ganging together after a virus starts turning fellow Manhattan residents into ratlike shuffling monsters. Things to like in this film which also goes by the more explanatory name of Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street are precisely the fact that these people are not your usual gang of chesty girls, buff guys + obligatory stoner. Instead they’re the people you don’t usually see being monstered in films – the old, the strugglers, the feckless, the fringe-dwellers. And Mickle and co-writer Damici spend a deal of time establishing character, disaster movie-style – we meet the residents of the house in Mulberry Street on the eve of their eviction to make way for gentrification, while news reports of an odd virus bubble in the background – before sending in the zombie apocalypse, which our gang of doughty battlers do at least respond to in a way that seems credible: they’re shocked to their core. The basic plot is [Rec] (guys stuck in a house), the basic style is handheld mumblecore, though with a Christopher Doyle-style injection of neon into the garish, junky production design, thanks to cinematographer Ryan Samul’s excellent shoestring work. Though you could watch and make a list of obvious references – the chaotic 1970s street vibe of Mean Streets, a bit of Nosferatu, John Cassavetes realism, the Living Dead films of George Romero, [REC], as mentioned – the film has a flavour all its own, a more CCTV style, which is down to the fact that it’s shot on the tiniest of budgets ($60K has been mentioned), hence also the no-name cast, most of whom aren’t even actors. Which is entirely as it should be. There is no Ethan Hawke or other former prettyboy doing the saving. It’s a bunch of oldish, fattish, regular guys and gals barricaded inside their building and making it up as they go along. Cutting to the chase, this is a zombie thriller in hock to a visual style. But it’s a good visual style. And it’s a good, tight, claustrophobic shocker suggesting Mickle, Damici and Samul have a bright (or do I mean dark?) future ahead of them.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Ryan Samul’s expressive camerawork and lighting
  • The feature debut by Jim Mickle
  • The soundtrack suits the characters – Love, Lee Hazlewood
  • Gritty 1970s-style horror

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Mulberry Street – watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Contact

Jodie Foster in Contact

 

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

 

 

15 March

 

World Contact Day

Today is World Contact Day. It was declared as such by the International Flying Saucer Bureau in 1953. Since then it has used annually as an opportunity for all those interested in doing so to send a message telepathically to any extraterrestrial alien in space who might be interested in visiting earth. Not to be confused with World UFO Day (24 June or 2 July depending on who you talk to), it was originally intended by “contactees” as a way of establishing not just that entities from other worlds existed, but that they were friendly. The International Flying Saucer Institute was created by a Connecticut gentleman by the name of Albert K Bender in 1952. He shut it down in 1953 after the first World Contact Day, later claiming he had been visited by “men in black” – monsters from the planet Kazik – who had told him the terrifying truth about UFOs. The Canadian band Klaatu (named after the alien from 1951’s When the World Stood Still) would later set to music the message which IFSB members were telepathing – it begins “Calling occupants of interplanetary craft”. Later the Carpenters would cover it and turn into a worldwide hit.

 

 

 

Contact (1997, dir: Robert Zemeckis)

The sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke once said “either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” This attitude of thoughtful inquiry pervades Contact, an unusual sci-fi film about a radio astronomer (Jodie Foster) who has spent her entire professional life scanning the skies for signs of extraterrestrial life. Not that it has been working out too well for her – friends and colleagues think she’s borderline crazy even bothering with the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) program. As for taking it seriously… The reason why she does is complicated. It’s partly a search for the father (David Morse) who died when she was young. It’s partly a search for a god she doesn’t even believe in. These questions of psychology and theology are dotted through the film’s first two thirds, until some sort of contact is made (if that’s a spoiler then you’ve not read the film’s title), and are hashed about by some fine actors (John Hurt as a Howard Hughes-like billionaire, Tom Skerritt as a sceptical co-worker, James Woods and Angela Bassett as the government’s own men in black). But mostly Contact is an opportunity for Foster to put on a display of fierce focus – she does it so well – while the astronomer Carl Sagan’s script wheels out the big concepts and Robert Zemeckis’s cool, lush camera repeatedly suggests that humanity possibly isn’t worth a hill of beans. The love interest subplot with Matthew McConaughey isn’t necessary and towards the final third, which packs in a helluva lot in a short space of time, things do get a bit frenzied and just a touch ridiculous. Yet Jodie Foster’s commitment makes it work. It’s hard to imagine it working so well with anyone else in fact.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Based on Carl Sagan’s book
  • Robert Zemeckis’s gift for FX
  • The support cast is first rate
  • Look out for a young Jena Malone as a young Jodie Foster

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Contact – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Contagion

Gwyneth Paltrow not feeling too good in Contation

 

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

 

 

23 February

 

 

Mass inoculation using the Salk vaccine, 1954

On this day in 1954, Jonas Salk started the first mass trial of his polio vaccine in Pittsburgh. At the time polio was killing more children in the USA than any other communicable disease and it seemed to be getting worse – there were 58,000 cases in the USA in 1952, of which just over 3,000 died and just over 21 thousand were left with some disability, including muscle weakness, paralysis. Salk’s approach differed from that of other researchers – he used a dead polio vaccine, rather than a live one. And though most scientists thought his approach was wrong, several deaths of children treated with a live vaccine gave him enough room to operate. The trial saw 1.8 million children vaccinated. Ten months later the results were announced, on the tenth anniversary of the death of President FD Roosevelt, who had died of complications caused by polio. The vaccine was declared safe and effective. Vaccination on a large scale started immediately. By 1957 the number of cases had fallen to 5,600. By 1964 it was 121. Polio has been considered eradicated in the US since 1979. Currently there are only three countries where polio is still endemic – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

 

 

 

Contagion (2011, dir: Steven Soderbergh)

Of Steven Soderbergh’s three human health jeopardy films – Erin Brockovich, Side Effects and Contagion (four, if we include the Spalding Gray monologue movie Gray’s Anatomy) – Contagion plays most purely to the health scares of recent years, Sars, bird flu, H1N1 and so on. It is an expert piece of scaremongering which demonstrates JUST HOW SERIOUSLY we need to take this threat by sacrificing a big star right off the bat. It’s Gwyneth Paltrow, and any film that kills off Gwynie in its opening moments is obviously going to have its audience, who will also be salivating gruesomely as we see a flap of skin from her skull being pulled over her eyes as an autopsy is carried out. This is about five/ten minutes in, so I’m not spoiling much, honestly. It’s all part of a highly procedural film which, starting with the sound of someone coughing before any visuals have arrived on the screen, tracks a deadly disease around the world. More than that, it tracks the social ramifications of the disease’s progress – mass panic, martial law, crazy alternative therapies, social breakdown, the hegemony of rumour. It’s a disaster movie without any asteroid or iceberg to drive it forward. Instead we get the gigantic breadth of human reaction – from Jennifer Ehle’s wonkish scientist trying to figure out a cure, to Jude Law’s evangelist making money out of bogus alternative therapies and spreading the idea that the disease is caused by government conspiracy. Soderbergh excels at procedurals – see Ocean’s 11 – and also at keeping a whole load of plot plates spinning, and he’s totally in his element here. Adding a quasi-documentary feel to his portrayal of globe-spanning events, he switches the action from Atlanta to London, to Hong Kong, to Casablanca and back, bathing everything in that clinical matt sheen he’s so good at. If you’re looking for a big heartfelt film with a Shelley Winters moment (Poseidon Adventure fans) then you will be disappointed. Contagion is a slightly pitiless drama with a brainiac quality that observes human beings as a scientist might observe a bacillus down a microscope. Which is appropriate. And it does, let’s face it, make a change.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An alternative disaster movie
  • A big name cast including Matt Damon, Bryan Cranston, Marion Cotillard
  • An expert techno-thriller written by Bourne Ultimatum’s Scott Z Burns
  • Soderbergh’s beautiful clean cinematography (credited as Peter Andrews)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Contagion – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Hell

Hannah Herzsprung, Hell

 

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

 

 

16 February

 

 

Kyoto Protocol comes into force, 2005

On this day in 2005, the Kyoto Protocol came into force. A United Nations treaty, its intention is to get industrialised countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, so as to stabilise the climate before it collapses. The theory runs that 150 years of heavy industrial activity has increased the amount of dangerous gases in the atmosphere and that only by restricting current and future emissions can humanity hope to arrest the trend in global mean temperature rise. The gases in question are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and sulphur hexafluoride, plus the two groups of gases, hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons. The target is, broadly speaking, to get emissions down below the level of the base year 1990. The treaty was never ratified by the USA. In 2011, Canada, Japan and Russia announced they would take on no further Kyoto targets. In the case of Canada, committed to getting emission to 6% below 1990 levels by 2012, emissions were in fact 17% higher by 2009.

 

 

 

Hell (2011, dir: Tim Fehlbaum)

That’s “hell” as in the German word for bright, the light being the enemy in this apocalyptic drama set in a world cooking under an unforgiving sun. If the director’s name, Tim Fehlbaum, is unknown to you, then you probably will be more familiar with that of the executive producer. It’s Roland Emmerich. But this is a much more satisfying film than Emmerich’s eco-disaster movies, 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow, largely because it gives full reign to the sort of millennial angst that the Germans do so well, the twilight of the Gods and all that. Of course it’s “hell” in the other sense too, and in the opening scenes, set inside a car that has had all its windows blocked out against the piercing, baking light, we are given a brilliantly impressionistic portrait of life under a cloudless sky. For the most part, Hell is something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – society has collapsed, the highways are full of marauding gangs, altruism is scant. We quickly meet the car’s inhabitants – two women, one man. Then another man arrives and there’s a tussle to prove alpha male status, which the guy who looks most like Viggo Mortensen (it’s Stipe Erceg) obviously wins. And after that the film diverts onto another plot altogether, as the teenage female is abducted by a gang of scuzzes, who intend to rape her, eat her, or both. This digression breaks the spell brilliantly woven in the first section of the film and it takes a while to re-orient. But Hell is never less than accomplished, has an interesting non-Hollywood take on heroic individualism versus group activity and even, if you look at it hard enough, seems to be tackling the legacy of the Nazis even as it invokes the memory, here and there, of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Fehlbaum’s feature debut
  • Markus Föderer’s brilliant cinematography
  • A brooding sci-fi thriller
  • Hannah Herzsprung’s badass heroine

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Hell – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Sunshine

Cillian Murphy in Sunshine

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

15 February

Galileo Galilei born, 1564

On this day in 1564, the astronomer, mathematician and physicist Galileo Galilei was born. He was most famous for advocating the Copernican view of the solar system, which put the sun at the centre and had the planets orbiting about. This was in stark contradiction of the Church view, which had the earth at the centre, and also the Tychonic system (earth at centre, sun orbiting earth, other planets orbiting the sun). Galileo was an accomplished lutenist, like his father, and also considered the priesthood before choosing the life scientific. He had studied medicine before switching to mathematics and natural philosophy, before going on the become an instructor in drawing and perspective. Before the age of 30 he was a professor of mathematics in Pisa, then moved to Padua where he also taught astronomy. From around 1616 until he was ordered to Rome to stand trial in 1633, Galileo’s views on heliocentrism had been bringing him increasingly into conflict with the Church. Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, threatened with torture and finally found guilty of heresy. He was forced to recant his beliefs, sentenced to house arrest and his books were banned. He lived another nine years. In 1992, after an investigation into the workings of the Inquisition, the Church agreed that Galileo was right.

Sunshine (2007, dir: Danny Boyle)

Visually driven films often seem to fall by the wayside – where’s the plot, man? – and so it is with one of Danny Boyle’s more interesting films, a sci-fi adventure about a mission to reboot the sun, which according to Sunshine has started dying about five billion years ahead of time. It’s true that there isn’t much plot, but this is a film that’s all about texture. It’s also all about classic high modernist sci-fi, the entire thing being a homage to the Kubrick world that Alien destroyed and Sunshine tries to give us back – of people on the cusp of thrilling new knowledge, living in an aseptic environment of filtered air, white space suits, the full brave new world shtick. Boyle references Alien, just to let us know he’s seen it, and there’s also touches familiar from Blade Runner, Dark Star and Tarkovsky’s Solaris. But it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that’s highest in the mix. Which does tend to push human beings towards the background a bit, and for much of the time Cillian Murphy, Rose Bynre, Chris Evans, Troy Garity, Michelle Yeoh and the rest of the internationally assorted crew of the Icarus II seem to be functioning like actual astronauts rather than characters in an action movie, which is what the genre has led us to expect. And then we get the turning point – a message from the supposedly disappeared Icarus I, which has been loitering around the backside of Mercury (or something). What to do? Go get them, or continue with the mission? Continue with the mission is the obvious answer, and Boyle and writer Alex Garland’s film spends a lot of time effectively analysing Hollywood’s tendency to abandon high ideals at moments like this and save the thing with the cutest eyes. Principles, thought, intelligence. But never mind all that, Sunshine is at its purest when it concentrates on the orb itself – Boyle had surely seen Olafur Eliassson’s huge sun in the art installation The Weather Project at Tate Modern in London, UK (late 2003-early 2004) – with Alwin Küchle’s camera giving us shot after awe-inspiring shot of the monstrously huge disc flooding the spaceship with bleach-strong light. They’re on a suicide mission, these guys, though the closer they get to the sun, the more inclined everything in the film is to say, “yes, but what a way to go.”

Why Watch?

  • The 28 Days Later team of Boyle and Garland back together
  • Cinematography by Code 46 and Hanna’s Alwin Küchler
  • An old-school modernist sci-fi
  • Hot topic, cool treatment

© Steve Morrissey 2014

Sunshine – at Amazon