Before Sunset

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This 2004 follow-up to Richard Linlater’s 1995 Before Sunrise is a first-date movie for people who fancy themselves as having more going on upstairs. But grey matter to one side, do you need to have seen the first film to enjoy the second? Probably not, though it helps to know that in Before Sunrise Ethan Hawke had fulfilled every heterosexual male InterRailer’s wildest fantasy – by meeting the stomach-churningly beautiful, witty and, very important, French Julie Delpy on a train and having a night of flirtatious intellectual chat and wild adventure with her.

By the end of Before Sunrise both parties are agreed – it’s love and they are absolutely definitely going to meet again, time and place all locked down. That meeting never happens. Now, nine years on, they bump into each other in Paris quite by accident. Each is now in a relationship. Each is older and reasonably successful. So? Do they? Well, the joy of this sequel is that director Richard Linklater and the two stars – both of whom are more or less improvising all the way – tantalisingly hold off the outcome, leaving Hawke and Delpy to indulge in cerebral foreplay, discussing how the intervening nine years have treated both themselves and the world. As they flirt with each other, the film flirts with us.

It’s talky, it’s slightly self-satisfied but it’s undeniably romantic too.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

Before Sunset – at Amazon

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Norman McLaren: The Art of Motion

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Who? Those who have no idea who Norman McLaren is won’t be so nonplussed after the briefest glimpse of his work.

Frequently working by drawing directly onto the film stock itself (as in Boogie Doodle), this Scottish-born wizard experimenter is the creator of an instantly recognisable style of animation, frequently set to jazz or electronic music, which now seems to define the meeting point between high and popular arts in the 1940s and 50s. Blobs splash and explode, red against pulsating yellow. Lines oscillate, coalesce, fly apart. An orange hen rotates as it vibrates against a green background, a fluid expression both of chicken-ness and of the possibilities of the line itself – “At last” as Picasso said “something new in the art of drawing”. And McLaren’s fluid style is reminiscent of Picasso, so maybe the old goat’s praise was slightly more self-serving than it at first appears.

But there’s no denying McLaren’s talent, his dedication to technique always in the service of his art. And not just drawn animation either. His stop-motion works – like 1952’s Oscar-winning short Neighbours – are virtuoso technical and artistic triumphs too. How strange that their influence in the UK for a long while has been most evident in children’s TV – from Vision On to the Chuckle Brothers. Lucky children.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

A seven-disc DVD box set – Norman McLaren: The Masters Collection – is available from Amazon

 

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Kiss Me Deadly

review kissmedeadly poster

Critics continue to argue over whether this is the best film noir ever made but all seem united on one point – Kiss Me Deadly is the best adaptation of one of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels. Now 50 years old, the film opens with a scene that still packs a punch – cynical private eye Mike Hammer picks up a girl hitchhiker who is wearing only a mac. Within minutes his car has been run off the road and a brutal gang is torturing the girl before killing her.

The stage is set for Hammer, one of cinema’s great anti-heroes, to become avenging angel, visiting bad men in places high and low to find out whodunit and why. Ralph Meeker is a perfect Hammer, a dirty, lowdown man full of animal cunning, snide one-liners and little else, the ideal operator in a world gone to the bad.

Director Robert Aldrich and ace cinematographer Ernest Laszlo back Meeker every frame of the way in a succession of blowsy, jaundiced nihilstic set-ups designed to bring out the worst in every place and every person. And how do you finish off a film set in a world rotten from top to bottom. With a cleansing dose of nuclear apocalypse of course. That’s better.



Kiss Me Deadly – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2006



Amores Perros

Gael Garcia Bernal in Amores Perros

The film which announced the rebirth of Mexican cinema in 2000, Amores Perros was adored not just by cinephiles but also those who “don’t do subtitles”. The reasons are many and continue to make it a film worth seeing, or seeing again.

Shot on film which has been deliberately processed in the “wrong” chemical to produce distorted colours and bleached out highlights, it’s got a look which suddenly was everywhere – from hip adverts to films by old-schoolers such as Steven Spielberg (see 2005’s terrorist thriller Munich, for example). The multi-stranded plot which zips backwards and forwards from a pivotal moment – in this case a car crash – is now a Hollywood default for any film which doesn’t have enough plot or character.

Not an accusation to be levelled at Amores Perros. It’s about dogs – fighting dogs – hitmen, crazy love, Latin excess, fertile women, warring brothers, men with fussily trimmed beards. In fact debut director Alejandro González Iñárritu plunders Brazilian soap opera and pumps the cliches (a nod to Tarantino here) to pulp fiction proportions. And let’s not forget that the movie delivered to the world its first big Hispanic star of the new millennium – Gael Garcia Bernal.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

Amores Perros – at Amazon

Confidential Report

Orson Welles in Confidential Report aka Mr Arkadin

The prevailing wisdom on Orson Welles has changed in recent years. It used to be: “Poor Orson, his masterpieces (such as The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s All True, The Lady from Shanghai ) butchered by the studios”. Now it’s: “Lazy Orson, got most of the way through a film and then lost interest”. Certainly Welles subscribed to the former view, and broadcast it widely wherever he went in Europe during his exile (or extended flake-out, take your pick).

Confidential Report fuels the debate. A shadow of both his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (in which Welles played the similarly gnomic Harry Lime), the film jumps around the world excavating the past of a mysterious megalomaniac and is either a masterpiece re-edited to destruction by the studios, or a series of brilliantly melodramatic vignettes which Orson couldn’t quite be bothered melding into a whole.

Whichever it is, and seven different versions have done the rounds over the years, the version I watched recently certainly seemed to have been edited by a man with a grudge. Maybe this was the same version that Cahiers du Cinema saw in 1958 and declared a masterpiece, in spite of the fact that all of Welles’s flashbacks and other chronological trickery had been ironed out.

Whichever version you are offered there’s good stuff in it – all that deep-focus photography and Expressionistic Euro-angst – and the always engaging, lovably preposterous figure of Welles himself, who plays the mysterious Mr Arkadin, by which name this mad, gothic/baroque fruitcake of a film is also known. See, you can’t get a straight answer even on the title.

© Steve Morrissey 2002

Confidential Report/Mr Arkadin – at Amazon

Faust

Emil Jannings as Mephisto in Faust

It says a lot about the continuing differences between the Old World and the New that not one of the many stabs at a straightforward cinematic version of Faust is American. The tale of the old man who sells his soul to have his youth back and then uses his new vigour to ruin a beautiful young girl’s life is a European staple, but probably not the sort of thing Tom Hanks’s agent is going to beat down Meg Ryan’s door with – in the New World you can have it all; in the Old it comes at a cost.

No matter, the German F.W. Murnau made this version in 1926, in the days when any country could make a silent film and show it anywhere in the world – no dubbing or subtitling required, of course. Now, I’m not going to pretend that Murnau’s liberties with the original text will make Goethe scholars happy. Nor will his Expressionist vision completely satisfy the Matrix generation either. But give yourself a few minutes of adjustment – and you will find yourself enjoying the fantastic special effects, the gothic extravagance of his actors’ gestures and Murnau’s flat refusal to be Naturalistic, unless he absolutely has to be. Look at the way Mephistopheles hovers over the sleepy German hamlet, all billowing malevolence – it’s a remarkable and haunting image and all done in camera, with models (obvious models at that). If only more films were like this.

Hollywood snapped Murnau up, and his actors, and showed them the sort of excess that modern film stars can only dream about. By the late Twenties Emil Jannings (the operatic and impish Mephistopheles) was among the most famous actors in the world. But by 1931 the careers of Jannings and Camilla Horn (who plays the pre-Raphaelite Gretchen) were over, killed by the talkies that exposed their accents, and Murnau had died in a car crash.

The garden of earthly delights followed by the day of reckoning – how Faustian is that? Maybe the Americans are just being cautious.

© Steve Morrissey 2001

Faust – at Amazon

Life of Brian

Terry Jones in Life of Brian

It’s no surprise that this film was hotly controversial on its initial release, since it tells the story of Brian, a hapless Messiah of sorts, condemned to live in the shadow of the Other Guy from Galilee. Its debut saw the first stirrings in popular culture of the phenomenon of synthetic outrage – then only practised by the more conservative elements of society; now everyone is at it – with most of the complaints about the film coming from people who hadn’t even seen it. In fact the Monty Python team were nonplussed by the media hoo-hah – true, they had set out to make a film lambasting Christianity but had hit a wall and decided to change tack after all coming to the conclusion that Jesus Christ was a pretty cool kind of guy.

Whatever your stance on blasphemy, this is by far the best of the Monty Python team’s four excursions into celluloid. The Life of Brian was also the highest rated British film when UK TV station Channel 4 ran a Top 100 poll a few years ago. When you consider that it was up against such utter classics as Brief Encounter, comic gems like Withnail and I and trendy little numbers like Lock Stock then that’s some achievement.

Bankrolled by ex-Beatle George Harrison, it’s also now the only Python material that really stands up – partly because it relies not on killer lines, cross-dressing or physical comedy (though they’re all there) but on real comic imagination: the political in-fighting of the Liberation Front of Judea; the graffitist with no grasp of grammar; the lisping campness of mighty Pontius Pilate and best of all – “What did the Romans ever do for us?”. Or do I mean the song “Always look on the bright side of life”. Or the misheard Sermon on the Mount (“Blessed are the cheesemakers?!”). You decide.

© Steve Morrissey 2001

Life of Brian – at Amazon

Topsy-Turvy

Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner in Topsy-Turvy

Lovers of costume drama and light operetta are in for a treat. And so are people who can’t stand either, thanks to Mike Leigh, more usually known as a purveyor of working-class drama to the realm.

Taking as its starting point the creative roadblock reached by the librettist WS Gilbert and his writing partner, the composer Arthur Sullivan, after the relative failure of their Princess Ida in 1884, Leigh’s film follows the duo as they struggle towards the rejuvenating success of The Mikado. Leigh’s masterstroke is to weave the composer/librettist’s full antler stand-off – Gilbert wanted to write an opera called The Magic Lozenge; Sullivan most definitely didn’t – with an oblique commentary on our own age’s attitudes towards foreign cultures and techno-gadgetry.

Running through Topsy-Turvy is Leigh’s obvious regard for the librettist’s facility with a lyric, Gilbert’s rhythms as near to rapping as Victorians got. Plus his enthusiasm for Gilbert and Sullivan’s often disparaged collaborations; Leigh serves the musical numbers straight up and wink-free – there’s not a dry irony in the house. All this and a stone-faced Jim Broadbent, playing a bluff Gilbert to Allan Corduner’s waspish Sullivan – two more reasons to see this fabulously entertaining film.

Topsy-Turvy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2000