Into the Labyrinth

Escapee Samantha with Dr Green


Dustin Hoffman and Toni Servillo in the same film? Into the Labyrinth (aka L’uomo del labirinto) is a properly intriguing prospect. Hoffman a madness-in-his-Method actor since his breakthrough in 1967’s The Graduate, Servillo the king of the hangdog deapan – or is that the deadpan hangdog? – and long-time collaborator with Paolo Sorrentino (in films like The Great Beauty and The Consequences of Love).

Before you get too excited, they share only one scene together, and that’s right at the end, an afterthought possibly tacked on to give the publicity machine more to work with (and I’ve obliged by using the resulting picture).

The two actors inhabit entirely different filmic universes, united only by the plot. In one Servillo plays dog-eared private detective Bruno Genko, more used to doing debt collection work, getting back on a case he dropped years before, of an abducted schoolgirl who has just resurfaced/escaped after 15 years of incarceration. The glory-seeking cops would rather he wasn’t involved, and Genko’s doctors have already told him his heart is about to give out, so… tick tock tick tock.

The girl, Samantha (Valentina Bellè), now a grown woman and in some distress, is being debriefed in hospital by the kindly Dr Green (Hoffman), a folksy, softly spoken man using a lot of carrot and a tiny bit of (psychological) stick to try and unlock the secrets of Samantha’s incarceration – the who and where, at least.

As I say, different filmic universese – Dr Green’s is all bright lights, calm, order, the burble of a hospital in the background, a drip on a stand, a cop posted outside the door. Genko’s is a David Lynch world of grotesque characters, surreal situations, lurid decor and lighting and bizarre plot turns, all set to a rinky-dink soundtrack (by Vito Lo Re) that’s inspired by Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtracks for Lynch.

Dustin Hoffman and Toni Servillo
Meet cute: Hoffman and Servillo


Green’s world is aseptic and clinical, Genko’s is diseased and fantastical. A heatwave is scorching the earth, forest fires are raging, the power keeps going down. As well as Lynch (here’s even a man with a rabbit’s head), there’s also more than a hint of Hieronymous Bosch in there, the colour red signifying the hell that Samantha has just escaped, or perhaps the one where Genko is imminently about to arrive. There is a lot of red, a lot.

Is it fanciful to imagine there is also an echo of Lars Von Trier’s first feature, 1984’s The Element of Crime? That was a neo-noir with a strong dreamlike and melodramatically Bosch-like quality, lit with similar bravado, and starring a charismatic deadpan actor (Michael Elphick in Von Trier’s case) who drives a distinctive cult car which seems also to have some significance beyond the textural – Elphick drove a bright yellow VW Beetle, Servillo has a convertible Saab 900. Both films are also set in worlds that are a future-retro jumble. In Into the Labyrinth people still use cassette recorders but also have up-to-the minute laptops, and when Genko visits a missing persons bureau (a crepuscular place known as Limbo) it turns out that it’s still using a card-file index system.

It’s a bit bonkers, and would be brilliant if David Lynch hadn’t been there before, or at least if writer/director Donato Carrisi had acknowledged that Lynch had been there before, not least in his decisions about pacing, which tend to the glacial. A 20-minute haircut wouldn’t do this film any harm at all.

The upside. Hoffman is always watchable, and though he isn’t asked to do an awful lot here, and you can guess which was his story is heading, he’s good. Servillo is the same. The dog eared detective suits him down to the ground. Few men smoke a cigarette so well these days. Or carry off a crumpled suit with such panache.

Into the Labyrinth – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021






Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

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

 

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

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

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Midnight Cowboy

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy

 

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

 

 

24 March

 

Robert Koch announces discovery of the cause of TB, 1882

On this day in 1882, Robert Koch announced that he had worked out what was causing tuberculosis, a disease so devastating that it went by several names – phthisis and consumption were also common. Until Koch started his research, it was widely believed that TB was a hereditary disease. But though Koch had observed that TB would often spread through families, its epidemiology was not uniform – poorer families tended to get it more than richer ones. We now know that TB is caused by a slow-growing bacterium, mycobacterium tuberculosis, which is carried by many people (one third of the world’s population is currently infected). But though it is infectious, it doesn’t progress to the full-blown disease in most cases. People who are fit and live in healthy, well ventilated environments resist it well; it is those with compromised immune systems who succumb. Koch’s suspicions that a bacillus was causing TB were prompted by his work on anthrax in farm animals, which had found that a bacillus – cultivable in the lab (ie his home) – was responsible. But he was only able to prove his TB thesis after getting a position at the German Imperial Health Bureau in Berlin, where he was able to identify, isolate and cultivate the tuberculosis bacterium. Having done that, it was on to cholera, another scourge, the methods for the control of which helped provide the blueprint for the control of all epidemics, still used today.

 

 

 

Midnight Cowboy (1969, dir: John Schlesinger)

Chekhov’s rule about guns in plays – “one must never place a rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off” – applies to the nth degree with coughing. A cough in a film generally means something more than just a cough. In films from Hollywood’s golden era it means the person coughing will be dead by the next scene, especially if they have been coughing blood. Midnight Cowboy isn’t from Hollywood’s golden era, which ended any time from the mid-50s back to the late-30s, take your pick, but it deals with death from TB, though differently. Telling the story of two young bucks on the make in New York City, the film stars Dustin Hoffman as street hustler Ratso, Jon Voight as Joe Buck, the cock for hire – a midnight cowboy – nervous about anyone finding out that he’s highly in demand by gentlemen of a certain persuasion. Must be the fringe jacket, though the cheekbones (which Voight would pass on to his daughter, Angelina Jolie) obviously help. That’s it, in terms of story – two guys, adrift, losers, hustlers, wandering around New York in the late 1960s in an era that’s suddenly different from the one Ratso grew up in, which offers sights that no one from Joe Buck’s rural hometown has ever seen. And here’s where the film gets either interesting or terrible, depending on your point of view. Interesting if you’re hungry for late 60s hipster parties, Andy Warhol-style blankness, throbbing cameras, the swinging sixties and all that. Terrible if you wish that John Schlesinger and his writers (including Waldo Salt) had made it more about the strange romance between the two stars, an analysis of Joe’s unexamined homosexuality, and less a tour of the fashionable parts of the Big Apple, places which these two losers would in all likelihood never have got to see. There’s the performances, though. Hoffman’s nervy, ADHD Ratso remains as alive now as he was in 1969; Voight is also remarkable as the more thoughtful and internalised of the two – it’s a harder role too, and he doesn’t have a cough to fall back on! Midnight Cowboy has not worn well over the years. Its shocking content – violence, the ugliness of street life, men having sex with other men – is no longer shocking. But it’s an interesting film, not just because of the standout performances, but because it is so clearly of its era and yet is also a clear harbinger of things to come.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Won three Oscars, none for the actors
  • One of the key films that made Dustin Hoffman
  • Harry Nilsson singing Everybody’s Talkin’
  • A John Barry score

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Midnight Cowboy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Quartet

Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith in Quartet

 

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

 

 

25 February

 

 

Enrico Caruso born, 1873

On this day in 1873, the Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso was born in Naples. He came from a large family and his father was a manual worker. Enrico was apprenticed to a mechanical engineer aged 11 but also sang in the church choir, where his voice stood out. He took up work as a street singer, performed in cafes and had soon graduated to soirees where he would literally sing for his supper. All the while he was studying singing and eventually made his debut aged 22 at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples. By the following year, 1896, he was having publicity photographs made. Four years later he was singing at La Scala in Milan, the most prestigious opera house in Italy, possibly Europe. Two years later he was singing at Covent Garden, London. A year after that he was at the Met in New York. Caruso arrived on the scene at the same time as sound recording was becoming widespread and his powerful yet lyrical voice eminently suited the limited dynamics of early recordings. All of his recordings were made acoustically, with the tenor singing directly into a metal horn which relayed the sound directly to a cutting stylus.

 

 

 

Quartet (2012, dir: Dustin Hoffman)

Dustin Hoffman did some uncredited directing on the 1978 crime drama Straight Time but Quartet is his first stab at real directing. And my god does he play it safe. Taking a play from Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) as his source material and drafting in a quartet of actors who can simply do no wrong – Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins – he proceeds, in the most unshowy fashion possible, to tell the story of a home for opera singers who are in their later years, where the arrival of newly retired diva Jean Horton (Smith) sets the cat among the pigeons. It seems that years before Jean (Smith) and Reginald (Courtenay) had been married, very briefly. Why it was so briefly no one seems very sure, not even Jean and Reginald, who still nurses a broken heart. Quartet explores those reasons but it’s also a story of age, coming to terms with mortality, the indignity of infirmity, its joys too, played out by stage thespians (even Connolly, least encrusted with gongs, is a stage man by training, being a stand-up comedian) who can bellow to the gods on a wet Tuesday evening. They know how to hold a room. It is to Hoffman’s credit that he prevents them from doing this. Michael Gambon, capable of stealing any film, even from under the noses of these illustrious gannets, he keeps in the background, as a makeshift impresario organising an evening of singing towards which the entire film points. On the way Hoffman, the most Method of actors, leaves it to these Method antichrists to do it their way. What’s doubly interesting is that as an actor he’s closely associated with Americana, the city and urban angst (Midnight Cowboy, All the President’s Men, Kramer vs Kramer) but here as a director he’s throwing in shots of English churches and the sun slanting over manicured lawns, while the soundtrack is a blancmange of woodwind and muted emotion. A couple of things Hoffman gets wrong – Reginald explaining to a gang of kids that opera is in fact just like rap, that’s likely to get the toes curling like a roller blind. There are also storylines set up that don’t pay off, not least in the shape of Gambon who seems almost criminally underused. But you get to hear Maggie Smith in handbag mode say “fuck off”, which is always funny. And Pauline Collins, as a twittery airhead, again shows her brilliance at stitching together a film with a performance. This isn’t the film you’d have expected from Hoffman, maybe, and it isn’t even remotely cool to like it. But it is a rather lovely film, an exercise in British understatement from the guy who once dressed up as Tootsie.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The cast includes real retired musicians and singers, who all perform
  • Hoffman’s proper directorial debut
  • A charming portrait of the life artistic and how it wrecks a normal decent life
  • So many good performances – Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Trevor Peacock, David Ryall

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Quartet – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Wag the Dog

Robert De Niro, Anne Heche and Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog

 

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

 

 

26 January

 

 

President Clinton denies “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky, 1998

On this day in 1998, a serving president of the United States responded to allegations that he had had sex with a woman other than his wife. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky” said Bill Clinton at the end of a White House press conference, with his wife standing beside him. Unfortunately for Clinton, there had been what most people would call a sexual relationship, and Lewinsky had a blue dress stained with the president’s semen to prove it. Later in the year, boxed into a corner, Clinton would admit that he had had an “improper physical relationship” and a relationship that was “not appropriate”. However he still maintained he had not had “sexual relations”. It appeared, on closer questioning, that Clinton considered “sexual relations” hadn’t happened because he had not had contact with Lewinsky’s “genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh or buttocks.” In other words giving oral sex was “sexual relations” but receiving oral sex was not.

 

 

 

Wag the Dog (1997, dir: Barry Levinson)

After the underwhelming overhyped appearance of 1970s film legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro “together for the first time” in Heat in 1995, it actually fell to director Barry Levinson to engineer an altogether more satisfying though similarly stellar, similarly 1970s collision with this pairing of De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. Working off a smart, cynical script by David Mamet and Hilary Henkin, Wag the Dog stalks satirically through the story of a US president caught with his trousers down just a few days before election day. Moving quickly to avert a disaster, a White House aide (Anne Heche) calls in tweedy spin doctor Conrad Brean (De Niro), all beard and reassuring avuncularity, who suggests they cook up a crisis in a foreign land no one cares about (hello Albania), invite the President to rattle his sabre, before moving swiftly to a resolution of said conflict, and a boost in the opinion polls. Brean then co-opts Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Hoffman) to stage-manage the entire phoney event – from commissioning a hokey song by Willie Nelson, to directing the “rescue” of a US military man supposedly held captive by those dastardly Albanians. And together – the wonk feeding the press with stories, the producer supplying the visuals – they proceed to wag the dog, public opinion. It’s surprisingly easily done, according to Mamet and Henkin, who milk the whole concept till the teat is flapping, then squeeze it a little more. The same can’t be said for Hoffman and De Niro, who bring just the right amount of screwball zip to roles that could easily go flat, Hoffman the permatanned Hollywood pro whose every production is essentially about himself, De Niro the trilby-wearing fixer with a bloodline going back to Machiavelli. It was all shot in just 29 days, and on a comparatively tiny budget. You could probably knock out 30 such films for one Michael Bay production. If anyone’s listening…

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman on screen together for the first time
  • The acerbic script
  • The “it could never happen, ooh it just did” scenario
  • Great support from the likes of Kirsten Dunst, William H Macy, Denis Leary and Woody Harrelson

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Wag the Dog – at Amazon