11 November 2013-11-11

Charlie Hunnam in Pacific Rim

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Pacific Rim (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Guillermo Del Toro, everybody, which raises expectations – Pan’s Labyrinth and Cronos being not too shabby. And Hellboy being a yawn but at least a formidably realised one. Throw a director of that ability at a story about alien creatures rising up out of the Pacific and waging war on humanity – who wage it right back with huge robotic leviathans controlled by human drivers – and the result should be something fairly awesome, shouldn’t it? And Pacific Rim actually is awesome up to a point. We have Charlie Hunnam showing his formidably sculpted abs. We have Idris Elba as the hard-bitten boss of the human fighters, who appears to be acting in a different (better) film than the other actors and the script (“Plasma cannon! Now!”) are delivering. And we have a gimungous budget that has been lavished on stupendous sets and amazing special effects. In terms of ambition Del Toro is going for Blade Runner grunge and Alien primalism. He throws in references to 2001 and Godzilla, and gives us some light relief in the shape of Ron Perlman as a dodgy dealer in alien bits and pieces. It’s in Perlman’s too-brief sequences that the film springs to life, because it has wit and a story to tell. As for the rest of it, it’s a series of badly shot action sequences in which one indistinct gigantic thing in the ocean attempts to dismember another indistinct gigantic thing in the ocean. Transformers on a seaside holiday. As for Ramin Djawadi’s soundtrack – Hollywood, enough with the orchestras, for god’s sake.

Pacific Rim – at Amazon

The Great Gatsby (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Like a beautiful Bugatti without an engine, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz age masterpiece has all the looks that money can buy. But it just sits there, doing nothing. Luhrmann follows the book to the letter in terms of plot – we meet callow Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the wannabe; his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), the old money; and we meet mysterious new-money recluse Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). We then follow these characters through a series of events depicting the wild times of the post First World War era, when prosperity was loosening morality. More particularly we watch as Gatsby sniffs after Daisy, while the old money sniffs out the new, with intent to expose its posturing. It’s a brilliant piece of storytelling, with beautiful dovetailed plotting, and Luhrmann is wise not to mess with it. But he just doesn’t know what to do with the narrator – Carraway – through whose saucer eyes the whole ambiguous story in the book is told. So he does what the director of Moulin Rouge does best – he piles on the spectacle, the excess, calls up Beyonce, Lana Del Rey and Will.i.am to suggest how thrillingly modern those Jazz Agers were. But this isn’t a modern story, it’s a story about old money and old school morality rising up and biting an interloper in the ass. Eliding the eras by referencing the collected works of Jay Z doesn’t help anyone with anything. The total effect is inertia, no matter how good all the actors are – and they really are, Edgerton in particular as vengeful, not-as-dim-as-he’s-painted Tom. Like I say, beautiful, going nowhere.

The Great Gatsby – at Amazon

8½ (Argent, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Widely considered Fellini’s masterpiece, , is essentially La Dolce Vita II, another tour of the sweet life, through the eyes of a director who wants to make a new film but is so blocked by the success of a previous film, and surrounded by the blandishments of the film biz – girls, mostly – that he’s distracted to the point of stasis. It’s a meta film, perhaps the first, that puts Fellini’s own story – he really didn’t know how to follow La Dolce Vita but knew he had to do something – right there on the screen. Early on a funny little character – a critic, I suppose – pops up to point out that the film Fellini is making in the film (but also the one we are watching – it’s less confusing than it sounds) “lacks a central conflict or philosophical premise… making the film a chain of gratuitous episodes, perhaps even amusing in their ambiguous realism.” As we watch Marcello Mastroianni, the Fellini avatar, dripping about impotently, that “ambiguous realism” provides the other motor of the film – Fellini’s interest in Jungian analysis. A dream sequence opens the film and there’s a dream sequence always on hand to offset what might otherwise look a bit too much like a diary of “here’s what I did yesterday” events. Mastroianni essentially reheats his turn from La Dolce Vita, the dark shades and impassive face linking together the dreams, the chat, the fantasies, the looming faces of actresses and casting agents, producers and writers, priests and circus characters (the dreams again). It is all an elaborate bluff, a superb meringue dressed up in the most fantastic style – the hats alone are worth seeing this film for, as are the mamma mia looks of Anouk Aimée and Claudia Cardinale in their prime. At one point Mastroianni declares “I’m going to get everything in; even a tap-dancing sailor” – and, bang on cue, there he is, the tap-dancing sailor. It is somewhere round here that the suspicion dawns that really is just a “chain of gratuitous episodes”. But then Fellini starts to pull everything together into a coherent whole. He pulls back a bit and, with a magician’s flourish, pulls off a double reveal – on the one hand we see Fellini the human, a despicable turd. On the other he reveals Fellini the director. Brilliant. Unique.

8 1/2 – at Amazon

Silence (New Wave, cert PG, DVD)

We’ve all heard of Slow Food. Here’s a Slow Film. About an Irish sound recordist (Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride) who returns to his native country with one of those big fluffy mikes, a pair of headphones and his recording gear, and sets about making recordings of silence – more explicitly areas unaffected by humans. With ambient sound very high in the mix, we get a lot of wind, birds, rustling, water running over rocks, frogs plopping into pools. It is massively, unashamedly poetic – our man Eoghan, with his fierce shock of Daniel Day Lewis greying black hair stopping occasionally to talk to the sort of souls you meet in Ireland: loquacious thoughtful characters versed in poetry, men capable of an impromptu song. Meanwhile, the odd clip from Man of Aran, Robert Flaherty’s famous 1934 documentary pop up here and there, another film about a life under threat, old ways on the brink of extinction. I was happy to watch this film, it’s strange and unique in the way it welds documentary intent to a (barely) fictional structure, as Man of Aran did. But I’m not sure I want to watch the thousand other films it’s going to inspire.

Silence – at Amazon

Easy Money (Lionsgate, cert 15, DVD)

It’s called Snabba Cash in its original Swedish, a great title for a film that comes with a “Martin Scorsese Presents” endorsement. Telling the story of broke student Johan (Joel Kinnaman) whose problem is that he has the looks of the high-born Aryan, for want of a better word, but not the wherewithal. So he’s minicabbing by night, dressing up by day in smart posh clothes so he can mix with his social superiors in increasingly luxe locales. It can’t go on. So when the boss of the cab firm he’s working for offers him “easy cash”, he jumps in. And is soon waist deep in gangsterism and mixing with ethnicities his cash-rich friends would shun. The Scorsese connection becomes obvious later, as Johan finds his loyalties sorely tested, The Departed-style. Easy Money has TV looks and, like TV, sets up a large number of stories – Johan, his minicab boss, an escaped Hispanic criminal, a tough gangster on the road to redemption – as if a ten-part TV series had been squashed into two hours. Yet it just manages to hang on to its central idea – which way is our nouveau desperado going to go? – right to its beautifully edited showdown finale.

Easy Money – at Amazon

More than Honey (Eureka, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)

A documentary about honey bees – what we do with them, how we’ve turned them “from wolves into poodles” in the words of an American enthusiast who now keeps killer bees (which are not killers at all, he also points out). “The bees are in trouble. They’re dying all over the world,” John Hurt intones sonorously early on in Markus Imhoof’s documentary which hasn’t bothered to rework its script as it translated it out of the original German. So when Hurt says “As a child I…” it takes some time to realise that he doesn’t mean “me, John Hurt” he means “him, the guy who wrote the script – Markus Imhoof”. This irritation to one side, this is an erratic piece of work which flies haphazardly around the globe, starting in America, where bees are freighted around the country almost the entire year, pollinating fruit trees in California, then Washington, then Dakota, then back to California. No wonder diseases, when they strike, spread. We touch down in Switzerland, where there is a deliberate and puzzling attempt to equate their attempt to keep bee populations pure with the racial politics of Hitler. Then we’re off to China, where Mao’s “kill all sparrows” policy (they were eating the grain) led to a plague of insects. Which led to a massive insecticide policy. Which led to the extinction of bees. Now people pollinate trees by hand. Amazingly. Without bees we’d all be dead, Hurt informs us. Running as a leitmotif in this often fascinating film is the attempt to explain why bee populations the world over are in trouble. It never quite is explained, though it seems humans are probably the bad guys. We usually are.

More Than Honey – at Amazon

The Internship (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are the two sales guys who get laid off and so, in desperation, go to work as interns at Google, where their brand of bloke-ish bonhomie, jockish humour and lapdancey inclusiveness wins over the supergeeks. Does that fly for you as a concept? It didn’t for me, largely because it sounds like the wish-fulfilment fantasy of pre-internet generations who just about manage to get their heads around MySpace when, pfft, it’s become Facebook, or Bebo, or … oh it’s all so confusing. Here’s the big “however”. Vaughn and Wilson are always likeable, and they are good at the bonhomie, jockish backslappiness and so on, and there actually are a few funny gags in here (which feel like they’ve been injected later by a script doctor but hey). What’s interesting about this film, nowhere near as terrible as the snottier reviews suggest, is that it’s made with Google’s “help”. So we can assume that what we see of the culture inside Google Hauptkontrolle is what they want us to see. And it’s frightening. The zeal of the employees, the dronelike fixation on the corporate, the uniformity of attitude – it’s all a bit North Korea. And considering that between this film being greenlit and finished Google’s image had gone from “does no evil” to “does whatever it wants” that is kind of interesting too. As for the actual film – yeh, s’OK. Look out for Will Ferrell’s cameo, best thing in it, beltingly funny.

The Internship – at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2013





La Dolce Vita

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita

 

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

 

 

29 September

 

 

Anita Ekberg born, 1931

On this day in 1931, Kerstin Anita Marianne Ekberg was born, in Malmö, Sweden. A model in her teens, Ekberg was Miss Sweden by the age of 19 and had a contract with Universal studios shortly afterwards. Howard Hughes, a keen student of the female form (or lecher, according to your viewpoint), and then owner of the RKO studio, was also keen on exploiting her talents, but Ekberg preferred to go horse-riding and take part in the sort of stunts that starlets in the 1950s got up to. More often seen in a bikini, or falling out of one, in a publicity shot than in an actual film studio, Ekberg was linked to a string of big showbiz names (Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power), but only managed to star in a series of lacklustre films, including Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin’s last film together, Hollywood or Bust, in which she played the Bust. She was the latest, and in some ways purest, of the blonde bombshells, who gained the appellation not because of their explosive figures – though that helps – but because bomb casings have a distinctive bustlike shape (in the minds of comicbook artists at least). Reductive though it is, it is entirely appropriate for Ekberg’s appearance in her most famous film, La Dolce Vita, a last hurrah made when her career was already on the slide. After which… The Alphabet Murders, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, and a string of even less memorable films.

 

 

La Dolce Vita (1960, dir: Federico Fellini)

Though you’d never have guessed it listening to the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, the 1960s belonged, in terms of cool and cultural impact, to music. Even so, there is some claim to be made that it was La Dolce Vita that ushered the decade in. Fellini’s film about the move from high to low culture, the arrival of the attention-deficit mindset, the abandonment of the avant-garde in favour of genre, it’s all here in La Dolce Vita, which tracks a week in the life of an intellectual who has forsworn the writing of his novel to grub an existence as a partying showbiz reporter. Marcello Mastroianni plays the man to a T and Anita Ekberg is there as everything that’s wrong with his world of sex, booze and wanton behaviour – the scene where she frolics in the 17th-century baroque Trevi fountain clad in a dress that emphasises her va-va-voom is essentially the film reduced to an image. If it were being remade now, you’d want someone like Lindsay Lohan in the role. The Catholic Church took a dim view of Fellini’s film, though it’s a deeply moral work at its core – Mastroianni hardly looks like a man who is buoyed up by his decisions – and the critics at Cannes gave it a standing ovation at its famous opening shot (a statue of Jesus Christ being airlifted out of the city) and again at the end.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Anita Ekberg’s most famous performance
  • The film that gave the language the word “paparazzo”, after an intrusive showbiz photographer
  • The non-linear narrative – common now, unusual then
  • One of the most widely referenced films –

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

La Dolce Vita – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

La Dolce Vita

 

 

More than 50 years old yet curiously contemporary, Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece isn’t just a cynical critique by a conflicted Catholic of “the sweet life”, it’s the film that announces the arrival of the world we now inhabit. It starts with one of cinema’s most famous shots, a lingering view of a huge statue of Christ being airlifted, possibly rescued, from a Rome gone to the bad. God, Fellini appears to be saying, has left us, and in his place we have placed the pursuit of carnal pleasure, the joys of the night, drink and the worship of our new deity – the celebrity. This, after all, is the film that introduced the word paparazzi to the language – after one of its characters, the celebrity snapper Paparazzo. And it gave Marcello Mastroianni his defining role, as the serious writer who has negelected his art to chase film stars through the night and write them up in his tawdry newspaper column, a kind of Perez Hilton in embryo. This sweet life is fun, it’s exciting, it’s narcotic – and when you’re watching the pneumatic Anita Ekberg gambolling in the Trevi fountain how could it not be – but there’s more to life than fun and the expression on Mastroianni’s face shows the cost.

© Steve Morrissey 2011

 

La Dolce Vita – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Isn’t It Iconic?

the original poster

La Dolce Vita might not be the best Italian film ever made. Or the cleverest, steamiest or most gripping. But it is the most iconic. Here’s why…

Just a touch over 50 years ago the assembled critics at the Cannes film festival gave Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita a standing ovation. Not at the end of the film, or even at the moment when Anita Ekberg gets into the Trevi fountain, its most remembered scene. No, what got them to their feet was the film’s opening shot.

It’s of a huge statue of Jesus Christ being airlifted out of Rome, the Eternal City. It doesn’t look like much now but back then this shot came across as a supernatural endorsement, a masterstroke of directorial bravado and a manifesto all rolled into one. What followed was Fellini’s gloriously languid, profoundly seedy exploration of la dolce vita, in English the good or sweet life, an examination of the godless hedonistic lifestyle of late nights, throbbing music and wham-bam relationships.

The critics cheered at the end of the film too, but by then they were less sure of the film’s moral message, particularly in relation to their own occupation. What they had watched was the story of a playboy (Marcello Mastroianni), who instead of pursuing the high calling of being a writer worked as a journalist churning out pieces on film stars, late-night society and what we now call celebrity culture. Over the seven giddy nights and weary dawns that the film follows him Marcello (also the name of his character) stoutly refuses the appeals of his fiancée to stay home with her, instead preferring to spend time in night clubs, prostitutes’ bedrooms and in the company of a visiting actress (Anita Ekberg).

Anita Ekberg in the defining moment of her career


The iconic scene, in which the pneumatic film star has a Lindsay Lohan moment in the fountain, says it all. Here it is, big boy, she seems to be saying, come and get it. Marcello doesn’t get it, in any sense. In fact all he’s got by the end of the film is a terrible sense of self-disgust, an emotion Mastroianni could express better than almost anyone.

At the beginning of the 1960s, with the Beatles and free love just around the corner, this sentiment – that the sweet life perhaps wasn’t all it was cracked up to be – was a real challenge to the zeitgeist. Sure, the film contains the sort of anti-materialist idea that progressive and left-leaning critics of the day wanted to hear. The worrying bit was the moral message that went along with it – don’t be fooled, the film seemed to be saying, this life of ease and luxury, it’s tinsel, not gold. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, saw only the tinsel, the depraved values and the glorious figure of Ms Ekberg and missed the whole point of the film. Immoral, it thundered. As did the Italian government which thought the film “shameful”.

Fellini was a communist (of sorts) and a catholic (also, of sorts) so there was some political and religious underpinning to his anti-materialism. But even so, at that time his film was about as bold a statement as could be made. Italy was ruined by the Second World War and in its aftermath Italians starved to death. To make a film about the perils of excess in a country where people had only recently been reduced to eating grass, the idea that the sweet life was bad when any sort of life was in short supply, it wasn’t just inappropriate it seemed a sick joke.

Fellini was also an Italian, of course. A fact which possibly influenced him more than his religious and political affiliations. Differing from their neighbours the French, whose films return constantly to the theme of personal bourgeois obsession, Italian films love to take an axe to cultural certainties. Whether this is down to the unsettled nature of Italy’s politics, the country’s relative youth (Italy only became a nation in 1861) or because of a butterfly love of changing fashion, who can say? Whatever the reason, the films of Fellini and his peers (Pasolini, Visconti, Antonioni) all challenge the status quo. In La Dolce Vita‘s case this was the let-it-all-hang-out tolerance of 1960s Italy, so new it had barely even solidified.

Did Fellini know at the time that the consensus he was questioning was the one which was to hold sway for so long? La Dolce Vita has aged, for sure, but its story of trash journalism and celebrity culture, the lure of easy sex and busty women, the rejection of high culture in favour of low, that hasn’t dated at all. In fact his film seems more relevant now than it did at the time.

In this context it seems almost too good to be true that La Dolce Vita also gave the English language a word with which we’re all familiar and which sums up the narcissism, superficiality and voyeurism the film is so concerned with. Paparazzi. Fellini bestowed the name Paparazzo on a photographer friend of Marcello who flaps through the film snapping celebrities.

Marcello Mastroianni smoking
Smoking: Marcello Mastroianni



La Dolce Vita is a film with a message but also a film with characters we only need to see for a second to comprehend. Mastroianni, in black shades, passive, a man in crisis, without a centre, searching for meaning in his life. Ekberg, not so much a woman as the embodiment of the desirable female, clad in a black sheath of dress but she might just as well have been standing, Venus-like, on a shell.

Ekberg never played another role to match it. Nor did Mastroianni. Because they weren’t playing mere humans but archetypes representing all of us, or that part of us that’s come home at dawn, all partied out and wondering just what the hell we’re doing with our lives. In short, this is the film for the full-on, siren-wailing existential crisis. And if that doesn’t count as iconic…





La Dolce Vita – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2011