3 June 2013-06-03

Sylvester Stallone in Bullet to the Head

Out in the UK this week

 

 

Bullet to the Head (Entertainment One, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Last week it was Arnie in The Last Stand. This week the DVD shelves are groaning with 400lbs of mechanically recovered Sylvester Stallone, complete with new facelift and hair (though there’s not much you can do about that creaky old gait). It’s a dick-swinging action movie directed by Walter Hill, who memorably gave us 48 Hours. Bullet to the Head is 48 Hours part two, you could say, with Sly as the criminal being partnered by reluctant cop buddy (the rather good though underused Sung Kang) to take down a bad guy (Christian Slater, sneering at 16:9 ratio). That’s all you need to know about the plot. What you do need to know is what you probably already suspected – this is in most respects a 1980s movie. Which means gratuitous explosions and gratuitous nudity, it means that warehouses feature more than seems necessary. And there’s cars, cars on fire, in fact. Which is, let’s face it, all a lot of fun. The plot could be summarised as “let’s go get ’em”. And as for that relationship, well why is a decent cop hanging out with a hitman? The film isn’t sure either and has to stop every ten minutes to remind us. Or maybe itself. There is the odd good line – “you had me at ‘fuck you’ ” made me smile. And there are tasty New Orleans locations which allow Sly to get a bit Sailor Jerry with the tattoos, and let Walter Hill break out the extreme macho posturing. He does love a bit of machismo, dear old Walter.

Bullet to the Head – at Amazon

 

I Give it a Year (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Dan Mazer was involved in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat and Bruno films and is the writer/director of what is to all intents and purposes an anti-Richard Curtis romcom – Loathe, Actually? – the tale of a married couple (Rafe Spall, Rose Byrne) who really aren’t suited to each other and who spend an entire film finding this out the hard way. As a formal exercise I Give It a Year is very good indeed. As a film it stinks. There may be a way of doing an anti-romcom but this isn’t it, and watching two people fall out of love is neither instructive nor enjoyable. Especially when, to make both parties equally culpable, Mazer has decided to make them equally unlikeable. Spall plays a needy whingebag, Byrne is an anal bitch. Meanwhile, hovering on the edge of this couple’s world are Simon Baker and Anna Faris – both not unadjacent to loveliness – so no prizes for guessing what’s going to happen there. I suspect that what Mazer actually contributed to Baron Cohen’s films was jokes. Because the comedy writing in this film is very very funny indeed. And here the support cast deserve a mention – Stephen Merchant as a filthy perv, Minnie Driver as a terrible scold, a brilliant Jason Flemyng as a henpecked husband and Olivia Colman a mentally inappropriate relationship counsellor – they all make spit-out-your-dinner lines even funnier. In fact I Give It a Year must rank as the funniest terrible film I’ve ever seen. What you do with that recommendation, I don’t know.

I Give It a Year – at Amazon

 

Flight (Paramount, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/download)

The one where Denzel flies the plane upside down. And yes, it is an amazing sequence, and is preceded by an almost-as-amazing sequence, also of improbable flying prowess. And before that there’s been an even more eye-opening scene, in which we’ve seen our noble capable captain wake up drunk after a night of extreme party action, take a line of coke, a slug of beer and – adjusting bloodshot eyes and setting captain’s cap to jaunty – go to work.

Robert Zemeckis directed Back to the Future and Polar Express, so it’s almost a given that he can deliver scenes of extreme SFX mayhem and believability. Here he also does an expert job, as does screenplay writer John Gatins, in delaying the dropping of the other shoe. Because no captain of a Hollywood blockbuster can fly a plane in that condition and not be punished for it. And so it comes to pass that Captain Denzel is exposed and humbled, and that Robert Zemeckis’s film turns from a visceral action movie into something entirely different – a hand-wringing Douglas Sirk drama about moral choices. Personally, I found that disappointing. But that’s not to say there isn’t plenty of goodness in here – from the opening shots of Nadine Velazquez not putting her clothes on particularly quickly to John Goodman as a wild man of drugs (theme song the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter), to Don Cheadle as Denzel’s nemesis. And that’s without mentioning DW himself, who is brilliant drunk, sober, exultant and self-loathing. Personally I’d rather have seen a film about an amazing captain who can fly a plane better than anyone else, even when his body is a awash with proscribed substances. But Hunter S Thompson is no longer around to write that screenplay. You, on the other hand, might prefer the morality play.

Flight – at Amazon

 

Blood for Irina (Autonomy, cert 18, DVD)

A poacher turned gamekeeper turn from Chris Alexander, editor in chief of the magazine and horror institution Fangoria, who has made a vampire film. And, because he’s got the background, he’s chosen to go esoteric, working in the tradition of Jesús Franco (The Awful Dr Orlof, Vampyros Lesbos) and Jean Rollin (Requiem for a Vampire). The interest in lesbians (the former) and the surreal (the latter) are noticeable in a story that might be called The Loneliness of the Long Distance Vampire. So don’t expect much rushing around or screaming – this is a slow gothic tale, horror taken at the pace of ambient music, static almost. A baby doll floats in a lake, a plastic bag hangs mournfully in a tree, sort of thing. I’d describe it as arthouse but in truth it’s more artschool, Alexander hitting the spot in terms of mood not quite as often as his evident talent would suggest he should be.

Blood for Irina – at Amazon

 

Smashed (Sony, cert 15, DVD)

A short film with made-for-TV looks and a “disease of the week” theme. The theme being alcoholism. But it’s no trudge through the usual. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a teacher and Aaron Paul her stay-at-home husband, both partying, late-20somethings whose boozy lifestyle hits the buffers when she throws up in class one day, hideously hung-over. So she stops drinking. But he doesn’t. What then plays out is an unusually non-moralistic, unsentimental drama that has the balls to say that being drunk is a lot of fun – so that’s why people do it! – but that sometimes you just really have to stop. Frankly written, often very funny, Smashed also really benefits by having Winstead in it. Surely she’s only minutes away from total stardom.

Smashed – at Amazon

 

For Ellen (Soda, cert 15, DVD)

Anyone for a drama about a mopey dad trying to have one last moment of tenderness with his daughter before his impending divorce separates them for ever? No, it is a hard sell, but if there’s one reason why you should see For Ellen it’s for the performance of Paul Dano, who plays the not-quite-successful rocker travelling off to the snowy wastes of Canada, where his weekend of waiting for the final encounter gives him plenty of time to think about himself. If you only know Dano as a vaguely familiar face from Looper or Meek’s Cutoff or There Will Be Blood, this is an eye-opener, as he is telling the story of one man teetering on the precipice of maturity almost entirely through subtle facial gesture.

For Ellen – at Amazon

 

Wreck-It Ralph (Disney, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

There seems to have been some consensus that Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t quite know who it’s aimed at, and therefore it’s not really that good. I agree that it isn’t quite aimed at a specific demographic, but its conception and its animation are so extraordinary that the rest pales into insignificance. It is the story of Ralph, the baddie in an arcade game who is sick of playing second banana to Fix-it Felix. So off Ralph sallies, into other arcade games from different eras, until he ends up in the candy-coloured world of Sugar Rush, for an adventure that plays out like Wacky Races by way of The Wizard of Oz. John C Reilly voices the big ham-fisted Ralph, Sarah Silverman plays the grrrrl he’s helping out in Sugar Rush, while Jane Lynch plays Sergeant Calhoun, the butch bitch built of leather and swarf who is picked up on Ralph’s dash through a shoot-em-up called Hero’s Duty. You can pick holes – the big idea is Toy Story (while the humans are away, the inanimates will play) and Ralph seems modelled on Shrek. But the screenplay has such depth, the story is so expertly spun and the allusions (Alien, Star Wars, King Kong, even Laurel and Hardy) are handled with such a light touch that I reckon we’re in the presence of near-greatness. Is it for grown-up 1980s gamers or their eight-year-old kids? Both. File alongside Elf for a film undervalued on release whose stature will grow.

Wreck-It Ralph – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Curious Return of Douglas Sirk

All That Heaven Allows original poster

 

What is it about a film-maker who died around 25 years ago in obscurity 

that fascinates a new generation of directors?

 

 

 

 

The director Douglas Sirk died in 1987 aged 90. Born in Hamburg as Detlef Sierck, he became well known for his string of lush melodramas made in Hollywood in the 1950s. Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1957), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) and Imitation of Life (1959) are considered his key works. The French “auteurists” were the first to start the re-assessment of Sirk in the late 1950s – the distinctive look of his films marking them out as obviously the work of one person’s hand. Since then his films, often originally dismissed as weepy slush, have been re-assessed as works of multiple meaning, ripe for ironic readings. Sirk, the theory now goes, was a much more nuanced film-maker than he was initially given credit for. But though critics were hot to re-appraise Sirk, film-makers (Fassbinder being a notable exception) were slow to follow suit – as genres went, melodrama was to be filed alongside the musical; neither of them were as sexy as horror, sci-fi or film noir.

But things have changed in recent years. Film-makers from Tarantino (in Pulp Fiction) to Wong Kar–wai (in In the Mood for Love) started referencing Sirk, and since then a new generation of directors, perhaps mindful that we were once again living in a conservative age, have drawn on his methods, his colour palette, his style of drama, to produce films unafraid to let it all hang out.

Joan Crawford never worked with Sirk. But my shorthand test for working out if a film is Sirkian is to ask myself – can I imagine Joan Crawford, stoically holding back the sobs, with the back of her hand to her forehead? If I can, then bingo, it’s Sirkian. Here are a run of modern films that all owe a debt to one of cinema’s great ironists.

 

 

 

 

Far From Heaven (2002, dir: Todd Haynes)

This is the film that announced that Sirk, hovering in the background, had moved back centre stage. A film about a lovely American family living the dream, it was photographed by Todd Haynes in the Tupperware colour palette Sirk would have recognised. Its theme – things are not always what they appear – couldn’t be more Sirkian either, as happily married Cathy and Frank (Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) start to acknowledge that their marriage isn’t all it should be after Cathy finds Frank kissing a man one day. She, in full headlong Joan Crawford flight, then starts to seek comfort from the gardener (Dennis Haysbert) while the husband is subjected to electroshock therapy in an attempt to cure him of homosexuality. Sirk would also have enjoyed that bit of medical intervention too – the primal and the thoroughly modern, that’s Sirk all the way.



Black Swan (2010, dir: Darren Aronofsky)

Aronofsky ditched his often rather monochrome, dialled down, cerebral style and kept the melodrama for his most Sirkian work – a camp furnace of a movie he keeps feeding with cinematic fuel till it’s white hot. I mean, rival ballerinas (Natalie Portman as a white swan trying to go dark; Mila Kunis as her nemesis), a controlling mother (Barbara Hershey), a draconian master of ballet (Vincent Cassel), a bitter former star (Winona Ryder, perfect), rivalry, bitchiness, vomiting, lesbianism, obsession. And again there an elemental, Sirkian thrust – by this gruesome process, Aronofsky says, girls are transformed into women. And by the film’s end Portman has indeed become the black swan, by sacrificing her humanity to become sexy, bending everything holy out of shape in the process. That last ballet finale, set to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, is a seething dance of flying camerawork, rhythmic editing and increasingly gothic revelation. It’s pure Sirk, though he probably would have thrown in a bit more colour.



Blood Simple aka A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009, dir: Zhang Yimou)

A remake of the Coen brothers’ first film is interesting any day of the week. That it’s remade by Zhang Yimou, the former cinematographer whose Red Sorghum, Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers caused jaws to drop the world over makes it only moreso. Zhang relocates the story to feudal China, turning the characters into archetypes from Chinese opera – the older husband, the scheming wife, the fat buffoon, the cowardly lover – the Coens having already done most of the hard work. He then brings a Sirkian focus to telling the story visually. Always fanatical at getting things just so, Zhang has embraced digital technology to rework backgrounds, foregrounds, skies, anything he fancies. I don’t think there’s a sky in his Blood Simple that hasn’t been digitally messed with – dark, rain-filled clouds hover impossibly over sun-baked deserts. Sirk wasn’t really a man for comedy and this Blood Simple doesn’t fit thematically into an easy categorisation as nouveau Sirk, but the looks do, the use of visuals to do the work of pages of text, the way externals mirror internal states of mind, that’s all very Sirkian.



Broken Embraces (2009, dir: Pedro Almodóvar)

Almodóvar’s film about a woman who has a great hold over men is largely a pastiche of Hitchcock but there’s a fair bit of Sirk in there too. It is melodramatic, deals with unbridled love, sacrifice, exotic illness, obsession, innocence and blindness (and all films that deal with blindness recall Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession). The twist-filled plot centres on Penélope Cruz, playing a whore who falls for a director. He then turns her – using all the gifts at his disposal – into a star. Has the metamorphosis exposed her true self? Or is there no amount of hair, make-up and transformative magic that can hide a person’s true nature. See The Skin I Live In for another of Almodóvar’s treatments of the theme, which also works at such a level of excess and with such a layering of irony that the phrase Sirkian also pops unbidden into the mind.



Flight (2012, dir: Robert Zemeckis)

The line where human weakness meets human grandeur is territory Douglas Sirk knew well. In Magnificent Obsession, a playboy disgusted with himself after inadvertently causing the death of a noble doctor decides to retrain as a doctor himself – to replace the man, or at least atone for the world’s loss. He falls for the man’s wife. He blinds the man’s wife. Now who could possibly save her sight? In Flight Denzel Washington, a drunk, cocaine-sniffing pilot becomes an accidental hero after saving a plane and most of the passengers on his flight with the sort of stunt-flying only he could pull off. Later, as accident inspectors poke into his private life he is called upon to decide whether to be noble or not. The nobility, the self-examination, the hand-wringing, that’s all Sirk. The lowering clouds reflecting the man’s inner torment (or murky morality, take your pick), that’s all Sirk too.



Love Exposure (2008, dir: Sion Sono)

There aren’t many film that combine soft porn, Christianity, kung fu and Japanese teen culture. But then Sion Sono is no ordinary film-maker. In Love Exposure, the first of his Hate Trilogy, he cues the opening credits one hour into a film that has up till then been soundtracked to Ravel’s Bolero. After them, the action shifts from the quiet boy who’s become the master of the upskirt shot to the young woman who, having cut off her father’s penis, becomes a coke dealer, a cult member and a dealer in bogus antiques. The third segment of this drama deals with a schoolgirl who makes money from smashing up houses. Extremism, indoctrination, cult beliefs, gang membership, obsession – be it with porn or exercise or religion – are what Sono is dealing in. And he serves the whole thing up as overcooked, over-plotted melodrama, Douglas Sirk goes quasi-anime in a world where even the schoolkids know what bukkake is.



The Box (2009, dir: Richard Kelly)

Richard Kelly famously made Donnie Darko, then the more troublesome Southland Tales. With The Box he returns vaguely to Twilight Zone territory with an adaptation of a story by Richard Matheson which put human flesh on the series of mind games called the Trolley Problem – you wouldn’t kill someone right in front of you, but what if killing them saved someone else? And what if the person you were killing wasn’t in front of you? Sort of thing. Here, it’s Cameron Diaz who is being tested, after a mysterious stranger offers her $1 million. All she has to do is press the button on The Box. The downside: someone, somewhere in the world, someone she doesn’t know, will die. Under the mumbo-jumbo wrapping what Kelly is presenting us with is an Adam and Eve story – Eve gains power and knowledge on behalf of humankind, but at what cost? It’s an elemental story, wrapped in the story of the disintegration of a suburban marriage, with a layering of paranoid melodrama, a keen interest in guilt, an even keener interest in the power of women. Sirkian, in other words.



The Burning Plain (2009, dir: Guillermo Arriaga)

Guillermo Arriaga wrote Amores Perros, which was a torrid affair with choppy chronology. The Burning Plain is similar, a whole host of intersecting stories unfolding over decades, all of them wildly emotional, held together by the most unlikely coincidence. It is essentially a Douglas Sirk film that’s been chopped up and re-arranged, a lot of small stories with a big melodrama at the centre of each – a plane crash, breast cancer, the rediscovery of a daughter etc. To go into the plot is spoilerish but there are three notable blondes in it – Kim Basinger, Jennifer Lawrence and, most impressive of all, Charlize Theron as a maitre d’ at a swish restaurant whose off-the-clock time is spent self-harming and having serial sex with strangers. Knotty.



The Hunt (2012, dir: Thomas Vinterberg)

Thomas Vinterberg famously made Festen, a drama about the nasty little secrets that lie behind seemingly blameless middle-class exteriors. In The Hunt he’s doing something similar, though he’s dressed it up this time in Sirkian self-flagellation, as we watch blameless teaching assistant Mads Mikkelsen being accused by a five-year-old of showing her his penis “sticking out like a rod”, as the subtitles put it. What then plays out is a The Crucible-like drama of hysteria in a small town, an examination of the way nice people actually make things worse by refusing to deal with the nut of a problem (there is an awful lot of euphemism in The Hunt) but most of all it’s the story of a lone man adrift on a roiling sea, continuing to proclaim his innocence to a world that has become deaf to him. That protestation of guilt, those judgemental eyes, that’s Sirk territory.


White Elephant (2013, dir: Pablo Trapero)

Pablo Trapero, one of the best directors working anywhere in the world at the moment, does love a bit of Sirkian angst. In White Elephant he tells us the story of a pair of priests working in an Argentinean shanty town which sits in the shadow of a never-finished hospital (the white elephant of the title). Set in the world of gangs, drugs and death, White Elephant splits its Sirkian business equally between the two priests – one (Ricard Darín) has a terminal illness he’s not telling anyone about. The other (Jérémie Renier), deeply traumatised after seeing an entire missionary village butchered, finds himself getting closer to the astonishingly beautiful volunteer in the shanty town (the astonishingly beautiful Martina Gusman), which is, of course, against his vow of chastity. The beautiful visuals are not Sirk (they’re more Scorsese) but the themes – secrets, temptation, redemption – definitely are. As is the way the drama builds slowly towards its conclusion, with Trapero holding back the melodrama right to the last minute.

 

 

A sign of Sirk’s neglect is that there is no box set of his best work available in the US.

Next best thing is this UK import of seven Sirk films. You’ll need a multi-region PAL/NTSC dvd player to play it though, so be warned.