Abbie Cornish and Heath Ledger in Candy



Though there’s plenty of people who take drugs for entirely recreational purposes and never go to hell in any sort of handcart, there’s not much drama to be had from making movies about them. So instead drugs movies tend to be about people hitting the buffers. Candy does at least do it with a roster of good Australian actors, who are required to pull out most of the thespian organ stops as they make the familiar journey – from “we’re just fooling around” to “oops, someone’s dead”, calling in between at all the usual stations on the degradation line. And luckily for us, it’s Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish who brighten up the journey on what could be a potential misery mile. Ledger is again quietly unassumingly excellent as the greasy, smelly, flaky but under it all rather decent guy who introduces his girl to the world of mainlining heroin and then goes to hell with her. The girl is Abbie Cornish – mesmerising in Somersault, still compellingly watchable here and still in the taking-her-top-off phase of her career.

“When you can stop, you don’t want to. When you want to stop, you can’t,” is the key line, delivered by Geoffrey Rush in a blur-on as an old druggie habitué, but making enough of a mark that you wished he would stay. We’re still early on in the Heaven, Earth and Hell chapter headings given to the three-act structure, before Ledger’s Dan has gone from well-groomed and super cool suburban poet to lank loser; and Cornish’s Candy has ditched painting, learnt to steal and gone out on the game to earn enough money for a hit.

In its favour is that the film does manage these transitions very well – how does a nice girl who wouldn’t ordinarily sell her body for cash get talked into – and talks herself into – doing it? And on the other side it does take druggies to some extent at their own estimation of themselves – as doomed tragic heroes. Perhaps that’s the way you sell a film to a demographic who aren’t exactly the most eager and thirsty for any new experience, unless a high comes with it.

For the rest of us, we can remark on the way that Cornish has, since she came to movie-watchers’ attention in Cate Shortland’s Somersault, picked up a couple of Nicole Kidman tics (the eighth profile to camera, the half-downturned mouth), and that the way that she and Ledger invest these beautiful losers with such a belt of underdog likeability that you care for them, feel with them and hope against hope – because films generally aren’t made about people who take drugs and then stop – that they’re both going to be OK.



Candy – Watch it/buy it now at Amazon





© Steve Morrissey 2006





Brokeback Mountain

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain

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

17 May

First same-sex marriage in US, 2004

On this day in 2004, Bostonians Tom Weikle, 53, and Joe Rogers, 55, became the first same sex couple to marry in the United States. They had been together for 25 years and were taking advantage of the change in legislation, Massachusetts being the first state in the US to allow marriage between people of the same sex.

Though the US constitution was clear in its position on the “unalienable right… to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, many states had started countering the change of opinion in favour of same-sex marriage by passing “defence of marriage” acts. Indeed, President Bush had come out strongly in favour of constitutional amendments to define marriage as the union between a man and a woman. “The sacred institution of marriage should not be redefined by a few activist judges,” said Bush.

Brokeback Mountain (2005, dir: Ang Lee)

Ang Lee’s previous western, 1999’s Ride with the Devil, had been a revisionist affair, adding a layer of identity politics to the standard issue guns’n’horses. He’d followed that with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a kung fu film with an unusual romantic element. Then came Hulk, which not only lost the “The”, but also delivered an unusually thoughtful superhero (is he even a hero?) movie. But even with all these signs that Lee’s interest was in pushing genres into hitherto uncharted territory, was anyone ready for the gay cowboy movie?

Brokeback Mountain tells the story of two rough tough guys, all hats and check shirts, who finally get physical on a mountain, drunk, some days into a job tending sheep. They also fall in love, though neither says it. Years pass, the men get married to women. Settle down. Their brief dalliance is forgotten, until it is suddenly re-ignited, becomes semi-regular and both of them come to some acceptance of what they have together. Not that they tell their wives, who find out anyway. And that’s it, in plot terms, at least.

There’s an honesty, loneliness and sadness at the core of Brokeback Mountain that will cut to the heart of all but the most fervent gay hater. It’s there in Annie Proulx’s original short story – and yes, the film does sometimes feel like a short story that’s been over-extended – and it’s there in the performances of the two leads.

Jake Gyllenhaal is the more flamboyant of the two – the gay one, if you like. Heath Ledger is the one who is “turned”, a man so taciturn that he can barely get his words out, or his feelings. Whether Ledger is in fact turned or whether the feelings he has for other men, or another man at least, are buried deeper than he can know, is one of the little knots that the film explores.

Matching these two in terms of heft if not screen time are Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway as the two spouses who become increasingly suspicious about their husband’s “fishing trips”, Williams in particular knocking it out of the park in the scene where she confronts Jack (Gyllenhaal) about his relationship with Ennis (Ledger).

It’s an incredibly mournful film, broken in fact, which is why it didn’t seem to stir up quite as much animosity as might have been expected when it was released. And because in the end it isn’t really about being gay at all; it’s about shared secrets and love, something most people can relate to.

Why Watch?

  • Great performances all round
  • Winner of three Oscars
  • Rodrigo Prieto’s sensitive cinematography
  • A tricky subject handled with aplomb

Brokeback Mountain – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

I’m Not There

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan

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

19 March

Bob Dylan releases first album, 1962

Having dropped out of the University of Minnesota and relocated to New York City to visit the dying Woody Guthrie and break into performing, today in 1962 Bob Dylan released his first album. Eponymously titled Bob Dylan it came about after Dylan played harmonica on Carolyn Hester’s album in September 1961 and caught the eye of producer John Hammond.

Hammond signed Dylan to Columbia Records in October 1961 and within five months the album was done. It was a collection of folk standards, coffeehouse favourites plus two Dylan originals – Song to Woody (loosely based on Guthrie’s 1913 Massacre) and Talkin’ New York. The album’s personnel consisted of Dylan on vocals, guitar and harmonica, and that was it. The album failed to sell.

I’m Not There (2007, dir: Todd Haynes)

A film about Bob Dylan that uses a different actor to play the man in various stages of his career. Sounds fairly unremarkable on the face of it, the sort of thing that happens all the time. But Richard Gere as Dylan? An African-American (Marcus Carl Franklin)? A woman (Cate Blanchett)? Director Todd Haynes throws in Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw as the other three Dylans in a film whose stunt casting threatens to obscure its purpose – by adopting the freewheeling approach Haynes is trying to get closer to a character who has spent his life constantly creating and erasing his own myth.

Well that’s the puff. Constructed as a series of episodes, with a different Dylan in each, the look and shooting style changing to match, this kaleidoscopic retelling of the Dylan biography avoids the trap of serving up familiar snippets. And when it does, it refracts them, twisting them into new shapes, much as Dylan himself twisted the fairly staid forms of folk into his own vehicle for expression.
Haynes takes Dylan pretty much at his own estimation of himself – cool, smart, honest, only occasionally a monster, while the famous songs (Idiot Wind, Like a Rolling Stone, The Times They Are A-Changin’ etc) are used as a commentary on the man’s life as he lived it.

Some things really stand out – as if the multiple casting for Dylan wasn’t enough (though Todd Solondz had done something not too dissimilar with his Alice in Wonderland-esque Palindromes in 2004) – one is the way that Haynes presents the 60s as a strange, distant, other world. Which of course it is now – further away culturally than chronologically – but Haynes was among the first to put this observation on film. Another is the way that Haynes and co-writer Oren Moverman draw comparisons between the 1960s and the time of the Old West (usually, with the 1960s, it’s the Edwardians and all that Sgt Pepper militaria).

As for the performances as Dylan, take your pick. Blanchett has been praised, though she’s a touch self-conscious. But then maybe she’s meant to be; she’s playing Dylan at his most iconic – shades, skinny black suit, smart haircut, at just the moment when he became the most famous pop star in the world, an icon in silhouette. A lot of people reading this might not even realise how big he was – bigger and cooler than the Beatles. The film’s a bit about that too.

Why Watch?

  • The stunt casting
  • Play “spot the reference” – was that Jodorowsky?
  • Some great Dylan music
  • Edward Lachman’s remarkably varied cinematography

I’m Not There – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

10 Things I Hate About You

The Cast of 10 Things I Hate About You



Apparently if you’re drunk enough when you say the title of this film, it sounds like, “The Taming Of The Shrew”. Whatever. When it came out in 1999 it tapped into two of the big trends in the cinema of the time: the high-school drama (Cruel Intentions, Election, Rushmore) and adaptations of the Bard (Elizabeth, Shakespeare In Love). It’s a teen tangle in Shakespeare country that manages to be both reasonably faithful (depending on how you define “reasonably” and “faithful”) to Shakespeare’s original, but not so heavy-handedly that the average audience member will nod off. It also managed to cast two hot properties of the time – Julia Stiles, who at one point seemed to be fighting Kirsten Dunst for total domination of the teen market. And new Australian import Heath Ledger, who actually only became a hot property after this, his Hollywood debut, in spite of the fact that his American accent starts to wander off towards the Southern hemisphere around halfway through. Like anyone was worrying about that.

The plot – the school’s coolest guy sets out to woo the girl with the most acidic mouth, to win a bet. No points for guessing where this plot is going. But it’s all about the ride rather than the destination and though the scenery is charming, and the fellow travellers (including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gabrielle Union and Alison Janney) great company, it’s really the technical display of sheer acting oomph by Stiles that sets this sexy, smart and cool high school rom-com apart.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


10 Things I Hate about You – at Amazon




Batman: The Dark Knight

dark knight 2jpg

Not having enjoyed the first Nolan/Bale Batman film (yes, he was traumatised by bats. I get it!) I wasn’t looking forward to the second.

But, having been told how great it was, how awesome Heath Ledger was, how dark it all was, I was prepared to put prejudice to one side and settle back to watch it with an open mind.

And I hated it. But no one else seems to feel this way. Why?

My own lack of soul to one side, it’s possibly something to do with the death of Ledger, a good actor who generally did more than was necessary in whatever role he took on, was happy to subsume himself to the character, unlike almost all “stars”. As the Joker, though, Ledger wasn’t really acting, he was channelling two famous previous players of the Joker – Cesar Romero (the giggle) from the 1960s TV version, and Jack Nicholson (the shoulders) from Tim Burton’s 1989 film – blending them and then replaying them at toxic volume. It was good, it was fun, it was clever but it was a stunt.

As for the “dark” aspect of the film, the guy in the bat suit is famously a nutjob, always has been, always will be. Christopher Nolan in no way made him darker. In fact such was the post-production fiddling with the film – to amp up Ledger – and the original misfire of an idea to include two villains that the Bat Man actually barely gets a look-in.

This is probably not the place to launch into an argument against Christian Bale’s acting talents, particularly when he’s being serious.

So we’ve got a jokey Joker, a film that’s really no darker than Tim Burton’s films, a disastrous dramatic weakening with the decision to introduce two villains (they’re meant to be powerful characters, they don’t need to hold each other’s hand).

Also, Christopher Nolan may be many things, but he’s not a good action director – after an hour of his incoherent editing – a beat too slow here, a beat too fast there – and his frequent dialling of the frenzy up to 11, I got bored. In fact there’s something really wrong with the editing of this throughout – I exclude the opening heist sequences which are gorgeous and seem to set the tone for an entirely different movie.

Then there’s what has been called the film’s psychological depth, its arthouse elements. I refer readers to Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney’s collaboration Ebony and Ivory, Nolan and screenwriters appear to be saying little more than “there is good and bad in everyone”.

None of the characters, apart from the Joker, has any existence you can imagine outside the film. They’ve got no depth – look at Maggie Gyllenhaal, look at Gary Oldman, look at Michael Caine, all dropped in as if to say “hey, this is a film you know, with a budget and everything” but they’re not actually doing much more than just being there.

Also, where is the sex – sexual frisson is everything if Bruce Wayne is meant to have lost his girlfriend to the Two Faced Eckhart (whose eyeball never seems to dry out, even though he’s got no eyelid).

And what the hell is Bale saying? That weird growl is very off-putting.

I’ve had a look round to see if anyone else hated it. David Denby of The New Yorker was the only one I could find. He called it “grim and incoherent”.

Agreed. Though grim isn’t a bad thing. Sadly, it looks like there’s more to come.

© Steve Morrissey 2009

Dark Knight – at Amazon

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