The Nest

Allison and Rory in the Elizabethan manor

 

Suddenly Ingmar Bergman seems to be fashionable again. Just last week I watched Black Bear, a film with a hint of Bergman’s Persona. Now, in The Nest, there’s touches of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage.

Which means that if you’re looking for fireworks, you’ve come to the wrong film. The Nest is a journey into dark psychological territory so muted that it would be easy to miss what’s going on.

On the surface things look pretty peachy – Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) is a successful trader who’s moved his family from New York back to the UK, where Rory has used his huge Wall Street bonanza to rent a massive Elizabethan mansion – Led Zeppelin once stayed here! From here he’s going to relaunch himself back into the City of London, where 1980s deregulation is about to create an ocean of financial opportunity. He’s got a pretty wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), and lovely kids, Sam and Ben (Oona Roche, Charlie Shotwell) too.

Things are not quite as they appear. The money isn’t quite as available as it should be, though the O’Haras don’t seem to lack for anything. Nor is Rory’s return to the City quite as bathed in glory as he’d anticipated. Asked but never quite answered is the reason for Rory’s return from the USA in the first place. After all, Wall Street is where the big bucks are being made and Rory is all about the big bucks. It was somewhere around this point Michael Douglas was pulling on his red braces and warming up his “greed is good” mantra in the Wall Street movie. So what is going on?

This is writer/director Sean Durkin’s first film since 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. That was a story about a young woman who’d escaped a cult. It sidestepped genre conventions and so does The Nest, being, under it all, the story of a man, a marriage and a family going into meltdown.

In both films Durkin is acutely aware that it’s often what’s not being said that’s important. Key scene in The Nest, though one that could easily have ended up on the cutting-room floor, is the one between Rory and his mother (Anne Reid), who he’s not seen for at least ten years. And when he turns up at her council flat it’s also obvious he hasn’t been in touch all that time either. In a cagey bit of to and fro she learns that she has a grandson (“Ten!” she harrumphs when she finds out how old Ben is). And we can see, looking at the picture that Rory is showing her, that he’s chosen one that doesn’t include his wife’s daughter Sam as part of his family. That’s telling.

 

Allison and Rory at a black tie event
Allison and Rory at a black tie event

 

There are more to their exchanges than the words being said. Reid is a great bit of casting here, a remarkable actor, her face and body language saying the unsayable. Law is also on peak form as the handsome, charmer whose heart, what we can see of it, seems dark. But then there isn’t a duff performance by any of the cast, who are all operating on the same “show but don’t tell” instruction.

As with Martha Marcy May Marlene, Durkin actually goes to the trouble of rounding out peripheral characters. Wife Allison has her own business and is a more formidable person, Rory is finding, now she’s not so happy with her living arrangements. Ben is having trouble at school; Sam is hanging out with the local party animals. At work Rory’s boss is City dinosaur Arthur Davis (Michael Culkin) and there’s Steve (Adeel Akhtar), the underling who, Rory hasn’t realised, might be more savvy than he gives him credit for.

The Nest is a funny title for a film like this. It’s a horror movie title, and maybe at some level that’s what this is. It’s also one of those films that doesn’t so much end as conclude – the camera fades to black and announces that that’s where we’re leaving the O’Hara family, though, somewhere, out there, their story continues.

 

The Nest – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

The Holiday

Jude Law and Cameron Diaz in The Holiday

 

The rom-com has traditionally featured an alpha couple and a beta couple. This allowed the alpha couple do the serious mooning about, while the beta couple handled the comedy and dispensed sound, often snarky, advice. However, since Richard Curtis’s successful if frequently painful Love, Actually, there’s been an attempt to get more people in on the act. Which brings us to one of those transatlantic rom-coms with a couple of Hollywood stars and a couple of Brits, each side playing to the other’s stereotyped view of what an American/Brit is. The Brits are a journalist at the tweedy Daily Telegraph (Kate Winslet) and a book editor (Jude Law); meanwhile, from California, USA, we have an editor of film trailers (Cameron Diaz) and a composer of movie music (Jack Black). The back-of-a-napkin plot drops Diaz into chocolate-boxy England, where she quickly meets-cute with Jude Law, and Winslet into you-guys Hollywood, where she hooks up with Jack Black.

The Holiday is written and directed by Nancy Meyers, who with her husband Charles Shyer has been knocking out this sort of thing going back to 1980’s Private Benjamin. However, she’s on her own this time out and seems to be in nostalgic mood. Which might explain the presence of Eli Wallach, as an old Hollywood screenwriter Winslet strikes up a friendship with when she’s not making lukewarm eyes at Black. Wallach’s presence is initially mystifying, until the penny drops (nudged by clips of black and white movies, plus Wallach’s homilies) and it becomes apparent that, in among the love stuff, Meyers is making a point about old Hollywood versus new. How much better the old Hollywood was, because it was writer driven. And how The Holiday fits right in with that old Hollywood tradition. The first point (old was better) is debatable. The second (it was writer driven) is nonsense. The third (this is an old school film) is hooey – you couldn’t get more new Hollywood than this, the way it cannibalises old ideas and pays lip service to writing.

However, the performances. Well, Diaz’s gift for delivering energy doesn’t desert her, and Jude Law rises to the occasion, making their flirting and fornication – hey, new Hollywood – fun, funny, sexy and tender. Winslet and Black fare less well, their chemistry just not there, and perhaps they’re bridling slightly at the realisation that they are, in fact, the beta couple. Ultimately, the film’s minuses overwhelm its several pluses, the misinterpretation by Meyers of what exactly old Hollywood was about having led her to write characters who are all entirely without blemish – in fact you can watch The Holiday and imagine an indie film somewhere which features more credible versions of Cameron and Jack and Kate and Jude – drunk and sex-addicted, in therapy or rehab. Or you can watch The Philadelphia Story and see what Meyers thought she was heading.

 

The Holiday – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

eXistenZ

Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh in eXistenZ

 

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

 

 

14 June

 

Charles Babbage’s difference engine, 1822

On this day in 1822, Charles Babbage presented a paper to the British Royal Astronomical Society. It was called “Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables”. What he was proposing was, in effect a mechanical computer. First conceived in 1786 by JH Müller, an engineer in the Hessian army, the difference engine was of interest to governments because it allowed them to produce tables (of whatever sort – tides, for instance) much more economically. To this end, in 1823 the British government gave Babbage £1,700 to make his engine. By 1842 they had given him more than £17,000 and there still was no machine. Partly this was because Babbage got bogged down in the detail, partly because he’d moved on to another project (the analytical engine) and partly because it was difficult, using the technology of the day, to work to the tolerances that the difference engine required. The difference engine  was only completed in 1991, with the ancillary printer (Babbage’s plan was to print direct from the machine, avoiding the errors introduced by typesetters – another astonishing concept) only finished in 2000. Both machines worked perfectly.

 

 

 

eXistenZ (1999, dir: David Cronenberg)

You used to know what you were getting with David Cronenberg. Generally roaming the territory where technological and the human body intersected, to gruesome effect, his films such as Videodrome, Scanners, Dead Ringers, Crash and The Fly all featured people being subject to what became known as “body horror”. These days Cronenberg has broadened his range to make fragrant delights such as the Jung/Freud costume drama A Dangerous Method, but back in the day “body horror” and Cronenberg were pretty much synonymous, even though other people (such as Shin’ya Tsukamoto, with his Tetsuo films) were wading in the same water. What make eXistenZ interesting is that it’s effectively his last gambol through the ooze where metal meets flesh, a fun bit of sci-fi about a computer game virgin being inveigled by the creator of a video game creator into “testing” it for her. Jude Law plays the neophyte, Ted, Jennifer Jason Leigh is Allegra, the uberprogrammer whose dabblings in the territory some say is reserved for God have earned her a fatwa from fundamentalist “Realists”. And of course Allegra has more in mind for the slightly blank Ted than just quickly going through the motions. They enter the reality of eXistenZ, a computer program so vivid that it feels and looks, even tastes, like another world. “Reality is all a construct” is the big idea, lifted from philosophy and worked into … I was going to say a meditation, but in fact Cronenberg is more turning the idea this way and that, seeing which way the light bounces off it most acutely. So after Law and Leigh enter the game they end up at a Chinese restaurant, where they order the special and it turns out to be very special indeed – strong stomach warning. From here Cronenberg takes us to the “gristle gun” scene, in which Law constructs a weapon out of body parts, an echo of the “bioport” we’ve already been introduced to (like a USB socket straight into the small of the back), a foretaste of the bullet in Allegra’s shoulder which turns out to be a tooth. As I said, there’s a rough and ready aspect to Cronenberg’s first entirely original screenplay since Videodrome, which was prompted by the ructions over Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, and the subsequent fatwa that put its author under a death sentence. But if it started in Cronenberg’s mind as an exploration of fundamentalism and relativism, it soon morphed into prime cuts of organic tech fantasy. Released around the same time as The Matrix, its special effects and its conceptual reach pale in comparison with the Wachowskis’, but Cronenberg’s film is ageing well, and in any case when you’ve got so much yucky content, who wants to see it all pin sharp? Enjoy.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A good cast – feisty Jennifer Jason Leigh, detached Jude Law
  • The slick trick ending
  • Ian Holm, Christopher Eccleston and Sarah Polley in the support cast
  • Carol Spier’s carnal production design

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

eXistenZ – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Side Effects

Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum in Side Effects

 

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

 

 

19 February

 

 

Damages for thalidomide children, 1968

On this day in 1968, the High Court in the UK presided over a settlement to 62 children born with deformities caused by the drug thalidomide. Thalidomide had been first marketed in 1957 in West Germany as a sedative and was later sold over the counter as a cure for morning sickness in pregnant women. Within months there was a huge increase in the number of babies born with missing and deformed limbs, deformed eyes, bowels, and hearts. Around 40% of these children died. The story repeated itself in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, Canada and other countries where it had been claimed that it “can be given with complete safety to pregnant women and nursing mothers without adverse effect on mother or child.” It was this claim for “complete safety” that would lead to a claim against The Distillers Company, who marketed the drug in Britain. The drug was never licensed for use in the USA, largely because one woman at the FDA, Frances Oldham Kelsey, refused to grant a licence without evidence of safety trials. In the UK the trial and compensation award largely hinged on whether Distillers had a duty of care to unborn children. English common law was silent on the issue. It was essentially down to the distinction between “fault” and “responsibility” – Distillers might not have knowingly done what they did but should they have taken responsibility. The out-of-court award negotiated on the steps of the High Court was made thanks in part to a campaign by The Sunday Times, but Distillers’ largesse came with the understanding that all allegations of negligence be withdrawn. Eventually, partly goaded by a share price suffering from negative publicity and a campaign against it in the USA, Distillers substantially increased their payment. Thalidomide is still in use today, as a cancer growth blocker.

 

 

 

Side Effects (2013, dir: Steven Soderbergh)

One of the fascinating things about watching Side Effects is trying to work out what sort of a film it is. It kicks off with a depressed Rooney Mara getting put on a series of SSRIs, happy pills, after a suicide attempt, by her doctor (Jude Law), who eventually gets her on to a new wonder drug, Ablixa. She goes home to her husband, just out of prison for insider trading, who is taken aback by the fact that she wants rampant sex with him, all of a sudden. The fact that the husband is played by Channing Tatum being an obvious sign that she really was depressed, because what woman wouldn’t normally want to … etc etc. But then things take a turn and the side effects of Ablixa start to exert themselves spectacularly. Mara winds up in prison for a crime that might have been caused by the pills she’s on. Somewhere round here the film starts to switch focus, from the patient to the doctor, who starts digging further into the case, uncovering as he goes a toxic Big Pharma advocate in the shape of Catherine Zeta-Jones (who seems to have decided that poisonous is what she’s best at as an actress). We’ve been diverted slyly into a whodunit, with Law as the not-entirely-righteous searcher for truth in a murky world controlled by mega corporations who spend vast budgets convincing the gullible they need what’s on offer. The slide into something much more recognisably 1940s continues with two further twists which won’t do anything for the promotion of women but do allow both Mara and Zeta-Jones to really let rip as actors, Mara in particular. It’s true that Side Effects has its faults – Law’s transformation from passive doctor to active investigator never quite stacks up. But as I said the real joy here is watching Soderbergh making the film change track as if it were a train running across a mammoth set of points. As for Scott Z Burns’s script, it deliberately invokes the 1940s femme fatale in an attempt to say something salient about the 21st century sense of entitlement – First World Problems, in other words.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A twisty dark thriller
  • Another great Rooney Mara performance
  • The associated spoof website for Ablixa
  • Thomas Newman’s jangly mood-setting score

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Side Effects – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Enemy at the Gates

Jude Law takes aim in Enemy at the Gates

 

 

Here’s a mixed bag of European war movie that is trying to be Saving Private Ryan in its impressive opening scenes, but looks as if it realises it doesn’t have the budget and so scales back the action to concentrate on two lone snipers. One German, one Russian. It’s set during the battle of Stalingrad, in which more than two million people died – yes, two million – and so the decision makes some logistical sense, even if it shortchanges the Russians and their epic level of sacrifice. The fact that it does that is what got the goat of a lot of historians masquerading as film critics, who suggested that the film mocks the memory of the fallen. But wars are won by many individual acts of selflessness, which is where Jude Law, playing a Russian peasant, and Ed Harris, as a German aristocrat called König, come in. Both are expert marksmen, the former learnt to shoot to protect his flocks from wolves, the latter hunting deer on his estate. So as each tries to get the other guy in his sights in the burnt out and bombed out buildings of a once great city, we have a good-guy-versus-bad-guy story (the Russians being, unusually for an English-speaking war film, the goodies), a story where the antagonism is class-based, and a further one, if we’re looking really hard, that’s survival versus fun, perhaps even nature versus nurture.

Do we need a love story too? Because on top of this fascinating mano a mano struggle director Annaud (who is producer, director and co-writer) straps a romance, presumably in the hope of turning Enemy at the Gates into a date movie. Enter Rachel Weisz as a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s madness who becomes the apex of a love triangle between our Vassili (Law) and Commisar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) a party apparatchik who is turning reports on Vassili’s marksmanship into mood-bolstering propaganda. The answer to the “do we need a love story” question is no, of course, and it is to an extent the undoing of a film that is absolutely at its best when concentrating on the cat and mouse between slightly feral Vassili and König, his lordly nemesis.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Enemy at the Gates – at Amazon

 

 

 

eXistenZ

Jude Law in eXistenZ

 

 

Combining two fields of interest of director David Cronenberg – the mediated-reality musings of Videodrome and the body horror of almost everything else he’s done – eXistenZ is about a video game designer dropping into the gamesworld she’s created, accompanied by a good-looking marketing trainee, to work out if it still all works after an assassination attempt on its creator. Jude Law is handsome and chiselled and pretty much perfect as the slightly blank computer-game virgin and Jennifer Jason Leigh also scores high as the programmer who’s developed a gaming environment so realistic that it makes real life look lacklustre. This parallel reality where industrial and organic coalesce (a gun that shoots human teeth, a cyberport that seems to share at least some of the functionality of a vagina) is Cronenberg territory par excellence, a space where he can riff on the effects of hard drugs, organic technology and two-headed mutant reptiles, while the likes of Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe and Sarah Polley flap about looking like they wish there was more for them to do. Would eXistenZ be better if more money had been spent on it? The air of fake reality is deliberate – Cronenberg is saying something about the nasty allure of the simulacrum, and if we’re being generous we could account for the slight failure of the stars to connect as deliberate too. Satirical, caustic, inventive but also predictable (of course they get trapped inside the game) and disjointed, eXistenZ also suffers from being released the same month, and dealing with strikingly similar themes, as The Matrix. Even that cyberport looks strangely familiar.
© Steve Morrissey 1999

eXistenZ – at Amazon