6 October 2014-10-06

Tye Sheridan and Nicolas Cage in Joe



Out in the UK This Week



Joe (Curzon, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

I like Nicolas Cage in bad films, so going into this one, having heard it was good, I was slightly wary. But both him and the film are excellent – he’s the anger-prone decent guy who takes a young lad (up-and-coming Tye Sheridan) under his wing after he and his dad (Gary Poulter) pitch up looking for work on Joe’s (that’s Cage) tree-poisoning detail. Yes, tree poisoning. That’s a telling touch in a film that’s an exercise in the twisted Southern genre – derelicts and whores, low-lifes and attack dogs – director David Gordon Green back, to some extent, in George Washington territory, telling a melodramatic story in the most unmelodramatic of ways and imbuing everything with a languid, smoky ambience. But, like a bad Cage film, it’s still all, to a large extent, about waiting for the big fella to blow his top.

Joe – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Fading Gigolo (Curzon, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A Woody Allen homage by John Turturro. He writes, directs and stars, as a likeable sap in New York whose old bookstore-owning friend (Woody Allen in a rare “acting only” role) starts pimping him out to bored middle aged women, including Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara. Turturro twin-tracks this comic tale that runs on a high-octane performance by Allen – all impish remarks and Greek chorus wisdom – with a parallel story about a rabbi’s widow (Vanessa Paradis) and the be-ringleted Jewish morality cop (Liev Schreiber) who’s got the hots for her. The two gears don’t quite mesh and what’s more neither plot feels like it’s really been properly explored by the time the film, fun enough while it’s around, comes to a slightly “was that it?” ending.

Fading Gigolo – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Omar (Soda, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Omar is the story of three Palestinian young men – Omar is the lover, Tarek is the fighter and Amjad is the clown – and how what should be normal lives of loving, fighting and fooling about are knocked sideways by the Jewish presence in their West Bank home. It’s a believably acted drama that doesn’t rely on the milking of political sympathies for its effect. It’s a good story, in other words, as Omar is first arrested, recruited by the Jewish Israelis, let out, re-arrested, falls in love, is deceived in love, and so on. Like A Prophet, it’s about a man being militarised, but first and foremost it’s a story about a young guy just trying to live his life. And it’s those parts of it, Omar’s love story with Nadia, sister of the “not with my sister you don’t” Tarek, that are really what make sinuously plotted, atmospherically shot drama work.

Omar – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet (E One, cert 12, DVD/digital)

Aiming for 1960s Disney with a bit more edge, Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet finds a fitting vehicle for his chocolate-boxy visuals with a story about a cadet inventor (Kyle Catlett) in so-beautiful-it-hurts Montana who sets off on a journey to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington to pick up a prize for his perpetual motion machine. The journey – good old fashioned boxcar stuff with traditional happenstance meetings on the way – are the backbone of this pick’n’mix movie, and once TS gets to Washington we get to see the fabulous Judy Davis as the impeccably dressed, Anna Wintour-bobbed boss of the Smithsonian, ready with any number of catalogue poses from the Disney book of villainesses. Jeunet still has the bad habit of saying something in a voiceover and then showing us the same thing again visually, but his visuals are cute almost to the point of delicious parody and he is refreshingly keen on telling a story about a bright kid with a thirst for knowledge, and about the joys of the mind. Which is pretty rare.

The Young and Prodigious TV Spivet – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Fruitvale Station (Spirit, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Fruitvale Station is the stop on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in California where a young black man, Oscar Grant, was shot in the back by a policeman in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009. Writer/director Ryan Coogler’s feature debut dramatically reconstructs Grant’s last day, and casts Michael B Jordan as the young man who seems to be on the verge of manning up, jacking in the weed and realising his responsibilities to his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz, also excellent) and his broader family. It’s a rounded portrait in the sense that we see some of Grant’s foibles, but only in that sense. In all other respects Coogler’s “kind to animals, children and old ladies” picture of Grant is bordering on the ridiculously saintly. Which is a pity, because it tends to place the sceptical viewer (ie me) on the defensive for what plays out at the end, as we see Grant and friends involved in a fracas on the train, then hauled off for the ignominious and shocking finale – a moment by moment repeat of what we’ve already seen in blurry real-time smartphone imagery over the opening credits.

Fruitvale Station – Watch it/ buy it at Amazon




Jimmy’s Hall (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Well I didn’t like The Wind That Shakes the Barley – Ken Loach’s agit-prop drama about the 1920s Irish war against the British. And I didn’t much like this return to Erin, for a drama set in the aftermath of the civil war which broke out after independence. Barry Ward looks the part but lacks any charisma as Jimmy, the communist returnee from New York trying to re-open the old community hall, where the local peasantry mix poetry, song and dance with the lessons in Greek myth, drawing and boxing (noblest of the sports). This all in contradiction of the wishes of the local priest (Jim Norton, familiar as Bishop Brennan on the TV series Father Ted), representative of the “pastors and masters”. Loach and his long-time writing collaborator Paul Laverty have made a “them and us” drama in which one side are all virtue, the other all thuggery, the exception being Father Sheridan, a character of intriguing ambiguity in a film otherwise lacking any – and it isn’t just Norton’s excellent playing of him. The result is an interesting moment from history retold competently but lacking most of the tiny uncertainties of reality. A bit dull, in other words.

Jimmy’s Hall – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




La Dolce Vita (Nouveaux, cert 15, Blu-ray)

Brought back from the brink of disintegration, Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece has been restored with variable success – though this is now probably as good as it’s going to get – for this blu-ray debut which runs Marcello Mastroianni’s world-weary writer-turned-journalist through the fleshpots of Rome for one week of excess at the beginning of the Swinging Sixties. It’s still a brilliant film – Fellini catches the dangerous allure of glamour, sex, late nights, the whole damn thing, so well that you’d barely guess he saw the whole caboodle as dangerous as hell. Quite a moral message from an atheist. The extras (on the UK version) include an interview with Anita Ekberg, who is a candid and throatily sexy old broad, and a series of trailers – the one for Juliet of the Spirits makes you want to rush out and track it down immediately. Let’s hope Criterion or Eureka or Nouveaux, or whoever, are on the case.

La Dolce Vita – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey




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