Stillwater

Virgine and Bill walking

There are two stories being told in Stillwater, one well, the other other not so well. Unfortunately for all concerned, it’s the one that’s told not so well that the film insists it’s all about, from its title all the way through to its concluding scenes.

At 2 hours 19 minutes you’d have thought that there was time to give both stories a fair screw, but clearly something has happened between greenlighting and debut. That “something” might be lawyers, given what it’s about.

Because it’s a loose adaptation of the Amanda Knox story. This was the messy and unsatisfyingly concluded case of the young American woman found guilty of killing a fellow exchange student, Meredith Kercher, in Italy in 2007. Knox was found guilty, then later exonerated because she was innocent. Or perhaps she was the victim of a botched investigation by the Italian police. Or maybe she was set free simply because she was a) American and b) hot – she wasn’t called Foxy Knoxy by the tabloid papers for nothing. Messy.

Abigail Breslin plays the Knox avatar, Allison Baker, banged up in a French jail for the murder of her lover, with Matt Damon as Bill Baker, the dad who has come out to try and do some investigating of his own now that officialdom has lost interest in the case.

Breslin Schmeslin, It could be anyone playing Allison, Breslin gets so little screen time, and in fact Allison’s story is all but abandoned in the central section, when Bill leans on a single mother for help with his non-existent French language skills and winds up becoming close to the woman and her cute daughter.

The fact that it’s Matt Damon as Bill is enough, isn’t it, to suggest that the film is more about him than his daughter. It is satisfyingly about him too, don’t get me wrong. Damon is really rather fantastic as the tattooed, god-fearing, respectful (many a “yes, ma’am”), hard-working meat-and-potatoes Oklahoma rigger who’s made a mess of family life first time round and is delighted, if loathe to admit it, to be given a second crack at it with the lithe, bubbly, compassionate and keen Virginie.

It’s Camille Cottin as Virginie, who you might know from the brilliant French TV dramedy Call My Agent, where she was a tough-nut actors’ agent in dog-eat-dog Paris. Not Virginie at all, though Cottin pulls off the switch, while staying recognisably herself. (Incidentally, given how brilliant everyone in that show was, it is slightly mystifying that it’s Cottin who’s done so well out of it – must have a good agent).

Bill and Maya
Bill and Maya



Cute kid Maya is played by Lilou Siauvaud, and what a loose and plausible miracle she is as the eight/nine-year-old child who, really, takes Bill under her wing and then forces maman to do the same.

There’s a third story too, which would link the Allison and the Virginie strands, if there was enough of the Allison strand, and that’s of bluff Bill, in full “I’m an American citizen, dammit” mode, charging about banging heads, trying to interrogate locals to find out what happened to his daughter, and locate a guy called Akim (Idir Azougli), who might be the key to it all.

Meanwhile, though it’s never stated out loud, French cultural superiority is quietly asserted throughout, with Bill becoming a better, more civilised person as he drops his boorish American ways and takes on aspects of French culture – a glass of wine, a trip to the theatre, turning off the damn TV when he’s eating his dinner.

Tom McCarthy knows how to write and direct offbeat relationship dramas (The Station Agent, the film that made Peter Dinklage’s name) and he knows how to write and direct urgent procedurals (like Spotlight, about Boston Globe reporters revealing the complicity of the Catholic Church in child abuse). Stillwater has aspects of both – Bill forging a new surrogate family with Virginie and Maya and Bill private-eyeing his way round a Marseille that doesn’t want to speak to him.

Stillwater it’s called, after the town Bill and Allison come from, and it’s that one word, Stillwater, that eventually provides the key to unlocking the truth of the Allison Baker case, which McCarthy picks up again towards the end, hoping maybe that we won’t have noticed that Allison is little more than a Maguffin in Bill’s story. Given its high profile, why McCarthy went for the Knox story at all, only to use it as little more than window dressing, is a puzzler.





Stillwater – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021









The Departed

Jack Nicholson in The Departed

 

 

Martin Scorsese’s remake of the brilliant 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs adds 50 minutes of flab to what was a lean, taut thriller. The plot is the same – cop bosses Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg send in undercover man Leo DiCaprio to bust a gang. Unbeknown to the boys at the precinct, gang boss Jack Nicholson is one step ahead of them and has been grooming a placeman of his own (Matt Damon) for years, and he’s now deep deep inside their gangbusting team. The drama springs from the “Who is going to get whacked first?” premise as each side works out after a while that there’s a mole on the team and then tries to work out who it is.

Scorsese gets busy with the digressions from the start, with a Goodfellas opening (thanks to William Monahan’s script) intoned by Nicholson – “I don’t want to be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be product of me. Years ago we had the church…” And through the rest of the film Scorsese keeps adding self-consciously “Marty” touches – the use of the Stones and John Lennon on the soundtrack, the acres of wiseguy smalltalk that used to be fun until everyone started doing it, the “big man” acting style. If Scorsese is puzzlingly behaving as if Tarantino hasn’t happened, the basic cat-and-mouse of Damon and DiCaprio remains nailbiting, and the fact that the two stars are dressed and coiffed similarly is clearly also saying something about 21st century law enforcement (the usual thing, but hey). And Alec Baldwin, as the reptilian alpha male, toilet-mouthed and very violent cop, also reminds us what presence and acting chops are all about.

As for Jack Nicholson, the extra length of this film vis a vis the original looks to be down to the fact that it’s been rewritten around him, possibly to encourage him to sign up. Nicholson and Scorsese have never worked together before, and the suspicion is that Scorsese sees The Departed partly as a way of bagging another 70s legend. But though Nicholson’s presence can be justified in so many ways – his Frank Costello is based on real-life Boston crime boss “Whitey” Bulger, his character allows Scorsese to get religion in, and widen the film out into a discussion about morality and guilt, and so on – the story isn’t about him, or shouldn’t be. And as if to show he knows everything has been bent too far out of shape to accommodate him, Nicholson delivers a finger-flick performance. Scorsese-philes and Nicholson groupies will love all the masturbatory touches. The rest of us will console ourselves with the Hong Kong original, which actually concentrates on the show rather than the sideshow, and with the fact that for all its flaws this is Scorsese’s best film since Casino, so maybe the man is on the comeback trail.

 

The Departed – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

Contagion

Gwyneth Paltrow not feeling too good in Contation

 

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

 

 

23 February

 

 

Mass inoculation using the Salk vaccine, 1954

On this day in 1954, Jonas Salk started the first mass trial of his polio vaccine in Pittsburgh. At the time polio was killing more children in the USA than any other communicable disease and it seemed to be getting worse – there were 58,000 cases in the USA in 1952, of which just over 3,000 died and just over 21 thousand were left with some disability, including muscle weakness, paralysis. Salk’s approach differed from that of other researchers – he used a dead polio vaccine, rather than a live one. And though most scientists thought his approach was wrong, several deaths of children treated with a live vaccine gave him enough room to operate. The trial saw 1.8 million children vaccinated. Ten months later the results were announced, on the tenth anniversary of the death of President FD Roosevelt, who had died of complications caused by polio. The vaccine was declared safe and effective. Vaccination on a large scale started immediately. By 1957 the number of cases had fallen to 5,600. By 1964 it was 121. Polio has been considered eradicated in the US since 1979. Currently there are only three countries where polio is still endemic – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

 

 

 

Contagion (2011, dir: Steven Soderbergh)

Of Steven Soderbergh’s three human health jeopardy films – Erin Brockovich, Side Effects and Contagion (four, if we include the Spalding Gray monologue movie Gray’s Anatomy) – Contagion plays most purely to the health scares of recent years, Sars, bird flu, H1N1 and so on. It is an expert piece of scaremongering which demonstrates JUST HOW SERIOUSLY we need to take this threat by sacrificing a big star right off the bat. It’s Gwyneth Paltrow, and any film that kills off Gwynie in its opening moments is obviously going to have its audience, who will also be salivating gruesomely as we see a flap of skin from her skull being pulled over her eyes as an autopsy is carried out. This is about five/ten minutes in, so I’m not spoiling much, honestly. It’s all part of a highly procedural film which, starting with the sound of someone coughing before any visuals have arrived on the screen, tracks a deadly disease around the world. More than that, it tracks the social ramifications of the disease’s progress – mass panic, martial law, crazy alternative therapies, social breakdown, the hegemony of rumour. It’s a disaster movie without any asteroid or iceberg to drive it forward. Instead we get the gigantic breadth of human reaction – from Jennifer Ehle’s wonkish scientist trying to figure out a cure, to Jude Law’s evangelist making money out of bogus alternative therapies and spreading the idea that the disease is caused by government conspiracy. Soderbergh excels at procedurals – see Ocean’s 11 – and also at keeping a whole load of plot plates spinning, and he’s totally in his element here. Adding a quasi-documentary feel to his portrayal of globe-spanning events, he switches the action from Atlanta to London, to Hong Kong, to Casablanca and back, bathing everything in that clinical matt sheen he’s so good at. If you’re looking for a big heartfelt film with a Shelley Winters moment (Poseidon Adventure fans) then you will be disappointed. Contagion is a slightly pitiless drama with a brainiac quality that observes human beings as a scientist might observe a bacillus down a microscope. Which is appropriate. And it does, let’s face it, make a change.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An alternative disaster movie
  • A big name cast including Matt Damon, Bryan Cranston, Marion Cotillard
  • An expert techno-thriller written by Bourne Ultimatum’s Scott Z Burns
  • Soderbergh’s beautiful clean cinematography (credited as Peter Andrews)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Contagion – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Bourne Identity

Matt Damon and Franka Potente in The Bourne Identity

 

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

 

 

15 January

 

 

The Pentagon dedicated, 1943

On this day in 1943 in Arlington Virginia the Pentagon was dedicated.

At the time it was the largest building in the world. The home of the US Department of Defense, it was originally intended to be built on an irregularly pentagonal piece of land at Arlington Farms.

When it was learnt that this location would obstruct the view of Washington DC from Arlington Cemetery, where soldiers fallen in conflicts since the Civil War have been buried, the location was switched to the site of the defunct Washington Hoover Airport.

The design stayed pentagonal but was regularised. For similar reasons of not wishing to overshadow the buildings of the nation’s capital, the building was kept low. In keeping with the pentagon theme the building is five storeys high (there are another two below ground), has 17.5 miles (28.2km) of corridors and twice the number of toilet facilities you’d expect in a building of this size – one set for whites, one for blacks, though this particular piece of segregation was never enforced, thanks to intervention to President Roosevelt, who ordered that the Whites Only signs be taken down.

Similarly ominous is the 5 acre central plaza, nicknamed “ground zero” by staff during the Cold War, because this, they reckoned, was where the Soviet warheads would strike first.

Built during wartime, at a time when the US was abandoning its policy of isolationism, the Pentagon can be seen as the bricks and mortar expression of the country’s move towards a much more active, interventionist foreign policy.

 

 

 

The Bourne Identity (2002, dir: Doug Liman)

The breakthrough action movie of the new millennium, The Bourne Identity had actually been made once before, when it starred Richard Chamberlain as the amnesiac spy trying to work out where, who and what he is, while Jaclyn Smith – then still uppermost in the mind as one of Charlie’s Angels – plays the woman he kidnaps and forces to help him (Franka Potente taking the role in this version).

At around three hours long, thanks to its mini-series status, the original is a touch flabby and this reworking of Robert Ludlum’s original novel cuts out much of the fat to leave a lean chase thriller whose interest comes from watching a man of ingenuity trying to work out just what the hell is going on.

This time around Matt Damon plays Bourne and is well cast as the clean slate whose muscle-memory is tell-taling that there’s more to this guy than just some almost-corpse who’s been dumped at sea.

Who are the bad guys? The ones who threw him overboard? Or maybe the spy’s masters back at the Pentagon, in some shadowy project within a project, who are possibly just as unscrupulous. It’s also neverquite established just where on the evil/virtue scale Jason Bourne lies either. That, too, is part of his quest.

The film works best in its early scenes, when after washing up on a beach, Bourne is taken in by low-level police for questioning, while back in Arlington his masters are attempting to scramble all manner of dark forces when they realise they have a live one.

Director Doug Liman’s camera is working towards the shakycam/fast-cut style that became associated with the Bourne franchise and was copied by almost every other action movie. It’s inspired by the frenetic feel of 1998’s Run Lola Run (which had starred Franka Potente), and Paul Greengrass would supercharge it in the two follow-ups. (The Bourne Legacy, an attempt to continue without Damon and Greengrass isn’t worthy to touch the hem of an amnesiac spy’s garment).

As for support cast, the Chamberlain/Smith original had a few good baddies in it – Peter Vaughan, Denholm Elliott, Anthony Quayle – and this 2002 version keeps up with the idea of using thesps of a high standard and a touch of suaveté, plus a bit of movie-staple British villainy never hurts either. Brian Cox and Clive Owen satisfying the latter category, Chris Cooper and Julia Stiles the former. David Strathairn, Albert Finney and Joan Allen would all arrive at the waterhole in later movies.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The film that rebooted the entire spy thriller genre
  • The film that rebooted Matt Damon’s career
  • The shadowy Treadstone unit is inspired by The Enterprise, set up to organise the Iran-Contra subterfuge
  • The great martial arts fights

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Bourne Identity – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Inside Job

 

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

 

 

07 September

 

 

US government takes over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, 2008

 

On this day in 2008, the US government placed two national organisations, the Federal National Mortgage Association (aka Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (aka Freddie Mac) into “consertavorship”, in much the same way that someone takes power of attorney over the estate of a relative who has lost their mind. Fannie Mae existed to lend out money to people who wanted to buy a house. Freddie Mac bought those mortages, repackaged them and then sold them on in a secondary market, thus increasing the amount of money available for mortgages. All well and good, until there’s a run on the market, as there was in the financial meltdown of 2007-2008. The federal government’s move marked an attempt by the US government to “backstop” the crisis and also indicated a dawning understanding that it, too, was a player in the “free market”. Action or not, within a week Lehman Brothers bank had filed for bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch bank had been bought by the Bank of America at a discount of 61% of its September 2007 price. The crisis, backstopped or not, went on.

 

 

Inside Job (2010, dir: Charles Ferguson)

Charles Ferguson’s documentary, narrated soberly by Matt Damon, sets out to explain how exactly the financial crisis came about. It kicks off in Iceland and shows us how a small prosperous country with regulated money markets became a basket case in short order. What happened, according to Ferguson and the plethora of highly qualified talking heads he calls in evidence, is that the country was the victim of a highly organised Ponzi scheme, one which also caught out the bulk of the developed world, a scheme, moreover, allowed by governments, run by banks, endorsed by auditing firms, encouraged by ratings agencies. And paid for by us. “The financial lobby captured the political system,” is Nouriel Roubini of New York University business school’s assessment. Among the film’s other worrying revelations is the fact that President Obama is employing the same people who caused the mess (and became billionaires in the process) and that there are five financial lobbyists for every member of Congress. So, unless things change, it’s going to happen all over again. Inside Job is an angry but admirably patient film. The bit about credit default swaps lost me, I must admit, but as a whole it is still probably the best explanation of how a “subprime” mortgage crisis became a global recession, for this layman at least. Though as the financial crisis proved, when markets get so complicated that only computers can understand them, perhaps everyone is a layman.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Why we went bust – explained
  • How to stop it happening again
  • Not afraid to point the finger – we were gangbanged by the banks
  • Facts, figures, historical analysis – it’s got them

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

 

Inside Job – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Rainmaker

Danny DeVito and Matt Damon in The Rainmaker

 

 

A half-hearted, second-rate vehicle designed to help carry Matt Damon to stardom, in which he takes his shirt off to play a principled rookie lawyer taking on a big bad medical insurance company. It’s written by John Grisham and while it’s in legal territory Grisham’s thrusting plot dynamics carry it forward. But that wouldn’t have suited the film’s agenda, which is more about Mr D’s career progression than telling a decent story. So as well as legal drama we have rather a lot of sub-plot in which Damon does the amorous hokey-cokey with the winsome Claire Danes, a client worth bending his professional ethics for. Other ornaments in this enjoyably decorated firmament include Danny De Vito as a squawking legal factotum called Deck Shifflet (full marks for that name, Mr Grisham) and Jon Voight as a bruising lawyer with “the man” engraved where his soul should be. It’s solid in the courtroom, shaky pretty much everywhere else, though Damon’s role is well delineated – he’s a rookie and he quite properly doesn’t have all the answers. The director’s credit goes to Francis Ford Coppola, who claims he read the book and asked to direct the film. Though it’s hard to shake the suspicion that this is strictly gun-for-hire work.

© Steve Morrissey 1998

 

The Rainmaker – at Amazon