Antiviral

Caleb Landry Jones in Antiviral

 

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

 

 

29 February

 

 

Rare Disease Day

This day every leap year is Rare Disease Day. Initially chosen because the day itself is rare, and to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Orphan Drug Act in the USA (which makes it easier for therapies for designated diseases to be developed), it was first observed in 2008. When there isn’t a 29 February in the year, the day is observed on the last day of the month. A rare disease is technically defined as one found in fewer than five people in 10,000, but there are more well known rare diseases than might at first be thought – cystic fibrosis, conjoined twins, Creutzfeld Jakob disease to name three beginning with the letter C. The day is largely used to raise awareness and increase access to facilities and treatment, but is also seen as an opportunity for lobbying and fund-raising. The organisation’s website is at www.rarediseaseday.org

 

 

 

Antiviral (2012, dir: Brandon Cronenberg)

Meet Syd. He works at a strange medical facility which deals in celebrity infections. Not the curing of infections that celebrities have, but the culturing and selling on of infections – herpes seems to be a favourite – which a particular celebrity has had, the idea being that the adoring fan will buy anything, and especially something so intimately connected with fame. So that’s Syd’s job – selling famous people’s diseases. He’s at the fragrant high end of a market which, lower down the pecking order, deals in cloned celebrity muscle tissue, offered up on the black market at a handsome price to the fanbase. They eat it, apparently. In films where the “hero” works in some highly mechanised and not particularly savoury occupation, at some point he generally makes a break for it, or sets about bringing about a revolution. Syd does neither. Instead he sneaks some infection home from work inside his own bloodstream, with the intention of either doing some black market trading, or having his own private facetime with a celebrity virus, we’re not sure at first. But Syd’s theft has consequences, and he’s soon fighting the very thing that other people are fighting to get.
The time is the near future; the place is a sort of aseptic steampunk version of the present; the influences are the dystopia of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the body horror of David Cronenberg. And the director is Cronenberg’s son, Brandon, who could be accused of having cloned his dad’s sensibility, if we were being cruel. I suspect that Cronenberg Sr had some ancillary input in Antiviral – the technical work, the mis en scene, and the support cast are all perfect – but there is more going on here than Mini-Me horror. Cronenberg Jr builds a convincing universe, uses his cast well (Caleb Landry Jones as the pasty salesman/technician/thief; Malcolm McDowell affirming the Kubrick connection; Sarah Gadon blonde and charismatic as the Madonna/Gaga-esque star the plot hinges on). Brandon Cronenberg also has his own vision, tells his own story and follows his theme of vampiric celebrity culture – they live on us, though fans believe it’s the opposite – through to its pitiless satirical conclusion (OK, that last bit is definitely the father’s style too). More importantly, he fuses the clean-tech high modernist sci-fi look – the opening shot is of a white light and white is the key colour throughout – with something much more organic, wet, dark, even hairy. Enjoy.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The directorial debut of another Cronenberg auteur
  • Powerful, disturbing body horror
  • Old-fashioned physical special effects extremely well used
  • Part of the rise and rise of Caleb Landry Jones

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Antiviral – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

MPAA Not Rated Card

 

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

 

 

31 March

 

Motion Picture Code introduced, 1930

On this day in 1930, the Hollywood studios introduced a new code which laid out what was and was not acceptable in movies. It was a system of self-regulation which a scared Hollywood adopted after a series of widely reported scandals and after a number of risqué movies had prompted numerous states to introduce censorship bills. Rather than navigate through all this restrictive detail – what was fine in Iowa might not be in Texas – Hollywood bought off the objectors by introducing a code that satisfied nearly everybody. Working from a list of “don’ts” (eg sex, drugs, blasphemy, white slavery) and “be carefuls” (eg arson, murder, lustful kissing) hashed out by studio bosses, the eventual Code was drawn up by a pair of Catholics, Martin Quigley, editor of the Motion Picture Herald, and Father Daniel A Lord, a Jesuit priest. Broadly speaking it promoted morality, banned vice, deplored the mixing of the races, respected authority and the clergy, and stipulated that bad deeds should never be shown to be profitable. The result is that films from the late 1920s and early 1930s (the code didn’t get properly enforced until 1934) often seem a lot fresher and more modern than films made decades later. This Motion Picture Code, often called the Hays Code, stayed in force until 1968 when it was replaced by the MPAA’s rating system.

 

 

 

This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006, dir: Kirby Dick)

Who are the members of the MPAA and why are the criteria they use for rating films so obscure? These are the two questions that documentarist Kirby Dick asks in a film that scored a few headlines when it was release because it came to light that Dick had employed private detectives to find out who these powerful people are – that’s how secretive the whole process is. And the answers are important because moviemakers – especially indie ones whom Dick is most concerned about – routinely pour their heart and soul, often their life savings, as well as those of parents and friends, into making a film, only to find that it gets a dreaded NC-17 certificate, for reasons they can’t fathom. NC-17 means the mainstream media won’t advertise it, major cinema chains won’t book it, the big DVD companies won’t stock it. This matters less if you’re a major – studios and distributors seem to have access to the MPAA, which allows them to tweak here and there, in accordance with the board’s wishes. Dick lines up a host of talking heads who have come off worse in their dealings with the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) wing of the MPAA – Atom Egoyan, Kevin Smith, Kimberly Peirce among them – to ask why, for example, nudity is more acceptable when it’s heterosexual than when it’s homosexual, his film concentrating most on the shady line between the R (ker-ching) and the NC-17 (ker-plunk) ratings. In a meta-documentary turn, Dick submits his own documentary to the board. And gets a NC-17 rating. By far the most obviously exciting bits of Dick’s film is watching as his sleuths work out who the nine members of the CARA board are, though his complaint that they’re just “ordinary people” does seem unjustified – would industry insiders be better? – but shining a light on a secretive cabal who determine what people in America get to see has got to be counted as a public service. And he’s doing the rest of the world a favour too, since a film that bombs at home hasn’t the muscle to travel. Yes, Dick does complain too much and there’s the suspicion that some of the directors he interviews are using MPAA decision to excuse their own artistic shortcomings, but you can’t deny his film is an eye-opener.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Meet Jack Valenti, boss of the MPAA from 1968 to 2004
  • The thorough investigative approach
  • The views of directors such as John Waters, Darren Aronofsky, Matt Stone
  • Because sunshine is the best disinfectant

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

This Film Is Not Yet Rated – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Die Another Day

Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry

 

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

 

 

26 March

 

AE Housman born, 1859

On this day in 1859, Alfred Edward Housman was born, in Bromsgrove, UK. Most famous for his poetry cycle The Shropshire Lad, Housman was the son of a solicitor. His mother died when he was 12, on his birthday in fact, and Alfred became a bookish withdrawn child who excelled at academic subjects. He won a scholarship to Oxford, where he failed to get a degree, thanks to a mix of indolence, arrogance and infatuation with a fellow student, Moses Jackson. In spite of a lack of degree Housman wrote and published academic works about Greek and Roman writers in his spare time, and eventually gained such a reputation that he was made a professor of Latin at University College London in 1892. He proceeded to become a foremost textual critic with a reputation for intellectual rigour and a terrifying lecturing style. He was also quietly writing poetry and it came as a shock to colleagues when this academic “descended from a long line of maiden aunts” – as one fellow don described him – published The Shropshire Lad. In contrast to the facade of the severe academic, it was composed of simple, nostalgic, occasionally maudlin verses in the style of folk song. It was aimed at the heart not the head and has been in print ever since.

 

 

 

Die Another Day (2002, dir: Lee Tamahori)

“But since the man who runs away, Lives to die another day” are the lines from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad that provide the title for the 40th anniversary Bond movie. Being an anniversary Bond, the producers have peppered it with references to previous 007 outings, not least in the scene where Bond is conducted through Q’s underground workshop, where gadgets and relics from decades long gone are given another moment on camera – look, there’s Rosa Klebb’s shoe, that thruster pack from … quickly searches imdb… Thunderball. Halle Berry’s orange bikini and her slo-mo walk out of the sea onto the beach being another clear throwback, to Ursula Andress’s goddess-like arrival on the screen in Dr No, the first Bond movie. Die Another Day is the sort of film that is remembered for individual scenes rather than its plot – though its kickoff in North Korea, where a bearded Bond has been held and tortured for months was a shocker at the time (a real country! facial hair!). It’s also the film that gave us the laughable invisible car, Madonna’s attempts at acting, shocking CGI, lines of dialogue with the subtlety of a chemical cosh – “I take it Mr Bond has been explaining his Big Bang theory” and so on. Brosnan is a very good Bond who had the misfortune to arrive on the scene just as two great presences in the 007 universe were shuffling off. The first was the Soviet Union, which had barely shut up shop months before GoldenEye was mooted. The second was Cubby Broccoli, producer of every Bond film since the first, who was barely involved in GoldenEye and dead by the time the next one, Tomorrow Never Dies, hit the screens. Brosnan’s Bond has to contend with both of these upheavals – the re-arrangement of world affairs, plus the attempts by Broccoli’s daughter Barbara and stepson Michael Wilson to re-invigorate the franchise, the success of which would only become fully apparent once Daniel Craig took over. Until then we have Brosnan in his last outing as 007 – relaxed, funny – two Bond villains (Rick Yune, Toby Stephens), Bond girls (Halle Berry, Rosamund Pike, Madonna, if we’re being generous), extreme surfing, armoured hovercraft, and a henchman called Mr Kil.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Support cast including John Cleese (Q), Judi Dench (M) and Michael Madsen
  • David Arnold’s lush, John Barry-like score
  • Brosnan’s most relaxed performance as Bond
  • Halle Berry

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Die Another Day – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Don’t Look Now

Julie Christie in Don't Look Now

 

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

 

 

25 March

 

The founding of Venice, AD421

On this day in the year AD421, Venice was founded. Sited on 118 islands in a lagoon between the mouths of the rivers Po and Piave, Venice derives its name from the Veneti people who lived in the region in the 10th century BC, though the people who actually founded the city were more likely refugees fleeing the Germanic and Hun invaders who were flooding into Italy as the Roman empire fell apart. Today is traditionally taken as the day of the city’s founding because on this day in 421 the church of San Giacomo was dedicated. It still stands, though it was substantially rebuilt by order of the doge Marino Grimani after a fire destroyed much of the area.

 

 

 

Don’t Look Now (1973, dir: Nicolas Roeg)

It’s often remembered as the film in which Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie have sex for real for the camera, though that story smacks of brilliant PR rather than Perez Hilton-style tittle-tattle. But Don’t Look Now’s most talked about scene is important for another, more structural reason. It’s the way that in the editing of the scene the action keeps cutting between the present and the future. The story of John and Laura Baxter, a young married couple whose daughter has died in a drowning accident, Don’t Look Now has already shifted location from misty England to Venice where, as some sort of sublime joke, the Baxters are meant to be recovering from their loss in the world’s most watery city. He’s restoring a cathedral as part of his work; she’s quietly going nuts.
And it’s in the cutting that Roeg and editor Graeme Clifford signal Laura’s disintegration, the way they collage together images of the here and now with suggestions of what’s to come, or of this world of solid mass with an alternative world which is just out of reach. Enter two sisters, one of whom can “see” the Baxters’ dead daughter. Enter a priest, too worldly by half. Exit Laura, to sort out some problem back home. And here, after much suggestion and foreshadowing, the film goes into its most famous sequence, as the entirely rational John starts chasing around the spookily empty Venice after a hooded figure in a red coat just like the one his daughter was wearing the day she died. There’s nothing overtly “horror” about this film; it doesn’t do “boo” scares or feature mad axe-wielding psychopaths. It works on the senses in a different way, insidiously, by suggestion, the film built shot by shot like some baroque fugue – themes are stated, restated with embellishment, echoed, reversed, until (ta daa) we reach the final reveal. Plot junkies won’t like the ending. It’s too abrupt, seems like too sudden a change of direction. Yet as Laura glides away with the two mysterious sisters on boat across the water – allusion to Greek mythology surely deliberate – surely it’s the best ending possible for a film that’s been about the boundary between the solid and the ethereal.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Nicolas Roeg’s best film
  • Probably the most subtle gothic horror ever made
  • Perfect Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie
  • A masterclass in cinematography and editing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Don’t Look Now – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Midnight Cowboy

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy

 

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

 

 

24 March

 

Robert Koch announces discovery of the cause of TB, 1882

On this day in 1882, Robert Koch announced that he had worked out what was causing tuberculosis, a disease so devastating that it went by several names – phthisis and consumption were also common. Until Koch started his research, it was widely believed that TB was a hereditary disease. But though Koch had observed that TB would often spread through families, its epidemiology was not uniform – poorer families tended to get it more than richer ones. We now know that TB is caused by a slow-growing bacterium, mycobacterium tuberculosis, which is carried by many people (one third of the world’s population is currently infected). But though it is infectious, it doesn’t progress to the full-blown disease in most cases. People who are fit and live in healthy, well ventilated environments resist it well; it is those with compromised immune systems who succumb. Koch’s suspicions that a bacillus was causing TB were prompted by his work on anthrax in farm animals, which had found that a bacillus – cultivable in the lab (ie his home) – was responsible. But he was only able to prove his TB thesis after getting a position at the German Imperial Health Bureau in Berlin, where he was able to identify, isolate and cultivate the tuberculosis bacterium. Having done that, it was on to cholera, another scourge, the methods for the control of which helped provide the blueprint for the control of all epidemics, still used today.

 

 

 

Midnight Cowboy (1969, dir: John Schlesinger)

Chekhov’s rule about guns in plays – “one must never place a rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off” – applies to the nth degree with coughing. A cough in a film generally means something more than just a cough. In films from Hollywood’s golden era it means the person coughing will be dead by the next scene, especially if they have been coughing blood. Midnight Cowboy isn’t from Hollywood’s golden era, which ended any time from the mid-50s back to the late-30s, take your pick, but it deals with death from TB, though differently. Telling the story of two young bucks on the make in New York City, the film stars Dustin Hoffman as street hustler Ratso, Jon Voight as Joe Buck, the cock for hire – a midnight cowboy – nervous about anyone finding out that he’s highly in demand by gentlemen of a certain persuasion. Must be the fringe jacket, though the cheekbones (which Voight would pass on to his daughter, Angelina Jolie) obviously help. That’s it, in terms of story – two guys, adrift, losers, hustlers, wandering around New York in the late 1960s in an era that’s suddenly different from the one Ratso grew up in, which offers sights that no one from Joe Buck’s rural hometown has ever seen. And here’s where the film gets either interesting or terrible, depending on your point of view. Interesting if you’re hungry for late 60s hipster parties, Andy Warhol-style blankness, throbbing cameras, the swinging sixties and all that. Terrible if you wish that John Schlesinger and his writers (including Waldo Salt) had made it more about the strange romance between the two stars, an analysis of Joe’s unexamined homosexuality, and less a tour of the fashionable parts of the Big Apple, places which these two losers would in all likelihood never have got to see. There’s the performances, though. Hoffman’s nervy, ADHD Ratso remains as alive now as he was in 1969; Voight is also remarkable as the more thoughtful and internalised of the two – it’s a harder role too, and he doesn’t have a cough to fall back on! Midnight Cowboy has not worn well over the years. Its shocking content – violence, the ugliness of street life, men having sex with other men – is no longer shocking. But it’s an interesting film, not just because of the standout performances, but because it is so clearly of its era and yet is also a clear harbinger of things to come.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Won three Oscars, none for the actors
  • One of the key films that made Dustin Hoffman
  • Harry Nilsson singing Everybody’s Talkin’
  • A John Barry score

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Midnight Cowboy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Star Wars

Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi

 

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

 

 

23 March

 

President Reagan proposes the Strategic Defense Initiative,

On this day in 1983, President Reagan announced a change in the country’s defence policy. Hitherto relying on a launch-on-warning (aka fail-deadly) response to attack – Mutual Assured Destruction – the US switched to a stated position of defending the country, not attacking an enemy: the Strategic Defense Initiative. Since the previous strategy had relied on a superabundance of ballistic nuclear weapons, the idea being that even if only a small percentage got through, the damage to the other side (the Soviet Union, generally) would be so great that nobody would even countenance a nuclear war, the new one needed something conceptually equally awesome. What was proposed was an umbrella of defence over the whole country, provided by tactical weapons able to bring down any incoming missile before it found its target. To achieve this the US proposed stationing some of its defence systems in space, hence the nickname Star Wars. Whether the initiative was truly part of a switch from quasi-offensive MAD to the defensive is moot – critics suggest that putting missiles in space, defensive or otherwise, just moves the arms race into space. Either way the announcement was largely a publicity exercise – no SDI system has ever been put into operation, nor do scientists believe one is yet possible, though the injection of government money into strategic weapons shield research has undoubtedly given the US an edge in the realm of advanced missile defence systems.

 

 

 

Star Wars (1977, dir: George Lucas)

A long time ago in a culture far far way, the progressive 1960s yielded to the conservatism of the 1970s. This change expressed itself in a variety of ways. In music it was punk – an effort to re-assert the diminishing dominance of rock’n’roll, which had ceased to evolve ten years earlier, and which now referenced only itself. In movies the focus went even further back in time, to the comforting good v evil space operas of the 1930s, Flash Gordon being a prime visual inspiration for George Lucas’s tale of a simple boy who discovers he is in fact the bearer of incredible gifts, gifts which will aid him in his forthcoming fight with the fount of all evil, somewhere up in space. If the story is elemental – it’s the same plot as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter – that’s because Lucas was drawing on memes (eg angels falling to the dark side) going back to the Bible at least. Lucas had read Joseph Campbell’s seminal work of comparative mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which makes the claim that most myths from all epochs and geographical regions share the same basic “monomyth” structure (hero goes somewhere magical, wins a victory, returns with new powers). So Luke Skywalker’s is the Jesus story and the Buddha story too. Lucas adds elements from Kurosawa’s most successful film at the box office, samurai actioner The Hidden Fortress, a touch of Freudian psychology (Skywalker’s oedipal mother-love is transferred to his sister; the film is awash with father figures he has to struggle against), some camp robots at the comedic fringes, a shitload of special effects, and voila, in terms of business and film culture probably the most important film of the past 50 years.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The film that changed Hollywood
  • The film that re-asserted Hollywood, after a decade of auteur directors (Spielberg, Coppola, De Palma, Lucas, Bogdanovich etc)
  • Darth Vader – all 12 minutes of him
  • Because Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin is, when not fully in shot, wearing fluffy slippers

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Star Wars Trilogy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Man on Wire

Philippe Petit 417 metres up between the towers of the World Trade Center

 

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

 

 

22 March

 

Karl Wallenda dies, 1978

On this day in 1978, Karl Wallenda, founder of The Flying Wallendas, a daredevil circus act, died aged 73. Born into a family of circus people in Germany, Karl had begun performing aged six. By 17 he had his own act, with his brother and girlfriend. By the age of 23 he was performing in the USA. Karl developed the seven-person chair pyramid (on a wire), which was a showstopping part of the Wallendas’ routine, and performed it regularly until it went wrong, killing two members of the troupe (Wallenda’s son-in-law and nephew), paralysing another (his son) from the waist down and injuring Karl’s pelvis. Karl performed the stunt again, though only rarely. Wallenda died after falling 121ft (37 metres) from the wire while walking between the towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel.

 

 

 

Man on Wire (2008, dir: James Marsh)

The title comes from the charge sheet of Philippe Petit after he was arrested for slinging a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and then walking between them. James Marsh’s brilliant film tells the story of Petit’s 1974 act of mad heroics similarly to the way a previous film, The Burger and the King, explored the relationship of Elvis Presley to food. In other words, there’s a serious intent beneath the playful storytelling. Marsh is blessed that Petit and his gang of guerrilla performers took miles of cine footage of their preparations – how they practised for one of the most audacious high wire act of all time (417m/1,368ft up) on a rope only a few feet above the ground in a field in France. For the rest he uses talking head reminiscence, dramatic reconstruction, footage of the walk itself, to present what feels very like a heist thriller – we meet the people (“the Australian”, “the Inside Man” etc), we learn of the plans, the equipment (the 200kg cable, the 8 metre balancing pole), the security to be circumvented, and then we get the execution of the deed itself.
Petit had come up with the idea of making the walk even before the twin towers were finished, aged 17, after reading about the building in a dentist’s waiting room. He worked his way up – practising on the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Warm-up acts out of the way, kinks ironed out of his technique, Petit achieved the big one on 7 August 1974. He was arrested after he’d made the traverse eight times, walking, dancing, laying down on the wire and kneeling to salute watchers during the 45 minutes he was up there. Later he’d remark that “I did something mysterious and magnificent and I got a practical ‘why?’ ”, a romantic Frenchman’s view of meat-and-potatoes America. Lending the whole film poignancy is the fact that the World Trade Center is no longer there, the victim of another prankster’s less amusing intervention. But though Marsh could have played up this aspect, he doesn’t, thankfully, leaving it to us to supply our own subtitles when he gives us a glimpse of the pass that Petit still has – “Observation Deck of the World Trade Center – Permanent.”

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Winner of the best documentary Oscar
  • An analysis of the times as well as the man, like James Marsh’s other documentaries
  • The fascinating enthusiasm of Philippe Petit
  • The new footage seamlessly integrated with the old

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Man on Wire – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Infidel

Richard Schiff and Omid Djalili

 

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

 

 

21 March

 

New Year’s Day, Bahá’í calendar

If you’re a member of the Bahá’í faith, today is the first day of the new year. A religion that believes in one god, one spiritual source for all religions – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, whatever – and the equality of mankind, Bahá’í was only founded in the 19th century but has around five- to seven-million followers worldwide, spreading outwards from its foundational source in Iran. The largest grouping of Bahá’ís is in India. Right now it is probably the fastest growing religion in the world. It uses a solar calendar of 19 months of 19 days each, with four or five days extra between month 18 and 19 (the difference doing what leap-year days do in the Gregorian calendar used in most of the world) mopping up the leftover. New Year’s Day always occurs on the vernal equinox, when the sun is directly over the equator, and coincides with the Iranian new year. It is celebrated with music, dancing and feasting, though Bahá’ís vary exactly how they mark it depending on where they live, the faith being not particularly prescriptive.

 

 

 

The Infidel (2010, dir: Josh Appignanesi)

Britain’s most famous Bahá’í, and regular Hollywood villain, Omid Djalili plays Mahmud, the entirely secular Muslim having to pretend he’s really devout in order to impress his son’s prospective father-in-law. A fact that is made about a zillion times harder when he suddenly discovers that he was in fact adopted and that his birth parents were, in fact, Jewish. Cue a film about identity in the modern world that draws a lot of the same conclusions as did Chris Morris’s film Four Lions – place means more than race or religion – but does it a lot less confrontationally. The plot then follows Mahmud – real name Solomon “Solly” Shimshillewitz – on a voyage of ethnic discovery. Starting with a bit of soul searching, his casual anti-Semitism being a particular sticking point in his transition from Mahmud to Solly. We’re introduced to his neighbour, Lenny Goldberg (Richard Schiff, so good he threatens to destabilise the film) who agrees to school the Muslim in Jewish ways, so that when Mahmud visits the very old man he now believes is his biological father the shock of a Muslim son won’t kill him. Director Josh Appignanesi and writer David Baddiel then pretend that what follows isn’t a series of comedy sketches with only the limpest links – an American film would have brought in a writer to smooth out the transitions, create an emotional arc and all that. But it doesn’t matter much because Baddiel’s jokes are actually very funny, some of them in the Woody Allen/Mel Brooks tradition of twitting the Holocaust, many more in the style of stereotype music-hall Jewry – Fiddler on the Roof, a bagel, a shrug of the shoulders and an “oy”. There’s also a more measured, thoughtful film trying to struggle out between the jokes as The Infidel picks its way carefully through the cultural minefield, one that is struggling to assert an “and” version of notions of culture, religion and identity rather than an “either/or”.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Good jokes, written by one stand-up, delivered brilliantly by another
  • Soundtrack by Erran Baron Cohen, brother of Sacha
  • A comic handling of a delicate subject
  • The performance of Richard Schiff, hot from The West Wing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Infidel – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

21 Jump Street

Channing Tatum bullies Jonah Hill in 21 Jump Street

 

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

 

 

20 March

 

Lee Scratch Perry born, 1936

Today in 1936, Rainford Hugh Perry was born in Kendal, Jamaica. Often dubbed “Little Perry” in his early days in the music business in the 1950s, on account of his 4ft 11in (1.49m) height, Perry got his start selling records for Coxsone Dodd’s sound system, before taking charge of some production duties. A studio natural, and a master of falling out with people, Perry left Coxsone’s employ and started working for equally legendary reggae man Joe Gibbs, before falling out with him and starting his own label, Upsetter, in 1968. His first single, People Funny Boy (an attack on Gibbs) sold well, and was notable for its aural texture, its use of a crying baby over the intro and the presence of a slower rhythm than ska enthusiasts were used to. Perry had released the first international reggae hit. During the 1960s and 70s on his Upsetter label, and with his Upsetters house band (which included the Barrett brothers before they went off to join Bob Marley and the Wailers), Perry produced a phenomenal amount of sonically distinctive music, under his own name and those of other bands. In the 1970s he built the Black Ark studio, home of much of Jamaica’s dub music. A steadfast promoter of marijuana until he gave it up (“if you smoke ganja too much it can eat your brain cells”), he told GQ magazine that “my great grandmother was the high priestess and my godfather was Melchizedek, the highest priest that ever lived.” Present-day collaborators include the Mad Professor, Bill Laswell, the Beastie Boys, Moby and Danny Boyle.

 

 

 

21 Jump Street (2012, dir: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)

On the face of it a movie version of a 1980s TV series doesn’t sound like comedy gold but 21 Jump Street really is. Starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as the babyfaced cops sent undercover into a high school, the film sticks with the TV show’s basic premise. Then it adds a twist – Jenko (Tatum) was a buff dim bully at high school and the focus of his tormenting was Schmidt (Hill), “not so slim Shady” (a sample taunt). Though neither is keen, they are forced into going along with the incognito mission to bust a synthetic drugs ring by their angry black captain (Ice Cube). He opens his introductory speech to them with the words, “I know what you’re thinking… angry black captain. It ain’t nothing but a stupid stereotype…” before pushing that stereotype so far it becomes hysterically funny, Cube ending his fusillade of ire with a magisterial, “So suck a dick.” Grudgeful, the two cops believe the gig is beneath them – though they’re clearly incapable even of mastering the easiest of official duties – but are forced to comply, arriving at the school to find that all the pursuits that were dweebish in their day have now become cool. Who’s interested in the environment, or being sensitive? “Fuck you, Glee,” is Officer Jenko’s (Tatum) verdict on the cultural shift. This almost throwaway analysis of changing times (“I partied with Robert Downey Jr when he was fucked up and a lot of fun,” says Schmidt’s mother at one point) is one of the reasons why this film works so well. It adds another level of humour beyond the sensational one-liners trotted out by almost everyone in the cast. And on top of that there’s the physical comedy. Hill and Tatum’s drug-taking sequence, where they run through the various stages – giggling, tripping, super ability, super confidence, complete breakdown and sleep – is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in years. So, yes, we knew Hill could do comedy. But it seems Channing Tatum can too.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Cameos by Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise, stars of the original series
  • Lee Perry’s Police and Thieves on a great, eclectic soundtrack
  • Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill’s very funny script
  • Ice Cube gets the biggest laughs

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Conspiracy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

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

Today in 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, Bob Dylan released his first album. Eponymously titled Bob Dylan it had come about after Dylan had played harmonica on Carolyn Hester’s album in September 1961, and caught the eye of producer John Hammond. Hammond signed Dylan up to Columbia 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 they are 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 I found her 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

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

I’m Not There – at Amazon