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

 

 

 

 

22 September 2014-09-22

Ingvar Eggert Sigur∂sson in Of Horses and Men

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Of Horses and Men (Axiom, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

The jacket photo of the DVD shows a man sitting on a mare that’s being mounted by a stallion. The look of passive acceptance on the mare’s face, randy enthusiasm on the stallion’s and stubborn resistance on the man’s says much of what you need to know about this instant classic, the debut by Benedikt Erlingsson. The mounting incident is the first of several discrete stories that eventually tie together, detailing life in rural Iceland, where a horse is still a valuable commodity and humans are seen, to a large extent, as at their best when they accept their animal natures. I guarantee something in this film will make your jaw drop. For me it was the big burly guy spurring his horse into the freezing sea, then forcing it to swim a good distance out to a passing trawler and shouting “Vodka?! Dollar!” as he gets near. The comedy is as bone-dry as the images are arresting, and under it all there’s a fabulously warm, humane spirit at work, with a spare aesthetic that calls to mind the offbeat work of the Swede Roy Andersson.

Of Horses and Men – at Amazon

 

 

 

Before the Winter Chill (Metrodome, cert 18, DVD)

Like his I’ve Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime), Philippe Claudel’s film is one sort of genre hiding within another. It looks like the story of a middle aged man having a fling with a younger woman, and of the spurned wife at home. In fact it’s a thriller, and I really can’t say any more than that without ruining it. Daniel Auteuil plays the brain surgeon whose achingly tasteful life with stay-at-home wife Kristin Scott Thomas is thrown into the blender when he hooks up with an ex patient (well, she says she is an ex patient), played by Leïla Bekhti, and starts an affair that’s initially tentative, then increasingly passionate. A beautifully made film of a very French sort that will disappear for good once Claudel, Auteuil and Scott Thomas’s generation have gone, it’s full of so many beautiful character touches (Auteuil’s fat fingers with his wedding band on so tight it would have to be cut off), gorgeous establishing shots (so many piles of autumnal leaves – symbolism alert) and acting of the “I speak; you pause” sort, that it’s easy enough to stay entertained until the movie’s real intentions declare themselves. Too elegant? Yeh, probably.

Before the Winter Chill – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Lost Patrol (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, DVD)

A Brazilian Second World War film. Rare enough. But it’s a good one with its own distinct tone, unlike almost any war film I’ve seen. Though the story is fairly routine – a Brazilian engineering corps lost in wintry Italy and worried that they’re going to be accused of desertion winds up de-mining a strategically important road (the Estrada 47 of its original title), with a photojournalist and a wounded Nazi along for the ride. No, that’s not your routine story either, is it? And its execution is even more out there – sober, deliberately quiet, intimate, spending a lot of time establishing its characters and so averse to big noises that even when a mine goes off it’s shown from way way back. And there’s even a nice, Martin Sheen-style Apocalypse Now voiceover delivered by its good-looking star Daniel de Oliveira, who can probably book himself a ticket to Hollywood, if he fancies it.

The Lost Patrol – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Short Game (Kaleidoscope, cert E, DVD/digital)

A documentary about young golfers which shows that Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy didn’t just come from nowhere. In tried and tested manner director Josh Greenbaum introduces us to a number of seven- and eight-year-olds before we head into the tournament they’re all competing in. Among them are Zam Nxasana, the South African whose parents see him as a beacon for their post-apartheid country, Jed Dy, the Filipino whose extreme aversion to publicity of any sort gives the lie to the notion that these kids are all attention-seeking brats. And there’s Allan Kournikova, brother of Anna, who is the number one seven-year-old golfer in the world. This is a real film of two halves – in part one we meet these gifted boys and girls, in part two the film devolves into what looks and sounds like standard sports coverage of their tournament, complete with the usual inane “how did you feel about that” post-match interview (which the kids are already adept at handling) and it starts to drag. It’s 20 minutes too long and there’s little insight but it is a fascinating intro to a bizarre world. And my god they all have a great swing.

The Short Game – at Amazon

 

 

 

A Jester’s Tale (Second Run, cert U, DVD)

Here’s an example of the dreaded picaresque movie – no plot, just incident – Karel Zeman’s 1964 Polish comedy set during the Thirty Years War. Loosely, it’s a Good Soldier Schwejk affair following two guys, Petr (Petr Kostka) and Matej (Miroslav Holub), as they find themselves on one side or the other as the battle thrums and the winners become temporary losers and vice versa. Petr is your D’Artagnan figure, all virility, impetuosity, and with a comely face that wows the ladies (mostly in the shape of Audrey Hepburn-alike Emília Vásáryová), while Matej is Athos, Porthos and Aramis all rolled into one, all fists-on-hips laughter and cornball wisdom. And dreaded the film would be if you just watched it for its one-damn-thing-after-another plot. Which would be to miss the sheer technical brilliance of it, and why it’s been a key influence on film-makers at the fantastical end of the scale, Terry Gilliam and Wes Anderson to name but two. A mad assemblage of live action mixed with animation, cutouts, surreal comp shots, it builds to a majestic and fairly insane conclusion in its last 20 minutes, during which Zeman overlays image after image (pre-digital, this can only lead to severe degradation, though the remarkably crisp restoration really helps) which are as audaciously creative as they are beautifully composed.

A Jester’s Tale – at Amazon

 

 

 

A Touch of Sin (Arrow, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Jia Zhang Ke’s loose Altman-esque drama lifts the lid on modern China – showing us sweatshops, the corruption and the whorehouses, the whole such a portrait of negativity that it’s a mystery how it got to be made at all, given the Party’s stranglehold on cultural production. Beginning with the shooting of a trio of hammer-wielding thugs, moving on to the sight of a man beating his horse until it collapses, pausing to watch as a duck has its throat slit and its blood is run into a cup, it starts out as the story of a bitter hothead (Jiang Wu) who goes on a rampage of violence in an attempt to unseat the corrupt village chief. The level of splatter is high, which sits oddly with the pace of the thing, which seems to have Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia as some kind of structural and tonal reference, while its loosely connected (or not) various stories feature people at crunch moments – the man and woman discussing the end of their affair, the prostitute being taunted by a client, the garment worker causing a colleague to drive a cutting blade into his hand. However, it’s a tough watch, not because of the violence, but because the characters are held at arm’s length and we’re never quite sure who we’re meant to be rooting for.

A Touch of Sin – at Amazon

 

 

 

Miss and the Doctors (Drakes Avenue, cert 15, digital)

Two brothers, both of them doctors, fall for the same woman (Louise Bourgoin) after the brothers have been called out to deal with the absent mother’s diabetic daughter. Which one is she going to go for – is it going to be the nice smooth one (Laurent Stocker) or the gruff, offhand one (Cédric Kahn)? Hang on a second, both of them called out to a patient? This seems unlikely, and a wasteful use of a valuable resource, but the two brothers do indeed seem to work in tandem, just the first of many unlikelihoods that plague what should be a nice romantic drama with some sibling complications. One of the brothers, the nice one, is also an alcoholic, a fact we’re introduced to but which seems to have no bearing on anything that subsequently happens. In fact nothing has any real bearing on anything and there’s no real drama, but then, fittingly for a medically themed story, the characters are all x-rays and absolutely nothing in any area rings true. It looks great though, all plummy, woody shades, burnt oranges and ambers, as does Bourgoin, who you might have seen in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec but is entirely wasted here.

Miss and the Doctors – at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

26 May 2014-05-26

Oscar Isaac sings in Inside Llewyn Davis

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

Inside Llewyn Davis (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

The Coen brothers specialise in films about absence or lack – The Man Who Wasn’t There being the most obvious exemplar. Inside Llewyn Davis is about a folk singer on the Greenwich Village circuit just before Bob Dylan turned up and electrified – joke intended – the scene. It  stars the hitherto obscure Oscar Isaac as the struggling singer who just lacks that last, magical quarter of an inch of whatever it is that makes an artist break through. It’s heartbreak in slo-mo, in other words, and to some extent it’s unwatchable, if you find beautifully crafted, brilliantly acted films unwatchable. Why doesn’t Llewyn Davis make it? There’s really no point in me saying what I think the answer is, since that’s the knot the film worries away at. As it does so, there’s Carey Mulligan as a boho folkie revealing yet another side to her talent, the mellifluous pipes of Davis, bringing to life the songs of Dave Van Ronk, on whose experience the film is based. And there’s the mis en scene of the Coens, the look of New York in the early 1960s looking like it was lifted straight off the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album. And isn’t that a sly casting choice, getting F Murray Abraham, Salieri to Tom Hulce’s Mozart in Amadeus, to play the role of the man who tells Isaac he just isn’t good enough? A sorrowful moment in a film that’s essentially one awful disappointment after another, in a journey towards oblivion.

Inside Llewyn Davis – at Amazon

 

 

 

Willow Creek (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, DVD)

I don’t want to watch any more found footage films, especially one that seems to be explicitly out in the Blair Witch woods. However, having seen Willow Creek, about a couple who go in search of Bigfoot – him an enthusiastic wannabe TV presenter (hence the camera), her more sceptical – I have to say that director Bobcat Goldthwait has managed to squeeze a last smidgeon of toothsome entertainment out of the tube. He’s also obviously seen Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, and noticed that watching people walking towards their doom is grimly fascinating. Goldthwait also adds in a bit of verity by having his actors, Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson, actually posing as real people making their own real film about Bigfoot. Either that or the interviews with people en route to the couple’s appointment with fear are so well acted it’s uncanny. Verdict: nothing new to see here, but that doesn’t mean Willow Creek isn’t scary.

Willow Creek – at Amazon

 

 

 

8 Minutes Idle (Luxin, cert 15, DVD)

Coming across as a lo-fi Richard Curtis rom-com, except Curtis doesn’t do jokes involving semen-filled condoms, 8 Minutes Idle is a funny and incredibly likeable British film set in a call centre, where browbeaten co-workers flirt with each other to pass the time when they’re steering hapless callers up one blind alley after another. Tom Hughes is its hero, a shiftless and homeless minimum wager secretly sleeping in the office and trying to make a move on the office hottie (Ophelia Lovibond), something she might, or might not, welcome. The film feels like it’s written by people who actually have worked in a call centre, are young, have working hormones and understand that taking the odd drug isn’t a one-way ticket to hell. And the casting is really very good – Antonia Thomas as a saucy, spunky co-worker, Montserrat Lombard as the sexually predatory boss, only a couple of years older than the others but it’s a crucial couple of years. And in the background, as a running gag, the sound of callers constantly losing their rag because their needs are not being serviced. Short and sweet.

8 Minutes Idle – at Amazon

 

 

 

August: Osage County (EV, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Tracy Letts wrote Killer Joe – a lunge into Tennessee Williams territory. And he’s cranking out more, though less successful, melodrama with this overcooked offering which he also directed. Look at the cast. Meryl Streep as the dying matriarch, Sam Shepard as her husband, Julia Roberts and Julianne Nicholson as daughters, Benedict Cumberbatch as a cousin, Abigail Breslin as a grand-daughter, Chris Cooper as a brother in law. If I go on (Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, the exquisite Margo Martindale) it’s only to demonstrate that people obviously think Letts is a thing. I’m not so sure. This is an exercise in mad overacting by nearly all concerned. Streep is funny and about as good as it’s possible to be, playing a vicious old hag presiding over a weekend of truth and lies as the family gathers to say goodbye to dear old Dad (Shepard, in it for less than five minutes) after he kills himself. Following close behind is Martindale, as her semi-stoked sister, and Julia Roberts brings a touch of humanity to the role of the caring sister who acts as our go-between. I won’t go into the plot, which is needless to say all about forbidden relationships, as Tennessee Williams dramas tend to be, but it centres on Cumberbatch, who is about as terrible in this as I’ve ever seen him. Though otherwise there isn’t much for the men in this drama to do apart from sit back and watch the fur fly and the chicken fry.

August: Osage County – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Hidden Face (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

Going all the way back to the original gothic novels – locked rooms, mad women in attics and moody men striding about purposefully – The Hidden Face is a good looking Spanish horror set in Bogota, Colombia, where a Byronically highly strung orchestral conductor (Quim Gutiérrez) is having a lively sex life with his attractive new girlfriend (Martina García). What happened to the previous one though? She ran off, according to a video message she left behind. Though the police are not convinced. And the new girlfriend is beginning to wonder too. Thunder and lighting crash at all the right times, the ladies take off their clothes attractively and the Nazis make a discreet appearance to add another layer of menace in this entirely satisfying piece of densely plotted entertainment that takes the viewer up, over, under, through and out, never short-changing, staying true to character and to genre expectations.

The Hidden Face – at Amazon

 

 

 

Nashville (Eureka, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

It was never described in these terms when it was first released in 1975, but Nashville is a musical. Robert Altman says as much in one of the two interviews that accompany the remaster of this masterpiece, a multi-stranded affair about country stars converging on Nashville, where the broken dreams of the 1960s are about to meet embryonic Reagan-era politics. If you’ve ever wondered whether Lili Tomlin or Henry Gibson or Keith Carradine had actually been in a good film, here’s your proof, Tomlin as the careworn wife of bumptious political hick Ned Beatty hovering on the edge of an affair with a relentless womaniser (Carradine), while a bewigged has-been (Gibson) gentles towards the exit a career based on twangy patriotic tearjerkers. Some of the singing is terrible, not always because it’s meant to be, but the bands playing behind the singers are excellent, and Altman’s technique – so many stories, so much layering of sound – is about as polished as it would ever be. I’d forgotten Jeff Goldblum was in Nashville, as a hippie on a chopper trike, and how good Geraldine Chaplin was as the dreadful women “from the BBC” trying to interview one person while keeping an eye out for anyone more famous. With cameos from blur-on stars Elliott Gould and Julie Christie as themselves, Nashville has a time-capsule quality to it now. Shot just before America celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, we’re in a world before Aids, terrorism and today’s gigantic disparities in wealth, when the American dream seemed more attainable, more credible, and yet, in Altman’s eyes at least, still worth interrogating.

Nashville – at Amazon

 

 

 

Squatters (Sony, cert 18, DVD/digital)

Kelly and Jonas, a pair of street dwelling skanks (Thomas Dekker and Gabriella Wilde) break into the home of a wealthy couple (Richard Dreyfuss, Nancy Travis) who have gone on holiday. The duo reinvent themselves entirely, hacking off their matted hair, easing themselves into borrowed clothes, nipping into the garage to take the Porsche out for a spin. It cannot last, of course, and when the house’s real owners come back… actually, when the house’s real owners come back, the film lurches from the entirely improbable to the majorly ludicrous. The writing is to blame – “You’re shit, Kelly. You’re trash, just like me,” shouts Jonas, in one of the film’s crappier moments of unwitting lip-quivering melodrama, a line that is trying to suggest that Squatters is a meditation on the difficulty of escaping one’s past, when neither Dekker nor Wilde ever looked like hobos in the first place. On the upside, this is a glossy, good looking film, Wilde acts Dekker and his lovely dark eyelashes into a corner, and it’s nice to see Richard Dreyfuss on screen again. Last time I saw him was in a cameo in Piranha, where he was having some fun at the expense of Jaws. Now there’s a film – Piranha, I mean. Kidding.

Squatters – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Errol Flynn in lancer's helmet in The Charge of the Light Brigade

 

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

 

 

28 March

 

Crimean War escalates, 1854

On this day in 1854, Britain and France declared war against Russia. Russia and the Ottoman Empire had been at war since October the previous year, when conflict had broken out ostensibly about the rights of Christians in the Holy Land – being restricted by Muslim Ottomans and being protected by Orthodox Russian if you accept the Russians’ diplomatic rhetoric. In fact the war was about territory, the Turks being on the decline after centuries of dominance in the region, the Russians keen to continue their expansion west into Europe and particularly south to the Black Sea, which offered them “warm water” ports which wouldn’t freeze in the winter. As one of the major planks of the foreign policy of both Britain and France had been the containment of Russia at least since the Treaty of Paris in 1815, both countries felt compelled to join after the Russians destroyed the Ottoman fleet at the Black Sea port of Sinope. With Russia now masters of the Black Sea, which led into the Mediterranean (which both Britain and France saw as “theirs”), the campaign to stop Russia focused on the Russian fortress Sevastopol, home of the Tsar’s Black Sea fleet, though battles were also fought in the Caucasus, the Baltic, the Pacific, the White Sea and Greece. The war continued until early 1856 with the loss of around 350,000 lives on all sides. It was the first European war to be photographed and the first to use the telegraph, which allowed rapid communications both on the battlefield and between the theatre of war and the public back home, via the newspapers.

 

 

 

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936, dir: Michael Curtiz)

The actual charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava (a light brigade being lightly armoured troops mounted on horses – ie no cannons) was a disaster, with under-armed men being sent off in the wrong direction thanks to a communications cock-up. So instead of taking on a retreating Russian artillery regiment they found themselves heading into the line of fire of a completely different artillery battery, this one dug in and ready to let loose. The result was a rout of the British, a change in public opinion back home, a famous poem by Tennyson and the birth of the “lions led by donkeys” myth. It’s the “lions” aspect that is played up in this swashbuckler by Michael Curtiz, who spends time hooking us in emotionally with the story of two brothers (Errol Flynn, Patric Knowles) fighting over the same girl (Olivia De Havilland) before hitting us with one of the most spectacularly staged battle scenes of the period. “A testament to the virtuosity of the second unit” is how critic Pauline Kael described it. There’s no point looking for historical accuracy. Indeed memos from Jack Warner suggest he was more concerned with the shade of Flynn’s moustache. And it’s not even as if the film has simplified the facts to make things easier for the audience. Much of the action takes place in India, where a roguish Rajah who is secretly working for the Russians can be factored into the confusing plot. Though of course the Charge itself took place in the Crimea, which is 2,500km or so away. Sticklers for history might counter that actually Britain was worried about Russian ambitions in her empire yadda yadda. Let them have the debate. Meanwhile, India is where Flynn, De Havilland and Knowles do their warm-ups before the big number, which is the whole point of the thing. This was the second of seven films on which Curtiz, Flynn and De Havilland would collaborate – between Captain Blood the year before and The Adventures of Robin Hood the year later. It’s the film that made Flynn a superstar.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Because Michael Curtiz’s films always are worth watching
  • One of the great Flynn-Curtiz-De Havilland movies
  • An early screen credit for Hollywood composing legend Max Steiner
  • That second unit work

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Charge of the Light Brigade – 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

 

 

 

 

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