A Good Year

Marion Cotillard and Russell Crowe in A Good Year

 

In 1989 former adman Peter Mayle wrote a book about how he left the rat race behind and started a new life in France. A Year in Provence was its name and this humorous memoir set the tone for the TV series that followed, starring John Thaw as the escapee to the good life. Though director Alan Parker had been at the Ogilvy agency where Mayle was the UK’s creative head, it was another UK former commercials director, Ridley Scott, who decided to turn Mayle’s novel, about a stockbroker who gets fired and then inherits a vineyard from his uncle, into a film. And Scott stays true to type, laying on the warm amber filtration reminiscent of advertisements for reassuringly expensive French lager (Stella Artois is in fact Belgian, but that never seems to bother advertisers), while drafting in Russell Crowe to play the London City brute who learns of his bequest and heads off to Provence, which he hasn’t visited since he was a child. Once there, he continues his career as an utter bastard and prepares to sell the vineyard off, against the objections of his uncle’s loyal retainers. Surprisingly, things don’t pan out the way Crowe’s Max planned. Of course they don’t – surprises are the last thing Scott, Crowe and Mayle are serving up in this soufflé of stereotypes. Judged against Scott classics such as Alien or Blade Runner, A Good Year is never going to make the cut. But seen as a “holiday” movie for all concerned – Scott, it turns out, is Mayle’s near neighbour in Provence – it’s a pleasant piece of duvet viewing spiked with performances by the likes of Albert Finney (Max’s much loved uncle), Abbie Cornish (as Max’s long-lost cousin, who might want a slice of the estate) and Marion Cotillard (the local waitress Max falls for) which make it more than it might have been.

 

 

A Good Year – Watch it now at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

American Gangster

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in American Gangster

 

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

 

 

11 June

 

John F Kennedy proposes the Civil Rights Act, 1963

On this day in 1963, the US president, John F Kennedy addressed the nation. In his speech he called for legislation with would give all Americans “the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public – hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores and similar establishments”. He also called for equality before the law when it came to voting. His proposals would outlaw discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin and effectively sounded the death knell for racial segregation – in buses, diners, schools, wherever. The US Constitution’s 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, guaranteeing equal protection under the law, had ventured into the same territory but it took the Civil Rights Act to finally make the change which made it illegal to treat African Americans (which is what both the 14th Amendment and Civil Rights Act were really all about) as second class citizens. The bill was written up and sent to Congress on 19 June, where it was reinforced. It then got bogged down on a procedural technicality in October in the House of Representatives, where the intention of some delegates was to keep it on ice indefinitely. The assassination of the president on 22 November 1963 made this blocking strategy untenable after the astute new president, Lyndon Johnson, in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, said “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” Johnson had his way, though there were still compromises before the bill was finally, tortuously signed into law on 2 July 1964.

 

 

 

American Gangster (2007, dir.: Ridley Scott)

What do Civil Rights mean for a black man? In director Ridley Scott’s slightly cheeky hands they mean the liberty to do just what everyone else has been doing, and that includes becoming a drugs kingpin. And the more you think of it, there has been a dearth of black drug lords on the screens – two-bit hustlers on street corners, plenty. That’s not the only thing going on in this fascinating drama starring Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, the Harlem heroin dealer importing drugs into the country on planes coming back from Vietnam, a smart guy on the rise; Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the honest (and therefore reviled by his fellows) cop on his case, the two men locked together in a dance towards the volcano’s edge. If that sounds entirely like your standard-issue cops’n’mobsters set-up, that’s exactly what American Gangster is, an exercise in stylistic pastiche. But it is a hell of an exercise. Running its twin-track stories in parallel – the gentleman gangster who’s good to his mother; the troubled cop who’s good to nobody, not even his “it’s me or the job” woman (Carla Gugino) – Ridley carefully builds the story, holding off a meeting of the two key players until near the end. This is one of those big finale showdowns, in which Washington and Crowe have one of those tense, long, actorly scenes that writers like, stars love and audiences tolerate. On the way to it, Scott gives Scorsese a soft pedal, though Frank Lucas’s mob-boss mom is a lift straight out of Goodfellas (is it any surprise to discover that Goodfellas writer Nicholas Pileggi is one of the executive producers?). Scott goes a bit harder on The French Connection  – that soft hazy, 60s/70s visual style is accurately captured, there’s a soundtrack straight from the Lalo Schifrin/Curtis Mayfield school of funky jazzy cool. You say derivative, I say homage. Whichever it is, Scott does it right, his actors and technicians do him proud and an intriguing story is told – a true one too – of a nobody who became a somebody by running a drugs empire the way you might run a department store (keep the staff and the customers happy). In the America of the Civil Rights era, the idea is, for the black man who wants a piece of the American Dream, this is one of the few ways to make that happen.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Steve Zaillian’s smart, incident-rich screenplay
  • The period look of Harris Savides’s cinematography
  • Marc Streitenfeld’s score
  • The muscular Washington/Crowe pairing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

American Gangster – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Paul Bettany and Russell Crowe in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

 

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

 

 

24 November

 

 

Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species, 1859

 

On this day in 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (to give it its full title).

Building on work by Joseph Hooker, Robert Chambers and others, Darwin rushed into print a book he had been mulling over for two decades, because he knew that the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had, quite independently, come up with theories remarkably similar to his own.

Written for the layman, the book set out Darwin’s observations and theories about the evolution of the abundance of different life forms on Planet Earth.

Evolution is no mystery and even the most creationist of fundamentalist Christians believe in it. It is nature’s version of something humans have been doing since the dawn of their own species – selecting desirable characteristics and breeding for them.

What makes Darwin’s break important is his suggestion that new species can develop from this evolutionary process. A species being defined as something that cannot breed with another (so a Jack Russell terrier is not a species, it’s just a variant of dog).

Breaking with the orthodox scientists of the day, who were almost all clergymen and believed in the ideas of “natural theology”, Darwin’s book was an immediate success because it gave voice to ideas that were already in the cultural ether.

Though he never wavered from his core theory, Darwin adjusted the text of his book with each new edition, borrowing, for example, the phrase “survival of the fittest” from Herbert Spencer as a poetic and pithy way of rendering the idea of natural selection (“fit” here in the sense that the survivor has fit into a niche, not that he/she has been working out).

In spite of some problems with the theory, many of which Darwin himself acknowledged, Darwin’s theories became, and have remained, the primary scientific model for describing the biology of the world we live in, and the place of human in it.

 

 

 

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003, dir: Peter Weir)

That long title, with a colon halfway through, is clearly saying something. What’s it’s saying is “franchise”.

But in spite of Russell Crowe’s strenuous attempts, Peter Weir’s adaptation of one of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels remains the only one in the series. Which is a great pity because it is an unusual and satisfying film, which sticks close to O’Brian’s schematic of spending as much effort on describing life on the ocean wave as in telling any “adventure on the high seas” story – with O’Brian there’s a fair chance you will come away actually knowing how to splice a mainbrace.

Crowe plays gutsy Captain Jack Aubrey, Paul Bettany is cerebral Dr Stephen Maturin, a scientific man much in the Darwin mould, and we follow them as they chase an enemy French ship through gales and calms, into a cannons-blazing battle and finally onto shore in the Galapagos.

Skilfully blending fascinating insights into life on sea – the sight of Crowe and Bettany playing string duets sticks in the mind – with rollicking old-school adventure of the sort Errol Flynn used to make, this is a big budget epic that treats the viewer with a certain amount of intelligence. Which is not how the viewer wants to be treated at all.

Master and Commander debuted not long after Pirates of the Caribbean had announced that the seafaring adventure was back with a bang. But unlike Gore Verbinski’s pirates-and-CGI pantomime, Peter Weir’s film lost a king’s ransom at the box office. So no, no franchise.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of Crowe’s best roles
  • A sensitive and respectful adaptation of one of O’Brian’s much loved books
  • Another intelligent movie from Weir (The Truman Show, Dead Poet’s Society)
  • Shot at sea on a real ship – and you can tell

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World – at Amazon

 

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