Morvern Callar

Samantha Morton and dead boyfriend in Morvern Callar


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



29 July


Mama Cass dies, 1974

On this day in 1974, Mama Cass Elliot, the large-size singer with the Mamas and the Papas, died from eating a ham sandwich. Except she didn’t. Die from eating a ham sandwich, I mean. Instead she probably died from extreme dieting, in an attempt to lose weight. She’d found fame with the Mamas and the Papas, singing songs such as California Dreamin’ and Monday Monday, and when the band split she embarked on a solo career. Her debut show, in Las Vegas in October 1968, was a disaster, Elliot barely being able to sing, partly because the six month crash diet she’d been on had given her acid reflux, which had burnt her vocal chords, partly because she was wasted on heroine. Her shows at the London Palladium six years later had been, by contrast, a triumph, with Cass getting standing ovations every night for her two-week residency. On 28 July she sang her final note, got her last curtain call, phoned Mamas and Papas bandmate Michelle Phillips, then went to bed and, aged 32, died in her sleep. She had been fasting four days a week in the run-up to the shows in an attempt to lose weight and this extreme dieting, coupled with the fact that her heart was suffering from “fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity” (according to the coroner who examined her) led to her death. There was a ham sandwich in her room, hence the rumour, but it was untouched. Four years later Keith Moon died in the same apartment, belonging to Harry Nilsson, at the same age.




Morvern Callar (2002, dir: Lynne Ramsay)

Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher was one of the knockout movies of 1999 and her feature debut. Morvern Callar could easily have been more of the same and everybody would have been very happy indeed, thanks very much. Instead Ramsay decided to go off in the direction that the end of Ratcatcher had indicated she might, into more subjective, impressionistic film-making. Samantha Morton, here only 25 and already a veteran and a legend, plays the bizarrely named Morvern Callar, a woman who wakes up one morning to find that her boyfriend is dead. It’s Christmas and he’s left her a suicide note propped up against the computer, but also on the hard drive is the manuscript for a novel he wants her to hawk around the publishing houses. Callar unwraps the presents, then goes out to work in a supermarket, leaving the dead body lying in its own blood in the house. Later, she comes home, then goes out for the night with her friend, gets drunk, has sex with some guy. It’s all very normal. Except that she has a dead boyfriend back at home. And the image that will linger from this film after all the others have faded is of the body and the Christmas tree lights winking on and off like some big ironic joke.
In a film that’s about being at the mercy of your situation, being passive because it makes rolling with the punches easier, Callar decides to delete her boyfriend’s name from the title page of his manuscript and write in her own. And then, having chopped the useless boyfriend into bits, she goes on holiday to a raving Ibiza, with her mate Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). And it’s here where Ramsay’s gift for colour and movement come to the fore, as a woman who is a watcher rather than a doer enters a milieu where it’s all about taking part, raving, expressing yourself, going crazy.
Ramsay and Morton are in a perfect lock-step, the former doing things with sound and colour that will deliver acid flashbacks to anyone who’s ever indulged in psychedelics, the latter being simply amazingly intense in her passivity, closed off yet oddly readable. Then things come to some sort of a loony head as Callar’s publishers meet with her out in Ibiza and…
Not everything works. But maybe it’s not meant to. Can you cut up a body and dispose of it so easily, just using a trowel? Would publishers of an unknown writer really give her £100,000 up front? The answers are no and no. But it doesn’t matter, because Ramsay has made parts one and two of this film so compelling, and in entirely different ways, that the uneasy landing on Planet Fact of part three can be forgiven. And in Morton Ramsay has one of the best actresses on the planet, whose magnetic effect goes beyond talent into the area of magic.



Why Watch?


  • Samantha Morton’s performance
  • The great debut of acting newbie Kathleen McDermott
  • The astonishing cinematography by one of the greats, Alwin Küchler (Hanna, Sunshine)
  • The only adaptation to date of an Alan Warner novel, amazingly


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Morvern Callar – Watch it now at Amazon





Mister Lonely

Samantha Morton and Diego Luna in Mister Lonely


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



18 July


Papal infallibility proclaimed, 1870

On this day in 1870, the Catholic church declared that certain utterances by its pope were to be considered infallible – they could not be wrong. The Church had long held that pronouncements made by the pope in his official capacity, and speaking ex cathedra, had a universal truth to them, basing this notion on Jesus Christ’s words to Peter, the first Pope – “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18). However, the formalisation of this understanding was brought about by Pope Pius IX during the first Vatican Council. This was held in July 1870 at the point when Rome, under papal control and French protection, was holding out against the otherwise unified (since 1861) Italy, which had named Rome as its capital but was biding its time in Turin waiting for the political weather to change. On 19 July the Franco-Prussian war began, and the French garrison left Rome to defend its homeland. The day before, the Pope, perhaps sensing an imminent loss of temporal power, made the spiritual land grab.




Mister Lonely (2007, dir: Harmony Korine)

Harmony Korine’s first film since 1999’s Julien Donkey-Boy was received by a bewildered critical world ready to dump on Korine, writer of the highly controversial Kids. Mister Lonely seems designed further to aggravate and bewilder, possibly also to entertain, depending on how adaptable your mindset is. The cast list alone is an orange light – provocateur directors Werner Herzog and Leos Carax are both prominent – and once Korine and ace cinematographer Marcel Zyskind get going it’s clear that we’re on a journey into arthouse excess. Things kick off with Bobby Vinton’s Mr Lonely on the soundtrack while a tiny motorbike crosses the screen in slo-mo. Hello David Lynch. But then we cut to Diego Luna, as a Michael Jackson impersonator working in Paris, where, one day, he meets Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton), in Seven Year Itch garb. An impersonator also. Why don’t you come with me to Scotland, says Marilyn to Michael, where I live with a husband, Charlie Chaplin (Dennis Lavant). So off MJ goes, only to find that Marilyn and Charlie’s daughter is Shirley Temple, and among the people they hang out with are the Pope, Abraham Lincoln, James Dean, the Queen, Sammy Davis Jr, Little Red Riding Hood and Madonna. Korine divides the film into chapters, part one being The Man in the Mirror, 2 is Beat It, 3 Thriller, and finally You Are Not Alone – except that Diego Luna’s Michael is by now, for reasons that would be spoilerish to divulge, very much alone.
Meanwhile, in an apparently unrelated story, some nuns are learning to fly, with Herzog playing the role of a semi-crazed enthusiastic priest hoping for miracles as he distributes food parcels to the poor of Africa.
Is Korine making profound statements about the thinness of celebrity compared to what really matters in the world? Thankfully, he’s not. Instead he seems to be trying to revivify the sort of arthouse cinema that existed in the 1960s, as practised most notably by Fellini, in which the conscious and unconscious worlds co-exist with varying degrees of ease. Whether this works in an age that doesn’t take Sigmund Freud half as seriously is moot, but Korine has an eye for a picture and is adept at conjuring up an image that haunts the mind. This is a frustrating film that had me leaning forward with mouth agape for periods, throwing myself back in the chair in exasperation at others, hovering on the edge of sleep at others still. But you’ve got to applaud a cineaste who believes that cinema is transformative, energising and inspiring, even if you’re never entirely sure whether he believes it himself. Those iconic characters, let’s remember, are all fakes.



Why Watch?


  • There’s no such thing as a boring Korine film
  • The director of Spring Breakers as he gets his mojo back
  • First time on screen together for Anita Pallenberg and James Fox since Performance
  • The cinematography of Marcel Zyskind (Code 46)


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Mister Lonely – Watch it now at Amazon





Jesus’ Son

Samantha Morton and Billy Crudup in Jesus' Son



The son in question is played by Billy Crudup, a near schizo drug user on a no-brain road to nowhere. But never mind Crudup, wait till you see the performance by Samantha Morton. When she was cast in Sweet And Lowdown, Woody Allen’s uncharacteristically misogynist film, Allen had her playing a mute. Even so, she stole the film from under Sean Penn’s chiselled cheeks. Here it’s brave Crudup who’s standing too close to the flame. She plays the girlfriend, a hopeless smack-happy, grinning, winsome and overwhelmingly simpatico partner to FH (Crudup, who at the time seemed to be on the brink of something big). Together they bounce from balls-up to self-inflicted distress, shooting up all the way. If that sounds glum, be reassured, Jesus’ Son has its funny scenes too, hilariously funny at times. It also gets the early 1970s period about right and the support players are strong – Jack Black, Will Patton, Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary. But back to Morton, who is so good there’s the suspicion that someone upstairs decided that to keep the focus on the star she’s going to have to be struck dumb – hot dang, someone already did that. So instead Morton is killed off at around the halfway and point and the film immediately starts behaving slightly like a car that’s had the air let out of its tyres. It’s worth the ride before and after the jump.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Jesus’ Son – at Amazon