The Paperboy

Nicole Kidman's Charlotte Bless is very pleased to see John Cusack's Hillary Van Wetter in The Paperboy

 

 

 

You want Southern Fried? The Paperboy has it for you by the boneless bucketful. Gourmets, look away now.

Thanks to the success of Precious (Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire etc), a peculiarly successful misery memoir, for his follow-up its director Lee Daniels is able to call on a cast starry enough to open several films – Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack. A cast he then submerges in a 1960s Deep South swamp of gators and racial segregation, the spirit of Blanche Dubois invoked by Kidman’s performance as a slut of a certain age who relies on the comfort of whoever happens to be available.

What little plot there is glueing this assemblage together centres on the death of someone at the hands of a local sheriff. Or is it the death of the ornery local sheriff at the hands of someone now on death row? The reason why recall is a little hazy here is because the film takes so little interest in its own story, only falling back on it when Southern cliché number 7 (gators) stops working and number 8 (the Dukes of Hazzard, for all I know) has yet to arrive.

Flippancy aside, the film’s focus is Zac Efron, playing the brother of a reporter (McConaughey) who’s returned to his native Florida town with a black British aide hoping to crack open the story of the latest injustice, and thereby hasten the arrival of civil rights.

We’ve already met Efron, a former swimming champion whose ripped body (we are introduced to it early) suggests he’s still putting in work in the pool. Efron’s is a gopher role, he’s there to join up the various territories of the movie. In that deliberately manly way Efron really needs to jettison, his character Jack Jansen takes us into the campaigning world of his radical brother (McConaughey), the sex-on-a-stick demi-monde of the over-saucy Ms Kidman, and to below stairs, where he plays role-reversal games with the family maid, nicely played by Macy Gray. Efron, though only a cipher, really isn’t keen on all that racism shit.

Incidentally, the whole film is narrated in flashback by this maid, for no good reason, unless Gray needs the money that a few more scenes might bring in, or has a liking for prosthetic ageing make-up. In fact there’s the sense early on that the black actors are being used as some badge of liberal conscience – they’re in the film but not driving the drama. Bolstering this suspicion is black newspaperman Oyelowo, whose presence delivers an early zap of energy but whose storyline simply disappears just as he’s threatening to become the most interesting character on screen.

This is odd since director Lee Daniels is a black man. So let’s reach for the obvious alternative explanation and call this sidelining of black characters a deliberate part of what is intended to be a very ripe homage to films from In the Heat of the Night to Deliverance to Monsters Ball (which Daniels produced). Kidman is certainly facing in that direction, playing a blowsy sex monster who’s been writing to the libidinous inmate (Cusack) on Death Row whom McConaughey and Oyelowo are keen to prove innocent. One of the film’s standout scenes (and it has a few) is when Kidman and Cusack first meet, in a big room complete with lawyers, cops and so on, and have the live equivalent of phone sex, to the point of orgasm, to the embarrassment all concerned except themselves. Meg Ryan just got bumped.

Homage too comes from the split screens, the choice of film stock (or digital simulation thereof) to give everything that grainy, backlit, lens-flare look of The Graduate, or other late 1960s movies. Meanwhile old soul hollers on the soundtrack

Then there’s the swamps, the gators, the inbreeding, the heat, the casual though never cruel racism of the local rich whites (real nasty racism comes from the intended new wife of Efron’s father – she’s from New York, don’t you know). And of course the kinky sex. Not just from Kidman; there’s more kinky stuff which takes us into spoiler territory, so let’s not go there, all part of Daniels’s seeming intention to hit us with another shock Southern meme every fifteen minutes – cue Ned Bellamy gutting a live gator while McConaughey asks a few routine questions.

Is everyone overacting? Hell, yes. Are they meant to be? Hell, maybe. Does anyone bobbing about in this simmering stew ever crack a joke? Hell, no. Lack of anything approaching humour is this film’s big failing. Unless it’s meant to be a comedy.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Paperboy – at Amazon

 

 

 

Dirty Pretty Things

French cinema poster for Dirty Pretty Things

Seventeen years after he made My Beautiful Laundrette,  Stephen Frears takes London’s temperature again. Dirty Pretty Things is an ambitious, worthwhile drama digging into the spoil heap of the capital’s invisible underclass. And if that sounds about as glamourous and interesting as council housing, it is – until its hero, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discovers a human heart in a hotel toilet.

Okwe is a Nigerian doctor exiled in a London that tolerates him just so long as he keeps his head down. By day he’s a minicab driver, doing the odd bit of illegal prescribing to keep his fellow drivers clear of the clap they’re transmitting to each other like a relay baton. By night he’s a porter in a seedy hotel, making extra cash with an illicit room-service scam. Somewhere in the middle he’s grabbing a few zeds on the sofa he rents off fellow refugee Senay (a passably Turkish Audrey Tautou – of Amélie fame).

Then he discovers the human organ and realises the hotel he works in isn’t just the sort of place you come to for a quick bunk-up. Horrified, he informs the hotel’s manager, only to discover that the aptly named Senor Sneaky (a slippery Sergi Lopez) is at the centre of an organs-for-passports trade and that he wants Okwe’s medical skills to further his enterprise.

One Seattle critic found the whole notion of people waking up in lovely London, minus a kidney, in a bath full of ice too far-fetched, more urban myth than a plot ripped from the zeitgeist. But in August last year, just weeks before Frears saw his film open to huge acclaim, a Lewisham doctor was struck off for offering to procure an illegal kidney for a man who later turned out to be an undercover reporter.

The brilliance of this organ plot is that it transforms the film from wishy-washy social treatise into powerful noir thriller. Frears pulled off a similar trick with My Beautful Laundrette which presented a portrait of life among the dispossessed of mid-Eighties South London as a raunchy, if unorthodox love story.

Not that Frears is entirely responsible. The film was written by Steven Knight, who knows a thing or two about making drama – he was one of the team who created Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? from the threadbare quiz-show format using little more than basic theatrical stagecraft.

Dirty Pretty Things was voted film of the year in the Evening Standard Film Awards last year, with Chiwetel Ejiofor taking the prize for best actor. Deserved accolades for a mature, enlightening and exhilarating piece of work.

© Steve Morrissey 2003

Dirty Pretty Things – at Amazon

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Traffic

Catherine+Zeta Jones+i+Traffic

 

 

 

Traffic started life as Traffik, a 1989 mega-mini-series following the heroin trail from Pakistan through Germany and into the UK. It was brutal, it was gruelling and it was a cracker. The decision to remake it as a leg-knotting 2hr 20 min single film, and transfer the action to Mexico and the US, delivers an extra hit, a political one. After all, the US government advocates free trade and the pursuit of happiness as unalienable principles while at the same time banning the importation and enjoyment of drugs. It’s this fault line that Traffic patrols, as it follows four interwoven stories: the drugs czar (Michael Douglas) with the addict daughter; the feds trying to bust a dealer; the wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) taking up the reins of her husband’s trafficking business; and the decent Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro) falling foul of the drugs barons. No one comes out smelling of roses, or poppies for that matter, in a masterfully shot film that doesn’t finger-wag, preferring an it’s-all-a-mess shrug. Result: both sides of the drugs debate count director Steven Soderbergh as one of their own. Two-way Traffic, I suppose.

 

Traffic – at Amazon

 

 

Don’t Look Now

Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now

 

 

 

 

It seems an odd thing to say, but most films aren’t really that cinematic. Most films, you could close your eyes and follow them. Not so with Nicolas Roeg’s “arthouse horror”. Close your eyes and you’re lost. In fact, even with your eyes open, all is not as it appears. Take the infamous love-making scene played out between grieving parents Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. It’s not the “were they doing it for real” question that marks it out as significant but the fact that Roeg keeps intercutting this ultimate example of living in the now with scenes from a few minutes later – when the duo are absent-mindedly getting dressed, ready to go out. This scene is emblematic of the film, which hovers between the here and the not-here, the what-they-are and the what-they’re-not. Look at what’s on offer – a loving couple whose marriage seems to be on the rocks; a recently dead daughter who appears to be popping up all over Venice, itself a city hanging between two states, the water and the sky. Then there’s the two weird sisters, one who sees (she’s clairvoyant) but doesn’t see (she’s blind); the crumbling church Sutherland is restoring, which hovers between existence and extinction; a man of the cloth who seems more worldly than any other character in the film – the examples go on and on. And they all add up to one of the most psychologically complex, visually distinctive horror movies ever made. Do look now.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Don’t Look Now – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Phantom of the Opera

chaney phantom large

 

 

Gaston Leroux’s famous story of the Phantom – who lives in the bowels of the Paris opera house, falls for a pretty singer and wreaks terrible revenge when she won’t play footsie – seems to have a strange effect on artists. Leroux went super-gothic – very pretty girl, monstrous beast, subterranean caverns, stygian doom, death by fire and water and so on. And everyone since has more or less kept up the melodramatic pace, right down to Andrew Lloyd Webber – ‘the phantom of the opera is there/Inside your mind’ cackle, twirl. This 1925 silent film is actually the best of the lot – it’s got Lon ‘Man Of A Thousand Faces’ Chaney in it for a start. And there’s nothing decorous or abstract about his make-up – a grinning skull, a cavernous blowhole for a nose, eyes popping out of his face. Not pretty. Unlike our lovely heroine (Mary Philbin). And unlike the fabulous sets depicting the Opera House and the Phantom’s lair, shot in part in two-strip Technicolor – quite a sight in the silent era. Add to that a booming recording of Carl Davis’s reworked score, if you’re watching a recently restored print, and it’s quite a sound now as well.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

The Phantom of the Opera – at Amazon this is the Milestone version, the best of many available right now.

 

For the BFI version with the Carl Davis score mentioned above (warning: it’s Region 2 and expensive if you live outside the UK) click here.

 

 

The Third Man

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So much is right about the Third Man that could have gone so wrong. Producer David O. Selznick wanted it shot entirely on studio sets. Director Carol Reed disagreed and won, which is why it’s shot on the dank streets of post-war Vienna, a city as overrun with black marketeers as the film suggests. Selznick also wanted Noel Coward to play Harry Lime, the role eventually taken by Orson Welles. Perhaps Coward would have made a good “Third Man”, a shit trading penicillin to the highest bidder and damn the children who die as a consequence. But if Coward had taken the role, there wouldn’t have been the “cuckoo clock” speech, written by Welles, which makes the case that all human achievement is founded on suffering. As to the rest of it, who knows what would have happened once Selznick started getting his way – for the American release he changed Graham Greene’s opening monologue, which does in five minutes of scene-setting what some films can’t manage in an hour. It’s a masterpiece of concision. But then every aspect of the film says “masterpiece” – the writing, the directing, the casting, locations, Anton Karas’s zither score, the cinematography. It’s still regulary voted “Best British film of all time”.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

The Third Man – at Amazon

 

 

Audition

audition

 

 

The horror film has a special use for the young female body. How often does one crescendo with some girl in a tight white T shirt – if not Jessica Biel then someone pretty similar – running endlessly, screamingly away from a scaggy male assailant with a hook/axe/chainsaw/knife? Meanwhile a man with a Steadicam aimed right at the young woman’s breasts in turn runs backwards away from her, to the nodding appreciation of the largely male audience. Audition turns the tables – a sad sack of a Japanese salaryman pretends to be a producer holding auditions for a film. In reality he’s doing try-outs for something more permanent and less well paid – a wife. And soon he’s found the ideal candidate (played by ex-model Eihi Shiina), a former ballet dancer, young, frugal, demure and beautiful. Not just his ideal woman, but some sort of universal ideal of objectified womanhood too. But before he has a chance even to consider whether it’s appropriate to ask her to slip her top off, she’s pounced – the biter is bit. And what transpires then is so gruesome and so disproportionate that you’ve got to wonder what this poor, sad-eyed man did to deserve such a fate. The answer, of course, is nothing, personally. He’s the payback for all those girls, all those T-shirts, all those dark, scream-filled woods. Enjoy.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Audition – at Amazon

 

 

Maniac

maniac mannequin doll

 

 

In deep, deep, deep homage to 1980s horror, here’s a pungent, standout film that’s entirely enjoyable as long as you love seeing women’s scalps being removed – a quick razor to the forehead and they peel straight off, it seems.

A remake of William Lustig’s 1980 film of the same name, 2013’s Maniac makes one crucial and utterly transformative change – the point of view is through the eyes of a seriously disturbed serial killer (is there any other type?).

Directors and stars are what reviews usually concentrate on but the key players here are writers Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, whose Switchblade Romance in 2003 proved to the world that the French were adept at producing gut-shuddering horror if they wanted to.

They’ve done the same here, turning Frank, the 1980 villain of the piece (now played by Elijah Wood) into a Norman Bates figure, a psycho bent out of whack by a mother more interested in sating her libido than bringing up her child, who would be watching while she went at it.

Now older but still tormented by images of his mother being done every which way by strangers, Frank constructs his ideal, more virginal, women from shop mannequins which he’s tastefully accoutred with real female scalps.

Into this scenario arrives one day Anna (Nora Arnezeder) a blonde photographer, kittenishly cute, pretty as hell, her nipples tantalisingly visible through her T shirt as she makes Frank’s accidental acquaintance. He’s smitten, as were a good number of people in the audience when I saw this film last night. And from here springs the drama – is he going to fall in love and reform, or is his psychotic tendency going to get the upper hand?

As I said, we’re deep in the 1980s here – all men are rapists/killers, the city is evil, there’s a Basket Case grungy unwholesomeness to everything. On top of this there’s the soundtrack, by some French guy called Rob, a mix of early John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder, those soundtracks that Goblin did for Dario Argento. Over the end credits I think we heard Goldfrapp in their electropop phase. You get the picture. But the soundtrack is more than just an accompaniment to the film; it’s as integral to the film as the soundtrack to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was, perhaps more so, bringing a bright unnerving jollity to proceedings, though there’s bubble and trouble down in the bass.

The film is aiming for classic status, clearly. I mean mannequins, a Tooth Fairy-style collector of bits of women, overtones of House of Wax, all rewrapped in a subjective point of view. Here director Franck Khalfoun comes into his own, keeping things fast-moving and moody, though he cheats a little here and there. There are a few too many conveniently placed mirrors allowing us to catch glimpses of Frank. And our plucky madman also has convenient flashbacks, imagined idealised moments with the lovely Anna, plus out-of-body moments when he’s doing the actual killing.

I suppose if you’ve gone to the expense of hiring Frodo, you might as well get some shots of his face, or else what’s the point? To his credit, Wood does a lot with very little here, mumbling and muttering, lots of heavy breathing but he doesn’t overdo it. Which is crucial, because the last thing the writers/director of this singular movie want is for audiences to start identifying with the bad guy.

After three Lord of the Rings films and now a third of the way through appearing in three Hobbit films, Wood is clearly in Tolkien disavowal mode, repositioning himself away from the Shire by effectively saying “I’m bloody horrible, me.” He is. The middle-aged hardened film reviewer sitting next to me frequently had to put his hands over his eyes as Wood’s Frank did his stuff. This is probably not your ideal date movie.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Maniac – at Amazon

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Hidden aka Caché

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Everyone loves a form/content double whammy, when a film’s story and its method of telling correspond. It’s why Memento succeeds so well, for example, a tale about an amnesiac told in partial and unreliable flashback. How much craftier is Michael Haneke’s psychological thriller Hidden. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) are media professionals, members of the Parisian chattering classes, liberal right down in their DNA. What could people of such good intent have to do with the rising tide of Islamism, anti-westernism, terrorism? Why are they being blackmailed by an increasingly incriminating series of videotapes? Are they guilty of something, or innocent, as the film seems to proclaim? Haneke’s double whammy is to tell this story both from the point of view of the spooked couple and through the replaying of the videotapes they’ve been sent. Indeed we’re often not sure which point of view we’re seeing events from – is it the dispassionate camera telling us the story from Georges and Anne’s point of view, or is it the politicised camera within the film, the one shooting the videotapes? And it’s on this nub that this brilliant film turns. You could see it as a comment on fictionalised reality, though it is only tangentially that. Or as a more political film which, through Haneke’s dislocating device, dissolves the certainties of fiction and invites the question – are we, Western audiences, no matter how liberal, anti-war, pro-diversity, because we benefit from them, complicit in political actions taken in our name?

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Hidden – at Amazon

 

 

 

Strangers on a Train

930 strangers on a train blu

 

 

Remakes are always being mooted – one far-fetched internet rumour had Ricky Gervais starring in one of them – but whatever eventually pops out, it’s unlikely to eclipse this warped 1951 original, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by Patricia Highsmith, surely one of cinema’s most misanthropic couplings. Hitchcock, as book after book delights in telling us, loved torturing blondes. The lesbian Highsmith, on the other hand, loved to torture homosexuals – see The Talented Mr Ripley, for example. And it’s Highsmith who comes out on top in this thriller about two men agreeing to swap murders. Robert Walker plays Bruno Anthony, the psychotic ball of mother-love who wants his horrible father dead. Farley Granger is Guy Haines, a clean-limbed tennis pro with a wife restricting his extra-mural canoodlings. The trouble starts when psycho Bruno kills Guy’s wife and expects Guy to fulfil his end of the deal, a “deal” which Guy had thought was merely the what-if ramblings of strangers passing time on a long train journey. Spicing up this stew is the regularly suggested but never openly stated homo-erotic subtext, with mad Bruno constantly making cow eyes at rangey Guy. And there you have it, the basic steps – sex, death and guilt – for life’s never-ending tango. Irresistible.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Strangers on a Train – at Amazon