Due to a series of unfortunate events, we’re unable to bring you a fresh new podcast in our usual time slot, so to tide you over please accept this selection of our favourite reviews from the third year of our podcast. Normal service will be resumed shortly.
To Live and Die in L.A.
Mention William Friedkin to a film fan and they will in all likelihood respond first with either “The Exorcist” or “The French Connection”, depending on their personal proclivity. You may even get the odd “Sorcerer” or “Cruising” in there, but certainly their first instinct will be to gravitate toward the director’s 70s output, and deservedly so. There is a less likely answer, however, in “To Live and Die in L.A.”, Friedkin’s oft-forgotten 1985 secret service thriller and a film behind which there is a growing movement for re-assessment.
Now, don’t stop me if you’ve heard any of the following before, because we’ll be here all bloody day, but To Live and Die is the story of an on-the-edge Secret Service agent named Richard Chance (William Petersen) whose partner is murdered just days short of retirement while investigating a talented counterfeiter on his own time (cue Roger Murtaugh’s signature exasperated saxophone riff). Chance vows to do whatever it takes to bring the perpetrator to justice, and for the most part you’d think that would be all there is to know.
His name is Chance.
People tell him he’s crazy.
His partner just got killed ahead of retirement.
His new partner is a total straight-edge.
If William Petersen spent the whole movie in a t-shirt emblazoned with 100 point Impact font reading “I’m a maverick, me” it would probably not look out of place, and it certainly would not put me off watching To Live and Die on endless repeat because it is, quite frankly, the second best movie to come out of Hollywood during the 80s.
In fact To Live and Die is so archly 80s that I suspect the reason it fell off so many people’s radars is that it probably all seemed quite embarrassing the second the clock ticked over to 1990. Now, however, the 80s are apparently cool again and a lot of people seem to be cottoning on to the movie’s strengths, of which there are many.
Petersen’s portrayal of Chance may be shackled on paper at least by the cliche in which it seems initially mired, but beyond that single sentence synopsis with which I opened this ramble he makes a bloody good case for one of the cop thriller genre’s most compelling anti-heroes. In acid wash denim and up-collared leather jacket Chance weaves his way through the L.A. underworld and new wave art scene in pursuit of a gloriously, quietly unhinged Willem Dafoe as Eric Masters, the painter turned counterfeiter whose henchman offed his partner in the opening act. In doing so he leverages informants and contacts whom he is happy to use and abuse for his own satisfaction, both professionally and personally in the case of Darlene Fluegel’s character Ruth; a parolee who Chance is stringing out as an informant and a sexual partner.
Chance’s emotionally driven pursuit of his quarry and increasingly unethical tactics do not sit well with new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow), nor do they lead to your typical Hollywood ending, with our hero’s apparently burgeoning nihilistic bent predictably seeding his downfall. A blistering final act begins with Chance’s assertion that in order to get close to Masters he needs money to pose as a buyer, and that the only way to get that kind of money is to rock up unannounced to a drugs buy and steal it. In doing so Chance and Vukovich unknowingly kidnap an undercover FBI agent who is subsequently killed, precipitating a downward spiral of total fucked-ness and lending us one of cinema’s most criminally forgotten car chase sequences.
To Live and Die in L.A. is a curious beast, at once conforming to genre tropes which were at that point already a couple of decades out of date, while simultaneously riding an art-pop, new wave of experimentalism. It’s a precarious balancing act that works surprisingly well, despite veering wildly from “shove city hall up your ass” tough guy bravado one moment to “setting fire to modern artworks on a veranda just because” pretentiousness the next. In that sense I reckon To Live And Die represents perhaps the purest distillation of 80s aesthetics and attitudes in pop culture, with the added bonus of a bespoke soundtrack courtesy of Wang Chung. And in case you think I’m being facetious when I say that you’re listening to the man who owns not just the soundtrack to this movie but also Everybody Wang Chung Tonight: Wang Chung’s Greatest Hits on vinyl and CD. And iTunes. Listen, Wang Chung sang nonsense lyrics to pretentious synth melodies while wearing cream knitted sweaters and for that reason they are significantly better than any of us.
Punch through the membrane of decade-that-time-forgot cheese (mmmmm, delicious 80s cheese) and you’ll find a surprisingly complex thriller that doesn’t flinch when it needs to bring the tough stuff, nor is afraid to throw a plot curve ball when it matters. A satisfyingly anti-Hollywood climax is pretty much the cherry on top of a delightfully self-indulgent cake of excess from which I am quite happy to serve myself a slice any time. To Live and Die in L.A. is the cinematic gift that keeps on giving.
Because Bloodsport is, well, Bloodsport, I’d either not noticed or not cared prior to this about the text appearing at the end of this film, claiming it to be a true story, based on the real life exploits of Frank Dux. That holds up in as far as this is an accurate portrayal of what Frank Dux claims he did, although, at the risk of legal action, Frank Dux is an inveterate liar to the point that if he told me water was wet I’d assume the opposite on instinct.
Here Jean-Claude Van Damme inhabits the persona of Dux, as we’re introduced to him training in some no-doubt top secret army facility that totally existed, before ducking out to meet his sensei, Senzo Tanaka. Dux has been chosen to enter the Kumite, a top-secret international underground fight tournament that totally happens, as this documentary will tell us. It’s also one of those top secret underground things that literally everyone knows about, apart from one reporter.
But before we get to that, we need to flash back to a young Dux and how he convinced Senzo to train Dux in the art of ninjutsu alongside his Senzo’s son, an unheard of honour. Perhaps the most notable thing about this segment is that they managed to find a kid actor that’s more wooden than Van Damme was at this point in his career, which scientists had previously determined to be theoretically impossible.
Senzo’s kid had previously also been invited to a Kumite, but he did not survive the tournament of death. Something something reclaim honour something something vengeance. So off Dux goes, with two military investigators on his trail trying to stop him, one of whom played by a young Forest Whittaker, which always surprises me. And then I’m surprised that I’m surprised, because, really, who devotes brainspace to memorising Bloodsport?
Dux heads off to Hong Kong, running into fellow fighter, American brute / half-wit Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb, it’s good to see the Bee Gees branching out) and Victor Lin (Ken Siu), who becomes their chapperone in the fight club scene. Dux also runs into journalist / exposition cipher Janice Kent (Leah Ayres), also the love interest for the irresistably charismatic and beautiful Frank Dux, at least as Frank Dux tells it.
So the tournament begins, with the combatants punching and kicking each other in various combinations, leading to a fight between Dux and the nefarious end boss Bolo Yeung’s Chong Li, who is a big dirty cheater. And also a murderer, but it feels as though the film thinks throwing chalk in Dux’s eyes is the bigger crime. At least as Frank Dux tells it.
Obviously, this film is not a patch on Enter the Dragon in any aspect, but judged along side its contemporaries in the glut of Western-backed martial arts action films that ruled the eighties with an iron fist, this is resolutely okay. Director Newt Arnold actually has quite the reference list as an assistant director, and I don’t think any of the problems with the film are necessarily of his making.
Van Damme’s fight choreography is fine, although not his best – Kickboxer being substantially better a year later, if memory serves, but it’s serviceable. However, anything outside of the Kumite arena is like watching a, well, a bad actor. Couldn’t think of a simile there. Apologies. He’d later go on to show some charisma, and even range and ability in the likes of JCVD and Jean-Claude Van Johnston, but here, not so much, which makes most of the non-punchy-kicky sections kind rough.
Some of the stuff with Donald Gibb is goofy enough to be ironically enjoyable, rather than actually enjoyable, I guess, and Bolo Yeung does make for an imposing antagonist, so it’s not a complete bust. In fact, although it’s several cuts below any of Bruce Lee’s work, I still like Bloodsport at least a little. If you’re ever in a situation where you’re choosing between this and Enter the Dragon, for some reason I can’t possibly imagine, do not hesitate for a second to pick Enter the Dragon. But this world is big enough for the both of them, and if you’ve any interest at all in kung-fu flicks, Bloodsport is worth watching at least once – if only to see how much yarn Frank Dux can spin.
Blade Runner 2049
As any of you who have listened to the Top Films podcasts with which we began this Fuds on Film venture will know, I have not so much a love/hate relationship with Blade Runner as a bafflement/compulsion one, appreciating the visuals and the world, but largely left cold by everything else, while still being unable to stop periodically rewatching it. It’s undeniably, and objectively, a massively influential film, but, unlike certain weird people around these parts, who may or may not have a name that rhymes with vague, I realise that proclaiming it the best film of the eighties is borderline insanity.
As such, when production finally began last year on a sequel after decades of rumours, false starts and Ridiotley Scott doing his best to ruin the original film and its mysteries, I had neither the trepidation nor excitement many fans will have felt at the news, instead being left with my usual ennui and dismay that Hollywood was once again making a sequel instead of something fresh and new. But the presence of Ryan Gosling, direction by Denis Villeneuve and, perhaps most importantly for a sequel to a film so visually distinctive, the great Roger Deakins as DoP, I had some hope.
Before going to see Blade Runner 2049 I watched Blade Runner again but, worryingly, for the first time in more than a decade, I didn’t enjoy it incrementally more on my most recent viewing. Indeed, my enjoyment of, and appreciation for, Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic took a massive step backwards, and I once again found myself thinking “Hmmmm, this is not a good film. I do not like this film.” So that was a wonderful place to be in before watching the sequel.
The original Blade Runner is ostensibly a noir detective story, but one that largely left the detective element out of it. Blade Runner 2049 once again has a LAPD detective as its central character, but from the get-go actually has him do some detective work. And what a difference that makes to the engagement of the story.
Said detective is K (Ryan Gosling), like Deckard before him a Blade Runner, but a known replicant, one of the Nexus-8 models with an open-ended lifespan that were created after the events of the first film, and before the blackout, a mysterious week-long power outage that saw vast amounts of electronic records wiped out.
The film begins with K visiting Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), a rogue replicant, in order to retire him. After doing this, his survey of Morton’s farm reveals a mysterious box buried beneath a tree. The box turns out to be a coffin of sorts, containing the remains of a woman who seemingly died in childbirth, the twist being that the woman was a replicant (the identity of whom I won’t mention, but is unlikely to come as a surprise to anyone).
This revelation – that replicants are able to reproduce – produces two very different responses in two influential individuals. K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), believes that the knowledge that the already physically and intellectually superior replicants can have offspring will lead to a war with humans, while Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace, who took over what was left of the Tyrell Corporation, believes that replicant reproduction is the key to his company’s production yield problem.
Joshi orders K to track down and kill the child, a task which leaves K decidedly uneasy, while Wallace’s operative, the formidable replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), watches K from a distance, waiting for him to find his target so that she can deliver him or her to Wallace to allow him to unlock Tyrell’s final secret.
K’s investigations take him to the laboratories where replicant memories are crafted; an orphanage in the debris-strewn ruin of what was once San Diego but is now a rubbish dump, looking like a city-sized version of Star Wars’ trash compactor; and to the radioactive ruins of Las Vegas, where he meets an unexpected figure from the past. Who is Deckard. Who is obviously Deckard, and who was always going to be Deckard. Sadly, while the film tries to keep the identity of K’s person of interest in the Nevada desert a mystery, marketing and promotion, perhaps necessarily, ruined that particular revelation. Pity.
Along the way, K will discover what happened to the child, and why, and question what it is to be human, and raise questions about free will, the meaning of life, individuality and purpose, and all of that compelling philosophical stuff that was the crux, and most interesting part, of the original film.
So, I suppose now is the part where I talk about if it was any good, particularly in light of how ambivalent, at best, I am about the original. Well, yes, it is very good. It’s not without its faults, which I will come to, but I thoroughly enjoyed Blade Runner 2049, and vastly more so than I ever did the 1982 film. Firstly, and appropriately because the original film’s visual style was so striking, and was its lasting influence and legacy, 2049 looks amazing. It’s a more visually varied film, though has plenty of shots of the grimy, rundown, LA that Deckard inhabited. But pretty much every scene, and every locale, is striking, from K appearing through the mist at Morton’s farm, to the clinical, white settings of the memory fabrication laboratory, to the dust-strewn wasteland of Las Vegas and the oppressive confines of the Tyrell/Wallace pyramid. I could easily turn the sound down and just look at this film.
Next, the story, because there is one, and certainly much more substantially so than Blade Runner. The detective story is engaging, and helped by a similarly engaging performance by Gosling, whose at first unaffected, almost emotionless, performance begins to make sense, and then develop and expand, as his character does. There are twists, and director Villeneuve, and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, provide plenty of clues and hints for us to generate theories as to the whos, whats, whys and wherefores of the thing, while keeping us off-balance and in the dark enough for us to never be quite sure of anything. I do have one problem with the story, though, but it’s a biggie, and it is that the final moment of the film more or less (and I mean pretty much completely) undermines the entire reason established earlier for that character’s previous actions. Best not to dwell on that too much, I reckon.
Acting-wise, it’s a mixed bag, but Gosling anchors the film, and that helps take the edge off of anything less than stellar (like Edward James Olmos’s cameo as Gaff). But perhaps the biggest, and most welcome, surprise is that Harrison Ford has remembered acting! I think, though I hesitate to say it since it seems so unlikely, that he may actually have been enjoying himself in this film. Shocking, I know, but I think it’s a genuine possibility. Certainly, old Deckard is considerably warmer than young Deckard who, really, was a bit of a cold fish in the first film, and also a bit of an arsehole. I think this is the only time in the last decade, and perhaps longer, that I have seen Ford act, and seem to enjoy doing so, aside from his quite engaging performance in Morning Glory.
Robin Wright is solid enough as Gosling’s superior, I guess, but is a little underserved by the script, though nothing like so much as Sylvia Hoeks, whose character Luv becomes a badass ninja chick with a bad attitude, for reasons. That type of character is very tiresome, largely because it’s not a character. Though when it comes to “acting” nothing is as bad, as egregious or as downright unwelcome as this film’s Rogue One Grand Moff Tarkin moment, where we are dragged against our will into the uncanny valley to meet a digital creation every bit as unconvincing and creepy as that Peter Cushing abomination. .
While it had been worrying me, I will say that the 2 hour 44 minute running time passed much more readily than I expected it would (though I wonder how much that will remain the case on any subsequent viewings), but there is still certainly plenty that could be trimmed from that, perhaps most obviously any scene featuring Jared Leto. Not that Leto is particularly bad, more that he’s not particularly anything. For all the much-publicised stories of the tedious and tiresome Leto fitting himself with opaque contact lenses so that he would, like his character, be unable to see, I am left wondering what the point was. As Scott recently observed on Twitter, his motivation and personality could be described as “has weird eyes”. Indeed, so inconsequential is the character that Leto’s entire role could have been reduced to a line or two in the mouth of Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv about her boss wanting Rachel’s child for business reasons.
I have a few other gripes, including the, let’s say over-enthusiastic, foley work, which gives Dave Bautista steps like the footfalls of doom, and punches between Gosling and Ford that sound like a wrecking ball hitting an elephant, as well as some dubious product placement. While signs seen in the original are still present in the sequel in this alternate future (Pan-Am, for example), and there is Coke advertising (really, it’d be weird NOT to have Coke advertising in any realistic city setting), there are a couple of more egregious examples.
First, there’s the prominent Sony logos (at least still a functioning company, and expected as this film is distributed by Sony and produced by Columbia, but Sony just can never help themselves in this regard), and second, there’s Atari. Yes, Atari. Now, I know that there were Atari logos in the original film, and it makes sense that in this timeline that Atari would still exist, especially given the apparent technological stagnation that has happened in the 30 years between Blade Runner and 2049, but Atari’s logo is here as paid-for product placement, and it’s grating when the film more or less stops for a moment to ensure you see the massive Atari logo on the side of a building, a company that hasn’t been relevant since… well, about the time the original Blade Runner was released.
But, while it can be fun to carp about such things, these really are minor issues in an otherwise very enjoyable, if flawed, film, that also happens to be an order of magnitude better than the film it is a sequel to. Definitely one to watch.
You know when you’re renovating an old decrepit house while your partner who’s a renowned but currently blocked writer procrastinates, and then strangers start showing up and insinuating themselves into your daily routine with little or no motive in an oblique biblical allegory? No, me neither, but apparently Darren Aronofsky does, or at least he thinks he does, and that’s mother!
Apparently. Or maybe not. When your mission statement is seemingly to wilfully obscure and abstract any attempt at audience interpretation it becomes something of a moot point.
I don’t have a lot to say about mother!, not just because I didn’t like it or I want to demonstrate my disdain, but because I genuinely don’t know what to say. Of the three of us on this podcast I’m comfortably the least fluent in the interpretation of cinema, but that’s not to say I don’t enjoy a challenge. When that challenge is a fundamental shroud of obfuscation masquerading as allegory, however, I lose the will and the incentive to pursue the matter further, and I’m not surprised audiences have been so split over this movie.
Jennifer Lawrence is the (presumably) titular homeowner, Javier Bardem her seemingly distanced husband referred to in the credits only as Him. We are to assume their relationship is loveless, or at least increasingly so as Him subjects them both to the misery of his writer’s block. Blah blah some precious glass thing Him keeps in a jar. Things take a dog leg when a strange couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) turn up at the premises, at once ingratiating themselves with the writer and paying scant regard to his wife. Adopting the persona of the demure housewife, mother contents herself pottering about while the mysterious duo express adulation of the creator and occasionally slip off for some rumpy pumpy in various rooms. The house has a heart, by the way.
To cut a long story short this same scenario plays out multiple times as the mysterious couple are joined first by their two sons, one of whom murders the other, then in the wake of this act further, unidentified strangers, until such time as the house is overflowing with unwanted visitors and events transpire that most closely resemble the storming of the barricades at the end of Les Mis. It’s at this point that a couple of scenes play out which really upset some audiences, and I have to say I found them somewhat unsettling myself, not least of all because the film does not do much to earn the tonal shift. Like I said before I do like to be challenged, but on the proviso that I have been afforded the option of selecting a challenging movie. At no point prior throughout it’s running time or indeed its marketing does mother! suggest that its audience can expect it to become a Gaspar Noe movie, and if I was ready to give up on it at the hour mark then I certainly felt like slamming the door in its face as the credits rolled.
If Aronofsky is indeed to continue indulging himself in religious subtext then I fully expect his next movie to be 168 hours in length and feature Willem Dafoe walking up and down the aisles of a DIY store for six straight days before finally settling on a light switch he likes and then putting his feet up for 24 hours. At least with Noah he and star Russell Crowe had the good grace to troll the Pope into finally admitting the absurdity of the source material as he declared “it is as it was,” a gesture that left me chortling in glee for a good few days after. Heck, he even gave us rock monsters. I liked the rock monsters.
mother! has none of that incidental stupidity to supplement its cause, rather it just feels like a bad movie. But what do I know?
If I recall correctly, this film made the list off the back of something like the IMDB summary, which runs roughly thus: “In the hypothetical Latin-American country of Eldorado… poet and journalist Paulo Martins fights against the populist governor, Felipe Vieira, and the conservative president Porfirio Diaz”. Which, to be fair, if you’re trying to boil Terra em Transe, Brazilian writer/director Glauber Rocha’s 1967 film down to a paragraph, is about as close as you’re going to get.
It does rather sell short the outright weirdness of the film, though, and I’m rather sure that’s why the films’ Wikipedia page, so often the home of the needlessly detailed recap, doesn’t even bother in this instance. It would probably be foolish of me to even attempt to recap the plot, but no-one’s ever accused me of good sense.
To be honest, it’s tough to add a great deal more to it. Jardel Filho’s Paulo Martins is a poet first, and journalist a very distant second. If I’m reading it rightly, it’s framed non-linearly, with him reminiscing, sort of, with his girlfriend Sara (Glauce Rocha), while driving very quickly away from the hot mess Eldorado has found itself in, assault rifle in hand, lamenting his part in the hot messification along with pretty much everything else.
We flashback to Paulo’s more idealistic days, as he convinces José Lewgoy’s Felipe Vieira to run for Governor’s office on what appears to be a left-wing, socialist ticket, railing against the elite, but this soon descends into populism, with Vieira making a string of promises he couldn’t hope to meet to the adulation of the masses who desperately want to believe him.
We also see his relationship with hardcore capitalist rich boy President Porfirio Diaz, who stands for all the things you’d expect, and worries that external business investment will drop off after Vieira’s election, and plots to overthrow him, by arms if necessary, although budget constraints rather limits the opportunity for on-screen civil war.
Paulo is, in truth, little more than an observer in these events, and aside from decrying them he has little role in attempting to stop them. And what events they are, as before long both sides are pushed out to ludicrous extents, with Vieira almost subsumed by a wave of the worst sort of mob rule and Diaz playing out some Wolf of Wall Street style playboy excesses before ending up giving what’s possibly some sort of party political broadcast as a frothing, ranting fascist.
I’m perhaps underplaying the oddity of the film. What with Paulo being a poet and all, outbreaks of poetry presented as dialogue are frequent and, well, melodramatic isn’t the right term, but it’s as close as I can come to. In that regard it’s rather like a musical without the backing track. It’s a wildly baffling piece to watch, when entering blind, and while I can’t say I enjoyed it, in any traditional sense, it is fascinating.
Now, having done a little digging, I can at least make some sense of the context. Rocha was a leading force behind Brazil’s Cinema Novo, a movement very much a response to the French New Wave, and indeed the closest examples I can think of to liken this to would be some sort of cross between this year’s Neruda and Last Year at Marienbad. Rocha seemed to have a rather expansive and hopeful view of the influence that cinema could wield, way over and above simply highlighting injustices. It seems, along with their involvement in political causes, that they though to shepard a cultural revolution.
This rather hit the skids when Democratic President João Goulart was turfed out of office in a military coup, with noted asshole Castelo Branco assuming the dictatorship, bankrolled by the IMF and American multinationals. Not unlike the stated aims of Diaz for Eldorado, not at all coincidentally enough. Clearly, writer/director Rocha was affected by this, and Paulo Martins rage at, well, everyone, but particularly the politicians he feels betrayed by or disappointed in, must be a bit of author insertion.
So, with this in mind, it’s possible to parse the film a little better, although ultimately I’m not sure it’s more than raging against the dying of the light, and Paulo’s bellicose denunciations of everyone that isn’t him can grow a touch tiring by the end of the piece. It’s a howl of anguish more than it is a film, although it’s all the more interesting for it.
We’re not the kind of podcast that throws around the term Brechtian, but if we were, we’d be throwing it around right now. The editing, the deliberate desynching of sound, the pacing, the (one hopes) deliberate overacting, some of the framing, and certainly the refusal to establish any shot makes the film a dizzying mess, and as protagonists go, Paulo seems custom built to repel empathy. It has taken the arthouse dial and turned it to “all the arthouse”, which would often have me running screaming, but Terra em Transe is just too peculiar a film to hate.
At the risk of repeating myself, I can’t hand on heart say that I enjoyed Terra em Transe, but it, and the political and cultural mileu around it are absolutely fascinating and well worth reading about. Viewed in a vacuum, it’s hard to take it seriously, and hard to breathe, so don’t view it in a vacuum. Or a hoover, for that matter, although that’s more of a hygiene concern. Looked at as part of the wider goings on in Brazil at the time, it’s a very interesting, inventive and outré mood piece, and a curiosity that’s worth indulging.
When Samantha Morton’s Morvern Callar wakes up on the lounge floor next to the body of her author boyfriend, she finds his computer beckoning her to read his suicide note. In it he expresses his love for Morvern, the determination that slitting his wrists while she slept “seemed like the right thing to do,” and that she is to submit his completed manuscript to a number of publishers and use the money he has left in his bank account to pay for his funeral.
Morvern instead decides to aimlessly hang around an empty train station, pop a pill and go out drunkenly partying with her friend, reveal herself to a passing fishing boat and sleep with a complete stranger. Then, after a couple of days of working around her boyfriend’s body, she chops it up in the bath while listening to a mixtape he left her, buries the remains in a remote, shallow grave, edits the manuscript to name herself the author, and uses the burial money to pay for a party holiday in Ibiza.
Now, we all deal with grief in different ways, but what I’m saying is that I found it very difficult to sympathise with Morvern as the protagonist in a story that deals with…well, I don’t really know what it deals with, to be honest, so I guess that means I just don’t buy Morvern as a protagonist. But I’ll come back to that in a minute.
There is actually a good deal to appreciate about Morvern Callar. Everything about the movie is steeped in economy, beginning with Ramsay’s direction which, separated from the script, I like very much. There is a confidence in the way she allows the story to run its course which speaks to an experience beyond a typical sophomore filmmaker, and her trust in Morton and the rest of the cast, whom I understand to have been largely if not entirely untrained, is obvious. There is a maturity here which makes me marvel at how infrequently Ramsay has worked, yet also glad she hasn’t felt the need to keep pace with industry expectation. Here is a director I want to see only when they are good and ready to say something, even if I’m baffled by their message.
The movie is likewise shot with a refreshing lack of visual verbosity by Alwin Kuchler; Ratcatcher alumni and a name with which I was not familiar, therefore forcing me to kick myself when I discovered he worked with Danny Boyle on Sunshine. Outwith the confines of city and town centres Scotland is a frequently blunt and miserable array of matter which, admittedly stunning mountainscapes and coastlines aside, often presents itself in the guise of mud, heather and grass-covered tilty bits interspersed with broad strokes of ill-maintained tarmac we call “roads”. All you need know about Kuchler’s work here is that he does some of those justice.
In terms of performances Morton is a wonderful choice for the role because she is as close to a flawless actress as I believe England may have produced, and she is blessed with that ability to say as much if not more with her expressions when silent as when emoting at full tilt. Not that there will be much in the way of tilting here, you understand, as that economy I mentioned extends with prevalence to the writing of Morvern who is as enigmatic if not engaging a protagonist as I ever may have encountered in film.
And this is the crux of my issue with the movie. As engaging as Morton is, and even though her abilities seem to come from the cosmic ether, unlike that vacuum of potential energy from which I believe she is born even she cannot be expected to manifest something from less than nothing. If Morvern is experiencing some sort of inner anguish at the death of her lover, some existential turmoil or critical metamorphosis then I as the viewer am not to know of it. We know nothing of Morvern’s life; her relationship is perhaps implied to have been an emotionally and/or intellectually inequal one, but I base that solely on my assumed verbosity of the deceased and Morvern’s borderline mute presence at her menial job in a supermarket. I suppose I must also assume that statistically speaking her boyfriend is unlikely to have shared her proclivity for dismemberment, so that could probably be considered an inequality too.
I am all for enigmas, especially human ones, and a lot of the performances I’ve appreciated through the years have been those where an actor’s eyes have said more than their pie hole, but I can only reasonably be expected to engage with that enigma if their reasoning, history and impetus are not all completely internalised to the point of nothingness. I find myself infuriated by the talent so clearly evident in virtually every other aspect of Morvern Callar; it’s like being handed a note by some mysterious figure who says “read this – your life and the lives of your family depend on it!” only to find out it’s been written in invisible ink.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that this is the only film in which I’ve seen Samantha Morton where she hasn’t engaged me. I trust you implicitly, Samantha, I really do, and I’m willing to accept that it may well be me, not you, but this just isn’t for me. There are plenty of people who claim Morvern is a compelling character – I know because I’ve spent a good deal of my free time today desperately reading through IMDB user reviews in the hope of unearthing some truth about her, if not perhaps my own intellectual and emotional shortcomings which I can only presume to be the reason for my failure to grasp her. To those people all I can say is this: “WHAT IS YOUR EVIDENCE?”
Can you tell I’m frustrated? I desperately want to like Morvern Callar as, on a level of craftmanship, it has considerable chops, and I find myself comparing it favourably to great British low budget works of atmosphere of recent years such as Dead Man’s Shoes. I just don’t know what it is I’m buying here, and it’s driving me nuts.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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