AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: 10th July, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 93 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
The city of Newcastle is holding an ‘American week’, while at the same time shady Texas businessman Cosmo is putting pressure on local businesses to sell up so he can fulfil his new vision for the place. Brendan arrives from Ireland looking for a job and finds one as a cleaner in a jazz nightclub called the Key Club, his boss Finney soon using him as a driver too. However, Brendan begins to fall in love with waitress Kate who also happens to be an escort working for Cosmo, and becomes worried for Finney when he overhears two men talking about killing him….
Well this was a nice surprise, a film I’d heard of but knew little about that turned out to be rather good. The name Mike Figgis is probably most often linked with Leaving Las Vegas, though I do remember enjoying his Internal Affairs and the slightly odder Liebestraum back in the day too. His recent work seems to be quite experimental in nature and I’m now keen to check it out, but in the meantime we have Stormy Monday which is pretty interesting and unusual in its own right. It’s a highly atmospheric, very noir-ish gangster thriller crossed with a romance set in a rather fantastical version of Newcastle, all gloss and neon everywhere. An early cinematographic effort by the great Roger Deakins, it looks magnificent, while the plot is actually fairly simple but often gives the impression of being complex by Figgis’s refusal to reveal everything that’s going on and frequent cutting between different events and locations which often occurs before we know why they’re so important. You could probably make a very straightforward, conventional movie from this story, and the result would probably be rather bland and pedestrian [it was originally intended as a TV movie until Melanie Griffith and Tommy Lee Jones came on board], but luckily that wasn’t the case.
The first ten minutes or so may be a bit confusing for some viewers who won’t know what on earth is going on so it’s best to just soak up the ominous yet oddly nostalgic mood that Figgis immediately creates. Two men driving from a petrol station, a woman asleep, a model of a new version of Newcastle, a terrible road accident involving a band, a man walking down a street with a fog shrouded crane looming behind him like a ghost, shady business meetings– we don’t really understand much of what we’re seeing, and it’s edited together in a rather disjointed fashion, not dissimilar to the crazy free-form jazz played by the Krakov Jazz Ensemble heard several times throughout the film. And yet it all works if you’re able to put aside expectations of ‘normal’ narrative storytelling, and two main threads do begin to assert themselves. Brendan, whom several characters describe as Irish despite Sean Bean playing the role with his native Yorkshire accent, turns up looking for a job. Like a character in a Walter Hill movie, we’re not told anything of his past except that he once batpacked across America and wants to return, but we’re given slight, very slight suggestions that he may have had a rough life so far and could be used to crime and violence. And then there’s Kate, Cosmo’s occasional girlfriend who is a waitress but whom he palms out as an escort [and possibly more] to associates. She’s clearly been around the block a great deal, yet still possesses an odd kind of innocence that makes it easy to understand why Brendan falls for her after she accidently falls on him when he circles a job ad in the newspaper and isn’t looking where he’s going.
They go on a date, and I really begun to like this couple with the naturalistic performances of Bean and Melanie Griffith and the simple and believable dialogue they deliver. The scene soon after when they go to bed and just lie there and cuddle is really sweet, Kate just wanting to enjoy being close to a nice guy for a change [or is he?] and Brendan happy to oblige. Of course the bosses of both characters are at odds with each other and violence could just result and get in the way of their plans to get away. Cosmo wants to take over and re-build Newcastle, his character and the surreal ‘American week’ stuff possibly a comment on the increasing Americanisation of English culture and perhaps their foreign policy [timely, some of this film]. Finney’s more interested in bringing a European influence into the city, largely represented by the Krakov Jazz Ensemble who are first seen playing their quite “out there” music at an airport. It’s easy to work out which side Figgis is on. There are a few uncomfortable scenes of the kind you’d expect in any gangster movie, though the nastiest event occurs off screen, while a beating followed by a shooting is handled in a stylised manner with slow motion and mostly at a distance amidst almost torrential rain. The brooding sense of menace does increase though and, while I was disappointed with how it all panned out, in a way it’s more believable than in some other similar films.
This film has a great flavour to it throughout. One of my favourite of the things Figgis likes to do in this movie is to linger on minor or background characters for just a few seconds longer than is the norm: Finney’s wife who looks worried sick about him, the waitress who watches and smiles as Kate goes outside to meet Brendan, the old guy dancing away during a parade, etc. It’s just enough to give a sense of lives being lived outside the main stories, and yet there’s a deliberate artificiality about the settings, perhaps Figgis’s idea of how Newcastle could have been rather than it actually was in 1987. I was interested to learn during the documentary included on the Blu-ray that, rather than build sets, they just altered the locations they filmed around and in, so what you get is a kind of alternate reality that must be fascinating to any Newcastle natives who watch the film. Neon is everywhere, both inside and outside casting bilious colour into rooms or onto the ground at night. One especially gorgeous image is of a red car amidst blue-drenched surroundings. We’re almost in Blade Runner territory. Deakins’s work here is magnificent while he and Figgis constantly like to pull back to emphasise the environment, often observing events through a window or from fairly far away, like a meeting between two men on a bridge which is shot from a distance and never cuts, just goes alongside the guys as they walk.
Jones always seems almost a revelation to me in his earlier stuff where he tends to me far more restrained in his acting, while Sting, allowed to speak in his actual Geordie accent for once, seems the most relaxed he ever was. Figgis’s omnipresent but never intrusive score, which has some gorgeous passages for saxophone, enhances the mood. I can’t work out if the Polish band are brilliant or terrible [possibly both], but they provide a lot of humour including a bizarre version of the Star-Spangled Banner. There are some notable story and character inconsistencies in this film which you have to try to overlook if you think about things too much, and yet it understands things that not enough other films do, like the power of looks, all four main characters given some notable moments where their expressions speak volumes. Maybe, in the end, there’s not much depth to Stormy Monday, but it certainly takes you into its world while you watch it and afterwards leaves you thinking that you’ve really been somewhere, and have not just looked but felt.
Though this isn’t Stormy Monday’s first release on Blu-ray, it’s the first one for the UK and the US [it’s one of Arrow’s ‘both sides of the Atlantic’ releases], and I doubt it ever looked as good as it does here, showcasing the striking photography brilliantly. Detail, sharpness and a pleasing little layer of grain are just right. The documentary is an excellent 30 min look at the film, critic Neil Young giving us an interesting tour of the locations while providing insight and putting the film into context. And the commentary is equally good, the quite soft spoken Figgis talking about all sorts of things concerning the film, moderator Damon Wise not really needing to be there for much of the fist half at least as Figgis often chats about stuff without being prompted. He seems pleased with the film 30 years on, reveals some good info [the original intended title was Round Midnight, the name of another film being made at the time], and tells a few stories, the best of them involving the formidable, Havana cigar-smoking, improvising-hating Jones. Good stuff, and a good film with alot of interesting things in it. Well worth blind buying I’d say.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
*Original stereo audio (uncompressed on the Blu-ray Disc)
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Audio commentary with Mike Figgis, moderated by critic Damon Wise
*New video appreciation by critic Neil Young, and a then and now tour of the film s Newcastle locations
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacey
*FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Booklet featuring new writing by critic Mark Cunliffe