Thursday, 8 April 2021

The Killers (1946)

Ava Gardner draws Burt Lancaster into a world of crime in The Killers

Director: Robert Siodmark
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Pete Lund/”Swede” Anderson), Ava Gardner (Kitty Collins), Edmond O’Brien (Jim Rearden), Albert Dekker (“Big Jim” Colfax), Sam Levene (Lt Sam Lubinsky), Vince Barnett (Charleston), Virginia Christine (Lily Harmon Lubinsky), Charles D Brown (Packy Robinson), Jack Lambert (“Dum-Dum” Clarke), Donald MacBride (RS Kenyon), Charles McGraw (Al), William Conrad (Max)

Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” is 3,000 words of tension and atmosphere, as a pair of hitmen turn up at a diner looking for a former Swedish boxer. They leave and a fellow diner runs to warn the Swede. He meets the news of his impending demise with a stoic acceptance that nothing can be done. That’s basically it. Siodmark’s film consumes the entire content of the source material in the first fifteen minutes. So the film basically expands and explores this set-up. The gripping opening is just our entrée into the film, that will explain to us why the killers are here, who the Swede was and why he needs to die. It makes for a tight, atmospheric and very well-done film noir.

Because there is no doubt that this is a classic film noir. The Swede’s backstory ticks all the boxes you would expect of the genre. Of course, all his troubles are rooted in a Femme Fatale (needless to say his former girlfriend is a saint). There’s a heist gone wrong, double crossing gangsters, a dedicated investigator and a range of locations from seedy nightclubs to rundown hotel rooms. The Swede (Burt Lancaster) is an easily-led handsome man, duped by a beautiful woman. Of course, it all finally leads to a series of shoot-outs, where the wicked are punished for their crimes. In many ways, the script (by Anthony Veillor, heavily polished by John Huston) simply turns the short-story into a familiar piece of genre work. What makes it work is the freshness with which it’s told.

Siodmark is not the biggest name director out there. But he’s a skilled professional and he elevates the material into something with deeper meaning. Perhaps it’s the Hemingway in its DNA, but this story plays like a Greek Tragedy. Fate intervenes at frequent moments, with chance and minor decisions circling back to reveal all. The Swede is a sympathetic heavy, out-of-his-depth, with the fateful flaw of being too trusting. Even the villains are vulnerable figures, while the femme fatale is only doing what she must to try and survive. It’s a neat structure.

And Siodmark shoots it with a beautiful, unobtrusive and pacey smoothness. Nothing in the film draws overt attention to itself, but every moment beautifully combines with those around it to create an absorbing whole. The pace works perfectly, and the film’s structure works very well. Throwing us essentially into the middle of the story increases the mystery – and also means that as we hear the story of each person who knew The Swede, we are constantly invited to rethink and reappraise events and characters we have already met.

It’s a film about the lasting impact of disappointment and disillusionment. Why doesn’t the Swede run a mile when he hears there are killers after him? Because its clear he died inside years ago – the bullet is just a formality. There is a rather touching romanticism to this. This strangely gentle boxer turned thug, who is so smitten by Kitty Collins that he can’t take his eyes off her during their first meeting. Who willing serves jail time for the stolen necklace she’s wearing. Who trashes his hotel and nearly flings himself out of a window when she leaves him. This is a shell of a man. And its not just him. Most of the crooks live out lives of disappointment and fear, while even our investigator seems to have very little in his life beyond chasing down insurance claims. If there is a message in this film, it’s that life is tough.

A lot of that impact comes from the sad-sack vulnerability in Burt Lancaster’s eyes. In his film debut here, Lancaster is at times a little raw. But what he conveys fantastically is the sense of a little boy lost. The Swede always looks out of his depth, dragged from pillar to post by other people, constantly unable to control the situations he finds himself in.

No wonder he’s so easily suckered by Ava Gardner’s gloriously savvy and fiercely determined Kitty – the character with the most drive and determination in the film. She’s smart enough to fool all the characters at least once – and ruthless enough to not give a damn about any of them. Gardner’s performance is spot-on here, with Kitty emerging as possible the most ruthless femme fatale this side of Double Indemnity – with Lancaster as much her gullible patsy as Fred MacMurray was. Gardner’s icy cool is so well done, that it adds even more weight to her performance of a last act switch to desperation, as events finally spiral out of her control.

Carrying most of the narrative is Edmond O’Brien in the slightly thankless role of the investigator piecing it all together. O’Brien however plays the role with a real savvy and drive, as well as with a growing sense of moral outrage – making his role much more than what it could have been (a feed for other characters). The rest of the cast is also very strong.

The Killers isn’t overtly flashy or eye-catching in the way of other films. But it carries with it a large degree of intrigue and more than a dash of hopeless tragedy. With sharp, efficient direction and some fine performances, it’s possibly one of the finest film noirs ever made.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Midnight Special (2016)

Michael Shannon is the loyal dad in Midnight Special

Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon (Roy Tomlin), Joel Edgerton (Lucas), Kirsten Dunst (Sarah Tomlin), Adam Driver (Paul Sevier), Jaeden Lieberher (Alton), Sam Shepard (Pastor Calvin Meyer), Bill Camp (Doak), Scott Haze (Levi), Paul Sparks (Agent Miller)

At some point around its original release, someone attached the label “Spielberg-esque” to Midnight Special. I suppose this may be due to its father-son central relationship and its rough similarities to Close Encounters. But it’s a label that does the film no favours. JJ Abrahms would create a Spielberg-esque film, but Jeff Nichols? Pull the other one. Instead Jeff Nichols creates a sci-fi film that wilfully avoids explanations and turns its back as often as it can on any sentimentalism. It’s more like James Cameron crossed with existential philosophy. It certainly won’t be offering up easy entertainment.

Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) is on the run from the law with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), helped only by his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Alton has mysterious powers – glowing eyes, elements of telekinesis and the ability to intercept electrical signals – that have made him a target for everyone from the government to a cult that has kept him under lock and key for years, believing he holds the key to surviving the inevitable apocalypse. Alton has an aversion to sunlight which means our heroes can only travel at night, heading towards a secret location, trying to stay one step ahead of the dangerous figures following them.

Nichols film is almost too elliptical for its own good. But then I think this is partly Nicholls point. He’s looking to subvert a few expectations here. To create a sci-fi, other-world chase movie that’s wrapped itself up in enigmas. Sadly, I think to have enigmas like this become truly engaging, you need to form a connection with the film itself – and Midnight Special fails too much here.

It keeps its cards extremely close to its chest – it only begins to dive into any sort of explanation about what’s going on over halfway into the film, and even then this is kept vague and undefined. There is virtually no exploration given of most of the characters of their backstory, bar a few key points. It’s a chase movie which frequently slows down to a crawl. It’s a science fiction film that’s largely confined to the ‘real’ world. It’s a father-and-son on the run film, which separates these two characters for a large chunk of its runtime. All this makes it very difficult to form an emotional attachment with, in the way you do with, say, Close Encounters or The Terminator (both of which have traces in the film’s DNA).

Not that I think Nicholls will mind, as this is an attempt to do something different, more of an existential musing on humanity. Its unfortunate that this was exploration of personal regrets and tragedies against a backdrop of earth-shattering sci-fi revelations was done more absorbingly in Arrival among others. Compared to that, Nicholls film seems almost a little too pleased with its deep (and in the end slightly empty) mysteries and its opaque characters, many of them defined more by actions and plot functions rather than personality traits.

There’s strong work from Shannon as a father desperate to do the right thing and Lieberher as young boy who becomes calmer and more in control as the film progresses. But we never quite learn enough – or understand enough – about either of them to really invest in their fates.

And without that investment, its hard to worry in the same way about what might happen to them – or to really care about the revelations they are seeking to discover by the films conclusion. The film could counterbalance this if the ideas behind it were fascinating enough. But I am not sure they are. It touches upon questions of faith, parental love, destiny and human nature – but it studies them like they were under a microscope. Ideas are there to be excavated from it, but that doesn’t always make for great story-telling. Take the cult: there are fascinating ideas about the honesty (and pervasions) of faith, contrasting this perhaps with the overwhelming faith the father has in his son’s fate. The film introduces this – and then doesn’t really give it any depth.

It’s a problem all across the film. It’s partly a meditation on human progress and enlightenment – but the film never makes a compelling case or intellectual argument about it. Again there’s some great opportunities here, not least with Adam Driver’s fine performance as a sceptic turning believer – but it even that plotline eventually gets reduced to simply allowing someone to move from A to B for plot purposes. The film – for all the skill it’s made with and the obvious talent of Nicholls – is cold and distant.

And a cold and distant film is eventually going to get that reaction from a lot of its audience. Those who can see its merits, but never engage with it – or care about it – enough to really seek it out.

Nicholas and Alexandria (1971)

Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman bring the Romanovs to life in Nicholas and Alexandra

Director: Franklin J Schaffner
Cast: Michael Jayston (Nicholas II), Janet Suzman (Empress Alexandra), Harry Andrews (Grand Duke Nicholas), Tom Baker (Rasputin), Jack Hawkins (Count Vladimir), Ian Holm (Yakovlev), Curt Jurgens (Germany consul), John McEnery (Kerensky), Laurence Olivier (Count Witte), Eric Porter (Stolypin), Michael Redgrave (Sazonov), Irene Worth (Queen Marie Fedorovna), Roderic Noble (Prince Alexei), Ania Mason (Olga), Lynne Frederick (Tatiana), Candace Glendenning (Marie), Fiona Fullerton (Anastasia), Michael Bryant (Lenin), Brian Cox (Trotsky), Maurice Denham (Kokovtsov), Roy Dotrice (General Alexeiev), Julian Glover (Georgy Gapon), John Hallam (Nagorny), James Hazeldine (Stalin), Alexander Knox (US Ambassador), Vivian Pickles (Krupskaya), Diana Quick (Sonya), John Shrapnel (Petya), Timothy West (Dr Botkin), Alan Webb (Yurovsky), John Wood (Colonel Kobylinsky)

When I was growing up, Nicholas and Alexandra was a popular movies in our house. And, as a history buff, I can’t help but be sucked into it’s grand-scale epic scope (a cast of stars play out the beginnings of the Russian Revolution!). You can certainly look at Nicholas and Alexandra and see a film that at times is bloated and lacking flair. But as a representative of a particular type of genre, with grand scale production values covering decades of earth-shattering events in a three hours, it’s a thoughtful and at times even rather moving picture.

Nicholas II (Michael Jayston) is Tsar of all the Russias. With the film starting with his (typically) disastrous decision to fight the Japanese in 1905 (a war that literally sunk Russian naval dominance) we see a parade of misguided, poor and short-sighted-but-well-meaning decisions by Nicholas – encouraged by his strong-minded but politically naïve Tsarina Alexandra (Janet Suzman) – eventually lead to the First World War and a revolution that will overthrow him. On a personal level, the couple also deal with the heartbreaking haemophilia of their son Alexei (Roderic Noble) and Alexandra’s dependence on the destructive Rasputin (Tom Baker). As their lives go from supreme power to imprisonment and eventual murder, the film also covers a host of Russian politicians from statesmen to socialists, all of them wanting to build Russia in their own image.

Franklin J Schaffner’s epic sometimes gets a bit overwhelmed by its impressive reconstruction of Imperialist Russia – the set design and photography is wonderful and the film marshals the inevitable cast of thousands with skilful effect. What the film does very well is marry up the epic with the personal. Because this is both a chronicle of the reasons for the outbreak of the Russian revolution, but also a domestic tragedy of a royal family horrendously ill-suited to the high position birth has called them to.

The film’s vast scope does mean it has to make a frequent resort – particularly in its first half – of feted stage actors explaining events at each other. Particularly rushed are scenes featuring the socialist revolutionaries, where actors like Michael Bryant, Vivian Pickles and Brian Cox have to contend with bullet point dialogue and lines of the “Trotsky, let me introduce you to Stalin, he’s just back from Siberia” variety. Nicholas attends frequent meetings where the likes of Laurence Olivier, Eric Porter, Harry Andrews and Michael Redgrave carefully fill him in on what’s happened and the likely (invariably historically correct) outcomes. At times it does make the film a rushed pageant.


The film however makes it work by continually bringing itself back to the personal story of Nicholas and Alexandra themselves. The film is expertly carried by relative newcomers (at the time) Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman. Jayston – an astonishingly close physical match for Nicholas II – gives a perfectly judged characterisation of the Tsar. He’s a decent, well-meaning, dedicated and hard-working man who would make an excellent bank manager. As a supreme leader he’s a disaster – stubborn and so convinced that it is his holy duty to be father of the nation, while with a weary smile he short-sightedly vetoes any social or political progress what-so-ever. As one character tells him late in the film, he lacks any imagination: he can’t reinvent an absolute monarchy in the modern age, because it’s fundamentally beyond him to picture how anything can be done differently from hundreds of years of precedent.

Rational and calm he’s strangely almost more content out of power, focusing on his family and tending his garden. Not that his flaws depart – he remains an appalling short-sighted judge of character and situations to the very end (nearly every statement he makes is wrong). Jayston tackles a difficult role with ease and assurance – he carries most of the film and I think it’s only that Nicholas remains such a reactive character that Jayston doesn’t get more credit for his work here.

Much of the “nominations” attention went to Suzman, who has the more electric (but in some ways simpler role) as Alexandra. She brings to the marriage all the qualities Nicholas lacks – defiance, determination, ambition – and those are just as destructive. Just like her husband she’s stubborn and a terrible judge of people and situations, who clings loyally to terrible influences (like Rasputin) and puts her family and personal concerns above the preoccupations of the throne and the people. She’s prickly and harder to like than Nicholas (who she clearly dominates with her stronger personality) – but Suzman grounds her confrontationalism in a genuine love for her family.

The film’s second half, which largely focuses on the end of the regime and the last few months of the families lives being shuttled from one inhospitable safe house to another, makes a successful contrast with the grander scope of the first half. With the focus now more intently on the family themselves, particularly quietly contrasting their former supreme power with their new helplessness, it helps to bring out the heart. Schaffner’s film is very good at quietly building the dread as we head towards the inevitable end (the final few moments of the film are almost unbearably tense). In the whole family, only Prince Alexei seems able to comprehend that they are doomed. But removed from supreme power, Nicholas and Alexandra relax into what they would have been happier being: decent, kind, middle-class homebuilders.


Schaffner’s direction may not bring the burst of poetry that he managed with Patton – but he’s very good at building our empathy for these misguided and foolish autocrats. So much so, you’ll be screaming at Nicholas “Of course you should give the people a parliament!” while never actually hating him – because, stubborn and misguided as he is, he means well. However the film doesn’t let us forget what Nicholas is a figurehead of. Sequences demonstrating the sour, resentful poverty of most Russians are common – not just the 1905 march on the palace (that ends in a panicked officer ordering a massacre), but the grim faces of average Russians greeting the celebrations of the centenary of the Romanovs, while pissed aristocrats and Cossacks barrel about throwing empty of bottles of booze around. The tensions of Russia, and the inevitability of disaster, is never forgotten.

The all-star cast throws up several fine performances, backing the quietly assured leads. Olivier brings moral force as Count Witte – with an impassioned speech on the eve of the breakout of the first world war, all but breaking the fourth wall as the rest of the court continue their work around him. Hawkins demonstrates he has one of the most emotive faces in cinema as retainer Vladimir, while Andrews is bluff and loyal as Grand Duke “Nikolasha”. Irene Worth brings a sanctimonious pride to the Queen Mother’s talking truth to power.

There’s also some great work from less recognisable names. John McEnery (who should have become a bigger star) is fabulous as an impassioned Kerensky who finds himself stuck in the same mistakes as the Tsar. John Wood is very good as a Colonel feeling increasingly morally conflicted. Alan Webb is chillingly affable as their final warden. Later to take on the mantle of Doctor Who, Tom Baker gives Rasputin a mixture of restraint tinged with madness (as well as having the most prolonged death scene on film).

Nicholas and Alexandra is, in some ways, grandly old-fashioned. But it’s got a surprisingly strong heart and sense of empathy in it. It acknowledges the dreadful mistakes and stubborn lack of imagination of the Romanovs – and the many that their misguided principles led to poverty and death – but it also acknowledges both their well-meaning intentions as well as presenting their tragic ends. At times it’s a run-down of events of the final years of Tsarist Russia, but it also manages to tell an affecting family story of flawed people. It’s what makes it work.

Friday, 2 April 2021

Nashville (1975)

Robert Altman's sprawling classic takes on a whole city in the brilliant Nashville

Director: Robert Altman
Cast: David Arkin (Norman), Barbara Baxley (Lady Pearl), Ned Beatty (Del Reese), Karen Black (Connie White), Ronee Blakley (Barbara Jean), Timothy Brown (Tommy Brown), Keith Carradine (Tom Frank), Geraldine Chaplin (Opal), Robert Du Qui (Wade Cooley), Shelley Duvall (Martha), Allen Garfield (Barnett), Henry Gibson (Haven Hamilton), Scott Glenn (Pfc Kelly), Jeff Goldblum (Tricycle Man), Barbara Harris (Winifred), David Hayward (Kenny), Michael Murphy (John Triplette), Allan F. Nicholls (Bill), Dave Peel (Bud Hamilton), Cristina Raines (Mary), Bert Remsen (Star), Lily Tomlin (Linnea Reese), Gwen Welles (Sueleen Gay), Keenan Wynn (Mr Green)

Robert Altman’s magnum opus, Nashville has the city has its set and, seemingly, its entire population as the cast. Over the course of a few days, Nashville charts the interweaving lives of a host of people making (or trying to make) a living in the home of country and western and the hangers on and fans flocking around the edges. Meanwhile a presidential campaign plays out, trying to recruit stars as fund-raisers.

You could say that, on the surface, Nashville isn’t really about anything. Certainly, it’s plot (such as it is) is more based on observing our characters interacting with and responding to events. Wonderfully rich short stories overlap each other, the focus mothing smoothly from one and another. It’s not really grounded in an overarching plot, such as McCabe andMrs Miller or The Long Goodbye. In many ways its more similar to M*A*S*H, an experience piece trying to capture the thoughts and emotions of a particular moment of time. It’s that which I think is the heart of it. Nashville is about very little, but really it’s about everything – and it’s one of the most enlightening and vital studies of twentieth century America you are ever going to see. A rich and fascinating insight into a particular point in history, in a country rife with tensions.

You can’t escape that Nashville takes place in an America under the shadow of traumatic events. The 1970s (and the legacy of the 1960s) has pulled America further apart than ever. It’s a country struggling with a wave of assassinations, still deeply scared by the sacrifice of JFK (several characters, most notably Barbara Bexley’s permanently intoxicated Lady Pearl, reflect on the loss of innocence that came with it). Scott Glenn’s uniform clad army private is only the most visual reminder that the country is being ripped apart by Vietnam. Bubbling racial tensions are captured by short-order cook Wade (a lovely performance by Robert Du Qui) who angrily denounces black country singer Tommy Brown (a suave Timothy Brown) as an Uncle Tom.

Politically, America isn’t heading anywhere. The film is continuously framed by a car literally driving around in circles, blaring out meaningless platitudes straight from the lips of Hal Phillip Walker a third-party Presidential candidate who is against a lot of stuff (lawyers in congress and the Election College) but doesn’t seem to be ‘for’ anything. His smooth advance man John Triplette (Michael Murphy, quietly unimpressed by the music stars around him) drums up musicians to appear at a benefit – not one of whom even ask about the politics of the man they are being asked to endorse. Nashville isn’t a film that feels particularly enamoured either with politics or the level of our engagement with it.

Instead there is a new religion in town: fame. The musicians of Nashville at the time were unhappy with the film, feeling that Altman planned an attack on their industry. Altman is, of course, smarter than this. Of course, there are some satirical blows landed – but the film has respect and admiration for artists with genuine talent. Its real criticism is for fakes and poseurs (of which more later). But for the talents at the centre, sure they are flawed – but there is a respect for their skills and genuineness that keeps the film relatable. (Altman would be far more vicious when he turned his eyes to Hollywood with The Player).


The artists at its heart are flawed but human. Haven Hamilton (a grandiose Henry Gibson) may be a blow-hard reactionary, but his patriotic pride and sense of personal responsibility is genuine (late in the film he will ignore a serious injury to show concern for others). At the film’s centre is fragile super-star Barbara Jean (a delicate Ronee Blakely), the beloved super-star teetering on the edge of a dangerous breakdown, overwhelmed with the pressures of fame and expectation. A lonely person, reduced to trying to communicate her unease to her audiences in rambling monologues. Looking for a human connection she’s unable to make elsewhere (this makes for a neat contrast with her rival, Karen Black’s bubbly but coolly distant Connie White who knows where to draw the line between public and private).

This humanity also makes for intriguing personal dilemmas. Singing trio Tom (a swaggering Keith Carradine), Bill (a frustrated Allan F Nicholls) and Mary (a saddened Cristina Raines) are in the middle of a love triangle (caused by Mary’s love for Tom, who loves the attention but doesn’t return the favour). Made more tense by Tom’s desire to go solo, the couple’s tensions are never firmly resolved – part of Altman’s avoiding of neat endings. Tom himself, in many ways a shallow lothario, is also shown to be feeling the same loneliness and emptiness as others.

It’s interesting that the film’s warmest character, Lily Tomlin’s Linnea, lies half-way between the world of the music and the world of normal life. A dedicated performer of gospel with an all-Black choir, Linnea also works tirelessly at home to support her two death children (who attract very little interest from their father, would-be fixer Ned Beatty). Linnea though is never portrayed as someone trapped in her life, in the way others are, but in complete acceptance – and even contentment – with her lot. Similar to Keenan Wynn’s grieving husband, desperate for his niece to engage with her aunt’s illness, the film’s real warmth is for those people grounded in real-life worries.

The film’s real fire is saved for the shallow wannabes that flock around the edges. The music stars may be flawed but they have talent (as witnessed by the film showcasing almost an hour of musical performance in its runtime – all the songs written and performed by the stars). Shelley Duvall’s would-be groupee is hilariously empty-headed and selfish. Ned Beatty’s greasy-pole climbing political animal is ridiculously pompous. At the top of the pie is Geraldine Chaplin’s reporter, an empty headed fame obsessive, hilariously fawning to the rich and famous and abrupt and rude to ‘the staff’, pontificating emptily in a car junkyard. Is she even a real reporter or just a fantasist?


Altman’s film also finds time for two very different women trying to find fame in this heartland of country and western. Sueleen Gray (Gwen Welles) is a waitress carefully cultivating all the patter of a star, but lacking the key attribute – talent. So desperate is she to ‘make it’ that she is willing to be exploited for a big chance, with only Wade having the decency to tell her she should cut her losses (advice she bats away in anger). By contrast, Barbara Harris’ Albuquerque, running from her husband to find fame, as the talent but never gets the opportunities – until of course at the very end (and it’s the result of the tragic fate of another woman whose doomed fate hangs over the film).

Nashville is a rich character study, but all these characters link back into an America at a turning point in its cultural history. Detached and disillusioned with politics, this is a country that is starting to see fame – and the indulgence of your own passions and desires – as the new religion. A religion that attracts both wannabes and also stalkers and dangerous obsessives (at least two of whom populate the film, one with fatal consequences). In this world, as idealism dies and is replaced by cynicism, people start to check out and either engage more with their own problems or yearn to change their lives and become something else. Altman’s film captures this moment in time personally, as well as being a compelling melting pot of stories. A rich, multi-layered tapestry – of which a review can only scratch the surface – it’s a great film.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

Just when you thought is was safe to go back into the Deep Blue Sea


Director: Renny Harlin
Cast: Saffron Burrows (Dr Susan McCallister), Thomas Jane (Carter Blake), Samuel L. Jackson (Russell Franklin), LL Cool J (Sherman “Preacher” Dudley), Jacqueline McKenzie (Janice Higgins), Michael Rapaport (Tom Scoggins), Stellan Skarsgård (Dr Jim Whitlock), Aida Turturro (Brenda Kerns)

What would be your first idea for curing Alzheimers? Yup that’s right, you’d experiment on sharks brains: and to make those experiments even more effective you’d want the sharks to have really big brains. So, if you’re going to make them super-intelligent, you might as well make them super big, super ruthless with massive teeth. It’s just common sense. After all, they can never escape from your isolated sea laboratory could they? And even if they did, how much of a threat could they be?

Harlin’s film embraces its ludicrous set-up and B-movie nonsense from the start. Dedicated (and more than a little ruthless herself) scientist Dr Susan McCallister (Saffron Burrows) has bred these sharks to help with her obsessive dreams of curing Alzheimers. With millionaire funder Russell Franklin (Samuel L Jackson) flying into spend the weekend at the lab – with a skeleton crew on board – of course its time to run the final test. Can shark wrangler Carter Blake (Thomas Jane) help lead everyone to safety? Well no not everyone… it’s a monster flick after all.

There isn’t anything particularly surprising in Deep Blue Sea – other than one genuinely well-done shock death, which defies your expectations of which characters are the most important – but there are some decent jumps. Some nice little moments of action. A few good gags as sharks prowl through the base picking off the expected victims, while other characters use their wits and a bit of luck to take out the toothy opponents (even an oven gets employed as a weapon). But it’s quite predictable. And I predict that, if you are in the right mood, you might enjoy it.

The dialogue is unimaginative. Most of the acting is pretty wooden (Skarsgård in particular looks like a man yawning his way to a pay cheque) and the characters have clearly been scribbled on post-it notes. Harlin’s direction has a few playful moments, but there’s nothing special about it. You could pretty much predict where the film is going to go – and have a bit of fun spotting its various influences. But I think the film knows you are going to laugh at it. After all, mega sharks? Come on!

At the centre of this is the chemistry free line-up of Burrows and Jane. I feel a bit sorry for Burrows here. Her character is written as an all-consuming obsessive – she also is responsible for everything that happens – and, partly thanks to Burrows barely-concealed disdain for the whole thing, she never comes across as sufficiently guilty or apologetic. Test audiences watching the film reacted so negatively to the character – and you can’t blame them – that Harlin recut the film to make her more of the villain (not quite as much as the sharks, but up there).

A ‘romance’ with Jane hit the cutting room floor – although there are still several scenes where its DNA is readily apparent – just as well really as the actors are chemistry free. Jane in fact has more chemistry with LL Cool J (easily the films MVP as a charmingly offbeat, born-again cook) and the film works best when this bromance is at the fore.

Oh that, and when the sharks at the heart of it. The characters are so non-descript their fates will largely provoke laughter, but as a piece of popcorn rubbish Deep Blue Sea could be a lot worse. Sure it’s got no originality or real expertise about it all, with everyone chucking one in for the money, but its good fun. After all, who doesn’t love a vengeful super-smart shark eh?

Friday, 26 March 2021

Judas and the Black Messiah (2020)

Daniel Kaluuya excels as the betrayed Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah

Director: Shaka King
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield (Bill O’Neal), Daniel Kaluuya (Fred Hampton), Jesse Plemons (Agent Roy Mitchell), Dominque Fishback (Deborah Johnson), Ashton Saunders (Jimmy Palmer), Algee Smith (Jake Winters), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Bobby Rush), Lil Rel Howery (Judy Harmon), Martin Sheen (J. Edgar Hoover), Amari Cheatom (Rod Collins), Jermaine Fowler (Mark Clark)

In the 1960s, America was in violent turmoil. Simmering racial tensions were exploding, as a younger, politically engaged generation refused to accept the status quo of the past. Facing them was a reactionary, institutionally racist law and order system, determined to take any steps necessary to stop them. Violence was inevitable and the anger and resentments of that time still carry a powerful legacy today. It’s these emotions that Judas and the Black Messiah engages with. Impassioned and ambitious film-making, it often tries to do too much but still leaves a powerful impression.

In Chicago in 1968, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is a car thief and conman, who uses a faked FBI badge to steal cars. Arrested (and beaten), he is given a choice by FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) – serve time for his offences or turn informant for the FBI. O’Neal is ordered to join the Black Panther Party – and to get as close as he can to the charismatic leader of the Illinois chapter, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Hampton is radical, but also a visionary leader who is attempting to build a “rainbow coalition” that will unite black, Puerto Rican and white working classes to campaign on a wide range of social issues, from race to healthcare and education: a vision the FBI sees as a nightmare. O’Neal’s information is used to help frame Hampton, as events build inexorably towards his permanent removal.

Judas and the Black Messiah is dynamic and electric film-making. Shaka King’s film hums with righteous fury at the hypocrisy, racism and violence of the law enforcement agencies towards the Chicago black community (effectively the police are an occupying force, perpetrating violence and injustice). While not shying away from the violent response from many of the Black Panthers – including showing one white police officer executed while begging for his life – it paints an unsparing picture of the racism and cruelty of the Chicago police. Innocent black people are bludgeoned and abused. Those in the Black Panthers are framed for crimes, brutalised in prison and murdered in police custody. The outrage and fury of the film is both justified and affecting.

Simultaneously there is a powerful sense of grief at the loss of a golden opportunity – and the inspiration of a visionary leader, who could have grown to become a key figure in American history. King’s film explores the all-too-short life of Hampton before his murder. It delicately paints his charisma but also carefully establishes his vision. His recognition that social, educational and medical improvements are at least as important to ordinary black people as political rights. His attempt to build a coalition of the downtrodden, white and black. His status as the only man who could unite this coalition. His loss an incalculable tragedy for his cause and also for America.

This powerful picture is further framed by Kaluuya’s marvellous performance as Hampton. Kaluuya perfectly captures the charisma and electricity of Hampton’s public speaking, his ability to marshal words and move crowds. With a bulked-up physicality and head-cocking defiance, he wonderfully conveys Hampton’s ability to persuade and inspire, his lack of fear and passion to see justice done. But Kaluuya also makes him wonderfully human. In intimate moments with his girlfriend Deborah (very well played by Dominique Fishback), Kaluuya makes Hampton gentle, shy, even a little nervous – giving him a very real emotional hinterland that sits naturally alongside (and contrasts with) his activist public persona. This is a stunningly good performance.

It also, perhaps, unbalances the film slightly. King’s film is ambitious – but it is attempting to do too much within its two-hour runtime. This is a film that wants to explore the corruption of the law forces, the terrible plight of black Americans, the life of Fred Hampton and the story of his betrayer Bill O’Neal. It’s this final story that actually ends up feeling the least defined – and least engaging – of the film’s plot threads (unfortunate as it’s the one that gives the film its title).

None of this is the fault of Lakeith Stanfield, who gives a marvellous performance of weakness, fear, self-preservation and regretful self-loathing as O’Neal. But his relationship with Hampton never feels close or personal enough. In fact, the two of them feel very distanced from each other. The sense of the personal in the betrayal is lost. The idea of O’Neal struggling between loyalty to Hampton and his FBI handler Mitchell (who encourages O’Neal to see him as a sort of surrogate father) is weak, because we never get a real sense of a very personal link between O’Neal and Hampton, or a real sense that O’Neal is deeply conflicted about his betrayal. (Indeed, the film is reduced to explicitly telling us that O’Neal is struggling between betraying the Black Panthers and a true belief in their cause, which feels like a failure of narrative.)

Fundamentally, you could split the film into two movies. One which focuses on Hampton and in which O’Neal is little more than an extra. And another that zeroes in on O’Neal’s struggle with the FBI and fears of being caught, in which Hampton is a distant, inspirational figure. What King’s film fails to do is effectively is bring these two characters together properly. The personal nature of the relationship (and the betrayal) is lost. This isn’t Jesus betrayed by one of his disciples – more like Jesus being cashed in by someone at the temple. It’s a loss to the film.

It feels at times as if O’Neal was the original “hook” but that King became more interested – perhaps rightly – in Hampton and the tensions in Chicago (and America more widely) at the time. Similarly, the film is fascinated by the corruption of the FBI – Martin Sheen makes a chilling, latex covered, appearance as Hoover – and by questions over how far Mitchell (Plemons, decent bur fatally compromised), a relative liberal, is willing to go. In both plot lines, O’Neal is an entry point but becomes less and less the focus. It partly explains perhaps why Stanfield – clearly the “lead” – ended up joining Kaluuya in the supporting actor category at the Oscars. He may well be the lead but his story is the least compelling of the several threads here.

Judas and the Black Messiah is still hugely effective in many places. Its main weakness is in trying to juggle these various plot threads, and not always succeeding in bringing them together as well as it should. Because the O’Neal plot line needs to take up a good share of the run time – but is the thread the film seems least interested in – it does mean some of these scenes drag more than they should, making the film at times seem longer than it should. You can’t help but a feel a film that focused on Hampton alone would have been stronger. King’s film still makes powerful points – but its ideas are sometimes blunted and crowded out by its attempt to cover so much. Impassioned and ambitious, it doesn’t always completely succeed.