Monday, 26 July 2021

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Charlton Heston and James Stewart in the infamous The Greatest Show on Earth

Director: Cecil B De Mille
Cast: Betty Hutton (Holly), Cornel Wilde (The Great Sebastian), Charlton Heston (Brad Braden), James Stewart (Buttons), Dorothy Lamour (Phyllis), Gloria Grahame (Angel), Henry Wilcoxon (Agent Gregory), Lawrence Tierney (Henderson), Lyle Bettiger (Klaus)

When Crash was named Best Picture, did The Greatest Show on Earth do a backflip of celebration? Finally, when the topic “What is the worst Best Picture winner of all time?” came up, the answer would no longer immediately be “Well The Greatest Show on Earth of course”. Now, there could be an actual debate. Hard to believe but this film was the biggest hit of 1952. Its reputation has been shredded since: it’s proof that winning Best Picture can destroy a film’s reputation as much as it can raise it. Greatest Show is, of course, a pretty bad film. But it’s not catastrophically atrocious. It’s merely pretty bloody awful.

Anyway, it’s all set in a Ringwood circus. Manager Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) is so in love with the circus, he has “sawdust in his blood” (drink every time some variation of this phrase comes up, and you’ll be pissed by the hour mark – which might be the best way to watch the rest). To bring in the crowds he hires famed acrobat The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) – which means shunting previous acrobat star (and Brad’s girlfriend) Holly (Betty Hutton) to support act. It’s a rivalry – but wouldn’t you know it, sparks fly and a love triangle forms. In fact, it quickly becomes a love pentagon as elephant artiste Angel (Gloria Grahame) has past with Sebastian, is in love with Brad (who’s interested) and is fending off the interests of fellow elephant artiste Klaus (Lyle Bettiger). Oh, and James Stewart plays a clown who never removes his make-up because he is actually a doctor in hiding for euthanising his wife (“He killed the thing he loved!” a newspaper headline screams).

All this is packaged together with the puffed-up self-important portentousness that DeMille bought to his Biblical epics. Cecil himself even delivers a grand voiceover at life-changing events like the raising of the big top and the loading of a train. It’s packaged together with endless stagings of assorted circus acts (this film is very slim in plot, but very long in runtime), all accompanied by continual cuts to the circus audience “oohing” and “aahing” as appropriate, or asking such inane questions as “What’s going to happen next?” (a question no one watching the film is likely to be interested in asking). It makes The Greatest Show even more of a museum piece, a recording of a certain type of grand entertainment that doesn’t really exist anymore.

Away from the big budget and long filming of circus acts, we have a dull, derivative and tedious soapy plotline where ridiculous cliches abound and barely a line of dialogue escapes clunking to the floor with the same heaviness as the Great Sebastian when he (inevitably) falls from the trapeze. No single opportunity for heavy-handed foreshadowing is missed, from that accident to the film’s big train-wreck ending, to the numerous hints dropped about Buttons’ tragic background. It’s all packed into a crude series of homages to the glories of small town America (who appreciate the delights of the circus in the way the big city suits never can) and the glorious romance of not even letting death and a train wreck get in the way of the show going on.

At the centre you get the tedious love pentagon. The central figures of this – Hutton, Heston and Wilde – seem to be involved in a private competition for who can give the worst performance. Heston (in a very early role) is wooden beyond belief, the granite self-importance that made him a perfect Moses ridiculously overbearing for the job of circus manager. He and Hutton play most of their scenes with an absurd energy, throwing themselves into poses. Hutton’s performance is bubbly, chirpy and endlessly irritating. Betty is the worst kind of simpering mess, which culminates in her holding herself responsible for Sebastian’s decision to perform without a net. Wilde is saddled with a bizarre accent (where is he meant to be from? I guess “Europe”), and acts with all the comfort and skill of a vertigo-suffering acrobat.

But then to be honest pretty much everyone in this film is awful. I’ll cut a bit of slack for Gloria Grahame, who gives Angel more charm than all three of the leads put together, and James Stewart who can play the melodramatic crap he’s saddled with standing on his head. But literally everyone else in this film is dire: hammy, over-blown, cartoonish and mugging. There is not a single moment of performance or story-telling that is remotely memorable, and everyone is introduced with a clunky, trailer-friendly line of dialogue.

Nothing will remotely surprise you about the plotline – other than that they manage to stretch something as insipid and uninspired as this out for nearly 150 minutes. Though of course most of that is circus acts, or watching circus marches, or listening to Betty Hutton or Dorothy Lamour sing. (In what passes for wit in the film, while Lamour sings the camera cuts to Crosby and Hope, her old co-stars, watching in the stands hammily chewing popcorn.) There is a certain academic interest in watching these circus acts (performed by real circus artistes – although the actors trained so they could get involved), but after a while you are only reminded that it’s not as interesting or exciting as actually being there.

Maybe that’s why the plot becomes so overblown to try and compensate. Love triangles! Falls from a great height! Gangsters muscling in on the circus! A clown on the run from the cops, meeting his mother during the show once every year! A spurned lover who decides to destroy the circus in revenge! No wonder, after the opening scenes focus on the cost of staging the show and importance of staying in profit to continue the tour, our initial set-up, never gets mentioned again. How could it compete with this bizarre parade of nonsense?

It culminates in a train wreck – and of course Buttons is given “the terrible choice” of letting a man die or revealing his medical knowledge (and identity) to save his life. The train wreck has some decent model work. DeMille certainly looks happier dealing with that than attempting to make anything among his romantic sub-plots feel light, fun or natural.

The Greatest Show on Earth is all about show – and whenever it tries to do anything intimate, it invariably falls flat on its face. There are worse films out there, but attaching the mantle of “Best Picture” to this makes it feel worse than it actually is – and its pretty bad on its own merits. When all is said and done, still possibly the worst Best Picture winner ever.

Friday, 23 July 2021

American Beauty (1999)

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening excel in the dated Best Picture winner American Beauty

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Kevin Spacey (Lester Burnham), Annette Bening (Carolyn Burnham), Chris Cooper (Colonel Frank Fitts), Thora Birch (Jane Burnham), Wes Bentley (Ricky Fitts), Mena Suvari (Angela Hayes), Peter Gallagher (Buddy Kane), Allison Janney (Barbara Fitts)

Time has not been kind to American Beauty – and I’m not just talking about Kevin Spacey. In 1999, what felt like a timely exploration of male-angst has, over time, looked less prescient and more like the last embers of a generation that thought they were The Graduate’s Benjamin but actually became his parents. Many of the sympathies of American Beauty now feel dated and slightly misguided, or obscure some genuine reflections on its characters. Its satire of consumerism feels trapped in the 90s. But it’s also very skilfully made, often funny, beautifully shot and you can see why it seemed like the next landmark masterpiece of American cinema, an Apartment for the modern age.

In suburbia, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a middle-aged, middle-ranking magazine executive, tired of his life, unhappy in his marriage to Carolyn (Annette Bening), a fiercely ambitious real estate agent, and drifting away from daughter Jane (Thora Birch). He is snapped out of his ennui by his infatuation with Jane’s friend and fellow-cheerleader Angela (Mena Suvari). Next thing we know, Lester realises he hates his life, quits his job (blackmailing his boss on the way), buys the car of his dreams and takes a job flipping burgers – to the bewildered frustration of Carolyn, who starts an affair. Meanwhile Jane becomes intrigued by Ricky (Wes Bentley), the film-obsessed and drug-dealing son of their next-door neighbour, homophobic army colonel Frank (Chris Cooper). Oh, and it’s all narrated from beyond the grave by Lester – so we know it won’t end well.

“There is nothing worse than being ordinary” says Ricky at one point. It’s an attitude that underlies the film. American Beauty has that very showbiz attitude that the lives most ordinary people lead must be rather shallow and empty. That there can be no meaning in the life of suburbia, family and 9-to-5 that so many of us lead. A sharper film would have added depth and contrast to this – but American Beauty is a film that, for all its quality, is also very pleased with itself.

American Beauty’s debt to Billy Wilder is central to its DNA. It plays often as a mix of The Apartment and Sunset Boulevard, with Spacey skilfully channelling a twist of Lemmon as Burnham. Saying that, I can’t believe Wilder would have been as easy on Lester as Ball and Mendes are. Surely Wilder would have seen through the self-serving selfishness and sad delusion that underlie Burnham’s mid-life crisis, fuelled by his fears of emasculation.

It’s that fear running through American Beauty and – for all it looks at first like a satire on suburbia – what came out to me on rewatching is that parallel narrative of two men suffering familiar masculine crises. Burnham, the office drone, ignored at work, playing second fiddle to his wife at home. He doesn’t wear the pants anywhere – his wife chooses the music they listen to, the events they go to, she doesn’t even let him drive the car. Teenage dreams of rebelling disappeared. He’s forgotten what it feels like to be a man. Then there’s Colonel Fitts, the man’s man struggling with self-loathing due to his deeply repressed homosexuality. These are fairly conventional stories.

Lester’s story takes centre stage (even the name Lester Burnham is wimpy). Outstandingly played by Kevin Spacey, who was never better or more humane, Burnham is endearing, rather sweet, clutzy but still has that sharp-tongued Spacey sense of wit. The opening sequences perfectly capture Burnham’s Jack-Lemmonish awkwardness, repression, inadequacy and depression. But  if anything, Spacey is almost too sympathetic in the role, masking the selfishness and self-serving nature of Burnham’s mid-life crisis (which is what it is), urging us to celebrate his rules-bucking independence.  The film never gets to grips with the spark for all this being a sexual obsession with a teenage girl.

American Beauty never questions the sleazy corruption of Lester’s fantasy – and is perfectly happy with using his crush as a positive motivation for getting his mojo back, as well as frequently presenting Angela as a Lolita-esque fantasy. He holds back from sex with her when she confesses she is a virgin – but the film offers no “what am I doing” epiphany from Lester (or a realisation that he is about to sleep with someone literally young enough to be his daughter), instead turning this exploitative moment into an expression of some decency in Lester. Sure, it’s great that Lester realises his responsibilities eventually – but even in 1999, we all knew it was wrong for middle aged men to sleep with impressionable school-children.

The fact is that Election, released the year before, had more to say about exactly the sort of underperforming, thinks-of-himself-as-a-failure resentment of men of Burnham’s ilk – the difference being that Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister in that film is exposed as a bitter self-serving fantasist, which is what Burnham really is. Burnham’s dying moments may be full of reflections on his wife and daughter – but he ignores them or treats them with scorn throughout the film.

And there isn’t, I feel, a satirical note to this. Instead, the film roots for Burnham strongly, asking us to admire his late life rebellion. Maybe it’s the conservative in me – maybe it’s because I don’t much like The Graduate either – but I don’t feel it. Spacey is great – but Burnham is selfish and embodies a concern in certain men that career-minded women and suburbia were turning them from hunter-gatherers into hen-pecked losers. American Beauty is a direct development of the masculinity crisis films Michael Douglas specialised in throughout the 80s and 90s, of men lost in a world that isn’t 100% about them and what they want any more.

The film’s parallel plot of Fitt’s homosexuality crisis is even more familiar than Burnham’s and hits many expected bases – there are no real surprises here for anyone who has ever seen a film before. It largely works as it is so outstandingly sold by Chris Cooper, who gives a brilliantly rich and raw performance as Fitts.

But its faint whiff of predictability fits alongside a script that is often very rich on dialogue, but has a vein of pretention to it that makes the film feel it’s striving to be important. Ball’s dialogue too often undermines its own points with the stench of pretension. The teenagers in the film fall into broadly predictable cliché. The arty, dreamy ones are profound; the pretty one is shallow and flighty (although, to be fair, is shown to also be vulnerable and scared). Bentley’s character’s faux-artiste musings on the movements of a plastic bag are exactly the sort of pretentious ramblings Ball would later puncture so effectively with the college art classes in Six Feet Under. These scenes have dated terribly and ache with self-importance (and are ripe for parody).

But there is quality here, don’t get me wrong. Spacey is superb, Cooper brilliant. Annette Bening is pitch-perfect as a career-focused woman who lives her life through self-help mantras but is only just holding it together. It’s a shame that, just like Mrs Robinson, the film is so full of sympathy for its male protagonist that it has no time to empathise fully with its female lead.  Mendes directs with a stunning confidence for a first-timer, drawing brilliant performances from the actors as well as bringing a startling originality to the filming (in partnership with Conrad Hall as photographer).

But American Beauty never turns its “look closer” message on itself. It uncritically examines a particular masculine crisis and often makes points that are witty but simple. The final act becomes weighted down with a tiresome “whodunnit?” mystery. The acting, direction and much of the writing is frequently brilliant. But the film itself, as a whole, has not aged as well as we thought it might.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Doubt (2008)

Amy Adams and Meryl Streep wrestle with certainty and Doubt

Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Meryl Streep (Sister Aloysius Beauvier), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Father Brendan Flynn), Amy Adams (Sister James), Viola Davis (Mrs Miller), Joseph Foster (Donald Miller)

It’s 1964 in a Bronx Catholic School, run with an iron hand by Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). This arch-conservative is in the middle of an unspoken struggle with progressive reformer priest Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who doesn’t feel Catholicism has to be stern, unyielding and guilt-inducing. These tensions underlie Sister Aloysius’ concerns about Father Flynn’s closeness to the boys – in particular the school’s only black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). When young and naïve Sister James (Amy Adams) reports that Donald returned from a meeting with Father Flynn with alcohol on his breath, Sister Aloysius is convinced Flynn is guilty of sexual misdemeanours – and makes it her mission to remove him from the school.

Adapted from a Tony-Award winning play, and directed by its author John Patrick Shanley, Doubt is an intense, well-staged, subtle opening-out of a four-hander, that works on screen due to Shanley’s flexibility with the material and the wonderful performances from the four principals. The story serves as a parable of sorts for clerical sex scandals, but ties this smartly into questions of faith and the limits of belief.

Because there are no clear answers in the film (or the play). We never know with cast-iron certainty if Father Flynn is guilty or not. All we have are his passionate denials, Sister Aloysius’ equally passionate certainty of his guilt, and a few moments we witness of his interaction with Donald Miller and the other students that are left open to interpretation. Tied into this as well, we have a very clear clash between modernisers and conservatives within the church – and we worry that, in being drawn towards the more sympathetic Flynn, we are in fact rooting for a sex-offender.

Doubt is a film that is likely to keep you questioning who you believe. I even found that repeat viewings can change your perspective on guilt or innocence – this time I was far more alarmed by Hoffman’s genial Father Flynn than I remembered (a lecture on clean nails he gives to the boys walks a wonderful line between hygiene and unsettling creep). Shanley’s expansion gives us more scenes of Flynn interacting with other priests. It’s clear the priesthood is a boisterous boys club, with jokes and drinking – much more fun than the staid, milk-drinking silence of the nuns’ meals – but this is also the clubbish pact of secrecy that let real-life paedophiles be quietly moved from parish to parish.

Sister Aloysius may be practically a poster-child for why people find religion off-putting, but she’s absolutely on-the-money in her determination to root out abuse. Yet while her determination to rid the church of abusers is genuine, does she really believe in Flynn’s guilt, or is it a prop she reaches for to justify her own dislike of him and his beliefs about the church? We’re never certain.

And that is part of the smartness of Shanley’s work. Because in the end all we have to go on is faith and our own belief. Which is pretty much like the whole of religion itself. There is enough in the film to convince you of the guilt or innocence of Flynn, the upright justice or corrupt selfishness of Aloysius. Their approaches to religion are radically different – Flynn sees it as their duty to be open and involve the community, to integrate their interests; to Aloysius the church only works if it is strict, austere and sets a moral example to all. A meeting between the two of them is a masterclass in micro-aggressions over everything from choice of chairs, pouring of tea, serving of sugar, closing blinds, you name it.

This is the trace of theatre in the piece – and theatre is when it is at is strongest. Shanley’s direction is largely unfussy, although he is prone to overuse Dutch angles to hammer home the uncertainty and to overplay a metaphor of the wind (a storm is coming you know!). But when he avoids too much fuss, the film is very effective. The opening up of the play works very well, with most of the additional characters (be they added nuns, parishioners or children in the school) largely used as silent extras that help to create a wider world as well as adding more reaction shots that help us build up even more our questions and doubts about the versions of a story we are hearing..

And the added question over this is the identity of the victim. As the only black child in the school, does his dependence on Flynn come from Donald’s sense of isolation? Is he vulnerable because of bullying and simply in need of the genuine kindness of a substitute father figure, in place of the bullying and violent father he actually has? Or does this isolation make him the perfect target for a predator? Most daringly, Foster’s mother (brilliantly played by Viola Davis in a single extended scene) when confronted with the possibility of abuse by Sister Aloysius even suggests that abuse might be price worth paying for the opportunities being at the school will give her son, the sort of opportunities his parents never dreamed of. Race is a low-key note, but it’s there.

Doubt’s real strengths are in the acting. All four of the principals were Oscar-nominated. Streep was the obvious choice as Sister Aloysius and she delivers one of her finest performances. Aloysius is stern, unbending, dangerously, even recklessly certain of herself and her faith in herself as a force of justice – but believes she is acting for the best motives (or at least is very vocal that she is, rather that is actually true is a whole other question). Streep adds wit (this is after all a woman who views ballpoint pens as the end of civilisation), but also understanding of the vulnerabilities under Aloysius’ rigid conservatism. It’s an outstanding performance.

Amy Adams is charmingly sweet and endearing as a woman caught between two poles, naturally inclined to Flynn’s liberalism and desire to win hearts as well as minds – but also open to using Aloysius’s tactics in the classroom in her struggle to maintain order. Sharply divided, Adams leaves it open whether her desire to see the best in people make her either saint-like or a rube. Hoffman walks an extraordinarily difficult tight-rope as a character both engagingly warm but also (by necessity) unknowable and unreadable. It’s a performance bursting with emotion, but which skilfully disguises that emotion’s motivations. Davis offers a master-class of restrained anxiety, using every ounce of control to keep her difficult life together.

Doubt is a thought-provoking and well-handled staging of a very-good play. Brilliantly acted, it expands the staging of the play but never loses sight of what makes it effective to start with: and will leave you thinking over small moments and as uncertain about truth and prejudice as Sister Aloysius is at its conclusion.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor make a love story for the ages in Luhrmann's electric Moulin Rouge!

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Cast: Nicole Kidman (Satine), Ewan McGregor (Christian), Jim Broadbent (Harold Zidler), Richard Roxburgh (Duke of Monroth), John Leguizamo (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), Jacek Koman (The Unconscious Argentinian), Caroline O’Connor (Nini), Kerry Walker (Marie), David Wenham (Audrey)

It’s 20 years old now and I still don’t think there has been anything quite like Moulin Rouge! Believe me it’s not for want of trying. Baz Luhrmann’s hugely inventive, uniquely stylistic musical is cinematic marmite: either loved or reviled (not sure I’ve ever met anyone who had a meh attitude to it). One of the pioneering inventors of the juke-box musical, Moulin Rouge! mixes pop songs with inspiration from opera to Greek myth and comes up with something Spectacular, Spectacular.

It’s the turn of the century, and Christian (Ewan McGregor) arrives in Paris looking for truth, inspiration and above all: love. Arriving at Montmartre, he and courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) fall in love. Satine is the star at Harold Zidler’s (Jim Broadbent) Moulin Rouge and also the star of Zidler’s planned stage show. She has been promised to his wealthy backer the Duke (Richard Roxburgh). With Christian commissioned to write the script, can he and Satine hide their love from the Duke and make sure the Show Goes On? Or will tragedy strike?

Fast paced and electric, Moulin Rouge! could inspire motion sickness, especially in its opening 15 minutes which throw us deep into its unconventional medley of styles, tones and inspirations. Did that first 15 minutes lose a lot of people? You can imagine it as the earliest scenes featuring Christian’s meeting with Toulouse-Lautrec and the other Bohemians are by far its weakest. If your irritation grows at these shrill scenes (crudely over-acted with an overbearing Keaton-ish energy), I can well imagine thousands of viewers checked out in Luhrmann’s music inspired Moulin Rouge can-can musical with its explosion of rap, Nirvana, Lady Marmalade and insanely quick cutting. It’s a statement opening – and throws you straight into its heightened reality. A tone that continues for much of the opening 40 minutes.

Luhrmann leaves nothing in the locker room here. Only a director of such exuberance, playfulness – but also deep skill and understanding of high and low culture – could have balanced it as well as he does. Go with it and you’ll love it. It’s pure operatic entertainment. Luhrmann’s master-stroke is to shoot a period musical in the style of the high-velocity music-video pop that excited people in 2001 – finally you get a sense of why the Moulin Rouge and can-can seemed so exciting and sexy back then. It’s a night-club of 1999, thrown into 1899.

But what makes the film work after that initial explosion of energy – and I’ll agree that the first 15 minutes tries too hard to grab your attention – is that Luhrmann mixes the styles up so effectively. There is everything here, from Busby Berkeley numbers to heartfelt love ballads to dreamy duets to a sexual tango to a classic theatrical set-piece, tinged with a spot of tragedy. Every musical number seems inspired by a different genre and style of musical theatre. And the use of modern pop music is fun, entertaining and mines the emotional connection we all feel for the best pop songs.

It’s an MTV pop musical, mixed with Gene Kelly, lashes of camp, cheeky humour and finally tragedy and suffering. It’s got a million cuts in it, but Luhrmann successfully makes the film darker, slower and more intimate as the film progresses. From the electric dynamism of the opening, this becomes an increasingly personal tragedy revolving around five key characters. It never loses that sense of showmanship – Zidler’s planned production is an overblown Bollywood inspired extravaganza that delights in recreating the joy and brashness of that genre – but the final hour is a more adult, foreboding movie with plenty of heart.

Moulin Rouge! is all about Luhrmann’s gadfly brilliance to discover inspiration from a host of sources, pulling it together into something brilliantly original, from the plot – which is inspired by La Boheme by way of Orpheus and Eurydice – to brilliant montage songs like the Elephant Love Song Medley, which takes snippets from nearly every popular love song you’ve ever heard. Very few films can switch so effortlessly from cheeky, end-of-the-pier humour to gut-wrenching tragedy. It’s energy effectively and brilliantly applied, and that comes from the director (who was, of course, inexplicably not among the films eight Oscar nominations).

Luhrmann also gets the actors to perform with the sort of energetic, fully-committed exuberance the film needs. The principals go at every single scene with no hesitations at all – bless them, none have any concern with appearing silly at all. McGregor reveals a sweetness and earnestness (as well as very strong singing voice) he hadn’t shown before. Kidman was an absolute revelation as a woman hiding doubt, insecurity and fear under an exterior of pure confidence. Broadbent’s comedic brilliance is matched with his dramatic flair. Roxburgh is hilarious, and also vile, as the selfish Duke. Luhrmann recognises their strength – after the first 10 minutes every scene features at least two of these performers.

Things have clearly been cut here and there. Motivations and even characterisations of some of the other members of the Moulin Rouge troupe change from scene-to-scene. Sometimes it tries too hard to be inventive. But it works so often that it hardly matters. And the remixes of the songs for performance are outstanding. The “Like a Virgin” Busby Berkely number is hilarious, the “Roxanne Tango” breath-takingly influential. “The Show Must Go On” is powerfully doom-laden and “Your Song” beautifully romantic. “Come What May” – the only original number – is an iconic ballad.

There’s not been anything quite like Moulin Rouge! – and Luhrmann has never managed to match it again since. Electric, dynamic, exciting, heartfelt, moving and above all extremely joyful, it has some brilliantly judged performances from its lead actors. There hasn’t been anything like it since – and I’m pretty sure we won’t see it’s like again.

Monday, 19 July 2021

The Reader (2008)

Kate Winslet in David Kross in the vomit-inducing The Reader

Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Kate Winslet (Hanna Schmitz), Ralph Fiennes (Michael Berg), David Kross (Younger Michael Berg), Bruno Ganz (Professor Rohl), Alexandra Maria Lara (Ilana Mather), Lena Olin (Rose Mather/Older Ilana Mather), Linda Bassett (Mrs Brenner)

In 1960s Germany, teenage Michael Berg (David Kross) falls in love with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor who seduces him and asks him to read classic novels to her in between bouts of passionate love making. As an adult (Ralph Fiennes), Michael has never got over the effect the affair had on him. But that’s largely because, as a law student, he sat in on a trial where he discovered Hanna was a guard at Auschwitz, responsible for the gas chamber selections and later locking 300 Jewish women into a burning church.

Her co-defendants turn on Hanna – but Michael realises that Hanna is illiterate so cannot possibly be the author of the reports that her co-defendants says she wrote. Hanna is imprisoned – but years after the trial, Michael rekindles a distant contact with her, sending her recordings of books he has read, which she uses to teach herself to read. Will these embodiments of new and old Germany manage to come to terms with their shared past?

There is no way round this: The Reader is a truly dreadful film. It might be the worst film nominated for Best Picture this century (the backlash over its inclusion over The Dark Knight led to a radical change in nomination rules). It is sentimental, trite, insulting, empty, vainglorious awards-bait, shot with a heritage-stylishness. It utterly fails at almost every single thing it attempts to do: from coming-of-age drama, to questions of moral responsibility in a police state, to a country reconciling with its traumatic and criminal past. In fact, it fails so utterly and completely, you are more likely to be left open-mouthed at its crude tone-deafness than remotely moved by its emotional manipulation. It is a truly dreadful film.

Daldry’s highly average direction (Oscar-frigging-nominated!) is sickeningly twee, using a number of carefully staged moments to tweak heart-strings and point our sympathies the right way. It’s the sort of Holocaust film where the only direct engagement with the subject is a beautifully framed, poetically-scored, insultingly-genteel scene of the hero visiting Auschwitz and starring sadly at collections of shoes and the gas chambers. Presumably because, any shots of the actual Holocaust – or the crimes of Hanna, who happily confesses to selecting thousands of women and children for death – would end any chance of us feeling sorry for her.

Because this is indeed a film that feels it is challenging us to say “look again” – as if Daldry and screenwriter David Hare are sitting on our shoulder saying “Ah you think it’s all black-and-white, but see how things are more complex than that”. So we are shown a concentration camp worker whose defence really is that she was just following orders – and we are asked to sympathise! She only voluntarily signs up for the SS because, you know, it was a better job than the factories. In a crudely empty moment she asks the judges at her trial “what would you do?”. Daldry shoots like this as a “Gotcha” moment – we are clearly meant to come away from that moment feeling “ah yes, there but for the grace of God go all of us”.

Only that is, for want of a better word, bullshit. Turning your back on Jewish neighbours being taken away out of fear for your own safety would be one thing, but taking a job in a death camp, selecting people for death and then watching 300 people burn to death in front of you but doing nothing? That is quite another. And the film knows this deep down, which is why we never get a flashback, or a photo, or anything that might make us sit up and go, “hell I don’t care how much you were just a foot soldier, what you did was just wrong”. To really top it off, the film even makes it clear Hanna took this job freely (not under duress, or because she was poor and starving, or any other extenuating circumstance that might prompt complex questions about what “normal” people do under evil governments) – and she’s not sorry. Not even a little bit. Not ever at any point.

These muddied morals carry over to the vomit-inducing idea that we should feel sorry for Hanna because she is fascinated by literature but deeply ashamed of her illiteracy. So ashamed in fact that she would rather be seen as the ring-leader of a mass murder than illiterate. That very sentence alone should really give you an insight into her perverted psychology. And I love books, but I don’t think that would be much of a mitigating factor if I was also Jack the Ripper.

That’s not to mention that the film doesn’t even want to engage with the fact we are told Hanna selected sensitive, vulnerable children in the camp to read for her (and then had them killed) – and doesn’t draw a connecting line between that and her using the same tactics with Michael, seducing a vulnerable 15 year old child to control him so that he will read to her. Her behaviour is clearly not some secret shame, the product of an isolated set of circumstances that will never come again – it’s who she is, and she has made no effort to change it. Hanna is worse than a child abuser, she’s a sociopathic monster and the film’s attempt to paint her as something else is appalling.

I suppose it could have just about worked if it the film had managed to make some decent material out of its theme of Germany’s struggle with its history. But even that gets fudged. There is one decent scene, as Michael and his fellow students discuss morality with the professor (a cuddily Bruno Ganz), but other than that the idea gets lost in the cut. Instead it settles for “what would you do” confrontations and clumsy parallels between Michael’s distress about finding out the truth and his trauma and guilt leading to a struggle to emotionally connect with people.

But then he’s only matching the film which has no emotional understanding of people. It sees nothing wrong with what I am about to describe. After Hanna’s death, Michael follows the request of her will to take her life savings to the daughter of one of her victims. Not only is Michael emotionally illiterate enough to carry out this shockingly tone-deaf request, but (amazingly) the woman not only sees him in her home but keeps as a souvenir the tin Hanna kept her cash in and then puts the tin next to a her picture of her family murdered in the Holocaust. Even writing it I can hardly believe I saw it. It’s the film’s attempt to say “look there is hope” but not in any universe does any of this behaviour seem even remotely real.

The Reader instead wants to try and juggle a big theme (the Holocaust) with a cliched one (a coming-of-age for a young man) and throw in an airport-novel faux big theme (isn’t reading great!) into a syrupy, awards-winning piece of prestige cinema. It probably deserves some sort of award for getting everything about this catastrophically wrong. By the time Hanna climbs on a pile of books she has made to hang herself, you’ll be desperate to give her a shove.

Oh, Kate Winslet won an Oscar. She’s does her usual excellent job. But the film is utter dogshit.

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Face/Off (1997)

Nicolas Cage and John Travolta swop faces (yes really) in Face/Off

Director: John Woo
Cast: John Travolta (FBI Agent Sean Archer), Nicolas Cage (Castor Troy), Joan Allen (Eve Archer), Alessandro Nivola (Pollux Troy), Gina Gershon (Sasha Hassler), Dominique Swain (Jamie Archer), Nick Cassavetes (Dietrich Hassler), Harve Presnell (FBI Director Victor Lazarro), Colm Feore (Dr Malcolm Walsh), John Carroll Lynch (Guard Walton), CCH Pounder (Hollis Miller)

After five years, Sean Archer (John Travolta) has finally caught his nemesis, terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). But, with Castor in a coma, only his brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) – yup really – knows the location of the deadly bomb they planted in Los Angeles. With Pollux now in prison how can they get him to talk? Well obviously the easiest way is for Archer to undergo extensive, experimental surgery to alter his build, voice and (piece de resistance) have his face removed and replaced with Castor Troy’s. And of course, this should be top secret so no-one knows it happened. Because there is absolutely no chance Castor will wake up from his coma and have Archer’s face placed on his own head is there? But of course. Let the violent mayhem ensue, as Troy/Archer (Travolta) manipulates the FBI for his own ends and Archer/Troy (Cage) battles to reclaim his life and face.

Reading that, it won’t surprise you to hear that Face/Off is a hyper-reality film. Hailing from the 90s, when Hong Kong gun-fu director John Woo was seen as the auteur of action, every single thing is dialled up to eleven. Early in the film Archer is told that the voice-alterer attached to his vocal codes could be dislodged ‘by a violent cough’. Needless to say, it doesn’t shift once during the orgy of intense, balletic violence that follows, no matter how many times Archer/Troy flings himself through the air, guns blazing, or flips backwards to avoid bullets.

Face/Off it’s clear is a very silly film. It works, because it knows it is a very silly film. It dabbles only lightly in the psychological trauma of finding yourself in another body – and in Archer’s case not just any body, but the body of his son’s killer. But it’s less interested in that than in seeing the two actors have immense fun apeing each other’s intonations and mannerisms. Travolta in particular has a whale of a time as the id-like Troy/Archer, campily springing about the stage and good-naturedly mocking his own physique (“This ridiculous chin”), while prancing about with all the wide-eyed, giggling mania Cage has made his own.

In case you hadn’t worked it out in a film where faces can be swopped, nothing feels like it’s happening in the real world. Gun battles defy logic and physics. Archer’s obsessive pursuit of Troy in the film’s opening battle causes a jaw-dropping level of destruction, mayhem and death (in a real world, with his obvious psychological problems, he would have been off the case years ago). But then, he’s so reckless perhaps that’s why people don’t really notice when he’s replaced by Troy.

There are some interesting beats, many of them centred around Troy/Archer’s arrival in the Archer family home where he forms a superficial bond with Archer’s daughter (including saving her from assault from a creepy boyfriend) that, aside from his obvious insanity, perhaps things could be different (and there is a suggestion Troy/Archer plays with the idea of going straight – or at least a corrupt version of it). Joan Allen comes on board to add acting lustre as Archer’s doctor wife, so distant from her husband for years that she needs time to work out he’s been replaced.

But the film’s heart is in the violence. There are five or six action set-pieces that use every weapon in the Woo arsenal. Slow-mo? Check. Operatic grandness? Check. Walking with intent? Check. Diving forward while firing two guns? You betcha. Doves? But of course. Any real sense of logic is thrown out of the window, and really the film at heart is a comedy of two famous actors pretending to be each other, in between jumping at each other, screaming their heads off, practically making gun noises while they point their weapons, like maniac kids.

And, you know what? It works. Sure the entire enterprise feels very much of its time: and Face/Off captures Woo’s style so perfectly (with its huge bodycount and reckless disregard for life and property) that he never topped it again. A director who basically could do one thing really well (future films would merely demonstrate his limitations), throwing himself into a film of intense silliness, with big-name stars having a whale of time and action set-pieces that make no real sense but are impressive to watch, he aces it here. Face/Off is an odd classic of its time, ludicrously silly but always choosing to double-down on its intense silliness – to gloriously entertaining effect.