Tuesday, 19 October 2021

The Awful Truth (1937)

Irene Dunne and Cary Grant flex their comic muscles to outstanding effect in The Awful Truth

Director: Leo McCarey
Cast: Irene Dunne (Lucy Warriner), Cary Grant (Jerry Warriner), Ralph Bellamy (Dan Leeson), Alexander D’Arcy (Armand Duvalle), Cecil Cunningham (Aunt Patsy), Molly Lamont (Babara Vance), Esther Dale (Mrs Leeson), Joyce Compton (Dixie Belle Lee), Robert Allen (Frank Randall), Robert Warwick (Mr Vance), Mary Forbes (Mrs Vance), Skippy (Mr Smith)

Lucy (Irene Dunne) and Johnny (Cary Grant) Warriner divorce because both of them are constitutionally incapable of being faithful. But yet, they also pretty much can’t stand the idea of the other being with anyone else. Can they face The Awful Truth that they are, in fact, perfect for each other? This is a feuding husband and wife who enjoy the horrified looks on the faces of other people as much as they enjoy seeing how far they can push each other.

When winning the Oscar for Best Director for this film, Leo McCarey believed he actually deserved it for his more serious melodrama about the struggles of the elderly, Make Way for Tomorrow. While Make Way for Tomorrow might well be a more serious work, and not the souffle of The Awful Truth, I’m pretty sure far fewer people over the past 80 odd years have found revisiting it such a delight as going back into The Awful Truth. Perhaps the eponymous truth for McCarey was that we are never the best judges of our own work.

The Awful Truth is possibly the best, funniest, remarriage comedy ever made. It was pulled together almost from nothing onset. Nominally an adaptation of a play by Arthur Richman, McCarey effectively dumped almost the entire plot and instead largely improvised the film and its plot on set as he went, throwing in jokes, plot developments and bits of business depending on what worked with the actors on the day. Producer Harry Cohn would arrive on set to find McCarey plinking on a piano, swopping stories and coming up with ideas for what they would shoot that day. From this the director would decide on the structure of the scene, the jokes and most of the dialogue. No wonder Cohn was pulling his hair out.

Sounds like chaos right? The stars certainly thought so. Grant was terrified. Prior to this a reliable Studio actor, used to being given the lines and standing where he was told. Finding out here that McCarey wanted something loose and improvisational, at first he was all at sea – even offering instead to buy himself out of the film. But McCarey saw something in him: in fact what he saw was “Cary Grant”. The Awful Truth is the moment the Grant we all know came to be: sophisticated, arch and a masterfully relaxed light comedian (rumour has it, at least partly based on McCarey himself). From hating the experience, Grant suddenly realised it was inspired. The same went for his co-stars: Dunne, Bellamy and the rest all excitedly contributed their own ideas and business into what became one of the greatest comedies of all time.

The Awful Truth is frequently laugh-out loud funny, a perfect combination of witty lines delivered with pin-point perfection. Many of the best lines fall to Irene Dunne’s Lucy, from denying an affair with her latest beau (“That’s right Armand. No one could ever accuse you of being a great lover. That is, I mean to say…”), to archly responding to Jerry’s “I know how I’d feel if I was sitting her with a girl and her husband walked in” with a “I’ll bet you do”. Grant though gets plenty of his own – “The car broke down? People stopped believe that one before cars started breaking down.” – and only he could make “I only just met her” a laugh-out loud moment. Nearly every scene has a perfect bon mot, brilliantly delivered.

McCarey’s direction also adds hugely to the comic effect. The Awful Truth is so smooth, polished and assured you can overlook how skilfully and brilliantly it’s been put together to accentuate the comic effect. From cuts that reinforce or set up gags, to characters entering and leaving at the edges of frames at the perfect moment for a laugh, the entire film is a masterclass in how to shoot and frame comic business. The film is a triumph of reaction shots: watch Grant, Dunne and Bellamy respond to the appalling singing of Jerry’s new girlfriend Dixie Bell (Lucy: “I guess it was easier for her to change her name than her whole family to change theirs”). Best of all a superb sequence where we hear Jerry and Armand fight off screen (with crashes aplenty) while Lucy attempts to maintain a banal ‘nothing to see here’ conversation with Daniel and his mother.

The entire film is a triumph of comic set-pieces, with Grant and Dunne sparking off each other like two whirligigs of static electricity. Both actors are absolutely sublime. Grant manages to make everything not only funny, but also effortlessly cool and his archness and confidence are hilarious. Dunne throws herself comedy with a full-blooded commitment and a total willingness to look silly. Like Grant, she also has the ability to tip the wink to the camera and flag up just how ridiculous many of these situations are. Ralph Bellamy, on paper, has the dullest role as the straight man but as well as being winningly naïve, he also has two show-stopping moments, most strikingly his hilariously enthusiastic dancing (made even funnier by Dunne’s increasingly uncomfortable efforts to keep up with him).

It’s all wrapped up in a plot light as air, perfect for the jokes to latch themselves onto. You’ll laugh almost from the first, but you’ll also care about these two dotty eccentrics who are clearly perfect for each other. With Grant creating his entire screen persona in front of your eyes and Dunne absolutely radiantly hilarious, The Awful Truth will carry on entertaining the masses for decades to come. Hopefully McCarey doesn’t regret that Oscar decision too much.

Black Widow (2021)

Scarlett Johansson crashes through a film that seems to exist by contractual obligation, Black Widow

Director: Cate Shortland
Cast: Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Florence Pugh (Yelena Belova), David Harbour (Alexei Shostakov), O-T Fagbenle (Rick Mason), Olga Kurylenko (Antonia Dreykov), William Hurt (Thaddeus Ross), Ray Winstone (General Dreykov), Rachel Weisz (Melina Vostokoff)

After the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run, when she receives a mysterious parcel from her “sister” – or rather the young girl she spent a few years with as a “family” of Russian agents undercover in America in the 1980s – Yelena Beloba (Florence Pugh). The parcel contains a drug that can be used to break the mind-control that nasty General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) has over his army of Widows: young girls like Natasha and Yelena, forced to become assassins in a torture chamber/training room called The Red Room. Natasha and Yelena team up to free the other assassins, but they will need the help of their “parents”, Russian super-soldier Shostakov (David Harbour) and genius inventor Melina (Rachel Weisz).

As the credits rolled on this formulaic slice of Marvel adventurism, I couldn’t for the life of me work out why it even existed in the first place. For a film centred around Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow character, I expected to come out of this epic with some new understanding of her character. Not only do we not learn anything about her at all, we get no additional insight into what makes her tick, no deeper look into her character. We learn nothing about her that we don’t know already: and the film isn’t even smart or profound enough to reflect on the fact that we all know that the character died in the last film we saw her in. Does it exist solely so Marvel can say “Look we made a film about the only female Avenger, so shut up already!”

The film is stuck between being a greatest hits celebration of Johansson’s work elsewhere and providing as much focus as possible for Florence Pugh to take up the mantle in future films. In fact, the focus is so much on Pugh – who is terrific and gets all the best lines – that Johansson becomes a bit of a straight-man in her own damn movie. It’s Black Widow who has to say all the unhip, dull things (“We can’t steal that car!”) while her sister snipes, swears and plays devil-may-care with the consequences. For what should be her moment in the sun, Johansson gets rather short-changed here. But then perhaps she didn’t really care – it certainly never feels that she had anything she was determined to say or do here, other than cash a huge cheque.

The film is framed around a back story of villainy involving the nasty Dollshouse-style assassin school that both sisters were forced to attend, here revealed to still be in operation with a team of brainwashed female assassins. At the centre, like a creepy Charlie with brain-washed Angels, is General Dreykov, played by a barely-even-trying Ray Winstone (his accent is laughably atrocious). Dreykov is such a peripheral figure in the film that he never feels like either a threat or a dark manipulative force and his “plan” is such an after-thought, Winstone has to hurriedly state it for the first time in a final act monologue.

The film is supposed to be about misogyny, and how Dreykov has left a poisonous legacy of abuse of young women for his own ends. This includes forcing his daughter (a thankless mute role under a helmet for Olga Kurylenko) into a killer robber-suit as the sort of uber-assassin. Natasha is plagued with guilt about harming this character in the past – a guilt that would have way more impact on the viewer if we had seen even one bloody scene of them together to establish a relationship. How much more interesting, too, would the film have been if we had seen Kurylenko’s character as the new head of this abusive ring of spies, having taken up her father’s mantle and absorbing his poisonous world view. But no, such nuances are beyond this film.

There are a few moments of emotion and comedy gained from Natasha’s fake family – the parents who are not her parents, the sister who is not her sister. This odd group reunion makes for some laughs, but its noticeable that the main emotional impact is on Pugh’s younger, less settled character rather than the confident, assured Natasha. It’s another major flaw in the film: at the end of the day, I can’t imagine this had any real impact on the character at all. Does Natasha really change her view of herself at the end? No: she talks the talk about having “a new family” but her level of connection with them (certainly with her parents) doesn’t seem to go much beyond patient affection. Again, the real emotional impact is on Pugh’s character who has finally found something to base her life on: this would have worked so much better as an origins story.

Instead, this seems to exist solely to answer a trivia question I’m not sure anyone was asking: “What did Black Widow do in between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War?” If your life really was lacking without the answer to that, this is the film for you. Otherwise, there is little at all to make any of this stand out from any of the other 20+ Marvel films. Its action scenes are cookie-cutter (naturally everywhere Natasha goes, the place is destroyed), the emotional beats are completely unrevealing, the baddie so forgettable you might even miss it when he dies, and we get a few actors (Harbour and Weisz) coasting on a couple of decent lines and bit of comic business. Apart from anything involving Florence Pugh, this film is totally and utterly forgettable.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey are brainwashed in The Manchurian Candidate

Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Frank Sinatra (Major Bennett Marco), Laurence Harvey (Raymond Shaw), Janet Leigh (Eugenie Rose Cheyney), Angela Lansbury (Eleanor Shaw Iselin), James Gregory (Senator John Yerkes Iselin), Henry Silva (Chun-jin), Leslie Parish (Jocelyn Jordan), John McGiver (Senator Thomas Jordan), Khigh Dhiegh (Dr Yen Lo), James Edwards (Cpl Allen Melvin)

Spoilers: Herein the biggest twist in The Manchurian Candidate is revealed

Korean War hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is cold, uncommunicative, reserved and difficult. So why, when asked, does everyone in his platoon say “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”? Welcome to the world of sinister brainwashing and mind-control. Welcome to The Manchurian Candidate.

Shaw returns from the war in Korea as a Medal of Honour winner. He saved his entire platoon – with the exception of two casualties – under heavy fire and is America’s blue-eyed-boy, already being hijacked by his ambitious mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) as a prop for the Presidential campaign of her second husband, her McCarthy-like puppet Senator John Iselin (James Gregory). But if things are fine and dandy, why does Shaw’s commanding officer Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) keep having a recurring nightmare of a hypnotised Shaw calmly murdering those two casualties in front of an audience of Russian and Chinese officers? Can Shaw be all he seems – or is he the new secret weapon in a deadly Cold War?

A film born at the heart of the paranoia of the sixties – it premiered shortly after the Cuban Missile and would be followed a year later by the assassination of JFK by the Shaw-esque Lee Harvey Oswald – The Manchurian Candidate captures the mood of its time in a way few other films have done. On top of which, it’s a brilliant, edge-of-your-seat ride, crammed with complex psychology and chillingly cold-hearted violence, directed with a more than a splash of cinema verité and plenty of panache by John Frankenheimer at the top-of-his-game. Touches of satire on politics and the media, are mixed with a terrifying fantasia on the powers of mind control. There is no other film that drips with as much sweat as this one (just look at some of those faces!) or plays more brilliantly into our own fevered nightmares of how we can be turned against ourselves.

The action in the film is dealt with all the expertise of a card sharp. The opening scene already tips us the wink about the lies in the memories of our heroes: not only do the soldiers clearly despise Shaw, as he plucks them out of a seedy bar in Korea, but we later see them bundled up by Commie soldiers into waiting helicopters. So, we’ve already got a pretty good idea why Sinatra’s Major Marco is as twitchy and sweaty as he is – and we’re immediately suspicious of just how Shaw managed to get his hands on the Medal of Honour (and why, perhaps, he doesn’t seem that happy about it – as if he already subconsciously knows he doesn’t deserve it).

The truth is revealed to us in an extended sequence that’s a tour-de-force or imaginative visual technique, that Frankenheimer doesn’t get enough credit for. Marco’s dream starts in a genteel hotel in America’s South, with a polite middle-class lady giving a talk about flowers on stage, surrounded by the platoon. The camera moves from the stage in a smoothly uninterrupted 360 turn looking at the audience of similarly middle-class, middle-age belles, before returning to the stage where the hotel backdrop has been replaced by huge banners of Stalin and Mao and our genteel lady has turned into a sinisterly jovial Chinese scientist.

During the sequence that follows, the camera shifts constantly from the subjective (Marco’s false memory of the hotel and ladies) and the objective (a surgical observatory pit with watching Communist apparatchiks), while never interrupting the chilling scientific explanation from Khigh Dhiegh’s (brilliant in every way) scientist. During this inspired barrage of false and true memories, spliced with alarming moments of violence, we witness just how far Shaw’s brainwashing programming has gone as, with complete politeness, he goes about shooting one soldier in the head and quietly strangling another. No wonder Marco – and the other soldiers who all share versions of the same nightmare – wakes up screaming every morning.

And why did they pick Shaw? Well obviously, his mother-fixation already makes him more than susceptible to external control (under hypnosis he describes Marco as his best friend – something that, Dr Lo points out, speaks volumes for his inclination to prostrate himself to authority). Played with an austere distance by Laurence Harvey – the film expertly uses Harvey’s prickly air of patrician woodenness – Shaw is desperately weak-willed and a natural follower, who has never escaped his mother’s influence. He’s already a lonely man, nursing heart-break, loathing the brashness around him with an elitist hauteur, but lacking the force of character to do anything about it. No wonder he’s ready to be reprogrammed.

And of course, there is no controller he is more likely to follow than his mother. Angela Lansbury excels in her finest, most iconic screen role, as Shaw’s ambitious, deadly, controlling and manipulative mother. Is there a finest reveal, than her sudden invitation at a fancy-dress party for Shaw to “pass the time by playing a little Solitaire”? The film skilfully suggests that it is power rather than ideology that motivates Eleanor – even before the reveal she’s clearly the brains in the marriage with her dull husband, and a forceful, overbearing presence to her son. It’s revealed she’s already wrecked poor Shaw’s life – forcing him to jilt his true love Jocelyn (Leslie Parish), because marriage to the daughter of a political rival ain’t part of the plan. Maybe as well she’s motivated by the unsettling air of incest between the two of them.


No wonder Marco starts to feel sorry for him. Sinatra is very good in this film, striking a perfect balance between twitchy unease and a growing fatherly concern for Shaw. Notoriously a one-take actor (a key scene where Sinatra appears slightly out-of-focus – an effect that suggests we are seeing him from the screwed up Shaw’s perspective – was in fact because Sinatra was most effective in the first take, but the camera was incorrectly set-up), Frankenheimer uses his presence extremely well. He has a brutal fight scene that uses every inch of his energy, while he’s not afraid to add a touch of vulnerability into his burgeoning relationship with Janet Leigh’s stranger on a train (despite an initial scene that suggests all sorts of intriguing possibilities, this is a rather thankless part for Leigh, which she still performs expertly). Like Harvey, his face is frequently studied dripping with sweat.

It’s all shot with a brilliantly immediacy. A press conference – where Iselin (the McCarthy satire is hilariously wicked) rants about Commies in the State Department – is shot with such observatory skill, it feels alarmingly real. Moments of lightness – the slightly dreamy flashbacks of Shaw and Jocelyn running playfully together near the sea – are immediately punctured by terrifying moments of unsensational suddenness, none more so than when a programmed Shaw assassinates Jocelyn and her father (the bullet passing through a carton of milk in his hand, which pours out across the floor). It culminates in a race-against time that’s played out with a hair-raising tension.

The Manchurian Candidate combines skilful acting with real cinematic force and invention from Frankenheimer. It creeps into the darkest corners of our mind and invites our nightmares to come out to play. Dark, at times even blackly comic, it’s possibly the finest and most influential conspiracy thriller ever made.

Aquaman (2018)

Jason Momoa takes himself rather seriously in the deeply silly Aquaman

Director: James Wan
Cast: Jason Momoa (Arthur Curry/Aquaman), Amber Heard (Mera), Willem Dafoe (Nuidis Vulko), Patrick Wilson (Orm Marius), Dolph Lundgren (King Nereus), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (David Kane/Black Manta), Ludi Lin (Captain Murk), Temuera Morrison (Thomas Curry), Nicole Kidman (Queen Atlanna), Micheal Beach (Jesse Kane), Julie Andrews (Karathen)

After helping the rest of the Justice League save the world Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is quite the celebrity. Curry is the son of lighthouse keeper Thomas (Temuera Morrison) and Atlantian Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), who fled her unloved husband and his underwater kingdom but was recaptured when Arthur was young. Her other son Orm (Patrick Wilson) is now King of Atlantis, planning to lead the forces of the sea in a war against those on land. Can Arthur and Orm’s unwilling betrothed Mera (Amber Heard) combine to prevent a war? And will Arthur become a worthy hero?

Aquaman makes a valiant effort to embrace perhaps the silliest set-up for a comic book novel yet. Based around a massive, technologically advanced underwater kingdom that has (inexplicably) remained silent and secret for thousands of years, who inhabitants all seem to have superhuman strength and magical skills (guess it must be all that water pressure), the film at times is hard to take seriously. But it sort of gets away with it, as Wan leans into the tongue-in-cheek campness of all this (and I’m amazed how camp these Atlantians are) and asks us not to take anything we see that seriously, but just to sit back and enjoy the ride.

And the film is basically just a big ride, as we travel from place-to-place and watch Aquaman hit things in various under-water and above ground locations, while keeping up a bit of rapid-fire banter that will flower (but of course!) into an opposites-attract romance with Mera. One thing Wan does very well is to find a way to present the various fights in a style I’ve not seen before. The showpiece one-on-ones take place in a series of incredibly smooth one-shots, which twist and glide around our heroes while they despatch countless foes and, in one impressive show-piece, in and out and across buildings during a fight in an Italian cliff-side town. The ending may be your typical CGI smackdown, but Wan’s presents the fights in a way that actually looks different and excites a bit of awe.

Where the film is less successful is in its slightly tired coming-of-age/proving-his-worth/resolving-his-loss storyline, which offers few surprises. Try as I might, I can’t find Jason Momoa a charming enough actor to effectively make me invest in his character. Compare him to Dwayne Johnson, who is always willing to laugh at himself and is the very embodiment of charming self-awareness. Momoa takes himself very seriously – he always needs to be the coolest guy in the room – and his air of cocky self-importance sometimes jars in a film as dopey as this one.

This also means the film fails to sell a real plot arc for Aquaman himself. Its nominally about a character learning to acknowledge his mistakes, vulnerability and inability to go-it-alone. This doesn’t always feel earned and sometimes emotionally confused. One of Aquaman’s earliest acts is to let the ruthless father of a hijacker (a scowlingly charismatic Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) drown. Later he expresses regret for doing this as, by making an enemy, he endangered Mera. Not regret because it was wrong to let the man die, but a sociopathic concern for his loved ones rather than someone else’s. The character’s growth never really convinces – he still seems like the same cocky maverick at the end than he was at the beginning, rather than someone who has matured into a real leader.

But aside from these doubts, this is a big silly pantomime pretty much told with the right balance between seriousness and tongue-in-cheek. Amber Heard mixes heroism with a dopey, flower-eating sweetness as Mera. Willem Dafoe constantly looks like he’s about to snigger as a wetsuit glad Grand Vizier. There is something rather lovable about a film so eclectic in its cast that Julie Andrews (of all people) voices a sea monster and Dolph Lundgren tackles King Nereus like it’s his shot at Macbeth.

Bangs, booms and few jokes carry us through a deeply silly but enjoyable film. There is a great deal of visual imagination for the sea kingdoms, a mix of Greek inspired nonsense and space-ship bombast. Wan pretty much throws the kitchen sink at the screen, and while it’s definitely rather too long it’s also bubbling with just as much tongue-in-cheek fun that you roll with it. Nothing here reinvents the wheel – and the plot often feels like a rather clumsy after-thought – but it’s still an entertaining wheel.

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Enemy of the State (1998)

Will Smith and Gene Hackman dodge the surveillance state in Enemy of the State

Director: Tony Scott
Cast: Will Smith (Robert Clayton Dean), Gene Hackman (Brill), Jon Voight (NSA Director Thomas Reynolds), Regina King (Carla Dean), Jason Lee (Daniel Leon Zavitz), Lisa Bonet (Rachel Banks), Barry Pepper (Agent Pratt), Loren Dean (Agent Loren Hicks), Jake Busey (Agent Krug), Lisa Bonet (Rachel Banks), Jack Black (Agent Fiedler), Jamie Kennedy (Agent Williams), Seth Green (Agent Selby), Ian Hart (Agent Bingham), Stuart Wilson (Congressman Sam Albert), Jason Robards (Congressman Philip Hammersley), Tom Sizemore (Paulie Pintero)

A congressman (a cameoing Jason Robards) is murdered for refusing to support intrusive new counterterrorism legislation championed by NSA director Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight). Unfortunately, someone caught the killing on camera. When the NSA come hunting, he plants the recording on an unwitting lawyer friend, Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith). Dean has no idea he has evidence that could blow the conspiracy – and is nonplussed when they set about destroying his life. The only person who can help is mysterious surveillance expert Brill (Gene Hackman), who has spent decades living off the grid. Can the clear Dean’s name and stop the bad apples in the NSA?

Enemy of the State is a fun chase movie, that enjoys the technical possibilities of the surveillance state, packaged with the fast-pace, bright colour-filtered style of Tony Scott (this is one of his best films). There is more than enough wit and enjoyment about it – not to mention watching a host of very good actors, many of them unknowns at the time, bring a lot of sparkle to the film (you’ve got to give kudos to the casting director). Everything of course gets tied up in a neat, pretty bow but it’s a damn lovely bow so that’s fine.

In its detailed look at the power of the surveillance state, Enemy of the State was, in a way, ahead of its time. The ability for the intelligence agencies here to look into literally everything in your life is pretty unsettling, from bank details to computer accounts. Every camera is an eye and satellites are tasked at will to watch anything. In fact, it’s quite something to remember that the state is only more powerful today – the internet and mobile phones would making tracking Dean even easier than the bugs they secrete about his person, which causes him to flee our baddies stripped to his undies. (Also, if only Reynolds had waited a few years, congress would wave through legislation such as he is requesting here, without batting an eyelid).

The film also dares to shade a little bit of naughtiness into Will Smith’s character. Sure, he’s a crusading labour lawyer (we’ve got to know he’s on the right side!) but he’s also an adulterer with trust problems in his marriage. Smith’s still at his charming best here, and his frazzled desperation as he struggles to understand why on earth the NSA is destroying his life is well-handled. Regina King gets a thankless role as Dean’s shrill wife, whose trust in her husband oscillates according to the requirements of the script, rather than any internal character logic.

Enemy of the State sometimes teeters on the edge of making a point about the dangers of the surveillance state. How easy could it be to abuse this power? Unfortunately it puts most of these arguments into the mouth of Regina King’s holier-than-thou wife, which rather undermines them. It’s also made abundantly clear that we’re witnessing rogue agents. This allows the film to focus more on the cool things surveillance can do, rather than clearer moral statements about whether that’s right or not, other than it being a dangerous tool in the hands of the wrong men.

Scott’s film is more of an entertainment than a treatise though (and thank God for that). It also has a nice little touch of 1970s’ conspiracy thriller to it, something the film leans into with the casting of Gene Hackman in a role reminiscent of Harry Caul in The Conversation. Sure, I can’t remember Caul driving a car while it was on fire or blowing up a building, but Hackman still gives the film some class and a touch of old-school espionage and cynicism. Truth-be-told, other than profession, Caul and Brill have very little in common (Brill is far more confrontational and confident, and much less likely to rip his apartment apart) but it’s still a nice call-back. I also rather enjoy Gabriel Byrne’s smart, playful little cameo as ‘fake’ Brill (hardly a spoiler as you can’t move without knowing Hackman is in the picture).

Scott’s high-energy fun culminates in a smart little trap laid by Dean for all his enemies, that plays nicely off the fact that the NSA agents and the Mafia are definitely paranoid and stubborn enough to not realise they are all talking at cross-purposes. The end of the film sees everything back to normal (it’s unclear how, or if, Dean got his job back considering his unceremonious firing), but I wouldn’t worry about it. It would be nice if it had said more, but as a rollercoaster ride it’s short, sharp and sweet.

Monday, 11 October 2021

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The Fellowship face one final battle in the conclusion of Jackson's stunning trilogy

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Billy Boyd (Peregrin Took), Dominic Monaghan (Meriadoc Brandybuck), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Bernard Hill (Theoden), Miranda Otto (Eowyn), David Wenham (Faramir), Karl Urban (Eomer), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), John Noble (Denethor), Ian Holm (Bilbo), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Brad Dourif (Grima Wormtongue), Sean Bean (Boromir)

By the time the third film in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy came out, we all knew this was something very special. Readers of Empire magazine voted it the 9th Best Film Ever Made the month it was released. It was showered with awards, winning every Oscar it was nominated for (11, including three for Jackson) and grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. The Return of the King is a landmark – and it’s a stunning sign-off for a triumphant trilogy.

Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are even closer now to Mount Doom, guided by the treacherous former ring-bearer Gollum (Andy Serkis). While they must negotiate the dangers of Mordor, Sauron has sent his forces out to conquer Middle Earth. The city of Minas Tirith is his target. Facing an army of thousands of orcs, the city’s only hope is if Gandalf (Ian McKellen) can defend it long enough to allow Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) – the man destined to become king of Gondor – to lead a relief force. Will Frodo resist temptation and destroy the ring? And will Aragorn be able to defend the city and become its king?

I think it’s fair to say, with books as widely loved as this, no one is going to agree with every single decision Jackson and fellow writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens made. Here again, changes have been made – famously the scouring of the Shire that closes the novel has been cut (with Saruman dispatched in the opening scenes of the extended edition). What the screenplay seeks to do is increase the pace and tension – it’s probably why Denethor, leader of Gondor, is reinvented as an antagonist (of which more later) and events charge ahead with a relentless forward motion. There is no stopping to catch breath here: there is always a new crisis to solve.

Where changes have been made, they largely have a positive impact. For example, the film takes the decision to introduce conflict between Frodo and Sam – as well as increasing further the scheming malice of Gollum – by having the disturbed ring-addict manipulate the two hobbits into a falling out. This allows Frodo to enter the lair of the giant spider Shelob (a disgustingly visceral creation) alone. Not only does this make Frodo more vulnerable, it also increases the bravery and nobility of Sam, by having him return to save the day (and allow for a classic Hollywood nick-of-time entrance).

The change also adds to the devious brilliance of Gollum, once again superbly played by Andy Serkis. After spending much of The Two Towers bringing out the depth and sadness in this fragile character, The Return of the King carefully shows how this doesn’t excuse his fundamental ruthlessness. The film opens with a flashback showing Smeagol finding the ring, serving as a neat reminder of the Ring’s fundamental wickedness: within seconds its pushes Smeagol to murder his best friend. The sequence following Smeagol’s moral and physical collapse neatly reminds us of its danger and also how close Frodo is to all this happening to him.

Frodo’s suffering and painful growing maturity is more central here. Wood brilliantly charts Frodo’s continuing moral and emotional decline under the Ring’s influence. Increasingly a physical wreck, Jackson carefully lets the suspicion grow that Frodo’s not going to be capable of chucking the ring away. Balancing this, Astin’s Sam Gamgee (the most heartfelt and affecting performance) becomes the moral centre, self-sacrificing, optimistic and fundamentally decent – a beacon of light in the grimness of Mordor.

Again, Jackson ups the stakes, with TROK taking place on the grandest scale you could imagine. The battle sequences are breath-taking in their depth and ambition. But, as with the other films, Jackson knows the scale counts for nothing if you didn’t care about the characters at its heart. So, while the events are epically earth-shattering, the film always brins us back to simple emotion. Even in the siege of Gondor, it finds time for a quiet moment of humanity between Gandalf and Pippin.

But those battle scenes are still stunning. The orc armies are terrifyingly vast, while the strafing run of the airborne Nazgul (soldiers snatched from towers are thrown hundreds of feet to their deaths) adds to the sense that victory is hopeless. Soldiers fight desperately for their, and others, lives. The film even tops the Two Towers’ charge of the Rohirrim with a stunningly rousing charge involving thousands of horses into the massed ranks of Orc (and tops that minutes later with a second change accompanied by a sweeping camera movement and swelling musical cue that is just about perfect).

Jackson brilliantly communicates how much the stakes are against our heroes. We really feel their bravery and desperation as they take on impossible odds – and it’s that which really gives the scenes their power, not the scale or the special effects. No moment is lost without bringing us back to moments of bravery and vulnerability from our leads. There are powerful moments of warmth, kindness, loyalty and generosity throughout. It’s finally what makes the film so effective – it’s a tribute to the power of friendship.

It’s all powered with a beautifully operatic score by Howard Shore. Shore’s music captures perfectly the world of Tolkien. A few years after this, an ill-fated musical version of LOTR was launched – and flopped. Because, essentially, Shore has already turned these novels into a sort of opera-slash-concerto, with perfect themes for everything from martial orcs to whimsical hobbits. Some of the musical cues are so luscious and stirring, they make you want to stand and applaud. The music accompanying Gandalf’s rescue of the retreat from Osgiliath is a wonderful highlight, the triumphant and tense music for the Rohirrim charge is stunning, the score for our heroes leaving for the Undying Lands beautiful. LOTR is so beautifully scored, Shore’s work so gorgeous, LOTR is a film you could certainly watch with just the music playing and still understand it perfectly.

Of course, there are things you can criticise. Denethor – in the novel a portrait of corrupted nobility, his intelligence and pride turned to despair – is repositioned here as a sort of heartless WW1 General, gobbling food while his soldiers die and embracing a nihilistic death wish (although this change does allow for the absolutely beautiful Gandalf/Pippin beacon lighting sequence, in defiance of Denethor). It’s not helped by Noble’s lip-smacking performance, stripping the character of nuance. It’s gives Gandalf more to struggle against, but it’s a crude approach for a character who would have worked better as a mis-guided elitist rather than a crass, hissable villain.

Lots of people have had a pop at the multiple endings as well. Jackson certainly teases us a little too much with fades to black. But I’d argue the lack of a definitive full stop adds greater depth to the story. Tolkien was partly inspired by his experiences in WW1. In that war, the hell of the trenches came to an end, but people’s lives didn’t end with a triumphant parade. Instead, they needed to return home and adjust back into civilian life. I think it’s powerfully affecting that the hobbits return to an unscoured Shire, which hasn’t changed at all while they (and us) have seen Middle Earth torn apart. And it adds real force to why Frodo, in particular, can’t return to “life as normal”.

It gives a powerfully moving, bitter-sweet ending and, I think, brings out a rich, emotional message from Tolkien’s story often missed: Frodo and his friends are fighting to protect their home, but find that they have changed so much they can never settle back into that home in the same way again. It’s something soldiers serving in WW1 experienced, and it feels fitting echoed in Jackson’s LOTR.

Jackson’s LOTR will always spark conversations around faithfulness and otherwise to the source material. Not everyone will agree with every choice. But surely no one can argue with the majesty, scale and wonder of these films, the sublimely perfect casting choices, or the loving detail in every touch of the design. When I first saw Return of the King in the cinema, the audience got to their feet and applauded. You can’t blame them: watch this and you are watching something very special, a true landmark in cinema.