Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Left Behind (2014)

Nicolas Cage snores through this disaster of a movie

Director: Vic Armstrong
Cast: Nicolas Cage (Rayford Steele), Chad Michael Murray (Cameron "Buck" Williams), Cassi Thomson (Chloe Steele), Nicky Whelan (Hattie Durham), Jordin Sparks (Shasta Carvell), Lea Thompson (Irene Steele)

Christian film making. Bible dramatisations can have a certain strength and weight to them. But when it tries to reach into the realm of the blockbuster (inevitably involving the Antichrist somewhere along the line – he would have popped up in the never-made sequel to this piece of excrement) – it never gets it right, po-faced amateurishness taking over as it tries to tell a story that “will appeal to the kids”.

I can hardly bear to remember it, but Left Behind is about the Rapture. In a flash of light, the good people and all the kids in the world disappear leaving only their clothes behind (heaven is a naked place apparently). The bad and the unbelievers (shame on them!) are LEFT BEHIND!!!! The film focuses on some people on a plane. The plane flies around a bit while they panic. Then it lands. Then the film finally ends. There is no plot as such. Every character has been plucked from a stock catalogue: the lothario pilot, the slutty stewardess, the wisecracking New Yorker, the savvy journalist, the plucky daughter… Drinking is essential for viewing the film.

This is an incomprehensible, pointless film devoid of plot or suspense that drifts clumsily from event to event, never building towards any point or resolution. It was clearly intended as the first film in a series, and therefore feels no need to attempt to function as a stand-alone film. In fact the entire film feels like an extended first act – and with tighter story telling it could have been that. What actually happens in this movie? A bunch of people disappear. Cage lands a plane. That’s it. Nothing else really happens. Even the concept of the Rapture having even taken place is basically only a guess by some of the characters: they haven’t got a clue.

In fact, that’s another reason why this film is both terrible and dull. Because bugger all else happens in the story, it’s promoted as the “Rapture movie”. So we at home know straightaway what has happened, but the film drags out its protagonists working it out and then suddenly has them reaching a conclusion based on the watch inscription of a vanished co-pilot and a “BIBLE STUDY” note in the diary of a vanished stewardess. The wait for them to work it out is dull – and then the reasons for their conclusions so swiftly raced through they make no sense.

For a Christian film, as well, the story alternates between heavy handed dwelling on crosses and other paraphernalia, and a bizarre presentation of the overtly religious, who all seem to be either cranks, sanctimonious or both. The film is so ineptly made that it’s clearly not their intention to present the religious like this – it just comes out that way.

Nicolas Cage stars in this film. I can only assume that this was in the midst of his financial problems and that the offer for a huge slice of the budget was too good. Never mind autopilot, he’s barely awake, plodding through the film with a dead-eyed stare, mouthing the direlogue and clearly wishing he could be raptured out of the movie. Even on the poster he looks bemused and confused about why he's there. The rest of the actors are so non-descript that this turd is basically their career highlight.

Leaving aside the acting, it’s a hideously made, cheap-as-chips movie with D-list actors stumbling around wobbly sets. It has no sense of humour, no sparkle but is directed with a hamfisted seriousness. The “action” and “thrills” are laughably flat and have less pazzaazz than an episode of Thunderbirds. But taking pot shots at this crap is like shooting dead fish floating in a barrel. It is horribly, horribly, horribly bad, bordering on inept. Even the most blindly devout Christian couldn’t find a message in this. With friends like these God doesn’t need enemies.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Kirk Douglas surveys the horrors he has willingly unleashed in Billy Wilder's bitter beyond belief media satire

Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Kirk Douglas (Chuck Tatum), Jan Sterling (Lorraine Minosa), Robert Arthur (Herbie Cook), Porter Hall (Jacob Q. Booth), Frank Cady (Mr Federber), Richard Benedict (Leo Minosa), Ray Teal (Sheriff Kretzer), Robert Arthur (Herbie Cook)

Ace in the Hole was Wilder’s first big flop as a director. It’s not surprising that the media savaged it and claimed it was ridiculous. This is a film way, way, way ahead of its time, a stinging indictment of the ruthless obsession of the media with selling stories rather than reporting them, of spinning out crises to sell newspapers. It’s Fake News decades ahead of its time, a gutter journalism film released at a time when the media was totally trusted. Is it any wonder contemporary critics claimed they couldn’t recognise their trade here? Now it’s practically the way every journalist on film is portrayed.

Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a big-city reporter fired by a host of newspapers for offences ranging from alcoholism to libel to sleeping with the boss’s wife. Arriving in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he wangles a job on the local paper aimed to eventually encounter a story he can spin into a national media sensation, a crisis with a “human interest story”. A year later, he stumbles upon a cave-in that has trapped a man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), below the surface. Believing this is the story that he can get him back his seat at the high table, Tatum seizes control of the rescue operation, insisting a quick and easy plan is dropped in favour of a week long public drilling operation. Tatum’s reporting of the event becomes a media sensation and in days the abandoned town is full of reporters and rubberneckers.

What’s astonishing here is that this is one of the few films I can think of that is totally devoid of sentiment or hope. It’s ruthlessly cynical where virtually every character is irredeemable, and no suggestion of redemption exists. The only major character who seems normal is Leo himself, although that is largely because his bland non-descriptness (well portrayed by Richard Benedict) and childlike, homespun dependency on those around him make him a near blank anyone can project feelings onto. Wilder’s hard-bitten cycnicsm, bordering on anger with the media and their audience, pulls no punches without descending into polemic – ironically it keeps the human interest, while never compromising the dark satire.

It’s a savage attack not just on journalism and the mass media, but human nature itself. The media stirs up a storm of excitement and drama around one man’s fate solely to make money – and Tatum himself is the worst form of manipulative gutter press, with no interest in truth, investigation or even journalism, only a shark-like love of the main event. But Wilder shows that the people just lap up this exploitative press storm – the growing crush of on-lookers, the bated breath as each update comes in, the literal carnival set up on the site, specially chartered trains – everyone wants to feel part of this story, to vicariously feel the emotions of those the event is actually happening to. It’s virtually a prediction of Twitter.

At the heart of this is Tatum, played with maximum forcefulness and dark charisma by Kirk Douglas in surely one of his finest performances. What Douglas does here that is so skilful is to never make Tatum an out-and-out villain. He plays it with a subtle suggestion of self-loathing: the quietly suggested need for alcohol, the revulsion he feels for those around him whom he sees as reflections of his own moral emptiness. At the same time, if Tatum has morals he long since stopped listening to them. Every time it looks like Tatum has realised what he has done, he reverts back to keeping the story going. Douglas’s dynamism also brings Tatum’s relentless drive and determination to life with real power. Tatum is easily able to cow, bully and bribe those around him into making him the funnel of the story. Never once do you question why all around Tatum bow to his will – his force of personality is so great you have no choice. Despite the hints of self-loathing, Douglas isn’t afraid to play Tatum as a reprehensible man – not bad or evil, just totally self-serving and selfish.

Jan Sterling I was less sure of at first, but actually this is another incredibly brave performance of uncompromising hardness. Lorraine is trapped in a marriage with a man she does not love, in the middle of nowhere, having believed she was marrying into something very different. But even with those provisos, her lack of interest in her husband’s safety and her focus on getting as much cash out of the tourists as possible (to finance her departure to the city) is astonishingly ruthless. Out of all the characters, she is the one who is immediately aware of what game Tatum is playing, and (with his advice) she is the most capable of exploiting the public excitement for her own gain. While she has elements of a femme fatale, Sterling’s performance seems more bitterly cynical than manipulatively feminine.

Wilder’s cynical and hard-nosed film is a brilliantly written deconstruction of the American dream, packed with wonderful lines and sharply drawn characters. It scrapes away at the surface of its characters to reveal the rot underneath – even Tatum’s photographer Herbie degrades from idealist to acolyte – and then blames us all for the mess. It shows us the disgusting ease with which our feelings can be manipulated to sell anything, then shows how gleefully we want to be feel part of an event: shots are filled with details like spectators carrying candy-floss while praying for Leo’s safety.

And then there is a complete lack of redemption – or even suggestion of it. Decent characters are peripheral, and far outnumbered by Tatum and his like. The resolution of the crisis does not go according to Tatum’s plan. It’s almost astonishing in its bleakness and in Tatum’s confused reaction to it and his lack of clear-cut guilt. Again, it’s Douglas’ skill and Wilder’s uncompromising direction: I actually had to watch it twice to catch the shading Douglas and Wilder give Tatum’s reactions to events finally going out of his control – and I still don’t know to what extent self-loathing trumps frustration and disappointment.

This is a masterful media satire and a wonderful, thought-provoking film, surely one of Wilder’s finest. It should be a lot better known than it actually is. I haven’t stopped thinking about it in days and I’m already looking forward to seeing it again. And, if anything, it is getting more relevant every single day.

Walk the Line (2005)

Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix excel in this star-crossed lovers musical biopic

Director: James Mangold
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Johnny Cash), Reese Witherspoon (June Carter), Ginnifer Goodwin (Vivian Liberto), Robert Patrick (Ray Cash), Dallas Roberts (Sam Phillips), Shelby Lynne (Carrie Cash), Waylon Payne (Jerry Lee Lewis)

Walk the Line focuses on Johnny Cash’s early career, from 1955-1968, culminating in his live performance at Folsom Prison and the tour it kickstarts. The main element in this story is the long-running courtship/friendship/disagreements between Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) and their more-than-a-decade-long journey to turn an immediate attraction into a relationship. It’s a very endearing, well directed biopic with a lot of heart at its centre as well as capturing a great deal of the feeling behind the music.

The thing about biopics like this is that they have a standard format, particularly it for music stars: the difficult childhood, the early struggle for success, the glory years, the troubled years (addiction usually rears its head here) before a triumphant rebirth. Walk the Line doesn’t really stray away from this format at all. You also have to acknowledge it was made with the close co-operation of John and June’s son (a co-producer) so there possibility that maybe some of this has been improved for fiction (although there seems no doubt about the strength of the relationship at its centre), even if it doesn’t shy away from Cash’s womanising or addiction to prescription pills during this period.

Well I’m not sure if it is good history, but its damn good story telling. This is a hugely sweet romance, which carefully builds the ups and downs of its central relationship without coating the whole thing with treacle. I certainly found myself very moved by it and deeply invested in seeing the two lead characters finally embrace their feelings for each other. The film does a very good job of establishing the immediate attraction between both Johnny and June, while also carefully demonstrating why it took them so many years to finally be together. It does this without feeling contrived or manipulative, which is quite an accomplishment.

What’s also quite satisfying is that, throughout, Cash plays the “weaker” role – he is the needy one, the one who spirals into depression and moping after rejection, the one who thrives on attention and affection. These traits in his personality are a running theme in the film. It’s a piece of cod psychology to connect these to the death as a child of his older brother, but it makes sense: Cash in this film spends his life trying to find an emotional replacement for this loss, from his over-hasty first marriage to his alternatingly shy and overeager pursuit of June. I also felt that June’s mixed feelings over Johnny – guilt over the attraction, rejection of his sometimes childish behaviour, worry about the public perception of her failed marriages or being accused of being a home-wrecker – also make perfect sense as presented in the film.

If you want to criticise the depiction of the relationship, you could say that it fits neatly into the trope of the female character being hugely supportive and caring over the troubled male genius. However, I think it avoids this – it makes clear that June did consider some of Johnny’s behaviour (both flirting on stage and his drug-taking in particular) unacceptable. At the same time, it also makes clear her affection for him from the start – and in that situation who wouldn’t help someone they care for when he is at his lowest point?

Focusing as it does on the romantic relationship, this film is pretty close to a two-hander. Every scene features either Johnny or June and the majority include them both. Phoenix and Witherspoon are both sensational in the roles. Phoenix’s physical and vocal mannerisms are spot on, but he also seems to have a deep understanding of the feelings of guilt, loneliness and anger that bubble under the surface of Cash, as well as his childish enthusiasm and sweetness. Witherspoon is similarly radiant as June, showing the contrasts between her girl-next-door stage persona and the more complex person below the skin, intelligent and resourceful but anxious about the implications of starting a relationship. Both performances are something quite special.

Alongside all of this, the film is highly accomplished technically, particularly in recreating a series of live performances of Johnny Cash hits. Phoenix and Witherspoon, who do all their own singing, do wonderful vocal and physical imitations, capturing the vibrancy and energy of live performance. Somehow there is something extremely real about seeing Phoenix’s sweating face in close-up, animatedly covering Cry Cry Cry, which manages to get across the excitement of live performance in a way lip-synching couldn’t. The recreation of the era is brilliantly well done – the Folsom Prison sequence is a particular stand out. 

Of course this film is slightly formulaic, and yes it tells a pretty safe story of love conquering all – but damn it when it’s put together with as much heart and skill as James Mangold manages here, who gives a damn. This is very moving, stirring material and I defy you to watch the final 15 minutes without a big grin on your face.