Sunday, 30 April 2017

Carol (2015)

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in a moving dance of love and romance

Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Cate Blanchett (Carol Aird), Rooney Mara (Therese Belivet), Sarah Paulson (Abby Gerhard), Kyle Chandler (Harge Aird), Jake Lacy (Richard Semco), John Magaro (Dannie McElroy), Cory Michael Smith (Tommy Tucker), Carrie Brownstein (Genevieve Cantrell)

It’s the way of things that gay love-stories in Hollywood are invariably relegated to a sub plot – often one that has a certain tragical element to it. This is not the case here in Todd Hayne’s superlative romance, which places a lesbian love story at its centre, sensitively building the characters and romantic journey between them.

Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a lost department store worker, drifting through life. One Christmas, working on the toy stall, she recommends a toy for the daughter of socialite Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). A spark of attraction between the two is immediately apparent, and Carol invites Therese first to dinner, then to spend an evening together and finally a Christmas road trip across America, during which their attraction grows and deepens into a flourishing love.

This wonderful love story, almost a twist on Brief Encounter, is a brilliantly done, extremely engrossing and moving romantic film, a film that manages the rare feat in Hollywood movies of not making a homosexual relationship something that requires narrative punishment. Haynes’ luscious 1950s filming style, stressing the aesthetics and manners of the era, combines brilliantly with a subtly murky photography style that darkens and lightens at different points to create an immersive fairy-tale quality. It’s a perfect tapestry for a deeply caring and sensitive story, anchored by a superb script and wonderful performances.

It has now got to the point where it is axiomatic to say Cate Blanchett gives a wonderful performance – she is, after all, one of the best actresses in the world right now. She is quite simply perfectly cast as Carol, her features having the flexibility to appear both cold and distant and soft and caring, a switch she is able to make with the slightest of gestures. Her patrician manner is deconstructed brilliantly. Her character is initially established as an almost predatory figure, a determined and manipulative woman; it’s only over the course of the film that this persona is slowly taken apart, revealing waves of emotion and pain from years of denial, loneliness and a sense of being trapped. Each scene slowly prompts us to reassess and reevaluate her character, and Blanchett handles this journey with astounding skill, revealing a hinterland of pained, self-doubting isolation and desperation to experience real love behind her cool and confident exterior. It’s a performance of phenomenal skill and emotional force.

It’s matched brilliantly by Rooney Mara as the object of Carol’s affections – and it must be said at the very least a co-lead of the film. Therese is a woman sleepwalking through life when we first see her, trotting through the motions of her interactions with others – a clear void in her, waiting for something to happen to her, but clearly with no idea of what that might be. Similar to Blanchett, Mara’s gentle and sensitive exterior deepens over the course of the film as she becomes more assertive to those around her, more of a determiner of what she wants from her own life. Mara’s soulful eyes and gentle face make her a perfect audience surrogate, creating a character whose feelings, doubts, anxieties and growing confidence we become immersed in. The film is in many ways her story, and Mara’s expressive gentleness is vital to our investment in the story. 

The road trip at the heart of the movie’s plot is a charming, lyrical dance between two people juggling an unspoken attraction: one of them on the edge of all times of saying it, the other drawn towards an attraction she is still trying to understand and express. Haynes perfectly captures the small playful moments of first love that pepper these scenes, the camera intimately placed to make us part of this growing partnership of equal minds and hearts. Slowly they grow physically closer – both in their ease of body language, and through their slow progress towards sharing hotel rooms and finally (in an achingly romantic scene) a bed.

It’s a film about romantic longing between two people, the instant attraction. Therese’s first glance of Carol is across a crowded room, with the camera panning past Carol in a POV shot and then returning to her, before cutting back to Therese, now seemingly alive with an attraction she doesn’t quite understand. The Brief Encounter structure of the film is established with the film opening with Carol and Therese’s (possible) last meeting in a dinner. We see their interrupted conversation leading to Carol’s departure, leaving after touching a hand on Therese’s shoulder – the camera lingering on Therese’s back and her unseen reaction (and contrasting it with a meaningless similar touch from a male friend). When this scene is replayed later, we see it more from Carol’s perspective – and her pulsating emotion and longing. 

The reason these scenes work so well is that the film continually shows Carol and Therese struggling to hide their growing attraction in plain sight, to maintain the balance between expressing their feeling and keeping a plausible deniability. This feeling grows because the film has the patience to take its time with building this relationship– and because we are aware of Therese’s feelings earlier than she is.

The film’s sensitivity extends to the sympathy it feels for all its characters. As useless as many of the men in the story are, they are confused, distressed or lonely rather than malicious or cruel. Carol’s husband Harge could have been a bullying monster, but he actually comes across as a frustrated and deeply hurt man, who understands on some level his wife’s sexual preferences, but is unable to fully comprehend the implications of this. On paper it’s a thankless part, but Kyle Chandler is superb, his Mad Men features perfectly suited to the role of floundering masculine figure. Many of Therese’s would-be suitors are similarly drawn reasonably sympathetically, however laddy, over-keen or dull they may be – Haynes’ film has an understanding that they are products of their time. In a lovely scene Therese talks about homosexuality with one of her male suitors, who can barely countenance its existence, as if she was talking about the man in the moon. 

Haynes’s mastery of the aesthetics of the material is present throughout. Haynes increases the feelings of being trapped or surrounded by a number of shots through windows, using mirrors, from the other side of doors – divides that stress the characters’ sense of being trapped and enclosed in their lives. He also carries across just a small teasing touch of the melodrama of 1950s films – though I would argue this is no way a melodramatic film – with a gun making a deliberately misleading appearance, and a few beats that briefly suggest the film is heading in an entirely different direction.

Carol is a wonderful, soulful and entrancing film. It’s about two people showing each other hidden depths about themselves, uncovering truths and building each other’s capacity for love and ability to admit and understand their feelings. It makes this a tender and endearing film, with two characters whose fates we become completely involved with. It also avoids passing any form of judgement over any of the characters. Filled with subtle moments, open to interpretations (even their first meeting is full of code, from the recommendation of a non-gender-conforming train set to Carol’s gloves left invitingly on the counter) that constantly ask us to review how open we feel the characters are being with themselves and others. With brilliant performances by Mara and Blanchett (backed by Chandler and a very sensitive performance from Sarah Paulson as Carol’s former lover), this wonderful film is both profoundly moving and very uplifting.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

U-571 (2000)

Matthew McConaughey and Harvey Keitel crack the Engima Code. With lots of guns. And no maths at all.

Director: Jonathan Mostow
Cast: Matthew McConaughey (Lt. Andrew Tyler), Bill Paxton (Lt. Com. Mike Dahlgren), Harvey Keitel (Chief Henry Klough), Jon Bon Jovi (Lt. Peter Emmett), David Keith (Major Matthew Coonan), Jake Weber (Lt. Michael Hirsch), Jack Noseworth (Bill Wentz), Erik Palladino (Anthony Mazzola), Thomas Kretschmann (Capt. Gunther Wassner)

On its release, U-571 was something of a sensational scandal– and in fact gained far more attention than a fairly standard submarine movie probably deserved. Why is that? Because it epitomised the perception in this country of American films taking war achievements from us poor Brits and giving them to Yankee heroes. Was this annoying for a British people all to used (it seemed) to having their war contribution lost in the crush of American films? You betcha.

During World War 2, Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) is sent to lead a team of American sailors to capture an Enigma machine from a stranded German sub. The Enigma machine, and the inability of the Allies to break it, is losing America (whose involvement in the war has been moved forward for the purposes of this story) the war after all. However, the mission swiftly goes wrong and Tyler is left commanding a rogue bunch of terrified sailors on the captured German submarine, trying to get the Engima machine back to the US Navy before its loss is discovered. All that is missing is Alan Turing reinvented as a hard-boiled Brooklyner totting a machine gun and shouting "I gotta Bombe for ya, ya Kraut Bastards!".

The movie itself is not too bad, to be honest. although nothing special. The expected clichés of the submarine are all there: the fears about water pressure, claustrophobia, a sequence where the boat sinks inexorably towards the bottom of the ocean, torpedoes in the water, depth charges, “right full rudder”, sonar pings, water gushing from pipes, someone having to undertake a vital repair underwater with limited air supply etc etc. – it’s all been done before, from Enemy Below to Crimson Tide. Saying that, Jonathan Mostow knows how to cut the heck out of a movie and as a result this charges forward with a relentless energy which works rather well and makes this a suitably tense film. Special mention also goes to the sound editing, which won an Oscar for its brilliant creation of the aural impact of everything from depth charges to torpedoes scraping hulls.

Of course the story itself is nothing unique: even the personal plot lines are largely recycled from other movies: will McConaughey’s young XO be placed in a situation where he has to prove his chops as a commander? You bet he will! Keitel is an Old Sea Dog, Paxton is a fatherly Captain, Kretschmann is a cold professional German – but the actors play these well shuffled stock characters with an admirable level of commitment. The film has a great “Dirty Dozen” vibe to it, and does manage to throw in a couple of surprises about character fates. For those of us who love the predictable trotted out with po-faced commitment and energy, it's hard not to be entertained.

There are some well-done (if unsurprising) scenes as Tyler struggles with his authority over men who don’t have trust in him and are terrified of getting killed. It’s interesting how much the film asks us to invest in essentially willing Tyler (a decent performance by McConaughey) to have the guts to send a man to his death for the good of the ship. Centring this moral dilemma as a crucial qualification for leadership at least means the film does take a honest look at the complexities of command to counter the boys’-own heroics elsewhere. Saying that, the almost pathological mutinous rumblings of Seaman Mazzola against an officer we are told early in the film is “popular with the men” does seem rather sudden – possibly because making Tyler a distant stick-in-the-mud (which he would need to be for the level of rejection from the crew to really work) rather than a regular Joe might have made us less likely to root for him at the start.

Of course all of this seems pretty inconsequential next to the real issue of the film, which is its historical accuracy (or complete lack thereof). To be honest, the fury against the film’s appropriation of British Naval achievements is rather harder to sustain (a) nearly 20 years on and (b) when you see what an agenda-free, entertainment-only movie it is. Perhaps the real insult was that the crew of this mission contained actors like Jon Bon Jovi and the guy who played ER’s Dr Dave. But that doesn’t change the fact that this stuff didn’t happen, and the elements of the story that did certainly didn’t happen like this and were done by completely different people. It’s hard to shake the feeling, even while you enjoy the film, that it gives a false glory to the wrong people. If even a few people came out of it thinking the Americans cracked Engima (or that Engima was cracked like this rather than primarily by maths) it’s certainly a few people too many. 

As a side note, while reading up about the film before this review, I found that one of the screenwriters, David Ayer (now a purveyor of average WW2 films himself with Fury), had this to say about the controversy of the film’s re-writing of history: “[I do] not feel good…it was a distortion, a mercenary decision to create this parallel history in order to drive the movie for an American audience…Both my grandparents were officers in World War Two, and I would be personally offended if somebody distorted their achievements…I understand how important that event is to the UK, and I won’t do it again.”

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Dr. No (1962)

Bond sets out his stall in series opener Dr No.

Director: Terence Young
Cast:  Sean Connery (James Bond), Ursula Andress (Honey Ryder), Joseph Wiseman (Dr. No), Jack Lord (Felix Leiter), Bernard Lee (M), Anthony Dawson (Professor Dent), John Kitzmiller (Quarrel), Zena Marshall (Miss Taro), Eunice Grayson (Sylvia Trench), Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny)

It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when the launch of James Bond novel was nothing more than a little B-picture event – rather than the major cultural landmark it has now become. But James Bond started off as a slightly higher budget B-movie of a character largely unknown to those who don’t read spy fiction.

After the murder of a British agent in Jamaica, James Bond (Sean Connery) is sent to investigate. Arriving in Jamaica, Bond quickly finds himself the target of a series of increasingly outlandish attempts to take his life: from a fake embassy driver to a series of assassins pretending to be blind and a sinister geology professor. Eventually, Bond detects the hands (forgive the pun) of Dr No (Joseph Wiseman), who is experimenting with radioactivity on a nearby island. 

What is striking is how much of the Bond-movie formula is in place here right from the start – or rather, how much the style and tone established here fitted so naturally with the source material and character, meaning it would be used repeatedly throughout the rest of the series. Most striking of course are the music cues, all perfect and immediately cool. Is it any wonder that no-one has felt the need to change the James Bond Theme since? But it’s not just that: Bond’s flirtation with Moneypenny and cheeky-protégé exchanges with M? Check. Exotic locales, car chases, shoot ups and wise cracks over dead bodies? Check. The villain being a suavely charming wannabe upper-class type with a creepy deformity, a vague plan and a ridiculously overblown layer? Check. Wave after wave of heavies attempting to bump Bond off with overblown schemes? Check. The villain monologing rather than killing Bond? Check. It’s all there – the formula was in place, and would remain for the next 60 years.

Of course, it probably wouldn’t have worked without getting the casting of Bond himself right – which they certainly did with Connery. Not exactly a conventional choice for a character Fleming imagined as a mixture of Noel Coward, Cary Grant, David Niven and Christopher Lee, Connery brought to it the earthy violence, the roughness and sense of danger that made you believe he could not only merrily kill a room full of goons, but that he would hardly break a sweat doing it. The film’s writers downplayed the self-doubt, anxiety and fear that Fleming’s book-Bond often displayed, repositioning the character as a serenely cool and charismatic superspy, with Connery granting him an additional charm and sex appeal all rooted in his charisma as a performer. He’s magnetic here – whippet thin, dryly deadpan and ruthlessly violent. He established completely the template the character would follow through the next five actors.

What’s interesting watching this film is how close it is to being a one-man movie cum character study. Bond’s principle love interest, Honey Ryder, doesn’t appear until half way through the film and Dr No himself doesn’t pop up until the final act. Felix Leiter has just a few bare scenes. Instead, the focus is front and centre on Bond himself, and Connery’s perfect mix of suave sophisticate and brutal remorseless brawler. The character’s comfort with sex and violence (often close together) is in every scene – Bond sleeps with at least four women, flirts with a couple more, ruthlessly offs a wave of heavies sent by No, and cold bloodedly guns down defenceless doofus Professor Dent. Perhaps fitting for a film that promoted itself as “the FIRST James Bond film”, it wants us to understand (and above all, enjoy the company of) this guy, with the hope that we will sign up for multiple movies to come (which of course we did).

As a standalone film, Doctor No makes a pretty good fist of things. Its plot avoids a clumsy “Bond: Origins” story, instead throwing us straight into events (despite being the first Bond film, it could basically be watched in any order with Connery’s other Bonds – only his first discovery of SPECTRE has any bearing on the timeline). Its plot is certainly a lot more stodgy and wordy than later films would be – but the balance is Bond actually gets to do quite a bit of investigating. The pace is kept up, even if (as noted) most of the film’s principle characters don’t appear until late in the film.

The rather low budget is clear in the rather rudimentary car chases (back screen projection ahoy!) and fights, which rely heavily on sped-up film to get their impact across. I suspect most of the money went on the glamourous Jamaican location, but that does look fantastic under Ted Moore’s photography. 

The film does though have a certain mastery in its direction, not least in the introduction of its leading characters. The introduction of Bond himself (held off for the best part of 10 minutes) is a lovely example: a camera tracks into a casino, settling on a table before craning up to reveal the lady Bond is playing against. A medium shot of the same table: Bond’s hands can be seen but nothing else. The camera focuses on the lady again and tracks back over Bond’s shoulders – we see the outline of his neck. Several shots of his hands follow flipping over cards – finally he speaks (“I admire your courage Miss uh –“ being the character’s immortal first onscreen words). She retorts and then the camera finally jump cuts to Connery nonchantly lighting a cigarette with practised cool – while the Bond theme gently underplays, swelling throughout the rest of the scene. From here now we cut to Connery’s face every few seconds. It’s a masterful building of tension and aura. Similar skill is also of course shown in the later entrance of Ursula Andress’ Honey Ryder.

Dr No is an extremely enjoyable B-movie, which successfully sets up the tropes that would play out so well in future Bond movies. Ken Adams’ imposing set design for Dr No’s secret base set the tone for the sort of futuristic locations Bond would find himself in, and would only grow in imagination as the film series expanded. It’s not just the visuals – the tone of the series is pretty much there straight away, and if the plot is not always the most gripping and the action not always the most compelling, that would only develop as the series got more and more money pumped its way. Indeed the follow-up, From Russia with Love, would build perfectly on many of the concepts and ideas introduced in this film. Dr No is not in the top 10 best Bond films, but it continues to reward and entertain – and for starting such a huge ball rolling so confidently, it deserves plenty of praise.