Sunday, 30 July 2017

Election (1998)

Reese Witherspoon runs for office in high-school satire Election

Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Matthew Broderick (Jim McAllister), Reese Witherspoon (Tracy Flick), Chris Klein (Paul Metzler), Jessica Campbell (Tammy Metzler), Phil Reeves (Principal Walt Hendricks), Molly Hagen (Diane McAllister), Colleen Camp (Judith Flick), Delaney Driscoll (Linda Novotny), Mark Harelik (Dave Novotny)

High school can be a great setting for films that want to comment on our adult world, because they are such exact microcosms for society. Few films get this idea as effectively as Alexander Payne’s simply superb Election.

In an Illinois high school, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) is a civics teacher who loves his job but is increasingly annoyed by high-achieving student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), who he also unconsciously blames for the dismissal of his friend Dave for having an affair with her. Tracy is a ruthless careerist, the sort of girl whose hand is always first up in class, and she wants more than anything to win the election to school president. Feeling it his duty to stop Tracy, McAllister persuades football star Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her – and slowly unleashes a hurricane of ruthless campaigning and dirty tricks that leads to disaster.

This sharp and brilliant satirical comedy avoids jumping to any easy conclusions: instead it ruthlessly skewers everyone involved. Other films would make McAllister a crushed victim, broken down by events and Tracy’s unstoppable force of will. Instead, Payne turns him into an increasingly self-deluding whiner whose impending mid-life crisis becomes more and more evident. There is a particularly sly decision to cast Broderick as this weak-willed, selfish, self-proclaimed victim. Who cannot think about Ferris Bueller now all grown up into a klutzy loser, ineptly trying to initiate an affair with his wife’s best friend and mentally super-imposing Tracy’s head onto his wife’s body during a routine pregnancy-focused coupling? 

In fact, watching the film it’s fascinating to see how much it charts McAllister’s disintegration into bitterness and self-justification. By any measureable standard, everything he does is fairly indefensible, while his annoyance with Tracy is rooted in his barely self-acknowledged sexual fascination with her. By the end of the film, as his cheery voiceover recounts his failures and personal and professional disasters with a self-deceiving optimism, you can’t help but begin to wonder how much this manic cheerfulness infected everything McAllister has told us from the start. 

It’s things like this that make the film so much more than a straight political satire. Tracy Flick may be a ruthlessly ambitious young woman, who believes she has a nearly divine right to win – but she’s also the child of an equally ruthless woman (using Tracy to relive her own life), who has been sexually exploited by one of her teachers, whose smiles and enforced cheerfulness and drive hide a volcanic anger and insecurity. She could have been simply a smiling force of political ambition – but instead she feels like a real person diverting her own problems into a domineering careerism.

All of which adds a rich hinterland to the film and helps make it even funnier than it could have been. This might be the best political satire ever made. It’s certainly one of the funniest. There are zinger lines every few minutes. The satire is pin-sharp. Tracy is the qualified political hack that the normal people can’t relate to. Paul the Bush-like jock who can speak the language of the common man but manifestly lacks all qualifications. Tammy represents the anarchic frustration and alienation so many feel for the political process. The entire election is a shrewd, subtle skewering of every campaign in politics you’ve ever seen. Even the jobsworth geeks who run these things get it in the neck – “Larry, we’re not electing the fucking Pope” McAllister snaps (at the end of his tether) as he has the ludicrously elaborate election rules explained to him again.

But the film doesn’t forget the humanity: McAllister is a deluded man, but he feels real. He’s so inept at everything from seduction to deception it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for him. (As if to visualise his uselessness, he spends the last third of the film mostly with a massive swollen eye from a bee sting). Tracy has her own problems. Paul, far from being a heartless jock, is the most sensitive and caring person in the film (even if he is as dim as a failing lightbulb). Tammy’s a touching combination of good natured cynicism and obsessive, vengeful stalker. 

Of course, it also helps that the acting is outstanding, the comic timing (both in acting and direction) perfect. Reese Witherspoon might never have been better than as the ruthless Tracy, a hurricane of hilarious repeated concepts from political biographies. Chris Klein is very sweet as Paul, a guy it’s impossible not to like. Jessica Campbell is perfect. Broderick holds the entire film together with a superb schleppy moral weakness. Payne’s direction brings all these elements together brilliantly – and has a way with the freeze frame and quick edit that provides a series of striking visual gags.

Election is a classic film – a brilliant satire on politics and elections, but also human nature itself. The characters have depth and reality that makes the jokes hit home with force. The use of voiceover narration from all the main players helps bring us even closer to them, and helps expose their inner personalities even more. I think this might be the best film Payne has made – Sideways and The Descendants receive the greater plaudits and attention, but this is his sharpest, wittiest film, and the one that is perhaps the most rewarding of repeat viewing. It’s simply a brilliant, small scale classic.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Andy Serkis goes to war as Ape Leader Caesar in the final entry in the new Planet of the Apes saga

Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Andy Serkis (Caesar), Woody Harrelson (The Colonel), Steve Zahn (Bad Ape), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Terry Notary (Rocket), Ty Olsson (Red), Michael Adamthwaite (Luca), Toby Kebbell (Koba), Judy Greer (Cornelia), Sara Canning (Lake), Gabriel Chavarria (Preacher)

The Planet of the Apes trilogy of the past few years is so far superior to the original films (bar the first) that even decent efforts still stand tall over their forebears. War isn’t quite the classic you want, but it is a worthy companion to the two previous films, and sets a tough act to follow for (inevitable) sequels and remakes.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) is nearing the end of a long war with humanity, desperate for peace to allow the apes to set up their own home. But after a night attack by demagogue rogue soldier The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) leaves Caesar suffering a huge personal loss, he finally succumbs to his rage and anger and goes on a quest for vengeance, accompanied only by his oldest and closest companions. Along the way he discovers the doom of mankind has already begun, with a virus slowly robbing them of the power of speech and reason.

It’s a slight shame that the final film in an excellent trilogy isn’t quite the knock-out I hoped it would be. It’s a good film, but not a great one. It won’t exactly leave anyone disappointed, but it doesn’t quite send the entire trilogy out on as triumphant a high as hoped. Part of the problem is that I just found it a slightly more straightforward, less thematically rich than the other films. It’s more of a simple “revenge” story, married up with a host of film genre references from Apocalypse Now to Westerns to old-school Hollywood Biblical epics.

The title suggests a bit more action than the film actually offers. The war, such as it is, turns out to be almost a macguffin – a feud between rival groups of humans rather than an ape-human smackdown. It’s actually the most internalised conflict yet – the war to decide the sort of planet the apes will inherit is in the soul of the sort of leader Caesar will decide to be. Like all revenge dramas around sympathetic characters, the big question is will our hero decide to lay aside vengeance – to be the better man. It’s a tribute to the film that the answer is as difficult and unclear-cut as you expect the question would be.

As this film, more than any other, is ape-centric (there are at best three human characters), it rests even more than on the strength of Serkis’ acting. It feels unoriginal to say it now, but what Serkis has achieved is astonishing. He has turned a special effect with an actor behind it into a living, breathing character – someone you never doubt is real. His performance is a complex internalisation, as far away from flashy as you can get – it’s all about the eyes, and Serkis’ shine with life.

It’s lucky that Serkis is  here, as he elevates the entire film to a higher level, where otherwise it can occasionally  feel like a careful assembly of bits and pieces of other films. Caesar and gang’s journey through the snowy depths of North America looks and feels like a spaghetti western. By the end of the film, Caesar feels like a Moses figure leading his people to the promised land. The biggest influence by far however is Apocalypse Now. The soldiers all feel like angry Vietnamese war vets, the opening battles through the forest have a definite air of the jungle, while Woody Harrelson’s slightly underpowered villain is so reminiscent of Kurtz, he even does a Brando impersonation at points. The structure of the film even matches Heart of Darkness, Caesar on a trek “down river” to confront a rogue soldier turned cult leader.

It’s not exactly unique and recycles much of its content, but Reeves is still a damn fine director and not only shoots with dynamism, but also ensures there is heart and depth behind everything. There is a subtle understory of ape civil war, with the followers of Koba now serving the humans out of an “enemy of my enemy” mentality. Making the Colonel the leader of a maniacal cult also makes him a good contrast with Caesar’s standing with the apes. At least two characters develop in ways far different than you are led to expect, due to clever playing with the viewer’s expectations of how movies are “supposed” to pan out.

So why doesn’t it all quite work as well? If it’s so full of good stuff, why doesn’t it sing like the others? Well maybe it’s a little too long. Maybe the Colonel isn’t quite a good enough antagonist for Caesar. Maybe the grim mood and focus on the revenge arc mean some of the thematic richness of the previous films has been lost. Maybe there just isn’t quite enough “humanity” in this story of apes. It’s hard to put your finger on – but it’s just not quite as good as the others, not quite as memorable. It’s a strong well-made film, very well directed and superbly acted by Serkis and the other motion capture artists – but it’s not quite the classic it feels like it could be. You’ll be slightly unsatisfied but find it hard to work out exactly why.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Double Indemnity (1944)

Barbara Stanwyck is the dark force beyond Fred MacMurray in Wilder's classic Double Indemnity

Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson), Edward G. Robinson (Barton Keyes), Porter Hall (Mr Jackson), Jean Heather (Lola Dietrichson), Tom Powers (Mr Dietrichson), Bryon Barr (Nina Zachett), Richard Gaines (Edward Norton)

In the wake of the Second World War, morally complex and dark (in every sense of the word) stories spoke to a nation coming to terms with what it had been through. Out of this was born a new genre: film noir. Double Indemnity might just be the best example and one of Billy Wilder’s best films.

Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a bored insurance salesman, smitten with the sexually alluring Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), wife of a potential client. When she suggests that, with his help, they could get rid of her husband and collect a massive insurance payout on his death, Neff is quickly won over. But murder is a hard thing to get away with – particularly when Neff’s colleague and close friend Barton Keyes (Edward G Robinson), the best investigator in the business, smells something amiss in the ‘accident’.

Double Indemnity is one of those films that it’s easy to forget was as influential as it was, precisely because it’s narrative and filmic techniques have been so comprehensively imitated in a host of films since. But imagine: this was one of the very first real film noirs. It was one of the first films that used shadows and darkness as effectively as this to reflect mood and atmosphere. It was the one of the first films to use a femme fatale as prominently (and unapologetically) as this. It’s also one of the first films where sex permeates almost everything you see in the picture. 

Phyllis is a woman who understands the power of sensuality, who is well aware of how she can use her body and aloof mystery to get what she wants out of men. But even more than that, Stanwyck’s wonderfully cold performance suggests she hardly seems to care about anything at all: in fact the impression is almost that she is locked into moving forward, passing through husbands and lovers, leaving men dead on the wayside. That’s the magic of Stanwyck in this film: can you remember a character as unremittingly, unapologetically sinful, manipulative and conscience-free as this? 

Of course Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff is the perfect rube for this fiercely intelligent and determined woman. MacMurray’s slight B-movie blandness – his lack of star quality, his everyday, folky unimaginativeness – is perfect for the overconfident, slightly smarmy, laziness of Neff. It’s never said outright, but you suspect that the attraction of the danger Phyllis offers is escape from his own dull life. Does he love Phyllis? I would say almost certainly not – but is he horny for her? You better believe it. It’s a man on the cusp of a mid-life crisis getting a chance to throw himself into a sex-driven affair.

What do these two think of each other? Both of them seem barely capable of trusting each other, using sex and flirting almost as a filler between bouts of mutual suspicion. Does she care for him even a little behind her use of him? And does he feel anything like a bond with her inbetween the bouts of sex? They stumble so quickly into the plan that it almost feels like they are going through the motions – she is so used to manipulation and murder, it’s all she knows; he is so bored with his life that the excitement of violence and murder with his sex seems impossible to resist.

And Wilder lets sex run through this whole film. From Phyllis’ long descent down her flight of stairs at her first entrance to the irresistible anklet, everything about Stanwyck in this film is about the power of her sex. The dialogue exchanges between Neff and Phyllis crackle with magnetism. Later, Wilder skilfully shoots a sex scene without showing a thing: we cut from the two of them kissing on a sofa, to their positions shifted, Phyllis fixing her dress and Neff reclining smoking.

It helps that the dialogue is scintillating. Each exchange is packed with crackling and quotable lines. You get a perfect marriage here between Wilder’s acerbic cynicism and dry wit, and Raymond Chandler’s arch, spiky, carefully constructed dialogue, with its gritty poetry. I mean just watch the exchange here – perfection.

And they write some knock-out speeches too – but then you would if you had an actor as brilliant as Edward G. Robinson to deliver them. 

Neff’s voiceover uses the technique where it should be used – not to tell us information any well informed viewer can already work out for themselves, but to allow us insight into Neff himself and his situation, that complements and develops our appreciation of the picture (it’s also beautifully well delivered by MacMurray). I’d also add it’s the same conceit as Sunset Boulevard – its lead character narrates the film mortally wounded – and it works just as well here, stressing the disaster that hangs over every action by our anti-heroes. 

Added to this, the film looks beautiful. The shadows have an all-consuming inky depth. Cinematographer John Seitz is not afraid of turning the lights down and down, and the darkness absorbs and consumes the whole picture. It allows striking lighting effects – the blinds that seem to be in every room allow slits of light through them that draw lines across the faces and bodies of the actors (as many viewers have commented, it also has the effect of making half the characters appear like they are behind bars). The darkness looms in from the corners of the frame, trapping the leads into the action – and into their own disastrous decisions.

Wilder’s skilful camera placement is what makes this film really work. He presents action constantly in challenging and different ways, never doing the expected. During the actual murder (committed while Phyllis drives), the camera never looks at Neff committing the crime, but closely follows the look of almost sensual satisfaction on Phyllis’ face: she never once looks at what is happening in the seat next to her, but her face makes us experience the killing in an even more disturbingly intimate way than watching it would be.

But what makes this film truly brilliant and unique is that its main relationship isn’t even the one you expect. Neff and Phyllis may have an electric physical relationship, but the real romance in the film is between Neff and his colleague Keyes. These two share a deeply close and personal bond. Theirs is a friendship that skirts around a platonic romance – made sharper of course as Keyes is the only man who stands a chance of working out what exactly is going on. There is a fine visual motif throughout of Neff lighting matches (with his thumb!) for Keyes – a gesture that feels both manly and intimate. 

Keyes is played by a career-best Edward G. Robinson. Robinson blazes through the big speeches – but with a confident skill that never makes them feel like showboating moments. He gives Keyes an eccentric brilliance, mixed with a delicate humanism. To be that good at sniffing out wrongdoing and deceit from his fellow men, you can’t help feeling that he must have a pretty good idea about what human fallibility feels like. It’s this warm human understanding that Robinson does so brilliantly. It’s also what helps to make this relationship so moving. It’s hard not to share the obvious awkward discomfort MacMurray gives to Neff when he feels as if he is letting down his friend, and betraying the trust between them.

It’s this that makes Double Indemnity stand out. It’s a film that’s actually about the relationship between two men – part friendship, part father-and-son, part romantic – their love for each other, which happens to have an irresistible femme fatale thrown into the middle. It feels like a very unique and different approach – a touch of Wilder magic if you will – that makes the film stand out. It’s also what lies behind the link it has with audiences, the human interest that makes you come back again and again to this film about two ruthless killers. 

This is a film in which everyone was at their best. MacMurray never did anything again to match it, Stanwyck seized the part with such commitment that she spawned countless imitators, Robinson is just magnificent. Wilder’s direction is perfect, the film looks ravishing, the script is to die for. Double Indemnity may not only be the most influential film noir ever. It might also be the best.