Monday, 30 April 2018

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty are the shallow, violent romantics Bonnie and Clyde

Director: Arthur Penn
Cast: Warren Beatty (Clyde Barrow), Faye Dunaway (Bonnie Parker), Michael J Pollard (CW Moss), Gene Hackman (Buck Barrow), Estelle Parsons (Blanche Barrow), Denver Pyle (Marshal Frank Hamer), Dub Taylor (Ivan Moss), Gene Wilder (Eugene Grizzard), Evans Evans (Velma Davis)

Bonnie and Clyde can lay claim to being one of the most influential American films ever made. It came out of a seismic cultural change in America, as old style Hollywood royalty faded out and a new generation stormed the barricades to make films that felt rougher, rawer and told complex stories in shades of grey. 

Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway): drifting youngsters, not interested in accepting a conventional life. They want to go where they please and take what they please. And if some people get hurt – well they can justify that to themselves. As the poster famously said: “They’re young. They’re in love. And they kill people”. In a deliberately disjointed narrative, where time is unclear, the two meet, head out together, commit crimes, stay on the run and are eventually killed by law enforcement. The story is simple – it’s the telling of it that matters.

Bonnie and Clyde latches on to a counter-culture vibe that was growing in strength at the time. But what the film does so brilliantly is subvert this. It invites us to identify to with the romantic, Byronic yearnings of its heroes, who see themselves as free spirits, living a life of idealistic, unconstrained excitement. But the film also has a clear eye on the trail of violence they leave behind them, their lack of regard for this and the impact on the victims. Because make no mistake, these dreamy killers get more and more violent as they go on.

The film turns these two killers into would-be celebrities – guys who want to project a certain image of themselves to the world (down to mailing the papers photos and poems about themselves). They enjoy the notoriety and their self-proclaimed mythology. Clyde walks into banks and gleefully announces he’s with the “Barrow gang”, as if half expecting someone to ask for his autograph. Later in the film, as Clyde reads their press coverage out loud, with CW Moss like a star-struck groupie, the film never forgets the two of them were basically nobodies, who wanted to feel like somebodies.

And it lets you enjoy the romance of this. There is something fairy-tale like in the film about Clyde picking up Bonnie from outside of her home, taking her into town for flirting and robbery. The whole film continues this dreamy logic, with time jumps and scenes that don’t necessarily link up directly with each other. 

But then the violence takes over. Wow is Bonnie and Clyde a film that lets you know about the impact of bullets. Gun shots don’t just maim or wing, they rip bodies apart. The japey feeling of their bank robberies gets dispelled about half an hour into the film when Clyde shoots a bank teller in the head from point blank range (“him or me”, he later tells his brother). The gang are so incompetent, that the film is frequently punctured by shoot-outs in which no mercy is shown to anyone. 

This is of course hard for the gang to reconcile with their self-image as Robin Hoods, so they mostly forget about it. Clyde won’t steal money from ordinary people (though he’ll happily steal cars, or beat a grocery store clerk into a coma). They playfully tease and taunt a captive US Marshal – until he spits in Bonnie’s face at which point violence ensues. Only at points do the gang seem to have the slightest idea of the dangers: after kidnapping Gene Wilder’s nervy car-owner and his fiancé, a happy-go-lucky Evan Evans (both excellent), merry conversations in the car with the gang are suddenly halted when Wilder admits he’s an undertaker – Bonnie immediately demands they are thrown out and the next shot is her weeping in a field. She doesn’t seem to understand the connection, but we can.

The film is superbly put together. Warren Beatty produced the movie practically from its inception. Robert Benton and David Newman’s script was intended as a French New Wave film – evident in its looseness, its lack of old-school values, its violence, its focus on naïve dreamers who choose the easy way out – but Beatty took the script, re-crafted it with Robert Towne (billed as special advisor) and decided the film needed an American director, not a Truffaut or Godard. He brought on board Arthur Penn, and the two worked together (fought together) closely to bring this radical, edgy, jittery, electric film to the screen. 

Penn and Beatty pushed themselves to some of their best work. Beatty is terrific as the vainglorious Clyde – whose determination in crime is matched by his impotence in the sack (the film wisely doesn’t overplay Clyde’s impotence as an ironic theme, but lets the audience draw its own conclusions). He also produced the film expertly. Penn’s direction is sublime, marrying the finest elements of French New Wave cinema with old-style Westerns.

The film is restless and energetic, and intermixes moments of fun and frivolity among the gang with ominous danger and violence. The camera jitters and shakes, while throwing us into the action – the film is masterfully edited – while at other points sailing on like a neutral observer. The film has a neat satiric edge, and Penn uses banjo music masterfully to ironically contrast with much of the action we see on the screen. The characters – all of them – seem to spend so much time talking about their press coverage because they have so little to say to each other. Even the lovers only really seem to find a moment of quiet devotion shortly before their death. It give you violence as entertainment, but also tells you effectively and quietly how appalling and dangerous violence is.

The acting is similarly extraordinary. Beatty is wonderful, as is Dunaway as an impossibly young, romantic Bonnie who adapts with alarming swiftness to killing and robbing. Michael J Pollard is excellent as the slightly simple, eager young car mechanic who hero-worships the couple. Hackman and Parsons are both excellent as Barrow’s older-but-not-wiser brother, and his wife who seesaws between resentment, fear and an imperious delight in her new-found infamy.

Penn’s brilliant film deconstructs the mythology of criminals to show the emptiness underneath, their shallow self-regard and lack of insight. It does this while still managing somehow to remain affectionate towards these two murderous dreamers. Bonnie and Clyde is a sublime modern Western, a commentary on fame, a dissection of violence and a great black comedy. Shot with youthful energy and an influential lack of traditionalism, it’s a film that always feels modern and necessary.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Eddie Redmayne and Dan Fogler uncover some Fantastic Beasts

Director: David Yates
Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander), Katherine Waterston (Tina Goldstein), Dan Fogler (Jacob Kowalski), Alison Sudol (Queenie Goldstein), Colin Farrell (Percival Graves), Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone), Samantha Morton (Mary Lou Barebone), Jon Voight (Henry Shaw Snr), Carmen Ejogo (President Seraphona Picquery), Ron Perlman (Gnarlack), Ronan Raftery (Langdon Shaw), Josh Cowdery (Henry Shaw Jnr), Johnny Depp (Gellert Grindelwald)

Eventually the gravy train had to come to an end. The Harry Potter franchise laid golden eggs for over a decade, until Rowling’s books came to an end. Just as well then that the incomparable JK Rowling had tonnes of invention left up her sleeve, and was keen to look at other elements of the Potterverse. So we got the creation of this sideways prequel, set in the rich backstory of the Harry Potter novels. And it is a bit of a treat.

In the 1920s, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York with a suitcase full of fantastic beasts. He’s there to return one of them home – but after a mix-up at a bank his suitcase ends up in the hands of muggle (or as the Americans put it “No-Maj”) and would-be baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). As the escaped beasts cause chaos, demoted Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) works with Newt and Jacob to try and recapture the creatures, with the aid of Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sodel). But is all the destruction truly caused by Newt’s creatures? Or are there darker forces at work? 

Fantastic Beasts is a charming spin-off, sustained by some endearing performances, its warm heart and stylish design. Whether the plot is quite strong enough to reward constant viewing as much as many of the Harry Potter films do, I’m not sure (I didn’t find its story particularly gripping the second time around), but I think there are enough incidental pleasures there to keep you coming back for more. It’s actually a film which will be interesting to re-evaluate after the later sequels emerge – there are many suggested threads set up in this one for exploration later.

It’s not a surprise that the initial plot around chasing and collecting the beasts is fairly basic, since it’s based on a slim handbook (itself based on a reference from the original Harry Potter stories) that Rowling published as a Comic Relief fundraiser. Besides the chasing around to capture the animals, it’s only really the backdrop for sight-gags, cute animals and (most importantly) our window for getting to know our leads.

And these leads are certainly well worth getting to know, with a string of excellent performances from the four principals. Redmayne anchors the film very well as the slightly dotty, professorial, socially awkward Newt, whose coy, bashful charm really endears him to the viewer. Dan Fogler is possibly even better as our viewer surrogate, an average New Yorker thrown into a mad world of magic who somehow manages to take it all in his stride and whose growing excitement and embracing of this demented wizard world makes you fall in love with him. He’s helped by a sweet, gentle and touching romance with the effervescent but lonely Queenie (a magnetic Alison Sudol). Katherine Waterston gets the trickiest part as the earnest, try-hard, play-by-the-rules Tina – but her growing fondness for Newt and his creatures works very well.

The moments of the film that focus on the interaction between these four are the finest of the film – as are those that allow us a glimpse of Newt’s wonderful creatures. Housed in a Mary Poppins-ish suitcase of infinite TARDIS-like depth, these beasts are brilliantly designed and wonderfully individual, from a cute mole-like Niffler (naughtily stealing shiny things like a magpie), to a horny Erumpent (like a hippo and rhino mixed), to the majestic Thunderbird, a sort of Eagle-Phoenix, soaring through the plains in Newt’s suitcase. Even the small Bowtruckle Newt carries in his pocket gets to develop a sense of personality. (And yes I had to look all these names up).

These creatures are both individualistic but also used for very specific purposes in the film, from lock-picking to a sort of bizarre self-defence weapon. Despite their horrific appearances, the film treats them with as much understanding sweetness as Newt does – even the dangerous ones are only dangerous when riled or threatened, and Newt’s protective nature helps us to feel as fond of them as he does.

Away from the beasts, the film largely focuses on setting up threads (and threats) for future films. A major sub-plot revolves around an anti-Magical society run by a stern-faced Samantha Morton. The film heads into darker territories here, with its references to both cults and the ill-treatment of children. Ezra Miller does well as Morton’s awkward, ill-treated adopted son, unable to escape from his oppression or express his frustration. Someone in this family is a powerful magical being called an Obscurus, and the film plays a neat game of bluff and double bluff around this.

It continues this game as it fills out the political magical world around Carmen Ejogo’s regal magical President. What game is Colin Farrell’s authoritarian Perceval Graves playing? What of the film’s opening references to dark wizard Grindelwald, and the suggested war that is bubbling under the surface in the magical world? All this darker stuff sits around the edges and margins of Newt’s beast-collecting storyline, occasionally seeping in (let’s not forget at one point Newt and Tina are literally sentenced to death for supposed crimes), but doesn’t overwhelm the lightness.

David Yates directs with a professionalism that comes from being hugely familiar with this world. His later sequences of Obscurus destruction are not always particularly different from other city-smashing scenes from other films. Not every plotline feels fully explored – Jon Voight playing a newspaper mogul and his two contrasting sons seems like a plot we could do without – but Yates does keep the film moving pacily forward, he gets the tone of light slapstick and family warmth and he still shoots the wonder of magic better than almost anyone.

Fantastic Beasts is a film that is perhaps a little too light and frothy to really be a classic – it juggles too many plots and doesn’t always bring them together well. It’s mixture of darkness and lightness is a little eclectic, and it sometimes feel very much like a film designed to set up future films effectively. But when it focuses on its four leads, it’s very strong indeed and all of them – particularly Fogler – are people you want to see more of. It even manages to end the film on both a genuine laugh and a heart-warming bit of romance, tinged with sadness. It’s a fine start to a new franchise.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Robert Redford goes on the run in conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor

Director: Sydney Pollack
Cast: Robert Redford (Joseph Turner), Faye Dunaway (Kathy Hale), Cliff Robertson (Director Higgins), Max von Sydow (Joubert), John Houseman (Wabash), Addison Powell (Leonard Atwood), Walter McGinn (Sam Barber), Tina Chen (Janice), Michael Kane (SW Wicks), Don McHenry (Dr Lappe)

Three Days of the Condor never leaves you in any doubt that the real villains are those in power – and the possibility of escaping the reach of organisations like the CIA is beyond all of us. Condor is damn well-made though – Pollack’s direction is nearly faultless in its taut claustrophobia – even if the film itself gets a bit lost in its confusing obliqueness.

Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) is a quiet, boyish, Robert-Redfordish academic whose job is to read books published all over the world and report back to the CIA any familiarities with any secret operations past or present, or any good ideas from operations. One day, while out fetching lunch for his colleagues, he returns to find they have all been murdered by a hit-team led by a shadowy foreigner (Max von Sydow). Calling in the CIA, he finds he can’t trust anyone – and is forced to hide out by kidnapping a woman, Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), whom he bumps into in a shop.

Three Days of the Condor opens with an electric pace. The build-up to the assassination of Turner’s co-workers is extremely tense, while the immediate after effects – and Turner’s lost, confused terror – is brilliantly involving. The stream of conspiracy-laced events, and the unsettling lack of security about who to trust creates a terrific mood of paranoia. Pollack’s editing is tight, and the photography keeps the action naturalistic and eerily involving. It creates an unsettling drama where no one can be trusted. 

It taps perfectly into that 1970s vibe of the state being omniscient and inhumane – Turner’s CIA contact will only talk to him using his code name, shows no human interest in his deceased comrades and only asks if Condor himself is “damaged”. Later Turner chippily asks why a senior agent is addressed by his name, while he is only called Condor. 

Redford is very good as Turner – perfectly convincing as the bookish man thrust into circumstances where he is out of his depth, but whose innate abilities to think fast and adapt allow him to believably keep one step ahead of those pursuing him. The film has a love for the grimy Le Carre-ish detail of espionage, which it mixes well with its James Bondish elements of hitmen, violence and sex. The script has good lines, and several excellent set-pieces that trade in that queasy feeling of being out-of-depth.

The momentum of the first half however eventually gets bogged down in the “working out” of the conspiracy. This is a bit hampered by the early acts of the movie being focused more on atmosphere than on plot build-up. With the exact purpose and function of Redford’s CIA role only really being loosely explained quite late on – and the various inter-relationships of the assorted CIA bigwigs we see also not really being that clear – the final reveal of the wrong uns is murky and doesn’t quite justify the build-up. 

Part of this is the film’s 1970s vibe – its sense that the resolution is, in a way, less important than the downer atmosphere and conspiracy tension – but it’s also a bit of a narrative flaw. It’s hard to invest in a story that never really gets put together or explained properly, and doesn’t really give us a sense of the major stakes at play or the reasons why various characters do what they do. 

Other factors also have dated the film, principally the relationship of Faye Dunaway’s Kathy and Redford’s Turner. Now there is an odd Stockholm syndrome relationship if ever I saw one. From Kathy tearfully fearing rape and assault for most of the first ten minutes of their screen time together – and with no reason to believe the story Turner is peddling – sure enough within a few hours of knowing each other this pair end up in bed together. The film attempts to suggest Turner’s ability to understand her personality (in a way no-one else ever has naturally) through her photographs brings them together –but nevertheless it’s basically a hostage falling into bed with her kidnapper, about 20 seconds after she stopped crying, after he has just released her from being tied up and gagged in her own bathroom. 

I guess it helps when your kidnapper looks like Robert Redford – and the film uses Redford’s innate trustability well – but it’s a little unsettling. Kathy swiftly becomes Turner’s little helper – but you never really get a sense that the she is an actual character, or that the film even really needs her that much. Dunaway is a good actress and plays the part very well – but there is an unsettling submissiveness and even exploitation to her character that dates the movie (not that we have moved past films where female character’s principal role is to have sex with the hero to ease his pain). The best you can say for this character is that she has “pluck”.

It’s dumping Turner down into Kathy’s home where the momentum leaks out of the film slightly. It’s a film that feels like it’s going to be set-up as a chase movie with a spy tinge, but it never really turns into that. On top of which, it takes time away from properly developing Turner’s enemies. His possible CIA opponents, led by Cliff Robertson and John Houseman, don’t really come into focus as characters. The performer who does stand out – largely because of the wry world-weariness he brings to the role – is Max von Sydow as the hitman Joubert, a character I’d happily see more of (where was his spin off?). 

Three Days of the Condor is a well-made triumph of atmosphere – but the later sections of the film don’t quite live up to the build-up, and the film doesn’t quite snap together as much as you would like in the second half. It gets lost in its labyrinthine schemes and then doesn’t have a resolution that seems interesting enough to make satisfying narrative sense.  It’s got some great moments in it, but it’s a flawed film.