Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Collateral (2004)

Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx take a long taxi ride in Michael Mann's thriller Collateral

Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Tom Cruise (Vincent), Jamie Foxx (Max Durocher), Jada Pinkett Smith (Annie Farrell), Mark Ruffalo (Detective Ray Fanning), Peter Berg (Detective Richard Weidner), Bruce McGill (Frank Pedrosa), Irma P. Hall (Ida Durocher), Barry Shabaka Henley (Daniel Baker), Javier Bardem (Felix Reyes-Torrena)

Tom Cruise enjoys throwing us film-goers curveballs every now and again. In Collateral he pops up as a sociopathic hitman, grey of hair and suit (like a buzzcut, rampaging John Major) leaving bodies strewn about the place. It’s great to see him in Michael Mann’s lean, very enjoyable action thriller, looking as sleek and soulless as the rest of LA.

Cruise’s Vincent is a hitman in LA to knock off a list of targets. But how will he get from hit to hit? Why by hiring a taxi driver for a night: risk-averse dreamer Max (Jamie Foxx) who has been working “temporarily” as a taxi driver while he builds plans for his dream limo business for a mere 12 years. Max is thrilled to have a big spender in his car – until something goes wrong on hit #1 and a body lands on his cab. Max no has no choice but to assist Vincent – although Vincent ends up becoming more attached to Max than he might ever have imagined.

Mann shot his film on a high-definition video and it gives a very unique look at LA, really capturing the hazy yellows and cool blues of the city and giving everything in the picture a slightly grainier, starker look. But that would count for nothing if the story of the film wasn’t pretty good, and Collateral is a very effective action thriller, which doesn’t reimagine the genre but offers more than enough freshness to enliven the familiar elements it’s made up from. 

Its main assets (along with Mann’s cool, detached and pin-point sharp direction) are the performances of its two leads. Cruise is just about bang-on as a professional hitman, devoid of empathy, who finds surprising possibilities of friendship open in front of him. He’s a fascinating character, like someone who has spent so long studying people that he can just about replicate human reactions, without understanding the humanity behind them. Cruise’s obsessive preparation for his roles also help makes him flawlessly convincing as this lethal ubermensh.

Foxx however is just as good as a basically decent, friendly, low-key guy who is kidding himself that he is not drifting through life. It’s Max’s story we follow throughout the film – and it’s his sense of personal morality, his strict belief in right and wrong, that gives the film its dramatic force. Foxx also avoids undermining or laughing at Max, who is basically a man so buttoned up and cautious that (without a major push) he’ll clearly die of old age in that cab. 

These two characters thrown together have a curious chemistry – a sort of riff on the casual bonds that can develop between driver and passenger as they talk about their lives, views and interests. It’s not a friendship – certainly not in Max’s case – but it’s a strange sort of bond nevertheless. Vincent, you feel, hasn’t talked to many people like this – and while he’s still willing to threaten Max or put him at great risk, he still develops a strange protectiveness about him. It’s this quirky and different relationship that powers the film and finally makes it unique. This odd couple don’t overcome boundaries to become bosom friends, but they also don’t come together as fierce rivals. Instead they sort of work out a co-existence in that cab.

It’s the most interesting thing about a film that otherwise – to be honest – deals a pretty familiar deck with confidence. Sometimes the film plays its cards so well you overlook them – the first time I watched it, I was semi-surprised at the reveal of the final victim, but really it should be pretty obvious to anyone who has seen a movie before. The plot is full of moments like this that are played with a freshness – or with a cunning – that stops them from feeling familiar.

But that’s really what it is. The journey around LA from hit-to-hit is a familiar sounding idea. The encounters between Vincent and the targets are pretty familiar – the exception being a fascinating, and hard to read, encounter with Barry Shabaka Henley’s jazz player turned informant, which sizzles with tension – and the action scenes, while well staged, are the sort of shoot-outs we’ve seen before. Mann shoots them with a vibrant excitement, but it’s mostly B-movie stuff presented freshly.

What it comes down to is that relationship between those two characters, and the skill of director and actor in drawing out subtleties in performance. (Don’t listen by the way to the director’s commentary, which ruthlessly strips these subtleties away as Mann bangs on about heavy-handed, predictable backstories which thankfully don’t make it into the movie, but make it sound dumber than it is). Cruise and Foxx are both fantastic, Mann’s direction of this sort of icy-cold, impersonal, dangerous city is impeccable and the film itself doesn’t fail to entertain.

Monday, 18 June 2018

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

The French military move into Algiers in Pontecorvo's neo-realist masterpiece The Battle of Algiers

 Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Cast: Jean Martin (Colonel Mathieu), Yacef Saadi (Djafar), Brahim Hadjadi (Ali La Pointe), Tommaso Neri (Captain). Ugo Palette (Captain), Fusia El Kader (Halima), Mohamed Ben Kassen (Petit Omar)

Sometimes, when watching The Battle of Algiers, you have to catch yourself and remember everything you are watching was staged rather than real footage. That right there is the greatest strength of this film, and its ongoing legacy. It feels more real than the news, it looks more authentic than reality. Match that with the fact that (and it says a lot for the world that this is the case) its themes remain painfully resonant today, and you can see why it has had such a lasting and profound impact on film-makers.

Pontecorvo’s film dramatises (although that almost feels like the wrong word) events in Algiers, capital city of French Algeria, from November 1954 to December 1957 when the Algerian War of Independence turned the city into a near warzone, with its hub being an increasingly brutal struggle for control of the Casbah between the French authorities (and then army) and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) cells. 

That description only gets a flavour of the film, which reconstructs the story with a truly awe-inspiring immediacy that feels like a slice of real life. The film has a fearless willingness to depict the dangerous struggle and violence in a combat between terrorists and soldiers. So we get violence on both sides, torture, murder, beatings, bombings of young civilians and other acts of brutality, all chronicled with a documentary realism that never feels exploitative or distasteful.

The film is often hailed as being scrupulously even-handed. I’d argue it isn’t quite – what it does do is recognise that both sides are human. The cause of Algerian independence is clearly one the film finds sympathetic, and while it shows acts of terror from the Algerians, the real acts of violence and prejudice come from the French authorities and citizens. The film doesn’t turn the Algerian terrorists into unspoilt martyrs, but it certainly regards their cause as right. So it can show them killing civilians and engaged in acts of violence, but still admire their cause (the film was made with the involvement of several former members of the NLF both in front of and behind the camera).

The film’s depiction of the French soldiers also gives more of an impression of even-handedness. These soldiers are not brutal or sadistic, but functionaries doing about a job (just following orders?) with a ruthless efficiency. The casting of Jean Martin (the only professional actor in the film) as French commando leader Colonel Mathieu also perhaps weights things, as Martin gives an engaging, morally conflicted performance, and the film lays great stress on Mathieu’s own experiences during the Second World War in the French Resistance and (it’s implied) in a concentration camp. 

The French soldiers go about their task of pacifying the terrorists with a campaign of capture, enhanced interrogation and systematic elimination of cell leaders, using their superior resources and training, in a way that the CIA (which screened the film for its agents in 2003 to help them understand terrorist cells) described as being a complete success militarily, but a total failure politically. It stamps out the Algerians in the Casbah, in a way that reduces casualties and restores order – but totally fails to win over the precious hearts and minds.

And Pontecorvo knows it’s hearts and minds that his film is all about. His camera immerses us in the heat and tension of the Casbah, picking out the faces of the non-professional extras (and actors) that populate his film, showing the bubbling tensions and resentment slowly building in a population that doesn’t start out as bitter and extremist, but becomes more and more so as the French stamp out the Algerian independence movement. People swirl around the action, increasingly objecting to the strict control procedures that segregate the Casbah from the rest of the city, and at several points crowding into potentially violent mobs, spurred on by some members of the NLF.

The NLF also has little compunction in the tactics it has to employ in order to stand any chance against the French. Pontecorvo frames the film around the experiences of Ali la Pointe (a striking performance from non-professional Brahim Hadjadi). It opens with la Pointe trapped by the French soldiers, flashing back to his initial recruitment, radicalisation and increasingly pivotal role as a cell leader under more the more urbane and political Djafar (Yacef Saadi, another non-professional playing a version of himself). 

La Pointe is our audience surrogate – and it’s surprising how we find ourselves drawn towards him. Especially since within the first 15 minutes he’s moved quickly from murdering gangsters in the Casbah to shooting cops and leading riots. Pontecorvo shoots and edits these moments of terrorist action and planning with a Hitchcockian skill. One particularly brilliant sequence follows three NLF women being selected, prepared for, traveling to and carrying out a series of bombings of cafes and bars in Algiers (the victims at one seem to be exclusively teenagers and young people).

The film is full of moments like this, all filmed with a gripping down-to-earth black-and-white realism, buzzing with tension. It’s brilliantly assembled and totally compelling, a documentary slice of Italian neo-realism that presents a fascinating look at the dangerous politics of resistance and occupation. The French military’s heavy-handed tactics are totally effective – even torture is shown to yield enough results to justify its use – but they are also completely wrong, morally repugnant but executed by soldiers going about their duty with no bitterness (Mathieu frequently tells the press that he hopes for a bright future for Algiers and even doubts the wisdom of occupation in the long run).

Pontecorvo’s film remains alarmingly prescient and relevant today – and it’s actually a little scary how little the world has changed. You can just as easily imagine the same events happening in Iraq or Afghanistan today. It’s told here with no sensationalism but a mostly objective even-handedness, that makes clear the side it favours but doesn’t demonise the other. As a slice of history turned into film it’s impeccable.

Friday, 15 June 2018

This Sporting Life (1963)

Rachel Roberts and Richard Harris excel in brutal kitchen-sink drama This Sporting Life

Director: Lindsay Anderson
Cast: Richard Harris (Frank Machin), Rachel Roberts (Margaret Hammond), Alan Badel (Weaver), William Hartnell (“Dad” Johnson), Colin Blakely (Maurice Braithwaite), Arthur Lowe (Slomer), Vanda Godsell (Mrs Weaver), Jack Watson (Lennox), Harry Markham (Wade), George Sewell (Jeff), Leonard Rossiter (Phillips), Anne Cunningham (Judith)

The British New Wave of the early 1960s embraced working-class stories. They centred on chippy, confident, crowd-pleasing working-class young men (it was always men) from regional towns, doing blue collar work, thumbing their nose at the establishment and fighting to find their own way. This Sporting Life takes a similar route – but its central character, Frank Machin, is a furious, resentful and selfish man, who seems hellbent on destroying everything he touches. Unlike Arthur Seaton or Billy Fisher, he’s hard to like – and the film hits as hard as scrum of rugby players. 

Frank Machin (Richard Harris) is a miner turned professional rugby player – not that he has any love for the game (“I only enjoy it if I get paid for it!” he contemptuously states). Machin is an articulate brute of a man, a pugilistic whirligig of resentments, barely expressed or understood desires, and a deep-rooted and chronic insecurity that cries out for love while pushing it away. He’s in love with his landlady, widowed mother of two young children Margaret Hammond (Rachael Roberts). They begin an affair of sorts – but it can barely survive her trauma and Machlin’s self-destructive rage.

Lindsay Anderson’s films are notable for their anger and bitter satire, so it’s no surprise he directed the least crowd-pleasing, angriest angry-young-man film of all – or that This Sporting Life killed the genre. The film is a series of hits, aimed far and wide, from the deference of the players to the owners who treat the clubs like playthings (the “amateur fair play” British attitudes to sport from the patronising owners gets a kicking), to the hypocritical judgemental attitudes of the working class. Even its romantic story features two characters so unable to engage with or understand their feelings that they only really seem able to communicate fully when raging at each other. 

Anderson’s new-wave, kitchen sink aesthetic creates a film that feels like a series of battles. From Machlin moving in local clubs to visiting the home of creepy closeted club owner Weaver (a smooth and unsettlingly cruel Alan Badel), whether rebuffing the advances of Weaver’s wife or at a Christmas party, he always seems ready for violence. The rugby matches are filmed like mud covered fights, with players piling into each other like sledgehammers. Even the “romantic” (and I use that word advisedly) scenes between Roberts and Harris feel like conflicts (they frequently tip into nerve-shreddingly raw emotional outbursts). 

Anderson’s film takes everything you expect from the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning expectations and amps up the danger, anger and tension. Machlin barrels through scenes, conversations and relationships in the same way he charges through the rugby pitch. The whole film is a sharp warning of the danger of unrestrained masculinity, pushing all softer emotions to one side. Machlin wants so desperately to be a man that everything must be a battle, at all times displaying his most manly qualities. The tragedy is that you can tell there is a far more sensitive and intriguing personality below the surface.

All this comes together in Richard Harris’ searing performance in the lead role. His career break – he won the Best Actor award at Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar – Harris was possibly never better. He’s a brooding force of nature in this film, utterly convincing as a man who bottles up his feelings until it is way too late. He hits out at everything, but you feel he is really running scared from the vulnerability in his own personality. With children, Machlin is tender and gentle, but with adults he is unable to express his feelings. His emotions for Margaret are based around suggestions of a need for a mother figure, sexual desire – and a desire for an answer to the emptiness he feels in himself. Harris is like an Irish Brando here, a marvellous, emotional, dangerous, brutal figure.

Rachel Roberts (also Oscar-nominated) is just as good, giving another extraordinary performance (to match the similarish role she played in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) as Margaret. Grieving her husband, terrified of commitment, aware of her own position, as incapable in her own way of expressing her emotions and feelings as Machlin is, Margaret is as much a damaged and combative character. Roberts’ performance suggests years of disappointment and struggle behind the eyes, and she has a rawness and humane anguish in her scenes with Harris that sear the eyeballs. The scenes between these two are difficult to watch but engrossing.

The film is stuffed with excellent performances. William Hartnell is heartbreakingly tragic as the closeted talent scout who spots Machlin, only to be dropped by the new star. Colin Blakely is excellent as Machlin’s more grounded and engaging teammate. Vanda Godsell is the face of female corruption as Weaver’s sexually possessive wife. Arthur Lowe (who went on to work with Anderson several times) is very good as a stuffy but shrewd board member. All of this is beautifully filmed in black and white, with an urgency mixed with flashes of impressionistic grimness.

Anderson’s film, though, is primarily a working-class tragedy, about a man unable (until far too late) to really understand what he wants. Why is this? Because of failings in himself, but also failings in his upbringing, where qualities of self-understanding and expression are not encouraged, where pressure is placed on men to be men, where class and stuffy attitudes look to stamp out any real sense of self-knowledge. It’s an angry young man film that is truly, really angry. No wonder it flopped at the box office. But no wonder it lasts in many ways better than other films from this genre. It feels like a film that wants to say something, that has an urgent message. And it has at two extraordinary performances.