Wednesday, 26 September 2018

The Untouchables (1987)

Coster and Connery take on Capone in crime classic The Untouchables

Director: Brian de Palma
Cast: Kevin Costner (Eliot Ness), Sean Connery (Jimmy Malone), Andy Garcia (George Stone), Robert De Niro (Al Capone), Charles Martin Smith (Oscar Wallace), Patricia Clarkson (Catherine Ness), Billy Drago (Frank Nitti), Richard Bradford (Chief Mike Dorsett), Jack Kehoe (Walter Payne)

“What are you prepared to do!”

It’s the motto of this electric law-enforcement film, one of those all-time classics that provides endlessly quotable lines and moments you can’t forget. It’s crammed with iconic moments, from its brilliantly quotable dialogue from David Mamet, via its wonderful music score, to its artful film literacy and iconic performances. If there is an untouchable film, this one is pretty close. I love it.

It’s 1930, prohibition is in full force and Chicago is ruled by gangland kingpin Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Young Federal Officer Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is thrown into Chicago to end Capone’s reign and stamp out the illegal liquor business. Not surprisingly, it’s hard to know who to trust in a town as stinking as this one, until a chance meeting with disillusioned beat cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) helps him find a group of people he can trust – “Untouchables” who aren’t going to go on Capone’s payroll. But to bring Capone down he’s going to have to embrace the “Chicago way” and start to bend his strict moral code. 

Listening to Brian de Palma talk about the making of the movie, you can’t help but suspect he felt he was doing one for the suits rather than one from the heart. Well perhaps he should do that more often, because The Untouchables is a lean, mean, hugely entertaining action-adventure, that plays with genuine ideas and but also nails every single moment. Every scene is shot with a confident, compelling swagger – the sort of thing that reminds you what a conneseur of high-class pulp de Palma can be. The Untouchables plays out like a super-brainy graphic novel adaptation, and every scene sings. There is barely a duff moment in there.

A lot of this comes straight from David Mamet’s brilliant script. Really, with lines like this, moments as well-crafted as this, characters as clearly, brilliantly defined as the ones on show here, you can’t go wrong. Quotable lines fall from the actors’ lips like the gifts they are: “He brings a knife, you bring a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago Way!” It’s dialogue like this that just has ageless appeal, the sort of stuff you find yourself trying to work into day-to-day conversation.

But Mamet’s script is also sharply clever. It swiftly lays out at the start Ness’ moral compass, his code – and then, as the film progresses, it cleverly shows the whys and wherefores for Ness compromising these. Needless to say, the man at the end of the film is totally different from the bright-eyed naïve agent we met at the start. Mamet also brilliantly works shades of grey into all our heroes, while scripting some compelling moments of grandstanding bastardy that an actor as marvellous as De Niro is just waiting to send to the back of the net.

De Niro was of course the inevitable choice as Capone. Bob Hoskins was contracted just in case De Niro said no (when told De Niro would be taking the job but he would get a $20k pay-out for his time, Hoskins told de Palma he’d be thrilled to hear about any other movies de Palma didn’t want him to be in), but it had to be Bobby. The film drops Capone in at key moments: the film opens with the swaggering bully delighted at holding court with English newspapers while being shaved (de Palma’s camera draws down from an overhead shot, like a spider descending from the ceiling, to reveal him in the barber’s chair) – a flash of danger emerges when the barber slips and cuts Capone’s face (de Niro’s flash of fury, followed by his decision to pardon – combined with the barber’s terror – is perfect). Later Capone rages at Ness, hosts a very messy dinner party with a baseball bat, and weeps at the theatre while a key character bleeds to death at his home (a brilliant example of de Palma’s mastery of B-movie cost cutting). He’s the perfect dark heart.

And opposite him you need a white knight – even if it a white knight who is set to be sullied. I’m not sure Kevin Costner ever topped his performance here, in the film c that made him a superstar overnight. Looking like the perfect boy scout – his fresh faced earnestness is one of his finest qualities – Costner also has a WASPish hardness under the surface. The burning determination he has to destroy Capone, his disgust at the murder and chaos Capone deals in, is never in doubt – just as his initial naïveté about how to end Capone is all too clear. Costner masterfully shows how each event pushes Ness a step or two further in bending his rules, to fight Capone’s ruthlessness with ruthlessness of his own. “What are you prepared to do!” Malone asks him, and the film is about Ness working out how far his moral compass can stretch. I can’t think of many films that so completely and successfully have the lead character change as much as Costner does here without it feeling rushed or forced. It’s a wonderful performance.

But the film is stolen – and it’s no surprise, as he has the showiest part, most of the best lines, and of course the movie-star cool – by Connery. It’s easy to mock Connery’s blatantly Scottish Irish cop – he gives the accent a go for his first scene, but promptly drops it. What Connery’s performance is really all about is an old dog who never got a chance to do the right thing, finally being given the licence, the support and the inspiration from the younger man to clean up this filthy city. And Connery rages in the film, a force of nature, the perfect mentor, the cop who against all initial expectations is prepared to go through any and all risks to get Capone. He’s the samurai beat cop, and Connery (Oscar-winning) growls through Mamet’s dialogue with all the love of the seasoned pro letting rip. It’s an iconic performance – and led to a five year purple patch of great films and roles for Connery.

But the film works partly because of these great performances and the script, but also because of de Palma’s direction. The pacing is absolutely spot-on, the camera full of moments of flash and invention. Every action sequence has its own distinct tone, from the horse riding hi-jinks of a Canadian border interception of a booze truck, to the dark slaughter late at night of one of the film’s main characters (a masterful, Hitchcockian piece of genius by the way that uses the POV shot to exceptional effect). A late roof chase sizzles with a ruthless energy.

But the real highpoint of the action is of course that famous train-station shoot out. Allegedly the original plans on the day had to be ditched due to budgetary reasons – so cinephile de Palma pulled a sublime Battleship Potemkin homage out of his locker. Shot in near silence, save for gunshots, the bounce of a pram falling down the station stairs (baby on board) and a spare score from Morricone, the sequence is true bravura cinema, both hugely exciting and strangely endearing for all those who know anything about the history of cinema. 

De Palma and Mamet keep the story focused, clear and every scene has a clear purpose and goal. There isn’t a single superfluous character or moment. Everything is perfectly assembled to serve the overall impact of the film. It’s gripping, entertaining and compelling: the sort of film where if you catch it at the right age it has you for life. Ennio Morricone’s operatic score is perfect for the film, underlining and emphasising every moment and effectively sweeping you up. Costner and Connery are superb, De Niro is perfect, the film is a gift that has something new to give every time you see it.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

The Full Monty (1997)

Steelworkers from Sheffield have no options but to turn their hand to stripping, in British phenomenon The Full Monty

Director: Peter Cattaneo
Cast: Robert Carlyle (Gaz), Mark Addy (Dave), Tom Wilkinson (Gerald), Lesley Sharp (Jean), Emily Woof (Mandy), William Snape (Nathan), Steve Huisan (Lomper), Paul Barber (Horse), Hugo Speer (Guy)

In the summer of 1997, Britain was a depressed place. The country was in the middle of an intense mourning for the death of Princess Diana. Perhaps that’s why a film all about overcoming despair and to turn it into heart-warming triumph suddenly gripped the whole nation and emerged from nowhere to become the most successful British film of all time. No one expected a film about Sheffield strippers to do that.

The economy has dropped out of the Sheffield steel market, and hundreds of people are out of work and desperate. Gaz (Robert Carlyle), a genial waster, needs £700 to pay his child maintenance and not lose access to his son Nathan (William Snape). Dave (Mark Addy) has serious self-image problems, his disgust at his own weight is leading him to push away Jean (Lesley Sharp), the wife he can’t believe loves him. Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), their ex-foreman, is so ashamed of losing his job he hasn’t told his wife that he’s been unemployed for six months and is facing financial ruin. Together with three other men with no other options, they decide one way to get money quick is to follow the example of the sell-out male-strippers at the local working club – with the unique selling point that they will go “the full monty”.

It’s been nearly a decade since I saw The Full Monty. Over-exposure made it an easy film to feel a bit sniffy and dismissive about, like it was a happy accident that the film came from nowhere to achieve staggering success. But that’s hugely unfair. Watching it back now, it’s amazing how much it’s a comedic film grounded in a sense of desperation and pain, and then how brilliantly it uses this to create empathy for its characters, and how wonderfully this helps you to share their joy and triumph when they are finally taking control of their own destinies.

The Full Monty emerged from a troubled production history. It was hugely difficult to find funding for the film. It took years to get the filming sorted, and casting was difficult – in a parallel universe Nicholas Lyndhurst and Russ Abbott played the lead roles. Robert Carlyle has described the making of the film as being totally chaotic (he further claimed he was convinced the film was “pish” and heading for disaster). The first cut was met with such negativity from the distributors that it nearly ended up direct-to-video, until the producers begged for one more shot at editing the film. But then it emerged as one of the most widely loved UK films of the 1990s, eventually being nominated for four Oscars (Picture, Director, Screenplay and a win for Best Score). That’s what I call a turnaround!

It’s also strangely fitting for the film itself. The opening footage showing a prosperous and bustling Sheffield in the 1960s is a perfect set-up for the Sheffield of the 1990s with unemployment rampant, and our characters confined to endless days of drifting around the city and failing to gain any benefits from a workshop at the unemployment office. Every frame of Cattaneo’s well shot film stresses the relative bleakness of the environment, the run-down world the characters inhabit, and that sense that all promise is missing from the future of this city.

In the middle of this, the film doesn’t shy away from looking at – with plenty of jokes – plenty of themes which are hardly your default expectations for a comedy movie. We’ve got depression, self-loathing, body-image, fathers’ rights and suicide: if that’s not a comic gold on paper I don’t know what is!  However, what is so perfect about the film is how well it judges the tone when dealing with these themes. Simon Beaufoy’s script is warm, humane and above all immensely empathetic. Never – not once – are any of these characters the butt of the humour. While we may see the dark comedy that can occur, we never laugh at the characters.

The script gets a perfect balance between all this desperation and pain and well-worked, down-to-earth, honest and affecting humour. It’s also genuinely funny, with several stand-out gags. As an interesting side note, perhaps the film’s most famous comic moment – the boys standing in the dole queue, involuntarily practicing their routine when Hot Stuff starts playing in the radio – nearly didn’t make the film, as the producers felt it was unrealistic. Just as well they left it in, as it perfectly captures the mood of the movie.

On top of which, the film taps into the human bonds that can grow in adversity. One of the film’s principal delights is seeing this odd bunch slowly begin to come together like a family. We see them confide in each other, listen to each other’s problems, accept each other for what they are. It’s a film about the triumph of the human spirit and the rewards that can come from opening your heart to other people when all seems lost.

It further helps that Simon Beaufoy’s script draws such terrific performances from the actors. Carlyle (for all his doubts about the film) plays Gaz with a perfect, low-key, commitment and empathy. Carlyle in many ways makes the film work as well as it does because he plays the truth of each scene and is willing to be the film’s loadstone. He plays every moment truthfully and is as effective showing Gaz’s chancer wasterness as he is at allowing the real pain and fear Gaz feels at the prospect of losing his son.

The film also changed the careers of Addy and Wilkinson, turning the two into character actor superstars. Addy is fabulous as the self-loathing Dave: having had problems myself with being concerned about my own image, seeing the psychological damage Dave inflicts on himself through his own inadequacies is very moving, and perfectly played by Addy – who also brings a great deal of comic mastery to the film. Wilkinson is perhaps the pick of the bunch as the seemingly proud and haughty Gerald, who hides intense fragility and pain under the surface. He has a truly affecting breakdown scene after a job interview gone wrong – and the reaction acting to this from Carlyle and Addy is also by the way marvellous. It’s a terrific (BAFTA winning) performance.

And then you hit the final stripping scene – and all that empathy the film has been building pays off, because the triumphal dance and strip down is hugely heart-warming. After seeing the men go through such difficulty and despair it’s really affecting and joyful to see them finally take control of their own destinies. How could you not be wrapped up in it? How could a whole nation not take the whole thing to their hearts? Put out of your mind all those thoughts that this can’t be that good, or that we were all mistaken in 1997: this is genuinely very good, thought-provoking and hilarious stuff.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Kirk has to overcome a lifelong prejudice against Klingons in the marvellous, best-in-series film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Director: Nicholas Meyer
Cast: William Shatner (Captain James T Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Captain Spock), DeForest Kelley (Dr Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy), James Doohan (Scotty), Walter Koenig (Commander Pavel Chekov), Nichelle Nichols (Commander Uhuru), George Takei (Captain Hikaru Sulu), Christopher Plummer (General Chang), Mark Lenard (Ambassador Sarek), David Warner (Chancellor Gorkon), Kim Cattrell (Lt Valeris), Rosana DeSoto (Azetbur), Kurtwood Smith (Federation President), Brock Peters (Admiral Cartwright), Michael Dorn (Colonel Worf), John Shuck (Klingon Ambassador), Iman (Martia)

This will sound ridiculous, but there are few films that have had such an impact on me as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. How bizarre is that? But not only can I trace my love of all things Trek to this film, but it was also my basic introduction to Shakespeare, whose plays in various shapes and forms have been a big part of my life ever since. Throw into the mix that it sparked an interest in the Cold War and you’ve got quite a coup for this sixth film in (I’ll be honest!) a hit-and-miss franchise.

This film follows the final mission of Kirk (William Shatner) and company. There has been a disaster on the Klingon moon Praxis, which has devastated the Klingon economy and left them with no choice but to enter peace negotiation with the Federation, to try and end the Cold War that has existed for generations between the two powers. Sound familiar? While Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has been one of the leading negotiators with Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner), Kirk is reluctantly roped in to provide an escort for the Klingons to a peace conference. Kirk, and many of his crew, are weighed down with decades of prejudice and suspicion of Klingons (attitudes that erupt in a tense dinner between the Enterprise crew and many of the equally suspicious Klingons). Kirk and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) however find themselves in trouble when Gorkon is assassinated and the two men are arrested and put on trial by the Klingons. Will Spock save them? Can they save the peace talks? Time for one last adventure.

Star Trek VI very nearly didn’t happen. The previous film, written and directed by Shatner, was a disaster, a messy, strange, flat-footed, cheap-looking adventure that was a huge flop, won several Razzies and nearly killed the series off. So it’s great that the cast got a chance to have one final swan-song in their parts – and that this basically turned into the most intelligent film they had made since Star Trek II. No surprise that Nicholas Meyer, an articulate, literate and intelligent novelist turned film-maker, was the common link between them. Not weighed down by Star Trek lore, nor the breezy “I’m above this” contempt that other directors in the series have had, Meyer understands what makes good Trek – a strong story, compelling character arcs, intelligent writing and a good balance between adventure and themes that resound with contemporary depth.

Star Trek VI was written as the Berlin Wall fell, and it’s a neat commentary on the sort of attitudes you would have seen in America and Russia at the time. Gorkon’s name even echoed Gorbachev (and Lincoln as well). But this isn’t just a historical parallel with the modern world. Instead Meyer also uses this to explore the attitudes of his characters. Like Star Trek II, this works into a neat deconstruction of Kirk’s persona. Kirk has to confront not age here (as in that film) but instead his own out-of-step anger, prejudices and refusal to change. At the same time, the film also explores Kirk as a man who can overcome his instinctive hostility, to make himself a better man. It’s such rich complexity that it’s no wonder I got sucked into a life-long love for Star Trek.

All this makes a fabulous framework for the strongest, most high-stakes entry in the franchise. Meyer’s direction is spot on: simmering with tension in the first half, investing every scene with a creeping intensity and rumbling sense of disagreement. He also works brilliantly with the regular cast, who turn in some of their best performances in this film: Shatner in particular reins in (mostly) the ham for a thoughtful and intelligence performance, while Kelley mixes deadpan snarks with a world-weary resignation. Nimoy also goes further than he has for a long time with Spock, who struggles under the surface with a host of emotions, from hope, pride, guilt and fury all bubbling away under that cool Vulcan façade. The rest of the cast also get moments to shine. 

This is a film that barely puts a foot wrong in its entire first act. From the opening explosion of Praxis – with a hugely exciting sense of danger as Sulu’s Excelsior starship gets caught up in the shockwave – through to the trial of Kirk and Bones, this film is tonally spot on. We understand completely the hostility and distrust Kirk feels towards the Klingons, just as we appreciate on a deeper level his desire to make the peace talks work. The awkward encounters with the Klingons simmer with an unspoken racism from the Federation characters (many of the cast reported being uncomfortable with the imperialist and superior tone their characters had to take), and a hostile resentment from the Klingons. The eventual assassination attempt has a grim inevitability about it, but is expertly shot and edited (a zero-gravity assault by two assassins on Gorkon’s disabled ship). The show-trial itself is like a nightmare of injustice. It’s scintillating and compelling stuff.

While the pace does slacken slightly when Kirk and McCoy find themselves in a Klingon prison camp – we are, by the way, introduced to the prison camp via a speech from the commandant eerily reminiscent of the greetings handed out in Bridge on the River Kwai – it never loses the audience’s attention. And it powers back up for a brilliant all-action, at first totally one-sided, fight between the Enterprise and a Klingon ship en route to the peace conference. A large measure of the film’s atmospheric success should also be given to the extraordinary score by Cliff Eidelman, a brilliant combination of familiar themes and fast-paced orchestral work, one of my favourite film scores.

And Shakespeare? Where does he come into it? Largely through Christopher Plummer, playing General Chang, the man who emerges as principal antagonist. Plummer’s exuberant performance is perfect for this larger-than-life warrior – a man who loves nothing more than reading Shakespeare “in the original Klingon” (one of many examples of the film’s wit). Plummer lets rip throughout the film, quoting endlessly from virtually every Shakespeare play you could imagine, just this side of ham. Plummer is also, for my money, the best villain this series had. But how could you not love a film where the villain rotates round in his command chair shrieking gleefully “Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war!” Or says farewell to Kirk early on with a cheeky “we have heard the chimes at midnight…”. It’s possibly the best introduction to how great Shakespeare is that you can have.

But then that’s just part of Meyer’s witty, literate script, which throws in quotes from Conan Doyle and JM Barrie to Adlai Stevenson and Neville Chamberlain, and has Spock tells Kirk he’s the perfect choice for a mission to the Klingons as “there is an old Vulcan saying: only Nixon can go to China”. With stuff like that how can you not enjoy the film? It also understands the warmth between the main cast, their sense of character. The whole film combines an elegiac tone with a triumphant final mission, the passing of an era – with the final moments of the film capturing this, from its Peter Pan quote (“First star to the left and straight on until morning”), to the signatures of the cast appearing on the screen, literally signing off on their Star Trek careers.

The whole film is perfectly pitched like this. Every moment works from the off, and the action and adventure is balanced by some wonderful comic moments and beats of high tension and drama. The film’s use of the Cold War in Space as a backdrop works really well, and sheds a new light on attitudes in the franchise that have never really been touched before. It’s well acted, directed with flair and skill (the final space battle is brilliantly assembled), and the score is fantastic. There is a reason why I inflicted this film on my best man and ushers the morning before my wedding: it’s got a special place in my heart and it always will.