Thursday, 28 February 2019

Heat (1995)

De Niro is packing Heat

Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Al Pacino (Lt Vincent Hanna), Robert De Niro (Neil McCauley), Val Kilmer (Chris Shiherlis), Jon Voight (Nate), Tom Sizemore (Michael Cheritto), Diane Venora (Justine Hanna), Amy Brenneman (Eady), Ashley Judd (Charlene Shiherlis), Mykelti Williamson (Sgt Drucker), Wes Studi (Detective Sammy Casals), Ted Levine (Detective Mike Bosko), Dennis Haysbert (Donald Breedan), William Fichtner (Roger van Zandt), Natalie Portman (Lauren Gustafson), Tom Noonan (Kelso), Kevin Gage (Waingro), Hank Azaria (Alan Marciano), Danny Trejo (Trejo), Xander Berkeley (Ralph)

In the mid-90s, Heat was the cinematic event of the year. De Niro! Pacino! Together! In one scene! The two acting heavyweights – wildly proclaimed and popular since the 1970s – had of course made The Godfather Part II together but had shared no scenes. Here, however, we’d see them both at the same time riffing off each other. The great thing is that there is so much more to Heat than just that one scene. Heat is a sort of poetic cops and robbers flick, part stunning action adventure, part profound exploration of the internal souls of men chasing down leads, both good and bad.

Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a skilled career criminal who lives his life with a monastic self-denial, saying you can have nothing in your life “that you cannot walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner”. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is a bombastic, egotistical, workaholic detective with a self-destructive family life. Naturally, these two men find themselves on opposite sides, as McCauley plans his next job and Hanna works to stop him. But the men, with their similar codes dedicated to their chosen career, find that they have an increasing mutual respect – not that that will stop either of them “putting the other one down” if push comes to shove.

Heat is the pinnacle of Michael Mann’s career, and his most triumphant exploration of the conflicted, complex, masculine personalities at the heart of the high-adrenalin worlds of crime and police work. Mann has a gift for giving the simple rush and tumble of cops and robbers a sort of epic poetry, like a metropolitan Beowulf, and he achieves this again here. Heat is a film that throbs with meaning, it's cool blue lensing and chilly, modern architecture serving as a perfect counterpoint to the cool, professional and focused personalities of its characters.

Heat also goes the extra mile by building this playground confrontation into a mythic battle of wills, a battle of principles and ways of living that seem separated only by a few degrees. Mann invests this with such sweep, such grandiosity (without pomposity), such scale that it becomes a sort of modern epic, a film where intense meaning can be mined by the viewer from every scene. Whether there is in fact any meaning there – avoid listening to Mann’s commentary which drills down so many of his elliptical character beats and open-ended scenes into the dullest, most predictable tropes that he had in mind while filming – is another issue, but Mann’s trick as always with his best work is to make something really quite small and everyday seem like a grand, timeless epic.

It all boils down to that famous coffee shop scene, where De Niro and Pacino for a few magic moments come together. It’s a scene that explicitly asks us to see cop and criminal and understand that there is in many ways very little to choose between them. It hinges on the gentle competitiveness of the actors, and the way they subtly play off each other. It also plays on our own histories of these two actors, of decades of seeing them as two sides of the same coin, both carrying so much cultural baggage for a string of iconic roles that saw them rule Hollywood for over a decade. It’s the sort of scene given extra investment, where you sense the mutual respect of the actors fuelling the strange bond that powers the scene. 

It’s also the one scene of the film that Pacino underplays in. The rest of the film he goes way bigger, powering through each scene with an explosion of shouting and drama. It’s a performance ripe for parody, with more than an edge of ham, but it just about works. Pacino turns Hanna (hilariously the character shares a name with a BBC political journalist of the 1980s) into the purest form of adrenalin junkie, a larger-than-life personality who tears through people and cases with a focused determination that allows no room for a personal life. De Niro downplays far more by contrast, apeing a sort of 1940s noir cool, a monkish insularity that prevents anyone from getting close to him, mixed with a laser-guided determination to do whatever it takes to make his score.

Mann’s film throws these two characters into a series of stunning set pieces with the bank robbery at the centre (“the one last score” that McCauley can’t pass up no matter the danger). The robbery – and the shoot out that follows it – is a triumph of action cinema, brilliantly shot and edited. The gun play is stunning, with Andy McNab having served as a consultant for the actors on the use of automatic weapons. The scene rips through the screen, spewing bullets all over the place in a ruthless, no-onlooker-spared rampage that also really pushes the limits of effective sound design. That’s just the highlight of several scenes that – with guns or otherwise – hum with tension, danger and excitement.

Mann also has enough room in this film though to skilfully establish a number of supporting characters with compelling story lines of their own. Val Kilmer is a tad wooden as McCauley’s number two, but his storyline of troubled marriage is mined for unexpecting pathos (thanks also to Ashley Judd’s fine work as his wife). Kevin Gage is very good as a psychopathic criminal unwisely brought on board to fill a slot in an early robbery. Dennis Haysbert has his own tragic plotline as a criminal trying to turn straight. Diane Venora is excellent as Hanna’s neglected wife, as is Portman as his vulnerable daughter-in-law. This isn’t to mention excellent performances from a rogues gallery of character actors, from Jon Voight to William Fichtner. 

Mann keeps all these plotlines perfectly balanced in a film that is very long but never drags for a minute. Crammed with exciting set pieces and brilliant sequences, it’s a film that manages to feel like it is about a very masculine crisis – the failures of men to balance the personal and their career, selfishly harming those around them because of their addiction to action. Mann’s film looks brilliantly at the essential emptiness and sadness this leads to – as well as the blinkered drive that never prevents men from stopping for a second and changing their lives, no matter how many reflective cups of coffee they have. Mann partners this existential, poetic feeling drama with the ultimate crash-bang cops and robbers and thriller, which will leave you on the edge of your seat no matter how many times you see it. Quite some film.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Green Book (2018)

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are Driving Dr Shirley in Green Book

Director: Peter Farrelly
Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga), Mahershala Ali (Don Shirley), Linda Cardellini (Dolores Vallelonga), Dimitar Marinov (Oleg), Mike Hatton (George), Iqbal Theba (Amit), Sebastian Maniscalco (Johnny Venere)

So here we are with a film that might as well be called Driving Dr Shirley. A gentle, ambling, Sunday-afternoon piece of film-making with a rudimentary message, a simplistic world-view and two very good performances at its heart doing all the lifting. Twenty years ago this would have swept the Oscars. As it is it had to settle for just three, including Best Picture, an award that already feels like a triumph of comfortable mediocrity, especially considering Spike Lee’s striking BlacKkKlansman takes such a profound and challenging view of the same issues.

Set in 1962, Green Book follows the “true-life” (heavily disputed by Shirley’s family) friendship between virtuoso classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and the Italian American Copocabana bouncer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) he hires to be his driver for a tour around the deeply racist Deep South states. Can two such different people, over the course of a road trip, find they have more in common they think? You betcha.

Green Book is practically the definition of unchallenging viewing. It tells a lovely, gentle story about two lovely people who, while dealing with the problems of racism in 1960s America, basically have a lovely time bar a few scraps. The film coasts through with a Edward Hopperish nostalgia-tinged views of 60s America peppered with a dash of racist unpleasantness from the people they meet along the way. All this is told with an anecdotal casualness – you can totally tell that the film was inspired by Tony Lip’s son wanting to turn his Dad’s old stories into a film.

And he creates a film where Tony Lip is the hero, and the world of the racist South only truly comes into focus through this white man witnessing the prejudice his black friend must endure (with dignity). While it’s good to have an anti-racist film – however much this film largely focuses on the genteel, country club racism of the upper classes and never dares to go anywhere near the lynch mobs and murders of the Deep South – this is a film that never dives deep with anything and in the end wraps up the instinctive racism and suspicion of Tony’s family in a neat bow and a family dinner with the whole cast. To this film, progress is the name of the game and racism a problem that we are well on the way to solving (again the contrast between this and Spike Lee’s work is really, really striking).

Since the whole film is told from the perspective of Tony – and since the film makers never bothered to consult with Shirley’s family at all, basing all their research on only one side of the story – we never get a real feeling of knowing exactly how Don Shirley might have felt about the attitudes he dealt with, or the reasons behind why he chose to undertake a tour of the Deep South to deal with them, or what he hoped to gain from it. In what should be his own story, he’s a supporting character.

Worse than this, it’s Don who largely seems to need to learn lessons. A dignifed, rarified, dandyish, upper-middle-class near-snob, it’s Don who the film suggest doesn’t understand black culture. It falls to Tony to teach him about everything from black culture: Don’s never heard of Aretha Franklin or Little Richard, never eaten fried chicken, and is deeply uncomfortable around any other black person he meets (unlike Tony’s easy rapport with his fellow drivers, all black). There is a fascinating film to be made here about a man who was at multiple different junctions of minorities – an upper-class black man out of touch with his fellows, a gay man in 1960s America, a black man in the Deep South – but the film doesn’t want to tell that story. I’m also going to leave it out there that only very short shrift is given to black culture (defined by 3-4 things) or Don’s argument that not all black people ipso-facto should like the same things.

Tony on the other hand doesn’t really need to learn anything. An opening scene has him uncomfortably throwing away two glasses used by black-handymen working in his home. But this is literally the last racist action or thought he has in the film – and seems like something that comes completely out of left field. He has no objection to working for Shirley, gets on fine with black people, reacts with increasing anger to racially tinged threats and insults etc. I can understand a son writing a script about his father not wanting to show anything unsympathetic, but the glass scene clumsily sets up an obstacle in Tony’s character that never needs to be overcome.

Instead Tony’s real problems with Shirley are based around class. He thinks he’s a snob. As soon as Shirley lightens up a bit, Tony treats him fine. He even happily accepts his homosexuality and playfully accepts some tutoring to improve his gentility. Tony is an overwhelming force for good who rarely says or does anything remotely unsympathetic.

Farrelly’s film is simple and forgettable in the extreme, but it’s enjoyable enough and passes the time. This is largely because of the two leads. Mortensen’s performance skirts around parody but has such larger than life joie de vivre you hardly mind. He’s very funny and also rather endearing and utterly convincing. Ali mixes in some genuine emotion and loneliness in amongst the more obvious class-based imperiousness. It’s enough that you wish we had got to see that slightly more interesting story under the surface. Green Book is utterly unchallenging and totally gentle. Nothing wrong with that, but it will fade from your memory as soon as the credits roll. Except with its bizarre Best Picture win it’s now a permanent piece of film history.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

He hates sand you know. Anakin puts the moves on Padmé in Attack of the Clones

Director: George Lucas
Cast: Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker), Natalie Portman (Senator Padmé Amidala), Ian McDiarmid (Chancellor Palpatine), Christopher Lee (Count Dooku), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett), Frank Oz (Yoda), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2 D2), Jimmy Smits (Bail Organa), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Joel Edgerton (Owen Lars), Silas Carson (Nute Gunray/Ki-Adi-Mundi)

Nothing could be as bad as The Phantom Menace. Surely? Well, umm, Attack of the Clones is pretty bad, but it’s not quite as stodgy and racist as the first one. It really isn’t. But don’t get me wrong, it’s still tone death, poorly written, crappily directed, poorly assembled, textbook bad film-making disguised under a lot of money.

Anyway, ten years have crawled by since Phantom Menace. Padmé (Natalie Portman) is now a senator campaigning against a revolutionary Separatist movement in the Republic, led by mysterious former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). After a failed assassination attempt, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Padewan pupil Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christiansen) are assigned to protect her. After another assassination attempt throws up a strange link to a mysterious planet of industrial cloners, Obi-Wan investigates leaving Padmé in Anakin’s care: but the two of them are falling in love, strictly against the rules of the Jedi order.

Sigh. Attack of the Clones is once again a mess, overly computer engineered, badly directed by a director with no knack for visual storytelling other than throwing special effects at the screen. It has a densely disinteresting plot about shady dealings around a mysterious Clone army that eventually the film doesn’t bother to resolve. Lucas shoots the entire film in a shiny, sterile, entirely computer generated environment that looks worse and worse the older the film gets. It builds towards a series of clashes at the end that have impressive spectacle on first viewing, but are hugely empty viewing experiences the more you come back to them. But all this isn’t even the film’s main problem.

First and foremost, the most egregious problem with this film is the romance at its heart. This romance, whose impact is meant to be felt through every film is to come, is as clumsy and unconvincing as anything you are likely to see. Not for one second are you convinced that this couple could ever actually be a thing. For starters Anakin is a whiny, preening, chippy rather dull man who over the course of the film murders a village full of people. Hardly the sort of character to make women swoon. On top of this, his romantic banter and tendency of staring blankly and possessively at Padmé has all the charm of a would-be stalker, mentally planning out the dimensions of the basement he’ll imprison his love in. 

Padmé is hardly much more engaging. Her way of handling this love-struck young man, who she claims she doesn’t want to encourage? To flirt with him in a series of increasingly revealing costumes, while constantly telling him “no we can’t do anything” – for unspecified reasons. But then as she says “you’ll always be that 12 year old boy to me” (Oh yuck George!). Portman looks she can barely raise any interest in holding Anakin’s hand, let alone conceiving future generations of Skywalkers. The desperate attempt to create a sense of “love across the divide” falls flat, flat, flat with all the sweep of a Casualty romance of the week. Put it frankly, we are never ever given any reason at all for us to think that they have any reason to be in love.

Despite all this the film desperately tries to throw them together into a series of clichéd romantic encounters, from candle-lit meals to gondola cruises around the lakes of Naboo. Jesus the film even throws in a flirtatious picnic (in which, true to form, Anakin espouses the benefits of totalitarianism, hardly the sort of thing to get a young girl’s heart fluttering!) followed by a roll around in the long grass after a bit of horseplay. To be honest it’s sickening and all the fancy dressing in the world never disguises the utter lack of chemistry between either characters or actors. And you’ll suffer with the actors who are trawling through the appalling “romantic” dialogue. The infamous “I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth” sums it up – especially as Anakin ends it with stroking Amidala’s exposed shoulder possessively. Late in the film Padmé says “I’ve been dying inside since you came back into my life” – I know how she fuckin’ feels.

But then to be honest nothing really works in this simply terrible film. Of course a lot of the blame rests with Lucas whose overwhelming ineptitude as a writer and director is exposed in scene after scene. Most of the dialogue lacks any wit or lightness at all, constantly straining for a grandeur it can’t deliver and reads like George simply knocked out the first draft and left it at that. As for his directing: the camera positioning lacks any imagination what-so-ever. Most scenes that don’t have lightsabers feature characters sitting talking at each other to fill in plot details (I’m not joking here, there are so many different designs of chairs in this film it’s like strolling around IKEA). Sometimes George spices it up by having characters work slowly and aimlessly from A to B telling each other the plot (I’m failing to resist saying this is a pretty decent metaphor from the film).

The film shakes this up with a few action sequences which either tediously ape things we’ve seen before, but not-as-good (a chase through an asteroid field smacks of Empire Strikes Back) or having a computer game realism to them that never involves you. A prolonged sequence in a battle droid factory literally looks like a computer game from its hideously shiny lack of realism, to its logic, to the way George shoots it with the conveyor belt moving relentlessly forward visually like a dated platform game.

In fact computer game is a pretty good way of thinking about this film. When making this film, Lucas was convinced this would be the start of a new age: that only dull, traditional directors would be building sets and that all the cool kids would make everything in computers. Watching this film today in hi-def blu-ray does it no favours. Lucas’ computer generated sets (in most shots everything except the actors and their costumes are not real) look ridiculously shiny and unrealistic. There is no weight and reality to anything. Instead it all looks like some sort of bizarre, wonky computer visuals. How can you invest in anything in this film when even the goddamn sofa they are sitting on is a visual effect? How can anything have any weight or meaning? Compared to the lived in appearance of the Millennium Falcon, nothing looks realistic or carries any weight at all.

George Lucas isn’t really a director of action either. It’s hard not to compare the epic battles here with the style and substance of the (equally effects filled world) of Lord of the Rings being released at the same time. There, the battle scenes not only carry real emotional weight and peril but also have at least some sense of tactics and story-telling. This is just a collection of special effects being thrown at each other, like an exploding fart in a special effects lab. This makes for events that look impressive when you first see them, but carry no lasting impact: when you revisit the film, nothing feels important or dangerous or coherent – instead it’s just a lot of stuff happening, loudly.

This goes for the famous Yoda-Dooku light saber duel. Sure when I first saw this, seeing a computer generated muppet take on a stunt double with an octogenarian’s face super-imposed on his felt really exciting. But again, on repeated viewings, it’s just a load of wham and bang that kind of leaves you cold (not least because the fight is a showy bore-draw). It’s as ridiculously over-made and over stuffed as half a dozen other fights in the film. It’s almost representative of how crude these prequels are: a character always defined by his intellect and patience in Yoda reduced to a bouncy special effect for a moment of cheap “wow” for the fans. I’ll also throw in the lousy fan service of turning Boba Fett (a character who has a fascination for a lot of fans for no real reason) into an integral part of the Star Wars backstory – as if George intended this character at any point to be so popular, until he released the merchandising opportunities…

Lucas’ direction fails time and time and time again. Even small scenes fall with a splat or feature moments that get the wrong type of chuckles. The moment where Anakin embraces his dying mother? Forever ruined by the snigger worthy collapse of Pernilla August’s Shmi in his arms, looking like a primary school child miming playing dead (tongue out and all) in a school play. Obi-Wan and Anakin’s chase through the skies of Coruscant packed with “jokey” attempted buddy cop lines that never ring true. The film has even more skin crawlingly embarrassing scenes than Phantom Menace, from a sickeningly cutesy room of “younglings” learning Jedi skills to Obi-Wan’s bizarre encounter with a greasy alien in some sort of American diner. There is precisely one moment of wit in the film (Obi-Wan using the force to tell a drug dealer to “You want to go home and rethink your life”). Other than that – nope, it’s poorly made, poorly written, poorly assembled rubbish.

None of the actors emerge with credit. Pity poor old Hayden Christiansen, left to his own devices by Lucas’s inept, direction free, direction. But he is absolutely, drop-down, unreedemably awful in this film. In fact Anakin, far from being a jumping off point, was the death-knell of his career. Was there really no other young actor with charisma who could have stepped in to take this role instead? Portman fairs a tiny bit better, while at least McGregor, Jackson and Lee have enough experience to take care of themselves. But there is no sense of relationship between any of these characters. The two most important relationships Anakin has in the film contain no chemistry: he and Padme and he and Obi-Wan (neither of whom seem to particularly like each other).

Attack of the Clones could never be as disappointing as Phantom Menace (what could?) but it’s far, far, far away from being a good film. It’s got a simply terrible script, is directed with a dull flatness that all the CGI flair and shouting can’t distract you from. There is nothing in there for you to invest emotionally in. It’s built around a relationship that quite frankly doesn’t work at all on any levels. It builds to a random ending that feels like George ran out of ideas rather than because it meets any thematic reason. How could it all have gone so wrong?