Thursday, 31 October 2019

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

James Cagney leads the way as a hardened criminal in Angel with Dirty Faces

Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: James Cagney (Rocky Sullivan), Pat O’Brien (Father Jerry Connolly), Humphrey Bogart (Jim Frazier), Ann Sheridan (Laury Martin), George Bancroft (Mac Keefer), The Dead End Kids

It has perhaps the most famous ending of all gangster films. Faced with his final few minutes on Death Row, charismatic gangster Rocky Sullivan meets with his oldest friend, Father Jerry O’Connell. Rocky is a hero to the kids on the block, and Father Jerry pleads with him: go the chair yellow and just maybe you can help turn these kids away from a life of crime. No way Rocky is going to lose his pride – until the final few moments, when suddenly he collapses into a morass of whimpering fear and terror. Did he decide to listen to Jerry’s pleading? Or did he really go yellow after all?

It’s the question that you are meant to take from Angels with Dirty Faces, a superb example of the gangster genre, brilliantly directed by Michael Curtiz. And it works so well because quite simply no other actor in the history of film could have pulled it off as well as Cagney does. If you have any doubts about whether Cagney deserves to stand as one of the truly greatest film actors of all time, this film erases them. 

Cagney is simply superb as Rocky. Has there ever been a gangster who was so charismatic, so magnetic, so strangely decent in his way, who plays in the corrupt world of crime but has his own absolutely rigid moral code? Few other actors could have you so ready to believe he would ruthlessly pull the trigger at the drop of the hat, and yet would still be someone you’d consider inviting round for dinner. Every single scene hinges on his brilliance as a performer, and his interaction with each character is superbly judged. He is an unapologetic bad guy, a man who openly says that he isn’t sure he is capable of empathy in the same way as normal people, yet he also has a fierce sense of loyalty and doesn’t hesitate to take the rap for others or to put himself in harm’s way to protect those he feels loyalty towards.

It’s all part of the intriguing moral puzzle of the film, that rather bravely inverts the idea of good and evil that the Hays Code mandated. On the surface this is a Board approved plot of two kids from the wrong end of the block, one who ends up good one who ends up bad, with the bad one getting his comeuppance and the good saving souls all around. But scratch the surface and actually this is a film that is making far more subtle points about a world that is in shades of grey. For starters, the most faithful and loyal character in the film is the hoodlum Rocky. 

But more than that, the film stresses that the margin between priest and criminal is very thin indeed. Repeatedly it’s stressed that Jerry is only a priest – rather than a fellow criminal graduate of the reform system like Rocky – because he was able to run away faster from the police during their days of mayhem as tearaway boys. It only takes chance and a few lucky turns, and the priest owes his ability to find God and the good life solely because the criminal happily took the whole rap as a Kid. The priest and the criminal work almost hand-in-hand trying to encourage the local kids to engage more in their community (even if they are teaching subtly different lessons) and their friendship is unaffected by the events of the film. 

Much as the film is building a traditional narrative of crime being attractive but not in the end paying, it is also subtly suggesting that good and evil perhaps coexist in harmony more than we might think (or might be comfortable to acknowledge). Which brings us back to the title I guess: Jerry is an angel with a dirty face from his flawed childhood, but in a way Rocky himself is an angel whose face is covered with the muck of crime. Both characters have lives that have crime and misdemeanours behind them, even if they have eventually chosen different routes.

Curtiz’s film allows this commentary to bubble subtly and cleverly under a host of wonderful scenes and carefully composed sequences. The highlight of which might well be an extraordinarily well made extended shoot out scene, as Rocky faces his final show down with the cops after one crime too many. But it’s a peak of a series of superb sequences that make excellent use of framing and intent. Curtiz even makes the Dead End Kids – a group of, I’ll be honest, rather irritating child actors, whose fates I find it hard to get worked up about – reasonably engaging. There are several other fabulous performances, not least a wonderfully snivelling turn from Humphrey Bogart as a cowardly and corrupt lawyer with more than a few criminal connections.

It all comes back to that final sequence as events catch up with Rocky and the electric chair awaits. Cagney is simply brilliant in this scene, a perfect steel front of composure and pride that we are invited to question whether it cracks or he does so deliberately. Curtiz shoots the sequence in shadow play (apart from one shot of Rocky’s hands clinging desperately to a radiator) – to meet the Hays Code rules about what you could and couldn’t show on screen, the chair being a no – but it works superbly and Cagney’s powerhouse but also restrained performance nails it perfectly. While you like to think Rocky has done the “right thing” you can’t be sure – and it’s that question that hangs over it that helps cement this as a brilliant inversion of the black-and-white morals of the era: we like to think decency has prevailed, but maybe it’s all just being yellow after all…

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Forest Whitaker dominates as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Forest Whitaker (Idi Amin), James McAvoy (Nicholas Garrigan), Kerry Washington (Kay Amin), Gillian Anderson (Sarah Merrit), Simon McBurney (Stone), David Oyelowo (Dr Junju)

Forest Whitaker won every award going for his performance as Idi Amin. A film can perhaps only begin to scratch the surface of what a megalomaniac nutjob Amin was, and the depths of his depravity and corruption. But The Last King of Scotland is perhaps less focused on that, and more on the pull that people as charismatically self-absorbed and larger-than-life like Amin can have on the weak-minded and, on a wider basis, how this can end up with him leading an entire country on a not-so-merry dance, everyone desperate to gain the love and approval of a single dominant personality.

That weakling is Dr Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) a young medical graduate from Edinburgh, who is arrogant, cocksure over-sexed and over-here in Uganda, keen for adventure and to get as much sex and experiences in as he can while he’s over here. A gap-year student with a desire for the easy life, after a chance meeting Garrigan becomes chief-physician and confidant to Amin, a man with a deep love for Scotland and who likes to think of himself as a father to those around him. It takes Garrigan a long time to realise that this indulgent, if bad-tempered, charismatic father-figure  is in fact a brutal dictator, his eyes eventually opened by the experiences of one of Amin’s wives Kay (Kerry Washington) who pays a heavy price for mothering an epileptic and adultery. Will Garrigan escape from Uganda?

Macdonald’s film gets a brilliant sense of both the exotic appeal of Uganda at the time (and or Amin) and it’s heat-embroiled danger. The camera work is flooded with yellows and grimy details, that makes every scene feel like its bathed in heat (and later danger) as well as giving it a documentary realism (helped by its use of handheld and immediate footage). The story of the film itself is a fairly basic morality tale, but these stories work because of their universality and it’s clear that Garrigan’s selfishness, shallowness and self-interest is going to lead to a terrible awakening.

The film’s real strength is Whitaker’s tour-de-force as Idi Amin. Whitaker is an actor who has been straining at the leash for an explosive roll, and he gets one here. If ever there was a part that would allow an actor to let rip it’s the one, with Amin part Hannibal Lector, part decadent Roman emperor, a low-rent Hitler with an ego larger than his country. But the bombast and childish fury work because it is built within the framework of a sort of puffed-up magnetism, a charismatic “hail-fellow-well-met” bonhomie that suggests this guy could be the best fun in the room. So dripping in assurance and confidence is Amin that he becomes strangely attractive – and the sort of all-powerful force of nature that would have most of us smiling if we caught a word of approval from him.

The trick of the film is to front-and-centre this lighter, fun-loving aspect. It’s easy to enjoy it like Garrigan as Amin charms the audience as much as he does its lead character. Sure there may be violence at the margins, but good-old-Amin is just doing what needs to be done. He’s brilliant with the people. It’s funny when he on-a-whim appoints Garrigan to decide a major architectural pitch from several countries. He’s playful and enthusiastic. When he’s cross with people he seems at first more disappointed than angry. It’s only as the film goes on that we realise we have been gaslit as much as Garrigan, that Amin may be a fun guy but he also cares nothing for anyone and that the more his focus shifts away, the more we see his callous paranoia and lack of any moral scruples.

Certainly we start getting a sense of the ruthlessness he is prepared to exhibit to enforce his rule in Uganda and the brutality with which he will suppress any resistance. Aides killed in a failed assassination attempt illicit no sympathy. He feels no guilt or responsibility for anything he does. In one brutal moment he berates Garrigan for failing to counsel him against expelling all Asians from Uganda. When Garrigan protests he did, Amin only responds with “Yes, but you did not persuade me Nicholas!” the sort of inverted logic practised only by the insanely self-obsessed.

Whitaker’s performance powers all this, a magnetic masterclass in insanity, charisma and paranoia. He’s well matched by James McAvoy (the film’s real lead) whose performance is similarly a masterclass is shallowness and petty triteness. If anything the film is almost too successful in this. A Garrigan is such a little arsehole it takes quite a force of will to build up any sympathy for this serial shagger playboy. It’s capable to think as the fire turns on him that perhaps he deserves this – and the number of (mostly black) characters who lay down their lives to protect him starts to get a bit wearing after a while.

Because this in part is a film where actual Ugandans are not heard that much. The two principle characters we see are both victims: Kerry Washington in a thankless part as the attractive young wife you just know from day one Garrigan will climb into bed with and David Oyelowo as the sort of noble doctor you only seem to find in movies. For all its horror at Amin’s crimes, it’s still largely filtered through the eyes of a young, white, innocent abroad who sees up-front the dangers but the real victims of Amin, the Ugandans themselves, are clichés or elevated clichés.

While you could say that was not the point of the film, it still means we miss some of the real danger and psychopathy of the leading character, so absorbed are we in seeing the increasing peril of the white man caught up in it all. It’s why The Last King of Scotland doesn’t quite work as well as it should, any why it settles in the end for a being a morality tale plot-boiler about a monster at the heart of the forest, rather than a deeper and more intelligent film about the tragedy of an African state. It’s still enjoyable for all that, but it could have been more.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

King Kong (2005)

Naomi Watts and a mo-cap Andy Serkis bring to life Peter Jackson's dream in King Kong

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Naomi Watts (Ann Darrow), Jack Black (Carl Denham), Adrien Brody (Jack Driscoll), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Englehorn), Colin Hanks (Preston), Jamie Bell (Jimmy), Andy Serkis (Kong/Lumpy), Evan Parke (Ben Hayes), Kyle Chandler (Bruce Baxter), John Sumner (Herb), Lobo Chan (Choy), Craig Hall (Mike)

In the late 90s Peter Jackson was working hard on putting together the plans for his dream project. It was a complex project, with unprecedented special effects demands, a huge cast, a demanding shoot and a big budget. However, plans fell through, so Jackson decided to move his attention to that Lord of the Rings trilogy idea he had been banging around instead. Hot of the success of that little escapade, he delivered at last his dream: a huge remake of King Kong.

Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a ruthless film director, desperate to make the big epic that will dwarf all others. Pulling together a team including playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and vaudeville dancer Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), he heads out on a ship for location shooting on the mysterious Skull Island. Arriving on the Island, they find that the savage natives aren’t the only dangers on an Island that has bypassed evolution. The crew find themselves hunted by dinosaurs, huge creepy-crawlies and other horrors all while they try to find and rescue Ann from the Island’s Alpha – a huge gorilla, King Kong (famously motion-captured by Andy Serkis). Led by Jack, who has fallen in love with Ann, dangers surround the crew – but is mankind, and the ambitious Carl, the real danger?

Time and public perception has not always been kind to Jackson’s labour of love. Perhaps coloured by the generally negative reception to his Hobbit films (which are a mess), perhaps also by the film being more of a gentle, sentimental film mixed with cartoon-splatter horror rather than the monster-mash B movie later Kong films have been, it’s generally remembered as a bit of a disaster. This is far from fair. Yes it’s overlong (hugely so at well over three hours – nearly twice as long as the original) and over-indulgent but it’s also quite a sweet, if rather tonally mixed, film that more or less manages to keep an audience entertained.

Unlike later films which have enjoyed Kong (or Godzilla) most when he smashes things – even if he is often the film’s hero or at least anti-hero – this Kong film is perhaps at its most contented when it is finding the humanity in the ape. As a 9-year old, Jackson talks about crying when Kong fell dead from the Empire State Building – and it is this engaging giant that he wants to bring to life here. Using Serkis – cementing his reputation here as the whizz of motion capture – to have a human literally inside the Gorilla, giving real expressions and genuine character to a giant ape was deliberate. The film’s most heart-felt – and quietest – moments both involve moments of gentle play or innocence from the Gorilla, either starring at a beautiful sunset (which he does both on the island and on the Empire State) or playfully slipping and sliding on a Central Park frozen lake, this is a monster that Jackson sees as a misunderstand soul, that bond he felt at 9 brought to the screen.

That’s the key between the bond that Ann feels with this beast who starts as potential killer, becomes protector, friend and finally a sort of romantic interest of a kind. Well played by Naomi Watts, Ann Darrow herself is a damaged soul, a bright-eyed, naïve dreamer with a dose of realism slowly entering her soul, who wants to entertain people but also to make her immediate world a better, warmer place. It’s natural that such a person would start to feel a deep bond with Kong, to learn to appreciate his gentleness and protectiveness, to put herself at risk to try and save his life. It’s a huge development of the character from scream-queen, and positions Ann (or tries to) as a more pro-active force in her own story.

And the ape responds to this, slowly revealing his own true nature as a potentially gentle giant, albeit one who is prepared to rip a few T-Rex’s apart to protect his love. He certainly ends up feeling more of an ideal partner for Ann than the other men in the film. Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll is a determined, principled and brave man but there is a touch of inadequacy to him, a surrendering of responsibility and a lack of proactivity in his make-up. While the early love story between the two characters is sensitively drawn, it tellingly can’t survive the events of Skull Island – at least not in the same way.

Mind you Driscoll is better than Denham, who is transformed in this film to a soulless monster interested only in his own greed for fame and power. Jack Black delivers what the script demands – even if the film is pushing on the edge of his range. As Black’s stock has fallen, so perhaps as some of the film’s – and the perception of his performance here. It doesn’t help that the idea of the ruthless film director seems to be a common trope for film director’s to explore (and interesting psychological question there!) so the character’s shallow lack of regard for anyone else, coupled with his fierce ambition to be the greatest showman around start to grate after a while. It’s a character lacking any depth.

But then that’s the case for most of the rest of the cast as well, who struggle to make room in a film that is overloaded with events and action to the detriment of its overall impact. Jackson’s heart may really lie in the quiet moments between beauty and beast – but he also loves an action scene. And King Kong has too many of these. Much of the middle hour of the film is given over to a never-ending parade of events on Skull Island, that after a while seize to have any real impact. As nameless crew members are crushed by boulders, or stampeding dinosaurs, or savaged by giant insects, or have their heads caved in by savage islanders (not surprisingly these H Rider Haggard style savages, with their lust for human sacrifice, drew more than a little criticism – and it hasn’t aged well) you start to feel your interest sagging. Kong’s brawl with three savage T-Rex’s is perfectly made in every respect, except for the fact it goes on forever.

Ambition lies behind every frame (all of them beautiful by the way) of this huge three hour epic monster picture – but it gets all so much that it buries the story. Like Kong himself, it touches the heavens only to fall tragically to Earth, trying to protect the thing it loves. Jackson wants to protect Kong from being just seen as a massive ape that hits things – but loses his way at times when Kong does little more than exactly that. It is still an intelligent and heartfelt film – but it struggles as well with being an uncontrolled play in the sandbox.