Friday, 31 July 2020

Life is Beautiful (1998)

Roberto Benigni uses humour to hide the horrors of the Holocaust from his son in Life is Beautiful

Director: Roberto Benigni
Cast: Roberto Benigni (Guido Orefice), Nicoletta Braschi (Dora Orefice), Giorgio Cantarini (Giosue Orefice), Giustino Durano (Uncle Eliseo), Horst Buchhoolz (Dr Lessing), Marisa Paredes (Dora’s mother), Sergio Bustric (Ferruccio)

How can we confront the dark facts of our past? It’s a question that perhaps feels more relevant with each passing day. History is full of horrors and terrible deeds. And it’s easy to think of those who lived through terrible events as merely victims, a single homogenous mass of the suffering. Life is Beautiful however tries to look at perhaps the most terrible of events, the Holocaust, with an eye that acknowledges the terror but also suggests that love and hope can exist alongside the worst parts of humanity.

In Tuscany in 1939, Guido Orefice (Roberto Benigni) is a sharp-witted, if accident-prone, waiter who dreams of setting himself up as a bookshop owner. He falls in love with Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) and, after a courtship involving “accidental” meetings, comic interludes and finally Dora leaving her engagement party (where she is due to marry a brutish bully), they marry. A few years later they have a son, Giosue (Giogio Cantarini). But the war has gone against Italy, and now Guido and Giosue, as Jews, are arrested and sent to a concentration camp. There Guido does everything he can to try and protect his son from the horrors around him, by pretending the camp is an elaborate game to win a tank, with points won if he can hide from the guards and not cry. Guido spins his own forced labour, and danger of execution, to Giosue as part of the same game.

Directed by and starring Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful was Benigni’s statement that events as terrible as the Holocaust cannot drive hope and love from a father’s heart, and that both tears and laughter can come from the same beautiful place in the human spirit. It’s been called a comedy about the Holocaust, but that’s unfair. Guido may use comedy and try to turn everything that happens to them into a camp an elaborate game for his son – but that’s to stop a 5-year-old child from being traumatised. For us watching, we know the terrible place Guido and his son are in – and we know the appalling things that are happening around them.

Life is Beautiful is really two films, and only one of them is a comedy. The first half is a Chaplain-esque love story, a clumsy but good-hearted and comic scruff-pot winning the heart of a decent and loving woman. It’s full of the sort of slapstick and comic routines you could expect from the masters of classic American silent comedy. It hits every expected beat, from our hero being the sort of wily but honest and kind little guy we can root for, to all his opponents being sharp-suited bullies while his love is charming and tender. For the first half of the film there is little that, really, stands this film out from the ordinary. Benigni is a charming performer – with just the right mix of bashfulness and bombast – but it’s nothing you’ve not seen before.

But then that half of the film exists to give the second half of the film its power. As soon as the time-jump happens, it’s like watching the Little Tramp wander into a horrific tragedy. From the moment Guido closes the shutters on his shop – to reveal the words “Jewish Store” graffitied across it – the sunny Tuscan world around our heroes grows darker and darker. 

Benigni deliberately avoided a sense of realism to his Holocaust imagery – he felt only documentary could really do it justice, so avoided making his death camp look or feel anything like a real camp – but the audience is more than capable of filling in the blanks. The second half of the film, with Guido and his son in the camp, is not funny at all. But that doesn’t stop Guido busting a gut to entertain his son at every moment – or prevent us building a deep emotional connection with a father who is suppressing his own pain and fear in order to try and protect his son. The father who knows the business of this camp is death, who knows that Dora has also been arrested and placed in the women’s camp. Who knows their only hope is to pray the war ends before they die. It’s bleak stuff, and the fact that Guido keeps up a front of humour doesn’t make the film a comedy.

It’s why it the second half of the film carries such impact. Not only have we invested in the comedic warmth of these characters in the first half, but seeing them trying to keep hope alive in their own way in the bleakest of situations is completely moving. Sure there are funny moments – the most notable being Guido’s improvised interpretation of the guard’s explanation of the camp rules into an explanation of the rules of the game he is trying to get his son to believe in – but really it’s not a comedy because we know too well the dangers that surround them.

Sure the film is sentimental and in many ways manipulative. It would be hard pressed to not create emotional moments from such material, and from the sacrifices of Benigni’s character. But it still works and the film has a few shrewd moments of personal insight, not least from the introduction of Horst Buchholz’s German doctor. Dr Lessing knows Guido from his days as a waiter in Tuscany – but encountering him in the camp waiting tables at the officers’ mess, it doesn’t even begin to occur to him that Guido’s position has changed or his family’s lives are in mortal danger. The dehumanising of this extermination system doesn’t just turn people into murderers, it turns decent people into thoughtless observers.

Life is Beautiful does carry a real emotion wallop towards its end. It was famous as “the Holocaust comedy”, but it uses comedy and the conventions of Hollywood romance to build our empathy for characters who then find themselves in a Holocaust movie. And it treats the Holocaust itself with a deep reverence and respect, never making the deaths of millions anything like a joke. Sure, you could argue that it still downplays the terrors of the Holocaust – but then we know the background so well, do we need the gaps all filled in? And while you might say hope from such a terrible setting is not the message that should come out, sometimes it feels like the message we need.

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Zardoz (1974)

Yes Sean Connery actually wears this in Zardoz

Director: John Boorman
Cast: Sean Connery (Zed), Charlotte Rampling (Consuella), Sara Kestelman (May), Niall Buggy (Arthur Frayn/Zardoz), John Alderton (Friend), Sally Anne Newton (Avalow), Bosco Hogan (George Saden)

Be warned. When a director is given the money to make any film he wants – with total creative control and no interference from anyone else – you’ve got a 50/50 chance of either getting a work of genius or a piece of pap. In the case of John Boorman’s Zardoz you definitely get the latter. Zardoz is possibly one of the most bizarre, misguided, surreal and finally plain bad films you’ll see, like a walking advert for the most pretentious and terrible outreaches of science fiction. 

It’s the year 2293, and the world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The “Brutes” live in the wastelands, growing food for the “Eternals” – immortal figures, leading a luxurious but empty, pointless existence on a series of country estates protected from the outside world by forcefields, their lives governed by a super computer. In the middle are the “Exterminators”, who control (i.e. kill and enslave) the Brutes and worship “Zardoz”, a giant flying head sent by the Eternals. Until, one day, Exterminator Zed (Sean Connery) sneaks his way into Zardoz and finds himself in the world of the Eternals and starts to lead them to question the point of their interminable immortality.

Zardoz looks overwhelmingly silly, and is often filmed and edited with such high-flown, empty surrealness, that it’s almost impossible to take seriously from the start. It looks so bizarre – with its terrible costumes, camp playing and overly designed look and feel – that it’s hard not to suppress a snigger. This is made worse by the shallow, pretentious and obvious social satire forced upon on once you start to concentrate on the dialogue.

It’s also one of those films that mistakes an incoherent, poorly explained plot – in which characters frequently change sides, motivations and aims at the drop of a hat – for a sort of mystical profoundity. The influence of The Prisoner is very strongly felt, from its commune-like setting to our “hero” being trapped in a stylised world where he is trying to work out the rules. But while The Prisoner manages, more or less, to suggest some sort of deeper meaning behind all the stylistic self-indulgence and pleased-with-itself babble, Zardoz just manages to be unengaging and heavily self-indulgent. 

You don’t need a philosophy major to work out the social commentary being made in a world where the richest exploit the rest of the population to live a life of ease and content. Nor is it a surprise to find that this sort of life without challenges, continuing forever, has led to stagnated and lazy lives where everything (even, to the film’s shock, sex – although of course the muscular Connery fixes that) has lost all meaning. Frankly this world takes off-cuts of several, far better and smarter films, and remixes them together into a turgid mess.

And it looks so silly. The entire design of the film constantly shoots it in the foot. How could you take Sean Connery seriously in that costume? The Eternals wear the sort of Greek-influenced hedonistic costumes that you would expect to see on a second-rate episode of Star Trek. The film frequently uses stylistic decisions that look absurd – and try too hard – from the hand gestures used to show the Eternals’ mind control (looking like a partial lift from the Macarena) to the bizarre sequences where Zed’s memory is searched using an projector, frequently using surrealist images mixed with physical theatre that frankly looks more than a little bit silly.

Sean Connery goes at this all with a respectful commitment, even if the character isn’t particularly engaging, and is hard to relate to since most of his memories seem to revolve around rape and murder. As if recognising this, there is a late plot turn where we find out that Zed is far more than he appears. But rather than making this intriguing, it makes virtually all his actions earlier in the film incoherent. But then it’s not as if that’s a problem: Charlotte Ramping, Sara Kestelman and John Alderton as the leading Eternals swop views, sides and opinions virtually scene to scene. Rampling in particular goes between plotting Zed’s death to becoming his acolyte in one conversation. For some this might be a sort of poetry. But really it’s crap.

In amongst all the nonsense, the film has a seedy, porny view of women. The Eternals seem to walk around – perhaps because they are so indifferent to sex – virtually in the buff. Connery has sex (eventually) with most of the female cast, as well as groping several others. Boobs frequently appear in shot. In one moment so bizarre it must be a joke, Zed’s sexual drive (so alien to the Eternals) is even explored by showing him some pornographic images (including some naked women mud wrestling) to see if it gets his rocks off (sadly for them, he shows much more – visible – interest in Rampling than the images they are showing). 

It all finally comes to an end in an orgy of violence intercut with images that comment on rebirth in a way that is supposed to be (no doubt) an intellectual comment on the balance between love and death – but actually is just another clumsy, empty excuse for a bit more sex and violence (and plenty of nudity). But then since the film has long since stopped making any sense (with scenes including Connery dressed as a bride, chasing himself through a hall of mirrors and briefly gaining the power to turn back time and protect others from violence with “his aura”) that it hardly seems to matter. The film had a seriously damaging impact on the careers of both Boorman (who makes a good job of the opening scene and then sees the whole film slide down a silly, indulgent and pointless mess) and Connery. Not a surprise. It’s terrible.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Alden Ehrenreich tries his best in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Director: Ron Howard (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich (Han Solo), Woody Harrelson (Tobias Beckett), Emilia Clarke (Qi’ra), Donald Glover (Lando Calrissian), Thandie Newton (Val), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (L3-37), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Paul Bettany (Dryden Vos), Erin Kellyman (Enfys Nest), Jon Favreau (Rio Durant)

Solo did the impossible. No not the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. It showed you could release a Star Wars film that lost money. How could this happen? Well the easy solution is to point at the film’s disastrous shooting. Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were originally announced as its directors, making their live-action debuts. But Lord and Miller lacked experience, and a litany of complaints – poor direction, a demand for constant improvisation slowing shooting, failing to get enough angles to allow options in editing – led to them getting fired and replaced with Ron Howard. 

Unfortunately, even though large parts of the film had already been shot, Howard still needed to go back and reshoot large chunks (and recast, with Paul Bettany replacing the Michael K Williams as the film’s villain due to a scheduling clash). The budget ballooned to nearly $300million, a sum (with marketing costs) the film didn’t stand a chance of hitting with its poor initial buzz and mixed word of mouth. Not to mention the general (misguided) poor reaction from the core fanbase to Last Jedi, which had literally only just left theatres as this film prepared to launch.

If it seems a little unfair to open a review of the film with an anecdote about its making, that’s because the film’s tortuous journey to the screen is more interesting than most of the things that actually ended up in it. It’s an origins story for Han Solo (gamely played by a trying-his-best Alden Ehrenreich), which traces his early days towards becoming the smuggler we know, with the background given for virtually every aspect of the character: meeting Chewie, how he got his surname, where he found his blaster, how he did he win the Millennium Falcon from Lando (Donald Glover, who with his charisma and cool is the only one who manages to reinterpret his character to feel both fresh and a natural predecessor of Billy Dee Williams’ interpretation) and just how did he do that Kessel Run in 12 parsecs? 

If that sounds a bit like the film is a series of nostalgic box ticks… that’s kind of because it is. The impact is made worse by the fact that nearly all its events – from Han meeting his “mentor” Beckett through to the end of the film as he jets off to do a job for Jabba the Hutt – seem to take place in a week. As so often, the modern Stars Wars films manage to make its universe as small as possible. The sense of wearying accumulation as every half reference ever made in the old films is given a backstory, makes you wonder how boring the rest of Han’s life must have been if everything he ever talks about is connected to this one job.

The telescoped timeline also has a serious impact on much of the film’s relationships. Han and Chewie get by fine because we’ve already invested in that friendship – and Ehlenreich and Suotamo do a good job of building the regard between these two, one of the best beats from Howard’s direction. But other relationships get short-changed, particularly Beckett. Played with a maverick gusto by Woody Harrelson, this character is meant to be a model of the sort of heartless mercenary Han Solo starts A New Hope as. But the relationship of the two characters never works, because there is no sense of bond – they’ve known each other a week or two at best, and the emotional trust between them doesn’t exist, so the inevitable betrayal (when it comes) means nothing.

The other principle relationship between Solo and his childhood sweetheart, the equally mercenary Qi’ra, similarly suffers from getting lost in the shuffle of ticking off iconic references. It’s not helped by the total lack of chemistry between Ehlenreich and Emilia Clarke. Clarke herself feels painfully miscast in a role that doesn’t use any of her brightness and wit, instead pushing her into the sort of fantasy-genre, fanboy’s-dream woman she might find herself trapped into playing. This links in strongly with a terminally uninteresting criminal gang plot in which a wasted Paul Bettany – playing someone who barely seems to manage to have a personality – is the mysterious crime lord manipulating everyone.

The film goes from set piece to set piece, but none of them really stand out, and all are shot and edited together with a sort of bland competence that perhaps you could expect from a master craftsman like Howard, who works better with actors than he does special effects. The film clearly wants to go for a Firefly vibe (with its heists, mismatched criminal gang, double crosses and damaged hero not wanting to get involved in the problems of others) – and there is something quite sad that this film about an iconic character feels the need to rip off a TV show that ripped off a lot of the vibe of that original iconic character.

But then that’s the problem perhaps. This is a wallowing in nostalgia that depends on your affection for Harrison Ford’s masterful Han Solo – but which will only serve to remind viewers that, for all his work, Ehlenreich is no Ford. It also doesn’t help that the film, by its very nature, can allow no development for Solo. This is a character that spends all of Star Wars as a cynical and selfish hired gun, who acts without thinking and has no interest in helping others if there is nothing in it for him. Since Solo basically starts this origins story like this, he therefore must end the film in the same way – so other than becoming a bit more competent and worldly-wise, he’s stuck not developing in any way. This makes for a film that feels even more like a slightly pointless exercise in nostalgia.

For all that, it has its moments and is fun enough – and certainly not the worst film in the franchise. But it’s the first sign, that Disney should have heeded, that nostalgia and retelling familiar stories over and over again was not a guaranteed box office smash any more. By rooting another film in things introduced in the first two Star Wars, it reminds us again that this is a small and incestuous universe, where we see the same faces over and over again. With a film where every scene is a homage and every possible piece of trivia is laboriously given a back story, that feeling grows even more.