Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Tenet (2020)

John David Washington has to save the world in the tricksy Tenet

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: John David Washington (The Protagonist), Robert Pattinson (Neil), Elizabeth Debicki (Katherine Barton), Kenneth Branagh (Andrei Sator), Dimple Kapadia (Priya), Himesh Patel (Mahir), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ives), Michael Caine (Sir Michael Crosby), Clémence Poésy (Barbara), Martin Donovan (Fay), Fiona Dourif (Wheeler), Yuri Kolokolnikov (Volkov)

SPOILERS: I’ll be discussing Nolan’s film, which was kept so secretive, that even revealing what it is about might be considered a spoiler. So if you want to experience the film as intended, watch it first!

Tenet, at this rate the only blockbuster that is going to be released in 2020, was given the mission to save cinema from coronovirus. Match that with the near religious regard Christopher Nolan is held in by fans of cinema, and you had a major cinematic event on your hand. Is Tenet the second coming of cinema? Well of course not. But it is an enjoyable, if frustratingly tricksy, film shot on a jaw-dropping scale. If you ever had any doubt about whether Nolan grew up watching Kubrick intermixed with James Bond, this film dispels it.

Our entry point in the story is an unnamed character – he calls himself The Protagonist of the operation – played by John David Washington. A CIA agent, left critically injured after an operation at the Kiev Opera, is recruited to work for a mysterious organisation, Tenet. He discovers that Tenet is dedicated to preserving mankind in a war that is taking place across time. The tools of this war are “inverted” bullets and other materials. These bullets both backwards through time – explosions reform and bullets return to the guns that fired them. The Protagonist discovers that the inversion bullets are being funnelled through arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). Sator is working with a faction from the future, planning to invert time in order to save their world from destruction. Sator also has access to machines that can invert people, allowing them to move physically backwards through time giving him huge advantages in forging his empire and in collecting the components of a time-inverting super weapon that will destroy all life in our present and past.

Confused? Well as characters frequently say throughout the film – don’t think about it too much. I’ve seen Nolan’s epic twice. It’s a film that revolves around Temporal Pincer Movements – military tactics that use normal and inverted people moving backwards through time. The “forward” team lives through the events. The “Inverted” team move backwards, seeing events from the end backwards, supplying real-time information to the forward team. Those carrying out a Temporal Pincer Movement know the exact timeline of what is to happen and are therefore almost unbeatable.

Watching the film twice, I realise it places the viewer in the same position. First time I was lost in the maze of the film’s rushed explanations, hand-waved time mechanics and confused by working out who was inverted and who wasn’t at any one time. Watching the film a second time, knowing the plot, I did a Temporal Pincer Movement on it myself – my “past self” who knew basically how the film ended, helped my second viewing self to understand what was happening.

So you’ve kinda got to watch it twice to understand it properly. Or at least to begin to. Second time around you also know which details are important and which to ignore, which explanations are crucial to its understanding and which are not. Second time around I noticed a lot more how characters, such as Clémence Poésy’s scientist, who introduces inversion, stress “don’t think about it too much”. The science of it all is basically a red-herring. There is talk of various predestination and grandfather paradoxes (as you might expect in a world where the future is plotting to destroy the past). Again, second time around I realised: don’t worry about it too much. 

So the question is, will people rush to see the film a second time around to understand it better? I’m not entirely sure they will. And I think that’s because, unlike Nolan’s other films, Tenet lacks heart. Here’s a man who has been praised for the ingenuity of his films going a little too far. Look back at Nolan’s other films and underneath the trickery and “timey-wimey” there is a core of a beating human heart. Inception and Interstellar, at heart, are about a man trying to reunite with his children. Memento, a man mourning the loss of his wife. Dunkirk, frightened young men trying to get home. In Tenet, there is none of this. It’s literally a film about time-scheneanigans with a huge Macguffin at the middle that will wipe out the world. The Protagonist is just what who he seems, a character who (engagingly played as he is by John David Washington, very good) we feel so little connection with that you could easily not notice we don’t learn his name.

It’s this lack of heart that really weighs the film down. How much can we really care in the end about a world-ending Macguffin so briefly explained, we just take it on trust that it’s bad? Tenet is burdened by Nolan’s slightly-too-pleased-with-itself cleverness, as events are played and replayed from multiple angles throughout the film, in a way that demands repeat viewings rather than giving the first-time viewer more knowledge in each scene. If you fall for this sort of thing, then you will fall hard. But, Nolan’s other mega-hits charmed viewers because they cared about the characters at its heart, not the elaborate tricks about time and memory. We wanted to see DiCaprio find his kids, we wanted those boys on the beach to get home – and people were happy to let other things wash over them slightly, because the emotion was how they interpreted the story. Without that heart, the film is a massive, showy trick – and a bit empty as a result.

Which isn’t to say that Nolan doesn’t shoot the hell out of it, or that the scope of it isn’t incredible. It’s where his Bond influence comes in. Because while half the time, he’s paying homage to Kubrick’s mastery and precision – or wonderfully, with its early scene of objects moving backwards and thick rubber gloves, Cocteau’s Orphée – the other half is straight out of Roger Moore. Massive bases. Huge car chases. Big shoot-outs. A Russian villain who could have walked out of Spectre and straight into the film. Flemingesque touches with the hero infiltrating the villain’s world, taking part in a sport with him. A woman at the middle who has a foot in the camps of both hero and villain. This is all Moore-era Bond, repackaged with a sprinkling of PhD Physics.

If there is a heart in the film, its Elizabeth Debicki’s abused wife of Kenneth Branagh’s lip-smacking villain. The film’s most effective character scenes revolve around this pair, and the destructive, possessive ‘love’ of Branagh’s Sator, a man must possess or destroy a person. The film captures neatly the perverted “love” Sator claims to have for a woman he abuses, beats and terrifies – and Debicki beautifully captures the mix of shame, hate and fear people in such situations often feel. Nolan must have enjoyed BBC’s The Night Manager, as Debicki repackages her role from that film almost exactly, but given the most emotional and heartfelt plotline in the film, she becomes the one character you really care about and invest in. A better film might have put her even more front and centre.

Instead though, the action around time dominates, with Nolan’s brilliantly mounted action scenes that mix forward and backward motion with staggering (and seamless) effect. It’s yet another reason to see the movie twice. The film is big, loud and demanding – often too loud, with dialogue frequently drowned out (a problem you notice less second time around when you have a much better idea about when to concentrate and when to look away). The cast do terrific work. Washington is very assured as the lead, playing with wit and grace. Debicki is a stand-out. Robert Pattinson brings a quirk and originality to a role that has very little to it on paper. Branagh has been more controversial for his Bond-tinged Russian baddie, but I found a chilling horror in his domestic abuse and selfishness that works extremely well (again particularly second time around). Pattinson brings a playfulness to an underwritten role.

Tenet may not rework cinema – and I doubt it would make a top five list of Nolan’s best films – it’s bold and challenging, if a little cold and heartless. While demanding a double viewing, it’s not quite clear if it will make you long to see it again too quickly. But if you take the effort to do so, you will find a film that grows on you more with repeated viewing – and reveals its deliberately impenetrable mysteries much better.

Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941)

Edward Everett Horton, Robert Montgomery and Claude Rains deal with death, admin and body swops in Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Director: Alexander Hall
Cast: Robert Montgomery (Joe Pendleton), Evelyn Keyes (Bette Logan), Claude Rains (Mr Jordan), Rita Johnson (Julia Farnsworth), Edward Everett Horton (Messenger 7013), James Gleason (Max “Pop” Corkle), John Emery (Tony Abbott), Donald MacBride (Inspector Williams), Don Costello (Lefty), Halliwell Hobbes (Sisk)

One of the best things about the Hollywood Studio system is that created an environment where middle-brow talents could suddenly lift themselves up to create something very special. That’s certainly the case with Here Comes Mr Jordan, the career high spot for its director and its main stars. It’s the sort of product of Classic Hollywood where everything comes together perfectly and delightfully.

Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) is a boxer with a shot at the title. An amateur pilot, Joe flies his own one-man flight to New York for the match. On the way, his plane crashes. An officious Angel, Messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Horton), collects his soul – only to find on arrival in heaven that Joe was meant to survive the crash and live for another 50 years. Unfortunately, by the time the mistake is found out, Joe’s body has been cremated. Head Angel Mr Jordan (Claude Rains) has no choice other than to find Joe another body on Earth. So Joe winds up in the body of millionaire Bruce Farnsworth, recently murdered by his wife Julia (Rita Johnson) and secretary Tony Abbott (John Emery). In his new body, Joe decides to correct Farnsworth’s wrongs, returning his embezzled money to investors and helping to free the father of Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), who took the blame. Joe also wants to retrain for a boxer – recruiting, much to his confusion, his old coach Max Corkle (James Gleason) – and he and Bette begin to fall in love. But Joe’s destiny, it turns out, is to be the champ – and he can’t do that in Farnsworth’s body. How will Mr Jordan clean this mess up?

Here Comes Mr Jordan is a delight, a hilarious musing on reincarnation and afterlife, in which the next world is as weighted down by bureaucracy and red tape as much as this one. With neat, unobtrusive direction from Alexander Hall (who never hit the jackpot like this again), the film keeps its comic balls up in the air beautifully, while throwing in some neat observations around life, death and fate. The script bubbles with lovely bits of invention, from the Afterlife to a bureaucratic organisation to Joe’s inhabiting of Farnsworth’s body (after trying a few other bodies on first), while still appearing to himself (and we the viewers – a neat idea that the film invites us not to think about too much as Joe’s mannerisms and physicality must be completely different from Farnsworth) unchanged from his original body.

Around this the film gets some neat pot shots at big business corruption. In some ways this is a little like A Matter of Life and Death mixed with Capra. As in Capra, the humble, kind-but-not-super-smart regular Joe is the one who takes a long-hard look at the corruption and greed of Big Business and Corporate America and decides “there has to be a better way”. The kind of guy who solves major business problems simply by doing the right thing and listening to his heart. Counterbalancing that is Joe’s ongoing obsession with continuing his boxing career, from his determination to get a body that’s “in the pink” (a phrase that drives Mr Jordan up the wall) to roping in his ageing butler into a series of vigorous workouts.

A large part of the charm of Joe Pendleton lies in the brilliantly dry, witty, sweet but still a little selfish qualities that Robert Montgomery (Oscar nominated) brings to the part. Playing the part with a homespun Brooklyn honesty and simplicity, Montgomery also has a childish delight in finding he can pass unobserved as this new man (particularly funny after his initial terror that he will be “found out” any second), while his boxing obsession has an endearing genuineness to it. Montgomery, as well as getting the light comedic tone spot on (no surprise that Cary Grant was the first choice for the role – although he could never have played the working class Joe as well as Montgomery does he) he also builds a very sweet and charming romance with Evelyn Keyes (also in a career best role), who is ill-treated but defiantly assured of the importance of doing the right thing as Bette.

The whole cast is quite superbly assembled, seasoned pros, doing their thing with aplomb. James Gleason was Oscar-nominated as Joe’s befuddled manager, trying to wrap his head around incarnation. Gleason also gets some of the finest gags, as Corkle tries to interact with Mr Jordan, who remains invisible to the living – but also brings a genuine warmth and tenderness to his feelings for Joe, who he clearly sees as a son. As Mr Jordan, Claude Rains is smoothness personified, playing the entire film with a relaxed grin on his face, gleefully mixing in an obsession with ensuring the “rules” are followed, while offering a dry reaction to events such as murder. As his underling Edward Everett Horton brings his patented A-game of flustered middle-man.

Mr Jordan grins so much through the film it’s easy to forget that he’s basically the Angel of Death. Reasonable and supportive, Jordan is also blithely unaffected by death and murder. The film, among the jokes and the general air of a fairy tale, has a little vein of darkness. In his introduction Jordan is overseeing the collection of souls from some of the battlefields of World War II. Later he calmly informs Joe of Farnsworth’s murder taking place even as they speak. The film doesn’t hesitate to shy away from the details of Farnsworth’s killing – or from two further murders. It’s a little nugget of darkness in amongst the charm, and a reminder that this comedy on death and the afterlife took place while the world was tearing itself apart. No wonder death can sometimes not be as big as a deal to everyone as it is today (especially to the Angel of Death).

Because the film has a more Capraesque belief that what matters is not who we are but what’s inside. Joe will appear as Farnsworth to everyone, but eventually what people will respond to (he is told by Jordan) is the person inside not the outward appearance. The potential that Joe may have to move to a new body to fulfil his destiny of becoming the champ, doesn’t meant that he and Bette need to necessarily be apart if his heart remains the same. While the film does suggest (I feel darkly!) at one point that Joe may forget who he was originally the longer he is in a new body, the more it stresses the point that the basic qualities of his decency won’t be lost.

Its ideas like this – combined with expert telling and superb Classic Hollywood grace and skill in its shooting, directing and acting – that give Here Comes Mr Jordan a little bite, along with its comic impact. Nominated for seven Oscars it won two – and it stands to be remembered in what was a glory year for Hollywood. You might expect something rather slight – but this delightful comedy is as thought provoking as it is playful.

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Queen and Slim (2019)

Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya are on the run from injustice in Queen and Slim

Director: Melina Matsoukas
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya (Slim), Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen), Bokeem Woodbine (Uncle Earl), Chloe Sevigny (Mrs Shepherd), Flea (Johnny Shepherd), Sturgill Simpson (Officer Reed), Benito Martinez (Sheriff Edgar)

You could say Queen and Slim was the film of 2020 that was unlucky enough to be released in 2019. There can be few other films that have captured so effectively the injustice that the killing of George Floyd revealed to the wider world. But watching Queen and Slim reminds many of us in more privileged positions that the sort of systemic outrages that 2020 has brought to light existed for decades prior to this.

Our unnamed leads are “Queen” (Jodie Turner-Smith), a criminal defence lawyer, on an awkward Tinder date with “Slim” (Daniel Kaluuya). The date is not a huge success – possibly because the determined and ambitious Queen has little in common with the gentle, Godly and quiet Slim – but their lives are changed forever when Slim gives her a lift home. Pulled over by an increasingly aggressive police officer, innocent questions from Slim, and Queen’s challenge of his authority, lead to his gun being drawn, Queen shot in the leg and a scuffle with Slim that leaves the officer shot dead. Now wanted for killing a police officer – and convinced that their side of the story will never get an equal hearing – they go on the run. But their cause seizes the public imagination, and “the Black Bonnie and Clyde” end up inspiring others to take a stand across an unjust system.

Queen and Slim uses common conventions of a road movie: two young people on the run for a crime who discover new things about themselves and the world as they travel, drawing closer together. In that sense there is nothing too revelatory about it. Indeed half of the film’s impact – rather like Thelma and Louise – is taking expected tropes and presenting them to us from new perspectives. But what Matsoukas’ film does so effectively is to add a completely new political and social dimension to this. This road movie instead becomes a searing commentary on race in America and the injustice of the system.

Endemic unfairness runs through the entire movie. From the pulling over of the young couple at the start of the film – a search that becomes increasingly invasive and aggressive for no other reason than the officer’s reaction to their colour – to their final confrontation with a lethally trigger-happy police force, there is no fair crack of the whip for this couple. Queen’s restatement of her and Slim’s rights when pulled over is seen as a violent action. The media swiftly turn the couple into ruthless, dangerous killers. A parade of law enforcement (certainly all of the white officers) sink quickly to using crude, racially tinged stereotypes. And there is of course no question that an unjust, one-sided trial ending in (at best) a life-long prison sentence awaits this couple if caught.

But the film also shows brilliantly another side of America. On the road trip, Matsoukas’ camera captures the distant, sometimes run-down, ghettoised communities of non-White groups in America (to the extent that a traditional picket-fenced house visited late on by the couple seems like a foreign land). The camera pans through parts of America we rarely see – and also sees the communities there. These are people who know, in their hearts, that Queen and Slim are the victims here – that the police are more than capable of shooting black people who look like they might cause trouble, whether they have or not. But they also know that there is no chance of justice for them, that they are destined to become martyrs. And that like them, every Black person in America could be a breath away from falling victim to police brutality.

This gives the film a real edge, that gains extra force the more events from the news remind us that issues like this are far from fiction. It gives a political force to the film that serves as a superb snapshot of America today. Matsoukas’ film is shot with vibrant freshness and she draws a great couple of performances from the leads.

Both are contrasting souls, who find themselves drawn closer together as they slowly absorb each other’s qualities. Jodie Turner-Smith is superb as the lawyer with a chip-on-her-shoulder, whose unhappy family life has led to her putting up emotional safeguards that only slowly erode over the course of the film. In many ways the road journey gives her a freedom she has never had before – while Slim’s gentleness encourages her to express sides of herself she has kept long-hidden. Daniel Kaluuya is similarly wonderful as the devout and gentle Slim, who discovers in himself an anger and resentment at the injustice he had accepted as part of everyday life.

Queen and Slim marshals this altogether into a compelling package that will open many people’s eyes to the truth of racial politics in many parts of America – and the tensions underneath it. 

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson loses his mind in The Shining

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Jack Nicholson (Jack Torrance), Shelley Duvall (Wendy Torrance), Danny Lloyd (Danny Torrance), Scatman Crothers (Dick Hallorann), Barry Nelson (Stuart Ullman), Philip Stone (Delbert Grady), Joe Turkel (Lloyd), Anne Jackson (Doctor), Tony Burton (Larry Durkin)

I’ve often had mixed feelings towards Kubrick’s films. He’s impossible not to admire and there is no doubt many of his films are landmarks in cinema. But I’ve also often found him a brilliant technician, a striking intellectual but an emotionally cold and distant director, who seizes the brain and sense but doesn’t always engage the heart. It’s perhaps unsurprising that a director who has such control over the tools of cinema should be able to use it to create one of the greatest horror films of all time. Because what else is horror but the expert use of technique to unsettle and scare the audience? It’s like the genre Kubrick was destined to try – and succeed at.

The Shining was itself partly born out of Kubrick’s disappointment at the reception given to Barry Lyndon, his cinematically rich, but emotionally unengaging (to many) Thackeray adaptation. It garlanded awards, but praise that was more respectful than fulsome – while audiences had largely stayed away. Kubrick may be an artist – but he still wanted people to see his work. He decided to direct a film based on a poplar horror novel – after all people have been seeing slasher and fright pics for decades, so why not get a piece of that action? Stephen King’s novel was one of the few that engaged him (allegedly the famously highbrow Kubrick spent months reading part way into various horror novels before flinging them across his office in contempt). Sure Kubrick – much to King’s annoyance – junked many of the author’s themes in favour of his own. But in doing so he created a terrifying and deeply unsettling experience that stands as his most effective late work.

In the abandoned, and snow isolated, Overlook Hotel during off-season, writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is hired as caretaker to keep the building running. Accompanied by his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd), Torrance hopes to use the isolation time to come up with a draft of his new novel. However, dark forces are at work at the hotel. Ten years ago the caretaker butchered his whole family there, and the deaths have left a psychic legacy on the building. This is picked up on by the ESP-powered Danny, but also begins to play on the psyche of Jack who slowly begins to become ever more short-tempered, twitchy and unhinged as time goes on.

The Shining is one of the most frightening and unsettling films I’ve ever seen. And I attribute that completely to Kubrick’s mastery of the language of cinema. Every single frame, every single note on the soundtrack, has been perfectly shaped to inspire dread in the heart of the viewer. There are no cheap tricks, no jump scares, no obvious cinematic parlour games. Instead this is Kubrick using his technical artistry. What else can you say when one of the most disturbing things in the film is the changing sound of Danny’s tricycle as he cycles round the hotel (in a single, low angle, tracking shot), going from near silence as he cycles over carpet to bursts of sound as he cycles over wooden floor? When the score overwhelms with discordant sound and high notes as Danny simply stares at a door? 

But Kubrick’s genius is everywhere. He understands how the human brain is unsettled by symmetry. Watch the film again and see how so much of it is perfectly framed, how still the camera often is, how images – such as shots of corridors or rooms – are set in such a way to make the image look symmetrical. Something is off in our minds about seeing a building that looks so precise. It transfers as well when the actors are caught in the middle of the frame, with the set either side of them looking identical. Our mind keeps telling us it’s wrong. It feeds into our own doubts and fears. It disturbs us completely. Stillness and quiet mix with bursts of colour. For every elevator door opening to deposit a tidal wave of blood, there is the quiet intimacy of Philip Stone (absolutely chilling) as a ghostly representation of a past janitor, urging Jack to “correct” his wife and child.

That fear of symmetry extends as well to Kubrick’s use of two girl twins as ghosts of the former caretaker’s murdered children (and their stillness and softness of voice is equally terrifying). The ghosts throughout this film that urge Jack on in his murderous rampage are almost uniformly softly spoken, calm and polite – qualities that carry more and more menace. Even when the horrors begin to erupt, Kubrick keeps the camera movement and editing slow, gentle and frequently employs tracking shots (naturally leading to the invention of a new type of Steadicam). Where jump cuts are used they are to give us flashes of Danny’s ESP visions of the hotel (sudden cuts to the murdered girls or other horrors), enough to jolt us and working all the more in the rest of the film’s measured pace and gothic chills.

Kubrick also brilliantly makes use of the psychological impact of isolation. Out in the middle of nowhere, it’s clear time quickly loses meaning. The film is punctured throughout with title cards that seem increasingly random, either naming days (with no indication of how much time has passed between them) or time jumps that seem unconnected with the previous scene. It’s quick to see how much the Torrance’s perception of time has been lost in never-changing surroundings. The impact of constant isolation on a fragile psyche is perhaps something we are even more acutely aware of in 2020, and it’s clear that it has a catastrophic effect on Jack, who becomes ever more susceptible to his bad angels.

Those bad angels are partly where Kubrick begins to deviate from King. Not surprisingly, with Kubrick’s often nihilistic view of humanity, he introduces the idea that Jack has a history of violent temper and even striking Danny. This is very different from King’s idea of a good man and father being bent out of all recognition by the hotel’s evil into a would-be murderer. It’s possibly the main objection King had against the film’s changing of the novel. That and Kubrick’s clear disinterest in “shining” – the name given to the ESP qualities some of the characters display. For Kubrick, what was more important was the unsettling impact environments can have on people’s psyches – amplified in this case by terrifyingly bloodthirsty ghosts. For King the corruption of the good from evil among us was crucial. Both are fascinating ideas – but you can see why the book’s author would not be pleased to see his concepts sidelined.

Part of this may also have stemmed from the casting of Nicholson. Probably the greatest American actor of the 1970s (his hits during that decade are astonishing), this was the first chapter in a new era. Now Nicholson became JACK, part actor but part personality, so larger-than-life that you only had to say his first name for everyone to know who he was. Sure, Nicholson is (like in A Few Good Men) a ticking time bomb, but the performance works. It’s the film where Nicholson embraced for the first time the demonic grin and leer of cruelty he would use so well. But seeing him attack the film’s gothic qualities, while still having a touch of humanity for its quiet moments, works a treat. Could any other actor in the world have pulled off “Here’s Johnny!” and still have us absorbed in the character and the film? It’s pantomime, but brilliance.


More controversial is Shelley Duvall’s weepy, slightly pathetic wife. Much of Duvall’s wetness in the role is surely connected to the reportedly miserable time she had on set. To draw the “right” reactions from her, Kubrick essentially bullied her on set, putting her through hell. Sometimes hundreds of takes were done of even the most trivial scenes to get them right (this film perhaps cemented Kubrick’s reputation for ludicrous perfectionism), a regime that reduced Duvall to a state of near psychological collapse. While this was perfect for her performance, it was hardly conducive to her well-being. And was in itself perhaps another sign of the lack of heart in Kubrick, a director concerned only in the end with effect not emotional truth.

So it’s a black mark against the film. But The Shining is still a masterpiece, perhaps one of Kubrick’s greatest films. The film was so dependent on its technical wizardry, detailed perfection and preciseness that its impact becomes almost unbearable. It focuses on all Kubrick’s strengths and almost none of his weaknesses – indeed his basic dislike of people becomes crucial to its effect rather than running counter to an audience’s need to invest. Tense, unsettling, troubling and in the end deeply scary, while never feeling cheap or exploitative. It’s a landmark in both its genre and its director’s career.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Moulin Rouge (1952)

Dancers a go-go in John Huston's Moulin Rouge (not that one!)

Director: John Huston
Cast: José Ferrer (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec/Comte Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Jane Avril), Suzanne Flon (Myriamme Hyam), Claude Nollier (Comtess de Toulouse-Lautrec), Katherine Kath (La Goule), Muriel Smith (Aicha), Colette Marchand (Marie Charlot), Georges Lannes (Sgt Patou), Theodore Bikel (King Milan IV), Peter Cushing (Marcel de la Voisier), Christopher Lee (Georges Seurat)

John Huston’s biography of Toulouse-Lautrec is less well known than its exclamation marked name-sake. It would be easy to say there is little in common, beyond the name and setting, between Huston’s film and Luhrmann’s operatic jukebox musical. But that’s to overlook the sprightly and confident shooting that Huston gives many of the scenes in the Moulin Rouge, and the mood of depression and corruption that underlies all the glamour of the club. These are two films very much drinking from the same well – even if the aesthetic and style of both are drastically different.

This artist biography focuses mostly on the last decade of Toulouse-Lautrec’s life. Played by José Ferrer (who also does double duty as the artist’s patrician father), it’s an exploration of the self-loathing and depression that drives the artist and funnels itself into his art. Art which is bold, animated with strikingly unique use of colours and movement. It’s all very different from the more timid, self-conscious crippled artist, the growth of whose legs was arrested after an accident in his childhood. Huston's film front-and-centres Toulouse-Lautrec’s quest for love, but it has enough to say about the rest of its subject’s life.

Similar to his later work on Moby Dick, Huston aimed for a very particular look for his film, inspired by the colours used in the artwork of its subject. Shooting in Technicolour – and much to the objection of that company, who believed all films should showpiece it’s particularly striking bold colours rather than the muted colours Lautrec at times used – he manages to assemble a picture that fills like it completely captures not only the style of the artist, but also captures something of the more grimy and seedy side of the Parisian streets he walked. There is a neat little scene in the middle of the film where Lautrec argues with a printer over mixing his own specialised colours, rather than the more traditional colours he works with. Hard not to see that as a commentary on Huston’s own struggles with Technicolour.

It gives the film though its own very distinctive look, in which Huston uses a number of cinematic approaches that really capture the vibrancy of the Moulin Rouge. The opening scenes, that showcase a flashy can-can dance at the club is shot with an immediacy, with the camera roving in amongst the dancers, throwing us into the atmosphere and excitement of this ground-breaking night club. Alongside which – within the confines of the Hay’s Code – we get a sense of the sexuality of the nightclub, captured in the tempestuous clashes between the dancers and the pettiness and suddenness of feuds that spring up over every subject matter.

The film doesn’t quite continue all this vibrancy into the rest of its length as it focuses more on Lautrec’s own personal life. José Ferrer, always a distantly patrician actor, is perhaps a little too stilted to really invest us in the emotional pain of a man who didn’t believe he was worth loving. However his commitment to playing the part physically can’t be faulted. To play the diminutive Lautrec, Ferrer wore a contraption that folded his lower legs up behind him (he could only wear it for about 15 minutes before he had to restore the circulation to his legs), wearing this even in scenes he could not be seen full length, so as to get the posture of Lautrec correct. It’s a shame that Ferrer’s slightly reserved manner and precision leaves you feeling like the character is being studied at arms length rather than up-close and personally.

This affects slightly the focus on romance that the film takes – art gets its place, but the style very much looks at these in context of romantic struggles. Lautrec is presented as man convinced of his own ugliness and the barrier of his disability, who could never find a woman who would love him. This drew him, it seems, either towards destructive relationships (in particular with a ‘prostitute’ – not that you would know thanks to the Hays Code – played with an Oscar-nominated richness by Colette Marchand) or to relationships he convinced himself could only be hopeless, platonic obsessions (Suzanne Flon as an art-lover who only the most self-loathing of men couldn’t tell is devoted to Lautrec).

The film interestingly rather misses a sense of fun that you might expect from a nightclub scene. Lautrec is of course miserable for most of his life, self-medicating his physical pain and depression with drink. His parents are either guilty at the accident that crippled him, or frustrated at his choice to spend his life painting the dancers of the Parisian night-life. Huston does get a great sense of the compulsion of the artist – Lautrec is rarely seen not sketching something – and his film is very successful at capturing the loneliness that can accompany art.

If the film does sometimes become a slightly old-fashioned a-to-b story of an artist and his inspiration, it counter-balances this with the flashes of creativity and vibrancy Huston brings to the film. Huston was himself critical of the film in the future, thinking it a missed opportunity – I would suppose due to the general lack of sex in a story set in an environment soaked in it – but working within the limitations he had, it’s a fine piece of work. While you could wish for a slightly more engaging lead performance, it certainly works very effectively to bring its setting and story to life.

Thelma and Louise (1991)

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis hit the road in Thelma and Louise

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Susan Sarandon (Louise Sawyer), Geena Davis (Thelma Dickinson), Harvey Keitel (Detective Hal Slocumb), Michael Madsen (Jimmy Lennox), Christopher McDonald (Darryl Dickinson), Stephen Tobolowsky (Max), Brad Pitt (JD), Timothy Carhart (Harlan Puckett)

Two people on the run, dodging the police and doing what they can to survive. It’s a well Hollywood has gone back to time and time again. But in most cases the people were either two men, or maybe a man and a woman (romantically involved naturally). It was unheard of to make that most masculine of genres, the outlaw road movie, into one led by women. But that’s what we get here, in a movie that has become iconic in more ways than one, Thelma and Louise.

Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) is a tough, independent-minded waitress. Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) is a shy housewife, whose husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald) is a jerk. With Darryl away for the weekend, Thelma and Louise head off for a weekend away together, to let their hair down and feel a bit of freedom. Unfortunately, disaster happens when Thelma flirts with a sleazy guy in a Texas bar (Harlan Puckett), who tries to rape her in the car park. Louise saves her – but guns the guy down. The two women now find themselves on the run from the law, terrified that no one will believe their side of the story. But as the women find themselves on the road, the experience changes them, with Thelma flourishing in an environment where she can make her own choices and Louise becoming more able to open herself up emotionally. But can they stay ahead of the law?

With a terrific (Oscar-winning) script from first-time writer Callie Khouri, Thelma and Louise offers a dynamic and daring twist on the Hollywood road movie. By placing women at the centre of a story like this, a fascinating new light is shed not only on the law, but also on the culture of the American South. It also gives what would otherwise be familiar situations, a fascinating new light as two underestimated people are forced to prove time-and-time again how ahead of the game they are.

Ridley Scott directs the film with a beautiful, confident flourish. The John Fordian iconography of the West is a gift for a painterly director like Scott, and this film hums with the sort of eye for American iconography that only the outsider can really bring. The film brilliantly captures the dusty wildness of the West as well as the neon-lit grubbiness of working class American bars. It looks beautiful, but also vividly, sometimes terrifyingly real. Scott then, with a great deal of empathy, builds a very humane story around this, with two characters it’s nearly impossible not to root for.

He’s helped immensely by two stunning performances from the women in the lead roles. Susan Sarandon’s is perfect for the brash and gutsy Louise, not least because she’s an actor brilliantly able to suggest a great emotional depth and rawness below the surface. Louise is a women juggling deeper traumas – past experiences (its implied a historic rape) that leave her in no doubt that the justice system will not be interested in hearing about a woman’s suffering. It’s the hard to puncture toughness that softens over the course of the film, as Louise becomes more willing to explore her emotions and allow her vulnerability to show.

Particularly so as the lead between the two is slowly taken over by Geena Davis’ Thelma. This is certainly Davis’ finest work, her Thelma starting as a beaten down housewife, just trying to let her hair down in a bar, into a scared victim, a horny teenager lusting over Brad Pitt’s hunky JD then finally into a road warrior who discovers unimagined determination and resources inside herself, toting guns and robbing stores. It’s the sort of once-in-a-lifetime part Davis seizes upon. She’s sensational and totally believable at every turn.

Placing these two women at the centre of a story like this puts the feminine perspective front-of-centre – and it’s alarming to think how little some things have changed. Can we imagine today that there wouldn’t be policemen and lawyers willing to blame Thelma – or claim she asked for it – for her near rape in a bar? Or that there wouldn’t be a fair crack of the whip in the system for Louise for gunning down an unarmed rapist? On top of that, the majority of the police tracking the two women (with the exception of Harvey Keitel’s decent cop – Keitel is very good in this) find it hard to take “these girls” seriously, finding it hard to imagine them being anything other than a joke.

Mind you the attitudes of men are laid bare at every turn. Thelma’s husband Darryl (a very good performance of selfish patheticness by Christopher McDonald) is a waste of skin, a man who can’t imagine a world where Thelma could be his equal. Timothy Carhart is all charm until Thelma denies him the sex he believes he was due for in exchange for a night if flirting and drunks, and promptly turns extremely nasty. The cops – gun totting with itchy trigger-finger – just seem to be waiting for an excuse to throw the ladies down. Even JD (a star marking early performance by a deeply attractive and charismatic Brad Pitt), who seems so charming – and proves the sort of generous and skilled lover Thelma has never experienced in her life – has no qualms about robbing the ladies of their life savings, leaving them hung out-to-dry.

Many men at the time complained (pathetically) about the presentation of men in this film (as if men haven’t had any films where they were sympathetically placed front and centre), but I think it’s a pretty clear judgement that women are not held to the same standards. Khouri’s script shows time and time again the casual sexism (and sexualisation) the women encounter – to the extent that when they finally confront (and pull guns) on the sexist, aggressive truck driver who has been following them for most of the film, you cheer along with them when they shoot out first his tyres, then his oil tanker. We’ve even had a warm-up with Thelma turning a tough intimidating cop into quivering jelly by taking control of the situation.

But that’s what this film is about – the unexpected taking control. Because this isn’t just a feminist statement because it puts women into a male genre. It does so by showing how few choices these women have in their lives before they take into the road and how liberating it is to be able to make their own choices. Because these characters have had all their choices made by men, from Thelma’s smothering marriage to Louise’s undefined past as a victim. And their futures are as much out of the control, likely to find themselves on death row for shooting a rapist. On top of all that, men continue to see them both as sex objects.

How could you not be moved by this? It’s why the films iconic ending carries such impact. These are women discovering they have the power to make their own choices and their own mistakes. It has an undeniable power to it. It’s a power that runs through the entire film, perfectly shepherded by Scott’s astute and sharp direction, with Davis and Sarandon superb. It will still give you shocking insights today into what life is like for women in a world still dominated by men.

More recently its writer and stars pointed out that the film actually ended up changing very little for women in Hollywood. There was no new wave of daringly different female-led movies, with “women’s drama” still mostly restricted afterwards to family drama and romances. There are still few exciting opportunities for female filmmakers. (And it’s a sign of the times back then that the very idea of a woman directing this feminist film was never even raised as a possibility.) Perhaps that’s why Thelma and Louise remains such an icon, because it’s still such a one-off. Either way, it’s a film that hasn’t aged a day since it was released.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

JFK (1991)

Kevin Costner goes on a quest for the truth in Oliver Stone's crazy but brilliant JFK

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Kevin Costner (Jim Garrison), Sissy Spacek (Liz Garrison), Kevin Bacon (Willie O’Keefe), Tommy Lee Jones (Clay Shaw), Jack Lemmon (Jack Martin), Walter Matthau (Senator Russell B Long), Gary Oldman (Lee Harvey Oswald), Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), Donald Sutherland (Colonel X), Laurie Metcalf (Susie Cox), Michael Rooker (Bill Broussard), Jay O. Sanders (Lou Ivan), Edward Asner (Guy Banister), Brian Doyle-Murray (Guy Banister), John Candy (Dean Andrews), Sally Kirkland (Rose Cheramie), Wayne Knight (Numa Bertel), Priutt Taylor Vince (Lee Bowers), Tony Plana (Carlos Bringuier)

When great events happen, it’s hard for us to accept they might take place for random reasons. Rather than freak occurrences or boring individuals, we’d rather see them taking place due to an impenetrable web of shadowy figures. There is something in us that rejects randomness and embraces order. Conspiracy theories are the (ironic) result of these, with their exponents often the most passionate believers in the all-pervading genius of big government. Events like the death of President Kennedy can’t be because some nobody shot him. Instead it must be part of a wider junta of baddies, with every man you see merely a front for a cabal of the wicked. It’s hard not to be swept up by the lure of the conspiracy theories (they invariably have the best stories after all) – and Oliver Stone’s JFK is perhaps the definitive mainstream conspiracy theory essay.

Taking the campaign of Louisiana DA Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) to find out the “truth” about the murder of President Kennedy, Stone’s film is part a fascinating presentation of half-truths and “might-have-beens” and part a sprawling mess of irresponsible nonsense. Either way it’s assembled with astonishing panache, a level of filmic skill that makes it (literally) almost impossible to tell whether what you are seeing is true and what is invention. Stone’s film superbly interweaves a variety of film stocks and effects to seamlessly splice together newsreel footage, Zapruder film and his own reconstructions so brilliantly it frequently becomes hard to tell which is which.

The same logic also applies to the script. JFK is frequently engaging and fascinating. But you have to remember that it is the equivalent of meeting the most literate and articulate street corner “End-of-the-Worlder”. Such is Stone’s skill he could, I am sure, have created an equally compelling film which would have you questioning the Moon Landings or the shape of the Earth. JFK throws an army of questions, objections and theories at the screen. And while it rarely provides much in the way of answers, only points that it wants you to think about, these theories frequently fascinate. Imagine JFK as a sort of video essay, linked together with dramatic scenes, with its points delivered by authoritative and trusted actors like Donald Sutherland, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

There is absolutely no doubting the technique of Stone here, or his mastery of the language of cinema. The work of Robert Richardson’s photography, with its myriad styles, and of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia’s editing, pulling together a host of images, snapshots and flash cuts into an insidiously convincing whole, is breathtaking. Light in particular is superbly used, casting some characters in shadow, flaring up to (literally) blind others - light frequently plays across Garrison's glasses, a visual metaphor for his own struggle to see the light. The speeches he writes for his characters are superbly done, and make their points with great skill – Sutherland (superb) has a hugely convincing story of military black ops action (and inaction) before and after the assassination that fills almost 20 minutes of screentime. 

There are compelling arguments made about the ability of Oswald to fire the shots, the triangulation of fire, the spurning of an easier shot before the fateful turn, Oswald’s seemingly illogical movements after the shooting etc. etc. There is decent reasoning behind all of this, and the points are marshalled very well. But, like all extremist theories, suddenly it will turn into something just a little batshit (Lyndon B Johnson ordering the hit or some sort of cabal of Cubans, CIA, FBI and Secret Service working together to conduct a coup).

Much of Stone’s passion for finding the truth (the film’s mantra) is rooted in his own romantic view of Kennedy, as some sort of lost “Prince Who Was Promised”. To Stone, Kennedy would have withdrawn us from Vietnam (news I am sure to the President who started and escalated America’s involvement in it), ended the military industrial complex (contrary to his platform when elected of a stronger US military), bought the Cold War to an end (again, running against his sustained opposition to the Soviet Union) and introduced full Civil Rights (a cause he was lukewarm on at best – unlike his brother or his successor Johnson).

But Kennedy was a romantic figure who had the ability to invite people to invest him with whatever qualities they wanted (both good and bad), a magic cemented forever by his untimely murder. In reality there is no indication that JFK would do (or want to do) any of the things JFK argues he was assassinated for. But that’s all part of the magic of the conspiracy. Facts and events can be marshalled into whatever you want them to be. (Tellingly the only member of Garrison’s investigative team who questions these theories is shown to be a creep in the pay of the conspirators.)

So Kennedy can be a saint, and the film can outline (with no evidence at all beyond a series of coincidences and unlikely or random events) a grand vision of master schemers reshaping America over the body of a dead President. Does it really stand up? Well no of course not. But I will say it is compelling viewing – even if it is essential to keep an open mind about it. Stone later wished he had made clearer that much of the work here was pure fiction (and speculative at best). Certainly it’s a point to keep in mind.

Perhaps Stone should also have looked again at some of the other beats in the film. The film’s version of Jim Garrison as a kind of saintly campaigner for justice flies in the face of many (then and later) who believed the Louisiana DA a shameless self-promoter – an argument made easier to believe by the real Garrison’s cheeky cameo in the film as his ‘nemesis’ Earl Warren. No mention is made in the film that the case he brings against Clay Shaw was dismissed by the jury after less than an hour, and the film avoids explicitly showing his lack of evidence. Costner delivers the final speech, with its famous “back and to the left” commentary on what seems like Kennedy’s unnatural movement after being hit by a bullet and breakdown of the “magic bullet” (both theories now largely discredited), with aplomb, but the film puts a halo on Garrison which doesn’t really stand up.

But again at least it’s entertaining. Other parts of the film don’t even manage that: the baseline narrative that links up the various compelling conspiracy lectures is frequently dull, insipid and lamely written. Sissy Spacek has perhaps the most thankless role in film history as Garrison’s wife whose nearly every line is a variation on “Honey please stop reading the Warren Report and come to bed”. Even that though pales against the exploration of the 1960s gay scene in Louisiana (which Clay Shaw and his “fellow conspirators” were leading members of) which has an unpleasant stink of homophobia, playing into a host of deeply unpleasant (and false) stereotypes of gay people as perverted, promiscuous and preying on the straight. One suspects there was more than a little truth in the idea that Garrison’s fury at Shaw was at least partly motivated by homophobia.

These sequences work considerably less well today – and frequently go on far too long – but when the film focuses on its Kennedy theories it is at least compelling, even if it’s all rubbish. The film made it mainstream to believe Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy in which Oswald was, if he was involved at all, only a patsy. How different would the world have been if Oswald had lived and been made to explain why and how he killed Kennedy? But then chances are, being such an average an unremarkable man, people wouldn’t have believed him anyway.

Stone’s film is a triumph of agenda-led fantasy. Stuffed with faults it makes you at least ask questions – even if you wisely use those questions to affirm many of its points are questionable at best. But any film buff will love the skill it’s told with and the beauty of its technical assembly. Costner was perhaps a little too bland to drive the thing along (although the film uses his innate morality very well), but there are several good performances not least from Gary Oldman who is brilliant as put-upon, used but unknowable Oswald. Nuts, crazy and packed with compelling nonsense, it at least always encourages you to find out more about the actual history.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford rant and rage in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Director: Robert Aldrich

Cast: Bette Davis (Jane Hudson), Joan Crawford (Blanche Hudson), Victor Buono (Edwin Flagg), Marjorie Bennett (Dehlia Flagg), Maidie Norman (Elvira Stitt), Anna Lee (Mrs Bates), BD Merrill (Liza Bates)

Age isn’t kind on the careers of Hollywood actresses. Move into your 40s and the part offered quickly becomes “the grandmother”. It’s a fate that saw the careers of some of the greatest actresses of the Golden Years of Hollywood crash screeching to a halt. However, these actresses remained popular with many cinema goers. So it occurred to Robert Aldrich, why not throw a couple of them into the sort of roles t

hat can riff on their careers and public images? Match that up with jumping on the bandwagon of films like Psycho and you could have a hit on your hands.

That’s what he got as well with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) is a former “infant phenomenon” on the stage, whose career fell apart as soon as she hit puberty. Her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), on the other hand, grew up to have a promising career in Hollywood – which then collapsed when a late-night driving accident (which Baby Jane is widely believed to be responsible for) left her paralysed from the waist down. Now in middle age, Jane and Blanche live in domestic disharmony, Blanche trapped upstairs at the mercy of Baby Jane, whose longing to rebuild her career sees her head down an ever steeper spiral of insanity.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane started a new genre in Hollywood – the freak hag-horror or psycho-biddy genre (those names alone show that at its heart this genre was basically demeaning) which saw Hollywood Grande Dames (frequently Davis and Crawford, though others got a look-in as well) parley their reputations into ever more formulaic riffs. Films like this quickly became cult viewing. Their extremes of make-up and performance, matched with the arch camp of the leading ladies hamming it up, made the genre extremely popular – and left films like Whatever Happened… far more fondly remembered than they deserve.

It’s popular to see Sunset Boulevard as a sort of precursor to this genre, a first try-out in taking an older era of Hollywood and turning it into a ghastly waxwork show. But Sunset still has affection  for what it shows (and above all captures the tragedy of the death of Silent Hollywood, treating its characters as people rather than freaks), while Whatever Happened has none, basically seeing the past as a parade of monsters, and these relics as waxworks to be mocked. There is no affection here for the past successes and glories of either star, instead we are invited to sit back and wonder at how far they might be willing to go to see bums on seats again. All of this to make money for the producers. Far from the art of Sunset Boulevard, this feels more like the exploitation of screen greats.

Although of course both stars were more than happy to get involved, even if they were less than happy working with each other. The background to the film, to be honest, often carries more interest than the very long, often slow, horror/black comedy during the film’s over-extended run time. Famously Davis and Crawford were long-standing rivals and their relationship over the course of making and promoting the film disintegrated into cheap one-upmanship and bitter recrimination. While the feud does probably give some edge to the screen antics, the very fact that it’s nearly the first thing people remember about the film probably tells you how memorable the actual experience is.

Davis throws herself into all this with creditable abandon. (She was Oscar nominated and Crawford wasn’t – although Crawford got the last laugh, having arranged on the night to collect the Oscar on behalf of eventual winner Anne Bancroft, performing on Broadway that night.) Davis designed the freakish but iconic look of Baby Jane, all painted face and little girl mannerisms, and her demented attempts to recreate her childhood act in her 50s (culminating in a bizarre and skin-crawling “Writing a Letter to Daddy” dance which was weird enough watching a 12 year old perform) can’t be faulted for commitment. Davis also manages to invest the bullying and cruel Jane with a deep sense of loss, regret and guilt (for her sister’s accident) that frequently bubbles over into resentment. It’s certainly a larger-than-life performance and Davis frequently dominates the film, even if the role is basically a cartoon invested with Davis’ own grace and glamour.

It doesn’t leave much for Crawford, whose Blanche is frequently left with the more po-faced, dull and reactive lines. Crawford doesn’t often make Blanche as sympathetic as you feel she should be – although the part plays into one of her strong suits of playing the martyr – and the film saddles her with a late act twist that doesn’t have enough time and development to really make much sense. However again you can’t fault her commitment, either to screams or to a scene where she attempts to climb down the bannisters of the stairs from her trap on the upper floor, where the effort, strain and pain on Crawford’s face are astonishingly real.

Those stairs dominate many of the shots of Aldrich’s serviceable and efficient direction – although he lacks any sense of the mix of cruel poetry and dynamite sensationalism that Hitchcock bought to similar material in Psycho. But it works nicely to give a sense of Blanche’s confinement and as a visual metaphor for the trap the house feels like. Aldrich also throws in a couple of other decent flourishes, not least as Davis’ lounge turns into a proscenium stage as she imagines returning to the big time.

But the film itself is, despite it all, lacking in any sense of kindness or warmth really for either its stars or old Hollywood. We are instead invited to gasp at them in horror, while the film drags on at great lengths, stretching a very thin plot (barely a novella) into over two hours of screen time. There are effective moments, but it’s a film that seems barely serviceable today.