Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Being There (1979)

Peter Sellers is a void in Being There 

Director: Hal Ashby
Cast: Peter Sellers (Chance, the gardener/Chauncey Gardiner), Shirley MacLaine (Eve Rand), Melvyn Douglas (Ben Rand), Richard Dysart (Dr Robert Allenby), Jack Warden (The President), Richard Basehart (Ambassador Vladimir Skrapinov), David Clennon (Thomas Franklin), Fran Brill (Sally Hayes), Ruth Attaway (Louise)

In movies honesty and simplicity often hide a deeper truth – a more pure view of the world, unaffected by cynicism. Being There takes these ideas and inverts them. What if we were so desperate to see a higher meaning in the words of the unaffected, that we kidded ourselves that even their blandest utterances carried deep meaning. It’s the central idea of Being There, proving again that a delusion only works when those affected are also those most invested in sustaining it.

Chance (Peter Sellers) is a child-like innocent. He works in the garden of “the old man” (implied to be his father). He has never in his life left the confines of his self-contained home. He can’t read, he can’t write. His meals are prepared for him by the old man’s staff. Apart from gardening his only other interest is television – and even that is a mute, hypnotic interest with Chance meekly watching anything screened in front of him. When the old man passes away, Chance (of whom there is no record at all) is asked to leave the house by the old man’s lawyers. He finds himself in a modern 1970s world, but still dressed (and with the manners) of a 1930s gentleman.

Accidentally hit by the chauffer driven car of Eve (Shirley MacLaine), the younger wife of wealthy businessman Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas), Chance (his name mistakenly overheard as Chancey Gardiner) finds himself in the home of Ben where his manners, dress and polite comments about gardening are interpreted as being deep, intellectual musings on society and the economy. In a few days Chance is advising the President (Jack Warden) and his opinion is being solicited by the media. Will anyone notice that Chance is a harmless but basically empty man?

Being There is not just a hilarious satire of the capacity of the rich and powerful to persuade themselves of things. It’s also a satire on the Capraesque notion of the innocent seeing a truth that the rest of us can’t see. It throws in more than enough social commentary on the edges as well – Chance is revered because he looks right: well-dressed, courtly manners, softly spoken, polite and above all white. The film gets a few pointed blows in on this that look more and more central to the film the older it gets. Seeing Chance’s earnest musings on gardening being interpreted as deeply meaningful economic commentary on the television, the woman who bought him up in the old man’s house – a black servant Louise – announces “It's for sure a white man's world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant… Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you've gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want.”

And she’s right. Interpreted by the rich, white, entitled men of America as one of their own, it never occurs to them that Chance might be something else. And his statements carry such bland emptiness – precisely because Chance is merely stating genuine gardening tips – that it becomes easy to invest them with whatever depth they like, because they have no depth themselves. While in Capra, Chance would stumble upon some of the corruption at the top or make these people rethink their lives, here he drifts through, barely understanding what is happening around him, allowing these powerful men to interpret him as something that reassures them about their own lives.

In the 1970s the film was seen as a satire on the television generation. But watching it today – despite Chance’s mute, unengaged smile while watching TV – this isn’t about a mindless cabbage potato being seen as a sage. He’s a completely empty vessel that can have meanings poured into him – and then can all stick because not for a single second is Chance trying to get anything out of it. He would be as happy returned to the street as he is in the palaces of the mighty.

The film works due to the success of Peter Seller’s performance. Seller’s had pitched long and hard for the role: he had always believed himself a void beneath the mad-hat comic personas he had inhabited, and believed himself uniquely placed to understand the neutrality of Chance. That’s what he brings here. It takes true skill to play a character as blank as this one. Chance never responds to the situation he is in – and seems to have no understanding at all of the situation. He’s completely genuine and honest – exactly what gives his comments weight to people, because he is not even remotely trying to add any weight to them – and meekly accepts all the things that happen to him. He is honest on every question he is asked – that his only interests are gardening and TV – and sits quietly, smiling, until finally saying or doing things he has frequently copied from TV.

Seller’s restrains himself utterly in the role and eventually his very tame, sweet blankness makes him endearing. The performance would fall apart if even for a split second there was a tip of hat or wink to the camera. There’s none of that. Compare Chance to say Forrest Gump. Gump is the quintessential example of the cliché man who really understands the world better than all of us. Chance is the reality, a simple man, harmless but incapable of really engaging with the world. In Hal Ashby’s skilled and restrained hands this becomes crucial to the awe he is treated with by the rich. He’s a mystery we get no answers to and someone we know as little about at the end as we did at the start. But yet Sellers is mesmeric.

Melvyn Douglas’ provides a superb (Oscar-winning) performance as Ben Rand. How much does Rand really believe in Chance? He’s charismatic, determined and driven – but also nearing the end of his life. Does he want to believe in his faith in Chance, because it makes him feel better? Is Chance almost a sort of advance satire of movements like scientology – faiths that make rich people feel better about themselves, because it affirms their views and place in the hierarchy? It’s possible – and why not when they can craft an idea of Chance that is far superior to their nervy (and literally impotent) President (Jack Warden in a smart little turn).

Ashby at time overplays his hand a little. The final image – a benign Chance literally walking on water on the Rand estate lake – is famous, but its meaning is unclear. Does it imply that Chance is some form of second coming? Or does the naïve and clueless Chance simply walk across water because he doesn’t understand that he can’t? I feel the latter myself – the idea of him being a Jesus figure is so out of keeping with the film, I see it as a final physical representation of his own lack of knowledge about the world. Some hated the final flourish (visually wonderfully done as it is) – although not as much as the bizarre outtake of Sellers cracking up that plays over the credit (Sellers in particular loathed this, believing it shattered the magic of his performance and cost him an Oscar).

Being There isn’t perfect – it’s too long and Shirley MacLaine gets rather a thankless part as the wife who becomes infatuated with Chance (more could perhaps have been got out of her seeing the truth of Chance, rather than being as arrogantly deluded as the rest). Moments have dated less well than others. But it’s got a sharp idea at its heart – and its satire of the rich, Hollywood sentimentality and society feels sharper every day. Rather fittingly as well the film has an autumnal quality about it in Ashby’s coldly reserved shooting: Sellers and Douglas both died shortly after its release, the book’s author Jerzy Kosinski would be plagued after its release with accusations of plagiarism and Ashby’s (after a drug fuelled but successful 1970s) career would collapse almost immediately after its release. But it’s a smart, mysterious, witty and profound film that gains greater meaning with age.

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Elizabeth (1998)

Joseph Fiennes flirts with a regal Cate Blanchett in this landmark Tudor history flick Elizabeth

Director: Shekhar Kapur
Cast: Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth I), Geoffrey Rush (Francis Walsingham), Joseph Fiennes (Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester), Richard Attenborough (Lord William Cecil), Christopher Eccleston (Duke of Norfolk), Kathy Burke (Mary I), Fanny Ardant (Mary of Guise), Vincent Cassel (Duke of Anjou), Eric Cantona (French Ambassador de Foix), Emily Mortimer (Kat Ashley), Kelly Macdonald (Isabel Knollys), John Gielgud (Pope Pius V), Daniel Craig (John Ballard), James Frain (Alvaro de la Quadra), Edward Hardwicke (Earl of Arundel), Jamie Foreman (Earl of Sussex), Terence Rigby (Bishop Gardiner)

Not many people would think of Elizabeth as being an influential film. But I would say the roots of all modern costume drama can be found in this British Tudor epic. Classic costume drama before had seen the focus on “thees and thous”, Greensleeves, lovely costumes, well-lit sets and a certain grandeur. Elizabeth re-set the table. Mixing The Godfather with Elizabeth R, Elizabeth turned costume drama into a world of dark schemes, political intrigue, violence and lashings of sex and passion. It would leave prestige Hollywood dramas of the 70s and 80s behind and turn costume drama into something far darker, grittier and sexual than ever before.

The film follows the early years of the reign of Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett). The queen is young, naïve and passionate. She’s well educated and smart, but still impulsive and too much in thrall to her emotions. She’s far too open about her sex-filled love affair with Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), new-made Earl of Leicester, and too inexperienced to heed the advice of either William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), who is pushing her towards the middle-ground of European alliances, or Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), who argues for Elizabeth to lead a strong nation, willing to take on its enemies. Conspiracies whirl around the court, as disaffected Catholics led by the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) plot to seize the crown and restore the “true religion”.

Elizabeth’s style is triumphant. Many of the scenes take place in dimly lit halls at court, and candlelit private chambers. The palace is seemingly made of nooks and crannies where conspirators and lovers can silently retreat and keep their intentions secret. The music – wonderfully composed by David Hirschfelder – is a mixture of urgent marches and murky sounding chords, which brings a watery effect to the soundtrack, as if every moment could twist into swamp-like traps of treachery. The film is briskly cut, frequently jump-cutting and putting together impressive montages of conspirators or events. 

The film starts with such a montage of protestants being burned: moving swiftly from a death warrant being stamped, to heads being brutally (and bloodily) shaved to an overhead shot of the cart carrying the martyrs to their deaths, culminating in their cries as the fires reach hold and finally overwhelm the soundtrack. It’s a sign straightaway that this will be very different from the traditional taste and decorum of a costume drama – and this film won’t flinch away from the grimness. Shekhar Kapur’s direction throughout is stylish, dynamic and uses editing and cinematic tricks to great effect (if at times with a little too much flash).

And the film is soaking in political intrigue – conspiracies and plots swell and unfold, with the film finally culminating in a clearly Godfather-esque purge of the Queen’s enemies. This is Tudor drama as Mafia flick, the lords of England little better than the heads of the five families, and Elizabeth the young heir they underestimate at their peril. It takes historical action and brings it definitely into a very modern feeling conspiracy thriller, using cinematic tricks and good editing to break away from the more staid period pieces of the 1970s into something much darker and atmospheric.

That also carries across into its exploration of sex, something that has got even more play in costume dramas since. It’s odd to think that the film was quite controversial at the time for showing Elizabeth and Dudley engaged in a passionate sexual affair, or for suggesting that the Queen “became a virgin” as part of piece of political showmanship. The film fronts and centres the young naivety of Elizabeth and her all-consuming fascination with Dudley – well played by Joseph Fiennes as a part romantic dreamer, part tragic weakling – and her slow realisation that there is no place for romance and passion in the world of being a queen.

Because the film is also a coming of age drama: how did Elizabeth become the Greatest Tudor Monarch? Cate Blanchett is inspired casting choice, dominating the film with a multi-faceted performance that sees Elizabeth change from an excited young girl into the distant authoritarian figure. Blanchett gets to play it all here, showing her impressive range, charting this changing personality as not always linear – so a scene of giddy romance can be followed by her sharpness when challenging the lords of England over matters of religion and then back to weakness. While you can argue the film undermines Elizabeth’s intelligence (particularly early on) what it does capture supremely well is her determination and her wilfulness. It also triumphantly turns her into a very human figure, Blanchett brilliantly showing a character forcefully – and consciously – reshaping herself to meet the demands of her office.

Around Blanchett, Kapur assembles possibly one of the most eclectic casts in history. Can you think of another film where you could see John Gielgud one scene and Eric Cantona the next? Richard Attenborough and Angus Deayton side-by-side? Fortunately, the core roles are played by assured and impressive performers. Eccleston makes for a wonderfully imperious, self-important Norfolk. Cassel goes gleefully over-the-top as the camp Anjou. Frain, Craig and others excel in early roles. The pick of the lot is a mesmeric performance by Rush as the sinister but loyal Walsingham, an eminence grise willing to work things in the background Elizabeth wants but cannot ask for, a wartime consigliere, several steps ahead of the rest and whose loyalty to Elizabeth is matched only by his ruthlessness.

Historically the film has only a passing resemblance to reality. Elizabeth’s political astuteness was sharper from the first than the film gives her credit for (although, as its aim is to stress how humanity must be sacrificed for power, there are artistic reasons for this). Bishop Gardiner, leader of the anti-Elizabeth church faction, had died during the reign of Mary I. Cecil is played as an unimaginative old man, when he was in fact in his thirties when Elizabeth came to the throne, and her most trusted and wisest advisor. Numerous events are telescoped and combined – the Ridolfi plot which (roughly) climaxes the film took place 14 years into Elizabeth’s rule, not within at most a year. The film ends with a series of historical captions, not a single one of which is actually true. Michael Hirst’s script plays fast and loose with history (and with the odd dodgy line along the way) but he’s got a flair for bringing out the drama.

But does it matter? After all, who really looks to films for their history lessons? What Elizabeth is trying to do is to turn history into cinema, and this it does to glorious effect. It also managed to change our idea of what a “history film” was. After Elizabeth, history dramas would turn increasingly into darker tales, tinged with sex and conspiracy. But this film remains one of the best, directed with real flair and style by Kapur and powered by a superb performance by Cate Blanchett. Elizabeth gets more or less everything (apart from the facts of course) stylishly right and tells English history with gripping and entertaining intensity.

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Alien 3 (1992)

Sigourney Weaver goes through the motions again in Alien 3

Director: David Fincher
Cast: Sigourney Weaver (Ellen Ripley), Charles S. Dutton (Leonard Dillon), Charles Dance (Dr Jonathan Clemens), Brian Glover (Warden Harold Andrews), Ralph Brown (Aaron), Paul McGann (Golic), Danny Webb (Morse), Lance Henriksen (Bishop), Pete Postlethwaite (David), Peter Guinness (Gregor), Christopher Fairbank (Murphy), Phil Davis (Kevin), Niall Buggy (Eric)

Few films feel more like a grim contractual obligation than Alien 3. If you want a real blood bath, you’d get more entertainment from reading about the tortured history of its production. Over nearly six years it saw off several scripts, at least two directors (including David Fincher resigning over continual studio interference) and Sigourney Weaver only agreeing to do the film if she was killed off at the end (well that and a big pay cheque).

All of this ended up as a depressing, grim and largely unenjoyable mess that goes over the same old ground as the first two films, but with diminishing returns. After the events of Aliens, our heroes ship crash-lands on a prison planet. Everyone on board is killed other than Ripley (we’ll come back to that…). The planet is populated by criminals who have embraced religion, led by Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) and a small staff of warders (Brian Glover and Ralph Brown) and Dr Clemens (Charles Dance). The company orders Ripley to sit tight and get picked up. But did an Alien on the ship lead to its crash? Is there now an alien on the planet? And is Ripley carrying an Alien inside of her?

It won’t surprise you to hear that the answers to all these questions are of course “yes”. And the film takes a painfully long time to get there. This is made all the more painful by the shockingly, uninvolving grimness of the story’s telling. Nowhere is this more clear than in the ruthless killing off of the surviving characters from Aliens. After the warmth and humanity of that story – and Cameron’s skilled creation of a family dynamic between Ripley, Hicks and most especially the mother-daughter bond between Ripley and Newt, it’s hard not to feel that their brutal off-screen deaths are a real slap-in-the-face. At a stroke all the character development of the previous film is negated. And so we get back on the treadmill of another monster hunt.

It’s not helped either by the fact there is hardly a character here you could give two hoots about. The prison is almost completely staffed by British character actors, peppered with the odd American. The script totally fails to give any of these people really distinctive personalities at all, before the Alien starts munching through them. On top of which the lazy script is littered with effing and jeffing, that serves to make the characters very angry all the time and even less engaging. The film’s most interesting new character, troubled Dr Clemens (a decent performance of world-weary sadness from Dance) is dead by Act Two, and the rest are basically an identikit pile of same-old-same-old. Dutton gets some good speeches as the prisoner’s morally complex leader, but he’s fighting an up-hill battle against turgid dialogue and tired old plotting.

Already by Alien 3 it feels like the franchise was out of ideas. Yet again “the company” is up to no good, only interested in making a buck off the creature. A post-industrial landscape again sees a number of people killed off in ever more familiar ways. The alien looks a bit like a dog this time (or an Ox if you watch the longer and even duller extended cut), but that’s about the most original thing here. And at the centre of the misery we have a grimly resigned and disinterested Weaver, who seemingly can’t wait for that Alien to burst out of her chest and end her association with the franchise for good.

It’s very hard to find anything enjoyable at all about this film. And it feels odd to say that about a film which is about people being brutally murdered one-by-one by an alien. But the others had touches of hope, humanity and demonic poetry to them. This is just a parade of slumming it British character actors, playing foul-mouthed rapists and murderers, getting torn apart. And then the film ends with a colossal downer even more downier than all the rest of the sludge you’ve had to sit through.

Basically Alien 3 reminds us that, with the monster as a motiveless killing machine, there weren’t many places to go with it. It’s not like it could suddenly reveal a motivation or something. So it seems the franchise was doomed – as it has been almost ever since this – to be a familiar parade of facehuggers, dark rooms, slow builds as people meander towards death down corridors, blood splatter and people who barely qualify as characters meeting grisily ends. Alien 3 is depressing and unrewarding in so many ways.

Monday, 12 October 2020

The Impossible (2013)

Naomi Watts and Tom Holland survive extreme circumstances in The Impossible

Director: JA Bayona
Cast: Naomi Watts (Maria), Ewan McGregor (Henry), Tom Holland (Lucas), Samuel Joslin (Thomas), Oaklee Pendergast (Simon), Marta Etura (Simone), Sönke Möhring (Karl), Geraldine Chaplin (Old Woman)

In 2004 the Boxing Day tsunami hit the Indian ocean. The resulting tidal waves devastated communities in several countries, with almost a quarter of a million casualties. The impact left rich and poor alike in a desperate struggle to survive. These terrible events form the basis of this emotionally powerful, if sometimes manipulative, film that recreates the remarkable story of a Spanish family, separated in the tsunami, who all miraculously survived.

Here the family is re-imagined as British (presumably to sell the film around the world a little easier, as they now all speak English). Maria (Naomi Watts) is a doctor who for the last few years has been a stay-at-home mum for her three sons Lucas (Tom Holland), on the cusp of becoming a teenager, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendegast), both younger. Her husband is businessman Henry (Ewan McGregor). Staying in Thailand for a Christmas vacation, the family are separated when the tsunami hits their resort. Maria (badly injured) and Lucas make their way to a hospital, where Lucas struggles to get the life-saving treatment his mum needs. Henry is trapped in the resort with their other two sons, desperately trying to find his missing wife and child. Around them swirl an entire country of refugees and affected people, all of them trying to find family members.

The Impossible gets an awful lot right. The recreation of the tsunami is faultless. You’ll feel every moment of terror as the water rips through the family’s high-end vacation spot. As Maria and Lucas are swept far away by a deep swell of fast-flowing water (stuffed with mud, filth and debris) you’ll feel every blow to bodies as debris hammers into them, and feel like you’ve lived through every moment of desperation as the two fight against the current to reach each other. The sense of powerlessness and fear – a mother trying to be brave for her son, a son frightened and desperate for reassurance, ashamed at being scared – are powerful, deeply affecting and hugely immersive. Bayona’s experience of directing horror comes wonderfully into play here, as he knows exactly how to push our buttons and make us feel the emotion, fear and anxiety of the situation.

This tone continues through most of the film’s first hour which largely follows Maria and Lucas as they attempt to reach the hospital. Running on adrenalin, Maria only slowly begins to succumb to exhaustion as her grievous wounds (smashed ribs, a horrifically graphic leg injury) sap her strength, even while she tries to maintain an air of calm for her son. What is intriguing in this sequence is that, like a set of scales, as the mother becomes weaker the son becomes stronger – Lucas suddenly propelled into become an adult. Lucas increasingly takes decisions on how best to survive, argues at times for hard calls and becomes, in many ways, the adult in the situation.

This sequence is helped hugely by the performances of the two actors. The physical commitment of every actor isn’t to be doubted (Holland and Watts spent hellish weeks in water tanks filming – although this is only relative compared to the horror of the actual tsunami). Watts (Oscar-nominated) brings power to a mother who believes she is the only thing her son has left in the world, and must survive at all costs for him. Her buttoning down of her terror for as long as she can is deeply moving, and she brings the part significant heart. Tom Holland is simply a revelation as Lucas. He develops an authority well beyond his years, the complexity of the emotions he deals with – from fear to anger and defiance, determination, anxiety, relief and despair – would have challenged an actor three times his age. Holland never loses trace of the central kindness in Lucas – no matter how desperate the situation – and he is the undoubted star of the film, his portrayal of a child forced to grow up scarily quickly is deeply affecting.

Ewan McGregor offers similarly excellent work. Left searching through the rubble of his holiday home, McGregor brilliantly captures a sense of a father trying to deny that his control over events has disappeared. He excels in an extremely moving breakdown scene – after finally contacting his wife’s parents in the UK, he collapses in desperate, uncontrollable sobs of guilt and fear, apologising for not knowing what to do. It’s some of the actor’s best work, brilliantly tapping into his natural warmth for excellent effect.

Where the film struggles more is in its focus. While it is a story of one – affluent – Western family, so naturally its focus will be there, it does turn the rest of the cast into little more than extras. Some focus is given to the Thai people: a group of poor local people is crucial in saving Maria and Lucas’ lives and getting them to a hospital, their immediate humanity and generosity reducing Maria (and the audience) to tears of gratitude, but that’s the only real look we get at them. The hospital where a large part of the story is set is full of Westerners, bar the staff. All the victims we spend significant time with are white and Western (all are presented sympathetically, bar a pair of Americans for whom the tsunami is a holiday inconvenience).

But you could watch the film and not realise that so many of the people who died were part of the indigenous population – and while thousands of Westerners also perished, the survivors did at least return to their homes, whereas those living in affected countries lost everything.

The film’s other flaw is the manipulative tone it moves into late on, in particular a series of prolonged “missed moments” as the separated family walk around the hospital, just missing each other. This may well have actually happened, but is so contrived that it feels like a narrative flourish. The plot slows down in the second half as the characters search for each other. The film’s final title cards were a perfect opportunity to bring more focus to other victims – and to mention the death toll and impact on the countries – but avoids all of this to simply confirm it’s based on a true story.

The Impossible has lots of powerful moments. Its moments of emotion are raw and affecting and, manipulative as it is, you do celebrate when the family is reunited. But it’s also a film that loses its way a bit – which captures a superb survivalist story but then becomes too sentimental towards its end. And by not doing more to acknowledge the impact on the Thai people, among others, you can’t help but feel it turns this tsunami into something that affected rich, white, Westerners – which is harder to forgive.

Friday, 9 October 2020

Scarface (1983)

"Shay hell-o to my leetle friend!" Al Pacino puts it all out there in Scarface

Director: Brian de Palma
Cast: Al Pacino (Tony Montana), Steven Bauer (Manny Ray), Michell Pfeiffer (Elvira), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Gina), Robert Loggia (Frank Lopez), Miram Colon (Mama Montana), F. Murray Abraham (Omar), Paul Shenar (Alejandro Sosa), Harris Yulin (Detective Bernstein), Mark Margolis (Shadow)

Remember when Al Pacino played the softly spoken, chillingly self-contained Michael Corleone? Watching The Godfather, who could have imagined that performance would be the outlier in a career that gleefully embraced the insanely OTT in a way few other great actors have dared. And possibly no other performance in Pacino’s career was as large as in Scarface, a ball of nervous energy, foul-mouthed aggression and drug-fuelled instability, the burning heart at the centre of Brian de Palma’s wildfire of a film. Scarface dials every single thing up to about 11 and then some, becoming the director’s brashest and most enduring work – but it owes everything to Pacino’s furious, unreserved energy at its centre.

Pacino plays Tony Montana, a working-class crook from Cuba dispatched (along with boatloads of undesirables from Castro’s regime) to Miami in the early 80s. There, in refugee camps and the local community, it’s crime and violence that give these guys the best chance of grabbing a share of the American Dream. Montana is no different, graduating from hits to drug deals and swiftly moving up the chain with his determination, gruff no-nonsense attitude, fierce loyalty and ruthless focus. But once you hit the top and the world is yours, there is really only one way to go – back down again, made easier when you are hooked on snorting mountains of your own product, incestuously in love with your sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and your increasing arrogance and unreliability put you on the wrong side of your partners and kingpins in South America.

A remake of the 1932 original by Howard Hawks (the film is dedicated to Hawks and the scriptwriter Ben Hecht), Scarface is a brash, unsettling, nervy and incredibly violent cartoon-style gangster movie that owes almost its entire legacy to Pacino’s snarling wit at the centre. Is Pacino taking the piss here with this performance? Surely, he must have wondered if he could get away with it. This is a whirlwind tour-de-force, Pacino throwing himself into it with nothing left in the locker-room. He delightedly wraps his vocal chords around a thick Cuban accent (turning words like cockroach into a three syllable delight – “Cock-ah-roatch”) and embraces his small stature by turning Tony into a little pressure cooker. Seemingly incapable (bar one scene) of staying still, he’s supremely tense, his shoulders hunched up, his teeth on edge, voice growling.

It gives the film an unpredictable energy, because you don’t know what Pacino the performer will do any more than the characters do. He’ll suddenly throw you off with a moment of silence, just as often as he will blast your eardrums with a roar of anger. Emotionally Tony is a complete mess. His obsession with his sister is obvious, a devotion that Tony seems to only half (if that) understand is sexual in nature. But he also has a slight homoerotic bond with best friend Manny Ray (Steven Bauer – the only actor of Cuban heritage in the film), their closeness and macho-posturing carrying more than a whiff of Top Gun-ish “he protests too much”.

Pacino also invests Tony with strangely sympathetic qualities. Sure he’s a violent and ruthless killer and dedicated criminal, but he’s also got a firm sense of loyalty and certain moral lines he won’t cross. He’s got no time for bullshitters and respects only strength and honesty – watch the scene where he brutally talks over the weasely Omar (F. Murray Abraham – jetting back and forth between shooting this and Amadeus for goodness sake!) during a negotiation with drug lord Sosa – he has no respect or regard for his more politically minded boss, only for straight-talking that makes a deal.

It’s all this that ends up making Tony an anti-hero the viewer sort of ends up liking – even while he dopes himself to the brim with coke and funnels piles of it onto the street (not that we see any of that). Tony is a violent killer, but he’s a sort of honest man, a monster yes but a public one that we enjoy seeing. Tony himself recognises this, calling out a crowd of people in a posh restaurant for treating him as a monster so that they can feel better about themselves (slightly undermined by the fact he’s coked to the eyeballs, incoherent and has brutally ended his marriage a second earlier).

So much is Tony a force of nature that, hilariously, it feels like many of the fans of the film – bling gangsters and wannabe street punks – miss that this film is a brutal satire of the culture of excess and greed. Tony’s life falls apart the more money he gets, his addictions and problems growing as his wealth does. He’s an instinctive, but not wise, man who builds a household of fantastic excess and tasteless ostentation (surely, like Saddam, his taps are gold-plated) but also manages to destroy his business and life in a few months due to his greed, stupidity and self-destructive streak.

The things that made him a high-riser are lost the more Tony surrounds himself with garish status symbols. Inevitable destruction walks hand-in-hand with Tony’s “more is more” attitude. The more he attempts to add class and polish to his life, the more he demonstrates his own lack of both qualities. Also, as he gets more obsessed with pointless status symbols he loses the very skills – honesty, energy, shrewdness – that made him a kingpin in the first place. Instead he becomes a drug-fuelled narcissist, making impulsively stupid decisions and wrecking everything he spent the first half of the film building up. Tony Montana is the face of a certain type of Reagan/Thatcher economics, where private enterprise rolls in and ruthlessly takes and takes, with no regard for the impact on other people and no interest in sustainability.

De Palma captures this pretty well – although he probably ends up making this satire of excess more of a hubristic tragedy. Largely because the film falls so hard for Tony – or rather Pacino – that the fact that Tony is, despite his own moral code, a pretty reprehensible person can be easily lost. Not that de Palma probably cares that much, since his main aim here seems to be to create a hell of a ride. And there are some great set-pieces, and some wonderfully character beats - not least a sequence where Tony seizes control of the empire from weak boss Robert Loggia and sinister corrupt cop Harris Yulin.

The film certainly does that, flying from set-piece to set-piece so swiftly and with such a sense of pace and shark-like momentum, you almost don’t notice that it runs for as long as it does. Every few minutes gives us a scene with stand-out moments of either Pacino grandstanding, shocking violence or both. Scarface is a very violent film – everything from chain saws to bullets are used to pull gangster bodies apart – and while it has a sort of moral message (“Excess is bad”) it’s really just an excuse like Cecil B DeMille to make us feel good about ourselves by watching someone pretty bad (but with a few redeeming qualities) dance like a bear for two and a bit hours doing terrible things (entertainingly) before being carved down in a hail of bullets as the devil comes round to collect.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Alien (1979)

Sigourney Weaver is last woman standing in Alien

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), John Hurt (Kane), Ian Holm (Ash), Yaphet Kotto (Parker), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert)

For decades, space was seen as a place of wonder. But Alien reminded us it was also a place where no one can hear you scream. We dream the vast void out there contains life: but what if the life we found was a relentless killing machine, a seemingly invulnerable monster literally having humanity for breakfast? Ridley Scott’s Alien took science fiction and ran it through the blender of horror, turning its space ship into a terrifying haunted house with an alien straight out of slasher films. It’s still a landmark today.

In deep space, the Nostromo’s crew is pulled out of hypersleep early – long before arriving back in our solar system. A strange distress call from an unidentified vessel needs to be investigated, on standing orders from “the company”. The seven-strong crew lands their ship and a party heads out – only to return with third officer Kane (John Hurt) with a strange alien creature attached to his face. The creature can’t be removed until it detaches itself of its own accord. All seems well until an unfortunate dinner party – at which point the crew finds itself being hunted one-by-one by a relentless alien monster.

Scott’s film is so famous today it’s very hard not to forget your foreknowledge of what’s going to happen and to experience it as its original viewers did. But it still works brilliantly – even if almost everyone watching knows only Ripley is getting out of this alive. The film is a masterpiece of slow-burn tension punctuated by moments of shocking horror. The final Alien itself doesn’t appear until almost an hour into the picture – but before then we’ve had our nerves more than jangled by the unsettling disquiet of the film’s mood. From the Nostromo, to the storm-laden planet they land on, and the vast alien ship – now a tomb of dismembered corpses with an unsettling organic look, like a giant carcass – everything in the film is designed to put us ill-at-ease. You can’t watch this film and expect anything to turn out for the best.

The camera prowls around the dank, grimy and run-down ship – space travel has rarely looked this unglamorous – like the predator that will hunt the crew. It’s slow, stately lingering on the crew, their faces, the eerily unsettling sounds and score, all serve to act like an advance funeral. Every single beat of the film stresses claustrophobia and dirt. It looks like a horrible trap already, and the film embraces a sense of grim inevitability. The observational style of the editing and shooting as we follow the characters, overhearing their bickering and functional work-based conversations, also helps add to this mounting sense of unease. It’s a surprisingly quiet film for much of its opening act, ambient noise and unsettingly lingering music dominating.

There is a poetical eeriness about the whole film. This is also partly from the sense of the ship being a society in microcosm. Much of the bickering is around bonus pay shares, the working-class engineers of the ship (one of whom is also black) bemoaning their smaller shares. The officers sit at the top, a mixture of entitled, distant, officious and daring. They have their own feuds over status, professional boundaries and personal rivalries. The captain is a laissez-faire professional, who offers only a general guidance and could really be just another member of the crew. The ship is like a giant oil-rig in space, with the crew basically a group of “truckers”. The film is as much about interpersonal tensions as it is about an alien monster who hunts people down.

But it is mainly about an alien monster that tears people apart. After almost an hour of deeply unsettling and unnerving build-up, when the monster (literally) rears its head, it’s a terrifying sight. We usually only see it briefly for small shots, but what we see is pure nightmare fuel. The creature is terrifying in its violence and power. It is partly human but also completely revolting. Covered in slime, it looks like a bizarre mix of a man, a giant penis and a vagina (its designer, HR Giger, reasoned nothing would be more unsettling and disturbing to us than seeing a beast that’s partly inspired by our own sexual organs). It creeps in corners, embraces the many shadows of Scott’s set and its capacity for violence seems unstoppable. Sharp editing and suggestion elaborates the visceral horror of its extending jaws punching through bone and flesh. It moves like an interpretative dancer and leaves a trail of blood. It’s unstoppable and infinitely cunning. It looks like your worst nightmare.

It’s all washed down with body horror. An alien that smothers its victims and shoves an egg down their throat which hatches through their chest becoming a slaughtering beast. There is an uneasy sexuality about this, right down to the “birth” of the creature being a grotesque parody of childbirth. The “birthing scene” is a masterpiece, the first moment in the film when the tension between the crew has eased – and the film itself seems to have relaxed for a moment from the knot of tension – that turns into one of the most memorable moments of body horror ever. The actors were allegedly told what would happen – but not how graphic it would be – and their horror-struck disgust (Veronica Cartwright was nearly knocked over by a powerful jetstream of mock blood and guts) and and shock gives the film a priceless realism.

Watching the film, it’s striking to me how much John Hurt’s Kane is shot as the hero early in the film. It’s he who wakes first from hypersleep. It’s Kane we follow the most for the early part of the film – he’s the one piloting the ship, volunteering to answer the distress call, urging his crew mates on as they investigate the alien vessel – it’s Kane who seems to be the hero. Making his brutal demise even more of a subconscious shock. On the other hand, Ripley is introduced as an officious, unpopular, by-the-book officer who it seems few other members of the crew like (Sigourney Weaver’s praetorian attitude helps a lot with this) – if you had to bet on someone to bite it early on, you’d pick her. The film continues to defy expectations. Characters who seem like they might be invulnerable are slaughtered early. Those who looked vulnerable survive until late on.

It’s a very strong cast. Weaver magnificently grows in authority as the film progresses, turning her abrasiveness into strength of character and moral determination. Hurt is very good as the unknowing victim-in-waiting. Kotto, chippy and defiant, is another stand-out. The finest performance through might well come from Ian Holm as science-officer Ash. Precise, cold, distant – but always hiding his own secret agenda – it’s an unsettlingly controlled performance that leads to a pay-off reveal that still works brilliantly today (and the character would have one of the most memorable death scenes in film, if he wasn’t in the same film as the most memorable death scene).

Scott’s filmmaking is brilliantly controlled, and the film is a horrifying masterpiece of tension and terror. The monster is skilfully shown at its worst (you’d never even guess in actuality it’s little more than a Doctor Who man-in-a-rubber-suit) and its design is faultless perfection. It’s not completely perfect – its build up might be ten minutes too long, and a late sequence that sees Weaver wearing little more than her undies looks hideously dated today – but it’s pretty close. Science fiction has never been scarier than it is here – hell the movies have rarely been scarer. In space no-one really can hear you scream.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

A History of Violence (2005)

Viggo Mortensen: Hero or Villain? A History of Violence

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Tom Stall), Maria Bello (Edie Stall), Ed Harris (Carl Fogarty), William Hurt (Richie Cusack), Ashton Holmes (Jack Stall), Peter MacNeill (Sheriff Sam Carney), Stephen McHattie (Leland Jones), Greg Bryk (Billy Orser), Heidi Hayes (Sarah Stall)

Cronenberg’s films redefined ideas around body horror. And one of his most accessible – and perhaps one of his richest and finest – films takes these ideas to another level by looking at the lasting – and damaging – impact of violence. That’s not just the immediate, visceral impact either – and lord knows Cronenberg doesn’t shirk on that here – but also the intense, long-term psychological impact and how it shapes entire lives. A History of Violence is a brilliantly told and superb piece of film-making that mixes thought-provoking content with a gripping, Western-tinged plot. It’s got a claim to being one of the best American films of the Noughties.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a regular Joe in a very small town in rural America. Running a small café, he lives a blissfully happy life of Americana with his wife Edie (Maria Bello), a lawyer, and their two children Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Their world changes forever though when Tom’s diner is held up late at night by two ruthless killers (Stephen McHattie and Billy Orser) and – with an instinctive ruthlessness – Tom ruthlessly dispatches the killers and saves the lives of his co-workers and patrons. His heroism makes him a local hero and brings plenty of excited press attention – but why does Tom seem so uncomfortable with this? Could it be linked to the swift arrival in the town of big-city criminal Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) who claims Tom is none-other than Joey Cusack, psychopathic hoodlum from Philadelphia who gouged out Fogarty’s eye? Are Tom and Joey one and the same? And how will the doubts affect Tom’s family?

Cronenberg’s film brings brilliant tension to this question of identity, setting it in a very modern-feeling Frontier town, which has more than a sense of a classic John Ford western town, complete with disturbance from murderous figures from outside, shattering the peace. But the film adds that distinct Cronenberg touch by suggesting that, behind the quiet diners and picket fences, the real danger may already be at the heart of the town. Is Tom who he claims to be? Or is he a malignant dark force at the centre of the town (and his family) bringing destruction to everything? What other dark truths, you can’t help but think, might be hiding behind those shutters?

But then that’s what you get with violence. It taints and ruins everything it touches. Innocent lives are shattered. Families and loved ones are left mourning. But it also twists and shapes the personalities of its perpetrators. It marks them and changes them, washing out positive qualities and leaving those who use it the most drained, empty and uncaring. The film opens with a chilling long shot as McHattie and Orser check out of a motel. Cronenberg keeps the camera still and holds the camera still to study the casual body language and chilling lack of engagement of its killers (“Why the delay?” “I had a little trouble with the maid”). The scene continues for an agonising length, making us dread the reveal of what these clearly dangerous, amoral men have done in this motel – the reveal eventually shown with a clinical precision, which serves as an entrée to even greater horrors.

The final killing in the motel is the last time the film will shy away from the immediate horrors of violence. Even Tom’s heroic slaughter of the killers to save lives doesn’t shirk from showing us the impact on the bodies of the killers as Tom dispatches them – bodies torn apart by bullets, with McHattie’s killer left with most of his lower jaw destroyed beyond recognition. Later we’ll see the impact not only of bullets, but also the jerking death spasms of those who have had their noses smashed into their faces, necks snapped or bullets pass through their heads. Never is this glorified – and never are we allowed to simply categorise some killings as good or bad. No matter who it is, the human body will still suffer staggering trauma.

But violence’s impact isn’t only physical. As Tom’s increasing comfort with using his natural propensity for brutal killing (“Have you never asked, why is he so good at killing people?” Fogarty asks an Edie still in denial) grows, so violence takes over his family and starts to shape the actions and decisions of those around him. Arguments become more regular and more visceral. Tom’s gentle son brutally beats his bully at school. The loving father Tom suddenly slaps him across the face. Edie and Tom’s blissful life – we see them playfully making love on a date night – degenerates into conflict, distrust, flashes of violence and finally an angry, intense and passionate sex scene on the stairs that is an exact mirror image of their earlier love scene.

Edie is, for all her horror at Tom, partly excited by finding her husband has such a capacity for danger and brutality. That’s the dark attraction of violence in this film: it reveals secrets about ourselves. Tom seems to subtly shift within conversations from the gentle Tom into the chillingly distant Joey. Worst of all, the more that muscle is stretched the more Tom seems to take comfort and enjoyment in it. Taking what we want, with no regards for the consequences, is liberating and makes us feel strong. No wonder it’s so attractive. And no wonder violence has so shaped and defined humanity’s history. It tends to get people what they want and it can feel good. And it looks cool. Because despite the horrors of the impact of the violence, Cronenberg is also honest enough to admit that it’s exciting.

At the film’s centre is a superb performance of cryptic unknowability from Viggo Mortensen, in possibly his finest role. Mortensen uses micro expressions, small beats and body language that moves between casual and chillingly precise to show two personalities in one body. And Mortensen also demonstrates the struggle between these – between the man he wants to be and the man he might well be. He’s equally matched by Bello, wonderful as a woman who finds her whole life destroyed but can’t shake an unnerving attraction to this man of danger who has suddenly emerged.

The entire cast are pretty much faultless. Ed Harris gets a decent role of gruff menace, but the film is almost lifted in a final act cameo by William Hurt. Oscar nominated for (what amounts to) less than five minutes of screen time, Hurt is simply a force of nature as a Philadelphia crime boss kingpin, purring out his lines with all the fury of a caged lion, mixing a readiness for violence with a darkly comic menace. It relaunched Hurt’s career as a leading character actor – and arguably he should have nabbed the Oscar for it.

Cronenberg’s film engages with ideas of identity throughout. What defines us? The things we’ve done? The choices we’ve made? How many years need to pass before we can say that we’ve changed? What makes us better? And can we decide the sort of people we want to be? It’s impossible to say for sure. If your whole family life is founded on a lie, how do you know what about yourself is true or not? These are fascinating questions and the film offers no easy answers at all. Can Tom return to the life before a violent history shook everything up – perhaps he can, perhaps he can’t. But one thing’s for sure (and Cronenberg makes clear) it won’t be a simple overnight fix and a Hollywood ending. For all the hoodlums Tom dispatches, the real damage is on the workings of his family and the real casualty is the life his family thought they had. And those wounds don’t heal.