Sunday, 29 November 2020

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Al Pacino takes a bank hostage in Dog Day Afternoon

Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Al Pacino (Sonny Wortzik), John Cazale (Sal Naturile), Charles Durning (Sgt Eugene Moretti), Chris Sarandon (Leon Sharmer), James Broderick (Agent Sheldon), Lance Henriksen (Agent Murphy), Penelope Allen (Sylvia), Sully Boyer (Mulvaney), Susan Peretz (Angie Wortzik), Carol Kane (Jenny)

Perhaps only in the 70s could a failed bank robber have been turned over-night into a counter-culture folk-hero. It’s the subject of Sidney Lumet’s thrilling, heist-gone-wrong movie, set on one sweltering day in New York when Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) tried to rob a bank to fund the sex-change operation of his boyfriend Leon (Chris Sarandon). He ends up taking the co-operative bank staff hostage while a media and public firestorm takes place outside the bank, mixed in amongst an army of trigger-happy cops. And it’s all based on a true story.

Sonny is far from your hardened criminal. He doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. He takes care of the hostages, who all become immensely fond of him and his less confident partner-in-crime Sal (John Cazale). When the police and media turn up, Sonny is outraged at the trigger-happy police presence and quickly wins the support of the crowd with his honesty, bluntness and quick wit. With the police incapable of controlling the situation, soon he is actively playing to the crowd, taking phone calls from the press in the bank. He becomes a counter-culture icon, sticking it to the man (his famous chant of “Attica!”, refers to the famous prison riots, where prisoners rioted to secure their rights).

It’s the key topic that fascinates Sidney Lumet, in this brilliantly frentic, edgy and dynamic film, that captures the tension in New York, where it felt like the careful balance between law and order could disintegrate any time. Lumet’s improvisational feel with the crowds, the edgy, raw performances – particularly from Pacino and Durning, both of whom are sensational – and the sense that anything could happen at any time. Dog Day Afternoon is about a city on the edge, combined with the ability of the media to turn regular people into stars. There was little faith in the authorities, and even a little bit of nose thumbing in their direction could sway the crowds.

At the centre of all this is Sonny, a fascinatingly flawed person, partly absorbed with being the centre of attention, part desperately trying to work out what his best move is among an increasingly narrowing number of options. Al Pacino nearly didn’t take the role, after suffering a near nervous collapse from the pressure of Godfather Part II – but, after committing to the film, he gave one of his most extraordinary performances of an era he and a small group of actors dominated.

Sonny feels increasingly trapped in his predicament. The robbery of the bank is hilariously cack-handed from the start – one of the robbers bails in minutes and has to be begged not to go home in the get-away car – and it becomes clear that for Sonny this is all a last desperate throw of the dice. Both of his relationships – with his first wife and his second marriage to Leon – are relationships on the brink of disaster, destabilised by Sonny’s desperate need for prove of love and affection. He’s a man uncertain in his own skin, smart enough to know the world isn’t fair, but not smart enough to know what to do with it. Fundamentally decent, but forced into illegal actions. Pacino delivers this with the expected fireworks, but when we see Sonny away from the public gaze, he’s a sad, broken-down, isolated man who genuinely doesn’t know where his life is going.

Dog Day Afternoon was radical at the time for how it deals with homosexuality. Neither Sonny nor Leon are presented – as might have been expected at the time – as limp-wristed or fey, but just regular guys who happen to want different things from life. Chris Sarandon (Oscar nominated) is strikingly tender, low-key and world-weary as a man resigned to what the world is throwing at him, from the emotional pressure of meeting Sonny’s needs for affection, to spending every day feeling trapped in his body and facing suspicious stares from all around him. Pacino presents Sonny as a masculine, dynamic figure whose sexuality is just part of his personality. It’s a film not afraid to acknowledge the love between men, and never considers this anything other than entirely normal – something extremely unlikely in 70s cinema. Indeed, you can see the mood of the time in the way the crowd changes once the motivations behind Sonny’s actions becomes clear. Hostility grows – through many gay rights activists quickly arrive to bolster the crowd. The films normalising of homosexuality, also serves as a critique for the assumptions and reduced options many identifying as gay had at the time.

Of course, this all makes the entire siege even more attractive to the media. The film is a neat satire of the way the press can turn events like this into entertainment. A pizza delivery guy, sent to feed the hostages, can barely contain his excitement, screaming “I’m a star!”. At least two hostages refuse offers to leave the siege – at least partly, it’s suggested, because there is nowhere better to be than at the centre of the show. Pacino’s electric playing to the crowd demonstrates how Sonny’s firecracker sense of the turmoil of the period – the violence of the authorities and the lack of justice for the regular guy – helps feed this. The media’s eagerness to sensationalise the events, do turn them from real life into entertainment – and the way so many characters and on-lookers yearn to be part of a real-life drama – is sharply critiqued, with truth and humanity sacrificed for prime-time ratings (ideas Lumet would explore even more deeply in his next film Network).

It’s also fascinating to watch the cack-handed police inexperience at handling sieges like this, from the lack of central control to the trigger-happy cops, to allowing public and the media to get within a few metres of the bank entrance. Charles Durning is superb as a frazzled police sergeant, out of his depth, unable to control his colleagues and totally lacking the calm and control needed for hostage negotiations. He’s replaced in the operation by FBI agent Sheldon – played with a chilling distance by James Broderick – who represents the other side of the law at the time: ruthless, cold and very ready to switch from negotiation to execution.

Sonny may look is in control of things, but it’s quickly clear no-one really is. Even Sonny feels this, Pacino delivering with a resigned calm a scene where Sonny asks one of the bank tellers to record his final will. Dog Day Afternoon is also a tragedy, with the real victim being Sal, Sonny’s partner in the robbery. He’s played with an almost childish innocence by John Cazale, as a not very-bright man completely out of his depth, whose idea of a foreign country to escape to is Wyoming (a hilarious piece of improvisation by Cazale). While Sonny is the public face of the situation – and someone law officials figure they can work with – Sal becomes a dangerous unknown quantity for them that they feel needs to be disposed with. An offer they openly make to Sonny, who furiously rejects it (but, tellingly perhaps, doesn’t tell Sal about).

Poor Sal sweetly chats with the staff. He quietly warns about the dangers of smoking. He sweats and timidly waits to be told what to do. He bravely tells Sonny that he is completely ready to shoot the hostages, while clearly having no idea about the emotional reality of doing this. He meekly follows instructions and is responds with panic to almost every situation. Cazale’s flawless performance turns him into the real victim here, completely unprepared in every way for the situation he is in (he whiningly complains about being called gay on the news, and is terrified at the idea of flying with the hostages to a foreign country, having never been in a plane before). It’s a wonderful personal tragedy that plays in the background of the film.

Lumet’s film has the dynamic vibe of a fly-on-the-wall documentary turned drama. Pacino is the perfect actor for this, his performance (Oscar-nominated) sensational, high-octane and demonstrative mixed with confused, vulnerable and eventually traumatised and guilt-ridden. The film brilliantly balances questions of politics, media and sexuality, offering seering critiques of attitudes around all three. Wrapped into a fire-cracker film, this is a brilliant piece of social commentary, personal tragedy and street theatre. Overlooked more than it deserved, it’s a masterpiece of 70s film making.

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Citizen Kane (1941)

Orson Welles changes film history as Citizen Kane

Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane), Joseph Cotton (Jedediah Leland), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), Ruth Warwick (Emily Monroe Norton Kane), Ray Collins (Jim W Gettys), Erskine Sanford (Herbert Carter), Everett Sloane (Mr Bernstein), William Alland (Jerry Thompson), Paul Stewart (Raymond), George Coulouris (Walter Parks Thatcher), Fortunio Bonanova (Signor Matiste), Harry Shannon (Kane’s father)

Writing about Citizen Kane is rather like writing about the Mona Lisa. Both are works of art so famous and influential that you are intimately familiar with them even if you’ve never seen them. But what makes them such constant delights is that, leaving everything else aside, the Mona Lisa is beautiful to look at – and Citizen Kane is hugely enjoyable to watch. Welles’ masterpiece – frequently hailed as the greatest film ever made – is about as close to perfection as you can get.

Entire books have been written about seemingly every aspect of the film’s creation. Welles’ original intention was to call the film American. It’s a fitting title. Citizen Kane is perhaps the finest film ever made on the corruption that ambition, money and power bring to the American spirit. Kane starts out as a pioneering idealist, but his fatal flaw his is need for power. That need to seize control of everything extends from buying all the art he can find in Europe to controlling the lives of all around him. It’s the mentality that will force his second wife into an opera career she is hopelessly unsuited for. It will eventually leave him sitting alone in his huge mansion, surrounded by wealth but bereft of friends. A large part of the American Dream is about “making it big” – and few make it bigger than Kane, and have so little to show for it at the end.

The film is a character study of ambition and power, using a framing device of the late Kane’s final word: “Rosebud”. What did he mean? Will finding out provide the key to understanding this powerful, elliptical man? A reporter (William Alland) aims to find out by interviewing key people from Kane’s life. From their recollections, the story of Kane’s life slowly comes together in a non-linear style. Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) as a young child inherits one of the world’s largest gold mines. Coming of age, Kane decides to use his wealth to become a press baron. He builds a news empire and runs for Governor – but the public revelation of his affair with amateur singer Susan (Dorothy Comingore) ruins his campaign. He builds a mansion on a man-made mountain, Xanadu, but is isolated and friendless in the echoing rooms of his own mausoleum.

You can argue the same thing happened to Welles himself. Citizen Kane is his own mausoleum, the only time in his life when everything went right. Also, probably the only time Welles’ attention stuck to something long enough to deliver. Welles memorably called working on a film set “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had”, and the entire film is saturated in his creative glee at trying so many new tricks. Citizen Kane bought to the forefront so many methods of film-making, its influence has been so pervasive on film today, that it’s hard to see how revolutionary it appeared at the time.

Welles worked with cameraman Gregg Toland to push the film into a whole new visual language, deeply influenced by German expressionistic film. It’s a beautiful film to look at, and each shot is covered with meaning, Welles’ eye for the theatrical image matched with Toland’s genius for visual language.

Citizen Kane is rarely thought of as a noir film, but it’s possibly the most noirish film you’ll ever see. Watching it again I was struck with how often shadows dominate the screen. Faces are frequently obscured, most famously in the projection room scene, where Thompson receives his instructions to find out what “Rosebud” means. But at key moments, faces disappear into black – while preparing his “Statement of principles” that will fill the front page of Kane’s first edition at the Inquirer, his face is lost in murky darkness. We hear what he is saying, but what is he thinking at this moment? It’s impossible to tell. Long shadows and inky black segments fill the frame frequently – it’s a film that gives a true feeling of darkness and unknowability at its heart.

This is mixed with the theatrical flourish of its constant deep focus. Almost unheard of at the time, every shot of Kane is in perfect focus. It makes for visual compositions inspired by theatre, and ripe with dramatic meaning. Kane’s parents and his guardian William Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris) organise the future of the young Kane in the foreground, while we see the child playing outside in the show through a window. The deep focus turns Xanadu into a museum of lost chances and dreams, and the Inquirer newspaper office into an increasingly dark corridor of ambition, with people’s fates decided in foreground while we see them trapped in the background.

If that wasn’t enough, Toland uses angles Hollywood films hadn’t dreamed of. For some scenes, trenches were dug into the set and the camera placed in it, allowing the camera to stare up, with the actors towering over us. Citizen Kane is often claimed to be the first film where ceilings needed to build for the sets, as Toland’s angles and camerawork frequently made them visible. It’s not completely true, but it speaks to the visual impact of the film. Nothing really like this had been widely seen before. And I’ve not even mentioned the soaring, swooping tracking shots that pass through signs and buildings, the sort of inspired movement of the camera so many directors before had avoided in favour of stationary recording of the story. It’s visionary stuff.

The same was true for the film’s sound and music. Welles used his experience from radio to turn the soundscape of the film into something truly different. In radio, all cuts are managed by sound, but film had traditionally used only visuals to mark edits. Here, sound is used as often as visuals. When Kane runs for Governor, the sound and vision cut seamlessly from Leland on the stump for Kane to Kane finishing the same speech at a cavernous rally. Early in the film, the words “Happy Christmas” are skilfully cut together to leap forward years. Bernard Herrmann’s spare but perfect score, rather than laid over every scene, only comes in (as on radio) where emotional or transitional change is needed.

But then this is a film that uses editing as a way to tell story that few films before had tried. The sequence showing the collapse of Kane’s marriage to President’s niece Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warwick) is the perfect example. Over about two minutes of screen time we see several short scenes, all set at the breakfast table. Each scene shows a progressive step in their relationship collapsing, from loving exasperation to annoyance to anger to mute loathing. The scenes are no more than 20-30 seconds each, but the film perfectly moves from one to the other. The music slowly changes from a romantic waltz to a cold discordant rhythm. Transitions are marked by wipes. In each scene the actors move further apart at their breakfast table, the dialogue becomes harsher, sharper and more confrontational as the room they sit in becomes grander. In a few moments, an entire marriage story is told. It’s quite simply marvellous. The sequence is bookended by matching camera movements, gliding in and then out from the room.

You could speak for pages and pages (as indeed people have) about what a marvel Kane is. Welles’ vision and willingness to push the boundaries created an environment where all his collaborators worked to achieve their best, set free from the restrictions of more traditional moviemaking to stretch themselves as artists in a way rarely allowed. But it’s easy to forget what a marvellous story Citizen Kane is, what an entertaining and brilliantly constructed film it is and how every scene has something that delights and enthrals.

There’s controversy over who wrote the script. Welles and Herman J Mankiewicz are credited – although arguments have been made that each deserved the lion’s share. Whoever did create it, the script is quite simply superb. Economic, but packed with wonderful lines and some extraordinary speeches (Mr Bernstein’s speech about a powerful memory of a young woman he saw once from a distance is quite simply one of the best small-scale speeches you’ll see). Every scene is brilliantly assembled, and gives fabulous material to an extraordinary cast of actors.

It makes for a compelling character study, wrapped into a series of brilliantly done vignettes. Each set of recollections – from Thatcher, business manager Mr Bernstein (Everett Sloane), old friend Jedidah (Joseph Cotton) and ex-wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) – makes for a fabulous series of self-contained scenes, each gaining richer and deeper meaning with every subsequent reflection that follows. There are so many sensational scenes I hardly know where to begin: you could write an essay about each one. Thatcher’s serio-comic reflections of the roguishly cheeky Kane are wonderful. Bernstein’s memories of the chancer coming good – with a brilliantly playful celebration scene – wonderfully entertaining. Jedidah and Susan’s far more tainted reflections of the man’s flaws make for wonderfully constructed drama, presenting a corrupted and bullying Kane. In every scene there is a beautiful moment of dialogue or drama which sticks in the memory.

The acting is equally good. Cotton settles into the groove many of his finest roles would fit into – the never-quite-grew-up schoolboy, who slowly realises his hero has feet of clay. Comingore is wonderfully fragile and then increasingly bitter as Kane’s ill-used second wife, forced into a humiliating career because Kane won’t be married to a failure. Sloane is charmingly loyal, with beautiful moments of profound sadness, as Bernstein. Coulouris is brilliantly funny as the exasperated Thatcher. Ray Collins’ is smooth and unabashed as Kane’s political rival. Agnes Moorehead is tinged with sadness and ambition for her son as Kane‘s mother.

But at the heart of Citizen Kane – in every sense – is Welles. His handpicked crew was some of the best in the business – but it was Welles’ inspiration, his willingness to imagine techniques and approaches un-attempted before, that encouraged them to their finest work here. With the magnetic force of personality that was his hallmark, he inspired everyone to give their very best. And he led from the front. The film is a triumph of drama, tragedy and comedy, directed with sublime grace. Welles the actor is perfectly cast, the part almost a riff on his own cult of personality, the mix of pride and overweening ambition and little-boy cheek crossed with self-destructive laziness. Welles’ performance is faultless in the film, taking Kane from the smirking chap happy to lose a million dollars a year (“at the rate of a million dollars a year I’ll need to close this place…in 60 years”) to the bloated old man, trashing his wife’s room after she walks out. Perfect.

The only tragic note about Citizen Kane is that this wasn’t the first in a career of non-stop genius from Welles. Instead, flaws in his own personality, combined with his ability to make enemies and lack of ability to focus on the task in hand, increasingly consumed Welles, making him eventually a lost great, a man wandering from film set to film set, taking on small roles for cheques that might one day help him make a film. But he’ll always have Kane, the sort of film that is a marvel which can never, ever disappoint. With every scene a classic, every moment compelling, every beat in it perfectly judged, its influence stretching to almost every film made since the late 1940s – it deserves its place as the greatest film of all time.

Monday, 23 November 2020

Land and Freedom (1995)

Ian Hart fights for Land and Freedom in Ken Loach's impassioned Spanish Civil War drama

Director: Ken Loach
Cast: Ian Hart (David Carr), Rosana Pastor (Bianca), Frédéric Pierrot (Bernard Goujon), Tom Gilroy (Lawrence), Icíar Bollaín (Lawrence), Marc Martinez (Juan Vidal), Paul Laverty (Militia Member)

What do we really know about our elders? After David Carr passes away, his granddaughter finds a box full of memories from his time as a young man (Ian Hart) who went to Spain in 1936 to fight against fascism. His granddaughter uncovers a whole side of her radical grandfather she never knew – his passions, his love and the reasons for his disillusionment with the communist party.

If there was someone who was going to make a film about the Spanish Civil War, it would be Ken Loach. The Spanish Civil War is a totemic event for left-wing politics, where the dream of a truly commune-based left-wing government in Europe, by the people for the people, died in a long civil war with right-wing military forces. Loach’s film hums with anger at this missed opportunity and fury at the way these crusaders for justice were left high and dry by both the rest of Europe, and the Russian-controlled forces that should have been on their side.

The Spanish Civil War is a war that it’s easy to slightly forget – a dress rehearsal for World War Two but with a different result. It’s striking that this is one of the very few films – perhaps the only film – to really tackle it. Perhaps that’s because, for many, it’s a hazy and confusing combat with no clear goodies and baddies. On one side the left-wing forces were riddled with internal conflict, with many in thrall to Stalin, while the right-wing forces were anti-Stalin (good) but fascist (very bad). It’s a war that ended with an elected government overthrown in a military coup, tacitly endorsed by the Allied powers – not something that fits well with our narrative of the World War Two era.

It’s clearly a war where Loach has picked a side. His sympathies – and the film’s – are certainly not with the leadership of the communist party, who are portrayed as heartless, two-faced and only concerned with assuring Soviet control over the country. Instead he sides with the common working-class man, fighting in the trenches, full of idealistic passion and righteous anger. Loach’s film is unashamedly political, awash with ideas and idealism.

Not many other films feature at their heart an impassioned, semi-improvised, debate on the merits of forming a commune and economic self-determination. This scene, the key moment in the film, really works by the way, with the actors throwing in their contributions alongside extras, many of them veteran Spanish trade unionists. You can question the naivety of it – and also the way, as often, Loach tends to paint compromise as a vice nearly as bad as betrayal – but it makes for surprisingly compelling viewing. Because, if nothing else, it’s clear everyone, from the director down, really believes in the virtues of the politics being offered and the hope they bring – and that’s infectious.

It’s also because Loach is a highly skilled director who has carefully used the film to build our empathy with these brave campaigners. There are some truly impressive performances. Ian Hart is superb as the young David Carr, young, idealistic, funny, brave and angry. Rosana Pastor is just as good as the woman he loses his heart too, the sort of feminist warrior ideal that is the staple of films like this, but whom she makes feel exceptionally vibrant and alive. Loach throws us into the trenches with these guys, showing us their lives and loves, allowing us to follow them through triumph and loss. It’s a film that demands we respect and admire these people who came from far and wide to fight for what they believed in – and it’s right to do so.

As always with Loach, what I miss is the shades of grey. You cannot doubt the honesty and true feeling behind these people’s views. They believe that what they are saying is the only way. What Loach tends to do – and does here – is show anyone who disagrees with this view, no matter the reason, as either cowardly or self-serving. An American communist who stresses the need for moderation in their politics (to win sympathy from the Western powers) and professionalism in the military campaign is dismissed as a sell-out and a patsy. As often with Loach, the idea of getting results from moderation and organic change is seen as worse than a romantic failure that sticks completely to ideals. Perhaps it’s an interesting insight into why so many left-wing political movements have ended in failure?

But away from the politics this is a fine film, one of Loach’s best. The reconstruction of the Civil War – often confused, rushed trench warfare fighting unclear enemies – is brilliantly done. A storming of a village by David Carr’s militia group is shot with the sort of immediacy that would make Paul Greengrass jealous. And what Loach does better than almost any other filmmaker is bring real, living, passion to the screen. As the militia is finally betrayed for good by the Communists, the spittle-flecked, teary-cheeked anger of the characters at the Soviet-backed forces rounding them up feels almost unwatchably real.

I don’t always agree with Loach’s politics – and I strongly favour compromise and moderation as a better way of achieving long-term goals than blindly sticking to principles – but I have no argument with his qualities as a filmmaker. And Land and Freedom is so clearly one-from-the-heart that you can’t argue with it. No matter your political stance, you must be moved by it. And feel a profound sorrow about how a generation saw their dreams ripped away and betrayed.

Badlands (1973)

Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are killers on the run in Terrence Malick's masterpiece Badlands

Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Martin Sheen (Kit Carruthers), Sissy Spacek (Holly), Warren Oates (Father), Ramon Bieri (Cato), Alan Vint (Deputy), Gary Littlejohn (Sheriff), John Carter (Rich man)

If American cinema has a poet, it’s Terrence Malick. His career is the most elliptical of any major American filmmaker. Shunning interviews or any discussion of his work, his mystique is built upon Kubrickian isolation (he took a 20-year gap between his second and third films) and the powerful mystique of his first film – and still his masterpiece – Badlands. A luscious, beautifully filmed, profound piece of film-making, perfectly paced and told with a poetic sensibility, it’s  powerful and brilliant. Nothing Malick has done since has reached the same beautiful balance between story, profundity, poetry and realism.

Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) is an aimless young man, recently fired from his job as a garbage collector in South Dakota. His imagination is captured by a teenage girl, Holly (Sissy Spacek), freshly arrived from Texas. He romances the young girl – who is naively swept up in the possibility of Kit’s poetic soul – but her father (Warren Oates) disapproves. So, in a casual confrontation at their home, Kit kills the father, burns down the house and he and Holly head out on the run. Travelling across the country, Kit kills with a casual lack of maliciousness, all the time building in his head his self-image as a James Dean-like hero in his own movie, a poet turned outlaw. Holly narrates the film, her guileless, innocent and often unreliable narrative revealing her own naivety. Sheen is outstanding as Kit, idealistic but empty, while Spacek gives Holly a sublime blankness that makes us never sure how much she understands the situation she is in.

Malick based the film on the killing spree of Charles Starkweather, who carried out a murderous journey across several states in the mid-West with his underage girlfriend in the late 50s. But what Malick found in this story was a fascinating insight into how people can become absorbed by the romanticism of the American pioneer spirit, to try and turn their own lives into something with meaning and depth. So, Kit can be little more than a not particularly bright casual killer, but he builds his own self-image as something part-way between movie star and philosopher poet.

What the film does quite brilliantly is balance the ruthlessness of Kit with this dreamlike poeticism. Much as you shouldn’t, you end up caring a little for Kit and Holly, while deploring their brutality. Perhaps it’s because both of them feel so young. After the murder of her father, they build a cabin in the woods and live off the land, with all the enthusiasm of kids. There is something very vulnerable about both of them, their abilities to really understand the situations they are in and the moral implications of their actions non-existent. In a way they are playing – but with real guns.

Their life has been so filtered through the Hollywood celebrity culture growing around them, that they see their actions like part of a film. Death is as unreal and without impact as it is in Hollywood. Kit twice, early in the film, prods dead animals with nerveless curiosity – the same blankness and lack of reaction that he will later treat dead people with. Holly is briefly shocked by the death of her father, but then builds all Kit’s actions into a narrative of romantic drama.

Kit and Holly build their own narrative the whole time – but with a shallow emptiness that reveals their own pretensions. Both of them are collectors of odds-and-ends – Kit picks up mementos and strange souvenirs from where they have been, treating these as near religious icons that future generations will use to mark his presence. Objects from lamps to paintings to rocks are invested with artistic value by the pair. Kit’s shallowness is clear: early in the film he picks up a large rock from under the tree where they first made love, determined to keep it forever as a memento. After walking a few metres, he drops it and decides to take a lighter rock. Later, when Kit is finally cornered by the police, his main concern is to build a small cairn to mark the location where he was caught.

Kit wants to be more than he is. He is delighted when his physical resemblance to James Dean is noted by the police (his appearance is carefully studied to cultivate this). At a rich man’s house, he decides to record messages for posterity – words so bland, predictable and lacking in depth they reveal the total lack of imagination and original thought in Kit. He is polite, generally kind to his victims (before killing them) and thinks of himself as a sort of poet of the wilderness. Neither he nor Holly understands the horrific finality of death. The couple have a fatally corrupted innocence, a childlike, romantic understanding of the world that becomes a sort of fairy-tale. And you can totally see why a naïve young girl like Holly might see Kit as a romantic figure who can set her free.

Malick’s film wraps this up in a film of dreamlike beauty. In later films, Malick became so obsessed with beautiful images, and increasingly pretentious in his themes, that they became self-important artefacts. But Badlands balances these instincts beautifully with a fascinating and revealing story.

The shooting of the film offers up one beautiful image after another, reflecting the poetic longings of the couple at its heart, while underpinning sharply their blandness. Malick captures the awesome grandness of the Badlands themselves, a dusty stretch of emptiness that goes on forever. Malick shoots moments, like the house-fire, with such grace and perfection that they take on deep psychological meaning (what else is that house fire but the death of Holly’s early life?). Shots of nature – the sort of wildlife photography that would go too far in later films – place the couple in exactly the sort of tranquil independence, free from the burdens of the real world, that they long for. It’s an American dream, the celebration of the pioneer spirit deeply and darkly inverted.

The film is an enigma that avoids ever casting easy judgements on its characters. Their actions may be awful, but how much have they been bent and twisted by the world around them? The film’s eclectic musical choices – Carl Orff to Nat King Cole – bring the film a sense of magic, again a dreamlike mysticism. It’s fitting for a young couple who are living in a dream, with no consequences and no morals. This impressionistic masterpiece, which mixes in moments of shocking realism and casual violence, reflects the inner life of its leads, both yearning to be more than they are, and directing these longings into disastrous ends. Badlands is one of the greatest debut films in history, and still the perfect fusing of Malick’s poetic leanings with narrative film-making.

Thursday, 19 November 2020

A Separation (2011)

A family on the bring of collapse in Asghar Farhadi's brilliant A Separation

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Payman Maadi (Nader), Leila Natami (Simin), Sareh Bayet (Razieh), Shahab Hosseini (Hodjat), Sarina Farhadi (Termeh), Merila Zare’I (Miss Ghahraii), Ali-Ashgar Shahbazi (Nader’s father), Babrl Karimi (Judge), Kimia Hosseini (Somayeh), Shirin Yazdanbakhsh (Simin’s mother)

It’s very easy today to imagine Iran as another world. A mysterious country, locked behind an oppressive regime that we are constantly told by our leaders is a frightening, distant place not to be trusted. But this prosperous country, with its rich historical background, isn’t some sort of Mars. It’s full of regular, normal people just trying to do their best for their families. It’s the strongest thing you’ll take out of Asghar Farhadi’s heartfelt, low-key, deeply moving masterpiece: deep down, we are all united by how circumstances push us into desperate situations with few good options.

Married couple Nader (Payman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Natami) have petitioned for divorce. Secular Muslims, they want to emigrate to find better opportunities for their teenage daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Simin wants to leave now – but Nader won’t leave while his aged father (Ali-Ashgar Shahbazi), suffering from Alzheimer’s, is alive. Their only option, under Iranian law, is divorce. However, separation makes it impossible for Nader to care during the day for his father. He hires Razieh (Sareh Bayet), a devout Muslim – but the position causes her a host of problems, from concerns about touching another man (she calls her Imam to ask if she can change the old man’s trousers after an accident), to her worries about what will happen if her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), a feckless man in and out of prison, finds out she is working for a single man. After Razieh ties  Nader’s father to a bed to keep him safe, she and Nader argue, during which he forces her out of his flat. Razieh then has a miscarriage that night. Did Nader know she was pregnant? If so, he could face prison for murder. Both families find themselves in desperate straits.

A Separation is a superb piece of film-making, deceptively simple in its assembly and shooting, but carrying a huge emotional force as we become invested in the lives of the people it follows. Farhadi never passes moral judgement over his characters. All of them have strong reasons for doing what they are doing, rooted in what’s best for the family. Everyone acts in the way they feel will best protect their loved ones. Arguments become profoundly personal and damaging – but they don’t start out that way. It’s simply a question of things slipping out of control.

That’s not helped by the laws of the Iranian state. Farhadi’s film is very careful to never pass explicit comment on Iran’s laws. But the nature of the regime – and the mood it encourages – is at the heart of all the problems. Tensions are perhaps inevitable between the middle-class and secular Nadar and Simin, and the more working-class and traditional Razieh and Hodjat. This is class and religion in one cocktail, both sides carrying impressions that are nearly impossible to shake off.

But it’s the laws of the state that amplify this: where a man and a wife must go through a demanding pantomime for divorce or a man can be sentenced for murder for the lightest push on the shoulder of a woman who then miscarries. The judge hearing the pre-trial arguments (a very gentle and dignified performance from Babrl Karimi) may be the very soul of reasonableness, but it doesn’t change the fact that the laws he must rigidly uphold continually inflame the situation.

The story is brilliantly constructed, a tightly plotted melodrama that frequently presents new information that forces us to reinterpret what we have seen and heard. It mixes superbly domestic drama and crime procedural, and frequently only the audience has the complete picture of everything that has happened. Key arguments – the loss of money, Razieh’s unexplained absence from her duties, the difficulties of keeping Nadar’s father safe – are shown to us from every angle. But still, we understand the very natural – and human – reactions that people who do not have all the facts, as we have, make. Perhaps it’s the constant stress of simply living – magnified in a crowded and difficult city like Tehran – that seem to put every character on a knife-edge, terrified that a wrong step could land them in a host of trouble.

But that’s the power of Farhadi’s film-making – he invests every shot with sympathy and empathy. He wants us to understand everyone. It would be easy to make Hodjat exactly the sort of chippy, argumentative, working-class figure Nadar clearly thinks he is – but we also see his desperation, poverty, shame at not being able to provide for his family. Simin is easy to see as a woman trying to escape to live her own life – but she is also willing to cause collateral damage to the rest of her family. Nadar is the picture of a more liberal Iranian – but he also refuses to listen to people and is selfish in equating what he wants with what everyone else should want. There are no easy moral choices here – and no clear “heroes and baddies” for us to invest in.

The film reminds us that on every side of a dispute there are real people, with real concerns. And that the collateral damage can be just as bad. Nadar’s father is left even more catatonic than he was at the film’s start. Nadar and Simin’s daughter Termeh becomes consumed with guilt and disillusionment over the moral compromises her parents are forced to make. Her distress plays constantly at the edges of scenes – and even her morals eventually end up compromised – only coming fully into focus with Farhadi’s heartbreakingly open-ended conclusion.

The acting is superb. Payman Maadi is harassed and desperate under a veneer of controlled reason. Leila Natami plays a modern career woman, compromising herself every day, with great power and intensity. Sareh Bayet’s vulnerability is matched only with her profound sense that she cannot compromise her morals, in a performance that brilliantly mixes fear, resentment, warmth and anger. Shahab Hosseini superbly brings to a life a loud, brash man who is secretly profoundly weak, scared and trapped. There isn’t a wrong note in the entire cast, and Farhadi’s patient and intimate direction and shooting allows each of them to bring their characters superbly to life.

This is a brilliant film which shows an intriguing – but sensitive – insight into life in Iran. But it most strongly demonstrates how human we all are. Everyone in the film is doing what they feel is best for their family – be that trying to hold them together, forcing the issue of emigration, earning money from work, or suing for compensation for the loss of a child. It’s a glorious reminder of how our lives can be altered by circumstances, and our intentions drastically different from their impact.

Monday, 16 November 2020

The American President (1995)

The buck stops with Michael Douglas in Aaron Sorkin's dress rehearsal for TV, The American President

Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: Michael Douglas (President Andrew Shepherd), Annette Bening (Sydney Ellen Wade), Martin Sheen (AJ MacInerney), Michael J Fox (Lewis Rothschild), Richard Dreyfuss (Seantor Bob Rumson), David Paymer (Leon Kodak), Samantha Mathis (Janie Basdin), John Mahoney (Leo Solomon), Anna Deavere Smith (Robin McCall), Nina Siemaszko (Beth Wade), Wendie Malick (Susan Sloan), Shawna Waldron (Lucy Shepherd), Anne Haney (Mrs Chapil)

Taken solely on its own merits, The American President is a charming, witty romantic comedy which makes some shrewd (liberal-tinged) comments about American politics. But no-one is ever going to take The American President on its own merits. Because this Sorkin-scripted bundle of joy is so clearly a dry-run for The West Wing, it’s hard to watch it without spotting the roots of it here: everything from shared characters to scraps of dialogue. Perhaps only M*A*S*H stands with this film as so dwarfed by its spin-off.

President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is a widower, raising his daughter Lucy (Shawna Waldron). Heading into the third year of his first term, he’s got a domestic agenda dominated by his new crime bill (although Shepherd won’t risk increasing gun controls). Charming, articulate and passionate – he’s also lonely. But his life changes when he falls for environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), their courtship seeing them fumble through “boy-meets-girl” when boy just happens to be the most powerful man in the world. Will the President’s popularity survive him dating someone outspoken and passionate? Or will it be a tool for his Republican rival Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) to hit him on everything from family values to patriotism?

It’s impossible not to enjoy The American President. Sorkin’s playful, articulate and smart dialogue is of course an absolute triumph. The cast are extremely well-chosen. Few actors look as damn Presidential as Michael Douglas, not to mention carrying with them an air of impassioned authority and commanding bonhomie. Annette Bening is spot-on as exactly the sort of feisty and intelligent woman that would attract a liberal minded President, but turn off pundits and regular people. Martin Sheen was obviously so comfortable with Sorkin’s dialogue style that promotion to the President seemed inevitable (seriously it’s very odd watching the film and seeing Sheen not being treated like the President!). Michael J Fox’s entire career was revitalised by Sorkin tapping into the frantic, fast-paced comic energy that is the actor’s forte.

Rob Reiner’s direction is fresh, relaxed and perfectly complements the dialogue. We get a few West Wing style walk-and-talks (does this make Reiner the inventor of it?). The film superbly balances romantic comedy with serious political discussion on military intervention and proportional response (“the least Presidential thing I do”), the environment and gun control. It also gets a neat idea of the shady, and dirty, business of generating votes in the House – and the deals that need to be done to secure legislation. Reiner gets great stuff from the actors (Sorkin didn’t question his casting, since so many of them ended up in The West Wing) and keeps the momentum up beautifully.

The film has a lovely Capra-esque feel to it. Sorkin is even witty enough to lean on this by having Sydney discuss Capra openly with a White House security guard – also a lovely moment to establish Sydney’s genuineness and openness, as compared to the jaded I-don’t-care attitude of her colleague. There is a real feel in it – and of course this optimism carries across to The West Wing – that good people in the right place can change the world. That decency and compassion can trump (so to speak) the cynicism of Washington insiders. (The idea appeals to everyone – what is Donald Trump but a nightmare version of a plain-speaking man in Washington who says what he thinks?).

Balanced with some lovely comedy, it works extremely well. Along with the debate, Sorkin has a great feeling for the absurdity of the Leader of the Free World trying to work out how he can behave like a regular Joe and ask a girl out on a date. Simple ideas, from sending flowers to the etiquette of having someone stay over, are laced with difficulties. The film gets a wonderful sense of how the public eye can unjustly tear people apart – all drummed up by Dreyfuss’ eminently hissable villain.

There is some great chemistry between Douglas and Bening. Douglas is at possibly his most charming and authoritative here, effortlessly selling the lightness but also the powerfully effective speeches Sorkin crafts for him (his final press conference speech that effectively closes the film is a barnstormer). Bening, as well as being perfectly cast, walks a neat line between serious professional and girlish crush, that comes across extremely well.

It’s hard though, for all the film’s romantic charm, not to look at it through the filter of The West Wing. It’s both a first pass, and a historical curiosity. Sorkin recycled many of the ideas touched upon here (most noticeably Sheen’s President would spend an entire episode discussing proportional responses) and also expanded several characters. Douglas’ teacher turned President, widely read and with a liberal outlook, is a clear forerunner of Bartlett. Sheen himself plays a character who is all but Leo. Fox plays a character combining elements of Josh and Toby. Anna Deavere Smith is a CJ without those distinctive touches Allison Janney bought to the role. Names, plot developments, concepts are all recycled. Stylistic flourishes in the writing match.

The American President isn’t as good as The West Wing of course – few things are. But as a boiled down, Hollywood version with a romantic twist, it’s still pretty damn good.

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Uncut Gems (2019)

Adam Sandler is desperate to make a score in Uncut Gems

Director: Benny & Josh Safdie
Cast: Adam Sandler (Howard Ratner), Lakeith Stanfield (Demany), Julia Fox (Julia De Fiore), Kevin Garnett (Himself), Idina Menzel (Dinah Ratner), Eric Bogasian (Arno Moradian), Judd Hirsch (Gooey), Keith Williams Richards (Phil), Jonathan Aranbayev (Eddie Ratner), Noa Fisher (Marcel Ratner)

Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a Jewish jewellery dealer in New York. Addicted to gambling, Ratner has a mountain of debts – mostly to his loan shark brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogasian). Estranged from his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and trying to build a new relationship with girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox), Ratner’s life is a mess. His business depends on colleagues like Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) to bring in high-end clients, such as basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself). Ratner hopes an auction for a rare uncut diamond from Ethiopia will get him out of the hole. But, after agreeing to loan the diamond as a “good luck charm” to Garnett, Ratner finds himself in a desperate race to get it back in time for the auction, make enough money to clear his debts – and resist the temptation to throw it all on a big accumulator bet on the next basketball game…

The Safdie brothers’ film is an explosion of frantic energy. Shot with hand-held dynamism and cut with adrenalin-fuelled quickness, every scene has life occurring at hundreds of miles an hour, leaving the viewer struggling to keep up. Like Robert Altman walking in Scorsese land, dialogue frequently overlaps, with the buzz of improvisation and rawness of language. The film rips through events with a headlong force, scenes veering from black comedy, to tragedy to violence with unexpected force.

There is an almost Jonsonian or Moliere sprightliness about the film. Ratner feels like a Volpone, a chancer on the make, trying to keep ahead of his schemes long enough to end out on top. The film plays like a dark farce. Often, at the worst possible moments, Ratner’s opponents or friends appear to ruin his current plan. Ratner’s shop is practically a classic farce set, with its backrooms and magnetically controlled door that doesn’t always open when ordered. But it’s a dark farce, which never lets you forget the threat of genuine physical violence.

The Safdie brothers take a superb chance on casting Adam Sandler. With his gallery of grotesques in a low-brow comedies, it’s easy to forget the commitment and transformational quality Sandler brings to any role. With the film teetering towards dark farce, that energy is perfect. Sandler channels the bombast of Al Pacino by way of the sleaze of Gilbert Gottfried, a raspy voiced would-be-but-never-was, a Del Boy of low-rent crime. It’s a high octane, big performance. But it works because Sandler is aware this is a character always performing, and has taken on a persona of such New York Jewishness (the Safdie brothers have said this was their intention) that it almost feels like his true emotional self has been long buried.

He’s a character who struggles with earnestness and honesty – partly because it brings so few benefits to his world, partly because he’s almost forgotten how to behave other than as the high-octane chancer he presents to the world. In many ways, this is very secure role for Sandler, falling very much into his wheelhouse without the crude gags, but with additional tears. Heavily praised by critics – many of whom perhaps couldn’t bear to sit through his more conventional film work – it’s a strong performance, but not a revelation as many suggested. Ratner is an exaggeration and a tour-de-force, but the real stretch for Sandler is in the smaller, quieter moments (of which there are few) where Ratner has to confront the emotional consequences of his appalling choices.

Moments like this are few and far between, amongst the crazed energy of the bulk of the film, but they carry real impact. It would be easy for this jet-black crime dramedy to overlook its heart, but it’s certainly there. Ratner’s relationship with Julia seems to be a typical gold-digger/older man’s folly, but reveals itself to have far greater depths of emotion than first appears. Similarly, the feud between Ratner and his wife is just part of a wider spectrum of genuine affection between them – even if the idea of continuing the marriage is a joke. Even Ratner and his brother-in-law (a world-weary Eric Bogasian) have moments of genuine affection, for all the threat of violence.

The real villain of the piece, if there is one, is Ratner’s own self-destructive streak. He can’t let the chance of a good score pass him by, and his constant habit of shooting himself in the foot and making the wrong call have led him to the brink of destruction. Not that the film is keen to show us too much of this. Interestingly, for a film about a gambling addict, Ratner’s actual bets have a romantic tendency to come off. In fact, for all that he is clearly in dire straits, the film shies away from showing the real damage that addictive gambling can have.

Perhaps it’s because the Safdie brothers clearly feel very protective towards Ratner. For all his wheeler-dealing desperation, the film lends him a perverted sense of nobility. We can see him lose out on a big deal, get punched in the throat, thrown in a fountain and still he keeps on going (Sandler’s fast talking wildness works wonders here). It’s a flaw in the film for me, that it’s nervous of looking at this self-destructive individual with the cold-eyed clarity that the best of the 1970s film this is partly apeing, would do. It’s a bit like making a film about a drunk, but showing every drinking session as being a whale of a time.

The film culminates in a final wide-eyed bet, mixed with a flurried attempted escape from the crooks. The final act throws in some surprising – and affecting – twists to the tale that stands much of what we have been watching on its head. The film’s frenetic style might, at times, make it a hard-watch – it is so eager to impress that it rarely rests but constantly jumps around like an over-active teenager – but it channels Sandler very effectively, and has the sort of edge too many other films can only dream of. Moments try too hard (the bookending shots that burrow, Fincher like, deep into crevices is a flourish too far), but this is still wire-cracker film-making.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Georgy Girl (1966)

Lynn Redgrave excels as permanent odd-girl out in Georgy Girl

Director: Silvio Narizzano
Cast: Lynn Redgrave (Georgy Parkin), James Mason (James Leamington), Alan Bates (Jos Jones), Charlotte Rampling (Meredith), Bill Owen (Ted Parkin), Clare Kelly (Doris Parkin), Rachel Kempson (Ellen Leamington), Denise Coffey (Peg), Dandy Nichols (Hospital Nurse)

Made at the height of the Swinging Sixties – when London was the coolest city in the world – Georgy Girl is, in some respects, a time capsule. It was seen at the time as almost impossibly naughty and subversive, with open talk of abortions and affairs, mothers who feel their lives have been changed for the worse by having babies and young people struggling to accept their responsibilities. Now of course, it all looks rather tame. But there remains a charm to the film – helped above all by its performances – that still manages to make it a winning film, despite some of its attitudes raising entirely different questions today than its makers intended.

Georgy (Lynn Redgrave) is the plain-looking (and doesn’t the film keep reminding us of this!) daughter of the devoted butler (Bill Owen) to millionaire James Leamington (James Mason). Leamington has supported Georgy while she grows up – even letting her use his house for her children’s performance classes – but now his interest in her is changing. With his wife dying, James offers her the chance to become his mistress (with an actual contract). Georgy turns it down – not least because of her growing interest in Jos (Alan Bates), the fun-loving boyfriend of her flatmate Meredith (Charlotte Rampling), a drop-dead gorgeous violinist who treats him and everyone else with disdain. When Meredith falls pregnant with Jos’ baby, the two of them marry – but Meredith wants nothing to do with the child, a contrast to Georgy who has always dreamed of family.

It's actually a film of cold, hard realities. Beware any film which gives you a conventional happy ending – the hero chasing a woman down a street crying out that he loves her – around the half way mark. All the characters are presented with choices, and are forced to either compromise or run away. It’s telling that the characters who most fit the mood of the era invariably run away, while those with a more traditional outlook stick it out. You could argue that far from being a celebration of the 60s, Georgy Girl is a fierce critique.

At the time, Georgy was seen as something of a free spirit. Perhaps this was because of her unconventional looks or her playful imagination when working with the children in her performance class. Maybe it was the opening sequence, which sees her getting a fashionable haircut, only to instantly wash it out in a sink. Or could it be because she treats her father’s wishes for her to listen to her elders and betters with disdain? (Let’s skirt over the fact her father seems to be effectively pimping her to his employer.) The way she makes a scene at Leamington’s birthday party by performing a raunchy cabaret number? Most of all though it may well have been due to the catchy (and instantly recognisable) Seekers song that plays over the opening and closing of the movie and serves as her calling card.

Interestingly though, watching it now, there is something incredibly conservative about Georgy – and quite possibly about the film itself. While she lives in the heart of the buzzing metropolis, Georgy’s dreams seem to come from another age: to become a mother, in a comfortable domestic setting. It’s hardly a feminist rallying cry. Georgy is so keen for this, she is perfectly willing to step (almost literally) into the shoes of Meredith, inheriting her husband, child and home. The film also misses no opportunity to remind the viewers Georgy is plain, dumpy and sexually inexperienced. Redgrave has been dressed to look like a sort of Teutonic housekeeper. The film doesn’t seem to quite know where to land between praising Georgy and slightly encouraging us, to chuckle at her.

Georgy isn’t in fact the swinging 60s icon in the film. That unquestionably is Charlotte Rampling as Meredith. Looking absolutely stunning, dressed by Mary Quant, Meredith is everything we expect from the era: confident, outgoing, ambitious, sexually liberated. But Meredith is also a stone-cold, ruthless, heartless bitch. Superbly played by Rampling, she treats Georgy as a servant, Jos as a mix between comfort blanket and vibrator, and decides to get married and have the child (rather than abort it as she has two others of Jos’ children – without telling him) because she’s bored. Once the poor child is born, the idea of sacrificing anything from her life is anathema to Meredith who promptly disappears over the horizon.

Georgy Girl is actually a film with much more mixed – even satiric – views of women and its era. The sort of liberation Meredith enjoys goes hand-in-hand with a selfish shirking of responsibility and using her beauty as a justification to treat everyone she meets as supplicants. Georgy is stuck in the middle, a woman in an era of growing freedoms but whose aims remain solidly in the Victorian era. The men are an equally mixed bag. Today we would certainly call what Leamington has been doing grooming. Jos has a happy-go-lucky 60s charm to him, but is flighty, unreliable, selfish and disappears with a smile the second the going gets tough. For all the film is sort of remembered for its joie-de-vive, it’s actually a searing look at the era with mixed feelings about its characters.

The fact we really end up caring for Georgy is due to Lynn Redgrave’s wonderful performance. A second choice for her sister Vanessa, the role typecast Redgrave in Hollywood’s minds as sort of dumpy loser (especially after her Oscar nomination). But she brings the role a real magnetism. Georgy is doomed to play second fiddle in people’s lives (and perhaps even her own). Perhaps the most 60s thing about her though is her determination to get what she wants – whether that is avoiding an affair with her father’s employer, or securing a good life for Meredith’s baby.

The rest of the cast are equally strong. Bates brings the best of his impish charm to the part (even if at times he tries too hard), as well as a metrosexual edge to Jos as someone very comfortable with joking around and being a bit camp. James Mason (who took a massive pay cut for the role, a decision which paid off with an Oscar nomination) is superb as fragile but creepy Leamington, a man who believes he is genuinely in love and is also excited at the prospect of replacing his bed-ridden wife (played by Redgrave’s actual mother Rachel Kempson, adding a nice Oedipal touch) with a younger model. Bill Owen mixes both a hilarious servility with assertions that his daughter “owes” Leamington something for all he’s done for her.

Georgy Girl works well because it is – and remains – funny as well as being dramatic and thought provoking. It might not be a feminist tract – and the character most likely to be seen as a feminist in the thing is its least sympathetic by far – and it might well affectionately scorn a woman who doesn’t look like a conventional man’s idea of attractive, and give her a traditional outlook behind a playful exterior – but it’s an energetic and rather charming film that does make you care. Separating it from the era it’s set in, might well do it a world of good.

Summerland (2020)

Gemma Arterton is a misanthrope with a buried heart of gold in Summerland

Director: Jessica Swale
Cast: Gemma Arterton (Alice Lamb), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Vera), Penelope Wilton (Older Alice), Tom Courtenay (Mr Sullivan), Lucas Bond (Frank)

As London is suffering under the Blitz, in a sunny village in Kent reclusive writer Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) has her world turned upside down when she is forced to take in young evacuee Frank (Lucas Bond). Depressed and lonely after the collapse of her relationship with the glamourous Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) at college, Alice has shut herself off and leads a solitary life. So it surprises her when she finds her heart thawing for Frank – though not as much as she will be by other revelations.

Jessica Swale has a successful career as a playwright. Several of her plays look at the place of women in history. Blue Stockings was a fascinating (and highly popular) story of female undergraduates in the late Victorian era, smart enough to excel academically but seen as second-class citizens in Cambridge. Nell Gwyn rehabilitated Charles II’s mistress as an intelligent and caring woman and a talented writer and actress. Summerland follows some of these themes – focusing on a lonely lesbian in the 1940s who, with her unconventional interests and academic leanings, is out of touch with her time. But Summerland softens this up by covering the whole story in a dreamy, luscious warmth where everything works out fine and acceptance and reconciliation is the name of the game. It’s both far less interesting than Swale’s stage work and also just as enjoyable.

Not there’s anything wrong with a a bit of cosiness in film. But Summerland is so relentlessly feel-good you end up missing a little bit of bite. Could there not be one character who questions Alice’s sexuality (which even by the 1970s, where Penelope Wilton plays an older version of the character, was hardly welcomed with open arms)? Surely in this seaside town of Kent there would be whisperings of a sort around the village’s multicultural population? Would the colour of Vera’s skin cause no comment from anyone at Cambridge or elsewhere? There are darker societal issues that could have been explored here that just aren’t touched on. I suspect the film is going for a “colour blind” casting, which works in theatre and with older time periods, but seems a bit more awkward when applied to a time period when race was a very real issue. You’d get a ton more social commentary from an episode of Call the Midwife which somehow feels a bit wrong.

But then the film isn’t trying to make a social comment, but is trying to be a bit of escapism. On that score it works very well indeed. With gorgeous Kent scenery, wartime Britain looks like the sort of idyllic Sunday tea-time drama-land you’d love to live in. The fundamental decency of everyone is somehow rather reassuring – even town gossip and busybody Sian Phillips has a heart of gold – and the film bubbles along through a series of events that are both utterly predictable (and at times hugely implausible) and also strangely reassuring. Because you could figure out most of the film early on, you never need worry.

It’s given a great deal of energy by Gemma Arterton’s performance of bad-tempered misanthropy, which of course hides great reservoirs of love and warmth for humanity. Arterton has some beautiful comic timing (an early scene where it appears she is using a ration coupon to buy chocolate for a child without coupons, only to trouser it herself is perfectly done, and probably the film’s highpoint) but also really succeeds in demonstrating the emotional trauma and pain Alice is experiencing. There is a beautiful lightness about how she opens up to Frank (scenes that are of course hugely predictable but still delivered with a genuineness and sweetness that really works).

The flashbacks allow a sun-kissed romance between Alice and Vera to play out, and leave enough questions to keep us guessing (for a bit) as to how this relationship failed to flower. (Needless to say, despite a brief line about flying in the face of society, we never see for a fraction of a second that anyone has any problem with this completely public relationship). Vera is warmly played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who brings a radiant life to the part. (A fun moment for Swale watchers – Arterton and Mbatha-Raw both played Nell Gwyn in Swale’s play.)

Summerland throws in a bit of thematic depth around a hunt for Fata Morgana mirages – the focus of Alice’s latest book – and the possibility that these cloud-based mirages of castles carry some sort of spiritual message from the afterlife. But this also serves as part of the film’s easy solving of problems. Any obstructions to the characters’ happiness are swept aside, either by not being mentioned or by the narrative swooping in (one offscreen “character” is easily dispatched, so that we feel no conflicted guilt at their existence getting in the way of the resolution). But this is a film that is offering a light, simple, gentle, escapist story. Nothing remotely challenging – or even really hugely dynamic – happens in it, but for those looking for Covid escape, Swale’s escapist, sweet film debut is worth a look. 

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

The Bounty (1984)

Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins go head-to-head in The Bounty

Director: Roger Donaldson
Cast: Mel Gibson (Fletcher Christian), Anthony Hopkins (Lt William Bligh), Laurence Olivier (Admiral Hood), Edward Fox (Captain Greetham), Daniel Day-Lewis (John Fryer), Bernard Hill (William Cole), Phil Davis (Edward Young), Liam Neeson (Charles Churchill), Wi Kuku Kaa (King Tynah), Tevaite Vernette (Mauatua), Philip Martin Brown (John Adams), Simon Chandler (David Nelson)

The story of the mutiny on The Bounty has intrigued for centuries. It’s been made into plays, novels and no fewer than three films. Most versions have been inspired by a 1932 novel that painted Bligh as an ogre and Christian as a matinee idol. That image was cemented by the classic Best Picture winning Laughton/Gable version. The real story is far more intriguing – and operates much more in shades of grey – and this 1984 film tries to find a middle ground, with mixed success.

In real life, Bligh was a prickly, difficult but fundamentally decent man, who had worked his way up the naval ranks through merit. He was a superb sailor – as seen by his feat of navigating a small open boat of loyalists over hundreds of miles back to a British port. Cleared of any guilt for the mutiny, he had a successful career and retired as Vice Admiral. Fletcher Christian, on the other hand, was an entitled young man who owed everything to his rich family, rather than merit. The truth has been lost in fictionalised versions who were devil and saint. The truth was far more complex.

This film was a long-standing dream of David Lean, who planned the film for many years, before pulling out at the last moment. The script was written by long-time collaborator Robert Bolt (although ill health meant it was finished by an uncredited Melvyn Bragg). Producer Dino de Laurentis – not wanting to write off the money invested – bought in Australian Roger Donaldson to direct. The final product is a competent, if uninspired, middle-brow history film with a slight air of stodge, and a haunting – if incredibly 80s – electronic score from Vangelis. Where the film really lucked out is the superb cast of actors assembled, with Gibson on the cusp of mega stardom and the cast stuffed with future Oscar winners and nominees.

Anthony Hopkins had been attached to the film for almost seven years, and his carefully researched performance as Bligh is what really gives makes the film work. He gets closer to the personality of the real Bligh than anyone else ever has. Awkward, shy, uneasy with men under his command, insecure at his poor background and the West Country burr to his accent, Hopkins’ Bligh is a world away from a bad man. But he is a demanding and rigid leader, who inspires fear but not respect. He’s far from cruel, but he’s short-tempered, inflexible and has trouble empathising. All too often, he relies on his position alone to ensure obedience, rather than building respect. You sympathise with him, at the same time becoming deeply frustrated at his intransigence. You can understand why many would find him an extremely difficult man to work with (let alone work for).

Fletcher Christian is young, naïve and impetuous, a man whose experiences in Tahiti lead him to become surly and impatient with the confines of a naval life. Gibson later said he felt the film didn’t go far enough to depict Christian as selfish and motivated by a desire for the ‘good life’, and the film does try to show him standing up for the crew against Bligh’s demands for perfection. But Gibson is willing to embrace Christian’s darkness. He hurls himself into the (historically attested) near mental collapse, consumed with violent and unpredictable emotion, that Christian demonstrated during the mutiny, losing all control of himself in an explosion of self-pity and frustration.

The film’s highpoints revolve invariably around these actors. Hopkins’ demanding Bligh sets the tone on the ship. The roots of the mutiny can be seen in Bligh’s public bawling out (and demotion) of his first officer Mr Fryer (a disdainful Daniel Day-Lewis) in front of the entire ship, setting a precedent for disrespect. Every action he intends to build spirit and health in the crew has the exact opposite effect (from pushing them to excel, to enforced dancing sessions for exercise). Hopkins is perfect as man believing he is acting for the best but constantly getting the tone wrong, either too distant and reserved to inspire affection, or too enraged to inspire loyalty. Similarly Gibson, in the less intriguing part, really sells the growing self-absorption of Christian, especially his feckless weakness, easily manipulated into actions that go a step beyond his desires (Phil Davis is very good as a darkly Iago-ish Ned Young, using Christian’s popularity to his own ends).

However, the film itself is a little too traditional. Using Bligh’s trial (all captains who lost their ship were placed on trial to judge their responsibility) as a framing device brings us slightly too many interjections of the “and then you did this” variety – even if it allows actors as impressive as Olivier and Edward Fox to narrate us through the film. This stodgy structure carries us into a narrative that is professionally handled but lacks inspiration, ticking off events but not giving them a force outside of the performances of the actors. The film is competently but not inspiringly made, and never quite captures the sense of the epic that the location and scale should bring.

Perhaps this is because a true-to-life version of the mutiny is a little less traditionally dramatic. Despite some truly impressive performances from the leads (and the rest of the superbly chosen cast), it never quite shakes off the feeling of being a history lesson.

Monday, 9 November 2020

Groundhog Day (1993)

Bill Murray lives the same day over-and-over again. It's Groundhog Day!

Director: Harold Ramis
Cast: Bill Murray (Phil Connors), Andie MacDowell (Rita Hanson), Chris Elliott (Larry), Stephen Tobolowsky (Ned Ryerson), Brian Doyle-Murray (Buster Green), Marita Geraghty (Nancy Taylor), Angela Paton (Mrs Lancaster), Rick Ducommun (Gus), Rick Overton (Ralph), Robin Duke (Doris)

Few films are so well known they’ve become a shorthand. But mention “it’s like Groundhog Day” to anyone, and they know exactly what you mean. That’s a tribute to the film’s brilliant concept – but also its superb execution. Never mind just comedies, this is one of the smartest and best films to come out of America in the 1990s, so good it doesn’t seem to have aged a day. Groundhog Day is an enduring classic and quite wonderful.

Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a misanthropic weatherman on a Pittsburgh news network. Every February, he is dispatched to the small town of Punxsutawney to cover “Groundhog Day”, an annual festivity where a local groundhog is used to predict whether winter will last six more weeks. Phil makes no secret of his contempt for the event, the town, its inhabitants and indeed everything else. After being trapped in the town by a snowstorm he failed to predict, Phil wakes up the next day – to find it’s Groundhog Day again! When the same thing happens the next day, Phil realises he is trapped living the same day in the small town over and over again – and no matter what he does during the day, he will always wake up in his hotel bed at 6am on Groundhog Day. What will he use the never-ending time for? Personal advantage? Or just maybe, becoming a better man?

Groundhog Day works because its concept is gloriously simple, and yet endlessly intriguing. Who can’t relate to the idea of a prolonged déjà vu? And anyway, don’t most of us feel at some points life is a never-ending treadmill (one of the town’s residents, asked what he would do, stuck in the same place every day where nothing you did mattered, replies “That about sums it up for me”)? Whole books have been written about the film’s philosophical roots – from Nietzsche to Buddhism – and the time loop’s duration. The film invites this because it keeps these concepts gloriously unexplained.

Imagine how much less powerful (and funny) the film would have been if Ramis had caved to studio pressure to either include a scene explaining why the time-loop was happening or providing a definitive answer for how long Phil spends in it. Hilariously, studio execs settled on a short period of time measured in months – others have gone for anywhere between decades to millennia. It’s certainly long enough for Phil to learn by heart the complete biographies of the entire town’s population, know the timeline of every event in the day to the second, and master everything from the piano (to Beethoven-like proficiency), to French and ice sculpting. There is a magic about not knowing the answer to these questions, that make the story brilliantly charming.

It also helps that the film remains, at heart, not science-fiction (which explanations would tip it towards) but a Capra-esque morality tale. The time-loop is, essentially, a second-chance over-and-over again for Phil to become a better person: to change from being a selfish misanthrope into a kinder, generous soul. That’s a story everyone can relate to, and becomes more and more heartfelt as the film continues (culminating in its uplifting conclusion). It also has the Capra touch of a heartless professional from the big city discovering (eventually) a warmth and truth in small-town America where the people are straight-forward and unaffected.

Which makes the film sound tediously feel-good. It escapes this completely because of three reasons. Firstly, initially Phil uses his new super-power of 24-hour immortality for what most of us would do – gain and greed. No consequences ever. Theft is child’s play when you know the exact second bank staff will be looking the other way. Easy to seduce a woman when you can ask her a series of questions on one circuit, then use her answers to pick her up on the next one. You can do whatever you want, confident the next day you’ll wake up in your hotel bed to I Got You Babe.

Even on his journey to eventual self-improvement, Phil only begins to change after exhausting all other options, including repeated attempts at suicide, to try and break the loop. And Phil, for all his charm, is not a good guy for a long time. His attempted seduction of producer Rita (a charmingly winning Andie MacDowell) over a never-ending series of first dates constantly fails, because no matter what happens, she eventually sees through his lack of decency (Phil’s attempts to recapture moments of spontaneous genuineness in later circuits fail completely).

Secondly, the film is brilliantly, gloriously funny – even with repeat viewings. Ramis’ brilliant shooting and structuring of the film focus on its repetition. We see the same shots and sets, hear the same music cues, the film is edited to stress repetition. Few things in comedy are as funny as anticipation and watching characters fly in the face of all the social conventions we deal with everyday. Seeing Phil’s different reactions to the same stimulus each time never fails to raise a laugh. Knowing the events almost as well as Phil, we eagerly await unexpected reactions. The script – by Ramis and Danny Rubin – is packed with brilliant lines, wonderful set-ups and is superbly structured. The first loop establishes all the settings and situations Phil will spend the rest of the film continually interacting with, and the film allows us to often be in on the joke with Phil (making us like him more).

Thirdly, and perhaps almost most importantly, the film could never have worked without Bill Murray in the lead role. For all the pull for Lost in Translation, this is surely Bill Murray’s finest performance, and stands comparison with the best work of Jimmy Stewart and Spencer Tracy, laced with that classic Murray touch. There is no other actor who can present a character so grouchy, deadpan, cynical and selfish but still make us love him. And – for all the terrible things Phil does in this film – you never stop liking him. His comic timing is exquisite (his varying reactions from frustration, confusion, glee and despair at his predicament spot on) but he also taps brilliantly into moments of genuine heart, loss and despair. Murray has spoken of how the theme of redemption spoke very strongly to him – and he plays perfectly a man so selfish that only after he has exhausted all other eventualities – including death – does he start to become a better man. It’s one of the greatest film performances of the 1990s, and the film is impossible without him.

Groundhog Day is pretty much perfect. The town of Punxsutawney is presented to us at first much like Phil sees it – old-fashioned and twee, populated by well-meaning but dull residents – but over the course of the loop, like Phil, we learn to embrace it. It perfectly mixes a glee at breaking the rules and embracing your inner misanthrope, with learning to develop and improve. It’s both hilarious and heart-warming, with every scene a classic and every performance spot-on. It has a timeless (!) quality about it, and its focus on telling a rollicking good story, full of heartfelt emotion and fabulous jokes, means you can add as much or as little spiritual depth to it as you like. It’s a modern It’s a Wonderful Life that might even be better.