Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Atonement (2007)

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley are lovers divided in Atonement

Director: Joe Wright
Cast: James McAvoy (Robbie Turner), Keira Knightley (Cecilia Tallis), Saoirse Ronan (Briony Tallis, aged 13), Romola Garai (Briony Tallis, aged 18), Vanessa Redgrave (Older Briony Tallis), Brenda Blethyn (Grace Turner), Juno Temple (Lola Quincey), Benedict Cumberbatch (Paul Marshall), Patrick Kennedy (Leon Tallis), Harriet Walter (Emily Tallis), Peter Wight (Inspector), Daniel Mays (Tommy Nettle), Nonso Anozie (Frank Mace), Gina McKee (Sister Drummond), Michelle Duncan (Fiona)

The past is a foreign country. Sadly, it’s not always the case that they do things differently there. Instead, it can be a land of regrets and mistakes that we can never undo. Events that once seemed so certain, end up twisting our lives and shaping our destinies. A single mistake can mean a lifetime of never being able to atone. These are ideas thrillingly explored in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, one of the finest in his career. The same ideas carry across to this handsomely mounted adaptation, which looks gorgeous but often tries too hard to impress.

In 1935, the Tallis family owns a grand country house. Precocious Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is on the cusp of her teenage years, and believes she understands the world perfectly. A budding writer, her imagination, curiosity and romanticism overflow. But her youthful mis-interpretation of the romantic interactions between her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy)ends in a tragically mistaken accusation that destroys Robbie’s life. Five years later, Robbie serves as a private during the British retreat from Dunkirk, Cecilia is a nurse in London and Briony is training to become the same – their lives still shaped by those misunderstandings on that fateful night.

Atonement is a film I’m not sure time has been kind to. Released in 2007 to waves of praise (including Oscar nominations and a BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Film), it has the classic combination of literary adaptation, period beauty and big themes. But re-watching it (and it’s the third time for me), the film rewards less and less. Instead, my overwhelming feeling this time was it was a tricksy, show-off film that – despite some strong performances, in particular from McAvoy and Ronan – strained every second to demonstrate to the viewer that Joe Wright belonged with the big boys as a cinema director.

Constantly, the emotional impact of the film is undermined because nearly every scene has an overwhelming feeling of being ”Directed”. Wright pours buckets of cinematic tricksiness and flair into the film – so much so that it overwhelms the story and drowns out the emotion. With repeat viewings this overt flashiness becomes ever more wearing. Scenes very rarely escape having some directorial invention slathered on them. Direct-to-camera addresses where the background fades to back (giving the air of a confessional). Events unspooling (and at one tiresome moment played in reverse) to illustrate time reversing to allow us to see events from a different perspective. Other visual images seem cliched beyond belief: a divine flash of light behind McAvoy while he struggles against death in Dunkirk or, worst of all, Nurse Briony talking about never being able to shed the guilt from her childhood actions while vigorously washing her hands.

Perhaps most grinding of all is the (Oscar winning) score from Dario Marinelli which hammers home the questionably reality of some of the scenes we are watching (or at least the creative filter that Briony is placing over them) by building in excessive typewriter whirs and clicks into its structure. It hammers home one of the film’s key themes: that at least part of what we are watching is based solely (it is revealed) on the recollections of the much older Briony, now a respected novelist. That perhaps, some of the events are her creative interpretation, wishes or even flat-out invention. This is a neat device, but perhaps one that could have worked better with a framing device to place it into context. Instead the reveal feels tacked on at the end – for all that this is the same approach McEwan takes in the novel (with greater effect).

But then, for all the film faithfully follows the structure of the novel (in a respectful adaptation by Christopher Hampton), too often its warmth and feeling get lost in the showy staging. Although part of the tragedy is that Robbie and Cecilia’s relationship is destroyed before they even get a chance to explore it fully, the chemistry between the two of them isn’t quite there and the film doesn’t quite communicate the bond between them being as deep as it would need to be. So much of this in the book was communicated through interior monologue – and the film refuses to take a second away from its flashiness to compensate for this by allowing the relationship between the two to breathe.

Instead Joe Wright prioritises his directorial effects. For all that his over five-minute tracking shot through the beach of Dunkirk is hugely impressive and dynamic – and it really captures a sense of the madness, despair, fear and confusion of the evacuation – this isn’t a film about Dunkirk. It is a film about a relationship – and using the same flair to make us fully buy into, and invest in, this relationship would perhaps have served the film better. It’s striking that, in the long-term, the most impressive scenes are the quieter ones: Benedict Cumberbatch’s chilling house guest’s subtly ambiguous conversation with Briony’s young cousins, or Robbie and Cecilia meeting in a crowded café after years and struggling to find both the words and body language to communicate feelings they themselves barely understand. In the long term, scenes like this are worth a dozen tracking shots – and demonstrate Wright has real talent behind all the showing off.

But the film is striking, looks wonderful – as a mix of both The Go Between and a war film – and in James McAvoy’s performance has a striking lead. McAvoy’s career was transformed by his work here – boyish charm with a slight air of cockiness under his decency, turned by events into fragility, vulnerability, fear and an anger he can’t quite place into words. Knightley gives one of her best performances – although, as always, even at her best she hasn’t the skill and depth of a Kate Winslet. Or a Saoirse Ronan for that matter, who is outstanding as the young Briony – convinced that she is right and that she understands the world perfectly, but as confused and vulnerable as any child thrown into a world that in fact she doesn’t comprehend.

Atonement has its virtues. But too often these are buried underneath showing off, ambition and tricksiness. Sadly this reduces its effect and leaves it not as successful a film as it should be.

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Harry Hamlin takes on monsters in Clash of the Titans

Director: Desmond Davis
Cast: Harry Hamlin (Perseus), Judi Bowker (Andromeda), Burgess Meredith (Ammon), Maggie Smith (Thetis), Sian Phillips (Cassiopeia), Claire Bloom (Hera), Ursula Andress (Aphrodite), Laurence Olivier (Zeus), Susan Fleetwood (Athena), Tim Pigott-Smith (Thallo), Jack Gwillim (Poseidon), Neil McCarthy (Calibos), Donald Houston (Acrisius), Flora Robson, Freda Jackson, Anna Manahan (Stygian Witches)

It’s almost impossible not to have a soft spot in your heart for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion magic. The best of Harryhausen – and for me surely that’s his superb Jason and the Argonauts – has a magic that few other films can match. A magic born of awe at the technical skill and patience needed to bring it to the screen and the boundless imagination behind them. For all that they are no more real than the CGI of today, there is an emotional connection you can form with watching something where you know each frame was painstakingly hand-made, that you can’t quite feel for the scope of a computer-born Marvel world. Clash of the Titans was the last hurrah for Harryhausen. It’s far from perfect, and even in 1981 it looked dated and almost a relic from another era – but it still carries enough entertainment value.

We’re back in the mythology of ancient Greece. As a boy, Perseus (Harry Hamlin) and his mother are sent out to sea to drown by his Grandfather King Acrisius of Argos (Donald Houston), jealous of her love from Perseus’ father, the God Zeus (Laurence Olivier). Zeus orders Argos destroyed by the Titan sea monster the Kraken. Years later Princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker) of Joppa is due to marry Calibos (Neil McCarthy), son of the Goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith). But Calibos is cursed by Zeus, turned into a monster for his crimes. Andromeda is cursed by Thetis to only marry a man who can answer a riddle (set every night by Calibos). Perseus – using gifts from Zeus – discovers the answer to the riddle, confronts Calibos, cuts off his hand and is set to marry Andromeda.

But when Andromeda’s mother Cassiopeia (Sian Phillips) claims her daughter is more beautiful than any of the Gods, Thetis condemns the Andromeda to be consumed by the Kraken, or the city to be destroyed. To stop this, Perseus – with the quiet help of Zeus and his winged horse Pegasus – must travel across Greece to obtain the head of Medusa, who turns all who look upon her to stone.

Well, in case you were in any doubts (and I really struggled to write those last couple of paragraphs), one of Clash of the Titans main faults is that it’s plot is a mess (a combination of several Greek myths into one story) and lacks either a clear narrative thrust or a clear villain. It’s without focus, flabby and has so many sub-clauses in its structure, you either need to concentrate or just switch off and take it on a scene-by-scene basis. It’s summed up by the meaningless title which – for all Flora Robson’s Stygian witch shrieks “a titan against a titan!” mid-way through the film – barely relates to the plot.

The film also suffers from an over-abundance of characters (Gods, Kings, warriors, monsters) many of them only vaguely outlined. But with so much going on (and so much plot to cover in the slight running time) it all pulls focus from our two leads. Harry Hamlin’s Perseus is a dull, uncharismatic figure who it’s hard to get interested in. Judi Bowker fares a little better as Andromeda, but her brief moments of proactivity are only byways before she becomes a damsel in distress, chained to a rock. Neil McCarthy as nominal villain Calibos is undermined by only getting to play the character in close-up (in all other shots he’s all too obviously replaced by a tailed stop-motion monster), and in any case the character is barely given any decent motivation or background.

It doesn’t help these underpowered leads that there are a host of famous actors picking up pay cheques around them. Laurence Olivier made no secret of the fact that a large cheque (and only a week’s shooting time) was what bought him on board as Zeus (although the part is a good fit for his grandeur). Claire Bloom and Ursula Andress signed up for similar reasons. Maggie Smith (who was married to the screenwriter) seemingly did the film as a well-paid favour. Burgess Meredith repackages his role from Rocky as a poet turned advisor to Perseus. I will say Tim Pigott-Smith does a decent turn as the head of Joppa’s royal guard. But these are paper-thin characters, given what life they have by the actors rather than the script.

But Clash of the Titans is all about those Harryhausen set-pieces, with everything else just over-complicated filler to get us from place-to-place. Desmond Davis’ uninspired and flat direction doesn’t help, with the action too often presented in basic medium shot and frequently over-lit – a lighting set-up that doesn’t help to make the effects look particularly convincing. The film feels confusingly pitched, part a kids film, part an appeal to nostalgic adults. Neither seems to particularly work, and the film ends up looking rather uninspired.

This was the last hurrah for this sort of stop-motion. Star Wars had reset the table completely for adventure films like this. Clash of the Titans feels like a feeble attempt to address this challenge – right down to the irritating robotic owl Bubo, a clear rip-off of R2-D2 right down to his bouncing movement and dialogue of beeps. The film goes for making things as big as possible – the gigantic kraken, the huge scorpions – but everything in it looks a little tired.

Davis’ uninspired direction and the film’s flatness doesn’t help – or its general air of fusty, dusty oldness. If Jason and the Argonauts has all the charge and energy of a young man’s film (from its sharp direction, pacey plot, neatly drawn characters and Herrmann’s score), this really feels like a middle-aged Dad trying to be hip. The Kraken’s destruction of Argos seems to consist of little more than a few toppling pillars. The beast is slow, cumbersome and takes forever to do anything. An extended sequence where our heroes fight a two-headed dog is both dull and laughable. The only classic piece of stop-motion here is Medusa. Surely no coincidence that this is the most atmospherically shot sequence, with lighting that helps to hide the joins between stop-motion and reality in a way the rest of the film ruthlessly exposes.

Clash of the Titans is a film you can feel a nostalgia for – but really it’s actually rather naff. It’s badly plotted – surely the story could have been told in a cleaner way than this confused mess. Too many actors either phone it in, or fail to deliver the charisma needed (Todd Armstrong in Jason is no Olivier, but at least he had a matinee idol robustness Hamlin lacks). It’s limply directed. Worst of all, too much of the stop-motion looks a little silly – the film failing to cover up the cracks and too frequently exposing the joins rather than disguising them. Show this one to someone first, and you’ll never get them back to watch the best of Harryhausen. While I always enjoy it - for nostalgia if nothing else - its a cult classic, but no classic.

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Invictus (2009)

Morgan Freeman perfectly captures Nelson Mandela in Invictus

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela), Matt Damon (Francois Pienaar), Tony Kgoroge (Jason Tshabalala), Adjoa Andoh (Brenda Mazibuko), Julian Lewis Jones (Eitenne Feyder), Patrick Mofokeng (Linga Moonsamy), Matt Stern (Hendrick Booyens), Marguerite Wheatley (Nerine Winter)

Sometimes, very rarely, a man emerges perfectly suited to his time and place. Perhaps there is no finer example than Nelson Mandela, who emerged from a hellish imprisonment for 27 years on Robben Island to become the first black President of South Africa. The man who could have sparked – and arguably would have had the sympathy of many if he had – a wave of policies that inflicted the same unfairness and injustice on the white population that they had poured onto the black for decades. Instead he chose reconciliation and forgiveness. Can you imagine many other political leaders saying when his people were wrong – and that as their leader, his duty is to tell them so? Invictus would be triumph even if it all it did was remind us of the vision and greatness of Mandela. Fortunately it does more than this.

Like many modern film biographies, the film focuses on a single moment or point in history to explore in microcosm a complex man and his dangerous times. When Mandela (Morgan Freeman) comes to power, South Africa is a country seemingly doomed to division. The whites fear and resent the new power the black population has. The black population is keen on vengeance after years of persecution. Mandela however knows there must be a new way: the hatred propagates only itself, and for the country to move on it must come together as one Rainbow Nation. But in this new nation, there are symbols that are particularly divisive. South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks their green and gold colours a symbol of apartheid, are the most visible of these targets.

But Mandela understood that, to bring the country together, he must ease the fears of the white population that the end of the apartheid meant an apocalypse for everything they held dear. He pushes to preserves the Springboks name and their colours. He gives the team his backing, and enlists Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to help him. Because Mandela knows that the approaching Rugby World Cup, hosted in South Africa, is a glorious opportunity to show the world that the nation is solving its problems. And Mandela is shrewd enough to know that sport can bring people together in ways few other things can. Against all the odds, rugby will become the tool he will use to start the nation healing.

Eastwood’s film is sentimental in the best possible way. It presents a stirring true-life story with a simplicity and honesty that never overpowers the viewer or hammers them over the head. Eastwood also allows space to show in small but telling ways how dangerously divided this country is. From the Presidential staff who start packing up their desks the morning after Mandela’s win, convinced the new President will show them all the door (wrong), to the slow fusing together into one team of Mandela’s personal security staff (black) and their colleagues from the secret service (all white – many of whom arrested Mandela’s colleagues in the past). Even liberal whites like the Pienaar’s keep a black maid as a servant, while ANC party members push for a sweeping aside of every vestige of the old regime.

It’s a dynamite environment in which a single man can make a difference. And with a combination of the sort of patience you learn from 27 years living in a small cell, charm and an unbelievable willingness to turn the other cheek, Mandela is that man. While Eastwood’s film allows beats to remind us he is just a man – his difficult relationship with his family gains a few crucial scenes – the film is also unabashed in its admiration for this titan. And rightly so. Mandela’s smile, his humbleness and his determination to both do the right thing and to avoid provocation is awe-inspiring (his white security guards are stunned that he seems not to hear the abuse he is showered with when attending a rugby game early in his Presidency – he hears and sees everything, their black colleagues assure them).

Morgan Freeman is practically a Hollywood simple of dignity and righteousness – if he can play God he can play Mandela – and his portrayal of the great man is a perfect marriage of actor and subject. Capturing Mandela’s speech patterns and physicality perfectly, he also brilliantly seizes on his character. This is a man who can put anyone at their ease, who humbly speaks of his excitement of meeting Pienaar, who we see putting hours into learning the names and backgrounds of every member of the South Africa Rugby squad. He’s a realist who knows that change needs time, political muscle and sometimes a willingness to cut corners and force the issue – but he’s also a man to whom principle drives all. Freeman’s Oscar-nominated performance is outstanding.

The strength of the film lies in the simple, stirring hope that it derives from seeing the struggle that even small triumphs need. As we see personal relationships begin to grow – from a security team that segregates itself in their office to eventually enjoying a kick-about together – and the growing sense of community in the nation as the world cup draws near, it’s hard not to feel a lump forming in the throat. The film doesn’t overegg this, but allows the moments to speak for themselves.

But it’s also a sport film – possibly the highest profile rugby film since This Sporting Life. The film recreates the drama of that World Cup very well – as well as the intense physicality of rugby as a sport. Matt Damon physically throws himself into it, as well as playing Pienaar with a natural ease carefully allowing his sense of national duty and awareness of being part of something larger than himself to grow (although an Oscar nod is still a little generous). The camera throws us wonderfully into the games, and the film largely manages to avoid the manufactured drama of the game (largely because what happened in real life was often dramatic enough!)

Invictus may not be the most revolutionary film ever made – and catch it in the wrong moment and you might think it was a sentimental journey – but it’s made with a matter-of-fact, low-key charm that I think manages to not overwhelm the heart. Instead it manages to produce a great deal of emotion from its carefully underplaying. With a fantastic performance from Morgan Freeman, it’s a wonderful tribute most of all to a very great man, who changed his country and the world for the better through the power of forgiveness – a power he was able to invest a whole nation with.

Sunday, 27 December 2020

The King's Speech (2010)

Colin Firth lives in fear of his voice failing him in The King's Speech

Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Colin Firth (King George VI), Geoffrey Rush (Lionel Logue), Helena Bonham Carter (Queen Elizabeth), Guy Pearce (King Edward VIII), Timothy Spall (Winston Churchill), Derek Jacobi (Archbishop Cosmo Lang), Jennifer Ehle (Myrtle Logue), Michael Gambon (King George V), Freya Wilson (Princess Elizabeth), Ramona Marquez (Princess Margaret), Anthony Andrews (Stanley Baldwin), Eve Best (Wallis Simpson)

It can be very hard to imagine the fear and pressure of not being able to trust your own voice. In a world where communication is valued so highly, what terror can it bring if you can’t easily express the thoughts in your own head? It’s a fear perfectly captured in the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. Because in a constitutional monarchy, what purpose does the King have, but to be a voice for his people? And if the King can’t speak, how can he hope to fulfil his duty? The King’s Speech uses its empathy for those struggling with a condition many find easy to mock and belittle, to create an emotionally compelling and deeply moving story that is a triumph not of overcoming an affliction, but learning how it can be managed and lived with.

In the 1930’s Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) is second-in-line for the throne. But unlike his charismatic brother David (Guy Pearce), he’s a tense man uncomfortable in the spotlight, whose life has been blighted by his stammer. As pressure grows from his father George V (Michael Gambon) to take on a more public role, he and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) begin the process of consulting doctors for “a cure”. But the answer might lie with a former actor turned speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose techniques are as much psychological as they are practical. As he and the future George VI begin to work together, a tentative friendship forms as the taciturn king begins to open up about his feelings and find real friendship for the first time in his life.

The King’s Speech delivers a well-paced, beautifully written (an Oscar winning script from David Seidler) moving story of two unlikely outsiders who find themselves as unlikely kindred spirits. While it’s easy to see its Oscar win for Best Picture as a triumph of the academy’s conservatism (and there is a case to make, with the film’s heritage style and rather conventional structure and story-telling), but that would be to overlook the emotional impact it carries. I’ve seen the film several times now, and each time I find a lump forming in my throat as it sensitively and intelligently tackles themes of depression, isolation and fear and builds towards the heart-warming achievement of a man who learns his afflictions don’t have to define him.

Hooper (who scooped the Oscar for Best Director) draws superb performances from his actors, as well as bringing his own distinctive style to the film. He had already shown with his TV miniseries John Adams that he could shoot period material with all the immediacy and energy of more modern subjects, and it’s what he does here. His unique framing – with the actor’s often at the edges of the frame, in front of strikingly character-filled surfaces – not only grounds the drama in reality, but also captures a sense of the characters own personal isolation, helped by the frequent intimately-close shots. It helps the film avoid throughout from falling into the “heritage” trap, and instead feel (for all its royal family trappings) like a personal, intimate and real story.

And the intimacy is what makes it work so well – especially since so many of the scenes are made up of two characters sitting and talking, gently but with a slowly peeling honesty, about their own thoughts and feelings. The film is hugely successful in building up our empathy for the often over-looked struggles those who stammer go through. The terror that everyday events can bring. The burden of not mastering your own voice. The anger not being able to express yourself can bring. The resentment of how others can perceive your condition as anything from an irritation to a joke to something that with just a bit of help and effort you could brush aside like a sore toe.

The film has drawn praise for its depiction of stammering – although I am reliably told by an friend with an expertise in such things that the film’s connection of stammering with psychological trauma is old-fashioned and far from proven. But it realistically shows the burdens both it, and a troubled childhood, can bring and draws attention and sympathy to the condition in the best possible way.

A lot of this is helped by Colin Firth’s outstanding, Oscar-winning, performance in the lead role. From first seeing him, his George VI is a buttoned-up man with tension pouring out of every pore, who has chosen taciturn aggression as a defensive alternative to actually having to speak. Firth’s observance of mechanics of stammering is spot on (I wonder if he consulted Jacobi, who has had more than his own experience acting a stammer!), but above all he captures the deep pain, frustration and fear it can bring to a person. Firth’s King is a man who has lived a life feeling coldly shunned by most of his family – an upbringing he is clearly working hard to correct with his sweetly loving relationship with his own children. He’s bitter and angry – not only struggling to understand and express these emotions, but allowing them to crowd out his natural warmth, kindness and generosity which emerge as he opens up to Logue, and experiences genuine friendship for the first time.

Firth sparks beautifully with Geoffrey Rush who is at his playful and eccentric best as Logue. A warm, witty and caring man with a sharp antipodean wit and playful lack of regard for authority (the film mines a lot of fun from Logue’s playful teasing of the stuffed shirt nature of monarchy and the British class system), Rush’s performance is excellent. Just as the King has been dismissed by others for his stammer, so Logue has been dismissed as an actor for his Aussie accent and is scorned by his colleagues for his unconventional methods and lack of qualifications. But, by simply listening to a man who has been lectured to his whole life, who is frightened of himself and his situations, he helps him find a voice (in, of course more ways than one). Rush’s performance is essential to the success of the film, both as the audience surrogate and also a character with his own burdens to overcome.

Backing these two is a superbly judged performance of emotional honesty, matched with that take-no-prisoners bluntness we grew to know in the Queen Mother, from Helena Bonham Carter. The rest of the cast is equally strong. Pearce offers a neat cameo as a bullyingly selfish Edward VIII. Jacobi is overbearingly pompous as the face of the establishment. Jennifer Ehle is wonderfully playful as Logue’s put-upon wife. Andrews contributes a neat little turn as Stanley Baldwin.

Historically the film telescopes events for dramatic purposes. In fact, the future King’s therapy had started almost a decade earlier. Timothy Spall’s Winston Churchill – a rather cliched performance – is converted here into an early supporter of George VI during the abdication crisis (in fact Churchill’s outspoken support for Edward VIII nearly destroyed his career). Baldwin has been partly combined with Chamberlain. Other events are simplified. But it doesn’t really matter too much. Because the emotional heart of the story is true – and the relationship between these two men, and the positive impact they had on each other’s life is what make the film so moving.

Culminating in a near real-time reconstruction of the King’s speech announcing the outbreak of the Second World War – a brilliantly handled, marvellously edited and shot sequence with masterful performances from Firth and Rush – the film is an emotional triumph. Sure, it hardly re-events the wheel, with its struggle to overcome adversity story line and tale of royalty bonding with commoner – but it hardly matters when the rewards are as rich as this. With superb performances all round, in particular from Firth, Rush and Carter and sharp direction of a very good script, this is a treat.

Friday, 25 December 2020

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

James Stewart discovers he has lived a good life in It's a Wonderful Life

Director: Frank Capra
Cast: James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Henry F Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy Bailey), Henry Travers (Clarence Odbody), Beulah Bondi (Ma Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie Bishop), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet Bick), HB Warner (Mr Gower), Frank Albertson (Sam Wainwright), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Samuel S Hinds (Pa Bailey)

For many people it’s as much a part of Christmas as mince pies and Santa. Any list of the greatest Christmas films of all time – in fact any list of the most beloved films of all time – isn’t complete without It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra’s emotional, heart-warming, seasonal tale encourages us to take a breath and look at the riches in our life, to look past the surface frustrations and disappointments. It seems to have something to say to everyone. There’s a reason why it has been a staple of Christmas for decades.

The small town of Bedford Falls is a place George Bailey (James Stewart) has always dreamed of leaving for a life of adventure. However, circumstances always meant he has stayed in the town, running the family savings and loans business. He’s made a success of the business, raised a family with his wife Mary (Donna Reed – extremely good in an unshowy role), helped half the town into decent affordable homes, and changed his whole community for the better. So why is George standing on a bridge on Christmas Eve, contemplating throwing himself into the river? And will his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) persuade him there are things worth living for?

Capra’s film is very easy to see as a wallow in sentimentality. Certainly, the film is in love with its image of small-town America, here a nirvana of folksy lightness where everyone knows everybody’s name. In reality, America as a whole, even at the time, probably had more in common with Potter’s grasping capitalism or the nightmare vision Clarence conjures of a neon-lit Potterville of loose morals and vice. But the film would never have worked if it was just sickly sentimental – or if it had been a cynical satire for that matter. Instead it works because it is overwhelmingly human, empathy dripping from every pore. It invests us deeply in this whole community and succeeds in making the viewer relate to them at every step.

This is partly because Capra has such a masterful skill for how the little touches can make a story come to life. The loose bannister cap that Bailey keeps dislodging in his home. The drawing Donna has made of George’s offer to lasso the moon. The film is full of small moments of character, that create the over-whelming richness of a whole life. It’s also a story full of charm and genuine feeling for its characters, that understands the pain little griefs and small tragedies have.

Perhaps that’s also one of the reasons for the love people have for it. Because, let’s not forget, this is a film set on the darkest day of its lead character’s life, when he considers ending it all. One of the things I find the most touching about the film is that it never stigmatises depression, guilt or feelings of inadequacy. If someone as universally loved as George can look at his own life as a disappointment, and that this feeling is treated as both reasonable but also mistaken in the best way, it reassures as all not only that we shouldn’t feel guilty for feeling this but hopefully that we are as mistaken as George is. Failure is all in the perception – and It’s a Wonderful Life reminds us that perception is often unreliable when we turn it on ourselves.

Capra’s film relies strongly on our bond with George – so the casting of James Stewart in the role plays off perfectly. Stewart is quite simply superb, completely human and deeply moving. Capra provides Stewart with several striking set-piece speeches (all of which he delivers with aplomb). The entire film is essentially a riff on Stewart’s charm and likeability – but also his everyday quality, the sense that when we watch him we are looking at someone like us. Stewart makes Bailey honest, decent and kind. You can immediately see why people like him. His principles and sense of justice drive him every day to do the right thing – and what makes him such a deeply relatable character is that this so often flies in the face of his own desires and interests.

What Capra also understands – and taps into so well here – is the darkness in Stewart. Because someone so like us is surely as likely to suffer from  depression and disappointment as the rest of us. You can never forget this is a man who has dreamed his whole life of leaving this town, of making it as an architect, of forging a broader life for himself. He never wanted to be the pillar of the community and family man he becomes. There is disappointment in Bailey at every turn, however much he treats the world around him with warmth. This isn’t what he wanted. No matter if it has won him love and respect from all around him.

And who hasn’t ever felt that? But we know that deep down – even if he doesn’t always realise it – Bailey is happy with his lot. That if he didn’t care deeply about town, friends and family he would have left years ago. We know he’s a good man: that later he will deeply regret berating his poor befuddled Uncle Billy (a gloriously cuddly Thomas Mitchell) for losing $8k and losing his temper at his wife and children on Christmas Eve. There is a pain for us to see such a good man, a loving man, who we feel we understand, angrily ask his wife why they had so many children. Everyone has lashed out like George – and everyone has, at some time, looked at where their life is and felt “I could have been more than this”. Far fewer people have taken the time to look at all the good alone in their lives and what a good mark they have made on the world.

But that’s the genius of the film. Taking its cue from Dicken’s Christmas Carol (I’d also say Lionel Barrymore’s brilliantly hissable Potter is clearly a version of Bleak House’s vile moneylender Smallweed), effectively Clarence is the Ghost of Christmas Present, showing George what the world would have been like without him. Sure some of this is overblown – Potterville for goodness sake! – but the impact is those personal stories. The brother drowned as a child. The pharmacist imprisoned for manslaughter. The affordable homes never built. The family that never even existed. The mix of science fiction and classic morality tale helps us all to reflect – so many of us have people all around who care for us, whose lives would have not been as rich as they are without us, however much we may disappoint ourselves at times.

That’s perhaps behind the love for the film. It’s about hope, while never closing its eyes to despair. It recognises that sometimes we are not happy – and it tells us that that’s okay, so long as we don’t lose hope. It encourages us to take a look at ourselves in the round and to appreciate the whole picture, not just a part of it. You can call that sentimentality if you want – but at Christmas time this message of hope and love is sometimes exactly what you need.

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Spartacus (1960)

Kirk Douglas leads the campaign for freedom in Spartacus

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Kirk Douglas (Spartacus), Laurence Olivier (Crassus), Jean Simmons (Varinia), Charles Laughton (Gracchus), Peter Ustinov (Batiatus), Tony Curtis (Antoninus), John Gavin (Julius Caesar), John Dall (Marcus Glabrus), Nina Foch (Helena Glabrus), John Ireland (Crixus), Herbert Lom (Tigranes Levantus), Charles McGraw (Marcellus), Joanna Barnes (Claudia Marius), Woody Strode (Draba), Paul Lambert (Gannicus)

You can’t talk about Spartacus without saying it can you? Did the team working on the film realise that, for all the big names, spectacles and sweeping that the film’s definitive contribution to popular culture would be the sound of a hundred men all claiming to be the slave leader? But it’s the moment you think of more than any other when the film comes up – and there’s not many films that can claim to have contributed such an instantly recognisable moment to our cultural heritage. It’s not the film’s only merit though: this is grand, entertaining, old-school Hollywood epic-film making.

In the last decades of the Roman Republic, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a young man born a slave, purchased by gladiator trainer Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) to learn how to thrill the crowds and kill his opponents. There he falls in love with slave-girl Varinia (Jean Simmons) and clashes with the regime of the training school. Revolt however stirs when rich nobleman Crassus (Laurence Olivier) arrives at the school and demands a fight to the death of his entertainment – as well as purchasing Varinia. In the aftermath, Spartacus leads a revolt – which grows into a huge army that soons puts all of Rome at risk. But a risk is also an opportunity: certainly it is for Crassus, who sees this as his chance to bring the Republic under his control.

Spartacus is a grand piece of film-making, shot on a huge scale, a labour of love for Kirk Douglas as producer. Upset at being denied the lead role in Ben-Hur, Douglas decided to make his own Roman epic – and to make something even grander than that Oscar-winning epic. Everything was thrown at the screen: grand locations, huge sets, star actors and a sweeping epic score. Alex North’s classically tinged score – with it’s distinctive employment of Roman instruments and echoing of both the intimidating splendour of Rome and the bucolic happiness of the liberated slaves – is proper old-school Hollywood score-making, that helps set the scene for the film’s epic sweep.

And Spartacus is epic – and epic entertainment. While it’s possibly a little too long, it knows when to spice up events with a battle, love scene or bit of political skulduggery. There are multiple story lines going on in this film, and interestingly they don’t all intersect. It’s easy to see Spartacus – and his struggle for freedom – as the real story of the film. But for most of the Roman characters, this is an embarrassment or sub-plot. There is a whole other story happening around the struggle to preserve Roman Republicanism – with Crassus as the face of oppression and his opponent Gracchus the slightly soiled but still vaguely democratic face of the old system. Both plots only rarely come together, and while that of Spartacus captures the heart strings, a lot of the film’s narrative drive is in the Roman conspiracies.

Perhaps this is because in the entire rebellion only Spartacus and Varinia qualify as really having personalities. And those personalities are basically flawless. Spartacus is almost saint-like in his nobility, a guy who never does anything wrong and whose only mistake is trusting others in a shifting world. Douglas does a great job of performing a character who is practically a living legend – and he completely convinces as the sort of leader his people would follow to the end. His relationship with Jean Simmons is also touchingly sweet and innocent – the film is very good at capturing the sense of how stunted the emotional lives of slaves have been, and the powerful joy they can find in the freedom of simple intimacies so many of us take for granted.

But the slaves themselves are frequently (whisper it) rather dull. Many of them might as well be sitting around the camp fires singing Kumbaya. Bar a brief moment at the start, no suggestion of taking vengeance raises its head. The liberated slaves sing, clap hands and gaze with joy. Children play and people frolic in the fields. Tony Curtis – good value as Crassus’ ex-bodyman, a learned man and entertainer of children – stages a magic show, with patter that could have come straight out of a Brooklyn street. Other than him, none of the slaves register as personalities. A tint of darkness, or moments of fury or even dangerous rage against their oppressors would have made a world of difference. But this is a simple film, where the slaves are building a utopia.

That’s probably why the film is more interested in the politics of the Romans. It’s certainly where the big name actors end up. Olivier is at his prowling, imperialist best – a heartless slice of ambition determined to bend events to his will. Against him, Charles Laughton with an impish cheek, a slightly corrupted air, as the man-of-the-people. These two conduct their own political battle of cut-and-thrust that Spartacus barely realises is happening. This manoeuvring is the real dramatic heart of the film, powered by these actors strengths (John Gavin and John Dall as their lieutenants look and sound very plodding against the playful archness of Olivier and Laughton).

That’s partly the point of Dalton Trumbo’s script (Douglas famously broke the Hollywood Blacklist by crediting Trumbo for his work on the film). While Rome plays politics, real people are fighting and dying for liberty – and will eventually find themselves crucified with nothing left but their pride and sense of freedom. It’s that feeling that probably lies behind the enduring love for this film.

It is perhaps Kubrick’s most universally beloved film. Interestingly though, it’s also the one Kubrick was least proud of. It’s true the film lacks much of his personal touch. While directed with flair and skill, parts of it could really have been made by any number of directors (not something you could say, for example, about The Shining or Barry Lyndon). Kubrick often quietly, albeit gently, disowned the film (he said he never knew what to say when people asked him about it). It’s the only Kubrick film where he was a “gun for hire”, subservient to the vision of the producer. His interest you feel is in the smaller moments - moments such as Woody Strode's excellent cameo as a Gladiator (many of the strongest moments with the slaves in the tyranny of the Gladiator school, where life is meaningless and cheap). Really, it’s Douglas’ film – it’s similarities to The Vikings for example is striking – and while a poor advert for auteurism, it’s still a great advert for entertainment.

Kubrick’s greater interest in human failings and shades of grey perhaps explains why the Romans emerge as the more interesting characters. Spartacus’ lack of flaws were an intense frustration to him. Perhaps that’s why Peter Ustinov (who won an Oscar) is the films stand-out character. As gladiator owner Batiatus, Ustinov is devious, playful, amoral, ambitious, without principle, dryly witty but somehow still has touches of decency. The most colourful character in the piece is also the one most coated with shades of grey.

It’s an advert for what makes Spartacus lastingly engaging and interesting whenever you watch it – even if the cry of “I’m Spartacus!” and the decency and honour of the slaves is always going to be what stirs the emotions and tugs the heartstrings. Douglas set out to make one of the greatest “sword and sandal” epics. He succeeded.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)

Trevor Howard is on the run in They Made Me a Fugitive

Director: Alberto Cavalcanti
Cast: Trevor Howard (Clem Morgan), Sally Gray (Sally), Griffith Jones (Narcy), René Ray (Cora), Mary Merrall (Aggie), Charles Farrell (Curley), Cyril Smith (Bert), Phyllis Robins (Olga), Vida Hope (Mrs Fanshaw), Eve Ashley (Ellen), Jack McNaughton (Soapy), Maurice Denham (Mr Fenshaw)

The Second World War is over – but the country is awash with ex-servicemen, not sure where they fit in, trained to kill. Clem Morgan (Trevor Howard) is one of them. A former RAF man, who escaped from a POW camp, he doesn’t know what to do with himself on civvie street. So he’s definitely open to an offer to work for black marketeer Narcy (Griffith Jones) – but not so keen once Narcy’s business dealings expand into drug smuggling and violence. Clem gets framed for the killing of a policeman and banged up in Dartmouth – where he receives a visit from Narcy’s mistreated girlfriend Sally (Sally Jones) who needs his help to prove Narcy is the real villain. Clem escapes, a fugitive, looking for, and on the run from, justice.

Cavalcanti’s film is a marvellous mix of noir, early kitchen-sink and faded post-war crime drama. The locations are run-down and dirty, the mood faded and worn out. The film is remarkably bitter, cynical and short on hope. Clem’s encounters take him past a gallery of those struggling in post-war Britain: black marketeers, shallow glamour-pusses, bored policemen, common criminals, vengeance minded housewives and brutal heavies. Everyone is corrupt, has violence or treachery in mind and don’t think twice about putting others through suffering. And to be honest, as a shambling, scruffy drunk, Clem makes a pretty good fit among them, a man whose best days happened somewhere in Germany in the 1940s and who hasn’t had a clue what to do with his life since.

The post-war Britain painted here isn’t nice. No wonder ruthless, thuggish black marketeers like Narcy (short for Narcissus of all things – which manages to be both a commentary on self-obsession, while being an abbreviation that sounds like Nasty or Nazi) are flourishing. Narcy – played with a callous, charismatic black-heartedness by Griffith Jones, in a performance bereft of any trace of morality – has no problem with any criminal act what-so-ever so long as it gets him what he wants. Smuggle drugs? Not a problem. Beat a woman? Line ‘em up. Murder a cold-footed subordinate? As many as needed. Narcy is a perfect emblem for this world, uncaring, brutal, sadistic and enjoying the fact that so many others are desperate.

His kingdom is a subterranean hell, in the basement of a undertakers. (It even has a huge sign reading RIP on the top of the building.) His haunts are foggy docksides, chilling streets and rough pubs. His followers are cowed former servicemen – although even they draw the line at using guns – and the police seem unable to touch him. But then Narcy’s world is pretty similar to the rest of England. The countryside Clem journeys through from Dartmouth to London to get his revenge is equally fog-ridden, cold, dirty and unattractive, full of farmers who shoot at him with buckshot and housewives who blackmail him to carry out their dirty deeds.

The film hinges at the half-way point on this surreal scene. Clem arrives at a home where the woman of the house – played with a sort of hypnotic monotone by  Vida Hope – allows him to wash, gives him new clothes, feeds him – and then hands over a gun and asks him to shoot her husband (a shambling drunk played by Maurice Denham). Clem refuses – he’s killed once in his life, while escaping a POW camp, and has no intentions of doing so again. He makes a run for it – at which point the woman does the deed herself, and places the blame on Clem. It’s a bizarre scene, but strangely magnetic – its a window into this topsy-turvy world. Killing means something different to everyone after years of the world tearing itself apart, and behind the chintz curtains of middle-class Britain, we can’t be certain there doesn’t lurk something dark and dangerous.

Trevor Howard makes a perfect lead for this sort of grimy world. He’s got the “hail well met” stance of Clem down perfectly: but he’s a character who also carries a natural integrity to him, someone who we can trust. No matter how drunken, shambling and untidy he gets when he’s in his cups, there is something decent in him we can trust. It also means we can root for him when the chips are down (which they are for most of the film), and while he finds himself in bizarre and dangerous situations, from being shot at by farmers to struggling to escape the curiosity of lorry drivers.

Howard powers the whole film, even if Griffith Jones perhaps carries it away in the more colourful part of Narcy. Sally Jones makes for a relatable woman of fixed morality (perhaps the only truly moral person in the whole film) who has somehow found herself in a dirty world. Cavalcanti’s world is filthy. He shoots it with a delicate but immersive intensity. It’s a surprisingly violent film. Knifes are used, shots are fired and Narcy beats two women with a viciousness (the first is shot with a whirling camera, which might go a little too far to get us to relate to the dizzying violence).

It’s also a film that seems low on hope. It ends on a downer. The forces of good – like the police – seem distant, uninvolved or, at best, useless in the face of all the crime. The forces of evil are left to effectively police themselves and corrupt but decent men like Clem get stuck in the middle. They Made Me a Fugitive makes for an involving and gripping thriller, a perfectly made little British B movie.

American Gangster (2007)

Denzel Washington leads his brothers in a life of crime in American Gangster

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Denzel Washington (Frank Lucas), Russell Crowe (Richie Roberts), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Huey Lucas), Josh Brolin (Detective Trupo), Lymari Nadal (Eva), Ted Levine (Captain Lou Toback), Robert Guenveur Smith (Nate), John Hawkes (Freddie Spearman), RZA (Moses Jones), Yul Vazquez (Alfonsa Abruzzo), Malcolm Goodwin (Jimmy Zee), Ruby Dee (Mama Lucas), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Doc), Carla Gugino (Laura Roberts), John Ortiz (Javier J Rivera), Cuba Gooding Jnr (Nicky Barnes), Armand Assante (Dominic Cattaneo), Joe Morton (Charlie Williams), Idris Elba (Tango), Common (Turner Lucas), Jon Polito (Russo), Ric Young (Chinese General), Clarence Williams III (Bumpy Johnson)

In 1970s New York there was only one organisation that ran crime: the mafia. The idea that anyone else could get a look in was unthinkable: to the cops, the government and the criminals themselves. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) was the guy who was going to shake that up: a resident of Harlem and former right-hand man of crime boss “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III), Lucas saw an opening to bring in cheap, high-quality drugs from Vietnam (hidden in the temporary coffins of deceased servicemen). With this product he could take over crime in New York – and run it as he thinks it should be run, with the mentality of a FTSE 500 company and a gun. Frank is helped by the fact no one knows who he is. But that is all about to change as honest cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) sets up a task force dedicated to finding, and arresting, the drug kingpins in New York. He’s as surprised as anyone to find the trail leads to Harlem.

Based on a true story, Scott’s American Gangster is assembled with Scott’s usual professionalism and assured touch, using top actors in well-assembled, well-shot scenes. It’s glossy, entertaining and enjoyable. But it’s not quite inspired or stand-out. Despite everything, it doesn’t really show us anything new and lacks either the fire of inspiration or the sort of poetry and energy the likes of Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino or Steve McQueen could have bought to it. It tells an interesting story, but manages to be pretty much by the numbers – albeit those numbers are flashed up with as much pizzazz, drama and entertainment as you could wish.

The most interesting themes are questions of class and racial politics. The film’s version of Frank Lucas is successful because he runs his crime empire not like a gang but like a company. He dresses plainly and simply, so as not to draw attention (unlike the flamboyant criminals played by Idris Elba and Cuba Gooding Jnr). He talks in terms of supply and demand, brand loyalty and being a chairman. In one particularly well managed scene, he pontificates to his brothers on his ideology of business, excuses himself to walk across the street and shoot a rival in the head, then returns to calmly finish his breakfast. It’s the ideas of Wall Street applied to gangster crime. Lucas is all about bringing a smooth, modern, professional thinking to crime – but with the gun still up his sleeve.

But another reason why Frank Lucas needs to be as professional as he is, is because he’s loathed by all other parts of the criminal system. It’s a system that is racist from top-to-bottom, where black men are unwelcome as anything other than foot-soldiers. The elite criminals – most of them tracing many generations back to Sicily – smile at Frank for his money, but never see him as an equal. Even the government can’t begin to imagine a black man could be running such a huge empire – Robert’s AG boss spews out a racist diatribe, rubbishing any idea that a black man could achieve something the Mafia has failed to do. Frank though is just as wary of the flashy ostentatiousness of most black criminals in New York, telling his brother that the quietest man in the room is the most powerful.

It’s those brothers who Frank relies on – only family can be trusted. They’ll also be his Achilles heel. Because even his most competent brother (played by a sharp Chiwetel Ejiofor) is as much a liability as he is a good lieutenant. His brothers are innocents turned by their brother into tools for his crime empire. Frank hands out beatings to cousins who are unreliable. He’s bitterly disappointed when his nephew chucks in a baseball career because crime looks more fun. As his mother – an impassioned performance from an Oscar-nominated Ruby Dee – tells him, the rest of the family looks to him and follows his lead. There is a clear tension between this family – whose benefactor is also its corrupter – but it doesn’t quite come into focus.

This is partly because the film is covering a lot, and partly because it finds itself falling a bit in love with Frank Lucas. Not surprising when the part is played by Denzel Washington at his most magnetic – if strangely not quite as energised as you might expect. Washington gives Frank a dignity and cool that the real Frank – by all accounts a much cruder, ruder, less able man – never had. The film doesn’t really want to explore the darker side of Frank. Instead it invites us to sympathise with him, as an outsider made good. To feel sorry for him when he makes a fatal error (wearing an ostentatious fur coat to the Ali/Frasier “Fight of the Century” – an act that blows his carefully preserved anonymity). The film doesn’t want us to feel the damage of the drugs Frank is pouring into New York, since it might damage our respect for his triumph against the odds.

The barriers that Frank has to overcome – from arrogant Mafia kingpins, to local crime lords and corrupt cops (Josh Brolin has fun as a prowling bullying detective) – are in the end more interesting than the procedural struggles of Russell Crowe’s Richie Roberts (on solid form). Roberts is also given a rather cliched (and fictional) custody battle that hardly justifies its screentime. The cops definitely get the short end of the stick – and a stronger film might have focused just on Frank Lucas and really explored the struggles of a black man in white crime world, dealing with racism and trying to apply Wall Street ideals to street violence.

American Gangster doesn’t quite succeed with its dark commentary on the American dream – but it’s as entertaining as you could hope and while it lacks in inspiration, it’s also hard to find too much fault with. One of Scott’s most solid works, with a charismatic Washington doing decent work.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Errol Flynn hits the spot in The Adventures of Robin Hood

Director: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley
Cast: Errol Flynn (Robin Hood), Olivia de Havilland (Maid Marian), Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy of Gisbourne), Claude Rains (Prince John), Patrick Knowles (Will Scarlet), Eugene Pallette (Friar Tuck), Alan Hale (Little John), Herbert Mundin (Much, the Miller’s Son), Melville Cooper (Sheriff of Nottingham), Una O’Connor (Bess), Ian Hunter (King Richard)

Has a more enjoyable film ever been made? The Adventures of Robin Hood is such a glorious technicolour treat it’s pretty much an archetype of a Hollywood blockbuster. Reportedly the only film in history that had exactly no changes made to it after preview screenings (so much did the audience lap it up), it’s been entertaining people pretty much non-stop since 1938. Never mind its influence on Robin Hood legend – almost every Robin Hood based film or show recycles elements of the plot here – it’s pretty much built up a picture of what a classic Hollywood Olde Medieval England epic is.

It’s Medieval England at the time of the Crusades (actual history is of course no-one’s concern). King Richard’s wicked brother, the greedy Prince John (Claude Rains) is plotting to seize the throne while bis brother languishes in an Austrian dungeon. Up go the taxes – especially on those pesky Saxons who still fill England’s lands, under the yoke of their Norman rulers. Who can stand in the way of John – and his arrogantly ruthless right-hand man Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone)? Only the Lincoln-green coated Saxon nobleman Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), the most upstandingly, thigh-slappingly, decent chap you could imagine. Taking the name Robin Hood, he takes refuge in Sherwood Forest and builds up a group of like-minded fellows who resolve to rob from the rich, give to the poor and protect the realm for Richard. But things get complicated when Robin falls in love with brave and whipper-smart Maid Maran (Olivia de Havilland) – especially as she is the intended of non-other than the wicked Sir Guy of Gisbourne…

Looking like an explosion in a technicolour workshop, The Adventures of Robin Hood is fast-paced, crammed with rollicking action, packed with good lines and played with a knowing wink by a cast of actors clearly having a whale of a time. It’s a prime slice of entertainment, and it succeeds completely. It’s hard to imagine someone not finding something to enjoy here. Sword fights and chases? Check. Romance and flirtation? Check. Some cheeky gags and a hero thumbing his nose at authority? Check. Villains to hiss and heroes to cheer? You better believe it. I don’t think there is a single type in Hollywood history where the cocktail of action and entertainment was mixed better.

The film has two credited directors. William Keighley was the original, who shot the material in the film shot on location. It’s Keighley who helped tee up the atmosphere, and to get the actors to relax into the style of the thing. Crucial sequences showing the characters meeting (including the encounter with Little John) and a large chunk of the middle-act archery contest were Keighley’s work. So, we have him to thank for working in a competition that includes an arrow piecing straight through the middle of another (a stunt put together with a bit of clever wire work and some genuinely gifted archery skills). However, Keighley was less accomplished at shooting action. And to be honest you can see it, during the sequence where Robin and his Merry Men take hostage Gisborne and the Sheriff. It’s fine, but there is a reason why it’s also not a scene anyone particularly remembers from the film. When the shoot returned to Hollywood for the interiors, a new director was sought out to handle the rest – which included all the big fight scenes.

The man they called on was one of the masters of the studio system, Michael Curtiz. A director famed for his dictatorial approach to film-making (hilariously Flynn agreed to the film on condition that it wouldn’t be directed by Curtiz, the relationship between the two having collapsed during earlier collaborations), what Curtiz could do that Keighley couldn’t was add a really visual scale to the action. And it worked a treat – because Curtiz gifted us two of the greatest, instantly recognisible, action showpieces in Hollywood history. Both epic sword fights in Nottingham Castle are down to him, his camera employing crane, tracking and long shots to add an epic quality. He was also full of cool ideas – it’s him we have to thank for a portion of the closing sword fight being shown through shadow play.

It’s the pace as well that Curtiz really understand. Compare the careful, single shot, used by Keighley for the quarterstaff duel between Robin and Little John. Now admittedly the stakes are lower. But then watch the immediacy and dynamism of Curtiz’s camera moves while Robin fights for his life in Nottingham against dozens of guards, or duels with Sir Guy. The energy – and above all the pace and speed – of these scenes help make them gripping. And it wasn’t just the action. Curtiz bought a romantic jolt of energy to the interplay between Maid Marion and Robin, framing a key scene with a romantic intimacy on the edge of a window sill. While Keighley laid the ground work, it’s arguably Curtiz’ work that makes the film what it is.

Well that and the actors. Errol Flynn was perfectly cast as Robin Hood, the part a wonderful fit for his ability to mix charm with just a hint of rogueish sexuality and cheek. Combine that with his athleticism – some of the stunts he carries out in this film are eye-openingly intense – and you’ve got the man you pretty much cemented the public impression of who Robin Hood was. It’s beyond bizarre to imagine the original choice of actor – James Cagney – playing the role.

Flynn also of course has winning chemistry with Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland uses her great skill to make Maid Marian far more than just a damsel in distress. She’s proactive, plugged in and defiant, convinced of the need for justice and more alert to dangers and opportunities than almost anyone else in the film.

Both of these two go up against one of the finest arrays of baddies I think film has ever seen. Rains is arrogant, aloof and ever-so-slightly camp as the superior Prince John. Rathbone is scowlingly austere and deliciously pleased-with-himself as Sir Guy. And for the chuckles we have the bumbingly cowardly Sheriff, played with comic delight by Melville Cooper. All three of these actors combine perfectly, offering a marvellous troika of villains, each a mirror image of different facets of Flynn’s hero.

It makes for a gloriously entertaining film, all washed down with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s marvellous symphonic score, the bombast and romantic sweep of the music perfectly counterbalancing the action on screen. Still the greatest of all Robin Hood films, The Adventures of Robin Hood is entertaining no matter when you watch it.

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James Stewart campaigns for truth and justice in Capra's classic Mr Smith Goes to Washington

Director: Frank Capra
Cast: James Stewart (Jefferson Smith), Jean Arthur (Clarissa Saunders), Claude Rains (Senator Joseph Harrison Paine), Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor), Guy Kibbee (Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper”), Thomas Mitchell (“Diz” Moore), Eugene Pallette (Chick McGinn), Beulah Bondi (Ma Smith), H.B. Warner (Senate Majority Leader), Harry Carey (President of the Senate), Astrid Allwyn (Susan Paine)

Capra’s film are known, above everything, for their fundamental optimism about life, friendship and the American Way. Few films cemented that opinion more than Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the quintessential “one man in the right place can make a difference” movie. And where else would that one man need to be, but Washington? Where laws are framed and ideals come to die. It’s our hope that those at the heart of the political system are there for the good of the people. Of course, even Capra knew most of them were there to line their pockets and do their best for powerful business interests. So who can blame Capra for a little fantasy where naïve, innocent but morally decent Jefferson Smith decides enough is enough?

In an unnamed mid-Western State (the story the film is based on named it as Montana), the junior senator unexpectantly dies. The Governor (Guy Kibbee) needs a new man. Should he go for a reformer or the latest stooge put forward by political power broker in the State Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). A tricky choice, so he splits the difference by appointing Boy Rangers leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) – because he’s wholesome and clean but also naïve enough to manipulate. Jeff heads to Washington, under the wing of Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) – but Paine is in the pocket of Taylor.

Taylor and his cronies want an appropriation bill forced through that includes a clause to build a dam in their state. The dam will be built on land secretly bought up by Taylor and others, making them a fortune from public money. When Jeff announces in the Senate a bill to host a national boy’s summer camp on that same land, it throws a spanner in the works. Despite threats and bribes, Jeff refuses to go along with the shady deal over the dam, so they set out to destroy his reputation. With the help of his secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Jeff mounts an epic filibuster in the Senate to clear his name, stop the dam and reveal the political corruption in his state.

Capra’s film is earnest, well-meaning and at times even a little bit sanctimonious and preachy – but it gets away with it because it’s also so energetic, honest and fun. It’s strange watching it today to think that the Senate at the time responded so poorly to it. Leading public figures either denounced it’s view of government and even tried to have it banned. Ironically of course, it probably inspired more people to get involved in Government than any other movie.

That was bad news for the corrupt political machines that ran so many parts of America at the time. Capra’s film is remarkably open-eyed about how these machines worked. Powerful business interests at the centre, with a raft of politicians in their pay – from Governors and senators on down. Jim Taylor – very well played with a swaggering, crude, bullying tone by Edward Arnold – only has to snap his fingers to get things done. During the film he mobilises the press, the police, the fire service and an army of heavies to enforce his will in the state and suppress free speech. The Governor (a neatly tremulous Guy Kibbee) is so firmly in his pocket, he can barely tie his shoe-laces without Taylor directing it. Senator Paine is patrician, dignified and has every inch of respectability – but he is soaking in filth up his neck from contact with Taylor.

It’s this system the film has a quiet anger about. Whatever happened to having “a little bit of plain, ordinary kindness – and a little lookin’ out for the other fella too”? Capra’s sprightly film also makes clear that we both don’t look too closely at how our government is really run and are very quick to hoover up any story we get from our political masters and accept it as gospel. An honest, decent man in the middle of all this is as unlikely a sight as you can imagine.

But that’s what these people get with Jefferson Smith – and discover someone who should be easy to manipulate, but doesn’t understand the rules of the game he’s playing. Instead Jeff thinks they are all there to help other people, not to themselves. Now you can argue, as some critics have, that law-making is the art of compromise – and that once the dam is under way, the benefits it will produce to Jeff’s home State (in terms of employment and energy) will be huge. So why shouldn’t Jeff bow down and move his boys camp in order to let the Bill go through?

Well the point is that Jeff isn’t opposed to the dam – he’s opposed to the corrupt profiteering that will spring out of it, and the way the cesspool of Washington (amongst all those fine monuments he so adoringly looks at) doesn’t care. This is a filibuster campaign to put honesty and decency back into American politics – and what’s not to like about that? It’s a film that firmly believes that one good man in the right place (that’s both Jeff and the President of the Senate, who tacitly encourages him) can change the day and save the country from itself.

There was of course no one better for such a job than Jimmy Stewart (and surely it’s this film that made him “Jimmy” to one and all). Capra had James Stewart in mind from the start – and it’s a perfect role for him, an iconic performance that stands as surely one of his greatest roles. Stewart has the skill to make Jeff endearing but not saccharine, naïve but not frustrating, innocent but not a rube, gentle but determined. Despite its corniness (and some of the film is very corny) you relate to his reverence for Lincoln’s memorial and the Capital. Stewart’s homespun charm is perfect, but it’s matched with the steel he could give characters. There is an adamant quality to his filibuster, his refusal to back down and go along with injustice. The final quarter of the film that deals with the filibuster is quite superb stuff, Stewart delivering some very-well written speeches with commitment, passion and bravura. It’s no understatement to say the film would work half as well as it does without him.

But then the entire film is also a feast of great acting, all sparked by a superb script from Sidney Buchman which mixes razor-sharp dialogue with wonderful speeches. Jean Arthur (who actually gets top billing) is very good as a cynical Washington insider who rediscovers her ideals – and finds her heart melting – under Jeff’s honest influence. Claude Rains gives one of his finest performances as the patrician Paine, a man who tries to close his eyes to his own corruption, but swallows down his own guilt and shame every day. Harry Carey gets a twinkly cameo as an amused and supportive President of the Senate. (Both actors were nominated for the Oscar, but lost to Thomas Mitchell for Stagecoach who also appears here in a fun turn as the drunken but principled reporter Diz).

Capra keeps the pace up perfectly, and his direction handles both smaller scale scenes of romance and idealism, with the larger scale fireworks of the Senate (a superb set, that looks so convincing it’s amazing to think it was built on a sound stage). His biggest trick here is to create a film that, in many ways, is a political lecture, but never makes it feel like one. Instead it delivers it’s messages on truth, justice and the American way with such lightness – but yet such pure decency – that it all works. It helps a great deal that the film doesn’t shy away from the corruption and – apart from a final turn that saves the day – resists melodrama and contrivance. Charming, funny but also thoughtful and committed, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is one of Capra’s very best.

Cold War (2018)

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig are lovers divided in Cold War

Director: Paweł Pawlikowski
Cast: Joanna Kulig (Zula Lichon), Tomasz Kot (Wiktor Warski), Borys Szyc (Lech Kaczmarek), Agata Kulesza (Irena Bielecka), Jeanne Balibar (Juliette), Cédric Kahn (Michel)

Pawlikowski’s film is a heartfelt, heavy fictionalisation, of his own parent’s marriage. Or at least the emotions and clashes that lay at the heart of this turbulent marriage, rather than the actual events themselves.

In post-World War II Poland, the Polish government are funding the creation of a folk-music ensemble, to promote Polish culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is the lead conductor, helping to select the members. One of the applicants, Zula (Joanna Kulig) is a talented musician who has misled the committee on her background. Wiktor recruits her anyway and she swiftly becomes lead singer of the troupe – just as she and Wiktor begin a heated relationship. When the troupe journeys to perform in Berlin, Wiktor takes the opportunity to cross the border – but Zula, frightened of the risk, refuses to go with him. Over the next fifteen years the couple intermittently come together again. When apart, they long for each other. When together, it never takes long for joy to transform into envy, bitterness, anger and frustration.

The film is called “Cold War” – but it’s about the feuding relationship between these two different but very similar people, and the clashes between them caused by their hearts. Pawlikowski creates some neat commentary around how the Cold War – that division of Europe into two opposing camps – throws up even more boundaries between the two. The defection of one from Poland instantly makes it nearly impossible to meet. Both long for their Polish homes, aware that they can never lead the life they want there.

What’s a shame is that these themes don’t mix very well with the dark romance of the main storyline. It’s impossible watching the film not to think about Pawlikowski’s previous film Ida. Like Cold War, Ida was shot in gorgeous black-and-white (using the non-widescreen Academy ratio 4:3) and explored family problems in post-War Poland. But Ida managed to be both a deeply emotional investigation into the traumas historical and political events have inflicted on a family, while also giving a riveting insight into the scarred land Poland was for much of the twentieth century. Cold War misses this additional layer, focusing excessively on the personal, with two characters at its centre that it’s harder to relate to.

I always feel bad when I’m reduced to saying that the film didn’t work so well for me because I didn’t care for the lead characters. There is very little to fault in the performances. Both have an absorbing chemistry, and develop characters that are prickly, difficult, passionate, firey figures. Kot is, by turns, reserved and obsessive, prone to rash decisions he regrets at leisure. It’s something he shares with Zula. Joanna Kulig is very impressive here, carrying a defensive coldness at her heart that she only rarely allows to melt. She is a character rife with contradictions – decisive (except when she isn’t), passionate (except when she’s rational), loving (except when she hates). She’s a cocktail of confused emotions – perhaps stemming from a troubled childhood.

Both characters have striking self-destructive streaks. The film – like many of Pawlikowski’s films told in a very tight runtime, little more than 80 minutes – charts how these two characters time-and-time again find themselves in a position where they could seize happiness – only too promptly ruin it with jealousies, bitterness and narrow-mindedness. After a while, I confess, I found it wearing. Their decisions are so often – so obviously – wrong, naïve and stupid, that it gets too much. Their relationship is so fuelled by selfishness and disregard for others – partners, spouses, children – that after a while I found myself wanting to give them a shake and tell them to sort themselves out.

Essentially, for all its heartfelt passion and poetic beauty, it’s a “can’t live with, can’t live without”  tale. Its told with pace, but I felt I could actually do with a few more minutes to understand these two people better. There is probably one too many rural peasant troupe performance eating up runtime that could have been better spent getting a grasp on the characters.

The black-and-white shooting is extraordinarily beautiful, and Pawlikowski’s direction is, as always, perfectly judged, well-paced and tender. But for me this becomes a slight film about two people its’ hard to warm to, with an ending that suddenly tips into something both far more operatic and also slightly too pleased with itself. I missed the grace, beauty, wisdom and depth of Ida, which looks more and more like a perfectly judged masterpiece that balances the personal, the emotional and the social perfectly. Cold War, on the other hand, only feels like it scratches the surface of many of these themes.