Monday, 26 July 2021

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Charlton Heston and James Stewart in the infamous The Greatest Show on Earth

Director: Cecil B De Mille
Cast: Betty Hutton (Holly), Cornel Wilde (The Great Sebastian), Charlton Heston (Brad Braden), James Stewart (Buttons), Dorothy Lamour (Phyllis), Gloria Grahame (Angel), Henry Wilcoxon (Agent Gregory), Lawrence Tierney (Henderson), Lyle Bettiger (Klaus)

When Crash was named Best Picture, did The Greatest Show on Earth do a backflip of celebration? Finally, when the topic “What is the worst Best Picture winner of all time?” came up, the answer would no longer immediately be “Well The Greatest Show on Earth of course”. Now, there could be an actual debate. Hard to believe but this film was the biggest hit of 1952. Its reputation has been shredded since: it’s proof that winning Best Picture can destroy a film’s reputation as much as it can raise it. Greatest Show is, of course, a pretty bad film. But it’s not catastrophically atrocious. It’s merely pretty bloody awful.

Anyway, it’s all set in a Ringwood circus. Manager Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) is so in love with the circus, he has “sawdust in his blood” (drink every time some variation of this phrase comes up, and you’ll be pissed by the hour mark – which might be the best way to watch the rest). To bring in the crowds he hires famed acrobat The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) – which means shunting previous acrobat star (and Brad’s girlfriend) Holly (Betty Hutton) to support act. It’s a rivalry – but wouldn’t you know it, sparks fly and a love triangle forms. In fact, it quickly becomes a love pentagon as elephant artiste Angel (Gloria Grahame) has past with Sebastian, is in love with Brad (who’s interested) and is fending off the interests of fellow elephant artiste Klaus (Lyle Bettiger). Oh, and James Stewart plays a clown who never removes his make-up because he is actually a doctor in hiding for euthanising his wife (“He killed the thing he loved!” a newspaper headline screams).

All this is packaged together with the puffed-up self-important portentousness that DeMille bought to his Biblical epics. Cecil himself even delivers a grand voiceover at life-changing events like the raising of the big top and the loading of a train. It’s packaged together with endless stagings of assorted circus acts (this film is very slim in plot, but very long in runtime), all accompanied by continual cuts to the circus audience “oohing” and “aahing” as appropriate, or asking such inane questions as “What’s going to happen next?” (a question no one watching the film is likely to be interested in asking). It makes The Greatest Show even more of a museum piece, a recording of a certain type of grand entertainment that doesn’t really exist anymore.

Away from the big budget and long filming of circus acts, we have a dull, derivative and tedious soapy plotline where ridiculous cliches abound and barely a line of dialogue escapes clunking to the floor with the same heaviness as the Great Sebastian when he (inevitably) falls from the trapeze. No single opportunity for heavy-handed foreshadowing is missed, from that accident to the film’s big train-wreck ending, to the numerous hints dropped about Buttons’ tragic background. It’s all packed into a crude series of homages to the glories of small town America (who appreciate the delights of the circus in the way the big city suits never can) and the glorious romance of not even letting death and a train wreck get in the way of the show going on.

At the centre you get the tedious love pentagon. The central figures of this – Hutton, Heston and Wilde – seem to be involved in a private competition for who can give the worst performance. Heston (in a very early role) is wooden beyond belief, the granite self-importance that made him a perfect Moses ridiculously overbearing for the job of circus manager. He and Hutton play most of their scenes with an absurd energy, throwing themselves into poses. Hutton’s performance is bubbly, chirpy and endlessly irritating. Betty is the worst kind of simpering mess, which culminates in her holding herself responsible for Sebastian’s decision to perform without a net. Wilde is saddled with a bizarre accent (where is he meant to be from? I guess “Europe”), and acts with all the comfort and skill of a vertigo-suffering acrobat.

But then to be honest pretty much everyone in this film is awful. I’ll cut a bit of slack for Gloria Grahame, who gives Angel more charm than all three of the leads put together, and James Stewart who can play the melodramatic crap he’s saddled with standing on his head. But literally everyone else in this film is dire: hammy, over-blown, cartoonish and mugging. There is not a single moment of performance or story-telling that is remotely memorable, and everyone is introduced with a clunky, trailer-friendly line of dialogue.

Nothing will remotely surprise you about the plotline – other than that they manage to stretch something as insipid and uninspired as this out for nearly 150 minutes. Though of course most of that is circus acts, or watching circus marches, or listening to Betty Hutton or Dorothy Lamour sing. (In what passes for wit in the film, while Lamour sings the camera cuts to Crosby and Hope, her old co-stars, watching in the stands hammily chewing popcorn.) There is a certain academic interest in watching these circus acts (performed by real circus artistes – although the actors trained so they could get involved), but after a while you are only reminded that it’s not as interesting or exciting as actually being there.

Maybe that’s why the plot becomes so overblown to try and compensate. Love triangles! Falls from a great height! Gangsters muscling in on the circus! A clown on the run from the cops, meeting his mother during the show once every year! A spurned lover who decides to destroy the circus in revenge! No wonder, after the opening scenes focus on the cost of staging the show and importance of staying in profit to continue the tour, our initial set-up, never gets mentioned again. How could it compete with this bizarre parade of nonsense?

It culminates in a train wreck – and of course Buttons is given “the terrible choice” of letting a man die or revealing his medical knowledge (and identity) to save his life. The train wreck has some decent model work. DeMille certainly looks happier dealing with that than attempting to make anything among his romantic sub-plots feel light, fun or natural.

The Greatest Show on Earth is all about show – and whenever it tries to do anything intimate, it invariably falls flat on its face. There are worse films out there, but attaching the mantle of “Best Picture” to this makes it feel worse than it actually is – and its pretty bad on its own merits. When all is said and done, still possibly the worst Best Picture winner ever.

Friday, 23 July 2021

American Beauty (1999)

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening excel in the dated Best Picture winner American Beauty

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Kevin Spacey (Lester Burnham), Annette Bening (Carolyn Burnham), Chris Cooper (Colonel Frank Fitts), Thora Birch (Jane Burnham), Wes Bentley (Ricky Fitts), Mena Suvari (Angela Hayes), Peter Gallagher (Buddy Kane), Allison Janney (Barbara Fitts)

Time has not been kind to American Beauty – and I’m not just talking about Kevin Spacey. In 1999, what felt like a timely exploration of male-angst has, over time, looked less prescient and more like the last embers of a generation that thought they were The Graduate’s Benjamin but actually became his parents. Many of the sympathies of American Beauty now feel dated and slightly misguided, or obscure some genuine reflections on its characters. Its satire of consumerism feels trapped in the 90s. But it’s also very skilfully made, often funny, beautifully shot and you can see why it seemed like the next landmark masterpiece of American cinema, an Apartment for the modern age.

In suburbia, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a middle-aged, middle-ranking magazine executive, tired of his life, unhappy in his marriage to Carolyn (Annette Bening), a fiercely ambitious real estate agent, and drifting away from daughter Jane (Thora Birch). He is snapped out of his ennui by his infatuation with Jane’s friend and fellow-cheerleader Angela (Mena Suvari). Next thing we know, Lester realises he hates his life, quits his job (blackmailing his boss on the way), buys the car of his dreams and takes a job flipping burgers – to the bewildered frustration of Carolyn, who starts an affair. Meanwhile Jane becomes intrigued by Ricky (Wes Bentley), the film-obsessed and drug-dealing son of their next-door neighbour, homophobic army colonel Frank (Chris Cooper). Oh, and it’s all narrated from beyond the grave by Lester – so we know it won’t end well.

“There is nothing worse than being ordinary” says Ricky at one point. It’s an attitude that underlies the film. American Beauty has that very showbiz attitude that the lives most ordinary people lead must be rather shallow and empty. That there can be no meaning in the life of suburbia, family and 9-to-5 that so many of us lead. A sharper film would have added depth and contrast to this – but American Beauty is a film that, for all its quality, is also very pleased with itself.

American Beauty’s debt to Billy Wilder is central to its DNA. It plays often as a mix of The Apartment and Sunset Boulevard, with Spacey skilfully channelling a twist of Lemmon as Burnham. Saying that, I can’t believe Wilder would have been as easy on Lester as Ball and Mendes are. Surely Wilder would have seen through the self-serving selfishness and sad delusion that underlie Burnham’s mid-life crisis, fuelled by his fears of emasculation.

It’s that fear running through American Beauty and – for all it looks at first like a satire on suburbia – what came out to me on rewatching is that parallel narrative of two men suffering familiar masculine crises. Burnham, the office drone, ignored at work, playing second fiddle to his wife at home. He doesn’t wear the pants anywhere – his wife chooses the music they listen to, the events they go to, she doesn’t even let him drive the car. Teenage dreams of rebelling disappeared. He’s forgotten what it feels like to be a man. Then there’s Colonel Fitts, the man’s man struggling with self-loathing due to his deeply repressed homosexuality. These are fairly conventional stories.

Lester’s story takes centre stage (even the name Lester Burnham is wimpy). Outstandingly played by Kevin Spacey, who was never better or more humane, Burnham is endearing, rather sweet, clutzy but still has that sharp-tongued Spacey sense of wit. The opening sequences perfectly capture Burnham’s Jack-Lemmonish awkwardness, repression, inadequacy and depression. But  if anything, Spacey is almost too sympathetic in the role, masking the selfishness and self-serving nature of Burnham’s mid-life crisis (which is what it is), urging us to celebrate his rules-bucking independence.  The film never gets to grips with the spark for all this being a sexual obsession with a teenage girl.

American Beauty never questions the sleazy corruption of Lester’s fantasy – and is perfectly happy with using his crush as a positive motivation for getting his mojo back, as well as frequently presenting Angela as a Lolita-esque fantasy. He holds back from sex with her when she confesses she is a virgin – but the film offers no “what am I doing” epiphany from Lester (or a realisation that he is about to sleep with someone literally young enough to be his daughter), instead turning this exploitative moment into an expression of some decency in Lester. Sure, it’s great that Lester realises his responsibilities eventually – but even in 1999, we all knew it was wrong for middle aged men to sleep with impressionable school-children.

The fact is that Election, released the year before, had more to say about exactly the sort of underperforming, thinks-of-himself-as-a-failure resentment of men of Burnham’s ilk – the difference being that Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister in that film is exposed as a bitter self-serving fantasist, which is what Burnham really is. Burnham’s dying moments may be full of reflections on his wife and daughter – but he ignores them or treats them with scorn throughout the film.

And there isn’t, I feel, a satirical note to this. Instead, the film roots for Burnham strongly, asking us to admire his late life rebellion. Maybe it’s the conservative in me – maybe it’s because I don’t much like The Graduate either – but I don’t feel it. Spacey is great – but Burnham is selfish and embodies a concern in certain men that career-minded women and suburbia were turning them from hunter-gatherers into hen-pecked losers. American Beauty is a direct development of the masculinity crisis films Michael Douglas specialised in throughout the 80s and 90s, of men lost in a world that isn’t 100% about them and what they want any more.

The film’s parallel plot of Fitt’s homosexuality crisis is even more familiar than Burnham’s and hits many expected bases – there are no real surprises here for anyone who has ever seen a film before. It largely works as it is so outstandingly sold by Chris Cooper, who gives a brilliantly rich and raw performance as Fitts.

But its faint whiff of predictability fits alongside a script that is often very rich on dialogue, but has a vein of pretention to it that makes the film feel it’s striving to be important. Ball’s dialogue too often undermines its own points with the stench of pretension. The teenagers in the film fall into broadly predictable cliché. The arty, dreamy ones are profound; the pretty one is shallow and flighty (although, to be fair, is shown to also be vulnerable and scared). Bentley’s character’s faux-artiste musings on the movements of a plastic bag are exactly the sort of pretentious ramblings Ball would later puncture so effectively with the college art classes in Six Feet Under. These scenes have dated terribly and ache with self-importance (and are ripe for parody).

But there is quality here, don’t get me wrong. Spacey is superb, Cooper brilliant. Annette Bening is pitch-perfect as a career-focused woman who lives her life through self-help mantras but is only just holding it together. It’s a shame that, just like Mrs Robinson, the film is so full of sympathy for its male protagonist that it has no time to empathise fully with its female lead.  Mendes directs with a stunning confidence for a first-timer, drawing brilliant performances from the actors as well as bringing a startling originality to the filming (in partnership with Conrad Hall as photographer).

But American Beauty never turns its “look closer” message on itself. It uncritically examines a particular masculine crisis and often makes points that are witty but simple. The final act becomes weighted down with a tiresome “whodunnit?” mystery. The acting, direction and much of the writing is frequently brilliant. But the film itself, as a whole, has not aged as well as we thought it might.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Doubt (2008)

Amy Adams and Meryl Streep wrestle with certainty and Doubt

Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Meryl Streep (Sister Aloysius Beauvier), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Father Brendan Flynn), Amy Adams (Sister James), Viola Davis (Mrs Miller), Joseph Foster (Donald Miller)

It’s 1964 in a Bronx Catholic School, run with an iron hand by Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). This arch-conservative is in the middle of an unspoken struggle with progressive reformer priest Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who doesn’t feel Catholicism has to be stern, unyielding and guilt-inducing. These tensions underlie Sister Aloysius’ concerns about Father Flynn’s closeness to the boys – in particular the school’s only black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). When young and naïve Sister James (Amy Adams) reports that Donald returned from a meeting with Father Flynn with alcohol on his breath, Sister Aloysius is convinced Flynn is guilty of sexual misdemeanours – and makes it her mission to remove him from the school.

Adapted from a Tony-Award winning play, and directed by its author John Patrick Shanley, Doubt is an intense, well-staged, subtle opening-out of a four-hander, that works on screen due to Shanley’s flexibility with the material and the wonderful performances from the four principals. The story serves as a parable of sorts for clerical sex scandals, but ties this smartly into questions of faith and the limits of belief.

Because there are no clear answers in the film (or the play). We never know with cast-iron certainty if Father Flynn is guilty or not. All we have are his passionate denials, Sister Aloysius’ equally passionate certainty of his guilt, and a few moments we witness of his interaction with Donald Miller and the other students that are left open to interpretation. Tied into this as well, we have a very clear clash between modernisers and conservatives within the church – and we worry that, in being drawn towards the more sympathetic Flynn, we are in fact rooting for a sex-offender.

Doubt is a film that is likely to keep you questioning who you believe. I even found that repeat viewings can change your perspective on guilt or innocence – this time I was far more alarmed by Hoffman’s genial Father Flynn than I remembered (a lecture on clean nails he gives to the boys walks a wonderful line between hygiene and unsettling creep). Shanley’s expansion gives us more scenes of Flynn interacting with other priests. It’s clear the priesthood is a boisterous boys club, with jokes and drinking – much more fun than the staid, milk-drinking silence of the nuns’ meals – but this is also the clubbish pact of secrecy that let real-life paedophiles be quietly moved from parish to parish.

Sister Aloysius may be practically a poster-child for why people find religion off-putting, but she’s absolutely on-the-money in her determination to root out abuse. Yet while her determination to rid the church of abusers is genuine, does she really believe in Flynn’s guilt, or is it a prop she reaches for to justify her own dislike of him and his beliefs about the church? We’re never certain.

And that is part of the smartness of Shanley’s work. Because in the end all we have to go on is faith and our own belief. Which is pretty much like the whole of religion itself. There is enough in the film to convince you of the guilt or innocence of Flynn, the upright justice or corrupt selfishness of Aloysius. Their approaches to religion are radically different – Flynn sees it as their duty to be open and involve the community, to integrate their interests; to Aloysius the church only works if it is strict, austere and sets a moral example to all. A meeting between the two of them is a masterclass in micro-aggressions over everything from choice of chairs, pouring of tea, serving of sugar, closing blinds, you name it.


This is the trace of theatre in the piece – and theatre is when it is at is strongest. Shanley’s direction is largely unfussy, although he is prone to overuse Dutch angles to hammer home the uncertainty and to overplay a metaphor of the wind (a storm is coming you know!). But when he avoids too much fuss, the film is very effective. The opening up of the play works very well, with most of the additional characters (be they added nuns, parishioners or children in the school) largely used as silent extras that help to create a wider world as well as adding more reaction shots that help us build up even more our questions and doubts about the versions of a story we are hearing..

And the added question over this is the identity of the victim. As the only black child in the school, does his dependence on Flynn come from Donald’s sense of isolation? Is he vulnerable because of bullying and simply in need of the genuine kindness of a substitute father figure, in place of the bullying and violent father he actually has? Or does this isolation make him the perfect target for a predator? Most daringly, Foster’s mother (brilliantly played by Viola Davis in a single extended scene) when confronted with the possibility of abuse by Sister Aloysius even suggests that abuse might be price worth paying for the opportunities being at the school will give her son, the sort of opportunities his parents never dreamed of. Race is a low-key note, but it’s there.

Doubt’s real strengths are in the acting. All four of the principals were Oscar-nominated. Streep was the obvious choice as Sister Aloysius and she delivers one of her finest performances. Aloysius is stern, unbending, dangerously, even recklessly certain of herself and her faith in herself as a force of justice – but believes she is acting for the best motives (or at least is very vocal that she is, rather that is actually true is a whole other question). Streep adds wit (this is after all a woman who views ballpoint pens as the end of civilisation), but also understanding of the vulnerabilities under Aloysius’ rigid conservatism. It’s an outstanding performance.

Amy Adams is charmingly sweet and endearing as a woman caught between two poles, naturally inclined to Flynn’s liberalism and desire to win hearts as well as minds – but also open to using Aloysius’s tactics in the classroom in her struggle to maintain order. Sharply divided, Adams leaves it open whether her desire to see the best in people make her either saint-like or a rube. Hoffman walks an extraordinarily difficult tight-rope as a character both engagingly warm but also (by necessity) unknowable and unreadable. It’s a performance bursting with emotion, but which skilfully disguises that emotion’s motivations. Davis offers a master-class of restrained anxiety, using every ounce of control to keep her difficult life together.

Doubt is a thought-provoking and well-handled staging of a very-good play. Brilliantly acted, it expands the staging of the play but never loses sight of what makes it effective to start with: and will leave you thinking over small moments and as uncertain about truth and prejudice as Sister Aloysius is at its conclusion.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor make a love story for the ages in Luhrmann's electric Moulin Rouge!

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Cast: Nicole Kidman (Satine), Ewan McGregor (Christian), Jim Broadbent (Harold Zidler), Richard Roxburgh (Duke of Monroth), John Leguizamo (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), Jacek Koman (The Unconscious Argentinian), Caroline O’Connor (Nini), Kerry Walker (Marie), David Wenham (Audrey)

It’s 20 years old now and I still don’t think there has been anything quite like Moulin Rouge! Believe me it’s not for want of trying. Baz Luhrmann’s hugely inventive, uniquely stylistic musical is cinematic marmite: either loved or reviled (not sure I’ve ever met anyone who had a meh attitude to it). One of the pioneering inventors of the juke-box musical, Moulin Rouge! mixes pop songs with inspiration from opera to Greek myth and comes up with something Spectacular, Spectacular.

It’s the turn of the century, and Christian (Ewan McGregor) arrives in Paris looking for truth, inspiration and above all: love. Arriving at Montmartre, he and courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) fall in love. Satine is the star at Harold Zidler’s (Jim Broadbent) Moulin Rouge and also the star of Zidler’s planned stage show. She has been promised to his wealthy backer the Duke (Richard Roxburgh). With Christian commissioned to write the script, can he and Satine hide their love from the Duke and make sure the Show Goes On? Or will tragedy strike?

Fast paced and electric, Moulin Rouge! could inspire motion sickness, especially in its opening 15 minutes which throw us deep into its unconventional medley of styles, tones and inspirations. Did that first 15 minutes lose a lot of people? You can imagine it as the earliest scenes featuring Christian’s meeting with Toulouse-Lautrec and the other Bohemians are by far its weakest. If your irritation grows at these shrill scenes (crudely over-acted with an overbearing Keaton-ish energy), I can well imagine thousands of viewers checked out in Luhrmann’s music inspired Moulin Rouge can-can musical with its explosion of rap, Nirvana, Lady Marmalade and insanely quick cutting. It’s a statement opening – and throws you straight into its heightened reality. A tone that continues for much of the opening 40 minutes.

Luhrmann leaves nothing in the locker room here. Only a director of such exuberance, playfulness – but also deep skill and understanding of high and low culture – could have balanced it as well as he does. Go with it and you’ll love it. It’s pure operatic entertainment. Luhrmann’s master-stroke is to shoot a period musical in the style of the high-velocity music-video pop that excited people in 2001 – finally you get a sense of why the Moulin Rouge and can-can seemed so exciting and sexy back then. It’s a night-club of 1999, thrown into 1899.

But what makes the film work after that initial explosion of energy – and I’ll agree that the first 15 minutes tries too hard to grab your attention – is that Luhrmann mixes the styles up so effectively. There is everything here, from Busby Berkeley numbers to heartfelt love ballads to dreamy duets to a sexual tango to a classic theatrical set-piece, tinged with a spot of tragedy. Every musical number seems inspired by a different genre and style of musical theatre. And the use of modern pop music is fun, entertaining and mines the emotional connection we all feel for the best pop songs.

It’s an MTV pop musical, mixed with Gene Kelly, lashes of camp, cheeky humour and finally tragedy and suffering. It’s got a million cuts in it, but Luhrmann successfully makes the film darker, slower and more intimate as the film progresses. From the electric dynamism of the opening, this becomes an increasingly personal tragedy revolving around five key characters. It never loses that sense of showmanship – Zidler’s planned production is an overblown Bollywood inspired extravaganza that delights in recreating the joy and brashness of that genre – but the final hour is a more adult, foreboding movie with plenty of heart.

Moulin Rouge! is all about Luhrmann’s gadfly brilliance to discover inspiration from a host of sources, pulling it together into something brilliantly original, from the plot – which is inspired by La Boheme by way of Orpheus and Eurydice – to brilliant montage songs like the Elephant Love Song Medley, which takes snippets from nearly every popular love song you’ve ever heard. Very few films can switch so effortlessly from cheeky, end-of-the-pier humour to gut-wrenching tragedy. It’s energy effectively and brilliantly applied, and that comes from the director (who was, of course, inexplicably not among the films eight Oscar nominations).

Luhrmann also gets the actors to perform with the sort of energetic, fully-committed exuberance the film needs. The principals go at every single scene with no hesitations at all – bless them, none have any concern with appearing silly at all. McGregor reveals a sweetness and earnestness (as well as very strong singing voice) he hadn’t shown before. Kidman was an absolute revelation as a woman hiding doubt, insecurity and fear under an exterior of pure confidence. Broadbent’s comedic brilliance is matched with his dramatic flair. Roxburgh is hilarious, and also vile, as the selfish Duke. Luhrmann recognises their strength – after the first 10 minutes every scene features at least two of these performers.

Things have clearly been cut here and there. Motivations and even characterisations of some of the other members of the Moulin Rouge troupe change from scene-to-scene. Sometimes it tries too hard to be inventive. But it works so often that it hardly matters. And the remixes of the songs for performance are outstanding. The “Like a Virgin” Busby Berkely number is hilarious, the “Roxanne Tango” breath-takingly influential. “The Show Must Go On” is powerfully doom-laden and “Your Song” beautifully romantic. “Come What May” – the only original number – is an iconic ballad.

There’s not been anything quite like Moulin Rouge! – and Luhrmann has never managed to match it again since. Electric, dynamic, exciting, heartfelt, moving and above all extremely joyful, it has some brilliantly judged performances from its lead actors. There hasn’t been anything like it since – and I’m pretty sure we won’t see it’s like again.

Monday, 19 July 2021

The Reader (2008)

Kate Winslet in David Kross in the vomit-inducing The Reader

Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Kate Winslet (Hanna Schmitz), Ralph Fiennes (Michael Berg), David Kross (Younger Michael Berg), Bruno Ganz (Professor Rohl), Alexandra Maria Lara (Ilana Mather), Lena Olin (Rose Mather/Older Ilana Mather), Linda Bassett (Mrs Brenner)

In 1960s Germany, teenage Michael Berg (David Kross) falls in love with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor who seduces him and asks him to read classic novels to her in between bouts of passionate love making. As an adult (Ralph Fiennes), Michael has never got over the effect the affair had on him. But that’s largely because, as a law student, he sat in on a trial where he discovered Hanna was a guard at Auschwitz, responsible for the gas chamber selections and later locking 300 Jewish women into a burning church.

Her co-defendants turn on Hanna – but Michael realises that Hanna is illiterate so cannot possibly be the author of the reports that her co-defendants says she wrote. Hanna is imprisoned – but years after the trial, Michael rekindles a distant contact with her, sending her recordings of books he has read, which she uses to teach herself to read. Will these embodiments of new and old Germany manage to come to terms with their shared past?

There is no way round this: The Reader is a truly dreadful film. It might be the worst film nominated for Best Picture this century (the backlash over its inclusion over The Dark Knight led to a radical change in nomination rules). It is sentimental, trite, insulting, empty, vainglorious awards-bait, shot with a heritage-stylishness. It utterly fails at almost every single thing it attempts to do: from coming-of-age drama, to questions of moral responsibility in a police state, to a country reconciling with its traumatic and criminal past. In fact, it fails so utterly and completely, you are more likely to be left open-mouthed at its crude tone-deafness than remotely moved by its emotional manipulation. It is a truly dreadful film.

Daldry’s highly average direction (Oscar-frigging-nominated!) is sickeningly twee, using a number of carefully staged moments to tweak heart-strings and point our sympathies the right way. It’s the sort of Holocaust film where the only direct engagement with the subject is a beautifully framed, poetically-scored, insultingly-genteel scene of the hero visiting Auschwitz and starring sadly at collections of shoes and the gas chambers. Presumably because, any shots of the actual Holocaust – or the crimes of Hanna, who happily confesses to selecting thousands of women and children for death – would end any chance of us feeling sorry for her.

Because this is indeed a film that feels it is challenging us to say “look again” – as if Daldry and screenwriter David Hare are sitting on our shoulder saying “Ah you think it’s all black-and-white, but see how things are more complex than that”. So we are shown a concentration camp worker whose defence really is that she was just following orders – and we are asked to sympathise! She only voluntarily signs up for the SS because, you know, it was a better job than the factories. In a crudely empty moment she asks the judges at her trial “what would you do?”. Daldry shoots like this as a “Gotcha” moment – we are clearly meant to come away from that moment feeling “ah yes, there but for the grace of God go all of us”.

Only that is, for want of a better word, bullshit. Turning your back on Jewish neighbours being taken away out of fear for your own safety would be one thing, but taking a job in a death camp, selecting people for death and then watching 300 people burn to death in front of you but doing nothing? That is quite another. And the film knows this deep down, which is why we never get a flashback, or a photo, or anything that might make us sit up and go, “hell I don’t care how much you were just a foot soldier, what you did was just wrong”. To really top it off, the film even makes it clear Hanna took this job freely (not under duress, or because she was poor and starving, or any other extenuating circumstance that might prompt complex questions about what “normal” people do under evil governments) – and she’s not sorry. Not even a little bit. Not ever at any point.

These muddied morals carry over to the vomit-inducing idea that we should feel sorry for Hanna because she is fascinated by literature but deeply ashamed of her illiteracy. So ashamed in fact that she would rather be seen as the ring-leader of a mass murder than illiterate. That very sentence alone should really give you an insight into her perverted psychology. And I love books, but I don’t think that would be much of a mitigating factor if I was also Jack the Ripper.

That’s not to mention that the film doesn’t even want to engage with the fact we are told Hanna selected sensitive, vulnerable children in the camp to read for her (and then had them killed) – and doesn’t draw a connecting line between that and her using the same tactics with Michael, seducing a vulnerable 15 year old child to control him so that he will read to her. Her behaviour is clearly not some secret shame, the product of an isolated set of circumstances that will never come again – it’s who she is, and she has made no effort to change it. Hanna is worse than a child abuser, she’s a sociopathic monster and the film’s attempt to paint her as something else is appalling.

I suppose it could have just about worked if it the film had managed to make some decent material out of its theme of Germany’s struggle with its history. But even that gets fudged. There is one decent scene, as Michael and his fellow students discuss morality with the professor (a cuddily Bruno Ganz), but other than that the idea gets lost in the cut. Instead it settles for “what would you do” confrontations and clumsy parallels between Michael’s distress about finding out the truth and his trauma and guilt leading to a struggle to emotionally connect with people.

But then he’s only matching the film which has no emotional understanding of people. It sees nothing wrong with what I am about to describe. After Hanna’s death, Michael follows the request of her will to take her life savings to the daughter of one of her victims. Not only is Michael emotionally illiterate enough to carry out this shockingly tone-deaf request, but (amazingly) the woman not only sees him in her home but keeps as a souvenir the tin Hanna kept her cash in and then puts the tin next to a her picture of her family murdered in the Holocaust. Even writing it I can hardly believe I saw it. It’s the film’s attempt to say “look there is hope” but not in any universe does any of this behaviour seem even remotely real.

The Reader instead wants to try and juggle a big theme (the Holocaust) with a cliched one (a coming-of-age for a young man) and throw in an airport-novel faux big theme (isn’t reading great!) into a syrupy, awards-winning piece of prestige cinema. It probably deserves some sort of award for getting everything about this catastrophically wrong. By the time Hanna climbs on a pile of books she has made to hang herself, you’ll be desperate to give her a shove.

Oh, Kate Winslet won an Oscar. She’s does her usual excellent job. But the film is utter dogshit.

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Face/Off (1997)

Nicolas Cage and John Travolta swop faces (yes really) in Face/Off

Director: John Woo
Cast: John Travolta (FBI Agent Sean Archer), Nicolas Cage (Castor Troy), Joan Allen (Eve Archer), Alessandro Nivola (Pollux Troy), Gina Gershon (Sasha Hassler), Dominique Swain (Jamie Archer), Nick Cassavetes (Dietrich Hassler), Harve Presnell (FBI Director Victor Lazarro), Colm Feore (Dr Malcolm Walsh), John Carroll Lynch (Guard Walton), CCH Pounder (Hollis Miller)

After five years, Sean Archer (John Travolta) has finally caught his nemesis, terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). But, with Castor in a coma, only his brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) – yup really – knows the location of the deadly bomb they planted in Los Angeles. With Pollux now in prison how can they get him to talk? Well obviously the easiest way is for Archer to undergo extensive, experimental surgery to alter his build, voice and (piece de resistance) have his face removed and replaced with Castor Troy’s. And of course, this should be top secret so no-one knows it happened. Because there is absolutely no chance Castor will wake up from his coma and have Archer’s face placed on his own head is there? But of course. Let the violent mayhem ensue, as Troy/Archer (Travolta) manipulates the FBI for his own ends and Archer/Troy (Cage) battles to reclaim his life and face.

Reading that, it won’t surprise you to hear that Face/Off is a hyper-reality film. Hailing from the 90s, when Hong Kong gun-fu director John Woo was seen as the auteur of action, every single thing is dialled up to eleven. Early in the film Archer is told that the voice-alterer attached to his vocal codes could be dislodged ‘by a violent cough’. Needless to say, it doesn’t shift once during the orgy of intense, balletic violence that follows, no matter how many times Archer/Troy flings himself through the air, guns blazing, or flips backwards to avoid bullets.

Face/Off it’s clear is a very silly film. It works, because it knows it is a very silly film. It dabbles only lightly in the psychological trauma of finding yourself in another body – and in Archer’s case not just any body, but the body of his son’s killer. But it’s less interested in that than in seeing the two actors have immense fun apeing each other’s intonations and mannerisms. Travolta in particular has a whale of a time as the id-like Troy/Archer, campily springing about the stage and good-naturedly mocking his own physique (“This ridiculous chin”), while prancing about with all the wide-eyed, giggling mania Cage has made his own.

In case you hadn’t worked it out in a film where faces can be swopped, nothing feels like it’s happening in the real world. Gun battles defy logic and physics. Archer’s obsessive pursuit of Troy in the film’s opening battle causes a jaw-dropping level of destruction, mayhem and death (in a real world, with his obvious psychological problems, he would have been off the case years ago). But then, he’s so reckless perhaps that’s why people don’t really notice when he’s replaced by Troy.

There are some interesting beats, many of them centred around Troy/Archer’s arrival in the Archer family home where he forms a superficial bond with Archer’s daughter (including saving her from assault from a creepy boyfriend) that, aside from his obvious insanity, perhaps things could be different (and there is a suggestion Troy/Archer plays with the idea of going straight – or at least a corrupt version of it). Joan Allen comes on board to add acting lustre as Archer’s doctor wife, so distant from her husband for years that she needs time to work out he’s been replaced.

But the film’s heart is in the violence. There are five or six action set-pieces that use every weapon in the Woo arsenal. Slow-mo? Check. Operatic grandness? Check. Walking with intent? Check. Diving forward while firing two guns? You betcha. Doves? But of course. Any real sense of logic is thrown out of the window, and really the film at heart is a comedy of two famous actors pretending to be each other, in between jumping at each other, screaming their heads off, practically making gun noises while they point their weapons, like maniac kids.

And, you know what? It works. Sure the entire enterprise feels very much of its time: and Face/Off captures Woo’s style so perfectly (with its huge bodycount and reckless disregard for life and property) that he never topped it again. A director who basically could do one thing really well (future films would merely demonstrate his limitations), throwing himself into a film of intense silliness, with big-name stars having a whale of time and action set-pieces that make no real sense but are impressive to watch, he aces it here. Face/Off is an odd classic of its time, ludicrously silly but always choosing to double-down on its intense silliness – to gloriously entertaining effect.

Going My Way (1944)

Bing Crosby wins hearts and minds in the sentimental Best Picture winner Going My Way

Director: Leo McCarey
Cast: Bing Crosby (Father Chuck O’Malley), Barry Fitzgerald (Father Fitzgibbon), Frank McHugh (Father Timothy O’Dowd), Rise Stevens (Genevieve Linden/Jenny Tuffel), James Brown (Ted Haines Jr), Gene Lockhart (Ted Haines Snr), Jean Heather (Carol James), Porter Hall (Mr Belknap), Fortunio Bonanova (Tomaso Bozani), Eily Malyon (Mrs Carmody)

“Schmaltz isn’t selling” record producers tell Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) when he pitches them the little ditty he’s penned to raise funds to save his church from financial ruin. Well no one told the producers of this film: and just as well, as this became one of the most successful films of the 1940s, raking in buckets of cash and armfuls of Oscars. Watching it today, you’d hardly believe it – but that’s to forget the stress and fear of a nation at war, or that Bing Crosby (in a tailor-made role) was practically the most popular human being alive. For all that, watching Going My Way today won’t challenge you at all – other than perhaps your patience.

Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) arrives in a (allegedly) rough neighbourhood in New York. He’s to take over the parish from the ageing Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) but, gosh darn it, Father Bing doesn’t have the heart to tell Father Fitzgibbon that, so pretends to be his new curate. Promptly, Father Bing sets about solving all the problems of the parish with his charming homespun wisdom, decency, empathy and ability to bond with all. Gosh darn it, before you know what’s happened he’s turned the rough-and-tumble local boys from larcenists into an all-male choir and has roped in an old friend (who just happens to be the lead singer at the MET Opera) to give him and the boys the stage to sing a few of his songs and help save the church.

Yup, Going My Way is exactly that sort of film, and your enjoyment of it is going to be inversely proportional to how quickly being dipped in pure schmaltz brings you out in hives. This film is sickly sweet in its cozy comfort, a reassuring view of a world straight out of Enid Blyton, where the priest has all the answers, the hearts of businessmen can be melted by a few wise words, and dropping a few sporting references can win over the local ‘tough’ kids.

Going My Way is so homely and quaint, it makes Capra feel positively edgy. In fact, it lacks any of the energy, wit and style Capra brings to his pictures. That lack of buzz doesn’t help it, the languid pace drawing your attention all the more to its overbearing decency and careful weeding out of anything that could even cause a scintilla of doubt.

Instead it’s a warm gentle hug – and a hug that takes a great deal of time (at just two hours, it can seem like it’s going on forever). There are fewer songs in it than you might expect – only one every 10-15 minutes max. Often very little happens – and when it does, drama is very far from the agenda. Instead every problem is solved with consummate ease (it just needs Father Bing to open people’s eyes). Everyone is at heart decent in the extreme: the local tough kids have more high spirits than hooliganism to them, the (very) Irish women have stern exteriors but soft hearts, and the ruthless businessman is a devoted family man. After a while, I felt my patience being sorely tested.

In the middle of this, we get Bing Crosby, who won an Oscar for his work here. It’s a part tailor-made for Bing. In fact, so much so, that he essentially turns O’Malley into a dog-collar wearing version of his own stage persona, with touches of wry humour, whimsy and an affectionate smile. It’s no mean thing creating an entire persona – or performing it – but it feels a little rich to win an Oscar for it. O’Malley is of course perfect, a man free of any blemish who backs humbly into the limelight. A liberal who thinks Church should be fun (though far from a radical), there is nothing to cast even a shadow of doubt on his perfection: his flirtation with a girl never went so far as a date, he has the patience of a saint and he always knows exactly what to say to everyone.

He even wears down the defensiveness of Barry Fitzgerald’s Father Fitzgibbon. Fitzgerald also won an Oscar (for Supporting Actor) and effectively created the cinematic template for what an Irish priest is life. Fitzgibbon is bumbling with a sing-song whimsy, stuck-in-his-ways but basically decent, a touch prickly but also vulnerable and caring. His Irishness (like many of the rest of the cast) is dialled up to eleven. It’s an engaging performance, even if this old-cove-with-a-heart-of-gold schtick already felt familiar. But blimey, like the rest of the film, it can be far too much.

John Ford would have loved the Irish sentimentality of this film. It’s not perhaps Going My Way’s fault that its unquestioning regard and confidence in the church – and the assumption that all would treat them with complete deference and absolute respect – has dated it. But then maybe this was the case then as well, and it just felt much more reassuring to watch a simple world where a priest has all the answers and can change everyone’s lives. In the simple world of the film, you just let the cliché and coincidence wash over you and go with the flow.

Nevertheless, it still can make for a long watch if you aren’t in the right mood for this constant spin of Sunday-afternoon-gentleness. I have to confess it was too sweet for me – way too sweet. And there isn’t much of interest in the film, McCarey directing with a professional but uninteresting staidness (you couldn’t believe he cut his teeth doing Laurel and Hardy, so visually dull and slow is this film). Every outcome is dipped in sentimentality and sweetness and eventually watching the film is like gorging on candy-floss. Light, insubstantial, not as filling as it should be, and at the end you feel like throwing up.

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Argo (2012)

John Goodman and Alan Arkin say hoorah for Hollywood in Ben Affleck's middle-brow, over-praised award-winner Argo

Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), Bryan Cranston (Jack O’Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), John Goodman (John Chambers), Victor Garber (Ken Taylor), Kyle Chandler (Hamilton Jordan), Tate Donovan (Robert Anders), Clea DuVall (Cora Amburn-Lijek), Christopher Denham (Mark Lijek), Scoot McNairy (Joe Stafford), Kate Bische (Kathy Stafford), Rory Cochrane (Lee Schartz), Taylor Schilling (Christine Mendez)

There is an art to telling a “true story”. Apollo 13 is a masterclass in turning a story everyone knows into edge-of-the-seat tension. For many people, Argo does a similar trick. It doesn’t for me. I can’t understand the praise for this middle-brow, conventional movie other than that its smoothly made blandness makes it easy to watch. I got so annoyed when re-watching it I threw my slipper down in anger, like the middle-class rebel I clearly am.

Anyway, the film kicks off with the US embassy in Tehran being stormed on 4th November 1979. While the embassy staff are taken hostage, six embassy officials escape and find shelter with the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). But how to get them out of the country safely? CIA extraction officer Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with the “best bad plan we’ve got” – set up a fake Hollywood production company, finance a fake movie, fly to Tehran, then fly the fugitives out on Canadian passports, passing them off as the movie’s crew on a scouting mission. The cover film is sci-fi epic Argo, and with producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and famous make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) on board to give the project realism, the mission is on.

Argo won itself a lot of friends on the way to its Oscar for Best Picture. Why? Because this is a very easy-to-swallow, middle-of-the-road film that successfully turns an American foreign policy disaster into a charming heist movie with a happy ending. It faithfully follows the pattern of all heist movies: the crazy idea, pulling together the perfect team, the difficult rehearsal, the weak link who pulls it out of the bag at a crucial moment even the panicked “we do it anyway!” ending as the best-laid-plans need to be partially improvised on the fly.

In fact, for all its desperate attempts to look like a smart, political, 70s-style piece of cinema making, The Sting is by far and away the 1970s film it most resembles, for all it wants you to think it’s The China Syndrome by way of All the President’s Men. The film starts with an inspired story-board montage of the way Western interference in Iranian politics from 1953-1979 effectively ruined the country. But that’s as good as it gets politically. After that, any further attempt to engage with either Iran or America’s foreign policy gets completely abandoned. It becomes a simplistic rescue story stuffed full of uncomplicated goodies and baddies.

Hollywood of course loved it. Why wouldn’t it? There’s only one thing Hollywood loves more than a film that takes good-natured insider pot-shots at itself. And that’s a film where Hollywood saves the day. Argo does both. It’s a celebration of how Hollywood may be shallow, but when push comes to shove it delivers. Alan Arkin (Oscar-nominated for a role he could play standing on his head) coasts as a (fictional) old-school producer, selling the film’s mediocre punchlines about the Golden Globes, WGA and the uselessness of directors. Argo has a real “slap-on-the-back” air to it, the sort of gentle roast you might get from a guest speaker at an end-of-year party.

But of course you want to know: why did I threw my slipper? Quite frankly, Argo is a con. It starts with a burst of documentary-style realism, charting the attack on the embassy. The film uses a range of different film stocks, including home-movie style footage and newsreel material. It gives an impression of complete factual reality. But, like the movie, that’s just an impression. None of the footage we see is from the time period. It’s all glossily re-created to give the idea that we are watching something snatched from the headlines.

It’s probably the last time the film touches reality. Because from there Argo is a “true” story only in the broadest sense. Almost every single specific in the film is invented or repackaged. Most crucially, the film presents all this as a CIA operation from top-to-bottom. In reality, it was a Canadian operation, with the CIA providing assistance. Not the impression you get here. Even worse the end even has the team at Langley smugly smacking each other on the back and saying they’ll give the Canadians the credit for National Security reasons. Ouch. Not content with that, it also falsely accuses the Brits and New Zealanders of leaving the fugitives hanging out to dry. Ouch again.

I don’t mind most of the film’s other myriad inventions. Its fine to hugely expand the Hollywood stuff, as it’s fun. I don’t care that Mendez (who was Hispanic by the way – but I guess Affleck with a beard is the next best thing) was only in Tehran for 36 hours not the several days he is in this film. Building a bit of tension at the airport passport control – until that weak link proves his worth by talking fluently through the made-up film’s plot – is classic heist cinema. It’s cliched but its fine.

What really, really bugs me is that Affleck and team obviously decided the real story wasn’t exciting enough so – while poking fun at the shallowness of Hollywood – turned this story into exactly the sort of shallow adventure-fantasy that’s Hollywood’s bread-and-butter. In real life, there were nerves at the airport, and a delay to the flight. And there is a lot of old-school-conspiracy-thriller-tension that could have been created with that – if the film really was the sort of The Parallax View style thriller it wants you to think it is.

But that’s not bombastic enough for Affleck et al. Instead the ending is ludicrously overblown, stuffed with problems to overcome. The mission is off-then-on-again (this convoluted resolution requires a real-life childless man to have two kids at school). Then the Iranians work out something is up, and tear through the airport, guns waving in a race to stop the flight. Police cars race onto the runaway as the plane carrying our heroes takes off. And then I threw my slipper.

I threw it because it makes no sense. If the Iranian secret service knew about the extraction, they wouldn’t run through the airport. They’d RADIO THE CONTROL TOWER and stop the plane taking off. They’d scramble jets to bring the plane back while it was still in Iranian airspace. They certainly wouldn’t race cars onto the runaway – and I’m not sure a civilian plane would take off with an armoured car just underneath its wing. Nothing like this happened, or would happen. Its reality filtered through the tired cliches of Hollywood movies. It doesn’t even feel true.

Argo starts trying to comment on world affairs, but then focuses overwhelmingly on a minor victory in the middle of a disaster. The Iranian hostage crisis was a national humiliation that lasted years. But in this film, Affleck shows he learnt something from Pearl Harbor just like that film’s celebration of the Doolittle raid, this uses a small success to excuse a disaster. We even get Jimmy Carter bragging in voiceover that the crisis was resolved without resorting military force: the only reason for that was because the military strike Carter himself ordered was so ineptly planned it had to be humiliatingly cancelled mid-mission.

Argo doesn’t care. It’s a cuddly story about Hollywood saving the day, that starts with a critical eye and turns into a cheerleader for Carter’s disastrous policy in Iran. The hostage crisis is a tough story it doesn’t want to talk about (a brief scene of some hostages undergoing a mock execution only reminds us that the film can’t be bothered to talk about them). It repackages disaster as triumph and pretends to be a cleverer, richer film than it is. It apes 1970s conspiracy thrillers and political films but is only a faint shadow of them. Garlanded with awards, it’s competent-at-best.

Saturday, 10 July 2021

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Peter Jackson's near-perfect opening chapter of his Tolkien adaptation

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Sean Bean (Boromir), Billy Boyd (Pippin Took), Dominic Monaghan (Merry Brandybuck), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Hugo Weaving (Elrond)

When it was released, people wondered if there was a market for three mega-length adaptations of Tolkien. By the time it finished, Hollywood was casting eyes at The Hobbit and working out how many films that could stretch to. Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring is a film so completely perfect it pulled off the near-impossible: embraced all, from the novel’s passionate fanbase, to lovers of blockbusters and connoisseurs of cinema. Jackson turned a landmark novel into a landmark film, the sort of work that decades of other films (and TV shows) would be inevitably compared to. By any benchmark, The Fellowship of the Ring is a cultural and cinematic turning point.

Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is a young hobbit who inherits his home from his Uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm) – along with a mysterious ring which gives its wearer the power of invisibility. But more than that, this ring is the very same ring crafted by the Dark Lord Sauron: the source of his power and possibly the most evil item in the world. Warned of its danger by his uncle’s old friend, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Frodo agrees to carry it first to the elves at Rivendell – and then from there to the fires of Mount Doom, the only place it can be destroyed. Joining him on this perilous quest is a ‘fellowship’: Gandalf, fellow hobbits Sam (Sean Astin), Pippin (Billy Boy) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), human Boromir (Sean Bean) and the mysterious ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who may be the heir to the kingdom of men.

Jackson’s film faced a huge problem from the start: cater to the fans too much, make it too drenched in the high-fantasy of the novel, and you risk alienating an audience sceptical about stories of magic and elves; push the film too far the other way and it becomes something denounced by the fanbase. Fortunately, Jackson (and fellow scriptwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens) transform the book into a masterfully-paced, emotionally-invested epic saga with moments of comedy and tragedy and an overwhelming sense that colossal stakes are being played for. By focusing on what makes The Lord of the Rings such a great story they helped nail making it accessible to the sort of people who wouldn’t dream of picking up a fantasy book.

The novel is carefully, subtly altered throughout to increase pace and build up the emotional depth of the characters. Its timeline is telescoped (Gandalf’s 19 year research into the ring becomes a few months), stand-alone sections removed (good bye Tom Bombadil) and personal conflicts and emotions are subtly made more prominent (most notably Gandalf’s grandfatherly affection for Frodo and the conflicted admiration and resentments between Boromir and Aragorn). What this succeeds in doing is creating a film that actually alters a lot of the original book (reassigning multiple actions and shifting many motivations) but ends up carrying so much of the emotional and narrative truth that it feels completely faithful. The tone is perfectly captured but also becomes a gripping, cinematic drama, populated by characters who feel real, for all their hairy feet or wizard’s hats.

The script is a perfect mixture of the greatest lines and quotes from the book, expanded with a real understanding of character motivation. Its all complemented by faultless direction with a sweeping visual panache from Jackson. This is a passionate director, working at the top of his game. The film is, of course, breathtakingly beautiful – New Zealand, the perfect location for Middle Earth, still dines out on the tourist trade to this day – but Jackson brilliantly mixes the epic with touches of his own Grindhouse roots. So, he can shoot stunning chase scenes with Nazgul or dreamy ascents of mountains with the same flair as he can the grimy, body horror of an Uruk-Hai’s birth. I can’t stress too much the level of Jackson’s achievement here: the film shifts between genre and tone from scene-to-scene: the Moria sequence goes through mystery, whimsy, regret, tragedy, action, awe-inspiring scope then crushing loss. Another director could have made that feel like a wildly veering train – Jackson makes it feel all of a piece. Not a single scene is untouched by directorial genius.

Jackson’s passion for the project was communicated to the entire team. In every single technical department, no effort has been spared to create Tolkien’s world (and crucially it always feels like Tolkien’s world). Stills of this film could be slotted into editions of the book and not look out of place. From the detail of the costume, design of the sets, to the writing of elvish – not a single prop, set or costume doesn’t look like it belongs. Everything feels grown out of the imagination of the reader. It’s helped hugely by the effort to recruit famed Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe: their iconic visualisations of the novel inspired every inch of the design.

It’s also a film that feels real (even though so much of it was of course made in a computer). The film used practical locations and shooting tricks wherever possible. Obviously, the New Zealand landscape was used to sumptuous effect, but also wherever possible models and miniatures were used. Even the height differences between hobbits and other characters were largely achieved in camera. It’s an approach which not only subconsciously communicates an intimacy, it also helps make the story feel even more grounded: a sense of dramatic events happening to real people.

The film also brilliantly establishes the sinister darkness of the ring. One of the trickiest things in adapting Tolkien is dealing with the fact that your villains are a suspended glowing eye and a gold ring. TFOR expertly establishes the dark malevolence of the Ring, as a sinister, manipulative, wicked presence that corrupts those around it – it’s even given its own darkly seductive voice. Never for a moment does anyone watching this film doubt that it is bad news, its absolute is evil totally accepted. Think about that for a second and that is a stunning achievement.

Then there’s the score. If you ever wanted to prove to someone how important music is to the experience of watching a film, show them this one. Howard Shore’s orchestral compositions not only deepen and enrich every frame they accompany, they are also perfect in capturing the tone of novel. From the piping hobbit music, to the demonic choirs of the Nazguls, to the soaring but mournful themes of Gondor, this film could almost be a musical. Watch it without dialogue and you still follow it perfectly.

Jackson also nailed the cast. Ian McKellen quite simply becomes Gandalf, on the surface a twinkling grandfatherly presence, but below a frighteningly powerful man carrying centuries of wisdom. It’s a brilliantly iconic performance. Elijah Wood brings a wonderful innocence that slowly strips away as Frodo. Ian Holm’s Bilbo is a delightful charmer with flashes of corruption. Viggo Mortensen is all charisma and conflict as Aragorn. Christopher Lee was born to play Saruman. Liv Tyler was a revelation as Arwen. Sean Bean’s masculine Boromir hides deep-rooted personal doubt, insecurity and fear of failure. The cast is perfect.

And there isn’t a duff scene in the film. It’s opening montage is a masterclass in narrative introduction and awe-inspiring action. The Hobbiton sections have just the right tone of whimsy. The chase through Moria turns descending a staircase into a nail-biter. The final breaking of the fellowship gives us breath-taking battles and heart-rending tragedy, along with an iconic death scene.

No one else could have possibly delivered the novel to the screen better than this. Jackson’s fingerprints are on every inch of the film. It’s a masterclass in adaptation, a beautiful thing to watch and listen to, exquisitely acted and utterly compelling. Both true to the novel and totally engaging for newcomers, it might be the best of the series – and when it was released, felt like the film Tolkien fans had been waiting for their whole lives.

Thursday, 8 July 2021

The Sting (1973)

Newman and Redford pull the mother of all confidence tricks in The Sting

Director: George Roy Hill
Cast: Paul Newman (Henry Gondorff), Robert Redford (Johnny Hooker), Robert Shaw (Doyle Lonnegan), Charles Durning (Lt William Snyder), Ray Walston (JJ Singleton), Eileen Brennan (Billie), Harold Gould (Kid Twist), John Heffernan (Eddie Niles), Robert Earl Jones (Luther Coleman), Jack Kehoe (Erie Kid), Dimitra Arless (Loretta Salino), Sally Kirkland (Crystal)

From its opening, to the ragtime charm of Joplin’s The Entertainer, it should be pretty clear what you are in for with The Sting. A nostalgia-tinged star-vehicle, The Sting is gloriously unpretentious, a film that means only to entertain. Charming and good-natured, you can forgive it an awful lot because it wants so little from you: other than to put a smile on your face (a real “aw shucks I never saw that coming!” grin). A slice of pure entertainment, with more than a hint of nostalgia, it hoovered up seven Oscars (in an admittedly weak year – its nearest competitor was The Exorcist and it says something for how eclectic American cinema can be that those two films hailed from the same year) at a time when the nation needed a lift.

The Sting is perhaps the ultimate confidence-trick, caper movie. It’s been effectively remade so many times (it’s basic plot was copied exactly for the first episode of BBC’s confidence trick dramedy series Hustlers among others) it’s likely that you will recognise some of its tricks long before viewers at the time did. But that doesn’t really matter, because like all tricksters, it tells a great story. In 1930s Illinois Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) is a grifter who makes a score off the wrong guy: a courier for vicious crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). In the violent aftermath, his partner and mentor Luther (Robert Earl Jones) is murdered. Hooker heads to Chicago to partner up with famous grifter Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to get his revenge. The plot comes together – but can they stay ahead of Lonnegan, the cops (led by Charles Durning’s Lt Snyder) who are after Hooker and the FBI who are hunting Gondorff? Or will they fool everyone?

Well what do you think? Directed with a professional (Oscar-winning) smoothness by George Roy Hill, this is basically Butch and Sundance Go Grifting. The film follows pretty much exactly the same nostalgia soaked journey following two charming Hollywood mates thumbing their nose at authority. The recreation of the period is extremely detailed (it won Oscars for production design and costumes), but above all safe and cosy. For all that it grifts in the rough-end of town, it’s a very clean and uncrowded world (the street scenes are notably empty) and very little reality is allowed to get in the way of what is effectively a shaggy-dog story.

The vision of the past it presents is designed from top-to-bottom to be comforting and the film is devoid of any sense of danger connected with grifting, or any sense of moral complexity around people who make their living from conning others. It’s a world where the only people conned are them-what-deserves-it and the conmen are plucky underdogs, making a buck off the crooked big man while fighting the corner of the little guy. It basically repackages conmen as fairytale heroes – and does so, so successfully most conmen films since have followed its lead.

It’s fairy-tale style is carried across in the chapters (with some lovely nostalgic hand-drawn chapter opener pages) that the film is split into, not to mention the structure of a callow youth, a rough but wise mentor, a hissible villain and righteous mission. The only thing it really misses is a princess to save (although there is the gentlest femme fatale you’ll ever see). But then there isn’t really room as, even more so than Butch and Cassidy this is a bromance played out in the same sepia-toned “good-old-days” warmth.

Newman and Redford are of course huge fun, using every inch of star-power gusto and cool. Newman has great fun as the sort of cigar-chomping, hard-drinking maverick only ever seconds away from bounding up from a scruffy sleep to perform all manner of tricks with assured cool. Newman generously cedes most of the richer material to Redford, but he can hardly have minded when he gets such glorious set-pieces as his faux-drunken card-sharp routine when he muscles in on Doyle’s cross-country train card game. I’ll also give a shout out to a wonderful moment when Gondorff goes through an elaborate show-off run-through of his card-sharp skills – only to get over-confident and spill the deck. It’s a good laugh, but also adds a little beat of tension (needless to say he performs flawlessly on the night).

Redford got his only acting Oscar-nomination here and, while it’s not his most challenging role, it’s certainly one where his magnetic Hollywood charm was used to its best effect. He gets the meat of the plot, walking a difficult line between being both an audience surrogate and keeping us uncertain about how much of what we are seeing is true. Redford’s handsome boy-next-door charm works perfectly for Hooker – and he’s got a sweet shocked horror at violence when it comes – and he has a rather winning naivety mixed in with a youthful energy. Sure, it’s hardly Hamlet, but as a riff on his WASPY version of counter-culture cool, it’s pretty much spot-on. (Redford is also of course a very safe presence – there’s nothing dangerous to him, which is of course perfect for the film’s tone.)

These two energetic and charismatic performers – both having a whale of a time – are the main selling point of a movie that rattles through fun set-pieces. Like all the best con movies, it lays out all its pieces and only assembles them all into a picture right at the very end. It makes for something little more than a fairground entertainment – Marvel as Gonrdorff and Hooker Hoodwink a Man Before Your Very Eyes! – but when it’s told with such zip, charm and lightness as this it hardly matters. Even the heavy – a growling Robert Shaw – gets a bit of light-banter under the menace (“What was I supposed to do” he bemoans after Gondroff swops out the crooked cards he’s dealt him “call him for cheating better than me?”).

The Sting isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel or tell you anything serious. It just wants you to grin. While we might be told grifting can be dangerous, the main impression of the film is that it’s matey boys-own blast. And it wants us to enjoy the entertainment as much as the conmen do. It knows that, like a good magic trick, we love to see how the illusion works and there are few things more engrossing than watching professionals execute a difficult task flawlessly. It’s one of the lightest Best Picture winners, but then it’s also one of the most purely enjoyable.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson head back into the area in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Jeffrey Wright (Beetee Latier), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Coriolanus Snow), Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair), Lynn Cohen (Mags), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason)

It’s a year on from Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta’s (Josh Hutcherson) victory at the 74th Hunger Games. They and the other victors live a life of relative luxury in the dictatorship of PanAm. Problem is Katniss’ humanity and defiance of the ‘rules’ from her victory have started to inspire whispers of discontent into open mutterings. When a “victor’s tour” fails to impact on her lustre, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) follows the suggestion of Games Maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – let’s celebrate the 75th Anniversary by chucking two victors from each district back into the ring. As the only female victor from District 12, this means Katniss will either wind up dead – or be put into a position where she has to abandon her humanity to become the killer she never wanted to be. But is there another game going on inside the game?

Catching Fire is an entertaining, fast-paced, well made sequel to The Hunger Games that successfully broadens and deepens the franchise. Far from being a difficult middle chapter, it’s well structured to tell a pretty self-contained story that riffs on events from the first film without being enslaved to them. It also very sharply deepens the social and political commentary from the first film, widening our knowledge of PanAm and our understanding of its corrupt, murderous system.

Lawrence’s direction is punchy, pacey and provides plenty of emotional depth and scope. It’s a film that skilfully balances questions of trauma and the horrors of murder-for-entertainment, with poundingly exciting action sequences in the games themselves. In some ways Catching Fire is the only film in the series that ends (more-or-less) with a triumphant bang, and it’s possibly why the film is the most satisfying of the lot, with the cleanest structure. It also has the advantage of widening the outer edges of the world of the film, while still largely operating within the self-contained world of the games arena.

Within that, it also manages to keep us on our toes. Many of the same set-ups – both in the build-up to the games and the action in the arena itself – echoes or reflects what we’ve seen before. The film uses this to throw at us moments the surprise us – as allegiences are revealed – or provide opportunities for dark humour (such as the setpiece Katniss decides to use to showcase her skills this time round, markedly, darkly different from her archery display in the first film).

The film is entertaining and also thought-provoking. Within the confines of its 12A certificate, it doesn’t flinch from the oppressive horror of PanAm in the districts, where sudden executions and brutal beatings are an everyday occurrence. Similarly, it demonstrates even more the heartless opulence of the capital, a world of hedonism where no questions are asked about what props this whole system up.

And at the heart we have Katniss. Wonderful played, with a full-blooded emotional commitment from Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss is slowly become aware of her iconic status, but hasn’t changed dramatically from the at-times judgmental, prickly, abrasive loner she was at the start. She’s a reluctant figure-head for a new movement, but that’s what makes her both so effective and so moving. She’s not pretending or playing a hero – she simply does the right thing, because that’s what she believes she should do. Sure she makes a host of poor character choices, but that’s what genuine people do.

Lawrence’s grounded emotional realism in the lead, helps sets the tone for the whole franchise as something surprisingly gritty, dangerous and at times quite emotionally challenging. Hutcherson does fine work as the true heart of the film series, a decent, kind man who not only sees but also brings out the best in other people. Claflin is very good as a matinee idol victor who keeps us guessing on his motivations. Harrelson and Banks provide skilled depth to characters that could have been flamboyant cartoons. Sutherland enjoyably quietly munches some scenery as the dastardly Snow, while Hoffman coasts showily but effectively.

Catching Fire bursts along with a great deal of flair and lets us really see how despotic regimes like this operate. Katniss is manipulated into situations designed to fit a narrative that will cement the position of the regime. Ordinary people are corrupted by the wickedness around them. Humanity is seen as a dangerous quality. It’s intriguing and way more insightful than you might expect from a YA blockbuster. And its treated with a profound respect by everyone involved.

And it works because it also tells a cracking, entertaining story, revolving around richly drawn characters with fully fleshed out hinterlands and personal story arcs. For all it takes place in a dystopian future, it feels a real and grounded story. And its hard not to relate to a film where the central character, for all her flaws, is fighting for her right to not kill, maim and slaughter those around her for entertainment: who clings to her humanity despite all temptations to the contrary.

Catching Fire is also blessed with being the neatest, most straight-forward and cinematic of the stories (it’s the only film in the series that ends with anything near a triumphant bang rather than a searching question – for all that it’s a compromised triumphant bang). Told with verve, smoothness and pace it’s a very entertaining movie – and surprisingly rewarding.