Friday, 14 May 2021

Fatal Attraction (1987)

Glenn Close and Michael Douglas embark on a disastrous affair in Fatal Attraction

Director: Adrian Lyne
Cast: Michael Douglas (Dan Gallagher), Glenn Close (Alex Forrest), Anne Archer (Beth Gallagher), Ellen Hamilton Layzen (Ellen Gallagher), Stuart Pankin (Jimmy), Ellen Foley (Hildy), Fred Gwynne (Arthur), Mug Mundy (Joan Rogerson), Tom Brennan (Howard Rogerson), Lois Smith (Martha)

It was one of the biggest hits of the 1980s and was said to bring to life every man’s worst nightmare – which as David Thomson rather astutely put it, probably meant “too many men in the 1980s were worrying about the wrong thing”. Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is a successful, middle-ranking lawyer representing a publishing company. He flirts with editor Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). Then one weekend, when his wife Beth (Anne Archer) is away with their daughter, he spends his time sleeping with her. Problem is, Alex won’t accept it was just a brief fling. Soon she’s calling his office, visiting his wife, claiming to be pregnant as part of a swift descent into furious obsession, demanding Dan leave his family for her. It won’t end well.

Fatal Attraction is a film that is going to struggle the more we move into the #metoo era. While in the 1980s audiences could be expected to be reasonably sympathetic to a man who just wants a bit on the side – and then feels oppressed by the moral consequences that follow – today it’s a bit tricky to feel the same. Put bluntly, Dan is a selfish man who is desperate to be seen to be doing the right thing. And while he realises he’s probably made a mistake after his first one-night stand, he still throws himself into a second day of flirting and sex with Alex (out of a sense of social obligation).

But then Fatal Attraction is a deeply conservative film that plays into feelings of fear and anxiety at the idea of the perfect domestic life being assaulted by an outsider. It portrays the damaging impact on Dan and his family as entirely the responsibility of Alex, instead of admitting that clearly both Dan and Alex are to blame for what happens. Sure, Alex becomes a (literal) bunny-boiler (this film is the origin of the phrase) and later a knife-wielding psychopath. But all this spins out of Dan’s selfishness and his fundamental lack of regard for the feelings of either his wife or Alex (both of whom he wants to think of him as being a good guy – which he probably isn’t).

Dan’s “have his cake and eat it” attitude is the real villain here – and while he is, of course, unlucky to hook up with someone as unbalanced as Alex, any perfectly rounded person would be expected to at least match some of Alex’s reactions. She’s right to say that he is shirking his responsibility, right to say that its wrong for him to use her for a bit of fun and discard her, and she’s right to be disgusted at his automatic offer to pay for the abortion he assumes she will agree to.

A more modern version of Fatal Attraction would probably play out a bit more like the TV multi-perspective drama The Affair (where Dominic West and Ruth Wilson’s characters split the narrative between their very different perspectives on a life-shattering love-affair). It would show more sympathy for Alex’s desperation, loneliness and sadness – and really explore what it is that happened in her past that made her react as extremely to rejection and betrayal as this. And it would have greater criticism for Dan’s cavalier attitude to other people’s feelings.

But then a film like that wouldn’t have been a hit. Glenn Close may not have liked the reshot ending – which came out of test screenings that showed audiences really wanted Douglas to kill that bitch – with Alex entering the Gallagher country home with murder in mind. But the final desperate battle between Dan/Ruth and Alex – and the nuclear family being re-cemented in the shedding of Alex’s blood – was what made the film such a hit. Because who wants the complexity of shared responsibility when “The Other Woman” can literally rise from the dead to strike one final blow before being gunned down?

The film also worked of course due to Glenn Close’s fabulous performance in the lead role. Close worked hard to not position Alex – for all the film aims to do this – as a creepy stalker. Instead she invests her with a righteous fury of a woman who feels she has been terribly wronged, whose every attempt at peace-making has been slapped away and responds with justified anger. There is a real fragility in Close – who consulted psychiatrists to understand Alex’s fragile mindset – and she never lets us forget the pain motivating her actions, even as the film becomes ever more melodramatic and turns her character into more and more of a horror film staple.

Opposite her, Michael Douglas is equally good. This was Douglas’ first in a run of roles where he seemed to embody something in the everyday American-man that lived in terror of female independence and sexuality (he would be terrified on screen by Sharon Stone, Kathleen Turner and Demi Moore over the next seven years). Douglas is great though because while he looks the American dream, he conveys this sense of weakness and compromise. He convinces completely as a rather weak-willed man, terrified of being made to face the consequences of his actions. Archer is also first-rate in a surprisingly low-key role as the wronged wife.

Fatal Attraction starts out as a fascinating look at morality and morals in modern America and ends as a slasher film. A more complex film might have lasted better – even if it wasn’t such a hit – but it throws just about enough depth in there, before the madness descends.

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Inherit the Wind (1960)

Spencer Tracy and Fredric March go toe-to-toe in Stanley Kramer's liberalism-on-trial movie Inherit the Wind

Director: Stanley Kramer
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Henry Drummond), Fredric March (Matthew Harrison Brady), Gene Kelly (EK Hornbeck), Florence Eldridge (Sara Brady), Dick York (Bertram T Cates), Donna Anderson (Rachel Brown), Harry Morgan (Judge Merle Coffey), Claude Atkins (Reverend Jeremiah Brown), Elliott Reid (Prosecutor Tom Davenport), Paul Hartman (Deputy Horace Meeker)

In 1960, Inherit the Wind was a parable. The teaching of Darwinism being illegal in a small town that defined itself by its faith couldn’t really happen today could it? So, the film used the concept as an angle to criticise the restrictions placed on free speech during the McCarthy years. The wheel has come full circle now: it’s no longer unlikely at all to imagine something like this happening. Indeed, versions of it have already taken place in America this century. This change does actually help the film look increasingly more prescient as time goes by.

A fictionalised version of the famous Scopes monkey trial (with most of the names changed, but many of the court room events fundamentally the same) a local schoolteacher, Bertram Cates (Dick Young), in a small Southern town is placed on trial for teaching Darwinism in his school. Staunch Christian and former Presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) volunteers to put the case for the prosecution. Cates’ defence will be handled by the renowned liberal lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy). Sparks fly in a courtroom and around the town, where many people are instinctively opposed to anything that can be seen to draw doubt on intelligent design.

Kramer’s films are often both praised and criticised for their rather heavy-handed liberalism. Inherit the Wind is no different. You’d be hard pressed to miss the message here about the dangers of intrusive laws designed to govern what we think and believe. Kramer’s film edges away from making criticism of fundamentalism too overt. Sure, the local preacher (a lip-smacking Claude Atkins) is a tongue-frothing “burn ‘em all!” maniac, only happy when stirring up an outraged mob. But on the other hand, Drummond is revealed to be a man of (liberal) faith – and, in an agonisingly heavy-handed final note, the film ends with him literally weighing The Bible and On the Origin of the Species in his hands then clasping them both together. You see – science and faith can work together!

While it’s easy to smile at Inherit the Wind’s striving for inoffensive liberalism, it means well and actually produces some effective court-room set-pieces. While its overlong – the sections outside of the court could do with trimming down and a rather shoe-horned plot with Cates dating the local preacher’s daughter (not helped by the blandness of both actors) promises much but delivers very little. What the film really works at is a chance for two seasoned performers to go at each other hammer and tongs in the court. Chances they both seize.

Spencer Tracy sets a template of sensible, liberal reasonableness mixed with a well-defined sense of right and wrong that would serve him well in a further three collaborations with Kramer. He brings Drummond a rumbled worldliness, a shrewd intelligence and a patient forbearance but never once lets us forget his righteous fury that this case is even happening in the first place. His courtroom performance hinge on a winning reasonableness that can turn on a sixpence into ingenious traps for witnesses. He’s a rock of decency in a shifting world and Tracy effectively underplays several scenes, making Drummond seem even more humane.

It also means that Tracy makes a lovely performing contrast with Fredric March’s firey passion as Brady. Sweating in the heat of the court, March’s Brady is overflowing with moral certainty and fury. March’s performance is big, but the character himself has a court-personae that depends on him appearing like an embodiment of God’s fury. It works because March gives Brady a quiet air of sadness. This is a man raging against the dying of the light – this case is his last hurrah. Brady is becoming yesterday’s news, but can’t seem to consciously accept this. In quieter moments, he is clearly a man of reflection and reasonableness – but (in a surprisingly modern touch) is all to aware that a raging public personae is what “sells”.

Kramer’s film is at its strongest when it lets these two actors go toe-to-toe. These moments aren’t just in the fireworks for court. Private scenes between the two show a great deal of mutual respect and even admiration. The two men are old friends. Drummond is very fond of Brady’s wife Sara (played excellently by Fredric March’s real life wife Florence Eldridge), who also regards him as a man of decency. They can sit on a bench at night and reflect on the good times. Brady may be a type of demagogue but he’s not a rabble rouser like the Reverend Brown (who he publicly denounces) even while he enjoys the attention of crowds. Drummond isn’t adverse to whipping up a bit of popular support – or enjoying the attention. It’s a fine contrast of two men who both similar and very different.

Aside from this, Kramer sometimes trips too often into rather obvious and heavy-handed social commentary. Gene Kelly is on good form in an over-written part as a cynical journalist - he sort of cares about justice, but only if its a good story and has only scorn for anyone else who believes anything. The film closes with a rather heavy-handed denunciation of his lack in belief in anything, compared to Brady's faith. The script is at times a little too weak – Tracy and March sell the hell out of a vital confrontation near the end, playing “gotcha” moments that the script largely fails to deliver – but there is still lots of meat in there. Some of the staging and performances – including the extended pro-religion protests that pad out the run time – are a little too obvious. 

But at heart, there is a very true and increasingly more-and-more relevant message in this film – and when its acted as well as this, it’s hard not to enjoy it.

Forrest Gump (1994)

Tom Hanks unleashes some cloying charm in Forrest Gump

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), Robin Wright (Jenny Curran), Gary Sinise (Lt Dan Taylor), Mykelti Williamson (“Bubba” Blue), Sally Field (Mrs Gump), Haley Joel Osmont (Forrest Gump Jnr)

Oh dear God. It’s worse than I remembered. I hadn’t watched Forrest Gump since maybe 1995. I hadn’t liked it much then. But that might just have been my contrariness: sure I was going to find faults in the film that became a cultural phenomenon. Rewatching it today: actually no, I had good taste. This must be one of the worst films to ever win the Best Picture Oscar – and certainly one of the most unsettlingly twee, sentimental, conservative-minded pieces of feel-goodery to ever come out of Hollywood.

You surely know the plot. Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks, who to do him credit plays this one note character with real charm) is a good-hearted man with developmental difficulties (IQ below the 75 mark) who lives through some of the most turbulent times in American history. From racial violence in the 1950s, to Vietnam, the Cold War, the political turmoil of the 1970s, Forrest lives through it all. And largely lets it wash over him, never letting it intrude on his simple, folksy, homespun gentleness. Although that might mostly be because he also doesn’t really understand most of the things happening around him. He’s quite a contrast with the girl he’s loved since their childhood, Jenny (Robin Wright) who embraces everything the modern world brings (protest, politics, drugs) but of course finds her life much less rewarding and happy than Forrest’s “go-with-the-flow” acceptance.

Just writing it down I can feel my stomach turning again. At the time the filmmakers were very keen to promote the film as stridently apolitical. Yeah sure the film never praises, say Kennedy or Nixon, just as it goes out of its way not to state an opinion on either George Wallace or the Black Panthers. But the film is, at its heart, a large, beating, reassuring lump of rank conservatism.

It looks back at America’s past with rose-tinted glasses, portraying a world which would have all better if they had taken a leaf out of Forrest’s book. If we had all been just as uninvolved, decent, kind and stayed at home where we were happy rather than getting engaged in major social and political issues, everything would have been better. Forrest is a celebration of all-American virtues of honesty, bravery and loyalty – but the film is also an implicit criticism of other all-American virtues like curiosity, scepticism and challenging the status quo. Basically, the film celebrates the cosy attitudes conservatives adore and has nothing good to say about more liberal values. Sure, it doesn’t roll out a banner for Nixon – but you can also see this playing well at a Trump rally, with people saying we would be a happier country if we could all be a bit like Forrest.

That’s really tough on the film – and I imagine Zemeckis and co would be rightly horrified about that very idea – but it’s a film that doesn’t once challenge the audience at all. I was reminded throughout of Being There which took a similar concept: a man with low IQ finds himself at the centre of major events. But while that film was a satire – where the characters invest Chance’s gnomic utterings with profound wisdom – this film is a serious drama which encourages the audience to see a “deeper wisdom” in Forrest, to effectively treat him as a sort of prophet. There is a reason bland nonsense like “life is like a box of chocolates” caught on.

The original book was far more of a satire on the shallowness of modern culture. This instead plays like a sort of holy fool pilgrimage, with Forrest’s interaction with historical figures played for laughs. From showing Elvis how to dance, to (in the film’s most cringing moment) inspiring John Lennon with the lyrics of Imagine (another reason to hate Forrest), the film is crammed with gags like this. While the insertion of Tom Hanks into newsreel footage with Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon is impressive (although it has not aged quite so well), it’s not made with any point. This is because Forrest has no real appreciation of what’s happening around him. He’s merely moving from one event from the next – but this lack of engagement and understanding is held up as a virtue. And the very fact that it is, speaks to the film’s underlying conservatism and love for simple, small-town American ideals that shouldn’t be sacrificed to all that uncomfortable social and political change.

The film is particularly harsh on Jenny, decently played by Robin Wright, who is portrayed as someone succumbing to every trend and popular movement of the era. And whom the film consistently punishes for this by showing her emptiness, shallowness and unhappiness, until it finally consigns her to death from AIDS. Just in case we’ve missed the point, Forrest repeatedly urges her to come home – to stop engaging with the wider world and the problems in it and bury her head back into the sands of home, where everything is simple, safe and nothing changes.

The world of Forrest Gump is one where corruption and war mongering don’t matter because it happened a long time ago. A world where racial politics are too distasteful to mention (although since Forrest’s Granddaddy was a leading member of the KKK – a flashback played for laughs – that clearly wasn’t the case). Where the only black people Forrest encounters are the outsider soldier Bubba (who of course dies in ‘Nam – even in serious films, the Black Guy dies first) and his servile family whose names don’t even merit a mention, but who become the grateful beneficiaries of Forrest’s oblivious generosity. But there is no sense here of the dangers and violence of America (bar some nasty jocks at Forrest’s college) – which considering the film has a cameo from George Wallace of all people is really striking.

But then the problems of the world I guess don’t seem that bad if you just don’t think about them and instead go through life with a smile on your face, blissfully unaware of what’s happening around you. The closest the film gets to giving Forrest an opinion on something is when he is asked to speak at a rally against Vietnam – and even then the sound cuts out meaning we can’t hear him (though it seems to have been profound). A wittier film, like Being There, would have made this a moment for satire. Here it seems more like the magic of Forrest’s simplicity mustn’t be shattered for the audience by daring to suggest he actually has a view on something.

The film is a warm and comforting hug, that tells people the past wasn’t that bad and would have been better still if we’d just been nice to each other. That wanting to change the world is dangerous and greater rewards can come from going with the flow. For all Forrest is bereft by Jenny’s death, the film still rewards him with family, home and friends. It’s sentimental, empty, depressing crap. Well made, but simply dreadful. You may not know what’s in a box of chocolates, but you sure as shit will remember after you’ve vomited them all back up after watching this.

Monday, 10 May 2021

The Aviator (2004)

Leonardo DiCaprio excels as Howard Hughes in The Aviator

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Howard Hughes), Cate Blanchett (Katharine Hepburn), John C Reilly (Noah Dietrich), Kate Beckinsale (Ava Gardner), Alec Baldwin (Juan Trippe), Alan Alda (Senator Owen Brewster), Ian Holm (Professor Fitz), Danny Huston (Jack Frye), Gwen Stefani (Jean Harlow), Jude Law (Errol Flynn), Willem Dafoe (Roland Sweet), Adam Scott (Johnny Meyer), Matt Ross (Glen Odekrik), Kevin O’Rourke (Spencer Tracy), Kelli Garner (Faith Domergue), Frances Conroy (Katharine Houghton), Brent Spiner (Robert E Gross), Edward Herrmann (Joseph Breen)

Howard Hughes grew up wanting to make the biggest movies in the world, fly the greatest plans and be the richest man in the world. He achieved all of this. He ended his life a wild-haired long-nailed recluse, terrified of stepping outside his controlled zone, a victim to crippling OCD. Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is a triumphant, brilliantly engrossing, sumptuous exploration of Hughes’ years of triumph, where everything seemed to go right publicly – even while everything was beginning to go wrong internally.

It’s Scorsese’s second teaming with Leonardo DiCaprio – and while DiCaprio’s boyish good looks don’t really relate to what the real Hughes looked like, his charismatic enthusiasm, passion and determination brings Hughes triumphantly to life. It’s a brilliant performance, which dominates the movie. DiCaprio seems to completely understand power of driving ambition, who will mortgage everything he has time and time again to achieve his dream – and also the force of personality needed to turn those dreams into success. But obsession drives both success and eventual personal disaster. There is always something slightly fragile about DiCaprio – maybe its those boyish good looks – and here he brilliantly captures the tragedy of a man clinging to his sense of self, struggling with the demons within him.

Scorsese’s film gloriously balances the epic with the personal. It so brilliantly relates to the irrational but very convincing fears of those suffering from OCD, that scenes featuring Hughes obsessively plucking tissues from boxes, or stuck in restrooms scared of touching the door carry a real sense of threat. The grandness of much of the rest of the film – and the sense we get have how much more Hughes could have achieved – means the demons he carries are even more affecting. Imagine what he could have done, if he wasn’t terrified of even the smallest germ, or was able to put aside his destructive urge to control every inch of his environment and the people in it.

All this tragedy works because the grandness is so impressive. Scorsese’s film looks beautiful. The filming was inspired by replicating the visual and colour styles of contemporary Hollywood. The early 1930s-set section of the film apes the toned look of early-colour (green appears blue, most strikingly at a golf course) with full colour only appearing when the film hits the years of technicolour. The 1940s sequences are inspired by touches of film noir, leaning into the early days of epic technicolour by the end. It looks striking and also amazing. The production design is similarly breathtaking, while the film is shot and assembled with a wonderfully vibrant energy.

It’s also got plenty of wit. John Logan’s fast-paced script captures the sense of a fun of a man who was determined to turn his dreams into reality. John C Reilly is a lot of a fun as the weary number 2, constantly performing financial gymnastics to keep his bosses dreams afloat. Compulsion and obsession makes Hughes the sort of guy who will rebuild an aeroplane from scratch because of a minor flaw, or will reshoot a film because it will work better with sound. During the shooting of Hell’s Angels he keeps a private fleet of planes on the ground while waiting for clouds that will make the scene work. Frequently thousands of dollars a day are spent keeping projects ticking over, while Hughes waits for perfection. He’s not a man to compromise – and you can see why an artist like Scorsese would relate to that. While the film never lets you forget this obsessive perfectionism cuts both ways – and is as much a symptom of OCD as obsessive handwashing.

Scorsese’s passion for classic Hollywood clearly informs much of the first half of the film, that covers the shooting of Hell’s Angels and Hughes’ relationship with Katharine Hepburn. There are delightful cameos from Hollywood icons like Errol Flynn and Louis B Mayer. Playful references abound. The film’s emotional heart is the bond between the two larger-than-life ambitious figures Hughes and Hepburn. Cate Blanchett (Oscar-winning) is fantastic as Hepburn, a pitch-perfect impersonation that also captures her gsharp, uncompromising intelligence and no-nonsense energy. The chemistry between the two is spot-on.

The film’s second half covers more the aviation of the title, with Hughes’ struggle to break the near-monopoly of the skies owned by PanAm, with his own airline TWA. With Hughes starting to teeter on the edge of OCD collapse, even while energetically setting records in the air and fighting battles in the senate, its perhaps even stronger. It also introduces nemesis in Alec Baldwin’s smoothly manipulative Pan Am chairman Juan Trippe and, most delightfully, an Oscar-nominated Alan Alda as a hypocritically corrupt Senator Brewster. The dinner and senate clashes between Alda and DiCaprio provide glorious energy to power the film’s final act.

It also serves as a last hurrah for Hughes. It’s DiCaprio that really makes the film work as this star burns itself out, finally succumbing to the compulsions that we know will see him end his days locked into a room at the top of a Las Vegas hotel. Moments carry a suggestion of fantasy - is Hughes imagining some of the shady figures he sees at the edges of frames? Are oddly toned late meetings with Ava Gardner (an underpowered Kate Beckinsale) an illusion? It's all part of the the powerful sense of tragedy of seeing him end, wild-haired, peeing into milk bottles and stuck into loops of repeating phrases over and over again. Scorsese’s film superbly captures the immense sense of lost opportunities.

The Aviator is undeniably grand and triumphant film-making, that looks a million dollars. But it also manages – in thanks to a superb performance from DiCaprio – to capture a tragic sense of a man who burnt himself out at the height of fame and success. It tells two parallel stories without us realising it: a man achieving his dreams, even while his nightmares consume him. With Scorsese’s perfectly judged direction and some wonderful performances, this is both a sprawling epic and a very personal story of loss. While it seems very different from the films we might expect from the master, I think it might be one of his finest works.

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Richard Widmark and Jean Peters feel the heat from the cops, the commies and their own passion in Pickup on South Street

Director: Samuel Fuller
Cast: Richard Widmark (Skip McCoy), Jean Peters (Candy), Thelma Ritter (Moe), Murvyn Vye (Captain Tiger), Richard Kiley (Joey), Willis B Bouchey (Zara), Milburn Stone (Winoki), Henry Slate (MacGregor)

It’s 1950s, and the biggest bogeyman in America is the Commies. Candy (Jean Peters) is one of their unwitting couriers, funnelling top secret microfilm for her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley) to pass to his Moscow superiors (poor Candy just thinks she engaged in helping Joey with some good-old All-American industrial espionage). Trouble is, while the Feds are trailing her, they watch her being pickpocketed by career thief Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark). Skip now has on his hands on some serious state secrets. Should he return the film to the police who want to lock him up? Or make a big score by blackmailing the Commies who want to kill him?

What makes Pickup on South Street so intriguing is it’s not necessarily as straight forward as you might think. Fuller’s film is an anti-communist film – the sort of “reds under the bed” scare that terrified millions in a country still reeling from Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs. But this isn’t your standard Red Scare film. Because our heroes have about as much stake in the USA as they do in the USSR. They are the down-trodden, the under-class, the grifters. At the end of the day, I’m not sure Skip McCoy really cares who ends up with the MacGuffin. He’s motivated firstly by financial gain and secondly by personal revenge. No appeal to flag and country cuts any ice with him.

Making the hero this sort of anti-social career criminal was a master-touch as it not only enriches the entire perspective of the film – what has their country ever done for these people – but also adds an air of uncertainty over the whole thing. There would never be any doubt if the microfilm had fallen into the hands of a clean-cut Henry Fonda type. The fact that it’s Richard Widmark – who always looks like he’s torn between laughing in your face or punching it – means you never quite know what he’s going to do. If it works out best for him to hand that film over the Russkies, you can be sure he will.

That’s despite the heavy-handed entreaties of the cops and feds. Skip faces a barrage of hostile interrogations, vague promises, handcuffs and searches from law agents who are damn sure he has the film, but can’t prove it. Like many Fuller films, there is more than a hint of roughness and violence in every frame – and the law and order figures aren’t averse to this. Captain Tiger (what a name!) has already served a suspension for beating Skip in custody. An illegal search or two isn’t beyond them. You can see why the FBI was unhappy with this film – not least because it shows them constantly out-thought by a pickpocket.

The Commies though are a thoroughly bad lot. After all, it’s still an anti-Communist film. Richard Kiley’s snivelling coward Joey is no true believer, but the kind of low-breed opportunist tempted by a quick buck. The other communists we meet are corrupt, shady types, sitting in backrooms puffing pipes and casually handing out death sentences. Kiley’s weak-willed and increasingly desperate Joey becomes more and more despicable as the film goes on, desperation to save himself from the fury of his paymasters leading to ever lower and despicable crimes.

So the only people who really come out as truly decent – and playing by a very fixed moral code of their own – are the criminal underclass. In this world, everyone knows where they stand. Skip isn’t angry at stool-pigeon Moe, who carefully trades information with the police – everyone has to make a living he observes. Skip will pick pockets to earn his keep, and punch back when he’s attacked, but there is no sense that he has any taste for the crimes of the Communist agents. He’ll sell on the microfilm to them – but that’s only because his own government offer him nothing but hot air and empty promises. And, as the unspoken message of the film goes, what difference would it really make to Skip and his like anyway where the film ends up?

Instead Skip becomes motivated by personal feelings – specifically his feelings for Candy and Moe. There is a genuine sexual frisson between Skip and Candy from the start: Skip’s pickpocketing of Candy is shot like a sex scene, all sweaty brows, heavy breathing and close-ups (with Skip’s hands ‘penetrating’ Candy’s handbag with all the metaphorical energy of a train speeding into a tunnel). As events draw them closer together, the two maintain this electric sexual energy – whether arguing or fighting or lying to each other they seem unable to take their hands off each other – and the intimacy of close-ups and low angles Fuller uses for this brings a real sexual charge to their scenes. Widmark – superb as a heavy with a (hidden) heart – and Peters are also great, with Peters bringing a real roughened hinterland of disappointment to her role.

The other motivator for Skip becomes the stool-pigeon Moe, brilliantly played with an eccentric bag-lady energy by an Oscar-nominated Thelma Ritter. Moe is a grifter, selling ties by day and trading information on the side. She embodies the underdog nature of the criminal world, wanting nothing more than to earn enough to buy a decent funeral when she goes. Ritter has a marvellous speech on just how tied she feels from this constant scramble of scrapping by on the edge of society. A surrogate mother figure of a sort to Skip, Ritter’s performance is a classic piece of character acting.

Fuller’s scene is lean, short and fast-paced. Like many of his films there is a lot of violence – beatings, fights, shootings – all shot superbly with the camera pulling back to soak up the action. Sex and violence go hand in hand – Skip accidentally punches out Candy thinking she has broken in to kill him, and the two of them are in a passionate embrace moments later. Mixed in with touches of reality, that bring the tough urban world the characters live in, Pickup on South Street is a lean and mean film that manages to be more than just a straight anti-Communist film. It doesn’t just give us something to fight against: it also asks how we might give people something to fight for.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

The Assistant (2020)

Julia Garner is a silent witness to monstrous goings-on in a Hollywood studio in The Assistant

Director: Kitty Green
Cast: Julia Garner (Jane), Matthew Macfadyen (Wilcock), Makenzie Leigh (Ruby), Kristine Froseth (Sienna), Alexander Chaplin (Max), Juliana Canfield (Sasha), Dagmara Domińczyk (Ellen), Bregje Heinen (Tatiana), Jon Orsini (Assistant), Noah Robbins (Assistant)

Jane (Julia Garner) is a low-level assistant in a Hollywood production company, run by an unseen movie mogul (but there’s no doubt that it’s Miramax and Harvey Weinstein). First in and last out every night, Jane is silent, downtrodden and treated as little more than a piece of furniture by the rest of the staff. Following her over one working day, from scrubbing semen stains out of her boss’ sofa and ending with her leaving the office as he takes advantage of another aspiring actress, The Assistant doesn’t have a plot as such. Instead it’s an experience film – a glimpse into an industry where abuse of your position is so common-place that it permeates every inch of a company, that is set-up to completely service the greed of its president.

Kitty Green’s film is very good at getting across the grinding, depressing, overbearing misery of entry level jobs. Jane slaves for hours at thankless, menial tasks. Coats are thrown at her, cups dunked down in front of her to clean, she is never addressed by name and barely has eye contact with another member of staff. Her contact with her boss is enraged phone calls after non-existent errors (for which she has to write grovelling email apologies) or tiny moments of praise communicated by third parties. Jane is still clinging to the dream of one day becoming a producer herself – but her day-to-day life is a never-ending stream of insults, misery and exploitation.

The film is also very good at showing how someone like Weinstein got away with it for so long. It’s because everyone knows – so much so that it’s become normalised, a part of everyday life, something that no longer seems outrageous or disgusting but just a part of how the business operates. People joke about not sitting on his sofa. Everyone knows what “private screening” is code for. People book late night flights so their boss can have time for his evening exploitation of young actresses. His erectile dysfunction medicine is delivered to the office. Headshots of actresses are printed off and piled on his desk, like a hardcopy of Tinder. The HR department goes out of its way to cover up his crimes.

Jane’s encounter with Matthew MacFadyen’s slimey HR manager is the film’s highlight. Concerned about a naïve young waitress who has clearly been plucked out of a country diner for the bosses perverse entertainment, Jane tries to raise her concerns with HR. She is promptly told complaints will destroy her career, be seen as her own envy – and that she doesn’t need to worry as she is not “his type”. MacFadyen oozes corrupt indifference.

It’s the film’s highlight, as it’s the closest it gets to a giving Jane a character arc. It’s the only time we see her pushing against her working environment – and then making a conscious decision to do nothing about it. While the film’s idea to cover a single day in Jane’s career, after she has spent weeks at the company, is successful in getting across the grinding monotony and everyday sexism and culture of abuse, it does mean the film effectively makes its point in the first fifteen minutes and then repeats it endlessly for the next 70. It also means that, while Julia Garner is very good her character largely hits the same note of downtrodden concealed pain and anger continually.

A more interesting film – if more conventional – could have charted several weeks, allowing us to see how the optimism and excitement Jane seemed to start with in her career was beaten out of her by her appalling abusive workplace. It would still have allowed us to grasp all the monstrous normality of the boss’ abuse, but we could have had a richer exploration of the impact on her.

As it is, The Assistant instead gives a brilliant sense of how horrible an industry can be when the greedy, destructive, vileness of its head permeates every inch of it. But that’s kind of all it says or tells us. It gives us a wonderful sense of what this workplace might be like – but its lack of event, plot or character dynamics means it doesn’t always make for rewarding drama.

Shane (1953)

Alan Ladd as the mysterious gunslinger Shane

Director: George Stevens
Cast: Alan Ladd (Shane), Jean Arthur (Marian Starrett), Van Heflin (Joe Starrett), Brandon de Wilde (Joey Starrett), Jack Palance (Jack Wilson), Ben Johnson (Chris Calloway), Edgar Buchanan (Fred Lewis), Emile Meyer (Rufus Ryker), Elisha Cook Jnr (“Stonewall” Torrey), Douglas Spencer (“Swede” Shipstead), John Dierkes (Morgan Ryker), Ellen Corby (Liz Torrey)

On the surface Shane is pretty much the definitive “white-hat-black-hat” Western. Crikey, Jack Palance’s vicious gunslinger Wilson practically wears nothing but black. Alan Ladd’s heroic Shane does what needs to be done, and the kid loves him to bits. But Steven’s film is more complex and intriguing than that. Because Shane is in fact only a few degrees away from Wilson. When he rides into the homestead, he is already weighted down by the memory of all the people he’s killed. Shane is no saint. He’s a tired man whose shed too much of other people’s blood to ever feel anything but an outsider.

Shane arrives at the Starrett farm. Joey (Brandon de Wilde), the boy-of-the-house immediately hero-worships this mysterious stranger with the distinctive guns. Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) is at first hostile but takes Shane in as a farm worker and he and his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) – maybe particularly Marian – are drawn towards this reserved but good-natured man. Starrett and the other homesteaders are in the middle of a feud with local cattle rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who wants to drive them off the land so he can use it for his cattle. Violence seems inevitable – but how long can Shane keep his unspoken pact to himself to put down his guns and try a life of normality?

Shane is one of Steven’s finest films, beautifully filmed with Oscar-winning photography and told with a lavishly poetic sense. It works so well because it juggles both a simple story, with a deep poetic understanding of humanity. You can see why this is “a Western for those who don’t like Westerns”. It’s got a beautiful, understated sense of struggle to it – the homesteaders against the bullying of Ryker – beautifully mixed with a sense of the dangerous glamour of violence. Match that with some wonderfully hissable villains and the honesty and decency of the Starretts and Shane’s quiet dignity, and you’ve got a perfectly judged morality play.

But the film works because there is so much operating on multiple levels. Which brings us back to Shane himself. Sure, he’s a decent guy. We expect him to be the hero. He fulfils much of that function in the plot. He’s kind and loving with the kid. He holds his cool and never seems to get angry. But why is this? The film makes clear that Shane has a past. A past of gun-slinging violence. And if Shane is still standing at the end of a life like that, he must have been good. And ruthless.

What was it that made Shane so desperate for a change? To try a life of normality, chopping down stumps and putting up fences on a farm? I suspect Shane in his prime wasn’t that different from the calm, cool and ruthless Wilson. You can see the guilt in his eyes when he finally shoots his weapon (at a rock!) two thirds into the film. This is a man who knows that killing carries a terrible burden – and he clearly knows all too well after sending so many to their graves. At the end of the film, with his emotional pean to Joey (“There’s no living with killing”) he’s speaking from the heart. And only someone who has killed many, many people – who doesn’t look remotely worried when facing off with Wilson and Ryker – could really know that.

It’s an idea that you could miss in the film, but it’s there all the way through. The casting of Alan Ladd – who was never better – is crucial to the success of this. Imagine the strength and power a Wayne or Cooper or Stewart would have given Shane. They would never have felt so slight, or beaten down by a life of violence. But Ladd’s smallness, his sadness and his reluctance works for the part. Stevens continually shoots him as an outsider, on the edge of scenes or even isolated in crowds. He can fade into the background in the way other stars couldn’t have done. He feels like a man who knows he has been a moral failure, who isn’t redeemed by star quality.

Stevens plays with our expectations of Shane through the reactions of the Starretts. Joe is (tellingly) instinctively hostile to him at first, before Shane wins him over. Marian’s reaction is however fascinating. She is both slightly repelled by what she can see as Shane’s past violence, but also increasingly drawn towards him. Is this because Shane’s internal knowledge, his worldliness, his depths of sadness make him of a thoughtful kindred spirit than her husband can be? Joe is a simple man, decent beyond words, but not a thinker. Shane is more – for all his danger – and Marian feels like a woman who has accepted her place but perhaps dreamed of more. She would never act on this, but Shane to her seems to represent a path not taken.

And Joey? Shane is everything a boy could dream of in a hero. The man with few words who appears over the horizon with nothing but a six shooter. Stevens camera cuts back again and again to Joey’s adoring, worshipping face – and it’s an excellent performance from (the Oscar-nominated) Brandon de Wilde, as a young boy on the edge of becoming a teenager who wants to be a man, but still looks with the eyes of a child. Stevens throughout places the audience on the same level with Joey. Like him we want to believe in Shane, to see him play the hero. It’s part of the films skilful construction that it finishes before it occurs to you that the character the audience most closely related to was the uncritical, unknowing child. On first viewing we stare at Shane with the same hero worship as Joey.

Shane wants a life of normality. Shane isn’t a million miles away from Eastwood’s revisionist Unforgiven. In fact, Munny’s life in that film is basically Shane’s, without Ladd’s humbleness. The brutal killer who wants to live it all behind, but is dragged back in. Who finally faces off and guns down a horde of enemies in a saloon bar before riding off into legend. Sure, Shane will be remembed with more fondness by those he leaves behind – and he saves the homesteaders – but just like Munny he does it by leaving a trail of bodies behind him.

Steven’s beautiful film is both a compelling narrative of goodies and baddies, but also a profound, fascinating and challenging film. It’s wonderfully made and has a host of reliable actors at the top of their game. Ladd is superb, Jean Arthur brings great depth to Marian, Van Heflin’s Joe is a the sort of simple, decent, salt-of-the-Earth type the West was made of. Facing them, Jack Palance makes the most of limited screentime (and got an Oscar nomination) as the sneering, bad-to-the-bone Wilson. It’s a perfect mixture of small, intimate scale that seems to be taking place in an epic environment. It’s influence has been so profound it’s virtually an archetype. An American classic.

Friday, 30 April 2021

Lifeboat (1944)

The survivors face the weather, the sea and their own suspicions in Hitchcock's Lifeboat

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Tallulah Bankhead (Constance Porter), William Bendix (Gus Smith), Walter Slezak (Willi), Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie), John Hodiak (John Kovac), Henry Hull (Charles J Rittenhouse), Heather Angel (Mrs Higley), Hume Cronyn (“Sparks” Garrett), Canada Lee (Joe Spencer)

Spoilers: If you can spoil a film made 76 years ago… but the ending will be discussed

The middle of the Atlantic at wartime. A ship has been sunk by a German U-boat, which was itself sunk in the exchange. A single lifeboat picks up survivors, a mixture of passengers, crewmen – and a German sailor from the U-Boat. Low on food and water, with only a faint idea of where they are, can they survive long enough to find either land or another ship? That’s even before we can overcome questions of trust – or not.

Taken from a scenario written by John Steinbeck, Alfred Hitchcock was originally attracted to Lifeboat because he fancied the idea of directing a film that was set in only one location. And a tiny one at that! Needless to say, such is the imagination and skill the film has been made with that you will soon forgot that it all takes place effectively in one tiny room. Instead, as the camera skilfully cuts and moves through the boat, finding intriguing angles and never once let the pace slip, you’ll be sucked in this intriguing story of survival and morality.

Lifeboat was attacked at the time precisely because of these difficult questions of morality. Unlike many other war films of the time, it wasn’t just interested in propaganda. Instead the German here – later revealed to be the captain of the U-Boat – is not only the films most charming and engaging character, brilliantly played by Walter Slezak, he’s also the only one that has any real idea about how to survive. Need a sailor? He’s best qualified. A navigator? The only man with a clue. Need to lop a gangrenous leg off? Willie can do it with a pen knife. His resourcefulness needs to be weighed in the balance though with his lies, manipulations and hording of supplies.

But the fact the film presents us with a Falstaffianly rogueish German, rather than a monster – and also makes him the most effective of the survivors – was a problem at the time. Combined with the fact that the representatives of the allies are a mixed and divided back. A chippy socialist sailor. A decent but ineffective radio operator. A jobsworth nurse, possibly carrying someone else’s husband’s child. An ambitious gossip columnist. An industrialist who assumes he should call the shots. And a black steward who even needs to take a moment to think about before they decide to treat him as an equal, or even use his real name. A unified and decisive group of allies, this ain’t.

The events of the film then develop in a host of challenging ways. Sure, our heroes eventually come together – but its in a murderous fury that sees them lynch Willie, beat him to death and throw him overboard. Willie saves their lives – but he also hordes water and then persuades the delirious Gus (whose leg he amputated) to throw himself overboard when Gus spies his secret water stash.

This lynching scene is the heart of the film – indeed most of the action is a slow, tension-filled, build towards it. And, for all that Willie is a seemingly unrepentant Nazi (dropping broad hints about having spent some time in Paris) who we are told ordered the shooting of survivors in the water, its hard not to feel some sympathy for him as Hitchcock cuts to a close up of his horrified eyes as he realises what the passengers are about to do. Just as the passengers, waking to find Gus gone and Willie assuring them it was for the best, take a on a monstrous inhumanity as they murder him.

Hitchcock described them later as a pack of dogs. Of the passengers, alarmingly it’s the two most decent (Hume Cronyn’s gentle radio operator and Mary Anderson’s nurse) who turn the most savage in the onslaught. Only Joe – perhaps remembering other lynchings he may have witnessed? – keeps a horrified distance from the slaughter. In a traditional propaganda film, as many critics wanted at the time, this would be a moment of triumph. The allies coming together to vanquish their common foe.

Instead, it intentionally leads a queezy and unsettling taste in the mouth. Hitchcock seems to be challenging us to ask just how we feel about this. Willie has done terrible, greedy, awful things. He’s got a lot of blood on his hands. But do we feel its right for these guys to murder him – and as brutally as they do here? (Hitchcock shoots the lynching at a distance, the passengers descending on Willie like a mob, his bloodied face emerging at one point before being dragged back in). There is nothing really triumphant about this. And, after the deed, no one seems sure how to process it. Rittenhouse even suggests Willie deserved his fate for his ingratitude after they hauled him from the water.

As safety is finally found near the end, it’s not clear what anyone has learned. The whole ghastly cycle looks like it might be repeated when a young German sailor is hauled onboard after another supply ship is sunk. Some passengers are ready to butcher him immediately – the sailor fortunately is armed. Sanity just about prevails, but already the passengers are beginning to revert, right down to starting to address Joe by the common short-hand name for a black steward, George.

But then at the same time, it’s not as simple as that. After all, these German sailors sunk a ship killing hundreds of people. During the first night on the boat a baby dies in his mother’s arms – the mother then throws herself overboard the next night, despite the passengers attempt to restrain her. Those deaths are discussed again at the end when the passengers obliquely wonder if they did the right thing. The film won’t say for sure, but leave it to you to decide. And it’s that rich sense of unease that helps make this a rather overlooked masterpiece for Hitchcock. A lot more than just a technical triumph, it’s a searching and questioning film.

Braveheart (1995)

"Freedom!" Mel Gibson's Braveheart escapes the shackles of history

Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Mel Gibson (William Wallace), Sophie Marceau (Princess Isabelle), Patrick McGoohan (Edward I), Angus MacFadyen (Robert the Bruce), Brendan Gleeson (Hamish), David O’Hara (Stephen), James Cosmo (Campbell), Peter Hanly (Prince Edward), Catherine McCormack (Murron MacClannough), Ian Bannen (Bruce’s Father), Sean McGinley (MacClannough), Brian Cox (Argyle Wallace)

Think back to 1994 and a time when no one really knew who William Wallace was and Mel Gibson was the world’s favourite sexy bad-boy. Because by 1995, William Wallace had become the international symbol of Scottish “Freedom!” and Mel Gibson was an Oscar-winning auteur. Can you believe a film like Braveheart won no fewer than five Oscars, including the Big One? History has not always been kind to it – but then the film was hardly kind to history, so swings and roundabouts.

It’s the late 13th century and Scotland has been conquered by the cruel Edward I (Patrick McGoohan) – a pagan apparently, which just makes you think that Gibson and screenwriter Randall Wallace simply don’t know what that word means. William Wallace (Mel Gibson) saw his whole family killed, but now he’s grown and married to his sweetheart Murron (Catherine McCormack). In secret, as the wicked king has introduced Prima Nocte to Scotland, giving English landlords the right to do as they please with brides on the wedding night. When Murron is killed after a fight to avoid her rape, Wallace’s desire for revenge transforms into a crusade to win Scotland its freedom. A brilliant tactician and leader of men, battles can be won – but can Wallace win the support of the ever-shifting lords, such as the conflicted Robert the Bruce (Angus MacFadyen)? Will this end in freedom or death?

Even in 1995, Braveheart was a very old-fashioned piece of film-making. You can easily imagine exactly the same film being made (with less sex and violence) in the 1950s, with Chuck Heston in a kilt and a “Hoots Mon!” accent. In fact, watching it again, I was struck that narratively the film follows almost exactly the same tone and narrative arc as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – with the only difference being if that film had concluded after the Sheriff’s attack on Sherwood Forest with Robin Hood gutted alive in the streets of Nottingham.

This is a big, silly cartoon of a movie, that serves up plenty of moments of crowd-pleasing violence, low comedy, heroes we can cheer and villains we can hiss. Mel Gibson, truth be told, sticks out like a sore thumb with his chiselled Hollywood looks and defiantly modern mannerisms. The film takes a ridiculously simplistic view of the world that categorises everything and everyone into goodies (Wallace and his supporters) and the baddies (almost everyone else).

It’s also far longer than you remember it being. It takes the best part of 50 minutes to build up to Wallace going full berserker after the death of his wife. A later section of the film spends 30 minutes spinning plates between Wallace being betrayed at the Battle of Falkirk and then being betrayed again into captivity (you could have combined both events into one and lost nothing from the film). There is some lovely footage of the Scottish (largely actually Irish) countryside, lusciously shot by John Toll and an effectively Celtic-influenced romantic score by James Horner. In fact, Toll and Horner contribute almost as much to the success of the film as Gibson.

Gibson is by no means a bad director. In fact, very few directors can shoot action and energy as effectively as the controversial Australian. The best bits of Braveheart reflect this. When he’s shooting battles, or fights, or brutal executions he knows what he’s doing. Even if I’d argue that Kenneth Branagh managed to make much less than this look more impressive in Henry V. The battles have an “ain’t it cool” cheek to them, that invites the audience to delight in watching limbs hacked off, horses cut down and screaming Woad-covered warriors ripping through stuffy English soldiers. It’s probably not an accident that the film channels more than a little bit of sport-fan culture into its Scottish warriors.

Where Gibson’s film is more mundane is in almost everything else. The rest of the film is shot with a functional mundanity, mixed with the odd sweeping helicopter shot over the highlands. Its similarities to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves are actually really strong, from the matey bonhomie of the gang at its heart, its pantomime villain, the moral certainty of its crusades and the fact that Mel Gibson is no more convincing as a 13th-century Scot than Kevin Costner was as Robin Hood. But at least Prince of Thieves knew it was a silly bit of fun. Braveheart thinks it’s got an important message about the immortality of Freedom.

Alongside that, it’s a film that focuses on giving you what you it thinks you want. Gladiator – in many ways a similar film – is a richer and more emotional film, not least because it has the courage to stick to being a film where the hero is faithful to his dead wife and whose triumph is joining her in death. In this film, there are callbacks throughout to the dead Murron – but it doesn’t stop Wallace banging Princess Isabelle, or the film using the same sweeping romantic score to backdrop this as it did for the marriage of Murron and Wallace. What on earth is it trying to say here?

It goes without saying that the real Wallace did not have sex with Princess Isabelle and father Edward III – not least because the real Isabelle was about ten when Wallace died and I’m not sure putting that in the film would have had us rooting for Wallace. Almost nothing in the film is historically accurate. Wallace is presented as a peasant champion, when he in fact was a minor lord (the film even bizarrely keeps in Wallace travelling Europe and learning French and Latin – a big reach for a penniless medieval Scots peasant). Even the name Braveheart is taken from Robert the Bruce and given to Wallace. The Bruce himself – a decent performance by Angus MacFadyen – is turned into a weak vacillator, under the thumb of his leprous Dad (a lip-smacking Ian Bannen).

The historical messing about doesn’t stop there. Even Wallace’s finest hour, the Battle of Stirling Bridge, is transformed. The film-makers apparently felt the vital eponymous bridge “got in the way” – a sentiment shared by the English, who in reality were drawn into its bottleneck and promptly massacred. Instead we get a tactics free scrap in a field – fun as it is to watch the Scots lift their kilts, it hardly makes sense. The Scots culture in this film is a curious remix of about five hundred years of influences all thrown into one. Prima Nocte never happened. The real Edward II was a martial superstar – but here is a fey, limp-wristed sissy (the film’s attitude towards him stinks of homophobia). Almost nothing in the film actually happened.

But the romance of the film made it popular. It’s a big, crowd-pleasing, cheesy slice of Hollywood silliness. The sort of film where Wallace sneaks into someone’s room at the top of a castle riding a freaking horse and no-one notices. It tells a simple story in simple terms, using narrative tricks and rules familiar from countless adventure films since The Adventures of Robin Hood. It looks and sounds great, enough to disguise the fact that it isn’t really any good. Because it has a sad ending, scored with sad music, it tricked enough people to think it had depth and style. In fact is a very mediocre film, hellishly overlong, that turns history into a cheap comic book. It remains in the top 100 most popular films of all time on IMDB. It’s about as likely an Oscar winner as 300.

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Lincoln (2012)

Daniel Day-Lewis gives on the great transformative performances as Lincoln 

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), David Strathairn (William Seward), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln), James Spader (WN Bilbo), Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair), John Hawkes (Robert Latham), Jackie Earle Haley (Alexander Stephens), Bruce McGill (Edwin Stanton), Tim Blake Nelson (Richard Schell), Joseph Cross (John Hay), Jared Harris (Ulysses S Grant), Lee Pace (Fernando Wood), Peter McRobbie (George Pendleton), Gloria Reuben (Elizabeth Keckley), Jeremy Strong (John Nicolay), Michael Stuhlbarg (George Yeaman), David Costible (James Ashley), Boris McGiver (Alexander Coffroth)

It took me three viewings until I felt I got Lincoln. Previously – in the cinema and the first time at home – I respected it. I admired the skill with which it was assembled. But I had found it hard to see it as much more than a critically acclaimed civics lesson, Spielberg at his most prestige. Returning to it the third time with the pressure well and truly off, suddenly I discovered a film I’d never seen before, an intensely dramatic telling of the perilous struggle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery. A vibrant, beautiful and surprisingly intense story of how close Congress came to vetoing it. What had seemed a stuffy museum piece, instead came to life as a dramatic piece of cinema. It goes to show you should never be afraid to give something another go. Or two.

This biopic of Lincoln goes down a very modern route of avoiding covering the Great Man’s entire life. Instead it zeroes in on little more than a crucial month. It’s January 1865 – in what we know are the final months of the President’s life – and Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) confronts a terrible choice. Civil war has torn America apart for year and peace may be on the horizon. But Lincoln fears a reformed America, with all its Southern slave states back in the fold, will find a way to end his Emancipation Proclamation and restore slavery to its height. To prevent this, Congress must ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ending slavery. But, with many in Congress worried that such an Amendment will end any chance of peace, Lincoln is in a terrible position. Should he sacrifice peace for abolition? Or vice versa? Either way, it will be a no-holds barred fight on the floors of Congress.

Spielberg’s film is near perfect in its shooting and editing, while its historical detail is brilliantly on-point. You couldn’t fault a moment of its making. However, what makes the film a success is the director’s skilful ability to combine graceful (even stately) old-fashioned film-making expertise, with a truly compelling sense of the passions and dangers we face when democracy is in action. And the overwhelming tension when the stakes are high and we have no guarantees of the end result. Another film – the stately civics lesson I once took the film for – would have shown the passage of the bill as a Whiggish inevitability, a progress filled march to a better world.

Lincoln isn’t like that. This is a film that shows politics then and politics now ain’t that different. For every principled man, there a dozen looking out for the main chance, marking time or who are too scared to worry about right and wrong. The Amendment is delivered not by impassioned oratory from the President. It’s carried by skilled floor management and the employment of a trio of political lobbyists with briefcases stuffed with cushy job offers in the rebuilt America.

Votes are brow-beaten out of people, threats and persuasion are used in equal measure. There is no winning people over with poetic oratory. At one point, Lincoln makes a simple and heartfelt plea for one congressmen to do the right thing: the guy votes against him. One of the film’s moments of triumph sees fervent abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens refuse to be provoked into expressing his true views on the floor, instead offering a statement that he does not believe in equality “in all things”, knowing any other answer will be used to build opposition against the bill. Is there any other film in American politics where one of the biggest cheer moments is one of our heroes compromising and spinning his true views into something far less threatening?

It’s all part of the film’s demystification of American history as not being something made from marble, but instead being real and true. If anything though, this sense of realism – of danger and the very real possibility of defeat – makes the final vote (a long sequence that almost plays out a congress vote in real time) both far more dramatic and also surprisingly moving. Because we appreciate every step of the backroom handshakes, fights, compromises and (let’s be honest) corruption and shady deals that got us here. And, more than anything, the film has made clear Lincoln is willing for this brutal war (the horrors of which, both in battle and bloody aftermath, intrude at key points in the film) to go on for as long as it takes, to ensure this Amendment.

Lincoln is the heart of the film: and it’s almost impossible to state how central Daniel Day-Lewis is to the film’s success. This is an extraordinary performance. I don’t think you can understate how venerated Lincoln is in the American memory. With his distinctive features and a permanent memory of him sitting like a marble God in the centre of Washington, it’s hard for many to imagine that this was ever a real man. But Day-Lewis has turned in a performance here that transforms Lincoln into a living, breathing man but never once compromises his greatness.

From the voice (a wispy lightness, a million miles from the deep, Shakespearean accent you would expect – and entirely accurate) to the ambling walk, to the film’s embracing of Lincoln’s eccentric monologing, his love of whimsy and jokes, his autodidact passion for language, his warmth and love for his family – and his righteous anger when frustrated by those who cannot see the big picture – this is extraordinary. Day-Lewis is compelling in a way few actors can be. His Lincoln is superbly human. Every moment is beautifully observed, but this is so much more than an actor’s tricks. His Lincoln is someone you can come out of the film convinced that he was talking to you, that you understand him as a human being not a cipher. I felt I knew and understood Lincoln more from watching this film than I ever had from a history book. It’s breathtaking.

Of course it inspires everyone else in the cast to give their best. The at times difficult marriage between Lincoln and his wife gives some wonderful material for Sally Field (easily her finest performance in decades). Mary Todd Lincoln is aware she will always be a disappointment for her husband as a partner, but equally feels that her public mourning for this lost child speaks of a deeper humanity than her husband. Loyal if questioning, she’s also abrupt and clumsy enough at times to be a liability.

Tommy Lee Jones is exceptional as Thaddeus Stevens, prickly, difficult but also morally pure (the film has helped rediscover the unjustly overlooked Stevens). Previous Lincoln performers Strathairn and Holbrook give very good support. James Spader is great fun as colourful lobbyist. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is all restricted ambition as Lincoln’s son. Jared Harris shines in a few scenes as Grant. Gloria Reuben has a few beautiful moments as Mary’s confidante Elizabeth Keckley.

Lincoln is a film shot with all the prestige of an American Merchant-Ivory, in love with the power of democracy. But it’s also open-eyed on how a system like America’s works, and how perilous delivering “the right thing” can be. Emotional and engrossing, it’s powered above all by a towering sublime performance by Daniel Day-Lewis who might as well be the 16th President reborn. It took me three viewings to see the richness here – but I am so glad I stuck it out.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Vita and Virginia

Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki struggle to bring a love story to life in Vita and Virginia

Director: Chanya Button
Cast: Gemma Arterton (Vita Sackville-West), Elizabeth Debicki (Virginia Woolf), Isabella Rossellini (Lady Sackville), Rupert Penry-Jones (Harold Nicholson), Peter Ferdinando (Leonard Woolf), Gethin Anthony (Clive Bell), Emerald Fennell (Vanessa Bell), Adam Gillen (Duncan Grant), Karla Crome (Dorothy Wellesley)

The love affair between Bloomsbury group writers Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) inspired a successful epistolatory play by Eileen Atkins. It’s got all the elements you need for a love story: sadly none of those make their way into this limp, lethargic, languid film which drains any trace of passion from its material.

Where did it all go so wrong? The film expands the plays concept (two actors performing the various letters between the two lovers) into a series of conversations and throws in as characters the other members of the Bloomsbury circle. Sadly, what it fails to do is convey a sense of joi d’vive to any of this. The Bloomsbury crowd not only come across as pompous bores, but they never even really seem to be enjoying themselves. They certainly find it hard to get passionately worked up about any of these marvellous artistic ideas we keep being told they are having. The only thing we really see them talk about is sex, probably because it’s easier to put that on screen than writing.

The failure of the film is increased by the sadly misjudged performances by the two actors at its heart. It’s already a struggle to get any sense of chemistry between these two – I can’t put my finger on why this is, but there isn’t the undefinable ‘spark’ between them. Perhaps it’s partly because they both choose such wildly diverse acting styles, that their scenes never quite click together.

Debicki goes for a stately fragility, mixed with an emo waviness and seems to be playing every scene as if she subconsciously stating “my character committed suicide you know”. Arterton seems to try and compensate for Debicki’s overstated lip wobbling, by going for a jolly hockey-sticks brashness. Neither performance compliments the other and the effect is feeling like two very good actresses feeling constrained in different ways by the material.

It’s not helped by the flatness of much of the filming. I’ve seen Chanya Button’s work elsewhere (notably on television with some great work on WW2 drama World on Fire), but here she seems uncertain how to bring visual interest to this story. Too many scenes are shot with a murky lack of visual interest. Moments of letter reading are presented as the actors addressing the camera. Stylistic flourishes – such as Virginia’s visions of swiftly growing vines at moments of emotion – seem to come out of nowhere and jar with much of the rest of the traditionalism of the rest of the filming.

So instead, two fascinating intellectuals end up coming across as slightly self-absorbed bores in a relationship that never catches fire. Most of the rest of the cast fail to make an impact: Rupert Penry-Jones gets closest as Vita’s husband who oscillates between embracing their open marriage and demanding a wife who will fulfil a more traditional role. But for the rest, it’s hard to get any sense of their personalities with some performances – especially Adam Gillen – tipping too far into gurning comedy.

The general lifelessness of the film is made somehow even worse by the bizarrely left-field score. It’s a strikingly anachronistic slow-paced drum-and-base inspired sound that wouldn’t seem out of place in the late hours of a nightclub. Here it not only feels horrendously out of place – not least because it’s the only anachronistic touch either in the film-making of the performances, which are otherwise scrupulously correct – but it’s incessant throbbing beat actually helps make the film even slower, as if you were watching it in a slightly intoxicated haze.

Vita and Virginia should really have crackled with the vibrancy of the real-life characters and the passion of their love for each other and their shared ideas. Instead it’s a tedious bore that never sparks into life.

Saturday, 24 April 2021

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Harry Belafonte, Ed Begley and Robert Ryan are a mismatched crime team in Odds Against Tomorrow

Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Harry Belafonte (Johnny Ingram), Robert Ryan (Earl Slater), Shelley Winters (Lorry), Ed Begley (Dave Burke), Gloria Grahame (Helen), Will Kuluva (Bacco), Kim Hamilton (Ruth Ingram), Mae Barnes (Annie), Richard Bright (Coco), Carmen de Lavallade (Kitty), Lew Gallo (Moriarty)

Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) life is on the skids. His career as a singer isn’t bringing in the money to fuel his gambling addiction or help support his ex-wife. Owing money to gangsters, he’s roped into taking part in a bank heist master-minded by bitter ex-cop Dave Burke (Ed Begley). It should all go smoothly. Unfortunately, Burke has also recruited Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) as muscle – and Slater has channelled all his own insecurities and resentments into virulent racism. Can Johnny and Slater work together to make the heist work?

Wise’s picture – with a script by the black-listed Abraham Polonsky – is on paper a crime drama. But it’s really hardly interested in the heist (which is almost laughably simple) the planning of which doesn’t even start until the film is nearly an hour old. Instead, the focus is on putting together a neat parable for racial divide in America. Because if even criminals are more preoccupied with feuding over the question of the colour of each other’s skin than making a score, why on Earth should we be surprised that such problems arise in every walk of life?

Attitudes are mapped out early in the film, largely thanks to Wise’s crisply efficient story-telling. Ingram playfully tips off a group of mixed-race kids to watch his car; Slater singles out a black child from this same group with a smilingly delivered racial epitaph. In the building, they both have strikingly different conversations with a black elevator attendant. Its clear tensions will abound – not least because Slater won’t work a job with a black man and Ingram is rightly disgusted with him.

Belafonte produced the film and he plays a very different type of black American than most films had seen. Black characters frequently fell into being either noble or deferential. Johnny is neither. He’s angry, bitter, drinks and has no interest in compromise of any sort. Johnny is a deeply troubled man, who seems to be making a mess of his life. Above all he doesn’t rise above racial abuse or shrug it off, but angrily confronts it. Fundamentally he’s a chippy screw-up, but he always retains sympathy because we can see he’s really a decent guy, for all his faults.

He’s just not one who’s willing to play the white man’s game to get ahead. He’s quite clear with his wife (very effectively played by Kim Hamilton) that he’s not willing to simply conform with a structurally unfair world. He’s also quite clear with Slater that he doesn’t want to hear whimsical memories of the South during the ‘good old days’. Belafonte does all this with a great deal of energy, even if you feel he doesn’t quite have the range and power for the role.

It’s interesting though that the film finds plenty of room to explore Slater. Played with a fragile self-loathing by Robert Ryan (one of Hollywood’s great liberals, whose career was made up of characters who persecuted minorities), Slater is deeply unsettled and insecure. He’s struggling to adjust to a more modern world where the man isn’t always the hunter-gatherer, and his wife (a rather sweet Shelley Winters) has the fixed job he can’t get. He doesn’t understand the world anymore.  

All this makes Slater vulnerable, confused and even a bit pitiable – all qualities Ryan effortlessly brings out in the film’s finest performance – stumbling into bar fights where he responds with far too much violence. His face constantly seems to crumble into something a little like tears. He engages in a brief fling with a flirtatious neighbour (a blowsy Gloria Grahame) simply, it seems, to try and feel better about himself. The only thing that give him strength, it seems, is turning Johnny and all other black people into an alien “other” which he can lambast and attack.

This of course leads to barely concealed tensions during the robbery planning – where Slater repeatedly states he doesn’t trust Johnny to complete anything – and then during the robbery itself when the fundamental distrust between these two leads to a shoot-out and disaster. Caught in the middle, in a polished performance, is Ed Begley’s Burke, lacking the force of character to make this odd couple work together.

Wise’s film sometimes make some obvious choices – after the final climactic shoot-out, a policeman comments “which is which”, which is about as “under the skin we’re all the same” as you can get. But it’s told with a leanness and pace and by focusing on social issues rather than crime, it presents an intriguing snapshot of American attitudes. The vast majority of characters don’t share Slater’s kneejerk racism – but they also don’t even think of challenging it. No wonder Johnny Ingram’s so annoyed – and no wonder he sees that, for all the smiles, it’s a world run by and for the white man where your only chance of success is conform and shut up. Maybe the odds are against tomorrow.

Watchmen (2009)

Morally complex heroes in Zach Snyder's visually impressive Watchmen

Director: Zach Snyder
Cast: Malin Åkerman (Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II), Billy Crudup (Jon Osterman/Dr Manhattan), Matthew Goode (Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias), Jackie Earle Haley (Walter Kovacs/Rorschach), Patrick Wilson (Daniel Dreiberg/Nite Owl II), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Edward Blake/Comedian), Carla Gugino (Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre), Matt Frewer (Edgar Jacobi/Moloch), Stephen McHattie (Hollis Mason/Nite Owl)

If you asked people to name the greatest Graphic Novel Ever, chances are they would come up with Alan Moore’s Watchmen. This scintillating deconstruction of superheroes and the morality of caped avenging satirises what the impact of superheroes in a real world might be. It had taken decades – and several cancelled attempts – to get a film version to the screen. So, if nothing else, Zach Snyder deserves plaudits for merely persuading Hollywood executives to get this expensive, R-rated, morally complex film to the screen. Sure, the final result isn’t perfect, but it’s got a fair bit going for it.

Watchmen is set in an alternative 1985 where Richard Nixon is serving his fourth term and the Armageddon of Nuclear war is just around the corner. Masked vigilantes had been a common sight on the streets – although banned since 1977. The Vietnam war was won (in a few days) by the God-like Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a scientist granted superhuman powers in 1959 after an accident with a field generator. Most other vigilantes are retired, other than right-wing bully the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). When the Comedian is murdered by a masked intruder, his fellow members of superhero group the Watchmen, worry someone eliminating them for reasons unknown.

Snyder’s Watchmen is a visual feast. Snyder – a huge fan of the graphic novel – used it as a visual bible, quoting it in several frames. The film is a beautiful mix of dark, filmic visuals and striking comic book primary colours, while frequently embracing the inky black murkiness of the violent world its depicting. Shot with the same high energy and dynamism as 300, Snyder’s ability to turn pulpy Warhol inspired visuals into fast-paced, filmic action is second-to-none.

What however is more of a shame is the feeling that the main things in Watchmen that interest Snyder might be the visuals. Where the film sometimes fails to come to life is where it deals with the complex morality of its heroes. The original deconstructed the morality of heroes. How a man with the powers of a God could come to look on humanity with an (albeit affectionate) distance. How a masked PI would be so convinced that right and wrong were certain that he would be willing to carry out acts of bone-crunching violence. That a hero could calculate sacrificing millions of lives for the greater good isn’t just acceptable, its recommended. That for others the exhilaration of spending their nights beating up criminals is an escape from the mundane realities of life.

The problem is that Watchmen never quite gets to the heart of these moral questions, of really tackling the rights, wrongs and shades of grey of those ethical quandaries. Rather than delving into them, ideas are too often stated. While its daring for a film to include heroes who are as deeply flawed, violent and, at times, even as unpleasant as this – it still doesn’t quite flesh out the complexities of this.

Too often the film takes a naughty pleasure in its violence and brutality, seeing that as a short-hand for presenting a morally unclear world. And at times wants us to go “how cool is that!” rather than asking “should I be enjoying watching indiscriminate slaughter from a vigilante”. Its telling that the recent HBO series of Watchmen – a sequel to the Graphic Novel set in the modern world – feels more like a true adaptation of the source material than this. That dealt with fascinating ideas about race in America, morality and acceptable sacrifices for the greater good (and still managed to work in plenty of action). By comparison, this film of the source material itself feels less deep. Now of course run time is part of that, but it should have been possible to make a film this long that more successfully combined ideas and visuals.

Snyder’s passion of the material is clear – but the film is often a little too obvious. From cuts to musical cues, it’s a film that pushes the envelope only in terms of its look and feel. It tries its best, but its vision of transmitting the depths of the original sometimes seem to stop at a faithful visual rendition of its style.

But it’s made with a lot of love and passion, not least in the acting. The decision to go largely with unknown actors pays off very well. Earle Haley brilliantly channels his character from the graphic book, a prickly obsessive with an unshakeable moral certainty. Crudup perfectly conveys the vast parental distance a real Superman would probably feel towards normal people. Goode’s chilling coldness and arrogance is perfect. Wilson gives the film heart as the closest genuinely decent guy. Åkerman does her best with a part that feels slightly underwritten and at times a plot requirement, largely defined by the emotions she provokes in the male character.

There are plenty of excellent moments in Watchmen but I’m not sure it ever really, truly becomes its own thing (in the way the HBO series did manage to do). In trying to so completely ape the visuals, and fit in all the plot, it becomes a companion piece rather than a stand-alone production. If Snyder had perhaps had a bit more courage to track away from the strict structures of the original source material it could perhaps have helped make a stronger film. However, saying that I can imagine the fans hitting the roof if he had… And Snyder’s ability to persuade the studio to make a film with such a nihilist feel and ending is to be commended. Watchmen is a mixed bag, but when it works it does work well.