Friday, 28 May 2021

Fail Safe (1964)

Henry Fonda desperately tries to avert nuclear war in Fail Safe

Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Henry Fonda (The President), Dan O’Herlihy (Brigadier General Warren Black), Walter Matthau (Professor Groeteschele), Frank Overton (General Bogan), Fritz Weaver (Colonel Cascio), Edward Binns (Colonel Jack Grady), Larry Hagman (Buck), William Hansen (Defence Secretary Swenson)


In 1964 the classic film on nuclear conflict was released and became a landmark in Hollywood history. Also released was Fail Safe. Dr Strangelove has dragged Fail Safe through history like a sort of shameful cousin. It’s reputation – if you’ve heard about it at all – is “Dr Strangelove but with no jokes”. That’s hugely harsh on a well-made, tense and fascinating film that sees nuclear war as less the blackly comedic theatre of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction, the buzzword of the day), and more as a dark human tragedy where mistakes, suspicions and paranoia lead to disaster.

During a routine manoeuvre, a mechanical power surge at USAAF leads to a mistaken but correctly authenticated order being sent to a wing of bombers to drop their nukes on Moscow. Due to Russian jamming, USAAF has no idea this has happened until after the five minute recall window. After the five-minute window has passed, the pilots follow their training and ignore all subsequent orders no matter who gives them – even if it’s directly from the President (Henry Fonda) himself. Desperately the President works with the Soviet Union to stop the bombers (and prevent the inevitable full scale nuclear war they would provoke). Problem is national pride, mutual suspicion, subordinates who can’t stomach co-operation between enemies and those that an accidental first strike is the perfect way to start a nuclear war one side could win, keep getting in the way.

While Dr Strangelove saw the insanity of MAD – the willingness of the leaders of both sides to promote a type of war that could only lead to the destruction of all life on earth – as so darkly absurd it could only be a subject for jet-dark-satire, Fail Safe takes a more humane if equally chilling route. Shot mostly with a low-key documentary realism by Sidney Lumet, the action is restricted to no more than four main locations. Once the crisis starts we never go outside. We never even see the Russians, represented only by photos and their words given life by Presidential translator Larry Hagman. Bar from the odd piece of stock footage, we are in the bunkers with the characters. And we feel as powerless as they do, as events spin out of control.

The film could be seen as an attack on the replacement of humans from the system by machines. Sure, the strike is triggered by a faulty piece of equipment. But everything after that is the result of good old-fashioned human error. The US debate about shooting down the bombers that goes on for so long, the bombers get out of range. The Russian refusal to accept US help to shoot the bombers down, leading them to taking pot shots at radar ghosts. The attempted coups on both sides in the command room, as junior officers refuse to co-operate with the enemy. The mistrust between both sides that leads the Russians chasing a decoy attack run rather the real bombing plane, despite the pleading of the American General that it’s a decoy.

And above all, the crushing arrogant insanity of introducing a system like this in the first place. A system so regimented and drilled into its soldiers – removing any chance of independent logical thought – that the pilot of the bombers will even ignore his own wife pleading down the line that the first strike he believes he is retaliating against hasn’t even happened. A system where leading American advisors suggest that, because it’s so difficult to call back an attack like this, why not just launch everything else after it as well and claim victory. This system can destroy the world but has no leeway for human error and forbids any independent thought from anyone. Now that’s MAD.

It takes a while for the film to get going, laying its groundwork slowly. Much of the first half hour introduces the characters – such as the family life of anti-Nuclear but loyal soldier General Black (a very good Dan O’Herlihy) and the chilling pragmatism of war theorist Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) to whom nuclear war is just a matter of working out what the acceptable casualty rates are (he would agree with Stalin that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic). We tour the USAAF base where level-headed General Brogan (an excellent Frank Overton) and his twitchy number two Colonel Cascio (a slightly too fidgety Fritz Weaver) demonstrate just how fool-proof their systems are to a couple of congressmen – just as those systems fail.

From there the film plays out almost in real time, as the planes fly the two-hour journey to drop their bombs. Two hours when everyone tries to desperately tell themselves that this disaster can be prevented (or in some cases, can be turned into victory). Lumet’s film captures wonderfully the claustrophobic intensity of this. The Russians – despite never being seen – are skilfully humanised with snatches of conversation and photographs. The pilots are brave, resourceful, brilliantly trained – making their rigid determination to destroy the world for no reason (because their training doesn’t allow them to consider any other alternative) all the more tragic.

It all culminates in an impossibly bleak ending, the President’s only alternative to all-out nuclear war is one of terrifying magnitude. The inevitable build to this sacrifice is also executed with a low-key intensity. Fonda is perfect in the lead role – his tortured gravitas and decency pushing him towards ever more distasteful and finally appallingly bleak decisions.

 Lumet’s film isn’t perfect – an overly impressionistic opening of General Black’s recurring dream of a matador smacks of someone who has watched way too many Bunuel films – and its slow start probably takes five minutes too long. But with its chillingly cold glaze on the flaws in the nuclear deterrent and the people who operate it, it deserves to be remembered as something more than Dr Strangelove Without the Jokes.

The Social Network (2010)

Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg bring the making of Facebook to life in Fincher's mdoern American classic

Director: David Fincher
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg (Mark Zuckerberg), Andrew Garfield (Eduardo Saverin), Justin Timberlake (Sean Parker), Armie Hammer (Cameron Winklevoss/Tyler Winklevoss), Max Minghella (Divya Narendra), Brenda Song (Christy Lee), Rashida Jones (Marilyn Delpy), Joseph Mazzello (Dustin Moskovitz), Rooney Mara (Erica Albright), John Getz (Sy), David Selby (Gage)


Nothing has changed our interaction with the world faster than the internet. And nothing on the internet has changed how we interact as much as social media. As it drives changes in the way we relate to other people, it’s a brave film that tries to capture this zeitgeist and turn it into an effective movie. The Social Network is a brave movie – and also a brilliant one, a defiantly modern and far-sighted movie that avoids being the sanctimonious message movie it could have become, by concentrating on personal relationships, drama and, above all, a strong and compelling story.

Its October 2003 and a 19-year old Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) gets dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). So, he responds like many people today would – but not in 2003 – by writing a series of rude and angry blogs about her. And at the same time, he does something you and I wouldn’t be able to do – he builds overnight a campus website called Facemash that allows users to rate the attractiveness of female students. It’s a sensation – and a scandal.

Off the back of it, Zuckerberg is approached by the Winklevoss brothers (in a skilled double performance by Armie Hammer) to see if he’d be interested in building an elite social network, Harvard Connection, for them. Zuckerberg agrees – but did he independently already have the idea for Thefacebook, an elite social network for Ivy League students? Either way, with funds from friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) he builds the platform which is to become Facebook. Does it all end well? Since the story is framed around Zuckerberg in 2009, sitting in depositions while being sued by both the Winkelvoss brothers (“the Winklevi”) and Saverin, you can guess not.

Fincher’s film reflects its central character in many ways – cool, efficient, tightly wound, juggling intellectualism with simmering tension. It’s vibrant, fresh, razor-sharp, perfectly paced and superbly dramatic. It turns what could have been a terrifically dull story of very clever people typing lines of code into a whipper-sharp story of jealousies, rivalries and suspicions. It also brilliantly veers away from being a polemic. It could easily have made points – as many films have – about the “evils and dangers of that creepy thing the internet” or constantly reminded us how morally superior film-makers are to social media kingpins. It does nothing of the sort. Instead it’s a brilliantly insightful look at the birth of a phenomenon that also makes subtle, intelligent points about some of the behaviours that phenomenon led to. All while keeping us gloriously entertained.

A big part of the film’s success is in Sorkin’s superb script. The material is perfect for him. The character’s intellectualism fits with his pithy turn of phrase, while their perceptions of themselves as victims or on a moral crusade fits with his ability to write morality with empathy. It also helps that he is the master of crackling dialogue. The idea to structure the film around the depositions is also a master-stroke. Not just a reminder of what’s to come, it adds an air of artificiality to everything we see (perfect as well for Sorkin’s smarter-than-life dialogue) – after all, each scene is based on the filtered remembrances of people in the depositions. And all of them remember a subtly different story.

Sorkin and Fincher also manage to avoid having villains in play. It would be easy to make Zuckerberg a villain: many films would have done. But Zuckerberg here isn’t bad – it’s more that he’s tunnel-visioned, selfish and socially inept. Erica (a marvellous turn by Rooney Mara as the first victim of social media bullying) has a point when she says she dumping him not because he’s a geek but because he’s not really a nice person. But Zuckerberg’s actions – his betrayals as some read them – come not from vindictiveness but a shark-like moving forward that leaves people behind him. And he’s also, as the film is keen to show repeatedly, lonely. He has one friend – whom he sacrifices on the altar of his creation – and is ruthless at cutting people out of his life when they fail to meet the standards he has set them.

The film channels the skills of Eisenberg – whose range is not huge – perfectly here, in a role he was surely born to play. Eisenberg crafts his physicality in something hunched, oppressed and sullen while his flat voice is perfect for a man who expresses himself through his creation not his personality. He gives Zuckerberg both a ruthlessness, but also a strange lack of knowledge – constantly surprised that his actions have consequences that leave him alone. He makes him a true lonely god of the internet – the man who invented the biggest social networking centre in the world, but who doesn’t have a friend himself.

But it also makes clear that Zuckerberg lacks the usual flaws of his kind: he’s not interested, it seems, in money, riches, fame or drugs. To him, the prize is to do not to be seen to do. He makes a rich contrast with Sean Parker (a brilliantly charismatic Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster, who briefly influences him but is primarily interested in the flash and bang that the retiring Zuckerberg isn’t. What he does have is the drive and ruthlessness that his friend Eduardo Saverin (a wonderful performance from Andrew Garfield as a marvellously sweet, but clearly naïve and out-of-his-depth man completely lacking the vision a project like Facebook needs) doesn’t have – and which makes Saverin unsuitable for thinking in the global terms Zuckerberg is.

And the film has little time for the Winklevoss twins. Played with chutzpah in a double role by Armie Hammer (who skilfully distinguishes both of them), Zuckerberg is right when he describes them as rich kids who had everything they ever wanted in life – and seem outraged that they can’t be given the rights to Facebook as well. As he points out they intended to do nothing other than come up with a concept. These rowers – in a witty touch their boat is sponsored by that dinosaur Polaroid – also represent the old elite under siege from new media. The entitled rich, who can’t comprehend that the world is being handed to them on a plate.

The film also makes for an intriguing meta-commentary on the growth of social media. From the trolling of Erica, through the bitter feuds and arguments, the he-said-she-said fighting of the depositions, and the quick shifts between friendship and rivalry, it also manages to capture the world of social media in a nutshell. The atmosphere where actions can explode in people’s perception, where statements you made years ago come back to bite you, where judgement and criticism are constant and the ability to communicate more easily also makes fights easier to start, seem more and more prescient.

Fincher’s film does this marvellously, with a wit and sense of dramatic flair that reminds me of a more grounded Network. Sure the scene at Henley-on-Thames is hand-in-the-mouth agonising for any British person to watch (it is littered with major errors from turn-of-phrase to its understanding of life in Britain), but when every other scene in it is perfectly done it doesn’t matter. Like any victory, Facebook has many people claiming to be its father. You could say the film about this film: superbly directed, a brilliant script and perfectly cast, it’s a triumph.

Monday, 24 May 2021

A Passage to India (1984)

Judy Davis and Victor Bannerjee in Lean's final film on tensions in the Raj, A Passage to India

Director: David Lean
Cast: Victor Bannerjee (Dr Azizi), Judy Davis (Adela Quested), Peggy Ashcroft (Mrs Moore), James Fox (Richard Fielding), Alec Guinness (Professor Narayan Godbole), Nigel Havers (Ronny Heaslop), Richard Wilson (Collector Turton), Antonia Pemberton (Mrs Turton), Michael Culver (Major McBryde), Clive Swift (Major Callendar), Art Malik (Ali), Saeed Jaffrey (Hamidullah), Ann Firbank (Mrs Callendar), Roshan Seth (Amit Rao)

David Lean’s final film came after a 14 year hiatus after the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Ryan’s Daughter. (During a disastrous two-hour lunchtime with several prominent US film critics, Lean was asked outright how the director of Brief Encounter could have made “such a piece of bullshit” – the experience shattered his confidence for years). When he returned, it was with this handsome literary adaptation of EM Forster’s classic novel on the tensions in the British Raj. A Passage to India is a wonderful fusion between Lean’s later films that fill the largest canvas, and the carefully judged Dickensian adaptations of his early years.

In 1920s Chandrapore, Adela Quested (Judy Davis) has arrived from England with her prospective mother-in-law Mrs Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) to marry the local magistrate Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers). The two women are fascinated by India and its culture – and quickly bored with the parts of it the ex-pat community will show them (basically a sort of little-England alcove). When they befriend local Muslim doctor Aziz (Victor Bannerjee) and liberal pro-Indian school superintendent Richard Fielding (James Fox), Aziz invites them on a trip to the local Marabar Caves. During the trip, Miss Quested flees and accuses Aziz of attempted rape. Aziz pleas his innocence – Fielding and Mrs Moore believe him, Miss Quested seems confused – but the case becomes a cause celebre that will explode the tensions between the rulers and the colonised.

Lean’s production of the book (as well as directing, he also wrote the screenplay and edited the film) is a delicate and handsome adaptation, carefully capturing the events of the book and making a manful effort to bring to life its textures and complexities. Forster had worked in India for several years as the secretary to a Maharajah and for many years was in love with an Indian called Masood. He had a unique perspective of Indian/English relations (much of it filtered into the character of Fielding) which he believed was underpinned not only by misunderstanding but also unpassable barriers that Empire throws up between East and West.

A Passage to India doesn’t always quite manage to capture this – perhaps largely because the book’s third act (which focuses in particular on the strains on the friendship between Aziz and Fielding) is truncated down to about 12 minutes of the film’s 2 and half hour run time. This does mean the film’s final impact feels rushed and unclear – and that the final parting of these characters doesn’t carry the impact it should. I can see why this has been done – that section of the book is less interesting, and also shows Aziz, at times, in a less sympathetic light – but it does mean the film misses something of the book’s engagement with moral and intellectual issues in favour of delivering the cold, hard plot of the Caves and the trial.

But these sections are well-judged, carefully structured and expertly executed. Lean’s film is very good on observing the kneejerk racism (some paternal, some outright unpleasant) from the British community. The incongruity of British clubs, garden parties and middle-class homes and lawns in a foreign land. How Indians are only welcome into these settings as silent servants or repurposed into British icons, such as brass bands. The total detachment of the rulers from the ruled: the tour of India arranged by Ronny features the British barracks, court-room and culminates in some ghastly amateur theatricals. Indians exist only to be told what to do and to applaud their rulers.

This is counterpointed with the rich, vibrant, dynamic culture of the Indians. If the film sometimes tips into displaying this as a sort of Oriental mysticism, that can be partly because our experience of it is often filtered through Adela and Mrs Moore who are bewitched and intrigued by a country of colours, emotions and passions unheard of in Britain.

Lean’s film never overlooks the Indians though. Our introduction to Aziz is to see him nearly mowed down on his bike by a speeding government car. His home is kept in good condition, but cannot compare to the wealth of the British. He and his friends talk passionately of the possibility for independence. There is a natural expectation of rudeness and dismissal from the British, that is taken in their stride.

Well played – if the role is a little passive – by Victor Bannerjee, Aziz is the victim we witness events through. Proud to befriend the British women, friendly and over-eager, Aziz is a highly unlikely would-be rapist. Put-upon and dismissed by his British superiors, he’s a lonely widower whose children are living hundreds of miles away, who suggests the trip in a moment of social awkwardness and goes to absurd ends to make the trip a success.

Sadly, its doomed. Leans film does a good job of maintaining much of the book’s mystery of what happens in the caves. Lean also finds a visual way of representing much that lies implied in the book. In an invented scene before  the trip, Adela cycles into the Indian countryside eventually finding a ruined temple filled with sexually explicit statues and hordes of monkeys in heat. Its clear the exposure to sexuality both shocks and unnerves her – but also fascinates her. Later she dreams of the statues she has seen. The same overwhelming feels seem to consume her in the caves – a heightened sense bought on by claustrophobia and a fear of a moment of personal intimacy between her and Aziz, perhaps spinning off into a temporary nervous collapse.

The film doesn’t state it for sure, but the implication is carefully put there. It leads perfectly into the well-staged trial scenes. Lean’s film focuses largely on delivering the plot of the novel, rather than the depths, but in delivering this crucial encounter he finds a marvellous way to use the language of film (music, editing and photography all interplay effectively in the sequences to add to their unsettling eeriness) to dramatise a literary sequence.

It’s not a perfect film. At times languid, it could no doubt have done with a bit more tightening and pace (it takes nearly half the film to reach the caves). While the film benefits from the build of the atmosphere and the tensions between both cultures, if Lean can do Great Expectations in less than two hours you feel he could have done this book more tightly. The unfortunate decision to cast a brown-face Alec Guinness as Brahmin scholar Professor Godbole looks more uncomfortable with each passing year – not least as all other Indian roles are played by Indian actors.

The film does however have a very strong cast. Judy Davis is both fragile, uncertain and at times even deeply frustrating (in the intended way!) as Miss Quested. Peggy Ashcroft won an Oscar (part of a late boom in her screen career – she also won a BAFTA the same year for The Jewel in the Crown) as the very grounded and worldly-wise Mrs Moore. James Fox gives his finest performance as the sympathetic Fielding caught between two worlds and eventually rejected by both.

A Passage to India has a lot of Lean’s visual mastery, but it’s less a sweeping pictorial epic and more of a careful and well-judged literary adaptation. While it does focus more on the plot and less on the meaning of the novel, and it overlong and at times lacking in energy, it also has some fine performances and brings many parts of the novel triumphantly to life. His final film does not disgrace his CV.

Thursday, 20 May 2021

The Great Escape (1963)

Steve McQueen is the Cooler King (King of Cool?) in The Great Escape

Director: John Sturges
Cast: Steve McQueen (Captain Virgil Hilts), James Garner (Flight Lt Bob Hendley), Richard Attenborough (Sqd Leader Roger Bartlett), James Donald (Group Captain Ramsey), Charles Bronson (Ft Lt Danny Welinski), Donald Pleasance (Flt Lt Colin Blythe), James Coburn (FO Sedgwick), Hannes Messemer (Oberst von Luger), David McCallum (Lt-Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt), Gordon Jackson (Ft Lt Andy MacDonald), John Leyton (Ft Lt Willie Dickes), Angus Lennie (FO Archie Ives), Nigel Stock (Ft Lt Dennis Cavendish), Robert Graf (Werner)

Is there a film in Britain more associated with holidays than The Great Escape? While I was growing up it felt like a day-off wasn’t complete unless the BBC screened it as part of their afternoon schedule. In Britain is has a status as a sort of cosy uncle, a part of the furniture of many people’s filmic lives. There is always something comforting and reassuring about The Great Escape. So much so, people forget it ends with a large bodycount and the majority of our heroes further away from freedom than when they started.

But it doesn’t really matter, because The Great Escape is one of the last hurrahs of effective, nostalgic war-films. The sort of hugely enjoyable caper that recognises the cost of war, but also celebrates the pluck, ingenuity and guts of Allied servicemen, running rings around those dastardly cheating Nazis. Where we would all like to look back and remember those days when men-were-men and worked together towards a common goal. Sturges has created a marvellous tapestry of a movie, that pulls together several striking scenes, characters and snippets of dialogue into a true ensemble piece that reflects the camaraderie and unity that exists between the prisoners as they work towards their escape.

In some ways, The Great Escape is such good fun, such well-packaged entertainment and telling such an exciting, uplifting and (in the end) moving story that it’s almost immune to criticism. You’d have to have a pretty hard heart not to enjoy it. And you’d have to be pretty cynical not to enjoy the way it presents a series of obstacles and then carefully demonstrates the fascinating and rewarding ways the prisoners resolve these. It’s also notable that, aside from the shadowy Gestapo types, the film doesn’t really have an antagonist. The enemy is that fence. Most of the Germans are just regular soldiers doing a job – it’s only the brutal final-act Gestapo who are aren’t playing this eccentric game. But this helps us sit back and enjoy the film as a caper – just as it makes the burst of machine-gun fire that (nearly) ends the film even more impactful and shocking.

Sturges’ gets the tone of the film spot-on, and also draws a series of perfectly balanced performances from his all-star cast. I think it’s fair to say a lot of the film’s success was connected to Steve McQueen’s casting in the crucial role of Hilts. McQueen channels a sense of 1960s anti-establishment cool into the film (unlike the rest of the POWs, he seems to be wearing basically his own clothes in t-shirt, chinos and bomber jacket). Iconically bouncing his ball against the wall in a cooler, a natural loner (who of course still does his bit), with a cocky sense of defiance and some exceptional motor-bike skills, Hilts is undeniably cool. He’s the face of the film – and the one you walk away wanting to be.

He also gets the film’s definitive claim to fame, with a series of daring motorbike stunts as he races across Germany to escape. Mostly performed by McQueen himself (although not the most famous fence jump, done by a stuntman) this last act chase is a gripping, action counter-point to the more cagey, paranoid runs of the other escapees. It’s so exciting and feel-good, it’s a surprise to remember that Hilts actually gets caught. But then, if he hadn’t, we’d have lost McQueen’s cool, wry shrug of acceptance as he and his mitt were sent back to the cooler in the camp for another 20 days.

The film tees up plenty of sub-plots for the rest of the cast, with Sturges’ spreading the love very effectively. Charles Bronson gets perhaps the best plot as “tunnel king” Danny Welinski who holds back his crippling claustrophobia almost long enough. I think this might be Bronson’s finest hour, giving a real vulnerability to Danny, with genuinely quite affecting whimpers and fear at confronting the tunnel – making his struggle all the more moving. Bronson makes a wonderful double-act with John Leyton as fellow tunneller Willie Dickes, the two of them forging an affecting bond of loyalty.

A similar bond also forms between James Garner’s suave and playful scrounger Jack Hedley and Donald Pleasance’s professorial forger Colin Blythe (has there ever been a more “Colin” Colin on film than Pleasance?). The final moments between this pair carry perhaps the biggest gut-punch of a film that has a surprising large number of them. Pleasance’s sad attempts to hide and combat growing blindness are genuinely affecting, while Garner is a master at conveying depth beneath a light surface. Sturges’ film taps into the nostalgic memories most of us have (or have picked up) of this war being one where life-long friendships were formed against horror and adversity.

Attenborough does most of the thankless heavy-lifting as Big X, but the film uses his Blimpish authority well. Gordon Jackson has a memorial role as the number #2 famously caught out by his own vocal trap (the sort of irony films like this love). Fans of the TV show Colditz can enjoy seeing David McCallum in a very similar role as a daring young escapee. James Donald channels British reserve as the senior officer. The film’s single truly bizarre performance is from James Coburn, with an Australian accent from the Dick van-Dyke school of ineptitude, so terrible even Sturges surely noticed it when cutting the film.

The Great Escape marshals all these cards extremely well. Any combination of any of these actors produces fireworks. It’s one of the best boys own adventure you can imagine. It in fact gets the perfect balance: you can spend a large chunk of the film thinking that being locked up in a German POW camp looks like the best time ever – and then it chillingly reminds you with its sad coda of the terrible cost of war. But it’s that first hour and half and its celebration of grit, guts, determination and ingenuity that really works – and it’s so entertaining that it solves immediately any mystery as to why any public holiday you’re 10-1 to find this popping up on your afternoon TV listings.

Monday, 17 May 2021

Armageddon (1999)

Bruce Willis leads a group of Big Damn Heroes in Michael Bay's abysmal Armageddon

Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Bruce Willis (Harry Stamper), Billy Bob Thornton (Dan Truman), Ben Affleck (AJ Frost), Liv Tyler (Grace Stamper), Will Patton (Chick Chapple), Steve Buscemi (Rockhound), William Fichtner (Colonel Sharp), Owen Wilson (Oscar Choice), Michael Clarke Duncan (Bear), Peter Stormare (Lev Andropov)

In Michael Bay’s space, no-one can hear you scream. But that’s only because it’s so damn loud up there. It's 1998’s other “asteroid is going to wipe out humanity” film, the one that came out after Deep Impact but grossed more. NASA recruits ace driller Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) and his team (including Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan and Owen Wilson) to fly up to an asteroid the size of Texas, drill a hole in it, drop a massive nuke in and blow it into two bits that will bypass the Earth. Will humanity be saved? And will the tensions ever be resolved between Harry, his protégé AJ (Ben Affleck), and Harry’s daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) who, much against her dad’s will, wants to marry AJ? Houston, we have a problem.

Armageddon is the ultimate expression of Michael Bay’s style. With the camera swooping and rotating wildly around characters on the move, the fast-editing, the assault on the ears, the green-yellow-blue hue, every shot and line of dialogue in Armageddon feels like it was made to be inserted into a trailer. It’s an overlong onslaught (nearly two and a half hours) which rarely goes ten minutes without a sequence that features explosions, furious shouting and frantic camera movements. Most of the action in Armageddon is incoherent and the film rather neatly replicates the experience of being actually hit by a meteor.

For many people this is a guilty pleasure. But there is very little pleasure to be had here. By trying so hard to top Deep Impact – a film he hadn’t even seen at this point – Bay dials everything beyond 11. So much so it becomes exhausting. Half the action sequences (of which there are many) are impossible to understand, such is the fast editing and the way all the dialogue is screamed by the actors at each other, all at once, drowned out by bangs and crashes. The only dialogue you can actually make out in the film is of the “The United States government asked us to save the world. Anybody wanna say no?” variety, built for slotting into a trailer before some more bangs.

In fact the whole film is basically a massive trailer for itself. It’s unrelenting and after a while not a lot of fun. I guess if you catch it in the right mood it might just work. Bay gives it everything he has in his arsenal. But even he can’t overcome performances from his actors that range from bored and unengaged (Willis and Buscemi both fall into this category) to over-played grasping at epic-status (Affleck and Tyler fall into this one). Billy Bob Thornton comes out best with a wry shrug, knowing the whole film is bonkers but going with the ride.

Anyway, it all charges about a great deal, even while it never knows when to stop. In every situation one crisis is never enough – it’s best to have three at once. Not only does someone need to stay behind, but the asteroid is breaking up and the shuttle won’t take off! What a to-do! The film is desperate to excite you, like a 7 year old who wants to share the BEST-THING-EVER with you and doesn’t draw breath while telling you every single detail.

Of course, scientifically the film is nonsense, but that hardly matters. How NASA can know the comet being blown in two will create two bits that will miss the Earth (rather than two impacts or a whole load of debris) is unclear. Timeline wise – particularly early on – the film makes no sense. But then who goes to Bay looking for a science lecture? It even opens with a ponderous Charlton Heston voiceover, all part of the straining for grandeur.

It's not even the best Bay film (that would surely be the far more enjoyable but equally overblown The Rock closely followed by the first Transformers film, the only one that doesn't make you feel soiled after watching it). Armageddon could be a guilty pleasure. But really it’s terrible. You should just feel guilty.

Great Expectations (1946)

Valerie Hobson and John Mills in David Lean's masterful adaptation Great Expectations

Director: David Lean
Cast: John Mills (Pip), Valerie Hobson (Estella), Bernard Miles (Joe Gargery), Francis L Sullivan (Jaggers), Finlay Currie (Abel Magwich), Martita Hunt (Miss Havisham), Alec Guinness (Herbert Pocket), Jean Simmons (Young Estella), Anthony Wagner (Young Pip), Ivor Barnard (Wemmick), Freda Jackson (Mrs Joe Gargery), Eileen Erskine (Biddy), Torin Thatcher (Bentley Drummle)

Of all Dicken’s books there is perhaps none so popular as Great Expectations – and no Dickens adaptations are more highly regarded than David Lean’s 1946 film. Of course, just under two hours is only time to tell a simplified version of Dicken’s original. But no-one’s taking the book away. What Lean’s film did triumphantly was turn Dicken’s prose into a clear cinematic language and style, without losing the uniqueness of the author’s voice. Lean’s visual mastery is perfectly matched with his experience as an editor of telling a story to produce an endlessly entertaining film.

As a young boy Pip (Anthony Wagner) encounters an escaped convict (Finlay Currie) in a graveyard. Intimidated, Pip brings the convict food and tools to escape his chains – acts which the convict clears him of when he is caught later that day. Weeks later, Pip is invited to the home of rich spinster Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) to provide her and her adopted daughter Estella (Jean Simmons) with company. The visits continue until Pip’s apprenticeship as a blacksmith to his brother-in-law Joe (Bernard Miles) begins. Imagine Pip’s (now John Mills) surprise six years later when he is informed by lawyer Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) that he has come into money – that he has become a gentlemen of “great expectations”. Assuming it is the work of Miss Havisham – and that he is destined to marry Estella (now Valerie Hobson) – he is horrified to discover his life is more complex than he believed.

The film repackages Great Expectations a bit more into a romance. While the relationship between Pip and Estella, and the bond between them, is clear in the novel – and a large part of its plot – its but one thread masterfully woven together into the final storyline. Here this thread is given prominence, at the cost of several others. It’s not a complaint as such, but it makes Great Expectations into a more traditional story: a feeling added to by the film’s more conventional “feel-good” ending (very different from the much more uncertain ending of the novel, that Dicken’s edited back and forth in different editions to increase or decrease its hopefulness). However, it works for creating a film story, even if it loses some of the depth of the novel.

Its also more than balanced by how much the film gets right. Lean brilliantly captures the novel’s atmosphere, its gothic sense of impending dread, the burden of the past and the paranoia of persecution. For decades the opening scenes of the film, with its masterfully shot and edited mist covered graveyard (simultaneously a place of peace and a place of unsettling unknowability ) bursting into life through the grasping hands of Magwich, were practically used as a textbook example of cinematic language. Lean’s work is intensely cinematic. The mis en scene of Expectations is masterful – everything from casting, to camera angles to score comes together to bring Dickens world to life. This is exactly his London as he wrote it. It’s a wonderful expression of a particular author’s style, told using a mastery of cinematic language – from camera angles to editing cuts.


The characters have that perfect sense of eccentricity laced with menace that Dickens invests them with. Francis L Sullivan’s Jaggers is an unknowable legal machine who is part man of business, part fearsome fixer. Alec Guinness (in his film debut) is good-natured kindness to a T as Pip’s faithful friend Herbert (in one lovely scene he politely and gently corrects Pip’s primitive table manners). Finlay Currie’s Magwich captures the sense of danger and threat in the book’s opening that will become a fatherly meekness in the story’s later acts.

Largest of all, Martita Hunt’s gothic Miss Havisham sits like a giant spider at the centre of a decaying web. The design of Satis House – with its rotting wedding cake, sprawling cobwebbed dinner service, the heavy curtains and lack of light – is just one of the many perfect touches in the film. Hunt herself is superb as this outwardly eccentric aunt, who in fact has been nursing a core of bile and hatred that ends up only hurting those closest to her. There is something hugely dreamlike about Miss Havisham’s home – you suspect Lean may have watched some Cocteau – with its strangely angled table and mix of intimate framing and wide-angle crane shots.

Perhaps because we only see, not read, Pip’s actions in this film it’s impossible not notice what an arrogant snob he becomes. John Mills does decent work in the part, but (much as in the book) Pip ends up feeling like a slightly colourless figure. The film doesn’t always explore in detail the negative sides of his character meaning moments like his patronising dismissal of the kindly Joe (a perfectly judged Bernard Miles), don’t do the character much favours. Mills does however make a larger impression than Valerie Hobson, left slightly adrift as Estella. She’s not helped by how shiningly outstanding Jean Simmons as the young and preciously flirtatious Estella, the perfect picture of the little cruelties teenagers inflict on each other. (A braver film might have had her play the role throughout – but then Mills would look even older than he does!)

The film is very strong on the pain caused to these two characters – and that they cause for each other. More than any other version, we get a sense here of how Miss Havisham’s misguided aim to use Estella as a weapon of revenge on all men only manages to hurt Estella herself and Pip (her one true love as presented here). Just as a Pip’s snobbish dismissal of Joe stings. And Lean’s brilliant sense of pace and rhythm means that this plays hand-in-hand with Pip’s ever more desperate attempts in the second half to save Magwich from doom.

Many of the complexities of the plot (from Estella’s parents to Herbert’s marriage to several key characters) are cut out, but it’s striking how the film still manages to feel so faithful to the book. Lean’s understanding of Dickens mix of eccentricity and darkness is communicated in every frame. The major moments and characters from the book are beautifully bought to life, from that opening scene to Satis House. But also because small moments, like Wemmick’s “Aged P” remain in the film. Sure, the canvas has been reduced – and refocused into a love story of sorts – but the picture that emerges is still very much in the style of Dickens.

That’s what makes it one of the greatest adaptations of all time: it’s both an interpretation of the original and a beautifully judged capturing of its spirit and tone. An adaptation twice the length may have caught more plot, but would not have been such a fine movie. Because so much of this film’s imagery and drama sticks in the mind long after it is finished. Lean’s masterstroke here was to understand completely the heart of the book, and to focus the film on that. Brilliantly assembled, designed, shot and acted, it’s still one of the best literary adaptations ever made.

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.