Thursday, 30 September 2021

Miller's Crossing (1990)

Gabriel Byrne (and hat) is outstanding in the Coen's brilliant gangster pastiche Miller's Crossing

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast: Gabriel Byrne (Tom Reagan), Marcia Gay Harden (Verna Bernbaum), Albert Finney (Leo O’Bannon), John Turturro (Bernie Bernbaum), Jon Polito (Johnny Caspar), JE Freeman (Eddie Dane), Steve Buscemi (Mink Larouie), John McConnell (Bryan), Mike Starr (Frankie)

In a forest clearing, a black hat dances in the wind; sometimes it almost touches the ground before another gust lifts it up again. What does it mean – Who can say? That hat is the heart of the Coen Brothers marvellous pastiche of, and tribute to, gangster films – probably the only early Coen brothers film I really like (and the one I’ve seen the most). The Coens, bless ‘em, always liked to claim it was just a film about a man and his hat. But it’s also a rewarding, complex, jet-black film noir comedy about ethics and morals, with intriguingly unknowable characters. And lots of hats.

Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is the friend and fixer of Irish crime boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) who runs a prohibition era city. Cool, calm and collected Tom is the smartest guy in the city – and a compulsive gambler with a self-destructive streak a mile wide. Leo’s rival, Italian gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) wants to whack crooked bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), who’s spreading the word on boxing matches Caspar has fixed, making Bernie a packet and eating into Johnny’s profit. Problem is Leo says no – because he’s in love with Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden, very good), a ruthless femme fatale, who also happens to be sleeping with Tom. When Leo finds out, Tom finds himself in the middle of a struggle to control the city – and forced to play both ends against the middle to save his skin.

Miller’s Crossing is a masterpiece of pastiche. Shot with a coolly steady-hand by Barry Sonnenfield – deliberately apeing classic film noir– and production designed within an inch of its life to look like the perfect Hollywood idea of a 1920s-era gangster film, it’s a perfect mix of everything from Hammett to Chandler to Puzo. It’s a sort of hyper-remake of Hammett’s The Glass Key, where a crooked boss and his fixer are split apart by a woman, but fundamentally remain loyal to each other. Everything you could expect from a classic gangster film appears, but dialled up to eleven: from the grandiose design, to bullet-spraying Tommy gun ruthlessness and the bloody mess left behind.

Miller’s Crossing is great because, unlike those other early Coen films, it combines loving pastiche and quirky humour, with a genuinely gripping story and fully rounded, complex characters. You can enjoy it as a homage, but also on its own terms as a compelling piece of story-telling. It’s sense of atmosphere is faultless, with a delightful mood of whistful regret behind all the killing that comes from Carter Burwell’s pitch-perfect score, riffing brilliantly off Irish folk songs. The film is crammed with brilliant sequences, ranging from comedy, gun-toting action and stomach-churning tension.

It opens with an obvious, crowd-pleasing Godfather homage, with Caspar sitting across from Leo entreating him for action. But take a listen to what Caspar is talking about as he asks for the right to kill Bernie: Ethics. Ethics is what the film is really about. Every character in Miller’s Crossing makes a choice about their moral stand. Because, even in a world of killing and violence, man (and woman) gotta have a code. That’s not about right and wrong, but simple rules you live by.

A code is what Tom has. Superbly played by Byrne – Hollywood handsome, but world-weary with a touch of self-loathing and tired of always seeing several steps ahead of everyone else – Tom is one of the most intriguing enigmas in a Coen film. How can someone this smart be such a mess? He owes thousands to bookies and he’s screwing his best friend’s girl. For all his smarts, and ability to see all the plays (something he proves time and again), there is something fragile about Tom. The Coens remind us of this with their running joke of Tom being smacked about endlessly (every major character lands a blow at some point on him). For all this, Tom very rarely fights back: not only does he not like getting his hands dirty, there is also a sense of sado-masochistic guilt about Tom. Like he’s smart enough to know he’s in a dirty business, and deserves all this physical abuse.

The thing that makes Tom’s world work is ethics – in his case loyalty to Leo. Not even being kicked out by his furious friend changes that. Miller’s Crossing has a strangely sweet bromance at the heart of it, gaining a lot from Finney and Byrne’s natural chemistry and forging a relationship that’s part brotherly, part father-and-son. Of course, a girl can’t come between them. Tom’s clings to his loyalty to Leo – the thing that makes him able to exist in this world – and no threat from Berne or promise of a good deal from Caspar will make him compromise. Rather he will play all of Leo’s enemies (and Leo himself) off against each other, to make sure his friend emerges on top.

It’s all symbolised by that hat. Tom dreams about that hat dancing in the wind – his literal nightmare is losing that hat (his ethics) in the wind. In so many scenes, Tom keeps in constant contact with his hat, balancing it on his knee or rolling it around his hands. When Verna wants to grab his attention, it’s the hat she steals back to her apartment. It’s a physical representation of his grounding, of his contact with reality. Without the hat he’s vulnerable: it’s inevitably tossed away before a threat or beating.

Tom’s not alone: every character has their own ethics. Bernie is an appallingly mercenary, selfish, two-faced, cheating little rogue – but he’s just made that way, it’s nothing personal it’s how he gets ahead. Caspar is obsessed with loyalty, justifying to him the amount of violence he hands out. Leo has a little boy’s loyalty to old friends and family, the sort of guy shocked when bad things happen to friends but who is happy to literally shred people with a tommy gun. Verna is out for herself, but wants to protect her brother. Even the ruthless Dane is loyal to Caspar and to those he’s “soft on” to the bitter end. All these characters justify their actions by adherence to ethical rules they’ve made for themselves.

But only Tom is really worried about getting his hands dirty. That’s something Bernie exploits in the film’s pivotal – and most famous – scene as Tom is unwillingly forced to prove his new ‘loyalty’ to Johnny by executing Bernie in the woods. In a tour-de-force by Turturro, Bernie begs, pleads and weeps for his life urging Tom to “Look into your heart”. It’s the first – and only – decision Tom makes for sentiment in the film. Naturally, it comes back to bite him. Tom’s journey in the film is perhaps to remove sentiment and heart from the equation – after all it’s all leading to a Third Man-ish ending where our hero is left standing alone while the only person he cares about walks away.

Aside from Byrne, the film is crammed with sublime performances. Finney is excellent as a big puffed-up, violent Teddy bear. Polito is hilarious as a wound-up ball of violent energy and poor judgement. JE Freeman is terrifyingly sadistic but also strangely loyal. Harden is a nightmare image of a femme fatale, ruthless to an extreme. There is a great cameo from Buscemi as a fast-talking fixer. Best of all is Turturro – grasping, selfish, cowardly, cocky, weasily and brilliantly amoral.

It’s all superbly directed by the Coens, even if sometimes their delight in shocking violence goes too far (like the childish delight in seeing bodies shredded by bullets) – not only do they get the mood perfect, but if you have any doubts about their ability to direct a set-piece take a look at Finney’s masterful Danny Boy scored shoot-out. Their script is also a knock-out of pastiche gangster parlance, as well as building a fascinating exploration of how we use morals to justify any actions we want. Miller’s Crossing is about those fatal moments where we decide whether we can justify to ourselves the actions we take and the people we have become. Or maybe it is all just about a hat.

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Simu Liu deals with father-son issues in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton,
Cast: Simu Liu (Shang-Chi), Awkwafina (Katy), Meng’er Zhang (Xu Xialing), Tony Leung (Xu Wenwu), Fala Chen (Ying Li), Michelle Yeoh (Ying Nan), Ben Kingsley (Trevor Slattery), Benedict Wong (Wong), Florian Munteanu (Razor Fist)

Thousands of years ago Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) discovered ten rings which gave him immortality and power. Sadly, he used these powers for evil – until in 1996 he falls in love with Ying Li (Fala Chen), the powerful guardian of a mystical village he has searched hundreds of years for. They have two children – but after she dies, Wenwu returns to darkness and trains his son Shang-Chi to become an assassin. Aged 14, Shang-Chi flees: ten years later, Shaun (Simu Liu) works as a hotel valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), both accomplished students with no aims in life.

All that changes when his father’s heavies attack them in San Francisco, stealing the mysterious pendant Ying Li gave to her son. She also gave a pendant to his sister Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) – so Shang-Chi and Katy head to Macau to find her. But Xu resents Shang-Chi for abandoning her and has trained herself into the martial super-fighter her father would never allow her to become.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Two Rings is a curiously mixed bag. First the good: it’s a huge amount of fun. There are some cracking gags and some of the fight scenes have to be seen to be believed. In particular, an early fight scene on a San Francisco bus is an absolute belter. A whirligig of movement, flicks, kicks and punches in, on and around a bendy-bus, using bars, doors, windows and bells to imaginative effect. Hugely exciting, its something the rest of the film struggles to live up to – although a vertigo inducing scaffolding bound fight in Macau comes close.

The film is also built around engaging characters. Shang-Chi is charmingly played by Simu Liu as a very reluctant hero, an extremely polite, decent guy with a wistful wish to just mess around and not grow up, but determined to do the right thing when pushed. He’s very well matched with Awkwafina, extremely funny but also heartfelt as his best friend, great with the one-liners but handling the serious content very well. The film dances rather neatly along a line of not-quite-deciding if these old friends are a potential romantic couple as well, which actually makes for a rather sweet dynamic.

Unfortunately, where the film is a bit weaker is in making it clear exactly what the character arc, or goal, for Shang-Chi is. While this is partly the intent of the film – he has, after all, effectively been drifting through life for a decade – the lack of a really compelling story line or a powerful sense of motivation from Shang-Chi slightly weakens the story. We never really quite get a grip on him as a character, other than knowing he’s a decent guy, out of his depth.

That’s partly because the film invests so much depth into his father, played superbly by Tony Leung making his English-language debut. Wenwu is conflicted, traumatised and motivated by a desire to bring his family together, unable to see that children’s upbringing has made them confused and vulnerable rather than strong. In every scene, I always understand what Wenwu wants and where he is going in a way I don’t with the hero – and this somehow feels the wrong-way round. Effectively, Wenwu is the protagonist of the movie, and Shang-Chi never quite steps up to take his place.

Instead, Shang-Chi has a fairly conventional “Daddy’s issues” plot line – can he overcome his fear and respect for his wicked father? I’d point out that his sister – well played by Meng’er Zhang – has exactly the same issue, but the film isn’t interested in her solving them, focusing instead on the father and son confrontation. Essentially, thematically, not a lot in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is actually that new – it’s a fairly familiar coming-of-age Superhero origins story, with the loss of a parent and a clash with the surviving parent thrown into the mix.

Not that there is anything too wrong with that when it’s done well. Most of the film is done well, with jokes and fine set-pieces. Ben Kingsley enjoys himself hugely reprising his deluded actor from Iron Man 3. The film quite effectively builds in a Chinese aesthetic – large chunks of the dialogue is in Mandarin – and riffs charmingly off Chinese myths and legends and kung-fu inspirations. The Ten Rings themselves are barely explained at all, but an end-of-credits scene shows this was intentional.

Its weakest section is of course when we get to the final confrontation. This is a CGI over-loaded smack-down between two huge special effects – and carries significantly less impact than the emotional clash between father and son the film has been building towards. A braver film would have left it there without the CGI monsters – but the Marvel films have always been convinced that spectacle is what people want, and I guess they’ve not got much wrong so far.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings introduces a charming hero, but by the end of the film I still wasn’t quite sure who he was or what he wanted from life. Maybe that doesn’t matter since sequels are inevitable, but there is something amiss when the villain makes such a dominant impression that he takes over the film, as Tony Leung does here. Fun, but a little too long and a little lacking in focus.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

James Cagney is superb as Broadway legend George M Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: James Cagney (George M Cohan), Joan Leslie (Mary Cohan), Walter Huston (Jerry Cohan), Richard Whorf (Sam Harris), Irene Manning (Fay Templeton), George Tobias (Dietz), Rosemary DeCamp (Nellie Cohan), Jeanne Cagney (Josie Cohan), Eddie Foy Jnr (Eddie Foy)

To many James Cagney was the definitive gangster. But Cagney wanted to be known as more than just another heavy: at heart he was a song-and-dance man. He got few chances to show it, so when the right film came along, doggone it he didn’t plan to leave anything in the dressing room. Cagney dominates George M Cohan biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy (at times its almost a one-man show with guests). He’s in almost every scene, doing his twist on Cohan’s stiff-legged dancing style with such energy and enthusiasm it leaves you quite exhausted watching it (Cagney sprained his ankle twice making it). It was a massive hit and won Cagney a much-deserved Oscar.

George M Cohan came from a family vaudeville troupe and became “the man who owned Broadway”. An accomplished performer, he was also a prolific writer (banging out more than 50 shows and 300 songs, including nation-defining tunes like Over There, The Yankee Doodle Boy and You’re a Grand Old Flag). The film uses his awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal from President Franklin D Roosevelt (Cohan arrives at the White House fresh from playing an all-singing, all-dancing version of the wheelchair-confined President in I’d Rather Be Right) as a framing device. Naturally, the President wants to know all about this Broadway legend’s life. Cue Cohan settling back to tell him his entire life story: from birth to childhood stardom, knock-backs and a string of successes.

It’s odd to think Cagney wasn’t keen at first. A leading union man – one of the founder members of the Screen Actor’s Guild – Cagney was not an admirer of Cohan, who had taken a strong stand against the 1919 actor’s union strike. What changed Cagney’s mind was accusations of communism from the House of Un-American Activities in 1940: he was cleared but his producer-brother William told him he needed “to make the goddamndest patriotic picture that’s ever been made.” They certainly succeeded with Yankee Doodle Dandy, such an all-singing, all-dancing celebration of the American way it must surely be Sam the Eagle’s favourite film.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is nothing more-or-less than a grand slice of entertainment. It’s very much cut from the same cloth as The Great Ziegfeld, another cradle-to-grave rundown of the life of a Broadway mover-and-shaker. Like that film, Cohan’s rough edges are comprehensively shaved off: his hostility to the actor’s union goes unmentioned as does his divorce and remarriage (instead his two wives are amalgamated into a new fictional wife, conveniently called Mary so that his song Mary’s a Grand Old Name can be named after her). Several events are telescoped or shifted to a new date for dramatic impact. Cohan emerges thoroughly charming (if proud), decent and honest all-round entertainer, overflowing with bonhomie.

Narratively the film does nothing Hollywood hadn’t done before. The big difference here to The Great Ziegfeld is that Curtiz keeps the story moving with real pace and a certain flair (it’s a solid two hours, and never outstays its welcome) and the musical numbers are dynamic and entertaining. A great deal of that is due to Cagney, outstanding in a part that demands an overabundance of personality. Cagney’s dancing and singing doesn’t have the grace of Fred Astaire (the original choice), but it has a gloriously entertaining and breath-taking energy. Cagney studied Cohan’s stiff-legged-marionette dancing style, and used his physical exuberance to bring to life his numerous dance routines with a spectacular stand-and-applaud skill and energy. (Curtiz uses a highly mobile camera to film most of these in single shots, to really capture the skill and energy of Cagney). His singing also follows the Cohan style – the sort of half-singing, half recital style Rex Harrison would later make his own. His impersonation is uncanny and performance superb.

Cagney is gloriously entertaining and makes every single one of his numerous songs thrum with glee. It’s a real reminder of what a modern performer Cagney was: he’s fast-paced, lacks any sense of staginess and has a real emotional honesty. His comic moments are very funny: in Cohan’s first meeting with Mary, still in old-man make-up (fresh from playing father to his own mother on stage), Cagney lets a little moment of glee move across his face as he realises Mary thinks he really is an old-man in his 70s – a confusion he plays up to, before launching into an impromptu tap dance routine. When tragedy strikes he is just as moving: his heart-broken repeat of his mantra “My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. My sister thanks you. And I thank you” at his father’s death-bed not only moves the audience, it also made the stony Curtiz weep on set.

No wonder, when a dying Cohan watched the film, he said “My God, what an act to follow!” Cagney’s performance, with its playful energy, encouraged a greater spontaneity in Curtiz’s disciplined directorial style. The famous sequence, where Cagney walks down the steps inside the White House before bursting into a joyful bout of tap-dancing was improvised on the spot (and a glorious summary of the playful joy of the movie it is). Curtiz uses montage very effectively at several points (a sequence of early knock-backs for Cohan is a wonderful collection of shots of signs, producer refusals and walking feet). He often uses high and low angles to imaginatively shoot the action, and the fluid camera for the musical numbers finds a neat middle ground between theatrical performance and cinema.

Of course, it is damned patriotic. The film recreates several of Cohan’s most stirring numbers in all their pomp. The explosion of Americana (Washington! Lincoln! Teddy Roosevelt!) that is You’re a Grand Old Flag (with hundreds of Stars and Stripes). The cheek and charm of Yankee Doodle Boy. The rousing marvel of Over There. The film plays up Cohan’s determination to do his bit in the First World War – turned down for service as too old, he carries out a full tap-dance routine to show he’s as limber as the next man. But it also has time for finding a way of staging creativity: there is a marvellous little sequence – beautifully shot by James Wong Howe – of Cohan finding the tune for Over There, tinkling experimentally with a piano on an empty stage.

The narrative of the play doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it delivers a traditional structure with plenty of energy and some good scenes. (I enjoyed Cohan’s mother, struggling to find something nice to say about one of Cohan’s rare-flops, a music-free melodrama, left weakly praising the set). Though Cagney dominates the film, Walter Huston is very fine as his supportive and experienced dad and Joan Leslie charming as his loyal wife Mary (so supportive she’s happy to gift her song to stage star Fay Templeton, because the show needs her more). The balance between standard biopic scenes and musical numbers is very nicely handled.

Yankee Doodle Dandy offers up a familiar package, but one of the most professionally assembled and enjoyable of its type ever made. With Cagney in joyful, dominant form, you’d genuinely be quite happy just sitting and watching him go through as many vaudeville acts as he likes. Shot with flair by Curtiz, Yankee Doodle Dandy is catchy and highly entertaining.

Thursday, 23 September 2021

Husbands and Wives (1992)

Woody Allen's relationship falls apart in Husbands and Wives. Life imitates Art?

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen (Gabe Roth), Judy Davis (Sally Simmons), Mia Farrow (Judy Roth), Juliette Lewis (Rain), Liam Neeson (Michael Gates), Sydney Pollack (Jack Simmons), Lysette Anthony (Sam), Blythe Danner (Rain’s mother), Ron Rifkin (Richard), Cristi Conaway (Shawn Grainger)

Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) are shocked and confused when their best friends Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollack) calmly announce before dinner they are separating. Both find themselves new partners – Judy’s colleague Michael (Liam Neeson), who Judy is also attracted to, and new-age aerobics trainer Sam (Lysette Anthony) – but also discover the grass is not always greener. Meanwhile, Judy is increasingly discontented with her childless marriage and Gabe develops a flirtatious friendship with his student Rain (Juliette Lewis), an aspiring writer with a fixation on older men.

You can’t watch Husbands and Wives and not think about the real-life relationship between Allen and Farrow. The film was their last collaboration and released just as their incredibly public separation filled the newspapers (which it has continued to do ever since). Farrow is cast as a character that, like Hannah and Her Sisters, feels like a twist on her own life – only this time darker. Again, the conceiving of children is a major problem for the Allen-Farrow characters and Farrow’s character is described as considerate but overbearing, with the addition here that she is passive-aggressive and manipulative. You can’t help but think, how much was Allen already resenting her?

But, leaving aside the psychology (I think it’s a fair thought though – Allen’s own films have commented numerous times on how writers re-write their own lives, and there are more than enough signs Allen does the same) this is still one of Allen’s most impressive works. Husbands and Wives explores the complex nature of adult relationships, in particular how familiarity can breed a dissatisfaction with our own lives. It also looks at how moving on is never easy and how we are still tied with emotional cords we can’t easily cut to the very people we might want to leave behind.

So, Jack can jump into his new relationship with the younger and sexually exciting Sam (Jack smugly sings the virtues of healthy living and watching silly films). But he is still overcome with jealousy when Sally also starts dating. Sally says she enjoys the single life – but during a date constantly retreats into a side room (where she can be easily overheard by her date) to phone Jack and berate him for moving on so soon after their separation. Allen argues that, discontented and problematic as Jack and Sally’s marriage may be, it is so familiar to them that the idea of leaving it is too much.

Essentially, the shared memories and experiences of a long-term relationship make it too difficult to move on. The separation of their friends makes Gabe and Judy readdress their own relationship – and the find its closer to the rocks than they think. With the passion gone, Gabe feels Judy doesn’t need him while Judy is unhappy with Gabe’s unwillingness to have a child. Judy doesn’t share her poetry with him and Gabe feels she is overly critical of his new novel (and is unhappy about the character in it who is clearly her). Inevitably (it is Allen) sex comes into play – both Gabe and Jack are sexually dissatisfied: Judy has lost interest and Sally can’t enjoy sex (not even with Liam Neeson).

Gabe, therefore, allows himself to get closer to Juliette Lewis’ student on the creative writing course he teaches. Again, being Allen, there is a considerable age difference – but at least that’s addressed in the film, as every single one of Rain’s exes are older men, all with positions of authority over her (a family friend, her psychiatrist, her teacher…). Lewis is rather good as this coquetteish flirt, and Gabe is (at first) much more open to her criticism of his book than he was from Judy (largely as, consciously or not, he wants to get in her pants).

The film is shot with a cinema verité fly-on-the-wall immediacy, echoing documentary. It has the characters pop-up as talking heads throughout, discussing their perceptions and feelings to an unseen interviewer. It’s an approach that has mixed results – although an interesting new way for Allen to use the internal monologue. The documentary approach does, however, produce some excellent scenes. Most striking, the raw hand-held energy of the opening scene, where Jack and Sally announce their separation to the rising horror and shock of Gabe and Judy, surely one of Allen’s finest shot and acted scenes.

Of course, they are mainly horrified because they see they have even less in common, really, than Jack and Sally. While Allen throws in one happy marriage – Rain’s parents seem loving – he also makes it clear their daughter is maladjusted. Husbands and Wives suffers under Allen’s cynicism for humanity – there isn’t a lot of hope in here, other than you might find a more functional type of contented misery. The sympathy also drifts more to the male characters: Gabe is a sort of innocent, Jack impulsive but his actions justified. On the other hand, Judy is a manipulator, Sally an shrill, frigid neurotic, Sam an idiot and Rain a temptress.

The performances are good. Judy Davis is very good (and Oscar-nominated) as the difficult, emotionally confused Sally. Pollack is fittingly smug as a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Neeson rather touching as an overly needy editor. Allen and Farrow play familiar parts, but with an accomplished ease. It’s just that Husbands and Wives is a rather glum watch – for all the jokes. It takes a depressing, rather archly cynical look at a world that doesn’t have a lot of promise in it. While it might well be truthful, the documentary approach of the film sometimes brings it closer to the Allen/Farrow home than you might find comfortable.

Vera Drake (2004)

Phil Davis and Imelda Staunton are superb in Mike Leigh's masterpiece Vera Drake

Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), Phil Davis (Stan Drake), Peter Wight (Inspector Webster), Daniel Mays (Sid Drake), Alex Kelly (Ethel Drake), Eddie Marsan (Reg), Adrian Scarborough (Frank Drake), Heather Craney (Joyce Drake), Sally Hawkins (Susan Wells), Ruth Sheen (Lily), Lesley Sharp (Jessie Barnes), Liz White (Pamela Barnes), Martin Savage (Sergeant Vickers), Helen Coker (WPC Best), Vincent Franklin (Mr Lloyd), Lesley Manville (Mrs Wells), Jim Broadbent (Judge)

If you passed her on the street, you’d be sure to say hello and she’d be sure to ask after your family – and really mean it. She has a kind word for everyone and never thinks about herself. And, as far as the law is concerned, she’s a multiple murderer. Vera Drake mixes warmth and goodness with anger at social injustice and is stuffed with perfectly observed detail and marvellous acting. It might just be Mike Leigh’s masterpiece. Certainly, few other of his films carry such an emotional wallop.

In London in 1950, Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) spends her life helping those around her and is a devoted wife and mother. But what her husband Stan (Phil Davis) and children Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethel (Alex Kelly) don’t know is that for decades she has been “helping young girls out” who find themselves unwillingly in the family way. All Vera wants to do is help – but with abortion illegal, her actions are a ticking timebomb, which explodes when Vera is arrested.

Vera Drake is a film about “the family way” – in every sense. Leigh’s unique film-making technique is familiar now: long weeks of research and intensive, improvisational rehearsals help the actors to create fully-fleshed characters who they know so well, they can predict their reactions in any circumstances. During rehearsals, none of the actors in the family knew Staunton was playing an abortionist until the actors playing the police knocked on the door mid-rehearsal – and even Staunton was completely unaware she was to be arrested. The genuine shock the actors felt feeds this intensely powerful scene – and every moment that follows.

In perhaps no other film has Leigh’s technique been more successful: every single character feels completely and utterly real. You could look in any direction and find a character with such a rich hinterland you want to know their stories. Just as intriguing films could be formed around the lives of the young women Vera helps out – Sinead Matthews ‘very young woman’ (and the boyfriend who waits outside), Tilly Vosburgh as a mother of seven with a sick husband, Rosie Cavaliero as a nervous married woman or Vinette Robinson’s scared Jamaican girl – as has been about Vera.

These women have fallen through the cracks – unable to support a family, but deprived any chance of making choices about themselves and bodies. There is a clear social gap – Sally Hawkins gives a sensitive, gentle performance as an upper-class woman, raped by her boyfriend, who obtains an abortion through psychiatric loopholes available only to the rich. No fault of hers – you can imagine she’d be horrified at how others suffer – but for the poor, their only option is Vera. It’s a huge flaw in the system – and removing Vera won’t solve the ‘problem’. It only means women will turn with more desperation to the sort of uncaring sleazy abortionists Denholm Elliott played in Alfie.

The film works because of its tenderness and the raw emotion of the performances. Leigh’s camera is a largely stationary and observatory, but that immerses us in the domestic charm of the first half as much as it does the horrifying coldness of the legal system in the second half. The Drake family home is small and cramped, reflecting their poverty, but also because it feels stuffed with love. Their children – the extremely shy Ethel and her outgoing son Sid – both reflect their intensely loving home, and her husband Stan is full of kindness, generosity and decency.

Leigh carefully demonstrates the warmth of this family. There’s a tear-inducingly sweet romance between Eddie Marsan’s Reg (a beacon of human decency) and the shy Ethel. Stan’s brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough, marvellous) and middle-class wife Joyce (Heather Craney, wonderfully torn in her feelings) struggle to conceive a child. The family laugh and joke together, every day ending in smiles and expressions of love. It’s beautifully immersing and deeply moving – and makes the wait for this world to shatter even more dreadful.

As Vera, Imelda Staunton gives an astonishing performance. A quiet, polite, open-hearted lady whose greatest pleasure is other people’s happiness. Leigh’s film follows her acts of caring around the community – cleaning neighbours houses, looking after her ill mother, inviting lonely newcomer Reg to dinner – showing she applies the same heart-felt but unshowy care to those, as she does to her abortions. It’s twenty minutes before we see one of these, and what’s striking is the well-practised calmness Vera goes about this work, carefully repeating the same reassuring instructions. She never asks for anything (the posh doctor treating Sally Hawkins’ character takes £100). Lily, who puts her in touch with those in need, has no qualms charging £2 without Vera’s knowledge.

Then the arrest comes. This sequence – and the rest that follows – is frankly extraordinary. Staunton’s face when she sees police is a heart-breaking thing of wonder – a horrified realisation that what she has dreaded for decades has finally happened and the realisation that the world as she knew it is over. Throughout she is astoundingly fragile. Barely able to speak, mute with shock – and horrified to hear one of her girls nearly died (it’s never revealed what went wrong). Her first thought is the girls health and how this will ruin her family’s celebration of Ethel’s engagement. So warm and joyful has the first half of the film been, we feel the shocking coldness as the law goes about – albeit with a regret, beautifully underplayed by Peter Wight’s sympathetic detective and Helen Coker’s gentle WPC – the black-and-white business of cataloguing wrongs.

Staunton is extraordinary: she shrinks and diminish, terrified and mortified. The reactions of her family – confused then stunned and in some cases appalled – feel immensely true: some jump forward in support, others in anger. Phil Davis’ deeply moving performance sees Stan suppress his anger under love. Mays’ Sid rages, Heather Craney’s Joyce is resentful, Scarborough’s Frank is a pillar of support, Alex Kelly’s Ethel quietly holds her mother and will not her go. The emotion of this is so affecting as it feels so real: when Reg quietly shows his support and later gently says the disastrous post-arrest Christmas is the finest he has ever had, you’ll feel tears spring to your eyes.

The relentless march of the law is chronicled perfectly by Leigh. This is a director at the top of his game, creating a low-key film that switches on a sixpence from warmth and familial love to shattering emotional impact. Staunton’s performance is breathtakingly brilliant, avoiding all histrionics and will break your heart. The entire cast is astounding. The research and filming is exquisite. The film will quietly devastate you, but also remind you that nothing is more reassuring than the fundamental goodness of people. A beautiful, moving, masterpiece of a film.

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Men in Black: International (2019)

Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth struggle through the messy Men in Black: International

Director: F Gary Gray
Cast: Chris Hemsworth (Agent H), Tessa Thompson (Molly Wright/Agent M), Liam Neeson (High T), Kumail Nanjiani (Pawny), Rafe Spall (Agent C), Rebecca Ferguson (Riza Stavros), Emma Thompson (Agent O), Kayvan Novak (Vungus the Ugly)

Remember Men in Black? An amusing, odd-couple buddy movie about a secret agency patrolling alien activity on Earth. To be honest, the well was pretty dry after when the first movie ended. The formula – with original stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones – attempted to recapture the magic twice with diminishing returns. This, surely final, attempt subs in the stars of Thor: Ragnorak for an over-long, neither terribly exciting nor funny movie that feels like it’s been assembled by an arguing committee.

Molly Wright (Tessa Thompson) encounters the Men in Black when they erase the memories of her parents (but accidentally leave hers intact) when she’s a child. As an adult she becomes obsessed with joining them, dedicating her life to building the skills the agency needs. Recruited by shrewd head of US operations Agent O (Emma Thompson) as Agent M, she’s shipped to the UK to join forces with their ace Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), under the direction of branch chief High T (Liam Neeson), to safeguard an alien dignitary. When the dignitary is assassinated, Agents M and H find themselves at the centre of a conspiracy that could destroy the whole world.

Tonally, Men in Black: International is a mess. At times it’s a farcical buddy movie, at others a darker action film. What it is all the time is overlong, meandering and only occasionally interesting. It stretches its slim action over nearly two hours (the first film was barely more than 90 minutes!), with the plot featuring so many diversions and chases down rabbit holes, that you are desperate to get back to the Eiffel Tower for the signposted showdown.

It doesn’t help that most of the events in the film are fairly predictable. You only need to have seen a film before to work out who the ‘surprise’ villain is. Every action scene – flipping heck nearly every joke – has been done in hundreds of films before. Anything remotely interesting – in some version of this film Agent H could have been a washout, coasting on his glory days rather than the stereotypical cocky-but-cool hero he is – has been ironed out. None of the dialogue sticks even vaguely in the head and not one of the punchlines lands.

Every scene is written with a perfunctory A-to-B quality. For example, at their first meeting Agent H is dozing at his desk, when Agent M approaches to ask to join his latest mission. She has a comprehensive briefing prepared for him (because she’s new and eager) which he shoves aside with a few off-the-cuff I’ll-read-it-later gags (because he’s a bog-standard action hero who acts on instinct). He claims he wasn’t dozing but meditating and sends her on her way. As she leaves, she tells him he has a “tell”: when he meditates he snores. This is neither particularly funny or enlightening, but because Agent H needs to be impressed for the film to continue, he is and recruits her. That’s a decent insight into the formulaic writing.

F Gary Gray tried to resign multiple times as the story he wanted to tell – something slightly darker about alien refugees on the run from a hideous force – was forced more and more into cookie-cutter Hollywood summer blockbuster fare by the producers. Fights like this perhaps explain why the motivations and actions of several characters make little sense. While Gray and the producers feuded over their cuts of the films, Hemsworth and Thompson allegedly then hired their own scriptwriters to re-write their dialogue.

It ends up an incoherent film, where it feels like some scenes were inserted by test audiences. For example, Rebecca Ferguson pops up for essentially a pointless cameo where she gains control of the macguffin. This long sequences only exists so we can get: a hot actress as an ex for Hemsworth’s character, a fight between Ferguson and Thompson (because Hemsworth can’t fight a girl, he fights the heavy – complete with lame Thor hammer joke), and an unneeded wrap up of a minor plot hole from the film’s opening. At the end they get the macguffin back again – but you could have dropped the whole sequence and got to the ending much quicker and lost nothing.

Hemsworth and Thompson do their best, although the film can’t decide whether to make them buddies or potentially romantic partners. Perhaps the confusion comes about from the actors’ obvious lack of sexual chemistry (they are much more believable as mismatched buddies). I actually feel both actors would have been better the other way around, rather than the lazy casting here. Hemsworth’s sweet earnestness and geeky charm under the muscle would be better as the newbie agent, while Thompson’s confidence and no-nonsense brusqueness matches the more the experienced agent. They do their best anyway, but they have some piss-poor material to work with.

It says a lot that the best moments of the film feature Emma Thompson coasting with snark through a few minutes of screentime. Liam Neeson seems an odd choice for a character clearly written as a posh English gent. Rafe Spall’s casting memo clearly told him he was in some sort of cartoon farce, so embarrassingly broad is his performance. The CGI chess pawn comic relief character does and says nothing that has even a passing relationship with the word “funny”.

Men in Black: International is a fairly dull, predictable, unimaginative franchise entry that, by trying to appeal to everyone with its derivative stunts and jokes, ends up appealing to no-one.

Monday, 20 September 2021

It Happened One Night (1934)

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert as the original odd-couple who find love in It Happened One Night

Director: Frank Capra
Cast: Clark Gable (Peter Warne), Claudette Colbert (Ellie Andrews), Walter Connolly (Alexander Andrews), Roscoe Karns (Oscar Shapeley), Jameson Thomas (“King” Westley), Alan Hale (Danker), Arthur Hoyt (Zeke), Blanche Friderici (Zeke’s wife), Charles G Wilson (Joe Gordon)

Two contrasting people thrown together over a set period of time, at first rub each other up the wrong way but then, doncha know it, frustration turns to love and suddenly we’re nervously watching to see if a last minute complication will throw a spanner into the works. If it sounds like a classic set-up – that’s because it is. Where did you think the set-up came from? Capra’s comedy – which scooped the Big Five at the Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay) is one of the most influential films ever made – and one of the funniest and sharpest examples of great film-making from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

“Daughter escaped again, watch all roads, airports, and railway stations in Miami.” Heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) has eloped with daring-but-dull flying ace “King” Westley (Jameson Thomas) but her father Alexander (Walter Connolly) won’t wear it as he’s sure Westley is only after her money. So, Ellie literally jumps ship in Florida (swimming to shore from her father’s yacht, she’s got some guts that girl) and decides to make her way to New York to reunite with her husband. Hopping on a Greyhound bus to New York, she meets recently fired New York reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) and, after a series of unfortunate incidents, the two of them end up penniless and travelling across America together. Will their waspish banter blossom into something else?

It Happened One Night is so delightful, as soon as its finished, you fancy skipping back and watch it again. It’s such a brilliant, sexy, romantic comedy it’s odd to think nearly everyone involved wasn’t even sure they wanted to do it. Re-named from the less catchy Night Bus (and who cares if the film actually takes place over several nights), it was rushed into production to take advantage of Colbert’s availability (she only agreed to do it if it filming took four weeks). Gable was loaned out by MGM against his will. Capra and Colbert didn’t really get in and screenwriter Robert Riskin re-wrote the script on set. If you ever needed proof adversity leads to a classic, take a look at this.

It Happened One Night beautifully charts how two mismatched people can be surprised by how much in common they have. Both are, in their own way, fiercely independent. Ellie will marry the man she wants, and hang the consequences. Peter gets the spike permanently because his unique way of doing things doesn’t fit with his editor. They are both quick-witted people with dreams who don’t suffer fools. At first she thinks he’s smug (and in a way he is), he feels she’s entitled (after all its day two before she asks his name). But they bounce off each other from the start, each an equal match for wit (not to mention they both clearly fancy the pants off each immediately).

What’s going to bring the “walls of Jericho” tumbling down between these two? Forced into sharing a hotel room at night, Peter astounds Ellie’s expectations by throwing a sheet up between them, their own little wall of Jericho. Colbert judges perfectly this scene how Ellie’s exasperation also mixes with something pretty close to disappointment. After all she’s already cuddled up to Peter, sleeping on the bus – and Peter in no way objected. Later, in a mirroring hotel room scene Peter will speak openly about how he’s longed for a woman with freedom and spirit (and Gable does this with a beautiful wistfulness) – exactly the qualities he has seen grow in Ellie over their days together.

What works wonderfully is how naturally this relationship becomes first a friendship, then something deeper. Improvising a marital argument, pretending to be a plumber and his wife to put detectives off her scent, they complement each other perfectly. What’s fabulous about this scene, is that (to their surprise) they are equally delighted by how smart and witty the other is. Their gleeful giggling is not only very sweet, but also the start of a new chapter in their relationship. The scene culminates with one of the few moments of intimacy on film involving clothes going on, as Peter helps Ellie button up her blouse.

What’s endearing about them – helped by Riskin’s sparkling dialogue – is how they settle into ‘roles’ and eagerly bounce off each other. Peter increasingly effects a parody of self-importance, claiming to be a world expert on everything from donot dunking to hitchhiking. Ellie gleefully punctures his grandiose claims, but enjoys playing up to her own image of the heiress, at sea in the real world. This is how real people fall in love – and the film is confident enough to have them exchange private jokes we can’t hear on the backseat of a car. It’s gloriously romantic because it feels true.

Gable and Colbert’s chemistry is scintillating. Both are supremely funny, but also grounded. When they lark about they feel like real-life sweethearts. Colbert gives Ellie a wonderful vulnerability under the self-entitlement. She’s snappy and quick-witted but confused and even a bit frightened by her growing feelings. Gable’s easy charm also has a slight chip on his shoulder: but he’s also laid-back and more than willing to look silly, proud but self-aware with it. He’s also a hugely adept physical comedian (his demonstration of how to hitch-hike is hilarious).

Moments have passed into film lore. Gable’s extraordinarily silly hitch-hiking routine, cars streaming past, until Colbert flashes a bit of leg. This is a beautifully staged scene, a cheeky bit of sexuality a brilliant punchline to an extended showcase for Gable’s comic timing and Colbert’s reactive skills and composure. The dialogue exchanges between the two are superbly delivered. The film was a massive sleeper hit – it even has one of the best examples of reverse product placement, when the reveal Gable’s character didn’t wear an undershirt allegedly led to sales of that garment plummeting.

The direction from Capra is spot-on, classic Hollywood but mixed with some beautiful framing and some dynamic camera movements, including some lovely tracking shots particularly through the bus (Capra’s visual direction in a confined space here doesn’t get enough credit). Capra also ensures we don’t forget this was the time of depression: money is tight for everyone, many of those on the bus are desperate for work and the out-of-touch affluence of Ellie rightly raises heckles.

Above all, Capra creates a hugely sweet romance – with lashings of sexy chemistry but not a jot of sex. Wipes and fast transitions keep the pace up. The dialogue pacing is perfect. He uses light wonderfully: in the two hotel room scenes, light carefully divides up and then unifies our two leads, dancing off their Ellie’s eyes and reflecting how they are beginning to see each other in a new light. It has a reputation as a screwball comedy, but really its a carefully paced character comedy, where Capra lets the relationship flourish organically from scene-to-scene (only Peter’s “hold-the-press” editor and irritating fellow bus rider Shapely – the inspiration for Bugs Bunny – are characters who could walk into screwball unchanged).

Above all, he draws fresh, relaxed and emotional performances from the two leads. The bond between them has been so comfortably formed – and resonates so strongly – that the film can get away with being possibly the only romantic comedy in history where the couple never kiss and don’t share the screen in the final act. It’s a film where two characters bantering and sharing heartfelt truths, sleeping in separate beds on opposite sides of a sheet has more sexiness and emotion to it than a world of rumpy-pumpy. It Happened One Night is just about the perfect romantic comedy, oft-imitated but never-bettered. You’ll want to watch it again as soon as it finishes.

Friday, 17 September 2021

Promising Young Woman (2020)

Carey Mulligan excels as a Promising Young Woman

Director: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Carey Mulligan (Cassandra Thomas), Bo Burnham (Ryan Cooper), Alison Brie (Madison McPhee), Clancy Brown (Stanley Thomas), Jennifer Coolidge (Susan Thomas), Laverne Cox (Gail), Chris Lowell (Al Monroe), Connie Britton (Dean Elizabeth Walker), Adam Brody (Jerry), Max Greenfield (Joe Macklemore), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Neil), Alfred Molina (Jordan Green)

It’s late at night, you’ve had a few drinks and someone nice offers to drive you home. If you’re a man you probably think, what’s the problem? If you are woman, this can be just the first act of a night of sexual assault. It’s depressing to think this is the world we live in, but if there is one thing #metoo taught a lot of men, it’s that many women experience danger in situations we wouldn’t think twice about. These ideas are wonderfully explored in Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, the striking, witty and deeply suspenseful Promising Young Woman.

Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) goes out week after week to clubs. She lolls in the corner, slurs her words and waits for guys to offer her a lift home. Those taxis always swing past their own apartments, they always ask her to pop in for one more drink which swiftly turns into an attempt at sex. At which point, Cassie reveals she is entirely sober… Cassie’s revenge campaign is all about revealing to guys who think they are nice, that they are in fact not nice at all. Dealing with trauma over her past, Cassie’s only meaning in life is this campaign, at the cost of any personal life. But a chance meeting with Ryan (Bo Burnham), someone she used to go to college with, presents her with a choice – a new start or a settling of accounts with the man at the root of her trauma.

Emerald Fennell’s film is a superbly timely drama that brilliantly dances from genre to genre. It’s possibly the sweetest and most romantic revenge drama you’ll ever see, or the funniest shocking tragedy. But it’s primarily a film powered by righteous anger: the world shouldn’t be like this.

Many of the men are of course vile – and perhaps most of all because they are so superbly certain of their self-satisfied niceness. The film opens with one of these nights, Cassie pretending to be utterly wasted in a bar while three men chat about how drunk she is, but also how hot. The guy who seems the nicest pops her in an uber, takes her home, pours her a massive drink and takes her pants off. At which point Cassie, stone-cold-sober announces “What the fuck are you doing?”. Later Neil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) will whine it’s not fair Cassie has “tricked” him into feeling bad (after he has already assaulted her). As if her not being helpless somehow makes him the victim.

But it’s not just men. Fennell’s film shows several times how many women conspire in keeping this status quo going. Cassie’s focused campaign against the people she holds directly responsible for the rape of her beloved best friend Nina starts with two women. One is the fellow student (now a self-satisfied mum-of-two, played with suburban smugness by Alison Brie) who thought that, by behaving like that, Nina basically had it coming. The second is the Dean of the university (a smoothly uncaring Connie Britton) who didn’t want to ruin the men’s careers. Both of these women are as much a part of the victim-blaming culture as the men Cassie shames on her nights out.

Fennell’s film is a brilliant expose of how toxic a certain kind of masculinity has become. And it’s not just the vile alpha-males responsible for the horror that happened to Nina (when we reach these people late in the film, their basic lack of humanity is staggering – even if Fennell strips them of any possible nuance by making them cartoonish in their Bullingdon-club vileness). The bulk of the men in the film are convinced that because they try and be nice, they therefore are nice.

But it’s still a film with a great deal of compassion. It notably isn’t a straightforward endorsement of revenge. It’s made clear what Cassie is doing is hugely dangerous – she has lucked out that the men she encounters are shamed into pleading and defensive whining. There is the distinct possibility that Cassie could be seriously hurt or worse – for all her planning and determination. That’s not to mention the psychological damage this has on her. She is a deeply disturbed, troubled and unhappy woman whose life is going nowhere.

It’s the emotional heart of Carey Mulligan’s wonderful performance. Mulligan nails the furious calm Cassie has on campaign – and her chilling authority in situations where she is on top. But she also shows Cassie’s emotional damage. She finds it impossible to open herself to any form of relationship, romantic or otherwise. She’s so shutdown she can’t even remember her own birthday. This crusade has sucked everything out of her life, and had a shattering emotional impact on her. Mulligan has never been better: a career defining performance, heartfelt and impassioned, dark and emotionally complex.

Fennell shoots the film with a real assuredness. When Cassie is in control, Fennell uses a series of carefully controlled static shots, often centring Cassie in the frame. Its only when events are out of her control that the camera shifts to greater movement and less stable shots. The confrontations are both darkly amusing but also chillingly edge-of-the-seat – because we can’t be sure whether everything will go wrong, or how far Cassie will go. Promising Young Woman is also very witty and even rather sweet – the slow, hopeful romance between Cassie and Ryan (a charmingly sweet Bo Burnham) is hugely endearing and gives the film a sense of hope. We’re torn: we want Cassie to have her revenge, but the damage to her is so huge that we also want her to move on.

It’s what makes Promising Young Woman a kaleidoscope of a film. Every time you shift it, your perspective changes. We thrill at seeing Cassie shame bad men, just as you worry for her safety every time. We never know what to expect from Ryan – after all we’ve seen so many men like him turn out to be predators – but we want him to be genuine. You’ll laugh one scene and have your stomach in knots the next. It culminates in a confrontation that shifts shockingly from black comedy to simply pure dark, more disturbing and difficult than you can imagine. Fennell – and a magnetic Mulligan – maintain all these different beats perfectly. A wonderful, and hugely timely, film.

Thursday, 16 September 2021

Witness (1985)

Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis have a cautious romance across the divide in Peter Weir's gripping thriller Witness

Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Harrison Ford (Detective John Book), Kelly McGillis (Rachel Lapp), Lukas Haas (Samuel Lapp), Jan Rubes (Eli Lapp), Josef Summer (Chief Paul Schaeffer), Alexander Gudunov (Daniel Hochleitner), Danny Glover (Lt James McFee), Brent Jennings (Sgt Elton Carter), Patti LuPone (Elaine), Angus MacInnes (Dgt Leon Ferguson), Viggo Mortensen (Moses Hochleitner)

The old world meets the new, when a mother and son from an Amish community find themselves travelling through Philadelphia and the son is the only witness to a murder at the train station. The mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis) wants to help, but is worried about her son Samuel’s (Lukas Haas) safety and is desperate to return home – after all these ‘English’ problems aren’t theirs. However, Detective John Book’s (Harrison Ford) investigation reveals the murder to be the work of dirty cops in his own department – and, after an attempt on his life, he has no choice but to flee back to Amish community with Rachel and son, hiding until he can find a way to set things right.

Directed by Peter Weir with a real professional smoothness, Witness is a triumph of atmosphere and mood, with an intriguing thriller at the heart of it. Weir brings a real understanding and respect for different ways of life, embracing the differences in the Amish way of life but also making some striking parallels between it and our modern world. It’s that emotional maturity and sensitivity that makes the film work: and the most impactful factor is the heartfelt, largely unspoken romance between Book and Rachel. Weir keeps this subtle, gentle and built on suppressed feelings and wordless moments that trusts the audience to understand their bond and their knowledge that their different worlds mean they can probably never be together.

Weir directs these moments with a real romantic simplicity, drawing possibly the most heartfelt, almost boyish, performance he’s ever given from Harrison Ford. Oscar-nominated (his only nomination), Witness is a reminder of how well Ford does both moral outrage and pained suffering. His fury at his corrupt colleagues betraying their badge is as visceral as his sense of fear when he’s chased (first in a car park, then later around an Amish farm) by Danny Glover’s heavy – we always feel worried about Ford’s safety, while also sure he can look after himself. He also works wonderfully with Lukas Haas, Weir focusing on his under-valued fatherly qualities as an actor.

Ford brilliantly combines his decency and world-weary sadness (few actors manage to look more outraged but also resigned when confronted with betrayal and villainy – and is there a more decent, homespun name than John Book?) but Witness taps into his vulnerability more than almost any other film. That’s not just physical vulnerability – he spends a large portion of the film recovering from a gunshot and looks genuinely in fear of his life in the final confrontation – but also emotionally vulnerable.

In a luscious scene he and Rachel (an equally superb performance from Kelly McGillis) dance in a barn to What a Wonderful World by Sam Cooke. As the two shyly and slightly hesitantly exchange looks, both actors allow their characters to hang on the edge of making a clear romantic gesture, but always backing away with laughs and grins. Ford has never seemed more playful, joyfully singing along while McGillis’ emotional frankness and honesty leads makes the scene beautifully romantic, with two people nervous about admitting their growing feelings for each other.

This is just one of several romantic touches that really carry impact. From the moment they arrive in the Amish village, they find themselves drawn to each other. Maybe it’s the charmingly awkward way Book wears the Amish clothes that don’t fit him. Perhaps is the delighted smile and the realisation of her own loneliness in Rachel . But the feelings are unspoken but clear. Both of them are tentative about romance. Book is passionate about justice but surprisingly shy personally (as is all too clear from his bashful talk with his sister earlier). Rachel is committed to her religion, but also yearns for something emotionally beyond what that community can give her (certainly she's unthrilled by the expectation that she will marry Alexander Gudunov's Amish farmer, who courts her with a pleasant but romance free dutifulness). Interestingly she is the one more forward in what she wants than Book. For all the film is a gripping thriller, this romantic story is its heart and what gives the film its impact.

The film also works because Weir treats the Amish life so matter-of-factly. The opening moments of the scene, in its simple rural setting and accompanying choral-inspired score could be set hundreds of years ago. It’s actually quite jarring when we find ourselves in busy Philadelphia: but Weir never suggests either way of life is superior to the other. Both are communities with their own rules, virtues and flaws. The Amish are peaceful, but just as capable of prejudice as anyone else. But they are free of the cruelty and violence of the modern world.

A large chunk of the film follows Book’s fish-out-of-water experiences with the Amish, and his growing regard for them reflects the film’s own feelings. He finds there’s a strange peace in the community – and we can see why after we’ve seen the hard-bitten streets Book works. Ford’s real-life carpentry skills have never been used better on film, as Book helps raise a barn (a lovely moment of communal accomplishment). But while the peace is refreshing, he can only change so much. Confronting abusive townspeople (“It’s not our way”/”It’s my way”), Book strikes back. The film’s stance on Book’s smacking down of these abusive street kids is an insight into its maturity: it’s a brief moment of triumph, but is soured instantly by the horror of his hosts – and leads directly into blowing Book’s cover.

But it works because it reflects how we are feeling. Having been led to invest so heavily in a way of life it’s easy to joke about, we feel the same as Book does: those bullies need taking down a peg or two. It fits with Book’s character as well – the idea of corrupt, bullying cops is as repugnant to him as drunken oaths mocking those who choose not to defend themselves.

Weir’s film also successfully creates plenty of thriller beats. Little Samuel’s witnessing of a murder in a train station toilet has a seedy immediacy and sense of danger that really makes you fear for the kid’s safety (and admire his life-saving ingenuity). There’s also rather nicely a simplicity to the film – it’s no whodunnit, we more or less have every question answered in the first half hour. Instead, the suspense comes from if Book can live long enough to hand out justice and how he can possibly manage that from an Amish village.

But Witness’s heart is the relationship between Book and Rachael, wonderfully bought to life by Ford and McGillis. Few thrillers would dare to be as soft and sensitive as this film – or have such restraint. It’s tinged throughout by the careful creation of two worlds that mutually co-exist, but never together. It’s open about the virtues and flaws of Amish life, but offers no judgement on either them or their religion, only acceptance of difference. Witness is a thriller with a heart, combining excitement with moments of heart-rending romance. Professional Hollywood working at its best.

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

All About Eve (1950)

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis become deadly rivals in All About Eve

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz
Cast: Bette Davis (Margo Channing), Anne Baxter (Eve Harrington), George Sanders (Addison DeWitt), Celeste Holm (Karen Richards), Gary Merill (Bill Sampson), Hugh Marlowe (Lloyd Richards), Thelma Ritter (Birdie), Gregory Ratoff (Max Fabian), Marilyn Monroe (Claudia Casswell)

At a theatre awards ceremony, a table of people watch Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) collect the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement. She thanks them all effusively. They stare at her with mute loathing. I guess that’s show business. Mankiewicz’s biting and witty film boasts possibly one of the greatest scripts for the movies ever written, a biting expose of rivalries and backstage politics, that also manages to find a lot of warmth for its characters. Arch, but in its own strange way tender hearted and hopeful, its Mankiewciz’s greatest achievement.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a gifted actress and one of the leading lights of Broadway, as well as the on-stage muse of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), close friends with his wife Karen (Celeste Holm) and in love with her director Bill Sampson (Gary Merill). But Margo is just beginning to worry, now she has reached her forties, that her parts are drying up. Into her world arrives Eve (Anne Baxter), a besotted fan who swiftly becomes first her assistant then her understudy and eventual replacement. Despite her sweet exterior, Eve is fiercely ambitious determined to find fame and success – and only cynical theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) seems to notice.

All About Eve cemented Mankiewicz as Hollywood’s go-to for high-brow literary entertainment. Which is odd when you think about it, because what makes All About Eve work – and enduringly popular – is that it’s a fantastically quotable soap, played with relish. It’s not a million miles away from a ten-part, cliff-hangers aplenty Netflix drama. But it stands out because of Mankiewicz’s craft – when you pen lines as cutting, acerbic, tender and true as those in All About Eve, is it any wonder that Hollywood sees you as the next Fitzgerald?

And the dialogue is sparkling, from start to finish. From a cuttingly dry opening voiceover from George Sander’s Addison DeWitt – beautifully delivered, crammed with cynicism, cattiness, pride and purring contempt (“Minor awards are for such as the writer and director since their function is merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it.”) that it sets the tone for a film where dialogue is king. Mankiewicz is not much of a visual stylist – only the final shot, a besotted fan starring into an endless series of mirrors – sticks in the mind, and his approach as a director is intensely theatrical, but it doesn’t matter when his dialogue sings.

All About Eve works as both a supremely entertaining peek behind the curtain and also a neat parable about ageing, change and relevance. Perhaps there are few better examples of the changing of the guard, than the impact of growing old on a woman in theatre: from girlfriend to mother, with hardly a role in between. It’s the change Margo is dreading. And as she grows too old for her leading lady roles, what has she actually to show for it? Not much in the way of family or happiness.

If Eve looked closer, perhaps she’d wonder if it was worth it. As Margo makes clear in her dressing room and at a party thrown for Bill, she’s not got much to look forward to. (It’s not often commented on that the film’s most famous line, “Fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy night”, is followed by an evening of Margo’s maudlin self-pity). For all her glamour and fame, it’s clear Margo is unhappy: “So many people know me. I wish I did” she says at one point, and for all the whirlwind of her life, she’s not exactly over-burdened by close friends.

It’s easy to forget, because All About Eve is so well known for being a bitchfest – and Mankiewicz’s cutting one-liners are genius – that you forget its lead is a sad and lonely figure, and the film presents a conservative view of motherhood being a crucial role for a woman. We don’t automatically remember this speech’ but it’s crucial for Margo: “There's one career all females have in common - whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we've got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we've had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed - and there he is.”

Margo is the signature part for Bette Davis, but memory has distorted it. You can expect it to be a parade of sharply barbed attacks, but it is much more than this. Yes, she does these with aplomb (“I wouldn't worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be”), but under the regal grande dame, there is a rather vulnerable woman, scared about where her life is going and terrified of being unloved. For all the Davis fireworks, it’s an affecting – and perhaps this is why it became such a gay icon, during those years of people forced into the closet –vulnerable and lonely performance.

That vulnerability contributes to the sense of vampire story. Eve arrives in the dead of night, inveigles her way into Margo’s life and then slowly takes that life over. Eve is almost draining Margo’s life force, leaving her even more aware of the lonely impact of her choices. There’s the suggestion of sexual obsession in Eve – standing on stage, holding Margo’s costume in front of her and imagining the applause, Eve seems as much besotted with Margo as she does with becoming her. And of course Eve is a unknowable fake. Anne Baxter’s gentle, butter-wouldn’t-melt sweetness is just the right side of phoney. Only Thelma Ritter’s (very funny) bitchy dresser detects dictates her invented backstory about a deceased husband is baloney (“What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end.”).

Later Birdie will comment Eve is studying to become Margo – and that’s spot on. As Eve moves further up the ladder, Baxter drops her gentleness and becomes increasingly steely. “A contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition - and talent. We deserve each other” Addison will tell her – and he’s spot on. Eve’s driving motivation is ambition, and anyone is fair game if it will help her move up the greasy ladder of theatrical success.

Eve uses everyone. She manipulates Karen into making Margo missing a performance – then invites the press in advance to her performance, which is met with raves. Afterwards Eve gives an interview in which she lacerates Margo as a bitter has-been holding her back. It’s enough for Karen – and Celeste Holm is very good as this gently supportive woman, with the firmest principles of anyone on show here – but the men can’t let go. It takes an attempted seduction to drive away Bill, but the weaker Lloyd seems to be sucked into her web (the film is coy about the implied affair). It should be clear that Eve is a force draining energy out of everything she can, determined to get to the top.

And we know she gets there: after all we’ve seen her win the Sarah Siddons prize! But Eve has none of Margo’s soul. The film ends with her meeting the even more vainly empty Phoebe, who Addison immediately recognises is intent on the same scheme as Eve was. And so, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges. Eve has learnt everything from Margo, except how to be a human: she has all her technique and none of her heart. The film even manages to feel a bit sorry for her – a woman who has achieved everything she wants, and finds it makes her neither happy nor popular.

It’s the heart of Mankiewicz’s film, perhaps even its warning message. What is the point of all this greatness, if all you have to show for it are false-friendships with poisonous pals like Addison? It’s the moral message behind a film filled with one-liners and wonderful speeches, a masterclass in theatrical writing for cinema. Bette Davis is superb, funny and heartfelt. Baxter is quietly terrifying. Ritter and Holm are superb and Sanders is so well case in this role, you wonder if Mankiewicz somehow invented him specially for it. All About Eve may be grand, soapy entertainment – but soap has never been smarter than this.

Monday, 13 September 2021

Chocolat (2000)

Juliette Binoche changes people's lives with sweet treats in Chocolat

Director: Lasse Hallström
Cast: Juliette Binoche (Vianne Rocher), Judi Dench (Armande Voizin), Alfred Molina (Comte de Reynaud), Lena Olin (Josephine Muscat), Johnny Depp (Roux), Victoire Thivisol (Anouk Roucher), Hugh O’Conor (Pere Henri), Carrie-Anne Moss (Caroline Clairmont), Peter Stormare (Serger Muscat), Leslie Caron (Madame Audel), John Wood (Guillaume Blerot), Elisabeth Commelin (Yvette Marceau), Ron Cook (Alphonse Marceau)

In 1950s France, expert chocolatiere Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche), and her six-year-old daughter Anouk (Victorire Thivisol) travel the country following the North Wind accompanied only by Anouk’s imaginary kangaroo. If that sentence alone has too much whimsy for your stomach to take, don’t invest two hours of your time in the rest of the film. Vianne and her daughter rock up in a very traditional town, run by the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), a stuffed-shirt who won’t admit his wife has left him. The austere Comte is horrified when Vianne’s sweet goodies prove super popular with the townspeople, whose lives suddenly start to change in profound and exciting ways as the quality of the chocolate helps them discover their own suppressed desires.

As if the title alone wasn’t enough of a warning, Chocolat is almost impossibly sweet, like being water-boarded by hot chocolate. Shot in a village that can only be described as chocolate box, it’s twee, sentimental and exhibits practically all the worst elements of cosy women’s fiction. With Miramax muscle behind it, this heavy-going confection briefly persuaded the world it was some sort of easy-going arthouse picture – rather than a smug fable of cliched situations and characters, coated in an unsettling number of scenes of actors eating chocolate with orgasmic grins.

It will not surprise you to hear that Vianne’s arrival in the village is the catalyst for huge change – the sort of change a trailer would surely describe as “their lives were all starters, until she showed them the importance of dessert”. Vianne is played by Juliette Binoche channelling Nigella Lawson as a yummy mummy domestic goddess. Her shop operates with the sort of business model that only exists in escapist fiction: customers spin a sort of Rorschach wheel and whatever they see in the picture decides the chocolate they will buy (no one would dare ask “Do you just have a box of milktray?”). The whimsy is nearly as thick as the molten goodies in the mixing bowl.

The village is stuffed with esteemed actors going through the motions. Judi Dench shows Maggie Smith that she can play crusty-old-women-with-hearts-of-gold as easily as her, as a grandmother who has been refused access to her grandson by his over-cautious mother. (It’s the sort of role people love to see veteran actors do, and duly landed Dench an Oscar-nomination). With some flatly written lines, Dench provides a bit of sparkle in a role she could play standing on her head. Carrie-Anne Moss is pretty good as her daughter, a repressed fusspot, who won’t let her son have fun. John Wood plays a crusty bachelor with the hots for war widow Leslie Caron. You don’t need to be a master confectioner to mix these ingredients together into the expected resolutions.

Hallström keeps events ticking gently along, in a film so soothing it seems designed to help you fall asleep. For a while Hallström was the go-to-guy for middle-brow, unimaginatively “prestige” adaptations of middle-brow, popular novels (this was his second after The Cider House Rules – and he had several to follow – each progressively a bit worse than the one before). The closest genuine emotion comes from Lena Olin’s abused wife of bullying café owner Peter Stormare. Sure, Olin’s problems are solved in about a few minutes, but the threat to her from Stormare is an intrusion of something that feels genuinely dramatic in what is otherwise a souffle. (Olin gets the film’s only memorable line, whacking her husband over the head when he attacks Vianne with the words “Who says I can’t use a skillet”, a line that’s both rather funny and bizarrely out of place.)

Naturally, the stuffy village learning needs to learn to cut lose a bit and embrace life, love and happiness. Alfred Molina’s Comte is the sort of chap who browbeats the local priest (who loves himself a bit of Elvis) into parroting the conservative sermons he’s written for him about the virtue of being miserable. Of course, the Comte is actually a decent guy (when he finds out what a bastard Stormare is, he banishes him at once), just old-fashioned and as much in need of the orgasmic power of chocolate to heal his pain as everyone else. Did Cadburys and Hersheys sponsor this film?

Just when you thought the film’s cosy warmth and supreme heritage gentleness couldn’t get more trying, it tops itself with the arrival of a punch of whimsical Romani people even more smackably smug than Vianne. Worst of all they are led by Johnny Depp at his most lazily teenage dream-boat, sporting a pony-tail and a bizarre Irish accent. He’s even more of a free-spirit than anyone else, strumming his guitar at the drop of his hat. You’ll dream of a hole in his boat taking him to the bottom of the Seine.

It all ends as you might expect: everyone discovers lovely things about themselves and each other, everyone settles down, Depp and Binoche get-it-on (and keep the relationship going as he drifts in-and-out town), the Comte becomes a top bloke and the invisible kangaroo skips away on the North Wind. Eat a box of Quality Street instead.