Sunday, 31 October 2021

Picnic (1955)

William Holden stirs up a small-town - and Kim Novak - in Picnic

Director: Joshua Logan
Cast: William Holden (Hal Carter), Kim Novak (Madge Owens), Rosalind Russell (Rosemary Sydney), Betty Field (Flo Owens), Susan Strasberg (Millie Owens), Cliff Robertson (Alan Benson), Arthur O’Connell (Howard Bevans), Verna Felton (Helen Potts), Reta Shaw (Irma Kronkite)

In a small Kansas town in the early 1950s, everything is sweet as apple pie. But under the surface, tensions bubble – and it only takes a stranger changing the status quo to make them explode. In William Inge’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning play – bought to the screen by original Broadway director Joshua Logan – that stranger is Hal Carter (William Holden), failed sportsman, actor and college drop-out, drifting into town looking for a new start from old friend Alan (Cliff Robertson). But Hal, an amiable screw-up, quickly puts himself in the middle of a love triangle between Alan and his girlfriend Madge (Kim Novak), the local beauty tired of being judged only by her looks.

All this eventually explodes into a series of furious confrontations where the true colours of various participants are revealed. In the 1950s Picnic looked like a criticism of the cosy conservatism of small-town America. But today, it actually feels more than a little nostalgic for the lost innocence of those times. Sure, some people in the town are less than sympathetic, or their lives have been crushed by the expectations of others. But generally, with its pastel colour palette and its generally fundamentally well meaning characters, it now feels a rather reassuring watch.

Like many films that pushed the envelope at the time, it also looks rather tame today. The film is strong on demonstrating the impact of the sexuality of a topless Holden on the women of the town – nearly all of whom go weak at the knees. But generally, the film’s sexual content now looks remarkably safe and gentle. A sense of powerful longing for something missing from their own lives does comes across strongly – Russell’s Mrs Sidney, worse for wear from drink, ends up feebly trying to pull up Holden’s trousers to look at his legs while dancing. But the sexual outbursts largely restrict themselves to that and a few passionate clinches.

Logan’s film throws in a few big visuals (such as the closing helicopter shot as a bus drives out of town) and clearly enjoys its location shooting, but remains stage-bound. Several scenes translate across exactly to backyard locations, the same sets in all but name that appeared on stage. It also struggles to fill the cinemascope screen, for all that James Wong Howe’s photography has a certain Autumnal beauty to it (you won’t see any vibrant greens, reds or yellows). In addition, many of the actors go for somewhere between naturalism and a mannered Broadway show-boating.

Perhaps the main issue is that film dwarves this slight and intimate story. Moments of intimacy that on stage you feel carry impact – heartfelt declarations and tortured confessions – don’t carry nearly so much on screen. In fact, the story ends up feeling rather slight and even predictable: the drifter has depths, but the town unfairly turns against him, the old-maid schoolteacher is deeply frustrated, the local beauty juggles depression, the good natured son of the local bigwig is a self-entitled bully. None of this really feels revelatory and, on screen, easily drifts by with little impact.

Logan’s stagy style also has a mixed impact on the acting with some going for a cinematic underplaying, and others inspired by a theatrical grandness to embrace the big moments. Leading the way in that camp is Rosalind Russell who gives a strong performance as the frustrated schoolteacher, but frequently allows herself to go a little too far in moments of emotional outburst. It’s particularly noticeable as she’s paired with Arthur O’Connell (reprising his Broadway role, and getting an Oscar nomination) who underplays with a quiet wit and honesty.

One of the film’s principle problems are with the two leads. William Holden gives a fine performance – fun-loving and kind but also cutting a rather sad and tragic figure behind the bonhomie – but is blatantly too old for the role. Hal is probably meant to be in his 20s – Holden was 37 and, with his craggy face, actually looks older. While it does add a level of Hal being increasingly irresponsible for his age, the part really means a charismatic youngster dripping sex appeal (think James Dean – Paul Newman was turned down for the part). Opposite him the inexperienced Kim Novak does, at times, give her line readings a striking genuineness but at others comes across as slightly wooden.

A stagy and slightly old-fashioned watch today, Picnic was nominated for several Oscars, but increasingly looks rather like a celebration rather than a gentle criticism of the small-town values it depicts.

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

The Awful Truth (1937)

Irene Dunne and Cary Grant flex their comic muscles to outstanding effect in The Awful Truth

Director: Leo McCarey
Cast: Irene Dunne (Lucy Warriner), Cary Grant (Jerry Warriner), Ralph Bellamy (Dan Leeson), Alexander D’Arcy (Armand Duvalle), Cecil Cunningham (Aunt Patsy), Molly Lamont (Babara Vance), Esther Dale (Mrs Leeson), Joyce Compton (Dixie Belle Lee), Robert Allen (Frank Randall), Robert Warwick (Mr Vance), Mary Forbes (Mrs Vance), Skippy (Mr Smith)

Lucy (Irene Dunne) and Johnny (Cary Grant) Warriner divorce because both of them are constitutionally incapable of being faithful. But yet, they also pretty much can’t stand the idea of the other being with anyone else. Can they face The Awful Truth that they are, in fact, perfect for each other? This is a feuding husband and wife who enjoy the horrified looks on the faces of other people as much as they enjoy seeing how far they can push each other.

When winning the Oscar for Best Director for this film, Leo McCarey believed he actually deserved it for his more serious melodrama about the struggles of the elderly, Make Way for Tomorrow. While Make Way for Tomorrow might well be a more serious work, and not the souffle of The Awful Truth, I’m pretty sure far fewer people over the past 80 odd years have found revisiting it such a delight as going back into The Awful Truth. Perhaps the eponymous truth for McCarey was that we are never the best judges of our own work.

The Awful Truth is possibly the best, funniest, remarriage comedy ever made. It was pulled together almost from nothing onset. Nominally an adaptation of a play by Arthur Richman, McCarey effectively dumped almost the entire plot and instead largely improvised the film and its plot on set as he went, throwing in jokes, plot developments and bits of business depending on what worked with the actors on the day. Producer Harry Cohn would arrive on set to find McCarey plinking on a piano, swopping stories and coming up with ideas for what they would shoot that day. From this the director would decide on the structure of the scene, the jokes and most of the dialogue. No wonder Cohn was pulling his hair out.

Sounds like chaos right? The stars certainly thought so. Grant was terrified. Prior to this a reliable Studio actor, used to being given the lines and standing where he was told. Finding out here that McCarey wanted something loose and improvisational, at first he was all at sea – even offering instead to buy himself out of the film. But McCarey saw something in him: in fact what he saw was “Cary Grant”. The Awful Truth is the moment the Grant we all know came to be: sophisticated, arch and a masterfully relaxed light comedian (rumour has it, at least partly based on McCarey himself). From hating the experience, Grant suddenly realised it was inspired. The same went for his co-stars: Dunne, Bellamy and the rest all excitedly contributed their own ideas and business into what became one of the greatest comedies of all time.

The Awful Truth is frequently laugh-out loud funny, a perfect combination of witty lines delivered with pin-point perfection. Many of the best lines fall to Irene Dunne’s Lucy, from denying an affair with her latest beau (“That’s right Armand. No one could ever accuse you of being a great lover. That is, I mean to say…”), to archly responding to Jerry’s “I know how I’d feel if I was sitting her with a girl and her husband walked in” with a “I’ll bet you do”. Grant though gets plenty of his own – “The car broke down? People stopped believe that one before cars started breaking down.” – and only he could make “I only just met her” a laugh-out loud moment. Nearly every scene has a perfect bon mot, brilliantly delivered.

McCarey’s direction also adds hugely to the comic effect. The Awful Truth is so smooth, polished and assured you can overlook how skilfully and brilliantly it’s been put together to accentuate the comic effect. From cuts that reinforce or set up gags, to characters entering and leaving at the edges of frames at the perfect moment for a laugh, the entire film is a masterclass in how to shoot and frame comic business. The film is a triumph of reaction shots: watch Grant, Dunne and Bellamy respond to the appalling singing of Jerry’s new girlfriend Dixie Bell (Lucy: “I guess it was easier for her to change her name than her whole family to change theirs”). Best of all a superb sequence where we hear Jerry and Armand fight off screen (with crashes aplenty) while Lucy attempts to maintain a banal ‘nothing to see here’ conversation with Daniel and his mother.

The entire film is a triumph of comic set-pieces, with Grant and Dunne sparking off each other like two whirligigs of static electricity. Both actors are absolutely sublime. Grant manages to make everything not only funny, but also effortlessly cool and his archness and confidence are hilarious. Dunne throws herself comedy with a full-blooded commitment and a total willingness to look silly. Like Grant, she also has the ability to tip the wink to the camera and flag up just how ridiculous many of these situations are. Ralph Bellamy, on paper, has the dullest role as the straight man but as well as being winningly naïve, he also has two show-stopping moments, most strikingly his hilariously enthusiastic dancing (made even funnier by Dunne’s increasingly uncomfortable efforts to keep up with him).

It’s all wrapped up in a plot light as air, perfect for the jokes to latch themselves onto. You’ll laugh almost from the first, but you’ll also care about these two dotty eccentrics who are clearly perfect for each other. With Grant creating his entire screen persona in front of your eyes and Dunne absolutely radiantly hilarious, The Awful Truth will carry on entertaining the masses for decades to come. Hopefully McCarey doesn’t regret that Oscar decision too much.

Black Widow (2021)

Scarlett Johansson crashes through a film that seems to exist by contractual obligation, Black Widow

Director: Cate Shortland
Cast: Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Florence Pugh (Yelena Belova), David Harbour (Alexei Shostakov), O-T Fagbenle (Rick Mason), Olga Kurylenko (Antonia Dreykov), William Hurt (Thaddeus Ross), Ray Winstone (General Dreykov), Rachel Weisz (Melina Vostokoff)

After the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run, when she receives a mysterious parcel from her “sister” – or rather the young girl she spent a few years with as a “family” of Russian agents undercover in America in the 1980s – Yelena Beloba (Florence Pugh). The parcel contains a drug that can be used to break the mind-control that nasty General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) has over his army of Widows: young girls like Natasha and Yelena, forced to become assassins in a torture chamber/training room called The Red Room. Natasha and Yelena team up to free the other assassins, but they will need the help of their “parents”, Russian super-soldier Shostakov (David Harbour) and genius inventor Melina (Rachel Weisz).

As the credits rolled on this formulaic slice of Marvel adventurism, I couldn’t for the life of me work out why it even existed in the first place. For a film centred around Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow character, I expected to come out of this epic with some new understanding of her character. Not only do we not learn anything about her at all, we get no additional insight into what makes her tick, no deeper look into her character. We learn nothing about her that we don’t know already: and the film isn’t even smart or profound enough to reflect on the fact that we all know that the character died in the last film we saw her in. Does it exist solely so Marvel can say “Look we made a film about the only female Avenger, so shut up already!”

The film is stuck between being a greatest hits celebration of Johansson’s work elsewhere and providing as much focus as possible for Florence Pugh to take up the mantle in future films. In fact, the focus is so much on Pugh – who is terrific and gets all the best lines – that Johansson becomes a bit of a straight-man in her own damn movie. It’s Black Widow who has to say all the unhip, dull things (“We can’t steal that car!”) while her sister snipes, swears and plays devil-may-care with the consequences. For what should be her moment in the sun, Johansson gets rather short-changed here. But then perhaps she didn’t really care – it certainly never feels that she had anything she was determined to say or do here, other than cash a huge cheque.

The film is framed around a back story of villainy involving the nasty Dollshouse-style assassin school that both sisters were forced to attend, here revealed to still be in operation with a team of brainwashed female assassins. At the centre, like a creepy Charlie with brain-washed Angels, is General Dreykov, played by a barely-even-trying Ray Winstone (his accent is laughably atrocious). Dreykov is such a peripheral figure in the film that he never feels like either a threat or a dark manipulative force and his “plan” is such an after-thought, Winstone has to hurriedly state it for the first time in a final act monologue.

The film is supposed to be about misogyny, and how Dreykov has left a poisonous legacy of abuse of young women for his own ends. This includes forcing his daughter (a thankless mute role under a helmet for Olga Kurylenko) into a killer robber-suit as the sort of uber-assassin. Natasha is plagued with guilt about harming this character in the past – a guilt that would have way more impact on the viewer if we had seen even one bloody scene of them together to establish a relationship. How much more interesting, too, would the film have been if we had seen Kurylenko’s character as the new head of this abusive ring of spies, having taken up her father’s mantle and absorbing his poisonous world view. But no, such nuances are beyond this film.

There are a few moments of emotion and comedy gained from Natasha’s fake family – the parents who are not her parents, the sister who is not her sister. This odd group reunion makes for some laughs, but its noticeable that the main emotional impact is on Pugh’s younger, less settled character rather than the confident, assured Natasha. It’s another major flaw in the film: at the end of the day, I can’t imagine this had any real impact on the character at all. Does Natasha really change her view of herself at the end? No: she talks the talk about having “a new family” but her level of connection with them (certainly with her parents) doesn’t seem to go much beyond patient affection. Again, the real emotional impact is on Pugh’s character who has finally found something to base her life on: this would have worked so much better as an origins story.

Instead, this seems to exist solely to answer a trivia question I’m not sure anyone was asking: “What did Black Widow do in between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War?” If your life really was lacking without the answer to that, this is the film for you. Otherwise, there is little at all to make any of this stand out from any of the other 20+ Marvel films. Its action scenes are cookie-cutter (naturally everywhere Natasha goes, the place is destroyed), the emotional beats are completely unrevealing, the baddie so forgettable you might even miss it when he dies, and we get a few actors (Harbour and Weisz) coasting on a couple of decent lines and bit of comic business. Apart from anything involving Florence Pugh, this film is totally and utterly forgettable.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey are brainwashed in The Manchurian Candidate

Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Frank Sinatra (Major Bennett Marco), Laurence Harvey (Raymond Shaw), Janet Leigh (Eugenie Rose Cheyney), Angela Lansbury (Eleanor Shaw Iselin), James Gregory (Senator John Yerkes Iselin), Henry Silva (Chun-jin), Leslie Parish (Jocelyn Jordan), John McGiver (Senator Thomas Jordan), Khigh Dhiegh (Dr Yen Lo), James Edwards (Cpl Allen Melvin)

Spoilers: Herein the biggest twist in The Manchurian Candidate is revealed

Korean War hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is cold, uncommunicative, reserved and difficult. So why, when asked, does everyone in his platoon say “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”? Welcome to the world of sinister brainwashing and mind-control. Welcome to The Manchurian Candidate.

Shaw returns from the war in Korea as a Medal of Honour winner. He saved his entire platoon – with the exception of two casualties – under heavy fire and is America’s blue-eyed-boy, already being hijacked by his ambitious mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) as a prop for the Presidential campaign of her second husband, her McCarthy-like puppet Senator John Iselin (James Gregory). But if things are fine and dandy, why does Shaw’s commanding officer Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) keep having a recurring nightmare of a hypnotised Shaw calmly murdering those two casualties in front of an audience of Russian and Chinese officers? Can Shaw be all he seems – or is he the new secret weapon in a deadly Cold War?

A film born at the heart of the paranoia of the sixties – it premiered shortly after the Cuban Missile and would be followed a year later by the assassination of JFK by the Shaw-esque Lee Harvey Oswald – The Manchurian Candidate captures the mood of its time in a way few other films have done. On top of which, it’s a brilliant, edge-of-your-seat ride, crammed with complex psychology and chillingly cold-hearted violence, directed with a more than a splash of cinema verité and plenty of panache by John Frankenheimer at the top-of-his-game. Touches of satire on politics and the media, are mixed with a terrifying fantasia on the powers of mind control. There is no other film that drips with as much sweat as this one (just look at some of those faces!) or plays more brilliantly into our own fevered nightmares of how we can be turned against ourselves.

The action in the film is dealt with all the expertise of a card sharp. The opening scene already tips us the wink about the lies in the memories of our heroes: not only do the soldiers clearly despise Shaw, as he plucks them out of a seedy bar in Korea, but we later see them bundled up by Commie soldiers into waiting helicopters. So, we’ve already got a pretty good idea why Sinatra’s Major Marco is as twitchy and sweaty as he is – and we’re immediately suspicious of just how Shaw managed to get his hands on the Medal of Honour (and why, perhaps, he doesn’t seem that happy about it – as if he already subconsciously knows he doesn’t deserve it).

The truth is revealed to us in an extended sequence that’s a tour-de-force or imaginative visual technique, that Frankenheimer doesn’t get enough credit for. Marco’s dream starts in a genteel hotel in America’s South, with a polite middle-class lady giving a talk about flowers on stage, surrounded by the platoon. The camera moves from the stage in a smoothly uninterrupted 360 turn looking at the audience of similarly middle-class, middle-age belles, before returning to the stage where the hotel backdrop has been replaced by huge banners of Stalin and Mao and our genteel lady has turned into a sinisterly jovial Chinese scientist.

During the sequence that follows, the camera shifts constantly from the subjective (Marco’s false memory of the hotel and ladies) and the objective (a surgical observatory pit with watching Communist apparatchiks), while never interrupting the chilling scientific explanation from Khigh Dhiegh’s (brilliant in every way) scientist. During this inspired barrage of false and true memories, spliced with alarming moments of violence, we witness just how far Shaw’s brainwashing programming has gone as, with complete politeness, he goes about shooting one soldier in the head and quietly strangling another. No wonder Marco – and the other soldiers who all share versions of the same nightmare – wakes up screaming every morning.

And why did they pick Shaw? Well obviously, his mother-fixation already makes him more than susceptible to external control (under hypnosis he describes Marco as his best friend – something that, Dr Lo points out, speaks volumes for his inclination to prostrate himself to authority). Played with an austere distance by Laurence Harvey – the film expertly uses Harvey’s prickly air of patrician woodenness – Shaw is desperately weak-willed and a natural follower, who has never escaped his mother’s influence. He’s already a lonely man, nursing heart-break, loathing the brashness around him with an elitist hauteur, but lacking the force of character to do anything about it. No wonder he’s ready to be reprogrammed.

And of course, there is no controller he is more likely to follow than his mother. Angela Lansbury excels in her finest, most iconic screen role, as Shaw’s ambitious, deadly, controlling and manipulative mother. Is there a finest reveal, than her sudden invitation at a fancy-dress party for Shaw to “pass the time by playing a little Solitaire”? The film skilfully suggests that it is power rather than ideology that motivates Eleanor – even before the reveal she’s clearly the brains in the marriage with her dull husband, and a forceful, overbearing presence to her son. It’s revealed she’s already wrecked poor Shaw’s life – forcing him to jilt his true love Jocelyn (Leslie Parish), because marriage to the daughter of a political rival ain’t part of the plan. Maybe as well she’s motivated by the unsettling air of incest between the two of them.

No wonder Marco starts to feel sorry for him. Sinatra is very good in this film, striking a perfect balance between twitchy unease and a growing fatherly concern for Shaw. Notoriously a one-take actor (a key scene where Sinatra appears slightly out-of-focus – an effect that suggests we are seeing him from the screwed up Shaw’s perspective – was in fact because Sinatra was most effective in the first take, but the camera was incorrectly set-up), Frankenheimer uses his presence extremely well. He has a brutal fight scene that uses every inch of his energy, while he’s not afraid to add a touch of vulnerability into his burgeoning relationship with Janet Leigh’s stranger on a train (despite an initial scene that suggests all sorts of intriguing possibilities, this is a rather thankless part for Leigh, which she still performs expertly). Like Harvey, his face is frequently studied dripping with sweat.

It’s all shot with a brilliantly immediacy. A press conference – where Iselin (the McCarthy satire is hilariously wicked) rants about Commies in the State Department – is shot with such observatory skill, it feels alarmingly real. Moments of lightness – the slightly dreamy flashbacks of Shaw and Jocelyn running playfully together near the sea – are immediately punctured by terrifying moments of unsensational suddenness, none more so than when a programmed Shaw assassinates Jocelyn and her father (the bullet passing through a carton of milk in his hand, which pours out across the floor). It culminates in a race-against time that’s played out with a hair-raising tension.

The Manchurian Candidate combines skilful acting with real cinematic force and invention from Frankenheimer. It creeps into the darkest corners of our mind and invites our nightmares to come out to play. Dark, at times even blackly comic, it’s possibly the finest and most influential conspiracy thriller ever made.

Aquaman (2018)

Jason Momoa takes himself rather seriously in the deeply silly Aquaman

Director: James Wan
Cast: Jason Momoa (Arthur Curry/Aquaman), Amber Heard (Mera), Willem Dafoe (Nuidis Vulko), Patrick Wilson (Orm Marius), Dolph Lundgren (King Nereus), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (David Kane/Black Manta), Ludi Lin (Captain Murk), Temuera Morrison (Thomas Curry), Nicole Kidman (Queen Atlanna), Micheal Beach (Jesse Kane), Julie Andrews (Karathen)

After helping the rest of the Justice League save the world Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is quite the celebrity. Curry is the son of lighthouse keeper Thomas (Temuera Morrison) and Atlantian Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), who fled her unloved husband and his underwater kingdom but was recaptured when Arthur was young. Her other son Orm (Patrick Wilson) is now King of Atlantis, planning to lead the forces of the sea in a war against those on land. Can Arthur and Orm’s unwilling betrothed Mera (Amber Heard) combine to prevent a war? And will Arthur become a worthy hero?

Aquaman makes a valiant effort to embrace perhaps the silliest set-up for a comic book novel yet. Based around a massive, technologically advanced underwater kingdom that has (inexplicably) remained silent and secret for thousands of years, who inhabitants all seem to have superhuman strength and magical skills (guess it must be all that water pressure), the film at times is hard to take seriously. But it sort of gets away with it, as Wan leans into the tongue-in-cheek campness of all this (and I’m amazed how camp these Atlantians are) and asks us not to take anything we see that seriously, but just to sit back and enjoy the ride.

And the film is basically just a big ride, as we travel from place-to-place and watch Aquaman hit things in various under-water and above ground locations, while keeping up a bit of rapid-fire banter that will flower (but of course!) into an opposites-attract romance with Mera. One thing Wan does very well is to find a way to present the various fights in a style I’ve not seen before. The showpiece one-on-ones take place in a series of incredibly smooth one-shots, which twist and glide around our heroes while they despatch countless foes and, in one impressive show-piece, in and out and across buildings during a fight in an Italian cliff-side town. The ending may be your typical CGI smackdown, but Wan’s presents the fights in a way that actually looks different and excites a bit of awe.

Where the film is less successful is in its slightly tired coming-of-age/proving-his-worth/resolving-his-loss storyline, which offers few surprises. Try as I might, I can’t find Jason Momoa a charming enough actor to effectively make me invest in his character. Compare him to Dwayne Johnson, who is always willing to laugh at himself and is the very embodiment of charming self-awareness. Momoa takes himself very seriously – he always needs to be the coolest guy in the room – and his air of cocky self-importance sometimes jars in a film as dopey as this one.

This also means the film fails to sell a real plot arc for Aquaman himself. Its nominally about a character learning to acknowledge his mistakes, vulnerability and inability to go-it-alone. This doesn’t always feel earned and sometimes emotionally confused. One of Aquaman’s earliest acts is to let the ruthless father of a hijacker (a scowlingly charismatic Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) drown. Later he expresses regret for doing this as, by making an enemy, he endangered Mera. Not regret because it was wrong to let the man die, but a sociopathic concern for his loved ones rather than someone else’s. The character’s growth never really convinces – he still seems like the same cocky maverick at the end than he was at the beginning, rather than someone who has matured into a real leader.

But aside from these doubts, this is a big silly pantomime pretty much told with the right balance between seriousness and tongue-in-cheek. Amber Heard mixes heroism with a dopey, flower-eating sweetness as Mera. Willem Dafoe constantly looks like he’s about to snigger as a wetsuit glad Grand Vizier. There is something rather lovable about a film so eclectic in its cast that Julie Andrews (of all people) voices a sea monster and Dolph Lundgren tackles King Nereus like it’s his shot at Macbeth.

Bangs, booms and few jokes carry us through a deeply silly but enjoyable film. There is a great deal of visual imagination for the sea kingdoms, a mix of Greek inspired nonsense and space-ship bombast. Wan pretty much throws the kitchen sink at the screen, and while it’s definitely rather too long it’s also bubbling with just as much tongue-in-cheek fun that you roll with it. Nothing here reinvents the wheel – and the plot often feels like a rather clumsy after-thought – but it’s still an entertaining wheel.

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Enemy of the State (1998)

Will Smith and Gene Hackman dodge the surveillance state in Enemy of the State

Director: Tony Scott
Cast: Will Smith (Robert Clayton Dean), Gene Hackman (Brill), Jon Voight (NSA Director Thomas Reynolds), Regina King (Carla Dean), Jason Lee (Daniel Leon Zavitz), Lisa Bonet (Rachel Banks), Barry Pepper (Agent Pratt), Loren Dean (Agent Loren Hicks), Jake Busey (Agent Krug), Lisa Bonet (Rachel Banks), Jack Black (Agent Fiedler), Jamie Kennedy (Agent Williams), Seth Green (Agent Selby), Ian Hart (Agent Bingham), Stuart Wilson (Congressman Sam Albert), Jason Robards (Congressman Philip Hammersley), Tom Sizemore (Paulie Pintero)

A congressman (a cameoing Jason Robards) is murdered for refusing to support intrusive new counterterrorism legislation championed by NSA director Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight). Unfortunately, someone caught the killing on camera. When the NSA come hunting, he plants the recording on an unwitting lawyer friend, Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith). Dean has no idea he has evidence that could blow the conspiracy – and is nonplussed when they set about destroying his life. The only person who can help is mysterious surveillance expert Brill (Gene Hackman), who has spent decades living off the grid. Can the clear Dean’s name and stop the bad apples in the NSA?

Enemy of the State is a fun chase movie, that enjoys the technical possibilities of the surveillance state, packaged with the fast-pace, bright colour-filtered style of Tony Scott (this is one of his best films). There is more than enough wit and enjoyment about it – not to mention watching a host of very good actors, many of them unknowns at the time, bring a lot of sparkle to the film (you’ve got to give kudos to the casting director). Everything of course gets tied up in a neat, pretty bow but it’s a damn lovely bow so that’s fine.

In its detailed look at the power of the surveillance state, Enemy of the State was, in a way, ahead of its time. The ability for the intelligence agencies here to look into literally everything in your life is pretty unsettling, from bank details to computer accounts. Every camera is an eye and satellites are tasked at will to watch anything. In fact, it’s quite something to remember that the state is only more powerful today – the internet and mobile phones would making tracking Dean even easier than the bugs they secrete about his person, which causes him to flee our baddies stripped to his undies. (Also, if only Reynolds had waited a few years, congress would wave through legislation such as he is requesting here, without batting an eyelid).

The film also dares to shade a little bit of naughtiness into Will Smith’s character. Sure, he’s a crusading labour lawyer (we’ve got to know he’s on the right side!) but he’s also an adulterer with trust problems in his marriage. Smith’s still at his charming best here, and his frazzled desperation as he struggles to understand why on earth the NSA is destroying his life is well-handled. Regina King gets a thankless role as Dean’s shrill wife, whose trust in her husband oscillates according to the requirements of the script, rather than any internal character logic.

Enemy of the State sometimes teeters on the edge of making a point about the dangers of the surveillance state. How easy could it be to abuse this power? Unfortunately it puts most of these arguments into the mouth of Regina King’s holier-than-thou wife, which rather undermines them. It’s also made abundantly clear that we’re witnessing rogue agents. This allows the film to focus more on the cool things surveillance can do, rather than clearer moral statements about whether that’s right or not, other than it being a dangerous tool in the hands of the wrong men.

Scott’s film is more of an entertainment than a treatise though (and thank God for that). It also has a nice little touch of 1970s’ conspiracy thriller to it, something the film leans into with the casting of Gene Hackman in a role reminiscent of Harry Caul in The Conversation. Sure, I can’t remember Caul driving a car while it was on fire or blowing up a building, but Hackman still gives the film some class and a touch of old-school espionage and cynicism. Truth-be-told, other than profession, Caul and Brill have very little in common (Brill is far more confrontational and confident, and much less likely to rip his apartment apart) but it’s still a nice call-back. I also rather enjoy Gabriel Byrne’s smart, playful little cameo as ‘fake’ Brill (hardly a spoiler as you can’t move without knowing Hackman is in the picture).

Scott’s high-energy fun culminates in a smart little trap laid by Dean for all his enemies, that plays nicely off the fact that the NSA agents and the Mafia are definitely paranoid and stubborn enough to not realise they are all talking at cross-purposes. The end of the film sees everything back to normal (it’s unclear how, or if, Dean got his job back considering his unceremonious firing), but I wouldn’t worry about it. It would be nice if it had said more, but as a rollercoaster ride it’s short, sharp and sweet.

Monday, 11 October 2021

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The Fellowship face one final battle in the conclusion of Jackson's stunning trilogy

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Billy Boyd (Peregrin Took), Dominic Monaghan (Meriadoc Brandybuck), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Bernard Hill (Theoden), Miranda Otto (Eowyn), David Wenham (Faramir), Karl Urban (Eomer), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), John Noble (Denethor), Ian Holm (Bilbo), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Brad Dourif (Grima Wormtongue), Sean Bean (Boromir)

By the time the third film in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy came out, we all knew this was something very special. Readers of Empire magazine voted it the 9th Best Film Ever Made the month it was released. It was showered with awards, winning every Oscar it was nominated for (11, including three for Jackson) and grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. The Return of the King is a landmark – and it’s a stunning sign-off for a triumphant trilogy.

Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are even closer now to Mount Doom, guided by the treacherous former ring-bearer Gollum (Andy Serkis). While they must negotiate the dangers of Mordor, Sauron has sent his forces out to conquer Middle Earth. The city of Minas Tirith is his target. Facing an army of thousands of orcs, the city’s only hope is if Gandalf (Ian McKellen) can defend it long enough to allow Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) – the man destined to become king of Gondor – to lead a relief force. Will Frodo resist temptation and destroy the ring? And will Aragorn be able to defend the city and become its king?

I think it’s fair to say, with books as widely loved as this, no one is going to agree with every single decision Jackson and fellow writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens made. Here again, changes have been made – famously the scouring of the Shire that closes the novel has been cut (with Saruman dispatched in the opening scenes of the extended edition). What the screenplay seeks to do is increase the pace and tension – it’s probably why Denethor, leader of Gondor, is reinvented as an antagonist (of which more later) and events charge ahead with a relentless forward motion. There is no stopping to catch breath here: there is always a new crisis to solve.

Where changes have been made, they largely have a positive impact. For example, the film takes the decision to introduce conflict between Frodo and Sam – as well as increasing further the scheming malice of Gollum – by having the disturbed ring-addict manipulate the two hobbits into a falling out. This allows Frodo to enter the lair of the giant spider Shelob (a disgustingly visceral creation) alone. Not only does this make Frodo more vulnerable, it also increases the bravery and nobility of Sam, by having him return to save the day (and allow for a classic Hollywood nick-of-time entrance).

The change also adds to the devious brilliance of Gollum, once again superbly played by Andy Serkis. After spending much of The Two Towers bringing out the depth and sadness in this fragile character, The Return of the King carefully shows how this doesn’t excuse his fundamental ruthlessness. The film opens with a flashback showing Smeagol finding the ring, serving as a neat reminder of the Ring’s fundamental wickedness: within seconds its pushes Smeagol to murder his best friend. The sequence following Smeagol’s moral and physical collapse neatly reminds us of its danger and also how close Frodo is to all this happening to him.

Frodo’s suffering and painful growing maturity is more central here. Wood brilliantly charts Frodo’s continuing moral and emotional decline under the Ring’s influence. Increasingly a physical wreck, Jackson carefully lets the suspicion grow that Frodo’s not going to be capable of chucking the ring away. Balancing this, Astin’s Sam Gamgee (the most heartfelt and affecting performance) becomes the moral centre, self-sacrificing, optimistic and fundamentally decent – a beacon of light in the grimness of Mordor.

Again, Jackson ups the stakes, with TROK taking place on the grandest scale you could imagine. The battle sequences are breath-taking in their depth and ambition. But, as with the other films, Jackson knows the scale counts for nothing if you didn’t care about the characters at its heart. So, while the events are epically earth-shattering, the film always brins us back to simple emotion. Even in the siege of Gondor, it finds time for a quiet moment of humanity between Gandalf and Pippin.

But those battle scenes are still stunning. The orc armies are terrifyingly vast, while the strafing run of the airborne Nazgul (soldiers snatched from towers are thrown hundreds of feet to their deaths) adds to the sense that victory is hopeless. Soldiers fight desperately for their, and others, lives. The film even tops the Two Towers’ charge of the Rohirrim with a stunningly rousing charge involving thousands of horses into the massed ranks of Orc (and tops that minutes later with a second change accompanied by a sweeping camera movement and swelling musical cue that is just about perfect).

Jackson brilliantly communicates how much the stakes are against our heroes. We really feel their bravery and desperation as they take on impossible odds – and it’s that which really gives the scenes their power, not the scale or the special effects. No moment is lost without bringing us back to moments of bravery and vulnerability from our leads. There are powerful moments of warmth, kindness, loyalty and generosity throughout. It’s finally what makes the film so effective – it’s a tribute to the power of friendship.

It’s all powered with a beautifully operatic score by Howard Shore. Shore’s music captures perfectly the world of Tolkien. A few years after this, an ill-fated musical version of LOTR was launched – and flopped. Because, essentially, Shore has already turned these novels into a sort of opera-slash-concerto, with perfect themes for everything from martial orcs to whimsical hobbits. Some of the musical cues are so luscious and stirring, they make you want to stand and applaud. The music accompanying Gandalf’s rescue of the retreat from Osgiliath is a wonderful highlight, the triumphant and tense music for the Rohirrim charge is stunning, the score for our heroes leaving for the Undying Lands beautiful. LOTR is so beautifully scored, Shore’s work so gorgeous, LOTR is a film you could certainly watch with just the music playing and still understand it perfectly.

Of course, there are things you can criticise. Denethor – in the novel a portrait of corrupted nobility, his intelligence and pride turned to despair – is repositioned here as a sort of heartless WW1 General, gobbling food while his soldiers die and embracing a nihilistic death wish (although this change does allow for the absolutely beautiful Gandalf/Pippin beacon lighting sequence, in defiance of Denethor). It’s not helped by Noble’s lip-smacking performance, stripping the character of nuance. It’s gives Gandalf more to struggle against, but it’s a crude approach for a character who would have worked better as a mis-guided elitist rather than a crass, hissable villain.

Lots of people have had a pop at the multiple endings as well. Jackson certainly teases us a little too much with fades to black. But I’d argue the lack of a definitive full stop adds greater depth to the story. Tolkien was partly inspired by his experiences in WW1. In that war, the hell of the trenches came to an end, but people’s lives didn’t end with a triumphant parade. Instead, they needed to return home and adjust back into civilian life. I think it’s powerfully affecting that the hobbits return to an unscoured Shire, which hasn’t changed at all while they (and us) have seen Middle Earth torn apart. And it adds real force to why Frodo, in particular, can’t return to “life as normal”.

It gives a powerfully moving, bitter-sweet ending and, I think, brings out a rich, emotional message from Tolkien’s story often missed: Frodo and his friends are fighting to protect their home, but find that they have changed so much they can never settle back into that home in the same way again. It’s something soldiers serving in WW1 experienced, and it feels fitting echoed in Jackson’s LOTR.

Jackson’s LOTR will always spark conversations around faithfulness and otherwise to the source material. Not everyone will agree with every choice. But surely no one can argue with the majesty, scale and wonder of these films, the sublimely perfect casting choices, or the loving detail in every touch of the design. When I first saw Return of the King in the cinema, the audience got to their feet and applauded. You can’t blame them: watch this and you are watching something very special, a true landmark in cinema.

Friday, 8 October 2021

Fences (2016)

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis triumph in an overly theatrical version of August Wilson's Fences

Director: Denzel Washington
Cast: Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson), Viola Davis (Rose Lee Maxson), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Jim Bono), Jovan Adepo (Cory Maxson), Russell Hornsby (Lyons Maxson), Mykelti Williamson (Gabriel Maxson), Saniyya Sidney (Raynell Maxson)

Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) works as a garbage collector after his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player came up against the colour bar. Troy lives with his second wife Rose (Viola Davis). Troy had a troubled upbringing, turning to crime (and serving time in prison – lost time Rose quietly believes may have had more of an impact on his failed baseball career) and claims to have beaten Death in a wrestling match. Proud of his self-made status and certain, always, that he is right, Troy has difficult relations with his two sons Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a musician he believes is forever sponging money and Cory (Jovan Adepo), a teenager being scouted by an American Football team.

Fences follows a couple of years (with a coda that jumps forward five years) in the lives of these characters, and principally the impact that Troy’s mixture of pride, selfishness and bull-headed self-righteousness has on the family. It’s adapted from August Wilson’s award-winning stage-play, with a script prepared before his death by the playwright himself (earning him a posthumous Oscar nomination). Washington, Davis and most of the cast all starred in a hugely successful Broadway production of the play a few years before, and the film is a careful restaging of this production.

Perhaps a little too careful. If there is a problem with Fences, it is that it falls rather awkwardly between two stools. It’s neither particularly filmic – few of the scenes have been adjusted from the single-set locations of the play, and it’s filmed with an unobtrusive conventionality that makes it look and feel pretty similar to watching a National Theatre Live production – nor is it sufficiently theatrical. I can well imagine the power – and they are undeniably powerful – performances by the cast, principally Washington and Davis, would have blown you away live: but on screen, they can’t quite capture that same impact, in a film that feels slightly constrained by its theatricality.

Most of this comes from Washington’s determination that Wilson’s words would be the star, and all other factors in the production would service that. To that end, the film is a clear success – and you can’t argue Wilson doesn’t deserve a certain reverence, particularly as transfers of his plays to film had been almost non-existent before Fences. Wilson’s plays have rarely crossed the Atlantic, so watching this – a play I was not familiar with – I was enraptured by the working-class poetry of Wilson’s language, not to mention the empathy with which he explores his characters.

At the heart is Troy, a fascinatingly flawed human being. Played with huge charisma, which masks a deep bitterness, cynicism and self-pity, by Denzel Washington, Troy manages to be both admirable and destructive at the same time. You can’t not admire the way he has built his own life from scratch, or the “go-out-and-grab-it” balls that helps him become the first black garbage truck driver in Pittsburgh. He’s witty, warm-hearted and loves his family deeply. He’s also domineering, proud and so convinced his view is right that he sees no problem with cheating on his wife or forcing his children, often against their will, to conform with exactly his ideas of how they should live their lives.

So, he’ll tell his son that because Troy’s dreams of becoming a professional sportsman came to nothing, so will his: so there isn’t even any point trying. He loves his mentally handicapped brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), and rages at the Government that failed to support this wounded veteran – but he also takes Gabe’s disability payout and uses it to buy himself a house and charge Gabe rent for living in it. He’ll talk endlessly about putting duty and family first – but that fence of the title, which Rose asks constantly him to build, is a job he’ll put off time and time again in favour of holding court in his backyard. Troy’s built the family – but he’s also the main factor holding it back from moving forward any further. He’s a classic tragic figure.

Equally superb is Viola Davis as Rose, endlessly patient and caring, holding the entire family together and quietly and carefully cleaning up after Troy’s outbursts or bad temper. Davis won the Oscar, and Rose is a dream of a part a woman who closes her eyes to problems, believing she lives a perfect family life, until it is too late. When finally confronted with the selfishness of Troy’s actions, Davis’ emotional devastation – her resentment and fury at having benched her own dreams and desires to service Troy – is hugely moving, perfectly showcasing Davis’ skill to play deep emotions while simultaneously holding those emotions in.

These two actors are both extraordinary – and there are also fabulous performances from Henderson, Adepo, Williamson and Hornsby. What stops it from being an outstanding film though is that its more of a theatrical event pushed into a cinema. With the majority of the scenes taking place in Troy and Rose’s backyard, you can picture the single-set theatre production. The camera moves calmly from close-up to medium shot but does very little else. Very little has also been changed or reworked in the play – compare to Arthur Miller’s reworking of The Crucible or Peter Shaffer’s reimagining of Amadeus for the screen. It’s a film with a slightly worthy, mission quality to it. But as a showcase for the play – and the performances – it’s very fine.

Thunderball (1965)

The most memorable moment of Thunderball - and it happens in the first few minutes

Director: Terence Young
Cast: Sean Connery (James Bond), Claudine Auger (Domino), Adolfo Celi (Emilio Largo), Luciana Paluzzi (Fiona Volpe), Rik Van Nutter (Felix Leiter), Guy Doleman (Count Lippe), Molly Peters (Patricia Fearing), Martine Beswick (Paula Caplan), Bernard Lee (M), Desmond Llewelyn (Q), Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny), Roland Culver (Home Secretary), Paul Stassino (Francois Derval/Angelo Palazzi)

By 1965 no one bigger than James Bond – and the films had to reflect that. Thunderball had more money spent on it than all the previous Bond films put together. I suppose you can see that on the screen, but it doesn’t change the fact I’ve always found Thunderball one of the most meh of all Bond films. I always fail to get really engaged in it, and it’s stuffed with the sort of high-blown set-pieces where it feels the producers were so pleased at the possibility of doing something, they never stopped to think if there was an actual reason to do it.

Thunderball’s plot is the first example of what would become a pretty standard Bond trope: the swiping of nuclear missiles by criminals to hold the world to ransom (the principle would be repeated again in You Only Live Twice, Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker). In this case it’s Spectre agent Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), who steals a British nuke-carrying jet and demands £100 million ransom to return it. All the 00 agents are scrambled, but of course James Bond (Sean Connery) has the only lead – helped by the fact he was staying at the same health farm where the hijacker was being surgically altered to replace the jet’s pilot. Bond heads to the Bahamas to follow his lead, the pilot’s sister Domino (Claudine Auger) – only to find out she’s Largo’s girl! Will Bond get those missiles in time and dodge sharks, heavies, red-headed femme fatales and deadly street parades?

Well of course. After all, Nobody Does It Better. Thunderball is big, expensive and has several high-octane fights. But it’s also strangely slow and ponderous, takes ages to get started and has the distinct whiff of everyone going through the motions. Compared to Goldfinger and From Russia with Love there is a noticeable lack of spark and wit. All the invention seems to have gone into some of the gadgets – look Bond has a jet pack! – and none into the script which presents a series of plug-and-play characters and a plot set-up that lacks any real sense of quirk.

It also doesn’t help that what feels like vast reams of the film are filmed underwater. The producers were obviously thrilled by the invention of underwater cameras, so were eager to throw as many action sequences down there as possible. Problem is an underwater action sequence is devoid of sound and, due to the breathing apparatus, it’s nearly impossible to see anyone’s face. All this makes for some slow-paced action sequences where it’s rather hard to tell what’s going on and who is on what side.

The score tries to compensate for this by hammering up the musical intensity. Everything in the film is trying desperately to tell you this is thrilling, but you eventually realise all you are really watching are a group of wet-suit clad stuntmen moving slowly around trying to hit each other. All this in a silence only broken by the occasional ‘dead’ character floating away in a burst of despairing oxygen bubbles. Nothing that happens underwater in Thunderball sticks in the mind, for all the money spend on it.

But that’s kind of the case for the whole film. It’s a huge spectacle, but also one of the hardest Bonds to recall. The opening sequence is overshadowed by Bond’s brief escape via jet pack (where does he get it from? How does he find the time to put it on when he’s being chased? Don’t ask) but is still a witty bit of fun as Bond works out that the widow at the Spectre agent’s funeral he’s observing, is in fact the widow in disguise. But the film from here takes a very long time to get going again, with Bond pottering around a health farm. The investigation into the missiles is cursory even by Bond standards, and the only sequence that really stands out is Bond limping bleeding through a street party and using the femme fatale as a human shield.

It’s all very competently, if rather lifelessly, directed and looks great. The sight of Largo’s boat splitting into two and one part zooming away is still impressive. Sharks get a healthy workout – sharks in Bond films are always about twenty seconds away from ripping people apart. But it’s all got an air of duty about it. Its a massive box-ticking exercise. It doesn’t even have a proper ending: Bond and Domino are literally air-lifted away without a word a few seconds after Largo’s death, as if the scriptwriters hit their page count and didn’t bother putting anything else down (future films would not miss up the chance for a bit of double entendre laced shagging while waiting for rescue).

Sean Connery looks like he might have had enough (this was his fourth Bond film in about four years), heading towards the autopilot that would become even more pronounced in You Only Live Twice. There are sparks of the old cheek and charm – and he does the final fight scene with a physical viciousness that I don’t think he displayed in any other film – but his mind is elsewhere. Not much comes from the rest of the cast, almost exclusively made up of European actors all-too-clearly dubbed. Largo is the most non-descript Bond villain on record, Domino a character so forgettable the scriptwriters don’t even remember to have Bond sleep with her. Luciana Paluzzi makes the best impression as the femme fatale Fiona Volpe (although she later claimed she was never taken seriously as an actress again).

Thunderball is reasonably entertaining, but it’s the most missable background playing of all the Bond films. There is nothing in here that really stands out, no moment that dominates the clip shows, nothing that you can put your finger on that makes it really unique. It’s not even terrible like some of the other films. It’s dominated by dull underwater sequences and has a cast of largely forgettable characters. It’s a film made to order but with no love.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Les Misérables (2012)

Hugh Jackman runs for years in Tom Hooper's controversial Les Misérables adaptation

Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean), Russell Crowe (Inspector Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thenadier), Sacha Baron Cohen (Thenardier), Samantha Barks (Eponine), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras), Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche)

Of all the behemoth musicals of the 1980s, Les Misérables may just be the best. An entirely sung adaptation of Victor Hugo’s door-stop novel, it’s been thrilling sold-out global audiences ever since 1985. It ran on Broadway for 16 years and never stopped playing in the West End. Plans to turn it into a film have took decades, with its scale always the problem (not least since musicals spent a large chunk of the 1990s as far from sure bets at the Box Office). Finally, it came to the screen, with an Oscar-winning director who supplied the ‘fresh new vision’ a show that had been staged literally thousands of times needed. That vision has its merits, but it’s also divisive.

The story follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict imprisoned for nineteen-years for stealing a loaf of bread. He is persecuted by his nemesis Javert (Russell Crowe), a rigid policeman who believes a man can never change. On parole, Valjean is an outcast but his life is changed forever after encountering a Bishop (played by original West End Valjean, Colm Wilkinson) who claims he had gifted the silverware Valjean had in fact tried to steal. The Bishop charges Valjean to live his life for the good of others. Eight years later he has become a respected mayor of a small town. But his past starts to catch up with him as Javert arrives as the new chief of police. Will helping Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the mother of illegitimate child Cosette (growing up to become Amanda Seyfried), lead to his secret being revealed?

Tom Hooper has a difficult challenge taking on Les Misérables. There can be few people around who haven’t heard at least some of the songs – and no musicals fan who probably hasn’t at a minimum watched a concert version, if not the show itself. How do you even begin to make one of the most famous musicals of all time fresh? Hooper chose a new approach that would up the intimacy and drama, fore-fronting emotion over scale. It also allowed him to fuse his unconventional framing with the raw, hand-held camera work of John Adams, his hit HBO miniseries.

So, Les Misérables, unlike many other musicals was to be all-sung live by the actors, rather than separately recorded and lip-synched on set. The camera would fly into their faces and almost interrogate the actors as they performed, capturing every emotion passing across their face. It would be up-close and intimate. What in the theatre works as a series of powerful, theatre-filling, ballads would be repackaged into something very personal. At times it works extremely effectively.

Having the actors sing live, means all the power of the performances they gave in the moment are captured. Emotions are dialled up, with songs often delivered through cracking voices or snot-filled nose sniffs. This has a particularly huge benefit for Anne Hathaway, whose deeply heartfelt, devastating rendition of I Dreamed a Dream is delivered in a single shot close-up that turns the song into a powerfully raw song about trauma (this sequence alone probably ensured Hathaway won every major gong going). It’s the same with Jackman: Valjean’s Soliloquy in particular plays off the raw guilt, shame and self-disgust Jackman lets play across his face while later Who Am I gains even more impact from the fear, hesitation, regret and moral determination Jackman injects into it, cracked voice and all. Perhaps not a surprise the two most confident performers benefit the most.

The downside is that, repeating the same visual technique for every single song, does make the film at times rather visually oppressive and repetitive. Even the large group numbers sees the camera drill into the faces of the individual singers, rather than offer us any wide shots. In fact, the wide shots in the film are so few you can almost count them on one hand. While Hooper’s approach uses the close-up to present the songs in ways theatre never could (good), it does mean he sacrifices the scale and beauty cinema can bring (less good).

You actually begin to think perhaps Hooper doesn’t really like musicals that much. His vision here is to turn Les Misérables into more of an indie film than an adaptation of West End musical. Choreography isn’t, to be fair, a major part of the stage production, but theatrical spectacle is, and that’s almost completely missing. Some of the most powerful, hairs-on-the-back of the neck power of the big numbers has been sacrificed for grinding the emotion out (Jackman at points speaks some of the lines rather than singing them). Musically, Samantha Barks’ marvellous rendition of On My Own is the only song in the film I would listen to out of context. It makes the show different – but more variety and more willingness to embrace the spectacle of the show – mixed with the intimacy of the solo numbers might have added more.

Les Misérables is still however very entertaining: after all it can’t not be when it has some of the best songs in the business. The acting is extremely strong. Jackman is perfectly cast: he not only has the vocal range and strength, but also the acting chops to bring to life a character who goes from red-eyed fugitive to caring and dutiful surrogate father. Hathaway is hugely affecting as Fantine, vulnerable but also with a deep resentment. Redmayne is hugely engaging and charismatic as Marius. Barks is excellent, Seyfried gives a lot of sensitivity to Cosette and Carter and Cohen are fun as the Thenadiers. The only mis-step is Crowe, who has the presence for the role but notably lacks the vocal strength for a notoriously difficult role.

They all provide some of the most intimate renditions of these songs you’ll ever see and the film unarguably offers a take you will have never seen before, even if you had sat through every single one of the thousands of stagings. It works better for solos than group numbers (which, with their kaleidoscope of voices all in different locations are hard to replicate on screen anyway), and it’s a well the film dips into far too often, but when it works, it really does. Les Misérables divides some – and on repeated viewings its repetitive visuals make it feel longer, with the second half in particular flagging – but Hooper does something a West End show can’t do. It might well have been better if it has used more of the things cinema can do (scale, sets, mise-en-scene - it's hard to picture an actual image from the film that isn't a close-up) but a film with actors as good as this and songs as affected as these will always work, no matter what.

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

The Pianist (2002)

Adrien Brody is outstanding in the compelling The Pianist

Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Adrien Brody (Wladyslaw Szpilman), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Wilm Hosenfeld), Frank Finlay (Samuel Szpilman), Maureen Lipman (Edwarda Szpilman), Emilia Fox (Dorota), Ed Stoppard (Henryk Szpilman), Julia Raynor (Regina Szpilman), Jessica Kate Meyer (Halina Szpilman), Ronan Vibert (Andrzek Bogucki), Ruth Platt (Janina Bogucki), Andrew Tiernan (Szalas)

Few directors have as personal a link with the Holocaust as Roman Polanski. As a boy, he witnessed his parents deported to their deaths, surviving only by chance, escaped the Krakow Ghetto and was sheltered by a Catholic family. The lasting impact is clear to anyone who has seen a Polanski film and he avoided Holocaust projects for decades (including Spielberg’s offer to direct Schindler’s List). The Pianist was the film he made on this trauma. Perhaps because the experience of Wladyslaw Szpilman was, in many ways, similar to his own.

Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is a famous Polish concert pianist. As the German occupation begins, Szpilman and his family face the cruel downward spiral of the new regime’s anti-Semitic policies. Very quickly, laws move from a ban on Jews in public places, to wearing Star of David badges to herded into ghettos. In the ghettos, life is a terrifying struggle, as the German occupiers shift from simple bullying to acts of random, indiscriminate murder. The whim of a German soldier decides whether you live or die. Szpilman’s family are eventually deported to Treblinka, but by a twist of fate Szpilman escapes – and finds himself hiding in Warsaw for years, sheltered by the Polish resistance, desperately trying to survive until the war ends.

Polanski’s film is heart-breakingly sincere and the documentary matter-of-factness it presents appalling, unjustifiable crimes gives great power to the whole film. It never blinks or looks away, and never offers false hope or sentiment. Only the terrible realisation that nothing can have any impact on whether you live or die: death could come from as little a thing as dropping a brick. People are plucked from lines and shot, speaking at the wrong moment is a death sentence and people in wheelchairs are tipped out of fifth storey windows.

There are moments where Polanski seems to be commenting on Schindler’s List’s touches of melodrama: that film featured a Jewish man saved from death by a German officer’s gun jamming – when the same thing happens in here, the German officer calmly stops, carefully reloads the gun, checks it and shoots his victim in the head. That’s the reality. The Pianist tracks all this with a traditionalist, stable camera and a marked restraint. There is no flair, or immersion, to any of this film. Instead, it grimly and calmly shows you each horror.

There is also no sense of fate or destiny. Szpilman survives – while every other Jewish character he encounters does not – not because of things he does himself, but because of chance, luck and risks taken by others. There is a powerful will to survive in Szpilman, but you can say the same for thousands of others. And, as the film demonstrates time and again, determination and desire to live won’t save you if a German officer decides to make an example of you.

Polanski’s film is honest and shocking in its presentation of the descent into brutality in the ghetto. The film chillingly presents the viciousness of what starts as bullying – the German officers who smack Szpilman’s father (a dignified Frank Finlay) around and force him to walk in the gutter – into killing-for-sport. Literally so: German officers turf out the occupants of a building, just for the ‘fun’ of shooting them down like rabbits in their car headlights as they run away.

While the first half of the film covers the horrors of the Ghetto – from over-crowding, to deportations to the increasingly open and random violence – the second half becomes a survival tale that owes a lot to the unsettling horror films of Polanski’s early career. Hiding in a series of apartments, knowing discovery will lead to instant death, Szpilman find himself in a terrifying city where the slightest sound will condemn him. After the noise of the ghetto, the silence of these apartments – and the long periods of silence from Szpilman himself – become increasingly overbearing, while also helping build the dread of discovery.

The only sound we hear are the piano concertos Szpilman is reduced to playing in his head. Frequently Szpilman’s hands move to play an imaginary piano. In one apartment, there sits a piano he can never play: nevertheless his first act is to open it and let his hands dance perfectly above the keys, imagining the music they produce. It’s a brilliant reminder of the ordinary life he has been forced to leave behind – and how, even when things are at their worst, we cling to the things that make us human.

As Szpilman weakens and grows pale in his apartment prisons, he witnesses both the Ghetto uprising of 1943 and the Warsaw uprising of 1944. Polanski treats this urban war with the same chilling matter-of-factness as the rest. From Szpilman’s window we see bodies fall and buildings burn. People slump dead in unusual, un-cinematic positions – a woman, shot in the back, falls to her knees and slumps forward – and with an abrupt, horrible finality. Only someone who has seen death in war, could film it like this.

When Szpilman finally emerges into Warsaw – a city Polanski has only let us see as Szpilman sees it, a few buildings, a street or two – he finds the city a burned-out ruin. It’s the first crane shot of the whole film, that until then has kept its formal angles down at the level Szpilman has experienced. The wreck of the city also matches Szpilman, now an emaciated, mute Beckettian tramp, clutching his only food, a can of pickles.

Despite all this, the film is full of good, brave people who help Szpilman, many of them in the Polish resistance. Most affectingly of all is the touch of hope the story offers – the last to help is a German pfficer (affectingly played by Thomas Kretschmann). The motives of this character are left vague – is it kindness, weariness with war, disgust at Nazism or just another whim – perhaps because all we know is this man, who helped many others as well, died in 1952 in a Soviet prison camp. For all that, seeing a good man in a uniform worn by so many murderers,  gives you hope something can come out of this wreckage.

At the heart is Adrien Brody, who gives a transformatively superb performance as Szpilman. Wry and dry at first, the film sees him being hollowed out into someone scared, desperate and finally emaciated and traumatised. Brody’s brilliance is in stressing there is nothing out of the ordinary to Szpilman beyond his piano playing. He has to learn to bear the guilt of having no choice but to walk away while his family are killed. But he never loses his humanity and dignity – even as a frazzled tramp, when finally allowed to play a piano, after a pause he launches into a performance of breath-taking cathartic release. It’s a superb performance.

The Pianist showcases the sadistic whim that drove the Holocaust. Death is not operatic, but functional, everyday and comes without warning. The film is unflashy, almost classical in its approach, carefully paced and un-melodramatic. But that reflects the lack of romance in war and the grinding terror and suffering of just surviving. By focusing on a single man’s story and experience, it helps us begin to appreciate that his story was just one of millions. That helps make The Pianist one of the most compelling, moving and brilliant Holocaust dramas ever made.