Saturday, 29 January 2022

The Turning Point (1977)

Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft look back on a life of choices in ballet epic The Turning Point

Director: Herbert Ross
Cast: Shirley MacLaine (DeeDee Rodgers), Anne Bancroft (Emma Jacklin), Tom Skerritt (Wayne Rodgers), Leslie Browne (Emilia Rodgers), Mikhail Baryshnikov (Yuri Kopeikine), Martha Scott (Adelaide), James Mitchell (Michael Cooke), Alexandra Danilova (Madame Dakharova), Anthony Zerbe (Joe “Rosie” Rosenberg), Lisa Lucas (Janina Rodgers), Antoinette Sibley (Sevilla Haslem)

The demands of ballet are unlike any other artform there is. Complete physical and emotional commitment is needed to master it – so that means you got to make choices. The Turning Point is all about those choices. You might even call them 'turning points'. DeeDee (Shirley MacLaine) and Emma (Anne Bancroft) were two young ballerinas who took radically different paths: DeeDee had a child with fellow dancer Wayne (Tom Skerritt) and left the profession behind; Emma remained with the company to become its prima ballerina. Now DeeDee’s teenage daughter Emilia (Leslie Browne) has joined the company: will she become the new prima ballerina? Or will she decide to focus on a relationship with playboy dancer Yuri (Mikhail Baryshnikov)? Will Emma and DeeDee resolve the tensions between them – and the conflict from their shared parental interest in Emilia?

The Turning Point was a big hit in 1977. That, and the fact that it was about (and featured a lot of) an artform as graceful as ballet seems to have convinced the Academy it merited a haul of eleven Oscar nominations. Come awards night, the film set a record for most unsuccessful nominations, converting none of them into Oscars. Perhaps that’s because, on closer inspection, The Turning Point is a fairly run-of-the-mill soap opera, that mixes in various clichés from backstage, traditional ‘women’s pictures’ and family drama to come up with a plotline that’s eventually very familiar.

For all its positioning as a female-led drama, it essentially boils down to the same old patterns that for decades such films have circled. Turns out women can’t have it all: you can have that successful career, but forever sacrifice the joy of being a mother or you can settle down and have the family but face a life of career unfulfillment. Twas ever thus, ‘tis one or t’other. Essentially the film boils down into a soapy drama about resentments and illicit backstage affairs and little more than that. It doesn’t even really double down on the fun this sort of set-up could provide, instead framing the whole thing as a very serious drama.

But then, the film was an autobiographical affair for those involved. Emma is based on Nora Kaye, who was married to the director Herbert Ross. DeeDee is based on Kaye’s childhood friend Isabel Mirrow Brown, who made the exact same choice as DeeDee, marrying a fellow dancer (just like Tom Skerritt’s character). Her daughter (and Kaye’s goddaughter) was Leslie Browne, who here plays a fictionalised version of herself based on her own experience of starting her ballet career. Characters based on Jerome Robbins, Lucia Chase and other leading figures from ballet and theatre appear. Only Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Yuri is purely fictional (although the character has more than few similarities with Baryshnikov himself, being a Soviet defector).

It does give an additional layer of interest to the film. Ross also mixes in a host of extended ballet sequences which showcase actual professional ballet dancers, with snippets from Swan Lake, Cinderella and The Nutcracker among others. The dancing is breath-takingly good. Not least from Baryshnikov and Browne, who are given multiple opportunities to showcase their skills. Baryshnikov in particular is at the height of his powers, a graceful artiste who moves with an astonishing finesse. Both landed Oscar nominations, one suspects largely on the basis of their dancing.

The acting is left to MacLaine and Bancroft as the leading ladies. There is something a little perverse that MacLaine, the former dancer, doesn’t so much as trot a step, while Bancroft (totally unexperienced) struts parts of Anna Karenina. However, the two actresses rip into these thinly written parts, giving them a lot more force than the film deserves. MacLaine balances motherly pride with bubbling feelings of something uncomfortably close to envy for her daughter’s success, spending time in New York trying to recapture some of her past (including a brief fling with Anthony Zerbe’s lecherous choreographer). Bancroft balances coming to terms with the end of her career as a ballerina with a growing regret that she has been left without a family. She becomes increasingly close to Emilia, mentoring her, dressing her and coaching her through a performance after relationship problems lead to Emilia getting roundly pissed in a bar before the show.

Needless to say, this unspoken squabble for ownership over Emilia – not helped by Emilia’s fury over her mother’s infidelity – only exacerbates tensions between the two women. It builds towards the film’s true climax (but unfortunately not its actual climax, as fifteen minutes remain for Emilia to be coached for her star-making performance) as the two women down drinks and exchange angry words and slaps, leading to a full blown cat fight outside the theatre. The fight later descends into cathartic giggling – and pity the two actresses who filmed it in ballroom dresses in what looks like a gale – but is acted with a great deal of attack by both, who bounce off each other (literally) hugely effectively.

But the scene is also a further confirmation that what we are really watching is a sort of high-brow family soap, that uses ballet as a backdrop for family feuds, scuffles, sexual escapades and tear-filled reunions. And it boils down to that struggle between career and family, the sort of struggle Bette Davis and Joan Crawford films were dealing with in the 1940s. Which is possibly another reason so many took to The Turning Point: even in 1977 it was an old-fashioned piece of entertainment, that did very little new.

That carries across to its whole execution: Ross competently directs the film (this was his annus mirabilis as he directed two Best Picture nominees, this and The Goodbye Girl) but really it gets all the force it has (and more than it perhaps deserves) from the two leads and a fine supporting cast (Tom Skerritt is very good as DeeDee’s laid-back, understanding father who perhaps masks secrets of his own). It’s a soap opera, solid but not spectacular, that really outside its showcase of ballet, doesn’t stand out from several other films of the same genre.

Friday, 28 January 2022

Licorice Pizza (2021)

Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in an unconventional lovestory Licorice Pizza

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Alana Haim (Alana Kane), Cooper Hoffman (Gary Valentine), Sean Penn (Jack Holden), Tom Waits (Rex Blau), Bradley Cooper (Jon Peters), Benny Safdie (Joel Wachs), Skyler Gisondo (Lance), Mary Elizabeth Ellis (Momma Anita), John Michael Higgins (Jerry Frick), Christine Ebersole (Lucy Doolittle), Harriet Sansom Harris (Mary Grady)

Is there a force harder to understand than love? That’s basically the theme of Paul Thomas Anderson’s delightfully whimsical film, which explores an unlikely relationship in Los Angeles in 1973, played out to a backdrop of the OPEC gas crisis. Told with a dreamlike grace and overflowing with affection and warmth for its characters, it’s a deceptively simple film that is a masterpiece of heartfelt craft.

Standing in line to have his photo taken for his High School picture, 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is instantly smitten with cynical photography assistant, 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim). Much to her surprise, his claim to be a child actor in the movies is actually true – he’s co-starring with Lucille Doolittle (Christine Ebersole, in a thinly veiled spoof of Lucille Ball) in a movie. He’s also a budding entrepreneur, setting up a business selling water beds in LA. Alana still doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, but finds herself drawn to Gary, despite her acute awareness of their age difference. The two of them become business partners and drift in and out of friendship, never quite sure exactly how they feel about each other.

Now I guess you might well have checked yourself there at the thought of a romance between a teenager and a 25-year-old. But there is no prurience here, no masturbatory coming-of-age fantasy with an older woman or sleazy grooming. This is instead a very genuine, sweet and moving romance between two people who only really have numbers keeping them apart. It particularly works because Gary in many ways feels about 5 years older than he actually is and Alana often feels about 5 years younger than she is. In many ways they are both twenty-year-olds – and it’s only the fact that they are not which puts a barrier between them being together. As such it becomes very easy to accept their potential relationship, and even root for it.

That’s massively helped by the fact that these two characters are marvellously embodied by two first-time actors. Anderson specifically wrote the role for Alana Haim, member of family rock group Haim (Anderson has directed several of their music videos, and was taught by Haim’s mother). She’s stunning: prickly, quick-witted, cynical but also vulnerable and sensitive. She’s desperate to find some sort of purpose in her life: exploring the role of trophy girlfriend, businesswoman and political campaigner, but always seems like she’s slightly lost, for all her defiance. Haim is also wonderfully exasperated and befuddled by the interest she feels for this younger guy, barely able to acknowledge she might have feelings for him. Haim is superb.

Gary, played by the son of regular Anderson collaborator the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, is equally well bought to life by Cooper Hoffman. Gary’s career as a child actor is coming to an end: as we see through a disastrously over enthusiastic audition, which the casting directors watch out of a polite respect. But Gary has the go-getting hustling skills of someone much older. He’s got an eye for business opportunities – water beds, film productions, pinball machines – that would be the envy of others. He’s smart, confident, frequently cocky, assured – but at times also staggeringly immature (like a teenage boy he’s obsessed with boobs and Alana watches with frustrated despair as he and some friends drag out miming a wanking gag for what seems forever). He’s also still sometimes just a kid: mistakenly arrested at one point, he sits in terror in a police station and, even when uncuffed and released, is too scared to leave the station without Alana’s encouragement.

That arrest scene is yet another moment that reaffirms the deep bond and love between these two people. Wrongly arrested for nominally fitting the description of a suspected killer – “Look forward to Attica!” the police taunt him – he’s hauled from an Expo. Alana follows, running full pelt after the squad car – even though at this point they’ve not spoken for weeks – and then holds him for what feels like forever when he is released (before, of course, slapping him and saying “What did you do?”). Later, when Alana falls while taking part in an ill-advised late-night motorbike stunt, Gary will run the length of a golf course to make sure she is alright (despite, again, the two of them having cut ties before this). Moments like this sing with a real romantic force.

Particularly as this is such a love-hate film. Alana and Gary constantly hurt each other, finding ways to get into perfect sync only to screw it up. Gary is heartbroken when Alana starts to date his older co-star (a smug atheist, played wonderfully by Skyler Gisondo). Alana is overcome with jealousy and pain when Gary flirts and kisses a school crush his own age at the launch of their water-bed business. After auditioning for a movie role, Alana delights in making Gary uncomfortable when he walks into the bar where she is enjoying a drink with the movie’s male star. Through it all, these two are drawn back to each other time and again – and when the chips are down their loyalty and love to each other is absolute, even if they can’t always admit it to either themselves or each other.

Around the two outstanding central performances, Anderson constructs a series of scenes and skits that drift from one to the other. The whole film has a curiously dreamlike transition structure: it’s frequently hard to tell how much time has passed and the narrative omits overly functional scenes, so we frequently see a situation has changed but only an implication of why (example: Gary’s mother tells him she can’t chaperone him to New York for a TV appearance – next shot Alana and Gary are on a plane. How was this agreed? Who cares!). Each of the sequences plays out with a shaggy-dog story charm, directed with the confidence and brilliance of a director who is happy to make it look easy. And let me tell you, very few could pull off something as light and charming.

The film is stocked with delightful cameos. John Michael Higgins is very funny as the owner of a Japanese restaurant, with two successive Japanese wives who he “translates” for by repeating in ludicrously Japanese accented loud English whatever has just been said. Harriet Sansom Harris is very funny as a plugged-in agent. Ebersole is a monstrous attention-hungry star. Sean Penn is funnier than he’s ever been playing a version of William Holden, pissed and barely able to distinguish between his film roles and real life, cajoled by an equally pissed director (Tom Waits on top form as a sort of Peckinpah-Huston combo) to perform a motorbike stunt late at night. Best of all is Bradley Cooper, who burns through his brief scenes as an unhinged Jon Peters, a whipper-cracker of unpredictability and insatiable horn.

But it’s the two leads that give this heart, and Licorice Pizza is an amazingly sweet, tender, endearing and deeply charming love story about a couple who can’t quite understand why they want to be together and spend most of the movie making sure they’re not. Anderson brings it altogether with immense homespun charm – this is almost a home movie, Haim’s family play he character’s family, the cast is stuffed with Anderson’ family and friends – and Licorice Pizza is the sort of delight that shouldn’t work, but very triumphantly does.

Thursday, 27 January 2022

The Nun's Story (1959)

Audrey Hepburn balances faith and duty in The Nun's Story

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Cast: Audrey Hepburn (Sister Luke/Gabrielle van der Mal), Peter Finch (Dr Fortunati), Edith Evans (Reverend Mother Emmanuel), Peggy Ashcroft (Mother Mathilde), Dean Jagger (Dr van der Mal), Mildred Dunnock (Sister Margharita), Beatrice Straight (Mother Christophe), Patricia Collinge (Sister William), Rosalie Crutchley (Sister Eleanor), Ruth White (Mother Marcella), Barbara O’Neil (Mother Didyma), Colleen Dewhurst (“Archangel Gabriel”)

Gabrille van der Mal (Audrey Hepburn) has two passions in her life: her faith and a desire to heal the sick. Dreaming of combining these and working with native patients suffering from tropical diseases in the Belgian Congo, at 19 she joins an order of nuns who specialise in nursing. But the life of nun is far from an easy one, and Sister Luke (as she becomes) constantly struggles to square the circle of her faith, passion for medicine, ambitions and her natural antipathy towards authority. It’s a square she struggles with for almost twenty years, culminating in a crisis of faith during the German occupation of Belgium during World War II.

Zinnemann’s gracefully directed film, not surprisingly won the warm support of the Production Code Office, with its faithful depiction of the life and work of Nuns ticking all the boxes of a devout picture. However, The Nun’s Story is a more complex and intriguing film than this. While it finds much to praise in the self-sacrifice and devotion of the nun’s life, it isn’t afraid to look at how this institution (like many others) values obedience over innovation and praises submission over individualism. It stresses, in a way very few other films have done, how strikingly difficult it must be to lead your life in a religious devotion, and how much such orders (by their nature) demand we must put aside our natural inclinations.

Sister Luke is warned from the start by her doctor father (a genial Dean Jagger) that, with her stubbornness and independence, she is likely to find strictures on obedience hard to follow. He’s right. Superbly played by Audrey Hepburn (in her personal favourite performance), Sister Luke constantly finds it a near impossible struggle to submit herself to the authority of the order. Hepburn makes clear Sister Luke’s sincere faith, and her desire to belong, but also her unwillingness to accept that this might involve any compromise on her work as a nurse.

From the first she demonstrates she is unwilling to stop tending to a patient when the bell rings for her to attend prayer. She constantly reproofs herself for her inability to subjugate her personality to the requirements of her religious order. Training in tropical diseases at her medical college, she refuses a request from Mother Marcella to deliberately flunk an exam to prove her humility. As a ‘reward’, the best qualified nun in tropical diseases is dispatched to a sanatorium in Belgium to further learn obedience. Even when she is eventually allowed to work in the Congo it’s only in the “White’s Only” hospital (as they need the staff) and she is reproved for showing off when she makes much needed improvements to the hospitals working practices.

In many ways the film is a fascinating look at how hard it was for a woman to make a mark in the early 20th century. Clearly Sister Luke should have trained as a doctor – she graduates fourth in her class in tropical medicines – but that door was closed to her, and her only chance of working in Africa was as a member of a religious order. She ends up working in a system where she must constantly make difficult calls between her two passions (faith and medicine) – with her order placing devotion and obedience as the primary goal.

Not that the film is disparaging of religion. The devotion and goodness of the nuns is above question. Their ability to turn the other cheek and forgive is shown as an unparalleled virtue – even a shocking crime in the Congo is patiently forgiven. Many senior nuns are more than capable of balancing Sister Luke’s devotion to medicine with the orders demands. Mother Christophe (wonderfully and warmly played by Beatrice Straight) at the sanatorium, disagrees with the exam choice forced on Sister Luke and supports her to find a balance between her work and her order’s demand for obedience. Mother Mathilde (a matronly Peggy Ashcroft) in the Congo encourages her improvements – with the proviso she is told first. Others – such as Reverend Mother Emmanuel (a gently reserved Edith Evans) – consider it more important that Sister Luke dilutes her individualism in the order.

It makes for a fascinating film, that praises the devotion and self-sacrifice of religious orders, while not shying away from how rigid they often (by their very nature) are. Sister Luke in many ways is an ill-fit for being a nun. She can’t, or won’t, put her own beliefs about what is right second and she has an obstinance and pride (which she admits herself) that should really have ruled her out from the order in the first place. While the film doesn’t quite do enough to give as much space to her faith as it does her passion for medicine, it also makes it clear many characters – most astutely Peter Finch’s coolly professional Congo-based atheist doctor – recognise that she isn’t able to make the ultimate sacrifice that being a nun requires: the full submission of her own will.

Zinnemann directs this with a graceful, careful pace that finds many moments of quiet emotion amongst the imposing world of the order. The film is bookended by beautifully done sequences of departure and arrival, with possessions carefully left-behind and doors opening onto new and radically different worlds (the ending in particular plays out in a powerful silence). The film is beautifully shot by Franz Planer, with a wonderfully restrained score by Franz Waxman. It’s perfect material for this director, who was always strongest when showing the individual struggling within a system that demands they turn against their own nature.

The Nun’s Story is perhaps a little overlong and at times takes it stately pace a little too slowly. But it has a wonderful performance by Audrey Hepburn (who is in nearly every single frame), gorgeous location shooting and is directed with restraint and intelligence by Zinnemann. It also manages the difficult duty of finding things to both praise and criticise in the life of a religious order and both respects and questions the lifestyle and its rules. A middle brow film no doubt, but a fine example of highly skilled and professional Hollywood film-making.

Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Florence Pugh is either a feminist icon or ruthless monster in Lady Macbeth

Director: William Oldroyd
Cast: Florence Pugh (Katherine Lester), Cosmo Jarvis (Sebastian), Naomi Ackie (Anna), Christopher Fairbank (Boris Lester), Paul Hilton (Alexander Lester), Golda Rosheuvel (Agnes), Anton Palmer (Teddy)

On a rural estate in Northumberland in 1865, Katherine (Florence Pugh) enters a loveless marriage with Alexander (Paul Hilton), son of landowner Boris (Christopher Fairbank). The marriage is a disaster, with the couple incompatible and Katherine bored and trapped with no friends or allies. When Alexander and Boris travel for business, she finally gets the chance to explore her surroundings and enters into a passionate sexual relationship with estate worker Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). When Boris – but not Alexander – returns, Katherine begins a chain of events that will see her commit a series of increasingly shocking crimes to hold onto the things she wants.

Oldroyd’s film is adapted by Alice Birch from a Russian short story, and is told with an icy, observatory coldness that doesn’t flinch from the increasingly sociopathic ruthlessness of its lead character. The film at first seems like it will set out a feminist fable, of a trophy wife struggling against the neglect and imprisonment of forced marriage. But, as it progresses, any pretence that Katherine is a feminist hero is stripped away: she is modern only in the most dreadful sense – a woman who will willingly commit almost any act of ruthlessness to safeguard her interests.

Playing Katherine, the film is blessed with a star-making turn from Florence Pugh. Only 19, Pugh gives a performance of such stunning depth and intelligence that possibly hasn’t been matched since Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures. She’s a master of outward stillness and inscrutability, while always communicating the raging whirlpool of emotions underneath the surface. She’s fiercely intelligent, viciously ruthless, frequently observes other characters silently and can twist her face into a mocking defiance. Pugh also communicates the desperate emotional need for connection that motivates this woman, her willingness to go to such shocking lengths motivated by that yearning for a love that she has never known.

Oldroyd is careful not to present her a Gothic monster (would certainly be easy to do so!). The film is careful to outline how unwanted and ill-treated she is by Alexander and his father. Boris (a bullying Christopher Fairbank) ignores and talks down to this person-as-a-piece-of-property, basically just an unlooked-for freebie with some land, who is failing to get on with the production of an heir. Alexander (Paul Hilton, superbly weak and dripping with contemptuous bitterness) has no interest in his wife, his sexual interest restricted to ordering her to strip and face the wall while he pleasures himself. Neither of these characters ever have anything like a conversation with her, instead speaking to her like a dog or malfunctioning appliance.

So, you can see why she is so drawn to the passion of Sebastian – and also, perhaps, why she might find this cocky but not-exactly-sharpest-tool man an attractive chance for her to wear the trousers for once. Their couplings have a sexual urgency and passion to them that is lacking for anything else in the film. But we never see them as emotional or intellectual equals. There is no scene of romance, bonding or conversational or unsexual emotional connection with them. Katherine becomes obsessed with Sebastian – but it seems to be at least as much an obsession with the sex and the sense of control he brings her, as much as it is Sebastian himself.

As Sebastian, Cosmo Jarvis is initial bluster and wide-boy charm that strips away to reveal a man far more timid, scared and increasingly out-of-his-depth with what he’s got caught up in. For all his Lady Chatterley’s Lover physicality, Jarvis has a real vulnerability in his eyes and a certain little-boy lost quality. His panic and shock as event balloon become increasingly tragic.

Equally affecting is the terror of Naomi Ackie’s maid, torn between different sides. Like Pugh, Ackie is superb at suggesting emotional torment under a still surface and her character Anna frequently finds herself the mute observer of increasingly dangerous events, unable to influence them.

The film is shot with a coolness that at times makes it hard to connect with emotionally. In many ways this is a horror film, with a creeping intimidation, scoreless backdrop and a chilly aesthetic of empty rooms and muted colours. There are some bravura scenes: a life-changing breakfast scene is shot with a terrifying but suggestive stillness, just as it is played by Pugh with a chilling unreadability. Oldroyd’s film masterfully uses a number of simple and unflashy camera set-ups that build up to an overwhelming feeling of dread.

And some of this stuff is hard to watch. Two killings are shown in disturbing detail, enough to haunt your dreams. But the film wisely just presents the facts and avoids judgement – however implied that might be. It also makes for an intriguing condemnation of avarice – everyone in the film seems to be longing for something, but none of them find that struggle was worth it. And at its centre is a intriguingly unknowable and unreadable woman, who only becomes more alarming the more we find out about her.

Lady Macbeth is sometimes a little cold and distant for its own good. But its hauntingly grim and has a stunning, career-making performance from Florence Pugh. Filmed with creeping dread, it’s a cold, disturbing film that will linger with you.

The Lost City of Z (2016)

Charlie Hunnam heads into the jungle searching for The Lost City of Z

Director: James Gray
Cast: Charlie Hunnam (Percy Fawcett), Robert Pattinson (Henry Costin), Tom Holland (Jack Fawcett), Sienna Miller (Nina Fawcett), Edward Ashley (Arthur Manley), Angus MacFadyen (James Murray), Clive Francis (Sir John Scott Keltie), Ian McDiarmid (Sir George Goldie), Franco Nero (Baron de Gondoriz), Harry Melling (William Barclay)

For as long as parts of a map so unknown, that all we write on them is “Here Be Dragons”, there have been explorers yearning to uncover their secrets. Exploring in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was a dangerous, sometimes fatal, call, as explored with a near-mystical thoughtfulness in James Gray’s ambitious film The Lost City of Z. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) was the courageous soldier, whose whole life was a campaign to prove he had nothing in common with his disgraced father. Fawcett became obsessed with discovering the secrets of the Amazon, principally the existence of a lost civilisation built by the indigenous people of Brazil, which he called The Lost City of Z. It was to become a quest that would dominate his life.

Based on a true story, Gray’s film taps deeply into a Herzog-by-way-of-Lean view of the Jungles of South America, a place of great awe and danger which creeps inside the soul of Fawcett until, as one tribesperson says, he seems to be of both the West and the Jungle. Shot on location, the Jungle becomes a place of great beauty, but also unknowable mystery and menace. As Fawcett and his companions hack their way through it, on what could be a fool’s errand, their growing respect for it and the indigenous people, is matched only by their increased awareness of its dangers.

The Golden Age of Exploration is a difficult subject to tackle today, with many seeing (in some cases correctly) it as underpinned by a Westernised Imperialism, that earnestly believed the best thing that could happen to these lands (and the ‘savages’ who populated them) was that they should gratefully concede their land and culture to Western ‘civilisation’. Gray’s film is careful to show that Fawcett acknowledged he didn’t always understand the world he was in and learned some hard lessons. But the key difference is that acknowledgment and, as presented here, the humility and respect he recognised the rights and skills of the indigenous people. It marks him out from several of his contemporaries who see them only as contemptable savages and simpletons.

Indeed, Gray’s film positions Fawcett as an admirable egalitarian. His belief that the people of Brazil were not only capable of building in the Jungle, but that they could create an advanced society of pottery and irrigation ahead of those in the West is laughed out of court by many of his fellow members of the Royal Geographical Society (as we see in an involving debate sequence). While staying with a tribe in the Amazon, he marvels at their ability to cultivate and farm the land – something he had been assured was impossible. Encountering a tribe whose custom is to eat parts of their dead (so as to preserve their spirit in themselves), he reacts not with kneejerk disgust but understanding and respect.

The respect he shows for the environment and those he finds there is contrasted with the reaction of famed explorer James Murray, who joins him for his second expedition. Played with a puffed-up self-satisfaction and rigid believe in his own righteousness by Angus MacFadyen, Murray (a noted polar explorer) proves a serious handicap on the expedition. Unfit, unprepared for the tropical environment and treating all he encounters with hauteur, Murray slowly alienates the rest of the party by displaying the imperialist confidence Fawcett and his companions avoid. Stealing supplies, nearly overtipping a raft and ruining some of their stores, Gray uses Murray as the picture of the arrogant classic explorer and a great contrast with Fawcett, who swears thereafter to never again judge a man on his standing and reputation rather than on his character.

Gray’s film has rather a good ear for the pressures and hypocrisies of post-Edwardian Britain. The film opens with Fawcett successfully shooting a leading stag during a state visit by Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It’s a feat that wins him praise – but not any form of meeting with the Archduke since Fawcett is, as a Lord puts it, “unwise in his choice of ancestors”. It’s a stigma Fawcett has to deal with at almost every turn, from being pooh-poohed for his advocation of the Amazonian tribes to dealing with the criticism of the entitled establishment figures.

Gray marshals this all rather effectively, bringing the film into a neat balance of acknowledging modern issues with exploration while still giving an excellent idea of why motivated these men. It all plays out within a dream like aesthetic that leaves a haunting impression. During his first expedition, Fawcett emerges from the bushes into a make-shift opera house built in the jungle (how Fitzcarraldo is that?), on a plantation ruled by a Portuguese landowner dripping with the greed of his class (Franco Nero in a delicious cameo). During his time at home – and at the front during the First World War – elements of the jungle creep into frame, reflecting Fawcett’s longing to return to this mysterious exotic land which makes him feel alive in ways the stifling life at home never does.

Gray’s sense of atmosphere is so well done in the film – its mesmeric shots and sense of unreality will linger – that it’s a shame Charlie Hunnam isn’t quite the right actor to play the role (he took over from Benedict Cumberbatch, who would have been perfect for the obsession, decisiveness and desire to prove himself). Hunnam gives a solid performance, and he really understands the egalitarian humanity of Fawcett, who treats all men and women as equals. But there is a deeper unknowability and mystical longing in Fawcett that is beyond his grasp.

Interestingly, Robert Pattinson – here grimy, eccentric and almost unrecognisable as Fawcett’s best friend Henry Costin – would have been a better call. This is an intensity and soulfulness in Pattison that Hunnam can’t quite bring to Fawcett. Tom Holland gives a heartfelt performance as Fawcett’s hero-worshipping son and Sienna Miller a sensitive and intelligent one as his devoted wife. Clive Francis and Ian McDiarmid play with aplomb sympathetic senior RGS men.

There are many more virtues than faults in The Lost City of Z. The photography by Darius Khondji is wonderful – no one has filmed the jungle better since The Mission. Gray’s intelligent and thoughtful film addresses questions of colonialism and prejudice, while also not shying away from the danger and aggression of some of these tribes. The portrayal of Fawcett’s final expedition is wonderfully done, culminating literally in a dream like sequence where reality, hope and fate merge. It’s a fascinating film.

Monday, 24 January 2022

Don't Look Up (2021)

Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio and Timothée Chalamet prepare for the end of the world in Dn't Look Up

Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Dr Randall Mindy), Jennifer Lawrence (Kate Diabiasky), Rob Morgan (Dr Teddy Oglethorpe), Meryl Streep (President Janie Orlean), Cate Blanchett (Brie Evantree), Jonah Hill (Jason Orlean), Mark Rylance (Peter Isherwell), Tyler Perry (Jack Bremmer), Timothée Chalamet (Yule), Ron Perlman (Colonel Benedict Drask), Ariana Grande (Riley Bina), Scott Mescudi (DJ Chello), Himesh Patel (Philip Kaj), Melanie Lynsky (June Mindy), Michael Chiklis (Dan Pawketty)

Climate Change. It’s the impending disaster where we stick our head in the sand and pretend it’s not incoming. Governments have been told for decades our carefree use of fossil fuels and slicing down of rainforests will have a cataclysmic impact. But it’s always easiest for governments and people to just say “nah” and not let those thoughts get in the way of our everyday lives. Adam McKay’s satire Don’t Look Now takes these trends of indifference, disbelief and denial climate scientists have faced their whole careers and reapplies them to a comet-hits-the-Earth disaster movie.

So, when Michigan State University astronomers Dr Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Diabiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) spot a hunk of ruck the size of Everest on a collision course with the Earth they are met with a chorus of… yawns, memes and flat-out denials. The Trumpian President (Meryl Streep) is only interested in her donors, the mid-terms and dodging the fall-out from a host of scandals. The media – represented by Fox News style anchors Brie Evantree (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) – aren’t interested in a story they can’t process down into a feel-good social media meme. And even when people start to listen, plans to destroy the comet are benched in favour of a wildly risky scheme, dreamed up by Steve Jobs/Elon Musk style tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) to mine the rare ores it contains for money. What could go wrong?

I can see what Adam McKay is aiming for here, to create a sort of Dr Strangelove for climate change, where the great and the good we are counting on to get us through a crisis, turn out to be the blinkered morons who end up causing it. There are moments where it sort-of hits on a rich mixture of farce and genuine anger. Moments where first Kate then Mindy – thelatter with lashings of Howard Beale – melt down on National TV, apoplectic at the comet-denying indifference of millions of people stand out as both hilarious and also compelling.


But, like a lot of McKay’s would-be satirical attacks over the last year, on finance and politics, the message sometimes fails to land because of the heavy-handed, self-satisfied, smug tone of the delivery. Don’t Look Up frequently isn’t very funny – and yes I know it ends with the world being destroyed due to everyone’s indifference and incompetence – and it ladles most of the blame on obvious targets. It’s takedown of Trump – here represented by Meryl Streep – is basic, it hits open goals with the agenda-driven bias of American news reporters and takes pot-shots at messianic tech billionaires. A real punch would perhaps have focused in more on how all the mindless, unfocused greed and ambition of these people is fed by the bland, social media focused, sound-bite obsessed shallowness of the masses. But Don’t Look Up remain focused on the big people.

So focused in fact that, even in this satire, only America has the wherewithal to launch a mission against the comet. A joint Russian, Chinese and Indian mission fails to get off the ground and other world leaders are noticeable by their absence. We never really spend time with any normal people. While much of the blame does lie with governments not taking a lead, we do live in a world where normal people are radicalised by reading about nonsensical mush like QAnon through chat rooms. Imagine a satire that looked at how ordinary people can be made to believe wild theories rather than the evidence of their own eyes as a comet heads towards Earth? Instead Don’t Look Up wants to stick with something vaguely comforting – that there are big, selfish, elites running us who act out of greed and stupidity and they carry all the danger (and the blame).

Where the film is strongest is the doubt and nonsense thrown at scientists. Mindy and Diabasky are first ignored by the administration because they aren’t Ivy League. Attempting to leak their findings on the TV, they are overshadowed by an on-air-proposal of a celebrity DJ to his singer girlfriend and when they hit the news, the only takeaway is that Mindy is ‘cute’, while Diabasky is a freaky angry woman, ranting about the world ending (she’s a meme in minutes). At every point the science is questioned or put on the same level as gut feelings and political agendas. Even their campaign to encourage the world to “Just Look Up” to see the impending catastrophe is countered by the President’s “Don’t Look Up” campaign that persuades millions of people the comet isn’t real.

Really rule by social media and the dumbing down of humanity should be the main target here. A comet isn’t even a great metaphor for climate change – which is gradual, can’t be just blown up and needs to be prevented by society making changes to the way we live. In some ways, by replacing climate change with a comet, even the film is acknowledging its not sexy or exciting enough – and that it doesn’t want to turn its critical fire on millions of people who would rather turn the heating up or drive to the corner shop rather than push to make changes in their lives.

So, it’s easier and simple for McKay to create a cartoon freak show of easy targets and bash them rather than tackle the underlying causes of climate change – that our world and its population wants to have its cake and eat it, and governments for generations have been too focused on the here and now to ever worry about the years to come. So funny as it can be to see Streep Trump it up, or Rylance channel his softness into insanity, or Hill play another of his mindless frat boys turned power brokers, the film doesn’t feel like it really goes for the real causes of climate change: our own culture. It takes hits at our social media simpleness, but not at our short sightedness.

McKay does at least direct without much of the fourth-wall leaning flashiness of his earlier works, and there are committed – if not exactly stretching – performances from Lawrence (whose characters checks out in despair at the shallowness) and DiCaprio (who is seduced by fame, power and Blanchett into becoming an apologetic mouthpiece for the administration). But Don’t Look Up is a little too pleased with itself, a little too focused on easy targets and doesn’t do enough to spread the blame wider. It stills see many of us as victims or mislead – when really we are as to blame a everyone else.

Friday, 21 January 2022

Boiling Point (2021)

Vinette Robinson and Stephen Graham struggle to hold an under pressure restaurant together in Boiling Point

Director: Philip Barantini
Cast: Stephen Graham (Andy Jones), Vinette Robinson (Carly), Alice Feetham (Beth), Hannah Walters (Emily), Malachi Kirby (Tony), Izuka Hoyle (Camille), Taz Skylar (Billy), Jason Flemyng (Alastair Skye), Ray Panthaki (Freeman), Lourdes Faberes (Sara Southworth)

Who would want to run a restaurant? Blimey it can be stressful enough to cook for family and friends. Imagine having to prepare meals for hundreds of paying customers. Boiling Point follows – in real time – one single night of service in an over-booked restaurant a few days before Christmas. Chef Andy Jones (Stephen Graham) is feeling the pressure: his wife has left him, he’s let the paperwork slip so much over the past few months that the restaurant’s Food Hygiene Rating has slipped from five stars to three, little mistakes are slipping in and his former partner (and now celebrity chef) Alastair (Jason Flemyng) is sitting out front. It won’t be long before things hit the eponymous Boiling Point.

Expanded from a 22-minute short film made a few years previously, Philip Barantini’s film is shot in one 93-minute continuous take that starts with Andy’s (late) arrival at the restaurant and takes us through a night’s service. There are some films where this one-take device seems like a gimmick – but here it’s an essential part of the success of the film. Following all this in real time, with no single break or cut away, is like taking part in a giant panic attack. I can genuinely think of few films that were as tense as this one. There is a sweaty, edge-of-the-seat panic about the entire film that means you spend its entire runtime biting your fingernails, waiting for something to go wrong.

And there are so many potential disasters teed up. It’s a sign of the film’s intelligent, skilfully swift construction that all of these are established with minimum dialogue – and not all of them lead to disaster – but in short order we see not only the tensions among the staff (the disaffected junior chefs, the under-pressure waiting staff), but also a bullying Dad intent on making trouble on table 7, a drunken gaggle of ladies on a night out, a group of self-proclaimed social media influencers demanding off-the-menu treatment, a woman with a nut allergy that’s not correctly recorded on the ordering system, and that celebrity chef and the food critic he’s bought with him for dinner.

All this is of course bubbling up and hammering into an already deeply-under-pressure Andy, played with great skill by Stephen Graham, who has mastered these terminally weak alpha-males. Andy is the unknowing root cause of many of the problems. The restaurant’s health rating has dropped solely (as explained by a patronising but well-meaning health inspector, while Andy sits through the conversation like a sullen child who’s been caught cheating on his homework) because his lack of essential record keeping has made it impossible for it to be scored higher. Nevertheless, Andy lashes out at his junior chefs for the minor infractions also recorded, as if they were to blame.

Grasping a water bottle that he suspiciously swigs from almost non-stop, Andy has ceased leading in the kitchen: stock orders are not made, junior staff are either unsupported or allowed to shirk their duties (a kitchen hand is delivering the bare minimum, spending most of the shift on the phone or scoring drugs in the car park). Andy barely prepares any food and largely avoids any communication with his game-faced-but-deeply-out-of-her-depth restaurant manager Beth (an all-business Alice Feetham, trying to cover a rising sense of panic and a desperate need to be liked).

Kitchen command has effectively shifted to his deputy chef Carly, superbly played by Vinette Robinson. Calm, authoritative and supportive of the junior staff, Carly is just about holding the operation together by her fingertips, but even she has clearly had enough. There is a scintillating, hands-over-the-mouth dressing down she hands out to Beth – who she furiously points out doesn’t even realise all the things she doesn’t know – which feels like months of stress and frustration bursting out with carefully thought-out, inexorable, calm fury.

Just as pissed off is meat specialist Freeman (a brilliantly surly and resentful Ray Panthaki) who has had enough of cleaning up after Andy’s poor preparation and Beth’s greater interest in social media promotion rather than running a restaurant. The kitchen is full of careful character stories that swirl around the edges of the story, as the camera moves seamlessly from location to location. There is a beautifully done early scene between Hannah Walter’s motherly dessert chef and her young apprentice that literally brought tears to my eyes for its warmth and humanity.

Out front we wait for the inevitable cataclysm to take place. There to see it is Jason Flemyng’s smugly passive aggressive Alastair, mouthing platitudes about how he’s there to support Andy, while taking credit for his menu, mocking the set-up and pontificating about how he would improve every single dish. But even he is at breaking point, as later developments show.

All of this is built up by the single-take effect. Whenever the camera goes somewhere, we know that no second will be wasted and we are set to see something potentially dramatic. We begin to dread every time a young black teenage waitress heads back to table 7, where the customer doesn’t want her touching his glass and plates. Every return to the kitchen brings the sweat of wondering if a fatal mistake will take place. With the camera weaving around, following the action and moving seamlessly (but with obviously a huge amount of forethought) from place to place, this is brilliantly shot film where the one-take effect adds immeasurably to the pressure cooker effect.

Despite this, the final ending doesn’t quite land with the impact it should. But you can forgive it a great deal for the tense, gripping ride you follow to get there. The cast are all faultless – and often even more than that – and the direction is spot-on. This film is an unsung triumph – it should get a lot more recognition.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

James Stewart shows the performance under his charm in Anatomy of a Murder

Director: Otto Preminger
Cast: James Stewart (Paul Biegler), Lee Remick (Laura Mannion), Ben Gazzara (Lt Frederick Manion), Arthur O’Connell (Parnell McCarthy), Eve Arden (Maida Rutledge), Kathryn Grant (Mary Pilant), George C. Scott (Claude Dancer), Orson Bean (Dr Matthew Smith), Russ Brown (George Lemon), Murray Hamilton (Alphonse Paquette), Brooks West (Mitch Lodwick), Joseph N Welch (Judge Weaver)

Winston Churchill once said Democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others. You could say something similar about trial by jury: it ain’t perfect, but it’s better than any other justice system we’ve given a spin to in human history. Trials aren’t always forums for discovering truths: they are stages to present arguments (or stories), and they are won by whoever has the best one. Maybe cold, hard facts and evidence make up your story, maybe perceptions. Maybe it’s about how you tell the story. Elements of all three are found in Otto Preminger’s brilliant courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Murder.

In a small town in Michigan, a US army lieutenant, Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) is arrested for the murder of innkeeper Barney Quill. Manion says he did the deed only because Quill raped Manion’s wife Laura (Lee Remick). Representing him is lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart), a former district attorney looking to start-up a new practise. On the opposite side is new DA Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West) and, far more of a worry, hot-shot lawyer Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) all the way from the Attorney General’s office. They say there was no rape – only a jealous murder after a consensual affair. It’s he-said-she-said, only “he” is dead. How will the trial clear that one up?

Otto Preminger was the son of a noted Austrian jurist, and Anatomy of a Murder can be seen as a tribute to his father, and to the process of the law itself. Not that it’s a hagiography. The film recognises the virtues as well as the faults of the system. Above all, that the system is not perfect, it can’t base every decision on firm facts and often requires people to take leaps of faith based on their gut instinct about who may, or may not, be telling the truth.

Preminger’s film does its very best to put us in the position the jury is in. We get no real evidence about what happened beyond what they get, and very few bits of additional information (except, perhaps, for seeing what many of the characters are like outside of the courtroom). Instead, the viewer is asked to make their mind-up on whether events fell-out as Manion claims (or not) based on our own judgement of the probabilities and of his (and Laura’s) character. The film opens with the crime committed and closes shortly after the verdict: there are no flashbacks or pre-murder scenes to help nudge us towards one view or another. The murder victim appears only as a photo. Like the jury we have to call it on what we see in front of us.

Anatomy of a Murder also makes clear there are plenty of shades of grey in the process of justice. During his first consultation with Manion, Biegler caerfully suggests he consider whether he was in fact insane when he committed the deed – as that sort of defence will be much easier, since he doesn’t deny the killing. Sure enough, on their second meeting, Manion is now deeply unsure about his state of mind. Biegler then works backwards to establish precedent for the plea (a finds a single, over 75 years old one) to pull together a defence of irresistible impulse and to peddle hard a picture of the victim as an unrepentant rapist practically asking for a wronged husband to do the deed.

Biegler’s case is flimsy – but the key thing is to present it with pizzazz. And that’s what he’s got. Stewart’s performances in Hitchcock classics are highly regarded, but this might well be his finest dramatic performance. This is a brilliantly sly deconstruction of Stewart’s aw shucks charm: Biegler promotes an image of himself as a down-on-his-heels, bumpkin-like country lawyer, punching above his weight against the big city lawyers, Stewart dialling up the famous drawl. But it’s miles from the truth: Biegler is a former DA, an experienced trial lawyer and a formidable advocate. Stewart flicks the switch constantly, visibly putting on his persona like a skin, shedding it when no longer needed.

There is a constant suggestion that everything Biegler does is for effect. From fiddling with fishing tackle during the prosecution’s opening statements, to furious court-room theatricals as he thuds tables at slights and injustices. All of it is carefully prepared, rehearsed and delivered to make an impact on the jury. The constant parade of effect, manufactured outrage and appeals to an "us against them" mentality provokes exasperation from his opponents and a weary toleration from the Judge (played by real-life McCarthy confronting attorney Joseph N Welch). Stewart uses his Mr Smith Goes to Washington nobility, but punctures it at every point with Biegler’s cynicism and opportunism. Biegler, at best, persuades himself his client is innocent – but I would guess he doesn’t really care either way. He immediately perceives the personalities of his clients and then does his best to shield their less flattering qualities from the jury.

The one advantage we have over the jury is the additional insight we get into this strange couple, living a possibly unhappy, and certainly love-hate, marriage. Manion plays wronged fury in the court – but Gazzara gives him a lot of self-satisfied smarm and bland indifference to his crime in real life, meeting every event with a smirk that suggests he’s sure he can get away with anything. Equally good, Lee Remick’s Laura presents such a front of decency and pain in court, you’ll find it hard to balance that with the promiscuous, blousy woman we see outside of it, who provocatively flirts with intent with anything that moves. But it’s all about the show: present them right, and these unsympathetic people can be successfully shown as a conventional loving couple.

The prosecution is playing the same game. George C. Scott is superb as a coolly professional lawyer, who will use any number of tricks – from angry confrontation, to seductive reasonableness – to cajole a witness to say anything he wishes them to say. He will turn on a sixpence from being your friend, to berating you as a liar. And he’s not averse to his own morally questionable plays in court. Like Biegler, he knows presenting a good story is what is needed to win: the truth (or otherwise) isn’t enough.

Anatomy of a Murder still feels like a hugely insightful look at the legal process. Most of its runtime takes place in court, which Preminger shoots with a calmly controlled series of long-takes and two-shot set-ups, that help turn the film into something of a play (as well as a showpiece for fine acting). Along with its very daring (for the time) exploration of rape, it has a very cool soundtrack from Duke Ellington, that drips with allure and gives the film a lot of edge. The acting is all brilliant – along with those mentioned, Eve Arden is first-class as Biegler’s loyal secretary and Arthur O’Connell sweetly sweedy as his heavy-drinking fellow lawyer. Anatomy of a Murder gives a first rate, at times cynical, look at the flaws and strengths of trial by jury – and is an outstanding courtroom drama.

Thursday, 20 January 2022

The Matrix: Resurrections (2021)

Carrie-Anne Moss and Keanu Reeves saddle up once more for The Matrix: Resurrections

Director: Lana Wachowski
Cast: Keanu Reeves (Thomas Anderson/Neo), Carrie-Anne Moss (Tiffany/Trinity), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Morpheus/Agent Smith), Jessica Henwick (Bugs), Jonathan Groff (Smith), Neil Patrick Harris (The Analyst), Priyanka Chopra Jones (Sati), Jada Pinkett Smith (Niobe), Toby Onwumere (Sequoia), Max Riemelt (Sheperd), Brain J Smith (Berg), Erendia Ibarra (Lexy), Lambert Wilson (The Merovingian), Christina Ricci (Gwyn de Vere)

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is the most famous games designer in the world. His award-winning game The Matrix revolutionised the genre, but now he needs to make a sequel. But Anderson is juggling all sorts of depression, chugging blue pills like there’s no tomorrow in order to keep back disturbing feelings and sensations that there is more to that Matrix concept than he remembers. Was it in fact closer to reality? Why is he so drawn to Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss) the woman he sees in his coffee shop? Why is he unsettled by his business partner Smith (Jonathan Groff)? Should he follow the White Rabbit?

Bringing The Matrix back is a tough ask. It’s been well over twenty years since the first film revolutionised action and sci-fi – and then the two sequels managed to progressively strip out any of the fun, romance and wonder from the original. Now Resurrections attempts to put it all back in again. It’s a noble attempt – and this is easily the second-best Matrix film – but there is still an air of obligation about the whole thing.

It’s hard to escape that feeling from the on-the-nose opening act, which literally includes dialogue from Smith to Anderson to the tune of: ‘Our parent company, Warner Brothers, say they want a sequel to The Matrix and they’re going to do it with or without us, so we might as well come up with an idea’. Partially set in a new Matrix where the events of The Matrix form the basis of an award-winning game everyone knows by heart, characters constantly riff excitedly on how some events in this film parallel those in the first film (always the first film). There is a spit-ball planning session at Anderson’s workplace, where his design team bounce phrases like “Guns. Lots of Guns” at each other or playfully mime out bullet time. I suppose this relates to Wachowski’s experience of having the Studio for years demand a fresh new Matrix film. But it is a little on-the-nose.

The self-reverential nature of the film continues throughout. From an opening that sees Hacker Bugs (a very good Jessica Henwick) watch a simulation of the opening of the first Matrix film – with a few changes – a mixture of homage and nostalgia runs through the film. As an alliance of humans, machines and programmes try to free Anderson/Neo from his new Matrix cage, they ease him in by playing (on huge projector screens) iconic scenes from The Matrix. Anderson’s flashes of memory, as things start to fall in place, are full of flashbacks to the earlier films. When Neo arrives in the real world, he finds himself in a dystopian future where he is a celebrity, and the events of his life are as much a part of this world’s folklore, as memories of the plot of the original trilogy is in the minds of my generation watching the film.

It’s quite a tribute that the film manages to keep all this self-reverential stuff balanced and neither becoming too annoying or collapsing in on itself. It does so because Wachowski manages to keep it playful. She’s clearly learned from the legacy of the two Matrix sequels, that puffed themselves up so much they burst. This features some discussions around truth, reality and choice but keeps them low-key and free of sequel’s aura of pomposity. It wisely (and plot logically) depowers Neo so that he is no longer completely invulnerable. It again makes him an outsider, fighting against a dominant system that seems to hold all the cards. And it puts at its heart a battle of two people to be together.

It’s also lovely to see Reeves and Moss back in these roles, which they fit back into with a charming ease and comfort – and also to see that their chemistry still exists. The plot of the film is at times garbled and even poorly communicated – it is very hard at times to understand why things are happening or what the rules are in this new Matrix (and its particularly hard to understand the plot around Smith, and how, if at all, he is restrained within this Matrix). But what you do understand is the emotional imperative that lies behind these characters actions – in a way that was often lost in the two original sequels.

The film also manages to keep more than its share of inventive action set-pieces. While its ending – a motorbike chase through a city where the whole population is turned against our heroes – feels very reminiscent of other things we’ve seen, earlier set-pieces use a lot more invention. In particular there is a very neat innovation of doors that jump thousands of miles – and see the characters move from one orientation to another as they pass through them. A chase through these allows for some dynamic movements and more than enough of the gravity defying bouncing and gunplay the franchise is famous for. New actors do very good jobs, in particular Henwick and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a new version of Morpheus and Jonathan Groff as a twist on Smith.

But Resurrections feels like a dutiful film and it’s laced with the odd clunky scene (none more so than a reappearance of Lambert Wilson, ranting direct to the audience about social media) and the odd gap in logic and plot definition. Its main problem is that it never feels essential. To bring the franchise back after all this time, into a world where its cultural cache has declined, you feel it needed to do something really special or redefining. It doesn’t really do this: it seems more interested in riffing on the past rather than building a future. It’s a reassuring film that hews closely to the plot and structure of the original film (deliberately so, with the characters even refencing similarities) that isn’t going to scare or annoy the fans – but also (and the film’s box office failure supports this) also not going to win over new converts. But it’s still the second-best film.

Tuesday, 18 January 2022

The Midnight Sky (2020)

George Clooney crosses the Arctic to save astronauts in end-of-the-world bore The Midnight Sky

Director: George Clooney
Cast: George Clooney (Augustine Lofthouse), Felicity Jones (Dr “Sully” Sullivan), David Oyelowo (Commander Adewole), Kyle Chandler (Mitchell), Demián Bichir (Sanchez), Tiffany Boone (Maya), Caoilinn Springall (Iris), Ethan Peck (Augustine), Sophie Rundle (Jean)

The world has been evacuated after an unspecified radiological disaster, with the survivors bound for K-23, a newly discovered moon of Jupiter capable of supporting life. The only person left on Earth is Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney), suffering from a terminal illness. He remains behind at an arctic base to warn returning space missions. The returning mission Aether – crewed by Jones, Oyelowo, Chandler, Bichir and Boone – are en route, but to make contact with them Lofthouse must travel across the arctic to a back-up transmitter, accompanied by a mysterious wordless child called Iris (Caoilinn Springall) who seems to have been left behind during the evacuation.

The Midnight Sky is the largest, most technically ambitious film Clooney has directed. Did the focus on the technical aspects mean he took his eye off other elements? Even the ones his previous films have been strong on: dialogue and character. The Midnight Sky looks great and has some impressive effects. But it is a dull film, lacking pace or energy, populated by paper-thin characters and often feeling like a Frankenstein-like stitching together of elements of other, much better, films.

It splits its focus between two story lines: one a survivalist two-hander between Clooney and child actress Caroilinn Springall; the other a “journey home against the odds” space mission. The first carries a little more interest, if only because Clooney manages to brilliantly convey loneliness, isolation, sadness and how terminal illness increases the effects of all of these. There is also emotional depth from his growing bond with Iris: the two of them playfully flicking peas at each other over dinner and his protecting her from the dangers outside. This is shot in some stunning Iceland vistas and shows a competent selection of various traditional survivalist set-ups during the struggle to complete the journey. It’s not exactly original, but at least it holds the interest.

That interest isn’t found in the space scenes – although the lack of originality is. How did Clooney fail to notice that he assembled a terrific cast of actors, but then failed to give them so much as a whisper of a character to play between them. This crew are terminally unengaging 2-D characters, whose dialogue echoes tropes of other films. Despite the dangers they encounter while navigating a course to Earth (that inevitably takes them through uncharted meteor storms), we are never really given a reason to really care about these characters (all the sad mooning over holograms of the families they left behind doesn’t actually make us feel like we know them).

The sense of nothing we are seeing here actually feeling new is key, and the main problem with the whole film. Countless other films have covered world-ending events. Clooney’s battle to cross the arctic and survive carries more than an echo of The Revenant by way of The Road. The struggles in space have lashings of Gravity with an Interstellar vibe. And those are just for starters. Even the final narrative twist (which you can probably see coming) echoes other film twists. For all the handsomeness of the film, it never feels fresh, always more of a tribute remix of other superior films that you should probably just consider rewatching instead.

That’s Clooney’s main failing here. As if he was so focused on getting the technical elements spot on, he never checked if the patient had a pulse. The Midnight Sky, knitted together from the offcuts of other films, has only the vaguest of heartbeats. Nothing is original and virtually no character in it ever feels either fully-formed or someone we care about. Others, all too obviously, serve as nothing but narrative devices. There are some wonderful shots and a lovely score from Alexandre Desplat. But narratively, the film often feels too cold, distant and emotionally dead. It ends up feeling far, far longer than its two-hour run time.

The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Keanu Reeves demonstrating why tension is a problem in the woeful Matrix sequels

Director: The Wachowskis
Cast: Keanu Reeves (Neo), Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus), Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity), Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith), Jada Pinkett Smith (Niobe), Monica Bellucci (Persephone), Lambert Wilson (The Merovingian), Gloria Foster/Mary Alice (The Oracle), Helmut Bakaitis (The Architect), Harold Perrineau (Link), Ian Bliss (Bane), Harry Lennix (Commander Lock), Collin Chou (Seraph), Nona Gaye (Zee), Gina Torres (Cas), Randul Duk Kim (The Keymaker), Daniel Bernhardt (Agent Johnson)

If you ever want to study a crash-course in how not to make sequels to a genre redefining film, these might be the perfect examples. I’m going to break a golden rule here and review them both together, which I’ve not done for anything else so far in this blog. The flaws in these films are so interlinked, I think you have to almost treat the whole misfire as one single, dreadfully disappointing film. And I just couldn’t bear the idea about writing two articles about each of them.

It’s six months after the events of The Matrix. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is an invulnerable phenomenon in the Matrix. He and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are in love. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is being dragged over the coals by Starfleet Command (I know it isn’t called that, but it might as well be) for disobeying orders. And even worse news than that: the Machines have found the location of Zion, the secret last human city in the world. And they plan to destroy it – in 72 hours. Neo must undertake one final mission in the Matrix to find the secrets that will prevent this destruction of the human race – and he’ll have to do it with only the support of his friends, as the rest of mankind decides to batten down the hatches and wait for the uncoming storm. But is there more going on here than we think? Is there more to Neo’s existence than meets the eye? Why is he being plagued with dreams of Trinity’s death? And what is going on with Smith (Hugo Weaving) who know seems to be acting as rogue agent, working against man and machine?

The all answers are all eventually revealed, with maximum pomposity and self-importance, over the nearly five hours these sequels drone on, seemingly determined to drain everything that anyone found cool about the original movie out and leave it with a stuffy, pretentious, dull shell that won’t win any new converts over. Before these films, The Matrix was a franchise that would have a life in films, video games, anime and fan fiction for decades to come. After them, it was dead in the water.

Why? What did people like about the first film? They liked the action sure, and the liked the cool of the characters and the design and the anti-authoritarian nose thumbing. But those all really worked because we related to the characters, we saw that they were vulnerable, outmatched and in peril. In the real world they were plucky, brave resistance fighters. In the Matrix they were desperate rebels who could do really cool things. This all gets blown away here. In the Matrix, Neo is now so invulnerable, that fights are pointless: they are little more than dull displays of choreography with inevitable outcomes. Reloaded hammers home time and again Neo can do anything he likes in the Matrix. Fighting hundreds of clones of Smith at once? No problem. Flying faster than the speed of sound? Sure thing. Reworking the reality to suit him? It’s just a shrug of the shoulders.

This is a disaster to drama in two ways. Firstly, it drains all the peril out of any moment in the Matrix world because we know that there is no way Neo can get hurt – or that he will allow any of his friends to get hurt. Secondly, it means to get any tension Neo has to be somehow depowered or separated from everyone else. This happens three times over the films: Neo gets dispatched to China, flung into an underground station purgatory and blinded in the real world. When the film becomes reliant on continuously finding a way to put its hero out of the way (a blight that also often hits Superman on film), you know you are in trouble.

Where Neo is still vulnerable, is the real world where the films spend more and more time. Sadly, the real world is tedious, uninvolving place. Remember in the first film where Morpheus seemed like a super cool, sage-like leader of a rebellion? Well in fact he’s just a cog in a large, stuffy command structure that takes all the worst, most uncool elements of Star Trek’s Starfleet and doubles down on it. Zion is a stereotypical sci-fi city, with characters dressed in flowing robes, quasi-uniforms or urban rags (that’s when they are dressed at all – Reloaded’s early doors rave/orgy rightly draw oceans of sniggers). The real human world isn’t a gang of plucky, anti-authoritarian types but a typical sci-fi, rules-bound society. The flair of our characters is stripped from them.

All this is wrapped in a package that doubles down on the stuffy, Bluffer’s Guide to Philosophy that popped up in the first film. There it added a bit of self-regarding intellectual heft to a film about people kicking each other and dodging bullets, here it’s the be-all-and-end-all. But the films are nowhere near as clever as they think they are: various characters parrot crudely scripted stances on everything from free will to determinism to the greater good. None of it is new or intriguing, and nearly all of it feels like the directors straining to show off their reading list.

It hits is apotheosis in Reloaded as the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), the bearded brain behind the Matrix, lays out a long speech on how Neo is in fact a part of the Matrix programme designed to help the system reboot and refresh in cycles, an interesting idea totally crushed under the weight of needlessly long, incomprehensible words, phrases and Latin quotes that don’t sound smart, only like the speech was written out in plain English and then run through a Thesaurus.

And it was a neat idea that our Messiah might actually have been created by the machines to help their prison renew itself. But it gets lost in the clumsy, pleased with itself delivery, in conversations about choice and free will (will Neo choose his destiny or saving Trinity’s life? Guess!) and the generally turgid plotting. This gets worse in Revolutions which finally seeps the life out of the franchise, with a video-game shoot-out at Zion (which makes no tactical sense), a trek by Neo and Trinity to commune with the machines and Agent Smith converting every human being in the Matrix into a copy of himself, in a vague philosophical comment on the death of individuality and choice.

The worst thing about these films is that they are self-important, hard to enjoy and often more than a little silly. Fights take place at great length with very little tension. Reloaded does have a fab freeway car chase – but again it depends on Neo being absent for any tension to exist (and as soon as he turns up it’s all solved in seconds). Almost everything in the real world is stuffy, earnest and bogged down in the sort of uncool sci-fi tropes the first film stayed away from. Nearly anything in the Matrix involves watching a God like figure hitting things (including a bizarre ten-pin bowling effect when Neo knocks over a host of Smiths).

In this the actors struggle to keep up the genre-redefining cool that made the first film so popular. Fishburne looks bored (and rightly so, since his dialogue is awful and he’s given almost nothing to do in Revolutions) and Weaving treats the whole thing as a joke. Reeves is earnest, but frequently restrained by the dullness of his role as an almighty God. Moss has most of the best and most human material as Trinity making drastic decisions for love and faith. The rest of the cast struggle with either paper-thin characters, painfully over-written dialogue or a mixture of both.

The Matrix sequels managed to drain out everything that was great about the original. Where that was nimble, these were stuffy. Where these were anti-authoritarian, these laid out a dull and stereotypical sci-fi society. Where the first was gripping, desperate and adrenalin fuelled, this sees invulnerable heroes, extended runtimes and a frequent lack of peril. Worst of all Revolutions in particular feels like hundreds of other “sci-fi war films” and about a million miles from the actual revolution of the first film. It doubles down on nearly everything that was less good in the original and strips out most of the things that most impacted people. How not to make a sequel.