Monday, 28 February 2022

Nightmare Alley (2021)

Bradley Cooper is a mysterious drifter in Guillermo del Toro's flashy but unsatisfying Nightmare Alley

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Bradley Cooper (Stanton Carlisle), Cate Blanchett (Lilith Ritter), Rooney Mara (Molly Cahill), Toni Collette (Zeena Krumbein), Willem Dafoe (Clem Hoatley), Richard Jenkins (Ezra Grindle), Ron Perlman (Bruno), David Strathairn (Pete Krumbein), Mark Povinelli (Major Mosquito), Mary Steenburgen (Felicia Kimball), Peter MacNeill (Judge Kimball), Paul Anderson (Geek), Clifton Collins Jnr (Funhouse Jack), Jim Beaver (Sheriff Jedediah Judd), Tim Blake Nelson (Carny Boss)

There isn’t any magic left in the world, it’s all show and tricks and no wonder. Nightmare Alley is del Toro’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water and you can’t not admit it’s a triumph of style. It’s a glorious fusion of film noir and plush, gothic-tinged horror. There is something to admire in almost every frame. But it’s also all tricks and no wonder. There’s no heart to it, just a huge show that in the end makes nowhere near the impact you could expect.

In the late 1930s Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a drifter with a dark past, who is recruited as a labourer in a travelling carnival. Learning the ropes from freak show owner Clem (Willem Dafoe), he’s taken under the wing (in every sense) by mesmerist mind reader Zeena (Toni Collette) and taught the tricks of the art (observation and careful word codes using an assistant to guess names, objects and other facts) by Pete (David Strathairn). Eventually Stanton and his love, circus performer Molly (Rooney Mara), head to the big city where, after two years, Stanton reinvents himself as celebrity mind-reader and medium. There Stanton gets involved with psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) in a long con where he will use the recordings of her sessions with patients to act as a medium to put them in touch with their lost ones. But is there a danger Stanton isn’t ready for in one of his clients, powerful businessman Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins)?

Nightmare Alley looks fabulous. But it’s hellishly overlong and curiously uninvolving. It’s like Del Toro fell in love with the whole project and forgot to search for the reason why somebody else would love it. It’s a strangely unshaped film, alternating between long, loving scenes glorying in the dark mood, baroque performances and design but then makes drastic, swift jumps in character psychology that constantly leaves you grasping at engaging with or understanding the personalities of its characters.

Its design is faultless though – it’s no surprise that its only Oscar nominations outside the Best Picture nod were all in technical categories. Dan Lautsen’s cinematography is inky black, with splashes of all-consuming colour. It’s a marvellous updating of film noir, with deep shadows spliced with angles reminiscent of Hammer-style horror. The production design is a labour of love, the carnival sets a hellish nightmare of unsettling shapes, forms and structure contrasting with the art deco grandness of the big city. The design is pretty much faultless, a real labour of love.

But the same effort didn’t go into pacing and story. This is a slow-moving, self-indulgent film, that frequently seems to be holding itself at arm’s length to make it all the easier for it to admire itself. It looks extraordinary, but it’s a frequently empty experience, more interested in mood and striking imagery than character and emotion.

Bradley Cooper gives a fine performance as Stanton. He has an air of cocksure charm, and Cooper skilfully shows this is largely a front of a man who, when push comes to shove, is capable of sudden and unflinching acts of violence. We get an early hint of this when he reacts to being struck by an escaping circus freak with unhesitating brutality. It recurs again and again in the film, and Stanton proudly states his avoidance of alcohol with all the assurance of a man who knows the bottle could unleash dark forces that he could never control. Cooper is vulnerable but selfish and above all becomes more and more arrogantly convinced of his own genius and bulletproof invulnerability, so much so that he drives himself further and further on into self-destruction.

There is some rich material here, so it’s a shame that for all that we never really seem to be given a moment to really understand who he is. Much has to be inferred from Cooper’s performance, since the film seems content to state motivational factors – troubled parental relationships, greed, ambition, a desire to make something of himself – without ever crafting them into a whole. Stanton remains someone defined by what he does.

And Stanton is the only character who gets any real oxygen to breathe, with the others largely ciphers or over-played caricatures. Rooney Mara as his gentle love interest is under-developed and disappears from the film for long stretches. Cate Blanchett gives a distractingly arch performance, somewhere between femme fatale and Hannibal Lector and is so blatantly untrustworthy it’s never clear why Stanton (an expert reader of people!) trusts her completely. Richard Jenkins is miscast as a ruthless businessman, lacking the sense of danger and capacity of violence the part demands.

Most of the rest of the cast are swallowed by the long carnival prologue, that consumes almost a third of the film but boils down to little more than mood-setting and a repeated hammering home of a series of statements that will lead into a final scene twist (and I will admit that is a good payoff). The carnival seems like a self-indulgent exploration of style, and several actors (Perlman, Povinelli and even Collette) play roles that add very little to the film other than ballooning its runtime.

The earlier section would have perhaps been better if it was tighter and more focused on Stanton and his mentor, well played by David Straithairn. I appreciate that would have been more conventional – but it would also have been less self-indulgent and helped the opening third be less of a stylish but empty and rather superfluous experience (since the film’s real plot doesn’t start until it finishes). Drive My Car demonstrated how a long prologue can deepen a whole film – Nightmare Alley just takes a long, handsome route to giving us some plot essential facts, without really telling us anything engaging about its lead character.

It makes for an unsatisfying whole, a cold and distant film packed with arch performances – although Cooper is good – and events that frequently jump with a dreamlike logic. It’s a marvel of design but way too much of a good thing, and constantly seems to stop to admire itself in the mirror and wonder at its own beauty. It becomes a cold and arch study of a film not a narrative that you can embrace. And you can’t the same about many of Del Toro’s other films – from Pan’s Labyrinth to Pacific Rim they’ve got heart. Nightmare Alley doesn’t really have that.

Friday, 25 February 2022

Lilies of the Field (1963)

Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala find mutual respect in Lilies of the Field

Director: Ralph Nelson
Cast: Sidney Poitier (Homer Smith), Lilia Skala (Mother Maria), Lisa Mann (Sister Gertrude), Isa Crino (Sister Agnes), Francesca Jarvis (Sister Albertine), Pamela Branch (Sister Elizabeth), Stanley Adams (Juan Acalito), Dan Frazer (Father Murphy), Ralph Nelson (Mr Ashton)

One day Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) stops at a small Arizona farm to ask for water for his car. The farm is run by refugee Eastern European Nuns. Homer does a few repair jobs, teaches them a little bit of English and stays for dinner, assuming he’ll be paid in the morning. But the fearsome Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) tells Smith (or Schmidt as they call him) his presence is a gift from God and recruits him to build them a chapel, in return for food and lodging (but not money). Smith finds himself accepting – and, as the building work begins, finds a passion for the project building in him. Amen!

A humble “nice” film, based on a successful novel, Liles of the Field was shot in about two weeks by Nelson – who got the financial backing when Poitier agreed to play the lead. It went on to scoop a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars and a Best Actor Award for Sidney Poitier. To be honest there isn’t really anything in Lilies of the Field that you won’t see a hundred times before or since. Shot with an efficient (if Televisual) low-keyness by Ralph Nelson, it’s an inspiring tale about inspiring folks with a few laughs and smiles, set in a world that shows what we could achieve if mutual respect and decency were mankind’s watch-words.

Lilies of the Field is decisively a spiritual, feel-good film but it’s pleasantly told without any over-emphasis or lecturing, which allows it to remain a charming, engaging (if slight) watch. The story of the building of this small chapel in the middle of nowhere is as inspiring as seeing how a passion for the project gives Smith a focus and purpose he perhaps has lacked elsewhere in his life. But it’s also crammed with some charmingly loose scenes, such as Poitier playfully teaching the Nuns basic English phrases (far more useful than the ridiculous – and useless for everyday life – phrases the Nuns are learning from a record) and, later, the fundamentals of Gospel music.

Roughly in the centre is a rather sweet and well-drawn gentle struggle of wills between Homer Smith (an honest guy who expects an honest wage for an honest day’s work) and Mother Maria (a woman who has learned that you don’t get without asking again and again and again). These two feud using bible quotes (rather wittily, Mother Maria uses a massive embossed tone while Homer uses a well-thumbed pocket copy), butt heads on Mother Maria’s refusal to accept anything less than Smith agreeing to do the work gratis and Smith’s frustration at what he sees as her dictatorial stance. But, inevitably, respect grows between them over time (as it does in movies like this).

You could pretty much predict most of the beats in Lilies of the Field. Of course, the whole desert community rallies around to help. Of course, Smith and Nuns reach an understanding of mutual affection. Of course, the building contractor Smith works for part-time to keep himself in dollars (played by the director Ralph Nelson) overcomes his condescension to Smith to chip in. Of course, Smith falls in love with the chapel – and sees it as a chance to live his dream of becoming an architect. None of this should surprise you.

But it works because it’s all quite gentle and charming. A big part of this is down to Poitier’s performance. So many of his roles dripped with nobility and grandeur, that it’s really pleasant to see him cut loose and have some fun. This is surely one of the most relaxed performance Poitier ever gave, his Homer Smith loose-limbed, witty and relaxed, enjoying the comic banter and gracefully breaking into (dubbed) gospel singing. He has a natural and easy chemistry with the other actors – most of all Lilia Skala (also Oscar nominated) who is perfectly dry and starchy as Mother Maria – and keeps the whole enterprise just the right side of light and breezy. It’s Poitier getting a light, personality part very different from the roles he’s more associated with. He became the first black man to win an Oscar – and only the second person of colour after Hattie McDaniel.

The film has a few beats of racial tension: Nelson’s contactor condescendingly calls Smith “Boy” (much to his quiet anger) and there are references to prejudice. But what the film wants to celebrate is people coming together – which is what Smith, the Nuns and the (mostly) Latin American community do to winning effect. It does this with such honesty and simple pleasure that, for all its predictability and lack of narrative invention, it’s rather winning. It’s a simple, almost forgettable, little film – but when watching it you’ll at least feel heart warmed.

Belfast (2021)

Kenneth Branagh plays tribute to his childhood and family in Belfast

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Jude Hill (Buddy), Caitríona Balfe (Ma), Jamie Dornan (Pa), Judi Dench (Granny), Ciarán Hinds (Pop), Lewis McAskie (Will), Colin Morgan (Billy Clanton), Michael Maloney (Frankie West), Lara McDonnell (Moira), Gerard Horan (Mackie), Conor MacNeill (McLaury), Turlough Convery (Minister), Olive Tennant (Catherine)

Directors making films about their childhood is a well-established sub-genre. Fellini got the ball rolling, a few years ago Alfonso Cuarón made his own black-and-white look at growing up in troubled political times in Roma and this year Pablo Sorrentino has released a film focused on his own teenage years in The Hand of God. Huge admirer of Kenneth Branagh as I am, I can’t deny he’s not a unique visionary in the vein of those filmmakers. But, Belfast has a heartfelt, genuineness and a sweetness that verges just the right side of sentimentality and is a loving tribute not only to the city he grew up in but also to his parents, making it Branagh’s most personal project since In the Bleak Midwinter and possibly his finest non-Shakespeare film.

Branagh’s substitute is 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), the child of a protestant family, living on a cross-community street in August 1969. His main concerns in life are friends, films, football and a classmate he has a crush on at school. But for his parents (Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan), their worries are much more about the growing sectarian violence in the city. Pa has an offer of a job in England, which could bring them a new life. But it means the whole family leaving behind it everything it has ever known, including Buddy’s beloved grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). As the city becomes more dangerous, what will the family decide to do?

If there is a memory piece Belfast reminds me of most, it’s John Boorman’s Hope and Glory. That film was true to Boorman’s memory, that growing up during the Blitz was also an exciting time, because as a child he never realised that death could be seconds away. It’s the same with Belfast. Branagh is keeps the film as much as possible from the child’s perspective. A child might be aware of the news playing on the TV, see the growing number of soldiers stopping and searching people on the streets and be wrapped up in riots, while never really understanding what exactly is going on.

The film has been unfairly attacked by some for not focusing on the accepted narratives of this era of Belfast’s history: misery, killing and brutality. What Belfast instead brings to the fore is the warm community. Streets where everyone knew your name, people sat outside their homes and chatted with neighbours, shared celebrations together and looked after each other. You can understand why it was such a wrench to leave this behind – even with soldiers patrolling the street. How scary it was for a person of any age – from Buddy to Ma, who has known nothing but Belfast her entire life – to even consider going to a place where no-one would know you and you would be an outsider.

Belfast is dedicated to those who stayed behind, those who left and all the lives who were lost. It’s a tribute to a community spirit and family, that has chimed with a great deal of people who lived in the city at the same time and place. The film is fundamentally hopeful because, under the violence and danger, it makes a plea – and demonstrates – that many people in Ireland just wanted to live their lives and didn’t care which church their neighbours went to. The opening few moments of the film is a snapshot of these halcyon days, kids from different communities playing together on the streets and their families gossiping and laughing together.

It’s shattered by the film’s first outburst of violence, as a Unionist gang attacks the street and hurl Molotov cocktails at the houses of Catholic residents – with Buddy, confused and terrified, caught in the middle and dragged into his house and safety by his frantic Ma. It’s a threat that will hang over the film for the rest of its runtime, embodied by Colin Morgan’s bullying enforcer, but only vaguely understood by Buddy – and considerably less important to him than whether he gets to sit next to the girl he has a crush on at school.

That crush is one of many things he gets advice on from his Grandad, played with a genuinely heart-warming twinkle by an Oscar-nominated Ciarán Hinds. Hinds is the picture of the perfect Grandad, wise, attentive, patient and full of homespun advice and wisdom – dialogue that Hinds brings to life with an expressive warmth. He’s paired to wonderful effect with Judi Dench (also Oscar-nominated) as Buddy’s Granny, who’s got a sharper tongue (and most of the funny lines) and has a cold-eyed realism about what it might be best for her son and his family.

You could check yourself and ask if Branagh is idealising his memories. But I think this is partly the point of the film. At several moments there is a slight air, not so much of fantasy, but of a childhood’s perception and memory being restaged. Jamie Dornan’s hard-working, caring Dad is frequently shot by Branagh in a way reminiscent of the Western heroes in the film buddy watches (High Noon in particular). A late confrontation between Dornan and Morgan plays out like a child’s romanticised memory of how something might have played out – as does a sequence where Dornan and Balfe sing and dance to Everlasting Laugh. I think Branagh is asking us to consider this might not be exactly what happened, but a fantasy tinged, child’s idealised memory of an event.

And Branagh’s film – shot in a luscious black-and-white – is told with a sharply edited pace and economy. It frequently allows us to see the ‘true’ situation in the background or on the edge of Buddy’s perception. Ma – beautifully played by Caitríona Balfe as grounded, moral but vulnerable and scared – has genuine worries not only about the violence but also the couple’s financial situation. There is an argument, and a later sad half-ultimatum, between Ma and Pa that we understand but Buddy is only vaguely aware is happening. Branagh’s film is full of half moments like this, where he trusts we are intelligent enough to see exactly what the child is seeing and also see more.

Branagh also draws a superb performance from Jude Hill as Buddy. This is a kid who is wide-eyed, natural, unforced and gets the balance just right between sweetness and a childish selfishness and vulnerability. There are real moments of terror and distress for Buddy, which are immensely well-done, and Branagh proves again there are few better directors of actors out there.

In among this there are some lovely moments where we see Branagh’s passion for the arts and film-making take hold. These are shown in splashes of pure colour: from clips of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which an enraptured Buddy watches in the cinema, to actors performing A Christmas Carol in the Belfast theatre appearing in perfect colour. That’s not to mention touches of everything from Westerns to Star Trek to a shot of Buddy reading a Thor comic-book (sadly no Shakespeare).

Belfast is above all warm-hearted and loving tribute from a son to his parents and the impossible decisions they needed to take to give him opportunities in life they never had. Branagh’s script is crammed with some wonderful lines and plenty of hard-earned sentiment and the cast play each of these moments to perfection. It’s a passion project that really communicates its passion and shows how love, family and hope are universal. Cynics will sneer, but it’s a lovely film.

Tuesday, 22 February 2022

Amour (2012)

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are a couple struggling with an unbearable burden in Haneke's superb Amour

Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant (Georges Laurent), Emmanuelle Riva (Anne Laurent), Isabelle Huppert (Eva Laurent), Alexandre Tharaud (Alexandre), Rita Blanco (Concierge), Carole Franck (Nurse), Dinara Droukarova (Nurse), William Shimell (Geoff)

Think of Haneke, and you tend to a picture a rather cold philosopher, starring at humanity through a microscope. Some of his best works are chilling explorations of man’s capacity for inhumanity and cruelty. But Haneke’s work is based on a brilliant understanding of what makes people tick, and that insight applies as much to love as it does to cruelty. Amour is Haneke’s searching exploration of what love can be like, and how it can make us behave, in the worst situation possible: one where we are helpless to ease the suffering of someone we love.

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) an Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired piano teachers, married for almost forty years. The life is one of relaxing calm, enjoying the success of former pupils. All that changes when Anne has a silent stroke, the effects of which leave her paralysed on her left side. Georges resolves to care for her, dedicating himself to seeing to her every need, even as Anne’s body and mind (and desire to keep living) swiftly decline and a second stroke brings on even greater helplessness and dementia.

We know it won’t have a happy ending. It’s told in flashback, the film opening with the door to Georges and Anne’s apartment being broken down by the police, discovering Anne’s body laid out on the bed, surrounded by flowers. We know from the moment of Anne’s first stroke, where this story is heading. And none of it should be a surprise. Haneke based the story on an experience in his own family, where he was left helplessly watching a person he loved suffer, powerless to do anything other than offer brief comforts. Amour asks if there can be anything harder for to bear than being unable to help (or even, in the end, really communicate) with someone we love?

Georges devotion to Anne is clear. He obeys to the letter one of her first wishes when returning from the hospital: she does not wish to leave her home. So, they stay in their apartment (the film leaves this apartment only once, in our introduction to the leads) and Georges cuts up her food, helps her in and out of bed, fetches and carries and helps her get dressed. Steadily Anne’s ability to do things independently declines; and after her second stroke evaporates entirely. She’s incontinent (reliant on a nappy), delirious and incapable of coherent speech, unable to leave the bed and getting her to eat her mashed-up food and water is a daily struggle. Slowly, any trace of the real Anne only exists in Georges memories, which he clings to tightly.

In some ways, this is a horror film: the horror of powerlessness as someone literally wilts away in front of us, a new part of their personality disappearing every day. It frequently plays out in an austere silence – tellingly for two people whose whole life has been music, there is precious little of it in the film. The Anne at the film’s end – frightened, childlike, tempestuous and able to utter only a few words (like “Hurts”) over and over again in an incoherent refrain – bares no resemblance to the intelligent, witty and engaging woman at the film’s start. In every line of Trintignant’s face there is the weary, numbed pain of a man unable to do anything other than gently try to apply the brakes.

But it’s love that keeps him refusing to give-up, and the film is an exploration of the never-ending lengths we will go to for those who mean the most to us. Georges entire life becomes Anne – by the end there is a barely a waking hour that isn’t consumed with her needs. From the start, even the smallest tasks are challenging for Anne: we see her struggle to put on her glasses and turn the pages of a heavy book one-handed in bed. This only gets worse – and the loss of dignity a person feels as they become incapable of controlling any part of their body, including their bladder, is presented by Haneke with a horrific matter-of-factness.

But, what I think is particularly interesting about Amour – and I think Haneke’s stroke of genius – is the flip side of love. Because it also makes us selfish: and you can argue it makes both Anne and Georges selfish. Georges, in particular, begins to horde Anne, as if he was so desperate to keep some vestige of his life with her alive, that he wants to keep her all to himself. He consistently turns down offers of help. He reacts with anger to their daughter Eva (a sensitive Isabella Huppert), telling her that he and Anne should be left to their own privacy. He takes a perverse pride of taking on an impossible burden and refuses to consider any suggestions to reduce his burden (with only great reluctance does he hire a day nurse). Love has made him greedy, to keep Anne to himself.

Part of this comes from his desire to preserve Anne’s dignity: he even locks Anne’s bedroom during one of Eva’s visits as he feels Anne wouldn’t want her daughter to see her like this. Georges dismisses one nurse as he feels she is mistreating Anne. This is fascinating scene: we see no evidence of this – all we see is the nurse showering Anne like a child and later combing her hair and showing Anne her reflection (and she’s furious at Georges accusation). The film suggests, perhaps what Georges can’t bear is the nurse’s infantilising of Anne in her dementia. It can’t be squared with his own desperate attempt to keep some of his memory of her unaffected by what she has become.

Anne knows early where this is going. When Georges returns early from a funeral, he finds her sitting outside an open window. Nothing is said in the following conversation, but it’s clear that Anne was in the midst of attempting suicide. Later she talks bitterly about the point of carrying on. In her later dementia state, she frequently refuses food and water as if determined to try and bring her own life to an end. It’s a cry Georges isn’t interested in hearing: he bolts it away in his mind and battles to the end to try and preserve what life she is, even once striking her with frustration after she spits out her food once again.

Amour can be seen as a pro-Euthanasia film. But I think it’s more complex than that. It’s about love, and how it can drive us to undertake super-human efforts for another person that are also, in a way, about ourselves. That’s what Georges does: a burden that damages his own health and well-being, which he takes on because he will not let go and whatever small parts of Anne are left, he doesn’t want to share with anyone else (not even their daughter). When he takes his fateful decision – and one we’ve been expecting from the film’s first frame – it’s as horrifying as anything Haneke has filmed, both on Georges’ despair and Anne’s instinctive terror.

Amour is blessed with two stunning performances. Emmanuelle Riva won a BAFTA and an Oscar-nomination for her superb performance, a technical masterclass combined with huge emotional depth as Anne moves through fear, anger, self-loathing and finally into a deep, dark well where her understanding of what is happening to her slowly fades away in a babble of incoherent words. Jean-Louis Trintignant, lured out of semi-retirement, is sensational: a shambling, devoted, cantankerous, heart-broken, stubborn man dealing with a profound, never-ending grief and loss.

Haneke films it with a stately calmness and leaves a myriad of possible interpretations open to the viewer. But above all, he invests the film with a humanity, warmth and compassion that will speak to anyone who has had a loved one succumb to the infirmity and fear of old age. Amour is deeply moving, profoundly insightful and achingly beautiful.

Klute (1971)

Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda in Pakula's fascinating study in character and paranoia, Klute

Director: Alan J. Pakula
Cast: Jane Fonda (Bree Daniels), Donald Sutherland (John Klute), Charles Cioffi (Peter Cable), Roy Scheider (Frank Ligourin), Dorothy Tristan (Arlyn Page), Rita Gam (Trina), Nathan George (Trask), Vivian Nathan (Psychiatrist), Morris Strassberg (Mr Goldfarb)

There is one question everyone asks when watching Klute: why the heck is it called Klute? Would calling the film Daniels have been too dull? Would Bree have made it sound like a history of cheese? Klute is dominated by its character study of Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels, split between her desire to be an actress and the comforting sense of control and avoidance of intimacy her work as call-girl brings. Klute uses the conventions of the male detective movie to conduct a sympathetic, compassionate character examination of its female lead. Match that with Pakula discovering his affinity for creeping 70’s paranoia, and you’ve got one of the most interesting and rewarding films of the decade.

John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is a smalltown cop called in as a private investigator after a six month New York police investigation fails to find his friend, businessman Tom Gruneman. The only lead they have is a series of obscene letters found in Gruneman’s office written to New York call girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). Klute discovers Bree has no memory of Gruneman, but Klute believes she may be in serious danger. Together they investigate the crime further, which becomes more and more focused on a mysterious abusive client and even more complicated by the growing relationship between the quiet, reserved Klute and the strong-willed, independent Bree.

Klute uses the conventions of a gumshoe detective movie, spliced with a hard-hitting 70s fascination with grimy, sensationalist crimes (this was the same year as hard-bitten, shades-of-grey cops in Dirty Harry took on a serial killer and The French Connection explored the drugs trade), in this case the assault and murder of prostitutes. But this isn’t a whodunnit, or even really a detective story. The film is barely 45 minutes old before Pakula basically reveals who the killer is (the suspect list has only two people on it in any case). Most of the investigation takes place off screen. Some answers are kept vague. There is no cathartic moment of success.

Instead, the film feels far more like it’s using its Laura-ish set-up (the big difference here being the taciturn detective’s love interest is alive rather than just a painting) as a backdrop to deep dive in Bree’s personality. Bree is played with a stunning (and Oscar-winning) verisimilitude by Jane Fonda. Fonda immersed herself totally in the character, even living in the apartment set during shooting (Pakula had a working toilet installed) and developing a careful psychological background to Bree that is brilliantly introduced through our frequent cuts to her sessions with a coolly professional psychiatrist.

This is a portrait of a female sex worker on screen, where she’s neither a tragic or pathetic figure, or a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (the standard tropes). Instead, this is a woman struggling with a crippling fear of intimacy and a compulsion to control, who finds a freedom and release in acting out the fantasies of others. Bree speaks to her psychiatrist of being a call girl not as a curse or source of shame, but something she takes a sort of freedom from. It’s clear that really makes her sweat is not adjusting herself to whatever men want (faking an orgasm while checking her watch with one John, or acting out an elaborate, detailed fantasy for a lonely tailor) but the idea of having to be herself, to display something emotional and true.

And prostitution has the advantage over acting as she sets the terms. We are introduced to Bree as just one in a row of sitting actresses auditioning for an advert, each of them dismissively given a score from A to C. She later auditions for Shaw’s Saint Joan with a detailed, heartfelt reading (she’s clearly a good actress) which is stopped mid-speech by a bored director. With Fonda making clear that control is vital to Bree’s sense of well-being, no wonder she struggles with this dismissive world. Or that she finds a greater freedom in high-end prostitution, where we see she sets the terms with a business-like professionalism and is the centre of the focus and attention of her John’s for the whole of their session. This is a feeling she doesn’t get from anyone else.

What really scares her is the thought of a genuine emotional intimacy with Klute. In their first encounters she assumes she can seduce him with the professional ease she does most men, dropping naturally into her role of seductive dream-girl, offering him sex in return for recordings he has of her from his investigation. Later she will prove a point by coming to him in the night and seducing him with a pretence of vulnerability and fear, as if to prove to him (and herself) that she can work out exactly what mood she needs to control any man.

But it’s buried in genuine fear about emotional attachment. To her psychiatrist she talks about not understanding why Klute seems, with no ulterior motive, to be concerned for her safety and well-being despite the things he’s knows about her or that she’s done and said to him.

There is a marvellous scene where the two of them go shopping for fruit (Klute of course knows exactly how to choose the best fruit, he’s that sort of guy). First, she impulsively steals an apple like a naughty, impulsive child. When Klute responds with a bemused half-shock, she stands behind him, a grin spreading across her face, then she lightly rests her head (almost not touching) on his back – then follows him down the street, holding the end of his coat. It speaks worlds of how something in her emotional growth has been slightly stunted somewhere along the line. And the fact this intimacy is followed in the next scene by a drug-fuelled blow-out, speaks volumes of her fear of it.

It’s a brilliant performance by Fonda, throbbing with empathy and emotional complexity. She’s perfectly abetted by Donald Sutherland, who proves himself once again one of the most generous actors in the game. Klute is in many ways the typical rube in the big city, the one honest cop. But he also has a wet-eyed vulnerability, a tenderness and an urge to protect that as motherly as it masculine. He reveals very little emotionally, not from fear but from a shyness.

He’s also an observer. And Pakula’s film partly draws links between detective and voyeurism. Let’s not forget Klute also bugs Bree’s phone and follows her. The camera frequently shoots the action from distance, through windows and looking down on the action: the idea of being constantly observed lingers over the picture, giving it a rich vein of paranoia. The killer listens to disembodied audio recordings of Bree, and these frequently play over the action not only echoing this paranoia, but re-enforcing how her personality is a fractured one between the independent exterior and the less certain interior.

Pakula’s film pulls all this together into something creepy and unsettling but is also a fascinating character study. That is perhaps its best trick. You come into it expecting a film noir or a detective story. What you get is a compelling analysis of the psyche of one woman, who emerges into the picture and takes complete control of it. Perhaps that’s why it’s called Klute – it’s as much a part of the misdirection as everything else. With its psychological complexity and creeping sense of being watched, this would set the tone for many other films that followed in the 70s.

Friday, 18 February 2022

Drive My Car (2021)

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tōko Miura struggle with time and grief in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's exquisite Drive My Car

Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima (Yūsuke Kafuku), Tōko Miura (Misaki Watari), Masaki Okada (Kōji Takatsuki), Reika Kirishima (Oto Kafuku), Park Yoo-rim (Lee Yoo-na), Satoko Abe (Yuhara), Jin Dae-yeon (Gong Yoon-soo), Sonia Yuan (Janice Chang)

They say time heals all wounds: that’s not always the case. It’s certainly something you begin to appreciate in Hamaguchi’s beautiful elaboration of Ozu-style classicism, Drive My Car. Grief and loss do not adjust and correct themselves after the elapse of many months and years. Instead, they can allow pain to fester, ferment and bubble with further questions, regrets, resentments and sorrows. The world becomes a loop, we drive endlessly through, hoping to maintain some semblance of control over ourselves and our feelings.

That echoes the loops through Hiroshima the car of the title drives in this delicate, throught-provoking and mesmerising film, that expands a Murakami short story into three hours of meditative screentime. Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a celebrated theatre director, specialising in multi-lingual productions of classic Western plays. One day when his flight is delayed, he returns home unannounced to find his wife, screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima), making love to an unseen man. Unnoticed, Kafuku quietly leaves and says nothing. Their relationship seems to continue unchanged for a few weeks, with Oto clearly distressed and concerned when Kafuku is in an accident. But she seems to notice a new reticence in Kafuku and, one day, asks that they have a conversation when he returns home for work. When he does, he finds Oto has died from a sudden brain haemorrhage. What was she going to say to him?

Marking the leisurely pace of Hamaguchi’s film, this takes up the opening 40 minutes at which point the opening credits roll. It’s sprinkled with the details of an elaborate backstory: we discover the couple lost a child aged 5 several years ago and decided to not have another (though Kafuku may regret this). There is a suspicion her lover may have been young actor Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Two years later, Kafuku agrees to direct a production of Uncle Vanya at a Hiroshima theatre festival. Events there will lead him to confront his conflicted feelings about the loss of his wife he both still adores and also, on some level, resents.

Kafuku has carefully constructed his life to maximise his control. He seems to have abandoned acting his signature role of Vanya. Later in the film Kafuku states that Chekhov’s words reveal our true selves – and its clear, from the snatch we see of his performance shortly after Oto’s death, that true self is one Kafuku is in no position to face. Vanya’s grief, resentment, pain at his lost love, anger at the chances in life he has missed – all of these bring to the surface Kafuku’s feelings about his own life. Hamaguchi’s choice of play is a masterstroke: as we listen to Chekhov’s words they shade and deepen the themes in the film: Chekhov’s autumnal sadness is a perfect reflection of the film.

We hear a lot of Uncle Vanya, as Kafuku’s last link to his wife is a cassette recording she made of the dialogue for Kafuku to play in the car (there are gaps for Vanya’s lines, which he fills with a monotonous flatness). He plays this constantly in his car, an aged Saab he has kept beautifully conditioned for fifteen years (meaning he purchased it at the time of his child’s death, adding to its emotional importance). A key part of his sense of control over his life, is the driving and reciting of these lines: hence his request for a hotel an hour’s drive from the theatre.

The isolation and control of driving the car is so important, that it’s a major shock for Kafuku to discover that, for insurance reasons, he has to have a driver for the duration of the production. This is a young woman, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), who prides herself on her driving skills (she states it is the only thing she can do well) and who Kafuku reluctantly agrees to hand the keys over to. She wins his eventual trust by her competence and skill – she cares for the car just as he does – and her willingness to sit in silence and let Kafuku continue his ritual of reciting the lines from Vanya.

The growing closeness of these two characters becomes the engine (if you can call it that for a film that luxuriates so much in taking its time) of this thought-provoking and eventually very affecting masterpiece. Both characters find similarities and contrasts in each other: both are dealing with processing the loss of a loved one and, most painfully of all, the questions about who they truly were and what they truly felt that can now never be answered. This plays out in almost the exact opposite of heartfelt conversations: instead long, patient scenes as trust grows not always through words but through mutual comfort, the sharing of a cigarette, discussion of other issues and the impact of time spent in each other’s company.

Time is vital to this. The barriers both these characters have built in themselves to process their feelings would never come down quickly. Hamaguchi’s patience is vital for us to understand how tightly they have wound up their emotions. Kafuku directs with a rigid control, his multi-lingual technique (with at least five languages in the company) demands clarity and long sessions of reading around a table so that actors absorb the flow of the play. It does not allow for flexibility and improvisation. Similarly, Misaki’s driving follows pre-ordained routes and a schedule, that seems to prevent her thinking about other things.

Throughout Hamaguchi avoids sign-posting. Kafuku’s feelings about his wife seem confused and conflicting from scene-to-scene – the Chekov dialogue reflects this, sometimes tinged with intense sorrow and regret, at others bitterness and fury. Kafuku recruits the man he thinks his wife’s lover for the play – casting him in his signature role of Vanya. But why? Does he even know? It could be to accuse him, to control him, to destroy him, to get closer to his wife – or it could be parts of all of them. Definitive answers are kept to a minimum – but then that reflects life.

The relationship between the two comes to a head (such as it is in a film where long conversations slowly reveal buried emotional truth) in a long, late-night car journey shot by Hamaguchi in a carefully controlled one-shot/two-shot that has a classic simplicity that lets the emotion and acting come to the fore. Drive My Car is as unflashy a film as you can get, but its restraint, beautiful but serene imagery and gentle pace add to its slow-burn effect. The moments of emotional catharsis, when they come, are all the more affecting for it – and truly carry a sense of life-changing impact.

The performances are beautiful. Nishijima is quiet, reserved but conveys oceans of conflicted emotion below the surface which he keeps patiently bottled-up. It’s a low-key, highly expressive and tenderly gentle performance. He plays exquisitely with Tōko Miura who at first makes Misaki seem like any number of slightly-surly hirelings, but in turn unveils emotional depths and pain that constantly surprise. Reika Kirishima is both radiant, tender and unknowable as Oto. Masaki Okada is perfect as the lost Takatsuki. Park Yoo-rim is a stand-out among the ensemble as a mute Korean actress communicating through sign language (her acting in the play-within-the-play is stunning).

Originally intended to be filmed in Korea, there is a beautiful serendipity about the pandemic forcing a location change to Hiroshima. No other city on Earth carries such an association with pain and the slow recovery over time. Drive My Car takes the time it needs to explore how grief seeps into us and is only addressed through great care and strength. It’s profoundly engrossing and moving for all of its length – you wouldn’t want to change a thing about it.

El Cid (1961)

Charlton Heston rides into epic history as El Cid

Director: Anthony Mann
Cast: Charlton Heston (Don Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar/El Cid), Sophia Loren (Doña Ximena), Herbert Lom (Ben Yusuf), Raf Vallone (García Ordóñez), Geneviève Page (Doña Urraca), John Fraser (Alfonso VI), Douglas Wilmer (Al-Mu'tamin), Frank Thring (Al-Kadir), Michael Hordern (Don Diego), Andrew Cruickshank (Count Gormaz), Gary Raymond (Prince Sancho), Ralph Truman (King Ferdinand), Massimo Serato (Fañez), Hurd Hatfield (Arias)

Its 11th century Spain, and the country is a mass of feuding Christian and Muslim kingdoms. All that could end if the invasion plans of warlord Ben Yusof (Herbert Lom) come to fruition. To defeat him, the Christians will need Muslim allies in Spain. But of course, none of their leaders have the vision to imagine such a thing: except Don Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (Charlton Heston) who, after releasing rather than executing two Emirs, is known as “El Cid”. Problem is Don Rodrigo falls continually in and out of favour at court, not helped by his unbending principles. These principles even alienate the woman he loves, Doña Ximena (Sophia Loren), when Don Rodrigo regretfully kills her father in a duel. Will El Cid be able to unite the forces of Castille and his Muslim allies to defeat Ben Yusof?

El Cid was shot on location in Spain, and no expense was spared. Its location footage is beautiful and combined with some impressive sets. Producer Samuel Bronstein was determined to get the best money can buy. The ancient city of Valencia was rebuilt and thousands of soldiers from the Spanish army recruited into the two opposing sides. Thousands of costumes, pieces of armour and weapons were made. Bronstein’s dream cast was assembled (hilariously of course not a Spaniard or Arab among them), led by Hollywood’s biggest stars Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren.

What we get is an at times rather po-faced, sombre even slow epic that still succeeds because it is delivered with such absolute commitment and luscious beauty. Anthony Mann is not the most inventive of directors – and so much of this sort of film is really about producing rather than visionary direction – but he pulls together a collection of visual styles into something that feels wonderfully coherent and suitably dramatic. The castle interiors could have stepped out of Adventures of Robin Hood (Heston and Cruickshank even fight their duel on a winding staircase), the Spanish exteriors rival Ben-Hur and the medieval pageantry brings back memories of Ivanhoe.

It’s pulled together in a script that manages to juggle just about enough action – duels, fights to the death, ambushes, battles, sieges, murders – to sit alongside its earnest attempts to plead for a little love and understanding. Heston’s El Cid is radically ahead of his time, preaching messages of equality and arguing that anyone can kill but only a leader can grant mercy. It’s a film that refreshingly urges that there is more that unites us, than divides us. Yes, it casts Arab characters in most of the villainous roles – while the Christian opponents of El Cid all eventually see the error of their ways – but it still makes several Arab characters (especially Douglas Wilmer’s wonderful Al-Mu'tamin) pinnacles of honour and decency, far more so than most of the bitter and feuding Christians.

At the heart of the film is Charlton Heston, in possibly his most interesting and intelligent ‘epic’ performance. His El Cid is principled to the point of self-harming, but there is a little boy innocence to him that can’t seem to understand why he keeps landing himself in the shit. Duelling with his fiancée’s father, he genuinely can’t understand why he won’t stand down and let the matter rest. Later he marries Ximena with the sad-sack hope that she might remember why she loved him in the first place. He vainly tries to support both sides in the feud to succeed King Ferdinand, because he swore to support all the King’s children. It never occurs to him that Castille might turn down the assistance of the Muslim Emirs he’s recruited. He can understand military nuances, but can’t seem to find the way to translate this effectiveness into courtly politics. And he seems to know it.

But we know he’s a good guy – so it’s also why we know Sophia Loren’s hatred for him won’t really last. To be honest the chemistry isn’t quite there between them – the two of them famously didn’t get on (Heston famously refused to look at her in many of the romance scenes, hence the odd side-to-side faces in several shots) – and the part of Ximena is incredibly thinly written (she changes her mind about Rodrigo seemingly on a sixpence). But you can’t argue with Loren’s charisma (and she looks ravishingly stunning here) or the force which she can act the hell out of these straightforward scenes (all shot in a few weeks, due to Loren’s availability and Borstein’s determination to get her for the role).

Besides she needed to be the goodie so we could have a dynamic Geraldine Page as the scheming villainous, the Princess of Castille scheming to support her brother Alfonso (a wonderfully fecklessly weak John Fraser), to whom she’s offering more than sisterly love. What chance does headstrong but not-so-bright Gary Raymond’s Sancho have against them? Elsewhere in the cast, Herbert Lom’s voice is used to superb effect as Ben Yusof (like all the actors playing Arabs he’s browned up) and Douglas Wilmer strikes up a wonderful bromance with Heston as an Arabic version of El Cid.

The film is long an often gets slightly bogged down in questions of politics and questions of succession that, at the end of the day, are less interesting than whether Loren will forgive Chuck or our long wait for that Muslim invasion. It is a very long wait: the film opens with Rodrigo a young man – by the time Ben Yusof arrives he’s an old one with two children. Enough events occur sprinkled through the story that it never feels too slow – and you have to admire its attempt at even-handed justice to all.

It culminates as well in a superb sequence covering the siege of Valencia, where all narrative threads are skilfully bought together towards a satisfying conclusion. Mann stages a handsome beach battle here and culminates the film in a long night of the soul that ends with El Cid riding into history in an ironically unique way. The film’s final act is an outstanding mix of epic themes and personal tragedy and loss, that brings the film to a superb finish.

El Cid takes itself seriously – I’m pretty sure there isn’t a joke in it – but it’s well made and acted with a great deal of flair, looks fabulous and never squeezes the life out of itself. As an example of Hollywood’s late epics, there are few that can match it.

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

David Strathairn interrogates the news in Good Night, and Good Luck

Director: George Clooney
Cast: David Strathairn (Edward R Murrow), George Clooney (Fred Friendly), Robert Downey Jnr (Joseph Wershba), Patricia Clarkson (Shirley Wershba), Frank Langella (William Paley), Jeff Daniels (Sig Mickelson), Tate Donovan (Jesse Zousmer), Ray Wise (Don Hollenbeck), Helen Slayton-Hughes (Mary), Alex Borstein (Natalie), Thomas McCarthy (Palmer Williams)

In the early 1950s America seemed to be in the paranoid grip of one man. Senator Joseph McCarthy was the tip of a spear of anti-Communism, targeting every part of American life. To have even had thoughts that might be seen as socialist or communist, was enough for you to be considered an Anti-American and potential enemy of the state. McCarthy led a campaign to unearth Communist spies and sympathisers in the government, military, business, academia and the media. Blacklists and persecution were rife, and the slightest past association could condemn you. It took many years before anyone took a stand against this.

One of the leaders of this stand was renowned journalist Edward R Murrow (David Straithairn). Famous for his broadcasts from London during the Blitz, Murrow hosted an investigative journalist programme See It Now. A passionate believer in the power of television to educate and inform, Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) are appalled when Air Force officer Milo Radulovich is condemned to be discharged, based on members of his family being communists and a sealed envelope of charges he was never allowed to see. Despite the worries of network CBS, Murrow, Friendly and their team run an episode of the show that exposes McCarthyism and its injustice, the first of several investigating McCarthy. But what price will they pay?

Clooney’s well-made, heartfelt film, is an impeccably liberal piece of film-making that is a very sincere tribute to the potential of television to be more than just an idiot’s lantern. Clooney frames the film with Murrow accepting a lifetime achievement award in 1958: he uses the opportunity to make a speech rebuking the room full of executives and journalists for squandering the potential of television to inform rather than just entertain. Murrow would of course be horrified by what TV became. Good Night, and Good Luck is a rose-tinted view of television journalism at its pioneering best: just as the end result of See It Now being gutted by cuts is a realistic look at where the scales will fall if entertainment and money are balanced with principles and education.

Clooney’s father was a TV journalist, while Clooney himself majored in journalism. The cut-and-thrust of the newsroom is as intrinsic to him, as is a desire to investigate and inform as part of a healthy political debate. Good Night, and Good Luck captures the mood of a newsroom with a convincing confidence. Journalists debate the fine point of stories, editors rush to assemble films and executives balance the pros and cons. It’s all shot in a beautiful monochrome, that exquisitely captures the haze of cigarette smoke all this takes place in. It’s a shot with a handheld urgency, sharply cut, that puts us into this world of cut-and-thrust media decisions.

And it makes clear what TV news can be. Not agenda led, but facts led. Not kotowing to power, but challenging it to justify itself. Looking into matters that are important, not sensational. Wanting to inform people and expand their understanding, rather than pander to the lowest common denominator. Murrow’s shows are scrupulously fact-checked, and allow full rebuttal from their subject. He comes at story not with a pre-supposed position, but based on where the facts and his editorial judgement leads him.

It all takes place in a TV set that’s really striking in its humbleness, compared to the operatic news sets we see today. The 1950s studio is small, cramped and simple – and by contrast the ideas are large, expansive and complex. Murrow’s set is little more than a chair with a TV monitor. His producer Fred Friendly, literally sits at his feet to hand him notes and cue him in with announcements and VT. The See It Now set contrasts vividly with the more grandiose sets for Murrow’s other show, a series of puff piece interviews with popular stars like Liberace. (While Murrow learns his scripts by heart for See it Now, he professionally reads through a series of cue cards for these for-the-money interviews).

Murrow and Friendly also won’t compromise. They defend their right to make the show to CBS President William Paley (a brilliant performance from Frank Langella), who prides himself on no direct intervention on the news but pushes for a less controversial line. The entire team is consulted on every issue. The newsroom is a place where our better angels can come out.

But it’s still happening in an America where people are careful about what they say and do. A subplot concerns reporters played by Robert Downey Jnr and Patricia Clarkson: secretly married – contrary to CBS policy – like those suffering from McCarthyism, they must live a lie in order to protect what they have. See It Now is in danger of criticism, cancellation and attack. Another CBS anchor, Don Hollenbeck – perfectly played by Ray Wise (and few actors are better at suppressed desperation than Wise) – is dealing with constant media persecution for his perceived communist sympathy. Murrow and Friendly are not perfect: they sometimes dodge the fights they can’t win and Murrow in particular shrugs off or ignores Hollenbeck’s concerns with tragic results.

But, as Clooney makes clear, the good outweighs all the rest. As Murrow, David Straithairn (Oscar-nominated) has never been better. He perfectly captures Murrow’s mannerisms, but mixes it with wonderful measure of honesty and decency, mixed with a degree of pride and self-righteous certainty. He dominates the film (with Clooney as a generous foil) and carries much of the film’s liberal message that smart, intelligent, dedicated men can change the world.

Good Night, and Good Luck might be the most soft-left liberal film made in Hollywood in the last fifteen years. But it is a fine example of film-making craft and the earnest honestness with which it is made in its own way inspiring. It’s Clooney’s finest film and it’s grounded in his strengths: fine actors and writing carrying a sincerely told message.

Tuesday, 15 February 2022

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

George Steven's reverent adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank

Director: George Stevens
Cast: Millie Perkins (Anne Frank), Joseph Schildkaut (Otto Frank), Shelley Winters (Petronella Van Daan), Richard Beymer (Peter Van Daan), Gusti Huber (Edith Frank), Lou Jacobi (Hans Van Daan), Diane Baker (Margot Frank), Ed Wynn (Albert Dussell), Douglas Spencer (Kraler), Dodie Heath (Miep Gies)

Few personal stories have had such a huge impact on so many people’s lives than Anne Frank's diary. This literary marvel, written by a teenager who mixed profound insight with teenage obsessions, was a world-wide sensation when it was published after the war. The diary covers the over two years Anne, her family and their friends spent in hiding in a secret annexe in her father’s warehouse in Amsterdam. For Jews hiding from the barbaric persecution of the Nazi occupying forces, every day was a struggle between trying to lead as normal a life as possible and the terror of discovery and deportation to a concentration camp. Of course, we know, tragically, they were discovered – and only Anne’s father Otto survived the war.

Otto discovered the diary when he returned to Amsterdam after the liberation of Auschwitz. Moved by the diary’s mix of maturity and youth, Otto had it published first for friends and then more widely. At various points, parts of the diary were edited to remove more “personal” content (Anne wrote freely at points on her growing sexuality and was sometimes less than kind to the other occupants of the annexe). More modern editions have embraced a less edited, fuller diary that really allows us to see what a brilliant, challenging, sometimes judgemental, fully rounded teenager Anne was. The Diary of Anne Frank hails from an era that framed a more sanitised diary. The worst you can say for it is that I think there is a good chance the real Anne Frank would have found it a bit dull.

Adapted from a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, George Steven’s film is reverent, noble and very worthy. It also frequently lacks any pace or life, and is so concerned with being life-affirming that it filters out nearly all sense of tension or conflict that these eight people felt (which they often did living, as they did, in a few small rooms for over two years, with very little food). The film also centres a romantic relationship between Anne and Peter – one that, according to Anne’s own diary, was already coming to an end at their discovery (in reality, she felt they had little in common other than living in the annexe together).

But Stevens’ film is so concerned with framing someone as fascinating as Anne as a secular saint that it removes much of the vibrancy that gives the diary such impact. It also doesn’t help that Stevens shoots the film in a luscious black-and-white, in detailed sets – but also in the widest possible cinemascope. This does allow for some lovely shots – an image of Anne and Peter kissing in a monochrome shadow, before a door opens to bathe them in light is striking – but it sacrifices the most essential fact of the setting: its cramped smallness.

The widescreen frequently makes the annexe seem larger than it is

Who decided that a location defined by its claustrophobia and smallness was best captured in super-widescreen, I don’t know. But the wide angles make the annexe look a heck of a lot larger than it actually is (I’ve been there, I know it was more cramped than this!) and Stevens frequently frames the whole cast in shots which makes the annexe look positively cavernous.

The lack of claustrophobia has a serious impact on the story’s sense of drama. It also helps to filter out the tension. The script removes, or minimises, most of the key personal tensions in the annexe. We have moments of disagreement, but generally the inhabitants are shown to get on extremely well, with Anne herself practically perfect. This doesn’t really square with the diary, which is pretty open in Anne’s difficult relationship with her mother (with whom she felt no affinity), the clashes with the Van Daans and Mr Dussell (not their real names – Dussell basically translates as idiot, which gives a better impression of Anne’s difficult relationship with this unwanted roommate) or her later arguments with her father. Instead, things are smoothed out and nothing that could detract for a moment from the optimistic and hopeful message of the film is allowed.

The film also replicates several changes that the play made for dramatic effect. This most especially affects the character of Dussell (real name Fritz Pfeffer). In real life a respected dentist and pillar of the Jewish community, Dussell/Pfeffer here is a complacent, panicking imbecile, utterly ignorant of the Jewish faith and claims to have lived his whole life in Amsterdam with no idea he was a Jew. The real-life Pfeffer had in fact fled Germany to escape Nazi persecution. Played with a self-satisfied whininess by Ed Wynn (a famous TV comic, Oscar-nominated here for showing he could do drama), Dussell/Pfeffer is a joke. Pfeffer’s family cut ties with the Franks after the play was released.

Wynn’s nomination reflects how the broader performances in this film gained the most attention. Shelley Winters won an Oscar for her role as the blowsy Mrs van Daan – both van Daans are larger-than-life and obsessed with their status. More restrained and effective performances come from Gusti Huber as Anne’s shy and nervous mother and above all by Joseph Schildkraut as her wisely patient father. Richard Beymer gives an effective performance as a young Peter, straining against the leash of being stuck in a sort of suspended childhood.

As Anne, Millie Perkins looks the part in many ways – apart from the fact she is clearly too old. But there is something a little neutered and frankly a little too perfect about her performance. Her voice has a flat American twang to it that makes much of her voiceover a little wearing to listen to, especially as the tweeness is dialled up. I’m not sure she has the presence for the role – although she is not helped by the sanitised, earnest script.

Criticising The Diary of Anne Frank feels almost sacrilegious, like criticising the lives of the real people who went through something unimaginable to try and survive in a world of horror. But Stevens’ film is straining so hard to be reverent – and shaves the edges of its characters so much – that it turns them and their story into something much more easily digestible than it should be. It becomes a feelgood story, rather than something vibrant and alive. And that vibrancy is what has made Anne Frank live for so long after her murder. To create a film that captures so little of that, instead turning her into a conventional romantic heroine, just feels like it misses what made her unique. 

Monday, 14 February 2022

King Richard (2021)

Will Smith is the father building a life for his daughters in King Richard
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Cast: Will Smith (Richard Williams), Aunjanue Ellis (Oracene “Brandy” Price), Saniyya Sidney (Venus Williams), Demi Singleton (Serena Williams), Jon Bernthal (Rick Macci), Tony Goldwyn (Paul Cohen), Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew (Tunde Price), Danielle Lawson (Isha Price), Layla Crawford (Lyndrea Price)

Sports movies have a very reliable formula. There’s the initial promise, early success, adversity, obstacles, a moment of doubt, a renewal of commitment and a final success. I think it’s fair to say that King Richard pretty much hits all the beats you expect. In fact, its pretty much exactly the film you expect it to be when it starts and doubles down hard on the charisma and charm of its star.

King Richard tells the story of how the Williams Sisters, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), took their very first steps towards dominating the world of tennis, as told through the eyes of their father Richard (Will Smith). Richard Williams had been determined from almost the moment his children were born, that he would never stop working (and push them) to build lives that would take them away from the working-class ghetto he grew up in. Teaching himself tennis coaching, from the moment they can hold a racket the girls are coached. But, being working class and black in a white-middle-class sport, Richard must work night-and-day to win professional coaching and playing opportunities for his daughters. Not to mention, struggling to ensure that they don’t forget their roots or get chewed up and spat out by the sport.

First and foremost, King Richard is a showpiece for Will Smith. The part fits him like a glove: Williams a larger-than-life, force-of-“Will” role that feels about 2/3rds Williams and 1/3rd Smith. With Williams fast-talking patter, never-give-up determination and absolute commitment to protecting his loved ones, the role plays to all Smith’s strengths. Smith gives a quintessential movie-star performance, which to-be-honest often feels like a Will Smith personality role (the modern equivalent of a Cary Grant performance), but is very entertaining because few people are as good at crafting their personae to benefit a movie as Smith is. Smith is heartfelt, earnest, loveable, sometimes slapable, but always a charming guy you root for.

Which is odd, as Richard Williams is a man with a mixed reputation. He was a demanding, argumentative, often controlling presence who irritated and alienated far more people on the tour than he befriended. Some saw him as a self-promoter, others as a man at times causing problems for his daughter’s careers. King Richard doesn’t shy away from showing these qualities – the awkwardness, the temper, the selfishness, the arrogance – but presents them all in the best possible light. The film is purest hagiography and Richard Williams is always vindicated in all his calls.

Awkwardly the film is also determined to give him all the credit for the Williams’ sisters success. Now there is merit in this – and the script was developed with the sister’s input, so it feels a bit presumptuous to get angry on their behalf. The sisters would never have become what they are if their father had not put rackets in their hands so young and invested hours in training them. Similarly, they would not have been as fully-rounded people without his constant mantra about family, humility and hard work. But also, they did have quite a bit of talent themselves – and certainly they profited from lessons they picked up from the other coaches they worked with.

However, one of the points King Richard is gently making – and it is gently made, as if the film was worried its crowd-pleasing potential might have been affected if it banged this drum too hard – is that Williams had to be a domineering figure because he was fighting against a racial divide in the sport. He feels out of place in the tennis country clubs because he is. No one else on the junior tour is anything other than white and well off. Every coach and trainer is applying methods that have worked for affluent middle-class athletes, without considering any adjustment might be needed for two young women coming from a totally different background.

You can argue the hagiography is partially a course correction from years of the only black father and coach on the tour being denounced as uppity, loud-mouthed, self-obsessed and intrusive. Its still made clear he shares these traits with many other tour parents, but adding to it a massive dose of supportive parenting. There are moments when the film addresses how Williams’ obsession that he knows best might just be starting to run the risk of alienating his daughters: in particular Aunjanue Ellis delivers a blistering late speech (which probably got her an Oscar nomination by itself, so compellingly is it performed) where she lays out in no-uncertain-terms Williams many character flaws and damaging behaviours. (Coincidentally the film’s most compelling dramatic scene).

Maybe a bit of hagiography is what we need from a film designed to be an uplifting, triumph against the odds and celebration of one man’s fatherly love and devotion to give his daughters a chance to change their stars. The film is professionally directed by Green and some of the titbits of the sisters early training (throwing American footballs to build service strength among others) is fascinating.

The film is probably at least twenty minutes too long and starts at some points to repeat the same beats again and again. It doesn’t really do anything new and is exactly the sort of film you could predict it being. But it has some good performances, Smith is at the top of his game, and it is an enjoyable, if predictable, feel-good watch.

Friday, 11 February 2022

Working Girl (1988)

Harrison Ford, Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver in the Cinderella of Wall Street films Working Girl

Director: Mike Nichols
Cast: Melanie Griffith (Tess McGill), Harrison Ford (Jack Trainer), Sigourney Weaver (Katherine Parker), Alec Baldwin (Mick Dugan), Joan Cusack (Cynthia), Philip Bosco (Oren Trask), Nora Dunn (Ginny), Oliver Platt (Jack Lutz), Kevin Spacey (Bob Speck), Robert Easton (Armbrister), Olympia Dukakis (Personnel Director), Amy Aquino (Alice Baxter)

Is there a more 80s film in existence? It’s got the hair, the fashion, the attitudes, the Reagonite go-getting celebration of the guts and glory of Wall Street. Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) looks and sounds like a dumb secretary, but she’s got the brains for business (but also, as she says, a bod for sin) – just never the opportunity to prove it. It looks like that might change under new boss Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), who’s all smiles and talk of the sisterhood – but pinches Tess’ ideas and passes them off as her own. When Katherine is injured on a ski trip, Tess takes the chance to prove she’s got it by passing herself off as Katherine’s colleague and enlisting the help of mergers expert Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) to put together a mega-bucks media merger. But what will happen when Katherine finds out?

Working Girl is really a great big Wall Street fairy tale, with Tess as the Cinderella invited to the ball only to have to run away leaving the business equivalent of her glass slipper behind. Katherine is a wicked stepmother, and Jack the handsome prince. It’s the sort of film where the heads of corporations are cuddly figures who place fair-play and honesty above making a buck and goodness, wins out in the end. Basically, it’s about as much a slice of business realism as Pretty Woman (this film could almost be a dress rehearsal for that).

Nichols directs the entire thing with confidence and pizzazz and draws some good performances from the actors, while keeping the entire thing light, frothy and entertaining. He had to fight tooth and nail to cast Melanie Griffith – but it was a worth winning as the role is perfect for her. Griffith always finds it hard to get good roles – her light, airy voice has condemned her to a string of airheads and bimbos – but here it’s perfect for a woman everyone assumes is dumb the second she opens her mouth. She’s even thinks of herself as not that bright, accepting her lot in life is settling for second best.

That’s personally and professionally. Her boyfriend, played with a wonderful smarm by Alec Baldwin, is a rat (she walks in to her flat to discover him mid-coitus – “This isn’t what it looks like!” he protests with an unabashed grin), who constantly reminds her that she’s punching above her weight dating him. Tess is at the bottom of an ocean of sexism on Wall Street: traders see her as little better than a perk, slapping her bum or stopping to stare at her behind when she walks past them. She barely avoids sexual assault from a coke-addled trader in the back of a limo (a piece of presciently perfect casting for Kevin Spacey). Her first boss (a puffed-up Oliver Platt) routinely humiliates her.

Oh my God! The Hair!

To be fair, the film makes clear that much of this is a woman’s lot in this poisonous world of Wall Street. Even her boss Katherine has to patiently remove groping hands from parts of her body, and wearily tells Tess that it doesn’t do to kick up a fuss when you never know who might become a vital contact in the future. Working Girl makes some pretty gentle points about workplace sexism – you can’t fail but notice Katherine and Tess are the only two women in the office who aren’t secretaries or HR people, and even Tess is pretending not to be – and the casual objectification of women.

Sadly, it blows a few of those points by still getting Griffith and Weaver to perform scenes in lingerie. Griffith even has a brief scene where she hoovers Weaver’s empty apartment topless. Sure, it’s a bit progressive on women’s rights in the workplace: but still, phroah, look at that.

Nichols gets one of his most relaxed and loose performances from Harrison Ford. Even if Ford at times looks a little abashed, working against such forceful performers as Griffith and Weaver (like a shy teenager in a school play), Nichols helps him feel light and funny without relying on the cool machismo that served him well as Indy or Han. Jack Trainer (such a Harrison Ford character name!), becomes giddy and playful under Tess’ influence and there is a sweet innocence about his courtship of her. It’s one of Ford’s funniest, most naturally instinctive performances.

Equally essential to the film’s success is Weaver, who plays up to perfection her glacial distance as a woman who is all smiles and “us, us, us” in person, but selfish looks and “me, me, me” in private. Weaver is very funny as a ruthless, amoral businesswoman masquerading as a campaigner for her sex and completely recognises that the role is essentially a wicked stepmother, pitching it just right between arch comedy and realism. She was Oscar-nominated, as was Griffith, and Joan Cusack who is triumphantly ditzy and warm as Tess’ best friend.

Working Girl pulls together all the tropes we expect. Tess is made up to look like the professional businesswoman she is aspiring to become, there is a neat bit of low-key farce as she passes off Katherine’s office for her own to Jack, a sweet bit of business chicanery as she Jack sneak into a wedding (the sort of thing that in real life would get you a restraining order) and it all leads into a “love and truth conquers all” resolution with a satisfying coda scene as Tess starts a new life. There is a lovely song by Carly Simon (over-used on the soundtrack – and fans should check out Michael Ball’s cover of it) and plenty of chuckles. It’s a fairy tale of New York.