Tuesday, 22 March 2022

The Big Short (2015)

Big finance is men shouting and people losing money in The Big Short

Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Christian Bale (Michael Burry), Steve Carell (Mark Baum), Ryan Gosling (Jared Vennett), Brad Pitt (Ben Rickert), John Magure (Charlie Geller), Finn Wittrock (Jamie Shipley), Hamish Linklater (Porter Collins), Rafe Spall (Danny Moses), Jeremy Strong (Vinny Daniel), Marisa Tomei (Cynthia Baum), Tracy Letts (Lawrence Fields), Melissa Leo (Georgia Hale), Karen Gillan (Evie)

We all experienced the financial crisis of 2007, but very few of us actually understand it: above all perhaps, what the hell actually happened and why. That’s what McKay’s film – somewhere between drama, satire, black comedy and tongue-in-cheek infomercial – tries to resolve. Adapting a book by leading financial journalist Michael Lewis, The Big Short charts the whys and wherefores of the collapse, by focusing on the money men who saw the signs of the impending crash and bet against the booming economy.

Those men (and they are all men of course) are played by a series of actors enjoying themselves thoroughly playing larger-than-life characters who it’s never entirely clear if we are supposed to empathise with, sympathise with, cheer on or stand aghast at while they make fortunes from the ruin of others. I’m not sure the film does either though.

Christian Bale is the eccentric hedge fund manager whose analysis predicts the crash and takes eye-watering investment charges that will pay off thousands of times over when the crash comes. Ryan Gosling is a banking executive who understands that analysis and robs in Steve Carrell’s hedge fund manager to similarly invest to cash in (Carrell’s character, for all his misanthropic oddness is the only one truly outraged at the corruption in the system that will lead to the collapse). Brad Pitt is the retired trader roped in for “one more job” by young traders Finn Wittrock and John Magure to make their own bets against the house. They too will eventually realise the huge impact this will have on people – but are powerless to get anyone to listen as they try and warn against the pending disaster.

McKay’s film, with its tightly-controlled but surprisingly effective off-the-cuff feel (it’s stuffed with neatly edited jokes, straight to camera addresses and a constant running commentary from the characters on the accuracy – or otherwise –  of outlandish moments), may sometimes have the air of a slightly smug student film, but what it does well is explain the financials. If you were unsure about what CDOs, AAA ratings, Quants, credit default swops and sup-prime mortgage were before the start, you’ll have a much better idea later. Neat inventions describe this: from narration, to graphics, to Jenga blocks to famous people (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez among others) popping up to glamorously put things in other contexts.

The Big Short does this sort of thing rather well. Sure, it’s got a “lads” feeling to it – there is no “for the girls” equivalent to Margot Robbie in a bath explaining sub-prime mortgages – and the entire dialogue and pace of the film has a frat-house wildness that I suppose does reflect the tone of many of these financial institutions, which were little better than sausage parties. But it presents its ideas nicely and has some good jokes. The verité style McKay goes for is more studied than it natural – and it’s hard not to escape the feeling that the film is very, very pleased with itself, so much so that it’s not a surprise both his follow-up films  double down to various degrees on the slightly smug, self-satisfied liberalism here that sees those in power as corrupt, greedy, fools or all three and everyone else as innocent victims.

Where the film is less certain is exactly how it feels about its central characters. In other words, it doesn’t always turn the same critical eye on these people profiting from a disaster that will lead to millions losing their homes (the millions are represented by a single immigrant family). Brad Pitt may reprove his young charges from celebrating gains that will be the losses of millions of others. Steve Carrell gets several lines berating the callous, short-sighted greed of the banks. Christian Bale’s character is appalled by the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” relationship between banks, investment ratings agencies and insurance companies, all working together to keep artificial profits up. But the film still wants us to celebrate as these plucky outsiders and weirdoes clean out the house and carry home cartloads of cash while the casino burns down.

Basically, the film is all good fun but gives us little to actually care about. It’s highly influenced by the gonzo macho representation of this world Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street gave us, but far less skilled than that film in presenting its players as the childish, amoral vacuums they are. Furthermore, it does far less to really look at the impact of what it’s doing: in fact, it spends so long delighting in how it tells the story, it doesn’t show us what happens. It dwells at the end on abandoned trading floors and closed banks, like the fall of the Roman Empire, but finds no time at any point to hear from a real person who lost their home.

Perhaps because the real impacts are too depressing – and would have made it impossible to feel the triumphal buzz the film wants from seeing its heroes vindicated and the smug assholes we’ve seen from the banks get egg on their face. It might have felt a lot less funny if we had seen even a closing montage of the real victims and the human impact.

It’s where The Big Short falls down and why it feels in the end like a student film made on a huge budget. It nods its head at real mature themes but actually isn’t really interested in them at all. 

Thursday, 17 March 2022

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are marvellous in this masterful adaptation from Merchant-Ivory

Director: James Ivory
Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Mr Stevens), Emma Thompson (Miss Kenton), James Fox (Lord Darlington), Christopher Reeve (Congressman Jack Lewis), Peter Vaughan (Mr Stevens Snr), Hugh Grant (Reginald Cardinal), Michael Lonsdale (Dupont D’Ivry), Tim Pigott-Smith (Mr Benn), Ben Chaplin (Charlie), Patrick Godfrey (Spencer), Lena Headey (Lizzie), Pip Torrens (Dr Carlisle), Paul Copley (Harry Smith) Rupert Vansittart (Sir Geoffrey Wren), Peter Eyre (Lord Halifax), Wolf Kahler (Ribbentrop)

Kazou Ishiguro’s Booker-prize winning novel The Remains of the Day is one of my all-time favourites. So, it’s not a surprise I’m a huge fan of this masterful adaptation from the House of Merchant Ivory. I’m certain this is the apex of the team’s work. Mike Nichols had originally planned a film but, wisely, recognised when it came to making movies about repressed 1930s Brits, one team had a monopoly on how to do it best. Beautifully adapted by their regular screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, The Remains of the Day is a wonderfully involving and deeply moving film.

Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is a butler in a British country house purchased in 1956 by American Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve). Keen to solve staffing problems (and for no other reason at all), Stevens journeys to the West Country to recruit the 1930s housekeeper, Mrs Benn nee Kenton (Emma Thompson). During the journey, he remembers his service for the previous owner, Lord Darlington (James Fox). An impeccable gentleman, Darlington dedicates himself to reconciliation between Nazi Germany and England, eventually tipping into an unwise dalliance with fascism and appeasement.

Stevens had no views on that though. In fact, he prides himself on his anonymity. The goal of his life is to maintain a dignified unobtrusiveness, ensuring the smooth operation of everything, leaving as little a mark as possible. Nothing can intrude on that: not his own feelings, the illness and death of his under-butler father (Peter Vaughan) and, above all, the unspoken romantic feelings between himself and Miss Kenton. The Remains of the Day is about duty and obsession and how a fixation on both can leave someone with little to show from a long life.

Stevens is living the lessons he learned from his father, an ageing powerhouse masterfully played by Peter Vaughan, who undergoes a physical collapse (from dripping nose to dropping trays) and bouts of forgetfulness, eventually dying on a night Stevens is too busy seeing to the sore feet of an illustrious French guest to spare a moment to visit him. It tells you everything about his character that this stiff-upper lipped commitment to duty is a source of pride to our hero.

There are few as curiously blank ‘heroes’ in literature than Stevens. The narrator of Ishiguro’s book is a dull, fussy, unbelievably cold man who has dedicated himself so fully to duty that he has let any emotional life wither and die on the vine – something he only realises far too late. It’s an immensely challenging role, bought to life masterfully by Hopkins. Hopkins astonishing skill here is to play all that repressed coldness on the surface, but also constantly let us see the emotion, longing and regret he is subconsciously crushing down play in his eyes and the corners of his mouth. Is Stevens even aware how much self-harm he is causing? It’s an astonishingly subtle performance.

So subtle in fact that the books conclusion – Steven’s tear-filled confession to a stranger late at night of all the mistakes he has made – was filmed but cut for being superfluous. Hopkins had done the lot, all the way through the movie, through acting skill. You can’t miss the struggle within him, not least the desperate, powerless longing he feels for Miss Kenton that, for oh-so-English reasons he can never admit to himself. Hopkins has the vocal and physical precision, but every gesture tremors with unspoken, barely understood longings. In fact, it’s a shock when he exclaims an angry “Blast” after dropping a bottle of wine (the real cause of his outburst being, of course, Miss Kenton’s announcement that she is getting married)

He and Miss Kenton conduct a professional relationship that blossoms into something like a friendship – but he consistently rejects her polite efforts to take it further. In the film’s most powerful scene, Miss Kenton enters his parlour and playfully tries to see the title of the novel he’s reading (a sappy romance). The playfulness tips into agonisingly awkward tenseness as Hopkins’ Stevens seems paralysed, his hand lingering inches from her hair but unable to bring himself to break decorum and fold her in an embrace – all while Miss Kenton continues her increasingly desperate semi-flirtatious banter. It of course ends with Stevens dismissing her: just as later he will take a snap of frustration as a signal to irrevocably cancel their late-night cups of cocoa together.

Emma Thompson is wonderful as a woman only marginally more in touch with her feelings and longings than Stevens is: aware that she, eventually, wants more from life, but unable to find the way of communicating the love she clearly feels for Stevens in a manner he can respond to. Instead, the two of them oscillate between a friendly, affectionate alliance and a discordant arguments (their only outlet for their passion), rooted in their inability to admit their feelings for each other. To further stress the point, both of them mentor young staffers (played by a very young Ben Chaplin and Lena Headey) who have the youthful “what the hell” to jack in all this for love.

Ivory’s wonderfully subtle film makes clear this is a turning point in history, the final hurrah for the this sort of deferential hierarchy. Stevens is the last of a generation of butlers, convinced that what their employers got up to had nothing to do with them – views not shared by Tim Piggot-Smith’s more grounded Benn, who chucks in his job working for a bullying blackshirt (who else but Rupert Vansittart?). Throughout the 1950s storyline, Stevens is constantly asked if he knew the infamous Lord Darlington (a sort of Lord Londonderry figure, hopelessly taken in by Hitler) – in fact, like Paul, he twice denies ever having known him.

And you can understand why, as the film has sympathy for Lord Darlington. As his decent, liberal god-son Reginald Cardinal (an excellent Hugh Grant) says, Darlington is a great asset for Germany precisely because he’s honest, well-meaning and motivated by a desire for peace. The fact that his leads him to consort with a host of Nazis, Blackshirts and the most appalling anti-democratic vestiges of the upper-classes (at one point, Stevens selflessly gives a performance of geopolitical ignorance so as to help demonstrate why men like him shouldn’t have the vote) is an unfortunate side-effect.

Played perfectly by James Fox, Darlington is misguided but genuine. As war approaches, he leads an increasingly hermit like life – camp-bed and paper-strewn, messy library – hosting conferences denounced by Jack Lewis (a fine Christopher Reeve) as a host of amateurs talking about a world they no longer understand. Beneath it all, Darlington is guided by fair play. So much so, it’s almost distressing to see him (under the influence of an attractive German countess) reading anti-Semitic pamphlets and sacking two refugee Jewish maids – an act he later regrets (far too late). This moment also reinforces Stevens’ compromised pig-headedness (not his place to judge!) and Miss Kenton’s fear to act (she’s horrified, but to scared of unemployment to hand in her notice).

All of this culminates in a series of scenes where emotions pour out of the actors, even while their words are banal and everyday memories and reflections. Ivory was never more confident and skilled behind the camera, and the film is a technical marvel, beautifully shot with a wonderful score from Richard Robbins. Hopkins is phenomenally good, simultaneously pitiable and smackable, Thompson is wonderful alongside him, Fox and Grant perfect – it’s a very well-acted piece. And a wonderfully perfect capturing of a classic modern British novel. No doubt: the best Merchant Ivory film.

Monday, 14 March 2022

Kramer vs Kramer (1979)

Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry explore a tender father-son relationship in Kramer vs Kramer

Director: Robert Benton
Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Ted Kramer), Meryl Streep (Joanna Kramer), Justin Henry (Billy Kramer), Jane Alexander (Margaret Phelps), Howard Duff (John Shaunessy), George Coe (Jim O’Connor), JoBeth Williams (Phyllis Bernard), Howland Chamberlain (Judge Chamberlain)

Kramer vs Kramer is a near perfect example of how time changes the perception of a film. On its release, it was the smash-hit of the year, scooping five Oscars. It took a sympathetic look at divorce and explored the then unthinkable idea that a single father could find fulfilment in taking on the woman’s role of caring for a child. Today, it’s more likely to be seen as a thinly veiled attack on feminism and a promotional video for Fathers4Justice. But a film can be a warm celebration of a father building a relationship with his child and an implicit criticism of women who want it all.

The film opens with Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) tucking her 7-year-old son Billy (Justin Henry) into bed, telling him she loves him, and then walking out of her New York apartment for good. She tells husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) – a workaholic advertising executive – she is deeply depressed and has to find what she wants from her life. Ted, a loving but distracted father, has no idea either how to raise his son or run a household. At first, he resents Billy for distracting him from his career, just as Billy resents him for being unable to care for him as Joanna could. Eventually though, Ted and Billy build a loving relationship, with Ted placing Billy’s needs first. At which point Joanna returns and demands custody, a clash that will lead to the courts.

Benton’s film, adapted from a successful novel, is shot with a chamber-piece richness by Nestor Almendros and signposts its arthouse credentials with a Vivaldi string score. It’s superbly acted. Hoffman (winning for Best Actor) is hugely committed, running a gamut of emotions from anger and despair to a joyful devotion for his son. Streep won Best Supporting Actress as the deeply-toen and conflicted Joanna. Hoffman and Benton draw superbly natural work from Justin Henry as Billy, an unaffected, completely unmannered performance. Benton marshals these three actors through a series of simply shot but often surprisingly affecting scenes, alternating between raw hurt, anger and tender forgiveness.

But this is a film that needs a sister film. Specifically, one that shows events from Joanna’s perspective. Although the film – at Streep’s insistence – tries to avoid demonising her feminist desire for more in her life than cooking and cleaning, it still gives short shrift to her departure. With the film’s focus on the heart-warming relationship between father and son, it’s very hard not to implicitly see Joanna as first a selfish abandoner and then a hypocritical antagonist trying to steal Billy. There is little attempt to not stigmatise Joanna as, on some level, a bad parent.

For all the film opens with a long hard look at Joanna’s face, struggling with the conflict between her depression and leaving her beloved son, there is no real effort to explain or understand what motivates Joanna to do the things she does. There are some half-hearted justifications very late in the film, during its courtroom sequences – but these only dip lightly into any turmoil Joanna must have been feeling. Worst of all, it’s all presented as something Ted has to learn to “forgive” rather than understanding it was a crisis he played a role in causing.

The film’s main focus is on Ted learning to become a father. Ted is a classic workaholic dad of the 1970s. He stays late at the office boozing with his boss, has literally no idea about Billy’s everyday schedule and is so inept at home that cooking French toast is completely beyond him. He has no idea about how to enforce rules with Billy, alternating between showering him with ice cream to keep him quiet and then vainly trying to re-enforce rules. (In a great scene, Billy slowly and deliberately sees how far he can push these rules as he first refuses dinner, fetches ice cream from the freezer and then starts eating it, all while Ted lamely states “Don’t you dare do that” – it ends of course with mutual screams of “I hate you”.)

What Ted does is learn to become a parent. Or rather, learn how to become a 1970s mother – since it’s a joke made time again that he is the only man dropping his son off at school, taking him to the park or attending his school play. Benton’s film takes some decent pot shots at the poisonous masculine world of work, as Ted eventually loses his job for letting his single-minded focus shift towards his son – his boss offers no sympathy at all for a man whose mistakes are due to his distraction by “woman’s work”. And the Ted at the start of the film would have agreed.

The relationship between Hoffman and Henry is beautifully played, a gently paced but very naturally flourishing of love and acceptance between two people who have had their lives shattered in different ways. The Ted we met at the start could never have run several blocks to the emergency ward, carrying an injured Billy (shot with a one-take urgency by Benton) – and then point-blank refused the doctor’s suggestion he needn’t bother staying with his son while the wound is stitched up. That Ted wouldn’t have taught Billy to ride a bike or helped him learn his lines for the Halloween play. For all its dated attitudes at times, the film deserves praise for the way it stressed that men could – and should – be this involved in the lives of their children.

It should be noted that Hoffman, at the height of his method dickishness, smashed a glass in this scene without warning Streep he was going to do it - her shock was real. Hoffman also made Henry cry for camera at one point by telling him, when filming was done, he would never see any of his new 'friends' on the set again. You see now why he was perfect for Tootsie?

But it’s not perfect. The final act, with the return of Joanna, sees both parents gearing up for a paternity battle– and having watched Ted and Billy spend nearly an hour and 20 minutes build a heart-warming relationship, we know where our sympathies lie. Even at the time, lawyers denounced the viciousness and one-sided result of this court case, which seems inexplicable given these two parents live only a short-distance apart with similar salaries. Not that it matters as the film ends with a puff-piece Hollywood fiction moment, as Joanna bravely sacrifices her custody because she recognises she can’t take Billy from his home.

Of course, what the film doesn’t do is acknowledge that Joanna spent essentially seven years doing the sort of all-consuming parenting Ted has only just discovered in the last 18 months. Neither does it do much to avoid suggesting Ted taking these tasks on is an astonishing act of character, just as Joanna abandoning them is an act of calculated selfishness. That’s not to attack the obvious love Ted discovers for his son. He even – eventually – confesses to his son that Joanna’s leaving was his fault for taking her for granted. But the film is so taken-up with the (admittedly beautifully done) relationship between father and son, that it neglects any exploration of the wife and mother beyond her (twice) being a cataclysmic event in their lives.

But it’s a film of its time. And in trying to at least show a divorce where no one was too much at fault and stressing a father could be as much of a parent as a mother, it was trying to do a good thing – even if it sometimes looks like an elderly relative who clumsily says something offensive while trying hard to be open-minded. The three leads are superb and the film has some genuinely heart-warming moments. It looks more and more flawed at times today, but this was trying to do something very daring. And nothing dates worse than daring.

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

Chris Hemsworth takes on hunger, the sea and a very big whale In the Heart of the Sea

Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth (Owen Chase), Benjamin Walker (Captain George Pollard), Cillian Murphy (Matthew Joy), Tom Holland (Thomas Nickerson), Brendan Gleeson (Old Thomas Nickerson), Ben Whishaw (Herman Melville), Michele Fairley (Mrs Nickerson), Gary Beadle (William Bond), Frank Dillane (Owen Coffin), Charlotte Riley (Peggy Chase), Donald Sumpter (Paul Mason), Paul Anderson (Caleb Chappel), Joseph Mawle (Benjamin Lawrence), Edward Ashley (Barzillai Roy)

1820 and the world is run by oil. Not the sort you get out of the ground, but the sort you fish out of a whale’s corpse with a bucket. America is the leading exporter of whale oil and Nantucket is the centre of the industry. But it’s a dangerous business: as the crew of the Essex are about discover. Attacked by a whale, their ship sinks in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from land. Passed-over first officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and privileged captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) must set aside their differences to lead the survivors to safety. But starvation and desperation will lead those survivors to ever more desperate acts. All of this is told to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) by final living survivor Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland and Brendan Gleeson), and it all sounds like a perfect inspiration for that Big Whaling Book Melville wants to write.

That Melville framing device is a good place to start when reviewing the many problems of In the Heart of the Sea, Ron Howard’s misfiring attempt at a survivalist epic. When we should be consumed by concern at whether these men survive, the film keeps trying to get us care as much about whether Melville will write a novel worthy of Hawthorne. The clunky prologue eats up a good sixth of the film, and we keep cutting back for Gleeson to tell us things the script isn’t deft enough to show us. Worse, it keeps ripping us way from the survivalist story that should be film’s heart.

Howard should know this: he directed one of the best survival-against-the-odds films ever in Apollo 13. Maybe the difference is that Apollo 13 is, at heart, a hopeful story. In the Heart of the Sea is about grimy sailors in a trade the film can’t find any sympathy for, eventually drawing lots in a long boat to see who is going to get killed and eaten by the others. It’s the sort of thing Werner Herzog would (pardon the metaphor) eat up for breakfast. For Howard, a fundamentally optimistic film-maker, its an ill fit. No wonder he wants to end the film with the triumph of Moby Dick.

In the Heart of the Sea is the rare instance of a film that is too short. The narration keeps skipping over time jumps in the first hour, that means we don’t get invested in the characters (most of whom are barely distinguished from each other, especially as beards and wasted bodies become the uniform). The sinking doesn’t take place until almost an hour in the film, meaning the time we spend with them lost in boats is a mere 40 minutes or so.

That is nowhere long enough for us to get a sense of either the monotonous time or the ravages hunger and desperation have made. Difficult as that stuff is to film – and I can appreciate its hard to make five men sitting, dying slowly, in a boat visually interesting – it means the film is asking us to make a big leap when it goes in five minutes from the men leaving a stop on an abandoned island to regretfully slicing one of their party up for dinner. We need to really understand how desperation has led to this point, but the film keeps jumping forward, as if its impatient to get to it.

Understanding is a general problem in the film. It can’t get past the fact that, today, we don’t see whaling (rightly so) as a sympathetic trade. But to these men, plunging a harpoon into a whale wasn’t an act of barbarous evil. It was more than even just making a living: it was a noble calling. Several times the film makes feeble attempts to push its characters towards moral epiphanies which seem jarringly out of chase (would Owen Chase, a hardy whaler with multiple kills, really hold his hand when confronted with a whale he thinks is trying to kill him?). Clumsy parallels are drawn between the heartless corporate oil industry of today, and the ‘suits’ back at Nantucket who only care about the bottom line.

Without accepting that, to these men, striving out into the ocean to bring back whale oil was as glorious a cause as landing on the moon, the film struggles to make most of the earlier part of the film interesting. Hard to sympathise with the characters, when the film is holding their profession at a sniffy distance. The film even radically changes the future career of its hero, Owen Chase, claiming he joined the merchant navy and never whaled again (not remotely true).

On top of this, Howard doesn’t manage to make the act of sailing feel as real or as compelling as, say, Peter Weir did in Master and Commander. Everything has a slightly unconvincing CGI sheen. Strange fish-eyed lenses keep popping up zooming in on specific features of pulleys and sails (is it meant to be like a whale’s eye view?). The film never manages to really communicate the tasks taking place or the risks they carry. There is a feeble personality clash between Pollard and Chase that fills much of the second act of the film, but is written and acted with a perfunctory predictability that never makes it interesting.

You can’t argue with the commitment of everyone involved. The cast noticeably wasted themselves down to portray these starving dying men. But it all adds up to not a lot. Chris Hemsworth gives a constrained performance as Chase – his chiselled Hollywood bulk looks hideously out of place – while Cillian Murphy makes the most impact among the rest as his luckless best friend. But the film’s main failure is Howard’s inability to make us really feel every moment of these men’s agonising suffering and to really understand the desperation that drove them to lengths no man should go to. Eventually that only makes it a surprisingly disengaging experience.

Friday, 11 March 2022

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Daniel Day-Lewis triumphs in Paul Thomas Anderson's incomparable masterpiece There Will Be Blood

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Daniel Plainview), Paul Dano (Eli Sunday/Paul Sunday), Kevin J. O’Connor (Henry), Ciarán Hinds (Fletcher Hamilton), Dillon Fraser (HW Plainview), Russell Harvard (Adult HW Plainview), David Willis (Able Sunday), Hans Howes (William Brandy), Paul F. Tompkins (Prescott)

Citizen Kane’s original title was “American”. David Thomson observed perhaps there hasn’t been another film so deserving of that title until There Will Be Blood. This is one of those once-in-a-decade films, possibly the greatest American film of the twenty-first century and Anderson’s career-defining masterpiece. It’s a gripping exploration of what makes America tick, captured within the self-destructive greed and hunger for power of one man. It’s a stunning piece of work, a cast-iron masterpiece, that takes a stack of influences and reinvents them into something fresh, daring, bold and above all unrepeatably unique.

Adapted very loosely from Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil, the film follows thirty years in the life of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a misanthropic and fiercely ambitious empire-building oil man. Running a ‘family business’ with his adopted son HW (Dillon Fraser) – the boy’s father having been killed in a drilling accident – Plainview takes up a sea of leases across California. The film focuses on his exploitation of a rich seam under the community of Little Boston. A very religious community – dominated by the strong-willed Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), almost a mirror image of Plainview’s monomania – Little Boston becomes the setting for Plainview’s struggles with men and land, in a growing cacophony of drama that inevitably (as the title promises) builds towards an explosion.

Watching it you can see the inspirations. It reflects The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (which Anderson watched endlessly in preparation) in its chilling exploration of the impact of greed and Plainview is the grandfather of Charles Foster Kane. It’s set in a Fordian west, but filtered through the unique vision of Kubrick. But it’s not a slave to these: it’s a truly original work, an off-kilter epic, shot with a stunning beauty that’s half poetry, half gothic horror by Robert Elswit. It sounds like no film ever made, a deeply unsettling score that mixes discordant rhythm and baroque-inspired strings by Johnny Greenwood.

And it has two geniuses at its centre. Anderson, a director best known for large-scale ensemble pieces, inverts his style to focus on one single misanthropic force of nature, a man who sees people as only tools or rivals. His film hits every note from near silent-cinema expressionism, to Grand Guignol fever-dream intensity. It’s shot with an all-consuming urgency, long-takes of fluid camera movement, mixed with interrogative still shots. The film digs itself into your soul, takes hold and doesn’t let go. It’s at times as darkly funny, as it is horrifyingly bleak. No one else could have made it.

And no one else could have played Plainview. If There Will Be Blood cemented Anderson as one of the leading directors of the early 21st century, it confirmed Day-Lewis as the era’s greatest actor. Day-Lewis is beyond superb here: this is the sort of, epoch defining performance you see only a few times in your life. Hunched forward, like a man constantly on the move, dark eyes gleaming and his voice a malevolently rolling John-Huston inspired baritone, Day-Lewis makes Plainview a misanthropic monster. He’s articulate, instinctive and destructive. Achieving his dreams only makes him even more inhuman and bitter. And Day-Lewis makes clear the stunted, half-grown creature under the skin of the confident businessman.

It’s clear he’s desperately lonely, but seemingly only has enough humanity in him for one relationship at a time – even then, people still must serve a purpose. HW – and later Henry, the man who arrives on his land claiming to be his brother (a wonderful inscrutable performance from Kevin J O’Connor) – become props in the family business. Plainview reaches out to them for emotional connection, but it’s all one way. When an accident robs the young HW of his hearing, Plainview is incapable of caring for him – he treats the deafness like a betrayal. He banishes HW, just as he will banish and punish all those who he sees as betraying him, including Henry. There isn’t a scene that doesn’t have a piece of performative magic from Day-Lewis.

Alongside this genius, Anderson’s subject is America. It’s a stunning exploration of how capitalism, greed and an insatiable hunger for more – be it money, land, power or anything else worth a jot of value – has shaped the country. Plainview is the dark soul of pioneering American entrepreneurial spirit, obsessed to the elimination of anything else, with accumulation. Oil is the life blood of the country, God’s own gift of power wrapped in a dangerous black liquid. It’s pumping through the country’s soil, and to control it is to control the country’s circulation. It’s Plainview’s faith – and it’s the faith of all these men forging an empire out of the ground, motivated by the desire for more. It’s partly why the film is so focused on men – because it’s always grasping men like this, titans of industry, who shape the dark soul of our civilisation.

Nothing will please Plainview until he controls all around him, confessing in a quiet moment (there are no words for how brilliantly unrepentant, yet also strangely regretful Day-Lewis is in this underplayed scene) that he has “a competition within him. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” Like the country itself, he has forged himself from nothing through naught but will-power and a determination to never know failure. There Will Be Blood argues that, much as we might want to think otherwise, America is built on the backs of men like Plainview – monsters with the vision and determination to turn a desert into a city.

God himself has no place in these calculations. Anderson contrasts the obsessive sweat of Plainview with the dogmatic and vainglorious Christianity of Eli Sunday (a brilliantly weasly Paul Dano). Eli’s church is a haven of evangelistic worship and showmanship, which Plainview immediately finds disgusting (does he recognise another expert peddler of bullshit?). Eli has a moral arrogance and as much as a desire to control as Plainview, and the battle that grows between these two for dominance not only shows the ruthlessness of both men, but also reflects the struggle between religious obligation and Mammon that has run through America’s history.

The rivalry between the two men revolves around three crucial confrontations. Having effectively robbed valuable land from Eli’s family for a pittance, Plainview then humiliates Eli, forcing him head first into the mud, refusing to allow him any influence over his dig. Eli’s revenge comes in spades: controlling a vital piece of land for Plainview’s pipeline, he demands Plainview comes to his church to be rebaptised. The resulting scene sees him goad, provoke and demean Plainview for his sins, forcing Plainview into a series of humiliating confessions (both actors are earth-shakingly brilliant).

Their final reckoning closes the film – and is both its most controversial and overblown sequence. Jumping forward fifteen years, to Plainview’s sprawling mansion (where Day-Lewis has become a dishevelled hermit, his misanthropy unchecked and his victories only confirming his loathing of humanity) it’s the famous ‘milkshake’ scene, played with the sort of OTT intensity only Day-Lewis could risk and which the film has carefully built us towards accepting. Blood-dripped in a Kubrickian setting of a bowling alley, it’s the final expression of two men’s mutual hatred and views of a world – Eli’s that it owes him something for his faith, Plainview’s that he controls it through will alone.

Only a film that has built on such firm grounding of escalating tension and excess could make such a scene a success. This is a film that starts with a near-silent 15 minutes, of Plainview hammering with a pickaxe obsessively in the belly of the country’s soil. It ends – after a long journey that has seen Plainview wheedle, steal, bully and grasp – with him entombed again, this time in his mausoleum of a home, no daylight allowed and the air filled with Plainview’s hate-filled rants. Along the way, we’ve seen the plains of California as a place of dreamy beauty, marshalled to the will of one man to control all around him, scenes of striking beauty and haunting intensity.

There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece, an inspired parable for American history, a showcase for one of the greatest actors of his generation to redefine his craft and a marvel of character study, epic vision and haunting lyricism from its director. There is not a false note in it and it stands towering as a landmark in American film history. The greatest American film of the 2000s? Possibly yes.

Wednesday, 9 March 2022

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey take a wild tour through mind and memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Director: Michel Gondry
Cast: Jim Carrey (Joel Barish), Kate Winslet (Clementine Kruczynski), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Svevo), Mark Ruffalo (Stan Fink), Elijah Wood (Patrick Wertz), Tom Wilkinson (Dr Howard Mierzwiak), Jane Adams (Carrie Eakin), David Cross (Rob Eakin), Dierdre O’Connell (Hollis Mierzwiak)

What makes us who we are? If it’s anything, it might just be the sum total of our experiences. The events of our lives, and the emotions they cause in us, shape and define us. If we cut some of them away, what would we be? Is losing painful memories worth it, if we also cut away memories we cling to as treasured possessions? What makes us love someone: instinct or the sum total of our memories with them? Ideas around this and how love works are at the centre of Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s extraordinarily inventive, imaginative but also romantic and heartfelt Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a truly original film crammed with rewarding moments.

Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) wants to make-up with his electric but troubled girlfriend Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). Imagine his pain when he goes to see her and she seems not to recognise him – and how much worse that might be when he discovers Clementine has erased him from her memory. An experimental surgery, Lacuna, run by Dr Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), offers its clients an unmatchable service: they will erase a person from your memory. Struggling to get over the loss of a partner, wife, friend, child or even dog? No problem, they’ll be gone from your mind and you never need worry about their memory causing you pain again.

Hurt and angry, Joel decides to undergo the same surgery to forget Clementine. While the procedure takes place over night – supervised by techs Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Stan’s girlfriend (and Dr Mierzwiak hero-worshipper) Mary (Kirsten Dunst) – Joel comes to realise in his sub-conscious that he doesn’t want his memory stripped of Clementine. The cost of losing so many good memories isn’t worth it. In his sub conscious he tries to protect his memories – while in the real world the team battle to complete their contract and erase them.

Not many films like that are there? Gondry’s film could have been a slave to its concept. Instead though, it manages to juggle its deeper meanings with a truly heartfelt, winning and very sweet human story about two people who, for all their faults, become people you completely invest in. Kaufman’s script, as you would expect, triumphs as a complex and inventive magic tour but it’s also a wonderfully placed romance and heartfelt relationship story. Effectively the film manages to have something for everyone to invest in, from sci-fi nerds to lovers of romcoms to philosophy students.

It’s also a triumph of style. Set largely in Joel’s mind, the film reflects the fractured nature of the surgery as his memories are assaulted, deconstructed and destroyed. Lights fade, buildings disassemble and disappear, faces melt away from bodies and memories start to crash into each other. In his mind Joel walks through a door in a library to find himself on a beach, or rounds a corner to find himself back in his childhood memories. All of this is filmed with a series of stunning in-camera effects that make characters disappear, duplicate or seem to be in several places at once, all shot in a series of one-take effects that sees buildings disappear in front of us or fascinating memory loops. Visually the film is a feast, a tribute to Gondry’s playful imagination.

But it sticks with people because of the heart at the centre of it. Joel and Clementine become people we care about. We root for Joel to defy the odds and preserve some of his memory. Because, the film makes clear, being consciously aware of his memories being deleted is basically like going through the pain of losing her a second time – only this time knowing you won’t even be left with the parts you want to hold onto. In fact – re-enforced by the distress we see in Clementine when we see her undergoing the panic of being subconsciously aware of memory loss in the real world – Joel’s horror of what he has asked for is likely what all the other patients of Lacuna’s ‘brain damage for your own good’ surgery have gone through.

Superbly played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in cast-well-against-type performances, Joel and Clementine might at times be selfish, frustrating, even irritating people – but it’s clear their love for each other is real. Jim Carrey, dialling down his gonzo mania to an unprecedented degree, is perfect as the shy and gentle Joel, bewitched by this explosive presence in his life. Winslet is electric – cranky, brittle, damaged but also caring and playful. Kaufman’s film shows they hurt and snap at each other, but also that they bring each other happiness they can’t get anywhere else.

So, it comes back to that question: do we accept that part of the price of loving and living is pain? That the people who we love the most, are the ones that may also hurt us the most. The film is also clear that love can’t be forced or replicated. In the ‘real world’ Clementine is being wooed by Elijah Wood’s creepily needy techie, using his records of her romantic memories of Joel to replicate their special moments. The falseness of this isn’t a remote match for the true emotion of the real event: and it’s a testament to the film’s commitment that you can’t forge or force love, and that eventually it might just find a way.

Because, even without our memories, will we still be drawn towards the same people? Can love in fact survive, even if you don’t know who the person who love is anymore? It’s another fascinating thread in this film. Romantic couples throughout find themselves drawn to each other continually, a subconscious emotion surviving the purging of actual memories. It adds even more to the horrific trauma of seeing what’s happening to Joel here. His obvious distress as he realises the implications of what he rashly asked for – and there is plenty of suggestion Clementine feels the same – gets worse and worse as he realises he has signed away his own rights to decide who he loves.

Those ethical questions – is it even possible to make an informed decision here about lobotomizing your memory – mix with those philosophical questions of what makes us what we are. Will Joel and Clementine be the same people or not after this operation? How will they adjust to losing such a hugely important part of their histories? Especially as they won’t even know that they have. Kaufman’s script explores this all carefully, but never once losing track of the emotional story driving it.

So Eternal Sunshine becomes a touching love story, about two people going to huge ends against impossible odds to stay together. That, I think, is what lies behind its appeal. What makes it one of the most lasting films of the 00s is the invention and flair the story is told with – Gondry’s direction and its non-linear structure all only add to the fabulous script from Kaufman and Gondry – and the way it very lightly tackles a whole host of fascinating ideas while never losing track of its nature as an entertainment. It’s a brilliant film.

Saturday, 5 March 2022

Grand Hotel (1932)

Greta Garbo and John Barrymore are just two of the all-star guests staying at Grand Hotel

Director: Edmund Goulding
Cast: Greta Garbo (Grusinskaya), John Barrymore (Baron Felix von Gaigern), Joan Crawford (Flaemmchen), Wallace Beery (General Director Preysing), Lionel Barrymore (Otto Kringelein), Lewis Stone (Dr Otternschlag), Jean Hersholt (Head Porter Senf), Morgan Wallace (Chauffeur)

Grand Hotel: “People coming, going. Nothing ever happens”. Of course, despite those opening remarks by war-scarred veteran and permanent resident Dr Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), nothing could be further from the truth. In this, one of the first “All-Star-Extravaganzas” (every MGM mega-star in one movie!) the eponymous Berlin hotel is the host to an ocean of drama over the course of one twenty-four hour period. Scooping an Oscar for Best Picture (setting a surely-never-to-be-equalled record of being the only Best Picture winner to only be nominated in that category), Grand Hotel was a huge hit, and great-big-old-fashioned soapy fun.

Confidently directed by Edmund Goulding, the film threads together its plots very effectively, moving smoothly from star-to-star. The five stars take up nearly 90% of the dialogue just by themselves (with all those egos there wasn’t time for anyone else to have so much as a line) but what stars: three then-and-future Oscar winners and two legends in John Barrymore and Garbo.

Each of them has more than enough to sink their teeth into. Garbo is a maudlin ballerina, teetering on the edge of depression, who falls in love with Raffles-like jewellery thief Baron von Gaigern (John Barrymore). The penniless Baron – who steals to live – befriends Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), a deceptively spry old-man, actually suffering from a terminal disease, using his savings to see how the other half lives. Kringelein’s former employer Preysing (Wallace Beery) is desperately trying to negotiate a merger to save his job. His stenographer is would-be-actress-part-time-glamour-model Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), who is flirting with the Baron and also befriends Kringelein. Inevitalby there are life-changing consequences.

If you are a sucker for grand, soapy, old-fashioned drama like this, you’ll find much to enjoy in Grand Hotel. The plots it peddles were pretty cliched and predictable even then, but they are delivered by a series of stars at the top of the game who invest the film with every inch of their glamour. They make the hodge-podge of stories work rather well, and the film even manages to pull out a late shock death that’s genuinely a surprise, both in its suddenness and brutality.

But then Grand Hotel is a pre-code film, so it’s not afraid to acknowledge sex exists and violence has nasty consequences. Crawford’s Flaemmchen is a confirmed flirt, not ashamed to accept an invitation to an ‘adjoining’ room with Preysing to secure her job. Neither is the supremely sexy Crawford (light, winning and possibly the best thing in the film) afraid to all but proposition the Baron. Not surprisingly Crawford was worried more censorious States would cut large parts of her role (she was right). But sex still runs through Grand Hotel: the Baron creeps into Grusinskaya’s room to rob here, and ends up sharing the night (and certainly not in separate beds).

As Grusinskaya, Greta Garbo gets possibly her most iconic line (“I want to be alone”) though her matinee idol pose-striking at times more than a little artificial today. However, what does come across is the power of her personality as a performer (like Marlene Dietrich at this time, there is something utterly fascinating about her). In other hands, the role (with its pity-me dialogue giving way to flashes of youthful, passionate abandon) would look a bit silly, but Garbo makes the whole thing work though force of personality alone.

She’s well matched with John Barrymore at the height of his powers as America’s greatest actor. Barrymore has a matinee idol swishness here, a relaxed romanticism that always makes us sympathise with him, even though he’s a self-confessed liar, cheat and thief. This gentlemen thief may be penniless, but he’s far from ruthless: he treats Kringelein with respect, is genuine in his feelings for Grusinskaya (although his repeated assurances that he will definitely make it the train station to meet her tomorrow is enough of a flag that something is bound to go wrong) and despises the bullying Preysing.

As Preysing, Wallace Beery plays the only unsympathetic character (naturally, despite the film’s German setting, he’s the only one with a Teutonic accent) with a bravado that dances just-this-side of OTT. By contrast, Lionel Barrymore (brother to John – and its very nice seeing these two play so many scenes together) is the film’s heart as a sweet, gentle and endearing old man who is just delighted to be living the dream, even if only for a few days.

It’s all shot in a revolutionary 360° set. The hotel foyer, where the film opens, was one of the first completely constructed sets (many films before constructed their sets like traditional proscenium theatre sets) and Goulding’s camera takes advantage of this in the opening sequence by moving fluidly in a series of long takes that introduces each character and sees them first interacting with each other. There are some other striking images, including a Jason Bourneish wall climb John Barrymore’s Baron carries out to bridge the gap between one balcony and another – although many of the scenes in hotel rooms go for traditional straight-on set-ups.

The film is focused on being a grand entertainment – and, to be honest, little more. Perhaps that’s why, despite being set in Berlin in 1932, there is no mention of any events in the country at that time. Even more surprisingly, there is no mention of the depression – despite it surely being a major factor in Preysing’s desperation, the Baron’s loss of his wealth and Flaemmchen’s need for a job. But that would add weight to a film that wants a light, fun tone. Grand Hotel has inspired a legion of Mills and Boon style stories. It might look an odd Best Picture, but it’s had plenty of influence.

French Connection II (1975)

Gene Hackman goes straight to the source in French Connection II

Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Gene Hackman (Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle), Fernando Rey (Alain Charnier), Bernard Fresson (Inspector Henri Barthélémy), Philippe Léotard (Jacques), Ed Lauter (General Brian), Charles Millot (Miletto), Jean-Pierre Castali (Raoul Diron), Cathleen Nesbitt (Old Lady)

Did The French Connection really need a sequel? Friedkin’s original was a self-contained gem, based on a true story, that even ends with a series of “what happened next” captions. But there was enough of a foot in the door for a completely fictionalised resolution to fates left hanging. French Connection II has some similarities with the original, but it’s also a slight film caught even more obviously than the first between documentary realism and trigger-happy actioner.

The whole film feels like it has been assembled in a rush. The plot is incredibly slight. “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) arrives in Marseilles to help the police track drug kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Doyle doesn’t speak a word of French and charges around pissing everyone off and generally making a nuisance of himself. He grabbed off the streets by Charnier’s men. To get him to talk they spend weeks force-feeding him heroin until he’s hooked then cut off his supply. They then return him to the Marseilles police who lock him in a cell and help him go cold turkey. When he comes out if Popeye wasn’t mad before, he certainly is now.

That (long) sequence of heroin addiction and painful cold turkey is one of two things that really makes Frankenheimer’s sequel stand out. I think it must be what attracted Hackman to the film. Not only did the liberal Hackman (troubled by Doyle’s slight neo-fascism in the first film) probably enjoy the idea of seeing this guy hit rock bottom, it’s also an opportunity for an acting tour-de-force. Hackman is probably given more challenging material in this largely forgotten sequel than in his actual Oscar-winning role.

Weaned onto the drugs: Hackman’s body language shifts from defiant resistance to despondent, dope-strewn lethargy until he can’t be bothered to record the passing of days any more in his tally chart. He goes from being cuffed and dragged around, to blankly following his captors and rolling up his sleeve to accept another shot. But that’s nothing compared to the cold turkey scenes.

Locked up in a dingy cell under the police station (the French police being worried about taking the blame and also feeling a brotherhood with this fellow cop), Doyle goes through withdrawal – anger, bargaining and eventual grief – in a series of calmly shot, claustrophobic scenes that let Hackman let rip. And he certainly does, deconstructing this proud man’s self-image until he’s a weeping mess, kicking doors, throwing food around and so full of self-loathing, he can barely face himself. It’s hard to watch, and something truly unique – a twisted punishment for a drugs cop and a man who defines himself by his lack of reliance for anyone or anything else.

This long sequence takes up the centre of the film – and includes an equally difficult scene to watch, as Frankenheimer stages in (a single take) forensic detail the French police’s pumping of Doyle’s stomach to get a final (deadly) overdose out of his system. It’s quite unlike anything else I’ve seen before in a cops and robbers shoot-em-up (which is what most of the rest of the film, at heart, is) and you can guarantee it’s the one thing people will remember.

The other element that stands out is Frankenheimer’s – a long time Francophile – ability to shoot Marseilles not as a tourist destination, but a strikingly real urban environment. On top of this anti-picture-postcard environment, he stresses Doyle’s isolation. None of the French dialogue in the film is translated, leaving us as stranded as Doyle is in trying to understand what is going on and what people are saying. Doyle clumsily pantomimes for everything he wants, be that information from a suspect (he tries his toe-picking line to no effect what-so-ever) to a drink in a bar (a long exchange until he finally reaches an understanding with the barman on “whiskey”). Doyle, of course, has made no effort to learn any French and blunders about in a city he doesn’t understand, ruining operations and getting himself and others in trouble.

Aside from these moments though – and despite the film being well shot by Frankenheimer, with a nice continuation of the original’s drained out neo-realism – this is otherwise a conventional and unimaginative film that ticks a number of expected boxes. It has an action set-piece at a dry dock that feels unreal (and also copies  the central idea of the car smuggling operation from the first film) and concludes in a chase and shoot-out that’s almost a copy of the original’s ending – with an ending even more sudden. For all Frankenheimer’s love of France, the film still has a suspicion for Europeans – be they smooth criminals or obstructive cops.

French Connection II tries a couple of different things, but never really makes a case for itself as a truly stand-alone film. It’s main rivalry between the hero and villain is dependent on having seen the first film and its slender plot veers into the sort of shoot-outs and set-pieces that don’t feel remotely like they are occurring in a ‘real’ world. It deserves credit for the bravery and honesty of its cold turkey sequence, but it’s a sequence caught in a film that otherwise offers little that’s truly unique.

Friday, 4 March 2022

As Good As It Gets (1997)

Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt spark off each other in James L. Brook's sit-com style set-up As Good As It Gets

Director: James L Brooks
Cast: Jack Nicholson (Melvin Udall), Helen Hunt (Carol Connelly), Greg Kinnear (Simon Bishop), Cuba Gooding Jnr (Frank Sachs), Skeet Ulrich (Vincent Lopiano), Shirley Knight (Beverly Connelly), Jesse James (Spencer Connelly), Yeardley Smith (Jackie Simpson), Harold Ramis (Dr Martin Bettes)

Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is the rude, misanthropic writer of Mills and Boon style novels who suffers from an OCD that sees him keep to a strict series of routines. One of the most important is always having breakfast at the same table of the same restaurant, where the only waitress who will serve him is Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt). Carol is caring for her young son Spencer, who suffers from chronic asthma. All starts to change when the homophobic Melvin is persuaded to look after the dog of his neighbour, gay artist Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), after he is assaulted during a robbery. Melvin finds himself getting closer to the dog – and before he knows it, starts to reluctantly build a friendship with Simon and a romantic relationship with Carol.

If you thought that sounds rather like the set-up for a sitcom… you’d basically be right. James L Brooks demonstrates his TV roots again with what could almost be an extended pilot for a TV series, shot with his characteristic functionality. While its an attempt to show how different people can struggle to overcome barriers to connect with other – be those psychological, social or health caused – it squeezes this into a trope-filled plot set-up, that swims in sentimentality and gives opportunities for actors to enjoy scenery-chewing, attention-grabbing parts.

None more so than Jack Nicholson, winning his third Oscar as Melvin. To be honest, what Nicholson does he is essentially portray a less complex version of Victor Meldrew from One Foot in the Grave. Melvin is a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and delights in using his wealth to excuse him from saying a host of unacceptable things about everyone he meets (not a single gender, sexuality or race escapes his quick-witted bile).

Of course, the audiences know that it’s alright because it’s Jack, and while he might be a rogue he’s basically got his heart in the right place. Discovering that is basically the purpose of the film: of course, all that rudeness and cruelty is a front to protect an insecure man from the dangers of emotional commitment. Not to mention that the first thing to melt his shell is that most familiar (and sweet) of Hollywood props, a dog. Brooks does manage to demonstrate that Jack’s acts of are at first partly about making life easy for himself – securing an expensive doctor for Carol’s son is about ensuring she doesn’t leave his restaurant and agrees to keep talking to him – but the film is determined to show everyone is basically “decent” and “kind” even if they don’t know it.

Inevitably, the best way of doing this is for that familiar old development, the road trip: for contrived reasons connected to Simon needing to ask his parents in Baltimore for help with medical bills, Melvin, Carol and Simon climb into a car for a cross-country drive. Needless to say, the predictable clashes, confessions, break-ups and reconciliations take place. It being a Brooks movie, this all takes place over an extended two and a half hour run time (indulgent for such a traditional set-up).

What makes it work is that the acting of the three principles is fiercely committed. Oscar-winning Nicholson eats up the cutting dialogue but also manages to mine a lot of “little boy lost” vulnerability from Melvin, a man who throws up barriers of rudeness, aggression and misanthropy to protect himself from getting hurt. Helen Hunt (who won another Oscar) hones years of experience in delivering fast-paced, witty dialogue from Mad About You, also shows real depth making Carol a similarly guarded person, using sass and cynicism as a shield against a world she expects to bite her. Greg Kinnear is a fragile artist, hiding behind his art, tortured by denial about his problems and desperate for an emotional connection.

That theme of the defensive barriers – and crippling effects of our own mental hang-ups – is the deeper theme that Brooks manages to bring to the film. Melvin might seem, on the surface, the most obviously maladjusted but at least he’s vaguely happy in his skin at the start of the film. The other characters wear smiles of contentment, but only to hide deep stress and turmoil. It’s Brooks’ TV roots that turns all this into a series of “learning” lessons, where every scene in the final act is accompanied by someone making a profound choice, making a new start or letting something go.

As Good As It Gets is about making the best of things. And Brooks makes a pretty good fist of making this a decent (overlong) romantic comedy with a touch of depth. But its still mired in predictable tropes. Melvin’s OCD expresses itself in the most amusing filmic way possible, essentially as a form of charming eccentricity rather than the crippling disease it can actually be (it ticks all the predictable boxes, from light-switches, to compulsive hand cleaning to not stepping on cracks in the pavement). The film also, rather worryingly, suggests OCD can be overcome just like any other personality problem, simply by opening your heart and learning those lessons.

It’s fine, but you can watch it now and wonder how a film that’s essentially an over-extended dramedy TV-show pilot ended up scooping so many prizes. Entertaining, with some interesting perspectives, with committed acting, but very little that’s new and a lot that’s rather tired.

The French Connection (1971)

Gene Hackman is a ruthless, obsessed cop (is there any other type in the movies?) in The French Connection

Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Gene Hackman (Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle), Fernando Rey (Alain Charnier – “Frog One”), Roy Scheider (Detective Buddy “Cloudy” Russo), Tony Lo Bianco (Salvatore Boca), Marcel Bozzuffi (Pierre Nicoli – “Frog Two”), Frédéric de Pasquale (Henri Devereaux), Bill Hickman (FBI Agent Bill Mulderig), Ann Rebbot (Marie Charnier), Harold Gray (Joel Weinstock), Arlene Faber (Angie Boca), Eddie Egan (Captain Walt Simonson), Sonny Grosso (FBI Agent Clyde Klein)

Cops and criminals: do they have more in common than we’d like to think? In Friedkin’s Oscar-winning The French Connection, the lead cop and criminal are both obsessive, single-mindedly ruthless and locked into a cycle of actions that isn’t going to be change with one big bust. Look at them in isolation and its hard to tell at times which is which: the French drug dealer is a suave cosmopolitan type, unfailingly cultured and polite, but remorseless; the cop is a border-line racist and narcissist who doesn’t give two hoots about collateral damage, kills without remorse and whose life is one of tunnel-visioned obsession.

Based on a true-story – the model for Doyle, Eddie Egan, has a cameo playing his own boss – the film covers the arrival in New York of French heroin dealers, led by Alan Charnier (Fernando Rey) looking to make a killing with their prime product. Opposite them is narcotics officer Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), who’s practically the dictionary definition of anti-hero. Doyle and Charnier engage in a battle of wits and force across New York during one blisteringly cold few days in Winter, and never mind who gets in the way.

The French Connection is about masculinity, and that no matter what many men don’t like to lose. Getting beat is certainly the main concern for Doyle, who I’m not sure has ever really thought twice about the impact of drugs (he’d be just as passionate chasing down coca-cola or stamps if you banned those). Neither has Charnier, with his reassured cool of old Colonial Europe, which just knows better than the nouveau Americans. (there is an underlying subversive fear of America being undermined by this suspiciously metropolitan Frenchman, the country’s bets defence being a loud-mouthed, son of the streets).

Played superbly by Gene Hackman, Doyle is presented as a man we are invited to make up our own mind about. He’s obviously an effective detective and he doesn’t just go the extra mile: the job is a night-and-day obsession. He’ll spend hours pounding the streets, staking out a hotel on a rainy street, walk miles tailing a subject and barely spend a minute off-duty. He’ll also drive cars wildly though crowded streets, shoot a man in the back, rough-up suspects and treat others with an abrupt anger, xenophobia or both. As a model for the society he’s sworn to protect, he’s a disgrace – but is he the effective agent of crime-fighting we need?

Friedkin’s film largely aims to present Doyle as he is, within its documentary realism – although I’d argue the film repeatedly looks at his commitment and never-say-quit-energy with barely veiled admiration. The film is assembled with an on-the-streets immediacy reminiscent of The Battle of Algiers – added to by the casting of many non-actors in key roles. It’s shot with a drained-out series of muted colours (even more drained-out in Friedkin’s egotistical blu-ray remastering). All shot on location, it captures the slummy flavour of the rougher ends of New York. Right from the off, we see Doyle and Russo roughing up an informer in something between a slum and building site (including the famous “do you pick your toes in Poughkeepsie” exchange, a classic bit of psychological messing with criminals – incidentally check out Scheider trying not to corpse as Hackman roars through this.)

The investigation proceeds with a muted sense of grounded realism. There is a lot of time-consuming following, watching and taking notes. Word is picked up by informers. Careful surveillance work fills out the gang and its members. Doyle is constantly frustrated by bureaucratic demands, not to mention turf-war squabbles with the FBI (who, in addition, think he might be next door to a dirty cop which is pretty fair). Similarly, the criminals go through careful negotiations around timing, testing the purity of the goods and working out the best way of dodging the cops.

Friedkin’s film is so wrapped up in a perfect “slice of life” documentary realism shell, that it gets away with much of the second half being a piece of pure filmic flair. First and foremost is its famous car-chase set-piece. Narrowly surviving an assassination attempt from “Frog Two”, Doyle requisitions a car and hares through the streets of New York at 90mph trying to beat the elevated train “Frog Two” is escaping on, to the next station. In this superbly cut sequence, Friedkin pioneers the sort of low-angled front bumper shots that would be a staple of car chases for years to come. It’s pounding, gripping and brilliantly assembled, a raw slice of action that uses the film’s documentary style to trick you into thinking it’s something akin to the realism elsewhere.

But it’s a bit of filmic fantasy – and wouldn’t be out of place in Dirty Harry, the other 1971 film about a morally-complex cop. Doyle is certainly a less attractive person than Callahan – with no real moral feelings just a love of winning. Winning is what motivates him in this car chase: he has little interest in questioning the shooter (who has, to be fair, taken out several civilians, including a mother of a young baby) or preserving public safety and way more about getting revenge. He tears through the streets, sending civilians flying, scares Frog Two into killing two more people and finally caps it by shooting his unarmed would-be-killer in the back after a cursory warning. (Not the first time he’ll pull the trigger after only the most slender of warnings).

Winning is all that matters though. Charnier is just as bad. He ruthlessly exploits a patsy and has no concerns about bodies piling up. Fernando Rey’s impish smile and campily cool little wave to Doyle through the subway doors, after he has managed to shake him off in a marvellous sequence in a subway station, is all about enjoying a smug triumph. No wonder Doyle repeats the same gesture to him late in the film when the tables are turned.

It’s the way Friedkin’s film mostly doesn’t ask us to blindly root for Doyle that really makes it stand out. In many ways the film is less exciting – or even less intriguing a character study – than Dirty Harry. It uses its documentary realism heavily at times, to justify showing the sort of shocking, exploitative material (at one point, the camera lingers on the incidental victims at a car crash scene at distasteful length) that you would expect to find in Dirty Harry or Shaft. What Friedkin’s euro-inspired style – and Hackan’s committed playing – managed to do was make itself feel like it was making a higher artistic statement than those films, which played a much more conventional hand.

That and the sense that nothing has really changed. Early in the film Doyle and Russo charge into a bar – a bar by the way with an entirely black clientele, who Doyle delights in abusing – to seize whatever drugs people seem to have on them. It’s a basic clean-up and shakedown – but hours later you can be sure it will be look nothing happened there. Similarly, the film’s end credits reveal all involved basically dodged charges (except for the patsy for the smuggling of course), while the cops got transferred. We’ve got one small win at the cost of the lives of at least five lives.

I seem to change my mind on The French Connection every time I see it. Sometimes I think it’s not that different from a host of other police actioners released at the same time (add Bullit to that list). At others, I get gripped by its edgy mise-en-scene and Friedkin’s challenges to conventional morality. And I guess, a film that can make you switch your mind constantly, should be seen as some sort of classic.

Thursday, 3 March 2022

Death on the Nile (2022)

Another all-star cast saddles up for Kenneth Branagh's fateful cruise down the Nile

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot), Tom Bateman (Bouc), Annette Bening (Euphemia Bouc), Russell Brand (Linus Windlesham), Ali Fazal (Andrew Katchadurian), Dawn French (Mrs Bowers), Gal Gadot (Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle), Armie Hammer (Simon Doyle), Rose Leslie (Louise Bourget), Emma Mackey (Jacqueline de Bellefort), Sophie Okonedo (Salome Otterbourne), Jennifer Saunders (Marie van Schuyler), Letitia Wright (Rosalie Otterbourne)

The tradition of luscious, all-star Agatha Christie adaptations continues. Following his successful 2017 Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh’s Poirot follow-up Death on the Nile finally makes it to the screen. I say finally, because this film has been sitting on a Covid-related shelf for so long that Branagh conceived, wrote, shot, edited, released and won awards for Belfast in the meantime. Death on the Nile is a much less personal film than that one, but is still an interesting (if flawed) re-imagining of Christie’s Belgian detective.

Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) are getting married and honeymooning in Egypt. Problem is, six weeks earlier Simon was engaged to Linnet’s old friend Jacqueline de Belfort (Emma Mackey), who has not taken being jilted well and is stalking the couple throughout their honeymoon. Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is invited to join the bash by old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), one of a host of wedding guests on a private cruise down the Nile on luxury steamer The Karnak. But Jacqueline gatecrashes the cruise and murder strikes. With almost every passenger having a motive, will Poirot manage to unpick a case that becomes a painfully personal one?

Branagh’s Death on the Nile film has many of the same flaws and strengths of his previous Poirot epic. Shot on 70mm, it’s almost excessively beautiful. In fact, the film has such a chocolate box, Sunday-afternoon feel it frequently looks almost too perfect in its blisteringly blue skies and CGI Egyptian backdrop. It’s very clear that we’re expected to wallow as much in the costumes, sightseeing and 30s glamour as the mystery. In that way at least it's pretty close to the 1978 Ustinov version.

Fortunately, the mystery is one of Christie’s finest and its execution is handled fairly deftly. The plot is pretty faithful, although most of the character traits of the passengers are reshuffled and reassigned to create interesting new set-ups. (For example, a rich kleptomaniac takes on instead the socialist passions of a secret nobleman who instead takes the medical qualifications of a third character. Elsewhere a character is split in two into Okonedo’s jazz singer and Bening’s rich amateur painter). The insertion of the Bouc character from Murder on the Orient Express carries across an relationship that the film richly develops to give the case a greater personal impact for Poirot.

But the film, like the first, is as much a Poirot-centric character study as it is a murder mystery. It’s easy to snigger at an opening sequence which, while handsomely done and including an impressively digitally de-aged Branagh, serves as a “moustache origins” story (Poirot grew it to hide his physical and emotional scars from WW1). But it’s a launching point for an interesting exploration of Poirot’s emotional hinterland and monk-like abstinence from attachment. A particularly rich opportunity, considering the murder’s roots are in exactly the sort of all-consuming love Poirot has denied himself. It also pays off in the film’s final sequence, with clear evidence that events have led to Poirot permanently re-evaluating and changing his character.

As in the previous film, Branagh plays this with a winning mix of comedy and larger-than-life prissiness but also manages to utilise his eyes very effectively to suggest the emotion and pain his Poirot keeps firmly under the surface. The later sections of the film see Branagh play a level of overt pain that we’ve not really seen other Poirots display in the past. Expanding the character still further beyond the focused, retentive, distanced detective of Christie’s original, this is also a Poirot who expresses shame, regret and (bashfully) a schoolboy-style crush.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is a more mixed bag – who would have thought Russell Brand would be not only one of the more restrained, but also one of the most quietly affecting? Tom Bateman is excellent as Bouc, full of joie de vivre and later wounded, pained innocence. Brit audiences can enjoy the joke of French and Saunders playing a pair of closeted ageing lesbians. Letitia Wright is fairly good as a headstrong young woman in love. Other members of the cast engage in a scenery chewing competition, roundly won by Sophie Okonedo as a rollingly accented blues singer with most of the best lines, while Bening and Fazal struggle to bring life to their characters.

For the principal love triangle, the film suffers under the unfortunate issue of Armie Hammer’s fall-from-grace (guess he’s never going to become that star I wrote once he was destined to become). Even without that, Hammer seems oddly constrained by his British accent and fails to bring any life or passion to the role, not helped by a complete lack of chemistry with Gal Gadot who seems hopelessly at sea, trapped in flat line readings and odd bits of business. Emma Mackey by far-and-away comes out best as a young woman dripping with danger and obsession.

It’s a shame Branagh’s film constantly seems to shoot itself in the foot. Must be easy to do, since the boat is awash with guns (everyone seems to have one!) – so much so the final reveal is bungled into a three-way Mexican stand-off that completely robs the book’s brilliant denouement of its impact. The whole film is a little like this at times: as a director Branagh can be a flashy show-off whose ambition isn’t always married with the sort of effortless grace great directors bring to cinema. So, the film is crammed with tricksy, attention-grabbing shots and loud, brash moments of drama that are as likely to raise sniggers as sighs of awe.

It’s a shame as, in many ways, this is actually a little better than Murder on the Orient Express. It’s tighter (even though it’s longer!) and it creates an emotional backstory for Poirot that not only feels much less forced but actually adds something to the original story. Many of the changes in the characters actually help to make something interesting and new. If only Branagh’s films could shake the idea that we need guns, fights and sweeping CGI to invest in a Poirot story. Because, despite some weaker performances, when the film focuses on emotion and story it’s actually a fairly engaging adaptation that, while never the best, is very far from the worst.