Thursday, April 24, 2014

"I was often trying to stop making sense, or at least to create other kinds of logic." - An Interview with Joanna Hogg

Joanna Hogg has been living in London for over three decades, but it has taken her three feature films to finally make a picture in the city she calls home. Her acclaimed debut, Unrelated, was set in Tuscany and her second film, Archipelago, took place on the small island of Tresco, but Exhibition is set almost entirely in and around a very home designed by the late architect James Melvin, to whom her film is dedicated. Starring musician Viv Albertine and artist Liam Gillick, the film is a mysterious, fragmented and intimate examination of a married couple’s relationship with each other and the home they inhabit. I met Joanna Hogg recently to discuss it.

The house is so central to the film. Was that the starting point for this project, or did you come at it from a different angle?

There were a number of ideas I think I'd formed before finding the house. One of the themes or ideas I'd wanted to explore was an idea of seeing an artist creating a piece of work, actually seeing inspiration at work, and how that creativity or inspiration is also connected with sexuality, and out of that was formed the idea that D should be a performance artist. I hadn't started with that idea but it came out of looking at and thinking about creativity and sexuality and this idea that being very creatively engaged in something is on some level a kind of a turn-on. All these ideas change and develop over months and weeks, and having gone through thoughts of her being a painter or writer, I thought it had to be something visual, it had to visually express some of those ideas I'd been exploring. When I thought about the house....that's what's exciting about the early stages of creating a story, sometimes you'll have all these different ideas and they seem to be disconnected, but the glue became the house in the way. So many of the ideas came from just being in that house and observing the character of it.

It's fascinating to see how expressive D is when she's creating her art, compared to how she behaves with her husband.

That's right, yes. I was really interested in how she keeps those two things very separate, or tries to, because I think that's very difficult in a relationship. She is trying to create this work on the one hand but she is also trying to balance this with a relationship and I felt those pink sliding doors were a very theatrical division, between her world and her world with H.

Were those pink doors and the other striking design features already present when you found the house?

The house was designed in 1969 and I came to know it in the early '90s, but the architect hadn't changed it very much. It was much more monochrome and was more open-plan in fact. Those pink dividing doors weren't there. I think it was around 1994 when the house had a refit. We're getting architectural here, but an outfit called Sauerbruch Hutton based in Berlin did a redesign or update, so they added and changed some features, but the essentials of the house, like the spiral staircase, remained the same.

So you didn’t have to make many amendments in terms of production design?

What was great about Stéphane my production designer is that he recognised the gifts that the house was already handing us and he didn't feel the need to put his own stamp on the design, so he just did some subtle things within the house and the costume design was also very much part of his work, so the stripy nature of D's clothes that reflect the venetian blinds. These echoes were enhanced by the production design and costume design.

Did you immediately know how you were going to shoot in this space, or was that something you had to work out during the process of filming?

Some of that was worked out when I was writing because I took some photographs inside the house when I was conceiving the ideas, so some of those frames that I created in my still photography were mirrored within the film. A lot of the time we were finding those frames as we were shooting and it is quite a challenging house to shoot in, partly because it has this lift block all the way through, so you can't look easily from one side of the room to the other. But that's a kind of gift, in a way, so we used that, and quite often we built towers in the garden so the cameras were outside the house looking in and then reversing that, so you have an interesting inside/outside relationship. I really enjoyed looking out of the house and seeing chairs floating in the garden, you know, how when you're looking out you're sometimes seeing more of the inside than outside. I liked playing with that. But yes, from a practical point of view it was very challenging with just this cube with a spiral staircase as an access point. Ed Rutherford, the cinematographer, had to take his equipment up and down and everyone got very tired moving things around the house. But I made it very clear that we would only have the necessary people working when we were shooting or we'd go crazy, so you'd often have a whole group of people waiting outside for us to finish a scene.

On Archipelago you had Ed Rutherford shooting in a very low light, so it seems you always like to give him a fresh challenge.

It's true, it was the opposite. Sometimes there was too much light or it was a matter of balancing the reflections. I think he did that really beautifully.

You have said that your writing process changed a lot between Unrelated and Archipelago. Was there a similar progression here? Because it does feel like something different to your prior work.

In some ways I made some changes. I initially wrote a document that probably looked a little bit like the Archipelago document, which I'd describe as novella-like and illustrated with some photographs I'd taken. Prior to shooting I hadn't shown Viv and Liam my document, but after the first few days I thought I'd like to show them something but just feed them scenes gradually, not give them a whole document, because I didn't want them to know what was going to happen. The night before shooting a particular scene, I would write the dialogue for that scene in a relatively conventional way, but I'd only give that scene to Viv and Liam about half an hour before shooting, so they would get an impression of the kind of dialogue I wanted for that scene but put things in their own words. It's a very fine balance that, because I want things to be naturalistic but I also want to control what's being said, so it's something I'm continually playing with and for the next film I might try a different approach again.

You cast Viv and Liam at an extremely late stage. What are you looking for in a non-professional actor when you hire them? How do you know that they are going to be up to the task?

It's a total leap of faith. It's a kind of bolt of lightning realisation that this person is going to be right. With Viv, I had the advantage of having known her for many years, I'd met her in 1984, and when the idea came to me it was via my husband, because I'd been on the phone to Viv to ask her for ideas of musicians who might be good in a film, and I put the phone down and Nick said to me "What about Viv?" As soon as he said that I knew Viv was absolutely the right person. So I had the benefit of knowing Viv and knowing how she would inhabit that house, I knew she'd inhabit it very well, having lived in modern buildings herself and understanding the open-plan nature of it. What I didn't know was how good an actress she would turn out to be, and likewise with Liam, I knew he had some kind of performing gene in him but not to the extent that he did. They both became actors, they're not playing themselves they're both very much playing against type, and they do it brilliantly. That's the magic of casting and that's what I find so exciting about it.

Do you get anxious about leaving things unplanned and open to chance like that? Or are you confident by this stage that it will come together?

Well, there is a plan on the one hand, but within that plan there's a lot of room for the unknown and for me to change my mind. I'm creating a space for things to happen but I've still got my plan to fall back on. I've got a clear idea of what I want on some level but I'm not afraid of something unexpected happening, and that's a real interesting balance to try and maintain.

In the film D talks about being unwilling to open her art up to people and to questions or criticism. Does that reflect your own feelings about making a film?

I think I am a little bit like that, and I can relate to her in that way. I'm quite guarded at home and I don't talk about my ideas until they're formed enough to withstand any criticisms, until the ideas stand on their own. I'm possibly too guarded sometimes, so it was interesting for me to depict that.

One of the common themes in your work is what’s left unsaid. We are aware of some trauma in D and H’s past that informs their behaviour, but we are never told what it might be. Do you worry about striking that fine balance between being mysterious and intriguing or being too oblique and alienating an audience?

I suppose I do a little bit, but nevertheless I still can't guarantee that people aren't going to be frustrated with not having enough information, or with having too much information. I remember with Unrelated, afterwards some people said that it was a shame we had that scene in the hotel, we didn't need that information about Anna being unable to have children. I possibly listened to that on some level, because although I don't regret having that scene in Unrelated, it's an important scene and beautifully played by Kate and Mary, I do like audiences engaging their imagination, and sometimes I think if you've got too much information it's a hindrance to you putting something of yourself into what you're watching. It is a fine line, but with Exhibition I never even entertained the idea of what D is afraid of happening to H being explained.

It’s very effective, that sense of unexplained dread. It feels like a horror film at times.

Yes, which is something I'm interested in. I wanted to create something quite horrifying, but not in the traditional sense, and I was interested in the house having mood changes as we do as people, so that night the house becomes something quite threatening and ominous.

You obviously enjoy working with non-actors, but Tom Hiddleston is somebody who has become enormously famous since you first worked with him. Has that has an impact on how you use him in your films?

I don't think so. I think Tom is a special case because he manages to get the right balance of what he puts of himself into a role and what he invents, and he does it so convincingly, that I find working with him I get a similar satisfaction as I do when I'm working with non-actors. I think it's about letting go on some level, and I think Tom is able to let go into the character and create characteristics that are very tangible and real. I'm always looking for the truth in something and he is a truth-seeker, so I really do enjoy working with him. I don't think that contradicts working with non-actors as well and I think it was really interesting to watch Tom working with Liam and Viv.

It did take me a moment to recognise him when he showed up. It’s not like a movie star suddenly walking in and disrupting the film.

Well, he was apparently standing outside the house with Harry Kershaw, who plays the other estate agent, and they were mistaken for estate agents by some people walking past. I think that goes to show what skill Tom has at morphing himself into different characters.

Has the way you work with Helle le Fevre changed over the years? Editorially, this feels like a leap from Unrelated and Archipelago, which feel more like companion pieces.

I was definitely setting out explore depicting different levels of reality and creating a piece of work that was less linear, more fragmented and more dreamlike, and that was naturally going to affect the editing process. In fact, a lot of those different levels and the fragmentation was created in the editing. So that was the challenge from the outset, and I think Helle and I worked together and kind of pushed each other, and I was often trying to stop making sense, or at least to create other kinds of logic. That takes time to work out and we would work on a scene and look at it, and we were continually pushing further and experimenting more, and that got taken into the sound design as well. It was very exciting. Again, Johan the sound designer is someone who has worked on the other two films, and I think that really helps when you've got a working relationship with someone where you can push each other. By the third film you know each other very well, so you can just play around with things and have fun. In the end, we were almost creating a musical score. I don't think we realised that at the outset when we were mixing, but as the days went by I had to call up Gayle and say, hang on, we've barely just begun the process and we need a lot more time, so we extended our sound mix because it was going into the realms of music and involved some very intricate work.

Having made films in Italy and Tresco, this is your first time shooting in London. How was that experience for you, and will you make another film here?

To begin with, a lot of people who had shot in London before said it's an absolute nightmare shooting in London and warned me that it's not going to be like having your own island or farm in Italy. So I was slightly dreading it, but perhaps because we created our own island in London we managed to maintain control of it and we managed to get a blanket agreement for the area in which we were shooting so we didn't get stopped every time we put a tripod on the pavement. The scene was set before the shoot by the location manager and that made it a lot easier. And yes, this is my first film in London, my home town since 1979, and I'll definitely do more films in London. I've got another film that I'm developing, which is set in London, but I've got another that I'm not sure where it is set yet, and it's quite unusual for me to not know where the film is going to be set when the story is already coming together. So that's a bit of a mystery, and which film will happen first I'm not sure.

I was intrigued by the special thanks credit for Martin Scorsese at the end of the film. What is the story behind that?

That was because he was an admirer of Archipelago, and I was very flattered and very impressed by his support of other filmmakers. He's an incredibly generous man. I thought wouldn't it be wonderful if I could show him Exhibition and get some feedback from him, so I showed it to him at a relatively late stage, when we had almost finished editing and done some sound work. There's nothing more to say about that really, except that he dedicated some time to watching it and discussing it with me, and I was just so impressed with his generosity. I find that very humbling and it makes me feel that I should have the same kind of responsibility to other filmmakers coming up, and I try to do my bit to support and encourage younger voices making films.

On the subject of mentors, Derek Jarman was somebody who was a key figure in your early career. His work is now being celebrated at the BFI, so I just wanted to ask you about the influence he had on you.

Well, he was obviously another very generous spirit. He inspired me at a particular point in time, I think it was about 1980 when I first met him, and I am not unique in that respect. He was very generous to a lot of filmmakers, and I just happened to be there at a time when I needed encouragement and needed to get some confidence in my own filmmaking. He showed me that you can do it by just picking up a camera, you don't need to get permission from anyone. I think, as this season is obviously showing, he was completely unique in the landscape of British film, in creating his own environment to make films in a very uncompromising way and working with people he wanted to work with. He was an inspiration and is still an inspiration, and at that particular point in time he was certainly a fortuitous encounter for me.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place in a small country in Eastern Europe, but it's no place you've heard of. The land of Zubrowka is the creation of Wes Anderson, a filmmaker who has always paid as much fastidious attention to the world his films take place in as he has to story and character, and here he has concocted a deliberately artificial and anachronistic alternate vision of 20th century history. He opens the film in 1985, where a teenager in a grey communist society takes refuge in a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel, and then he takes us back through 1968 to 1932, when the events depicted in the book took place. As Anderson moves through the decades, he delineates the different periods by shifting from a widescreen frame to an unfamiliar academy ratio, but as his image contracts his imagination expands.

Working with the artist Hugo Guinness, Anderson unveils his narrative through multiple storytellers. The ageing author of The Grand Budapest Hotel (initially played by Tom Wilkinson) recounts his late ‘60s visit to the fading establishment (when he is played by Jude Law), where he happened to meet a mysterious fellow guest named Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, Mr. Moustafa tells the writer how he first came to visit the hotel when it was in its prime, an enthusiastic young lobby boy (Tony Revolori) who became the protégé of the resident concierge Gustave H, a man who dedicated himself to ensuring that ensuring that every guest's need was catered to before they even have to ask. Gustave is one of Anderson’s greatest creations; a ripe blend of old-world charm and slightly camp elegance, who has a penchant for spouting poetry and seducing rich old women. He is played by Ralph Fiennes, giving the actor an opportunity to display a wonderful lightness of comic touch that is unprecedented in his work, but Fiennes also bring a gravity and sincerity to the character, making him a much richer figure than the pompous cad he appears to be.

Even in this period setting, Gustave is a man out of time. We are told that “His world had vanished long before he entered it, but he sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace," and this makes him the perfect protagonist for Anderson, a filmmaker markedly out of step with contemporary cinema. Here he is reaching back to filmmakers of a bygone age for inspiration, with The Grand Budapest Hotel displaying more than a hint of the Lubitsch touch, and traces of Ophüls, Powell & Pressburger and Rouben Mamoulian are evident in its construction too. The Grand Budapest Hotel is as finely assembled as you would expect, with the more compact frame being no less packed with detail, and with every composition and right-angle camera movement being meticulously controlled. Of course, by this stage in his career you'll probably know if his style works for you or not. In the past, I've found the fussiness of Anderson's filmmaking a barrier to enjoying them on more than a surface level, but The Grand Budapest Hotel has a sneaky emotional sting.

This feels simultaneously like Anderson's lightest and darkest work. The plot is a gleefully silly trifle surrounding the theft of an invaluable painting and a missing will, but the knockabout comedy is frequently – sometimes jarringly – interrupted by violent acts, most often perpetrated by a Willem Dafoe, in the guise of a brass-knuckle clad henchman. There's also a genuine sense of threat in the imminent arrival of a fascist regime, complete with Swastika-like insignias, and a lament for an age of innocence and civility that is about to be washed away. For all of the sparkling comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel contains, it may actually be Anderson's saddest and most subtly humane work.

This is Wes Anderson's eighth feature as a director, and many respects it feels like his most ambitious effort to date. A glance at the film's poster, which displays 16 very recognisable faces and one newcomer, suggests that this will be a very busy film, and so it proves to be. The film's farcical narrative finds room for shootouts and chase scenes (featuring some beautifully handcrafted effects), and many of Anderson's favourite actors pop up for little more than a single line. The Grand Budapest Hotel might be the most Wes Anderson-ish film that Anderson has made yet, but his refinement of his idiosyncratic style has also revealed unexpected depths, making this a film that might satisfy both Anderson devotees and sceptics alike.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Monuments Men

George Clooney is a fine actor and a great movie star, but the qualities that makes him such an appealing screen presence – his instantly engaging charisma, his light comic touch, his facility for gravitas – seem to instantly desert him as soon as he steps behind the camera. The films he has made since his energetic and creative debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (which now looks like the work of a completely different director) have been handsomely mounted, nostalgic and tasteful pictures that deal with notions of honour and decency. They have also been rather dull.

The shame about all of this is that Clooney has an eye for a great story, he just doesn’t have the capacity to realise it. He seemed like the perfect man to make a 1930s screwball comedy throwback, but his leaden directorial hand killed whatever sense of charm, humour or fun it might have possessed, and The Monuments Men suffers a similar fate. There’s plenty of promise in this story of US soldiers being sent into war-torn Europe to save the great works of art being systematically destroyed or stolen by Hitler. Clooney sets the film up as an Ocean’s-style caper, opening with a jaunty getting-the-gang-together montage sequence and introducing us to an ensemble that appears to promise a good time.

Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville star as the soldiers enlisted for duty, with Dimitri Leonidas bringing the average age down and Cate Blanchett adding a negligible female presence. The stars are paired off for separate narratives that run parallel throughout the picture, but everything they do is so oddly muted and flat. Damon and Blanchett make some half-hearted gestures towards romance before eventually walking away, while Bill Murray and Bob Balaban are set up as a bickering double-act but their one-liners are delivered with such little spark or conviction, it’s as if we’re watching them in an early rehearsal, reading from the page.

Perhaps Clooney was operating under the impression that the sense of camaraderie a film like this is propelled by would instantly form through some kind of movie star alchemy. He makes no effort to develop these characters and their prior relationships with one another through the writing; we are told that they are all tangentially connected to the world of art – curators, restorers, etc. – but they seem to have little interest in or perspective on the art they’re looking for. Clooney barely gives us any opportunity to see it for ourselves either, beyond a couple of listless close-ups and a few brief shots of the characters standing in mute awe in front of either intact or destroyed artworks. The only way the art itself really factors into the film is through the central theme of whether saving such art is worth risking a man’s life, a question that Clooney only asks via laborious lumps of voiceover, never really engaging with it in any but the most facile way.

In fact, facile is the best word to describe The Monuments Men, and to describe Clooney’s directorial work in general. It strikes a serious pose but makes no attempt to engage with the complexity or tragedy of its subject; Clooney is happy to let the movie coast along on the surface of things, and to let his actors do the same. This might not have been an issue if the film was engaging and entertaining on any level, but The Monuments Men is lumpy and staid, with Clooney proving unable to infuse any of the key moments with a sense of tension or excitement. In particular, two scenes in which Goodman and Dujardin find themselves in a pickle are directed in the most frustratingly ham-handed fashion, and a later comic set-piece in which one of the team stands on a landmine has all of its potential for danger and humour leeched out of it by the careless staging and editing that suggests Clooney just wants to get it out of the way. What drew him to this project? It’s a cracking story, for sure, but we get no sense of passion or urgency from watching the film itself. For a film about the value of art, The Monuments Men is bafflingly artless.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Lone Survivor

Peter Berg was so determined to make Lone Survivor he directed Battleship for Universal Pictures in 2012 to help secure funding, and his passion for this project is evident from the opening minutes. Berg begins the film with documentary footage of real-life Navy SEALs undergoing a rigorous and intense training process, learning to withstand extreme pain and being shaped into hardened warriors. A little while later, we see one new recruit reciting a macho SEAL mantra in front of his admiring fellow soldiers: “There ain't nothin' I can't do. No sky too high, no sea too rough, no muff too tough…Never shoot a large calibre man with a small calibre bullet…” In every scene Berg reaffirms that these men are brothers and heroes, and that his film is a tribute.

Lone Survivor is the story of the disastrous Operation Red Wings incursion into Afghanistan in 2005. 19 American soldiers were killed during the course of the mission, with the lone survivor of the title being Marcus Luttrell (played here by Mark Wahlberg), whose book was adapted for the screen by Berg. Luttrell was one of four men deployed as an advance force in a mission to capture or kill the Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, but as they observed their target from a vantage point in the surrounding mountains their position was compromised by a trio of goat herders. After some debate about whether to kill, detain or release the civilians, the soldiers decided to follow the rules of engagement and let them go, retreating from the scene before the alarm was raised.

What followed was an almighty firefight, with Luttrell and his team finding themselves outnumbered and outgunned by a Taliban army. Berg recreates the battle in what feels like real time, with the volume being pumped up to an ear-splitting volume as Berg pitches us right into the crossfire. Berg is a decent director of action and he does well to maintain a sense of coherence here as the four Americans face an onslaught that comes at them from all directions, but it’s hard to admire any of the technique involved when you’re having your senses battered so comprehensively. The other three men are played by Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, but the characters they play are entirely interchangeable (in fact, it’s sometimes hard to tell which one if which). We are given no reason to care about their fate beyond one simple fact – they are American, therefore the good guys, and their assailants are the bad guys. “You can die for your country, I'm gonna live for mine” Foster growls as he lines one up in his sights.

The contrasts drawn between the two sides is stark. As we spend our time with the Americans, we see them talking to their girlfriends at home, joshing with their buddies and conducting themselves at all times with dignity and honour, while their enemy is seen terrorising villagers and beheading a man in front of his family. Each of the Taliban fighters is taken down by a single bullet to the head or chest, while our four American protagonists each suffer numerous wounds and keep on fighting. We see every bullet that tears through American flesh and feel every crunch as the soldiers hurl themselves down a rocky mountain face to escape the gunfire (in a manner that recalls Homer’s trajectory down Springfield Gorge). Berg fetishises their suffering to emphasize their courage and resolve, and when the time comes for them to die, the director ensures it is a glorious death, with each of Luttrell’s three companions exiting in slow-motion and adoring close-up.

Is this how it really happened? Perhaps, but the simplistic nature of Lone Survivor is reductive and the high-octane style Berg employs just wears the viewer down. The film will draw comparisons with Black Hawk Down – a film coincidentally based on an operation that also left 19 soldiers dead – but I found Ridley Scott’s film to be more varied and more cinematically interesting, whereas after 20 minutes of gunplay in Lone Survivor I’d had enough. What are we supposed to take from the film? The fact that war is hell and the men who fight are very brave? Peter Berg may have succeeded in his stated aim to honour these fallen soldiers, but I found little else of value in his orgy of violence. The film is relentless, dispiriting and numbing.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Grudge Match

I’m sure many producers have dreamed of pitching “It’s Rocky versus Raging Bull!” in meetings with Hollywood studios since the early 1980s, but as the decades slipped by that pitch has seemed less like an exciting proposition and more like a something depressing that we’re just going to have to get through together at some point. Sylvester Stallone’s penchant for trading on former glories and Robert De Niro’s willingness to settle for any half-baked script that comes his way meant that there was a certain inevitability – or should I say, inescapability? – about a film like Grudge Match tarnishing our memories of what these two men were in their prime.

Both actors are clearly playing variations on Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta rather than Henry “Razor” Sharp and Billy “Kid” McDonnen, the roles they are supposed to be inhabiting here. Stallone’s Razor is a sweet-natured blue-collar guy who just wants to keep his head down and do an honest day’s work, while De Niro’s Kid is an infamous womaniser whose lame cabaret act recalls the one performed by the washed-up LaMotta in Raging Bull. We are told that these two shared an intense rivalry three decades ago (images of which are created for us with some fuzzy CGI effects), but Razor walked away from the sport before they could have a third, defining bout, and the pair have kept their distance ever since, a bitter resentment simmering between them. They are brought together by an energetic low-rent promoter (Kevin Hart) who could easily be speaking for the producers of this film as he plots to unite these faded stars and trade on our nostalgia.

Beyond the initial casting hook, not a lot of thought appears to have been expended on the construction of Grudge Match, with Razor and Kid going through the motions of comical training montages and undignified publicity stunts, as you’d expect, and each having to deal with some personal issue as well as focusing on the fight. In Razor’s case, it’s a rekindled relationship with Sally (a distractingly drowsy Kim Basinger), the woman who came between him and Kid in the ‘80s, while Kid tries to come to terms with the fact that he has a son (a well-cast Jon Bernthal) and grandson in his life now. Each man faces a moment of crisis that threatens to derail everything just before the fight, and the film generally hits every beat that you would expect a film of this nature to land on.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily. It would be foolish to go into a Peter Segal-directed comedy sports movie anticipating surprises. The laziness inherent in its writing is disappointing, but the bigger issue here is that it simply isn’t funny enough to mitigate that laziness. The jokes are older than the two stars (“Gutsy move, going without a bra!” “It don't look like you're missing any meals!”) and there’s a whiff of desperation over the attempts to eke humour from Bernthal’s character being named BJ. Comic relief is ostensibly provided by Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart, but both actors wear out their welcome almost as soon as they appear on screen. Arkin's performance as an old man who shouts inappropriate things is one that he has given before, with much more energy than he provides here, while Hart’s endless stream of shrieked pop culture references and “white people are crazy” gags makes him come across as nothing more than a pound shop version of Chris Tucker.

But of course, the only reason anyone is going to see Grudge Match is for the leading men. I won’t reveal the outcome of the climactic fight, but Stallone emerges as the victor in the acting stakes here. He is able to settle into this kind of broad, self-deprecating fare with more ease than De Niro, who always looks uncomfortable and often seems to be wishing he was somewhere else. “A great performer knows when to leave the stage” Kid is told at one point, and watching De Niro sleepwalk his way through films that are so far beneath him remains one of cinema’s most dispiriting spectacles. When I watch Robert De Niro these days, I can’t help thinking of the line Samuel L. Jacksondelivers to him in Jackie Brown: “What the fuck happened to you, man? Shit…your ass used to be beautiful.”