Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2020

The world has changed in 2020, and Il Cinema Ritrovato – Bologna’s annual celebration of archive cinema – has changed too. Having been postponed in June, the 34th edition took place at the end of August, which at least meant we didn’t face last year’s obstacle of temperatures hitting 40°C. The festival was shorter, running for just under a week, and a couple of the planned strands have been held back until next year.

But Il Cinema Ritrovato has expanded in other ways, hosting regular screenings in the opulent Teatro Comunale and Manzoni auditoriums, adding extra outdoor presentations in BarcArena and Arena Puccini, and taking up one of the screens in the charming Odeon cinema, which usually hosts new releases. The muffled sound of Tenet (2020) booming away in the adjacent screen thankfully didn’t spoil the experience of watching John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) or Fort Apache (1948) in this beautiful space.

Other changes were enforced by the questions that have become central to all our lives this year: social distancing and safety. The festival introduced a new ticketing system that cut down on queues and crowding; the capacity of each screen was reduced with alternate seats blocked out; access to the nightly outdoor screening in Piazza Maggiore was strictly controlled; and, of course, hand-washing and mask-wearing was mandatory across all venues. There was even an online version of the festival provided for anyone unable or unwilling to attend, streaming a selection of films and masterclasses for home viewing. Festival directors and cinema owners around the world who are struggling to figure out the best way to proceed in the age of COVID-19 could do a lot worse than look at this event for guidance.

Read the rest of my article at the BFI website now.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

The Devil All the Time in Sight & Sound

As you may have gathered from how quiet things have been around here lately, I've struggled to find the motivation to write anything over the last couple of months, so I was grateful to Sight & Sound for asking me to write about The Devil All the Time. This is a fine adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock's terrific, and you can read my interview with director Antonio Campos in the October issue of Sight & Sound, which is on sale now, or you can read the article online here.

Monday, May 04, 2020

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

Xavier Dolan’s name appears a lot in the opening credits of The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. He’s noted as one of the costume designers, a co-editor, co-writer, co-producer and – in case you didn’t get the message – the words “directed by Xavier Dolan” appear twice. I’ve long admired the way Dolan throws so much of himself into his work, but as I watched this film I wondered if he should have delegated more often to focus on the already considerable task of directing this picture, because if The Death and Life of John F. Donavan has one defining trait, it’s a chronic lack of focus.

Before those opening credits have even begun, we’ve been introduced to the three narrative threads that Dolan will spend the next two hours struggling to pull together. In New York in 2006, Donovan (the fatally uncharismatic Kit Harrington) is a young actor on the rise. The star of a hit TV show and on the verge of being cast in Disney’s new superhero movie ("These kinds of movies are popular right now, but it won't last, will it?" someone asks), he’s idolised from afar by 10 year-old Rupert (Jacob Tremblay). Living in Harrow with his mother (Natalie Portman) and the target of school bullies, Rupert takes refuge in his secret epistolary correspondence with Donovan, an unlikely friendship that began when the star unexpectedly replied to one of his fan letters and that has now been ongoing for five years.

We never learn why Donovan felt the urge to respond to this particular child, or why he felt compelled to maintain the correspondence for five years and something in the region of a hundred letters. We understand that he feels trapped and unhappy, a closeted actor forced to live a public lie in a sham heterosexual relationship, but what did he get out of sharing his thoughts and feeling with this young stranger? We don’t know, and while the essential unknowability of the celebrities we revere is partly the film’s point, the fact that we don’t hear anything from these letters or see him even acknowledge their existence in his life until the very end of the film makes it feel like a crucial element of the text – something that could have given us a sense of his perspective and inner life – is absent. Without this tangible connective tissue to link Rupert and Donovan together, Dolan relies heavily on the adult Rupert (Ben Schnetzer) to fill in the gaps. He is promoting a memoir built around their relationship and is sitting down for an interview with a hardnosed reporter (Thandie Newton) who is accustomed to covering stories with more gravity and rolls her eyes at his "mishaps from the first world." She gradually begins to soften and empathise with him over the course of his narration, but as Dolan cuts back-and-forth between this conversation, set in 2017, and the two halves of his 2006 story, he can’t settle on the right rhythm.

Dolan has always been a director who favours direct emotions and blunt melodrama, but the big moments here – like Harington’s embarrassing on-set meltdown – can feel like they’re blowing up in a vacuum rather than emerging organically from the film’s steadily rising emotional temperature. Dolan is on much firmer ground when he focuses on difficult mother-son relationships, the theme that has been the cornerstone of all his work, with Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon offering committed performances as Rupert and Donovan’s mothers respectively, but even here his usual perception and wit has failed him. Having watched scene after scene of Rupert yelling at his mother, the revelation of his school essay hailing her as his hero – which leads to a tearful slow-motion reunion in the rain – feels mawkish, cheap and entirely false.

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is the first time Dolan the screenwriter has really failed Dolan the director, but perhaps it’s simply the end result of a filmmaker failing to fully get to grips with his most ambitious project and struggling to make amends in the edit. The film’s choppy editing patterns, truncated arcs and abrupt emotional swings (not to mention Michael Gambon’s bewildering last-minute cameo) all suggest a torturous post-production, as does Gabriel Yared’s score, which is slathered onto the picture like superglue, holding the rickety construction together. The thing is, there are glimmers of the film it could have been; thrilling flashes of Dolan’s directorial brio, aided by André Turpin’s atmospheric 35mm cinematography, and his love of actors, giving them moments to shine that the great ones – like Kathy Bates – relish running with. Ultimately, this feels like a film that he needed to make and get past, and in fact he already has, with his subsequent picture Matthias & Maxime boasting some of his best work on both sides of the camera. Xavier Dolan’s prolific, swing-for-the-fences approach to filmmaking is always liable to produce a mixed bag of triumphs and disasters, but no matter how many times he goes on to falter in his career, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan will likely stand as his most fascinating and perplexing failure.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Lockdown Viewing - April 13th to 19th

Bogus (Norman Jewison, 1996)
I was excited by the concept of Gérard Depardieu appearing out of the blue to be a child’s imaginary friend. I imagined all sorts of crazy antics – the film in my mind was entitled Drop Dead Ged – but Bogus seems bafflingly unwilling to explore any of the comic potential this film throws up. Depardieu’s Bogus is brought to life in an airplane toilet by the grief-stricken Albert (Haley Joel Osment), who is on his way to live with his late mother’s foster sister, whom he had never met. Harriet is played by Whoopi Goldberg, who wrings a few laughs out of her character’s puzzlement over this weird kid and his invisible friend suddenly living in her house, but the filmmakers seem content to have Bogus standing on the sidelines whispering words of wisdom to the boy instead of doing anything interesting or fun. He keeps telling Albert to be nicer to Harriet, to be patient with her, to give her a hug, etc. and all the life just drains out of the picture. There are a few fantasy sequences, like Bogus and Albert concocting an ice cream parlour out of thin air, but the attempts at spontaneous joviality feel even more forced than the hackneyed melodrama at the film’s heart. Bogus was written by Alvin Sargent and directed by Norman Jewison, and they push it for treacly sentimentality, losing their grip on the film completely when Harriet gains the ability to see Bogus and then – for some inexplicable reason – does an Astaire and Rogers-style dance number with him. Everything about Bogus feels, well, bogus, especially the final scene, in which Depardieu turns to the camera, ensuring us that he was off to perform more magical adventures for some unhappy souls elsewhere. Frankly, the actor looks like he’d rather be anywhere else.

The Family Jewels (Jerry Lewis, 1965) 
Your reaction to The Family Jewels will depend entirely on your reaction to Jerry Lewis. If you’re even slightly resistant to his charms, The Family Jewels will probably be close to unbearable, as he appears in seven different guises as a series of increasingly eccentric characters, but I love watching Lewis and I loved this picture. Six of the seven characters are uncles to an orphaned heiress (10 year-old Donna Butterworth), and she has to choose one of them as her legal guardian. There are echoes of Lewis’s other work in some of these creations. His clumsy photographer recalls The Nutty Professor, while his clown character recycles the one he played in 3-Ring Circus, although the darkness of this character also perhaps foreshadows The Day the Clown Cried. The Family Jewels’ plot is thin and largely irrelevant (there’s never any doubt that the kid will instead choose Willard, the family chauffer, also played by Lewis) but it does allow him to string together a series of extended skits as his various bizarre uncles each bring a different kind of chaos to the picture. An aged sea captain recalls a bomb disposal that is presented as a silent bit of slapstick; a pilot somehow conspires to get left on the runway as his plane takes off; a detective on the hunt of his kidnapped niece gets distracted by a pool hall and dazzles us with the trick shots Lewis learned from Minnesota Fats. There are also cherishable visual gags dotted throughout the film, like the way a whole row of books falls from a shelf in a perfect pattern when Lewis removes just one of them, or the deep groove he wears into the ground as he anxiously paces. Lewis’s timing and craftmanship on both sides of the camera is impeccable, and The Family Jewels frequently had me cackling on my sofa.

The Outrage (Martin Ritt, 1964)
With films like The Hustler, Sweet Bird of Youth and Hud already under his belt, Paul Newman was riding high as he approached the mid-1960s and surely had his pick of projects, so what on earth prompted him to sign on for The Outrage? I guess he was tight with Martin Ritt – this was their fifth picture together in six years – but he’s all wrong for the part of a Mexican bandit, both in the way he looks and the broad way he chooses to play the role, which verges on caricature. The Outrage is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, with Newman’s Carrasco on trial for the murder of a man (Laurence Harvey) and the rape of his wife (Claire Bloom). Watching Newman’s bandito face off against Bloom’s southern belle gets more tiresome with each flashback; Harvey spends most of these scenes gagged and tied to a tree, and he comes off best in comparison. I kept thinking that something about The Outrage felt strangely stiff and stagebound, and it was only afterwards that I discovered the screenplay was by Michael Kanin, who adapted Rashomon for the stage with his wife Fay in 1959. The Outrage does have its moments, but they tend to occur in the framing device rather than the flashbacks, which benefits from a terrific performance by Edward G. Robinson as a cheerfully cynical snake oil salesman who gets the film’s best lines: “Why, some of my best friends are corpses... they’re the only ones I can trust. Oh, sure, they stink a little but no more than a few alive ones that I know.” His turn is one of the film’s saving graces, with another being the vivid cinematography by the great James Wong Howe. His work is one of the few areas where Ritt’s film gives Kurosawa a run for his money.

Split Image (Ted Kotcheff, 1982)
Released within a few weeks of First Blood, the other 1982 collaboration between Brian Dennehy and Ted Kotcheff is an uneven but very compelling drama about a young man (Michael O’Keefe) who cuts ties with his family when he is drawn into a religious cult. Dennehy plays Danny’s father, a wealthy and flippant character suddenly rendered utterly powerless, and I thought we were being set up for a battle between him and cult leader Neil Kirklander (a malevolently grinning Peter Fonda) over the boy’s soul, but that’s not quite how it plays out. The wild card is Charles Pratt, an obsessive deprogrammer who hates Kirklander with a passion and has dedicated himself to bringing down his operation; I guess you could call him the film’s hero, except for the fact that he’s played by James Woods in one of the most hilariously scummy performances imaginable. “You know what I see college as? One big fuck farm” he tells a colleague as they wait for one of their targets to show, and he seems to take real glee in tormenting and the ex-cult kids as he beats Kirklander’s influence out of them. Woods invests Split Image with a prickly energy whenever he is on screen, but while this is a film with some great moments, it doesn’t quite come together into great film. O’Keefe’s journey from skeptical outsider to true believer feels a bit sketchy and underwritten, with the filmmakers relying too heavily on Fonda’s oily charisma to sell the cult rather than fleshing out its specifics. It’s perhaps easy to see why Split Image has slipped into obscurity, but there are some fine performances to discover here and the film is generally absorbing and unnerving, at least until the disappointingly pat ending.

We're No Angels (Neil Jordan, 1989)
We’re No Angels has a hell of a pedigree. David Mamet wrote the screenplay, Neil Jordan directed it, and it stars Robert De Niro and Sean Penn. Most people would walk into a movie boasting those names with high expectations, but fewer would expect to sit down and watch a wacky screwball caper. Something about We’re No Angels feels off from the start, and it never really finds its groove. The opening sequence in a grim 1930s prison is spectacularly staged, but the scale and darkness of the movie overwhelms the comedy. The idea of two cons disguising themselves as men of the cloth in order to escape the law is a comedy standard, but Mamet and Jordan seem more drawn to the tension and danger inherent in their repeatedly frustrated attempts to cross the border into Canada than they are in mining laughs. Penn and De Niro work hard to lift the movie, but only Penn occasionally succeeds, with an appealingly guileless performance that works particularly well when his character is forced to improvise a sermon on the spot, and he plays well with John C. Reilly, who has a funny recurring role as a young monk who is absolutely in awe of these visiting clerics, hanging on their every word as if God himself was speaking. De Niro, however, is a disaster. The role gives him so little to play he resorts to mugging like crazy, and there’s hardly a scene in the film that isn’t marred by him frantically pulling faces. Coming just a year after Midnight Run, it’s a painful lesson in what can happens when a serious actor actively tries to be funny instead of just playing the scene and letting the humour flow naturally.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Lockdown Viewing - April 6th to 12th

Big Trouble (John Cassavetes, 1986)
“I’m embarrassed to have my name on it, and even more embarrassed that people will think it’s my final film,” John Cassavetes said of Big Trouble, a salvage operation that he was parachuted into when writer-director Andrew Bergman left mid-production. It’s hard to know who is primarily responsible for the end result – Bergman, Cassavetes or the producers who reportedly meddled along the way – but it’s a film that doesn’t display much evident personality in its filmmaking, and has a schizophrenic quality in its storytelling. The first half is essentially a beat-by-beat parody of Double Indemnity, with Alan Arkin as the insurance man persuaded by a scheming femme fatale (Beverly D’Angelo) to get rid of her husband (Peter Falk) and split the payday. Once the deed has been done, however, the film spins off in a variety of directions, incorporating a faked death, a kidnapping, an attempted heist and an encounter with terrorists. A lot of Big Trouble doesn’t work or even make a great deal of sense, but no film starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin is ever going to be a complete write-off, and this one is often very funny. The dynamic the two leads share is similar to the one at the heart of The In-Laws (also scripted by Bergman) and Arkin gets so much comic mileage out of simply trying to control the pitch of his voice as his anxiety overwhelms him or – in the film’s funniest moment – delivering a spit-take for the ages after tasting Falk’s sardine liqueur. Big Trouble may be regarded as an ignominious and anonymous end to a great director’s career, but if you judge it against the standards of the average Hollywood comedy rather than Cassavetes’ own work, it doesn’t look so bad. There is one interesting side note to this film’s troubled production: before shooting began Columbia Pictures had to seek permission from Universal to use the plot of Double Indemnity, and Universal agreed in exchange for the rights to a project that had been sitting on the shelf at Columbia. That film was Back to the Future, which had already become a monster hit by the time Big Trouble finally hobbled into cinemas.

The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo, 2003)
Given all the brouhaha that surrounded its release – the uproar at Cannes, the feud with Ebert, the fuss over a single scene – it’s strange to look at The Brown Bunny now and see how delicate, wistful and introspective it is. It's hardly a film that merited such a noisy introduction to the world. I don’t think it’s as strong a film as Gallo’s directorial debut Buffalo ’66, but I still like it a lot. The film feels of a piece with other minimalist films of that era, such as Gus Van Sant’s Gerry or Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms, while also harkening back to pictures like Zabriskie Point and Two Lane Blacktop, as Gallo drives across the United States and occasionally stops to have an awkward conversation with somebody. It’s clear that he’s a lonely individual haunted by something, and in search of some kind of reconciliation with Daisy (Chloë Sevigny), a woman from his past, but the nature of their relationship isn’t clarified until the very last scene, which is the only scene in the film anyone talks about. The meeting between Gallo and Sevigny is alternately uncomfortable, tender, angry and sad, and it acts as a culmination to everything that has come before it. Gallo has a gift for finding piercing and truthful moments in a scene that appears to be meandering, and he does that a number of times throughout The Brown Bunny, most notably in a wonderfully unexpected and intimate encounter with Cheryl Tiegs. The Brown Bunny’s 16mm images are evocative and atmospheric, and the film has an entrancing rhythm. I wonder if we’ll ever get to see another film from Vincent Gallo? I wonder if he’ll ever let us see his 2010 film Promises Written in Water? I dearly hope the answer to both of those questions is yes.

The First Men in the Moon (Nathan Juran, 1964)
Five years before Neil Armstrong walked on the lunar surface, this film imagined a United Nations mission successfully landing on the moon only to find that somebody had beaten them to it. The discovery of an old Union Jack flag and a note claiming the moon for Queen Victoria leads them to the aged Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd), who recounts the journey that he took to the moon way back in 1899. The First Men in the Moon is an adaptation of an H. G. Wells novel, and it’s very distinctly a film of two halves. The first half of the picture has a manic screwball energy, being dominated by Lionel Jeffries as Cavor, the eccentric scientist whose gravity-defying substance will lift their craft into space. Jeffries charges about the place causing explosions and shouting about geese, and while some of this is funny, it’s more often just loud and frenetic. It takes a surprisingly long time for Bedford, Cavor and Bedford’s fiancé Kate (Martha Hyer) to achieve lift-off, and it’s something of a relief when they do, but that relief eventually hardens into disappointment during the underwhelming moon-set section of the film, where Nathan Juran’s direction is too sluggish and workmanlike to generate any real sense of danger or excitement. This is a very handsome film to look at, though. John Blezard’s art direction is impressive, both inside the spacecraft and within the tunnels of the moon, but the real star of the movie is undoubtedly Ray Harryhausen. He creates some giant worm-like creatures for our heroes to evade, but I was particularly fond of the aliens’ x-ray machine, that reduced the captured Martha Hyer to an angrily gesticulating skeleton.

My First Film (Zia Anger, 2019)
One of the most depressing rituals that has grown familiar over the past two months has been the deletion of various eagerly-anticipated events from my diary, as the Coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of cinemas, theatres and art galleries. An early casualty of this was Zia Anger’s live presentation of My First Film at the ICA, which I was supposed to see at the end of March, but fortunately Anger has found a way to give people an approximation of that experience. She is presenting live online shows for around 60-75 people at a time, and being part of one of those audiences was a very special experience. The first film that Anger is referring to was called Always All Ways, Anne Marie, a feature she made in 2012 with friends and relatives on a crowdfunded budget of $22,000. Once completed, the film was rejected by every festival it was submitted to and was never seen by an audience. In My First Film, Anger shares bits and pieces of that film with us, presenting it on the left hand side of her desktop while typing her thoughts in a text box on the right hand side of the screen. Anger is honest and philosophical about both the film’s failings and her own, and there is something incredibly intimate about the spontaneous manner in which My First Film plays out, watching her thoughts appear on screen as she types them out, with her often going back to correct or revise them and sometimes responding to comments made by viewers as she goes. I admired her authenticity and imagination, and by the end of the film I was very moved by a shared experience that seemed to work as a cathartic and emotional experience for Anger too. I hope she can return to London to present My First Film live one day. If she does, I’ll be there.

The Rainmaker (Francis Ford Coppola, 1997)
The Rainmaker hits all the standard beats of a John Grisham thriller. An idealistic young lawyer is taking on a case that’s bigger than him. He appears in over his head against the high-powered legal team he’s up against, but after some canny legal wrangling, some shouts of "Objection!" and a few last-minute revelations of evidence, he wins the case and gets the girl. These films always adhere to a sturdy and familiar template, so what matters is how classy the filmmaking is and how many great character actors you can squeeze into the picture, and these are the factors that make The Rainmaker such a pleasure. This film may be among the most modest and anonymous of Coppola’s works, but his subtly intelligent direction elevates it. The way he frames certain figures, such as Mickey Rourke’s crooked lawyer and Dean Stockwell’s feckless judge, speaks volumes about their characters and the power dynamic inherent in those scenes. Rourke and Stockwell are just two of the wonderful roster of supporting players enlisted to prop up a committed but bland Matt Damon, whose romance with Claire Danes (trapped in a helpless abused wife subplot) is by far the worst thing in the picture. Jon Voight is the slick corporate lawyer who sold his soul years ago, Roy Scheider is the insurance company’s CEO, Mary Kay Place is the mother of a son who is slowly wasting away. Best of all is Danny DeVito as Damon’s opportunistic partner; constantly hustling and looking for an angle, he brings a vital bristling energy to the picture. The Rainmaker is a thoroughly engaging mainstream entertainment, but there’s also a real power in the way Coppola presents the dying young man (Johnny Whitworth) whose illness has instigated this case. Instead of just treating him as a plot point or a cheap emotional hook, Coppola recognises the tragedy of the situation, making us face these characters and their pain just as Voight and his cronies are forced to. "This is how the uninsured die," Damon says in his (Michael Sherr-scripted) voiceover. It’s an element of the film that still resonates more than two decades on.