Monday, January 30, 2017

20th Century Women in The Skinny

One of the most enjoyable conversations I've had recently was with Mike Mills, who visited London in December to promote his new film 20th Century Women. This deeply personal portrait of his mother and the other women who helped shape his worldview as a teenager is Mills' most ambitious film to date, and also his best. 20th Century Women is a rich and moving film, boasting a career-best performance from Annette Bening, and it's a real pleasure to spend time in Mills' world. You can read both my interview with the director and my review of the film in the February Scottish edition of The Skinny, which is available now.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

My Week in Cinema: January 21st to 27th

New Films Seen This Week
Jackie (Pablo Larraín)
This isn't something that often comes to mind after viewing a new movie, particularly one released in 'awards season' with its eyes on the prize, but Jackie could have been a little longer. Running at a surprisingly slim 100 minutes the film feels hermetic and oppressive, and I was left wondering if an additional ten minutes or so – just enough to let the movie breathe – might have made all the difference. I suspect that Pablo Larraín wants us to feel trapped, though, to be sharing Jackie Kennedy's perspective as her world collapses around her in the week following November 22nd, 1963. Half of Jackie focuses on the JFK assassination and its aftermath, and much of it is exceptional – elegantly staged, swept along by Mica Levi's keening score, with Natalie Portman (as Jackie) and Peter Sarsgaard (as Bobby Kennedy) both doing fine work as their characters negotiate the pain, stress and confusion of their situation. The other half of the film is set some weeks later, as Jackie sits down for an interview with a  journalist (Billy Crudup) and attempts to present her story on her terms, and this awkward framing device gets to the heart of Jackie's central theme, which is the notion of legacy, both in what we leave behind us and how we try to shape the narrative of history. Unfortunately, Noah Oppenheim’s script clumsily states and underlines this central theme over and over again, often through clunky dialogue, with both Crudup and John Hurt (a priest providing counsel before the funeral) existing as little more than sounding boards for Jackie to express her feelings and ideas – she even tells Crudup, and by extension us, that the playing of the Camelot score is thematically important. Jackie is both slippery and didactic, a film that tries to shake off some standard biopic trappings but ultimately feels just as heavy-handed as any bloated awards contender. Despite an impressive performance from Portman – who, as in Black Swan, is well-cast as a character fighting to maintain control of her own life – Jackie never gets under the skin and inside the complicated emotions of this woman. It never lets her breathe.

Split (M. Night Shyamalan)
Split is being sold with the promise that its lead character possesses 23 distinct personalities, with a 24th yet to emerge, but the first disappointment of the film is that we only meet a handful of them. There’s fashion designer Barry, the matronly Patricia, nine-year-old Hedwig and the quietly threatening Kevin. They’re all played by James McAvoy, who we see in a few more guises (a diabetic, a history buff) through brief video diary excerpts. These personalities all work to a unified purpose, though, and Kevin has kidnapped three teenage girls, holding them captive in a secure basement and confusing the hell out of them each time he opens the door as a completely different person. McAvoy gleefully changes up his accent and posture with each incarnation but his performance here always feels like a performance, an actor's stunt, and Kevin never comes across as a properly threatening or scary character, which naturally has an adverse effect on the film's tension. This tension is further dissipated through the frequent cutaways to Kevin's therapist Betty Buckley, who is there to theorise broadly on Kevin's condition and slowly (very slowly) grow suspicious of his behaviour. I don't think this kind of filmmaking is really Shyamalan's forte. Split needs a director who is going to run with the craziness and nastiness of the endeavour, but Shyamalan's penchant for steady pacing – which served him well in his breakthrough films – makes the film feel horribly slack and sluggish across 117 minutes, and the director doesn't use that extra time to go deeper into his characters or themes. In fact, while a few layers are added to the character of Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) through flashbacks to her childhood trauma, the only change that the other two prisoners undergo is that layers of clothing are removed, with both Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula forced to spend half of the film in their underwear for spurious reasons. The last-minute attempt to link Split to an earlier Shyamalan picture just reminds us how distinctive his films once were – The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs all have images and moments that still resonate – and unfortunately the most notable thing about this film is just how little personality it has.

Rep Cinema Discovery of the Week
The Big Country (William Wyler, 1958) BFI Southbank, 35mm
It sure is a big country, as James McKay (Gregory Peck) is repeatedly told in William Wyler’s epic western, and Wyler keeps reminding us of that fact with his visuals too. His widescreen frames take in as much of the land as possible, with the characters often looking tiny against their vast surroundings. When long-simmering tensions between McKay and Leech (Charlton Heston) finally come to a head, Wyler shoots their fight from a distance, the two men rendered pathetic and insignificant as they throw increasingly tired punches at each other. Their conflict is one of the two that runs through the film; the other – and more significant one – being between Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), two patriarchs waging war over a river that runs between their territories. Clearly this country isn’t big enough for both of them. What’s great about The Big Country is how Wyler gives us ample time to understand these characters and their relationships, and to see how they shift dramatically over the course of the film. At the start of the film, McKay is all set to marry into the Terrill clan and we are led to believe that the Hannasseys are a bunch of wild roustabouts that must be vanquished, but Rufus gradually emerges as a man of honour and integrity, with his character being beautifully shaded by the wonderful Burl Ives in a deservedly Oscar-winning performance. It’s this attention to character and the perfectly judged pacing that sustains The Big Country through its near-three-hour running time. Wyler establishes and underscores character relationships through the way he composes in the wide (Technirama, rather than CinemaScope) frame, and the climactic stretch of the film is a masterpiece of staging and editing, as a duel between two men develops into a painful conflict between father and son. The Big Country is a magnificent western, one to rank alongside the all-time greats, and I frequently found myself humming Jerome Moross's stirring score throughout the rest of the week.

Rep Cinema Rediscovery of the Week
Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980) BFI Southbank, Digital
"Heavy leather, S&M,” Paul Sorvino intones near the start of Cruising, “It's a world unto itself.” William Friedkin's attempt to introduce mainstream audiences to that world surely ranks as the boldest gamble of his fascinatingly wayward career. Certainly, the notion of an Oscar-winning director and major star teaming up for a film in which a man is seen greasing up his fist while another waits expectantly in a sling is almost unthinkable today, and it's easy to see why Cruising found itself embroiled in a running battle with both the MPAA and the gay community. (Original release prints opened with the disclaimer, “This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world,” to no avail.) Is it any wonder that the film came out at the end of that whole process looking so beleaguered and unsure of itself? Cruising develops an impressively seedy and vivid atmosphere in its first half, as undercover cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) trawls the leather bars where a serial killer may be selecting his victims, but the cracks in Friedkin's screenplay – perhaps exacerbated by the reported 50 minutes of censor cuts – soon start to show. The central thrust of the film is the protagonist's loss of identity as he immerses himself deeper into a world that is so alien from his own, but we know nothing about Steve Burns and his psychological breakdown is rendered in the sketchiest way possible, with Pacino's unfocused performance doing little to help matters. It's largely useless as a thriller too, with Friedkin's ill-advised attempts at obfuscation and ambiguity just leeching it of any tension or narrative momentum, and the long scenes of Pacino stalking the killer (Richard Cox) around New York feel completely empty because we have no idea who either character really is. Cruising is a failure, but it has its moments, particularly when Friedkin is skilfully staging the murder scenes, which is when he appears to be most in control of the material, and some scenes will live in the memory for other reasons. The inexplicable use of a huge black guy clad only in a stetson and jockstrap as an interrogation method is a priceless comic highlight, as is the final exchange between the cop and his prey: “How big are ya?” Richard Cox asks as Pacino pulls down his jeans. “Party size,” comes the brilliantly straight-faced reply.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

My Week in Cinema: January 14th to 20th

New Films Seen This Week
Fences (Denzel Washington)
It’s appropriate that we hear Fences before we see it. The voices of Troy (Denzel Washington) and Bono (Stephen Henderson) emerge over a black screen before the two actors come into focus, and this verbal torrent never lets up. Troy is a great talker, holding court in his backyard, where much of the film takes place, and putting on an extravagant show for his loyal pal with his anecdotes, jokes and commentary. But he’s also a man filled with anger and frustration; a black man in Pittsburgh in the 1950s who could have made it as a baseball player in a later era, but instead finds himself working on a garbage truck, which they won't even allow him to drive. He uses his words to keep control of those in his home – his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) – both of whom have seen their own hopes and dreams dashed by being yoked to this domineering man. Watching Washington’s performance here, I was reminded of Daniel Plainview, another man driven by the need to exert an iron grip over all those in his vicinity, and it’s a testament to Viola Davis that Rose isn’t overwhelmed by the force of this performance; in fact, over the course of the film she becomes an even more compelling figure, her long-suppressed emotions exploding at Troy in scene that is breathtaking in its emotional force. All of these actors (with the exception of Adepo) are reprising the roles they took in a 2010 production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play, and while it must have been an electric thrill to watch them on stage, this film adaptation often feels like a slightly more awkward fit. It’s such a dialogue and character-driven piece, we’re never allowed to forget that we are watching something with its origins in the theatre. The Maxsons’ back yard feels more like a theatrical backdrop than a real, lived-in space, and Washington doesn’t do much to try and open up the picture aside from a few negligible cutaways to other locations. And yet, as a cinema experience, I found it largely absorbing. Wilson’s writing is so sharp, lyrical and thematically and culturally rich, it deserves to be brought to a wider audience. That is what Denzel Washington has attempted to do with this faithful adaptation, and even if it might give off the stale whiff of 'filmed theatre', I found it too riveting, powerful and impressive to dismiss as a cinema experience.

Live by Night (Ben Affleck)
Ben Affleck’s best film as a director remains his debut – 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane – and his return to Lehane’s work for his fourth feature continues the gradual but inexorable decline in his filmmaking. Is it any coincidence that his best film is also the one in which he doesn’t take the lead role? In Live by Night, Affleck gives a lumpen and charisma-free performance as Joe Coughlin, a veteran of the Great War who returns to Boston in the 1920s determined to live as an outlaw, and refusing to swear fealty to either the Irish or Italian mobs that control the town. We get much of this background detail in Affleck’s somnolent voiceover, which is liberally used throughout to tie up a film that seems to have lost a lot of connective tissue in the editing process, and the tone of Affleck’s delivery (I guess he’s aiming for gravitas) sets a dour mood that Live by Night can never shake off. Live by Night has all of the period trappings but no soul; nothing feels lived-in, nothing feels real. With a lot of plot to get through and no time to develop atmosphere or characters, Affleck just keeps shunting us from one incident to the next, with the film’s narrative and its moral compass growing more confused with every step. Individual scenes show signs of life. The car chases and shootouts are well-handled, and Affleck’s knack of casting smaller roles pays off with some colourful supporting turns; notably Chris Messina as Joe’s right-hand man, Matthew Maher as a Klansman muscling in on his turf, and particularly Sienna Miller as an Irish gangster’s moll who lights up the film’s first half. (After this film and Burnt, Miller is making an unfortunate habit of doing great work in misbegotten vanity projects.) Miller’s character is short-changed by the script, though, as are Elle Fanning and Zoe Saldana, with the film’s cruel final twist ensuring that this thoroughly mediocre effort leaves a sour aftertaste.

Rep Cinema Discovery of the Week
The Boy with Green Hair (Joseph Losey, 1948) BFI Southbank, 35mm
Joseph Losey made his directorial debut with this bizarre anti-war parable disguised as a whimsical family film. Opening with the startling sight of young Peter (Dean Stockwell, baby-faced here, though already an experienced screen actor by this point) with a completely shaven head, the film recounts Peter's sad story through flashbacks as he shares it with Dr. Evans (an underused Robert Ryan). Orphaned during the war, Peter found himself being despatched from one foster home to another until he ends up with Gramps (Pat O'Brien), a blarney-spouting, shillelagh-waving entertainer who dotes on the boy. However, his happiness is disrupted by his hair inexplicably turning green one night, although we suspect it might have something to do with the stress of the ongoing war. In a beautifully constructed scene, Peter's anxiety grows as he overhears adults chattering about the conflict until it causes him to shatter a milk bottle; the adults chuckle over him, oblivious to his inner turmoil. This inner pain becomes external when his hair transforms, and Peter is made an outcast, his unnatural locks marking him as something 'other' to be viewed with suspicion and fear by the residents of this small American town. The Boy with Green Hair takes on an extra resonance when you consider Losey's experiences in the years to come, when he was blacklisted by HUAC and forced to continue his career in Europe, but aside from that thematic link, this feels like a strange outlier in his career. A bold attempt to deliver a postwar plea for peace in a fable aimed at younger audiences, the film blends some striking fantasy sequences – including one in which Peter is addressed by the war orphans his school has been raising money for – and some heavy-handed writing, and overall it possesses a curious power. Certainly, the scene in which Gramps acquiesces to pressure from the townsfolk and takes young Peter to have his head shaved is a depiction of betrayal that feels surprisingly raw and pointed. The film rather limps to the requisite happy ending after that impactful moment, which dulls the film's impact, but this is a fascinating curio nonetheless.

Rep Cinema Rediscovery of the Week
Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly) Prince Charles Cinema, 35mm
Every time I watch Singin’ in the Rain I hope to enjoy the Broadway Melody a little more. There’s no particular reason why I shouldn’t love this sequence as much as everything else in the picture – it’s staged and choreographed with just as much skill, and Cyd Charisse is there vamping up a storm – but it just feels so out of place. It stalls the film’s momentum at a crucial moment, particularly coming hot on the heels of the Good Morning and Singin’ in the Rain numbers, and it feels like it has been imposed on the film (indeed, it was a late addition at the behest of Arthur Freed) rather than serving the narrative or growing organically out of the characters and their situation. I always find my attention wandering during the whole “Gotta Dance!” business, and wishing we were spending more time with Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds instead. In fairness, this sequence does end with a great gag, when it cuts back from this reverie to Kelly describing his vision to studio head R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell), who responds with, "I can't quite visualise it.” Aside from that one particular sequence, what’s not to like? Singin’ in the Rain remains one of the most purely joyous experiences in cinema. That joy explodes from the screen in some of the most perfectly realised musical sequences ever crafted; Kelly, O’Connor and Reynolds move in perfect harmony, their dancing both graceful and witty, and sometimes – as in O’Connor’s acrobatic Make ‘em Laugh number – just confounding in its brilliance. Re-watching it this week, I’d forgotten how consistently funny it is, the playful exploration of cinema’s glamorous façade and the more complicated reality being set up with Kelly’s “Dignity…always dignity,” and the difficulties inherent in cinema’s transition from the silent era to sound being the basis for some priceless moments. In particular, the scene in which a microphone is positioned in various place on or around the screeching Lina (Jean Hagen) is a hoot, escalating brilliantly from humiliation to slapstick. Recent screenings of Singin’ in the Rain have all been from DCP so this opportunity to revisit the film on 35mm was a rare treat, and, aside from some rough reel changes, the print was a beauty, alive with dazzling, vivid colours. What a glorious feeling, indeed.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

My Week in Cinema - January 7th to 13th 2017

New Films Seen This Week
Endless Poetry (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
What a loss it was for cinema when Alejandro Jodorowsky failed to get a single film made for over twenty years, and what a joy it is for us that he is now back behind the camera. Endless Poetry is the second film in a planned trilogy about his own past, and it picks up exactly where The Dance of Reality left off. Young Alejandro moves with his family to Santiago where his stern father insists that he must study towards being a doctor, but Alejandro aspires to be an artist, despite his father's repeated insistence that anyone who dabbles in the arts must be a “faggot.” Alejandro falls in with a bohemian band of artists, finds a muse (who leads him by the cock and is played by the same actress who plays his mother), and has a series of Fellini-esque encounters and adventures, which unfold in a collection of episodes that just about adds up to a narrative. Endless Poetry sometimes feels like an old man rummaging through his memory banks and tossing whatever he finds onto the screen, but this is a clearly deeply personal endeavour for Jodorowsky as well as being a family affair (both father and son in the film are played by the director's two sons), and as wayward as it can appear, the film feels grounded in truth. Even in some of the most outré moments, such as Alejandro's romantic encounter with a menstruating dwarf, Jodorowsky and his committed cast find something real that gives it an emotional weight. Jodorowsky is both reviving and reshaping his past here, and the director appears onscreen himself at numerous points, including towards the end of the film, when he movingly orchestrates a reconciliation between father and son. He is 87 years old now but his direction is full of youthful verve and spirit here; he has great fun with the theatrical mise-en-scène (I loved the shadowy ninjas who stealthily move props around the characters) and, with the help of Christopher Doyle, he fills the screen with vibrant colours and eye-catching compositions. By the end of Endless Poetry I was eagerly anticipating the promised third instalment in this trilogy, but one wonders how and when we'll seen it; after all The Dance of Reality never received UK distribution and Endless Poetry was only funded thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign. We've failed Alejandro Jodorowsky enough times over the past couple of decades. He deserves the support required to bring this extraordinary late project to fruition.

Rep Cinema Discovery of the Week
Pink Floyd: The Wall (Alan Parker, 1982) Prince Charles Cinema, 70mm
For all of the surreal and spectacular images and memorable music in Pink Floyd: The Wall, my favourite moment came late in the film from an unlikely source. Bob Hoskins, playing a rock star's manager, bursts into a hotel room to discover his client comatose, having trashed the room and shaved off his eyebrows. What can you say in a situation like? Bob responds with an inimitable, “Fuck me!” It's one of the few moments of dialogue in a film that is otherwise driven by The Who's songs, with a loose story being woven into it concerning rock star Pink (Bob Geldof), who is plagued by his memories of his childhood and his fear of nuclear war, and who eventually goes insane. The Wall is a visual expression of Roger Waters' lyrics, and the imagery that Alan Parker and the animator Gerald Scarfe concoct between them has a visceral, grotesque edge that often still feels bold and striking. From the dead and dying bodies on the battlefield of World War II to the iconic sequence in which schoolchildren are fed through the meat grinder, from Pink's hotel breakdown to the climactic puppet trial, the film's individual sequences each have a distinctive style and mood but are assembled by editor Gerry Hambling – the film's real star – into something that hangs together better than you might expect. Seeing The Wall on a 70mm print (that looked really good, aside from a little colour fade) emphasised Parker's often inspired shot composition and movement of the camera, and I found the whole assault on my senses more invigorating and overwhelming than I ever could have imagined. Of course, this being a 1982 Alan Parker film adapted from a 1979 Pink Floyd album, The Wall has inevitable dated in places, but parts of it still feel chillingly pertinent. Certainly, the image of a fascist mob marching down the street in a quiet English suburb slapping “Britannia Rules OK” stickers onto car windows seemed to send a noticeable chill through the room at this screening.

Rep Cinema Rediscovery of the Week
Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993) ICA, 35mm
This is a very long film to be screened by the London Short Film Festival, but as part of the festival’s focus on Raymond Carver screen adaptations, it made sense to show Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, which is essentially a collection of short individual tales woven into a extraordinarily rich and expansive whole. This was the first Robert Altman film I ever saw, catching it on BBC2 one evening about 20 years ago with no knowledge of who Altman was, and I was instantly bowled over by it, having never seen a film that sprawled in this way, containing so many characters, so many stories, so much life. It has been superseded in my affections by many other Altman films in the subsequent years – including his other great ensemble movie Nashville – but nevertheless, this was a welcome revisit, and a reminder that Altman made films like nobody else. The film feels relaxed in its construction – there is none of the strident, propulsive energy of the later Altman-influenced Magnolia here – but it is constantly moving, with camera always probing and shifting curiously around these characters and the editing skilfully sustaining a consistently involving rhythm as it flips between its numerous stories. It’s a sensational feat of filmmaking, but Altman would surely have been the first to tell you that this is an actor’s picture. More than anything else, Short Cuts is a fascinating examination of human behaviour, and Altman is always alive to capturing moments, reactions, gestures or line deliveries that reveal subtle details of character. Clear standouts include Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore and particularly Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits, but almost everyone is doing good-to-great work, and – given the size and range of the ensemble – the cohesive level of performance they achieve is remarkable. Not every performer here benefits from having the same richness to draw from in terms of their own plot or motivation, and Short Cuts has more false notes and unsatisfying payoffs than Nashville or Gosford Park, but taken as a whole cinema experience, and as a representation of Robert Altman’s unique philosophy and style, it’s still something special.

Friday, January 06, 2017

My Week in Cinema - January 1st to 6th 2017

New Films Seen This Week
Assassin's Creed (Justin Kurzel)
The films of Justin Kurzel have been relentlessly dour thus far, which is perhaps unsurprising given his choice of subject matter. Snowtown and Macbeth were both brutal tales full of violence, but Assassin's Creed is an action-packed, time-travelling video game adaptation! Shouldn't it be a little bit fun? Sadly, 'fun' doesn't appear to be in Kurzel's repertoire. In Assassin's Creed, a number of fine actors spend an awful lot of time standing around, peering impassively through windows and flatly delivering expositional dialogue. They all seem to be waiting for something to happen, and when it does it's not really worth waiting for. When Cal (Michael Fassbender) is transported back to 1492 and into the body of his ancestor, a shadowy assassin determined to stop the Knights Templar from finding the Apple of Eden, the film collapses into a series of CGI-enhanced fight and chase sequences – sometimes taking on the structure and style of a video game – that have been edited into complete incoherence. None of this overblown nonsense seems to sit well with Kurzel, and even the director's keen eye has deserted him here: the 15th century scenes are all cast in dull browns and yellows and shrouded in smoke, while the modern-day section of the film is set in a steely grey/blue generic scientific facility. There is some talk in Assassin's Creed of free will versus our willingness to give up our freedoms for our security, but it's hard to know what Kurzel, the three screenwriters, and the powers that be at Fox are trying to say or do here; the film is so stylistically confused and so bogged down with the dreary machinations of its own confounding plot. Perhaps Fox once had thoughts of starting a blockbuster franchise with this film – the ending certainly implies further adventures are forthcoming – but their decision to dump it in January feels like more of a mercy killing.

A Monster Calls (J. A. Bayona)
If the numbers available on the internet are to be believed, A Monster Calls cost roughly a third of Assassin's Creed, and yet the visuals are more impressive and imaginative than anything Kurzel's film can muster. The Monster at the centre of the film is a huge and strikingly rendered creature that emerges from an ancient yew tree outside the house of Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall), and when he tells Conor his fantastical tales they are brought to life on the screen through watercolour-style images that reflect the artistic bent shared by Conor and his dying mother (Felicity Jones). It's easy to admire the sense of ambition behind J. A. Bayona's adaptation of the novel by Patrick Ness, as it attempts to tell a story about the importance of facing up to grief that can appeal to a younger audience; in fact, there's plenty to admire about A Monster Calls – the filmmaking and the performances are solid throughout – but the film never really comes together at all. While he has been wonderfully animated, and is voiced with suitable gravitas by Liam Neeson, the Monster proves to be a bit of a one-note mentor, and his parables repetitively hammer home the same ideas, until it comes as something of a relief when the third story is oddly curtailed. The fantasy and reality elements of the movie fail to mesh in any interesting way and they feel like two disparate movies awkwardly stuck together. The film is on slightly firmer ground in the real world, but the characters have no sense of inner life and no dimensions beyond what we are initially presented with; only Sigourney Weaver – introduced as an uptight harridan, just so she can soften – gives her character any kind of emotional shading. A Monster Calls feels fatally torn between bombast and emotion, delivering spectacular set-pieces but failing to give the characters the depth required to make their wrenching situations hit home. It builds to a noisy climax that seems determined to extract tears from the audience by sheer force, and it's hard to avoid getting caught up in the spectacle, but instead of feeling moved by Conor's story I just felt bludgeoned and frustrated by a showy, empty spectacle.

Rep Cinema Discovery of the Week
Jailhouse Rock (Richard Thorpe, 1957) Prince Charles Cinema, 35mm
There's not much to beat black-and-white CinemaScope on a nice 35mm print. What surprised me about this simplistic but enjoyable star vehicle is how unlikable Elvis is for most of the film’s running time. He kills a guy (albeit accidentally, and in defence of a woman) in the film’s opening moments, he is sent to jail where he becomes a star through a nationally televised talent show (?), and then he is freed to begin his singing career, where he arrogantly discards anyone who helped him along the way. “How dare you think such cheap tactics would work with me!” Peggy (Judy Tyler), his promoter and partner, complains after he has roughly kissed her. “That ain't tactics, honey. It's just the beast in me,” he replies. He’s surly and inconsiderate to everyone he meets, and the comic highlight of the movie comes when he causes a ruckus at a dinner party after the posh guests ask him for his opinion on Jazz (“Lady, I don't know what the hell you're talking about!”). A punch in the throat eventually straightens this young buck out right at the end of the movie. In his third feature, Presley is actually pretty good in the lead role. His undeniable star quality carries the movie and everyone else involved the picture is conscious of the fact that they are simply there to support him. MGM workhorse director Richard Thorpe doesn’t do anything imaginative with the CinemaScope frame, he simply keeps things chugging along from one scene to the next, and the only person who threatens to steal the young king’s limelight is the charming Tyler, with whom he shares a sparky chemistry. Tragically, what looked set to be a breakthrough role for the young actress proved to be her swansong, as she and her husband were killed in a car crash before the film opened. “Nothing has hurt me as bad in my life,” Elvis later said. “All of us boys really loved that girl… I don’t believe I can stand to see that movie we made together now, just don’t believe I can.”

Rep Cinema Rediscovery of the Week
The Color of Money (Martin Scorsese, 1986) BFI Southbank, 35mm
The Color of Money might not be peak Scorsese, but it’s certainly undervalued Scorsese. A studio gig that the director took in the mid-80s as he tried to get The Last Temptation of Christ off the ground, the film feels more inconsequential than most of his pictures but it also feels loose and liberated. It’s a fun movie, and part of the fun is in watching two very different movie stars at the opposite ends of their career playing off each other. Reprising the ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson character 25 years after The Hustler, Paul Newman has a weary, seen-it-all quality here, but a chance encounter with Tom Cruise’s sensationally talented Vince gets his juices flowing again. Cruise is all cocky swagger, but there’s also a naïve, petulant quality that comes through in his performance, particularly when Eddie toys with his emotions over his relationship with the savvier Carmen (an excellent Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Vince knows how to play pool, but Eddie knows the secret is to play people, and the film is very absorbing when it focuses on these three complex, vividly realised characters and the fascinating dynamic between them (Helen Shaver, as Eddie’s on-off girlfriend, never quite comes to life). The pool sequences are exhilarating, with Michael Ballhaus’s camera roving around the players and Thelma Schoonmaker cutting shots together into a blizzard of clicking balls. The Color of Money runs a little too long but it’s a great piece of entertainment; slick, smart and superbly made. In an age when unnecessary sequels resurrecting decades-old characters are de rigueur, we can only dream of them being made with such artistry, being aimed at adults, or being built around a movie star who can command the screen as effortlessly as Newman does here.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Moonlight in The Skinny

Barry Jenkins' Moonlight arrives in UK cinemas on February 17th and I recently had the pleasure of meeting the affable and articulate director to talk about his beautiful film. You can read my interview with him as well as my reviews of Martin Scorsese's Silence and Jeff Nichols' Loving in the current north of England issue of The Skinny, which is available in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester now.