Monday, April 06, 2020

Lockdown Viewing - March 30th to April 5th

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright 2012)
I felt an inexplicable urge to watch Joe Wright's Anna Karenina again recently. I'm not sure what I was expecting from it, as I hadn't really cared for it in 2012 and little of Wright's subsequent work had given me cause for reevaluation. It’s an enormously frustrating picture because I can admire much of what Wright is trying to do within the framework of his theatrical conceit, and there are times when he pulls off a virtuoso camera move or a complex piece of choreography that deserve applause. Ultimately, however, that’s all Anna Karenina amounts to. It’s a series of bold maneouvres and ambitious ideas that never coheres, and for a film determined to flow from one scene to the next – with scene transitions happening on the fly – it feels so disjointed. It was always likely to be a shallow and truncated adaptation, but Wright and Tom Stoppard never seem to have a grasp on the balance or pacing of the story, and both the primary and secondary narratives end up feeling underdeveloped. One of the key problems lies in the casting. The decision to cast Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky looks even more laughable now than it did then, and although she makes a fair stab at it, I think the title role was too much for Keira Knightley. The film’s real success stories lie in the supporting roles. Jude Law is marvelous as the dignified, wounded Karenin, and Alicia Vikander grabs her opportunity to light up the film every time she appears as Kitty. A star was obviously being born. I'd like to see her Anna Karenina some day.

Getting Straight (Richard Rush, 1970)
Getting Straight is talk, talk, talk. The characters in Richard Rush’s film are constantly arguing, debating, monologuing and cracking wise. It might have all become too cacophonous to bear if it wasn’t for two key factors. First of all, the protagonist Harry Bailey – a sardonic Vietnam vet returning to college to secure his master’s degree – is played by prime-form Elliott Gould, who keeps us engaged no matter how arrogant, pompous and misogynistic his character can be. The second factor that keeps us hooked into the picture is Rush’s incredibly vibrant direction. Working with Laszlo Kovacs, he finds imaginative ways to frame every scene through his blocking, his use of architecture and, above all, through some spectacular rack focus work. Seriously, I can’t remember the last time I saw so many focus pulls in a single film; there must be a dozen in some of these shots. Emerging from the burnout, disillusionment and fog of the end of the ‘60s, Getting Straight is a fascinating time capsule. I’m not sure if it all really works, and I found a lot of it unconvincing (especially Harry’s climactic explosion over The Great Gatsby) but it’s impossible to look away from this movie, and the ending has the same potent ‘burn it all down’ quality that characterises so many films of this era. Getting Straight made over $13 million and was the 21st highest-grossing film of 1970, which is a remarkable thing to consider from today's point of view.

Man Trouble (Bob Rafelson, 1992)
Hopes must have been sky-high for a film that reunited the director, screenwriter and star of Five Easy Pieces, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Man Trouble is a confounding mess. It’s not just the fact that it’s a bad movie, but it feels like three or four bad movies are happening at once. On one level the film is an attempt at an old-fashioned screwball romance, but stodgy pace and the lack of chemistry between Jack Nicholson and Ellen Barkin kill its chances of ever getting off the ground. Barkin appears to have been directed to flip into hysterics at the slightest provocation, while Nicholson operates on autopilot. To be fair, the actors might just have been confused by the way their character dynamics seem to transform from one scene to the next, with the film adopting a different style and tone every ten minutes. I know I was confused. There’s a subplot about a serial axe murderer that doesn’t go anywhere, and an equally baffling detour in which Barkin’s sister Beverly D'Angelo is kidnapped and held in a psychiatric hospital because some powerful men want a tell-all transcript she’s writing, or something. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also a running gag about a horny dog that keeps trying to shag people. Man Trouble has a cracking cast - Harry Dean Stanton, Michael McKean, Saul Rubinek and Veronica Cartwright all make appearances – but nobody seems entirely sure what their role is supposed to be. A bewildering misfire. 

Movie Crazy (Clyde Bruckman, 1932)
This was Harold Lloyd’s first foray into talking pictures, and despite some occasional stiffness, it’s generally a very smooth transition. The film pokes fun at our bespectacled hero’s inappropriateness as a big screen leading man. He is a dreamer hoping to break into pictures, who gets his opportunity when a mix-up over his headshot leads to him being invited to the studio for a screen test. Lloyd does have some fun with sound effects – notably in the way the audio speeds up as his various screen tests are run through – but Movie Crazy succeeds primarily because its best gags are inventive visual sequences that you could easily imagine him constructing in the silent era. He creates slapstick havoc when he stumbles into a production as soon as he arrives in Hollywood, and in the film’s comic highlight he accidentally wears a magician’s jacket to a party, looking increasingly bewildered as he pulls rabbits and doves from its hidden pockets. Movie Crazy offers an amusing dual role to Constance Cummings, who toys with Harold’s emotions as both an actress and the character she’s playing in a film; Harold isn’t aware that they’re the same woman, and he fears he’s cheating on one with the other. But what really distinguishes the film is the elegant style that Lloyd and director Clyde Bruckman (a frequent collaborator with both Lloyd and Buster Keaton) bring to the film. Rather than being constrained by the newfangled recording techniques, they keep the camera mobile, incorporating a series of impressive tracking shots, notably the one that builds up to the spectacular climactic fight on the deck of a ship.

Wife (Mikio Naruse, 1953)
The stark title could stand for a number of Mikio Naruse films, but in its opening scenes, Wife gives equal weight to the inner thoughts of both partners in a failing marriage. Mihoko (Mieko Takamine) and Toichi (Ken Uehara) have been married ten years and whatever spark their relationship once had has long faded. Neither party seems able to address this directly, however, and instead they both sit in silent resentment, stewing in their private emotions. The actors find small, telling details in their interactions that accentuate their mutual dissatisfaction, and when Toichi is driven into the arms of a co-worker she is young, cultured and modern – she represents a sharp contrast with his wife. Naruse surrounds the central couple with vividly sketched and equally poignant portraits of marital discord – one woman despairs of her unemployed and often drunk husband; another is devastated by her husband’s relationship with a prostitute – and he brilliantly weaves in and out of these narratives to create a tapestry of sadness, frustration and lost hopes. Wife is structured to open and close with scenes that echo each other, emphasising the hopeless situation that these characters find themselves in. Mihoko might have won the victory over her young rival, in a beautifully acted confrontation, but she has only condemned herself to many more years in a loveless union that won’t make anybody happy.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Lockdown Viewing - March 23rd to 29th

It has been more than two weeks since I last saw a film on the big screen (The Godfather on 35mm, not a bad way to bow out), and that’s probably the longest period I’ve endured without going to the cinema since… I started going to the cinema. These are strange times and I’ve felt very depressed and destabilised over the past couple of weeks. Going to cinemas, art galleries, theatres and watching football constitutes 90% of what I do outside of work, so having all of that suddenly ripped away from me is a loss that has taken some time to digest and recover from. In theory, one could see this as a whole lot of unexpected free time to take advantage of, but in practice I’ve felt too lost and restless to properly sit down and focus on reading or writing anything. Even the simple pleasure of going to a café for a couple of hours with a book, one of my key methods of relaxation, is no longer an option.

But there’s no point wallowing in despair; after all, life isn’t going to get back to normal any time in the immediate future. I’m trying to be more disciplined and structured in how I fill my hours, to spend less time following the (never good) news and more time catching up with films that are either unseen by me or long overdue for a revisit. I thought it would help to share my brief thoughts on these films, and to maybe inspire you to seek them out for your own home viewing, so look out for an update every Monday for however long this situation will continue for.

I hope everyone reading this is keeping safe and well.

Apache Drums (Hugo Fregonese, 1951)
This low-budget western is notable for being Val Lewton's last production. It lacks any major stars and takes place in a handful of locations, but it’s a surprisingly rich and moving film about prejudice, community and sacrifice. Stephen McNally is very good as the gambler banished from a small frontier town, only to become the town's saviour when he returns to warn them about a band of marauding Apaches heading their way. David Chandler’s concise screenplay film skilfully sets up a number of tensions in the first half of the film – primarily between McNally and upright stick-in-the-mud mayor Willard Parker – and these tensions are carried into the climactic siege, which dominates the last half-hour of this 76-minute film. Director Hugo Fregonese has a strong sense of composition and he builds tension beautifully, doing some sensational work in the siege itself, with quiet moments of dread being punctuated by flurries of action, as the warpaint-clad Indians leap out of the darkness. The stark and expressive lighting adds to the sense of claustrophobia and fear. An impressive piece of work all round.

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (Robert Altman, 1988)
I’ve seen and enjoyed almost all of the stage adaptations that Robert Altman directed during his wilderness years of the '80s. What’s so striking about these productions is that Altman doesn’t make any real attempt to open these films beyond their obvious stage origins. Instead, he turns them into cinematic through his imaginative use of the camera and his attention to his ensemble’s performances, and both of these attributes are on display in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, a television film he directed in 1988. It has a terrific young cast: Jeff Daniels as the sailor accused of mutiny, Eric Bogosian as his reluctant defence counsel, Peter Gallagher as the prosecuting lawyer and Brad Davis as Queeg, the captain whose authority Daniels usurped. The play is essentially a series of long cross-examinations, but Altman never lets it settle into stasis; his camera is always prowling around the gymnasium in which this trial is taking place, looking for a fresh perspective. He sometimes slips away from the person speaking to rest on the faces of those listening, and he’ll allow background and foreground noise to intermingle, all of which pushes us to lean in and pick out key details. The actors relish the meaty monologues offered by Herman Wouk’s superb play, none more so than Brad Davis, whose crack-up in the second half is painful to watch but utterly riveting.

Deconstructing Harry (Woody Allen, 1997)
Astonishingly bitter. It feels like Woody took every criticism that had been levelled at him and piled them all into one character, a novelist who exploits his real-life relationships in his art, habitually discarding those lovers once he's through with them and has moved on to a younger model. The film is edgy and frantic, all handheld camerawork and jagged cuts, and there's something disorienting right from the start in the way the classic Woody credits are repeatedly disrupted. He lets some of his actors off the leash in a tremendously enjoyable way, notably Judy Davis as a betrayed lover and Kirstie Alley as his ex-wife (I love the scene where Alley berates him for fucking her patient, while the camera stays in her office with her latest patient nervously listening). There are also skits that feel like his short stories dropped into the middle of the main Philip Roth-like narrative, such as Tobey Maguire using a friend's apartment to hire a prostitute and then having to face Death, or Robin Williams as an actor literally going out of focus. All of this adds up to a strange, acidic brew, and I'm not sure it quite hangs together, but it's certainly one of the most fascinating entries from the post-scandal years, and it contains some very funny lines: "You have no values. With you it's all nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm, and orgasm." "In France I could run for office with that slogan and win!”

eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1990)
I don't think I'd seen this film until just after it first came out and I'd forgotten how much fun it is. Is it Cronenberg's funniest movie? He has so much fun with the sexual innuendo around the anus-like bio-ports, and Jude Law's panicky performance in the first half of the film is a hoot. It’s such a fleet and exciting picture too, zipping from one location to the next and blurring the real and the virtual until it’s impossible for us or the characters to tell them apart – the film’s closing line is inevitably, “Hey, tell me the truth. Are we still in the game?” The whole sequence in the Chinese restaurant in particular is brilliantly put together. I re-watched Videodrome at the tail end of last year and it really is remarkable how potent and prescient both of these movies feel, as they explore the notions of our constructed realities and how technology can warp and mediate our most personal relationships and intimate activities. Above all else, I just really responded to how fleshy and organic eXistenZ feels, with the technological devices all appearing as extensions (eXtensionZ?) of our own biology. It has been six years since both Maps to the Stars and his novel Consumed (which reminded me a little of eXistenZ) and I miss David Cronenberg very much.

The Scout (Michael Ritchie, 1994)
A compromised and frustrating Michael Ritchie-directed baseball comedy from 1994, starring Albert Brooks as a New York Yankees scout banished to Mexico after too many of his prospects flop. In a tiny Mexican town, he discovers a young player (Brendan Fraser) who might be the greatest ever - he pitches at 100mph every time, and he clears the stadium with every swing of his bat. The early scenes of Brooks bumbling his way around Mexico and then bringing the childlike but volatile Fraser back to New York, are pretty funny, and for a while I thought this film might be better than its reputation suggested, particularly when Dianne Wiest showed up as Fraser's therapist. But it grows increasingly slack and tedious, getting bogged down in the Fraser character’s poorly defined mental issues. The laughs dry up and the (apparently studio-enforced) ending is just disastrous. It seems The Scout underwent a lot of rewrites during its two-decade development (originally Peter Falk and Jim Belushi were lined up to star in the late-70s), and each rewrite took it further away from the evocative Roger Angell New Yorker article that had originally inspired it.

A Shock to the System (Jan Egleson, 1990)
Michael Caine stars as an ageing advertising executive passed over for promotion in favour of a younger man, and feeling himself increasingly sidelined and undermined at work and at home. His response, of course, is to start murdering his way to the top! A Shock to the System reminded me of Costa-Gavras's excellent Donald Westlake adaptation The Axe, which unfortunately never got released in the UK, and Caine is on prime form here as a character letting his innate nastiness gradually emerge, particularly as he begins to get away with his increasingly elaborate crimes and starts to see himself as untouchable. The film is directed with style and wit and boast a number of fine supporting performances, including Peter Riegert as Caine’s corporate rival, Elizabeth McGovern as his love interest and Will Patton as a dogged but ineffective detective. It might end up feeling a bit slight at the end of it all, but A Shock to the System is a very entertaining and tightly constructed 90 minutes. 

Sunday, March 08, 2020

The Great Buster: A Celebration - Preview and Q&A

As some of you may already be aware, I'm rather fond of the films of Buster Keaton, so I've been looking forward to Peter Bogdanovich's new documentary The Great Buster: A Celebration for some time. I saw it recently and it's a very entertaining and touching tribute to this comic genius. The film is full of great clips - including some footage that I hadn't seen before - and it features contributions from a number of filmmakers, historians and fans. It offers some lovely nuggets of information and illuminating details for Keaton aficionados, and it is a perfect introduction for anyone coming to his work for the first time.

The Great Buster: A Celebration will be released in UK cinemas on March 20th, and it will have a preview screening at the Bertha Dochouse on March 18th. After the film, I'll be hosting a Q&A with historian David MacLeod, the co-founder of Buster Keaton appreciation society The Blinking Buzzards, and author of the book The Sound of Buster Keaton.

You can buy your tickets here and I hope you'll join us on the 18th to celebrate The Great Buster!

UPDATE: Due to the Coronavirus situation this event has now been cancelled, along with everything else. It has been an unbelievably depressing experience to receive one email after another announcing the closure of another cinema or gallery space, and I can only hope that these venues and their staff can survive the coming weeks without suffering too much hardship. The sooner we can get back to some kind of normality and get back to supporting our favourite cinemas and arts organisations, the better. Stay safe, everyone.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

End of the Century

Argentine writer-director director Lucio Castro has chosen a familiar template for his debut feature End of the Century. Two strangers meet in a foreign land. They talk, they wander around the city, they tumble into bed and they try to figure out if this is the real thing or just a brief encounter. It's a template that works but can also use some freshening up, and Castro shakes it in a few interesting ways. First of all, Ocho (Juan Barberini) and Javi (Ramón Pujol) take care of the sex before sitting down for the getting-to-know-you phase, and it's during this post-coital conversation that they gradually realise they already do know each other, having met and had sex in the same city twenty years earlier.

When this realisation kicks in it triggers a long flashback, in which we see Ocho arriving in Barcelona for the first time, but you'd be forgiven for initially thinking that we're being taken back two weeks rather than two decades. Castro doesn't make any attempt to de-age his middle-aged actors, and while this effect is disconcerting it effectively establishes End of the Century as a subjective memory piece, with Ocho placing himself inside his hazy recollection of the past. Would  it really be so hazy, though? During this trip, Ocho first gave in to the homosexual stirrings inside him, first following a man into the woods to receive a nerve-wracking blowjob, before hooking up with Javi (also nominally straight and attached at this point) a few nights later. Is it convincing that Ocho would have forgotten these significant first gay experiences? Even when he finds Javi wearing the same KISS t-shirt twenty years on? A film like End of the Century needs an audience to buy into it, but too many of its details just didn't ring true.

The t-shirt is one of the motifs that links past and present; we see Javi finding it in the street, presuming it has fallen from an overhead washing line, and proceeding to take it home and wear it. This is one of many echoes and ironies that Castro lays across the boundaries of his two timelines. In their youthful conversation, Ocho discusses his desire to have kids while Javi dismisses the idea, but it's Javi who ends up married with a child; when Ocho has his first sexual encounter with a man he immediately panics and fears that he has contracted AIDS, but twenty years on it is he who is happy to have sex without a condom. These connections are cute but they signify little, and Castro seems content to let them serve as character development instead of digging deeper. The two men have plenty of time to talk but their conversation is banal and the camera is too often static as it watches them. As I watched End of the Century I thought of films like In the City of Sylvia and Certified Copy, but those films had a sense of visual elegance – of the camera being in tune with the characters' rhythm – that's absent here. Bernat Mestres' cinematography in general feels rather listless.

Just when End of the Century starts to grow a little stagnant, Castro pulls his boldest manoeuvre, with a final third that falls somewhere between dream and reality. It feels reminiscent of the climax to The Last Temptation of Christ and it introduces a sense of the uncanny that elevates the film, but again I think it stops short of landing on something really resonant. There are some poignant reflections in End of the Century on time and memory, the choices we make and the countless paths not taken, but the whole film is so delicate and measured in its construction, and so determinedly quiet in its tonal register, it never cuts through the surface. For all of its formal audacity, Castro's film ends up feeling too neat, contained and self-satisfied. One unexpected side-effect of the film's unwaveringly understated approach is that an innocuous scene in which a character steps on a squeaky toy made the whole audience jump in unison sadly, it was the only time the film provoked a genuine emotional reaction from me.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Cinema Round-Up - Midnight Family / The Public / Like a Boss

A new entry in the Fast and Furious series will be crashing noisily into cinemas this summer, but will it offer anything to match the high-speed races between ambulances that Luke Lorentzen captured in Midnight Family? The ambulances aren't racing towards the scene of an accident so they can assist each other; they're each trying to get there first, knowing that this is the only way they are going to get paid. Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic, informing us that in Mexico City – population nine million – the state runs less than 45 ambulances. This has led to an industry of independent private ambulances springing up to fill the gaps, and one of these is run by the Ochoa family, with whom Lorentzen embedded himself for three years, hunched down in the back of their ambulance and capturing the dramatic events with his phone.

This phone was often attached to the ambulance's hood, watching the faces of Juan Ochoa and his teenage son Fer as they negotiate the city's traffic, with Juan shouting through the loudspeaker to try and clear people who have taken no notice of the siren. Late in the film, this vantage point presents us with a distraught mother as she rides up front while her young daughter receives treatment in the back. It's the film's most unbearably gripping sequence, but Lorentzen has a keen sense of what to show us and what to look away from. He generally views patients from behind or lets us glimpse them in the edges of the frame while focusing on the Ochoas. As one patient lies on a gurney while waiting to be transported into the hospital, her two arms briefly extend into the shot from beneath the frame, as she examines her bloodstained hands. Perhaps she's trying to come to terms with what has happened to her. Maybe she's wondering how much this is going to end up costing.

Despite the amount of time he spent filming, Lorentzen has been judicious with his footage. Midnight Family runs for a shade over 80 minutes and Lorentzen, who edited the film himself, gives it a narrative shape through an escalating series of crises that the Ochoa family has to negotiate. They live from incident to incident with no idea how much they are going to make in a single night, and on many occasions they barely recoup enough to pay for their nightly meal. Given their perilous situation, they inevitably begin encouraging patients to opt for a private hospital, where they will have a better chance of getting paid, even if the state facility is closer. As they pick up more critically ill patients, this question takes on life-and-death ramifications; their own desperation is pushing them to exploit people in a desperate situation, and while he shoots with empathy, Lorentzen also gives us plenty of room to ponder the ethics of the family's tactics.

Midnight Family is both tight and loose. Lorentzen knows when to ramp up the tension but he also gives us a sense of the long hours spent waiting for a call, and he's fortunate that the family he has chosen to follow are so engaging. In particular, teenager Juan provides an entertaining running gag as he breathlessly narrates the evening's action in regular phone calls to his unseen girlfriend, while his younger brother Josué prefers riding in the ambulance and helping out with the family business to doing his homework or even going to school. Josué's desire to be at the heart of this drama is perfectly understandable, but we are left wondering what the future holds for him, his family and this city. The current situation, caused by institutional failure and driven by desperation, doesn't appear to be serving anyone, least of all those most in need.
Institutional failure lies at the heart of The Public too, but this sedate drama is unlikely to get any viewers' pulses racing, or to leave any ambiguities for audiences to ponder as the credits roll. Emilio Estevez wrote and directed the film, as well as starring in the lead role, and he makes his points emphatically and repeatedly: homelessness is bad, libraries are good. The Public is about a group of homeless people, who habitually use the Cincinatti Public Library as a de facto shelter during the day and one day refuse to leave when the library closes. They instead decide to occupy the space, staging a peaceful protest against the city's lack of sufficient shelters, which has led to a number of deaths during a recent cold snap; but despite the massed ranks of police and media outside, and dark mutterings of how these situations “never end well,” the film never develops any tension. Estevez's writing is too blunt and simplistic, and his direction lacks urgency. He builds a number of subplots into the narrative, like Alec Balwin's search for his missing son (you'll never guess where he shows up!) or Estevez's own unlikely romance with Taylor Schilling, but these threads only serve to pad out the running time rather than illuminating our understanding of the characters, who remain resolutely one-dimensional throughout. Estevez gives us clear heroes and villains here, with the most notable villains being a perma-sneering Christian Slater as a slick mayoral candidate and Gabrielle Union's fame-hungry TV reporter. When Estevez quotes a chunk of The Grapes of Wrath during a news broadcast, the good guys – like his assistant (Jena Malone) – get it, while Slater and Union just give us a “What the hell was that?!” reaction.

All of this may serve to suggest that The Public is a bad movie  and, well, yeah it kind of is  but as it unfolded I found myself warming to it more than I expected to. There's something endearing about its unabashed sincerity and while it's never really exciting or moving, it's no hardship to spend time in the company of actors like Baldwin, Slater or Jeffrey Wright, many of whom do decent work despite the insufficient writing. Best of all is Michael K. Williams as the homeless rebels' ringleader. So often better than the material he's given, Williams is the kind of actor who is capable of single-handedly altering the energy of a scene, and boy do a number of scenes in The Public need the kind of charge he can deliver. I don't think Emilio Estevez is a good enough filmmaker to give a social issues movie like this the gravitas and edge it needs to fire up an audience, but he is a good enough filmmaker to make the kind of gentle, pandering movie that exerts a moderate hold on our attention for two hours before quickly dissipating from memory, and that's the level The Public works on. I have to give him credit for one unexpected move, though. In a film that offers very few surprises, I did not anticipate Estevez's own bare buttocks being so central to the (quite silly) climax. Just when I think he's playing everything too safe, the man literally puts his ass on the line.
I watched Like a Boss for one thing and one thing only: Rose Byrne. You owe me one, Rose. Her innate sense of timing sparks a couple of amusing moments in this shambolic affair, and she develops a lively dynamic with Tiffany Haddish that may be worth revisiting in a better film, but no comic talents could save a project so misbegotten. Like a Boss exhibits all of the dismal traits that are familiar from too many modern studio comedies: slapdash plotting, boilerplate framing and editing, incoherent characterisation, ugly lighting, wall-to-wall muzak, a trite empowerment/friendship message, and so many dead spots. I'd love to know what script encouraged this many talented performers to sign on, because there is little evidence of it in these 83 choppy minutes. Byrne and Haddish play lifelong friends who run a struggling independent makeup business together, but their personalities and levels of intelligence seem to fluctuate from scene-to-scene, and the plot conceived by cosmetics queen Claire Luna (Salma Hayek as a Jessica Rabbit/Miranda Priestly hybrid, but not as much fun as that sounds) to steal their best product is similarly incomprehensible. This cast is too talented to not raise a few chuckles – and Billy Porter gets the film's one standout comic bit – but the actors mostly appear stranded, shouting their lines into a void and desperately trying to improv some life into half-baked material. The film's ending is an embarrassment for every single person involved, including Lisa Kudrow, who turns up for a baffling one-minute cameo. As the credits began I looked out for the name of the director – just to check the film had one – and I was dispirited to see Miguel Arteta credited. He's a filmmaker who has done sharp, perceptive work in the past, including another recent collaboration with Salma Hayek, the sly and thorny Beatriz at Dinner. I'd advise anyone reading this to skip the fiasco currently polluting cinemas and seek out that earlier film instead.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Ace in the Hole

To mark the passing of Kirk Douglas last week at the age of 103, here's something I wrote on what I consider to be his greatest role, as the ruthless journalist Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder's ultra-cynical masterpiece Ace in the Hole. This article was originally published on Mostly Film in 2014.
On April 18th 1948, The New York Times published an article entitled “The Happy Union of Brackett and Wilder.” The piece was timed to mark the imminent release of two films on which Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder had collaborated – The Emperor Waltz and A Foreign Affair – and to celebrate their enormously successful decade of working together. They had established a degree of freedom and control over their pictures that was exceptional for filmmakers in the studio era, and Wilder told the paper that they were “The happiest couple in Hollywood.” On the evidence of that article, most people would have surely assumed that the Brackett and Wilder team was set to run and run, but it wasn’t to be.

Within two years of the article’s publication, the Brackett-Wilder union was surprisingly dissolved following the release of Sunset Boulevard, which was a critical, commercial and Oscar-winning triumph. “The success of Sunset may have been part of our problem. Where do you go from there?” Wilder asked, and perhaps they did feel that their work together had reached a natural end, but there had also been a degree of tension behind that apparently happy façade. Clashes of taste were common between the earthy and cynical ex-newspaper man Wilder and his more refined partner, and they had temporarily split once before, when Brackett decided that the subject matter and the characters of Double Indemnity were simply too sordid for him to be involved in. One can’t help wondering what he would have made of the first film Wilder directed after their relationship had come to an end.

Ace in the Hole feels like the most concentrated dose of Billy Wilder’s worldview. He presents us with a situation that can only be resolved by people working together towards a common goal, and he fills it with characters defined by their avarice, selfishness and shortsightedness. At a time when a hero is required, Wilder gives us Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), who swaggers into the offices of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin determined to secure a position. “I can handle big news and little news” he tells his prospective employer, “And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” He talks almost boastfully of having been fired from papers in three cities for various infractions, but there’s something undeniably seductive about his wisecracking arrogance, and it initially seems as if Wilder is setting him up as a roguish, maverick anti-hero. However, we soon find out how truly dangerous a man like Chuck Tatum can be.

After a miserable year spent ankle-deep in ‘little news’, Tatum finally stumbles across the big one when he happens to be the first man on the scene of an accident that has left Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) trapped in a mountain cave. Tatum quickly makes a show of organising the rescue effort, but his thoughts are only on one thing – spinning this story into something sensational. He figures out the human interest angle, forms an unsteady alliance with Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) – even though this canny and callous blonde is hardly the type to play the tearful spouse that he requires – and, crucially, he forces the contractor coordinating the dig to opt for the riskier method of extraction, because that will take longer. “Floyd Collins lasted 18 days” Chuck says wistfully, “if I had just one week of this…”

Floyd Collins was a cave explorer who became trapped in a narrow passage in Sand Cave, Kentucky in 1925. Despite the best efforts of rescuers above the surface, Collins died of thirst and exposure before he could be reached, but in the period between his accident and death he had become a media sensation. William Burke Miller was a reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal who was sent to cover the incident and began filing regular reports from the scene, even managing to crawl into the cave to speak with Collins, pray with him and bring him food. He was rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize, which Tatum is quick to mention to his photographer as a Machiavellian plan takes shape in his mind.

Billy Wilder had enjoyed success in previous years by casting actors like Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland against type, but here takes a he different approach and maximises his star’s singular assets. Douglas’s shark-like grin has rarely seemed as devilish as it does here, with Tatum’s eyes shining brightly in the dark cave as opportunity knocks, and the star dives into his unscrupulous character with evident relish, making him simultaneously an attractive and repellent figure. What’s remarkable about Ace in the Hole, though, is that Chuck Tatum is far from the only abhorrent character on show.

It would have been easy for Wilder to set Ace in the Hole up as an attack on the press, but that’s not what the film is about. Everywhere you look in this picture there are people who take one glance at Leo Minosa’s predicament and start thinking about what they can get out of it. Lorraine sees money pouring in from tourists and begins imagining a new life in New York away from her husband; the local sheriff thinks about how he can use this to aid his re-election; even a visiting family is keen to taste the spotlight by telling reporters that they were first on the scene. The area around the cave becomes not just a media circus but a literal circus, with a big wheel going up on site, vendors selling their wares, and families gathering for this festival of rubbernecking. With Ace in the Hole, Wilder is sticking the knife into all of us. And it still stings.

Ace in the Hole is a film about a media fuelled by sensation and a public scrambling desperately to claim a piece of the pie. When it was released in 1951 it had its roots in recent events (as well as the Floyd Collins story, Wilder was inspired by Kathy Fiscus and the Lindbergh baby), but while it is a film of its time, Ace in the Hole succeeds as a film for our times too. Chuck is prone to tossing out aphorisms like “It’s a good story today. Tomorrow they’ll wrap a fish in it” and “Bad news sells best. Good news is no news” – lines that sound entirely applicable to an age of 24-hour coverage, impulsive tweet reactions, and the insatiable need to be first, loudest and exclusive rather than right.

Over 60 years after its release, Ace in the Hole remains a potent brew, and it proved unpalatable for critics and audiences in 1951. Paramount didn’t know what the hell to do with the film, and they tried changing the title to The Big Parade before admitting defeat and leaving Wilder to contemplate the first flop of his career. “I think my mistake was in offering the American public a shot of vinegar when they thought they were going to get a nice cocktail” the director surmised, but perhaps his real mistake was that he simply held up a mirror and allowed the public to see a part of themselves that they recognised but didn’t want to see writ large. It was a lesson he took to heart, and while he went on to make a series of acclaimed and hugely successful films (his next feature Stalag 17 made enough to cover this film’s losses), he never again burrowed so deep into the true darkness at the heart of human nature. “If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny” he later advised, “or they’ll kill you.”

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Queen & Slim

One of the best scenes in Queen & Slim takes place in a bar in Georgia. Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) are a young couple on the run, having killed a policeman in self-defence. This bar offers them some respite, allowing them to drink, dance and momentarily forget their perilous situation, and it is entirely populated and owned by black people. “Don’t worry,” the proprietor tells Slim, handing him drinks on the house. “You’re safe here.”

Read the rest of my Sight & Sound review here

Friday, January 17, 2020

Robert Pattinson on The Lighthouse

In the same year that the Twilight saga ended, Robert Pattinson starred in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (2012), and it felt like a statement of intent from a young actor determined to take control of his career. Pattinson is a risk-taker who is drawn to directors with unique visions and roles that push him to extremes, and The Lighthouse is the latest chapter in an increasingly impressive body of work.

Read my Sight & Sound interview with Robert Pattinson here

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

1917

The last time Sam Mendes went to war it was with Jarhead (2005), an adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s Gulf War memoir, and it was a film defined by stasis, with its battle-ready marines sinking into frustration, boredom and delirium as they waited for their promised conflict to materialise. A similar approach might have been appropriate for a film about the Great War – a war of attrition in which men spent months inching through trenches and tunnels – but instead 1917 is a work of propulsive forward motion and non-stop action.

Over the course of 24 hours, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) must escape from a collapsing trench, avoid being hit by a crashing plane, take out an unseen sniper, kill a man with his bare hands, jump into a ferocious river (which takes him over a waterfall, naturally) and race across the frontlines as shells explode around him. It’s World War I: The Ride. When giving Schofield his orders, General Erinmore (Colin Firth) quotes Rudyard Kipling – “Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone” – and the haste with which Schofield sprints through much of the film suggests he might be on to something.

Read the rest of my review on the Sight & Sound website

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Amanda

Everyone is Amanda is wounded and grieving, but the key to the power of Mikhaël Hers’s film lies in its understanding of the private and unpredictable nature of grief. At a number of points in the film, we see these characters suddenly double over, unable to stem the flow of tears that have welled up without warning. It’s a reminder that there is no set timetable for the mourning process, and that we have to try and get on with our day-to-day lives with the knowledge that our pain could sneak up and cripple us at any moment. When seven-year-old Amanda (Isaure Multrier) discovers that her uncle David (Vincent Lacoste) has discarded her mother’s toothbrush from the bathroom some weeks after her death, she admonishes him and demands that he return them to their rightful place. She’ll be ready to move on when she’s ready.

These emotional states are allowed to unfold organically in Amanda – nothing feels forced, even if the incident that ruptures their lives is such a spectacular and catastrophic one. Amanda's mother Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb) is one of the many victims of a terrorist shooting in a Paris park, and David likely would have suffered the same fate if a delayed train hadn't meant he was cycling towards the carnage as the perpetrators were speeding away in the opposite direction. The act itself happens off screen, we only stumble upon the shocking aftermath as David does, and an eerie stillness descends on this portion of the film, which is at odds with the vibrancy Hers had established in the earlier scenes, aided by the warmth and richness of Sébastien Buchmann's 16mm cinematography.

Of course, having Sandrine suffer a sudden untimely death by any means could have produced a similar effect, but the use of a terrorist attack allows Hers to draw a wider portrait of a community in mourning, showing both its vulnerability and resilience. We meet other survivors who are coping with their injuries in different ways. The once-confident Léna (Stacy Martin) becomes tentative and nervous, withdraw from the romantic relationship she had begun with David and deciding that she needs to leave the capital to recuperate in the countryside with her mother, while David's friend Axel (Jonathan Cohen) admits that his injury has briefly bolstered a marriage that had been on the rocks. Hers doesn't attempt to dig into the wider political context of terrorism aside from a brief glimpse of a Muslim woman being berated in the street, which leads Amanda to ask David questions about their faith – one of the film's few awkward steps – but he does create a real sense of lives being lived beyond the frame.

Expertly edited by Marion Monnier, Amanda proceeds at a gentle, fluid pace and Hers maintains a measured tone throughout, keeping emotional outbursts or dramatic developments to a minimum but capturing moments that feel extraordinarily specific and authentic. Hers and his actors frequently display fine judgement and sensitivity as they explore this emotionally complex territory. Lacoste makes subtle adjustments to portray his character's developing maturity and stability, while Kolb creates a vivid enough impression in the film's opening half-hour to ensure her absence is felt thereafter. But it's the title character, played by Isaure Multrier, who emerges as the heart of the film. Multrier appears on screen as an unaffected, ordinary child, and all of her reactions feel completely real. In the deeply moving final scene she recalls something her mother said right at the start of the movie, something David can't understand, again suggesting the inner life and private sense of mourning that makes these characters feel so fully realised. My heart broke for her, but Hers leaves his audience in the same delicate place that he leaves his characters – heartbroken, but hopeful.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Sight & Sound - February 2020

I've got a couple of articles that I loved writing in the latest issue of Sight & Sound. During last year's London Film Festival, I had the opportunity to meet the great Willem Dafoe to discuss his new film The Lighthouse and to look back at one of the most adventurous careers in the business. Aside from his latest film, our conversation touched on his pursuit of fresh challenges, his relationship with Abel Ferrara, his thoughts on distribution and television and more, and he was such an engaging and thoughtful interviewee. I also really enjoyed interviewing The Lighthouse director Robert Eggers and Dafoe's co-star Robert Pattinson for this feature.
Elsewhere, you can read my report from the set of Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. I spent a memorable day in Portugal watching Gilliam shoot his long-awaited film back in 2017, and now it's finally reaching UK cinemas I'm delighted to be able to share my experience. If you'd like to read an interview with Terry Gilliam that doesn't solely consist of him ranting incoherently about political correctness, then this is the article for you!

I also reviewed a couple of new releases: 1917 and Queen & Slim. You can read all of this in the February issue of Sight & Sound, which is on sale now.