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.”