Phil on Film Index

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.