Wednesday 29 February 2012

A very odd couple: "Michael"

Austrian Psycho might serve as an alternate title for the post-Fritzl paedo-fable (can one say entertainment?) Michael, which turns out to be a film very nearly as warped as its subject, veering between the funny-ha ha and the funny-peculiar with audience-scattering regularity. Central to Markus Schleinzer's feature debut is the relationship between a man and a boy, though we're some way removed from the established Nick Hornby/Tony Parsons template, for the man - the eponymous Michael, a nondescript insurance clerk in his late 30s - is a pederast, and the boy just happens to be his latest victim, locked up in the man's basement.

Schleinzer is less interested in any abuse or transgression than in the normality of the pair's daily and weekly routines: the endless opening and locking of doors, the meals the man prepares for his charge, the cutting of the boy's hair, the banal days out Michael organises as a reward for the kid's continued compliance. There's something strikingly precise, even pedantic, about this organisation of human resources. The boy is cleared seen as another element to be filed away, as his keeper does with the letters the boy writes home in vain hope of getting a response; the man records his abuses in a diary with its own double-entry system. Michael may be the first work to seriously propose paedophilia as an office job, one with its own specific set of interpersonal politics, and the suggestion Schleinzer's film appears to make is that the dehumanised corporate environment, with its hazy notions of power and control, has somehow supported this man's deviancy, one way or another.

That makes the film sounds far bleaker than it actually is to sit through; in fact, there's a strain of droll, situation-specific black comedy running through it that sets one to thinking of The Office, or even The Odd Couple. The film's real source of fascination and anxiety, it turns out, is what happens when the pair's routine is disrupted. When the boy falls sick, the man's response isn't to call in a doctor (and thus bring suspicion to his door), but to head out to the woods to dig a grave. (Fortunately for the lad, it remains empty.) More challenging times ensue when the pederast is hit by a car and breaks his leg, giving the boy ideas of how he might finally come to elude his captor.

Schleinzer has previously worked as a casting director for Michael Haneke, yet his film isn't quite the endurance test one might imagine on hearing that biographical fact: altogether clipped in its editing style, it instead has the structure and rhythms of a live-action cartoon, tossing obstacles in its characters' way and then stepping back, wondering how they might traverse them. These characters are less the stuff of those horrendous real-life news items than of Chuck Jones and Fritz Freleng drawings: they're Bugs Bunny and the hunter Elmer Fudd, or Road Runner and the hapless Wile E. Coyote, or Tweety-Pie and Sylvester, locked in eternal domestic conflict.

The question I asked myself is whether this kind of comedic approach contributes anything significant to our understanding of (or responses to) paedophilia, as the Brass Eye special did; and the answer, I think, is not really, unless you find poking fun at paedophiles for liking Boney M (the naff 70s dance act to whom Michael listens in his car, much as Patrick Bateman extolled the virtues of Huey Lewis and the News in American Psycho) a valuable or necessary public service. What Schleinzer appears to be testing isn't our endurance (as per Haneke) but our sense of humour, another limit entirely. Michael found mine around halfway through its 94 minutes: even as someone broadly sympathetic to the means and aims of extreme cinema, I wish Schleinzer had had the sense and sensitivity to cut around the scene where the actor playing the pederast exposes himself to the child playing the boy; even with the scene's deflating punchline, this surely forms a kind of abuse in itself. (If the actor had done this in front of school gates, would anyone be laughing?)

As it is, I admired the performances, from Michael Fuith (as the man), who'll probably never work again (and may, at the very least, wish Schleinzer had chosen another name for his character), and by David Rauchenberger (as the boy), who probably will, once he emerges from therapy in twenty years' time. I also admired Schleinzer's cheek in getting Michael made and shown, and in getting it past our censors apparently uncut. The joke it most reminded me of is the one about the paedophile leading his latest victim through the woods as darkness falls. "I'm scared," says the boy, to which the pederast replies, "You're scared? I've got to walk back this way on my own." By the rules of comedy, it's a great gag - economical and provocative, while touching on universal human fears - yet the rules of social engagement dictate that, like Michael, you might want to be extra careful whom you share it with.

Michael opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Monday 27 February 2012

Teenage wasteland: "Hunky Dory"

Hunky Dory, the director Marc Evans and writer Laurence Coriat's second collaboration after 2010's Patagonia, turns down the ambition and comes up with a high-school musical rather too obviously conceived to meet the needs of the current marketplace. Awash with lazy period nostalgia, Hunky Dory wants to get the Glee kids and their parents into the multiplex, but the results are so twee and insipid one suspects it's going to struggle. We're taken back here to the summer of 1976, where progressive drama teacher Viv May (Minnie Driver) has taken it upon herself to stage a rock-opera version of The Tempest. Her principals are sixth-formers stuck with a roster of issues retrieved from the bins round the back of the old Tucker's Luck production offices - crushes, bullies, nerves, changing sexual identity.

The fear is that Evans - who once made proper films (My Little Eye, Trauma) - is becoming to certain Welsh funding bodies what Michael Winterbottom is to their English equivalents, or David Mackenzie to their Scottish equivalents: a golden boy able to get money for anything, whether or not these projects are worthy of our cinemas. This latest evokes a long, hot Swansea summer in its exterior shots, but its interiors look cheap and dashed-off, unified only by their insistent soft-focus haze. The script seems underdeveloped, too. Hunky Dory fails the School of Rock test, in that Evans and Coriat can't make these kids as interesting or entertaining as the grown-ups: the most immediately recognisable pupil, Fresh Meat's Kimberley Nixon, surely deserves better than a role that requires her merely to make out with spotty oiks in unpromising leisurewear, and the rest are one-dimensional poppets played by blandola Hollyoaks types who tend to suck up the oxygen in every given scene.

More damaging yet, given the set-up, the film demonstrates a tin ear for music, picking fairly dreary songs between the Bowie, and subjecting it all to effete school-concert orchestration. One bright spot: the still bafflingly underappreciated Driver, who lends an otherwise hippy-dippy, tambourine-waving character her usual spark and mischief, and the film its small handful of laughs in her battles with headmaster Robert Pugh and uptight colleague Haydn Gwynne. Yet she's having to rally the kind of fundamentally lame material that seeks to instil a Proustian rush at the mere mention of melon balls and a fridge full of Tip Tops. You'd dismiss it as televisual were it not so shapeless, scattering half-formed scenes in a way that makes a mockery of its would-be triumphant story arcs. For a film about music, it ain't got much rhythm.

Hunky Dory opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Sunday 26 February 2012

Hollywood looks back: Oscar tips and misses (ST 25/02/12)

Best Picture

Should win: The Tree of Life. The most visionary and ambitious American film of 2011 was also, as an exit poll of any audience would show, the most divisive – thus it’s unlikely to take home the top prize.

Will win: The Artist [above]. On a Best Picture longlist mired in nostalgia – War Horse, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, The Help – Michel Hazanavicius’ sprightly silent-movie homage has done itself no awards-season harm whatsoever by focusing on Hollywood’s former glories.

Overlooked: Anything notably contemporary. Most glaring omissions: the apocalyptic Take Shelter, the American feature most in tune to the prevailing economic conditions, and Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, a rock ‘em-sock ‘em Saturday-night stormer straight out of the Rocky mould.

Best Director

Should win: Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life – yet the elusive filmmaker, cinema’s own Pynchon or Salinger, is perhaps the individual least likely to big up his own achievements on the pre-Oscar talkshow circuit. If you don’t play, you don’t win.

Will win: Hazanavicius for The Artist. Impossible to rule out local affection for Messrs. Scorsese and Spielberg – no matter that Hugo and War Horse count among these directors’ weaker films – but all early indicators suggest this is the genial Frenchman’s year.

Overlooked: Lars von Trier for Melancholia – but then getting thrown out of Cannes and labelled a Nazi sympathiser helps nobody’s Oscar chances. Also: Bennett Miller, overlooked for his thoughtful, atmospheric handling of the otherwise amply nominated Moneyball.

Best Actor

Should win: An honourable mention for Demian Bichir and his understated work in A Better Life – but the award should go to Brad Pitt, delivering a career best (and a lesson in big-screen charisma) as the baseball coach learning to think outside the batter’s cage in Moneyball.

Will win: Home favourites Pitt and George Clooney (for The Descendants) may well split the ballot, allowing Jean Dujardin to romp through – and doubtless deliver another charmant acceptance speech – for his skilful pantomiming in The Artist.

Overlooked: Michael Shannon, whose despairing everyman in Take Shelter caught the tenor of the times better than anybody. Up against this lightning-rod performance, Clooney’s Descendants dad looks like a flabby refugee from a TV sitcom pilot.

Best Actress

Should win: With the Academy blinded by La Streep, and several key performances going unrecognised altogether, the actress shortlist looks weak even by Hollywood standards. Give it to Viola Davis, for remaining dignified in the middle of The Help’s often gelatinous confection.

Will win: This far into the awards season, Meryl as Maggie in The Iron Lady looks such a shoo-in everybody else may as well stay at home – if voters decide The Help deserves recognition somewhere, Supporting Actress nominee Octavia Spencer looks the more likely recipient.

Overlooked: Our own Olivia Colman, reinventing her screen persona with indelible work in Tyrannosaur; Kirsten Dunst, for Melancholia; and Anna Paquin, remarkable as a headstrong teenager in the half-buried Margaret, the post-9/11 movie Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close dreams of being.

Foreign Language Film

Should win: Two of the contenders remain unscreened here, but they’d do well to top Iran’s A Separation, one of last year’s strongest titles, which serves double duty as a gripping domestic thriller and a peephole into the bureaucratic and ideological snafus of a particular regime.

Will win: A Best Original Screenplay nomination would suggest the Academy also thinks A Separation as more than just easily ghettoised arthouse fare. Dark horses: Belgium’s reportedly punchy crime drama Bullhead, the Polish WW2 saga In Darkness.

Overlooked: This category remains a crapshoot: BAFTA got its overseas winner (the flimsily insincere The Skin I Live In) all wrong. Both Academies should have found a spot for Chile’s Post Mortem, a scalpel-sharp examination of Augusto Pinochet’s toxic legacy.

Old spice: "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

Here's a film to wean us all off the rich fare we've been offered over the awards season. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, directed by John Madden and adapted by Ol Parker from Deborah Moggach's novel These Foolish Things, is a Stannah Slumdog that doesn't so much pander to its aged target audience as go round to every one of their homes to make sure the newspapers and milk have been taken in. It opens with a list of reasons one might want to check out of dreary old England: the frustration of automated phone systems (Judi Dench is a widow who doesn't have her late husband's security password to hand), poor-to-awful retirement prospects (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton barely have a pension to call their own; Tom Wilkinson is a high-court judge watching his contemporaries being put out to pasture), ingrate kids (who don't believe Celia Imrie can do anything for herself).

We take a large, wheezing breath, before ploughing on. There are the bloody immigrants (Maggie Smith is a "comedy" racist bemoaning the presence of black and Asian doctors on her hospital ward; of the half-full house somewhere in Middle England that I saw the film with, one sensed 50% of the viewers were laughing along with her), the endless rain (no matter that the film opened on the first real spring-like weekend of 2012), a general sense of worthlessness. These characters' destination is the establishment of the title, for retirement in most cases, recuperation in the ailing Smith's case, the idea - presumably spotted in a newspaper feature or magazine article somewhere along the line - being that this kind of overseas escape has become a boom industry at a time when nothing much else in the West is. One shot of a crowded departure lounge suggests everyone's at it; I was reminded of the TV Burp line on one of the numerous docusoaps about Brits who've gone to live and work overseas, "or traitors, as we call them".

The genteel Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Mrs. Brown) goes for a style understandably more sedate than Danny Boyle did in his Oscar success, so as not to give the greyhairs in Row F conniptions. This India is less manic and overpopulated than welcoming and spacious. "The first rule of India" - and there are a lot of rules and lessons in Parker's script, which will doubtless be reassuring for some - "is that there's always room," ventures Wilkinson, cramming his fellow travellers onto a bus at the airport. Though the hotel turns out to be ramshackle, and though the rooms have birds in the rafters and no doors, and though the streets reek of elephant dung in Wilton's opinion, the country serves as a kind of paradise, both earthly and spiritual. As the hotel's eternally optimistic manager Dev Patel (in a competitive week for embarrassing Brit-Asian performances, giving by far the worst) has it: "We have a saying in India: everything will be all right in the end." (Told you about those lessons.)

The trouble is that neither the journeys ventured on, nor the destinations arrived at, are especially compelling on the screen, where they might have been on the page. These characters have gone to India not on a quest, to find themselves or others; they've come to retire, which leaves us with two hours of downtime to get through. Wilkinson wanders off to play cricket with some local boys as a warm-up for the film's most tokenistic plot strand (for which we have the vast success of Mamma Mia! to thank). Dench at least gets to go for a job interview, but winds up talking about biscuits and tea. Nighy pops into town at one point for help fixing a tap in his room, and generally has better luck with the plumbing than Ronald Pickup, who has a fall in the shower while dancing to "Le Freak". (As the party's resident horndog, Pickup is the recipient of the only good joke in the script - though it's an old one, of course; asked whether it might be considered a risk, making love at his age, he chuckles "well, if she dies, she dies".) When they're not pottering about the place so, or sitting down for tea or dinner (there's a lot of that), the cast - operating in the lower gears for much of it - are seen reading Moggach's other books, as though looking for a real story, with real parts, which might give them something worthwhile to do. (Madden was linked for a long while with a possible screen version of the author's Tulip Fever, Wilton's holiday reading of choice.)

The blithely sunny outlook sees little that might be bleak or tragic in this exile, living away from one's remaining family with death the only certainty; it even finds some fun in the idea of old age as something to be outsourced and profited from. In a setpiece conceived to show off her spunkiness, Dench ends up teaching local call-centre employees (all fresh-faced and enthusiastic, and possessed of enough spare time to romance Dev Patel) just how to cajole ageing clients like her into speaking to them, the insinuation being that old people are so lonely that they'll talk to anyone, even those ringing up in the middle of their programmes to try and flog them mobile broadband. (The film dares not denounce such gerontosploitation, perhaps because it has eyes on making off with the grey pound itself.) Everything ends up all right, as it must - this is India, apparently - but beneath its toplayer of cosy matinee gentility, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel proves ever so slightly insulting of that very audience whose wattles it sets out to tickle.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 25 February 2012

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of February 17-19, 2012:

1 (1) The Woman in Black (12A) ***
2 (2) The Muppets (U) ***
3 (new) Ghost Rider 3D: Spirit of Vengeance (12A)
4 (3) Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace (U) **
5 (6) Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (PG)
6 (4) The Vow (12A) **
7 (5) Chronicle (12A) ****
8 (7) The Descendants (15) ***
9 (11) The Artist (PG) ****
10 (8) War Horse (12A) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Casablanca
2. Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
3. Hadewijch
4. Laura
5. Rampart

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (15) **
2 (2) Drive (18) ***
3 (6) Horrible Bosses (15) **
4 (7) Cowboys and Aliens (12) **
5 (8) The Hangover Part II (15) *
6 (5) I Don't Know How She Does It (12) *
7 (new) Abduction (12)
8 (10) Bad Teacher (15) **
9 (re) Super 8 (12) ***
10 (re) X-Men: First Class (12) ***


My top five:
1. We Need To Talk About Kevin
2. Jack Goes Boating
3. Warrior
4. Girl Model
5. Sound It Out

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Point Blank [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 12.45am)
2. The Dirty Dozen (Saturday, five, 4.25pm)
3. The Outlaw Josey Wales (Sunday, five, 9pm)
4. Cop Land (Saturday, C4, 12.45am)
5. Lethal Weapon (Friday, ITV1, 10.35pm)

Friday 24 February 2012

The force: "Rampart"

The hero of the L.A. cop drama Rampart, written by James Ellroy with the director Oren Moverman (The Messenger), is a tough motherfucker who finds himself outnumbered and eventually cornered: by ethnic minorities on the streets he patrols (and those who patrol over him, in turn), and by women - ex-wives, lovers, daughters, partners and lawyers - everywhere else. Woody Harrelson's Officer Dave Brown is a swaggering xenophobe (if not an outright misanthrope) and unapologetic philanderer whose gulp-inducing nickname - "Date Rape" - derives from an incident in his past whereupon he stopped a serial rapist with typically extreme prejudice.

From this fact alone, we might conclude Brown is another of Ellroy's trademark knights in tarnished armour, a brother to Bud White or Dave Klein; he's certainly considered the squadroom's go-to guy, an experienced pro who gets the job done, whether with street smarts, his bare fists or the regulation-issue billyclub. Yet whether behind the wheel of his black-and-white, or on the barstools he haunts at night, Brown appears to be cruising on borrowed time: as more than one character notes, he's a dinosaur, a representative of that white male America that thinks it owns the place. The title refers to the corruption scandal that enveloped the LAPD at the end of the 1990s, the decade that began with Rodney King - and elements of that particular shitstorm blow up again when Brown is videotaped beating seven bells out of a black motorist who sideswipes his vehicle, the latest in a long line of lapses threatening to bring the officer's career in uniform to an end.

What The Messenger demonstrated more than anything else was the trust Moverman puts in his writing and actors. Some of this is again in evidence here: from the opening moments, he allows unmitigated bursts of borderline-incomprehensible (yet not atypical) Ellroyese, sets up semi-improvised confrontations and ambushes for his lead to walk into, and generally refuses to shoehorn the drama into a particular shape, lest it ill reflect the life of a protagonist who takes such puffed-chest pride in living outside the usual structures. Sections of the film seem like the sustained interrogation Dave Brown has thus far eluded, but sometimes Rampart feels overly accommodating towards its bullying lead character; it's a peculiar tension - perhaps that between the famously uncompromising Ellroy, and his more peaceable co-writer? - and the film, for better or worse, never quite resolves it.

Early on in Rampart, we catch a glimpse of the collage Brown's estranged artist daughter has affixed to a wall in the family home (tellingly, it has an angry "CUNT" at the centre), and Moverman's directorial approach here might be described as similarly cubist: he shoots Harrelson in a variety of tight angles, in bitty segment-scenes that refuse straight narrative lines in favour of trying to reconstruct a rapidly fragmenting personality. The scenario doesn't have the door-to-door hook of The Messenger, nor does it allow us the comic relief that comes from pairing Harrelson in a double-act: Ben Foster, the actor's foil in the earlier film, reappears as a wheelchair-bound informant Brown delights in torturing. No, this is a sweaty, bull-headed, red-faced Harrelson being all bad-ass, all the way through: it's the definition of a meaty role, but while allowing his lead actor practically the whole of the screen to flex his muscles and pop his veins, Moverman can't ever pin the character down. (The ending - which is bound to divide an audience - offers Brown either a free pass, or no easy way out, depending on your perspective.)

The film's success or otherwise rests largely, then, on how much Ellroy, and how much of Ellroy's Dave Brown, you're ready to take: there's a fine line between a director trusting the writing, and one waving through material that has the blustery whiff of BS about it. At times, Rampart resembles less a standalone feature than a prequel to The Shield, the Ellroy-influenced TV show that felt compelled to take a sledgehammer to the viewer's head in the name of gritty authenticity; certain segments - particularly Brown's relationship to his daughters, perhaps the only females with which he still stands some chance - feel altogether worked-over by smaller-screen procedurals.

There are good scenes, performances and moments, but its conspicuous toughness, its headstrong determination to stir shit up, obfuscates more than it clarifies or elucidates: it's an easy film to admire, but a difficult one to like - or, indeed, to recommend unreservedly. As Brown's late-film descent into another of the recent cinema's more than faintly comical, red-lit sex clubs - lesbians! Whips! Thick-ass steaks! After Irreversible and Shame, these places are popping up like Starbucks, catering to the needs of any anti-hero seeking an accessible neighborhood nadir - illustrates rather too well, sometimes it's genuinely hard to ascertain whether a film is peering into the murk, or if it's just getting murky itself.

Rampart opens in selected cinemas from today.

Heathaze: "Black Gold"

In one of several iconic moments from David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif's Sherif Ali is introduced riding through the desert, appearing first in longshot, as a dot on the horizon, then a haze, and finally pulling into close-up, as an Arab on a horse - a potent visual analogue for the way the film's white English hero eventually comes to find a focal point amid the blinding light and stinging dust of the colonies. In the forty years since, Hollywood has fallen prey to what we might call NSE (Non-Specific Ethnicity), and its movies have travelled in the opposite direction, lumbering back towards haziness, the indistinct.

A prime example of this is Jean-Jacques Annaud's latest Black Gold, one of those epics that looks less impressive the closer one gets to it. It begins with a caravan of men on camels trekking through a desert represented by helicopter shots of shifting sands - all very grandiose, on a superficial level, until Annaud cuts to his first close-up, and we realise the most powerful men in all Arabia, squabbling over the reserves of oil beneath the sands that began to be tapped as the 20th century dawned, will be played by the Spaniard Antonio Banderas (still struggling to throw off his purring Puss in Boots persona, even in a headdress) and Britain's Mark Strong (a repeat offender in this field, however skilled he may be).

Maybe that's what you get from a film directed by a Frenchman, and adapted by a Dutchman (Menno Meyjes) from a Swiss writer (Hans Ruesch)'s novel. The French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim is the closest Black Gold gets to geographic exactitude, as the scholar born to Strong yet handed over to Banderas as part of a treaty (and later returning to his real dad as an emissary of peace); we have to make do with the British-Asian actress Freida Pinto as a not-so-local Scheherazade. Perhaps because the crux of Ruesch's material is men sitting round on carpets negotiating, Annaud chooses the exotic over the precise at every other opportunity: a palette of saturated yellows for the day scenes, and dark blues for the nights, as though these were the only colours one might observe in the Middle East.

The approach intoxicates for a while. Both Annaud (The Bear) and Meyjes (Max) tend to favour the kind of film nobody else is making - cynics might add with good reason - and Black Gold's hotchpotch DNA contains both commercial and flagrantly uncommercial elements that leave it an interesting failure, at least. As an epic, it demonstrates an interest of sorts in this region's progress: that of an empire shifting, like the sands, from kestrels and camels to planes and tanks and cars. (Rahim and Pinto share a parting tryst in one of the latter: the location, and the presence of a James Horner score, suggests Annaud was aiming for Titanic-like sweep.)

Furthermore, a debate within the script over how best to interpret the Koran - whether to use it to defend tradition and justify bloodshed, or to encourage modernity, tolerance and peace - seems to suggest Western movies are finally waking up to the idea the Middle East isn't a faraway-mythical kingdom we hear tales about on the news, but a real place, with real people and real beliefs, and potentially a very real and very viable marketplace in the longer term, if the popular revolutions take hold. The trouble here is that, in the short term, Annaud appears less concerned with this than with shooting such swoony fripperies as Pinto - eyes closed, lips slightly agape - listening to songs of love; and the dialogue Meyjes arrives at for his characters is right out of a purple-prose novel: everyone speaks in parables and pronouncements, to be recorded for later use. The film's framework is sturdy and serious-minded, but what fills it is often flimsy and silly - and I think we have the right to expect more from something this lavish.

The actors might have hoped for better, too, stuck in roles that barely outscale the camels they ride in on. Certainly, this isn't much of a showcase for Rahim, the breakthrough star of 2009's A Prophet, playing what's in effect a bespectacled dog caught between two masters. Still, at least he fares better than Riz Ahmed, who gets to trot about on a donkey as a smart-assed doctor, the Meyjes-Annaud idea of comic relief; actual Arab performers come in further down the cast list, in the guise of cannon fodder, religious zealots and stuttering court advisors. The last (and best informed) word on Black Gold ought to go to our friends in the Arab world, who've had to endure seeing their history caricatured on a dismayingly regular basis; while Annaud's take on the region is rather more sophisticated, seasoning the material with appreciable quantities of saffron and jasmine, it remains a hefty and somewhat indigestible portion of codswallop.

Black Gold opens in selected cinemas today.

Thursday 23 February 2012

1,001 Films: "The Lady From Shanghai" (1948)

In The Lady From Shanghai, Orson Welles plays Michael O'Hara, a penniless Spanish Civil War veteran recruited to serve as bosun on a boat chartered by Rita Hayworth (the deal clincher) and her rich, older lawyer husband. After some travelogue footage in Latinate locations and eccentric, shipbound comedy - the arrival of the old man's business partner, and a conspicuous radio commercial for hair pomade - we arrive at an even more crackpot plot, wherein our hero is propositioned with an offer of $5,000 from a man planning his own murder. Lady can't be the masterpiece Citizen Kane was - there's too much plain wrong with it, Welles's mock-Irish brogue first and foremost - but it is, if anything, even more fascinating (and more than a touch insincere) in its creator's attempts to reassemble shards of superior films from the preceding decade, and to stamp his own idiosyncratic personality upon the assembled product.

Welles's social concerns show through in the early scenes, as the boat hauls through one impoverished Mexican port after another; it begins to look like one of the few American films of the period to deal with class, and how the gap between the haves and have-nots might only be bridged through homicidal activity. Increasingly, though, Lady is driven by Welles's condescending attitude to noir as a form: the question that seems to be occupying him is why anyone would deign to waste their time making silly thrillers, when they could be aspiring towards Art. (The idea of noir-AS-Art doesn't seem to have crossed his mind.) The net result now feels closer to Beat the Devil than The Big Sleep - look again at the rambling, discursive joke Welles makes out of the courtroom sequence, at the point the walls should be closing in on O'Hara, or the funfair finale, which more often looks absurd than threateningly surreal - and a film that takes nothing seriously, save its leading lady. Truly, Hayworth was never lovelier, or shot more adoringly; as an old biddy in that courtroom puts it, "Oh, I just want to look at her."

The Lady From Shanghai is available on DVD through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

1,001 Films: "The Snake Pit" (1948)

Emerging out of that post-War moment where American society grew introspective and Hollywood, in particular, got into pop psychology in a big way (cf. Spellbound, Secret Beyond the Door), The Snake Pit is a diverting case study that opens with the outwardly respectable Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) babbling away to herself in the grounds of her institution. Her condition is treated as a mystery: not the cherchez la femme of the then-contemporary noir film, but a kind of cherchez dans la femme, the clues in this instance being a certain touchiness around the date of May 12th, and whenever her father is mentioned. (Sabina Spielrein, the heroine of Cronenberg's recent A Dangerous Method, would doubtless jut her jaw in neurotic solidarity.) Interpreting these symptoms, and nudging our girl back towards normality, are the men in Virginia's life: the suave doctor (Leo Genn) who would become a staple of this mini-cycle of films, and a touchingly devoted husband played by Mark Stevens, an actor not coincidentally familiar as a detective or private investigator elsewhere in noir.

In later years, this material would most often be shaped into afternoon TV movies and shameless Oscar bait; here, though socially-minded lip service is paid to such issues as standard of care, it forms the basis for a crime (even prison) drama of sorts, compelled by keys in locks (literal and figurative), cots, crucial changes in governance, and the institution's roaring trade in cigarettes. The idea of a woman under investigation or interrogation extends to the way director Anatole Litvak stages a competency hearing as a courtroom confrontation; elsewhere, the film concerns itself with altogether practical solutions to its heroine's problems - the doctor compares her plight to not knowing where the light switch is in a darkened room: pure noir - which establish The Snake Pit (even the title sounds tough and urban) as a more grounded alternative to the wild, expressionist flourishes with which Hitchcock and Dali dolled up Freud. It's a little duller for that, in truth, but de Havilland - removed of her usual good-girl glamour, and genuinely stretching herself - appears more credibly tormented from within than the serene Ingrid Bergman, projected onto throughout Spellbound: her convincingly befuddled interiority nudges the film along its predetermined arc to recovery, escape, release.

The Snake Pit is available on DVD through Optimum Home Releasing.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

1,001 Films: "Secret Beyond The Door" (1948)

Secret Beyond The Door forms the illogical midpoint between Spellbound and The Fountainhead. Turmoil befalls dreamy heiress Joan Bennett - seen tossing and turning from the opening scene about signs and signifiers - when she marries super-stiff Michael Redgrave, a repressed architectural correspondent venturing a thesis that "certain rooms... cause murders". Oo-er. Our heroine's suspicions are piqued only when Redgrave moves the pair of them into his family home, to reside alongside his disfigured secretary, an estranged son from a previous marriage, and the house's pièce de résistance: a number of meticulously recreated crime scenes from history, the seventh of which has been kept locked away from sight.

Trying to juggle work with emotional fulfilment, the heiress makes for a very modern heroine, having to diagnose her husband's neuroses - and, in the final reel, stage an impromptu therapy session - in order to save herself, though Bennett is stuck with an overblown voiceover, which insists on explaining the script's various Women's Issues ("I wanted Mark's child, but not another woman's child") in the most florid language imaginable. A minor work, worth a look to see Lang imitating Hitchcock - there's a fair bit of Rebecca in here, too - although the Stanley Cortez photography isn't best served in the variable prints doing the rounds on TV. Remember, ladies: "If a girl dreams of daffodils, she is in great danger."

Secret Beyond the Door is available on DVD through Exposure Cinema.

Monday 20 February 2012

1,001 Films: "Bicycle Thieves" (1948)

Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves is a simple fable - simple enough to invite interpretation as one of the defining texts of neo-realist cinema (human story of unemployment in post-War Italy), as a crime narrative (man hunts down those responsible for stealing his wheels) and, in some way, as a tragic love affair between a man and his bike. As father and son (Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola, one of the cinema's great little-and-large double-acts) hotfoot around Rome, it becomes clear that, in this world, property equals mobility; you simply can't go anywhere without it. (De Sica here establishes one of the key themes of the late 20th century.) The bicycle thief is free to freewheel around the city's cavernous pawnshops and make a nice earner for himself; his victim ends up utterly emasculated, unable to provide for his family, mocked by cyclists wherever he goes.

It's a film about how lonely it can seem on the bottom rungs of the social ladder: the father receives no help from the police, his fellow workers, or - most damningly - the Church in his quest: everybody's lost in their own lives, too busy trying to get by themselves. And it's a film about how unfair life can be on the desperate, powerfully illustrated by the final scenes: when our hero's stolen from, nobody's interested, yet as soon as he himself steals, the whole world comes crashing down on him. Bicycle Thieves is never heavy-handed, however. That De Sica maintains a lightness throughout - largely through that father-son relationship, always hopeful, forever optimistic: the understanding is that we will find this bike together - is, in the circumstances, little short of miraculous.

Bicycle Thieves is available on DVD through Arrow Films.

Sunday 19 February 2012

1,001 Films: "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1947)

Joseph Mankiewicz's intriguingly contrary The Ghost and Mrs. Muir seems to be settling into the comfortable rhythms and cadences of a light supernatural comedy, but takes an unexpected right turn into more melodramatic waters for its final act. Its opening scenes are surprisingly spooky. Gene Tierney is the widow who moves with her young daughter (Natalie Wood) to a cottage on the coast, only to discover the shadows in her new abode are haunted by the spirit of the home's previous owner, beardy seaman Captain Greig (Rex Harrison), who proves determined to drive the newcomers out. Some form of détente is reached, but when Mrs. Muir is pursued by George Sanders as a (living, breathing) childrens' author, the ghost starts getting possessive.

Apparently left to play on the beach for the duration, Wood rather gets forgotten about (whatever else she is, Mrs. Muir is not much of a mother), and if the whole is intended as a proto-feminist fable - perhaps casting Tierney's budding writer as a new Virginia Woolf, seeking independence from men seeking all-too-earthly pleasures - I don't quite buy it. Nevertheless, the film remains an elegant and eminently sophisticated production, nudged along by a couple of truly stellar performances. Tierney is lovely, enough to balance out the misanthropy of the men around her and make doubly affecting the solitude she falls into, while Harrison, in a dream role for any actor who doesn't do early morning calls, manages to be both fantastically and winningly grumpy as the would-be captain of her heart.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is available on DVD through Twentieth Century Fox.

Saturday 18 February 2012

From the archive: "Collateral"

Michael Mann's new picture Collateral turns out to be an L.A. equivalent to what Scorsese's After Hours or Bringing Out the Dead were to New York: a long, dark, paranoid, insistently kinetic night of the soul from which it's possible nobody will be getting out alive. It's the story of Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx), a self-described "temporary" cabbie (he's been at it twelve years), whose evening starts well when he picks up a businesswoman (Jada Pinkett Smith) who promises to give him a call sometime when he's off-the-meter. Having dropped her off, however, Max's next fare proves more tricky. Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a grey-haired hitman who asks Max to pull over for a few moments while he goes to "meet" somebody, and then promptly dumps a corpse on the driver's windscreen. Over the rest of the night, Vincent will also play the roles of avenging angel, voice of Max's conscience (insisting the cabbie buy his hospitalised mom some flowers), moral arbiter (gunning down a couple of ne'er-do-wells who've robbed the cab), Leland Palmer lookalike, and unlikely advocate of carpe diem philosophy ("One day... and it's gone"). Max? Well, Max is too busy trying to keep his body free from unnecessary bullet holes.

Coming as it does after the reverent Ali, Collateral invites reading as Mann's first foray into outright comedy, but it can also be approached as an experimental action movie. The director possibly saw Stuart (Pirates of the Caribbean) Beattie's generic script as a prime opportunity to continue his experiments in cinematic space, and how that space can best describe human relationships. Vincent, when asked whether he likes the City of Angels, looks out the window and damns the city as "too spread-out and disconnected". Distance here is not just physical, but psychological: the hitman backs away from his crimes with such utterances as "I shot him; the bullets and the fall killed him". Sometimes that distance is astronomical, as in Vincent's last-reel speech about the cosmic insignificance of humankind. Yet at other points, the gap appears to be bridgeable: the finale takes in corporate towers, mobile phones, and the best use of the L.A. subway since Speed, and works as not only a masterful suspense sequence, but as a sustained conceptual joke about (and at the expense of) Vincent's idea of the city's disconnectedness.

Mann's two-shots, his organisation of space on a scene-by-scene basis, remain just about the best in the business. When Vincent sends Max into a nightclub to meet Felix (Javier Bardem), the drug dealer who hired him, the latter pair share the same booth and, one would expect, a certain proximity within the frame. But just as these characters are at cross-purposes, so too Mann reverses the angles: the men appear as though sitting with their backs to one another. You could say that Mann's decision to shoot on high-definition digital is also one of space, taking some of the edge off the director's usual visual sheen and rendering the image as a blur, comparable to what must be passing through the harassed Max's mind. (In the press notes, Mann says the decision was one of light - digital allows one to see further into the night, apparently, the better to grasp the encroaching darkness.)

At any rate, the number of jazz-as-excuse-for-improv metaphors present in the script lends further credence to the belief, expounded by such filmmakers as Mike Figgis, that digital is the perfect host for experimentation, the space between its pixels forming the visual correlative to the gaps between notes in a blues piano solo. There's not a whole lot experimental with the casting of Cruise as a natural born predator (Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia got there first): the role tallies with the less malleable aspects of the actor's screen persona, that steely core of determination apparent whenever he appears before the camera. (In Mann's earlier Heat, Robert DeNiro's McCauley was seen buying a book on metals; with his aluminium-grey suit and highlights, Vincent may have appeared as an illustration somewhere within it.)

No, the real revelation here is Jamie Foxx, an actor considered "promising" too long for that tag to have any more meaning, no matter that he was one of the best things about Ali. The role of Max allows Foxx to cycle through different personae with each passing hour: downtrodden working man, would-be Casanova (in his scenes with Pinkett Smith), mother's boy, Tom Cruise impersonator (in his scene with Bardem) and, finally, accidental action hero - all challenges he proves up to. As befits these leading men, the film is a silver-and-black comedy, something very conventional flecked with something very unconventional, the result of Mann's alchemy. For fullest effect, see it on the biggest screen you can find (where, even then, the film is unlikely to be entirely contained) at a midnight screening or at least a late show, at the point where disorientation is starting to set in, your own eyes are clouding over, and you'll be even more susceptible to the sudden lurches and strangenesses with which Mann has stocked the plot.

(September 2004)

Collateral screens on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 12.40am.

From the archive: "The Manchurian Candidate"

The great critic Manny Farber described the original 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate as "straight jazz, all the way through". Jonathan Demme's 21st-century reworking opens with the credit "music by Rachel Portman" (the pianist-composer best known for flowery period soundtracks like Emma) "and Wyclef Jean" (the former Fugee) over a scene in which American soldiers are listening to a mix of rap, rock and reggae. This briefest of moments sets the (discordant) tone for a film that's at once jagged, schizophrenic, richly, wonderfully weird, and the best thing Demme's done in a good ten years.

The source of the prevailing trauma (of Korean origin, circa '62) has been brought closer to home, relocated from the Far East to - not surprisingly, given current events - the Middle East. Sergeant Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), a Gulf War I hero, has spent the decade since stockpiling pot noodles and old papers, failing to sleep, and - in his rare public appearances - extolling the virtues of Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), a former comrade-in-arms now running as a vice-presidential candidate. Everyone associated with Marco and Shaw's unit has been having flashbacks, though, centring around a funny-haired doctor in the paid employ of the Manchurian corporation. What can it all mean?

This version has a strange idea of paranoid, insisting - like the conspiracist Marco, who starts seeing connections everywhere - that more is more. Demme has always been a noodly, experimental sort of director (he dabbles in documentaries - Stop Making Sense, the recent The Agronomist - that are often more satisfying than his fiction work), and a filmmaker who'll think nothing of throwing in a bit of sound or one of his increasingly large roster of cameo performers to get a rise from the cognoscenti. The approach ruined his previous remake, 2002's The Truth About Charlie, where the fiddliness took the form of prodding and poking around the edges of a film aspiring to the lightness of a Nouvelle Vague caper; instead, you saw the director's fingerprints all over the thing, and a would-be souffle collapsed and fell apart.

Demme's technique here is more controlled: he employs a layering of aural, visual and narrative elements that not only does the trick, but proves vastly more sophisticated than anything in the soi-disant "grown-up" Charlie. Every scene in this Candidate is milked for too much information. Instead of the original's implicit brainwashing, we get the over-emphatic deployment of scientists in white lab coats pushing drillbits through people's foreheads. The screen swells with graphics documenting the state of play in the presidential election. In one exposition scene between Marco and Shaw at the latter's campaign headquarters, you're distracted from the dialogue by the relentless flashing of Shaw's slogan - "Secure Tomorrow" (as much an order as a promise) - on a screen behind them.

And thick and fast it comes at last, and more and more and more. When Marco, already at the flustered stage of paranoid, goes to the New York Public Library to research the scientists he believes are responsible for his hazy mindset, your eyes are drawn not to the results of his Google inquiries, but to the Elvis impersonator sitting at the monitor next to him. After the Oscar triumphs of The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, Demme's rep as an actor's director means even relatively minor roles can be filled with familiar faces, leading the viewer to wonder what part these performers might yet play in the conspiracy. (If Demme were putting implants in people's heads, he'd probably put in seven or eight at a time, just to be sure, and get Roger Corman, Charles Napier and Tracey Walter to hold his victims down.)

A successful paranoid thriller should lead the viewer to suspect every frame of the celluloid, and to wonder where the next shot is going to come from. Demme's imagery invariably finds its target: it gets under your skin, leaves you feeling nauseous. I spent much of The Manchurian Candidate wanting to throw up, and unable to distinguish whether it was a consequence of the day I was having, or of the purples, greens and scarlets of the film's palette. A string of roving close-ups evoke travel sickness before the subjectivity of the events depicted manifests itself in slightly hectoring point-of-view shots, where the actors have only to look and shout into the camera. A painting hanging on the wall of Shaw's hotel suite takes as its subject the hotel suite itself (complete with painting), so that, as the camera approaches from Shaw's point-of-view, we find ourselves peering into a form of infinity. In every other scene, a noodly guitar (Portman's? Jean's?) is audible in the very background, nagging away at you; it conjures up activity in adjacent rooms, business our hero cannot quite get to. (Shaw's suite, it turns out, backs onto a surgical theatre.) If your stomach doesn't start turning, your head just might.

The most audacious studio release of the year, this Candidate proceeds with a certain dream/nightmare logic. For much of its two hours, you're immersed in somebody else's subconscious, albeit a subconscious starting to malfunction; as if to remind us this is the work of a filmmaker who moved from low-budget exploitation fare to the studio system long before Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson, the film unreels as a series of nightmares in a damaged brain. A slight problem is that all this rampant paranoia doesn't give us, as rational observers, many sureties to cling to, or anyone much to side with. Washington, our nominal hero, is identified as an obsessive oddball from the very first shot of his cluttered apartment. The actor seems to grow more teeth the older he gets (which isn't entirely unhelpful to a film evoking the terrors of the dentist's chair: authority figures rummaging round inside you, metal scraping teeth, the sound of the drill), yet seems a little dehydrated from all the sweating he had to do in last year's Out of Time: he's pliable, and therefore just as susceptible as anybody else on screen to delusions or madness.

Schreiber's Shaw is a blank, partly deliberately, one assumes: his character's been politically neutralised to suggest he could go either way on a number of issues, but his tenor has a Kerry-like waffle to it, and he's perhaps the only VP in history unable to get laid. As Shaw's mother - and principal cause of that dry spell - Meryl Streep contributes another of the American screen's monstrous matriarchs. (Some critics have compared her character to Hillary Clinton, others to Margaret Thatcher, others still to characters in Greek literature; as she stomped about her mansion in a black evening gown, I rather thought she resembled Sharon Osbourne.) A cool, lean, efficient political machine, Streep's Eleanor crunches on ice cubes and insists on doing everything for her boy, whether opening files or lovingly patting his nude form with a towel - but cast as a pantomime villainess, she's hardly a natural point of identification. We're left in the position of the caged monkeys kept by Marco's buddy Delp (Bruno Ganz): blasted with light and noise, jacked up on stimuli.

Is this new Candidate, then, a document or a product of an extreme cultural malaise? (It is, after all, Paramount's third remake in less than six months, after Alfie and The Stepford Wives.) Demme's film strikes me as just as much part of the self-analysis of American life as is visible in 2004's spate of dissenting documentaries, films which appear to suggest the country needs all the help it can get. One might consider the hardwringing special pleading on behalf of a nation more than capable of pulling itself - and several other nations - out of trouble if only it would accept its responsibilities. Released in the US before this year's presidential election, and in the UK in the weeks after, this Candidate offers a potent explanation for the events of November 2nd: that an America of great privilege and arrogance, whose power is rooted in lines of paternity which stretch back to the founding fathers, is preferable in the eyes of many Americans to an America - evoked by Kerry and the mollycoddled, mother-fixated Shaw, and which a liberal-left text like The Manchurian Candidate can't help but represent - of even greater insecurities.

(December 2004)

The Manchurian Candidate screens on Channel 4 at midnight tonight.