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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

The musical biography has been around as a movie genre for ages: it’s one of those things that will likely never completely go away, as doing a film about someone famous and popular is at least as good a bet when it comes to luring in an audience as making an adaptation of a well-known book or TV show. Nevertheless, in recent years it does seem to have been enjoying a moment in the sun – the Queen biopic turned out to be quite astonishingly popular, while Rocketman also did rather well (in addition to arguably being a more interesting and creative film).

Actually, Rocketman was a bit of an outlier in a number of ways, not least because Elton John is still alive and well (some might say despite his own best efforts) – most music bios deal with someone who is dead, or at least extremely doddery, presumably because this cuts down on the number of awkward moments when the subject is first shown the movie. The other difference is formal: the key creative decision in what’s settled down as the classic music bio structure is when to start the thing in earnest, and when to finish it. These films usually conclude with the subject experiencing the zenith of their success – for example, the Live Aid moment making up the climax of Bohemian Rhapsody – but, the only comparable performance in Elton John’s career taking place at a royal funeral, they reasonably elected to skip it.

Liesl Tommy’s Respect doesn’t take any chances when sorting out its start and end points. The film, I should make clear, concerns the life – or a relatively brief period in the life – of Aretha Franklin, and opens with some scenes of a very young Franklin being made to sing at parties by her father Clarence (Forest Whitaker). Not much encouragement is needed, of course. The film zips through some other establishing material until it reaches the point at which the child actress can withdraw and Franklin can be played by Jennifer Hudson (I’m going to be a bit ungallant and point out that Hudson is considerably older than Franklin is at the end of the period covered by the movie, let alone the beginning, not that this is especially obvious).

Off she goes to New York as a teenage prodigy to launch her career, but experiences little success until a falling out with her domineering father leads to her taking up with her domineering manager and future spouse Ted White (Marlon Wayans). Given a modicum of control over her own career, Franklin suddenly breaks through with a string of hits, but must contend with various tumultuous personal relationships, not to mention her own demons. Can she bounce back when it matters?

One of the odd things about Respect, considered as an actual bio-pic, is that it almost completely skips the last 46 years of its subject’s life. Did Aretha Franklin really do nothing of particular interest after the age of 30? Even the film suggests not, but it nevertheless wraps up with the gospel concert at New Temple in Los Angeles in 1972 (already the subject of a feature documentary), filling in the rest with the usual slightly gushy captions about Franklin’s achievements (for the film she is always Ms Franklin, of course).

There’s not much actively wrong with Respect that I can actually put my finger on – it looks okay, the acting is fine (apart from those already mentioned, there’s a decent turn from Marc Maron as one of Aretha’s record company bosses), and of course there is a completely banging soundtrack, mostly courtesy of Hudson herself. Now, let’s be honest here: Jennifer Hudson is a very fine singer, especially when she eschews the attention-all-shipping vocal style she deployed in Cats, and which made me want to hide under the seat. But she’s not Aretha Franklin, who was an utterly unique and breath-taking talent. The film closes with footage of the real Aretha performing, close to the end of her career, and its inclusion is possibly a mistake – you suddenly realise just why the various Hudson covers filling the movie have been just a bit unsatisfactory.

Nevertheless, while you may well learn something about Aretha Franklin’s life (or maybe a lot about Aretha Franklin’s life), the movie never quite takes flight and becomes as entertaining as one of her records. I think this is probably due to the stifling sense of reverent solemnity which permeates the film pretty much from beginning to end. It does that bit where the origins of a particular, well-known song are delved into at considerable length (Good Vibrations did this with the Undertones’ Teenage Kicks, Love and Mercy did it with Good Vibrations, and Bohemian Rhapsody did it with – er – Bohemian Rhapsody), and when the title track is finally unleashed in full, it is as irresistibly funky and vibrant and sassy as ever.

But away from the performances, the rest of the film is staid and rather stolid stuff. The director herself comes on in a cameo as a fan who basically tells Aretha what an important and inspirational figure she is – which is fair enough, but we’re told more about Franklin’s importance than actually shown it. Of course, there’s a lot going on here which the film-makers clearly feel obligated to touch on in some way, but duck out of featuring in the film in any detail – the circumstances by which Franklin ended up the mother of two children by the age of fifteen almost feel like they’re skipped over, presumably because they would just send the film off into quite dark and uncomfortable territory. Her early relationship with Martin Luther King is likewise only really mentioned in passing.

So with these key elements of her actual biography kept to a minimum, what kind of portrait of Franklin emerges? I’m sorry to say it’s not a particularly distinctive one. All the texture and possible ambiguity in her life story seems to have been smoothed away so that she can fit the template of the musical biography subject – early years, struggles, breakthrough, success, wobble, bounce-back, triumphant return to even greater success. You may learn stuff about Aretha Franklin’s life, but I doubt there’s much sense of what she was actually like as a person in this movie. It’s not a bad film, and indeed parts of it are very entertaining, but I strongly doubt it does its subject justice.

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Annette begins with an orchestra and singers preparing to make a recording; instruments are plugged in and tuned, everyone seems to slowly be getting ready for the moment of truth. Observing from the control booth is the director, who looks a lot like Leos Carax (this role is played, in a strikingly well-judged bit of casting, by the director Leos Carax). He asks if it would be possible to start.

And so they begin, singing a song on the topic of starting. Very quickly, however, the key members of the band (the instantly recognisable figures of Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks), the backing singers, and so on, all get up and proceed out of the studio into the street. And I do mean proceed: this is a procession in the classic style. The Mael brothers cede their position at the front to Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg, but the parade continues out into the streets of Los Angeles, the lyrics addressing the anticipation inherent in beginning-of-movie moments like this, but also including the reasonable request that the audience ‘shut up and sit’. Eventually Driver and Cotillard depart to get into character and things become marginally less odd for a while.

(The closing credits of the film feature another procession by the cast and crew, this time politely wishing the audience a safe trip home after the movie, a thoughtful touch which is rather more endearing than the usual post-credits scene.)

Annette is a musical directed by Leos Carax, based on a story and with songs by Sparks, so this is never what you’d call a conventional movie experience for long. Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, a misanthropic stand-up comedian not entrely unlike Andrew Clay or Bill Hicks, while Marion Cotillard plays operatic soprano Anne Defrasnoux. Henry and Anne have recently begun a relationship and fallen deeply in love with one another: they sing a song about this, called ‘We Love Each Other So Much’, which – in authentic late-period Sparks style – largely consists of the title repeated over and over again, albeit with the couple in increasingly startling situations as they sing the line.

Soon the news breaks that Anne is pregnant, and the world awaits the birth of the child. (I particularly enjoyed the singing obstetrician and chorus of midwives who appeared at this point to perform a song largely about breathing and pushing.) The baby is named Annette, but her arrival marks a change in the fortunes of the couple: while Anne meets with success after success, Henry finds it hard to maintain his edginess and his career struggles as a result. And so they decide to take Annette with them on a fateful boat trip…

‘Not mainstream’ was my partner’s considered opinion after watching Annette, and this strikes me as a very accurate assessment of the kind of film this is. Of course, few films have the capacity to become beloved crowd-pleasers in quite the same way as a great musical can, but I suspect the relentless weirdness of Annette will prove a bit of a barrier to mainstream success.

It’s not quite the conventional ‘sing a bit, talk for a bit, sing a bit’ musical, for one thing: this is practically sung through, which always produces some slightly odd moments. The effect is something akin to actual opera, with all the strangeness associated with that – Driver, Cotillard and Helberg play the only developed characters, so a lot of the time they are interacting with choruses made up of supporting roles – the audience of Henry’s stand-up show get a song with the lyrics ‘Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!’, the police interrogate people to music, and so on.

What of Annette herself, you may be wondering? Well, just in case a slightly self-referential rock opera starring people without trained voices and with music by Marc Bolan and Hitler lookalikes isn’t offbeat enough, baby Annette is played by a wooden puppet. It is fair to say this is a slightly creepy wooden puppet (though still not as unsettling as the CGI baby in the last Twilight film). As the film goes on it proves to be the case that there are sound artistic and metaphorical reasons for the baby to be played by a puppet. But this doesn’t make the various scenes of Driver and Cotillard putting the puppet to bed, and so on, any less bizarre.

The baby puppet only really becomes prominent in the later sections of the film, by which point the plot has soared to such heights of extravagant madness that it probably registers less than it would in a film with a more naturalistic plot. Someone is murdered (they keep on singing even as they are being done in), someone comes back as a vengeful ghost, Annette the baby puppet turns out to have a borderline-magical gift which leads to her becoming the subject of much attention, and so on.

I think the non-naturalism of the movie musical is one of its greatest strengths, but there’s non-naturalistic and then there’s Annette. This is one of those rare movies fully in the self-aware, presentational mode, which is open about its own artificiality. Normally this is a recipe for camp, pretentiousness and a rather desperate reliance on irony, but – and this is probably Annette’s greatest achievement – the remarkable thing about this film is that it still packs a significant emotional punch in its key moments. Much credit must go to the actors, particularly Adam Driver (especially since most of the songs seem to be pitched rather higher than he seems comfortable with), but of course the Mael brothers deserve praise for an inventive score which includes some extraordinary pieces of music.

I was hoping to see rather more of Ron and Russell on screen during the film, but apart from the opening and closing sequences they stay behind the scenes, except for a brief cameo as aeroplane pilots. But the film does have the mixture of wit, playfulness, and sincere emotion that is the hallmark of much of Sparks’ music. The central metaphor of the film is an effective one, and if the things it has to say about modern culture are not terribly original, it at least puts them across well.

This is a soaringly weird and often deeply strange film, but also a rather beautiful and affecting one. It’s a coming together of such special and diverse talents that it’s almost certainly a unique, one-off piece of work – not that this shouldn’t instantly be clear to anyone watching it. I doubt there will be a more distinctive film on release this year.

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The day before my sister turned 21 I travelled down to visit her and, as we had a bit of free time, decided to rent a video before going out for the evening (this sort of indicates how old my sister is, but I’m sure she’ll be fine with that). After the usual wrangling and discussions over what to see (what used to happen in video rental stores now happens while looking at the front end of Netflix or Mouse+, that’s progress for you) we ended up watching The Meaning of Life, which – of course – also included the supporting feature, The Crimson Permanent Assurance. I remember enjoying this enormously and commenting to my sibling on how very Terry Gilliamish it was.

She is less versed in the ways of film (and, indeed, Python) than me, and admitted that she didn’t actually know what that meant. I, on the other hand, will happily turn up to see anything made by Gilliam, always assuming it gets a proper cinema release wherever I’m living at the time. (This is quite a big qualification as I don’t recall Tideland or Zero Theorem showing up at all, while The Man Who Killed Don Quixote only scraped a small release in an independent cinema.) And generally I have a pretty good time, and occasionally a great one.

The only Gilliam film I didn’t get the first time I saw it was The Fisher King, his 1991 film. This is arguably a bit of an outlier in the Gilliam canon anyway, as it was a film he made as a deliberate change of pace after some stressful experiences in the 1980s – he is even on record as having said he didn’t want to make another ‘Terry Gilliam film’ while shooting it. He was much more of a directorial gun for hire on this movie, as opposed to the auteurial role he usually plays.

The movie takes place in New York City in the present day (which is to say, in the late 80s and early 90s) and the protagonist is one Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a radio ‘shock jock’ and provocateur. In true late 80s style Jack is callous, materialistic and self-obsessed, and believes his career is about to really start going places. He is correct – but not the places he is hoping for. An unstable listener takes one of Jack’s rants rather too seriously and is spurred to commit a spree killing in which several people die.

Several years on Jack is at a low ebb: his broadcasting career is over and he is working as a clerk in the video store of his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) – it is perhaps not entirely surprising that posters advertising Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are prominently displayed around the place. Anne clearly adores him, but he is too drunk to notice this most of the time.

While contemplating suicide one night, he is set upon by thugs who believe he is homeless, but rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), an actual homeless person who believes himself to be a knight of the Round Table on a quest to retrieve the Holy Grail. (The Holy Grail is in the library of a wealthy architect on the Upper East Side, naturally.)

Jack’s initial gratitude and bemusement become something more significant when he learns that Parry used to be a successful and happily-married historian until he was widowed in the spree killing Jack was partially responsible for. He feels a sudden responsibility towards Parry, and perhaps the need to redeem himself. Maybe getting Parry together with the woman he is infatuated with (Amanda Plummer) could be a start…?

So, yes, this is the third sort-of Arthurian movie we’ve talked about in the last couple of months. Why should this be? Well, I’m still a bit peeved about The Green Knight having its release postponed, and these other films are filling the gap until (we may hope) it eventually appears. Also, my friends and I are playing King Arthur Pendragon at the moment, so anything with a whiff of Camelot about it is grist to my mill.

The Fisher King sounds like the name of a grand fantasy movie – at least, it does if you know your Arthuriana. The thing is – and I think this may be why I didn’t really take to it on my first viewing – it’s not actually a fantasy film in the traditional sense at all. The only thing epic about it is the length (which is arguably a little bit excessive). The Fisher King legend as related here does not bear much resemblance to the one traditionally associated with the Arthur cycle, and even then it is mainly just a metaphor for the central relationship in the film (it’s not even immediately apparent who is playing the role of the Fisher King in the story).

Instead, this is almost more like a slightly hard-edged Woody Allen comedy-drama about the lives and loves of various New Yorkers (albeit of a lower social stratum than usual), with occasional contributions to the art direction by Hieronymus Bosch. Gilliam seems to have been born several centuries too late and appears to gravitate towards mediaevally-inclined projects – he was the knight with the rubber chicken in Python, co-directed Holy Grail, did Jabberwocky on his own and creates some magnificent knights in this film and his version of Don Quixote – the fire-breathing Red Knight which pursues Parry (a metaphor for the real world, with all the pain and sorrow that involves) is one of Gilliam’s finest bits of conjuring.

If you approach The Fisher King fully cognisant of the fact that it’s only tangentially about the legend in question and more a piece of magic realism than full-on fantasy, I think the film is rather winning, and very worthwhile. It is humane, thoughtful, and quite happy not just to broach the topic of homelessness in the US, but to present homeless characters as sympathetic and intelligent people. The relationships between the four main characters are convincing and, without exception, extremely well played – Robin Williams gets top billing, but Jeff Bridges is at least as good in what’s arguably the central role, while Mercedes Ruehl deserved all the awards she won for a properly layered and utterly convincing performance as his girlfriend.

It’s a little odd to watch a Terry Gilliam film which is basically people just walking around and talking to each other, but the maestro finds plenty of opportunities to bring some visual distinctiveness to the film – quite apart from the Red Knight, there’s the lovely scene in which the crowd in Grand Central Station all start waltzing as Parry stumbles after the woman he’s fallen for. Given the slightly frenetic grimness which occasionally popped up in Gilliam’s films from the 1980s, it’s rather lovely that this one is so genuinely charming and romantic; it suggests he has a range as a director which he has never really got to fully explore (it’s perhaps slightly facile to make comparisons between Terry Gilliam and Orson Welles, but I think there are certainly parallels).

As I said, the film is probably about twenty minutes too long, considering the slightness of the story, but apart from the slightly languid pacing this is a really well-made, thoughtful film for adults. Before watching it recently, it was never really one of my favourite Gilliam films, simply because it doesn’t have that obvious Gilliamishness which is so obvious in The Crimson Permanent Assurance and his earlier feature films. However, it turns out that Terry Gilliam is still a great director even when he isn’t trying that hard to be Terry Gilliam.

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Dominic Cooke’s The Courier doesn’t have a fridge title, just an uninspired one (it played at the  Sundance Festival under its original title of Ironbark, which is at least a little more distinctive). This is a movie which came out in the Land of Uncle US of Stateside nearly six months ago but is only just getting a domestic British release. Quite what the reason for the big lag is, I’m not sure; possibly the makers think this movie has a better chance of succeeding theatrically in the UK, given its subject matter and star – they may even have a point.

This starts off looking like a very traditional, drab and naturalistic espionage thriller, although an opening caption establishes that we are in that even more tenuous and shadowy world of movies theoretically based on true events. It is 1960 and tensions between the superpowers are mounting, reaching the point where senior military intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) decides that the only way to save his country is to betray it, by sharing classified information with the western powers.

Penkovsky’s initial contact is with the CIA, but they are having difficulties in mounting operations in Moscow and request help from MI6 in handling the Penkovsky case (his codename is Ironbark). To allay suspicions they decide to use a civilian as a go-between, and settle upon middle-aged businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch). Wynne is an unexceptional chap, mainly notable for his great emollience and clubbability, and when he eventually figures out he’s being recruited by a couple of spooks his response is one of alarm more than anything else. Somehow they manage to talk him into it nevertheless.

Initially unsure of himself, Wynne nevertheless warms to his work, not least because of the growing warmth developing between him and Penkovsky. This is despite the lack of enthusiasm of his wife (Jessie Buckley), who is unaware of what’s really going on and starts to suspect Wynne has personal (and rather ignoble) reasons for all these foreign trips. But the KGB soon begin to suspect that there may be a leak somewhere in Moscow, and the question becomes one of whether the agencies can extract Penkovsky before he is rumbled…

As I say, theoretically based on true events – although even while you’re watching The Courier you find yourself noticing just how slickly the story told by the film hits the well-established beats of classic story structure: inciting incident, character arc moments, midpoint turn, stakes-raising, and so on. Normally I would suggest this is just another case of creative caution blanding out a movie, but perhaps not on this occasion – for the film departs quite radically from the traditional structure in its closing section (spoilers concerning the Wynne-Penkovsky affair are widely available, not least in history books). Maybe the conventionality of most of the movie is an attempt to wrong-foot the audience, but I’m not entirely convinced about this – it doesn’t feel as if the makers of The Courier are interested in operating on such a sophisticated, self-conscious level.

Instead, the film is much more of a meat-and-potatoes hats-and-fags period drama for most of its duration, the kind of film which the British film industry is simply very good at (they get a lot of practice, after all). All the costuming, set design, and direction is competent and familiar-feeling, and the performances are, in general, decent or better (some of them are very good indeed). The only thing that really distinguishes it is the strikingly bleak and powerful final act. Cumberbatch is good throughout, but here he really gets to shine, while Buckley – saddled with the less than plum stock part of The Wife for most of the movie – also gets to show more of what she’s actually capable of. (Angus Wright plays the stuffy old chief MI6 handler and Rachel Brosnahan his younger and more human American opposite number – needless to say the script favours the Americans.)

The climax is by far the most memorable part of the film, and probably the most accomplished too, but it’s understandable that it and the material leading up to it makes up only a relatively small part of the film – powerful it may be, but it’s also probably downbeat to the point of being profoundly uncommercial.

I’m assuming that the makers of The Courier think the movie has a reasonable chance of commercial success – with someone like Cumberbatch on board, on this kind of form, this would normally be a fair assumption. (They would hardly have made the film otherwise.) And yet I wonder about its chances of cutting through and making an impression – the publicity for it doesn’t do a great job of making it distinctive from many other hats-and-fags period thrillers of the last decade or so, and it’s not as if the story of Wynne and Penkovsky is likely to be all that familiar to anyone under the age of seventy. It’s not a bad movie at all, but nor is it really a big one or one which is likely to make a huge impression.

I suppose this is a shame, because if nothing else the film is a decent reminder of events of the past. But is this enough? What I mean is that the objective of the film (beyond making its budget back) is somewhat obscure: maybe it is just a tribute to Wynne and Penkovsky, if only because its implicit criticisms of the authoritarian Soviet system, though clearly sincere, hardly relate to a live issue (making parallels between the current Russian regime, compromised and brutal though it is, and the horrors of the USSR seems to me to be rather facile). I expect one could argue that the film is really a reminder of the forgotten human cost of historical events. There’s a shot in the film which rather put me in mind of one from Hitchcock’s Frenzy – an ordinary door closes, and the camera quietly retreats from it as everyday life quietly encroaches from both sides of the screen. What’s going on behind the door is left unrevealed and unelaborated upon – but it is the long tail of history, the people involved trying to come to terms with what they have been mixed up in, not the stuff of newspapers or history books but unrecorded life. It’s a striking moment, but most of the film is less contemplative. The Courier tells an important story and just about does it justice, but doesn’t find a way of operating on a high enough level to do more than be a competent and not especially memorable movie.

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They say that America doesn’t have a class system; maybe not, but that great nation is certainly not a monoculture, as we are reminded in Tom McCarthy’s film Stillwater (this comes within a hair’s breadth of being a fridge title). Here Matt Damon seems to be making a conscious effort to show his range by playing a character who is a world away from one of the metropolitan or coastal types he is perhaps best known for (even Jason Bourne was obviously a well-travelled and highly-educated guy, albeit in a rather specialised field).

Damon plays Bill Baker, a construction worker and oil rig roughneck from the town of Stillwater in Oklahoma: a stolid, stocky kind of guy, who calls everyone sir or ma’am, has a tattoo of the Eagle of American Freedom, enjoys country music and only takes his baseball cap off when he’s in bed or saying grace. He is having a rough time financially at the start of the film, looking for work without much success, and living what seems like quite a lonely existence.

And yet here he is flying off to France for some reason. It seems like an unlikely destination for a man of Bill’s stripe. Slowly it becomes obvious that he is a frequent flyer on this particular route, a regular at a certain hotel in Marseilles, and a well-known fixture on the visitor’s list at the local prison. This is because his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is five years into serving time for the murder of her flatmate and Bill is the only one who comes to see her, even though it is clear their relationship is at best somewhat strained.

But maybe this time is different. Allison believes she has a lead that could possibly clear her name – she’s heard from someone who met somebody at a party who claimed they’d literally gotten away with murder – and wants him to take it to the French lawyers. But they are unimpressed by the information; Bill is advised that he needs to get Allison to accept that she has no chance of release. But Bill will have none of this Gallic pusillanimity, and – despite not being temperamentally or linguistically suited to the task – sets out to get justice for his daughter, even if it means venturing down some of Marseilles’ meaner streets…

From that description it sounds rather like the kind of film Liam Neeson might turn up in, maybe even a Luc Besson project: the indefatigable American busting heads and taking names in the name of paternal duty. The thing about Stillwater is that it’s really not like that at all; there’s something very wrong-footing about this film, like a piece of music being played at very slightly the wrong tempo. I came out of it and I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d just seen a rather good film or a distinctly poor one. (Maybe as I write a definite opinion will come to me.)

Well, having said that, Stillwater does have one very obvious and serious strike against it, in that the whole film is built on foundations which are surely unjustifiable from a moral point of view. The murder case at the centre of the story bears such a striking resemblance to the real-life killing of Meredith Kercher, for which Amanda Knox was wrongfully imprisoned for several years, that the whole thing would be in dubious taste even had the scriptwriters not introduced several entirely fictional twists just to serve their story. People may possibly watch Stillwater and assume it’s a fictionalised version of the Knox case, which it isn’t. As I say, surely unjustifiable.

What’s actually slightly annoying is that the film itself has stretches of real class in it. The crime-thriller-vigilante element never really comes to life, to be honest, always feeling a bit flat and laborious, but there’s a whole other angle to it which works rather well: this is partly a character study of Damon’s character, but also about his burgeoning relationship with a local actress (Camille Cottin) and her daughter (Lilou Siauvaud). This is mostly the kind of low-key but entirely plausible character stuff which McCarthy did so well in his debut, The Station Agent. As a drama about these people – some may find the developments between the very conservative Bill and the liberal and cultured Virginie highly implausible, but surely that’s the essence of romance? – the film is rather engaging; I found myself caring about what happened to them and found myself sagging in dismay as…

Well, suffice to say the thriller element lumbers back onto the scene for a climax which is as low-key and understated as the rest of it. Perhaps that’s the thing that makes Stillwater so odd: it’s scripted and structured so it’s essentially a thriller with dramatic elements, but it’s paced and pitched like a much more naturalistic, low-key drama. The style and the substance don’t quite gel for long stretches of the film.

I suppose we should also talk a bit about Matt Damon. It’s a decent character turn and certainly a bit of a departure for the actor; possibly quite a demanding role for him. (He’s in virtually every scene, for one thing.) It’s a complex part, too – a representative of a certain, rather insular American subculture, devoted to his family and seemingly devout, but also capable of making startlingly bad decisions under pressure. Here the sheer undemonstrativeness of the character perhaps becomes a problem, as Damon struggles to find ways to show his inner life and make all these disparate traits come together into a credible, vivid whole. By the end of the film I was in the odd position of caring somewhat about a character who I didn’t entirely find plausible.

Always the film isn’t simply intended as a breath-takingly misjudged comment on the Amanda Knox case, you have to wonder what the wider moral premise of it is – why make the central character a representative of that particular stratum of American society? Bill specifically states he didn’t vote for Trump, but it’s implied this is only because he’s been disqualified from voting for anyone. Apart from this, he owns two guns, doesn’t seem to share Virginie’s liberal attitudes at all, and so on. Is the film trying to say something about a certain kind of blundering American attitude to dealing with the rest of the world? (At the start of the film, Bill still hasn’t bothered to learn any French, despite being a regular visitor.) Or perhaps the message is that paternal love can be as irrational and self-destructive as any other kind.

The deeper thesis of Stillwater never quite becomes clear, but the film has more obvious problems, anyway. It never quite works as a thriller, and the fact that it doesn’t inevitably impacts on its success as a character-based drama. This is a shame, as this is certainly the most affecting and effective part of the film. It’s certainly quite different, and by no means a total failure, but it does have serious flaws that make me hesitate before recommending it. A rather odd and in some respects deeply suspect film which never seems to feel entirely comfortable in its own skin.

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When we talk about genre movies we’re usually talking about highly distinctive genres with very definite conventions – something can be a good example of a western, or a rom-com, or a martial arts movie. These kinds of films often get looked down somewhat – I remember being rather condescendingly nicknamed Genre Boy by a colleague whose own tastes in film were, they clearly felt, somewhat more elevated and refined. At the risk of sounding like a cross between China Mieville and Bertrand Russell, I don’t have much time for this: if the concept of genre is to have any validity, then it applies to everything. You can’t write a book that doesn’t belong to a genre; nor can you make a non-genre film – it’s just that the genre conventions are looser and less obvious in some cases.

‘Drama’ is one of those loosely-defined genres; ‘comedy’ may well be another. It’s not that often that we see one of the less reputable genres smashing into either of them; your genre mash-up is usually something like a kung fu-western or a horror-road movie. But such a thing is possible, and Anders Thomas Jensen’s Riders of Justice (title pa Dansk: Retfærdighedens Ryttere) is a pretty good example of it.

Mand dagens Mads Mikkelson plays Markus Hansen, a veteran officer in the Danish army – ‘tough guy’ doesn’t begin to do him justice; he is as hard as stone. This doesn’t always make him the easiest person to live with, but his wife and daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) seem quite fond of him anyway. However, everything changes when Mathilde and her mother are caught up in a train crash, which only Mathilde survives.

Markus flies home on compassionate leave and the two of them attempt to process their loss, which is probably easier for her than him. Something unexpected enters the situation with the arrival at their door of Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a statistician who was on the train as well, and who gave up his seat for Markus’ wife. He believes the accident – which caused the death of a man due to give evidence against a biker gang involved  in organised crime – was too improbable to be anything of the sort, and the gang – the Riders of Justice – were responsible.

Markus wants to see Otto’s evidence, of course, which involves bringing his associates into the picture: fellow computer and data experts Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro). Soon the nucleus of a very unlikely vigilante revenge squad is forming, with the others in awe of and possibly slightly frightened by Markus’ hard-man charisma, and him dependent on them to get him where he needs to be…

We were talking very recently about the phenomenon of the bus-pass bad-ass movie, which this is sort of heading towards being (Mikkelson is 56 this year), but – the fact he’s the father of a teenage girl notwithstanding – the movie isn’t really about his age as much as the fact he’s a man with a certain set of skills and a very compelling incentive to use them. From some angles it looks very much like a straight down the line revenge thriller, complete with suitably heinous villains to be dealt with.

However, looked at another way, this is a very different kind of film – or at least, a combination of two or three very different kinds of film. Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler are a trio of oddballs and misfits, much given to geekish squabbling over absurd minutiae and obsessing over niche details (Lennart has some sort of monomania when it comes to well-constructed barns, for instance, though there are hints that this stems from his own very troubled past). Their various fallings out are absolutely played for laughs, and are all the funnier for being set against Mikkelson’s baleful restraint. It’s a bit like the Punisher going into action backed up by Dad’s Army or the characters from The IT Crowd.

But it’s not just a simple black comedy-thriller: throughout the film the script takes a keen interest in the chain of cause and effect, and the reasons why things really happen, and appears to conclude that while the world is deterministic and comprehensible, this doesn’t occur on a scale which is accessible to the human brain. We may never know exactly why things happen, tragedies included: the deaths of our loved ones will always seem savagely random.

How people cope with grief and the cruelty of the world is really what this film is about: the revenge thriller bit is very engaging and the comedy business between the different characters extremely funny, but at its absolute heart this film deals with Markus’ inability to process his emotions and come to terms with the death of his wife, or establish any kind of bond with Mathilde. He refuses the offer of trauma counsellors for either of them; the irony is that he’s forced to pretend his new associates are exactly that, to explain what they’re all doing in the barn all day. The triumph of the film comes not just through the resolution of the biker gang revenge plotline, for this is a very ambiguous and dark kind of triumph, but through the bonds that have developed between Markus, Mathilde, her boyfriend, Otto and the others, and even a Ukrainian former sex slave they pick up in the course of the story.

The big challenge of this kind of film is to find some kind of consistency of tone, given the swift transitions between drama, comedy and action which occur throughout the film – Jensen pulls this off extremely well, unafraid to push the boundaries of each (some of the comedy is extremely droll and silly, some of the drama genuinely affecting, and some of the violence quite difficult to watch). There is a sense in which some of the connective tissue of the plot seems a little dubious – this is pretentious pretend film-critic talk for ‘the story depends on a couple of whopping coincidences to function’, but then again… I run the risk of committing spoilers here, so I must stop.

Riders of Justice gets more serious and less funny as it goes on, more or less, but it’s still a distinctive and highly original film filled with good performances and interesting ideas. It’s the sort of film I can imagine them remaking in America with only a fraction of the subtlety and wit, to considerably less effect, so it might be best to catch the original now while it remains unsullied. A very hard film to describe, but well worth seeing.

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It’s a bit of a shock to realise that we still haven’t had any ‘new’ films for 2021 – not since the cinemas reopened, anyway. Virtually every major release has been something that was scheduled for early last summer: there’s a real sense in which we are still only catching up with the backlog, at least as far as the big studios go. One got to see the trailer, then the pandemic intervened, and now, sixteen or eighteen months later, we actually get to see the movie.

I’ve been racking my brains trying to remember what I saw the trailer for Jon M Chu’s In the Heights in front of. As we have established, films are trailed before other films of a vaguely similar kind, on the whole, but as there aren’t many hip-hop contemporary musical-comedy-dramas troubling the multiplexes it must have been something else. Was it in front of Parasite? I can’t actually recall.

That trailer made heavy reference to the fact that the guiding spirit behind the musical the film is based on – conceiver, producer, composer and lyricist – is Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of those people who you’d expect to be able to write their own ticket in terms of simply doing anything they feel like (and making a big song and dance out of it, ha ha, ho ho). This is mainly due to the success of the stage musical Hamilton; In the Heights is an earlier work which has taken a circuitous route to the big screen (casting issues, a change of studio, the Weinstein scandal, and then of course the delay due to the virus).

Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, owner of a convenience store in the Washington Heights district of New York (the issue of his somewhat unusual nomenclature is addressed in the course of the film). His family is from the Dominican Republic, and his ambition is to return there and re-open his father’s old bar. Most of his neighbours have some kind of Latino background as well, not to mention concerns over their own futures: beauty salon worker Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) wants to become a fashion designer with a downtown address, while her friend Nina (Leslie Grace) is struggling with the pressures placed on her as the first person from the neighbourhood to go to an elite university, not to mention the prejudices and provocations she encounters in the wider world.

And the neighbourhood seems under threat: quite apart from the fact that so many of the young people seem to be intent on leaving, the businesses are being bought out or forced to leave by rent increases. When Usnavi learns that someone in his shop has bought a lottery ticket worth nearly $100,000, it seems like a portent of things changing forever…

If you only go to see one musical set on the streets of Manhattan this year… aha, but that’s the thing: one of the films being trailed before In the Heights was Spielberg’s likewise-delayed new version of West Side Story (the trailer was almost good enough to make me reconsider my position that a remake of the Robert Wise version isn’t just necessarily redundant, but folly). Spielberg’s film is likely to crush Chu’s in terms of box office returns and critical profile, which is a shame – but that’s what brand loyalty is all about, I suppose.

This is quite a different animal, anyway, less centred around a single narrative line and more concerned with the lives and experiences of an entire neighbourhood: one of its great successes is in the presentation of a vibrant, realistic community, somewhere it might actually be quite nice to live.

Well, realistic up to a point, anyway: people keep bursting into song and performing massed dance routines. A touch of realism goes a long way, but one of the reasons that musicals never really completely disappear from the cinema landscape is that they have a special magic all of their own – by being so proudly and completely non-naturalistic, at their best they have a truthfulness and sincerity about them which no other genre can quite match.

So it is here: the big routines have a joyousness about them which is utterly captivating, and bring to mind the best musicals of the past. The whole movie is quite classical in its form and structure – the songs are a mixture of ‘I want’ and ‘I need’, you can track the structure of the acts as the story develops, and so on – even if the mixture of musical styles is quite innovative (Latino music and hip-hop make up most of the score).

As a celebration of Latino culture in New York, the film is a success – but it’s also notably politicised. Everyone is talking or singing about their dreams, but slowly this turns into a discussion of the fate of Dreamers, undocumented immigrant children. Viewed in this light, and bearing in mind it was intended to be a 2020 movie, it’s hard not to conclude that In the Heights was intended to be a challenge to Donald Trump and his views on immigrants and Latino and Hispanic culture. Well, if nothing else we should always be glad that this is a blow which no longer needs to be struck with quite such urgency.

On the other hand, as well as engaging with political issues – and it’s more than just bashing Trump, the complex realities of the immigrant experience are handled with intelligence and nuance – the film is also a romance of a very traditional kind, a comment on the fate of neighbourhood communities, and several other things besides. The sheer breadth of material and willingness of the film to try and do everything eventually becomes slightly exhausting, and results in a lengthy film that none of the plotlines are really strong enough to support.

Still, it’s often hugely enjoyable while you’re watching it, even if it does lack focus. The cast are mostly unknown (apparently Anthony Ramos was in the most recent A Star is Born, a Godzilla movie, and a Liam Neeson thriller), but put across their turns with charm and energy. Probably the most famous face in the main cast is Jimmy Smits, who as it turns out can sing quite well, while Lin-Manuel Miranda himself pops up from time to time as the neighbourhood slushy salesman.

Miranda’s appearances are one of the many small pleasures which pepper a hugely likeable film. It’s true that this is film which feels like its trying to do too much, possibly as a result of having been significantly altered from the stage incarnation (the central romance is more prominent, while the political elements have been amended to reflect the modern situation) – but it does package one of the most enduring pleasures of cinema very appealingly indeed. Worth the wait.

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Sometimes, the desire to do or possess something can become so overpowering you almost forget the reason why you wanted to do or own that thing in the first place, or even exactly when and where it first gripped you. So it has been with me and Matthew Bright’s Tiptoes, which I must have heard of back in the mid 2000s – I honestly have no idea. The sheer staggering misconceivedness of a central element of this movie, and the weirdness of the rest of it, seized my imagination in a vice-like grip; this same elements, ironically, mean it has virtually been obliterated from history. Long-suffering readers may recall my oft-expressed hope that my DVD rental service would, sooner or later, send me a copy of Tiptoes (they never did; I’m not even sure it’s available on disc in this country); since that company folded I may have still occasionally expressed a vague desire to see the film, but never with any great expectation of it coming to pass. Tiptoes became a kind of chimerical beast or cultural legend: I would hear vague rumours of it, and there was enough hard evidence to convince me that it really did exist, but there was no more chance of actually watching it than there was of encountering Bigfoot or a sea serpent.

Nevertheless: post-pandemic, major life changes loom, with the outcome still uncertain in many ways. And so I decided I would be damned if I did not make a proper effort to finally see Tiptoes before all of this came to pass. Is it on any of the streaming sites? It is not. Is it available to rent through the Main Big River service? Only if you live in the States, apparently. All seemed lost until a search of a prominent video-sharing site turned up the entire movie, which had been there for nearly six months. It was dubbed into Polish or Russian, in the crushingly artless way that former-Soviet Bloc countries normally do their dubbing (a gravelly male voice intones all the dialogue in a monotone), but it was better than nothing; and I have always felt that with a proper movie you don’t really need the dialogue to follow the story. So off we went, Tiptoes and I, together at last (albeit in Polish or Russian).

There’s a sense in which Tiptoes is a fairly straightforward comedy-drama with elements of romance to it. As it opens, the couple at the centre of the action are Steve and Carol. Steve trains firefighters for a living, while Carol is an independent, free-spirited artist. All is well, except for Carol’s nagging concerns that despite their plans to marry, he has yet to introduce her to anyone in his family.

The reason for this becomes clear as we see Steve entering a convention centre which is full of – and here we must be careful to get our terminology right – short people. Yes, there is a gathering of short folk underway, their number including virtually Steve’s entire family: he is the only person of normal stature in the clan. Even his twin brother Rolfe is short.

When Rolfe turns up at Carol’s studio looking for Steve, she is naturally surprised, but both of them are perturbed about Steve’s decision to keep quiet about his family’s shortcomings. Is he ashamed of being the scion of such a diminutive clan? The issue becomes a pressing one when Carol discovers she is pregnant, and there is a strong possibility the child will also be short. Can Steve overcome his issues and fully commit to both the relationship and parenthood, or will Carol be forced to fall back on the help of Rolfe and the rest of the family?

Yeah, well, that sounds weird, doesn’t it? I mean, I should say that the movie itself is a bit more tonally distinctive than it sounds – it’s not like this is some earnest issue-of-the-week telemovie: the B-plot appears to concern a French Marxist biker short person played by Peter Dinklage, who engages in a wild affair with a free-spirited and open-minded woman played by Patricia Arquette (the scene in which the two of them consummate their relationship, to a reggae soundtrack, is not one which quickly or easily fades from the memory). It does have some star power attached to it, too. Carol is played by Kate Beckinsale. Steve is played by Matthew McConaughey. And Rolfe is played by Gary Oldman.

(A brief pause to let that sink in is probably appropriate at this point.)

Yes: Rolfe the short person is played by Gary Oldman, who is five-foot-nine (174cm, for metricalists) and thus not the most obvious choice for the part. Oldman himself has said he thought it was a dream of a role, but admits that playing a short person was ‘a stretch’ (a perhaps infelicitous choice of words). He spends the majority of the film shuffling around on his knees, or kneeling down behind things, or with his lower body concealed inside furniture and tiny prop legs arranged in front of him. The prosthetics and so on are all acceptably well-done, but it’s still obviously Gary Oldman on his knees attempting a role for which he is arguably not qualified. I mean, it’s Oldman so he gives a great performance, as usual, but it’s like watching a man attempting complex and subtle card-tricks while the building around him burns down: your attention is always being dragged elsewhere.

Gary Oldman is on the left, in case you were wondering.

I’m not normally one to get too exercised about the whole issue of ‘appropriate casting’, but in this case it’s a difficult thing to get past – this one creative decision sends the whole film into a spin, making it uproarious and risible even when it’s trying to be serious. The presence of Dinklage really strips away the producers’ possible defence that a capable short-person actor was not available (though to be fair, Dinklage has defended the casting of Oldman).

I suspect that at this point in his career, Matthew McConaughey was doing whichever script landed at the top of the pile on his doormat, but the presence of Kate Beckinsale is at least a little curious: apparently she agreed to do the film at a greatly reduced rate, provided she was allowed to wear her lucky hat on-camera. This sounds like a bluff to me, but the director agreed (a row about the hat between the director and the producers ensued). Exactly what Kate Beckinsale’s lucky hat looks like I’m not sure, as she explores several curious avenues of the milliner’s art in the course of the movie; she is playing the type of character who tends to express their individuality by putting weird things on their head.

It’s hard to imagine Tiptoes having been made with a different cast – the extant version does burn itself into the memory once seen – but even so, I think the audience would still have been in for a rocky ride with this movie. It’s not just the casting that makes Tiptoes feel quite so off-kilter and peculiar, it’s the script. Towards the end all the weirdness with French Marxist bikers and the sex lives of short people drops away and it turns into a rather contrived and sentimental melodrama, as Steve falls short of meeting his responsibilities and romance blooms between Carol and Rolfe. If, as some would have you believe, this is a rom-com, it’s a rom-com where the main character abandons his wife and child and she then settles down with his short-person brother instead. Richard Curtis this is not.

No wonder the film has essentially vanished into obscurity. Is it worth watching? Well – if you’re a particular admirer of Gary Oldman and his undoubted talents, then perhaps,  but for everyone else this is the kind of film you only watch in order to confirm for yourself it actually exists. It does: it is every bit as magnetically weird and appalling as I had suspected (and hoped). I don’t have much of a bucket list, and the one I do have is now appreciably shorter.

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They held the Oscars last weekend, and a weird ceremony it was too (at least, the little of it that actually made it onto the news).  Perhaps it’s just me and my unreasonable sentimental attachment to the theatrical experience, but it seems very strange and perhaps even wrong to have an Academy Awards ceremony for a year in which hardly any films have been released to the big screen: I think I’ve been to see about six genuinely new movies in the last twelve months, mostly during that brief July-to-October period when the cinemas reopened. Letting films which have only been available to screen via streaming sites win Oscars is just playing into the hands of those sites, and potentially damaging theatrical cinema itself.

Then again, Netflix has been playing this game for a couple of years now, sneaking one of its movies out with the smallest possible cinema release necessary for it to qualify for Oscar nomination. Most studios make prestige projects with more than one eye on the gong season, but in the case of a streaming site which normally doesn’t release films at all, it seems particularly calculated and mercenary (I am aware this is becoming a bit of a theme when I start writing about Netflix films).

This year’s Oscars tilt from Netflix took the form of David Fincher’s Mank. Shot in luminous black and white, it opens with the arrival at a remote Californian ranch of screenwriter, wit and general bon vivant Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), who is recovering from a broken leg suffered in a car crash. It is 1940 and Mankiewicz, his secretary (Lily Collins), and various other assistants are here to write the screenplay for a movie, to star and be directed by the prodigiously talented young Hollywood outsider Orson Welles (Tom Burke) – Welles will also get sole credit for the script.

The writing of this script is essentially a frame story for a film looking back on the previous ten years or so of Mankiewicz’s career in Hollywood, and particularly his relationship with the media tycoon and politician William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his wife Marion (Amanda Seyfried). Mankiewicz’s personal politics tend towards the left-of-centre (inasmuch as he has political beliefs, preferring to just be louchely witty when not drinking or gambling), quite unlike Hearst’s by this point – but it seems that Hearst enjoys having him around.

This becomes increasingly uncomfortable for Mankiewicz, as the ruthless power politics of Hollywood and California in general become more and more savage, and his own career begins to slide into decline as he alienates the studio bosses and generally makes himself unemployable. Perhaps these men, despite their lesser minds and imaginations, have realised more quickly than he the potential power at their command? Phony newsreels play a key role in the defeat of the Socialist candidate Upton Sinclair in a gubernatorial election.

The film’s thesis is that it is these experiences which influence the fallen-from-grace Mankiewicz when he is writing Welles’ film for him. That film turns out to be Citizen Kane, of course, which Hearst interpreted as a hatchet job against him and tried very hard to have stopped or suppressed – most people agree that Kane is indeed based on Hearst, but Mankiewicz’s motives for doing so are less clear-cut than the film suggests.

As noted, at least part of Netflix’s motivation for financing Mank seems to have been the expectation it would snag a few awards – which it has duly done, albeit mainly for its cinematography and production design. Why do I say this? Well, there are certain types of film that are much more likely to get attention from organisations like AMPAS, a set of boxes to be ticked.  One of the best bets is the box marked ‘Make Film About Hollywood Itself’ (the ‘Shoot In Black And White For Added Artsy Gravitas’ box is also good value). The fact this is a true-life tale of a well-remembered industry figure taking a stand on behalf of justice and integrity is also another factor in the film’s favour.

The fact that Mank is a movie about the origins of what’s still often hailed as the greatest film ever made (although apparently it has recently been the subject of a fierce challenge by Paddington 2) is obviously another point in its favour. The fact that this is a film about Citizen Kane in which Orson Welles is a relatively minor character is certainly an oddity: you might even argue that Mank suggests that Kane’s greatness is as much due to the contribution of Mankiewicz (a man with a long career as a Hollywood insider) as that of Welles (a colossal talent unable to find a place within the established studio system).

If you accept this reading, then beneath the surface the film is a little conflicted – the glamour of old Hollywood and its stars rubs up against the venality and ruthlessness of studio bosses (Louis B Mayer in particular gets it in the neck). Then again, perhaps this clash between dreams and reality is at the heart of all the films purporting to go behind the scenes in the movie business.

This one handles both aspects pretty well, at least on a visual level – all those awards were certainly deserved. What’s particularly clever is the way in which many of the scenes reference elements of Kane, even on a subliminal level: Hearst’s palatial mansion, with its own zoo on the grounds, inevitably recalls Kane’s retreat Xanadu; there are countless other references as well.

This kind of self-referentiality extends throughout the movie – transitions between the 1940 sequences and flashbacks are signified by captions in the form of stage directions – and initially I thought Mank was going to turn out to be a bit too clever for its own good: a lot of whistles and bells and great visuals but essentially just another example of the movie business gazing into its own navel while patting itself on the back (if you consider a film never really intended to run in cinemas to be a genuine part of the movie business, anyway).

In the end I think Fincher and Mank get away with it, mainly because of the strength of the central performance: I knew Herman Mankiewicz’s name, vaguely, before watching the film, but wasn’t really familiar with who he was; Gary Oldman brings him to life. It’s not the flashiest of turns – though Mankiewicz’s legendary wit certainly provides him with some good dialogue – which may be why it hasn’t brought him the same kind of acclaim as his (slightly hammy) performance as Churchill a few years ago. By the end of the film you do care about Mankiewicz and how his experiences have affected him. Oldman gets to do some good drunk acting, too, of course, as the screenwriter’s alcoholism and compulsive gambling are both dwelt upon in the movie.

Did Mankiewicz really write the bulk of Citizen Kane in less than a fortnight while permanently sluiced? It is at least an appealing bit of legend, although given that much of the ‘history’ presented in Mank has been challenged, one is inclined to doubt it. (If the rest of the film has the same level of historical accuracy as the scene at a 1930 script conference where someone describes a movie as being like The Wolf Man, a film which wasn’t made until 1941, then I am almost forced to conclude that Citizen Kane was never actually made at all, and our memories of it are just a case of Mandela syndrome.)

Mank is certainly worth watching, if only for the look and craft of the thing, and some great performances – as well as Oldman, Charles Dance is good value as Hearst, and there are decent turns from Tuppence Middleton, Arliss Howard and Lily Collins, too. It’s a witty and intelligent film that presents an interesting tale of life in Hollywood in the 1930s and early 40s. Whether that tale bears much relation to reality is another question, of course, but if nothing else the film reminds us that this has always been a complex and occasionally fraught issue.

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For someone who is overwhelmingly best-remembered as a singer, Frank Sinatra had a pretty good career in non-musical films: he won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity, directed None But the Brave (the first American-Japanese co-production), and at one point was in the frame to play the lead in both Dirty Harry and Die Hard (admittedly, the latter offer was a contractual obligation on the part of the producers). On the other hand, he did reject the idea of making a movie of A Clockwork Orange, thinking the idea had no potential, but nobody’s perfect.

Sinatra himself felt the zenith of his acting career came in 1962 with his role in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, one of those films which regularly shows up on lists of classics. (There was a fun pub quiz question a few years back – who is the only actor to appear in three of the movies on the AFI’s 100 Best of All Time list? I’ll give you a clue: they were also in Night of the Lepus, which is probably something they’re less proud of.) Certainly this is a formidably accomplished and intelligent film – it would be wrong to say that it hasn’t dated at all, but this hasn’t affected its ability to engage and entertain.

Sinatra plays Ben Marco, who at the start of the film is serving in the Korean War (that least romanticised of the USA’s 20th century conflicts). He is the leader of a patrol, assisted by his sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) – but things do not as planned when their native guide betrays them and they are captured by communist forces.

Three days later the patrol makes it back to their own lines, having lost only a couple of its members – Shaw’s incredible bravery has ensured their survival, and all the other survivors agree on his decency and general wonderfulness, even if they’re not convinced they actually like him all that much. Needless to say, Shaw gets the Medal of Honour for his deeds, which is eagerly seized upon by his calculating mother (Angela Lansbury), who sees it as a great publicity tool for Shaw’s stepfather, a senator of somewhat extreme views.

But Marco is troubled by nightmares, remembering the patrol being held prisoner by the Red Chinese and subjected to intensive conditioning and psychological programming: Shaw in particular being transformed into a mindless, remorseless killer. It is just a nightmare, though, isn’t it? But then he learns of other survivors of the patrol who are having the same dreams…

Yes, the whole story about Shaw’s stupendous bravery is just a cover-up for the abduction and processing of the patrol, as well as providing a convenient method of establishing Shaw as an unimpeachably heroic figure. Someone with knowledge of the right triggers – certain phrases and objects – can direct Shaw against any target they choose…

Stephen King has suggested that the political assassin – the proverbial lone gunman – was, for a while at least, one of the great bogeymen of American culture, and The Manchurian Candidate can’t have done anything to dispel this. Perhaps it’s fitting that this most famous of paranoid thrillers is surrounded by real-world conspiracy theories, but it’s certainly a striking coincidence that this is the second Sinatra-starring movie to revolve around a plan to effect change at the top of American society via a political assassination, the first being 1954’s Suddenly. Sinatra allegedly wanted both films withdrawn from circulation when it was suggested they had played a role in inspiring Lee Harvey Oswald’s successful assassination of John F Kennedy – rumour had it for a while that Sinatra bought the negatives to Suddenly and had the film destroyed. The assassin of Robert Kennedy, meanwhile, made various allegations concerning amnesia, brainwashing, and clandestine government activity, all of which are themes this movie touches upon.

Nevertheless, for a political thriller, this is a film which is notably difficult to read in terms of its own politics: one can perhaps detect a note of sympathy towards liberalism, but in general it is fiercely cynical when it comes to ideology of all flavours: quite which party the climactic convention is being held by is left open, while the particular agenda of the villains of the film is also quite obscure – they aspire to a level of social control which will ‘make martial law seem like anarchy’, but this feels more like a kind of authoritarian megalomania than a particular political position. They certainly don’t feel like committed communists – Lansbury vows to topple the communist powers which have assisted her. Then again, even the ideological commitment of the communists seems to be somewhat lacking: one Soviet agent is pleased to report that one of their front operations actually turns a modest profit, while another looks forward to spending an afternoon visiting a high-class department store. In all cases, it seems to be about the exercise of control in pursuit of enlightened (or not so enlightened) self-interest.

The film is quite open about this, opting not to present the story as a mystery – the explanation as to what has happened to Shaw and the rest of the patrol is presented very early in the film, before Marco or anyone has really figured it out. The real driver of the plot is what Shaw’s controllers have in mind for him to do, which is indeed held back until the final act of the movie. In the meantime the movie is powered by the intricacies of the plot and the strength of the performances.

The acting is uniformly good, although Harvey’s tendency to declaim his dialogue in a rather sub-Olivier manner is an unusual choice. Sinatra gives a fine, subtle performance – although the scene where he engages hand-to-hand combat with a Korean communist agent inevitably brings to mind Peter Sellers fighting Burt Kwouk – and he has some engaging scenes with Janet Leigh (who is our pub quiz answer: her other two films from the top 100 are Psycho and Touch of Evil). The film’s star turn, however, is Angela Lansbury, who creates a quite extraordinary monster in Shaw’s mother, Mrs Iselin – it’s been suggested that Richard Condon’s original novel was partly plagiarised from I, Claudius, in which case it makes perfect sense that Mrs Iselin should be a modern-day equivalent of Livia Drusilla. (Seeing as we were recently talking about unlikely parent-child age-gaps in cinema, it’s worth mentioning that Harvey and Lansbury are completely convincing despite there being only three years between them.)

As I’ve said, some stylistic elements of The Manchurian Candidate have dated a little, but the film’s cynicism and intelligence are as engaging as ever. Perhaps in its own way it also acknowledges the fragility of human beings, and the invisible damage that soldiers can carry home with them, a notion which perhaps feels much more modern than one might expect. It’s the mixture of intelligence, cynicism and humanity which makes the film such an impressive and successful piece of entertainment.

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