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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

There’s a sort of running gag in Tom Harper’s Wild Rose where the lead character gets increasingly hacked off with people confusing country music with country-and-western music. I have to say that I wasn’t even aware they were substantively different things, but there you go, this isn’t usually my kind of culture. I suspect this is one of those things that you either get or you don’t – I remember Billy Connolly’s joke that, as country songs are usually concerned with family, religion, tragedy, crime, disability and death, the perfect title for one would be ‘My Granny Drowned in the Grotto at Lourdes (Because a Hunchback Pushed Her In)’; also a moment in Every Which Way But Loose where a snotty student tells Clint Eastwood that the country-and-western mentality runs the gamut from ‘dull normal to borderline moron’ (needless to say, Clint doesn’t stand for much of this kind of talk) – but I also know many people love this genre, not just for the songs but for its supposed rawness and honesty. Maybe there is a sense of wallowing in weltschmerz in some aspects of country, what the writer and singer Rich Hall has described as the ‘whiskey on the cornflakes’ element of it.

Harper’s film certainly tries hard to feel gritty and authentic. It opens with main character Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) getting over a case of the HM Prison blues, as she concludes a stint in the big house for what we eventually learn is a drug-related offence. The country roads take her home to Glasgow, where in her absence her two young children have been standing by their gran (Julie Walters) – obviously, I could keep this up all day if I wanted to, but let’s press on with the synopsis. Rose-Lynn just wants to get back to singing on the Glasgow country music scene; she dreams of going to Nashville one day, but small details like her lack of money and the fact she’s obliged to wear an electronic tag as part of the terms of her parole cannot help but get in the way of this. Eventually she lands a job as a cleaning lady for an affluent older woman (Sophie Okonedo), who learns of her ambition and, in her own way, tries to help her. But there are hard truths to be faced and choices to be made: just how much is she prepared to sacrifice in pursuit of her dream?

This is a bit of a change of pace for Tom Harper, certainly after his last film, the slightly underwhelming Nu-Hammer sequel The Woman in Black: Angel of Death. That was a perhaps-too-glossy modern spin on Gothic horror, this is a decidedly more gritty and down-to-earth undertaking. Everyone’s critical yardstick for Wild Rose seems to be last year’s update of A Star is Born, and I can sort of see where they’re coming from – they’re both musical dramas about aspiration and the demands it makes of a person, both films feature eye-catching central performances, and they both feature big musical numbers amongst their most memorable moments, although they’re really more like dramas with music than actual proper musicals.

This is certainly the case with Wild Rose, which features Buckley extensively on the soundtrack but only includes a handful of scenes where she sings on-camera. There’s a slightly disingenuous moment where Buckley is given a line where she dismisses Saturday night TV talent shows as being no good as launchpad for a career – disingenuous, because this is exactly how Buckley herself first rose to fame. Needless to say, she can really do the business vocally, while the fact that she can also really act was established last year in Beast. The lead role of this film demands someone who can do both, and Buckley carries it off with aplomb.

However, it takes more than one great performance to make a great movie and I was initially not completely impressed by some aspects of Wild Rose, as it seemed to me to be doing the Breakfast at Tiffany’s thing of assuming I was going to be hopelessly charmed by the lead character despite the fact they have major personality and behavioural issues. The film is carefully coy to begin with about just exactly why Rose-Lynn has been in prison, but still makes very clear that – initially at least – she is irresponsible, a neglectful parent, with anger management issues and one finger never far from her self-destruct button. It’s relatively easy for me to feel sorry for someone like that, but I’m not going to root for them unless you give me a better reason than that they’re a bit of a character and can carry a tune.

The surprising thing about Wild Rose, and the one that elevates the film, is that it works tremendously hard to make you genuinely care for Rose-Lynn, despite all the reasons why you possibly shouldn’t. I know some people have criticised this film for lacking comedy or romantic elements, but I think this misses the point: this is a more serious drama than some of the advertising suggests, dealing with moments of genuine emotional pain. It doesn’t feature anyone losing control of their bladder on stage or making very bad decisions in a garage, but it is about failing as a person in very serious ways, taking responsibility for that failure, and then trying to make amends. Every uplifting moment of musical beauty or success is earned through heartbreak and disillusionment, generally depicted in a refreshingly unsentimental way. The film also seems to be challenging that usual glib dictum that to succeed, you have to follow your dreams, no matter what the cost – Wild Rose isn’t afraid to suggest that doing so may or may not lead to success, but it has a very good chance of turning you into a horrible person to be around.

The film also impresses in its refusal, for the most part, to indulge in fairy tale contrivances and easy answers. There’s a curious plot tangent where Rose-Lynn gets a free trip down to London to visit Whispering Bob Harris at the BBC (Whispering Bob’s performance is not entirely convincing, which is weird considering he’s playing himself), but it doesn’t really advance the story, while the film isn’t afraid to defy expectations elsewhere, either. There are unexpected touches of subtlety, too, especially in the relationship between Rose-Lynn and her employer/sponsor – just who exactly is exploiting who, here? Only at the very end does the film cheat a bit, concluding with a moment of unqualified joy that we’re left to imagine our own context for (a trick which at least borders on sentimentality, if you ask me).

Nevertheless, Wild Rose is a highly engaging, solidly made film, built around three extremely good performances – we’re at the point now where you kind of assume Julie Walters is always going to be excellent (needless to say, she is), and it’s always nice to be reminded of Sophie Okonedo’s ability as an actress – she has the least flashy role of the leads, but finds a lot to do with it. But this is Jessie Buckley’s film from beginning to end: she takes you on a journey from chaos into a kind of peace, from thoughtless selfishness to new-found responsibility, and makes you believe every step of the way. The supporting performances, direction, script and songs are all worth seeing (one of them was written by Mary Steenbergen, who has apparently reinvented herself as a country music singer-songwriter), but Buckley is the thing you will remember.

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I enjoyed a dinner the other day with a few friends, where the wine flowed freely, the vegetable lasagne was for the ages, and our conversation ranged most agreeably over a wide range of topics: the directorial career of Neil Marshall, whether or not The Crawling Chaos would be a good name for an H.P. Lovecraft-inspired cookbook, and everything that’s wrong with the movie Passengers and its advertising material. I was fairly unstinting in my criticism of this film, which may explain the looks of mild surprise I drew when I casually mentioned I was going straight from the meal to a showing of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger, enjoying a one-off revival as part of the local indie cinema’s one-take-wonder season of films.

There is, to be absolutely clear, little to connect The Passenger with Passengers, beyond their closeness in any A-Z list of noteworthy films (and Passengers would really be on that list for negative reasons). This is one of those international co-productions (in this case, between companies from Spain, France and Italy) which has been made in English simply to make it more commercial, relatively speaking. I say ‘relatively speaking’ because, despite the canny choice of language and the presence of a leading Hollywood star in the central role, this is still hardly what you’d call mainstream cinema. The question becomes one of – what exactly is this film?

Jack Nicholson plays Locke, a (supposedly) Anglo-American journalist on assignment in a remote part of Saharan Africa. It soon becomes clear that Locke is pretty hacked off with life in general, and the fact that his mission to find rebels to interview is obviously going nowhere just adds to his frustration. This culminates in him having a spectacular meltdown when his land rover breaks down, producing the image of Nicholson on his knees in the desert which is the still photo most often used to represent this movie.

However, an unexpected opportunity comes Locke’s way – he has made the acquaintance of another man at the same dingy hotel, a businessman named Robertson, who happens to be a reasonably close lookalike for him. When Locke finds Robertson dead of a heart attack in his room, he decides to switch places with the dead man, swapping their passport photos and informing the hotel staff that it is he (Locke) who has died, not Robertson. Adopting Robertson’s identity, he flies back to Europe, only noting in passing the obituaries he has himself received.

Those close to Locke – mainly his wife (Jenny Runacre) and a colleague (Ian Hendry) – are understandably upset to learn of his apparent death, but naturally they want to to talk to ‘Robertson’ about exactly what went on out in Africa. Not wishing to speak to them for obvious reasons, ‘Robertson’ ends up going to quite extreme lengths to avoid the people looking for him. He also learns that there was a bit more to the real Robertson than he first anticipated – rather than simply being a businessman, Robertson was an arms dealer and gunrunner working with the same rebel faction Locke was attempting to contact. ‘Robertson’ takes a large cash down-payment from the rebels and then continues with his journey, doing his best to meet the appointments listed in the dead man’s diary and hooking up with a young architecture student (Maria Schneider) along the way. But he seems to be inextricably caught between the complications of the life he left behind and the one he has just entered…

This is another one of those movies which looks like a thriller when you write the plot out in synopsis, but feels like quite a different experience when you actually sit down and watch it. There is, I suppose, the faintest resemblance to The Bourne Identity or something of that ilk about The Passenger, in that it is about a man struggling to resolve who he is while making a not entirely stress-free journey across photogenic parts of Europe, but if so it is The Bourne Identity as written by Jean-Paul Sartre. There are no thrills, no action sequences, the main time that something violent occurs the camera is studiously looking away, and so on. I have seen a few different notifications on BBFC certificates in my time – strong sex, bloody scenes, injury detail, bleeped bad language amongst them – but The Passenger presumably scores its UK 15-rating mainly for including footage of an actual execution, as duly noted by the BBFC. Apart from a very coy nude scene for the two leads, the rest of it is fairly innocuous, at least to look at.

On the other hand, there is something unsettling and strange about Antonioni’s film, not least in the way it makes a point of not explaining exactly why the main characters make the choices that they do – particularly Nicholson. We’re never completely allowed into his head, which you would think would be required given some of the extreme and apparently inexplicable choices his character makes throughout the movie. On one level this film is about the temporary escape from oneself which travel makes possible, a chance to leave your normal life behind – but just what has made Locke so alienated as to want to exist in a state of permanent vacation, abandoning his old existence entirely, is never really made completely clear. His wife has been having an affair, but that can’t be it: we are left to ponder the question. There seems to be some deep sense of existential dislocation at work. Or, of course, it could just be that Locke is having a particularly spectacular and possibly somewhat premature mid-life crisis (Nicholson was 37 when he made this movie), abandoning all responsibility and acquiring a much younger girlfriend.

Whatever is actually going on here, and it certainly seems to me that there may in fact be less than meets the eye, the film stays watchable mainly due to a magnetic performance from Jack Nicholson and an engaging one from Maria Schneider. 1975 was something of an annus mirabilis for Nicholson – in the same year he also made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and this is one of his more striking turns: for my generation and anyone younger, we know Nicholson from movies like Batman, A Few Good Men, Anger Management and so on, where he does not exactly underplay his scenes. Here, he is unexpectedly restrained, almost a man vanishing into himself – perhaps even he is not sure of why he is doing what he’s doing – but at the same time his performance is strangely compelling. His odd non-romance with Schneider’s nameless student is also oddly fascinating to watch.

This is probably just as well, for The Passenger is in one sense a film a considerable proportion of which is solely made up of people driving around and going in and out of hotels. The photography is accomplished, however, and the film does contain a couple of brilliant moments of technical innovation – an early scene, establishing back-story, in which the setting shifts from the present day to the recent past within the same extended shot, and the extraordinary climactic scene, which lasts about seven minutes: the camera moves through Locke’s latest hotel room, glides out through the window (seemingly passing through a solid metal grille to do so), roams around the square outside, and then returns to settle on Locke’s room as seen from outside, revealing his ultimate fate. As to what his destiny is – well, once again it may be less significant than Antonioni and his writers would perhaps like to think. But the journey to get there is an attractive and fascinating one.

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Every time I think the internet has lost its capacity to startle me, something comes along to – well, startle me. The nature of the world’s most popular video sharing website being what it is, I’m never especially surprised to find obscure old movies posted there in its quiet corners – were this not the case, I might never have seen The Deadly Mantis or Night of the Lepus. Even the least distinguished films have a habit of turning up on budget DVD, such is the nature of the medium, but when it comes to old TV shows… well, even today I would imagine there are hundreds of thousands of hours of material which has never been licensed for commercial release; there are whole series which have slipped out of the collective memory. For example, I’d never heard of an ITV play strand entitled Against the Crowd, which apparently ran for one series in 1975 – until I came across a complete episode available for viewing. How did this even happen?!

Of course, it turns out that my initial surprise may have been a bit premature, for the episode in question has the unique distinction: unlike the rest of the run, it has enjoyed a DVD release, having been included as a special feature on the box set of Beasts when that came out. This, I suspect, is the source of the copy which is available to watch. The reason Murrain got added to Beasts is that it was written by Nigel Kneale, effectively acting as an unofficial pilot for the later series, and I suppose part of my surprise at discovering this play is that I thought I was familiar with virtually everything Kneale wrote for TV, certainly in the 1960s and 1970s.

Certainly Murrain resembles an episode of Beasts, clearly being made on a low budget – shot on videotape and on location. The play is set somewhere in the north of England. David Simeon (one of those actors who isn’t famous by any stretch of the imagination, but is still one of those faces you kind of recognise if you’re anything like me) plays Alan Crich, an idealistic young veterinary officer with the local council, who as the story begins arrives at the pig farm of a man named Beeley (Bernard Lee, best known for appearing in the first dozen or so Bond films). Beeley’s pigs are suffering from an unidentified sickness which Crich’s ministrations have so far been unable to cure; Beeley is not impressed, to put it mildly, and the atmosphere between the two men is soon tense.

Then Beeley announces he’s going to show Crich a few other points of interest, and marches him off to where the pipeline drawing from the local spring has completely dried up, for no apparent reason. Finally, Crich is taken to the local shop, where the owner’s child is also ill, again with an unidentified sickness. Crich can’t make out what Beeley and his men are driving at until they make it absolutely clear to him: it is their sincere belief that the old woman who lives up the hill is a witch, and has placed what they refer to as a murrain (in other words, a curse) on the pigs and other things.

So far in the play, Kneale has been working diligently to draw the contrasts between Crich and Beeley (who do most of the talking between them) – Crich is young, well-spoken, college-educated, polite, while Beeley is older, rough around the edges, practical. What follows at this point is a decent enough articulation of differing views when it comes to witchcraft and the supernatural, with Beeley rehearsing the argument that what may seem weird and miraculous now could easily be explained by science at some point in the future, and that Crich has no right to dismiss their concerns out of hand. But Crich just dismisses their concerns out of hand, thus – you would think – setting him up for a touch of nemesis before the end of the play.

The locals want Crich to visit the supposed witch (played by Una Brandon-Hill – the woman is supposedly ‘very old’ but Brandon-Hill was under sixty at the time) and perform a ritual that will break her power over them. He makes the visit, but refuses to play exorcist, and instead finds what he expects to find – an old, lonely, slightly pathetic woman, who is apparently being bullied by her neighbours. He resolves to make amends…

There’s very little wrong with the narrative carpentry in Murrain, except for the fact that it becomes very obvious early on just how the thing is going to play out: Crich is so openly contemptuous of the superstitions of Beeley and the others that the only way this can possibly end is for there to be just a suggestion that the villagers have been right all along, and he has been unwittingly assisting the forces of darkness. And so it proves, but if anything Kneale plays it too safe, as the ending is just a bit flat. The only point of ambiguity is that of whether the old woman genuinely does have access to some kind of Power with a capital P, or whether she and the other locals share the same delusion (the special effects budget of Murrain is approximately no-money-whatsoever, so everything is left very ambiguous).

Of course, this being a Nigel Kneale script, Murrain is also notable for its thorough-going, indiscriminate misanthropy. As I may well have said in the past, Nigel Kneale doesn’t have prejudices – he treats everyone with equal disdain and contempt, whether that’s for being idealistic and naïve, or ignorant and crude. This is a fairly bleak play in every respect, but it’s also a very solidly written one, let down slightly by its predictability and also by the low production values involved. There’s obviously a sort of family resemblance to Beasts, but one suspects that series came about more due to Kneale’s reputation than because of the quality of this particular play.

Watching Murrain now, it isn’t an outstanding piece of work in any respect, but it still represents something that we have lost in modern TV – who does low-budget single dramas any more? No-one at all in the UK, not on free to air TV at least. There is no place for this kind of drama any more, and I can’t help thinking that’s a shame.

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From a British perspective you can’t fault John C Reilly’s approach to the year so far: having befouled cinemas with Holmes and Watson right at the beginning of January, he has apparently been doing his very best to make amends, giving an excellent performance in the very good Stan & Ollie, and now doing much the same in The Sisters Brothers, which he also produced. On the other hand, this is sort of a trick of the light, given that The Sisters Brothers was actually released in the States well over six months ago and is only now reaching screens in the UK (and not many of them at that).

In our world of day and date releasing, with films usually coming out more or less simultaneously across the anglophone world, what can we infer from this delay? Well, it’s usually a sign that a studio doesn’t have much faith in a movie and isn’t in a hurry to capitalise on the buzz it has generated, often because there isn’t any. Certainly The Sisters Brothers has been released into the world at a fairly quiet time (at least, as quiet as it gets with everyone gearing up for the first really big releases of the year in only a few weeks), without much in the way of publicity, and much of that rather odd (we shall return to this). How come? Well, here we come to the nub of the issue. Money has nothing to do with artistic achievement – well, less than you might think – but in a spirit of full disclosure I feel obliged to mention that The Sisters Brothers was a bomb on its American release, making back only about a quarter of its budget.

The film is the work of the acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard, who won the top prize at Cannes with Dheepan in 2015 and before that made the very impressive Rust and Bone. The Sisters Brothers finds him working in that most American of genres and idioms, the western, with Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix playing the title characters, who are a pair of ne’er-do-wells – basically hired killers – in the service of a wealthy but unprincipled man known as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, in what proves to be a startling instance of stunt casting). Reilly plays Eli, the elder and more thoughtful of the pair, who is beginning to have reservations about their lifestyle; Phoenix plays Charlie, who is more of a loose cannon and thinks everything is fine just as it is.

As the film opens, the brothers are dispatched in support of a private detective, Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is also working for the Commodore. Morris is on the trail of mild-mannered chemist Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has developed a new process vastly facilitating the acquisition of gold – as this is 1851, with the California gold rush still a going concern, there is potentially very big money to be made here. Morris is to find Warm and restrain him, at which point the brothers will forcibly extract the secret of the process from him and then dispose of his remains. It’s very simple, if not exactly virtuous – but then Morris finds himself warming to Warm and his idealistic notions as to what to spend the gold on, and the two men strike up a tentative partnership of their own. Meanwhile, the pursuing Sisters have issues of their own, with Eli increasingly coming to the conclusion that this is not how he wants to spend the rest of his days…

I was fairly indifferent about the prospect of seeing The Sisters Brothers when it first started popping up in the ‘coming soon’ sections of my preferred media outlets – I’ve nothing against a good western, but this is a genre which feels like it’s been on life-support for decades. Whenever they do make a western now, it’s usually an opportunity for an art-house director to do something radical and revisionist to it, or it’s a clumsy attempt by a big studio to revive the genre which normally ends up bland and annoying. This is certainly from the former camp, and my tolerance for this sort of thing really depends on exactly what the director’s take on the form is: extra grit, misery and gore is neither inspired not particularly impressive. The trailer that eventually turned up for The Sisters Brothers promised something rather different: it was fast, funny, and was soundtracked by (I am assuming) Gloria Jones singing ‘Tainted Love’, which is not the kind of tune you would associate with the American west. The idea of a western with a northern soul soundtrack struck me as an interesting and witty one, and did the job of making me interested in seeing the film.

Well, I have to report that this is practically a case of false advertising, for while this film’s soundtrack is certainly quirky, it is almost wholly orchestral. Should I feel cheated? Well, maybe: but the rest of the film is certainly interesting and generally speaking a worthwhile watch. To begin with it looks very much like a classic western tale, dealing with issues of morality and self-realisation on the open range, but kept lively and very watchable by great performances from the four leads – but especially Reilly, who brings real depth and warmth to someone who could easily have had neither. Audiard isn’t one of those people who tries to ‘fix’ the western by turning it into something else – there is all the magnificent scenery one could hope for (I should point out that this film was made in the land of the Spaghetti western, i.e. Spain), and frequent shoot-outs along the way – for all of their tendency to bicker with each other, the Sisters brothers are alarmingly proficient killers. The story builds up to the encounter between the brothers and Warm and Morris very satisfyingly.

And then something very odd happens, which may be at the root of the troubles that The Sisters Brothers has had at the box office. The film takes an odd turn, with what feels undeniably like a allegory about greed and its effects on the environment briefly appearing, and then… Well, we’re into the final act of the film by this point, so I can’t really go into detail, but the film-makers essentially rip up the rule-book as to how a story should develop and do something radically different instead. It’s the kind of thing that could happen in real life, but never happens in movies, the sort of plot twist that film critics tend to love (85% on a well-known solanaceous review aggregation website) but general audiences respond very poorly to (only $3.1 million at the US box office). I can kind of admire Audiard’s audacity in playing with expectations and dispensing with traditional ideas of closure, but I have to say that something with a bit more rootin’ tootin’ would have felt more emotionally satisfying.

Still, one gets a definite sense that Audiard has made exactly the film he wanted to make, and it is still a pretty good one: the setting is well realised, the performances strong, and there are moments both amusing and emotional in the course of the film. But at the same time I can see exactly why it has struggled commercially: the strange shifts in tone and the lack of a conventional ending feel like an attempt to deliberately wrong-foot audiences, and this happens to late to really win them back again before the film is over. It’s hard to criticise the film for this, but I think this is certainly the source of its problems. Worth seeing, but I couldn’t give this an unqualified recommendation.

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The Phoenix (one of our local non-multiplexes) ran a short season of Stanley Kubrick films last summer, comprising (if memory serves) 2001, Dr Strangelove, Spartacus, Barry Lyndon and The Shining – a quintet which, for the most part, should remind any sensible viewer of just why Kubrick is revered as one of the greatest directors ever to fake the moon landings – sorry, I meant to say ‘draw breath’. That said, missing from the run (which otherwise included nearly every film Kubrick made between 1960 and 1980) was A Clockwork Orange, originally released in 1971.

I suppose this is not really surprising when one considers that this is a film with a history of not appearing, having been withdrawn from UK cinemas in 1973 and not issued for home entertainment purposes at Kubrick’s own request, after he received threats because of it. When I was at university in the mid 1990s it still had that cachet of being an illegal, transgressive piece of art: bootleg copies were on sale next to those of Reservoir Dogs (likewise unavailable on legitimate VHS at the time). I distinctly recall that even a TV documentary about A Clockwork Orange was subject to a legal challenge and withdrawn by the makers.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this very remarkable film is that it still retains most of its power to shock and disturb. It is back in UK cinemas at the moment and the screening I attended did not feature the usual card from the BBFC, presaging the start of the film. Instead, the crimson field of the opening titles smashed into view unheralded, accompanied by the disquieting radiophonic howl of the opening music. What follows the opening credits is one of the most vivid sequences in all of modern cinema, as we accompany teenager Alex (Malcolm McDowell) on a typical night out. That sounds fairly mundane, but in fact we are plunged into what is essentially a kind of bacchanal of violence: verbal, physical, sexual, motorised and musical. The near-future stylings of the film and the Russian-influenced argot of Alex and his droog gang-members are just alienating enough to make the film compellingly strange rather than repulsive, but it is a close thing, and there is something deeply unsettling about the way that Kubrick’s direction and McDowell’s charisma conspire to make Alex a borderline-attractive antihero rather than the vicious monster we should probably perceive him as.

Of course, there is also his love of classical music, especially Beethoven, which is about as close as Alex gets to having a redeeming feature. Ironically, it is this, coupled to his own arrogance, which leads to Alex’s comeuppance – such as it is. Turned on by his droogs and finally nabbed by the police, Alex is sent to prison. It is here, a few years into a long prison term, that he first hears of the Ludovico technique – a method of rehabilitating prisoners and turning them into model citizens. Eagerly he volunteers, not quite realising what he is letting himself in for…

Sitting by my desk at work is a small but chunky volume listing the 101 greatest science fiction films (or something like that), and, sure enough, A Clockwork Orange features in it. It always seems to me this is one of those films which only just scrapes over the line – it is arguably set in one of those ten-minutes-into-the-future dystopias, the awful fashions and calculatedly tasteless art instantly evoking an exaggerated version of the 1970s. But the Ludovico technique is certainly the stuff of science fiction, allowing the film to address big questions of what it means to truly be a human being. The film’s thesis has been much articulated, almost to the point of overfamiliarity: by removing a person’s ability to make genuine moral choices and compelling them to exist in a state of petrified timidity, have you honestly made them ‘good’? The film’s energy and technique keeps the question interesting, although it departs significantly from Anthony Burgess’ novel by omitting the epilogue, in which an older Alex reflects on the excesses of his youth. The book’s conclusion appears to be that young men are naturally and inherently prone to violent misbehaviour, but they eventually grow out of it. (One should point out that Kubrick claimed only to have read the American edition of the novel, from which the final chapter was cut on the grounds it was unconvincing and unrealistic.)

Kubrick, naturally, is also interested in the Ludovico technique as a comment on the nature of cinema itself: the treatment room looks very like a cinema itself, with Alex strapped into his seat, literally a captive audience, unable to look away as scenes of violence play out before him. Some of these bear a striking resemblance to scenes from the film itself, which has to be a consciously self-reflexive touch. Thanks to the treatment, Alex is ultimately repelled and literally nauseated by what he sees – perhaps Kubrick is challenging the audience to compare their own responses to the violence that permeates his film.

Apart from this one plot device and a few scenes at the beginning, A Clockwork Orange feels strikingly non-futuristic when one watches it now. This is not to say it is a realistic or naturalistic film, of course: it most closely resembles a kind of parable or twisted allegory. There is something undeniably grotesque and over-the-top about every major character and the way they are performed – apart from Alex himself, there is the probation officer Deltoid (Aubrey Morris), the chaplain (Godfrey Quigley), the chief guard (Michael Bates), the minister (Anthony Sharp) and the writer whom Alex brutalises (Patrick Magee). These latter two serve another aspect of the film, which is its commentary, and indeed satire, of social and political attitudes. This is not light or even particularly funny satire: it is as savage and scathing as anything else in the film. On the other hand, Kubrick is scrupulously even-handed, treating both the authoritarian government and the supposedly progressive liberals with equal contempt, one side being happy to dehumanise their own citizens in the pursuit of good publicity, the other showing no concern for human life, as long as they can gain political advantage. (No wonder senior politicians have always seemed to be a bit wary of A Clockwork Orange: when the shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe was asked to contribute to a documentary about it, around the time of the film’s re-release in 2000, she agreed on the proviso that she didn’t actually have to watch it.)

Its depiction of useless, self-interested politicians and violent, knife-wielding youth gangs are only two of the ways in which A Clockwork Orange feels as relevant today as it doubtless did nearly fifty years ago. But then this is a film about the biggest and most important of ideas: how we want to live as a society, and treat one another; just what is involved in being a good citizen; what is the essential nature of a human being? And it manages to do so with unforgettable visual style and a memorable musical score. At this point in his career, Kubrick made making masterpieces look very easy indeed.

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At one point during the recent trip to New York, Significant Other and I found ourselves enjoying the truly spectacular views available to visitors to Roosevelt Island, looking south and east towards Manhattan and the bay. I was particularly impressed by the fact that so many iconic buildings were in such close proximity to each other, and – feeling, as ever, that knowledge is best shared – thought I would pass on a few pertinent facts about their history.

‘There’s the UN building, which was demolished by Godzilla in Destroy All Monsters in 1968. Just behind it you can see the Empire State Building, which was vandalised by King Kong in 1931. And there’s the Chrysler Building, which was decapitated by the army while fighting Godzilla again in 1998, and also where Q the Winged Serpent was roosting in 1982…’

That tell-tale glazed quality which people so often develop when talking to me about not-entirely-mainstream movies had crept into Significant Other’s eyes, and it occurred to me that while nearly everyone knows what’s what if you mention Godzilla or King Kong, when it comes to a movie like Q (aka Q – The Winged Serpent), you have kind of gone down the rabbit hole a bit. If the movie has attracted a bit more attention recently, it is for the lamentable reason that its creator, Larry Cohen, recently passed away.

Cohen was the kind of film-maker who never really achieved anything more than a kind of cult status, even though his name was frequently on films and TV shows that most people have heard of: he created and wrote the first episode of The Invaders, but moved on when the producers decided to focus more on sci-fi action adventure than the paranoid thriller he had envisaged; he also wrote episodes of Columbo, The Fugitive and NYPD Blue, and a lot of exploitation movies, such as It’s Alive – possibly the greatest killer mutant baby film ever made – Phone Booth, and Captivity. Cohen’s favourite of his own movies was apparently Q, though, and it is easy to see why:  put together in under a week after Cohen was fired from another film but left with a pre-booked hotel room in New York, the film has a kind of mad energy about it which is very engaging.

Q opens with a cheerful scene of a man cleaning the windows of the Empire State Building, forty floors up: apparently this role was played by the building’s actual window cleaner, presumably because no-one else would go out in the harness. Anyway, the man’s attempts to flirt with an office worker run into trouble when something swoops down on him. His decapitated corpse slumps against the window, gorily. Hard-bitten cops Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) are soon on the case, but find themselves baffled by the absence of the key body part. ‘I don’t know! Maybe his head got loose and came off by itself!’ cries Shepard.

Meanwhile, small-time crook, would-be jazz pianist and all-around craven coward Jimmy Quinn finds himself pressured into participating in a diamond robbery by his underworld associates (the target of the heist is a company named ‘Neil Diamonds’), but things go awry and he finds himself on the run from both the police and his former colleagues. While attempting to visit his lawyer, whose offices are in the Chrysler Building in midtown Manhattan, he finds himself up in the building’s iconic art-deco spire – but he is not alone there, as he discovers a number of bloody skeletons and a large nest containing an even bigger egg…

People are continuing to vanish from the tops of high buildings – we are treated to various scenes of people in the street reacting unconvincingly to fake blood and viscera raining down on them from the sky – and Shepard’s investigation has linked up with another case: that of various people turning up mutilated (skin flayed off, heart cut out, and so on). He comes to the conclusion that an Aztec death cult is operating in New York and has summoned an avatar of the god Quetzalcoatl into existence – it is this dragon-bird-god which is chewing its way through the city’s high-altitude populace. But can he persuade his superiors of this? And just what is it going to take to persuade Jimmy to give up his information about the location of the monster’s lair? (A heap of money, the copyright on all the photos of the creature, and having his picture taken with Rupert Murdoch, apparently.)

A movie like Q should, obviously, be a disaster: the story sounds like a rejected Kolchak script written by someone who’s eaten too much cheese, while the film’s central conceit – an enormous monster flying around present-day New York without anyone noticing, snatching people off rooftops and devouring them – is clearly far beyond the scope of a budget of only $1 million. However, the monster itself, while used very sparingly on screen, is a pretty good one – if there are problems, they arise more from the iffy back projection than the stop-motion special effects themselves.

More important to the film’s success is the way that it is clearly meant to be a tongue-in-cheek, deadpan comedy as much as a serious film. I don’t think anyone, himself included, would ever have described David Carradine as one of the world’s greatest actors, but his chilled-out demeanour and laconic line-readings are exactly right for some of the dialogue he has to deliver – he goes from the stock arguing-with-his-pen-pushing-boss scenes to discussions about deeply unorthodox theology and somehow his performance is pitched just right for both. Carradine is superficially taking it seriously while really not taking it seriously at all, which is basically this film in a nutshell: the script does just the barest minimum possible to explain why millions of people haven’t noticed a dragon flying around New York (apparently the monster makes sure people are blinded by the sun when they look in its direction: hmmm), but you buy into it because you don’t really have any other choice.

On the other hand, the extraordinary thing about Q is that Michael Moriarty seems to be taking the whole thing so seriously it almost becomes ridiculous in an entirely different way. This is, as noted, a tongue-in-cheek horror movie about window cleaners and high steel workers being snatched by a huge flying monster, and yet Moriarty turns in the kind of performance that – in a different genre – could well have attracted awards nominations. He seems to think he’s in a John Cassavetes movie or something like that, obviously giving his absolute all to make Quinn a plausible character. The clash of acting styles between him and Carradine should be very ugly, but again somehow it works.

Now, there are some elements of Q which are great because they work so well, and there are some elements of it which are great because they’re so knowingly cheesy, but this does not quite result in an entirely great movie. The two main plot threads, about the monster’s reign of terror and Quinn’s various travails, are both fine, but there’s an additional storyline about an Aztec cult carrying out human sacrifices which never quite feels fully fleshed out; the way this plot line is resolved also feels like a bit of an afterthought.

This is fairly small potatoes compared to the sheer entertainment value the rest of the film provides. It is gory, sometimes crude, and unashamedly an exploitation movie, but also enormously fun. This isn’t really a message movie, but the plot is obviously tied up with the power of prayer – and it really does seem to me that the existence of the film, especially given its sheer quality, is some kind of miracle.

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Ralph Fiennes’ latest film as a director is entitled The White Crow, and it is exactly the kind of film you would expect, given that Fiennes’ image is that of a Serious Creative Person. I think it is pretty much a given that no-one is likely to turn up to The White Crow expecting a semi-remake of The Crow, as this new film is much more about ballet dancing and international politics in the mid-20th century than vengeful undead Goths, but I suppose it is just about possible – the new movie is produced by Liam Neeson, who tends to specialise in violent revenge movies. (Neeson’s involvement is not being publicised, possibly because of his recent unfortunate comments.) Any misconceptions along these lines would likely be rapidly dispelled by a quick glance at the typical audience for a screening of The White Crow, which would likely consist of older, well-heeled folk: I’m trying hard not to use the expression ‘ballet snobs’, but…  

Actually, I’m going to succumb to my less-charitable impulses and say that ballet snobs are, at least in part, the target audience for The White Crow: now, I don’t mind that many cinemas have taken to showing other kinds of cultural events as a way of making ends meet – theatre, opera, ballet, art exhibitions – you have to do what you have to do. I’m fine about them making movies about what I suppose we must call high culture, too. But being a ballet lover does not exempt you from common courtesy.

What am I on about? Well, all right: I turned up very close to start time for an early-evening showing of The White Crow and found that most of the better seats had gone; there was a very healthy crowd. I ended up near the front next to a couple who, from the look of things, were not regular visitors of the cinema, based on the fact they reacted with surprise and delight to all the adverts and trailers I’ve already seen a dozen times this year. This was somewhat endearing, but their running commentary on the pre-film material was, not to put too fine a point on it, snotty and patronising.

The crisis point arrived when the actual film got under way and I was still aware of the drone of these people discussing the events on-screen in what you could charitably describe as a stage whisper. You know me: I’m a fairly easy-going person. But I have my limits and it had been a wearing week.

‘Excuse me,’ I said, trying to keep my voice down, and addressing the one next to me, ‘is he going to keep talking all the way through the film?’

Acute social awkwardness flashed across the woman’s face and she did not respond. I asked again, and this time she said something I couldn’t hear (for once) to her partner. Finally she turned to me.

‘Perhaps if you go one seat to the right and we go one seat to the left, it won’t be a problem,’ she said.

‘If you just keep quiet, that won’t be a problem either,’ I said, probably quite bluntly. They cleared off down the row, and eventually they did shut up, which must have been a relief to everyone around them. As I say: give me common courtesy over cultured erudition any day of the week.

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Anyway, what of The White Crow itself? Well, the movie concerns itself with the early life of Rudolf Nureyev, who is still well-known as one of the greatest ballet dancers of the twentieth century (hence the fact that this film was able to secure financing). The actual telling of the tale is somewhat out of chronological order (the first scene depicts Nureyev’s mentor, played by Fiennes himself, being summoned to account for the dancer’s defection to the west, which occurs as the climax to the film), but it primarily covers two periods of Nureyev’s life: his initial training at a ballet institute in Leningrad, and the Kirov Ballet’s visit to Paris in 1961 (the trip that culminated in his claiming political asylum in France).

The central thesis of the film soon becomes quite apparent, as Nureyev (played by Oleg Ivenko) is depicted as a perennial outsider within the Soviet system of the period – talented, driven, with a self-belief that borders on arrogance. (The title of the film alludes to a Russian idiom used to describe misfits.) Naturally this leads to conflict with the authorities, especially when he is exposed to the bright lights and (supposedly) decadent culture of Paris…

I don’t know about you, but when I think of films about ballet I have a certain kind of expectation – they are going to be reserved, tasteful, comforting, polite – perhaps one of the reasons that Black Swan made such an impact was because it was a ballet movie that dared to be a bit more rock and roll. The White Crow is not another Black Swan; the whole thing is in meticulous good taste – I am aware it has drawn criticism for not really focusing on Nureyev’s homosexuality, being more concerned with his relationships with women – almost to the point where it becomes a bit stifling.

However, the film manages to stay vivid and very watchable; more than just watchable, in fact, for this is an engaging portrait of someone who was clearly exceptional. It doesn’t really attempt to explain where Nureyev’s extraordinary talent, self-belief and drive came from, but then that may not even be possible – it is the great good fortune of a tiny handful to be touched by divine madness in this way, and the greater good fortune of the rest of us to share the world with them.

Clearly the challenge for any film of this kind is how to put all the things that made its subject special up on the screen, although at least ballet is potentially cinematic in a way that writing, for example, isn’t. Oleg Ivenko has the unenviable task of dancing like the legend and, to my untrained eye at least, does a decent job of it – he may not quite be up to the standard of Nureyev, but he gets near enough. He’s also quite effective in the more dramatic scenes, acting in both English and Russian (I should have taken Olinka with me to this movie).

Ivenko is surrounded by a bunch of other very decent performances – Fiennes is good, if a touch mannered, as his ballet master (sadly, we never get to see his cabriole), while Chulpan Khamatova is his wife, Adele Exarchopoulos is Nureyev’s socialite girlfriend Clara Saint (the film-makers seems to be under the impression we should already know who she is), and Aleksey Morozov is his Soviet minder.

It has to be said that there is a slightly saggy section in the middle of this movie, where the various plotlines don’t seem to be going anywhere, but this is more than made up for by the sequence depicting Nureyev’s actual defection at a Paris airport. This is absolutely gripping stuff, and very interesting too: previously, I had no idea of how to go about defecting from the USSR to France, but now I feel I could make a pretty good job of it should circumstances make it necessary.   

There’s still an oddly muted, distant quality about much of The White Crow – no-one involved ever really seems to be surrendering fully to their emotions – but this is still a thoughtfully written and directed film that manages to be engaging even if you can’t tell an emboite from an echappe.

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