Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Taxi Driver

50. Taxi Driver (1976)
Dir: Martin Scorsese

When he made 'Taxi Driver', Martin Scorsese cemented his place in the great directors' canon. His earlier indie film, the excellent 'Mean Streets' (1973), had shown what a promising talent Scorsese was and also marked the first time he worked with his longtime acting collaborator Robert De Niro. This partnership would go on to create some of the most memorable films of the next few decades and 'Taxi Driver' would become renowned as a landmark in both their careers.

For a film that achieved such crossover acclaim from both audiences and critics, 'Taxi Driver' is a surprisingly slow-paced, dream-like character study. Anyone expecting a constant stream of action and violence based on the film's controversial reputation will find their expectations completely unfulfilled. Likewise, anyone expecting an exercise in studied cool a la Jean Pierre Melville's 'Le Samourai' (1967) will find instead a dour, seedy, realistic trawl through scummy locations and the psyche of a lonely, depressed and unstable man. Though there has been a macho tendency to romanticise the lifestyle examined in 'Taxi Driver' since the film's release, the reality is that of a tragic and pathetic figure who no sane person would model themselves upon.

'Taxi Driver' has little actual plot and instead focuses on a series of moments in the hellish existence of Travis Bickle. Bickle is a former Marine (honourably discharged) who takes a job as a nighttime taxi driver in an attempt to combat the chronic insomnia that makes his every day a 24 hour nightmare. During the daytime he visits porn cinemas, records his thoughts in a diary (which provides the film's narration) and searches around for something to give his life meaning. He finds potential candidates for the latter, first in Cybill Shepherd's political campaign volunteer Betsy and then in Jodie Foster's twelve year old prostitue Iris. With Betsy, Bickle's interest is romantic, while Iris presents him with a moral quest, part of his ongoing desire to "wash the scum off the streets".

Paul Schrader's excellent screenplay presents audiences with an unforgettable character but it is De Niro's performance and Scorsese's direction that really make Bickle a classic creation. Scorsese gives his actors a lot of room to improvise and the result is a remarkably natural set of performances and flow of dialogue. 'Taxi Driver's most famous sequences, in which Bickle rehearses his gunplay in front of a mirror ("You talkin' to me?"), was entirely improvised by De Niro from the barest of stage directions. Bickle's coffee shop date with Betsy was also largely unscripted, capturing the sort of realistic awkwardness that is so difficult to put down on the page.

The loose realism of 'Taxi Driver' is one of the major attributes that make it so endlessly rewatchable but there's a lot more to it than just the performances and dialogue. Scorcese and cinematographer Michael Chapman have turned the New York locations into squalid, hallucinatory dreamscapes in which the terrifyingly immersive viewing experience constantly seems one step removed from reality. Legendary composer Bernard Herrmann's ominous, hip Oscar nominated score provides these otherworldly backdrops with the perfect accompaniment. There are fans of 'Taxi Driver' who would have you believe that De Niro is the whole show but the walking contradiction that is Travis Bickle could not have plausibly existed outside of the mesmerizing world that Scorsese, Chapman and Herrmann create for him.

Which is not to degrade De Niro's legendary performance. Typically dedicated, De Niro obtained a taxi license and spent weeks driving a taxi around New York in preparation. He also lost 35 pounds in weight and listened repeatedly to tapes of would-be assassin Arthur Bremer's diaries (which partly inspired Schrader's script). This excessive approach was not wasted. De Niro inhabits Bickle completely, down to every paranoid glance and visibly skewed thought process. De Niro's earlier performance for Scorsese, as 'Mean Streets' young tearaway Johnny Boy, was also brilliant but his turn as Bickle shows a greater psychological depth and complexity of technique, probably largely due to Bickle being a much meatier role.

'Taxi Driver' is so completely focused on Bickle that the supporting cast gets less to do than the average secondary players. Nevertheless, there is at least one more excellent performance in the form of young Jodie Foster's pre-teen prostitute Iris. Foster shrewdly avoids playing Iris as a victim, making Bickle's obsessive need to become her self-appointed protector more psychologically complex. The relationship between Bickle and the vibrant, streetwise Iris is the film's most fascinating dynamic and the closest Bickle comes to forming a proper relationship, outside of his fellow taxi driver and street-level philosopher 'Wizard' (Peter Boyle). There was much controversy at the time of 'Taxi Driver's release about such a young actress playing the graphic role of Iris but these concerns are proved at best naive by the maturity of Foster's portrayal.

Something that is rarely mentioned in reviews of 'Taxi Driver' is the fact that the film is, in a way, quite funny. Amongst the grit and sleazy realism, there are moments of grimy black humour that add to the film's overall appeal. Most obvious in this respect is an amusing turn by Albert Brooks as Betsy's fellow volunteer campaigner and admirer. Brooks, an underrated performer and director in his own right, creates a sort of anti-Bickle with his goofy, self-aware antics which fail to charm Betsy at every turn. His presence (in a handful of scenes which are some of the only ones in the film that don't feature De Niro) sets up a nice contrast which clues us in as to why Betsy would ever consider agreeing to date Bickle. If Brooks is emblematic of the middle class suitors she is used to, the mysterious allure of Bickle's working class bit of rough has obvious appeal to Betsy. Also amusing is Scorsese himself in the role of a racist cuckold driven to frantic, murderous intent which he spills to Bickle in the back of his taxi.

But it is De Niro who gets the most laughs in 'Taxi Driver'. His recent glut of hammy comedy turns have lead many to write him off as comedically unskilled but De Niro was always funny, his talents were just better suited to more subtle humour. His keen ear for speech patterns and eye for body language, along with his uniquely expressive face, provoke laughs of recognition as he flawlessly essays human vulnerabilities. Travis Bickle represents one of De Niro's most deftly walked lines between tragic, terrifying and hilarious. His naivety in taking Betsy to a porn cinema on their first proper date, his willingness to appropriate any viewpoint that helps him in his own personal quest, his self-conciously lying letters to his parents; these are all amusing moments even as they unsettle. A particularly funny exchange between Bickle and a secret service agent is a highlight for me too.

Although it bears comparison with several studies of isolated figures before and since, 'Taxi Driver' feels like a completely unique experience. It is hugely important in Scorsese's development as a director and yet it stands out as stylistically unusual in an ouvre which is far more diverse than some critics are willing to give it credit for. Describing 'Taxi Driver' as a drama, a character study, a black comedy or even (as some have rather inaccurately stated) a thriller seems somehow inadequate. It has elements of all these genres but they combine to create a paradoxically beautiful examination of ugly subject matters. Having rewatched 'Taxi Driver' recently, I've found myself unable to get its invigorating mixture of exquisitely executed elements out of my head for the last few days and, in conclusion, the most accurate description of the film I can come up with is a suitably glib four word summation, the inadequacy of which speaks of 'Taxi Driver's indescribability: A hazy little miracle.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

One to Avoid: Bronco Billy

Bronco Billy
Dir: Clint Eastwood

During my many years as a film buff, I've always had a stange relationship with Clint Eastwood. As an actor, I've never thought him that convincing and occasionally he's downright wooden. But Eastwood has an undeniable presence which, given the right role, can be spellbinding. His famous performances as the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone's superb Spaghetti Western trilogy ('A Fist Full of Dollars' (1964), 'For a Few Dollars More' (1965), 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' (1966)) were the stuff of legend, making Eastwood a superstar without requiring him to do much acting at all. Yet occasionally, Eastwood can pull a suprisingly impressive performance out of the bag, such as his downbeat Oscar nominated turn in 'Unforgiven' (1992) or his curmudgeonly old man in 'Gran Torino' (2008).

Eastwood's maddening inconsistency as a performer also characterises his work as a director. Since he started working behind the camera in the early 70s, Eastwood's diverse range of projects have been all over the map in terms of quality and style. When he's at the top of his game, Eastwood is a superbly reliable director and his masterpiece count is surprisingly high. He has been responsible for some of the greatest post-60s Westerns ('High Plains Drifter' (1973), 'The Outlaw Josey Wales' (1976), 'Unforgiven' (1992)) but has also scored big in several other genres, notably with gripping dramas like 'Mystic River' (2003) and 'Changeling' (2008). It is with two genres in particular that Eastwood seems to come unstuck. One is the action thriller. Although, along with the Western, this is the genre Eastwood is best known for starring in, his directorial attempts in the genre tend to be flat, uninspiring and silly (1990's 'The Rookie' being the prime example). Despite their shortcomings, however, Eastwood always seems quite comfortable acting in the action film genre with which he is so familiar. It is the other genre that sees Eastwood most embarrassingly and consistently out of his depth and it is thankfully a genre he has been wise enough to largely avoid as both performer and director. The genre is comedy.

To say Eastwood is completely devoid of comic talent is unfair. The Man with No Name and Harry Callahan both incorporate the occasional, effectively dry quip into their personalities and Eastwood's crochety old man in 'Gran Torino' is often hilarious. It is when he attempts to throw himself whole-heartedly into a primarily comedic role that Eastwood is truly excruciating. Nevertheless, two of his highest grossing films as an actor were the daft fist-fights and orangutans comedies 'Every Which Way But Loose' (1978) and its sequel, 'Any Which Way You Can' (1980). Perhaps inspired by this success, Eastwood made his one and only comedy as a director, 'Bronco Billy'.

Oddly enough, 'Bronco Billy' is a film Eastwood frequently names as one of his favourites amongst his own directorial work. Apparently the film has one of the friendliest and most fun on-set atmospheres Eastwood had ever experienced and these happy memories have obviously seeped into his appreciation of the finished product. Surprisingly, however, critical response to 'Bronco Billy' was also largely positive. Critics were amused by Eastwood's flimsy parody of his own film persona but implications that 'Bronco Billy' has anything profound to say about the death of the cowboy tradition and the American Western are not backed up by Dennis Hackin's spectacularly appaling script or Eastwood's broad direction.

'Bronco Billy' tells the story of a run down travelling circus with a cowboy theme and its ragbag collection of ex-convict acts, lead by moralistic cowboy Bronco Billy (Eastwood). As they travel from town to town and struggle to keep their heads above water, the performers cross paths with Antoinette Lily (Sondra Locke), a spoiled heiress who has to marry someone before her 3oth birthday in order to inherit a fortune. She fulfils this contract with the exasperated John Arlington (Geoffrey Lewis), who she then mistreats to the point that he disappears with all her money and her newly-fixed car, leaving Antoinette stranded in the middle of nowhere. Attempting to find her way back to civilization, Antoinette turns to Bronco Billy's Wild West Show' for help and relunctantly becomes another in a long line of Billy's assistants in his shooting and knife throwing act.

Even without going into all the other silly plot developments and unlikely coincidences that make up the rest of 'Bronco Billy', you already have a sense of its tone; A shapeless collection of vignettes made of stitched together cliches and unexpected events without the necessary character development required to arrive at them. Eastwood struggles to bring some gravitas to the proceedings, aiming for an examination of the dwindling popularity of the cowboy archetype that made him famous. This is clearest in a scene in which Billy and his cohorts, desperate for money, decide to carry out an old-fashioned train robbery. Ultimately, they discover that modern day trains are resistant to old-school Western bandits and give up. It's an idea with promise but loses everything in execution. The decision to carry out the robbery is arrived at too easily for a supposedly moralistic, self-appointed role model and the revelation that Billy's gang are all ex-convicts is not justification enough and is very awkwardly tacked on very close to the train robbery scene by way of explanation.

The train-robbing scene is not the only unmotivated, unlikely or superfluous plot element. Others include an evil lawyer and step-mother who have a couple of scenes and then vanish with little comeuppance, a phoney instituionalisation which leads to a ludicrous coincidence, and a giant circus tent made entirely of American flags. Hackin's script seems to be aiming for a sort of small-town fantasy that we're not supposed to take entirely seriously but he doesn't sell the notion enough to excuse the risible narrative development and his attempt to balance it with wistful meditations on lost legends and forgotten men makes for an uneasy mixture.

Aware of the fact that 'Bronco Billy' is not meant to be taken totally seriously, Eastwood plays up the silliness by encouraging his cast to give the broadest of performances. Eastwood's central performance is not utterly disasterous. He at least has a good time with it, even if Billy never seems like a real person. Far worse is Sondra Locke, Eastwood's beau at the time, with whom he starred in several films including the brilliant 'Outlaw Josey Wales'. Locke seems even more uncomfortable with comedy than Eastwood and is clearly only involved because of Eastwood being at the reins. Her transformation from a spoiled brat whose selfishness reaches levels of pantomime villainy into a soft-hearted lover of small-town folksiness is completely without depth. Her eleventh-hour suicide attempt is the film's worst moment and comes with even less build-up than the train robbery. Eastwood attempts to play her aborted overdose for a laugh and the result is one of 'Bronco Billy's most uncomfortably misjudged moments. In recognition of her efforts, Locke was nominated for a prestigious Golden Razzie award for Worst Actress. The rest of the supporting cast are mostly completely forgettable, other than Scatman Crothers, whose alcoholic Doc Lynch is all half-hearted wisecracks and cartoon double-takes.

Eastwood should be applauded for attempting something different and, despite his apparent love of the film, for recognising that he should never try this particular path again. 'Bronco Billy' is a total mess of a film which doesn't seem to know where its own plot is going or who its target audience might be. All 'Bronco Billy' does know is that it wants to comment on changing times and the death of the old west but in its struggle to do this, Hackin's script eschews almost everything else required to make a film enjoyable. There's potential in the kernel of an idea behind 'Bronco Billy' but it would take a better script, a more suitable cast and a director with more experience of comedy to draw out the Capra-esque ideal to which is seems to aspire.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Say Anything...

49. Say Anything... (1989)
Dir: Cameron Crowe

The 80s High School movie genre is often boiled down to just two words: John Hughes. While he undoubtedly wrote and/or directed the most famous examples in his flawed but infinitely enjoyable films 'The Breakfast Club' (1985), 'Pretty in Pink' (1986, dir: Howard Deutch) and 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' (1986), it would be lazy to attribute the whole High School genre to this one proponent (it is also worth mentioning that Hughes should not be thought of as only working within the teen genre. He was also involved in writing and/or directing many family/adult films that were every bit as enjoyable as his High School movies, such as 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' (1987), 'Uncle Buck' (1989) and the National Lampoon's 'Vacation' series (1983-89)).

The 80s film work of Cameron Crowe offers an excellent alternative to Hughes' wish fulfillment movie-cum-music-videos. Crowe is unfortunately best known for 'Jerry Maguire' (1996), a confused, draggy romantic comedy that throws itself emphatically into the mawkish sentimentalism that Crowe's best work so skillfully avoids. He also wrote and directed one of my favourite films of the 00s, the semi-autobiographical 'Almost Famous' (2000). But before all this, Crowe began his life in the film industry with a handful of teen pics. He began by writing the script for Amy Heckerling's great 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' (1982), a raunchier precursor to the John Hughes ouevre which launched the careers of many future stars including Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Forest Whitaker. He followed this up by scripting Art Linson's little seen 'The Wild Life' (1984) but it was only a matter of time before Crowe got the chance to direct a film himself and, when this chance arrived, he pulled out all the stops to write as good a script as possible.

'Say Anything...' stands head-and-shoulders above most films in the High School genre as a realistic, sophisticated comedy-drama about the belated romance between a directionless but charismatic academic-underachiever and a studious, Oxford-bound but socially-inexperienced valedictorian. It differs significantly from the average High School film in several important ways. To begin with, 'Say Anything...' opens at the end of High School. The film is set during the summer following graduation which immediately eliminates staples of the genre such as the High School Prom or goofing off by the lockers. This is a High School movie in which we never get inside the High School. There is a sense of melancholy throughout 'Say Anything...', the feeling of a bygone era the details of which we were never privy to.

The most important and effective characteristic that sets 'Say Anything...' apart as a more mature film is its inclusion of a fully-rounded, pivotal adult character. One of the most famous lines in 'The Breakfast Club' is 'When you grow up, your heart dies' and few 80s teen films seemed interested in exploring adult viewpoints in any more depth than that. Adult characters in John Hughes films were usually either bufoonish villains like Dean Vernon in 'The Breakfast Club' and Dean Rooney in 'Ferris Bueller...' or oblivious parents who could never hope to understand the importance of their offspring's dreams, like Cliff Nelson in 'Some Kind of Wonderful' (1987). 'Say Anything...' focuses more closely on the father-daughter relationship between Jim Court (John Mahoney) and the apple-of-his-eye daughter Diane (Ione Skye), whom he spoils rotten and would do anything to please. Only in 'Pretty in Pink' did Hughes come close to such an interesting adult-teen relationship, in the touching scenes between Molly Ringwald and her father Harry Dean Stanton. But even those were only a captivating aside whereas 'Say Anything...' makes Mahoney every bit as important and fully-rounded as the younger characters.

The basic plot of 'Say Anything...' goes thus: following graduation, Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) decides to seize his last chance to ask out the seemingly untouchable Diane Court (Ione Skye). When he rings her up to invite her to a graduation party, Diane has to look up Lloyd's picture in the yearbook to remember who he is but she is won over by his persistent charm and a curiosity about her fellow graduates and the social experience she missed out on through excessive studying. Though her adoring father Jim, with whom she has such a close relationship that they feel they can literally say anything to each other, is skeptical, Diane attends the party and feels she has lived more in one night than her whole time at school. Keen to experience more, she agrees to see Lloyd again and, over the summer period, the two fall in love, much to the consternation of Jim, who feels she should be focusing on her imminent Oxford scholarship and not lowering herself to spending all her time with an unambitious underachiever like Lloyd.

That's the set-up but 'Say Anything...' takes the audience in many unexpected directions. For instance, one might expect the father character to be overbearing and hotheaded, leading to several shouty, dramatic confrontations between himself and the boy who's trying to take his daughter from him. Not so. Crowe's subtle writing creates a much more realistic and involving relationship between Jim and Lloyd, observing the fact that social politeness usually keeps melodrama at bay in real life. Far from hating Lloyd, Jim seems mildly charmed by him and a grudging respect develops, even though he will never consider him anywhere near worthy of his pedestal-planted daughter. Diane, meanwhile, spends the film undergoing a transition into adulthood, ironically by moving away from the adult influence that has kept her arrested in a state of constant teendom. Crowe examines this complex triangle of various kinds of love with a deft, delicate touch, wringing out all the drama you'd hope for without resorting to screaming matches and slapped faces. He also brings in a very unusual and unexpected plot element midway through the film which takes one character's storyline in a very unexpected and narratively effective direction.

'Say Anything...' is famous for one image which constitutes a matter of seconds of the film: John Cusack holding a boombox above his head, blasting out Peter Gabriel's 'In your Eyes' in an attempt to win Ione Skye. Its an iconic, much-parodied moment which has perhaps become a bit of an albatross for the film because it sets up the wrong expectations when taken as a stand alone image. When it appears in the film it feels entirely consistent with character and plot and is a nicely executed moment but taken out of context it appears to be thoroughy sappy and over-the-top. The boombox scene has lead many (presumably those who haven't seen the film) to dismiss 'Say Anything...' as a cutesie teen romance rather than the intelligent, dense character piece it is.

For all I've said about the melancholy edge and character depth displayed by 'Say Anything...', I should also point out that it is as much fun as any other High School film too. Many of the comforting touchstones of the genre are still one display. There is still the obligatory party scene, the nostalgic soundtrack and the gallery of guitar weilding, beer-swilling supporting players. The standout among these is Lili Taylor as Lloyd's unconventional best friend Corey. Ever present as a confidante, Corey also sets the precedent for the film's meditations on heartache and the importance of growing-up, in a short scene early in the film in which she rejects the advances of the former boyfriend who drove her to a suicide attempt. Taylor is both funny and sad in a broad character sketch which juxtaposes nicely with the deeper examination of the leads.

Of the three leads, Ione Skye fairs the worst. Her performance is a tad one-note, lacking the increasing vibrancy her social transformation demands. To be fair, the role may be a little underwritten in comparison with the male leads (not an uncommon factor in High School movies written by men) and the range of mood changes it requires is a tough order but Skye emerges as just adequate, although she is never distractingly bad. John Mahoney's performance as Jim is an impressive display of diverse emotions. Jim goes from proud and content to worried, desperate, petulant and angry but Mahoney never oversells it and his emotional responses are nowhere near as abruptly portrayed as my inadequate little list suggests. Crucially, Mahoney manages to make an audience of people who will always think of him as Martin Crane forget about 'Frasier' altogether for the duration of 'Say Anything...' (despite the fact that Bebe Neuwirth (aka Lilith) also turns up at one point as a school counsellor).

But few would argue against the fact that the defining performance of 'Say Anything...' is John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler. In Lloyd, Crowe has created one of the most likable characters in film history and the casting of the part was crucial. It required someone with an unconventional but disarming charm and Cusack fit the bill perfectly. Although he undeniably possessed leading man looks and charisma, Cusack has always been a bit left of centre in both his acting style and choice of projects. Cusack was no stranger to the teen film, with early supporting roles in 'Class' (1983) and John Hughes's dreadful, tasteless and shapeless debut 'Sixteen Candles' (1984) giving way to leading performances in Rob Reiner's winning 'The Sure Thing' (1985) and Savage Steve Holland's genuine oddity 'Better Off Dead' (1985). But in Lloyd Dobler he got a chance to really show off his potential as a leading man. Cusack, in his long trenchcoat and with his endearingly eloquent case of verbal diarrhoea, is the perfect realisation of the unconventional but well-loved Lloyd. His eleventh-hour, go-for-broke romance with Diane is thoroughly convincing and never cops out by evoking destiny or love-at-first-sight. Lloyd's romantic success is entirely down to Lloyd's actions, decisions and determination and, cosmic forces be damned, that's romantic enough for me.

High School movies often end with tacked-on climaxes designed to fulfull commercial expectations that rather let the rest of the film down. When 'Say Anything...' ends, there's a rare sense of satisfaction as plotpoints are tied-up in a satisfactory manner which doesn't feel too pat and leaves room for speculation about future events. It's a fitting end to a beautifully realised script, directed with straightforward skill by Crowe. Those who come to 'Say Anything...' via the boombox image will probably be extremely surprised by the film they get. I remember as a teenage fan of John Hughes, seeing the film for the first time and not knowing what to make of it. I now know why. The complex period of transition between school and college which it examines is best understood by those who have already gone through that phase. While it can be enjoyed by any age-group, 'Say Anything...' is ultimately a teen film for adults.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Flakylpa Grand Prix

48. Flakylpa Grand Prix (Pinchcliffe Grand Prix) (1975)
Dir: Ivo Caprino

It never ceases to amaze me what gems can be turned up by those willing to forage deep enough into cinema history. As an animation enthusiast, the discovery of Ivo Caprino's Norwegian stop-motion animated film 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' was a dream come true. Although it is largely unknown in Britain, 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' remains the biggest box office hit of all time in Norway, where it sold 5.5 million tickets in a country with a population of 4.9 million! It is also shown on TV every Christmas in Norway in the same way that Wallace and Gromit make annual festive airings over here. I mention Wallace and Gromit specifically because 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' seems to be a strong influence on Nick Park's dynamic duo. It is also an acknowledged influence on George Lucas, who borrowed from the film for the podrace sequence in 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace' (1999).

The plot of 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' is simple, even if some elements sound a tad bizarre. Bicycle repair man Theodore Rimspoke lives at the top of very large mountain, the irony being that no-one would go that far to get their bike fixed, especially since they couldn't ride it! Consequently, Theodore spends most of his time tinkering with amateur inventions. Theodore lives with his two animal companions, Sonny Duckworth, an optimistic bird, and Lambert, a melancholy, nervous hedgehog. Seeing in the news that Theodore's former assistant, Rudolph Gore-Slimey, has stolen the plans for his racing car engine and subsequently become Formula One World Champion, the trio set about building a rival car called Il Tempo Gigante, with which to challenge Gore-Slimey's ill-gotten World Champion title.

'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' began life as a proposed 25 minute TV special based on the characters of cartoonist Kjell Aukrust. However, a year and a half into production the project was shut down by TV bosses who felt it was not working. With puppets and sets already made, Ivo Caprino's son Remo suggested they use them to make a full length feature film. And so work began on 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix', which took three and a half years to make and was made almost entirely by a five person team. The results are astonishingly charming. The film recalls the beautiful stop-motion TV animations of Oliver Postgate and his contempories and is shot through with the sort of eccentricities and unpatronising language that are ironed out of most current children's entertainment.

'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' is not without its flaws. Those who are not impressed by the magic of stop-motion animation will likely become bored by the slow pace of the first hour. A good forty minutes focuses on the acquisition of sponsorship for Theodore's racing team, which comes in the form of an Arab oil sheik, a stock comedy character of that era which has since fallen out of favour for obvious reasons. Other characters in the film are also a little ill-judged. Sonny Duckworth's relentless chirpy optimism gets a bit wearing after a while and Lambert the depressed hedgehog is simply one of the weirdest, most disturbing creations I've ever come across.

But these minor niggles seem academic if you let the magic of 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' take you. For instance, even in the slow moving early scenes there are little gestures and witty lines that keep viewers like myself constantly delighted and the sets and puppets are beautiful to look at. I adored watching different characters making the long trip up and down the mountain in various vehicles, particularly the Sheik's shaky journey in his solid gold car. In a film that is far from a character-led endeavor, there are still creations to relish in the likably no-nonsense straightman Theodore, the despicable villain Gore-Slimey and the Sheik's gorilla employee who fills the roles of bouncer, chaffeur, mechanic and drummer as and when the situation calls for it!

'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' will be of special interest to car lovers and especially Formula One fans. I am neither but the joy I got from the animation and incredible action sequences, I can well imagine being mirrored in Grand Prix lovers by the exquisitely realised atmosphere of a race day and the fetishistic focus on the building of the car. After its slow start, the film begins to pick up pace with the construction of Il Tempo Gigante, a midnight sabotage scene and a chaotic, superbly inventive and exhiliratingly unneccesary musical interlude! But the real draw for most viewers will be the race itself. After the lovably gentle opening hour, the Grand Prix of the title takes up the entire final third of the film and is every bit as exciting as you might hope. A surprising and delightful treat for those watching the British dub is that the voiceover duties for the last half hour are almost entirely taken over by none other than Formula One legend Murray Walker, who provides a running commentary on the race.

Murray's presence adds authenticity but 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' hinges on the climactic race sequence being something special and ultimately that description proves to be an understatement. Caprino and cameraman Charley Patey use several cinematic techniques (including the most effective use of back-projection I've ever seen) to create some of the most jaw-dropping, high-speed stop-motion animation of all time. Suspense is superbly built up through a number of plotpoints including an undetected piece of sabotage and several 'Wacky Races'-like dirty tricks, all of which create a thunderously gripping, celebratory finale which is one of the best race sequences I've come across in any medium.

'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' is an animated treasure worth discovering. It's mega-popularity in Norway is well deserved and it's only a shame that it has not been widely distributed in Britain as I can easily picture it becoming a festive staple in this country too. Whether you watch it in its original Norwegian or in the English langauge dub, 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' is a gem. An oddity that should satisfy fans of animation and Formula One in any country.

Friday, 13 May 2011


47. ...if (1968)
Dir: Lindsay Anderson

There are many people who would rather remember the 1960s as a time characterised exclusively by peace, love and great music. Even those who acknowledge that it was otherwise often deliberately misremember a time of euphoric, triumphant political and social change rather than a time of extreme unrest and violence, the like of which is unavoidable if major change is to be brought about. It is an undeniably exhilarating era to view retrospectively but it is certainly not one I would have relished being directly involved in. While 1967 is nostalgically remembered for the Summer of Love, it was also a time when the causes of 1968’s explosive events were reaching a head. 1968 began with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and went on to be characterised by an unbelievable amount of monumental events including the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Sorbonne student riots in Paris and the Tlatelolco massacre ten days before the Mexico City Olympic Games.

Against this historical backdrop, the film industry seemed to be pushing for a regression into cosier times. While the previous year’s Oscars were dominated by the visceral brilliance of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘The Graduate’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night’ and the following year would award the top honour to the X-Rated ‘Midnight Cowboy’, 1968 was one of the blandest Oscar years ever. Best Picture was awarded to Carol Reed’s charming but hardly electric ‘Oliver!’ and the other nominees included a costume drama, a Shakespeare adaptation and a musical biopic. This was hardly representative of the dominant mood of the year and was quite probably a reaction against it. But if the countercultural revolution was being ignored by the Academy, there was certainly an audience demand for films that addressed the burning issues of the day and this resulted in a small British film that Paramount almost shelved becoming one of the big critical and commercial hits of the year.

Lindsay Anderson’s ‘if…’ remains one of the most powerful anti-establishment statements in cinema history. Inspired by Jean Vigo’s classic short film ‘Zero de conduite’ (1933), ‘if…’ begins with a new term at a British public school and the arrival of Jute (Sean Bury), a shy, polite little boy who does not know the rigid rules and traditions of the institution and is gradually assimilated into the system. In contrast with Jute’s progress, we also follow the iconoclastic adventures of three non-conformist sixth-form boys, lead by Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell, in his debut role). These three boys are determined to assert their individuality while the school, its stuffy ideals personified by head prefect Rowntree (Robert Swann), is determined to keep them in line. Something’s got to give and it eventually does in an unforgettably violent climax.

‘if…’ was shot at Cheltenham College in Gloucestershire during term time so many of the pupils in the film are actual schoolchildren who Anderson made use of between lessons. Although some of their performances are understandably amateurish, it’s a great joy to see them obviously relishing the opportunity to appear in such a subversive film. Extra relish is added by the fact that Cheltenham College was Anderson’s own alma mater and that they were not fully aware of the nature of the film that was being shot in their halls (the script submitted to them certainly omitted the climactic massacre). The larger roles are more carefully cast. Malcolm McDowell makes a particularly strong impression as Mick but Robert Swann is also extremely effective as the forceful head prefect Rowntree, a man whose world depends so strongly on established conventions that the threat of their interruption unleashes the sadist in him. The supporting roles of the staff are played with quirky comic panache by a gallery of great British character actors such as Arthur Lowe, Mona Washbourne and, in one of my favourite cameos ever, Graham Crowden as a History master who cycles through the corridors.

In terms of narrative structure, ‘if…’ is extremely loose. Anderson’s camera roams the halls and dorms of the school, picking out various everyday activities with a documentary realism that owes much to the films of the British New Wave in which Anderson cut his teeth (with 1963’s ‘This Sporting Life’). However, this realism is offset by a lurking sense of the surreal which increases throughout the film until the audience becomes unable to determine exactly what is real and what is fantasy. The film also switches between colour and black & white sequences, a technique which, while apparently due to little more than financial and technical considerations, only furthers the disconcerting inability to get a handle on the film. The recognisable is constantly penetrated by the unfamiliar. A boy drinks tea in the bathtub, his poise suggesting that of a fully-clothed person in a drawing room. A communal bullying is observed by a toilet-cubicle guitarist. A visit to a cafĂ© turns momentarily into a graphic sex scene. Such happenings increasingly take over the film until the realistic is subordinate to the dreamlike.

The surrealist approach taken by David Sherwin’s brilliant screenplay and Anderson’s indelible but subtle imagery (the only exception to this subtlety being a living corpse in a coffin-like drawer, a last-minute touch that seems like an awkward stumble into Pythonesque silliness which the film otherwise avoids) is entirely appropriate for what is essentially an allegorical film. Yes, ‘if…’ certainly intends to attack the traditions of the public school system but a straightforward approach to narrative would ultimately have made it seem like this was the film’s only target. Frequent excursions into the patently unreal clue us in that this is merely one representative reality, a model for questioning numerous institutions and conventions. Within the confines of the school, Anderson includes several figureheads of these sacred-cow institutions including the school chaplain (religion), a visiting General (the military) and even some medieval knights (history), all of whom march together in a symbolic parade towards the film’s end.

‘if…’ famously closes with a firefight between the rogue pupils and the rest of the school in which numerous authority figures, including the school’s headmaster (Peter Jeffrey), are mercilessly wiped out. For the counterculture audiences who made ‘if…’ such a hit, this scene was the cinematic catharsis they had been waiting for. In terms of a message, it goes little way beyond merely implying that the old order needs taking out by a new way of thinking and stops short of suggesting specific solutions. Whoever should take over from the stuffy sadists of the previous establishment, it certainly shouldn’t be the borderline psychotic Mick Travis who, for all his admirable individualism also makes statements like “There is no such thing as a wrong war. Violence and revolution are the only pure acts”. This is the sort of wrongheaded narcissist whom John Lennon targeted in the song ‘Revolution’, the bloodthirsty upstart who mistook that song’s plea for a pacifist approach to peace as a suggestion that revolutionaries should back down from their causes. But in not taking the easy route of making his revolutionaries the unquestioned “good guys”, Anderson created a much more astute and complex film which acknowledges the grey area so often ignored by biased texts.

To merely concentrate on ‘if…’s most famous sequence (as so many reviews tend to do) is to do the film a disservice. There are many equally excellent longer scenes that punctuate the fleeting, sketch-like puzzle pieces that make up the majority of the film. Mick’s theft of a motorbike and subsequent joyride, for instance, is a crucial scene which opens the film up and takes us briefly outside the confines of the school in much the same invigorating spirit as the fishing trip sequence in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (1975). Later, when Mick places a plastic bag over his head to see how long he can go without air, the suffocation metaphor is all the more apparent for the liberating juxtaposition of the bike ride. But my favourite scene of all is when Mick receives a prolonged session of corporal punishment from the prefects. Adopting a Christ like position over a balance beam (this, and the subsequent forgiveness Mick offers his victimiser, provide further parallels with ‘… Cuckoo’s Nest’s messianic imagery), he is subjected to a brutal caning twice as long and three times as vicious as that meted out to his peers. This scene is both hard to watch and impossible to look away from, encapsulating the tone of ‘if…’ in a matter of minutes.

The influence of ‘if…’ can be seen in many subsequent British films including Peter Medak’s similarly establishment-baiting ‘The Ruling Class’ (1972), the tragi-comic tone of Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ (1985) and the late-60s critiquing of Bruce Robinson’s ‘Withnail and I’ (1986). Although it was denounced by one British ambassador as “an insult to the nation” and by Lord Brabourne as “the most evil and perverted script I’ve ever read”, ‘if…’ certainly provided a much-needed cinematic representation of a counterculture bored by their country’s film industry. Echoing the plea of the lead character in 1968’s Best Picture winner, the British public were begging for something more and, despite the Secombe-esque disbelief this request prompted in some quarters, Lindsay Anderson answered their prayers.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Zitra Vistanu a Oparim si Cajem (Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea)

46. Zitra Vistanu a Oparim si Cajem (Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea) (1977)
Dir: Jindrich Polak

It's always a wonderful experience to finally see an acknowledged classic of cinema and discover that its reputation is well deserved. I still remember the first time I was blown away by 'Citizen Kane' (1941), the night I first watched 'Taxi Driver' and the experience of falling in love with Charlie Chaplin. But perhaps an even greater thrill for the cinephile is the discovery of a completely overlooked classic, something you've had to work hard to unearth and which fills you with the satisfying sense that you're one of the few people in the world who has seen this lost gem. The subsequent joy of introducing these discoveries to others and watching them light up with the same sense of wonder and excitement is an unrivalled pleasure for the film enthusiast.

My most recent experience of this kind came courtesy of Jindrich Polak's Czech sci-fi comedy 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea'. The strange history of this film's miniscule cult following is just one of the many bizarre delights that make it so fascinating. On 16 January 1982 (a little under half a year before I entered this world), BBC One's scheduled airing of 'Match of the Day' was delayed and football fans were left with time to fill and only three channels to choose from. Oddly enough, the other two channels were both premiering sci-fi films. ITV was showing American space thriller 'Capricorn One' (1978) but the more adventurous BBC Two opted to give 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' its first and only British screening. As a result, the film has developed an unlikely following among a small group of specific football fans who found themselves drawn into the film's strange and captivating world, so much so that many forsook their beloved sport to see the end of 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea'!

It's hard to imagine a time when there were only three TV channels to choose from (I grew up with the luxury of four!) but it's even harder to imagine a time when any of them would schedule a Czech sci-fi comedy that never had a British release, in a prime-time slot. Whatever inspired this commendably adventurous choice, 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' was never repeated on British TV again and was never given a British video or DVD release. Fortunately, thanks to the semi-legendary status this one screening has given the film amongst a small group of people (many of whom presumably remain convinced they dreamed the whole thing), 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' found its way into my consciousness and I was suitably intrigued that I sought out a copy via a Czech website. I'm so very, very glad I made that effort.

The problem with synopsising 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' is that it is virtually impossible to encapsulate the film's unique atmosphere in words. Every review I've read (and, I imagine, the one I am in the process of writing) has made the film sound like a campy, ludicrous piece of throwaway fluff full of tacky, cut-and-paste sci-fi ideas and goose-stepping, Mel Brooks Nazis. But that is not the case at all. Bear that in mind while reading this plot outline: The Universum Company offers rich tourists the chance to travel through time in rockets to observe moments from the past. The tourists are sealed in the rockets so that they cannot interfere with the past and risk creating alternative futures. However, a group of elderly Nazis who have survived and stayed relatively youthful in appearance through the use of anti-aging pills, intend to abuse the technology to return to Germany in 1944 and offer a desperate Hitler the hydrogen bomb, thereby making him invicible and creating an alternate timeline in which the Nazis emerge victorious. The elderly Nazis bribe a pilot named Karel (Petr Kostka) to help with their scheme but on the morning of the intended voyage, Karel chokes to death on a bread roll. Witnessing this, Karel's usually strait-laced, identical twin brother Jan (Kostka again) seizes the opportunity to step into his brother's shoes and acquire the job he envies and the girlfriend he secretly desires. This impulsive decision has disasterous repercussions for all involved, ultimately forcing Jan to flit backwards and forwards through time in an attempt to sort out the mess he has caused. All this is without even mentioning the family of rooftop circus performers, the suitcase full of underwear, the futuristic bleach that destroys everything it touches and the paralysing pepper-spray that turns its victims green for a short period of time.

This synopsis surely sets up expectations of excessive wackiness and the wonderful opening credits, in which real footage of Hitler has been manipulated to give the impression that he is dancing to music, do little to dispel this. However, once 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' gets going it becomes clear that it is far more cleverly satirical and narratively impressive than its outlandish title implies. Crucially, the film never tips us the wink or draws conspicuous attention to itself. Polak is totally dedicated to telling his story and plays the whole thing straight, encouraging his game cast to do the same. The clearest reference points which possibly influenced the film are the original incarnation of 'Doctor Who' (1963-89) and Michael Crichton's 'Westworld' (1973) but 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' predates most screen examples of this time-travelling, history-changing plotline, such as 'Back to the Future Part II' (1989) or 'Primer' (2004). It's doubtful that 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' actually influenced these films but as an early example of this kind of visual narrative, it is undeniably a more important movie than its reputation suggests.

Time-travelling tales such as this have a (sometimes unwarranted) reputation for being overly complex but 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' is directed so expertly that only the most easily-distracted of viewers could lose the thread. Polak uses a series of visual and musical cues to make sure we always know where we are in the timeline. The titular tea-scalding and a dangerous flying knife are memorable bookmarks but best of all is Karel Svoboda's wonderful time-travelling theme, an infectiously upbeat synthesiser ditty which transcends its initial ridiculousness to become an uplifting, endlessly-amusing hook.

Petr Kostka is solid in the central dual role but standout performances come from Jiri Sovak as the head of the elderly Nazis and Frantisek Vicena as Adolf Hitler himself. Both shine in a supremely funny, extended comic setpiece in Hitler's bunker in which the seemingly foolproof plan comes unpicked little bit by little bit. Sovak does one of the best comedy reactions to escalating disaster I've ever seen here, exquisite in its understatement. It's perhaps the defining performance of the film, tackling the potentially zany chaos with measured dignity instead of wild mugging. Vicena, meanwhile, is one of the most effective screen Hitlers I've ever seen, certainly in a comedy film. The surprising twist here, especially after he was so roundly mocked in the opening credits, is that the Hitler role is almost entirely straight in both writing and performance. During the comedy moments, Hitler is merely the revered figure whose disapproving presence heightens the Nazis' humiliation. But it is in a deadly serious moment that Vicena truly shines, as Hitler views images of his imminent downfall via a futuristic projection device. The resultant disbelief, panic, denial and impotent anger Vicena displays is an incredibly powerful moment, especially in juxtaposition with the major comic stretch that proceeds it.

In the post-Hitler's-bunker scenes, 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' heads in another direction and the major reference point seems to switch from children's TV sci-fi shows to classic French farce, as Jan sets about putting right everything that has gone so badly wrong. Although there are one or two small plot holes (as there so often are in films of this kind), by now the viewer is so engaged by the film's own brand of logic that they pass without question and the neat resolution is satisfying and uplifting, in keeping with the tone of the film. Small ideas that seemed like throwaway gimmicks come back to feature in the plot and recast our opinion of earlier scenes as we begin to realise how tight this film is. It's a film of many diverse and interesting ideas but ultimately, nothing is there without a good reason.

I sat down to watch 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' expecting an interesting curio and, as the hour and a half flew by, my heart swelled at the experience of discovering an overlooked classic. I was left with a real sense of privilege at being one of the few people to have seen this gem, as well as a headfull of names of people to whom I must show this fascinating, bizarre but instantly accessible and phenomenally enjoyable movie. I look forward to the endless joy that sharing this film with others will bring me. Perhaps someday the BBC will see the light and repeat it again but until that day I'll be thankful for those ten minutes I spent navigating that Czech website and consulting online currency converters!

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Miller's Crossing

45. Miller's Crossing (1990)
Dir: Joel Coen

The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have undoubtedly made a sufficient mark in film history to be considered alongside the very greatest and most important directors who ever forged a big-screen image. Their debut, 'Blood Simple' (1984) was a crucial film in the early development and popularisation of the American independent film boom which thrived in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. The Coens have always been major figures, perhaps THE major figures, of the indie film world, not only as early influences but as writer-directors whose subsequent work has come to represent the very best, most inventive and enduring of this or any other cinematic category.

For me, the work of the Coen brothers opened up a whole new world of film appreciation. I was completely captivated by their distinctive sense of humour, their arresting, unique imagery and their knack for dialogue so memorable that it burns itself into your brain and tumbles from your mouth at a later date when you had no pre-planned intentions of quoting it. But it was their skillful ability to pay homage to and subvert recognised cinematic genres in equal measures which really seized me by the pants and threw me headlong into movie history. I started watching Coen brothers films in my early teens and from there my love of cinema grew into first a passion and then an obsession. My all-consuming desire to see and evaluate every film ever made anywhere by anyone was nurtured and facilitated by the reference points tha littered the Coens' catalogue and as I followed these celluloid breadcrumb trails I not only discovered hitherto unexplored delights but also found that my enjoyment of Coen brothers films was greatly enhanced by a growing ability to recognise and appreciate these references for myself without having to read about them first.

The Coens' effortless genre hopping has resulted in one of the most eclectic bodies of work ever and yet they are all unified by an instantly recognisable style which betrays their creator's presence. This contradictory nature has seen the directors shapeshift from one genre to another with each new film and yet allowed them to build and maintain a strong fanbase in thrall to their beloved, highly distinctive personal style. The Coen brothers take on the Gangster film emerged in a year dominated by films of that genre. Scorcese's 'Goodfellas' (1990), Coppola's 'Godfather Part III' (1990) and Abel Ferrara's 'King of New York' (1990) all inspired much buzz and discussion, both positive and negative. But while all this was going on, the elegant, intelligent and beautiful 'Miller's Crossing' somehow slipped through the cracks.

Although it was not a success at the time of release, 'Miller's Crossing' has come to be seen as one of the Coens' best, most mature films. Perhaps its commercial failure could be attributed to the acquired taste that is the Gangster genre but also to the fact that, this being only their third film, the Coens had not yet built up their loyal fanbase and the intentional chasm that seperated the tone of their previous two films, 'Blood Simple' and 'Raising Arizona' (1987), had left audiences completely unsure of what to expect next. The tone of 'Miller's Crossing' is an unusual one, both morbidly grim and vibrantly comedic, and this crucial complexity of mood certainly wouldn't have come across in promotional trailers. At an uninformed glance, 'Miller's Crossing' could well have looked like just another crusty period Gangster film. It was anything but.

Influenced by two Dashiell Hammett novels, 'The Glass Key' and 'Red Harvest' (the latter of which had also provided them with the title for 'Blood Simple'), 'Miller's Crossing' tells the complex story of Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), right hand man of corrupt political boss Leo O'Bannon (Albert Finney). When Leo refuses to allow gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) to kill bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) for double-crossing him, it sparks a full-blown war in which Tom must carefully choose his allegiances. Complicating matters further are Bernie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), who is conducting affairs with both Leo and Tom, not to mention the murdered Rug Daniels and Caspar's psychotic henchman Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman).

Armed for the first time with a relatively large budget, the Coens put it to good use, giving 'Miller's Crossing' an authentic and polished look and securing Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney in pivotal roles. Byrne is hardly ever off-screen as we follow Tom from one camp to the other, never 100% sure of his real motives. It's a strong performance in a role that requires an ongoing stoicism and Byrne maintains this beautifully, allowing his co-stars to steal scenes as he quietly and calculatingly observes them. Finney doesn't fare quiet so well. He was brought in at the last minute when the Coens' original choice for the role of Leo, Trey Wilson (who played Nathan Arizona in their previous film) died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage. Although Finney is a fine actor, he seems to have a bad habit of getting himself miscast (other examples of this include 'Scrooge' (1970), 'Big Fish' (2003) and 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' (2007)) and he fails to completely convince as an Irish-American mobster. Fortunately, although his character is crucial to the story, Finney drops out of the film for a long stretch after its first half. And, if he doesn't quite nail it, he at least looks the part, scoring big in a wordless setpiece in which he singlehandedly takes on a barrage of would be assassins without even a moment's loss of dignity.

But it is the supporting roles that really bring 'Miller's Crossing' to life, populated as they are with soon-to-become-Coen-regulars getting their teeth into memorably hilarious characters. Jon Polito overacts appropriately as the hot-headed Italian mob boss Johnny Caspar, making him indelibly grotesque by way of involuntary ticks and grunts, as well as an overwhelming sense that he doesn't really know what he's doing. Other Coen regulars include Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi in tiny cameos but the film is stolen completely by the marvellous John Turturro. He embodies the oily, snickering bookie Bernie Bernbaum so completely that this loathsome creature, hated by almost everyone and only alive by virtue of a sister dating a mob boss, becomes the most memorable part of the whole film. It's a pitch perfect portrait of a man who can never achieve anything even akin to dignity or self-respect and opts instead to plumb the depths of snivelling smugness and self-serving amorality.

As is always the case with a Coen brothers film, the immaculate screenplay plays a big part in the success of 'Miller's Crossing'. Their scripts are well known for being rigidly adhered to, every intricacy of character and plot set down as they intend it to appear on screen. It is this attention to the tiniest details that make even their smallest characters so vivid and well-rounded. 'Fargo's Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) or 'The Big Lebowski's Jesus Quintana (John Turturro, in another exquisite characterisation) are examples of characters who are apparantly superfluous to the plot but enhance their respective films no end. This dedication to creating complex, rich characters is constantly apparent in 'Miller's Crossing'. Johnny Caspar, for instance, is obsessed with "ethics", even though his take on the subject is somewhat skewed. This subtle little trait is apparent in everything Caspar does and, while it gives us a good laugh whenever it comes up in the dialogue, it also plays quite an important role in where the story goes.

There's plenty of other unusual elements to distinguish 'Miller's Crossing'. The Gangster genre is generally known for its machismo, hoardes of men sleeping with a succession of women while trading homophobic insults and wielding Freud-bothering machine guns. But 'Miller's Crossing' makes a major plotpoint out of the well-known homosexuality of several of its main characters. Arguably, the whole film is a love story between Tom and Leo, the woman who divides them merely a distraction from the repressed emotions they hold for each other. While this is a debatable reading of the film, the gay plotline between several of the other characters is overt and results in no raised eyebrows or limp-wristed stereotypes. Likewise, the Gangster genre can have a tendency to take itself too seriously and 'Miller's Crossing' eschews this with its numerous comedic asides and even throwaway gags. One very striking example is the moment when a young boy steals the toupee of a murdered gangster, which leads Leo to speculate "They took his hair Tommy. Jesus, that's strange. Why would they do that?" The reply: "Maybe it was injuns."

'Miller's Crossing' is the Coens' first completely assured film and remains an important landmark in their progression as the best filmmakers working today. Remarkably, while suffering from writer's block as they struggled with the intricacies of this film's plot, the Coens took a three week break during which they wrote the even better 'Barton Fink' (1991), which became their next film (and still one of their finest). This unbelievable level of productivity is indicative of the Coen brothers at the peak of their powers which resulted in one of the most incredible runs of films in cinema history, interrupted only by an inexplicable two film dip in quality during the early 00s (with the feeble 'Intollerable Cruelty' (2003) and 'The Ladykillers' (2004)). Fortunately, this dip proved to be an anomaly and the Coen brothers continue to churn out superb, constantly surprising work to this day.