Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Diner

24. Diner (1982)
Dir: Barry Levinson


Within the hugely popular genre of youth-orientated movies which focus on high school, college and early adulthood, there lurks a fascinating sub-genre which tends to turn out superior films. I call this the Aimless Youth subgenre. Aimless Youth originated with Federico Fellini's classic 'I Vitelloni' (1953), a semi-autobiographical work which focused on a group of young men in a small Italian town, wastrels who spend their time fighting against the pressure to accept responsibility when they'd rather be hanging out in pool halls, getting drunk and chasing women. Rather than attach a strong plot to this premise, Fellini instead focuses on many seemingly unconnected vignettes which knit together to build up a picture of bored, directionless twentysomethings.

Fellini's approach sets out the formula for Aimless Youth movies. These are character driven pieces with numerous threads that refuse to reach a pat conclusion. Although we frequently see changes in the characters, the film always ends before plot threads are tied up and we can only speculate on whether any apparent maturations are permanent. This structure leads viewers to feel that they are part of whatever gang they are watching and that they've spent the last few hours hanging out with them. As such, Aimless Youth films tend to be immersive and satisfying experiences, trading narrative certainty for vivid atmosphere.

Acclaimed examples of Aimless Youth films include George Lucas's wonderful 'American Graffiti' (1973) and Richard Linklater's equally great 'Dazed and Confused' (1993), as well as lesser works like Kevin Smith's 'Clerks' (1994) and Joel Schumacher's 'St. Elmo's Fire' (1985). But perhaps the best, as well as the most indebted to Fellini's film, is Barry Levinson's debut feature 'Diner'. Featuring a starry cast of then-unknowns including Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser and even Steve Guttenberg, 'Diner' follows the tragicomic existence of a group of male friends in Baltimore during the Christmas period of 1959. Like Fellini's film, Levinson's script is semi-autobiographical and is the first of several works which became known as his 'Baltimore films'.

In keeping with the rules of the Aimless Youth subgenre, Levinson's characters have all reached crucial turning points in their lives when they need to grow up, yet are unwilling to do so. Instead, they spend their time hanging out together in their favourite diner, discussing trivial topics in painstaking detail and indulging in juvenile pranks and bets. Typical discussion topics include whether Frank Sinatra or Johnny Mathis make better make-out music, and the correct way to ask for a roast beef sandwich while challenges and wagers involve naming the flipside of any given hit record, an attempt to conquer the entire left side of the menu in one sitting and, infamously, Boogie's reprehensible technique for getting his date to "go for my pecker"! Levinson uses these dialogue-heavy diner scenes as an anchor for his various plot threads. While each character has his own problems, the diner is where they all cut-loose and feel relaxed. Levinson achieves the natural flow of this cameraderie brilliantly by encouraging improvisation. Apparently he shot the diner scenes last so that the cast would all know each other and feel relaxed and it certainly worked. They convince as long-time buddies who have been through much together.

But it can't all be giggles and milkshakes and, whenever they leave the diner, responsibility comes knocking. Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) is getting married on new year's eve while Shrevie (Daniel Stern), the only member of the group who is already married, is struggling to deal with his own relationship in an adult way. The prodigal Billy (Tim Daly) has accidentally impregnated his old friend Barbara (Kathryn Dowling). Boogie (Mikey Rourke) has serious gambling debts and can't seem to stop womanising long enough to focus on them, while rich layabout Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) is developing an alcohol problem and approaching the moment his trust fund will run out.

There are no easy answers in 'Diner'. In fact, there are no answers at all. Most of the threads have no certain ending to them, which some viewers may find frustrating. But the point of 'Diner' is not to reach narrative conclusions but to witness the character's reactions to their various situations and the self-realisations they undergo (or don't). When responsibility lands at their feet in the film's final symbolic shot, we draw our own conclusions from the information we've pieced together. But Levinson also wrongfoots us by including surprising characteristics which contradict our expectations. For instance, we discover that immature asshole Fenwick, whose idea of a good joke is to convince his best friends that he's been killed in a car crash, is actually highly intelligent, making his increasing alcoholism and contentment to do nothing all the more tragic. Womanising, gambling Boogie, meanwhile, appears to be a pretty swell, level-headed guy on the rare occasions he lets his mask drop.

Performances are good all round, with no one performer making an egotistiacl grab to upstage the others. Levinson's tender, intelligent script (nominated for an Oscar) taps into the love that holds the group together without having to make it explicit in any gooey "I love you, man" moments. Since it focuses on a group of men, 'Diner's female characters very much play second fiddle but Levinson is aware of this and even includes a reference to it by never showing the audience Eddie's fiance's face. Yet women play a crucial part in the depiction of the men, since much of 'Diner' focuses on their crude, fumbling attempts to relate to the females in their lives with anything even approaching the comfort and respect they afford each other. Serious relationships and marriage require that taboo leap into adulthood that is so frightening and unappealing to these characters. Hence, Eddie shrugs off his decision to marry as being based on nothing more than it being the time of life when you're supposed to. No wonder his fiance is faceless.

'Diner' is a superb debut for Levinson and it started him on a run of brilliant films throughout the 80s. Like Rob Reiner and Robert Zemeckis, however, Levinson did most of his best work during that decade and has since declined considerably. 'Diner' still stands as perhaps his best movie and one of the masterpieces of the Aimless Youth subgenre. With its complexity of tone and character, its many plotlines, its quotable dialogue and its great rock 'n' roll soundtrack, 'Diner' is a film to return to again and again. Just don't accept any popcorn from strangers while watching!

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Shop Around the Corner

23. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Dir: Ernst Lubitsch


Who fancies watching a Christmas film starring James Stewart? My, what an enthusiastic reaction! Did I mention it's not 'It's a Wonderful Life'? Wait, come back! 'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946) isn't the only great Christmas film starring Jimmy. There's also the lesser known 'The Shop Around the Corner', a cracking little romantic comedy/drama which became the inspiration for the 1998 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle 'You've Got Mail'. Wait, come back!

'The Shop Around the Corner' is another fantastic film on the impressive resume of director Ernst Lubitsch. Although he is often missed off the roster of great directors, Lubitsch is a true master and something of a director's director, proving to be a massive influence on Billy Wilder. Known chiefly for sophisticated comedies, Lubitsch was responsible for classics such as 'Ninotchka' (1939), 'To Be or Not to Be' (1942) and 'Trouble in Paradise' (1932). The latter, a cyncical, amoral classic notable for its racy (for the time) sexual content, saw Lubitsch working with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, a regular collaborator with whom he made nine films. Raphaelson's classy script plays a big part in the excellence of 'The Shop Around the Corner'.

'The Shop Around the Corner' focuses on the staff of Matuschek and Company, a gift store in Budapest during the Great Depression. With the threat of unemployment in the unforgiving economic climate looming large over them, the employees all try their best to please their boss, Mr Matuschek (Frank Morgan) at all costs. All, that is, except the confident, honest Alfred Kralik (Stewart), the longest serving and most experienced salesman in the shop, who refuses to modify his opinions just to flatter the boss. Into their world comes Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), a young woman who is desperate for a job and sufficiently impresses Matuschek. Kralik, however, is not so sure and the two take an instant and obvious dislike to each other. Kralik and Novak are also engaged in an anonymous letter-writing love affair with each other but neither realises this is the case. As their rivalry intensifies, so does their love for each other's postal alter-egos.

On paper, 'The Shop Around the Corner' sounds as corny as.... well, 'You've Got Mail', but in fact there is a lot more to it than this simple, romantic set-up. While it would be fair to call it a romantic comedy, the Stewart-Sullavan romance is only one of several plot threads and sometimes drops out of the story for extended periods. With the Great Depression playing an important role in the story, 'The Shop Around the Corner' has a dark, bitter edge. It features two mental breakdowns and a suicide attempt among its plot points, as well as a constant gloomy sense of financial crises and desperation. Far from resorting to gooey, cutesy "ooooh, when will they find out" material, 'The Shop Around the Corner' also takes a hard-edged approach to the romantic plot. Kralik and Novak don't just trade witty barbs that belie their reluctant affection for each other, there are moments when they genuinely despise each other and make truly hurtful and insulting comments about one another.

All of which makes 'The Shop Around the Corner' sound like a bit of a downer! It's not, I assure you. But the emotional weight that Lubitsch achieves throughout is intergral in setting this classic apart from fluffier confections of a similar ilk. This ensures that when the heartwarming and romantic moments do come they feel genuinely earned and sincerely uplifting. Also crucial in this respect are the characters and performances. 'The Shop Around the Corner' opens with the arrival of Matuschek and Company's employees for the day's work ahead. One by one we meet these characters, who constitute the entire main cast of the story (other than the unseen Mrs. Matuschek, a much-discussed figure who remains unseen, in the tradition of many sitcom wives of later decades). The story, too, largely focuses on the shop as its setting, with only three scenes taking place elsewhere.

The standout performance comes from Stewart as the serious-minded but sweet-natured Kralik, a role which provides as perfect an example as you'll find of the subtle character variations that make Stewart such a legendary performer. Kralik is a good and principled man like Stewart's more famous Christmas characterisation George Bailey, but Stewart manages to make completely different characters out of two creations that many actors would have played in a very similar manner. Margaret Sullavan has a good crack at the sometimes unlikable Novak while Felix Bressart is thoroughly endearing as Kralik's best friend Pirovitch, but the other standout performance after Stewart comes from William Tracy as shrewd teenage delivery boy Pepi. During the grimmer dramatic moments of the film Pepi's presence is crucial, providing comic relief to prevent a descent into heavy melodrama. Tracy is forceful but never overdoes it, creating a memorable and delightful caricature of a disillusioned errand boy who transforms into a tyrant as he worms his way up through the ranks.

With so many plot threads and characters to incorporate, it's a surprise that 'The Shop Around the Corner' manages to move at such a leisurely pace in its early scenes. Lubitsch draws us into the everyday grind of retail, involving us in apparently dull arguments about stock and customer service. In doing so, however, he subtlely builds up a picture of the main relationships in the shop so that by the time the script becomes eventful, we're dealing with fully-rounded, believable characters. It's attention to detail of this calibre that made Lubitsch famous for having a personal 'touch' for portraying humanity in all its flawed glory.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review that 'The Shop Around the Corner' is a Christmas film. In truth, only towards the end does the holiday season become prominent in the story but the warmth these final scenes achieve makes 'The Shop Around the Corner' undoubtedly suited to festive viewing, even as the icy bite of its harder-edged approach make it less sickeningly saccharine than the likes of 'Holiday Inn' (1942). As plot threads resolve, Lubitsch switches the focus more towards the romantic plot and uses the Christmas backdrop to soften the audiences hearts. The denouement, in which the truth is unveiled, is a wonderful two-hander between Sullavan and Stewart featuring a prolonged, cruel interchange which leads to the inevitable but thoroughly earned happy ending.

'The Shop Around the Corner' is chock full of delights. The characters are rich (save for the two female employees of the shop besides Sullavan, whose presence seems utterly pointless), the plot-threads are numerous, the dialogue is unusual and delightful, the pacing is varied and always appropriate for each give scene. The viewer comes away from the film feeling as if they've had a full experience rather than just watched some stock types going through the romantic motions. In recent years, 'The Shop Around the Corner' has finally begun to receive its dues from critics. After just one viewing, I know it will be a Christmas staple in this house from hereon in.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

One to Avoid: Airport

One to Avoid

In these self explanatory, occasional interludes between charting my favourite films of all time, I'll look at some of the films I absolutely hate.

Airport (1970)
Dir: George Seaton


The disaster film genre of the 1970s is one of the weirdest sub-genres in all of cinema. Although the films it produced proved enormously popular, they are singularly glib and boring affairs in overlength and under-development. One might expect these huge spectacles to have a lot in common with the action genre but, in fact, they tend to set their major disaster going and then focus on people sat in rooms discussing how best to deal with it. The story always grinds to a predictable and wholly unsatisfactory conclusion.

The disaster movie had aspirations of being a character-driven genre. They are invariably teeming with characters who are introduced in a painfully long first hour. Rarely will the viewer encounter anyone worth caring about. They will all be cardboard, stock types involved in various soapy situations which either reach a pat conclusion or simply peter out in light of the catastrophe putting them into perspective.

The major distinguishing feature of the disaster genre is starry casts. Big names such as Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Jean Seberg, Gene Hackman, etc. are trotted out and wasted completely in roles that could be adequately tackled by anyone. They always seem bored and give lacklustre performances. In fact, Burt Lancaster himself called 'Airport' "the biggest piece of junk ever made". It's easy to see why. Lancaster barely stifles his yawns as he trots his way through the most undemanding, uninteresting role in the film, that of the airport manager.

In the course of its 2+ hours, 'Airport' follows various non-stories. Dean Martin is a philandering pilot who, despite being set up as a sort of hero figure, is completely unlikable. Jean Seberg is a public relations agent who flaps about getting stressed before falling into a completely tacked-on romance with Lancaster. George Kennedy is a mechanic trying to move an airliner stuck in the snow (he does, with zero tension). There are only two characters with any potential. One, a down-on-his-luck ex-army demolition expert with a history of mental illness played by Van Heflin, provides the movie's main plot point when he cracks and boards a flight to Rome with a bomb in his case. Despite the multiple character facets that could be explored in such a potentially complex figure, all Heflin does is look uptight a lot. No suspense is built up whatsoever. Meanwhile, back at the airport, his wife Maureen Stapleton cries a lot and somehow gets nominated for an Oscar.

Undoubtedly 'Airport's most memorable character is Ada Quonsett, an elderly serial-stowaway played by Helen Hayes. In an overreaction to a vaguely charming portrayal, Hayes was awarded an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (the only win out of ten nominations... Yes, TEN!). Her early scenes are the highlight of 'Airport'. She gets the best line of the film when talking about her ex-husband; "He always said "See Rome and Die", but he died while we were just packing". But, as is often the case, her roguish stowaway storyline dwindles as the central disaster takes hold.

There's also a worrying preponderance of storylines about men leaving their wives for younger women yet still being held up as admirable. Dean Martin ignores his wife completely when he escapes the disaster but it's ok, because he's going to stick by the stewardess he accidentally impregnated! Burt Lancaster and his wife come to the dullest decision to divorce ever and, in a matter of moments, Lancaster shrugs it off and invites himself back to Jean Seberg's apartment to "see her famous scrambled eggs"!

Yet another distracting element of 'Airport' is director George Seaton's ridiculous over-reliance on split-screen sequences and wipes. There's so many telephone coversations presented in split-screen followed by a wipe into the next scene that it's clear Seaton had a boner for the technology that made this crude effect possible. But he doesn't stop there. Whenever a character communicates with someone in a different location, Seaton has that person pop up in the middle of the screen in a big, floating egg shape. Was this effect ever admired? All it provokes in modern audiences is laughter.

The disaster genre of the 70s now looks like bad 70s television and there isn't an ounce of charm to counter this impression. If you want to watch someof these films out of curiosity, 'Airport' is not the one to choose. It may have kicked off the genre's major 70s popularity but its one of the most excruciatingly insipid films imaginable. Burt Lancaster was right. Though it's also a feeble watch, 'The Towering Inferno' (1974) is a better way to experience this barrel-scraping sub-genre in all its mind-numbing glory.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Annie Hall

22. Annie Hall (1977)
Dir: Woody Allen


If I was ever forced at gunpoint to name my favourite director of all time (thankfully an unlikely scenario), there would be several names vying for the honour. Hitchcock, Kubrick and the Coen Brothers would all be strong contenders and I'm almost certain that my continuing inability to rank the achievements of these geniuses would result in my fatal shooting. However, if someone placed a gun to my head and ask me who my most personally important director was, I'd be out of that absurd life-threatening situation in a second, the time it would take me to speak the name of Woody Allen.

Roger Ebert described the film as "just about everyone's favourite Woody Allen movie" and this seems to be a fair assessment. From the moment I first saw 'Annie Hall', I fell in love with Allen's comedic and directorial style. 'Annie Hall' was crucial in establishing both of these. Allen's films up to that point had largely been wacky, episodic comedies which mixed his famous one-liners with hit-and-miss slapstick. The likes of 'Love and Death' (1975) saw him maturing within this stylistic framework but Allen wanted to move towards something with more narrative weight. Although 'Annie Hall' is usually cited as the first of Allen's more emotionally mature works, I would point to 'Play It Again, Sam' (1972), Herbert Ross's film of Allen's stage play, as a notable precursor. Although there was still some slapstick, this excellent film marked a shift towards more realistic, realtionship-based material as Allen's character awkwardly wooed Diane Keaton. When Allen returned to this approach he kept the same leading lady but set about perfecting the formula.

The result was 'Annie Hall', a film that will always be incredibly special to me and which I try to watch at least once a year. Focusing on the relationship between neurotic stand-up comedian Alvy Singer (Allen) and the titular Annie (Diane Keaton), 'Annie Hall' uses voice-over narration, flashbacks, fantasy sequences, split-screen, broken fourth walls and even animation to examine the progress and ultimate implosion of a love affair. This barrage of techniques was a crucial factor in whetting my appetite for cinematic invention and I credit 'Annie Hall' with being one of my introductions to cinema as something more than just entertainment. All of which ignores that fact that 'Annie Hall' is very, very entertaining. In replacing broad slapstick silliness with a greater amount of dialogue, Allen has crammed his film unbelievably full of hysterical one-liners and charming interchanges. The characters are constantly talking; to each other, to their therapists, even to us. 'Annie Hall' is a very verbally busy film.

But it's not all about jabber. 'Annie Hall' is set against the gorgeous backdrop of 70s New York. New York is an important part of the majority of Allen's films and his love of the city is there on screen for all to see (it would be even clearer in the classic 'Manhattan' a couple of years later). Presented in warm, autumnal colours, 'Annie Hall's New York is one of the most emersive film experiences I have ever encountered. We visit cinemas, diners, colleges and apartments right alongside Alvy and Annie. The fact that Alvy occasionally turns to the audience with thoughts and observations makes us feel even more as if we're there (this trick is used most neatly in a scene involving an argument, in which Alvy momentarily tries to get us on his side before turning back to Annie and not acknowledging us for the rest of the scene).

'Annie Hall's ingenious structure mirrors the working of the human mind. The film opens with Alvy against a plain background, talking directly to us about his breakup with Annie. "I keep sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind", he tells us, at which point we cut to the first of many flashbacks. The rest of the film takes place in Alvy's head, providing a visual accompaniment to his reminiscences. Sometimes he lets his emotions and desires get the better of him ,affecting the reliability of the account. This is most famously evident in a hilarious scene in which Allen humiliates an irritating pseudo-intellectual in an argument about Marshall McLuhan by producing Mr. McLuhan himself, after which he observes "Boy, if life were only like this!"

It's hard to pick a favourite scene of moment from 'Annie Hall'. Oft chosen scenes include Annie and Alvy's disasterous attempts to make lobster in which we see what a good time they have together, a moment which becomes a bitter reference point later in the film when Alvy tries to recreate it with a new lover, and the recounting of Alvy and Annie's first meeting, which involves a tennis match, a hair-raising car journey and drinks in Annie's apartment, where subtitles inform us of the real meaning behind those first uncertain flirtations. My favourite scene, however, is probably the moment in which Annie calls her now ex-lover Alvy over to her house at 3am to kill a spider. It's loaded with romantic subtext, violent moodswings, extraordinary one-liners and one of the few moments in 'Annie Hall' where Allen revisits his slapstick past, as Alvy clumsily wields a tennis racquet.

Allen has admitted on several occasions that he's not really an actor but in several of his films he gives very good performances and 'Annie Hall' is the peak of his thesping achievements. As Alvy Singer, Allen cemented his trademark neurotic character upon which he would play numerous variations for the rest of his career. The one-liners are all delivered with the usual impeccable timing but Allen achieves more with Alvy, tapping into his frustration, longing and anger as well as his lighter qualities like an absurist sense of humour and his palpable love for Annie, creating a fully rounded character. He received an Oscar nomination for his trouble but the acting honours went to Diane Keaton, whose extraordinary turn as Annie won her that year's Best Actress Oscar. Keaton convinces totally as she portrays Annie's transformation from sweet, nervous innocent to experience-hungry academic with extreme subtlety. It's an even more remarkable performance given the scattershot structure of 'Annie Hall', which must have demanded that she snap into any stage of Annie's emotional and intellectual journey on demand. Keaton is also very beautiful at this stage in her career and her iconic suit and tie outfit became a fashion trend amongst women upon the film's release.

While the focus of 'Annie Hall' is very much on the central couple, Allen also fills the film with hilarious little cameos. Frequent Allen collaborator Tony Roberts is brilliantly unusual in the third lead role as Alvy's best friend Rob. The deliberate pacing of his delivery and the dry nature of the lines he is given make him an agreeable counterpoint to 'Annie Hall's speedy tempo. Famously appearing in a one-line role is a pre-fame Jeff Goldblum (with Sigourney Weaver also putting in an early appearance as a non-speaking extra) and Truman Capote features briefly for the purposes of an in-joke, but the most inspired piece of small-role casting is musician Paul Simon as music producer Tony Lacey. Simon gives a strange, smarmy performance that shows a real flair for character comedy.

'Annie Hall' kicked off Woody Allen's career as a director to be reckoned with. Its enormous success with audiences and critics alike (it won the 1977 Best Picture Oscar, beating 'Star Wars'. Hooray!) gave Allen license to push on with his dramatic work, resulting in classics such as 'Manhattan' (1979), 'Hannah and Her Sisters' (1986) and 'Crimes and Misdemeanours' (1989) to name but a few. Although he seems to have rather lost his touch in recent years, Woody Allen has more than earned his place in the canon of great directors, with 'Annie Hall' his glowing pinnacle. The greatest director of all time? I'd have to say no. The most important director in my own intellectual and emotional development? A resounding YES!


Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

21. The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
Dir: Niels Mueller


In 2004, Niels Mueller's directorial debut 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' quietly slipped out to the complete indifference of the public and then disappeared off the radar with barely any award nominations at all. This was a major oversight which has yet to be rectified. Despite some initial good reviews, this brilliant little film continues to be consistently underrated and underseen. Given its grim plotline and modest budget, it's perhaps unsurprising that 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' proved a hard sell to mainstream audiences. But those with a passion for independent cinema, especially the hard-hitting counter-culture movies of the 70s, should definitely seek this one out.

Loosely based on the true story of failed assassin Samuel Bycke (here called Bicke), 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' is set during the 1970s and Richard Nixon's second term as President. In order to set the appropriate mood, Mueller's script and style deliberately echoes the style of 70s outsider films such as 'The Conversation' (1974) and 'Taxi Driver' (1976). A major criticism of 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' has been that it resembles the latter too strongly, suggesting that Mueller has over-reaching ambitions to make the natural successor to Scorcese's gritty classic. While 'Taxi Driver' certainly seems to be an influence, however, Mueller treats it as a reference point for audiences rather than an overriding template. The lead character of Samuel Bicke is certainly a different beast from Travis Bickle, even if their surnames are only seperated by one letter.

The title 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' is deliberately ironic, since Bicke never comes anywhere close to seeing through his assassination plot. Nixon's name in the title is also misleading, since the film is significantly more focused on the personal breakdown of one individual than it is on political issues. Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) is an idealistic, moral man who believes passionately in honesty and equality and is disillusioned by life's demands that he stray from these values. His job at a furniture store is compromised by his beliefs as his grotesquely smarmy boss (Jack Thompson) tries unsuccessfully to mould him into a slick, unscrupulous salesman through the use of self-help literature. Bicke is attempting to start up his own mobile tire business with best friend Bonny (Don Cheadle) but the lengthy beaurocratic process is more than he can bear. Also weighing heavily on Bicke's mind is his estranged wife's (Naomi Watts) attempts to move on despite Bicke's desperation to reconcile. All these factors fuel Bicke's general rage at the state of his country and the dominance of dishonesty and avarice, of which Richard Nixon becomes a totemic figure. This obsessive anger at his President's encapsulation of everything he despises provides Bicke with an outlet to vent his bottled-up rage.

As Bicke, Sean Penn is spellbinding. Penn has long been one of the greatest American actors of the last few decades but, while he is often mentioned in the same breath as Brando or De Niro, few seem willing to give him his dues and rate him as highly as those sacred touchstones. His astonishing range makes Penn more than worthy and one need only watch the likes of 'Milk' (2008), 'Sweet and Lowdown' (1999) and 'Mystic River' (2003) to realise this. Those roles have brought him great acclaim but he gives a performance to equal them in 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon'.

For almost the entire 95 minute runtime of 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon', we do not leave Bicke's side, experiencing his world only through his eyes. During this time, Penn beautifully essays the man's transition from weak-willed emotional impotence through mounting frustration to obsessive madness. The film opens with the insane Bicke recording tapes addressed to his favourite composer, Leonard Bernstein, detailing his plans for Nixon and the story leading up to them. This flashback structure immediately clues the audience in to the fact that Bicke is headed for madness and, in this knowledge, we watch with morbid fascination to see what events could have lead him to this sorry state. Those who find the idea of spending an hour and a half watching a man destroy himself will be pleased to hear that Mueller's script and Penn's performance bring much needed quirky humour to the grim mix. This mostly arises from Bicke's naivety, best displayed in two scenes: one in which he tries to join the Black Panthers and another in which he acts out his idea of the perfect sales technique to a bemused civil servant. Penn also reaches crushing depths of pathos, such as the scene in which his desperate need for love and understanding are evident in his prolonged embrace of another family's child as if it were his own offspring.

As is the case with everything in Bicke's life, the climax is an anticlimax. This is deliberate but the abortive nature of Bicke's final acts disappointed some viewers who felt they'd been cheated out of a payoff. But a lengthy climactic action sequence would undoubtedly have seemed tacked on and at odds with everything 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' had achieved up to that point. Instead, the ending is exactly what you would expect given everything that has come before: a bungled, desperate and tragic mess of panicked collapse. But as the credits rolled, I felt no sense of disappointment but rather the excitement of having discovered a hidden gem. To paraphrase the old Chinese proverb, the journey had been the reward.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Rashomon

20. Rashomon (1950)
Dir: Akira Kurosawa


The technique of telling a story from multiple viewpoints and with questionable narrators has become a fairly well-used gimmick in film and TV but it was never used more effectively than in Akria Kurosawa's 'Rashomon', which famously pioneered this approach to cinematic storytelling. While later uses of the technique often relied heavily on it as a self-concious flourish, in 'Rashomon' it is used to stunning effect, leading to a gripping examination of the nature of truth.

'Rashomon' begins with three men taking shelter from a heavy rainstorm underneath the Rashomon gate; a priest, a woodcutter and a commoner. This acts as a beautifully shot framing device for the main plot, in which the story of the rape of a woman and the murder of her husband are recounted in flashback from several different viewpoints. In each case, the story differs slightly to serve the purposes of its narrator, leaving the audience to work out for themselves which version, if any, is the truth. The narrative structure of 'Rashomon' is easy to follow but also complex upon reflection. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, narrators recalls the narrations of other people. In one sequence, the priest recalls the account of the events by the dead husband channeled through a medium, effectively presenting us with three narrators at once, none of whom are necessarily telling the truth!

Given its complex structure, 'Rashomon' wisely keeps its main story simple. There are only three settings: the Rashomon gate, the courtyard where the trial takes place and a forest clearing, where the different accounts of the crime are reconstructed. Kurosawa, whose screenplay was based on two short stories, expertly flips between his three locations, constantly reminding the viewer who is serving as storyteller at any one time. We slowly see these characters unfold, our allegiance switching as individual credabilities are undermined. The film says much about Japanese gender roles and codes of honour, as well as providing a universally-focused commentary on morality, humanity and truth.

In the acting stake, 'Rashomon' certainly belongs to Toshiro Mifune, a regular Kurosawa collaborator who made sixteen films with the director and became well known for his bold, forceful but frequently comic performances. Mifune is unforgettable as the morally bankrupt, violent bandit Tajomaru, who is by turns animal-like (Kurosawa reportedly asked Mifune to base his actions on those of various beasts) and child-like, pointing and laughing like a naughty schoolboy despite the heinous nature of the crimes that inspire this juvenile act.

The Rashomon gate and courtyard scenes are dominated by dialogue but the forest scenes which they invariably lead into are characterised by visual storytelling and frequent bursts of action. Numerous fights are detailed, some of them comic as different narrators portray each other as bungling, pratfalling incompetents. For these scenes, Kurosawa was influenced by silent cinema which leads to vivid imagery galore. His use of light and dark is extraordinary, with one scene featuring a camera pointed directly at the sun while the dappled light used throughout reflects the blurring of truth and self-serving fiction.

Although its subject matter is grim, 'Rashomon' is ultimately a hopeful film. In its dissection of one event from different viewpoints, Kurosawa touches on many elements of human nature and while the emphasis is on the negative, the positive creeps through like the light penetrating the forest leaves and as the film ends, the viewer leaves with a sense of enlightenment and optimism at the glimpses of good in a world filled with evil. In recognition of its innovative storytelling style and visual brilliance, 'Rashomon' was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for best foreign language film released in America, making it a crucial influence on the eventual creation of a regular Best Foreign Language Film category, just one more feather in the cap of this massively influential masterpiece.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Scrooge

19. Scrooge (1951)
Dir: Brian Desmond Hurst


Since I was a very young boy I have absolutely loved Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol'. It's a captivating story full of brilliant characters and not a Christmas has passed in my house without me watching one version or another. There has been absolutely tons of film and television versions of this classic tale, from period-faithful pieces to modern retellings (the excellent Bill Murray vehicle 'Scrooged' (1988)) and versions featuring established, classic characters in the main roles ('Mickey's Christmas Carol' (1983), 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' (1992)). For this review we will concentrate on the former.

I have seen many period-faithful versions of 'A Christmas Carol' and mainly been disappointed. The George C. Scott version is bland and misjudged, the musical Albert Finney version is hammy and horrendous and the Patrick Stewart version is just plain weird. While there are still many other versions out there to see, for now I have a rule for distinguishing the greatest screen versions of Dickens' tale: If it stars Alastair Sim, it's amazing! Sim, one of my favourite screen presences of the twentieth century, has become known in many quarters as the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge and two superb versions of 'A Christmas Carol' have used his talents. One of them, the 1971 Oscar-winning Richard Williams animated version, used Sim as the voice of Scrooge and is probably my favourite version of the story ever. In terms of feature length, live action tellings, however, it is undoubtedly the 1951 Brian Desmond Hurst version that I go to every time.

Noel Langley's excellent script takes the ultimate gamble by adding elements to the original story. This technique has often backfired, resulting in overegged puddings where Scrooge dresses up as Santa or descends into Hell but Langley gets away with it and actually improves the narrative. He does so by keeping everything from the Dickens story in but fleshing out Scrooge's past with extra details about his defection from a clerk at Fezziwig's to a higher paid clerk under a corrupt mentor, his subsequent take over of the company and the death of his sister in childbirth. These additions bridge some gaps left by Dickens own edited highlights of Scrooge's past and make his transformation from a young romantic into a bad-tempered miser far more convincing. As a result, the Ghost of Christmas Past section of 'Scrooge' is the finest and longest section of the film.

There is a wealth of recognisable British actors in supporting roles in 'Scrooge', including George Cole as the young Scrooge, Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley, and wonderful performances by Kathleen Harrison as charwoman Mrs. Dilber and the ubiquitous Miles Malleson as Old Joe. As the Cratchits, Mervyn Jones and Hermione Baddeley looks a tad too well-nourished for such a poor family but their good-natured performances make the audience forget this nitpick. But it's undoubtedly Alastair Sim's show and his portrayal of Scrooge is phenomenal. He avoids the traps of going over the top, making Scrooge a believable curmudgeon rather than a pantomime villain. Whe confronted by the shadows of his past, he seems genuinely troubled and moved while his fear at encountering the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come (in one of 'Scrooge's' most cinematic moments) is palpable.

There are two sections of 'Scrooge' in which Sim particularly shines. One is the all important redemption finale, the key scene in any production of 'A Christmas Carol'. Sim's frenzied transformation into a giddy little schoolboy is an utter delight, particularly his comic encounter with terrified charwoman Mrs. Dilber. He gets a chance to excerise his skill for physical comedy as he fluffs up his hair and stands on his head, while his constant, joyous chuntering to himself is hilarious. It's a true tour de force for Sim and he has a whale of a time. Sim displays his emotional range, however, in the other scene in which he excels: the encounter with the ghost of Marley.

I've always found the Marley section a little unbelievable in other film adaptations, not because of its supernatural elements but because most actors seem unable to interpret Scrooge's reaction appropriately. The explanation given is that Scrooge does not believe his own eyes, blaming the visions on a stomach upset ("There's more of gravy than there is of grave about you"). But the way the scene has been played by Scrooges before and after Sim makes it seem as if Scrooge hallucinates ghosts in his house every night. The fear is too readily dispensed with and Scrooge is often portrayed as cocky in his dismissal of this clearly present spook. Sim, however, makes this most difficult of scenes utterly convincing. From the moment he sees Marley's face on his door-knocker, Scrooge seems on edge, a look of complete terror dissolving into a cautious, edgy demeanour. When Marley finally bursts into the room in all his glory, Sim backs against the wall but his address to Marley is performed ANGRILY! Herein lies the key to the marvel of Sim's choice. Scrooge does not believe in Marley's ghost and yet he cannot deny his presence. This impossible to contradict challenge to the credibility of his beliefs enrages Scrooge even as it terrifies him. For a man who is about to undergo a night that will change his entire belief system, this reaction is entirely appropriate and a very clever bit of foreshadowing.

You'd think with such a strong story that it'd be hard to get a film adaptation of 'A Christmas Carol' wrong but that's a naive viewpoint. It is, in fact, an extraordinarily difficult story to bring to the screen. Too many filmmakers have fallen into the trap of believing that getting the supernatural effects right is the key to a successful Scrooge but the emphasis should actually be placed on the emotional content of the story. Hurst's film does just that, serving up some decent effects for the 50s but placing more importance in performance. Alastair Sim is simply perfect as Scrooge, drawing out all the emotions required to make the character believable as a cold-hearted miser, a man redeemed and a troubled soul in limbo between these two states, undergoing the revelation of getting back in touch with the romantic, idealistic young man he once was.

This Christmas, if you want to watch the best version of 'A Christmas Carol', remember the rule. Look for the Alastair Sim seal of quality!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Dark Knight

18. The Dark Knight (2008)
Dir: Christopher Nolan


For years, Tim Burton had been known as the director who made the dark Batman films, as opposed to the campier 60s series or Joel Schumacher's roundly-panned attmepts. Then, in 2005, Christopher Nolan released the first of his new take on the Batman story, 'Batman Begins' (2005), and suddenly Burton's films seemed more aligned with the camp of the other versions than they were with this ferocious new vision.

I should state before I get any further into this review that I may be in over my head here. I'm not overly fond of the action genre or superhero movies, save for the odd exception here and there. I have little knowledge of comic books, which means I can't offer any notes on the authenticity of the material in comparison with its source. Some might say that I'd be better off just leaving it to someone more versed in the art of the action genre and superhero phenomenon. However, I absolutely loved 'The Dark Knight' and I'd like to share that and encourage those who have misgivings to put them aside and give it a try.

There will be spoilers ahead:

Although it's not strictly necessary, those wanting to give 'The Dark Knight' a try would be well advised to start by watching 'Batman Begins'. I actually saw 'The Dark Knight' first, then went back to watch 'Batman Begins', after which I rewatched 'The Dark Knight' and enjoyed it a lot more. 'Batman Begins' is a good film, particularly its second half, but it unfortunately has to spend a lot of time on set-up. Loads of characters have to be introduced and Christian Bale, in the lead role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, doesn't don his superhero suit for about an hour. During this hour, we see the crucial murder of the young Bruce's parents and then have to endure a load of dull sequences in which the adult Bruce learns the ways of the criminal underworld from a group called the League of Shadows, who train him in their methods by way of spouting a load of convoluted guff which sounds profound but ultimately means very little if you concentrate on it. These are the sort of desperate-to-be-cool, pseudo-intellectual scenes that we've seen a million times before and it's a real bore. So much time is wasted with this that Wayne's creation of Batman as his alter-ego feels a bit rushed when it finally arrives as we quickly see him get all his accesories in just a few bunched up scenes.

Once he's in the suit and on the streets of Gotham, however, 'Batman Begins' picks up significantly with thrilling action sequences and good plot development. By the end I was thoroughly entertained. But it's not only the limp first half of 'Batman Begins' that I had problems with. While Nolan's film looks fantastic and has plenty of great scenes, the casting of this first film is often questionable. The main sticking point for me is the utterly wooden, unappealing Christian Bale. His Bruce Wayne never seems human at all, failing to pull off any emotion other than brooding, while his Batman is rendered ludicrous by his famously ridiculous growly voice, a distractingly stupid decision which even fans of the film generally despised. Katie Holmes is bland in what is, to be fair, not an especially interesting role, assistant D.A. and Bruce's childhood friend Rachel Dawes. Michael Caine as Alfred sounds like a decent idea on paper but Caine never escapes his well-worn cockney persona and, indeed, Nolan's script often plays up to this with some ludicrously misplaced pieces of gentle comedy. Only Gary Oldman as the honourable Sgt. Gordan and Morgan Freeman as Wayne Enterprises employee Lucius Fox, fare at all well in the acting stakes.

Given the amount of problems I had with 'Batman Begins', you might think I wouldn't have enjoyed 'The Dark Knight' but Nolan's second part of what will ultimately become his Batman trilogy is a MASSIVE improvement. A major plus is that he doesn't have to spend much time at all on set-up. A small moment at the end of 'Batman Begins' clued audiences in to the fact that this second part would feature the Joker as its main villain, allowing Nolan to open immediately with a great bank robbery scene featuring the Joker and his accomplices. When we first see Bale he is already in the Batman suit and we're straight into the main story. Bale seems a little more comfortable in his role this time round, though he's by no means great. Maggie Gyllenhaal seamlessly replaces Katie Holmes in the Rachel Dawes role and is a little better and Caine, while still distracting, has significantly less to do in this more tightly packed sequel. Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman also reappear in their roles and continue to be good.

But its the new additions to the cast that really impress. Aaron Eckhart is great as new D.A. Harvey Dent who makes the transformation from golden boy and Gotham's great white hope to the disfigured, murderous villain Two-Face. Eckhart is convincing in both these roles and the disfiguring effects are absolutely superb. But few would dispute that 'The Dark Knight' really belongs to Heath Ledger in a stunning performance as the Joker. Ledger, who died soon after filming, inhabits the Joker completely. With gaping scars (the origin of which differs depending on who he's talking to) giving him a permanent smile, the Joker is a creepy character indeed. He is very funny but you always feel too on edge to laugh, so psychotic and unsettling is this creation. He sets about an unmotivated campaign of chaos, giving birth to a shocking moment of destruction for every one-liner he spouts. Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan must be given significant credit here, their excellent screenplay giving the Joker some great speeches that make up for the League of Shadows' blathering bollocks! Ledger's performance, however, lends this dialogue even more weight and impact. Ledger takes simple lines and turns them into highlights. His mock-sympathetic "Hi" to the hospitalised Harvey Dent is my favourite line of the film and the small moment where he has remote-control trouble with his explosives mixes the darkest black comedy and a dramtic gut-punch to absolute perfection. With his slurping tongue and simple but eeriely effective make-up, Ledger's Joker is an iconic film character already and he more than deserved his posthumous Oscar win.

The plot of 'The Dark Knight' is a very strong one. The Nolan brothers are not afraid of layering on the plot threads and they tie them up extraordinarily neatly in the final moments, which leave audiences begging for them to hurry up with the final installment. They find important roles for all their many characters (with the possible exception of Alfred, but that's no great loss in this case) and manage to make two and a half hours fly by. Though there is plenty of action, there's also lots of good dialogue and character development, the like of which are all too often missing from low-grade action movies that ask us to care about the thinnest of cardboard stereotypes. These many elements are expertly orchestrated into one of the finest films of the '00s.

I've always been more drawn to Batman than to any other superhero franchise. There's something about that dark, film noirish atmosphere and the heightened focus on fascinating characters over empty theatrics that really appeals to me. In 'The Dark Knight', Christopher Nolan has made the best realisation of these attractive elements I could have hoped for, improving significantly on his flawed but exciting and enjoyable 'Batman Begins'. If he can keep up the quality of 'The Dark Knight' for the third installment, Nolan's Batman will become one of cinema's great trilogies.

Singin' in the Rain

17. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Dir: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen


As I write this review, Britain has ground to a standstill through the heaviest snowfall we've had in decades. Here in Lincoln, all buses, taxis and trains have been cancelled, schools and workplaces are shut or running on a skeleton staff but still the snow comes down outside. I am, quite literally, snowed in. What better occasion could one possibly imagine to reach for 'Singin' in the Rain'?

Producer Arthur Freed headed a unit at MGM that consistently turned out some of the brightest, most uplifting musical films of the 40s and 50s. However, while they are always entertaining and gorgeous to look at, Freed's musicals generally consist of many eye-popping set-pieces appended to a thin plot, resulting in a sporadically enjoyable but ultimately bitty end product. A prime example of this is the multi-Oscar-winning 'An American in Paris' (1951), released the year before 'Singin' in the Rain' and also starring Gene Kelly. Though it scooped the Best Picture Oscar for the year, 'An American in Paris' is very thinly plotted, focusing on its individual musical numbers so much that it ends up seeming like more of a variety revue than one, focused film. Nevertheless, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won six.

By the time 'Singin' in the Rain' came around, the Academy were obviously sick of musicals, offering it a scant two nominations of which it won neither. Watching 'Singin' in the Rain' now, this is an unbelivable snub. Not only is it packed with astonishing musical numbers, all realised to perfection in heart-melting Technicolor, but it strings them together with deft smoothness into a plotline that is not only coherent but also hilarious, emotionally-engaging and informative.

Gene Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a silent movie star whose career is turned upside-down with the arrival of talking pictures. As if this weren't enough, he simultaneously loses his heart to Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), an aspiring actress whose car he accidentally winds up in while trying to escape over-familiar fans. Further complicating issues is Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), Don's self-obsessed, empty-headed screen partner. Not only does Lina believe all the celebrity gossip written about her and Don, she also has the most grating speaking voice ever to escape an oesophagus, making her transfer to 'talkies' an impossibility. Luckily, Don's longtime best friend and musical partner Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) has a few ideas of how to get round these little problems.

For movie fans, 'Singin' in the Rain' is a fascinating glimpse at the business in transition. Of course, it's ficitonalised and simplified but many details are kept authentic, including the intial dismissal of sound as a fad and the subsequent impact of Warner Bros.' 'The Jazz Singer' which pushed other studios to experiment with the medium of talking pictures. Longtime fans of musicals can also play a 'spot the song' game. The reason 'Singin' in the Rain' has such an impeccable selection of material is because Arthur Freed selected the cream of the songs written by himself and Nacio Herb Brown, all but one of which had previously appeared in other musicals pre-dating 'Singin' in the Rain'. Consequently, a wonderful number such as 'Fit as a Fiddle (And Ready for Love)' (the only song here not co-written by Brown) can be casually tossed out as an aside amongst the major set-pieces.

And oh!, those set-pieces. 'Singin' in the Rain' weaves them into the story beautifully so that narrative and music are afforded equal respect. You'll never find yourself itching for the next musical number but neither will you be irritated by the music interrupting the story. 'Singin' in the Rain' is strong on both but it is the musical set-pieces that truly make it special. Everyone is familiar with that most iconic of scenes, Gene Kelly's lovestruck dance in the rainstorm to the film's title song, which stands as the ultimate expression of cinematic joy. You'd never know that Kelly had a 103 degree fever during the filming of this sequence. He looks like the happiest man alive.

But that famous sequence is certainly not the be-all-and-end-all of 'Singin' in the Rain' and, in fact, you'll find yourself so mesmerized and amused by everything that leads up to it that you may forget it's coming. Every time Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor dance together, for instance, I'm lost in the genuinely unbelievable flurry of feet in perfect time with one another. Watch them in the 'Moses Supposes' segment or the aforementioned 'Fit as a Fiddle'. It's astonishing! Even more incredible is O'Connor's solo number 'Make 'Em Laugh', the film's one original song (although it was based heavily on Cole Porter's 'Be a Clown'). O'Connor displays a mixture of physical dexterity and comic ability in a cartoonish whirlwind of a performance culminating in his famous but still jaw-dropping run-up-a-wall backflips.

The romantic slow numbers, often a significant drag factor in musicals, are all staged so beautifully that only the most stony of hearts could spend the duration of them indulging in the traditional eye-rolling that accompanies sappy Hollywood love scenes. 'Singin' in the Rain' is so stuffed full of story and music that there's not that much time to focus on the obligatory Kelly-Reynolds romance but the talented pair convince us of their love in a stripped-down performance of 'You Were Made for Me', which sees Kelly declaring his feelings for Reynolds on a huge, empty soundstage, complete with his own lighting and wind effects.

Kelly and Reynolds are thoroughly agreeable in the relatively straight roles but top acting honours go to their two comedy supporting actors, Donald O'Connor and Jean Hagen. O'Connor's role was based on and originally intended for Oscar Levant, a very talented pianist who unfortunately couldn't act one bit and proved a distracting presence in Freed musicals such as 'An American in Paris' and 'The Band Wagon' (1953). Mercifully, O'Connor stepped in to take the role of the constantly-joking Cosmo Brown, bringing with him all the comic timing and relentless energy it demands. He dispenses one-liners with an easy charm and throws himself into his dance routines (my favourite in the film) with gusto. But special mention must be reserved for the commendably game Jean Hagen in the role of the hideous Lina Lamont (for which she garnered one of the film's two Oscar nominations). Hagen does not get any major musical set-pieces and spends the film alternating between despicable and just plain stupid (her oft-spoken catchphrase is a shrieked "Whaddya think I am, dumb or sumthin'?'). It's the sort of role that many of the image-obsessed actresses of the era may have balked at but Hagen had the sense to spot a plumb role and her hilarious performance has become the stuff of legend. It's testament to her acting that, in a film bursting with the best musical numbers ever performed, she's still one of the main talking points for audiences when the film ends.

The musical climax of 'Singin' in the Rain' is a fourteen minute sequence entitled 'The Broadway Melody Ballet'. These ballet sequences were a regular fixture of many of Freed's musicals, length climactic set-pieces that aim for the highbrow. The best of these ballets is the closing sequence in 'An American in Paris' in which Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dance through sets based on the work of French artists. I remain convinced that this section alone was integral in winning that film its Best Picture Oscar. 'Singin' in the Rain's' 'Broadway Melody Ballet' is based on numbers from the popular 'Broadway Melody' series of films from the 20s and 30s. It is a big, abstract number which features stylised backgrounds and dreamlike sequences. While there are those who consider it pompous and unrelated to the rest of the film, this stunning spectacle is actually a crucial moment. It relates to the opening sequence in which Don Lockwood tells a highly romanticised version of his life story to adoring fans. The ballet gives us a musical representation of something closer to the real story, signifying Lockwood's personal investment in his new talking picture and also giving us a glimpse of his move away from phoney celebrity culture. Whether you agree with this or not, few could begrudge the presence in the film of the knockout sequence in which Kelly and Cyd Charise perform a dance of love with a long, sweeping, white veil, a room full of people instantaneously disappearing so they can be alone.

'Singin' in the Rain' flies by like few other films I can think of. Although it failed to receive the same level of critical success as 'An American in Paris' or even the lumpy 'Gigi' (1958) (which went on to break Oscar records with nine wins) at the time of release, it has rightfully come to be regarded as not only the greatest musical of all time but one of the greatest American films. Very occasionally, everything just comes together right and you're left with as close to a perfect film as you can get. 'Singin' in the Rain' is one of the prime examples of such an occurence.

I've got my DVD copy right here so, as far as I'm concerned, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!