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.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Dean Spanley

44. Dean Spanley (2008)
Dir: Toa Fraser

Released in 2008, 'Dean Spanley' is one of those remarkable films that defies rigid classification and has suffered commercially as a result. Although it was a rare example of a non-children's film to be given a 'U' certificate denoting that it is suitable for all ages, 'Dean Spanley's chances were perhaps hurt further by this, since a 'U' certificate often drives narrow-minded adult cinemagoers away on the assumption that this will be a trite family film of little interest to them. Anyone who fell into this trap sadly missed out on an original, intelligent, sweet, warm and beautifully written and acted piece of cinema.

But how do you sell 'Dean Spanley' to an audience in the space of a trailer? Its facets are so numerous that it would be difficult to know what elements to play up in the advertising campaign. It's a comedy for sure but it evolves into a much more dramatic work than its welcoming, brightly-coloured poster might lead you to expect. It has all the hallmarks in theme and style of a family film and yet its first rate screenplay by Alan Sharp (based on a novella by Lord Dunsany) is perhaps too eloquent and dialogue-heavy to hold the attention of most children. The story's main concept injects the narrative with a healthy dose of fantasy but it is not the variety of whizz-bang wizardry that will enthrall the under-tens. And while children may lose interest quickly because of the lengthy monologues and early 1900s period dialogue, snooty adults may be put off by the absurdist concept of the film and reject all its other considerable achievements on that basis alone.

'Dean Spanley', then, is not an easy sell. But it's a much easier film to enjoy than its apparent elusiveness would suggest. The ideal audience for this film would be adults who are still in touch with their sense of childlike wonder and are not averse to suspending disbelief in the name of a rollicking good yarn! 'Dean Spanley' was perhaps best described in its accompnying publicity as "an adult fairy tale" or, even more accurately, as "a surreal period comedic tale of canine reincarnation exploring the relationships between father and son and master and dog". If, by this point, your interest is piqued and you want to know more, the likelihood is that you'll love 'Dean Spanley' as much as I did. If you were irked by the phrases "fairy tale" or "canine reincarnation", you've probably stopped reading by now anyway! Which is a shame, because I think that 'Dean Spanley' is a film of sufficient wit, charm and emotional weight to surprise and win over many a cynic.

The plot goes roughly like this: Early 1990s Britain. Following the death of his younger brother in the Boer War and the subsequent death from grief of his mother, Henslowe Fisk (Jeremy Northam) has fallen into a ritual of visiting his elderly father, Horatio (Peter O'Toole) every Thursday, despite the fact that the two are emotionally estranged and the visits are invariably trying. The eccentric, curmudgeonly Horatio flatly refuses to discuss his son's death, to which he has adopted an inappropriately flippant attitude, and instead prefers to wax lyrical about his former dog, Wag. Wag, he proclaims, was "one of the seven great dogs" but he ran away one day and never returned. Henslowe takes his reluctant father to a lecture on transmigration of souls where they meet a roguish "conveyancer" called Wrather (Bryan Brown) and local clergyman Dean Spanley (Sam Neill). Intrigued by the Dean's open-mindedness about reincarnation, Henslowe invites him over for drinks with the promise of a rare vintage of the Dean's favourite drink, Tokay wine. The wine, Henslowe discovers, leads the Dean into a dreamlike state in which he begins to recount at length his former experiences as a dog. With the help of Wrather, Henslowe sets about obtaining more of the elusive and expensive Tokay in order to learn more about the Dean's canine past.

New Zealand director Toa Fraser has done a wonderful job of evoking a distinctly British atmosphere and a sense of the period but his major achievement is in keeping a film that is largely set in dining and drawing rooms so enthralling and visually attractive. The images are vibrant and colourful, occasionally punctuated by an unforgettable sight such as an indoor cricket pitch, and the atmosphere that Fraser creates combines that of a comforting Sunday afternoon entertainment with a sense of the otherworldly. Aiding Fraser in his strong direction is Alan Sharp's terrific screenplay, full of carefully deliniated characters and a seemingly endless supply of witty lines. It also builds, in the grand tradition, towards a gripping and heartwarming final act that will surely break down the defences of anyone who has written off the plot as poppycock.

As befits a film of such divergent stylistic qualities, 'Dean Spanley's cast are a varied set of actors whose unique styles marry together into something beautiful. Jeremy Northam is a strong anchoring presence as the story's straight-man and facilitator and graciously allows his co-stars to dominate their respective scenes. Not that Peter O'Toole gives him any choice! O'Toole snatches scenes all over the film with his scenery-chewing performance. Boorish, rude and loudly opinionated, O'Toole's character gives him the chance to have enormous fun while also hoarding most of the best lines. Despite the broadness of the performance, O'Toole's interpretation of the character is entirely fitting. This is a man who hides his true emotions beneath an act, so boisterous theatricality was surely the right way to go. In the climactic scenes we discover the hidden depths of the character and O'Toole's acting, by now reduced mostly to facial expressions, is phenomenal. At the eleventh hour, he gives us a glimpse of the fully-rounded character he has secretly been portraying all along.

The contrasting central performances of Northam and O'Toole find further contrast in the most original and best turn in the film. Sam Neill's performance as the titular Dean is a remarkable and remarkably strange piece of work which gives him the chance to act in the most unusual way. As Spanley, Neill is stuffy and slightly brusque but once he tastes the Tokay wine he is transformed. A good many actors and directors would have taken Spanley's regression to his dog days in a very silly direction, incorporating panting, scratching, growling and the like. But Neill does nothing of the sort. His occasional overt doggy gestures are limited to little sniffs here and there, while he skillfully builds an entirely believable dog character through reminiscent monologues and the subtle facial expressions and vocal interpretations of how an English-speaking dog might actually sound. The meat of Neill's role is his doggy speeches and this allows him to tap into a rich storytelling tradition. His performance here is akin to the best celebrity readings on legendary children's literature show 'Jackanory' (1965-present), full of warmth, wisdom and nostalgia. Neill's rich, comforting voice is the defining sound of the whole film but he maintains an edginess befitting a man who has been lulled into a false sense of security and may come out of his trance at any moment.

The small main cast is rounded out by Bryan Brown and Judy Parfitt. Brown, a popular Australian star of the 80s and often spoken of in the same breath as Paul Hogan, is an actor of little range but he has been carefully chosen for this roguish role of a dodgy dealer which plays to his strengths. He's a bright, enjoyable presence and gives the film yet another distinct voice to play off the mannered English characters. Parfitt gives an excellent supporting performance as housekeeper Mrs. Brimley, an old-fashioned, tentaively affectionate woman with an indomintable spirit. The loss of her husband, whom she occasionally talks to as if he were still there, is a nicely judged counterpoint to the central losses that form much of the dramatic narrative.

'Dean Spanley' is a unique, captivating piece of filmmaking which utilises both the traditional characteristics of old-fashioned storytelling and the modern penchant for the quirky and unusual. Although its mix of styles make it a tough film to promote, those who are lucky enough to see it in its entirety will discover a deftly executed work in which seemingly incompatible elements blend seamlessly into a rich, entertaining whole. 'Dean Spanley' is an invitation to set aside our cynicism and embrace the child, and the dog, in all of us.

Saturday, 16 April 2011


43. Milk (2008)
Dir: Gus Van Sant

In 2005, one of the most infamous Oscar controversies occured when Paul Haggis's limp 'Crash' (2004) beat clear favourite 'Brokeback Mountain' (2005) to the Best Picture award. The controversy stemmed from the fact that 'Brokeback Mountain' was a prominently gay-themed film which lead to many critics suggesting homophobia played a significant part in its denial of the year's biggest award. This view was certainly not without evidence. Old-school assholes Ernest Borgnine and Tony Curtis lead a shockingly homophobic attack on the film, despite stating that they refused to watch it. Borgnine's argument against 'Brokeback Mountain' seemed to be based mainly on his perception that John Wayne would have hated it (as if that would have been a bad thing!) while across the country, Conservative pundits spouted the usual twaddle about undermining of family values. Shock-jocks and talk-show hosts tried their damndest to turn the film into a joke, with "hilarious" retitlings like 'Fudgepack Mountain'.

Although it thrust the homophobia of many crusty old Academy members into the spotlight, the 'Brokeback Mountain' furore was hardly unprecedented. Although the Oscars has often been portrayed as an open-minded liberal event, gay-themed films have always struggled to get the major recognition of the more coveted awards. For example, despite much acclaim and commercial success that made it one of the most talked about films of its year, 'Philadelphia' (1993) was not included in the 1993 nominees for Best Picture. When 'Brokeback Mountain' was snubbed, the voters also managed to ignore another critically acclaimed, gay-themed nominee, 'Capote' (2005) as they clamoured to honour the clumsily executed race-issues movie in a misguided attempt to soothe their wounded delusions of progressiveness.

Now, I'm not saying that there is a complex conspiracy to prevent queer cinema from major recognition (I must admit I didn't really like 'Philadelphia' and, in the 'Brokeback Mountain'/'Capote' year, my vote would have gone to 'Good Night, and Good Luck' (2005)). But there is an undoubted discomfort amongst the Academy when it comes to following through on their initial nominations of these films. Flash forward three years to 2008 and the 81st Academy Awards ceremony. The year's big event movie and favourite to walk away with Best Picture is Danny Boyle's suprise hit 'Slumdog Millionaire' (2008). However, 'Brokeback Mountain' had taught us that the sure-thing does not always live up to that title and this year there is a strong contender to snatch the prize waiting in the wings: Gus Van Sant's 'Milk' (2008), an exceptional biopic about the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay...... And the award goes to 'Slumdog Millionaire'!

OK, I'll drop the cynicism now. 'Milk's loss to 'Slumdog Millionaire' was likely due to the huge impact of that film at the time and there was subsequently no controversy over the issue (the greater controversy that year being the Academy's refusal to nominate Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight' (2008) for Best Picture, its rightful place taken by the creaky dirge 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' (2008)). As a matter of personal opinion, however, I think 'Milk' was the more deserving candidate. While still a fine film, I consider 'Slumdog Millionaire' more of a superficial thrill that seems far better the first time round than it is on reflection. 'Milk' is a beautifully realised encapsulation of a true story that gets richer with every watch, unlike the flashy, music-themed biopics that became Oscar staples at around the same time.

'Milk' tells the story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), America's first openly-gay elected public official. Beginning on his fortieth birthday when he is still a closeted businessman, the film follows Milk's move to an area in San Francisco which is rapidly evolving into a gay neighbourhood. The combination of opposition from homophobic residents and the strength that the support of people who share his sexuality gives him, Milk becomes a political activist. From here, the film follows Milk's many campaigns and his eventual success at being elected onto the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Here, he forges a complex, awkward working relationship with conservative supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), a relationship that will ultimately lead to the assassination of both Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber).

Gus Van Sant is one of the most unusual directors of recent times. Although his output is frustratingly hit-and-miss, one can't help but applaud the diversity and originality of his work. His films range from excellent indie efforts ('Drugstore Cowboy' (1989)) and conventional but highly intelligent mainstream successess ('Good Will Hunting' (1997)) to ambitious but rather flat experiments in economy of plot ('Elephant' (2003), 'Last Days' (2005)) and even a downright awful remake ('Psycho' (1998)). Whatever you think of him as a filmmaker, you can't fault Van Sant's dedication to diversity. As an openly gay man himself, 'Milk' was a project that had been very close to Van Sant's heart for a long time. Taking much influence from the Oscar-winning documentary 'The Times of Harvey Milk' (1984) (which he acknowledges in the credits of 'Milk'), Van Sant had been considering scripts for the project since the early 90s. Gay writer Dustin Lance Black's screenplay provided him with the perfect material to create one of his intermittent mainstream gems and, between them, the writer and director have such a keen understanding of the issues involved that 'Milk' could hardly have failed.

It's extremely fortunate that Van Sant opted to make 'Milk' a prestige project and not one of his oddball curiositys like 'Gerry' (2002). The subject is one that requires a mainstream appeal if it is to do anything but preach to the converted and 'Milk' has all the polish and coherence of the most accessible cinema. However, Van Sant is also able to incorporate his own unique and varied style into the film to elevate it far above the workmanlike. He deftly incorporates real news footage of the 60s and 70s to paint a vivid picture of the time and give increased insight into the major events in Harvey Milk's life. Rather than keep Milk's assassination as a cheap climactic secret, the film opens with California senator Dianne Feinstein's actual announcement of the double murder to the press. This sets up Dustin Lance Black's excellent conceit of having the film narrated by Harvey himself, tape recording a personal memoir to be played in the event of his assassination.

A very important part of 'Milk's success as a film rested on finding the right actor to play the pivotal role. Although political and social considerations play a strong part in the narrative, 'Milk' is ultimately very much Harvey Milk's own story, never leaving his side as we follow both his career and his personal life; his growth from a nervous, closeted forty year old to a vibrant, passionate activist and finally a man in a genuine position of power. Wisely, then, Van Sant went to one of the finest actors of his generation, Sean Penn. Penn, in his second Best Actor Oscar-winning performance, is exquisite. He is forceful and persistent in his scenes as a political force but, crucially, he taps into the constantly visible human side of Harvey Milk, never allowing any kind of public persona to overwhelm his personality. The scene in which he is assassinated is one of the most beautifully understated, effortlessly heart-rending bits of acting and staging I've ever seen. Seeing the gun intended for him, he whimpers "no" and involuntarily raises a futile hand in an attempt to protect himself. It highlights the human frailty and fear that belies Milk's remarkable drive and ambition to fight for what's right. Penn ensures we never forget that these uncertainties are present in the character, so this final moment is devastatingly realistic and effective.

The supporting cast is never less than good, if somewhat overshadowed by Penn's towering performance. This was always likely to be the case given the constant focus on 'Milk's titular character, however, and the rest of the cast do an admirable job. Josh Brolin gives a solid turn as the awkward, ever-more unstable Dan White and his drunken ramblings in one scene bag the film's biggest laugh. Emile Hirsch is a tad irritating and uneven as Harvey's bitchy young protege Cleve Jones but the other actors portraying Milk's gay entourage do a fine job, particularly Joseph Cross and, in the film's other standout performance, James Franco as the love of Harvey's life, Scott Smith. With a script written by a gay writer and with a gay director at the helm, 'Milk' also thankfully sidesteps the cinematic cliche of the shrieking queen, which the majority of straight directors would likely have included for a few cheap, questionable laughs.

'Milk' unfurls its story with pace and vitality, remaining constantly engaging throughout. It hits all the right buttons to inspire anger at the injustices of prejudice and then rewards us with the thwarting of those who would use religion and so-called family values as a way to ensure that inequality goes on thriving. Harvey Milk's story is one that has long deserved to be told and Van Sant's film does a grand job of raising awareness of this great man and all he stood for. I'm sure that, eventually, a gay-themed film will win the Best Picture Oscar but it's a great shame that this extremely worthy contender didn't become the first film to clinch that honour.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Running on Empty

42. Running on Empty (1988)
Dir: Sidney Lumet

Very recently on this blog I wrote two seperate reviews singing the praises of Sidney Lumet and River Phoenix respectively. In the name of diversity, I should perhaps consider leaving a longer gap before reviewing 'Running on Empty', the film that brought this great director and great actor together for the first and only time. But having just seen it for the first time tonight, I fell in love with the film so completely that I feel it best to capture that thrill of discovering a new little gem while it is still coursing through me.

'Running on Empty' is a fantastic film from whatever angle you come at it. It is directed with trademark skill and subtlety by Lumet, it is flawlessly acted by a cast who all give what must rank among their best performances and it has one of the most beautifully written, delicately balanced and intelligently structured screenplays I've ever come across. 'Running on Empty' follows the story of Annie and Arthur Pope (Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch), left-wing radicals who bombed a napalm factory in the early 70s and accidentally blinded a janitor who was not supposed to be on the premises at the time. Forced to go on the run with their two year old child Danny in tow, the Popes have been evading the FBI for the last fifteen years, moving from town to town and changing their names with the help and financial support of an underground network. Danny (River Phoenix) and his younger brother Harry (Jonas Abry) have never known any other life and have become as adept as their parents at assuming new identities and starting again in a string of new homes. However, the talented Danny is reaching college age and his desire to further pursue his prodigious piano skills, as well as a blossoming relationship with his music teacher's daughter (Martha Plimpton), lead him to question where his life is going.

To say more about the plot of 'Running on Empty' would be to spoil the captivating way in which the it unfolds. But while it is undoubtedly a strong story, it is the way in which it is told and the warmth and believability of the characters which make it so special. The script was written by Naomi Foner, the mother of actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and at the risk of repeating myself it's one of the finest scripts I've ever come across. The story on paper does not sound like much and, in fact, sounds like a potentially melodramatic, low-rent TV movie. But Foner does not take the story down any cliched routes and instead turns out a finely nuanced and extraordinarily thorough examination of a small handful of characters. Rather than make any one of them the lead, Foner flits between Danny, Arthur and Annie whenever their particular viewpoint is needed in the plot and, accordingly, the film changes in tone from family drama, coming of age teen romance, political drama and the story of an exceptional musical talent. This trajectory takes in an amazing amount of themes and is able to embrace all of them without being glib or rushed. I think this is perhaps the reason that 'Running on Empty' is not widely considered the classic it so obviously is. There is so much in this film that it is not easy to pigeonhole in one genre and the prospect of such complexity, even when it is achieved with such effortless and engaging simplicity, tends to make casual viewers uneasy. Conversely, most plot synopses of 'Running on Empty' (including my own inadequate attempt) make the film sound like just another sticky, sloppy teen film or emotionally manipulative weepie. It is far more than that but when it comes to the ever decreasing attention span of the film industry, a snappy synopsis is crucial.

Which is a shame, because 'Running on Empty' has enormous potential to please both the arthouse and commercial crowd. It is fiercely intelligent yet narratively engaging and suspenseful. And ultimately, I think it is one of the most genuinely moving films I've ever seen. Crucial in achieving this is the viewer developing a bond with the Pope family and, while their dialogue is beautifully written, this is largely down to Lumet's direction and the actors' performances. Say the words "family drama" to most people and they will immediately think of shrieking arguments, slapped faces and relationships in turmoil. There is none of this with the Pope family. They understand and respect each other completely and Lumet is careful to show this from the outset as the film opens with them acting as a well-oiled operation in order to leave their latest home and evade the FBI. There is the odd raised voice here and there but for the most part what we are shown is warmth, tenderness and love which is implicit and never overtly sentimentalised. In one of the film's most unashamedly joyous and touching scenes, we witness Annie's birthday party. Danny invites his new girlfriend Lorna and she is immediately accepted into the fold and initiated into the family rituals that surround celebrations. It culminates in a beautiful moment in which the whole family dance and sing together to James Taylor's 'Fire and Rain' (a song used to tremendous emotional effect at various parts of the film). Again, it sounds horrendously cheesy but it's actually utterly refreshing to see a rare moment on screen of a family just enjoying each other's company and having fun.

Lumet draws incredible performances out of virtually every single actor in his film. In the key roles of the family, every cast member is spot on. Even little Jonas Abry, who appears in the smaller role of little brother Harry, is astonshingly convincing. His goofy horseplay with his father at times feels like a genuine home movie moment captured completely spotaneously. Watch his acting in the scene in which he places an exaggeratedly large, fake safety pin through his nose for proof of this kid's talent. Christine Lahti is superbly sensitive and warm as mother Annie while Judd Hirsch almost steals the film as the conflicted, hot-headed but good-natured father Arthur, in whom the radical spirit clearly still burns bright but is kept shielded by his own guilt and fear of capture. But almost inevitably it is River Phoenix who impresses the most in what surely would have been one of many, many Oscar nominated performances had he lived to further grace the screen with his uniquely captivating presence. As Danny, Phoenix perfectly captures the mixture of shyness and self-assurance inherent in a teenage boy of above average intelligence. Most actors of Phoenix's age would have overplayed this part like crazy, accentuating the emotions to the point of embarrassment. But Phoenix was never one to overact or narcissistically hog the screen and instead he spends much of the film hiding nervously beneath his fringe, as befits a boy who has been hiding from the world his entire life.

Two further performances cannot go unmentioned. I was unsure what to make of the news that 80s staple Martha Plimpton was in 'Running on Empty' as I've always found her a rather odd and occasionally over-forceful presence but here she excels herself. As the intelligent, quirky and bold Lorna, Plimpton totally convinces as Danny's kindred spirit and their romance develops with wonderful realism (it obviously helped that Plimpton and Phoenix were romantically attached in real life). In an interesting aside, it is this romantic subplot in which we find the only cliche in 'Running on Empty'. For a period during the 80s and 90s, it seemed every American teenage girl had a tree outside her window which allowed potential suitors to gain easy access to their rooms undetected by parents. Quite why parents continued to put their impressionable female offspring in rooms adjacent to these convenient natural ladders remains a mystery to this day. Needless to say, River Phoenix is able to take advantage of such a phenomenon in this film too. It's an endearing lapse into the familiar in a very unsusual script and, in a way, it is a charming inclusion, situating the film squarely in its era with a comforting concession to commercial expectation.

The other performance I wanted to highlight lasts for a matter of minutes but is one of the most moving in the entire film. It is the performance of Steven Hill as Donald Patterson. It's difficult to say more without spoiling the plot but you'll know the scene when it arrives. He's exquisite throughout his brief time on screen but watch what he does in the final few seconds of his scene. It completely knocked me out and was one of numerous occasions when I felt tears prickling at the bottom of my eyes. Lumet showed his skill at drawing remarkable performances out of what essentially amount to cameos with the treasurable performances he obtained from Beatrice Straight and Ned Beatty in 'Network' (1976). Steven Hill's work here ranks alongside those precious cinematic snippets.

By this point I feel I might be gushing but 'Running on Empty' is certainly a film that justifies it. Utterly engaging, uplifting, moving and constantly enjoyable, it's a movie that deserves wider recognition. Naomi Foner's towering screenplay was nominated for an Oscar and, despite some strong competition from 'Big' and 'Rain Man' (which won the award), I would certainly have picked it as my choice. I can enthusiastically recommend 'Running on Empty' to just about anyone, such is its broad appeal. As I stated at the beginning of this review, it's a wonderful film from whichever angle you come at it. So pick your angle and get stuck in!

Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Man

41. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Dir: Jack Arnold

The Sci-Fi boom of the 1950s is often looked back on with a smirk and a shrug. In the context of the huge, complex beast that Sci-Fi cinema has become, these early classics of the genre are generally considered a bit camp, their special effects dated and their chin-stroking dialogue laughable. But I love these films considerably more than the often dull, convoluted or self-consciously cool Sci-Fis of recent years. And I don't mean I love them in a patronising, ironic way either. These little B-Movies, usually no longer than 80 minutes in length, are crammed with so much invention, intelligence and excitement that only the laziest of viewers would write them off based on some out-of-era-context special effects and over-earnest acting.

'The Incredible Shrinking Man' is one of the finest examples of the genre while also epitomising everything that people so readily mock about these films. It has a sensationalist title, some over-dramatic acting, very dated special effects and an inherently silly concept. Ultimately, this is all part of its charm but it's important to not make the common mistake of thinking its charm solely stems from its limitations. Because 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' also boasts an intelligent, multi-layered script, thrilling action set-pieces and cheap but effective visual tricks which are a triumph of imagination over financial considerations.

In keeping with the 1950s fascination with things changing size, 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' tells the story of Scott Carey (Grant Williams), a businessman who gets caught in a mysterious mist and subsequently finds himself gradually shrinking. At first his change in size is almost unnoticable but soon he is the size of a child and getting smaller every day. Scott's public humiliation at becoming a famous national curiosity and the detrimental effect this has on his marriage are all issues that have to be put on hold when he accidentally falls into the basement, where he must survive against hunger, loneliness and a giant eight-legged menace that lurks in the shadows.

'The Incredible Shrinking Man' manages to explore its concept from many angles in the space of its 81 minutes. The first two fifths of the film are an emotionally involving drama, as Scott attempts to fight off, and then come to terms with, his affliction. Famed Sci-Fi author Richard Matheson (who wrote many of the best episodes of 'The Twilight Zone' (1959-1964)) has written an extraordinary script which combats the audience's undeniable urge to laugh at its concept by drawing out the genuinely nightmarish nature of Scott's predicament. Matheson portrays the shrinking process as a sort of emasculation as Scott loses the ability to relate to or provide for his wife, ultimately forced to sell his story to the media in order to make some money. During these early stages of the film, Matheson examines the situation in which he has placed his characters from several standpoints. The film starts out as a medical drama reminiscent of Nicholas Ray's 'Bigger Than Life' (1956) but quickly becomes a domestic drama as Scott deals with the implications his shrinking has on his marriage. Economic problems are considered and Matheson even squeezes in a red-herring romantic subplot which is aborted after only a couple of scenes when more pressing issues come to light.

While it's almost impossible not to snigger a little at the sight of a man growing smaller (especially in the awkwardly staged scenes in which he talks to his wife but, due to the primitive effects, the actors pretty much look past each other), 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' sure doesn't acknowledge its potential ridiculousness. Everything is played dead straight and the result is a genuine empathy for the terrifyingly unstoppable situation Scott finds himself in. But Matheson's cleverly structured script is only setting up our emotional connection with this man in order to raise the stakes for the film's phenomenally entertaining final three fifths. At about the half-hour mark, Scott (now only inches tall and living in a doll's house) is chased by his own cat (played by Orangey the cat, a feline actor who also starred in 1955's Sci-Fi landmark 'This Island Earth') and, in evading the monstrous moggy, accidentally falls into the basement of his house. This is no longer just the basement to Scott, however. It is now a vast and frightening world which he must navigate with extreme caution.

It is in this latter part of the film that 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' really takes off. Although the battle with the cat features the most conspicuously dated effects in the movie, it triggers the lengthy basement sequence in which the effects are disarmingly convincing if you surrender to the world the filmmakers have created. Accompanied by an ongoing voiceover monologue, Scott's adventures in the basement resemble a desert island castaway story as he uses the resources available to him to survive. From hereon in, 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' is virtually a one man film but the presence of director Jack Arnold is constantly apparent in the visual invention and thrilling pace. Scott tangles with mouse-traps that would previously have only given him a nasty nip but could now slice him in two. He must leap caverns that were formerly mere cracks and fight to the death against monsters that his old-self would likely have put paid to with a rolled up magazine. Arnold makes this diminutive universe come to life with the simplest of visual tricks. A gigantic, persistent raindrop, for instance, was brought to life by dropping water-filled condoms. The result is one of the film's most enduring images.

Jack Arnold was also responsible for the film's celebrated closing monologue, one of the most memorable and unexpected climaxes in Sci-Fi history. Without giving anything away, this final monologue pushes the film into the metaphysical and recasts the themes of Matheson's script in an even more intellectually-engaging light. It's an unforgettable denouement and it elevates further a film that has already achieved its own kind of greatness. As is the case with all the best 50s Sci-Fis, you go away from 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' with far more to think about than you would expect from a movie with such a title. It more than delivers on the action you would expect but Matheson and Arnold have admirably reached for something more and the result is a film with a dark tone and philosophical bent which may come as a surprise to viewers who would hastily write off this genre as camp, lightweight entertainment.

Friday, 8 April 2011

One to Avoid: Just Friends

Just Friends (2005)
Dir: Roger Kumble

Although most film buffs have their favourite and least favourite genres, I think it's very important never to write off any type of film in its entirety. Most people would agree but if there is one sub-genre many would make an exception for it would be the recent glut of hurried, recycled and completely shallow romantic comedies that generally promote and perpetuate a meat-headed, sexist, homophobic agenda while unsuccessfully ramming in fumbled attempts at emotional involvement at the last minute. Despite this damning assessment, I'm still unwilling to write off any genre completely and I've not seen enough of these films to begin sorting the wheat from the chaff, assuming the wheat is there at all. But to assume there is nothing worth discovering in this seemingly dark cinematic corner without occasionally watching films of this sub-genre would be snobbish and narrow-minded so every so often I let curiosity get the better of me. Sadly, I have yet to have my snooty preconceptions disproved.

My latest attempt to find a worthwhile film of this ilk has been perhaps my most disasterous foray into the sub-genre yet. Roger Kumble's 'Just Friends' is one of the nastiest, emptiest and most terribly acted and directed shambles I've ever had the misfortune to cringe through. Inexplicably, I've seen reviews from critics I respect who maintain that this stinker is a high watermark amongst its kind, citing great performances, impeccable comic timing and an intelligent script, none of which I saw any evidence of. But in truth I wasn't really looking for anything particularly intelligent, I was just hoping for a fun ride with some decent laughs and 'Just Friends' never pretended to be reaching for anything beyond that. Unfortunately, it never managed to reach anything resembling that either.

The story has promise. It begins with a flashback to 1995 (they have nostalgic flashbacks to 1995 now?! How old do I feel?) and the graduation party of best friends Chris Brander (Ryan Reynolds) and Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart). The overweight Chris has decided to take this opportunity to declare his true feelings for his best friend by way of a heartfelt yearbook message but a mix up sees his message fall into the wrong hands and his subsequent humiliation is sufficient to drive him away from the town for a decade. In this decade, Chris loses weight and becomes a successful record producer who uses his power and newly-acquired good looks to sleep with a succession of beautiful women. Ordered to take up-and-coming pop star Samantha James (Anna Faris) to Paris, Chris finds himself forced to make an emergency landing en route and he finds himself in his old hometown where he must face his humiliating teenage years and his still considerable feelings for Jamie.

There are numerous comedic possibilities here, as well as room for considerable emotional weight. What we get instead is a series of the most awkward, unfunny set-pieces I have come across anywhere, all acted out by characters who are either completely unlikable or else so inconsistent in their personality traits that it's impossible to put your finger on who they are supposed to be. Chief offender is star Ryan Reynolds. Like a hideous moulding of Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler but with any of the comedy potential squeezed out, Reynolds is a performer of no emotional depth who thinks eye-rolling and mugging equal superb comic timing. To be fair to Reynolds, the character he has to play is all over the place. Supposedly struggling with the battle between his formerly sweet nature and his current womanizing asshole persona, we actually glimpse none of the former in writing or performance. We're prodded to sympathise with Chris's renewed pursuit of Jamie but it's so completely devoid of any emotion and Reynolds is so hateful that all that is apparant is another in a long line of attempted conquests. The emotional reawakening and regression to teenage obsession are nowhere in sight.

Amy Smart's turn as Jamie Palamino is just completely bland. In common with many such films, the female love interest is underwritten and becomes merely a prop rather than a character. Smart is suitably flavourless but again, to be fair to her, it would be impossible to make this character interesting. The other main role goes to Anna Faris as the borderline insane pop princess Samantha James, whose obsession with Chris proves to be a major obstacle in his pursuit of Jamie. Many people maintain that Faris's over the top performance is the film's saving grace but really it amounts to little more than a lot of shouting and flailing around. At the very least, her character is a recognisable type (believe it or not, I've encountered self-obsessed psychotics who are even worse than Samantha James in real life) but once again the potential is scuppered by the writing, which doesn't seem quite sure how to use her and sidelines the character in a series of increasingly unfunny set-pieces with Chris's little brother Mike (a seriously awful Chris Marquette, in another wonkily written role).

I've said a lot about how dreadful the writing is but special mention must also go to Kumble's embarrassingly useless direction. Now, we're not expecting 'Citizen Kane' here. I'm not after interesting camera angles or deep-focus photography. All I want in a film like this is for the jokes to be well staged and the emotional element to be competently brought out. Guess what?! Kumble does neither. Instead, he seems determined to rush through the film at top speed, never pausing to let us appreciate (if that's the right word) one joke before ushering in three more over the top of it. The best example of this is probably the film's final punchline, which Kumble steps on more spectacularly than any in the film. This joke comes off the back of the most dreadful final romantic speech I've ever heard. You all know the set-up, a threatened relationship is saved by a soppily eloquent climactic declaration of love which sweeps all other doubts aside. Well, I can't really do justice to this one without reproducing it in its entirety. I'm sorry!

"Because I want to take you on a date. And I don't care if it's in the day, or at night, or whenever, as long as it's a real date. And I wanna tell you how beautiful I think you are. Inside and out. And I wanna have babies with you, and I wanna marry you, and I love you Jamie. I always have."

Now, this dialogue is bad enough on its own but without any emotional build-up it's disasterous. Reynolds and Smart are simply moved from scene to scene like pawns, enacting the requisite moments in the romantic comedy template at the times they are supposed to occur but with no logical progression at all. The moments when this groundwork should have been laid are instead eaten up by a superfluous subplot involving another former nerd turned stud, Dusty (Chris Klein), turning up and trying to woo Jamie away from Chris. It's wasted time in an already cluttered film and Klein struggles to bring anything new to the unsurprisingly duplicitous role we've seen a thousand times before.

A terrible movie is one thing but 'Just Friends' really pissed me off with the casual homophobia that seems to turn up in most of these films and perpetuates the "it's ok so long as it doesn't happen anywhere near me" attitude to homosexuality that is quietly as destructive as blunt bigotry. There's homophobic teasing between Chris and his little brother throughout but, in this respect, 'Just Friends' is on safe ground because the context is the childishness of sibling jibes and the target of the joke is clearly the idiots spouting the slurs. The film hits much shakier ground in a scene which follows a night Chris and Jamie spend sleeping in a bed together in which Chris fails to make a move. Jamie and a girlfriend discuss why this was. "Maybe he just wants to be friends", Jamie suggests. "Maybe he's gaaaay!" drawls her friend, at which point the scene ends, as if this possibility is an uproarious punchline. This gay-as-punchline phenomenon appears again and again. It was a particular staple of sitcom 'Friends' (1994-2004), where the mere mention of the word "gay" invariably lead to whoops of delight from the audience. However, 'Just Friends' takes it one step further into the outright hateful. There is a scene in which Chris decides Jamie must want a sensitive guy and so he resolves to take her to the cinema to see the film 'The Notebook' (2004). The film is roundly mocked (as if 'Just Friends' has earned the right to mock any other film) as being for "pussies" and Chris finds himself in the awkward position of a date with Jamie to which both his mother and Chris Klein's Dusty tag along. As the other three sit enraptured by the film, Chris hisses "This is so gay". At this point, the camera focuses on two men kissing in the row in front. Ryan Reynolds responds to this with a look that says "Get me out of this circus!" It's a horrible, horrible moment and as it unfolded before me I decided that, yes, this was one of the worst films I had ever seen.

Reviews like this one often get responses along these lines: "Dude, quit analysing! This is 'Just Friends', it's not supposed to be deep. Just enjoy it for what it is." While I agree that films like this are not trying to be anything deep and should be taken at face value, that doesn't mean they are beyond criticism. Even in the shallowest of genres there are good and bad films and 'Just Friends' drops the ball more severely than any romantic comedy I have ever seen. Adam 'Tex' Davis's abominable script was really beyond saving but someone seems to have picked the exact right director and cast to ruin it even more. I hated everything about this piece of shit. If you're looking for a praiseworthy film of this sub-genre, this is not the one. If you're looking for something to bore, confuse and infuriate you with its ineptitude and bigotry, rent 'Just Friends'