Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

Note: Have you seen the film? No? In which case,  my advice is don’t read this or any other review yet. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but to some extent, anything you read about this film is a spoiler. 


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Under The Skin

Director Jonathan Glazer Stars Scarlett Johansson UK 2013 Language English 1hr 48mins Colour

Genre-dissolving alien-in-Scotland drama

One of my recurrent thoughts about films is how easy it is to write a one or two-line summary that would make two utterly different movies sound similar. So it’s true that like the trashy 1995 sci-fi horror Species, Under The Skin is about an alien who picks up men with what appear to be unfortunate consequences for them. But that would get exactly nowhere towards the texture of a film in which shopping at Clare’s Accessories and moments that could have come from 2001: A Space Odyssey co-exist happily.

I’ve been rude about Scarlett Johansson’s acting in the past, but her strange (yet beautiful) and often impassive face is just the ticket here. The film plonks her unnamed, unexplained extra-terrestrial character right in the middle of real Scotland using hidden cameras – real streets, real shops… And real people, some of whom she approaches in her serial killer-style white van, asking (in a perfectly serviceable RP English accent) for directions and maybe something more. She seems to do better than most actual English people would at understanding the locals. 

Scotland here looks cold and untempting here – its urban spaces grotty, its rural ones spectacular but bleak and dangerous. It seems to have a surplus of disused properties the aliens (and their helpers?) have all mapped out. A terrific near-white noise score adds to the outsider’s-eye view of our strange world of relentless shopping and drinking.

Then there are the other bits, the bits that don’t happen in a grimly realist setting. I won’t describe them, only to say that they are a) effective but b) in some senses more what you would expect from a director like Jonathan Glazer who made his name with minimalist ads and pop promos. 

Little is explained, which is a good thing. A great thing, even. The film does change gear in the second half as the alien appears to drift away from her mission and grow interested in other things, raising questions like, would an alien find Tommy Cooper funny? 

Glazer, who made an electrifying start to his feature career with Sexy Beast and then seemed to go missing after Birth, has come up with something unique and strange and unsettling  and original – not necessarily in its individual elements, but its stunning combination of them. And thus hard to convey to anyone who hasn’t seen it.

And Scarlett Johansson, who has basically had a decade of truly lousy movies and brief appearances in Marvel blockbusters, finds redemption in a part in which much of her dialogue is asking the way to the M8 and that requires her to wear an unflattering black wig, the nastiest faux-fur jacket you’ve ever seen, spray-on mottle-effect jeans, a pair of the kind of ankle boots they used to sell in Miss Selfridge in 1984. That’s dedication for you. It’s all worth it.

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Los Ilusos (The Wishful Thinkers)

Director Jonás Trueba Stars Francesco Carril, Aura Garrido, Vito Sanz Spain 2013  Language Spanish (with English subtitles) 1hr 33mins Black & white

De ilusión también se vive*

Madrid. Wintery Madrid. Some people in their twenties are hanging out, playing party games, staying in bars after closing time, sleeping all day. One of them is León (Francesco Carril). He’s a filmmaker, having vague ideas about his next project. It’s probably going to have a suicide in it. Nobody seems that keen.

The plot is minimal to say the least. León loafs with his mates, stumbles to the end of one relationship, starts another. Spends time in a bookshop, spends time in a DVD rental place. A band sort of like The National or The Triffids plays in someone’s flat. And that’s about it. Meanwhile, the film keeps reminding you it’s a film: the director tells you what he’s doing with a shot, we see the clapperboards starting or ending a scene. An actress talks about what it is like making this film. The result is somewhere between the US microbudget indies critics call mumblecore and post-nouvelle vague European experimental cinema.

If that makes it sound annoying or hopelessly slight, it’s not. It’s smart, it’s got some very funny bits and it has good stuff to say about movies. Then again, it’s one of those pictures – like La Vida Util – where it probably helps if the people watching it are as obsessed with film as the people who made it.

It was shot in black and white on Super 16mm film, like many of great low budget movies of the ’80s and ‘90s, and made over seven months in the cast and crew’s spare time, with a fair bit of input from the cast, and I think you could probably figure most of that out even if you weren’t told. Often films made under those circumstances (say, Clerks) star the director’s non-actor mates. In this case, though, most of the leads are indeed professionals (and very good-looking ones at that).

A film like this relies a lot on charm, on not feeling you’re trapped watching some kid’s pretentious filmic doodles**. Los Ilusos carries it all off with style.

*Spanish proverb that roughly translates as ‘You can also live on dreams’. Some Spanish-as-a-second-language speakers seem to believe it’s hopeful, but every Spanish person ever heard use it – especially my mother – deployed it with corrosive sarcasm.

**For instance Bernardo Bertolucci’s early Prima Della Rivoluzione, which I walked out of after 20 minutes.

I saw Los Ilusos at the 2013 London Film Festival

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Rush

Director Ron Howard Stars Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde USA/Germany/UK 2013 Language English, German, French, Italian 2hr 3mins Colour

Boozy Brit vs Krazy Kraut

It’s hard to think of a director more American than Ron Howard, maker of big, well-crafted, redemptive tales. Of course, before that, as an actor Howard was the embodiment of the all-American kid as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show and Richie on Happy Days. So it comes as a minor surprise to find him making a film set in Formula 1 – a branch of motor sport wildly popular pretty much everywhere except the US – and about James Hunt, an Englishman, and Niki Lauda, an Austrian.

But Howard has also been consistently drawn to stories drawn from real life – Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man and Frost/Nixon. That last film brought him into partnership with British playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan, and it was Morgan who came up with the idea for this film and originally offered it to Paul Greengrass (another member of the based-on-a-true-story community).

And a script about the Hunt-Lauda rivalry makes sense in terms of Morgan’s fascination with duos: Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in The Deal, Blair and Liz Windsor in The Queen, the title characters in Frost/Nixon… and in his hands, The Damned United went from being about one man’s rage to the without-you-I’m-nothing love story of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor.

And so Rush is straightforwardly about the rivalry between two big contrasting characters set against the backdrop of what was then an extraordinarily dangerous profession*. Like many Grand Prix drivers, Hunt (played here by Chris Hemsworth) and Lauda (Daniel Brühl) came from affluent backgrounds, but that was where the similarity ended. Hunt was a party guy who arrived in F1 in the team owned by his mate Lord Hesketh, a champers-quaffing bunch attempting to bring the playboy spirit of the 1920s back to an increasingly corporate sport. Early-to-bed Lauda, according to the film, was a man who did his crucial work before the race by collaborating (in a rather authoritarian way) with his engineers to get his car running perfectly. Hunt was a charmer, Lauda a loner who didn’t care who liked him. It’s hate at first sight when they meet at a small-time race in Crystal Palace** in 1970 and the clash builds from then to the epic 1976 Formula 1 season, which provides the heart of the film.

Here’s the thing: by necessity, a substantial amount of the film takes place during races. And you check a lot of noise and close-ups of exhausts and axles. But I don’t think Howard has much of an interest in the machines or the sport. You’ll never get the feeling there is with John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix*** or Tony Scott’s Days Of Thunder that the director can’t wait to get away from the boring people talking and back to the vroom-vrooms (this film, by contrast, clearly believes, rightly, there’s more to life than cars). Despite what the quotes on the poster say, if you’re looking for heart-thumping thrills, I think you’ve come to the wrong place.

Which is fine, except for all that time is still taken up on the track. The race commentary is left to an awful lot of work, probably a bit too much – it’s a little too told for edge-of-the-seat action.

The paradox, as with a number of based-on-true-story movies, is that the notional ready-made audience already know the plot. Teenage girls coming to see it to sigh at Chris Hemsworth’s lovely hair – and there were a number when I saw the film – will mostly at least have the chance to be carried along by what is a dramatic story.

So with this essentially a character story, an I-can’t-stand-you-but-in-a-weird-way-you-complete-me fable (that being the core idea of much of Morgan’s work), both the script and the stars are left with some heavy lifting. And both leads do a decent job filling out characters who could otherwise just stand for Germanic efficiency versus bluff British amateurism (the spirit of World War I fighter aces hangs heavily over the whole thing). Aussie Hemsworth has occasional problems with the accent, but he does give Hunt a bit of depth, a touch of sadness amid the shagging, boozing, toking and snorting. My favourite scenes involve Hunt struggling – in one, without a job offer for the next season, he sits on the floor playing Scaletrix. In the other, Hunt is slumped on the far side of the room out of focus while the camera sits and watches the turntable as it plays Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers To Cross…

With more scenes like that, Rush could have been an excellent film. As it is, it’s more than decent – funny in places, period detail good but not overdone, and never lost in the details.

* BBC Radio 4’s excellent stats programme More Or Less concluded that although the numbers thrown around in this film are wrong, a driver competing in the late ’60s and the early ’70s had nearly a 50% chance of dying at the wheel during the course of a career. Just to reiterate, these weren’t - like, say, many boxers - poor kids with no other way out. On the contrary, a number of drivers were paying the teams, not being paid.

**Filmed, at least in part, in Crystal Palace Park. Sadly, easily the most exciting aspect of the film for me.

*** I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Grand Prix the whole way through… On paper, though, it’s an intriguing cast – James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Françoise Hardy, Toshiro Mifune!

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A not-quite manifesto

(NB: It may not be obvious, but words in bold – apart from the headline – are links)

This is the 100th post on Disappointing… Yet Brilliant, so maybe the time has come to provide some suitably unstructured clues as to what manner of beast this is.

1) DYB is written by one (white/male/middle-aged) former professional film journalist from South London. It consists of movie reviews and (not often enough) features. The better features include examinations of whether Woody Allen secretly hates Londoners, the role of social-housing tower blocks in British film and TV, whether the people who fancy Ryan Gosling and those who see his movies are two entirely different groups, and the joys of seeing weird films in suburban multiplexes. Also, there are my lists of favourite films from 2011 and 2012, plus a two-part look back at 1998.

2) The reviews have no star ratings, Baz heads*, percentages, grades or any other shortcut to you knowing whether I think the film is any cop or not. You’ll just have to read them, or at least skip to the last line. The reviews won’t tell you whether the films are family-friendly or not. Nor will they won’t tell you if the movies discussed are likely to offend Christians, Marxist-Leninists or people with ophidophobia. Equally, they lack any useful information telling you at exactly how many minutes and seconds you can see half a nipple, a decapitated head or an A3 Pacific-class locomotive.

3) This blog doesn’t specialise in any particular type of movie. The criteria are: have I seen it recently, and do I think I have anything to say about it. I hope that without forcing it I’ll write about a fair range of films, although I’ll concede that you’re more likely to find a review of a crime drama from the 1940s here than of a 1990s Japanese post-apocalyptic anime, for instance. Don’t like movies in black & white? Think there’s something quaint and unwatchable about anything made before, say, 1995? You could be in the wrong place. Happy with both Ginger Rogers and films that are really violent? Right place!

4) If there is one central, essentially neurotic, obsession that runs through all the writing on this site, it’s with the running times of films. Gets a mention in practically every review. I’m clearly not capable of concentrating for more than an hour and a half. Of course, I’ve translated that into an ideological stance that at least 80% of movies have no acceptable reason for being longer than 90 minutes.

5) I am baffled by the fact that Ewan McGregor still has a career in movies.

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6) I have nothing but contempt for actors who believe that stage work is superior to cinema. It’s just one of the many reasons for rating James Mason, who always wanted to be in pictures, over Laurence Olivier.

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7) My favourite Steven Seagal movie is Marked For Death. My favourite part of the Three Colours series is White. I’m fairly sure The Departed is the lousiest film Martin Scorsese has ever made. And the film I’ve hated most this decade, by a country mile, is Inception.

8) 3D sucks, dude. And if you’re talking about the CGI, the movie was rubbish.

9) As far as I’m concerned, the following tell you nothing about the quality of a movie: box-office performance, awards season success or whether a director has been given total artistic control.

10) Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream is the worst film ever made by a major director. And that’s a fact.

*Ask @dannytheleigh

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La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)

Director Paolo Sorrentino Stars Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli Italy 2013 Language Italian (with English subtitles) 2hrs 22mins Colour

Felliniesque whirl round Rome’s intellectual ‘elite’

'Is that the one with the parties?' someone asked.

Yes, this is very much the one with the parties. Sprawling, wild, frantic rooftop affairs packed with people – many of whom are well into middle age – doing the conga and this year’s equivalent to La Macarena. It’s also – not at the parties – the one with the giraffe and the flamingos.

Director Paolo Sorrentino, having established a big reputation with films like The Consequences Of Love and Il Divo, seems to have decided that now is the time to take on the heavyweights of Italian cinema: Federico Fellini and, to a lesser extent, Michelangelo Antonioni. The characters, Roman setting and the maximalist style are all firmly in the Fellini world. Our guide to it is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, even more central to Sorrentino’s work than Marcello Mastroianni was to Fellini’s), self-proclaimed king of the high life, author of one novel many years back, high-profile interviewer and resident of a flat overlooking the Colosseum.

Jep’s had a good time, a lot of good times. He’s still partying hard but aware he’s getting old. People keep dying around him. Real friends, as opposed to people he has bitchy exchanges with in fashionable places, are short on the ground. Everyone nags him about the fact that he hasn’t written another novel, including a 104-year-old nun on her way to sainthood.

It’s cavalcade of big characters and strange moments: the cardinal who speaks nothing but cooking tips, the strip club owner who can’t bring himself to retire his forty-something daughter, the performance artist whose act climaxes with her smashing her head against a brick wall, the aforementioned giraffe and visiting flamingos, the Botox clinic conducted (reception, waiting room and surgery all in one) in a Roman palazzo. All this Jep observes, part amused, part wistful, part mournful. At one point he asks one of his long-time fellow partygoers if they’ve ever slept together. She replies they haven’t. ‘Good,’ he says, ‘At least we’ve got something to look forward to’.

It’s beautiful when it isn’t (deliberately) grotesque, brilliantly filmed, well-acted, the dialogue sharply written (even if you’re not an Italian speaker, keep your ears open, because no translation can match the sonic impact of words like ‘stronzo’ and ‘sciocchezza’). But it is long. Incredibly long. It runs two and a half hours and felt like more because although it is packed with interesting things, it has almost no narrative drive.

Still, it’s absolutely worth seeing, and a film that gets people talking – I had dinner with friends the other night and we kept coming back to it, enough one of the people there hadn’t seen the film*. We all agreed on the power of the image making, and about how it captured the overwhelming beauty of Rome, and that it was funny and fascinating, but couldn’t agree on whether it was sympathetic to the main character, and what, if anything, it was trying to say about the state of Italy at what is hopefully the end of the Berlusconi era (Silvio’s media empire is, somewhat inevitably, one of the entities behind the film). Unless maybe that all it needs to say is that everything that was wrong when Fellini made La Dolce Vita is still wrong now.

*Sorry, Neil.

My review of Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo is here 

 

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Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Director David Lowery Stars Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine USA 2013 Language English 1hr 36 mins Colour

Bleak but lovely account of the aftermath of small-town crime

Rural Texas, round about the end of the 1960s, start of the ’70s. But it could so easily be the 1930s, and without changing that much, the 1870s. This is a Western, right down to a bad guy in an actual black cowboy hat.

It’s also a slow, wistful, deliberately vague movie that – as everyone who has written about it has surely pointed out – belongs firmly to the early Terence Malick school of grasses swaying in the breeze and the haltingly poetic utterings of folks short on formal education but long on sensitivity.

In this case Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara), whose words often come in the words of letters after a stick-up has gone wrong and they lose a shootout with the cops. We never see the crime; we do see a bit of the shootout, but it’s not drawn out. This is a film about violent criminals, but not a violent film. And it’s a movie that opts out of high drama, either not showing, playing down or presenting very brief accounts of potential set pieces.

It’s also a film for those people driven to distraction when characters in fiction explain stuff to each other they both clearly know for the benefit of the audience. There’s little of that here, and plenty we’re left clueless about (and what is said is often whispered or mumbled).

Rooney Mara, probably best known for the in-many-ways thankless title role in the American version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, is excellent as Ruth, the effectively single mom everyone on both sides of the law has conspired to absolve of her role in the gang – she’s warm and guarded at the same time. Ben Foster, who it feels not that long ago was a pleasant lightweight lead in teen movies, is good as the cop in love with her. And Casey Affleck is Casey Affleck, with that weird high voice of his and damaged boyishness, so different from his brother. For someone from a family so chest-beatingly Bostonian, he’s making a good living playing Southerners.

It looks glorious, as you’d expect, with lovely magic-hour moments, the dust rising behind cars as they speed down dirt tracks between the fields. But the director, David Lowery, doesn’t overplay that – you never feel trapped in a postcard watching this.

If I have a quibble, it’s probably a fairly personal one: just occasionally we get a hint of something on the radio - a bit of country, or soul in the bar owned by Bob’s mate Sweetie (Nate Parker). All too soon, though, this is drowned out by the non-specifically ominous atonal strings on the score. That’s a shame, I feel, considering how much great black and white (and both) music being made in the south around then was. Maybe they couldn’t afford it.

But that’s a small thing. Nicely cast, slow, quiet, sad and beautiful, this is a terrific movie.

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The Naked Kiss

Director Samuel Fuller Stars Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante USA 1964 Language English 1hr 30 Black & white

Fascinating semi-noir from big-in-France tough guy Samuel Fuller

A woman, let’s presume she’s a hooker, is clobbering a man. Each time she belts him with her shoe, it comes right at the camera. That’s the first thing we see. There’s jazz blaring. It’s an electrifying start. Then her wig comes off and you can see she’s got a shaved head… She’s beaten the crap out of that guy and the opening credits are running as she puts the wig back on. How, I’m wondering, is the film going to sustain that pace?

It doesn’t. That scene isn’t a red herring in terms of the story, but it is in style and speed of action. Next time we see Kelly (Constance Towers) it’s two years later, she’s stepping off the Greyhound in sedate Grantville, and she’s got a full head of real hair. She’s ostensibly selling a champagne improbably named Angel Foam, but the local police captain, Griff (Anthony Eisley), knows the score and tells her she’s not welcome in his town – while recommending a place just across the river where she can ply her wares.

But Kelly doesn’t take him up on the tip. She decides that gently paced Grantville is exactly what she needs, and gets a job at the hospital working with children with orthopaedic problems.

Of course, her past will catch up with her, but the film takes its time getting there. Director Samuel Fuller seems to want us to consider whether a person can change their ways, and whether a tight-knit community will stand by that person in a crisis. And, of course, what kind of secrets are festering in a place that thinks it can keep its vice safely just outside the town limits.

Neither the acting nor the characterisation are very subtle. It’s a film that lurches between exploitation thrills (that beginning, Kelly’s visit to Candy’s across the river, where the girls – the Bonbons – offer ‘indescribable pleasures’) and extended weepy scenes of Kelly and the brave little kids at the hospital*. You also get many more mentions of Goethe than the unversed might expect in something so pulpy, but actually that in this kind of thing is not unusual.

Eventually, it all comes together nicely, and everything we’ve seen turns out to have been there for a reason. Underneath it all, this is a well-crafted film, and the more sombre second half is what takes the film from trashily entertaining to something even better than that.

Samuel Fuller, who wrote and produced as well as directing, is an amazing figure, quite apart from being a link between B-movies and modern independent film. By the time he started directing in the late ‘40s, he’d been an intrepid reporter, pulp novelist, screenwriter, soldier… He always wrote his own material. For a while in the ’50s he worked with reasonably big stars, but by the ’60s was dealing with tiny budgets and a reputation for making lurid pictures – this and its predecessor, Shock Corridor, weren’t shown in the UK until the 1990s. French intellectuals, inevitably, adored him – he was endlessly celebrated in Cahiers du Cinema and makes a (I’m going to say famous, trusting you’ll take that as ‘famous in certain circles’) famous cameo appearance in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou wearing shades at a party, smoking a cigar, and declaring, ‘A film is like a battleground’.

The Naked Kiss, philosophically and in terms of its pacing, might not be the most typical Fuller picture, but the fact that orthopaedics is plays a significant role in this film may well be a nod to those French admirers – when one of them noted the importance of feet in Fuller’s work, the director sent him an autographed artificial leg with a thank you letter…

* One character notes the hospital is against discrimination, and the film matches it - when it comes to the tear-inducing moments, the cute black kids are, if anything, to the fore.

I saw The Naked Kiss on the big screen as part of the month-long Scalarama.

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What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?

Director Paul Kelly Stars Noah Kelly UK 2005 Language English 50 mins Colour

Poignant meander through London’s now lost Wild East

On the big map on my kitchen wall, dated 2001, there’s a huge white scar that runs up the middle of East London. Today, it’s the site of the Olympic park, awkwardly waiting, after its unexpectedly successful summer of 2012, to see how its long-term future will shape up. Although politicians never lose faith in them, big sporting events and new stadiums are notoriously bad at seeding regeneration.

What was there before is the subject of this lovely film, set on 7 July, 2005. It’s essentially a poetically inclined documentary with a lightly fictional central conceit, made by the band Saint Etienne with their long-term collaborator, director Paul Kelly.

We explore the Lea Valley with paperboy Mervyn Day (Noah Kelly). Eight years ago, it was a sometimes bleak but fascinating place, part-thriving wilderness, part-industrial ruin, the river choking with wrecked cars. The film takes in an abandoned cricket ground, a multi-storey stable and various of the key sites of London’s industrial past (the Matchbox car factory!), which lasted well into the post-war era.

The story element is little more than sketched in, with the silent Mervyn bicycling encountering a few people in what looks like a largely deserted area, including a boatman played by Andy Hackett, of Saint Etienne’s wonderful one-time labelmates The Rockingbirds.

As well as Saint Etienne’s fairly unobtrusive music, the soundtrack has three spoken elements: occasionally clunky scripted narration from Mervyn’s granddad (David Essex, no less) and mum (Linda Robson); the voices of locals talking about the area (all terrific); and the Radio 4 news from that day in July. The early bulletins were dominated by the reaction to the successful Olympic bid that would transform the Lea Valley, but by mid morning reports were filtering in of an incident, and then two incidents, on the London Underground. Kelly handles this well, the radio and a few lines of dialogue acknowledging what had happened… but this story isn’t that story.

Looking at it now, it seems amazing that there was a large area of London quite so strange. Despite the long economic slump, the capital itself has been busily sprouting large, often obnoxiously shiny, new buildings (often including, it always seems to me, a Jamie Oliver restaurant). Chances are, the Lea Valley would have changed whether the Olympics had happened or not. Plans for what became Westfield Stratford were already being discussed in the late ’90s*.

It’s not all luxury apartments yet – down near Trinity Buoy Wharf, where the film ends, summer 2013

With London slowly tilting east again since the days of Michael Hestletine, the Lea Valley’s time would have come. By most accounts, the wide range of esoteric small businesses in the area were being joined by artists and artisans using some of the amazing old industrial spaces when the Olympic project sharply accelerated the pace of change. Most of what we see in the film is desolate, but one of the frequently observed effects of announcing a major regeneration scheme is that you kill off any businesses that are surviving and even thriving in the area, something that becomes a (false) retrospective excuse for radical intervention.

I don’t know how much of what you can see in the film is still there (apart from the Bryant and May Factory, site of the crucial 1888 matchgirls strike, which in 1988 became one of the earliest bits of East London to be turned into a gated, pricey, residential development).

Without the Olympics it might have been possible to work using more what was already there along the Lea, creating something between Ouseburn in Newcastle, a similarly important bit of industrial archeology in an extraordinary landscape that is being given a gentle makeover driven by the arts, and the combination of shiny and salvaged old in the new King’s Cross.

Ouseburn, 2011

Anyway, that’s all speculation now, but what we have is this terrific account of what was there before Danny Boyle, Anish Kapoor, Mo Farrah, Usain Bolt and all the rest…

* See pg6 of this document.

What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day is included in the BFI DVD A London Trilogy: The Films Of Saint Etienne

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Ruthless

Director Edgar G Ulmer Stars Zachary Scott, Louis Hayward, Diana Lynn USA 1948 Language English 1hr 45 Black & white

Classic American saga with a leftist edge

I’ve read and seen a lot about the horrible saga of Hollywood’s encounters with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Most of it focuses on the drama of the hearings themselves or else the aftermath - the films by banned writers using friends’ or acquaintances’ names, the work in exile of filmmakers like Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin, and the eventual breaking of the blacklist in 1960 when two industry power players, Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas, both revealed that Dalton Trumbo, off the radar for over a decade, had written movie scripts (Exodus and Spartacus) for them. And of course, the controversy that never left those who had named names, leading to several Academy members not applauding when Elia Kazan was given a lifetime achievement Oscar - and that was 1999, half a century on.

But what about the films they made before the crackdown? Was there anything about them that could have really scared anyone who hadn’t already scared themselves? What got me thinking about this was watching Ruthless, which was released in 1948, as the anti-Communist hysteria was starting to bite. I thought, ‘I bet some of the people involved with this got into trouble.’

I was right. The early work on the script was done by Alvah Bessie, one of the Hollywood Ten who went to prison for their noncooperation. His credit for the film was only restored in 1999. Ironically, Gordon Kahn and SK Lauren, thought in 1947 to be less dangerous than Bessie and whose names did appear on the film, also ended up getting blacklisted.*

Together, along with Edgar G Ulmer – one of the greatest B-movie directors – they came up with the story of a man whose rise to the top comes at the expense of everyone he encounters along the way, told using flashbacks and a framing device. Because of that it’s been referred as a ‘low-rent Citizen Kane’.

It starts with a couple on the way to a party. He’s Vic (Louis Hayward), she’s his younger girlfriend Mallory (Diana Lynn) and they are heading for the home of his oldest friend, Horace Woodruff Vendig (Zachary Scott). The occasion: multimillionaire Vendig is donating his home and much of his fortune to a foundation for world peace – at the end of the night he plans to slip away on his boat. But before he goes, he is having this massive bash to which he has invited both global leaders and some key figures from his past, including enemies – his encounters with them triggering the extended flashbacks.

He starts off as the son of a broken home – his father (Raymond Burr! I didn’t recognise him) runs a dive by the docks, his brittle, proud mother scrapes a living as a music teacher. He has two better-off friends: Vic and, crucially, Martha. Because during Vendig’s rapid rise through American society and business, he will use women as his way in at every stage.

Like a lot of seducers in films of this period, Vendig reads now as slightly effeminate, but I guess that was the point (which is to say the fear), in those days – never trust a man who can talk to women.

Ruthless’ ideological clarity might be the cause of its weakness as a drama. Vendig is unambiguously the villain of the piece, rather than its antihero. There’s no sense that any of the writers fell in love with him, had the overwhelming experience in front of the keyboard that meant that Oliver Stone-the-writer created charismatic heroes out of Tony Montana and Gordon Gekko, figures who Oliver Stone-the-political-man would have disapproved of if they had been dreamt up by anyone else. Vendig is not an idealist-gone-wrong like Willie Stark in All The King’s Men or an amoral man who tried to do the right thing like the title character in The Great McGinty, not a man driven by the fury to create art like Jonathan Shields in The Bad And The Beautiful, not a truly complex figure like Charles Foster Kane, or even a witty and charming outsider with a grudge like Louis in Kind Hearts And Coronets.

In line with ideas that are currently fashionable, there is a suggestion that Vendig is a psychopath. Here is the discussion during which he dismisses the only woman he might have had feelings for from his life:

He: ‘Now you hate me.’

She: ‘When you can’t help yourself? No, I can’t hate you for that. Any more than if you were terribly ill. Perhaps you are.’

The film takes a properly Marxist view that the social mobility of any given individual is nothing to celebrate. Equally, Vendig’s rise is not stifled along the way by those further up the conventional social ladder. From Harvard classmates to fearsome aunts and banking tycoons, they all welcome him in. In Marxist terms, capitalism’s insatiable hunger for talent trumps an individual’s instinct to be a snob.

There is, by the standards of the time, a lot of financial jargon in the film, lots of stuff about share prices, controlling stakes in corporations and complicated trades of chunks of equity for other chunks of equity. What there isn’t, however, is any real suggestion of an alternative, either with hints that other countries may do things differently or any depiction of the workers or consumers who suffer from Wall Street operators’ refusal to factor in the human cost of their schemes. The on-screen victims of Vendig are all people who had more money and power than he did when they met. That tempers the notion that this is purely a propaganda film.

The weirdest and best section of the film comes when Vendig encounters Southern utilities mogul Buck Mansfield (Sydney Greenstreet) and his needy trophy wife Christa (Lucille Bremer). For once, he seems out of his depth and out of his comfort zone – in the steamy, stifling South, different rules apply.

The dialogue is terrific (‘Bourbon - the name given to kings and whiskey… the kings have gone but the whiskey remains’). Greenstreet is also let loose on a couple of well-chosen passages from the Bible.

The ending is an abrupt reminder that this is a B-movie, something that isn’t obvious much of the rest of the time (there are some big sets) except in terms of the shortage of star names (Greenstreet apart) in the cast.

It’s not a great film - the plotting is a bit uneven and Vendig himself isn’t interesting enough. But it is hugely enjoyable as well as historically fascinating. It was never likely to contribute to the fall of American capital - the country’s guardians should have had more faith.

*What HUAC did was both contrary to the spirit of a free society and the US constitution. What Elia Kazan and Edward Dmytryk did (and over here, George Orwell – in his case, under no compulsion) by naming names was cowardly and vindictive and in no way should be considered whistle-blowing. But some of the victims were people who were still following the Moscow line long into Stalin’s murderous rule, and who therefore sacrifice a lot of sympathy.

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Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

Director Declan Lowney Stars Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney, Felicity Montagu UK 2013 Language English 1hr 30 Colour

Big-screen outing for Steve Coogan’s finest creation/albatross (d/a/a)

Alan Partridge didn’t wholly pass me by, but I was never a fan. He was far better, though, than Coogan’s other (for me completely unwatchable) TV comedy characters, such as Paul and Pauline Calf and Tony Ferrino.

I’ve only really enjoyed Coogan’s performances when steered by talented film directors*: in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee & Cigarettes and his work with Michael Winterbottom, which peaked with The Trip. His Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People and his various ‘Steve Coogan’s all have something in common with Partridge – Wilson’s bluster and willingness to make a fool of himself, the brittle vanity and competitiveness of Coogan as Coogan in C&C, A Cock & Bull Story and The Trip. But these all seem more complex, more interesting roles. Many of Partridge’s characteristics, from the horrible bared teeth to the vocal mannerisms, are fairly authentic, but represent an era of British light entertainment for which I have neither nostalgia nor any urge to laugh at in 2013.

So I had reasonably limited expectations of Alpha Papa. And on that level I was pleasantly surprised. Armando Iannucci has said that what they were after was an event of high drama that could plausibly take place within Partridge’s world, rather than using the movie as excuse to go bigger. So they have opted for the radio station hostage crisis. It’s a well-worn plot, but it fits the criteria perfectly, bringing the world to Alan rather than Alan to the world.

The film starts with North Norfolk Digital being taken over by ambitious new owners, who rename it Shape (that’s all too believable) and who sack (just for starters, I presume) one of the veteran DJs. He turns up uninvited with a shotgun during the relaunch party, and the siege begins.

This is, of course, a moment both of terror and hope for Alan, as in his role as intermediary between the cops and the hostage-taker, he gets a moment back in the limelight of the national media, as does his trusty assistant Lynn (Felicity Montagu), and it’s this that gives him assorted moral tests (it’s weirdly old-fashioned like that). The standoff takes up almost the rest of this tidy 90-minute film, directed as unobtrusively as possible by TV veteran Declan Lowney.

This Partridge is a sadder, wiser man than the one who first appeared on the radio and then on our screens back in the 1990s. Yes, he’s still an idiot, vain, deluded, crass and sometimes cruel, yes of course (this is a big-screen version of a TV comedy) he will contrive to lose his trousers in one scene. He will say, ‘You can keep Jesus – as far as I’m concerned, Neil Diamond will always be king of the Jews.’ But both the character’s own story – hitting rock bottom in Norfolk – and Coogan’s growth as an actor have made him more nuanced, less cartoonish. This Partridge is seasoned old pro who revels in broadcasting under the extreme circumstances. If you played a game of ‘who’s the bigger tosser?’ comparing Partridge to a number of similar (but highly paid) real-life broadcasters, he would come as less objectionable than many.

None of this would count for much if the film wasn’t funny, but it delivers reasonably consistent and well-earned laughs. It’s not as funny, mind, as the superfans sitting behind us at the Curzon Soho found it, but then they were combusting with impatience during the trailers and sang along to the Sparks song over the closing credits. For a film based on a TV comedy, this is probably better than anyone could reasonably expect.

* Part of Coogan probably wishes there were more people like me. In the final episode of The Trip, Coogan and Brydon are imagining what Steve would say at Rob’s funeral. Rob introduces him as best known as Alan Partridge, to which Coogan tetchily adds also for ‘art-house films well reviewed by the broadsheets’.

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