Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

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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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Only God Forgives

Director Nicolas Winding Refn Stars Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm Denmark/France 2013 Language English, Thai (with English subtitles) 1hr 30mins Colour

Hyper-stylised revenge movie

There’s been more fuss about the recent black & white movie micro-trend than it deserved, but it did make me think about how many films are in colour by default. Much of the time, it feels like the filmmakers haven’t given it a moment’s thought.

There are problems with Only God Forgives, but nobody could accuse Nicolas Refn of having ducked making decisions on the texture of his movie. The rich colours – often specific to each setting, the sound, the pacing, how much (or rather how little) dialogue you need (and when it needs to be audible and when it can be drowned out) – these are just some of the things he and his team have given a lot of attention to. The feel of the film is never less than terrific.

We’re in a neon-drenched Bangkok, where American brothers Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling) operate a kickboxing arena as well as running drugs. Something happens that brings their crew into conflict with implacable sword-wielding retired detective Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) and causes their hard-faced, bleach-blonde mum (Kristin Scott Thomas) to fly into town.

Scott Thomas has rightly received much praise for what she does in her few scenes here, even though the crime-family matriarch with a distinctly unhealthy interest in her sons (including, in this case, how well-hung they are in comparison with each other) is a standard trope in this kind of film.

This is, though, a director’s film rather than the actors’. Substantial chunks of the modest running time* are taken up with loving shots of corridors, revisited again and again. These, along with the score that often sounds somewhere between an ice shelf breaking up and a super-tanker being launched, remind me of Fear X, by far Refn’s most Lynchian film (the two movies share the same cinematographer, Larry Smith – Refn has used a number of DoP’s over his career). It suggests an air of mystery that nothing else in the film really carries through.

Like all Refn films, it doesn’t short-change on violence. Julian (the least vile member of the family) smashing a glass into a stranger’s face is just an appetiser – a hitman getting a pan of hot oil from a street food stall in the face more typical, stomachs getting split open vertically with a sword a trademark.

If that kind of stuff and a prolonged torture scene doesn’t bother you, then Only God Forgives is reasonably watchable. But it’s nowhere near Refn’s best film, nothing like as good as either Drive nor Pusher, nor as interesting as Bronson. Like that last film, it’s often fairly camp, in this case not in a particularly good way. And where I think I have previously described his other films as deceptively slight, I think this one is genuinely under-powered. A mild disappointment.

* An encouraging number of recent films, including The Bling Ring and A Field In England, have clocked in pleasingly at an hour and a half. Mind you, OGF is so slow and so slight of plot that any longer would be pushing it.

More on Refn here and more on Gosling here

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Stray observations having watched three-quarters of Road House

This isn’t a review, because I didn’t watch the whole film, and didn’t want to write one anyway. In case you don’t know, Road House is a 1989 movie starring the late Patrick Swayze as a freewheelin’ bar bouncer with martial-arts skills, a degree in philosophy and (of course) a past that haunts him.

1. Road House shares two (significant) cast members – Sam Elliot and Ben Gazzara – with The Big Lebowski. I’ve scratched my head over what else these films have in common, other than heroes who have spent time considering the meaning of life and who also get the crap beaten out of them at some point. Beyond that, probably not a lot – which brings me back to a recurring argument: actors, like a lot of other freelance workers, tend to gratefully take what they are given. The obnoxious successful ones, like Larry Olivier, try to use their kids’ fees for private schools as an excuse. ‘I blew it all on cheap women and diamond tie-pins’ is a more honourable reason in my book.

2. Road House is essentially a Western. Swayze’s character, Dalton (like Pele or Madonna, he goes by the one name), is the hired muscle brought in to keep peace in the local honky tonk (the Double Deuce), but who eventually feels compelled to clean up the whole stinking town. Someone even refers to him as the ‘new marshal’. Gazzara’s shady businessman is exactly like the evil big rancher who at the start thinks he can use our hero for his own ends but finds, to his disgust, that some people just can’t be bought. Gazzara’s presence in this film suggests otherwise.

3. Yet despite the fact that this is a loosely disguised Western, and that there is a lot of fighting and an explosion or two, and that the director is called Rowdy Herrington, there is something about Road House that makes feel firmly aimed at a female audience. It’s not just the way the camera stops to stare at Patrick’s carefully oiled pecs – plenty of movies for dudes do that kind of thing. It might be the way it doesn’t linger on the broken chairs and windows, which are magically fixed by the next day. But mostly it might be the casting of Swayze – he was between Dirty Dancing and Ghost. Make the same film with, say, chubby old Steven Seagal and the effect is very different.

4. Mind you, there was a strain of ‘80s action movies that seem female-skewed to me. The ones with the narcissistic central characters - do women prefer men who fancy themselves to those who only talk to their horses? I suppose there must be people who enjoy both Top Gun and The Wild Bunch, but I can’t get myself inside their heads.

5. So In a way, Road House makes me think of another bar-set movie – Coyote Ugly – that could sound like it was aimed a boys (it’s set in a dive staffed by models in PVC trousers! Who do sexy dances on the bar top! There’s lots of water getting sprayed around!) but was as oestrogen-powered a film as has ever been made.

6. Dalton comes to live in a reportedly unrentable farm outbuilding with no mod cons. What it actually looks like is an interior designer’s expensive fantasia on rural life.

7. Dalton is inclined dispense saying rich in ancient wisdom yet also stupid like ‘The pain don’t hurt’ and ‘Nobody ever wins a fight’.

8. I was surprised that this is from as late as 1989. From Dalton’s unstructured tan suit on down, it feels like it comes from three or four years earlier. But then maybe 1989 was when middle America experienced 1985.

9. You have to worry about the medium-term viability of a bar that appears to have 15 bouncers and one bartender.

10. I think the Double Deuce aspires to be like the place in Toby Keith’s awesome I Love This Bar (‘We got cowboys, we got truckers/Brokenhearted fools and suckers/ An’ we got hustlers, we got fighters/Early birds and all nighters’). It doesn’t come close.

11. At one point Dalton is reading a book (shirtless, I think, he’s usually shirtless when not at work). It’s by Jim Harrison, the who is actually just the kind of writer I reckon a thinking man of action would like. That’s a rare true note in this film.

12. I think a huge chunk of the set and props budget went on the climactic scene, which takes place in the trophy room of the mansion owned by Gazzara’s character. Someone gets flattened by a polar bear, and things get weirder from there. That, and a scene involving a rampaging monster truck, are the bits when Rowdy the director seems to be having fun.

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Frances Ha

Director Noah Baumbach Stars Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver USA 2012 Language English 1hr 36mins Black & white

 Shall we pity or praise the clumsy but sincere artist in hipster New York?

 Awkwardness, I guess, is what this film is about. Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote it with director Noah Baumbach, plays Frances, hanging (just) on to the last rung of the modern dance ladder, and involved in all-consuming friendship with Sophie (Mickey Sumner*). ‘We’re like the lesbian couple who don’t have sex any more,’ Frances says. Only, well, maybe Sophie, who has a decent job and a Wall Street boyfriend, might be about to move on.

This is a story of misadventures, driven partly by Frances’ frequent misreading of situations. That reaches its peak during a drawn-out dinner party in which Frances, who knows only one of the people there, interrupts, babbles and lies badly. It’s excruciating to watch.

Frances Ha falls into the category of ‘young women trying to get their act together in New York’ movies, which I seem to watch more than my fair share of. Its heroine, at 27, has reached that age when it’s increasingly unacceptable to still be trying to be something - either you are or you aren’t (yes, of course there are late bloomers, but the patience of friends and family, tapped up for cash or a bed to sleep on, runs low).

There is a sub-theme about New York and the arts here. Whereas NYC was, up to about 20 years ago, a place where one could arrive and have a go at being in a band, creating installations or writing short stories, now all that is only for the children of the wealthy. When her fortunes seem to be briefly on the up, Frances has the smallest room in a flatshare in Chinatown with two wealthy hipster dudes**, and she’s still meant to be paying $1,200 a month***.

At one point, Frances takes an ill-conceived trip to Paris. And that’s appropriate in a way because although the film covers classic US indie movie ground, and also ventures into Woody Allen territory (although only Sophie seems like an Allen character), it is also steeped in French films of the 1960s and ’70s. It’s shot in black and white, a slightly cheap-feeling b&w, which has nothing to do with Allen’s Manhattan and probably more to do with early Truffaut. There are certainly a couple of very nouvelle vague-like scenes of Frances running through city streets scenes.

I think Greta Gerwig is usually a good thing. I really liked Baumbach’s The Squid And The Whale, hated Margot At The Wedding and my feelings about Greenberg fell somewhere in between. This left me with mixed vibes too – I think it seriously overplays the ‘she’s a fuck-up but loveable’ card. Some of it rings true – for instance, there are moments in life when things are going badly when you can sense that others want you to lie, assure them that you aren’t flailing horribly. But Frances is also a character who is often blind to the effects of her actions on others, big and goofy but a user, and yet Gerwig and Baumbach seem to be requiring not just empathy with, but sympathy for, her.  I’m not sure it’s earned (by contrast, in The Squid And The Whale, Jesse Eisenberg’s character is unambiguously a dick, and that’s fine).

Perhaps more problematically, it’s only fleetingly funny. And that has to be a major failing in a film that in all other ways resembles a comedy. It’s short but seems long, and doesn’t quite justify its ending. There are better films in this particular pond.

*Yes, Sting and Trudi’s daughter! Disappointingly, I have to report she’s absolutely fine.

**They have a wall covered in shelving holding hundreds of vinyl LPs, as if they were my age, not theirs.

***I’m guessing someone has done a study of the insane real estate economics of US sitcoms, The Big Bang Theory being one of the most extreme cases.

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The Passenger

Director Michelangelo Antonioni Stars Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Jenny Runacre, Ian Hendry Italy/Spain/France 1975 Language English, French, Spanish, German 2hr 6mins Colour

Hypnotic pan-European anti-thriller

Many years ago I was reading One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest on a train.

‘Can you stop?’ the girl sitting across from me, a stranger, said.

‘Stop what?’ I asked.

‘Reading that. I can’t stand that man’s face. I can’t stand anything about him.’ That man was Jack Nicholson, still on the cover of the paperback a decade and a half after the film version had come out. So I put down the book, and we talked. Or rather she talked, telling me the fact that she was going to get married despite the fact her parents didn’t approve, despite the fact that she was a student, that she must have been even younger than I was and I can’t have been older than 20 then. She came from Wakefield and studied at Leeds Trinity

And that whole conversation was thanks to her strong (negative) reaction to Nicholson’s face. He’s a divisive actor, massively loved within Hollywood circles, and, I guess, by the sizeable critical contingent obsessed with American movies of the 1970s. He certainly had a great run for the first half of that decade in films like Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail and Chinatown. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, the source of the picture that so disturbed the young Yorkshirewoman, is where the rot set in, the start of his distillation to a grin, an eyebrow, an attitude.

The Passenger predates that. There’s little devilishness on offer in a film about a man, David Locke (Nicholson) who is clearly depressed. He’s an English (yes, but don’t worry – his unchanged accent is accounted for) journalist having a miserable time in an unnamed Saharan country*. The opportunity opens up for him to assume another identity, and he takes it. Following the itinerary of this other man, he heads back to London, then to Munich and finally to Spain.

It’s vital at this point to know that The Passenger was directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Antonioni’s films often contained elements that in other hands would be the stuff of thrillers. You could easily take the bare bones of the plot here and make a Bourne knock-off. But Antonioni, as I have suggested before, didn’t make films that way. He came up with films in which you can have a car chase, multiple identities, arms dealers, revolutionaries, hot girls, assassins - and it’s all devoid of conventional suspense and action. The Passenger is a mood piece, a character study of sorts, a morality tale along the lines of ‘you can keep running but you can’t escape yourself’.

It’s also a travelogue, a thing of sun-soaked glory in strong contrast to the murk (let’s call it Pakula-vision) of many thrillers made in the 1970s and also later ones set then, such as Spielberg’s Munich. It makes Europe look lovely, from London’s late modernist masterpiece the Brunswick Centre to the houses designed by Gaudi in the centre of Barcelona.

Gratuitous pic of the Brunswick, masterfully restored, in 2012

Nicholson plays a classic 1970s antihero, a solipsistic cock and coward who deals with his growing alienation from his life and work by doing a runner (‘I used to be someone else but I traded him in’). He nevertheless commands the loyalty of his estranged wife (Jenny Runacre), his producer (Ian Hendry) and the young woman (credited just as ‘Girl’) he picks up along the way (Maria Schneider).

It’s hard to pin down why I find The Passenger so much more enjoyable than Antonioni’s other films. I think it’s partly because there is much more going on, even if in the same oddly undramatic manner. There’s a bit of humour, for instance when the Spanish police in their little Seat try to chase Nicholson’s big convertible. Some of the beautiful places look more welcoming than they normally do Antonioni films. There are some incredible shots. It’s all oddly watchable, despite making little effort to please.

This is a film that you can find traces of elsewhere, most obviously in The American, which starred George Clooney and was directed by Anton Corbijn, which at times feels like an (unsuccessful) homage to this one. And Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits Of Control, a film I sometimes feel was hated by everyone but me, could almost be the story of one of the men sent to kill Locke (or rather the man whose identity he had borrowed).

I wonder whether the girl from Wakefield still feels as strongly about Jack.

*At least I didn’t notice anyone naming it. I’ve read someone suggesting it is Chad, but Mali would fit too.

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Après Mai (Something In The Air)

Director Olivier Assayas Stars Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand France 2012 Language French (with English subtitles), Italian, English 2hr 2 mins Colour

Engaging look at the aftermath of the 1960s

Before getting to what’s good about this film, one minor quibble that troubled both my friend Alice and me. That was the hair of the central character, Gilles (Clément Métayer, who looks like Gael García Bernal). The film starts in 1971, but Gilles has a cut and texture that suggests expensive 21st-century hairdressing, making him look not much a child of his time, more a member of a well-funded ’60s-influenced band of today. Furthermore, it never loses its bounce or shape, even when it’s been under a helmet, or Gilles has been sleeping on the floor of a barn, having sex on the floor of a barn, sleeping in the corridor of a train, hitch-hiking on the back of a flatbed truck…

'Do you think it's a wig?' Alice asked. By contrast, Gilles’ mates Alain (played by Felix Armand with lank, aspiring-to-be long locks, prematurely balding) and Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann, sporting a halo of ginger bubble curls), look the real deal. It's no surprise to find that it's pretty-boy Gilles whose character is clearly based on writer-director Olivier Assayas.

We begin with Gilles and his chums still at school, and with, as the French title suggests, the spirit of ‘68 still present*. Gilles initially seems to be a bit of a firebrand, selling anarchist newspapers, nipping into Paris to riot, getting into scrapes closer to home and taking the hard line at the messy meetings of student activists.

But Gilles isn’t a political obsessive - he’s a painter, of not very good Jackson Pollock-esque scrawls, which seem to impress girlfriend No1, troubled Beat-poetry fan Laure (Carole Combes), whose step-dad does visuals for Soft Machine, and No2, the more ideologically committed Christine (Lola Créton, who has a real-world, as opposed to movie world, beauty). Art for art’s sake, and certainly art as a way of getting laid, matter as much to him as the eternal struggle against the bourgeois state.

By following the emotional, political and artistic entanglements of Gilles, Christine, Alain, Jean-Pierre and Laure, the film takes in the breadth of the 1960s fallout, from rich American kids who have fried their brains on acid in India to grumpy Trots, droney art-rock bands to film-making collectives debating whether to let the workers film and edit their own story. Down the hippy trail, it reaches Kabul, Pompeii and the Portobello Road.

Critics have praised Assayas’ approach to the past as neither judgmental nor chokingly nostalgic. But he’s unambiguous on a couple of things: one, that many, though not all, of these kids were, like himself, children of privilege – turning in and dropping out to their mates’ parents’ huge country houses. Two, that the ideologues – who frequently (correctly) accuse Gilles of being a bourgeois individualist – are dicks, blithely dismissing reports of the horrors of Mao’s China, endlessly playing the  ‘more revolutionary than thou’ card, and unresponsive when their own reactionary dealings with women are challenged.

It’s a gently sprawling movie, but it doesn’t feel out-of-control or flabby. There are lots of telling details and moments, from the way the kids wear crash helmets to go rioting but never when riding their mopeds to the film collective sending someone to spy from across the street at the cinema where one of their turgid celebrations of the workers’ struggle has actually been given a commercial release, deludedly suspicious of the low returns the owner is reporting. Not to mention the loving recreation of the shooting of a film that, although a couple of tiny details have been changed, is blatantly The Land That Time Forgot (which starred the immortal Doug McClure).

As Alice observed, it’s a film with lengthy dialogue-light stretches, but that is also talky when it needs to be. It’s well served by a cast consisting largely of newcomers. And although the film recreates the debate between political vanguardists and the film avant-garde about the future of cinema, Assayas himself here opts for a conventional, beautifully made, massively enjoyable film.

 

*Mind you, if you believe series four of Spiral/Engrenages, France is still has plenty of would-be anarchist/far-left revolutionaries

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A Field In England

Director Ben Wheatley Stars Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Peter Fernandino, Ryan Pope, Richard Glover UK 2013 Language English 1hr 30 mins Black & white

 Strange things are a-foot on the margins of the English Civil War…

For a number of journalists and what we might call activist fans - the kind who not only write blogs but put on screenings of obscure movies in pub function rooms or bar cinemas like Roxy and organise their own mini-festivals – Ben Wheatley is the great white hope of British film. His first three pictures - Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers - went for unusual mixtures of genres, bringing together Mike Leighesque social comedy with horror and Brit gangster elements.

So far, I’ve been interested rather than convinced. I was ultimately bored by Down Terrace and enjoyed, but didn’t wholly love, Sightseers. Kill List has sat there on my DVR for months, failing to entice me.

A Field In England is a different proposition entirely. That’s not to say it feels unrelated to Wheatley’s other work, but it heads somewhere new. Or rather somewhere old: the English Civil War. But the most immediately significant change is the look. Down Terrace was (deliberately) as ugly a film as you will ever see, about ugly people living ugly lives in an ugly house. Sightseers visited some aesthetically pleasing places, but didn’t linger on them, always preferring to focus on the attendant grot.

A Field In England is deliriously beautiful, shot in luminous black and white, and full of shots of long grass rippling in the breeze, spider webs caught by the sun, and, not incidentally, an extraordinary belt of mushrooms.

Not that Wheatley has gone soft. Into this lovely spot comes grotesque humanity in the shape of four men who have allowed themselves to become detached from a battle and are heading, they believe, for a friendly ale house. Three are soldiers, the other, Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), is an alchemist’s assistant (I particularly liked Richard Glover as the seemingly slow-on-the-uptake Friend). Along the way they will consume the local fungi and encounter the sinister O’Neil (Micheal Smiley).

What follows is earthy, funny, weird, confusing, scary, oddly moving and, yes, unashamedly trippy. There are moments, most particularly an extraordinary montage quite late on, when it seems like Wheatley is determined to make the best film of 1967.

But it’s more than just a bit of repro psychedelia made for very little cash. It’s a film, that although fleetingly reminiscent of an awful lot* of other things, has a feel all of its own. It’s definitely a movie you need to let happen, rather trying too hard to decipher the plot or puzzle out the character’s back stories. Like the best atmospheric films, it builds – the initially inconsequential becomes mesmerising when repeated fifteen minutes later. I also love, at a time when Michael Gove is intent on reducing the teaching of history back into the Ladybird Book Of King And Queens Of England, that this is a period piece that is all mood and no facts. It’s meandering (but brief), fractured, oblique, scatological, daft. And in its own way, one that I realise might put off a lot of people, really quite excellent.

 

* Some of these are mine, some are from other people but seem reasonable: The Witchfinder General; The Good, The Bad And The Ugly; Aguirre, The Wrath Of God; Gus Van Sant’s Gerry… And late ‘60s rock videos, like Cream’s I Feel Free or The Pink Floyd’s Arnold Layne. Wheatley himself has talked about Culloden; Winstanley; and Blood On Satan’s Claw… To me, it called to mind two films I love: Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and Bad Company. But also Shakespeare, revenge tragedies, Waiting For Godot, Pinter (The Caretaker, in particular, for some reason)… 

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The Bling Ring

Director Sofia Coppola Stars Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Emma Watson USA/UK/France/Germany/Japan 2013 Language English 1hr 30 mins Colour

Desperate Hollywood wannabes immortalised by movie-world royalty! 

Here’s the question that was drifting through my mind: if the real kids who had helped themselves to the belongings of LA celebs hadn’t been so dim, so fame-hungry, how long could they have gotten away with it? Did they in fact queer the pitch for more professional burglars who had been quietly siphoning off stuff from Paris Hilton and chums for years? Or would this crime only have occurred to kids who shared a mentality with their heroes anyway?

So given this extraordinary story, what does Sofia Coppola do with it? She makes her initial point of focus Marc* (Israel Broussard), the new kid at a high school for students who have been booted out elsewhere. Marc is slightly pudgy, awkward, gay - but he is instantly adopted by the self-assured Rebecca (Katie Chang), who has realised that high-end cars and houses in LA are often (bizarrely, but it presumably must be true) left unalarmed and unlocked. Soon they drop into Paris’ house, where not only almost every bit of wall space but even the cushions bear the owner’s image.

What’s their motivation, according to the film? Because they can, partly. Because they feel entitled to the lifestyle they have absorbed from TV ‘reality’ shows like The Hills. Because Marc, like a character from a 1950s delinquents movie, just wants to hang out with the cool kids. Because Rebecca, in what is almost (almost) a political stance, wants to disappoint her Tiger mom, to not be another work-driven joyless Asian kid. Because Nicolette (Emma Watson), who seizes her chance in the spotlight after they have been arrested, has been brought up by a moronic New Agey mother clinging to the edge of showbiz (Lesley Mann, fairly funny).

There’s a lot that’s enjoyable about The Bling Ring: the material is terrific, obviously. The scenes of the kids celebrating in the same clubs where their victims hang out, preserving evidence of themselves with some of their takings on Facebook, are excellent. I like that a lot of the dialogue is just people saying, ‘Whoa!’ The soundtrack is great. A lot of the casting is spot-on, particularly Claire Julien, who plays Chloe, a blonde you can see will be hard-faced in about five years, and Gavin Rosssale (yeah, him) as a creepy British club dude. I’m not so sure about Emma Watson. You can clearly see the acting going on, and she seems to be comprehensively cribbing from Nicole Kidman in To Die For.

The balance of the film seems wrong - there are too many scenes of the… I was going to say break-ins, but they are more like walk-ins. I think there should have been fewer, with one much longer one, more immersive. One of the things I’ve liked most about Coppola’s other movies is their spaciness – this could have done with more of that. And the post-arrest part of the film should have started earlier, or there should have been more cutting between the two timeframes.

It’s easy to see what drew Sofia Coppola to the story, and in many ways it seems a good fit with her style. I think she brings a useful ambivalence to the story, a sense that what these kids did and why they did was ridiculous and idiotic and pathetic but also on its own terms understandable and fun and if, you squint hard enough, kind of awesome. Is it ironic or fitting than the premiere party was sponsored by Louis Vuitton?

Coppola’s best films (Lost In Translation, Marie-Antoinette) seemed slight, but lingered in my mind. I don’t think this one will. But it would make a good double-bill with Spring Breakers, or maybe a mini-festival with The Runaways, Less Than Zero and Foxes.

Final thought: the title is weak. I prefer the Vanity Fair headline (The Suspects Wore Louboutins) or, better yet, the film’s beseeching key line: ‘What did Lindsay say?’

* Although the movie is based on very well-publicised events, the names of the perps (not the victims, obviously) have been changed.

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The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Director Andrew Dominik Stars Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell USA/Canada/UK 2007 Language English 2 hr 40 mins Colour

Big, would-be classic Western

That Brad Pitt is a movie star, a proper movie star, is a given. He’s instantly identifiable, effortlessly famous, and a decent box-office draw, especially beyond the borders of the United States. And yet… There is something unusual about the nature of his stardom. For a start, after all this time, ask a large chunk of the audience about his defining moment and they will go for his two scenes in Thelma And Louise, right at the start of his career (or for some of us, not long after, it’s his bit part as the stoner roommate in True Romance). And in contrast to Tom Cruise, say, Pitt rarely does films where the rest of the cast are mostly there to make him look good. On the contrary, the period of Brad Pitt vehicles – Meet Joe Black, Seven Years In Tibet – was one of failure. Pitt has thrived in pairings (Se7en, Fight Club) and ensembles (the Ocean’s series, Inglorious Basterds). The current World War Z is a rare attempt at the Cruise thing, a late bid for a solo mega hit.

The Assassination Of Jesse James, one of the many films he has produced, is more typical of the mature Pitt. He plays one of the most famous Americans ever (a level of renown often discussed in the film) yet he is not the protagonist of the story.

That’s wheedly, weird, deluded, needy superfan Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), clearly written as a precursor to Mark David Chapman and John Hinkley Jr, or, in fictional terms, The King Of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin.

The celebrity status of outlaws in 19th century is one of the main themes of this story, as the ageing (at 34) Jesse struggles not just with pressure from the law, his paranoia, the contrast between his domestic stability and his disruptive working life, and his difficulties holding together the final, inferior version of the James Gang, but with the shadow of his own reputation, the version of his life that had already been spun into legend in dozens of books.

Of course, the fact that the myth of the West was forged at the same time as its brutal reality was still unfolding is a subject touched upon by many earlier Westerns, from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Cat Ballou to Buffalo Bill And The Indians.

The film is at its strongest when it deals with this idea most directly, in the wake of the killing, which becomes a massive media event.

But that’s not to say that Pitt doesn’t do a good job while he is on screen, with a mixture of charm, menace, brooding and capacity for sudden violence. His Jesse James is a man who almost certainly invites a death that he knows will round off his story far better than a long decline.

He’s well matched by a perfectly cast Affleck, Sam Rockwell as Charley Ford and the excellent Paul Schneider (Park And Recreation’s Mark Brendanwicz) as the gang’s literate member, Dick Liddil. Poor Mary-Louise Parker has almost nothing to do as Zee James.* 

It’s a long, slow, movie in which the big set piece action sequence happens early on. It’s carried by narration that sounds straight from the book – I’m mostly OK with that. But it does add a literary tilt to a film that is already pompous, a bit self-important and often, though not always, humourless.

But easily as important as the acting and the themes is the look. It’s one of those films in which every scene is aiming for a memorable image. You might say that surely all films should aspire to that, make every shot count, but the effect can be wearying, giving the narrative little chance to flow.

But it does look great, summoning up visual reminders of early photography, Terence Malick, Ansel Adams, The Searchers, Sergio Leone and Caravaggio. Several moments are almost entirely dark with tiny slithers of light. There is an extraordinary scene in which from the porch of a house we watch two men dressed in black approaching: it’s a perfect piece of composition. The film was shot by the great Roger Deakins, the British cinematographer whose hefty filmography includes most of the Coen brothers’ movies and The Shawshank Redemption.

There’s more to sink your teeth into here than with than Pitt’s subsequent movie with director Andrew Dominik, Killing Them Softly. The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is a film of massive ambition. It shares some of the ideas of the anti-Westerns of the 1970s - it reminds me in places of Bad Company, The Hired Hand and McCabe & Mrs Miller, but lacks their anarchic intent. Instead, it aims for classic status, which is often a path to stultifying tedium. I think it comes good in the end, but it’s a close thing.

* It’s one of those films in which characters are addressed often by the full names in a rather declamatory manner.

PS: My favourite thing inspired by this film is this – I guess it counts as an indirect spoiler, so you might not want to watch before you’ve seen the movie.

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