Monday, 11 July 2016

Now You See Me

Now You See Me (2013)

Starring Jesse Eisenberg and Mark Ruffalo (and a host of others)
Directed by Louis Leterrier


"Come in close... closer... because the more you think you see, the easier it will be to fool you."  Thus says professional illusionist J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), by way of introduction to "Now You See Me".  It turns out to be something of a double - or triple - sided dare to the audience, but therein lies the nub of this whole picture.  It's a flashy, fast-paced, magician-based, action-comedy, heist thriller; in other words, its recipe contains ingredients from many different sources.  It fits into and can appeal to fans of many genres, although it may confound certain expectations precisely because of that diversity.  From the outset it declares its intent to deploy misdirection, action, comedy and - yes - magic, albeit of the cinematic kind, to keep the viewer from guessing the unlikeliest of twists, and defies them to keep up if they can or care to.  Like a spectacular trick, in other words.  Despite mixed reviews, it was a modest-to-respectable hit on its release in 2013 ($350m worldwide gross from a $75m budget), and a sequel arrived recently, so it seems appropriate to revisit it to see if the original magic still dazzles, or just fizzles.

It's directed by Louis Leterrier, chief alumnus of the school of what could reasonably be called the "Luc-Besson-produced-trashy-Euro-action" genre (which seems relentlessly to throw up guilty pleasure after guilty pleasure). Besson, of course, is the eccentric Gallic genius who came to prominence with "Le Grand Bleu" and "Nikita" before making the move to Hollywood and turning out "Leon" and the brilliantly bonkers "The Fifth Element" amongst other films.  Leterrier made his name with the majestic Jason Statham vehicle "The Transporter" and the first of the "Taken" movies, responsible for Liam Neeson's unlikely reinvention as an action star, before helming "The Incredible Hulk" in 2009, one of the early - and criminally overlooked - entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  So it should have been clear to anyone paying attention that "Now You See Me" wouldn't be a slow-burning, brooding, psychological magic movie in the vein of late 2000s offerings "The Prestige" , or "The Illusionist".  It would be something with frenetic pace, fun, and spectacle.  If those films would be Marc Salem or Derren Brown getting into your head, this would be David Copperfield or Penn and Teller dropping your jaw.  But it just could be unexpectedly subtle too, beneath the bombast.

A prologue introduces us to four characters, in various locations, all carrying out different forms of magic tricks.  In Chicago, the aforementioned Atlas looks to be a street hustler, but the punchline to his trick involves the spectacular co-operation of a skyscraper.  Down in New Orleans, Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is definitely a hustler, using his powers of "mentalism" and improbably effective hypnosis techniques to shake down unsuspecting marks.  Young New Yorker Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is shown to be a low-rate spoon-bending Uri Geller but a top rate pickpocket.  Finally, in LA, Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) performs an amazing,  piranha infested version of the famous disappearance / reappearance act (think The Wet Transported Woman).  They are all stalked by a mysterious hooded figure, and are all drawn to a derelict NYC appartment... A year on, they're seen performing together as "The Four Horsemen", carrying out an impressive,  glitzy act in Las Vegas, in which they somehow rob a bank in Paris,  and scatter the stolen banknotes down on their incredulous but adoring fans... FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is tasked with working out what they did, and how they did it.  He's reluctantly saddled with French Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) to assist him on the case, but is taunted along the way by magician-turned-debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) who claims to know how every elaborate stunt is engineered, and constantly reminds him how he - Rhodes,  that is, is several steps behind the perpetrators.  The Horsemen are under the patronage of insurance magnate Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), and are seemingly untouchable.  If they have committed a crime, they point out, wouldn't the FBI be admitting that magic is real? There's no proof of their guilt.

Essentially, then, that's the neat high-concept pitch.  Magicians rob banks and give the money away - Robin Hood style.  Catch them if you can.  The movie hustles briskly along between a series of bombastic set-pieces.  The initial Las Vegas-to-Paris bank robbery scene is fantastic, all the more so because Bradley later demonstrates exactly how it was carried out.  A second featured stage show by the now fugitive Horsemen provides a neat twist which alters the loyalties of several major characters, and their subsequent flight from pursuit leads to an exciting chase scene in which it becomes apparent why Leterrier was chosen to direct.  This is further evinced later by a quickfire hand-to-hand combat sequence and a breathtaking extended car chase, both of which rival anything in the director's previous offerings.  As one would demand from such a director, the "action" is delivered with dizzying velocity.  During the magic act set pieces the camera swoops energetically over the stage, constantly moving, in a way which makes the viewer think they couldn't spot the secret to the trick even if they tried, so we are swept up in the jaw-dropping payoffs.  The climactic showdown between the law and the law-breakers is a headspinning, disorientating feast of light and sound, appropriate to an illusionists' show meant to overwhelm.

In the face of this hokum, the ensemble cast is hugely impressive.  Daniel Atlas somehow becomes the de-facto leader of the pack, although it's never really expressed exactly how or why, but Eisenberg's charm is magnetic, so his arrogance is easy to take on board.  Harrelson's McKinney spends much of the time needling the others, threatening to use his "powers of the mind", giving rise to much of the snappy dialogue that ensures proceedings are so enjoyable, and his jousting with Eisenberg is often hilarious. Morgan Freeman turns in one of his best performances in a while; of course he's doing his customary expositional role, but with a great smugness and glint in the eye, because - remember - he's a step ahead all the way through. Mark Ruffalo plays the constantly-frustrated FBI man almost too well, whilst Mélanie Laurent gives more than as good as she gets as the investigator who knows more about the background to the case than expected, and refuses - sometimes fierily - to be sidelined.  It wouldn't be expected that a picture like this would deliver deep character development, but the other two members of the gang are given fairly short-shrift in those terms; not that that would necessarily have been the prime concern of any viewer.  Franco's Wilder is patronisingly dismissed as the "little boy" of the troupe, whilst Fishers's Reeves is depicted as little more than Altas' glamourous former assistant - despite her evident performing skill.

The script by Boaz Yakin, Ed Solomon and newcomer Edward Ricourt is peppered with snappy and highly entertaining dialogue.  It's as amusing as you might expect from Solomon, who co-wrote the "Bill and Ted" films, and it's as twisty-turny as you would expect from Yakin, whose directorial debut was the brilliant "Fresh" back in 1994.  Ricourt's subsequent work on the "Jessica Jones" series is also somewhat in evidence.  Rising star of the scoring world, Brian Tyler ("Iron Man 3", umpteen "Fast and Furious" movies) delivers a bombastic suite of music with a bold, memorable theme, which has an oddly 70s feel to it.  And as mentioned, the visual work by dual DPs Mitchell Amundsen ("Transformers", "Wanted") and Larry Fong ("300", "Watchmen") bathes the film in a glorious neon sparkle at times.

 Many viewers and reviewers complained that the final, "huge" twist was unsatisfactory. But to quibble on that point is to miss the point entirely; it's like grumbling that Houdini didn't really transport the elephant away, he simply hid it, of course.  The fact that much is made of explaining the seemingly impossible tricks as the tale unfolds makes the final rug-pulling so perfectly ironic.  Obviously it means that one character does spend 98% of the running time acting completely falsely,  but it's forgivable given the pleasant surprise.  Didn't see that coming, eh? It's magic. Misdirection. That's the whole point. 

And it's not as if there aren't huge clues littered throughout.  For example, when McKinney first meets Rhodes, he taunts him about his "daddy issues".  On first pass, it just comes across as comic bluster, with the implication that most of Merritt's predictions are "targeted guesses", as he himself claims they are. But on a second viewing, in the knowledge that the whole plot is about revenge for the death of Lionel Shrike, it can be seen that this is fundamentally true.  There are plenty more examples. 

Ultimately, "Now You See Me" is showy, silly and great fun. The cast are all at the top of their games, Laurent and Ruffalo in particular displaying palpable chemistry, and all are clearly having fun. It barrels along at pace and with pizzazz.  It definitely does bear up to a second viewing, and generally plays a lot better than some of the original snooty reviews would suggest. 

Now, let's see if the magic can be re-conjured for the second installment. And remember the first rule of magic: always be the smartest guy in the room.


Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Our Kind of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor (2016) 

Starring Ewan MacGregor and Stellan Skarsgård 
Directed by Susanna White 

John Le Carré's books have had a pretty good run rate when it comes to screen interpretations.  For an author so closely associated with the long-gone Cold War, his most recent works have explored familiar avenues and themes - deceit, betrayal, misplaced love - but in different environments and with arguably greater success than those of the old East vs West stalemate.  The television adaptation of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" starring Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley remains the benchmark, along with Martin Ritt's "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold", which features a great performance from Richard Burton as the embittered titular operative.  "The Russia House", was somewhat overlooked, and obviously since then "The Tailor of Panama", "The Constant Gardner", "A Most Wanted Man", and the tv version of "The Night Manager" have all been top notch.  Tomas Alfredson's 2011 film of "Tinker" pared things down a little but was still a suitably atmospheric retelling.  "Our Kind of Traitor", produced by The Ink Factory, the independent production company founded by Le Carré's sons, is based on his 2010 novel, and apparently completed filming some time back in 2014; this makes its release now, in May 2016 a little strange, but welcome nonetheless.  Instinctively, expectations are lowered when a project sits on the shelf for so long; the cynical might think it was held back deliberately to ride on the coat-tails of "The Night Manager", which was a big success - on BBC, at least.  But how could anyone have known?  I suspect there were some tweaks or re-shoots required for the film's denouement.  Given its subject matter, and the recent news stories surrounding the murky dealings revealed by the so-called "Panama Papers", the theme of financial corruption at the highest levels does feel oddly topical.  This is definitely a new kind of Le Carré.

The film opens with a stunning slow motion shot of a male ballet dancer pirouetting in mid-air, subtly foreshadowing the unexpected contortions in store for the story's characters, giving a sense of a man suspended and twisting... Snowflakes drift by as a Russian financier and his family are brutally gunned down, after a ceremony in which he appeared to be honoured by his new chief... and as  the blood of the teenage daughter seeps into the snow, the opening credits roll.  We then meet Perry Makepeace (Ewan MacGregor), a University poetics lecturer, who is first seen holidaying in Marrakech with lawyer wife Gail (Naomie Harris) in an attempt to save their on-the-rocks marriage.  After an aborted dinner one night, Perry somehow falls in with the boisterous, charismatic Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who turns out to be a money man for the Russian Mafia.  Sensing that he is an honourable man, Dima asks Perry to take a memory stick back to the UK and pass it to the authorities, "your MI6", as he calls them.  Having made contact with Intelligence operative Hector Meredith (Damian Lewis, sporting Harry Palmer glasses but channelling Nigel Green), Perry finds himself unwittingly drawn into the unfolding affair.  Dima has offered details of dozens of British politicians implicated in taking bribes to allow the establishment of a new bank on the London markets, a front for mob money, but he demands protection for himself and his family, fearing they will all suffer the same fate as his friend from the opening scene.  And, not fully trusting Hector, he insists that Perry and Gail be present when they meet.  The powers that be - headed by Billy Matlock (another in the recent catalogue of brilliant cameos from Mark Gatiss, in a scene which gives the Emirates Stadium a neat cameo)) - are naturally sceptical and resistant to a deal  and unwilling to support the operation, but Hector is revealed to have a personal reason for wanting to nail one of the suspects, Aubrey Longrigg MP (Jeremy Northam) and is determined to bring Dima into the fold.  So it is that Perry, far from being the bystander one would expect,  reveals hitherto unknown strengths and courage in trying to do the right thing...

What unfolds is a fairly absorbing thriller.  It's sound and engaging enough, without being exceptional. This might confound a certain section of the audience bringing high expectations of previous JLC adaptations with them, and for sure purist fans of the novel will point to the differences between page and screen, and doubtless find fault at the alterations. But when was a film adaptation ever totally faithful to its source?  This story takes place vividly in an oppressively masculine world. The strings are evidently pulled by men in boardrooms, calmly plotting the slaughter of any associate who could threaten them, men who have the personality to stand out, or those who are simply barbarians relying on brute force. Perry endears himself to Dima when he tries to intervene to stop a thug beating a woman at a party they attend together. It's futile,  Dima says, as he saves him from a beating of his own,  but this is what makes him believe in Perry's decency.  Power nominally, but questionably, sits with men who try to operate within the law, such as Hector and his subdued lieutenant Luke (the excellent Khalid Abdalla).  But they are confounded at seemingly every turn by the system; the real power clearly lies elsewhere - with criminals and politicians. Spot the difference.  When the good men feel the need to test the law's boundaries, things are wholly understood, as frustrating as it is. This is what makes MacGregor's performance all the more effective - because he's a man totally out of his depth gradually discovering his character and sensing the opportunity to atone for his failings and make good on his instinctive desire to do good. The dynamics of influence in today's world is a question which hangs over the film, and lingers when the credits have rolled.  The director, Susanna White, grasps this conflict firmly, and mounts the events in such a way as to glamorise in the early stages not only Dima, but also the Russian mob cronies around him, but then cranking up their inherent nastiness to emphasise the heroism of Perry, Gail, Hector and Luke as the film develops. 

There are some superbly tense sequences in the film; it's a thriller, in other words, it does seek occasionally to thrill, between the geopolitics.  The scene in which the MI6 gang tries to secure the evacuation of Dima and, separately, his family from Bern is genuinely exciting, as is the largely unseen assault on the group's French Alps hideout (after some forehead-smacklingly stupid behaviour by one of the party's number) by the gangsters on their trail, which brilliantly focuses on the young family cowering in their hiding place whilst the gunfight outside is heard, but not seen... And it's the key moment in which Perry steps up,and does something hitherto unimaginable; MacGegor's face, when he realises what he's done is brilliant.  His performance has been unfairly criticised in some quarters, but that seems largely down to his haircut.  But that's totally in keeping with a poetry lecturer.  He's great in this role.  Of the rest of the cast... well, it goes without saying that Skarsgård is magnificent as Dima, all swinging bluster and excessive bonhomie, but betraying an inner terror of a man who knows his days are numbered.  It's just a great performance.  Naomie Harris becomes the fourth James Bond alumnus, following Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnan and Ralph Feinnes, to feature in a Le Carré title.  Her role here, as Perry's wife is somewhat under-written, because although she's a crucial part of the adventure, it feels as if she's somehow relegated to the role of baby-sitting the family's children through their ordeal.  In the early scenes - her conflict with her husband - she shines, but admittedly later on she feels like something of a bystander.  Lewis' performance is effectively odd; it's not bad, but it's very mannered, and not at all what we expect from him.  But as the film goes on, it becomes more impressive. A special nod must go to Velibor Topic, who plays the Mob Supremo's right hand man with a chilling charm,    Ultimately, one feels like this is a really well performed film in which the whole cast went all out.

There are some severely clunky moments, to be sure, and it occasionally feels like we're watching a TV drama, wherein certain plot points have to be condensed to make sense. All of which makes it feel not quite perfect.  One wonders, if a TV adaptation actually would have drawn out some of the subtleties required to make things work completely.  There's an unexpected (but brilliant) coda to the film which fundamentally alters the cynicism of Le Carré's original conclusion.  Normally this would drive me up the wall, but in this case it feels so appropriate.The characters are engaging enough that one doesn't want things to end too bleakly.

"Our Kind of Traitor" isn't perfect, by a long stretch, but for any fan of the espionage genre, or of contemporary political thrillers with relevance to the awful state of government, it's a great watch.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

The Big Short

The Big Short (2015)

Starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell
Directed by Adam McKay


The global financial crash of 2008, and the forensic detail of its causes and consequences, is potentially the least likely prospective subject for an engaging mainstream film. Ever. Let alone a funny one.  Certainly, big money movies can play well, but have tended to be about the people rather than the event.  From the era-defining Faustian melodrama of Oliver Stone's 80s masterpiece "Wall Street" to the insanely amusing hedonism of Martin Scorsese's "Wolf" thereof, it's always tended to be that the focus has been on individuals in a larger story, rather than the story itself.  Enter Michael Lewis, the author and ex-Wall Street bond trader who has perfected the art, over the years since his hysterical memoir "Liar's Poker", of writing books which are populated by distinctive, memorable real-life characters, but which manage to get to the heart of the overall picture.  Taking in subjects as widespread as professional baseball scouting ("Moneyball") to eccentric tech entrepreneurship ("The New New Thing"), but often returning to finance ("Flash Boys", "Boomerang") Lewis' books convey often highly complex or technical details in a manner easy to understand, making the narratives read like novels. Thus "The Big Short",  Lewis' gripping tale of how a disparate bunch of people similarly predicted the puncturing of the  sub-prime housing bubble in the late naughties and sought to profit from it, was ripe for the telling. 

And what a tall tale it is.

The film's director, Adam McKay, having brought us the "Anchorman" films, and "Step Brothers", big dumb, fun - but often extremely funny films - was understandably a strange choice to helm this sort of a film, with a deeply serious and affecting underlying commodity. But anyone who saw his 2010 cop-buddy movie "The Other Guys", which starred Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, might have been prepared to expect the director's cynical and comic eye, particularly in light of that film's closing credit sequence. McKay brings an unexpected freshness and humour to this history and story, and has really crafted an extraordinary motion picture from a deeply complex and perplexing narrative (aided by Lewis' lucid text). But with a curiously comfortable sense of humour.

By necessity, the cast of characters is a mismatched ensemble, because the main players in the story flew up from all across America, albeit that they had a roughly similar idea at roughly the same time. Chief is probably Steve Carell (playing Mark Baum - think that name has been changed from reality), who is a premier actor, not just a comedian (as stated previously herein) as the guy who figures it all out, makes a lot of money, but still ends up feeling hurt and betrayed at the end of things  due to the sheer maliciousness of the big banks (and we sympathise with his pain and utter dejected state at the film's climax ). Ryan Gosling is mesmeric and charming as Bond flogger Jared Vennett, who slowly comes to realise the magnitude of the situation. There's a brilliant scene in which he demonstrates the unfolding situation to Baum and his crew using Jenga blocks... a fragile foundation indeed! But he's just trying to sell them a trade. And Christian Bale, as highly eccentric money manager Michael Burry, who predicts the collapse years in advance and has to ride out a world of losses on his books before the position finally turns good, is fantastic. There's alot of good support too from the likes of Brad Pitt, in a smaller role, making every character feel genuine and concerned.


Above all, this is a detective film, and as such, it's totally compelling. We, the audience, might know or understand nothing about the history of this crash, even as we felt its influence. And the traders in the film don't understand what's happening either.  One of the best scenes is when the gang head down to Florida to burn some shoe leather, and discover that countless people are over mortgaged.  Their shock is palpable - as is ours watching.  How did this happen?  How did the authorities not see this coming? How could the world economy be destroyed? Two smarmy mortgage brokers they meet laugh unconcernedly and joke about how big their boats are going to be. It's nonsensical, and disturbing ; but illustrative of the thinking which lay behind the whole farrago. One of the most striking scenes involves a meeting with one of the Ratings Agencies - who assured everyone the Mortgage Backed Securities / Collateralized Debt Obligations were sound - in which the lady admits that they had absolutely NO IDEA what was in them and therefore what they were talking about.  It's a real head-scratcher... Even more so because they are still trotted out as authorities by the media today. They're charlatans and criminals. 

Mackay directs with an impressive vigour, and a restrained sense of equal parts disbelief, cynicism, anger and mockery. His use of time-lapse to show the passing of time between archive footage of the initial invention of the dubious, fragile financial instruments and the present day is brilliant (even including a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of Sasha Baron-Cohen in Ali G get up which just yells "stupidity"!)  And despite bringing the audience to the mid naughties, the film feels like a period piece, and not just because of the size of the mobile phones, but because of the mindset.  The employment of music is inspired - "Money Maker" by Ludacris, an awesome choral version of Nirvana's "Lithium" performed by The Polyphonic Spree, "Feel Good Inc" by Gorillaz all play key parts in underscoring the drama. Stylistically, it's reminiscent of a very restrained "Natural Born Killers" at times.

So this is a film about the unlikeliest of topics, but one which is unexpectedly brilliant. It has a crackling funny script, a stellar cast, and above all its prime accomplishment is to remain amusing and interesting - and informative. 

"It ain't what you know that gets you into trouble, it's what you know for sure just ain't so."  - Mark Twain. 

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The Witch

The Witch (2015)

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Ineson
Written and Directed by Robert Eggers 

"The Witch - A New England Folktale" is a haunting, mesmerising, and deeply memorable film,  telling the story of a devout family in 1630s New England who set out from the Calvinist community where they live to forge an independent life for themselves, before things start to go awry with their idealistic plan.  This self-imposed exile is due to the excessive piety of the patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), but it's clear from the outset that the rest of the family follow out of obedience rather than conviction; a tiny shake of the head "no" from eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) when the decision is made hints at the discord and anguish to come.  We can't even see her face fully at this point, but her dread drips off her. It is unbearably powerful.  The early, unexplained disappearance of the family's baby son Samuel whilst under Thomasin's care is ostensibly her fault, but as viewers we are asked if what we saw was actually what happened, or just what we thought we saw.  As the miserable curses and misfortunes pile up upon our protagonists, the viewer is constantly asked to judge whether this is a real, supernatural story, or if it's all going on in the mind.  And is it the mind of one of the main characters, or are we simply projecting our own expectations onto the story, as all the best films invite us to do?  Eggers tantalisingly shows the Witch more than once, but in different forms, and to different characters.  As such, it's gripping, challenging, deeply atmospheric, and thought-provoking throughout.

The film is not uneventful or remotely boring, even if it may feel slow at times.  Something happens in every scene - but it feels gradual, each scene purposely building. This is by no means a bad thing, because it means important things aren't trumpeted with loud shocks and scares - they just happen; it's deliberate.  The family's new home is at the edge of a wood, which the children are repeatedly warned to avoid. Eggers doesn't suddenly delve his camera into the unknown, but a repeated series of slow zooms towards it imply a gradual, creeping sense of wariness at the unknown forces which may or may not be therein.  The landscape is very much a character in the film.  It's empty, and unyielding, an un-tamed New England and a failing potential paradise.  When William and son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) head into the forbidden zone of this forest early on, hoping to find animals caught in the traps previously set, darkness slowly creeps in around them, and their efforts to trap and kill come up frustratingly short.  Trying to shoot a stray hare William is injured by his own musket... whilst the hare stares un-nervingly back at them.  It could easily be seen as a casual moment, a simple misfire, but the staring hare moots something... the animals and the woods have a power which is going to come to bear on the family.  It's just this sort of unspecified menace which makes the film so effective, because everything is suggested, and nothing is certain.

Crucially, in a small-scale piece like this, the actors have to be first rate, and they absolutely are.  Ineson, Kate Dickie as grief-stricken wife Katherine, and Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson as the young twins Jonas and Mercy are all outstanding (I was genuinely surprised to find that the twins weren't actually related, as young actors often are). Young Harvey is remarkably strong as the uncertain child on the cusp of manhood, grappling with the seduction and responsibilities entailed.  But take these words down now, in permanent marker:  Anya Taylor-Joy is a megastar of the future.  She's nothing short of phenomenal in this role.  Everything about her performance grabs the viewer from the first minute and it "relenteth not" (to borrow the vernacular).  As the story progresses the character seems to change visibly , physically and emotionally.  She starts off looking suitably drab, as one would expect of a Puritan girl, but in her increasing desperation to prove her innocence she seems to become more adult with every passing scene.  There are, for example, a couple of instances in which her  brother casts furtive glances at her breasts.  It's never meant to imply overt sexiness, but it just shows something a young, confused boy is going to feel.  The unexpected power of the film is that it never overstates any kind of sexual conflict between the girl and her family or her Mother or Father... it just makes the viewer peripherally aware of it. There is conflict and distrust of another sort. The film is about Thomasin's torment, and the question of her culpability in the events unfolding looms large, but is left open... to a point.  The Witch herself represents sex, but also decay and misery, and degradation; Thomasin seems to carry that conflict with her through the film.  Ultimately though, Taylor-Joy's performance is as gripping as it is unsettling. Just magnificent.

There have been observations of similarities between this film and "The Babadook" ( QV). There is certainly common ground in the notion of a horror existing solely in the mind and creating terror for a child, but the films are markedly different.  There are obvious thematic parallels too with something like "The Blair Witch Project" but "The Witch" eschews the sensationalist nonsense of that film, opting for atmospherics over obvious cheap shocks.  Appropriately, given its subtitle, there is clearly a deep knowledge of "witch culture" behind the script, evident in the nuances; the suckling of animals, or the overtly sexualised presence, for example, of the seemingly innocent creatures around the farm. Malcolm Gaskill's great book "Witchfinders" recounts many of these stories and shows how much fact and hearsay are easily blurred.  The film foreshadows too, in the latter parts of the story, the ideas of paranoia and mistrust central to Arthur Miller's "The Crucible". A witch hunt erupts here in miniature.

A strange thing happened to me before going in to see this.  For some reason, I had imagined that the film was shot in black and white.  Something in the back of my head said "Puritan era psychological horror... obviously going to be B&W".  I had a recollection of seeing the trailer several times, and stills from it, and had somehow remembered them all as being monochrome.  This was obviously a spurious assumption, and I've struggled to work out why I would have carried such a bogus thought into the cinema.  It's possibly due to the mid-17th Century setting, and my fondness for "A Field in England", Ben Wheatley's massively compelling English Civil War character face-off (also QV) that made me think a film set at this time must be similarly depicted.  Of course the film is in colour, which set me real as soon as it started, and drew me into it.  But it's a purposefully very drab, dry palette, with only the occasional, shocking stain of brightness.  The red cloak of The Witch herself, and the occasional horrible  splash of blood is sparingly used, but all the more jarring for it. The cinematography is wonderful though, creating such a vivid picture of the harsh landscape in which the characters find themselves.  There's a recurring movement of the camera which is unsettling as it is powerful.  The effect is deeply unsettling, but simultaneously it conveys a sense of observing something we shouldn't be seeing.  Mark Korven's creepy, discordant score adds to the mood.  Unease pervades all before it.

Films occasionally worm their way into consciousness, but it's rare that one stays there, and lingers in the brain for days on end. "The Witch" has done just that. It's distinctive, but strangely redemptive. It's really well worth catching, whenever you can.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Brooklyn, New York.  1957.  A man, seen from behind, stares at a portrait painting.  He looks across, and we see, as he sees, his reflection in a mirror, and it becomes clear that he is painting a self portrait.  He's a slight figure, gentle, benign, a little elderly; but determined.  Instantly, there are three versions of this man... the one in the painting, the man looking on, and the one in the mirror.  Which is real?  The painted image, the reflection, or the observer?  The man receives a phone call; he answers, but says nothing  Heading out of his apartment, through the streets and into the subway, he is followed by what appear to be US Government Agents.  At one point it seems he has evaded them.  Is he aware of their presence, or is this merely luck?  Settling on a bench in the shadow of the bridge he begins to paint, pausing surreptitiously to reach for a coin secreted under the seat.  Returning to his apartment, he meticulously dismantles the coin, retrieving a message concealed within.  A short while later, his door is beaten down, and the FBI Agents storm in...

In this one extended sequence, lasting only a few minutes and with next to no dialogue, director Steven Spielberg once again displays the expert touch of the master that he is, establishing Cold War period setting, paranoid tone, and an enigmatic character set to drive the narrative.  It's an instant reassurance, setting up the film perfectly.

The man arrested in Brooklyn is Rudolf Abel, (Mark Rylance), a British born Soviet citizen operating in the U.S as a spy for the U.S.S.R. The case for his defence in the ensuing trial on charges of espionage and treason falls to the somewhat reluctant James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks).  Donovan, a partner in a prestigious New York law firm, is quickly established to be a shrewd but honest, idealistic, and patriotic man.  Initially unwilling to get involved in the murky politics of a defence he knows will be unpopular with the American public, he nonetheless realises that he has no choice in the matter and sets about his task with dogged zeal.  His faith in the Constitution as the "rule book" is total, in the face of near derision from the authorities and a widespread assumption that Abel's guilt and following death sentence are a foregone conclusion.  Donovan loses the trial, but having successfully argued that Abel could not be guilty of treason as he was not an American Citizen, he also goes on to secure a sentence of 30 years imprisonment rather than the death penalty.  The film shows him suggesting that this is simply for practical reasons, as Abel may be useful at some point in the future; but it also hints at his compassion for, and even a friendship with his client. 

A parallel story unfolds, that of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), an American pilot of the high-altitude U-2 spy plane, who is shot down during a mission over Soviet territory in May 1960.  Captured, tried and incarcerated by the Soviets, Powers poses a major security risk for the Americans due to the illicit nature of his missions and the sensitive information he possesses.  It is the same headache Abel's situation causes the Soviets.  Neither side can be certain what secrets have been extracted from their man under interrogation, and both are desperate to limit their exposure.  Thus, as Donovan predicted, Abel does turn out to be useful.  And as his advocate, it is Donovan who takes the lead role in the negotiations for the prisoner exchange.  He travels to Berlin to set about this potentially dangerous task, telling his wife and family that he's going on a business trip, so as to spare their worry.

The final player in this delicate play is Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American post graduate student who is caught and imprisoned in East Berlin after trying in vain to bring his girlfriend across to the West before the Wall is completed.  On learning this, Donovan resolves to secure Pryor's freedom along with Powers'.  But this means negotiating with the East Germans and the Soviets simultaneously, whilst only having one package to offer them both.  With opposition from his own side, who don't want Pryor's inclusion to jeopardise the deal for Powers, and facing a diplomatic minefield and political tensions between the Communist bloc governments, Donovan's task will not be easy.

Whilst ostensibly a straightforward Cold War thriller (in a loose sense), "Bridge of Spies" succeeds because it is much more than that. It laps up the paranoid setting and atmosphere of films such as "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold", the masterful 1965 adaptation of John Le Carre's novel, but it also becomes a legal drama, a sketch of an unusual friendship, and ultimately a story of a man's determination to do the right thing.  Not least it's a document of a time in history when safety had a different meaning; when Donovan's son displays his "duck and cover" shelter the audience can laugh at its quaintness or wonder that this was once a realistic threat.  Spielberg's command of cinema is such that he can draw on a range of other films and invoke their images and tones without ever coming across as derivative.  The details of the Abel / Powers affair are not too widely known - perhaps surprisingly given its comparatively recent occurrence - which makes for a compelling hook.  

Carrying the undulating tones and turns of the narrative are a pair of fascinatingly drawn and deeply engaging central characters.  Hanks' Donovan is every bit as upstanding and honourable as one would expect.  It's a cliché to invoke the "Hanks is the modern day James Stewart" line, but it's hard to think of an actor who carries that solid morality with a touch of fragility the way this double-Oscar winner does.  His crusade is conducted with a strong and single-minded purpose, particularly in the matter of securing Pryor's release as part of the deal.  Hanks brings a subtle undercurrent of nervous energy to Donovan, which makes him human, and not just heroic.  Set alongside him is the extraordinary Rylance, now Oscar nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category, whose Abel is a shrewd, measured puzzle-box of a man.  Subterfuge for him isn't emotional, malicious, ideological or anything other than matter of fact.  He seems to be the least threatening Enemy of the State, rather just a man doing his job.  At one point, receiving bad news about the trial, Donovan asks him if he's worried. "Would it help?" he replies, deadpan.  Largely seeming detached, there are nonetheless a few moments into which Abel injects his honest personality, such as his "standing man" speech, in which he pays Donovan the honour of comparing him to his own father in his attitude towards injustice.  The pair's friendship, as it develops, is cautious but wholly believable.

As well as delivering a gripping drama, Spielberg paints a vivid picture of a particular time in modern history in which morality was possibly slightly easier to define.  The "Reds" were the enemy, the Americans were the "good guys".  But then the film challenges that perception and presents things as not so clear cut.  Donovan is widely perceived as soft, for helping a "commie", and Abel comes across as totally human.  When things move to Berlin, the Communist party officials encountered aren't painted as ogres.  It boils down to basic principles of individuality and justice, and the reactions of the men of power surrounding events seem constantly at odds with those of the protagonists.   Directorially, Spielberg is on top form, placing and moving his camera in a manner as seldom before.  There are a number of long, steady tracking shots, almost Kubrickian in their precision, which add an unusual, measured dynamic to the events unfolding, subtly asking the audience to sense the bigger picture.  And, in an overtly stylized touch, interview rooms where Donovan and Abel confer on more than one occasion are backlit by near-blinding white light from the windows, giving an almost ethereal feel to their conversations.  It's a film almost exclusively about people sitting in rooms talking to each other, but it doesn't feel staid, stuffy or static.

Screenwriter Matt Charman deserves great credit for investigating the factual record and crafting an absorbing narrative which balances so many elements so skillfully.  Unexpectedly, the film is also quite funny; much has been made of the "polish" given to the script by Ethan and Joel Coen, and it's suggested that this is the source of this humour.  It certainly recalls their knack of conjuring sometimes darkly comic moments from situations of high drama or tension.  It brings a welcome deftness to what could easily become an overly weighty, wordy exercise, and softens the sharp edges of the unavoidable tropes of the spy genre.  The trio are Oscar and Bafta nominated for Best Original Screenplay, rightfully so.  In all the film has six Academy Award nominations, including in the Sound Editing, and Production Design categories, as well as for Best Film.  Pleasingly, the prolific Thomas Newman ("The Shawshank Redemption", "The Player", "Skyfall") has been recognised for yet another in a long line of subtle, effective music scores.  Of course it's only those who take home the awards who are remembered in years to come, but it's testament to the stirling work done in all departments that it has been acknowledged. 

2015, somewhat fancifully dubbed cinema's "year of the spy", saw a number of high profile movies ("Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation", "Spectre", "Kingsman: The Secret Service" et al) paying lip service to the idea of espionage.  But the notion of a spy on film has been more or less subsumed into the action / adventure genre; I blame 007.  Whilst "Bridge" is not a documentary and  obviously has to be constructed as an involving drama/thriller with interesting and sympathetic characters, it nevertheless has its roots firmly in fact.  It's a proper spy film.  The climactic exchange, at the eponymous Glienicke Bridge, complete with snipers waiting on both sides for something to go amiss, is exactly what comes to mind when imagining the Cold War, as someone who didn't live through it.  It's a standoff, but not in the sense that weapons are overtly pointed, but in a test of strength of will; Donovan won't budge and let Abel walk across and Powers return until Pryor is clear of Checkpoint Charlie.  Right up to the end, neither side knows for sure what sacred secrets their man might have given up to the opposition.  The Berlin Wall acts as a mirror.  Donovan experiences contrasting emotions observing events from his train carriage; desperation and slaughter in Berlin, joy and sport, kids playing ball  back home.  If it seems unsubtle, trumpeting the inherent decency and steadfastness of "American Values", or - horror of horrors - "old fashioned", the film consistently presents both sides, and is decently modern as such.  When Abel is led away, Donovan asks what will happen to him.  Abel comments that it will depend on how he is received - if hugged and welcome, all will be all right, but if he's ushered unceremoniously into the back seat of the car, perhaps not.  As Powers returns to the Americans and is warmly greeted by his erstwhile colleague (Jesse Plemons) the viewer's heart sinks, not just at the fate of this likable little man, but as to the conflicting attitudes of the two societies.

Ultimately, the film is hearteningly uncynical, and beautifully well-judged.  It's a brilliant thriller which reflects the past but holds a message of personality and persistence that's as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.  It's always slightly more pleasing when Spielberg makes films of this ilk; as brilliant as the "Jurassic Park" and "Indiana Jones" films are, he's always better with weightier material, a supreme artist, and this is another worthy entry in his lengthening catalogue of magnificent, timeless motion pictures.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The Eagle Has Landed

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)  

Starring Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland
Directed by John Sturges  

Based on Jack Higgins' 1975 bestseller, "The Eagle Has Landed" marked the final directorial outing for the veteran John Sturges, who had brought such classics as "Bad Day at Black Rock", "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape" to the screen.  With a script by three-time James Bond (and uncredited Superman) writer Tom Mankiewicz and a cast boasting Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland and Robert Duvall in lead roles with support from the likes of the great Anthony Quayle and - as an ever so slightly bonkers Heinrich Himmler - Donald Pleasance, the film proudly rubs shoulders with some fine all-star, "guys on a mission" movies of the 60s and 70s.  Despite its inherent potboilerish silliness, it retains an immensely charming and at times rousing watchability.

Perhaps it's just the nostalgia of the ATV / ITC connection and the words "Lew Grade Presents" up on screen but there's a special something about it which makes it worth revisiting.

The story sees German Oberst Kurt Steiner (Caine) dispatched to lead his fiercely loyal paratroop unit on a covert incursion into Britain with the objective of kidnapping Winston Churchill (no less) from a secluded country house in Norfolk.  Under cover as a unit of Free Polish on a training exercise, they descend on the typically quaint English village of Studley Constable to carry out their mission.  Preparations are made ahead of time by IRA "soldier" Liam Devlin (Sutherland) with the help of Abwehr sleeper Agent Starling, Joanna Grey (Jean Marsh).  Devlin, although bearing no love for King and Country, is ultimately out for himself and working for the highest bidder, whilst Mrs Grey has her own motives, revealed towards the film's climax.  Needless to say, things don't go exactly according to plan, and when the Germans are rumbled, the arrival of a unit of US Army Rangers from their nearby billet leads to a chaotic shoot out and stand off.  

Surprisingly, after the interesting initial formulation of the kidnap plot, things meander somewhat before the action really gets going.  For the most part this takes the form of Devlin, in his cover as Marsh Warden, investigating the locale, and introducing - and endearing - himself to the locals.  An implausibly fast-track romance with the innocent Molly (Jenny Agutter) ensues, to the annoyance of a local thug, whom Devlin duly bests in an impromptu bout of bare-knuckle fisticuffs in the churchyard in front of the bemused Vicar, Father Verecker (John Standing).  Within what seems like a single day, Molly is professing her love for Devlin.  It must be his lovable 'Oirish' cheekiness, that is to say his permanently fixed toothy grin and surfeit of Celticisms, all delivered in an 'interesting' accent of indeterminate origin.  The purpose of all this is not entirely clear.  It could be an attempt to broaden the film's appeal by including a romance element to counteract the gung-ho army parts; it could be to give more screen time to Sutherland, whose role is essentially a subsidiary one; or it could be simply to pad out the running time and an excuse to show Miss Agutter riding her horse through woodland and over sand dunes.  It feels rather forced, particularly as the consequences for these relatively minor characters (including one responsible for another's death) are largely forgotten when the actual shooting starts.  Even once the bullets do start to fly there is still a slightly puzzling element of absurdity.  Its principal source is the American Colonel Clarence E. Pitts (Larry Hagman), a well-intentioned but pompous officer who, desperate to grab some glory before his transfer back to the US, leads his men into the village when he learns of the Germans' presence, intent on saving the day.  Pitts is blustering and opinionated, not a million miles removed from the J.W. Pepper character in the first two Roger Moore James Bond films; Mankiewicz's influence, perhaps?  But he's the comic relief, and his sudden death seems unwarranted and mean, giving rise to genuine sadness, if only for a beat.  And therein lies the film's unexpected strength - that the hokum is littered with just such tiny moments, which suddenly strike a different tone, and really stick in the memory.

The film is interesting because it's almost entirely morally neutral, which is unusual for a war genre film.  The American and British characters, obviously are the 'Good Guys'.  But they are all subordinate figures, even the noble Captain Clark (Treat Williams), the most proactive of them all.  The heroes, or at least protagonists, are German soldiers in a war against the Allies, carrying out an act of war on British soil, so should be the 'Bad Guys'.  But from the outset it's made clear that these aren't Nazis; they're 'good Germans', if you will.  The heavily decorated Steiner is first seen on the way back from the Eastern front, on a train which stops at a siding in Poland whilst the SS are rounding up Jews from the ghetto to be sent to concentration camps.  Steiner intervenes to save a young woman, is subsequently court martialled, and he and his men are sent to a penal camp on Alderney.  When their deception is revealed to the villagers, it is due to the fact that the soldiers were wearing their German uniforms underneath their Polish ones (so they wouldn't be executed as spies if captured); one of them saves a young girl from drowning, but is himself dragged under the wheel of the watermill and killed, his uniform ripped open for all to see.  It's a further reminder that these aren't bad men.  Devlin might be an IRA man, but remarks early on that he doesn't agree with blowing up innocent people, and comports himself with such carefree chirpiness that there can be no suggestion he has a bad heart.  Even the senior Nazis Radl (Duvall), Admiral Canaris (Quayle), and Himmler seem to carry out the operation with a weary reluctance brought on by the knowledge of the futility of it all as the war is already lost.  So there aren't really any obvious antagonists.  Arguably the only truly evil figure is Hitler, appearing fleetingly in newsreel footage used in the opening moments.  Rooting for both sides is a strange experience.

There are very clear echoes, in subject matter, of "Went the Day Well?" , an unofficial British Wartime propaganda film based on a story by Graham Greene, which also tells of a fictional English village being taken over by German paratroopers.  Obviously "Eagle" lacks any of that 1942 picture's nightmarish "what if?" bite; this is pure escapism.  But something it shares with its predecessor, which makes them both stand out from the average Second World War film, is the unusual rural English backdrop.  Scenes of combat set against rubble-strewn continental European towns and cities, battle-scarred front lines, or on heavily fortified beachheads are familiar enough; but to see house to house fighting in the streets of a sleepy East Anglian village, pub windows shattered by machine gun fire, residents held hostage in the church, is more than a little jarring.

Its post shoot-out climax contains hints of the real events depicted in another film, "I Was Monty's Double".  Recognizing that the mission has failed, that Churchill will not be abducted and that he himself is doomed, Steiner escapes the village succeeds in infiltrating the grounds of the house where Churchill is staying.  He shoots and kills him, before being gunned down himself.  It's a brilliant scene, tension milked for all its worth; Steiner steps from the shadows aiming his pistol, and the two men exchange expressionless stares for what seems like an age...  A shocked Clark arrives a just too late, but then discovers that the man was an impersonator, an actor playing the role as a semi-public deception so the real PM could attend the Tehran Conference with Stalin and Roosevelt in secret.   Given what is known now about British Military Intelligence's fondness for deception it's a tantalising throw to the viewer - could this have happened?  And it's a smart, grimly iconic way to close, acknowledging in a small way the pointlessness of war. 

Sturges was never a particularly flashy director; his most recognisable films were extravagant, in the best sense, in that they were epic in scope, big budget male-centric ensemble pieces with brilliant use of widescreen images.  Those elements are all present here, if not quite at the same levels as the films of Sturges' heyday.  Caine wrote in his autobiography that it seemed Sturges' heart wasn't really in it, being in the twilight of his career.  But as with films of a similar ilk ("The Guns of Navarone", "The Dirty Dozen" etc) seeking to up the class-factor, there's plenty to compensate.  The cast are all on fine form (Sutherland's dodgy accent aside), not just the leads, but there are some memorable performances form the actors in smaller roles.  John Standing's anguished "God grant you time to relive this moment in shame" to Jean Marsh when her character's treachery is exposed to the community is just one of many powerful instances, as is Caine's brief moment with the mother of the saved little girl.   The cinematography by Anthony Richmond (who shot Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth") is sweeping and beautifully composed, in keeping with Sturges' established style, whilst the music composed by the legendary Lalo Schifrin ("Bullitt", "Dirty Harry", the "Mission: Impossible" theme) is suitably stirring, and deserving of a place on any 'WW2 Movie Themes' compilation. 

"The Eagle Has Landed" is a film which seems as though it should be filed under 'guilty pleasure', but really there isn't much to feel guilty about.  It's the sort of solid, entertaining movie that's not often seen nowadays - nostalgic, and old fashioned, without being especially dated.  It's violent whilst being neither graphic nor cartoonish.  It bounds along lightly, and if Devlin's romantic interlude seems forced and it takes a while to hit its stride, it doesn't matter because ultimately it's exciting stuff, and the payoff is worth the wait.  It's by no means perfect, and although it's rather throwaway, and not really all that good, it's nevertheless so much fun that it's almost great.  

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Matrix

The Matrix (1999) 

Starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne
Written and Directed by The Wachowski Brothers  

Call it Pre-Millennial Tension, call it what you will, but it can't have been a coincidence that there were a number of films prominent in the latter part of the 1990s that took the idea of "false reality" and ran with it.  Closely inspired, no doubt, by the works of Philip K Dick (author of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep", which was artfully mangled into the great film "Blade Runner") Alex Proyas' magnificent "Dark City" led the way, followed by David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ" and the less auspicious but still enjoyable "The Thirteenth Floor" from Josef Rusnak.  But the daddy of them all, in 1999, was "The Matrix".  As one reviewer said at the time, "I bet George Lucas never saw that phantom menace coming..." as this sleeper hit stole a march on the first "Star Wars" prequel.  This film takes that concept - that reality as we know it is all a big lie - and spins around it a fantastic metaphysical martial arts based action film.  It centres on a computer hacker, Thomas Anderson - aka Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) - who works as a programmer for a giant software company by day, but hacks and delves deep into the depths of cyberspace by night.  He's been searching for a man called Morpheus, whose name recalls the Greek God of dreams, when a message pops up on his computer screen... and he's contacted by a woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) who hints at the knowledge on offer...

Such is the enticing entry into the world of the Matrix.  Through the aforementioned Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) Neo discovers that the world around him is actually just a computer crafted simulation.  Offered the choice between the blue pill - after which he will wake up none the wiser - or the red pill - following which the truth will be revealed, Neo takes the red pill, and decides to see "how deep the rabbit hole goes"...  

The Alice metaphor will be played to the full. but for now the truth, as it is revealed to him, is that a war erupted years before between humanity and the sentient machines - AI - whom they had created. Humanity lost, and were doomed to be enslaved and farmed by the machines for power; living batteries, as it were.  A human resistance movement has been formed, which fights the machines and seeks to "free" new minds.  Neo is one such mind, and it turns out that Morpheus has been looking for him too, as he believes he is "The One" - a person who can fulfill a prophecy of ending the war and bringing liberation back to mankind.  One of the main attractions of the film is sharing Neo's journey of discovery, as he learns that the physical restrictions of the "real world" need not apply in the world of the Matrix.  At first plagued with scepticism and self doubt, failing to make a death-defying building-to-building jump on one of the simulators, but surrounded by a group of fellow freedom-fighters who believe he will accomplish amazing feats, he gradually learns - under Morpheus' tutelage - to achieve more and more incredible actions.  Martial arts training, which will play a key role as the film, and eventually the trilogy, pans out, as a key first step for Neo in overcoming his disbelief.  "Stop trying to hit me, and hit me!" encourages Morpheus, with a new famous and oft-parodied hand gesture, which says to the opponent, "Come forth..."  It's fast punching, air-walking, utterly exhilarating stuff, with mind bending, gravity defying wire-work choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping, the legendary Hong Kong fight action maestro.    

The cast are all highly impressive, balancing the need for straight-faced gravitas with athletic action chops.  Moss and Reeves make for an eventually sympathetic couple, Keanu dealing especially well with the action scenes.  Fishburne gravely intones his education of the simul-world and beliefs about Neo's status as 'The One' as if he's still playing Othello, but brings significant weight to the piece.  Hugo Weaving, in a role a million miles away from "The Lord of the Rings" brings a humorous malevolence to the part of the disgruntled enforcer program Agent Smith.  A special mention must go to Joe Pantoliano, who, as Cypher, a man sick of the 'real' world and keen to return to the ideal life offered by the Matrix makes a deal with the Devil which gives the film a genuine dramatic tension.  The visuals are impressive and distinctive, from the lines of green texted code scrolling down the screen seen by the "Operators" in the real world, representing the code behind the Matrix, to the highly stylized look of things inside the Matrix itself, where individuals choose how they want to appear - invariably decked out in tight leather, flowing black coats, and with ever-present shades.

It doesn't all work perfectly however. The most interesting parts of the film take place within the Matrix, or in any number of "simulation" programs run by the protagonists to educate Neo in the ways of the constructed world.  In reality, things are grimy and tough.  Clothes are tatty and the only food is essentially a bland protein gruel; when Cypher makes his deal with Smith to return to the Matrix he's eating a beautiful juicy steak in a fancy restaurant, and the stark contrast puts his decision into context and makes it believable and sympathetic.  He remarks that he knows it's just the simulation, but that "ignorance is bliss".   Morpheus and crew live aboard The Nubuchadnezzar, a hovercraft which roams the scorched earth, constantly under threat from Sentinels, nicknamed 'Squiddies', search and destroy drones created by the Machines.  The craft is equipped with an Electro Magnetic Pulse which will disable the Sentinels, but it can't be used whilst anyone is plugged into the Matrix, which leads to some tension during the climax.  However these external scenes are all very dark, as the sky has been scorched by the conflict between man and machine, and the movement generally quick, so whilst it's not exactly hard to figure out what's going on, it feels a bit messy.  The design of the Squiddies is odd, and a little distracting.  It feels fairly generic - laser shooting robots, and is much less interesting that what goes on in the Matrix.. As the finale plays out, cutting between the two worlds, the fight between Smith and Neo inside the Matrix is infinitely more compelling than the Sentinels descending on the Nebuchadnezzar.  This problem was to become more pronounced, and problematic in the sequel, "The Matrix Reloaded", and particularly the final part of the trilogy, "The Matrix Revolutions".

Every few years a film comes along which deploys a Special Effect which is genuinely revolutionary, in that it pioneers something original which is then embraced by the film making industry as a whole. For example "2001: A Space Odyssey" in the 1960s and "Star Wars" in the 70s with their model work, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" in 1991 with the "Shapeshifting" effect which cropped everywhere in that decade, more recently "Avatar" with it's use of 3D CGI.  At the turn of the millennium, that film was "The Matrix", and the effect in question is known as "bullet time".  Whilst experimentation with camera effects has obviously been going on forever, it was this film which popularised the slow motion / variable speed, moving camera effect.  Crucially here the effects serve the story, as they represent the characters' ability to grasp the artificiality of the Matrix world, and manipulate it.  The Cinematography by Bill Pope ("Spider-Man 2", "Spider-Man 3" and, bizarrely, "The World's End") is fantastic, colouring the scenes inside the Matrix with green, whilst denying almost any vivid colour in the real world.  The music also works effectively.  Don Davis' score is perfect, the opening alternating notes are now instantly recognisable.  Use of bands' tracks in films is always hit and miss, and the option here for metal / thrash (Deftones, Rammstein etc) was largely lost on me, in fact I'm not even sure how many tracks on the soundtrack CD were even in the film, and if they were it was background music at best.  However, this film features three of the finest examples of employing music for as long as I can remember.  The use of Rob Dougan's "Clubbed to Death" during the 'Woman in the red dress' construct scene, hearing the Propellerheads "Spybreak!" in the lobby scene, in which Neo and Trinity acrobatically wreak havoc, are both inspired.  The final scene and end credits play to the sound of Rage Against the Machine's "Wake Up", a track which has one of the coolest intros around and suits that scene and credits to a tee.

So while it's slick, inventive, innovative, well acted and extremely entertaining, what marks the film as in a slightly different class to the average Joel Sliver produced action film is the vein of philosophy running through it.  What is the Matrix?  What is reality? Is it preferable to accept something pleasurable even if you know it's not real (the Experience machine problem)?  It brilliantly plays with our own mental concepts, such as when it suggests that the sensation of deja vu is simply "a glitch in the Matrix".  There is a significant level of religious mysticism; Neo visits an Oracle, who cryptically tells people "what they need to hear", and of course there is the theme that he is "The One" and will fulfill a prophecy.  And there are also clear implications of Messianism - Neo dies at the hands of Agent Smith in their ultimate confrontation but is resurrected by Trinity (itself a name with Christian connotations).

"The Matrix" is unique.  It's a millennial, metaphysical, philosophical, pseudo-religious, sci-fi Kung-fu action movie, with cool outfits, very cool shades, and to quote Neo himself, "Guns... Lots of guns."  What's not to like?

Monday, 19 October 2015

Raising Arizona

Raising Arizona (1987) 

Starring Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter
Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen 

Whilst it is not generally a good thing to rely on the opinions of others before formulating ones own, there are a very select few film critics whose views I tend to seek, out of curiosity, after watching a movie, regardless of whether I intend to write about it.  The late, great Roger Ebert, in his review of "Raising Arizona" at the time of the film's release in 1987, was, a little surprisingly, rather bearish, criticising it for not knowing what it wanted to be, saying that it "cannot decide if it is about real people, or comic exaggerations."  Humour, in other words, doen't work if the viewer can't grasp its setting.  Having always regarded this second feature from the Coen Brothers fondly, I saw it recently for the first time in many years, and was pleasantly surprised still to find it very funny.  Evidently, I just "get" it.

Vastly different in tone to their debut, the modern-day noir "Blood Simple", which in itself might have confounded some expectations, this is a fast-paced, surreal, dream-like comedy, about a serial Convenience store holdup man H.I McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) and his eventual wife, Police Officer Ed - Edwina - (Holly Hunter).  I say eventual, because there plays out a hysterical 10 minute prologue which documents a good few years of their relationship, as H.I repeatedly shows up at prison, is paroled, only to return again every few months and inch their relationship further along. It contains some awesome scenes of H.I in prison ("We ate sand"), before true love takes its course ("I'm walkin' in here on my knees Ed, a free man proposin'").  The couple are childless ("Edwina's insides were a rocky place, where my seed could find no purchase"), living in a trailer in the Arizona desert; they learn one day that one of the wealthiest businessmen in the state - Nathan Arizona, of "Unpainted Arizona" furniture - has just fathered a veritable brood of children, sextuplets, so they hatch a plan to steal one for themselves.  He won't miss one, surely?

What follows is a series of hilarious and frankly timeless set-pieces.  H.I's attempt to steal a child is initially thwarted when the various babies escape from their cot and he has to chase them from cupboards and out from under beds, giving rise to the first instance of "baby-cam", the camera shooting along the floor at ground level from the baby's eye view.  He eventually gets them all back to their cot but returns empty handed to Ed, whose furious reaction is a sight to see.  When they finally do procure an "offspring" there are a hatful of great scenes and great lines as they try to get to grips with parenthood.  Things are complicated when two of H.I's old prison buddies, the wonderfully named Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe) break out of the joint ("We felt that  the institution no longer had anything to offer us") and turn up at the trailer, covered in sewage, and immediately dubious as to the origins of H.I and Ed's new addition to the family.  Throw into the mix an avenging, cigar chomping biker bounty hunter, Leonard Smalls (Randall 'Tex' Cobb), the kind of guy who throws hand grenades at innocent roadside critters as he barrels down the highways, and you have quite a cocktail.  

The set pieces are brilliantly staged, such as when the Snoats steal Nathan Jr and head off to rob a local Savings & Loan bank, reluctantly arguing and then agreeing that they have to take the baby with them rather than leave him in the car.  The gags have legs - in the robbery, the brothers burst into the bank and yell "Alright you hayseeds, it's a stickup.  Everybody down on the ground! Nobody move!" to which, after an embarrassed silence, a crusty octogenarian-looking farmer embarrasses them by saying "Well which is it young feller? You want I should freeze, or get down on the ground? Mean to say, if I freeze I can't rightly drop.  And if I drop, I'm a-gonna be in motion.  You see...?"  So the comedy is eccentric, but it's human and affords an unusual affection to its targets, and - like the parole board H.I. repeatedly faces in his series of prison spells - deeply and inherently tolerant of a string of flawed individuals.  It's impossible not to like, if one has a heart.  Perhaps the standout is another extended sequence in which a desperate and downcast H.I. reverts to his ways of larceny, holding up a 24 hour store for a packet of Huggies.  Pursued by a pistol-wielding pimply store employee, a vicious dog, and some trigger-happy cops, H.I. runs around the neighbourhood and even through homes, in a funny and thrilling foot-chase which recalls the one from "Point Break".  But it's jaunty.  And the best part is that H.I. manages to retrieve the Huggies, previously dropped, as the getaway is finally made.  

I have generally found that the Coens' "serious" films - "Fargo", "No Country for Old Men" - are mildly weaker than when they play this oddball comic sensibility to its extreme, such as here, or in "The Hudsucker Proxy", or "O Brother Where Art Thou?".  Not entirely true, of course, as "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "True Grit" are fantastic, and even "Inside Llewyn Davis" was amusing, but I think they're better when indulging their off kilter sensibilities.  "Raising Arizona" has a frenetic sensibility, a sense of roughly ordered chaos which leaps out from the screen.  It's paced so superbly that it seldom lets up, and sweeps one up in the mayhem.  Hunter is beautifully uptight throughout, intolerant of those around her in her desperate need to have the perfect family.  Nic Cage is often described as "hangdog" and perhaps never more so displays that characteristic than here; he conveys the sense that H.I. really wants to do well and be a good man, husband and father, but that fate confounds him at every turn, as he tolerates the asinine humour of his supervisor Glen (Sam McMurray), browbeating at the hands of Ed, and repeated misfortune.  Goodman and Forsythe are so un-selfaware that they're hysterical, Trey Wilson is such a no-nonsense, fast-talking businessman that it would be easy not to feel sympathy for his loss - in fact that almost seems encouraged at times, but one does (particularly in the final scene, and also because he has many great one-liners) - whilst Cobb is a brilliant beast seldom seen on screen. 

Of course, this is all horrendous.  Stealing a baby?  Inhuman.  But somehow, with its jaunty banjo soundtrack, it doesn't seem so bad.  It's like "Gone Baby Gone" -  but with jokes.  And banjos.  Years before that film was made.  But you get the point.  As Cage's wistful voiceover plays out over the final scene, in which he imagines a family he might have with Ed in the future, and how Nathan Jr might grow up playing high school football, the film is lent a poignancy it might otherwise not have had.  It's moving and funny, and makes the film well worth catching.