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.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015


Macbeth (2015) 

Starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard
Directed by Justin Kurzel 

Whenever a new film version of "one of the classics" comes around one often can't help but ask, what's the point of this exercise, and does the cinema really need yet another re-telling of a story which is probably (begrudgingly) known to almost every school-leaver in the country?  For every new "Emma", "Pride & Prejudice", "Great Expectations" and so on, if you're not going to make it better then why bother (in the latter case, by the way, it's never going to be better than David Lean's 1946 version)?  Perhaps nowhere more so does that apply than to Shakespeare's plays.  Although whereas the aforementioned classic novels are generally adapted "as is" - ie period pieces, costumes of the time etc - the Bard offers greater scope for "re-imagining".  Perhaps because they're plays rather than books, so are performed rather than simply read, artists have reacted by aiming for every part of the spectrum when presenting them in all media.  On film we've had everything from Richard III as a fascist dictator in an alternate 1930s Britain, Hamlet as a member of the 18th Century European elite, to "Romeo and Juliet" played out as an all singin' all dancin' 60s musical in "West Side Story" (and let's not even get started on Baz Luhrmann!).  So the door is clearly wide open. 

As one of Shakespeare's best known works, "Macbeth" has had its fair share when it comes to screen versions.  The most notable, though, are Orson Welles' outrageous if obviously low-budget 1948 version, shot in 23 days on a single set, with funny costumes and gloriously ripe accents, and Roman Polanski's, from 1971, infamous for its violent content, which was felt to be Polanski's  reflection of events surrounding the murder of his wife, several years previously.  So this latest version, from Australian director Justin Kurzel, maker of the harsh Adelaide serial-killer film "Snowtown", has certain standards to meet.  And against those two vastly different interpretations, he offers us a version which adheres to the modern vogue for upping the "reality quotient", most notably evident in war films, but which does so in a manner which is both startlingly visceral but also surprisingly quiet and perceptive as it opens out the text.

Starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, supported by David Thewlis, the ever excellent Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Elizabeth Debicki and the up-and-coming Jack Reynor amongst others, the film comes with a cast with a weighty pedigree.  But arriving to fanfares such as "Fassbender was born for this", the expectations seem on the high side.  As if to acknowledge that, the film opens with what amounts to a smack in the audience's face; but it's essential to the story as much physically as emotionally.  We see Macbeth and his wife burying their baby - unwritten in the play but possibly implied - in silent grief which screams volumes, and informs much of the couple's forthcoming troubles.  There follows a vicious battle scene, in which a war paint streaked Macbeth leads King Duncan's army to see off the treacherous Macdonwald.  It's highly stylized, mixing chilling, bloody action with moments of slow-motion, which effectively serve to focus in on particular characters.  Notably, at one point Macbeth appears to stand still as the battle rages around him, and the dead child soldiers he sees on the battlefield will come back to haunt him.  The witches - Weird Sisters - appear in a very downplayed manner; there's no "eye of of newt and toe of frog" type sorcery here.  When they make their prophesy to Macbeth, that he will become King, it's matter-of-fact.  Although their words are ultimately true - if selective in how and when they reveal that truth - it's never hysterical.  Macbeth seems entranced, and it's cleverly implied that they could be a figure of his battle-weary imagination.  

Indeed as the story unfolds, Macbeth is played as if he's suffering from shell-shock, post traumatic stress disorder, which would tally with the violence he, and we, have witnessed.  A military man numbed by slaughter, he's incapable of rational thought, let alone sound decision making.  So when Lady Macbeth hears of the prophesy and urges him to act, it's almost as if he's too tired to resist.  The scene in which he tells her he can't go through with it but she retorts by questioning his manhood is riven with sex; she pulls him into her whilst urging him to have the mettle to carry out the deed.  Sex and death, what mix more potent? 

Familiar readings have Macbeth as a simple tyrant, with his wife as a power-hungry schemer.  But as with the best productions it is much more subtle here.  Fassbender's noble Thane virtually sleepwalks into an act he admits is wrong, and over which he agonises; Cotillard's Lady appears more opportunistic, egging her husband on but safe in the knowledge of protection of his status if things go awry.  After the tragic consequences of their act - the blood curdling, brutal slaying of Duncan, and subsequent murder of his guards - begin to play out, and the roles within the marriage reverse, both actors produce some sublime work.

The increasingly paranoid Macbeth has scorpions in his mind, and whilst he wildly hallucinates - the ghost of Banquo appearing at the feast is played simply, coldly and brilliantly - his wife takes charge. When things do change, the actors come into their own.  Fassbender's portrayal of Macbeth's slide towards tyranny is stunning; the more he rediscovers his self confidence, the more it begins to compensate for a string of erratic brutal acts, including the murder of his best friends and allies. As an audience member one can feel for him as much as one abhors what's happening.  Cotillard,  in the often thankless, more measured role of Lady Macbeth, turns sympathy on its head.  Whilst definitely encouraging her husband towards his crime with slithery malice, and steadying him when he starts to lose the plot, her portrayal of a woman eventually confounded by grief, anguish and regret is nothing short of immense. Her final soliloquy, delivered in single, unbroken take, with a lone tear running down her face, is devastating, all the more so when it's revealed how and to whom  it's addressed. 

And for all the terror, paranoia, and escalating bloodshed, certain themes come strongly through.  The horrible actions of the central couple are cast in a light which, whilst not justifying them, at least comes some way to explanation.  Fassbender has said in interview "I don't think Macbeth is evil.  I think he's damaged".  This plays out as much about two people seeking a new opportunity to save themselves from their circumstance - and each other - as it does about a couple hungry for power.  Lady Macbeth seems desperate to re-connect with her husband after his long absence at war.   Children play a haunting, key role, from the absent infant buried at the start, to the youthful soldiers killed on the field of battle.  Few things can be as affecting as the loss of a young life.  Cinematically, light and dark have seldom been better employed.  The flickering candles in Macbeth's camp and his chapel, as Duncan is dispatched, are eerily numinous and beautiful; and once the new King and Queen move into the spectacular Royal seat at Dunsinane Castle the shafts of sunlight and shadow shining down through the majestic chambers seem to resemble prison bars.  The screenplay, credited to three writers in addition to William Shakespeare, makes hefty but economic cuts to the play.  But Kurzel articulates the visual poetry so effectively that much of the original descriptive verse isn't missed. The actors emote their lines instead of declaiming them and convey everything necessary.

The setting of this version is not modern, but the context in which it's depicted is - and urgently so.   The final battle, played out in a haze of smoke, illuminated a hellish orange (cleverly) by the fire burning as "Birnam Forest comes to Dunsinane", resembles something from "Apocalypse Now".  This picture is a worthy addition to the filmic canon of "the Scottish Play"; violent, passionate, visual, visceral, compelling, brilliantly acted, and perhaps crucially, easy to follow, it's a must see.  A certain favourite of Eng. Lit students for the foreseeable future.

Friday, 2 October 2015

I Was Monty's Double

I Was Monty's Double (1958) 

Starring M.E. Clifton James and John Mills
Directed by John Guillermin 

This remarkable, if somewhat curiously inauspicious film, tells the true story of a remarkable episode  from the Second World War; British Military Intelligence, who displayed something of a penchant and particular accomplishment for subterfuge and deception in their quiet war with the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) during the conflict, hatched a plot to try to convince the Nazis that the inevitable invasion of Europe would come from the South, rather than from France in the North, by having British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery sighted in the Mediterranean just days before the assault was launched.  As a favourite to be a senior figure in the Allied assault, if not Supreme Commander, surely it would be inconceivable that "Monty" wasn't with his troops on the eve of invasion.  A fortuitous sighting brought one Clifton James, known affectionately by his comrades as Jimmy, (not the chap who played the Sheriff in "Live and Let Die"!), a lowly Second Lieutenant in the Royal Army Pay Corps and an amateur actor, to their attention.  He bore a striking physical resemblance to the feted Field Marshall.  If he could play the biggest role of his life he could be sighted in various Mediterranean, North African and Middle Eastern locations in the days leading up to D-Day - June 6th 1944 - in the slim chance that the Germans would buy into the "open-topped secret" and could not be certain where the invasion was coming from.  Might this crazy plan just work?

The film, scripted by Bryan Forbes from James' own 1954 book, is notable for casting James as himself - playing Monty.  One might think that since he'd pulled off the ruse in real life, and would be playing himself, it wouldn't be a great challenge.  But the drama of the stage is very different from the drama played out in the theatre of war.  Clifton James is by far the greatest thing about the movie.  His performance is nuanced and breathtaking.  Bubbling and giddy when first approached about the job, anxious to please as he thinks he's up for a role in a recruitment film.  He displays touching uncertainty and nervousness when the scheme is laid before him, knowing the potential dangers.  And ultimately, monumental courage, which he - the man - doesn't milk.  But as he grows into the role the viewer can see that he gets a taste for it.  Being treated as a renowned Field Marshall, a warrior who has won victories over the estimable Rommel in North Africa, starts to affect him.  Jimmy bluffs his way through a series of tensely played potentially disastrous encounters, having to meet people who know the real Montgomery, under constant threat of exposure, with potentially fatal consequences, especially in the Iberian Peninsular which is riddled with enemy spies.  He grows in strength and confidence, most notably in the scene in which he has to give a speech to a group of less than impressed U.S G.I's about the coming "party".  Given a pre-approved script by Colonel Logan (Cecil Parker), he is instructed not to deviate one word from it.  But he goes down his own track.  His vision swims and he is clearly racked by stage fright.  But gradually he wins his skeptical audience over with jokes about cricket and baseball, and he's motoring.  It's an inspiring scene.

Many triumphalist scenes of "Monty" rallying the troops follow, and the tone is suitably rousing.  It's a typical 1950s British war film; the war had been one, but at a heavy price.  Empire had been lost and times had been hard.  John Addison's score, preformed by the London Sinfonia, is at times almost unbearably stirring.  But it's purpose is to rouse the audience of the time.  Things might be tough at the present time, but look what we did.  We defeated Nazism.  These men are heroes.  But heroism is a mighty task.  There's a pair of wonderfully touching scenes in which, firstly Jimmy is told that the big show is on the way, and his gig is over.  The sadness is visible in his face, as he realises he won't be able to tell anyone what he's done and will have to return to his old drab life, despite being comforted by his minder / companion Major Harvey (the utterly incomparable John Mills - what would a British WW2 film be without John Mills?!) that the Germans have held back a horde of troops instead of sending them to Northern France to repel the landings.  Latterly, in a tiny moment, he chats with a Sergeant, head of Security where he is, and asks if perhaps he might be permitted to share a drink with him.  In that moment his humanity and humility are back on show.  It's deeply affecting. 

 Director John Guillermin, who went on to make "The Towering Inferno" and "Death on the Nile"  amongst many others, and who sadly recently passed away, juggles bombast and melodrama with a surprising amount of humour, and some standout moments.  There's a vastly over-wrought final act, in which Monty is target for kidnap by the Germans, thanks to some nefarious spies (not sure about the historical validity of this part!).  But the scene in which they approach the house in which he's waiting to depart, features a great shot where the camera passes through the bushes outside and up to the door of the house.  When they get inside, he is listening to a gramophone, and the short scene plays out with no dialogue, no thundering score, but just with the loud music playing out.  It feels slightly more interesting than most films of the time.  There's just enough time for John Mills to perform his customary heroics in rescuing Jimmy from his abductors in time for an inspiring, flag-waving climax.  This story has been widely written about, but coincidentally I just read the excellent book "Double Cross" by Ben MacIntyre - highly recommended to all.  Whilst largely that's about equally outlandish history of the network of Double Agents run by Britain and later the US against the Germans and expounds on the various deceptions (building a "fake army" in Kent so that German spotter planes would be convinced the assault would come in the Pas-de-Calais, for example) , it does talk about the plan depicted in this picture.  I have yet to track down Jimmy's book but from what I understand, much of it is truthful, but then truth is often stranger than fiction.
This is a solid film, by turns funny, enjoyable, tense and exciting.  Clifton James was an ordinary fellow, thrust into an utterly surreal and unpredictable scenario, asked to perform a virtually impossible task under huge pressure.  The movie - known in the US under a few different titles I believe - is a huge tribute to the courage of such ordinary men who played such a large part in winning the war.  If you come across a copy or a showing on television, please do check it out.