Tuesday, 26 August 2008

We Own The Night (2007)

James Gray probably won't make a great film until he hires a scriptwriter. His over-fondness for contrived plotting and quoting other films without wit never keeps pace with his visual acumen and touch with actors. Nonetheless, the second ultra-dark neo-noir film I’ve seen this week isn’t as taut as Lumet’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, but it’s also, in some ways, richer in its palette. Like that film it begins with a provocatively sexy scene where the hero and his girl make out, instantly skewering the audience with carnal fantasy, establishing just what the “hero” does not want to lose, and few will blame him. This film represents a step forward for Gray, whose last film, The Yards, was done in by its embarrassing debt to On The Waterfront. But, as promised by his eye-catching debut, Little Odessa, his visual stylisation has achieved a pitch of mastery. We Own The Night does some quoting too – of The French Connection, Scorsese, and De Palma, but it’s a movie with internal integrity.

Visually, it's near-brilliant, with its carefully observed and detailed crowd scenes and group interactions, its lovingly shot and lit interiors, and dazzling, impressionistic action scenes, evoking a heady atmosphere. A car chase in the rain, and the final pursuit in a field of waving weeds, are beautifully conceived and executed sequences that the likes of Tarkovsky or Malick may have conjured if they hadn't artified themselves out of reach. Fate and fear stalk nightclub manager Joaquin Phoenix, forcing him to abandon his aspirational fantasies and take up the fierce warrior status he was born to – in this case his Brooklyn police family, with patriarch Robert Duvall and brother Mark Wahlberg already serving and pressing him to fight the good fight.

The film establishes an interesting note of socio-economic conflict, contrasting the ebullient, colourful, sexy nightclub world that Phoenix has conquered, with the parsimonious, ruggedly proletarian, permanently worried-looking cops he grew up amongst. At conflict are two families of Slavic immigrants – Phoenix’s family, the Grusinskys, with their air of stern moral rectitude, and the clan he’s been virtually adopted by, the Buzhayevs, whose air of fecund familial warmth and success is reassuring but is built from horror and exploitation. Phoenix soon forced to look some harsh truths in the face and decide where his loyalties lie. The twist that Gray produces from this generic set-up is the notion that in doing so Phoenix is swapping the life he loves for the life ordained for him – neither his values nor his sense of family loyalty let him retain his grasp on that gilded, sensual demimonde. The finale sees him assured in his righteousness, having hunted down and shot a man, and had to abandon everything that he dreamed of, in favour of what he thinks is right. It’s an interesting spin on The Godfather’s journey for Michael Corleone, whose loyalty dictated he abandon righteousness – the same process is as dourly necessary for Phoenix, just as cheerless, and, it so happens, in the opposite direction. Adherence to conscience can be a gruelling thing.

Despite Gray's limitations, he's conjured a multi-levelled work, an interesting way to white-ant standard portrayals of glamorised law enforcement, in the likes of, say, Bad Boys, where there’s no conflict between a desire to live the high life - enjoy the American Dream at its glutting finest - and the need to fight for what’s right – that is, defend that dream for other, disinterested people. The film further eats away at macho cliché, in using Wahlberg, the relentless hard-ass of Scorsese’s snappier but less substantial The Departed, as the brother who initially also seems to be an icon of tough, but who finishes the film suffering from post-traumatic stress, sharing haunted, almost pathetic expressions of love with his brother, clinging to each-other in a harsh world. It would make an interesting double bill, too, with Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises – both films have villains based on the same real-life Russian gangster. If Cronenberg’s film was slack in narrative in favour of exploring perverse textures of sex and violence, and We Own The Night too smooth ultimately in purveying a familiar arc in maintaining its pose as a genre film, both movies do fascinating, subversive things to the crime flick.

House of the Seven Corpses (1974)

Occasionally intriguing but ultimately shoddy schlock-horror. A film crew shoot a very low-budget horror flick about the Beales, a wealthy clan with a fondness for the occult, on location in the family manor. The last Beale, David (Jerry Strickler), has suggested the project about his own family history, to cash-strapped director (John Ireland), a Jacques Tourneur-like specialist in witchcraft pictures, and gotten himself into the cast. But, of course, not everything is as it seems. It’s almost a horror film equivalent of Day For Night, going into detail in portraying tight-budget filmmaking, and focusing a surprising amount on the interactions and tensions between the flaky, half-desperate movie folk.

Two of the titular seven

The trouble is, you get the feeling Ireland would do a better job than actual director Paul Harrison manages. The editing, pacing, and dramatic values are slip-shod, and the plot nearly incoherent. Ever noticed how, when movies are being made within bad movies like this one, they’re only ever staged either in unnaturally long, one-take single set-ups? Or the exact opposite - there’ll be a long sequence (where the film is trying to fool us) that turns out to be one being shot for the fake movie, utilising multiple camera set-ups and special effects all of which are impossible to achieve in one take on the set? That sort of cheating drives me nuts.
The film generates a modicum of atmosphere in the middle, in its resolutely low-tech fashion, but it suffers from a fatal lack of internal sense, both in its story and its opportunistic scene constructions. One shot of a zombie crossing a clearing is repeated three times. Ed Wood would have laughed at that one. The movie biz satire is blunted by providing only regulation stereotypes – hard-assed, obsessed director whose glory days are long gone; bitchy, febrile, aging diva (Faith Domergue, who still couldn't act); alcoholic Shakespeare quoting ham (Charles Macaulay); pretty but shakily talented starlet (Carole Wells); nerdy crew members, etc. John Carradine collects a quick paycheque as the caretaker. It all leads to a blunt piece of death-by-irony when Ireland, more disturbed by the destruction of his film than by the death of his cast and crew, has a camera dropped on his head from a great height.
By the time the exceedingly...slow...moving...zombies somehow bumped off everyone, I was pretty glad of it.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

One From The Heart (1982)

A super-stylised neo-musical directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Frederic Forrest, and with a score by Tom Waits. Okay, I admit, I was sold long before I saw it. This film feels like a broadcast from the nexus of some alternate reality, where Coppola ran his very own studio, when Raul Julia was a lithe, sexy, magnetic actor, when Nastassja Kinski was Hollywood’s most perversely elfin siren, and Forrest could cut it as romantic lead.

But Francis Ford Coppola’s gradual fall from grace can be traced from this film. Fall? It’s true that Coppola started to be more interested in staging fancy pictures than he did in sustaining dramatic elements in his films around this time, to the point where works like Rumblefish, Peggy Sue Got Married and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are more like conceptual coffee table books rather than actual movies. And one could accuse One From The Heart as a symptom of this development – it’s a virtually plotless yarn about two lovers (Frederick Forrest and Teri Garr), celebrating their fifth “un-marriage” anniversary of being a couple, break up for two days and pursue brief affairs with strangers before reuniting.

But One From The Heart is a gorgeous exercise, a dreamy escapade for Coppola. Like Hammett, Coppola's troubled collaboration with Wim Wenders and Forrest, it's a triumphant attempt to explore the curiously intense moods that could be wrung out of the fakery of Old Hollywood stylisation, married to modern, de-romanticised material. It’s short and vivacious enough to sustain its pursuit of mood and texture, and anticipates his daughter Sofia’s similar experimentation with the promotion of mise-en-scene, and mutual orchestration of sound and image, over narrative. Many of the movie brats were deeply intrigued by the aesthetics of the Punk/New Wave era, and a pop-art influenced clash between realism and self-conscious artifice in the cinema. Scorsese meditated on this point with New York, New York (with which One From The Heart could be said to belong with in the brief, highly unpopular genre of the New Wave Anti-Musical, along with the likes of All That Jazz, Absolute Beginners, and Pennies From Heaven). One From The Heart tackles the problem more with a perspective of refined sentiment.

The lovers, Hank and Frannie, are not young romantics but aging dreamers who dreams and youth are both fading, their relationship has settled into routine, and they are both beset by ensuing anxiety. They bust up in a moment of searing mutual indictment, revealing knowledge of affairs and accusations of no longer caring about themselves or each-other. Frannie moves in with her friend and co-worker in the travel agency she works in (Lainie Kazan), whilst Hank berates his amigo (Harry Dean Stanton), with whom he runs a wrecking yard outside town, for kissing Frannie at New Year’s, but ends up crying on his shoulder. Both vengefully hit the town, Frannie falling into the arms of smooth latin singing waiter Ray (Julia), and Hank hits on waifish, radiantly oddball German circus performer Leila (Kinski), getting a date with her after mumbling and fumbling his way through an act of gallantry. “That’s the most improbable thing I’ve ever seen!” Stanton murmurs amazedly. .

In the course of their night out, the film, already stylised with its studio-era style sets and obvious backdrops, slips into a fantasia, as the characters project the glitziest possible glaze onto the often sordid surrounds and situations – Frannie and Ray dance their way down the strip, and Hank and Leila make out after she tightropes walks across the Vegas skyline, and he conducts an orchestra of cars. The next morning Hank realises his mistake and determinedly hunts down Frannie, dragging her out of Ray's bed and wheeling her away. But Frannie is set on leaving town with Ray, leaving on a plane for LA despite Hank despairingly singing a terrible rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” to her in the terminal. Hank returns home to weep, but Frannie walks back in, having caught the first plane back.

The film is infused by Coppola’s extraordinary visual compositions and montages, and driven by a brilliant soundtrack provided by Waits (often duetting with Crystal Gayle), truly a soul-mate for this kind of enterprise, dealing as Waits’ oeuvre does with similar contrasts. Forrest, one of the finest actors alive, gained some leading parts from Coppola after his eye-catching supporting role in Apocalypse Now, and he’s wonderful as Hank, particularly in his more physical moments, like when he climbs onto the roof of Ray and Frannie’s hotel room with a foot on a maid’s platter, and then carries a nearly naked Garr out on his back. Garr herself, with her kissable lips and expressive eyes, is wonderful in swapping Frannie’s dowdy weekday glasses for racy red dress and venturesome sass. Despite the technical showiness and lightness of plot, One From The Heart has an imperatively personal feel, as if the film was both a calming-down from, and yet also an exorcism of, the emotional disaster area that was Coppola’s life before and during the Apocalypse Now shoot. The title is honest - the film is from the heart, and serious in a rich but unobvious fashion – the finale of the film is joyous precisely because it looks into the depths most musicals never dared glance at.

It’s intriguing to note the presence of Kinski and Stanton, who would enact a vastly different variation on the same tale in Wenders’ and Shepherd’s Paris, Texas (1984).

The Box Office Winners and Losers of 1982

I’ve had a book on my shelves for years, “The Film Year Book 1983”, edited by Al Clark and printed by Virgin Books, that provides me with an invaluable snapshot of the formation of current Hollywood, encompassing as it does the end of the brief reign of the auteur in Hollywood. I was brought back to it by viewing Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart, one of the more infamous flops coinciding with several other mammoth failures by the ‘70s artistes of American. The Year Book’s list of winners and losers is revealing:

The Winners:
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Superman II
On Golden Pond
The Cannonball Run II
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
Rocky III
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The Losers:
One From The Heart
Blow Out
Honky Tonk Freeway
Blow Out
Pennies From Heaven
Shoot The Moon
All The Marbles
(almost a tie with Cannery Row and Whose Life Is It, Anyway?)

And Heaven’s Gate, falling just outside the time range of this list, but with a long article in the book on its making and fate, still sending shockwaves through Hollywood.

Of course, you can’t generalise too much – Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek II, Superman II, and E.T. are superlative fantasy films, and Rocky III, and Stripes are likable retro trash. And the likes of Condorman, All The Marbles (sorry, Bob Aldrich), and Honky Tonk Freeway deserve their fates. But one can’t ignore the patterns in the list – fantasy, sex farce, and action were in, whilst dramas, neo-musicals, and auteurist visions were out. And for the most part that’s pretty well where we still are, although Disney no longer tries to give adult appeal to its films with violence and nudity, as with Dragonslayer, but with pseudo-satirical humour, and Miramax would learn how to offer us the boutique faux art-house drama.

But the fact is, I think many film fans are more likely to revisit films on the Losers list than the Winners list. The likes of One From The Heart, Ragtime, Heaven’s Gate, Blow Out, and Reds dwarf crap like The Cannonball Run II, Rocky III, and Porky’s, and a limp weepy like On Golden Pond. Perhaps what is most disturbing is observing how the critics of the period – our so–called cultural guardians – collaborated in the annihilation of individualism of Hollywood. Far from defending the eccentric vision of the likes of Coppola, Cimino, and Forman, the critics of the time made meals of their bones. Because – and this is a sad truth – whilst critics do often stand for what is fine and lost in cinema culture, they are also talented at leaping on the cultural bandwagon, and know never to tie themselves to a loser. Considering the criticisms levelled at the layered dramatics of many of those films for being distant and full of uninvolving characters, which is rubbish, it’s clear that critics, like audiences at large, were undergoing a kind of sugar withdrawal from the obviousness of Hollywood tradition. It was the cinematic equivalent of Reaganism.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Sea of Sand (1958)

Pomposity and cliché - both narrative and moral - tend to dog war movies, and it’s worth remarking upon when a film in the genre goes for the rigorous, fatalistic tone of classic noir cinema. Sea of Sand comes close. It has some cliché elements, mostly in the casting – Richard Attenborough playing yet another Cockney skiver, for instance – but this film settles for a nearly unique lack of BS. The plot – men of the British Long Range Desert Group stage a long-distance raid on Rommel’s supply dumps in the days before El Alamein.

The characters – a mob of “pirates”, tatty, batty dregs of the Commonwealth’s armed forces, led by grizzled, sour ex-architect Michael Craig, backed up by newly attached officer John Gregson, a professional soldier and family man. The men alternate doing their job with informal stoicism with griping, fantasising, sneaking a drink, and stealing cigarettes. It’s splendidly convincing in detailing their prickly, bored camaraderie, as the men, both blue and white collar, professional and drafted, all treat warfare as just another, particularly shitty, job, which gets them through the day, and yet also blinds them to the final, overwhelming realisation that it can really mean annihilation. Their mission is beset by misfortune, as they battle German patrols and the elements to achieve their objective, and then make an agonising trek back to base, their numbers and vehicles brutally whittled down until a handful of them are left to march through searing desert.

The film’s one hint of romantic interest is Craig’s torn-up photo of his soon-to-be-former wife. Former ace cinematographer Guy Green directs with a no-frills stringency, avoiding melodramatics and jingoism with a passion, and refusing to play by the usual rules of who lives and dies in such a tale - the wrong people keep dying, and the survivors, exhausted and bewildered, are finally confronted by a kind of triumph that's only cheering because it means sooner or later, this monumental nightmare will end. Craig gives a fine, brusquely anti-heroic performance, and a very young Barry Foster makes a mark as a jittery new transfer.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru, 1960)

Akira Kurosawa also had a taste for the apocalyptic, and here, perhaps more than in any other film except for Ran, he gives into this desire to look the worst in the face. It’s not quite in the top echelon of his films, not as kaleidoscopic in its thoughts and feelings as The Seven Samurai or Red Beard, or as terse and rigorously plotted as High and Low, with some off-kilter melodrama at its core. But it’s still a fixating, almost overwhelmingly dark piece of cinema, and between this and High and Low, one begins to feel that Kurosawa’s filmmaking was its most awesomely confident in noir. The subject of The Bad Sleep Well is corporate corruption and malfeasance, the method is to quote Shakespearean plot refrains within the greater texture of a vast put-down of post-War Japanese society. It makes a film like Michael Clayton look piddling both in terms of its cynicism, and its dramatic and cinematic range.

The inexhaustible Toshiro Mifune plays Nishi, the ex-used car salesman who marries the cripple daughter, Yoshiko (Kyôko Kagawa), of the Vice-President of the anonymous-sounding Public Company, Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori). Most think Nishi’s trying to make a quick leap up the corporate ladder, but his real motives are more mysterious than anyone can imagine. The film’s complex plot is set in motion in a breathtaking half-hour opening, at Nishi and Yoshiko’s wedding, as policemen keep dragging away guests for questioning about an erupting corruption scandal, where the company has been receiving huge kickbacks for public works contracts. A crowd of chorus-like reporters flock about the wedding and point out the various figures to each-other – and us – and remark with high sarcasm on the proceedings. “This is a great one-act,” one says. “One-act? This is just the prelude!” another assures. In his speech, Iwabuchi’s depressed, tippling son, Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi), who introduced Nishi to Yoshiko, threatens to kill him if he ever hurts her. At this wedding, it’s refreshingly direct, as the other speakers, high bureaucrats and executives all, obfuscate and excuse themselves in endless clichés.

The epic opening wedding banquet: Yoshiko is brought in, supported by her mother, the wooden support shoe she wears making its clattering music.
Wada, called from his duties, confronted by police and journalists.
Moriyama (Takeshi Shimura) tensely proposes a toast, aware of the arrests.

The corks pop like a firing squad.

Tatsuo knows what to with champagne - drink it.

Visual tension - the conformity of the wedding guests/corporate people, with the looser, more individual poses of the sarcastic, observing reporters.

Tatsuo, about to warn Nishi of the dangers of harming his sister.

Nishi and Yoshiko, the happy couple.
The public nature of the wedding banquet is soon swapped for a suffocating psychological and interpersonal intensity. The Public Company’s executives are soon revealed as having the awesome power to destroy people with an order – one of their arrested bookkeepers throws himself under a truck, and another, Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara), a small, fluttering man, goes to hurl himself into a volcano – but Nishi prevents him. Instead, in a dizzying scene, he forces him to watch his own funeral, and listen to a tape recording outlining his bosses’ complete disregard for his presumed sacrifice. Instead Nishi uses Wada in his programme to destroy the executives one by one, up to and including his father-in-law, in revenge for his own father’s death by suicide, forced by the company five years earlier. Nishi appears implacable and cruel, but in fact he’s straining to be as savage as his opponents, with a basic decency in him that blocks him from fighting them as psychopathically as they can. His efforts drive one executive crazy, almost a mockery of his intentions. Iwabuchi is defined in the fashion few villains had been in the cinema, but would later become very familiar post-The Godfather, as the sort of man who can be cheerfully barbecuing one minute, and order a man’s murder the next. Nishi, however, must work himself into an agonised fury to push himself to revenge. However, despite all intentions, he falls in love with the crippled but game Yoshiko. Kurosawa’s crux of tragedy, then, comes in analysing how hard it is for a moral, feeling person to fight debased, distant assassins cocooned by power and privilege. Nishi’s frenzied efforts consume his willpower, and whilst it’s not so hard for him to smash down the slick facades of the executives, but the cost to himself is vast.

Nishi intervenes to stop Wada's suicide.
The Bad Sleep Well has an interesting forestalling structure. The main characters barely speak in the first half-hour, as the power and personal relationships are spelt out by journalists and lackeys. To a certain extent this is the point, as humanity has been replaced by codified relations of advantage and subservience, and the truth of the characters can only make itself apparent slowly, in the shadows. This does, however, slightly curb Kurosawa’s gift for exploring his characters, who only come into the light too late. Instead, Nishi’s slightly too baroque methods of destroying his opponents, like having Wada constantly reveal himself to one executive who begins to crack up, strains credibility. But the film, despite its glaze of nuclear-age realism, is really a heightened Jacobean piece, nearly a horror film. The film builds itself broadly around ideas taken from Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, and even Romeo and Juliet. Broadly speaking, Iwabuchi is Claudius, and Nishi is Hamlet, but not as reflective – he has a semi-articulate confusion, consuming others in his quest to cleanse the world. Tatsuo is Laertes, though he really possesses more of Hamlet’s assailed soul, and Yoshiko is Ophelia, though in some ways closer to Titus’ Lavinia, and unlike either, Nishi pays her the compliment in eventually of asking for her engaged moral maturity; if she wants to love him, she must acquiesce to her father’s deserved punishment. It’s not, I think, coincidental that the film’s most crucial truths, both positive – like Yoshiko and Nishi’s final reconciliation – and dreadful – Nishi’s fate – can only unfold underground, far from the gaze of the modern world. Wada, a manipulated, meek man, is forced to watch his own funeral, hear his own life reduced to a glib conversation before a roll with a prostitute, and plays his own ghost, acknowledging that he already was one. That he tries, in the end, to act humanely, actually sets in motion the destruction of all – the cluelessly conscientious are the most endangered.
Attending your own funeral: "Why are you doing this to me?"

The importance of acknowledgement: Wada finds some thing should not have to be seen, but must be seen nonetheless...

...as his wife and daughter and the bosses who betrayed him pay him homage.

Despite the familiar basis, the film’s plot never progresses in a predictable fashion. We dread that this game will chew up some innocent, but just who it will be remains a taunting threat through the picture. Kurosawa pitches some scenes close to black comedy, like the stark contrast between the grim men’s business Nishi commits himself to, with his prevaricating unease in contemplating buying a bouquet for Yoshiko, as an overture to a proper wedding night, one that will never come, as his identity is blown. Nishi and Yoshiko later have a heartbreaking reunion, where her own hobbling of the leg, caused in a childhood accident with self-accusing Tatsuo, matches Nishi’s hobbled soul, bent out of shape by his own complex relationship with his foolish father. Thus, the film becomes an explicit generation parable, establishing the anger and disappointment, and also longing, sustained between men of Kurosawa's age and the elders.

Vice-President Iwabachi...at the seat of power...

...and at home, with Yukisho, playing the good papa.
Shirai (Kô Nishimura) walks home, only to see...

...a ghost, or what's left of Wada.
Kurosawa’s filmmaking is often at its most exquisite, particularly in his use of sound, like the champagne corks that pop like a firing squad at the wedding, and the caustically appropriate way Nishi’s recording of the executives accords with their hypocritical bows and fawning at Wada’s fake funeral. His Tohoscope framings are as intricate and deeply composed, and yet unstudied, as ever, especially in the ballet of introduced detail and occurence that is the opening.
Impossible desire: Nishi and Yukisho.

A junkie assassin sent to kill the unravelling Shirai, interrupted.

The conspirators survey the world they've inherited.
The final act revolves around one of Kurosawa’s beloved blasted wastelands, this one the ruin of a steel factory that Nishi and his partner in vengeance (Takeshi Katô) worked in as teenagers, during the war. Kurosawa makes a clear analogy both with the threat of nuclear holocaust, and the fear that the annihilated world the young men ascended into has not really grown back in any moral or emotional sense. The film takes broad aim at a modern world given over to incredible greed and consumerist fancy. The awesome hegemony of the Company is identified as extending pre-War, wrapping the proceedings with an aggrieved sense of accusation at the willingness of the Imperial-era government and its successors, the still-feudal corporations, to wrap themselves in banners of righteousness and rely on their servant’s unquestioning conformity and loyalty, to sacrifice themselves for their superiors. Kurosawa takes deadly aim at this conformity, which is so ingrained that Nishi’s mission ultimately proves impotent – it’s left to a drunk and crippled girl to make a last stand for decency, one that’s barely noticed by their father as he makes obsequious pleas to his remote and unseen President.

Driven underground - Nishi and Itakura grill Moriyama.

Nishi and Yokisho reunited...

...and reach an emotional impasse.

Yoshiko and Tatsuo, too late to the rescue.


The end of Nishi's plot.

Too little, too late.