Monday, September 26, 2011

The Spy Who Came in From the Heat

Adapted by Graham Greene from his own source novel, Our Man in Havana is a Cold War comedy with a 'fall of Empire' subtext. Directed by Carol Reed, who famously collaborated with Orson Welles on The Third Man (1949) and later won Best Picture and Best Director awards for Oliver! (1968), it could have only come out of Great Britain.

Cuba. 1959. Months before the revolution.

Alec Guinness is an effeminate vacuum cleaner salesman who dotes on his attractive young daughter and wants nothing more than to earn enough money to send her to an expensive finishing school in Switzerland. So, when an English gentleman, carrying an umbrella, propositions him in a bar room lavatory, he agrees to co-operate with whatever clandestine activities the mysterious stranger has planned.

I know what you must be thinking, and it isn't that. Well, not quite. The English gentleman is a British Secret Service agent who wants Alec Guinness to be his Man in Havana, providing social and economic intelligence for Queen and country. That other thing is certainly simmering just below the surface though, which, for a film made and released in 1959 is risqué to say the least.

The film is a comedy of the absurd, ridiculing British superiority and British manners. How many American films can you name in which officials are unable to distinguish between the East and West Indies and are complicit in intelligence fraud so as to avoid egg on face?

No. American spies are invariably roguish, ultra-bright MIT, Harvard and Stanford graduates fighting against the inequities of foreign despotic regimes, and, occasionally, their American equivalent; close kin of David Duchovny's Fox Mulder in the X-Files. That is unless they are appearing in an Oliver Stone film. But even his films were post-Vietnam, post-Watergate. For a film made in the 1950s to poke fun at its national institutions in such an uncompromising manner was truly radical, and, I would argue, uniquely British.

The post is part of the 'British Picture' series, an explication that genuine British cinema is one with a radical and pioneering spirit. A far cry from the bonnets and floppy haircuts with which British cinema is all too readily associated.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Revenger's Tragedy

Alex Cox's 2007 'microfeature' Searcher's 2.0 is currently available to watch on the BBC iPlayer and I personally recommend that everyone who has the chance take the opportunity to watch it before it disappears on 1st October.

Alex Cox is a unique voice in British cinema. An eccentric writer/director who makes most of his movies in the United States and is one of a very rare breed of genuinely independent filmmakers who has zero involvement with the big six Hollywood studios (more on which, later). Excepting his UCLA Film School project Edge City/Sleep is for Sissies, Cox's first feature film was cult favourite Repo Man (1984), starring Emilio Estevez as a 'punk' kid inducted into a seedy underworld populated by hoods, gangsters, spooks, aliens, conspiracy nuts and a mad nuclear scientist driving around LA with a neutron bomb in the trunk of his car. It was the critical and commercial success of his next film, however, Sid & Nancy (1986), about the drug-addled relationship between Sex Pistols 'bassist' Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, which brought Cox to the attention of the Hollywood producers he would later alienate.

The suits even offered Cox the chance to work on one of their big budget star vehicles, a film about three hapless actors mistaken for the heroic gunslingers they portray on screen who are then tasked with protecting a Mexican farming village from a gang of vicious banditos. Cox asked if he could rewrite the script. The studio refused. The Three Amigos (1986) (heard of it?), directed by John Landis, starring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short, went on to be one of the highest grossing films of the year. In its stead, Cox made Straight to Hell (1987), a spoof Spaghetti Western starring Joe Strummer, Shane McGowan and Courtney Love, which tanked.

What happened next was probably the decisive moment in Alex Cox's career. With six million dollars in financing from Universal Studios, Cox set about making a film about 19th century American filibuster William Walker, a man who invaded Mexico and declared himself President of Nicaragua shortly thereafter. Cox gained the support of the Nicaraguan government and the Catholic Church for his film which drew direct political parallels with contemporary American interventions in Latin America, specifically CIA funding of the Contras and other anti-Sandinista rebels. The notoriously conservative film establishment reacted badly, Cox alienating just about every Hollywood money man in the process.

So, that is the background.

Searchers 2.0 itself is a comedy drama about two out of work B-movie actors who travel across America to Monument Valley in order to enact revenge on a sadistic screenwriter. The film contains numerous allusions to 1956 John Ford classic The Searchers, about a racist Confederate war veteran called Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in one of his best and most daring roles) and his search for his young niece and the Comanche tribe which abducted her four years earlier. The 2.0 part is a reference to the fact that the film was exclusively shot on digital video, to which end, Searcher's 2.0 is an effortlessly contemporary film, littered with references to George W. Bush, unemployment, Naomi Klein, popular culture, paranoia, drugs and automobile mileage.

Not nearly as explosive as some of Cox's earlier efforts, Searcher's 2.0 is a melancholy film about two older men who find a sense of purpose in their morally dubious quest for revenge. Not to say that the film is pretentious or preachy. There is violence, swearing, surreal dream sequences and dry humour, everything is shot through with Cox's Spaghetti Western/punk sensibility and the occasional pomposity of the characters is consistently undermined – Cox has a definite knack with oft-kilter framing and memorable lines.

Be warned, the film is not a 'Film Film', to coin a very clumsy phrase. You would do well not to expect any big plot twists or sympathetic characters. The 'handles' Hollywood movies typically rely on in order to engage an audience are notably absent and, while trusting people to engage their brains might seem risky, it is also much more rewarding in the long run. The film is very cine-literate, it makes constant references to other movies and consistently breaks the 'fourth wall' with characters talking direct to camera; there are long explications about the best screen actors of all time, what constitutes a great film western and the role that revenge dramas play in a civilised society. The film's dialogue is wonderfully deadpan, closely mirroring how people actually speak, as opposed to how they speak in movies, whether they are reminiscing about old times, ordering food or pontificating on the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

A rare treat.

This post is part of the 'British Picture' - The Revenger's Tragedy - Keyword description

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A British Picture

According to bequiffed British film critic Mark Kermode, "Ken Russell's mum used to have this phrase; 'Is it a British picture?' And what she meant by that was, 'Is it full of people doing the washing up, in black-and-white, in Ealing'"

British cinema was frequently caricatured as a damp, drab, kitchen-sink counterpoint to more exciting and glamourous Hollywood fare. But while Mrs Russell was simply reflecting the dominant view of the time in which she was living - the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s - nobody today has the same excuse.

The question, 'what is British cinema?' is harder to answer than one might think. Is a British film one that passes the UK Film Council 'Cultural Test'? Is it a film that is made in Britain by a British cast and crew using British money? Or is it something else entirely? One thing I know for sure is that the kind of films which tend to be trumpetted as examplars of British cinema - either period/costume dramas, films about the royal family or films starring Hugh Grant - present a nostalgic, soppy, sentimental view that I, as a Brit and as a film fan, find faintly embarrassing.

If we are going to compete in a competitive cultural landscape, we have got to put our best foot forward, and I would argue that the best of way of doing that is to champion the work of the many maverick direcors who have given British cinema a unique voice, not found anywhere. The likes of Powell & and Pressburger, David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock (before he moved to Hollywod), Lindsay Anderson, Nicholas Roeg, Mike Hodges, Stanley Kubrick (I'm claiming him), Terry Gilliam (yes, him too), Alex Cox, Danny Boyle, Michael Winterbottom and Shane Meadows. Ken Russell himself, of course, made the kinds of films that aim a cannonball at the rigging of the British cinema establishment, splintering it into a million little pieces . Tommy, The Devils and The Music Lovers, among many others, are all filled with sex, violence and Catholic imagery.

While British cinema rarely has the polished sheen of its trans-Atlantic cousin, like that sweater your grandmother knitts for you every Christmas, you almost like it all the more for its baggy, ill-fitting, hand-made charm. It is precisely that sometimes ramshackle quality that I want to celebrate, by bringing to people's attention films that are perhaps less widely known, in the hope that I might reinvigorate and reclaim the phrase, 'A British Picture'. - A British Picture - Keyword description

Friday, September 16, 2011

Spy Games

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a fabulously well made film. You cannot fault it for technical proficiency or period detail. It has a stellar cast: Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones - French distributor Studio Canal has clearly spent top dollar on the sets, the cars and the clothes, and Swedish director Tomas Alfredson is still riding high on the wave of critical adoration that made his previous film, Let the Right One In, a crossover hit in 2008.

Maybe I didn't do the film any favours by literally reading the book this week.

Maybe it is unfair to compare the film with the television series, which is widely acknowledged as a classic of the format.


and it is with a heavy heart that I say this, I was disappointed.

Probably I built it up too much in my head - the laudatory quotes and five star reviews on the poster certainly didn't help - but that is how I felt.

Trying to be fair, maybe I need to see it again. I was disappointed by the film version of V for Vendetta the first time I saw it, but now consider it to be an interesting and entertaining piece of work in it's own right.

So, where to begin?

The cast, which looks so good on paper, like a football team struggling for form, never quite 'gels'. While Gary Oldman is invisible inside the role of George Smiley (made famous by Alec Guinness ) - not for a moment do you think you are watching the same man who played Dracula, Sid Vicious or Drexl Spivey - some of the British 'made for TV' actors are harder to take seriously. Kathy Burke as love-starved spy madame, Connie Sachs is particularly incongruous, but Sherlock Holmes, Caesar, King George the Sixth and Trigger fair little better. Benedict Cumberbatch, who was terrific as Sherlock Holmes in Mark Gattis and Steven Moffat's modern day updating, doesn't seem to have the stomach to play Peter Guillam, the man who heads the Scalphunters. He fails to exhibit the sort of steel one might expect from the man tasked with marshaling the troops amongst the meanest of all the MI6 divisions, the others of which are no shrinking violets, of course. Whereas the actors in the TV series were all clearly grown-ups, with the exception of Oldman and Hurt, the actors in this film come across like children playing dress up.

But boy do they know how to dress. Every haircut, every mini skirt, every corduroy trouser is recreated in painstaking period detail and (one assumes) accuracy. If only the kind of care and attention given to the popping of a Trebor mint in the mouth had been given to the script, which, all too often replaces Le Carre's colloquial aphorisms with crude and banal explanation. It is perhaps a minor point, but I don't think there is a single swear word in Le Carre's 1974 book, nor in the BBC's 1979 TV series, so why the need to add them in now?

What was subtext in the book and TV show is rendered as supertext in the film. Characters all too often explain what they are thinking and how they feel, as opposed to letting the audience figure it out for themselves. In the TV series, the threat of violence said so much more than a throat hacked open or a disgorged corpse lying in a bath tub of it's own blood, entrails spilling out over it's legs.

The ironical and ultra-bright Oxford and Cambridge graduates who run London Station, as well as the field operatives who are trusted to undertake missions all over the world, are shown to be just as crass and inept as the man next door, which was certainly not the case in the book. Not to say that the characters in Le Carre's novel are incorruptible automatons. Far from it. Many of them were much more deeply damaged than those depicted in the film, but all of them were at least logical and clever people with complex and contradictory motivations. Here, however, sensibilities are coarsened and subtleties ironed out, in order to make them more palatable for mainstream consumption.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that this is a European film with a European sensibility. Funded by the French, directed by a Swede, it never seems to take the idea of British Intelligence very seriously. There is no sense of context given to what are, on the surface at least, trivial matters. A more rigorous film might have started with some sort of newsreel footage, explaining that the Cold War was real, it was earnest and it was a very high stakes game. The ideological battle between the West on one side and the USSR on the other mattered because there was an absolute difference between the two. That is important. But one doesn't get the sense that the filmmakers really believe it, which is odd given the seriousness with which the director handled the fantastic subject of vampires in his previous film.

I went into this film with the best will in the world, anticipating something really great and wanting it to work for me too. Regretfully, I came out disappointed, even though the critical consensus tells me what I watched was a - Spy Games - Keyword description

Monday, September 12, 2011

Strictly No Originality

Winter is coming and television schedules have a very familiar look, largely because we have literally seen it all before. The BBC is playing host to yet another series of celebrity love-in/bitching contest, Strictly Come Dancing; ITV is home to yet another series of Simon Cowell’s sickly sentimental/vicariously vicious singing contest, X Factor; and, for reasons that are wholly commercial, Channel Five has decided to resurrect that moribund format, Big Brother.

This is the kind of thing that gives me nightmares. I take film and television much too seriously and I worry: is this the best that we can do? Is culture going to move forward? Have we really run out of ideas? Do the people who watch these shows actually enjoy them or are they the unwitting victims of a 21st century form of mass hysteria, propagated by a media industry that wants nothing more than to keep people docile in order to manipulate them into buying yet more of the same product? I just don’t know.

Not that lack of originality is only a prime time television problem. 2011 will see the release of more film sequels than any other year in recorded history (27, if you must know). Moreover, far from being subject to the ‘law of diminishing returns’ that previously governed Hollywood sequeldom – prior to around 2000, movie sequels were expected to make roughly 2/3rds as much money as their immediate predecessor – cash-ins on existing properties have never been more popular. Presently, seven of the Top Ten Highest Grossing Films of the Year, and nine of the top twelve, are sequels, spin-offs or remakes. Are producers giving audiences what they want (the films’ success would seem to indicate that they are) or are consumers simply being forced to accept a narrower choice?

Certainly, ‘established properties’ are the order of the day in Hollywood. We have already had films based on a Hasbro toy range (Transformers) and another based on a Disney theme park ride (Pirates of the Caribbean). A film based on popular children’s board game Battleships (Battleship) is already in the works and Ridley Scott is rumoured to be circling around a possible Monopoly movie. Expect films based on Captain Planet, Thundercats and Masters of the Universe (I am not joking), followed by Hollywood adaptations of The Samurai Pizza Cats, Captain Bucky O’Hare, Bill & Ben and Muffin the Mule (I might be joking).

I am reminded of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which the crew is trapped in a time loop, the only escape from which comes when they avert the destruction of the Enterprise. I think our situation is similar, although I would suggest an alternative prescription – the opposite, in fact. In order to escape, we may need to destroy the Enterprise. Figuratively speaking that is.

Before we get to the possible cure, however, it is important to ensure that we have correctly diagnosed the symptoms. Part of me is tempted to offer a purely Marxist analysis. The list of conspirators who might be involved in a deliberate plan to perpetuate a miserable media mediocrity is almost endless – Simon Cowell, the Murdochs, the BBC, Twitter, Facebook, the Google guys and Bruce Forsyth, to name just a few. But that is far from a satisfactory explanation. The diagnosis I would tend towards is both simpler and more complex. Certainly, money is an important motivation and while consumers continue to buy the product with which they are presented, major studios will continue to serve up more of the same. If people stopped going to watch the likes of Transformers 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 4 and Fast & the Furious 5, things would change. And, who knows? Maybe some original content would be produced. Crucially, however, I think the people who are making the film, TV and music that the rest of us have to either endure or ignore are just not that good. Simple as that. They are doing the best that they can, they simply lack the talent or imagination to produce anything that communicates any sort of meaning.

To those who might suggest that I am imposing elitist criteria on subject matter that doesn’t ought to be taken so seriously, I respond thusly: if elitism means setting standards that distinguish one piece of work from another and posits that it is possible to create films or programmes that are distinctly better or worse than others in terms of their ambition and their artistry, then you can call me an elitist and I will wear that badge with pride. However, it is also instructive to look at how what we mean by ‘mainstream’ has changed in recent years and, specifically, over the last 10. In what I think was 2003, there was a feature in Empire magazine in which the writers were encouraged to debunk a piece of received wisdom: one contributor argued Forrest Gump was a more deserving winner of the 1994 Best Picture Oscar than fellow nominees, Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption, while another espoused the virtues of Flash Gordon and denounced Star Wars as farcical trash. Those were fun, but one contribution really stood out. It stood out at the time and now, 10 years hence, it appears increasingly prescient. He or she (I can’t remember) argued that while Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings were both good films in and of themselves, they risked providing an inappropriate template for mainstream movie making that Hollywood producers might find it difficult to resist. Both were fantasy franchises which meant that, not only were sequels possible, they were expected, even demanded, from the outset; and both were well over two and half hours long, breaking from the previously accepted notion that any film aiming to attract a mass audience needed to be under two hours. Crucially, both The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter were massive, massive hits. Now, look at the Hollywood product we have today and tell me you do not see a connection. Superhero franchises with countless sequels and no end in sight, filled with unnecessary sub-plots, in-jokes and baggy storytelling, all as a direct result of abandoning the rigour involved in keeping the running time - Strictly No Originality - Keyword description

Monday, September 05, 2011

Debunking a Legend

With two (uncredited) adaptations already - The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971) - an uncharitable person might be tempted to ask, 'What is the point of yet another film based on Richard Mattheson's 1954 horror classic I am Legend?'

Let's examine the facts.

In 1997 Mark Protosevich's action-oriented script was slated to set the apocalyptic-future template for Ridley Scott's (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) take on Mattheson's dark tale of loneliness, isolation and loss, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the leading role. But with Scott and Schwarzenegger both coming off of big-budget flops - 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Last Action Hero respectively - the studio balked at the projected cost of US$100 million-plus and insisted Scott cut back.

After four months of pre-production - set designs, storyboards, CGI and make-up tests - Scott walked. A Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay (Pearl Harbour, Transformers) helmed production, came and went in the early 2000s and Guillermo Del Toro passed up the opportunity to direct, just before going on to make Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. The film was eventually green lit with Francis Lawrence (Constantine) installed as director and Will Smith as its star.

Despite being the first film to carry the I am Legend moniker, what finally hobbled off the studio lot in late 2007 is a weird hybrid creature, bearing only a passing resemblance to the book. Yes, humans infected by a virulent strain of vampirism hunt the Last Man on Earth, but that is pretty much where the similarities end. The rest is based on Ridley Scott’s groundwork. But, with the best will in the world, Francis Lawrence is no Ridley Scott. Nor is he Richard Mattheson. And, without their vision, I am Legend is just another vampire film.

Will Smith tries hard to convince in what is ultimately a very silly role - both a pharmacological doctor, experimenting to find a cure for the virus that infected 99 percent of the world’s population; and a high-ranking military officer, more than capable of taking care of himself in a post-apocalyptic landscape inhabited by creatures that want nothing more than to eat him alive. Smith is certainly not the Robert Neville of the book: alcoholic, scared, brave, resourceful, lazy, disciplined and boderline insane. Indeed, there is little room for any of that kind of ambiguity in the film. Not to mention the confused feelings of sexual attraction and repulsion Mattheson’s Neville feels for the female vampires in the book. The films steers well clear of that kind of murky territory.

Ironically, if I had to choose a performer who might be able to support an entire feature film with only a dog as support, Will Smith might well be that actor. But here he is constrained by a script that leaves no room humour and forces Smith to play things entirely straight, leaving little room for his trademark charm. Not that this would be a problem if the film carried the psychological weight of the book. But it doesn’t. This is a problem given that it also lacks the light-touch of the best of mainstream entertainment.

Not to say that the film is dreadful. It is just dull, plodding, non-descript, which, with source material as good as this, might leave one wondering, ‘What is the point?’ US$585 million later, I think we have our - Upcoming Events - Keyword description