Talking Movies

May 22, 2018

From the Archives: Stop Loss

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives turns up a very under-rated Iraq war film featuring strong supporting turns from Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The Iraq War has become a continuing nightmare for the United States military to set beside Vietnam. Surprisingly it’s also become impossible terrain for American film-makers compared to the cinematic response to Vietnam. It falls to writer/director Kimberly Pierce to make the finest film about the Iraq War to date. This is her first feature since 1999’s acclaimed Boys Don’t Cry and Pierce has waited a long time to provide another absorbing and heartbreaking slice of small town Americana. The film opens with an action set-piece in Iraq that conveys tedium, paranoia, fear, bloodlust and chaos more effectively than the entirety of Brian De Palma’s Redacted. The real focus of this film is the psychological battle on the home-front back in Texas.

There is no place for a warrior in a stable society. This is a melancholy truth that has found expression over and over again in fiction, if you set out to protect your home your violent deeds will unfit you for ever living there again. “I’m going to miss blowing shit up” laments Channing Tatum’s Steve Shriver as he hands over his weapons for discharge from the army having served his required tours of duty. What exactly are these men going to do back in their small town? Jobs are scarce, they’re adrenaline junkies and scarred by the savagery they’ve witnessed and been forced to commit in Iraq. The dilemma is best exemplified by the out of control Pt. Tommy Burgess. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a supporting role as the violent alcoholic Tommy is as superb as his performances in Brick, The Look-Out and Mysterious Skin have led us to expect. Burgess and Shriver desperately need their commanding officer Brandon King to keep them in check. King is leaving the military…until he finds the President has signed an order keeping him in the army against his will.

Ryan Phillipe is impressively mature as the righteously indignant Staff Sergeant Brandon King who thinks he should not be asked to pointlessly lead more men to their deaths. Australian actress Abbie Cornish is a fine foil as Michelle, Shriver’s neglected girlfriend who offers to drive King to Washington. There are echoes of Phillipe’s previous role in Flags of Our Fathers. King is convinced that he can just take the matter up with his local Senator who welcomed him home but he quickly learns the harsh truth. You’re a hero when you’re fighting, but when the war finishes or you’ve gone AWOL from a Stop-Loss, they don’t want to hear about you anymore. The shadow of Vietnam hangs heavy over this film as King suddenly realises his choices are return to Iraq or flee to Canada, start a new life there and never be able to return home again. This is never preachy, always compelling and emotionally taut. An absolute must see.

5/5

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October 6, 2017

The Mountain Between Us

Idris Elba and Kate Winslet are stranded in the Rockies in a two-hander that feels like it was scripted by Bear Grylls and Nicholas Sparks.

Ben (Idris Elba) is stuck at an airport due to bad weather. He needs to get back to Baltimore to perform life-saving brain surgery on a young patient. Alex (Kate Winslet) is stuck at the same airport. She needs to get back to NYC to get married. She comes up with some ingenious lateral thinking. They should charter a small propellor plane to do the short hop to Colorado where they can make connecting flights. Walter (Beau Bridges) flew missions into Vietnam with people shooting at him, what’s the worst thing that could happen in a bit of bad weather? I mean apart from Walter having a stroke at the controls? And even if you do crash, what’s the worst that could happen? Get seriously menaced by a cougar? I mean Kim Bauer got through that. Yeah, book that plane guys!

There is some fantastically captured scenery in The Mountain Between Us, and some very nice shots by cinematographer Mandy Walker locating the actors in the middle of a vast snowy wilderness. But that’s about as far as you can go with anything approaching unqualified praise. I was genuinely astonished during the credits to find the score had been written by Ramin Djawadi as it had made no impression whatsoever. Indeed the abiding impression was that this film was long, in particular its final 20 minutes make this 104 minute movie feel about 134 minutes, as the inevitable point is hummed and hawed at before being reached. And the point should equally inevitably make Speed fans think of a certain repeated line of dialogue.

Too often this feels like a bad Bones episode, except for tiresome faith v science arguments you get Ben needing to stop trying to control everything and just take risks like the free-spirited photographer who got him into this mess in the first place. And there are painful screenwriting 101 conceits piled up higher than some of the snowdrifts they encounter – of course you wouldn’t tell anybody where you were going and what you were doing before you got stranded, of course you wouldn’t assume you can get cell reception atop the Rockies, of course you wouldn’t eat Walter’s dog for food, of course you wouldn’t let Alex’s injured leg imperil chances of survival, of course Ben wouldn’t be so colossally stupid and unaware as to not wear his gloves and endanger his fingers by frostbite leading to losing his ability to perform brain surgery and so have to relinquish control over his life to fit the neat thematic statement the movie is apparently attempting to make.

The moment you might remember most from this underwhelming romance/adventure is when Idris Elba announces that he’s from Britain but now lives in Baltimore.

2.5/5

December 31, 2015

1916 without 1916

By now we’ve all seen the Government’s video about the 1916 Rising that somehow forgets the Rising. I’m not sure I’ve seen something so straight-facedly absurd since Brad Dourif preached “The Church of Christ … without Christ” in Wise Blood.

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From the suggestively chosen imagery it’s tempting to conclude (apropos of Interstellar) that we’re commemorating when David Cameron, Ian Paisley, and Queen Elizabeth II travelled back via a handily placed wormhole to Dublin 1916 in order to ensure a docklands fit for Google and Facebook to live in. Sadly the truth is less imaginative, and depressing; because this fiasco was entirely predictable. The Proclamation being rendered as Gaeilge via Google Translate was a perfect statement of intent. Nobody cared enough to flag that it ought to be double-checked before it went live. It is unthinkable that in 2004 a Polish text could have been given such haphazard treatment while our government was hosting the EU’s big expansion into Eastern Europe; Bertie Ahern cared deeply about that Farmleigh event. It is unthinkable that a German would text would not be excruciatingly parsed if Angela Merkel were to visit next week; because Enda Kenny would care deeply about such a visit. But for the literal genesis of our political consciousness as a modern state? To appropriate the current Rabobank ad’s stylings: “Any translation” “Any translation?” “Any translation…” That attitude expresses a political weltanschauung: Labour gives the distinct impression of being embarrassed by our Constitution; which Eamon Gilmore liked to dub outdated (ignore the awkward fact the Americans are still using their 1780s constitutional settlement); and Fine Gael, despite their self-definition (as Pat Leahy has put it) as the party of “Law and Order. Law’n’Order and the Foundation of the State!”, are ashamed of 1916 – which is to primarily be remembered, whereas they celebrated the 75th anniversary of winning the Civil War…

Labour’s Aodhán O’Ríordáin, while insisting that the video was a preview of what the entirety of 2016 would be like (apparently a never-ending bacchanalia of Macnas and BOD coming out of retirement to score tries), offered a non-apology apology: “If we got it wrong, we got it wrong and we should look at something else.” (If? If?? IF?! Yes, ye got it wrong. This has been made abundantly clear by now, so lose the “if”.) He went on to offer the official version of the mindset behind the video: “The point is that we’re trying not to present a very stiff and stale and unimaginative and cold depiction of what happened 100 years ago, which can almost turn some people off immediately.” Maybe he sincerely believes this, maybe not; to my mind this defeatist insistence that marking the events of 100 years ago is impossible because it’s all deathly dull so let’s just talk about the Queen’s visit in 2011 is a disingenuous cover for the fact that it is the government itself who are the people turned off immediately by the idea of celebrating 1916. The BBC spent 2014 producing radio and television documentaries and fictional serials about WWI. If you could watch 37 Days’ dramatisation of the failed diplomacy of July 1914 and find it very stiff, stale, unimaginative, and cold, then the problem lies not with history or its recreation but with you. If you could watch Niall Ferguson’s provocative arguing for WWI being a mistake and the hostile reaction of his academic audience and find it very stiff, stale, unimaginative, and cold then presumably you find newspapers insupportable because they’re about events from distant yesterday. It is telling that the video’s themes; Remember, Reconcile, Imagine, Present, Celebrate; visually remove ‘celebration’ from the revolutionary past…

The video’s visual cues for ‘remember’, ‘reconcile’, and ‘imagine’ taken together imply sorrow for having had the bad taste to rebel against Britain, and a desire to plot how to go forward together. As approaches to celebrating a country’s independence from its colonial masters go it’s got the merit of originality. But it cannot go uncontested. How does marking 1916 by mentioning Ian Paisley and not Padraig Pearse make sense? How is it even acceptable to prioritise, over a man who gave up his life as a blood sacrifice (of the type Rupert Brooke valorised) to start a fire whose flame would burn a hole in the map of the British Empire, a man who became a big avuncular bear once he’d made it to the top of the greasy pole having first done considerable damage in his life-long climb to the top in his capacity as venomous firebrand? (When Seamus Mallon dubbed the Good Friday Agreement ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’ who did he have in mind?) I have walked some of the battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front, where Irish and British soldiers died together in 1914, and remembered them. It does not preclude me from celebrating 1916.

French historian Francois Furet rescued 1789 from the grasp of communists who wanted to make it a proto-1917, by instead inflecting 1917 as the culmination of 1793’s Terror; and the Terror as the betrayal of the Revolution. Terence Brown has argued that Kevin Whelan’s The Tree of Liberty was vital in allowing 1798 to be celebrated here as a good thing, instead of mumbling embarrassedly about it. We need something of the same now. It doesn’t matter that we’re an indebted country who’ve signed away our sovereignty to the Troika. America in 1976 was hardly in a wonderful state. Vietnam, Inflation, Watergate, Roe V Wade: if ever a country was having a crisis of confidence and identity it was America then. And they still pulled off a celebratory bicentennial instead of sitting around bemoaning lost opportunities and how the Brits would have given them parliamentary representation if they’d just waited longer…

The government’s video suggests that we celebrate the future, and take inspiration from … whatever. That’s completely wrong, but completely in character. We should celebrate the past, and be inspired by it. We should not look back at 1916 and be embarrassed by it, we should look back at 1916 and be embarrassed by ourselves. We need to mark 2016 as a combination of July the 4th and Gettysburg. It is both a cause for celebration, and a time for serious discussion. And if there’s anything in our national poet’s complicated canon that best sums up conflicted Irish identities in a triumphal way it’s this watchword for the coming centenary year:

“Sing the peasantry, and then

Hard-riding country gentlemen,

The holiness of monks, and after

Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;

Sing the lords and ladies gay

That were beaten into the clay

Through seven heroic centuries;

Cast your mind on other days

That we in coming days may be

Still the indomitable Irishry.”

December 13, 2015

Speed-reading towards illiteracy

Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller gave an interview recently to BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme, which poses some intriguing questions about how new cinemagoers experience the medium.

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Miller cited Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By as a seminal text; the entire language of cinema was defined pre-sound. Miller was intrigued by the notion that there was a pure film language not reliant on the spoken word, and he decided to tell stories through that language; going so far as to describe Mad Max: Fury Road as a silent movie with sound – what matters is that one shot leads into the next shot to a purpose. As Miller notes this kind of cine-literacy is an acquired language, and a recent one; but it is one that can be mastered, in all cultures, before we’ve got a handle on actual literacy. But it’s his remark that we’re now all speed-reading stories (backed up by some statistics), that is a lit match tossed into a powder keg… Mad Max 2 had 1,200 shots, Mad Max: Fury Road had 2,900 shots, while Miller was told Jurassic Park had 950 shots, and Jurassic World by his estimation had more than triple that.

If we’re speed-reading stories, are we speed-reading into illiteracy? Back in 1997 Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese bemoaned the cine-illiteracy of young audiences:

ALLEN: I was talking to some college kids the other day, and they were bright kids who were going to a good college, and they had no idea about great directors. These bright college kids have no knowledge whatsoever of Truffaut’s films or Fellini’s films. And yet the universities do encourage them to read Mark Twain and Flaubert and Melville. … So many film students are film illiterate. They’re not unsophisticated. They probably know more about steadicams and special effects than the average audience. The guy who drives your cab will use those terms when talking about a film, but they’re illiterate in terms of —

SCORSESE: The lineage.

ALLEN: They’ve never seen any of these films. I think they have a different attention span. [My italics]

I admit my culpability in having that different attention span Woody Allen fretted over. I saw Scream as a teenager and was blown away by it. When I subsequently saw Hallowe’en I was inevitably bored by its slow pacing compared to its younger rival. I knew that without Hallowe’en there would be no Scream, I understood the lineage, I respected the execution, but I couldn’t stop myself wishing Carpenter would hustle things along a bit. As a result I’ve never re-watched Hallowe’en, while Scream remains one of my favourite and oft re-watched films. In 1997 Scorsese bemoaned his inability to be influenced by younger film-makers: “The young people today are the 21st century. I’m 20th century, I can’t help it. It’s hard to let new stuff in.” And there’s an equal generational problem in film criticism. The New Hollywood has been so valorised by audience that Bret Easton Ellis and Quentin Tarantino bemoan the 1980s to each other as the nadir of American movies. Whereas Back to the Future Day demonstrated the impact that decade’s movies had on their audience.

Miller extols the virtues of Buster Keaton and the montage technique of Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike, but will the youngsters who lapped up Mad Max: Fury Road delve back into cinema history to watch the movies that inspired Miller’s visual storytelling? No. If you are used to 2,900 shots a movie something that’s less than a third of that will bore you senseless. What was already a problem in 1997 is only going to get worse. ‘Jurassic World is a mere inept retread of Jurassic Park’ howl we who saw the original in the cinema. But, like a dead owl, the kids going to Jurassic World don’t give a hoot. They probably haven’t watched Jurassic Park all the way through because they find it unbearably slow-moving. This might explain the Russos’ baffling belief that the execrable Captain America 2 deserved an Oscar for casting Robert Redford and throwing 1970s paranoia shapes.

1970s paranoia was an organic cinematic response to the mood engendered by Watergate and Vietnam, and, like all movements that begin organically, when it became a commercial affectation it died a horrible death. The idea that Captain America 2 in rehashing a trope that was valid and original 40 years ago somehow itself becomes pertinent and (coughs in disbelief) original is as absurd as Gareth Edwards believing that his 2014 Godzilla is a good parallel for the trauma of Fukushima. If Sion Sono’s 2011 Himizu can react almost instantaneously to Fukushima in a valid and original cinematic fashion what makes Edwards think that Hollywood rehashing its interpretation of a 60 year old Japanese response to an entirely different national trauma is anything but a crass attempt to attach spurious relevance (via some extremely patronising cultural voiceover work) to the commercial imperative of rebooting a dormant franchise. But here’s the kicker – it doesn’t matter. None of the fulminations of film-makers or critics or punters of a certain age matter. My complaint that Jurassic World is not as good as Back to the Future doesn’t matter. Logic doesn’t even matter. The 12 year olds who go to Captain America 2 and Godzilla will likely never watch All The President’s Men or The Parallax View or Gojira because they’re too slow-moving and boring. 2045 will see Jurassic World as fondly remembered as Back to the Future is now, and all us haters will be so many Bret Eastons moaning that the 2010s were the nadir of American movies.

Perhaps we’re not speed-reading into illiteracy so much as into an eternal kinetic present. The past is a foreign country, they edit films boringly there.

October 15, 2014

’71 – 7 Dispatches

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1. Holmes

Belfast native David Holmes has composed the grooving soundtrack for a lot of good films with an eye for suspense and action, being Steven Soderbergh’s go-to-guy. But I don’t think he’s done 1970s synth menace before, and when he unleashes it in the third act to long takes and tracking shots of people stalking the endless concourses in The Divis block of flats it ratchets up the tension.

2. Scott

I love it when actors play the extremes of their range in a single year, and Killian Scott does it here. Scott had the funniest scenes in Calvary as misfit Milo, convinced that being homicidal would be a plus for the army – ‘like an engineering degree’. As the ruthless emerging IRA leader Quinn in ’71 he seems older, tougher, and even almost taller so complete is the transformation.

3. Dredd/Dread

’71 is so unpredictable that you don’t expect Chekhov’s rifles. And yet one pops up. “You can use the Divis as an orientation point, but don’t go inside the flats. It’s an IRA stronghold” the soldiers are told at their briefing. So of course Gary wakes up to find himself on one the top floors of The Divis, with the IRA coming up, and guarding all possible exits…

4. In-Country

“You know where Belfast is, right? Northern Ireland. United Kingdom. Same country. You’re not leaving the country” the deploying soldiers are informed. Well… they kind of are. Gary’s complete bafflement at the sectarian madness that greets him in Belfast almost satirises Thatcher’s infamous contention that Northern Ireland was just as British as Finchley. This isn’t so much not leaving the country, as going in-country in the Vietnam sense…

5. Football/Religion

One of the funny moments of the film comes when Jack O’Connell’s protagonist has his named parsed: Gary Hook, obviously Protestant. Just to confirm he’s not a Taig, he’s asked by his foul-mouthed child protector if he is a Protestant. “Uh, I dunno.” “You don’t know?! Now I’ve heard everything.” Later he demurs any possible Nottingham connection, “Darbyshire and Nottingham don’t really get on.” “Why?” “Don’t know really.”

6. Collusion

’71 initially surprises by using the Troubles almost as an incidental backdrop for an urban survival thriller. But then it really surprises in its acknowledgement of the North’s Dirty War. British military intelligence officers are depicted both training loyalists in bomb-making, and talking to leaders of the IRA. ’71 just takes it for granted that this is what happened, something which would outrage Daily Mail blowhard Peter Hitchens.

7. Reed

Black Watch playwright Gregory Burke and TV director Yann Demange (Dead Set, Criminal Justice) make an arresting cinematic debut with this movie – tense, sharply scripted, and directed with disorienting and dazzling flair. And praise doesn’t come much higher than saying it reminded me of another film about a wounded man in Belfast falling in with people with agendas of their own – Carol Reed’s 1947 classic Odd Man Out.

September 18, 2014

Noble

Stand-up Deirdre O’Kane tackles a weighty dramatic role as humanitarian Christina Noble in this biopic set in Ireland and Vietnam.

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Noble (O’Kane) arrives in Vietnam in 1989, on a mission from God – more or less. She had a dream about Vietnam and travelled there, quickly discovering that her calling is to make a difference in the lives of the buidoi, the despised street children. Flashbacks (with Gloria Cramer Curtis and Sarah Greene as the younger Noble) draw the parallel between her tenement childhood and institutionalised teenage years, and the plight of the Vietnamese children she takes under her wing. In Vietnam she attempts to cajole Irish and English businessmen Gerry Shaw (Brendan Coyle) and David Somers (Mark Huberman) into financing building works at the neglected orphanage run by Madame Linh (Nhu Quynh Nguyen). But as her experience with abusive husband Mario Pistola (David Mumeni) has taught her, charm can hide callous cruelty – and figures of authority everywhere disdain their buidoi.

Cinematographer Trevor Forrest’s location work in Saigon is fantastic, with familiar imagery of vegetation floating downriver right next to the modernising city of the Western businessman. Noble is also lit up by many great performances. Ruth Negga is winning as Joan, the best friend of Greene’s teenage Christine. Greene, a Talking Movies favourite for her great theatre work, has a meaty cinematic part here and renders Christina a punchy survivor. Sadly the great Karl Shiels is wasted in as cipherish a cameo as his Peaky Blinders role. This is doubly disappointing because Coyle and Huberman offer wonderfully nuanced turns, and Liam Cunningham as Christina’s drunken father is gloriously ambiguous. However, Cunningham’s self-mythologising father who veers between love and rage is a figure out of O’Casey; which draws attention to Christina Casali’s 1950s Dublin design seeming more suited to 1920s Dublin.

That design even drags us into Angela’s Ashes territory, because everything that can go wrong for Christina does go wrong. Even though it’s based on a true story you feel like writer/director Stephen Bradley’s script is hewing to established clichés of the misery memoir. And there are other problems: Christina’s constant recourse to charming singing feels forced, the practicalities of her living rough in the Phoenix Park and later gaining access to Vietnam are left unaddressed, and even her impassioned rant to God in a church recalls The West Wing. Quite worryingly, following Philomena’s unlovely lead, Bradley seems to deploy pre-Vatican II religious garb as a simplistic visual signifier of presumptive evil. Eva Birthistle’s nun is to be treated as a boo-hiss pantomime villain from her first appearance in a wimple; a veritable judas-goat for judicial, political and familial villains.

Noble has a number of committed performances, but the script doesn’t do them justice; it is too on the nose when it could have used more subtlety and humour in depicting Noble’s extraordinary efforts.

2.75/5

November 6, 2012

The Sapphires

Chris O’Dowd stars as the manager of 1960s girl-group The Sapphires in this charming Australian drama based on a true story of pioneering Aboriginal women.

Three sisters in a remote township dream of singing, but racism stymies their attempts to get discovered until drunken pianist/MC Dave (O’Dowd) stands up for them at a talent contest and quickly becomes their manager. Determined to win them the chance to entertain American troops in Vietnam he works on changing their sound and stage presence, battling all the while with Gail (Deborah Mailman), the momma bear sister with an inflated opinion of her mediocre singing talents and a sharp mouth. Her sibling rivalry with the flirtatious Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell); who is recovering from being jilted at the altar; and the younger Julie (Jessica Mauboy); the most talented singer who is driven to succeed by her need to support her son; threatens to derail the group. But that’s as nothing compared to the tension created by Dave’s insistence on adding Kay (Shari Sebbens), their ‘passing’ cousin who lives in Melbourne…

It’s hard to imagine this film working as well as it does without Chris O’Dowd’s particular shambling charm as the drunken Irish soul man with a penchant for insulting people, an abiding hatred of country music, and an ever present hip flask. Dave’s fractious relationship with Gail sees them both deliver zinging put-downs of the other, and there is a fantastic ‘emotional’ speech in which he tries to compliment her but gets sidetracked by his own barbs. The memorable quips are accompanied by a joyous soundtrack of 1960s soul music, and the low budget doesn’t stop director Wayne Blair from throwing in one very memorable show-off shot hammering home the unpredictable chaos of guerrilla warfare. But underscoring the comedy of the script by Tony Briggs and (not that) Keith Thompson is a patient reveal of a family trauma…

This should be approached as a drama, but with a lot of very funny lines. It has serious emotional heft as a major theme is vicious racism against the Aboriginal population at both a casual and official level, and it also features a startling depiction of the emotional devastation caused by Martin Luther King’s assassination that rivals a similar sequence in 2007’s terrific Don Cheadle movie Talk To Me. The Sapphires wonderfully balances presenting Vietnam as a place of racial equality, and therefore supreme opportunity for these girls, but also an extremely hazardous warzone where as Dave says ‘every American soldier here is stoned off his head’ because of fear. It’s semi-miraculous that the film successfully combines these strands with a riff on Dreamgirls as the relationships within the group buckle under the strain of constant performing and doomed romances.

The Sapphires traverses familiar territory but does so with such winning performances and good humour that it is most rewarding viewing.

4/5

August 5, 2011

Double Exposure: Cutter’s Way/House M.D.

1981 neo-noir movie Cutter’s Way, recently screened at the IFI (yet again) has been forgotten, and it’s a half-deserved neglect. It’s not a great film, but it does showcase a superb performance from John Heard as the acerbic crippled Vietnam veteran Alexander Cutter. What’s startling is just how familiar his character is…

We first hear about Cutter thru Jeff Bridges’ character Richard Bone mentioning that he needs to buy some more medicines for him. Then we’re visually introduced to Cutter sitting in a bar making fun of people he’s just met, before saying something outrageously racist about one of them, and then compounding the problem when some guys who heard the remark start to circle. Bone gets him out of this, despite Cutter’s best attempts to get Bone dragged into the fight too, by excusing him on account of his leg… Cutter then yells at Bone that he needs more pills, and throws his cane after him, breaking a neon sign. The glorious off-screen shout “That’s going on your tab Cutter” confirms that this is just how Cutter rolls. The resonances with a certain drug-addled anti-social doctor and his drug-sourcing enabling friend don’t jump off the screen at this point, although they’re apparent later. What really puts the House comparison into your mind is when Bone delivers a drunken Cutter home to his long-suffering wife. She’s played by Lisa Eichorn who could well be Jennifer Morrison’s twin sister sent back in time so startling is the resemblance to House’s team-member Allison Cameron. As the film progresses you get the weird sensation that this is what would have happened if that date between House and Cameron at the end of season 1 went well. Cameron has sunk into alcoholic depression as she waits for House to forget about his leg and his misery and just start living again…

Such sentiments are reinforced by Cutter’s memorable arrival home in his car. Drunk as a skunk he first lurches to a halt splayed across the road. He’s not going to park it there, is he? Oh no, he’s going to ram his neighbour’s car, which is in the way, reverse, ram it again, reverse again, and park in his driveway, having destroyed his neighbour’s car in the process of shunting it into the correct driveway. Cutter stomps into his house, and announces he’s been picking up hitchhiker’s and saying how much fun they were, with one qualification; “Never orgy with a monkey, the little f—ers bite”. His wife points out that he has no car insurance, “That would be his problem”, and that his licence has expired, “Car runs just fine without it”, as Cutter changes into his old army jacket to go out and deal with the police the right way by talking about duty, appearing reasonable and apologetic, and getting away with everything because, as he quietly reminds the enraged neighbour (when the cop has left) by holding up his cane, “I’m a cripple”. Later Bone in exasperation at Cutter’s deranged scheme to blackmail a local millionaire they suspect of murder yells about how he doesn’t want another lecture by Cutter on “How you just see the world as it is, a crock of shit. And oh God, don’t start in on your leg…” Needless to say Bone, like Wilson, always ends up embroiled in his friend’s maddest plans despite his objections.

There are of course substantial differences between Alexander Cutter and Gregory House. Cutter is a soldier, not a doctor, and prone to adding physical violence to his cutting rhetoric. Waiting for a procrastinating Bone to make a blackmailing phone call Cutter whips out a hand-gun and shoots the target that Bone has been messing about with on the pier arcade to hurry things along, “Give the man his goddamn doll”. Cutter even strikes his wife when she questions his choice to wallow in misery. There’s even one weirdly prophetic anticipation of House’s recent move away from audience sympathy in this violence. Cutter’s demented hero moment in the closing frames as he rides a horse thru a garden party to crash thru the window of the evil tycoon could almost be the inspiration for the shark-jumping finale of House season 7. The resemblance to Cameron is accidental and hilarious, that to Wilson not overly pronounced but still present, but Cutter’s mixture of logical deductions that pin the crime on the millionaire and his biting remarks and refusal to obey any social contract all seem classically Houseian. So, did David Shore watch Cutter’s Way years before creating House and subconsciously remember aspects of a long-forgotten character, or is this just one of those weird moments where an idea seems to be floating around waiting for someone to use it, like discoveries in physics and astronomy that parallel researchers discovered simultaneously?

Probably the latter, but it sure makes for one hell of an entertaining and oblique way to view Cutter’s Way.

July 6, 2011

Top 5 Michael Caine Movies

I wouldn’t like to give the impression that I was mean-spiritedly making fun either of Michael Caine or of cockney accents in last week’s sketch, so as a gesture of atonement here’s a Top 5 of my favourite Michael Caine movies. I’ve picked only ones in which he’s the lead.

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(5) Get Carter
“You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape”, “She was only thirteen”… A movie plundered both by Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan to sharpen their Caine impressions in The Trip, and arguably by Martin Campbell and Daniel Craig to make the last image of Casino Royale iconic. This gritty thriller, which is still director Mike Hodges’ calling card, sees Caine’s implacable London hard-man Jack Carter head north to avenge his brother’s death with a shotgun. Shot in stylish long-takes with a distancing aesthetic this is an imposing British crime movie that loomed over all that followed.

(4) Educating Rita
“There is more insight in the telephone directory…and probably more wit”. Caine’s jaded English professor helps Julie Walter’s discontented housewife better herself thru an adult education course in a sparkling adaptation of Willy Russell’s play, itself almost a spin on Pygmalion. But this Henry Higgins is on a serious downward spiral; drowning in drink and self-pity in equal measures, cheated on by his wife and despising his own volumes of poetry. Caine’s showy role encompasses glorious high verbal comedy and drunken slapstick, as well as the quiet drama of alcoholic misery. This finally won him a BAFTA.

(3) The Quiet American
“Oh, shit” .Caine’s dead-pan delivery of that line is emblematic of his quiet, measured and ultimately devastating performance in Philip Noyce’s 2002 film. This subtle work is arguably the finest adaptation of Graham Greene’s work since the 1940s. Caine plays the archetypal Greene character. His foreign correspondent boasts of simply observing the chaos of 1950s Vietnam and offering no point of view, no political allegiance. An unwelcome romantic rival (Brendan Fraser’s titular do-gooder) and pressure from London to break a story sparks a belated moral engagement with the ethics of American interference, and opposition to it…

(2) Sleuth
“Be sure and tell them it was all just a bloody game!” Joseph L Mankiewicz’s riveting adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s play sees a rich aged writer invite his young wife’s lover, a cockney hairdresser, to his rural mansion for some vindictive head-games. Caine’s regional accent and film acting technique go head to head with Olivier’s RADA accent and stage acting style in a contest Caine was easily winning till a desperate Olivier produced a moustache… If you want to empirically measure Caine’s acting ability note how Sleuth’s entire structure disintegrates in the remake because Jude Law can’t act.

(1) The Italian Job
“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” A truly flawless film; from Quincy Jones’ impossibly catchy original soundtrack and the glorious turn by Noel Coward as the imprisoned crime-lord masterminding proceedings, to the implausible gang apparently composed solely of gay aristocrats and cockney wide-boys and the deranged Carry On antics of Benny Hill, and on to the wonderfully staged Austin Mini car-chase and the definitive cinematic cliff-hanger, it’s impossible not to sit back with a smile pasted on your face throughout as Caine motors the whole film along with a performance of winning charm.

June 2, 2011

Conspiracy Cinema at the IFI

The IFI is presenting a season of films this June playfully titled High Anxiety. As ‘filmnoia’ these are meant to encapsulate the post-Vietnam post-Watergate zeitgeist of chastened 1970s America. Invariably there is much idolatry of the faultless New Hollywood that was tragically killed off by Star Wars in this positioning, which regular readers of this blog will know I have little truck with. The truth is there are some great films here, some over-rated but good films, and by far the best film is the most defiantly Old Hollywood: The Manchurian Candidate, which is oblique in its violence, sexually charged without being sexual, and whip-smart and heart-breaking in its scripting; the kind of thing that Hitchcock might have directed on one of his darker days at the office. Let’s briefly trot thru the line-up of films in the season.

The Manchurian Candidate June 1st & 2nd @ 6:25pm

The pick of the bunch is the first out of the blocks. Catch this tonight if you can. A superb Laurence Harvey stars as Raymond Shaw, an unpopular soldier who unexpectedly returns as a war hero from the Korean War to the political machinations of his terrifying mother Angela Lansbury, a witch-hunting Senator’s wife. Frank Sinatra is his old army c/o trying to work out the mystery of just what happened in Korea that fills his men’s nightmares, and director John Frankenheimer ratchets up the tension as George Axelrod’s script satirically skewers McCarthyism while breaking your heart along the way.

Klute June 4th & 5th @ 4.50pm

Sex, lies, and audiotape. Widely regarded as the film that legitimised profanity as a hallmark of serious movies Alan J Pakula’s 1971 exercise in paranoia sees Donald Sutherland’s enigmatic small-town PI John Klute travel to the big city to investigate the possible involvement of his friend with Jane Fonda’s nervous call-girl, and her possible involvement in his mysterious disappearance. The sound design is extraordinary as ambient noise swamps the possibilities of recording the truth, and this arguably established the house-rules for all subsequent 1970s filmnoias. Keep an eye out for Roy Scheider’s ridiculous outfit in his cameo as a pimp.

The Parallax View June 6th @ 3.00pm & 7.05pm

Alan J Pakula again, this time Warren Beatty is the lead in a 1974 thriller about a journalist investigating the possibility that the powerful corporation the Parallax Organisation has been behind not only a political assassination allegedly carried out by a conveniently dead lone gunman, but the clean-up murders of all the witnesses of the assassination. The dazzling and famous highlight comes when Beatty is subjected to a test to see whether he fits the criteria for maladjusted misfit that Parallax likes to use for its lone gunmen. You know, people like say Lee Harvey Oswald, or James Earl Ray…

Chinatown June 8th @ 2.10pm & 6.30pm

If Roman Polanski’s film was just a little less self-regarding it would be a far better film noir. Jack Nicholson gives a terrific performance as the cock-sure PI suddenly out of his depth against Faye Dunaway’s ambiguous femme fatale and John Huston’s monstrous patriarch, and there are wonderful moments and lines throughout. The enormous self-importance of Robert Towne’s screenplay sinks the film from its potential heights but is unsurprising given that he reputedly told anyone who would listen that the success of the 3 hrs plus The Godfather was entirely attributable to his dialogue polish on one 3 minute scene…

The Conversation June 9th @ 6.45pm

Francis Ford Coppola’s small personal movie between The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II stars Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who finds a simple job developing into something much more disturbing, which eventually pushes him to the very limits of his sanity. Walter Murch’s sound design is extraordinary and best appreciated on a big screen, but I’ve never thought that Coppola’s script was good at making us care about the possible murder plot Hackman stumbles upon; the physical distance his camera maintains from the camera being sadly replicated as an emotional distance maintained by the audience from the characters.

Night Moves June 12th @ 5.00pm

A staple of late-night TV schedules (TV programmers can be very easily amused sometimes) this 1975 movie sees Arthur Penn and Gene Hackman reunite for a more subdued outing than their 1967 collaboration Bonnie & Clyde. Hackman is a defeated PI who discovers his wife in adultery, but is unable to satisfactorily resolve that situation or any other case he is working on. Perhaps a lament for the lost idealism of the New Frontier in the age of Watergate, or perhaps just another deconstruction of American myths by Penn that has aged far less well than his Bonnie & Clyde.

Rollover June 18th @ 3.15pm

Yes, Alan J Pakula for a third time. He never stopped making paranoia movies, and this 1981 effort may have had the amazing good fortune to become relevant thirty years after being dismissed as pessimistic and incomprehensible, because of the second defining event of the last decade, the credit crunch. Jane Fonda stars as a company director’s widow who romances Kris Kristofferson’s financial trouble-shooter, brought in to steady the corporation, who ends up involved in an extremely risky deal with Saudi Arabia that goes belly-up in such spectacular fashion that it leads to the meltdown of the entire Western economy.

Winter Kills June 25th & 26th @2.00p

Adapted from another book by Manchurian Candidate novelist Richard Condon, this thriller stars John Huston as Not Joe Kennedy, who after 19 years is told by his son Jeff Bridges that he finally has a good lead on who really assassinated Huston’s other son, the President Not John F Kennedy. Winter Kills had an extremely troubled production, with director William Richert having one of his producers murdered, so this is a welcome chance to belatedly see Huston chewing scenery in such a ripe scenario of what could be classified alongside Inglourious Basterds as the genre of fantasy historical revenge movies.

Missing June 25th & 26th @2.50pm

Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek star as the father and wife of an American missing in Chile, in acclaimed Greek director Costa-Gavras’ first American film. An attack on Henry Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik, here masked by hypocritical mutterings about truth, justice, and the American Way, this vividly recreates the feel of Pinochet’s Chile; a regime enabled by CIA connivance in the overthrow of Allende’s democratically elected socialist government. There is a sense of kicking a dead donkey about this as Nixon was already out of power, but Costa-Gavras at least clothes his political points in empathetic flesh and blood characters.

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