Compliance is not out in England yet, but when it arrives I urge you to see it. Catching it in the States last week offered the most jarring moment I can recall ever experiencing. Having spent the day strolling through Philly’s Historic District – with Independence Hall and Liberty Bell making it practically a paean to the ideal of America, all things constitutional and an ethos of civic republicanism – rights were naturally very much on my mind. Americans know their rights. The constitution, and thus individual rights, are invoked in the media on a daily basis. Right?
If so, it hasn’t infected all citizens. Compliance is based on the true story of a series of hoaxes that went on for several years as a man phoned fast food restaurants pretending to be a policeman, ordering senior staff to strip-search their female cashiers on the grounds that they’ve been accused of stealing money. Yes, the staff comply. But so does the girl herself, with few if any questions asked.
But what’s most horrifying is that you implicitly assume and grant a dramatic licence to the filmmaker, in which the hoax caller’s demands are amplified in their absurdity for cinematic effect. It’s only later that we discover the oral sex the cashier is instructed to perform upon a male staff member really did somehow transpire. Nobody is critical enough to ask questions. When they nod, we want to at minimum yell out, at worst jump up and punch the screen.
The Milgram Experiment, of course, was infamous for its discovery that putting people under a person of authority who asks them to administer what they thought to be fatal electric shocks would, more often than not, yield blind obedience. The same happens here on a micro-scale on film, but the difference is that it had a substantively awful outcome. The courts had trouble nailing the hoaxer precisely because the nature of his crime was so elusive: he didn’t coerce anyone, unless all polite requests are now to face the wrath of the law. Sure, he claimed to be the law and acted wrongly in doing so. But most of the suffering here only stems from the sheer stupidity of so many people in making his sick desires materialise. How firm are your intuitions that the oral sex constitutes rape?
Americans, take note: no cop can ask you to bend down butt-naked so your co-workers can check you don’t have dollar-notes stuffed in your crack. How did I ever just write that line?
The Impostor, in a sense, plays on similar themes, but has a much slicker sense of humour. Once more based on a true story, this time about a serial French identity fraudster who pretended to be a missing American kid on the off-chance that he could trick the grief-stricken family into offering him a new life. It didn’t matter that he was about eight years older, with the wrong eye colour and a bad accent. He got granted an American passport and soon hopped on a plane. And you thought Compliance was weird.
This one is filmed as a kind of noir-documentary, and part of its fun comes from having to guess whether the interviews are re-enactments or with the real people involved. Various twists send our minds in each direction, with new knowledge shedding light on which is most likely. We go from feeling disgusted to howling at the hoaxer’s retelling of his tricks. We feel sad for, whilst also awkwardly sniggering at, the moronic blindness of the family that takes him in. But then we’re made to toy with the idea that their motives are on the sinister side, and the joke instead threatens to be on us.
I’ll leave things that vague. Intrigue is healthy. But if you’re heading to the silver screen soon, either of these pieces will beat Bourne and Ted.
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I’ve watched several films this month that I wanted to review and planned to, but in the end a holiday abroad meant I never got around to it. Now I can’t write about them, because that breaks my golden rule of only writing with my immediate reactions and thoughts in mind. It’s hard work recalling everything that stood out, and justified enthusiasm is even harder to retain and duly release weeks on.
So the following four will sadly have to get a measly few lines instead. They were all interesting and worthwhile, even when they were bad. Here goes nothin’.
Husbands and Wives – This short Allen film from the early 90s is way under-looked. It’s about break-ups and how marriages go stale and how humans simply might not be built as monogamous swans – all that Up In The Air stuff he returns to so often and does so well. The difference here is that it’s the darkest humour he’s done, and Interiors aside it’s probably the most serious and dramatic film in his oeuvre. But the difference is that, unlike Interiors, it works. It was shot around the same time that Farrow discovered Allen’s affair with Su-Yi, and yet they somehow finished the film anyway. That knowledge alone ups the tension. But then there’s the fact that, paradoxically, the film ends up being a great paean to marriage as a long-term, stable, loving institution. Yes, not accommodating the conflicting desires of another and acquiring sexual freedom may have its perks. But they soon pale in comparison to the joys of having someone with which to share everything. It’s a conservative case by example for staying strong through thick and thin, and banishing any foolish thoughts that insist an alternative may be better. Allen may seem to have been rejecting that message at the very time he shot the film, but fortunately history has proven otherwise. Su-Yi and him clearly are long-term companions. So there’s no stench of hypocrisy to cloud the atmosphere. He’s ended up living in a way loyal to the film.
Midnight Cowboy – So let me get this straight: a 60s film about a male prostitute packed with sex and psychedelia won Best Picture? The Academy was hipper then than it is 40 years later, as last year it lacked the balls to even acknowledge Shame? It’s quite astounding that this won awards. Voight plays a Texan faux-cowboy hustler pursuing happiness by heading for New York on a greyhound bus, checking into a cheap hotel and hitting the streets immediately. The freedom soon dries up once his money is spent, his naivete shows, and he’s left in God-awful poverty scrounging off a guy who swindled him but turns out to be equally poor and hopeless. That guy’s Hoffman, and the quaintest of friendships soon flourishes. It’s all very American; a bonkers mixture of bohemian liberty and a dark economic reality. Do yourself a favour; check it out.
Bringing Up Baby – I bought myself a colossal Cary Grant collection off Amazon for my 21st, and this Howard Hawks screwball with Hepburn is the first I’ve caught. Grant plays a geek-zoologist tracking down the final bone for his dinosaur sculpture, at least until he gets caught up in the transportation of a leopard called Baby courtesy of the calamitous Hepburn. I hadn’t seen her in anything before, but she came across as riotously free and funny. The film was worthwhile for one scene alone of Grant following and cursing a dog who has buried the dinosaur bone. The rest of the gags that fill it were icing. Lick it up.
The Usual Suspects – Much recommended by friends, but I could barely stand it. A plot denser than Tinker Tailor and no more interesting, only Spacey’s mystical performance offered a hint of redemption. Yes, the twist is a real and huge one, but I didn’t find myself wanting to reflect on the way it recoloured everything. Probably because I couldn’t reflect. There’s enough names in the preceding ninety minutes to rival a Russian novel. Bring a notepad and you might stand a chance.
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Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne / Batman), Tom Hardy (Bane), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Anne Hathaway (Selina), Marion Cotillard (Miranda), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Blake), Gary Oldman (Gordon), Michael Caine (Alfred). Screenplay by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Rating: 12A. Running time: 164 minutes.
One noteworthy plot-spoiler included.
When we are children, countless films appear to have an epic importance and size. For all the joy that The Lion King and Star Wars can still bring, we will never experience them as we once did. The battle both offered between good and evil loom large in undeveloped minds, and extract emotional responses effortlessly. The aesthetics and jollier scenes retain their value, of course. But we watch Scar and Vader with a definite sense of detachment as we grow older.
The capacity, then, to make a mature audience care about characters taken from a comic series; the ability to make us sit in awe of the action, swoon at the story, shiver at the villain and, yes, in my case almost tear-up at the sheer power of the score when mapped over certain visuals – that skill is rare. Film can be great without it, but cinema reaches peaks no other art form can when this unique potential is employed.
And Christopher Nolan, aged forty-two years as of today, already has seven films under his belt, of which the most recent three – The Dark Knight, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises – all exhibit that gift in abundance. Every one of them is epic. It’s the only word in the English language that is apt.
It was late on that I clicked and clocked the magnificence of what I was seeing. It had been awesome all through, but sometimes it takes a while to realise you’re witnessing something truly special. And my hairs gave in and delivered goosebumps about two-thirds through. By this point, Bruce Wayne, and with him Batman, has been an outcast from Gotham for weeks, a decent hour of screen time. Whilst stranded in a foreign prison, Bane has subordinated the city to the dictates of his nihilistic, anarchic whims. Obviously all seems lost. This terrorist is so extreme that he has his hands on nuclear technology, and the time bomb is ticking. But no need to prepare yourself for the cliché of race-against-the-clock rapid wire connecting. He’ll use it as a source of tension, but Nolan nowadays would never stoop so low.
The moment comes, though, when Wayne makes his inevitable and miraculous return. He has Gordon light up one of Manhattan’s many now-broken bridges with a bat-shaped flame ball. The camera pans way out, Zimmer’s score soars. Bane looks up and on, and the picture speaks a million words. We know by now what it means to Gotham, and we know what awaits us in the film’s final leg.
Nolan’s eye for action is unusual. No quick jump-cuts – otherwise obligatory nowadays in fight and chase sequences – are to be found here. What’s most memorable instead are those long, majestic pivots that the camera makes, normally slowly swaying from behind the batcycle, cape draping in the wind. It’s a touch often used that never gets old as a way of elevating the tone. He likes to use it for reaction shots too, and it always acts as a breather for us to think in what would otherwise be pacey scenes.
And that method is central to the depiction of Bane. The ground surrounding his feet seems to rotate a touch slower than it otherwise would. We look up at him, always. Like Vader, he has an obscuring and mystifying mask, but his forehead and neck bulge out of it. The distorted voice is jarringly comical, but Hardy for the role has become hench personified. He marshals an army of thugs as infatuated as Tyler’s foot-soldiers in Fight Club, and he wreaks havoc purely with the purpose of causing pain, where the Joker would have opted for humour.
It’s tempting to call the whole thing Hobbesian, but this is no normal state of nature and war of all against all where the police force has been rendered powerless. You would expect rough equality in such a concrete jungle, but here we have a strand of anarchy in which hierarchy persists. Bane is the brutal director intent on obliterating everything, and for a long time he appears untouchable.
But naturally, he isn’t. He’s human, and this is cinema. For the first time, though, a villain has created a situation in which Batman’s dependence on others for success is sent sky-high. Freeman as Fox returns and radiates coolness, casually wheeling out new gadgets and vehicles when the entire fleet seems wrecked. Oldman, as Gordon, remains central, and Gordon-Levitt is solid as Blake, a new and nifty cop on the scene. Alfred, on the other hand, is gone by this point, after a remarkably piercing and emotional exchange with Wayne.
But Bruce’s main accomplice is ultimately the sexier of two new femme fatales. Her character is catwoman; we know her better as Anne Hathaway. Never has she looked, moved and snarled so well. The other femme is Cotillard, who provides a final twist that offers the only moment in the film that does not work. Her true status is a surprise alright, but not an impressive one. It just doesn’t gel. Her deception feels like a tacky source of extra tension, at a time in the film when new developments really aren’t needed.
But Hathaway steals the show. She’s the perfect injection of sauciness and slapstick into a tale that could have descended into much deeper darkness in the absence of the Joker. And yet she isn’t a sideshow. She’s weaved into the narrative whilst making events unpredictable. When she comes on screen our pupils contract, if some other organs aren’t busy being stimulated.
When all this is added up – the extent of Bane’s machismo and success, the sustained development and resurrection of Bruce Wayne and Batman. The themes that both reflect, and the sheer balls and genius with which it is all tied up and captured – the product is a spine-tingler. I had the advantage of IMAX, but I’m certain it wasn’t necessary. Nolan has made a blockbuster for the ages. Don’t ever again make the Golden Age fallacy of thinking the best films were all in the past. Our grandchildren will watch The Dark Knight Rises, as children and as adults, like us: in a mental storm of awe.
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Tags: anne hathaway, bane, batman, christian bale, christopher nolan, dark knight rises, gary oldman, hobbes, joseph gordon-levitt, marion cotillard, michael caine, morgan freeman, star wars, tom hardy, vader
We’ve often been moved by Meryl Streep, not least in the likes of The Hours and Kramer vs Kramer. She has also frustrated us by wasting her abundant talent on trash like The Iron Lady. But I’m trying to think of a film in which I have found her attractive, and none come to mind. Watching The Manchurian Candidate last night, I think I finally found her sexiness.
It’s not an obviously saucy role. She plays an obsessive mother and ruthless senator involved in a scheme to brainwash her son and set him us as President, courtesy of the ultimate coup. She’s a dark, dark villain. She plays Stalinist politics, encourages a corporation to travel to Kuwait to microchip here soldier-son, and then in turn is the source of a reverse-Oedipal dynamic as she seduces her robo-veep in waiting.
Her role is actually rather minor, but it’s still the stand-out. And that takes some doing when you let Washington get double your screen time. Denzel’s just awesome too, of course, and it’s from his perspective of ultimately justified ultra-paranoia that we see this fantastically large conspiracy unfold. Liev Schreiber, similarly, holds his own as the rather simple son. But it’s to Streep that our thoughts return: her rhetoric and slyness that hint inevitably at her involvement in the project before her role and callousness is even properly exposed.
The film otherwise pans out as an average thriller. If you sit back and stay cool then it will deliver kicks in due course. The most thrilling moments naturally defy belief, but hey, this is the movies. Sometimes realism can be swapped for thrills.
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Anthony Lane has a great line in his review of The Amazing Spider-Man which summarises my feelings about the film quite succinctly. He notes a wonderfully fun scene early on in which Parker hasn’t quite perfected his powers yet. In a New York subway carriage that proves to be the cause of some calamitous consequences, a girl’s top is accidentally ripped off and her boyfriend is smacked and sent soaring. It oozes with fun. It’s everything we want from a comic-book comedy action-flick. And yet, as Lane notes, the potential is not pounced upon. Instead we’re left with the sort of moralising tale better left to Batman, just when “the idea that to be rendered superhuman is neither some sombre moral privilege nor a queasy Faustian temptation but a prelude to ungovernable slapstick might be just what the genre needs”.
I can’t stress how spot on that judgement is. Spider-Man is at its best when it is intent on making us laugh rather than pathetically wimper. Garfield makes a great geek, but his natural curiosity and desire to just swing like Tarzan through a concrete jungle is soon subordinated and replaced by an ethical crusade. Oh so tragically, Parker’s Uncle Ben (the loveably soft Marty Sheen) is stabbed to death in the street by a shop-lifter, right after he gave a talk about the obligation of everyone to cultivate their talents for the benefit of others. The scene is set, and soon the slapstick of glass smashing uncontrollably and Parker teasing past bullies with a basketball evaporates, and in its place we get Spider-Man playing the committed vigilante, culminating in the father of Gwen (Parker’s high-school crush) slowly dying and losing his voice on the top of a skyscraper, attempting to extract a promise from Parker that he will keep his daughter safe by leaving her well alone.
It’s a shame, for there’s lots to like here. Stone, playing Gwen, is as enjoyable and attractive as Garfield, but they both get swamped up in a story at times tiresome when not farcical. The antagonist – a genius scientist who falls victim to the evil potential of his own technology – morphs into a mega-lizard and tries to get us all to follow suit as his gift to humanity, but a steamy lime-green dungeon packed with liquids in testtubes is too cliché to be cool. We want a villain with a little more class than this.
But the film will rake in money, of course, and no doubt it will be the first in a trilogy. About which we must have mixed feelings. I’ll give the second a go, if only because the overall effect isn’t to leave you feeling conned. It delivers enough. But a small shift of emphasis could have made it a real gem. And with some luck the history lesson about the rise of Peter Parker will be over so that the feather-light fun, facilitated by Garfield, can begin.
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Tags: andrew garfield, anthony lane, batman, emma stone, marc webb, martin sheen, new yorker, spiderman
Documentaries on artists are at their best when they manage to capture, through interviews, clips, context and commentary, everything it is that you love about the person in question. You should leave with a sense that their lives have been summed up, and you’ve been eloquently reminded of their virtues. And that means that this reflection on Woody Allen and his sprawling, marvellous career will be a treat for anyone that has seen his films only to howl and swoon at the man’s genius.
There is everything here. From his breakthrough as a stand-up comedian on the Dick Cavett show to his early slapstick comedy in the likes of Sleeper; on from the crude and crazy but often hilarious to the heartwarming and genre-changing rom-coms, Annie Hall and Manhattan; through his constant contemplation of the question of death, his active love lives with Keaton and Farrow, his eternal use of an ancient typewriter and his late renaissance in the form of Midnight in Paris – every side of Woody is here with the man himself to steer us through things, not to mention an abundance of his colleagues ready to shower him with sincere and considered praise.
He comes across as an enigma, as he should. There remains, for instance, the paradox presented by the depiction of a man that makes movies endlessly, beginning his next script the day he finishes filming the last. To sustain that sort of intensity and so often hit the jackpot over four decades is a rare, glorious achievement. And yet, Woody talks as if he has no time for carving out the perfect film. He says that he always has visons of himself making the next Citizen Kane, but once the reality of having to manage hundreds of people and build them into your plans materialises, he makes constant compromises and prostitutes himself in order to get the damn thing finished. He even claims he plays by the Quantity theory: make enough art in volume and you’ll strike gold occasionally.
How to reconcile these two figures? The obsessive hard worker and the man that, as he puts it, would prefer to be at home with his wife or playing the clarinet than spending an extra hour in the editing room? However he’s rendered intelligible, what’s clear from the perspective offered here is that the man is so hugely fun, enormously honest and clearly capable of having an entrancing effect on everyone he meets and shares his creativity with that the joys of Hannah and her Sisters, Zelig and Vicky Cristina Barcelona are no mystery at all. The man was born to amuse, but also to warm our hearts.
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Tags: a documentary, woody allen