REVIEW – The Killing (1956) and Killer’s Kiss (1955)

FilmJuice have my twin review of Stanley Kubrick’s second and third films Killer’s Kiss and The Killing, which are getting an all-singing and all-dancing re-release next week at the hands of Arrow Films.

It was interesting to discover these films after reviewing the Masters of Cinema release of Kubrick’s first film Fear and Desire (apologies for nerfed formatting) as, like most people, my memories of Kubrick’s work are shaped by the classics he started churning out from the late-50s onwards. Of Kubrick’s first three films, The Killing is almost certainly the most accomplished and accessible.

However, while the heist is beautifully handled and provides the film with a strong narrative spine, the film’s real beauty lies in the character beats that provide the film’s real sources of tension. Based on a novel by Lionel White but scripted by the legendary crime novelist Jim Thompson, the film benefits from a cast of old B-movie hands who slot effortlessly into their assigned character types and go to town on the dialogue:

Marie Windsor plays Sherry as this wonderfully cynical drunk with a young lover and a hunger for money. Every inch the Femme Fatale dominatrix, she showers her husband with sarcasm and distain only to show him just enough attention to secure his continued loyalty and affection.

As I point out in my review, I felt that the film’s ending failed to live up to the promise of the film’s opening act but I have since learned that the film’s leading man Sterling Hayden was not a popular choice with the film’s studio backers and I wonder if Kubrick might not have left a few of his character beats on the cutting room floor. Either way, the film makes the mistake of driving home the idea that the character is a no-nonsense hard case only to try to elicit sympathy for him in the final scene. You can see how the film might have played out as Kubrick does soften the character in the opening scene but his failure to re-visit that softening and underline that duality results in a film that feels more bleakly nihilistic than it clearly yearns to be. Having said that, I compare the film to pictures like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and I stand by that comparison as this still a really fucking good film.

As well as some awesome extras (including an interview with a bearded, shirtless and resentful Hayden), the disc also includes Kubrick’s lesser-known second film Killer’s Kiss. Seldom revived during Kubrick’s lifetime, Killer’s Kiss is just as trippy and arty as his first film Fear and Desire but rather than deploying those tricks in the context of a war movie, Kubrick decides to deploy them in the context of an hour-long film about a second-rate boxer who falls in love with a woman in trouble. The narrative isn’t that interesting and the bloke playing the boxer is not what you would call charismatic but the film looks sensational, a bit like Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend complete with blurring of boundary between real and imagined:

However, look beyond the simple narrative and the desperately uneven acting and you will see a young director experimenting with a wide array of cinematic techniques. For example, whereas most Hollywood films of the period shot dialogue scenes with fixed cameras, Kubrick has his cameras move in and around the actors while they deliver their lines resulting in an odd, queasy feeling that feels a lot more subjective than realistic. Also interesting is the way that Kubrick makes the walls of the boxer’s kitchen pitch black except for a window looking onto his neighbour’s apartment creating the impression that the window functions almost like a comic book thought bubble in which the boxer visualises sounds overheard through the walls.

It is also quite interesting to see these two films get a release from Arrow films. Arrow have always been a damn fine home-release outfit but I have always associated them with the cult and horror titles they release under the Arrow Video label. I’m not entirely sure how long Arrow Academy has been around as a label but releases like this one and last year’s amazing Walerian Borowczyk box set would certainly position them as the emerging power in Britain’s premium home-video market. Masters of Cinema had better watch themselves!

REVIEW – Thief (1981)

FilmJuice have my review of Michael Mann’s cinematic debut Thief. Despite having seen Mann’s first feature-length film (a TV movie called Jericho Mile), I had somehow evaded seeing his first cinematic feature. This means that I have just had one of my best cinematic experiences in years as Michael Mann’s Thief is a stone cold classic!

The film revolves around a highly organised and professional thief played by James Caan in full 70s tough guy mode. Despite having his life completely squared away and stripped of all unwelcome and unnecessary emotional entanglements, the character feels a yearning for normality when a face-to-face meeting with an old mentor gives him a Ghost-of-Future-Present moment in which he imagines himself dying alone in jail. However, despite wanting to live a normal middle-class life, the character approaches his desire for normality with the same level of aggression and control-freakery that he approaches his job as a cat burglar resulting in an absolutely amazing sequence in which Caan’s character almost pulls a gun on a woman as a means of declaring his love and desire to start a family. Unfortunately, the character soon realises that his chequered past and lack of social skills mean that a proper middle-class existence is out of bounds (he cannot adopt or secure a mortgage to buy a house) and so he enters into a relationship with a crime boss who is looking to start a family.

The conventional reading of this film emphasises the humanity of Caan’s character and see a desire for emotional openness in his pursuit of a middle-class lifestyle. However, I don’t believe that Thief is a film about someone who has a middle-class life stripped away from him, this is a film about a man who was never suited to middle-class life to begin with!

Hardboiled crime thrillers love the idea of emotionally isolated men discovering reasons to live: In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Ryan Gosling’s highly-professional simpleton goes on a couple of nice dates with the woman next door and sacrifices himself for the sake of her family. In Brian Helgeland’s Payback, Mel Gibson’s highly-professional blank slate murders his way through an entire criminal syndicate for the sake of a few thousand dollars until he spends time with an old flame whose presence transforms the money from a stupid reason to risk your life into a chance for a new beginning. Directors and writers love these transformative moments as it softens one male power fantasy (the highly-professional hard case) into a slightly different male power fantasy (the highly-professional hard case who turns out to be a sensitive soul after all). Part of what makes Thief so fascinating is that while Mann literally walks Caan’s Frank up the garden path to an ordinary life, Frank abandons that life at the very first set-back. In fact, Frank doesn’t just walk away from his life… he abandons his family and burns his house to the ground because he cannot cope with the emotional entanglements that characterise a normal life.

Michael Mann’s Thief can be read as a hardboiled version of Jean Renoir’s classic Boudu Saved From Drowning except rather than being about an eccentric homeless person who is taken under the wing of a nice middle-class man only to walk away from middle-class bliss, Thief reskins Boudu as an emotionally isolated cat burglar and the lovely middle-class book salesman as a patriarchal crime boss. Both films critique the idea that everyone is suited to a normal middle-class existence and both films suggest that there is something faintly intimidating about the middle-class urge to uplift and civilise the lower orders.

 

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REVIEW – The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013)

FilmJuice have my review of Mikkel Nørgaard‘s Scandinavian police procedural The Keeper of Lost Causes. Based on the novel Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olssen, The Keeper of Lost Causes is an entirely predictable and by-the-numbers Scandinavian police procedural. Its plot is entirely linear and generic, its characters are generic, one-dimensional stereotypes and nothing introduced by either the director or the writer complicates matters in any way. This is a solidly entertaining slice of Scandinavian noir that offers no surprised whatsoever:

The Keeper of Lost Causes is the Tesco Everyday Mild Cheddar of Scandinavian noir: Competently made and entirely free of anything in the least bit new or different, it gets the job done but leaves you yearning for something with a little more flavour.

I quite enjoyed The Keeper of Lost Causes but, as I point out in my review, I can’t help but wonder how much more Scandinavian noir the British market can endure before people start getting sick of it. How many more series of The Bridge can sit through before we start shouting ‘Oh for fuck’s sake get some colour on those walls and go and have a shave!’? The Keeper of Lost Causes is based on the first novel in a series meaning that the film feels a lot like a pilot. In fact, there is already an adaptation of the second book in the series by the same director and with the same actors. Will it be released in the UK? Almost certainly but Scandinavian noir is definitely starting to feel a little bit long in the tooth… time for someone to adapt Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy and move us away from grizzled beardy Scandinavian men and towards grizzled beardy Mediterranean men instead! The Keeper of Lost Causes actually raises an interesting critical question as while the film does absolutely nothing even remotely new or different, it does it in a very competent and enjoyable manner. For as long as I have been paying attention to it, the conversation surrounding science fiction has portrayed genre boundaries and conventional narrative forms as something to be overcome but I think there is probably a case to be made for innovation being a somewhat over-rated quality. A lot has been made of the way that the gender of critics and gatekeepers tends to skew the conversation around a cultural scene but I think the same is probably true of scenes where the conversation is lead by creators and experienced critics. I suspect that a reader-focused conversation about books or an audience-focused conversation about film would see formal and narrative innovation as much less important than the competent deployment of established forms and story-types. The Keeper of Lost Causes is a solid piece of genre cinema, it does precisely what it says on the tin and absolutely nothing more.

REVIEW – The Informant (2013)

After something of a break, FilmJuice have my review of Julien LeClercq’s The Informant (a.k.a. Gibraltar), from which I expected a lot but received surprisingly little.

Written by the same person as the excellent A Prophet and the epic Mesrine, The Informant concerns itself with a Frenchman living on Gibraltar who gets sucked into a world of smuggling and espionage in which everyone lies, everyone betrays and most of the smart people have protection from at least one set of customs officials. Unlike many recent films about the world of espionage, The Informant doesn’t perpetuate the now ubiquitous  Thatcherite saw that state power is necessarily evil and corrupt, instead it takes a much more credible tack, which is to suggest that people in the intelligence service are ambitious, incompetent and under so much pressure to deliver results that they invariably cut corners that impact upon people’s lives. Indeed, The Informant is actually based upon the real life story of a Frenchman named Marc Flevet who served as an informant for the French customs only to wind up rotting in Canadian and Spanish jails when French customs decided to disavow his existence for fear of political and diplomatic scandal. The fact that the film is based upon a real life story of government intrigue and ethical shabbiness should have made it a natural companion piece to Mathieu Kassovitz’s excellent Rebellion (a.k.a. L’Ordre et La Morale), which described the politically-motivated slaughter of New Caledonian activists by a French government desperate to look tough in the run up to elections. However, despite the fact that The Informant had the potential to be a proper espionage thriller with a potent political message, Leclerq’s film comes across as little more than an under-written drama:

 

This plot synopsis makes the film sound significantly more interesting than it actually is. The principle problem is one of emphasis: Had Leclerq rather than allowing the needs of his story to dictate mood and pacing, Leclerq takes his cues from the human drama meaning that a film all about international smuggling and corrupt official seems quiet and plodding rather than tense and dynamic. Leclerq lavishes time and attention on his actors who explore their characters to the full only to realise that there’s not really enough human drama in the script to support nearly two hours of film.

 

This rather reminded me of Kieran Darcy-Smith’s surprisingly well-received Australian drama Wish You Were Here, which made the identical mistake of taking a script structured like a thriller and using it to make a film whose pacing and emphasis were more consistent with that of a traditional drama. Thinking about it a bit more, I wounder whether this trend might not have something to do with the critical success of works like Top of the Lake and Polisse, which take their cues from TV in that they occupy the space traditionally associated with detective stories but deploy the narrative tools of TV drama. The key difference between The Informant and Top of the Lake is that while both slow the pacing and focus on the characters, Top of the Lake’s characters are substantial enough to support that level of attention while those of the The Informant are now. This also explains why I gave up on the universally-popular Breaking Bad; I enjoyed the early seasons that focused on the plot of a science teacher learning to become a drug dealer but at some point in the third season, a decision was made to slow down the pace and focus on the characters despite the fact that the characters were really not interesting enough to support hour-after-hour of detailed examination.

REVIEW – Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

FilmJuice have my review of Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges.

No director has enjoyed a more artfully ballistic rise and fall than Michael Cimino. A film school graduate who cut his teeth on Madison Avenue before working as a screenwriter, Cimino’s first directorial pitch meeting was for an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a bloated and self-righteous fantasia in which a ruggedly individualistic architect struggles against the ignorance of lesser humans in the pursuit of his vision. Knocked back amidst fears that the production would result in the construction of a real-life skyscraper, Cimino demurred and assumed the role of the company man… an auteur but one who could give the studios what they wanted. His first film was Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, an amiable Clint Eastwood caper picture that borrows extensively from the New Hollywood bag of tricks without ever really understanding why those tricks were used in the first place.

Hugely successful, the film earned Cimino just enough rope to produce a film as bloated and self-righteous as The Deer Hunter. The Deer Hunter is a complex film that does a number of things very well and a number of things incredibly poorly but while the film’s ability to voice then-prevalent American attitudes to the Vietnam War was enough to win it a lorry load of Oscars at the time, its connection to a now abandoned cultural moment no longer inspires forgiveness in the face of its racism, fascism and self-indulgent running time.

The money and awards garnered by The Deer Hunter convinced the suits to give Michael Cimino a free-reign on his next film and Cimino responded to this increased responsibility by producing a film so expensive and so relentlessly terrible that it destroyed a Hollywood studio that had been founded by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and D.W. Griffith. This failure not only ensured that Cimino would spend the rest of his career as a third-string director, it also inspired the studios to re-assert themselves and put an end to the creating freedoms that had brought about the last Golden Age of American film.

Watching Thunderbolt and Lightfoot I was struck by how easy it is to blame Heaven’s Gate and Cimino for a problem with much deeper roots:

An approach to filmmaking that began by capturing the ambiguities of the public mind and encouraging people to think for themselves had ossified into a set of tropes and techniques that could be applied to even the slightest of traditional films. The sad truth about New Hollywood is that once the initial creative energy was spent, the movement struggled to renew itself and so grew decadent. Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is what happens when decadent self-indulgence and pastiche get mistaken for art.

Out this week and as forgettable as any film produced by mid-70s Hollywood.

Top of the Lake (2014) – #NoDads #NoMums #NoDrama

Funded by the BBC and directed by the only woman to win a Cannes Palme D’Or in the modern era, Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake is a complete dramatic failure. Beautiful to look at thanks to its New Zealand location, the series follows a detective’s attempts to locate a 12-year-old girl who goes missing after it is discovered that she is five months pregnant.

What makes this series a failure is foreground stuff like plot and character; things which we are encouraged to see as being the entire point of film and TV dramas. The plot does not work as it is poorly written and poorly paced. Having introduced us to the figure of a young girl who has manifestly been raped, the series forgets her existence for two or three episodes before suddenly remembering that finding the girl and revealing the identity of her rapist is the over-arching narrative that is supposed to provide this baggy and ill-disciplined mess with the illusion of structure. Having placed their main plot on the back burner, the writers set about weighting down the characters with an overabundance of backstory that serves only to let the writers off the hook when they decide to write themselves out of trouble by having one of their characters behave in an entirely irrational and uncharacteristic fashion: Need a ruthless patriarch and criminal mastermind to get outwitted by a terrified child? Well… it turns out that he has mummy issues and family-related plot point X caused him to have a convenient mental breakdown. Need an incredibly professional police officer to randomly shoot someone? Well… it turns out that she’s not only a rape survivor but also someone dealing with the aftermath of grief and other incest-related problems.

The novelist E.M. Forster distinguished between flat and rounded characters on the basis that rounded characters are intrinsically knowable. They seem real to us because the author shows how one event triggers an internal change that results in different behaviour patterns. According to Forster, we cannot ever really understand real people but we can understand a rounded character and see not only the different aspects of their personality but also how those different aspects interact and propel the character along a particular course of action. The characters in Top of the Lake are like planets in that they are so painstakingly rounded that they appear completely flat. Campion and her co-writer Gerard Lee provide their characters with so much traumatic backstory that they become unknowable; their melodramatic irrationality so pronounced that they are just as likely to save the day, as they are to put guns in their mouths. Unknowable and unaccountable, they are pools of unreasoning expediency that flow wherever the plot demands. Even with the best will in the world, it is impossible to relate to such creations… they are too convenient to be real.

While the main plotline of Top of the Lake may be dull and its main characters completely devoid of interest, the series does take place in an absolutely fascinating world, one that highlights the problematic aspects of gender and our perpetual need for some notional adult to come along and sort out our problems. Though Top of the Lake may not work as a police procedural, it does stumble across some fascinating ideas.

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REVIEW – Boomerang! (1947)

FilmJuice have my review of Elia Kazan’s impressively crunchy but politically ambivalent legal drama Boomerang!

Set in what the film goes out of its way to refer to as a typical town from the American mid-west, Boomerang! begins exploring the political landscape of a small town on the move. We are introduced to the well-meaning reformers who kicked out the ‘machine politicians’ in order to make their home town a better place and how these patrician figures relate to the wider community through institutions such as the local church. There’s even a nice scene where a planning committee is shown and despite the committee having a woman for a chairperson, it’s pretty clear that the real person in charge is the local priest. Given the extent to which the various power-groups rely on each other to stay in power, it is hardly surprising that when the local priest is inexplicably gunned down, the political scene undergoes a crisis with politicians demanding results while newspapers and rival political parties sharpen their knives. The pressure is so great that the police wind up taking shortcuts, arresting everyone in sight and effectively torturing someone into signing a confession.All of this social realism is beautifully realised but unlike similar endeavours such as David Simon’s The Wire, the film does not end with a call for revolution or the liberal conclusion that everything is fucked. Instead, the film seems to conclude that the system is okay because a single corrupt politicians wound up doing the right thing whilst angling to be made governor. This makes for a denouement that is as dramatically unsatisfying as it is confounding of genre expectations:

There is a tendency in American popular culture to treat the legal process as a moral crucible. Well-meaning bourgeois films like My Cousin Vinny and 12 Angry Men suggest that all of humanity’s moral impurities can be boiled away by the system while more politically radical films such as JFK and Amistad draw attention to the failings of the legal system as a way of demonstrating an urgent need for reform.

Having thought about it a bit more, I am struck by the suspicion that treating courtrooms as moral crucibles is a singularly American affectation. America is a country founded by lawyers as well as run by a political class mostly comprising lawyers and so it is hardly surprising that American popular culture has come to believe that court is the place where justice and truth are imposed upon the world. Even comparatively cynical legal dramas such as The Good Wife and Damages present corruption and inequality as incidental rather than systemic problems meaning that they can be defeated by a lawyer who is both talented and righteous. Compare this to a drama such as the French series Engrenages where the French legal system is presented as universally corrupt or the venerable Rumpole of the Bailey, which depicted the British legal system as little more than a playground for ambitious scions of the establishment.

Another interesting question is the extent to which these legal programmes have shaped the minds of the people who viewed them. Children subjected to endless police dramas might be likely to see justice as something meted out by the police just as children trained to see the world through the eyes of the Good Wife would doubtless come to see lawyers as being in the business of keeping the system in line and ensuring that it continues to deliver justice. One of the reasons why a flawed and frankly preposterous programme like The West Wing is well remembered is that it suggested that it was the job of the state to impose justice on the world, which is rather unfashionable in an age where most politicians see their jobs as being all about waging war, locking up prisoners and outsourcing everything to the private sector. An interesting tangent to this issue is the way that American superhero comics explain their protagonists’ capacity to do good.

It used to be that superheroes were frequently patrician figures who used their personal fortunes to fund both their crime-fighting activities and a variety of different charitable works. Thus, Bruce Wayne funded Batman as well as the Wayne Foundation just as Professor Charles Xavier funded both the X-Men and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. While these characters endure, the nature of their financial backing has significantly changed. For example, there was no talk in the 1960s Batman TV series of Bruce Wayne being an industrialist but now it is impossible to think of Batman without thinking of Wayne Enterprises and the incorporation of Batman that took place during Grant Morrison’s extended run on the comic. That’s a pretty substantial message to send to kids: Not only will justice come at the hands of a masked vigilante but that vigilante will be a franchised brand that is owned by a multinational corporation. This idea that only corporations can deliver justice has also leached into the X-Men as more recent X-Men comics cast Charles Xavier as founder of the X-Corporation which funds the X-Men in much the same way as Tony Stark’s Stark Industries funds the Avengers and many of the lower-level supers that inhabit the Marvel Universe.

An interesting counter-point to this drive to incorporation is the group known as Stormwatch. Created as part of the Wildstorm universe, Stormwatch were funded and controlled by the United Nations. However, as time progressed (as Wildstorm comics were purchased by DC) these links to publicly-minded NGOs were put under dramatic pressure as writer after writer chose to depict the UN as a bureaucracy that was as incompetent as it was corrupt. One of the first things to happen in The Authority is that the heroes severed all ties with Stormwatch and took it upon themselves to impose their own ideas of justice on a series of corrupt and incompetent human governments. Somewhat tellingly, the cinematic Avengers began life under the control of the government agency known as SHIELD but Captain America: Winter Soldier revealed SHIELD to be corrupt, thereby setting the stage for Stark Enterprises to step in and provide the group with funding.

On the one hand, this is clearly nothing more than aggressive right-wing propaganda as corporations are effectively using corporate-owned intellectual property to train children to believe that all governments are corrupt and only Capital can save them. However, on the other hand, this is an excellent example of the narrowing of the imagination associated with late capitalism: We are so wedded to the capitalist system that even escapist fluff struggles to portray a world in which only people with corporate backing can hope to make a difference.