REVIEW — State of Grace (1990)

FilmJuice have my review of Phil Joanou’s State of Grace, which is due to be re-released as part of a weird actor-focused box set alongside Colors. The film’s wikipedia entry describes it as a “neo-noir crime film” but I find it more helpful to think of the film as a bloated rock opera set amidst the gangs of New York. I use that phrase deliberately as State of Grace is a film about the last surviving remnants of the criminal underworld described by Scorsese in the film Gangs of New York. State of Grace is about a gang of working-class Irish-Americans who are struggling to hold onto territory that is in the process of being gentrified. Trapped between the legal connections of developers and the muscle of the Italian families, the once-plentiful Irish-American criminal fraternity has shrunk down to a single gang of drunks, cowards and nostalgic fuck-ups. As a snapshot of a particular point in the history of NYC, the film is really fascinating as many of the empty buildings the gang hang-out in are now home to high-end designer boutiques and luxury apartments. Basically… if you want to know what Hell’s Kitchen looked like before a wave of gentrification turned it into ‘Midtown West’ then this is the film for you.  Just don’t watch it for the story… or the acting.

The film’s plot is sort of similar to that of Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco in that it involves a cop infiltrating a criminal gang only to wind up identifying with the gang so much that he struggles to do his job. Only, the cop’s job is a lot harder here as the gang he is ordered to infiltrate is mostly composed of his childhood friends. The names attached to this project were always first class: Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, Ed Harris and Robin Wright. The problem is that the director seems to have provided his actors almost no direction resulting in a film that is completely overwhelmed and unbalanced by one of the worst performances of Gary Oldman’s career:

The film’s primary problem is that Gary Oldman starts off shouting and flailing only to become increasingly hysterical as the film progresses. Come the final act, he is literally stamping his feet and rolling around on the ground like an over-tired toddler. Oldman’s performance is so ludicrously over the top that it completely destabilises the rest of the film: Ed Harris’ muted and conflicted performance as the gang-leader comes across as flat while Robin Wright undermines an otherwise delicate job with one scene in which she suddenly abandons all of her character’s emotional toughness in order to rend her clothes and tear at her hair. Penn is arguably the best thing in this film as his double-dealing character gives him an excuse to ‘act crazy’ around Jackie and assume a more muted demeanour when dealing with Frankie, Kathleen or his police handler. Had Joanou decided to have a quiet word with Oldman then the film might easily have been salvaged but rather than reining his actors in, the director lavishes attention on them allowing even minor scenes to balloon into absurd melodramatic arias that rapidly overstay their welcome.

Three things occurred to me after writing this review:

Firstly, the only thing I really knew about Hell’s Kitchen before watching this film is that it’s home to the Marvel comics character Daredevil. Given that Hell’s Kitchen has now been gentrified and filled with up-scale apartments, does Daredevil still protect that neighbourhood and if so, doesn’t that change the dynamic of the comic? The masked protector of a shit-hole might have a bit of nobility but a lawyer who spends his evenings beating up door-to-door duster salesmen? Sounds even worse than Batman!

Secondly, it occurs to me that Gary Oldman’s Jackie may well have been the inspiration for the character of Ziggy Sabotka as played by James Ransone in season two of The Wire: They’re both remnants of a working-class culture that is about to disappear, they’re both temperamentally unsuited to their chosen life of crime and they’re both annoying histrionic tits who stick out like sore thumbs in an otherwise realistic and well-drawn setting.

Thirdly, Hollywood doesn’t really make these sort of mid-budget dramas any more and it occurred to me to look into how much money the film actually made upon first release.  Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t much and Roger Ebert (who thought more of the film and Oldman’s performance than I did) explains why:

There’s another problem. This movie, intended as a gritty slice-of-life about gangsters in New York City, is being released at about the same time as Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” which deals with the same subject and is a film so strong and graceful that few others can stand comparison to it.

Yeah… tough luck that.

 

REVIEW — My Darling Clementine (1946)

FilmJuice have my review of the high-end Arrow Academy release of John Ford’s classic western My Darling Clementine.

I knew that John Ford was a great director the second I saw ‘that shot‘ in Stagecoach when John Wayne makes his entrance and the camera seems to scamper towards him like an over-eager puppy. Since then, I’ve seen a few more of his films and even written about one of them in less than flattering terms but while I haven’t been all that aggressive about seeking our Ford’s work, he has been sitting at the back of my head with a ‘Genius?’ post-it note stuck on his forehead. Reviewing My Darling Clementine was a great chance to peel off the post-it and remind myself why I instinctively hold Ford in such high esteem. This is a stone cold classic in which every shot is a painting and every line is a poem.

The thing that took me completely by surprise was the depth at which Ford seems to be operating. What depresses me about a lot of the films coming out of contemporary Hollywood is that rather than operating on several different levels at the same time (e.g. telling a story, exploring some characters, elaborating a theme, providing a spectacle) they often struggle to do even a couple of these without collapsing in a heap. The Marvel Cinematic Universe films are an excellent example as while they more or less tell stories, have characters, and provide spectacle, they never do any of these things particularly well. John Ford, on the other hand, does all of these things in a way that allows them to flow into one another in a completely organic fashion. For example, the main plot of My Darling Clementine is this deeply symbolic meditation on moral grace that brings Henry Fonda’s morally up-standing cowboy to the morally decadent town of Tombstone and watches as the goodness seems to seep out of his boots as he wander about the place. This conflict between the grace humans can create and the moral decadence that is native to this world plays out in every image and every character including Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday who arrived in Tombstone as a good man only to wind up getting infected by the animal selfishness of the town:

Ford explores Holliday’s dilemma by positioning him between two women: On the one hand is Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua, a white woman named for a Mexican dog and wearing Mexican clothes despite frequent references to her being some sort of Native American. As in many films of this era, racial otherness combines with moral and sexual otherness to create an image of everything that Holliday is yearning to become. Chihuahua is like the household god of Tombstone; she’s beautiful, treacherous, promiscuous and a ravening Id that is unchecked by anything even approaching a conscience. On the other hand is Cathy Downs’ Clementine, a Boston school teacher who fell in love with the man Holliday used to be and who came out west in order to lure him back to civilisation. Clementine is not exactly successful as her presence shames Holliday into a bender and plans to move to Mexico with Chihuahua by his side. However, Clementine’s journey turns out not to have been wasted as her simple goodness turns out to be a perfect match for that of Wyatt Earp.

Very symbolic and character-focused, this plot strand stands in stark contrast to a secondary strand dealing with the burgeoning relationship between Wyatt and Holliday’s ex-lover Clementine. Ford presents both Earp and Clementine as restrained and upstanding and so, rather than having them talk about their feelings, he allows the relationship to unfold with virtually no dialogue at all. These sections of the film could have been culled from a film by Carl Theodor Dryer, such is the faith that Ford displays in his audience’s capacity to read emotions straight off the actors’ faces.

It’s always nice to encounter a canonical film that doesn’t disappoint and My Darling Clementine is entirely deserving of its canonical status.

Killer of Sheep (1978) — The Neorealist Equivalent of Conan’s Hat

One of the most enduring creation myths to emerge from late-20th Century popular culture is that of Los Angeles as a city built on bones. Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown tells of an incestuous white man who engineers water shortages in order to force poor farmers off their land and build new homes for middle-class families. Set a number of years later, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet provides Capital with an even more corrupt figurehead in the person of Dudley Smith, an OSS spymaster turned anti-Communist and White supremacist who uses his institutional power as chief of detectives to corner the local drugs trade in an effort to keep the city’s non-White population under control and away from the classy White neighbourhoods that Chinatown’s Noah Cross famously described as “the future”.

While American popular culture is often willing to recognise the racial character of the oppressive forces it seeks to catalogue, its viewpoint is invariably that of the White liberal onlooker rather than that of the explicitly oppressed. This is particularly evident in Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a polymorphously problematic remake of Chinatown where California’s marginalised population is represented by a ghetto filled with a diverse population of cartoon characters who eke out a living on the margins of Hollywood and eagerly distance themselves from a villainous Judge Doom who acquired considerable power and money by passing himself off as a respectable White man. The film ends with the ‘toons bickering about whether Doom was actually a duck, a dog or a mouse because obviously no White man would ever stoop so low as to use institutional power to brutalise and immiserate the poor and dispossessed. Even Chinatown’s most famous line resonates with the privilege of being born White in a White supremacist state; Jake may be able to ‘forget it’ because it is Chinatown but the actual residents of Chinatown are forced to live with ‘it’ every day of their lives.

As Thom Andersen suggests in his peerless video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, the American film industry has long proven reluctant to engage with the city of Los Angeles on its own terms and turn the camera over to the real victims of its emerging creation myth. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is one of only a few films to consider what it means to live in the town of Noah Cross and Dudley Smith.

 

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REVIEW — Stalag 17 (1953)

FilmJuice have my review of Billy Wilder’s misleading P.O.W. comedy Stalag 17. I say “misleading” as while the film was initially marketed as a tribute to America’s brave prisoners of war, the film’s depiction of life in a World War II prison camp is actually far from flattering.

Originally a hugely-successful Broadway play, Stalag 17 revolves around a group of American POWs who are trying to escape the camp. Using all of their initiative and sneakiness, the men dig tunnels, fashion civilian clothes and scout for weaknesses in German security only to wind up delivering their escapees into the waiting arms of German machine-gun fire. Shocked but reticent to engage in any form of concerted self-criticism, the group’s frustrations wind up being unleashed on William Holden’s Sefton, a cynical individualist who would rather profit from the group’s desires than aid in their fulfilment. What makes this film “misleading” is the fact that, rather than conforming to genre expectations and producing a film all about a bunch of POWs coming together to outwit the Germans, Wilder has produced a film that portrays American POWs as boorish, overbearing idiots. In fact, Sefton’s rugged individualist is quite obviously intended to be the film’s point-of-view character:

Stalag 17 is not exactly the easiest film to get into. In fact, the film is almost completely unwatchable for most of its opening hour. The problem is that the film ostensibly plays lip service to the idea of the Good War by presenting many of the POWs as happy-go-lucky scamps. Stalag 17 is often described as an iconic film as it was one of the first films about the Second World War to present the Germans as figures of fun rather than menace. Just as this vision of the Nazis as effeminate, strutting nincompoops would later inform British comedies like ‘Allo ‘Allo, the idea that prisoners of war could pull off elaborate schemes under the noses of their German captors would later inspire 168 episodes of the American sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. What makes the film very nearly unwatchable is the fact that virtually all of its jokes are embarrassingly unfunny: First we have the incessant torrent of anti-German comments that are really little more than crude xenophobic sniping dressed up as banter. Then we have about a dozen different jokes involving an over-weight man falling over and finally we have a scene in which hundreds of well-fed American POWs scream and gesture lewdly at a bunch of terrified female prisoners. This type of humour might well have passed muster amidst the jingoism and sexism of 1950s America but it actually makes the POWs come across as a bunch of boorish idiots… and therein lays the point.

My review places Stalag 17 in the broader context of Wilder’s career and his tendency to view American society in very cynical terms but it also occurs to me that films like Stalag 17 could very well mark the point at which war-time solidarity left the American cultural bloodstream, taking any and all faith in collective action with it. Sefton’s rugged individualism provides the film with its moral centre precisely because America was entering an age where it became the individual’s moral duty to look to their own advancement whilst questioning any and all conceptions of the public good that were not grounded in material largesse.

 

Spy (2015) — Wanting to Fuck Someone Does Not Mean that they are Good at their Job

People have been making spy film parodies for almost as long as they have been making spy films. As early as 1951, Paramount cast Bob Hope in My Favourite Spy as both a sophisticated international spy and the bumbling stand-up comedian who happened to resemble him. Right from the start, this cinematic formula proved so incredibly successful that it began to have an influence on the source material and so many conventional spy films and TV series of the 1960s went out of their way to incorporate the kinds of sight gags and deconstructive energies that had once been used to mock the genre from the outside. Indeed, the only tangible difference between The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart is that Don Adams seemed to realise that his character was a self-important fool while Robert Vaughn did not. By the 1980s, the conventional spy film was so far beyond parody that Roger Moore was allowed to turn James Bond into the straight middle-aged equivalent of high camp while films such as Spies Like Us and True Lies functioned as both conventional action films and satirical comedies without even a trace of tonal dissonance.

The public’s growing inability to tell the difference between films about spies and films taking the piss out of spies also served to deprive espionage satires of their political edge. Despite realising that it was impossible to satirise a genre that had progressed beyond parody some twenty-five years previously, many filmmakers went down the path of producing broader and broader satires of a genre that no longer existed as anything other than a comic punching bag for hacks like Mike Myers or the Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer partnership that would eventually wind up creating such cinematic monstrosities as Scary Movie and Meet the Spartans.

Though it is hard to think of a more degraded cinematic genre, the spy movie parody has nonetheless managed to produce a number of truly classic and devastatingly pointed films: Often imitated but rarely understood, Yves Robert’s The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe depicts the intelligence services as a bunch of self-important and unaccountable bureaucrats who spend all their time chasing their own tails in an effort to commandeer more power and funding from a political class that lacks the courage to recognise their pointlessness. Equally brutal is Michel Hazanavicius’ OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which depicts the French secret service as a bunch of racist thugs who use the trappings of state power to legitimise a playboy lifestyle that takes them from one sun-drenched swimming pool to another as women and members of marginalised groups look on in anger and disgust. Though Paul Feig’s Spy does not approach the savagery of either of these two films, it is an action/comedy that does action very well and a comedy with real satirical bite. Ostensibly a satire of Bourne-era spy films, Spy is best understood as an exploration of the Halo Effect and the idea that physically attractive people are anything other than a bunch of incompetent narcissists benefiting from society’s libidinous good will.

 

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REVIEW — 3 Women (1977)

FilmJuice have my review of Robert Altman’s arthouse drama 3 Women. Set in a small desert town, the film tells of a teenage girl who arrives in town and attaches herself to a slightly older woman with a similar background. Initially, the teenage girl behave likes little more than an enraptured child, hanging on the older woman’s every word as she spins lies and revels in her narrow consumerist ideas about the good life. This relationship lasts until the young woman’s naivete and the older woman’s dishonesty run afoul each other resulting in one of them being hospitalise, at which point the film gets weird:

3 Women is divided into three increasingly-short sections that are topped and tailed by these beautifully composed surrealist interludes that linger in the mind and imbue the film with a distinctly dreamlike quality. When Milly and Pinky’s first relationship falls to pieces, a dream sequence triggers a re-ordering of their friendship and a transfer of personality traits: Once childlike and naïve, Pinky now emerges as manipulative and sexually confident while the deluded and selfish Milly is replaced by a more nurturing and principled figure who tries to look after Pinky only to wind up apologising for her failings until their unhealthy relationship intersects with another woman.

The elevator pitch for this film could easily be: A Feminist Lost Highway as the exchange of personality traits and the radical reworkings of reality are very similar to those deployed by Lynch. The film was evidently quite poorly reviewed at the time and Altman himself admitted that he wasn’t entirely clear what message he was trying to get across but I was reminded quite a lot of the work of Joanna Russ in so far as the film builds towards a future without men and many of the weirder shifts are triggered by a need to find a new way to co-exist with men who are either distracted and indifferent or crude stereotypical representations of a masculinity so toxic that it borders on the absurd.

I remembered Robert Altman chiefly from the grown-up satires he produced towards the end of his career, but while The Player, Short Cuts and Pret-a-Porter always struck me as very similar to Altman’s breakthrough film MASH, they did absolutely nothing to endear him to me. 3 Women has completely changed my opinion of Robert Altman and while I suspect that it’s probably not worth my while investigating the rest of his back catalogue in search of films like 3 Women, I do now wonder to what extent I was simply not ready for his sensibility.

 

How Film Writing Works in the 21st Century

Step 1: Come up with an angle from which to promote the film and ensure that said angle features prominently in all pre-release promotional materials including fan-oriented press releases and interviews with talent.

For example, suggest that Guardians of the Galaxy is very similar to the original Star Wars as a way to (i) cross-promote two franchises that are owned by the same multinational corporation, (ii) get-over any (Green Lantern-inspired) resistance the target audience might have to a space-based action movie by comparing Guardians of the Galaxy to a film they already know, and (iii) give the adult audience an excuse to infantilise themselves and set aside their cynicism by inviting them to approach Guardians of the Galaxy in the same way as they approached Star Wars as children.

 

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