Wednesday, April 23, 2014
In his early twenties, Jean-Pierre Melville joined the French Resistance. In 1944, he played a part in the strategically important but often overlooked Operation Dragoon. The following year, he took his first steps towards a career as a filmmaker, directing his first short. A less persistent character might have reeled from an early setback at being rejected upon applying for an assistant director’s licence; Melville simply thumbed his nose at the system and established himself as an independent filmmaker, assimilating into his work the tropes and imagery of the American crime movies he loved and attracting the collaboration of major figures in French cinema – Alain Delon, Simone Signoret, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Emmanuelle Riva and Lino Ventura.
It was Ventura whom Melville cast in ‘Army of Shadows’, his adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s (necessarily fictionalised) 1943 book about his experiences in the Resistance. Melville, it hardly needs to be said, also drew upon his own history. Ventura plays Philippe Gerbier, the leader of a rigidly organised network. Despite the professionalism of any Resistance operative, however, betrayal and/or arrest were an occupational hazard, and ‘Army of Shadows’ opens with Gerbier transported by the Vichy police to an internment camp originally built during the “phoney war” where he is quartered with, as he muses in sardonic voiceover, “three imbeciles and two lost children”. One of the latter, however, is a former power station worker who discusses with Gerbier the possibility of shutting down the camp’s electrics, leaving him to make his escape in darkness. Before the plan can be put into effect, Gerbier is sold out by a turncoat – betrayal is the film’s constant theme – and hauled off to Gestapo headquarters in Paris. Here, he takes advantage of a young guard’s inexperience and a fellow prisoner’s complicity (it’s strongly implied that the other prisoner is gunned down while Gerbier makes good his escape) and is soon reunited with his old network. He first bit of business is the execution of the supposed comrade who informed on him.
The first half hour of Melville’s astoundingly dispassionate epic makes it very clear indeed that the usual tenets of the genre are nowhere to be found here. In 1969 – Melville lensed ‘Army of Shadows’ two years after his box-office-melting exercise in cool ‘Le Samourai’ – war movies tended to the Boy’s Own action spectacular template of the last decade or so, with square-jawed macho heroes giving the Hun a bloody good seeing to, whether it was Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris in ‘The Heroes of Telemark’, Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood in ‘Where Eagles Dare’, Gregory Peck and David Niven in ‘The Guns of Navarone’ or Lee Marvin et al in ‘The Dirty Dozen’. The only permissible moral grey area was making the protagonists of the latter a cut-throat bunch of crims, and even that was little more than a get-out clause for massacring most of the cast without sacrificing audience sympathies.
‘Army of Shadows’ is aptly titled. The Resistance were known as “the underground” for good reason. These were people who kept themselves hidden. Who knew that secrecy was paramount. Melville’s film swiftly establishes another meaning: that of compromised morality; a sort of sliding scale of survivalism where emotions and friendships need to be rigorously compartmentalised for the sake of the cause. It’s not until the 2 hour 20 running time has reached its final quarter of an hour that Melville makes his final shattering statement on the theme.
The administration and governance of Resistance networks is what Melville is principally interested in. A late-in-the-game sequence has Gerbier, rescued from what would otherwise have been certain death, doing the paperwork as he spends an enforced month in hiding. Elsewhere, the film details minutiae: transporting radio components; delivering messages; arranging passage to England to liaise with RAF contacts; getting back into France; staying one step ahead of the Gestapo. It’s telling that ‘Army of Shadows’ doesn’t document a single operation against the Nazis. No factories, munitions dumps or research facilities are destroyed; no crucial weapons development is interrupted; no high-ranking official is snatched from under the Reich’s nose.
Melville isn’t interested in heroism or hagiography. This is, instead, a story about trying to survive under almost insurmountable odds. Every scene is suffused with a grimly portentous atmosphere, the sense that the hammer is about to fall. Even a daring, meticulously plotted and nerve-wrackingly suspenseful sequence detailing a rescue attempt pays off in dour fashion with the plan foiled and the Resistance operatives making a muted and disheartened retreat.
While not entirely perfect – there is a face-palming obvious continuity error during an airborne scene, and Melville’s evocation of London in the blitz flirts with the most abject clichés – ‘Army of Shadows’ deserves attention for its commitment to an aspect of the Resistance movement that I don’t think I’ve seen portrayed in any other movie. The bitter irony is that, when originally released, the prevailing indigenous critical attitude felt it too slavish to De Gaulle – who’s barely mentioned in the script (although Gerbier’s boss, the head of the underground, can be seen as something of a stand-in) – and the film received little attention outside France. Nearly seventy years later, with cinema having swung from black-and-white (in both senses) Hun-bashing machismo, to unflinching anti-war statements (‘King and Country’, ‘Paths of Glory’), to perspectives from the other side (‘Das Boot’, ‘Downfall’), there’s never been a better time to rediscover ‘Army of Shadows’.
Sunday, April 20, 2014
Say what you will about Ben Affleck as an actor – and with ‘Gigli’ on his CV, not to mention his casting as Bruce Wayne in the upcoming ‘Batman vs Superman’, there’s certainly enough material for the naysayers – what can’t be denied is that his career as a director is shaping up nicely.
‘Gone Baby Gone’ was a subdued, character-driven adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel graced with a prickly yet nuanced performance by Casey Affleck that took the casting beyond mere nepotism. ‘The Town’ stayed in the crime genre, this time based on a novel by Chuck Hogan, with Affleck starring as well as directing. Like ‘Gone Baby Gone’, it was notable for its literacy, attention to detail and considered performances. Both films were slow burn. The comparisons most critics made to 70s American cinema were deservedly made.
It was inevitable, then, that Affleck would make not just a film that expanded the touchstones of 70s American cinema further – here, the immediate frame of reference is the political thriller – but one that was actually set in the 70s. But unlike his previous outings, ‘Argo’ tells a true story. One that happens to be as ludicrously improbable as you could imagine.
The basic facts are: on 4 November 1979, the American Embassy in Tehran was seized by militants protesting against the overthrown Shah of Iran’s domicile in the US. Embassy personnel were held hostage; their ordeal lasted 444 days. Six people managed to escape and were given sanctuary by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. Their passage out of Iran was facilitated by CIA operative Tony Mendez, who passed them off as members of a film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi epic (parts of ‘Star Wars’, made two years earlier, had been shot in Tunisia).
It’s this element of the story that Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio find most engaging. You see, you can’t just say “hey, border patrol people, we’re a film crew” and not expect your credentials to remain unchecked. Even back then, there’d be enough buzz around a forthcoming movie for details to seep into the media and the popular consciousness. Thus it is that Mendez (played in unemotive fashion by Affleck) persuades his paymasters to fund a Hollywood production (albeit one that the plug will get pulled on the moment the fugitives are clear).
‘Argo’ starts with a tense recreation of the Iranian protest outside the embassy, the subsequent storming of the building and the hostage-taking. The escape of the six seems almost ludicrously easily, but takes nothing away from how palpable the tension is as the Canadian ambassador and his staff – risking a reprise of events at their own embassy – take them in. Mendez’s tasking with their exfiltration also makes for a detailed and immersive sequence, Affleck relishing the slow-burn approach of the 70s classics he so clearly loves.
Then Mendez hooks up with make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and fast-talking impresario Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and ‘Argo’ shifts up a gear and these unlikely team-mates race to complete ad hoc under-the-gun pre-production on an exotic sci-fi spectacular. A script is selected, its general awfulness outweighed by its desert setting; trade ads are rushed into print; a cast assembled; a press event stage-managed at a plush hotel. Affleck finds in the movie’s fake a film a perfect mirror for the falsity of Hollywood and ‘Argo’ attains, in its middle section, a level of sheer satirical brilliance that it can’t possibly hope to replicate for the rest of its not insubstantial running time.
With Chambers and Siegel having done their bit, it’s off to Tehran for Mendez and the real, life-or-death business of his rescue mission. ‘Argo’ starts to develop problems here. The transitions from hostage crisis to CIA think-tank shenanigans to Mendez’s bat-shit crazy (but brilliantly creative) scheme have a kind of breezy logic to them and are effected seamlessly. The shift from Hollywood satire to suspense thriller is less well-oiled. In fact, it’s more like changing from a high to a low gear without bothering to use the clutch. There’s a lurch as the scene changes to Tehranian hotel rooms and the Canadian embassy. Affleck’s staging of a sequence where the six leave the embassy under their new identities only to attract the attention of an antagonistic mob in a bazaar is evidently intended to ramp up the tension as a precursor to the film’s (genuinely suspenseful) airport finale, but there’s no clear point of view and the editing is messy.
The airport denouement (if that’s the right word: the film meanders on for a solid quarter of an hour afterwards) plays out against a team of militant Iranians painstakingly assembling shredded material at the US embassy in order to correlate the number of hostages in captivity. Will they identify the missing six before they’re safely onboard and the plane is in the air? Affleck milks it for all it’s worth, but the result is a white-knuckle piece of cinema for all that, armed militia chasing the airliner even as it taxis down the runway. Problem is, it never happened. Mendez and his charges experienced a delay in boarding on the day, but apart from that they were away scot free.
The other problem, that (to be fair) ‘Argo’ couldn’t have surmounted, is that for the fugitive six the stakes were lower than for the other embassy staff. Only two scenes – one as the embassy is occupied, and one that’s rather awkwardly shoehorned in at the mid-way point – address what the ordeal was like for the actual hostages, blindfolded, mistreated and never knowing from day to day whether they’d be summarily executed. In comparison, while the threat of discovery was very real, the six lived to a fairly decent standard in the Canadian embassy. Moreover, the importance of the Canadians’ role is relegated to a cursory single paragraph note just before the end credits roll.
This review started out by bigging up Affleck’s talents as a director and, despite its flaws, ‘Argo’ hits more high notes than bum ones. It’s further proof that Affleck behind the camera is an infinitely more appealing prospect than Affleck in front of it.
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Actor, writer, director, raconteur and all-round bon vivant, Peter Ustinov would have been 93 today. A large glass is being raised to his memory at Agitation Towers, and I’m luxuriating in some of his wit and wisdom:
“A diplomat these days is nothing but a head waiter who’s allowed to sit down occasionally.”
“Two members of my profession who are not urgently needed by my profession, Mr Ronald Reagan and Mr George Murphy, entered politics, and they've done extremely well. Since there has been no reciprocal tendency in the other direction, it suggests to me that our job is still more difficult than their new one.”
“If the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an expert saying it can’t be done.”
“Critics search for ages for the wrong word, which, to give them credit, they eventually find.”
“Beliefs are what divide people. Doubts unite them.”
Tuesday, April 08, 2014
There’s a poem by Adrian Henri called ‘Welcome to my World’. It goes like this:
“Don’t find me”
snarl the poems
from the headlines
“Ne me trouvez
from the beaches.
Watching Richard Ayoade’s ‘The Double’, I was assailed by a similar sentiment … except here it was meaning and subtext daring me to explicate them; theme and imagery and symbolism offering me to come and write a review if I think I’m smart enough.
I’m probably not smart enough, but here goes anyway.
In a subgenre that’s not exactly crowded with entries, ‘The Double’ is the oddest and most iconoclastic Dostoyevsky adaptation I’ve ever seen, easily eclipsing the meta-fictive noodlings of Karoly Makk’s 1997 take on ‘The Gambler’ (an account of the writing of Dostoyevsky’s confessional novel featuring a film-within-a-film version of the novel itself). But whereas ‘The Gambler’ was written under the gun to fulfil a contractual obligation – and, in the pantheon of the great author’s work, something of a drawn breath between the huge mature works ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘The Idiot’ – ‘The Double’ dates from much earlier in his career: his second published novel, in fact, following the well-intentioned ‘Poor Folk’. It’s also a bloody hard slog to get through, mainly because much of the text is an engagement with and, to a certain degree, a refutation of works by Gogol, whereas Dostoyevsky’s later works (i.e. anything from ‘Notes From Underground’ onwards) find him utilizing what is entirely his own voice.
Suffice it to say, that Ayoade’s film retains a structural touchstone with the novel – in both, it’s about a third of the way through before the protagonist’s doppelgänger shows up – as well as exploring the idea of a nascent kinship between them before jealousy and rivalry spins the narrative towards its psychological fallout; likewise, the polarities in their personalities and how these affect their progression, or otherwise, through the rigid hierarchy of the bureaucratic system is well represented; other than that, Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine joyously go their own way with the material.
Here’s the basic set-up: low-ranking clerk Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) has the day from hell: he loses his briefcase after the doors of an underground train close on it; his ID is inside, which throws him into conflict with the jobsworth security guard at his office; his attempts to connect with Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the ethereal girl in the reprographics department, are constantly thwarted; the bills for his mother’s retirement home are increasing; and a neighbour from the opposite side of the courtyard cheerlessly waves at Simon before he leaps to his death.
Simon witnesses this as an aftermath to watching Hannah, who also lives on the opposite side of the courtyard, through a telescope. Hannah spends her evenings creating small paintings which she immediate tears into pieces and throws into the garbage chute. Simon religiously retrieves and reassembles them and pastes them into a scrapbook. Simon is arguably the most asexual and sensitive voyeur in the history of film. Carl Bohm in ‘Peeping Tom’ would probably slap him upside the head and have a few words.
It’s just after the suicide that Simon has his first glimpse of the doppelganger. The next day, at work, James Simon (Eisenberg, playing the alter ego with an incredibly subtle sureness of touch) is Simon’s new colleague and making waves in the department before he’s barely through the door. James is loquacious where Simon is tongue-tied, confident where Simon is shy, a lothario where Simon is virginal. Simon accepts what he’s told and doesn’t argue. James gets what he demands. Initially, Simon is fascinated and responds enthusiastically to an evening out where they run the gamut of being rude to waitresses, getting drunk and instigating a bar-room brawl. Then James offers to assist in Simon’s wooing of Hannah but when Simon inevitably screws things up, James steps in with predictable consequences.
So far, so Fyodor-meets-‘Fight Club’, and I sat in Nottingham’s Broadway cinema and with some degree of satisfaction mapped out a reading of the film that tied Dostoyevsky’s psychological character study to Tyler Durden’s patented brand of FTW wish-fulfilment. I’d pinpointed Simon’s waving back at his suicidal neighbour as the point at which he thinks “that’s me” (he is, after all, the quintessential nobody: a colleague describes him as “not particularly noticeable”) and creates a super-self – a facsimile from the id – in order to survive … only to engender a living, breathing and reprehensively popular avatar of the genus “be careful what you wish for”.
And while there are definite shades of ‘Fight Club’, albeit with its corollaries cloaked in caesuras where Fincher’s film veritably signposts them, Ayoade throws in more than one curveball that forces an entirely different reading. I can’t remember that last time a film wrong-footed me so often and I responded to its game-playing with such big-hearted adoration rather than simply being pissed off at the filmmakers’ irresolution and/or clever-cleverness. Much of the fun of ‘The Double’ – and may I send out a resounding accolade to Ayoade for pitching it as a comedy: played straight, the film would be unbearably depressing – owes to its melange of cultural references, and how indeterminate its setting. Is the mise-en-scene how the future would have looked in the 50s, or a vision of Orwell filtered through Terry Gilliam? Indeed, where exactly is ‘The Double’ set? The ambulances that show up for the most crucial scenes scream Britain in the 1970s; the diner Simon and James patronise is pure 60s American; their office is like Dostoyevky meets Zamyatin at a midnight screening of ‘Brazil’; the apartment block could have stepped in, equally, from Mike Leigh or Lukas Moodysson.
Muddying the waters still further is the cheesy ‘Blake’s Seven’-style TV show Simon watches. You’d be forgiven for thinking that its gung-ho hero, played in a frankly bonkers but hilarious cameo by Paddy Considine, is the model for his conjuration of James as his alter ego (if, in fact, Simon actually does author his alter ego: there is, not evidence exactly, but suggestion to the contrary) but the final correlation paints a different picture. The last we see of Simon’s TV idol, he’s unarmed and on his back, his nemesis declaring “You’ll die like a snake.” Later, facing up to Hannah after she’s discovered the Simon/James duplicity, he winces as she spits “You’re a snake.”
Other correlations speckle the film, either in its rhymed scenes à la ‘Deep Red’ (for all that Adoaye is being compared to Wes Anderson by the critics du jour there’s more of early Argento in his mind-fuckery and bravura camera movements, particularly a couple of fog-wreathed tracking shots through nocturnal exteriors), or its sound design (‘The Double’ boasts arguably the most specific attention to foley since Du Welz’s ‘Vinyan’), or its occasional, almost electrical, flashes of colour. There is a precision about the film’s use of blue – Hannah’s photocopier emits it instead of white; Simon orders a Coke at the diner and is given a glass of blue water instead; blenders of some stranger blue cocktail screech away when Simon tries to eavesdrop on James and Hannah at a restaurant – that I’m convinced is deliberate and coded and quite possible the key to the whole thing.
But like much of ‘The Double’, a second and perhaps a third or fourth viewing almost demand themselves in order to tease out the suspicions, ellipses and enigmas that tantalise on a first viewing. Perhaps there is no final and definitive take on the film. If that is the case, then Ayoade has succeeded brilliantly in creating a perfectly paranoid parable for our times. And what’s truly breathtaking is that this fearlessly accomplished piece of work is only his second outing as director, following the already accomplished and quirkily memorable debut ‘Submarine’. God know what he’s going to do next, but I’m first in the queue when it’s released.
Saturday, April 05, 2014
Disney’s highest-grossing animated film to date, ‘Frozen’ is a sometimes sentimental, sometimes satirical piece of work that is very nearly overbalanced by its structural wonkiness. Attempting a plot synopsis, the basic set-up requires probably double the exposition of the rest of the narrative. Let’s give it a go anyway.
‘Frozen’ is set in a small principality in … well, the accents suggest Germany, Norway or Cheswick; character names include Anna (pronounced Ar-nuh), Elsa, Kristoff, Hans and Olaf, which hint at anywhere from middle European to eastern Europe via Scandinavia; and much of the action takes place in a coastal town called Arendelle, which sounds like something out of Tolkein’s Middle Earth. But since the story’s based on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’, let’s cut our losses and call it Scandinavia.
(Incidentally, that’s “based on” as in one of the characters is a queen, and the setting is very wintry.)
So, in a small principality in Scandinavia, sisters Elsa (voiced by Eva Bella) and Anna (Livvy Studenrauch) live a happy life at the royal palace; their parents, the king and queen, are good and kindly. Elsa has a “talent” she was born with: the ability to conjure ice or snow from her fingertips in much the same way as Peter Parker can fling out webbing at will in his Spider-Man guise. This ability is much utilized by Anna, who encourages Elsa to build elaborate snowscape playgrounds for her in the grand halls of the palace. One day, things get out of control and Elsa accidentally flings a chip of ice that strikes Anna in the head. Desperate, the king and queen take Elsa and the unconscious Anna in the woods above Arendelle and seek the preternatural assistance of the trolls who live there. Their healing of Anna – which involves eliding her memory of the incident – and advice to the king and queen that Elsa’s gift needs to be controlled is witnessed by a young boy who has become cut off from a group of ice-cutters. This lad is subsequently taken in by the trolls and raised as one of their own. (Thus far, and we’re only about half way through the scene-setting, the POV has switched from Anna to Elsa to the now troll-adopted ice-cutter boy.)
Anyway, the royal party return to the palace where Elsa is immediately outfitted with a pair of gloves (a safety measure which makes no sense since she can turn a parquet floor in an ice rink simply by tapping it with her heel while still wearing shoes) and confined to quarters. Anna is kept ignorant of why she is refused further interaction with Elsa, and passes her childhood pining for the companionship they used to share. With the sisters still shy of adulthood, the king and queen are lost in a sailing accident. ‘Frozen’ then stumbles forward three years as Elsa (now voiced by Idina Menzel) prepares to emerge for her coronation while Anna (Kristen Bell) wants to use the occasion as a means of asserting her own independence. During the celebrations, Anna meets the courtly Hans (Santino Fontana) and after a whirlwind romance/musical number, they decide to get married. This meets with frosty (pardon the pun) disapproval from Elsa and an argument ensues. Again unable to control her powers, Elsa unleashes a snowstorm which leaves Arendelle in the grip of an eternal winter. Denounced as a witch by the scheming Duke of Weselton (Alan Tudyk), Elsa flees her home and takes to the wintry hinterlands and an ice palace of her own creation.
Still with me? Good, because here’s where the main narrative actually starts, and what it boils down to is this: Anna appoints Hans to safeguard Arendelle and takes off in search of Elsa, en route meeting ice-trader Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) who we previously met as the young boy with the step-family of trolls; meanwhile Hans, worried at the time Anna’s been gone, mounts his own search and rescue mission, unaware that the two men volunteered by Weselton have been instructed to assassinate Elsa. These parallel odysseys occupy the mid-section and the film commits the cardinal sin, here, of backgrounding its most interesting character, Elsa. The flaw is compounded by abandoning immediately after the single best song in the whole production. ‘Let it Go’ is a genuine show-stopper and a pivotal scene for Elsa; there’s a wonderful, devil-may-care moment where the filmmakers seem to be pointing Elsa towards villainess duties (and what a delicious and, may I say this of a Disney movie, sexy villainess she’d have made), but then … nothing. Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee proceed to do bog all with Elsa till the denouement, where Weselton’s villainy is revealed as a feint and the Anna-Hans-Kristoff triangle resolved by the unmasking of the actual antagonist.
En route, we have a sidetrack to the trolls’ village where – predictably – a big musical number ensues as they try a little matchmaking between Anna and Kristoff, and some comic relief courtesy of an anthropomorphic and loquacious snowman (Josh Gad) who literally wanders into the film out of nowhere (granted, there’s a provenance to his existence, but he’s not so much introduced as shoehorned in and for a good ten minutes following his entrance anyone in the audience over the age of, say, six is likely to be gawping slack-jawed at the screen and thinking WTF, am I seeing things or did a talking snowman just wander into this movie?
That the snowman talks – and, yes, delivers a big musical number – while Kristoff’s trusty reindeer, Sven, doesn’t is a rug-pull that Buck and Lee underline by having Kristoff talk for Sven (most hilariously when Kristoff needs Sven to be the voice of his moral conscience). The schism is particularly evident given Disney traditionalism: in the normal run of things, Sven would be a dead cert for a celebrity voice and a stockpile of knowing one-liners.
‘Frozen’ also monkeys with audience anticipation in its romantic subplot(s), although not – heaven forfend! – to the degree of ditching the happily-ever-after wrap-up altogether. Taking a cue from ‘The Princess and the Frog’, ‘Frozen’ cheerfully upends the handsome prince business. Moreover, when the final narrative stretch relies upon the fairytale trope “only love can melt a frozen heart” for its dramatic dynamic, ‘Frozen’ broadens the concept to filial love rather than the expect heterosexual goggle-eyed romanticism that usually defines the term in such fare.
While it’s playing games with fairytale traditions and throwing out unexpected bits of comedy (notably in the first half; the latter stages are notably lacking in humour), ‘Frozen’ is a blast; however, the structural imbalance is there, lurking under every scene like some kind of celluloid subsidence. Similarly, a quality schism in the music is apparent: ‘Let it Go’ is superb, while ‘In Summer’ wins points for sheer absurdity. Elsewhere, though, blandness prevails. Still, ‘Frozen’ is, overall, a lot of fun and the proliferation of character actors in the vocal cast rather than marquee-friendly big star names says something about the filmmakers’ commitment to their characters. A bit more commitment to the script and it could have been a stone cold classic.
Tim Brayton conducted a retrospective of the Disney animated features at his blog Antogony & Ecstasy: a series of detailed, insightful and highly intelligent essays that, in my opinion, are pretty much the last word on the Disney canon. The retrospective concluded with a review of ‘Frozen’ which is the best piece of writing you’ll encounter on the film. Tim’s frame-by-frame analysis of Elsa’s almost-transformation in the ‘Let it Go’ sequence is beautifully explicated.
Thursday, April 03, 2014
Nearly a fortnight since I checked out of the Grand Budapest Hotel? Ooops! But I haven’t been skiving, honest.
Content will resume on Agitation at the weekend. Lined up for April are un film de Ben Affleck, a recent Disney outing, and a certainly newly released blockbuster featuring a certain Marvel icon.