Sunday, September 23, 2018

King of Thieves

Brits love crims almost as much as they love the Royal Family. The cultural imprimaturs of British cinema are crime movies, from ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ to ‘Get Carter’ to Guy Ritchie and his uniquely UK spin on the slick American mainstream, just as the idols of many a Daily Mail reader or Spanish-settler ex-pat are the Great Train Robbers, the Krays and the Brinks Mat crew. The revelation, then, that the Hatton Garden Safety Deposit robbery had been the work of a group of old geezers captured the public imagination to the tune of two movies – this one and Ronnie Thompson’s ‘The Hatton Garden Job’ – and a TV mini-series in the three years since the heist took place.

There’s a wealth of reading online and at least two non-fiction books on the subject for anyone who wants background on the actual event and some idea of how accurate – or otherwise – ‘King of Thieves’ is. For purposes of this review, the basics are: during the Easter bank holiday in 2015, while the safety deposit premises were closed for four days and nearby businesses that would otherwise have been open were evacuated due to a London Underground fire (unconnected to the robbery and not even mentioned in the film), a group of OAP crims gained access to the building via a keyholder known only as ‘Basil’, disabled the alarm system, drilled through several feet of concrete, entered the vault and robbed the shit of it. All were old-school villains, all had form, and though the heist itself was planned and pulled off brilliantly, it wasn’t long before they were rounded up – with the exception (at the time, anyway) of Basil* – and charged.

‘King of Thieves’ tackles the story in classic three-act structure: the planning, the job itself and the thieves-fall-out aftermath/police investigation. Giving the project to Marsh should have been a shoe-in to direct: his two best films – ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ and ‘Man on Wire’ – are documentary features and ‘King of Thieves’ rounds out a trilogy of best-on-a-true-story features, following ‘The Theory of Everything’ and ‘The Mercy’, biopics of Stephen Hawking and Donald Crowhurst respectively. Loading it with Brit screen legends Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Ray Winstone and Jim Broadbent should have sealed the deal. (Having said all that, ‘The Theory of Everything’ was bland, middlebrow Oscar-bait while ‘The Mercy’ egregiously dropped the ball on what could have been a fucking great movie.)

The film comes freighted, however, with three immediate problems – the first of which is Caine. Not only does he drift through the running time looking bored and delivering his lines with flat indifference, but his infinitely more engaged turn in the thematically similar ‘Going in Style’ – released only 18 months ago – provokes memories of how much fun this kind of material can be if handled well. Watching ‘King of Thieves’ while thinking about ‘Going in Style’, and God knows ‘Going in Style’ was no classic to begin with, just points up how lifeless Marsh’s film is.

That ‘Going in Style’ works is because Zach Braff knows exactly the balance of comedy and whimsy required to elevate the production beyond mere boilerplate. Which brings us to problem the second: ‘King of Thieves’ struggles to find a tone. The opening scenes have old-school thief Brian Reader (Caine) enjoying his seemingly legit twilight years with his adoring wife Lyn (a sparkling Francesca Annis) only for her declining health to leave him a widower. At the wake, some old faces from the past reminisce about the jobs they did, much to Brian’s chagrin. But when Basil (Charlie Cox) turns up at Brian’s morbidly silent house, drags him out for a pint, and pitches Hatton Garden to him it’s not long before he’s put an OAP team together and they’re planning the job in earnest. We’re about quarter of an hour in at this point and Marsh has gone from a jazzy opening credits sequence which promises a proper good old caper movie to a melancholy discourse on bereavement to ‘The Bank Job’ meets ‘Dad’s Army’. Further tonal disharmony awaits: the film’s attempts at comedy are skin-crawlingly embarrassing (someone should have told scripter Joe Penhall that there’s nothing inherently funny about crims in their 70s making homophobic comments and complaining about their bowels); the comedy abruptly dies when Terry Perkins (Broadbent) takes over the job after Brian backs out and discovers that with assumed power comes great paranoia (Broadbent’s authentically terrifying performance of an unpredictable man of violence going even further off the rails is easily the best thing the film has to offer); and the subsequent police investigation shifts the tone to documentary-style procedural. Indeed, this sees ‘King of Thieves’ at its most cohesive, Marsh finally engaging with the material and achieving a pace and style of filmmaking that works. It is, unfortunately, a case of too little too late.

Problem the third: visually, it’s fucking boring. Much of it is filmed in medium-close up, compositions are awkward and ugly (look out for an incredibly shoddy sequence where Basil can’t make eye contact with Brian while he sounds him out about the job), and there are precious few directorial grace notes to enliven the narrative. On paper, ‘King of Thieves’ should have been a cinematographer’s dream: dingy backstreet pubs, smelting plants, scrapyards, lift shafts, vaults, London by night. What’s on the screen, however, is flat and uninspired.

Performances are variable: Broadbent, as noted, delivers a powerhouse turn that you’d never have imagined of him, while Caine doesn’t seem interested. Winstone does the same old shtick, Gambon chews the scenery like a starving man given an unlimited budget in a steakhouse, Cox tries for enigmatic and misses by a mile and a half, Courtney bumbles about like it’s a mummers’ play, and Paul Whitehouse is wasted in a role that he really commits to but is terminally underwritten.

I’m not sure whether it’s Penhall’s script or Marsh’s direction that ultimately scuppers ‘King of Thieves’, or whether it’s a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. Certainly, the film is riddled with moments that seem to strive towards meaning but are never really expanded on, mostly notably in the police’s initial belief that foreign criminals were behind the robbery. This is immediately echoed by a heavy-handed to-camera piece by a reporter speculating on the involvement of a foreign mob because the professional execution, cheer chutzpah and jaw-dropping haul (anywhere between £14 million and £200 million) is thought to be beyond the capabilities of any British outfit.

The Hatton Garden job took place a year before the Brexit referendum; ‘King of Thieves’ is in cinemas six months ahead of the prospective 29 March 2019 date for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. It’s obvious that Penhall and Marsh have a point to make, but it’s vague, ill-defined, swamped by tedious scenes of crims with rent-a-Cockney accents saying “faak” and “cahnt” a lot and making shit gay-bashing jokes like they’re in some horrible 70s sitcom.

Towards the end, Marsh cuts between his aged protagonists facing the weight of the law and their younger selves – i.e. matching up each actor with a brief shot of them in a tough guy role from earlier in their filmography – presumably in an attempt at a Peckinpah-lite commentary on men outliving their times but, once again, not quite getting it right. Caine’s archive footage is, of course, from ‘The Italian Job’, Courtenay’s from ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’. The effect is twofold: to reinforce the sense of ‘King of Thieves’ as a more-or-less contemporarily-set film hopelessly stuck in the past, and to make you wish you’d stayed at home and watched ‘The Italian Job’ and ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ instead.

*An end-credits title card announces that ‘Basil’ is still at large, however Ian Seed was arrested in March on suspicion of, well, basically being Basil and his trial has been postponed until next year to “allow the defence more time to construct their case because of the problems that may arise from the film’s release” (The Telegraph, 03.09.18).

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Blogged off

You've probably noticed that I haven't posted a review here in nearly two months. This is because:

(a) I've been working on other things; and

(b) I haven't seen much cinema lately that's been worth a damn.

So I may as well make official what y'll have probably guessed anyway: I'm taking a leave of absence from The Agitation of the Mind for a while. I don't know how long. I might do 13 For Halloween this year. I'll almost certainly reopen the blog's doors for the Winter of Discontent, if only because I've got a couple of reviews written for WoD already.

Apart from that, it's a case of I'm just going elsewhere and I may be some time ...

Friday, March 30, 2018

Hot Girls Wanted

When Hegel observed that the past repeats itself, Karl Marx added the famous caveat “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. To subject oneself to the hour twenty minutes of Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’s documentary ‘Hot Girls Wanted’, produced by singer and actress Rashida Jones, is to witness tragedy and farce awkwardly intertwined, both of them trying to pretend they’re enjoying it, while keeping one eye locked on their Instagram feeds and desperately hoping for another dozen likes.

Sticking with the Karl Marx theme for another paragraph, he and Friedrich Engels’ revolutionary political manifesto started with the words “a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism”. Likewise, a spectre is haunting ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ – several spectres, in fact. Actually a whole fucking graveyard full of them. Shiver at the Ghost of Abject Narcissistic Stupidity! Gasp at the Ghost of Obsessive Social Media Inanity! Try not to piss your pants at the Ghost of Monumental Self-Delusion! (That’s piss your pants laughing, by the way, not piss your pants because it’s scary.)

There is, however, one spectre missing from the soul-crushingly interminable 80 minutes of this flick – and that’s the very spectre Bauer, Gradus, Jones and writer Brittany Huckaby went ghosthunting for in the first place.

The project started out as an investigation into male campus attitudes towards, and consumption of, online pornography (because God bless the internet that the youth of today no longer have to scrutinise a video store carpet while scarlet patches spread across their cheeks as they hand over to the matronly clerk an empty VHS case with a cover image of Nina Hartley about to steer some girl-next-door type down the rue de Sapphos), only to realise that the aforementioned girl-next-door types accounted for the majority of these thick-necked jocks’ viewing preferences: a hand-shandy subgenre known as “amateur porn”.

Thus it was that Bauer and Gradus and Jones and Huckaby, old Uncle Tom Netflix and all, went haring off in pursuit of these (mostly) teenage adult entertainment ingénues. The resulting documentary merited (that’s “merited” as in “was inexplicably on the receiving end of”) some festival buzz, even though early audiences felt that it lacked focus. Viewers and filmmakers batted their opinions around on Twitter while the auteur theory crawled into a hole and died. Re-edits occurred.

I’ve not had the opportunity to view the original cut, so I can’t say how it differs from the version now floating around near the scuzzy plughole of Netflix, but I can only assume that if the cut I watched was the one with all the focus and clarity, its erstwhile incarnation must have been headfuck incoherent on the level of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky going on a two-week bender during which they summoned the ghosts of Aleister Crowley and Jim Morrison via a ouija board whose letters were in Croatian and whose numbers roughly correlated with the Mayan calendar.

‘Hot Girls Wanted’ is a clusterfuck on pretty much every level, but the essence of its clusterfuckery is Bauer and Gradus’ inability to find a tone, a context – hell, even a fucking point – to their film. At base level, you could précis it as the failure to bridge its Presbyterian disapproval at the depravity its subjects throw themselves into with its you-go-girl insistence on defending to the death (or at least a flesh wound) their right to do it in the name of empowerment, feminism, Belle Knox or the flying spaghetti monster.

Belle Knox, the so-called “Duke University porn star” (a weird conflation of alma mater and something-that-has-nothing-to-do-with-alma-mater that must make me the Bluecoat Sixth Form College sarcastic motherfucker), haunts the periphery of this film; and, given her soundbite-friendly eloquence and its-my-story-and-I’m-sticking-to-it pseudo-feminist narrative, you get the impression that she’s the person Bauer and Gradus would rather be making a film about. Sadly, though, they have to satisfy themselves with a short clip from Knox’s toe-curling interview with professional British skeaze-meister Piers Morgan and an even shorter clip (mercifully) from one of her “facial abuse” videos.

Bauer and Gradus also have to make do, in terms of interview subjects, with Tressa (porn name: Stella May*), Rachel (porn name: Ava Taylor), Michelle (porn name: Brooklyn Daniels**), Karly (porn name: Lucy Tyler) and Jade (Ava Kelly). Their ages range from 18 to 25, though Jade at 25 is edging out of the girl-next-door market and forced to do more “specialist” videos. Bauer and Gradus capture her response at being asked to dress appropriate for a “ghetto” shoot. She cannot believe, she avers, that “there are guys who go to a pawn shop and they’re like ‘I wanna fuck that girl’,” and having delivered this value judgement against some poor shmuck reduced by circumstances to hocking his worldly goods for far less than they’re worth, she toddles off to the same kind of degrading experience Knox put herself through – she’s verbally abused, spat on, slapped around and much much worse – all for the same devalued handful of greenbacks.

The startling coda to this scene is her rationalisation that essentially being raped on camera means that guys who get their jollies from this kind of thing will sate themselves watching it happen to her rather than “doing it to a real girl”. Jade’s dissociation of herself from any recognisable set of values is the film’s emotional nadir and flies in the face of the my-choice-my-empowerment spin Bauer and Gradus desperately try to hammer home elsewhere. It does, however, provide an interesting point of contrast to Karly, who reads intellectually stimulating books on her days off and has created “Lucy Tyler” not as a pseudonym but an alter-ego: she subtly changes her appearance and behaves differently in order to become Lucy, and shrugs off the character after the shoot is over. Bauer and Gradus were handed a pint-sized nucleus of potential in Karly, and a version of ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ that focused on her methodology for surviving the industry and retaining her self-identity could have been fascinating, particularly in counterpoint to Jade’s horrifying naivety.

But no: the filmmakers went with Tressa and Rachel as their primary focus. Granted, there were avenues that could have been explored with both of them. Rachel is introduced during her first few days in the business, blinged up and not exactly rocking a beanie hat, chuffing on a cigarillo and attempting to freestyle. This is the affront to linguistics that she comes up with:

Yeah, you’re a porn star
And I’m a fucking shooting star, bitch
And now we’re going to LA
And we’re gonna sip Bombay
Yeah, and I’m smokin’ hella blunt
Yeah, and I got hella cunt, yeah

(She’s white, by the way.) Now contrast this muppet babies version of hardcore with her interview following her first shoot: “Ugh, I got macked on by some creeper,” a statement delivered with all the wide-eyed incredulity of someone who honest-to-God thought that a life in adult features would require little more than some naked orgiastic motion-capture writhing and all the nasty, squelchy, gooey stuff would be added in later by CGI. Bauer and Gradus try this trick more than once, banging the drum re: the horrible reality of pornographic features, then undercutting themselves by citing research – specifically carried out for the film – that identifies extreme and violent porn (such as the “facial abuse” subgenre Belle Knox and Jade were victims of) as being prominently advertised on porn sites.

Ultimately, none of the interview subjects in ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ present as being in the dark about what awaits them (although they bullshit each other to an almost cruel degree as to how easy the lifestyle is: a frequently peddled myth is that “the guys treat you like princesses”), which doesn’t leave Bauer and Gradus with a lot of room to pattern a victim narrative (they do their best, though). Whenever the issues of complicity or responsibility rear their heads, the filmmakers hastily swerve in the direction of why-do-these-poor-girls-do-this, and in needing to grasp onto this aspect of the story they inadvertently make Tressa the main focus of the documentary.

So what does Tressa need to get away from so desperately? Um, a comfortable suburban home, a mother who’s proud of her academic and cheerleading achievements and a father who enjoys spending time with her, it would seem. Sure, her ma’s a bit of a couch potato, and her dad likes firing off shotguns, but neither of them come across as the kind of controlling, suffocating or domineering types that one’s only option is a flight to Miami and so much sex with hatchet-faced tattooed douchebags that one develops a vaginal cyst.

The clue to Tressa’s psychological make-up has more to do with an obsession with image. I was about to say self-image, but that makes it seem too profound. Let’s just use the word “selfie” instead. Tressa comes across as an entity virtually inseperable from her cellphone or laptop. Every phone call she makes is a face-time pout opportunity. She goes on a date to the zoo with her limp dick loser boyfriend (“you’re not a prostitute to me” he says at one point, dejection spray-painted across his hangdog face) and tunes out of his conversation, so focused is she on filming herself. And again, an avenue presents itself to Bauer and Gradus – the fledgling porn star as a product of the social media age – but they lack either the interest or the ability to pursue it.

If Jade’s humiliation at the “facial abuse” shoot is the tragedy part of ‘Hot Girls Wanted’, Tressa’s return to the parental abode – limp dick boyfriend in tow – is the farce. In a volte-face that plays out like the worst Hollywood melodrama, the combination of her parents’ disappointment and her boyfriend’s general deficiency of manliness lead her to a disavowal of her short-lived porn star past. “I only made twenty-five thousand dollars in four months,” she opines, “and when I came home I had two thousand left in the bank.” That she applies “only” to the twenty-five thousand not the two says something I could probably write another few paragraphs about, but the hour is late, the review already overlong, and further speculation on Tressa and co. frankly not worth the effort.

‘Hot Girls Wanted’ is a documentary whose title all but instructs you to ready your palm for some onanistic activity, only to compel you to smack it repeatedly against your forehead instead.

*Perhaps the only example of the porn name being classier than the actual name.

**Decided on after she’s encouraged to “think of a place you like”, which is like a male London porn star alighting on the pseudonym Brixton Hardd.

Sunday, March 25, 2018


When StudioCanal acquired Simon Rumley’s ‘Crowhurst’ – even though they were already distributing higher-budgeted rival film ‘The Mercy’ – there was speculation that they were protecting their interests as regards the latter and that Rumley’s film would effectively be quashed. StudioCanal nonetheless announced that ‘Crowhurst would open “four to six weeks” after ‘The Mercy’.

Well, those four to six weeks have disappeared over the horizon and although ‘Crowhurst’ has received a couple of (complimentary) reviews in the broadsheets, there’s been neither sight nor sound of it at any cinema anywhere near your humble blogger. So my objective of wrapping up Crowhurst season on The Agitation of the Mind with an in-depth review of Rumley’s take on the enigmatic story of Donald Crowhurst is basically bollocksed.

Nor did I manage to track down a copy of Christian de Chalonge’s ‘Les quarantièmes rugissants’ (‘The Roaring Forties’) or the BBC documentary ‘Donald Crowhurst: Sponsored for Heroism’. I found Nikita Orlov’s ‘Gonka Veka’ (‘The Race of the Century’) online, but in a print that wasn’t subtitled, and while it was a solidly made piece of work that seemed to focus on the sponsorship/business aspect of the story to make an anti-capitalist point, I wasn’t confident in attempting a review.

Whilst kicking my heels waiting for ‘Crowhurst’ to open – and delaying a number of other reviews in the process – I read Peter Nichols’ ‘A Voyage for Madmen’, which tells the story of all of the Golden Globe participants and delivers its meticulously researched narrative with all the verve and immediacy of a thriller; and Donald Finkel’s book-length narrative poem ‘The Wake of the Electron’, in which Finkel imaginatively sympathises with Crowhurst, taking prompts from his final log book and from Einstein’s ‘Theory of Relativity’ (Crowhurst’s less-than-light-reading during the voyage) and wrestles them into poetry.

I have yet to source copies of Tomalin and Hall’s ‘The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst’ and Chris Eakin’s ‘A Race Too Far’ (acclaimed by ‘The Mercy’ star Colin Firth), but I can highly recommend Nichols and Finkel: their approaches are vastly different but their contributions to the Crowhurst canon are invaluable.

Friday, March 09, 2018


So: over a month after I saw ‘The Mercy’ at a vastly under-attended screening at Nottingham’s Cineworld multiplex – during which I have watched several other Crowhurst features, ploughed through two-thirds of Peter Nichols’s book ‘A Voyage for Madmen’, added Tomalin and Hall’s ‘The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst’ and Bernard Moitessier’s ‘The Long Way’ to my “must read” list, and cursed StudioCanal for not getting Simon Rumley’s ‘Crowhurst’ into theatres four to six weeks after ‘The Mercy’ as they promised – I find myself sitting down to write about ‘The Mercy’ and feeling like I’m about to be a bit of a heel.

I had sod all knowledge of Donald Crowhurst, Bernard Moitessier and the 1968 Golden Globe race before I saw ‘The Mercy’. I went to see it because of its stars – Colin Firth and the always watchable Rachel Weisz – and because it looked like something reasonably interesting amidst an otherwise lacklustre choice of cinema-going options. What ‘The Mercy’ did was to sink a hook in my imagination and pull the line attached to it taut as a piano wire. It made me want to know more. Not just about Crowhurst but the other contestants. Once payday has rolled around again and I can order a copy of Moitessier’s account and the Tomalin/Hall book, my next acquisitions will be Donald Finkel’s book-length poem ‘The Wake of the Electron’ and Robin Knox-Johnston’s memoir ‘A World of My Own’.

This from someone who never had any real interest in ocean voyages or yachtsmanship. And it’s thanks to ‘The Mercy’ that I owe this explosion of new-found fascination.

And yet – I was aware of this to a certain degree as I watched the film, and it’s been thrown into sharper relief by my viewing, reading and researches since – ‘The Mercy’ isn’t that great a movie. It’s decent, don’t get me wrong – nicely shot, good production values, a commendably taut hour forty minute running time, and Firth’s most committed performance in ages – but it falls short of greatness.

It falls short because, in some places, it elides fascinating details of Crowhurst and the Teignmouth Electron’s voyage that would have added to the drama; and in others it sanitises them. Example of the former: ‘The Mercy’ insinuates that the Teignmouth Electron was delivered to Crowhurst at the very eleventh hour, allowing him to set out on the very day of the deadline – 31 October 1968 – when in fact the vessel was launched in late September with the intention that Crowhurst would sail it from Brundall to Teignmouth (the Electron had been named after the harbour town as part of Rodney Hallworth’s publicity drive), a voyage that should have been a three day hop for any competent sailor but took Crowhurst a fortnight. Much, too, is made in the film of Crowhurst’s self-designed safety devices, particularly the “buoyancy bag”, and a genuinely vertiginous scene has a petrified Crowhurst (Firth) climbing a wobbling mast in order to effect a repair only to fail in his endeavours. In actuality, none of the safety features had been completed and/or installed before the Electron set sail, and it strikes me that for the film to have reflected this would have ramped up the tension from the get-go.

Examples of director James Marsh and writer Scott Z. Burns’s sanitisation are more prolific and more troubling. One needs only to consult two or three accounts of the Crowhurst story to identify Stanley Best and Rodney Hallworth as the puppet-masters who manoeuvred Crowhurst into his damned-if-I-do-damned-if-I-don’t dilemma. Yet Marsh and Burns almost seem to take pains to paint Best as a kindly old cove (he’s played by Ken Stott, who can do ruthless as well as any character actor, so we have to assume that the twinkly characterisation he delivers instead was specifically requested) who does what he does with the greatest of reluctance. Likewise, Hallworth (David Thewlis) comes across as a cheeky chappie who gratuitously embellishes Crowhurst’s claims because, hey folks, that’s what fast-talking 1960s newspaper were like, innit? Thewlis had already turned in a far more nuanced portrayal of a journalist in ‘The Fifth Estate’ so there’s no reason to doubt that, had Burns written Hallworth as such and Marsh requested it, Thewlis would have embodied the character and projected his motives in suitably eviscerating style.

Similarly, Crowhurst’s descent into madness is skirted around rather than providing the dramatic raw red meat of the film’s final act. Neither Marsh nor Burns seem to be up to the task of depicting their protagonist’s fragmenting mental state. A visual attempt to render Crowhurst’s disorientation against a seascape that renders him insignificant isn’t well enough thought-out to be impactful, and a sequence with a non-functional radio-telephone, which seems to have been shoehorned in purely to make mention of Crowhurst’s “cosmic being theory” (but without actually explicating it), is so predictable in its visual punchline to be crass.

Put simply, ‘The Mercy’ doesn’t go deep or dark enough. Its last half hour needs to be the kind of claustrophobic and immersive headfuck that Nic Roeg, Donald Cammell, David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky would have rubbed their hands together and dived right into. But I guess that headfuck-inability is what you get when you engage the director of ‘The Theory of Everything’ instead of a visionary auteur.

Mercifully (bad pun: no apologies), the film does get some things right. It gives Firth one of the best roles he’s had and – despite being at least 15 years too old to play Crowhurst – he rises above the limitations of the script and direction. As does Rachel Weisz as Clare Crowhurst, whose final act j’accuse against the press is infinitely more powerful for the reserve and restraint she forces on herself as she delivers it. There are also a cluster of scenes which simply document Crowhurst, alone at sea, coming painfully to terms with how ill-prepared he is, how unsuited to purpose the Electron is, and how miserably lonely the undertaking. I often complain that contemporary films would benefit from having their running times reduced by 15 or 20 minutes, but in this case and extra quarter of an hour or so of Crowhurst battling to keep his trimaran afloat, battling his own lack of expertise and battling the crippling external forces by which he is unable to either turn back or go on, would have improved ‘The Mercy’ no end. That, and the balls to look right into the abyss the way Crowhurst must have done during those terrible final days.

Friday, March 02, 2018


Donald Crowhurst set sail in the Teignmouth Electron in late 1968. By 1970 there had been a book that is still in print and a BBC documentary. From hereon in, there would be some form of representation as regards Crowhurst’s Golden Globe dichotomy – be it a documentary account or a fictive ruminations – across each of the six decades that separate the original Sunday Times sponsored race from the two most recent biopics: James Marsh’s ‘The Mercy’ and Simon Rumley’s ‘Crowhurst’.

But it wasn’t till 2006 – nearly forty years afterwards – that film-makers Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell came as close as anyone has thus far to making the definitive film on Donald Crowhurst and the Golden Globe race. ‘Deep Water’ is a clear-sighted and narratively lucid distillation of all the key elements. It establishes Crowhurst’s background and throws into sharp relief how lacking he was in seafaring experience compared to the other entrants. It demonstrates a psychologically acute yet sympathetic understanding of his personality – by turns ebullient, confident, persuasive, driven and, underlying all of it, self-delusional in the way that those beset by failure (or by the nagging conviction that they have not achieved all of which they are capable) can delude themselves that success or fame or whatever their motivator is, is just round the corner – and it correctly identifies him as a tragic victim rather than a villain or, worse, simply a cheat.

As an example of feature-length documentary filmmaking, it gets everything right. The balance of ‘talking heads’, voiceover and archive footage is spot on, and the transitions organic and effective. Tilda Swinton’s narration is perfectly pitched, her diction precise, and there is no slipping into melodrama. Osmond and Rothwell plot out the timeline, the course by which the circumnavigation was effected (if only by one contestant and sort-of-and-then-some by another), and the stages of the voyage as applicable to the various entrants.

Better still, it doesn’t just focus on Crowhurst, but tells his story through the greater context of the race itself. Through the yachtman’s own interview contributions, ‘Deep Water’ celebrates Robin Knox-Johnston’s success (he comes across as immensely likeable) and his generosity – he donated his winnings to the financially beleaguered Clare Crowhurst and her children. The filmmakers also evince a fascination with Bernard Moitessier, a man who had already undertaken – and published books about – various nautical adventures. The calm, steady professionalism of Knox-Johnston and the round-the-world-yacht-trip-as-zen-experience of Moitessier are the counterpoints by which Crowhurst’s story can be told that much more empathetically.

(It’s understandable that other contestants get short shrift – ‘Deep Water’ is essentially telling one story, not nine, and Knox-Johnston and Moitessier occupy a place in its narrative for specific reasons – but it’s to be regretted that, say, Bill King’s near-death experience when his boat capsized or Nigel Tetley’s dramatic eleventh hour disaster don’t merit more screen time.)

One gets the impression that Moitessier – represented by readings from his books and some splendidly philosophical interview footage with his wife Françoise – would have been the focus of ‘Deep Water’ had Crowhurst’s bizarre, enigmatic and wholly tragic story not stolen everyone’s thunder by exerting its a grip on the popular imagination that shows no signs of loosening. Moitessier, in a boat constructed from boilerplate that he named Joshua (after Joshua Slocum, author of the seminal ‘Sailing Alone Around the World’), was odds-on to win both the Golden Globe and the prize for fastest time. Had he completed the circumnavigation according to the rules of the race (and there is nothing to suggest he wouldn’t have pulled off this double whammy), Knox-Johnston would have been a footnote in yachting lore and it is possible that even Crowhurst’s infamy would have been overshadowed.

But Moistessier was a very different individual to the others. While Knox-Johnston, King, Tetley and Chay Blyth certainly benefited from the disciplined mindset of naval service and an intimacy with hardship and physical endurance, it is clear from even the most cursory background reading on the Golden Globe and one or two filmed documentaries that they were still plagued by loneliness and heartsore at being separate from their families. Moitessier, however, was liberated by these things. At one point in his voyage, with Joshua performing well but Moitessier convinced it could go faster – could veritably fly across the oceans – he jettisoned everything that he felt was superfluous – and it’s not hard to look beyond the act as a coaxing from the vessel of more speed and see it as almost purely philosophical.

Bernard Moitessier found, in the element forces of the sea and the absolutely absence of (a) his fellow men and (b) everything that wasn’t utterly necessary, a state that most zen masters would weep at never having quite achieved. And having found this state of being, Moistessier knew that he couldn’t coast into the harbour he’d set sail from to the glare of a thousand flashbulbs, the rifle-like barrels of camera lenses, the endless intrusive questions from the press, the mobbings, the publicity, the screaming hordes. So he dropped out of the race in the most spectacular and iconic way imaginable: he omitted to cross the finish line and sailed round the world all over again.

To reiterate: Knox-Johnston’s typically British victory (a literal case of slow and steady wins the race) makes for a wonderful comparison with Moitessier’s insouciance of throwing the race by coming within a whisker of winning it – think Smith in ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ only in a yacht and without even the ulterior motive of wanting to cock a snook at the governor – but ultimately ‘Deep Water’ has Donald Crowhurst as its protagonist, and fascinating as its digressions are, everything ultimately comes back to his fateful decision, the role of chance in robbing him of the tail-end-Charlie placement that might just have allowed his gamble to pay off, and the terrible effect on his mental health.

‘Deep Water’ doesn’t call it in terms of whether his disappearance was a purposeful act of suicide or as a result of being swept overboard while the balance of his mind was disturbed. Quotes from his final log book entries – a sort of de-manufacture and reconstruction of elements of Einstein’s ‘Relativity, the Special and General Theory’ (Crowhurst had taken the tome with him for, ahem, light reading) – heavily suggest the latter, but ultimately no-one will ever know, and kudos to Osmond and Rothwell for discharging their responsibilities as documentarists and refusing to fall into the trap of speculation.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

CROWHURST SEASON: The Two Voyages of Donald Crowhurst

To the best of my knowledge, the first documentary about the Golden Globe debacle was Colin Thomas’s ‘Donald Crowhurst – Sponsored for Heroism’ which aired on British TV in 1970 and is described in this excellent New Statesman article as “dour, scathing”. Having been unable to track down a copy or find it online, I found myself turning instead to ‘The Two Voyages of Donald Crowhurst’, an Arena documentary from 1994.

It’s a curious piece of work, this. The approach to the material is clinical to the point of detachment, with a voiceover delivered in the kind of vaguely condescending cut-glass English accent that suggests it was made the Fifties rather than the Nineties. With a running time just short of half an hour, it doesn’t allow itself the necessary breathing space to consider the subject matter in the depth it requires.

Particularly galling is the lack of attention paid to the other entrants in the race, and the whistlestop pace the documentary assumes in charting Crowhurst’s premeditated decision to post fictional updates of his journey, to the point at which madness overcomes him and he struggles with cosmic considerations of time, the universe and religion. ‘Two Voyages’ fails to communicate the sheer amount of time he spent in his own company, or to plumb the psychological fall-out of a man having to live with the impossible decision he made – a man alone, struggling to keep afloat an ill-prepared vessel, missing his family, terrified at the thought of financial ruination and reputational humiliation – for so long without being able to share the burden or make confession.

This aspect is especially frustrating since the documentary makes good use of Crowhurst’s own footage of the voyage. When he set out, the BBC gave him some sponsorship money, a cine-camera and a tape recorder, the intent being that he would keep an audio-visual log correlative to the written one and return with material that could be shaped into a documentary. The BBC probably had an entirely different conception of the documentary at that point in time!

‘Two Voyages’ is also effective in establishing the inherent contradictions between Crowhurst’s bright and breezy tape recordings and cine-cam footage, and the mental turmoil he was experiencing even as he continued to play the part that was expected of him. Had the documentary taken this schism as its starting point and really squared up to Crowhurst’s mental breakdown, it might have emerged as the definitive entry in the Crowhurst cycle. As it is, it’s the first piece of work that gives us Donald Crowhurst as a regular guy – right down to some audio of him blowing a melancholy tune on the mouth organ – with whom it’s all too easy to sympathise. But it only establishes that one aspect of Crowhurst, and does not (or cannot) get a fix on the Donald Crowhurst of those last weeks.

For a documentary that plays up duality in its very title, its inability to reconcile Crowhurst’s (perhaps self-created) public persona with the person he became as time wore on and his options ran out is bitterly ironic.

Sunday, February 18, 2018


‘Horse Latitudes’ is a TV movie made in 1975 with a running time of 41 minutes. For all its brevity, it takes a long hard run at including as many of the salient points of the Donald Crowhurst story as it possible: Crowhurst as amateur sailor, his boat as unready/untested, the mid-voyage dilemma, the invented log, Crowhurst’s psychological depletion, the concept of a cosmic being, the discovery of the unmanned vessel.

The weird thing about the film is that it does all of these things while almost wilfully fictionalising Crowhurst. The character presented to us by writer-director Peter Rowe is called Philip Stockton, he’s an expatriate Canadian living in England, he’s an entitled yacht club bore (albeit a more proficient sailor than the real Crowhurst), and he cooks up a scam to kill time in the calms of the South Atlantic (the horse latitudes of the title) then rejoin the race on the return leg before he’s even set sail.

Stockton is so evidently Donald Crowhurst in terms of the narrative context – ‘Horse Latitudes’ aired six years after Crowhurst’s unmanned Teignmouth Electron was found, and five after the publication of Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall’s much-lauded book on the subject, so the story would still have been very familiar to audience – and yet is completely unlike him in virtually every way the script could conjure.

For this reason – and also for the inclusion of a genuine weird animated sequence – ‘Horse Latitudes’ is an odd film to watch. There’s probably more to enjoy in it if one is unfamiliar with the story. Having seen ‘The Mercy’ on the big screen and ‘Deep Water’ on the small within the same 24-hour period in which I approached ‘Horse Latitudes’, I struggled with the latter’s fictionalisations. Why make him Canadian, apart from the fact that Peter Rowe is Canadian, as is Gordon Pinsent, the actor who plays Stockton? Why suggest that the deception was premeditated when the mid-voyage desperation that drove Crowhurst to his fateful decision is far more dramatic?

Both decisions weaken the film. Most subsequent approaches to the story – be they feature films or documentary works – address, to a greater or lesser degree, the very fact of Crowhurst’s Englishness. Not so much from a class perspective (the working class don’t, as Toad of Toad Hall would have put it, “mess about in boats”), but more a matter of Crowhurst fulfilling a national archetype: the underdog, the have-a-go hero, the armchair adventurer who decided to quit his armchair and live the adventure. Having Stockton as an ex-pat completely scotches these considerations; to the point, in fact, where Rowe struggles to identify Stockton’s motivation in joining the race. This may account for what seems like directorial impatience on Rowe’s part to get Stockton out to sea and have things start to go wrong for him. While ‘Horse Latitudes’ focuses on Stockton alone on the boat, Rowe is confident in his material. The land-locked scenes, however, are shoddy.

The idea of premeditation – that Stockton is nothing but a conman from the outset – does the most damage to the film. There is no sense of Stockton as anything more than a big-headed twat, a characterisation that effectively waves goodbye to the audience’s sympathy. It’s only the taut running time and Pinsent’s commanding performance that mitigate against utter loss of interest in the proceedings. Rowe’s implication that the falsified journey had always been Stockton’s back-up plan not only leeches tension at a crucial stage in the journey, but seems curiously un-sync’d, narratively and emotionally, with Stockton’s subsequent mental breakdown.

There are two ways to go as regards Crowhurst’s disappearance: accident or suicide. And while psychological derangement is a fit for both scenarios, the suicide angle plays more effectively in a dramatic context if it’s done with some degree of rationality: fear of being unmasked and bringing shame on his family; guilt that his fictitious achievements have spurred on a competitor to risk-taking and the loss of their vessel. Going mad and taking one’s life is very theatrical. Glumly and understatedly doing oneself in for lack of other options is very English. For all the romanticism and yearning for adventure and the lure of foreign climbs, there’s something about the English mindset that is almost claustrophobically narrow minded and more than half in love with failure. And for a country whose historical imperialism once saw it ruling half the globe, the island race mentality of foreignness as something that is bloody awful is deeply – psychologically – ingrained.

‘Horse Latitudes’ wants to have the madness in all its animated glory – I’m being sarcastic here: aesthetically, it makes your average Loony Tunes cartoon look like da Vinci – as well as the calm, almost pragmatic act of suicide. And it tries to reconcile these aspects without a single enquiry into the nature of Crowhurst’s national identity.

It’s one thing to fictionalise a true story – there may have been rights issues around Tomalin and Hall’s book; maybe Crowhurst’s family objected: I don’t know – but quite another for that fictionalisation to strip away the most crucial aspects of the story; the very underpinnings that define the story, that make it unique. Granted, there are some effective moments – Stockton’s meltdown at the difficulty of creating the log of a journey he hasn’t taken generates a real sense of the deception closing in on him – and Pinsent is never less than compelling. A more sympathetic script, an account of Stockton as a personality closer to Crowhurst, and Pinsent would have been so much better served. He’s the best thing about ‘Horse Latitudes’ and my cautious recommendation is entirely based on how well he sells some very difficult scenes in the last third. But – sweet lawd! – his director gave him a poisoned chalice.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Crowhurst season on The Agitation of the Mind

A couple of days ago I took myself off to see ‘The Mercy’. I didn’t know much about the film or the true story it was based on, but I hadn’t been making use of my Cineworld unlimited card due to a recent spell of illness and I figured that anything starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz couldn’t be all bad.

‘The Mercy’ is a solid, well-crafted piece of film-making that benefits from Firth’s most engaged performance in probably a decade. It’s beautifully shot and the score by the late Jóhann Jóhannson is icily effective. But I came away thinking that it had shied away from the darker aspects of its subject. Almost as if director James Marsh had wanted to preserve an enigma, rather than meeting that enigma head-on and trying to get inside his protagonist’s head.

Nonetheless, the film managed to loop a hook into my mind. I drove home, poured a drink and spent an hour on the internet. I’d only vaguely known of Donald Crowhurst and the Golden Globe Race; I had no idea it was a subject that filmmakers had grappled with for over forty years. I noted that Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall’s book ‘The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst’ had been reissued, and resolved to purchase a copy after payday. I made a list of the various films – biopics, documentaries, fictionalised treatments – based on the story. I found Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell’s 2006 feature-length documentary ‘Deep Water’ online and watched it. I turned it at way past midnight that evening (with work the next day) and dreamed of a waterlogged trimaran and the terrible loneliness of months spent at sea alone.

Crowhurst and the terrible outcome of his adventure was all I could think of next day at work. That evening, I found ‘Horse Latitudes’ online: an award-winning TV movie from 1975 that changed the principles’ names and took certain liberties in its presentation of Crowhurst, but remains an intriguing starting-point in terms of trying to distil Crowhurst’s bizarre story into a cinematic format.

Currently, I’m trying to track down several other movies and TV productions, and waiting for Simon Rumley’s ‘Crowhurst’ to get its theatrical release. Having ingested three Crowhurst features in 24 hours, the one thing I know for sure is that something about his story has gripped me, has made me want to drill down into it and look at all the angles. So, depending on how much material I can get my hands on, I’m declaring a Crowhurst season on The Agitation of the Mind – I’ll review everything I can get my hands on over the next couple of weeks.

Given that everything I’ll be writing about, no matter how different the aesthetic approach or the filmmakers’ agenda, will of necessity overlap in very specific respects, this article is perhaps the ideal time to set down the basic facts of the story so that I don’t have to rehash them ad nauseum.

In 1968, weekend sailor and inventor of navigational aids Donald Crowhurst threw his hat into the ring when the Sunday Times, keen to exploit Sir Francis Chichester’s recent round-the-world solo yachting triumph, threw out a challenge. Chichester had made one stop for major overhauls. The Sunday Times offered a hefty cash prize for anyone navigating the globe, alone, without stopping. There were in fact two prizes: one for the first sailor to complete the voyage, and one for the fastest. The start date deadline was 31 October – any later and certain stretches of the ocean might prove unnavigable.

The other competitors – including merchant navy veteran Robin Knox-Johnson; author, philosopher and adventurer Bernard Moitessier; and former submarine commander Bill King – were far more experienced than Crowhurst. Nonetheless, Crowhurst secured sponsorship from a local businessman, Stanley Best, and had a trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron, built to his own specifications. Crowhurst intended the vessel to be state-of-the-art and kitted out with a phalanx of his own safety and navigation devices; his intention was to market these gizmos on his return, benefiting from the publicity generated by the race.

To drum up said publicity, he hired crime reporter Rodney Hallworth as his press agent. It’s hard not to see Best and Hallworth as the villains of the piece. Though a millionaire, Best’s sponsorship of Crowhurst came with a caveat: that if Crowhurst dropped out or failed to complete the race, he would be legally obliged to buy back the trimaran from Best. With his house already remortgaged and his finances shoddy to begin with, Crowhurst had essentially staked everything on the Golden Globe. Hallworth went to town on the hyperbole in his, ahem, reports (embellishments might be a better word), creating a public expectation that Crowhurst would have been hard pressed to deliver on even if he were a more accomplished sailor and his boat actually ready at the point of departure.

The seeds of tragedy had been sown before he even departed English shores. With the 31st October looming and incredible pressure on him to set sail, it was clear that the Teignmouth Electron wasn’t ready. His self-designed safety equipment was installed but not functional; he kidded himself that he’d get them working whilst at sea. An ingenuous buoyancy device, intended to counter the fact that trimarans are more susceptible to capsizing than mono-hulled vessels, may as well have remained on the drawing board for all its functional capabilities.

After a false start, Crowhurst set sail on the last possible date. Progress was slow. Myriad problems with the Teignmouth Electron manifested. The hulls were prone to flooding and Crowhurst had to bail by hand. It was bad enough in relatively clement seas, but once he was round the Cape of Good Hope and into the “roaring forties” (a perilous stretch of ocean between the fortieth and fiftieth parallels) the ship would likely be swamped. Crowhurst gave himself 50/50 odds of actually surviving the trip.

Alone, ill-prepared, nowhere near experienced enough as a yachtsman, Crowhurst found himself in a galling dilemma: press on and risk both the ship and his own life, or turn back and face fiscal ruination and public humiliation as a failure. His solution was a huge gamble, even in pre-GPS 1968: he created a second log book in which he mapped out an entirely fictitious journey. He cabled progress updates to Hallworth claiming the doldrums were over and the Teignmouth Electron was achieving the kind of speeds of which he’d always insisted she were capable. He knew that his phoney log wouldn’t stand up to tooth-comb scrutiny, so he intended to rejoin the race in last place and play the plucky underdog card. He’d be forfeiting the prize money for the fastest circumnavigation, but he’d be free of his obligations to Best and he could still milk the publicity to the benefit of his business.

Only he’d reckoned without how hard a solo non-stop round-the-world yacht trip is, even for experience sailors. Robin Knox-Johnson, in a display of good-natured championship, was the first to complete the journey, but he’d taken his time in doing so. The £5000 prize for the fastest entrant (that’s about £100,000 adjusted for inflation) was still up for grabs. Except fewer and fewer contestants remained to grab it. Most dropped out, none more dramatically than Moitessier, who had channelled the solitude of the voyage into a philosophical sense of self-awareness. Knowing the he could never face the crowds and cameras and intrusions into his life and experience, Moitessier didn’t so much drop out of the race as simply ignore the finish line and sail round the world for a second time.

As Crowhurst communicated his false bearings, mainly telegraphically as he knew his radio signals wouldn’t bear out his claimed positions, Hallworth spun them into a narrative of underdog heroism, derring-do and record-breaking speeds. Naturally, all of this got back to the other competitors. Nigel Tetley was looking set to follow Knox-Johnson into second place. Concerned that Crowhurst was gaining on him, he pushed his boat too hard in ill weather and only just avoided going down with it.

Crowhurst’s deception was entirely dependent on coming last. Nobody, he was convinced, would give his log more than a cursory glance. But the news of Tetley’s disaster left him in an impossible position: Knox-Johnson had finished, and he, Donald Crowhurst, was the only other yachtsman still in the race. The £5000 prize and all the attendant publicity – in other words, the almost inevitable uncovering of the deception – were all but guaranteed.

At this point, Crowhurst quit sailing the Teignmouth Electron and just drifted through the kelp-clogged expanse of the Sargasso Sea. He opened a third log and wrote a bizarre 25,000 word essay on cosmic beings, godlike perspectives and the nature of time. The final paragraphs are indicative of a man who has lost his mind.

Days later, the trimaran was spotted by a passing container ship. It was deserted. The log books fell into Hallworth’s hands and the story they told was front page news. Crowhurst’s body was never found. Knox-Johnson donated his prize money to Clare Crowhurst and her children.

It’s the abject claustrophobia of the story that’s got under my skin. The idea of someone in a confined space (made more confined by the vastness of the ocean around him) making a decision born of the lack of other viable options and then finding himself unable to reverse or untangle that decision never mind the consequences. Then there’s the enigma: did Crowhurst deliberately commit suicide, or did he slip from the vessel while the balance of mind was awry. Are the contents of his final log a spiritual epiphany or demented ravings?

The subject is rife for conjecture; a jumping off point for the creative imagination. In addition to at least two published books on the subject and the (pardon the pun) raft of features, be they big screen, small screen, fictionalised or documentary, there have been theatrical productions, art installations, poems, even an opera. Donald Crowhurst set out to become a hero; circumstances forced him to become a fraudster; the enigmatic pull of his story, and its lure for artists, finally made him a legend.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Having already chalked up an impressive career as a playwright, Martin McDonagh made his directorial debut in 2006 with Oscar-winning short film ‘Six Shooter’, the promise of which he made good on in memorable style with ‘In Bruges’ in 2009. His sophomore feature film ‘Seven Psychopaths’ opened to mixed reviews in 2013 – admission: never seen it – and, after another four year gap, he returns with ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’.

Now, I fucking bloody loved ‘In Bruges’ (Agitation review here) and consider it a pitch perfect black comedy. But here’s the thing: watch the deleted scenes on the DVD and it comes abundantly clear that had they made the final cut, ‘In Bruges’ wouldn’t have been anywhere near pitch perfect. It would, tonally, have been all over the fucking place.

My guess is that either: (a) McDonagh had an on-the-ball producer on ‘In Bruges’ who knew exactly what did and didn’t work and instructed him to make cuts accordingly, or (b) unanimous test audience responses led to the same outcome.

I can’t claim that ‘Seven Psychopaths’ bolsters or diminishes the observation, not having seen it, but I would hazard a guess that no-one was around on ‘Three Billboards’ to bring to McDonagh’s attention the film’s really jarring tonal shifts. A blander, more boilerplate piece of work might have been sunk by them, but fortunately ‘Three Billboards’ has a hell of a lot to commend it despite its flaws.

Narratively, the first thing it put me in mind of was that Tolstoy novella about the forged promissory note, and how its passage around a provincial town negatively affects everyone involved. Just substitute raped and murdered teenager for forged promissory note and Ebbing, Missouri for provincial Russian town.

The victim of this heinous crime is Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton). Seven months have passed since the atrocity and the local police department have given up on the case. Angela’s mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) responds by renting three billboards on the backwoods road where Angela was assaulted and killed – she raises the money by selling off a tractor/trailer belonging to her ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), currently shacked up with his 19-year-old girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving) – and uses them to unsolved-crime-shame Ebbing sheriff Chief Willoughby (a never-better Woody Harrelson).

To put it mildly, Mildred stirs some shit. Or to put it another way, Mildred tears the bandage off Ebbing’s festering wound. Or to be it another way, if Lisbeth Salander in the novels by Stieg Larsson is the girl who kicked the hornets’ nest, then Mildred is the woman who smacked the hornets’ nest down to the ground, doused it in petrol, tossed a firecracker at it and shouted “yeah, bitch” as it went up in flames.

Mildred’s provocation has its most immediate effect on Willoughby, a man who has admitted that there’s little more he can do as regards Angela’s murder, and is also somewhat distracted by the requirements of setting his affairs in order on account of the fact that he’s dying of cancer. His terminal condition has an understandable knock-on effect on his younger wife Anne (Abbie Cornish: her best turn since ‘Bright Star’) and their two children.

Willoughby’s terminal condition doesn’t do much, either, for the equilibrium of his alcoholic short-fuse deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a man-child in thrall to his obnoxiously racist mother. Unable to vent his frustrations elsewhere, Dixon targets local entrepreneur Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), owner of the advertising company who lease Mildred the billboards. In the broadest of strokes – broad to the point of cliché – McDonagh’s script establishes Dixon as the villain of the piece, as stupid as he is dangerous, only to flip everything on its head.

At any one time, and sometimes with the two or three minute passage of one single scene, ‘Three Billboards’ functions as a black comedy, a procedural, a melodrama, a cautionary tale as regards the exponential consequences of wrong things done for the right reason (airhead Penelope’s “anger begets anger” scene is both laugh-out-loud funny and the intellectual cornerstone of the movie), and an enquiry into the nature of responsibility, forgiveness and atonement.

Atonement is where the film scores its most palpable hits – far more effectively than McDonagh’s brother’s recent outing ‘Calvary’, which attempts a similar enquiry – with scenes between Dixon and Red, and Dixon and Mildred, communicating far more than the understated sketches that McDonagh is wise enough to be satisfied with rather than making some sweeping moral statement.

It’s not exactly front page news to declare than understatement, inference and ambiguity communicate the big themes more effectively than tub-thumping or polemics. But it’s surprising how many artists, of whatever discipline, still haven’t twigged to this. McDonagh fumbles the ball in enough places that an overall less interesting film wouldn’t have survived the uneven tonal shifts, the hackneyed characterisations and the bludgeoningly obvious narrative tropes.

That ‘Three Billboards’ just about dodges its myriad self-fired bullets owes to a first-rate cast who invest in their characters to the hilt, and to McDormand in particular who effortlessly clears the twenty-year hurdle of her achievement in ‘Fargo’ to deliver her definitive performance and bring to life a character for the ages.

Friday, January 12, 2018

All the Money in the World

Let’s be honest: whatever its merits or otherwise, ‘All the Money in the World’ will forever be remembered as the film where director Ridley Scott basically erased Kevin Spacey. With the actor in disgrace following sexual harassment allegations – and, worse, sexual harassment, in one case, of a minor – and the film only a month or so away from its release date, Scott recast Christopher Plummer in the role of John Paul Getty and reshot twenty-two scenes. It was originally announced that the affected cast had returned for the reshoots for free; as the film opened to lacklustre returns, it was revealed that Michelle Williams had basically got about $1000 in expenses while Mark Wahlberg had renegotiated his fee and pocketed an extra million and a half.

So: person originally playing venal human being gets axed from the film for being a venal human being himself; actor playing a negotiator profitably negotiates; actress playing impecunious character gets paid fuck all extra; and a film about the fallout of rampant greed inadvertently highlights the Hollywood glass ceiling while not actually raking in many spondoolies at the box office.

That sound you just heard was the irony-o-meter exploding.

One day there will be a book or a feature-length documentary about the making of ‘All the Money in the World’ and it will be infinitely more fascinating than the movie itself. Which isn’t to say that ‘All the Money in the World’ is necessarily bad – it’s often good and occasionally very good – but there’s a listlessness to some of its scenes and an inelegance in the way it all hangs together and I’m not convinced that either of those things are due to the reshoots and/or re-editing. In fact, in anything, the film probably got an upgrade by dint of Plummer’s involvement.

That Christopher Plummer came to the project at the eleventh hour, with presumably very little (if any) time to rehearse, and gave the nuanced and hypnotic performance that’s on display here – enigmatic, inscrutable, morally sinister and just that tiny bit charming – is astounding. He’s so good that I actually feel guilty for saying that he’s the second best thing about ‘All the Money in the World’.

The absolute best thing about the film – a standout and possibly definitive performance in a filmography unmarked by a single bad, lazy or indifferent turn – is Michelle Williams. Her portrayal of Gail Getty, a woman tainted by the Getty name on account of her failed marriage to JPG’s alcoholic and drug-addicted son, is what great screening acting is all about. The refusal to sublimate grief and uncertainty into obvious histrionics; the cynical wariness of the character, Williams effortlessly suggesting that Gail is, at heart, gloomily unsurprised by her son’s kidnap and her father-in-law’s stony indifference; the diction (she imparts entire layers of characterisation purely by the way she enunciates); the way she doesn’t so much play off the other cast members as absorb their presence – it’s something special and confirms Williams’s place in the top tier of American acting talent.

That’s the good stuff: Williams and Plummer. Plus some nice period recreation (apart from the awful monochrome prologue which comes off as a bad Antonioni homage) and occasionally eye-catching cinematography.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of it is a clusterfuck. David Scarpa’s script, from John Pearson’s book ‘Painfully Rich’, is all over the place and frequently struggles in terms of concept let alone execution. The opening twenty minutes are just plain terrible, with Scott’s direction seemingly as directionless as Scarpa’s screenplay. The kidnapping – while John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) takes a walk through the seedy underside of Rome – lacks any tension or dramatic impact. The subsequent voice-over narration, by the kidnap victim, strikes a jarring note (he’s under lock and key for most of the rest of the running time: what is there for him to narrate?). Then there’s a series of flashbacks that aren’t so much nested as the nest falling out of the tree and disintegrating as it bounces off branch after branch – these are meant to (a) spell out the backstory of how Getty arrived at his riches and (b) establish the dynamic of Gail and her family. A fifteen second title crawl would have achieved the former and a half-minute exposition dump by Gail herself in an early scene covered the latter. As it is, the film flounders precisely at the point when it should be generating stomach-churning tension.

Nor does it help that Scarpa’s script wants to criticise that moral debilitation that results from the acquisition of obscene amounts of wealth, while Scott’s direction quite evidently has a massive hard-on for lifestyle porn.

Once Scott remembers that he’s making a kidnapping thriller, however, things improve. But here’s the essential problem with Ridley Scott: like Steven Spielberg, the dude made a couple of fucking great genre movies that never pretended to be anything other than genre movies, but got so drunk on the acclaim that he nosedived into a career predicated on the self-conviction that he is An Important And Respected Auteur. With ‘Duel’ and ‘Jaws’, Spielberg set himself up as a suspense director who could have been the next Hitchcock. With Scott, ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ put him at the top tier of sci-fi directors. Imagine if Scott had continued in that vein. Imagine if his filmography wasn’t top heavy with middle-brow pabulum like ‘1492: Conquest of Paradise’, ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, ‘A Good Year’ and ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’. Imagine if his subsequent sci-fi outings hadn’t been ‘Prometheus’ and ‘The Martian’.

‘All the Money in the World’ exhibits the same baseline fault: a striving for Oscar-bait respectability and critical approbation when a down-and-dirty approach to genre conventions would have served the material better. Or to put it another way, he was too busy trying to commune with the spirits of Antonioni and Di Sica across an often plodding 135 minutes when paring it down to an hour and three quarters and getting in touch with his inner Ferdinand de Leo would have been much more effective.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Full disclosure: I’ve never read the novel by Chris Van Allsburg or seen Joe Johnston’s 1995 adaptation with Robin Williams. So I broke my ‘Jumanji’ cherry on the CGI-riddled remake starring The Rock and Amy Pond Dwayne Johnson and Karen Gillan.

Full disclosure part two: I went to see it purely because it promised the kind of low-brow entertainment that would detract from the lousy weather and the prospect of going back to work after a fortnight off over Christmas and New Year.

Full disclosure part three: I wouldn’t ordinarily have bothered reviewing something of this ilk, but the blog’s been dormant since Boxing Day and I figured that some new content wouldn’t go amiss.

So: even though I’d had no exposure to its previous incarnations, I went in knowing that it was about some people who get trapped in a game and have to complete it in order to escape. As I understand it the novel and the first film have Jumanji as a board game but since we’ve gone all twenty-first century and shit, it’s a video game in this one.

In fact, it’s a really crap early 90s video game that gets unearthed by four mismatched teens who are compelled to clear out their high school’s storeroom while in detention. They are: Spencer the nerd (Alex Wolff), “Fridge” the football jock (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha the moody social outcast (Morgan Turner) and Bethany the narcissistic bimbo (Madison Iseman). And if you think those descriptions are clichéd and reductive, that’s literally how the script – credited to no fewer than four people – paints them. Their travails occupy the first twenty minutes or so of the film – and long, unfunny, blandly filmed minutes they are – after which they find themselves downloaded not just into the world of Jumanji itself but into different, adult bodies. Spencer becomes the muscle-bound Dr Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), “Fridge” the physically uninspiring Franklin “Moose” Finbar (Kevin Hart), Martha the kick-ass and drop dead gorgeous adventuress Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan) and Bethany a portly middle aged bloke, Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black).

So far, so predictable: body-swap set-up, humour generated from various actors playing against type. And ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ (to give it is full GnR-homaging title) does indeed plunder this set-up for all its worth. But here’s the thing: it works. Not all the time, and it’s often wryly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny. But it takes hackneyed material and makes it work enough of the time that – once the lacklustre opening sequence is firmly in the rearview mirror – the entertainment value is indisputable.

Johnson is always fun when a role allows him to send himself up. Hart does his usual shtick – in fact, rather overdoes it – but fails to generate much amusement. Gillan fares better, particularly in the scenes where she gets to play off Jack Black. But it’s Black who goes romping away with the Man of the Match Award, not just conjuring moments of hilarious physical comedy, but actually developing Bethany as a character beneath the rumpled and pudgy physique of her avatar. I’ve not seen Black this invested in a role in ages, and it’s great to be reminded of his capabilities as a comic actor.

Elsewhere, director Jake Kasdan – whose directorial debut with the magnificently quirky ‘Zero Effect’ twenty years ago in no way, shape or form pointed to him helming a ‘Jumanji’ remake – has fun sending up the conventions of RPGs and the cheesy internal logical of levels, lives and side quests. He’s not so strong on action scenes, though, and the last reel feels like a tired attempt to throw in as many big stunts as possible rather than continuing to develop pace and content via the satirical possibilities of the subject matter.

Traces of something smarter and funnier flicker here and there throughout the two-hour running time (the excision of a good 20 minutes would have helped no end), but ultimately no-one goes into this kind of film expecting whipsmart genre deconstructions or sophisticated humour. You go into it for a brief respite from the January blues.