Saturday, August 31, 2013

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

It would have been James Coburn’s 85th birthday today. Accordingly, I’m reposting a lightly edited version of an article that originally appeared on Agitation in 2009 as part of a month-long Sam Peckinpah retrospective.

'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' opens in Las Cruces, New Mexico, 1909 as ageing Sheriff Pat Garrett (James Coburn) is in dispute with landowner John Poe (John Beck) over a lease agreement. Garrett and Beck's association goes back to 1881 when Garrett tracked down his former friend and partner in crime Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), but they've come to a parting of the ways. With Garrett old and embittered and publically critical of the Santa Fe Ring, Beck and his business partners consider him a liability - an embarrassing throwback to the old days - and are planning to assassinate him. In his last few moments alive, Garrett relives those infamous days and the terrible denouement that made him a sheriff and the Kid a legend.

It’s a simple story in the way that ‘The Wild Bunch’ is simple, ie. narratively (Peckinpah collaborator Gordon Carroll summarised the plot as "a man who doesn't want to run ... pursued by a man who doesn't want to catch him"); thematically, it’s dense and complicated.

There's probably an entire article that can be written about the opening credits sequence. Events in Las Cruces, 1909 (Poe's betrayal of Garrett) and Fort Sumner, 1881 (Garrett's reunion with the Kid a week before he takes the post of sheriff, ie. just prior to his betrayal of Billy) are intercut. When Garrett rides into Fort Sumner, he finds the Kid and his minions amusing themselves shooting the heads off a bunch of chickens buried up to their necks in the dirt. At Las Cruces, Poe's henchman mumbles something about checking a harness, instead pulling a rifle from a saddle roll; another gunman crawls through the sagebrush, ready to take up his position. The shots that follow cut between target practice and cold-blooded murder. Billy's men blast the heads of chickens; Poe's open fire on Garrett. Timeframes overlap. So does the soundtrack. "Damn near perfect," one of Billy's acolytes declares, apropos of a summarily despatched chicken ... but the words echo as Garrett takes a shot and slumps to the ground. Peckinpah's use of editing ramps up the emotional impact of the sequence: a potshot Billy takes at a chicken seems to travel through time and strike Garrett; purposefully aimed coups de grace by Poe's men result in the heads being blasted off helpless fowl.

Peckinpah's signature freeze frames are used as bluntly and brilliant as in 'The Wild Bunch'. As Garrett struggles to rise from the dusty ground only to sink back defeatedly, Peckinpah isolates the moment. He uses this image to accompany the film's title. He arrives at his "directed by" credit in equally iconoclastic fashion. The 1909 prologue documenting Garrett's death throes gives out the 1881 Fort Sumner sequence, and a very much alive - and younger (though still notably middle-aged) Garrett comes riding into town. Billy the gang don't notice him, so busy are they decimating the local feathered populace. Hopping off his horse, he hefts his rifle and, while Billy's still aiming, sights on a chicken and blows its head off. Billy's boys go diving for cover, panic written on their faces. Billy turns round, slowly and wryly, and greets his old friend with a grin. Some spiky banter ensues (it's clear some of the Kid's hangers-on aren't too happy to see Garrett), then the two of them head off to the bar for a couple of shots of whisky and the business at hand:

Garrett: Times are changin', Billy. You want it straight?
Billy: If that's what you're here for.
Garrett: The electorate want you gone. Out of the country.
Billy: Well, are they tellin' me or are they askin' me?.
Garrett: I'm askin' you. But in five days I'm makin' you, when I take over as sheriff of the county.

Peckinpah's directed by credit appears at this point, in a freeze frame that enforces the pause between "I'm makin' you" and "when I take over as sheriff". It might not be as quotable as "if they move, kill 'em" in 'The Wild Bunch', but by God it gives the line some weight!

The dynamic has thus been established: Garrett and the Kid are equally protagonist and antagonist. Neither are exactly heroes, though Peckinpah both empathisizes with the weight of world-weary experience that seems to be etched into every line on Garrett's face, and appreciates the self-aggrandizing behaviour of Billy (particularly in his escape from the Lincoln County jail). Neither are entirely villains, either, even though Billy is a notorious outlaw who refuses to change his ways, and Garrett is a former outlaw who commits the greater sin (certainly in the grand scheme of Peckinpah's aesthetics) of not remaining true to himself and trying to change with the times.

Oh yes, Garrett is the first (and last) of Peckinpah's western protagonists to break with the tradition of Steve Judd, Pike Bishop and co. and Cable Hogue. This is perhaps the most significant element of the dynamic/antagonism between Garrett and Billy - it's summed up during their conversation just after the opening credits:

Billy: Sheriff Pat Garrett. Sold out to the Santa Fe Ring. How does it feel.
Garrett: It feels like times have changed.
Billy: Times maybe, but not me.

Which makes it pretty clear that, since neither Garrett or the Kid are entirely good guy or bad guy, the real villain of the piece is the changing times. Or rather the men who are responsible for changing them. The men responsible for political corruption, financial chicanery, corporate conspiracy and the fencing off of frontier territory, the free and open spaces partitioned, owned, leased and jealously guarded. Men like high-living politico Governor Wallace (Jason Robards), eminence grices Holland and Norris (the power behind Wallace's throne), grasping landowner John Chisum (Barry Sullivan) and toadying parvenu on the make Poe. If 'The Wild Bunch' and 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue'depict technology as the instrument of change, then 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' looks back to 'Ride the High Country' ("the days of the forty-niners are past and the days of the steady businessman have arrived") - only here the steady businessman has been replaced by the rapacious businessman, the dollar-obsessed businessman, the businessman who rapes the land and values human life lower than his profit margin. Corruption and bribery are rife. At an interview with Wallace, the Governor offers Garrett an incentive towards Billy's expedited apprehension:

Wallace: We're offering a reward of one thousand dollars for the Kid's capture. You can have five hundred now.
Garrett: Well, I aim to bring the Kid in. But until I do, you'd better take your five hundred dollars and shove it up your ass and set fire to it.

One of the most curious aspects of 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' - and I'm damned if I can work out whether it's a flaw or a masterstroke - is how determinedly Peckinpah keeps the Chisum/Wallace/Poe conspiracy offscreen. True, all three of them get at least one significant scene (Garrett's encounter with Wallace is thorny; with Chisum, cautious), but they remain backgrounded, shadows that creep around the edges of Garrett's pursuit of Billy. The depiction of Chisum in particular is borderline bland. It's as if Peckinpah is saying "yup, these are the villains, these are the guys hellbent on destroying the old ways, these are guys without souls who answer only to money and power and influence, but by Christ they're nobodies - they ain't really men".

Peckinpah has more time for Deputies Bell (Matt Clark) and Ollinger (R.G. Armstrong), the latter completing the triumvirate of fanatical religious types the actor specialised in (following on from Knudsen in 'Ride the High Country' and Dahlstrom in 'Major Dundee'. Both are in the way when Billy liberates himself from Lincoln Country jail. Kristofferson's characterisation of Billy melds ruefulness and cold determination when he comes up against Bell. It's a different story with Ollinger. The two men have already entered into a spirited disagreement over spiritual matters, Ollinger committed to making sure Billy "gets with god" ("I'll take you for a walk across Hell on a spiderweb") and Billy responding to Ollinger's pious "On your knees" with a pithy "Kiss my ass". Billy's summary dispatching of Ollinger burns with the visceral and iconic intensity that fuelled Peckinpah's reputation as "Bloody Sam".

Peckinpah has more time for Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) and Black Harris (L.Q. Jones), whose exchange of fire after Garrett co-opts the former to help in smoking out the latter results in Baker's agonisingly slow passing, stumbling down to the river, gut-shot, and sitting by the slowly flowing waters, the silvery play of light on the surface, as his breathing grows shallower and the life ebbs out of him. At the same time terrible and utterly beautiful, it's one of the greatest scenes Peckinpah ever shot. Likewise the narratively pointless but poetically eloquent scene where Garrett, in a playful throwback to the outshooting-Billy-at-Fort-Sumner scene, accidentally provokes an exchange of fire with a passing raftsman, only for both men to pause, reflect and lower their guns at the critical moment. Both of these scenes are redolent of Peckinpah the humanitarian, Peckinpah the poet, Peckinpah the wounded romantic, desperately aching for a time that's changed and bitterly regretful of the forces that changed it. They give the lie to the cliche of Peckinpah as a purveyor of violence for its own sake.


'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' - given its troubled production, its director's tendency to drinking to insensation on set, the disservices done to it in editing, and its rejection of propulsive/exciting/urgent pacing typical of a chase narrative - ought to be a complete mess. And certainly there's a wonky, woozy, slightly off-kilter feel to the film. Watching it is like being punch-drunk. But it's also multi-layered, a film that repays repeated viewings. A film that worms its way under your skin and disseminates its genius slowly and subconsciously.

Monday, August 26, 2013


Walking back to the car after the film, I was viciously attacked by a gang of double entrendres. Now I can’t think of an opening to this review that doesn’t highlight the single biggest flaw of what could have been a decent film:

It’s not deep enough.

By which I mean, the script should have been more penetrating.

This mainly affects the final act when Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried)’s gee-golly-gosh girl-next-door with barely a word to say for herself suddenly morphs into an eloquent proto-feminist. The transition is hard to swallow.

See what I mean?

‘Lovelace’ is a curious film: it wants to be a sincere account of how one woman survived controlling parents, a violent husband and the dubious glamour of the porn business; yet there’s a fnar-fnar prurience bubbling away just beneath the surface. And it’s not difficult to detect, since the film is all surface. Its two-part structure emphasizes the dichotomy: the first half romps through Linda’s seduction into the party lifestyle and marriage to bullying douchebag Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), and manages to make the filming of ‘Deep Throat’ look like a veritable laugh riot (particularly ludicrous is the avuncular portrayal of the mob boss bankrolling the production); the second has Linda look back at this period of her life during the Q&A of a polygraph test her publishers have insisted on prior to the release of her memoir ‘Ordeal’. 

The polygraph actually happened, although Andy Bellin’s script treats it as no more than a structural device. A brief scene where Linda reports, with some relief, that she passed the test is the only other reference to it. Spend about quarter of an hour reading up on Lovelace and the picture muddies: various contemporaries have questioned her claims about Traynor’s svengali-like treatment; there seems to be no record of similar behaviour during his ten-year marriage to Marilyn Chambers; Lovelace pulled an about-face on her anti-pornography campaigning by reviving her blue movie persona for a photoshoot for fetish magazine Leg Show in the 90s. About this time, she publicly complained that the feminists who supported her after ‘Ordeal’ was published – among them Andrea Dworkin and Gloria Steinem – didn’t offer her any kind of financial assistant. It’s also worth noting that psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman has stated that, symptomatically, ‘Ordeal’ contains much to suggest complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Clearly, there’s a story to be told about a deeply troubled woman and the motivations behind her various personas. ‘Lovelace’ fails to tell that story. In fact, it doesn’t even try. The script instead gives us parents who don’t show her enough love, and an embittered and controlling husband. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman slot together a series of individually watchable scenes that ultimately add up to very little as the end credits roll. The period detail is nice, the soundtrack’s okay, Seyfried turns in some good work (though I found myself wishing the film had proceeded with Lindsay Lohan in the lead as originally planned), and there’s a solid supporting cast including James Franco, Juno Temple, Hank Azaria, Robert Patrick and an almost unrecognisable Sharon Stone. Sad to see Chloe Sevigny wasted in a ten-second cameo, though. Her character is billed simply as “feminist journalist”. Who knows, if there’d been a greater feminist sensibility to the film, or a rigorous investigation into its protagonist, it might have been something special.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


When I watched ‘Blitz’ on one of the UK freeview channels last night, it was the culmination of a 24-hour period in which I watched ‘Elysium’ on the big screen and was as disappointed by it as I’d been by Blomkamp’s earlier ‘District 9’ (both labour to establish a socio-political reality in the first half only to pussy out on making a genuine political statement in favour of an increasingly pointless and clichéd retinue of tired action scenes and genre tropes), then sat through ‘Insidious’ on DVD (look out for a full review as part of October’s 13 For Halloween fright-fest) and been frustrated at the brilliance of the first two thirds degenerating into near parody during the final stretches.

So I watched ‘Blitz’ and had a couple of beers and what I might ordinarily have dismissed as mindless and derivative actually delivered some solid thrilleramics and raced effortlessly into first place as the best of the bunch. Okay, so that’s not necessarily the most robust of recommendations – in fact, I could probably have watched a third-rate giallo like ‘Amuck’ and had more fun with it.

*stops typing*

*thinks about Rosalba Neri and Barbara Bouchet*

*takes cold shower*

*returns to review*

The first thing to say about ‘Blitz’ is that it’s not only derivative, but it wears its derivations on its sleeve. I’ve not read any of the DS Tom Brant novels by Ken Bruen (the author co-scripted the adaptation with Nathan Parker), but I can only assume he came up with ‘Blitz’ after watching a ‘Sweeney’ marathon followed by Don Siegel’s ‘Dirty Harry’ and thought “Hey, what if it was Jack Reagan who was after the Scorpio killer and he gave him a faakin’ good hiding rather than muck about with a Magnum .45?”

‘Blitz’ is ‘Sweeney’ to the nines, from the pounding foot chases through authentically shitty London locations (apart from a few overhead establishing shots of the London Eye etc that were obviously dropped in for the benefit of the overseas market, it presents the shabbiest vision of London this side of Mike Leigh’s ‘Naked’) to Brant (Jason Statham)’s casual homophobia: “You’re a good copper,” he tells his chalk ‘n’ cheese partner, newly-promoted DI Porter Nash (Paddy Considine) – “for a poofter.”

If Brant is basically a bastard, then he’s at least a bastard among bastards. Cop-killer Weiss (Aiden Gillen, having a field day) couldn’t be more hissable if he was appearing in panto (that wasn’t a spoiler by the way: his identity is revealed very early on); scuzzy journo Dunlop (David Morrissey), who keeps vital information from the cops to preserve his scoop, makes your average News of the World shit-raker look like a pillar of respectability; nark Radnor (Ned Dennehy) is little more than a sewer rat in human form; and Brant’s alcoholic colleague DS Roberts (Mark Rylance) blackmails his way back onto the force by threatening to blow the whistle on their boss Superintendent Brown (Nicky Henson)’s dalliances with an obese stripper.

It’s not a nice collection of individuals that ‘Blitz’ presents for our delectation. It says something that the two most sympathetic characters are Nash and DC Falls (Zawe Ashton), a young officer trying to put her troubled youth behind her … and of these two, Nash admits to rendering a paedophile he didn’t have enough evidence to arrest sexually inactive by repeated application of a baseball bat to the genitals, while Falls shakes down junkies and gets high on their supply.

But what it emphatically boils down to is the mano-a-mano duel between Brant and Weiss – motivated, it turns out, by a previous contretemps between the two men. ‘Blitz’ does nothing new. No insight is offered into any of its characters’ psychology. Director Elliott Lester seems to view the material as a delivery system for fast-paced chases, bone-crunching violence (Brant’s first act in the film is to discourage a group of would-be car thieves by smacking seven shades of shit out of them with a hockey stick), and smartarse authority-snubbing dialogue.

‘Blitz’ is a blunt yet fast-moving thriller; it’s unabashedly honest about what it is; and anyone who strays onto its manor and starts bleating about political correctness will probably find themselves nutted, cuffed, thrown in the back of a van and a nice “accidental” fall down some stairs back at the station.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Wolverine

After the disappointment of ‘X Men Origins: Wolverine’ – its clunky title the first of its problems – it looked as if atonement was ripe when Darren Aronofsky was announced as director of ‘The Wolverine’ working from a script by Christopher McQuarrie. A marriage made in fan-boy heaven, right?

Not to be. Aronofsky left the production citing unwillingness to be out of the country, due to family commitments, for the length of time the Japan-set shoot would take. The internet rumour mill speculated on a falling out with the producers after Aronofsky demanded the kind of full creative control Christopher Nolan wielded on the Batman trilogy.

Whatever the reason, what we’re left with is ‘The Wolverine’ written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank (from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s savagely minimalist graphic novel) and directed by James Mangold. And while it’s a distinct improvement on ‘X Men Origins: Wolverine’ – and indeed on ‘X Men: The Last Stand’, the events of which provide this film’s uneasy backstory – it remains curiously bland, never quite delivering on the sum of its parts.

Reintroducing Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as a vagrant bumming around the Yukon territory and haunted by memories of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), he’s soon approached by Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who summons him to Japan on behalf of dying industrialist Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi). Logan first met Yashida at Nagasaki – the film gives us a mushroom-cloud shadowed prologue that’s as crassly exploitative as the Chernobyl sequence in ‘A Good Day to Die Hard’ – and Yashida feels he has a debt to repay. The ulterior motive is soon revealed: he wants to extract Logan’s recuperative powers and basically become immortal. Logan understandably declines but before he can head back to the States, a power struggle for Yashida’s empire erupts and his granddaughter and heir apparent Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is kidnapped. Logan and Yukio form an instinctive alliance while more double-crossing goes on around them than an average week in British politics. Participants include: Mariko’s fiancé, the corrupt minister for justice Noburo (Brian Tee); her former inamorata, the bodyguard Harada (Will Yun Lee); and her father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada). Weaving between them and spinning her own manipulative web is the sexy-but-deadly Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova, vamping it up in fine style).

Mangold takes his time setting up these characters, making for a low-key and action-light first hour. Indeed, big action set-pieces are pretty sparse for a major $125million superhero movie. A kinetic fight on top of a bullet train is mercifully brief, the whole thing over and done with in slambang fashion before it gets too silly, and even the obligatory extended showdown at the end doesn’t drag on as long as seems to be the norm in these kind of movies. Ultimately, Mangold allows Jackman to give us more of the character of Logan than previous outings have allowed, and the actor seizes the opportunity. A subplot wherein his recuperative powers are weakened allows for both an exploration of his vulnerability and a crowd-pleasing return to full-on Wolverine anti-heroics once he realises what’s been done and reverses the process.

But for all the good work, the film gets bogged down with excess baggage. Logan’s weight of guilt over Jean Grey’s demise in ‘Last Stand’ is handled clumsily. There are too many subsidiary characters are written in purely to overcomplicate an essential simplistic narrative. There’s an undertone of racism that is paradoxically more noticeable for the filmmakers’ attempts to disguise it. For all the talk about honour and Japanese history and culture, it’s just so much tommyrot when you stop and think about how the indigenous characters are portrayed.

Mostly, though, what prevents ‘The Wolverine’ from hitting the heights it could have reached is its lack of either a directorial signature or a specific visual aesthetic. Blandness afflicts it in frame after frame. A good 80% of the movie takes place in Japan, a country where the bustling vibrancy of its modern aesthetic exists, and indeed synergizes, with the stoic classicism of ancient tradition. It should be artistically impossible to shoot a movie in Japan and emerge with footage that’s anything less than eyeball-grabbing. Somehow Mangold manages it, and the possibilities of Aronofsky’s take on the material seem an even greater loss.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Who: The Kids Are Alright

If you wanted to be cynical, you could say that Jeff Stein’s 1979 film is little more than an assemblage of a decade and a half’s worth of concert footage loosely interlinked by snippets of interviews. By cherry-picking from TV slots, behind-the-scenes studio material, live performance and curios such as the comedic proto-music-video for never-produced BBC television show ‘Sound and Picture City’, Stein’s project immediately marks out a territory beyond the standard concert film. But by the same token, his choice of interview clips is so spurious and satirical that even the most elastic definition of documentary snaps out of the reviewer’s fingers and goes flying off into the distance rather than be applied to ‘The Who: The Kids Are Alright’.

It’s neither one thing nor the other. A curate’s egg. A candidate for casual dismissal, except for two things:

1) The interview clips, never mind that they’re uncontextualised and truncated, are jaw-dropping for their admixture of self-importance and self-deprecation;

2) It’s a film about The Who, one of the most electrifying and experimental British bands in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll; a dynamo powered by internal rivalries and self-destructive behaviour; a band whose guitarist and songwriter was an East End Jean-Paul Sartre, whose lead singer was an ex-sheet-metal worker whose voice sounded like in was forged in the selfsame factory; whose bassist registered on the Richter Scale, and whose drummer went out drinking with Oliver motherfucking Reed. A group who, even in a state of nuclear grade meltdown, were impossibly entertaining.

In other words, ‘The Who: The Kids Are Alright’ could just have featured an hour and three quarters of Pete Townsend smashing his guitar into a Marshall amp while Keith Moon kicked seven bells of his drum kit and it would automatically have been one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll films ever made. That it bothers with the talking heads stuff – let alone the iconic Woodstock performance of “See Me, Feel Me” from ‘Tommy’, or an astounding account of “A Quick One While He’s Away” from The Rolling Stones’ ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus’ – just kicks the whole thing up a notch.

Here’s some measure of how good The Who were at their best: the aforementioned ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus’ was intended as a film showcasing The Rolling Stones (with guests) to be followed by a tour. Sets were built and the whole production was shot to emulate a carnival atmosphere. There was only one problem: The Who turned in a performance so vibrant, so theatrical, so together that they showed up The Stones as lethargic and by-the-numbers. The project was hastily shelved and it’s thanks to Stein’s film that The Who’s showstopper finally got its day in the sun.

Other cracking performances: “My Generation” on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour from 1967, where the band’s instrument-smashing tendencies are indulged to the max; a suitably raw account of “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” on Ready, Steady, Go in 1965, with stereotypical 60s zoom-heavy camerawork; and “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, performed live at Shepperton Studios in 1978 especially for the film. Elsewhere, mimed performances for Beat Club are notable for Keith Moon taking the piss and Roger Daltry looking bored. An interview with a po-faced young intellectual for the same show has a clearly zoned-out Townsend answer a rambling and barely coherent question with a cursory “Uh, yeah”.

Other interviews are drawn from BBC’s 2nd House and A Whole Scene Going, and footage shot at band members’ houses, including a straight-faced bit of banter between Moon and fellow percussionist Ringo Starr at Moon’s Malibu pad, and a surreal short piece filmed at John Entwistle’s Gloucestershire mansion house which sees him machine-gunning gold records to the strains of the magnificently hateful “Success Story” from ‘The Who By Numbers’.

And that’s not the only purely bonkers moment Stein unearths: there’s the slapstick promo film “Cobwebs and Strange” wherein The Who pursue a robotic Moon around an abandoned factory (yes, you did read that right. No, I’m not using narcotics); Steve Martin and Moon riffing off each other in an OTT rock-star-trashes-hotel-room skit; and a comedy sketch structured around the definitely non-comedic single “Happy Jack”.

But the jewel in the crown is the extended interview sequence that Stein partitions out through the film. It dates from 1973 and sees the band entire interviewed at the end of a live performance by Russell Harty, one of the most unctuous, prissy and self-regarding chat show hosts of the day. It adds up to 10 minutes or so of mayhem in which Harty struggles to retain his composure as The Who bicker and talk over each other, Moon strips down to his smalls and tears the arm off Townsend’s shirt, Townsend responds in kind, and Moon effortlessly reverses the interview process, subjecting Harty to his own brand of tossed-off verbiage. 

Naturally, given how frequently The Who were at each other’s throats, cracks often appear. “Four more horrible blokes making a horrible noise you couldn’t imagine,” Daltry grunts at one point, only half-joking. “You’re not the same desperate young man you were ten years ago, are you?” some faceless pundit vox pops Townsend. “No, I’m a desperate old fart,” he shoots back, “but not a boring one.” Stein slam cuts to a typically blistering live performance. Point taken.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Jennifer Lawrence

In the time honoured Agitation of the Mind tradition of visual filler during periods of inactivity on the actual reviewing front, let’s take the opportunity to raise a glass and wish the ridiculously glamorous Jennifer Lawrence a happy 23rd.

Christ, I feel old.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

Originally created for BBC Radio 4’s ‘On the Hour’ to satirize a certain media type – the self-important but culturally banal radio presenter – Alan Partridge (in the form of Steve Coogan, and it would take a more cynical critic than yours truly to speculate on where Partridge ends and Coogan begins) has been around for more than two decades. The transition from radio to small screen was seamless and the guy’s even found his way into print. Who’d have thought, though, that Partridge would have made it to the big screen, let alone so successfully?

The point of Alan Partridge is that, to put it mildly, he’s an arse. Pompous, pedantic and socially inept to the point where he can cause tumultuous offence without even realising it, he’s also the personification of a specific strand of parochial Englishness: the kind of guy, in other words, who thinks loft conversions and traffic disruptions make for scintillating cocktail party conversation; the kind of guy whose favourite Bond movies are the Roger Moore years; the kind of guy who still sports a comb-over and wears driving gloves; the kind of guy finds himself embroiled in a siege/hostage situation and the thing he expresses most surprise at is a woman officer in charge of the situation.

Partridge, I reiterate, is an arse. While having an arse as protagonist is not necessarily a hindrance in a sitcom – let’s face it, many of the great sitcom creations, from Harold Steptoe and his pathetic fumbling towards middle class conformity to Basil Fawlty and his jaw-droppingly casual xenophobia, are deeply flawed characters – the longer format of the feature film requires a different set of aesthetics parameters and at the very least a surface-level reason for the audience’s emotional engagement. And at the same time there’s the tricky business of upping a small screen character to the big screen without the whole enterprise seeming inherently absurd. (‘Porridge’ – great TV, lousy movie. ‘Steptoe and Son’ – ditto. ‘On the Buses’ – … er, actually that one was lousy in any incarnation. Forget ‘On the Buses’.)

Fortunately, director Declan Lowney – a stalwart of British TV, with credits including ‘Cold Feet’, ‘Father Ted’ and ‘Little Britain’ – strikes just the right balance; while the script, by Coogan, Peter Baynham, Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons and Armando Iannucci, plays Partridge off against fellow-DJ-with-a-grudge Pat Farrell (Colm Meany), corporate shark Jason Tresswell (Nigel Lindsay), and a team of increasingly disgruntled cops.

North Norfolk Digital, the radio station Partridge and Farrell call home, has been taken over, rebranded, flooded with corporate sloganeering and its employees are steeling themselves for downsizing. When Partridge catches sight of a memo suggesting it’s him or Farrell, he doesn’t hesitate in encouraging management to sack Farrell. Not that he doesn’t feel bad about it afterwards; his housekeeper Lynn (Felicity Montagu) offers a salve: “Pat’s Irish, isn’t he? Why don’t you donate fifty pounds to Sinn Fein?” As a clang-dropping line, it’s nothing compared to Sidekick Simon (Tim Key)’s on-air rumination that tensions in the Middle East could be reduced if Judaism and Islam merged: “They could call themselves Jislam”. Even Partridge is shocked enough to reprimand his co-host: “Never make fun of Islam. Only even make fun of Christianity. And the Jews a little bit.”

I digress. At the launch party for the rebranded station, Farrell crashes the party with a shotgun and takes hostages. An armed-response team are soon on the scene. Farrell refuses to talk to anyone except Partridge, blithely unaware that it was he who brokered Farrell’s redundancy. But standard hostage negotiation isn’t enough for Farrell and Partridge finds himself on air with an armed and extremely pissed off ex-colleague. What follows is kind of ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ in Norfolk blended with an AOR version of ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ where Adrian Cronaeur wears crap cardigans and is nervous around women. It’s as viciously acidic in its portraiture of Englishness as ‘The World’s End’, and as consistently hilarious. Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy finale has the bigger concept and its execution is more Hollywoodized, but the overall aesthetic of the two films is very similar. ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’ would make a great opener to a double bill with ‘The World’s End’.

Another potential pitfall that Lowney avoids: the hostage genre is notoriously static; the milieu of a radio station (small booths; microphone; participants sitting and talking) equally so. Yet ‘Alpha Papa’ maintains an almost constant state of movement, whether it’s Partridge accidentally locking himself out of the very siege he’s meant to be negotiating (the scene pays off with a cringingly embarrassing image that also serves as the most bizarre homage to ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ you’re likely to see), or traversing the building’s endless corridors with Angela (Monica Dolan), the mumsy production assistant he’s taken a shine to: “Walking and talking, very ‘West Wing’,” he remarks in almost fourth-wall-breaking acknowledgement. “I don’t watch the show,” Angela responds, blandly cutting him off as he launches into a hammy American accent. (The film delights in having its supporting cast interrupt Partridge mid-flow, wonderfully puncturing his myriad self-aggrandizing moments.)

Partridge bumbles and spews verbiage and exacerbates the crisis, all the while playing up to the media attention which he sees as a ticket to career revivification. The selfishness of the ploy earns him Tresswell’s approbation and Lynn’s disgust. And here we make the true small-to-big-screen leap: where the Alan Partridge of radio and small screen is unchanging in his parochialism, a man who never learns, who remains spectacularly non-cognizant of the offence he’s capable of causing, the Alan Partridge of the big screen develops. He never becomes a hero – perish the thought of him doing something iconic! – but he moves towards some small degree of redemptive behaviour.

The progress of Partridge you might call it, and it kicks off a wonderfully crowd-pleasing (if nigglingly short-lived) sequence where Partridge (minor spoiler only, since the trailer pretty much gives it away) joins forces with Farrell and they take to the road in a canary yellow outside broadcast vehicle in an anti-corporate roadshow. But Alan’s complicity in Farrell’s job loss is lurking in the wings, and the final act lurches abruptly into thrilleramics. This gives the film a ragged if still entertaining denouement. ‘Alpha Papa’ stops just short of being stone-cold brilliant; but when you stop to consider how crass an Alan Partridge film could have been, damned good is something worth broadcasting. Even on North Norfolk Digital.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Lone Partridge

These two movies have just opened in the UK, and I'm really looking forward to moseying on down ...

... to Radio Norwich.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Conjuring

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: it’s the 70s and a hard-working couple with several children move into a rambling old house in the middle of nowhere. They’ve sunk their life savings into the property and are looking forward to a new start. Their pet dog refuses to enter the house. Their youngest child finds an old music box and makes an imaginary friend who might not be so imaginary after all. Another child sleepwalks and sees things. Clocks stop at exactly the same time every night. A boarded-up stairwell is discovered, leading down a cobweb infested basement. Pictures jump off walls. Doors open and close of their own volition. The mother of the family suffers from bruising that doesn’t seem to have any apparent cause. As strange events proliferate, the family prevail upon the help of paranormal investigators who unearth a history of dark secrets and violent events connected to the house.

‘The Conjuring’ does nothing you haven’t seen in several dozen other movies, right down to the period setting which evokes ‘The Amityville Horror’. Its achievement, though, is generally doing these things better than those several dozen other movies. Avoiding their pitfalls. Skirting it, but never quite tipping over into melodrama. Not overly relying on CGI or whiz-bang effects (an exception, involving a bedsheet torn off a washing line in a gale, pays off with such a careworn image that it shouldn’t work … but somehow does). 

Engagingly old-school, ‘The Conjuring’ takes its time in establishing the characters. Let’s meet the family, truck driver Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their daughters Andrea (Shanley Cresswell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Christine (Joey King), Cindy (Mackenzie Foy) and April (Kyla Deaver). Okay, Carolyn’s a tad “gee whiz” naïve/optimistic and Andrea’s pretty much got the whole emo sulk routine off to a fine art, but on the whole these are decent people. A regular family. You wouldn’t balk at having them as neighbours. You care what happens to them. That might sound like an obvious thing to say, but you wouldn’t believe how many genre films I’ve sat through whose characters I’ve either not engaged with (‘The Haunting in Connecticut’) or actively disliked (‘Frozen’).

As the ferocity of the paranormal incidents increases, the Perrons engage the services of renowned ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), from whose case files the story is taken. And hence that twinge of familiarity: they were at Amityville, and they investigated the Smurl family haunting, on which ‘The Haunting in Connecticut’ was based. I guess ghosts and malevolent spirits just took to a certain kind of New England real estate and acted in remarkably similar ways whenever the Warrens were around.

The Warrens had their detractors throughout their career, and how closely the film chimes with the actual psychic investigation four decades ago isn’t something I’ve been able define based on some cursory internet research into the couple. Nor does it seem a worthwhile exercise. The film throws out its “based on true events” card from the outset and we all know how spurious that “based on” tag can be, what a multitude of sins it can hide. What’s up for debate here is how well ‘The Conjuring’ works as an example of its genre, as a work of entertainment. Did it give me the creeps? Yes, and then some. Did it make me jump? Twice, both scenes using the same visual motif.

I’ve seen nothing of director James Wan’s work beyond the inaugural entry in the ‘Saw’ franchise, and was underwhelmed to the point that I let the rest of the saga happily pass me by. I’m told that ‘Dead Silence’ was horrible in many ways (if memory serves, Tim Brayton of Antagony & Ecstasy coined the term “fucktrocious” in his review), and ‘Insidious’ reasonably effective if boilerplate. ‘Insidious’ has now been added to the rental list, and the rather pompously titled ‘Insidious Chapter Two’ is definitely on the big screen radar. I’m curious to find out – and it may well be an investigation as freighted by the unknown as any of Ed and Lorraine’s – exactly where James Wan became such an accomplished craftsman.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Only God Forgives

The most immediate and jarring trick Nicolas Winding Refn pulls in ‘Only God Forgives’ is the shatteringly out-of-whack ratio of visual beauty (cinematography) to visceral ugliness (mise en scene). The only way I can describe it is as if ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ had been lensed by Jack Cardiff. Seriously: this is the ‘Black Narcissus’ of venal brutality, the ‘Matter of Life and Death’ of rape/revenge.

Ooops, I’m sorry. Did anyone trip over the Powell & Pressburger references in the above paragraph. Sorry, but they were incorporated deliberately. Of this, more later.

The most guiltily pleasurable and equally jarring trick Refn pulls in ‘Only God Forgives’ is taking the kind of role that you’d normally associate with, say, Shelley Winters in ‘Bloody Mama’ or Irene Dailey in ‘The Grissom Gang’ and handing it to that most elegant, refined and cultured of English roses Kristin Scott Thomas. It’s a performance that’s already being compared to Ben Kingsley in ‘Sexy Beast’.

The plot is pure 70s exploitation: in Bangkok, two American brothers – Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling) – run a boxing club as a front for drug smuggling (the logistics are never really gone into). Julian spends his leisure time tied to a chair and voyeuristically watching bought-and-paid-for escort Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) bring herself off. Billy, on the other hand, goes out looking for violent sex, the younger his partner the better. One night, having failed to persuade a pimp to pimp out his 14-year-old daughter, Billy assaults the man then beats one of his girls to death. This latter, mercifully, occurs offscreen. Bangkok’s finest arrive on the scene, in the personage of Inspector Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) and his men. Chang, a vicious man with a zen-like centre of calmness, dispenses his own paperwork-free, let’s-not-bother-the-courts-with-it brand of justice by locking Billy in a room with the girl’s father who does what any grieving father would do if given access to his daughter’s murderer. Exeunt Billy.

(At this point, it’s perhaps a good idea to consider the film’s title as only half of the dialectic. Try ‘Only God Forgives … But Devils Mete Out Infinite Punishment’ for size.)

Chang then braces the father, accusing him of complicity in his daughter’s slide into prostitution. Exhorting him to focus not on his dead child, but his other three daughters who are still alive, Chang hammers the message home by chopping off the guy’s hand. Next up, this poor son of a bitch is quaking in the corner of a dingy room as Julian, flanked by two heavies, draws down on him. Julian, evidently the more philosophical of the siblings, gives him a chance to account for his actions. Subsequently, he lets him go.

With this narrative arc explored over 90 minutes, ‘Only God Forgives’ could have hiked its way up to a small hillock of high ground, declaring itself a morality play. In Refn’s hands, this is just the first 15 minutes and the narrative explodes in any number of horrible directions as vituperative, foul-mouthed matriarch Crystal (Scott Thomas) comes jetting into Bangkok looking for vengeance and less than impressed with Julian’s lack of a proactive approach. Learning of Chang’s part in the proceedings, Crystal instigates a particularly ill-thought-out campaign of violent retribution which only serves to focus Chang’s attention on Julian.

Essentially, the story is: A does something violent to B as a result of which C does something violent, after which D does something violent, and then hey ho whaddaya know, E, F and G are whipping out swords and guns and H, I and J are leaking corpuscles all over the place. To put it another way, imagine Tolstoy’s novella ‘The Forged Coupon’, in which one deceitful act sets in motion a chain of consequences which negatively affects everyone involved, no matter how peripherally, updated to Bangkok and drenched in blood, and that’s where we’re at.

‘Only God Forgives’ has been dividing the critics as sharply as any of Chang’s swordplay. Writers on film who I personally consider my go to guys for recommendations have professed emotional responses bordering on hatred. I’ll admit that I had two strong drinks before I took my seat in the cinema. And it has to be admitted, Refn sails very close to hoisting himself by his own petard. Symbolism isn’t just introduced, it grabs the viewer by their lapels, hauls them up close to the screen and yells in their face whilst slapping them with a wet kipper. Religious overtones roll up their sleeves, point to crucifix tattoos on their bulging biceps and ask you if you faakin’ want some. The soundtrack is probably annotated as Symphony in Self-Importance in A(hole) Major.

And yet, despite the melodrama, the glacial pace (there are pregnant pauses in the dialogue that leave you itching for a gynaecologist to turn up and perform a caesarean) and the sheer unremitting nastiness of the whole thing, Refn wrestles a sense of accomplishment from the material. Partly it's in the incredibly focussed application of cinematography. The first scene is at the boxing club, two fighters squaring off in the ring. One wears blue trunks, the other red. The cloudless sky of the firmament vs the fiery infernos of hell? The opposing PR palette of political parties, both of whom betray their electorate and stand by and watch young men die? Your humble blogger on a pint too far and reading way too much into this? Whichever interpretation you choose, the film’s visual aesthetic is established within seconds. And undeviated from. ‘Only God Forgives’ never, for a second, looks anything less than stunning.

And partly it’s in the way Refn reflects the film’s ugly/beautiful dichotomy back at the audience. I mentioned earlier that the pace is glacial. This is because the characters spend more time moodily watching things than they do participating in them. Chang’s colleagues blankly watch his moribund karaoke performances; Julian watches Mai in solo flagrante; a disabled child watches Chang interrogate a suspect; Crystal watches Julian disastrously square off against Chang when her incessant campaign of needling and provoking him finally yields results. It’s worth noting how many of these watchers are confined to their seats, either by bonds, sharp implements or muscular dystrophy. And those who aren’t, watch out of prurience.

As the sexually liberated ethos of the 60s began to permeate British cinema, Michael Powell proved himself half a decade or so ahead of his time with ‘Peeping Tom’, a film that pretty much destroyed his career and wasn’t hailed as the masterpiece it so evidently is until the late 80s. Penned by former spy Leo Marks, that film was an examination of scoptophilia (i.e. “the morbid desire to watch”). Powell unblinkingly turned the camera on his audience and royally pissed them off in the process. Refn does something unapologetically similar with ‘Only God Forgives’, and if the critical response to the film thus far is anything to go by he’s rubbed a fuckton of salt into the still-open wound that Powell inflicted.