The Great Gatsby (Luhrmann, 2013)

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As subtlety, nuance and ambiguity are battered aside by excess in the initial half hour, you wonder if Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby (2013) can ever recover. Thankfully, to a large extent it does, the skeletal framework of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s still left standing after the multi-faceted cinematic assault of the director and his legion of artistic accessorisers. For devotees of the novel, however, the saddest aspect of this overblown production will be how the margins are filled out with amorphous, far less complicated shapes poking through the evaporative mist of classic storytelling misdirection.

Luhrmann’s ploy to reconstruct a classic is an elaborate one, ornate, expensively staged – and almost swallowed up by the impression of heightened artificiality it takes pains to exaggerate. In the opening stretch, the effect is of recreating a famous work of art as a cartoon cell. Still, on a fundamental level only the glimmer of a great tale is required when it’s the ghost of Fitzgerald who is doing the telling.

Leonardo DiCaprio brings genuine presence and star power to his portrayal of Gatsby, even if the depth of his pining for an irretrievable perfection is flattened out into too generically palatable doses. The hollowness at the core of a life spent lavishly entertaining for pitifully little reward hits home, his yearning for true love Daisy cancelled out by an American Dream going horribly sour. Carey Mulligan is a passable Daisy, stripped of interesting layers, whilst Tobey Maguire is a feeble, slightly bland Nick Carraway, his voiceover narration unavoidably tainted by the actor’s less than steely presence.

Once it finally settles into the narrative, relegating the glitz and glamour to the backdrop, The Great Gatsby works closer to being a more entertaining, even legitimate piece of cinema, though distinctly of a piece with its director’s uneven past work. Simplified and commercialised, certainly, but it becomes a reasonably compelling reflection of its source material even if only a small proportion of what constitute Fitzgerald’s timeless themes can be glimpsed between the lines.

 

Only God Forgives (Refn, 2013)

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With the cool quotient amped up to mega-freeze, Ryan Gosling’s performance in Nicolas Winding Refn’s second most recent film establishes a new frontier for minimalist acting. It’s as though the pair have re-imagined ‘Driver’ from their previous collaboration before bleeding every last vestige of emotion from him – emotion he didn’t exactly possess in spades in the first instance. The result is a vacuous, unctuous portrait of violence and revenge, lacking not in cinematic power but in subtext and delicacy.

Only God Forgives is, predictably, stunning to behold: every frame bears the mark of Refn’s extraordinary gift for stylisation for its own sake, fetishistically inflicting striking reds into intricate, painstakingly arrayed set-ups. It’s a shame then that such remarkable care in sculpting scenes with vivid gradations of light and colour is squandered on a transparently empty narrative that barely registers. Gosling’s Julian is a mamma’s boy, held fast in a rigid psychological grasp by the poisonous Crystal, (Kristin Scott Thomas). When she decrees revenge for the killing of her other son, a conscienceless murderer in his last moments as well, Julian becomes her pawn.

But revenge takes a while and Julian’s nemesis-to-be, absurdly corrupt and murderous Thai policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), has a few bodies to sadistically add to the pile as well. This slow motion dance of death will have its inevitable denouement to be sure, and whilst the vacancy that fills out Refn’s lacklustre narrative ultimately sinks it, there’s a trail of memorably staged scenes to admire along the way.

Cliff Martinez, seemingly often channelling Vangelis through a retro synth sound, produces a savage musical beast in accompaniment. His score, more often than not pushed to the foreground by Refn for maximum impact, gives the unfolding drama its contrived sense of horror. It’s one of his finest scores, though its life beyond the film may be limited.

Is Gosling even acting here? If so, he’s establishing new borders for what the term encompasses; his lone, abstract expression, monotonously worn, has revealed suggestive subliminal powers in the past – in Drive (2011) of course, and even recently in The Place Beyond the Pines (2013). Here, it becomes a wearying device employed by Refn to deflect any definable human cognisance of what’s to come. These are not to be taken seriously as humans anyway; Julian and Chang are just near-statues being robotically manoeuvred into place for the inevitable final confrontation.

Only God Forgives (2013) is a disappointing step backward for the prodigiously talented Refn; his screenplay is absolutely the worst of his career. Yet, his garish, deliberately provocative intermingling of violence, colour and aesthetic perfectionism still guarantees a feast for the senses, if not the intellect.

The Paperboy (Daniels, 2012)

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What a wonderfully lurid, sleazy, twisted southern jewel this 2012 film from Lee Daniels is. Replete with off-beat characterisations, pointless diversions, and a swampy, murderous atmosphere, this is certainly a film that defiantly marches to its own beat. Does it have mass appeal? Not on your life. Is it packed with unsavoury elements sure to repel certain audiences? Yes, yes, yes!

In the 1960’s a lawyer, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), returns to his small Southern home town to investigate the case of a man, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), he believes has been wrongfully arrested for murder. Aided by his Miami co-worker, British writer Yardley (David Oyelowo), naïve younger brother Jack (Zack Efron), and the woman, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who, through letter exchanges with men in prison has finally settled upon Hillary as her perfect man, Ward begins to dig deeper into the case. The whole deliriously colourful episode is viewed as a flashback and narrated by the Jansen family’s all-knowing maid Anita (Macy Gray).

Though the narrative clearly plays second fiddle to the characters that heedlessly drive it along, a rough, raw vitality is what energises Daniels’ left-of-centre vision for adapting Pete Dexter’s novel to the screen. This rawness is also reflected in the often unconventional visual approach which sets a dulled, dirty colour scheme against strangely incongruous perspectives. You could argue the whole project has been haphazardly wrought but the approach feels daringly original in its own crazy way.

There are memorable scenes aplenty, including the notorious but hilarious urination scene involving Charlotte and Jack, and another vividly realised sexual encounter of sorts in the jailhouse. But it’s the work of the performers that will linger longest in memories. For McConaughey this the continuation of a hot streak which peaked again around this time with William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2012). Efron proves he’s capable of striking out successfully against his wholesome image whilst negotiating some tricky scenes with Kidman. Then there’s the startling Cusack who blows perceptions of his once romantic lead status to smithereens.

But it’s Kidman who shines brightest; her daring, luminescent turn is a wonder to behold. Rarely has she been more magnetic on screen, channelling every white trash vixen from a back-catalogue of Jerry Springer specials. Offensive, demented, lazily plotted and overflowing with extraneous lurid asides, The Paperboy (2012), for all its shortcomings, is at least a memorable, deliriously idiosyncratic concoction.

 

I Want You (1998)

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Caught in the amorphous web of Elvis Costello’s song of the same name, with its coy intimations of duplicity, comes a previously unearthed gem from the back-catalogue of British director Michael Winterbottom. I Want You (1998) is a tasty treat too, with a slowly inter-cutting narrative describing the lives of a quartet of oddly dissociated characters congealing in the vanquished surrounds of a blank, wind-stripped English seaside town that time has clearly forgotten.

Martin (Alessandro Nivola) has been released from jail, but he has ties to this place, namely to the beautiful Helen (Rachel Weisz), a local hairdresser. Presumably it’s here in Farhaven that his crime was committed, prefacing his eight-year stretch in the slammer. Helen was once his illicit, very young, star-crossed lover, just in her mid-teens at the time.

What motivation is responsible for Martin’s return trek to Farhaven? Is he here to rekindle an old flame? To make amends for the deed that sent him behind bars? Or is he simply a malignancy creeping back under the guise of someone contrite and reformed?

Meanwhile, lurking on the periphery is a mute teenager Honda (Luka Petrusic) and Helen’s secret admirer, bringing her small gifts when not otherwise absorbed in his favourite pastime – using sophisticated listening equipment to eavesdrop on those around him. Having uttered not a word since the death of his mother, he lives in a seaside shack with his sister Smokey (Labina Mitevska), the local nightclub singer whose carefree lifestyle and uninhibited sexuality seems to entrance the bored locals. Before long Martin, biding time until he works up the nerve to confront Helen beyond wordless phone calls, becomes drawn into their little world.

I Want You is the work of writer Eoin McNamee but its bears many of the traits of previous Winterbottom films. Indeed the elusive Brit’s model is betrayed not a whit; firmly in place are the sense of detachment and vague characterisations in which a tapestry of singular, often peculiar moments are woven into a more expressive whole, only taking on firmer shape over time.

Aesthetically the film has much to recommend it, with a strikingly expressive range of lenses used by Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, whose past collaborators include Krzysztof Kieslowski on Three Colours Blue (1993). External scenes are regularly consumed by the pervasive tint of pale greens, electrical blues and sunburnt golds. You can sense not only a Kieslowski influence, but that of Jean-Pierre Jeunet in visual terms as Winterbottom seeks to expel the murky natural palette of this washed-out world and infuse it with a sheen of unreality.

Another interesting stylistic choice manifests itself in the way crucial moments switch to Honda’s perspective where a version of events seems fed through a distorted lens, each an intensely-portrayed, decolourised refraction. Can we trust what he sees? Regardless, his muteness complements a talent for stealth, allowing him to become a silent, but intrinsic component of the unfolding drama.

None of the characters are rounded wholes; they’re sketchy creations at best but clues deliberately omitted or kept vague bob just beneath the surface, intermittently rearing their heads to contribute more pieces to the puzzle. In the film’s opening scene a body is dumped off a pier, but is it a glimpse from the past or future?

I Want You, though difficult to access on an emotional level, is nonetheless fascinating viewing: distant perhaps, but a somewhat compelling depiction of an obsessive, destructive love. The performances of Weisz and Nivola, leaning more heavily on the suffocating atmosphere of implied danger and the sound of skeletons rattling in closets, are superb without much in the way of explicit avowals to guide them. In a sense Honda acts as both a witness and moral compass; Smokey merely subsides to the background, whilst Martin and Helen keep pace for a collision with unknown consequences.

There’s an ironic circularity to the ebb and flow of these lives, with misplaced love and its attendant misery exposed like an open wound. As for the sobering resolution, what does it prove? Perhaps only that vulnerability is the perfect foil for those most in need of a defense – or outlet to a fresh beginning.

 

I Confess (Hitchcock, 1953)

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Torn between conscience and duty, what is Fr. Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) to do when the shadow of suspicion falls on him rather than the man who confessed to murder in his confessional? In Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), a tortuous internal struggle begins for the young priest, especially considering that the guilty man, Otto (O.E. Hasse) is a friend and worker in the rectory of his Quebec parish.

Only Logan and Otto’s wife, Alma (Dolly Haas) know the truth, but there’s another complication eating away at the young priest – the victim was a sleazy lawyer attempting to blackmail him and former flame, Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter) for a liaison that the lawyer stumbled upon before the war and Logan’s ordination into the priesthood. With the past threatening to fall like the Sword of Damocles upon their heads, Logan and Ruth feel relief at this fateful intervention but before long, lead investigator, the wily Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) has his suspicions raised by the testimony of two young eyewitnesses claiming to have seen a priest in the vicinity of the crime.

Under sufferance, Ruth reluctantly spills their back-story to Larrue, hoping to expunge her own torment whilst exempting Logan from any blame; sadly she only provides the police with an even stronger motive for suspecting Logan’s involvement. For his own part, Logan remains committed to offering as little useful testimony as possible, sworn to preserving the sanctity of revelations unburdened in the confessional.

An increasingly unstable Otto makes life exceedingly difficult all round however; the cowardly act of a marginal man of no consequence, his theft-turned-murder eats away at his own conscience but is overruled by his instinct for self-preservation.

Hitchcock’s film, though a far cry from his later masterpieces, remains a remarkable entertaining film, full of quality in every department. As ever under the master’s tutelage, the performances are first-rate, though detractors of Clift may disagree; his intense gaze, as always, is present, as is that barely-moving visage, renowned as a model of self-containment. But there’s always been something hypnotic about Clift as an actor; perhaps the turmoil endured in his personal life made his portrayals of men like Logan somehow more compelling, those wounded eyes ensuring an empathetic response every time.

Malden pitches his performances perfectly; rather than overplaying him as a wearied soldier or a man capable of excessive insightfulness, he ensures Larrue is a believably efficient, formidable force. Baxter evokes sympathy as Ruth, the woman torn between her long-nourished flame for Logan and her happy loveless marriage to the accommodating Pierre (Roger Dann).

Hasse deserves special mention as the increasingly reprehensible Otto who becomes more so the closer he gets to believing he might get away with his crime, his callous moral neglect – even allowing Logan to take sole responsibility and lying under oath – taking on treacherous, monstrous proportions by the end.

Finally, Hitchcock employs two brilliant artisans to complete his vision: the effortless ingenuity of often-used cinematographer Robert Burks, who provides the visual polish with atmospheric, noirish nightscapes complimented by a host of ominously tilted low shots aimed at the city’s gothic spires; then there’s veteran composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s classy running musical commentary, perhaps over-emphasising emotions at times but igniting the film with a dramatic boldness that becomes a defining force as the suspenseful, strangely moving conclusion nears.

 

Killer’s Kiss (Kubrick, 1955)

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Stanley Kubrick’s second film barely qualifies as a feature at just 64 minutes but despite the director being at the base of a steep learning curve that would see his status elevated to that of a cinema giant in the coming decades, Killer’s Kiss (1955) is a strong indicator of what was to follow.

The plot is a fairly hackneyed one: a well-intentioned good guy falls head over heels for a pretty blonde but he can’t have her – not unless he extricates her from a tight spot. Her boyfriend, you see, is a slimy gangster who likes to rough up her edges and doesn’t take fondly to the attentions of other men.

Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) is a boxer at the end of his string; his glory days are memories long stored in cotton wool. But Davey can’t help taking an interest in the attractive woman, Gloria Price (Irene Kane), who lives in an adjacent Manhattan apartment. With visual access to her through his window affording the hint of violence within, he feels compelled to intervene after his latest fruitless bout leaves him licking his wounds and a little ga-ga to boot.

There’s nothing especially polished about any of the performances; in fact, they generally verge on mediocre. The reason for watching Killer’s Kiss, of course, is Kubrick. A young director experimenting with form – and acting as his own cinematographer – he manages to create a series of brilliant visual moments.

Davey’s fight provides the first highlight; it’s shot with genuine intensity, mostly from canvas level, and littered with plenty of fast cuts. Blink and you’ll miss some of the best bits, like a glove point-of-view shot as it delivers a savage blow. Numerous scenes in which Kubrick scrutinises his performers from close range can be admired for the clever composition and interplay of light and shade.

A scene in an alleyway, as Davey’s manager is about to be mugged by a couple of underlings dispatched by Rapallo (Frank Silvera), is a brilliant evocation of textbook film-noir aesthetics as interpreted by Kubrick; in a moment of clever disorientation, he creates an impression of fluid, flesh-and-blood silhouettes converging on their hapless victim.

Kubrick saves his best for last though, with a rooftop chase against a stunning New York skyline followed by a final confrontation in a mannequin factory. Here, primal, masculine forces come to the fore, with dialogue virtually eliminated. After all is said, the outcome boils down to brute force to settle the stakes, the eerily vacant stares of the asexual witnesses hemming the combatants into a fight neither can escape without risking their life.

Killer’s Kiss is not vintage Kubrick by any means; placed side by side with his later work, it may even be regarded as downright mediocre. But aided by a superb Gerald Fried score, it remains a compelling work nonetheless; a film to savour with the wisdom of hindsight, for here was an early flash of genius revealed in miniature.

Thief (Mann, 1981)

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With its heavily accented male viewpoints, Michael Mann’s 1981 heist drama has style to burn, and proves typical of the director in numerous ways. Also on display here is his penchant for unique visuals and endearingly left-of-centre musical accompaniment. Thief, starring James Caan as Frank, the crim of the title, is a fascinating early landmark in Mann’s career; it was his first major cinematic release and even without the precision of execution seen in his later work, it still carries all the early signatures his devotees have come to admire. Though technically an 80’s film it feels like a carryover from the previous glorious decade of American cinema with its stark, gritty story – hardly an original one, certainly, but carried off with such conviction that it becomes a compelling experience by the end.

Frank has spent a lot of time in jail but with a new relationship blooming with waitress Jessie (Tuesday Weld) he’d ideally prefer to settle down if financial security can be arranged. He works as a freelancer, self-employed, with an able right-hand man in Barry (James Belushi), and with a job as a car salesman by day as a front. After complications ensue from his latest job, however, when the man transporting his money ends up dead, he finds himself confronting the temptations offered by underworld kingpin Leo (Robert Prosky).

Frank decides to seize the opportunity offered, claiming a stake in one last massive job with a large haul guaranteed, before hoping to ride off into the sunset with his lady and a life of luxury and financial security assured. But as you might expect not everything goes to plan as Frank discovers, the job behind them, it’s a lot more difficult than you imagine to extricate yourself from under the thumb of the man pulling all the strings. The consequences for both sides, trying to assert their primal dominance, will be bloody.

Caan makes Frank into a rough but charismatic anti-hero, a belligerent and dangerous man to those who get in his way. There are mannerisms Caan adopts that faintly annoyed me initially though I was beginning to turn down the stretch. Tuesday Weld is excellent as the tough but vulnerable Jessie, whilst Prosky shines in an unusual role for him. Belushi is fair support but given little to work with whilst Willie Nelson has a couple of good scenes as Frank’s dying mentor in prison.

Mann’s screenplay, based on a book by Frank Hohimer, feels slightly undisciplined and random, a little rough around the edges at times, but I like its hardness and he fashions a handful of classic moments – especially the interplay between Frank and the cops on his tail, a series of scenes that comes to a head in a brutal but humourous interview room beating. Visually the film is superb, the highlights being the glittering night-time scenes on slick wet Chicago streets which dominate the action, the empty urban darkness lit starkly by the slowly saturating neon. His point of view shots give certain scenes a resolute immediacy.

Mann’s musical sensibilities have always been a reflection of his peculiar subjectivity and Thief is no exception. Here he employed synthesizer band Tangerine Dream, who were popular for a few years at that time amongst filmmakers, to overlay long scenes with their dreamy, though simplistic, ambient soundscapes; it’s not something I’d listen to on CD but it has an undeniably hypnotic impact and works to great effect at times – though not when actual themes are called for, as for a family life montage towards the end when their approach dates the music badly. The last scene of the film too, with electric guitars introduced, sounds like it was scored by Pink Floyd.

Thief is a wonderful early effort from the director; though he’s undoubtedly surpassed it on numerous occasions – Heat (1995) for example feels like Thief‘s imposing older brother – but it’s hard to avoid falling in love over and again with the stylish, noirish texture of the film and, of course, the infinitely rich era of cinema it comes from. Anyone looking for a nostalgic filmic experience or who is a recent Michael Mann convert will find this a mostly compelling and exhilarating ride.