Movies

Growing Up with The Graduate

Dustin Hoffman

Life in the goldfish bowl: Dustin Hoffman and William Daniels (left)

The Graduate is the movie I would nominate as my “Desert Island disc” if I were unfortunate enough to be marooned somewhere with limited home entertainment options.

When director Mike Nichols died last month, aged 83, I wanted to write a blog post but was hampered by a serious case of writer’s block. You might even say that I was overcome by ennui – much like Benjamin Braddock, the hero of Nichols’s most famous movie, The Graduate. I found myself adrift in a seemingly endless 60s montage of my own making, scored by Simon & Garfunkel songs.

Even people who haven’t seen The Graduate know that it features songs by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – The Sound of Silence, Scarborough Fair, Mrs. Robinson. But how many are aware that the rest of the soundtrack was composed by the brilliant Dave Grusin, whose later work includes Tootsie (also starring Dustin Hoffman) and one of my all-time favourites, The Fabulous Baker Boys.

Most film buffs have at least one movie or franchise that they return to regularly, luxuriating in the familiarity of plot, dialogue and performances, while also finding something new every time. The Graduate is the movie I would nominate as my “Desert Island disc” if I were unfortunate enough to be marooned somewhere with limited home entertainment options.

The danger of familiarity is that it can breed boredom. I can honestly say that has not been my experience with The Graduate. Since I started blogging about cinema I have enjoyed and appreciated the film more than when I first watched it in the mid-80s.

I was only four when Nichols’s sophisticated comedy was released in December 1967. By the time I was ready to sit through the whole film, I had recently left university with a law degree and the crazy idea that I could have a meaningful career in publishing. In reality I had a boring job, a miniscule salary and, like many of my friends, regarded work as an interruption to my social life.

At least I wasn’t living at home. That put me one step ahead of Benjamin, the aimless hero of The Graduate, who soon finds his post-university idyll threatened by his overbearing parents (played by William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) and the predatory alcoholic Mrs Robinson (the unforgettable Anne Bancroft).

The age-old problem of the generation gap is handled with great sophistication by screenwriters Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. From the opening party scenes, the Braddocks are rather too eager to parade their newly returned son like a prize heifer in front of their affluent friends and neighbours.

Nichols skilfully employs close-ups and point of view shots (Ben lumbering into the pool in his new diving apparatus) to emphasise how he feels both smothered by and alienated from the world of his parents. The degree of misunderstanding is never more stark than in Ben’s “half-baked” engagement announcement to his bewildered parents. This sums up the alternative reality in which he now exists.

For later generations weaned on the comedies of Judd Apatow, the sly humour might prove too subtle. (The sad clown picture hanging on the landing of the Braddock house.) But I think The Graduate still strikes a chord with underachievers who feel that they haven’t quite lived up to their education or their parents’ expectations.

Now that I have reached middle age, I find I am more sympathetic towards Mrs Robinson – seducer, relationship-wrecker and all-round bad mother.

In reality, Anne Bancroft was a lithe and beautiful 36-year-old when she played the “broken-down alcoholic” Mrs Robinson. But as her affair with Benjamin sours she’s portrayed as a termagant, determined to keep him away from her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) even at the cost of destroying the family.

She’s made to look not just deglamorised but almost monstrous in the rain-drenched scene where she hijacks Ben’s date with Elaine. In the climactic wedding sequence, Mrs Robinson is reduced to flailing hysteria as she screams at her daughter and then hits her.

Katharine Ross, The Graduate

Home truths as Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross square up in church

Despite all this, two earlier moments do emphasise Mrs Robinson’s vulnerability and how she “lost interest” in everything apart from booze and illicit sex. First, when Ben insists on some pillow talk during one of their trysts and quizzes her about her life. He can’t see the reaction, but her expression reveals the sadness at a shot-gun wedding, a husband she loathes and college studies in art that never went anywhere.Later, during the montage when Elaine leaves for Berkeley, she stands apart from the family – there’s no goodbye from her daughter.

The Graduate doesn’t allow her a redemptive moment, but I’d like to believe that Mrs Robinson eventually made it to the Betty Ford Center, kicked the booze and took up painting or charity work.

Finally, I recognise that I’ve grown increasingly anti-religion in the years since I first watched The Graduate.  (No, I’m not singling out any religion in particular.) I love the fact that this film ends with Ben locking the baying crowds inside the church with a large cross, as the runaway couple make their getaway.

Who needs churches, religion, parents or unquestioning obedience to outmoded ideas?

“Elaine, it’s too late!” shouts a desperate Mrs Robinson following the marriage to stuffed shirt Carl Smith. “Not for me!” shrieks Elaine.

It’s the last line of dialogue and sounds a note of defiance and optimism, though for all we know her happiness may not lie with Ben.

From Borgen to Barcelona: the BFI London Film Festival 2014

Kristen_Stewart_Snowwhite_Premiere

From Twilight to the glare of Camp X-Ray: Kristen Stewart (Pic. Eva Rinaldi)

After a three-year break, I found time last weekend to attend the BFI London Film Festival 2014. Thanks to a generous friend who was prepared to endure the eccentricities of the LFF online booking system, I managed to fit in four films in three days.

Watching new films in a Film Festival environment is a completely different experience from turning up at your local multiplex or even a Curzon and enduring a couple of hours in the company of the popcorn-munching, FaceBooking masses. (Who are these morons who refuse to switch off their phones for the short time required to watch a film?)

Film Festival attendees don’t have sit through up to half an hour’s worth of adverts and trailers before the film starts. Instead, there’s a live introduction from one of the Festival programmers and sometimes a cameo appearance from one of the film’s stars (see below). At the end, there’s often a Q&A session with the director. Three of the four films I saw this year offered this “bonus” feature.

In previous years I have churned out full-length film reviews for websites that didn’t pay me anything. I won’t be doing that again. Instead, in a nod to the wise creator of Paragraph Film Reviews, here are some brief reflections on what I saw at the BFI London Film Festival 2014.

The Duke of Burgundy (director Peter Strickland)

Guardian and Radio Times-reading TV viewers were fixated by the Danish political soap Borgen and its multi-lingual star, Sidse Babett Knudsen. She swept into the cinema just a few minutes before I sat down to watch Peter Strickland’s beautifully shot but bizarrely plotted erotic drama The Duke of Burgundy. (The title is a reference to a type of butterfly.)

Knudsen plays Cynthia, the cool, immaculately dressed employer who puts her younger “maid” Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) through her paces with a mixture of contempt and boredom. From turning up late at the door of the amateur entomologist’s ivy-encrusted mansion, to sitting down without being invited and then failing to wash her employer’s silk undies properly, poor Evelyn just can’t avoid punishment.

Appearances are deceptive: their rather stilted interactions are elaborate role-playing (complete with hand-written cue cards) at the heart of a sadomasochistic relationship. Soft-focus photography, sly humour and a surprising lack of nudity make the specifics of their games seem less salacious – though I’m glad we never found out more about that much-vaunted “human toilet”.

The Duke of Burgundy is essentially a two-hander that relies on the charisma and the chemistry of its two stars to overcome the fact that both the characters and the setting of the story remain an enigma. Cynthia’s increasing physical and psychological frailties – her struggles to satisfy her younger lover’s demands – add emotional weight to what might have been a cold, stylised drama.

Viewers who entertained fantasies about seeing Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg in silk lingerie will not be disappointed. Far more revealing is what Sidse Babett Knudsen’s affecting performance reveals about the universal fear of growing old.

Camp X-Ray (director Peter Sattler)

I have given the Twilight films wide berth, but Peter Sattler’s Guantanamo Bay-set prison drama, Camp X-Ray, shows Kristen Stewart in a whole new light. She brings a convincing mixture of steeliness and vulnerability to her role as Amy Cole, a soldier charged with babysitting detainees at the controversial facility. In her relationship with long-term inmate Ali (Peyman Moaadi), Cole begins to question the morality of this system of internment without trial.

Peter Sattler wisely concentrates on the human elements of the drama rather than railing against the shortcomings of America’s human rights record. (The opening scenes in which the orange-suited Ali is bundled into a cage, bleeding and utterly dehumanised, speak for themselves.) The later confrontations between guard and inmate that take place around Ali’s cell door are some of the most nerve-shredding I’ve seen for years.

If you’re not moved to tears of rage by the plight of the Harry Potter-loving Ali, then perhaps you should just stick to watching vapid teenage vampire flicks.

Charlie’s Country (director Rolf de Heer)

The BFI London Film Festival programme gives all the films a positive write-up, and never more so than in the case of “visionary director Rolf de Heer’s Australian-set drama. David Gulpilil won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his powerful performance as Charlie, an ageing Native Australian who finds himself on the wrong side of the white man’s draconian laws in the post-“intervention” era. Broke, hungry and shorn of his weapons, Charlie takes off into the Outback to reclaim his freedom, but ends up desperately ill and then incarcerated.

As you’d expect, Charlie’s Country is primarily a showcase for the talents of the veteran Gulpilil, a star of Australian cinema since 1971’s Walkabout. It is his face and personality that dominate every scene in this gruelling and often slow-moving story. There are lighter moments here – notably Charlie’s ill-fated buffalo hunting trip and the way de Heer emphasises the colour and quantity of prison food as it’s doled out.

I can’t say that really enjoyed Charlie’s Country, but I did learn something about the discriminatory and (frankly) infantilizing measures taken by the Australian Government in 2007 against Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

10.000 Km (director Carlos Marques-Marcet)

I wasn’t convinced that a long-distance love story conducted mainly through Skype would make for compelling cinema, but writer/director Carlos Marques-Marcet has pulled it off. That’s largely down to his two very sexy, intelligent and appealing actors – David Verdaguer as teacher Sergi and Natalia Tena as his photographer girlfriend Alex.

After the long opening scene in their Barcelona apartment, the pair are forced apart when Alex decides to move to LA for a year for her career. Lonely, bored or just horny, the twentysomething pair soon discover the limitations of trying to share intimacies over wi-fi when you’re thousands of kilometres apart (9,661.4 to be precise).

Despite the physical confines of the plot – the characters are seen on-screen only in their respective apartments – Marques-Marcet keeps the pace brisk as we chart the elapsing days over their 12-month separation. He trusts the viewer to fill in the blanks, as when Alex shuts her screen during an online sex session or when Sergi’s one-night stand is heard showering but never glimpsed or mentioned.

Regardless of technology, a love story stands or falls on whether you care about the fate of the couple. I would happily spend another 100 minutes Skyping with this pair.

David Fincher’s Gone Girl

Rosamund_Pike_2011 (pic Justin Hoch)

Before the 2014 BFI London Film Festival gets under way next week, I decided to indulge in some mainstream, big-budget Hollywood entertainment – David Fincher’s Gone Girl. This eagerly anticipated adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as the picture-perfect Nick and Amy Dunne. When beautiful blonde Amy disappears from the couple’s home in North Carthage, Missouri on their fifth wedding anniversary, the police uncover suspicious blood spatter quicker than you can say Dexter Morgan. From then on Gone Girl is a roller-coaster ride of plot twists, culminating in that old BFI favourite: “strong, bloody violence”.

I haven’t read Gillian Flynn’s novel, but those familiar with the source material will know that it’s difficult to reveal too much about the plot of Gone Girl without plunging headlong into spoiler territory. It starts out a bit like a police procedural (Nick even cracks a joke about Law & Order), as the (not sufficiently) distraught husband comes under intense scrutiny from the cops, the locals and excoriating TV host Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle). Meanwhile, flashbacks of Amy writing in her diary fill us in on their past life as yuppie journalists in New York, and what may have proved to be a fatal attraction.

Gone Girl is a story in which two highly unreliable narrators pursue high-risk agendas that pull audience loyalties one way and then the other. Though the opening half hour is a bit slow, skeletons soon start tumbling out of closets and something nasty (or at least very unwelcome) turns up in the woodshed, as the protagonists revel in media manipulation, role-playing and illicit sex.

With her patrician beauty, English rose Rosamund Pike might seem like more obvious casting for genteel period drama like Downton Abbey than the rigours of a David Fincher movie. (Remember what happened to Gwyneth Paltrow in Se7en?). But despite the occasional wobble in her accent, she is a revelation here as the missing trust-funder with a penchant for picking the wrong guys. Chomping hamburgers on the fly and splashing about in buckets of blood, Pike throws herself into the extremes of “Amazing” Amy’s jaw-dropping antics with gusto.

Some people don’t like Ben Affleck (maybe it’s the Oscar wins, his politics or the fact that he’s really an Affleck-Boldt). For me he’s the natural successor to Jeff Bridges in Jagged Edge, as the handsome, lazy and morally reprehensible bar-owner Nick Dunne. Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry are also highly effective as, respectively, Amy’s creepily devoted ex-suitor and Nick’s hot-shot attorney.

The problem is that while director David Fincher seems tailor-made for this kind of high-concept thriller, I didn’t find Gone Girl nearly as much fun as some of the critics who’ve gone overboard with their praise this week.

Of course it’s not essential that any of the main characters are likeable or sympathetic – they’re certainly not in this film. I didn’t bring art-house level expectations of a profound meditation on modern relationships or media excesses to what is, after all, just a pot-boiler. But given my unfamiliarity with the material I did expect to be much more shaken, stirred, excited and even horrified by this ugly tale of a thoroughly toxic relationship.

Perhaps the problem is that at 145 minutes long Gone Girl continues the 21st-century trend for films that outstay their welcome by a good 20 minutes. I also found that the content and the presentation of Amy’s diary entries made for a boring, bland introduction to the character, though perhaps that was deliberate.

Gone Girl will be best enjoyed with your blood-alcohol level raised and your expectations lowered. Despite the hype, this is not a modern masterpiece.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: an A-Z

Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has died, aged just 46, and all some people seem concerned about is the future of The Hunger Games franchise. This is both crass and cruelly ironic, given that Hoffman’s filmography was notable more for quality art house hits than cinematic blockbusters.

The first Philip Seymour Hoffman film I ever saw was 1992’s Scent of a Woman, and the last was The Master. Of course, Hoffman was not the star or even the juvenile lead in Scent of a Woman. Martin Brest’s syrupy, overlong drama was a vehicle for Al Pacino, who won an Oscar for his shouty performance as the blind Lt. Col. Frank Slade; the charisma-free Chris O’Donnell played his young “aide” and minder. It’s 20 years since I last saw the film, but was Hoffman’s presence, personality and rather shambolic appearance as the obnoxious student George Willis, Jr. that I remember.

By the time he played cult leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master, Hoffman himself merited that description as an actor with versatility, courage and great sensitivity. To be honest, it was a film that bored and infuriated me in equal measure, though that was largely down to the mumbling Joaquin Phoenix. But Hoffman was menacing and magnificent, and I’m glad that the title of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie has provided headline writers with a neat way to memorialise one of the greatest screen actors of the last 20 years.

The Guardian has got in ahead of me with its Philip Seymour Hoffman greatest hits package, so here’s my own tribute.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Savages

Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Savages (2007)

Paul Thomas Anderson directed Philip Seymour Hoffman in five films – Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and The Master (2012). Speaking of their final collaboration, Anderson said that as an actor Hoffman had “gotten older and more confident”. He also acknowledged the fragile nature of that craft, “Because you can have it one day, and it’s not there the next . . . “

Boogie Nights saw Hoffman cast as the lovesick Scotty J, one of the large and dysfunctional “family” irresistibly drawn to studly 70s porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg).

Cooper’s Town was the actor’s film and TV production company, which he founded with Emily Ziff. The company’s productions included Capote, The Savages and Jack Goes Boating.

Death of a Salesman – the 2012 Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s play earned Hoffman a Tony award nomination for his performance as Willy Loman.

Film critic Roger Ebert memorably described the actor as having “a gift for playing quickly embarrassed men who fear rejection”.

Flawless gave Hoffman one of his most flamboyant roles as Rusty, a New York drag queen, pre-op transsexual and mistress of the one-liner.

God’s Pocket, a black comedy drama directed by Mad Men star John Slattery, screened at Sundance last month and was one of Hoffman’s final movies.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was born on 23 July 1967 and died on 2 February 2014. The cause of death was reported as a heroin overdose.

I liked it all. Yeah.” In a 2006 60 Minutes interview the actor gave a candid assessment of his past relationship with drugs and alcohol.

Jack Goes Boating was Hoffman’s 2010 directorial debut. He also reprised his role from Bob Glaudini’s play as the socially awkward limo driver Jack, who dates Connie (Amy Ryan).

“A truly kind, wonderful man and one of our greatest actors – ever.” A heartfelt Twitter tribute from Mia Farrow.

Lester Bangs, the rock journalist in Almost Famous, was one of several real-life roles played to great acclaim by Hoffman. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”

Mimi O’Donnell was Hoffman’s long-term partner and mother of his children, Cooper, Tallulah and Willa. O’Donnell was the costume designer on Jack Goes Boating.

Mike Nichols directed the actor on screen in Charlie Wilson’s War and in the stage productions of Death of a Salesman and The Seagull.

His Oscar win was for his role as author Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s 2005 biopic, Capote. He was also nominated three times in the best supporting actor category (Charlie Wilson’s War, Doubt and The Master).

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote

As Plutarch Heavensbee, Head Gamemaker in the Hunger Games series, Hoffman had one of his highest profile roles. Parts 1 and 2 of Mockingjay are still scheduled for release in 2014 and 2015. In a 2013 interview he declared himself a fan of author Suzanne Collins and her books.

Quality directors – Mike Nichols, Paul Thomas, Bennett Miller, Spike Lee and David Mamet – are conspicuous on Hoffman’s lengthy filmography.

Rumpled was the word most often used to describe the actor’s off-screen appearance.

Synecdoche, New York saw Hoffman cast as theatre director Caden Cotard, who’s beset by personal problems and obsessed with a painstaking production that recreates his own life inside a huge New York warehouse. Rolling Stone called it a “mind-bender”.

Triple Bogey on a Par Five Hole – Hoffman’s intriguingly titled but little-seen 1991 film debut.

Unfinished projects at the time of Hoffman’s death included the TV comedy, Happyish, in which he was due to star as the creative director of a New York-based advertising agency. Only the pilot episode of the Showtime series had been shot.

Vancouver Film Critics Circle was particularly generous to Hoffman, handing out best actor awards for Capote and 2003’s Owning Mahowny and a best supporting actor prize for The Master.

Worst film? The Robin Williams vehicle Patch Adams earned some terrible reviews, but my least favourite Hoffman movie is Along Came Polly, the scatological “comedy” starring Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston and a ferret.

X-rated – the graphic bedroom scene with Hoffman and his on-screen wife Marisa Tomei that opens Sidney Lumet’s 2007 thriller, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

The Yearling, a 1994 TV movie, was a rare family-friendly entry on Hoffman’s CV.

Paul Zara (Hoffman) was the old-school campaign manager outmanoeuvred by his protégé Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) in the 2011 political thriller, The Ides of March.

American Hustle

David_O_Russell_(pic David Shankbone)

American Hustle writer/director David O Russell


Either David O Russell is the hottest Hollywood director on the planet, or those myopic voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences really need to get out a bit more.

If I was an actor I would be desperate to get cast in David O Russell’s next film. How desperate? Well, I wouldn’t think twice about turning myself into a walking skeleton or running around in a plastic bin liner in the name of art. That’s because Russell is becoming almost as prolific at piling up Academy Award nominations as the great Meryl Streep.

Russell’s latest movie, the crime drama American Hustle, is loosely based (“Some of this actually happened”) on the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late 70s and early 80s. But the real story is that it has 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director and a clean sweep in the acting categories. That’s on top of last year’s eight Oscar nominations for Russell’s “bipolar romantic comedySilver Linings Playbook and seven for his 2010 boxing biopic The Fighter.

All of this might lead you think that either David O Russell is the hottest Hollywood director on the planet, or those myopic voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences really need to get out a bit more.

In American Hustle it’s the ever-adaptable Christian Bale who looks twice the man he was in The Fighter. He’s piled on 43 pounds and sports an embarrassing comb-over to play New Jersey dry cleaner-turned-con man Irving Rosenfeld. Look out for the can of Elnett hairspray enjoying a brief cameo in the opening scenes, as Bale shows off his newly acquired paunch, while assiduously covering his balding pate.

Irving and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) have been doing quite nicely with a loan scam in which she poses as an English aristocrat to reel in gullible investors. But then Bradley Cooper’s cocky FBI agent Richie DiMaso catches up with the pair and forces them into an elaborate con, involving a fake Arab sheikh and a scheme to build casinos in Atlantic City. Irving and Sydney are just the bait to catch some much bigger fish, including a New Jersey Mayor played by Jeremy Renner.

I’d never heard anything about Abscam before I saw this movie, but at times it seems like a mere backdrop for other distracting subplots involving sexual jealousy and overweening ambition. Cooper’s coke-snorting DiMaso is a vain, corkscrew-permed ball of energy who alternates between sparring with his mild-mannered boss (played by Louis CK) and putting the moves on Sydney. Equally unstable is Irving’s young wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who almost betrays him to her Mafia lover and has a nice sideline in blowing up kitchen appliances.

As a cinemagoer, I’ve rarely been impressed by movies that come garlanded with multiple Oscar nominations. James Cameron’s Titanic boasted 14 nominations (it won in 11 categories), but I still regard it as a titanic, iceberg-shaped cinematic turd. If American Hustle was a less high-profile production I’d be more inclined to downplay its flaws and simply enjoy the fact that it is a lip-glossed, star-studded slice of largely undemanding entertainment, showcasing some great 70s tunes. Plot-wise it’s not in the same league as The Sting, but it is less narcissistic than the tiresome Ocean’s Trilogy.

But with Lawrence and Cooper getting Oscar nominations for their wildly over-the-top roles here, you have to wonder what Russell was thinking when he cast them. I did enjoy their sparky, old-fashioned romantic partnership Silver Linings Playbook, though it was no masterpiece. In American Hustle it’s as though they’ve been ordered to “turn it up to eleven” in every scene. The result is a mood of sustained hysteria that unbalances the film and detracts from an affecting performance by Amy Adams. I think the voters at AMPAS have been conned.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Jordan_Belfort_(pic Ralph Zuranski)

The real “Wolf of Wall Street” Jordan Belfort (pic Ralph Zuranski)

“There nothing noble about poverty,” declares Jordan Belfort during one of his rabble-rousing speeches in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated biopic, The Wolf of Wall Street. Of course there’s not a hint of penury or nobility here – just three hours of excessive profanity and boundless greed, interspersed with gratuitous nudity and drug-taking. It’s quite a ride.

The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the 2007 autobiography by superstar stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who is played here by the perennially youthful Leonardo DiCaprio. An ambitious 22-year-old, Jordan makes his Wall Street debut as a lowly “connector” at Rothschild. The catastrophe of Black Monday (19 October 1987) later puts him out of a job, but soon he shows his mettle flogging penny stocks to gullible punters in a crummy “boiler room” on Long Island.

Jordan teams his dazzling sales patter with the equally dazzling dental work of portly sidekick Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Together with some pals they found the Long Island brokerage house Stratton Oakmont, earning zillions of dollars trading worthless stock. Behind the august name is a company built on fraud, but no one cares when there are yachts, mansions, drugs and parties galore, topped off with dwarf-throwing and fish-swallowing shenanigans in the office.

The ultra-macho, high-energy world of brokerage depicted here is a perfect match for a film-maker with Scorsese’s pedigree. If anyone can convey the sheer adrenaline rush of men behaving very badly, it is the man who directed Goodfellas. The intensity of DiCaprio’s performance as the supercharged hustler is quite literally eye-popping. Schmoozing, scheming and shrieking, he moves from triumphs on the sales floor to a bedroom bust-up with his second wife Naomi (Margot Robbie), often looking as though he’s about to burst a blood vessel.

Scorsese also uses DiCaprio’s voiceover to provide a glib and wholly unapologetic commentary on Jordan’s antics. There’s no hint of regret when Wife No. 1 catches him snorting coke off the breasts of (soon-to-be) Wife No. 2 in the back of a limo. Even when the SEC and dogged FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) are closing in on him for fraud and money laundering, this Master of the Universe coolly holds court on his yacht.

The Wolf of Wall Street features some memorable cameos, notably from a shockingly gaunt Matthew McConaughey as Jordan’s first mentor, Mark Hanna. His yodelling, chest-beating, coke-snorting pep talk over a liquid lunch makes quite an impression on the wide-eyed young Jordan. As the surprisingly broad-minded Aunt Emma, the always decorous Joanna Lumley brings an unexpected frisson to a park bench scene with Jordan.

The most jaw-dropping scenes here follow an unwise decision to experiment with some out-of-date Quaaludes, which (according to Jordan) appear to mimic the effects of cerebral palsy. Our drooling and incoherent hero ends up exiting a country club on his stomach and almost totalling his car. Yet he’s still able to revive a similarly stricken Donnie, who’s about to choke to death on the kitchen floor.

Over the course of three hours The Wolf of Wall Street delivers slick entertainment and the vicarious thrill of watching people cocking a snook at authority. What it lacks, though, is much in the way of character development or tension. Unlike other Scorsese films, there’s no bloodshed or imminent threat of violence. There’s not much drama either in the way Jordan is finally forced to do a deal with the Feds and accept a short jail sentence. The lawyers and law enforcers remain largely peripheral.

It goes without saying that the women characters get very short shrift in this male-dominated world. Some will revel in the amount of naked female flesh on display here, but I would have liked to see some emotional depth in a film that lasts as long as this one. The one exception is Margot Robbie’s powerful scene with DiCaprio, as their marriage finally breaks down and he faces the prospect of losing his kids. This is raw, ugly and, unlike much of this film, it is not played just for cheap laughs.

The Wolf of Wall Street is stylishly directed and well-acted, but when you strip away the glamour and the thrill of getting away with it for so long, the story of Jordan Belfort didn’t seem that interesting or important to me. This is a minor work in the Scorsese canon, and I wish that he and Belfort had put their undoubted talents to better use.

Kirk Douglas: an A-Z

Thanks to @wayneley on Twitter for reminding me that 9 December was the 97th birthday of a true Hollywood great, Kirk Douglas. I must admit that I had put off writing about the star of Spartacus, thinking that an obituary might provide the ideal opportunity. But with Kirk marching inexorably towards his centenary, I realise that he’s likely to outlive many of us in the blogging community . . .

After Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas remains my favourite star of Hollywood’s golden era. I’d happily be marooned on a desert island with a boxed set containing Spartacus, Paths of Glory, Out of the Past, The Bad and the Beautiful and Seven Days in May. No other actor has led with his chin with such intensity and for so many years.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating a Hollywood legend while he’s still with us.

Ace in the Hole was described by its director Billy Wilder as “one of my most sombre pictures”. Douglas’s swaggering portrayal of cynical newshound Chuck Tatum is journalistic hubris run riot in a dusty corner of New Mexico.

Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole

Kirk Douglas as “thousand-dollar-a-day newspaperman” Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole

Bryna Productions, set up in 1955, took its name from the actor’s mother. The company’s films include Spartacus, Paths of Glory and the 2009 documentary, Kirk Douglas: Before I Forget.

Champion (1949) provided an early pugilistic role for Kirk Douglas, as boxer Midge Kelly.

Issur Danielovitch was his birth name. Kirk’s dad, Herschel, was an immigrant of Russian-Jewish descent, who came to New York not long before Kirk’s birth in 1916.

Eric Douglas, the younger son of Kirk and his second wife Anne Buydens, was an actor and comedian who died in 2004.

Frequent co-star Burt Lancaster appeared in seven films with Kirk, beginning with the 1948 crime drama, I Walk Alone.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is the most famous of the Douglas-Lancaster collaborations. Kirk played Doc Holliday to Burt’s Wyatt Earp.

Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer were unlikely roles for Lancaster and Douglas in the 1981 stage play, The Boys in Autumn. The veteran actors played Mark Twain’s much-loved characters as a couple of old-timers, reuniting after 50 years.

I’m Spartacus!” probably the most famous line from any of his movies and the title of his 2012 book.

Kirk Douglas in Spartacus

Kirk Douglas in his most famous role as the Thracian gladiator Spartacus.

Kirk is Jewish, though in a 2012 interview he confessed: “I was not a very good Jew. I never practised what Judaism tells you to do, to teach your kids all about Judaism.” He’s had three bar mitzvahs to date.

Stanley Kubrick directed Paths of Glory and was later hired to replace Anthony Mann on Spartacus.

Loser at the Oscars. Though nominated three times for Best Actor (Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life), his only success to date was an honorary award in 1996.

Michael Kirk Douglas (born in 1944) is the most famous of Kirk’s four sons. The pair co-starred in the 2003 drama, It Runs in the Family, which also featured Michael’s son, Cameron Douglas, and Diana Douglas, Kirk’s first wife.

US Navy – Kirk served during WWII and was honorably discharged in 1944.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Kirk bought the rights to Ken Kesey’s then-unpublished novel in the early 60s. He played the lead role of Randle P McMurphy in a Broadway production, but it was Michael Douglas who went on to co-produce the Oscar-winning 1975 movie, which starred Jack Nicholson.

Paths of Glory (1957) – Kubrick’s lacerating anti-war drama saw Kirk deliver one of his most heartfelt rants as the idealistic French officer Colonel Dax. After failing to defend his men against trumped-up charges of cowardice, Dax attacks Gen. Broulard: “You’re a degenerate, sadistic old man and you can go to Hell before I apologise to you!”

Richard Quine directed one of Kirk’s lesser-known movies, the 1960 romantic drama Strangers When We Meet, which co-starred Kim Novak.

The Ragman’s Son was his first volume of autobiography,  published in 1988. As the title suggests, the book covered his rise from an impoverished childhood as the son of a Russian ragpicker to fame and fortune.

St Lawrence University is the actor’s alma mater, where he gained a degree in English. In July 2012, the Douglas Foundation donated a further US$5 million to a scholarship set up in 1999 for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) was Kirk’s third collaboration with director Vincente Minnelli. Like The Bad and the Beautiful it was an overwrought Hollywood melodrama, with Kirk as a broken-down actor.

UnAmerican activities was the stick used to beat Hollywood writers like Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus), who refused to co-operate with investigations into alleged Communist influences in Hollywood from the late 1930s. Kirk helped break the blacklist in 1960, by publicly acknowledging Trumbo’s role on the film.

Vincent Van Gogh was the subject of the 1957 biopic, Lust for Life, with Kirk in the title role.

Wrestling was his sport during his college years.

X-rated – Brian De Palma’s thriller The Fury was released in the UK in September 1978 and, like Carrie, featured a teenager with telekinetic abilities. Sam Irvin, an intern on The Fury, remembers star Kirk Douglas as “an incredible professional” who was in “fantastic physical shape” for his all-action role.

Young Man with a Horn starred Kirk as jazz cornetist Rick Martin, a character based on  Bix Beiderbecke. Lauren Bacall, who had dated Kirk while at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, played his wife.

Ground Zero – in 2010 the actor weighed in to the controversy over whether to build a mosque near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, saying it would be “painful” for the families of those who died.

Renoir

Renoir is a ravishing new biopic from director Gilles Bourdos that gives us two geniuses for the price of one. For most people the name is synonymous with the paintings of Impressionist master, Pierre-August Renoir. Cinephiles will also know that his film-maker son, Jean Renoir, is equally celebrated as the writer/director of La Grande Illusion and La Règle du Jeu. But you’re unlikely to have heard of the central figure in this drama, actress Catherine Hessling (born Andrée Heuschling), who briefly achieved fame in the 1920s and was the first wife of Jean Renoir.

In 1915 the calm atmosphere of the Renoir villa at Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Azur is disrupted by the arrival of Andrée “Dédé” Heuschling (played by Christa Theret). This auburn-haired beauty was engaged by the recently deceased Madame Renoir to model for her ailing husband. Thanks to his beguiling new muse, Renoir (played by veteran Michel Bouquet) is soon rediscovering his appetite for painting nudes. When his son Jean (Vincent Rottiers) comes home to recuperate from a war wound, he too is captivated by this self-confident young woman who dreams of a career as an actress. That romance is overshadowed by intergenerational tensions and by the prospect of Jean’s return to the carnage and chaos of the front.

It’s no surprise that Renoir is a film minutely preoccupied with flesh and the female form. As in La Belle Noiseuse (1991), we witness the interaction between artist and model, and the painstaking process by which life is infused into canvas. There are excursions to the beach and the countryside, with Mark Ping Bing Lee’s photography bathing the unclothed Dédé in golden hues that are perfect for Renoir senior’s brushwork.

. . . when a woman strips off for her art audiences tend not to remember the acting.

Renoir is more than just chocolate-box beauty and tableaux vivants. The men appear cloaked in an aura of death and decay, as the film contrasts Renoir’s art with the inescapable effects of war and ageing. The wheelchair-bound painter consults with his doctor; his swollen and arthritic hands are bathed and bandaged by his retinue of devoted female servants so that work may continue. Jean dresses the ugly wound in his leg, as younger brother Coco (Thomas Doret from The Kid with a Bike) looks on. We also glimpse horribly disfigured war veterans in one of the film’s few scenes outside the Renoir estate.

With all this material to work with, it’s disappointing that Bourdos fails to get under the skin of his characters. Renoir senior’s pronouncements rarely get beyond the level of clichés that do little to illuminate his strained relationship with his sons. Thomas Doret impresses as the sullen adolescent, whose budding interest in the opposite sex is fuelled by the presence of “Dédé”. Though Vincent Rottiers looks nothing like the man who became a giant of European cinema, he effectively conveys the conflict of a man torn between his love for Dédé and his duty to fight on.

Christa Theret has the most difficult role here – not just because when a woman strips off for her art audiences tend not to remember the acting. As the mercurial Dédé, it’s her scenes of conflict with the disapproving female servants and the Renoirs that bring this rather slow-moving narrative to life. The young model’s frustration at her constricting role within the household is finally laid bare when sulking gives way to a bout of plate-smashing. But this would have been more believable if we had ever glimpsed her life outside the house or saw her confiding in a friend. The Renoirs are so insular and so immersed in their own affairs that they have no idea where she lives.

Despite the weaknesses of the script, Renoir does offer glimpses of the challenges faced by a great artist battling on despite waning physical strength. Viewed as a series of picturesque vignettes of summer on the French Riviera 100 years ago, it is a lovely film to watch. But given that Dédé and Jean later married and made films together, you might feel that Renoir demands a sequel. I ended up wishing that Bourdos’s film had been less reverential and made more of a drama out of the Impressionist maestro’s late-life crisis.

Renoir is released in selected UK cinemas on Friday 28 June 2013.

The Best of Bogarde: Accident and The Servant

Dirk Bogarde, Wendy Craig, The Servant (1963)

When I watch The Servant, it’s always the voice of Cleo Laine singing “All Gone” that echoes around my head for hours. John Dankworth’s smoky torch song is as integral to Joseph Losey’s haunting psychological drama as Barrett, the unctuous manservant played by Dirk Bogarde, or Harold Pinter’s trenchant script.

Nearly 50 years after The Servant was first released, that combination of mellow voice, strings and lyrics filled with regret – “Leave it alone. It’s all gone” – remains irresistible. For Tony, the hapless bachelor so brilliantly played by James Fox, it’s the melodious accompaniment to his fireside lovemaking with Susan (Wendy Craig). By the end of the film it has turned into something horribly discordant – those stabbing strings mocking his decline into a life of booze and degradation, orchestrated by the manipulative Barrett. Tony can smash the record player, but he can’t shut off the sound of his own destruction.

Though there’s a lot more to The Servant than one song, it’s a good indication of how everything we see (and hear) is perfectly calibrated by Losey, Pinter and their collaborators. From the moment Barrett first arrives at the terraced house just off the King’s Road, Chelsea, those ticking and chiming clocks are hard to ignore. Like Douglas Slocombe’s immaculate black and white photography, the timepieces contribute to the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere. When you add the exaggerated sound of a dripping tap and Barrett’s enormous shadow looming from the upper floors, The Servant would have made a great horror movie.

Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, The Servant (1963)

These days you’ll find more polyglot nannies in Chelsea than bowler-hatted Barretts, but this dissection of the shifting balance of power between callow master and wily servant remains fascinating. Dirk Bogarde dominates proceedings, of course, even when he’s offscreen. But it’s a measure of his greatness that he doesn’t completely overshadow the contributions of James Fox, Sarah Miles or Wendy Craig. The homoerotic subtext of the Tony/Barrett relationship has been much discussed, but there are only glimpses of camp when they squabble over domestic arrangements. The enduring power of this film lies in the fact that Barrett and his seductive “sister” Vera (played by Sarah Miles) remain unreadable and unknowable.

Far from being a sterile exercise in art house film-making, The Servant delights in sly humour – from the lingering shot of Thomas Crapper’s sanitary ware emporium, to an absurd conversation about ponchos and capes. Made four years later, Accident also has its lighter moments, as Losey and Pinter examine hypocrisy and infidelity amongst a group of middle-class academics.

Accident was adapted by Pinter from the novel by Nicholas Mosley, and visually it is the antithesis of the earlier film. We’ve moved from austere, wintry west London to the glories of an Oxford summer – punting, cricket, tennis and Sunday lunches that last all day. Bogarde and Stanley Baker play a pair of middle-aged dons who share a mutual interest in a beautiful but vacuous Austrian student (played by the very French Jacqueline Sassard). Her other suitor William (Michael York), supplies the doomed upper-class element in a story that begins with a fatal car crash and then shows the betrayals that led up to it.

Dirk Bogarde, Jacqueline Sassard, Accident (1967)

Accident is a dazzling and seductive piece of film-making that gives Bogarde another excellent role as the conflicted Philosophy tutor, Stephen. Married with two kids and another on the way, he appears simultaneously entrenched in and detached from his world of privilege and beauty. He’s also frustratingly passive in the face of boorish behaviour by Baker’s character, Charley. There’s something theatrical about a film that locates many of its key moments – a birth, a violent death, illicit sex – offscreen. Like Stephen, the viewer is never quite in the right place at the right time, leaving many questions unanswered.

Unlike conventional romantic dramas, Accident doesn’t move towards an emotionally satisfying resolution to the web of tangled relationships. Sequences like Stephen’s meeting with old flame Francesca (Delphine Seyrig) don’t unfold in the way you might expect. So instead of a conventional montage, scored with appropriate mood music, we get pictures and dialogue that are jarringly out of sync. Even more startling is a conversation between Stephen and his wife Rosalind (played by Pinter’s wife Vivien Merchant) that takes place at the end of a long garden. When the reverse shot suddenly reveals that they’re also sitting right next to a river, it’s as though we’ve just cut to a completely different day and location.

Dirk Bogarde is far too cerebral to rank with mainstream 60s cultural icons like The Beatles, James Bond and Michael Caine. But the two emotionally complex films he made with Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter prove that style and substance weren’t mutually exclusive in that “swinging” decade.

A digitally restored print of The Servant was shown as part of the 27th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.

End of Watch

Michael Peña, Jake Gyllenhaal, End of Watch

“Once upon a time in South Central . . .” Opening with police sirens, screeching tyres and the first of innumerable F-words, the aural landscape of David Ayer’s End of Watch seems very familiar. This LA-set police drama is not a radical reworking of the genre, but it does provide some new angles on a career in law enforcement. That’s partly because the “found footage” style of camera work allows the audience to walk (and run) in the footsteps of two very likeable LAPD officers.

Officer Brian Taylor (a shaven-headed, bulked-up Jake Gyllenhaal) and his Mexican-American partner Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) work out of Newton Division. Brian is studying film-making (as part of a Pre-Law course), so he’s constantly recording and commentating both during and after their shifts. Inside the patrol car it’s all banter and male bonding, as these buddies riff about their women – “Dude are you gonna hook up with a Mexican girl?” – and their aspirations. Outside, they save two kids from their crack-addicted parents, tackle a huge blaze and get into an impromptu fight with the angry “Mr Tre”.

For about half an hour, End of Watch reminded me of TV’s Southland, with its hand-held filming, dry humour and emphasis on routine crimes. But there is more going on here than ride-alongs and Brian’s budding romance with the perky Janet (played by Anna Kendrick). The opening scene shows our gung-ho heroes in a high-speed pursuit that ends with two men dead. That same fearless approach informs their later discovery of a house of horrors that is linked to drugs, people trafficking and a Mexican cartel. Warned that there is a hit out on them, a smiling Brian points out that everyone wants to kill them. Soon complacency gives way to panic in the bravura, all-guns-blazing, blood-soaked climax.

 Michael Peña, Jake Gyllenhaal, End of Watch

Writer-director Ayer’s previous films include Training Day, Dark Blue and Street Kings, so he’s certainly on familiar ground with the LAPD. The actors had several months of preparation for their roles and it has paid off – the Taylor-Zavala partnership is the linchpin of the movie. The softly spoken Gyllenhaal brings more self-confidence and physical presence than you might expect to his part as an ambitious young officer. Equally watchable is Peña, who wrings every ounce of humour out of Ayer’s droll script. David Harbour relishes his lines as veteran cop Van Hauser, the duo’s main antagonist: “Bad guys attack from the front. Department comes in from the rear.”

After Brian’s opening voice-over – “I am fate with a badge and gun” – I was worried that there would be excessive mythologizing of the LAPD here. Ayer’s film is certainly a long way from the LA of The Shield, where corruption and brutality are the only effective way to tackle crime. But I found it refreshing to have two heroes who aren’t weighed down by cynicism and tormented by inner demons.

With strong performances, a sharp script and some full-on action sequences, End of Watch is an entertaining ride. Its weak point is a narrow focus that never gives us much background on the cartel or its impact on the community. This is about the survival of two cops, rather than an examination of organised crime or the shifting demographics of 21st-century LA. So the local Mexican “enforcers” who eventually come after Taylor and Zavala prove to be annoying, incompetent and foul-mouthed, to the point where I wanted to mute them. The incessant use of the same expletive may be realistic, but it doesn’t make for compelling viewing.

End of Watch