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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


We Have a Pope

The middle section of We Have a Pope appears to have been flattened by a massive dose of Mogadon.

We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam) gets off to colourful start, with the masses in Saint Peter’s Square feasting their eyes on a sea of red capes, white lace and ecclesiastical bling. In real life I’d probably be even less interested in the outcome of a papal conclave than a talent show presided over by creepy Simon Cowell. On paper, though, Nanni Moretti’s film promises swingeing satire and perhaps some searching questions about how the Roman Catholic Church chooses its leader. Unfortunately he’s bottled it – serving up a comedy so mild it should come with a Papal Seal of Approval.

Michel Piccoli stars as Cardinal Melville, chosen by his peers to be the new Pope after lengthy deliberations and much collective boredom. It turns out that no one really wanted the job (“Not me, Lord”), so Melville is just the poor schmuck who’s drawn the short straw. In a wonderfully anti-climactic moment he fails to appear on the balcony to greet the faithful, instead collapsing behind the scenes with a howl of anguish.

Moretti and his co-writers Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli give us a promising set-up with all the trimmings. Scenes of pageantry and media hype are effectively juxtaposed with the fragile and doubt-ridden mortals who comprise the College of Cardinals. One of them has a face so cadaverous it looks like the work of El Greco. In this unprecedented crisis, top psychoanalyst Brezzi (played by Moretti) is drafted in to counsel the anxiety-stricken Pope-elect. But he just ends up being sequestered along with all the Cardinals, while Melville sneaks off on an extended walkabout in the Eternal City.

During his distinguished career the 85-year-old Piccoli has gazed upon many of the heavenly bodies of French cinema – including Bardot, Deneuve and Béart. It’s a bit hard to reconcile that virile screen presence with the white-haired and rather frail figure we see playfully waving to the Swiss Guards. While Melville’s problems may be put down to parental deficit disorder, Piccoli is hampered by a far more straightforward case of a meandering script.

If you were hoping for skeletons in the papal closet, forget it. Apart from a few angry outbursts, punctuated by chats with his stressed-out spokesman (Jerzy Stuhr), what we get is a weary old man who once harboured dreams of being an actor. A consultation with Brezzi’s wife (also a shrink) yields a couple of gags but doesn’t go anywhere. Our runaway Pontiff needed something more solid on which to anchor his anxieties than a local production of The Seagull.

A comedy so mild it should come with a Papal Seal of Approval.

Back at the Vatican, there’s a plump Swiss Guard gorging himself in the Pope’s suite, while Brezzi tries to keep the cardinals happy with a volleyball tournament and advice about their pharmaceutical intake. But it’s the middle section of this movie that appears to have been flattened by a massive dose of Mogadon. Moretti’s peculiarly Italian brand of neurosis can be fun – in moderation – but what we need is more of Stuhr’s enterprising spin-doctor and a genuine sense of tension.

We Have a Pope ticks all the right boxes in terms of lighting, set design and cinematography. The best scenes in the film show the lone figure of Melville crushed by the sheer opulence of his surroundings, the burden of history and the weight of expectation. The climactic scene in which the cardinals finally track down the escapee in a theatre is also well choreographed.

If the Catholic Church had hired Moretti to make a commercial he could hardly have done a better PR job – all those lovely costumes, genial characters and not a whiff of scandal. But you do wonder how the film-maker who lambasted Silvio Berlusconi in The Caiman (Il Caimano) could have gone so soft. Perhaps he had one eye on the hereafter.

(Review first published as part of Sound on Sight’s coverage of the BFI London Film Festival 2011.)


Shailene Woodley: the Ugly Truth?

Shailene_Woodley_2,_2011 (pic: Nick Step)

I have a confession to make. I’m not very excited about the forthcoming release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, directed by the not-so-amazing Marc Webb. It’s the follow-up to 2012′s The Amazing Spider-Man, which I also gave a wide berth. I know that leaves a big question mark hanging over my movie geek credentials, but I don’t care. At least I don’t spend my time hanging round message boards posting mean comments about young actresses like Shailene Woodley, who have the temerity to look like real women instead of fantasy figures.

I have Twitter to thank for alerting me to the furore surrounding the publication yesterday of some on-set pictures of Shailene Woodley, who’s been cast as Mary Jane Watson in the new Spidey flick. No sooner had the website Cinema Blend unveiled some shots of Woodley and her co-star Andrew Garfield, than the trolls took a dump over them – figuratively speaking. Woodley has had her hair dyed auburn to play M-J, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy the fanboys. “Looks horrible as a redhead,” was one of the kinder comments in a no-holds-barred discussion that reached its nadir with this exchange:

“Omg she looks horrible I hope they can do something with that face of hers” (Posted by anonymous troll “Dee”)

“Burn it with fire” (Posted by anonymous troll “balls”)

No doubt “Dee” and “balls” would justify their ignorant, vituperative nonsense as nothing more than friendly banter. But since Taliban victim Aesha Mohammadzai has also been in the news this week, jokes about facial disfigurement don’t really cut it with me any more.

We’re all so inured to anonymous strangers using message boards to denigrate women that no one thinks censorship or intervention is necessary.

Today Cinema Blend has posted a follow-up piece, declaring that those who criticised Woodley’s looks “don’t deserve the movie”. Apparently this wasn’t the only site where fans of the Spider-Man franchise vented their spleen about Woodley’s inadequacies or as Cinema Blend puts it, her “natural looks”. Underneath a semi-glamorous shot of the actress, Editor-in-Chief Katey Rich takes the trolls, misogynists and fanboys to task for failing to distinguish between comic-book fantasy and reality. She tries to redress the balance, by arguing that Woodley’s success in the role should be judged on the basis of her acting – not her looks. Sadly, the notion that an actress in a big-budget comic-book franchise wouldn’t be rated solely in terms of her appearance is pure fantasy.

Cinema Blend’s distaste for some of its readers would be more convincing if they’d taken down the offensive exchange, or moderated the comments, or offered some kind of riposte at the bottom of the original piece. But we’re all so inured to anonymous strangers using message boards to denigrate women that no one thinks censorship or intervention is necessary.

There are certain cinema franchises where the casting decisions attract more than the usual level of scrutiny, but is that any excuse for just being abusive? When Daniel Craig was first chosen to play James Bond in Casino Royale he wasn’t everyone’s idea of 007 heaven. I remember people complaining that he was too blonde, too rugged or just too ugly to play Ian Fleming’s super-smooth spy. Some of those doubters changed their minds after they clapped eyes on a dripping-wet Daniel emerging from the ocean in his tiny blue swimming trunks. Yes, male actors are also relentlessly objectified.

It’s lucky that Cinema Blend didn’t use the same (free) picture of Woodley that I’ve got at the top of this post. The star of The Descendants and The Secret Life of the American Teenager is a mature and intelligent performer, but she does not have perfect skin. I shudder to think what the die-hard comic-book lovers would have said about a Mary-Jane with spots instead of a D-cup.


Hidden Depths: Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone

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Director Jacques Audiard describes Rust and Bone, his widely acclaimed follow-up to A Prophet, as a “gritty melodrama”. I wonder whether something got lost in translation. On paper, there is plenty here that would excite the likes of Pedro Almodóvar and Alejandro González Iñárritu – bloody street fights, graphic sex scenes and a beautiful woman maimed by a killer whale. Yet Audiard’s low-key direction and refusal to choose gloss over substance ensure this unflinching drama never strays into soap-opera territory.

Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) travels from Belgium to Antibes with his five-year-old son Sam (the appealing Armand Verdure) to stay with his sister. Anna (Corinne Masiero) takes an interest in her vulnerable nephew, though that hardly makes up for Ali’s erratic parenting skills. A former boxer and kickboxer, the burly single dad veers between neglect (regularly forgetting to pick Sam up from school) and physical cruelty (shaking the terrified child when he’s disobedient). He’s well qualified for his new job as a nightclub bouncer, where he comes to the aid of Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard). She’s just been hit in the face during a brawl, and Ali stuns her with another clumsy (verbal) blow: “You’re dressed like a whore.”  It’s hardly an auspicious start.

Tellingly, our first glimpse of Steph is her bare legs sprawled on the nightclub floor. She loses the bottom half of those limbs following an accident at Marineland, where she revels in her job as a whale trainer. Like the orca pool, disability can be dangerous cinematic territory, but Audiard spares us the full horror of the incident and its aftermath. So Rust and Bone finds beauty – even serenity – as the camera delves beneath the surface to show wreckage, a drifting body and a cloud of blood.

That same narrative restraint extends into Steph’s painful rehabilitation and growing dependence on Ali as a friend, supporter and part-time lover. The scenes in which Steph takes her first post-amputation swim and later removes her artificial legs to have sex with Ali, could have been sentimental, prurient or just plain weird. Audiard pulls them off with minimal dialogue and a reliance on Schoenaerts and Cotillard to find the emotional truth without embarrassment.

Though it doesn’t start out as a cerebral or deeply romantic relationship, Ali and Steph seem to understand that each needs their physical outlet in order to survive. Her self-image has been constructed around her need to be watched – both by her lovers and in the performance of her job.  As she embraces one of her beloved orcas from the “safe” side of the tank, you can almost see the internal healing process. Similarly, Ali rejoices in the pain as well as the payouts that go with his masochistic sideline in street fighting.  

Shorn of its usual cinematic glamour, the Côte d’Azur is shown here as just another recession-hit backwater – albeit with better beaches. Audiard and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine have a fondness for point of view shots, huge close-ups and camera angles that are sometimes perverse. So Ali’s first glimpse of the coastline at Antibes isn’t a breath-taking vision of blue ocean but a quick skim across the horizon from just over his right shoulder. A little later, he wakes from nap on the beach and the foreground of the frame is entirely filled by Steph’s giant nipples. Subtle it isn’t. But there are beautiful images here too, including the symphony of glossy black skin and foam as the whales go through the diving routine that precedes the accident.

Ali’s involvement in illegal surveillance seems like an unnecessary subplot here, put in purely to engineer a massive bust-up with his sister. They could have just fallen out over his treatment of Sam. But this is a minor fault in a film that knows exactly where it’s going from the moment Ali and Steph first meet, yet still keeps you wondering whether it will deliver the big emotional pay-off.

Marion Cotillard already has an Oscar for the baffling and convoluted La Vie en Rose, but I found her performance here far more impressive and affecting. When Steph loses her legs she is literally cast adrift – professionally and personally – and it’s fascinating to watch Cotillard rebuild this woman from the ground up. As her unlikely saviour, Matthias Schoenaerts gives us a man of many contradictions whose heart finally proves to be as reliable as his fists.

Rust and Bone


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