Category: Hollywood

Some Like It Hot (US 1959)

Curtis, Monroe and Lemmon in a promo still (from: http://prettycleverfilms.com/movie-lists/10-things-about-some-like-it-hot)

Curtis, Monroe and Lemmon in a promo still (from: http://prettycleverfilms.com/movie-lists/10-things-about-some-like-it-hot)

This Park Circus re-release is currently showing at BFI Southbank. My younger viewing companion said she enjoyed the film and was glad to have been able to see Monroe on the big screen. At the end of the film a sizeable chunk of the audience applauded.

I have seen the film at least twice before but I followed it quite happily. I came to a number of conclusions. Monroe is remarkable. How much the camera loves her – and she responds (even though it is now suggested that she was a nightmare to work with). It occurs to me that Monroe, possibly alongside Paul Newman, was the last of the Golden Age mega stars to emerge and make a significant group of films in the dying studio system. On the other hand, good though her performances on screen turned out to be (whatever pain and blood she generated for directors), Monroe’s star persona also depended on her early pin-up work and later celebrity ‘appearances’. She put as much into the ‘secondary circulation’ of her star image as some of the later ‘celebrity stars’. Those Eve Arnold photos are also important.

But actually, the real stars of the film are Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. I can’t split them, though I think that Curtis has sometimes been under-rated as an actor. His early career included a lot of studio fluff alongside the real deal in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and The Defiant Ones (1958). By contrast Jack Lemmon had a critical success in 1955 with Mr Roberts and sustained a remarkable career for the next forty years. Lemmon appeared many times for Billy Wilder and developed a reputation for working well with his leading ladies, starting with Judy Holliday in It Should Happen to You in 1954. Lemmon was a consummate comic actor and he and Curtis perform as if they had always been a double act.

The script by I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder is the other star ingredient. I was intrigued to discover that Wilder was ‘inspired’ (and presumably borrowed quite a lot from a German cross-dressing comedy – see the plot summary for Fanfaren der Liebe (West Germany 1951). This reminds me of the later Hollywood remake of a German film from the 1920s that was also made in French and remade in the UK in 1935 and then became Victor Victoria as directed by Blake Edwards in 1982. Clearly cross-dressing has universal appeal. Wilder’s treatment of sex and violence was radical for Hollywood at the time. The sex tends to mirror Monroe’s approach, earthy and sensual, but somehow childlike and innocent at the same time. The violence is more interesting in the sense that Wilder doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed in the St Valentine’s Day massacre scene. Wilder was also ahead of the game in his approach to the intertextual. He deliberately re-created the Warner Bros look from The Roaring Twenties (Warners 1939) and cast the iconic figures of George Raft and Pat O’Brien who played the gangster and cop in various Warners films. James Cagney versus O’Brien would have been even more ‘authentic’ but Cagney would have changed the tone of the film I think. Mike Mazurki is a reference to the slightly later era of the film noir/’hardboiled’ stories of the 1940s such as Farewell My Lovely. I don’t think the script is perfect. For instance, much of the potential for comic business around the workings of the all-female band led by ‘Sweet Sue’ is simply thrown away in the last third as the narrative focuses resolutely on the two ‘romances’. Still the dialogue is so witty and the pace unrelenting so that there is no time to think about the plot and its potential holes.

I hope the film does well on this re-release and encourages more comedies from this era. Some of Jack Lemmon’s other work needs to be seen again and some more Monroes are always welcome.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (US 2014)

A still showing the extraordinary detail in the faces of the apes.

A still showing the extraordinary detail in the faces of the apes.

My second Summer blockbuster found me in a large London multiplex screen, virtually full with a second evening house audience – the early evening show was full as well. I usually sit on the front row of the main part of the stadium seating with the four rows of non-raked seats empty. With every seat taken it was a very different experience. The audience was young (15-45?) and I see now why it isn’t surprising that London takes a disproportionately large slice of the English film audience.

I mention the audience because my attention wandered in this 130 minutes slog and I noticed people coming and going in the screening and the annoying use of a phone part way through. Apart from Omar, everyone in the critical fraternity seems to have liked this film but while it had some good points I wasn’t totally convinced. I should point out that I don’t remember seeing any of the previous ‘Apes’ films and I definitely didn’t see the immediate predecessor – so I’m not going to comment on the various prequels and sequels and re-boots. I’ll only note that the films all derive in some way from the French science fiction novel by Pierre Boulle. The ‘global’ flavour of this current film is down to the cast with nearly all of the leads from the UK and Australia. Why? I don’t know.

As I watched the film four debates/issues became apparent. The first was about technologies. The apes, here represented via ‘motion capture technologies’ and CGI, are convincing. These apes are recognisable as the other hominoid species (along with humans): chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and a single orangutan. This aspect of the film contributed to the plausibility of the general scenario – although I have no idea how apes would sound producing human-type ‘speech’. When one of the apes deliberately behaves in a way to make the humans think that he is still ‘primitive’ (rather than ‘developed’ by genetic experiment) this seemed a nice comment on the transformation. The aspect of the cinema technology which annoyed me was the lack of masking on the screen. The film was presented in 1.85: 1 but the screen itself was 2.35:1 and the blank strips at either side showed grey in the cinema. (Someone once corrected me saying that nobody noticed these things: well I do and it distracted me in several scenes.)

The trio in the centre are the surrogate family unit who will attempt to work with the apes.

The trio in the centre is the surrogate family unit who will attempt to work with the apes.

The second issue is about casting in blockbusters. It’s usually the case now that an effects-heavy film is able to dispense with A List stars. Alternatively, if the character is very well-known (i.e. Superman or other comic-book heroes) a young ‘up and coming’ star might be most suitable. Thus in this franchise film we have one genuine star in Gary Oldman as a secondary (but important) character while the key human characters are rather amorphous. By this I mean that the actors (Jason Clarke and Keri Russell) while perfectly competent are not distinctive. I didn’t recognise them but thought they looked familiar in a generic way. Certainly they are not distinctive in the manner of Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, two British actors, each with a strong presence but not visible behind the CGI as the two leading ape characters. Does any of this matter? I think it does in that the narrative matches the ape family of ‘Caesar’ (Serkis) with the putative family group of Clarke, Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee (she has lost her partner and daughter but teams up with the father-son duo). Kebbell’s ape character Koba is matched (less clearly) with Oldman’s. I know Hollywood is obsessed with father-son relationships, but even putting aside the marginal female role issue, the narrative would have been more interesting with Oldman as the single man trying to get close to the apes.

Issue 3 is about the overall approach to a generic ‘post-apocalypse’ narrative. I was reminded of the Spanish film I saw earlier this year, Los últimos días (2013),  with a similar premise in the aftermath of an epidemic wiping out the bulk of the human population. So we get the city festooned with creepers, trees growing in the roadways etc. and the seemingly inevitable chase down the tracks of the underground railway. In an American film there are always going to be not just weapons for survivalists but entire arsenals of weapons. My feeling was that, consciously or not, the film felt like one of those early 1970s SF films such as Soylent Green (1973) or indeed the original Apes franchise which started in 1968 and ran through into the 1970s. Like those films, this one had its serious underpinning with subtitles for much of the ape sign language. However, that seriousness began to disappear before we got to the predictable (and for me tedious) final action sequences.

And so to the film’s ideology. This isn’t clear to me. At first I thought that the film was going to be clearly pro-apist and sceptical about the humans. I was just naïve. I was disappointed with the sentimental stuff about fathers and sons and the music throughout was dreadful, signalling everything quite crudely. The film lost it for me in a short sequence where Koba seems to have taken over from Caesar and suddenly he was presented as a terrorist/dictator figure. At this point, one shot seemed to sum up the message by showing apes swarming across the ruined city with a tattered stars and stripes pointing down on a broken flagpole. Koba suddenly became the kind of leader that the US likes to defeat in the name of ‘freedom’. Note that his actions have been motivated by hate that the humans forced onto him. I won’t spoil what finally happens for those who haven’t yet seen the film, but overall I thought the ideology of this science fiction film was regressive. I thought it might have conjured up some of the adult satire of the best SF in the struggle between species but I think in the end it is just another Summer kids’ film about good guys and bad guys.

This YouTube video shows some of the remarkable motion capture transformations:

Godzilla (US 2014)

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There are already millions of words out there on the latest Godzilla so I’ll try to say something different about the film. This will I imagine be the only Hollywood blockbuster I’ll watch this year so I’m not going to pass judgement as such. I note that the film has divided audiences and critics alike. If I ‘read’ the overall reaction, the feeling is that the monsters are pretty good and generally better than the human cast. The film is criticised by some for too much story and too little action. I enjoyed the film up to around the three-quarter point but then I thought it lost its way.

My interest in the film is of course because this is essentially a Japanese franchise now receiving a second Hollywood reboot. We’ve had the German director’s version from Roland Emmerich and now we get Gareth Edwards as the British helmsman, but with an American story and script from two writers neither of whom have much of a profile on IMDB that might give a clue as to where the new story originates. I was impressed by Edwards’ low budget Monsters (UK 2010) so I was intrigued to see how he would handle a high-budget production. From what I’ve read, Edwards is a genuine Gojira (the original Japanese title) fan and it’s tempting to think that his authorial stamp appears across the film. I think it does in terms of Godzilla and the scenes of destruction but the human story elements seen in Monsters seem to have been lost.

Elizabeth Olsen is one of several actors whose roles are limited by the script

Elizabeth Olsen is one of several actors whose roles are limited by the script

Since this is listed as a US-Japan production, I expected more of a Japanese input into the story. This seemed to be there in the first third but was lost once the US military became involved. Ken Watanabe’s performance in the equivalent role to Shimura Takeshi in the original is largely wasted. Watanabe has appeared in several Hollywood films in order to entice Japanese audiences but in this case I suspect that the monster Godzilla is the main attraction and the script registers his presence in only a perfunctory manner once the back story has been delivered. Similarly, Juliette Binoche appears on screen for only a few minutes and a fine actor like Sally Hawkins is also wasted. Never having seen Breaking Bad I didn’t know what to expect from Bryan Cranston but he too disappears after the opening scenes. Too much of the film depends on Aaron Johnson-Taylor, now beefed up from the young British actor who played John Lennon in Nowhere Boy (UK 2009) with some panache. I haven’t been impressed by his subsequent performances in films like Albert Nobbs (2011) or Anna Karenina (2012) which seemed rather ‘one-note’. Here he is action hero – although much of the time he is actually the ‘human witness’ of Godzilla’s actions. I didn’t recognise him and he could have been one of several young American actors. Gareth Edwards has professed his admiration for early Spielberg films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws which do have their ‘human stories’ set against alien encounters and monsters from the deep. It’s possible to see that this could have been developed in Godzilla but again the opportunity has not been taken. Elizabeth Olsen as Taylor-Johnson’s wife is another under-used character.

A nice JAWS reference when the little girl sees the dead fish on the beach – an omen for the arrival of a monster from the deep?

A nice JAWS reference when the little girl sees the dead fish on the beach – an omen for the arrival of a monster from the deep?

A visualisation of the theme of humanity vs. nature? The tidal wave caused by the monsters reaps havoc in Hawaii, a reminder of both the tsunami-nuclear reactor disaster in Japan and the fragility of coastal settlement in the Pacific rim?

A visualisation of the theme of humanity vs. nature? The tidal wave caused by the monsters reaps havoc in Hawaii, a reminder of both the tsunami-nuclear reactor disaster in Japan and the fragility of coastal settlement in the Pacific rim?

Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as the engineer and scientist rushing to the deck of a US Navy ship to see Godzilla

Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as the engineer and scientist rushing to the deck of a US Navy ship to see Godzilla

So, I’m left puzzling over the multi-national casting of the film – is it simply a blockbuster convention and a cynical attempt to appear global – or is it Edwards attempt to make the cast his own? I’m sure Edwards spent most of his time trying to visualise Godzilla for the CGI technicians and perhaps the human stories took second place. It is a quandary. Godzilla is certainly the star of the film and the principal character but in some ways he (she?) resembles King Kong and the whole question of anthropomorphism comes up. There were moments when I felt that I wanted some kind of eye contact between Godzilla and the principal human characters – or at least the feeling that the humans understood and cared for the creature. There is something of that but the story could have made Watanabe or Hawkins/Binoche into the main human witness. Less boy’s own action and more anthropomorphism perhaps? Two other observations support that wish. The other monsters in the film (that Godzilla fights) reminded me of the ending of Quatermass and the Pit (UK 1959) in which the scientist is the witness to the monster’s end and also the Alien films in which the Ripley character faces the Alien mother. I don’t know enough about the Godzilla franchise to know whether these are worthwhile observations but I am looking forward to what Edwards might do with a further Godzilla episode.

American Hustle (US 2013)

Amy Adams and Christian Bale. photo © Francois Duhamel/Sony Pictures

Amy Adams and Christian Bale. photo © Francois Duhamel/Sony Pictures

American Hustle is a mess of a film. It purports to tell a tale about a scam in which an FBI agent hopes to trap politicians engaged in corruption in 1978. I think the script and the mise en scène are both problematic and the shifting tone of the scenes means that it often isn’t clear what kind of film we are watching. If this is one of the American films of the year – or at least one that the Academy is considering for major honours – then the US industry is itself in a mess.

I should confess that in a sense I went to see the film more or less out of desperation. I calculate that there hasn’t been a single foreign language film on general release for the last three months around here and I wanted to go to the pictures! But I have enjoyed the David O. Russell films that I’ve watched before and I expected to enjoy this one. To pick out the good things, the music soundtrack is very enjoyable and there is a great cast – but unfortunately they are dressed like cartoon characters and required to behave similarly. I’m happy to go with obnoxious characters as required by the plot, but Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent in this film becomes so annoying that I just hoped someone would despatch him to get him off the screen. But the main problem is that the mixing of genres/approaches just isn’t thought through. (There has been some discussion about how much Russell required his actors to improvise on set.) Of course I realise that the film is essentially about a ‘scam’, or a ‘sting’ and that it is probably meant to be ‘playful’ in its tonal shifts. Perhaps the extended dialogue scenes that don’t seem to go anywhere are part of this playfulness? The film is based on a real FBI operation in 1978 and the audience is warned at the beginning by the statement “Some of this actually happened”. We don’t know which bits.

I suppose the real question here is about what the attempt to marry a comedy and a reconstruction of a controversial entrapment project means in terms of politics, aesthetics and simple entertainment. Like most audiences I enjoy a fictional heist or sting movie whether it is played straight or as a comedy but this seems the worst of all worlds – it’s not that funny, or intriguing in its plot shifts and its politics seem very confused. My main concern throughout the film was that Amy Adams was going to catch pneumonia with her chest open to the elements wherever she went. She’s far too good an actor to be treated in this way. Now I’m going to try to find Louis Malle’s Atlantic City to remind me of what New Jersey might have been like in the 1970s.