Another cautionary tale

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Last Friday I found myself in Leeds city centre with several hours to fill. I wanted to participate in a Palestinian Solidarity Group demonstration for the 67th anniversary of the ‘nakba’: which did not start to 5 p.m. I have to say that there was not a great selection of films available last week. The Vue in the Leeds Light was screening Mad Max: Fury Road, just released. The Guardian review awarded it four stars, though I also noted that it suggested that the film had a very loud soundtrack. So I took the precaution of purchasing a set of ear plugs: a wise precaution as it turned out.

At the Vue I found myself just behind five people in the queue. However, they had to buy any food at the same time as their tickets. So by the time I reached the ticket position there were now about two dozen people in the queue behind me. The ticket cost me £1.50p more than usual. When I queried this I was told that it was ‘dynamic marketing’. When asked what that meant I was told that this was because it was a popular film: we ended up with about forty punters in the auditorium!

Since it is not possible to determine exactly how long the adverts and trailers run there I caught some of the former. They were as naff as usual. They also included ‘cineme’; which encourages audience members to use their mobile phones and tablets to answer quiz questions. However, there was no subsequent warning to switch them off again. The trailers included two for a forthcoming release, San Andreas. The title suggests the plot-line: I am surprised that it has taken so long since the advent of CGI and 3D to get round to this treatment. When the feature started, in 2.39:1, there was no appropriate masking though the Vue does have masking equipment which used to operate.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia, 2015) is essentially an action movie using some of the characters and tropes from the original. There are some impressive sequences and settings: some of the CGI is impressive, but some is rather obvious. The film lacks the sort of devil-may-care charisma of Mel Gibson: Tom Hardy as Max looks more like a James Bond hero. Charlize Theron is as good as the script allows as the wonderfully named Imperator Furiosa. The other characters reminded me of a trailer I saw for Game of Thrones (and similar fantasy series). The film also lacks the intentional humour of the original. I laughed a lot, the rest of the audience less so but still occasionally.

As I left the multiplex I sought out the price list, not exactly in an obvious position. Apparently I was correctly charged. I then had a pot of tea and read the whole Guardian review. I never quite worked out why Peter Bradshaw had awarded it four stars. His headline read:

The legendary Aussie-post apocalyptic road warrior rides again – as extravagantly deranged as ever …

Sort of true, though I would query the ‘as ever …’. This is a ‘post-modern’ version. To paraphrase Claude Rains in Lawrence of Arabia

I wished I had stayed with the original.

 

Get On Up (US 2014)

Chadwick Boseman as James Brown early in his career

Chadwick Boseman as James Brown early in his career

I don’t really understand why biopics – and especially music biopics – get such a rough ride from reviewers. Get On Up was the latest offering from my local Film Club and I went along because I actually like biopics and because I like to support African-American cinema. The only thing I could remember about the film’s November 2014 release in the UK was that it was a wide release which didn’t get much support at the box office. I suspect that the poor response was associated with a general lack of interest in African-American culture in the UK. Although major stars such as Denzel Washington or Will Smith are well supported this tends to be only when they feature in mainstream white films.

Get On Up, as the title suggests, is a biopic focusing on James Brown, an artist of supreme importance in the history of Black music but possibly not well known to an audience under 40. Brown had a complicated life and his music developed in complex ways over his life. This long film (139 mins) gives a fair overview using a slightly unconventional approach but is forced to make compromises, thus missing out or only briefly touching on aspects of the star’s life.

The highlight of the film is undoubtedly the astonishing performance of Chadwick Boseman as the adult James Brown. It’s one of those ‘impersonation’ performances and the film should have won awards for the hair stylists. Boseman does sing in the film but mainly mimes to live recordings by Brown. He certainly manages to perform convincing moves on stage (convincing to me with only limited memories of James Brown) despite being much taller. Boseman earlier played baseball star Jackie Robinson in 42 (US 2013).

The slightly unconventional approach involves a non-linear narrative in which the action moves between past and ‘present’ in what sometimes seem random ways. Added to this Boseman/Brown occasionally approaches the camera and addresses the viewer. I think that sometimes these switches of time are connected to Brown’s motivations in connecting his disturbed childhood with issues that arise in his career. Overall, the narrative structure appears to be built out of short groups of scenes (sometimes signalled by titles associated with songs or names given to Brown such as ‘Godfather of Soul’ – with an accompanying date and location). The overall effect is a bit more like a music documentary structure than a conventional drama. I suspect that there are more ‘performances’ than usual even in a music biopic.

At this point I should say that I do like James Brown’s music and the film did remind me of what an important figure he was (I recognised most of the songs). I enjoyed the moments when there was discussion of the music itself – how it was changing – but these were too few and too short. My other concern was about the history of James Brown’s relationship with African-American culture. Again there were some interesting sequences, including a surreal appearance on a Frankie Avalon Christmas Show when a relatively young James Brown and the Famous Flames, dressed in Andy Williams style cardigans, are cavorting for a completely white TV studio audience. There are a handful of similar sequences in which Brown’s ‘blackness’ and his social role come to the fore but not as much as I had hoped for and expected. It was only later that I learned that the screenplay was written by the British Butterworth brothers, Jez and John-Henry and that the Rolling Stones (who are featured in a 1964 show) were Executive Producers (Mick Jagger has a producer credit). The film was directed by Tate Taylor, best known for The Help (2011) and two of the stars of that film, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, appear as Brown’s mother and aunt respectively. At some point I think Spike Lee was attached to the project and it would be interesting to find out how he might have approached the film differently.

I think that this film is most likely to be compared to Ray (US 2004), a much more commercially successful film that also won more critical plaudits. I suspect that Ray’s music – which had more crossover appeal – might have been a factor and the inclusion of more obviously dramatic sequences. I think though that two films directed by African-American women (rather than white men) are also worth considering. One is Cadillac Records (US 2008) about the Chess record company and its roster of blues and soul stars and directed by Darnell Martin. The other is Talk to Me (US 2007), a biopic of a radio DJ (Don Cheadle) wonderfully directed by Kasi Lemmons. There is a parallel scene in Talk to Me and Get on Up, focusing on the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination.  The smart move would have been to recruit Lemmons, a vastly underrated director, to helm the male music biopics.

Despite my quibbles I enjoyed Get on Up and I should mention a good supporting turn by Dan Aykroyd as Brown’s manager Ben Bart. Here’s a short trailer:

The French Connection (US 1971)

Gene Hackman as 'Popeye' Doyle in The French Connection

Gene Hackman as ‘Popeye’ Doyle in The French Connection

The French Connection is the next ‘classic matinee’ screening at HOME in Manchester (next Sunday at 12.00 and Wednesday at 13.30). The logic behind this presentation (and French Connection II a fortnight later) derives from the upcoming UK release of The Connection (France-Belgium 2014) based on the same ‘true crime’ story of major drug dealing in 1960s Marseilles as part of the movement of heroin to North America from Turkey. This 1971 feature deals with the successful seizure led by two NY narcotics cops of a large consignment of drugs smuggled into New York by a French criminal gang. It is based on a non-fiction account of the true crime with names and characters changed in Ernest Tidyman’s script.

The Movie Brats

I would suggest that there are three reasons why the The French Connection is an important film, deserving its ‘classic status’. First it is one of the most successful films produced by the so-called ‘Movie Brats’ in the early 1970s – commercially popular with audiences and critically lauded, winning five of the most important Oscars in 1972. Friedkin wasn’t named in the core group of Movie Brats and he didn’t have the film school training but like many of the younger directors in the 1950s he had entered the business as a young man and worked his way up through TV before moving into cinema films in the late 1960s when he was in his early thirties. This made him one of the older Brats alongside Francis Ford Coppola and I think the only other film by him that I’ve seen was his British picture, an adaptation of Pinter’s The Birthday Party in 1969. He matched Coppola’s success with The Godfather films and The Conversation with this film and then The Exorcist in 1973. But, like Coppola, he suffered from the failure of his next couple of films, including Sorcerer, his remake of the classic Clouzot film The Wages of Fear. (Sorcerer came out in 1977 just after Star Wars and while Coppola was still working on Apocalypse Now.) The importance of the early films from the Movie Brats is that they formed part of the wider phenomenon of the ‘New Hollywood’ – the period between roughly 1965 and 1977 when the studios were losing power and new, younger directors were able to make more challenging films. In this sense two features of The French Connection stand out – its anti-hero, the thuggish but determined and focused narcotics cop ‘Popeye Doyle’, and the ‘street realism’ of the main setting in Brooklyn. These point to the second reason for the film’s importance.

Realism

There are several aspects of this move towards more realistic crime stories. It’s hard to imagine a character actor such as Gene Hackman playing the lead in a mainstream genre picture during the 1960s. When he won the Best Actor Oscar for this role Hackman was 42 years old. Yes, he’d twice been nominated as a Supporting Actor, (first in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967) but this was his first recognised ‘leading man’ success. What was also unusual about The French Connection‘s Oscar success was that it was classified as an ‘X’ in the UK (now ’18’). I’m not sure of the precise reasons for the classification in 1971 but watching the film now what is most shocking is the level of casual racism and sexism in the police force. I don’t think there are any significant speaking roles for women in the film. They are treated purely as appendages. Mainstream crime films had previously at least included girlfriends, wives, mothers – or the femme fatale – as speaking parts.

But if gender representations were skewed in this way, the streets of Brooklyn were shown in a style much closer to documentary authenticity. Not that this was necessarily the innovation that it has sometimes been claimed to be. In the late 1940s two producers in particular, Mark Hellinger and Louis de Rochemont began to make films ‘on the streets’. This seems to have independently of similar developments in Italy and the UK. One of the best films of this type was Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) which in turn inspired a legendary UK TV series in the 1950s. To get a sense of how different these films are to the ‘staged’ use of locations in Hitchcock’s films of the 1950s. The highlight of Friedkin’s film is, of course, the car chase under the elevated metro train which seems all too real. The attempt by an assassin to escape by metro is used in several French films and it is the ‘French connection’ which offers the third reason for the importance of Friedkin’s film.

France and America – partners in organised crime

The close relationship between Hollywood and French crime films is something explored in several posts on this blog. Hollywood even sometimes uses the French terms noir and policier – though not the uniquely French term polar to describe crime films more generally. Sometimes it seems like one-way traffic. French directors adapt American pulp crime novels or like Jean-Pierre Melville they pay hommage to American culture in different ways. A more recent example was the French adaptation of Harlan Coblen’s Tell No One (France 2006) French directors have also gone to the US to make their films (see the recent Blood Ties (US-France 2013). The French Connection actually begins with a short sequence in Marseilles in which we meet Fernando Rey as the local gang boss setting up the shipment to the US. Friedkin chooses to allow the French characters to actually speak French which  is refreshing (though Rey’s Spanish-accented French had to be dubbed). French Connection II takes the story back to France since some of the gang escape.

Here’s Friedkin discussing shooting the film in ‘induced documentary’ style:

New posts on Global Film

Just a reminder for subscribers. Reviews of interesting films, mainly from outside the US/UK and Western Europe, are also to be found on our sister site at globalfilmstudies.com

Recent posts include:

Jauja (Argentina-Denmark 2014)

Stones for the Rampart (Poland 2014)

The Salvation (Denmark/UK/South Africa 2014)

OK Kanmani (India 2015, Tamil)