New York New York (1977, Martin Scorsese)

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No idea why I avoided seeing New York New York. A musical paying homage to the Golden Age of cinema sounds like something I’d really like but somehow I just never got around to it until now.

Synopsis:

VJ Day celebrations, New York, 1945. Despite her reservations Francine (Liza Minelli) spends the night with obnoxious jerk Jimmy Doyle ( Robert De Niro). Both turn out to be musicians. She’s a big band singer, he plays the saxophone. For reasons even Francine does not seem to understand she begins a long term relationship with this joker. Their destructive romance contrasts with the success their musical partnership brings them professionally.ny2I sat down to watch New York New York with with high expectations because I tend to prefer Scorsese’s more atypical movies than the gritty violent dramas people consider his default setting. I’ll take After Hours (1985) or The Age of Innocence (1993) over Goodfellas (90) any day of the week. New York New York a fine film beautifully shot by László Kovács and fuelled by nostalgia for the classic musicals of the 40s’ and 50s’. Boris Levan’s set design perfectly recreates the artificiality of studio built sets, which were meant to look better than real life ever could. The excellent musical numbers are a mixture of jazz standards and new tracks by John Kander and Fred Ebb, writers of the stage-play Cabaret. I wish I could really love it, but there’s just one problem.

This guy.Ny4De Niro gets a lot of stick for his career choices over the last twenty years but this is by far his worst performance because it diminishes an interesting film. For a practitioner of an acting style which supposedly encourages ‘authenticity’ De Niro is unbearably mannered here. Minnelli seems naturalistic in comparison and wears a barely concealed look of astonishment in every reaction shot to her co-star’s over-acting. The lack of chemistry between them is obvious from their first meeting during the VJ celebrations when Jimmy sits down uninvited at Francine’s table and pesters her for a date. These early scenes are meant to echo the first meeting between lovers in a screwball comedy who begin their courtship by hating each other but the attempt at witty repartee falls flat partly because De Niro is about as charming as cement.ny3Casting actors with two very different acting styles is deliberate. Minnelli is showbiz royalty, the daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, while De Niro honed his technique at the Actor’s Studio. This contrast between the magic of old Hollywood and the grittiness of Scorsese’s work is there in the story too. New York New York might stylistically recreate the crowd-pleasing escapism of the Hollywood musical but at the movie’s heart is a troubled volatile relationship and it’s as tough as anything Scorsese has made. While I’m ashamed of not having seen New York New York until now I don’t feel as guilty as DeNiro should for gurning his way through it.

Cleopatra (1934, Cecil B. DeMille)

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I am not that familiar with Cecil B. DeMille’s output apart from his Chuck Heston movies The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and The Ten Commandments (56), which I can remember watching on television as a kid some Sunday afternoon years ago. I’ve always regarded DeMille as being a pious old bore but it seems I misjudged him. Cleopatra is hugely entertaining. A mixture of grand spectacle and Hollywood melodrama. Despite the historical setting Cleopatra feels modernistic in tone. Claudette Colbert’s smart and sexually confident Cleopatra is a fast-talking dame who wouldn’t seem out of place downing cocktails in a speakeasy. Instead of faux Shakespearian dialogue Colbert engages in the kind of repartee she would swap with her leading men in films like It Happened One Night (34, Frank Capra).

This may seem incongruous to anybody who expecting a historically accurate period piece but DeMille is more interested in entertainment. Like the Liz Taylor Joseph L. Mankiewicz 64’ version it’s about visually stunning set-pieces and the allure of beautiful movie stars. It does however manage to get beyond the myth of Cleopatra as a gold digging man-eater and sympathetically presents the lack of choices available to her in the face of Roman expansionism.

2015-08-31 18.31.53The film begins in 48 BC with Cleopatra’s exile. Fearing she will cause problems at a peace treaty with the Romans, the Prime Minister of Egypt has Cleopatra abducted and left to die in the desert. Julius Caesar (Warren William) agrees terms for her younger brother Ptolemy to become King of Egypt albeit under Rome’s rule. That is until a scantily clad Cleopatra is snuck back into Alexandria and delivered to him in a rolled up carpet. Though she tries to seduce the ageing Caesar it is by offering Egypt as a route towards India that wins him over rather than her womanly charms. It’s more of a business relationship. They both see the mutual benefits in her being Queen of Egypt and an ally of Rome.

Cleopatra and Caesar travel to Rome as a sort of Ancient World celebrity power couple but the Romans are suspicious of her motives and turn against them.  After Caesar’s murder she seduces one of his killers Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) as a means of defending her country but rather than being a pragmatic alliance this time it’s a wild ruinous affair. Wilcoxon is remarkable. Not for his acting talents which are limited but for his machismo. This guy is one of the manliest men ever to grace the screen. He makes Franco Nero look about as tough as Charles Hawtrey.

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From here the film moves from a lavish costume drama to romantic tragedy as their hedonistic bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Caesar’s vengeful heir Octavian and his army. Demille throws everything and the kitchen sink into the second half of Cleopatra. There’s a massive battle sequence which is thrillingly orchestrated and surprisingly violent. Though the censorious Hays Code was in place Cleopatra was already in production meaning its ridiculous rules didn’t apply. During the battle there’s a close up of a spiked chariot wheel going through a soldiers leg. The very first image seen during the opening credits involve full frontal nudity, albeit discreetly filmed. There are plenty of allusions to sex and one blatantly S&M sequence as a herd of women in leopard costumes are lightly whipped during a feast.

It makes you wonder what kind of movies DeMille would have been free to make if that wee ferret Will Hays and his supporters hadn’t put Hollywood on a leash. I will definitely be taking a closer look at DeMille’s filmography. It seems historical epics were his chosen genre. He followed up Cleopatra by casting macho man Henry Wilcoxon as King Richard the Lionheart in a movie about the Crusades and that’s now high on my must see list.

Pickpocket (1959, Robert Bresson)

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My excuse for having not seen this before is it felt like I had already. At university Pickpocket would come up a lot during film classes. Paul Schrader essentially remade it twice with American Gigolo (1980) and Light Sleeper (92), which are two of his best movies. Both deal with protagonists operating on the margins of affluent social structures. They are loners by nature limiting their interaction with other people to work. Somehow they think this gives them freedom but they have made the world they inhabit small. Nobody really cares about them except for one person and they realise too late they feel the same. Both films share an ending, which I know from the interviews Schrader has given and articles he’s written is lifted straight from Pickpocket so I was never really in any great hurry to see Bresson’s movie.

Having watched it now it’s very much as I thought it would be. Spare, understated, and thematically interested in ideas from the existentialist movement which were becoming increasingly common in French cinema at the time. “Ce film n’est pa du style policier,” says a disclaimer in the opening credits and what follows must have seemed groundbreaking at the time. Plot becomes incidental to character and theme. Its influence on the emerging French New Wave is clear and it reminds me a lot of Jean-Pierre Melville’s equally influential Bob le Flambeur (56) which broke with convention by filming on location and making the setting part of the story. Melville’s film is lighter in tone though. Its world-weary protagonist gives in to his obsession. Michel (played by Martin La Salle) in Pickpocket however is a bit of a wet blanket.

We first see him stealing money from a woman’s purse at a horseracing event. The police arrest him but do not have enough evidence to charge him. Michel gives the money to a pretty neighbour Jeanne (Marika Green) to give to his mother. Later we learn she’s the first person he stole from. The police keep an eye on Michel with one of the officers even strikes up an odd acquaintance. He is mentored by an older thief who shows him the trick of the trade. The money seems incidental. Michel lives quietly in a sparse apartment. He philosophises about whether he is a thief at all. The answer to that is a fairly obvious yes to anybody other than a French existentialist. Michel isn’t as fascinating as he thinks he is. Less of a defiant non-conformist than a waster, he shows all the signs of addiction, the compulsion to steal, the excitement in the moment before he gives into his desire.

Pickpocket seems very much the archetypal Bresson film with its protagonist trying to find some kind of grace in a harsh indifferent world. A recurring theme in his work. I can appreciate its importance and its influence but I like other films by this director more. The Trial of Joan of Arc (62) with its screenplay gleamed from the remaining transcripts of the actual trial, his odd moving deconstruction of Arthurian romance Lancelot du Lac (74), and his final movie L’ Argent (83) which updates a Tolstoy short story and follows the descent into criminality of a young man falsely accused of laundering money.

March 2015 – Downhill Racer (1969, Michael Ritchie)

Bit late with my March post but I finally saw Downhill Racer, the excellent feature debut of Michael Ritchie (1938-2001) and he followed it up with two equally impressive movies, the prescient political drama The Candidate (70) and the offbeat gangster versus rednecks thriller Prime Cut (72). I’d seen the latter two of those films but never Downhill Racer which is quite hard to come by in the UK so I had to import the Criterion release from the States which is no bad thing given how well they treat their releases. Ritchie has long become one of the forgotten men of American cinema which is a shame because his first three films seemed to promise more than the eclectic output which followed his early success. Like an athlete Ritchie did his best work as a young man.

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Sports dramas Bad News Bears (76) &  Semi Tough (77) are entertaining enough but not quite in the same league. It’s hard not to like a film as utterly deranged as The Island (80) with its tale of a long lost tribe of pirates abducting Michael Caine but it seriously damaged Ritchie’s reputation. I’m an 80s’ kid so I’ll always feel fondly towards The Golden Child (86) and the Fletch movies. Boxing movie Diggstown (92) is the closest Ritchie showed to recovering his early brilliance but instead his career petered out in the 90s’with the sentimental sports drama The Scout (94) and the unwatchable Martin Short comedy A Simple Wish (97).

Gene Hackman plays the coach of the struggling US skiing team forced to bring in a replacement (Redford) after one of his stars is badly injured. Despite his misgivings about his attitude. Back in the 60s’ the US team were considered outsiders so Downhill Racer would have felt more like an underdog story back then. It’s understated though with James Salter’s subtle screenplay more interested in the cost of winning than sporting heroics. It’s a fascinating character study of a driven, opaque, unreachable figure. Talented but set apart from other people by his dedication to his sport and his lack of understanding for other people, particularly the sophisticated European beauty (Camilla Sparv) who rejects him.

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I noted with interest Ritchie’s first credit was making a film about Joan of Arc for the BBC’s documentary series Omnibus.  At that time Omnibus was doing ground-breaking work pioneering the drama-documentary notably allowing Ken Russell free reign with his dramatic interpretations of the lives of composers and artists. Ritchie seems to have taken some of these stylistic touches back to the US. Something Robert Redford picked up on as he searched for a director for Downhill Racer after Roman Polanski departed the project for Rosemary’s Baby (68). Redford noticed a tendency towards filming scenes in interesting ways despite the limitations of the otherwise generic material.  Ritchie brings the same naturalistic approach to Downhill Racer with dialogue scenes seeming like filmed conversations rather than the actors delivering lines from James Salter’s excellent screenplay. Point of view shots as the racers hurtle down slopes gives an idea of the adrenaline rush of competing and the danger involved in such a high risk sport.

Really pleased to have finally seen this. And with its focus on a lone figure battling against the elements Downhill Racer it makes a great companion piece with Redford’s recent All is Lost (2013, J.C. Chandor).

January 2015 – The Sugarland Express (1974, Steven Spielberg)

Made the year before Steven Spielberg invented the blockbuster movie with Jaws, this small-scale drama based on a true story is clearly the most atypical film on his resume. It was this incongruity which put me off watching Sugarland Express. Spielberg’s gifts are for grand spectacle and this kind of material seemed more suitable for a filmmaker with a harder edge, maybe Robert Altman or Michael Cimino. I also have a preference for Spielberg when he’s doing blockbusters rather than ‘serious’ work though I rate Munich (2005) very highly. Then there’s his tendency for over-sentimentality. The thought of a Spielberg movie about Goldie Hawn trying to get her baby back from social services gives me a headache just thinking about it. So I’d always been fairly ambivalent seeing The Sugarland Express and to be honest if I hadn’t signed up for Cinema Shame I doubt I’d have been in a hurry to watch the film.

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The Sugarland Express is based on the antics of real-life couple Robert Dent and his wife Ila Fae who abducted a state trooper and were pursued by over a hundred vehicles across Texas. Screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robins have amended certain details including the names and to a certain extent have softened the story by giving Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) a motive for breaking Clovis ( William Atherton) out of prison. The authorities have placed their child in foster care. This feels like Spielberg and his writers don’t trust the audience to emphasise with the protagonists unless they are given a sentimental reason to root for them. Everybody’s a little too nice. Slide (Michael Sacks), the easy-going state trooper taken hostage undergoes Stockholm Syndrome almost immediately, while their pursuer Captain Tanner is the type of sad-eyed Western hero the great Ben Johnson played throughout the 70’s with quiet dignity.

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Despite this there’s much to enjoy in The Sugarland Express. Barwood and Robins witty screenplay satirises ongoing news coverage years before Tarantino penned Natural Born Killers (94, Oliver Stone). It’s also fascinating watching one of the most technically gifted filmmakers in the history of cinema honing his technique. Though a fairly low-key film there’s no mistaking Spielberg’s gift for showmanship. Particularly during a stunning car chase as Slide pursues them through a town and the countryside while the terrified drunk he was taking to jail explains how he’s breaching the highway code. In fact there’s a lightness of tone which is comparable to the kind of film Burt Reynolds would appear in post-Deliverance (72, John Boorman) though one of Spielberg’s greatest virtues is his lack of interest in machismo. Atherton, best known for playing assholes in 80’s movies like Ghostbusters (84, Ivan Reitman) and Die Hard (88, John McTiernan) is no wild rebel but a dithering idiot who puts everybody in danger without quite meaning too. Tanner (Johnson is the gentlest of movie tough guys) prefers to solve matters without killing and efficiently slaps down a group of vigilantes looking to make a name for themselves.

So do I feel guilty for avoiding The Sugarland Express? A little. While it does feel like a weaker version of other movies being made during that era it’s clearly a key moment in the development of Spielberg’s career. It’s also much less mawkish than expected with any sentiment kept in check by the screenplay’s humour and the unavoidable sense this journey will end badly and there’s nothing those involved can do to prevent it.

12 Films I Should Have Seen

Hi, here’s my list of shame and some excuses for not having seen them.

1) Blithe Spirit (1945, David Lean)

Last year I had to write introductory notes for a screening of Lean’s Brief Encounter and was surprised on finally seeing the film at how great it was. For many Brief Encounter represents a genteel form of cinema and I bought into this theory. Now I think it’s one of the few really poetic British movies. Lean also collaborated with Noel Coward on the screenplay for Blithe Spirit so I’m really looking forward to finally seeing this.

2) Hamlet (1948, Laurence Olivier)

Avoided this on purpose. I’ve seen clips from this so I know well enough Larry puts the ham in Hamlet.

3) Pickpocket (1959, Robert Bresson)

To be fair I have seen the two Paul Schrader movies where he nicks the ending (American Gigolo, Light Sleeper) so he kind of spoiled the movie for me. Twice.

4) Les Doulos (1962, Jean-Pierre Melville)

Been putting this off because there are only so many Melville movies in existence and I’m too close to being a completist.

5) Downhill Racer (1969, Michael Ritchie)

Debut film from the wonderfully eclectic Michael Ritchie. Long unavailable on any format in the UK. I have just ordered the Criterion Collection from the US.

6) Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974, Martin Scorsese)

I saw Gas Food Lodging (1992, Allison Anders) and liked it so much I figured why bother with the Scorsese film.

7) The Sugarland Express (1974, Steven Spielberg)

Only Spielberg I haven’t seen. I just couldn’t be bothered with it to be honest.

8) Nashville (1975, Robert Altman)

Tried it when I was a teenager and gave up. I should at least give Nashville a second chance if only because we’re the same age.

9) That Sinking Feeling (1979, Bill Forsyth)

I’m ashamed to say I had no idea this existed until a few years ago. I always thought Gregory’s Girl (81) was Forsyth’s debut. I’m Scottish so no excuses for not having seen this one.

10) Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

I’ve been to Berlin Alexanderplatz. Very nice it was too. Never seen the Fassbinder version though.

11) The Shawshank Redemption (1994, Frank Darabont)

Nobody saw this film when it came out. Nobody. I’ve avoided on purpose due to a strong dislike for everything else Darabont has ever done since.

12) Love Actually (2004, Richard Curtis)

Consider watching this penance for having not having seen all the other films on my list.