Ad Astra (US, 2019)

Retrograde

Brad Pitt’s Plan B has a history of producing interesting films, using Pitt’s star power to help with the financing; 12 Years a Slave is a prime example. Ad Astra is a bit different in that it is a big budget (in the region of $100m) action film seeking a large audience; but it also has pretensions to thoughtfulness. In theory it should have been visual and intellectual treat: it only offers the visuals.

Pitt’s assigned a humanity-saving mission to Neptune but it is also an Oedipal journey. The latter is intended to give the film intellectual heft but is merely a retread of retrograde tropes of masculinity. Pitt can do, and does in this film, sensitivity but the script is such a mess that neither the science nor the psychological aspects are successful. It’s written by the director James Gray and Ethan Gross and while it’s not necessary that the science necessarily makes sense for good drama there are far too many stretches to the narrative. I’m not sure how long it would take to send and receive and message to Neptune from Mars but I am certain you wouldn’t hang around waiting for the answer: it would take a good few hours. Even the psychological elements don’t make sense: I really have little idea what happens at the ultimate father-son confrontation. It’s more a flop than climax.

There a number of gratuitous action sequences (a buggy chase on the moon and mad primates on a spaceship) that add nothing to the narrative and presumably are present only to ensure the ‘popcorn crowd’ are kept happy. Action and ideas are not anathema and could be combined.

Patriarchy is still raging in 2019 but is increasingly desperate; like a dinosaur bewildered by the changing climate. There are women in the film but they’re mere ciphers for Pitt to define himself against. The mixed race casting is heartening but all they do is ratify the hero’s WASP ethnicity. It’s also retrograde in vaunting the American pioneer spirit when it’s clear that, in reality, it is an empire in decline.

The pluses: Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography and Kevin Thompson’s production design. Inevitably 2001: A Space Odyssey lurks and I was also reminded of Soderbergh’s version of Solaris (US, 2002). The comparisons on make Ad Astra pale into insignificance; that said, the film has done good business and elicited some rave reviews. I’m not saying all cinematic SF should be like Claire Denis’ High Life but if the makers have more than commercial aspirations they need, particularly in SF, to look forward not backwards to near-Neanderthal representations of gender. I’m sure they were trying to critique ‘heroic masculinity’: they didn’t.

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On Dangerous Ground (US, 1951)

The dark soul of noir

Nick Ray’s On Dangerous Ground is a brilliant hybrid noir-melodrama where the join between the genres is obvious. The first part of the film takes place in the darkness of the city as Robert Ryan’s troubled cop, Jim Wilson, beats the shit out of ‘pond life’ is followed by a snowy landscape and the blind Mary (Ida Lupino) who may redeem him. Ryan is his usual volcanic self; even when he’s calm an explosion is in the offing. Lupino’s role is a difficult one to pull off; trying to be not sympathetic just because she is blind. Ward Bond,  a right-winger is perfectly cast by left-winger Ray, is the gun-toting vigilante seeking vengeance for his daughter’s death. They are all excellent.

George E Diskant’s cinematography is brilliant: capturing the ink black darkness of the city streets and the almost white-out of snow covered landscape. According to Bernard Eisenschitz, in his biography of Ray, some of the camerawork is handheld. It certainly looked like that in one scene of a beating being meted out by Wilson’s fractured psyche; that must have taken some doing with the heavy cameras. The score is one of Bernard Herrmann’s best so no superlatives need to be used in describing it.

I first saw the film, under the late Victor Perkins’ tutelage, at Warwick University in 1980 and remember thinking the ending ‘corny’. Apparently Lupino and Ryan improvised the final scene, not finding the scripted (by Ray and AI Bezzerides) return of Jim to the city satisfactory. Although it seems to reconcile the two, Ray’s final shot is of a snowbound landscape suggesting that all may not be well.

The antithesis of noir setting

Bezzerides also scripted Kiss Me Deadly (1955), one of the grimmest of noirs, and On Dangerous Ground dips into the same territory: the ‘under-age’ prostitute (top pic) ejected from the bar by Wilson is seen to be followed out by a man; utilising the code of dissolve/cigarette smoking, Wilson has sex with an informant who is later beaten up for her troubles. There’s a superb opening sequence of Wilson’s ‘team’ preparing for work: two have loving families whilst he lives alone. Ed Begley has a telling cameo as the police Captain who’s more concerned about the quality of his breakfast than on-going investigations.

Ray struggled in the constraints of Hollywood; his career started as the industry started its slow decline which, arguably, is still going on (not financially) but artistically with its over-reliance of remakes and sequels (although the North American box office is creaking under the heap of banality). Ray’s films crop up on television with some regularity but The Lusty Men (1952) is nowhere to be seen.

The Candidate (US, 1972)

There’s no business like politics

It’s striking that, although it was made 40 years before The Ides of March,The Candidate is almost as up-to-date. The cynicism, alongside extraordinary naiveté, that characterises American politics is beyond satire with The Trump in the White House; I should say the same is true for the UK with our on-going Brexit-driven stupidity. The only striking difference I noticed in the film is the Republican candidate keeps emphasising how they need to keep America great; nowadays Trump’s tagline is ‘make America great again’. Otherwise the bullshit remains the same.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t a difference between left and right politics (the former is far preferable of course!). Robert Redford’s ‘candidate’ is an idealist who, despite is best efforts, gets enmeshed in the ‘machine’ of party politics. However, he would be a far better senator than his opponent. One of the exciting things at the moment in American politics is Senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who brilliantly emphasised the corruption inherent in the American democratic system – see here. She, single-handedly it seems, has shifted the Overton window (which frames what can ‘legitimately’ be discussed) to get a progressive taxation on the agenda.

Jeremy Larner’s script for The Candidate reeks of authenticity which isn’t surprising as he was principal speech-writer for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential bid; he won an Academy Award for his effort. Michael Ritchie’s direction complements the script brilliantly, shooting in Academy Ratio (to give a televisual feel thus mimicking the way many watch political campaigns?), the camera moves in a documentary style seemingly chasing the action rather than shooting action staged for it. I’m not sure whether Ritchie counts as a New Hollywood director as I haven’t seen Prime Cut, released just before The Candidate; his debut was a Redford vehicle Downhill Racer (1969). The Candidate, though, certainly fits into New Hollywood as it’s a thoughtful film with a ‘message’ and was distributed by Warner Bros. Redford and Ritchie made the film through their own company; presumably constituted solely for this film as they didn’t produce another together.

I saw the film nearly 40 years ago and could remember the ending clearly, an indication of how effective it is in a low-key way. I doubt Redford was ever better (I have little to say about his recent The Old Man & the Gun (US, 2018) other than Sissy Spacek was great): his star charisma is undercut by uncertainty in his eyes as his doubts about what he’s doing dog him throughout. I love his puzzled expression when an old mate, from his ‘eco-warrior’ days, congratulates him on doing well whilst knowing it’s ‘bullshit’. The candidate has clearly been taken in.

 

Norma Rae (US, 1979)

They won’t get you if you’re part of a union

Norma Rae is a bit of an outlier of New Hollywood cinema that thrived at the start of the 1970s. The big studios had lost their audiences and the surprise hit, backed by Columbia, of Easy Rider (1969) allowed an auteur directed cinema to, relatively, thrive for a few years. Peter Bogdanovich, Bob Rafelson and Martin Scorsese (amongst others) made films that were consciously art rather than ‘mere’ entertainment. Although Easy Rider was a watershed film, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate (both 1967) had already tapped the counter cultural zeitgeist and, as is so often the case in history, the transition between periods is blurred. So New Hollywood began before it flourished and continued, in a diminished form, after it ended. Of course, mainstream entertainment never went away but it was a time when Hollywood would back interesting films.

In a simplistic manner we can ‘blame’ Jaws (1975) for the end of director-driven movies and the beginning of the producer-dominated High Concept film. Star Wars (1977), with its backward-looking aesthetic, signified the end of innovative filmmaking (apart from the special effects) in Hollywood that, arguably, we are still in with superhero films and Disney remakes being virtually the only game in town. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), which bankrupted United Artists, was the last straw.

Why is Norma Rae one of the last gasps of New Hollywood? It was directed by Martin Ritt, who was one of the most reliable of Hollywood’s liberal film directors, and focuses on working class people, in cotton mills. The narrative is driven by the attempt of a union organiser (Ron Liebman) to get the workers to join. It also features a female protagonist, Sally Ann Field as the titular character (who won a Best Actress Oscar), and an entirely non-sexual relationship between her and the organiser: not even a chaste kiss even after they go ‘skinny dipping’. It’s unusual for Hollywood not to hint at ‘romance’ between female and male protagonists. Field’s Rae is sexual but it is on her own terms. The film was based loosely on Henry Leifermann’s Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance, a biography of Crystal Lee Sutton, w woman who did actually stand on a table holding a sign saying ‘union’ after she had been sacked (more details here).

The scenes in the cotton mill are superbly authentic, the horrendous racket of the machines defeating conversation and, indeed, making organisation difficult. The difficulties of everyday life, on poor wages, are admirably delineated and the workers aren’t patronised as being ‘stupid’ for not being in a union. Company propaganda is shown to divide the workers, sometimes on racial lines. These were, and are, very real battles and the inevitable triumph, it is a Hollywood film after all, is a rallying call to all non-unionised folk.

Norma Rae deserves its place, alongside films like the independent John Sayles’s Matewan(1987), as one of the best American films about trade unions. Field was on The Graham Norton Show (BBC1) recently promoting her autobiography. It was quite scary seeing her as she hadn’t seemed to have aged much in 40 years. She was more like simulacrum and it is an indictment of our age that high profile people, women in particular, aren’t allowed to age properly.

Killing Ground (Australia, 2016) and Don’t Breathe (US, 2016)

Unhappy New Year in Australia

Two critically appreciated horror-thrillers with very different audience reaction: Killing Ground‘s rated 5.8 on imdb and seems to have taken little at the box office; Don’t Breathe gets a 7.1 and took nearly $150m worldwide. Both are superbly well made but for me there’s a crucial difference that makes the Australian film far superior: I cared about the characters.

 

Just deserts?

In the American film, which cost approximately 10 times more to make, the three protagonists are burglars. In Australia, the protagonists are an ‘in love’ couple celebrating New Year in the Outback. Writer-director Damien Power ensures this isn’t sickly-sweet and he’s aided by excellent characterisation by Harriet Dyer and Ian Meadows. Aaron Pedersen adds some charisma as the lumpen proletariat and although the film’s been compared to Deliverance (US, 1972), the film isn’t really about class. So as the burglars break in to a blind man’s house I’m quite happy for him to terrorise them (they have to be quiet hence ‘don’t breathe’). It is true that the narrative configures our sympathy with the youngsters as we learn more about the apparent victim but it’s too late by then; ‘too late’ for me but not most apparently.

Power’s film has plenty of suspense but it becomes clear he’s more interested in the relationship of the lovers; Dyer’s Sam proposes early in the film. How does such a romantic commitment stand up to life-threatening circumstances? Most of the violence is handled well and the worse is off screen though I thought the fate of the baby was miscalculated (I’m not entirely sure what happened as it was pretty dark).

The director of Don’t Breathe, Fede Alvarez (who co-wrote with Rodo Sayagues), handles the darkness well when the blind guy cuts the power to take away the youngsters’ advantage of sight. We’re in Silence of the Lambs (US, 1991) territory with our ‘heroes’ floundering in the dark but we can see as its shot (or post-produced more like) with filters that signifies ‘pitch black’ whilst we can clearly see what’s going on. It’s far better than the ‘day for night’ technique used in Hollywood’s heyday.

Don’t Breathe‘s slated for a sequel (Alvarez has directed the flop The Girl in the Spider’s Web, UK-Swede-Germany-Canada-US, 2018) but I’d rather see Power get another shot; he’s only directed a short since. Hopefully this won’t need to be in Hollywood but unfortunately that’s the path to take to get the finance. I can’t fathom why imdb voters prefer the American film as the Australian is much more emotionally involving; I guess it is because the former has more visceral thrills which is what youngsters tend to be more interested in.

The Glass Key (US, 1942)

True sado-masochism

Simplistic histories state The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the first film noir and so The Glass Key, also adapted from a Dashiel Hammett novel, counts as an early entry. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) now tends to get the pioneering accolade though obviously the trends were lurking earlier as noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini’s new book, Film Noir Prototypes: Origins of the Movement, emphasises. The Glass Key doesn’t have an overtly noir look but then the celebrated The Big Sleep (1946) has zero (or near to zero) chiaroscuro lighting. There are a few scenes where shadows entrap characters but other traits of the genre are certainly present. There are also numerous low angle shots giving a quasi-expressionist feel to the mise en scene.

The plot’s convoluted and Veronica Lake seduces with a glance though she’s more femme than fatale. Apparently she was only 4 foot, 11 inches in height, so complimented Ladd who was only eight inches taller and they starred together in other films such as The Blue Dahlia (1946).

‘You’re looking at me kid’

The worldview is dark though political corruption is given a comic edge as if to say it is to be expected; America doesn’t seem very different now with the gerrymandering that went on in some southern states to suppress the black vote last November. The heavies are supremely psychotic and William Bendix is quite terrifying in the role as he almost cuddles Ladd’s Ed Beaumont as he anticipates the beating. Beaumont doesn’t seem too impartial to being battered either; there is sado-masochism in play. Beaumont’s escape from imprisonment is quite brilliantly done and the visceral violence in the film, though inherent in the genre, probably wasn’t matched until Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Bendix was in The Blue Dahlia too and I don’t think I’ve seen Brian Donlevy in a better role and he manages to convey honesty and corruption in one.

The director was Stuart Heisler and this is his best known film and although he does an excellent job it’s probable that cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl was also a big influence on the film as he started his career in Germany and worked during the Expressionist period.

It’s slightly depressing that one of the reasons film noir remains compelling today is its nastiness. There’s little sugar coating that can make early Hollywood sickly. For example, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is a superbly shot World War I drama and grips until the protagonist’s mother starts gushing in a way that was conventional at the time. Little in noir is dated as women are often as much a narrative agent as men though there appearance is paramount; that’s true today. The failure of the law to bring evil convincingly to justice, and at the time the Production Code’s ‘law of compensating values’ insisted that bad be punished, is an entirely modern viewpoint. It’s true The Glass Key does have a soft ending but that’s not what lingers. Rather it’s the scene when Bendix is dishing out a fatal beating and Ladd’s Beaumont is looking on admiringly.

Widows (UK-US, 2018)

Doin’ it for themselves

Widows represents a further step into the mainstream for co-writer and director Steve McQueen. Ironically, given 12 Years a Slave was essentially an art movie, this is likely to be less financially successful than its predecessor. Business Insider attributes this to the November release date; whatever the reason it’s not for the lack of thrills within the film.

Based on Lynda LaPlant’s ’80s TV series the film centres around a heist undertaken, in desperation, by the widows of thieves. It has elements of a number of genres, including the heist movie, political corruption thriller and urban gangster. McQueen overlays a political analysis that is both specific to Chicago (the film’s setting) and, he argues in his Sight & Sound interview (November), the world. McQueen manages to both revitalise the car chase (the brilliant opening) and use sound in distinctive ways. An example of the latter is where Daniel Kaluuya’s psychopath is listening to Black Panther Alfred Woodfox, on the radio, talking about his 44 years in prison. This brings in the discourse of racial politics and, particularly in one scene, #BlackLivesMatter (not as convincing as a similar scene in The Hate U Give).

Sound is also to the fore when Colin Farrell’s conflicted politician, Jack Mulligan, leaves the Projects to return to his leafy home, barely a minute away. Whilst Mulligan rages on the soundtrack the camera remains on the car’s bonnet observing the shift in wealth of the environment.

It’s a stellar cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriquez, Liam Neeson, as well as the aforementioned Kaluuya and Farrell. Robert Duval plays Mulligan’s dad and leaves a lasting impression as a hate-filled demagogue. The budget, notwithstanding the immense financial success of 12 Years a Slave, was a meagre $42m so it’s obvious that the talent is keen to work with McQueen.

Given the director’s ethnicity I was surprised to see, once or twice, that Viola Davis’ face was less clear than the white actor in the scene. It’s difficult to shoot both clearly, though I imagine digital technology could ‘cure’ this, and it is commonplace to have the black face more undifferentiated than the white. I’d’ve thought McQueen, and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit, would have reversed the power relationship.

However the film is as much about gender as race and McQueen ensures we have no doubt about the evil of toxic masculinity. There’s one moment when Neeson screws up his face and wails about saving himself that is especially noteworthy. Davis portrays her widow as indomitable in the face of her circumstances and Elizabeth Debecki’s transformation of an abused wife to a self-contained woman is entirely convincing.

Unsurprisingly, Widows doesn’t have the power of 12 Years a Slave, the subject matter sees to that, but McQueen confirms himself to be one of the most imaginative directors on the circuit.