Criterion Sunday 258: Tanner ’88 (1988)

A fictionalised account of a Democratic nominee for President contesting the primaries against the likes of Michael Dukakis (who would go on to actually win the Democratic nomination that year, if not the Presidency), Jesse Jackson and even Al Gore and Joe Biden (who are never seen, but their names come up once or twice). Michael Murphy (as Jack Tanner) has a sort of bland appeal that feels so familiar in US Presidential candidates, so he’s a good choice for this man who becomes very slightly radicalised during his campaign — we’re not talking Bulworth (1998) here, but there’s a striking sequence in Detroit where he talks to (presumably very real) local campaigners in what feels the closest to a documentary sequence in the whole mini-series (not a million miles from some of the political discussions in, say, Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom in making dramatic the everyday political discussions of ordinary people). Elsewhere there’s behind-the-scenes political plotting, including Tanner’s affair with the deputy manager of a rival’s campaign, his daughter Alex (Cynthia Nixon)’s college idealism clashing with her more conservative father, whose policies for the most part are in unemotional soundbites, and his hard-nosed campaign manager TJ (Pamela Reed) making calls and crunching numbers in fairly opaque ways, but they certainly come across dramatically. The general sense is to satirise the idea of politicians having any actual beliefs, an early broadside against the kind of media and image-heavy campaigning that has come to dominate the US election cycle. Altman’s familiar style, with a roving camera, plenty of zooms and overlapping dialogue is all in place and it feels a bit like a prelude to some of the multiple narratives he’d pursue in The Player and Short Cuts.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Each of the 11 episodes is prefaced by a minute or two of an in-character introduction filmed in 2004 (generally Murphy, but Reed and Nixon also show up), reflecting on the events of the previous episode. This was filmed at the time that Trudeau and Altman worked with many of the same actors on a follow-up mini-series Tanner on Tanner. That latter sequel isn’t on this set, but perhaps a future upgrade may include it?
  • There’s a 20 minute conversation between Garry Trudeau and Robert Altman from 2004, in which they discuss how the series came together and the way they shot the thing, as well as useful comments on the improvisations and working methods of some of the actors and political figures they got as cameos.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Creator/Writer Garry Trudeau; Cinematographer Jean Lépine; Starring Michael Murphy, Pamela Reed, Cynthia Nixon, Wendy Crewson; Length 353 minutes (in 11 episodes of c30 minutes each, although the first is a double episode).

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 August 2019.

Criterion Sunday 156: Hearts and Minds (1974)

Undoubtedly this is a powerful piece of filmmaking about a war (the Vietnam War), though its lessons can be applied to many subsequent conflicts. To see former generals note that the strategy of continuing a war that killed so many people barely had any effect on the resolve of the native people to keep fighting against the foreign incursion is surely something that should have been remembered after 2001 as well, but the nature of modern warfare — the way it is played out in the media, the access they are given — has fundamentally changed. There are sequences here that are scarcely believable, like the soldiers filmed joking with each other while with respective women at a brothel. But there are other sequences — interviews with veterans, generals and politicians alike — that shed light on the attitudes that went into the war: a desperate desire to hold onto resources, and to keep face with allies even as the philosophy that propelled them to intervene (the Domino Theory about the spread of Communism) was largely debunked. The filmmaker here uses all the now familiar techniques of cannily editing footage to prove the institutional lies of the American forces, as well as occasional editorial asides that almost joke with the audience (a father who’s lost a son hymning the leadership of Nixon while a subtitle pops up at just this point to say “filmed in early 1973”). It remains a relevant film and an excellent one, for all the bias one might accuse it of, not least for the interview with the bomber pilot that runs through and concludes the film, which is beautifully poignant and powerful.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Davis; Cinematographer Richard Pearce; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 May 2017.

Selma (2014)

It may be largely famous right now for its snub at the Oscars (though it was nominated for Best Picture), but I’m quite sure Selma will have a long life independent of that particular over-rated awards ceremony. For after all it covers one of the important stories of the US civil rights movement — Martin Luther King’s leadership of a voting rights rally in racially-polarised Alabama, and a march from the town of Selma to nearby Montgomery, the state’s capital — one that until now has largely been the preserve of documentaries, but one that still resonates even today (the rap over the closing credits draws direct parallels to events in Ferguson and other racially-motivated murders of black people). Its tone and style are still very respectful as one might expect — there aren’t a great deal of laughs here (you’d hardly expect any) — though everywhere the filmmakers are keen to try and stress the characters’ essential humanity, often occluded by hagiographic portraits of the period. There’s a lovely scene early on of King (David Oyelowo) being helped to tie his ascot by his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), and the film later alludes to his womanising. The closest the film comes to caricature is with the paranoid J. Edgar Hoover (surely understandable), and though Tom Wilkinson’s President Johnson sometimes seems set up as the natural antagonist to the civil rights movement, in fact he eventually comes round to accepting its aims and enshrining them in law (if this character arc seems a little too neatly fitted, then it’s also the one that’s caused the most controversy around the film). The filmmaking style is restrained and the dialogue scenes can sometimes seem stagy (I imagine this material would work well as a play), but you get the sense that its aim is not to overwhelm with auteurist style but to testify to the extraordinary characters involved in rally and march, and certainly it’s the faces and the acting which are to the fore. Particularly strong is David Oyelowo in the central role, and his background on the stage no doubt helped him convince as a man renowned for his natural charisma and oratorical skills; Oyelowo can certainly hold the attention of a room (or indeed a cinema). The film may at times feel didactic (and will no doubt be an important educational resource) but thanks to its talented cast and crew — including the excellent cinematographer Bradford Young, and its director Ava DuVernay — Selma is also a fine piece of cinema.

Selma film posterCREDITS
Director Ava DuVernay; Writer Paul Webb; Cinematographer Bradford Young; Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Wednesday 11 February 2015.

White House Down (2013)

As is Hollywood’s wont, there were two films last year which had terrorists take over the White House, hold the President hostage, and then have their plans ruined by John McClane I mean, an undervalued everyman character (where “everyman” is a white male, obviously). I went to see Olympus Has Fallen in the cinema, and that, I realise now, was the wrong choice. White House Down is no less silly, it should be emphasised, and it rips off Die Hard (1988) every bit as comprehensively. However, in every respect (except maybe in the acting chops of its authority figures: Melissa Leo > whoever the hell the VP is here), it proves itself the better of the two films.

It’s difficult even to pinpoint exactly what makes it so much better. Perhaps it helps that here the threat is a loose alliance of ex-military right-wing gun nuts and racists, rather than a generic East Asian terrorist collective (nominally North Korean, but apparently Chinese in the original conception), which immediately disarms the racist connotations of our white heroes’ triumph. Here the racial diversity is instead on the side of the Americans, with a post-Obama Presidential turn by Jamie Foxx, who does his best to capture the requisite gravitas. If he doesn’t always succeed, his looser performance still allows for some lovely moments with our hero Channing Tatum’s politically-savvy teenage daughter Emily (Joey King), not to mention a bit of knockabout humour involving a rocket launcher.

The daughter’s there for a bit of human interest, and the set-up follows a standard generic pattern: as John Cale, Tatum has been a bit of an unreliable dad and now must prove his worth to his daughter, which he does by trying to get a Secret Service job (he doesn’t pass his interview, but not before we’ve had a hint at some backstory with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Carol). When the terrorists attack, father and daughter are separated, giving his resistance to the terrorists a bit of personal motivation (when he overhears the evil mastermind threatening to kill the President, he means to push on with finding his daughter, and has to kick himself to go back and help). His daughter is not totally helpless, it turns out (shades of Jason Statham movies like Safe and Homefront there), but she’s still too young not to need his help. Then again, you only really need to accept these familiar tropes; the fun is in how efficiently they are mobilised, and there’s a relative minimum of sentimental mawkishness.

As you’ll have guessed, there’s nothing startling or new here. If you liked Die Hard and you are fond of this kind of action thriller, then you should really enjoy White House Down. It’s a solid bit of big Hollywood summer entertainment.

White House Down film posterCREDITS
Director Roland Emmerich; Writer James Vanderbilt; Cinematographer Anna Foerster; Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 7 June 2014.

Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

A lot of the more prominent films that Hollywood made at the outset of the sound era, before the enforcement of the Production Code, dealt with such outré topics as sexuality and violence. These are the ones that still grab the column inches, whether it’s the amoral bloodshed of Scarface (1932) or the sexual liberation of Baby Face (1933). However, Gabriel Over the White House manages to be an equally outrageous film without any of these more saleable elements, but instead uses the allure of autocracy to transform its vision of America. In his Roosevelt-like reforming zeal, the President played here by Walter Huston looks brazenly towards dictatorship to push through the necessary reforms following years of Depression. It’s the kind of plot outline that reads like satire, but presented here as divine inspiration (hence the title), the film seems totally onboard with the proposed ideas, as the President bypasses Congress to push through his bold measures. That said, it’s a patchy piece of filmmaking and modern audiences will struggle to take it as seriously as the filmmakers, but then we have the benefit of hindsight.

Gabriel Over the White House film posterCREDITS
Director Gregory La Cava; Writer Carey Wilson (based on the novel Rinehard by Thomas Frederic Tweed); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Walter Huston, Karen Morley, Franchot Tone; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014.

Iron Man Three (2013)

I have rather pedantically used the fully written-out title as it appears at the start of the credits sequence, though the posters stick with the number.


As far as I’m concerned, when watching a superhero action film such as this one, the key question is whether you feel immersed in the mythology and are swept along by the story sufficiently to put out of your mind quite what the villain’s motivations are, or how conveniently elements of the action setpieces come together. For surely those would be caveats if it weren’t for the fact that I enjoyed the whole enterprise enough to not really worry about them. Along the way there were also enough purely comedy moments which made me laugh (mostly thanks to Ben Kingsley’s character) that I consider this a good film, and certainly an excellent sequel.

The central characters are well enough established from the previous two films and the ensemble piece The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble, 2012), but for the sake of getting up to speed — which is done in this film via an opening sequence set in 1999 — they are Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), massively wealthy playboy and inventor of the title’s robotic iron suits (which of course he wears to fight crime, foil plots, et al.), and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), initially his business partner, but by this third film far more his life partner. They now live together by the Californian coast, but Stark is dealing with fallout from the previous film, unable to sleep and suffering from periodic panic attacks whenever the life-threatening events in New York are mentioned (which they are, by several characters, such is his media profile). His character is ever more wisecracking, mumbling and bumbling along to fulfil some version of the eccentric inventor stereotype, while still being a supercilious dandy (on which point, my friend Mark over on Freaky Trigger has provided a handy guide to the Marvel universe’s male characters). Paltrow has less to do, as ever, though looks suitably alarmed/threatened/threatening as the film’s plot requires, and at the very least has a far more active role in several of the sequences.

The antagonist for this film is another character seemingly hewed from the ‘mad scientist’ mould, Aldrich Killian (played by Guy Pearce). In the opening sequence, he is a stooped, lank-haired presence consumed by delusions and labouring under some kind of unstated disability, for which it is implied that the shadowy Extremis project of Dr Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) promises a cure; thirteen years later he returns, rejuvenated and apparently well-adjusted. Undoubtedly there will in future be theses written about the Extremis programme of genetic mutation to ‘cure’ disabilities and the resulting strain of fire-breathing superhumans, but for the film’s purposes it’s a convenient way to get Stark to refocus his energies on saving America and defeating the public face of the enemy, Ben Kingsley’s Bin Laden-like ‘Mandarin’.

The heart of the film is the tensions between Stark, Killian and the shadowy ‘Mandarin’ figure, and how these develop. There’s a constant jokey comedic undertow which leavens the slightly stultifying action scenes, and as ever Downey is the actor who really carries the film through. He is assisted in this in a few memorable sequences by a 10-year-old Tennessee kid (Ty Simpkins) and less memorably by an under-utilised Don Cheadle. In the end, that lightness of touch to the characterisations carried me through action sequences that at times threatened to be deadeningly thudding displays of mechanised destruction, and I left largely satisfied. Plus, the post-credits sequence also reminded me how much I enjoyed Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner character. To see the two of them together again properly would be a treat.


© Walt Disney Studios

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Shane Black | Writers Drew Pearce and Shane Black (based on the comic book Iron Man by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby) | Cinematographer John Toll | Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, Don Cheadle | Length 130 minutes | Seen at Cineworld West India Quay (2D), London, Tuesday 7 May 2013

My Rating 3 stars good

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Antoine Fuqua | Writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt | Cinematographer Conrad W. Hall | Starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo | Length 120 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 21 April 2013 || My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing


© Millennium Films

There is already a vast body of action films stretching back quite some time which imagine the various threats to the United States and how they will be (inevitably) overcome by the power of a lone individual and a massive armoury of weapons. Even this film is only one of two this year about the White House (aka “Olympus”) itself being taken over by terrorists. Sometimes it feels as if every possible permutation of scenarios has already been played out in the movies, and so the strong resemblances that this film has to Die Hard (1988, and still a high-water mark in this kind of enterprise) are difficult to overlook.

Continue reading “Olympus Has Fallen (2013)”

Lincoln (2012)

I was talking in my last post about how Argo fits into one manifestation of the ‘Oscar-baiting film’ subgenre. Well Lincoln is an example of the other type of Oscar film: the big, portentous, historical epic. As far as such films go, however, this is a good example, both of the form’s strengths — top-notch character acting from the supporting cast, a firm grasp of the period, and a fine performance by Daniel Day Lewis (who has previous with this kind of project and is always dependable) — as well as its weaknesses. However, aside from that general sense of being shown something ‘important’, the main weakness for me was the big, clanging John Williams score that underlines every significant decision and emotion.

For the most part we are given a well-focused story of Lincoln’s struggle to have the 13th Amendment to the US constitution passed (regarding the abolition of slavery). There’s plenty of detail about the political machinations and processes that went into this, culminating in a lengthy sequence whereby members of the Congress individually vote on whether to pass the amendment. For all that minute focus, it remains gripping over its 150 minutes, though I found distracting the scenes featuring Lincoln’s family (Sally Field as his wife, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his son). It also avoids hagiography for the most part, though a scene near the end when Lincoln leaves his home while being watched admiringly by a black servant is probably taking it a little far.

This film will no doubt enjoy a long afterlife as an educational film in history classes, but for all that, it’s still an enjoyable film, worth sitting down with.


© 20th Century Fox

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Steven Spielberg | Writer Tony Kushner | Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski | Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Sally Field | Length 150 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 11 February 2013

My Rating 3 stars good