Archive for November, 2014

Nightmarealleyposter

Director: Edmund Goulding

Writer: Jules Furthman

Country: USA

Runtime: 110 mins

Cast: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, Mike Mazurki, Ian Keith

One of the darkest of all film noirs

Nightmare Alley was the second film made by Tyrone Power, one of Hollywood’s greatest stars, following his return from wartime service in the Pacific theatre. Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, it was a film that Power fought to make in the face of opposition from studio boss Darryl Zanuck, who feared that the dark role of the protagonist might damage Power’s image. Although that didn’t happen, the film was not a success at the box office. Power was praised by critics for his performance, however, and Nightmare Alley has subsequently come to be regarded as a film noir classic.

Power plays Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a relatively junior carnival barker who is still learning the trade. Stan is an assistant for Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell), the carney’s fortune teller who is trying to keep her alcoholic husband, Pete (Ian Keith), on the straight and narrow. Eager to make the big time, Stan begins to see dollar signs when he learns that Zeena and Pete once had their own highly successful psychic act outside the carney, in which Pete used a linguistic code to communicate the punters’ secrets to Zeena. Stan also learns a valuable lesson when Pete fools him with a psychic reading, in which Pete apparently sees Stan as a boy running through fields with his pet dog. Pete breaks the news that this was a stock reading: “Fits everybody! What’s youth? Happy one minute, heartbroken the next. Every boy has a dog!” Learning from this, Stan finds he is able to exercise the gift of the gab to the extent that he can prevent a hostile policeman from closing down the carnival.

Following Pete’s death Zeena teaches Stan the code. She is helped in this task by Molly (Coleen Gray), the strongman’s girlfriend. But Stan has been dallying with both women and finds himself forced into a shotgun marriage with Molly. Seeing this as a golden opportunity, they set up a highly successful act in the big city. But events take a darker turn after Stan links up with a corrupt psychoanalyst (Helen Walker), using her client information to trick wealthy society folk out of their money.

Unlike many of the most famous film noirs, such as The Maltese Falcon, there is no humour in Nightmare Alley’s characters. It is surely one of the darkest film noirs ever made, a rise-and-fall story that presents us with a kaleidoscope of human desperation, degradation, duplicity, gullibility, and alcoholism. Many of the scenes take place in darkness, but with the characters’ faces brightly lit, exposing – by turn – their hope and hopelessness. The opening scene presents us with the carney geek, the most degraded and abused figure in American carnivals, a man – typically an alcoholic or drug addict – who would bite the heads off chickens in front of a delightedly horrified audience. But everybody is looking for something, even the wealthy, which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. Accordingly, one of the most pitiable figures is the society man Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes), whose skepticism about the “Great Stanton” crumbles when Stan, furnished with information provided by Lilith, divines that Grindle is still in love with a woman who died thirty-five years ago. He then tries to manipulate Grindle for his own gain.

Whether Stanton Carlisle is a borderline psychopath or simply the product of his own desperate background is perhaps a matter for debate. I am inclined to the latter view, as Stan appears genuinely horrified by the sight of the geek, and also seems concerned for Pete’s suffering when deprived of alcohol. Stan also displays his own gullibility at times, a trait that eventually leads to his own downfall.

Given the bleakness of its vision, it is perhaps unsurprising that Nightmare Alley was a failure at the box office. Indeed, its “scandalous” content led to a number of protests. But the story is beautifully structured and absolutely compelling. Tyrone Power is riveting to watch, but also wonderfully supported by a superb cast. Joan Blondell (another Hollywood great) excels as Zeena, displaying a mixture of strength, sadness, and vulnerability – including vulnerability to temptation. Zeena describes herself to Stan as having “a heart as big as an artichoke and a leaf for everyone”. As her alcoholic husband Pete, Ian Keith switches between uncomprehending drunkeness and a kind of sad wisdom, whilst Taylor Holmes’s performance as Ezra Grindle brilliantly demonstrates the cruelty perpetrated when the innocent are hoodwinked by the cynical.

Rating: 10/10

Nightmare Alley is available on DVD from Twentieth Century Fox’s ‘The Studio Collection’ .

The_Imitation_Game_poster

Director: Morten Tyldum

Writer: Graham Moore

Country: UK/USA

Runtime: 114 minutes

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Alan Leech, Rory Kinnear

Man or machine? Alan Turing’s story finally gets a big-screen telling in this gripping thriller

Now recognised as one of the key figures in the Allied victory in World War Two because of his role in breaking German codes, as well as being the father of modern computing, Alan Turing was a relatively obscure figure for many years. His profile gradually increased from the mid-1980’s onwards, when a West End play Breaking the Code was staged about his life, culminating in 2013 with a Queen’s pardon for the charge of gross indecency that ultimately led to his suicide. Now Turing’s story has finally hit the big screen in this scintillating thriller directed by Morton Tyldum.

Graham Moore’s beautifully-paced and gripping screenplay for The Imitation Game is based on Andrew Hodges’ book “Alan Turing: The Enigma”. Rather than take us in a a linear fashion from Turing’s wartime work to his tragic demise, Moore cleverly interweaves three periods in his subject’s life in such a way that we are left not just with a sense of tragedy, but also of Turing’s great triumph. The bulk of the story concerns the war years at Bletchley Park, but we also see Turing during his school years and in the 1950s during the period when he was investigated by the police, arrested, and subsequently found dead at home.

The concept of the ‘imitation game’ is explained to a police officer by Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), whilst being interviewed after his arrest. Taken from a 1950 scientific article by Turing (not actually called ‘The Imitation Game’, contrary to what the film states), the game imagines an interrogator trying to distinguish between a thinking machine and a person, both unseen, on the basis of typed responses to questions. In order for the machine to bamboozle the interrogator its best strategy is to try and imitate a person. The central conceit of the film is to portray Turing as a machine. Remarkably intelligent, even as a schoolboy, Turing doesn’t really know how to interact with others. He takes other people’s spoken utterances entirely at face value, failing to appreciate the intended meanings and not comprehending jokes at all.

Although initially a subordinate in MI6’s secret team of codebreakers, Turing is frustrated that he cannot get the others to appreciate his ideas. After appealing directly to Churchill, Turing is put in charge but then is faced with the challenge of leading and motivating others whilst lacking any noticeable social skills. Gradually, Turing learns some of the aspects of normal interaction, especially in his chaste romance with the team’s only female, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). But does Turing really understand and feel any of this, or is he just imitating normal human behaviour? Surprisingly, several scenes are extremely funny. Turing’s portrayal here will surely spark a flash of recognition in readers of the British adult comic Viz, as Turing’s behaviour bears a striking resemblance to that of Mr Logic (it has, in fact, been suggested that Turing may have had Asperger’s Syndrome, though retrospective diagnoses are notoriously difficult and we can’t say for sure that this was the case).

After working for months without success, and with the whole project under threat, a chance remark in a bar leads Turing to realise how the German codes can be broken (this scene is reminiscent of the one in A Beautiful Mind where Russell Crowe’s John Nash explains – wrongly, unfortunately – the concept of the Nash Equilibrium). However, once the team discover they are able to decode German messages Turing reveals a terrible truth: the British military and intelligence services cannot use this knowledge to prevent all the German attacks they know are being planned.

An activity as complex and mathematical as codebreaking is not one that lends itself naturally to drama, but Graham Moore’s first-class script and Morten Tyldum’s direction do a terrific job of ramping up the tension and making the story exciting. Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as Turing, but the real revelation for me was Keira Knightley. She gives a passionate and stirring performance as Joan Clarke, a proto-feminist figure of blazing intelligence, who herself had to engage in an imitation game – pretending to be something she wasn’t – in order to satisfy her parents’ more traditional expectations for their daughter. Finally, a word must go to Oscar Faura’s cinematography, which I thought was outstanding.

Although principally a biographical drama, I would say that The Imitation Game also deserves to be considered alongside more action-oriented movies as one of the great war films.

Rating: 10/10

Previewed at the British Film Institute, 9th November

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Director: Mike Leigh

Writer: Mike Leigh

Country: UK

Runtime: 150 mins

Cast: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Ruth Sheen, Martin Savage, James Fleet, Joshua McGuire

An alternative title for Mike Leigh’s dazzling new film about the great artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner, could easily have been Turner and His Women. This is not just a film about the development of Turner’s ability to create the most sublime images, although great beauty is depicted. It is the contrast between Turner’s sensitivity as an artist and his insensitivity towards women that dominates the film and bookends it in the opening and closing scenes. But in other ways Turner could also be incredibly generous and this too is highlighted.

Leigh sets out his stall right from the beginning. After some artfully done opening credits and a beautifully sweeping landscape scene involving a sunrise, Flemish milkmaids, a windmill, and Turner (Timothy Spall) silhouetted against the sky, reality comes crashing back to earth when Turner returns to his father’s home in London. No sooner has the maid, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), appeared to take the artist’s request for a cup of tea, when he reaches up and gropes her breast, before then groping her between the legs. The two of them are clearly already intimately acquainted and, as brutal as Turner’s  behaviour seems, it is also invited. Lonely Hannah has feelings for Turner although his urges appear to be purely sexual.

Not long after this, Turner’s work is interrupted by the arrival of an angry, poor, ex-lover, Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) and the two daughters she has bore the artist. We never learn the history of this particular relationship, but what is clear is that Turner has no interest in Sarah and the children. He simply wants to get back to his easel and canvas.

But if Turner behaves poorly towards the women he is involved with, elsewhere he is more selfless. He lends £50 to the indebted artist Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), despite the latter’s rudeness born of desperation. Later, when Turner begins painting the works that are now recognised as his greatest, he is publicly mocked by Vaudevillians, and Queen Victoria refers to one of his pictures as “an ugly yellow mess”. Despite these humiliations, when a wealthy collector offers him a fortune for all his works Turner turns him down, saying that his pictures have been bequeathed – “to the British nation”. Turner also firmly defends the reputation of another seascape painter against the criticism of an insufferable, fawning Ruskin (Joshua McGuire).

Timothy Spall’s portrayal of Turner is one of the great performances of the year. He learned to paint over several months in order that his applications of brush to canvas would be convincing. His Turner is a great grunting force of nature, drawing crowds of onlookers as he leaps and spits on his canvasses, before smearing the oils into mysterious pre-impressionist clouds and seas. At one point, he has himself lashed to the mast of a ship in order that he can experience a storm at sea. From this he creates a masterpiece, Snow Storm. Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. However, he also suffers the consequences in the form of a bad bout of bronchitis. He is tended through his illness by Mrs Booth (an outstanding performance from Marion Bailey), the twice-widowed landlady of his lodgings in Kent. Turner enters into a secret relationship with her and she is the one woman who he genuinely cares for and treats decently.

As you might expect, Mr Turner contains some gorgeous landscape and seascape scenes. At one point we see Turner and some associates heading out to sea in a small boat, as clouds scud across a red sky above them. A large ship is being brought towards land by a tug and we realise we are watching the scene that became the classic picture The Fighting Temeraire. Even though this scene must have been a digital creation, it is still beautiful, and when I recognised what it was it brought a lump to my throat.

With numerous excellent performances, splendid cinematography, and a fine musical soundtrack, Mr Turner is very much a film worth seeing.

Rating: 10/10

Nightcrawlerfilm

Director: Dan Gilroy

Writer: Dan Gilroy

Country: USA

Runtime: 117 mins

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Joe Paxton

Jake Gyllenhaal excels as a psychopathic news cameraman working his way up the ladder of power

Dan Gilroy’s superb first directorial effort, Nightcrawler, is the gripping story of a ruthless nobody-turned-freelance-cameraman who works his way up the ladder by taking risks and transgressing moral boundaries. But really, Nightcrawler is more than this. It is a dark satire on the kind of Randian objectivist philosophy, which champions the pursuit of individual self-interest within a system of laissez-faire capitalism. Gilroy shows how this kind of world corrupts everybody who comes into contact with it.

The film begins with a gaunt, straggly-haired, Louis “Lou” Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), trying to scrape a living by stealing copper wire and other metallic items in order to sell to a scrap yard. But Bloom is not just an ordinary guy ducking-and-diving to make his way through hard times. He is a psychopath. In the opening scene, whilst Bloom is trespassing in order to cut a section of wire fence, he is challenged by a security guard. Bloom attacks the guard and steals the chunky watch he is wearing. As later events transpire Bloom’s character never changes. The only sense in which he learns is by digesting information from the internet that he then uses to his advantage in his interactions with others. It is the people around Gyllenhaal who change, becoming more compromised and corrupted as he manipulates them (although the news environment itself is already the ideal environment for such manipulation to occur).

Bloom discovers a way to escape from his world of petty crime when, whilst driving down the Los Angeles freeway, he encounters a news crew filming a bloody crash scene. Buttonholing one of the cameramen, Joe (Joe Paxton), he learns that they are a freelance outfit selling to whichever station pays the most.  Bloom steals a bicycle and takes it to a used goods store, where he swaps it for a camcorder and a police band radio. From this point onwards he starts muscling in at accident and crime scenes, racing to beat other crews to get the first pictures.

After selling some footage to Nina (Rene Russo), the head of a local newsroom, she gives him advice about the kind of footage they are seeking, which is predominantly white victims in the suburbs being hurt at the hands of the poor or ethnic minorities. She sums up the spirit of what they air as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”.

Bloom recruits a homeless Asian guy, Rick (Riz Ahmed), as a low-paid intern, whose job is “to listen to the emergency radio, learn the police codes, help navigate and watch the car”. Like a ghoulish version of his namesake in Ulysses, Bloom stalks the city streets with Rick seeking death and injury. With an eye as to what makes a good shot, he begins to rearrange crime and accident scenes for his own benefit, and to intrude on private property. His relationships with others are entirely economic transactions. One moment Bloom is threatening Rick with the sack for spilling petrol on the paintwork of his car, but the next moment he is dishing out praise and the prospect of promotion in order to overcome Rick’s moral qualms about their actions. Bloom starts a relationship with Nina, but this is entirely premised on the value of the footage he is able to collect and the possibility he might take it to another station.

It is a tribute to the screen presence and acting skills of Gyllenhaal, as well as to Gilroy’s excellent screenplay, that the audience (this viewer, at least) is able to maintain interest in a character as unsympathetic as Bloom. One of the characteristics of psychopaths, of course, is that they are often charming. Gyllenhaal captures this in the exchanges where, with a half-smile on his face and burning intensity in his eyes, he lavishes praise and flattery on others. I would not be surprised to see Gyllenhaal in the shortlist for the Oscars. Rene Russo (married to writer/director Dan Gilroy) also turns in a good performance as Nina, who by turns seems repelled and attracted by Bloom’s usurping of her power in both their personal and professional relationships. Riz Ahmed does a splendid job of portraying the plight of Rick, who has been taken off the streets by Bloom, but who could end up back there at any moment. He knows that what they are doing is wrong, but is desperate not to be homeless again. Rick is more dependent on Bloom than anyone else, but he is also the only person to show any moral qualms. Despite the various bullshit motivational speeches that Bloom makes, Rick’s liquid eyes constantly alternate between hope and fear. I wouldn’t mind betting that Ahmed could find himself in the Oscar stakes for best supporting actor.

In one sense, Dan Gilroy is treading similar ground to films like Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street. However, whereas those films placed considerable emphasis on the lifestyle excess that accompanies professional success, Nightcrawler is a much more ascetic affair. Bloom is a loner, who continues to live in a modest apartment even as his success spirals. His sole motivation is to be good at what he does and to climb the ladders of power. Other people are there to be used in whatever way will help achieve his goals. Unlike, say, the character of Bud Fox in Wall Street, there is absolutely no capacity for empathy or redemption. The consequences of this behaviour are shown to chilling effect.

I was also impressed by the musical soundtrack to the film. This is very unobtrusive, but all the more effective for it in a less-is-more kind of way. There are many sequences where there is no background music, but then when it appears it comes in fairly quietly and then builds, so that an atmosphere is created almost without you noticing the music.

Rating: 10/10

Correction: In an earlier version I wrote “aesthetic”, when I meant to say “ascetic”.