Monday, 31 January 2011

Seminal Scores: Out of Africa (John Barry, 1985)

The start of 2011 has already proven especially tragic with the loss of actors Pete Postlethwaite and Susannah York. But the death of veteran film composer John Barry hits closer to home for me. Truly one of the titans of film music has passed on; I'm a firm advocate of orchestral film scores - but rarely were they composed with the finesse and grace that Barry brought to the table. Unfairly pigeonholed in later years as a composer of weepy epics, he was in fact one of the most astute and dynamic musicians in Hollywood, one who spread himself across a variety of genres. He was both a tremendous melodist and a pioneer of 60s musical sounds; a man frequently dismissed as repetitious and samey but who possessed the most vital of gifts: an understanding of the orchestra. While probably best known for his eleven Bond scores, I'm here to cherish his memory through his Oscar-winning 1985 masterpiece, Out of Africa.
Rest in peace John. Your passing marks the end of an era.

Sydney Pollack's 1985 weepie swooped low over the Kenyan grasslands to eventually scoop seven Oscars, including one for the director himself, one for Best Picture and one for lead Meryl Streep. Taking on yet another intimidating accent (Danish in this case), Streep stars as Karen Blixen, on whose memoirs the film is based. Blixen, a baroness, entered into a passionless marriage of convenience in 20th century Africa but found her soul kindled by a big-game hunter (English in real life; all-American Robert Redford in the film). Klaus Maria Brandauer (as Blixen's legal husband, Bror), Michael Kitchen and others round out the support cast but truly it's a bit of a stodgy affair, crippled by over length and overuse of Streep's voice over.

What can't be disputed though are the film's awesome technical credits. If nothing else, the film is a paean to the majesty of Africa in a way few others are, David Watkin's cinematography capturing every facet of waving grassland and hazy plain beneath the scorching Kenyan sun. But while the cinematography alone guarantees the film's status as a breathtaking travelogue, there's a far more fundamental reason why it has stuck in the hearts of viewers since release. And no, it's nothing to do with Streep's warbling, overly researched accent. There's something else in the film that really makes us care about what's going on. And that is John Barry's score.

Famously, when first faced with the print of the film, Barry rejected director Pollack's notion that it be scored with indigenous melodies. Instead, he hit on the far more elemental (and far more powerful) notion that the music should score the emotion of the characters at the centre of the film. The landscape meanwhile could always speak for itself. A skeptical Pollack hesitantly agreed but the gamble paid off: Barry's approach to Out of Africa proved to be one of the most astute dramatic decisions of his career, resulting in a score that punctuated the turgid, navel-gazing gloom of the film to evoke real compassion and emotion for the characters.

The composer, ever self-deprecating, expressed surprise when he won the Oscar for Best Original Score, citing there was no more than 35 minutes of it in the two and a half hour film. But it's the sparing use of the music itself that guarantees it such heart-wrenching success. It's a brilliantly spotted film, and Barry's capacity for sheer, old-fashioned beauty cuts right to the centre of Blixen's heartbreak. Much of the score's success can be credited to its magnificent central theme, I Had a Farm in Africa, one that's clad in Barry's familiar style (high strings, low horns) but which takes on a spectacularly rich vein of melancholy when placed in the context of the film. Barry's understanding that human emotion in and of itself can be represented in an expansive, melodramatic fashion was a massively insightful notion, one that guaranteed the theme's status as one of the most glorious ever to grace the silver screen.

Positioned alongside the main theme is the lesser known but breathlessly intimate one for Karen herself. Split into three movements across the album (I'm Better at Hello/I Had a Compass from Denys/If I Know a Song of Africa), it's truly lovely, with particular emphasis going on woodwind and piano. Barry effectively pits the quiet intimacy of Karen's theme against the broader expanse of the Farm theme to create a dramatic contrast in scale. By choosing to score the emotional landscape as opposed to the physical one, Barry underpins both album and film with a genuine aura of sincerity.

There is one brief concession to local sounds at the end of the moodier Karen's Journey/Siyawe, which deploys ethnic voices to authentic effect. By contrast, Safari plays up the expansive joy of Karen's venture into the landscape, another example of the multitude of nuances enriching an admittedly brief score. The most memorable moments however are those that put the main theme at the forefront, chiefly the astonishing Flying Over Africa which builds from a low choral/orchestral combination to a majestic, thrilling variation on I Had a Farm. It's one of the most heavenly moments in Barry's lengthy career, and in the film, when combined with David Watkin's jaw-dropping aerial photography, it's simply remarkable.

It's also incredibly moving. By the time one reaches the heartbreaking End Title movement (You Are Karen), Barry's sense of musical compassion is overwhelming, the full orchestra performing the difficult trick of seeming uplifting and deeply melancholy at the same time. This is Barry's greatest achievement with the score, painting human heartbreak as a symphony and with that graceful, deft touch that only the very best film composers attain. In a career packed with highlights, Out of Africa stakes a claim as one of John Barry's most resonant and successful works, achieving a level of heart and soul that all scores aim for but which few achieve.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Morning Glory

Midway through Morning Glory, perky, ambitious producer Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) confronts grouchy veteran anchor Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) about the true value of television broadcasting. Do you feed people bran, she asks, something that's healthy but ultimately tedious, or a sweet, fluffy doughnut, which offers immediate, if short-lived, gratification?

Such a comparison could be levelled at Roger Michell's new film in its entirety. If Morning Glory ultimately veers more towards sugary, forgettable confection as opposed to substantial, intelligent nourishment, it's no less enjoyable for it, benefiting from solid casting in the central quarters and a vein of nicely caustic humour that prevents it from drowning in too much syrup.

Much of the latter in fact stems from Ford himself. On his finest form in years, the actor appears to be doing little more than channeling his real personality, face hewn like Mount Rushmore's more rugged cousin and voice set to a perpetual growl. If this is what it takes for Ford to fully engage an audience however, he should consider doing it for the rest of his career; somehow he makes this ageing, miserable chauvinist lothario both hilariously funny and immensely likeable.

His sparring with McAdams lies at the heart of the film, although it takes a while to reach the juicy, jam-laden centre. At the start, McAdams' Becky is fired from her job; having sent her resume around to all the television stations in the New Jersey and New York area, she is finally picked up for an executive producer spot on struggling breakfast show Daybreak (British viewers will see an irony there) by an uncharacteristically slimy Jeff Goldblum. He has no faith in Becky's assertion that she will boost the ratings by essentially blackmailing Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ford to appear as anchor on the show alongside Diane Keaton.

But then, daft pipe dreams are what Hollywood's made of, and make no mistake, Morning Glory has little interest in exposing the bleary-eyed, backbreaking world of morning television. McAdams for one never looks like she's more than a step away from the make-up tent but when she demonstrates this much pluck and pizazz, we can overlook that. And once she starts sparring with Ford, she's cooking with gas.

There are problems. The higher profile support cast (including Keaton and Patrick Wilson as McAdams' bit of stuff) are given little to do aside from the odd amusing set-piece (the frog-kissing scene generates a priceless reaction from Ford) and it's a shame that cynicism is replaced by a predictable cooking against the clock climax. It's less station satire than smart sitcom but it's infinitely more enjoyable and easier to digest than yet another crude, so-called bromance comedy.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Green Hornet

The Green Hornet is a strange film in that it owes its enjoyment to those others it steals from. Add to that problems in tone (swearing is surprisingly aggressive for a 12A, indicating a level of immaturity from co-writer/exec producer/star Seth Rogen), and a distinct lack of director Michel Gondry's authorial stamp, and what you get is a bunch of ill-fitting bits.

What can't be argued is its almighty debt to Kick Ass in particular (plus Batman and others), which covered similar ground with much more edginess, controversy and self-awareness. Ironically, that film had the capacity to sting, and did so without mercy; The Green Hornet is more blunted and dulled. It's got the full force of the Hollywood marketing machine behind it but, bizarrely, the film is somewhat regressive. Being the latest incarnation of a superhero whose inception dates back to the 1940s, and who has already enjoyed a rich history (including Bruce Lee's short-lived TV series), there seems to be little sense of modern sophistication or wit.

It would be interesting to know what creators George W. Trendle and Fran Striker would have made of their hero being reduced to the level of Seth Rogen slobbery, because that's exactly what happens. Rogen stars as Britt Reid, playboy son to a newspaper magnate (Tom Wilkinson) who dies from a bee sting. Realising his father's coffee maker, Kato (Jay Chou) is a whizz with gadgets, Reid hits on the notion that they team up and become superheroes, in his case The Green Hornet. The plan is to pose as baddies in other to divert attention from themselves when in fact they'll be fighting the villains on their own turf for the greater good.

It all sounds promising but the whole ethos of the piece can be summed up by an undercooked, though enjoyably smarmy, Christoph Waltz. As antagonist Chudnofsky, Waltz carries an air of someone happy to be simply invited onto a Hollywood set. Such coasting pervades the whole film, adrenaline levels rarely exceeding a moderate hum throughout, while all of the best gags carry an uncomfortable air of familiarity. The 'ordinary schmo becomes a superhero' overlap with Kick Ass would perhaps be considered unfortunate until one considers the former began filming long before Hornet, leaving plenty of time for liberal 'riffing'. How else to explain the presence of an identikit gag whereby both heroes dance in their car The Black Beauty prior to going out and kicking butt?

But it's not just Kick Ass. There's the playboy/superhero duality that Rogen simply can't convey in the manner of a Keaton or Bale; the house fight that was diluted in Iron Man II because of the metal suits but which carries an air of childish nastiness here; and many more lifts that act as entertaining reminders of other, better films. Rogen's overbearing persona almost completely stomps out the Gondry spark which made Eternal Sunshine and Be Kind Rewind such a joy; his screenplay, co-authored with Superbad cohort Evan Goldberg, revels in the boorishness of the Reid character but fails to make us feel anything sincere.

There are glimmers of the self-referential film Gondry wants to make; at one stage, the screen splits into multiple frames conveying a series of criss-crossing conversations. Later on, a key revelatory moment is also conveyed in brilliantly inventive fashion, staving off the need for tired exposition. These are the moments that should dominate throughout but in the end it's more a Seth Rogen film than a Michel Gondry film. There's nothing strictly wrong with that but it's a bit of a cheat to fly under the radar of a superhero film, only to come over all Funny People. The utterly superfluous presence of Cameron Diaz however is just Superbad.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Bullitt: The Car Chase That Blazed A Trail

A single 10 minute scene in the midst of a fairly dull 1968 cop thriller forced Hollywood to re-assess its entire outlook on the car chase. Bullitt coasts largely on the other-worldly cool of leading man Steve McQueen (has any other star proved more unflappable?) and the on-location photography in hippie-era San Francisco. While the film was an undeniable influence
on the likes of Dirty Harry, on the whole it remains fairly mundane - bar *that* scene. With the recent tragic death of the film's director Peter Yates, it's only right to look back on the granddaddy of all movie car chases, arguably the first to be constructed as a serious dramatic set piece. My all-time favourite remains the Paris fender bender in Ronin, but Bullitt's is arguably the most important and the most influential, showcasing a commitment to reality that forced every subsequent thriller into a flurry of recycling.

#1 The Logistics

Far removed from the gadget-laden Aston Martin chase in Goldfinger or the buffoonery of The Pink Panther, in Bullitt, director Yates displayed a ruthless commitment to ground-level realism. Making the decision to film the chase on actual San Francisco streets brought a whole host of dangers, the cars exceeding the expected speed limits (and at one point colliding with a camera). Shot over three weeks, the route was also carefully planned, starting in the Mission District and ending on Guadalupe Canyon Parkway, traversing different locations which showcased the extreme topography of the city, raising the tension. Yates also hired stunt co-coordinator Carey Loftin (the unseen truck driver in Duel), stuntman Bud Elkins (for McQueen's more dangerous moments) and stunt driver Bill Hickman as the villain McQueen pursues, all of which lends the chase that vital sense of lived-in realism. By taking the chase into the real world like never before, Bullitt set the standard by which all others are measured.

#2 Steve McQueen

Those who've watched the fascinating (if amusingly portentous) 'Commitment to Reality' featurette on the old Bullitt DVD will be well-aware of Steve McQueen's desire for immersiveness way beyond the confines of his character. Not merely content with throwing himself under a jumbo jet during the film's climax, he also performed the majority of his own driving work, taking to the racetrack with Bill Hickman weeks beforehand to better prepare himself for the dangers that lay ahead. The result is a not merely a car chase but a car chase centered around a real character, feelings exacerbated by the authentic presence of McQueen behind the wheel. Authenticity would become all in every chase to follow, be it Gene Hackman almost colliding with a pram in The French Connection to the clever trick-work in Ronin where all the actors were subjected to terrifying high-speeds (although the actual drivers were carefully concealed). No-one ever maintained their cool like McQueen, though.

#3 The Cars

The guttural roar of Bullitt's 1968 Ford Mustang GT is enough to send car-fanatics and action-movie enthusiasts into a flurry on its own. When coupled with the brute-force of the Dodge Charger however, it becomes a symphony of speed, the sound of the engines transforming the entire scene into a celebration of speed and American muscle. Both cars are put through their paces on 'Frisco's unforgiving hills and valleys, groaning with screeching tyres and thumping suspension, sound effects reminding the audience that the vehicles on-screen are being treated as cars, not empty fashion vessels. The sense of verite realism spills across into the sound design as well as the visuals, further adding to the thrilling excitement of the chase.

#4 The Tension

Bullitt was a breakthrough at the time for the careful, steady way it built up tension prior the chase starting, indicating this was a film that didn't treat action as an ostentatious gimmick but as a powerful dramatic device. As McQueen spots his assailants in the traffic opposite, a witty little cat and mouse game ensues whereby he draws the baddies in before turning the tables on them and appearing in their rear-view mirror. The use of close-ups, aerial views, reverse shots and low angles all achieve an irresistible, nail biting rhythm, accompanied by Lalo Schifrin's ice-cool jazzy score ('Shifting Gears' on the soundtrack), which lends a broiling sense of anticipation. Interestingly, the score in Ronin is used in reverse, coming in as that chase builds to its climax. That the chase necessitated such careful planning ensures it retains a rigorous sense of control once Hickman buckles up his seat belt (terrific attention to detail rarely glimpsed in such scenes) and roars off up the hill.

#5 The Climax

Frank P. Keller's Oscar-winning editing is vital throughout the scene but takes on an especially dynamic rhythm in the latter stages. All car chases risk failing with an anti-climax but Keller builds tension so effectively beforehand that the payoff is nothing less than spectacular. Dribbles of a demolition derby threaten through, be it a scraped chasse here or a missing hubcap there (not to mention an unfortunate motorcyclist nearly coming a cropper), but it really shifts into high gear (arf arf) in the last couple of minutes. Bullitt at first attempts to bash the fearsome Charger off the road, only to hold back when the second hit man (Paul Genge) blasts a few terrifying shots through his windscreen, before finally going in for the kill: ramming his enemies off the road into a petrol station for a spectacularly explosive coup de grace.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Mr Kobayashi - Who Is He Exactly?


Played by the late, great Pete Postlethwaite, the mysterious and menacing Mr Kobayashi is the role I'll forever identify the chameleonic actor with. Famed for his ability to sink into a variety of roles, from the band leader in Brassed Off to alpha male hunter Roland Tembo in Steven Spielberg's The Lost World (who reportedly described the actor as 'the best in the world'), Postlethwaite's angular, ambivalent demeanour is at the heart of Bryan Singer's slippery, tricky tale. In a world where nothing is as it seems, and spinning a story can seduce and fool the best of them (credit Kevin Spacey's subtlety and Christopher McQuarrie's marvellous screenplay for that), the bizarre presence of this most British of performers playing the lawyer of crime lord Keyser Soze should strike a false note. He even sports a dodgy Welsh/Pakistani accent. But somehow, Postlethwaite's alien demeanour, accent and all, works brilliantly on a meta fictional level because both character and actor are freed from the constraints of perceptible reality, only existing in the world of Verbal Kint's story, which of course may or may not be true.

That is, until the final shot of the film of course ...

Regardless, it stands as one of Pete Postlethwaite's best performances. Rest in peace, you are sorely missed.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The King's Speech

When King George VI, formerly Albert, Duke of York, finally found his voice after a battle with a horrendous stammer, it proved one of the most miraculous moments in British constitutional history. Finally, the monarch was able to deploy the full power of the written word and unite his people over the wireless during the immensely turbulent period leading up to World War II. And now Tom Hooper's tremendous new film, The King's Speech, finds an eloquent cinematic voice of its own, emerging from the stumbling, half-baked Christmas season as one of the most rewarding and enjoyable costume dramas in recent years.

It arrives showered in acclaim and Golden Globe nominations, and is hotly tipped to do well at the BAFTAs and Oscars. Such hype can be a dangerous thing, as can the dreaded 'Heritage Cinema' tag applied to many films of this ilk. As Eddie Izzard observed, we half expect it to be populated with British actors constantly opening doors in each others faces and coming all aflutter. Well, there are British actors, and there are many scenes of said actors walking in and out of rooms. It also owes a debt to The Queen, the drama that made cinematic portrayals of British monarchs all the more fashionable. But it is staid and mannered? Is it heck. Does it exceed the hype? Yes, it does.

In fact, this is cinema dripping with passion and compassion, warmth and humour. It's a bracing eye-opener to a vital period in British history and also, unexpectedly, a heartfelt buddy movie. Colin Firth meanwhile continues to build on the heartbreaking work seen in last year's A Single Man, and seems to have cornered the market in low-key British melancholia. The difference is, here he is burdened with greater expectation. Much as the King himself was required to shoulder incredible pressure, Firth not only has to embody the monarch's regal principles but also has to humanise him through the presence of the dreaded stammer.

The actor pulls it off magnificently, fully conveying the sense of terror that arises from the conflict between public speaking and bodily rebellion. Accompanied by Alexandre Desplat's lovely score, one which gives an air of florid intimacy, the film opens on Albert's 1925 Empire Exhibition address at Wembley Stadium. Freezing in his tracks before the microphone and a rapt audience, the Duke is crippled by mechanics he can't control. Consequently, his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, understated and all the better for it) consults flamboyant, unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to see if he can cure her husband's problem.

'What is he, an indentured servant?' Logue enquires, initially unaware that he is being consulted by a member of the Royal Family (under a different name). Such disarming moments are frequent in the film, and work brilliantly in generating a warm atmosphere that shatter any preconceived notions of stuffy history. Stuffy is one thing the film certainly isn't; it relishes the sense of period and, bar some discrepancies, appears to represent it accurately. And when the mighty Rush begins to spar with Firth, it never looks back, right from the moment he insists on approaching the future king on an even keel and calling him 'Bertie'.

Both actors forge a delightful chemistry that never threatens to become overbearing because the film ensures the personal growth of the two characters is but one part of the bigger picture. Both Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler have a firm hand on the multifaceted narrative, pitting personal anguish against public tension. As Logue pioneers increasingly eccentric ways for Albert to overcome his impediment (everything from rolling on the floor to rib-tickling bouts of swearing), the political intrigue elsewhere gathers apace, and the film builds enormous tension in spite of the fact that its conclusion is a foregone one, subservient to the path of history.

Indeed as Albert's brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicates in favour of marrying American divorcee Wallace Simpson, the film changes from intimate comedy drama largely set in the confines of Logue's shabby office (one of the film's pleasures is the way it frames royalty against unflattering environments) to broader constitutional thriller, Albert reluctantly forced to take up the mantle of king. Yet it never loses that vital sense of humour and pathos. Firth, Rush and Bonham Carter all continue to wear the immense burden of history lightly and professionally, putting a vivid human face on the class divide in pre-Blitz Britain.

Throughout, Danny Cohen's careful framing, Eve Stuart's impeccable art direction and Jenny Beavan's lush costumes are all critical to Hooper's vision. In spite of the odd inaccuracy, the film's emotional honesty and sense of integrity is never in doubt. All aspects of the production fuse together seamlessly to form a film which doesn't just inhabit the period but which also brings the period thrillingly to life, nowhere more so than in that agonising final showdown between the monarch and the mic. That we care is one thing; that we're practically on the edge of our seats is something else entirely.

The Next Three Days

Paul Haggis sets himself a difficult task with The Next Three Days, effectively trying to fuse a breakout movie with a moodily introspective drama. To put it another way, this is his attempt to make a serious action film. It's an unexpected move for the acclaimed writer-director, here adapting the hit French film 'Pour Elle'; for while he's earned genre chops on the screenplays for Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, his work behind the camera (Crash, In the Valley of Elah) isn't exactly pacey or energetic.

That he makes a good fist of it is a pleasant surprise, although Three Days is kind of on a hiding to nothing. No matter how many anguished close-ups of leading star Russell Crowe or moody statements delivered by Danny Elfman's uncharacteristically subdued score, it can never fully escape the silliness it inevitably trundles towards later on. After all, action and drama are not good bedfellows; the nearest thing to a recent success in this area would be something like The Dark Knight, a grand drama which just happened to have action sequences in it.

Nevertheless, Haggis' ambition is noteworthy and Crowe is a commanding, riveting centre. Bouncing back from his turn as Robin Hood, one which gained lukewarm reviews (but which, in the opinion of this reviewer, was fine), this is Crowe doing what he does best: holding the lion's share of the spotlight but allowing little nuances to infect his broad, immensely physical performance. It helps that he has a strong leading lady to bounce off, in this case Elizabeth Banks as his devoted, if mercurial, wife, who, at the start of the film is arrested for apparently murdering her boss.

With Crowe's happy home life disrupted (he has a young son to bring up), the film proceeds to jump ahead in stages, until the day comes he decides to break his wife out of prison. Irrespective of whether she's innocent or guilty (and oddly this threatens to become irrelevant as the film wears on), Crowe lurches forward, brow furrowed and voice set to its lowest level. At one stage he even consults Liam Neeson (performing a one-scene cameo and also growling) who establishes a series of do's and don'ts for a prison break. We barely question Crowe's motives or the fact that the evidence is stacked up against his wife because he is a force of nature, so set on his path that we can't help but be swept along with him. And, in spite of the film's odd tone, it continues to build a tremendous amount of tension.

But, given this is a Paul Haggis film, the pacing is in fact less active than it is ambling, opening up the story's flaws of logic to greater examination. Brief glitches like breaking into a van with a punctured tennis ball pale next to ostentatious sub-plots such as Crowe desperately attempting to steal money from local Pittsburgh drug addicts to fund his convoluted scheme. And of course, once the director's set down the road towards the jail break, he cannot deviate for fear of cheating the audience, although there is ironic pleasure and an undercurrent of plausibility in the way that everyman Crowe (yeah right) unwittingly continues to break Neeson's rules throughout due to his inexperience in busting people from the joint.

It's that attention to detail which saves The Next Three Days from being a complete disaster, detail which, almost counter-intuitively, underpins the silly moments with a degree of believability along with strong star performances from Crowe and Banks. The latter is excellent: effectively creating an unpredictable air of ambiguity, so much so that we're not sure if Crowe's gallantry is misguided.

It's a credit to both stars that they're able to communicate pathos amid the later crashes and bangs; this is clearly where Haggis' film is carefully poised to rise or fall, although in the end it mostly falls between the two poles, admittedly through no fault of the performers. By its very nature, it's doomed not to be a complete success but kudos for trying. Just imagine if Crash had more crashes and car chases; it's a strange brew but you certainly won't be looking at the clock for the duration.