Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Need for Speed (2014)

Based on a popular video game, Need for Speed is, for all its flashy modern trappings, essentially a B-movie, of the kind that used to skid across drive-in screens regularly back in the ‘70s. Slickly produced, swathed in shiny digital textures and looking as colourful and enticing as a candy bar wrapper, it’s clearly way more expensive than its forebears, and can’t match the honourably trashy, down-to-earth ethics of something like White Lightning (1973) or Death Race 2000 (1976), but it’s such a beguiling mix of the breezy and the speedy it earns its spurs. The impetus to make this probably came as much from the Fast and Furious series as from the game’s popularity, but Need For Speed bears more than a passing resemblance to Vanishing Point (1971), as it follows a sympathetic but heedlessly focused driver defying law and nature trying to race across the American landscape in two days, aided by a friendly voice in a broadcasting booth somewhere. The story beats, however, reject the fashionable individual-against-the-system tilt of the model and go back to the primal elements of melodrama, dredging up good old-fashioned railroaded justice and revenge to motivate our hero Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) to take on the bad guy and drive his way to victory, man. Hell, never mind Steve McQueen or Burt Reynolds: it’s easy enough to imagine Richard Barthelmess and Ricardo Cortez starring in this, in some imagined black-and-white Howard Hawks quickie of the ‘30s. 

At the outset, upstate New Yorker Tobey has inherited his father’s custom car-building garage and employs a team of stalwart pals, but his victories in illegal street races don’t reap enough cash to keep the business going. An old rival from the local scene, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who’s become a car dealer and well-regarded race driver, gives Tobey a lifeline, by asking him to finish building a refurbished, seriously souped-up Ford Mustang started by deceased engineering legend Carrol Shelby. Tobey’s team produce a brilliant racer. Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), a buying agent and expert car appraiser who works for English collector, Bill Ingram (Stevie Ray Dallimore), agrees to purchase the car for millions after Tobey proves it can make superlative speeds. Dino, offended that Tobey ignored his command to not drive the car, dares Tobey and his young pal Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) to race him on the street in a pair of imported Ageras. When it becomes clear both are going to beat him, Dino rams the rear of Pete’s car and accidentally sends his car flying off a bridge. Tobey distraughtly returns to the crash site but Dino shoots through. Tobey is blamed for the accident and imprisoned for manslaughter. Four years later, when he’s released on parole, Tobey naturally has payback on his mind and glory to seek. He convinces Ingram to loan him the Mustang, as he plans to enter it into a highly illegal and dangerous “De Leon” street race organised annually by the mysterious millionaire dubbed Monarch (Michael Keaton), who webcasts enthusiastically on his favourite racers, and acts quite like one of the old “benshis” who narrated and spelt out morals in Japanese noh theatre and silent cinema. Tobey knows he has to impress Monarch enough to earn an invitation to the race, which he only knows will be held in California, so he begins a high-speed, cross-country dash eluding police and Dino’s bounty hunters all the way, showing off with some free-form fancy driving to attract Monarch’s attention. And Julia invites herself along for the ride with Tobey to protect her investment. 

You probably already know by reading this synopsis if this is just not your cup of Earl Grey. But Need for Speed has garrulous, straight-arrow pizzazz and a pleasing lack of shame in purveying its over-the-top genre buzz that overcame my objections. Objections I had, to the cheesy insta-exposition Monarch spouts, and to the sometimes cringe-worthy disregard for public safety we’re expected to swallow. The film needs a lot more of that quickly sketched marginalia that ‘70s genre cinema was so good at - the goitred redneck sheriffs, the random weirdos from diverse pan-continental cultures, the teeming human comedy of American life. The unlikely escapades of Tobey’s flyer pal Benny (Scott Mescudi), who spots clear patches of road for him from a Cessna, but also somehow manages to talk an Army buddy into lending him a helicopter that proves handy at one juncture, provide excessive silliness. And that’s frustrating because, in its way, Need for Speed does otherwise stay true to the earthbound, high-speed, antisocial vicissitudes of the classic drive-in crash-and-bash fare it recalls. Nor does the film bend as far backward as the Fast and Furious films have to prove street cred: indeed, it could well be offering a little deflating satire on those films' glamorisation of gearhead lifestyle as a ticket to a badass high life, as a bunch of models snort derisively at the pick-up attempts of mere mechanics. This was produced by Dreamworks and there’s a faint flicker, as there was in the first, tolerable Transformers film (2007), of the old Spielbergian ethic here, as the film tosses some likeable actors together playing clichéd but defined characters and bothers to try and gets us on their side. Paul does a good embattled hero, Cooper gives good oily creep, and that’s all we need to give the film that basic pulpy charge required to forgive its trespasses.

Helmsman Scott Waugh is a former stuntman whose debut as director Act of Valor (2011) hardly set the world on fire, but his work here is slick and visually coherent, for the most part avoiding dizzying edits and jerking camerawork, and going for reflex-fast filmmaking that nonetheless has some classical elegance to it in tracing lines of motion of fast-moving objects painted in the same colours as the average preschool's walls. This pays off in some dazzling moments of technical cinema, particularly Pete’s crash, filmed in slow motion, young dreamer launched into zero gravity for a few precious seconds of transcendence before hitting the ground in a fireball, and a terrifically unexpected crash late in the film that throws the story, and our heroes, for a loop. Probably the main draw for anyone who’s not 13 years old or a terminal petrol head here, however, would be the intrigue factor of seeing Paul, everybody’s main man from his work on Breaking Bad (2008-13), try his hand at anchoring a too-cool action film. Paul’s an unusual choice in that regard, as a low-key and realistic actor possessing neither the looks of a Tom Cruise nor the magnetic bearish appeal of Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson. But with his supple expressive register is on display throughout, Paul is more emotionally convincing than those guys, and he even invests a character based on a mass of pixels with expressive alertness: he actually does seem to be in pain in the moments when he lets down his taciturn guard and lets his loss and the wrongs done to him register. Tobey, although he knows how good he is and doesn’t mind showing it, also thankfully isn’t one of the breed of obnoxiously macho, one-upping heroes too many recent films have.

Perhaps the chief pleasure of Need for Speed lies in how Paul and his supporting cast actually seem to be having a good time, particularly from Poots and Rami Malek as one of Tobey’s crew, Finn. Julia is introduced posing as an airheaded posh bird to lead Tobey and Pete on whilst assessing their vehicular prowess, but quickly shows her chops as a gearhead and leaps gleefully into the fray with Tobey, hanging out the window to help Finn with on-the-move refuelling and duelling with bounty hunters at high speed. Poots gets to pull the same gag Katia Winter did in The Banshee Chapter (2014) in slipping from home county class into her best good ole gal accent as the moment demands. Malek, who’s been hovering in the background lately (The Master, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, both 2012) has one great scene that gives Need for Speed the right kind of sauntering, adolescent cheek, as Finn’s taken a job working in a cubicle office for some corporation, but when his friends pull up outside with a super car and a host of cops on their tails, he quits his job and makes sure he can’t come back, strips off all his clothes save for a pair of multi-coloured socks, snogs his office crush and swaps brief confirmations of mutual humanity with a middle-aged fellow employee in the elevator (“I’m in accounting.” “Does it feel like you’re dying inside?” “Yes.”). In the wrong hands this moment might have seemed unbearably crass, but here it’s emblematic of the film’s brash and general, if more than slightly reckless good-humour. There’s a nominal love triangle between Tobey, Julia, and Anita (a rather fazed-looking Dakota Johnson), Pete’s sister and Tobey’s former girlfriend who’s since become Dino’s concubine, in a subplot that has a reason for existing narrative-wise but never feels remotely interesting. But on the whole, even if this is pretty dumb, it’s a charming kind of dumb, and it could well stand as the best video game adaptation yet made – a very low bar, admittedly.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

We Are the Best! (Vi Är Bäst!, 2013)

Lukas Moodysson, a former poet, has been a popular filmmaker outside his native Sweden since his feature debut with Fucking Amal (aka Show Me Love, 1998), which established him as a fine hand at portraying youthful anomie, and his follow-up Together (2000) about commune life in the mid-‘70s. He then went serious with the admirably grim, if excessively blunt and questionable Lilya 4 Ever (2005), and made an English-language sojourn for Mammoth (2009). We Are the Best! is more in the vein of his early work. An overt crowd-pleaser, We Are the Best! depends on his capacity to capture, with naturalistic good-humour, the vicissitudes of being young in modern society’s zones of flux. The essential concept, adapted from a comic book by his wife Coco, is irresistible: in the early ‘80s, two 13-year old, androgynous-looking wannabe-hellions, Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), are obsessed with punk rock and start their own band in spite of having no musical knowledge whatsoever. Their self-declared outsider status sees them bickering with girly-girl classmates about whether “punk is dead,” happily mocking school concerts, and inspires them to improvise a song, “Hate Sport,” decrying obsession with sport in the face of the world’s problems, after their PE teacher sentences them to laps of the gymnasium. They reach out to a prim, religious classmate, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), whose self-composed talent as a guitarist tantalises the girls with elusive promises of actual musical quality, and in spite of their divergent values the girls fuse together into a loyal unit.

Moodysson’s skill with young actors is evident as he lets his young scamps burst with unruly energy. His familiar thrum of laidback humanism underscores the proceedings as he waggishly offers pint-sized tyros taking on anyone who offends them, starting with hair metal band Iron Fist who hog the practice space in their neighbourhood youth centre: capitalising on a technicality about booking the space and backed up by the centre’s comically officious hippie youth counsellors, they take over the space and the communal instruments after kicking Iron Fist out, and then bash on their instruments with all the abandon of the Lord of the Flies kids. When they reach out to Hedvig, they find her surprisingly receptive to their musical obsessions and ambitions. They also offer her friendship, something she lacks, although their attempts to give her a punk haircut results in her mother (Ann-Sofie Rase) threatening to report them to the police, but then giving them a sweet lecture over milk and cookies about the hypocrisy of trying to impose their own standards of in-crowd chic on others when they’ve been avoiding that themselves. A more serious potential for a rift forms when the three girls reach out to a band of slightly older boys who have a band, Sabotage, often featured in the fanzine they read assiduously. The asymmetric hook-up sees the boys in the band, Elis (Jonathan Salomonsson) and Mackan (Alvin Strollo), having recently shed a member, interested in Klara and Hedvig, leaving Bobo, who suffers from low self-esteem, hurt by the excision. She contacts Elis herself in a naked play for his affection. 

I won’t pretend I’m a big fan of Moodysson. I haven’t seen his ventures into more oblique and experimental cinema with A Hole in My Heart (2004) and Container (2006), but his mainstream films don’t reveal a particularly imaginative filmmaker for all his poetic background – for instance, his attempts to get magic-realist in Lilya 4 Ever were clumsy -- and there’s something twitchily frustrating about his films, like one of those bugs that can skate across a pond without falling in at the cost of ever noticing the depths,  regardless of whether they're aiming for buoyancy or tragedy. We Are the Best! is a pleasant affair that might well try nerves for all its pleasantness. I know it did mine at times. It pays shallows heed to the waning days of punk and turns that raucous art form essentially into a noisy but entirely acceptable expression for kids whose postures, far from being transgressive, are based for the most part around very safe, nice, bourgeois Swedish concerns. Even a brief argument about religious faith between the girls driven by Klara’s acceptance of the iconoclastic precepts of the music ends with a cute smirk. Compared to the searing engagement of Dennis Hopper’s report from the same year this is set, Out of the Blue (1982), this is all but a Disney film. An unfair comparison, perhaps, as the aims of the two films are so disparate, but We Are the Best! is too squeaky-clean and blithely tempered for its own good. How entertaining you find the film may depend on your tolerance for the characters’ windy mix of brashness and childishness, or obvious comedic switchbacks like would-be firebrand Bobo transformed by a cut into a sobbing wretch afraid she’s going to lose her hand. The anxieties underlying the girls’ ventures into pubescence, with Bobo bemused by her mother’s revolving door relationships and disinterested in a visit by her father, and her quiet feelings of inadequacy, are described but aren’t invested with enough gravity to matter much. The film passes pretty blithely over the minor complications it throws our way, perhaps out of an over-zealous desire to validate its heroines.

Still, the film’s paucity of pretence and surplus of intimate joie-de-vivre mostly makes up for its absence of ambition and real cultural comment. To Moodysson’s credit, most of his humorous flourishes avoid feeling forced, even with insistently whimsical touches like making Klara’s father a jaunty clarinettist joining the girls for a nonsensical hoedown, or the girls trying to beg money from strangers to buy an electric guitar. At its best the film feels breezily authentic, a mirror where just about anyone from anywhere might recognise their own youths, like the girls staging a sneak raid on Klara’s older brother Linus’ student party, stealing booze to get nauseously tipsy. Perhaps the best scene in the film sees Bobo, Klara, and Elis climbing to the top of an apartment block, surveying the Stockholm landscape from their icy vantage, with Klara and Elis embracing, wrapped in steamy breath, to Bobo’s shambling chagrin: the dizzying force of protean teenage attraction and the sharply divisive emotions it can inspired are beautifully visualised. The finale, in which the girls try to perform their ramshackle anthem at a gig arranged by the youth counsellors in the satellite town of Västerås, amusingly avoids any triumphalism as they foul up badly and finish up insulting the already intolerant crowd, sparking a tiny riot. Nonetheless they count it as a success having stirred a crowd, perhaps headed for oblivion as artists but having made damn sure their youth rocked. Ulf Brantås’ cinematography is a plus, utilising inevitable hand-held camerawork but essayed in bold colours, turning the cityscapes it describes into playpens for its heroines’ imaginations, its boxy, drab buildings into places where humans make their own realities.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Action in the North Atlantic (1943)

Blockbuster action, 1943 style. I first saw this film as a kid, and some of the more vividly cruel touches, including a lifeboat loaded with filth-smeared, panting shipwreck survivors being rammed, and a U-boat captain laughing boyishly after torpedoing a cargo ship, welded themselves on my brain. And this is still a superlative example of classic Hollywood’s craft and instinct for turning grim realities and touchy subjects into grand entertainment. Raymond Massey is old school merchant marine skipper Steve Jarvis, and Humphrey Bogart is stalwart first mate Joe Rossi, taking on Nazis on the high seas. Director Lloyd Bacon was a weathered Hollywood pro who had helped define Warner Bros.’ reputation for earthy, realistic, tough-minded and tautly fashioned cinema across a variety of genres. He’s probably best known today for mixing Depression-era realism with a restrained, prototypical version of Hollywood glamorous panache to sneaky effect on 42nd Street and Footlight Parade (both 1933), and here does a similarly compulsive job mixing wartime exploits with a blue-collar bent and the usual exigencies of WW2 propaganda. And Bacon does bring something like the nimble physicality and sense of forward motion demanded by a good musical to the proceedings. Bacon had also made the first sound adaptation of Moby Dick (1930), a fitting anticipation for this study in obsessive combat on the high seas. Bacon was fired before production was finished, however, and so Byron Haskin and Raoul Walsh both contributed to the final product.

The heroes are working stiffs at sea, a research sample of American sailors with variable backgrounds and lifestyles. Their ship, the Northern Star, laden with gasoline, gets a torpedo in the side from a cruising U-boat, and erupts into a floating fireball. Much of the crew is forced to abandon ship, and Jarvis and Rossi flee only after failing to save trapped engine room crew. Copious injury becomes grievous insult as the U-boat captain insists on interviewing the survivors from his lofty conning tower whilst one of his officers films them, earning a round show of up-yours thumbs. The Germans retaliate by ramming the lifeboat, costing the lives of more crewmen and the ship’s cat. After drifting for ten days, the survivors are picked up and returned to New York where they disperse to their separate lives, but most of them come back together when Jarvis is assigned a Liberty Ship, the SS Sea Witch, which joins a massive convoy bound for Murmansk in Russia.

Action in the North Atlantic isn’t as marvellously, breathlessly pulpy and narratively dense as Bogart’s subsequent transatlantic wartime escapade, Passage to Marseille (1944). Nor does it seem at first glance to be as ruthless or as daring in its expression of wartime idealism as the similarly gutsy Bogart vehicle Sahara (1943). And yet Action in the North Atlantic is a quintessential exhibit of the positive spirit during the war and the progressive messaging it allowed before the post-war, right-wing reaction. The portrayal of the sailors engaged with a union, complete with black seamen (included at Bogart’s insistence), was direct enough to get this branded as a left-wing, subversive work. The script was credited to John Howard Lawson, with dialogue contributions by future Robert Aldrich collaborator A.I. Bezzerides and crime writer W.R. Burnett, and an uncredited Alvah Bessie. Bessie and Lawson would later be two of the Hollywood Ten, and Bezzerides was also harassed. It all looks innocuous today, political messages mixed with hard-charging action mixed with stereotyped but vivid character humour. Action in the North Atlantic’s communal focus is also familiar from other films of the era, with a certain similarity with pre-war swashbucklers where hearty crews under dashing heroes groused and grumbled but did sterling service anyway: the presence of Alan Hale as the much-married ‘Boats’ O’Hara emphasises this similarity. But this also has definite, powerful link to Warner’s pre-war run of socially conscious films about ordinary Joes and Janes, people doing a job of work, only with the pressure of survival now provided by war rather than the Depression. The film is structured around long sequences where the proletarian heroes lounge about playing cards, waiting to get down to business, swapping japes, jibes, and running gags. The film drolly examines maternal instincts in these hard-bitten sailors, revealed in their concern for the ship’s cat(s), but ultimately, passionately validates their roles and patriotism. 

Dane Clark is Johnnie Pulaski, who lets his pals know that he wants a land job because he’s afraid of dying at sea and leaving his family abandoned, sparking a quorum in the sailors’ union on the virtues and problems of patriotism for working class men versus general responsibility: Pulaski is shamed, but his point is still valid. Twenty years later he would be the main hero, the cautious everyman who remains sceptical about official heroism but does right by his pals. Here he is clearly, and interestingly, both the most physically brave of the sailors but also the one most keenly alert to his vulnerability, and signalled in the end as the one most likely to ascend to a leadership role. Sam Levene is ‘Chips’ Abrams, who murmurs Kaddish amidst a general prayer for the dead. Dick Hogan is Ezra Hogan, a young cadet who Jarvis distrusts on principal as a “book-learning” boy who hasn’t learnt his sailing the hard way like he, Rossi, and the others have. 

Hogan, like the Liberty ship itself, is the product of a new age of mass-produced knowledge and machines to cope with the raw exigencies of modern warfare, but the film is dedicated to denying the notion that the human parts are as interchangeable as the mechanisms. The motley crew are governed by sharply divergent characters whose different modes of life are revealed in coupled vignettes. Jarvis lives in a suburban home with a white picket fence, and has a doting, long-weathered wife (Ruth Gordon in a delicately affecting cameo) to welcome him, whilst Rossi is a nightclub sharpie who hits the taverns in his pinstripe suit. He surreptitiously knocks out an overly-talkative patron who doesn’t believe that loose lips sink ships as he blabs about a new convoy, and strikes sparks with chanteuse Pearl O'Neill (Julie Bishop). 

Jarvis, used to his mate’s womanising ways, mistakes Pearl for one of the chippies he regularly gets entangled with, when he comes to fetch Rossi at his apartment, only to learn they’ve gotten hitched. Jarvis and Rossi nonetheless have a great working relationship, Bacon’s camera picking them out in a dreamy fog, emerging as iconic, timeless figures on oceans of legend, then immediately imbued with reality as Rossi cradles a persistent toothache. Bogart, at least, had actual experience in this sort of thing, having served as an able seaman on the USS Leviathan during the waning months of WW1, where he may (or may not) have received his career-defining facial scar. The most famous anecdote from the film’s production depicts Bogart and Massey getting pie-eyed whilst watching their stunt doubles work, and then doing a dangerous stunt dive themselves; whether true or not, it feels apt in the context of a film where it really looks like the actors were taking chances at times. The emphasis on diverse people whose fate depends on mutual reliance (sans more prominent African-Americans, sadly) as depicted on the microcosmic level of the crew is linked to internationalist war effort, as the Sea Witch sails into Halifax harbour to join its convoy as crews hail each-other in a dozen tongues, including Chinese, with ecumenical vibrancy. 

Bacon wields the technical resources of a top-grade Warner Bros. production to pull off some thunderous set-pieces, sporting excellent black-and-white photography by Ted D. McCord. Bacon’s attempts to combine slick, venturesome hype with authenticity extends to a very uncommon touch at the time, allowing the Germans, when seen, to converse at length untranslated, the subjects of their conversations usually clear enough but left impenetrably alien, thus servicing documentary-like immediacy and propagandistic distancing at the same time. The sinking of the Northern Star is dazzlingly staged in a maelstrom of boiling fire and dashing dolly shots, and the film is replete with model work of a standard that wouldn’t be matched too often in the next forty years. The voyage to Russia sees the convoy having to scatter when it runs into a wolf pack, memorably visualised in an eerie underwater shot of shark-like submarine silhouettes, and all hell breaks loose in a panorama of destruction and frenzied reaction as the ships madly dodge each-other amidst explosions of torpedoes and depth charges. 

Subsequent battles with fighter planes and another, perniciously dogged U-boat are equally tremendous, whilst never devolving into spectacle for its own sake. These are men battling for the lives and pals, like Pulaski and Hogan flinging themselves in harm’s way to save the ship by manning a gun, climaxing with one plane crashing into the Sea Witch’s bow, with Hogan killed because his clothing gets caught on the gun, a great example of the kind of small but attentive, expertly intensifying visual vignette that elevates the film. And of course, the finale offers tables quite neatly turned as Rossi rams their tormenting U-boat, Bacon offering unseemly delight in letting the audience see the German Captain drowning in his flooding vessel, to elicit the same kind of relish in a bad guy’s demise in, say, that slow-motion, vertiginous shot of Hans Gruber falling to his death in Die Hard (1988). The only major drags on Action in the North Atlantic, which feels a tad distended at a fraction over two hours long, are the pauses for the inevitable propaganda moments, although Bacon and Lawson did their best to contour the message beats into the drama, including a pause for contemplation of sacrifice over a row of flag-draped coffins following a battle with airplanes that leaves the ship looking like a wrecking yard littered with corpses and machine parts. This is grand old moviemaking all the same. 

Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Big Night (1951)

Joseph Losey’s The Big Night could well stand alongside Nicholas Ray’s Knock on Any Door and They Live by Night (both 1949) in presenting a fascinating transition from film noir to Hollywood’s oncoming, grudging interest in social-realist filmmaking that would spawn works like On the Waterfront (1954) and Edge of the City (1957), and youth drama, including Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Young Stranger (1957). Losey, whose career had commenced on the stage, had found early movie work making noir films, but clearly had ambitions beyond genre demarcations, with his fascination for characters driven by dank obsessions and self-destructive streaks, and concept of the modern world as a Faustian pit. The Big Night, his virtually forgotten swan song in America before McCarthyism drove him to work in France and then Britain, represents a fascinating tipping point as one era gives way to another. It follows Knock on Any Door in studying a young man’s response to a hostile and violent urban landscape, but anticipates the later teen flick sprawl in emphasising the youth’s virulent attempts to define his personal honour and masculinity in the face of an uncomprehending adult world. 

Losey found his generational avatar in John Barrymore Jr, 18-year-old son of the late acting legend John Barrymore and Dolores Costello, and future father of actress Drew, who would be named for John’s self-adopted middle name. Raw in talent and presence, Barrymore anticipates Brando and Dean in his commitment to expressing the tortured interior of young men who can’t stand a world that tells them what their limits should be. What he lacks is the refinement they had, the humour and charm they could swing, as well as the skill in leaping between bravura and finesse. But he persuasively portrays Losey’s young antihero George La Main, who starts off as a passive, bespectacled young man with an armful of books, what later slang would dub a nerd. This nerd is product of a working-class, big-city environment, glimpsed at the outset being mercilessly razzed by pals in black leather and their girlfriends. They, as other characters suggest in the film, sense something masochistic, even delighted in suffering in the young man, which his lack of manly desensitisation in such an environment seems to entail. George’s father Andy (Preston Foster) runs a small bar, and George has been raised without a mother and emotionally detached from his old man. Man Friday Flanagan (Howland Chamberlin) tends bar and mediates between father and son but also remains tight-lipped according to his role, never presuming to alter the dynamics of communication, or lack of it. 

Celebration of George’s birthday, with birthday cake perched on the bar and one candle tauntingly left alight by his blowing, is interrupted by the sudden, ominous entrance of Al Judge (Howard St. John), George’s favourite sports columnist. Cane-wielding Judge enters with imperial force and is able, through some mysterious semaphore of adult power, to force Andy to strip his shirt and prostrate himself on the floor so that Judge can beat his back bloody with his walking stick. Andy picks himself up and limps up to his bed, leaving George distraught and consumed with rage at both his father’s apparent impotence and his own. George steals his father’s gun and heads out into the night to chase down Judge, planning to dominate and humiliate him at a boxing match George was going to attend with his father. His naiveté is quickly assaulted as he gets shaken down by a creep named Peckinpaugh (Emil Meyer) who pretends to be a cop after seeing George scalp his father’s ticket, and a tiny accident cheats him of the chance to confront Judge. George finds a Dante for his urban odyssey, however, in the man who bought his spare ticket, Dr. Lloyd Cooper (Philip Bourneuf), a philosopher and academic and also a cartographer of nocturnal activities.

Losey’s work here is ripe with anticipations and connections. The theme of the night odyssey through a big city is a common and powerful one in noir film, from Ben Hecht’s spiritually similar progenitor Angels Over Broadway (1940), up to and including Eyes Wide Shut (1999), whilst also prefiguring Rebel Without a Cause’s dawn-to-dawn structure in depicting a crucial juncture in a young man’s life. The figure of the cane-wielding overlord who affects high-class but is actually very low-life is common in film noir, but here also interestingly prefigures a figure that crops up in Losey’s later work, Alexanger Knox’s scientist of The Damned (1962). That film also, crucially revolves around the motif of offended youth doomed by adult transgressions, a notion which also reappears, much distorted but still recognisable, in King & Country (1963) and Accident (1967). The Big Night also irresistibly predicts Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957) in its portrait of a journalist as master of two worlds butting heads with a young idealist. Losey’s film may even be the more complex in of the two works in its approach to the kingpin, in mirroring the man of power and the kid who challenges him, and the processes that can forge one into the other. Judge proves to be an immigrant kid who’s changed his name and achieved power and profile but still knows the roots of his strength on the street level, communing with lowly imps like Peckinpaugh and stooping to personally punish Andy for a transgression that remains mysterious for most of the film. 

The business of manhood is still vague to George, who wants to claim the mantle but doesn’t yet know the forces that drive its sign language, the desires and responsibilities that force reactions that seem incoherent, even inhuman, such as Andy displays in prostrating himself before Judge. This incomprehension is cleverly portrayed in the enigmatic details offered in the first scene, ranging from seemingly throwaway – Andy’s unwillingness to talk about his girlfriend, as George asks why she’s not coming to the bout – to the inescapable, in whatever business is played out between Andy and Judge. Of course, these enigmas prove to be linked. The power games which Losey would later visit explicitly in his collaborations with Harold Pinter, The Servant (1964) and Accident, are present here in their least subtle parameters, as boy is desperate to prove himself as a man, and driven to commit an act of violence to prove his love for his father, whilst the seething underlying world of sexuality makes men do mad things and thus, ironically, makes them like children again.

Losey’s jittery, unusual scene grammar jumps from deep-focus surveys to intense, frame-filling close-ups, often with the camera trained on Barrymore’s face from just above or just below and at a slightly skewed angle. Frames are subdivided by columns and room layout, and familiar editing patterns avoided. Fragments of lucid surrealism abound, from Andy heaving himself back into the frame like a saurian beast trying to be reborn as a human being, back mottled with lash scars, to George tending a baby with fraternal solicitude with a gun in one hand. The visual patterns are cumulatively disorientating, elusive, mimicking George’s blinkered plunge into his mission. Losey’s Wellesian inspirations are borne out as much by his style with crane shot and deep-focus lensing as they are by casting Dorothy Comingore as Cooper’s girlfriend, nightclub denizen Julie Rostina, and the son of the star of The Magnificent Ambersons (1941).

The film’s most memorable and unique sequences come at a nightclub Cooper drags George to after he’s laid out Peckinpaugh. George, drinking for the first time and overwhelmed by alcohol and exhaustion-stoked emotion, has delirious visions of his birthday cake hovering amidst the nightclub, and then a jazz drummer’s thunderous soloing recalls Judge’s assault, his stick’s brutal, concussive rhythm like a metronome keeping the time to the drummer’s wild displays. A black chanteuse, Terry Angelus (Mauri Lynn), takes the stage and offers George a momentary salve as he loses himself in the song and singer, Losey cutting between their faces in startling close-ups where they threaten to merge in an ecstatic space of emotional expression. Losey here captures the raw emotional intensity of adolescence on the cusp of true adulthood, the protean, engulfing state of that time. Losey then immediately skewers it with a cruel coda: George meets the singer outside the club, and praises her for her singing before saying, “You’re so beautiful—even if you are a—.” He cuts himself off but the damage is immediately plain in the lady’s eyes, and George’s distraught pleas for forgiveness falling on deaf ears as she retreats into wounded, emotionally depleted distraction, leaning in bleak, poeticised solitude on a lamppost whilst George is dragged off by Cooper and his girlfriend in a taxi, gazing out the rear window as the vehicle slides off into the dark in desperate awareness of his fall from grace. 

This moment is an islet of excellence in the film as a whole, but it serves a function in terms of that whole too, as it presages the theme of George’s discovery that his attempt at self-empowerment is actually bound by an unconscious inheritance that binds parents to children and individuals to communities, through values and prejudices, genes and experience alike. George’s confrontation with Judge sees the film’s moral impetus not exactly reversed – Judge is still a creep and a thug – but George is forced to face the reality that he had some real justification for his act, and to recognise a peculiar nobility as well as substantial guilt in his father’s submission. In spite of the interludes of greatness and prolific inventiveness, the flaws of The Big Night are significant, leaving it as a somewhat diffuse experience. The project as a whole feels caught between two modes, with Losey’s artistic impulses still forming as he wrestles studio-mandated compromises and generic expectation to an uneasy and anticlimactic draw, and the fact he had to abandon editing the film and flee the country ahead of HUAC subpoenas surely didn't help the film's ultimate lack of cohesion. The script, co-written by Losey and Stanley Ellin, who wrote the source novel, along with an uncredited Hugo Butler and Ring Lardner Jr, fails to develop much of the scenario’s potentially rich expanse, with a jumble of elements competing for attention in a running time that barely breaks the seventy minute mark. George’s encounters with Cooper and Julie don't go anywhere particularly interesting, nor does George’s brief encounter with Julie’s younger sister, the protective but stymied Marion (Joan Lorring), whose girlish face belies the fact she’s somewhat older than George, which doesn’t stop her from kissing him. This interlude wants to generate a pathos that doesn’t quite arrive. 

The finale is awkward and overstated, too, as paternal sacrifice and filial anguish find new understandings amidst breathless revelations, and the film has a compromised conclusion that doesn’t quite offer a jarringly happy ending, but also notably backs off from the darkest inferences it seems to be making about love, guilt, and responsibility. But Losey’s striking vignettes and displays of directorial invention continue to nearly the end, as he tracks George in his nocturnal visits to a churning newspaper press, holds a taxi driver at gunpoint, and runs home in shame and fear through labyrinthine industrial streets where he’s rendered an ant scurrying lost in a steel forest. A soundless vignette filmed through fluttering curtains depicts a father’s quick, determined action to save his son, without any words needed. This gem of visual exposition intensifies the let-down of the subsequent, flimsy father-to-son talk that wraps up the film. Hal Mohr’s cinematography is all grimy surfaces and tar-dark shadows, rendering The Big Night thoroughly noir in its visual patterns if not in its thematic stresses, carving out woodblock print-ready galleries of gnarled and wearied proletarian faces, like the flotsam who sit at Andy’s bar. Mohr shifts into suggestions of incandescence and surrealism in Lynn’s sequences, echoing that most magic-realist of noir films, City That Never Sleeps (1953). 

Young Barrymore, who would be destroyed by similar appetites to his father’s, had instincts that weren’t yet honed, and his constant affectation of boyish anguish borders on excessive (as would his subsequent overripe turn as a mad killer in Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps, 1953). But he does suggest a reservoir of talent and intensity waiting for a committed coach to mould, and his youth, unlike too many avatars for troubled teen experience in the following decade, is genuine and raw here, giving George a palpable realism all the same. Foster, long one of Hollywood’s least appreciated male leads and left sad-looking and heavy-set in middle-age, is excellent as Andy. Lorring is convincing as a young woman bruised by loss of the protective envelope that used to surround her, and now finds herself too naïve for life and too old to be sheltered, whilst Comingore, the former Susan Alexander Kane, looks the part of an aging lush who takes a few moments’ dreamy escape from time in George’s arms upon the dance floor. 

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Locke (2013)

The mantra of “cinematic” as a purely visual realm has dominated discussion and teaching of film in the past few decades, degrading the once fruitful connection cinema once had to the stage. But films that experiment with highly compressed, verbal drama aren’t strictly based on plays, and there is an art to filming talk and the people doing it that can test the mettle of a filmmaker in some refined and rigorous ways. Steven Knight’s Locke is one such experiment, delivering an unusual film experience: the title character, Ivan Locke, played by Tom Hardy, is the only character to appear, and the entire film takes place in his car on a ninety-minute car trip from Birmingham to London, most of which he spends talking to assorted colleagues and family on his speaker phone. This sounds dry to the point of tedium in abstract, but Knight, debuting as director after writing some quality screenplays amidst a long and laborious career in TV writing, manages for the most part to make it a riveting journey through the steadfast belief that any dramatic conceit can be made compelling if the drama is strong. Such a conceit requires a serious actor and Hardy delivers, with his voice dropped to a low, dextrous midland burr, which sounds uncannily like Richard Harris in his more thoughtful performances. The first shot surveys an empty building project, which Locke leaves in his BMW: faced with a crossroads, Locke zones out in deeply distracted contemplation whilst indicating a turn, until a truck blaring its horn at him rouses him. He heads off in a different direction, leaving town and getting on the motorway, before he begins making a series of phone calls that drip-feed vital information to the viewer and quickly paint a fraught picture of a man whose life is about to unravel. Locke is a construction foreman at the forefront of his trade, in charge of a record-breaking concrete pour for the foundation of a massive skyscraper being built by a Chicago-run conglomerate. But conscience, based in a deeply personal motive, sends him instead to London because a woman he had a one-night stand with, Bethan (Olivia Colman), is having his child. Caught off guard and forced to explain and minimise the damage his scruples will cause, Locke is forced not only to leave behind his job, resulting in inevitable sacking by the higher-ups and mediated through his cranky corporate liaison Gareth (Ben Daniels), but also to tell his wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson, whose voice is better utilised here than her whole body was in The Lone Ranger) what’s happening. 

Needles of humiliation and dread constantly prick Locke and the audience who are forced into identification with him: his family are preparing to watch a big football match, his wife greets him cheerily on the phone, his boss is alternately irate and beggared. Locke’s reputation as the most steadfast and thoroughly committed man in all things is hauntingly shattered, the ultimate calamity for a man whose life, we learn, is built on reaction to and resentment for his own vagrant father, and instead strives towards correctness and dedication in all things. The potential dead spots in the film are filled by Locke’s bilious rants at his father, whom he imagines riding in the back seat, wishing he could dig up his corpse to force him to watch his self-sacrificing quest to do what his father failed to do, and attend the birth of a son. Locke’s predicament, and his response to it, reveals an igneous strain of honour and stringent, self-sabotaging truthfulness. He thoroughly expects the worst, and even provokes it, by refusing to hide behind a good excuse or expedient fib, clearly in large part to castigate himself for his singular transgression. The phone becomes his lifeline to an existence he is increasingly cut off from, the isolating bubble of metal and movement both allowing him time to wage his battle on multiple fronts whilst also staving off the moment when a new reality will confront him. Locke’s cool under pressure is tested to breaking point, but still only results in occasional violent eruptions of profanity when not on the phone, and his coldly furious speeches to his imagined father confirm the long withheld resentment and anger that he’s long since transmuted into fuel for obsessive labour. Locke’s genius for detail and leadership is revealed as he coaches his Irish assistant Donal (Andrew Scott) through the minutiae of getting the site ready for the huge pour, and resisting Gareth’s efforts to impose a new foreman on the operation. Locke’s depth of knowledge and determination on the behalf of a project that’s no longer his sees him pulling rabbits out of hats, tracking down a council yes-man in an Indian restaurant to secure a vital permit, and sending Donal running after a crew of road workers Locke knows to fetch them for an urgently needed repair job. Locke’s legerdemain in his trade is counterbalanced, however, by his inability to translate it in his relationships. His dedication is resented by his wife once the skin of amity and affection is whisked off by his scalpel-like attitude. His blind spots are revealed pitilessly even as he thinks he’s illuminating them, in his attempts to placate Katrina and fend off Bethan’s desperate need for expressions of affection, dismissing Bethan to Katrina as “no oil painting,” an ageing wretch he slept with because of booze and pity. Yet the portrait that sneaks through of Bethan suggests a cultured and intelligent woman in emotional straits.

Knight here has tackled a daunting and ambitious dramatic mode that comes damn close to classical Greek tragedy. The compressed time period, limited setting, the chorus-like device embedded in Locke’s monologues, the imperial-scaled moment of his triumph brought low by ill-starred fortune: all evoke that ancient mode. So too does the ultimate theme of Locke’s hubris, and the irony of his private moral compass demanding his own destruction in the face of that hubris, evoking “Oedipus Rex” no less. Simultaneously, the film’s stunt-like form and theme of entrapment and phone calls painting an unexpectedly ugly picture of an individual’s situation recalls Lucille Fletcher’s famous radio play “Sorry Wrong Number” and Anatole Litvak’s film of it (1948), with the genre tension removed. Locke also could be described as a blue-collar variant on Knight’s former collaborator David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (2012), with the same motif of a successful protagonist within a car that becomes home and prison and refuge, detonating his existence. Knight’s attention to detail means that the zones on the other end of the various phones seem real and immediate, whilst the conversations Locke intricately foreshadow, underline, and revise those before and still to come. Landing an actor with Hardy’s dexterity was Knight’s major coup. Adopting that sustained Harris impression, with an occasionally wandering accent to boot, might have been a grave mistake. But Hardy constructs Locke as an unusual blend of the blunt and the fastidious, the intelligent and the blinkered, and his voice polarises Locke's individuality. What’s really important is Hardy’s commitment to Knight’s words, which sometimes suggest the influence of such stylised modern theatre mavens as Pinter and Stoppard in their blend of everyday argot and slippery formalism. That formalism is presented as Locke’s weapon in keeping control and asserting himself against, the careful, tense rhythm of his words linked with his sonorously expressive voice. Locke’s identity is fragmented and distorted even as he protests “I am myself.” Hardy can invest a role with both a simmering aggression and slyly magnetic gravitas, both of which he sublimates here into Locke’s overriding priorities: Locke the beloved father, Locke the great boss, Locke the seducer, Locke the jerk, Locke the fool, all come and go with scarcely a ripple in his force of purpose and yet finally creating a psychic drag that becomes exhausting. Telling hints of gloating enter his voice when things start going his way, doomed to be dashed, before Hardy delivers the final, curious grace note that suggests release and new hope when his life seems to be broken beyond repair, found simply in the fact that he’s passed the worst test he could set himself and has been met by new life.

Knight’s main fault is his tendency to do too much, to try and fill every moment when space and quiet might have built more tension and ambiguity. He provides a portrait that’s just a little too neat and convenient, particularly in those monologues, which offer up the keys to Locke’s psychological and moral reflexes far too obviously and tritely. The script toys with contrivance in having too many colliding crises – we have not just an impending construction job on a pharaoh’s scale, but that abutting an emergency caesarean and guilty adulterer’s admission. Knight’s direction, fixated with blurred lights of passing cars and portents offered by racing police cars lassoing wrongdoers left and right whilst out guilty hero proceeds, is a tad sophistic as Knight fights to keep his gimmick vacuum sealed until the very end. The best moments in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2012), a film not that dissimilar in terms of both form and overarching concepts, tended to be the islets that took time-out from the forced march that was the main narrative as well as adapting a rhythm that fit that march, and Knight’s focus cheats him of the chance to make subtler artistic refrains with his camera. Cronenberg wrung Knight’s script for Eastern Promises (2007) for an ephemerally atmospheric tale that suggested a Grimm fairy tale for adults, particularly in its potentially melodramatic finale; Knight doesn’t yet offer such spryness, and his sense of the lyrical is chiefly verbal. A line spoken by Wilson over the phone, “At least I won’t have to deal with your footprints turning to stone in the kitchen anymore,” lends an unexpected dash of bleak poeticism to the tale, taking a minor physical detail – Locke’s worship of concrete has the side-effect of leaving traces of it caked on his kitchen floor – and turning it into the cruel yet ethereal aural image of a man turning into a Golem in this face of his wife and children. Locke is definitely imperfect, but is still a fascinating ride that, like its hero, sets out to do something difficult and does it well.

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

Here there be spoilers

Films that start out with voiceovers telling you how this movie’s not going to be like other movies automatically place themselves on probation, headed almost inevitably for remand. This astoundingly overrated piece of pablum commences by congratulating its target audience on being too cool to fall for the clichés it then sets about foisting assiduously. Shailene Woodley’s charm is the crutch The Fault in Our Stars’s director Josh Boone leans on, rocking the cutest set of nostril oxygen inlets you ever did see, hair in a waif cut that would make Audrey Hepburn jealous, playing a teenage girl who exists precariously on the edge of mortality with cancer in her lungs whilst never looking less healthy than the average Olympic pole vaulter. She plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, who clings to life thanks to a variably effective experimental drug, and is pushed by her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) to attend a dippy support group run by amusingly earnest, guitar-strumming Jesus freak Patrick (Mike Birbiglia). This dubious experience proves worthwhile when she encounters the most totally hot guy with one leg you could ever hope to meet, Augustus ‘Gus’ Waters (Ansel Elgort, which must be an anagram of some kind*), a big block of bland who talks in the same post-Joss Whedon-Veronica Mars rhythms as her, with an added layer of sunny overconfidence; and yet the verbal articulateness and writer’s-room arsenal of quips the duo have been given are in no way substitutes for actual character. Gus has survived a bout with the Big C himself at the expense of having one leg amputated, and has a positive outlook which he insists on expressing in most excruciating ways. He initially appals Hazel by sticking a cigarette in his mouth but then explains that he does not light them because he does not give it the power to kill him. She finds this crap charming, and soon Hazel and Gus are head over heels, only for Hazel to ward him off for fear of his heartbreak when he loses her. 

Hazel is obsessed with a novel called “An Imperial Affliction,” by expatriate American writer Peter Van Houten, about a girl also dying of cancer, with an infamously curtailed ending, and Hazel transmits her enthusiasm to Gus, as well as curiosity over the unanswered questions left by the novel. A trip to Amsterdam financed by a Make-a-Wish Foundation stand-in allows the young couple to find out first hand and of course provide a catalysing setting for a snog-fest. This movie was itself based on a very popular and well-regarded YA novel by John Green, which I haven’t read, though many tell me the specific, wonky rhythm of the source material is missing. The audience around me, doubtlessly familiar with the book, reacted to specific moments with fetishistic intensity is if holy writ was being portrayed. Undoubtedly the film’s pot-shots at predecessors take aim at Love Story (1970) amongst many, but what’s interesting about the difference between even Erich Segal’s drippy tale and this one is the way the social context important to Segal’s story has been removed: everyone here is from a nice leafy suburb with no health care problems. If it can't reach such low-hanging fruit, this film certainly can't approach classic sob-fests like Camille (1936) or Dark Victory (1939) for offering intimate humanity pushed to operatic extremes of suffering. The main difference between The Fault in Our Stars and such weepie melodramas about doomed lovers registers in the stream of gallows humour the couple offer, and the self-aware, ahead-of-the-game perspective Hazel’s voice-over is supposed to imbue upon the material and our response to it with a distanced appreciation of the experience. “This is the truth,” she tell us at the outset, and notes later encounters with crucial, clichéd pivots of cancer dramas, like the “last good day.” But the film’s attacks on cliché are of course only skin-deep, masking a cheaply sentimental series of laboured sequences designed to induce sympathy pains, including interludes in sparkly Dutch restaurants and, most tediously, Gus listening to his own eulogies, which gives the filmmakers eminent opportunity to swat the audience between the eyes with pathos. 

Grace and Gus are equipped with a funny friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff), who’s lost one eye to a tumour and is about to lose another; his pain and anguish, especially over losing his girlfriend Monica (Emily Peachey), is played for comic relief from the main business of ogling precisely the sort of pretty people suffering preciously to cool music which we’ve been promised we won’t get. The first moment when Isaac wakes up blind, now there’s a terrible moment that should be confronted in a film that is telling “the truth.” But no, Isaac is nudged out of the story and then brought back when his blindness can be used as the stuff of cheap gags and false catharsis, as he and the lovers go to toss eggs at Monica’s sports car. Willem Dafoe’s cameo as the bilious, alcoholic Van Houten does momentarily offer the characters – and the film – the shock of dark emotion. As things turn out, the seemingly amicable invitation to visit furnished by the author actually came from his long-suffering secretary Lidewij (Lotte Verbeek), who hoped to stir the author’s heart, but the encounter only ends with fury and humiliation. This subplot is played simply to offer a bit of blunt, schlocky disillusionment and set up an entirely silly late twist, where it might have been used to complicate the story’s approach to its meta conceits and to explore the impact of loss on loved-ones through loss – Van Houten’s daughter was the inspiration for the tale – as opposed to Hazel’s cosily cool parents. But real pain is quelled in favour of mawkish conceits, and emotional intensity is squandered. The meeting with Van Houten precipitates the young couple surrendering at last to passion in the Anne Frank Museum, a notion that might have been played as proof of the ferocity of human desire and life-hunger in the face of extinction, and indeed that’s what it’s supposed to communicate, but instead arrives limp and more than a tad tasteless. So too does the narrative twist wherein suddenly it’s revealed that Gus and not Hazel is going to be first of the duo to die.

The inevitable moment when Van Houten turns up at the end on a make-amends excursion tries to play against the grain by leaving Van Houten unredeemed except as proof reader. But his part in the story goes well beyond a glib deflowering of Hazel’s optimism, played as a hatefully extreme figure who opposes the teens’ vague spirituality with caricatured pragmatism (“You are nothing more than a failed experiment in mutation!”).  This film fascinatingly posited to me the possibility that it is less a study of the tragedy of doomed youth than a work using disease to justify its millennial-aged target audience’s resentment of any world view that doesn’t confirm them as the centre of the universe. The Fault in Our Stars is at its best when the dark humour shared by the young sufferers used to living with dread is pushed to the fore, like their wry rejection of the kind of shallow uplift proffered by Patrick with his weak grasp of English particulars, mostly thanks to the well-oiled repartee between Woodley and Elgort. But Elgort fumbles early on with making his character seem much more than whatever the male equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is (a field for further research?), and can’t make his later fear and resentment voluble. Woodley’s capacity to deliver less pleasant emotions is well utilised in a couple of scenes, particularly when she confronts her parents over their seeming incapacity to truly accept her inevitable end. But the film remains disgustingly squeaky clean even when offering a peek of Gus’s curtailed leg when in bed – safely post-coital – with Grace. This is romantic tragedy as iPhone app. For actual heartfelt subversion of the genre, check out Valérie Donzelli’s Declaration of War (2011), or better yet, Paul Verhoeven’s genuinely raw Turkish Delight (1974). 

* my fellow cineaste Michael W. Phillips Jr proposes "eternal slog."

Monday, 7 July 2014

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

Critically dismissed and a scant commercial success at the time of its release, Tora! Tora! Tora! marked 20th Century Fox honcho Darryl F. Zanuck’s repeating his efforts to alchemise the debris of history into popular entertainment as he had managed with The Longest Day (1962). Zanuck’s next pet project took a similar approach to his depiction of the events leading up the attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, kick-starting America’s entry into the Second World War, providing a string of mostly authentic, episodic illustrations of the people involved and the issues at stake. Perhaps the unenthused response to the film was all but inevitable: in spite of lip-service to the horrors of war, the D-Day film recalled a great triumph in a giddy, mobile fashion, whereas a sober, docudrama-style movie about one of America’s worst military disasters was only ever likely to be a glum experience for a broad audience, unless one tackled it in a manner like Michael Bay and Randall Wallace would thirty-one years later, as a pulp melodrama of martyred suffering and rousing comeback. 

The utter disgrace that was Bay’s 2001 blockbuster highlighted the qualities of Tora! Tora! Tora! anew. Some criticisms levelled at the film were fair: the special effects swing from beautiful to tacky, and the acting is sometimes patchy. The film lacks a controlling viewpoint, too, not like Patton, Fox’s more successful and lauded epic released the same year, unless it’s Isoruku Yamamoto (Sō Yamamura), the Japanese admiral who concocts a plan to win a war scarcely before it begins, whilst nursing silent dread of the forces he knows he’s unleashing. I quite like the variety of exacting, detail-specific, broadly focused, almost holistic approach the film takes however, as an exacting analysis of what was for one side a military triumph and the other an enraging sucker punch, largely free of hyperbole and histrionic conveniences, and ending not on a note of imminent triumph but of queasy, ominous import. Tora! Tora! Tora! is the kind of film which, in hindsight, is hard to believe ever got made. It certainly couldn’t be done today except on subjects enacted on a far more limited scale, like Paul Greengrass’ reportorial films, which this film certainly anticipates.

Perhaps the most fabled aspect of Tora! Tora! Tora!’s production for cineastes was the involvement of Akira Kurosawa in preparing the Japanese half of the film’s bifurcated viewpoint, an experience that turned toxic for Kurosawa and almost wrecked his career. Kurosawa was fired and replaced by the experienced journeyman Toshio Masuda to handle dramatic scenes, and future cult auteur Kinji Fukasaku, who had already helmed a Japanese-American co-production, The Green Slime (1968), was hired to bring his expertise to bear for more difficult production elements. The English-language side was handled by Richard Fleischer, whose breadth and ingenuity as a helmsman was rarely appreciated in his lifetime. Fleischer was the rare major Hollywood filmmaker of the period who had handled significant special effects work, on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), but Tora! Tora! Tora! fits with notable ease into his run of studiously composed, superficially detached studies in true-crime tales, including Compulsion (1960), The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1971), and even has structural elements in common, based around the careful deployment of detail and a sense of mounting unease before an eruptive fight for survival, with his horror film See No Evil (1971).

The film coherently pits two productions and two world-views against each-other. The proud Japanese naval men under Yamamura, left out of the Imperial Army’s brutal conquests but now expected to cover its ass by fending off the increasingly disapproving US, are geared up for victory but find themselves becoming cogs in an unstoppable apocalypse, where the Americans are split between the generally indolent and the confused and ineffectively concerned. Tora! Tora! Tora! was important not least for humanising the Japanese perspective on the event, an aspect that helps make the film as a whole ahead of its time. Which is not to say the film lacks a moral perspective, as it paints Yamamoto and his opposite Admiral Kimmel (Martin Balsam) as tragic figures who each have fine qualities but also exemplify something seriously awry in their nations’ outlooks at the time, respectively war-obsessed and naïvely distracted. Fukasaku's fulminating rage at the Imperial era's militarism, borne of experiences when he was a teenager and which would be worked out memorably if metaphorically in Battle Royale (2000), was unavoidably given little scope here. But the film doesn't shy away from identifying Gen. Tojo (Asao Uchida) as Yamamoto’s Army nemesis, who has shunted him into fleet command for hampering his agenda too often in cabinet, and exemplifies chauvinist aggression when he's brusquely relieved that he can’t call back the attack in spite of a diplomatic entreaty from F.D.R. The film finds time for noting the comradely excitement, almost painfully intense, of a pair of Japanese airmen in realising they’ve pulled off their impossible mission, and note off-hand eccentricities like Yamamoto’s subordinate Capt. Kameto Kuroshima (Shunichi Nakamura), nicknamed “Gandhi” for his monkish, old-fashioned habits, pouring over the raid plan with awe for its “fool-proof” precision, a devotee to the Zen of war satisfied to find a holy text. 

That plan is concocted by Cmdr. Minoru Genda (Tatsuya Mihashi) and put into action by dashing Lt. Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida (Takahiro Tamura), whose charismatic leadership is key to pulling off the raid with the discipline required. Tora! Tora! Tora! feels like a product of the late ‘60s-early ‘70s penchant for war films with a thornier attitude towards officialdom, hierarchy, and militarism in general, although Zanuck’s main revisionist intent had been to defend Kimmel and General Short (Jason Robards Jr) in their concern for sabotage, which resulted in considered moves that had the by-product of making their ships and planes sitting ducks for the attack that really came. Tora! Tora! Tora! isn’t so much cynical as interrogative and coolly expository about the failure of governance and military exigencies to properly mesh, counterbalancing the chilling perfection of the Japanese war machine with its selfless human parts with the American mechanism composed of faulty cogs, as bucks get passed, poltroons foul up, and foot soldiers bewildered by flimflam before paying the price, as Pericles’ famous oratory about the difference between the warriors of a democracy and those of a military state is reflected via a perfect contemporary illustration. 

The most emotionally direct moments are indeed not found in combat but in interpersonal exchanges of vehement anger and distress stemming from lines of fouled communication. George Macready’s brief but memorable appearance as Cordell Hull confronting the Japanese Ambassador Nomura (Shôgo Shimada), who’s had to front up with a declaration of war too late, sees Hull release a broadside of devastating anger still couched in statesmanlike wording but finally dissolving into a memorably totemic plea and command, “Go!” Lt. Kaminsky (Neville Brand), having failed to get his superior Capt. Earle (Richard Anderson) to react to an early warning, points to the blazing fleet through the office window when Earle comes in: “You wanted confirmation? There’s your goddamn confirmation!”

The film has its share of potential heroes from the official roster: the matinee-idol Fuchida contends, whilst “Bull” Halsey (James Whitmore) slouches in and out of sight with grouchy, hard-assed humour befitting a John Ford character. But Fleischer’s heroes here tend to be little guys trying to be heard amidst the din of international rivalry combusting: worrisome code-breakers Kramer (Wesley Addy) and Bratton (E.G. Marshall) trying to get bigwigs to pay attention as repeated cries of wolf quickly earn disinterest, radar operators confused by strange signals and unsure whether to stick at their posts, a hapless bomber commander (Norman Alden) perturbed to find himself flying into a war “unarmed and out of gas,” a green young destroyer commander (Jerry Fogel) who finds himself having to destroy a midget submarine, and the two out-of-luck USAAF fighter pilots (Rick Cooper and Carl Reindel) who think they’ve been transferred to a remote landing strip because they win at poker too often, and find they’re the only ones who can get into the air and fight back. 

The film’s middle third is a comedy of errors played straight, except for a finite note of anxious humour found in the unlikely minutiae that compose momentous events, as Kramer has to get his wife (Leora Dana) to drive him all around nocturnal Washington trying to get someone to take his alert seriously, and the precision of the Japanese plan is foiled in one of its most simple yet vital aspects, as Nomura’s embassy aide can’t type out the coded declaration of war fast enough for it to be delivered in time, even after he strips off his jacket and really gets down to work. The most awkward elements are familiar in this kind of filmmaking, with sketchy segues to characters handing out exposition by way of waving at charts or surveying model fleets, and awkward performing from some of the cast, even the normally unflappable Robards, when having to make an impression and a plot point in swiftly telegraphed scenes. 

But the natural intensity of the event gives the film shape and a remorseless, escalating tension that the film relieves with some well-judged if slightly goofy humour, including a flight instructor alarmed to find herself in the midst of a flight of Zeros, and the USS Nevada’s band leader trying to crank out the national anthem before all hell breaks loose. The attack, when it finally arrives, is still a major piece of cinematic spectacle, although some of the Oscar-winning special effects overseen by Fox’s veteran experts L.B. Abbott and Art Cruickshank, looked flimsy even at the time: realistic earthbound effects on the level of what Stanley Kubrick’s team had managed for space in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) were still in the future, and the film is rife with some annoyingly obvious back-projection and model work. But the blend of maximalist detail including huge mock-ups of battleships and aircraft to be destroyed and model work coalesces into a furious and compulsively watchable inferno where the snatched visions of individual heroism, like Dorie Miller’s (Elven Havard), are glimpsed not for titanic bombast but as noble, gutsy, but essentially futile gestures in the midst of an omnipresent massacre.

The editing that stitches this colossal sequence together is as impressive as the staging, a whirlwind of images of destruction and struggle amidst seething flames and gushing waters, machines ripping themselves apart and juddering under explosive blows. One famously close call for a couple of stuntmen, as a mock-up P-40 exploded, careened through a row of similar mock-ups, and crashed against a fuel tanker bare feet from a stumbled stuntman, is recorded here in breathtaking posterity, and the intended stunt work, including a one-wheeled B-26 landing, is all the more impressive from the perspective of today when CGI is used to take the risk out of opening a can of soft drink. On the other hand, some shots see actors shaking about on flimsy sets with cardboard debris falling on them like a ‘50s B-movie. If Tora! Tora! Tora! occasionally suffers from some busting stitches at the seams, that was perhaps inevitable for a movie made on such a scale at a time when Hollywood was undergoing a prolonged and painful generation change. What’s rare about the film’s cumulative achievement in spite of that is not only that it dramatically and accurately portrays a fraught pivot in human history, but in the way it animates a feeling of genuine disquiet by its closing frames, a refusal to offer closure or false uplift, but rather leaving the film like a gaping wound in a manner that strongly resembles Fleischer’s similarly implacable endings in Ten Rillington Place, Soylent Green (1973), and Mandingo (1975). 

Perhaps the film’s most powerful motif is one of beholding dreadful spectacle, anticipating Steven Spielberg’s obsession with that grace-note, as Kimmel does first from the crisply cut lawn outside his residence, then again later as the Arizona explodes and a spent bullet smacks through the window, injuring his stomach, but leaving him to lament that it didn’t kill him. Kaminsky’s abuse of Earle and the beggared survey of Halsey and his crew as they sail into the maelstrom of smoke and fire similarly invoke witnessing as a dread but important event in the face of such horror, the spirit indeed that animates the film: to look, to know, and to understand in doing so. The bleak impression of the conclusion is partly thanks to Jerry Goldsmith’s scoring, with the last images of Yamamoto standing upon the deck of his flagship, an ant-like human in command of, and also now at the mercy of, a colossal war machine, his probably apocryphal “awakened a sleeping giant” quote hanging menacingly in the air as a useful piece of foresight nonetheless as the end credits roll over the blazing ships of the line. The filmmakers make it clear that what’s coming, from Midway to the Atom Bomb, will be a calamity, and any time this Pandora’s box is opened is a grim one for humanity in general