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Screen Two: The Firm (1989)
The car bombing, the testosterone, and not a ball in sight
Different from the similarly-entitled Tom Cruise vehicle in much the same way that a punch in the head is different from a solicitor's letter, this is where the late great Alan Clarke - Britain's best TV director and perhaps the best British director of the 70s and 80s - finally got to work with Gary Oldman. Oldman is Bex, leader of a gang of football hooligans. His crew go head-to-head with another bunch of guys from Birmingham. That's pretty much the story.
The insight, for which respect must be paid to screenwriter Al Ashton, is that these guys aren't poor white trash but professional men. Bex is an estate agent and when we first meet him he is selling a house to a couple by admitting to them frankly that it's rubbish. He shows them in and says "If this house don't sell itself I'm a monkey's uncle." Then he walks away down the path and, for a moment, scratches his armpits and gibbers like a chimp - an inspired bit of improv from Oldman.
This was Oldman before he got into his period of being an American Ham - sharp, keenly observational and immensely likeable even though the character he's playing is a complete scumbag. There's a lot of violence, and violence in a Clarke film isn't a rowdy punchup, it's Stanley knives in the face and iron bars in the groin. A gun gets used towards the end, which I personally found a bit unrealistic.
One of the most remarkable things about this movie is that at no point do you actually see a football. These guys aren't football fans, they're in it for the fighting. They were the energies that Margaret Thatcher unleashed and then affected to deplore. Guys like Bexy own much of Britain now.
When Oldman got tired of acting in bad American cop thrillers, he showed what he'd learned from Clarke by making Nil By Mouth. The boy done good. The Firm was Clarke's last film; a year later he was dead from cancer. Don't miss it.
Billy Budd (1962)
Admirable stab at Melville fable (warning: reveals plot points)
Peter Ustinov is generally a lot better at being a raconteur, chat-show guest and portly, engaging presenter of documentaries than film director, but this adaptation of Melville's short novel (note that the screenplay is based on a previous stage version) is surprisingly gripping. Terence Stamp, in his first movie role, is excellent as the benign life-force, Billy. Pressganged into service aboard a Royal Navy Man'o'War (clunky symbolism - the ship Billy leaves is called the "Rights of Man"), he soon wins over the crew with his guileless respect for justice and fair play. Robert Ryan is superb as Claggart, although perhaps this actor's tremendous capacity for sheer charmless evil overbalances the plot. When Claggart is struck down by the momentarily enraged Billy, he dies with a smile on his face, a detail which isn't in the book. It makes Claggart into a malevolent genius, when Melville wrote him as a preternaturally bitter and empty man. But that's showbiz for you.
There's a lovely scene between Stamp and Ryan, presumably missed by those who refuse to recognise the latter's genius, in which Billy almost manages to win Claggart over; you can see Ryan's eyes getting almost misty (he was a great eye actor) as he contemplates the spectacle of his own bleakness compared to Billy's warmth. But then, as he suddenly growls "You would charm me, too. Get away!" it's as if he suspected Billy if coming onto him. Remarkable touch.
John Neville and David McCallum are fine as the officers with tortured consciences; Ustinov has to carry off the difficult moral turnaround, kind of the opposite of what Fonda spends a whole film doing in "Twelve Angry Men", and has seldom acted so well. Perhaps in the book he's a less significant character, but for dramatic purposes the role obviously needed expanding, and it's done with taste and restraint. Supporting roles are all finely rendered, with Melvyn Douglas especially red-eyed and gravelly as the religious Dansker. Good stuff. And unusually for an adaptation, a sizable chunk of the dialogue is authentic Melville.
C*** title, worse film
Hopelessly awful B-movie horror flick. Blatantly shot in the UK but featuring lame American accents, it's set in a girl's college (uh-oh) which, needless to say, means there's going to be at least one scene of naked nubiles in the shower - and, oops, there it went. And that's yer lot for the rest of the film, Mister Raincoat. To fill up the rest of the time, there's a rubber monster covered in squelchy goo that appears to want to coat the girlies in marzipan (at least, I _think_ it's marzipan); a not even comically inept but fortunately swiftly-massacred SWAT team; Oliver Tobias as a detective (his presence onscreen is always a sign that you've rented a Turkey) and a final scene in an oil refinery which, despite the efforts of an under-budgeted special effects team, is quite obviously not blowing up. Even the terminally bored/sexually frustrated are advised not to touch this waste of time with a ten-foot pole.
The irony is, Samantha Janus is a fine comedienne. We can only assume that she did this for the exposure, cause that's what they gave her. Indecent at that.
Film o' the Nineties (suppressed belch)
A guy I know, more of a friendly acquaintance than a friend, raved to me about Gummo. "There's this scene," he said, "when this bunch of people kick the crap out of a chair, nothing else happens in the scene, and it's brilliant, because the chair ... is ... life."
I watched it and he was telling the truth. The main objections to it that I've heard are based on the objectors' distaste for the people in the film: I don't like this film because the people in it are horrible and boring. This is not a judgment on the film, but on the people who have the objection. Gummo is true - after watching it, I looked out the window of my girlfriend's flat and saw the Dublin equivalent of the characters in it, hanging around a piece of ugly urban sculpture in the blazing sun, drinking two-litre plastic bottles of cider. It was, in a bizarre sort of way, a beautiful moment. (Though maybe not for the cider drinkers.) I don't know what Harmony Korine is going to do next, but he never has to worry that he hasn't yet made a great film.
The bare facts? Or a crude simplification?
I saw Elephant when it was first broadcast on BBC TV in 1989. There was a certain amount of hoo-ha about it, as the BBC had already put it back for a few months - films about the North of Ireland were, and are, touchy subjects. Watching it is riveting. The complete absence of story, dialogue and explanation serves to bring home the fact that, after all the talk and propaganda and fine words about freeing Ireland from the British oppressors or defending Ulster from the filthy Taigs, killing is killing - people are dying, frequently and horribly, and can there ever be a "reason" for it? I grew up in sheltered south Dublin and witnessed the Troubles at second-hand, filtered through the language of journalism; Elephant brought home to me, in the most visceral way, the relentless insanity of the situation. The film should be compulsory viewing in UK and Irish schools.
The major criticism of Elephant is that it's too simple - that the lack of context and explanation aren't enough. But the serial nature of it, muder after murder after murder, have an unforgettable power. It's not meant to be an attempt at the overall picture; it's a cry of horror against an appalling situation. I saw it once, ten years ago, and have never forgotten it.
It was directed by the late Alan Clarke, undoubtedly the best director of TV Britain has ever seen (maybe the best British director since Michael Powell). He had already given early breaks to Tim Roth (in Made in Britain) and Gary Oldman (in The Firm - not the Tom Cruise vehicle, but a brutal TV movie about soccer hooliganism). The title comes from the writer Bernard MacLaverty, who said that the Troubles were like having an elephant in your living room. That's what it was like to watch this film.
Made in Britain (1982)
The Eighties as I remember them
From the minute Made in Britain kicks off, with a 17-year-old Tim Roth with skinhead and a swastika tattoo between his eyebrows, slouching into the juvenile court to the strains of The Exploited, the energy never flags. Clarke's patented loping Steadicam follows Trevor (Roth) as he goes from assessment centre to job centre to sniffing glue with a fellow ne'er-do-well to stealing a car and throwing bricks through a Pakistani's front window, seemingly bent on pushing the system to its limits. Trevor doesn't give a f***, and in an amazing second act, set entirely in a basement room, he tells the authorities what he thinks of them: "I'm a star, mate. I'm in exactly the right place at the right time."
Trevor is hateful - he's racist, bullying, utterly selfish and dangerous, but he's also so bright and eloquent that the main feeling on watching the film is wonder at a society that could possible have produced people like this. David Leland, who wrote the film, speculated years later that Trevor would probably have gone on to work in the Stock Exchange in the late Eighties - he might well have been one of the well-heeled cronies of Gary Oldman's Bez in Clarke's 1988 football hooliganism film, The Firm. In the depressed and fearful Britain of 1982, Trevor's manic energy and contempt has no outlet - once Thatcherite policies had helped to boost the British economy, his disbelief in "society" would have been totally at home on the stock market. As Thatcher famously remarked, "There is no such thing as society", and Made in Britain shows how she caused such a state of affairs to come about.
It's also very funny, in a sick kind of way.
Last Night (1998)
I loved it, and I'm not even Canadian
A beauty of a movie. The world is going to end and what do you do? Have as much sex as possible? Form a suicide pact? Drink wine and listen to classical music? Aimlessly overturn cars? All this, and more. Not the least virtue of it is the sly wit; the newsreader turns from a story about mobs wrecking the monuments of civilisation to how "hundreds of would-be rock stars joined Randy Bachman in a giant guitar jam today". But the overall compassion is the real heart of the film - not weepy sentimentality, but a decent respect for the complexity of people, of the kind that has only intermittently appeared in Hollywood films since, ooh, forever.
As to how the conflagration is going to happen, we never know, except that the time frame is from 6pm to midnight and in all that time the sun stays high in the sky. But then, it's often more affecting when you're sad on a sunny day than in the middle of the night. Also, I noticed that the soundtrack is almost all Canadian rock bands. Where were Rush, I'd like to know? (Joke.) I'll never listen to "Guantanamera" again without a lump rising to my throat.
Congratulations to Don McKellar on a great movie. Sandra Oh is going to be a star, if there's any justice; and it's good to see David Cronenberg playing somebody sane.
Seul contre tous (1998)
One of the best films of the 90s
Everything about Seul contre tous is designed to slap the viewer upside his or her head, from the deafening sound effects to the lurching jump cuts, so it's no wonder that the old and otherwise feeble don't go for it. Probably the main character wouldn't like it much himself. But then, he doesn't like anything. He sets out on a desperate attempt to start a new life, but the ironies multiply; the suburb of Paris to which he moves looks exactly like the suburb of Lille which he left. When he's kicked out of a bar (for insulting the landlord's son) and returns with a gun to get revenge, the bar's closed and everybody's gone home. Those who choose to heed the on-screen warning towards the end that "You Have 30 Seconds To Leave The Cinema" will miss some of the most horrible, tragic footage ever put on film, but you'll also miss the even more tragic twist that Noe gives to it. So don't. Watch it.
... Or, Paul Verhoeven conquers the world. More people have seen RoboCop than probably any other film by him, and his genius is that he can work in big-budget genres and never stoop to thinking that he ought to be more responsible. RoboCop is funny, violent, clever and moving. No sane person would ever want to _watch_ a sequel, let alone make one.
People accuse Verhoeven of crypto-fascism, in that he never seems to offer some sort of "positive" alternative to the nightmare worlds he portrays. But he says, and I agree with him, that he's just being realistic. A great film. He didn't make another one as good until Starship Troopers.
Turks fruit (1973)
Anybody who thinks that Paul Verhoeven used to make "serious" films before he came to the States should be in for a rude awakening. This is nothing but a pleasantly daft exploitation movie, in which beefy sculptor Rutger and his lady love hare around the Netherlands having a lot of sex and generally being wild, young and free. About two thirds of the way through, somebody realises that it ought to have a story, so the girl inexplicably leaves him and then contracts a mysterious illness. Rutger goes to a dinner party, at which he throws up in not one but two different people's faces. Then there's a fair amount of sobbing to get through before it all shudders to a halt. All good fun, but for these eyes, Verhoeven had to hit America to produce the nihilistic majesty that is Robocop and Starship Troopers.