Weekend Film Recommendation: Breaker Morant

The 1980 Australian film Breaker Morant is a triumph for Edward Woodward and Bruce Beresford

400px-Break17I conclude my three week tribute to the magnificent Edward Woodward with a recommendation of what is arguably the best movie of Australia’s New Wave: 1980’s Breaker Morant. As the title character in Director Bruce Beresford’s movie, Woodward delivers a performance with such psychic weight and that it will stay in your mind and heart long afterwards.

The story takes place in the waning days of the Boer War, where the battered but still undefeated Dutch guerrillas continue to resist a much larger British force. To face down the remaining renegades and their ungentlemanly military tactics, the British create an unconventional counter-insurgency force called the Bushveldt Carbineers. The Carbineers are mainly colonials, and include the poetry-writing, cynical and heroic Lt. Morant (Woodward), the free-spirited and lusty Lt. Hancock (Bryan Brown), and idealistic junior officer George Witton, who believes in the goodness of The Empire (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). As the film opens, these three Australians are being court-martialled for shooting Boer prisoners. That they committed the act is never in doubt, but they claim they were following orders from the British high command. Meanwhile, because the British see a conviction as essential for facilitating a peace settlement, they deny complicity and stack the proceedings against the defendants in every way possible.

This is the movie that brought Bruce Beresford to the attention of Hollywood, where he later directed Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy. There are a few overly theatrical moments in the film, but overall this is highly accomplished directorial work by Beresford. He also contributed to the superb screenplay, along with Kenneth Ross (who wrote the play), Jonathan Hardy and David Stephens.

Under Beresford’s watchful eye, the entire cast is riveting, including the three actors playing the accused and Jack Thompson as their initially unpromising but ultimately crafty defense counsel. The smaller parts are also well-turned, with not a weak performance anywhere.

Woodward, though British by birth, had a long lasting affinity for Australia and could claim many fans there (including from his music hall tours as a singer) before he made this film. He deservedly expanded that fan base with his bravura performance in Breaker Morant, not just in Australia but world wide. His acting here recalls Michael Kitchen’s style in that he is the most magnetic when he is not speaking. Sadness, pain and well-earned disillusionment are visible in his gestures, his eyes, and his weather-beaten mien. Foreknowledge of doom hangs over his every scene in this film.

Donald McAlpine’s cinematography, with Australia standing in for South Africa, is also a major asset. Shooting in lovely physical terrain, he did everything he could with lenses, filters and exposures to emphasize its bleakness. Lush and colorful outdoor scenes would have otherwise contrasted too much with the downbeat tone of the story.

The film also contains intriguing historical nuggets about the Boer War, the conflict that opened the bloodiest century of military conflict in human history. The war gave us the word “commando” and the term “concentration camp”. The Carbineers were the first special forces unit to employ COIN tactics. And the court-martial portrayed actually happened, although the film is based on a book (“Scapegoats of the Empire”) which told the story entirely from the side of the accused and therefore may not be completely accurate.

Breaker Morant is a devastating, brilliant piece of cinema, a Caine Mutiny of its time and the perfect movie to close out my little three week tribute to the much-missed Edward Woodward.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Too bad, I couldn’t disrespect Mr. Woodward that way. If you don’t want to watch this one check out my prior two recommendations (here and here) in this tribute series.

Weekend Film Recommendation: A Tribute to Edward Woodward Begins with Callan: The Richmond Files

The British TV Show “Callan” was one of many triumphs in Edward Woodward’s career

416-Edward-WoodwardFour years ago this month, the world lost a remarkable talent when Edward Woodward died. Many Americans know him only as The Equalizer from television, but his career started long before that. Woodward was an extraordinarily gifted actor who was equally comfortable with classic Shakespeare plays, light comedies and grim dramas. Unlike some stage-trained actors, his dramatic skills didn’t wane when he made the move first to television and then to the movies. Beyond all that, he was even an outstanding singer! (Check him out on this Morecambe & Wise clip, he starts crooning about two minutes in and he’s bloody marvelous).

In recognition of the delight he brought to countless television and movie viewers over the years, I begin this week at RBC a multi-week panegyric on Edward Woodward. The tribute starts with the classic British television show that made him famous in the late 1960s, then moves next week to one of his first big screen triumphs (The Wicker Man) and then last but not least to a superb later film he anchored at the height of the Australian New Wave (Breaker Morant).

This week’s recommendation is The Richmond Files, the three-part conclusion to the Callan television series. Woodward became a star playing David Callan, a tough, moody and smart British espionage agent from a working class background who tussled with his plummy superiors as often as he did his Soviet counterparts (Terrain later explored so successfully in another RBC recommendation, Charlie Muffin). The mood of the series was set by what became an iconic set of images and guitar notes:

The glum tone and stark themes of Callan put it squarely in the cynical Le Carre camp of British spy stories, which funnily enough co-existed easily in the 1960s with James Bond-mania. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: A Tribute to Edward Woodward Begins with Callan: The Richmond Files”

Weekend Movie Recommendation: The Guard

The buddy cop genre has been re-interpreted numerous different ways, but there is a commonly recognizable theme. One cop, oftentimes a more dyed in the wool, seasoned veteran, is entrusted with reining in the maverick impetuousness of a younger new recruit with a ‘top scores in the academy but he’s a liability’ backstory (for example, think of the Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop, and – albeit in a different way – 48 Hours series). Instead of inserting the kid who doesn’t play by the rules into the calcified routines of the cop nearing retirement, this week’s movie recommendation, John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard turns the dynamic on its head for hilarious effect.

Screen shot 2013-10-04 at 02.41.28Don Cheadle plays Wendell Everett, the FBI hotshot who is as by-the-book as they come. He imposes upon Gerry Boyle, the foul-mouthed, booze-swilling, prostitute patronizing, veteran played by Brendan Gleeson, to assist in foiling a conspiracy in Boyle’s rural Irish town. Everett is displaced to a country in which his traditional training has left him ill-equipped to conduct investigations of his own. Boyle is not especially concerned with providing the necessary guidance, either: he is content leaving Everett to grapple ineffectually with the local Gaelic language problems and casual racism, while he exchanges information for weapons with his IRA confidant.

As the duo works together to solve the plot, they eventually establish a rapport that enables Everett to dispense with the haplessness of his investigation. For his part, while we’re introduced to Boyle in the opening scene as a man who’ll drop acid just to escape from the dreariness of it all, the character development culminates with a man who learns to take pride in his uniform and do the right thing when needed.

Screen shot 2013-10-04 at 02.41.42Mark Strong sends up his earlier work as one of Guy Ritchie’s favorite London mobsters. He turns in yet another wonderful performance, this time as the henchman with a crippling case of existential angst and more than a passing interest in Bertrand Russell. The excellent supporting cast also includes Fionnula Flanagan, who plays Boyle’s dying mother Eileen. Boyle’s scenes with his mother are heartfelt and bittersweet. Her wistful regret that she hasn’t lived excitingly enough to have taken drugs, for example, makes Boyle’s rampant escapism all that much sadder.

The film is distinctively Irish, and it shows through not just in the charm of Gleeson’s wit. The script is razor-sharp, and goes to show how much can be done on a low budget with an ensemble of talented actors. McDonagh does a wonderful job both in his direction and in his selection of colors and set locations. County Galway is a beautiful place, and he could have easily let the landscape dominate the screen; instead, McDonagh uses the washed-out colors of the cliffs and the rural expanses to show how unexpected and out of the ordinary Boyle’s and Everett’s investigation is.

It’s a wonderful film, and it is guaranteed to make you laugh. Enjoy, RBC.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRsMLuCP8a0

I think it’s time to dust off the RBC movie trivia game. Name buddy cop films in which there is some awareness of the buddy cop trope – typically, this will take the form of a self-referential joke (for example, in Last Action Hero, the cops at the station were all partnered with someone who clearly didn’t match), but I’m intentionally leaving this open-ended.

Weekend Movie Recommendation: Uncle Buck

After a string of successful films throughout the 1980s including Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, and Planes, Trains & Automobiles, John Hughes ended the decade with this film’s movie recommendation, Uncle Buck.

Bob and Cindy Russell can’t leave town without arranging someone to babysit their three children. But when Cindy’s father falls ill, she and Bob are forced to leave in the middle of the night. With no-one else to call, they reluctantly ask Bob’s wayward brother Buck, played by John Candy, to take care of the kids for a few days. They do so with trepidation as Buck is a layabout who hasn’t shown an iota of responsibility or potential as a role model for years. When Buck turns up in the middle of the night, the two youngest children Maizy and Miles are delighted at the prospect of Buck’s visit; however, the eldest daughter Tia, played by Jean Luisa Kelly, shares her parents’ distaste.

Screen shot 2013-09-27 at 10.17.36The rest of the film deals with Buck’s efforts to ingratiate himself to the children, and he teaches them a little about enjoying life along the way. There are a number of sub-plots: in the first, Buck and Tia engage in a battle of wills over who will crack from the other’s shenanigans first in the face of Buck’s house rules. Buck is determined to prove to the rest of the family that he can insert himself into the children’s lives positively, and Tia detests Buck’s interference. In the second sub-plot, Buck is keen to prove to himself and his ever-patient fiancée that he’s a self-respecting and able-bodied man worthy of her aspirations to start a family of their own together.

Uncle Buck doesn’t have the same kids-let-loose fun of The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. While Tia’s story carries some of the same hallmarks of those Hughes classics, her coming of age is precisely the reverse of those other films. Instead of finding a way either to make the adults learn to appreciate her individuality or to dupe them into thinking that she’s conformed while still remaining as mischievous as ever under the surface, Tia ends this film doe-eyed and compliant. She is the sell-out that Hughes’ earlier movies vilified, and her transformation isn’t explained outside of an appeal to Buck’s charm and charisma. The coming of age story in Uncle Buck with which we sympathise, then, is that of the very figure who represents the enemy in Hughes’ earlier films – Buck is an obstinate, I-know-better adult (albeit in a different form) that set down the strictures the children sought to escape. Candy brings wonderful sensitivity to a character otherwise defined by his obduracy.

Screen shot 2013-09-27 at 10.17.12Many people believe that Uncle Buck is a light-hearted, carefree affair. The same mistake is often made about Hughes’ films. Even in those films of his where the intention is to be schmaltzy, he often interweaves a deeply sorrowful story of being misunderstood. In Home Alone, for example, it’s easy to overlook the profound loneliness that Culkin’s Kevin feels when he realises that this is for real. Uncle Buck is no different, and it’s that melancholy that forms the basis of my favourite scene. In it, Buck drunkenly reflects on the course his life taken, after he has put the children to bed. He muses to the house pet that his friends would congratulate him while he was young and carefree for his lack of anchors tying down his libertine lifestyle. Yet now, drunken and alone, he realises that no-one congratulates him any more. It is poignant and pathetic, and Candy deserves recognition for the versatility of his performance over the course of the film.

On the whole, the film’s solemnity is well masked by quick-fire dialogue and endearing characters. In particular, the scene in which Buck is interrogated by his nephew Miles (played by a pre-Home Alone Macaulay Culkin) about his credentials as a housekeeper is a real delight. As an often-overlooked film in the canons of both John Hughes and of John Candy, Uncle Buck highlights the range of skills both could employ in the space of a single scene. I’m including an example in the clip below, which I think captures many of the sentiments of the whole film: kids growing up, adults as obstacles, witty comedy, and a heartfelt need to recognise one another’s value.

Weekend Film Recommendation: A Hard Day’s Night

A Hard Day’s Night is pure joy with the Fab Four on the crest of unprecedented fame and success

The beloved film critic Roger Ebert maintained that what we now remember as the “the 1960s” may actually have started in 1964, as the magnificent sound of George Harrison’s new 12-string guitar opened this week’s film recommendation: A Hard Day’s Night.

At the time, it had every promise of being a forgettable flick: low budget, quickly made, unknown director and some trendy band that was probably going to be forgotten in a few years. But faster than you could say “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” emerged movie magic that holds up very well a half century on.

There isn’t much plot (and why should there be?). The Beatles run from screaming fans, dance with admiring birds, make wisecracks and eventually arrive at a big concert, where they drive the on screen and movie theater audience into ecstasy. Along the way they play the title tune, “I wanna be your man”, “Can’t buy me love”, “This boy” and many other wonderful songs. Everything about this movie is as buoyant as the music; the Fab Four were naturals on screen and it’s impossible not to share in their fun.

Looking back, you might think “How hard could it have been to make a good movie with The Beatles?”. But remember that no one knew at the time what enduring, globe-spanning stars the Fab Four would become, and, that most movies starring pop music stars over the years have been shoddily-scripted, boringly-shot products designed to make a fast buck. Alun Owen could have been lazy and let The Beatles’ charm and popularity sell movie tickets, but instead he wrote a funny, clever, original screenplay that deservedly netted an Oscar nomination.

Meanwhile, Richard Lester and Gilbert Taylor may well have created the modern music video with this film. If you look at typical rock musicals in the 1950s (e.g., Elvis Presley’s films) there are many static set-ups on the musical numbers, almost as if you were watching a big Broadway number on stage in front of you. But the camera is everywhere in a Hard Day’s Night, including a number of shots from the Beatles’ viewpoint during the final concert, which works perfectly for a film that was trying to convey what their lives at the time were like from the inside. The resulting visual look is fresh, exciting and high-energy.

Put it all together and you have not just one of the best rock-and-roll movies ever made, but one of the Silver Screen’s best musicals of any sort.

p.s. This movie would make a fine, fun double feature with a prior RBC Recommendation: The Rutles.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: In the Loop

Before he was elected to serve as the next Doctor, Peter Capaldi was a well-recognised face on the British comedy circuit for having played Malcolm Tucker, Armando Iannucci’s thinly-veiled lampoon of Alastair Campbell. Tucker rose to prominence thanks to Iannucci’s wildly successful television show, The Thick of It, which ended recently after its fourth season. The Thick of It formed the basis of two spin-offs, one of which is HBO’s Veep (more on that here), and the other is this week’s movie recommendation, titled In the Loop (2009).

Screen shot 2013-09-06 at 00.17.39

The film deals with meetings between US State Department officials and UK politicians after a blunderous radio interview, in which a junior MP has unwittingly suggested that we must initiate war in the Middle East as a matter of principle. British and American politicians alike seize on the opportunity either to exercise their trigger finger or to seem like the cautious restrainer-in-chief, depending purely on what they anticipate will make them look good. The rest of the film is about how middlemen and executives shape policy in their efforts to seem competent. It’s that performance of competence, rather than its true presence, that forms the focus of the satire.

A lot of the film plays not only on the political environment and the fickleness of its key players; there’s a hefty dose of ridicule pointed toward the way the political world was often represented in a Sorkin-steeped, Obama-canonising 2008. While the dialogue is precise and lightning-quick, it’s also incomparably crude. In place of the strategic shadowing and earth-tones of your garden-variety political drama, the colours in In the Loop are bright and etiolated, lending to a sense that everyone’s exhausted, and their flaws are always in full view. While the edgy, hand-held camera-work conveys the frenetic atmosphere of snap judgments (recall the famous West Wing corridor walk-n’-talk), the camera clumsily chases behind the characters as they spend time locating the correct room for a meeting. By the end of the film, you feel less like a spectator and more like the bumbling assistant trying unsuccessfully to take notes on scraps of paper. A glamorous ‘halls of power’ drama from a British perspective it ain’t.

Screen shot 2013-09-06 at 00.18.06The challenge with political satire, and especially when placed in the medium of film (where the gimmick has plenty of time to play out), is that it isn’t being done right if the whole thing seems like poking fun at ‘those people over there’ while leaving us unharmed. If we’re not part of the ridicule, then the whole exercise seems a little bit… pointless. In the Loop’s success in making ‘those people over there’ look like self-serving conniving scumbags is ultimately attenuated because they end up being so successful at hiding their incompetence. We (the viewers, the electorate) can’t really be blamed for not having noticed the innumerable screw-ups along the way, so we remain ignorant and blameless. The result is the duality of conspiracy that Keith has referred to on this site before: the architects of the conspiracy must be both so incompetent that they need to construct an elaborate cover-up in the first place, while also being so competent at hiding their charade that most people never notice.

I’d say I have a favourite moment, but really any scene with James Gandolfini will do. The film is a superb showcase for his considerable comic talents. If you watch him spar with Peter Capaldi and fail to chuckle, I’ll eat my hat. As for Malcolm Tucker, well, as one of the most bilious and acerbic abominations to have been coughed up onto the screen, Capaldi brings a whole new, glorious meaning to the term vicarious catharsis. Listen to his improvised excoriation for a few minutes and feel your stresses slide away.

Weekend movie recommendation: Fruitvale Station

Hollywood biopics have become particularly popular in the last few years. Typically, these films focus on the life of élites: in the last two years alone Hollywood has released The Iron Lady, Hitchcock, Jobs, Lincoln, and the forthcoming Diana, to name a few. This week’s movie recommendation is a biopic of a very different kind, Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (2013). While you might have to look around for a cinema near you that’s still showing it, by virtue of its timeliness it seemed appropriate to fill this week’s film recommendation slot.

Screen shot 2013-08-30 at 01.30.02In addition to departing from the typical biopic format in choosing to focus on the life of an ordinary person rather than an élite, the scope of the film also departs from convention in limiting itself to one day – the protagonist’s last. It tells the story of Oscar Julius Grant III, who was the victim of an involuntary manslaughter by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer on New Year’s Eve, 2008. It eschews any focus on the life of the offending police officer, and the sparse epilogue that describes subsequent events (like the officer’s trial and sentence) draws attention to the fact that the film is foremost about Grant.

There is no doubt about how the film ends – the first shot of the film is one of the videos recorded from the camera phone of a passenger on the BART train that captures the officer firing the fatal bullet. As with most biopics, the suspense isn’t in where the film is going but rather in how it gets there. This makes the first half of the film a little less engaging than the second half. We follow Grant living out the mundane existence of someone struggling to make ends meet, kicking a drug habit, taking his daughter to school, and flirting with girls at the store. It effectively establishes him as a real person, in whom we invest our sympathies.

As far as I can tell, the film’s release was timed to coincide with the Zimmerman verdict. If this was unintentional, then at the very least, it resonated with the media attention stirred by recent events. However, while both race and the criminal justice system play an important role in the film’s plot, this is emphatically not a film about Race and the Criminal Justice System. One of the police officers brutally picks on black suspects while leaving white suspects alone, but Coogler’s decision not to dwell on whether Grant’s homicide was intentional removes any comparison between Grant and Trayvon Martin. This is a film about the sadness of a life cut short by human folly, not whether the outcome was just.

Screen shot 2013-08-30 at 01.29.08I can only assume that Coogler applies a fair bit of dramatic license in telling the story of Grant’s last day. Grant’s daughter plays out the conventional tragic conceit of the protagonist’s family member protesting the father’s departure because of the portent of his demise (Caesar’s Calpurnia comes to mind). The reverse is also present, in which Grant is presented with signs of imminent doom, and yet he presses on, rendering himself complicit in his own fate (Oedipus, anyone?): he witnesses the capricious killing of a dog (in the shadow of a BART station, no less), and symbolically refuses to remove the shirt stained with the deceased dog’s blood; he acquiesces to his mother’s and his girlfriend’s separate insistences, contrary to his own original intention, that he both celebrate New Year’s in the city and that he travel there by BART rather than by car; and the fight that precipitates Grant’s detainment and death is caused when the girl with whom he flirted earlier that day draws the attention of a former convict with beef against him.

Nonetheless, the symbolism and imagery aren’t hackneyed, the direction is crisp, and the acting is up to par. While the film starts slow, it gains momentum. By the end, and indeed overall, the film is deeply engrossing. Go watch Fruitvale, if you can find a cinema nearby that’s still showing it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMrAH_rO_fM

Weekend Film Recommendation: Raising Arizona

The 1987 movie Raising Arizona is a zany, funny ride

raising_arizona060Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase

In terms of dialogue in American film, we are a long way from Preston Sturges and Ben Hecht. Between the audience becoming younger and the market more international, artful talking has largely been replaced by car chases, explosions and slapstick. Yet in their second film, the amazing Coen Brothers somehow managed to write a passel of quotable lines combined with car chases, explosions and slapstick. The result was zany comic brilliance: 1987’s Raising Arizona.

The plot: Sad sack, inept criminal H.I. McDunnough (Nicholas Cage) thinks his life may be turning around when he weds a no-nonsense police officer named “Ed” (Holly Hunter). But when they discover she can’t have children, they despair for their future. However, a prominent local family is blessed with quintuplets..surely they wouldn’t miss one if someone happened to steal it?

The dialogue, as in other of the Coens’ films (e.g., O Brother, Where Art Thou?), is funny precisely because the quasi-Biblical sesquipedalian lines are voiced by characters who have room temperature IQ. This is coupled with Barry Sonnenfeld’s manic, aggressively silly camerawork, Wile E. Coyote-level chase sequences and WWF-style fights. The over-the-top-and-then-some style of the humor didn’t completely click with audiences and critics at the time, but the film has since accrued deserved respect as a minor classic of American cinema comedy.

Nicholas Cage apparently didn’t get along with the Coens on the set and his acting is one-note here (They found their perfect star later in George Clooney). But Holly Hunter, in her career breakout year, is both hilarious and sympathetic throughout. I would put her performance here in a tie for her best ever (along with her star turn as a not entirely different character in The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom). In supporting roles, Trey Wilson does rapid fire dialogue as well as Jimmy Cagney, and Sam McMurray gets big laughs as Hi’s boss, a would-be wife-swapper who keeps trying to to tell Polack jokes, but is too stupid to remember the punchlines.

I discovered the Coen Brothers by accident, in an art house theater that was showing a new low budget film made by two unknowns. That film was their superb tale of murder and intrigue, Blood Simple. I am given to understand that they decided in their second time out to make a film that was utterly different from their first in all respects. That showed some artistic courage, and my oh my was it well-warranted.

p.s. Look fast for a reference to my favorite film, Dr. Strangelove, during a scene in a men’s restroom.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

The Real Motive Behind Babette’s Feast

bfeastIn the well-loved art film Babette’s Feast, the central character spends her entire lottery winnings to make one spectacular meal for her guests. It is portrayed as an act of marvelous generosity by a poor person who loves to cook and loves to give.

But Alan Jacobs points out the surprising fact that Isak Dinesen’s book rejects munificence as a motive. When her sated sisters thank her for giving up the chance the escape poverty for their sake, Babette is withering in response:

Babette gave her mistress a deep glance, a strange glance. Was there not pity, even scorn, at the bottom of it?

“For your sake?” she replied. “No. For my own.”

She rose from the chopping block and stood up before the two sisters.

“I am a great artist!” she said.