Anastasia Steele: [while they are in a supermarket, Christian is pushing the cart, looking uncomfortable] When's the last time you went shopping?
Christian Grey: Houston. A week ago.
Anastasia Steele: What'd you buy?
Christian Grey: An airline. (Yes, this is actual Fifty Shades Darker dialogue)
At the end of Fifty Shades of Grey, Ana walked out on Christian but she’s soon lured back to his ‘kinky fuckery’ as screenwriter Niall Leonard so delicately puts it- presumably a quote from EL James’ awful source material.
Christian Gray, he of the bulging biceps and bulging… wallet, is still both incredibly creepy and intensely boring. In order to make him feel less creepy, one of his former submissives is stalking Ana and his Mrs Robinson figure, Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger, completely wasted- although being completely wasted is a benefit when watching this film) is warning Ana that she cannot satisfy Christian’s needs.
Nobody seems at all concerned that what Christian needs is psychiatric help. His explanation of his fetish (it all stems back to his mother) doesn’t redeem him. In another attempt to drown out Christian’s creepiness, Ana’s sleazy boss Jack (Eric Johnson) tries it on with her.
There are many awful moments in the film; Christian guides Ana into drawing on his chest in lipstick to mark the boundaries he is comfortable with is particularly cringy. However, the crowning glory goes to Rita Ora. We should have been thankful that her role in the previous film was a couple of lines; the ‘American’ ‘accent’ she is sporting made me wince with every word that came out of her mouth.
The bedroom scenes are dull, underscored by the sort of dreary urban music that was around in the early noughties. Subtlety is not a strong point of this film; when Ana decides to pay a trip to Christian’s infamous Red Room, ‘I’m Not Afraid’ plays on the soundtrack.
What really ruins the film is not the tepid flirting, the cheesy soundtrack or the robotic acting, but the glacial pace. When Ana tells Christian that she wants to take things slow, this should have been an early indicator that the film would drag. The tacked-on plot is buried under endless dull conversations between Ana and Christian; from what I can gather, it’s a sort of erotic thriller, except the film is neither erotic or thrilling.
The attempts at drama fizzle out because the film constantly tries to reassure us that Ana is her own woman and she shows disapproval at Christian’s bad behaviour. In doing so, it takes any potential romance and excitement out of the film. The source material doesn’t work with modern sensibilities and the filmmakers don’t have enough guts to deviate from the mainstream.
I have yet to watch the climax of the trilogy (cue innuendo-laden posters) and I have a feeling that despite all the banging, the film series will end with a whimper.
'If you place an object in a museum does that make this object a piece of art?' (Christian Nielsen, The Square)
Part art-world satire, part absurdist comedy and part social-commentary, watching The Square is like wandering around an art gallery. Anyone who’s been to an art gallery will recognise the stillness and slow pace (which accounts for the two-and-a-half hour running time) but despite this, there are lots of comic moments, including an ill-advised advertising campaign and the live performance art seen on the film’s poster.
The film is really hinged on Stockholm’s X-Royal Gallery’s lead curator, Christian Nielsen (Klaes Bang), who fobs off American reporter Anne (Elizabeth Moss) when she probes into the nonsensical art-speak on his website. It’s a great moment of culture clash as Anne concedes to his European philosophising which is professional BS-ing.
Christian’s social apathy is reflected by the public, as crowds of people wander past street beggars, glued to their smartphones. Initially the social commentary is more under the radar with the focus on comedy but near the end of the film, it’s soapbox territory. Your mileage on that may vary- is writer/director Ruben Ostlund mouthing off about the problem of homelessness or is it a study of middle class guilt? I would say it’s the latter- Christian is only struck by small moments of generosity when he’s doing well for himself. Besides, unless you are an artist who is actively engaged in social work, you can hardly make a film criticising art’s exploitation of social deprivation unless you are a massive hypocrite.
The film’s title refers to the X-Royal gallery’s latest art installation- a lit-up outline of a square in the gallery’s courtyard, with a plaque that says within the space of this square, everyone has equal rights. Is it genuinely thought-provoking or is it merely paying lip-service? Though the film is satirical, it does make you think about the point of art.
Though Dominic West gets equal billing with Elisabeth Moss, his role is only really a cameo, as the artist of one of the gallery’s exhibitions ‘Mirrors and Piles of Gravel’. Sporting a pair of horrid yellow sunglasses that bring to mind 90’s Britpop, he is the typical pretentious artist.
Without wishing to give more away, the comedy ranges from satirical to black comedy to absurdist comedy. One particular bit of gross-out comedy means that you might wish to leave the children/grandparents at home, unless you enjoy the awkwardness.
One final note- despite the majority of the film being in Swedish, there are a couple of scenes in English, so that should open it out to audiences who hate reading subtitles.
"I'm the girl that works at Paramount all day, and Fox all night" (Marlo Manners, Sextette)
As might be suggested from the title, almost every line of Sextette is an innuendo. Being set in London, we are treated to jokes about stiff upper lips and Big Ben. Some of the lines are Christmas cracker level funny but the sheer amount of predictable smut and the shotgun approach is wearying.
The only thing creakier than the screenplay is the star, Mae West. Looking as if she’s risen from the dead, her mummified glamour still gets the lads going (watch as she flirts with a twenty-one year old athlete!). Inexplicably she is ageless in the eyes of her youngest husband yet, number 6 Sir Michael Barrington (Timothy Dalton). Everyone in the film turns a blind eye to the fact that she is in her mid-eighties and he’s thirty!
The theme tune is the most excruciating song, setting us up for the hotel staff randomly bursting into song-and-dance number ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ and ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’, an awkward duet between Dalton and West that is nauseating on many levels.
Dalton is actually the highlight of the film, managing to pull off (ho ho) a comic interview in which he mistakenly comes across as gay (which in 1978 was presumably hilarious in itself). Even though Michael is a toff, it is incredible how his assertion that he is always ‘gay and happy’ might be taken to mean that he is gay. More of the homoeroticism of sports can be found later in the film as geriatric Margo gyrates for an American athletics team.
Other bonkers highlights are Ringo Starr playing a manically camp fashion designer and Tony Curtis as panto Russian Alexei, who Margo needs to… keep sweet in order to achieve political diplomacy. Doing it for the good old USA. Thankfully the casual racism is kept to a minimum, or is rather overshadowed by the horror show that is elderly vamp Mae West in full Dracula mode.
I won’t bother giving an overview of the plot because there isn’t really much of one. All logic is defied as a cassette tape survives being baked into a cake. There’s more suspense in the fear that Marlo will consummate her new marriage than in the important world political conference that just happens to be happening in the same hotel.
So bad and yet strangely watchable, Sextette needs to be seen to be believed, and then hopefully wiped from your memory.
'Sometimes there's no lesson. That's a lesson in itself.'
At first glance, Anomalisa is essentially a puppet version of Lost In Translation. A chance meeting at a hotel brings customer service motivational speaker Michael Stone (David Thewlis) and customer service call operator Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) together. Hers is the only voice apart from his that we hear- literally, as all other characters are voiced by the same actor (Tom Noonan)
Michael is not simply depressed; he has a psychological disorder called Fregoli delusion, where he believes that everybody else, including his wife and son, are the same person. Writer/director Charlie Kauffman leaves the mystery of whether Lisa is really the anomaly (Anoma-lisa)- is Michael really in love with her or is she just every other woman he's been with?
Jason Leigh is particularly endearing as the desparately awkward Lisa. Thewlis' portrayal of Michael's depression and delusion is both touching and troubling.
The use of animation is interesting, forcing the audience to find humanity in a simulation of humanity. It's an odd choice but it completely works for the film. What could come off as odd and prententious in real action comes off as nuanced and emotional in animation.
This film won't be for everyone; the slow pace of the stop-motion animation, the low-keyed setting mixed with the surreality of one actor voicing multiple characters (with only the slightest pitch change to indicate a male, female or child). It's also a film that you really need to see by yourself rather than with family or friends (and that's not because of the sex scene) in order to connect to the loneliness that runs throughout the film.
"And here's to the fools who dream / Crazy as they may seem. / Here's to the hearts that break. / Here's to the mess we make" ('Audition/The Fools Who Dream', La La Land)
Whilst La La Land is a good film, it's not the masterpiece that will resurrect the musical as a cinematic genre. It's mainly hindered by its editing. The Artist is similarly a homage to classic cinema but it is perfectly streamlined without anything superfluous. Director Damien Chazelle doesn't lack flair but he almost goes overboard with it by over-stretching the film instead of keeping it short and bittersweet.
Emma Stone is likeable but did she deserve Best Actress? I'm not convinced that she brought something to the role that other actresses couldn't bring- if anything, it's the lack of star power that works in her favour, as we genuinely don't know whether Mia's dreams will come true or not. But Ryan Gosling didn't deserve an Oscar nomination- presumably he was nominated so that it wouldn't look like a snub. I buy Emma Stone as a struggling actress but not Ryan Gosling as implausibly hot jazz enthusiast lecturing Mia on the virtues of classical jazz.
There are obvious influences from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which was itself influenced by MGM musicals)- even the score is reminiscent. Chazelle has good taste in films and the jazz is pleasingly classy, even if it feels shoehorned in. He covered jazz nicely in Whiplash; this feels like the audience is being given a lesson in Jazz for Beginners.
The hype could be put down to the film's tone- there's an innocence to it, like an antidote for the hostile political climate. Just as Moulin Rouge was unashamedly romantic, La La Land is about love and dreams rather than musing on weightier themes. There is an underlying melancholy to the film but it's not depressing and it doesn't undermine the film's dreaminess.
The songs are good- 'City of Stars' is the standout but 'Another Day of Sun' makes a great opening to the film, in a chorus dance number reminiscent of an MGM musical and 'Somewhere in The Crowd' is similarly catchy. It's unfair to compare composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul to the seasoned composers of the golden era of musicals and it's to their credit that they go for their own sound rather than pastiche (although the score in the planetarium scene calls to mind the dance at the gym in West Side Story).
The cinematography sells the film, creating the dream like world that makes the musical aspect work as the audience are swept into the glamour and fantasy of Hollywood. La La Land might not save the genre but it shows that there's still mileage.
'Are you surprised? This is what you force me to do. I guess you thought you'd get away with it. Well... you can't' (Alex Forrest, Fatal Attraction)
Warning- there’s going to be spoilers throughout.
Dan X (Michael Douglas) is a happily married lawyer who nevertheless has a dirty weekend with publisher Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). He tells Alex that it’s over but the original bunny-boiler won’t take ‘no’ for an answer…
Director Adrian Lyne goes for base fear and desire- as with Indecent Proposal, it taps into the audience’s morbid curiosity as to whether they can indulge a vice and get away with it. Thankfully Dan cannot have his cake and eat it and whilst the film does show Alex as being a hysterical psychopath, Dan hardly gets away scot-free.
Whether it’s Michael Douglas’ performance- Dan is very seedy and even when he tends to Alex’s wounds, he is never a sympathetic character- or the writing, Dan is surely psychopathic. He feels zero remorse in stopping the affair, carelessly telling Alex that if he wasn’t married, they might be together; insists Alex has an abortion; beats her up when she’s pregnant and then brutally murders her.
Glenn Close does gain some initial sympathy for Alex, showing her to be deeply lonely. The use of music from Madame Butterfly cleverly highlights how she snatches at any perceived connection with Dan. Unfortunately the plot demands that Alex is irredeemable and dangerous but Close does what she can to mitigate that.
Fatal Attraction is one of the most famous erotic thrillers but one weakness of the film is that once the eroticism is gone and we’re down to the standard thriller genre, there is a lull until the spectacular finale. Writer James Dearden doesn’t successfully fill the gap to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
It may be a misogynistic film, a misogyny which Gone Girl shamelessly capitalises on, but it’s a talking point- and at least Fatal Attraction has the excuse that it’s almost thirty years old.
'Look... everyone needs to take a walk to the dark end of the street sometimes. It's what we are.' (Lenny Nero, Strange Days)
The themes of film noir are ultimately timeless so what better way to explore them than by setting them in the future? Yes, there’s no trilbies or trench coats in Strange Days but film noir had costume which was contemporary at the time and the costumes of Strange Days are nineties grunge.
Set during New Year’s Eve 1999 (which was four years into the future then and nearly seventeen years into the past now), ex-cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes- yes really!) has obtained some top-secret equipment from the Feds that allows a person to record directly from their cerebral cortex and for others to watch the recordings.
Lenny makes a good illegal living out of peddling pornographic experiences but draws the line at snuff movies (or 'blackjacks' as he calls them). When he stumbles across a particularly nasty snuff movie involving an acquaintance, he vows to track down the perpertrator. At the same time, he wants to win back his trashy ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis). Accompanied by his friend, driver Macie (Angela Bassett), together they uncover police corruption involving the death of a political rapper.
The BFI put together a handy infographic to decide what makes a film noir and Strange Days ticks a lot of those boxes: Lenny is an investigator; Faith is a femme fatale who Lenny just can’t stay away from; the film is set in LA entirely at night, apart from a couple of memories set in daylight and the plot is certainly farfetched and complicated. And the central piece of technology is literally obsession with the past.
Back to the casting of Ralph Fiennes- an odd choice for an all-American cop but the incongruity gives him the outsider status that makes him a true maverick and thus more interesting than casting a Hollywood actor. Despite his dodgy business, Lenny is actually quite sweet, although it’s a wonder that seeing as he tests his merchandise and sees some truly horrific stuff that he isn’t completely messed up.
Much of the film is a bit of a stretch, with LA as a police state to rival dystopias set further into the future, and despite some clever frenetic camerawork to mimic the point of view of a man in a violent robbery, director Kathryn Bigelow can’t make it distinct enough from simply video recording what’s happening.
James Cameron/Jay Cocks as writer tries by giving Lenny a speech in which he boasts that he can make people’s darkest fantasies come true. Even Fiennes can’t pull off a line like ‘Santa Claus of the subconscious’.
Alongside the techno-perversity, there’s social commentary on police corruption and institutionalised racism (which is also pretty noir as well). The murdered rapper turned martyr is not entirely convincing but Angela Bassett's character Macie feels more plausible and Bassett manages to carry off the racial tension theme. She has good chemistry with Fiennes and whilst she is more kick ass than a chauffeuse should be, Bassett gives her the integrity and feistiness that makes her really likeable.
Juliette Lewis doesn’t bring any likeability at all to Faith or the seductive qualities of a femme fatale- and personally I can’t stand her singing- but she’s not in it that much.
The film was a flop at the box office and it remains flawed but its dark cynical mood and Bigelow/Cameron’s willingness to explore voyeurism in all its perversity makes it an oddity worth watching and a great film to conclude noir week.
'A policeman's job is only easy in a police state. That's the whole point, Captain - who's the boss, the cop or the law?' (Mike Vargas, Touch of Evil)
On the American side of the Mexican border, a car is blown up killing a man and his mistress. Mexican narcotics officer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston, not Mexican but by no means an offensive portrayal) and American cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) uneasily work to solve the case, with simmering racial tension, narcotics and police corruption rife.
The film has a great upbeat jazz score by Henry Mancini heralding the move into the sixties- the aesthetic of the forties and fifties has almost disappeared so it’s not surprising that Touch of Evil is considered the last of the classic film noirs.
Janet Leigh feels very modern as Mike Vargas’ wife Susie, lying seductively in a slip pre-empting her introduction in Psycho. It’s a contrast to Quinlan’s friend Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), a nice cameo from Marlene Dietrich, who could be out of a classic forties noir.
Orson Welles is a tenacious bulldog throwing his weight around as his hatred for the Mexicans infiltrates his work as a police captain but he's more of a tragic villain in a Shakesperean vein rather than inhumanly evil.
Though it doesn’t have the degree of twisted morality that I enjoy in a film noir, the exploration of corruption and racism make the film more political, showing how film noir is a tricky genre/mood/aesthetic to pin down.
In the final review of this week, I’ll be looking at the legacy of noir: in particular, tech-noir.
'This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours - or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you' (Opening captions, The Hitch-Hiker)
The Hitch-Hiker is lazily labelled a film noir; it’s more of a straightforward thriller- for one thing, it lacks any woman, let alone a femme fatale.
Based on real-life murderer Billy Cook (even down to his eye deformity), two men (Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) are driving to Mexico when they naively give a ride to a hitchhiker (William Talman, intensely creepy), who holds them at gunpoint and psychologically tortures them.
The story is fodder for a slasher film and is not per se of much interest. The interest is in director Ida Lupino- the only woman to direct an authentic film noir. Lupino has a natural instinct for filmmaking; the story may be generic but it’s taut and engaging.
Early on in the film, we see her eye for a great shot with a bold close up of the hitchhiker’s gun pointing directly at the audience. You’ll definitely pay attention after that opener.
It’s one of the most literally shadowy films I’ve seen; you’ll struggle to see anything in the car or in the finale. That will certainly put some viewers off but it feels authentic; they are in a car after all. And when the two men are dumped in a Mexican desert, it’s suddenly a bright open expanse that is as desolate as any urban setting.
The film is essentially a three-hander but Lupino avoids staginess. It’s small scale but cinematic.
It’s also impressive how Lupino has directed (and co-written) a film so overtly masculine. There’s no obvious ‘woman’s touch’ or another cliché, softening out the brutality to make it more palatable- simply a talented filmmaker working with thin material because institutionalised racism in Hollywood meant she never got the chance to make a classic.
So, when I'm not chatting about theatre, I'm mouthing off about films. I'd feel