John Ford may have been one of America’s greatest directors, but fuck if he didn’t do some utter shite from time to time. If The Long Gray Line was supposed to be a propaganda piece for the US military (as I suspect it was), it sure makes being a soldier look about as exciting as tap water.
We follow approximately fifty years in the life of Martin Maher (Tyrone Power), a fresh-off-the-boat Irish migrant who ends up at West Point military academy, initially as a waiter but quickly going into enlistment, where he stayed for most of his working life. Alongside meeting his wife, Mary O’Donnell (Maureen O’Hara), that’s pretty much the entire film. Maher enlists, he isn’t a good soldier, but keeps trying, he ends up becoming a part of the furniture, and that’s about it. Furniture isn’t very exciting though, and neither is Maher, nor is Tyrone Power, never one of Golden Age Hollywood’s most charismatic or engaging screen presences.
If there is a point of interest in the film, it’s mostly in its value as a propaganda piece. Released in 1955, at the height of Eisenhower’s Presidency and as the Cold War was kicking off, the film is essentially an extended advert for joining the US military. Look at how it depicts the forces; it’s an educative, unified force, a collective that impresses the value of education and physical education above, seemingly, actual warfare training. As Maher rises to the position of instructor, most of his work appears to involve teaching cadets how to box or swim, or encouraging them to focus on their studies. At no point does anyone even fire a shot in a practice range, let alone a training exercise. With the context of the times, it’s obvious The Long Gray Line was an attempt to reinforce faith in the military, and particularly its sense of male camaraderie and bonding, which the film is absolutely bursting with. And John Ford sure loved him some male bonding in his pictures.
But the fact is, even by the standards of propaganda, The Long Gray Line is just terribly fucking boring. There’s little to no dramatic impetus here: the fact that Martin Maher is a real-life figure, and the film was adapted from his biography is no benefit to the film. The fact that the screenwriters took extensive creative licence to spruce up the dramatic arc of the film yet still turned out an event-free turd suggests to me that, whatever his qualities as a human being, Martin Maher was not really worth making a film about. Certainly not a film that runs to two hours and twenty minutes either.
Aside from the fact that he’s an average guy who isn’t really physically built for the military, there’s nothing interesting about him; it’s the film equivalent of an under-researched undergraduate dissertation being stretched to the requisite word count. It doesn’t even pass as a slice-of-life film ambling through Maher’s daily routine because the scope of the film stretches five decades, too large a time period to apply the focus of such a perspective.
Film-wise, Ford does at least make the film look handsome enough, even if it’s still dramatically inert. Power is no great star, but at least Maureen O’Hara adds a bit of spice to her scenes, and Ward Bond, one of Golden Age Hollywood’s most reliable character actors, also does a fine job in the scenes he’s in. As a lesser film in Ford’s back catalogue, The Long Gray Line barely even manages to at least be compelling, of only passing interest even to Ford enthusiasts.
The second of two Barack Obama biopics this year, Barry is a solid enough piece of work that captures Obama as a young man in college, straining to find his way and place in life. Directed by Vikram Gandhi and starring Devon Terrell as the outgoing President, the film is based on excerpts from Obama’s biography, Dreams of My Father, but it avoids presenting a rote story of Obama’s rise, rather focusing on a very specific section of his life (his college years in New York. By and large, biopics do tend to be more successful when focusing on a specific period of their subjects’ lives rather than a larger arc, avoiding some of the traditional schematic pitfalls and allowing the filmmakers to concentrate on making a focused character study instead.
The main thematic point of focus that Gandhi and screenwriter Adam Mansbach align the film with is Obama’s self-awareness and conscious grappling with his own mixed-race identity. This is most apparent in his relationship with two other students at college; his girlfriend Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy), and local New Yorker PJ (Jason Mitchell). Charlotte is a fictional concoction, a well-heeled white woman who comes from an absurdly privileged background, but with an interest in activist politics, whilst PJ is from the New York projects, disadvantaged economically but intelligent and hard-working, who has made his way into college on a business degree with the sole aim of making money and getting out of poverty.
Vikram Gandhi uses these characters as a way of depicting the young Obama’s ability to transcend both the spheres of upper-class white America and street-level black America without ever truly feeling at home in both. Despite the best intentions of Charlotte’s parents—who, we gather, played roles as activists/lawyers during the Civil Rights era—they are still subliminally prejudiced and blinded by their privileged status in life, and that has rubbed off on Charlotte, whilst the young Obama’s well-travelled upbringing (Indonesia, Hawaii, Kenya) means he isn’t quite streetwise enough to fit into PJ’s world of run-down government housing and police surveillance. Full credit to all the young actors here, especially Devon Terrell as Obama, who navigates the complexity of this material with the required nuance and subtlety, whilst simultaneously mimicking the outgoing President’s distinctively pleasing speech patterns.
Unfortunately, Barry doesn’t always succeed in regards to discussing the coming-of-age experience of a young mixed race man in America, occasionally really pressing its points right up to your nose so as to make sure they’re clear. There are two scenes with a racist campus security officer that feel particularly superfluous and designed more for generating outrage, rather than the intelligence with which the film otherwise maintains itself (although I don’t doubt that the scenes are based in reality, it’s simply that they don’t function well with the more introspective nature of the rest of the film). And although Vikram Gandhi handles the material fine, Barry isn’t a particularly inspiring film visually. It’s no surprise the film has ended up being distributed by Netflix rather than through the cinemas, as it has a particularly televisual quality.
Yet, this is still a fine work, and absolutely worth catching up with, either via streaming or other services. In a year in which black or PoC American cinema has been particularly vocal and confident (Moonlight, 13th, and Lemonade to name just three), particularly given the massive step back America is about to take, Barry is a fine addition to the ranks, an engaging document of growing up as an outsider in a country that’s becoming increasingly suspicious of outsiders.
The Look of Love is a biopic of Paul Raymond, the man who opened Britain’s first strip club, bought out the men’s softcore magazine Men Only in the ‘70s, and built a huge property empire that ensured he was one of the richest men in the UK. He’s certainly an interesting figure, adamant throughout his career that he wasn’t a pornographer, and ably played by Steve Coogan as if he was everything Alan Partridge always desperately wanted to be. Framed in flashback—the opening scenes tell us that Raymond has just learned of his daughter Debbie’s (Imogen Poots) death—we then see how Raymond’s property empire developed, moving from entertainer to backstage producer to sleaze-theatre owner to high-flying property magnate.
Director Michael Winterbottom’s career has certainly been a very interesting and varied one, flitting between all sorts of genres at an absurdly prolific rate (at least one film a year most years) to the point that he can be accused of lacking a sense of quality control—much of his work falls between average and unfocused—but its rarely without worth, with nearly every film offering something of interest.
So it is with The Look of Love: it’s a gracefully shot film with shimmering colours and a graceful early section in black-and-white, buoyed by good performances, but little in the way of genuine insight. The main point that The Look of Love makes is that money doesn’t buy happiness (you don’t fucking say?) and that kind of facile observation is hardly enough to build a meaningful film, so it’s up to other elements to make up for it. With a litany of faces familiar to British comedy fans (Coogan obviously, but also Chris Addison, Stephen Fry, David Walliams, and Dara O’Briain), the film certainly has its fair share of jokes amusingly delivered.
The crux of the dramatic arc falls on Raymond’s relationship with his daughter; it’s a relationship with a lot of surface affection but little substance beneath, bringing out the weaker aspects of Raymond’s character, like, for example, the moment when he casts Debbie as the lead in one of his big-budget nude theatrical productions, but hypocritically bars her from appearing nude.
Both Coogan and Poots invest this relationship with a lot of believability, with Coogan giving the aging Paul Raymond the air of a man gradually being chipped away by his own status as a wealthy lothario, going through women and drugs as if they were toys, all too aware of how desperately his daughter wants to emulate him but too weak to set her on her own path. Unfortunately, Winterbottom doesn’t really seem to know what to do with this relationship. Its fundamental takeaway is that Raymond’s money distances him from genuine human interactions, but this observation isn’t taken anywhere. We know where the film ends up thanks to the flashback framing, but the journey there isn’t all that insightful.
It’s especially a shame as The Look of Love overall comes across as very much infatuated with its central character; in the first half of the film Raymond is a cocky jack-the-lad to be admired, later a sympathetic, aging Don Juan, but the entirety of the film pretty much ignores the gender politics of Paul Raymond’s empire, amounting to at most a few offhand jokes and one-liners, resulting in a massive missed opportunity. The film’s biggest challenge to Paul Raymond’s defence that he’s not a pornographer (and sure, he’s not exactly producing hardcore anal) is one quick scene where Dara O’ Briain, playing a standup at a gig in Raymond’s club, cracks a joke that his entire empire is built on the sticky foundations of spunk, which is about as true an observation as possible. But aside from this, it’s just left behind, tucked away, ignored, as if challenging it would burst Paul Raymond’s already fragile bubble.
It’s a shame, because this decision turns a potentially fascinating portrait of an important historical figure about a man who—for better or worse—played a big part in Britain’s sexual revolution in the ‘60s, into a light, frothy, tragic-comedy, drained of its political impact, floating along on some smartly scripted lines and effective, if hardly exceptional, performances. A decent work, but ultimately forgettable.
An earnest and literal biopic of Vincent Van Gogh’s life, directed by the ever under-valued Vincente Minnelli and starring Kirk Douglas. Earnest in the sense that it wholeheartedly believes in the narrative of the artist as a troubled genius, literal in the sense that it very much literalises a lot of perceived narratives about Van Gogh’s life. Lust for Life is a finely crafted film, and could have been a lot cornier, especially given that the screenplay streaks its themes in big bright “THIS IS THE POINT” colours across the canvas, in a way unbecoming of Van Gogh. Kirk Douglas puts in a fine performance, although he does occasionally overreach on the intensity; it’s Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin who really steals the show here with a relaxed and commanding performance, clearing the oil fumes away from the film’s stuffier sections.
Andrei Rublev is Andrei Tarkovsky at his most elemental. His later works would find themselves soaring higher into the skies, both physically (in Solaris) and spiritually (Mirror), but here he is at his most earth-bound, muddy, and avowedly religious. The ugliness of 15th century Russian life, with blood and murder aplenty—I had forgotten just how brutally violent this film is, even by today’s standards—is set against the need to create, the need to describe harmony and beauty so that insanity does not rule over us. It’s not a stretch to imagine Tarkovsky saw aspects of himself in the little-known historical figure that is Andrei Rublev the icon-painter. Along with the rest of Tarkovsky’s Russian oeuvre, Andrei Rublev stands at the very peak of cinema.
In a list of the world’s 50 most dangerous cities by homicide rate per 100,000 people published by Mexico’s Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, Brazilian cities take up a staggering 19 places, well ahead of Mexico with 10 cities on the list. Colombia and Venezuela are next, with five and four respectively, arguably more impressive/terrifying considering their relatively smaller population sizes. Why do these cities have such a huge murder rate? Drugs are the obvious answer but of course this goes deeper than that. More serious and inflammatory is the US-led war on drugs, and the never-ending meddling on the part of the United States in Latin American governments, particularly any government even moderately left-wing, democratically-elected or not be damned. Let us not forget the greed of the US citizenry, whose demand and greed for whatever drugs and product they so care to find; no other nation preaches tolerance and humanitarianism so obsessively, only to suck dry the lifeblood of other people through its own obliviousness to the rest of the world. Outside of drug dealers and the US, this mess only benefits undertakers and crime reporters, who undoubtedly have more than a few stories to tell.
One of these stories is told in Last Stop 174. Based on a real incident in 2000 in which a young man, Sandro Rosa do Nascimento, who grew up as a homeless street kid after witnessing the murder of his mother, took a bus hostage. Pumped with drugs and in the middle of a standoff lasting many hours, he demanded not money, but guns and a spare bus driver to replace the previous one, who saw his opportunity to run away and took it. Nascimento, who clearly never had a plan to take anybody hostage eventually agreed to leave the bus with one hostage as a shield. A police officer snuck behind him and attempted to kill him, and in the madness that followed, his hostage, a schoolteacher, was shot dead, most likely by that same policeman, whilst Nascimento was arrested and bundled into a van, wherein he died of asphyxiation. The officers taking him to the police station were acquitted of murder. Brazilian police, incidentally, murder more people a year than any other police force, on top of being incredibly corrupt and stupid. Few, if any, are ever convicted of such crimes.
The Bus 174 hostage crisis has retained a presence in the national consciousness of Brazilians. At the time it was heavily televised, and Nascimento became a flashpoint for all the monumental issues facing the country as he shouted and screamed at the TV cameras about poverty, racism, his brutal upbringing and the brutality of the police. It emerged that he was one of the street kids who survived the Candelaria massacre, when in 1993 a group of off-duty policemen shot dead 8 kids who slept around the square of the Candelaria church in Rio. Again, only two of the culprits were convicted. Since Nascinmento’s death, two feature films have been made about the incident. The first was Bus 174, an award-winning documentary directed by Jose Padilha, later of the rather excellent Elite Squad films and the not-so-excellent Robocop remake. The second is Last Stop 174, with veteran Brazilian director Bruno Barreto at the helm.
Whereas the former film is a documentary and so concerned with facts, the latter is fictional, and therefore freely fictionalises much of Nascimento’s life. Otherwise, the main difference between the two is what they focus upon – Padilha’s film focuses on the events of the hostage crisis itself as well as piecing together Nascimento’s background, with the two constituting roughly a 50/50 split in the film. Barreto instead chooses to focus on the boy’s life beforehand and how he got to the desperate stage he found himself in, with the actual hostage crisis forming only the last 20 minutes or so of the film.
Most interestingly, he chooses to focus on parental figures throughout Nascimento’s life. The setup for much of the film’s narrative drive are to do with mistaken identity. We are introduced to two main characters, Alessandro (Marcello Melo Junior) and Sandro (Michel Gomes). Alessandro is taken away from his mother at an early age for her not paying her debts and is raised by a druglord. He learns how to kill, rob, deal, and all the other good stuff we associate with drug dealers. Sandro however, finds his mother gunned down on the street one day, and thereafter is taken in by his aunt before running away whilst still barely an adolescent. Sandro and Alessandro’s lives intertwine later down the line when they meet in prison. Meanwhile, Alessandro’s mother, now a born-again Christian, searches for her son. She believes she finds him in Sandro, and the boy goes along with this idea more out of need for a mother figure rather than honesty.
If this long-winded set-up mistaken identities sounds melodramatic and contrived that’s because it is. However, at its heart, Last Stop 174 is a message film of sorts, and this set-up does allow the film to explore the effects that parental figures have on Sandro’s life. From the surrogate, born-again mother who mistakes him for her son to the care worker who encourages him to educate himself to the aunt who took him in, all of them do their best to care for him but ultimately it appears the trauma he suffered from seeing his mother die has made it impossible for him to bond with a maternal figure in the same way, despite the fact he desperately craves such a figure. In contrast to that, the father figures in his life largely shun him, with the husbands of neither his aunt or his surrogate mother particularly comfortable about his presence, perceiving him as a threat and a negative influence. Sandro himself, at his core, is a sensitive, gentle character, even caring, and certainly not one predisposed to violence. That he finds himself engaged in violence is thus viewed as an affliction bought upon him by society as a whole: a violent society equals violent people.
Barreto contrasts Sandro’s maternal influences with the paternal figures in Alessandro’s life. As a boy raised by a criminal father figure from a young age, he appears to not even desire a female figure in his life, save for the occasional prostitute. As such he is a macho figure, perpetually angry and violent, with the money and the guns to back it up too. Whereas Sandro struggles through his world meekly, Alessandro careens through it recklessly. One wonder if between the two of them there is an individual capable of surviving.
Through this dynamic Barreto suggests that a major step to solving Brazil’s deep-rooted social problems and poverty requires some strong parental influences; the masculine culture that proliferates through the male-dominated drug gangs leads to wanton violence but it is also created through bad or absentee parenting. The tragedy is that, whilst Alessandro was raised his entire life in such a culture, for Sandro it was through the very same acts of random violence that he was sucked into the black hole. Maybe this is a slightly conservative take on such a subject, but certainly psychological studies have frequently proven the worth of strong parental influences – regardless of gender – on creating mentally healthy individuals, and Last Stop 174 appears to concur.
Despite all this, the film struggles to really transcend its message, the recounting of the story often going by-the-numbers, with little to drag the narrative out of its self-inflicted contrivance and coincidence. Stylistically, Barreto keeps towards the social-realist end of the spectrum, as other Brazilian films of this ilk tend to do, yet Barreto is not the most visually imaginative director and much of the film doesn’t go beyond characters talking on a screen. However, he draws some solid performances out of his cast, from the young non-professionals to the seasoned veterans, so whilst Last Stop 174 sags visually and isn’t told in the most engaging way, the performances and the thematic intricacy of the film keep it afloat.
You can pretty much smell the Chinese propaganda dripping off of Ip Man. Highly xenophobic towards the Japanese and perfectly happy to rewrite history to suit its own needs, this biopic about Bruce Lee’s mentor, an icon in China, is flawed from the beginning. The cinematography is nothing to gawp at, using the same “make everything grey to denote history!” colour scheme that all modern biopics seem to do, and the story as a whole is hopelessly melodramatic. With that said, Donnie Yen in the title role is a pretty excellent martial arts leading man, and the film’s fight scenes are solid, if nothing spectacular. Once you cut out the martial arts Ip Man is not one ounce different from any Hollywood biopic of the last 20 years, but then again, martial arts has a way of making even dull films much more attractive.
Why did I not love The Passion of Joan of Arc? I’m not entirely sure. I often struggle to really ‘gel’ with silent films. Perhaps I have just not found the correct way to approach them yet. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate this film, and I can see clearly that this is the work of a unique voice. It’s just that Dreyer’s work can be awfully difficult to get through if you’re not in the right mood (I can never decide whether I absolutely love Day of Wrath or am utterly bored shitless by it), and I probably wasn’t in the right mood this time.