Clowns, King and It

Full disclosure: I hate really clowns. They’re the worst. They’re a bunch of smiley-faced, brightly coloured, baggy trouser-wearing freaks that for some perverted reason love hanging around children’s parties. They’re weird, they’re creepy, they’re unsettling and I hate them.

How clowns ever became considered funny is beyond me. And how “clown” ever became a synonym for “comedian” is even further beyond me. I have never seen a clown get a special on HBO. I have never seen Netflix approach some Bozo wannabe wanting to produce his hour-long stint involving balloon animals and water-squirting posies. Why? Because: clowns… aren’t… funny. At best they’re annoying. At worse they’re terrifying. Sort of like the every Tory politician in government.

Even language normally associated with comedy doesn’t work when used in the context of clowns. In fact, it becomes downright horrific. Example: A comedian that “kills” on stage is a comedian whose jokes are landing. But a clown that “kills” on stage is the stuff of nightmares, prompting coulrophobes everywhere to go, “See? See? I told ya! I told ya!” A comedian that has their audience “screaming in the aisles” is a stand-up show surely worth your time. But a clown that does the same thing is the most terrifying circus imaginable. A comedian that causes the audience to “grab their stomachs in pain” sounds like a comic that’s refined their act to perfection. But a clown that induces the same effect sounds like the work of John Wayne Gacy.

Clowns are so astonishingly unfunny that they are more often associated with the exact opposite of what they’re trying to promote. They want to instil happiness and joy. (Bless them.) But more often they instil fear and unease. Their sole purpose is to make us laugh. Yet they just end up looking like unfunny assholes. Sort of similar to Ross’s role in “Friends”.

What’s strange is that few people find clowns legitimately funny, yet many find them legitimately are creepy. Even clowns are aware of this. Every time a clown is depicted negatively (i.e. accurately) in popular culture real-life clowns everywhere kick up a fuss with their big floppy shoes. The World Clown Association (yes, there’s a World Clown Association – or, as it’s more commonly known, “The Republican Party”) always expresses severe dismay whenever a few bad-apple clowns risk giving the rest a bad name: “We’re not all axe-wielding psychopaths, you know?”

Uh-huh… sure.

So we can all agree then that clowns are horrid creatures capable of scaring the bejesus out of most people on the planet. Cool. But then why is it that the new adaption of Stephen King’s classic novel “IT” is not actually all that scary? And how come, dare I say, even the moments involving Pennywise the Dancing Clown (one of popular culture’s most truly disturbing clowns – and also someone who tragically never got the chance to properly prove himself as a hoofer), are not actually all that scary either?

Let me back up a bit. I like the new adaption of “IT”. I think it’s is a good film. It’s a very good adaption of a novel that’s incredibly difficult to adapt. But it’s not particularly scary. Nevertheless, I still think it’s a heck of an achievement and I commend it considerably. Let me put it this way: Picture you were a young, inexperienced, up-and-coming director. Now picture some hotshot producer walks into your office and chucks half a tree’s worth of fiction onto your desk (the original paperback of “IT” was 1,138 pages long) and says, “Hey kid, see that book? Make that into the biggest box office hit horror cinema has ever seen.”

If it were me, I think I’d pass. I’d stick to making “Insidious: Chapter 208” or whatever and hedge my bets.

But by Jove, Argentine director Andy Mushietti (of 2013’s “Mama” fame) has done exactly that. As I type, “IT” has shattered box office records across the world. It’s had the biggest box office opening in horror film history. Or, as another creepy, crazy-haired clown relentlessly harming vulnerable American children would say: “What a crowd! What a turn out!”

So rejoice, Pennywise. You may have reason to dance after all.

“IT” takes place in 1988: Bush Senior is president, the Berlin wall is coming down, it’s all kicking off in Tiananmen Square, and the woman who wrote the immortal lyrics “Look what you made me do. Look what you made me do. Look what you just made me do, look what you just made me do” is born. What a year!

In the town of Derry (Maine, not Northern Ireland – although Derry, Northern Ireland has its own fair share of clowns too, believe me) school is out for the summer. Cue Alice Cooper and texts books flung high in the air. As the school bell heralds the holidays, a bunch of nerdy, unpopular misfits step out of class hoping to spend their summer having fun and not getting beaten to a pulp by the local bullies – only one of these things is going to happen.

Among the crew are asthmatic mother’s boy Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), who appears to suffer from Munchausen syndrome; lanky Jewish kid Stanley (Wyatt Olef), whose religion makes him a minority in the town; wisecracking comedian Richie (“Stranger Things’s” Finn Wolfhard), whose name is almost always preceded by the phrase “Shut up!”; and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a smart, “New Kids on the Block” fan who enjoys a good library and late-80s pop (I can only, in good faith, approve of half of these things).

There’s also Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), one of the quieter, more thoughtful members of “The Loser Gang” – a term that sounds like something Donald Trump would use to call “Democrats”. Bill has a stutter he can’t control, and he’s still reeling from a recent family tragedy. His six-year-old brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), disappeared the previous year. Floated far, far away. The event is dramatised with chilling precision in the movie’s opening sequence. Georgie subsequently pops up here and there as kind of a spectre, taunting Bill by scurrying around in his yellow raincoat like some fresh version of the kid from “Dark Water”.

In the book, all the kiddy action takes place in the 1950s. But this is 2017, ladies and gentlemen. And therefore it is against the law to pass up on an opportunity to set a piece of popular culture in the 1980s. So here we are – 1989. Hit it Madonna!

Two more kids end up joining the band of outsiders. (For a bunch of unpopular kids, they are sort of strangely popular.) One is Mike (Chosen Jacobs), a kid who lives in a nearby farm, whose chores call to mind images of Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep”. He’s a black kid and home-schooled, making him very much an outsider in an almost exclusively white town.

The final addition to the group is Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the only girl in this cluster of misfits, and someone who’s living a very real nightmare back at home. At school, she’s labelled “fast”, despite no truth to matter. She’s simply an intelligent, considerate girl who likes to keep to herself.

Sophia Lillis gives perhaps the standout performance of the film. She’s instils in Beverly a wonderfully warm charisma, but also manages to completely sell the rawer, more unsettling scenes opposite her deeply ominous father.

Honestly though, all of the kids here deliver magnificent performances. They all seem destined to be stars. They’ve got… um… it. Beverly, however, has perhaps the best moment in the film. It’s a delightful little moment shared with Ben, the good-hearted “New Kids on the Block” fan, when they bump into each other for the first time. Ben chunkily spills his possessions all over the floor and she helps him gather them. She picks up his yearbook and opens it. But inside she finds no signatures (meaning no friends). She takes pity on him, pops a pen and signs it. But the film handles this moment in such a way that it never feels pitiful. It feels genial and charming. She taunts him about his taste in music and they flirtatiously throw “New Kids” song titles at each other. It’s very sweet and very genuine and both Lillis and Taylor play off one another brilliantly. In any other film this could have been a standard awkward-kid encounter. But here it’s handled with sincerity and warmth.

I have to admit, the interactions among the kids and the camaraderie displayed by each of them, are the best parts of the film. As a whole it’s an entertaining evocation of the way kids think and talk within their little cliques, and of the way they protect one another with fervid loyalty. But there’s evil lurking around this small New England town. (It’s Stephen King, so of course there is.) In fact, there are a few evils lurking around this town. (It’s Stephen King, so of course there are.)

The first is hot-headed psycho and River Phoenix lookalike Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang of gangly hoodlums. Like most on-screen bullies, he’s pretty extreme. The nice person inside of you wants to think he’s just a misguided delinquent; railing against the rotten hand he’s been dealt by society – an angry youth who just needs someone he can talk to, open up to.

But then you see him carving his name with a pen knife into the stomach of a poor defenceless kid and you think, “Nah, fuck this guy.”

The second evil is more abstract: it’s a strange malevolent force that hides among the town’s shadows – the “It” of the title – that emerges every 27 years to prey on local children. This “It” normally takes the form of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a circus clown with menacing eyes who lives in the town’s sewer system, and whose presence is often signalled by a free-floating red balloon. Yikes.

Pennywise, as a figure, is wonderfully conceived. Scarlet stripes trickle down his cheeks like tears of blood. The first time we see him it’s genuinely unnerving. He pops his head out from the darkness to coax poor Georgie into the sewer. The whites of his eyes are so unnaturally bright that their sheer uncanniness makes it all the more unsettling. However, by the eighth, ninth, ten – eleventh – time Pennywise makes an appearance, stepping out of the shadow into the analytical light, the novelty begins to wear off.

Add to this the film’s unfortunate approach by way of eliciting scares. Apart from one genuinely creepy background scare that involves Ben sitting in a library flicking through a book, the film’s methods of inducing horror are generally pretty tiresome. Muschietti relies too heavily on “got-cha” jump scares, loud horror-signalling music, and unpleasant computerised special effects to frighten his audience.

And this is the problem with “IT”. Actually, it’s a problem with a lot of modern horror. What makes it frustrating is that, in the case here, “IT” does such a great job of setting up environments that have the potential for great horror. But almost every time it goes too far: breaking the spell, destroying the unease, and settling for over-the-top CGI visuals instead of subtler, more effective imagery.

Pennywise smiling at Georgie, with his big bright eyes and cunicular yellow teeth, taunting him, teasing him to reach for his precious paper boat, is way scarier than Pennywise’s mouth turning into some kind of extra-terrestrial creature from an episode of “Rick and Morty”. Stanley discovering that an eerie Modigliani-like painting has fallen off the wall is way creepier than the actual subject of that painting coming to life and gnarling at the camera in extreme close-up. Bill discovering Georgie huddled in the corner of the basement, trembling and whispering in the dark, is way scarier than Georgie subsequently walking into the light with a CGI-rotting face and leaving nothing to the imagination.

All of these setups are very strong. But each time Muschietti just goes that bit too far. I don’t blame him. Practically every modern western horror film does the same thing. It’s to be expected. But I wish the film had a bit more restraint, taking the time to breathe a little first before trying to scare us. There are a tonne of times the movie tries to scare you – which is great (I mean it’s a horror film after all) – but due to their sheer abundance the scares feel rushed. This is part of the difficulty with adapting Stephen King’s chunky source (of which only the first few hundred pages or so are depicted on-screen). The film feels simultaneously too long and too short. It’s too long in the sense of its running time (it clocks in at two hours and 15 minutes) but it’s too short in terms of its setups. No time is taken to properly dig deep into any of its scary moments – consequently, we rarely get the chance to dig our nails into the seats.

Stephen King’s novels – especially his more voluminous ones – with their multi-layered detail and meandering, entertaining asides, are difficult to adapt – even King himself has found this out. But whatever you do, staying true to the author’s tone is vital. Like “The Shining” or “Carrie”, the best King adaptations create a specific universe unto themselves. But they also tap into King’s boldness, his talent for exploring the darker regions of human nature. King is a master at probing humanity’s fear, laying bare our weaknesses and flaws every bit as often as our greatest nightmares. He can be sympathetic and he can be sensitive. And it is for this reason why he is a great writer. He doesn’t just write about scary things. He challenges the reader to ask why they are scary in the first place.

In movie version of “IT”, however, we don’t quite reach these heights. The film’s still a thoroughly entertaining movie ride, but it’s one that doesn’t get to delve all that deep. Instead it skims along the surface and leaves little to the imagination. And when it comes to horror – when it comes to making an audience feel genuinely disturbed by the events on-screen – imagination is essential. Horror up close is never as terrifying as horror unseen. Great horror allows our minds to fill in the gaps – gaps deftly laid by the artist – with our own darker, much more personal, fears: fears that are tailored and highly specific to how each of us perceives the world. With “IT”, however, the film attempts to show you horror – lots of horror. But it rarely attempts to make you feel horror.

If Muschietti gets signed on to do the sequel, hopefully he can inject more of this feeling into the project next time. Everything else, however, seems to be working nicely. So I guess, Mr. Muschietti, what I’m trying to say for the sequel is this: Once more… with feeling.

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Dunkirk (Nolan, 2017)

The opening of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s marvellous new feature, is near wordless. First, a few expository lines appear on-screen, briefly bringing the audience up to speed on the predicament of hundreds of thousands of British and ally troops during the early stages of the Second World War – men stranded at the very tip of northern France with an enemy fast approaching. But, soon after, the film does away with exposition; refusing to cut away to politicians arguing over policy, sweethearts praying for lovers’ safety, high-ranking officers debating strategy over maps, or even the backstories of any of its characters. Instead the film delves straight into the soldiers, the airmen, and the subsequent rescuing force of Operation Dynamo – the operation to save the troops from the horror that was Dunkirk; a situation famously described by Churchill as “a colossal military disaster”.

The film opens with a group of soldiers walking down a deserted street – one quaint and picturesque. Pieces of paper float above their heads like sleet. A soldier grabs one of the pages. On it is a map of the surrounding area. But it’s encircled with sinister arrows, all pointing to the beaches of Dunkirk. The British are surrounded. The arrows are encroaching.

The quietude is broken as shots ring out from behind. The soldiers scramble for shelter but are gunned down one by one. A frantic escape breaks out as bullets whiz by until we’re left with only one survivor. He scurries off to the beach and the camera follows. And there we’re greeted the sight of thousands of massed soldiers waiting for salvage; waiting for escape – waiting for a miracle.

It’s a fantastic opening. There are almost no words spoken but it communicates everything the film is about to explore: isolation, fear, desperation, and the callous brutality of war. Christopher Nolan emphasises the physicality of war through focusing on detail, forcing the audience to become aware of the simplest (sometimes even slightest) aspects of a scene – the sores of a man’s hands, the fumbling for a cigarette, the trickling of a garden hose – and then contrast that with the harsh, invasive crack of rifle fire and the ugly tumble of lifeless bodies.

The abrasive gunfire also introduces us to one of the film’s greatest technical achievements: its sound design. The sound in Dunkirk is imposing, aggressive and, even by modern standards, extremely loud. The screams of a Rolls Royce engine pierce the ear like a dagger. And that dagger begins to slowly twist as the tension is continually cranked up.

Christopher Nolan has always been fascinated with time. And since film captures time better than almost any other medium, it’s no wonder he is drawn to the light. He’s a filmmaker that is rarely given enough credit for the experimental narratives of his films. They twist, they turn, they jump back and forth, and, in the case of Memento, they sometimes even go backwards. The narrative of Dunkirk is every bit as elastic, but not nearly as gimmicky. It bounces back and forth between three sections; each of which, for the most part, takes place in separate locations and in different time frames. The events on the beach – called “The Mole”, in reference to the concrete jetty jutting out into the harbour – take place over a week. The events on the sea occur in one day. The events in the air transpire in an hour.

This narrative may seem complex – and, in a way, it is – but it is deftly handled by Nolan. The cutting between night and day is at first a little jarring, but it underlines the separation of the individual narratives, reminding the audience of the lines dividing each of these distinct storylines. As each section draws nearer to the point of convergence, Nolan still manages to keep them all in dynamic play with one another. And by constantly cutting from one story to the other, Nolan gives us little chance to relax before the next onslaught begins.

The section that takes place in the air focuses primarily on Tom Hardy’s character, a pilot for the Royal Air Force ordered to protect the British and ally troops below from enemy artillery. Much like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy spends most of the film with his face obscured. This leaves his eyes to do all of the heavy lifting – and they rise to the challenge. At one point, Hardy has to communicate the dilemma of either heading back to base before his fuel tank runs dry, or to continue pursuing a German plane before it bombs more of his countrymen. And, in that moment, his eyes tell us everything we need to know. He grabs the leaver and presses forward.

The photography in Dunkirk is astounding. It was shot by Hoyte van Hoytema (the Dutch wizard who also shot Interstellar and Spectre) on 65mm, meaning it fell to Hoytema to have to appease the ridiculously ambitious demands of a director renowned for his extreme determination (“I want to put an IMAX camera in a real-life Spitfire while it’s in the air – chop, chop”).

But all the formidable work paid off as the results are really astonishing. The film is full of breath-taking aerial shots whereby sea and sky bleed into one giant, daunting, all-engulfing canvas. The picture is slightly saturated and the blue and beige colour scheme works wonders in conveying the dejection of the soldiers – and the swooping shots of the beach are simply gorgeous. These particular images of Dunkirk dwarf the lost souls stranded within it, further highlighting the soldiers’ dreadful isolation and seeming futility. The irony of the story’s geography further adds to the film’s impact. It is said that on a clear day you can see the shores of southern England from Dunkirk. Home is in sight for these men. Yet it might as well be a million miles away.

The backbone of Operation Dynamo was a rousing armada of around 700 tugs, skippers, steamers, ferries, fishing boats and pleasure boats. Many of these boats were captained by their owners – British citizens who journeyed across the treacherous English Channel directly into a warzone to assist military vessels in bringing their boys back home. It became known as the Miracle of Dunkirk. Mark Rylance plays one such British citizen. He, along with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and local teenager George (Barry Keoghan), set sail on their own to join the civilian fleet – and, once again, Mark Rylance proves to be one of the very best actors working in cinema today. His character is no more talkative than any of the other players in this film – characters that seem either stunned by events or strained by determination. But Rylance conveys a muted vitality through the simplest of gestures. His manner is restrained, but his eyes always express a staunch nobility and a quiet spirit.

Almost any other filmmaker would have made Dunkirk with the sprawl and depth of a film like The Longest Day. And although that format of filmmaking is certainly welcome, what makes Dunkirk so interesting is how much of an anti-epic war picture it is. The film manages to be both expansive and intimate at the same time – a genuinely remarkable feat. As a result, the film is incredibly focused. It’s deft, supple and brilliantly lean, and its dialogue is wonderfully minimalistic (although admittedly perhaps a tad too heavy-handed at times). Nolan’s script for the film was seventy six pages – roughly half the length of The Dark Knight Rises screenplay – and the film’s running time is less than two hours – a full hour shorter than his previous feature, Interstellar.

The economy of storytelling in Dunkirk is one of its greatest strengths. It’s crisp old-school filmmaking with suspense sequences clearly indebted to the master himself, fellow Englishman Alfred Hitchcock. Nolan knows full well that suspense comes from anticipation. And the longer a director can draw that out, the greater the suspense – the greater the trill. There are plenty of times during Dunkirk where the only thing the audience sees is a close-up of a character staring at the sky. That’s it. But the longer they stare, the wider their eyes grow. And over these images we hear the blistering roar of German aircrafts, poised to drop explosives on all the sitting British ducks below. Nolan holds these shots for longer than modern audiences may be accustomed. The cacophony builds and builds like a prison siren slowly wailing to life. And then… at that moment… he cuts.

Of course a lot of the suspense has to do with the score; and whereas Hitchcock had Bernard Hermann, Nolan has Hans Zimmer. Zimmer’s score nicks a little from Elgar’s “Nimrod” (the most patriotically charged of the Enigma Variations), but, for the most part, the score serves to heighten the suspense of the film. The strings stammer like machine guns and resemble the ticking of a clock, as if ticking down to something – maybe a detonation.

Dunkirk is an ensemble piece in the truest sense. There is no main character here. It is a story told through soldiers and their lived (and near-death) experiences. What matters is the operation – the will to survive. Famous faces drift in and out of frame. There’s Kenneth Branagh as the commander who oversees the embarkation; there’s Harry Styles as Alex, an evacuee whose deliverance was undone by a German bombing; and there’s Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier found shivering on a capsized hull.

There are also plenty of unknowns here, too – primarily Fionn Whitehead who plays Tommy, a young Brit whom we meet in the very first scene. However, were it not for the end credits, I don’t think I would have remembered any of the characters’ names. This is because names here are unimportant. Words in general almost become superfluous as Nolan’s emphasis on the visceral reality of Dunkirk leaves much unsaid. The word “Nazi” is never once uttered during the film. In fact, we never even see a Nazi for almost the entire movie. The soldiers know exactly who they’re fighting of course; but, in a sense, the enemy is still an unknown – nothing but a burry stranger in a field looking to kill them.

One of the most enduring images of Dunkirk arrives at the film’s finale. It’s a solemn shot of a British plane on fire as its pilot stoically stares into the flames. The pilot set the craft alight to avoid its capture by the enemy. Up until now, we’ve had land, sea and air – we now end with fire. It’s a sobering image – an image of clear conquest, for sure; but also an image of sheer defiance. For Dunkirk is not only a film about defeat. It’s also about realising that how we deal with defeat may, in the end, be what saves us. And that is a message that is every bit as stirring and every bit as relevant as it was almost eighty years ago.

Lady Snowblood (1973)

This was originally written for The Black List’s “Essential Martial Arts Films” series. See here

Born in a female prison on a snowy winter’s night, Yuki Kashima is told by her mother, “You will live your life carrying out my vendetta.” The child has no choice in the matter. It is her destiny. Stray snowflakes fall on baby Yuki’s cheeks and the screen becomes awash with red. Lady Snowblood is born.

Yuki grows up to be a relentless assassin bent on avenging the death of her family; a woman whose sole purpose in life is vengeance, pure and simple. But this bloody vendetta is elevated to the level of visual poetry by director Toshiya Fujita. He creatively employs sophisticated narratives and gorgeous expressionistic photography to produce an impeccable balance of violence and beauty.

Lady Snowblood is fantastically played by Meiko Kaji, an icon of ’70s Japanese cinema, whose enormous ebony eyes perfectly convey the quiet ferocity, ethereal beauty and tragic reluctance of her character. We first encounter Kaji walking alone in the snow, primly dressed and twirling an umbrella. However, hidden within her umbrella is a samurai sword (a marvelous visual metaphor for her character as a whole); and when forced to use that sword, her snowy, pristine exterior instantly becomes covered in the blood of her victims. For this is a film in which blood does not ooze, drip or seep. It sprays — like a garden hose. Bright scarlet streams gush from the torn throats and severed limbs of Yuki’s targets as she hunts down those responsible for her family’s death.

The violence in the film is beautifully balletic. But it’s also messy and ultimately shown to solve very little. Yuki’s desire — or, more accurately, her need — for revenge only results in an endless cycle of carnage; a cycle wherein the only possible escape is through death.

Sadly, LADY SNOWBLOOD is still vastly underseen here in the west. However, its influence can be found in many places; perhaps most notably in the work of Quentin Tarantino — particularly his own Japanese revenge saga KILL BILL VOL. 1. The style, themes and even cinematography of KILL BILL owe an enormous debt to Fujita’s original. Even LADY SNOWBLOOD’s theme song “Shura No Hana” plays over the end credits of Tarantino’s film. And the similarities between Yuki and Lucy Liu’s character O-Ren Ishii are especially striking — not just in appearance, but also in a fondness for gory, violent showdowns in the snow.

LADY SNOWBLOOD is a terrific piece of high-minded pulp — a martial arts movie that perhaps leans more towards the “arts” than the “martial”. But that does not mean it is any less entertaining. So do seek out this little rhapsody of revenge. Seek it out and savor the tale of a woman forever forced to tread the line between life and death — a woman who immaculately embodies the carnage of karma.

A Tribute to Jonathan Demme (1944 – 2017)

This piece was originally written for The Thin Air.  See here.

Paul Thomas Anderson was once asked by Criterion, the American home video distribution company, which three directors had influenced him the most. Anderson replied, “Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme and Jonathan Demme.”

Demme was one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation; and certainly one of the most talented. Few directors could shift as effortlessly between filmmaking styles – and as naturally between genres – as Demme, who dabbled fluently in comedy, horror, indie, drama and documentary. But, as well as being incredibly prolific, Demme was also enormously experimental with the medium, pushing cinematic techniques to new levels of sophistication and intelligence. He enhanced methods pioneered by the likes of Hitchcock, such as the use of subjective camera in The Silence of the Lambs, and he experimented with the documentary-style drama to great effect in films like Rachel Getting Married.

Demme is perhaps best known for directing the Oscar-winning masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs. The film was a sensation upon release and immediately established Anthony Hopkins as a movie star. It also proved that Jodie Foster was one of the best actors of her generation – the plucky, precious kid who spent years out-acting every other adolescent on the screen was now a fully-grown woman whose talent showed no sign of letting up.

The Silence of the Lambs is an exceptionally directed film. It’s a fascinating example of a filmmaker ushering his audience into the mind of a killer – or, more importantly, into the mind of its victim. Demme is forever playing with the audience, forcing them to see the world through differing perspectives, messing with our expectations and sometimes even forcing us to empathise with one of cinema’s greatest villains: Hannibal Lector. It’s a disturbing film; one that astutely depicts a world in which women are objectified in almost every aspect of life, highlighted again through Demme’s genius use of camera subjectivity and POV. (The shot of Clarice Starling in an elevator chalked-full of posturing, physically-dominating men is, in many ways, emblematic of the whole movie.)

Perhaps what made Demme such an inspired choice for directing The Silence of the Lambs was that he cut his teeth working with the exploitation schlock master, Roger Corman. Corman was an early mentor to Demme and imbued in him a profound work ethic and a tremendous respect for populism – one of Demme’s greatest attributes, incidentally; and one that so often gets overlooked when we assess the merits of an artist. His crowd-pleasing mentality, and experience working in low-budget constraints, paved the way for Demme’s indie sensibility of the 1980s – a host of films that mixed the screwball charm of classic ‘30s comedies with the darker, brasher tone of Reaganite America.

This early period of Demme’s career bore some of his best work. Bittersweet films like Melvin and Howard, Something Wild and Married to the Mob showed that he was a filmmaker marked less by stylistic trademarks and more by a certain charitable spirit; a generosity that highlighted his warmness and humanity even when his films delved into darker, more sombre subjects. Something Wild is a great example of this, and to this day is still one of the most underrated films of the ‘80s. It stars Melanie Griffith as the freewheeling Lulu who takes an uptight banker (played by Jeff Daniels) away on a weekend adventure. But all their fun and games subside when Lulu’s husband (a pre-Goodfellas Ray Liotta) finds out what they’re up to. The film is, in essence, a madcap sex comedy – but one with a much darker edge, always delivering its laughs against a subtler, more emotional subtext.

Of course, this early period of Demme’s work also helped establish his marvellous gift for music. Demme was a cinematic shapeshifter – a trait common among classic Hollywood directors of the studio era. Demme’s style, approach and technique continually transformed throughout his eclectic career. However, his remarkable ear for music was perhaps the one factor that remained a constant.

Music was to Demme’s films what suspense was to Hitchcock’s. It was indelible. It was inherent. And it was utterly indispensable. Demme and music simply went hand-in-hand. But this musicality was far from exclusive to his fictional work. Instead it extended all the way into documentary where it flourished to an extraordinary degree. In fact, as this Slate piece by Sam Adams argues, Jonathan Demme was perhaps our greatest director of concert films (although Martin Scorsese is surely in the mix as well). Justin Timberlake + the Tennesse Kids and Neil Young: Heart of Gold are both wonderful examples of Demme’s ability to deconstruct the concert movie and reassemble it into something new; something fresh – something wild.

But Demme’s greatest achievement in this genre (and maybe his greatest achievement altogether) was Stop Making Sense, a concert film about The Talking Heads. Were it not for Prince’s Sign O the Times or Scorsese’s The Last Waltz it might just be the greatest concert movie ever made. The movie opens with David Byrne on stage with an acoustic guitar while members of the band slowly assemble around him, as if props in a movie or pieces of set dressing – again, Demme here being very much interested deconstruction; stripping the band bare and then rebuilding it before our eyes. In a way, this deconstruction was similar to the approach The Talking Heads were taking with regard to their own musical influences around the same time.

After the back-to-back success of The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, Demme turned to television, documentaries and shorts – smaller, more intimate projects, generally, although his 1998 adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved was a notable exception. Like so many films of Demme’s career, Beloved is vastly underrated. It’s an admirable adaptation of a book that, like most genius works of literature, does not automatically appear to lend itself easily to the screen. But Demme here does a fine job, injecting the film full of gorgeously powerful images that help bring the novel’s beating pulse to the screen.

“Underrated” is a word that always crops up in a conversation surrounding Jonathan Demme. It’s a testament to his talent and body of work that, despite all of his acclaim and admiration, many of us still feel that a lot of his work is underappreciated. Late-period Demme is a prime example of this. Rachel Getting Married is about a recovering alcoholic who is desperately trying to make it through her sister’s wedding without going insane. The film features perhaps Anne Hathaway’s best performance to date, and the film’s aesthetic was very much inspired by Denmark’s Dogma 95 movement. The film is full of anxiety and distress, but, in typical Demme style, in its final reels it turns into a musical celebration; one wherein its characters find opportunity to dance away the dark. It’s a marvellous film, and one that deserves a larger audience and a wider acclaim.

Rachel Getting Married bears somewhat of a resemblance to Demme’s final fictional feature, Ricki and the Flash: a film about an aging wannabe rock star (brilliantly played by Meryl Streep), who attempts to reconnect with the family she once left behind to pursue her rock ‘n’ roll dream. It’s a sharp, funny and surprisingly touching film that features great live music performances from its actors and a fantastic performance from Mamie Gummer as Julie, Ricki’s daughter (and Streep’s actual daughter in real-life). Like many of Demme’s films, the characters by the end are forced to reconcile with each other; to accept one another’s faults and perhaps find redemption therein. They have to face up to themselves and to each other – and, being a Jonathan Demme movie, that means having to face the music and dance.

Sweet Charity (1969)

This entry was originally written for The Black List as part of their “Essential Musicals” series. See here.

No director had a greater influence on ’70s musicals than Bob Fosse. When people think of Fosse they immediately picture Sally Bowles perched on a wooden chair with a bowler hat, showing off her long legs and her even longer lashes. But few, however, think of Shirley MacLaine dancing on a rooftop to the tune of “There’s Gotta Be Somewhere Better Than This.” All of which is a shame because this number, from his directorial debut Sweet Charity is an absolutely blissful slice of movie magic. And the film itself is one of the most underrated musicals you’re likely to see — worthy to be thought of alongside Fosse’s other musical masterpieces, Cabaret and All That Jazz.

Sweet Charity is an adaption of the stage musical of the same name — a show based on Federico Fellini’s 1957 masterwork Nights of Cabiria. Admittedly it’s an unusual premise for a musical. But, then again, many great musicals are based on things that seem to be — at least at first — a little unusual. (A hip hop musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, anyone?) Still, Sweet Charity is one of the most pleasurable musicals ever made. It’s sweet, it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s joyous, and it’s completely and utterly charming. And, on top of all that, it boasts a fantastic performance by the wondrous Shirley MacLaine as Charity, a ridiculously adorable dancer-for-hire who’s looking for nothing more than a little love and affection.

Every minute Charity is on screen, the film glistens. And MacLaine’s smile is one of the most infectious in all of cinema. (I dare you not to smile back at least once during this film. I double dare you.) Fosse is at the top of his game here, too — using practically every cinematic tool at his disposal to make a two and a half hour-long film feel as brisk as one of his own dance routines. Rarely has a first-time director exploded onto the scene with such vivre and panache. And rarely has a musical felt this fresh and alive. The cinematography, editing and choreography are all thrillingly experimental and give the film a truly exciting cinematic charm. For proof of this, check out the gorgeously composed Swinging Sixties number “Rich Man’s Frug.” It’s about as inventive as anything Busby Berkeley choreographed at the height of his career.

Sweet Charity deserves a wider audience. It deserves a wider acclaim. And it deserves to be in your life. So if you’re interested in Fosse — or just interested in musicals period — then I urge you to seek it out.

Go on… Be generous to yourself. A little Charity can go a long way.

Hidden Figures

NASA prides itself on showcasing the brightest boffins the world has to offer, all working together to push human endeavour beyond what was once thought possible. In “Hidden Figures”, the task is to put a man into orbit – something never before attempted – and then bring him safely back to Earth (the latter part proving to be the trickiest). But this is not the only task that NASA faces in “Hidden Figures”, which is based on the true story of the contribution African-American women made to the 1960s U.S. space programme. NASA also has to realise the corrosive effects of segregation and discrimination, and realise the enormous benefits – both moral and scientific – of giving women and people of colour a seat at the briefing table. From this, everyone benefits: women, men and science. And yet, no matter how daunting the task of safely putting a man into space is, solving institutional discrimination back on Earth sadly appears every bit as arduous – if not even more so.

This is partly what makes “Hidden Figures” such an interesting movie. It’s a candied (but candid) story of three African-American women working for NASA in the early 1960s. They are Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – all geniuses in their respective fields, continually having to work twice as hard for half the credit. NASA’s goal is to send a man into space before the Russians, which accounts for the dramatic stakes of the movie. As everyone knows, however, America loses this race – at least the first part of it. The Russians win the first leg by sending Yuri Gargarin into orbit in 1961, much to the chagrin of the U.S. government. Sadly, this won’t be the only time the Russians undercut an in-office Democratic president.

What’s interesting is that Russia in the early ‘60s was ahead of the United States not just in aeronautical terms, but also in giving women a chance to shine. Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963. America wouldn’t get round to sending Sally Ride into space for another 20 years. In Russia between the years 1962 and 1964, women accounted for 40 percent of all PhDs awarded in chemistry. Meanwhile back in the United States, that statistic was only at five percent. The irony of NASA’s endeavour becomes clear in “Hidden Figures”. NASA’s vision, as stated on its website, is to “reach for new heights and reveal the unknown”, claiming it does so “for the benefit of mankind.” Except, as “Hidden Figures” shows, in its formative years NASA did so by neglecting more than half of it.

As a film, “Hidden Figures” is a bit of a contraction; at least in its presentation. On the one hand it’s a very “Hollywood” movie. It hits all the feel-good beats, is a bit too formulaic and cheesy, but ends up being a really enjoyable, wonderfully rousing crowd-pleaser. But then, contradictorily, it also couldn’t be further from a typical “Hollywood” movie. The reason being, of course, that Hollywood rarely has black women at the centre of its films; let alone three smart, extremely capable black female scientists. What’s more, not only do we see these women as chalkboard superheroes and numerical ninjas, constantly displaying their mathematical prowess, but we also see them simply hang out, flirt and be themselves. They also do not engage in any stereotypical bitchy rivalry that a movie, such as this, would often necessitate. They are friends and they are supportive of each other’s progress; and we as audience members love being in their company.

The three central performances are all terrific. And each of the characters could easily have warranted their own standalone movie. They are an excellent on-screen trio, bouncing off one another’s distinguishing characteristics. The script by Allison Schroeder and director Theodor Melfi, however, is not striving for originality or artistic inventiveness. Therefore to criticise it for failing to do so seems harsh. Instead, “Hidden Figures” simply sets out to tell a remarkable story in a clean, entertaining fashion. And there’s something enormously satisfying about seeing a well-told story with a clear moral centre and a strong emotional payoff.

The second scene of the film is a great example of its crisp efficiency. It’s the scene where we first meet our three central characters. (In the first scene we see Katherine as a child prodigy, but this is the first time we see her as Taraji P. Henson.) The three women are by the side of the road after their car has broken down. We see Dorothy underneath the car, screwdriver in hand, trying to fix it. The rapport between the three women is immediately evident. They have wonderful chemistry together and the scene unfolds with a police car pulling up behind them, introducing tension (black women, white cop, the 1960s, the American South – not a welcoming combination). Not only does this scene brilliantly and efficiently establish these three characters – their mannerisms, their friendship, their differing personalities – but it also sets up many of the film’s themes as well. The three women use their talents to persevere in spite of their unfortunate circumstances. By the end, things are moving in the right direction and the women have gained enormous respect (albeit from those whose opinion on such racial and gendered issues matter a great deal less). As a visual metaphor, however, it’s clever storytelling; and it neatly encapsulates the film.

But there are moments when “Hidden Figures” feels like it goes too far. Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, Director of NASA’s Space Task Group. He’s the sort of guy that doesn’t seem to care if you’re a man or woman, black or white. All he wants is for you to crunch the numbers and crunch them on time. But this leads to plot points that, although structurally significant, seem pretty implausible. For instance, Katherine has to endure endless belittling treatment from the Space Task Group: constant patronising, measly “coloured” coffee, and 40 minute bathroom breaks on account of the “coloured” bathrooms being half a mile away. Having stayed silent for so long, she finally speaks out. And, in doing so, gives Costner his big moment. Costner righteously grabs a crowbar (yes, a crowbar) and repeatedly whacks the “coloured bathroom’s” sign until it comes tumbling down… Couldn’t you have gotten the janitor, Kevin?

The film is full of little moments like this, although perhaps not quite as extreme – moments punctuated by the film’s sometimes annoyingly jovial soundtrack. Towards the end of the film, the creative licensing starts to creep in again for dramatic effect. But again, it feels too forced. There are too many characters running around with folders pressed to their chest trying desperately to pass them on to the right people before take-off. In reality, this wasn’t exactly the case. But then again, it’s a Hollywood movie… What’d you expect?

There isn’t a great deal of visually interesting storytelling going on in “Hidden Figures” – which is a shame considering how effective the rest of the storytelling is. However, one visual touch that works rather brilliantly (aside from Janelle Monáe’s killer outfits) is the way the film shows how out of place these three women are with respect to their surroundings. Almost everyone working at the high end of NASA is male. And they are all white. They all look white, and they all dress in white – that traditional mid-century office look of white short-sleeved shirt and tie. As a result, everyone at NASA looks the same. They all blend into one big white establishment. And the colour scheme of the interiors is also deliberately very muted and grey.

Now cue Taraji P. Henson entering this environment. She is a black woman, colourfully dressed, entering into a white male world. This immediately makes her the most striking thing on-screen. And every white head turns as she walks by. In doing so, her conflict at NASA is directly represented by the conflicting colours on-screen.

Most of the film revolves around Katherine’s point of view. However, Janelle Monáe risks walking away with the movie. Her character Mary was the first black female engineer at NASA, and shines every time she’s on-screen. However, Octavia Spencer has perhaps the hardest part to play among the three women. Her character Dorothy does not have the big emotional scenes that Katherine and Mary have. Hers are much more nuanced. But the relationship between Dorothy and supervisor Vivian Michael (played brilliantly – as one would expect – by Kirsten Dunst) is the most interesting relationship in the whole movie. It’s remarkably delicate given the film’s fairly unsubtle approach.

Vivian is a bigot. But Dorothy never lectures her or gets any big “movie moment” to set her straight. Instead their relationship plays out much more authentically; something which feels a lot closer to reality than any crowbar-swinging from Costner. One of the best scenes in the film is when Vivian looks Dorothy in the eye and earnestly says, “Despite what you think, I have nothing against y’all.” As has been evident throughout though, this obviously not true. But Dorothy does not lose her temper. Instead, she quietly and respectfully replies, “I know… I know you probably believe that.” It’s a brilliant, underplayed exchange – one that’s sadly still relevant to today as it was back then.

Despite its sugary delivery, “Hidden Figures” still manages to be wonderful entertainment. But what elevates it above most films of this sort is that it sheds light on a much larger issue. Not just in terms of Hollywood’s representation of African-Americans, but in terms of its representation of women too. When people think of NASA during the ‘60s, most do not picture black women contributing to its cause. Yet they did – significantly so. “Hidden Figures” is celebratory in tone, yet its lasting impression is to make one ask the question: How many more hidden figures are out there? How many more stories have yet to be told? How many more women that made significant contributions to science were forgotten or overlooked because of institutional sexism. The answer is, of course, plenty: women like Rosalind Franklin, Jocelyn Bell Burell, Lise Meitner and countless others – all of whom endured discrimination simply for being a woman; all having to put up with men exclusively being awarded for discoveries they were absolutely integral to.

“That’s just the way things are.” This line is heard over and over again in “Hidden Figures”, and is always directed towards black women by white people to justify racism. But the movie shows that accepting “the way things are” flies in the face of true scientific endeavour. For instance: man cannot travel to space. For millennia, that was just the way things were. But science challenges that notion. And “Hidden Figures” shows that that restrictive way of thinking benefits neither science nor the voices it chooses to neglect. NASA’s ultimate vision is to benefit all of mankind. But believing “that’s just the way things are” in situations involving blatant discrimination means that, no matter how many small steps man takes, mankind will never take a giant leap forward.

The Importance of Being Ernst

This week sees the 125th birthday of director Ernst Lubitsch. If you don’t know who that is, here’s why I think you should:

“Germans aren’t funny.” You hear this cheap crack all the time. A bunch of ruthlessly efficient, incredibly rational hardworking pragmatists – but ask them to tell you a knock-knock joke and you might as well be watching an Adam Sandler movie. In 2011, a poll was conducted in which more than 30,000 people from 15 different countries were asked to rank the nations with the worst sense of humour. Germany came out on top (or bottom, depending on how you look at it), thus furthering the stereotype that many countries appear to believe: that German comedy is no laughing matter.

Except that, like most stereotypes, it’s completely and utterly bogus.

I give you Exhibit A: Ernst Lubitsch – the man that, according to no less than Jean Renoir, “invented the modern Hollywood.” Lubitsch was a comic genius, an artist, a maverick, a sophisticate, and yes: a German. He was truly a man of infinite jest. And he made films of infinite zest.

The writing process can be a punishing one. Lots of writing can create lots of writhing. To aid this process, and act as a constant source of inspiration, the great Billy Wilder had a saying. While working on a given project, be it a film noir or a screwball comedy, he often asked himself the same question. So imperative was this question to his screenwriting process that he, in fact, had it mounted above his office door. It simply read, “How would Lubitsch have done it?”

Lubitsch was Wilder’s hero. Wilder once said that Lubitsch “could do more with a closed door than most directors could do with an open fly.” For Lubitsch, as Wilder well knew, was a supreme craftsman; and one that also enjoyed great commercial success in his day. He was the golden boy of Hollywood’s Golden Age. And his gilded sheen never dulled. Lubitsch specialised in witty, sophisticated comedies; often poking fun at the upper classes and those in power. As a director, he had an incredibly deft hand. His style was nimble and unexpected; sharp and refined; it was instantly recognisable, and always very funny. As a result of this gentle filmmaking flourish, his films were often marketed as having “the Lubitsch touch”.

The Lubitsch touch is a touch of class. It’s easy to appreciate; impossible to replicate. Instead, one can only bask in its sizzling, sunlit perfection: the subtle touch of an off-screen master. This can be found all over films like “Trouble in Paradise”, “Design for a Living”, “To Be or Not to Be”, “The Shop Around the Corner”, “Heaven Can Wait” and “Ninotchka” – all of which are some of the greatest American films ever made. And I believe Mr. Billy Wilder would thoroughly agree. (Speaking of Wilder, here he is talking about “The Lubitsch Touch” at the AFI Harold Lloyd Master Seminar in 1976. Unsurprisingly, he explains it brilliantly.)

One of Lubitsch’s finest films is “Trouble in Paradise”, a delightfully dazzling Pre-Code rom-com about a gentlemanly thief (Herbert Marshall) and a crafty pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) that decide to con the famous perfume manufacturer, Madame Colet (Kay Francis). It is an extraordinarily flirtatious film. Its characters candidly flirt with one another for practically the entire running time. And the film candidly flirts with perfection. Like so many of Lubitsch’s films, it is crisp, breezy, superbly sophisticated, and every bit as exquisite as the day it was made.

Another Lubitsch masterpiece is “To Be or Not to Be”, a movie about a group of actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw that get caught up in a plot to track down a German spy. The film stars Jack Benny as the star of a Polish theatre company, alongside Carole Lombard who plays his wife. Lombard was one of the century’s greatest comic actors, and this was sadly her last movie before her tragic untimely death. But Lombard’s death wasn’t the only thing seen as untimely. Released in 1942, the film, too, was greeted with cries of “Too soon!” The New York Times wrote that the film was “callous and macabre”, and it performed terribly at the box office. But today, “To Be or Not to Be” is seen as one of Lubitsch’s best works. And rightly so. It is easily one of the funniest films ever made and true testament to the genius of its director.

What made Lubitsch so special, among many things, was his sense of mischief. His films are littered with adult themes, hinted at through sly visual humour and witty, playful gags. But his films never ventured into smuttiness. If there is such a line that divides smut from genius, Lubitsch never crossed it. But, especially with the advent of the Hays Code, he did sometimes walk it. And for that, I will always love him.

So why does nobody talk about Lubitsch anymore? Is it so hard to acknowledge that a German is responsible for some of Hollywood’s greatest comedies? German comedy is some of the greatest in the world. (Critical darling “Toni Erdmann” is one of the most acclaimed comedies in recent memory. And guess what – German.) Ernst Lubitsch was one of the most famous directors of the 1930s, yet today very few have even heard of him. It’s such a shame. Or, as the Tangerine Tyrant would say, “Sad!”

So this week, in honour of his 125th birthday on Sunday, stick on an Ernst Lubitsch movie. Stick it on and marvel at his German genius, his wicked wit, his supreme sophistication and, of course, that gloriously gifted, tremendously talented touch.