Friday, 13 May 2011

The Proposition (2005)

The whining sound of ricochet gunfire screams across the screen, bullet holes rip through corrugated iron walls, filtering harsh shafts of light into squalid surroundings. Distinguished Australian actor Noah Taylor is caught in the side of the head by a stray bullet, his part in the movie over before the first reel has finished. This is the opening scene of The Proposition, a violent brooding western directed by John Hillcoat. It’s one of the best films to come out of Australia in the last 10 years and it’s a modern cult classic.

At the heart of the The Proposition lies a dark poetic script written by musician Nick Cave. The story is set against the harsh backdrop of the Australian outback in the late 19th century where brutality is an everyday occurrence, the law is mostly disregarded, women are treated poorly and a low standard of living is common. Yup, life is tough. With this as his basis, Cave (who also had a hand in creating the haunting film score) has written a murder ballard for the screen - a bloody story of broken family ties, family betrayals, and the feeble British attempts to tame the wilds of the Antipodes.
The movie begins as outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his kid brother Mikey are captured during the vicious shootout described above. They, along with their elder brother and gang leader Arthur Burns, are accused of the rape and murder of a local woman and her family. The man who has caught them is Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) a British policeman stationed in the outback. Stanley gives Charlie Burns a choice. He has 9 days before Christmas Day to go out into the wilderness and find Arthur and kill him otherwise Mikey will hang. If he does so, him and his kid brother go free.

Guy Pearce is a great choice for the sinewy, steely-eyed Charlie Burns and gives a tremendous display of grit and soul in equal measure – we’re a long way from Mike from Neighbours here! Likewise Ray Winstone gives one of his finest performances in recent years as the troubled Stanley, far from home and a stranger in a strange land, his face full of regret and despair as he faces the consequences of his actions. Disillusioned with life down under but determined to “civilise this land”, Stanley cuts a weary figure as he looks out onto the arid landscape and murmurs under his breath “Australia…. What fresh hell is this?” Danny Huston plays the animal like Arthur Burns as an unseen haunting “Kurtz” like presence for the first half of the movie and as a wild and psychopathic mystic man of the hills once he finally makes his appearance.

The Proposition has five star cameos a plenty. Emily Watson portrays Stanley’s prim and disturbed wife Martha, forced to tag along for the ride and trying to create her home comforts in the middle of the desert. David Whenham puts in a good turn as the cold-blooded voice of local authority Fletcher who orders a merciless and grotesque flogging without thinking twice. Aborigine actor David Gulpilil has a bit part role as the tracker Jacko. Gulpilil first came to prominence in Nic Roeg’s 1970 “children’s” movie Walkabout and Hillcoat's casting of him here is a tribute to Australian cinema history. Best of all is John Hurt as the eccentric and murderous bounty hunter Jellon Lamb, a Falstaffian character that Charlie runs into on the hunt for his brother.“A citizen of the world and an adventurer” in his own words, Lamb provides some light relief amidst the gothic violence and heavy atmosphere.

And violent the film is! Heads explode under shotgun fire, a man manages to shoot his own feet off in error, human bodies are run through with spears, flies swarm everywhere as vultures peck at animal carcasses and blood splatters over faces and clothes as a young boy is brutally flogged. Hillcoat and Cave never shy away from the graphic or the extreme and that's what gives the film a realistic and natural edge.

However, contrasted against the blood, the grit, the dirt, the squalor and the bad teeth, Hillcoat and Cave weave wisps of poetry about the sun, the moon and the stars that seem to float across the screen as Charlie makes his journey into the wilds. Alongside the stunning photogrpahy of the unforgiving landscape, the deep red colours of bloodshed and the big orange sun that sets against the horizon, it's these metaphysical touches that set The Proposition apart from your average western.

Never raise a glass with a man who's name you do not know...

Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Conversation (1974)

If you're up for some late night 1970s paranoia then check out The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola's conspiracy thriller classic. The plot is pretty straightforward. A man and a woman take a stroll in their lunch break around Union Square in San Francisco. They talk about everyday things - Christmas presents, tramps on park benches, when they are next going to meet... perhaps they are having an affair, so what? It all seems quite ordinary, yet someone wants to have their conversation recorded. And they've asked surveillance expert Harry Caul, "the best bugger on the West coast" to do it. When Harry hears a snippet of the conversation that he thinks might endanger the lives of the couple he takes measures to protect them, forcing him to question his own very strong personal values and putting his life in danger.

From this simple premise Coppola weaves themes of mistrust, paranoia and the power of the establishment to invade people's most private moments. Top acting honours go to Gene Hackman who stars as the anonymous Harry Caul. With a grey translucent raincoat, a pair of rimless specs and a truly awful 'tash as his only props, Hackman paints a picture of a very private and insecure man with no friends and no life outside his work. His only releases from his job are playing the saxophone in his drab apartment and confessing his sins to the local priest. It's a very selfless underplayed portrayal of a nobody, a million miles away from Popeye Doyle, and it underlines what a brilliant actor Hackman is. Look out too for a very young and menacing Harrison Ford and the uncredited Robert Duval as the mysterious "Director".

The other star of the show is Walter Murch's sound mixing. It's not often that sound mixing plays so prominently in a movie, but here it should share equal billing with the actors and the director. The scenes of Hackman cutting, splicing, tweaking and fine tuning the recording sit right at the heart of the movie. The sound of tapes rewinding and playing back over and over until the conversation is 100% clear are quite hypnotic and fascinating. It's almost as though we are watching a lesson in how to record sound for the cinema.

Francis Ford Coppola made The Conversation in between his first two Godfather films. That's a pretty amazing feat - sandwiched between two of the most acclaimed epics in movie history we have a beautifully crafted and personal film about the mood of the country in the post Vietnam years and amidst the lies and deceit of Nixon's presidency. Remarkably, The Conversation was conceived and shot before Watergate broke, and the political scandal casts a large shadow over the film. Coppola has even gone on record to say how amazed he was that the equipment used by Harry in the film was previously used by the Nixon administration for surveillance.

There's a heavy influence in the movie from Antonioni's Blow Up, which does the same thing for photography as The Conversation does for sound. In turn, Brian de Palma took chunks of The Conversation's themes and plot for his 1981 film Blow Out about a sound recorder trying to uncover a political assassination. And Hackman resurrected Harry Caul in Tony Scott's late 90s thriller Enemy of The Sate, albeit under a different name although the two characters are almost identical.

The Conversation itself sits in good company alongside other 70s conspiracy movies such as The Parallax View, Klute and Three Days of The Condor. However none of these films have either the depth of character or the simplicity of The Conversation. It's brilliant movie which leaves the late night viewer with food for thought long after the end credits have rolled.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

In a Lonely Place (1950)

The film poster says it all really. Humphrey Bogart holds Gloria Grahame in a passionate clinch, her eyes closed in orgasmic bliss. But take a closer look... is he actually strangling her? And is that a look of menace on his face? Perhaps she is already dead? Maybe this isn't the great romance we originally thought it to be. Maybe it's something a little more destructive.

In a Lonely Place is a film noir-come-melodrama directed by Nicholas Ray. Bogart plays Dixon Steele a cynical and not particularly successful Hollywood screenwriter with major anger management issues. Gloria Grahame plays the equally brilliantly named Laurel Gray, the sultry neighbour of Dix who firstly acts as his alibi for murder and then falls in love with him. The love story is the main thrust of the plot alongside the police investigation into the killing of a coat-check girl who was helping Dix with a script. As the film progresses Laurel's suspicions that he may in fact be the murderer increase. It is her rising panic and paranoia that drive the story along, coupled with Dix's charm and nonchalance as the net seems to be closing in on him.

The plot and themes of the movie stem from the characters and both of the main protagonists are vivid three dimensional personifications with flaws aplenty. The role of Dixon Steele has depth and complexity by the bucket load, and Bogart really sinks his teeth into it. Sardonic yet also threatening he mixes dry witticisms with a bitter rage that is always bubbling near the surface. In the first reel of the film he gets involved in two separate spats, first an angry exchange of words with another driver at a crossing and then in a bar when someone loudmouth slags off an actor friend of his. It soon comes to light that these are just the latest in a long list of altercations. The message is clear - do not mess! Yet he also reveals the lonely and disturbed side of a character low on confidence and lacking in self esteem, the bottom lip chewed to distraction in typical style. It's classic Bogart.

Likewise Gloria Grahame's performance is considered one of her best. Grahame made a career playing vulnerable yet extremely desirable femme fatales and gangster's molls who usually meet a sticky end. She had hot coffee thrown in her face by Lee Marvin in The Big Heat and was throttled to death by Broderick Crawford in Human Desire. Yet that sly Southern drawl, the merest rise of an eyebrow and the exhalation of a plume of cigarette smoke suggests a cunning and devious mind at work, most often driven by sex and desire.

The third corner of the triangle is the director Nicholas Ray. Ray was a bisexual Hollywood maverick and wild man, a hardcore drinker and drug-taker who directed some of the most provocative pictures that came out of the Hollywood studio system in the 1940s and 1950s - They Live by Night, Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause to name a few. Unsurprisingly, he drove the powers that be to distraction with his antics and increasingly left-field films and was eventually shut out by the Hollywood establishment. In his later years he was celebrated by German director Wim Wenders who cast him in his film The American Friend and co-directed Ray's final film Lightning Over Water.

Gloria Grahame and Ray were in a tempestuous marriage at the time In a Lonely Place was being made. The relationship actually broke up whilst the film was being shot. Such was Ray's macho paranoia, he forced Grahame to sign a humiliating stipulation to her contract on the movie, which gave her little or no say in the development of her role at all, nor was she allowed to vent frustration at her lack of independence. Ray even took to sleeping in a dressing room so that no one could discover the truth that director and leading lady were no longer an item. Legend has it that the couple finally divorced a couple of years later when Ray found Grahame in bed with his thirteen year old son.

It's this sense of marital mistreatment that works it's way into the heart of the movie. It's obvious by the end of the film that the "lonely place" of the title refers to jealousy, insecurity, vitimisation, low self esteem and self-destructive behaviour that ultimately leads to violence, raw emotions that can only be played out by those that have experienced them...

Bogart takes Gloria Grahame for a ride out to the dark side