Hollywoodland

Ben Affleck and Diane Lane in Hollywoodland

Looking on paper like something better than it actually turns out, Hollywoodland is one of those films purporting to lift the lid on Hollywood, LA Confidential style. It tells the lightly fictionalised story of George Reeves (Ben Affleck) the man who played Superman on 1950s US TV, and asks the simple question – who done him in?

The answer is, at least partly, he did it to himself, this being a tale of an actor who’d appeared in Gone with the Wind and yet by the mid-50s was in a TV serial aimed at kids. The ignominy. If you need a lesson in counting your blessings rather than dwelling on what might have been, Hollywoodland is it.

To unpick the story of Reeves, we have Adrien Brody doing Citizen Kane-digging, as Louis Simo, a private investigator trying to work out the who and the what and the why. Was it suicide, which was the conclusion at the time? Or did Reeves’s mistress (Diane Lane) accidentally shoot him? Or did a Mob-connected studio boss (Bob Hoskins) order a hit on him? More to the point, do we as an audience care?

Director Allen Coulter asks us not to engage with the man, his plight and his fate, but with his own command of pastiche, and it’s here that the film’s stabs towards The Maltese Falcon, with Brody’s side-of-mouth gumshoe, start to get wearisome.

Affleck – only ten minutes ago the star of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor – is perfectly positioned to play a sad sack for whom things have not quite worked out, his hurt eyes telegraphing disappointment and a career that’s gone awry – could this be his attempt to hit the reset button after becoming better known for his private life than his screen work?

Brody’s detective Simo gets his own back story, which includes his own disappointments as a father and husband (several times over), and he’s a lively presence in a film that needs an injection of vitality, as is Lane as Reeves’s older-woman rich mistress, both shaking this often torpid essay in 1950s stylistics into something approaching life. Bob Hoskins does his usual quack/bark as the studio exec who is sharing his wife with Superman, though he doesn’t yet know it.

But they’re all distractions in what should be Affleck’s film, and the more lively they get, the further into the background the character of Reeves starts to slip. Something of a minor tragedy, because Affleck’s representation of flayed dignity, wounded ego, is well worth seeing.

Hollywoodland – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2006

Splice

Come to mummy: Sarah Polley and offspring in Splice

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

16 June

 

Lord Byron and house guests read Fantasmagoriana, 1816

While on holiday in Switzerland in 1816, Lord Byron and his house guests grew sick of the weather of the “year without a summer”, as 1816 came to be known. Volcanic activity on the other side of the world and the historically low solar activity were precipitating famine in Europe, flooding in Asia and other weather catastrophes. But for this party it meant excessive rain, gloom and little to do. To entertain each other, they started reading a collection of German and French gothic stories called Fantasmagoriana. Published only three years earlier in French, the book contained stories with titles such as La Morte Fiancée (The Death Bride) and Le Revenant (The Revenant). The readers included Byron, Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, John William Polidori and Claire Clairmont. “We will each write a ghost story,” Mary Godwin remembers Byron commanding. And they did, Polidori writing The Vampyre, the first work of recognisable vampire fiction, while Godwin (with addenda by her future husband Shelley), inspired by the news of the great electric advance of galvanism, came up with Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus, after having “a waking dream” during which she imagined it, on 16 June.

 

 

 

Splice (2009, dir: Vincenzo Natali)

Why does RoboCop clump about like that, when he’s a cyborg who can jump great heights, has finesse when it comes to aiming a weapon and can run like a gazelle? The answer is: to remind us that he is a Frankenstein creation. Thud. No such sonic clues come from Vincenzo Natali, who spends a huge amount of time and effort distracting us from the fact that his story is about another Frankenstein creation – a hybrid human built by a nerd and his nerdy girlfriend. See, a couple, couldn’t be a Frankenstein story, could it? Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play the scientist couple and, from the first shots of a slightly overweight Polley, it’s obvious that Natali has pulled his crew in on a no-budget, last-minute, just-got-the-money-and-the-window arrangement. The weight comes and goes as the film progresses, doubtless because Natali was shooting asequentially. This is not an unfair pop at Polley, not at all. In fact it’s a hallmark of low-budget high-concept films that some or all of the actors look chubby – they’re in “downtime” and are often there to lend a name and do a friend a favour – before they go back on the punishing diets that make them lean lollipop heads. In this case Polley for a fellow Canadian, the director of the cult film Cube perhaps also having another little wonder up his sleeve. He does, with this story of scientists who splice DNA together to produce a hybrid human, incubate it, birth it, then stand back and watch as it – her, actually – develops at a freakish speed. Dren (that’s “nerd” backwards) then throws the “parents” into familiar roles – she is loving and protective, he more wary (surely he’s not asking “Is it mine?”) and in a quick succession of cute vignettes, Natali delivers the sort of “bringing up baby” film that families used to shoot on domestic Super 8, but here is caught on the brightest, most aseptic film stock.
Except this isn’t a “big aah” home movie; it’s a horror film, and what the couple have actually created is something that becomes more terrifying by the day. Dren grows at speed, letting on that she can breathe underwater at one point (there are other revelations, in spoiler territory) and subtly shifting her allegiances – as the scientists’ “little girl” arrives at puberty she falls for dad, starts to see mother as a rival (hello Doctor Freud). To reveal how it all pans out would destroy the fun of watching it, but as Splice moves towards its finale, it never quite ties up all the ideas it has let loose en route. Maybe that’s because the ethics of scientific experimentation on animal or human forms resists easy good/bad categorisation. Fixing a wonky heart is good; growing a second head isn’t. But if you can ignore that, and its generic running-around ending, this is a fabulous looking film, the two leads live up to their billing, as does Delphine Chaneac (yes, it’s a human being playing Dren, amazingly) and there has been a fascinating examination of what it means to be a human. It’s all about love, apparently. Well, it might be.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • There’s never a dull film from Vincenzo Natali, director of Cube
  • Tetsuo Nagata’s bright clean cinematography
  • Delphine Chaneac’s amazingly lithe performance
  • The remarkable effects work – CG and physical

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Splice – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Pianist

Adrien Brody as Wladislaw Szpilman in The Piano

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

11 March

 

Roman Polanski charged with rape, 1977

On this day in 1977, the film director Roman Polanski was arrested on a charge of rape by use of drug. He was also charged with perversion, sodomy, a lewd and lascivious act on a child under 14 and with furnishing a controlled substance to a child under 14. Samantha Gailey was the victim, a 13-year-old he had been photographing as part of an assignment for French Vogue. The shoot took place at the actor Jack Nicholson’s house. Nicholson was away skiing. Polanski pleaded not guilty to all charges but later as part of a plea bargain deal changed his plea to guilty to the lesser crime of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse (ie statutory rape – sex with a minor who is sexually mature and “willing”). Polanski agreed to undergo psychiatric evaluation at a state prison for 90 days. But first he went to Europe to finish shooting on a film. He returned, spent 42 days at Chino State Prison, then expected to be put on probation, as the prosecuting attorney had been suggesting. When Polanski learned that the judge seemed to be inclined to jail him, he fled the US and has never returned.

 

 

 

The Pianist (2002, dir: Roman Polanski)

Roman Polanski’s films often deal with guilt. But in The Pianist he confronts the subject head on, in a film that’s personal in more than one sense. Polanksi was born in Paris but returned aged four with his parents to their native Poland in time to become embroiled in the invasion by the Germans. His city, Krakow, was ghettoised and his Jewish family were ultimately taken away to concentration camps, where they died. Roman survived.
The Pianist tells the story of a gifted artist, a pianist, who suffers a similar fate, his life, family, friends, city, everything is destroyed around him but he survives. The city is Warsaw, not Krakow, but the parallels with Polanski’s own life can’t be swept aside. Nor does the pianist (Adrien Brody) survive by wit, cunning or heroism. It’s just blind luck, for the most part, a touch of common sense, the determination to carry on – everyday human attributes, nothing special. It’s this that marks The Pianist out as different; it’s not a war film about the good people doing the heroic thing. It’s about flawed people, proud privileged people, getting by. It even introduces a decent German (played here by Thomas Kretschmann). For this reason the book on which the film was based – by pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman – was suppressed by the Soviets when they took over in Poland. Not simple and direct enough to serve as propaganda.
To make a drama work from so little in the way of heroics, we really to be invested in this character of the unheroic Szpilman. And we really are. Because Polanski has spent time detailing Szpilman’s solid bourgeois mitteleuropean life in Warsaw before things get nasty. He’s helped by the expressiveness of Brody’s face, a canvas of emotions, though it’s often more a bewildered “why me?” that’s painted on there than anything else. Polanski is also working at a philosophical level, his central figure being an artist – “the antenna of the race” as Ezra Pound put it – art at the time of the Second World War being one of the moral barriers between humans and animals. So much for that idea. And as Szpilman scrambles through the ruins towards the end of the film, after almost all of his city has been reduced to rubble, the look on his face is not the triumphal look of the survivor, but the troubled guilty look of the man who has lost everything, and yet is still here, a man whose ambition is still to play the piano on the radio even though playing the piano now means nothing beyond the prettiness of the notes.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Polanski’s most personal film
  • A unique war movie
  • The remarkable scenes in the ruins of Krakow
  • Adrien Brody’s Oscar winning performance

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Pianist – at Amazon