0258 | The Last Picture Show

the-last-picture-showPeter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show stands up today as one of the most haunting, elegiac works about change in America ever made, a sombre and touching film that examines transition on a number of levels. Most obviously its trio of main characters are negotiating that brief coming-of-age period between high school seniority and the start of adulthood, with one eye on the future and one eye on losing their virginity as quickly as possible, while their elders – supposedly at points in their lives when they are supposed to have settled down – are disgruntled about the state of their marriages or wistful and regretful about the past, and in some cases are choosing to do something about it. The small town in which the story takes place – Archer City doubling for Bogdanovich’s ‘Anarene’, which was called ‘Thalia’ in co-writer Larry McMurtry’s 1966 source novel – is also changing; a packed Christmas dance and a half-filled cinema show that there’s life here, but local businesses are stagnating and the streets never appear much busier than they do during the near-deserted opening, with wide angle location shots highlighting the sparseness of buildings and people in this Texan town. Though Anarene isn’t dead, exactly, there’s more than a mere hint that it’s dying. There are oilfields nearby but job prospects lie elsewhere and there’s an exodus of youth: by the end of the film two of the teenagers mentioned above – Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Jacy (Cybill Shepherd, making her debut) – have moved on to pastures new while the third, Timothy Bottoms’ Sonny, wants to leave but ends up staying for a number of reasons: dashed spur-of-the-moment wedding plans, a re-kindled relationship with Ruth (Cloris Leachman), the high school football coach’s wife, plus the fact he has taken over one of the few businesses in Anarene (passed on to Sonny by Sam The Lion, played by the western veteran Ben Johnson).

The director’s decision to film in black and white – supposedly following a suggestion made by Orson Welles – is also suggestive of an era long left behind; the story covers a year from the winter of 1951 to the winter of 1952, but former actor and critic Bogdanovich made The Last Picture Show during the peak of the ‘New Hollywood’ movement that straddled the late 1960s and early 1970s. Though his film is rightly considered a seminal work from that period the monochrome and 1950’s soundtrack seem out of kilter when considered next to colourful touchstones like Five Easy Pieces or Easy Rider, movies that took pride in being about ‘the here and now’ rather than the past. The black and white adds considerably to the film’s bleak mood (it’s as if colour itself was still years away from being invented) and helps here to establish its sense of time and place; it also ensured that Bogdanovich’s film stood apart visually from the work of his contemporaries, with cinematography by the legendary Robert Surtees simultaneously helping to bring this fifties town to life and helping to show its decline.

That said, it is easily identifiable as a film from the early 1970s, not least because of its carefree approach to censorship (although I should add that I was watching the director’s cut, made during the more tolerant 1990s, which included among its extra footage a pair of sex scenes). Also it’s a slow, sprawling, melancholic and personal work that seemingly uses its characters to celebrate the craft of acting at every available opportunity. Given his ubiquity at that time it’s a surprise that Jack Nicholson isn’t in The Last Picture Show, but clearly he was too old to play Duane or Sonny, and too young for any of the other substantial male parts. Financed by the maverick BBS production company – of which Nicholson was an unofficial fourth partner – Bogdanovich was given plenty of freedom while making his adaptation, which went against the Hollywood grain in a number of ways and which looked on paper to be the kind of film that would struggle to find an audience. Though the BBS offices had a drug-fuelled, carefree air, the key figures – Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Stephen Blauner – may well have been privately worried about releasing a black and white film in 1971, and apparently there were concerns about the director’s casting and his assurances that he was ‘editing in-camera’, but this was nothing when compared to the kind of stringent requirements a big studio at that time would have placed on Bogdanovich. It took first-time producer Stephen J. Friedman two years to secure financial backing, but thankfully BBS were the right company at the right time, and the film was a commercial and critical success.

Bogdanovich, an obsessive cinephile from an early age, celebrates the work of his Old Hollywood heroes: the name Anarene was chosen because of its similarity to Abilene, the town in Howard Hawks’ Red River, which is also the ‘last picture’ shown before Sam The Lion’s cinema is closed down. Other directors and films are referenced through the medium of the faltering picture house; John Ford’s Wagon Master is advertised, while other forthcoming features include Winchester ’73Sands Of Iwo Jima and White Heat, all films about macho characters and all clearly as much of an influence on the young male characters of The Last Picture Show as they were on its director in real life. There’s a sense that the young people of Anarene are naïve and learning slowly about the rest of America from the pictures they get to watch, although obviously the story takes place during years where household ownership of TV sets across the US was increasing at a rapid pace; half of all American households contained a TV set by 1955, hence the cinema closure in this film. Bogdanovich once stated ‘I saw the story as a Texas version of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, which was about the end of a way of life caused by the coming of the automobile. This was about the end of a way of life caused by the coming of television.’

Bogdanovich doesn’t just pay lip service to his favourite directors, many of whom had retired by the early 1970s. He also drew from his previous experience on sets watching Ford and Hawks direct; we see numerous shots of the town that show the entire main street and several buildings, and often distant figures are isolated within this landscape, a typical Ford move. At the beginning of the film one of these long shots, through Sonny’s cracked car window, reveals mute kid Billy (Sam Bottoms) as he sweeps the street. This foreshadows later events in the film, which suggests that Bogdanovich wasn’t interested in using the long shots as window dressing or scene-setting; he wanted them to help tell the story.

An hour-long documentary about the film was included with the Criterion Collection release, and tellingly Bogdanovich and others spend almost half of it discussing the casting process. Choosing the right actors was incredibly important, and the decision by BBS to back the director’s riskier calls – Shepherd was a model with no prior acting experience, for example, and the director wanted to rely on his own instincts rather than the security of a screen test – turned out to be a good one. Johnson, who played the grizzled owner of Anarene’s café as well as its cinema and pool hall, had reservations about the verbosity of the script, at one point stating he would rather ‘ride a thousand miles than say any of these goddamn words’, but Bogdanovich called on his friend Ford to convince the actor to take the part. Ford suggested to Johnson this was a chance to step away from John Wayne’s (considerable) shadow while Bogdanovich told him ‘You, in this role, are going to get an Academy Award’. He was right.

There are numerous other good casting decisions to highlight. Leachman also won an Oscar for her portrayal of the sad, neglected housewife who enters into a relationship with Sonny, while Ellen Burstyn (playing Jacy’s knowing mother Lois) and Bridges both received their first nominations. Bottoms – who was picked for the lead role partly because of his sad eyes – is also very good, as is Eileen Brennan as kind-hearted café waitress Genevieve. The only actor who looks a little uneasy is Randy Quaid, but that’s somewhat understandable given that it was his film debut too.

Bogdanovich repeatedly highlights the similarities and differences between people in subtle ways, drawing meaning from the smallest actions or interactions while doing so. A great example is the shared awkwardness of characters as they each get undressed in different scenes; Jacy is uncomfortable undressing in public at the pool party she goes to, Duane is clumsy when stripping eagerly in front of Jacy later on, while Ruth and Sonny are tentative as they take off their clothes before sleeping together for the first time (which, incidentally, is a scene that contrasts nicely with their later, warmer meetings).

The latter example there, regarding Ruth and Sonny, also serves to highlight the fact there is little distinction made between adults and teenagers in The Last Picture Show. The film uses the similarities between young and old characters to create a sense of earlier events happening again; Jacy’s attitude to men mirrors that of her mother, while you can imagine Sonny repeating Sam’s monologue about ‘the one that got away’ in the future (especially relevant as both of their lost loves are different generations from the same family). Gradually Sonny begins to take on Sam’s role in the town: during the first hour there’s a sense that protection of and care for Billy is transferring from the older man to the younger man and, as stated earlier, there is also the handing over of one of the town’s businesses. By the end Sonny appears to be facing up to a life in Anarene, perhaps destined to look back with the same level of regret as Sam.

Bogdanovich treats the idea of ‘coming-of-age’ as a loss of innocence. The three major characters lose their virginity but love doesn’t follow automatically for any of them; instead their lives become filled with a mix of frustration (Duane), boredom (Jacy) and loss (Sonny), as if life chooses to smack all three in the mouth upon graduation. Indeed sex is a cloud that hangs over the film throughout: older characters are jaded or bored by it, and there’s a distinct lack of guidance for the teenagers in the town, leading to some reprehensible acts: bestiality is discussed but not seen, and when several kids club together to pay for the underage Billy to have sex they incur the wrath of Sam. The distinct lack of optimism in the film is perhaps best summed up when minor character Joe Bob (Barc Doyle), a preacher’s son who seemingly endures an unhappy time at school, abducts a little girl, although he doesn’t abuse her.

It may appear to be bleak and infused with sadness, but The Last Picture Show has heart, and it is a standout early 1970s American film. There are dozens of memorable shots and scenes, the ensemble cast is superb, the soundtrack of old country numbers works well and, perhaps most importantly of all, Bogdanovich and McMurtry have plenty to say about America via the microcosm of their town. It’s a moving, poetic and well-written work and its power has not faded with the passing of time.

Directed by: Peter Bogdanovich.
Written by: Peter Bogdanovich, Larry McMurtry. Based on The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry.
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Randy Quaid, Sam Bottoms.
Cinematography: Robert Surtees.
Editing: Donn Cambern.
Music: Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 126 minutes.
Year: 1971.
Rating: 9.4

0257 | Berberian Sound Studio

toby-jones-berberian-sound-studio-imageDirected by: Peter Strickland. Written by: Peter Strickland. Starring: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Susanna Cappellaro, Fatma Mohamed, Chiara D’Anna, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Antonio Mancino. Cinematography: Nicholas D. Knowland. Editing: Chris Dickens. Music: Broadcast. Certificate: 15. Running Time: 94 minutes. Year: 2012. Rating: 8.9

Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, a psychological thriller/horror set in the 1970s, focuses on a timid, lonely English recording engineer named Gilderoy (Toby Jones) who gradually loses his mind while working on a fictional Italian giallo. Written and directed by Strickland, it uses sound in an inventive and disturbing fashion, relying on the power of suggestion while eschewing traditionally-favoured visual shocks, and has the kind of uneasy, troublesome mood that ensures it lingers in the mind for a considerable period after viewing. Though well regarded by critics – with some even suggesting it was the best film of 2012 – it received a more mixed reception from cinemagoers: a 6.2 rating on IMDB and, surprisingly, one star out of five on Netflix suggest that it has left more people baffled and irritated than enthralled. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise: Jones actually looks like a ‘normal’ person – in contrast to the usual popular reliance on male or female eye candy in horror – while its fetishism of analogue recording equipment and the reliance on an obscure branch of Italian cinema possibly tested the patience or alienated many. Most importantly of all, when the film blurs the lines between reality and fiction in the final act – successfully, I think – it demands that the viewer also lets go of what was, up to that point, a perfectly clear narrative, which is of course going to frustrate anyone who likes to be guided along by such archaic concepts as logic and lucidity.

The film begins with Gilderoy arriving for his first day of work in Italy. His enthusiasm is rapidly diminished in the wake of initial meetings with unfriendly receptionist Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou), overbearing and aggressive producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), pretentious director and womaniser Santini (Antonio Mancino) and assorted oddball Karloff-esque studio hands, many of whom insult the English engineer in Italian. Language becomes an instant barrier – the first line of the film is ‘Do you speak English?’ – and Gilderoy’s attempts to secure a refund for his plane ticket becomes a Kafka-esque thread about impenetrable bureaucracy and miscommunication. Meanwhile the mild-mannered Englishman is shocked to discover that he is going to be working on a brutal horror – The Equestrian Vortex, authentic-looking titles for which are included by Strickland at the beginning of Berberian Sound Studio – and not, as he believed, a nature documentary about horses. Gilderoy’s job is to record a number of actors (including Chiara D’Anna, who has a larger part in Strickland’s recent third film The Duke Of Burgundy) as they run through a range of eerie vocal musical interludes, screams and other odd noises, and he must also act as a foley artist, bashing, tearing, stabbing and chopping cabbages, marrows and other vegetables to create bone-crunching noises to accompany The Equestrian Vortex’s disturbing images.

In a number of scenes the camera rests on Gilderoy’s horrified face as he watches the brutal horror film unfold, often sitting through repeated scenes of rape and torture and recording the same sounds over and over again, though we do not see what he sees (the mind duly boggles but we do see brief titles and descriptions of the scenes). Exposed to such extremities for the first time Gilderoy attempts to cope by clinging to familiar, comforting memories: the pastoral world he apparently left behind in England, including the relative peace of his home studio (a garden shed) and the gentleness of a bucolic nature documentary he worked on. He is also calmed by the daily letters he receives from his mother, which are at first filled with news about roosting chiffchaffs but eventually begin to mirror Gilderoy’s own dark state of mind. By contrast the natural world in Italy is represented by decaying, discarded sound studio vegetables and the presence of a spider, a symbol often associated with slow death and entrapment but also, in literature, representative of manipulated thinking to bring about the construction of a new, different life (an idea that is entirely relevant to Berberian Sound Studio‘s final act).

Gilderoy’s psychological condition worsens and he begins to form friendships with the sympathetic (and equally-maltreated) actresses also working in the studio, but as his grip on reality loosens the differences between the individual women begin to blur, and the engineer cannot rely on their friendship or their advice. Toby Jones, a fine character actor, is on great form here, at first selling Gilderoy’s discomfort, shock, frustration and slightly lecherous leanings upon arrival in Italy before nailing the character’s later despair and self-loathing as he effectively ends up as the star in his own personal horror film, using sound as an instrument of torture and apparently trapped in a grim, eternal loop (hence all those tape cartridges spooling in a circular motion). This must have been an incredibly difficult part to get right, and it looks as though Strickland has directed him well: it’s clear Jones understands the aim and tone of the film and he carries off the character’s transition with aplomb.

Admittedly during the film’s 90 minutes very little actually happens; this is very much a mood piece, taking its time while referencing the gialli made by Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Sergio Martino et al, and recreating their low-budget world during its supposed 1970s heyday without ever becoming misty-eyed (Strickland is a fan, first and foremost, but this is no Tarantino / Rodriguez homage to exploitation cinema, and his enthusiasm is firmly kept in check). The film’s colour palette, plus lingering shots that focus on spooling tape reels, masses of wires and various pieces of bulky, dust-laden equipment also help to establish a sense of time and place, while also warmly celebrating an era of pre-digital filmmaking. Recently Jim Jarmusch adopted a similar approach with the retro-fetishism of Tom Hiddleston’s vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive, another idiosyncratic work finding its own space in the margins of the genre horror, and one which also benefitted from a deliberately unhurried pace.

Berberian Sound Studio is a challenging film, not particularly scary but very unsettling nonetheless; while Jarmusch’s film is a comfortable, relaxing feature to sit through, the quieter moments here are often abruptly punctured by jarring shrieks and other strange noises, while the band Broadcast’s work on the soundtrack also adds to the creepy, unnerving feel. However it’s not completely straight: there is a certain warped sense of humour at play that nods to the darker British TV sitcoms of the 1970s – I found myself thinking of the daydreaming and repetition in The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin on more than one occasion, for example – and Strickland is keen to highlight the fact that the charm of a giallo lies partly in how ridiculous its extremities are: you have to laugh when characters here are submerging cabbages in water to soundtrack the drowning of a witch, or when eyes bulge in recording booths as actors pretend be possessed and squeeze out bizarre, unearthly noises.

The film deliberately falls apart at the end, bringing to mind the work of David Lynch with its disintegrating logic and identity swapping; this is apparently intentional, with the ‘Club Silencio’ scene in Mulholland Drive duly referenced by a flashing red studio sign, which repeatedly warns ‘Silenzio’ with distinct foreboding. I like the fact it ends with unanswered questions and little by way of explanation, and I’m keen to see Strickland’s two other films as a result of his work here. Aside from its creeping sense of terror and all-round weirdness Berberian Sound Studio also provides insight into foley and dubbing work, if you’re interested in the technicalities of filmmaking, while hardcore fans of gialli will apparently find plenty of in-jokes and references to geek out on. It’s also another win for Warp Films, an independent studio that is consistently delivering bold, creative and unusual work from a number of exciting filmmakers. Highly recommended.

0256 | The Hustler

the_hustlerDirected by: Robert Rossen. Written by: Sidney Carroll, Robert Rossen. Based on The Hustler by Walter Tevis. Starring: Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott, Myron McCormick. Cinematography: Eugene Shuftan. Editing: Dede Allen. Music: Kenyon Hopkins. Certificate: 12. Running Time: 134 minutes. Year: 1961. Rating: 9.2

It’s perhaps a touch unfair, but Paul Newman’s 1986 Oscar for his performance in Martin Scorsese’s The Color Of Money has long been held-up as an example of the Academy attempting to rectify a past mistake: Newman was reprising his role of ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson – the pool shark first seen in Robert Rossen’s hard-boiled 1961 film The Hustler – in Scorsese’s patchy update, and supposedly took advantage of a weaker field that year, aided by the fact that two leading actors in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger) were both nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category. Newman did receive a nomination for his earlier portrayal of ‘Fast’ Eddie, but lost out to Maximilian Schell for his work in Judgment At Nuremberg, a film that was nominated 11 times in all categories but barely gets a mention today. The general consensus afterwards was that the Academy got it wrong by failing to award Newman an Oscar in 1961, and thus the later win was seen as belated recognition of his earlier work. All of which is, of course, pointless conjecture, but it is undeniable that the actor is superb in The Hustler, delivering a performance that would become a template for his later rebels in Hud and Cool Hand Luke.

Rossen’s film, adapted from Walter Tevis’s 1959 novel of the same name, follows the fortunes of small-time pool hustler ‘Fast’ Eddie as he attempts to enter the pool hall major leagues by beating the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). The plot has been copied by countless other ‘sports’ movies since, from Rocky to Rounders: young pretender goes up against wily old pro, loses everything, and spends the rest of the story building back up for that second shot at the title (though really there’s no trophy on offer here, just money and presumably a word-of-mouth acknowledgment that will spread from one pool hall to another across the USA). In tandem with his two stage battle of the baize Eddie must juggle the concerns of his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick), alcoholic girlfriend Sarah (Piper Laurie) and professional gambler Bert (George C. Scott), a trio of characters who all make the mistake of relying/depending on Eddie in one way or another.

The film has a relentlessly bleak worldview, as per Tevis’s book, and Rossen focuses almost entirely on a group of characters who are living within the margins of society: drifters, barflies, poker sharks and others out for a quick buck, some of whom appear to be homeless (or at least are choosing not to be at home). It’s within this world that Eddie meets Sarah; first in a station cafe and then, later on, in a bar, after which they enter into what appears at first to be a normal loving relationship. However, ultimately neither character is able to ‘save’ the other or able to turn their partner’s life around, as their characteristics and their two addictions – gambling and drinking respectively – are entrenched by the time they have met. In fact they seem like a doomed couple from the outset; he falls asleep during their first meeting, indicating an inability or unwillingness to listen to or deal with her problems, while her alcoholism also obscures the lines of communication.

In The Hustler people are either winners or losers and there is no in-between. The screenplay by Rossen and Sidney Carroll also questions what it is to be a winner within this world: by the end all of the characters – even those who manage to prove themselves to be superior at the game of 9-ball – have actually lost out in one way or another. It may be a cliché but there is a high price to pay for winning, and the rewards for success do not represent anything like adequate compensation; the presence of ‘Raging Bull’ Jake LaMotta in a cameo as a bartender reinforces the idea that sporting prowess and personal happiness do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, while the views of Tevis and Rossen on the matter can perhaps best be summed up with reference to the film’s ending: The Hustler plays out with a series of negative notes that cradle a very hollow triumph.

Set mostly in artificially-lit, no-frills bars and pool halls, Rossen’s world is generally cold and unfriendly; a spartan landscape filled with places that exist merely to sate the needs of degenerate gamblers and heavy drinkers. Strangers are generally not welcome in these joints, are barely trusted (with good reason, it would seem) and are not respected unless they’re identified as a source of income that can be milked: witness the attitude of Bert – the ultimate hustler – towards Eddie as he labels him a ‘loser’ on their first and second meetings, thereby enabling him to take advantage with unfavourable terms when he volunteers to be Eddie’s backer later on.

As the characters go through upturns and downturns in their fortunes, the jazz score by Kenyon Hopkins varies in tone and tempo to signify ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ streaks. The editing by Dede Allen is also a key feature of the film, particularly during the involving early battle between Fats and Eddie, in which several hours’ worth of games are cut and concatenated into a montage that shows the ebb and flow of the match while also revealing much about Eddie’s greed and selfishness. The film is at its best during these early hustles and clashes, with tension cranked up as a result of the high stakes nature of the games; Eddie is cocky and there’s a degree of schadenfreude to be had while watching him lose to Fats at the beginning. During filming, however, Rossen decided he wanted to concentrate more on the love story between Eddie and Sarah; it’s quite an involving romance, although the film noticeably goes up a gear when Eddie returns to hustling and, later, when Eddie’s rematch with Fats takes place.

The Hustler is packed with good actors acting well: Gleason, Laurie and Scott all received Oscar nominations (though Scott refused to accept his and also rejected his nomination/win for Patton several years later) and, as stated earlier, the magnetic Newman is on career-best form. It’s arguably Rossen’s greatest work as well, surpassing the earlier Oscar-winner All The King’s Men, another film with noir-ish leanings and also another that is concerned with the subject of alcohol abuse. Sadly he would only make one more feature before his death in 1966, following a number of illnesses, and if you think that’s a sour note to end on all I can say is ‘watch The Hustler’. A downbeat classic that sees nothing but misfortune, unhappiness and struggle in the decade ahead.

0255 | End Of Watch

End of WatchDirected by: David Ayer. Written by: David Ayer. Starring: Michael Peña, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, David Harbour, America Ferrara. Cinematography: Roman Vasyanov. Editing: Dody Dorn. Music: David Sardy, Various. Certificate: 15. Running Time: 104 minutes. Year: 2012. Rating: 7.4

David Ayer’s reputation as a writer – and more recently as a writer-director – has grown steadily since the appearance of 2001’s Training Day, despite one or two dips along the way. Although certainly not immune to box office failure, he is perceived as someone who can regularly ensure bums on seats while also occasionally enjoying a degree of critical praise, so there was little surprise when he was finally given a prestigious studio project last year (he is writing, directing and producing the upcoming Suicide Squad).

An ex-Navy officer himself, Ayer is clearly fascinated by men in service who are working under extreme pressure: his screenplays to date have mainly concentrated on male LAPD officers dealing with high-level crime (S.W.A.T.Training DayDark BlueHarsh TimesStreet Kings) or male soldiers operating in cramped, claustrophobic conditions during World War II (FuryU-571), but amidst all the rampant testosterone, raised voices and re-loading of guns his scripts have included several interesting, well-written characters and have provided a degree of insight into the motivation of such individuals, as well as the sense of brotherhood often shared by colleagues. There has, by contrast, been a distinct lack of memorable female characters; often Ayer’s stories feature women who exist simply to support the men he focuses on, and they are seemingly unable to transcend their clearly-defined and old-fashioned roles as wives or girlfriends. Most of Ayer’s female characters who are not stay-at-home partners tend to be women with accentuated ‘traditional’ male characteristics, as if that’s the only way their presence in Ayer’s male-dominated worlds can be explained, or legitimized. Success is only possible for men or for women who become less feminine and more masculine.

Though End Of Watch is another entry in Ayer’s growing list of LA-set police procedurals, it has been singled out as a counterpoint to the rest, which have broadly focused on corrupt or rogue officers. The two cops we follow throughout this story – Michael Peña’s Miguel and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Brian – are far from perfect, but they are about as honest and as ethically-sound as we’re likely to see outside of an out-and-out propaganda piece; these officers do not to shoot first unless it’s absolutely necessary, and never, ever kill anyone accidentally. An early speech by a superior indicates support will not be forthcoming if any of his charges fail to abide by certain rules of conduct, and though the duo joke their way through such station briefings it’s clear that the message is received. That said, within a few minutes we see Miguel engaging Blood member Tre (Cle Sloan) unprofessionally in a fistfight when following up a complaint about anti-social behaviour, but generally Miguel and Brian are seen to be doing the right thing).

Broadly, the film is shaped by a series of vignettes that show typical (and occasionally-linked) incidents faced by the duo while patrolling the streets of South Central. Many of these are gang-related, with the Bloods portrayed as a receding force while the Sureños, who have links to the powerful Mexican Sinaloa Cartel, expand their territory. Miguel and Brian tackle house fires, pursue suspects in car chases, respond to noise complaints, find dead bodies and uncover human trafficking operations, much of which is dealt with in a calm manner by the officers, who have apparently become desensitized through experience (though they are not emotionless). For reasons that are never made clear Brian has decided to make a film about his work, so both officers wear concealed cameras. These, along with a dashboard-mounted camera in their car, mean that the film is a mix of amateur ‘found’ footage and traditional photography; Ayer even takes this approach with the film’s criminals, so we are party to their own footage (filmed on smartphones), and even surveillance videos of cartel members ordering hits (fake, of course).

As such End Of Watch occasionally resembles a particularly polished and gripping episode of a TV show like Cops, and although the handheld approach has been extensively road-tested elsewhere it made me feel as if I was in close proximity to the action, and I thought it worked well here; it is initially overused but it does help you to relate to the officers as they enter potential crime scenes, and the nervous tension in the air is palpable. Each scene was filmed from at least four different angles, with Gyllenhaal often operating one of the hand-held cameras, and in this case it does actually imbue those police procedural staples we’ve seen many times before – the car chase, the drive-by, the bust, the stop-and-search, the discovery of a dead body, the defying-the-odds shootout – with a sense of realism and a considerable, welcome freshness.

Peña and Gyllenhaal, who undertook five months of training before filming, react in a believable fashion during each of these incidents. It’s abundantly clear that they understand the work involved, and the way in which real life police officers approach it, and this makes for entertaining and involving viewing. The bond that exists between cop partners is a clear feature of the film, and therefore there are some formulaic in-car chats containing the usual blokey badinage, but the two lead performances are strong enough to keep you interested in the friendship and the film’s ending carries weight as a result. Unfortunately Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez, playing Brian’s wife Janet and Miguel’s wife Gabby respectively, are both sidelined and only appear in a series of scenes designed to show the passing of time (wedding days, births of children, etc.). We learn little about them other than the fact they are ‘cop wives’, and Miguel’s Best Man speech at Brian and Janet’s wedding explicitly defines them as such, even though it is intended to be a tribute: these female characters have few opinions, do not appear to have hobbies, or jobs – or at least there’s no evidence of them during the film – and instead they are just there to offer loving, dutiful, unquestioning support for their husbands. America Ferrara and Cody Horn do not fare much better as a couple of female police officers who seemingly show up to every incident after their two male colleagues have dealt with the problem at hand.

Still, the film is indisputably about two men, and despite the fact on paper it looks like a standard police film – or even an unquestioning, unapologetic celebration of the LAPD – it is in fact reasonably balanced and streets ahead of most recent cop dramas in terms of entertainment, credibility and performances. The fact is many officers are inherently good, and heroic, but I don’t think Ayer owns a pair of rose-tinted glasses and certainly wasn’t wearing any while making this tribute. Meanwhile the threat posed by the gangs and the influence of Mexican drug cartels is eye-opening, presuming there’s a degree of accuracy behind the story, and the toughness and emphasis on the changing streets of South Central makes this film as fascinating to watch as Training Day.

0254 | Kōkaku Kidōtai (Ghost In The Shell)

Ghost-4Directed by: Mamoru Oshii. Written by: Kazunori Itō, based on Ghost In The Shell by Masamune Shirow. Starring: Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Iemasa Kayumi, Kōichi Yamadera, Tamio Ōki, Yutaka Nakano, Tesshō Genda. Cinematography: Hisao Shirai. Animation /CG: Hiroyuki Okiura, Hiromasa Ogura, Toshihiko Nishikubo, Seichi Tanaka. Editing: Shūichi Kakesu, Shigeyuki Yamamori. Music: Kenji Kawai. Certificate: 15. Running time: 82 minutes. Year: 1995. Rating: 7.9

Though I’m no connoisseur of anime, I first became aware of Mamoru Oshii’s Kōkaku Kidōtai (better known outside Japan as Ghost In The Shell) when it was released to widespread critical acclaim in the UK, with magazines in the mid-1990s publishing glowing reviews that claimed it was the equal of Katsuhiro Otomo’s worldwide smash Akira; as such Oshii’s landmark film, with its pioneering blend of computer graphics and cel animation, became the second most popular entry point into the world of anime on these shores when it was released on video shortly thereafter, and probably remains so today.

The original manga, by Masamune Shirow, is a complex tale about a crack squadron of government agents on the trail of a mysterious hacker known as the ‘Puppet Master’. It has been turned into a successful TV and film franchise in the years since it was first published: this 1995 film has spawned two sequels, the latest of which will be released this summer, while an updated ‘2.0’ version with improved graphics was released in 2008, and two TV serials (as far as I’m aware) have also been made. Meanwhile homages to Ghost In The Shell can be seen in several major Hollywood sci-fi movies of the past 20 years, most famously the Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy, which copied the anime’s use of green ‘raining code’ to visualise a sprawling network as well as the idea that this flux of information can be accessed by a socket in the back of the neck. Two of Spielberg’s films, AI: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, also drew on Oshii’s work for visual and thematic inspiration, while James Cameron was quick to acknowledge the influence it had on Avatar and a live action remake is currently in production. (N.B. I appreciate that some of these ideas belong to Shirow, but the American directors in question have all referred to Oshii’s film as their inspiration, as presumably it was their first contact with the story.) The influence works both ways, however, and Ghost In The Shell successfully taps into the introspective, questioning strand running through a lot of great science fiction cinema that preceded both the manga and the anime adaptation. Blade Runner, as predictably as ever, is a touchstone, while there are also echoes of the downbeat tone of Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

There are times, though, when Ghost In The Shell feels like an exercise in anime box-ticking: the sprawling metropolis, the fetishistic approach towards tech and weaponry (thermo-suits!), the pneumatic-chested heroine (a cyborg named Motoko Kusanagi, voiced by Atsuko Tanaka – I’m reviewing the subtitled version here and not the poorly-received dubbed English language version, in which the character is voiced by Mimi Woods), and so on. Then there are the seemingly pre-requisite fast-paced and acrobatic action sequences, which are filled with car and helicopter chases, explosions and the like. This is all great fun, if somewhat predictable, but what I really like about this film is that Oshii continually refuses to get too carried away. Among all this chaos there are a number of quiet, reflective or dialogue-heavy sequences, many of which are longer than you might expect, and during which the main themes of the film are established and explored: Ghost In The Shell‘s story is concerned with identity, gender and reproduction in a technologically-advanced world, while the usual issues associated with sentient machines / cybernetic organisms and memories, feelings, consciousness, etc. are deftly examined. The most striking part of the film, in fact, is a dialogue-free montage of shots of the city that focuses at the end on shop dummies, suggesting perhaps that the cyborg heroes resemble these inanimate window-dressing figures more than they resemble their human counterparts. (Anime characters normally blink to create the feeling of ‘being animated’, but in this movie Motoko’s eyes generally stay open; Oshii’s intention, apparently, was to portray her as ‘a doll’.)

Despite certain elements that can be regarded as typical of anime (though bear in mind this was a pioneering work when first released, and has been aped many times over by Japanese filmmakers as well as American ones), there was a thrilling degree of creativity at work when the futuristic cityscape was imagined, drawn and coloured. Presciently, the city here is turned into a paranoid, privacy-free space, in which no face looks like it can be trusted and devices for monitoring people appear regularly in the streets and in the skies above. It is a fascinating space to dwell in, not least because our own cities have slowly followed suit, so one of the most disappointing aspects of the film is the fact that the short running time – a mere 82 minutes – means we just don’t see enough of this mesmerising cyberpunk world . The film could easily take another ten or fifteen minutes of footage of the city without necessarily becoming flabby as a result, as the backdrops are always worth paying attention to, but I guess the less-is-more approach is entirely valid in itself.

There are other plus and minus points. The soundtrack by composer Kenji Kawai fits brilliantly, the highlight being the opening theme Making Of A Cyborg, a mix of the ancient Japanese language Yamato, traditional notes and Bulgarian harmonies. However the film is difficult to follow at times, and though the pace does slow down regularly the exposition is often hard to take in: repeated viewings are essential in order to fully digest the story, which makes you wonder whether the writing is as tight as it ought to be or whether something has been lost in translation (or whether you’ve just got to hold your hand up and admit you find Japanese sci-fi difficult to understand). There is a lot of exposition: when I watched Ghost In The Shell for a second time I realised I’d missed a lot of the intricacies of the animation as I’d been reading the subtitles closely first time round, trying to figure out the international elements of the plot as well as the technical ideas put forward.

Still, I wouldn’t want to put anyone off with my criticism: Ghost In The Shell is absolutely not a chore to sit through, and Oshii’s visually-striking and thoughtful cyberpunk work is well worth your time if you have never seen it before, and especially if you’re unfamiliar with Japanese anime.

Movie Posters: Jaroslav Kucera

daises-1966-poster-jaroslav-kucera-001This poster for Daises (Sedmikrásky, 1966) was designed by the film’s cinematographer, Jaroslav Kucera. It was actually included as part of an article on the Sight & Sound website that celebrates the work of Czech designer Vera Chytilová (Kucera was her second husband). The article is well worth reading as Chytilová’s work is also excellent, but this poster is the one that caught my attention.

0253 | Dirty Dancing

DirtyDancingJohnnyDirected by: Emile Ardolino. Written by: Eleanor Bergstein. Starring: Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach, Cynthia Rhodes. Cinematography: Jeffrey Jur. Editing: Peter C. Frank. Music: John Morris, Erich Bulling, Various. Certificate: 15. Running Time: 100 minutes. Year: 1987. Rating: 4.3

This was my first viewing of Dirty Dancing. Right now you’re probably wondering how anyone can go through life and avoid Dirty Dancing for the best part of thirty years, so without further ado I’ll tell you: it takes a lot of fastidious work, three decades of unbroken concentration, countless minutes spent scouring the TV listings in advance to cut out the possibility of accidentally finding it on Channel 5, plus regular repetition of the fib ‘yes, I promise I’ll watch it one day, just not today’, delivered to anyone who floats the idea of viewing it. For most of my life I’ve considered myself something of an expert in the field of Dirty Dancing avoidance. Sadly that’s no longer the case.

Although all of that effort has now, in the space of two hours, become wasted, on the plus side at least I know what Kellerman’s Catskill Mountains resort looks like and I finally understand what the line ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner!’ actually means. I’ve also discovered that I needn’t have studiously avoided Dirty Dancing at all: while Emile Ardolino’s film may be a complete and utter festival du fromage (as it was described in the April 1987 issue of Cahiers Du Cinéma), brimming with escapist romantic cliché and hopeless at sticking to its early 1960s setting – not a single character bats an eyelid when synthesizers and drum machines are heard during the final scene – it’s hardly the worst film ever made (and hardly the worst starring the late Patrick Swayze, either, whose appearance here catapulted the actor to worldwide fame). The film’s simple charms are obvious and I can see why many enjoy it.

As romances go, and as dance movies go, it is fairly safe and predictable fayre. I’m probably wasting my time writing a synopsis but, in case you’re even better at avoiding the film than me, the story follows young and idealistic teenager Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (Jennifer Grey), who arrives at Kellerman’s with her wealthy family for a summer holiday. Delving past the old-fashioned organised dance classes and dreary poolside entertainment she discovers that the staff are enjoying a wild old time in their private quarters, holding after-hours parties that are filled with people ‘dirty dancing’ (which turns out to be fairly tame rock n’ roll, as it happens, though obviously it would have been eye-opening to many in 1963).

One of the more popular members of staff is dance teacher Johnny Castle (Swayze), your typical James Dean wannabe from the wrong side of the tracks. He’s the kind of guy who hears people excitedly shout his name when he enters a room (most of us mere mortals get grunts of acknowledgment, at best) and he’s a pretty smooth mover to boot – Swayze was cast partly because of his past experience with the Joffrey Ballet. As a result Baby is attracted to him, although Kellerman’s isn’t exactly overflowing with better options. After a few scenes of the usual nonchalant indifference beloved of rebels without causes, Johnny realizes that the feeling is mutual, and as the holiday fling plays out the pair must negotiate the various obstacles placed in their way, from disapproving daddies to false accusations of theft. There’s also the related sub-plot that supposedly gives Dirty Dancing an ‘edge’: Johnny’s dance partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) is pregnant following a fling with waiter Robbie (Max Cantor), and pays a dodgy backstreet doctor to carry out an abortion. While the issue itself is serious enough it’s handled with kid gloves by those involved in the production, as if everyone was scared stiff of the plot development and hoped that it would simply go away (during test screenings over 30% of audience members didn’t even realise an abortion took place in the film). This would have been understandable for a movie being made in 1963, but for one that is merely set in that year it is skirted around far too carefully.

It is at least understandable why Ardolino and writer Eleanor Bergstein – who based the story on her own childhood – chose to keep the focus on the two main characters as much as possible. The success of the film is partly due to the excellent chemistry between Grey and Swayze, who genuinely do look as though they’re falling in love, and Dirty Dancing holds your attention as a result despite all its predictable twists and turns. The actors deserve plenty of praise for keeping this façade up, as in real life relations between the two were frosty at best, a hangover from earlier run-ins on the set of 1984’s Red Dawn. The true feelings of the actors are only visible on screen once, in a montage that shows Mr Swayze’s increasingly frustrated reactions to Ms Grey’s bouts of uncontrolled laughter; Ardolino chose to leave it in, and it is one of Dirty Dancing‘s most famous scenes. The pair were also clearly committed to the dance sequences, which crackle with energy and a very 80’s-heavy kind of sexual tension.

I’m a sucker for 50s- and 60s-set films and this comforting effort, with its reliance on doo-wop, its nostalgic glances backwards to an innocent age and its simple love story, isn’t actually all that bad. That said I’m no late convert: there are way too many stock characters (even the leads, unforgivably), the script is hackneyed and it’s hard to think of another romantic drama that is quite so predictable in the way it pans out. I guess Dirty Dancing must be applauded, though, for successfully striking a chord with those outside its target audience, as it enticed far more adults into the cinema than teenagers. Given the lack of star power attached (Swayze was fairly well known but no A-lister) that’s a fair achievement.