Saturday, 28 January 2012

Down By Law (1986)

It's late. You are on your own, on the sofa, drinking coffee or maybe something a little stronger. If you smoke then you possibly have a cigarette on the go. Or maybe something a little stronger. It's a hot summer's night, the window is open and the lights and sounds of the street filter into the room. Your lady, fella, whoever has left you and you're seeking solace the only way you know, in the bosom of one of your favourite movies. You want to see one film and one film only. You want to watch Down By Law.

The story has a familiar premise, touching on both noir and new wave. Out of work DJ Zak (Tom Waits) and pimp Jack (John Lurie) are both set up for different crimes they did not commit and find themselves in Orleans Parish Prison in the same cell. It's pretty much hate at first sight and as time passes so their antagonism towards each other increases. The tension is broken up by their new cellmate, the Italian Bob (Roberto Benigni) who charms them with his homespun philosophies and colloquialisms into calling a truce with one another, before hatching a plan of escape. However the path to freedom is not an easy one, and once on the outside, the 3 cons have to rely on each other as well as their wits to stay alive in the Louisiana swamps.

Don't be fooled, this ain't your average prison break movie. Somewhat of a parable, Down By Law is an offbeat gem of a film about the foibles of human nature with intricately drawn characters and enough balls, style and essence of cool to keep you interested in a slow moving, yet engrossing storyline.

So how come it's this film that fits your mood? Perhaps it's the unlikely combination of it's three lead actors that does it for you. It's definitely a strange contrast. Avant-garde jazz musician John Lurie and singer/songwriter Tom Waits (fresh from Raindogs and Franks Wild Years) both posture to the camera in some sort of quasi-method as they are set up against the animated budding Italian comedian Roberto Benigni. Lurie looks and dresses like someone out of a 1950s gangster film, with his big features, suit and jazzy tie looking quite anachronistic for 1986. Waits with his chin warmer and DJ Lee Baby Sims rap is much more rooted in the present, a proper night owl to fit the spirit of the film. Benigni bounces off the pair of them and the walls, his wild hair and reactions more often than not the focus of attention when not much else is going on screen.

Or maybe it's the stunning black and white photography from Robby Müller? Sometimes roving, often just still, Müller's lens depicts the sweltering setting of pre-flood New Orleans and Louisiana - the streets, the houses, the tenement blocks, swamps and prison cells. Indeed at times the camera gives off as much attitude as the actors and Down By Law is a very beautiful film to watch.

More than likely though if you are watching this film then you prescribe to the unique and slightly twisted worldview of American independent film-maker Jim Jarmusch. Down By Law is more than the sum of it's parts and that is down to Jarmusch. From the initial moments when the first bars of Tom Waits' jagged bluesy Jockey Full of Bourbon strike whilst Müller's slow tracking montage of New Orleans life passes across the screen, through to the odd and somewhat open ending, Down By Law delights in its defiance of the rules of its genre.

A lot of this is down to the freestyle way the characters interact with each other. In fact the whole film has an improv feel to it. You can imagine Jarmusch sitting down with the actors, setting them a basic premise on which to act out the next scene, and then just letting it roll to see what happens, rather like a jam session. With the fresh comic touches of Benigni coming as light relief to the downbeat backstory and the actors opposite him, it's a plan that works brilliantly and makes for some very entertaining moments. The fact that it's Lurie who provides the film's dark jazzy score and Waits who's songs frame the movie just adds to the impression that Down By Law is a collaborative effort from all major players involved.

It's a tribute Jarmusch and all involved that you leave the film wanting to see more of Bob, Zack and Jack after the screen goes black. How do their stories continue? How do they end? In a crazy way a sequel going back to their lives further on down the line would be welcome. Because in Down By Law it is indeed a sad and beautiful world, and one that perhaps we can relate to.

Jailhouse Rock...

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The King of Comedy (1983)

This article was first published at Den of Geek last year, you can read it in full here

The names Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro in tandem on a movie poster are a seal of quality for many a film lover. The pair have had a hand in some of the darkest and most thrilling moments that mainstream American cinema has had to offer, often making the blood curdle and the adrenalin shoot into overdrive. Their films together excel in exploring the outer limits of machismo, psychosis and extreme violence, with little or no regard for the censor or those of a nervous disposition. Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Raging Bull. These aren’t just your run of the mill Saturday drive-ins, these are some of the most original films of their time, and ones that get better with repeated viewings.

One film missing from that list is Scorsese’s biting satire on the nature of celebrity: The King of Comedy. Underappreciated at the time of release, it has been re-evaluated over the years and is now regarded as a major work in both their careers. The King of Comedy was Scorsese’s follow up to his award-winning boxing biopic Raging Bull, again with De Niro in the lead role. It was the opening film at Cannes in 1983 and was released later that year. Scorsese was actually set on making his torturous biblical epic The Last Temptation of Christ as his next film. However De Niro, coming off a Best Actor Oscar for his gruelling portrayal of Jake La Motta, wanted to make a comedy (can you blame him?), and presented Scorsese with a script that had been lying around Hollywood for years, written by film critic Paul Zimmerman.

Set in a noisy and bustling New York City, The King of Comedy tells the story of Rupert Pupkin, an autograph hunter verging on stalker and wannabe stand-up comedian, who daydreams his way into the life of his hero: talk-show host Jerry Langford. A chance encounter between the pair backstage after one of Jerry’s shows leads the delusional Rupert to believe he has a shot at stardom. However, after a series of knockbacks and humiliations, Rupert, along with his seriously unhinged female accomplice Masha, also a Jerry-worshipper, take matters into their own hands and kidnap Jerry in an attempt to fulfil both their dreams.

This is very much an actor’s movie driven by character, dialogue and a simple plot, rather than Scorsese’s usual frenetic camerawork and editing. De Niro plays totally against type as the naïve and hapless nobody Pupkin (“often mispronounced and misspelled”). With his hair plastered to his forehead in a terrible matted side-parting, his pencil moustache and cheesy grin spreading over his face, and his grey three-piece suit and red tie/hanky combo looking cheap and gimmicky, Rupert Pupkin is one of the all-time great cinematic geeks. It’s a brilliant characterisation from the award winning actor, and a long way from his heroic and macho roles in The Deer Hunter and The Godfather Part II.

De Niro’s finest moments come about during Rupert’s daydreams. These are mostly would-be scenarios that he imagines taking place between himself and Jerry. Rupert’s basement bedroom is a shrine to Jerry and the show, with life-sized cardboard cutouts of his idols and a full-scale mural of an enraptured audience, in front of which he practices his comedy routine. In a scarily funny interlude, Rupert, imagining that he now has his own talk show, conducts a one-sided conversation with said cutouts of both Liza Minnelli and Jerry as his guests until he’s interrupted by the shrill voice of his mother ordering him to keep the noise down. It’s De Niro at his loopy best, acting and reacting against silence as if in front of a CGI blue screen.

The film critic Pauline Kael has described Pupkin as “Jake La Motta without fists”. But surely Rupert bares closer resemblance to De Niro and Scorsese’s other great disturbed dreamer, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle? Both characters live out their lives as a daydream and at times the lines between fantasy and reality are misty to say the least. Both of their escapisms are born of frustration and alienation with the world at large.

Travis dreams his violent hallucinations with good intentions. His distress is spawned from what he sees around him and his wish for a better world. However, Rupert’s flights of fancy are totally tied up with his own dreams of celebrity and stardom. His total and undiluted faith in himself and his talents are as misplaced as his terrible jokes. So that when reality comes crashing home he takes desperate measures to fulfil what he believes to be his destiny as being crowned the new King of Comedy. Who is the more dangerous then – Travis or Rupert? Travis wants to help people. Rupert ends up threatening Jerry, the lines between love and hatred crossing over via our good, old friend: jealousy.

Alongside De Niro, acting honours go to Jerry Lewis as his namesake Jerry Langford and Sandra Bernhard as Masha. Lewis made a career of playing wacky, goofy roles in screwball comedies during the fifties and sixties alongside Dean Martin. In fact both Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra were considered for the role of Langford before Scorsese settled on Jerry Lewis, and the former funny man brings a weathered seriousness to the role. The pressures of celebrity are always apparent in the creases on his forehead, in his terror as he tries to exit backstage from a gig surrounded by baying and clawing fans, and in his pent-up rage when faced with a deluded Rupert turning up at his house in the Hamptons for the weekend. It’s a powerful and understated performance.

Bernhard provides an uncomfortable raw carnal presence as Masha, even more besotted with Jerry than Rupert is. Striding through midtown Manhattan stalking her prey, Bernhard plays Masha as a sexual terrorist who will stop at nothing to get her man. At that stage in her career, Bernhard was a budding stand-up comedian and she uses all the uncompromising improvisational skills she learned in the clubs to bring Masha to life. Her guerrilla tactics come to a head in Masha’s one scene alone with Jerry. Stripped to her underwear in her apartment, she sits opposite a gagged and gaffer-taped Jerry over a perfectly laid dinner table, informing him in no uncertain terms what the evening has in store for him. It’s a scene played to perfection by both actors, and also beautifully shot by Scorsese. Lit by candles alone, it is almost Kubrick-like in its clarity and eye for minute detail.

The King of Comedy has rich black humour in spades, celebrating the comedy of humiliation at its core. Not surprising then really, that a proud and Conservative Reagan-era America found it difficult to identify with the themes and characters on show. Indeed, The King of Comedy was a commercial and critical failure - “The Flop of the Year” as Entertainment Tonight announced it on air.

Despite its initial unpopularity, The King of Comedy is a very entertaining film. Along with Sidney Lumet’s Network, it’s one of the most insightful movies about the power of television and its effect on the TV generation. Today The King of Comedy has more relevance than ever. In a world where people will do anything to the point of embarrassment for their fifteen minutes, and where bog standard reality shows bestow celebrity and stardom on those with little or nothing to say for themselves, the movie has a harsh ring of truth. Is it really better to be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime?

The fine line between fan and stalker...

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

When I was 12 years old, for the summer holidays my parents hired a holiday cottage in the countryside for a couple of weeks. At night I used to sneak downstairs to watch films when they had gone to bed. I remember watching Rosemary's Baby late at night on BBC2, it must have been the first scary movie I ever watched. Needless to say, it petrified the living shit out of me. I couldn't sleep that night and even had to turn off the radio alarm clock next to my bed as the digits were throwing a strange green light around the room which looked like some kind of supernatural spirit. If any film gave me a love of late night cinema then it was this one.

Rosemary's Baby is still one of my favourite horror films. It's a beautiful movie to watch, shot in a dreamy soft focus haze with script, actors, makeup and musical score all manipulated by director Roman Polanski to create a sense of increasing fear and claustrophobia. It's beauty lies in the way it relies on psychological scares rather than on blood, guts and gore, of which there are very little. It really is a well crafted film, depicting a nightmarish take on one of the most natural and happy of situations - getting married, getting your own place and having kids.

Based on a novel by Ira Levin and adapted for the screen by Polanski, the story is simple but gripping. Young couple Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse move into The Bramford in New York, a Gothic apartment block with an unsavoury history of cannibalism and witchcraft. Guy is a struggling actor and Rosemary plays the dutiful wife, dreaming of kids and a happy life with her husband. Their neighbours are Roman and Minnie Castevet, a rather peculiar and sinister elderly couple who take an interest in the Woodehouses after their own young tenant commits suicide.

Guy begins to socialise with the Castevets whilst Rosemary prefers to stay at home. Guy's career simultaneously begins to take off and he and Rosemary try for children. On the designated night of conception Rosemary faints after eating some of Minnie's "chocolate mouse" and then suffers a bizarre delusional sequence where she is raped by the devil whilst the naked inhabitants of The Bramford (Minnie and Roman included) look on and chant in praise of Lucifer. In the morning it turns out that Guy had sex with her whilst she was passed out... and a few weeks later Rosemary discovers she is pregnant.

Polanski has a habit of setting his movies in claustrophobic environments - Repulsion, The Tenant and the soon to be released Carnage are all set in apartments whereas the main action of Cul de Sac takes place in a desolate lighthouse. He also delights in the unravelling of the psyche, especially the female one - Repulsion again, What? and parts of Chinatown and Bitter Moon being good examples.

In Rosemary's Baby, Guy and Rosemary's apartment seems to take on a life of it's own, in Rosemary's mind anyway. What starts as her ideal family home turns into a prison and the scene of her nightmares, quite literally in fact with one of the most realistic dream sequences committed to celluloid projected onto the wall and ceiling above her bed as she sleeps. Shot mostly from her point of view, we are never totally sure if the dream is really happening or whether it is all a figment of her imagination, much like the demonic plot that drives the story forward to it's perverse conclusion. As the uncertainties, pains and struggles of pregnancy continue, so increases Rosemary's paranoia and mistrust of all of those around her as her mind begins to fragment.

No scary movie is complete without a scary soundtrack and Polish jazz musician Krzysztof Komeda provides an excellent score to Rosemary's Baby with creepy clarinets and bassoons clamouring unexpectedly at shocking moments, mirroring the strange plot turns and unsettling camera angles that Polanski uses to heighten our sense of dread. This all serves to wind the tensions and suspense tightly, much in the manner of classic Hitchcock, and when the release and revelations come they are shocking and leave behind a distinctly bitter aftertaste.

Central to the success of the movie are excellent performances from Mia Farrow as Rosemary and John Cassavetes as Guy. Farrow brings a fragile innocence to the main role. Her sparkling blue eyes are so full of love and happiness at the beginning of the film, yet as the movie progresses they change drastically, widening in horror as her worst nightmares become reality. Cassavetes is the perfect choice for the self centred Guy, a little bit sleazy and totally caught up in his own pursuit of fame and fortune. Star of the show though is Ruth Gordon in an Oscar winning turn as nosey neighbour Minnie. Intrusive, fussy and oddly birdlike in her makeup and appearance she provides a disquieting presence with her home-made drinks, cakes and pendants that she pushes on the pregnant Rosemary. Also worth a mention is Sidney Blackmer as the equally alien looking Roman Castevet and Hollywood stalwart Ralph Bellamy as high society gyno Abe Sapirstein respectively.

The tragic aftermath to the release of Rosemary's Baby, the murder of Polanski's pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Manson family the following year, is well documented. The bizarre events of her death left a shadow over Polanski's subsequent career with many of his films dealing with personal disasters, psychological breakdowns and the grotesque. The movie itself has left a large legacy on cinema as a whole. It's immediate influence can be seen in a wide range of 70s demon-shockers such as The Omen and The Exorcist, as well as in studies of the female mind such as Robert Altman's Images and French art house horror flick Possession. Most recently it was Darren Aranofsky's brilliant Black Swan that drew largely on the themes, mood and suspense generated by Polanski in Rosemary's Baby.

Rosemary's Baby is a must see film for horror aficionados and for those with a penchant for all things that concern the occult and witchcraft. It will keep you thinking and wondering long after the last bars of the strange lullaby theme tune have played and the TV screen fades to black. Anyone for Tannis?

The Black Bramford