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Films starting with U

Film Buff, Nov 30

There’s probably not a film called Touchables, or Stoppable, or Friended. There is one called Forgotten, apparently, but it’s not a watchable TV box-set. No, what you’re looking for here is the complete opposite.

It’s sometimes unfashionable to be a fan of Brian De Palma but I like him and in The Untouchables his treatment of Eliot Ness’s pursuit of Al Capone via the tax evasion route drives nicely along as he returns to the territory of his arguable masterpiece, Scarface. More than that, there are some excellent moments: the murder of the accountant agent, nicely timed for when (since you know the story) you think everything’s going well; and the reflection of an assassin’s gun in the window to an apartment, which looks like a goof but is actually misdirection, since then you find the knife-man inside, apparently thwarted, but actually luring the occupant to his death via the gun you’ve nearly forgotten that you’ve just accidentally seen. And most of all the inspired shoot-out around the Battleship Potemkin-like pram at the railway station, as De Palma reclaims an icon for another use, getting extra tension from it, using it as a focus for a meticulous, slow gun-battle and underlining Ness’s essential decency. Kevin Costner is OK in a breakthrough role for him as Ness; Sean Connery, with a strange Irish American akshent, plays Malone; Robert De Niro looking like Robert Duvall, good at roaring, but generally buffoonish, often coasting; sharpshooter Andy Garcia odd and disengaged in an early role, if anything aping De Niro in Mean Streets but only his overall look, being generally blank of expression - though with one good, tender hand gesture to the dying Malone. ‘Let’s do some good!’ exclaims Ness, in counterpoint to Repo Man’s ‘Let’s go do some crimes!’; the final villain falling through the car roof anticipates Collateral (the one with Tom Cruise in).

It takes a brave man to return to the territory classically covered by Konchalovsky in Runaway Train – or perhaps a man who’s never seen it. But Unstoppable is rather different: stylish rather than stylised, modern rather than unreal, mainstream rather than cult. There are, though, common features: the two men; the role of automatic control in setting up the situation; the role of the transport authority; the minor collision with the end of the overlong train; the Stanton Curve in Unstoppable, like the Seneca trestle in Runaway Train; the injury when coupling/decoupling is attempted; the helicopter; and, most strikingly, the image of a man with arms outstretched on top of the train at the climax. Though just as thrilling, this is a different kind of drama to Konchalovsky’s and one which could never seriously be described as existential. Plus it’s more of a traditional buddy movie, a classic black man/white man combo (Denzel Washington and Chris Pine); and a train that perhaps most resembles the truck in Duel.

If I had to recommend one Un- film, it would of course probably be Clint Eastwood’s multi-Oscar-winning Unforgiven, but that would be too easy. So what I’m pointing you towards here instead is the answer to the quiz question from my last blog: the film featuring Blaire, Mitch, and a dead girl called Laura Barns, namely Unfriended. It’s a fabulous horror movie - innovative, high-risk, essentially playing out entirely on Blaire’s computer screen, but using a whole range of related technology: not only Skype and iMessage but also Spotify, and a printer … . It’s oddly but utterly compelling to watch the typing, like a teleprinter, including the significant re-draftings; but the interloping Skyper is the game-changer, the symbol of the unknown caller becoming a Scream-like Ghostface – indeed supposedly the ghost of a suicide victim who has acquired an online presence and a taste for cyber-vengeance against those who drove her to it. There’s great sudden suspense: the frozen screen with phone marginally moving as it rings; the 911 operator turning out to be the interloper; when the camera turns out to be in Ken’s room; eerie picture freeze/break-up; and generally when the kids just can't just turn things off. A rather lame game between the young friends online together, designed to show they're not good people, then explodes into life and shows how far Blaire will go to save herself – although curiously the final cavalcade of horror isn’t quite as powerfully spell-binding as the earlier set-up phases. Virtually always, American horror is triggered by illicit sex, and for all its innovation Unfriended is no exception as flirty facetime exhibitionism is interrupted at the start; and again during the game, in terms of punishment for infidelity. Character-names Blaire and Mitch show that Blair Witch Project is an antecedent; the dead Laura Barns recalls Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks, and/or Eyes of Laura Mars; the sudden surprise spooky movements recall the horror coups in Paranormal Activity.

And if I had to recommend one Un-box-set, it would be Unforgotten  [see the video], of which three six-part series have now been broadcast. Series 1 has a nicely compelling story, sparked by a long-dead corpse and disinterring a number of British character actors: so alongside Cassie the cop, played by the excellent Nicola Walker (who starred as the dead officer in River at about the same time, and in 2018 was also in Collateral (not the Tom Cruise one, the David Hare flop) and The Split), we have Sanjeev Bhaskar as Sunny (‘Morning, Guv’), Trevor Eve (as the Government’s dodgy enterprise Czar, looking wickedly like Alan Sugar, with helicopter shots of London as in The Apprentice), Bernard Hill instantly recognizable even if wife Hannah Gordon isn’t, Tom Courtenay, Peter Egan, and Ruth Sheen with her extraordinarily shaped body and features, Claire Goose, Frances Tomelty, Cherie Lunghi, and David Troughton. The twist is that the villain isn’t Courtenay but the wonderful Gemma Jones: but however nice the conceit, ultimately her Alzheimer’s is a bit of a cul-de-sac and the finish is downbeat. It still leaves you wanting a sequel, though.

Series 2 has a similar start, and a nice, incomprehensible but eminently followable set of strands (marked by the use of iconic locations) that are slowly tied together. Not without some clunky sign-posting early doors, but fair enough. It develops pretty well, capably led again by Walker and Bhaskar (absent some ham-fisted stuff about abusees who go on to abuse), and with good support from the likes of the excellent Mark Bonnar, Badria Timimi, Adeel Akhtar from Utopia (see later), Nigel Lindsay, Peter Egan again, and Maggie O’Neill in one of her ‘damaged’ roles (she played Sheila Gallagher in Shameless). After the case is solved as being a threefold version of the criss-cross murder in Strangers on a Train, two of the three abusees have terrific scenes as they reveal their pasts (Bonnar and Rosie Cavaliero; not so much Timimi). The clunky stuff about abusees abusing comes back, inadvertently, to haunt the resolution – there’s sympathy for the culprits, but is it really right (and would the police really believe it was) not to prosecute, not least because all of them are working with vulnerable children? Again the slight flaws at the ending don’t stop you coming back for more.

This year’s series 3 soon hits its reliable stride; like The Tunnel (with which this time it shares some littoral drone-views), there are bafflingly separate yet engaging strands, though here soon brought tightly together around those involved in a holiday let at the time of a girl’s disappearance. Nicola Walker is so assured now, easily outstripping the OK Bhaskar; Alex Jennings plays the GP (and Gabrielle Glaister, Patricia Farnham in 67 episodes of Brookside but probably most remembered as ‘Bob’ in Blackadder Goes Forth, and/or as Judge ‘Bob’ in Upstart Crow, plays his accuser), James Fleet is good as the simple artist, and Neil Morrissey plays the hopeless fraudster salesman as part of his very decent post-Men Behaving Badly career; Kevin McNally plays the Paxman figure. Some strands are undeveloped, or potboilerish, or even token (Cassie’s father (Peter Egan again); Sunny’s romance/his ex-wife; the transgender son), and some are frankly limp (the blogger). But the main focus is very well done, enhanced by Cassie’s vulnerability; and as the procedural edges forwards, ebbs and flows, and rival suspects clear out of the frame one-by-one (excellent stuff by James Fleet as he recounts his history), it’s good that the solution precisely isn’t left-field (the villain isn’t the cop from the original case, the mystery has nothing to do with the twin) but comes from within the main group and culminates in a chilling, serial-killer confession – part of another very solid performance by Jennings, hard upon his Peter Bessell in A Very English Scandal (and, I’m told, his efforts in The Crown which, despite my dedication to watching things for you, I’ve not yet been able to make myself face).

Unforgotten is one of those series better watched in binge-format (others, like current offerings Black Earth Rising and perhaps Informer, are better watched a week apart, in the old way, to save you realising that what seems like incomprehensible plotting is just an absence of a sense of drama, and an indefensible spinning-out of a story to fill hours and hours of screen-time, like making a 90-minute football match last for three days, which would of course just make it no better than cricket).

Un is, as you will know, not the French for Not-. Un Chien Andalou is such a famous surrealist film, directed by Buñuel and co-written by him and Salvador Dalí, that the last time I saw it it was being played on a permanent loop, along with Los Olvidados and L’Age d’Or (released in the UK as Large Door), in the Reina Sofía Museum of Modern Art in Madrid (more or less the only thing worth seeing there, apart from Guernica: go to the Prado, of course, but also the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum instead). Un Chien Andalou is famous in part for an apparently gruesome scene with an eyeball being slit by a razor blade, but I think people often miss the point of this. The scene is actually presented as having a metaphorical similarity with a wisp of cloud crossing in front of a full moon – so think of it as an image in a narrative: ‘a thin cloud swept neatly across the face of the moon, like a razor slitting open an eyeball’. Elsewhere in the film there are some Keystone Cops/Benny Hill moments, e.g. as the heroine is chased around the room by the rapacious hero (fending him off with a tennis racquet) - but even that is distinguished by a very confident early use of a hand-held camera. Where the hero is lugubrious it inevitably, though, reminds you of Buster Keaton (his brilliant One Week shows elsewhere in that museum, despite there being no discernible Spanish connection).

Sweeping up a few of the remaining U-films, the recent A United Kingdom is interesting in the sense that it tells the interesting story of Ruth Williams’s marriage to Seretse Khama in London in the 1940s, and how this union with a white woman stymied his succession as tribal chief in Bechuanaland; and how even after winning over his people, the inter-racial couple were unacceptable to neighbouring South Africa and as a result Khama was thwarted by both Labour and Conservative post-war governments before independence was gained and he was elected president. It’s not really very interesting otherwise, and filmically falls into the familiar trap of thinking that a strong and historically correct story will be enough on its own (cf., for example, The Imitation Game). Unless it’s the Coen brothers I always shudder when a film starts with a caption like ‘Based on a true story’, and here, at first, you rather wish that they’d dreamt up a different one or at the very least had given it a less flat treatment. It picks up rather after the married couple go to Africa, but even there it doesn’t avoid elements of mere travelogue (rhinos walking along) and a drafting-in of baffled and unconvincing locals in a kind of colonialist approach somewhat at odds with the film’s main thrust. This comes alongside repeated clunkiness from director Amma Asante: the classic newspaper headlines (‘another year of exile passes’), Ruth looking unsteady and then fainting and being found to be pregnant, Seretse reading next to telephone, which then rings; the mechanics of the plot, especially the political and economic elements, are also very awkwardly managed. Some of the acting, too, is undistinguished. There are some rousing bits, though - Terry Pheto is good, and there are a number of half-decent set-piece speeches. David Oyelowo is fine as Khama; the Ruth who takes an instant liking to him is played by Rosamund Pike, who compensates for having – despite being at the very heart of the story – relatively little to play with by looking permanently startled; the British bureaucrats are mainly cut-outs, like Canning, played by Jack Davenport (nicely, Canning’s wife is played by Oyelowo’s, Jessica); Nicholas Lyndhurst, of all people, is Ruth’s father, coming round in the end as what goes around comes around and Khama triumphs; her mother is played by the wonderful Anastasia Hille, but she’s largely wasted here, as is Anton Lesser as Attlee (Jack Lowden plays Tony Benn).

Patchy in a different way is Under the Skin. This has a great initial idea, and then tails off. At first, the eerie mystery is boldly sustained, intriguing and not explained, as we see a little more each time as Scarlett Johansson (with a faultless accent) harvests single men in a well-observed Glasgow (with some gorgeous Scottish landscapes). You generally don’t keep thinking of the Pythons’ milkman-collector. Johansson’s features are fascinating - the Audrey Hepburn de nos jours, she has the face and the ability to carry off the blankness, as in Girl with a Pearl Earring, whether her the trade-mark locks are hidden or not; as one victim says, ‘your eyes, your lips, you just look amazing’. When self-awareness seems to begin to dawn on her character (after a curious incident with a deformed man), the film begins to falter: Tommy Cooper’s spoon-jar/jar-spoon routine is in any case probably not the best place for an alien to start learning about the human world, but the action becomes rather desultory, and with even less verbalisation the blankness becomes the problem. Director Glazer had hardly worked since Sexy Beast, and he introduces a high perve factor with his star here (the film has a certain notoriety as probably the one that shows the most of the bits of an A-list actor), together with some Kubrickian psychedelia and an unpleasant scene with an abandoned child. The motorcyclists who clean up afterwards are a nice touch, though, and despite not fulfilling its early promise the film is definitely worth watching.

Some people said I would struggle to fill up a whole blog with U-films (cf. Bob Monkhouse: ‘They laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. They’re not laughing now’), but I think I’m doing rather well: and I’ll miss out the excellent Unforgiven and finish instead with The Usual Suspects, because it’s more likely to be one that you might consider re-watching. Bryan Singer’s film does indeed still work as a brilliant conceit, after all these years and even when you know the secret – not least because of its courage in portraying in so much detail the key final sequence with all its fabrications (so that it almost deconstructs cinema itself – after all, it’s all an invention).

The start – including the book of matches lighting – foregrounds the mystery of who Keyser Söze is, presenting a partial but true reality which the rest of the film will obfuscate; but including even there some misleading elements (the coils of rope behind which we are led to believe that Verbal Kint is really hiding). Then it moves on to the apparently hapless cripple to provide the explanation that we crave (first as he secures his immunity, later at much greater length). Even the way in which the dual structure unfolds - the line-up and the aftermath, the bloodbath and the aftermath – eases us into suggestibility as we try to work out, with unreliable help, what ‘really’ happened.

The gimp limp is fabulous misdirection; more fundamentally, Singer plays with our expectations as Kint and the cops co-fabricate the wrong real story (Kint drawing on random names suggested by the room he is in, in the way that all art fictionalises from shreds of reality). The power of this is bolstered by how it fits with some of the things we really see (the flagged weirdness of the police assembling a gang, rather than singly with co-opted extras), surviving the improbability of the Indian-sounding Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite), and leading you to believe that there was a real purpose to a dangerous mission alongside the taking of revenge on the gang members - the plausible initial story about Söze cementing his power against rivals again surviving its uncovering as being really about his neutralising an informant; and using shameless invention (reflecting Kint’s story) constantly to relocate him away from the action he’s involved in in the final scene, in order to promote the framing of Keaton as Söze. The title’s nod to Casablanca just serves to underpin how our expectations are that the complex plot will be explained to us by sympathetic characters, and all will be nice and good at the end. Spacey is perhaps rarely as good as he thinks he is (I mean of course as an actor, not a person), but this is a triumph for him (and got him his Best Supporting Actor Oscar). Good support from Gabriel Byrne, in particular, as Keaton.

And on TV I’ll end with Utopia as a further possible box-set for you (certainly preferable to Undercover). Series 1 stuns you with stylish colours (often yellow) and geometries/symmetries; Neil Maskell is superb; Paul Higgins good too; the story only just a little overwrought. Series 2 is just as colourful, just as yellow; and episode 1 retrofits the conspiracy theory (and the counter-conspiracy), including a sumptuous cameo by Tim McInnerny as Airey Neave, and at least giving a convincing explanation of why Arby/Pietre (Maskell) is the psychopathic way he is. Episode 2 essentially reassembles the cast (which is strong: Maskell, Michael Maloney, Geraldine James, Alexandra Roach, Paul Higgins, plus indulging TV’s continuing desire to give work to Kevin Eldon), leaving Fiona O’Shaughnessy armed with a biro spring, like Hannibal Lecter, about to escape (though it’s hard to see, in episode 3, how she used it). In general series 2 is as enjoyable to watch, but with the power a little diminished through repetition. It very competently sets up the potential for a third series, in which you imagine that much would depend on Maskell, if it is ever made (not looking likely, at the time of writing, despite near-universal critical acclaim).

One simple quiz question for you this time around: V for Vendetta, obvs, and of course Vertigo, but how many other V-films can you think of? And one more difficult question: can you identify the V-film that features a character called Professor Brian O’Blivion?

 

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