T-films, Part 5


True to form, I’m finishing off my review of T-films by running through the last ones in alphabetical order: there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The light is a little glimmer at the very start of the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit, which expands and develops into the opening scene of what is a lovely beginning, and soon the directors’ characteristic whimsy has you grinning mindlessly to yourself. It’s great, if you like being played with in this knowing way. I do, up to a point – but I tend to think it’s all a little wasted on a simple Western remake. There are some lovely shots, and effortless mastery, but shouldn’t all of that be used to some different avail?

As for the original, a friend of mine once sat through all of it with my parents in front of their TV and at the end simply declared ‘True Shit’. This is harsh: director Henry Hathaway’s 1969 True Grit delivers some very handsome outdoor scenes, a strong story, and that jokiness you often find in old Westerns – played in part for laughs, alongside Mattie Ross’s deadly serious quest to bring to justice the murderer of her father. There’s decent drama, although the climactic snakebite mercy-ride is rather unnecessary. John Wayne is, of course, the bibulous Reuben Rooster Cogburn, and there’s more to his characterisation here than in most of his pictures (even a touch of Nicholson, he seems to be enjoying himself so much). Whetther he deserved the Oscar (beating perennial losers Burton and O’Toole, and Voight and Hoffmann from Midnight Cowboy) is a moot point, given his curious, often halting diction – as if reading the script off cards, four words at a time. Kim Darby is pretty good as the spunky Mattie; Texas Ranger La Boeuf is played by Glen Campbell, an acting weakness but the generally witty script contains some very nice jibes about his hair by Mattie, although hers also looks implausibly coiffeured throughout. She’s after the treacherous Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey, Plasus from Star Trek’s The Cloud Minders) although it is Ned Pepper (well played by Robert Duvall) who is the main villain. It features Strother Martin (not to be confused with Scatman Crothers); there’s a brief cameo from the wounded then dying Dennis Hopper, and another from John Fiedler off 12 Angry Men and Star Trek’s Wolf in the Fold. Hank Worden is the undertaker.

In True Romance Quentin Tarantino’s script (the highlight of which is perhaps a misheard telephone interchange – ‘Who the f*** is Dick?’/’You want me to suck his d***??’) – delivers to director Tony Scott a pretty violent but none the less rather sweet romance between Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, in a film studded with great cameo performances – from Gary Oldman as the faux black pimp; from a restrained Dennis Hopper (him again) as the father, talking himself to death by asserting to the characteristically deranged Christopher Walken that ‘all Sicilians are n***ers’; from Brad Pitt as the stoner room-mate; from James Gandolfini, with shades of Nicolas Cage, in a particularly violent turn until he is eventually killed by a gun-toting Arquette straight out of Russ Meyer; and a wonderful short appearance towards the beginning by Samuel L. Jackson. There’s a great soundtrack, nicely linked to the action (e.g. White Wedding, Chantilly Lace), alongside Elvis’s spectral presence (Val Kilmer as Mentor); good sampling of martial arts films, plus Freejack (quite an obscure film featuring Emilio Estevez, Anthony Hopkins, and Mick Jagger); and a fabulous feather-filled final shoot-out.

The Truman Show is an inspired idea, enabling Peter Weir’s film to present a distinctive variant on the common American disquiet over the perfect society that it thought it had developed. The dystopia here is not just that the paradise is illusory, an image promulgated by TV – it’s one wholly constructed for TV, through a show that survives and moves to the next level by exploiting Truman Burbank’s doubts about the authenticity of his experience. In a sense, though, the film itself turns into precisely that kind of artificial entertainment into which we escape through TV and film, with the protagonist in peril or searching for the truth: and where, at times, you’re not sure whether you want him to escape or for the show to go on. Either way, an alternative reality is created in which people find Jim Carrey (Tony Slattery) endearing rather than annoying, where he repeatedly tries to sell people insurance (reversing Groundhog Day), where he coughs to cover the sound of tearing in a library (as in Raiders of the Lost Ark), where a curious object falls from the sky (Donnie Darko, Breaking Bad), where he cannot escape from his Seahaven (The Prisoner) until he realises that the world is hollow and I have touched the sky (Star Trek) and he no longer has to dream of Fiji (as Rimbaud did of Tahiti). Such resonances are not (just) clever on my part – they locate the film squarely within in the artificiality that it purports to be deconstructing. Laura Linney and Ed Harris are always worth watching; the music is by Philip Glass.

That Roger Allam bloke can do no wrong, can he? Wrong – he’s a little exposed in The Truth Commissioner, having to carry the thing and failing. I have previously argued that Hollywood took a long time to become able to deal well with Vietnam; arguably the UK is taking even longer with the Troubles. Often regarded at the time as incomprehensible sectarianism happening in another country, the period has received remarkably little attention in film and TV, with some notable exceptions including Angel, Bloody Sunday, 71, and of course The Crying Game, which is echoed here in the fateful attempted escape of the abductee (as well as just now in Mother’s Day). So this sort of thing deserves better coverage, but it doesn’t get it here. It doesn’t really delve into how the security services and the activists both thought they were in a war which justified everything; and although there’s a slightly intelligent theme about how the present-day Westminster government and MI5 might with reason prefer to protect wrong-doers who are now moderates in power-sharing, much of it is clunky: the Commissioner’s estranged daughter living in the province, he and the IRA man/minister Gilroy (the reliable Sean McGinley as a McGuinness figure) as parallel imminent grandfathers, the sexy aide and the suave MI5 man (Tom Goodman-Hill), the entrapment and blackmail; and the way that a very specific, elaborate, and actually unknowable back-story is required to try to show how the reconciliation hearings could in fact mask the truth and undermine the moderates. As often with creative types, the writers have no real sense of how bureaucracy works – the initial workings of the Commission don’t ring true; later the Commissioner seems responsible for whom to call but the scheduling of the same case happens behind his back – and the actual script is pretty poor, particularly in relation to Allam’s lines. This is perhaps a timely indication that his presence alone doesn’t suffice for success.

Improbably, much better is Tucker and Dale Versus Evil. Found horror footage flashes back to college townies off on a jaunt into hillbilly land – but Tucker and Dale are the hapless, stupid, shy backwoodsmen trying to avoid falling into cliché but still, on the anniversary of the Memorial Massacre, inadvertently terrifying the young things who proceed to die accidentally one by one (includes a wood chipper, like The Big Lebowski (‘you OK?’)). The internal logic is sustained at least as convincingly as the slasher pictures it parodies, at least up to the Goldfinger circular saw/Texas chainsaw/camomile tea climax. Tucker is played by Alan Tudyk (Kirk Douglas); Dale by Tyler Labine. Highly diverting.

The Howard Hawks film Twentieth Century is rather early – 1934 (two years after his Scarface, four before his Bringing Up Baby) – and some of the acting isn’t so far off the histrionics of the silent era. But these come mainly from the barn-storming comic performance of John Barrymore as the bombastic, charismatic, expressive, melodramatic, hammy theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffe (he literally jumps in surprise on many an occasion, Fawlty-style): it’s all knowingly done, and is the main source of the humour throughout this very funny film. The lovely, doomed Carole Lombard (in a breakthrough role, two years before My Man Godfrey) plays the hopeless ex-lingerie model Mildred Plotka (there’s an audaciously revealing shot of her later in her underwear) whom Jaffe rebadges as Lily Garland and browbeats to fame and falls in love with. A victim of the jealousy and the imagined infidelity that seems rife in films of this era, their successful relationship ends as she walks out on discovering that he’s tapping her phone; he then becomes a spectacular failure with a new protégée in Chicago and has to escape in disguise, owing thousands, on the train called the Twentieth Century – and it’s here that it really takes off into high-class farce, with brilliant scenes foreshadowing Lombard’s To Be or Not to Be as he pulls off his false nose, alongside the appearance of a tiny fantasist (Etienne Girardot) who’s putting ‘Repent’ stickers up all over the train and writing worthless cheques (not to mention the bearded Oberammergau brothers). Then, in full diva-style Garland gets on the train; cue competitive emoting, with Jaffe imitating a camel as they imagine their new production of the Passion Play, claiming to be a Baptist to impress his illusory benefactor, and castigating the poor habits she’s picked up in Hollywood films, before a wonderful ‘death’ scene.

Jan de Bont’s a good choice to direct Twister, his second film after Speed (aka The Bus that Couldn’t Slow Down), since there’s about as much fast driving as there is tornado action. It starts with a twister in Oklahoma (not Kansas), with a dog called Toby (not Toto) (in 1969, before the flash-forward to a future-proofed ‘Present Day’): further film references abound beyond The Wizard of Oz, including Garland again with James Mason in A Star is Born and also footage of The Shining at the drive-in before the ‘real’ horror begins. It’s pretty exciting and highly effective: the CGI of the tornados is not always great but the thick of the action is. In a breakthrough role Helen Hunt is streets ahead of Bill Paxton in the acting department, funny, expressive, and with good timing; her love-rival (Jami Gertz) is doomed from the start; Philip Seymour Hoffman is a shouty rumpled puppy, bonkers in this early role; Alan Ruck (who killed the Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) is another member of the support team; the storm-chasing rival (who pits high-tech and profit against the Paxton/Hunt intuition and excitement) is Cary Elwes from The Princess Bride; Jeremy Davies from Lost; good soundtrack.

Two Days, One Night (you do the French) is a bit like a remake of 12 Angry Men, as Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has the weekend to try to persuade her 16 co-workers to allow her to keep her job and turn down their bonuses. It’s a simple set-up, and as she works through them one-by-one, it risks being formulaic – indeed her lines to her colleagues, and many of their replies, are the same in many of the cases. But helped by an excellent performance from its star (who totally carries the film), twists keep being thrown in: the depression that has seen her laid off (and instead of the expected line that her diligence in pursuing her quest proves that she’s over that, she’s evidently not, taking too many pills to get herself together, and then the whole box in a suicide attempt); the violence of some of the reactions, both against her and within couples; but also the touching scenes as people agree to help; and the final, slightly forced scenes with the man on the fixed-term contract who will vote for her although he might then himself be laid off, and the offer to her to let her stay on if he is indeed let go – putting the moral choice back on her. There’s a satisfying ending to a film that is so much better than English attempts at workplace drama like Made in Dagenham (in the same way that Potiche knocks Pride into a cocked hat); more on a par with Blue Collar in its examination of the drama of working life.

Three more Two-films: first, Clint Eastwood in Two Mules for Sister Sara, riding across the range (filmed in Mexico), cheroot in mouth, but not so laconic (this is between The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and High Plains Drifter); Shirley MacLaine as a supposed nun. It’s efficiently and even occasionally suspensefully directed by Don Siegel, from a Bud Boetticher story, and with a Morricone score that is very good, despite one hee-hawing theme.

The two in Two Rode Together are played by James Stewart and Richard Widmark, and the almost impromptu by-play between them throughout is its main strength – apart from the characteristic but good performance by Stewart on which the film relies (helped by a competent and occasionally witty script and the solidity of Widmark, with his Waynish intonations). Again, and as seems to happen not infrequently in John Ford’s films, the opening is played for laughs, which is fine until that tone begins to jar with the other content. It’s typical of that clash that while McCabe (Stewart) goes off with Jim Gary (Widmark) just to escape the woman who wants to marry him, his serious mission is to liberate women and in particular children kidnapped by the Comanche years ago (so there are obvious similarities with The Searchers). Stewart is seen as a Messiah but is in it for the money, which he takes from the likes of Knudsen (John Qualen), who has lost his young daughter.

The Indians are one-dimensionally negatively marked (being just as venal but much less sympathetic than McCabe): that, combined with the inability to throw off its humorous impulse for long, gives it a problematic tone which leads it to deal very awkwardly with the human misery it touches on – not just the pathetic hopes of those who’ve lost such young relatives so long ago to such savages, but the shameful treatment of the señorita whose only crime is to not kill herself after being kidnapped – treated by herself and others as degraded by her marriage to an Indian, effectively offered a job as a whore as a result; and the elided lynching of the young Indian brave whose only crime is trying to escape. The highly recognisable fat, squeaky Andy Devine plays the sergeant (defusing a fight like that old football referee, Roger Kirkpatrick, by striking the miscreants with his stomach); John McIntire from Psycho is the commanding officer; Shirley Jones is Widmark’s love interest (her younger brother has been taken, and turns out to be the lynchee); Jeanette Nolan, Welles’s Lady Macbeth, plays the grieving mother too keen to believe the brave is her lost son.

You’d not look to Two Way Stretch, or at least not successfully, for evidence of the comic genius of Peter Sellers: it’s not a patch on his I’m All Right Jack of the previous year. It starts weakly, with humour around the size of the governor’s marrow, a slapstick bang on the head with a shovel, and Irene Handl dropping a collection of ironware like Harpo Marx in Animal Crackers as she comes to visit the prisoners along with pointy Liz Fraser. Later on, soapy bubbles emerge when the army commander tries to fire his flare gun. It’s broader in its humour than the Carry Ons of that era (1960), and is more like the later ones from that franchise. It isn’t beyond racial stereotyping: Warren Mitchell plays a Jewish tailor, and the version I saw was edited for language in respect of a term used to describe Asians.

Like Noël Coward’s Bridger in The Italian Job, Sellers’s character Dodger Lane is living the life of Reilly in prison but here it’s his old colleague Soapy (Wilfred Hyde-White), who avoided capture on the last job, who is masterminding a new crime (a heist of diamonds in transit to an Asian sultan), effortlessly impersonating a vicar. The lags will break out, do the job, and return, having the perfect alibi of having been in prison throughout. It’s a decent plot device, and the film picks up somewhat as the plan is threatened by new chief warder and martinet Lionel Jefferies (‘silence while you’re talking to me!’), a clear prototype of Mr Mackay from Porridge. Their escape attempts explicitly mimic The Wooden Horse and Danger Within – with Bernard Cribbens going into the sewer (‘shouldn’t have sent him down there without a paddle’); the familiar David Lodge is the third con. The actual robbery, and how it unravels, is so-so. Good turn from Irene Handl; Maurice Denham the prison governor; Beryl Reid; and a speaking role for Arthur Mullard, so often an uncredited extra in this sort of thing.

Maybe I’ve left one of the best till last: Olivia Colman is quite superb as Hannah in Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur. Even her straightforward opening persona – well-off, religious, charity shop helper – is subtly different from her other, similar roles; and then it rapidly develops complexity as first Joseph (Peter Mullan) gets to her, and then the horror of her relationship with James (Eddie Marsan) is brutally brought home. And when she comforts James as he begs forgiveness for his abuse, with pure hatred in her face, the seeds are sown of the violent dénouement: as she swings from one mode to another you can imagine the true depth of her despair, just under the surface, which makes the manner of her exit from it totally believable. Mullan is in usual psychopath mode, but with extra depth, too; Marsan adds to his usual shtick an economical portrayal of an abusive husband. There’s complexity, too, in the unfolding plot – the growing relationship between Hannah and James undercut by his own history of being abusive; and in our reaction, which is to hope James beats up the wife-beater and/or the dog-owner. A contribution, too, to the depiction of poor areas of Britain: we never quite had America’s picket fences: now Colman’s well-off area has hidden terrors, and our blighted estates are being memorably imagined.

[Watch a video of Paddy Considine and Olivia Colman talking about the film here. Ed]

But what, I don’t hear you cry, is the best T-box-set? Too late, I’ve run out of space. Moreover, the prize has not yet been claimed for the answer to my quiz question from last time, namely where does this line come from – ‘You want to have your cake and eat it and fuck the baker too’? That’ll have to wait till next time, but meanwhile here’s a bonus question: In what TV series does Jodie Whittaker play a woman impersonating a doctor?