Four Frames – Ace In The Hole (1951)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. It’s awards season and The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews with the theme of ‘fame’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Billy Wilder’s underseen classic Ace In The Hole.

Anyone who thought Billy Wilder’s savagely cynical noir about a disgraced journalist’s search for a career-rejuvenating scoop was too sensational need only recall 2010’s media circus that surrounded the plight of the 33 trapped Chilean miners.

The sight of hundreds of rubberneckers flanked by publicity-hungry officials and hordes of reporters dowsing the crisis at ‘Camp Hope’ with high drama and low rhetoric is sadly reflective of the tasteless carnival that plays out in Ace In The Hole (1951).

Ace In The Hole

Its orchestrator is Kirk Douglas’ fanatically single-minded Chuck Tatum, a down-at-heel ex-New York hack whom we meet being towed into little ‘ole Albuquerque in New Mexico, sitting in the hitched-up car defiantly reading a copy of the local Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin and carrying himself with an arrogance that’s as audacious as it misplaced.

Tatum is taken on by the paper’s principled editor (Porter Hall) despite ridiculing it (“even for Albuquerque, this is pretty Albuquerque”), mocking the secretary’s hand-stitched motto “tell the truth” and making it clear he’ll only be around as long as it takes him to sell a big story and win a place back in the big leagues.

Ace In The Hole

After a year of scraping around, Tatum stumbles across his scoop when he learns of a man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who has become trapped inside a mountain tunnel whilst searching for Native American relics. We straight away see the wheels turning in Tatum’s eyes as he sensationalises the story (“Ancient curse entombs man”) and sells promises of celebrity to the corruptible local sheriff (Ray Teal) in order to lean on a contractor to spin out the rescue effort for dramatic effect.

The Big Carnival (as the film was initially renamed just prior to its release) quickly descends, with people herding to the ‘cursed’ mountain to gawp at the ensuing drama, while good old fashioned American capitalism cranks into gear, with car parking charges, a fairground and stalls selling distasteful Native American headdress and copies of the lyrics of a swiftly penned song about Leo’s rescue.

Ace In The Hole

Also benefiting is Leo’s callous wife Lorraine (the fantastic Jan Sterling), who couldn’t care less about her stricken husband and wants to run away to the big city, but is convinced to hang around by the ringing tills of her diner and Tatum’s forceful persuasion. Lorraine realises she’s met her match in the tabloid hack (“I’ve met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my time, but you’re 20 minutes”) and a volatile game of mutually assured destruction plays out between the two of them.

Douglas was once quoted as saying that he’d “made a career out of playing sons of bitches” and none are more repellent than the force-of-nature that is Chuck Tatum, a natural born deceiver who lives by the adage that “bad news sells best, because good news is no news”.

Ace In The Hole

Realising the story may not pan out exactly how he’d first intended, Tatum suddenly seems to want to do the right thing by Leo, but you suspect it’s more out of a sense of self-preservation than guilt. Besides, it’s way too late to put the genie back in the bottle and once the circus leaves town, no-one cares anymore.

A work of all-too-sad relevance that hasn’t aged a day, the brilliance of Ace In The Hole is in the way it reflects the very worst of the Fourth Estate right back on us and our own morbid curiosity.

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Debuts Blogathon: Bong Joon-ho – Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)

Debuts Blogathon

Today’s entry in the ‘Debuts’ Blogathon, hosted by myself and Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, comes from Naomi at the particularly great She Speaks Movies. Naomi covers films in a way that makes you sit up and pay attention. Her review choices are always diverse, while her MovieCube section, in which she reviews three movies with the same theme in collaboration with Karamel Kinema, is always a great read. Make sure to check her site out.

Bong Joon-ho

Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)

When talking about ‘imports’ from the South Korean film industry, one of the names definitely bound to come up is Bong Joon-ho’s.

In 2006 his movie The Host was released and became a major game-changer in modern Korean cinema. With more than 13 million admissions, The Host is still the highest-grossing film in South Korea, seven years after its release. When talking about Bong Joon-ho’s films, people might argue that his best is his sophomore feature Memories of Murder, and his fourth film Mother was selected to represent his country in their submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2010 Academy Awards. Mostly overlooked by audience and critics alike, his debut feature Barking Dogs Never Bite is actually no less interesting than his other works.

Barking Dogs Never BiteGo Yoon Joo is unemployed. He spends his days taking care of the apartment, doing everything his pregnant wife—the breadwinner—asks him to. Frustrated with his current condition, a loud yelping coming from a dog somewhere in the building irritates him even further, until one day he loses it and captures a neighbor’s dog thought to be the source of his miseries. However, Yoon Joo is not the only person in the building interested in snatching canines – a bespectacled janitor seems to have a peculiar appetite for dog meat. Park Hyun Nam, a young woman working in the apartment complex, becomes concerned about the missing dogs and, after witnessing one being thrown from the top of the building, is determined to catch the perpetrator.

As you can guess, although the characters are able to meet and interact due to the kidnapping of the dogs, that is hardly the main focus. Like Bong’s other works that follow, there are touches of sociopolitical issues, although maybe a bit less loud than Memories of Murder or less layered than The Host. Critiques on institutions are ever-present, this time by what Yoon Joo has to do to get a job as a professor in a university – a position has just been vacated and is all for Yoon Joo’s taking if only he can bribe the Dean with $10,000.

Barking Dogs Never BiteBong is known not to have traditional heroes as the central characters in his films. Instead, mostly the main characters are these rather dim-witted, lovable losers, at least up until Mother, in which it is hard to find any of the characters lovable at all. Yoon Joo might not exactly be lovable, but since the onset it is clear that he’s, well, a loser. And Park Hyun Nam is no way superior, stuck in her dead-end job and spends her free time with her also-loser best friend Yoon Jang Mi, filling crosswords on newspapers, smoking on rooftops and drinking bottles and bottles of soju. However, Hyun Nam is a lot more lovable than Yoon Joo and Bae Doo Na gives a very candid, delightful performance; probably one of her most entertaining roles. Go Soo Hee is hilarious as Hyun Nam’s partner-in-crime Jang Mi, and also provides a memorable comic performance in The Host six years later.

Characters in Bong’s films are usually faced with problems they cannot overcome – a pair of detectives tries to find a serial killer to no avail; a family goes on a desperate search for a river monster which kidnaps their daughter; a mother desperate to prove his mentally retarded son’s innocence. Yet Barking Dogs Never Bite just might have the least sombre outcome compared to his other films. Sure there is irony, but it has a less depressing finale compared to the other films, although still packaged like every one of Bong’s films – sort of like matching bookends. The beginnings and endings of his films follow a circular pattern – he denies us definite closures. We like to think that the characters in his films continue their lives after the end credits finish. Somewhat scarred, somewhat changed, but back living the way they used to.

Barking Dogs Never BiteAside from the ending, the overall feel of the film is quite cheery; maybe due to its comical sequences; maybe due to its lack of macabre subject matter – which is prominent in Bong’s other films. This quality is made even more pronounced with the music. Barking Dogs Never Bite undoubtedly has the most distinct sound of all Bong’s works. While his other films have dramatic music scores (one of my favorite composers Lee Byung Woo worked on both The Host and Mother) that are conventional in a way, this film stands out with its upbeat jazzy tunes. An ominous piano track plays during a mischievous scene and smoothly flows into a full-blown jazz track as Yoon Joo is running. In fact, expect a fun jazz track to accompany every chase scene. And even at the end of the film there is a superbly delicious jazz number.

Barking Dogs Never BiteBarking Dogs Never Bite might not be a ‘quintessential’ Bong Joon-ho film on the surface. Its colourful quirkiness sets itself far apart from his other films, and the screenplay is mostly based on his personal experiences, as opposed from news stories like the latter two films. However, a recurring theme in all of his works is black humour and, compared to his other films, this one is certainly the blackest – which might be one of the reasons it failed at its time of release. Back then, the South Korean audience was not too appreciative of black humour. People were looking for a different kind of entertainment—Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area was released in the same year and became a huge hit. Blending comedy and tragedy seems to be one of Bong’s traits. Like how Kim Hye Ja’s character oddly dances in the beginning of Mother or how Yoon Joo desperately tries to get rid of a dog in this movie, the audience is unsure about how to react. Most of us end up stifling an awkward laugh.

Barking Dogs Never BiteThirteen years after his first feature film debut, the world seems to be taking even more interest in Bong. His biggest project yet (and South Korea’s, for that matter) is his latest, the much-buzzed $40 million dystopian sci-fi Snowpiercer. A while ago it was reported that The Weinstein Company, possessing international distribution rights, demanded a 20-minute cut from the international release of the film. This is incredibly unfortunate news considering how much detail Bong always puts in his films and how this might be the first film of Bong’s that is going to reach a lot of new audience, especially those unfamiliar with South Korean filmmakers.

Apart from being exceptionally detailed, Bong is known for defying genres and these characteristics become more and more accentuated in his following works. Barking Dogs Never Bite might look a little offbeat in Bong’s filmography, but traces of his trademark features are definitely there and his feature films that followed have done nothing but strengthen his position as one of Asia’s most interesting directors.

Over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, Fernando at the one and only Committed to Celluloid is covering Alejandro González Iñárritu’s breakout Amores Perros. Head over there now by clicking here.
 
As if that wasn’t enough, check back tomorrow when Melissa from The Soul of the Plot casts her eye over The Pleasure Garden, the 1925 silent debut of the one and only Alfred Hitchcock. See you then!

Review – The Impossible

Natural disasters are invariably so enormous in their scale the only way to avoid them becoming too overwhelming on screen is to chronicle the unfolding tragedy through the eyes of a small group of people.

The Impossible

“There are powerful moments, but too few and far between to elevate The Impossible into the awards contender is clearly aims to be”

The Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck on Boxing Day in 2004 claimed the lives of more than 230,000 people, many of them in south-east Asia.

The scale of the catastrophe boggles the mind, so much so that Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible seeks to narrow its focus by having the desperate plight of one stricken family symbolise the horror and anguish of those fateful days.

This isn’t the first film to deal with the tsunami; the HBO miniseries Tsunami: The Aftermath was screened less than two years after the tragedy. In spite of winning a cabinet full of awards, it drew criticism for leaning too heavily on the stories of white victims at the expense of the native population.

Young Lucas (Tom Holland) fights to save his stricken mother’s (Naomi Watts) life in The Impossible

A similar charge has also been levelled at The Impossible, which exclusively follows the Bennett’s – Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) and their three sons, teenager Lucas (Tom Holland), middle child Tomas (Samuel Joslin) and youngest Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) – a white English-speaking family who are on holiday in Khao Lak, Thailand when the wave hits.

You know what’s coming, which makes the opening scenes of peaceful tranquility and tropical beauty all the more suspenseful. Although you’re left in no doubt this is a story of survival and the tenacity of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming odds, The Impossible will inevitably be judged by its audience for the way the tsunami itself is portrayed on screen.

The Impossible

Henry (Ewan McGregor) with his sons Tomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) in The Impossible

In this, Bayona pulls out all the stops. Just as Steven Spielberg leaves you shell-shocked with his opening D-Day landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan, so too does Bayona, who pounds you into submission by showing the full, awesome power of nature as the tsunami tears through the resort, scoops up those in its path and tosses them around in the torrent of water like rag dolls before finally subsiding.

The Impossible

The terrifying moment the tsunami strikes in The Impossible

It’s a terrifying, dizzying sequence that serves as the launchpad for the rest of the movie as a badly injured Maria and determined Lucas must rely on the selfless generosity of the Thai people to get them to safety, while Henry, with Tomas and Simon in tow, begins a desperate search to reunite his family.

The problem with The Impossible is that the devastating impact of the tsunami is so powerfully depicted it proves impossible for the remainder of the film to match what has gone before (akin to Saving Private Ryan). Much of the blame for this must be levelled at Sergio G. Sánchez’s script, which falls back on heavy-handed symbolism and, in its closing minutes resorts to ham-fisted melodrama that’s as unnecessary as it is manipulative.

The Impossible

Mother and son Maria (Naomi Watts) and Lucas (Tom Holland) cling on for dear life in The Impossible

It’s a pity as the cast are largely superb. Holland is a real discovery and shows a maturity well beyond his years in his portrayal of the resourceful son who goes through hell and (literal) high water to help save his mum. McGregor gives his best performance for years as a father and husband wracked with guilt and fear at the thought of losing his wife and family.

The Impossible

A moment of peaceful tranquility before the family’s world is turn asunder in The Impossible

Bayona leans on Watts to deliver much of the emotional payoff and she doesn’t let her director down. It’s a draining performance, both physically and psychologically as we see Maria fighting to survive for the sake of her family. Bayona made his name as a horror director in the excellent Spanish-language The Orphanage and he brings that same sensibility to the moment when an exhausted, ailing Maria experiences the sting in the tsunami’s tail.

Although based on the experiences of a Spanish family, Bayona has come under fire for making them English-speaking. Setting aside the director’s rather unconvincing explanation that he chose not to specify their nationality in order to make The Impossible as universal as possible (it’s pretty obvious they’re supposed to be British), the fact they aren’t Spanish doesn’t detract from the story the film is telling.

There are powerful moments (the telephone call made by Henry to a relative back home is gut-wrenchingly played by McGregor), but too few and far between to elevate The Impossible into the awards contender is clearly aims to be.

Review – Amour

“Life’s a bitch and then you die,” said Bertolt Brecht (sort of) in his musical The Threepenny Opera and it’s a pithy label often pinned on the work of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke.

Amour

Amour – “a film for the ages, one that will bring with it fresh meanings and insights into life with each viewing”

Haneke is probably the most effective exponent of slow, claustrophobic, dread-filled cinema at work today and his protaganists invariably have pain and suffering thrust upon them, sometimes self-inflicted (Caché, The Piano Teacher), but more often not (Funny Games, Code Unknown, Time of the Wolf).

His previous film The White Ribbon portrayed a German community collapsing in on itself and earned the director the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2009, a feat he repeated last year with his latest Amour (Love).

The title raised some eyebrows when it was first announced as cinephiles aware of Haneke’s previous output wondered whether he had gone soft in his old age.

This is a love story, but like none that have gone before it. Compared to the sentimentalised and unrealistic romances of Hollywood, Haneke’s unvarnished honesty may be distressing to watch, but its frank depiction of one elderly couple’s slow, unwinnable battle against the rising tide of chronic ill health and old age sets it out as one of the greatest and most essential films about love and death ever made.

Eva (Isabelle Hupert) and her father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in Amour

Eva (Isabelle Hupert) and her father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in Amour

This story of love begins at the end, with the body of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) discovered on her deathbed by firefighters called because she and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) have not been heard from for several days. It’s an image equal parts beautiful and morbid and remains in the mind as the film travels back to show how she came to rest.

Georges first observes there’s something wrong with his beloved wife Anne when, sat at the kitchen table she suddenly goes into a trance. When she snaps out of it several minutes later she reacts as if nothing’s happened. Soon after she suffers a stroke, an unsuccessful surgery and then another, more devastating stroke that leaves her partially paralysed. As Anne’s physical state degrades she also succombs to the ravages of dementia.

Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges in Amour

Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges in Amour

No spring chicken himself, Georges promises Anne “no hospitals” and vows to take care of her himself. In spite of his obvious devotion to his wife, the physical and mental toll it takes on Georges is palpable. He knows he’s fighting a losing battle and Anne’s slow decline from feisty spiritedness to a child-like helplessness is both painful and exhausting, to the extent that in one shocking scene his patience finally evaporates when she refuses to eat and he slaps her across the face.

Michael Haneke, director of Amour

Michael Haneke, director of Amour

A chamber piece in every sense, Amour features a stunning cast. Trintignant’s refusal to turn on the waterworks or to curry sympathy is exactly what makes him sympathetic in a role he totally inhabits. Riva gives a performance of outstanding physicality and her heart-breaking transformation is a master class in restraint.

The apartment, once filled with joy and music (Georges and Anne are music teachers) gradually takes on the feel of a prison. A pigeon flies in, possibly representing a freedom neither will ever know again, and what follows is a scene both comical and incredibly sad as the decrepit Georges tries to capture it.

Haneke’s black humour is also present near the start of the film when the couple discover burglars have attempted to break in while they were out. Anne’s observation: “Imagine if we were lying in bed and somebody broke in … I think I would die of fright” is starkly ironic bearing in mind we know that firefighters will break into their apartment and discover her body on the bed.

Amour is a tough and often painful watch but there are many, many moments of beauty to be found here too. It’s a film for the ages, one that will bring with it fresh meanings and insights into life with each viewing.

Review – Silver Linings Playbook

A quick glance at the plot for Silver Linings Playbook and you’d be forgiven for expecting yet another excruciating Hollywood romantic comedy, the kind that Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston seem to find themselves in.

Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook – “smart and spiky screwball comedy for the internet age”

What should make this film even worse is that its central figure Pat Jr (Bradley Cooper) has bipolar disorder, which normally results in the sort of turned-up-to-11  manic performance that cries out for an Academy Award.

The fact that Silver Linings Playbook manages to avoid the trap doors and skirts around the clichés is largely down to the mercurial David O. Russell, who adapts and directs this smart and spiky screwball comedy for the internet age from Matthew Quick’s short story.

Pat is diagnosed after attacking his wife’s lover in the shower and, after eight months in a psychiatric institution is released into the care of his OCD-afflicted, Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed father Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) and long-suffering mother Dolores (Australian actress Jacki Weaver). Without a job or a wife, Pat is determined to rebuild his life, believing that if he gets fit and stays positive he can save his marriage.

At a friend’s dinner party he meets the self-destructive Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has tried to overcome her grief at the death of her husband by sleeping around. Tiffany offers Pat a deal – she’ll help him reconnect with his wife as long as he becomes his dance partner for an upcoming ballroom competition.

Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat (Bradley Cooper) audition for Strictly Come Dancing in Silver Linings Playbook

Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat (Bradley Cooper) audition for Strictly Come Dancing in Silver Linings Playbook

Russell knows the rom-com tropes – Pat and Tiffany are clearly made for each other – but in the best tradition of those classic screwball comedies, all the fun comes in how these two broken souls finally realise what the audience have known all along.

Crucially, the chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence is fantastic. They fizz off each other like a pair of firecrackers, from the amusing dinner party when they swap anti-depressant stories like Christmas cards to the sultry dance sequences.

The two are equally tactless, whether it be Pat asking Tiffany how many people she slept with in her office before being fired, or Tiffany saving Pat the bother of reading Lord of the Flies by summarising it for him and throwing the book away, annoyed he’s only reading it because it’s on the high school syllabus his estranged wife is teaching (reflecting an earlier scene when Pat throws a copy of A Farewell to Arms through the window because he’s disgusted with the pessimistic ending).

"Go Eagles!" Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) and Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) celebrate in Silver Linings Playbook

“Go Eagles!” Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) and Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) celebrate in Silver Linings Playbook

This is no smooth ride to love of course; Tiffany attacks Pat for being “afraid to be alive” and feels increasingly used by her dance partner as nothing more than a tool in which to win back his spouse. Pat feels guilty for getting closer to Tiffany and suffers a number of violent bipolar episodes, including one in the reception of his therapist Dr Patel (Bollywood favourite Anupam Kher).

Pat Snr, meanwhile, faces his own struggles. In one moving scene, beautifully played by De Niro, he has a moment of guilty realisation that father and son are perhaps more alike than he thought and tries to find some common ground over their shared love of the Eagles.

Cooper has never been better, which admittedly isn’t saying a lot as his output, until now, has hardly been stellar. He isn’t afraid to make Pat unlikeable and restrains himself from falling back on the pretty-boy mugging he’s been guilty of in the past.

Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) tries to stay on top of his bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook

Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) tries to stay on top of his bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook

After years of picking up the pay cheque, it’s great to see De Niro back on form. For once, he looks fully engaged and appears to enjoy playing opposite Cooper again (following the patchy Limitless).

In lesser hands, the role of Tiffany could have become unbearably kooky or flaky. Apparently Russell originally had Zooey Deschanel in mind for the part, so one can only imagine how painful that would have been to watch.

Instead, Lawrence forgoes the crazy and brings a vulnerability to the role that’s refreshing to see. Instead of relying on a pout or a flailing of the limbs, she does a lot of her work with her eyes, expressing confidence, defensiveness or pain in a single look.

The exaggerated family dynamic and pent up emotions bring to mind Russell’s previous film The Fighter, but while that film somewhat lost its way, here he maintains a sharp focus and sweeps you along so persuasively that come the final dance contest you’ll be willing them on along with the rest.