Review – Compliance

The defence “I was only following orders”, christened by panicked Nazis at the Nuremberg trials has become synonymous with those looking to absolve themselves of guilt or responsibility.

It’s a mitigation that runs through writer-director Craig Zobel’s deeply unsettling examination of the powers of authority and our  willingness to blindly obey it.

Compliance – a “deeply unsettling examination of the powers of authority”

Compliance centres on a prank phone call to an American fast food restaurant from someone claiming to be a police officer. The ‘officer’ swiftly convinces manager Sandra that young female employee Becky is responsible for stealing money from a customer’s purse. Not wishing to get into trouble and all too willing to accept her supposed guilt for the sake of an easier day, the caller convinces Sandra and then others to subject Becky to increasingly dehumanising and humiliating treatment.

Incredibly, the film is inspired by true events, specifically a 2004 incident when a man masquerading as a cop called a suburban McDonald’s and told the manager to imprison an employee he claimed was a thief and strip search her. The confused manager agreed and even drafted in her fiancé to guard her. Depressingly, this was not the only incident of its type; more than 70 similar cases were reported in 30 U.S states before someone was arrested.

If Compliance achieves nothing else, it is sure to have you shaking your head in disbelief that something like this could have been allowed to happen. Some have reacted so strongly to the film that they have walked out of screenings.

Zobel’s matter-of-fact directorial style lets the narrative play out and invites us to make our own minds up. The use of tight close-ups lends the film a fetid, claustrophobic tension; however, the decision to reveal the caller’s identity feels like a mistake. The film would have worked even more effectively, been even more stifling had it not strayed outside of the restaurant and let the audience deduce for themselves that the caller’s increasingly outrageous demands were the result of a sick prank.

Compliance

Dreama Walker as the terrified Becky in Craig Zobel’s Compliance

The caller pulls the strings of his unwitting puppets from the very beginning and gets off on how far he can go. Giving only the vaguest description of the thief, Sandra does the work for him by assuming he’s talking about Becky and promising “to do everything that you need”. Meanwhile, the young victim is coerced into agreeing to the strip search when he theatens her with jail if she doesn’t comply, even going so far to persuade her to be “a good actress” to make the other staff feel more comfortable.

Ann Dowd gives a fantastic performance as the sad, weak and compliant Sandra. We can see the confusion and fear in her eyes, while still trying to exert her own authority on her young, largely apathetic workforce and keep them on side. In a society where we are told to respect our peers, Sandra believes she isn’t doing anything wrong; quite the opposite in fact, in her mind she’s doing what anyone else would do under similiar circumstances.

Fast-food restaurant manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) makes a very bad decision in Compliance

Fast-food restaurant manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) makes a very bad decision in Compliance

Zobel also draws strong performances from Dreama Walker as the terrified Becky who, like Franz Kafka’s K in The Trial is overwhelmed by circumstances of which she has no knowledge, and Bill Camp as Sandra’s acquiescent and eager-to-please boyfriend Van, who comes to realise he “did a bad thing” way too late.

Compliance, without resorting to histrionics or lectures, raises serious and worrying questions about the ease in which we can do horrible things with the best of intentions, the power of intimidation and our willingness to let someone else be the victim if it means we avoid trouble ourselves.

When the die is cast and the players believe they understand the rules, Zobel’s challenging and uncomfortable film leaves us to wonder just how long we’d be willing to let the game go on.

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Great Films You Need To See – Bob Roberts (1992)

When the Tea Party movement was being formed following Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if its founders hadn’t gotten some twisted inspiration from Bob Roberts.

Although 20 years old, Tim Robbins’ scaborously satirical mock-umentary is arguably more prescient now than it was when it was released shortly before the 1992 election involving Bill Clinton and George Bush.

The themes explored in Bob Roberts are, alas, all too pertinent to what has played out before our eyes in each and every political race, where the politics of personality, fear, image and ignorance take precedence over reality and the issues that should really matter to the electorate.

Bob Roberts is “a bold, frightening and blackly satirical warning to a sleepwalking nation of the power of style over substance”

The film follows the campaign of Repubican senatorial hopeful Bob Roberts, a folk-singing self-made millionaire-turned “man of the people” and “leader of a generation”, according to his fanatical band of acolytes (including a young Jack Black in his feature debut as a Hitler youth-alike).

Roberts and his campaign team use a sympathetic media machine to push his rabidly right-wing agenda at the expense of the principled Democratic incumbent Senator Brickley Paiste (the late Gore Vidal), who “doesn’t see anybody at home” when looking into his opponent’s soul, but is unprepared for his opponent and, when tainted by a fabricated sex scandal naively proclaims that “this is America. Virtue always prevails”.

Roberts is hounded by an investigative reporter, Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito), who pertains to have evidence that the senatorial hopeful and his campaign chairman Lukas Hart (Alan Rickman) are involved in crooked deals and drugs despite peddling an anti-drugs message as part of his campaign.

As election day draws near, a seemingly tragic incident dramatically alters the public mood, but is everything as it appears?

Although there can be little doubt as to which side of the political fence Robbins sits, the vitriol of Bob Roberts is aimed more squarely at the political system as a whole. When the system is little more than the mouthpiece of big money and lobbyists, Robbins appears to argue, then it’s hardly surprising a figure as rotten as Roberts could rise up Omen-style from its darkest recesses.

The iconography of the 60s runs through the film like a stick of rock, most notably the work of  Bob Dylan. While Robbins clearly seems to pine for the ideals of that lost decade, he is shrewd enough to observe how what’s ‘cool’ from the 60s has been perverted and monetised by the morally and intellectually bankrupt, such as Roberts, for personal gain.

While declaring that “the 60s are, let’s face it, a dark stain on American history” during an interview on a morning chat show, Roberts churns out hate-filled folk records with such Dylan-aping titles as “The Freewheelin’ Bob Roberts”, “Times Are Changin’ Back” and “Bob on Bob”. He even reinvents Dylan’s iconic video to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as “The Wall Street Rap”, his paean to the pursuit of money.

Bob Dylan pastiche #1 in Bob Roberts

Bob Dylan pastiche #2 in Bob Roberts

Robbins takes the Dylan reference further by adopting the same verite-style of the classic 1967 documentary about the singer Don’t Look Back, while in one scene Roberts, who rides ahead of his campaign bus on a motorbike, falls off, aping a similar incident suffered by the folk legend in 1966.

The corporatisation of politics and its leaders is hardly a new phenomenon, but Robbins turns it all the way up to 11 here. When his campaign staff aren’t manning the phones pushing Roberts the politician from the confines of their battle bus, they’re pushing Roberts the businessman by trading stocks and shares.

Bob Roberts – the Tea Party’s wet dream come to life in Tim Robbins’ searing satire

While Robbins can get bogged down hammering home the point that politics and society at large has regressed from the idealism of the 60s to a more reactionary, less tolerant state, his debut film has become ever more pertinent and timely over the years. His portrayal of a media machine that wallows in trivia and allows subjectivity to superseed objectivty foretells the world of 24-hour rolling news and the likes of Fox News. Robbins also attacks the deliberate erosion of the divide between church and state, something that has now become de rigueur in politics since George W Bush and the advent of the Tea Party.

Robbins exudes an oily charisma as the titular firebrand, capturing the dead-eyed smile we’ve seen from so many politicians. Equally great is Rickman as the not-quite-human Hart and Ray Wise as Roberts’ svengali-esque campaign manager Chet MacGregor.

Bob Roberts is a bold, frightening and blackly satirical warning to a sleepwalking nation of the power of style over substance and the sobering observation that you often get the leaders you deserve.

Review – Killing Them Softly

The dreams and promises of politicians are almost invariably exposed as nothing more than venal sales pitches when the cold light of day of reality smacks us round the face.

Andrew Dominik's deeply cynical Killing Them Softly

Andrew Dominik’s deeply cynical Killing Them Softly

This has so rarely been the case than in 2008 when hope and change were being promised while the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression was unfolding before our eyes.

This particularly grim period of recent history serves as a running backdrop to Andrew Dominik’s deeply cynical third feature Killing Them Softly.

Gutter-level thieves Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) are hired to rob a mob-protected poker game run by low-life gangster Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Although Trattman is the prime suspect, having previously ripped off his own game, enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is drafted in to find who is responsible and set things right.

Adapted from George V Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly, as well as being a highly satisfying genre film is also a none-to-subtle metaphor for an America that, according to Cogan isn’t “a country; it’s just a business”.

Enforcer Jacki Cogan (Brad Pitt) and mob bean-counter (Richard Jenkins) in Killing Them Softly

Enforcer Jacki Cogan (Brad Pitt) and mob bean-counter (Richard Jenkins) in Killing Them Softly

Although never seen, the mob’s prescence is felt throughout like a corporate version of Big Brother. They are represented by ‘Driver’ (Richard Jenkins), a cheap-suited lackey and glorified accountant who hires Cogan to do their dirty work. The financial cost is paramount, while the human cost is irrelevant as time and again the discussions between Driver and Cogan over what needs to be done (usually killing someone) are reduced to nothing more than dollars and cents.

The social commentary is difficult to chew at times. The opening sequence with Frankie walking through a tunnel filled with newspapers being blown about in the wind intercut with a hope-filled campaign speech by Barack Obama sets out the stall, while George W Bush’s panic-averting presidential address and the subsequent global financial collapse, heard on the radio or seen on TV play throughout like some perverted Greek chorus. Just to underline it all, the movie was shot and set in post-Katrina New Orleans, a city that knows a thing or two about broken promises.

Gutter-level thieves Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) in Killing Them Softly

Gutter-level thieves Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) in Killing Them Softly

The down and dirty dialogue is a graduate of the David Mamet School of Vicious Language, while the visual flourishes adopted by Dominik lend the film an ugly beauty, most notably in a uncomfortably long scene when one poor schmuck gets an horrendous beating.

Killing Them Softly gives its entirely male cast many a memorable line and the stellar line-up lap up every one. Mendelsohn adds layers to what on paper could have been just another junkie part; Liotta’s Markie Trattman might as well be related to Henry Hill, the part he played in Goodfellas; while James Gandolfini is terrific as a down-at-heels hitman brought in by Cogan to assist with the job but who is unable to get past his own self-pity and the next drink. However, it’s Pitt who stands out, giving a superbly nuanced portrayal of a hitman who has the tools and the pithy conversation to match, but ultimately is in thrall to his paymasters and knows it.

Dominik is clearly fascinated with criminals in all their forms, whether they be the charismatic Australian murderer Mark Read in his debut feature Chopper (2000), or the enigmatic gun-slinger Jesse James is his masterful sophmore film The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (2007). Here, they are nothing more than self-serving reprobates, existing in a hellish America where hope and change are nothing more than words on bumper stickers.

Great Films You Need To See – Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)

Although best known for introducing us to the memorable characters from This Is England, Shane Meadows has racked up a hugely impressive filmography – and none more memorable than his 2004 classic Dead Man’s Shoes.

Unlike those other stalwarts of British film Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, who go where the story takes them, Meadows has chosen to locate his features almost exclusively within spitting distance of his beloved Nottingham (with the exception of his 2008 film Somers Town); so much so that the Midlands and Meadows have virtually become conjoined twins.

Dead Man's Shoes

Shane Meadows’ powerful revenge drama Dead Man’s Shoes

Meadows may stick to where he knows best, but that doesn’t mean he sits back on his laurels as a filmmaker. And instead of playing it safe with the kind of kitchen sink drama that is a staple of the UK’s film output, he often goes looking across the Atlantic for his influences. His debut feature Small Time had Scorsese all over it, while 2002’s Once Upon A Time In The Midlands (his one failure) gave a nod and a wink to Sergio Leone’s love letters to the American West.

The same can certainly be said of Dead Man’s Shoes. However, the influence of America and American cinema hasn’t led to his aping it. Instead, those Midlands settings marry together with Meadows’ idiosyncratic style to create something utterly unique.

Dead Man’s Shoes begins with Smog’s Bill Callahan singing “I can’t be held responsible for the things I’ve seen” – a portentous line for what is to come. Squaddie Richard (Paddy Considine) walks across picturesque countryside to his hometown of Matlock in the Peak

District with his brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) in tow. Home video footage is interspersed of the siblings to underline the bond between them.

The screen fades to black and Richard says: “God will forgive them. He will forgive them and allow them into heaven. I can’t live with that.” The ‘them’ he is referring to are a gang of low-level thugs and drug dealers who abused Anthony, who we discover has learning difficulties, while Richard was in the army.

(Paddy Considine) wreaks his revenge in Dead Man's Shoes

Richard (Paddy Considine) wreaks his revenge in Dead Man’s Shoes

Richard makes his presence known when he faces down one of the abusers, Herbie (Stuart Wolfenden), first in a pub and then outside a flat, where he turns up wearing a military gas mask, leads Herbie and his mates on a merry chase and steals the drugs that have been supplied by gang leader Sonny (ex-boxer Gary Stretch).

Sonny confronts Richard, who advises they leave town or suffer the consequences, pointing out that it’s now “beyond words”. When Sonny and co fail to heed Richard’s suggestion they discover just who it is they are dealing with when one of the gang is discovered bludgeoned to death by an axe and the words ‘one down’ written in his blood.

Sonny goes on the offensive and with his lackeys heads to the abandoned farm Richard and Anthony are staying at to shoot him. However, the plan drastically backfires and the terrified gang retreat.

When the remaining members arrive back at Sonny’s house they search the place expecting to find their tormentor there. But Richard is hiding and while they are upstairs he laces their kettle with the drugs he stole. A few hours later and the surviving trio are out of their minds and easy prey for Richard, who kills them one by one in an extremely disturbing scene.

There is one final member left though and Richard travels to a nearby town in search of Mark (Paul Hurtsfield), who has left his bad days behind him and now lives with a wife and children. When the horror-struck Mark learns of who is after him, he unburdens his soul to his wife, telling her of the final act of abuse inflicted on Anthony which led to him killing himself. As it transpires Richard has been alone the whole time.

Paddy Considine in Dead Man's Shoes

Paddy Considine in Dead Man’s Shoes

Richard takes Mark hostage and forces him to drive to the spot where Anthony died. However, instead of exacting his final revenge, Richard instead forces Mark to kill him, telling him that all he wants to do is lie with his brother.

The film that comes to mind most when analysing Dead Man’s Shoes is the deeply pessimistic 1973 western High Plains Drifter, wherein the revenge plot is suffused with the supernatural (I choose to believe the character of Anthony is a ghost rather than a figment of Richard’s broken mind).

The story doesn’t quite ring true when you really think about it (where are the police in all of this?) and it soon becomes obvious that none of them is any match for Richard. The camerawork is a little pedestrian at times, also.

However, the plus points of Dead Man’s Shoes far outweigh the negatives. The acting by a largely inexperienced cast is naturalistic, with Kebbell a standout in his feature debut. Portraying someone with learning difficulties can easily come across as broad and forced (Sean Penn in I Am Sam is a notable example), but Kebbell underplays the part, making Anthony a truly tragic figure.

This is Considine’s show, though and he stands head and shoulders above everyone else. Since making his debut in Meadows’ A Room For Romeo Brass in 1999, Considine has become one of this country’s finest actors (and one of its most promising directors following the acclaimed Tyrannosaur).

It’s a powerhouse performance and he is terrifying and sympathetic in equal measure. Considine does a mesmerising job playing a man racked with guilt because he wasn’t there to help his brother and consumed with a rage that is as frightening to him as it is overwhelming. As Sonny points out following their first encounter: “I looked him right in the eye and he ain’t the same guy that left.”

Much like he did in Small Time, Meadows paints the gang as somewhat comical in nature, be it their Three Stooges-esque larking about, or the fact they drive around in a knackered old Citroen 2CV.  However, the stakes facing them are far higher and this tone at times sits a little uncomfortably with the subject matter, especially during the protracted scene where Richard dispatches Sonny and the others in brutal fashion.

The effortlessly cool soundtrack, featuring the likes of Aphex Twin, Richard Hawley and Bonnie “Prince” Billy is pitch-perfect and complements Meadows’ atmospheric cinematography, most notably in the moments Richard is walking through the countryside or on the farm.

Right now Meadows seems content with exploring the lives of the characters from This Is England. However, one hopes he will soon explore new avenues as we need more films like Dead Man’s Shoes made in this country.

Great Films You Need To See – Hard Eight (1996)

There are few directors who have masterminded such a ceaseless string of ambitious and visually brilliant films as Paul Thomas Anderson.

In a career that has spanned more than 15 years, Anderson has done for the American independent film what Christopher Nolan has for the blockbuster; namely to tear up the rulebook and treat audiences as the savvy, cine-literate group they largely are.

Paul Thomas Anderson's debut Hard Eight

Paul Thomas Anderson’s fantastic debut Hard Eight

As well as directing two of the greatest films of the ’90s – 1997’s seminal Boogie Nights and its Robert Altman-esque follow-up Magnolia in 1999, Anderson has also been responsible for one of this century’s greatest cinematic achievements, his 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood. Let’s also not forget his leftfield 2002 romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love, without doubt Adam Sandler’s finest hour (which I appreciate may come across as damning the film with faint praise – it’s really good).

Big things invariably start with small beginnings and in Anderson’s case this was the little-seen Hard Eight.

Anderson emerged from that post-Tarantino/post-Sex, Lies and Videotape moment in the early ’90s when studios of all sizes were falling over themselves to buy up anything ‘indie’ and repackage it for the mainstream.

In Anderson’s case, his short film Cigarettes and Coffee played at the 1993 Sundance Festival and led to his being invited to hone his burgeoning craft at the Sundance filmmakers’ lab, a sort of Hogwarts for talented young directors. As well as being spotted by Sundance, Anderson had also popped up on the radar at Rysher Entertainment, which financed his first feature.

What Rysher giveth, it took away, however, and after Anderson completed the feature – originally titled Sydney – it took it upon itself to re-edit the film. Anderson kept hold of the working print of his original cut though and, after finding the $200,000 needed to finish the film, a subsequent screening at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and an agreement to rename it, Hard Eight made it onto the big screen. The fact it made only a small dent at the box office turned out to be irrelevant; Hard Eight proved a big hit critically and gave Anderson the calling card he needed to make Boogie Nights the following year.

Hard Eight

John (John C Reilly) is given a leg-up by the enigmatic Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in Hard Eight

Hard Eight follows Sydney, an aging, well-heeled loner who takes the down-at-heels John under his wing. John is penniless and on his way out of Las Vegas after failing to win the $6,000 he needs to pay for his mother’s funeral. Sydney takes pity on the beaten-down John and takes him back to Vegas to mentor him in the way of making money at the casino.

The film picks up two years later with Sydney still the teacher and John his eager pupil. With the absence of a father, a paternal bond has also been formed which comes in handy when a desperate John calls on Sydney to help him deal with a situation involving his new wife – waitress and prostitute Clementine.

The first thing to say about Hard Eight is that it features a fantastic cast, led by the brilliant Philip Baker Hall as Sydney. Anderson apparently wrote the part specifically for Hall, who had been drifting in the wilderness for a number of years and has since gone on to enjoy a successful career in his autumn years. Hall brings real gravitas to a part that requires subtle changes of character. Sydney is a man trying to make amends for a terrible decision in his past in the best way he can, but he’s not to be messed with, as Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) finds to his cost.

Equally good is John C Reilly as John. Reilly may now be best known for his comic roles, but his early career was made up almost exclusively with bit parts or dramatic roles. Hard Eight was as much Reilly’s calling card as it was Anderson’s and he uses his naturally doe-eyed persona to his full advantage in his portrayal of a character trying the best he can but who keeps making mistakes.

Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) and Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in Hard Eight

Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) and Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in Hard Eight

Gwyneth Paltrow also excels as Clementine. It’s a thankless role in some respects; the tart with a heart who falls for John and drags him into a situation they cannot deal with, but Paltrow doesn’t employ the aloofness that has marred some of her other performances here, instead making Clementine a damaged soul magnetised to the equally bruised John.

And let’s not forget Philip Seymour Hoffman in a small but notable cameo as an obnoxious craps player. He’s only on screen for a brief time, but Hoffman doesn’t need long to breathe life into his characters.

The influence of Martin Scorsese is all over the film (something acknowledged by Anderson), with sweeping tracking shots, dazzling visual flourishes and unusual editing style that he embraced even more fully in Boogie Nights. One criticism of the film is the use of music, which can feel a little over-bearing at times. Compared to There Will Be Blood‘s extraordinary soundtrack, Hard Eight feels a little cheap.

Hard Eight is nevertheless a fascinating first salvo in a superb directorial career (his latest, The Master is one of the most anticipated films of 2012) and an intriguing snapshot of the state of American independent cinema at the time (how many directors can boast such a top-notch cast with their first feature?). His is a star that is sure to burn brightly for many years to come.