Burn! Marlon Brando’s favourite film

Burn!

At the beginning of the 1960s Marlon Brando’s life and career took a turn. As Karina Longworth documents on her meticulously researched and compelling compulsive Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This, here, Brando was a unique phenomenon.

On the one hand, he was the first ever Hollywood, and therefore global, celebrity. There had been Hollywood stars before, but their creation had always been the result of a carefully calibrated plan concocted by the studios in cahoots with the press. Brando’s fame was of a different sort and at another level entirely. He generated an air of hysteria and of frenzied mania that was shockingly new.

And on the other, and even more remarkably, indeed uniquely, his fame was the result of his talent. Before he became the global celebrity of the 1950s, Brando had taken the craft and art of acting to pieces and re-constructed it as if from scratch.

A Streetcar Named Desire

His performance, on stage in 1947, and then on screen in 1951, in Tennessee WilliamsA Streetcar Named Desire floored everyone who witnessed it. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael was famously embarrassed, having witnessed what she took to be an actual break down. Only later realising that he’d been behaving like that deliberately.

He got his first Oscar nomination in 1951, for Streetcar, a second in ’52, for Viva Zapata!, a third in ’53, for Mark Antony in Julia Cesar, and a fourth, which he finally won with, for On the Waterfront, in ’54. That’s a working-class thug, a Mexican revolutionary, a Shakespearean hero and a wannabe boxer from the Bronx, each of whom he seems to effortlessly inhabit and actually become.

But after his directorial debut, One-Eyed Jacks, was unfairly overlooked in ’61, and, even more crucially, after then being blamed, again unfairly, for what was seen as the fiasco of Mutiny on the Bounty a year later, Brando became thoroughly disillusioned with the whole business of movies and of acting. And what followed, between ‘62-‘72, were what he later came to call my ‘fuck you years’. 

He now started to devote more and more of his time to the social cause closest to his heart and the issue Hollywood seemed most determined to ignore; racism. He marched with Martin Luther King and attended vigils and protests with native Americans at Wounded Knee. While the films he chose to appear in seemed to have been selected with the express purpose of wilfully derailing his career. 

Last Tango in Paris

But amongst the succession of impressively awful films he made during these years, he quietly snuck in a couple of gems. He starred alongside Elizabeth Tailor as a gay army officer in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, in 1967. And two years later he made Burn!, Gillo Pontecorvo’s follow up to his seminal The Battle of Algiers, from ’66.

Like that earlier film, Burn! is viscerally anti-imperialist. But where the Battle of Algiers had been neo-realist in style, with non-professional actors in what at times could be mistaken for a documentary, Burn! is in glorious technicolour, and has an epic sweep that’s framed by an Ennio Morricone score. And it stars Marlon Brando.

Significantly, it’s Brando’s favourite film of his and one that, shock horror, he seems to have been actually proud of. And this despite the massive falling out that he and the director had during its making. 

Brando had stormed off in protest at the treatment of the Columbian natives who had been playing the extras. And when the film bombed subsequently at the box office, its producer, Alberto Grimaldi, took Brando to court. 

A year later, the producer’s cousin, one Bernardo Bertolucci, suggested a solution. Why don’t they offer to drop the case if Brando would agree to star in Bertolucci’s next film for the bargain basement fee of $250,000? They’d even throw in ten percentage points of the gross, to sweeten the deal? After all, 10% of nothing won’t cost them anything, and in those days foreign language films were completely irrelevant, box office wise. 

Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Last Tango in Paris went on to become the 7th highest grossing film in north America in 1973 and Brando became so wealthy, he was able to sink into what was effectively early retirement in the 1980s. 

In Burn!, Brando plays an unscrupulous imperial adventurer, who arrives on a Caribbean island with a plot to oust the Portuguese and replace them with the British crown. So he manipulates one of the natives to lead a rebellion, only to betray him to the all-powerful sugar beet company which controls the region’s economy. 

Just as he would in the Godfather and Last Tango subsequently, Brando delivers a gloriously ambiguous performance. He’s so casually calculated and his nefariousness is cloaked so charmingly that it’s very hard to know whether to cheer for him or for his Marxist adversary, who we are clearly supposed to be rooting for. 

Like the Battle of Algiers before it, Burn! is mercilessly anti-imperialist and unashamedly champions the black cause and the native culture that will soon be justly liberated. Thrillingly, it’s one of the most openly anti-white and pro-black films you’re ever likely to see.

And it’s a measure of Brando’s intellectual rigour that it is his performance as so repellent a character, albeit a complex one, that remained the performance he was most proud of. And, of course, of his gargantuan self-esteem issues. 

You can see the trailer to Burn! here

And the trailer to the Battle of Algiers here.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very Best and Worst in film, television and music!

2 new films, from Denmark and Harlem, and a short from Belfast

Movie poster for Another Round.
Another Round.

Another Round is the latest film from Danish film maker Thomas Vinterberg. Vinterberg was, together with the more combustible Lars von Trier, one of the co-founders of the Dogma 95 collective, a ‘movement’ that managed to be at once fecund and puerile in equal measure. His 1998 film, Festen was by far and away its most successful production.

Another Round is a relatively high concept film and challenges you, knowingly, with what seems to be a perfectly reasonable, indeed a logical idea. Four male, provincial teachers facing up to their fast-approaching mid-life crises decide to conduct an experiment. They’ll spend every day moderately inebriated to see what effect it has on them. 

After all, drinking is only bad for you in excess. And everyone knows how much more confident, loquacious and amusing we all become after those first few swift ones. All one need do, surely, is drink forever in careful moderation.

The film engages winningly for the first hour or so, not least because of Mads Mikkelsen’s powerful central performance. But inevitably, the film runs out of steam in its final third when Vittenberg opts for both a moral and an anti-moral ending, that is to say an ending that is both Hollywood and anti-Hollywood. Which, necessarily, ends up being neither.

It’s a film you’ll not be sorry to have taken the time to watch. But neither is it one you’re likely to sit down and view again in, say, 5 or 10 year’s time.

Summer of Soul

Summer of Soul, on the other hand, is a film you’ll joyfully revisit every single time you’re offered the opportunity. Over the course of half a dozen weekends in the summer of 1969 a park in Harlem hosted what amounted to a black Woodstock. 

30-40,000 almost exclusively black New Yorkers were treated to a dizzying spectacle of outlandish sartorial exuberance and effortless musical sophistication by the likes of a teenage Stevie Wonder, the 5th Dimension, The Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and the personification of peerless cool, Sly with his Family Stone.

It would have been nice to have been surprised to learn that this footage had lain around ignored for the last 50 years. But that of course is very much part of the story that the film tells. Now re-discovered thanks to the diligence of The Roots’ Questlove, he and his editing team have produced what is quite simply one of the great music docs. Never have two hours flown by so quickly nor quite so pleasurably. 

Nina and Sly in Harlem.

Short films are so reliably disappointing that I only very reluctantly sat down to watch Rough because of the word of mouth that preceded it. How refreshing occasionally to be proven wrong. 

Immaculately scripted, impeccably performed, it’s everything that a short should be, and delivers an ending that is both deft and quietly moving. Written and directed by Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn you can (for the moment at least) see it on the RTE Player.

You can see the trailer for Summer of Soul here:

And the trailer for Another Round here:

Sign up for a subscription right or below and I shall keep you posted every month on All the Very Best and Worst in film, television and music!

A new film from M Night Shyamalan, the horror, the horror

Old, 2021.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the cinema, Be afraid, be very afraid… Are these the 7 most terrifying words in modern cinema; a new film from M Night Shyamalan?

Shyamalan burst on to the scene with his third feature, The Sixth Sense, which he wrote and directed in 1999 at the tender age of 29. I remember watching that film and thinking, what on earth is all the fuss about? But then it delivers its ending, and I thought, in fairness, that was genuinely surprising.

The Sixth Sense, 1999.

So I sat down to watch his next film, Unbreakable, from 2000, in a mood of quiet excitement. And, like the previous film, it ambles along in a perfectly inoffensive manner for four fifths of its duration, before delivering what was similarly intended to be a killer blow. But blow alas is the appropriate term. Instead of explain all that had gone on before, all the ending did was to undermine and cheapen it.

Next up was Signs, a sub-Spielbergian tale of awe and wonder which was so conventional, conservative, ham-fisted and ill-conceived it was hard to know what to think. Worse, that cute cameo he’s always rewarded himself with was here allowed to morph into a fully-fledged speaking part. And not a small one at that. What on earth were we to make of him? 

The Village, 2004.

But that was swiftly cleared up by the two films that came next. The Village, from 2004, is not so much an homage to The Crucible as it is a violent assault on it. On to its basic backdrop Shyamalan inserts a series of pedestrian twists that are as drearily predictable as they are improbable. And for the first time, we get a clear picture as to quite how poor a screenwriter he is. 

But it’s with his next film, Lady in the Water, from 2006, that any ambiguity as to the man’s gifts was cleared up once and for all. This was so badly written that it went on an almost unique journey from mesmerically bad, to so-bad-it’s-good, and on beyond to so irredeemably bad that it became literally unwatchable. 

I lasted for the first 25 minutes or so, until it was revealed that the person who was, wait for it, going to save humanity, was in fact…  a writer! And that that writer was played by none other than… Our very own writer director himself. Once I’d recovered from a protracted fit of giggling, I’m afraid I got up and left. 

Lady in the Water, 2006.

But there is one invaluable service that that film serves. For any writer out there convinced that what they’re working on is beneath worthless, all they need do is watch Lady in the Water, and they’ll immediately feel better about themselves. It’s the perfect tonic.

So I’ve not seen his latest magnum opus, Old. But I can’t wait. By all accounts, it’s another gem from the pen of every writer’s very best friend. I’m saving it up for a special occasion. 

In the meantime, here’s the trailer for Old.

And here’s the trailer for Lady in the Water.

Sign up for a subscription right or below and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

Promising Young Woman, disjointed muddled film

Cinemas have been eerily abandoned for over a year now, and drifting past them through deserted city centres felt at times like finding yourself in a scene from The Omega Man. So it’s perfectly understandable that we should all latch on to some of the new releases when they do surface and greet them much as a man in a desert might welcome of bottle of bog standard bottled water. None the less, the hoopla that Promising Young Woman generated was somewhat baffling.

Basically, it harks back to those late 80s, early 90s zeitgeist movies that Hollywood periodically gravitates towards. The title of course references Single White Female, but what it feels like more than anything else is a riposte to Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction. Essentially, it’s a revenge film for the Me Too era. And its problems are twofold.

First, is it a revenge thriller? There’s a visual joke early on around a hot dog which is genuinely funny and plays on the question of what exactly it was that our heroine did to her previous night’s ‘victim’. But that ambiguity is never resolved. 

Is this a good old-fashioned slasher movie, and are we looking at a female answer to Charles Bronson in Death Wish? Or is our heroine a complex, moral character carefully carrying out a precisely calibrated plan?

Some have welcomed this ambiguity as further evidence of the film’s charms. But all it means is that we’re never sure of what kind of person she is, that is to say what type of character she represents, and therefore what kind of film it is that we’re watching. This confusion is exacerbated by the second of its problems. Its structure.

Todd Solondz’ Happiness.

Effectively, it’s three films in one. It begins as what seems to be some sort of a revenge thriller come slasher movie. Then it morphs into an impeccably crafted, very left of field indie, personal drama. The scenes inside the house with her parents are wonderfully claustrophobic and feel like something out of a Todd Solondz film. 

But suddenly, about half way through, it lurches into rom com territory, as the Carey Mulligan character hooks up with an ex class mate, played by Bo Burnham. But about 20 minutes into this, it reverts back to revenge thriller mode.

The problem is, Bo Burnham’s performance is so impressively naturalistic and so winningly believable in the rom com section that the rest of the film’s parts are thrown completely out of kilter. Mulligan of course, it almost goes without saying, is wonderful throughout. She adopts a studied neutrality which manages to meld perfectly with each of the film’s three modes. 

But the sections with her parents, who are quietly mannered and off, grate horribly with the revenge movie sections, in which the villains, and for villains read males, are painted with such broad brushstrokes and are all so one dimensional they’re little more than cartoon caricatures. Which would have been fine if the whole film had been like that. But it’s not. 

Mulligan and Burnham are foot perfect but they’ve wandered into a whole new film.

When, for instance, you meet those sorts of moustache-twiddling villains in the likes of Killing Eve, you either sit back and accept them or you turn over to something else. That they should surface here makes compete sense as this is the feature debut of Emerald Fennell, who was one of Killing Eve’s principle writers and its show runner for season 2. 

The problem with Promising Young Woman is that Fennell was unable to decide on exactly what kind of film she wanted it to be. So unfortunately, it just ended up as a mess. A very well made mess, with a pair of stand-out performances. But a mess none the less.

You can see the trailer for Promising Young Woman here.

Sign up for a subscription right, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

Pulp Fiction, opiate for the masses

Pulp Fiction.

Pulp Fiction is the perfect pick-me-up movie. It’s ideal for dipping in and out of during a pandemic as an alternative to chocolate and alcohol. What it isn’t though is a film, never mind one of any discernible depth.

It’s inhabited by movie types played by actors famous for the movie types they’ve previously played. And it’s written and directed by someone steeped in popular culture, and specifically in Hollywood culture. 

So it’s a glorious playground for any number of layered and endlessly self-referential games, as characters and actors alike, and of course the writer director, play and act against type. The way Tarantino achieves this is by dispensing with story. 

With no protagonist, and hence no one to root for, there’s no goal, no heart’s desire for us to desperately hope that our hero will one day attain. With no story to worry about, Tarantino is free to appear to play with the conventions of storytelling. It’s extremely clever, consistently funny and endlessly knowing. What it isn’t though is ironic.

Dramatic irony arises when we know more about what the character is doing than he does. And it results in a reversal that profoundly affects the fate of the character, and acts as a judgement on the decisions he took to produce that reversal. But it only arises when you care about what happens to the character. And that only happens when your characters are part of a story that we the viewer can become involved in. 

‘The Bonnie Situation’, the one dud, is a thank you to Harvey Keitel, and an excuse to allow the director some unwarranted screen time.

If there’s no story, you’re never going to care about what happens to any of the characters. When, for instance Travolta’s character gets killed, it’s amusing rather than tragic. And that, crucially, is not a spoiler. Because knowing it won’t in any way spoil your enjoyment of the movie.

Yes it’s also shocking. But not emotionally shocking, intellectually so. You’re shocked, in an impressed way, that Tarantino should have broken the rules of drama so cleverly. But he hasn’t broken any of those rules because it’s not an actual drama. It’s a collection of seven, free standing sections, that are made up of various distinct and independent scenes that you can dip in and out of, depending on your mood. 

John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson.

And it’s precisely that absence of emotional depth that makes it so instantaneously enjoyable. As Adorno complained of horoscopes, it asks nothing of you. And provides you thereby with an immediate, uncomplicated hit.

It’s like listening to a greatest hits album. You know that the pleasure that that affords is a guilty one. That instead of investing the necessary care and consideration that an album proper requires, you’re cherry-picking the songs that were the most accessible, that is to say the hits. And deep down, you know who greatest hits albums are aimed at; teenagers.

As a grown-up, you know that all clichés are true and that you only get out of life what you put into it. And that that is as true of art as it is of everything else. The greater the work, the more work it requires of you. 

But, for whatever reason, right now you just don’t have the energy. What you need this second is release. An uncomplicated, undemanding, instantaneous hit. So you turn to cinema’s perennial teenager; Tarantino.

So many memorable scenes, so little story.

Paradoxically, and indeed ironically, what Pulp Fiction anticipates and opens the door to is the very thing it’s celebrated as having been the last stand against. It presents a flat, comic book universe peopled by types, that move in and out of interchangeable and free-standing scenes that make absolutely no emotional demands on the viewer whatsoever.

Pulp Fiction wasn’t that last of an era when grown-ups were catered for at the cinema. It was the beginning of that era’s end. It’s a teenager’s film, and a very male one at that, for anyone who finds themselves momentarily in a teenage frame of mind. 

You can see the trailer for Pulp Fiction here.

Sign up for a subscription right or below and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!