Don’t even think of touching ‘Untouchable’

Recommendation: don’t touch this film with a barge pole.

Warning: This review includes spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film, and for some inexplicable reason want to, DON’T read what follows.

In times of capitalist financial crisis there’s always a surplus of so-called ‘feel good movies’ and this one falls into that category. Hollywood produced these by the shedful during the post-Great Crash in the 1930s. Then the poor dreamt of becoming stars of the stage or screen and we have as a legacy films such as 42nd Street (1933) or the Gold Diggers series, (1933, 1935). Although the stories in these films were silly and slight they did provide some memorable songs, dance routines and the masterful, long tracking sequence in 42nd Street which has rarely been surpassed and is a master-class in film making.

If dreams on the stage weren’t enough some even became gangsters, thieves and killers, as was depicted in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film of the eponymous heroes Bonnie and Clyde.

On the screen some found fame and fortune, some found fulfilment, some found death, others didn’t. In reality most people paying to see their dreams played out were only taken out of poverty by the outbreak of World War II – a bit like out of the frying pan and into the fire.

In the post-Second World War crises we are treated to patronising, condescending and shallow depictions of people overcoming adversity due to some inspiring individual who was able to impart the impression that all problems could be overcome by the application of hard work and the Protestant ethic.

The favoured vehicle for this (in Hollywood) was a high school in a poor and deprived inner city district where a charismatic teacher would come from outside and transform the situation in the same way that Christ turned water into wine. The school room allowed for the racial tension, that can exist in such a hostile environment, to be resolved in an amicable manner due to the catalyst of the outsider. They might stop fighting each other but they never decided to get together and fight against the system that had caused the problems in the first place. That would be a step too far.

There have been a few films every decade since the 50s, one of the last Hollywood examples being Dangerous Minds (1995), starring Michelle Pfeiffer as an ex-Marine (isn’t that ridiculous?). There was also an earlier, local grown version of To Sir, with Love (1969), which also played the racial card.

In the 21st century we have moved out of the classroom but the vital characteristics of the poor being ‘educated’, ‘given a second chance’, ‘being allowed to develop their true capabilities’ are still with us. However, in Untouchable (2012) escape comes thanks to the condescending, patronising and philanthropic millionaire.

Now, I can accept that quadriplegics can get angry, I would if I were in that situation. But at least he has the safety net of his money and seems to spend most of his time interviewing candidates for a carer to replace the one that had only lasted a matter of days.

Come the wise-cracking Eddie Murphy/Richard Prior lookalike/soundalike from the banlieue. He only attends the interview process (how did he get past the initial selection procedure?) to get a signature for the dole so that he can prove he’s looking for work. In the process he steals a Fabergé egg (why items of such sentimental value – we learn later – apart from financial value are left out in a semi-public place was beyond me). To illustrate how stupid the working class are this is later referred to as a ‘Kinder’ egg, the ubiquitous chocolate and toy combination that has come to dominate the continent.

Despite his lack of interest in the job, lack of any experience and lack of any social skills out of his own peer group he is given the job as carer because ‘he doesn’t have any pity’ for the millionaire.

This lack of pity is admirably demonstrated when he ‘discovers’, for the first time it seems, that a quadriplegic has no sensation of pain in his legs. The ‘carer’ accidentally touches the bare leg of his client with a hot tea-pot and is surprised there is no reaction. So surprised indeed that he then proceeds to pour the boiling liquid over the legs of the patient. I don’t know what was worse in this scene, the fact that he did it, the fact that the millionaire was totally oblivious to what was happening or the reaction of one of the other employees when she saw what was happening. Here, I assume, we are supposed to realise that the poor are so ignorant that they have no concept of paralysis.

We are given a depiction of his poverty by the sharing of the bathroom and the lack of privacy in the flat in the high-rise block in the Berlioz banlieue (it actually exists to the north of Paris). So in the mansion he has to be provided with a bathroom the size of the whole of his family’s flat. What does he do there but perform to stereotype, put on headphones and sing loudly (and badly) to the music from the ‘hood’, ignoring the intercom that he is supposed to be monitoring.

Here I found myself asking a more general question about black comedy. In many depictions on the screen when black actors are funny their voices go into an extreme falsetto. This was the case with Eddie Murphy and in an even more extreme case with Richard Prior – whose falsetto was so infectious that Gene Wilder caught the disease and eventually made both of them annoying and impossible to watch. Even Lenny Henry does this. I was listening to an interview with him, on the radio, a week or so ago. He speaks normally but when he wants to say something funny up his voice goes a number of octaves. Why? I don’t understand.

But our tough, disenchanted and demoralised young man is not devoid of humanity. He eventually carries out acts of ‘kindness’ for the millionaire. The rich man obviously knew that there was humanity underneath the hard exterior. The carer watches, agonised, as his aunt works in a glass walled office as a night cleaner. He feels for her, but not enough to give her any of the money he’s been earning as a carer. (At the beginning the answer of one of the applicants for the job to the question why he wanted the post was the money, so we are to assume that the eventual successful carer was not on the minimum wage – but none of that gets back to the banlieue.)

The scene in the mountains is bounding on the surreal. Would a para-glider instructor really take on a novice who was screaming and reacting aggressively against taking part in the flight without the ability, and the permission, to pull a strap that would send the miscreant plummeting to the ground thousands of feet below? I don’t think so.

Towards the end he leaves the employ of the rich man to sort out the trouble his kin has with some nasty gangster types. Then we see our ‘hero’ talking to a thug in a big motor and, presumably, sorting out the matter. Are we supposed to believe that? At the beginning of the film he’s doing what he has to in order to get his dole and at the end he’s able to just talk to the hard men to get his wayward young relative off the hook. French gangsters must be pussy cats.

He returns for one act of kindness and gets the millionaire married off. He now owns a company – so say the words on the screen before the final credits. Everyone is happy! Not only has his humanity been revealed he now adopts the bourgeois lifestyle to escape from his poverty-stricken and deprived past.

This is the official French nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards next March. With all the publicity the producers had bought (surely not all the reviewers are that crass? – although I think I might know the answer to that question before even asking it) pre-release there is a strong likelihood of success. Having, not yet, been able to see all the possible films in that category it would be a tragedy if Untouchable was called up on any stage to receive any award.

Based on a true story? A feel good movie? Pass the sick bag.


Lawless – Pretty boy actors never get hurt

Recommendation: Only go and see it to get out of the rain

Why is it that pretty boy actors never seem to suffer from beatings, however protracted or vicious?

In this quite dire film the LeBoeuf character is almost beaten to a pulp. However in the next scene you would have thought he had gone through nothing more traumatic than a bad shaving experience.

With such a beating he would be spitting out teeth, have a broken jaw, would be puffed up for days and then his face would be black and blue for weeks. He wouldn’t be able to speak let alone pledge revenge; wouldn’t be able to stand up, let alone take a casual drink at the bar; and would have been a stretcher case after receiving such punishment to the head.

Yet he is out courting the preacher’s daughter within a day or two

Why is this?

This is not an isolated situation. It was almost the same in Gangs of New York (2002) when Leo DeCaprio gets slashed with a meat cleaver by the Butcher but again, after a few days convalescence under the ministrations of a pretty girl, all we see is a scratch. Perhaps having a pretty nurse can perform a miracle cure?

There seems to be a rule in Hollywood (or is it written into their contract) that pretty boys can’t even be seen to be marred on the screen, at least for no longer than is necessary. Is this because heroes can’t be permanently physically scarred as that indicates evil in Hollywood filmography. And pretty boys are not really evil, even when they take on the role of a baddie (as, for example, is the case in Brad Pitt’s latest outing in Killing them softly, (2012)).

To do this might turn away shallow little girls from the cinema or the studio might get complaints from fans disturbed that their pin-up boys are damaged goods.

But this is not a new phenomena.

Paul Newman, in Cool Hand Luke (1967), gets beaten until he can’t stand up by George Kennedy. He looks slightly bruised as he finally collapses to the floor, with no strength left to fight (though his will remains intact) but he recovers incredibly quickly considering they are in the barbaric environment of a southern US prison farm.

At least Newman was, generally, a good actor – although DeCaprio is getting better but LaBoeuf still has a long way to go.

It’s possible to go even further back when the likes of Alan Ladd or John Wayne would get beaten up by the ‘baddies’ and as they pick themselves up out of the dirt they only need a flick of the head to get their hair back into place. The only injury they display is no more than a drop of false blood from the side of the mouth, to be gently wiped away with the hankie of whichever ‘doxy with a heart of gold’ who has been contracted for the film.

However, this is not the case with pretty women. For example, Jessica Alba in The Killer Inside Me (2010). There was a lot of criticism surrounding this film that the violence was gratuitous and that turned a lot of people against the film with accusations of misogyny.

Violence plays a part in the cinema in the same way that it does in society. OK, cinema probably depicts a disproportionate amount. But technology now provides film makers with the ability to present images and sounds that are even more real than reality and has the effect of making it more horrific. This seems to be a positive rather than a negative result as meaningless violence can be made out to be so sickening that it has the effect of making it more unacceptable.

If cinema can have such an effect it seems a shame to spoil it just to fulfil the contracts of the boy star.

After all it’s only a film, nobody is really being purposefully hurt. Watch The Stuntman (1980). They get up, remove the prosthetic rubber and go out partying that night.

A night in the woods (2011) – Hand held camera

Recommendation: Go and see it

I didn’t know there was a bit of a fan club for ‘hand held camera’ films until I wanted to remind myself of the name of the first film I can remember seeing that was completely made using this technique (that was Cloverfield, about an alien invasion of New York).

One of the criticisms of that film was the ‘jumpy’ nature of the images. We are accustomed, in contemporary cinema, to the steady-cam which keeps everything on an even keel whatever the action and the seeming directionless and random images produced by the hand-held camera can be disconcerting. I didn’t agree with that as I believed it added to the chaotic situation in which the characters found themselves.

In A night in the woods the director and camera crew have taken this concept to a higher level. Here the camera is used in virtually every possible manner. There are images taken when someone is actually holding the camera and pointing it, openly, at the subject. The tension created by always being filmed can be seen as a metaphor for the CCTV society in which we live. Then there are images taken when the subject is unaware that they are on camera. This also introduces the invidious concept of CCTV as well as the idea of being spied upon.

There are images in natural day light capturing the wildness and stark beauty of Dartmoor. At other times the images are in colour at night but the light this time being provided by the camera’s own built-in lighting system. To create atmosphere, suspense and fear, at times the images are in the infra-red. In a horror film this is a wonderful device as we can see what is happening whilst the subject is unaware that they are being filmed. And the eerie green tint and vacant eyes resulting from that spectrum add to the unworldliness the director wishes to create.

Sometimes we get a static camera, either purposely left so all the players can be in the image or from one that has been dropped accidentally or as a result of an attack, or discarded on purpose, the operator ‘forgetting’ the camera is still recording. On one occasion a static camera is left as a ‘spy’ to record the fears of one of the protagonists, but when it is discovered by one of those being spied upon it is not switched off, it is allowed to continue doing its job of recording events, again in reference to the ubiquity of the filmed image in our society.

Obviously we also have the shaky, erratic, pointing everywhere images, in both colour and infra-red. This is a horror film and it wouldn’t be a horror film if the (normally) heroine wasn’t running, and screaming, for her life. But here the whole idea is twisted and sometimes we see what she would be seeing and at others, when the camera is in the hands of the one chasing and in the infra-red, we see her fear with the added dimension of the unnatural colour.

But hand-held cameras can go wrong. They don’t like being kicked and so at those times the images break down into the oblong pixels (I’m sure there’s a name for them but I haven’t a clue what it might be) and the sound gets distorted and broken. And all this is used to add to the chaos and terror of the story.

The device of the film is that the story of the three characters and their disappearance is being told through the edited images of the handful of cameras found at the scene (that’s not giving away anything as this is stated before we even see any of them) and the way the editing was done is not far short of brilliant.

I was impressed with this film and thought it a cracker and might well now consider myself a fan of hand-held films – especially if they are made this good. Or better. I’m sure this medium still has a long way to go.