Tuesday, 21 March 2023

Dillinger

Dillinger

Writer & Director – John Milius

1973, USA

Stars – Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Michelle Phillip, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Dreyfuss

 

Tipping its hat gratefully to ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ as it speeds past, John Milius’ ‘Dillinger’ reels headlong into a particular ‘70s style of brutality. From the moment Warren Oates opens with his monologue to those he’s robbing that they treat this moment as something they should treat as a golden moment in their lives to go on  to tell, there’s the charm that makes him an anti-hero. This spell is quickly broken when he essentially rapes his soon-to-be-beloved – or maybe they just like it rough with that particularly ‘70s misogyny? Apparently, Milius was the kind of director that took guns on set, but he’s fully aware of the aforementioned conflict: he’s as much enamoured with as appalled by Dillinger: “You’re going to like him, in fact, you’re going to like him a lot, you’re going to wish he doesn’t get filled full of holes – but he still deserves it.”*

 

Playing fast and loose with the facts of “Public Enemy No. 1”, (for example, apparently Dillinger didn’t pull his gun outside the cinema; see IMDB trivia for starters, etc) and despite it’s more measured tones, the exploitation angle is in no doubt. This is not for historians. Come for the cheap thrills, indulgence in and a little deconstruction of the myth. Dillinger’s crew features Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson, the kind of monikers that would go down in history and influence the nicknaming of criminals to come. The familiar faces in the cast – like Dean Stanton, Dreyfuss and John P. Ryan – help to root narrative, which is always jumping around, a cut-and-paste of vignettes of the gangsters’ career. There’s a lot of potential charisma in the legend but we only see them in sparse midwestern stark rooms and landscapes, and there’s not much glamour here. This may be down to budget, but it’s nevertheless effective. 

 

 

Dillinger’s crew take on a kind of folk hero status, speeding around in death-trap cars robbing banks during the Great Depression Midwest; Sticking It To The Man. It runs on petrol, limitless bullets and machismo, with a decidedly ‘70s vibe. The FBI agent in pursuit is Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson), the other protagonist who chomps cigars and has one of his men fit gloves on him before he goes in, guns blazing, in a decidedly feminine dressing-for-show, lady-in-waiting manner. And folk heroes they may become, but Milius doesn’t soft-soap the clumsiness and crudity of the violence, as brutally gun-totingly exciting as it may be, so we are in no doubt these are bad men. "Decent folk don't live that good."

 

It’s these ambiguous touches, an underlying atmosphere of poverty and a seeming paucity of imagination from the characters spotlighted that means that, however much it enjoys the thrill of violence-action, the film is as much interested in social context. Just throwing up a facsimile makes the point. And however much we might be entertained by Dillinger’s bravado in escaping jail with a fake gun, we are always reminded of his egotism and narcissism. It all reaches a peak with the excellent farmhouse shoot-out set-piece, and it does seem that ‘Dillinger’ is a somewhat under-acknowledged exploitation gem, drenched in Depression-era ambience and a still surprisingly brutal edge.

 


 

Sunday, 12 March 2023

Soul


Soul

Directors - Pete Doctor & Kemp Powers

Story – Pete Doctor, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers

2022, USA

Stars – Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton

 

Life is worth living and all that jazz.

 

Of course, you might have to die first to reflect on your lost chances, et cetera. This is Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a loser jazz musician who dies in an accident just as he gets his big chance. Or maybe you are a potential soul called 22 (Tina Fey) and are scared to live, and you hide this behind a smartass attitude and an annoying white middle-aged woman’s voice? As Joe is our way in, and this is about a life lived in lost chances, disapproval and regret, there’s quite a mature feel going in. Pixar demonstrates a deceptively gentle mastery of the family-friendly animation as there’s a lightness of touch accessible to all. The animation is excellent – look at that hair and fur! – and there are a lot of fun little gags in the background and in passing (the impressionable pre-life souls for example). It’s rich, amusing, addressing big themes, etc.

 

Then 22 body-swaps with Joe and he’s in the cat. Probably not enough cat-specific gags, but that’s not what causes a dip in investment. The issue is this: it was originally meant to be 22’s story but it became Joe’s and then got shared. But when 22 goes on a kind of teaching Joe how to live when in his body, it seems a betrayal of Joe’s agency and seems unwarranted. He doesn’t feel like the incompetent loser his mother says; he’s just following his muse and that’s a rewarding life in itself. Are we really to think that Joe wouldn’t convince his pupil to continue playing her instrument, that only 22’s possession and childishness achieved this? And what about how the people in the barber are all enraptured at 22-as-Joe’s childish profundities? There is the sense that Joe is being dumped on needlessly and incorrectly.

 

Something just doesn’t fit quite right – the result of the original 22-dominated script and trying to make that still work even though Joe stepped forward. And that’s before we get to the issue that, however androgynous the soul fleetingly claims to be, 22 has a sassy white middle-aged woman’s voice that defines the entity, and that’s what we sense when “she” appropriates Joe’s black character and life and teaches him life-lessons. It’s always Tina Fey’s voice and it never varies, although it could and probably should. Hey, her naivetĂ© even wins over his mother. All the fine work establishing Joe’s relatable life-challenges and building him into someone to like, a maturity and flaws to root for, and it all plays second-fiddle to one of those animated sassy-troll conceits that dominate contemporary franchises. As I watched, I had the sneaky suspicion that Joe’s character was being betrayed and it was Robert Daniels’ writing that shone a light for me on why that might be. 

But, the jazzy feel is so accomplished that not even the otherworldliness overturns it: it’s likely the street scenes and the barbers that will stay with you. There’s an underlay of melancholy that sympathises with adult viewers’ life disappointments while at the same time offering its young audience the advice to seize your chances and yet appreciate what you have. It may stumble, but in its approach to this from both ends of life-experience shows the narrative ambition Pixar is often heralded for. ‘Soul’ is beautifully made, its exploration of The Meaning Of Life is standard, and one can only applaud its emphasis on art enriching a life and soul

 

Jazz and all that life, etc.