Mad City (1997)

2014 #94
Costa-Gavras | 110 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 12* / PG-13

Mad CityDisgraced national TV journo Dustin Hoffman is slumming it on a local network, covering dull stories like something-or-other going on at the local museum… until a recently-fired security guard from said museum (John Travolta) turns up with a shotgun, accidentally shoots the other security guard, and takes a party of schoolchildren hostage. Suddenly Hoffman finds himself with the inside scoop — literally — as the eyes of the national news turn on the unfolding situation.

So Mad City proceeds with, essentially, a dual-pronged narrative: the hostage situation itself, and the tactics employed by the media when covering it. Unfortunately, it seems unsure of its own point or purpose thanks to a mismatched tone, with the fairly-straight hostage drama rubbing up against some very broad media satire. I think the latter is really what it wants to be, though if the filmmakers felt they were making a serious point about the behaviour of the media then some of the film’s wilder elements have other ideas. Plus, I don’t know how original “the media are part of the problem” was as a viewpoint in 1997, but, getting on for 20 years later, it’s become a played-out truism.

Despite such faults, the film is an absorbing enough whole. This is mainly thanks to a solid leading-man turn from Hoffman and, even more so, a surprisingly nuanced performance from Travolta. Sam's the manHe plays against type as Sam, the nervous, naïve, childlike, and easily-manipulated hostage taker. It’s Travolta’s performance that makes Sam someone you care about, even if you don’t exactly root for him, so that the outcome — which, unusually for this kind of film, remains completely uncertain right until it’s happened — is something you’re fully invested in. There are many better-regarded films than this that don’t achieve that.

There are other films that satirise the media more humorously, and other films that expose their true nature more effectively, and still other films that feature more thrilling hostage situations. Mad City has a solid stab at its constituent elements, even if it winds up more average than remarkable. At least the worth-seeing performance from Travolta adds value.

3 out of 5

* In 1997, the BBFC classified Mad City as 15 for cinema release. In 1998, it was again classified a 15 for video… but one week later, and one second shorter, it was a 12. Six months on from that, the ‘longer’ version was also classified 12… and two months on again, the ‘shorter’ version got a 12, again. It’s from the ’90s so explanations for this kerfuffle are in short supply, but it seems to hinge on one use of strong language. ^

Agatha (1979)

2008 #62
Michael Apted | 100 mins | TV | PG / PG

AgathaThere are no giant wasps in sight as Vanessa Redgrave’s Agatha Christie goes missing for eleven days in December 1926, and Dustin Hoffman’s journalist tries to track her down. While the frame of the story is true, the reasons behind Christie’s disappearance, and what occurred during it, aren’t known — which makes it fertile ground for speculation. Sadly, a fantastical plot about jewel thieves and shapeshifting aliens is much more exciting than the down-to-earth mystery we’re offered here.

It’s easy to see the attraction of Christie’s disappearance: it’s a real-life mystery about arguably the greatest mystery author ever, with enough unusual events surrounding it to make it extra suspicious and a long enough gap for something significant to have happened. But while the idea is initially exciting, when it comes to retelling it there isn’t a great deal there — the facts of her disappearance are just the ‘before & after’, amounting to little more than an abandoned car, an assumed name and some amnesia. Unless one invents something to fill those missing days, there’s little to tell (she went to a hotel and forgot what happened, essentially) — so, of course, this film fills in the gap. With a murder mystery, naturally. Sort of, anyway.

To be honest, I found it a tad confusing for the most part. While the initial setup is well handled, showing what drives Christie to run away (consciously or not) and the beginning of the police search, it begins to flounder once the plot slides into its fully fictional phase. Hoffman’s journalist, who had been hoping to interview Christie, manages to stumble across her at the hotel, where he pretends not to know who she is, while she… has health treatments… It’s only at the conclusion, when Christie’s plan begins to come together, that one realises there was a plan at all. It’s a shame the revelation comes so late because it’s actually not that bad a plot, and makes for quite a neat and almost plausible (providing you can accept Christie as a potential murderess (sort of)) explanation for everything.

The performances do nothing to raise the film. Redgrave is lumbered with little to do, mostly wandering around looking dazed. Her performance is decent but the material she has is lacking. Hoffman, on the other hand, is just flat, while Timothy Dalton’s sneering Colonel Christie sadly barely features. On a more technical level, the police investigation subplot is disappointingly forgotten halfway through, and everything is shot with too little light. Sometimes the latter is effective, such as during a train journey where occasional flashes of light illuminate Christie’s uncomfortably blank face, but at other times it merely obscures events. (It’s possible this is just the print, of course.)

Christie’s disappearance remains a fascinating mystery, though in all likelihood the true causes were either very internal or mental health related — not the easiest thing to depict in a movie, especially when your audience is likely expecting a thriller. Agatha has a game stab at weaving an interesting tale into the gaps in the facts, but by the end I was wondering if a straightforward biopic mightn’t have been a better idea.

3 out of 5

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)

2007 #88
Tom Tykwer | 141 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Perfume: The Story of a MurdererRecent adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s popular novel, often considered unfilmable because of its focus on the sense of smell. Tykwer covers for that with strong cinematography, with sumptuously rich visuals and a judicious use of close-ups to evoke beauty or disgust as appropriate (the early birth scene in a fish market is particularly rancid — do not watch this right after eating!)

Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman give typically brilliant supporting performances, and Ben Whishaw is fairly notable in the virtually mute lead role. John Hurt’s narration is also excellent; he may well have the best narrative voice known to film. The ending is pretty bizarre, yet possibly very appropriate; certainly, it raises the whole story up to the level of legend.

4 out of 5

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is on BBC Two tonight, 2nd May 2015, at 11:50pm.

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

2007 #81
Marc Forster | 108 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Stranger Than FictionAnother of Empire’s best films of last year (this one was 21st).

Forster is developing an eclectic filmography, with Oscar-nominated dramas Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland alongside psychological thriller Stay and the 22nd Bond film. Stranger Than Fiction is different again, melding several styles into a cohesive whole — mystery, rom-com, existentialism, a bit of fantasy, and those IKEA graphics from Fight Club. Some plot beats may be clichéd, but that’s almost the point; besides, there’s plenty of originality to make up for it. A few plot turns in the final act also make sure you’re never certain how it will end.

4 out of 5

Stranger Than Fiction placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2007, which can be read in full here.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

2007 #60
Robert Benton | 100 mins | TV | PG

Kramer vs. KramerThe acting is what shines in this multiple-Oscar-winning custody drama. Troubled wife Meryl Streep leaves husband Dustin Hoffman within the first five or so minutes (today she probably wouldn’t leave ’til the end of the first act) and suddenly busy, work-driven daddy has to look after their young son all on his lonesome.

I personally didn’t find the later courtroom scenes quite as edge-of-your-seat intense as some have, but you can’t fault the abilities of the actors. Perhaps particularly noteworthy is the kid, played by Justin Henry, though clearly it wasn’t good enough to launch a decent career for him.

5 out of 5