A Hologram For The King (2016)

holgm22016.79: A Hologram For The King (Amazon VOD)

A Hologram For The King is a midlife crisis story, and your mileage for it might depend on your affinity for Tom Hanks and feel-good endings. I really enjoyed it, which rather surprised the old cynic in me. Part of it is likely down to the casting of Tom Hanks- his onscreen persona, defined over so many years now, leads you to have an instant liking for any character he plays in a film (I still say he’d make the most shocking and great Bond villain someday). You are almost predisposed to root for his character in this film from the very start.

The start, too, features the films highlight- a sequence in which Tom Hanks’ character, American salesman Alan Clay, appears in a mock-pop video singing Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime, the visuals and lyrics succinctly summarising his characters midlife crisis. Its unfortunate the film never surpasses that arresting first sequence.

A middle-aged failing businessman, recently divorced and unable to pay for his daughters college fees, Clay is in the figurative Last Chance Saloon on a business trip to Saudi Arabia to sell his bosses IT project (involving the holograms of the title) to the king. Naturally the film is about the crises he faces (amongst other things, he has a nasty lump in his back which may prove cancerous) and the strange characters and situations he encounters in this foreign land, while reminiscing about his own life and failures. “Do you ever feel you might have done it differently?” he asks himself and others. His doubts are reinforced by his own fathers rather scathing opinion of him ( a great, if rather brutally short, cameo from Tom Skerritt), and there is a sense that the failing here is not just of Clay but of the American Dream itself, with the American Empire suffering from Globalisation and the transfer of Economic power and wealth to Asia and the East. There is a sense of a Changing Of The Guard, of a transient world, and Clay is a little figure caught in it, as are we all.

So its very much a film of its time. Its interesting though to compare it to The Swimmer, in which Burt Lancaster’s Ned Merrill has suffered his own midlife meltdown following a divorce and subsequent career failure. The Swimmer is a much darker and fulfilling affair, lacking any real redemption for its protagonist. A Hologram For The King in comparison feels much more lightweight and rather suffers for having a happy ending almost out of left-field, in the form of a romance with his doctor and a fresh career opportunity in Saudi. A Hologram For The King gets away with it because, well, we all root for Tom, he’s a nice guy after all, and the film is, well, always lightweight and fairly comic.But its a vindication for Clay that feels a little too Hollywood, knowing how grimly some people suffer  on the wrong end of the American Dream. A Hologram For The King feels fluffy, whereas The Swimmer feels ‘real’, with something genuine to say about the 1960s America it was made in. I’m not sure, ultimately, what A Hologram For The King is really  saying or how that will resonate over the decades, but it is pleasant enough and is carried by Hank’s genuine charm.

The Swimmer (1968)

swimmerThe Swimmer is a pretty astonishing, strange and  disturbing film. I first saw it many years ago on a late-night tv screening on a Friday or Saturday night, and it has, frankly, haunted me ever since. Its an arthouse movie by way of The Twilight Zone, starring a major Hollywood icon. There is just something about it- its something of a dream, richly nostalgic, full of joy of life at first but eventually slipping into a suburban nightmare. Very much like the kind of short story the great Ray Bradbury would write. Its a disturbing film that lingers in your head for days.

Its a fairly obscure movie, its strangeness pretty much condemning it to Cult status even back when it was first released, and it’s 1960s setting possibly limiting modern audience attention (I asked at work if anyone had ever seen/heard of it and got the usual blank response). And yet it features arguably Burt Lancaster’s finest performance. How can a Hollywood icons finest performance be lost in such an obscure movie? Its one of numerous questions raised by this enigmatic movie.

Its a hard film to review because it’d be too easy to reveal the films twists and conceits, and I’m certainly not here to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of such a great little movie. It really needs to be experienced with a clean slate, the viewer not knowing what is coming.

So, where to start?

Burt Lancaster stars as Ned Merril, the Swimmer of the title. He’s a middle-aged man who at the very start emerges from woods wearing only swimming trunks, entering the poolside garden of some old friends of his. He plunges into the pool and swims across, luxuriating in the water and the sunshine of a glorious summers day, reminding him of innocent days of his youth. He is far from home, further than he really knows. He looks down on the wooded valley below, his old neighbourhood, all those homes of old friends,  and reasons he can trek back home across the countryside from home to home, each of the homes having a pool that he can swim across and old friends to visit. An odyssey, an adventure like those of his youth! Swimming back to his own home and his loving wife and daughters that are waiting for him.

But already something is a little off- his friends haven’t seen him for a year or more, a spell of time that Ned seems ignorant or ambivalent about; they seem to exchange quizzical glances at some of Ned’s remarks. They ask where he has come from, what he has been doing; Ned doesn’t have a towel or shoes, just the trunks he is wearing. Where has he come from? Why is he so far from home? There is a mystery here. For the rest of the film the story takes an episodic form as Ned crosses the countryside swimming across each pool he finds, and revisiting old friends along the way; some are friendly, some far from it, and clues to the truth that Ned is ignorant of are slowly revealed. All the while the film proceeds with a dreamlike feel. Some of it is extraordinary- a sequence where Ned races a horse is a breathtaking combination of joyous acting, soaring music, beautiful photography and remarkable editing. Its the very cinematic definition of the exhilaration of being alive, an astonishing sequence of timeless cinema.

Grindhouse Releasing’s Blu-ray (a US release that is thankfully region free)  is very impressive. The film itself is lovingly restored from a 4K scan, with vibrant colours and rich detail. The lack of commentary tracks is negated by a series of documentaries chronicling the making of the film totalling over two and a half hours, the original short story read by its author, stills galleries, trailers and informative booklet. Its a tremendous package for such a cult 60s movie; indeed if this isn’t one of the releases of the year come December I’ll be amazed. I haven’t been this surprised/pleased by a package since Arrow’s superlative Lifeforce from last year.