Terry Jones 1st February 1942 – 21st January 2020

The death has taken place of one of the greatest screen comics and writers we have been blessed to enjoy. Terry Jones started writing with Michael Palin after they graduated from Cambridge and they made their names on British TV as joke writers for people like John Bird and David Frost before collaborating with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam to create the landmark series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, where Jones’ penchant for absurdity, satire and surrealism blended with his historical interests and a slight case of anarchy. Jones came into his own as a director of their frequently controversial films and directed other material as well as continuing a separate writing career as a mediaevalist, poet and children’s author. For most of us, though, he will be remembered as the immortal Mandy Cohen, mother of a very naughty boy. Goodnight Terry, you only went and revolutionised comedy while you were with us. It’s probably time for a rest.

Veronika Voss (1982)

Veronika Voss

Aka Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss. Light and shadow; the two secrets of motion pictures. Munich 1955. Ageing Third Reich film star Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) who is rumoured to have slept with Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda Josef Goebbels, becomes a drug addict at the mercy of corrupt Lesbian neurologist Marianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer), who keeps her supplied with morphine, draining her of her money. Veronika attends at the clinic where Katz cohabits with her lover and a black American GI (Günther Kaufmann) who is also a drug dealer. After meeting impressionable sports writer Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) in a nightclub, Veronika begins to dream of a return to the silver screen. As the couple’s relationship escalates in intensity and Krohn sees the possibility of a story, Veronika begins seriously planning her return to the cinema – only to realise how debilitated she has become through her drug habit as things don’t go according to plan … Artists are different from ordinary people. They are wrapped up in themselves, or simply forgetful. The prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s penultimate film and one of his greatest, its predictive theme would have horrible resonance as he died just a few months after its release. Conceived as the third part of his economic trilogy including The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola, this reworking of or homage to Sunset Blvd., whose ideas it broadly limns, has many of his usual tropes and characters and even features his sometime lover Kaufmann who could also be seen in Maria Braun; while Krohn tells his fellow journalist girlfriend Henriette (Cornelia Froboess) of his experience and potential scoop but Veronika’s hoped-for return is not what he anticipates with a Billy Wilder-like figure despairing of her problem. Its message about life in 1950s Germany is told through the style of movies themselves without offering the kind of escapist narratives Veronika seems to have acted in during her heyday.  She’ll be your downfall. There’s nothing you can do about it. She’ll destroy you, because she’s a pitiful creature. Fassbinder was hugely influenced not just by Douglas Sirk but Carl Dreyer and this story is also inspired by the tragic life of gifted actress Sybille Schmitz, who performed in Vampyr.  She died in 1955 in a suicide apparently facilitated by a corrupt Lesbian doctor.  The unusually characterful Zech is tremendous in the role. She would later play the lead in Percy Adlon’s Alaska-set Salmonberries as well as having a long career in TV. She died in 2011. It’s an extraordinary looking film with all the possibilities of cinematography deployed by Xaver Schwarzenberger to achieve a classical Hollywood effect for a story that has no redemption, no gain, no safety, no love.  Fassbinder himself appears briefly at the beginning of the film, seated behind Zech in a cinema. This is where movie dreams become a country’s nightmare. All that lustrous whiteness dazzles the eye and covers so much. Screenplay by Fassbinder with regular collaborators Peter Märtesheimer and Pea Fröhlich.  Let me tell you, it was a joy for me that someone should take care of me without knowing I’m Veronika Voss, and how famous I am. I felt like a human being again. A human being!

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen

Interiors (1978)

Interiors

I can’t seem to shake the real implication of dying. It’s terrifying. The intimacy of it embarrasses me. Interior designer Eve (Geraldine Page) and her husband, narcissistic corporate attorney Arthur (E.G. Marshall) split after decades of marriage and it comes as a shock to their three adult daughters when Eve attempts suicide:  tightly wound poet Renata (Diane Keaton), struggling Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) and actress Flyn (Kristin Griffith). Arthur’s new romance with vivacious artist Pearl (Maureen Stapleton) whom he wants to marry, introduces new tensions to the daughters’ own relationships – Joey’s with Mike (Sam Waterston), Renata’s with writer Frederick  (Richard Jordan) and there is a rift over Renata’s position as the family favourite. Arthur’s wedding at Eve’s old summer home brings everything to a head… She’s a vulgarian! Woody Allen’s first serious drama as writer/director is a mixed bag of influences, most obviously Chekhov, O’Neill and Bergman (and the scene slashed with the Cries and Whispers scarlet flourish is one of anguish). It’s a rumination on marriage, romantic behaviour, parenting and late-life desperation. There are moments of performance that are truly brilliant – the penultimate scene between Hurt and Page is astonishing. Stapleton is literally the story’s lifesaver. The end is shattering. You’ll live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to 

I Am Heath Ledger (2017)

I Am Heath Ledger wide

He felt life deeper than anyone I ever met. The first time I saw Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You I was stunned. A star was born, in his first film. He had started out without training in his native Australia, enjoyed what a friend terms ‘a sentimental education’ in his first serious relationship, with actress Lisa Zane when they co-starred in the TV series Roar, and bounded into an audition in Hollywood and got it first time out. He signed with an agent, Stephen Alexander, himself a newcomer to the industry and together they created his career. Acting is thinking about the world about you and the person you are. He was conscious of his lack of professional training and never went anywhere without a camera, shooting footage of himself prepping for roles and this documentary directed by Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray demonstrates the extent to which Ledger taught himself and built characters, paying attention to how he looked, moved, spoke, interacted, responded. The film is replete with that personal footage and boasts a narration excerpted from interviews Ledger did. He couldn’t turn down the opportunity to star opposite his icon Mel Gibson on The Patriot but suffered a crisis of confidence: Mel taught him to come in and out of character. His face was plastered over billboards to publicise A Knight’s Tale, a rollicking mediaeval lark that sent itself up anachronistically and he couldn’t handle the publicity machine’s requirements. He wanted fame but then when he got it, he didn’t want it. By the time Brokeback Mountain came around, he was ready. The film changed his life. Director Ang Lee wasn’t sure he could do the role but he said Ledger’s mouth was like a clenched fist, people had the impression that he barely spoke when in fact he had the most lines in the film – he just delivered them in a way that made you think he hadn’t said a word. He met Michelle Williams on set and they became parents to baby daughter Matilda, whom he adored. His appetite for life was astonishing:  he had energy like nobody else, sensing his time on earth was limited. His favourite place was Burning Man. He brought his friends from Perth there and to his home in California. He was an enthusiast particularly for Nick Drake with whom he felt a kinship, along with other musicians who died young, like Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain. He phoned and emailed at all hours of day and night; he turned up on people’s doorsteps for breakfast at five thirty and six AM;  he shot photos constantly and made music videos and surprised people with his ability to use cameras, to choreograph, to direct:  He had command of his vision. He was an artist first and foremost. He formed a company and intended directing features:  his first project was supposed to be The Queen’s Gambit –  he was so good at chess he was just a few points away from being a Grand Master. When he was offered the role of Joker in The Dark Knight he was fully confident. He had mastered the art of screen acting. He owned the part and he knew it. It would win him the Academy Award and many others, but they were posthumous. There are interviews with his friends, family, co-workers and those with musician Ben Harper and Naomi Watts are especially perceptive and emotional. Their hurt at his loss is palpable. His end was desperate:  he was working with Terry Gilliam on The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus with his sister alongside him in London as his assistant. He became seriously ill with pneumonia in terrible conditions – he was exhausted from the damp and cold, being held upside down from a bridge with water being poured on him didn’t help. He said his sleeping meds weren’t working and he couldn’t stop his mind racing, as dialogue coach Gerry Grennell recalls. He returned to an apartment in New York and the guy who spent his life communicating with people night and day suddenly wasn’t answering the phone. He was found dead 22nd January 2008.  He was just twenty-eight years old. This is a tender and thoughtful account of a brilliant and uniquely gifted young man and his death was a tragic loss to cinema. What he achieved as a major screen actor in a decade is unforgettable. Life is so short and it seems like a blink of an eye since I sent a text message to people during The Dark Knight, YOU HAVE TO SEE HEATH LEDGER!!! Written by Hart Snider. He always said, I have a lot to do. I don’t feel I have a lot of time

Heath Ledger with camera

I Am Paul Walker (2018)

I Am Paul Walker.jpg

He was always known as The Vagrant. The horrific death of actor Paul Walker in a car crash in November 2013 shocked the world. How could this action movie star renowned for his own very careful piloting of vehicles have occurred? A friend was driving the Porsche Carrera and both were burned alive in a car park after crashing into a tree. A really good driver. Conscientious at all times. He was in the middle of filming Fast and Furious 7 at the time. This painful documentary departs from that story until the final sequence and is concerned with interviewing many people in Walker’s life, starting with his tightknit working class Mormon family, drawing on his background in Tujunga, California, and the fierce loyalty to his many friends whom he employed to keep himself sane in the wake of success. A picture emerges of a surfer dude whose mom had taken him to auditions as a young child and who impressed people like Michael Landon with his abilities. He didn’t want to continue acting as an adult and indulged his pleasures for a time. That guy made the best of every single moment. He grew up tall – six three – and liked a gnarly fun lifestyle and his surprise casting in Pleasantville led to an introduction to filmmaker Rob Cohen whose first film with him was not entirely a success but would lead to The Fast and the Furious franchise that made Walker a movie star. Uncomfortable with publicity, he had to deal with an unplanned pregnancy and worked hard to support his girlfriend’s desire to escape to Hawaii with their baby daughter Meadow in order to further her education. His fascination with marine conservation was all-consuming and his happiest times were spent tagging whales yet he had a certain legacy to deal with that informed his approach to life – his maternal grandfather was a WW2 veteran who set a landspeed record using a road car at Bonneville in the Fifties;  his paternal grandfather Paul Walker II was a famous boxer; and his own father (Paul Walker III) was a tough guy who served as a marine in Vietnam and was a crack shot. The picture of masculinity that emerges is powerful and deep-rooted. He liked to do exciting things. He wanted to stop making films but he felt overwhelming financial responsibility to his family members and those friends of his who were part of his entourage on each Fast production: kindness superseded his desire to escape to his off-grid home. Everyone would come to him with their problems, as one of the guys observes. Nobody has a bad word about this astonishingly handsome, nice, thoughtful action man who suffered such a brutal ending. Touching? That barely covers it. Directed by Adrian Buitenhuis using a huge variety of home movies, archive, newsreel and personal interviews but the horror of Walker’s senseless death overshadows the film in a way these words and pictures cannot overcome. Success to me is balance in life

 

Zelig (1983)

Zelig

All the themes of our culture were there. In this fictional documentary set during the 1920s and 1930s a non-descript American called Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) achieves notoriety for his ability to look, act and sound like anyone he meets. He ingratiates himself with everyone from the lower echelons of society to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Pope becoming famous as The Changing Man. Even Hollywood comes calling and makes a film about him. His chameleon-like skill catches the eye of Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), a psychiatrist who thinks Zelig is in need of serious cognitive analysis as someone who goes to extremes to make himself fit into society. Their relationship moves in a direction that’s not often covered in medical textbooks as she hypnotises him I’m certain it’s something he picked up from eating Mexican food. A formally and technically brilliant and absolutely hilarious spoof documentary that integrates real and manipulated newsreel footage with faked home movies, a film within a film, period photographs of the leads and interviews with contemporary personalities, real and imagined, from Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow to ‘Eudora Fletcher’ (Ellen Garrison) in the present day. Even Bruno Bettelheim shows up to declare the subject the ultimate conformist. The sequence on the anti-semitism Zelig experiences as a child (his parents sided with the anti-semites, narrator Patrick Horgan informs us mournfully) is laugh out loud funny. Of course it has a payoff – in Nazi Germany. The editing alone is breathtaking, there is not a false moment and the music is superlative, forming a backdrop and a commentary as well as instilling in the audience a realistic feel for the time in which this is set. There are moments where you will not believe your eyes as Allen transforms into everyone he meets – regardless of race, shape or colour. An original and funny mockumentary that’s actually about the world we live in, an extreme response to childhood bullying and what we do to make ourselves fit in and where that could lead. You just told the truth and it sold papers – it never happened before!

 

Buck Henry 9th December 1930 – 8th January 2020

SNL BH.jpg

The death has taken place of Buck Henry (Zuckerman), chiefly regarded as one of the best satirical screenwriters of the last 60 years, gifted with an eye for a good gag and a smart line. After an upper class education at Choate, Dartmouth and Harvard’s military academy, he became an actor and soon migrated to TV to write on Steve Allen and Garry Moore’s shows. He co-created Get Smart with Mel Brooks and then forged a big screen career with The Graduate. One of only three director-collaborating teams to be nominated for an Academy Award (with Warren Beatty for Heaven Can Wait) his contribution to the culture is both prolific and immense. Rest in peace.

The Big Chill (1983)

The Big Chill.jpg

I haven’t met that many happy people in my life. How do they act? Following the funeral of Alex, who committed suicide, a group of his former college friends gather for a reunion at the South Carolina holiday home of their mutual friend Harold Cooper (Kevin Kline) and his doctor wife Sarah (Glenn Close) where they remember some of their best times but are forced to re-evaluate their lives. Sam (Tom Berenger) is a successful actor headlining a TV show; Meg (Mary Kay Place) is a real estate attorney who wants to become a mother but has no romance in her life; Nick (William Hurt) a Nam vet and former radio host; Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is a journalist writing for People magazine; Karen (JoBeth Williams) is married to Richard (Don Galloway) and he takes their boys home while she stays on and tries to resolve her feelings for Sam. Chloe (Meg Tilly) was Alex’s last lover and it appears she moves from man to man in quick succession … Nobody said it was going to be fun. At least nobody said it to me. Lawrence Kasdan’s loose remake of John Sayles’ cult low budget film Return of the Secaucus 7 is a very satisfying look at the perils of friendship into adulthood and early middle aage following years of distance, estrangement and misperceptions. A sensational cast brings to life a very disparate but charismatic bunch who may never have really known each other at all. Over the course of a few days when they eat, drink, smoke dope, watch TV, dance, jog, argue about politics and work and have sex, they learn what everyone is really like in a kind of post-Vietnam/baby boomer version of La Ronde. It’s never tacky, the friends and their issues are navigated with care and no little tension and it’s beautifully played by an extraordinarily gifted cast mourning a man whose death by suicide casts questions on everyone’s life choices making each character wonder whether they have actually grown up at all. Alex’s corpse was famously played by Kevin Costner, whose scenes were cut however the titles sequence gives us glimpses of him as he is alternately dressed for his coffin and drives his Porsche along the road. A striking piece of work. Written by Barbara Benedek and director Lawrence Kasdan. You know this day most of all we should remember we’re friends