George Michael: Freedom (2017)

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I knew how to make these records and I knew just how to make them jump out of the radio. George Michael was making this film about his career when he died so unexpectedly and tragically on Christmas Day last year. Slickly narrated and beautifully edited, this astonishing combination of archive footage, home movies, music videos and contemporary interviews with his peers, friends and lawyers is as artfully constructed, witty, mesmerising and moving as the music of the man himself.  From his schoolboy antics with Andew Ridgeley in a terrible ska band through the unexpected stardom of Wham! when they played up their wideboy appeal with satirical lyrics which largely bypassed the masses, to his phenomenal breakthrough as a solo artiste, this manages to be both a testimonial to his own brilliance as well as a scathing commentary on the demands of the music industry. Following his astonishing crossover success in the US where he got a Grammy for Faith, the resistance from the black community (who played him day and night on radio) to what would now be termed his ‘cultural appropriation’  led to the great Listen Without Prejudice Vol. I which Sony America did not want to promote. His battle with the company (put down to cultural differences – hmmm…) coincided with his meeting the man of his life, Anselmo Feleppa, when their eyes met across a stage in Rio. But his new companion was soon diagnosed with HIV and when he died Michael was faced with a legal action against Sony for restraint of trade, which he lost. Amongst the interviews (clearly recorded before his death and therefore this is somewhat lacking in the latter stages) directed by Michael with his co-director and former manager, Michael Austin are Ricky Gervais, busy extracting the urine calling him “my favourite singing convict,” Tracey Emin, Elton John, Mark Ronson, Nile Rogers and Clive Davis, who compliments Frank Sinatra (or his publicist) for writing a letter urging George to promote his work while excoriating Michael’s decision not to turn up at the opening of an envelope. How absolutely ingenious that he chose Linda Evangelista to be his avatar – and how very Nineties! It’s very cool to have Stevie Wonder, one of his many admirable and admiring collaborators, throw into the race debate, “You mean George is white?! Oh my God!!!” (What must they make of Elvis?!) The most revealing personal section of the film is rather strange precisely because the people upon whom it pivots are not there except in slight footage or photos – his lover and his mother, and Ridgeley is not interviewed either. This is a man undone by grief about their deaths and who took years to process his losses, pouring it all into amazing songs. He could write and interpret lyrics like nobody of his generation. His narration is composed from old interviews. His description of being at home in England at Christmas while Feleppa was awaiting the outcome of an HIV test in Brazil is unbearable:  he had not even told his parents about his new relationship and thought he himself could be infected. The other irony of the film is the title itself (also one of his recordings) because he felt so imprisoned by his sexuality, his accompanying psychological difficulties and the recording contract which so confined him:  how completely bizarre that this should be a Sony Music film and it is now an obituary to Michael by Michael himself. If he were to be remembered, he says, it would hopefully be as a great singer-songwriter and as someone with integrity. Written, produced and directed by George Michael, this clearly had to be somewhat rewritten as it was not completed prior to his untimely death. What a guy. And what an unutterably terrible loss.

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Wind River (2017)

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How do you gauge someone’s will to live? I once knew a film producer who said the two rules of moviemaking were, Never make a western and Never make a film in the snow. Well thank goodness nobody told screenwriter Taylor Sheridan who makes his directing debut here following the screenplays for the extraordinary Sicario and Hell or High Water, two of the best films in the past decade. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is an agent (read:  animal catcher) for the US Fish and Wildlife Service working in the vast titular Native American reservation in Wyoming when he happens upon the body of a young woman Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) who was his own late daughter’s best friend. He’s seconded by a neophyte FBI officer Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to help her as she has no expertise in tracking or this mountainous terrain the size of Rhode Island with just 6 police officers led by Graham Greene. While Cory is still dealing with the fallout of a divorce, having to forego caring for his young son when his ex is out of town for a couple of days in order to look for the killers, we unspool through family photos and start to understand some of his motivation for helping this officer who doesn’t even have the right clothing for minus 20: Cory’s mother in law loans her her late granddaughter’s clothing with the warning, These are not a gift.  His young son is startled at the sight of this white girl in his dead sister’s clothes. Together Cory and Jane embark on a hunt when the coroner finds the girl has been likely multiply raped but drowned in her own blood because the alveoli in her lungs filled with freezing air as she ran barefoot from her assailants. She ran six miles. So it can’t officially be listed as murder. Then Cory finds a second body …  With all Sheridan’s films now we see a certain pattern:  the idea of borders, which also extend to different races and traditions and values transmuted through marriage, and of course singular acts of transgression which here comprise murder but obviously incorporate other acts of violation arising from untrammelled self-justification. It culminates in a chase and a shootout but concludes in an act of individual revenge on Wyoming’s highest mountain peak which calls to mind the work of James Stewart and Anthony Mann in their western collaborations.  Most debut writer/directors make the mistake of filing every hole with overwritten dialogue:  Sheridan is too shrewd for that.  He allows the pictures to speak for themselves, human nature to assert itself as it usually does and the dead bodies are permitted testimony to their brutal demise. He chooses to end on a frame that expresses friendship and acceptance.  (Followed by a piece of text which states that the only portion of the demographic not featured in Missing Person figures is Native American women.) It’s a very satisfying film – tense, character-driven, fast-moving and deeply felt – and it’s adorned with excellent performances and some beautifully mournful songs composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)

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Whoever heard of a cowardly ghost. It’s 1900 and widowed Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) is finally breaking away from the oppression of the awful in-laws, renting a sea cottage with her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) and maid Martha (Edna Best). That’s despite the estate agent’s advice to take another property because … it’s haunted by its former owner, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), a presumed suicide. When he appears to her on a regular basis he insists it was an accident when he fell asleep in front of the gas fire. They have a frosty relationship but it becomes something more than mutual tolerance and he calls her Lucia because she’s more Amazonian than she believes. He insists on keeping his portrait – in her bedrooom. He is incensed when she cuts down the monkey puzzle he planted himself. He teaches her salty language and by dictating a sensational book – Blood and Swash! – he saves her from penury and a dread return to her late husband’s home. He appears at the most inopportune moments, for a year anyhow. One day at the publisher’s she encounters Uncle Neddy (George Sanders) a most unlikely children’s author. She is romanced, to the grievous jealousy of Daniel. She is the only person who likes the suave one, and the joke’s on her as she finds out one day in London.  The years pass … The paradox at the centre of the story is perfectly encapsulated by Tierney whose very blankness elicited criticism:  for it is the dead seadog who brings her back to life. There’s a very funny scene when he’s seated beside her on the train and the clever writing actually conveys the joke. Philip Dunne adapted the novel The Ghost of Captain Gregg and Mrs Muir by R.A. Dick, a pseudonym for Josephine Leslie. This is utterly beguiling, a sheer delight and an enchantment from another time. Directed rather beautifully by Joseph Mankiewicz.

Julieta (2016)

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The abject maternal has long been a strong component of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s oeuvre and in this striking adaptation of three Alice Munro stories from Runaway he plunders the deep emotional issues that carry through the generations. On a Madrid street widowed Julieta (Emma Suarez) runs into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) who used to be her daughter’s best friend. Bea tells her she met Antia in Switzerland where she’s married with three children.  Julieta enters a spiral of despair – she hasn’t seen Antia since she went on a spiritual retreat 12 years earlier and she now abandons lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) on the eve of their departure for Portugal. She returns to the apartment she lived in with Antia when the girl was an adolescent and hopes to hear from her, the birthday postcards having long ceased. We are transported back to the 1980s when on a snowy train journey to a school in Andalucia Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte) resisted the advances of an older man who then committed suicide and she had a one-night stand with Xoan (Daniel Grao). She turns up at his house months later and his housekeeper Marian (the heroically odd Rossy de Palma) tells her his wife has died and he’s spending the night with Ava (Inma Cuesta). Julieta and Xoan resume their sexual relationship and she tells Ava she’s pregnant and is advised to tell Xoan. And so she settles into a seaside lifestyle with him as he fishes and she returns with her young child to visit her parents’ home where her mother is bedridden and her father is carrying on with the help. Years go by and she wants to return to teaching Greek literature, which has its echoes in the storytelling here. The housekeeper hates her and keeps her informed of Xoan’s onoing trysts with Ava;  her daughter is away at camp;  she and Xoan fight and he goes out fishing on a stormy day and doesn’t return alive. This triggers the relationship between Antia and Bea at summer camp which evolves into Lesbianism albeit we only hear about this development latterly, when Bea tells Julieta that once it become an inferno she couldn’t take it any more and Antia departed for the spiritual retreat where she became something of a fanatic.  Julieta’s guilt over the old man’s death, her husband’s suicidal fishing trip and her daughter’s disappearance and estrangement lead her to stop caring for herself – and Lorenzo returns as she allows hope to triumph over miserable experience. There are moments here that recall Old Hollywood and not merely because of the Gothic tributes, the secrets and deceptions and illicit sexual liaisons. The colour coding, with the wonderfully expressive use of red, reminds one that Almodovar continues to be a masterful filmmaker even when not utterly committed to the material;  and if it’s not as passionate as some of his earlier female dramas, it’s held together by an overwhelming depiction of guilt and grief and the sheer unfathomability of relationships, familial and otherwise. Suarez and Ugarte are extremely convincing playing the different phases of Julieta’s experiences – how odd it might have been in its original proposed version, with Meryl Streep in the leading role, at both 25 and 50, and filming in English. I might still prefer his early funny ones but a little Almodovar is better than none at all.

Starman (1984)

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You’re not from round here, are you? I hate to think how long it’s been since I first saw this. C’est la vie, une longue fleuve tranquille! Two of the most charming actors imaginable, Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges, run the gauntlet of officialdom led by the kindly Charles Martin Smith and bad cop Richard Jaeckel when he crashlands on Earth (Wisconsin, to be precise) and mutates into her late husband.  He has three days to meet up with his spaceship in Arizona or stay grounded forever …  Director John Carpenter lends his considerable heft to the mise en scene of one of the gentlest alien films while the transformation scenes are created by the great Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Dick Smith.  It’s blessed by beautifully considered performances in the best meet cute ever. The scenes in Vegas are great fun. Written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon with an uncredited rewrite by Dean Riesner, the soundtrack is composed by the estimable Jack Nitzche. Lovely!

L’Avenir (2016)

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Aka Things to Come. La professeure de philosophie du lycée Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) a une vie très satisfaisante, mariée à un autre enseignant, ses deux enfants adultes, aimant ses recherches intellectuelles et ses livres, discutant de la nouvelle édition de son manuel, avec seulement une mère dépressive narcissique (Edith Scob) la traînant vers le bas. Elle dénonce les critiques de son mari à propos de son passé et dit qu’elle n’était qu’un communiste pendant trois ans, comme tous les intellectuels. Elle a abandonné les staliniens après avoir lu Solzhenitsyn. Elle aime les amitiés avec ses étudiants, dont Fabien (Roman Kolinka, oui, c’est vrai, le fils de l’actrice assassinée Marie Trintignant, petit-fils de Jean-Louis) décèle une commune de campagne pour écrire un livre, un accord sécurisé par Elle dans sa maison d’édition. Ensuite, son mari avoue qu’il a affaire et déménage. Sa mère doit être emmenée dans un hôpital coûteux. Nathalie se réconforte dans ces livres et poursuit son dernier voyage dans la maison de vacances de ses parents en Bretagne et lui fait remarquer que sa maîtresse devrait soigner le beau jardin qu’elle a passé des années à cultiver. Sa mère meurt. Son livre n’est pas réémis. Elle passe du temps avec Fabien et se fait décourager quand elle se rend compte qu’il dort avec un collègue communard – n’est-ce pas ce que sont les communes, après tout? Et finalement, elle lui donne et sa petite amie le merveilleux chat de sa mère. Elle est toute seule. Elle est libre – et quoi maintenant? La vie continue, une longue voie de compromis, expliquée et justifiée par l’expérience et la philosophie et le manque de contrôle sur les actions des autres. C’est un recit superbement controle avec l’accent sur tous les details et le changement de tonalité.  Huppert est merveilleux (aussi le chat – qui s’appelle Pandora!) Un film de Mia Hansen-Love.

Queen of Earth (2015)

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Two girls and a guy at a cabin in the woods. One of the girls is a nut job. All the ingredients you need for an Eighties horror fest. Yet this being a product of the school of mumblecore it’s really a talkfest about friendship after Elisabeth Moss’s father has died, her boyfriend has cheated and Katherine Waterston isn’t that close to her any more. Poor Patrick Fugit turns up and Moss is so out of it she doesn’t even remember him from being in the cabin with them same time last year. ‘Auteur’ Alex Ross Perry is the next big thing and this came showered with so many adulatory reviews I was prepared for something special – like Bergman’s Persona. Except Moss’ insanity is clear from the first frame, I like neither actress and given that I can’t even make it through to the end after three attempts I can’t tell you if it ends up with a chainsaw but Dear God I hope it does. Fourth time lucky. The poster is lovely.

Dead Calm (1989)

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This was the film that introduced Nicole Kidman to the wider world – and she makes quite a splash, even with her original face. She and husband Sam Neill are recovering from the death of their child on a pleasant ocean sailing trip … and then they make the classic mistake of picking up sexy hitch hiker Billy Zane who of course is a total psycho who murdered his fellow sailors in a spree. Taut, brilliant storytelling, expertly directed by Philip Noyce, working from Terry Hayes’ adaptation of Charles Williams’ claustrophobic novel. Beautifully performed and made with an enviable Great Barrier Reef setting and atmospheric score by Graeme Revell. Top notch entertainment.

The Country Girl (1954)

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This is the film that earned Grace Kelly her Best Actress Academy Award and nowadays her performance looks better than ever:  look at what she has to do. She plays the dowdy, dependable but once glamorous wife of faded alcoholic Broadway star Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) whose chance at a comeback is created by temperamental director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) against his backers’ better judgement. Dodd believes Kelly’s a suicidal drinker but she’s actually fronting for the massive insecurity of her husband, an habitual and chronic liar who’s using their son’s death in his care as an excuse for his cowardliness and retreat to the bottle. Kelly has to keep him going while the out of town previews go badly and go along with his stories to Dodd, who thinks she’s destroying him until he finally sees Frank on a bender and Frank confesses. Then Dodd realises his antipathy is based on his pure misogyny – he’s down on marriage since he cheated on his ex-wife obviously – and thinks he’s in love with her. Kelly thinks she is sympathetic to him too but she wants her husband’s comeback to work too. This Clifford Odets story is adapted very well by producer/director/writer George Seaton with key observational touches – there’s a lovely bit where Kelly overhears the audience’s opinions in the interval and smiles to herself – in between the big scenes, which are adorned with some crackling expository and personal dialogue. One of Crosby’s final lines is to die for. However he overplays his moroseness and Holden is occasionally too strident although that’s probably the Odets character – making Kelly’s job of pivoting between the pair that much harder. Some of her best moments are beautifully adorned by Victor Young’s supremely subtle score. A cracking backstage drama that deals with addiction, bereavement, guilt, grief and a dying marriage:  you know, the little things. Now, let’s put on a show!

Manchester By The Sea (2016)

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I can’t beat it. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a janitor in Boston, permanently hunched and haunted and beset by half-dressed female tenants who want to have sex with him and complain to his boss when he evinces no interest whatsoever and just fixes their toilets. He barely speaks. When he gets a call that older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died suddenly he is forced back to his titular hometown where people refer to him as ‘the Lee Chandler’ and he finds out from his brother’s lawyer he’s been named guardian to his irritating, underage, sexually voracious nephew Patrick (goofy ginger Lucas Hedges). It takes us a long time and a lot of repetitive scenes to get to the reason for his devastation:  the death of his young family for which he feels incalculable guilt. Patrick has no reaction to his father’s demise and just gets on with getting it on with whatever nasty teenage girls have sex with him, plays hockey and generally acts like dumb teenagers do when confronted with intimations of mortality (I was recently at a funeral when the teenage son of the woman whose death was being commemorated left midway to smoke cigarettes with several girls. This shit happens.) So much  of this is low-key and true that when these guys eventually drop their protective masks it is both surprising and shocking and explosive in terms of the situations  in which they finally let loose as much as anything else. Michelle Williams has one wonderful scene as Lee’s ex-wife (pictured in the poster) and it is of such delicacy that it elicits pure emotions not just from Affleck but the audience, otherwise her role is mainly confined to flashbacks of their marriage and its unfortunate and tragicomic ending (that ambulance scene is literally killer). So paradoxically despite its overlength the unsentimental narrative focus is somewhat diverted to the wrong situations and some scenes are consigned to montage underscored by rather obvious and ill-chosen music when we would prefer to hear the dialogue.  The flashback structure works brilliantly however. The rarely seen Gretchen Mol (the Next Big Thing, according to Vanity Fair circa 1998  when she co-starred with this film’s producer and intended star Matt Damon in Rounders) shows up as Patrick’s alkie mom, long estranged from the family. Affleck is simply masterful as this man who desires punishment but nobody wants him to suffer any more, except for a few women who believe he killed his kids. However it’s a long time getting to the point about how people deal differently with bereavement and even if we agree, such is real life, a playwright, screenwriter (and director) as smart as Kenneth Lonergan should and could have got there quicker.