Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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I’m not home. I never will be. I first encountered a Nam vet on Central Park West. He chased me despite being on crutches that were well past their sell-by date. I guess maybe it was because I had more legs than he did. I was waiting tables in a township on Long Island called Massapequa at a ghastly restaurant where a deranged and thankfully distant relative worked. Massapequa is the hometown of the Baldwin brothers and Ron Kovic, the subject of this impassioned film by Oliver Stone, a man whose own combat experiences had informed his previous film, Platoon, that astonishingly immersive journey of a naif to manhood in a horrifying exposition of American soldiers’ experiences. Ron Kovic’s book is the basis of another coming of age tale, this time of a Catholic boy whose parents’ devotion to JFK unwittingly unleashes their sports-mad son’s inner patriot.  I hadn’t seen this since its release and my fresh impression of its first sequences was of overwrought melodrama, underlined by John Williams’ overheated score. But this is all of a piece with the film’s intentions:  starting with a heightened picture of America’s hearth and home;  the futility and horror of war; the brutality of veterans’ experiences in epically gruesome, filthy underfunded hospitals (Kovic’s God-loving mother never even paid him a visit); the utter loneliness of being a castrated, paralysed man with a beating heart and functioning brain who is ridiculed by the anti-war protesters; the recognition that the only people with whom he now has anything in common are the other vets who are even more fucked up than he is. And so it moves into its more austere final sections. Politicisation. Separation from a family who refuse to accept he could have killed women and children and for whom he is a mere embarassment in a block where the other soldiers at least died. Is there a better correlative image in Stone’s entire oeuvre than the crane shot over the Wilson family home, where Ron has confessed to killing new recruit, their nineteen year old son William, in the dunes of Nam as the sun flared during an ambush, then he is wheeled away by a helper amid the scraps and detritus dumped in their yard and the leafy branches fade into a fluttering stars and stripes – and we are plunged into more police brutality at the 1972 Republican convention where he has joined the protest movement? This is elegant filmmaking. It is not without its humour or self-awareness. Ron has finally had his cherry broken by a Mexican whore in a sequence of T&A that reunites Stone with Willem Defoe who welcomes him to this sick paradise and he thinks it’s love – but hides his gift for her when he realises sex with a cripple is just a job for her. These vets’ wheelchair-off is a salve for those of us who might have liked to see one between Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, who beat him to an Academy Award that year (DDL gurned more). I’ve never been back to Massapequa or that cruddy restaurant but Stephen Baldwin has a small role as a schoolfriend, Tom Berenger gets him to join up, Frank Whaley is the other surviving vet who helps Ron out of his doomladen hole and Kyra Sedgwick is the gorgeous girl he loved so much he ran through the rain to dance with her at the Prom and she turns him on to the anti-war crusade. Cruise is simply great, giving a complete performance from boy to man in a narrative which exemplifies the art of juxtaposition and emotional arcs. This is cinema, utterly moving and indignant and humane. Watch it and weep.

The Desert Fox (1951)

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Aka The Desert Fox:  The Story of Rommel. Too soon?! Rommel was admired and feared, a brilliant tactician (see: desert campaign 1941-43) whose reputation even Churchill embellished with his words (quoted at the conclusion) but he was a thorn in Hitler’s side. ‘Victory or death’ really didn’t seem reasonable to the Field Marshal and this version of events concerns the last few months of his life when his position was becoming untenable. When his friend Dr Stroelin persuades him to play a part in the plot to kill Hitler known as ‘Valkyrie’ he agrees but it fails and he is given only one option by the regime – suicide. Narrated by Michael Rennie, this elegant adaptation by Twentieth Century-Fox’s in house master builder Nunnally Johnson of Desmond Young’s biography is defiantly unsentimental, sympathetic and convincing. There is no attempt to do shonky Germanic accents and that somehow just enhances the impression of realism (or true crime, perhaps).  The studio’s use of stock footage to achieve their customary documentary effect is highly effective even if there isn’t remotely enough film from Africa. It might well be propaganda given the timing and the skewed content – it was time to pony up to the new Nazi-forgiving German regime and make trade deals, dontcha know and the military genius who wanted peace talks with the Allies was the perfect foil for this narrative. This is really about the military mindset rather than a political analysis of a landscape forever foreign and anti-semitic. However you view it, you don’t need me to tell you that this is James Mason at his greatest. WW2 – the gift that keeps on giving. Superb. Directed by Henry Hathaway.

LIFE (2015)

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Luke Davies’ screenplay centring on the circumstances behind the unforgettable LIFE photo essay about James Dean in an issue from March 1955 is uncertain about who the story’s protagonist is:   the most exciting actor most of us have ever seen, as incarnated by Dane DeHaan, or photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson)? Peculiarly it is Stock who comes across as pathological, unhappy and desperate whereas Dean seems a decent sort being screwed around by Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley) who knows he’s on to something great but wants to control this rebel from bad PR. Stock supposedly met Dean at a party at Nick Ray’s when he was casting Rebel Without a Cause and the distractions are looking at an actress who looks nothing like Natalie Wood and an epicene man who only bares a slight resemblance to Ray, along with the overriding story arc of Stock’s failed teenage marriage and his unwillingness to spend time with a very young son. Dean’s relationship with Pier Angeli is artfully used to construct the parameters of his Hollywood life;  while the trip the two men make back to Indiana before the premiere of East of Eden which commences in NYC’s Times Square is of course the setting for one of most people’s favourite poster, latterly called The Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The real story here is about the relationship between a photographer and his subject, whom he virtually stalked for the story, perhaps sensing something in Dean that Dean did not yet suspect was within himself. It’s nicely put together and shot, as you would expect from Anton Corbijn, a man who knows something about the craft behind creating iconic images – his rock career is probably the most notable of any photographer/video director of the last thirty years. But somehow even De Haan’s uncanny interpretation is not the favoured performance here and the ghastly Pattinson gets equal screen time in some sort of deluded payoff to the director’s former job. I don’t get it. How’d that happen?! There seems to be some kind of queer subtext that isn’t quite brought to the surface – despite the rumours about Dean, it’s Stock who appears to be unhealthily obsessive and projecting something that isn’t really there.  It makes you wonder about all those people who made money off their Jimmy stories when he was no longer around. Oh well, better to be talked about … than not. An opportunity mostly missed, sadly.

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Marie Antoinette (2006)

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Sofia Coppola knows what it feels like for a girl. When the officials at Versailles gave her the very big keys to open up the palace and reimagine a little Austrian girl lost in the vicious and foreign French royal court working from Antonia Fraser’s biography, they probably didn’t picture this — a portrait of teenage decadence in the pastel palette of macaroons (magenta, citron, mint) scored to a New Romantic soundtrack as if she were making an Adam and the Ants video.  Kirsten Dunst is the kid sold to the gormless dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) in a strategic alliance organised by her mother the Empress (Marianne Faithfull). Her father in law the King Louis XV (Rip Torn) is like a Texan cowboy carrying on with Madame du Barry (Asia Argento). Her husband has no idea what to do in bed and she’s a giggly kid who spends her nights drinking and gambling with her girly friends and it takes a visit from her brother Emperor Josef (Danny Huston) to explain to the mechanically-minded prospective king about locks and holes, and a year later, finally, the marriage is consummated and a baby girl is born.  Seven years of foreplay!  The life of conspicuous consumption of colourful costumes and cookies and candy is swopped for something almost rural and natural at Le Petit Trianon where the young mother holds a different kind of court and succumbs to an affair with the Swedish Count Fersel (Jamie Dornan) and frolics with her little girl in the meadows. The mood alters and the cinematography (by Lance Acord) attains the backlit flared quality of a nature documentary:  this is impressionistic and expressionistic all at once, reliant on Dunst’s face and the overall vision of a writer/director in sympathetic tune with her tragic protagonist whose perception of the vicious society over which she holds sway dominates the narrative. The final quarter hour is the nightmare:  people are starving because the peasants are bearing the cost of the war in America, and propaganda and lies, dead children and the baying mob are at the door. This is a fabulist film about fashion and feeling and food and it gets into your head and your heart. If you don’t like it, you know what you can go eat.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011)

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Highly entertaining documentary about the exploitation/trash maestro who had ambitions way beyond his pay grade.  We hear from a variety of his alumni and the man himself, his brother Gene (another producer), his wife (and fellow producer) Julie and former assistant Frances Doel, among many others, about how the engineer who got screwed over money on the movie The Gunfighter decided to put on a show himself and debuted with The Monster From the Ocean Floor. By the time he made The Wild Angels he was directing his 100th movie which is stunning. He meant the world to Jack Nicholson who made his debut with The Cry Baby Killer – and then didn’t work again for a year! Nicholson describes Corman as his ‘lifeblood’ and bursts into tears. Corman kept him in work and gave him writing and acting jobs for a decade before he made his breakthrough with Easy Rider – which wouldn’t have happened without The Trip, which Nicholson wrote and it starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper: AIP wouldn’t make Easy Rider with Hopper and it went on to make history – as well as pots of money (as it were…) There are great clips of all the era’s material but the best storytelling comes from William Shatner recalling the personal jeopardy the Cormans experienced during the making of The Intruder, that fierce discourse on integration. The seventies stuff –  crazy funny movies like Hollywood Boulevard and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is interspersed with really good interviews with Allan Arkush and Joe Dante and we learn about Corman’s own personal viewing tastes, choosing to distribute great films by European auteurs through his own company. The big studios took his formula and made multi-million dollar versions of Fifties exploitation content that made his name so he moved more fully into straight to video. There is no mention of the studio he set up in Ireland in the Nineties – presumably on grounds of taste.  Nor of his big studio movie from 1993, Frankenstein Unbound, his last directorial outing. Personally I’d like to have seen Monte Hellman speak about their collaborations but instead we get Paul WS Anderson and Eli Roth. That’s showbiz! Directed by Alex Stapleton.

 

Hidden Figures (2016)

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Three black women in a car get stopped by a cop. Turns out they’re not joyriders. It’s early 1960s Virginia and they’re mathematicians at NASA where Kevin Costner is watching the Russians send a monkey and a mannequin into space via satellite while they’re still trying to work out orbital range and stopping potential astronauts from burning up on re-entry. Everyone’s under pressure so it’s time to call in the coloured women in that other building with their own special lavatory facility. Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi this tells the hitherto little-known true story of the gifted women who got those rockets into space. Kathryn Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, Cookie in TV’s Empire), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (pop singer Janelle Monae) are the three friends who are the numbers wizards and Jim Parsons is the head math guy in Costner’s wing who resents Johnson’s preternatural abilities which she still keeps up despite having to run a few miles every day to the coloured bathroom. Out of the loop and fed heavily redacted material, she still bests every man in sight. And they’re all white. John Glenn (Glen Powell) visits the site and makes sure to shake the hands of the human computers to the evident annoyance of supervisor Kirsten Dunst and it takes a village led by him and Costner to start slowly moving mountains – not from an altruistic position but because it makes sense to get good people to work faster since it’s a space race (in those days you didn’t get medals for just taking part.) Plus he doesn’t want to be burned alive and he trusts human judgement more than machines (the new IBM is kind of a running joke but with a different outcome than in Mad Men.)  Johnson is romanced by Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali and everything works out in the end: Glenn re-enters the earth’s atmosphere and they all get with the space programme. Some of the ‘facts’ are not even true but hyped up for effect (Johnson used a white bathroom). This is bland biographical soapy drama so keen not to offend that it loses its narrative affect early on. Just as the ladies keep their heads down and step back from the racial segregation demos (who has the time when they’re putting men in rockets) this sticks to calculating the optimum conditions for a launch into orbit and a safe return. And look what that focus has achieved at the box office – gold. Which is the only colour that matters in Hollywood. Stunningly shot by Mandy Walker, the vintage newsreel inserts are wonderful.

Moulin Rouge (1952)

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Fine, absorbing and detailed chronicle of the life of Post-Impressionist legend, Toulouse-Lautrec, the crippled alcoholic whose paintings and lithographs of the Parisian demi-monde comprise the indelible imagery of the Belle Epoque (doesn’t every home have one of his posters?) Adapted from Pierre La Mure’s bestselling 1950 biography by Anthony Veiller, director John Huston is operating at his best, insisting on a muted palette in three-strip Technicolor (shot by the great Oswald Morris) to better mimic the tone of the artist’s own work, and getting a classic performance from stage legend Jose Ferrer, who had earlier won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac. His childhood years as the son of an aristocrat are well observed, with hunting scenes wonderfully conveyed – as one would expect of Huston, and echoed at a race track later on. The observations of his influences and the women in his life sharply delineate not merely his inspiration but how he applied materials to canvas and produced prints in the 1890s when his amazingly prolific art of raucous dance-hall culture made his name. The performances by the women here are excellent:  Colette Marchand as Marie Charlet, the prostitute whom he takes in and with whom he has a troubled relationship, almost culminating in his suicide when she reveals the reason for co-habiting with him; Suzanne Flon as Myriamme Hyam, the socialite he rescues on the Pont Alexandre, leaving her lover Peter Cushing (what an astonishing shot when he first sees her!); Katherine Kath as the once-famous dancer at the Moulin Rouge, now no longer a place for outcasts; Claude Nollier, terribly touching as the painter’s understanding and kind mother; and Zsa Zsa Gabor, immortalised of course as Jane Avril, and for whom this role is a terrific showcase. Ferrer is brilliant in a role which required him to perform on his knees using pads, and platforms, and he also plays his own father. The final scene is a valediction and a benediction.This is a model of the biography film, a classic of the period and a wonderful tribute to an incredible artist. Huston’s direction (and co-writing) is superlative, with the choreography of the infamous can-can having massive influence, including on Bob Fosse. All together now …!

Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

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There was a swathe of period dramas in the wake of the 1968 riots – perhaps there was something comforting about a retreat into the past, no matter how bloody or violent. Director Charles Jarrott made something of a specialty of this in British cinema and this somewhat by-the-numbers evocation of one of the great rivalries for the crown boasts stellar performances by Vanessa Redgrave as the eponymous Catholic beauty and Glenda Jackson as Protestant Elizabeth I. It doesn’t trouble with a lot of truth although Patrick McGoohan has a field day playing Mary’s half-brother James, the wannabe Scots ruler, and there’s some interesting bed action between Timothy Dalton as Lord Darnley, planted by Elizabeth to seduce and destroy Mary, and her Italian advisor, Ian Holm, in a tale rife with adultery and bisexuality. The last twenty minutes focuses on a fabricated meeting between the two women, all the better to sweeten the dramatic pill, to a swoony John Barry score and delicious photography by Christopher Challis. Off with her head! Written by John Hale.

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

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Peter Morgan’s ironed out some of the flummery from Philippa Gregory’s Tudor bestseller, already adapted by the BBC a few years earlier. The Boleyns need money so dad Mark Rylance plots with his brother in law the Duke of Norfolk (the awful, honking David Morrissey) to whore his daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) to Henry VIII (Eric Bana), that great ugly philanderer whose wife just will not reproduce a healthy son. Trouble is, this rather one-note Henry gets a look at Anne’s sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) and his feelings betray him so he decides to have her first – and she goes on to bear him a bastard son, just as the scheming Anne gets her claws into him. But when Anne continues to refuse Henry bedding rights he sodomises her and she needs Mary’s sympathy as she tries to rid him of his wife and gain the throne and when she does she will do anything to bear a healthy son … If this never reaches the powerful emotional heights it seems to be striving for, it’s a moderately gripping and quite streamlined interpretation of the power plays that went on in royal circles and proves what Diana, Princess of Wales discovered – life at court can be nasty, brutish and short. Divorced, beheaded …

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (2016)

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Brace for impact. Lean and trim, that’s not just a descriptor for director Clint Eastwood, it also works for Todd Komarnicki’s adaptation of Captain Chesley Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeffrey Zaslow’s book, Highest Duty, detailing what happened January 15, 2009, when they famously landed US Airways Flight 1549 on NYC’s Hudson River, without a single casualty. The film is structured around the National Transportation Safety Board investigation which started immediately, stranding Sully (Tom Hanks) and Jeff (Aaron Eckhart) at a Marriott without their own clothes and left to ponder if they could indeed have landed the Airbus at alternate airports. We start with a nightmare – Sully’s – one of many all too realistic visions of crashing in uptown Manhattan. For the elephant in the room that this constantly addresses is 9/11 and how clever to do this in the first scene:  it’s what we were all thinking during those first pictures. It’s uppermost in his mind as he is taken to task and tested as a virtual criminal by the NTSB while being hailed as hero on all the talk shows – but he knows Jeff is a funnier interview and compliments him on his jokes to David Letterman. The story is extremely well modulated, waiting quite a long time to show us precisely what happened:  we see bits and pieces, are introduced (slightly) to some passengers and the unfortunate young air traffic controller who thinks he’s been part of an aircraft being downed and are finally prepared for something that we at least have the benefit of knowing ended well, even if in cold choppy waters at the worst time of year. When asked at the public hearing if he could have changed anything, Jeff declares, “it would have happened in July.” One great message here is about trusting human instinct over virtual reality and computer simulations. More humanity is supplied by Sully’s wife Laura Linney, not quite but almost literally phoning in her performance, bringing him back down to earth about their ongoing financial problems, fretting about what could happen if he loses his wings as he might do if found negligent – the airline has a lot riding on the insurance claims being voided. They cave as soon as they hear the inflight recording. But the question remains – how can a flock of geese down a passenger jet? An intrinsic design flaw? I know that I don’t take Airbus flights. There’s a very good joke when Sully goes into an Irish pub and the bartender gives him a Sully – “Grey Goose with a splash of water.” You’ve got to laugh. Kind of! Coming in at a tight 96 minutes, this near-disaster anti-thriller movie is a remarkably calm, paradoxically uplifting story of true heroism and Hanks is typically excellent. Perhaps it would have been too counterintuitive to have cast real-life disaster-prone pilot Harrison Ford?!