Battle of the Sexes (2017)

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If there’s one thing I know for certain it’s not to get between a woman and her hairdresser. It’s 1973 and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) are setting up the Women’s Tennis Association in opposition to the US Lawn Tennis Association led by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) because they want equal pay for women players after he’s announced a tournament where women will get precisely one eighth of the men’s prize. BJK is number one in the world and he threatens her – she won’t be able to play in the Grand Slams:  but more and more women players are joining her tour, and Virginia Slims are on board with sponsorship. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is the former player now living off his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and on borrowed time in their marriage because he gambles on everything. He acts incensed about BJK’s stance and challenges her to a match but she doesn’t want to be part of his ongoing sideshow. So he challenges Margaret Court  (Jessica McNamee) instead after she beats the married BJK following a crisis: she’s had what appears to be a one-night stand with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) – it proves to be anything but and she is now second in the world. Court loses and then BJK sees an opportunity when Riggs offers her a prize of $100,000.  Her personal life is disintegrating, her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) realises he’s losing her but he tells Marilyn that they’re on the sidelines – because tennis is Billie Jean’s whole life. Then the Bobby bandwagon starts and there’s a huge TV match about to happen … Where to start? What a proposition – the biographical story of a woman who changed the face of modern sport at the same time as she discovered her true sexuality AND responded to a challenge from a man who called her a hairy-legged feminist. So much of this film is about the private versus the public, the individual versus the system, performance on and off court, that it demands – and gets – a finely balanced screenplay from Simon Beaufoy (probably his best by a long shot). The story problem is not just BJK’s discovery of her Lesbianism and the role she is cornered into playing (or be ashamed of herself for the rest of her life, given her perceived position in the women’s game) it’s also about the assertion of love, self and pride and the driven nature of athletes in a money-ridden pro sport. At the same time, it’s showbiz, and that’s where Steve Carell comes in. In Bobby Riggs he has found the role of a lifetime, the role he was born to play as a friend of mine put it. A reckless bon viveur, loudmouth, fun dad, shiftless husband and compulsive gambler it’s really something to see him personify this self-declared male chauvinist pig with such commitment. There are many great scenes here but when he gets up at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and tells them all their real problem is that they’re bad at gambling – reader, I nearly choked. And that’s where the story magic lies – in bringing together in a legendary face-off two utterly contrasting types and drawing out their similarities – their need to succeed, their desire to win, above everything else in their lives. You’ll be scratching your head afterwards, wondering, Did this really happen?! For real?! Yes it did, albeit women’s equality is still a thing of fiction for many 44 years later.  The only niggle is the sense that some story points have been retro-fitted to customise this to contemporary sensibilities:  Court’s reaction to the knowledge that BJK might be a Lesbian when the hairdresser on the tour is obviously staying in her room chimes with what was made known about her Christian beliefs last year; Alan Cumming as designer Teddy Tinling gets to spout some very new spiels about equality. In reality the married BJK met Barnett (what an apposite name for a hairdresser) a couple of years earlier and could have devastated her sporting career. And of course their toxic breakup a decade later made BJK work years after she wanted to retire in order to pay her off after she made public their affair and sued her. Barnett then attempted to kill herself and was left paralysed from the waist down. BJK was a moneyspinner and everything she did was made public by  those around her including her husband – he supplied her name to Ms. magazine when they were compiling a list of women who’d had an abortion. None of that makes it into a heavily fictionalised biography which is always headed towards the main event at the Houston Astrodome. BJK and her current female partner were the film’s consultants, after all. However, you can’t imagine anyone other than Stone and Carell playing BJK and Riggs and you can’t say better than that. The final complementary scenes in their respective dressing rooms are marvellously conceived. When you see the impact of the entire trajectory on Stone’s face – the enormity of what she has achieved and the realisation – you want to stand up and cheer as much as she is sitting down, crumpled and crying. There are wondrous supporting performances from Silverman, Stowell and Riseborough, who sparkles throughout. And Cumming is good in a stereotypical role of gay costumier and it’s always a delight to see Shue. This is handled with great care as dramedy by the Little Miss Sunshine team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Do yourself a favour – go see it. It’s ace!

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Cheaper by the Dozen (1950)

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They come cheaper by the dozen you know! Frank Gilbreth (Clifton Webb) and his wife Lillian (Myrna Loy) are efficiency experts – they would need to be with their enormous family – two are born in the course of the story, adapted from the biographical book by their son and daughter Frank and Ernestine by writer/producer Lamar Trotti. It’s a sweet, episodic narrative about the trials and tribulations of a good-natured family dealing with a house move, Father’s desire for recognition (talk of an invitation to a conference in Prague) and Mother (a psychologist) manfully giving birth to the twelfth child, a son, on father’s orders. The main drama is one boy’s desire for a dog and eldest daughter Ann (Jeanne Crain, who was 25 playing a teen) and her desire to be a flapper and cut her hair to stop being a freak.  Father believes in improving all his brood and amongst other things wants them to be great musicians but secretly knows they’re tuneless. There’s a very good scene when it turns out a fed up neighbour has suggested Mother be the local rep for Planned Parenthood. This was made at the height of Webb’s fame as Mr Belvedere and he’s terrific as the dad who is full of surprises – just watch him show the kids’ new headmistress how to bathe in seconds flat! – with Loy her usually sharp self. It looks lovely courtesy of legendary cinematographer Leon Shamroy and is nicely put together by director Walter Lang with thoroughly charming performances in a comic drama which uniquely for the Americana being produced at the time is finally tinged with tragedy.

 

Hellfighters (1968)

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He’s not too smart about which fires to walk away from. Chance Buckman (John Wayne) is injured fighting an oil field fire and his assistant Greg (Jim Hutton) brings his boss’ estranged daughter Tish (Katharine Ross) to visit him in hospital – they’ve just got married a mere five days after meeting and Chance isn’t too pleased given Greg’s promiscuous ways. His marriage to Tish’s mom Madelyn (Vera Miles) ended because she couldn’t take the pressure of his work and Tish swears it’ll be different for her.  After seeing Greg get hurt she starts to fray at the edges and play solitaire a lot. When he takes over a gig in Venezuela and the team comes under fire from revolutionaries it’s time for Chance to return and his remarriage to Madelyn is postponed … A fascinating premise derived from the biography of legendary firefighter Red Adair, this moots the potential of examining the process and plumps for the melodrama of being the woman on the sidelines. Ross’ gorgeous sorrowfulness isn’t exploited but there are some good, colourful scenes and a nice barroom brawl to keep Wayne’s donnybrooking fans happy in between the talking shops. Written by Clair Huffaker and directed by Andrew V. McLaglen who had worked with Wayne in McLintock! Wayne got a million dollars to star.

Buffalo Bill (1944)

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They were all my friends. William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (Joel McCrea) is the legendary hunter and scout who rescues Senator Federici (Moroni Olsen) and his daughter Louisa (Maureen O’Hara). They fall in love and marry and Louisa bears him a son, named for Kit Carson. Bill becomes good friends with Yellow Hand (Anthony Quinn), chief of the Cheyenne but Bill is forced by a collection of businessmen, politicians and the Army to fight them – a fight he doesn’t want. Writer Ned Buntline (Thomas Mitchell) immortalises his escapades and when he arrives in Washington is stunned that even little kids know who he is. When he receives distressing news of his baby son’s illness he blames his wife for their coming East and leaves her while his political disagreements become newspaper fodder. He is basically destitute until he’s offered work in a Wild West show … This more or less fictionalised biography is told with customary efficiency and verve from Twentieth-Century Fox with a screenplay by Clements Ripley, Aeneas MacKenzie, John Francis Larkin, Frank Winch and Cecile Kramer. It’s an absorbing yarn, shot in gorgeous Technicolor and moving like quickfire and has interesting touches, such as Dawn Starlight (Linda Darnell) trying on Louisa’s ‘white woman’ clothes for size and of course the marvellous action scenes, expertly choreographed.  Directed beautifully by ‘Wild’ Bill Wellman who is under-remembered now but is the subject of a great big new coffee table book which I am anticipating under the Christmas tree. Just sayin’!

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

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My number’s Pennsylvania 6-5000. Glenn Miller (James Stewart) is a young impoverished trombonist who pawns the instrument every time he leaves his latest band because nobody wants to use his arrangements: he hears music in a certain way but hasn’t the means to achieve his own orchestra, at least not yet. He’s confident it’ll happen some day just as he is that Helen (June Allyson) the girl he once dated at college in Colorado will marry him so he buys her a fake string of pearls and gets her to see him for the first time in two years despite her being engaged to someone else. Then he disappears again.  When she agrees to meet him in NYC she marries him and while he falls in and out of jobs she gets him to form his own crew with the money she squirrelled away without his knowing and by 1939 he has one of the biggest swing bands in the US … This biographical film is just so good it’s hard to know where to start:  the transitions which are so brilliantly inscribed by visually expert director Anthony Mann, particularly in the early scenes when the pawn shop is so central to Miller’s whole life;  the ease with which we grasp Miller’s misery at not being able to translate the music in his head to live performance (the squirming during a showgirl’s bowdlerized delivery of Moonlight Serenade has to be seen to be believed); the simple way the adoption of their children is handled; and the depiction of friendship with pianist Chummy (Henry Morgan) and its significance to running a smooth band. If you’re a jazz fan you’ll get a shiver of recognition every time a familiar chord strikes up and kudos to arranger Henry Mancini (who had played with Miller and was part of the ‘ghost’ band made up of the original and the Army Air Force players when he died) who errs just the right side of easy. There’s another recognition factor too – watching Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa perform is another plus;  as is the scene in London during a German bombing raid when the band play on in the open air – and the audience applaud once they get up again. Stewart is splendid in the title role and his resemblance to Miller doesn’t hurt. He was paired previously with Allyson in The Stratton Story and would work with her again in director Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command. This was the star and director’s fifth film collaboration  (out of eight) and the first non-Western. It was a huge hit, as was the soundtrack album and is a genuinely thrilling musical which will give real fans immense pleasure. There’s a great final scene with that little brown jug. Gulp. Written by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper.

Effie Gray (2014)

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He must be mad.  Young virginal Effie (Dakota Fanning) marries art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) shortly after her family has endured financial hardship. When she enters his family home she finds that he has an unhealthy relationship with his mother (Julie Walters) and his father (David Suchet) is genially oppressive. On their wedding night her husband looks at her with … distaste. And never touches her. Her mother in law insists on dosing her with some strange herbal concoction that knocks her out. Mingling with the great and the good she finds a sympathetic friend in Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson) the wife of his patron at the Royal Academy and she suspects all is not right particularly on a visit to their stifling home during a spectacularly awkward dinner.  On a trip to Venice it is assumed that Ruskin is quite mad and Effie is pursued by Raffaele (Riccardo Scarmarcio) who almost rapes her. When Ruskin commissions a portrait of himself from his protege John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) the trio decamp to the countryside and an affection grows between the two young people:  it is clear Effie is starved of genuine human warmth. She summons her little sister Sophy (Polly Dartford) to visit her and makes a plan to escape… This project had a very troubled birth following two plagiarism suits against actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson. Notwithstanding the issues that caused the script to be redrafted this doesn’t come to life – something of an irony given that the living Effie was immortalised as the suicided Ophelia by Pre-Raphaelite Millais. Fanning isn’t the most energised or personable of performers at the best of times but she really is given little here and the interrelationships aren’t especially well exposed. Wise has likewise little to do except look pained and self-absorbed:  mission accomplished. It may well be true but it doesn’t mean it works on the screen. For a story with so much scandalous content this is a disappointment on a massive scale. Look at the paintings instead. That’s Tiger Lily Hutchence as the young Effie in the opening scene and how lovely it is to see Claudia Cardinale as the Venetian viscountess. Directed by Richard Laxton with some staggeringly beautiful landscape photography by Andrew Dunn.

A Month by the Lake (1995)

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My father taught me it’s better to observe than to be observed.  It’s 1937. Miss Bentley (Vanessa Redgrave) is making her annual pilgrimage to Lake Como, the destination she frequented with her late father. She’s an unmarried woman of a certain age, the sporty delight of gorgeous young Italian men and a jolly hockey sticks type who fraternises with the ladies of the establishment (mainly Alida Valli). Then she spots a newcomer, Major Wilshaw (Edward Fox) with whose ears she becomes obsessed and whom she attempts to attract while beating him at tennis and making him miss the steamer back to the hotel. When a young Italian family employ a new American nanny Miss Beaumont (Uma Thurman) straight out of finishing school he mistakes the girl’s earnest gesture upon his early leavetaking – and returns. The complications that arise are gently dramatised and the unfolding romances culminate in a broadcast that reminds us that this is the last such summer for several years… This is a charming and subtle comedy of flirtation, manners and misunderstandings. H.E. Bates’ novella gets a thorough treatment from Trevor Bentham and is really well acted by Redgrave who channels her inner Joyce Grenfell, fusing boyishness with withheld emotion:  she has a particularly funny scene when handsome young gun Vittorio (Allesandro Gassman, son of actor/director Vittorio) attempts to seduce her. She conquers him with the camera she carries everywhere. Produced by Fox’s younger brother Robert (previously married to Redgrave’s daughter, Natasha Richardson) this almost-family affair was filmed around Varenna, Bellagio and Lierna and it looks utterly splendid. A lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon – or indeed a month. Directed by John Irvin.

Spielberg (2017)

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His strength is really his ability to tell a story in pictures instinctively. What makes Steven Spielberg tick? Susan Lacy’s HBO documentary commences with on-set filming of Bridge of Spies and then materialises into a meticulously constructed mosaic of interviews, excerpts and archive footage beginning with footage shot by the film’s subject as a child when he used home movies to escape his loneliness and his parents’ disintegrating marriage. As Martin Scorsese states, Spielberg has always been a personal filmmaker, utilising movie themes to articulate his own experiences. And perhaps the one shocking revelation here is that Spielberg didn’t speak to his own father for 15 years, mistakenly believing that he had split the family. The truth was that his mother was having an affair with his father’s best friend, whom she eventually married. His father and his older sisters spared the boy the truth. He didn’t have the grades to get into film school so he conned his way into Universal Pictures by getting off the tour bus and putting his name on the door of an office (maybe…) and impressed Sid Sheinberg enough to get him to underwrite his TV work there for 7 years, making his debut directing  movie queen Joan Crawford in an episode of Rod Serling’s show Night Gallery. Getting involved with that group of fellow wannabe filmmakers who came to be christened The Movie Brats, he had a support system of guys (they were all guys!) who would eventually become the most successful directors in the business. They all talk here – Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma and it’s nice to hear them speaking directly rather than through the medium of the third party commentators in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls. The culture was converging, the older directors were on their way out, they were on their way in. Amongst that crowd Spielberg was a nerd who wasn’t into sports or drugs or rock ‘n’ roll, as De Palma observes. Reworking his family difficulties into his films Spielberg created a modern point of view and an immediacy that plugged into the zeitgeist like no other filmmaker:  he knew what we wanted before we did. His one big budget failure was 1941 and it was George Lucas who got him back on track making a film that he promised him would be better than James Bond after he spent a year in a hole ruminating his misstep. So it was that after Jaws and CE3K he then entered into the world of franchises with Lucas making Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lacy is careful to permit Spielberg to critique his own failures or damp squibs even while his contemporaries and stars and co-workers are heaping praise on his energy, his techniques and the panic he manages to hide when he doesn’t know what to do next:  his reaction to the set being placed in the wrong situation on the beach for Saving Private Ryan being a case in point. It’s as though his eye bypasses his brain and goes straight to the camera. He himself states that from his earliest days he felt he was writing with the camera (he probably wasn’t what the Cahiers critics had in mind). A happy second marriage to actress Kate Capshaw and the addition of children made him confront more difficult topics after getting critically burned with The Colour Purple, a film that exercised many when the popcorn king dared take on the black experience and from a matriarchal perspective at that. He wasn’t exactly drowning in awards with the fantastic WW2 epic Empire of the Sun either and screenwriter Tom Stoppard questions his resorting to sentiment. But it was another instance of his desire to empower a child and to take control of  the story of their life. Making Schindler’s List made him confront his Jewishness. He admits he dumped his bag of tricks and utilised a handheld camera bringing an immediacy to the terror in monochrome. At the same time that he was shooting the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto on location he was editing Jurassic Park in the evenings: when everyone in the edit suite saw the astonishing leap in computerised dinosaurs created by Dennis Muren they knew it was something special. As Lucas appositely states, it was the end of one era, the beginning of a new one. Saving Private Ryan was also a war film like no other and the shock of the shooting experience is vividly conveyed by Tom Hanks.  Lacy is canny in deploying some of the best US critics to venture their reading of the director, after setting up the Pauline Kael prediction about how Spielberg’s career would pan out – not as a screen artist –  while the UK’s Dilys Powell isn’t mentioned:  Janet Maslin, J. Hoberman and AO Scott all have their say and it makes for a very thoughtful chorus of opinions given their sometime antipathy to his work (and some of the more problematic films like The Terminal or Hook are basically ignored).  Latterly his films have taken a prescient turn, from the scenes in Minority Report and War of the Worlds that vividly reference the shock of 9/11 and the surveillance society, to the Middle East issues that are tackled in Munich: any equivocation in these stories can be calibrated with the explanation that the man himself is torn about how to deal with the perpetrators of terror. So, for Hoberman,  He’s the Hollywood equivalent of a public intellectual. The loosely connected Amistad, Bridge of Spies and Lincoln deal with democracy and the law and the origins and problems of America itself. Despite his success, Dustin Hoffman says Steven’s like a guy who works for Steven Spielberg. The director himself is quick to point out that he has worked with a large team of the same people for decades and calls editor Michael Kahn his blood brother; John Williams he says rewrites his films with music. In the end, all his films he says are father and son stories about separation and reunification – even Lincoln!  And there’s an unpredicted coda to his parents’ bitter divorce (what you might call a twist ending). This is very long at 147 minutes but there isn’t any gristle in an absorbing and fluid chronicle bringing together the many influences around the most important filmmaker of our time. It’s an authorised film but doesn’t suffer for that – he is very open about what drives him and how he works.  He declares happily that he has never had therapy:  Movies are my therapy. Hallelujah – for that we are all truly grateful.

Houdini (1953)

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Pay a dollar to see a man in love with death! Watch Tony Curtis saw Janet Leigh in two! From his start at the Coney Island sideshows to London, Paris and Berlin, the career of legendary escapologist Harry Houdini is charted in a screenplay by Philip Yordan adapted from the book by Harold Kellock which plays fast and loose with the facts, including his tragically early death. Houdini (Tony Curtis) meets Bess (Janet Leigh) while trying out his early magic acts and they marry quickly and move in with his mother (Angela Clarke). He takes a regular job in a locksmith factory but tries to escape from a safe and Bess finally agrees to go to Europe with him instead of putting a downpayment on a house with prize money earned when he escapes from a straitjacket at a Halloween show for magicians. That’s when he becomes obsessed with Otto von Schweger, the only other man to have done so. (He develops a fatalistic belief that good things happen to him on Halloween). Bess joins him on the road as his assistant and becomes a star attraction. He becomes infamous after escaping a police cell at Scotland Yard but is too late arriving at von Schweger’s home to meet the man, who had just died. He left him a miniature of a man in a glass case and it becomes Houdini’s obsession. When his mother dies he wants to make contact with her and loses himself for two years. A journalist persuades him to expose fake spiritualists and then he returns to the one trick that remains … Curtis and Leigh were husband and wife and Hollywood’s darlings when they made this and they’re utterly charming together – she’s beguiling, practical and loving, he’s obsessive, devoted and brilliant:  they practically sizzle on screen.  Director George Marshall stages this beautifully in a production that is a triumph of design, colour and performance with great costumes by Edith Head. Demonstrating Houdini’s focus using a bauble on a chandelier as an objective correlative is a brilliant example of how this is visualised. A splendid, tense, thrilling, witty and romantic biography from the Golden Age of Hollywood with wonderfully imagined tricks and illusions.

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.