George Michael: Freedom (2017)

George Michael.jpg

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.

Advertisements

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

The Birth of a Nation theatrical.png

William Kienzle once wrote that nothing beats religion, sex and murder. This almost-true (ish) story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a literate slave and preacher in antebellum Virginia has all of the above plus a sense of righteousness that along with Twelve Years a Slave risks a new era of blaxploitation with rather different text than in the Seventies. Year in year out, another brutal beating, unwatchable torture and horrible violence. From his childhood to his inevitable death by hanging after taking revenge on the supposedly kindly owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who betrays him after persuading him to suppress rebellion through religion we are not remotely surprised by any of the narrative turns. Worthy but not really memorable, from the quadruple threat Parker – who directs and produces as well as co-writing with Jean McGianni Celestin.

A Cry in the Dark (1988)

A Cry in the Dark

Aka Evil Angels. You could crack walnuts on her face. Fred Schepisi’s docudrama-style retelling of John Bryson’s book is real watercooler stuff:  the appalling tale of a 9-week old baby, Azaria Chamberlain, taken from her family’s tent at a campsite beneath Ayers Rock and presumably murdered, and the prosecution and wrongful conviction of her mother Lindy (Meryl Streep). A dingo’s got my baby! was the war cry attributed to the unsympathetic woman whose every character flaw was exposed by a prurient Australian press who condemned her because of her appearance (that terrible haircut!), speaking voice and curt mannerisms. As played by Streep, she is obviously a more complex, interesting and compassionate woman in private.  Her inner strength is immensely bothersome to a public who are shown reacting variously to news reportage on TV – in their own homes, in bars, on the streets – which serves to demonstrate the horrendous arena that is the court of public opinion as well as distancing us somewhat perhaps from a more penetrating account of the couple at the centre of the tragedy. Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) is the pastor at the Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa, Queensland and it is the minority nature of their Christian sect that also works against them when the name Azaria is wrongly reported to mean ‘sacrifice in the wilderness’. His unconvincing and wavering witness testimony does for his wife, as does the sheer incompetence of the expert witnesses, many of whose claims were later discounted. The impact of her interviews and the way in which they are misreported by a baying press is very well handled and her eventual imprisonment on circumstantial as opposed to forensic evidence is still strikingly mediaeval in its stupidity (preserve us all from juries). Streep is terribly good and the portrayal of a loving marriage in all its fraying details is nicely observed:  posited against the procedural detail and the slipshod collection of evidence we are conscious of something akin to a conspiracy. This was released just about the time that the Chamberlains were finally exonerated (but it took until 2012 for the charges to be finally dropped). This isn’t creative so much as it is journalistic and in that spirit it makes up for the actions of some of those sewer rats who waited thirty years to apologise to Lindy Chamberlain for their vile lies. Her ex-husband (they divorced in 1991) died earlier this year. Adapted by Robert Caswell and director Schepisi from John Bryson’s Evil Angels.

Altman (2014)

Altman 2014 documentary.jpg

Altmanesque? Life, liberty and the pursuit of truth. That’s Elliott Gould’s perception of the man with whom he collaborated on some of the key movies of the Seventies. This documentary about Robert Altman is not quite as freestyled, improvised and ensemble-driven as his most acclaimed directorial works but it comes close, using a lot of home movies to illustrate the domestic life that lay behind the man and his films. Ron Mann directs a script by Len Blum which traces his evolution from making industrial films following an early script sale to Hollywood, and a lengthy career in TV episodics which resulted in an abrupt leavetaking following a row over the portrayal of race and the equivalent of then-undiagnosed PTSD, through the astonishing innovative features. There are interviews with family members, including his third wife and some of his children (who wound up working with him, partly as a means of seeing him) as well as actors who perhaps achieved more in those films than in any other in terms of the way their skill sets were utilised. There are interview clips both new and old, film excerpts including on-location footage (expletives undeleted) and the up and down career arcs covering the fall from grace through most of the Eighties when he then reinvented how TV could do drama with Tanner ’88. Then the comeback, cocking a snook at Hollywood with The Player. When he got his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars he made a surprise admission which elicited the appropriate reaction from the star-studded crowd – another glorious directing coup. A fine piece of work (despite some odd editing decisions) doing justice to a peripatetic talent.

Churchill (2017)

Churchill 2017.png

There was a Prime Minister called Churchill, he was married to Clementine, World War Two happened, and Operation Overlord aka D-Day was planned with or without him leading the charge. And that’s what concerns this film written by an historian called Alex Von Tunzelmann. Other than that, this film bears scant relation to documented historical fact. Brian Cox gives the cigar-chomping depressive egotist with his finger on the nation’s pulse some wellie, Miranda Richardson does her best as his long-suffering but intuitive other half, and John Slattery does nothing to enhance his reputation as Ike. Why? Etc. At least the map room is nice. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky.

A United Kingdom (2016)

A_United_Kingdom_poster.jpg

White Queen Black King. The story of an inter-racial post-WW2 marriage with a difference – he’s the king of a South African nation, she’s a British secretary. Guy Hibbert adapted Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar which tells the true story of a scandalous union.  David Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, who is awaiting his role while his uncle is Regent of Bechuanaland (present-day Botswana) and Rosamund Pike is the London woman who meets him at the local Missionary Society where her sister (Laura Carmichael) does charitable work (dancing with black men). When they marry against the British Government’s wishes (it’s a sensitive time for the region because apartheid is being officially sanctioned) they don’t get any warmer a welcome in Africa from his family than they did in London from her parents. Seretse discovers the British have permitted a US mining company to exploit land on his country’s border and he wants his land’s rights established over the prospecting. The couple are forcibly separated as the British try to reason with him and when he goes to London he finds he has been banished while she languishes without him, hospitalised first from diphtheria and then pregnancy. There are political battles to be fought …  The real story, as it transpires in the credits sequence, was where the meat was. This is coy on everything – sex, family, politics, race – a politically correct take on a history that is all about exploitation. Neither fish nor fowl, it’s a strange, unbalanced piece of work which makes you constantly question, But what’s happening over there? It’s as though the real story is happening right outside the frame. They misplaced the camera and missed it entirely. Directed by Amma Assante, who does nothing to make this potentially fascinating colonial tale of race, royalty and rivalry remotely interesting.

Born to be Blue (2015)

Born to be Blue poster.png

This faux biography of a particular episode in Chet Baker’s life plays fast and loose with the truth – which is not really what you expect. Ethan Hawke is Baker in 1954, when he’s the James Dean of jazz, getting his first hit of heroin; then he’s Baker in 1966, making a film about himself, when his dealer breaks his front teeth and almost ruins his playing career. He takes up with Jane (Carmen Ejogo) the actress playing his ex-wife Elaine and endures the usual cycle of movie portrayals of jazz musicians/junkies:  getting in trouble with the cops, making good with his parents, cleaning up, getting his girl pregnant, getting a chance again, getting hooked again. The big scene – Baker singing My Funny Valentine, the one everyone knows – doesn’t add up to much dramatically speaking despite it being quite literally the sweet spot in his career. The big irony in this interpretation is that he berates his father (Stephen McHattie) for giving up on his talent but then he has so little belief in his own that he thinks he needs heroin to play again at Birdland – a long sought gig  – after he’s got accustomed to his dentures. There are some lines thrown away about the difference between east and west coast music and Baker’s desperate quest to impress Miles Davis. The other subtext of Baker’s story was his weird desire to be part of the black community – hence his relationships with black women one presumes. This just raises more questions than it can answer. A bleak, joyless film that never conveys the utterly unfathomable improvisable beauty of a genre that I love. Written and directed by Robert Budreau.

American Made (2017)

American Made theatrical.jpg

A jaunty trip from the Deep South into and around Central and South America tracing the evolution of the drugs trade in the US with a little assistance from the CIA who blackmailed TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) over his illegal importing of Cuban cigars back in the day. He soon finds himself taking photographs on reconnaissance flights when he’s hired by ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) an agent who’s getting all the kudos for these dangerous incursions – Barry’s shot at regularly over rebel training camps. Told from his point of view, talking to camera during December 1985 through February 1986 to account for how things have come to a pretty complicated pass, the comic book approach, particularly when it comes to how he’s hired by what would become the Medellin cartel (including Pablo Escobar), lends pace to what could otherwise be an utterly confusing story. He’s done for drug dealing – disavowed – rehired by the CIA – rehired by the cartel – involved in bringing in terrorists to train for a revolution initiated by  Washington – and makes a shedload of money which is eventually threatened by his dumb brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones). All pretty recent history in various territories. And then there’s the matter of Col. Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair. Seal, in other words, was the plaything of the CIA who nearly brought down Washington and there are some nice little cameos including a conversation with Junior ie Dubya not to mention a crucial call from Governor Bill Clinton. This is told in dazzling fashion with graphics and maps to illustrate the sheer nuttiness of the situation.  This is what was going on with the Sandinistas?! Cruise is wholly convincing as a good-time boy entering unknown territory with a breezy cavalier performance that is truly engaging in a crime story that has echoes of Catch Me If You Can in its tone. The speed with which Seal becomes a drugs and arms dealer is whiplash-inducing so the aesthetic of fast and loose is in keeping with the casual expedience of him, his family and eventually, his life. This is what happens when you train South Americans to supply drugs and kill (even if half the Contras went AWOL and kept well out of harm’s way once they got into the US). The clusterf**k that occurs when the CIA abandons Seal and the DEA, FBI, police and ATF turn up at his aerodrome in Mena simultaneously is a hoot and the aerial feats are phenomenal. An astonishing tale, told with verve.  Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman.

Detroit (2017)

Detroit theatrical.jpg

I’m still so 1997 I thought Kathryn Bigelow was making a film about Kent State, which I at least knew about. Instead, it appears she and writer Mark Boal teamed up again to make another political film, this time about the race riots in Detroit in July 1967 and an incident of astonishing police brutality in the Algiers Motel during which three innocent black men were murdered and a handful more were beaten to a pulp. Adapted from witness testimony, this isn’t quite biographical but attempts to be factual and realistic. When the police break up a party for returning Nam vets in an illegal after-hours venue the black community responds by firing at them, looting stores and rioting leading to a city-wide curfew. You gotta agree with the councillor who asks an assembled crowd why they feel compelled to burn down their own property. And therein lieth the problem, at least at the beginning. This is a most unreasonable riot. Out of context. Then a bunch of cracker cops led by Krauss (Will Poulter) open fire on looters and he chases one, shooting him in the back. Back at the PD, they can’t decide to prefer murder charges against him so he and his compadres Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor, looking particularly gormless, like Dougal in Father Ted) are let back on the streets where the Army and the National Guard are swarming, taking potshots at perceived sniper fire. Dismukes (John Boyega) is security at a grocery store and when he saves a black kid from the Army he earns the title Uncle Tom.  A new band in town The Dramatics are about to go onstage when their showcase is shut down and one of them, Larry (Algee Smith) takes refuge at the Algiers with Fred (Jacob Latimore) where they befriend two white girls hanging out at the pool. One of the girls’ black friends Carl (Jason Mitchell) is also holed up at the motel’s annex and he fires a starter pistol.  It brings the cracker cops down on them with Dismukes attending the scene to try to prevent any violence but Krauss has already shot Carl in the back . Their interrogation technique involves pretending to shoot the men one by one as they separate them from the group in an attempt to get them to reveal the whereabouts of the non-existent rifle and a soldier Dismukes brought coffee joins in the party … This is more impressive the longer it goes on, but it does go on. And on.  It starts problematically and the characterisation is in many ways too on-the-nose if not stereotypical but the revelation of systemic corruption, the decision of the eventual trial jury (it all seems like a preview of coming OJ attractions in reverse) and the racism inherent in society so overwhelming that even without knowing the conclusion (included in a text over real-life photographs) we figure it out for ourselves,  is finally wearying. The persona of Dismukes seems deployed to present a good – if stupid – black man:  he’s predictably identified as a perpetrator for the police in a lineup despite having protected the white girl in question. Maybe it’s true but it doesn’t ring right for this dramatic purpose. The overlength (and underwritten) sequence of mind-numbing violence in the annex doesn’t help. It feels like it’s straight out of a seventies exploitationer, particularly in the shots of Flynn, sweating out his hatred before applying the butt of his gun to another black man’s head. Perhaps it’s a story that needed to be told but it’s unbalanced. There simply isn’t enough drama to portray a story of innocent people caught up in something that – as presented here – was woefully avoidable in a context that is under-explained. This is a failure of screenwriting, with the lingering suspicion that a true depiction of a police conspiracy, social destruction and legal corruption was literally beyond the pale. What a pity.

Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017)

Whitney Can I Be Me

She died from a broken heart.  Nick Broomfield’s signature appearances in his documentary films are the stuff of comedy – headphones half off, boom in hand, chasing his subjects and trying to weasel information from them so that you wind up feeling sorry for all of them, even the serial killers. That doesn’t happen here, more’s the pity. This archive documentary about Whitney Houston co-directed with Rudi Dolezal is of a different variety, but continuing in the vein of Kurt and Courtney, another devastating portrait of a heinous showbiz marriage and possible murder [allegedly].  This was constrained by the inevitable limits on music usage and archives. Houston was from the hood but the daughter of gospel singer (Cissy) and businessman (John) who would become her eventual managers. Her brothers supplied her with drugs from a very young age (pre-teen) and she stole her mother’s moves and the career her mother felt should have been hers. Early footage shows her singing in her mom’s church aged 12. By the time she was 19 she was found by music supremo Clive Davis and taken on by Arista and appearing on TV: she looks so innocent but she was far from it. She sold an incredible number of records – records that were never too black, because if they were, they were redone. When she appears at the 1989 Soul Train Awards it’s a watershed moment – a cataclysmic devastation in her life because she was booed for being too white and she met Bobby Brown. She’d had a woman in her life since they met back in East Orange, Robyn Crawford, and it was known they were in a relationship. Crawford travelled with her as her personal assistant (I met someone who was PA on one of her music videos and he claimed he had to literally pull Houston off Crawford in her trailer to get her to set.) The newspapers were sniffing around. Houston was into hard drugs, Brown was into liquor. When they got together, they both got into – both, with the tragic outcome that forms the undertow to this sordid story. Interviews with backing singers, band members and a former security director make it clear (eventually) that Brown gave her street cred, she gave him … money and opportunity. He dragged her down to his level, as one quip has it. He preyed on her insecurities and lack of self-esteem (she wore wigs and weaves because her hair wouldn’t grow) and was sleeping with every woman he could. She struggled with wanting to make music that was more authentically black in a business that was trying to do crossover. These interviews are by far the film’s most satisfying sequences. After The Bodyguard came out she could no longer shop at the mall:  she was a superstar and people just stared at her all the time. By the time she made Waiting to Exhale she OD’d. Crawford was stuck between the co-dependent couple and a daughter entered the picture. Remarks are made about the awful family and the pressures of paying a huge entourage – she herself is interviewed in various stages of her career (and addiction) and comments about always having to be the ballerina on the stage. Her musical director (and drummer) talks about watching her every night, seeing her back expand as she would reach those incredible notes and likening her to a boxer. By 1999, when Whitney did her final tour, Crawford was apparently forced out because the difficulties between her and Brown had become overwhelming. It is the second tentpole disaster in this narrative. Whitney then became more drug-dependent. It’s a pity that Broomfield wasn’t (presumbly for legal reasons) able to step into some of these interviews more. An interview with Burt Bacharach (who worked with her cousin Dionne Warwick) makes it clear why she was somewhat notoriously thrown off a proposed live TV broadcast – missing cues, singing the wrong songs…  When she did a Michael Jackson tribute she was horrifically emaciated. Brown’s sister was (if you believe anything in those National Enquirer stories of yore…) fully participatory in those drug binges – principally crack cocaine – but she just talks about how fun it was living with Whitney and Bobby and there’s bizarre home movie footage of them re-enacting Ike and Tina Turner in a take on What’s Love Got to Do With It. It is known but not said directly that their small daughter witnessed them and then became a junkie herself. They were living in Atlanta, well away from Cissy, whose pernicious shadow hangs over this film.  Houston’s father sued her for $100 million when he was 81 and dying and Whitney was on the TV interview circuit trying to (literally) cover her tracks. An interview by Oprah Winfrey with Cissy Houston upon the publication of her memoir makes it clear that her daughter’s drug addiction was one issue (she saw her ‘really high’ back in the late 80s) but her Lesbianism (or bisexuality) was a bridge too far:  another commentator generalises and says female homosexuality is absolutely not discussed in the black community. And yet another says, If Robyn had been accepted, everything would have been different. This begins and ends with Whitney Houston’s awful death on the eve of the Grammys right before Clive Davis’ annual party, in February 2012. This is a sad, shocking, disturbing and sometimes nuanced piece of work but never surprising.  The 1999 tour footage is overused by dint of necessity. The interviews with the couple together, invariably monopolised by Brown, are blood curdling. But in a sense we’ve seen it all before, particularly with Amy. It conforms to a terrible pattern of makeover, overwork and addiction that characterises the careers of great performers whose narrow worlds are run by money-grubbing charlatans and hangers-on and leeches. The film is called Can I Be Me because that was Whitney Houston’s favourite of her songs and what she always wanted to be and nobody would allow it. A modern tragedy.