Their Finest (2016)

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Why do you think that people like films? It’s because stories are structured; have a shape, a purpose, a meaning; and when things gone bad they’re still a part of a plan; there’s a point to them. Unlike life. In 1940 London former secretary and comic strip writer Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired by the Ministry of Information to insert more realistic female banter in propaganda films. She’s shacked up with failing war artist Ellis Cole (Jack Huston) who becomes jealous of her job while he can’t get an exhibition of his work. She starts working on a story from the newspapers about identical twin sisters who supposedly rescued soldiers at Dunkirk but discovers it was exaggerated. While she is struggling with the screenplay she falls for screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and rows with self-centred actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) whose career is basically at an end.  All the while the German bombs rain down on London and they’ve got to use an American war hero (Jake Lacy) who’s never acted before , turning journalistic fiction into a movie to entertain the masses and get America into the war … There’s a great idea buried here under a mound of rubble caused by the German bombs. Gaby Chiappe’s adaptation of Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half can’t decide whether it’s a comedy or a drama and at its heart is an issue of research – and the lack of it. There are some good insights into the kind of wartime propaganda inserted into films of the era and nice pastiches but they’re overly obvious. The second (major) death is quite laughable which is presumably not what was intended. Rachael Stirling offers some terrific oppositional feminism as Phyl from the Minstry and Nighy steals every scene as the actor who turns out to be human after all. Jeremy Irons enjoys himself as the Secretary of War.  Another somewhat tentative tragicomic British film from Danish director Lone Scherfig (after An Education and One Day) with Arterton more or less delightful in a performance which attempts depth but drops the Welsh accent PDQ and Nighy gives his best Leslie Howard, sort of.  Harmless and inoffensive irony which I suppose is a kind of propaganda in itself.

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That’s Not Me (2017)

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I don’t want to be half of something. Polly Cuthbert (Alice Foulcher) dreams of making it as an actor but she’s very picky and when her agent advises her to take the role of an albino on a popular soap opera she turns it down because ‘it would be like blacking up.’ She’s holding out for an audition on an HBO show with Jared Leto. She keeps on working as a checkout girl at a cinema. Her less talented but commercially minded (literally!) identical twin Amy takes the soap role instead and gets the audition with Leto and becomes famous. Polly’s dreams are shattered and she’s mistaken for her famous sister at every turn, and she scrambles to catch up – juggling terrible auditions (where she’s mistaken for Amy), painfully awkward dates and her underwhelming job. Running out of options, she takes an ill-advised trip to the coalface of celebrity dreams: Los Angeles, California where she’s months late for pilot season and rooms with an old drama school friend who had a tiny role in a David Lynch film.  There Polly begins to realise that maybe there’s no such thing as ‘making it’ after all and she comes back to Oz after two terrible days and takes advantage of people who believe she’s Amy – until she gets found out and winds up on the front of a scandal mag … Terrific comedy dealing with a quarter-life crisis in a brilliantly conceived twins psychodrama – why does Polly even want to act, asks a clearly impoverished Zoe Cooper (Isabel Lucas) when she turns up at her doorstep in LA and reveals her own spiralling madness as she empties fish heads on a studio desk in an attempt to get a role in an all-female remake of Jaws? Because her parents told her she could, whimpers Polly. It’s just not good enough:  she hasn’t even acted in anything since 2011. Her sister Amy exacts a wonderful revenge which turns on her ability to act – and it’s ideal. Wonderfully judged script by Foulcher and debut feature director Gregory Erdstein in a story that’s tonally right at every turn. It’s no accident that Polly’s favourite film is It’s a Wonderful Life:  let’s not forget (as she she has) that it’s all about someone giving up on their dreams to live a suicidally depressing utterly humdrum life. Foulcher is fantastic.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)

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Gorgeous mouth. You knew you’d get sore lips walking her home.  Wannabe actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) is rooming in Primrose Hill in 1978 when he’s introduced to the girl next door who just happens to be former movie star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening). He teaches her disco dancing and they swiftly embark on an affair that takes him to New York and California where she lives in a trailer overlooking the ocean. They split up when her absences raise his suspicions but a couple of years later he receives a call that she’s collapsed while performing in a play and Gloria ends up living in his family’s Liverpool home with himself and his parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) and it appears she is now desperately ill … Turner’s memoir was published many years ago in the aftermath of Grahame’s death and the almost too good to be true story receives a very sympathetic adaptation to the screen, erotic and poignant, wistful and revealing. Artfully told backwards and forwards with inventive visual transitions, Bening and Bell give marvellously empathetic performances in a film that revels in its theatre and movie references, with particular homage paid to Bogey (Grahame’s co-star in In a Lonely Place) and Romeo and Juliet, which she so wanted to play on stage and whose romantic tragedy proves appropriate for the penultimate scene. Turner knew so little about Grahame he had to wait to see her onscreen at a retrospective watching Naked Alibi as Grahame sat beside him. Their first date is at Alien during which he nearly barfs with fear and she screams with laughter. Twenty-nine years and a lifetime of cinema and marriages (four, plus four children) separate them and their arguments (spurred by her discovery of cancer which she conceals from him) split them up and somehow she wants to spend her final days in the bosom of his loud Liverpudlian family. His parents put off their trip to Australia to see their oldest offspring, while brother Joe (Stephen Graham) objects to her monopolising of the family home. Bening captures her tics – some very good use of her famous mouth in particular scenes, some adept and brittle posing, and great attitude. Her own mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is a true thespian while her sister Joy (Frances Barber) tells Peter the reality of Gloria’s much-married past (he had no idea she’d scandalously married her stepson). That triggers mutual revelations of bisexuality. Both the leads have to play the gamut of emotions, till near death do they part as they are driven by their desire for each other and their fractious situation. Adapted by Matt Greenhalgh and directed by Paul McGuigan, this is a rather splendid look at what could happen to Hollywood stars when the machine spat them out and they were the unemployed victims of rancid rumours spread by way of explanation; but it’s also a deeply felt account of an unlikely relationship which was a true friendship at its core between a vulnerable woman who wanted to be treated decently and the first man to treat her with respect. Elegant.

Trumbo (2015)

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You talk like a radical but you live like a rich guy.  In the early Forties in Hollywood Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is the highest paid scriptwriter but he’s also a member of the Communist Party. In a 1947 purge led by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott) Trumbo and several of his fellow writers are hounded into appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington where they go off-script and ten of them wind up being imprisoned and their careers are ruined. When they get out they have to rebuild and face down their betrayers as they scrabble to write for the black market … Adapted from Bruce Cook’s biography of the blacklisted screenwriter, this is so good on so many levels. It takes a relatively complex history of the Hollywood anti-communist campaign and makes it understandable and it comprehensively names all the people who were behind it as well as communicating the terrible fear that descended upon the creative industries when what America was really fighting was creeping liberalism (which it learned decades later and which was also feared by the communists). It accurately portrays the documented differences among the Hollywood Ten and how they were perceived by their peers (not entirely positively especially following their self-aggrandising performances at the HUAC hearings) and the terrible compromises and betrayals between friends:  Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) didn’t work for a year and gave names of those men already behind bars. How to win against the oppressive Hollywood machine drives so much of their post-prison experience – sue them like the composite figure of Arlen Hird (Louis CK) wants to do? or do what they’re good at and beat the bastards at their own game? like Trumbo does – and how apposite that Trumbo was selected to rewrite Spartacus after winning the Oscar for both Roman Holiday and The Brave One under a front and then a pseudonym. What raises this again above other films dramatising the same situation is the sheer wit and brio with which it is written and performed – which you’d frankly expect of anything with Trumbo’s name attached:  kudos to John McNamara. It also clarifies the extent to which this was a self-administered situation – these guys were screwed over by the studios voluntarily, not Government decree. Cranston is perfect in the role which is suffused with sadness and smarts and he embodies the writer we all really want to be – smoking like a train, drinking like a fish, tranked up on benzedrine and writing in the bathtub. A wonderfully ironic touch for a man who didn’t wallow. It’s wonderful to watch him deal with his daughter Nicola (Elle Fanning) become as politicised as him and he must assume a different parental role as she matures:  he admires her but he can’t be disturbed to get out of the tub and celebrate her birthday because he’s got a deadline.  There are great scenes:  when Trumbo notices that Robinson sold a Van Gogh to pay for the writers’ legal defence;  the writing of the cheapie scripts for the King Brothers. This is a complicated portrait of a fascinating and contradictory individual. Diane Lane has a thankless and almost dialogue-free part as his brilliant wife Cleo but her charismatic presence transforms her scenes:  she is duly thanked by Trumbo in the film’s final scene in 1970 during a Writers Guild ceremony. John Goodman is fantastic as the Poverty Row producer Frank King who meets a Motion Picture Alliance thug with a baseball bat and leaves him in no doubt as to what will happen if he gets the way of his hiring Trumbo because he’s in the business for money and pussy and doesn’t care about politics.  There’s a fantastic scene sequence that illustrates the different working methodologies of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger:  Trumbo played them off one against the other to get his credits restored. The best tragicomic moment is perhaps in the clink when Trumbo encounters his nemesis J. Parnell Thomas who’s been imprisoned for a real crime – tax evasion. Trumbo was however convicted of one thing – contempt. He was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and this film does not shirk from that fact.  Directed sensitively and with panache by Jay Roach who has made a film that is literate, eloquent and humane. I am Spartacus.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

 

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I told you he was a spirit. If you’re his friend, you can talk to him whenever you want. Just close your eyes and call him… It’s me, Ana… It’s me Ana… Life in a remote Spanish village in the 1940s is calm and uneventful. Two little sisters see a censored cut of Frankenstein in a travelling cinema, and seven-year old Ana (Ana Torrent) starts wandering the countryside in search of this kind creature after Isabel (Isabel Telleria) tells her the movies are all fake …. Written by director Victor Erice with Angel Fernandez-Santos and Francisco J. Querejeta, this is the classic of Spanish cinema. However it’s very difficult to see why. It’s an allegorical political story set in a non-descript era (actually meant to be the 1940s but who can tell? And how?! The hairstyles are atypical for starters). So this is a coded version of life after General Franco. After a wiltingly slow beginning, Ana locates a soldier in a deserted farmhouse near her home which the girls share with their parents –  scholar father (Fernando Fernan Gomez) whose narrative ramblings about a glass beehive are supposed to signify political turmoil (presumably) and her lonely and permanently sleepy letter-writing mother (Teresa Gimpera). Ana mistakes the soldier for the type emblemised by Frankenstein’s monster. When she goes missing after misunderstanding the notion of ‘spirit’ she inspires a search while Isabel learns the error of misleading her younger sister. Frankly I don’t get this at all:  it clearly had huge significance in Seventies Spain but the references are beyond me. Very little happens. And it feels dreadfully paced. And since so much rests on the shoulders of the child because at its heart it is a story of childhood and innocence and fantasy it doesn’t help that I didn’t like her or the way she was directed.  You could never mistake this very dark little girl for the daughter of the very blond actors playing her parents. The aural link between the girls’ father and Frankenstein’s monster was misguided at best and confuses things.  It doesn’t work at the basic level of narrative. I waited a long time to see this. Oh well.

 

 

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

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Murderer, you killed them. You killed them all. It’s 1906. Helen is a young mute woman (Dorothy McGuire) working in a New England mansion as a domestic to bedridden Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore) who lives with her professor stepson Albert (gorgeous George Brent), a secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) who used to be his girlfriend and is now romancing her newly returned son Steven (Gordon Oliver), verbally abused Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood), drunken housekeeper Mrs Oates (Elsa Lanchester) and her husband (Rhys Williams).  A maniac is killing off people with disabilities. After Mrs Warren warns her of the danger to her personal safety she makes plans to leave the dark old house with her boyfriend Dr Parry (Kent Smith), but it is too late. The maniac is in the house, and she is his prey… Mel Dinelli made his screenwriting debut with this adaptation of Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch – the  idea for the staircase came from a Mary Roberts Rinehart novel.  It’s a beautifully mounted gripping Gothic suspenser with an ideal setting, atmosphere and occasional flashes of director Robert Siodmak’s Expressionist roots by DoP Nicholas Musuraca, underscoring the murderousness at its core. Spinechilling from start to finish. 

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)

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I’m going to make you wish you were deadComposure magazine advice columnist Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) really wants to write about important things like politics but she’s under editorial pressure. She tries pushing the boundaries of what she can do in her new piece about how to get a man to leave you in 10 days after best friend Michelle (Kathryn Hahn) has yet another breakup. Her editor Lana (Bebe Neuwirth), loves it. Advertising executive Ben Berry (Matthew McConaughey) is so confident in his romantic prowess that he thinks he can make any woman fall in love with him and makes a bet with his boss in time for the company ball in 10 days. If he manages it he’ll get the contract for a new diamond company.  His in-house rivals Judy and Judy (Michael Michele and Shalom Harlow) set Ben up to meet Andie after they learn of Andie’s project at a magazine conference. When Andie and Ben wind up meeting their plans backfire and they do everything they can to meet their targets …  You think you know what you’re getting with a battle of the sexes comedy – after all we’ve been here before with some of the screwball greats. However where this falls down in between some very bright comedic action is ironically in the dialogue which has a vicious undertow but isn’t the consistently witty banter we want. Then there’s the meet the family stuff which underscores the sentimental base. Nonetheless Hudson is good as the smart as hell writer with her wicked conniving schemes and that glint in her eye. There’s excellent support including from her Le Divorce co-stars Neuwirth and Thomas Lennon, who’s one of Ben’s entourage. The ending is too sappy by half! This is an adaptation of Michele Alexander and Jeanie Long’s self-help book by Burr Steers, Kristen Buckley and Brian Regan. Directed by Donald Petrie who’s been around the romcom block.

Brief Encounter (1945)

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I had no thoughts at all. Only an overwhelming desire never to feel anything ever again. Returning home from a shopping trip to a nearby town where she regularly spends the afternoons taking in a matinee at the cinema, bored suburban housewife Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is thrown by happenstance into an acquaintance with conscientious doctor Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) who is also unhappily married with a child but finds solace in his work. Their casual friendship soon develops during their weekly visits into something more emotionally fulfilling than either expected and they must wrestle with the potential havoc their deepening relationship would have on their lives as they run into her friends and start to tell lies to cover for their encounters.  The lives of those they love are impacted despite their respective spouses remaining unaware of their infidelities and Alec considers a job offer in South Africa which sends Laura over the edge … This meticulous evocation of forbidden desire, class and repression has always been ripe for parody yet its virutosity of construction, performance and emotion means that this doomed romance adapted from the 1936 play Still Life by Noël Coward (part of the ten-act cycle Tonight at 8.30) has stood the test of time. It came out right after the conclusion of World War 2 and is enormously evocative of a period when trains ran on time and people strove to do the right thing.  The couple are in their forties which makes their predicament oddly more affecting and the constrictions of social coding understandable.  It was adapted by director David Lean with producer Anthony Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame and opens out Coward’s play, with the frustrated lovers disturbed in a friend’s flat and they take a boating trip not possible in the stage version.  Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is part of everyone’s cinematic DNA at this point and the recording here was by Eileen Joyce, adeptly placed to heighten the tension of Laura’s desire tempered by her middle class morality. The final scenes, reminiscent of Anna Karenina followed by the banal resolution in the marital home, makes the adulterous but unconsummated passionate relationship all the more tragic. Gulp. Quite devastating, then.

The Shape of Water (2017)

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I would say take care of your teeth and fuck a lot more. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute, isolated woman who works as a cleaning lady in a hidden, high-security top secret government research laboratory in 1962 Baltimore. Her life changes when she discovers the lab’s classified asset – a mysterious, scaled amphibian creature (Doug Jones) from South America that lives in a water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with her new friend, she soon learns that its fate and very survival lies in the hands of a hostile and violently sadistic government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) and a marine biologist Dimitri (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is actually a Russian spy. With the help of her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her next door neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay out of work commercial illustrator, she finds a way to save him and alter her own reality … It all seems so very unlikely – plagiarism suits notwithstanding – Guillermo Del Toro’s homage to his 50s childhood fave, Creature from the Black Lagoon. However this moves like the clappers with just enough time for the very mannered Hawkins to find an appropriate character to suit her mobile features. Tonally it sits somewhere amid the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet with added masturbation and violence, and the creature – except for one appalling scene which as a cat-lover I can’t even bring myself to recall – is remarkably sympathetic. You might call it a politically correct fairytale about interracial sex (it’s a pretty crass allegory) for the snowflake generation – me, I liked it anywho because it portrays a yearning and an empathy that is very appealing and well played. Co-written with Vanessa Taylor.

Celebrity (1998)

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I’ve become the person I’ve always hated, but I’m happier. Novelist Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) is in a crisis – he’s got writer’s block and everything is falling apart and his two critically panned novels are such failures he has to work as a travel writer.  It was seeing all the losers at his high school reunion that triggered his decision to divorce his sexually bashful and rather neurotic wife, Robin (Judy Davis), and he dives into a new job as an entertainment journalist. His assignments take him to the swankiest corners of Manhattan, but as he jumps from one lavish party to another and engages in numerous empty romances, with some seriously combative actresses and models keeping him busy, he starts to doubt the worth of his work. He’s writing screenplays on the side to keep in the creative game hoping some of his interview subjects will give him the time of day. Meanwhile, top TV producer Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna) falls for Robin and introduces her to the world of celebrity. Suddenly she finds herself with a TV show and Lee finds himself competing with his ex-wife … The celebrity-packed ensemble in this Woody Allen film cannot conceal that this is one of the many in his body of work which disappoints – that said, there are some great lines, filled with truth about the horrors of middle life:  the sheer mundanity of marriage, the compromises, the failures, the lack of a career, the diverging paths couples might take following their divorce. And there’s a truly horrible scene when Lee meets one of the critics who wrote a devastating review of one of his books. There’s not a little self-parody in this monochrome outing (shot by Sven Nykvist), with Tony sneering about film director John Papadakis (Andre Gregory), He’s very arty, pretentious, one of those assholes who shoots all his films in black and white. Branagh isn’t a great lead for such material in which he is basically a hammy avatar for all Allen’s own starring roles and his accent occasionally grates:  as he treads and sleeps his way through New York society you wonder at his unfeasible romantic success. Davis isn’t a whole lot better. But there are many bright moments in this unfocused work, as actors, artists and models step forward and do their ‘bit’ with some bristling lines in a film which in another universe might have wanted to be La Dolce Vita but is really a cynical trawl through misplaced modern values while paradoxically extolling them. There’s a very funny scene when Robin asks a prostitute Nina (Bebe Neuwirth) who’s been on her show for some training in oral sex and her mentor chokes on a banana. We even muster sympathy for the besotted Lee when he scorns his devoted book editor galpal Bonnie (Famke Janssen) for the unreliable actress Nola (Winona Ryder) and has to watch her rip up the only copy of his third, potentially brilliant novel and see the pages fly away from a boat at South Street Seaport. A Nobel Prize-winning author whom she’s also editing turns out a surprisingly similar book on the same subject (this happened to a friend of mine minus the outing to Sweden). Donald Trump makes an appearance as an interviewee, declaring his intention to tear down St Patrick’s Cathedral and replace it with a Big Beautiful Building and Leonardo Di Caprio plays a bratty druggy movie star into threesomes – and foursomes. Bruce Jay Friedman makes his second 1998 movie appearance (the other was You’ve Got Mail) most likely because he used to write fake stories about celebrities for fan magazines! There’s a unique opportunity to visit the late, lamented Elaine’s where Woody used to play clarinet every Monday night (hence his absence from the Academy Awards over the years). Like a lot of Allen’s work, both lesser and greater, this feels a lot better now that a lot of time has passed even if it’s a tad overlong. Weird. I wrote about you before I even knew you existed.