Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth

Could you do without me? Northern England 1865.  Newly sold into marriage to an older man, rich industrialist Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton), Katherine (Florence Pugh) finds herself confined to the house and starved of companionship. Her husband can’t or won’t have sex with her but makes her strip and masturbates while she faces a wall. Forced to spend her days in endless tedium, dining with his bullying father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), when her husband is called away to one of his collieries she starts to spend more time with maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and begins a passionate and fiery relationship with a young groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) from the estate, beginning a conflict that will end in violence. Following her husband’s demise at her hands and after hiding his body, a surprise arrives on her doorstep in the form of her husband’s illegitimate son Teddy (Anton Palmer) accompanied by his grandmother Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel) throwing Katherine’s plans into disarray .You’ve got fatter. Adapted by Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, this austere treatment of a rural tragedy is as contained as anti-heroine Pugh by corsetry and decency until sensuality spills forth and all hell breaks loose.  This is the distinctive Pugh’s breakout performance following The Falling and TV’s Marcella and her polarising character anchors a narrative which is ostensibly feminist but ultimately offers a critique of female power and how it is achieved and sustained. Perhaps the casting of black actors in the story complicates the issue of power by raising another issue, that of of race, in what is otherwise a melodrama of sex and class. Ultimately what happens when people are undone by desire can be murderous. It is a drama entirely without ornament. Directed by William Oldroyd. She is a disease

Venetian Bird (1952)

Venetian Bird

Aka The Assassin. A thousand lira should take care of your ethics. English private detective Charles Mercer (Richard Todd) is deployed by a French insurance company to find a brave Italian war hero who is to be rewarded for his assisting of the Allies in WW2. But from the moment Mercer arrives in Venice his first contact is murdered in a shop and he finds himself on the wrong side of the law – he’s the prime suspect. After enquiring about the mysterious Boldesca (Sydney Tafler) at a museum where the art department  is run by the lovely Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok) the trail leads to a glassblowing factory at Murano where he discovers he has wandered into the plot of a coup d’état run by Count Boria (Wolf Rilla) and Lieutenant Longo (John Bailey) and it turns out that the supposedly dead mystery man Uccello (John Gregson) is very much alive and well and ready for action with an important figure visiting the city the following day … There is nothing for you in Venice. Adapted by Victor Canning from his novel, this has the impression of a Third Man-lite and if it doesn’t have that film’s canted chiaroscuro angles or shooting expertise it has an interesting location and an engrossing if initially confusing scenario. Todd (who was Ian Fleming’s preferred choice to play James Bond) acquits himself well in a narrative which involves a lot of running and jumping and standing still behind statues;  Bartok is suitably enigmatic as the woman with a secret;  and Margot Grahame gets some fantastically dry lines in her role as Rosa, a woman of a certain age:  I have never kept a man under my bed in my life. There are sly laughs to be had at the wholly incongruous casting of Gregson and Sid James, of all people, as native Italians. Directed by Ralph Thomas, but one is left wondering how a film of this ambition would have turned out if a master stylist like Carol Reed had taken hold of such promising material:  instead of a nighttime chase in the sewers of Vienna, we have a daytime chase across the rooftops of Venice and there is a political theme that was groundbreaking. The score is by Nino Rota. Produced by Betty Box. Out of weakness and confusion we shall create division and strength

Bombshell (2019)

Bombshell

I’m not a feminist, I’m a lawyer. When Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired following her on-air revelation that she supports an assault weapons ban, she slaps conservative TV channel Fox News founder and CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) with a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment.  But nobody comes forward to provide evidence of similar experiences, not even her protegée, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) who migrates to the Bill O’Reilly show, is fired her first day and takes the back elevator to Ailes’ office in her quest for advancement. Eventually Gretchen’s decision leads to Presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s bête noire, Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) coming forward with her own story, as well as multiple other women, eventually bringing the channel’s owners, the Murdoch family, into the fray... He handed me the power to hurt him. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when it comes to explaining the way the world turns, it has fallen to America’s comedy auteurs to Show and Tell. And here it’s director Jay Roach invading the body politic once more after the TV dramas Recount, Game Change and All the Way as well as the feature Trumbo. Humour helps but doesn’t really feature in this tawdry tale of three contrasting women who have oddly similar looks in the Barbie-style legs-out fashion cultivated by Ailes – and one scene where all the on-air women presenters are Spanxing it up and shoving five-inch heels onto their calloused feet shows the compromises intelligent gutsy women make visually to make it professionally on US TV, at least on Fox News. Theron’s transformation into Kelly is really something – she wears her work look as if she’s armed for war and her decision to finally take it to the bosses, with the backing of her husband Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass) at the same time as having to battle Trump mania in Summer 2016, tacks sharply when she allows the Presidential hopeful to get away with his menstruation Tweet, to her husband’s disgust. But, as she reminds him, she has to pay the bills. Kidman is good as the woman who has had the sense to record her meetings with Ailes, but is then sidelined with money and an NDA (maybe); and Robbie is impressively touching as the amalgamated character ‘Kayla’ who succumbs to Ailes, believing everyone else must have done it to get ahead (To get ahead, you have to give a little head, as Gretchen regales her lawyers). When Kayla crumbles at the truth, it’s devastating. The fact that these women believe in the political piffle they peddle is what makes the film hold its fire because Kate McKinnon is cast as a secret Lesbian Hillary-supporter in their midst making the politics of it weaker in every sense; and there’s a pretty ludicrous scene when Ailes’ wife, newspaper editor Beth (Connie Britton) has her assistant ask if her sushi lunch is too liberal. (Perhaps it is this very daftness that makes the film’s point). And while the women’s histories shares similar contours, they do not support one another and Kelly’s producer Gil (Rob Delaney) reminds her that all the production team’s jobs are on the line. However Charles Randolph’s screenplay is fast-moving and literate, and there is great use of archive footage.  The female cast are just outstanding, with Lithgow quite horrifying as the disgusting old man who once hobnobbed with Nixon but now intimidates ambitious young women into hoicking up their skirts and a lot worse. The biggest irony? Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) gets to save the day. Sigh. Inspired by the accounts of the women who reported their experiences of harassment. Rule number one, Corporate America:  You don’t sue your boss

Veronika Voss (1982)

Veronika Voss

Aka Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss. Light and shadow; the two secrets of motion pictures. Munich 1955. Ageing Third Reich film star Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) who is rumoured to have slept with Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda Josef Goebbels, becomes a drug addict at the mercy of corrupt Lesbian neurologist Marianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer), who keeps her supplied with morphine, draining her of her money. Veronika attends at the clinic where Katz cohabits with her lover and a black American GI (Günther Kaufmann) who is also a drug dealer. After meeting impressionable sports writer Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) in a nightclub, Veronika begins to dream of a return to the silver screen. As the couple’s relationship escalates in intensity and Krohn sees the possibility of a story, Veronika begins seriously planning her return to the cinema – only to realise how debilitated she has become through her drug habit as things don’t go according to plan … Artists are different from ordinary people. They are wrapped up in themselves, or simply forgetful. The prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s penultimate film and one of his greatest, its predictive theme would have horrible resonance as he died just a few months after its release. Conceived as the third part of his economic trilogy including The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola, this reworking of or homage to Sunset Blvd., whose ideas it broadly limns, has many of his usual tropes and characters and even features his sometime lover Kaufmann who could also be seen in Maria Braun; while Krohn tells his fellow journalist girlfriend Henriette (Cornelia Froboess) of his experience and potential scoop but Veronika’s hoped-for return is not what he anticipates with a Billy Wilder-like figure despairing of her problem. Its message about life in 1950s Germany is told through the style of movies themselves without offering the kind of escapist narratives Veronika seems to have acted in during her heyday.  She’ll be your downfall. There’s nothing you can do about it. She’ll destroy you, because she’s a pitiful creature. Fassbinder was hugely influenced not just by Douglas Sirk but Carl Dreyer and this story is also inspired by the tragic life of gifted actress Sybille Schmitz, who performed in Vampyr.  She died in 1955 in a suicide apparently facilitated by a corrupt Lesbian doctor.  The unusually characterful Zech is tremendous in the role. She would later play the lead in Percy Adlon’s Alaska-set Salmonberries as well as having a long career in TV. She died in 2011. It’s an extraordinary looking film with all the possibilities of cinematography deployed by Xaver Schwarzenberger to achieve a classical Hollywood effect for a story that has no redemption, no gain, no safety, no love.  Fassbinder himself appears briefly at the beginning of the film, seated behind Zech in a cinema. This is where movie dreams become a country’s nightmare. All that lustrous whiteness dazzles the eye and covers so much. Screenplay by Fassbinder with regular collaborators Peter Märtesheimer and Pea Fröhlich.  Let me tell you, it was a joy for me that someone should take care of me without knowing I’m Veronika Voss, and how famous I am. I felt like a human being again. A human being!

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen

That Darn Cat! (1965)

That Darn Cat 1965

Do I look like Eliot Ness? Siamese pretty boy Darn Cat aka DC returns to the suburban home he shares with sisters Patti (Hayley Mills) and Ingrid aka Inkie Randall (Dorothy Provine) with a partly-inscribed watch replacing his collar after he follows bank robbers Iggy (Frank Gorshin) and Dan (Neville Brand) to their hideout where they’re hiding their kidnap victim Margaret Miller (Grayson Hall). Patti sees the news story and thinks the watch belongs to the woman and reports the case to the FBI who detail Agent Zeke Kelso (Dean Jones) to the case.  He has a really tough job tailing DC on his nighttime excursions trying to track down the robbers … D.C.’s a cat! He can’t help his instincts. He’s a hunter, just like you are. Only he’s not stupid enough to stand out in the pouring rain all day! Long and funny slapstick cat actioner with Mills utterly charming and Jones perfectly cast as the agent charged with following the titular feline. There are good jokes about surf movies, TV weather and nosy neighbours, with Elsa Lanchester a particular irritant. Roddy McDowall is a hoot as Gregory, the woefully misguided mama’s boy who serves as a brief romantic interest for Ingrid, mainly because he can drive her to work every day. Provine has a marvellous moment looking to camera in one of their scenes. Adapted by Bill Walsh and The Gordons, from their 1963 novel Undercover Cat, this has enough satirical elements to win over a wide audience. Bobby Darin sings the title song, composed by the Sherman brothers. You might recognise one of the two versatile Seal Point Siamese cats who play DC as the co-star of The Incredible Journey. Directed by Robert Stevenson. Sir, a mouse is no more permitted in here, than a man without a car

Elephant (2003)

Elephant

Get the fuck out of here, shit is going to happen. John (John McFarland) is being driven through the suburbs to school by his drunken father (Timothy Bottoms). Alex (Alex Frost) is a talented pianist being bullied at Watt High School, Oregon. He and his best friend slacker Eric (Eric Deulen) play video games, watch a documentary about Nazis, have sex in the shower and load up on guns. On their way into the building wearing camo gear and carrying black bags, Alex warns John not to go in. Elias (Elias McConnell) goes round the hallways photographing other students before going to the school newspaper office to develop his pictures. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) leaves the football field with girlfriend Carrie. Bespectacled outcast Michelle (Kristen Hicks) runs through the corridors and escapes to the library to avoid sports. Three bulimic girls gossip and end up in the Ladies’ Room. When the boys fail to explode propane bombs and prowl the corridors and library shooting everyone on sight, Acadia (Alicia Miles) freezes and Benny (Bennie Dixon) helps her escape through a window … Damn, they shot him. Gus Van Sant’s meditative exploration of the moments leading up to a Columbine high school-like massacre looks and feels less assured than it did upon release. Perhaps because unlike its source material (Alan Clarke’s BBC film Elephant, which was about sectarian politics in Northern Ireland) it is politically rootless unless you regard teenage alienation as justification for genocide and the inclusion of a TV documentary about Nazism adequate as rationale for unleashing senseless violence upon your contemporaries. Perhaps that is the point – that children and guns are just not a good mix, teenagers are unknowable and basically ungovernable, allowing them too much time on their own is a really bad idea because literally anything could happen in those burgeoning adults. The over the shoulder tracking shots down the school corridors and their repetitive nature bring us back to the same moments again and again giving the narrative a poetic rhythm and spatial familiarity, as does the auditory track which occasionally lapses into silence and then white noise, particularly when Alex is sitting in the cafeteria and we get a hint of the killings to come. There is no doubt that the very boring nature of the scenario and the real-time pacing lends an incremental tension to the situation. The biggest problem here is that the affectlessness of the protagonists means a conventional drama cannot be constructed and a moral is hard to discern while the filmmaker is attempting to get into these boys’ brains. That is the core of the story: there are things that people simply cannot get to grips with. The moment when a teacher approaches a student who’s just been shot dead at a classroom door and treats it as if it’s normal is simply staggering. Screenplay by Van Sant with controversial ‘memoirist’ JT LeRoy and Diane Keaton credited as producers on a project that started life as a documentary. Most importantly, have fun

Interiors (1978)

Interiors

I can’t seem to shake the real implication of dying. It’s terrifying. The intimacy of it embarrasses me. Interior designer Eve (Geraldine Page) and her husband, narcissistic corporate attorney Arthur (E.G. Marshall) split after decades of marriage and it comes as a shock to their three adult daughters when Eve attempts suicide:  tightly wound poet Renata (Diane Keaton), struggling Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) and actress Flyn (Kristin Griffith). Arthur’s new romance with vivacious artist Pearl (Maureen Stapleton) whom he wants to marry, introduces new tensions to the daughters’ own relationships – Joey’s with Mike (Sam Waterston), Renata’s with writer Frederick  (Richard Jordan) and there is a rift over Renata’s position as the family favourite. Arthur’s wedding at Eve’s old summer home brings everything to a head… She’s a vulgarian! Woody Allen’s first serious drama as writer/director is a mixed bag of influences, most obviously Chekhov, O’Neill and Bergman (and the scene slashed with the Cries and Whispers scarlet flourish is one of anguish). It’s a rumination on marriage, romantic behaviour, parenting and late-life desperation. There are moments of performance that are truly brilliant – the penultimate scene between Hurt and Page is astonishing. Stapleton is literally the story’s lifesaver. The end is shattering. You’ll live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to 

I Am Heath Ledger (2017)

I Am Heath Ledger wide

He felt life deeper than anyone I ever met. The first time I saw Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You I was stunned. A star was born, in his first film. He had started out without training in his native Australia, enjoyed what a friend terms ‘a sentimental education’ in his first serious relationship, with actress Lisa Zane when they co-starred in the TV series Roar, and bounded into an audition in Hollywood and got it first time out. He signed with an agent, Stephen Alexander, himself a newcomer to the industry and together they created his career. Acting is thinking about the world about you and the person you are. He was conscious of his lack of professional training and never went anywhere without a camera, shooting footage of himself prepping for roles and this documentary directed by Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray demonstrates the extent to which Ledger taught himself and built characters, paying attention to how he looked, moved, spoke, interacted, responded. The film is replete with that personal footage and boasts a narration excerpted from interviews Ledger did. He couldn’t turn down the opportunity to star opposite his icon Mel Gibson on The Patriot but suffered a crisis of confidence: Mel taught him to come in and out of character. His face was plastered over billboards to publicise A Knight’s Tale, a rollicking mediaeval lark that sent itself up anachronistically and he couldn’t handle the publicity machine’s requirements. He wanted fame but then when he got it, he didn’t want it. By the time Brokeback Mountain came around, he was ready. The film changed his life. Director Ang Lee wasn’t sure he could do the role but he said Ledger’s mouth was like a clenched fist, people had the impression that he barely spoke when in fact he had the most lines in the film – he just delivered them in a way that made you think he hadn’t said a word. He met Michelle Williams on set and they became parents to baby daughter Matilda, whom he adored. His appetite for life was astonishing:  he had energy like nobody else, sensing his time on earth was limited. His favourite place was Burning Man. He brought his friends from Perth there and to his home in California. He was an enthusiast particularly for Nick Drake with whom he felt a kinship, along with other musicians who died young, like Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain. He phoned and emailed at all hours of day and night; he turned up on people’s doorsteps for breakfast at five thirty and six AM;  he shot photos constantly and made music videos and surprised people with his ability to use cameras, to choreograph, to direct:  He had command of his vision. He was an artist first and foremost. He formed a company and intended directing features:  his first project was supposed to be The Queen’s Gambit –  he was so good at chess he was just a few points away from being a Grand Master. When he was offered the role of Joker in The Dark Knight he was fully confident. He had mastered the art of screen acting. He owned the part and he knew it. It would win him the Academy Award and many others, but they were posthumous. There are interviews with his friends, family, co-workers and those with musician Ben Harper and Naomi Watts are especially perceptive and emotional. Their hurt at his loss is palpable. His end was desperate:  he was working with Terry Gilliam on The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus with his sister alongside him in London as his assistant. He became seriously ill with pneumonia in terrible conditions – he was exhausted from the damp and cold, being held upside down from a bridge with water being poured on him didn’t help. He said his sleeping meds weren’t working and he couldn’t stop his mind racing, as dialogue coach Gerry Grennell recalls. He returned to an apartment in New York and the guy who spent his life communicating with people night and day suddenly wasn’t answering the phone. He was found dead 22nd January 2008.  He was just twenty-eight years old. This is a tender and thoughtful account of a brilliant and uniquely gifted young man and his death was a tragic loss to cinema. What he achieved as a major screen actor in a decade is unforgettable. Life is so short and it seems like a blink of an eye since I sent a text message to people during The Dark Knight, YOU HAVE TO SEE HEATH LEDGER!!! Written by Hart Snider. He always said, I have a lot to do. I don’t feel I have a lot of time

Heath Ledger with camera

The Accused (1988)

The Accused

There’s a whole crowd. Twenty-four year old Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) hangs out at The Mill bar where her friend Sally Fraser (Ann Hearn) is waiting tables. She is gang-raped on a pinball machine by three men who are egged on by a gathering of onlookers, one of whom Ken Joyce (Bernie Coulson) runs out to a phone booth to call the police. In hospital Sarah meets Assistant DA Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) who prosecutes the case but agrees to a deal which will ensure they serve time because she fears Sarah’s history and her drinking on the night in question will make her a poor witness. However Sarah is angry and rams the car of one of the men who led the cheerleading during her rape and Kathryn feels guilty, deciding to go after the men who encouraged the crime … She put on a show, pure and simple. Inspired by the notorious 1983 gang rape perpetrated upon Cheryl Araujo, this controversial film has lost none of its power. Foster is stunning as the ornery, spiky, confrontational yet eager to please working class girl while McGillis is solid as the prosecutor who feels guilt at betraying her client and then pushes for a fresh trial of the men who cheered on the violent crime. Screenwriter Tom Topor was hired by producer Dawn Steel when the Araujo trial became a national talking point and he interviewed dozens of victims, rapists, prosecutors and doctors to hear their stories and point of view. The inclusion of the reenactment is the difficult issue that remains – and it’s a tough one to decide whether it is necessary:  perhaps the depiction proves the point that nobody ever believes the woman and those who do are never going to admit it much less say they are the guilty parties. It is playing this card that actually gives the film its authority and resonance not least because a point of view camera is involved and Foster’s vulnerability is paradoxically exploited. More than that, the film tackles the immediate and impersonal aftermath of reporting a rape, the portrayal of rape in the press, the acceptance by women (it’s truly terrible when the friend turns a blind eye and runs out of the bar), the inevitability of victim blaming and shaming and the overwhelming stench of testosterone in the male-controlled world that sees women as lucky receptacles whether they like it or not. This collision of plain pictures and words speaks truth to power. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, who has such empathy for young people and such a gift for establishing time and place:  after all, this is the guy who made Over the Edge, probably the greatest film about teenagers. It was Foster’s first film after graduating Yale and if it hadn’t been a success she intended retiring from acting. She won the Academy Award for her magnificent performance. I kept saying No