The Reader (2008)

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Go to your literature, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Don’t go to the camps. Germany, 1958.  Fifteen-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirtysomething tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he falls ill with scarlet fever and she comes to his aid. Months later he visits her to thank her and she seduces him. They meet regularly and their relationship is passionate. She insists that he read books to her during their meetings. Reading first. Sex afterwards.  When Hanna abruptly moves away without informing him, Michael is heartbroken. Years later, while studying law at Heidelberg University, he is shocked to discover that Hanna is on trial for a brutal Nazi war crime when he is sent to observe a case at court. She admits to something that will incriminate her and ensure life imprisonment rather than say she is actually illiterate. She became a prison guard to hide her problem. What would you have done? Michael withholds the crucial information that could minimise her sentence. Ten years later he (Ralph Fiennes) is divorced and unhappy. His daughter lives with his ex and he has nothing much to do with his family.  He records cassettes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison.  She teaches herself to read using his recordings alongside books from the prison library. Then Michael is phoned by the prison as he is Hanna’s only contact to be told she is due to be released and needs to re-enter society … Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel Der Vorleser was watercooler stuff, the book you had to read a decade and a half ago. In an era suffused with simplistic youth-oriented dystopic nonsense and wizardry it was water in the desert, a book that had historic relevance and contemporary resonance in a society still gripped by the Nazis who were and are still living, still unrepentant. When Michael asks Hanna what she learned in her prison term she states bluntly, I learned to read. Winslet may have received the acting honours but the role is narrow, her character’s intelligence limited, her grasp of anything finite beyond a certain native shrewdness. Everything is transactional, even degeneracy. It is Fiennes who has to retain and expose the devastating effect their relationship has had on his life, as a son, a husband and father. He is also the adult lawyer living with the knowledge that his generation has been mainly unmarked by the failure of the German state.  Yet somehow his sexual adventure has created an incriminating situation for him akin to guilt.  Kross is equally good as the boy initiated into the wonders of sex with a woman who gets him to repeat the reading ritual that Jews were forced to perform for her at Auschwitz. The irony that they have both introduced each other to vastly differing worlds ricochets through his adult life. Her shame concerns illiteracy, not complicity in murder:  this is the crux of the narrative. She will not dwell in the past. It is a metaphor too far for some perhaps but it makes sense when you consider the ease with which Germany rebuilt itself with former Nazis running everything, an arrangement blessed by the former Allies, a fact erased from most people’s consciousness. That is why I believe so many critics hated this film:  we are all complicit in Germany’s overwhelming role in Europe today,  in permitting the Nazis to continue in another guise:  we are therefore no better than the Germans ourselves.  Linking this concept to an erotic coming of age story is daring and reminiscent of The Night Porter, another divisive work.  Michael did not go to his father’s funeral, his mother says.  We infer that his father’s role in World War Two was beyond the pale, at least for him. Things remain unspoken. This is a complex, emotionally powerful film with a problematic resolution that seeks to assuage several varieties of guilt without actually excusing anyone, understanding the accommodations necessitated by the quotidian. Adapted with acuity by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died during production. There’s an interesting score by Nico Muhly and Bruno Ganz’s performance as the law professor with Lena Olin as a Jewish camp survivor (and her mother) rounding out the impressive cast in a troubling and carefully constructed moral tale.

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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.

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

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Just remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you’ve felt.  In the summer of 1983 precocious piano prodigy, American-Jewish-Italian 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is spending the days with his archaeologist father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and translator mother (Amira Casar) at their 17th-century villa in Lombardy, Italy.  Oliver (Armie Hammer) is a handsome American doctoral student who’s working as a research assistant for Elio’s father and living with them for the holiday to help him with his academic papers. Amid the sun-drenched splendour, while Elio pursues relationships with local girls, he and Oliver discover the heady beauty of awakening desire that will alter their lives…  Adapted by the venerable filmmaker James Ivory from André Aciman’s 2007 debut novel, this is a uniquely atmospheric work by director Luca Guadagnino which attempts successfully to convey how people really think and feel about each other while consumed with desire. Most of the acting nominations were for Chalamet but Hammer is stunning in a role he was born to play. There are moments that take the breath away – shot choices that focus on his face, shifting lens length and emphasis and particularity to indicate his conflicted thoughts about instigating a relationship with a mere boy.  We understand how his mind works. When the older gay couple visiting the Perlman home stand listening to Elio play an affecting piano piece, Hammer hovers very briefly in the background in the doorway and his effect on people is such that the younger of the men looks over his shoulder, as though the very plates had shifted beneath him, even with a passing glimpse of this astonishingly attractive guy. Such is Oliver’s power. His beauty is tactile. He eats up life with the same enthusiasm he gobbles food. He folds in his imposing height to avoid intimidating people. But his touching of Elio’s shoulder during a volleyball game signals his intentions. It’s such a physically demanding characterisation. He is wooing us all. The puppyish Elio has no hope. Hammer projects his position as lust object with immense sympathy. His introduction to the family involves Perlman’s customary intellectual test which he passes with flying colours in an audition that might telegraph social embarrassment but lends the drama its comic and humane undertow. It also skewers the viewer’s fear that this is a film about pretentious people:  we soon realise these are instead people of passions. There is a coyness of course to the exposition of the sex – we see Elio having intercourse with his young girlfriend but we never witness the act between him and Oliver. Instead, when they finally achieve total freedom and intimacy away from the family home, in the mountains outside Bergamo, the correlative for this is a waterfall:  it’s somehow overstated yet understated at the same time, perfect for young men going wild in the country, figuratively sharing an orgasm in public. The brief flashback sequence is done in tinted negative, another decent aesthetic choice. Mirrors are used sparingly to convey psychological turmoil and brief parental distance. And if T.S. Eliot encouraged you to dare eat a peach you might think twice before doing it after watching this:  masturbation played ultimately for endearingly awkward laughs, more Philip Roth than American Pie. What a marvellously thoughtful and beautifully judged piece of cinema, one that lingers in the mind long after viewing for its grace and beauty and generosity and its remarkable sensuality. Richard Butler must be thrilled.

 

Personal Shopper (2016)

 

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So we made this oath… Whoever died first would send the other a sign. A young American in Paris Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) works as a personal shopper for a celebrity, Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). She seems to have the ability to communicate with spirits, like her recently deceased twin brother Lewis. They share a congenital heart defect. She hangs around Paris near the villa where he lived hoping to receive a sign from him from the other side – he was a spiritualist. She indulges her interest in art by pursuing knowledge about a previously unknown Swedish female abstract artist.  She proclaims her distaste for her job to her boyfriend with whom she communicates via Skype in Muscat but is clearly tempted by its benefits. Soon, she starts to receive ambiguous text messages from an unknown source… Stewart always seemed to me to be pretty one-dimensional in her American films with a limited capacity to convey joy. But the issues of her expressivity are perfectly exploited by French auteur Olivier Assayas in their second collaboration even as he maintains a distance within a genre-touching exercise where emotion and excess are mostly avoided (imagine if Argento had made this!).  There is a great mood of sadness and mystery when it gets going (and it takes a while) and if Stewart isn’t this generation’s Jean Seberg she is evolving into a determinedly individualistic performer.  The enigmatic narrative has a fragility that occasionally bursts with the threat of violence real and imagined. Oddly compelling and stylish and proof that there is great potential for this American in Paris.

Black Narcissus (1946)

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I told you it was no place to put a nunnery! There’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated … A group of Anglican nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), are sent to a mountain in the Himalayas. The climate in the region is hostile and the nuns are housed in an odd old palace, home to the Sisters of St Faith and previously home to the concubines of the General in the area. They work to establish a school and a hospital, but slowly their focus shifts. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) falls for a government worker, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), and begins to question her vow of celibacy. As Sister Ruth obsesses over Mr. Dean, Sister Clodagh becomes immersed in her own memories of love back in Ireland while their conflicts are put into relief by the forbidden desire between The Young General (Sabu) and Kanchi (Jean Simmons) who is of entirely unsuitable caste.  Sister Ruth’s psychological problems devolve into violent madness … Rumer Godden’s story gets the high-velocity melodrama treatment in this extraordinary interpretation of her story about religion in a colonial outpost. Alfred Junge created the illusion of the exotic in Pinewood (and a Surrey garden) with Jack Cardiff’s magical cinematography enhancing the impression of lushness.  The Renaissance light and shadows highlight the growing atmosphere of hysteria. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted an astonishingly sensual portrait of women in hothouse seclusion, lured to their various fates by a man in their midst as they wrestle with issues of conscience, race, sex and vocation. It has not lost its power to bewitch and Byron’s performance is unforgettable.

The Furies (1950)

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I have no stomach for the way you live. It’s the 1870s. Widower T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) rules his sprawling New Mexico ranch with an iron fist, a born-again Napoleon who pays with his own currency, TC’s. But his authority doesn’t extend to his strong-willed daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), who both hates and loves her father with equal ferocity. He abandoned her mother for an inter-racial affair and she died at The Furies, her bedroom a mausoleum left precisely as she left it with Vance fiercely guarding it. Tensions rise when Vance falls for bad boy saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), whom T.C. buys off. But the family conflict turns violent when T.C. decides to marry Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) and evict Vance’s childhood friend Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) from his land… Charles Schnee adapted Niven Busch’s novel and Anthony Mann does quite an exquisite job of staging the action, with his customary mountainous settings providing an objective correlative for a literally furious woman to take revenge. The interiors are no less impressive with the Gothic trappings enhancing the Freudian subtext with both Oedipus and Electra active in the arena of gender identification. There is a mythical quality to this classic narrative and the visuals reinforce a sense of homoerotic voyeurism in a film which constantly veers toward the psychosexual. Stanwyck is magnificent in one of the key roles of her career and the first of her seven western parts in the 1950s which laid the groundwork for her Big Valley matriarch a decade later. There is a domestic scene of horrifying violence that is for the record books. Rivalry was rarely so vicious. Notable for being Walter Huston’s final film performance.  It was shot by Victor Milner with uncredited work done by Lee Garmes and Franz Waxman provides the aggressively tragic score. I write about Stanwyck’s Fifties Westerns  in Steers, Queers and Pioneers, which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/stanwyck-part-1/.

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Look Now (1973)

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Nothing is what it seems. Grieving over the accidental death of their daughter, Christine (Sharon Williams), John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) leave their young son Johnny in an English boarding school and head to Venice where John’s been commissioned to restore a church. There Laura meets two ageing sisters (Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania) who claim to be in touch with Christine’s spirit. Laura takes them seriously, but John scoffs until he himself catches a glimpse of what looks like Christine running through the streets of Venice. Unbeknownst to himself, he has precognitive abilities (which might even be figured in the book he’s written, Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space) and the figure of local Bishop Barrigo (Massimo Serato) seems to be a harbinger of doom rather than a portent of hope.  Meanwhile, another body is fished out of the canal with a serial killer on the prowl …  Director Nicolas Roeg made one masterpiece after another in the early 1970s and this enjoyed a scandalous reputation because of the notorious sex scene between Christie and Sutherland which was edited along the lines of a film that Roeg had photographed for Richard Lester, Petulia, some years earlier. The clever cross-cutting with the post-coital scene of the couple dressing to go out for dinner persuaded people that they had watched something forbidden. That aside, the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant is a clever mix of horror, mystery, enigmatic serial killer thriller and a meditation on grief. All of that is meshed within a repetitive visual matrix of the colour red, broken glass and water. None of that would matter were it not for the intensely felt characterisation of a couple in mourning, with Christie’s satisfaction at her dead daughter’s supposed happiness opposed to Sutherland’s desire to shake off the image of the child’s shiny red mackintosh – the very thing that leads him to his terrible fate. Some of the editing is downright disturbing – particularly a cut to the old ladies busting a gut laughing whilst holding photographs, apparently of their own family members. John’s misunderstanding of his visions coupled with the literal crossed telephone line from England creates a cacophony of dread, with Pino Donaggio’s score and Anthony Richmond’s limpid shots of Venice in winter compounding the tender horror constructed as elegiac mosaic by editor Graeme Clifford. A heartbreaking work of staggering genius? Probably. I couldn’t possibly comment.  I never minded being lost in Venice.

Cat People (1982)

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You think it’s love but it’s blood.  Irena Gallier (Nastassia Kinski) has a dark family secret, one that resurfaces dramatically when she reconnects with her estranged brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell). She moves into his home in New Orleans but when he disappears for a few days during which a vicious murder occurs, Irena finds herself enamored with zoologist Oliver Yates (John Heard) whom she meets in the city zoo. As her brother makes his own advances toward her she begins to experience feelings which she knows make her different to other humans. Oliver’s colleague Alice (Annette O’Toole) is suspicious of this beautiful naive woman whose eyes betray her.  It’s not long before the dangerous curse of the Gallier clan rears its feline head and Irena finds out her parents were brother and sister, descended from leopards who mated with humans and who transform back to their original species after coitus… I was prepared to dislike this as much as I did the first time I saw it, which was a long time ago. Paul Schrader’s adaptation or remake (with Alan Ormsby) of DeWitt Bodeen’s supremely gripping horror fantasy for producer Val Lewton forty years earlier seemed to have been trashed to make an exploitative wild sex fantasy with the undertow of nastiness which I always found to be Schrader’s troubling trademark. This time around however I found it compelling, daring and even – yes – moving. This fantastical mix of zoology, myth and desire is audaciously put together with some very telling references – a scene in a river straight out of Italian rice movies; a setup to remind us of Richard Avedon’s portrait of Kinski with a python the previous year; and the overriding idea of sex’s transformative power. The occasional forays into fantasy land are utterly beguiling. With that cast and their contrasting performing styles it’s hard to pick out a favourite because it’s so well written and their roles so well determined that they do completely different things. If it were left to my cat Gilbert, he’d point out McDowell’s because of the utterly arresting incarnation of half-man half-cat on the bathroom floor (a scene that disgusted me when I first saw it…) which made him sit right up, presumably recognising kin. Kinski has a terrific time in her difficult role which is literally a sex kitten who becomes a cat woman; while Heard is the man obsessed who has to do things most men wouldn’t mind in order to set her free. Meet the parents would have been quite the feat in this case. It’s a remarkable achievement and I’m thrilled to have seen it again to revise my smart ass opinion from years ago. A nightmarish portrayal of a sexual awakening that has touches of greatness, adorned by a magnificent score by Giorgio Moroder and that song by David Bowie. Wow!

Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

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I was being romantic then you go and disturb me with your kinky fuckery.  Sex is ever thus. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is assistant to a fiction editor Jack Hyde (!) (Eric Johnson) at a publishing company and he has designs on her. She bumps into Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) at an exhibition where her friend’s giant photos of her are the star attraction – and he’s bought them all. He inveigles his way back into her life, screws her, has her boss fired after he comes on to her, and then she gets his job. Only trouble is a girl is following her – subplot one. It’s Christian’s previous submissive – who bows before him causing Ana to have a crisis of at least two minutes because she knows she will never kneel down when he tells her! Then Christian asks her to move in and he instructs her once again. Then he nearly dies in a helicopter crash – except he doesn’t. At his birthday party he announces their engagement and the woman who introduced him to S&M (Kim Basinger) gets teed off and his mom (Marcia Gay Harden) hears about it and banishes her. Like the one night stand that stays for breakfast, this nonsense will just not go away and they even had the cheek to include Jeff Buckley and The Police on the soundtrack. Ms Johnson’s clothes slip off as regularly as Dornan’s accent and it’s all as smooth as those Ben Wa balls. Allegedly not as filthy as the books by E.L. James this is still shit. Barely plotted, it was adapted by Niall Leonard (her husband). Directed by James Foley.

Sliver (1993)

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Get a life. Book editor Carly Norris (Sharon Stone) moves into the exclusive building on East 38th St in NYC – but her resemblance to the previous resident in her apartment Naomi Singer (Allison Mackie) gets her strange glances:  Singer supposedly threw herself off the balcony. Carly is quickly befriended by an elderly academic who tells her he suspects murder and then he’s found dead in his shower. Novelist Jack Landsford (Tom Berenger) hits on her but he seems to be particularly close to next door neighbour model Vida (Polly Walker). And Zeke Hawkins (William Baldwin) also takes a fancy to Carly and she to him. Soon they’re having sex – and being watched. Because Zeke likes to watch. He has a bank of surveillance monitors since he owns the building and rigged every apartment. He shows Carly what’s going on in everyone’s apartment and tells her Jack was involved with Naomi. Then she finds Jack with Vida in the stairwell after Vida has been stabbed and calls the police. Adapted by Joe Eszterhas from Ira Levin’s novel, this was extensively reshot for censorship purposes – and changed the killer. So whatever point the film may have had about the links between voyeurism, the surveillance society, the sex drive and the uncontrollable urge to kill is erased. Not just daft but utterly sleazy. Ho hum. Watch Rear Window instead. Directed by Philip Noyce.