Miss Bala (2019)

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They’re all dirty. And they’re coming after me. Los Angeles makeup artist and Mexican emigrée Gloria Fuentes (Gina Rodriguez) asks the police for help when cartel hit men kidnap her friend Suzu Ramos (Cristina Rodio) from a nightclub in Tijuana, Mexico. She soon finds herself in big trouble when a corrupt cop hands her over to the same goons who shot up the place in an attempted hit on Police Chief Saucedo (Damian Alcazar). Gang leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) decides to use Gloria for his dirty work to avoid detection from the Drug Enforcement Administration one of whom Brian Reich (Matt Lauria) puts a tracking device on her to entrap the gang who get her to transport drugs across the border to San Diego where she’s met by gangster Jimmy (Anthony Mackie) who is actually an undercover CIA agent. Determined to get away, Gloria must now play a dangerous game to outwit not only the cartel but the DEA agents who now suspect her of complicity and she winds up finding out the hard way that she’s been sold out – in the middle of a shootout – and has to choose sides …  You thought I was a bad guy?  I’m just playing their game. This action thriller remake of a 2011 Spanish-language film from director Catherine Hardwicke has everything going for it except characterisation:  sometime, someone, somewhere will remember that character is also action, it’s not enough in the #MeToo era to just put a woman in the protagonist’s role and have her run from bullets (and that’s what ‘bala’ means, not that you’d know it) and sell it as a female-oriented film. And, in yet another ad for Mexico’s tourism industry – drugs, guns, cross-border crime, female intimidation, endless non-stop murders – the best thing you could possibly do on that front is to keep well away. And what on earth has that poster got to do with anything? Oh, when the plot finally kicks in after 70 minutes our heroine has to take part in a beauty pageant (Miss Baja) which leads to a rather good twist ending but it’s all too little, rather late. There is some interesting architecture however. Yawn. Written by Garrett Dunnet-Alcocer. Everyone works for us now. Play your part

Dark Journey (1937)

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Not bad but you need to practise. World War I is in full thrust, but Swedish fashion store clerk Madeleine Goddard (Vivien Leigh) has apparently not aligned herself with either side. When she meets German soldier Karl Von Marwitz (Conrad Veidt), she falls in love. Karl, who presents himself as a footman of low rank and supposedly disgraced officer, is in fact a high-ranking official in the German army and an aristocrat. Madeleine has secrets of her own – she is a spy and double agent, working for the Allies in a bid to uncover the new head of the German Secret Service in Stockholm. As Madeleine and Karl are pulled deeper into the escalating war, their love may be the thing that saves their lives but when her German co-conspirator Anatole (Eliot Makeham) is murdered events overtake them and their identities might just prove their undoing ... Is it a crime to be German?/It’s worse, it’s a vulgarity. This pre-WW2 drama is prescient, pacifist and fence-sitting, all at once, a notably atmospheric tale of spy/counter-spy in a Stockholm that presents rather like a certain Moroccan destination would five years later.  Leigh is inscrutable to the point of roboticism at first, then suave ladykiller Veidt comes along and she’s even more attractive than that saucy minx Brazilian socialite Lupita (Joan Gardner, wife of Zoltan Korda, uncredited producer Alexander’s brother) who seems permanently up for it. With maps, submarines, pips on the radio, coded messages on the fabric held up against lamplight and fog dappling the harbour, it’s a very attractive concoction with a terrific ensemble cast that includes Ursula Jeans, Cecil Parker and Robert Newton as a U-boat officer. With a screenplay by Lajos Biró and scenario and dialogue by Arthur Wimperis, this is assisted by nicely graduated greys and soft whites in the cinematography which was carried out at Denham Studios on splendid sets designed by Andrej Andrejew, and enhanced by a suitably suspenseful score by Richard Addinsell conducted by Muir Mathieson. Naturally, the costumes by René Hubert are rather fabulous. Directed by Victor Saville. It’s easy to touch your pocket, it’s difficult to touch your heart

In Fabric (2018)

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You who wear this dress will know me.  Lonely divorcee Shelia  Woodchapel (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) visits a bewitching London department store boasting a strange saleswoman Jill (Sidse Babett Knudsen) to find a dress to transform her life. She finds a perfect, artery-red gown that unleashes a malevolent, unstoppable curse that gives her a rash, destroys her washing machine and eventually kills her. Then it’s bought in a charity shop by a bunch of lads who force washing machine repairman Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) to wear it on his stag do. His fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires) likes the look of it for herself and the dress continues to wreak havoc … What I’d give to know what goes on in a man’s mind. Ever been in a shop where you thought there was a very weird atmosphere and the staff were obnoxious (Armani on the Via Condotti, if you must know) and were persuaded to buy something by sheer sales power and a particularly attractive retro catalogue circa 1974 that made you look smaller? That’s the territory explored here in a spliced-genre effort that blends Ballardian dystopic suburban ‘mares with freakoid Eastern European women out of Argento land who have got something much more sinister going on than those white stockings that lead to something unspeakable.  The doors you passed through are doors in perpetual revolve is just one of the doomy ungrammatical clichés uttered by the ghastly blood-lusting Jill with her Transylvanian shtick. With a soundtrack by the Cavern of Anti-Matter (Tim Gane), musician Barry Adamson as Sheila’s decent boyfriend and Gwendoline Christie as the shagtastic muse of Sheila’s teenage son (that’s one way to swot for your A Levels), auteur Peter Strickland is in even firmer cult territory than before:  sex and shopping abound in this satire on consumerism, with a most peculiar mutual masturbation scene which involves a mannequin and there’s some deliriously banal repairman speak that gives Julian Barratt an orgasm. Even more bananas fetishism than usual from one of the most fascinating of British auteurs with not so much a twist, rather a twisted, ending. As ever, Strickland reveals the utterly weird and disturbing in the mundane. Executive produced by Ben Wheatley.  One of your neighbours reported you

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

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I have an eye for new and refreshing talent. In 1977 world-famous pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) takes much-younger animal trainer Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) as a lover, but the relationship deteriorates when Liberace gets Scott cosmetic surgery to remake him as his younger self and eventually takes other bedmates and a disillusioned Thorson becomes addicted to drugs… What a story. It’s got everything but a fire at the orphanage. This premiered on HBO which disqualified it from all the awards it was surely due. Adapted from Scott Thorson’s memoir Behind the Candelabra:  My Life with Liberace, this is a corrosively funny account of the mega-famous flamboyant bachelor pianist’s last ten years, four of which he spent with the younger bisexual who would of course betray him in a palimony lawsuit. Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay hits all the right notes and boy does Douglas totally get the tone. Damon is no less good, sparking life into a rather passive role – this really is all about performance, on and offstage and screen. Rob Lowe as the wonderfully enhanced plastic surgeon is a role for the ages and he relishes the part:  he’s totally hilarious.  And it could only be Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother. The whole shebang is over the top, crazy, deadly serious and more or less true. The film is dedicated to composer Marvin Hamlisch who died a year before it was released. Directed by Steven Soderbergh with admirable verve.  I love you not only for what you are, But for what I am when I’m with you 

Karl Lagerfeld 10th September 1933-19th February 2019

 

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After 36 years at the helm of Chanel, the style visionary Karl Lagerfeld has died aged 85. Unafraid to speak his mind about any matter, he was a rarity among the couture set in that most of what he said and did was worth following – he was very clear in his views of Angela Merkel and his birthplace of Germany, unlike any mainstream politician. He started out as an assistant to Pierre Balmain, moving on to Jean Patou and then Fendi, Tiziani and Chloé. He was a gifted photographer, shooting many of his own campaigns and designing costumes for touring performers like Kylie and Madonna. He had his own label but his great gift to the world was his innovative approach to Chanel and keeping that label relevant, modern, essential, just as Coco would have wanted. Adieu to a creative genius and fashion icon, and our condolences to the fabulous Choupette.

Conversation Piece (1974)

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Aka Gruppo di famiglia in un inferno. There’s no sex life in the grave. Retired and lonely American University professor (Burt Lancaster) living in Rome rents out rooms in his palazzo to Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano) a rather pushy marchesa, her teenage daughter Lietta (Claudia Marsani) and her boyfriend Stefano (Stefano Patrizi) and her own lover Konrad (Helmut Berger)…  He was too young to have learned this final nasty fact: grief is as precarious as anything else. Dreamed up by Luchino Visconti as a kind of updated La Dolce Vita, critiquing decadent society, this was co-written with regular collaborators Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi D’Amico.  It reunited him with his protegé Berger, and his avatar from Il Gattopardo, Lancaster, an iteration of literary critic Mario Praz (a specialist in romantic morbidity), who collects the titular paintings. Resplendent in furs from Fendi and ostentatious beauty, these unwelcome tenants turn the Professor’s life upside down against a backdrop of political chaos as this quasi-home invasion by the jet set takes a nasty turn while he is momentarily besotted by Konrad. This is a story of nostalgia and sorrow, a paean to lost love and beauty and art, a tone poem about modernity and death, the flailing of the elegant intellectual in a world losing to vulgarity. It’s a chamber piece likely due to the director’s recent stroke but still boasts opulence and telling detail with the dazzling Berger another incarnation of Tadzio, the angel of death from Death in Venice and Mangano revealed as a grotesqueVisconti at his most vulnerable and perhaps most charming. The way of progress is destruction

 

Gone With the Wind (1939)

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What a woman.  The life of petulant southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), from her idyllic youth on a sprawling plantation, through her survival through the tragic history of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and her tangled love affairs with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who marries his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland); and roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) who wants her for himself and makes money as a blockade runner while Ashley goes to warLand’s the only thing that matters, the only thing that lasts. The drama of David O.Selznick’s search for Scarlett is well known, so too the issues with the directors (George Cukor was replaced by Victor Fleming, who was replaced for a spell by Sam Wood) but it’s the antebellum grandeur and the personalities of this epic historical romance set against the Civil War that continue to enthrall.  The beauty of plantation life is contrasted with the vivid scenes of Atlanta in flames;  the picture perfect homes and life embroidering and dancing and romancing are juxtaposed with the screams of the dying soldiers. Scarlett’s deceitful delusions about Ashley are dissipated by the reality of his cowardice. And there are the unexpected mini-dramas too:  that Scarlett becomes a can-do woman and saves Tara as her family cry bullying; when Rhett drunkenly asserts his droit de seigneur over Scarlett, she wakes up the next day as pleased with herself as the cat that got the cream. This image still has the capacity to shock (if not entirely surprise). That the screenplay and the performances effortlessly manage the extremes of humanity is a tribute to the talent behind the scenes and in front of camera. Gable is magnificent, but so too is de Havilland as Melanie, the kindest woman ever, who has the breadth of compassion to handle everything put her way and unexpectedly expresses delight when Scarlett kills a Yankee soldier. However it is Leigh’s film:  she is simply perfect as the selfish coquette who becomes brave when everyone around her is falling to pieces and she lives a wholly ironic life as a result. They say great characters make great books and I read it when I was fourteen, a great age to appreciate the feeling that Margaret Mitchell gives to these fully developed people living through the worst of times and trying in their own particular way to survive it. Expertly adapted by Sidney Howard. Wonderful. Tomorrow is another day

The Damned (1969)

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Aka Caduti degli dei or Götterdämmerung. It does no good to raise one’s voice when it’s too late, not even to save your soul. Wealthy industrialist family the Essenbecks have begun to do business with the Nazi Party.  The family patriarch Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Albrecht Schoenhals) is murdered on the night of the Reichstag fire and the anti-Nazi vice president of the company Herbert Thalmann (Umberto Orsini) is framed. His wife Elizabeth (Charlotte Rampling) and their children are taken by the Gestapo. The family’s empire passes to the control of an unscrupulous relative, the boorish SA officer Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff). Waiting in the wings are his son Günther (Renaud Verley) a sensitive and troubled student, and his nephew Martin (Helmut Berger), an amoral deviant playboy who molests his young cousin as well as a Jewish  girl. Martin is dominated by his possessive mother Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) the widow of Baron Joachim’s only son, a fallen WW1 hero. Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde) an employee of the family firm and Sophie’s lover, ascends in power despite his lowly social status, thanks to Sophie’s support and the SS officer and family relation Aschenbach (Helmut Griem) who pits family factions against each other to move their steel and munition works into state control … This is the secret Germany. Nothing is lacking. The dissipation of a wealthy German dynasty becomes an arc for the destruction of Germany and the rise of Nazism:  offset by a backdrop of decadence and perversion, Visconti’s operatic portrait of society gone rotten makes him the principal chronicler of that history in an Italian-German co-production. The cast is stunningly gorgeous – just look at Rampling! – enveloped in the exquisitely accessorised sets. The startling cinematic arrival of the equally lovely Herr Berger (who was seen briefly as a waiter in Visconti’s segment of Le streghe) in full drag as Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel is not to be quickly forgotten;  nor his incestuous sex scene with his mother. He embodies the narcissistic amorality at the core of the work which despite its luxuriousness is a critique of bourgeois collaborators standing by while their country is jackbooted. It is an explicitly Freudian work and transformed Bogarde into a European star. Written by Nicola Badalucco, Enrico Medioli and Visconti, this is the first of what is known as the director’s German trilogy, comprising Death in Venice and Ludwig, collectively a subjective account of that country’s terrible history told in devastating, beautiful imagery. Hugely successful and influential in its day, despite the horrors, you will gasp and swoon in equal measure at the shocking sumptuousness. Nazism, Gunther, is our creation. It was born in our factories, nourished with our money!

Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018)

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I grew up in the shadow of a national monument.  It seems odd to think that the most important woman of her time, the one who showed what it was to be female in the late twentieth century, the vector for a society’s emotional, cultural and political spectrum, should have lived her life through men. Henry.  Roger.  Tom.  Ted.  They directed how Jane Fonda lived and Susan Lacy’s film feels like an extended therapy session, recalling the one Fonda improvised in Klute. I wanted someone to mould me, she says to camera. And after her mother’s suicide, which she found out about in a fan magazine, her father married again (not for the last time) to a much younger woman, and Jane learned how to be bulimic at boarding school, a reaction to his criticism of her puppy fat. She attended Lee Strasberg’s classes and financed her acting in New York by becoming a photographic model before leaving for France where she was greeted as a mix of Bardot and Moreau.  There she fell under the spell of Roger Vadim who turned her into sex kitten Barbarella. She admits to a hedonistic lifestyle in their marriage but became politicised particularly under the guidance of Simone Signoret and was stunned when director Sydney Pollack asked her what she thought of the script for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? the film she credits with turning her into an actress. Nobody had ever asked her what she thought of her work before: The first time I ever made a movie that was about something.  That, she says was when I had my first hair epiphany. Hence the influential look in Klute. Even that was decided by a male hairdresser. Her anti-Vietnam War politics  became a wholly immersive activity (although, oddly perhaps, the vital relationship with Donald Sutherland is not explored: it was his wife who introduced her to the world of radical chic. Then she and Sutherland had an affair.) Her activism led her to encounter Tom Hayden of the Chicago Seven and she declared of her feelings about her next husband, If I’m not with Tom Hayden then I’m nobody. Her daughter by Vadim suffered while her son with Hayden travelled everywhere:  actor Troy Garrity (his parents decided their surnames would burden him) is interviewed and is quite vivid about the family setup and the time they stayed with IRA terrorists in Belfast. Not your average reminiscence. They lived in a terrible house at the beach with no modern appliances and homeless people living in the garden. She produced her own films, including Coming Home. They went to the Oscars in a station wagon. The couple’s organisation Campaign for Economic Democracy needed money so she decided to make a workout video and write a book and donate all the profits:  the book went to the top of the bestseller list for two years and The Jane Fonda Workout singlehandedly created the video industry, remaining the biggest seller of all time. Hayden responded by having affairs. Two photographs dominate the archival exploration:  one is a publicity shot, a posed childhood family tableau with neither Henry nor Frances Seymour Fonda engaging with each other or Jane or her brother Peter. This image clearly haunts Fonda:  these are four people utterly untethered from each other. Interestingly, Peter and Jane both think the other sibling had it worse in terms of a relationship with Henry, the famously distant man who could only express emotion on camera and with whom Jane attempted a rapprochement in On Golden Pond. She remembers that she touched his arm in an unscripted moment and she swears she could see tears in his eyes:  what a horrible, horrible thing to have to hold onto, that your father’s only display of anything other than total indifference towards you came in a movie you made for him. He won the Oscar for Best Actor. Then he died. Home movie footage shows a cute little blonde pigtailed girl dressed in buckskin, determinedly striding the wild garden of her 1940s home, wanting to be Tonto. Alone. The other photograph referenced is the famous shot of Hanoi Jane which went around the world when she posed on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. Hayden wearily explains that he tried to tell Fonda that she was dealing with the media. She set off for Vietnam not having known where it was on the map two years earlier as she told Dick Cavett, who says here her actions must have been a combination of bravado and naiveté. It’s not an argument that is fully explored but I would like to recommend a 2005 book which excavates the extent to which Fonda was framed (in every sense that this term implies) both by the media and the then government: Mary Hershberger’s Jane Fonda:  A Political Biography of an Antiwar Icon – even hawks might be shocked at how this young woman was hounded and intimidated. She cannot apologise enough and those who hate her will never accept that she was duped or that she is truly sorry. I wanted my life to have meaning. Her marriage to Ted Turner (predicted by a psychic) led to her retirement from acting because he couldn’t bear to be alone. Yet she grew as a feminist and left him after a decade which she describes as probably the most profound turning point of my life. She observes that she looked different for every man and the photos of each marriage exhibit this rather shockingly, fashion and age notwithstanding:  she was always playing a role dictated by others. She says that she is only ever her true self with female friends and her romantic relationships are now democratic.  She has become a brilliant memoirist and is in a female-centred hit web TV show (Grace and Frankie) with Nine to Five co-star Lily Tomlin at what she calls the beginning of her final act. So, finally, Jane.  She researched her mother’s life and found that Seymour had been sexually abused as a child. This she discovered in a note her mother wrote in a mental institution. It took her until her seventies, but Fonda finally absolved herself of the guilt she felt her entire life about her mother’s violent death, a situation that created a kind of stasis leading her to believe she was unlovable. A film fan would have liked more analysis of her acting, and only the late Pollack and Alan J. Pakula are interviewed, but, as she says,  Good enough is good enough

A Simple Favour (2018)

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Are you going to Diabolique me?  Perky smalltown single mom and vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is swept away by her new friendship with the glorious Emily (Blake Lively) PR director to obnoxious NYC fashion maven Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend), too busy in her professional life to do anything but show up occasionally to collect her little son from school. While fellow moms inform Stephanie that she’s just a free babysitter she’s convinced she and Emily are best friends because they bond over a daily martini at Emily’s fabulous glass modernist house until one day she gets a call from Emily to look after her kid and Emily doesn’t return. Stephanie’s daily vlogs get increasingly desperate as the days wear on. After five days she can’t take it any more. She gets embroiled in a search along with Emily’s husband, the blocked author Sean Townsend (Henry Golding) for whom she has a bit of a thing until she decides to dress up and play Nancy Drew when she discovers Emily had a very good life insurance policy… She’s an enigma my wife. You can get close to her, but you never quite reach her. She’s like a beautiful ghost.  While the world gets its knickers in a twist about female representation along comes Paul Feig once again with an astonishing showcase for two of the least understood actresses in American cinema and lets them rip in complex roles that are wildly funny, smart and pretty damned vicious.  This adaptation by Jessica Sharzer of Darcey Bell’s novel has more twists and turns than a corkscrew and from the incredible jangly French pop soundtrack – which includes everyone from Bardot & Gainsbourg and Dutronc to Zaz – to the cataclysmic meeting between these two pathological liars this is bound to end up in … murder! Deceit! Treachery! Nutty betrayals! Incredible clothes! Lady parts! Revelations of incest! Everything works here – from jibes about competitive parenting and volunteering, to the fashion business, family, film noir, Gone Girl (a variant of which is tucked in as a sub-plot), heavy drinking, wonderful food, electric cars.  And again, the clothes! Kudos to designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus who understands how to convey personality and story. Never wear a vintage Hermès scarf with a Gap T-shirt. If you were truly Emily’s friend, you would know that It’s wonderfully lensed by John Schwartzman, one of my favourite cinematographers and the production design and juxtapositions sing. This is an amazing tour of genres which comes together in two performances that are totally persuasive – in another kind of film Kendrick and Lively might have to tell each other You complete me:  the shocking flashbacks to their pasts (which are both truthful and deceitful) illuminate their true characters. This is that utter rarity – a brilliantly complicated, nasty and humorous tale of female friendship that doesn’t fear to tread where few films venture. It’s an epic battle of the moms. Film of the year? I’ll say! I am so glad that this is the basis of my 2,000th post. Brotherfucker!  MM#2000