Oklahoma Crude (1973)

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Businessmen do this to each other all the time. Headstrong lone wildcatter Lena Doyle (Faye Dunaway) accepts the assistance of her ne’er do well father Cleon (John Mills) and hired gun, oilfield drifter Noble Mason (George C. Scott), in defending her oil derrick from businessman Hellman (Jack Palance) and his associates in the Pan-Oklahoma Oil Trust in 1913 …Women are even worse; they try to be like men, but they can’t cut it. I’d like to be a member of a third sex. Producer Stanley Kramer makes a broad comedy far removed from his usual solemn and socially conscious films with a vulgar, funny screenplay by Marc Norman (which he later adapted into a novel) complete with throwaway lines on sexual politics. The leads play mostly against type and Dunaway and Scott are superb bouncing off each other. They offer fascinating, stylised performances with Dunaway doing a kind of Jane Fonda impression in her dyed ‘do. A highly enjoyable frontier outing enhanced by Henry Mancini’s score and song, Send a Little Love My Way which he co-wrote with Hal David, performed by Anne Murray. Beautifully shot by Robert Surtees.  Isn’t that just like a woman? She wants to be treated like a man… and then she cries!

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Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

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Aka Phantom Ladies Over Paris. Usually, it started like this. When stage magician Céline (Juliet Berto) goes traipsing across a Parisian park, she unwittingly drops first a scarf, then other objects which librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) cannot help but pick up. So begins a fanciful and obsessive relationship between the two, which soon sees Céline sharing Julie’s apartment and each of them playfully switching identities in their daily lives. As they increasingly indulge their fantasies, they find themselves trying to rescue a young girl Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar) from a supposedly haunted house that Julie worked in and Céline lived next to as a child.  Now it appears to be filled with ghosts (Barbet Schroeder, Marie-France Pisier, Bulle Ogier) …So, my future is in the present.  One of the greatest films ever made, Jacques Rivette’s fragmented narrative of two feisty young women started with two stories by Henry James (The Other House;  The Romance of Certain Old Clothes), giving him a bit of a head start, then he liberally sprinkled some Alice in Wonderland into the mix, created a drama of identity, a rescue fantasy, a story about storytelling, a movie about the cinema, sometimes speeding up and sometimes slowing down, a fiction about fictional creation (because ‘to go boating’ means to take a trip), and came up with a fantasy that adult life could always be as good as your childhood dreams. This is a woman’s film in the very best sense that we can imagine and is of course the source of Desperately Seeking Susan. Devised by Rivette and the stars with input from Ogier and Pisier,and Eduardo de Gregorio, this is a remarkable film of disarming charm, once seen never forgotten, especially with its 194 minute running time. A female buddy film like no other. It doesn’t hurt to fall off the moon!

The Best of Everything (1959)

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Here’s to men. Bless their clean-cut faces and dirty little minds! 1950s Manhattan:  three young women meet in the typing pool at Fabian Publishing and later share a home together: glamorous Gregg Adams (Suzy Parker) is an aspiring actress secretly yearning for domesticity whose director David Savage (Louis Jourdan) is using her; naive country girl April Morrison (Diane Baker) is left pregnant and alone by callous playboy Dexter Key (Robert Evans); and ambitious Radcliffe graduate Caroline Bender (Hope Lange) finds solace in the arms of editor Mike Rice (Stephen Boyd) while her fiancé is abroad. Together the three contend with unwise entanglements, office politics and the threat that their dreams for a fulfilling career will be cut short by marriage and children, while their romantic obsessions attract tragedy and the office is ruled with an iron fist by bitter chief editor Amanda Farrow (Joan Crawford) ...What is it about women like us that make you hold us so cheaply? Aren’t we the special ones from the best homes and the best colleges? I know the world outside isn’t full of rainbows and happy endings, but to you, aren’t we even decent?  Rona Jaffe’s1958 novel was an electrifying publishing event – a book by a woman about women trying to make it with explosive stories of sex and illegitimate pregnancy, featuring a spectrum of female experience in the workplace. Its influence is all over the presentation of corporate NYC in Mad Men and its cast represents a showcase for stars new and old in an era just before Women’s Lib. Edith R. Sommer and Mann Rubin’s adaptation fillets the material yet the throughline of forging your way through a chauvinistic office and patriarchal world retains its edge and raw emotion. Crawford supposedly made some script revisions but whether they were retained in the released film (as opposed to the tantalising trailer) is up for debate. She sure gets the lion’s share of tough lines as office witch Amanda Farrow who at heart is just a lonely disappointed older woman albeit with a hell of a list. She is the benchmark for female achievement in a drama about the perils of settling for less and the sacrifices you have to make to succeed. She has a carapace of steel but it can be pierced  … Martha Hyer also impresses as Barbara, the divorced office siren, while Lange is a sympathetic heroine and Brian Aherne is fine as the loathsome Lothario Mr Shalimar. An entertaining romance about whether or not you can have it all which limns the realities of being female – the contemporary detail may be different but the song remains the same. Directed with his customary zest and smooth visual finesse by Jean Negulesco and produced by Jerry Wald.  Author Jaffe – who was a Radcliffe alumnus working at Fawcett Publishing in NYC when the book came out – appears briefly as an office pool stenographer. She graduated to writing extraordinary culture pieces at Cosmopolitan and enjoyed huge success with her subsequent books. I’m so ashamed. Now I’m just somebody who’s had an affair

Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998) (TVM)

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I want to be loved. 1940s New York City: Jacqueline Susann (Michele Lee) is a second-string theatre actress and well-known party girl who turns to journalism following her marriage to press agent turned producer Irving Mansfield (Peter Riegert). Though constantly surrounded by the glitterati of the theatre and social scene she doesn’t achieve celebrity status herself and has to endure the tragedy of a brain-damaged son who has to be institutionalised. Then when she’s 47,  she publishes the raunchy bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls. Outwardly committed to publicising her work and involved in regular cross-country media campaigns, she privately battles cancer and constantly questions her troubled relationship with her society portraitist father Robert (Kenneth Welsh) who never got around to finishing her picture …  Everything I do is for you. Everything I make is for you. Treading much straighter territory than Isn’t She Great (the Bette Midler version) this adaptation by Michele Gallery of Barbara Seaman’s biography Lovely Me ironically strays indirectly and presumably unintentionally into camp now and then, and it doesn’t really do justice to the genius of its subject but Lee is excellent as this spiky confrontational woman who did things her own way. For anyone interested in the backstage antics of NYC’s post-war theatre scene with big personalities like Ethel Merman (Gloria Slade), the evolution of publishing and the making of the notorious film of Susann’s most famous novel with Barbara Parkins (Annie Laurie Williams), Patty Duke (Melanie Peterson) and the lovely Sharon Tate (Leila Johnson), there are residual attractions, but the drivers of this biopic are the private tragedies of the woman who revolutionised modern publishing by establishing her own critic-proof brand of sex and sass. Directed by Bruce McDonald. You don’t cook, you don’t clean, you never stay in. My life is never going to be dull

Long Shot (2019)

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I look like Cap’n Crunch’s Grindr date! Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) is a daring if shambling journalist favouring the Democrats who has a knack for getting into trouble. We meet him infiltrating a White Power group where he gets identified as a Jewish leftwing writer and he jumps out a first-floor window to escape their wrath halfway through getting a Swastika tattoo. Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is one of the most influential women in the world – the US Secretary of State, a smart, sophisticated and accomplished politician who needs to up her ratings to succeed her boss, TV star President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk). Her polling improves every time she’s photographed with the goofy Canadian Prime Minister (Alexander Skarsgard) as she’s counselled to do at every opportunity by her advisor Maggie (June Diane Raphael). When Fred unexpectedly runs into Charlotte at a party his best friend Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr) takes him to after he’s left his Brooklyn alt-weekly following a takeover by the repulsive mogul Parker Wembly (Andy Serkis), he finds himself in the company of his former baby sitter and childhood crush. When Charlotte decides to make a run for the presidency she hires Fred as her speechwriter to up the funny factor – much to the dismay of her entourage as she’s embarking on a world tour to persuade leaders to sign up to her programme to save The Bees, The Trees and The Seas and he joins them on the road …  I’m a racist. You’re a Republican. I don’t know what is wrong with me. As a product of the adolescent house of Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg you might think this had a gross out element and it does – any film that could have its leading man ultimately labelled The Come Guy has taken a turn in that direction (hence the title). But it’s the getting there that is astonishingly well put together. The stereotypes here are all too recognisable: the woman who can handle herself, and the man who … handles himself in a very particular way; the WASPy politician who has to deal with a doofus Commander in Chief who himself takes his cues from his TV show as the US President (Odenkirk is very good) along with a toothy Canadian jerk PM (Skarsgard sportingly sports buck teeth) similarly looking for a viable political romance, not to mention the hourly misogyny dealt her by an astonishingly sexist TV channel;  the shabbily dressed leftwing Jewish journo (in another time he’d have been part of the counterculture) who learns the hard way that maturing requires a deal of compromise which he only realises when his best friend admits he’s not just a Republican – but a Christian to boot – and then has the lightbulb moment that he is in his own way a racist and a sexist, everything he despises. Therefore beneath this very funny, role-reversing political comedy about two people who want the impossible – a relationship of equals – is a plea to see things from the other side’s point of view.  He needs to grow up, she needs to be reminded of the passionate truth-teller she used to be so they both teach each other valuable lessons. The big political crisis is solved after Fred has given Charlotte her first taste of MDMA (she thinks it’s called The Molly) so that a hostage-taking disaster is averted when she’s off her skull. This is very much of its time, the potshots are relevant and smart if obvious, the sex scenes are hilarious (she has a better time, quicker, and apologises, just like a guy), and the timing is exquisite. And no, it’s not the intellectual wordfest of The West Wing nor does it attempt the kind of fireworks we might wish for from the classic Thirties screwballs but it has its own rhythm and nuance with flawless performances even if the satire isn’t as up to the second as we require in the Twitterverse. There is, though, a teal rain jacket and those Game of Thrones references. Principally it works because of its humanity but it also ploughs a furrow of Nineties nostalgia – bonding over Roxette and Boyz II Men – as well as boasting an environmental message and emitting a howl against media conglomerates and rightwing hatemongers. At its centre is a couple trying to make things work while working together in a horribly public situation with the politics regularly giving way to charming encounters where the stars play against type. That’s clever screenwriting, by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah. Deftly directed by Jonathan Levine, this epitomises all that is right, left and wrong about the American political scene with a hugely optimistic message at its core about the State of the Union. Highly entertaining with an awesome Theron taking charge. We totally almost just died

Arizona (1940)

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Did you ever see a man’s stomach tore open by a shotgun? Phoebe Titus (Jean Arthur) is the only woman in 1861 Tucson, Arizona and after falling for Peter Muncie (William Holden) who’s passing through, offers him a job in the freight company she’s just set up with Solomon Warner (Paul Harvey) the local storekeeper but he wants to see California and promises to return. Then charming southern dandy Jefferson Carteret (Warren William) shows up as the Civil War breaks out and coerces Phoebe’s main competitor Lazarus Ward (Porter Hall) into joining in with undermining her business while pretending to be her friend. He bribes local Indians to attack her wagon supply and meantime the Confederate troops secure local allegiance but are called away and Tucson is in trouble when Peter shows up with Union soldiers …  Gets on my dander how a doggone war interferes with the plans of people who want to mind their own business. Adapted by Claude Binyon (better known for romcoms and musicals) from the 1939 Clarence Budington Kelland novel, this was shot around the Sonoran Desert and takes a male genre and turns it into a battle of the sexes story with a distinct feminist twist. That makes sense when you have Arthur as the protagonist – with that can-do attitude and the gurgle of a voice, she’s perfectly cast and knew the territory after playing Calamity Jane in DeMille’s The Plainsman. Plus Binyon and director Wesley Ruggles had previously collaborated on a number of films presenting women in a great light, including the great screwball comedy True Confession (starring Carole Lombard) as well as the previous year’s collaboration with Arthur, Too Many Husbands, a version of the Enoch Arden story (by Somerset Maugham) trumped by My Favorite Wife at the box office. The personal touch abounds in this epic, the central asymmetrical romance with Holden (years younger than Arthur, who never looked her real age) matched by the villainy of William.  While we bide our time waiting for the sublime twist ending, played beautifully by Arthur, there’s lots of shoot ’em ups, murders, wartime action and a fantastically shot cattle rush. The film was made in blistering heat which added horribly to the discomfort and budget. Nonetheless it’s a great showcase for Arthur who revels in the situation and the witty lines gifted this pioneering frontier woman. She’s one tough cookie! The music by Victor Young is a series of  inventive orchestrations of and variations on Stephen Foster’s Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.  If this is what it’s like to be in love I’m glad I’m only going to love once

Widows (2018)

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The best thing we have going for us is being who we are… no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.  When Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew of criminals are engulfed in flames during a botched job in Chicago, Harry’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis) finds herself owing hustler-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) a couple of million dollars. Armed only with a notebook in which Harry detailed his past and future plans, Veronica teams up with the gang’s other widows – Linda (Michelle Rodriquez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and single mom Belle (Cynthia Erivo) to mount a robbery her husband was planning that could clear their debt and give them a new start. Meanwhile, an increasingly brutal election battle featuring Irish-American career politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his father Tom (Robert Duvall) emphasises the social problems of Chicago, raising the stakes for this ramshackle group’s first foray into crime…  I’m the only thing standing between you and a bullet in the head. Steve McQueen won the Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave, a relentlessly gruesome account of black American history, an astonishing achievement for a British visual artist never mind a black director. His genre impetus has hardly been on anyone’s radar but he was a fan of Lynda La Plante’s feisty women from the 1983 British TV series (set in London) and brings a lot of artistry to this slick feminist outing concerning itself as much with issues of poverty, domestic abuse and childcare as the unlikeliness of a heist led by women trying to pay back their criminal husbands’ debts following the conflagration that killed the men in a botched heist.  The backdrop which exists in the narrative courtesy of Farrell’s role is given huge expressivity through Sean Bobbitt’s widescreen camerawork, the issues of money and race and class and the sewer of Chicago politicking right there for all to see but of course that deflects from the main story even as it serves to amplify a theme of difficult intergenerational relationships.  This detailed texture is an expansive approach in an established genre which usually has a narrow focus but if ultimately it doesn’t fully engage in the manner which you’d wish, it’s probably due to the underwhelming adaptation by McQueen and Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn which doesn’t give the principals a lot to work with – a shame in the case of Davis, who works at it and has some great scenes with Neeson. Debicki comes off best because she has a character who goes through real development and lots of emotions as the narrative progresses – from abuse by mother and husband, through sugar baby, to independence. Good, but should have been a lot better, especially with that twist 75 minutes in. Criminals and cops are the same. They never bring their shit home

Agnes Varda 30th May 1928 – 29th March 2019

The heroine of the Nouvelle Vague has died. Agnès Varda wasn’t just a director, she was a master of a medium she knew little about when she made her brilliant debut, La Pointe Courte in 1955. She infused all her work – mainly in documentary – with a finessed sensibility that transcends the time in which it is made and her major features, Cleo de 5 à 7 and Le Bonheur are devastating portraits of contemporary womanhood. The later Vagabond was as shocking as her earlier work and made Sandrine Bonnaire a star. Her marriage to Jacques Demy was complex and yielded a wonderful homage, Jacquot de Nantes, a combination of essay with cinephilia that is utterly unique. Documentaries and art installations proved her humanity, flooded with an interest in the marginalised, the unheralded and the quotidian.  She seemed to take great pleasure in finding everyday faces and places. She was making films until quite recently and was a regular visitor to film festivals where I was privileged to hear her speak on occasion. Varda seemed to be able to access her inner child, eternally youthful, questioning and interested, an impression assisted by that French bob she wore until the end. Some critics would claim her films have outlasted those of her male peers:  I wouldn’t entirely disagree. Merci, Agnès.

The Love Witch (2016)

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Men are like children. They’re very easy to please as long as we give them what they want.  Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful young modern day witch, is determined to find a man to love her following the death of Jerry, the husband from whom she was divorced. She moves from San Francisco to Arcata California to rent from a friend and in her Gothic Victorian apartment she makes spells and potions, then picks up men and seduces them. Lecturer Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) is so overcome by their hallucinatory lovefest he dies and she buries him in the grounds of his cabin (actually a huge house). Her spells work too well, and she ends up with more hapless victims including Richard (Robert Seeley) the husband of interior decorator Trish (Laura Waddell). When she at last meets the man of her dreams, Griff (Gian Keys) the policeman sent to investigate Wayne’s death, her desperation to be loved drives her to the brink of insanity and murder... l’ll bet you like to spend time in the woods. ‘To say that this oozes style is to understate the affect of a fully-fleshed sexploitation homage from auteur Anna Billen – who not only writes and directs and edits but designs the costumes, painted the artwork, designed the production, composed the theme song and for all I know manufactured the lenses and served the crew gourmet lunches from the craft vehicle.  Clearly the woman can do just about everything. It’s fabulous – a wicca-feminist twist on a serial killing murdering witch who just wants to use sex magick for ultimate personal fulfillment but gosh darn it wouldn’t ya know it, men just never know what to do with their feelings after an amazing session in bed. Shot by M. David Mullen so that this beautiful out-of-time pastiche looks like it could have been made circa 1970 (only a cell phone conversation removes the impression), it works as a satire that goes full tilt boogie at the tropes of romantic melodrama while evoking sly commentary on what men really want from women, principally in the performing styles and an occasional internal monologue. At this rate, never the twain shall meet. If there’s anything wrong with this is it’s overlength:  at two hours it could lose 25 minutes without any fatal damage, probably from the police procedural subplot. But it’s quite incredible, a loony tunes essay on gender roles that’s drenched in sex, sensuality and humour, a pulpy delirium no matter how you look at it and the soundtrack culled from Ennio Morricone’s Italian giallo scores is to die for. Literally! According to the experts, men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way

The Lost City of Z (2016)

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You’re a long way from Government now. At the dawn of the 20th century, British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is encouraged by his superiors to redeem his family name following his father’s dissolute actions, ruining the Fawcett reputation.  Although married to the supportive Nina (Sienna Miller) with a young son and one on the way, he journeys across the Atlantic to South America to carry out a survey of the Amazon in order to help adjudicate borders and to establish national territories.  On board the ship he encounters Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson)  a man who knows the rainforest. He joins the party which includes aide-de-camp Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and they go into the Amazon, where they experience the surreal pleasures of an opera in the middle of the jungle and discover evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilisation that may have once inhabited the region, triggered by stories told them by their guide. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment back in London when he reports his findings, which contradicts their bias against indigenous populations as savages, the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son, Costin and Manley, returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case. After another set of discoveries he is challenged by biologist James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) who falsely claims they left him for dead so Fawcett leaves the Royal Geographical Society. He is injured on the Somme when he fights in WW1 but in 1925 when his son Jack (Tom Holland) grows up he wants to help his father pursue his obsession and find the City of Z that Nina found out about in a conquistador text at Trinity College Dublin... To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? It comes off a little like Fawcett of Amazonia at first but then this James Gray film establishes its own insistent rhythm with a hallucinatory bent that comes first from obsession and then with repetition. Indeed one is forced into a world recognisably that of David Lean but also Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (quite literally, at the opera) and perhaps Conrad. However the difference is in the doggedness and the feminine element – here Nina plays a crucial part in Percy’s evolving obsession when the document she finds fuels the fire in his belly and ironically leads to increased separation. Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction book, this has some of the usual flaws besetting Gray’s films – a kind of muted incompleteness or psychological lack and a physical darkness – but the facts of the story, the deadly nature of the pursuit and the fascinating history compensate and it has a decent pace. Hunnam grows into the role as the story progresses, caring about slavery and native peoples and expressing proper awe at the sight of sculptures and ancient artefacts; and Miller is fine as the proto-feminist who reads from the letter she wrote when she thought she wouldn’t survive childbirth:  as she tells her husband, “You haven’t even seen it for two minutes,” when he protests the jungle is no place for a woman and takes off yet again leaving her pregnant. It’s an admirable corrective to the standard male-oriented expedition narratives, with an amazing coda. In the end, this is actually spellbinding. There is great irony deployed: Fawcett meets Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Ireland and years later in South America he sees the story about his assassination and is told it will trigger a great war:  his escape across the Atlantic was precisely to avoid conflict and now he is going to be catapulted back into something quite dreadful.  He has a wonderful wife and happy domestic life yet he is truly at home in an utterly alien environment where the natives happily shoot poison arrows. He goes back, again and again, despite ridicule and disputes. He has a higher aim and it becomes something verging on mystical. The cinematography by Darius Khondji and score by Christopher Spelman are quite wondrous at times. Executive produced by Brad Pitt. There is no going back. We are already here