Terry Jones 1st February 1942 – 21st January 2020

The death has taken place of one of the greatest screen comics and writers we have been blessed to enjoy. Terry Jones started writing with Michael Palin after they graduated from Cambridge and they made their names on British TV as joke writers for people like John Bird and David Frost before collaborating with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam to create the landmark series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, where Jones’ penchant for absurdity, satire and surrealism blended with his historical interests and a slight case of anarchy. Jones came into his own as a director of their frequently controversial films and directed other material as well as continuing a separate writing career as a mediaevalist, poet and children’s author. For most of us, though, he will be remembered as the immortal Mandy Cohen, mother of a very naughty boy. Goodnight Terry, you only went and revolutionised comedy while you were with us. It’s probably time for a rest.

Hitchcock (2012)

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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

I Am Heath Ledger (2017)

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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

I Am Paul Walker (2018)

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He was always known as The Vagrant. The horrific death of actor Paul Walker in a car crash in November 2013 shocked the world. How could this action movie star renowned for his own very careful piloting of vehicles have occurred? A friend was driving the Porsche Carrera and both were burned alive in a car park after crashing into a tree. A really good driver. Conscientious at all times. He was in the middle of filming Fast and Furious 7 at the time. This painful documentary departs from that story until the final sequence and is concerned with interviewing many people in Walker’s life, starting with his tightknit working class Mormon family, drawing on his background in Tujunga, California, and the fierce loyalty to his many friends whom he employed to keep himself sane in the wake of success. A picture emerges of a surfer dude whose mom had taken him to auditions as a young child and who impressed people like Michael Landon with his abilities. He didn’t want to continue acting as an adult and indulged his pleasures for a time. That guy made the best of every single moment. He grew up tall – six three – and liked a gnarly fun lifestyle and his surprise casting in Pleasantville led to an introduction to filmmaker Rob Cohen whose first film with him was not entirely a success but would lead to The Fast and the Furious franchise that made Walker a movie star. Uncomfortable with publicity, he had to deal with an unplanned pregnancy and worked hard to support his girlfriend’s desire to escape to Hawaii with their baby daughter Meadow in order to further her education. His fascination with marine conservation was all-consuming and his happiest times were spent tagging whales yet he had a certain legacy to deal with that informed his approach to life – his maternal grandfather was a WW2 veteran who set a landspeed record using a road car at Bonneville in the Fifties;  his paternal grandfather Paul Walker II was a famous boxer; and his own father (Paul Walker III) was a tough guy who served as a marine in Vietnam and was a crack shot. The picture of masculinity that emerges is powerful and deep-rooted. He liked to do exciting things. He wanted to stop making films but he felt overwhelming financial responsibility to his family members and those friends of his who were part of his entourage on each Fast production: kindness superseded his desire to escape to his off-grid home. Everyone would come to him with their problems, as one of the guys observes. Nobody has a bad word about this astonishingly handsome, nice, thoughtful action man who suffered such a brutal ending. Touching? That barely covers it. Directed by Adrian Buitenhuis using a huge variety of home movies, archive, newsreel and personal interviews but the horror of Walker’s senseless death overshadows the film in a way these words and pictures cannot overcome. Success to me is balance in life

 

Zelig (1983)

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All the themes of our culture were there. In this fictional documentary set during the 1920s and 1930s a non-descript American called Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) achieves notoriety for his ability to look, act and sound like anyone he meets. He ingratiates himself with everyone from the lower echelons of society to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Pope becoming famous as The Changing Man. Even Hollywood comes calling and makes a film about him. His chameleon-like skill catches the eye of Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), a psychiatrist who thinks Zelig is in need of serious cognitive analysis as someone who goes to extremes to make himself fit into society. Their relationship moves in a direction that’s not often covered in medical textbooks as she hypnotises him I’m certain it’s something he picked up from eating Mexican food. A formally and technically brilliant and absolutely hilarious spoof documentary that integrates real and manipulated newsreel footage with faked home movies, a film within a film, period photographs of the leads and interviews with contemporary personalities, real and imagined, from Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow to ‘Eudora Fletcher’ (Ellen Garrison) in the present day. Even Bruno Bettelheim shows up to declare the subject the ultimate conformist. The sequence on the anti-semitism Zelig experiences as a child (his parents sided with the anti-semites, narrator Patrick Horgan informs us mournfully) is laugh out loud funny. Of course it has a payoff – in Nazi Germany. The editing alone is breathtaking, there is not a false moment and the music is superlative, forming a backdrop and a commentary as well as instilling in the audience a realistic feel for the time in which this is set. There are moments where you will not believe your eyes as Allen transforms into everyone he meets – regardless of race, shape or colour. An original and funny mockumentary that’s actually about the world we live in, an extreme response to childhood bullying and what we do to make ourselves fit in and where that could lead. You just told the truth and it sold papers – it never happened before!

 

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

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Everybody got honourable mention who showed up. Opthamologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) wants to preserve his marriage to Miriam (Claire Bloom), and his dangerous brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) comes up with what appears to be the only viable solution – murder. Initially he is plagued with guilt about his infidelity and confides in his Rabbi client Ben (Sam Waterston) whom he is treating for sight loss. However when he becomes certain that his neurotic and hysterical mistress Dolores (Anjelica Huston) is about to tell his wife about their four-year long affair, Judah agrees to Jack’s plan. Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) is a documentary maker whose films make no money and he spends his afternoons at the movies with his orphaned niece. His wife Jenny (Joanna Gleason) chides him for his failure and refuses to have sex with him but things seems to be resolved when her brother, horribly successful TV comedy producer Lester (Alan Alda) says he can make a film about him, which introduces him to associate producer Halley (Mia Farrow), who shares his love of movies Without the law it’s all darkness. A film of two halves in which Allen tries to unite the ideas of tragedy and comedy – happily Alda is at hand to illustrate it via Oedipus Rex using the hoary saying, Comedy is tragedy plus time. It’s a wholly ironic work in which Huston’s death should trigger guilt in Landau but he escapes scot-free while his rabbi advisor ends up with sight loss; and Allen’s character who wisely advises his orphaned niece about life through daily trips to the movies doesn’t see what’s clear to his wife – that the object of his affection Farrow is in lust with the obnoxious Alda. Meanwhile his philosophical hero Professor Louis Levy (Martin S. Bergmann) whose interviews form a Greek chorus of morality for a proposed film commits suicide. That the entire tragicomedy is concluded in a wedding is the greatest irony of all in a work which balances like the finest of high wire acts. God is a luxury I can’t afford

 

 

 

Buck Henry 9th December 1930 – 8th January 2020

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The death has taken place of Buck Henry (Zuckerman), chiefly regarded as one of the best satirical screenwriters of the last 60 years, gifted with an eye for a good gag and a smart line. After an upper class education at Choate, Dartmouth and Harvard’s military academy, he became an actor and soon migrated to TV to write on Steve Allen and Garry Moore’s shows. He co-created Get Smart with Mel Brooks and then forged a big screen career with The Graduate. One of only three director-collaborating teams to be nominated for an Academy Award (with Warren Beatty for Heaven Can Wait) his contribution to the culture is both prolific and immense. Rest in peace.

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

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The world is perfect. Appreciate the details. In the sleepy small town of Centerville, Pennsylvania something is not quite right. News reports are scary with the earth tilting on its axis and scientists are concerned, but no one foresees the dead rising from their graves and feasting on the living, and the citizens must battle to survive. Chief  Robertson (Bill Murray) and his officer sidekick (Adam Driver) get to work dealing with the undead while Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) reluctantly accompanies them, terrified and Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) observes hostilities The only way to kill the dead is to kill the head. Well I didn’t see that coming. Jim Jarmusch making a zombie comedy? Things are getting exceedingly strange in the world of the cool Eighties auteur when he’s making a film that serves at least partly as an homage to George Romero with a side salad of Assault on Precinct 13 and a reference to Samuel Fuller. The title comes from a short story turned TVM written by Robert Psycho Bloch and it’s somewhat honoured here with a subplot about juvenile delinquents and the revenge they take. It’s something of a shaggy dog story with slow-running gags and the Murray/Driver double act offers deadpan self-conscious commentary on filmmaking indicating the lack of genre commitment, which may or may not irritate and take you out of the action the wrong way. In fact it makes it a bit of a zombie zombie film, if you think about it. There is a huge head count and most of the fun is in watching the different tools used to decapitate – guns, garden shears and, with her fierce Scottish accent and a samurai sword, funeral home proprietor Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton). Even sweet Selena Gomez is separated from her torso. Did I mention the UFO?! Thought not. A nicely made oddity shot with typical aplomb by Frederick Elmes. This is definitely going to end badly

It Should Happen To You (1954)

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I’d give my right arm to see myself in the movies.  Small-town model and actress Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday) encounters documentary-maker Pete Sheppard (Jack Lemmon) in Central Park and after he shoots footage of her gives him her address. She dreams of seeing her name in lights after two years of not making it in New York City. She takes a gamble by investing in billboard advertising to get her name out there. Almost immediately her risk pays off, and she finds herself inundated with media requests and fans, including the affections of the wealthy Evan Adams III (Peter Lawford) of the Adams Soap company.  Meanwhile Pete has rented a room in her boarding house and observes Adams coming and going with Gladys, whom he is trying to persuade to exchange the valuable spot in Columbus Circle for six elsewhere and eventually she agrees. Gladys initially bathes in the publicity which earns her all kinds of advertising campaigns but Pete sees the downside of overnight success before she recognises that she’s famous for being famous All she’s got is nerve as far as I can see. A wafer-thin premise is spun by screenwriter Garson Kanin into an accomplished romcom that gives Holliday ample space to do physical comedy while Lemmon makes a striking debut. The story has a sting in the tail and Holliday gets to say that the most important thing in life is privacy:  so while the portrayal of the world of TV is a thing of the past, the message is very current. A slick concoction directed by George Cukor with (among other names of the era) Constance Bennett and her amazing cheekbones appearing as themselves in a TV show. I don’t stand for anything