Knight of Cups (2015)

Knight of Cups.jpg

For optimal sound reproduction the producers of this film recommend that you play it loud. Screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) tries to make sense of life in Hollywood. We follow him on an odyssey through Los Angeles and Las Vegas as he undertakes a series of adventures with colorful figures, identified by eight tarot cards, with Rick as the Knight of Cups who sleeps with a half dozen women, leaves his own wife and impregnates another man’s…  Or as I like to call it, another episode in an occasional series known as When Good Auteurs Go Bad. See also:  Phantom Thread. Terrence Malick disappeared up his own fundament a while back:  if anyone thought To the Wonder was anything other than nonsense then they never saw real art house films.  This latest version of Hollywood Eats Itself functions as allegory:  of what, we don’t know, because it’s unnecessary.  All those years of living the life of someone I didn’t even know These movies have been around almost as long as Hollywood itself – but this is the experimental version. Cate Blanchett is Judgment, Natalie Portman is Death, Antonio Banderas is the Hermit, Brian Dennehy is the Hanged Man, and oh, for goodness’ sake, it looks wonderful. There are situations that almost approach coherence, particularly in the (only developed?) scenes with Portman;  an excursion to that simulacrum of plasticity in the desert, Vegas, in the company of a stripper; and the apartment burglary when the thieves bemoan Rick’s lack of possessions. Rick is haunted by the death of his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) who brings him on a tour of LA’s homeless. There are some insights amid the dissociative witterings and fragmentary musings and overheard bites of conversation inspired by The Pilgrim’s Progess but for the most part you won’t believe your ears as Christian’s character thinks he’s Christ wandering through his midlife crisis. Pity the actors, who had no script. Peter Mathiessen tells Rick that a man living in a cave eating nettles doesn’t concern himself with this sort of thing. Those desert monks had a point. This was in an edit suite for two years. After a cold compress go watch Sunset Blvd. Or 8 1/2. Whatever happened to visionary filmmaker Terrence Malick? We are too media-savvy not to understand the metaphors. We know that not all narratives are ordered or complete. But it’s a filmmaker’s job to get us at least some of the way there. And why squander the talents of these marvellous actors?  Presumably their best work wound up on the cutting room floor, as is Malick’s wont. Just to, you know, show them. As Forster would counsel, Only connect.  Woulda coulda shoulda. Begin

 

Advertisements

The Magus (1968)

The Magus

We have all been cast as the traitor for one simple reason:  we have all failed to love.  Nicholas Urfe (Michael Caine) takes up a position as schoolteacher on the Greek island of Phraxos where his predecessor has committed suicide. He wants to write and to escape the pressures of his relationship with Anne (Anna Karina) an emotionally complex air hostess.  He becomes obsessed with a rich old man Maurice Conchis (Anthony Quinn) living in a big complex on the other side of the island who draws him into his odd domestic arrangements which include beautiful American actress Lily (Candice Bergen).  As Maurice starts to play mind games with Nicholas and tells him of his alleged involvement in the deaths of more than 80 villagers during the Nazi occupation, Nicholas loses his grip on reality – he doesn’t know if Maurice is a filmmaker, a psychiatrist, a Nazi collaborator or a demonic magician. They play a dice game which inevitably signals more than its elements. He is put on trial, with everyone from Maurice’s stories and films attending… The once fiendishly famous John Fowles adapted his own novel which no self-respecting student could be seen without.  He may have fallen out of fashion but his work is entrancing and important and if this doesn’t live up to its billing that can be laid at the door of Fowles himself and director Guy Green (Caine and Bergen certainly did). However, it’s a beguiling production, one of the best looking you will ever see courtesy of DoP Billy Williams (Green himself was of course an Academy Award-winning cinematographer) and in its narrative creases you might detect a kind of text much more acknowledged these days – psychogeography, the T.S. Eliot references hint at this of course although even entry level kids can rhyme off the line, No man is an island. Of course the Magus himself is a reference to the diabolical Aleister Crowley (whose home had been in Sicily) but Quinn’s character creates a backstory based in real-life horror and a mass execution, all the while taking on the physical qualities of a latterday Picasso. Fowles himself appears as a boat captain who speaks to Nicholas.  There’s a tremendous cast – including Julian Glover, Takis Emmanuel and Paul Stassino – telling a complex story of identity, responsibility, punishment and redemption that is streamlined to its essential parts and it adds up to something utterly beautiful.  We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time

The Odyssey (2016)

The Odyssey.jpg

Aka L’Odyssée.  A whole world waiting to be discovered. I’m just old enough to remember re-runs of Jacques (-Yves) Cousteau’s TV show – a weekly adventure in the ocean depths with a vast array of colourful marine life on display. He was a superstar who has all but vanished from contemporary iconography: a diver, oceanographer, inventor and TV personality who demonstrated that we only know the surface of the world’s oceans – he brought us what lies beneath. Director Jérôme Salle and co-writer Laurent Turner take memoirs by Cousteau’s chief diver Albert Falco aka Bébert (Vincent Heneine) and his son Jean-Michel (Benjamin Lavernhe) and create a portrait of the life of this man over thirty years, from his days in the French Navy (and an accident preventing his continuing as a pilot) whose passion for diving became a way of life, a journey encompassing family, the co-invention of the aqualung, fame, world travel and the neverending desire to achieve more.  His groundbreaking film The Silent World was the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or. The tensions with his son Philippe (Pierre Niney plays him as an adult) are exacerbated first by boarding school and later at the caricature he feels his father has become.  JYC admits he should never have had children. His wife Simone (Audrey Tautou) is now old and alcoholic, just as she threatened years earlier when she discovered his philandering. When he arrives back at The Calypso (funded by his mother in law’s jewellery) wearing a red beanie, he announces It’s telegenic. Jean-Michel returns after years studying architecture but it’s the other relationships which dominate JYC’s life, principally with his financiers.  I feel like I’ve spent my entire life chasing money. His quest for money dominates his life while Philippe’s spirals in another direction – the environment, triggered when he sees the ship’s cook dumping the trash in the water and his own work as a cinematographer and filmmaker diverges from the family business. On this issue father and son finally come back together but only when JYC’s sponsorship dries up.  Inspired yet again by Jules Verne, they travel on a foolhardy mission to Antarctica and see the true wonder of the world:  from taking money to promote oil exploration, Cousteau starts the Society that bears his name and tries to save the oceans, bringing the attention of the world to the imminent tragedy of pollution. It’s handsomely photographed by Matias Boucard but finally the difficulty reconciling the father and son drama with the story of the ego that brought the wonderful world of the sea to the screen proves as challenging as it was in reality, even with that awesome cast: Wilson is terrific as the marvellously charismatic pioneer whose travels are finally brought to an end by a tragedy. It’s all about him, after all.

The Whole Truth (1958)

The Whole Truth 1958.jpeg

I almost wish it had been me who killed her. I’d have enjoyed doing it.  Film producer Max Poulton (Stewart Granger) is on location on the French Riviera shooting a film starring his lover, troublesome Italian actress Gina Bertini (Gianna Maria Canale). When he ends their fling to return to his loyal wife, Carol (Donna Reed), the jilted actress threatens to reveal details of their affair to Carol. Later, at a party at Max’s villa, Scotland Yard investigator Carliss (George Sanders) arrives with news that Gina has been killed and that Max is a murder suspect. Then Carol tries to prove her husband is innocent of a crime with a twist … Philip Mackie’s play had been recorded for BBC TV and is given a smart adaptation by Jonathan Latimer with a superb cast – Sanders in particular is viciously good. A neat British thriller, directed by John Guillermin (with an uncredited assist by Dan Cohen) and produced by Jack Clayton.

The Disaster Artist (2017)

The Disaster Artist.jpg

Just because you want it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.  In mid-1990s San Francisco acting wannabe Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) encounters the wild and unusual Tommy Wiseau in improv class.  Wiseau has an impenetrable accent, wads of cash and looks like a vampire.  When Greg screens Rebel Without a Cause for Tommy he’s blown away and immediately drives them down to Cholame to the scene of James Dean’s fatal crash.They throw in their lot to move to LA where he owns another property and Greg gets an agent while Tommy alienates the rich and famous. He decides to write his own movie for them to make together and funds it from his account ‘literally a bottomless pit’ as a teller regales producer Seth Rogen who plays the film’s script supervisor. He does everything but learn his lines and throws hissy fits lasting days particularly when Greg moves out to live with his actress girlfriend Amber (Alison Brie) who gets him a guest role on Malcolm in the Middle after they run into Bryan Cranston at Canter’s but Tommy makes him turn it down.  Tommy fires crew and he and Greg have a monster argument.  Months later Greg is back in theatre and the premier of The Room beckons. It promises to be horrendous so will Greg even attend? … The true story (adapted from Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book) of how a vaguely paranoid European immigrant to the US made a terrible vanity project film starring himself with his best friend Greg Sestero and unintentionally became a cult hero.  The genetically gifted Franco brothers (James played James Dean in the 2001 biopic, Dave looks more like Montgomery Clift with the passing years) have some serious bromance moments here. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the major irony here is perhaps that just as Tommy needed to take a step back and learn his lines, perhaps this production was just a tad hamstrung by his approval of the film in the first place so director/star James Franco never goes totally mediaeval on us although he gives it the old college try. The credits sequence is like a blooper reel – with a split screen showing us just how precise the film within the film is including the anatomically incorrect sex scene. Maybe it’s not the crazy fest you expect but it’s a charming tribute to the madness that is required to get movies made particularly when you’re paying for them yourself.

Their Finest (2016)

Their Finest.jpg

Why do you think that people like films? It’s because stories are structured; have a shape, a purpose, a meaning; and when things gone bad they’re still a part of a plan; there’s a point to them. Unlike life. In 1940 London former secretary and comic strip writer Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired by the Ministry of Information to insert more realistic female banter in propaganda films. She’s shacked up with failing war artist Ellis Cole (Jack Huston) who becomes jealous of her job while he can’t get an exhibition of his work. She starts working on a story from the newspapers about identical twin sisters who supposedly rescued soldiers at Dunkirk but discovers it was exaggerated. While she is struggling with the screenplay she falls for screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and rows with self-centred actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) whose career is basically at an end.  All the while the German bombs rain down on London and they’ve got to use an American war hero (Jake Lacy) who’s never acted before , turning journalistic fiction into a movie to entertain the masses and get America into the war … There’s a great idea buried here under a mound of rubble caused by the German bombs. Gaby Chiappe’s adaptation of Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half can’t decide whether it’s a comedy or a drama and at its heart is an issue of research – and the lack of it. There are some good insights into the kind of wartime propaganda inserted into films of the era and nice pastiches but they’re overly obvious. The second (major) death is quite laughable which is presumably not what was intended. Rachael Stirling offers some terrific oppositional feminism as Phyl from the Minstry and Nighy steals every scene as the actor who turns out to be human after all. Jeremy Irons enjoys himself as the Secretary of War.  Another somewhat tentative tragicomic British film from Danish director Lone Scherfig (after An Education and One Day) with Arterton more or less delightful in a performance which attempts depth but drops the Welsh accent PDQ and Nighy gives his best Leslie Howard, sort of.  Harmless and inoffensive irony which I suppose is a kind of propaganda in itself.

Trumbo (2015)

Trumbo.jpg

You talk like a radical but you live like a rich guy.  In the early Forties in Hollywood Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is the highest paid scriptwriter but he’s also a member of the Communist Party. In a 1947 purge led by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott) Trumbo and several of his fellow writers are hounded into appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington where they go off-script and ten of them wind up being imprisoned and their careers are ruined. When they get out they have to rebuild and face down their betrayers as they scrabble to write for the black market … Adapted from Bruce Cook’s biography of the blacklisted screenwriter, this is so good on so many levels. It takes a relatively complex history of the Hollywood anti-communist campaign and makes it understandable and it comprehensively names all the people who were behind it as well as communicating the terrible fear that descended upon the creative industries when what America was really fighting was creeping liberalism (which it learned decades later and which was also feared by the communists). It accurately portrays the documented differences among the Hollywood Ten and how they were perceived by their peers (not entirely positively especially following their self-aggrandising performances at the HUAC hearings) and the terrible compromises and betrayals between friends:  Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) didn’t work for a year and gave names of those men already behind bars. How to win against the oppressive Hollywood machine drives so much of their post-prison experience – sue them like the composite figure of Arlen Hird (Louis CK) wants to do? or do what they’re good at and beat the bastards at their own game? like Trumbo does – and how apposite that Trumbo was selected to rewrite Spartacus after winning the Oscar for both Roman Holiday and The Brave One under a front and then a pseudonym. What raises this again above other films dramatising the same situation is the sheer wit and brio with which it is written and performed – which you’d frankly expect of anything with Trumbo’s name attached:  kudos to John McNamara. It also clarifies the extent to which this was a self-administered situation – these guys were screwed over by the studios voluntarily, not Government decree. Cranston is perfect in the role which is suffused with sadness and smarts and he embodies the writer we all really want to be – smoking like a train, drinking like a fish, tranked up on benzedrine and writing in the bathtub. A wonderfully ironic touch for a man who didn’t wallow. It’s wonderful to watch him deal with his daughter Nicola (Elle Fanning) become as politicised as him and he must assume a different parental role as she matures:  he admires her but he can’t be disturbed to get out of the tub and celebrate her birthday because he’s got a deadline.  There are great scenes:  when Trumbo notices that Robinson sold a Van Gogh to pay for the writers’ legal defence;  the writing of the cheapie scripts for the King Brothers. This is a complicated portrait of a fascinating and contradictory individual. Diane Lane has a thankless and almost dialogue-free part as his brilliant wife Cleo but her charismatic presence transforms her scenes:  she is duly thanked by Trumbo in the film’s final scene in 1970 during a Writers Guild ceremony. John Goodman is fantastic as the Poverty Row producer Frank King who meets a Motion Picture Alliance thug with a baseball bat and leaves him in no doubt as to what will happen if he gets the way of his hiring Trumbo because he’s in the business for money and pussy and doesn’t care about politics.  There’s a fantastic scene sequence that illustrates the different working methodologies of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger:  Trumbo played them off one against the other to get his credits restored. The best tragicomic moment is perhaps in the clink when Trumbo encounters his nemesis J. Parnell Thomas who’s been imprisoned for a real crime – tax evasion. Trumbo was however convicted of one thing – contempt. He was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and this film does not shirk from that fact.  Directed sensitively and with panache by Jay Roach who has made a film that is literate, eloquent and humane. I am Spartacus.

Michael Anderson 01/30/1920-04/25/2018

MA Private Angelo.jpgMA Waterfront Women.jpgMA Hell is Sold Out.jpgMA Night Was Our Friend.jpgMA The House of the Arrow.jpgMA Will Any Gentleman.jpgMA The Dam Busters.jpgMA 1984.jpgMA Around the World in 80 Days.jpgMA Battle Hell aka Yangtse Incident.jpgMA Chase a Crooked Shadow.jpgMA Shake Hands with the Devil.jpgMA The Wreck of the Mary Deare.jpgAll the Fine Young Cannibals theatrical.jpgMA The Naked Edge.jpgMA Flight From Ashiya.jpgMA Wild and Wonderful.jpgMA Operation Crossbow.jpgMA The Quiller Memorandum.jpgMA The Shoes of the Fisherman.jpgMA Pope Joan.jpgMA Doc Savage Man of Bronze.jpgMA Conduct Unbecoming.jpgMA Logans Run.jpgMA Orca Killer Whale.jpgMA Dominique.jpgMA The Martian Chronicles.jpgMA Murder By Phone.jpgMA Second Time Lucky.jpgMA Separate Vacations.jpgMA Sword of Gideon.jpgMA The Jewellers Shop.jpgMA Millennium.jpgMA Young Catherine.jpgMA The Sea Wolf.jpgMA Rugged Gold.jpgMA Captains Courageous.jpgMA 20,000 Leagues.jpgMA Summer of the Monkeys.jpgMA The New Adventures of Pinocchio.jpgMichael Anderson.jpg

Not too many directors see their films re-released sixty-three years after their first screening:  however last week in my local cinema, The Dam Busters (1955) was trailed ahead of its 17 May 2018 commemorative re-release celebrating the 75th birthday of the Royal Air Force.  That’s how good it is, even if Barnes Wallis thought Michael Redgrave was too handsome for the role. A few days after seeing that trailer, the death of the film’s director Michael Anderson was announced. He was ninety-eight years old. The funny thing is, if you’re asked to name a British director with that surname everyone comes up with Lindsay (no relation).  Yet Michael Anderson also created films that linger long in the memory, indicative of the culture and resonant long beyond their original impact:  Around the World in Eighty Days and The Quiller Memorandum and Logan’s Run (co-starring his son, Michael Jr.) are the best known and are visionary works in utterly diverse ways. He inherited The Wreck of the Mary Deare starring Gary Cooper when Hitchcock decided not to do it and then worked with Psycho writer Joseph Stefano on The Naked Edge, Cooper’s last film. He was equally good at political drama (Shake Hands With The Devil) as melodrama – was Natalie Wood ever more beautiful than in All the Fine Young CannibalsThe Dam Busters was paid due homage in the attack on The Death Star in Star Wars and who could pay better tribute? Born into a family of actors, he began as a production runner in Elstree when he was 16 years old and forged his way ahead as assistant to Noël Coward, David Lean and Anthony Asquith, to become a director (and writer) himself in 1949 with Private Angelo, starring Peter Ustinov who co-directed in their third collaboration. He developed a strong visual signature in his frequent work with cinematographer Erwin Hillier who had worked on Lang’s M at Ufa in Berlin where Anderson spent part of his childhood.  I first noticed his name as a kid when I watched TV’s The Martian Chronicles:  he loved the sci fi genre because it opened his imagination and the visual possibilities were limitless even if the budget for Millennium made for a serious let-down. He made the eco-friendly answer to Jaws in Orca:  Killer Whale and the promotional material for big-budget Nessie was out there before the project was cancelled. He did a number of TV movies in the Eighties and Nineties and it is perhaps a kind of lateral/literary joke that the man who made Pope Joan then adapted Pope John Paul II’s play The Jeweller’s Shop. He was the oldest living Academy Award Best Director nominee and his autobiography is due to be released soon. What a run. What a near-century! We salute you.

Milos Forman 02/18/1932-04/14/2018

MF Leave it to Me.jpgMF Vintage Car.jpgMF Black PeterMF Audition.jpgMF Before the Nickelodeon.jpgMF Tell Them Who You Are.jpgMF Loves of a Blonde.jpgMF The Firemens BallMF Taking Off.jpgMF I Miss Sonja Henie.jpgMF Visions of Eight.jpgMS Cuckoos Nest.jpgMF Hair.jpgMF Ragtime.jpgMF Amadeus.jpgMF Heartburn.jpgMF New Years Day.jpgMF Valmont.jpgMF The People vs Larry Flynt.jpgMF Man on the MoonMF Keeping the Faith.jpgMF Goyas Ghosts.jpgMilos Forman photo.jpg

The death has taken place of Jan Tomas aka Miloš Forman, whose arresting anti-Soviet New Wave Czech films (as both writer and director) brought him to the attention of the world in the Sixties. His dyspeptic view of society and politics in films like The Firemen’s Ball made him a predictably iconclastic commentator on American life in Taking Off, his transatlanic debut which also exposed his taste for classic comedy and nearly caused him a total nervous breakdown when it was a commercial failure. He did everything he could to remain in the US. His desire to make Hair would have to wait a decade when the rights were finally acquired. Paired with Jack Nicholson’s powerhouse performance his ability to tailor a zesty confrontational ‘message’ film was encapsulated in the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a masterful adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel and a tribute too to Michael Douglas’ producing talent. It bears tragedy and humour with equal weight, appropriately considering Forman was at his lowest ebb when he was offered the job. It won the Big 5 Oscars. With Amadeus, one of his Eighties literary adaptations, he was practically an opera conductor in a film which is satanic in its majesty. His taste for salty sociocultural appraisal came to the fore again in the Nineties with portraits of Larry Flynt and Andy Kaufman (Man in the Moon), helping to craft memorable performances about very problematic and eccentric public figures. He never lost his spirit of rebellion and resisted the urge to wallow in bitterness despite having seen his parents taken to concentration camps where they were murdered by the Nazis. Rest in peace.

Isao Takahata 10/29/1935-04/05/2018

IT Heidi.jpgIT Grave of the Fireflies.jpgIT Only Yesterday.jpgIT Pom Poko.jpgIT The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.jpgIsao Takahata.jpg

The death has taken place of Isao Takahata, the co-founder of legendary Japanese anime Studio Ghibli. He was 82.  Probably most acclaimed for Grave of the Fireflies, he was instrumental in bringing the artform to a global audience. He began working in the field at the Toei Studio in 1959 and eventually teamed up with arch rival Hayao Miyazaki in 1985 to make hugely influential and serious-minded films like the ecological story Pom Poko. This multi-talented auteur was a writer, producer and director (but not an animator).  His tendency towards realism balanced Ghibli’s more fantasy-oriented material, focussing on the quotidian and normal activities, bringing his literary education to bear on the world of the comic book and elevating its ambitions in the process. Rest in peace.