Hollywoodland (2006)

I can see the pieces. How they should fit. How I want them to fit. When Hollywood superstar, TV’s Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck) dies in the bedroom of his home by a single gunshot to his head during a party in June 1959, private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is hired by Reeves’ mother Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith) to investigate his death. He gets caught in a web of lies involving MGM general manager Eddie Mannix’s (Bob Hoskins) and his wife Toni (Diane Lane) with whom Reeves was having an open if adulterous relationship until he took up with younger woman Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) as he is trying to make his own films as a director …. An actor can’t always act – sometimes he has to work. Easily one of the most pleasurable throwback movies made in (relatively) recent times, this is based on one of Tinseltown’s more notorious unsolved crimes. It’s told in classical Hollywood fashion, a romance revealed in parallel with an investigation, the latter of necessity post mortem, the former in flashback, the biography of a rather disappointed self-loathing actor who despises the role responsible for his fame at a time when the film business was in flux. Affleck is superb as the small screen incarnation of the archetypal super hero in what is still his best performance. Lane matches him every step of the way as the ageing starlet cheating on the studio’s most dangerous fixer. Beautifully put together, gorgeously shot by Jonathan Freeman and nicely resolved even if the private eye’s own travails rather detract from the movement of the narrative which posits an alternative ending to that proposed by Kashner and Schoenberger’s book Hollywood Kryptonite. Murderous Mannix is portrayed here by Hoskins whose screen wife Lane was married in real life to Josh Brolin, who played him for the Coen Brothers in Hail, Caesar! and was up for the role of Batman that went to … Affleck! Written by Paul Bernbaum and directed by Allen Coulter. I hope you’ve discovered the meaning of justice

Pain and Glory (2019)

Aka Dolor y gloria. I don’t recognise you, Salvador. Film director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is ageing and in decline, suffering from illness and writer’s block. He recalls episodes in his life that led him to his present situation – lonely, sick – when the Cinematheque runs a film Sabor he made 32 years earlier with actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) and they haven’t spoken since due to the performer’s drug use. But now Salva is in pain and following the reunion with Alberto prompted by his old friend Zulema (Cecilia Roth) will take anything he can including heroin to ease his pain from multiple disabling illnesses. He recalls his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) working hard to put food on the table;  moving into a primitive cave house; his days as a chorister whose voice was so beautiful he skipped class to rehearse and got through school knowing nothing, learning geography on his travels as a successful filmmaker. Now he is forced to confront all the crises in his life and his mother is dying … Writing is like drawing, but with letters. Pedro Almodovar’s late-life reflectiveness permeates a story that must have roots in his own experience. His protege Banderas gives a magnificent performance as the director pausing in between heroin hits and choking from an unspecified ailment to consider his path. The stylish visuals that often overwhelm Almodovar’s dramas are used just enough to textually express the core of the film’s theme – love, and the lack of it. Life is just a series of moments and they are recounted here with clear intent, plundering the past in order to reclaim the present. A triumph. Love is not enough to save the person you love

The Souvenir (2019)

You are lost and you will always be lost. London, 1980. Shy Knightsbridge-dwelling film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) gets involved with a mysterious older man Anthony (Tom Burke) who claims to work for the Foreign Office. While she starts working on a project and he disappears from time to time, she doesn’t suspect what is revealed at a dinner party by a guest – that he’s a junkie. When he steals all her belongings to score she appears to be reeled in to a deeper relationship with him. She doesn’t socialise as much with her old friends but they visit each other’s parents. Then following a trip to Venice when he realises she is aware of his habit she starts bringing him to housing estates to buy drugs and finally sees what is going on in his life until finally she sees him out of control … Don’t be worthy, be arrogant. It’s much more sexy.  Writer/director Joanna Hogg’s quasi-autobiographical tale turns on the passivity rather typical of her characters, upper middle class types stuck in situations they can’t quite recognise and then have trouble leaving.  Here it’s a story of her own youth when she fell in with a much older man who concealed his serious heroin problem from her and given the prevalence of that drug among the arty set in the era (read Will Self on the subject) her naivete is somewhat hard to credit. Realism is introduced by a very welcome soundtrack of songs by bands like The Pretenders and The Fall with those awkward dinner conversations punctuated by political talk – the IRA, the Middle Easterners holed up at the Libyan Embassy:  we even get to re-live the bomb that ended that particular siege.  There are urgent exchanges about movies. Then there are the barely comprehensible phone calls. The letters we can’t read.  It is amusing to see Swinton Sr. turning up in twinset and pearls – definitely not how she spent the Eighties, after all, with her forays in Derek Jarmanland. But it takes 83 minutes for Julie to do something active to end the relationship and it’s only when she sees Anthony’s drug paraphernalia at the flat and then he appears, strung out.  That’s a long time after he robbed all her possessions for a fix. She may be rather innocent in that sense but she has big ambitions and continues with her film: her obvious class status arises only when her Head of Production comments rhetorically, I don’t suppose you really have to think about budget in Knightsbridge, do you. Richard Ayoade gets a great scene when he obnoxiously ponders how a heroin addict and a Rotarian got together and Julie is utterly baffled:  she doesn’t know what track marks are.  The photo of Anthony in full beard in Afghanistan circa 1973 didn’t arouse any suspicions. For such a sophisticate you have to wonder, don’t you. The formation of an artist is tough to put together in the frustrating first hour but somehow in the second, it works, when you finally get intimations of an emotional undertow about to burst in a film that is chiefly of memory rather than strict narrative or depth psychology. I do what I do so you can have the life you’re having

The Assistant (2019)

Never sit on the couch.  Recent North Western graduate and aspiring film producer Jane (Julia Garner) just landed her dream job as a junior assistant to a powerful entertainment mogul at a famous production company. Her day starts before dawn, making coffee, ordering lunch, making travel arrangements and taking phone messages. But as she follows her daily routine, she grows increasingly aware of the abuse that insidiously colors every aspect of her workday, an accumulation of degradations against which she decides to take a stand when she meets inexperienced waitress Sienna (Kristine Froseth) and takes her by taxi to the Mark Hotel and later her office colleagues (Noah Robbins and Jon Orsini) joke that that’s where their boss is spending the afternoon. It dawns on her what’s happening. She takes her complaint to company human resources officer Wilcock (Matthew McFadyen) who persuades her that she’s actually jealous:  Don’t worry about it, she’ll get more out of it than he will. Trust me. He is clearly well aware of his boss’ predilections as is everyone at the company while her colleagues get her to apologise by email to Him I don’t think you’ve anything to worry about. You’re not his type. The #MeToo era has finally pulled back the curtain on the raging sexist bullying of the media business, not that it was ever going to be a surprise for any woman who has ever had that particular experience. In other words you didn’t have to work for Harvey Weinstein to know that that is how things go, it’s just that he’s the most egregious example and a clear influence on this striking debut by writer/director/producer (and documentary maker) Kitty Green. It’s a small and personal work, focused on the reactions of the protagonist and the only voice that’s raised is that of her nameless boss, behind closed doors, on the phoneline, never seen directly, communicating via Non-Disclosure Agreements, the semen stains in his office, the Viagra bottles and the parade of young women leaving, eyes down, from his office which is clearly modelled on Miramax, now bust, toxicity emanating in the air from his vile presence. Garner’s face does so much of the dramatic suspense for the story – absorbing the psychological sucker punch of what she’s inadvertently arranging for her boss – assignations of rape and sexual coercion. Structured like a mystery over the course of a day in which Jane has to piece together the bigger picture from hints and clues, this is subtly shocking and impressive as an admirably controlled commentary on the abuse of power and its widespread acceptance and nurturing by fawning sexist corrupt help, the kind you find in every office. A quiet scream.  I’m tough on you because I’m gonna make you great

Alan Parker 14th February 1944 – 31st July 2020

When I think of movies I think of Alan Parker. He has always been in my viewing life. He wrote one of the all-time great films about children, Melody, and that was his first screenwriting job when he was an award-winning advertising copywriter. After a few shorts and the great TV play The Evacuees by Jack Rosenthal he endeared himself to children the world over with the fabulous parody of gangster flicks, Bugsy Malone, when all you could get hurt by was a cream pie in the kisser in a film that was perfectly pitched because this is a man who had a special affinity for young people. I cried and laughed at Birdy and Shoot the Moon (okay, I mainly cried at that one). I was stunned by Midnight Express (when I was finally old enough to see it) and have yet to set foot in Turkey; and had my head turned by Fame (one of my big thrills was seeing Lee Curreri in real life!). My own heart stopped several times watching Mickey Rourke square off against De Niro in Angel Heart. Ditto Mississippi Burning, a film that brought home the Deep South in visceral fashion. Returning to Ireland to see The Commitments in Savoy One O’Connell Street is a memory I shall cherish forever:  Kilbarrack on the big screen!  Who would believe it!  And Ireland held a special place for Parker, returning to do Angela’s Ashes after his great big musical adventure with Evita. His last film, The Life of David Gale, came out 17 years ago. I don’t know why he stopped making films:  I have often found myself asking that question. He was a big character, the least British filmmaker you could imagine – argumentative, strong-minded, decent, musically driven, witty, slick, bold. He didn’t make enough movies. Or maybe he made just the right number. All that matters is this: Alan Parker’s movies move me. Rest in peace, the late, great Alan Parker.

It’s not my job to make you comfortable in the cinema

Movies are an artistic expression which communicates viscerally

Great cinema is as much about ideas and possibilities as it is about facts. The mixing of the objective and subjective can be a lethal cocktail in storytelling – but it’s not always to everyone’s taste

 

Happy 70th Birthday Susan George 26th July 2020!

 

That singular British actress Susan George turns seventy today. From her days as a teenager in several popular TV series to the controversial role as the raped wife in the extraordinary Straw Dogs, she always turns heads. She has performed in every possible type of role including stints in cult fare such as Fright and being daring enough to do a spaghetti western with the great Sergio Corbucci and a Mexican rip-off of Jaws. She was a huge screen personality through the Seventies, with Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and the notorious Mandingo to her name, among many others. She starred in the two best episodes of Tales of the Unexpected – how can anyone forget Lamb to the Slaughter?! Famously happily married to fellow actor, the late Simon MacCorkindale, she branched out into production and raising Arabian horses. She is a special and bold performer, part of the vanguard of creatives who brought films into the modern era. Happy birthday Susan George!

The Carpetbaggers (1964)

The CarpetbaggersThe Carpetbaggers cast poster

Living up in the air like a rich seagull. When playboy Jonas Cord (George Peppard) inherits his father’s industrial empire based on an explosives factory, he expands it by acquiring an aircraft factory and Hollywood movie studio. His rise to power during the 1920s and 1930s is ruthless. He sets aviation records and starts a passenger airline. He marries and then quickly abandons sweet, bubbly Monica Winthrop (Elizabeth Ashley) the daughter of a business rival and provokes their divorce before she gives birth to their daughter; turns his young, gorgeous stepmother, Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker), who was his girlfriend originally before his father Jonas Sr. (Leif Erickson) married her, into a self-destructive movie star; and manages to disappoint even his closest friend and surrogate father, cowboy movie star Nevada Smith (Alan Ladd) whose concealed background he uses for a movie script. Then he falls for a prostitute Jennie Denton (Martha Hyer) whom he wants to turn into the movie star of America’s dreams… If that woman ran an immoral house she’d have to pay me. Despite the lurid and sadistic content of Harold Robbins’ sensational 1961 bestseller, a roman à clef which mines the contours of a Howard Hughes-type protagonist, and censorship issues aside, this is a strangely muted adaptation by John Michael Hayes and Edward Dmytryk’s stilted direction doesn’t help. The real shocker is the fight scene between Peppard and an ageing Ladd which looks properly dangerous and finally explores Cord’s psychology but it’s truly disturbing because it feels real, unlike much of the drama. As a portrait of the Thirties movie-making scene it’s certainly got a nose for the Hollywood casting couch mentality and its general air of seedy decadence and corruption. In that light it’s an interesting take on the career of the Harlow rip off played by Baker (and she made the biopic the following year). Robert Cummings is properly horrifying as Dan Pierce, the smooth agent who is a pimp in all but name; and Martin Balsam scores as Bernard B. Norman, a dastardly studio head; but in many ways, including performance, with Peppard the main culprit, this is all trash, all surface. Ladd’s character is a mélange of Tom Mix, William Boyd and Ken Maynard:  the prequel, Nevada Smith, would be directed by Henry Hathaway from a John Michael Hayes script with Steve McQueen in the lead. Ladd died before this was released. Only you know how all the pieces fit

White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd (1991) (TVM)

White_Hot_The_Mysterious_Murder_of_Thelma_Todd

Just what this town needed – another gorgeous skinny dumb blonde. Los Angeles, 1935. When beautiful movie star Thelma Todd (Loni Anderson) is found dead in her car at the age of 29 it’s initially put down to suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning but Assistant DA Louis Marsden (Scott Paulin) hears her distraught mother Alice (Lois Smith) screaming, For God’s sake, what’s the matter with you? Don’t you know a murder when you see one? He pursues it with the supposed help of the DA in Los Angeles Buron Fitts (Dakin Matthews) and questions the people in Thelma’s life, putting together a picture of her as an actress but also the proprietress of Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe at the beach where all Hollywood society likes to dine and which might hold the clues to her violent demise. He unspools stories that eventually reveal her ex Pat DiCicco (John O’Hurley) drove her into the arms of notorious Mafioso Lucky Luciano (Robert Davi) who wanted to use a room at her restaurant as a casino to blackmail the studio heads …… I want to buy you everything you ever wanted. A Rashomon-like approach to this Hollywood biopic pays dividends in this adaptation of the book Hot Toddy by Andy Edmonds, as Matthews pursues witnesses to a likely murder. As he questions her one-time married boyfriend Roland West (Lawrence Pressman) and business partner whose wife is putting up the money for their joint venture in a restaurant; Thelma’s mother; her movie sidekick Patsy Kelly (Maryedith Burrell); her ex-husband DiCicco (The Glamour Boy of Hollywood as this putative gangster associate and cousin of James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli was known); and Lucky Luciano’s henchman – we get a ripe picture of movie town and all the power players, locating the real people behind the silver screen at a time when the Mafia had most of the studios by the short and curlies via the unions. Smith gets some pearls to deliver as Thelma’s mother, a woman who finally shuts up when she realises the DA’s office is putting together the real story and her life could be at stake too. Todd is a name that’s little remembered now but she was a brilliant comedienne, enjoyed stardom (known as The Ice Cream Blonde) and as well as a lot of Hal Roach (played here by Paul Dooley) comedies (particularly with Queen of Wisecracks Kelly) she played opposite the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers. Anderson might be a tad old for the role but it’s a spirited performance of a woman who apparently barely slept, surviving on a cocktail of diet drugs, uppers and champagne, high on life and longing for true love, eventually stepping way out of her league. It’s a loose interpretation of what is known, but it’s beautifully shot by Chuck Arnold with fantastic set design by Donald Lee Harris and Lee Vail, with simply gorgeous costumes for Anderson by Heidi Kaczenski (apparently most of the clothes were leftovers from The Untouchables, designed by Giorgio Armani). There’s a period-type score composed by Mark Snow, adding to the atmosphere of this impressive TV movie, directed by veteran Paul Wendkos. Adapted by Robert E. Thompson and Lindsay Harrison. Look out for an uncredited Ann Turkel as Gloria Swanson – coincidentally, Turkel’s mother’s name is Thelma!  Incredibly, this was broadcast as a double feature with Anderson doing headlining duty in The Jayne Mansfield Story too.  I understand the only basic law of human nature – love talks, money walks

 

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind (2020) (TVM)

What Remains Behind

People knew she was smart and exceptionally well organised, says Mia Farrow of her late friend, Natalie Wood. Wood’s daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner has produced this personal tribute to her mother, assembling film clips, home movies, photographs and interviews with friends, co-stars and her younger sister Courtney Wagner (who says her famous mother is difficult to access), as well as Robert Wagner, to whom Wood was married for the second time at the time of her death in November 1981. Wagner celebrated her 18th birthday with her after she had admired him aged 10 and their subsequent relationship and marriage played out on the covers of magazine, love’s young dream. They co-starred in All the Fine Young Cannibals and fellow cast member George Hamilton says, She made you feel important, not her. Her career ascended to new heights on Splendor in the Grass where she met Elia Kazan’s production assistant, Mart Crowley, extensively interviewed here, who became fast friends with Wood (and subsequently worked on Wagner’s smash hit 80s TV series Hart to Hart.) Contrary to popular belief he and Wagner both deny Warren Beatty broke up the marriage – it was already in trouble. Wagner puts it down to the pressures on her as she went straight to work on West Side Story without the rest of the cast’s rehearsal time. His career was experiencing a lull. They split, he moved to Rome and remained there for 3 years, and had daughter Katie with his next wife, Marion Marshall, Stanley Donen’s ex, becoming stepfather to her sons, (the late) Peter and Joshua Donen. Natasha reads from a letter she found written by her mother, an essay that was intended for publication in Ladies Home Journal but wasn’t released. She describes the two-year affair with Beatty as a collision from start to finish. She was involved with (among others) Frank Sinatra, Henry Jaglom, David Niven Jr and Michael Caine, as well as getting engaged to Arthur Loew Jr and Ladislav Blatnik the shoe king of Venezuela as someone amusingly recalls. She married British writer/producer Richard Gregson and had Natasha but was so besotted with her newborn that Gregson slept with Wood’s secretary and that was that. She and Wagner met at a party, sparks flew, they both cried afterwards and they remarried in July 1972, creating a large happy home on Canon Drive, Beverly Hills where they had a new baby together, daughter Courtney, hired beloved nanny Willy Mae, and had a very busy guest house with his stepsons, her stepchildren and various friends visiting. Josh Donen even moved in at Wood’s invitation, with movie stars and family attending their fabulous parties. It seemed to me that they should be together, says Josh. Friend Richard Benjamin says, It made you feel good to be there. Wood took her foot off the gas in terms of her career rearing her daughters even if Courtney sadly remembers that Wood was Natasha’s mother, while she relied on Willy Mae. She was totally happy. There’s a rewind to Wood’s own childhood, second daughter to a pushy Russian mother who got her noticed during the location shoot for a film in Santa Rosa which led to the family moving to Los Angeles and Orson Welles says in a TV interview, I was her first leading man, referring to Tomorrow Is Forever, when little Natalie Wood as Natasha Gurdin became, was line perfect while he kept fluffing his. Critic Julia Salamon says of her performance in Miracle on 34th Street, there’s no artificeshe was very sure-seeming in who she was. She injured her wrist on a set and covered it up forever after with a big bangle. Her mother constantly told her that a gypsy foretold that her second daughter would be world famous but beware of dark water, inculcating total fear in Wood. She was the sole breadwinner from 12 when her father Nick got injured and at the same time she entered regular school but had no airs or graces as her schoolfriend recalls. Daughter Natasha says, Being the daughter of a narcissistic controlling mother …. that’s played out in so many of her films, on the subject of the hysterical, dramatic, superstitious mother Maria who ran her life, living vicariously through her beautiful and successful child, pushing her on until Wood herself chose to do Rebel Without a Cause, the film which made her finally realise she could act and on the set she had an affair with director Nick Ray, decades her senior. Robert Redford admits she was responsible for his screen career beginning, insisting after she saw him on Broadway that the theatre actor be cast opposite her in Inside Daisy Clover and she just carried me along to This Property Is Condemned. Before that she had discovered on the set of comedy The Great Race that both Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis were paid more and she insisted on parity. But she was in trouble, attending a psychiatrist five days a week, a practice she continued for 8 years, and ODd on pills one weekend during the shoot going to Mart Crowley’s room in her house calling for assistance. She went to hospital and returned to work the next Monday morning. Scenes on the psychiatrist’s couch from Splendour and Penelope are played, as if to state that without Method training Wood was sublimating her problems in the roles she chose. She was brave too. She was the emotional engine behind Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, as Elliott Gould says, Natalie brought what the film needed. She had points in the film, which was very successful and she could afford to pick and choose her projects thereafter. She took a break of almost 5 years to rear her daughters and then made headlines with her return in the big TV movie event, The Cracker Factory. She reinvented herself in terms of cosmetics and styling with Michael Childers, the photographer who made her look as beautiful as she deserved entering her forties, never a good age for an actress. She appeared in From Here to Eternity, a water-cooler mini-series remake of the famous film. She shot The Last Married Couple in America with George Segal and he comments, She was very wise about how she dispensed herself. She was going to be making her first stage appearance in Anastasia. She went to North Carolina to shoot Brainstorm with director Douglas Trumbull. On the subject of their rumored affair, he says with no fuss, There was no physical charisma between her and Christopher Walken. [We can infer what we will given the obvious and forgivable lacunae in the telling of this life]. There is TV coverage of her disappearance off Catalina. Natasha’s face to face chat with Wagner, which dominates the interviews, gets to the point of what happened that fateful night after Thanksgiving 1981 when both stars were home from location shoots, Wood on Brainstorm, Wagner on Hawaii with Hart to Hart. The weather was terrible, stormy and rainy. Walken was a house guest and the arguments between him and Wagner were apparently so awful that people were embarrassed and her friend Delphine Mann wouldn’t go on the boat to Catalina which she now regrets. Josh Donen encouraged Wood to go, which he says he wish he never had. There are tears streaming down Natasha’s face as she listens to the man she calls Daddy Wagner recount what he believes might have happened. It’s a highly uncomfortable sequence as though they’re playing out a therapy session. I was a little high at the time.  It’s devastating. The scene at the house afterwards was surreal, with news crews maintaining a vigil and Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley MacLaine showing up with a crystal ball.  It doesn’t explain anything, certainly not in terms of his being described as a Person of Interest by the LAPD in the reopened case. The family appear to have come to terms with Wood’s loss, although Courtney resorted to drink and drugs as a coping mechanism in the aftermath: she was just seven years old when Wood died. The party was over, she says ruefully. She wound up in rehab. Wagner followed his therapist’s advice following the funeral. They went to Switzerland and celebrated Christmas with his friend David Niven. They went to England and had New Year’s Eve with Natasha’s father Richard Gregson and his wife and children. It was the return to school that was tough.  Nobody handled Wagner dating Jill St John particularly well. St John says she had experience of loss herself – her husband died in a helicopter crash. She says of Wood, Natalie was a life well-lived. For fans of Wood like myself nobody other than Mia Farrow attempts to get to what it was that Wood communicates in her extraordinarily emotive performing style:  Natalie was unique. She doesn’t have a false moment in her movies. The family dismiss the ongoing speculation and are particularly harsh about Wood’s younger sister Lana who clearly believes Wagner knows more than he’s letting on as she restates in interview after interview. Natasha claims that whenever Lana visited she had no interest in her or her sister, just Wood. Perhaps this film is a salve. Natasha is 50 years old this year with a memoir of Wood published and she says she takes comfort in her daughter, Clover, the most healing thing for me. The last image is of Natasha, Clover and Courtney watching clips of Wood onscreen. It doesn’t tell us anything new except to explore Wood’s family’s pain which is searing and affecting and a little raw, 39 years on. Directed by Laurent Bouzereau. Everything went upside down