Veronika Voss (1982)

Veronika Voss

Aka Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss. Light and shadow; the two secrets of motion pictures. Munich 1955. Ageing Third Reich film star Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) who is rumoured to have slept with Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda Josef Goebbels, becomes a drug addict at the mercy of corrupt Lesbian neurologist Marianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer), who keeps her supplied with morphine, draining her of her money. Veronika attends at the clinic where Katz cohabits with her lover and a black American GI (Günther Kaufmann) who is also a drug dealer. After meeting impressionable sports writer Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) in a nightclub, Veronika begins to dream of a return to the silver screen. As the couple’s relationship escalates in intensity and Krohn sees the possibility of a story, Veronika begins seriously planning her return to the cinema – only to realise how debilitated she has become through her drug habit as things don’t go according to plan … Artists are different from ordinary people. They are wrapped up in themselves, or simply forgetful. The prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s penultimate film and one of his greatest, its predictive theme would have horrible resonance as he died just a few months after its release. Conceived as the third part of his economic trilogy including The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola, this reworking of or homage to Sunset Blvd., whose ideas it broadly limns, has many of his usual tropes and characters and even features his sometime lover Kaufmann who could also be seen in Maria Braun; while Krohn tells his fellow journalist girlfriend Henriette (Cornelia Froboess) of his experience and potential scoop but Veronika’s hoped-for return is not what he anticipates with a Billy Wilder-like figure despairing of her problem. Its message about life in 1950s Germany is told through the style of movies themselves without offering the kind of escapist narratives Veronika seems to have acted in during her heyday.  She’ll be your downfall. There’s nothing you can do about it. She’ll destroy you, because she’s a pitiful creature. Fassbinder was hugely influenced not just by Douglas Sirk but Carl Dreyer and this story is also inspired by the tragic life of gifted actress Sybille Schmitz, who performed in Vampyr.  She died in 1955 in a suicide apparently facilitated by a corrupt Lesbian doctor.  The unusually characterful Zech is tremendous in the role. She would later play the lead in Percy Adlon’s Alaska-set Salmonberries as well as having a long career in TV. She died in 2011. It’s an extraordinary looking film with all the possibilities of cinematography deployed by Xaver Schwarzenberger to achieve a classical Hollywood effect for a story that has no redemption, no gain, no safety, no love.  Fassbinder himself appears briefly at the beginning of the film, seated behind Zech in a cinema. This is where movie dreams become a country’s nightmare. All that lustrous whiteness dazzles the eye and covers so much. Screenplay by Fassbinder with regular collaborators Peter Märtesheimer and Pea Fröhlich.  Let me tell you, it was a joy for me that someone should take care of me without knowing I’m Veronika Voss, and how famous I am. I felt like a human being again. A human being!

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

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

Elephant (2003)

Elephant

Get the fuck out of here, shit is going to happen. John (John McFarland) is being driven through the suburbs to school by his drunken father (Timothy Bottoms). Alex (Alex Frost) is a talented pianist being bullied at Watt High School, Oregon. He and his best friend slacker Eric (Eric Deulen) play video games, watch a documentary about Nazis, have sex in the shower and load up on guns. On their way into the building wearing camo gear and carrying black bags, Alex warns John not to go in. Elias (Elias McConnell) goes round the hallways photographing other students before going to the school newspaper office to develop his pictures. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) leaves the football field with girlfriend Carrie. Bespectacled outcast Michelle (Kristen Hicks) runs through the corridors and escapes to the library to avoid sports. Three bulimic girls gossip and end up in the Ladies’ Room. When the boys fail to explode propane bombs and prowl the corridors and library shooting everyone on sight, Acadia (Alicia Miles) freezes and Benny (Bennie Dixon) helps her escape through a window … Damn, they shot him. Gus Van Sant’s meditative exploration of the moments leading up to a Columbine high school-like massacre looks and feels less assured than it did upon release. Perhaps because unlike its source material (Alan Clarke’s BBC film Elephant, which was about sectarian politics in Northern Ireland) it is politically rootless unless you regard teenage alienation as justification for genocide and the inclusion of a TV documentary about Nazism adequate as rationale for unleashing senseless violence upon your contemporaries. Perhaps that is the point – that children and guns are just not a good mix, teenagers are unknowable and basically ungovernable, allowing them too much time on their own is a really bad idea because literally anything could happen in those burgeoning adults. The over the shoulder tracking shots down the school corridors and their repetitive nature bring us back to the same moments again and again giving the narrative a poetic rhythm and spatial familiarity, as does the auditory track which occasionally lapses into silence and then white noise, particularly when Alex is sitting in the cafeteria and we get a hint of the killings to come. There is no doubt that the very boring nature of the scenario and the real-time pacing lends an incremental tension to the situation. The biggest problem here is that the affectlessness of the protagonists means a conventional drama cannot be constructed and a moral is hard to discern while the filmmaker is attempting to get into these boys’ brains. That is the core of the story: there are things that people simply cannot get to grips with. The moment when a teacher approaches a student who’s just been shot dead at a classroom door and treats it as if it’s normal is simply staggering. Screenplay by Van Sant with controversial ‘memoirist’ JT LeRoy and Diane Keaton credited as producers on a project that started life as a documentary. Most importantly, have fun

Bananas (1971)

Bananas

And now, as is our annual custom, each citizen of San Marcos will come up here and present his Excellency with his weight in horse manure. Hapless New York product tester Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) desperately attempts to impress attractive social activist  Nancy (Louise Lasser). He travels to the turbulent Latin American country of San Marcos where he falls in with resistance fighters and, before long, accidentally becomes drafted as their leader replacing the crazed Castro-esque Esposito (Jacobo Morales) after foiling an assassination attempt by General Vargas (Carlos Montalbán). While Mellish’s position of authority wins Nancy over, he has to deal with the many burdens of being a dictator but being President just might impress Nancy ... Can you believe that? She says I’m not leader enough for her. Who was she looking for… Hitler? A hoot from glorious start to ridiculous finish, Allen’s hilarious homage to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup has everything: silent musicians (they have no instruments); Swedish deemed the only suitably non-decadent language appropriate for a post-revolutionary society; and a very young Marvin Hamlisch’s first ever score (funny in and of itself). A freewheeling mix of parody, satire, one-liners, sight gags and slapstick, this loose adaptation of Richard B. Powell’s novel Don Quixote USA is co-written with Allen’s longtime close friend, Mickey Rose, who also collaborated on Take the Money and Run. Featuring Howard Cosell, Roger Grimsby and Don Dunphy as themselves. Gleefully bonkers fun in the worst possible taste. Power has driven him mad!

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

Berlin, I love you (2019)

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I want to show you my Berlin. A male mime befriends an Israeli singer on the trail of her Jewish ancestor’s home. A broken hearted man is saved from suicide by a talking car. A mother rediscovers her humanity through her daughter’s work with refugees. A woman hits on a man in a bar who might be her long lost father. A young model runs into a laundromat from a rough encounter with a photographer to find herself in a hotbed of feminists. A teenage boy celebrating his birthday approaches a trans man for his first kiss. A Hollywood producer who’s lost his mojo finds beauty in a puppeteer’s characters. A Turkish woman drives a taxi and helps a political dissident … Nothing’s typical Berlin. Part of Emmanuel Bernbihy’s Cities of Love series (Paris, je t’aime, et al) this is a collection of ten interlinked stories reflecting its setting and its possibilities. Local, urban, international, witty, political, filled with dancers, puppeteers, models, actors, children, refugees, romance, sex, singers, cars, espionage, hotels and humanity, this is a well managed anthology which sustains its pace and shifting tone by integrating and overlapping characters, themes and visuals with admirable consistency. There are well judged sequences of politics and fantasy, a jokey reference to the Berlin Wall, a thoughtful acknowledging of the Holocaust, an homage to Wings of Desire, and a hilarious #MeToo sequence in a laundromat. This was the subject of the first ever city film (Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, 1927) and the trials and tribulations and changes it has endured and survived are acknowledged in many ways, from the foreign population to the briefly significant visual tropes without ever dwelling in the realm of nostalgia or physical division (there be dragons). It’s a defiantly modern take on the lifting of the spirit and navigates new aspects of living and sexuality and different kinds of contemporary problems ending on a (sung) note of hope. Delightful, surprising, dangerous, unexpected and varied, light and dark, rather like the city itself. Quite the triumph. Starring Keira Knightley, Jim Sturges, Helen Mirren, Luke Wilson, Mickey Rourke, Diego Luna. Written by Fernando Eimbcke, Justin Franklin, Dennis Gansel, Dani Levy, Massy Tadjedin, Gabriela Tscherniak. Directed by Dianna Agron, Peter Chelsom, Fernando Eimbcke, Justin Franklin, Dennis Gansel, Dani Levy, Daniel Lwowski, Josef Rusnak, Til Schweiger, Massy Tadjedin, Gabriela Tscherniak whose work is united by the beautiful cinematography of Kolja Brandt, production design by Albrect Konra and editing by Peter R. Adam and Christoph Strothjohann. This is Berlin. This is reality, right now

 

Play It Again, Sam (1972)

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All we ever do is go to the movies. Movie critic Allan Felix (Woody Allen) is freshly divorced from dreamgirl waitress Nancy (Susan Anspach) who mocked his sexual inadequacy and is inconsolable, feeling that he’ll just never measure up to Rick Blaine in Casablanca, played by his movie hero Humphrey Bogart. His friends businessman Dick (Tony Roberts) and his neurotic model wife Linda (Diane Keaton) try to introduce him to dates with disastrous results.  The ghost of Bogart (Jerry Lacy) advises him on the sidelines but after a dreadful night out with Sharon (Jennifer Salt) from Dick’s office culminates in a fight with bikers even his ex-wife shows up to have a word and shoots Bogart. Meanwhile, Allan becomes convinced that he has so much in common with fellow neurotic Linda and she has feelings for him, they spend the night together … My sex life has turned into The Petrified Forest. Allen’s 1969 stage play was adapted by him for the screen but directed by Herbert Ross and it’s a smoothly funny combination of parody and pastiche that Hollywood had been making since Hellzapoppin’ years before anyone dreamed up the term postmodern. Perfectly integrating the themes and action of Casablanca which kicks off the story as Alan watches sadly at the cinema, this is totally of its time, rape jokes ‘n’ all (but to be fair Allen’s script acknowledges it’s not an ideal situation for women). Keaton is a delight in their first film together, a work that cunningly exploits the gap between movies and real life and if it’s rather more coherent at that point than the edgy films Allen had already directed it’s still very funny. There are some awesome lines and the yawning chasm between Bogart’s cool and Allan’s chaos is brilliantly devised with the ending from Casablanca inventively reworked to satisfying effect. The San Francisco and Sausalito locations look great courtesy of the marvellous work of Owen Roizman. It’s the first Allen film I ever saw and it introduced me to the music of Oscar Peterson who was also on TV a lot in those days and I like it as much now as I did when I was 9 years old and that’s saying something. You felt like being a woman and I felt like being a man and that’s what those kinds of people do

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982)

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I didn’t invent the cosmos I just explain it. In the early 1900s in upstate New York wacky inventor Andrew Hobbs (Woody Allen) and his wife Adrian (Mary Steenburgen) invite the priapic internist Maxwell Jordan (Tony Roberts) and his latest lover free-thinking nurse Dulcy Ford(Julie Hagerty) together with Adrian’s cousin, the dry philosophy professor Leopold Sturges (José Ferrer) and his fiancée Ariel Weymouth (Mia Farrow) for a weekend house party. However Andrew was in love with Ariel a long time ago and Maxwell falls for her while it transpires Maxwell and Adrian may know each other a little better than Andrew realises … If marriage is the death of hope then the night before marriage there’s still hope. A bucolic excursion involving three mismatched couples who find sexual joy in each other’s partners, all to the music of Mendelssohn and loosely adapted from Bergman’s 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night while Gordon Willis delights in the landscape and the endless possibilities of the play of sunlight. A frisky, frothy confection that without any big revelations or confrontations (beyond the use of a skilfully aimed arrow) risks being seen purely as a parody yet in its humorous dealing with matters sexual and intellectual manages to arrive at a few truisms about human behaviour and frailty as well as the idea that there might be some form of existence beyond rational explanation. Or it’s just a nutty sex comedy with a few references to Shakespeare and hints of enchantment via a whirring magic lantern. Steenburgen and Hagerty are both ideally cast while Farrow replaced Diane Keaton and would remain Allen’s muse for another dozen films. Nothing is real but experience

 

September (1987)

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I have no reason to get up tomorrow. Following a suicide attempt, Lane (Mia Farrow) retreats to her summerhouse in Vermont to rest but it’s not the peaceful haven it should be when her visitors disrupt the healing process and everyone present seems to be in love with the wrong person. Lane has difficulty dealing with her obnoxious tactless former actress mother Diane (Elaine Stritch), who is visiting with her stepfather Lloyd (Jack Warden). Lane lusts after struggling writer Peter (Sam Waterston) who is actually interested in her best friend Stephanie (Dianne Wiest) and a friendly neighbour, French teacher Howard (Denholm Elliott) carries a torch for Lane… It’s hell gettin’ older. Especially when you feel 21 inside. One of my fondest moviegoing memories is of watching this in a cinema on W. 57th Street NYC filled with the kind of people I was seeing onscreen – how better to view a Woody Allen film than surrounded by an audience that resembled the actors. I was among his people! It was irresistible and I spent most of my time people-watching, more engaged with the Allen-types, not the drama unspooling in front of me. Allen’s films at this point were apparently split between those aiming for a Fellini-esque feeling (Radio Days) or Bergman-esque interiority, like here, and Autumn Sonata is directly referenced in its plot, its central relationship and even costuming. Owing a lot to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, it’s a theatrical piece and Stritch makes a meal of her part as the attention-seeking star who wants someone to write a book about her against Lane’s wishes – because Lane supposedly shot her mother’s lover when she was a kid (just like Lana Turner’s daughter …).This was famously shot twice (kinda like the lover!) with Farrow’s own mother Maureen O’Sullivan in the role taken by Stritch, with Charles Durning in the great Jack Warden’s role and Christopher Walken AND Sam Shepard replaced by Waterston. Truly a film that is the sum of its parts, it somehow contrives to look better than it feels. Is there anything more terrifying than the destruction of the world?

Stardust Memories (1980)

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He just isn’t funny any more. Filmmaker Alvy Bates (Woody Allen) wants to make the transition from making comedies to serious drama and is persuaded to take a break from his heavy schedule of psychoanalsis, podiatry and hair treatments to attend a weekend film festival at the Stardust Hotel where he is the subject of a retrospective. His ex-girlfriend Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) is recovering from another breakdown; his mistress Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) has left her husband and arrives unexpectedly; and he finds himself falling for the violinist girlfriend Daisy (Jessica Harper) of a Columbia screenwriting lecturer Jack Abel (John Rothman) attending the festival … It’s crazy. The town is jammed. I don’t know, is the Pope in town, or some other show business figure? In which Allen blends Wild Strawberries with 8 1/2 throwing a nod to Citizen Kane and pleads the case of the funnyman who wants to go straight all the while deploring the efforts of his fans and critics to understand him. And in case we don’t get this case of infectious auteurism (with jokes) it’s shot in an oily monochrome that befits this pretender to Fellini that has some wantonly cruel closeups of faces. It’s not just about narcissism and memories and how they encircle a rich man who travels about in his Rolls Royce it’s about the culture of fandom and the circus that seems to accompany success, hence the parodic elephant on the beach, not just in the room. While the women represent different and opposing aspects of Alvy’s brain, his real-life ex-wife and sometime co-star Louise Lasser (upon whom Dorrie is based) appears uncredited as a secretary while his manager/producer Jack Rollins plays a film executive but none of the characters has the complexity of the great female roles from his previous work. Perhaps because the film he made before this was the Bergmanesque Interiors and that left the critics cold. This response to critics is a loose rebuke to Judith Crist’s seminars at Tarrytown NY. There is some discomfort when what appears to be an underage girl (but actually a married woman) appears unbidden in his bed. Despite the undoubted aesthetic beauty (it’s shot by Gordon Willis) and the very funny lines it’s a difficult film to love principally because the degree of self-referentiality seems to hint at pure self-absorbed autobiography flattening the satiric effect. Are we supposed to empathise with a man who feels entrapped by his own fame? But its triumph is in its love of cinema, even if it happens to be made from the perspective of a man we might not actually love despite the frequent reminders of the standup comic Allen once was with some extraordinarily good lines flowing from a freewheeling script that limns politics, psychology and philosophy, perhaps ultimately focusing on the death of the ego.  It’s this film that prefigures the transition to serio-comic drama that Allen would ultimately make. In case you missed it, that’s Sharon Stone playing the dreamgirl on the train travelling in the opposite direction that we might wish Joseph Cotten had actually met way back when. You can’t control life. It doesn’t wind up perfectly. Only-only art you can control. Art and masturbation. Two areas in which I am an absolute expert.