Wonder (2017)

Wonder

There are no nice ones. After two dozen surgeries to get 10-year old August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) seeing and speaking he’s still terribly disfigured but mom Isabelle (Julia Roberts) has decided it’s time for him to go to regular school after years of educating him at home. It’s the first time he’s gone out without wearing his astronaut helmet. Dad Nate (Owen Wilson) and older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) help out but it’s mainly been Isabelle who’s done the heavy lifting and Via has been left out and retreats to her estranged grandmother (Sonia Braga) in Coney Island when she needs attention. Auggie meets the wise and kind school principal Mr Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) who has him introduced around the school by some kids but Auggie still gets bullied terribly. He wins over some students through his smarts, especially at science where he’s top dog. However when he wears a different Halloween costume than the one his friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) expects, Auggie overhears him saying something terrible and it seems like everything is lost … Not everything in this world is about you. A film about facial disfigurement that manages to be truly humane without ever stooping to the mawkish or trite? Surely some mistake. And maybe it’s Mask. Well, that was then, this is now. This adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel is a kind of miracle of text and performance and not just by that fine young actor Tremblay. Everyone here gets their moment in a family that has other problems – sister Via is overlooked, Isabelle doesn’t speak to her mother, the marriage is strained because of the constant caring needed for Auggie. Isabelle had a promising career and was mid-thesis when Auggie came along and her life was put on hold. Roberts never looks for pity in the role and the plot keeps everyone afloat.  Even Daisy the dog needs more from the family members than they realise. That’s good writing. The screenplay is by Jack Thorne, Steven Conrad and director Steven Chbosky, who knows something about young people as we know from that other marvellous film about kids, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on his own book. Right here the issues of middle school, our responsibilities to others, competitive friendship and rivalries are nailed with precision. Auggie can’t change the way he looks so maybe we can change the way we see

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

 

Mystify: Michael Hutchence (2019)

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Michael always had an aura about him. One of the saddest stories in rock music is the demise of Michael Hutchence, the awesomely charismatic and handsome frontman of  INXS, the first Australian band to conquer the US and beyond. Dead by his own hand at 37 in a Sydney hotel room in November 1997 while entrenched in a custody battle over lover Paula Yates’ children by her husband Bob Geldof, she was back in London where she was obliged to stay with their own baby daughter Tiger Lily as custody was being worked out and he made a series of desperate calls to friends and agents in his final hours, recollections of which form the soundtrack to the film’s conclusion. This followed a wounding battle conducted in the scuzzy pages of the British tabloid press which he described as ‘misogynistic’. His friend and one-time director (of cult movie Dogs in Space) Richard Lowenstein has assembled a fascinating montage of home movies, concert footage, photographs as well as audio recordings of interviews with Hutchence’s family, girlfriends, agents, manager and band mates. Hutchence came from a fractured background with a glamorous model and makeup artist mother Patricia Glassop who married Moet & Chandon agent Kell Hutchence when her own daughter Tina (who never met her father) was 11. Tina had been brought up her grandparents and says her mother and Kell weren’t prepared for a baby and she became Michael’s surrogate mother when she started living with them and he was the dream baby, smiling all the time. Unlike his two years younger brother, Rhett, whose first word was No. Michael and his mother fled the family home for the US when he was a young teen, Rhett turned to drugs (his nannies introduced him) and the eventual divorce created a void that Michael filled with his high school friends upon his return to Australia, spending a lot of time in particular with the Farriss brothers who formed the band with Garry Beers and Kirk Pengilly. They allowed Michael to be their singer because he had no talent for musical instruments. He acquired a love of words through an early relationship when he became infatuated with the Beats in particular. Together with Andrew Farriss, the band’s main composer, he found an outlet and a love of performing belied by his innate shyness. At the height of the band’s fame with the Kick album they were worked hard, too hard, and it took a toll.  A long-term relationship with Michele Bennett didn’t survive the band’s astonishing transatlantic success and Never Tear Us Apart was inspired by her but she was no longer in the picture. Other band members were horrified when Hutchence cut off his signature Byronic locks (Pengilly remembers telling his wife to put away the credit cards) and did an experimental album, Max Q. Fellow singer and his lover of two years Kylie Minogue shares home movies including of a trip on the Orient Express and clarifies what he gave to her – a love of pleasure, of all kinds. He was a sensualist who would try anything but his hedonism was balanced by his curiosity as they travelled the world together when their schedules permitted until the inevitable breakup. His next relationship with model Helena Christiansen saw the pivotal moment that would, over a period of five years, trigger a catastrophic deterioration. They were bicycling through her hometown of Copenhagen late at night and had stopped for pizza. Hutchence was in the way of an irate taxi driver who punched him, knocking him to the kerb where he hit his head and blood poured from his mouth and ear and she thought he was dead. He became aggressive when he woke up in hospital and barged out without being prevented from leaving by doctors. She describes him staying in bed in her apartment for a month where he refused food or assistance. Then he attended a neurologist in Paris whose scans revealed permanent destruction of his olfactory neurons – a horribly ironic situation for a man who had gifted Kylie with the novel Perfume. He relished scent and taste and it is suggested that it was central to his loss of self. Returning to work with the band he was confrontational and violent, ‘virtually bipolar’, as one of them has it. They were not a happy unit. He got together with TV presenter Yates and their affair was endlessly controversial as the British press had christened Geldof ‘Saint Bob.’ Hutchence was humiliated by Noel Gallagher at the Brit Awards, an incident that hurt him enormously and INXS’ intended comeback album Elegantly Wasted didn’t work. When Yates had baby Tiger people around him report having never seen him so happy and he was a devoted father. However a scandal involving opium found in their house by Geldof’s nanny [those in the know are aware that Geldof planted it in the custody war – allegedly, of course] caused havoc and a legal battle for Yates’ three daughters by Geldof. Hutchence – a sensitive and gentle man with a slight lisp who always craved a family of his own – was horrified that he could be breaking up anyone else’s family following his own awful upbringing – seems to have suddenly had everything go against him. He was in the middle of rehearsals for the band’s comeback tour in Australia when he died alone in a hotel room following a series of phone calls – including one to Geldof, which is not mentioned here. Ironically he and Yates wanted to split and he had moved on with a young American woman named Erin whose interview forms part of the concluding narration to this sorry tale. Hutchence’s autopsy would reveal two large areas of brain damage that he had concealed from everyone since the violent 1992 assault. It’s an utterly tragic and moving story of a sensational man who made millions of us devoted fans very happy but who finally couldn’t find the ingredients to make everything add up for himself with the unravelling Geldof marriage seemingly proving the final straw. A troubling, sad and beautifully constructed and deeply felt portrait that seems like it will be the final word on its legendary and complex subject even if it’s made in an act of friendship and doesn’t entirely demystify the essence of a greatly talented songwriter and performer partly because of the rights issues that only permitted half a dozen songs to be included, courtesy of Tiger Lily’s intervention. However it gets beyond the clichéd and dreadful stories conjured by British journos in their effort to take him down: they succeeded, in the most awful fashion.  We’ll never get old

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001)

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With commentary from Hollywood stars and narrated by Tom Cruise, who starred in Eyes Wide Shut, over outtakes from his movies and footage from his childhood in a happy New York family, this documentary looks at cinema master Stanley Kubrick’s life and films in 15-minute segments. Director Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and long-time assistant, interviews heavyweights like Jack Nicholson, Woody Allen and Sydney Pollack, who discuss his output from his debut Fear and Desire onward and explain the influence of acknowledged classics like Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and how he absorbed visual clues from disposable culture such as television commercials. It’s a marvellous biographical and personal account with information previously unavailable and funny, telling home movies. Not so much about the working process but with sufficient on-set detail to satisfy the neophyte to his work and tantalising insights about his home life and interests. Born to a doctor father who liked making home movies the young Stanley hated school where he was clearly gifted but bored. He started taking photographs as a teenager and was only 16 when he sold a photo to Look magazine of a street vendor’s reaction to President Roosevelt’s death. He hustled chess games and sold more pictures, sometimes of movie stars like Montgomery Clift.

Perhaps the most intelligent person I ever met:  Arthur C. Clarke, writer of 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  

There’s still a part of Stanley that’s a great mystery to me:  Steven Spielberg, director of A.I.

Day of the Fight (1950) A boxing documentary that came from his love of taking photographs of boxers and led to his father funding his debut fiction feature after cashing in a life insurance policy. Fear and Desire (1953) He knew nothing about acting. It’s the intensity that impressed me:  Paul Mazursky. Killer’s Kiss (1955) was made while he was on unemployment cheques and brought him to the attention of producer James Harris and they set up a company, Harris-Kubrick.  The Killing (1956) Marie Windsor describes Kubrick’s tremendous confidence. He employed legendary cinematographer Lucien Ballard and when Ballard ignored Kubrick’s precise lens and framing orders on the first day Kubrick threatened to fire him. Ballard stayed and never disobeyed him again:  Kubrick knew his cameras. Paths of Glory (1957) You cannot see it without weeping:  Martin Scorsese on the masterpiece Kubrick made when he was just 28 years old. Spielberg says Kubrick did the opposite to other filmmakers, painting obvious ideas in big brush strokes but then his attention to detail was meticulous beyond anyone else’s. It was on this production that Kubrick met Christiane (who sings the song to the troops) who moved to Hollywood with him, became his wife and the mother of his children. Spartacus (1960) He inherited it from Anthony Mann and was working again with star Kirk Douglas. The script for this epic production had no battle scenes. The film had to be re-cast. He had an extraordinary ability to see what is important: Christiane Kubrick. To make a film like without Jesus but with Kubrick is already an achievement [for Kirk Douglas]: Peter Ustinov. The narration then informs us, The process had taught him he had to have full control over his films. He moved to England and obtained the rights to a controversial book that he loved,  Lolita (1962) which Spielberg declares is much more about the human condition than the novel ever was. It had to be re-cut for release.  Dr Strangelove (1964) Everything wonderful about that movie is because of the way it was directed:  Woody Allen. 2001 (1968) After working for Stanley on 2001 I swore I would never work for anybody again… I think probably he had a hard time keeping up with his intellect:  Gary Trumbull. 241 people walked out of the first exhibitors screening. Kubrick was devastated and Christiane couldn’t find him to let him know the great reviews a few people were giving it.  It was one of the few times in life I realised the artist was much ahead of me:  Woody Allen who had to watch it three times before he could acknowledge its greatness. And the Napoleon project that remained forever unmade? Stanley was fascinated by the idea that somebody so intelligent and so talented made so many mistakes. With the failure of Waterloo, Warner Brothers didn’t want to fund a loss-maker.  A Clockwork Orange (1971) I never know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want, Kubrick told Malcolm McDowell.  He exploited these extreme subjects that you sometimes recoil from:  Sydney Pollack. Alex Cox now describes him as a film director who’s given up being influenced by others. The devastating impact that the negative press coverage had on the Kubrick family led the director to withdraw it after 61 weeks on release. Warner Brothers agreed, Terry Semel says, because globally 2001 was the second greatest moneymaker in their history after My Fair Lady. Having Stanley under contract for the rest of his life was more important to Warner Brothers. It was a unique relationship in the film business and although he took time over his films, they were low cost – when you walked onto a Kubrick set there was nobody hanging around eating donuts. There was only ever a handful of crew. Barry Lyndon (1975) I knew it was a costume picture … I hoped he was going to take it somewhere else. He took it back in time:  Scorsese. Critics were looking for something that wasn’t in the move:  Richard Schickel. Whatever movies Stanley made, what I love about them is that they are completely conscious:  Jack Nicholson. The Shining (1980) He recounts a very different experience of collaboration than that of Shelley Duvall with on-set footage of Kubrick shouting at her that makes for unpleasant viewing. There are things in The Shining that still wake me up at night:  John Calley.  When he was away from home for a couple of weeks he left one 15-page document alone on how to care for his cats. Anthony Frewin says, He was kind of the ultimate Jewish mother. He was never happier than being at home with wife, daughter, friends, animals. British journalists labelled him a weirdo and it bothered him but he didn’t engage with the press following the Clockwork Orange experience. He returned to filmmaking with Full Metal Jacket (1987) which he’d been working on for 7 years during which time several Vietnam movies had been released and he’d been overtaken. It seems so still and removed, comments writer Michael Herr. He doesn’t deal with traditional dramatic structure, which is good.  He keeps experimenting:  Scorsese.  He welcomed everyone’s ideas on the set. He’d try anything. There were many ways in which he was not controlling. He was fascinated by World War 2 and Goebbels and the Holocaust and was preparing to make The Aryan Papers from Louis Begley’s book but when Spielberg announced Schindler’s List he gave up. His wife was pleased, describing him as very depressed throughout the prep. He approached Spielberg to make A.I. from a Brian Aldiss story because I think this movie is closer to your sensibility than mine. He wanted to postpone production to wait for technology to keep up with the film’s ideas and of course Spielberg eventually made it (commenting elsewhere that everyone got it wrong, believing that Kubrick’s ideas were his and vice versa, again proving that critics know nothing). Eyes Wide Shut (1999) starred fabled husband and wife team Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and she says the great luxury that Kubrick had and gave them was time. His understanding of humans is that we are very bittersweet. The whole process of the film was a discovery.  It’s about relationships and it’s about New York but it’s about a dream of these subjects, shot in London, close to home in Hertfordshire. Who among us would be anything but envious about the way he set up his life:  Schickel. One thing people have a hard time with in the cinema is ambiguity. Ambiguity is great but in the cinema it’s almost verboten:  Alex Cox. He never gave an inch on anything: Sydney Pollack, whom Kubrick cast in the film and agreed he was done in two takes yet Pollack was still shooting his scene three weeks later. The film screened to a good reception in New York on 1 March 1999 and his wife said it had taken a toll, as though it had become a part of his physicality. He died 6 days later, aged 70. It was one man’s vision, and no one interfered with that vision:  Alan Parker.

Either you can or you don’t:  Stanley Kubrick. Respect.

Becoming Cary Grant (2017)

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Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant. Born in 1904 as Archie Leach, Cary Grant was the greatest star ever produced in Hollywood. Before he went there he was the younger survivor of two sons with the older dying following an accident for which his mother blamed herself. Then one day aged eleven he came home to be told by his father that his mother had died. Twenty years later he discovered she had been institutionalised on the man’s say-so in order that he could shack up with another woman. The reinvention Archie conjured across the Atlantic having literally run away with the circus to become an acrobat was accompanied by a lifelong mistrust of women and a name change. After two dozen films where he played a piece of jewellery for his leading ladies as contributor Mark Glancy puts it, he found himself working with George Cukor in Sylvia Scarlett and played a character I know, as Jonathan Pryce relates from Grant’s unpublished autobiography: he was finally acting and he was good. When he worked with director Leo McCarey on The Awful Truth nerves got the better of him and he took his lead from his director – McCarey was a suave, urbane, debonair, handsome, beautifully dressed and well-spoken ladykiller, and Grant copied him. That character became key to his screen persona. At the age of 31 he was reunited with the mother he had thought dead for twenty years and when they met, she asked him, Archie, is that really you?  His identity is at the centre of this film by Mark Kidel, as it penetrates the mystery of  his spectacular stardom and his acting technique.  Yet critic David Thomson says Grant’s persona is very democratic,  you can still sense the working class Archie Leach in him, something you can aspire to.  Howard Hawks would further the development of his screen image, locating in Grant something insecure and strange. Their many collaborations would reveal these layers of oddness, some of which was inhabited by Grant’s sexuality. He appealed equally to men and women. The film interrogates his relationships with women (he married among others actress Virginia Cherrill, heiress Barbara Hutton and actress Betsy Drake) but never mentions his long living arrangement with fellow actor Randolph Scott in the Thirties. Thomson claims, This is a man who is exploring gender safeguards as we see a clip of Bringing Up Baby, in which Grant’s character exclaims, I just went gay all of a sudden! wearing a woman’s dressing gown. Grant was well aware of his dichotomy and much of the film explores pictorially what Grant expresses in his unpublished writing, the experience of using LSD in controlled experiments in the late Fifties, an idea pushed by his then wife Drake, a woman who made him feel young again and who was an avid proponent of the therapeutic treatment herself.  It is clear that Grant believed it helped him make psychological breakthroughs. Home movies show him dressing up and acting the clown and in late life when he would do a theatre tour about his career he particularly liked to show those film clips which showed him doing backflips. When he worked with Hitchcock, Thomson declares that the director saw a different level of darkness than other collaborators and excerpts from Suspicion and Notorious accompany the narration. (But the viewer will note that Hitchcock also did the same for James Stewart, albeit he had already exploited a kind of psychopathic edge in the westerns he made with Anthony Mann). You never quite know where you are, Thomson says of this degree of sadism on display. It doesn’t ruin the likability but it qualifies it. Grant went independent so that he could control the roles he played and in the Forties persuaded RKO to buy the rights to the novel None But the Lonely Heart in which he essays the role of the kind of man he might have been had he remained in Britain, as one commentator notes.  Following a period of near-retirement he would work again happily with Hitchcock on To Catch a Thief of whom he said, Hitch and I had a rapport deeper than words.  He was incredibly well prepared.  Nothing ever went wrong. He is similarly complimentary about co-star Grace Kelly of whom he was in awe and he says, There are very few actresses who really listen to you. He could throw any line at her and she had a comeback. They were fast friends. He would team up with Hitchcock again for North By Northwest, and Thomson says of the great Cold War comic thriller, It’s about a man who has to grow up emotionally. He aged better than any other actor and in Father Goose despite its apparent un-Cary Grant-ness he always maintained the louche mariner was the one most similar to himself. He loved children and would finally find personal happiness when wife Dyan Cannon gave birth to their daughter Jennifer. He adored her and would have loved a huge family.  Despite a divorce a couple of years later he and Jennifer would remain close. She says what he really liked to do was stay home and watch TV – He loved television! she smiles to camera as home movie footage shows father and daughter sitting up on a huge bed with snack trays in front of them. His last wife Barbara Jaynes recalls him with love but says of his early perceived abandonment, Somewhere in the back of his mind was the idea that women were not always going to be there. She still lives in his Hollywood house with the panoramic views of the city he loved. In 1986 he had a massive stroke during a rehearsal for his one-man show and he died shortly afterwards. Kirk Kerkorian choppered Barbara and Jennifer over his home and out to sea, to spread the ashes of Archie Leach who insisted there be no funeral or memorial. A film about the best Hollywood star ends scattered in the air, skirting the surface of a fascinating man who was all transatlantic speaking voice and great clothes and beautiful movement, an actor who was never quite there.  Written by Kidel and Nick Ware. I feel fine. Alone. But fine

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019)

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Nobody knows the fuck who I am any more. In Los Angeles 1969 fading TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is offered a job on an Italian western by agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) while his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) assists him in every area of his life including driving him after he’s lost his licence for DUI and gofering around home on Cielo Drive where Rick occupies the gate house next to the rental where Roman Polanski (Rafal Zuwierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) have moved in. One day at Burbank Cliff picks up a hippie hitch hiker Pussycat (Margot Qualley) who wants a ride out to the Spahn Movie Ranch where he used to work and it appears owner George Spahn (Bruce Dern) is being held hostage by a bunch of scary hippies led by an absent guy called Charlie and personally attended to by Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning). Cliff tees off the hippies by punishing one of their number for slicing a whitewall tyre on Rick’s car. Meanwhile, Rick confronts his acting demons doing yet another guest villain on a TV episode with Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) and considers spending 6 months in Italy, after which the guys return in August 1969 while next door a heavily pregnant Tate suffers the hottest night of the year and the Spahn Ranch hippies are checking out the residents on Cielo Drive … When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell. How much did you want to see this? And talk about repaying fan faith. What a huge ensemble cast, to start with, and with so many pleasant surprises:  Bruce Dern as George Spahn, the owner of the fabled ranch where Manson holed up;  Clu Gulager (!) as a bookseller (with a Maltese Falcon on his counter); Rumer Willis as actress Joanna Pettet; Michael Madsen (remember him?) as the Sheriff on the Bounty Law TV show; Kurt Russell as a TV director (and more besides) with Zoë Bell as his kick-ass wife; and Luke Perry in his last role; and so many more, a ridiculous spread of talent that emphasises the story’s epic nature. It’s a pint-size take on Tarantino’s feelings about the decline of Hollywood, a hallucinatory haunted house of nostalgia, an incision into that frenzied moment in August 1969 that symbolically sheared open the viscera lying close to that fabled town’s surface. It’s about movies and mythology and TV shows and music and what it’s like to spend half your day driving around LA and hearing all the new hit songs on the radio. It’s about business meetings at Musso & Frank’s (I recommend the scallops); and appointment TV; and it’s about acting:  one of the best sequences is when Rick is guest-starring opposite an eight-year old Method actress (Julia Butters) who doesn’t eat lunch because it makes her sluggish and she expounds on her preference at being called an Actor and talks him into giving a great performance. All of which is a sock in the jaw to critics about Tarantino’s treatment of women, even if there’s an array of gorgeously costumed pulchritude here, much of which deservedly gets a dose of his proverbial violence (directed by and towards, with justification), among a selection of his trademark tropes. It’s likely about Burt Reynolds’ friendship with stuntman turned director Hal Needham or that of Steve McQueen (played here by Damian Lewis, I can even forgive that) and James ‘Bud’ Ekins. It’s about an anachronistic TV actor whose star has crested but who wants to upgrade to movies after a couple of outings – and there’s an amazing sequence about The Great Escape and what might have been and actors called George. But it’s more than that. It’s about a town dedicated to formulating and recalibrating itself for the times and it’s about the joys of moviegoing. Watching Robbie watch herself (actually the real Sharon) on screen is so delightful. She’s a little-known starlet and her joy at her own role in The Wrecking Crew is confirmed by the audience’s laughter when she wins a fight scene. Robbie is totally charismatic in a role that has scant dialogue but she fills the film with her presence: a beautiful woman kicks her shoes off and enjoys watching herself – take that! The detail is stunning, the production design by Barbara Klinger just awe-inspiring. This is a film that’s made on film and cut on film (Super 8, 16, 35) and intended for the cinema. It’s shot by Robert Richardson and it looks simply jaw-dropping. It’s about friendship and loyalty and DiCaprio is very good as a kind of buttery hard-drinking self-doubting star; his co-dependent buddy Pitt is even better (it’s probably Pitt’s greatest performance) as the guy with a lethal legend attached to his name (maybe he did, maybe he didn’t) who doesn’t do much stunt work any more and some people don’t like his scene with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on The Green Hornet but it’s laugh out loud hilarious. This is leisurely, exhilarating, chilling, kind and wise and funny and veering towards tragedy. It’s a fantasy, a what-might-have-been and what we wish had been and the twist ending left me with feelings of profound sorrow.  As we approach the end of another decade it seems a very long fifty years since Easy Rider formulated the carefully curated soundtrack that Tarantino has made one of his major signifiers, and it’s exactly fifty years since Sharon Tate and her unborn son and her friends were slaughtered mercilessly by the Manson Family. People started locking their doors when they realised what the Summer of Love had rained down, and not just in Hollywood. Tarantino is the single most important filmmaker of my adult life and this is his statement about being a cinéphile, a movie-lover, a nerd, a geek, a fan, and it’s about death – the death of optimism, the death of cinema, the death of Hollywood. It’s also about second chances and being in the right place at the right time. Just as Tarantino reclaimed actors and genres and trash and presented them back to Generation X as our beloved childhood trophies, Rick’s fans remember he was once the watercooler TV cowboy and give him back his mojo. This film is where reality crosses over with the movies and the outcome is murderous. The scene at the Spahn Ranch is straight from Hitchcock’s Psycho playbook.  Practically Chekhovian in structure, this reminds us that if there’s a flamethrower in the first act, it must go off in the third. Tarantino is telling us that this is what movies can be. It could only be better if it were a musical, but, hey, it practically is. I thought I’d been waiting for this film for a year, truth is I’d been waiting for it half my life. Everybody don’t need a stuntman

The Man Who Wanted to Fly (2018)

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Nothing lasts. Elderly Irish bachelor Bobby Coote has always wanted to fly, He lives with unmarried brother Ernie in rural County Cavan, Ireland where each pursues different interests. Ernie likes CB radio, movies, cultivating a garden and feeding the birds. Bobby likes making and repairing clocks and violins and he finally has the money to buy a microlight which he stores in his friend Sean’s custom-made hangar and they clear a landing strip in Sean’s field which his wife looks upon askance … I wouldn’t want that fella flying over me.  The Coote brothers are enormously engaging, very different characters who think about things but see the funny side too. They live in what one might term genteel squalor but have great TV equipment and nippy little cars. Bobby’s music habit brings him out a little more with evenings at Gartlans’ thatched pub in Kingscourt while Bobby prefers to stay home watching spaghetti westerns. Bobby celebrates Christmas with friends;  Ernie cooks a turkey leg for one and eats it alone.  Ernie has postcards from all over the world from his radio contacts but doesn’t think he’d like travelling;  Bobby worked in England on the motorways for a couple of years but didn’t much fancy the life over there. Their youngest brother fell into a canal in England the previous year. Neither of them has had relationships that might have started a marriage and family. TV interviews with the brothers from forty years earlier show a pair of good looking dapper young men;  Ernie comments on the changes time has wrought. A home movie shows a friend he used to go fishing with who is dead;  Bobby shows family photos of those departed. The midpoint sequence when Bobby gets a call from the microlight centre in Newtownards informing him that he’s been sold a pup requiring an expensive overhaul is understated and moving.  But he doesn’t give up. This story of seemingly unfulfilled lives and loneliness should be sorrowful but instead it’s a triumph of small-scale ambition that eventually soars in glorious skies. The ending makes you cheer. Beautifully made with some stunning overhead photography by Dave Perry. Produced by Cormac Hargaden and Trish Canning and directed by  Frank Shouldice. You’ve got me pulled!

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

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I guess I wouldn’t believe the story if someone else were telling it, but I’m telling it and it’s true, every word of it.  David Kellman, Eddy Galland and Bobby Shafran were individually adopted by families from differing social and economic classes who had each adopted a baby girl from the same agency two years previously. They came across each other accidentally when Robert was mistaken for Eddy at college;  they eventually discovered a third identical brother. Their celebrity was such that they appeared on talk shows and even got a cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan and opened a restaurant together. We were falling in love with each other. Finally the truth came out:  they had been born (as part of quadruplets – the fourth died at birth, but this isn’t in the film) to a single mother as a result of a prom date gone wrong (supposedly – the birth date doesn’t tally) and were placed as part of a ‘nature versus nurture’ science experiment – the Neubauer Twin Experiment, conducted by a psychiatrist who has since died and whose findings are restricted until 2065; such findings as have been made public have been heavily redacted. A previous film made on the subject was pulled due to unknown forces – maybe the same people prevented this from being Oscar-nominated?  It’s a beautifully made if scarcely credible true story, a modern tragedy stemming from the frankly nutty unethical psychobabble world of the Fifties and Sixties,  including a combination of dramatic recreation, interviews and archive film, and featuring two of the men and Lawrence Wright, the journalist who wrote one account of the story for The New Yorker. The first half is light and amusing, a veritable romcom meet-cute, but things take a very dark turn when the reality of their lives is examined. They finally met their birth mother in her favourite local bar and were not impressed. They were reluctant to discuss her at all. Stunning and desperately sad. Directed by Tim Wardle. I don’t know if this will turn out to be good or terrible

Arthur Miller: Writer (2017)

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Filmmaker Rebecca Miller’s documentary about her playwright father is a mesmerising portrait of one of the midcentury’s most important artistes and commentators, utilising home movies, letters, newsreel footage, and interviews she recorded with him and his siblings and her mother and Mike Nichols.  Excerpts of Miller’s recording of his autobiography Timebends are interspersed with Rebecca’s own voice to create a narrative. I.  Origins. I used to think that a play was about what was between the spoken lines. Growing up with a sub-literate fabric cutter Polish immigrant father and flamboyant, gifted mother, the young Arthur Miller was accustomed to wealth and comfort but that was all removed overnight with the Wall Street Crash when their circumstances were radically reduced. He worked in factories and read Dostoyevsky on the subway and his life was transformed. He wrote plays in college and married a midwestern Catholic democrat and his politics altered from communism to liberalism because he couldn’t see a place for the individual otherwise. She wanted an intellectual, a Jew, an artist. And I wanted America. That’s Miller not describing second wife Marilyn Monroe, but his first wife, Mary. Between the lines you get the sense that for him, relationships were somewhat transactional.  His daughter Jane recalls thinking that her conversations with him were material: There were times when he was only interested in something because he could use it. II. Broadway. I knew you were worse than most men, but I thought you were better. Mary was his toughest critic, his first play on Broadway was a failure but his second was All My Sons which he wrote in a wooden hut he built for himself. He wrote the first act during one night, the second in six weeks. Then he sat by the phone, waiting. Nichols states of the work that he believed burned out Miller, It’s so close to the tragedy. It’s so alive.  Miller met Elia Kazan and they formed a friendship or even brotherhood that weathered political storms. Kazan introduced him to his on-off lover Marilyn Monroe on the set of the 1951 film As Young as You Feel and Miller told her, I think you’re the saddest girl I ever met. He used the line in The Misfits a decade later when their five-year marriage was combusting. The big thing is not to make simple things complicated but to make complicated things comprehensible. III. PoliticsArt is long, life is short. I forgot the Latin. He says Kazan was the greatest theatre director of realistic material and was dismayed by his decision to name names but clarifies that it was the fault of the HUAC as well as the studio that said he would never make films again if he failed to do so. For Miller, the victims experience guilt – about other things. The guilt of the victim was interesting to me. That is the subject of the allegorical The Crucible, in which he memorialises Marilyn Monroe in the character of Abigail while his own wife is personified by John Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth. He met Monroe in 1951 and began an affair. When they married, he was pursued by HUAC and she posed for photographs with the Committee, helping expedite his suspended sentence while he felt he was reenacting his own play. Even the fascists have to be entertaining. IV. Home. Miller talks about writing on the verge of embarrassment, revealing things that are essentially secret, even in symbolic fashion. He describes to Mike Wallace his failure to create  significant work during the Monroe marriage with the throwaway line, I was taking care of her. He neglects to mention that she was paying his way and getting him writing jobs. However, he also declares, There’s no explaining a person like that. Terrible. Well.  He describes her as being in some ways the most repressed person imaginable. He wrote The Misfits in tribute to her, allegedly, but of course we know that he and John Huston and Eli Wallach conspired to turn her character into a prostitute and it was Gable who saved her from that indignity.  After the Fall in 1964 was crucified because it was such a direct attack on her, with Maggie her clear avatar, Quentin his. He was trying to make sense of the century’s most famous marriage.  Following her death he married Inge Morath, the Look photographer whose father was a Nazi. Miller’s children from his first marriage say Morath made the Connecticut house (that Monroe bought for him) into a home. Do you think Dad had a weak spot for being adored? Rebecca asks his siblings about his marriages. It’s rhetorical.  V. Out of Place. Other than The Price, the Sixties were not happy years for the playwright and the Seventies were downright barren not due to his output but due to the brutal critical reception in the US. Abroad, he was still admired.  He had few friends. He was a very different man at home to the man interviewed on talk shows. It took Dustin Hoffman’s 1985 revival of Death of a Salesman for Miller’s stock to rise again. Rebecca’s younger brother was born in the mid Sixties with Down’s Syndrome and the Millers had him institutionalised. Miller did not acknowledge his existence or even visit him until he was an adult, leaving all that to his wife. Rebecca intended interviewing her father about this but never got around to it while he was alive. He says to his daughter that sons have it harder because there is an element of competition with the father. His older son Bobby produced the film version of The Crucible that introduced Rebecca to her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis.  Teasing the man she knew from the man perceived in the wider world is what this film does best even if it’s limited by their relationship and the lack of emphasis on the content and style of his playwriting. Children create these definitions, says Miller. They have to.  When asked what he wanted in his obituary, Miller responded, Writer.