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!

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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.

Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018)

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I grew up in the shadow of a national monument.  It seems odd to think that the most important woman of her time, the one who showed what it was to be female in the late twentieth century, the vector for a society’s emotional, cultural and political spectrum, should have lived her life through men. Henry.  Roger.  Tom.  Ted.  They directed how Jane Fonda lived and Susan Lacy’s film feels like an extended therapy session, recalling the one Fonda improvised in Klute. I wanted someone to mould me, she says to camera. And after her mother’s suicide, which she found out about in a fan magazine, her father married again (not for the last time) to a much younger woman, and Jane learned how to be bulimic at boarding school, a reaction to his criticism of her puppy fat. She attended Lee Strasberg’s classes and financed her acting in New York by becoming a photographic model before leaving for France where she was greeted as a mix of Bardot and Moreau.  There she fell under the spell of Roger Vadim who turned her into sex kitten Barbarella. She admits to a hedonistic lifestyle in their marriage but became politicised particularly under the guidance of Simone Signoret and was stunned when director Sydney Pollack asked her what she thought of the script for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? the film she credits with turning her into an actress. Nobody had ever asked her what she thought of her work before: The first time I ever made a movie that was about something.  That, she says was when I had my first hair epiphany. Hence the influential look in Klute. Even that was decided by a male hairdresser. Her anti-Vietnam War politics  became a wholly immersive activity (although, oddly perhaps, the vital relationship with Donald Sutherland is not explored: it was his wife who introduced her to the world of radical chic. Then she and Sutherland had an affair.) Her activism led her to encounter Tom Hayden, of the Chicago Seven and she declared of her feelings about her next husband, If I’m not with Tom Hayden then I’m nobody. Her daughter by Vadim suffered while her son with Hayden travelled everywhere:  actor Troy Garrity (his parents decided their surnames would burden him) is interviewed and is quite vivid about the family setup and the time they stayed with IRA terrorists in Belfast. Not your average reminiscence. They lived in a terrible house at the beach with no modern appliances and homeless people living in the garden. She produced her own films, including Coming Home. They went to the Oscars in a station wagon. The couple’s organisation Campaign for Economic Democracy needed money so she decided to make a workout video and write a book and donate all the profits:  the book went to the top of the bestseller list for two years and The Jane Fonda Workout singlehandedly created the video industry, remaining the biggest seller of all time. Hayden responded by having affairs. Two photographs dominate the archival exploration:  one is a publicity shot, a posed childhood family tableau with neither Henry nor Frances Seymour Fonda engaging with each other or Jane or her brother Peter. This image clearly haunts Fonda:  these are four people utterly untethered from each other. Interestingly, Peter and Jane both think the other sibling had it worse in terms of a relationship with Henry, the famously distant man who could only express emotion on camera and with whom Jane attempted a rapprochement in On Golden Pond. She remembers that she touched his arm in an unscripted moment and she swears she could see tears in his eyes:  what a horrible, horrible thing to have to hold onto, that your father’s only display of anything other than total indifference towards you came in a movie you made for him. He won the Oscar for Best Actor. Then he died. Home movie footage shows a cute little blonde pigtailed girl dressed in buckskin, determinedly striding the wild garden of her 1940s home, wanting to be Tonto. Alone. The other photograph referenced is the famous shot of Hanoi Jane which went around the world when she posed on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. Hayden wearily explains that he tried to tell Fonda that she was dealing with the media. She set off for Vietnam not having known where it was on the map two years earlier as she told Dick Cavett, who says here her actions must have been a combination of bravado and naiveté. It’s not an argument that is fully explored but I would like to recommend a 2005 book which excavates the extent to which Fonda was framed (in every sense that this term implies) both by the media and the then government: Mary Hershberger’s Jane Fonda:  A Political Biography of an Antiwar Icon – even hawks might be shocked at how this young woman was hounded and intimidated. She cannot apologise enough and those who hate her will never accept that she was duped or that she is truly sorry. I wanted my life to have meaning. Her marriage to Ted Turner (predicted by a psychic) led to her retirement from acting because he couldn’t bear to be alone. Yet she grew as a feminist and left him after a decade which she describes as probably the most profound turning point of my life. She observes that she looked different for every man and the photos of each marriage exhibit this rather shockingly, fashion and age notwithstanding:  she was always playing a role dictated by others. She says that she is only ever her true self with female friends and her romantic relationships are now democratic.  She has become a brilliant memoirist and is in a female-centred hit web TV show (Grace and Frankie) with Nine to Five co-star Lily Tomlin at what she calls the beginning of her final act. So, finally, Jane.  She researched her mother’s life and found that Seymour had been sexually abused as a child. This she discovered in a note her mother wrote in a mental institution. It took her until her seventies, but Fonda finally absolved herself of the guilt she felt her entire life about her mother’s violent death, a situation that created a kind of stasis leading her to believe she was unlovable. A film fan would have liked more analysis of her acting, and only the late Pollack and Alan J. Pakula are interviewed, but, as she says,  Good enough is good enough

Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures (2004) (TVM)

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In 1962 an elderly Agatha Christie (Anna Massey) is attending a party at the theatre for a decade of The Mousetrap. Questions from journalists spur memories of 25 years ago when as a younger woman (Olivia Williams) attending a psychiatrist (Stephen Boxer) she is hypnotised into recalling why she disappeared four months earlier triggering a police search … Richard Curson Smith’s docudrama is based on the intriguing real-life case of the famous author’s apparent fugue state when she was located at a spa in Harrogate, having signed in under the name of the mother of her husband’s mistress. The title alludes to the means by which the doctor engages with Christie to start the story: as a young girl (Bonnie Wright) whose father’s death changes the family dynamic, particularly when her older sister marries. She has been haunted for years by a mysterious character whom she calls The Gunman and many men of her acquaintance transform into this figure when she is under stress. Her marriage to soldier Archie Christie (Raymond Coulthard) is met with disapproval by her mother, who encourages her to write. Her time nursing wounded soldiers introduces her to Belgian refugees, one of whom inspires Hercule Poirot and her first novel. She has few memories of times when she is happy, the catalysts for unhappiness make her focus on what may have occurred to prompt her flight – her discovery of her husband’s adultery with Nancy Neele, a secretary … The use of photos, pastiche photographic studios and fake home movies and newsreels gives this a patina of realism which is visually impressive. This is territory previously explored by the film Agatha and Kathleen Tynan’s book, and more recently in a faction novel by Andrew Wilson. Williams gets the lion’s share of the scenes, as a morose young woman who must confront her husband’s extra-marital liaison and his wish to end their union. Even her little daughter says it’s her mother that’s the problem. The older Christie is wiser and happier following a long marriage to a younger man, archaeologist Max Mallowan (Bertie Carvel) whose work on sites in Syria and Iraq literally takes Christie out of herself and England and also inspires some of her best books which she then produces annually. There’s a terrific scene when she comes up with the idea for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd which is the book that made her know she was good. There are some technical issues with the sound mixing (you can hardly hear Massey, and some dialogue is drowned out with incidental music) but it’s a thorough and thoughtful account of an episode that’s as mysterious as any of Christie’s novels, supplying psychology to the central character in a way that the Queen of Crime disdained.

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (2015)

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She would rather live with a producer than her children. The great Swedish actress is recalled through her diaries and letters (voiced by Alicia Vikander), photographs and any amount of home movies which she shot compulsively.  She believed she was only truly alive when she was being photographed and described her home life away from the studio in Hollywood as ‘being locked in a suitcase suffocating.’ Following the early death of her mother this was a little girl cosseted by her father who documented her on camera and even Alfred Hitchcock (‘he brought out the best in me’) declared she took film more seriously than real life. Her father died young too and this leaves something of a Freudian association trailing throughout the film with her evident need to be constantly photographed and speaking other people’s lines.  Following drama school and early success in Swedish cinema she was discovered by Hollywood and arrived there to work with David O. Selznick whose colleague Kay Brown became her agent and lifelong friend. She abandoned her little girl and doctor husband for various lovers including Robert Capa (who wouldn’t sacrifice his short-lived career for her) and then Roberto Rossellini whom she pursued until he hired her for a film and she had his illegitimate child. She couldn’t adjust to his filmmaking style – she was no improviser and writing dialogue was contrary to her training. Her husband divorced her and got custody of Pia, while, after having more children by Rossellini,  the director abandoned Bergman for another woman (in India) who had yet another of his illegitimate children and Bergman then took off for Paris with a lover of her own. She saw her children in Italy once a month, more often when daughter Isabella (who became an actress) developed scoliosis. Daughter Pia discusses her mother’s obsession with Joan of Arc from an early age as being evidence that she wanted to make her name. There are many newsreel excerpts and interviews about her chaotic intercontinental life, pursued by paparazzi and condemned by various authorities until director Anatole Litvak declared in the mid-50s that she was the only actress he could consider for the role of Anastasia and an Academy Award for her performance smoothed her way back into the Hollywood fold. Despite her shortcomings and basically abandoning her young, her adult children (presumably with the benefit of relatively old age) describe her in contemporary interviews  as being totally charming with eldest daughter Pia even declaring, I craved having more of her. Stig Björkman’s film is a stunning evocation of a unique, peripatetic life which despite the rather unsettling morality of its fame-seeking subject simply exudes joy and contains many insights into the acting mind. Written by the director with Stina Gardell and Dominika Daubenbuchel with a great score by Michael Nyman, topped with a song by Eva Dahlgren in the closing credits.

A Monster Calls (2017)

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It begins like so many stories. With a boy, too old to be a kid. Too young to be a man. And a nightmare.  Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is dealing with far more than other boys his age. His beloved and devoted mother (Felicity Jones) is ill. He has little in common with his imperious grandmother Mrs Clayton (Sigourney Weaver). His father (Toby Kebbell) has resettled thousands of miles away with a new family where he is obviously not welcomed. But Conor finds a most unlikely ally when the Tree Monster (Liam Neeson) appears at his bedroom window one night. Ancient, wild, and relentless, the Monster guides Conor on a journey of courage, faith, and truth that powerfully fuses imagination and reality as he confronts his bullies and the imminent loss of his mother while his mentor tells him three stories that impact on his daily actions before the final story – his – can be told … Patrick Ness’ beautiful novel – itself recreated from an unfinished book by the late children’s author Siobhan Dowd – gets a very worthy adaptation from his own screenplay and director J.A. Bayona. It’s an unpromising even clichéd concept but is so wonderfully dramatised, visualised and delicately performed that you surrender to the tough core which offers a magical solution to a perverse reality –  death and bereavement and imminent orphandom for a boy in a problematic home situation. It shuns sentiment and even permits violence (Conor’s inner monster says No More Mister Nice Guy) to eventually become immensely moving as he gradually confronts the awful truth. A triumphant study of childhood.

Altman (2014)

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Altmanesque? Life, liberty and the pursuit of truth. That’s Elliott Gould’s perception of the man with whom he collaborated on some of the key movies of the Seventies. This documentary about Robert Altman is not quite as freestyled, improvised and ensemble-driven as his most acclaimed directorial works but it comes close, using a lot of home movies to illustrate the domestic life that lay behind the man and his films. Ron Mann directs a script by Len Blum which traces his evolution from making industrial films following an early script sale to Hollywood, and a lengthy career in TV episodics which resulted in an abrupt leavetaking following a row over the portrayal of race and the equivalent of then-undiagnosed PTSD, through the astonishing innovative features. There are interviews with family members, including his third wife and some of his children (who wound up working with him, partly as a means of seeing him) as well as actors who perhaps achieved more in those films than in any other in terms of the way their skill sets were utilised. There are interview clips both new and old, film excerpts including on-location footage (expletives undeleted) and the up and down career arcs covering the fall from grace through most of the Eighties when he then reinvented how TV could do drama with Tanner ’88. Then the comeback, cocking a snook at Hollywood with The Player. When he got his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars he made a surprise admission which elicited the appropriate reaction from the star-studded crowd – another glorious directing coup. A fine piece of work (despite some odd editing decisions) doing justice to a peripatetic talent.

L’Enfer (1993)

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Hotelier Francois Cluzet marries beyond beautiful Emmanuelle Béart and as the years pass and they have a child he descends into alcohol dependency and fantasises that his wife is having an affair with everyone she encounters – friends, visitors and staff alike. His paranoid hallucinations become embarrassing when he misinterprets mundane home movie footage and has a meltdown in front of the guests. Then – like a lot of crazy people – he persuades a doctor that it is his wife who is mad and she must be admitted as a psychiatric casualty … This exerts a fascination beyond the surface attractions of a psychological thriller by the master Claude Chabrol because it is based on an unfinished project by Henri-Georges Clouzot starring Romy Schneider, itself the subject of a documentary. Cluzet is utterly believable as the man sliding from everyday jealousy into total insanity while Béart is stunning as his seductive wife. Like they say, marriage is murder. And the ending? Well. You can see for yourself.

Amy (2015)

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Part of the shock of Asif Kapadia’s moving documentary Senna lay in the technique of juxtaposing found footage with voiceover interviews and commentary – the backroom FIA scenes in which the drivers’ disposability was moot compared with the teams and organisation’s wishes for profit above safety. Also the size of the image on the cinema screen vis à vis the size of 90s TVs – talk about impact. The issue with Amy is more to do with familiarity due to the contemptuous media coverage of the superstar from London who literally disappeared before our eyes. Most of the film is home movies and some TV bulletins. The music is of course stupidly good, with Winehouse’s piercing lyrics scrawled across the screen just to drive home the loss. The real conflict is what happened in the last few weeks of her ridiculously short life – her bodyguard’s account versus that of her manager, who publicly stated that her concerts were not necessary but made her literally kill herself off onstage for financial reasons. Shocking.