Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans (2015)

Steve McQueen The Man and Le Mans

We had the star, we had the drivers. We had an incredible array of technical support, we had everything. Except a script. The story behind the making of Le Mans, Steve McQueen’s dream project – a realistic film about motor racing set around the great 24-hour endurance race in 1970. He planned a documentary-style production starring himself and made by his own company Solar in collaboration with Cinema Center Films, but it went over budget and schedule. He disagreed with and fired Thomas Crown Affair/Bullitt writer Alan Trustman (who he says in an audio recording knew him like nobody did); and he also fell out with his Magnificent Seven/Great Escape director John Sturges, who walked out; then Cinema Center tried to replace McQueen – on his own film!- with Robert Redford. McQueen agreed to a pay cut. I don’t think there’s any racing drive who can tell you why he races. But he can show you. The film was plagued by crashes, the worst involving David Piper, whose leg was amputated. Charles Manson was on his killing spree at the time and McQueen discovered he was on his hit list and became paranoid, taking to carrying a handgun. His marriage to wife Neile broke up when he found out she had finally paid him back for his multiple infidelities with one of her own. He crashed a car late at night with his young Swedish mistress actress Louise Edlind and blamed it on a 21-year old set assistant who was on his first day at work on the film. McQueen didn’t bear a scratch from the incident. When the film came out in 1971 it received ‘mixed’ reviews … We were winging it. Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna’s film tells an inglorious tale of ego, hubris and racing too close to the sun, a paradoxical move for the coolest man to ever walk the earth. You better believe in what you;re doing. I believe in what I do. It’s stylishly directed, with a plethora of remarkably beautiful clips retrieved from private collections and unfinished on-set documentary footage as well as boasting terrific new interviews (and some from the previous 2001 doc Filming at Speed) which suggest that this was a devastating experience for McQueen, a turning point from which he may never have truly recovered. With Trustman and Sturges on board it was the dream team but McQueen was both stunningly indecisive and doctrinaire. He felt responsible for the racers, above all, but never visited Piper following an accident that only occurred because a scene was shot twice owing to the absence of a script. They never met again. The film reveals to Piper that McQueen had written to the powers that be to release the premiere’s takings to Piper for his medical treatment – they did not; but Piper is pleased at the revelation. He had something hidden. McQueen’s long business relationship and friendship with Bob Relyea was sundered. He was trying to capitalise on his stardom but clashed with the studio ethic of storytelling in the classical style in an ironic bid to strip away filmmaking tricks and falling victim to excess. When he wanted to give back Hollywood wasn’t there for him. Essentially he wanted to build his own empire while also attempting to obtain creative control. Instead he wound up skipping the premiere and quitting racing for good. Yet it’s the film he had shipped to Mexico a decade later when he was receiving treatment for the cancer that would kill him, showing it to fellow patients. It transpires that the asbestos that caused his cancer is the type used in racing suits in the Sixties. In many ways it seems this film was the time when McQueen’s luck finally ran out. This is a visceral experience for the viewer, almost tactile in its power. Smell the fumes and feel the need for speed. Gripping.  I am too old and too rich to be putting up with this type of shit

My Brother Jonathan (1948)

My Brother Jonathan

There’s something I should have told you a long time ago. GP Jonathan Dakers (Michael Denison) welcomes home his son Tony (Pete Murray) from WW2 and when Tony reveals he’s seen too much and is quitting medicine, Jonathan tells him the story of his real background … Early 1900s. Jonathan is the older son of shady businessman Eugene (James Robertson Justice) and brother of Harold (Ronald Howard) and falls in love at a young age with Edie (Beatrice Campbell) daughter of landed gentry but she only ever had eyes for Harold. Jonathan trains as a doctor. When the mysterious Eugene dies his real job is revealed – corset salesman. His wife (Mary Clare) is none the wiser and believes he had social significance. However he’s spent their inheritance and Jonathan undertakes to save the family home and put Harold through his final year at Cambridge, sacrificing his own potential career as a surgeon. He works in the West Midlands in the general practice of Dr John Hammond (Finlay Currie) whose daughter Rachel (Dulcie Gray) is the practice nurse and she falls in love with Jonathan but he still has eyes for Edie.  The practice clientele are working class and he has to deal with the consequences of the regular accidents at the local foundry leading him to write a critical report which is conveniently lost. He is constantly criticised and when he saves a local child from diphteria in the hospital he has to face down the owner’s son-in-law and his medical rival Dr Craig (Stephen Murray) on charges of misconduct. Edie returns from Paris and intends wedding Harold, to Jonathan’s chagrin, but WW1 is declared and Harold is killed in action, leaving Edie pregnant and in a serious dilemma because she knows her parents will disown her … It must be nice to know what you want out of life. Adapted from Francis Brett Young’s novel by Adrian Alington and Leslie Landau, this was hugely popular at the British box office and unites real-life husband and wife Denison and Gray in one of their best films. It has all the ingredients of a melodrama but is supremely well-managed, beautifully shot and gracefully performed. The social message isn’t hammered home, it carefully underlines all the choices that the idealistic protagonist makes and is skillfully drawn as this picture of changing society emerges in intertwining plots of medicine and relationships. Directed by Harold French. They only have one idea in this country and that’s disgusting

Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters

You’re flushing your career down the toilet for a cowhand. Corporate defence lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is approached by his grandmother’s farmer neighbour Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) to investigate the deaths of hundreds of his cattle in Parkersburg, West Virginia, probably due to a poisoning incident by manufacturer DuPont. The company’s lawyer Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) promises to help Robert but stalls so Robert files suit to get discovery and with nothing useful in an Environmental Protection Agency report he finds information about an unregulated chemical called PFOA which turns out to be Teflon – and it’s on and in everything including the water supply, poisoning with a substance the body cannot tolerate or absorb and causing six cancers and facial deformities. It transpires that DuPont carried out tests and did not make the findings public. The case drives Robert’s behaviour to cause his former lawyer wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) to worry for him and he eventually collapses from ill-health as the years wind on, with Wilbur and his wife Sandra (Denise Dal Vera) getting cancer from the infected water they’ve been consuming. They refuse DuPont’s offer of settlement – they want justice. Robert finds that Medical Monitoring is permitted in West Virginia and undertakes a class action lawsuit with the biggest sample of epidemiological data in history but after seven years there are still no results, his marriage is in difficulty and he’s taking yet another paycut  … Better living through chemistry. Adapted by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael  Carnahan from three articles in The New York Times and The Intercept, this is a grimy looking drama about corporate malfeasance that’s paced as slowly and deliberately as Bilott’s lawsuits, with some touches of conventional genre paranoia in one thriller sequence (in a car park, surprise surprise).  It unfurls chronologically, a decade-and-a-half-long story of terrible, destructive deceit – a toxic pollution arrangement covertly blessed by Government agencies, yet another searing indictment of structural inequality and the impunity with which big companies abuse power and kill people, no questions asked. It’s a David and Goliath procedural tale that has global ramifications and despite its desperately dull appearance and some flawed and oddly impersonal directing choices there are some great moments especially for Tim Robbins as Ruffalo’s boss; and Bill Camp, who exudes his usual authenticity beneath some truly eccentric eyebrows. Hathaway’s stay-at-home wife gradually gets a better arc than at first appears; while Ruffalo is shuffling and in pain, dressed in too-big clothes in a whistleblowing role that clearly is a labour of love, a wannabe Hulk gravitationally pulled to earth, feeling the hurt of all his sick, suffering and dying clients as he does his due diligence with dignity and perseverance. Stick with it. Like the Teflon on your frying pan that’s killing you every day. Directed by Todd Haynes. The system is rigged

The Sun Also Rises (1957)

The Sun Also Rises

I don’t have a problem with Americans. In 1920s Paris American news correspondent Jake Barnes (Tyrone Power) has ended up injured, impotent and disillusioned from World War 1. He mingles with an aimless group of bohemian expatriates including hangers on, the wealthy and aimless Robert Cohn (Mel Ferrer) and Bill Gorton (Eddie Albert). His ex-fiancée, the seductive nymphomaniacal Lady Brett Ashley (Ava Gardner) who nursed him back to health in Italy returns to Paris and after Jake and Bill go on a fishing trip in Bayonne, she introduces him to her fiancé, the reckless alcoholic Mike Campbell (Errol Flynn) when they all converge in Pamplona for the bull run, where Robert turns up. Together, they pursue a hedonistic, directionless lifestyle until Brett’s affection for Jake complicates mattersBeing away from you is worse than being here. Adapted by Peter Viertel from Ernest Hemingway’s classic 1926 Lost Generation novel, this somewhat static rendition is truly enlivened by performance (ironically, given the theme) by a cast several years too old for their roles. Ironically, that seems to play into the book’s ideas of the relentless passing of time, never to be regained. Power looks aged, and would be dead within a year; Flynn would die two years later; and Gardner was shortly to be facially scarred – during a bullfight in Spain. Naturally much is lost in adaptation – the density of feeling, for starters – but it’s an attractive proposition with beautiful people suffering in lovely locations. The dissipated Flynn, his beauty long lost to drink, is ideally cast as the soused larger than life Scot and in fact his performance was the only thing Hemingway thought decent about the film; rather wonderfully, Pancho Villa’s son was Flynn’s stand-in. This is the production that launched movie mogul Robert Evans upon the world, playing the sexy young matador Pedro Romero giving Gardner the attention she craves (cleaving rather closely to Gardner’s real life). Everyone on the cast and crew wanted him gone but this mutiny triggered Darryl F. Zanuck’s infamous line, The kids stays in the picture, providing Evans with the title of his legendary memoir. Gardner of course had a habit of driving her lovers crazy for her and that creeps into her role, as well as the fact that she had already essayed Hemingway as a sizzling femme fatale in The Killers, to unforgettable effect. And there’s Juliette Gréco in the first part of the story, set in Paris, not singing but exuding blackly comic and blunt sensuality. Ferrer and his then wife Audrey Hepburn had spotted her performing at a nightclub and recommended her to DFZ, who started a relationship with her. It’s a true exploration of nostalgia, a term that arose to recognise a phenomenon among soldiers returning home from war for whom life was never the same; but it also has a metafiction, about the stars themselves, on the precipice of their celebrity, facing the end of everything. If nothing else, the louche life looks rather picturesque and gorgeously romantic, as does everything directed by Henry King. Everyone behaves badly given the proper chance

Parasite (2019)

Parasite

Aka Gisaengchung. They are nice because they are rich. Student Min (Seo-joon Park) is going abroad and while he is away, he asks his impoverished friend Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) to tutor Da-hye (Ji-so Jung), the young girl whom he loves by take over the private tuition in English he has been doing at the Parks’ family home. Ki-woo has done the university entrance exam four times but for whatever reason – likely poverty – he has not started a course of studies.  Some bluffing is required, with documents forged by his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park) who is also something of a talented actress. Both skills will prove useful in what becomes an ambitious Kim family project in deception and subterfuge to get out of their sewage-flooded semi-basement hovel: sister Ki-jung takes over as the troubled younger son’s art teacher and his father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) replace the family chauffeur and the housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), a woman inherited from the original owner, but they cannot reveal their family connection. What nobody but Moon-gwang knows is that the architect designed a secret bunker beneath the basement. When the Parks go on a camping holiday Ki-woo and his family take up temporary residence … We don’t need to make a plan for anything. It doesn’t matter what will happen next. Even if the country gets destroyed or sold out, nobody cares. Got it? South Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho hit the awards season jackpot with this black tragicomedy about class war and resentment. It’s set up as a kind of home invasion comedy but curdles into a dramatic commentary about class difference and the gulf of understanding between the haves and have-nots, culminating in mindless murder. It’s overlong and overdone and the dénouement is clearly planted in the seething danger underscoring  Ki-taek’s face, cheeks pinpricked with anger at the boss’ comments about his subway odour, but it’s redeemed by some unexpected moments, biting lines and something of a twisted ending. Not then the work of art much-touted by many critics, rather a triumph of marketing, a social farce bearing a touch of the Downton Abbeys coupled with an overriding problem – it is simply not possible to empathise with a single character. Don’t believe the hype. Co-written with Han Jin-won.  Rich people are naive. No resentments. No creases on them

Mapplethorpe (2018)

Mapplethorpe

The shy pornographer. After he bails on the Pratt Institute, horrifying his conservative family, Robert Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith) leaves for New York City where he lives on the wild side and teams up with another wannabe artist, Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón).  They set up home together at the Chelsea Hotel where they discover their artistic abilities and dream together. However Mapplethorpe is gay and Smith disappears to enjoy a hetero marriage when she is supplanted by curator and collector Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey) who takes Mapplethorpe as one of his lovers.  He becomes his benefactor and backer and shows him some nineteenth century photographs that open up Mapplethorpe to the possibilities of the medium, having two exhibitions simultaneously, one high-art, one erotic, showing both sides of his artistry. A symbiotic relationship is born, albeit Mapplethorpe continues to party and sleep around as his success grows. He falls for black model Milton Moore (McKinlay Belcher III) but when Milton finds his diaries he believes he’s being used fetishistically and abandons him. Mapplethorpe’s lifestyle verges on the reckless, between sex and drugs, but he is now famous and celebrated.  His younger brother Edward (Brandon Sklenar) whom he barely knows is training in the technical side of the medium and joins him as his assistant.  When Edward displays his own talent, Mapplethorpe doesn’t want the competition and tells him to stop using the family name. Wagstaff has AIDS but Mapplethorpe refuses to be tested. When he is dying, Patti visits. He gets Edward to take one more photograph of him… I’m an artist. I would have been a painter, but the camera was invented. Luckily for me. Unsurprisingly considering the subject matter and the fact that this was made in co-operation with the Mapplethorpe Foundation, this contains an array of graphic and pornographic images, all by Mapplethorpe himself.  That’s only disconcerting when Matt Smith is in the same scene as Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits. The value here is not intrinsic in the dramatic exposition but in the ideas it espouses and the path it traces as Mapplethorpe finds his medium – from drawing and making jewellery to figuring out that his narcissism offered a view on masculinity previously unexplored (or exposed in public). You’re the Jekyll and Hyde of photography. He’s not an easy character to portray or to like because his essence lies in provocation and attention-seeking and Smith’s performance is not terribly convincing in a role that is better written than it is acted. Nor does the script deal with the essential lesson that this is a man who knew he wouldn’t live long and was prepared to die for his art. Beauty and the Devil are sort of the same thing to me. The relationship with Patti Smith doesn’t quite ring true either.  The film is about how photography evolved as Mapplethorpe’s own high-contrast signature developed – as he repeatedly says, Look at the blacks. It’s the revolution in image-making to replace the affect and emotion of painting that holds the eye. The context in which the drama is produced is a major factor in the narrative and the celebrities of the day become his models but NYC has cleaned up a lot since the filthy Seventies and if the Chelsea Hotel looks grimy enough for anyone and the spectre of AIDS haunts every frame a cleaned-up look still expresses a dispiriting social scene. The chronological approach that dogs biographical film drama doesn’t add a lot here but the punctuation – setting up famous photographs and then showing the real thing – is a useful technique of juxtaposition that adds to the tension of creation:  these pictures still manage to shock, captivate and provoke. Mapplethorpe died thirty-one years ago this week. Directed by Ondi Timoner (on Kodak film) from a screenplay co-written with Mikko Alanne, based on a screenplay by Bruce Goodrich. They call it playing chicken with the avant garde

Micki + Maude (1984)

Micki and Maude

I’m so hung over my head feels like a tuning fork. TV reporter Rob Salinger (Dudley Moore) desperately wants to be a father but his ambitious lawyer wife Micki (Ann Reinking) wants to be a judge and hasn’t time for a baby just now. When Rob has an affair with beautiful cellist Maude (Amy Irving) she shocks him when she informs him she’s pregnant and he determines to divorce Micki. But at the dinner he’s arranged to break the bad news Micki announces she’s finally pregnant and has to be on bed rest for the duration of the pregnancy.  Rob doesn’t want to ruin things so he marries Maude, pretending that he’s divorced Micki and lives with both women bigamously until their anticipated due dates coincide and they give birth in neighbouring suites at the same hospital … When Daddy retires he’s going to take up decorating full time. Blake Edwards’ marital comedy is heartwarming and funny and depends upon his usual quotient of farce although that is mostly confined to the final trimester of this battle of the sexes outing. John Pleshette is Rob’s TV director, looking and sounding not a little unlike Edwards himself;  Edwards’ ensemble regular Richard Mulligan plays Rob’s best friend, his TV producer; Wallace Shawn is a doctor; and there’s a wonderful Meet the Parents sequence when Rob is introduced to Maude’s father, Barkhas Guillory (H.B. Haggerty) a mean-looking wealthy wrestler who’s surrounded by much bigger colleagues like André the Giant. And he wants to buy the couple a house in the Hollywood Hills that he plans to decorate himself. In a film that could be purely stereotypical, this is turning some tropes upside down. And, in time-honoured fashion befitting a comedy expert, Edwards brings it all to a very satisfying, sincere conclusion, helped by Moore’s sweet performance as the politest bigamist in town. Great fun. Written by Jonathan Reynolds. It won’t get the fat gene

State Secret (1950)

State Secret larger

Aka The Great Manhunt. It’s very gratifying to think that a doctor can still perform a non-political operation. American doctor John Marlowe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) is visiting England when he is deployed to Vosnia, a small middle European country where people speak Esperanto. He finds that he is there to operate on the country’s dictator who dies during brain surgery but is replaced by a look-alike. As one of the few who know, Marlowe is hunted by the country’s secret police who are intent on shooting to kill because the dictator’s death must be kept secret. Marlowe flees and seeks the help of music hall performer Lisa Robinson (Glynis Johns). They blackmail Balkan smuggler Karl Theodor (Herbert Lom) into helping them. Pursued across the country, they are on the point of escaping when Karl is shot and killed and Lisa is wounded. Marlowe could escape without her but remains. Government minister Colonel Galcon (Jack Hawkins) arranges a ‘shooting accident’ for Marlowe but as Marlowe walks to his fate, the false dictator’s speech is being broadcast on the radio. Shots are heard and Galcon confirms that the stand-in has been assassinated and realises that it may all be over for him … Have you changed your mind?/No, I’ve just lost it. Loosely adapted from a Roy Huggins novel by director Sidney Gilliat, this is a cracking thriller as you’d expect from one of the writing team (with producer Frank Launder) behind Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich It’s nicely shot by Robert (The Third Man) Krasker who has fun at the start with some point of view shots underscoring Fairbanks’ narration and Trento and the Dolomites make great locations although the locals weren’t too happy during production with post-war communist feelings at fever pitch. The suspense quotient is upped by a superior score from William Alwyn. The version of Esperanto here is made up of Latin and Slavic languages but the universal language is thrills and it has more of those when Johns joins the chase 45 minutes in and Lom cracks wise as the shyster because Fairbanks is a fairly flavourless lead. Every time I have a haircut I’ll be thinking of you

November Criminals (2017)

November Criminals

I guess I’ve gotten pretty good at pretending to be okay. High school student Addison Schach (Ansel Elgort) is the only guy in class trusted by his friend Phoebe Zeleny (Chloë Grace Moretz) to take her virginity before they leave high school. While they’re engaging in sex for the first time classmate Kevin Broadus (Jared Kemp) is shot dead in the bakery where they’ve just left him.  Addison is still dealing with the trauma of his mother’s sudden death six months earlier but his father Theo (David Strathairn) doesn’t grasp the extent of his emotional problems. When the police treat the boy’s death as part of gang activity Addison can’t accept it and undertakes his own investigation with Phoebe reluctantly tagging along, knowing that her well-connected mother Fiona (Catherine Keener) is already wary of the association with Addison. They soon discover that there is more to the case than meets the eye…  I don’t want you to get involved with something that will most definitely hurt you. Adapted by Steven Knight and director Sacha Gervasi from the novel by Sam Munson this is a strangely restrained piece of work, clearly bursting with a fast-extinguished passion that doesn’t actually go anywhere, rather like the thwarted protagonist. Elgort and Moretz are sympathetic and engaging (and were previously paired in the remake of Carrie) but are not given enough with the script which already has a short running time at 85 minutes. It’s a combination of family drama and crime thriller but its generic ambitions don’t fully mesh in a story which is essentially about a naive approach to bereavement:  this boy is no private eye. There are nice scenes with the respective parents, Strathairn and Keener, and the lo-fi approach to technology (pagers, colour VHS recording) makes a nice alternative to the social media used in most contemporary teen movies, but it’s an unfulfilled premise. That’s how life is: it provides these accidental answers. Or it seems to. You have to judge by results

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

Love is a Many Splendored Thing

Our gorgeous lie did not even last the night. Hong Kong 1949. American journalist Mark Elliott (William Holden) is covering the Chinese civil war. Undergoing a trial separation from his wife, he meets beautiful Dr. Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones), a widowed Eurasian physician originally from mainland China. As the pair fall in love, they encounter disapproval from both her family, his friends and Hong Kong society about their interracial romance … I have my work and an uncomplicated life. I don’t want to feel anything again… ever. This outrageously beautiful melodrama lingers long in the memory for its Widescreen Deluxe images, shot by the great Leon Shamroy, including two weeks on location in its Hong Kong setting; and its cast. Adapted by John Patrick from Suyin’s 1952 autobiographical novel it’s a pulsatingly lush romance, played to the hilt and given gravitas with its issues of race against a background of the war in China leading to a takeover by the Communist Party. The subject matter meant there was trouble getting it off the ground in those censorious days. The production was no less troubled, with the stars eventually coming to loathe each other. None of that matters because the performances sing in a carefully dramatised story that boasts some of the most romantic scenes in either of their careers. All those love letters, kissing on hilltops, swimming … it’s a spectacular and vivid epic, sad and tender. And was there ever a more impressive hunk of sexy mid-century masculinity than Holden?! There is a strong supporting cast including Torin Thatcher, Murray Matheson and Isobel Elsom, rounding out a snapshot of colonial life in those post-WW2 days. Ornamenting the gorgeous score by Alfred Newman is the title song by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, one of the great movie themes, and it’s sung by The Four Aces. It was an enormous hit, just like the film.  Patrick would write another Hong Kong-set romance starring Holden, The World of Suzie Wong. Directed by Henry King, who had a knack for making beautiful films, with second unit location work by Otto Lang, who is uncredited. Love is nature’s way of giving a reason to be living, The golden crown that makes a man a king