Here and Now (2018)

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Aka Blue Night. I’m not done yet. Jazz singer/songwriter Vivienne (Sarah Jessica Parker) has just received a cancer diagnosis. She spends the day walking around New York City, meeting up with her manager Ben (Common) to discuss her upcoming tour, rehearsing with her backing band, telling her ex-husband Nick (Simon Baker) who has custody of their daughter Lucie (Gus Birney), dealing with her overbearing French-speaking mother Jeanne (Jacqueline Bisset), arguing with a taxi driver (Waleed Zuaiter), having an assignation with her drummer and romantic interest Jordan (Taylor Kinney) and reflecting on her life as she comes to terms with her mortality … First a tragedy, then a miracle. An homage to (if not a direct remake of) the late Agnès Varda’s 1962 nouvelle vague classic Cléo from  5 to 7, this is written by Laura Eason and capitalises on Parker’s association with NYC, that city which became so important televisually with Sex and the City in the same way that it has always been for cinema. Reconciling this star’s iconicity with latterday roles is proving problematic. Essentially this is about a woman in a state of perpetual avoidance (even in the course of just one day) and for a character and public persona notable for costume it will be a vast disappointment that until the very last scene she wears the same outfit throughout – save for a session in a boutique in a metaphorical attempt to alter her situation then she presents the dress as a gift to her truculent teenage daughter. This is an indication of a script that’s not altogether in tune with its somewhat dithering protagonist: Parker is not given enough to do and that is quite literally fatal considering this is a film concerning something going on in her head but despite the internalising of the dramatic performance at its centre there are some pithy lines. Vivienne (the irony extends to her name) is about to perform an anniversary gig at Birdland where 25 years earlier great things were forecast but a broken engagement last year somehow triggered a retreat. All of my albums have been triggered by all of my broken engagements, she deadpans to a noxious journalist who has never heard of Donald O’Connor. Renée Zellwegger as her friend Tessa brings a sharpness to a character which makes it more interesting than the scene that perhaps was written, while the scenes between Parker and Bisset are horribly convincing. The feature debut of commercials director Fabien Constant, this is notable for Parker’s quite odd performance of Rufus Wainwright’s marvellous song Unfollow the Rules, indicating that she’s not a jazz singer at all but a different animal entirely, a thread the narrative might have pursued (she still loves Belgian pop singer Lio), just like she should have kicked off her heels and got real, delving deeper into that fascinating hinterland where several interesting signposts are left dangling. I’d like to change the destination

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All Is True (2018)

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I’ve just bought a pension. I can’t die for at least 10 years or I’ll be ruined. It’s 1613, and Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age. But disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre in London burns to the ground and he decides he will never write again. Devastated, he returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Haunted by the death 17 years earlier of his only son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis) he struggles to mend the broken relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and daughters, Hamnet’s twin sister, spirited spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and unhappy Susanna (Lydia Wilson) who is married to a noxiously stern Puritan, John Hall (Hadley Fraser). He is forced to examine his failings as an absent husband and father when 28-year old Judith finally gets involved with a suitor alleged to have impregnated another woman and Susanna is accused of adultery … A garden ain’t a play. Screenwriter Ben Elton has been wowing on the small screen with his very clever parody of Shakespeare in Upstart Crow but this is only occasionally in the same pantomimic vein albeit its nod/wink title (the original title for The Life of Henry VIII) toys with the idea that this is anything other than a confection of falsehoods and assumptions.  And it is a bit of a joke to start with – an old conqueror finally comes home and gets in the way of his wife and has the temerity to mess up the garden she has so carefully cultivated for the last 20 years. And then there are all those long country evenings when all you have is a candle for company. Irony is writ large here. At its heart a melancholy meditation on age, family and what you leave behind, Shakespeare is confronted with the long-hidden truth of his young son’s death, a boy whom he believed to have been greatly talented but who had actually been presenting the work of his twin, who was left unable to read and write, being but a girl. The discovery is poignant indeed. There’s a sonnet-off  (# 29) when Will is confronted with another truth – that the now elderly object of his affection Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen) is not interested in him but appreciates his art. How wonderfully odd that two of the great contemporary exponents of the Bard are quoting him at each other. Anne’s feelings are nothing – when the poems were published (illegally, without Will’s consent), he never thought about her reputation or what people might say. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The bedrock of his entire life it seems has been other people and what they say – what was said of his father, what was said of him, and now, what is said about his daughters, both caught up in scandals of their own. He is a man for whom all truth is literally relative. Retirement is not easy and revelations about what happened at home when he was enjoying fame and adulation come as a shock to someone for whom all the world’s a stage and now his daughters are ruining the name he literally wrote out of disgrace to redeem his father’s blackguarding. Branagh is very good, prosthetics and all, capable of being hurt and amusing and rueful. The motifs are striking in a beautifully shot production – two fires dominate the visuals: the opening conflagration at the Globe caused by a misfiring cannon in a production co-written with John Fletcher; and the smaller one in the grate when Judith attempts to destroy what Hamnet transcribed – because Will needs to believe it was his dead son who wrote the poetry and she is guilty at being a gifted woman because he has such a low opinion of her. And Will loves the word on the page – when he sees his son’s name written in the funeral record in the local church his face comes to life. Anne chides him that when Hamnet died he was busy writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dench is wise and moving in the role of the much older wife protecting him from terrible knowledge. However the slow pace and ruminative setting, autumnal and somewhat bucolic, hide the sad drama within. It’s stunningly shot by Zac Nicholson, not just allowing us to see the wide open spaces juxtaposed with interestingly shot and lit interiors – so many dimpled with pure candlelight as the sole source – but telling us that there is always a bigger story and hinting where to look. There are funny scenes with the ridiculously ingratiating local MP Sir Thomas Lucey (Alex Macqueen) and some wild put-downs. There’s even a jibe about authorship and how it was that a man who owns up to having lived such a little life could have ended up knowing everything. Lest we forget, Elton is the best Elizabethan historian we have, when you think about Blackadder. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is very lovely. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Nothing is ever true

Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

Genius (2016)

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You took the words right out of my mouth. In 1929 Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) is the successful book editor known for working with F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West). He lives peaceably with wife Louise (Laura Linney) and their five daughters and is taken with the manuscript O, Lost by a new writer, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and agrees to work with him. Its success (with the title Look Homeward, Angel) causes issues between Wolfe and theatre designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) an older married woman with whom he is involved and the tensions escalate in the years it takes to produce his next book, Of Time and the River, which requires massive revision. He moves to Paris and upon his return to New York, he quarrels with Max and turns to another editor… Might want to read this one. Adapted by John Logan from the legendary biography of editor Perkins by A. Scott Berg, this was always going to be a tricky proposition:  how to you make the internal mechanics of the writing world interesting? How do you externalise the creative process? Here, it’s all about relationships. Perkins had the reputation he had because he knew how the writer’s mind worked and how to make a book sell and here it’s a talent dedicated specifically to the spectacularly gifted Wolfe, a seemingly rare genius who however needs someone to finesse his excessively prolix work. This is an acting masterclass with rhyming scenes and dialogue that must have been a dream to perform, rhythmic and quotable and filled with nuance and payoffs. To be a novelist, you have to select. You have to shape and sculpt. It’s telling that Fitzgerald and Hemingway are supporting characters working as a kind of echo chamber to the central story. Will anyone care about Thomas Wolfe in 100 years? Ten years? When I was young, I asked myself that question every day/ I used to trouble myself like that every day. Now I ask myself, “Can I write one good sentence.”  Wolfe and Berg are fully fleshed out, real and rumbustious and rich, with their letters used by Logan to create scenes that evoke difficulty and even jealousy with the women in their respective lives. The production design and editing are detailed and impactful but this is essentially illuminating about two men, big characters with a way with words, their working friendship and a thorough exposition of negotiating through a creative collaboration focusing on the importance of having the right editor for the right writer and the best book it is possible to produce. Fascinating and brilliantly acted, this is a buddy movie of a very different variety which ironically might need a little editing itself but it’s a great excursion into the business of big books and the world of the Great American Novelist. Directed by theatre grandee Michael Grandage. I don’t exist any more. I’ve been edited

The Children Act (2017)

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Life is more precious than dignity. London High Court judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) must decide if she should order a life-saving blood transfusion for a teen with leukaemia Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead) despite his parents’ (Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh) refusal to accept medical treatment because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Fiona’s home life adds extra pressure to the decision-making – she is deep in the middle of a marital crisis because her academic husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) declares his wish to pursue an affair with a colleague. She decides she must do something unconventional during the court case and pays a visit to Adam in hospital … Don’t you remember how we were? Don’t you miss that? This issue film is adapted by Ian McEwan from his novel and boasts a stunning performance from Thompson as the woman daily challenged by ethical matters which have life-enhancing (or -ending) consequences. Richard Eyre directs with customary rigour and nuance in beautifully photographed settings in the Law courts and the English countryside but it feels somewhat like flogging a dead horse, as it were, failing to offer a robust counter-argument to the rationale of assisting a person in peril, making Thompson’s Herculean efforts seem somewhat … in vein?! Perhaps it’s a topic better suited to the likes of Jodi Picoult but the interesting plot turn which suggests a much deeper seam of emotion is not exploited as deeply as one would hope. This court is a court of law not of morals

Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998) (TVM)

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I want to be loved. 1940s New York City: Jacqueline Susann (Michele Lee) is a second-string theatre actress and well-known party girl who turns to journalism following her marriage to press agent turned producer Irving Mansfield (Peter Riegert). Though constantly surrounded by the glitterati of the theatre and social scene she doesn’t achieve celebrity status herself and has to endure the tragedy of a brain-damaged son who has to be institutionalised. Then when she’s 47,  she publishes the raunchy bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls. Outwardly committed to publicising her work and involved in regular cross-country media campaigns, she privately battles cancer and constantly questions her troubled relationship with her society portraitist father Robert (Kenneth Welsh) who never got around to finishing her picture …  Everything I do is for you. Everything I make is for you. Treading much straighter territory than Isn’t She Great (the Bette Midler version) this adaptation by Michele Gallery of Barbara Seaman’s biography Lovely Me ironically strays indirectly and presumably unintentionally into camp now and then, and it doesn’t really do justice to the genius of its subject but Lee is excellent as this spiky confrontational woman who did things her own way. For anyone interested in the backstage antics of NYC’s post-war theatre scene with big personalities like Ethel Merman (Gloria Slade), the evolution of publishing and the making of the notorious film of Susann’s most famous novel with Barbara Parkins (Annie Laurie Williams), Patty Duke (Melanie Peterson) and the lovely Sharon Tate (Leila Johnson), there are residual attractions, but the drivers of this biopic are the private tragedies of the woman who revolutionised modern publishing by establishing her own critic-proof brand of sex and sass. Directed by Bruce McDonald. You don’t cook, you don’t clean, you never stay in. My life is never going to be dull

The Skeleton Key (2005)

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The thing folks just don’t understand about sacrifice… sometimes it’s more of a trade. Twentysomething Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson), a good-natured nurse living in New Orleans feels guilty about not being around for her father’s death while she was on the road working for rock bands. She quits her job as a carer at a hospice to work at a plantation mansion in the Terrebonne Parish for Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), an elderly woman whose husband, Ben (John Hurt), is in poor health following a stroke. When Caroline begins to explore the couple’s rundown house where Violet bans mirrors, she discovers strange artifacts in a locked room at the back of the attic and learns the house has a mysterious past to do with servants from the 1920s, Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott) and the practice of hoodoo. She realises that Violet is keeping a sinister secret about the cause of Ben’s illness and wants to get the old man out of there. When she appeals to their estate lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) for assistance she finds that he’s not quite what he seems to be …  It gets harder every time. They just don’t believe like they used to. Gotta get ’em all riled up. An immensely appealing excursion into folk horror that is as much about the history of Louisiana and race relations as it is a genre exercise (though it’s a fairly efficient suspense machine too). Beautifully staged and atmospherically sustained by that very stylish director Iain Softley, it’s written by Ehren Kruger, who burst on the scene with the surprising Arlington Road, another look at Americana (of the homebred terror group variety) who has spent his time since this either a) making a shedload of money or b) squandering his immense talent (take your pick – perhaps both?) making the Transformers films. Hudson is very good opposite screen great Rowlands while Hurt spends his time silenced by the stroke, emoting with his eyes and making a failed suicide attempt off a roof. That’s how badly he needs outta here. Gorgeous location shooting around New Orleans and Louisiana make this a feast for the eyes and the twist ending is very satisyfing, cherI don’t believe I don’t believe I don’t believe

That Good Night (2017)

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The ultimate deadline. Ageing emigré novelist and screenwriter Ralph (John Hurt) discovers that he is terminally ill. He contacts his estranged illegitimate son Michael (Max Brown) to attempt to reconcile at his Portuguese home but when Michael shows up with his girlfriend Cassie (Erin Lynch) she irritates Ralph and things get off to a rocky start despite the intervention of Ralph’s wife Anna (Sofia Hellin) whom Ralph met when she nursed him following a heart attack years earlier.  He doesn’t want to be a burden to her and thinks a quick death in secret is what’s needed.  He hires a doctor (Charles Dance) to administer a drug that will allow him to die but he wakes and discovers he’s been double crossed but finds he’s enjoying his second chance at life … Your mother deliberately set out to get pregnant. Adapted by Charles Savage from N.J. Crisp’s play this is mildly spiky but underpowered family drama. With the spectral presence of Dance as Doctor Death, it is leavened by the witty and perceptive dialogue – Ralph isn’t trying to be unreasonable but he is in his awkward way determined to make amends. Hurt gives his final lead performance in a sadly appropriate context, growling out those lines with a wicked glint. Beautifully made and performed. Directed by Eric Styles. When you’re old you think you won’t die on time

Tag (2018)

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There are no winners. Only not losers.  Hogan ‘Hoagie’ Malloy (Ed Helms), Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), Randy ‘Chili’ Cilliano (Jake Johnson), Kevin Sable (Hannibal Buress) and Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner) have been playing a game of tag every May for 30 years  – but Jerry’s never been It and his upcoming wedding (to which none of his friends have invited) provides the perfect setting to finally land the big fish. Or does it? He’s planning on retiring now and Hoagie tags Bob at his insurance company where he’s CEO and collars Chili mid-toke and Kevin at his psychiatrist’s in order to make one last attempt in their hometown of Spokane where Jerry runs a successful fitness business and his ninja-like agility still threatens to make it impossible … I will be so pissed if she didn’t have a miscarriage. Adapted from the Wall Street Journal story It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being It by Russell Adams, this has an iron-clad concept that doesn’t quite work – somehow the innate madness and anger that occasionally surfaces in Helms’ character (and which is ultimately put down to illness – such sentiment has no place here!) doesn’t get ridden the way it ought. First-time director Jeff Tomsic has fun with the action sequences but the screenplay by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen needed something extra – at one point I kinda hoped it would be Preston Sturges, because the kind of antic frantic lunacy that this story suggests needs that sort of old-school zany style. The final twist turns into something else with Hoagie’s crazed tagalong wife Anna (Isla Fisher) letting loose – at last. Too late, I fear! You’re it. Poor planning. Poor execution

All For Mary (1955)

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If Florence Nightingale had ever worked with her she’d have blown out her lamp. Debonair soldier Clive Morton (Nigel Patrick) and clumsy Humphrey ‘Humpy’ Miller (David Tomlinson) are bachelors holidaying separately at a Swiss ski resort.  They have nothing in common except that  they both fall for the hotel proprietor’s daughter Mary (Jill Day).  Humpy’s secret weapon, in the battle for Mary’s affections is his former nanny Miss Cartwright (Kathleen Harrison) who arrives to take charge of the pair as they are quarantined with chicken pox in the hotel attic … Anodyne but very picturesque adaptation of the titular stage play by Harold Brocke & Kaye Bannerman, by Peter Blackmore and producer Paul Soskin with additional dialogue by Alan Melville. It’s fairly typical of its era, a combination of coy, heavy-handed and mild, with two perfect exponents of their types in the amusing male leads and Harrison getting a nice showcase.  Leo McKern is somewhat miscast as a Greek tourist. This is mostly distinctive for its colour cinematography shot on location by Reginald H. Wyer and the fact that it was directed by Wendy Toye. She is one of the very few British women directors of the era and started out as a dancer and choreographer with a long and prolific career directing theatre and opera as well as early film collaborations with Jean Cocteau, the Crazy Gang and Carol Reed and then making award-winning shorts. If you can find a copy of her Cannes-winning film The Stranger Left No Card, do.  It’s terrific: she made a different version of it (Stranger in Town) for Anglia TV’s Tales of the Unexpected in 1981. And wouldn’t we all have loved to see her Broadway production of Peter Pan starring Boris Karloff.  When she appeared on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs she chose as her luxury item framed Ronald Searle drawings. Fabulous. She died 27 February 2010, almost exactly 9 years ago, aged 92. She deserves to be better known.