Tracks (2013)

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I just want to be by myself. If you read books like The Heroine’s Journey you’ll learn that what every girl really needs at some point is some time by herself – a separation of sorts, from the noise, from the world, from the patriarchal expectations …. all that jazz. And in 1977 Australian Robyn Davidson had just about enough of all the rubbish in life and decided to trek 1,700 miles from Alice Springs via Ayers Rock and the Western Desert to the Ocean – with Diggity the dog and Dookie, Bob, Sally and Baby Goliath, four camels that she trained and befriended. The problem of financing necessitated a sponsor and that came in the form of National Geographic magazine which sent freelance photographer Rick Smolan to shoot the story and he met up with her once a month, in various states of disrepair and anguish. Mia Wasikowska has the role of her life, encountering her real self, solitude, loneliness and loss. It’s a remarkable, demanding performance in this adaptation by Marion Nelson of Davidson’s memoir, which took 25 years to get to the big screen after many false starts. Adam Driver is the unfortunate guy whose expressions of concern for his occasional travelling companion are so regularly rebuffed while the inevitable publicity brings unwelcome meetings with an inquisitive public and there’s an especially amusing incident when Robyn’s mentor Mr Eddie (Rolley Mintuma) scares them off with a presumably typical Aboriginal attitude. This is a beautifully crafted film, memorably shot and simply bewitching, with layers of meaning about personhood, the environment and the ecology of animal and human friendship. One of my favourite films of 2013. Directed by John Curran.

The Wizard of Lies (2017)(TVM)

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Do you think I’m a sociopath? I’m not a psychiatrist, Bernie Madoff, but I do know you’re a thief who committed larceny on a grand scale that specifically targeted Jewish retirees, most of whom ended up living hand to mouth in trailer parks as a result of your actions – if they were lucky.  You can understand the attraction of this project – looking at the man behind the biggest Ponzi scheme in history – and the family structure behind him. This after all is the guy whose own sons turned him in. When it happened it was at the height of the financial ‘mismanagement’ that caused the world’s economy to crash.  When Madoff pleaded guilty nobody  – certainly not the POTUS – wanted to see his friends in the major institutions jailed. Diana Henriques is the New York Times journalist who had access to Madoff and interviewed him in prison and her book provides the basis for a screenplay by Sam Levinson, Sam Baum and John Burnham Schwartz, with Henriques playing herself, opposite Robert De Niro. This is a despicable man with absolutely no redeeming features. There is no explanation as to what drove him. His behaviour to everybody is horrendous, rude, arrogant and nasty, even to waiters. The narrative chooses to focus not on the bigger context – or the horrors inflicted on his victims – but on the humiliation meted out to his sons Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andy (Nathan Darrow) who apparently didn’t know what went on on the 17th floor – a destination that has almost horror-story significance. In reality it was a crowded office populated by undereducated sleazes who kept the accounts of all the little people whom they sandbagged and robbed blind, led by Frank DiPascali (Hank Azaria) an utterly reprehensible character. Wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer, looking a little different again, as is her wont…) is another supposed innocent, whose relationships with her sons suffer because she keeps visiting one-dimensional Bernie in jail. Bernie simply refuses to offer any explanation for any of his actions and Mark trawls the web to find offensive comments (the one called ‘Weekend at Bernie’s was blackly ironic) while Andy’s wife urges distance between the brothers. Nobody sees Mark’s suicide coming. Then Andy succumbs to lymphoma. Ruth simply changes her phone number. Confining the drama to a dysfunctional family dynamic may have seemed like clever writing – even an attempt to make it some sort of Shakespearean allegory – but in doing so it totally misses the bigger picture:  not on the scale of fiscal destruction purveyed by the Madoff Advisory of course but it seems irresponsible and kind of pointless storytelling with nothing new that we all don’t know.  Look at The Big Short for a really stylish and shocking interrogation of this scenario;  or The Wolf of Wall Street:  this can be tour de force filmmaking in the right hands.  What a shame. Directed by Barry Levinson.

OJ: Made in America (2016)

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The white Bronco live TV chase on LA’s freeway. The wall-to-wall coverage of the trial. Mark Fuhrman. The glove. Poor Dennis Fung! I watched it all. Who didn’t?! Golly, when The People Vs OJ Simpson:  An American Crime Story was broadcast last year I thought I’d never make it through and yet it was a stunningly told tale which gripped me the same way the sorry saga itself did more than twenty years ago. So it was with a heavy heart I approached this (admittedly Oscar-winning) seven and a half hour long trawl through exactly the same territory again, with added archive. Half the time I was disappointed not to see Cuba Gooding Jr, John Travolta (wasn’t he great?!) and Connie Britton showing up – so much of this tale of celebrity is now confused in my bear-like brain. And it starts with what appears to be an excuse for bad behaviour by a lot of people – the sudden migration of blacks into Los Angeles, a 600% increase in their numbers which drove the LAPD crazy and some of them became violent. The riots in the 60s. The ethnic issues not just between black and white but black and Asian. Into this maelstrom of social division arrives the college football player from San Francisco whom everyone loves – an amazing running back who became a key figure in the advertising trade and whose race mattered to nobody:  he looked incredible and parlayed his fame into TV commentating and acting (I first heard of him when I saw Capricorn One). Talking heads who were part of the OJ story relate their own roles – friends from his days in USC, policemen who arrested him, footage of Daryl Gates, the friend accompanying him to visit his gay drag queen dad who would die of AIDS,  the meeting with Nicole Brown, a beautiful blonde 18 year old waitress at The Daisy whom OJ immediately said he would marry:  except he was already married to a black woman who had had his children. And he – or someone – ended up severing her head from her body outside her house where an unfortunate waiter was returning her mother’s spectacles. As one sad friend says, their relationship was a reversal of slavery – he owned her. And her family, who she said would side with him if she left because he was funding their lifestyles through his generosity – her father had a Hertz dealership and her sisters similarly benefited. The regular reports of domestic violence and the photographs of her injuries then remind us of what this is really about. The friend of many years who abandons him during the crisis after OJ says he got his finger injury three different ways. How OJ became a crucible for the issues of race, celebrity, sport, policing, justice, the law and violence is told in a grindingly tough and inexorable fashion which turns out to have a sorry logic and inevitability. As for the procession  of police cars that accompanied him on his supposed suicide mission:  “If OJ had been black that shit wouldn’t have happened,” grins a transsexual helicopter cameraman who followed it all from on high:  “OJ transcended race to celebrity.” And we duly see other heli-footage of a black man being beaten after a car chase. While all this was going on the police who were at his home watched in astonishment as his family ate from a sandwich buffet as though nothing odd were afoot. And when a policeman brought OJ in cuffs in a car through the crowds screaming Free OJ, the Xanaxed one said to him, “What are all these niggers doing in Brentwood?” The bizarre nature of the entire story seems encapsulated when Lyle Menendez walks past, imprisoned in the same correctional facility. The lining up of the downtown jury who were black and hated Marcia Clark and white people. The behaviour of Johnnie Cochran who made it a black-white thang not a double homicide charge in the wake of Rodney King and the ensuing riots, and the result, the gobsmacking shock and the resonance that lasts until today. This is a tough watch and it is worth it in the end but it’s a sad indictment amidst a litany of purported sociological causes and indicative of all those claims now finally being understood that the races simply cannot live together – read Robert Putnam’s long-suppressed report (by the Democrats) about race in the US or David Goodhart on the failure to redistribute wealth fairly in multi-racial societies. This is a very awkward film with several conflicts at its centre. At the end of the day a woman was murdered and her wealthy, famous sports star husband was not convicted of the crime. Terrible, compelling and all too unfortunately true. A film by Ezra Edelman.

Nightcrawler (2014)

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What a character Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is – petty thief turned news stringer, a hollowed out husk of a ghoul, shooting pictures of the grisliest crime scenes in LA, an autodidact with a taste for death trying to impress a news director (Rene Russo) on the vampire shift competing with all the other TV outlets in the area. This modern day Taxi Driver goes even further in Dan Gilroy’s screenplay, providing a window into the colluding audience’s bloodlust for murder and suffering. The scene-setting is extraordinary, the performances utterly committed and brilliant. Compelling, horrible, wonderful and probably a modern classic.

Stage Fright (1950)

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The scene is set with a theatrical curtain rising on a picture perfect London:  we are prepared for a performance in this Hitchcock thriller, a role-playing and female-centric adaptation of a Selwyn Jepson story by Whitfield Cook and Alma Reville. This was the last of her husband’s films on which Reville would receive a credit for her writing work. (There was some additional dialogue by James Bridie). Hitchcock’s return to his home town after the war is one of his lesser films for Warners but is interesting nonetheless for  some of the tropes familiar from his earlier English films – longer takes, point of view shots, the use of performance as metaphor. Not to mention a characterful Marlene Dietrich so louche as to barely bother singing The Laziest Gal in Town. Jane Wyman is the drama student whose best friend Richard Todd runs to her for help on behalf of his mistress, Dietrich, whom he says killed her husband in a flashback that is controversial to this day because he’s lying – he’s The Right Man, as it were. This however could be regarded as another development in the suspense thriller format even if Hitchcock himself said afterwards it was a mistake (people can lie, the camera shouldn’t, even if it’s someone’s version of events …)  There’s a lot to love in this ensemble drama of post-war London theatre –  Wyman playing a mousy role opposite Dietrich in Dior, Alastair Sim as Wyman’s dad, Joyce Grenfell doing her kooky shtick, Pat Hitchcock as one of Wyman’s fellow students at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (where she really studied – and she does the stunt driving for Wyman in the opening scene) and Richard Todd is very good indeed in the role of Jonathan Cooper, the villain. Michael Wilding – Dietrich’s real-life lover (or one of many) – is fine as the policeman convinced of his guilt. Was there ever a more final curtain?

The Love Lottery (1954)

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Long before George Clooney thought of it, matinee idol Rex Allerton (David Niven) decamps to Lake Como to escape the hordes of girlie fans who besiege him everywhere he goes, even in his dreams:  this commences with one such nightmare when he’s torn to pieces at a premiere by the adoring mob who all look like Peggy Cummins. He falls for mathematician Anne Vernon who’s doing the calculations for gangster Herbert Lom that blackmail him into being the prize in a worldwide raffle. This mild satire from Ealing has some ambition but the writing doesn’t really hold up – the story by Charles Neilson-Terry and Zelma Bramley Moore was written by Harry Kurnitz and producer Monja Danischewsky. There are some good scenes and Niven does a lot with thin material with Vernon making hay as the clever woman who eventually falls for his charms. The attempt to marry his lady love in church is good but the payoff gag with Cummins isn’t really done as well as it could have been. There are a lot of short dream sequences which detract from the narrative momentum but on the plus side it’s beautifully shot by Douglas Slocombe and edited by Seth Holt, directed by Charles Crichton. And Humphrey Bogart does everyone a favour by showing up in a cameo.

Women of Twilight (1952)

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Sylvia Rayman’s startling 1951 play about unmarried mothers became the first British film to receive the new ‘X’ certificate. Adapted by Anatole de Grunwald and directed by Gordon Parry, we enter with a very young and beauteous Jerry Nolan (Laurence Harvey) singing to his lady love fellow nightclub performer Vivianne Bruce (Rene Ray).  When she discovers she’s pregnant he’s arrested for murder and she finds herself looking for a home to sit things out during his court case. She winds up living under the sadistic Mrs Alistair  (Freda Jackson) who runs a somewhat sleazy Hampstead establishment which turns out to be a baby farm where she’s aided and abetted by a slovenly housemaid, Vida (Jessie Smithson). Vivianne rejects a newspaper offer of £500 for her story and is unable to deal with the illness accompanying her pregnancy. Vivianne’s only real friend is room mate Chris (Lois Maxwell) who supports her when Jerry is hanged, but whose child she neglects and he dies in her care when Chris is away for a few days to be reunited with her fiance.  The singular Ray  (later a novelist and the Countess of Midleton!) plays Vivianne half-distracted, half-deranged by grief. Then the half-wit kitchen girl confesses to her that she’s had a deformed child whom Mrs Alistair killed and buried in the garden behind the house. Mrs Alistair overhears Vivianne’s plans to tell the police and throws her down a staircase, bringing on the birth of Jerry’s illegitimate child … This was groundbreaking stuff and it boasts an array of very vivid performances, making this a thoroughly gripping experience. Harvey’s big scene before his death is really something but all the roles are so well written – including Dora Bryan as Olga, a streetwise ‘slut’ as Alistair calls her, Dorothy Gordon as Sally the mad one, and Joan Dowling as the giggler (she would commit suicide two years later when she found husband Harry Fowler was having an affair). Jackson really lets loose in her final scenes and Ray is so odd that she’s quite unforgettable. Extraordinary stuff.

London Road (2015)

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Perhaps it’s no surprise that the dominant colour in a movie musical about a community’s reaction to a British serial killer of prostitutes should be grey. Alecky Blythe’s revolutionary stage production (music by Adam Cork) gets a screen adaptation by director Rufus Norris.  We hear the real-life transcripts of interviews with local residents in Ipswich related in halting, lilting, compositional style with appropriate pauses and inflexions as truck driver Steven Wright is arrested in their midst. Ten weeks! they cry. He only lived here ten weeks! This small part of town has seen an upswing in sex workers and it’s lowered the tone somewhat. In a mostly anonymous cast who sing through and use Sprechgesang technique Olivia Colman has the biggest role as a woman trying to get things back on an even keel, encouraging people to create hanging baskets leading up to a garden competition that concludes the reparations. Tom Hardy is the serial killer expert driving a taxi.  One outstanding song is It Could Be Him performed by two teenage girls boarding a bus – and that’s the beauty of this, its capacity to express everyone’s everyday thoughts and fears at the realisation that such a beast is among them. The disquieting reaction of one couple (glad the hookers are gone from the neighbourhood) also reflects people’s desire to say the unthinkable, despite the horror and tabloid revelations. This unsettling social realist outing is one of a kind with an occasional visual flourish, daring to suggest that a strange looking neighbour might be the real culprit, offering a very unusual twist ending. Definitely not LA LA Land.

The First Monday in May (2016)

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Andrew Rossi’s documentary about the Met Gala launch of curator Andrew Bolton’s 2015 China:  Through the Looking Glass exhibition is surprisingly engaging. Tracing the connections between fashion and art, East and West, in sometimes discursive, occasionally politically confrontational situations, the strands that come together at the eleventh hour make for fascinating viewing: the influences include pre-1949 China (Bolton’s idea for a Mao hall is politely put down), Anna May Wong, traditional chinoiserie and the Dragon Lady trope that was used in Hollywood cinema as a version of the femme fatale. Cliches for the eventually dazzling display abound before being thrown out and reconfigured by Wong Kar-Wai, whose In the Mood for Love is a key concept in its foregrounding of the cheongsam, and Baz Luhrmann, who urges a rethink of the dragon heads at the entry to the building in an amusing encounter. The two-year project is painstakingly put together and two weeks before it’s due to open it’s eight days behind and the day before they’re still struggling to get the lights working. Andre Leon Talley describes the Gala as the Superbowl of social fashion and greets Rihanna as queen of the night in her astonishing gown. Sadly for the bemused crowd the Barbadian harpie then performs some dreadful rap dirge, an appalling post-prandial conclusion to what looked like a great melding of different cultural worlds and one that exposes Anna ‘Nuclear’ Wintour as less dragon lady than lollipop lady, practically sniggering with gratitude about her caricature in The Devil Wears Prada which of course made her a household name and not just in those that take Vogue every month. The expo proved hugely successful and it’s interesting to see the array of insightful interviewees includes a chastened John Galliano in a documentary that is highly sensitive about the fate of gifted designers and their patrons, starting with a description of the importance of the late great Alexander McQueen and TV coverage of his sad death. A fine, respectful piece of work.

It Happened to Jane (1959)

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Doris plays Jane Osgood, a widowed mother of two trading lobster. When a shipment of 300 of the poor creatures dies in transit she asks her lawyer George (Jack Lemmon) to sue the railroad company and she’s awarded money. The company files against her and George wants her to take the train in lieu then the newspapers get hold of the story and she threatens to appear on TV. George is jealous of Larry (Steve Forrest) who’s a journalist she’s smitten with and the railroad bypasses the town, endangering all the businesses … Cute undemanding comedy with great stars and fun script by Norman Katkov and Max Wilk, this saw director/producer Richard Quine reunited again with regular star Lemmon and the great Ernie Kovacs, who had also appeared in Bell, Book and Candle:  he’s cast here as “the meanest man in the world”! Re-released in 1961 as Twinkle and Shine.