A Cry in the Dark (1988)

A Cry in the Dark

Aka Evil Angels. You could crack walnuts on her face. Fred Schepisi’s docudrama-style retelling of John Bryson’s book is real watercooler stuff:  the appalling tale of a 9-week old baby, Azaria Chamberlain, taken from her family’s tent at a campsite beneath Ayers Rock and presumably murdered, and the prosecution and wrongful conviction of her mother Lindy (Meryl Streep). A dingo’s got my baby! was the war cry attributed to the unsympathetic woman whose every character flaw was exposed by a prurient Australian press who condemned her because of her appearance (that terrible haircut!), speaking voice and curt mannerisms. As played by Streep, she is obviously a more complex, interesting and compassionate woman in private.  Her inner strength is immensely bothersome to a public who are shown reacting variously to news reportage on TV – in their own homes, in bars, on the streets – which serves to demonstrate the horrendous arena that is the court of public opinion as well as distancing us somewhat perhaps from a more penetrating account of the couple at the centre of the tragedy. Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) is the pastor at the Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa, Queensland and it is the minority nature of their Christian sect that also works against them when the name Azaria is wrongly reported to mean ‘sacrifice in the wilderness’. His unconvincing and wavering witness testimony does for his wife, as does the sheer incompetence of the expert witnesses, many of whose claims were later discounted. The impact of her interviews and the way in which they are misreported by a baying press is very well handled and her eventual imprisonment on circumstantial as opposed to forensic evidence is still strikingly mediaeval in its stupidity (preserve us all from juries). Streep is terribly good and the portrayal of a loving marriage in all its fraying details is nicely observed:  posited against the procedural detail and the slipshod collection of evidence we are conscious of something akin to a conspiracy. This was released just about the time that the Chamberlains were finally exonerated (but it took until 2012 for the charges to be finally dropped). This isn’t creative so much as it is journalistic and in that spirit it makes up for the actions of some of those sewer rats who waited thirty years to apologise to Lindy Chamberlain for their vile lies. Her ex-husband (they divorced in 1991) died earlier this year. Adapted by Robert Caswell and director Schepisi from John Bryson’s Evil Angels.

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Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

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Those were the days when people knew how to be in love. Jeff Arch’s story was a meta discourse about people’s views of love and relationships being mediated by the movies. Nora Ephron turned it into a valentine to An Affair to Remember, a 1957 movie starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Together with her sister Delia it became as much com as rom, but it still has a baseline of melancholy and that killer feeling, bittersweet. Sam (Tom Hanks) is the widowed architect whose son Jonah (Ross Malinger) wants him to find The One so he can have a mother again. They live in Seattle. Annie (Meg Ryan) is the very proper journalist in Baltimore who gets engaged to the allergy-afflicted Walter (Bill Pullman).  She hears Jonah on a late night radio phone-in and stops at a diner where the waitresses talk of nothing else but this sweet  guy whose son wants him to remarry. She thinks there’s a story there but there’s more, as her friend  (Rosie O’Donnell) figures when her newly affianced friend is so distracted.  While she vaguely plans to hunt down Sam and carry out some friendly stalking, he starts to date again and his son is disgusted by his choice, one of his co-workers. Sam and Annie see each other across a crowded road when she nearly gets hit by a couple of trucks. Her letter to him asks him to meet at the top of the Empire State building on Valentine’s Day a la Cary and Deborah and it’s sent by Becky without her knowledge.  Things pick up when Jonah flies to NYC to keep the date and she’s there having dinner with Walter during a romantic weekend at The Plaza … The tropes from When Harry Met Sally are here – the mirroring conversations, the advice from friends, the movie references, and even that film’s director Rob Reiner plays Sam’s friend and even though she’ d already made a movie this was what really made Nora Ephron as an auteur. It’s a clever premise, discursive as well as fairytale, positing the idea that even though they’re a country apart a pair of compatible people are destined to meet. Eventually. Isn’t that wild? Separating a romantic couple until the very last five minutes of a film?! What a risk! With a helping hand from fate, a kid and a dream of finding love on Valentine’s Day, it helps that this hits three holiday celebrations including Christmas and New Year’s.  It shouldn’t work but it does, helped with some tart lines about men and women and what people settle for as opposed to what everyone really wants. What a dream team, boosted by some wonderful songs. Irresistible.

The Fisher King (1991)

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Obnoxious NYC shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is doling out advice as per and looking forward to a part in a TV sitcom when the news mentions his name – a man was inspired by his rant against yuppies to go on a shooting spree in a restaurant and then killed himself. Jack spirals into a suicidal depression and we find him three years later working in the video store owned by his girlfriend (a fiery Mercedes Ruehl) and about to kill himself when some youthful vigilantes decide to do some street cleaning – he’s rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), a Grail obsessive and homeless loner whose wife was killed in the restaurant massacre. How their lives intertwine and they both chase the objects of their affection (and each other’s obsession) while battling mental illness is the backbone of this comedy-drama-fantasy that is told in the usual robust and arresting style of Terry Gilliam, who was directing a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese. There are iconic images here – the Red Knight appearing to Parry as his hallucinations kick in, and the chase through Central Park;  the extraordinary Grand Central Station waltzing scene in which Parry meets the weird Lydia (Amanda Plummer);  Jack and Parry watching the stars. Gilliam’s own obsessions are all over this despite his not writing it, with references to the Grail (obv) and Don Quixote.  It’s all wrapped into four distinctive performances which embody oddball characters in search of a role for life in a very conventional time, with emotions riding high while personal circumstances contrive to drag them to the very pit of their being. There are some outstanding performances in small roles by Tom Waits, Michael Jeter and Kathy Najimy in a film that proves that dreams do come true.

Ace in the Hole (1951)

 

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Aka The Big Carnival. I’ve met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my time but you – you’re twenty minutes.  Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is the callous hard-drinking big city journo who’s been fired from every newspaper he ever worked for and finds himself in a small town in New Mexico on a reduced income desperate for a story to get him the Pulitzer. When treasure hunter Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) gets trapped in a mineshaft looking for Indian artifacts, Chuck colludes with an electioneering sheriff (Ray Teal) to keep the man down there in a delayed and protracted rescue effort in order to draw attention to his scoop which he uses to parlay his way back into his old job. Minosa’s wife Lorraine isn’t bothered one way or another. As played by the brilliant actress Jan Sterling she’s a brittle bottle-blonde broad who gives as good as she has to take from her violent new love interest, with Douglas as vicious as you’d imagine. This was an important film for director Billy Wilder, the first time he was out on his own as producer and writer without Charles Brackett. It was more or less inspired by the Floyd Collins cave-in story in 1925 which earned reporter William Burke Miller the Pulitzer. And a couple of years before this was made a child ended up dying in a well while thousands of people gathered to watch the failed rescue. Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman wrote the hard as nails screenplay which seems not the cynical exploitation picture it was accused of being upon release and more an accurate representation of the relationships around the press and the news they report. This gets more contemporary by the day.

Moneyball (2011)

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Nobody reinvents this game. Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book about the Oakland A’s during their 2002 season was initially adapted by Stan Chervin for Sony who dropped the project after going through a couple of directors. It was brought to the screen with Bennett Miller helming, and draft screenplays by Steven Zaillian then Aaron Sorkin. Brad Pitt is Billy Beane, the team’s general manager who decides to adopt a radical approach:  sabermetrics, as promulgated by super-smart Ivy League grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a composite character based on the real-life assistants. Billy trades and sacks players with impunity, ending and starting careers, buying in flawed sportsmen at low prices, confounding conventional wisdom. Against all the usual odds, the team is winning but Billy is literally Billy No Mates with his policy, killing off the scouting process as he pursues victory. He tries to maintain a good relationship with his daughter, who spends most of the time with his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn), and finds comfort in listening to the pre-teen who composes songs on the guitar he buys her. What a clever, well written drama this is:  the idea is, play the same game but with a different strategy; make a winning team out of a losing team;  make statistics real by visualising them. It uses Billy’s own backstory – with visual, narrative and musical cues – to illustrate his rationale and keep the narrative moving forward. The ongoing narration by TV baseball commentators serves both to distance us from Billy (Pitt plays an essentially unknowable, unpredictable character); and as Greek chorus, to pace the story, justify Billy’s choices (or not) and to let us know how he is succeeding with this innovative player approach. It’s a very shrewd narrative choice. And in the midst of it are Billy and Pete, a rhyming couple, teaching each other lessons. Pitt and Hill are absolutely superb in an absorbing, brilliantly constructed drama.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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My review of Shawn Levy’s book Dolce Vita Confidential which excavates in scrupulous detail the circumstances leading up to the film’s production is here:  http://offscreen.com/view/dolce-vita-swinging-rome.

The Odessa File (1974)

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The faction novel by Frederick Forsyth has a special place in my heart because it was the first book I borrowed when I finally got a ticket to join the Adult section of my local public library after I turned 12. And it stunned me when I discovered that Forsyth was merely fictionalising in very approximate fashion the story of the Butcher of Riga, Eduard Roschman (Maximilian Schell) who is protected by the Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehoerigen (Former SS Members) in winter 1963. Journalist Peter Milller (Jon Voight) happens upon the story by simple expedient of pulling over in a Hamburg street to hear that President Kennedy has died and then literally chases an ambulance to an apartment building where an elderly Holocaust survivor has gassed himself. A policeman friend hands him the man’s diary and he uncovers the story behind the suicide of Salomon Tauber which contains one gleaming detail:  the murder by Roschmann at Riga port of a colleague who won a very rare German military medal. After meeting many unhelpful people in authority in a Germany still clearly run by the Nazis (there were 12 million of them after all, and they all just returned to civilian life and kept their pensions) he goes to Vienna where he visits Simon Wiesenthal who tells him about the ODESSA. He is beaten up, his dancer girlfriend (Mary Tamm) is threatened by some ex-Nazis and then ‘befriended’ by a policewoman when Miller goes off grid. He’s kidnapped by Mossad agents who want to know who he is and why he’s after Roschmann, supposedly dead almost two decades ago.  Then he dons a disguise … There are a few alterations to the source by Kenneth Ross and George (The Prisoner) Markstein and this is a fairly conventional procedural but still satisfying considering the strength of the subject matter (a topic plundered years later by novelist Sam Bourne aka Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland.) Voight is very good in what could be a difficult part and he gets a superb twist ending – when we learn the deeply personal reason for his search in addition to the quest for a great story. In a nice touch Maria Schell plays Voight’s mother, making this the only time she and Maximilian acted in the same film. The lovely Mary Tamm would later become a notable assistant to BBC’s Doctor Who and would have a good role as Blanche Ingram in TV’s Jane Eyre opposite Timothy Dalton. She died too soon.  There is an interesting score by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a special mention for Perry Como’s rendition of Christmas Dream and some superb cinematography by the great Oswald Morris and scene-setting by production designer Rolf Zehetbauer in this Anglo-German production – which might just account for the somewhat cleaned-up account of post-war Nazism. As it’s directed by multi-hyphenate Ronald Neame you wouldn’t expect anything less than a great-looking movie.  In another pleasing twist to the narrative, this prompted the tracking down of the real Roschmann to South America. But you’ll have to consult the history books to find out what happened next …

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 called Ron Goldman was returning her mother’s spectacles from a restaurant. 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 while 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.