American Honey (2016)

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I feel like fucking America! Whether you like this will depend on a) your tolerance for drug-addled amoral teenagers whose greatest ambition is to get knocked up and live in a trailer and if b) you don’t mind losing 157 minutes of your precious life to an almost pointless unendurable movie. Strange newcomer Sasha Lane is Star, a black girl from a dysfunctional and abusive background who falls for the spiel of magazine crew guy Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and joins this rag-tag band of scuzzy losers as they run around house to house in middle America, selling subscriptions and led by she-wolf leader Krystal (Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter). Star has sex with Jake after he steals a car owned by some well-heeled cowboys who rescue her from his abuse on the roadside – and this is after she sees him rubbing down Krystal’s shapely rear in a stars and stripes bikini. This being a movie, people act a lot like life – incoherently and inconsistently. When he takes the money she makes and drops her, she still wants him. She makes more money from giving an oil rig worker a handjob:  and he’s vile enough to criticise her. She still wants him. Krystal tells Star that she was handpicked by Jake and he fucks all the new girls – it’s his job. At the end, when there’s another apparently symbolic sequence with an animal – the only sign that there might be in this three-hour slog any indication of narrative rigour – you pray for her suicide:  or your own. What seems like artlessness is actually faux realist laziness. Were there NO editors available?? And for a movie that styles itself as a musical with all the group singalongs there’s extremely dodgy sound mixing.  I’m not arguing that the meth-taking underclass needs culling but they do exist and I’m hopeful that they don’t all listen to (c)rap. See Spring Breakers for a far more controlled (and much shorter) exposition of American youth. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who was inspired by a New York Times article.

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Rear Window (1954)

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Grace Kelly had one hour to choose between returning to work with Alfred Hitchcock or taking the part of the girl in On the Waterfront. She chose this. And a good thing too, because it was written with her in mind. At the director’s suggestion, radio writer John Michael Hayes had got to know her on and off the set of Dial M for Murder and designed the role adapted from a story by Cornell Woolrich around Kelly’s authentic persona and that of his wife, a former model. It was by working with Hitchcock that Kelly learned to work with her whole body. He listened to her and she loved his jokes – they shared a filthy sense of humour. She plays Lisa Carol Fremont, a high society NYC mover and shaker who’s in love with photojournalist James Stewart, stuck looking out his window at his neighbours’ apartments while laid up with a broken leg. She’s desperately in love with him but he wants to get rid of her – then she becomes a gorgeous Nancy Drew when he suspects one of his neighbours has murdered his wife. Only then does he realise what he’s got. She’s the action girl of his dreams. When you go to Paramount Studios you can see the four-wall facility that Hitchcock used to create the biggest set built there but sadly nothing remains of this paean to onanism, voyeurism, narcissism and whatever other perversion you’re having yourself. Oh, and scopophilia. In theory, this is all about Stewart but really it’s all about Kelly – and the biggest joke here of course is that the most beautiful woman in the world wants him and he doesn’t get it. Not really. Not until she becomes a part of the unfolding events he watches through his viewfinder. Kelly’s entrance is probably the greatest afforded any movie star. Her costumes alone tell a great story. MGM never knew what to do with her so loaning her out wasn’t a problem.  The theatre owners knew who the real star of the film was – and put her name up on their marquees above anyone else’s. Audiences adored her. She was the biggest thing in 1954. And this witty, clever study of a man afraid of marriage is for most people Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. For more on Kelly’s collaborations with Hitchcock, which are the peak of both their careers, and the high point of midcentury cinema, you can see my essay Hitchcock/Kelly at Canadian journal Offscreen:  https://www.offscreen.com/hitchcock-kelly.

Hue & Cry (1947)

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Harry Fowler is the kid who reads the adventures of Selwyn Pike in the pages of the Trump comic to his gang of Blood and Thunder Kids and becomes convinced that the strip is used as code by black marketeers. The police won’t believe him and he takes on the criminals himself, first visiting the sinister writer Alastair Sim and then working for grocer Nightingale (Jack Warner) who turns out to be central to the smuggling ring. After some false attempts to capture the criminals and stave off a department store robbery, and tying up Rhona (Valerie White) from the magazine, the scene is set for a standoff using Sim to engineer it in his story … Tremendous entertainment from writer TEB Clarke, with vivid performances from the kids running amok in the rubble-strewn bombed-out East End right after WW2. Ealing Comedy was really up and running in a film whose Expressionist leanings (courtesy of DoP Douglas Slocombe) remind one of Emil and the Detectives. Directed by Charles Crichton.

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.

Mommie Dearest (1981)

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Joan Crawford said in the early 1970s that the only young modern actress who had what it took to be a star was Faye Dunaway. Maybe she planted an idea …. This quasi-delirious festival of camp Hollywood eating itself boasts a stunning – and perhaps fatal – performance by Faye Dunaway. Her impersonation of Crawford as a bat shit crazy obsessive compulsive derives from ingrate adopted daughter Christina’s infamous memoir, which she waited to publish until after the star’s death although there were signs she had been writing it beforehand. Being the cuckoo in the nest (one of four, in fact) of a narcissistic exhibitionist and likely bipolar cannot be easy (it’s not!) but doing it in the public eye must have been a certain kind of hell.  For Christina as played by the bizarre little Mara Hobel (who won a Razzie!) there is a kind of fascination in watching the mad mother take revenge, over and over again against the child’s perceived slights. The big scenes are the ones everyone knows – the beating because of wire hangers in the kids’ closet;  the midnight rose-cutting after she’s fired by MGM; wanting the child to eat rare meat; the brutal attack on a teenage Christina which was witnessed by a trade journo (who confirmed it.) However the narrative is damaged by a performance that takes it a little de trop, as Celeste Holm might aver, and Dunaway merely said of it that a director other than Frank Perry might have reined her in at times (even if the likeness is uncanny).  Her boyfriend, then husband, photographer Terry O’Neill was one of the producers. There was no reining in those shoulderpads though and the adaptation by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry and producer Frank Yablans loses steam every so often, especially in the second half when mother and adopted daughter were more or less reconciled (Diana Scarwid plays the adolescent and adult Christina) and she just appears like a Mean Girl to alkie Mommie. It’s not quite mad enough to be trash nor lurid enough to be exploitation. But there is great chutzpah in the opening montage when we watch Crawford prepare herself without once seeing her face – right up until the point where she’s ready for her grand entrance. And it is literally unbelievable but true that this sixty year old drag queen replaced her twentysomething daughter on a daytime soap when the girl was hospitalised with an ovarian tumour. That’s showbiz! And boy would I love to have her closet and get her round to scrub my floors!

Everything Is Copy – Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted (2016)

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Journalist Jacob Bernstein’s portrait of his late mother, beloved essayist, humorist, journalist and writer/director Nora Ephron, is a fascinating portrait of a woman whose very private leavetaking mystified her friends, proving that for her, death, at least was not in fact copy ie material to be used as comedy, despite her parents’ advice. The combination of contemporary interviews with home movie footage in Beverly Hills where screenwriters Phoebe and Henry relocated their family of four little girls from NYC in the Forties interlaced with film clips and excerpts from her TV interviews creates a distancing device that makes her art all the greater. When accused of malevolence for cruel descriptions of people like Julie Nixon she accepted the charge. Yet her magnetism was legendary, her dinner parties the place to be. She channeled her enormous betrayal by (second) husband Carl Bernstein into a book (Heartburn) and movie that complicated their divorce and the custody arrangements over their sons. One of them was yet to be born when she found out Bernstein was sleeping with the British Ambassador’s wife, Margaret Jay, whose physical flaws Ephron described in devastating fashion. Interviewed by Jacob, Carl admits to his son that it had enormously damaged him and, he says, what Jacob and Max must have  thought of him and Jacob admits that this is true. Ephron had a cycle of movies that just didn’t work, starting with the Meg Wolitzer adaptation This Is My Life which had resonances about her life with her siblings as children. She fell out with sister Delia when it came to adapting the latter’s novel Hanging Up, which outlined their upbringing and the problems with their alcoholic mom and philandering pop. (The sisters were stunned when they found out about their father’s serial infidelities as they had always believed their mother to be insane and fabricating the stories).  Their tensions were eventually resolved and their relationship is underscored when Delia says, When we died … and realises her error. Meg Ryan, Lena Dunham, Reese Witherspoon, Rita Wilson all read extracts from her work;  Steven Spielberg says getting her to laugh was like winning an Oscar;  so many people sought her approval and so many received her counsel, whether they wanted it or not. She told people what to do. The fact that she didn’t inform any of them that she had leukaemia?  Some appear to interpret it as a kind of betrayal rather than the woman’s own resilience and choice to remain detached and private in an era of oversharing. Since oversharing appeared to be her avocation you can kind of empathise. She had a lot of lunches with a lot of people in the days before she went to hospital and never breathed a word of her terminal illness. (She loved food but never ate dessert).   She made Julie and Julia when she knew she was dying and everyone remarks upon how much kinder she was since marrying writer Nicholas Pileggi, and that the portrayal of Tucci and Streep was as much a reflection of them as it was of Paul and Julia Child. She was saying that it was possible to have a supportive husband and she wasn’t making it up because she was married to such a man. Utterly fascinating and a remarkable work about women in movies from a son whose devotion and puzzlement are equally evident. What is copy is what is lost.

Zoolander 2 (2016)

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Adam, Eve and … Steve. It’s a long time since we first met Derek and tried Blue Steel and social media appears to have radically filtered our narcissistic reality in the interim but this isn’t exactly Chanel No. 5 no matter how you cut the advertising. Justin Bieber never did anything to me but a lot of people enjoyed watching him getting machine gunned to death in the first few minutes. The setting in Rome is delectable. The cast are game. It’s a supremely silly satire about fashion vanity and everyone you have ever heard of is in it. YOU are probably in it. The story is about Fashion Interpol – run by Penelope Cruz – who get Derek and Hansel to help uncover the villain behind the assassination of pop stars. Derek finds his son in an orphanage and is horrified by his obesity. Hansel has fathered a bunch of children in Malibu (presumably an in-joke). Sting meets the irrelevant pair at St Peter’s and tells them an alternative tale of models’ origins which has a vague similarity to Christianity. Mugatu is back attempting world domination. Funny, daft, utterly inane. What did you expect?! Written by John Hamburg, Nicholas Stoller, Justin Theroux and Ben Stiller, who also directed.

The Naked Truth (1957)

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Aka Your Past Is Showing.The wonderfully smooth Nigel Dennis (Dennis Price) is a London tabloid magazine publisher who makes a fortune blackmailing his subjects to stop horrible stories about them going to press. After a couple of his targets expire – naturally and by suicide, he goes after a new lot of slebs:  TV star and fake Scot, Sonny McGregor (Peter Sellers), Lord Henry Mayley (Terry-Thomas), novelist Flora Ransom (Peggy Mount) and model Melissa Wright (Shirley Eaton). After some very funny schemes taken independently to tackle this noxious man (who drives a very neat car), they team up to try and take him down rather than pay him off. Sellers gives his first truly comic feature performance, with an array of impersonations which would be a preview of later work, including an almost Behan-like trip to a Dublin pub looking for gelignite, as you do. There’s a very amusing sendup of Agatha Christie by Joan Hurley. Written by Michael Pertwee and directed by Mario Zampi, who gets an amusing shoutout by Terry-Thomas prior to the ill-fated conclusion. A product of its time but gives you a clue as to why some of those cleaner-than-thou names appear with alarming regularity at the Daily Mail‘s annual yacht party at Cannes, hmm???

Marilyn’s Last Day

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Marilyn Monroe is often on my mind. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of people who read the monthly Vanity Fair and people who are fans of Monroe I don’t know for sure but I think the common ground could be pretty significant. Natalie Wood’s anniversary is on my mind this weekend; so Warren Beatty is also on my mind. And his recent interview in Vanity Fair (November 2016) about his upcoming film concerning, among other things, Howard Hughes, and Hollywood, is very much on my mind. But mainly it’s the other things he mentions.  Buried in his summertime chats with Sam Kashner is a revelation that was suggested by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography Marilyn; and again by Anthony Summers in Goddess (1985) and which elicits no real surprise on the part of the interviewer here or at least in how he presents the information. Turns out that Beatty really was at Peter Lawford’s on August 4th 1962, invited over for tacos and poker. He encountered Monroe there. They went for a walk on the beach. Then he took to the piano and she sat there, wearing a clinging dress, listening to him play and chatting to him. She asked him his age. She was drinking champagne. Beatty says she was tipsy by sunset. They didn’t play poker. If he said anything to Kashner about the time she left, or whether she stayed on for dinner, or who else was actually there, including Natalie Wood, it’s been excised. I wonder what if anything was said off the record because according to Summers,  Wood told someone in 1979 at Darryl Zanuck’s funeral that she too had been at the Lawfords’ that evening and had met Marilyn there. They were friends. For 54 years the myth has grown, exacerbated by Lawford’s own claim, and repeated by every one of the biographers over the past three decades since Summers’ book [and there are a lot] that she phoned him in a slurred voice that evening sometime after eight o’clock cancelling her visit (Fred Laurence Guiles, Norma Jeane, revised in 1984:  465). She was in his house. Is Lawford’s version of events even remotely plausible given that Monroe was certainly in distress if not actually dead by ten thirty and her body found in a clearly contrived situation? Beatty’s admission rewrites the narrative yet again.  I wish more people would tell the real truth. Her death still bothers me that much. How about you?

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

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Probably my favourite seasonal movie and definitely on the player the night before Christmas and the month leading up to it… Barbara Stanwyck is the homemaking expert whose New England farm and family are a fiction – which proves a problem when her publisher invites a war hero to spend the holiday with her. She has to move out of her coldwater city flat to save her job and make nice with all sorts. High merriment ensues in the company of Dennis Morgan, S.Z. Sakall, Reginald Gardiner, Una O’Connor and Sydney Greenstreet (and, for his diehard fans, Eric Blore makes an uncredited appearance as Greenstreet’s butler!) Properly packed full of snow, Christmas cheer, emotion, hilarity and sentiment. Simply wonderful classic entertainment.