The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

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While I’m away put him straight again. I want him the way he used to be. Gifted actor Brady (Mysterious Skin) Corbet makes his directing debut with this gripping mystery, a tale in three tantrums of a fascist-in-waiting between the two Great Wars. Prescott (Tom Sweet) is the long-haired son of Father (Liam Cunningham) and Mother (Berenice Bejo) who are residing in France in 1919 during the Versailles Treaty negotiations. Father’s an American career diplomat and a harsh authoritarian figure who appears to be having it off with the boy’s tutor Ada (Stacy Martin);  Mother is a disturbed German religious devotee who fires Ada and Mona the housekeeper because they try to humanise her son.  The episodes are based on control and power:  personal, religious, political. They all take place against the dysfunctional family backdrop and the mystery is set up at the beginning when Father is meeting with his colleague Charles Marker (Robert Pattinson) who is widowed.  Marker turns up at another crucial instance of personal transition for Prescott whose bad behaviour culminates in a shocking exchange with Mother at Versailles. There is a haunting inexorable draw to the narrative, adapted by Corbet with his wife and fellow filmmaker Mona Fastvold, from Jean-Paul Sartre’s story, with some debt to John Fowles’ The Magus. The leader is never named and the film retains a sense of the cryptic and it avoids making direct statements. There is a sleight of hand to the conclusion and an artful confidence to this episodic debut, aided immeasurably by the morbid score created by Peter Walsh and Scott Walker. A remarkable piece of political aesthetics in an age in which nobody wants to put their cards on the table and say what’s gone wrong with the world.

The Goodbye Girl (1977)

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Ask an actor a question you get his credits. A confection so tonally sublime it’s ridiculous. Neil Simon wrote a screenplay about Dustin Hoffman’s early days starring Robert De Niro and directed by Mike Nichols. De Niro was all wrong – comedy not quite being his thing – and Nichols quit and Simon went back to the drawing board and came up with this and a far more simpatico cast several months later with a new director, Herbert Ross. Paula (Marsha Mason, ie Mrs Simon) is the former Broadway dancer who finds out her married lover has abandoned her and daughter Lucy (the brilliantly smart-assed Quinn Cummings) to do a movie in Italy (with Bertolucci!) and without her knowledge has sublet his apartment where they live to a colleague straight in from Chicago. Actor Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss) is self-conscious, neurotic and driven and fussy and moves in to Lucy’s bedroom as Paula realises she has nowhere else and won’t move out and needs someone to pay the rent. Elliot is preparing to give his off-off-off-off-Off Broadway Richard III for director Mark (Paul Benedict) who wants him to play it as ‘the queen who wants to be King.’ Elliot succumbs. As Paula tries to get fit and lose flab to return to the stage, Elliot’s camp-as-a-caravan site Richard flops terribly and her sympathy for him becomes something else. Their living arrangements are suddenly rendered more complicated … The humour, the performances and the text are tightrope-worthy:  Paula could be a shrew in the wrong hands (Simon famously declared he hated actresses…); Elliot could be plain irritating (Dreyfuss is simply perfect in an Oscar-winning role); and the screamingly funny queer reading of Richard III just couldn’t be done nowadays (unless a woman were playing it….) because the millennials/snowflakes/whatever identity politics you’re having yourselves would be crucifying everyone concerned. And Quinn Cummings, who later became a part of the wonderful TV show Family, is simply brilliant as the snarky daughter whose man crush is taken away from her. All of the performances were recognised in this perfectly handled backstage comedy but these are roles that couldn’t even be conceived nowadays. The Seventies. Love them. Love this.

Julieta (2016)

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The abject maternal has long been a strong component of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s oeuvre and in this striking adaptation of three Alice Munro stories from Runaway he plunders the deep emotional issues that carry through the generations. On a Madrid street widowed Julieta (Emma Suarez) runs into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) who used to be her daughter’s best friend. Bea tells her she met Antia in Switzerland where she’s married with three children.  Julieta enters a spiral of despair – she hasn’t seen Antia since she went on a spiritual retreat 12 years earlier and she now abandons lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) on the eve of their departure for Portugal. She returns to the apartment she lived in with Antia when the girl was an adolescent and hopes to hear from her, the birthday postcards having long ceased. We are transported back to the 1980s when on a snowy train journey to a school in Andalucia Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte) resisted the advances of an older man who then committed suicide and she had a one-night stand with Xoan (Daniel Grao). She turns up at his house months later and his housekeeper Marian (the heroically odd Rossy de Palma) tells her his wife has died and he’s spending the night with Ava (Inma Cuesta). Julieta and Xoan resume their sexual relationship and she tells Ava she’s pregnant and is advised to tell Xoan. And so she settles into a seaside lifestyle with him as he fishes and she returns with her young child to visit her parents’ home where her mother is bedridden and her father is carrying on with the help. Years go by and she wants to return to teaching Greek literature, which has its echoes in the storytelling here. The housekeeper hates her and keeps her informed of Xoan’s onoing trysts with Ava;  her daughter is away at camp;  she and Xoan fight and he goes out fishing on a stormy day and doesn’t return alive. This triggers the relationship between Antia and Bea at summer camp which evolves into Lesbianism albeit we only hear about this development latterly, when Bea tells Julieta that once it become an inferno she couldn’t take it any more and Antia departed for the spiritual retreat where she became something of a fanatic.  Julieta’s guilt over the old man’s death, her husband’s suicidal fishing trip and her daughter’s disappearance and estrangement lead her to stop caring for herself – and Lorenzo returns as she allows hope to triumph over miserable experience. There are moments here that recall Old Hollywood and not merely because of the Gothic tributes, the secrets and deceptions and illicit sexual liaisons. The colour coding, with the wonderfully expressive use of red, reminds one that Almodovar continues to be a masterful filmmaker even when not utterly committed to the material;  and if it’s not as passionate as some of his earlier female dramas, it’s held together by an overwhelming depiction of guilt and grief and the sheer unfathomability of relationships, familial and otherwise. Suarez and Ugarte are extremely convincing playing the different phases of Julieta’s experiences – how odd it might have been in its original proposed version, with Meryl Streep in the leading role, at both 25 and 50, and filming in English. I might still prefer his early funny ones but a little Almodovar is better than none at all.

Cafe Society (2016)

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Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Hollywood straight outta the Bronx  c.1935 to work with his movie agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) and falls for his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Everything looks beautiful, bathed in magic moment sunshine and swoony evening light and people talk about Irene Dunne and Willie Wyler but it turns out Vonnie is Phil’s mistress and he leaves his wife to marry her leaving Bobby brokenhearted and back in his beloved Bronx working front of house for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) in a glamorous nightclub. He marries divorcee Veronica (Blake Lively) whom he promptly rechristens Vonnie. She has a baby and her time is taken up caring for her. Then Phil and Vonnie visit while passing through NYC and a romance of sorts recommences but as Bobby realises, Vonnie (this Vonnie) is now his aunt … This is a film of two halves, which do not mesh.  The leads are in their third film together but Stewart is much too modern to play her role, Eisenberg is quite weird – that hunched-shouldered look doth not a schlub make – and the good performances are in supporting roles:  Jeannie Berlin and particularly Ken Stott as the Dorfman parents, Stoll, who is literally criminally underused and Stephen Kunken as the brother in law who inadvertently causes Bobby’s sister Evelyn to have Ben murder their neighbour. Despite the episodes of violence, the talk about what is reality and what is cinema, and the central idea about marriage and what people do to keep relationships going despite clear incompatibility – and there’s a strange (self-?) reference to a man with a teenaged mistress… – this just doesn’t work. The faraway looks in the leads’ eyes at the unsatisfying and inconclusive climax, a country apart, merely highlight the vacuum at the story’s centre. Minor Allen to be sure. It looks great though, so thank you Vittorio Storaro.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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When this was first released I saw it with a friend who promptly re-christened it Mouth Wide Open because I nodded off pretty quickly and woke suddenly during the orgy and announced, Clearly nobody here has ever been to one. And a shocking 18 years later it is still sad to see that Kubrick’s last film doesn’t have the intended shock value, the performances are variable and it’s very difficult to understand how it could have taken 400 days to shoot what are primarily lengthy talking scenes albeit the famously nitpicking Kubrick reconstructed Greenwich Village in London because of his fear of flying. Frederic Raphael updated Schnitzler’s early 20th century Vienna-set Traumnovelle to late 1990s New York City where Alice (Nicole Kidman) confesses to wealthy doctor husband Bill (Tom Cruise) that she fantasised sexually about a Naval officer she saw one day at a hotel where they were staying. Bill then descends into a long night of soul-searching and sex as he imagines what his wife might have done had she made the choice to cheat. He helps a wealthy patron Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) save a whore who’s OD’d during sex, attends a masked orgy on Long Island (a kind of warped tribute to North by Northwest) where his former med school chum is providing musical accompaniment in a blindfold and back in the city realises he’s being followed but it’s more than an existential threat. When Ziegler tells Bill that he’s fortunate not to know the names of the very powerful people in disguise at the sex party you don’t know if it’s raising questions about the Bilderberg group or another political conspiracy at large but it seems pretty daft. Whether you view this as an ineffectual satire of marriage or a cautionary commentary about sexually transmitted disease (there’s a telling scene featuring a prostitute and HIV) or perhaps a plain silly excursion into unerotic escapades, the press at the time made hay of the fact that the married couple at its centre saw their relationship disintegrate in real life and were divorced not long afterwards. The soundtrack which is principally two ominous notes would disgrace a five year old after their first piano lesson. Inexplicable in oh so many ways and yet fascinating and strangely memorable in visual loops precisely because it’s Kubrick. And the last word uttered (by Kidman) is … not expected in such a conservative outing and thereby enhances the legend.

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.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

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You would never know that this was an Ealing comedy – it is totally unsentimental. Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) is in prison awaiting his execution when he puts pen to paper and recounts the reason for this turn of events. Born to a beautiful if rash aristocratic mother who ran off with an Italian opera singer, this orphaned young man is now working in a draper’s when his lady love Sibella (Joan Greenwood) marries a love rival. He sets out to dispatch the eight remaining members of the D’Ascoyne line to recuperate the title he feels is rightfully his. All of them – including the venerable Lady Agatha – are played by Alec Guinness. (He also played a ninth!). Louis marries the virtuous wife Edith (Valerie Hobson) of one of them. The range of their respective deaths is stunning. A sublime work of British cinema, adapted from Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank:  The Autobiography of a Criminal by John Dighton and the woefully underrated director Robert Hamer, whose masterpiece this is. Transgressive, ironic and subversive, and the ending is simply genius. Breathtaking black comedy for the ages. Perfection.

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 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.

Jaws (1975)

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Ibsen by way of a Peter Benchley bestseller and an adventurous and gifted director called Steven Spielberg. I got caught up in this again late last night and was gripped, as ever, by this visceral tale of beachside terror which hasn’t aged a day and in many respects remains my favourite Spielberg movie. There is so much to relish. The atmosphere, aided immeasurably by John Williams’ stunningly suggestive score – which was the soundtrack in the bathroom of the late lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London – utterly terrifying!. The performances:  who doesn’t love Richard Dreyfuss as the marine biologist? Roy Scheider as the seaside town police chief who’s scarified of water? Robert Shaw as the drunken shark hunting Captain Quint? And those hellishly cute kids. And what about the titles sequence? There’s the politics of the summer season and the mayor who doesn’t want word to get out. The anger of the bereaved mother. The bloodied water and beach toys. The track-zoom of realisation. The clear storytelling. White sharks got a bad press out of this epic battle but there has rarely been a better exploration of the ecology of man and beast. Quite literally sensational. Classic, brilliant, the original of the species. Written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with a little assist from Spielberg, Howard Sackler, Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, and John Milius.

Sideways (2004)

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Pinot’s a very thin-skinned grape, it doesn’t like light or humidity. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a wine-loving high school English teacher and wannabe author whose best friend actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is getting married next Saturday:  road trip! To California wine country, where he can educate Jack in the mysteries of tasting. Two middle aged men on an emotional journey, one a depressive mourning his marriage, the other a past-it who can’t wait to get it up. Maya (Virginia Madsen) is the college professor’s wife waiting tables who has the best palate for wine of any woman Miles has ever met and Jack fancies her smartass friend and single mom Stephanie (Sandra Oh). There ensue some funny sexcapades (Jack), sad drunk dials (Miles), terror on the golf course and major education in oenology:  sometimes all it takes is the feel of a bunch of grapes in the hand to get the mojo going and a bottle of wine can bring anyone back to life. The marvellous Maya turns out to be the woman who coaxes Miles to his truest expression. Funny, louche, and humane with killer lines and tone-perfect performances from all concerned. Beautifully written, staged and shot, this is the comical male midlife response to Thelma and Louise, minus the violence and police. Mature, full-bodied and earthy, it simply gets better every year. From Rex Pickett’s unpublished novel, adapted by Jim Taylor and director Alexander Payne. Savour it.