La peau douce (1964)

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Aka Silken Skin/ Soft Skin. I’ve learned that men’s unhappiness arises from the inability to stay quietly in their own room. While flying to Lisbon, Portugal to give a lecture, writer and magazine editor Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly), encounters beautiful air stewardess Nicole (Françoise Dorléac) and winds up spending the night with her at the hotel where they both happen to be staying. What was intended to be a one-night stand becomes a tumultuous extramarital affair once he returns to Paris and his wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti) and little daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin) . Pierre tries to keep the affair secret but arranges a lecture trip to Reims which he thinks he can use as cover for their relationship but when his wife suspects him, she snaps and determines to enact terrible revenge … Ever take a good look at yourself? This passionate tale of adultery still stirs the emotions, firstly through the extraordinary performance of Dorléac (who used to be viewed as the more talented of those two famous French acting sisters, the younger being Catherine Deneuve) before her tragic demise. It’s heightened by an outrageously urgent and eloquent score by Georges Delerue and photographed with his usual limpid approach by Raoul Coutard, lending tenderness to the sexual attraction as it is complicated by the usual deceptions, occasionally tipping into farce. This guy cannot stop himself from doing the wrong thing at every juncture. Every car trip turns into an imperilled journey, planting the seeds of a wholly unnecessary tragic dénouement. A totally ordinary story is elevated to something like a thriller by staging, characterisation and pace. All the leads are tremendous:  Desailly is a wholly inadequate lover and husband, Dorléac a perfectly modern young woman, Benedetti an exquistely melodramatic woman scorned, as she sees it. An elegant disquisition on the unfairness of love, missed opportunities and the passing of youth as a tawdry and rather unmotivated love triangle falls apart. Written by director François Truffaut with Jean-Louis Richard (who has an uncredited role as a man harassing Franca in the street), this tale of amour fou is almost operatic in its pure conventionality and one ponders its morbid focus when one realises it was mostly shot at Truffaut’s own apartment with the suspenseful influence of Hitchcock fresh in his mind after a summer interviewing the great man for the classic tome, Hitchcock/Truffaut.  The ending is gobsmacking. Think of me

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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I was always afraid of being found out. I can’t specifically say that I regret my actions. I don’t. In New York City 1991 biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is struggling financially and her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t get her an advance for a book about Fanny Brice so she sells off a treasured possession – a letter to her from Katharine Hepburn – to bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells).  She hatches a scheme to forge letters by famous writers and sell them to bookstores and collectors. When the dealers start to catch on and she is tipped off about being blacklisted, Lee recruits an old sometime acquaintance, drug dealer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to help her continue her self-destructive cycle of trickery and deceit but then the FBI move in You can be an asshole if you’re famous. You can’t be unknown and be such a bitch, Lee. This is the biography of a biographer (from Israel’s own autobiography…) so you can draw out many ideas and inferences about life imitating art, writers imitating genius, literary theft on a large or small scale.  Writing in their subject’s voice is just one of the outcomes of one writer inhabiting another writer’s life.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing these letters, living in the world of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, pretending I was something I am not. In other words (as it were) it is a logical extrapolation that a writer of biographical works should on some level be themselves a liberator of other people’s ideas. You might say, it’s their job.  Enough of the meta fiction. The screenplay is by the marvellous Nicole Holofcener (with Jeff Whitty) who is no mean director herself and yes, she was supposed to helm this. So what happened? Apparently Julianne Moore and Holofcener had ‘creative differences’ and both of them dropped out – both of them! But were those differences with each other?! Apparently Moore was fired by Holofcener. Something about wanting to wear a fat suit and a prosthetic nose. And so, six days before production it all stopped. And Sam Rockwell who was due to play Hock disappeared somewhere along the line. Then Marielle Heller was deployed on directing duties.  Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, stayed in the cast (as Alan Schmidt) and McCarthy joined. And her performance is towering.  I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people. She’s a lonely alcoholic middle-aged mess and utterly believable as the writer on the outs, a kind of midlife crisis on acid with huge money problems and lacking the funds to even secure veterinary assistance to care for Jersey her beloved cat. But somehow she’s a compelling, likeable figure, something real amid the poseurs (like Tom Clancy, lampooned here. Him and his $3,000,000 advance). Irony is writ large. She imitates Bette Davis in The Little Foxes on TV, watching on her couch with Jersey. Then the TV set becomes a light box to improve the fake signatures. Grant and she make a fine double act – he’s the louche lounge lizard à la Withnail (referenced here) to her fiercely bedraggled Lesbian, conniving to her inventive. They are both prone to a bit of larceny. His double betrayal is horrible, his death weirdly apposite. It’s a beautifully constructed odd couple tragicomedy and looks and feels like the real thing – entirely without sentiment, appropriately, considering that it is all about life in the literary margins, a kind of palimpsest of an overachiever who’s no longer marketable as herself. It all happens as Manhattan alters from a kind of bohemian haven into impossibly uninhabitable real estate. Really quite wonderful. I was hiding behind these people, their names. Because if I’d actually put myself out there, done my own work, then I would be opening myself up to criticism. And I’m too much of a coward for all of that  MM#2400

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

The Arrangement (1969)

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What happened to you, Eddie? Must kill you to think what you might have been. Eddie Anderson born Evangelos Arness (Kirk Douglas) is a Greek-American advertising executive who drives off the LA freeway in the morning traffic and into a tunnel and ducks his head as he goes straight under a truck. He is suicidally unhappy in his work, his marriage to Florence (Deborah Kerr) and his affair with a liberated woman ad exec Gwen (Faye Dunaway) who seems to be involved with someone else. His colleagues led by Arthur (Hume Cronyn) try to figure out how to lure him back to work using a psychiatrist (Harold Gould)  to help him work through his issues while his ageing father Sam (Richard Boone) manipulates him from a distance. However a spell in a mental hospital looms when he shows up with a gunshot wound and refuses to say how it happened … I want you to sell that house. And sell that place in the desert. Sell the cars, the paintings, that Bulgarian statue in the garden. Sell the books, the records, deep freezer, everything! Look, I’m the head of the house, that’s an order: sell it!  An adman in late Sixties Los Angeles letting it all hang out and going off the rails as he comes to terms with his double life and his obscure origins. Sounds familiar? Yes, it reeks of the themes and especially the concluding season of Mad Men, that astonishing TV portrait of midcentury masculinity. It will take some brain power without benefit of prior knowledge to work out that this muddled mor(t)ality tale is the work of Elia Kazan, that unparalleled interpreter of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge on both stage and screen.  Not only is he the director, he wrote the (supposedly quasi autobiographical) novel on which it is based so you can’t even blame someone else for confused writing. You may then prefer the electively mute Douglas post-car wreck to the one that actively engages with his alter ego – the sight of Kirk lounging atop an upright piano while his other self blithely tinkles the keys may just make you bust a gut. Michelle Pfeiffer he ain’t. Kerr has a thankless role but ironically comes out of this respectably – a concerned wife finally sick of the arrangement that lets her free loving husband do exactly as he pleases with his mistress. Dunaway smirks her way through the film with funny tinted spectacles so goodness only knows what’s going on there. Maybe she knew she was playing Barbara Loden, Kazan’s second wife, an actress whom she had understudied for the Marilyn Monroe role in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. Unlike Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road which expertly keeps the sense of mixed up timelines clear with a dramatic and emotional logic, this is a mishmash of cod psychology, family history and Freudian sex soup which does nobody’s reputation any favours but for all that … it’s fascinating, a good story, dreadfully told. The screwing I’m getting is not worth the screwing I’m getting

First Reformed (2018)

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When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy. Forty-six year old Reverend Ernest Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor of a small Dutch Reformed church in rural New York stage.  His faith is threatened by the death of his son and he turns to Catholic teachings as well as alcohol. One of his congregation Mary (Amanda Seyfried) appeals for help for her husband, a climate change activist who has become suicidal and who wants her to abort her pregnancy. The historical church struggles in competition with Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) at a nearby megachurch to whom Ernest appeals for help … Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world. Those of us familiar with the oeuvre of writer/director Paul Schrader will know that he had a career as a critic and academic and one of his tomes deals with transcendental style and French auteur Robert Bresson is one of his subjects. And anyone who’s ever seen Diary of a Country Priest (or not) will immediately recognise the thematic reference to a man questioning his capacity and relevance for the spiritual life as he experiences decline, his own physical deterioration a measure for what is occurring in his environment. The modern twist is the monetising of the religious experience (or maybe it’s not that new after all). Schrader’s own life speaks to the background in Dutch Reform Protestantism which is confronted here with modernity while the filmmaking style reflects the austerity of the religion as well as the Bressonian template (with Bergmanesque flourishes). Hawke is brilliant in this intense exploration of man’s purpose with Schrader confidently going for it in all his tormented late life vainglory. Travis Bickle goes mediaeval? Yes, that’s it. Quite splendid.  Even a pastor needs a pastor

Junior Bonner (1972)

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Rodeo time, I gotta get it on down the road/What road? I mean, I’m workin’ on my first million, and you’re still workin’ on eight seconds. Middle-aged rodeo rider Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen) returns to his Arizona hometown where he reunites with his family, which includes his charming, troublemaker of a father, Ace (Robert Preston), and his ambitious real estate-developer brother Curly (Joe Don Baker). Mom Elvira (Ida Lupino) is estranged from her husband. So while Ace dreams of finding his fortune in Australia, Junior is determined to conquer a tough bull named Sunshine by riding it for eight seconds. Can Junior claim victory over Sunshine and stay in the rodeo business?… Junior, you’re my brother, and I guess I love you. Well, we’re family. I don’t care what you do. You can sell one lot or a hundred lots. I’m just tryin’ to keep us together. Directed by Sam Peckinpah from a script by Jeb Rosebrook, this is a wonderful, warm, sympathetic portrait of a man having issues with ageing, returning home to a scrappy if welcoming family in a changing West and finally figuring out who he is. This is another Peckinpah film about the coming of modernity to the frontier and when we see The Wild Bunch embroidered on a suited-and-booted rider’s saddle blanket it’s just one thread of symbolic commentary in the bountiful narrative. There’s a great use of split-screen for the Prescott rodeo and the performances are memorable in an affecting, compelling film, probably Peckinpah’s most gentle outing with an undertow of violence beneath the gentility and quest for honour. McQueen is brilliant as the cowboy staking his claim. There’s one of him, and one of me

Father Figures (2017)

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I can feel your brother inside you. Oddball twin brothers, uptight proctologist Peter (Ed Helms) and laidback face of BBQ sauce Kyle (Owen Wilson) attend their mother Helen’s (Glen Close) wedding. While watching his go-to TV Law and Order SVU, Peter becomes obsessed with the idea that his biological father whose photo he’s kept resembles an actor on the show. Helen admits the photo’s a fake and she slept around ‘cos it was the 70s and says their father didn’t die after all – he was footballer Terry Bradshaw, now resident in Florida with a car dealership. The men take off on a road trip that sees them travelling the East Coast for answers … I stare at assholes all day long because of a fictional man’s colon cancer. Best thought of (if at all) as a kind of lewd fairytale (every father figure gives an inadvertent helping hand to the brothers resolving their fractious relationship, the fairy godfather is a lisping African-American hitchhiker); or a male Mamma Mia! in reverse with a kind of Wizard of Oz ending. I’m not sure that that much construction went into this but there are some funny moments (including a very lateral idea about Irish Twins…) despite – and this is a grievous insult – putting the marvellous Harry Shearer into the thankless role of Close’s new husband and a pissing competition with a kid. I mean, come on. Directed by cinematographer Lawrence Sher, making his debut with a screenplay by Justin Malen. I understand how Luke Skywalker felt now.

Christopher Robin (2017)

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People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.  Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) now a family man living in London receives a surprise visit from his old childhood pal, Winnie-the-Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings). With Christopher’s help, Pooh embarks on a journey to find his friends – Tigger, Eeyore, Owl, Piglet, Rabbit, Kanga and Roo. Christopher Robin is irritated by Pooh’s fear of Heffalumps. Once reunited, the lovable bear and the gang travel to the big city to help Christopher rediscover the joy of life as he tries to save the jobs of his colleagues in the luggage company where he is an efficiency manager… I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been. A film with baggage, quite frankly, as it struggles for at least the first hour to find its feet. The juxtaposition of bustling city with bucolic countryside is initially strained because until the adult Christopher Robin finally becomes at home with his inner child the Hundred Acre Wood is a dark, dank place. McGregor isn’t happy in the role until his character becomes happy. Nor are we, ironically, in a story about someone who has lost the power of imagination. The animatronic animals are wonderful however in a troublesome and sticky piece of work which bears the taint of cynicism and is a case of split cinematic personality. Inspired by A.A. Milne’s stories, although you’d never know from this film that Christopher Robin was his son, this is written by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder from a story by Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson while it was directed by Marc Forster. I’m not the person I used to be

Mom and Dad (2017)

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It’s not my fault you don’t have a life. A mass hysteria of unknown origins causes parents to turn violently on their own children. Carly (Anne Winters) is a selfish teen and her young brother Joshua (Zachary Arthur) is obsessed with superheroes. They are the children of permanently disappointed Brent (Nicolas Cage) and Kendall (Selma Blair) whose dreams of a good life are hanging on a thread of yoga and a pool table. At school a TV signal seems to rewire the teachers’ brains and the students are in danger. Meanwhile Kendall attends the birthing room at the local hospital where her sister is having a baby but she tries to kill it when the machines go down. Kendall races home where Brent is losing it and the children are taking refuge in the basement  … It’s like they’re waiting for a buffet. A funny take on parenting during a mass midlife crisis in the ‘burbs, this nods to Poltergeist in the TV white noise that seems to trigger violence in all the moms and dads.  There’s also a reference to Night of the Living Dead as Carly’s cool boyfriend Damon (Robert T. Cunningham) happens to be the African-American who rocks up on time to help when things get seriously violent. Curiously the action sequences are not particularly well tooled but things get more amusing when grandpa (Lance Henriksen) arrives to let his son know how much he cares for him. Blair is great as the cool mom who protects her sister’s newborn one moment and tries to gas her own kids the next. Cage (naturally) relishes the role of the man bemoaning his cottage cheese ass, reminiscing over a teenage car crash when his topless girlfriend gave him a lap dance. Doesn’t quite hit all the notes needed for cult classic status but the titles are fabulous in a Seventies-trash homage sorta fashion with Dusty Springfield’s Yesterday When I Was Young giving us absolutely no idea of what’s about to unfold:  an ode to power saws. Written and directed by Brian (Crank) Taylor. I used to think my parents’ divorce was the worst tragedy of my life but ironically that just doubled my chances of survival!

A Little Something for Your Birthday (2017)

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Picasso didn’t have two decades of credit card debt to pay. Designer Senna Berges (Sharon Stone) is desperate to find her soulmate.  As she attempts to pursue her passion for fashion, she changes jobs and has occasional relationships and hookups with younger men. Everything seems to be unsettled for the supposedly ditzy Senna until her 46th birthday party where she meets Adam (Tony Goldwyn):  has the free spirit found her match?… Isn’t it the unnecessary things in life that make the human experience so fascinating? We meet Senna in bed with a guy she picked up the night before and as she’s kicking him out the door he’s inviting her to see his band play at the Whisky on Saturday. Good! Writer/director Susan Walter’s screenplay was on the Hollywood Blacklist a decade back – screenplays that were liked by development executives but not produced (yet). This finally occasioned a debut for Walter and how happy for the viewer she’s cast some great women in her film – Ellen Burstyn and the underrated Famke Janssen, with Caitlin FitzGerald who some of us know fondly from Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated. Ah, romcoms. In which women who have a great existence still need that Special One to trim their corners and calm them down and make them Find Meaning tethered to a kitchen sink and a pram, as though one man could ever satisfy a woman. How on this good earth could one man ever be enough for the great Sharon Stone?! And why?! Remember what Katharine Hepburn said about marriage:  Why exchange the admiration of many for the criticism of one? So we have the meet sorta cute, the romance (years later), the parting, the re-evaluation, the pukerama of piece to camera interviews (Harry, Sally-ish) with women ruing their mistakes, and the finale with someone closer in age to our heroine than those attentive one-night stands. We meet Senna every year, on her birthday, in a nice structural touch, for seven years, and the relationship hits different beats as she matures and her expectations and work situations alter. Whatever: despite the midlife crisis craziness it still explores a kind of desperation that links Senna’s lack of business acumen with relationship non-savvy. Why is it wrong to have multiple relationships with guys twenty years younger? This certainly doesn’t tell us! Maybe that’s a good thing:  we can find out for ourselves, thank you. Burstyn has some stingers in a salty mother-daughter relationship:  Darla never told me you were dating a foetus; Janssen is the monster upon whom Senna exercises a nice bit of payback;  while Fitzgerald is the romantic competition. It’s pleasant entertainment with a hint of revenge, success and, what a woman wants, a woman eventually gets. Men don’t fall in love with women who don’t take themselves seriously.  Really?