Night Passage (1957)

Night Passage

I’m beholden to you mister. Can’t we just leave it that way? Former railroad worker Grant McLaine (James Stewart) is making a living playing the accordion when he’s hired by boss Ben Kimball (Jay C. Flippen) to help transport the railroad’s payroll despite having left his former employ in disgrace. The train carrying the payroll has been robbed multiple times in the past by Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea) and his gang and the workers haven’t been paid in months. Kimball hopes that McLaine can successfully guard the money from the robbers. But matters are complicated for McLaine when he finds out that one of the robbers is his brother, who is now going by the name of the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy) a notorious name in the territory and the brothers have a score to settle … Colorado may be big on miles but it’s kinda short on people. One of the most beautifully shot films of its era (courtesy of William H. Daniels), this was supposed to be directed by Anthony Mann in a furthering of his collaboration with James Stewart. However he withdrew due to his unhappiness with Borden Chase’s adaptation of the source novel by Norman A. Fox and was replaced by James Neilson. It lacks the psychological complexity of those previous auteurist pairings but Murphy is perfect casting as the under-motivated baby-faced younger brother to Stewart’s conscientious sibling, jaded and saddened by loss of love. Duryea has some fantastic scenes, Elam is his usually villainous self and there’s little Brandon De Wilde exuding star power carrying the mysterious shoe box. Elaine Stewart and Dianne Foster have finely drawn roles as the women who come between the brothers. You haven’t heard anything in movies until you’ve witnessed Stewart playing the accordion and trilling, You can’t get far without a railroad in a wonderful score by Dimitri Tiomkin.  If you was boss we wouldn’t do it!

The Constant Husband (1955)

The Constant Husband

Aka Marriage a la Mode. What are you? Who the devil are you? When William Egerton (Rex Harrison) aka Charles Hathaway Peter, Pietro and Bill, emerges from a lengthy period of amnesia to find himself in a hotel in Wales. He retrieves a trunk of his belongings from a station and finds evidence that he was a conman and a serial bigamist. A professor of psychological medicine Llewellyn (Cecil Parker) helps him to start piecing his life back together but William discovers he has been married to seven women all over the country – at the same time. He is pleased to find that he is married to a lovely fashion photographer Monica Hendricks (Kay Kendall) in London, but when he goes to his office at the Munitions Ministry to ask his boss for sick leave, he is thrown out as a stranger. He is also persona non grata in his club, since he pushed a waiter over a balcony. He is kidnapped by the injured waiter (George Cole) and learns that he was also married to the waiter’s relative Lola ( ) who is now a circus acrobat, and whose Italian family run a restaurant. He is arrested and tried, and, ignoring his female barrister Miss Chesterman’s (Margaret Leighton) case for the defence, admits his guilt and asks to go to prison for a quiet life away from all his wives, who all want him back. On leaving prison he is still sought by his wives as well as by his barrister … I am beginning to be seriously concerned about my character. Director Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine’s screenplay is an exercise in caddish charm, capitalising on the persona (on- and offscreen) of Harrison who had successfully essayed the type in Gilliat’s A Rake’s Progress, a decade earlier. As the women pile up, his dilemma worsens and the potential for criminal charges exponentially increases.  The lesson if there is one in this farcical narrative is a kind of redemption but the ironic outcome has our hero simply running away from the imprisonment of marriage into a real prison: all the while these women cannot control their attraction to him. Male wishful thinking? Hmm! The witty, literate script comes to a head in an hilarious courtroom scene in which Harrison agrees with the prosecution’s characterisation of the dingy exploits of a shopworn cavalier; while Leighton bemoans sexism in the court yet falls for her hopeless client; and a lawyer wonders at the supportive wives, The same again is every woman’s ideal  –they’re gluttons for punishment. This skates between a wry play on Harrison’s lifestyle and outright misogyny.  Zesty, funny and played to the hilt by a fabulous cast of familiar British faces. The meta-irony is that Harrison commenced an adulterous affair with the fabulous Kendall, whom he married. Think of all your morbid fancies of yesterday – then look at this!

This Changes Everything (2019)

This Changes Everything 2019

Women are virtually excluded from the directing profession. This recent documentary about the lack of representation of women in front of and behind the cameras is quietly shocking, sometimes by the truisms expressed that all women already know; and sometimes by the gruesome statistics that are sprinkled like so much arsenic throughout the on-camera interviews, featuring women directors (mostly unemployed), actresses and activists (ie former directors who couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood due to their gender).

We have been Other-ized by men really to allow men to give birth to their own subjectivity:  Jill Soloway.

Hollywood is our storytelling machine.

There is an assumption that men are going to be authoritative.

If Starbucks had 93% male staff there would be a problem:  Rose McGowan.

When half of the filmmakers and writers are allowed in our cultural life will change. Issues of ‘cultural curating’ are addressed when Julie Dash talks about her gorgeous film Daughters of the Dust only having 13 prints on release for her hit movie – the curators preferred black male narratives like Boyz n the Hood. Kimberly Pierce didn’t direct for 9 years after Oscar-winning Boys Don’t Cry and when she was making Carrie (the remake) with Chloë Grace Moretz they both describe how the mostly male crew presumed to know what it was like for a girl to be shocked by her first period. For women, the arrival of TV show runner Shonda Rimes has been a game-changer, not just because Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy goes out and gets drunk and has a one-night stand before her first day on the job, which apparently baffled studio heads at the first screening. And it’s on episodic TV that we now find some of those women directors cast aside by the movie studios: we all recognise the names.  Hollywood has never had a mechanism to regulate discrimination. When Title VII (Employment Equality) was used to take a case against the studios in 1969 it didn’t work. Nixon’s government wasn’t having it and the black lawyer taking the case was stigmatised so bowed out. One of the revelations is a 1985 legal case against the Directors Guild taken by The Six (six gifted, award-winning but out of work women directors, one of whom deadpans, What we figured out we really needed was a penis.) They went to the  Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and studied the period from 1949-1979 going through every industry publication to make their case, finding that one half of one per cent of all Hollywood productions in thirty years were directed by women. Their case was thrown out by a woman judge on the grounds that the DGA was self-discriminating:  (male) directors didn’t hire women ADs, ADs didn’t hire women 2nd ADs and so on. So the Guild itself was misogynistic. She wasn’t wrong. That’s when they needed to go to the ACLU. That happened following an increase in female hires to 1995 when it fell off a cliff again. And the decision that the DGA was ‘gagging’ and ‘red-flagging’ as one contributor puts it. The woman behind contemporary activism on this front is Maria Giese, a director and screenwriter who made her feature debut with a British film, When Saturday Comes, in the mid-90s, was courted by Hollywood and then … never worked again. Now a mother, she has campaigned so that her daughter will never have to endure her failure. Misogyny is part of Hollywood. It wasn’t always that way, as we are reminded that the Steven Spielberg of early Hollywood was Lois Weber. Then the money men came in, Wall Street got involved, sound arrived and by the 1930s only Dorothy Arzner was helming films. This is not happening naturally on its own. Sharon Stone recalls being asked to take direction by sitting on directors’ laps and asking them, Do you ask Tom Hanks to do this? Meryl Streep remembers on Kramer Vs. Kramer [the Ur-film of contemporary screen post-feminist paternity:  read Hannah Hamad’s book on the subject] all the men scratching their heads and wondering why her character might be acting the way she is. Her input was not appreciated.  As she diplomatically frames it, this was being told from a male perspective. What is being done to turn things around? John Landgraf of TV channel FX, that’s what. Or who. A rare CEO who decided to up the game and hire talented people regardless of gender. But then it transpires that women are simply low on agency lists, if at all – it’s staggering to see one agent’s list of directors and find Kathryn Bigelow …. way, way down. Kathryn Bigelow. Not a single film studio head would agree to participate in this film which says it all. The venerable Reese Witherspoon discusses a meeting she had with one or more of them a decade ago when they admitted they currently had no leading roles for women but one had a male role that could be rewritten for a woman:  that’s when she started her own company, acquired options on books and started making films and TV shows – thanks to her we have, among other productions, the water-cooler show of our time, Big Little Lies. What has changed in the culture? One thing. The release of a recording of TV star and hotelier Donald Trump declaring he can grab ’em by the pussy. Even then he was voted in as President of the United States. And then came the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, which explained the enforced disappearing from our screens of fabulous women like Ashley Judd and Annabella Sciorra, whose brutal testimony has since been disparaged because she didn’t have the ‘correct’ response to being raped by one of the biggest, ugliest and most powerful men alive who had the ear of liberal darlings the Clintons and the Obamas. Film when it was born was not gender-specific. How I would love to declare that this was written, directed and produced by women. It wasn’t. How horribly ironic.  It was directed by Tom Donahue, presumably hired by one or all of the Executive Producers, including Geena Davis, extensively featured here,  who has done so much through her Institute on Gender in Media but clearly is tone-deaf to the argument about brilliant unemployed women filmmakers that this proposes – albeit she is the engine for this particular production and many of those figures and facts flashing up like a psychiatric treatment administered to the hard of thinking. Isn’t that ironic, etc. Sheesh. In the week that we have been reliably informed that 90% of the world’s population hates us (was this news to anyone female?!), Happy International Women’s Day. Every day is Women’s Day in my house. What’s good for women is good for everyone

Climax (2018)

Climax

I’m so happy. I couldn’t be happier. Winter 1996. A French street dance troupe led by Selva (Sofia Boutella) and Lou (Souheila Yacoub) is rehearsing at an empty boarding school in the middle of a forest on the eve of a tour.  LSD-laced sangria apparently made by their manager Emmanuelle (Claudia Gajan Maull) causes their jubilant after-party to descend into a dark and explosive nightmare as they try to survive the night – and find out who’s responsible – before it’s too late and they become even more animalistic… No need to do it all right now.  Argentinian-French controversialist Gaspar Noé’s dance film straddles wild and violent horror and thriller tropes, more or less riffing on ideas about creation (followed by swift destruction), while also indulging his largely unprofessional acting cast in improvisational techniques that devolve into highly sexualised discussions.  This is a low-budget production made quickly and chronologically and without scripted dialogue, located in one set.  There are several uninterrupted takes, the lengthiest of which lasts 42 minutes, strikingly shot by Benoît Debie who also worked on Enter the Void. The opening scene – blood on snow – is fantastically drawn, a painterly portent of what’s to come in three chapters, Birth is a Unique Opportunity, Life is a Collective Impossibility and Death is an Extraordinary Experience, split more or less between the performing first half to the after effects and the horrendous comedown. Based on an incident that actually befell a group of French dancers in the 90s, the excesses are all the director’s own blend of hysteria and provocation in an immersive trip to Acid Hell – with a techno soundtrack. Probably the oddest musical ever made, welcome to the crazy, pulsating, sensory inferno that is other people and their micro-dosing, graphically illustrating the very thin veneer of civility that protects us from each other. I don’t want to end up like Christiane F, you know?

High Life (2018)

High Life

Nothing can grow inside us. Monte (Robert Pattinson) and a baby girl called Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) are the last survivors of a dangerous mission on the edge of the solar system. He dumps bodies in astronaut suits into space and rears the child as he continues his work. Flashbacks reveal that it is a spaceship filled with prisoners, chief among them mad scientist Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche) who wants to breed a new generation of humans and gives the male criminals (André Benjamin, Ewan Mitchell) drugs in exchange for their semen on a trip that will not end in survival. Captain (Lars Eidinger) appears ineffectual while the women (Mia Goth, Claire Tran, Agata Buzek) resist male attention and don’t want to be forcibly impregnated. As the reproductive experiment takes shape a storm of cosmic rays hits the ship and tempers run high … You’ve become a shaman of sperm. Filmmakers can take a funny turn when they start making films in a language not their own. This screenplay by that singular director Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau with collaboration by Geoff Cox and additional writing credited to Andrew Litvack (and an uncredited contribution by Nick Laird) is a case in point as her first excursion into English is deeply strange and a reworking of many tropes and themes in the genre. For the first half hour you have to really like the sound of a baby crying;  the rest of the film is mostly about bodily fluids – their source, their harvesting, their destination – interspersed with acts of violence. Pattinson lends it his intensity but to what end? Well, a black hole, if you must know. Not so much a space mission as emission, this is really a hymn to onanism:  truly a mystery, all coming and no going in an exploration of sci-fi as inner space, in and out of hand. She is perfection

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth poster

Could you do without me? Northern England 1865.  Newly sold into marriage to an older man, rich industrialist Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton), Katherine (Florence Pugh) finds herself confined to the house and starved of companionship. Her husband can’t or won’t have sex with her but makes her strip and masturbates while she faces a wall. Forced to spend her days in endless tedium, dining with his bullying father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), when her husband is called away to one of his collieries she starts to spend more time with maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and begins a passionate and fiery relationship with a young groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) from the estate, beginning a conflict that will end in violence. Following her husband’s demise at her hands and after hiding his body, a surprise arrives on her doorstep in the form of her husband’s illegitimate son Teddy (Anton Palmer) accompanied by his grandmother Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel) throwing Katherine’s plans into disarray .You’ve got fatter. Adapted by Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, this austere treatment of a rural tragedy is as contained as anti-heroine Pugh by corsetry and decency until sensuality spills forth and all hell breaks loose.  This is the distinctive Pugh’s breakout performance following The Falling and TV’s Marcella and her polarising character anchors a narrative which is ostensibly feminist but ultimately offers a critique of female power and how it is achieved and sustained. Perhaps the casting of black actors in the story complicates the issue of power by raising another issue, that of of race, in what is otherwise a melodrama of sex and class. Ultimately what happens when people are undone by desire can be murderous. It is a drama entirely without ornament. Directed by William Oldroyd. She is a disease

Bombshell (2019)

Bombshell

I’m not a feminist, I’m a lawyer. When Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired following her on-air revelation that she supports an assault weapons ban, she slaps conservative TV channel Fox News founder and CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) with a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment.  But nobody comes forward to provide evidence of similar experiences, not even her protegée, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) who migrates to the Bill O’Reilly show, is fired her first day and takes the back elevator to Ailes’ office in her quest for advancement. Eventually Gretchen’s decision leads to Presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s bête noire, Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) coming forward with her own story, as well as multiple other women, ultimately bringing the channel’s owners, the Murdoch family, into the fray... He handed me the power to hurt him. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when it comes to explaining the way the world turns, it has fallen to America’s comedy auteurs to Show and Tell. And here it’s director Jay Roach invading the body politic once more after the TV dramas Recount, Game Change and All the Way as well as the feature Trumbo. Humour helps but doesn’t really feature in this tawdry tale of three contrasting women who have oddly similar looks in the Barbie-style legs-out fashion cultivated by Ailes – and one scene where all the on-air women presenters are Spanxing it up and shoving five-inch heels onto their calloused feet shows the compromises intelligent gutsy women make visually to make it professionally on US TV, at least on Fox News. Theron’s transformation into Kelly is really something – she wears her work look as if she’s armed for war and her decision to finally take it to the bosses, with the backing of her husband Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass) at the same time as having to battle Trump mania in Summer 2016, tacks sharply when she allows the Presidential hopeful to get away with his menstruation Tweet, to her husband’s disgust. But, as she reminds him, she has to pay the bills. Kidman is good as the woman who has had the sense to record her meetings with Ailes, but is then sidelined with money and an NDA (maybe); and Robbie is impressively touching as the amalgamated character ‘Kayla’ who succumbs to Ailes, believing everyone else must have done it to get ahead (To get ahead, you have to give a little head, as Gretchen regales her lawyers). When Kayla crumbles at the truth, it’s devastating. The fact that these women believe in the political piffle they peddle is what makes the film hold its fire because Kate McKinnon is cast as a secret Lesbian Hillary-supporter in their midst making the politics of it weaker in every sense; and there’s a pretty ludicrous scene when Ailes’ wife, newspaper editor Beth (Connie Britton) has her assistant ask if her sushi lunch is too liberal. (Perhaps it is this very daftness that makes the film’s point). And while the women’s histories shares similar contours, they do not support one another and Kelly’s producer Gil (Rob Delaney) reminds her that all the production team’s jobs are on the line. However Charles Randolph’s screenplay is fast-moving and literate, and there is great use of archive footage.  The female cast are just outstanding, with Lithgow quite horrifying as the disgusting old man who once hobnobbed with Nixon but now intimidates ambitious young women into hoicking up their skirts and a lot worse. The biggest irony? Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) gets to save the day. Sigh. Inspired by the accounts of the women who reported their experiences of harassment. Rule number one, Corporate America:  You don’t sue your boss

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen

Another Woman (1988)

Another Woman.jpg

She can’t allow herself to feel. The second wife of professor Ken (Ian Holm) with whom she had an adulterous affair while his wife Kathy (Betty Buckley) was suffering from ovarian cancer, when fiftysomething philosophy professor Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) rents an apartment to work on a new book, she soon realises that she can hear what’s going on in a neighbouring apartment, which houses a psychiatrist’s office. She becomes captivated by the sessions of a pregnant patient named Hope (Mia Farrow) whom she follows and eventually encounters in an antiques store. As Hope talks about her emotional issues over a long lunch, not only does Marion begin to reevaluate her life and recall the bullying her estranged brother Paul (Harris Yulin) was subjected to by their late father (David Ogden Stiers), she sees her husband lunching with their mutual friend Lydia (Blythe Danner) with whom he is clearly having an intimate relationship. She comes to realise that her coldness has shut her off from friends and family, and she has missed a chance for true love with writer Larry Lewis (Gene Hackman) who apparently made her the subject of his novel after she turned him down for Ken If someone had asked me when I reached my fifties to assess my life, I would have said that I had achieved a decent measure of fulfillment, both personally and professionally. Beyond that, I would say I don’t choose to delve. A remarkably perceptive work from Woody Allen on mid-life femininity and the things women have to do to protect themselves and their sense of self while also making men feel good about themselves. Fully belonging to that part of his oeuvre labelled Bergmanesque and not just because it’s shot by Sven Nykvist, this is sharp, funny, acidly realistic and gimlet-eyed when it comes to the inequality between the sexes:  while a husband plays at adultery (repeatedly), a woman tries to justify her very existence; a man celebrates his fifty years while a woman wonders what she has done with her life; an ex-wife shows up at the house with the detritus of their marriage to find herself socially condemned because she expresses her distress at betrayal. How Rowlands learns about her foibles through other people’s observations is psychologically devastating. The narrative is fearless and pointed in its target – structural misogyny. The peerless Rowlands is great in one of the best women’s roles of the Eighties and Farrow is no less good in a minor key, providing an oppositional image of possibility, with an ensemble of men having it all. I just don’t want to look up when I’m her age and find my life is empty