Palo Alto (2013)

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Live a dangerous life. Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and his best friend Fred (Nat Wolff), are California teens who like to drive around and get stoned. Shy virginal April (Emma Roberts) is at soccer practice when her friends laugh about their coach Mr. B (James Franco) having a crush on her. Mr. B asks April if she can babysit his son and he then offers her the position of striker on the school team. Fred and Teddy walk back to their car talking about what they would do if they got in a drunk driving accident. Teddy says he would drive away even if it was his crush, April. He crashes into a woman and drives off, with Fred demanding he be dropped off. When Teddy reaches home he’s arrested and winds up doing community service in a library where Fred gets him into trouble by drawing a penis on a children’s book. Fred has sex with Emily (Zoe Levin) who is infamous for giving blowjobs to boys. Mr B. confesses to April that he loves her. After a soccer game he asks her to his house but his son is at his ex-wife’s and they have sex… I wish I didn’t care about anything. But I do care. I care about everything too much.  Gia Coppola’s writing and directing debut, adapting a set of short stories by James Franco, is disturbing in terms of its content but not its presentation. It’s as though these teens’ experiences were being told through a fuzz of weed and alcohol to which they all have easy access, presumably courtesy of the extraordinarily lax parents and step-parents at arm’s length from them (Val Kilmer plays Roberts’ stepfather as a wacked out stoner. Her mother isn’t much better). When Fred’s father (Chris Messina) almost comes on to Teddy, sharing a joint with this troubled kid, we know we’ re in melodramatic territory, even if it’s slowed down. That leads to Fred’s own questioning of his homosexuality when he reasons that getting a blow job from a boy isn’t any different. Roberts as the girl who is fooled by the high school sports coach is terribly good, registering every shift in her circumstance with precision. The sex scene with Franco is very sensitively shot:  this is basically a rape after all. Wolff is fine as the boy as spinning top, unsure of who he is but convinced he needs to set everything fizzing, a hormone wrapped up in dangerous levels of immaturity and sociopathy. Young Kilmer (son of Val and Joanne Whalley) is as unsure of his character as his character is of his purpose, constantly being led astray. The film has its most impressionistic performance as this boy struggles to do the right thing. His single mom just gives him love if hardly any guidance never mind issuing deterrents – this we learn is his second rap and adults are keen to keep giving him chances, just like he allows Fred to get him into jams. These kids are testing everyone’e limits with no indication of what might be permissible beyond their marijuana fume-filled homes.  It’s no surprise when the film ends on the road to nowhere:  this is not a narrative of punctuation. Peer pressure is an eternal problem, but amoral parenting sucks the big one as this amply demonstrates it in its many shades of hypocrisy, corruption and cynicism in adult behaviour. A fascinating showcase for several second- (and in the case of Coppola, third-) generation Hollywood talent in a film which literally blames the parents. I’m older and I know that there aren’t a lot of good things around, and I know that you are really good

 

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Kansas City Confidential (1952)

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I know a sure cure for a nosebleed: a cold knife in the middle of the back. A mysterious fellow, Tim Foster (Preston Foster) contacts a trio of criminals Pete, Boyd and Tony (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef) to help with a bank heist. The four wear masks and remain strangers to each other, planning to reunite in Mexico to divvy up the loot. Joe Rolfe (John Payne), a down on his luck former GI and ex-con trying to go straight that they framed to take the heat, gets his charges dropped, and the police offer him a reward if he can help recover the cash. But only after they beat up and torture him. He agrees, and when one of the thieves meets his end, Rolfe assumes his identity to catch the crooks… What’s waiting for you, Harris? The chair, the gas chamber, or just a rope? Like all good little noirs, there are lessons to be learned and a steep moral curve is there if you’re looking for it but mainly this is a well managed, pacy heist movie with bristling dialogue. Star Payne and director Phil Karlson did uncredited work on the sharp script attributed to Harold Green and Rowland Brown (story) and George Bruce and Harry Esssex (screenplay). Payne was once famed screenwriter Robert Towne’s father-in-law and had an interesting career, mainly a song and dance man and mostly famous for appearing in Miracle on 34th Street, but then becoming an interesting character actor. This particular production was part of a seven-picture deal with Pine-Thomas Productions to which he eventually obtained the rights. He had showed his dramatic chops paired with Claudette Colbert in Remember the Day and later in The Razor’s Edge and this particular cycle of action/crime films would conclude with Technicolor noir Slightly Scarlet. He then had his own western TV series, The Restless Gun, which ran for two seasons, in which daughter Julie appeared. Her daughter Katharine Towne is now an actress too, carrying on the family tradition. This is an effective thriller, briskly directed by Karlson and performed to the hilt by an ensemble to beat the band – some of those lowlifes are among my favourite character actors, with Coleen Gray and Dona Drake in nice supporting roles. The armoured car heist is superbly simply done in a tough as nails actioner that must have inspired Reservoir DogsIt don’t take no big thinking to figure a couple of guys like us ain’t in this bananaville on a vacation!

Berlin Express (1948)

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That’s right – the dove of peace was a pigeon. A dead pigeon. In Allied-occupied post-war Germany a group of passengers of various nationalities travels by train from France to Berlin. One of them, Dr. Bernhardt (Paul Lukas), is an influential peacemaker who wants to mend the war-torn continent. Nazi conspirators aboard the vehicle are determined to keep Bernhardt quiet – they set off an explosion on the train but it kills a man who turns out to have been Bernhardt’s decoy. Other passengers – Bernhardt’s assistant Lucienne (Merle Oberon), American agricultural expert Robert J. Lindley (Robert Ryan), Frenchman Perrot (Charles Korvin) and British teacher James Sterling (Robert Coote) seek the doctor for an explanation, but deception is all around and danger awaits Bernhardt at the next station when the train stops … I do sleight of hand. We’re supposed to make 1,500 calories look like an eight-course meal – and prevent things like plague and starvation. Curt Siodmak’s original story might have allegorical qualities but Harold Medford’s screenplay is an efficient genre work, a tense thriller with aspects of film noir and the procedural:  The German Vanishes, perhaps. Aside from the real-life echoes and the international cast, this is fascinating as a production shot on location in Europe right after the war, with all the spare psychology that Jacques Tourneur can bring to this atmospheric film, sorting out the wheat from the chaff in a briskly paced search through bomb-damaged Frankfurt.  The sharp dialogue really suits Ryan, who gives an excellent performance. It’s nice too to see Merle Oberon in a contemporary film which was shot documentary-style by her husband, Lucien Ballard:  producer Bert Granet spent 6 weeks in Germany in 1946 shooting 16mm film for reference. Friedrich Hollaender’s score is very effective for a story about the ongoing Nazi threat to peace in the aftermath of the war and the film is notable for not translating French and German dialogue, adding to the film’s frisson of danger in a landscape filled with the rubble of WW2 as the trans-Europe express speeds to Berlin. Due to currency fluctuations the interiors intended for France had to be shot in Culver City. We don’t have any more German enemies, do we?/  No authorised ones, anyway

Gone With the Wind (1939)

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What a woman.  The life of petulant southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), from her idyllic youth on a sprawling plantation, through her survival through the tragic history of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and her tangled love affairs with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who marries his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland); and roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) who wants her for himself and makes money as a blockade runner while Ashley goes to warLand’s the only thing that matters, the only thing that lasts. The drama of David O.Selznick’s search for Scarlett is well known, so too the issues with the directors (George Cukor was replaced by Victor Fleming, who was replaced for a spell by Sam Wood) but it’s the antebellum grandeur and the personalities of this epic historical romance set against the Civil War that continue to enthrall.  The beauty of plantation life is contrasted with the vivid scenes of Atlanta in flames;  the picture perfect homes and life embroidering and dancing and romancing are juxtaposed with the screams of the dying soldiers. Scarlett’s deceitful delusions about Ashley are dissipated by the reality of his cowardice. And there are the unexpected mini-dramas too:  that Scarlett becomes a can-do woman and saves Tara as her family cry bullying; when Rhett drunkenly asserts his droit de seigneur over Scarlett, she wakes up the next day as pleased with herself as the cat that got the cream. This image still has the capacity to shock (if not entirely surprise). That the screenplay and the performances effortlessly manage the extremes of humanity is a tribute to the talent behind the scenes and in front of camera. Gable is magnificent, but so too is de Havilland as Melanie, the kindest woman ever, who has the breadth of compassion to handle everything put her way and unexpectedly expresses delight when Scarlett kills a Yankee soldier. However it is Leigh’s film:  she is simply perfect as the selfish coquette who becomes brave when everyone around her is falling to pieces and she lives a wholly ironic life as a result. They say great characters make great books and I read it when I was fourteen, a great age to appreciate the feeling that Margaret Mitchell gives to these fully developed people living through the worst of times and trying in their own particular way to survive it. Expertly adapted by Sidney Howard. Wonderful. Tomorrow is another day

Angelica (2017)

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You pursue your own desire at your family’s expense. In the Victorian era, a young wife Constance (Jena Malone) and her husband Dr Joseph Barton (Ed Stoppard) go through a difficult time in their marriage after the arrival of their baby Angelica,  heightened by a mysterious ghost that enters their house. They have been advised to stop having sex following a traumatic birth and Barton is wholly frustrated by his wife bringing their daughter into the marital bed and eventually insists Angelica have her own room. When he resumes sex with Constance little Angelica experiences shared visions with her mother which become dangerously physical – but only in the child’s room.  When Constance pays a visit to Barton’s workplace she discovers he is carrying out horrific animal experiments.  Housekeeper Nora (Tovah Feldshuh) advises Constance to consult her spiritualist friend Anne Montague (Janet McTeer) whose intervention gives her small respite. Then Barton finds his daughter’s bed on fire and believes his wife is mad … My child suffers pain the precise moment I am submissive to my husband. Adapted from Arthur Philips’ titular novel, this is a precisely nuanced treatise on sexual repression in the Victorian era. Told in the form of an extended flashback from the sick bed of Angelica’s mother (with Malone playing the grown up Angelica) where she wants to explain the disappearance of Barton when Angelica was young, it utilises every trope from Gothic literature to dramatise the horrors of desire unleashed.  An exquisitely beautiful, rather mysterious film about women’s power that is let down only by the rather underpowered acting of the leads. Written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, whose father is fabled Pop Art legend Roy, with mesmerising production design by Luciana Arrighi. The mother’s confession has a suitably ironic (actual) climax.  Find your pleasure elsewhere

 

The Greengage Summer (1961)

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Aka The Loss of Innocence. Tinker tailor soldier sailor rich man poor man beggar man thief.  Left alone because of their mother’s sudden hospitalisation at the start of a family holiday in France, four British children have to fend for themselves. They stay at an elegant hotel booked by their mother in advance, where, despite the reticence of owner Madame Zisi (Danielle Darrieux), they are befriended by her English lover, the mysterious Eliot (Kenneth More).  Sixteen-year old Joss (Susannah York), the eldest of the children, runs afoul of Madame Zisi, who thinks Eliot is spending too much time with her and causes a scene. Thirteen-year old Hester (Jane Asher) is shocked when Eliot reacts violently as she attempts to take his photo while he takes them sightseeing.  He is forced to abandon early their trip to the caves at Champagne when France’s best policeman M. Renard (Raymond Jérome) shows up. As Joss deals with her burgeoning attraction to Eliot, handyman Paul (David Saire) becomes attracted to her. When Zisi lashes out at young Joss, whom she believes Eliot loves, Paul takes advantage of the situation and gets Joss drunk and the aftermath unleashes her own jealousy …  If this is how grown ups feel they’re worse pigs than I thought Sensitively adapted by Howard Koch from Rumer Godden’s novel, this is a lovely portrait of adolescence, with the gorgeous young York very convincing and blossoming as an actress right before our eyes in a nicely mounted production whose sole flaw is rather fatal – the miscasting of More, nobody’s idea of a romantic enigma, still less a jewel thief of some renown. This is such an interesting story typical of Godden’s work – of the different worlds occupied by children and adults, of jealousy, of misunderstandings:  when Paul tries to explain to Hester that hotel manager Madame Corbet (Claude Nollier) is also jealous of Eliot’s relationship with Zisi he realises she does not understand Lesbianism;  Joss deeply resents Eliot calling her a child and it is that which triggers the disastrous conclusion;  the final shots, which imply that even now, after her sudden transition into womanhood, Joss doesn’t fully comprehend what she has done.  Everyone seemed to agree that the role of Eliot should really have been played by Dirk Bogarde, but it wasn’t and More wanted it desperately and he’s all wrong. His scenes with York are uncomfortable. Still, there are other pleasures to be had in this atmospheric depiction of a heavy summer, not least seeing Bessie Love, the great silent star, in a small role as an American tourist. Directed by Lewis Gilbert.

Downsizing (2017)

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What kind of fuck you give me? What kind? American people, eight kind of fuck. Love fuck, hate fuck, sex-only fuck, break-up fuck, make-up fuck, drunk fuck, buddy fuck, pity fuck. Scientists discover how to shrink humans to five inches tall as a solution to overpopulation and global warming.  Years later, occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to abandon their stressed lives in Omaha so that they can obtain a proper home and move out from his sick Mom’s in order to get small and move to a new downsized community, Leisureland in New Mexico — a choice that triggers life-changing adventure.  Paul is catapulted in another direction by a stunning betrayal at the last minute .… A clever play on words leading to a (sort of) logical extrapolation of ideas, this is flawed at the level of characterisation, with the banal desire of people to keep their lifestyle with fewer imagined outgoings never truly drilled down to its micro-managed conclusion. There are fun concepts featuring this overweight protagonist with his anorectic wife (the nursery rhyme featuring Jack Sprat springs to mind) which in itself constitutes a challenge to the audience if you don’t like these Marmite actors.  Here, normal means uninteresting non-entity.  Even Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis and Udo Kier can’t save it. This is a bloated (130 minutes!) instance of so-called intelligent sci fi, an intriguing premise afloat on its own enlarged silliness and it turns into an end of the world scenario in some sort of guilt trip for liberal white people. Why? Size matters. Just not this much. Written by Jim Taylor and director Alexander Payne,

The Harder They Fall (1956)

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What do you care what a bunch of bloodthirsty, screaming people think of you? Did you ever get a look at their faces? They pay a few lousy bucks hoping to see a man get killed. To hell with them! Think of yourself. Get your money and get out of this rotten business.  After seventeen years reporter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself out of work when his newspaper folds. He’s so skint he agrees to work for the shady boxing promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) to help hype his new boxer, the massive Argentinian heavyweight Toro Moreno (Mike Lane). Toro looks the part but he has no actual boxing talent and all his fights are fixed. When he gets a shot at the title against the brutal and sadistic Buddy Brannen (Max Baer), Willis is faced with the tough decision of whether or not to tell Toro that his entire career is a sham as they move eastwards across the country and one fighter is killed in the ring and Brannen wants to fix Toro good … What gives, Eddie? I looked up Toro in the book. There’s no record of him in South America. Famous as Bogart’s final film before his death from cancer, this is a characterful work about ethics from Philip Yordan’s sparky screenplay which he adapted from Budd Schulberg’s novel. Bogart has an admirable arc as he evolves from a cynical sportswriter to the press agent coming to terms with the horrible corruption at the core of his sport:  will he write an exposé and take it down? The pairing of Steiger with Schulberg’s material again two years after On the Waterfront has its own attractions as well as offering an opportunity to see his Method acting stylings clash with Bogart’s classical theatrics. Jan Sterling does well as Bogart’s wife, functioning overtly as his conscience while Harold J. Stone is terrific as Bogart’s colleague, a broadcaster who can’t stand how he’s promoting Toro. Burnett Guffey’s glistening monochrome cinematography gives us some of the best fight scenes we’ll ever see in this tragic epic about life bristling within the ropes. Tough as you like, this was inspired by real-life boxer Primo Canera. Directed by Mark Robson.  Don’t fight it, Eddie! What are you trying to do, hold onto your self-respect? Did your self-respect help you hold your job? Did your self-respect give you a new column?  

A Star is Born (2018)

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Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave – 12 notes and the octave repeat. It’s the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes. That’s it. Seasoned musician country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) discovers and falls in love with struggling singer/songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) when she performs in a drag bar. She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer until Jackson coaxes her into the spotlight, bringing her on stage at one of his gigs to perform a song she’s written and he has arranged. He feels sorry for her when she tells him she is constantly told, You sound great, but you don’t look so great. Jackson is playing better than ever despite his crippling tinnitus which means his ears buzz every time he’s onstage and his hearing is diminishing, while Ally shines in the light of his stardom. As Ally’s career takes off when she’s taken under his wing and then makes a deal with the help of her nasty manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) the personal side of their relationship is breaking down. The self-sabotaging Jackson fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons, drinking, drugging, fighting with his older brother and caretaker Bobby (Sam Elliott) who taught him everything he knew while Ally performs to adoring fans and he struggles with his hearing problem … Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag. And unless you get out and you try to do it, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth. The fourth incarnation of this story under this title and a remake of the 1976 pop star version, this is an adaptation of a story that first came to the screen under the title What Price Hollywood? a cautionary tale about movie stardom. Electrifying and enervating by turns, I changed my mind about this film probably three times while viewing it. It hits all the screenwriting marks – one hour into running time, things begin to change and at minute sixty-five Ally is taking over and the last hour is rife with issues. A lot of the problems are summed up by the term naturalistic – something that could be described as a substitute for acting technique by one half of the duo at the story’s centre:  scenes are too long and you long for some reaction shots. Jackson’s earthiness is juxtaposed with the savvy pop Ally manufactures at her manager’s behest.  These people are performing for very different audiences but the film is truly at its height when they are duetting despite their contrasting aesthetics. The last seventy-five minutes drag rather repetitively with the suicide scene and its inevitability triggered by Jack’s admission to the psychiatrist that he first attempted it aged 13 which just indicates what we already know. The Saturday Night Live performance scene is poorly judged. The downward spiral needed one more story beat – to show that Jackson had some will to live:  the appeal of this Evergreen story lies in the will to power transformation of the ugly duckling into the swan while her progenitor dies to make way for her celebrity. It seems too easy for one talent to surrender to another. It gains traction however from the powerful songs which were largely co-written by the stars (with other writers including Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son) and their performance in live settings as they tell the story of the relationship and the diverging destinations of the protagonists. It’s all about her really – as we see from the clever titles in blood red echoing Garland and the final shot, a massive close up on Ally’s jolie laide face. It’s more than forty years since the last incarnation which means we missed the Nineties version and one of the issues here which is lightly touched upon is how the nature of celebrity has altered through social media and paparazzi in an entirely new century – it’s handled just enough to remain cinematic without horrible phone screens and irritating typage appearing (thank you to the debutant director for this mercy). Their differing styles are heightened as he looks from his old school perspective at the dancers Rez has deployed to give Ally mass marketability onstage:  it’s not just popularity she wants, it’s world pop domination. What we know about the woman for whom the story now exists is inscribed in the screenplay: Lady Gaga’s own physical attributes – the nose job was covered, oh, a decade ago?! in her real life and it of course alludes to Streisand in the same role; while she (sort of) protests about photos that don’t even look like me and we have seen for ourselves Gaga’s gradually altering appearance offscreen, meat dresses notwithstanding; and her appeal to Little Monsters is managed through her association with drag queens and her makeover with icky red hair (she objects to the suggestion that she turn blonde – why?) and the content of her lyrics; while her voracious desire for multi-platform fame is given a cover by bringing on a vicious British manager to be the bad guy. The central mismatched lovers find their balance in their family issues – with Andrew Dice Clay coming off like a nice version of Amy Winehouse’s dad complete with his delusions of Sinatra-style infamy. Cooper’s problematically deep speaking voice for the role is actually addressed in the script when he tells big brother Sam Elliott I stole your voice which is both an in-joke and a nod to the audience’s familiarity with the western star’s growl;  Cooper’s self-effacing performance – which of course makes Gaga’s star shine brighter – makes this hard to endure since his alcoholic demise is hard-wired into our cultural DNA and sometimes it’s quite impossible to understand what he’s trying to say – ironically, since, his message here is, you need to make your voice heard. It’s well played because the pair are playing off each other’s inspiring talent albeit the vampirism quickly feels one-sided.  Still, it’s quite a double act, no matter how you feel about them. An imperfect but striking piece of work. Written by Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters (who says he was inspired by what happened to Kurt Cobain), adapted from Moss Hart’s 1954 screenplay which was an inspiration for the 1976 screenplay by John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion and Frank Pierson.  The 1937 screenplay was by William Wellman and Robert Carson while the original screenplay about star-crossed lovers colliding, What Price Hollywood?, was written by Adela Rogers St Johns and Louis Stevens. Directed by Bradley Cooper.  Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

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Every weapon is a tool if you hold it the right way. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is set in the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system. Denzel Washington stars as a driven, idealistic defence attorney whose life is upended when his mentor, civil rights icon William Jackson, dies after being in a permanent vegetative state following a heart attack.  Roman has been the backroom boy, a kind of savant talent unaccustomed to the rough and tumble of the courtroom where he immediately gets cited for contempt. He desperately needs money having no recourse to compensation for job loss.  He is recruited to join a firm led by one of the legendary man’s former students – the ambitious George Pierce (Colin Farrell) – and begins a friendship with Maya (Carmen Ejogo) a young champion of equal rights at a community centre but his old-fashioned views drive him out of an activists’ meeting. He is assigned to a case to defend a young black man who apparently assisted a man in the murder of a store worker. Roman receives privileged information about the shooter. What he does with that information turns his life upside down, triggering a turbulent series of events that put the activism that has defined his career to the test... What a freak. Admittedly while being a fan of the hugely talented Dan Gilroy this was a project I was half-dreading. The prospect of the great Denzel in a Black Panther  ‘fro, doing a quasi-autistic act put me right off:  it seemed like an actual throwback, the good guy against The Man. Indeed, his former employer is a hero to the civil rights movement which places this neatly in a time warp. However, from the Gil Scott-Heron soundtrack, literally permitting us entry into Roman’s brain, iPod permanently clamped to his head, this (eventually) sidesteps neatly around expectations in an LA-style shuffle.  It shifts at the midpoint sequence, when Roman takes his newly acquired money and treats himself first to maple turkey donuts (OMG) at the beach and buys some decent suits and Italian shoes to fit into the sleek new workplace. And then he gets a case that turns everything around and that buzzing in his ears isn’t interference, it’s the sound of justifiable paranoia due to inexplicable ethical failure. This is a different kind of LA-based alienation (and conscience) than that explored by Gilroy in Nightcrawler but when it ultimately gains traction (and it takes its sweet time) it’s hard not to like. The bigger plot point is one that is barely dealt with:  his lifelong class action project to defeat the plea bargaining scam that sees disproportionate numbers of black men in prison. Good construction, subtly pitting Roman Vs. George in the final third (and then against himself, in a neat legal argument) makes this a compelling protagonist-antagonist drama with a rather pleasing twist to a story that questions how far idealism can last in a world driven by the need to survive and the guilt that sometimes follows the money, no matter how badly it’s needed. How Roman changes George is the whole point in a strange character study that has echoes of the terrific Michael Tolkin screenplay for Changing Lanes;  how George’s bad guy persona infiltrates Roman’s value system is a sinister aspect defeated by the film’s conclusion which has it both ways.  I am the defendant and the plaintiff simultaneously. I know you get it!