The Natural (1984)

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I came here to play baseball.  In 1910s Nebraska Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) plays catch with his father who is killed by a tree hit by lightning. Roy makes a bat from the split tree and in 1923 tries out for the Chicago Cubs with girlfriend Iris (Glenn Close) in tow, meeting legendary Whammer (Joe Don Baker) and sports writer Max Mercy (Robert Duvall). He impresses the mysterious beauty Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) who had been fawning over Whammer. She is actually a celebrity stalker who turns up in Roy’s hotel room where she shoots him, apparently dead. Sixteen years later he has a chance as a rookie with bottom of the league New York Knights where he immediately becomes a star to the surprise of manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley).  He falls into the clutches of Pop’s niece Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) who is handmaiden to Gus Sands (Darren McGavin, unbilled) a ruthless bookie who loves betting against him. His form turns until a woman in white stands in the crowd and it’s Iris – who is unmarried but has a son. Mercy finally remembers where he first saw Roy who gets a chance as outfielder following the tragic death of colleague Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen) but the illness resulting from the shooting catches up with Roy and he’s on borrowed time … I used to look for you in crowds. Adapted by Roger Towne (brother of Robert) and Phil Dusenberry from Bernard Malamud’s novel, this is a play on myth and honour, with nods to mediaeval chivalry in its story of a long and arduous journey where Roy encounters the death of his father, bad and good women, resurrection, mentors and villains and lost opportunities and the chance at redemption. It’s a glorious tale, told beautifully and surprisingly economically with stunning imagery from Caleb Deschanel and a sympathetic score from Randy Newman. Redford seems too old at first but you forget about that because he inhabits Hobbs so totally and it’s so finely tuned. This allegorical take on the price you pay for success in America is expertly handled by director Barry Levinson, even if the novel’s ending is altered. I didn’t see it coming

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Liz & Dick (2012) (TVM)

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He treated me like a queen and I loved his voice. God how I loved his voice.  Anyone who knows anything about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton knows one thing above all else – they were never called Liz and Dick. Nobody would have dared. That aside, this is a gloriously kitschy exercise in flashback framed by an interview with them (that never happened in reality and culled from the many letters and notes Burton wrote to Taylor) in which they discuss their fatal attraction on the set of Cleopatra in 1962 , their subsequent adulterous relationship despite having children in their respective marriages, living together and making The VIPs and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  (Taylor insisted), tricky divorces, their wedding, their peripatetic lifestyle and decision to live on a boat because of the living expenses of two families travelling from set to set and regular house moves in the middle of a never-ending international paparazzi hunt.  It’s all here, with the immensely welcome if odd presence of the great Theresa Russell as Taylor’s mother Sara. Surely some mistake. Punctuated by fabulous jewellery, newspaper headlines, make-ups and bust-ups, heavy drinking, Taylor’s weight gain, Burton’s jealousy of her Academy Awards, the need to make films to solve financial problems and finally Burton’s alleged affair with Nathalie Delon which drove Taylor to a supposed assignation with Aristotle Onassis – at the centre of the chaos and tantrums is a couple whose sexual attraction to one another is overwhelming and quite incomprehensible to other people (a truism for most couples – the only thing these icons ever shared with mere mortals). What we have outside of the relationship is the nature of celebrity as it simply didn’t exist prior to this scandalous duo whose newsworthy antics even attracted the ire of the Vatican (‘erotic vagrancy’). Hello Lumpy! Lohan was roundly criticised for her portrayal and it’s true she doesn’t actually sound, look or move like Taylor but boy does she revel in the lines, like, Elizabeth wants to play. Strangely, she convinces more as the older Taylor with the frightwig and makeup. Bowler is adequate as Burton (even without the disproportionately large head) and underplays him quite well, but what is essential is what surrounds them – glamour, beauty, incredible locations. They literally had a dream of a life. What is clear in this evocation of the Battling Burtons is their need for constant reassurance and the one-upmanship resulting from their shared drive to always do better to keep on an even keel. I will love you even if you get as fat as a hippo. Burton’s descent into full-blown alcoholism upon the death of his brother Ifor (David Hunt) following a desperate fall in their home in Switzerland is the pivot to the real conclusion of the famous relationship, a second short-lived marriage following one of Taylor’s serious illnesses notwithstanding. There are a lot of books about them but if you want to see something as crazy, turbulent and tragic as they seem to have been, watch this. It’s wonderfully made, completely daft and utterly compelling. Written by Christopher Monger and directed by Lloyd Kramer. I want more

 

The Dreamers (2003)

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Before you can change the world you must realize that you, yourself, are part of it. You can’t stand outside looking in.  In May 1968, the student riots in Paris exacerbate the isolation felt by three youths:  American exchange student Matthew (Michael Pitt) and twins Théo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green). Having bonded over their mutual love of cinema, Matthew is fascinated by the intimacy shared by Isabelle and Théo, who were born conjoined. When the twins’ bohemian parents go away for a month, they ask Matthew to stay at their apartment, and the three lose themselves in a fantasy straight out of the movies that dominate their daydreams … I was one of the insatiables. The ones you’d always find sitting closest to the screen. Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first. Adapted by the late Gilbert Adair (how I miss him) from his novel The Holy Innocents (inspired by Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles) this insinuates itself into the mind and the senses as surely as the French brother and sister at its heavily beating cinéphile’s heart. Scrupulously tracing the evolution of a romantic sensibility alongside a political education, this merges a rites of passage story with social and personal revolution in intelligently provocative fashion, fusing Adair’s narrative with director Bernardo Bertolucci’s sympathy for youthful yearning. And it’s sexy as hell, this movie about movies and movie lovers and passion and politics. Green is enigmatic and brave and beautiful, while the boys’ attraction for one another, emerging as a homosexual encounter in the original screenplay, is sacrificed by Bertolucci, whose sexual depictions are always of the hetero variety. There’s a delectable selection of movie clips and songs on the soundtrack of this startlingly beautiful dream of a film. The first time I saw a movie at the cinémathèque française I thought, “Only the French… only the French would house a cinema inside a palace”

Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998) (TVM)

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I want to be loved. 1940s New York City: Jacqueline Susann (Michele Lee) is a second-string theatre actress and well-known party girl who turns to journalism following her marriage to press agent turned producer Irving Mansfield (Peter Riegert). Though constantly surrounded by the glitterati of the theatre and social scene she doesn’t achieve celebrity status herself and has to endure the tragedy of a brain-damaged son who has to be institutionalised. Then when she’s 47,  she publishes the raunchy bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls. Outwardly committed to publicising her work and involved in regular cross-country media campaigns, she privately battles cancer and constantly questions her troubled relationship with her society portraitist father Robert (Kenneth Welsh) who never got around to finishing her picture …  Everything I do is for you. Everything I make is for you. Treading much straighter territory than Isn’t She Great (the Bette Midler version) this adaptation by Michele Gallery of Barbara Seaman’s biography Lovely Me ironically strays indirectly and presumably unintentionally into camp now and then, and it doesn’t really do justice to the genius of its subject but Lee is excellent as this spiky confrontational woman who did things her own way. For anyone interested in the backstage antics of NYC’s post-war theatre scene with big personalities like Ethel Merman (Gloria Slade), the evolution of publishing and the making of the notorious film of Susann’s most famous novel with Barbara Parkins (Annie Laurie Williams), Patty Duke (Melanie Peterson) and the lovely Sharon Tate (Leila Johnson), there are residual attractions, but the drivers of this biopic are the private tragedies of the woman who revolutionised modern publishing by establishing her own critic-proof brand of sex and sass. Directed by Bruce McDonald. You don’t cook, you don’t clean, you never stay in. My life is never going to be dull

Williams: Formula 1 In The Blood (2017)

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The accident didn’t just happen to Frank, it happened to everybody. Frank Williams’ career as an F1 team boss didn’t quite end in 1986 as his eponymous team was cresting towards major success but his mobility was brought to a crashing conclusion at a wall in the South of France when he was rushing to the airport to get back home to England. He was in and out of consciousness for six weeks after snapping his spine in two and became a quadriplegic overnight.  His team would come visit him at the London Hospital to regale a man barely alive about the latest intra-team spats between Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell simply to try and keep him going. The man who ran 12 miles a day and competed in marathons was subsequently confined to a wheelchair. This revolves around his refusal to engage with his family’s desire to come to terms with the horrific accident and how they handled it – he simply never mentioned it and got on with things, unable to share a bed with wife Ginny and looked after by a 24/7 carer. Ginny wrote a book (A Different Kind of Life) in 1991 which she recorded in secret with the help of a writer friend. The conflict in the film is this: Frank has never read it while his daughter Claire, now team boss (and says I never expected to be given the keys to the shop) is in tears at the fact that her mother died of cancer in 2013 without the couple ever discussing its contents, namely her anguish at his physical destruction.  Ginny’s absence is the most powerful presence in the story. The narration is primarily excerpts from the book (filmed to her audio as staged reconstruction, like the crash) but visually the film mostly consists of Claire Williams interviewed today and archive footage starting with Williams in his early career as a Northern chancer selling spare parts, obsessed with becoming a driver and sharing a flat with posh Etonians, one of whom, Piers Courage, died in one of his early cars. The film concludes with Claire reading to her father from Ginny’s book and there are perhaps a few tears in the man’s eyes.  It’s a feeble conclusion considering the breadth of his actions. The impact of his own attitudes was borne at far greater price by third parties, the team’s recent failure to achieve podium finishes notwithstanding, a terrible fate for an old school marque. Williams’ imperturbable visage had a quite different, sinister affect when he was introduced (like Count Dracula) in slo-mo in Asif Kapadia’s magnificent Senna, clearly the villain of that tragic piece, when he and Patrick Head forced the greatest driver of my lifetime, who was at the forefront of the F1 driver safety campaign, into a dangerous car to his death, literally cut off in his prime. This is the flipside of Williams’ refusal to engage with humanity, open his mouth and speak. Sadly, when you look at this old, strangely enigmatic quadriplegic, dead from the neck down, you realise that sometimes bad things can really happen to bad people. It’s a vital story in F1 history but it’s hard to care. Featuring interviews with Mansell, Peter Windsor (who was in the crash with Williams), Jackie Stewart and Head. Directed by Morgan Matthews.

Arthur Miller: Writer (2017)

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Filmmaker Rebecca Miller’s documentary about her playwright father is a mesmerising portrait of one of the midcentury’s most important artistes and commentators, utilising home movies, letters, newsreel footage, and interviews she recorded with him and his siblings and her mother and Mike Nichols.  Excerpts of Miller’s recording of his autobiography Timebends are interspersed with Rebecca’s own voice to create a narrative. I.  Origins. I used to think that a play was about what was between the spoken lines. Growing up with a sub-literate fabric cutter Polish immigrant father and flamboyant, gifted mother, the young Arthur Miller was accustomed to wealth and comfort but that was all removed overnight with the Wall Street Crash when their circumstances were radically reduced. He worked in factories and read Dostoyevsky on the subway and his life was transformed. He wrote plays in college and married a midwestern Catholic democrat and his politics altered from communism to liberalism because he couldn’t see a place for the individual otherwise. She wanted an intellectual, a Jew, an artist. And I wanted America. That’s Miller not describing second wife Marilyn Monroe, but his first wife, Mary. Between the lines you get the sense that for him, relationships were somewhat transactional.  His daughter Jane recalls thinking that her conversations with him were material: There were times when he was only interested in something because he could use it. II. Broadway. I knew you were worse than most men, but I thought you were better. Mary was his toughest critic, his first play on Broadway was a failure but his second was All My Sons which he wrote in a wooden hut he built for himself. He wrote the first act during one night, the second in six weeks. Then he sat by the phone, waiting. Nichols states of the work that he believed burned out Miller, It’s so close to the tragedy. It’s so alive.  Miller met Elia Kazan and they formed a friendship or even brotherhood that weathered political storms. Kazan introduced him to his on-off lover Marilyn Monroe on the set of the 1951 film As Young as You Feel and Miller told her, I think you’re the saddest girl I ever met. He used the line in The Misfits a decade later when their five-year marriage was combusting. The big thing is not to make simple things complicated but to make complicated things comprehensible. III. PoliticsArt is long, life is short. I forgot the Latin. He says Kazan was the greatest theatre director of realistic material and was dismayed by his decision to name names but clarifies that it was the fault of the HUAC as well as the studio that said he would never make films again if he failed to do so. For Miller, the victims experience guilt – about other things. The guilt of the victim was interesting to me. That is the subject of the allegorical The Crucible, in which he memorialises Marilyn Monroe in the character of Abigail while his own wife is personified by John Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth. He met Monroe in 1951 and began an affair. When they married, he was pursued by HUAC and she posed for photographs with the Committee, helping expedite his suspended sentence while he felt he was reenacting his own play. Even the fascists have to be entertaining. IV. Home. Miller talks about writing on the verge of embarrassment, revealing things that are essentially secret, even in symbolic fashion. He describes to Mike Wallace his failure to create  significant work during the Monroe marriage with the throwaway line, I was taking care of her. He neglects to mention that she was paying his way and getting him writing jobs. However, he also declares, There’s no explaining a person like that. Terrible. Well.  He describes her as being in some ways the most repressed person imaginable. He wrote The Misfits in tribute to her, allegedly, but of course we know that he and John Huston and Eli Wallach conspired to turn her character into a prostitute and it was Gable who saved her from that indignity.  After the Fall in 1964 was crucified because it was such a direct attack on her, with Maggie her clear avatar, Quentin his. He was trying to make sense of the century’s most famous marriage.  Following her death he married Inge Morath, the Look photographer whose father was a Nazi. Miller’s children from his first marriage say Morath made the Connecticut house (that Monroe bought for him) into a home. Do you think Dad had a weak spot for being adored? Rebecca asks his siblings about his marriages. It’s rhetorical.  V. Out of Place. Other than The Price, the Sixties were not happy years for the playwright and the Seventies were downright barren not due to his output but due to the brutal critical reception in the US. Abroad, he was still admired.  He had few friends. He was a very different man at home to the man interviewed on talk shows. It took Dustin Hoffman’s 1985 revival of Death of a Salesman for Miller’s stock to rise again. Rebecca’s younger brother was born in the mid Sixties with Down’s Syndrome and the Millers had him institutionalised. Miller did not acknowledge his existence or even visit him until he was an adult, leaving all that to his wife. Rebecca intended interviewing her father about this but never got around to it while he was alive. He says to his daughter that sons have it harder because there is an element of competition with the father. His older son Bobby produced the film version of The Crucible that introduced Rebecca to her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis.  Teasing the man she knew from the man perceived in the wider world is what this film does best even if it’s limited by their relationship and the lack of emphasis on the content and style of his playwriting. Children create these definitions, says Miller. They have to.  When asked what he wanted in his obituary, Miller responded, Writer.

The Victors (1963)

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The whole world is full of love. A group of American soldiers manages to survive over the course of World War II, from the Battle of Britain, moving up through Sicily and France and Germany to the fall of the Third Reich and a station in occupied Berlin in the war’s aftermath. Along the way, a number of unfortunate incidents occur:  white soldiers violently abuse fellow black soldiers, a deserter is executed on New Year’s Eve and a sergeant takes advantage of a shell-shocked French woman. War is hell for the winners and the losers in this episodic meditation on the horrors that exist on and off the field of battle… Have a good time tonight? Find someone to rape? Irony is writ large in this film – starting with the title. These guys victors? God help us all. What they do to a little dog following Peter Fonda as he leaves camp doesn’t bear a second viewing. They are racist, vicious, narcissistic thugs. But hey, they’re ours! That’s really the point of this anti-war anti-blockbuster from auteur Carl Foreman, the formerly blacklisted screenwriter who gave us the joyous Guns of Navarone. So we see Vince Edwards make nice with young Italian mother Rosanna Schiaffino, Eli Wallach generously gives widowed Jeanne Moreau a break from the bombs in exchange for food, George Hamilton falls for the duplicitous musician Romy Schneider and George Peppard has an unpleasant encounter with Melina Mercouri. There is a bitter conclusion in the post-war experience as drunken Russian soldier Albert Finney in a very showy role exercises the ultimate droit de seigneur of the fatal variety. Interspersed with newsreels and taking us through the entire WW2 as a series of personal vignettes, we are oddly removed from any kind of empathy because these really are not nice guys. We get it:  nobody’s a winner. The snow field execution while Sinatra croons Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is duly horrifying. Adapted by Foreman from the novel The Human Kind by Alexander Baron who himself served in Sicily, Normandy and Belgium through D-Day.  Directed by Carl Foreman and shot by the great Christopher Challis.  I don’t think I can ever be frightened again

 

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

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We are living in an era marked by the spread of integration and miscegenation. In the early 1970 Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself and serve in the tradition of his ex-military father, Stallworth wants to progress from the Records Room where he is daily dealt racist remarks by a colleague.  He sets out on a dangerous mission: an undercover sting operation to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. Together with a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), they team up to take down the extremist hate group as the organisation aims to sanitise its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream and they befriend the head of the local chapter, the charismatic Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) with Jewish Flip posing as Stallworth who has befriended David Duke (Topher Grace) on the telephone. Then Stallworth is assigned to Duke’s protection detail when he comes to town to officiate at the initiation of new recruits to The Organisation …  If I would have known this was a Klan meeting, I wouldn’t have taken this motherfucking gig. Goddamn. That stylish loudmouth Spike Lee has never been backward about coming forward so this confrontational true story about the KKK and more widespread issues of racism in America is as broad as it’s long, making links from the opening Gone With the Wind excerpt to the ghastly leg-spreading exams carried out by the Colorado cops on black college students who’ve been to a Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) event. The 1950s public service announcement in the prologue featuring Dr Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) lamenting the spread of integration and miscegenation is about as subtle as this comedy-drama gets with a Scooby Doo plot that is so silly you couldn’t make it up if it hadn’t actually happened – you cannot remotely sympathise with the KKK, especially as they are planning violence against the students whose union is led by the lovely Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) – and it concludes with footage of the 2017 Charlottesville race riots including footage of the real David Duke, inherently negating all that has passed before it dramatically. Washington has an amazing hairdo and Driver is fine but this is a sledgehammer polemic intended for an already ‘woke’ audience. Written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Lee.  That detective is Ron Stallworth, you racist, peckerwood, redneck, inch worm, needle-dick motherfucker!

Hiroshima, mon amour (1959)

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Does the night never end in Hiroshima? The conversation between a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) and a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) in Hiroshima 15 years after the end of World War II. The couple were adulterous lovers overnight and now are friends talking, trusting each other with intimate stores. They recount, over the course of many hours, previous romances and life experiences. The two intertwine their stories about the past with pondering the devastation wrought by the atomic bomb dropped on the city… Novelist Marguerite Duras’ collaboration with debut feature director Alain Resnais is an epic of love and war, a simply structured idea that revels in the complexity of its uniqueness, the erotic conjoined with the political, in which human flesh becomes covered in the residue of disaster as the couple struggle to understand the past. Hiroshima can never be Nevers in France and the chasm of memory between the lovers is intractable in this brief encounter dictated by history and a need for understanding. An astonishing, transformative film, a properly modern cinematic work as radical now as it was in 1960. With a soundtrack by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco. Hiroshima, c’est ton nom

Night and Fog (1955)

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Alain Resnais is unique in the French New Wave. He was the sole enquirer into the Holocaust. Every other filmmaker camouflaged and did away with political analysis in favour of winsome, humorous cinematic style and a rhetoric lacking in nerve. Perhaps it was due to the level of collaboration with the Nazi regime and the Vichy government that formed so much of the recent past.  This is not a pretty history. With a script by Mauthusen-Gusen survivor Jean Cayrol and Chris Marker, voiced by Michel Boquet, and a deceptively urgent score by Hanns Eisler, we are brought into the realm of German horror, a genocide manufactured at the behest of Amin al-Husseini. Integrating newsreel footage with contemporary colour film shot in Auschwitz and Majdanek in Poland by Ghislain Cloquet and Sacha Vierny this is a solemn narration of a true crime made all the more significant in a restive period of anti-semitism. This week alone saw the remains of six nameless victims of the concentration camps buried in England, given a dignity they never had in life;  and a cross-party coalition in the Irish Republic brought the Occupied Territories Bill before Parliament in a stark reminder that anti-semitism is overt, the territory of braggarts, and there are many in positions of power who would deny Jews their right to exist and the right of Israel to flourish.  A few years ago the Irish government voted to support the administration of Hamas – an Islamist extremist group whose constitution includes the admonition It is the duty of all Moslems to kill Jews on sight. Israel is rapidly becoming a safe haven for European Jews as Islam’s tentacles reach further afield. It is spreading in Europe courtesy not only of the pernicious Eastern Europeans assimilating in their millions in the British Isles but also because of the unstoppable immigration problem from North Africa and the Near East, with millions flooding in, urged on by a Germany that is constantly on the rise and currently in charge of Europe. Today is the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Let us never forget. L’chaim.