20th Century Women (2016)

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Wondering if you’re happy is a shortcut to being depressed. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California.  Architect Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a sprawling 1905 fixer-upper boarding house at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion.  William (Billy Crudup) the contractor renting a room doesn’t seem like an appropriate father figure so Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women – Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the house and neighbour Julie (Elle Fanning) a savvy and provocative teenage neighbour who often spends the night sleeping there – to help with Jamie’s upbringing. Trouble is, she doesn’t really like what’s happening to him and finds it difficult to reconcile the female-centric education with the man she wants him to be … Mike Mills’ autobiographical film has something of an arm’s length feel which you can surmise from the title. In creating this portrait of his mother he is keen to contextualise her in terms of her time and the opportunities open to her. Jamie often excuses the attitudes of this quasi-androgynous high-achieving divorcee with the line, Don’t worry about Mom, she’s from the Depression. Framing his semi-biographical comic drama in the terms of feminist and punk politics sometimes seems like a microscope powered by sociology is being applied in a film essay style instead of a dramatic eye when you want these lives to intersect more. However the drama is triggered by the opening scene when the family car spontaneously combusts in a parking lot.  It’s a good catalyst for the series of events to follow as Jamie’s adolescence progresses and Dorothea says in a moment of truth to Abbie, You get to see him out in the world and I never will. It’s a startling admission and something in these lines fuels a powerful drama that’s concealed between the smarts and upfront sex talk. Look at Bening’s face when her son tells her he thinks it’s good for him to be informed about clitoral stimulation. She’s the one who wanted him to learn how to be a man after all – she just didn’t know how it would make her feel when he goes out of his way to learn how to be a good man. There’s a lot to like here in an ironic mode and in a sense it’s crystallised by the cultural references – culminating in the clips from Koyaanisqatsi and Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech when he says the country is at a turning point:  they serve to illuminate the theme of the personal as political.  We are all living in the fallout from what was going on in northern Cali in the late 70s and Mills captures this in an uncanny fashion, fixing on a time that has birthed where we are now (albeit now it’s monetised). The production design is just right – the mix of the early 70s vogue for Art Nouveau with the well-placed mushroom lamp, the battle between Talking Heads and Black Flag fans which has a visual result on the doors of Dorothea’s Bug. There are a lot of good aesthetic and narrative choices here coupled with some very sympathetic performances amid a raft of generational and gendered experiences, Abbie and Julie’s mother issues being succinctly handled in parallel stories within medical and therapeutic settings. There is of course a nostalgic air but it’s cut through with intellectual argument bathed in California sun. Sensitive, seductive, suprising and satisfying.

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Chariots of Fire (1981)

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Run in God’s name and let the world stand back in wonder.  In the early 1920s, two determined young English runners train for the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a devout Christian born to Scottish missionaries in China, sees running as part of his worship of God’s glory and refuses to train or compete on the Sabbath. Cambridge student Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) overcomes anti-Semitism and class bias, but neglects his beloved sweetheart Sybil (Alice Krige) in his single-minded quest and then there is the opportunity to prove themselves at Olympics where they will encounter the world’s fastest runners, a pair of Americans … Lauded at the time of release, and prompting screenwriter Colin Welland’s famous but empty threat, The British are coming! this now plays like a very staid exercise frozen in aspic despite the lively intellectual drive – reconciling notions of religion, duty, patriotism, obsession, love – and the wonderful cast. This mostly true story has its moments but they are heavily signposted. The title sequence on the beach of the athletes training in slow motion to Vangelis’ outstanding electronic score is justly famous and it’s repeated at the conclusion. In between are conflicts played out both on the track and off it and there’s a Greek chorus of sorts by John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson (of all people!) whereby a streak of prejudice and elitism in the echelons of academia is revealed. The issue of race – both kinds – is repeated in Abrahams’ choice of coach, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) who is half Arab and brings the taint of professionalism into play. Produced by David Puttnam, executive produced by Dodi Fayed and directed (in his feature debut) by adman Hugh Hudson who does his best to dress up a low budget epic. The tragic coda to the film if not the story is that two of its stars, Charleson, and Brad Davis (who plays Jackson Scholz), died of AIDS within 18 months of each other a decade later.

Second Chorus (1940)

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I said ‘music,’ and Father said ‘bottlecaps.’ Father won. Two New England college music students Danny O’Neill (Fred Astaire) and Hank Taylor (Burgess Meredith) repeatedly fail their exams so that they can stay in college and play in their band, O’Neill’s Perennials. They change their attitude, however, when they meet Ellen Miller (Paulette Goddard) who agrees to be their manager and both attempt to woo her as a way of eventually getting a job in Artie Shaw’s band but Shaw woos Ellen to be his secretary and the guys fail their auditions. Ellen tries to persuade millionaire J. Lester Chisholm (Charles Butterworth) a wannabe mandolin player to fund a concert which will debut Danny’s song but the guys get in the way and muck it up by pretending to be married to her.  To get things back on track they have to keep this eccentric backer Chisholm from forcing Shaw to have him play at their gig … Astaire and Meredith are the oldest students in movies and if that’s a silly premise in itself (albeit I knew someone who failed for twenty years to avail of a family bequest which lasted as long as he stayed in college) and this occasionally veers on the puerile (even for B-movie standards) it’s still hard to dislike.  Astaire’s masquerade as a Russian refugee performing his nation’s songs is funny and at some point the film has to incorporate his dancing expertise – which it does as he conducts his own composition in the concluding concert number with aplomb and a little tap. Butterworth is drolly amusing. Goddard is luminously beautiful, as you’d expect and acquits herself well in a murderous dance sequence (I Ain’t Hep to that Step But I’ll Dig It) with Astaire but clarinet supremo and band leader Shaw is no thesp. Dig that swing, though! Billy Butterfield dubbed Meredith’s trumpet solo while Bobby Hackett played for Astaire. Musos will recognise several numbers. Frank Cavett wrote the story while the screenplay is by Elaine Ryan and Ian McLellan Hunter with uncredited contributions by songwriter Johnnny Mercer and Ben Hecht. That’s quite the band. Directed by H.C. Potter.

 

Nina (2016)

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Take me to the water. It’s 1988. Singer Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana) is financially unsound, mentally unstable and an alcoholic with her performing and activist heyday far behind her. After threatening a lawyer with a gun, she is committed in a psychiatric hold to an LA hospital. She hires nursing orderly Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo) as an assistant. He accompanies her back to her home in the south of France where she continues drinking heavily and declining to take medication for her bipolar condition. She is confrontational and verbally abusive and uses Clifton to procure men for one-night stands. He returns to the US. Meanwhile she has a biopsy which requires treatment. She turns up at Clifton’s family home in Chicago and asks him to manage her. Clifton attempts to book shows in France, but nearly no one wants to deal with Nina’s difficult behavior. Nonetheless, his efforts eventually pay off and she performs successfully at a gig. He gets a studio and she begins recording new music. It is implied that they begin a sexual relationship. Worried about her health, he convinces her to undergo surgery for her cancer. Once recovered, Nina returns to America for a live performance in Central Park. A crowd flocks to see her and she opens her concert with Feeling Good… The very capable Zoe Saldana is a thirtysomething woman playing a woman in her sixties. She performs the songs herself – and while she has a voice, it is not Simone’s voice. Her casting was criticised by Simone’s daughter on the grounds that she’s not black enough – and that is a horrifying criticism even if it’s true and she’s much too thin and pretty and sports the kind of prosthetics that got Nicole Kidman an Oscar but even that’s not the problem. Albeit it is frankly strange to understand why a black woman needs to black up to play another black woman.  (Pardon me if I don’t understand the politics of blackness…) The issue is the narrative by writer/director Cynthia Mort and how the casting of Saldana might have been better utilised to portray an earlier phase in Simone’s life – as it was, Simone actually stated she wanted Whoopi Goldberg to play her some day and you can’t help thinking of that as you watch this unspool through untruthfulness. Clifton’s homosexuality is coyly if crudely referenced. The concert in Central Park? Never happened. What did happen was that when Nick Cave once curated an event at which Simone was performing she had two items on her rider – cocaine and sausages.  Mississippi Goddam!

Molly’s Game (2017)

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The United States versus Molly Bloom. The true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) a beautiful, young, Olympic-class freestyle skier trained by her father (Kevin Costner) who had a terrible accident that stopped her in her tracks aged 22 and she turned to running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade in LA then NYC before being arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Her players included Hollywood royalty, sports stars, business titans and … the Russian mob which she didn’t know about but she’s indicted all the same. She’s broke, her money’s on the street, she has no friends. Her only ally is her criminal defence lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) who learns there was much more to Molly than the tabloids led people to believe… This should be a screwball comedy but the stakes aren’t really high enough and most of the time Molly isn’t the protagonist, she’s more of a stooge to several men whose power she threatens.  Aaron Sorkin turns his own poker hand to directing with this adaptation of the well-publicised book by Bloom. What it has aside from a woman with daddy issues and an incredible brain are some insights into one vastly overrated charming pillow-lipped actor (I’m lying, obvs) who isn’t named here but everyone knows his poker habit and that he married the studio boss’ daughter (they’re now divorced, he’s not been onscreen for ages) and what he does to Molly is … what you’d expect. So this devolves into sexist power-playing and cheating. The difference between sport, playing poker, gambling and cheating is the axis on which the narrative rests, and those slim timings between winning and losing and trusting what you know rather than letting the other fellow game you with a duff hand. I’m agnostic about Chastain although as critic Tom Shone has it, she doesn’t care whether we like her. In real life, Bloom is a very interesting woman. Here, despite her smarts, it takes her psychologist/nemesis father to give her the dimestore truths about what’s screwed her up (and it’s very obvious, just not to her). It’s just a shame it takes 125 minutes to get the three-year diagnosis in the three minutes it actually takes. However it’s structurally relevant because she has undercut him as a kid by issuing her high school teacher’s critique of Freud in an attempt to undermine his profession over family dinner. There is a good supporting cast:  Michael Cera is the Movie Star, Chris O’Dowd is the Irish American schmuck who turns informer for the FBI, Brian d’Arcy James is the idiot loser who turns out to be something else entirely, Bill Camp is the serious player who loses everything. The voiceover narration (somewhat unreliable, given that it’s from an addict suppressing her memories) is both irritating and enlightening. The exchanges with Elba are problematic – as ever he has diction issues so he’s not as fluid as Chastain and you take cover for fear of his spittle reaching beyond the screen. However as long-winded and prolix as this is (and thank goodness there’s very little time spent in court and none walking/talking) it’s almost a relief to see a film that doesn’t require the female to have sex with the leading man, even if he’s permitted to win a verbal battle concerning The Crucible and she has to take a horrible beating courtesy of some very nasty Joisey mooks. What this probably needed is the conclusion that the real (literary) Molly Bloom has courtesy of James Joyce, referenced here several times: a final, stinging monologue that takes everyone down. But even Sorkin knows he can’t outplay the master and Molly has learned what she knew all along – trust nobody. The only problem is after 140 minutes it really doesn’t amount to a hill of poker chips.  Adapted by Sorkin from Bloom’s memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker.

It Started in Naples (1960)

 

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It’s thinking in Italian I need to learn.  The younger black sheep brother of American lawyer Michael Hamilton (Clark Gable) has died with his wife in a car crash in Italy so it falls to him to take care of business which includes their eight-year old son Nando (Marietto Angeletti). He decides he will bring the boy back with him to Philadelphia. But when Nando’s gorgeous aunt, Lucia Curcio (Sophia Loren) protests a lengthy and heated custody battle ensues. The boy is a bit of an endearing wiseass and Lucia is a lady of infinitely risque abilities starting with her dancing job at a club. So when he takes charge of the kid who doesn’t want to leave the pigsty he’s living in there are complications not least Michael’s own growing feelings for Lucia … There are a lot of inconsistencies in this film – not the least is the mismatch between the ageing Gable and the very young Loren – and his expanding girth didn’t help:  apparently he developed such a craving for Italian food on location his weight ballooned. Watch him get bigger as the film progresses! However his evolving friendship with Nando, the romance between himself and Lucia which at first seems fake but then it’s not, and the astonishing scenery shot by Robert Surtees make up for a lot. And there’s the chance to see Loren’s mentor the great Vittorio De Sica in the role of her lawyer, not to mention her version of Americano. That and the religious procession reminds me of the scene-setting in The Talented Mister Ripley decades later. The story by Michael Pertwee & Jack Davies was developed as a screenplay by Jack Rose, the legendary Suso Cecchi D’Amico and director Melville Shavelson who does Loren a disservice in the musical sequences. Heck, it’s so pretty! Tu vuo fa americano!

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

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My number’s Pennsylvania 6-5000. Glenn Miller (James Stewart) is a young impoverished trombonist who pawns the instrument every time he leaves his latest band because nobody wants to use his arrangements: he hears music in a certain way but hasn’t the means to achieve his own orchestra, at least not yet. He’s confident it’ll happen some day just as he is that Helen (June Allyson) the girl he once dated at college in Colorado will marry him so he buys her a fake string of pearls and gets her to see him for the first time in two years despite her being engaged to someone else. Then he disappears again.  When she agrees to meet him in NYC she marries him and while he falls in and out of jobs she gets him to form his own crew with the money she squirrelled away without his knowing and by 1939 he has one of the biggest swing bands in the US … This biographical film is just so good it’s hard to know where to start:  the transitions which are so brilliantly inscribed by visually expert director Anthony Mann, particularly in the early scenes when the pawn shop is so central to Miller’s whole life;  the ease with which we grasp Miller’s misery at not being able to translate the music in his head to live performance (the squirming during a showgirl’s bowdlerized delivery of Moonlight Serenade has to be seen to be believed); the simple way the adoption of their children is handled; and the depiction of friendship with pianist Chummy (Henry Morgan) and its significance to running a smooth band. If you’re a jazz fan you’ll get a shiver of recognition every time a familiar chord strikes up and kudos to arranger Henry Mancini (who had played with Miller and was part of the ‘ghost’ band made up of the original and the Army Air Force players when he died) who errs just the right side of easy. There’s another recognition factor too – watching Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa perform is another plus;  as is the scene in London during a German bombing raid when the band play on in the open air – and the audience applaud once they get up again. Stewart is splendid in the title role and his resemblance to Miller doesn’t hurt. He was paired previously with Allyson in The Stratton Story and would work with her again in director Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command. This was the star and director’s fifth film collaboration  (out of eight) and the first non-Western. It was a huge hit, as was the soundtrack album and is a genuinely thrilling musical which will give real fans immense pleasure. There’s a great final scene with that little brown jug. Gulp. Written by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper.

Live By Night (2016)

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What you put out in the world will always come back to you but never how you predict. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is the WW1-weary son of Irish-American police officer (Brendan Gleeson) who tries to be good but you know how it is. He’s trying to make his way as a small-time crook in 1927 Boston but crosses paths with gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister) by stealing from him and sleeping with his sassy Irish girlfriend Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). He’s blackmailed by White’s rival mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to kill White or he’ll rat on the affair so robs a bank to flee to California with Emma. That was the original plan but police officers get killed and Emma apparently drowns being chased by police after White came close to killing Joe. Despite the efforts of his father he serves three years in prison for the police killings and his father is dead when he gets out so he does a deal with Piscatore to take over his rum business in Florida where he can get revenge on White. It means setting up business with Suarez (Miguel Pimentele) and he shacks up with his sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana). He and his sidekick Dion (Chris Messina) take over and then someone thought dead turns up in a photograph and Maso has a showdown with Joe and it turns into a triple cross situation  … There are a lot of admirable things in this production: the settings, the design (even if the cars are way too clean), some brilliant lines (rather than exchanges of dialogue) and a depiction of the Prohibition era in Florida that introduces the Ku Klux Klan into the mix because these gangsters are Catholic. Affleck’s commitment to bringing Dennis Lehane’s Boston Irish mythology to the screen is to be commended but his waxy inexpressiveness is central to why this doesn’t work (blank is simply not a good look in a gangster movie). Miller makes him look better than he is in their scenes together – they crackle – but she departs the story early. All the bits are here, they just don’t add up, and that usually leads us back to the screenwriter – also Affleck. There are plotlines thrown away in a photograph or a newspaper cutting. There are technical issues too – some of the sound mix particularly at the beginning is poor. A smarter filmmaker would have dropped a lot of the overhead shots and the dumb narration (look at how it doesn’t work and compare it with Goodfellas!) and cast a better actor in the lead:  just watch how Chris Cooper in his small role as police chief Figgis in Tampa wipes the floor with Affleck in his first scene and listen to him deliver the line about a fallen world. That’s when he introduces his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) who’s on her way to a Hollywood screen test:  bad move. This storyline takes a good turn paying off in a parable about evangelical Protestantism but the conclusion is just dumped for yet another newspaper story after a scene which unravels the sins of fathers who want better things for their kids. Oedipal scenarios aside, this is a guy who traffics liquor and murders people but still thinks he’s his father’s good son. Affleck looks quite laughable in his oversized suit but then you realise that he resembles legendary screen heavy Lawrence Tierney who was so incredibly nasty in days of yore.  Hmmm! What might have been. Oh! The vanity!

Born to be Blue (2015)

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This faux biography of a particular episode in Chet Baker’s life plays fast and loose with the truth – which is not really what you expect. Ethan Hawke is Baker in 1954, when he’s the James Dean of jazz, getting his first hit of heroin; then he’s Baker in 1966, making a film about himself, when his dealer breaks his front teeth and almost ruins his playing career. He takes up with Jane (Carmen Ejogo) the actress playing his ex-wife Elaine and endures the usual cycle of movie portrayals of jazz musicians/junkies:  getting in trouble with the cops, making good with his parents, cleaning up, getting his girl pregnant, getting a chance again, getting hooked again. The big scene – Baker singing My Funny Valentine, the one everyone knows – doesn’t add up to much dramatically speaking despite it being quite literally the sweet spot in his career. The big irony in this interpretation is that he berates his father (Stephen McHattie) for giving up on his talent but then he has so little belief in his own that he thinks he needs heroin to play again at Birdland – a long sought gig  – after he’s got accustomed to his dentures. There are some lines thrown away about the difference between east and west coast music and Baker’s desperate quest to impress Miles Davis. The other subtext of Baker’s story was his weird desire to be part of the black community – hence his relationships with black women one presumes. This just raises more questions than it can answer. A bleak, joyless film that never conveys the utterly unfathomable improvisable beauty of a genre that I love. Written and directed by Robert Budreau.

Lost in Translation (2003)

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I would love to get some sleep. What an arresting film this is. It starts with a closeup of a woman’s behind, clad in pink panties. She’s lying in her room at the Tokyo Hyatt while her photographer husband is off doing his thing. They’re a very young married couple. She is bored. She is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), he is John (Giovanni Ribisi). When she calls home for support her mother misunderstands so she pretends she’s having a good time. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a huge film star, in the city to shoot some ads for Suntory whisky. He notices Charlotte in the elevator but later it turns out she doesn’t remember seeing him. He endures ridiculous directions on the set of his commercial and doesn’t believe the translator is telling him everything the director wants (she’s not). He encounters Charlotte at the hotel bar where a band called Sausalito performs cover versions. They sympathise with each other and then wind up spending time together. She can’t bear her husband’s acquaintances, especially the nutty movie star Kelly (Anna Faris) who masquerades under the pseudonym Evelyn Waugh: he thinks his wife is a condescending snob when she points out Evelyn Waugh was a man. Charlotte and Bob hang out, explore this alien city, so brilliantly shot by Lance Acord, who used no additional lighting in that neon landscape and a lot of the stuff in railway stations was shot minus permits so it’s loose and documentary-like.  Murray is so specific and yet relaxed and it’s one of the great film performances, awarded with a BAFTA. Johansson is no less good with her very different style, duly noted by BAFTA voters too. Coppola had spent time in Japan and the character of Bob is supposedly based on family friend Harrison Ford with Charlotte a riff (perhaps) on herself. There are some great sequences with the limpid photography sensing something – let’s call it empathy – between the two in various iconic locations:  the karaoke bar; the strip club; escaping Kelly’s terrible singing in the hotel; the hospital; lying on a bed together with Bob holding Charlotte’s injured foot (how very fitting in a country famous for the foot fetish) and finally falling asleep. His inevitable sexual encounter with the lounge singer doesn’t surprise us because when he tells his wife on the phone I feel lost she doesn’t understand. It’s a twenty-five year old marriage and Charlotte is so young and yet they both come to an understanding about their private situations with this mutual experience of incomprehension and loneliness. When he tries to explain to Charlotte how he feels about his life he says having a family is hard. She gets it but deflects it by asking him has he bought a Porsche. So much of life is lost in translation even in funny scenes such as when Bob is at the TV station with the Japanese equivalent of a lunatic Johnny Carson.  People are lost inside of marriage. An undertow of sorrow tugs at everything and threatens to unravel the subtle construction which concludes in the final shots with the famously unscripted whispered exchange, inaudible to anyone except the performers. I first saw this 24 hours after landing in LA in 2003 and was utterly jet-lagged – so a propos for a film equal parts startling and narcotic:  seeing a stripper perform to Peaches certainly wakes a person up from airline slumber. The songs are especially well chosen in an atmospheric soundtrack with a score by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. Sofia Coppola won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay and was nominated for Best Director too. This was her second film and it’s pretty awesome with a lot of the tropes now so familiar from her body of work – hotels, alienation, the unknowability of women. You can read my review of a book about her films here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood. Right after I saw this I was scared witless by the re-released Alien at the Cinerama Dome and then nearly got arrested for jaywalking on Hollywood Boulevard. But that’s another story.