Steel Country (2018)

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Aka A Dark Place. With a dead kid there’s almost always abuse first. In smalltown rural Pennsylvania garbage truck driver Donny Devlin (Andrew Scott) becomes obsessed with the death of local boy Tyler Ziegler when the police don’t want to investigate how he is found in a river and he is buried without an autopsy. Donny takes it upon himself to investigate, irritating his initially sympathetic co-worker Donna (Bronagh Waugh), getting an admission of suspicion of abuse from Mrs Ziegler (Kate Forbes), confronting a local police officer Max Himmler (Griff Furst), tackling the sheriff (Michael Rose), the paediatrician Dr Pomorowski (Andrew Masset) whose office has taken a lot of calls from Tyler’s mom and finally suspecting the boy’s father Jerry (Jason Davies). His own disordered personality almost puts him in the frame, until he digs up Tyler’s corpse and brings it to a coroner to prove his suspicions … Nothing ever happens around here. Brendan Higgins’ screenplay is equal parts character study and mystery. The noises in Donny’s head and his frankly unusual disposition are never truly explained, the grounds for his obsession left untapped other than a presumed autistic problem hence a rather narrow field of enquiry. The circumstances of how he conceived his beloved 11-year old daughter Wendy (Christa Beth Campbell) with Linda (Denise Gough) are rather seedy;  his living situation with his disabled mother (Sandra Ellis Lafferty) kindly depicted. Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography peers into the American darklands but other than corruption, the kind of easy institutional conspiracy that seems ten-a-penny in child abuse cases and the interesting positing of a paediatrician as a paedophile (one is reminded of a case in the UK when subliterate vigilantes targetted a doctor’s office, presumably believing that child abusers advertise their predilections on their doors), it doesn’t really ring the narrative cause-effect that is required. However it is tonally interesting and Scott delivers a committed if distracting performance in this ironically titled story where industry has long departed leaving predators free to exploit their working class targets. The ending is jaw-dropping – just not necessarily in a good way. Directed by Simon Fellows. What are you trying to do? You trying to give your shitty life some meaning?

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One Deadly Summer (1983)

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Aka L’Été meurtrier. They call her Eva Braun. Shortly after Eliane or Elle Wieck (Isabelle Adjani) moves to a small southern French town, she begins dating Fiorimonto Montecciari aka Pin-Pon (Alain Souchon), a quiet young mechanic who has grown obsessed with the beautiful newcomer and they get married. But Elle has her own reason for the relationship: Pin-Pon’s late father was one of the trio of Italian immigrants who brutally gang-raped her German mother Paula Wieck Devigne (Maria Machado) two decades before, and she’s out to get her own form of revenge. However, Pin-Pon’s deaf aunt Nine aka Cognata (Suzanne Flon) suspects Elle’s true motivation when the young woman insists on knowing the origins of a barrel organ in the barn … He used to say, You can beat anyone on earth, no matter who.  Adapted by Sébastien Japrisot from his own novel with director Jean Becker, this is the kind of film that the French seem to make better than anyone else – an erotic drama that simply oozes sensuality, suffused with the sultry air of rural France in summer and boasting a stunning performance by Adjani who has a whale of the time as the nutty myopic sexpot seducing everyone in her path except her prospective mother-in-law (Jenny Clève).  Her occasional stillness is brilliantly deployed to ultimately devastating effect. Singer Souchon is a match for her with his very different screen presence essaying an easily gulled guy, in a story which remains quite novelistic with its story passing from narrator to narrator, a strategy which deepens the mystery and ratchets up the tension as it proceeds – starting as a kind of bucolic comedy and turning into a very different animal, a kind of anti-pastoral. A film whose twists are so complex you may need a second viewing, it seems to slowly exhale the very air of Provence leaving a disturbing memory wafting in its tragic wake. With François Cluzet, Michel Galabru and Édith Scob, this is scored immensely inventively by Georges Delerue. If this were the cinema not an eye would be dry

All That Jazz (1979)

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To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.  When he is not planning for his upcoming Broadway stage musical or working on his Hollywood film, choreographer/director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is popping pills and sleeping with a seemingly endless line of women including Kate Jagger (Ann Reinking). He has to deal with his ex-wife and collaborator Audrey (Leland Palmer) and daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) and survives with a daily routine which always commences to the accompaniment of Vivaldi but must include drugs and sex to keep going.  The physical and mental stress begins to take a toll on the ragged hedonistic perfectionist. He has angina leading to hospitalisating and open heart surgery during which all the shows and episodes of his life appear to him in dreams led by Angelique (Jessica Lange) and his stuttering existence is a neverending chorus line on repeat, meanwhile the financiers are wondering if they should bet on his death …  You could be the first show on Broadway to make a profit… without ever really opening! With Fosse/Verdon upcoming on the small screen, it’s time to sit back and relish the great Fosse’s achievements as choreographer and filmmaker once again.  This was based on a period in his life when he was editing the Dustin Hoffman starrer Lenny and staging Chicago. At the same time. Considering that this is about life as performance, it’s crucial that Fosse’s avatar be as intense and rivetting as he was – and Scheider utterly inhabits the role in an enervating interpretation. It’s incredible that Reinking had to audition to effectively play herself, given that she was one of Fosse’s women at the time. Lange is wonderful as the death angel and the literal intercutting of Joe’s open heart surgery with episodes of his life clearly alludes to Fellini’s similarly autobiographical 8 1/2.  And why not. And it’s a musical! With simply stunning production numbers whose editing makes your nerves jangle with joy. This is how dance is meant to be cut!  Co-written by Fosse with producer Robert Alan Arthur, it’s ironic that it was the 56-year old Arthur who died following production and he was posthumously nominated for a slew of awards. I have no idea how, but somehow, somewhere, probably at a festival many years after its initial release, I had the opportunity to see this on the big screen and boy was I lucky. Film as fantasy? It was never more like life:  vicious, funny, dark, nightmarish and doomed.  A fabulously hallucinatory cinematic experience. Jazz hands, flicks and moonwalks? Absolutely! Assume the position.  It’s showtime, folks!

Juliet, Naked (2018)

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Every aspect of civilisation is going to the dogs, with the notable exception of TV. Annie (Rose Byrne) returned to her seaside hometown 15 years earlier to take over her late father’s history museum and is stuck in a long-term relationship with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) – a media studies lecturer at the local further education college and an obsessive fan of obscure rocker Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke).  Crowe has been out of the spotlight for a quarter of a century and Duncan has gathered a couple of hundred of fellow devotees online on a website he has created in his honour. When the acoustic demo of Tucker’s hit record from 25 years ago surfaces at their house, its release leads to a life-changing encounter for Annie with the elusive rocker himself when he responds to a review she posts on Duncan’s website and they start to contact each other regularly, telling each other their problems. Duncan, meanwhile, is moving on and moving in with new colleague Gina (Denise Gough) leaving his Tucker shrine intact in Annie’s basement. Across the Atlantic Tucker’s life takes on a further twist when Lizzie (Ayoola Smart) one of his illegitimate children announces she is about to become a mother and he decides to pay a visit to the UK when she’s about to give birth. Tucker has children he doesn’t even know, while sharing a garage with the only boy who means anything to him, his newest son Jackson (Azhy Robertson).  The reality of his relationship with his famous muse from three decades earlier is gradually revealed following a medical emergency which brings all the children he has fathered to his hospital bedside..Are you telling me I have to know Antigone before I can understand The Wire? Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel by Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, Evgenia Peretz and Phil Alden Robinson,  this comic account of romantic mismatches, irresponsible breeding, inheritance, missed opportunities and fandom gets a lot of traction from the casting of Hawke, practically a poster boy for Generation X since, well, Generation X had a name and Evan Dando et al slid off our collective radar even if we still have the mixtapes to prove there was life before the internet – which then gave rise to this new outlet for sleb cultdom. As one Miss Morrisette used to wail, Isn’t it ironic. O’Dowd is his usual doofus self while Byrne shines as the long-suffering woman who ponders motherhood following the decision not to be a parent – well, with that guy, who would?! There is an amusing moment when the reality of Annie’s online musings materialises on the beach and Duncan simply doesn’t recognise his lifelong hero who he believes is living on a sheep farm in Pennsylvania sporting a long white beard. It’s an amiable amble down collective memory lane without much surface dressing and despite some weird editing early on, it coasts on the performances but never reaches emotional heights, reflecting the music that Hawke performs in character.  Directed by Jesse Peretz, who, entirely coincidentally one presumes, used to play with The Lemonheads and who made his directing debut long ago with another Brit writer, First Love, Last Rites, an Ian McEwan adaptation.  He is currently making a TV version of Hornby’s much-loved High Fidelity.  I love it, the internet! God, you’re finally entering the modern age. Which site was it? One for clever people, no doubt. Hornyhistorians.com?

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

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Aka Phantom Ladies Over Paris. Usually, it started like this. When stage magician Céline (Juliet Berto) goes traipsing across a Parisian park, she unwittingly drops first a scarf, then other objects which librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) cannot help but pick up. So begins a fanciful and obsessive relationship between the two, which soon sees Céline sharing Julie’s apartment and each of them playfully switching identities in their daily lives. As they increasingly indulge their fantasies, they find themselves trying to rescue a young girl Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar) from a supposedly haunted house that Julie worked in and Céline lived next to as a child.  Now it appears to be filled with ghosts (Barbet Schroeder, Marie-France Pisier, Bulle Ogier) …So, my future is in the present.  One of the greatest films ever made, Jacques Rivette’s fragmented narrative of two feisty young women started with two stories by Henry James (The Other House;  The Romance of Certain Old Clothes), giving him a bit of a head start, then he liberally sprinkled some Alice in Wonderland into the mix, created a drama of identity, a rescue fantasy, a story about storytelling, a movie about the cinema, sometimes speeding up and sometimes slowing down, a fiction about fictional creation (because ‘to go boating’ means to take a trip), and came up with a fantasy that adult life could always be as good as your childhood dreams. This is a woman’s film in the very best sense that we can imagine and is of course the source of Desperately Seeking Susan. Devised by Rivette and the stars with input from Ogier and Pisier,and Eduardo de Gregorio, this is a remarkable film of disarming charm, once seen never forgotten, especially with its 194 minute running time. A female buddy film like no other. It doesn’t hurt to fall off the moon!

Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)

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Don’t anyone suppose that because I’m a woman, I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good. I shall be up before you’re awake, I shall be afield before you’re up, and I shall have breakfasted before you’re afield. In short, I shall astonish you all. In the late nineteenth century in England’s West Country beautiful young Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) inherits a picturesque farm from her uncle and decides to run it herself. Three very different suitors – Francis Troy (Terence Stamp), an intense soldier who has impregnated a maid; William Boldwood (Peter Finch), a prosperous middle-aged farmer; and Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), a neighbouring sheep farmer of modest means – all contend for her hand in marriage and her different attitudes to each of them cause conflict and tragedy … At home by the fire, whenever I look up, there you will be. And whenever you look up, there I shall be. Adapted by Frederic Raphael from Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, this is one of the most gloriously beautiful films of its era, starring some of the most attractive British performers, all shot in almost decadently luminous imagery by the great Nicolas Roeg, a few years from making his directing debut. However none of that would matter if it weren’t for the management of the material which clarifies the novel’s question – how is it possible for a woman to maintain her independence and property while claiming a romantic relationship for herself? The painful issues of patriarchy and community combine when Bathsheba turns down Gabriel’s offer of marriage and she inadvertently triggers a chain of horribly dramatic events in this bucolic setting. It’s director John Schlesinger’s third film with Christie and she’s at the peak of her beauty and charisma playing this passionate girl. You can understand why everybody loves her. A woman like you does more damage than she can conceivably imagine

Decision at Sundown (1957)

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You’d better leave town if you want to stay in one piece. After three years of searching and hell-bent on revenge, flinty gunslinger Bart Allison (Randolph Scott) rides into a sleepy Western town with sidekick Sam (Noah Beery) and only one goal in mind: to kill local roughneck Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), who kidnapped his wife years ago. Both men have blood on their hands over the woman’s eventual suicide. Allison and Kimbrough, wracked with guilt but boiling over with bloodlust, are set to face off for one final confrontation. Tensions mount as sunset approaches, and the townspeople must choose sides before sundown just as Kimbrough prepares to wed local girl Lucy (Karen Steele) and sheriff Swede (Andrew Duggan) assists in surrounding the men in a stables… Doc, when you have been tending bars as long as I have, you wouldn’t expect so much out of the human race. With a screenplay by Charles Lang, director Budd Boetticher reunites with Scott for their second collaboration and the usually taciturn star plays a man unravelling at the seams rather with a residual question over his psychological well-being not to mention his partial responsibility for his wife’s death, tearing at the reason for his quest and turning the tables on the town itself as the lines blur between notions of the hero and the villain. There are ugly digs at women and their predilections with Kimbrough’s mistress Ruby (Valerie French) the third point of this bad women triangle but this is compensated for by the precision of the action sequences, cut closely and distinctively, echoing the irony that underscores this unusual revenge western, offering no light relief to the brutal sense of justice at its core. What we remember is the detail of Randolph Scott’s face, etched with pointless obsession. I’ll tell you one thing, none of us will ever forget the day that Bart Allison spent in Sundown

The Lost City of Z (2016)

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You’re a long way from Government now. At the dawn of the 20th century, British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is encouraged by his superiors to redeem his family name following his father’s dissolute actions, ruining the Fawcett reputation.  Although married to the supportive Nina (Sienna Miller) with a young son and one on the way, he journeys across the Atlantic to South America to carry out a survey of the Amazon in order to help adjudicate borders and to establish national territories.  On board the ship he encounters Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson)  a man who knows the rainforest. He joins the party which includes aide-de-camp Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and they go into the Amazon, where they experience the surreal pleasures of an opera in the middle of the jungle and discover evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilisation that may have once inhabited the region, triggered by stories told them by their guide. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment back in London when he reports his findings, which contradicts their bias against indigenous populations as savages, the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son, Costin and Manley, returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case. After another set of discoveries he is challenged by biologist James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) who falsely claims they left him for dead so Fawcett leaves the Royal Geographical Society. He is injured on the Somme when he fights in WW1 but in 1925 when his son Jack (Tom Holland) grows up he wants to help his father pursue his obsession and find the City of Z that Nina found out about in a conquistador text at Trinity College Dublin... To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? It comes off a little like Fawcett of Amazonia at first but then this James Gray film establishes its own insistent rhythm with a hallucinatory bent that comes first from obsession and then with repetition. Indeed one is forced into a world recognisably that of David Lean but also Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (quite literally, at the opera) and perhaps Conrad. However the difference is in the doggedness and the feminine element – here Nina plays a crucial part in Percy’s evolving obsession when the document she finds fuels the fire in his belly and ironically leads to increased separation. Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction book, this has some of the usual flaws besetting Gray’s films – a kind of muted incompleteness or psychological lack and a physical darkness – but the facts of the story, the deadly nature of the pursuit and the fascinating history compensate and it has a decent pace. Hunnam grows into the role as the story progresses, caring about slavery and native peoples and expressing proper awe at the sight of sculptures and ancient artefacts; and Miller is fine as the proto-feminist who reads from the letter she wrote when she thought she wouldn’t survive childbirth:  as she tells her husband, “You haven’t even seen it for two minutes,” when he protests the jungle is no place for a woman and takes off yet again leaving her pregnant. It’s an admirable corrective to the standard male-oriented expedition narratives, with an amazing coda. In the end, this is actually spellbinding. There is great irony deployed: Fawcett meets Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Ireland and years later in South America he sees the story about his assassination and is told it will trigger a great war:  his escape across the Atlantic was precisely to avoid conflict and now he is going to be catapulted back into something quite dreadful.  He has a wonderful wife and happy domestic life yet he is truly at home in an utterly alien environment where the natives happily shoot poison arrows. He goes back, again and again, despite ridicule and disputes. He has a higher aim and it becomes something verging on mystical. The cinematography by Darius Khondji and score by Christopher Spelman are quite wondrous at times. Executive produced by Brad Pitt. There is no going back. We are already here

Kissing Candice (2017)

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I don’t know if I’m dreaming or I’m awake. Lonely and bored small-town teen Candice (Ann Skelly) dreams of a more exciting life and is rescued from an epileptic episode by a stranger Jacob (Ryan Lincoln). Becoming obsessed with this young man who has materialised from her vivid dreams and into her real life, she finds herself being drawn in and entangled with a dangerous local gang he’s in which is led by Dermot (Conall Keating) whom her policeman father Donal (John Lynch) suspects when local boy Caleb (Jason Cullen) disappears… It was a lot safer here during the Troubles. Written by first-time director Northern Irish Aoife McArdle (who has a background in music videos and commercials) this Irish film has plenty of imagination and a hallucinatory style but is an untethered narrative with no real logic. The dreamy ambience is strained by the social realist setting on a grim border county housing estate where Candice’s fantasies provide an escape valve from the bleakness while her friendship with Martha (Caitriona Ennis) allows for some barbed humour. The writing unravels, careening between the real world gang plot and the abstract coming of age/mental health line, but it has a kind of sleepwalking atmosphere. Now the mad ones have the run of the place

Redoubtable (2017)

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Aka Le redoutable/Godard mon amour. You have to choose – either it’s politics or cinema. In 1967 during the making of his film, La chinoise, French film director Jean-Luc Godard (Louis Garrel) falls in love with 17-year-old ingenue actress Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) the granddaughter of François Mauriac, and later marries her. The 1968 protests lead Godard to adopt a revolutionary stance setting up the Dziga Vertov Group with critic Jean-Pierre Gorin (Félix Kysyl) and retreating from his celebrity while Anne continues to make films for other directors and his didactic attitude creates an irretrievable schism with other directors following his call for the cancelling of the Cannes Film Festival …  The future belonged to him and I loved him. Michel Hazanavicius’ biopic of Godard falls between two stools:  on the one hand it’s a knowing wink to a fiercely committed and politicised prankster who eventually became too serious for his own good or his audience’s enjoyment;  on the other it’s a partly serious examination of the evolution of the most significant filmmaker in Europe in the Sixties which invariably vibrates with politics and the issue of celebrity and how it drove him to make incendiary statements which reverberated badly. This is adapted from Un an après the memoir of Wiazemsky (who died in 2017) so the story of the director’s post-’68  retreat into the radical takes its lacerating prism from his resentment at her attempts to escape his stifling grip and gain a mainstream career as he becomes immersed in communal filmmaking. He abuses her co-workers, evinces contempt for his own films and their admirers and renounces his friendships in order to produce films without an audience. He pronounces on the necessity to consign the work of Renoir, Ford and Lang to the dustbin of history and insists only the subversive comedy of Jerry Lewis and the Marx Brothers be kept. He tells us that this is the beauty of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric – any old rubbish can make sense.  I’m not Godard. I’m an actor playing Godard. And not even a very good actor. It’s part pastiche too, indulging in many visual references to Godard’s work, leading to a lot of amusing moments as well as beautifully crafted design that can be appreciated in this multi-referential marital saga/romcom.  Every time JLG goes to a protest he gets trampled by riot police and his glasses are broken (see:  Take the Money and Run). He decides he needs different shoes and becomes obsessed with them, literally another running joke.  He attends a student rally at a university and makes anti-semitic declarations which embarrass everybody not just because he calls Jews Nazis but because he is stunningly inarticulate. He is invited by Bertolucci to a conference in Rome and ends up telling him his films are shit so Bertolucci tells him exactly what he thinks of him. The Situationists despised Jean-Luc. And he agreed with them. Garrel is brilliant as the lisping narcissistic self-absorbed pedant who is humorously unaware of the plethora of contradictions, ironies and paradoxes besetting his every statement. He flounces out of the Cannes festival and complains about having to stay in the luxurious beachside home of Pierre Lazareff, the Gaullist proprietor of France-Soir but lies back and enjoys the man’s library, bitching about the lack of petrol to get him back to Paris – despite avowing support for a general strike. He belittles the generous farmer who volunteers to drive him and the gang, plus former friend Cournot (Grégory Gadebois) whose film didn’t get screened at Cannes due to JLG’s antics, all 500 miles back to Paris:  this scene is laugh out loud funny, embodying the ridiculous idea of a filmmaker becoming a revolutionary by wanting to make films that nobody will ever want to see, above the common man whose cause he claims to espouse. The bore is now a boor. The irreverent approach sends up Godard but it also somewhat downplays his achievements and the deterioration of the marriage, the first casualty in his argumentative retreat from commercial cinema as friends and values are abandoned without care.  Martin makes the most of a part that puts her on the receiving end of both withering condescension and nasty put-downs from a man twice her age basically holding her hostage while trying to be a teenage activist and flailing for filmmaking inspiration. You make films. You’re not the Foreign Secretary. There is a sense in which Hazanavicius’ Woody Allen references (the early, funny ones,  see:  Stardust Memories) function in two ways, leaving us to wonder if this isn’t just about Godard but also about Hazanavicius himself, following a drubbing for his last serious drama set in war-torn Chechnya (also starring his own wife/muse Bérénice Bejo who features here as fashion designer and journalist Michèle Lazareff Rosier – who wound up becoming a filmmaker! And who also died in 2017) having made his own name with comedies and overt Hollywood homages (The Artist). Not altogether unlike Godard. So we see Godard enjoying pulp fiction and musicals but suffering through La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc while disavowing sentiment of all kinds.  Following his suicide attempt, the last sequence occurs during the making of Vent d’est, Godard’s Maoist western and his last collaboration with Anne before she left him. The voiceover is now his, just as he is outvoted by his automanaged bunch of commie cast and crew. He is no longer the auteur of note in this ménage à con.  Finally, he manages a smile. Perhaps even this arch ironist now understands the grave he’s dug for himself. We like him, but it’s too late. His gift is gone. With Jean-Pierre Mocky as an outraged diner at a restaurant, we realise we are in the realm of satire and this is a wonderfully clever lampooning of an anarchic cynic much in the mould of Godard himself, keen to distance himself from a decade of success, now in utter contempt of his audience. He clearly never saw Sullivan’s Travels. Or if he did, misunderstood it complètement. This is hilarious – a postmodern film about the cinematic revolutionary who invented the form that manages to be both serious and incredibly witty, all at once. Kudos to cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman for replicating Raoul Coutard’s beautiful work in Godard’s Sixties masterpieces. Definitely one for the bourgeois cinéaste. We’ll love each other later. Now it’s the revolution!

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