Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)

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Gorgeous mouth. You knew you’d get sore lips walking her home.  Wannabe actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) is rooming in Primrose Hill in 1978 when he’s introduced to the girl next door who just happens to be former movie star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening). He teaches her disco dancing and they swiftly embark on an affair that takes him to New York and California where she lives in a trailer overlooking the ocean. They split up when her absences raise his suspicions but a couple of years later he receives a call that she’s collapsed while performing in a play and Gloria ends up living in his family’s Liverpool home with himself and his parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) and it appears she is now desperately ill … Turner’s memoir was published many years ago in the aftermath of Grahame’s death and the almost too good to be true story receives a very sympathetic adaptation to the screen, erotic and poignant, wistful and revealing. Artfully told backwards and forwards with inventive visual transitions, Bening and Bell give marvellously empathetic performances in a film that revels in its theatre and movie references, with particular homage paid to Bogey (Grahame’s co-star in In a Lonely Place) and Romeo and Juliet, which she so wanted to play on stage and whose romantic tragedy proves appropriate for the penultimate scene. Turner knew so little about Grahame he had to wait to see her onscreen at a retrospective watching Naked Alibi as Grahame sat beside him. Their first date is at Alien during which he nearly barfs with fear and she screams with laughter. Twenty-nine years and a lifetime of cinema and marriages (four, plus four children) separate them and their arguments (spurred by her discovery of cancer which she conceals from him) split them up and somehow she wants to spend her final days in the bosom of his loud Liverpudlian family. His parents put off their trip to Australia to see their oldest offspring, while brother Joe (Stephen Graham) objects to her monopolising of the family home. Bening captures her tics – some very good use of her famous mouth in particular scenes, some adept and brittle posing, and great attitude. Her own mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is a true thespian while her sister Joy (Frances Barber) tells Peter the reality of Gloria’s much-married past (he had no idea she’d scandalously married her stepson). That triggers mutual revelations of bisexuality. Both the leads have to play the gamut of emotions, till near death do they part as they are driven by their desire for each other and their fractious situation. Adapted by Matt Greenhalgh and directed by Paul McGuigan, this is a rather splendid look at what could happen to Hollywood stars when the machine spat them out and they were the unemployed victims of rancid rumours spread by way of explanation; but it’s also a deeply felt account of an unlikely relationship which was a true friendship at its core between a vulnerable woman who wanted to be treated decently and the first man to treat her with respect. Elegant.

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Trumbo (2015)

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You talk like a radical but you live like a rich guy.  In the early Forties in Hollywood Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is the highest paid scriptwriter but he’s also a member of the Communist Party. In a 1947 purge led by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott) Trumbo and several of his fellow writers are hounded into appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington where they go off-script and ten of them wind up being imprisoned and their careers are ruined. When they get out they have to rebuild and face down their betrayers as they scrabble to write for the black market … Adapted from Bruce Cook’s biography of the blacklisted screenwriter, this is so good on so many levels. It takes a relatively complex history of the Hollywood anti-communist campaign and makes it understandable and it comprehensively names all the people who were behind it as well as communicating the terrible fear that descended upon the creative industries when what America was really fighting was creeping liberalism (which it learned decades later and which was also feared by the communists). It accurately portrays the documented differences among the Hollywood Ten and how they were perceived by their peers (not entirely positively especially following their self-aggrandising performances at the HUAC hearings) and the terrible compromises and betrayals between friends:  Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) didn’t work for a year and gave names of those men already behind bars. How to win against the oppressive Hollywood machine drives so much of their post-prison experience – sue them like the composite figure of Arlen Hird (Louis CK) wants to do? or do what they’re good at and beat the bastards at their own game? like Trumbo does – and how apposite that Trumbo was selected to rewrite Spartacus after winning the Oscar for both Roman Holiday and The Brave One under a front and then a pseudonym. What raises this again above other films dramatising the same situation is the sheer wit and brio with which it is written and performed – which you’d frankly expect of anything with Trumbo’s name attached:  kudos to John McNamara. It also clarifies the extent to which this was a self-administered situation – these guys were screwed over by the studios voluntarily, not Government decree. Cranston is perfect in the role which is suffused with sadness and smarts and he embodies the writer we all really want to be – smoking like a train, drinking like a fish, tranked up on benzedrine and writing in the bathtub. A wonderfully ironic touch for a man who didn’t wallow. It’s wonderful to watch him deal with his daughter Nicola (Elle Fanning) become as politicised as him and he must assume a different parental role as she matures:  he admires her but he can’t be disturbed to get out of the tub and celebrate her birthday because he’s got a deadline.  There are great scenes:  when Trumbo notices that Robinson sold a Van Gogh to pay for the writers’ legal defence;  the writing of the cheapie scripts for the King Brothers. This is a complicated portrait of a fascinating and contradictory individual. Diane Lane has a thankless and almost dialogue-free part as his brilliant wife Cleo but her charismatic presence transforms her scenes:  she is duly thanked by Trumbo in the film’s final scene in 1970 during a Writers Guild ceremony. John Goodman is fantastic as the Poverty Row producer Frank King who meets a Motion Picture Alliance thug with a baseball bat and leaves him in no doubt as to what will happen if he gets the way of his hiring Trumbo because he’s in the business for money and pussy and doesn’t care about politics.  There’s a fantastic scene sequence that illustrates the different working methodologies of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger:  Trumbo played them off one against the other to get his credits restored. The best tragicomic moment is perhaps in the clink when Trumbo encounters his nemesis J. Parnell Thomas who’s been imprisoned for a real crime – tax evasion. Trumbo was however convicted of one thing – contempt. He was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and this film does not shirk from that fact.  Directed sensitively and with panache by Jay Roach who has made a film that is literate, eloquent and humane. I am Spartacus.

Manchester By The Sea (2016)

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I can’t beat it. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a janitor in Boston, permanently hunched and haunted and beset by half-dressed female tenants who want to have sex with him and complain to his boss when he evinces no interest whatsoever and just fixes their toilets. He barely speaks. When he gets a call that older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died suddenly he is forced back to his titular hometown where people refer to him as ‘the Lee Chandler’ and he finds out from his brother’s lawyer he’s been named guardian to his irritating, underage, sexually voracious nephew Patrick (goofy ginger Lucas Hedges). It takes us a long time and a lot of repetitive scenes to get to the reason for his devastation:  the death of his young family for which he feels incalculable guilt. Patrick has no reaction to his father’s demise and just gets on with getting it on with whatever nasty teenage girls have sex with him, plays hockey and generally acts like dumb teenagers do when confronted with intimations of mortality (I was recently at a funeral when the teenage son of the woman whose death was being commemorated left midway to smoke cigarettes with several girls. This shit happens.) So much  of this is low-key and true that when these guys eventually drop their protective masks it is both surprising and shocking and explosive in terms of the situations  in which they finally let loose as much as anything else. Michelle Williams has one wonderful scene as Lee’s ex-wife (pictured in the poster) and it is of such delicacy that it elicits pure emotions not just from Affleck but the audience, otherwise her role is mainly confined to flashbacks of their marriage and its unfortunate and tragicomic ending (that ambulance scene is literally killer). So paradoxically despite its overlength the unsentimental narrative focus is somewhat diverted to the wrong situations and some scenes are consigned to montage underscored by rather obvious and ill-chosen music when we would prefer to hear the dialogue.  The flashback structure works brilliantly however. The rarely seen Gretchen Mol (the Next Big Thing, according to Vanity Fair circa 1998  when she co-starred with this film’s producer and intended star Matt Damon in Rounders) shows up as Patrick’s alkie mom, long estranged from the family. Affleck is simply masterful as this man who desires punishment but nobody wants him to suffer any more, except for a few women who believe he killed his kids. However it’s a long time getting to the point about how people deal differently with bereavement and even if we agree, such is real life, a playwright, screenwriter (and director) as smart as Kenneth Lonergan should and could have got there quicker.

Birdman (2014)

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How rare is it that a Best Picture Academy Award winner can actually be watched more than once? I give you Crash, The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave, to name an intolerable few. Would you willingly sit through one of those again?!  This audacious, formal take on the unadulterated insecure narcissistic exhibitionistic actor (is there any other kind…) Riggan Thomson is an exception. His attempt to stage a Raymond Carver play on Broadway to try to recalibrate his career and be more than ‘one of those people awarding each other for cartoons and pornography’ (as hatchet woman theatre critic Lindsay Duncan snarls) is beset with difficulty. He tries to escape his populist reputation as the titular superhero but the grand irony is of course that cinema offers a far more fertile illusion than does the stage of realism trading as fantasy and to paraphrase R. Kelly, you will believe you can fly. Keaton is wonderful in a screenplay that trades on his definitive performance as Batman way back when, and it is a work that is replete with sharp references and allusions, written by director Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. This is a far greater film about heroism than those streamlined cookie cutter comic strip types Hollywood is now throwing up at us every time May rolls around:  this is a real flight of fancy, proceeding from earthbound and complex emotions and reality to actuated existence, expressed by a roving camera (that of Emmanuel Lubezki) that must have been a nightmare to act around by a game ensemble. Yes, this appealed to the Oscar voters’ vanity, but they got it right. And how fantastic was it to see Keaton mouth the words, ‘F’in A!’ at this years Oscars when his latest movie, Spotlight, also won the top award?! Hell yeah!

Ordinary People (1980)

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Ordinary people played by extraordinary actors directed by 70s superstar Robert Redford in his debut behind the camera. All in cripplingly good taste, said the critics, who certainly weren’t happy that he won Best Director at the Academy Awards and the film picked up Best Picture. The Judith Guest novel was adapted by Alvin Sargent and it concerns the upper middle class Jarrett family after suicidal son Conrad (Timothy Hutton) returns from a mental hospital. Turns out he’s guilty about the death of his older and favoured brother in a boating accident. He’s sent to psychiatrist Dr Berger (Judd Hirsch) for help while Mom (Mary Tyler Moore) gradually reveals the true character behind that brittle facade as Dad (Donald Sutherland) tells her how tough she is when he pays a visit to the shrink himself. Seeing TV’s much-loved MTM as a tough cookie who seems to wish it was her younger son who died is a revelation. However it’s hard to pick out the best performance among the ensemble, which also includes Elizabeth McGovern, better known from TV’s Downton Abbey nowadays. Hutton also won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and he offers a perceptive and touching characterisation. It feels like an autumnal sonata, in a minor key.

A Note for Oscar Hopes

On the eve of the Academy Awards ceremony, one can only sit back and wait for the inevitable. Voting closed last Tuesday evening and is now conducted virtually, for those of the ageing Academy who can understand such  technological advances. While there are regular gripes about the winning films and performers in the main categories and loud murmurs about the expensive press campaigns and the use of screener dvds (which should not help the hopes of the incredible 3D production that is Gravity) it is worth bearing in mind that this is American cinema and studio chicanery at its finest. 12 Years a Slave is rated ‘important’ since it is both historical and socially relevant yet its episodic structure – another year, another brutal slave owner, another beating – is frustrating and heavy-handed and eventually numbing. Its claim to originality is found wanting since it was revealed that the great Gordon Parks directed an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s story for American Playhouse some 30 years ago. However its worthiness is not in question but Alfonso Cuaron should at least take the directing award. Since my personal favourite performances by Tom Hanks in both Captain Phillips and Saving Mr Banks weren’t even nominated and Robert Redford’s finest screen appearance was similarly ignored in All Is Lost, it remains for the chips to fall where they will. The bookies favour Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club but Leonardo Di Caprio is simply great in Wolf of Wall Street, another brilliant collaboration with Martin Scorsese and a project the actor personally shepherded for years. Cate Blanchett seems a shoo-in for Best Actress in Blue Jasmine, a role in which she mainly talks to herself in what might be a gloss on Mia Farrow, according to a recent Vanity Fair article (which probably started the anti-Woody tide of op-eds led by his adopted daughter’s repeated claim of molestation following the Golden Globes tribute). Sandra Bullock’s role was certainly far more physically challenging, but she too spends an entire film talking to herself. Original screenplay-wise the odds are on American Hustle, mainly because it consists of four shysters talking to each other in a way that most capitalists understand – about money – but it would be a shame to overlook Her, an ingenious and contemporary take on the eternal oscillations of love and machinery. The Adapted category has its chief contenders in the aforementioned Wolf … and 12 Years … and while the former is simply astonishing the latter has more politically correct connotations, to put it mildly. The occasional inelegance of the ceremony itself is honed by its historicism and lack of pretention, save in the Foreign Film category, which, if there is justice, should go to Paolo Sorrentino’s majestic The Great Beauty. This is an industry event, which goes some way towards explaining why people’s favourite films almost never win – Psycho, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – and why you will almost certainly never watch Crash again, if you’ve had the misfortune to have seen  it once. But, oh, what larks! Let the games commence.