Code Name: Emerald (1985)

Code Name Emerald

I was expecting Peter Lorre. Augustus Lang aka Emerald (Ed Harris) is a spy for the Allies working undercover in Nazi-Occupied Paris during World War II but the Nazis believe he’s their man. With his assistance they capture Wheeler (Eric Stoltz) an ‘Overlord’ thought to know the plans for D-Day. Lang is planted as his cell mate and their conversations are monitored by Gestapo officer Walter Hoffman (Horst Buchholz) who is constantly at odds with his SS colleague Ernst Ritter (Helmut Berger) but retains friendly relations with decent Jurgen Brausch (Max Von Sydow).  Outside the cell in everyday Paris, Lang is in contact with Claire Jouvet  (Cyrielle Clair) who is trying to help him engineer Wheeler’s escape. But Wheeler is weakening under threat of torture and Hoffman suspects there might be more than one spy in the wings … Averages aren’t everything. There’s such a thing as grace. A really good premise in a terrific screenplay by Ronald Bass from his novel is largely laid waste by miscasting and some underpowered directing. That makes a change! Harris is not expressive enough to elicit our sympathy as the hero of the piece and Stoltz is unconvincing and probably too young in his role; paradoxically it’s Buchholz who has the most interesting character to play – how often do we see Nazis in civvies in WW2 films? Von Sydow is good as a vitally placed German officer and Clair does very well as the woman at the centre of the romance/resistance storyline. While the tension isn’t strictly maintained, the magnificent score by John Addison goes a long way to giving this a sense of urgency that isn’t necessarily in the dénouement – the outcome of the war is at stake but you wouldn’t know it from the way this is staged. C’est la guerre. Directed by Jonathan Sanger for NBC in their first theatrical production. One of these Krauts is on our side. Problem is, I don’t which one it is

 

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth poster

Could you do without me? Northern England 1865.  Newly sold into marriage to an older man, rich industrialist Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton), Katherine (Florence Pugh) finds herself confined to the house and starved of companionship. Her husband can’t or won’t have sex with her but makes her strip and masturbates while she faces a wall. Forced to spend her days in endless tedium, dining with his bullying father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), when her husband is called away to one of his collieries she starts to spend more time with maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and begins a passionate and fiery relationship with a young groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) from the estate, beginning a conflict that will end in violence. Following her husband’s demise at her hands and after hiding his body, a surprise arrives on her doorstep in the form of her husband’s illegitimate son Teddy (Anton Palmer) accompanied by his grandmother Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel) throwing Katherine’s plans into disarray .You’ve got fatter. Adapted by Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, this austere treatment of a rural tragedy is as contained as anti-heroine Pugh by corsetry and decency until sensuality spills forth and all hell breaks loose.  This is the distinctive Pugh’s breakout performance following The Falling and TV’s Marcella and her polarising character anchors a narrative which is ostensibly feminist but ultimately offers a critique of female power and how it is achieved and sustained. Perhaps the casting of black actors in the story complicates the issue of power by raising another issue, that of of race, in what is otherwise a melodrama of sex and class. Ultimately what happens when people are undone by desire can be murderous. It is a drama entirely without ornament. Directed by William Oldroyd. She is a disease

Legal Eagles (1986)

Legal Eagles

Objection, your honour. The defence has just fondled one of the jurors. Divorced New York City assistant District Attorney Tom Logan (Robert Redford) is busy alternately fighting and flirting with his defence lawyer adversary Laura Kelly (Deborah Winger) and her unpredictable artist client Chelsea Deardon (Daryl Hannah) who is on trial for a murder she did not commit and wraps Tom around her little finger as the case against her builds … I’m not going to lose him. Where is he? Truly a star vehicle from writer/director Ivan Reitman with Redford in his once-a-decade comedy but armed with a really good supporting cast too including Brian Dennehy, Terence Stamp, Christine Baranski and Davids Clennon and Hart. Styled as a Tracy-Hepburn battle of the sexes comedy it lacks the quickfire dialogue you’d expect and Winger plays her role kind of soft but Redford is really charming. The leads are slightly overwhelmed by Hannah, cast on point as the kooky performance artist in a story which recalls the scandal that descended upon the estate of Mark Rothko. The screenplay is by Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr., that powerhouse screenwriting partnership, from a story by Reitman and the screenwriters. It’s a bit overloaded for such lightweight fun but it does have a lovely sense of NYC and if you look quickly you’ll see a bottle of Newman’s Own salad dressing on Winger’s dining table. Do you always cross-examine people?/Only when they lie to me

Venetian Bird (1952)

Venetian Bird

Aka The Assassin. A thousand lira should take care of your ethics. English private detective Charles Mercer (Richard Todd) is deployed by a French insurance company to find a brave Italian war hero who is to be rewarded for his assisting of the Allies in WW2. But from the moment Mercer arrives in Venice his first contact is murdered in a shop and he finds himself on the wrong side of the law – he’s the prime suspect. After enquiring about the mysterious Boldesca (Sydney Tafler) at a museum where the art department  is run by the lovely Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok) the trail leads to a glassblowing factory at Murano where he discovers he has wandered into the plot of a coup d’état run by Count Boria (Wolf Rilla) and Lieutenant Longo (John Bailey) and it turns out that the supposedly dead mystery man Uccello (John Gregson) is very much alive and well and ready for action with an important figure visiting the city the following day … There is nothing for you in Venice. Adapted by Victor Canning from his novel, this has the impression of a Third Man-lite and if it doesn’t have that film’s canted chiaroscuro angles or shooting expertise it has an interesting location and an engrossing if initially confusing scenario. Todd (who was Ian Fleming’s preferred choice to play James Bond) acquits himself well in a narrative which involves a lot of running and jumping and standing still behind statues;  Bartok is suitably enigmatic as the woman with a secret;  and Margot Grahame gets some fantastically dry lines in her role as Rosa, a woman of a certain age:  I have never kept a man under my bed in my life. There are sly laughs to be had at the wholly incongruous casting of Gregson and Sid James, of all people, as native Italians. Directed by Ralph Thomas, but one is left wondering how a film of this ambition would have turned out if a master stylist like Carol Reed had taken hold of such promising material:  instead of a nighttime chase in the sewers of Vienna, we have a daytime chase across the rooftops of Venice and there is a political theme that was groundbreaking. The score is by Nino Rota. Produced by Betty Box. Out of weakness and confusion we shall create division and strength

Bombshell (2019)

Bombshell

I’m not a feminist, I’m a lawyer. When Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired following her on-air revelation that she supports an assault weapons ban, she slaps conservative TV channel Fox News founder and CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) with a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment.  But nobody comes forward to provide evidence of similar experiences, not even her protegée, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) who migrates to the Bill O’Reilly show, is fired her first day and takes the back elevator to Ailes’ office in her quest for advancement. Eventually Gretchen’s decision leads to Presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s bête noire, Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) coming forward with her own story, as well as multiple other women, eventually bringing the channel’s owners, the Murdoch family, into the fray... He handed me the power to hurt him. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when it comes to explaining the way the world turns, it has fallen to America’s comedy auteurs to Show and Tell. And here it’s director Jay Roach invading the body politic once more after the TV dramas Recount, Game Change and All the Way as well as the feature Trumbo. Humour helps but doesn’t really feature in this tawdry tale of three contrasting women who have oddly similar looks in the Barbie-style legs-out fashion cultivated by Ailes – and one scene where all the on-air women presenters are Spanxing it up and shoving five-inch heels onto their calloused feet shows the compromises intelligent gutsy women make visually to make it professionally on US TV, at least on Fox News. Theron’s transformation into Kelly is really something – she wears her work look as if she’s armed for war and her decision to finally take it to the bosses, with the backing of her husband Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass) at the same time as having to battle Trump mania in Summer 2016, tacks sharply when she allows the Presidential hopeful to get away with his menstruation Tweet, to her husband’s disgust. But, as she reminds him, she has to pay the bills. Kidman is good as the woman who has had the sense to record her meetings with Ailes, but is then sidelined with money and an NDA (maybe); and Robbie is impressively touching as the amalgamated character ‘Kayla’ who succumbs to Ailes, believing everyone else must have done it to get ahead (To get ahead, you have to give a little head, as Gretchen regales her lawyers). When Kayla crumbles at the truth, it’s devastating. The fact that these women believe in the political piffle they peddle is what makes the film hold its fire because Kate McKinnon is cast as a secret Lesbian Hillary-supporter in their midst making the politics of it weaker in every sense; and there’s a pretty ludicrous scene when Ailes’ wife, newspaper editor Beth (Connie Britton) has her assistant ask if her sushi lunch is too liberal. (Perhaps it is this very daftness that makes the film’s point). And while the women’s histories shares similar contours, they do not support one another and Kelly’s producer Gil (Rob Delaney) reminds her that all the production team’s jobs are on the line. However Charles Randolph’s screenplay is fast-moving and literate, and there is great use of archive footage.  The female cast are just outstanding, with Lithgow quite horrifying as the disgusting old man who once hobnobbed with Nixon but now intimidates ambitious young women into hoicking up their skirts and a lot worse. The biggest irony? Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) gets to save the day. Sigh. Inspired by the accounts of the women who reported their experiences of harassment. Rule number one, Corporate America:  You don’t sue your boss

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen

Elephant (2003)

Elephant

Get the fuck out of here, shit is going to happen. John (John McFarland) is being driven through the suburbs to school by his drunken father (Timothy Bottoms). Alex (Alex Frost) is a talented pianist being bullied at Watt High School, Oregon. He and his best friend slacker Eric (Eric Deulen) play video games, watch a documentary about Nazis, have sex in the shower and load up on guns. On their way into the building wearing camo gear and carrying black bags, Alex warns John not to go in. Elias (Elias McConnell) goes round the hallways photographing other students before going to the school newspaper office to develop his pictures. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) leaves the football field with girlfriend Carrie. Bespectacled outcast Michelle (Kristen Hicks) runs through the corridors and escapes to the library to avoid sports. Three bulimic girls gossip and end up in the Ladies’ Room. When the boys fail to explode propane bombs and prowl the corridors and library shooting everyone on sight, Acadia (Alicia Miles) freezes and Benny (Bennie Dixon) helps her escape through a window … Damn, they shot him. Gus Van Sant’s meditative exploration of the moments leading up to a Columbine high school-like massacre looks and feels less assured than it did upon release. Perhaps because unlike its source material (Alan Clarke’s BBC film Elephant, which was about sectarian politics in Northern Ireland) it is politically rootless unless you regard teenage alienation as justification for genocide and the inclusion of a TV documentary about Nazism adequate as rationale for unleashing senseless violence upon your contemporaries. Perhaps that is the point – that children and guns are just not a good mix, teenagers are unknowable and basically ungovernable, allowing them too much time on their own is a really bad idea because literally anything could happen in those burgeoning adults. The over the shoulder tracking shots down the school corridors and their repetitive nature bring us back to the same moments again and again giving the narrative a poetic rhythm and spatial familiarity, as does the auditory track which occasionally lapses into silence and then white noise, particularly when Alex is sitting in the cafeteria and we get a hint of the killings to come. There is no doubt that the very boring nature of the scenario and the real-time pacing lends an incremental tension to the situation. The biggest problem here is that the affectlessness of the protagonists means a conventional drama cannot be constructed and a moral is hard to discern while the filmmaker is attempting to get into these boys’ brains. That is the core of the story: there are things that people simply cannot get to grips with. The moment when a teacher approaches a student who’s just been shot dead at a classroom door and treats it as if it’s normal is simply staggering. Screenplay by Van Sant with controversial ‘memoirist’ JT LeRoy and Diane Keaton credited as producers on a project that started life as a documentary. Most importantly, have fun

I Am Heath Ledger (2017)

I Am Heath Ledger wide

He felt life deeper than anyone I ever met. The first time I saw Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You I was stunned. A star was born, in his first film. He had started out without training in his native Australia, enjoyed what a friend terms ‘a sentimental education’ in his first serious relationship, with actress Lisa Zane when they co-starred in the TV series Roar, and bounded into an audition in Hollywood and got it first time out. He signed with an agent, Stephen Alexander, himself a newcomer to the industry and together they created his career. Acting is thinking about the world about you and the person you are. He was conscious of his lack of professional training and never went anywhere without a camera, shooting footage of himself prepping for roles and this documentary directed by Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray demonstrates the extent to which Ledger taught himself and built characters, paying attention to how he looked, moved, spoke, interacted, responded. The film is replete with that personal footage and boasts a narration excerpted from interviews Ledger did. He couldn’t turn down the opportunity to star opposite his icon Mel Gibson on The Patriot but suffered a crisis of confidence: Mel taught him to come in and out of character. His face was plastered over billboards to publicise A Knight’s Tale, a rollicking mediaeval lark that sent itself up anachronistically and he couldn’t handle the publicity machine’s requirements. He wanted fame but then when he got it, he didn’t want it. By the time Brokeback Mountain came around, he was ready. The film changed his life. Director Ang Lee wasn’t sure he could do the role but he said Ledger’s mouth was like a clenched fist, people had the impression that he barely spoke when in fact he had the most lines in the film – he just delivered them in a way that made you think he hadn’t said a word. He met Michelle Williams on set and they became parents to baby daughter Matilda, whom he adored. His appetite for life was astonishing:  he had energy like nobody else, sensing his time on earth was limited. His favourite place was Burning Man. He brought his friends from Perth there and to his home in California. He was an enthusiast particularly for Nick Drake with whom he felt a kinship, along with other musicians who died young, like Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain. He phoned and emailed at all hours of day and night; he turned up on people’s doorsteps for breakfast at five thirty and six AM;  he shot photos constantly and made music videos and surprised people with his ability to use cameras, to choreograph, to direct:  He had command of his vision. He was an artist first and foremost. He formed a company and intended directing features:  his first project was supposed to be The Queen’s Gambit –  he was so good at chess he was just a few points away from being a Grand Master. When he was offered the role of Joker in The Dark Knight he was fully confident. He had mastered the art of screen acting. He owned the part and he knew it. It would win him the Academy Award and many others, but they were posthumous. There are interviews with his friends, family, co-workers and those with musician Ben Harper and Naomi Watts are especially perceptive and emotional. Their hurt at his loss is palpable. His end was desperate:  he was working with Terry Gilliam on The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus with his sister alongside him in London as his assistant. He became seriously ill with pneumonia in terrible conditions – he was exhausted from the damp and cold, being held upside down from a bridge with water being poured on him didn’t help. He said his sleeping meds weren’t working and he couldn’t stop his mind racing, as dialogue coach Gerry Grennell recalls. He returned to an apartment in New York and the guy who spent his life communicating with people night and day suddenly wasn’t answering the phone. He was found dead 22nd January 2008.  He was just twenty-eight years old. This is a tender and thoughtful account of a brilliant and uniquely gifted young man and his death was a tragic loss to cinema. What he achieved as a major screen actor in a decade is unforgettable. Life is so short and it seems like a blink of an eye since I sent a text message to people during The Dark Knight, YOU HAVE TO SEE HEATH LEDGER!!! Written by Hart Snider. He always said, I have a lot to do. I don’t feel I have a lot of time

Heath Ledger with camera

Zelig (1983)

Zelig

All the themes of our culture were there. In this fictional documentary set during the 1920s and 1930s a non-descript American called Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) achieves notoriety for his ability to look, act and sound like anyone he meets. He ingratiates himself with everyone from the lower echelons of society to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Pope becoming famous as The Changing Man. Even Hollywood comes calling and makes a film about him. His chameleon-like skill catches the eye of Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), a psychiatrist who thinks Zelig is in need of serious cognitive analysis as someone who goes to extremes to make himself fit into society. Their relationship moves in a direction that’s not often covered in medical textbooks as she hypnotises him I’m certain it’s something he picked up from eating Mexican food. A formally and technically brilliant and absolutely hilarious spoof documentary that integrates real and manipulated newsreel footage with faked home movies, a film within a film, period photographs of the leads and interviews with contemporary personalities, real and imagined, from Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow to ‘Eudora Fletcher’ (Ellen Garrison) in the present day. Even Bruno Bettelheim shows up to declare the subject the ultimate conformist. The sequence on the anti-semitism Zelig experiences as a child (his parents sided with the anti-semites, narrator Patrick Horgan informs us mournfully) is laugh out loud funny. Of course it has a payoff – in Nazi Germany. The editing alone is breathtaking, there is not a false moment and the music is superlative, forming a backdrop and a commentary as well as instilling in the audience a realistic feel for the time in which this is set. There are moments where you will not believe your eyes as Allen transforms into everyone he meets – regardless of race, shape or colour. An original and funny mockumentary that’s actually about the world we live in, an extreme response to childhood bullying and what we do to make ourselves fit in and where that could lead. You just told the truth and it sold papers – it never happened before!

 

J.T. LeRoy (2019)

JT LeRoy.jpg

You’re as much a part of JT as me.  When Laura Albert (Laura Dern) finally meets her musician husband Geoff Knoop’s (Jim Sturgess) androgynous younger sister Savannah (Kristen Stewart) she sees the embodiment of her pseudonymous author’s identity ‘JT LeRoy,’ an acclaimed memoirist who is supposedly the gifted and abused 19-year old gender fluid prostitute offspring of a truckstop hooker, the subject of her bestselling book Sarah. Journalists and celebrities are keen to meet ‘J.T.’ after prolonged phonecalls and emails from Laura (an accomplished phone sex operator) adopting a Southern accent. Savannah reluctantly agrees to be photographed in disguise for an interview that has already been done over the phone by Laura, but the hunger for publicity grows and Hollywood, in the form of producer Sasha (Courtney Love), comes calling with an offer. Laura decides to masquerade as ‘Speedy,’ JT’s agent and adopts an outrageous faux English accent. Then European actress Eva (Diane Kruger) decides to adapt the book The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things for the screen. What could possibly go wrong? … Just because you played a writer doesn’t mean you are one. What if an author’s fantasy identity is actually a character (or avatar, as Laura Albert prefers) for someone entirely different? The perfect physical representation of an idealised misery memoirist who doesn’t actually exist? An author’s identity becomes the focus of celebrity and publishing interest in one of the literary hoaxes of the 2000s with Dern and Stewart being given ample room to create empathetic characters, both women taking succour from the temporary expeditious ruse. This version of events is from the perspective of Savannah Knoop whose own recollection of events Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy is adapted here by director Justin Kelly who has form with films about sexual identity.  It’s like a Russian doll of meta-ness but Albert comes across better here than in the documentary about her (Author) where she seemed far closer to psychopath than Dern’s rather more sympathetic figure, a formerly fat child who’d been sent to a group mental home for adults and developed the survival methods and identity issues that led to her creating JT in the first place. You can understand the incremental jealousy she experiences over the six-year long impersonation as Savannah lives out her invented persona in the public eye. Eva is the pseudonym for Italian actress Asia Argento, who claimed latterly not to realise that JT was a woman and denied their sexual encounter. She is portrayed ruthlessly close to the raccoon penis bone by Kruger as something of a scheming wannabe auteur who would (as Albert says) do anything to get the rights to the film property. Stewart is literally the site of misrecognition – a bisexual who is co-habiting with a good guy Sean (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) yet she is confused by the public roleplay because she actually falls for ‘Eva’ and has sex with her. Laura ironically never keeps Savannah up to Speed(y) with the latest email exchanges between JT and Eva, leading to increasing embarrassment when ‘JT’ is set loose upon the fawning credulous public and privately, with Eva. Argento was the real-life subject of a sex assault case to do with the film in question when this was originally released, which took the shine off this (much to Laura Albert’s fury, we are sure). Argento is also the daughter of a famous Italian auteur so one might surmise she was also trying to create another kind of persona for herself in a fiercely misogynistic environment. JT is a complex part, more akin to what Stewart has achieved in her French films, and it’s well played as far as it goes but the performance centres on a kind of passivity which makes for a lack of dramatic energy. The film ends on a Hole song, Don’t Make Me Over, proving that Frankenstein’s monster really does have a life of its own in a film which never completely decides what it wants to be – echoing the subject at hand. There are a few narrative tricks missed in the telling of this web of deceit spun by an arch fantasist whose dreams literally came to life and ran away from her. You could have written a different ending