Awakenings (1990)

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I’m not very good with people.  It’s 1969.  Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) is a research neurologist who finds himself working with people for the first time at a public hospital in the Bronx, NYC. He is confronted with older catatonic patients who he discovers lost their capacity for communication following the encephalitis lethargica epidemic of 1917-1928. Once he realises there is more to them than just reflex actions he sets up righting decades of ignorance and experiments with doses of L-Dopa intended for Parkinsonian symptoms, starting with Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) whose immediate response is remarkable and triggers Sayer’s campaign to have it given to the others. He is supported by Nurse Eleanor Costello (Julie Kavner) and he helps Leonard’s mother (Ruth Nelson) come to terms with her son’s maturity – she thinks he is still the little boy she once knew. Leonard wants to socialise and develops a relationship with Paula (Penelope Ann Miller) the daughter of another patient but when it comes time to argue for more personal freedom Leonard starts to manifest facial tics and the dosages have to be revised as the realisation that his patient’s awakening may be temporary dawns on Sayer …  The late Oliver Sacks’ books were a thing in the Eighties – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was a very cool set of case studies and the stories in Awakenings gave Harold Pinter the inspiration for A Kind of Alaska.  This raises issues about what being alive really means and who knows best and what’s in the patient’s interest. It however strays into Rain Man territory and one is given pause for thought by De Niro’s early (and later) gurning catatonic impersonation when Tropic Thunder‘s warnings about ‘going full retard’ come to mind. This falls into the slush trap one too many times yet paradoxically it’s meticulously constructed as the real awakening is that of Sayer – to pain, feeling, response, caring.  Written by Steven Zaillian and directed by Penny Marshall who has a way with the performers but the treacly score doesn’t help. It’s nice to see John Heard and the wonderful Julie Kavner in significant supporting roles. There is probably a big ironic meta-cinematic text here considering drug buddies Williams and De Niro were the last people to see John Belushi alive and they communicate with each other here via a Ouija Board but I’m sure I don’t know what that is. The drugs don’t work? Perhaps. Read Sacks’ books instead, they’re amazing.

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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.

Se7en (1995)

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Just because he’s got a library card doesn’t make him Yoda.  Police Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) has a week left on the job when he is set the task of tackling a final case with the aid of newly transferred David Mills (Brad Pitt), they discover a number of elaborate and grizzly murders. They soon realize they are dealing with a serial killer calling himself John Doe who is targeting people he thinks represent one of the seven deadly sins. Somerset befriends Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is pregnant and afraid to raise her child in the crime-riddled city. By using an illegal FBI trick of tracking certain public library book titles they find a likely suspect and enter an apartment building where they’re attacked by a gunman who just might be their target but there are two more sins to go …  Andrew Kevin Walker’s dense and sharply written script is given an astonishingly immersive workout by director David Fincher and it’s one of the key films of the Nineties. Into those rain-slicked NYC streets run two great movie policemen, the grizzled Freeman and the ambitious impatient young Pitt who take such a long time to get into each other’s working rhythm. And when they do, they’re chasing the man who’s really chasing them.  This is a brutal, violent work which raises torture to a kind of poetic, along the lines of John Doe’s literary inspirations, Dante and Thomas Aquinas. As he works through the various sins the sheer horror of the scenes still shocks. This wouldn’t be the last of Walker’s dark screenplays but in some ways he has never written anything as truly horrifying as the last scene shot in the bright outdoors in stark contrast to the claustrophobic interiors that characterise the sadism at the center of the narrative. There’s a subliminal cut which will make you think you’ve seen something you haven’t. Oh my gosh this is absolutely compelling. Even if his brain weren’t mush which it is he chewed off his tongue long ago.

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

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The truth does not make it easier to understand, you know. I mean, you think that you find out the truth about me, and then you’ll understand me. And then you would forgive me for all those… for all my lies. Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young writer, moves to Brooklyn (or The Sodom of the North as his father calls it) in the hot summer of 1947 to begin work on his first novel. As he becomes friendly with his upstairs neighbour Polish immigrant Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her biologist lover Nathan (Kevin Kline), a Jew, he learns that Sophie is a Holocaust survivor. Flashbacks reveal her harrowing story, from pre-war prosperity to Auschwitz. In the present, Sophie and Nathan’s relationship increasingly unravels as Stingo grows closer to Sophie and Nathan’s fragile mental state becomes ever more apparent just as Sophie’s past haunts her … Alan J. Pakula abandoned his customary 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller style to adapt William Styron’s novel – and yet one wonders if the Nazi takeover and atrocities aren’t the perfect subject for such an approach? As it is this too-faithful work exercises a Gothic hold despite the dayglo colours of Nestor Alemendros’ cinematography.  Death is in the narrative cracks. MacNicol is strange enough to withstand the attention as the rather naif narrator, Kline epitomises the term kinetic in a tremendously physical interpretation of the disturbed Nathan as he literally envelops Streep, whose luminous moony pallor dominates every scene. The structure – revealing the tragic titular decision – is painstaking but it somehow works against the dramatic tension in a film that is too long and paradoxically fears taking a risk. It’s Streep who makes this work in a jaw-dropping performance which created her legend.

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

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Who knows what men are really capable of?  We all wear pantomime masks.  It’s 1880 and Victorian London is gripped with fear as a serial killer is on the loose leaving cryptic messages written in the blood of his victims who appear to have no connection with each other. As the body count mounts the mystery becomes increasingly outlandish and blame falls on the mythical creature of Jewish lore – the golem. With few leads and increasing public pressure, Scotland Yard assigns the case to Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy), a seasoned detective whose homosexual inclinations prevent his promotion and who suspects that he’s being set up to fail. Faced with a long list of suspects, Kildare must rely on help from a witness to stop the murders and bring the maniac to justice… Peter Ackroyd’s wonderful Victorian novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem gets a suitably OTT workout here but Jane Goldman’s adaptation misses a trick or three and doesn’t entirely sustain the plot (you’ll guess the killer very quickly). There’s a lot to like, particularly in the interplay between Nighy and Daniel Mays as Constable George Flood which is put to the forefront of this interpretation but the rivalry with Inspector Roberts (Peter Sullivan) is badly underwritten. A game cast including Douglas Booth as the legendary Leno, Eddie Marsan as Uncle, Sam Reid as failed playwright John Cree, Olivia Cooke as his wife and surprisingly literate former music hall performer Lizzie and even Paul Ritter bringing up the rear as a librarian, do a lot in a good-looking production. It’s not often Karl Marx and George Gissing are suspected of serial murders! And Nighy deepens his usual bonhomie with barely concealed emotion. However the misguided construction means that this never really comes over the way you’d expect given the powerful origins of the tale and ultimately it fails to reconcile the male and female stories in this multifaceted portrait of sex and violence.  Directed by Juan Carlos Medina.

Agnelli (2017)

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He was a prince. A dazzling account of Gianni Agnelli, Italy’s titan of industry, the glamorous, drug-taking, womanizing, stylish, physically courageous playboy who survived a dreadful (cocaine-induced) car crash and a relationship with man-eating Pamela Churchill to take on the Communists, the Leftists and the Red Brigades who nearly destroyed Italy in the 70s. The film traces his early life with a risk-taking father who wound up decapitated whilst flying and a promiscuous and unstable mother, thence to a place on the board of Fiat where his grandfather held court, while leading a wild private life and eventually succumbing to a marriage (to the weird Neapolitan aristocrat Marella) engineered by his sisters, two of whom are interviewed here, among many friends, associates and colleagues who recall a man who was at once at ease and yet constantly alert (‘he knew what you were thinking,’ declares Henry Kissinger). From the economic miracle, the depression of the Seventies when decent men were taken out on the street and shot like dogs, as one man tearfully recalls (we are shown the awful picture of Aldo Moro’s body in the boot of a car), to the resurgence in the Eighties, this is as much a portrait of a country rising from post-WW2 torpor and twisting in political torment, as it is of a man whose private tragedies eventually led to a sad end. He despised his son and heir Edoardo and three days after Agnelli humiliated him at a board meeting the thirty-two year old threw himself off a 100 meter bridge – a perverse act of courage which finally elicited Agnelli’s admiration in a family where succession was always an issue.  Sometimes having it all is never enough. Vain?  He invented vanity!  Directed by Nick Hooker with a wonderful score by Paul Cantelon. Produced by Graydon Carter.

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (2015)

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She would rather live with a producer than her children. The great Swedish actress is recalled through her diaries and letters (voiced by Alicia Vikander), photographs and any amount of home movies which she shot compulsively.  She believed she was only truly alive when she was being photographed and described her home life away from the studio in Hollywood as ‘being locked in a suitcase suffocating.’ Following the early death of her mother this was a little girl cosseted by her father who documented her on camera and even Alfred Hitchcock (‘he brought out the best in me’) declared she took film more seriously than real life. Her father died young too and this leaves something of a Freudian association trailing throughout the film with her evident need to be constantly photographed and speaking other people’s lines.  Following drama school and early success in Swedish cinema she was discovered by Hollywood and arrived there to work with David O. Selznick whose colleague Kay Brown became her agent and lifelong friend. She abandoned her little girl and doctor husband for various lovers including Robert Capa (who wouldn’t sacrifice his short-lived career for her) and then Roberto Rossellini whom she pursued until he hired her for a film and she had his illegitimate child. She couldn’t adjust to his filmmaking style – she was no improviser and writing dialogue was contrary to her training. Her husband divorced her and got custody of Pia, while, after having more children by Rossellini,  the director abandoned Bergman for another woman (in India) who had yet another of his illegitimate children and Bergman then took off for Paris with a lover of her own. She saw her children in Italy once a month, more often when daughter Isabella (who became an actress) developed scoliosis. Daughter Pia discusses her mother’s obsession with Joan of Arc from an early age as being evidence that she wanted to make her name. There are many newsreel excerpts and interviews about her chaotic intercontinental life, pursued by paparazzi and condemned by various authorities until director Anatole Litvak declared in the mid-50s that she was the only actress he could consider for the role of Anastasia and an Academy Award for her performance smoothed her way back into the Hollywood fold. Despite her shortcomings and basically abandoning her young, her adult children (presumably with the benefit of relatively old age) describe her in contemporary interviews  as being totally charming with eldest daughter Pia even declaring, I craved having more of her. Stig Björkman’s film is a stunning evocation of a unique, peripatetic life which despite the rather unsettling morality of its fame-seeking subject simply exudes joy and contains many insights into the acting mind. Written by the director with Stina Gardell and Dominika Daubenbuchel with a great score by Michael Nyman, topped with a song by Eva Dahlgren in the closing credits.

I, Tonya (2017)

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There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants! In 1991, talented figure skater Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) becomes the first American woman to complete a triple axel during a competition. We first see her as a three year old in 1970s Portland Oregon where her monstrous multiply-married mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) insists that she be mentored by Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) at the local rink.  In 1994, her world comes crashing down when her violent ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) conspires with her moronic and delusional bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to injure Harding’s friend  and fellow Olympic hopeful and biggest rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in a poorly conceived attack that forces the young woman to withdraw from the national championship. Harding’s life and legacy instantly become tarnished as she’s forever associated with one of the most infamous scandals in sports history…  When producer and star Robbie read Steven Rogers’s pitch black comedy she didn’t realise it was based on a true story (sort of). Her determination to bring this radical post-modern interpretation of one of the most notorious sporting crimes in the last quarter of a century to the big screen is testament to both her good taste and her chutzpah – this after all is her first starring role and she produced the film. She gives a powerhouse performance in a difficult role, delineating Harding’s evolution from white trash teen to triple axel-crushing rink monster routinely routed by snobby judges who want someone more ‘family’-friendly as their poster child and create the conditions for unconscious revenge against the powers that be. You were as graceless as a bull dyke. It was embarrassing! Janney’s performance has won all the awards (never forget she was everyone’s fave woman in the world in The West Wing) however she plays this crushing creature for a couple too many laughs.  It’s Robbie who has the tough job here – convincing us in this self-reflexive narrative that she really did deserve plaudits and not the horrifying level of domestic abuse which she came to expect after being reared by a veritable dragon in human form. Having each of the characters variously interviewed and breaking the fourth wall occasionally to ask why their contribution isn’t being featured at different points in the story reminds you that there are competing testimonies here.  The end credits, complete with real-life cringe-inducing footage of the ghastly individuals (this is really a documentary!) interspersed with Harding’s uplifting, magical performances makes you wonder how the poor girl ever survived the rank and file awfulness of her dreary Pacific north-west background. The interview with Hard Copy journalist Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) and the juxtaposition with the breaking news of OJ Simpson as the drama concludes in 1994 reinforces the underlying story of newsmaking in the 90s and how these two stories changed TV journalism forever. Brilliantly constructed and performed and well executed by Craig Gillespie. 6.0! Go Tonya!

Coco (2017)

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A minute ago I thought I was related to a murderer! You’re a total upgrade! Despite his family’s generations-old ban on music, young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Great-grandmother Coco (Ana Ofelia Marguía) was abandoned by her musician father to pursue his career and her daughter Mama (Sofia Espinosa) doesn’t want to hear or see anyone with musical inclinations in this multi-generational household. Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead after he plucks de la Cruz’s guitar from the wall of his mausoleum on the Day of the Dead. After meeting a charming trickster named Héctor (Gael García Bernal) the two new friends embark on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history involving murder, theft and a misbegotten career … Disney’s Mexican quest narrative has proved hugely popular critically and commercially and it’s easy to see why even if like most contemporary animated features it could have been twenty minutes shorter. It’s a wildly colourful ride, beautifully realised as an explanation of death as a parallel universe where existence is run with just as much pettiness and bureaucratic nonsense (spewing information from an Apple Mac in what looks like a nineteenth century railway station). Mapping Miguel’s desire to find out the truth about his mysterious great-grandfather while being teamed up with Héctor who hasn’t completely crossed over because his photograph hasn’t been memorialised is a clever trope, typical of the Hero’s Journey model which revolutionised the studio’s animation output thirty years ago. There are some good jokes for the adults featuring unibrows and Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) with a nod to Game of Thrones via a spirit guide that resembles a dragon. It may be based on the preceding short Dante’s Lunch but many people will recall The Book of Life from Fox a few years agoThis occasioned an eye-wateringly bad rendition of the song Remember Me at the Oscars, along with the other unutterably under-rehearsed Best Song nominees. Ah, Hollywood. The original story is by director Lee Unrich, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina while the screenplay is by Aldrich and Molina and the score is by Michael Giacchino.

Jane (2017)

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I thought they were like us but nicer than us. I had no idea of the brutality they could show. The true story of Jane Goodall, the English woman who was secretary to biologist Louis Leakey and who went to live among chimpanzees in the Gombe of Tanzania, becoming an expert on the habitat in the world’s longest-running primatological study. I was the Geographic cover girl, she laughs, in a biographical work anchored in her narration and some contemporary interviews but brought to life by the archive footage shot by the man who became her husband, Baron Hugo van Lawick with a typically compelling score by Philip Glass. While she was studying chimp behaviour and learning how to rear their son from her subjects, she was finding that chimps could be as aggressive and war-like as humans and just how distressing the results could be. If you have read her work then you will be familiar with David Greybeard and the colour film of this magnificent animal will be truly heartwarming even if his bitter end is hard to bear. This also offers insights into Goodall’s background, the effect of separation from her husband and the difficulties in bringing up their boy Grub in the Gombe while van Lawick wanted to remain working in the Serengeti. Trips to raise money to keep the eventual research base going are treated with mordant humour. This is a wonderful piece of work with Brett Morgen’s assemblage of van Lawick’s 16mm films (thought lost until 2014) creating a painstaking record of the most important such study we have but also including much home movie footage which clearly demonstrate van Lawick’s growing infatuation with his other subject – Goodall herself. Adapted from Goodall’s books and notes by director Morgen, who also produced and edited this beautiful film. Utterly captivating.