The Reader (2008)

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Go to your literature, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Don’t go to the camps. Germany, 1958.  Fifteen-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirtysomething tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he falls ill with scarlet fever and she comes to his aid. Months later he visits her to thank her and she seduces him. They meet regularly and their relationship is passionate. She insists that he read books to her during their meetings. Reading first. Sex afterwards.  When Hanna abruptly moves away without informing him, Michael is heartbroken. Years later, while studying law at Heidelberg University, he is shocked to discover that Hanna is on trial for a brutal Nazi war crime when he is sent to observe a case at court. She admits to something that will incriminate her and ensure life imprisonment rather than say she is actually illiterate. She became a prison guard to hide her problem. What would you have done? Michael withholds the crucial information that could minimise her sentence. Ten years later he (Ralph Fiennes) is divorced and unhappy. His daughter lives with his ex and he has nothing much to do with his family.  He records cassettes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison.  She teaches herself to read using his recordings alongside books from the prison library. Then Michael is phoned by the prison as he is Hanna’s only contact to be told she is due to be released and needs to re-enter society … Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel Der Vorleser was watercooler stuff, the book you had to read a decade and a half ago. In an era suffused with simplistic youth-oriented dystopic nonsense and wizardry it was water in the desert, a book that had historic relevance and contemporary resonance in a society still gripped by the Nazis who were and are still living, still unrepentant. When Michael asks Hanna what she learned in her prison term she states bluntly, I learned to read. Winslet may have received the acting honours but the role is narrow, her character’s intelligence limited, her grasp of anything finite beyond a certain native shrewdness. Everything is transactional, even degeneracy. It is Fiennes who has to retain and expose the devastating effect their relationship has had on his life, as a son, a husband and father. He is also the adult lawyer living with the knowledge that his generation has been mainly unmarked by the failure of the German state.  Yet somehow his sexual adventure has created an incriminating situation for him akin to guilt.  Kross is equally good as the boy initiated into the wonders of sex with a woman who gets him to repeat the reading ritual that Jews were forced to perform for her at Auschwitz. The irony that they have both introduced each other to vastly differing worlds ricochets through his adult life. Her shame concerns illiteracy, not complicity in murder:  this is the crux of the narrative. She will not dwell in the past. It is a metaphor too far for some perhaps but it makes sense when you consider the ease with which Germany rebuilt itself with former Nazis running everything, an arrangement blessed by the former Allies, a fact erased from most people’s consciousness. That is why I believe so many critics hated this film:  we are all complicit in Germany’s overwhelming role in Europe today,  in permitting the Nazis to continue in another guise:  we are therefore no better than the Germans ourselves.  Linking this concept to an erotic coming of age story is daring and reminiscent of The Night Porter, another divisive work.  Michael did not go to his father’s funeral, his mother says.  We infer that his father’s role in World War Two was beyond the pale, at least for him. Things remain unspoken. This is a complex, emotionally powerful film with a problematic resolution that seeks to assuage several varieties of guilt without actually excusing anyone, understanding the accommodations necessitated by the quotidian. Adapted with acuity by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died during production. There’s an interesting score by Nico Muhly and Bruno Ganz’s performance as the law professor with Lena Olin as a Jewish camp survivor (and her mother) rounding out the impressive cast in a troubling and carefully constructed moral tale.

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Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

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Maybe Chicago’s got a heart but I ain’t found one.  Young Italian-American Rocky Barbella (Paul Newman) endures abuse from his father (Harold J. Stone) and despite his mother (Eileen Heckart) and her constant efforts to intervene he messes with small-time crime with his streetwise friend Romolo (Sal Mineo).  His consequent run-ins with the law lead him in and out of detention centers and prisons. When it seems he has it together, Rocky is drafted into the wartime Army but can’t stick the regime and goes AWOL. He takes up boxing to earn quick money with coach Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane), but when he discovers he has a natural talent in the ring, he builds the confidence to pursue his love interest, Norma (Pier Angeli), and fulfill his potential as a middleweight fighter. Pressured to take a bribe, his reputation takes a major hit.  He doesn’t know how to redeem himself except by fighting …  Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Rocky Graziano’s autobiography is full of clichés – but they’re good ones because they’re true. Filled with big, dramatic performances and great action which is what you want from a gutsy story of an abused child through his spells in juvie and prison and the Army, this is a wonderful portrait of NYC and its denizens and the final bout is heart-stopping. The right hooks aren’t confined to Rocky, Lehman’s dialogue is ripe with zingers:  The trouble with reading the phonebook is you always know how it’s going to come out.  Gleaming monochrome cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and a song by Perry Como add to a magnificent movie bio experience but one is forced to ask what Paul Newman’s career would have looked like if its intended lead James Dean hadn’t died before this went into production:  his Rebel co-star Mineo (who looks altogether lustrous) bolsters the teen crim story and the beautiful Angeli was engaged to Dean for a while (as well as doing The Silver Chalice with Newman). His ghost is everywhere. Look for Robert Loggia and Dean Jones down the cast list.  Directed by Robert Wise.

Elle (2016)

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Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all. Believe me. Perverse, funny, strange, blackly comic and at times surreal, this is a film like few others. It opens on a black screen as Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped by a masked man. She gets up, cleans herself and bathes and carries on as though nothing has happened. At work she is the one in control – it’s her company and she deals in the hyper-real, trying to make video games more experiential, the storytelling sharper, the visuals more tactile. She is attacked in a cafe by a woman who recognises her as her father’s lure – as a child she her dad murdered a slew of people and he’s an infamous serial killer, turned down for release yet again at the age of 76 and it’s all over the news:  there’s a photo taken of her as a blank-eyed ten year old which haunts people. Her mother is a plastic surgery junkie shacked up with another young lover. Her ex-husband (Charles Berling) is broke and tries to pitch her an idea for a game. Her loser son has supposedly knocked up a lunatic girlfriend (the eventual baby is not white) and needs money for a home. Elle is sleeping with the husband of her partner Anna (Anne Consigny). She likes to ogle her neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). Now as she gets text messages about her body she tries to figure out who among her circle of acquaintances could have raped her – and then when it happens again she unmasks him and starts a relationship of sorts following a car crash (a deer crosses the road, not for the first time in a 2016 film).  This is where the edges of making stories, power, control, reality, games and the desire for revenge become blurred. Adapted from Patrick Dijan’s novel Oh by David Birke and translated into French by Harold Manning, this is Paul Verhoeven’s stunning return to form, with Huppert giving a towering performance as a wily, strong, vulnerable, tested woman – she owns her own company and handles unruly employees using a sympathetic snitch but cannot control her family members and their nuttiness. You can’t take your eyes off her, nor can the camera.  While she tries to figure out how to regain her composure (she rarely loses it, even while she’s getting punched in the face) she also sees a way in which she might obtain pleasure.  In some senses we might see a relationship with Belle de Jour: Michèle is the still centre of a world in which crazy is normal. It’s shot to reflect this, with the video game and the animation of her made illicitly by one employee the only visual extremes:  the assaults (there’s more than the first, when she gets the taste for it) are conventionally staged. She has turned the tables on her rapist – he is undone by her desire for sex. This is all about role play.  When Michèle finally decides to cut the cord on all the loose ends in her life it brings everything to a satisfying conclusion as she regains her balance – her role as CEO assists her manage her own narrative minus any generic tropes. Now that’s clever. Oh! The audacity! What a great film for women in a very contemporary take on noir and the notion of the femme fatale. Big wow.  I killed you by coming here.

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.

Into the Abyss (2011)

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He looked just like a little boy lying on the gurney. Werner Herzog goes to Conroe, Texas to examine the case of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, both convicted of a triple murder in 2001. He interviews the men, both of whom blame the other and proclaim their innocence from behind bars. Perry is 14 days from execution and appears to have made his peace with God. Burkett can look forward to eventually getting out. Hence the film’s subtitle:  A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death.  Burkett has married a prison groupie who somehow became inseminated despite there being no situation in which they could have had intercourse.  Herzog is walked around the crime scene by an investigating police officer and part of the film contains the police video of the aftermath. Widowed nurse Sandra Stolter was shot in her house in an expensive gated community as she baked cookies at Halloween. She was dumped in a lake.  Her 17-year old son (actually her older daughter’s illegitimate son, therefore her grandson) was hunted down and killed along with his friend. All of this was because Perry and Burkett wanted the woman’s red Camaro. They were chased for three days until they were caught. The car is in a pound, having been moved from its previous location where a tree grew through the floor. Herzog remains behind the camera and there is minimal voiceover but his solemn, methodical approach and his choice of interviewees buttresses his view that the death penalty is wrong although the film is so carefully constructed there is no real attempt to figure out what happened and who did what. The film is divided into a prologue and six sections. It begins with the prison chaplain whose job it is to comfort men about to be put to death. We see the cemetery where they are buried in their hundreds without their names, just their prison numbers. The former captain of death row Fred Allen finally gave up his job when he had to put a woman to death (Karla Faye Tucker in 1998) and sacrificed his pension:  he talks about living ‘in the dash’ ie the time between life and death as signified on the grave markers. Burkett’s father is himself serving 40 years and is interviewed behind bars, his fifth time inside. He blames his almost permanent absence from home for his son’s actions:  his testimony at sentencing saved Jason from lethal injection. Stolter’s daughter Lisa attended the execution and lets us know that Perry ‘forgave me.’ She laughs through her tears. On the one hand this is a careful indictment of a system of criminal justice which results in capital punishment. On the other, it’s a terrifying examination of broken families and dysfunction and the effects of drink and drugs. The big question here is why anyone kills in the first place – the individual or the State. But it’s still a small story. It’s an utterly tragic account of many lives destroyed in a small Texas town – all because two nasty teenagers coveted a car.

Return of the Gunfighter (1967) (TVM)

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The odds were 6 to 1 against him! Ben Wyatt (Robert Taylor) is an ageing gunfighter who has grown weary of his lifestyle and is looking for a quiet time after being released from a five-year prison sentence. But when an old friend, Luis Domingo (Rodolfo Hoyos Jr.), asks for help defending his land, Ben can’t say no. Unfortunately, he arrives too late, finding Luis and his entire family except daughter Anisa (Ana Martín) murdered. Ben is determined to get revenge against the killers, and in pursuing them reluctantly enlists  a younger wounded gunfighter, Lee Sutton (Chad Everett). Anisa is recognised in Lordsburg  by the killers – even while wearing men’s clothes – and Ben needs to step up to save her from the men who destroyed her family but they turn out to be Sutton’s brothers … With a screenplay by Burt Kennedy and Robert Buckner this has pretty impeccable credentials. There’s a clarity (even simplicity) about the gunslingers versus hombres setup that is reflected in the glossy cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks on location in Arizona. However Taylor’s star was on the wane and it serves as a footnote to his long career, released on ABC TV with cinema distribution only outside the US. It’s interesting as an introduction to Butch Cassidy (John Crawford) and the Sundance Kid (John Davis Chandler) but there are no real surprises although it’s nice to observe the byplay between Taylor and Everett as the older man confronts his mortality.  It took me a while to even recognise him:  this is the ageing process in living colour but he would die of lung cancer within two years of filming. This was his final western and third last film and he gives a fascinating performance.  He hosted the TV anthology series Death Valley Days from 1966-69.  Directed by James Neilson.

Planet of the Apes (1968)

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You know what they say – human see, human do.  Three astronauts (Charlton Heston, Robert Gunner and Jeff Burton) come out of hibernation to find themselves marooned on a futuristic planet following a crash landing. Apes rule and humans are slaves, two thousand and thirty-one years away from Earth. The stunned trio discovers that these highly intellectual simians can both walk upright and talk. They have even established a class system and a political structure. The astronauts suddenly find themselves part of a devalued species, trapped and imprisoned by the apes, enslaved and treated like objects of derision and work value. However they become subjects of medical interest for archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) but Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) finds out and wants Taylor (Heston) castrated. When Taylor tries to escape he doesn’t  reckon on what he finds … Landmark science fiction, this was probably the first of the genre I ever saw (on TV) as a small child and it certainly was a great introduction to a kind of storytelling that is weirdly current and prescient, good on race relations and inhumanity as well as future shock. Pierre Boulle’s novel was originally adapted by Rod Serling but got a rewrite from formerly blacklisted Michael Wilson, who had done uncredited work on the screenplay for Boulle’s Bridge on the River Kwai. It’s a wildly exciting and unexpected story that retains its powerful examination of human behaviour. The final shot is jaw-dropping:  is it the greatest movie ending of them all? The original of the species. Directed by Franklin Schaffner, who was recommended by Heston, who himself would make a couple more terrific sci fis. Get your damn paws off me, you stinking apes!

The Big Money (1958)

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Willie Frith (Ian Carmichael) is the underachieving bad seed of a family of thieves Father (James Hayter), Mother (Kathleen Harrison) and sister Doreen (Jill Ireland), unworthy of his position as number one son.  One day, he steals a briefcase from a dodgy clergyman (Robert Helpmann), which is full of pound notes. But – the notes all have the same serial number, making them hard to spend. Seduced by the big money, he starts passing the counterfeits, one bill at a time. Much of his need for money is to impress Gloria (Belinda Lee), the pretty barmaid at his local pub. She dreams of the millionaire who will come and give her the good life. Unfortunately, he cannot pass the fake money fast enough to keep up with her wants. When she helps herself to some of the counterfeit money, it gets the attention of the police and the mobsters. It all ends in a free-for-all, between the police, Arabs, and mobsters, in disguise. Finally, she has to decide whether she loves him or his money… Bright and breezy and gorgeously shot (by Jack Cardiff and Jack E. Cox) including a sequence at Royal Ascot, this is a fun Britcom with Carmichael typically endearing as the bumbling bungler, Helpmann terrific as the enterprising vicar and a great showcase for the stunning and tragic Lee, who took over a role intended for Diana Dors. Written by John Baines with additional scenes by Patrick Campbell and directed by John Paddy Carstairs.

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.

Miss Sloane (2017)

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Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. And plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them. And they don’t surprise you.  Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) remains one of the most sought-after lobbyists in Washington, D.C. She will do or say anything to get ahead of the competition. When asked to help oppose a bill that imposes regulations on firearms, she instead joins a scrappy boutique firm led by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) that represents the backers of the law. Her defiant stance and determination to win now makes her the target of powerful new enemies who threaten her career. We find her facing a congressional hearing headed up by Senator Ronald Sperling (John Lithgow) where the needling gets to her and she breaks legal advice to plead the Fifth to respond to a petty point about Indonesia and opens the door to an onslaught of past crimes in the name of getting ahead on Capitol Hill … This wordy worthy drama is hard to take:  Chastain is as we have come to expect – technically adept, capable of delivering very prolix speeches but essentially unsympathetic (not that she cares) in spite of this being about a very current hot button topic – gun control and the powerful lobby that comes out to vote no matter what. Written by Jonathan Perera and directed by John Madden, this is literate, middle of the road social consciousness drama only rendered tolerable by performance and ultimately some finessed construction and screw-tightening towards the conclusion. But like Chastain’s other film this year, Molly’s Game, the stakes aren’t high enough to make us do anything more than yawn at these horrible people.