Christopher Strong (1933)

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Aka The Great Desire and The White Moth. Don’t ever stop me doing what I want. Fascinating and startling Pre-Code drama starring Katharine Hepburn not as the eponymous Member of Parliament but a daring aviatrix modelled on Amy Johnson. Lady Cynthia Darrington meets the married Sir Christopher (Colin Clive) at a party and they can’t help but fall for each other. His wife, Lady Elaine (!) (the fabulous Billie Burke) worries about their daughter but the frankly virginal Cynthia stirs Christopher, especially when she dons a silver moth costume for a fancy dress ball and to hell with marriage and flying… for a while. The clever way to illustrate sexual congress – a bedside lamp switched on with just Hepburn’s bangled wrist in shot as we see from a clock it’s the wee small hours – the use of altimeters not just as a signal for her ambition but a correlative for this extra-marital relationship – and of course Hepburn’s striking look in her second film appearance – make for a stylish Art Deco picture. Cynthia’s final flight after she discovers her pregnancy still gives her an opportunity for personal expression and record-breaking and it is this aspect – and the fact that the film was directed by Dorothy Arzner (with a little help from silent director Tommy Atkins who also assisted on Hepburn’s debut Morning Glory) – means this was rehabilitated over the years by feminism. Adapted from Gilbert Frankau’s novel by Zoe Akins. Quite dazzling.

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La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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Tracks (2013)

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I just want to be by myself. If you read books like The Heroine’s Journey you’ll learn that what every girl really needs at some point is some time by herself – a separation of sorts, from the noise, from the world, from the patriarchal expectations …. all that jazz. And in 1977 Australian Robyn Davidson had just about enough of all the rubbish in life and decided to trek 1,700 miles from Alice Springs via Ayers Rock and the Western Desert to the Ocean – with Diggity the dog and Dookie, Bob, Sally and Baby Goliath, four camels that she trained and befriended. The problem of financing necessitated a sponsor and that came in the form of National Geographic magazine which sent freelance photographer Rick Smolan to shoot the story and he met up with her once a month, in various states of disrepair and anguish. Mia Wasikowska has the role of her life, encountering her real self, solitude, loneliness and loss. It’s a remarkable, demanding performance in this adaptation by Marion Nelson of Davidson’s memoir, which took 25 years to get to the big screen after many false starts. Adam Driver is the unfortunate guy whose expressions of concern for his occasional travelling companion are so regularly rebuffed while the inevitable publicity brings unwelcome meetings with an inquisitive public and there’s an especially amusing incident when Robyn’s mentor Mr Eddie (Rolley Mintuma) scares them off with a presumably typical Aboriginal attitude. This is a beautifully crafted film, memorably shot and simply bewitching, with layers of meaning about personhood, the environment and the ecology of animal and human friendship. One of my favourite films of 2013. Directed by John Curran.

Jaws (1975)

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Ibsen by way of a Peter Benchley bestseller and an adventurous and gifted director called Steven Spielberg. I got caught up in this again late last night and was gripped, as ever, by this visceral tale of beachside terror which hasn’t aged a day and in many respects remains my favourite Spielberg movie. There is so much to relish. The atmosphere, aided immeasurably by John Williams’ stunningly suggestive score – which was the soundtrack in the bathroom of the late lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London – utterly terrifying!. The performances:  who doesn’t love Richard Dreyfuss as the marine biologist? Roy Scheider as the seaside town police chief who’s scarified of water? Robert Shaw as the drunken shark hunting Captain Quint? And those hellishly cute kids. And what about the titles sequence? There’s the politics of the summer season and the mayor who doesn’t want word to get out. The anger of the bereaved mother. The bloodied water and beach toys. The track-zoom of realisation. The clear storytelling. White sharks got a bad press out of this epic battle but there has rarely been a better exploration of the ecology of man and beast. Quite literally sensational. Classic, brilliant, the original of the species. Written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with a little assist from Spielberg, Howard Sackler, Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, and John Milius.

Death Becomes Her (1992)

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The blackest of comedies, this, a satire about looks and cosmetic surgery and Hollywood that 25 years later looks a lot like contemporary society’s obsession with plastic even if it doesn’t actually predict the rise of the D-listers famous for selling sex tapes to fund their face changing which everyone pretends not to notice (seriously:  when did plastic surgery get so bad? It used to work! Nobody noticed Gary Cooper’s facelift! Or Alain Delon’s!). Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep are friends who have wildly different career trajectories (prescient…) when Meryl makes off with Bruce Willis, a talented plastic surgeon who keeps the actress wealthy while her roles diminish. Goldie meanwhile spends years sitting in front of the TV getting fat obsessing over what might have been. Seven years later … Goldie is shrunk and madeover and arrives to take what’s rightfully hers – Bruce, now an alcoholic mess – while Meryl is having it away with anyone twenty years younger. Meryl avails of a potion for eternal life sold from a Gothic castle in the Hollywood Hills by Isabella Rossellini, a sex goddess witch with a Louise Brooks ‘do who looks 25 but is actually 71. Thus Bruce and Goldie’s plot to kill her off fails and she then kills Goldie – who also gets to live forever while Bruce wonders what on earth he can do to escape them when they go to a party at Isabella’s which happens to be Night of the Living Hollywood Dead… Martin Donovan and David Koepp’s script is pretty smart but goes for easy targets in horror instead of the social mores it’s ostensibly attacking.  There are nice bits – Goldie’s insight with her therapist;  Sydney Pollack as the doctor finding Meryl has no heartbeat after her head’s twisted back to front and she’s sitting up talking to him in his Beverly Hills surgery; the party at Isabella’s with an orchestra led by Ian Ogilvie and we recognise some very famous dead faces dancing – but in the main it’s a totally OTT effects fantasia, a singular failing of director Robert Zemeckis whose work I preferred in the days of Used Cars and Back to the Future.  One thing is sure in the 37-years-later last segment – these ladies don’t age quite the way they want to! For romance novel fans, yes, that’s Fabio playing Isabella’s bodyguard. Golly!

Marie Antoinette (2006)

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Sofia Coppola knows what it feels like for a girl. When the officials at Versailles gave her the very big keys to open up the palace and reimagine a little Austrian girl lost in the vicious and foreign French royal court working from Antonia Fraser’s biography, they probably didn’t picture this — a portrait of teenage decadence in the pastel palette of macaroons (magenta, citron, mint) scored to a New Romantic soundtrack as if she were making an Adam and the Ants video.  Kirsten Dunst is the kid sold to the gormless dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) in a strategic alliance organised by her mother the Empress (Marianne Faithfull). Her father in law the King Louis XV (Rip Torn) is like a Texan cowboy carrying on with Madame du Barry (Asia Argento). Her husband has no idea what to do in bed and she’s a giggly kid who spends her nights drinking and gambling with her girly friends and it takes a visit from her brother Emperor Josef (Danny Huston) to explain to the mechanically-minded prospective king about locks and holes, and a year later, finally, the marriage is consummated and a baby girl is born.  Seven years of foreplay!  The life of conspicuous consumption of colourful costumes and cookies and candy is swopped for something almost rural and natural at Le Petit Trianon where the young mother holds a different kind of court and succumbs to an affair with the Swedish Count Fersel (Jamie Dornan) and frolics with her little girl in the meadows. The mood alters and the cinematography (by Lance Acord) attains the backlit flared quality of a nature documentary:  this is impressionistic and expressionistic all at once, reliant on Dunst’s face and the overall vision of a writer/director in sympathetic tune with her tragic protagonist whose perception of the vicious society over which she holds sway dominates the narrative. The final quarter hour is the nightmare:  people are starving because the peasants are bearing the cost of the war in America, and propaganda and lies, dead children and the baying mob are at the door. This is a fabulist film about fashion and feeling and food and it gets into your head and your heart. If you don’t like it, you know what you can go eat.

The Country Girl (1954)

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This is the film that earned Grace Kelly her Best Actress Academy Award and nowadays her performance looks better than ever:  look at what she has to do. She plays the dowdy, dependable but once glamorous wife of faded alcoholic Broadway star Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) whose chance at a comeback is created by temperamental director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) against his backers’ better judgement. Dodd believes Kelly’s a suicidal drinker but she’s actually fronting for the massive insecurity of her husband, an habitual and chronic liar who’s using their son’s death in his care as an excuse for his cowardliness and retreat to the bottle. Kelly has to keep him going while the out of town previews go badly and go along with his stories to Dodd, who thinks she’s destroying him until he finally sees Frank on a bender and Frank confesses. Then Dodd realises his antipathy is based on his pure misogyny – he’s down on marriage since he cheated on his ex-wife obviously – and thinks he’s in love with her. Kelly thinks she is sympathetic to him too but she wants her husband’s comeback to work too. This Clifford Odets story is adapted very well by producer/director/writer George Seaton with key observational touches – there’s a lovely bit where Kelly overhears the audience’s opinions in the interval and smiles to herself – in between the big scenes, which are adorned with some crackling expository and personal dialogue. One of Crosby’s final lines is to die for. However he overplays his moroseness and Holden is occasionally too strident although that’s probably the Odets character – making Kelly’s job of pivoting between the pair that much harder. Some of her best moments are beautifully adorned by Victor Young’s supremely subtle score. A cracking backstage drama that deals with addiction, bereavement, guilt, grief and a dying marriage:  you know, the little things. Now, let’s put on a show!

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016)

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For a while there in the late Nineties and early Noughties the literati and glitterati were consumed with a tousled blond transsexual HIV+ teenage hustler turned author who obsessively recorded phone conversations with famous people. Actually JT LeRoy was the non-existent brainchild of Laura Albert, an overweight Jewish woman who made a living from phone sex and she had to come up with a real-life avatar when the books started selling. So she deployed her live-in boyfriend’s sister, Savannah Knoop, to act out in public with a series of wigs (very Warhol) while she accompanied her/him as an English manager ‘Speedie’ whose function remains non-descript. This bizarre story is told primarily through Albert herself, interviewed (in not remotely sufficient detail) in the present day. She describes her upbringing, when she was serially committed as a teenager to psychiatric hospitals and affected an English persona so convincing that one boyfriend didn’t figure out for 4 months that she came from Long Island. A lot of famous people were taken in, not least the actress and director Asia Argento, who slept with Knoop. Albert snarls to camera, ‘Didn’t she notice her pussy?’ Lovely. What is odd perhaps is that none of these people notice what is immediately identifiable to anyone with sight:  Knoop’s female hips. Few of the hoax victims are interviewed, which lessens the impact of this fascinating narcissistic exhibitionist’s jolly jape, every moment of which she compulsively recorded. Who does that? Unless it’s part of some sort of bigger, greater, Situationist joke involving more than immediate family? (She thinks of herself as being a kind of Thomas Pynchon figure.)  One of the many strange aspects of this unravelling mythography is the changing face of Albert herself, whose transformed body and visage (drastic gastric plastic) overlooked that most vital of orifices, the thin crooked little mouth from which so much lying was spun. On the same day I saw this it was revealed that the bacterium from which all human life arose was all mouth and no anus. You couldn’t make it up. It is very late in this documentary when Albert reveals having been sexually abused as a child and resorting to food because her rapist liked her thin. One wonders who has been pulling Albert’s strings all these years. Or where all that detritus is stored. Written and directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. Maybe. Dial 1-800 SCREW YOU.

Jackie (2016)

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Did I really see this film?! That’s an appropriate afterthought given its hallucinatory quality, a narcotised morphine fever dream about a woman with a flip haircut, boiled wool suits and a voice from the Marilyn playbook. Natalie Portman doesn’t remotely resemble the upperclass journalist who married into the crass Kennedy family and wound up First Lady with her husband’s brains spattered into her lap on an ill-judged trip to Texas, home to LBJ. Yet that doesn’t matter because after a half hour of her narration you are sucked into this Warholesque meditation on fame and public approval. She lies constantly to journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) interviewing her for Life after the assassination and then tells him things she insists cannot possibly go to print. She will edit the image and control the myth – which she calls Camelot. That record spins as she cascades into a vortex of desperation and disbelief. This will be her version of events. She crashes around the White House, drunk; argues with Bobby and Jack Valenti about the funeral and changes her mind back and forth about how much of Lincoln’s leavetaking should be imitated, while the clodhopping Kennedy sisters try to manipulate the situation;  when her husband’s casket is put on public view she sympathises with LBJ that this should be the terrible beginning of his Presidency. One suspects it is precisely the beginning he desired. Real footage of her White House restoration tour for TV is intercut with a grainy impressionistic copy where she is coached and cheered from the sidelines by Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). Suddenly Portman’s embodiment doesn’t seem as mad. She retracts all the truthful statements from her account to White – what she did with her husband’s skull, the sound of the bullet – but it is to Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt) that she speaks about her loveless marriage, her insecurities, her need to have her dead children interred with their father. Their burial in the rainy hillside at Arlington feels like the ultimate cruelty. Archive footage is impeccably interwoven with this recreation of events in which we all have an investment, even those of us born long after they occurred. As she leaves the White House for the final time she passes Hamiltons department store and sees rows of window mannequins wearing her wigs and two-piece Chanel imitations. What is real? What is performance? she muses. One gets the distinct impression she knew more than most. And off she goes, homeless, to an unknowable, husbandless future. Written by Noah Oppenheim with a visceral arrest of a soundtrack created by Mica Levi, undercutting the sense of camp that this sad and crazy brilliance otherwise imparts. Andy Warhol is alive and well and still making movies. There is just one word for this: astonishing. Directed by Pablo Larrain. Oh!

The Mirror Crack’d (1980)

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Oh joy! An Agatha Christie murder mystery set in the 1950s on location in England with … four of the era’s real-life stars in the leading roles! What a brilliant idea, at least. Elizabeth Taylor re-enacts a story Christie knew about Gene Tierney who was embraced by a fan at the Hollywood Canteen while Tierney was pregnant with her first child by husband Oleg Cassini. The fan had left quarantine where she was languishing with German measles. Tragically, Tierney’s daughter was born blind and deaf and severely retarded as a result of the woman’s selfishness. Christie took the idea and ran with it, bringing movie star Marina Rudd on location to film the story of the sisters Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots with old rival Lola Brewster (Kim Novak) a production being directed by her husband Jason (Rock Hudson) and produced by Lola’s husband Marty (Tony Curtis). This was Taylor and Hudson’s second film together twenty-five years after the epoch-defining Giant. A chance meeting at the launch party brings Marina into contact with the woman who she now realises had infected her at a theatre during WW2 and the woman is murdered then anonymous letters start arriving … Jonathan Hales and Barry Sandler adapted the novel, John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin produced and Guy Hamilton directed, with Angela Lansbury playing Miss Marple in what proved to be an audition for Murder, She Wrote. She is accompanied by her nephew at Scotland Yard Dermot Craddock (Edward Fox):  there’s a top-notch cast list with Pierce Brosnan to be spotted in a small role. And when was the last time you saw Anthony Steel?!  This isn’t the tense mystery that it should be, but it provides vast pleasures for those of us consumed with Hollywood in all its iterations. The cinematography by the great Christopher Challis doesn’t hurt but the final shot of the fabulous Ms Taylor is deeply unflattering and should have been rethought (Natalie Wood had been the first choice for the role).  On the other hand, there are close shots of her eyes that are not in any of her other films – and they are legendary!