Fences (2016)

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Some people build fences to keep people out and some people build fences to keep people in. Troy (Denzel Washington) is a trash collector married to Rose (Viola Davis) for eighteen years in 1950s Pittsburgh. His life is filled with regrets, particularly when it comes to his chance of playing baseball twenty years ago before the game had mixed leagues. He believes he has cheated The Grim Reaper in the past. His son Cory (Jovan Adepo) is promising at football but he squashes his ambitions. For fear of racial discrimination? Jealousy?  This is the kind of film I dread seeing never mind commenting about for fear of the thought police. It’s a draggy theatre adaptation of a famously acclaimed work which is worthy and conscious and PC and all that kinda annoying stuff. It’s all talk. Troy left an abusive home, killed a man in a robbery, went to prison, found a talent for baseball. Until one hour in, it’s hard to watch, even with Washington and Davis reprising their Broadway roles and some good sidebars with the supporting actors: Stephen Henderson as his friend, Mykelti Williamson as his ‘touched’ younger brother, his illegitimate son Russell Hornsby who arrives to collect money. They are physically placed as though everyone were still behind a proscenium. Then – when Troy confesses to Rose his mistress is about to have his bastard and it’s all about him – she lights up and grips the screen by the throat and it finally gains a life of its own – legitimate cinema, as it were. This is all about family and responsibility and the weight you attach to your experiences even at the cost to your relationships. What Troy does next – and how Rose responds – is the whole show. The original play by August Wilson (whose alterations to the proposed screenplay shortened it over the long period of development prior to his death) takes place in a yard, like a lot of American plays. Part of the reason it took so long to reach the screen was Wilson’s insistence upon a black director. Washington’s direction of the adaptation reinstates the text and once that first difficult act is done, he gets more courage and inserts a song and a montage of how life has gone. And then … So it’s not great cinema but it gives concrete proof of Davis’ brilliant stage performance. Personally I found Washington harder to take not just for his personification but his enunciation. This is a tough watch for all the above reasons. Three strikes …

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George Michael: Freedom (2017)

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I knew how to make these records and I knew just how to make them jump out of the radio. George Michael was making this film about his career when he died so unexpectedly and tragically on Christmas Day last year. Slickly narrated and beautifully edited, this astonishing combination of archive footage, home movies, music videos and contemporary interviews with his peers, friends and lawyers is as artfully constructed, witty, mesmerising and moving as the music of the man himself.  From his schoolboy antics with Andew Ridgeley in a terrible ska band through the unexpected stardom of Wham! when they played up their wideboy appeal with satirical lyrics which largely bypassed the masses, to his phenomenal breakthrough as a solo artiste, this manages to be both a testimonial to his own brilliance as well as a scathing commentary on the demands of the music industry. Following his astonishing crossover success in the US where he got a Grammy for Faith, the resistance from the black community (who played him day and night on radio) to what would now be termed his ‘cultural appropriation’  led to the great Listen Without Prejudice Vol. I which Sony America did not want to promote. His battle with the company (put down to cultural differences – hmmm…) coincided with his meeting the man of his life, Anselmo Feleppa, when their eyes met across a stage in Rio. But his new companion was soon diagnosed with HIV and when he died Michael was faced with a legal action against Sony for restraint of trade, which he lost. Amongst the interviews (clearly recorded before his death and therefore this is somewhat lacking in the latter stages) directed by Michael with his co-director and former manager, Michael Austin are Ricky Gervais, busy extracting the urine calling him “my favourite singing convict,” Tracey Emin, Elton John, Mark Ronson, Nile Rogers and Clive Davis, who compliments Frank Sinatra (or his publicist) for writing a letter urging George to promote his work while excoriating Michael’s decision not to turn up at the opening of an envelope. How absolutely ingenious that he chose Linda Evangelista to be his avatar – and how very Nineties! It’s very cool to have Stevie Wonder, one of his many admirable and admiring collaborators, throw into the race debate, “You mean George is white?! Oh my God!!!” (What must they make of Elvis?!) The most revealing personal section of the film is rather strange precisely because the people upon whom it pivots are not there except in slight footage or photos – his lover and his mother, and Ridgeley is not interviewed either. This is a man undone by grief about their deaths and who took years to process his losses, pouring it all into amazing songs. He could write and interpret lyrics like nobody of his generation. His narration is composed from old interviews. His description of being at home in England at Christmas while Feleppa was awaiting the outcome of an HIV test in Brazil is unbearable:  he had not even told his parents about his new relationship and thought he himself could be infected. The other irony of the film is the title itself (also one of his recordings) because he felt so imprisoned by his sexuality, his accompanying psychological difficulties and the recording contract which so confined him:  how completely bizarre that this should be a Sony Music film and it is now an obituary to Michael by Michael himself. If he were to be remembered, he says, it would hopefully be as a great singer-songwriter and as someone with integrity. Written, produced and directed by George Michael, this clearly had to be somewhat rewritten as it was not completed prior to his untimely death. What a guy. And what an unutterably terrible loss.

In This Our Life (1942)

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You’ve never gotten over me and you never will. John Huston’s sophomore outing (after The Maltese Falcon) is this deranged adaptation of Ellen Glasgow’s Pulitzer-winning novel concerning race relations and sibling rivalry in the contemporary South, a subject on which she was rather an expert. Bette Davis is Stanley Timberlake who is about to marry lawyer Craig Fleming (George Brent, Davis’ frequent co-star) but runs off instead with her brother in law Dr Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan). Stanley’s sister Roy (Olivia DeHavilland) divorces Peter but starts dating Craig in revenge and Peter starts to get nervous when Stanley goes kinda crazy at a roadhouse.  He becomes an alcoholic and commits suicide. Stanley returns to Virginia and wants to stop Roy from marrying Craig. She kills a mother and child while drunk and tries to pin the crime on a young black man Parry Clay (Ernest Anderson) working for the family and interning in Craig’s office to prepare for law school … What a wonderful showcase of the very opposing talents of Warners’ biggest stars. Both Davis and DeHavilland were having a bad time on this film:  Davis’ husband fell very ill and the company made it difficult for her to visit him then she fell ill;  DeHavilland was overworked and tired and felt overweight. Davis felt Huston favoured her co-star and drew attention to herself with her overwrought self-designed makeup scheme and her very busy costumes by Orry-Kelly. Her personification of this selfish nasty histrionic woman whose very physicality bespeaks narcissism is totally compelling;  her quasi-incestuous scene with her indulgent uncle William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn) is still shocking – he holds the power once he’s taken over the family business. That scene was directed by Raoul Walsh when Huston was called away on war duty (this was made between October and December 1941). But what made this film such a problem when it was released was its truthful depiction of the state of race relations and therefore created a distribution issue. There are many things wrong with Howard Koch’s adaptation but the busy-ness of the production design with its wildly clashing patterns, the strength of the ensemble scenes and the sheerly contrasting powers of the ladies playing opposite one another in their varying interpretations (madly hysterical versus quiet revenge) in some very good shot setups by Huston make this a very interesting example of Forties melodrama. Watch for Walter Huston as a bartender.

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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William Kienzle once wrote that nothing beats religion, sex and murder. This almost-true (ish) story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a literate slave and preacher in antebellum Virginia has all of the above plus a sense of righteousness that along with Twelve Years a Slave risks a new era of blaxploitation with rather different text than in the Seventies. Year in year out, another brutal beating, unwatchable torture and horrible violence. From his childhood to his inevitable death by hanging after taking revenge on the supposedly kindly owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who betrays him after persuading him to suppress rebellion through religion we are not remotely surprised by any of the narrative turns. Worthy but not really memorable, from the quadruple threat Parker – who directs and produces as well as co-writing with Jean McGianni Celestin.

Wind River (2017)

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How do you gauge someone’s will to live? I once knew a film producer who said the two rules of moviemaking were, Never make a western and Never make a film in the snow. Well thank goodness nobody told screenwriter Taylor Sheridan who makes his directing debut here following the screenplays for the extraordinary Sicario and Hell or High Water, two of the best films in the past decade. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is an agent (read:  animal catcher) for the US Fish and Wildlife Service working in the vast titular Native American reservation in Wyoming when he happens upon the body of a young woman Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) who was his own late daughter’s best friend. He’s seconded by a neophyte FBI officer Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to help her as she has no expertise in tracking or this mountainous terrain the size of Rhode Island with just 6 police officers led by Graham Greene. While Cory is still dealing with the fallout of a divorce, having to forego caring for his young son when his ex is out of town for a couple of days in order to look for the killers, we unspool through family photos and start to understand some of his motivation for helping this officer who doesn’t even have the right clothing for minus 20: Cory’s mother in law loans her her late granddaughter’s clothing with the warning, These are not a gift.  His young son is startled at the sight of this white girl in his dead sister’s clothes. Together Cory and Jane embark on a hunt when the coroner finds the girl has been likely multiply raped but drowned in her own blood because the alveoli in her lungs filled with freezing air as she ran barefoot from her assailants. She ran six miles. So it can’t officially be listed as murder. Then Cory finds a second body …  With all Sheridan’s films now we see a certain pattern:  the idea of borders, which also extend to different races and traditions and values transmuted through marriage, and of course singular acts of transgression which here comprise murder but obviously incorporate other acts of violation arising from untrammelled self-justification. It culminates in a chase and a shootout but concludes in an act of individual revenge on Wyoming’s highest mountain peak which calls to mind the work of James Stewart and Anthony Mann in their western collaborations.  Most debut writer/directors make the mistake of filing every hole with overwritten dialogue:  Sheridan is too shrewd for that.  He allows the pictures to speak for themselves, human nature to assert itself as it usually does and the dead bodies are permitted testimony to their brutal demise. He chooses to end on a frame that expresses friendship and acceptance.  (Followed by a piece of text which states that the only portion of the demographic not featured in Missing Person figures is Native American women.) It’s a very satisfying film – tense, character-driven, fast-moving and deeply felt – and it’s adorned with excellent performances and some beautifully mournful songs composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

A United Kingdom (2016)

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White Queen Black King. The story of an inter-racial post-WW2 marriage with a difference – he’s the king of a South African nation, she’s a British secretary. Guy Hibbert adapted Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar which tells the true story of a scandalous union.  David Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, who is awaiting his role while his uncle is Regent of Bechuanaland (present-day Botswana) and Rosamund Pike is the London woman who meets him at the local Missionary Society where her sister (Laura Carmichael) does charitable work (dancing with black men). When they marry against the British Government’s wishes (it’s a sensitive time for the region because apartheid is being officially sanctioned) they don’t get any warmer a welcome in Africa from his family than they did in London from her parents. Seretse discovers the British have permitted a US mining company to exploit land on his country’s border and he wants his land’s rights established over the prospecting. The couple are forcibly separated as the British try to reason with him and when he goes to London he finds he has been banished while she languishes without him, hospitalised first from diphtheria and then pregnancy. There are political battles to be fought …  The real story, as it transpires in the credits sequence, was where the meat was. This is coy on everything – sex, family, politics, race – a politically correct take on a history that is all about exploitation. Neither fish nor fowl, it’s a strange, unbalanced piece of work which makes you constantly question, But what’s happening over there? It’s as though the real story is happening right outside the frame. They misplaced the camera and missed it entirely. Directed by Amma Assante, who does nothing to make this potentially fascinating colonial tale of race, royalty and rivalry remotely interesting.

Dirty Harry (1971)

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You’ve got to ask yourself a question.  ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk? When a serial killer calling himself Scorpio menaces women in San Francisco cop ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is assigned to track him down. He’s involved in a cat and mouse chase that sees him racing all over the city in pursuit even dragging a school bus with children into the fray and bringing him into disrepute by questioning suspects’ Escobedo and Miranda rights. This starts by honouring the institution of policing and ends very firmly on a note of critique – with a move by Harry that is replicated by Keanu Reeves in Point Break twenty years later (albeit Harry gets his man). This starts in such an astonishing fashion, with the camera at the killer’s shoulder when he takes aim with a sniper rifle at a woman swimming in a rooftop pool:  it sutures you directly into his point of view and makes you question everything you see. There is an undertow of satire (and a string of murders) that secures your sympathy for Harry’s unorthodox approach. The story by Harry Julian Fink and R. M. Fink was vaguely based on the Zodiac killer terrorising young women at the time (and later the subject of another brilliant film) and was rewritten by John Milius and Dean Riesner (and Terrence Malick did an early draft), and the end result is tight as a bullet casing. Milius said it’s obvious which parts of the screenplay were his – because for him Harry is just like the killer but with a police badge. It’s directed in such a muscular way by Don Siegel (who had just made The Beguiled with Eastwood) and characterised so indelibly by Eastwood there is only one word to encapsulate it – iconic. Much imitated (even with four sequels of its own) but never equalled, with a moody empathetic score by Lalo Schifrin. What’s weird is that the killer was played by unknown actor and pacifist Andy Robinson – who replaced war hero Audie Murphy following the star’s death in a plane crash before he signed on the dotted line.

Born to be Blue (2015)

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This faux biography of a particular episode in Chet Baker’s life plays fast and loose with the truth – which is not really what you expect. Ethan Hawke is Baker in 1954, when he’s the James Dean of jazz, getting his first hit of heroin; then he’s Baker in 1966, making a film about himself, when his dealer breaks his front teeth and almost ruins his playing career. He takes up with Jane (Carmen Ejogo) the actress playing his ex-wife Elaine and endures the usual cycle of movie portrayals of jazz musicians/junkies:  getting in trouble with the cops, making good with his parents, cleaning up, getting his girl pregnant, getting a chance again, getting hooked again. The big scene – Baker singing My Funny Valentine, the one everyone knows – doesn’t add up to much dramatically speaking despite it being quite literally the sweet spot in his career. The big irony in this interpretation is that he berates his father (Stephen McHattie) for giving up on his talent but then he has so little belief in his own that he thinks he needs heroin to play again at Birdland – a long sought gig  – after he’s got accustomed to his dentures. There are some lines thrown away about the difference between east and west coast music and Baker’s desperate quest to impress Miles Davis. The other subtext of Baker’s story was his weird desire to be part of the black community – hence his relationships with black women one presumes. This just raises more questions than it can answer. A bleak, joyless film that never conveys the utterly unfathomable improvisable beauty of a genre that I love. Written and directed by Robert Budreau.

Bowfinger (1999)

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Find me a script with a retarded slave – then I’ll get an Oscar! Bobby Bowfinger (Steve Martin) is a producer-director on the outs and an Indian accountant has written a script about aliens he wants to bring to action superstar Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy). It could be Bobby’s big break! Unfortunately Ramsey is a narcissist who’s deeply paranoid about the industry’s problem with black actors – and what about those aliens! He’s being mentored at the Mindhead cult by Terry Stricter (Terence Stamp) whose religious dicta are not much use. Bobby’s solution? Shoot the movie around Kit – without him knowing! They do it guerilla-style using a crew of illegal Mexican border-hoppers – with an ageing actress Carol (Christine Baranski) and Daisy (Heather Graham) the newcomer hot off the Ohio bus to Hollywood, doorstepping Ramsey at his usual Beverly Hills haunts. Even they don’t know he’s not really in it. Then Kit really goes crazy with all the aliens confronting him on the street and is sequestered at Mindhead’s ‘Special Celebrity Quarters’ – so Bowfinger recruits his idiot lookalike, Jiff – who happens to be Kit’s brother … Written by Martin who is re-teamed (for the fourth time) with director Frank Oz, this is good fun with some killer lines but never really hits the cynical heights you might expect. There are the lousy potshots about the trampy actress who’ll sleep with literally anyone to get more scenes;  the very obvious digs at Scientology’s hold on Hollywood’s top actors; and the general jokes about dumb action films. Held together by an energetic sense of its own ridiculousness and everything (and everyone…) it’s sending up.  Robert Downey Jr appears in a small part as a movie executive.

Pool of London (1951)

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Look beyond the shadow of its walls and what do you find?  Dan (Bonar Colleano) is an American merchant sailor docked in London who’s persuaded by music hall performer Charlie Vernon (Max Adrian) to smuggle stolen diamonds to Rotterdam – but he finds out from girlfriend Maisie (Moira Lister) that the watchman on the job was killed and it’s pinned on him. Jamaican shipmate (Earl Cameron) is there to help but he’s involved in a relationship with ticket seller Pat (Susan Shaw) and is unwittingly drawn into the crime with the police hot on their trail. Some fabulous shooting around postwar London – from the Thames to Rotherhithe Tunnel and all the back streets in between, this is a detailed and fascinating portrait of the underbelly of portside life in the bombed-out city with a couple of thrilling chases and a nailbiting theft. Cameron makes a terrific impression portraying the first interracial relationship in British cinema. The performances are wonderful all round, with nice support from Leslie Phillips and Alfie Bass among a very impressive cast. An atypical Ealing film, written by Jack Whittingham and John Eldridge, produced by Michael Balcon, directed by Basil Dearden and adorned with an adventurous score by John Addison.