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.

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A Cry in the Dark (1988)

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Aka Evil Angels. You could crack walnuts on her face. Fred Schepisi’s docudrama-style retelling of John Bryson’s book is real watercooler stuff:  the appalling tale of a 9-week old baby, Azaria Chamberlain, taken from her family’s tent at a campsite beneath Ayers Rock and presumably murdered, and the prosecution and wrongful conviction of her mother Lindy (Meryl Streep). A dingo’s got my baby! was the war cry attributed to the unsympathetic woman whose every character flaw was exposed by a prurient Australian press who condemned her because of her appearance (that terrible haircut!), speaking voice and curt mannerisms. As played by Streep, she is obviously a more complex, interesting and compassionate woman in private.  Her inner strength is immensely bothersome to a public who are shown reacting variously to news reportage on TV – in their own homes, in bars, on the streets – which serves to demonstrate the horrendous arena that is the court of public opinion as well as distancing us somewhat perhaps from a more penetrating account of the couple at the centre of the tragedy. Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) is the pastor at the Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa, Queensland and it is the minority nature of their Christian sect that also works against them when the name Azaria is wrongly reported to mean ‘sacrifice in the wilderness’. His unconvincing and wavering witness testimony does for his wife, as does the sheer incompetence of the expert witnesses, many of whose claims were later discounted. The impact of her interviews and the way in which they are misreported by a baying press is very well handled and her eventual imprisonment on circumstantial as opposed to forensic evidence is still strikingly mediaeval in its stupidity (preserve us all from juries). Streep is terribly good and the portrayal of a loving marriage in all its fraying details is nicely observed:  posited against the procedural detail and the slipshod collection of evidence we are conscious of something akin to a conspiracy. This was released just about the time that the Chamberlains were finally exonerated (but it took until 2012 for the charges to be finally dropped). This isn’t creative so much as it is journalistic and in that spirit it makes up for the actions of some of those sewer rats who waited thirty years to apologise to Lindy Chamberlain for their vile lies. Her ex-husband (they divorced in 1991) died earlier this year. Adapted by Robert Caswell and director Schepisi from John Bryson’s Evil Angels.

The Real Glory (1939)

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I can start a fire by rubbing two boy scouts together. This loose reworking of Lives of a Bengal Lancer reunites that film’s director Henry Hathaway with star Gary Cooper, transposing the action to the Philippines mid-uprising by the Moro (Moslem) guerillas. Colonel Hatch (Roy Gordon) is ordered to withdraw his troops from their island station.  There’s an insurgent army threatening the Filipinos so he lines up some of his best men to train the locals – military doctor Bill Canavan (Cooper),  along with McCool (David Niven) and Larson (Broderick Crawford), who make a lively pair of heroes.  When Linda (Andrea Leeds) the daughter of Captain Steve Hartley (Reginald Owen) enters the fray there are the usual romantic complications but these are second to the action which is at times horribly violent but excellently handled by Hathaway who was by now an expert at the genre and made a total of seven films with Cooper. (He had also previously made another Philippines-set film, Come On Marines!). When Hatch is killed by the guerillas Manning (Russell Hicks) takes over and after the local river is dammed there’s a cholera outbreak. Canavan befriends ‘Mike’ and infiltrates a Moro camp. Lines get crossed and a rescue attempt turns into an ambush …  Hartley meanwhile is going blind and doesn’t want to admit it. Who will blow up the dam? Jo Swerling and Robert Presnell Sr. adapted the novel by Charles L. Clifford which dealt with the real rebellion during US occupation at the beginning of the last century. Niven isn’t used remotely often enough in this Samuel Goldwyn Production but Leeds makes a very good impression as an atypical romantic lead. This was her third last film before her marriage into the Howard family who bred racehorses – including that little fella that could, Seabiscuit.

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.

Ace in the Hole (1951)

 

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Aka The Big Carnival. I’ve met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my time but you – you’re twenty minutes.  Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is the callous hard-drinking big city journo who’s been fired from every newspaper he ever worked for and finds himself in a small town in New Mexico on a reduced income desperate for a story to get him the Pulitzer. When treasure hunter Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) gets trapped in a mineshaft looking for Indian artifacts, Chuck colludes with an electioneering sheriff (Ray Teal) to keep the man down there in a delayed and protracted rescue effort in order to draw attention to his scoop which he uses to parlay his way back into his old job. Minosa’s wife Lorraine isn’t bothered one way or another. As played by the brilliant actress Jan Sterling she’s a brittle bottle-blonde broad who gives as good as she has to take from her violent new love interest, with Douglas as vicious as you’d imagine. This was an important film for director Billy Wilder, the first time he was out on his own as producer and writer without Charles Brackett. It was more or less inspired by the Floyd Collins cave-in story in 1925 which earned reporter William Burke Miller the Pulitzer. And a couple of years before this was made a child ended up dying in a well while thousands of people gathered to watch the failed rescue. Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman wrote the hard as nails screenplay which seems not the cynical exploitation picture it was accused of being upon release and more an accurate representation of the relationships around the press and the news they report. This gets more contemporary by the day.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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Aka Farewell to the Master and Journey to the World. Must I take drastic action in order to get a hearing? When humanoid alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) arrives on a flying saucer in Washington DC the military takes action and the world takes notice. He’s accompanied by an eight-foot robot called Gort. When Klaatu speaks about world peace a nervous soldier opens fire and he disappears from Walter Reed Hospital where he cures himself. Meanwhile Gort is in front of the spaceship, unmoving. Klaatu hides in plain sight in a boarding house (wearing a suit from a dry cleaner’s bearing the tag ‘Mr Carpenter’) where he is befriended by Bobby (the great child actor Billy Gray) whose widowed mother Helen (Patricia Neal) is a secretary engaged to Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe). Bobby goes to Arlington National Cemetery with Klaatu and the alien expresses a desire to meet someone of the calibre of Lincoln. Bobby suggests Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) but when Klaatu visits he’s out so he writes a solution to a mathematical problem left unfinished on the blackboard with instructions on how to be reached. Klaatu returns with government escort and the men discuss the dangerous nature of atomic power:  Klaatu warns that Earth will be eliminated. Bobby follows him and sees him enter the spaceship. He reports the incident to Helen and Tom and Klaatu visits Helen at work and they enter an elevator that stops – he stops all electricity worldwide for a half hour, demonstrating the incapacity of governments to deal with true power… it all comes to a head when he returns with Helen to Professor Barnhardt and the trigger-happy military shoot him dead after being forewarned by Tom. Until … Klaatu stages a resurrection. This Christ analogy was smothered in censor-friendly form, its pacifist message a radical intervention into Cold War paranoia with superb production design (Frank Lloyd Wright contributed to the UFO!) and a suitably strange soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann. Tightly written by Edmund H. North from a story by Harry Bates and superbly directed documentary-style by Robert Wise, this has many great scenes with some of the best in the boarding house between Rennie and Gray. There’s a reason this is a classic and it’s very resonant today. Remember – Klaatu barada nikito!

Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017)

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She died from a broken heart.  Nick Broomfield’s signature appearances in his documentary films are the stuff of comedy – headphones half off, boom in hand, chasing his subjects and trying to weasel information from them so that you wind up feeling sorry for all of them, even the serial killers. That doesn’t happen here, more’s the pity. This archive documentary about Whitney Houston co-directed with Rudi Dolezal is of a different variety, but continuing in the vein of Kurt and Courtney, another devastating portrait of a heinous showbiz marriage and possible murder [allegedly].  This was constrained by the inevitable limits on music usage and archives. Houston was from the hood but the daughter of gospel singer (Cissy) and businessman (John) who would become her eventual managers. Her brothers supplied her with drugs from a very young age (pre-teen) and she stole her mother’s moves and the career her mother felt should have been hers. Early footage shows her singing in her mom’s church aged 12. By the time she was 19 she was found by music supremo Clive Davis and taken on by Arista and appearing on TV: she looks so innocent but she was far from it. She sold an incredible number of records – records that were never too black, because if they were, they were redone. When she appears at the 1989 Soul Train Awards it’s a watershed moment – a cataclysmic devastation in her life because she was booed for being too white and she met Bobby Brown. She’d had a woman in her life since they met back in East Orange, Robyn Crawford, and it was known they were in a relationship. Crawford travelled with her as her personal assistant (I met someone who was PA on one of her music videos and he claimed he had to literally pull Houston off Crawford in her trailer to get her to set.) The newspapers were sniffing around. Houston was into hard drugs, Brown was into liquor. When they got together, they both got into – both, with the tragic outcome that forms the undertow to this sordid story. Interviews with backing singers, band members and a former security director make it clear (eventually) that Brown gave her street cred, she gave him … money and opportunity. He dragged her down to his level, as one quip has it. He preyed on her insecurities and lack of self-esteem (she wore wigs and weaves because her hair wouldn’t grow) and was sleeping with every woman he could. She struggled with wanting to make music that was more authentically black in a business that was trying to do crossover. These interviews are by far the film’s most satisfying sequences. After The Bodyguard came out she could no longer shop at the mall:  she was a superstar and people just stared at her all the time. By the time she made Waiting to Exhale she OD’d. Crawford was stuck between the co-dependent couple and a daughter entered the picture. Remarks are made about the awful family and the pressures of paying a huge entourage – she herself is interviewed in various stages of her career (and addiction) and comments about always having to be the ballerina on the stage. Her musical director (and drummer) talks about watching her every night, seeing her back expand as she would reach those incredible notes and likening her to a boxer. By 1999, when Whitney did her final tour, Crawford was apparently forced out because the difficulties between her and Brown had become overwhelming. It is the second tentpole disaster in this narrative. Whitney then became more drug-dependent. It’s a pity that Broomfield wasn’t (presumbly for legal reasons) able to step into some of these interviews more. An interview with Burt Bacharach (who worked with her cousin Dionne Warwick) makes it clear why she was somewhat notoriously thrown off a proposed live TV broadcast – missing cues, singing the wrong songs…  When she did a Michael Jackson tribute she was horrifically emaciated. Brown’s sister was (if you believe anything in those National Enquirer stories of yore…) fully participatory in those drug binges – principally crack cocaine – but she just talks about how fun it was living with Whitney and Bobby and there’s bizarre home movie footage of them re-enacting Ike and Tina Turner in a take on What’s Love Got to Do With It. It is known but not said directly that their small daughter witnessed them and then became a junkie herself. They were living in Atlanta, well away from Cissy, whose pernicious shadow hangs over this film.  Houston’s father sued her for $100 million when he was 81 and dying and Whitney was on the TV interview circuit trying to (literally) cover her tracks. An interview by Oprah Winfrey with Cissy Houston upon the publication of her memoir makes it clear that her daughter’s drug addiction was one issue (she saw her ‘really high’ back in the late 80s) but her Lesbianism (or bisexuality) was a bridge too far:  another commentator generalises and says female homosexuality is absolutely not discussed in the black community. And yet another says, If Robyn had been accepted, everything would have been different. This begins and ends with Whitney Houston’s awful death on the eve of the Grammys right before Clive Davis’ annual party, in February 2012. This is a sad, shocking, disturbing and sometimes nuanced piece of work but never surprising.  The 1999 tour footage is overused by dint of necessity. The interviews with the couple together, invariably monopolised by Brown, are blood curdling. But in a sense we’ve seen it all before, particularly with Amy. It conforms to a terrible pattern of makeover, overwork and addiction that characterises the careers of great performers whose narrow worlds are run by money-grubbing charlatans and hangers-on and leeches. The film is called Can I Be Me because that was Whitney Houston’s favourite of her songs and what she always wanted to be and nobody would allow it. A modern tragedy.

Thunder On The Hill (1951)

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You did not come here. You were led here by Our Lord. Sanctimonious Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is leading the team at the convent/hospital of Our Lady of Rheims, a hillside refuge for a community in Norfolk during a terrible flood. Her colleagues dislike her intensely – but Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) knows that she is motivated by guilt over the death by suicide of her sister. When Valerie Cairns (Ann Blyth, the wicked daughter from Mildred Pierce) arrives accompanied by the police it takes a while for the penny to drop as to why she’s rejecting Sister Mary’s kindness:  she’s a murderess en route to the gallows at prison in Norwich. She’s due to be hanged the following morning but the breaking of the dyke and the downing of telephone lines now mean her execution is delayed. She insists on her innocence and Mary believes her – because she knows what guilt really is. There are a number of people at the convent who are hiding guilt relating to the death by overdose of Valerie’s crippled composer brother including the wife (Anne Crawford) of the doctor on duty (Robert Douglas) who reacts with shock to a photograph of the murdered man. Her husband promptly sedates her.  As Sr Mary researches the newspapers and is given an unsigned letter by slow-witted handyman Willie (Michael Pate) that implicates a third party in the murder, Sr Mary determines to bring Valerie’s fiance Sidney (Philip Friend) from Norwich by boat with Willie.  The handyman destroys the boat so that Valerie cannot be taken to be hanged. The police sergeant is now going to charge Sr Mary with interfering in the course of justice and the guilty party is closing in on her while she is reprimanded by Mother Superior … Slickly told, atmospheric thriller directed by Douglas Sirk with an unexpected take on the melodrama combined with an Agatha Christie group of conventional characters hiding something nasty all gathered in the one building.  There’s a marvellous scene in a belltower when the murderer reveals themselves. The contrasting figures of the desperate and hysterical Blyth and calm but determined Colbert make this a fascinating spin on a crime thriller with a play on the concept of divine intervention which would also be pivotal in Sirk’s later Magnificent Obsession. An engaging, stylish tale adapted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt from Charlotte Hastings’ play Bonaventure, enhanced by some very fine performances and sharp dialogue particularly when it’s delivered by Connie Gilchrist as the acerbic cook Sister Josephine whose insistence on saving newspapers (preferably The Sunday Times) saves the day.

Valerie (1957)

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The opportunity to see La Ekberg act opposite then husband Anthony Steel is irresistible. This post-Civil War western noir, directed by Gerd Oswald, is an interesting proposition, maritally speaking:  she’s a real femme fatale, a settler who’s interested in money and sex, keen to pursue an affair, first with her brother in law (Peter Walker) and then a local priest (Steel) who intervenes to save her marriage, above and beyond any concern for her Union soldier husband turned cattle farmer Sterling Hayden. When she becomes pregnant it’s obvious it isn’t her husband’s and she initially refuses to give evidence in the case against him for the tragic death of her parents. Mostly taking place in flashbacks and then bringing the story up to date in the courtroom (and hospital bed) with their conflicting accounts of a marriage gone very badly wrong. There are three accounts of the murders:  whose is right?  Written by Emmet Murphy and Laurence Heath aka Leonard Heiderman, this is a dramatically fascinating if not totally satisfying piece of work (like a lot of Oswald’s films) with a chance to see two quite antithetical performers – Hayden and Ekberg – demonstrating their very different acting styles in this morally involving story a la Rashomon. Ekberg would reunite with Oswald for Screaming Mimi a couple of years later.

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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My review of Shawn Levy’s book Dolce Vita Confidential which excavates in scrupulous detail the circumstances leading up to the film’s production is here:  http://offscreen.com/view/dolce-vita-swinging-rome.