Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth

Could you do without me? Northern England 1865.  Newly sold into marriage to an older man, rich industrialist Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton), Katherine (Florence Pugh) finds herself confined to the house and starved of companionship. Her husband can’t or won’t have sex with her but makes her strip and masturbates while she faces a wall. Forced to spend her days in endless tedium, dining with his bullying father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), when her husband is called away to one of his collieries she starts to spend more time with maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and begins a passionate and fiery relationship with a young groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) from the estate, beginning a conflict that will end in violence. Following her husband’s demise at her hands and after hiding his body, a surprise arrives on her doorstep in the form of her husband’s illegitimate son Teddy (Anton Palmer) accompanied by his grandmother Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel) throwing Katherine’s plans into disarray .You’ve got fatter. Adapted by Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, this austere treatment of a rural tragedy is as contained as anti-heroine Pugh by corsetry and decency until sensuality spills forth and all hell breaks loose.  This is the distinctive Pugh’s breakout performance following The Falling and TV’s Marcella and her polarising character anchors a narrative which is ostensibly feminist but ultimately offers a critique of female power and how it is achieved and sustained. Perhaps the casting of black actors in the story complicates the issue of power by raising another issue, that of of race, in what is otherwise a melodrama of sex and class. Ultimately what happens when people are undone by desire can be murderous. It is a drama entirely without ornament. Directed by William Oldroyd. She is a disease

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen

Deep Impact (1998)

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This is not a videogame, son. One year after teenage astronomer Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) spots a comet the size of Mount Everest heading for Earth, journalist Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) mistakes the scoop of a lifetime for a story about the mistress of the US President Beck (Morgan Freeman). Once she’s allowed into the loop of the Extinction Level Event with the rest of the press pack she finds that with one year to go before it could hit the planet there’s a plan to build a system of caves while a joint US/Russian spacecraft nicknamed Messiah being led by veteran astronaut Captain Sturgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall) is going to try to intercept its path with nuclear weapons … People know you. They trust you. A disaster movie par excellence, this mixes up men on a mission and race against time tropes with ideas about God, friendship, family and the all-pervasive sense of doom that settles upon people learning of an entire planet’s imminent destruction and how they deal with it. Leoni doesn’t quite have the expressivity to offer a mature performance although her particular role is buttressed by the subplot of her unhappiness at her father Jason’s (Maximilian Schell) new marriage while her beloved mother Robin (Vanessa Redgrave) suffers. However the entire drama is well structured and tautly managed. Written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin (as a vague remake of When Worlds Collide, 1951) and expertly handled by Mimi Leder, better known for TV’s ER, some of whose alumni feature here. Let’s go home

Little Women (2019)

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If the main character’s a girl she has to be married at the end. Or dead. In 1860s New England after the Civil War, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) lives in New York and makes her living as a writer and teacher, sending money home, while her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) studies painting in Paris under the aegis of her wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Amy has a chance encounter with Theodore Laurence aka Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), a childhood crush from the upper class family next door who proposed to Jo but was ultimately rejected. Their oldest sibling, Meg (Emma Watson) is married to impoverished tutor John Brooke (James Norton) ,while shy sister Beth (Emma Scanlen) develops a devastating illness that brings the family back together under the leadership of their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) who is sad about her husband (Bob Odenkirk) being away in the War as a volunteer for the Union Army. As Jo recalls their experiences coming of age, she has to learn the hard way from a newspaper editor Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts) and a fellow schoolteacher Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) that her writing needs a lot of work if it’s to authentically represent her talentI will always be disappointed at being a girl. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved American classic jumps around pivotal episodes and reorders them from present to past and back again, back and forth, to create a coherent, rising and falling set of emotions. Each sister has a distinct personality and aspirations;  each is valid, according to their wants and needs and desires; and each is bestowed a dignity. Ronan shines as Jo but all four are carefully delineated and Pugh as selfish Amy has the greatest emotional arc but she should sue the costumier for failing to tailor her clothes to her stocky figure. Watson isn’t quite right for Meg and her lack of technique is plain. Somehow though it’s always poor Beth who doesn’t get what she deserves:  charity does not begin at home in her case. Some things never change. Despite the liberties taken structurally the story feels rather padded and at 135 minutes it could do with at least 20 minutes being cut because the screenplay keeps retreading the same territory and spoonfeeds the audience in issues of equality and womanhood with whole dialogue exchanges that sound as though they’ve come from a contemporary novel. Even Marmee confesses to being angry all the time. The issue of copyright introduces an aspect of authorship in the last section which has a few different endings. Being a creative writer is one thing;  being an editor is quite different. Each serves a purpose and that is to serve the story well. A film that ultimately has as little faith in its audience as publisher Mr Dashwood has in his readership, this is undoubtedly of its time and it can stand the tinkering that has introduced Alcott’s own story into the mix with the ultimate fairytale ending for any writer – holding her first book in her hands.  Produced by Amy Pascal, who also worked on the 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong. Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for

 

 

J.T. LeRoy (2019)

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You’re as much a part of JT as me.  When Laura Albert (Laura Dern) finally meets her musician husband Geoff Knoop’s (Jim Sturgess) androgynous younger sister Savannah (Kristen Stewart) she sees the embodiment of her pseudonymous author’s identity ‘JT LeRoy,’ an acclaimed memoirist who is supposedly the gifted and abused 19-year old gender fluid prostitute offspring of a truckstop hooker, the subject of her bestselling book Sarah. Journalists and celebrities are keen to meet ‘J.T.’ after prolonged phonecalls and emails from Laura (an accomplished phone sex operator) adopting a Southern accent. Savannah reluctantly agrees to be photographed in disguise for an interview that has already been done over the phone by Laura, but the hunger for publicity grows and Hollywood, in the form of producer Sasha (Courtney Love), comes calling with an offer. Laura decides to masquerade as ‘Speedy,’ JT’s agent and adopts an outrageous faux English accent. Then European actress Eva (Diane Kruger) decides to adapt the book The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things for the screen. What could possibly go wrong? … Just because you played a writer doesn’t mean you are one. What if an author’s fantasy identity is actually a character (or avatar, as Laura Albert prefers) for someone entirely different? The perfect physical representation of an idealised misery memoirist who doesn’t actually exist? An author’s identity becomes the focus of celebrity and publishing interest in one of the literary hoaxes of the 2000s with Dern and Stewart being given ample room to create empathetic characters, both women taking succour from the temporary expeditious ruse. This version of events is from the perspective of Savannah Knoop whose own recollection of events Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy is adapted here by director Justin Kelly who has form with films about sexual identity.  It’s like a Russian doll of meta-ness but Albert comes across better here than in the documentary about her (Author) where she seemed far closer to psychopath than Dern’s rather more sympathetic figure, a formerly fat child who’d been sent to a group mental home for adults and developed the survival methods and identity issues that led to her creating JT in the first place. You can understand the incremental jealousy she experiences over the six-year long impersonation as Savannah lives out her invented persona in the public eye. Eva is the pseudonym for Italian actress Asia Argento, who claimed latterly not to realise that JT was a woman and denied their sexual encounter. She is portrayed ruthlessly close to the raccoon penis bone by Kruger as something of a scheming wannabe auteur who would (as Albert says) do anything to get the rights to the film property. Stewart is literally the site of misrecognition – a bisexual who is co-habiting with a good guy Sean (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) yet she is confused by the public roleplay because she actually falls for ‘Eva’ and has sex with her. Laura ironically never keeps Savannah up to Speed(y) with the latest email exchanges between JT and Eva, leading to increasing embarrassment when ‘JT’ is set loose upon the fawning credulous public and privately, with Eva. Argento was the real-life subject of a sex assault case to do with the film in question when this was originally released, which took the shine off this (much to Laura Albert’s fury, we are sure). Argento is also the daughter of a famous Italian auteur so one might surmise she was also trying to create another kind of persona for herself in a fiercely misogynistic environment. JT is a complex part, more akin to what Stewart has achieved in her French films, and it’s well played as far as it goes but the performance centres on a kind of passivity which makes for a lack of dramatic energy. The film ends on a Hole song, Don’t Make Me Over, proving that Frankenstein’s monster really does have a life of its own in a film which never completely decides what it wants to be – echoing the subject at hand. There are a few narrative tricks missed in the telling of this web of deceit spun by an arch fantasist whose dreams literally came to life and ran away from her. You could have written a different ending

Berlin, I love you (2019)

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I want to show you my Berlin. A male mime befriends an Israeli singer on the trail of her Jewish ancestor’s home. A broken hearted man is saved from suicide by a talking car. A mother rediscovers her humanity through her daughter’s work with refugees. A woman hits on a man in a bar who might be her long lost father. A young model runs into a laundromat from a rough encounter with a photographer to find herself in a hotbed of feminists. A teenage boy celebrating his birthday approaches a trans man for his first kiss. A Hollywood producer who’s lost his mojo finds beauty in a puppeteer’s characters. A Turkish woman drives a taxi and helps a political dissident … Nothing’s typical Berlin. Part of Emmanuel Bernbihy’s Cities of Love series (Paris, je t’aime, et al) this is a collection of ten interlinked stories reflecting its setting and its possibilities. Local, urban, international, witty, political, filled with dancers, puppeteers, models, actors, children, refugees, romance, sex, singers, cars, espionage, hotels and humanity, this is a well managed anthology which sustains its pace and shifting tone by integrating and overlapping characters, themes and visuals with admirable consistency. There are well judged sequences of politics and fantasy, a jokey reference to the Berlin Wall, a thoughtful acknowledging of the Holocaust, an homage to Wings of Desire, and a hilarious #MeToo sequence in a laundromat. This was the subject of the first ever city film (Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, 1927) and the trials and tribulations and changes it has endured and survived are acknowledged in many ways, from the foreign population to the briefly significant visual tropes without ever dwelling in the realm of nostalgia or physical division (there be dragons). It’s a defiantly modern take on the lifting of the spirit and navigates new aspects of living and sexuality and different kinds of contemporary problems ending on a (sung) note of hope. Delightful, surprising, dangerous, unexpected and varied, light and dark, rather like the city itself. Quite the triumph. Starring Keira Knightley, Jim Sturges, Helen Mirren, Luke Wilson, Mickey Rourke, Diego Luna. Written by Fernando Eimbcke, Justin Franklin, Dennis Gansel, Dani Levy, Massy Tadjedin, Gabriela Tscherniak. Directed by Dianna Agron, Peter Chelsom, Fernando Eimbcke, Justin Franklin, Dennis Gansel, Dani Levy, Daniel Lwowski, Josef Rusnak, Til Schweiger, Massy Tadjedin, Gabriela Tscherniak whose work is united by the beautiful cinematography of Kolja Brandt, production design by Albrect Konra and editing by Peter R. Adam and Christoph Strothjohann. This is Berlin. This is reality, right now

 

Play It Again, Sam (1972)

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All we ever do is go to the movies. Movie critic Allan Felix (Woody Allen) is freshly divorced from dreamgirl waitress Nancy (Susan Anspach) who mocked his sexual inadequacy and is inconsolable, feeling that he’ll just never measure up to Rick Blaine in Casablanca, played by his movie hero Humphrey Bogart. His friends businessman Dick (Tony Roberts) and his neurotic model wife Linda (Diane Keaton) try to introduce him to dates with disastrous results.  The ghost of Bogart (Jerry Lacy) advises him on the sidelines but after a dreadful night out with Sharon (Jennifer Salt) from Dick’s office culminates in a fight with bikers even his ex-wife shows up to have a word and shoots Bogart. Meanwhile, Allan becomes convinced that he has so much in common with fellow neurotic Linda and she has feelings for him, they spend the night together … My sex life has turned into The Petrified Forest. Allen’s 1969 stage play was adapted by him for the screen but directed by Herbert Ross and it’s a smoothly funny combination of parody and pastiche that Hollywood had been making since Hellzapoppin’ years before anyone dreamed up the term postmodern. Perfectly integrating the themes and action of Casablanca which kicks off the story as Alan watches sadly at the cinema, this is totally of its time, rape jokes ‘n’ all (but to be fair Allen’s script acknowledges it’s not an ideal situation for women). Keaton is a delight in their first film together, a work that cunningly exploits the gap between movies and real life and if it’s rather more coherent at that point than the edgy films Allen had already directed it’s still very funny. There are some awesome lines and the yawning chasm between Bogart’s cool and Allan’s chaos is brilliantly devised with the ending from Casablanca inventively reworked to satisfying effect. The San Francisco and Sausalito locations look great courtesy of the marvellous work of Owen Roizman. It’s the first Allen film I ever saw and it introduced me to the music of Oscar Peterson who was also on TV a lot in those days and I like it as much now as I did when I was 9 years old and that’s saying something. You felt like being a woman and I felt like being a man and that’s what those kinds of people do

The Facts of Life (1960)

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Am I really going to San Francisco to spend the weekend… with the husband of my best friend? When neighbours Kitty Weaver (Lucille Ball) and Larry Gilbert (Bob Hope) meet it’s irritation at first sight but there’s an undeniable attraction which they eventually act upon during the annual neighbourhood vacation in Acapulco when they’re forced to spend it together. Problem is, they’re both married, she to habitual gambler Jack (Don DeFore), he to perfect homemaker Mary (Ruth Hussey) and they both have two children. They vow to take off together after circumstances and regular encounters at social gatherings mean they keep running into each other but a messed up drunken assignation at a motel makes them rethink. Then things change after Larry finds out that Kitty has written a note to Jack to tell him she’s leaving him when the pair take go to San Francisco for the weekend during the winter vacation … This is my first affair, so please be kind. A breezy but cold-eyed comedy of suburban middle class adultery is not necessarily what you might expect with that cast, but that’s what legendary screenwriting partners Norman Panama and Melvin Frank created and it’s very well played by the leads who of course are both peerless comedy performers and this is the third of the four films they made together. It’s as though Johns Cheever and Updike decided to up sticks and go Hollywood and take all the baggage of midcentury masculinity with them. Panama and Frank are of course great comic screenwriters.  Their first screen credit was on Hope’s 1942 movie My Favorite Blonde and later work with him includes Road to Utopia, Monsieur Beaucaire and an uncredited rewrite of The Princess and the Pirate so they know his strengths (they are his, as it were) and they turn a messy uncomfortable familial disruption into an easily enjoyed romcom whose moral messiness is tidied into great dialogue and barely concealed social anxiety.  This is the essence of comedy and it’s their forte. There are some shockingly barbed exchanges and there are excruciating sequences when the couple discuss the legal and financial ramifications of two divorces and realise when they’re finally alone together that they’re probably mismatched; when they almost get found out by neighbours at San Francisco Airport the tension is horrific.  There’s a notable score by Johnny Mercer and Leigh Harline with the title song performed by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé and while Frank gets the sole directing credit, it appears Panama co-directed. There’s an unexpectedly conventional titles sequence designed by Saul Bass, putting us right in the mood for the tenor of that era’s comedy style and it all looks beautiful in monochrome thanks to cinematographer Charles Lang. Night-time Los Angeles looks glossy even in black and white.  It’s an interesting one to compare with another film about an extra-marital suburban affair filmed the same year, Strangers When We Meet. Played a beat slower with a fraction less of the leads’ comedy mugging and shot in colour, this could match its melodramatic tone. Are you sure you’re with the right woman?

The Aftermath (2019)

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There may not be an actual show of hatred but it’s there beneath the surface. Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives in rubble-strewn Hamburg in 1946 with her husband Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) of British Forces Germany, charged with helping to rebuild the city shattered from aerial firestorms. They also need to rebuild their own marriage following the death of their young son and are billeted in the home of architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) who Lewis allows to remain on the premises against Rachael’s wishes. She is initially suspicious that Stefan is an unreconstructed Nazi and Lewis confirms Stefan has yet to be cleared. They blame each other for their son’s death and Rachael starts to warm to Stefan and makes efforts to befriend Freda. Freda consorts with Bertie (Jannik Schümann) a member of the Werewolves, the violent Nazi insurgents who want the Allies out of Germany. When Lewis is obliged to travel for work Rachael and Stefan commence an affair and she agrees to leave Lewis. Meanwhile, Freda gives Bertie information about Lewis’ whereabouts and upon his return he is informed by his cynical colleague intelligence officer Burnham (Martin Compston) that Rachael has been advocating for Stefan and things come to a head… Do you really need a philosophy to make something comfortable? That’s what Rachael asks when architect Stefan is trying to explain a chair in the moderne style designed by Mies Van Der Rohe:  it sums up the issues wrought from this adaptation of the source material by Rhidian Brook, dealing with the difficulties of making the peace in post-war Germany but we still ask, who really won the peace and what does the future hold for peoples and societies so broken by war and its legacy? Stunde Null, Year Zero, everything can start again.  Grappling with bereavement and the unsettling transposing of emotions and the desire to be a parent, Knightley gives a good account of a lonely woman in trauma while Clarke is as good as he has ever been. It lacks complexity and real passion, however, and the post-war scene is as difficult to explain as it has ever been: everyone takes sides, that’s the point. It’s how and why this is resolved that matters. Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse & Brook wrote the screenplay and it’s directed by David Kent.  We’re leaving the city in better shape than we found it

Catch-22 (1970)

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Help the bombardier. Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) an American pilot stationed in the Mediterranean who flies bombing missions during World War II attempts to cope with the madness of armed conflict. Convinced that everyone is trying to murder him, he decides to try to become certified insane but that is merely proof that he’s fully competent. Surrounded by eccentric military officers, such as the opportunistic 1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), Yossarian has to resort to extreme measures to escape his dire and increasingly absurd situation... All great countries are destroyed, why not yours? Not being a fan of the rather repetitive and circular source novel aids one’s enjoyment of this adaptation by director Mike Nichols who was coasting on the stunning success of his first two movies (also adaptations), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, which was also adapted by Buck HenryThe critical reception for this resisted adulation instead focusing on a flawed construction which really goes back to Joseph Heller’s book and does not conform to the rules of a combat picture as well as contracting the action and removing and substituting characters. But aside from the overall absurdity which is literally cut in an act of stunning violence which shears through one character in shocking fashion, there is dialogue of the machine gun variety which you’d expect from a services satire and there are good jokes about communication, following orders, profiteering and stealing parachutes to sell silk on the black market.  There are interesting visual and auditory ways of conveying Yossarian’s inner life – in the first scene we can’t hear him over the noise of the bombings, because his superiors are literally deaf to what he’s saying, a useful metaphor. The impressionistic approach of Henry’s adaptation is one used consistently, preparing the audience for the culmination of the action in a surreal episode worthy of Fellini. I like it a lot, certainly more than the recent TV adaptation and the cast are just incredible:  Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen and Orson Welles among a large ensemble. Even novelist Philip Roth plays a doctor. It’s shot by David Watkin, edited by Sam O’Steen and the production is designed by Richard Sylbert. Where the hell’s my parachute?