The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

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While I’m away put him straight again. I want him the way he used to be. Gifted actor Brady (Mysterious Skin) Corbet makes his directing debut with this gripping mystery, a tale in three tantrums of a fascist-in-waiting between the two Great Wars. Prescott (Tom Sweet) is the long-haired son of Father (Liam Cunningham) and Mother (Berenice Bejo) who are residing in France in 1919 during the Versailles Treaty negotiations. Father’s an American career diplomat and a harsh authoritarian figure who appears to be having it off with the boy’s tutor Ada (Stacy Martin);  Mother is a disturbed German religious devotee who fires Ada and Mona the housekeeper because they try to humanise her son.  The episodes are based on control and power:  personal, religious, political. They all take place against the dysfunctional family backdrop and the mystery is set up at the beginning when Father is meeting with his colleague Charles Marker (Robert Pattinson) who is widowed.  Marker turns up at another crucial instance of personal transition for Prescott whose bad behaviour culminates in a shocking exchange with Mother at Versailles. There is a haunting inexorable draw to the narrative, adapted by Corbet with his wife and fellow filmmaker Mona Fastvold, from Jean-Paul Sartre’s story, with some debt to John Fowles’ The Magus. The leader is never named and the film retains a sense of the cryptic and it avoids making direct statements. There is a sleight of hand to the conclusion and an artful confidence to this episodic debut, aided immeasurably by the morbid score created by Peter Walsh and Scott Walker. A remarkable piece of political aesthetics in an age in which nobody wants to put their cards on the table and say what’s gone wrong with the world.

The Goodbye Girl (1977)

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Ask an actor a question you get his credits. A confection so tonally sublime it’s ridiculous. Neil Simon wrote a screenplay about Dustin Hoffman’s early days starring Robert De Niro and directed by Mike Nichols. De Niro was all wrong – comedy not quite being his thing – and Nichols quit and Simon went back to the drawing board and came up with this and a far more simpatico cast several months later with a new director, Herbert Ross. Paula (Marsha Mason, ie Mrs Simon) is the former Broadway dancer who finds out her married lover has abandoned her and daughter Lucy (the brilliantly smart-assed Quinn Cummings) to do a movie in Italy (with Bertolucci!) and without her knowledge has sublet his apartment where they live to a colleague straight in from Chicago. Actor Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss) is self-conscious, neurotic and driven and fussy and moves in to Lucy’s bedroom as Paula realises she has nowhere else and won’t move out and needs someone to pay the rent. Elliot is preparing to give his off-off-off-off-Off Broadway Richard III for director Mark (Paul Benedict) who wants him to play it as ‘the queen who wants to be King.’ Elliot succumbs. As Paula tries to get fit and lose flab to return to the stage, Elliot’s camp-as-a-caravan site Richard flops terribly and her sympathy for him becomes something else. Their living arrangements are suddenly rendered more complicated … The humour, the performances and the text are tightrope-worthy:  Paula could be a shrew in the wrong hands (Simon famously declared he hated actresses…); Elliot could be plain irritating (Dreyfuss is simply perfect in an Oscar-winning role); and the screamingly funny queer reading of Richard III just couldn’t be done nowadays (unless a woman were playing it….) because the millennials/snowflakes/whatever identity politics you’re having yourselves would be crucifying everyone concerned. And Quinn Cummings, who later became a part of the wonderful TV show Family, is simply brilliant as the snarky daughter whose man crush is taken away from her. All of the performances were recognised in this perfectly handled backstage comedy but these are roles that couldn’t even be conceived nowadays. The Seventies. Love them. Love this.

Julieta (2016)

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The abject maternal has long been a strong component of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s oeuvre and in this striking adaptation of three Alice Munro stories from Runaway he plunders the deep emotional issues that carry through the generations. On a Madrid street widowed Julieta (Emma Suarez) runs into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) who used to be her daughter’s best friend. Bea tells her she met Antia in Switzerland where she’s married with three children.  Julieta enters a spiral of despair – she hasn’t seen Antia since she went on a spiritual retreat 12 years earlier and she now abandons lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) on the eve of their departure for Portugal. She returns to the apartment she lived in with Antia when the girl was an adolescent and hopes to hear from her, the birthday postcards having long ceased. We are transported back to the 1980s when on a snowy train journey to a school in Andalucia Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte) resisted the advances of an older man who then committed suicide and she had a one-night stand with Xoan (Daniel Grao). She turns up at his house months later and his housekeeper Marian (the heroically odd Rossy de Palma) tells her his wife has died and he’s spending the night with Ava (Inma Cuesta). Julieta and Xoan resume their sexual relationship and she tells Ava she’s pregnant and is advised to tell Xoan. And so she settles into a seaside lifestyle with him as he fishes and she returns with her young child to visit her parents’ home where her mother is bedridden and her father is carrying on with the help. Years go by and she wants to return to teaching Greek literature, which has its echoes in the storytelling here. The housekeeper hates her and keeps her informed of Xoan’s onoing trysts with Ava;  her daughter is away at camp;  she and Xoan fight and he goes out fishing on a stormy day and doesn’t return alive. This triggers the relationship between Antia and Bea at summer camp which evolves into Lesbianism albeit we only hear about this development latterly, when Bea tells Julieta that once it become an inferno she couldn’t take it any more and Antia departed for the spiritual retreat where she became something of a fanatic.  Julieta’s guilt over the old man’s death, her husband’s suicidal fishing trip and her daughter’s disappearance and estrangement lead her to stop caring for herself – and Lorenzo returns as she allows hope to triumph over miserable experience. There are moments here that recall Old Hollywood and not merely because of the Gothic tributes, the secrets and deceptions and illicit sexual liaisons. The colour coding, with the wonderfully expressive use of red, reminds one that Almodovar continues to be a masterful filmmaker even when not utterly committed to the material;  and if it’s not as passionate as some of his earlier female dramas, it’s held together by an overwhelming depiction of guilt and grief and the sheer unfathomability of relationships, familial and otherwise. Suarez and Ugarte are extremely convincing playing the different phases of Julieta’s experiences – how odd it might have been in its original proposed version, with Meryl Streep in the leading role, at both 25 and 50, and filming in English. I might still prefer his early funny ones but a little Almodovar is better than none at all.

Wonder Woman (2017)

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Diana (Gal Gadot) is the stroppy kid brought up in an Amazonian matriarchy by mom Connie Nielsen and tough as hell trainer aunt Robin Wright. She cannot be told of her godlike origins in this society of strong women. Then WW1 crashes into their ancient Greek Island world in the form of airman Chris Pine, a double agent for the allies, kitted out in German uniform with their army hot on his tail as Diana drags him out of his plane. There’s fighting on the beach of a kind you don’t often see – bows and arrows against German gunfire. And when her aunt dies saving her, it’s up to Wonder Woman to take serious action against the god Aries whom she deems responsible for the global conflict. She heads to London with her newfound companion, there’s some very amusing and sexy byplay, a departure to the Front with an unpromising crew, some displays of camaraderie and great costume changes, excellent combat and truly evil Germans. And Aries is not who you think he is after all…. After years of snarky annoying movies about silly superheroes all shot in greyscale this is actually a colourful and proper good-versus-evil plot about gods and monsters that threatens but never actually tips into full camp (those first scenes gave me the wobbles but right prevailed), the humour is spot-on, the performances tonally perfect and I am pleased to agree with many others that this is really terrific. Well done director Patty (Monster) Jenkins and the screenwriter Allan Heinberg, working from a story by himself, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs. Miraculously it all seems to make sense. Based  – of course – on the comic book by William Moulton Marston. The soundtrack by Rupert Gregson-Williams is fabulous – but what I really wanted to hear was …. you know!!

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.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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When this was first released I saw it with a friend who promptly re-christened it Mouth Wide Open because I nodded off pretty quickly and woke suddenly during the orgy and announced, Clearly nobody here has ever been to one. And a shocking 18 years later it is still sad to see that Kubrick’s last film doesn’t have the intended shock value, the performances are variable and it’s very difficult to understand how it could have taken 400 days to shoot what are primarily lengthy talking scenes albeit the famously nitpicking Kubrick reconstructed Greenwich Village in London because of his fear of flying. Frederic Raphael updated Schnitzler’s early 20th century Vienna-set Traumnovelle to late 1990s New York City where Alice (Nicole Kidman) confesses to wealthy doctor husband Bill (Tom Cruise) that she fantasised sexually about a Naval officer she saw one day at a hotel where they were staying. Bill then descends into a long night of soul-searching and sex as he imagines what his wife might have done had she made the choice to cheat. He helps a wealthy patron Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) save a whore who’s OD’d during sex, attends a masked orgy on Long Island (a kind of warped tribute to North by Northwest) where his former med school chum is providing musical accompaniment in a blindfold and back in the city realises he’s being followed but it’s more than an existential threat. When Ziegler tells Bill that he’s fortunate not to know the names of the very powerful people in disguise at the sex party you don’t know if it’s raising questions about the Bilderberg group or another political conspiracy at large but it seems pretty daft. Whether you view this as an ineffectual satire of marriage or a cautionary commentary about sexually transmitted disease (there’s a telling scene featuring a prostitute and HIV) or perhaps a plain silly excursion into unerotic escapades, the press at the time made hay of the fact that the married couple at its centre saw their relationship disintegrate in real life and were divorced not long afterwards. The soundtrack which is principally two ominous notes would disgrace a five year old after their first piano lesson. Inexplicable in oh so many ways and yet fascinating and strangely memorable in visual loops precisely because it’s Kubrick. And the last word uttered (by Kidman) is … not expected in such a conservative outing and thereby enhances the legend.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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I’m not home. I never will be. I first encountered a Nam vet on Central Park West. He chased me despite being on crutches that were well past their sell-by date. I guess maybe it was because I had more legs than he did. I was waiting tables in a township on Long Island called Massapequa at a ghastly restaurant where a deranged and thankfully distant relative worked. Massapequa is the hometown of the Baldwin brothers and Ron Kovic, the subject of this impassioned film by Oliver Stone, a man whose own combat experiences had informed his previous film, Platoon, that astonishingly immersive journey of a naif to manhood in a horrifying exposition of American soldiers’ experiences. Ron Kovic’s book is the basis of another coming of age tale, this time of a Catholic boy whose parents’ devotion to JFK unwittingly unleashes their sports-mad son’s inner patriot.  I hadn’t seen this since its release and my fresh impression of its first sequences was of overwrought melodrama, underlined by John Williams’ overheated score. But this is all of a piece with the film’s intentions:  starting with a heightened picture of America’s hearth and home;  the futility and horror of war; the brutality of veterans’ experiences in epically gruesome, filthy underfunded hospitals (Kovic’s God-loving mother never even paid him a visit); the utter loneliness of being a castrated, paralysed man with a beating heart and functioning brain who is ridiculed by the anti-war protesters; the recognition that the only people with whom he now has anything in common are the other vets who are even more fucked up than he is. And so it moves into its more austere final sections. Politicisation. Separation from a family who refuse to accept he could have killed women and children and for whom he is a mere embarassment in a block where the other soldiers at least died. Is there a better correlative image in Stone’s entire oeuvre than the crane shot over the Wilson family home, where Ron has confessed to killing new recruit, their nineteen year old son William, in the dunes of Nam as the sun flared during an ambush, then he is wheeled away by a helper amid the scraps and detritus dumped in their yard and the leafy branches fade into a fluttering stars and stripes – and we are plunged into more police brutality at the 1972 Republican convention where he has joined the protest movement? This is elegant filmmaking. It is not without its humour or self-awareness. Ron has finally had his cherry broken by a Mexican whore in a sequence of T&A that reunites Stone with Willem Defoe who welcomes him to this sick paradise and he thinks it’s love – but hides his gift for her when he realises sex with a cripple is just a job for her. These vets’ wheelchair-off is a salve for those of us who might have liked to see one between Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, who beat him to an Academy Award that year (DDL gurned more). I’ve never been back to Massapequa or that cruddy restaurant but Stephen Baldwin has a small role as a schoolfriend, Tom Berenger gets him to join up, Frank Whaley is the other surviving vet who helps Ron out of his doomladen hole and Kyra Sedgwick is the gorgeous girl he loved so much he ran through the rain to dance with her at the Prom and she turns him on to the anti-war crusade. Cruise is simply great, giving a complete performance from boy to man in a narrative which exemplifies the art of juxtaposition and emotional arcs. This is cinema, utterly moving and indignant and humane. Watch it and weep.

Paper Tiger (1975)

 

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There’s always a sense of satisfaction when you finally see a film of which you’ve been somewhat – if tangentially – aware for the longest time. And for reasons I could never have explained I associated this with Candleshoe, the mid-70s Disney film also starring David Niven, and weirdly there’s ample reason for this bizarre linkage here. He plays a Walter Mitty-type who is employed by the Japanese ambassador (Toshiro Mifune) in a fictional Asian country to tutor his young son (Kazuhito Ando, a wonderful kid) prior to their moving to England. He fills up the kid with stories of his WW2 derring-do which are quickly unravelled by sceptical Mifune and German journalist Hardy Kruger. But when he is kidnapped with the kid by political terrorists the kid’s faith in him – and the kid’s own ingenuity – help them make their escape and the ‘Major’ is obliged to step up to save them both from certain murder.  There are plenty of reasons why Jack Davies’ script shouldn’t work but the sheer antic chaos of Asia, Niven’s excited performance versus Mifune’s unwilling stoicism in the face of local political indifference, the welcome appearance of Ronald Fraser and good staging of decidedly un-Disney action sequences (interesting in terms of director Ken Annakin’s associations with the studio) make this a worthwhile trip down false memory lane (mine as well as Niven’s character’s). And there’s a notable easy listening score by the venerable Roy Budd.

Tropic Thunder (2008)

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Everybody knows you never go full retard! Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) is the Aussie Method actor par excellence in blackface giving retrospective advice to Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) the ludicrously vain Hollywood star who made that very mistake in his quest for Oscar. Now they’re in the jungles of Vietnam doing their version of the War years after everyone else has stopped those kinds of movies and causing no end of difficulties for hapless Brit director (Steve Coogan) who is killed in the fray. Back at the studio the vile boss Les Grossman (an unrecognisable Tom Cruise) just sees insurance $$$$ when Speedman gets separated from the crew as they go shooting guerilla style in a self-defeating move – and he’s kidnapped by drugs lords who make him act out Stupid Jack, the only film they have on VHS. Only Tugg’s agent (Matthew McConaughey) cares about his charge. The other actors, who include Fatties franchise star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) decide to rescue Tugg without realising their director is dead and this is not a movie any more … This is a Hollywood satire that also operates as a proper action movie and what a rare feat that is. Just when you think it’s a sketch show that goes on too long, Tugg kills a panda (he’s crusading for their rights on the back of Vanity Fair) and Danny McBride calls Nick Nolte ‘the Milli Vanilli of patriots.’ Gut-bustingly funny when it works, and you know all the movies it’s spoofing, Grossman was apparently all Cruise’s idea and some might say it’s a rather vicious take on Sumner Redstone as revenge for booting him off the Paramount lot when he jumped on Oprah’s couch. From a story by Justin Theroux and Ben Stiller, written by Etan Cohen. Directing by Ben Stiller. Dancing by Les Grossman!

Valkyrie (2008)

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WW2:  the gift that keeps on giving. I’m sure it was  more than his similarity to Claus Von Stauffenberg’s photo that persuaded Tom Cruise to make this, but that apparently was the raison d’etre for this production about a group of high-ranking German soldiers who wanted to take Hitler out in summer 1944.  Claus has lost his eye in action but he becomes the key to planting a bomb following one failed assassination attempt on der Fuhrer and enacting Operation Valkyrie. With a slew of Brit actors including Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp and Eddie Izzard as the High Command running the plot, this never really works in terms of tension or thrills in a conspiracy that was well laid but never got its man. Probably overshadowed by the German version Operation Valkyrie (2004) starring Sebastian Koch. Written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander and directed by Bryan Singer.