Vice (2018)

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How does a man go on to become who he is? Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is responding to 9/11 with other White House officials. We flash back and forth to his drunken antics as a young man, getting kicked out of Yale, his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) setting him on the straight and narrow when he’s a drunken linesman and then getting into Washington out of Wisconsin U as an intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and seeing everything close up and personal during the Nixon era. Rumsfeld’s abrasiveness gets them distanced from the office, where Cheney overhears the President discussing the secret bombing of Cambodia with Kissinger (Kirk Bovill). His father in law appears to murder his mother in law (never investigated) and Cheney and Lynne form a tighter family unit. He becomes Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford (Bill Camp) while Rumsfeld is Secretary of Defence and he is introduced by Antonin Scalia (Matthew Jacob) to the Unitary Executive Theory. He has his first coronary while running to represent Wyoming and Lynne campaigns for his seat in the House of Representatives. He then becomes Secretary of Defence under George H. Bush during the Gulf War. When younger daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out, he resigns to prevent media scrutiny. He is CEO at Halliburton when George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) asks him to be his running mate in 2000 but he demurs and says he’ll help select that individual. But when he satisfies himself that Bush Jr. is incompetent he gets him to promise that mundane issues like energy and foreign policy be left to him and he accepts the role and sets up offices in every possible executive area … He would be a dedicated and humble servant to power. How is it that some of the most penetrating films about politics have been made by comedy auteur Adam McKay? Is this the only way we can take our reality nowadays? Perhaps. This freewheeling exercise in postmodernism is incredibly formally inventive, audacious even, and the film actually stops and the credits roll for the first time at 47 minutes. And then we kickstart into the real story, once again, back to 9/11 and the film’s narrator (a great joke, by the way) asks us why on earth was Cheney having a private talk with his lawyer David Addington (Don McManus) in the middle of this unprecedented act of terror? Amid the family dramas, Iraq, Afghanistan, the War on Terror, Halliburton’s involvement, the Crash,and everything else that has beset the US since that date, Cheney was the real power behind the White House controlling everything, even the terms of public discourse – ‘global warming’ became ‘climate change’, and so on. Sometimes the synoptic approach is genuinely funny, sometimes it feels too episodic. The film is all about heart – heart attacks, a heart transplant, the heart of power and family. Cheney’s final monologue tells us what we already know and Bale offers a robust picture of a seemingly bland man pummeled into unchecked power by an ambitious wife who himself becomes an untameable and unstoppable juggernaut, he’s everywhere, all of the time, at every formative event in recent Republican Party history. It’s a jigsaw puzzle moving backwards and forwards through the decades that pieces together how one person’s worldview came to predominate in the culture. Irreverent, entertaining and fairly shocking, this will make you laugh and hurl, sometimes simultaneously. Vice is the word. You have to remember that if you have power people will try to take it away from you – always

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All Is True (2018)

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I’ve just bought a pension. I can’t die for at least 10 years or I’ll be ruined. It’s 1613, and Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age. But disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre in London burns to the ground and he decides he will never write again. Devastated, he returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Haunted by the death 17 years earlier of his only son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis) he struggles to mend the broken relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and daughters, Hamnet’s twin sister, spirited spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and unhappy Susanna (Lydia Wilson) who is married to a noxiously stern Puritan, John Hall (Hadley Fraser). He is forced to examine his failings as an absent husband and father when 28-year old Judith finally gets involved with a suitor alleged to have impregnated another woman and Susanna is accused of adultery … A garden ain’t a play. Screenwriter Ben Elton has been wowing on the small screen with his very clever parody of Shakespeare in Upstart Crow but this is only occasionally in the same pantomimic vein albeit its nod/wink title (the original title for The Life of Henry VIII) toys with the idea that this is anything other than a confection of falsehoods and assumptions.  And it is a bit of a joke to start with – an old conqueror finally comes home and gets in the way of his wife and has the temerity to mess up the garden she has so carefully cultivated for the last 20 years. And then there are all those long country evenings when all you have is a candle for company. Irony is writ large here. At its heart a melancholy meditation on age, family and what you leave behind, Shakespeare is confronted with the long-hidden truth of his young son’s death, a boy whom he believed to have been greatly talented but who had actually been presenting the work of his twin, who was left unable to read and write, being but a girl. The discovery is poignant indeed. There’s a sonnet-off  (# 29) when Will is confronted with another truth – that the now elderly object of his affection Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen) is not interested in him but appreciates his art. How wonderfully odd that two of the great contemporary exponents of the Bard are quoting him at each other. Anne’s feelings are nothing – when the poems were published (illegally, without Will’s consent), he never thought about her reputation or what people might say. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The bedrock of his entire life it seems has been other people and what they say – what was said of his father, what was said of him, and now, what is said about his daughters, both caught up in scandals of their own. He is a man for whom all truth is literally relative. Retirement is not easy and revelations about what happened at home when he was enjoying fame and adulation come as a shock to someone for whom all the world’s a stage and now his daughters are ruining the name he literally wrote out of disgrace to redeem his father’s blackguarding. Branagh is very good, prosthetics and all, capable of being hurt and amusing and rueful. The motifs are striking in a beautifully shot production – two fires dominate the visuals: the opening conflagration at the Globe caused by a misfiring cannon in a production co-written with John Fletcher; and the smaller one in the grate when Judith attempts to destroy what Hamnet transcribed – because Will needs to believe it was his dead son who wrote the poetry and she is guilty at being a gifted woman because he has such a low opinion of her. And Will loves the word on the page – when he sees his son’s name written in the funeral record in the local church his face comes to life. Anne chides him that when Hamnet died he was busy writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dench is wise and moving in the role of the much older wife protecting him from terrible knowledge. However the slow pace and ruminative setting, autumnal and somewhat bucolic, hide the sad drama within. It’s stunningly shot by Zac Nicholson, not just allowing us to see the wide open spaces juxtaposed with interestingly shot and lit interiors – so many dimpled with pure candlelight as the sole source – but telling us that there is always a bigger story and hinting where to look. There are funny scenes with the ridiculously ingratiating local MP Sir Thomas Lucey (Alex Macqueen) and some wild put-downs. There’s even a jibe about authorship and how it was that a man who owns up to having lived such a little life could have ended up knowing everything. Lest we forget, Elton is the best Elizabethan historian we have, when you think about Blackadder. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is very lovely. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Nothing is ever true

Franco Zeffirelli 12th February 1923 – 15th June 2019

The great Italian – or should I say Florentine – director Franco Zeffirelli has died at the grand age of 96.  He was a remarkable man, whose authorial stamp was distinguished by two particulars – his sympathy for young people and his flair for dramatising opera and theatre. Endless Love was for some of us kids the first time we saw real teen romance up there on the big screen.  Whole new generations were in floods of tears at the remake of The Champ. And there can be few students of Shakespeare who cannot recall whooping with delight at their viewing experiences of The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, which even got a shout-out by Cher in Clueless. That’s how good the man was at making seemingly incomprehensible lines and complex plotting accessible. He made Shakespeare relevant and fun. He did the same with several operas – he took La Traviata and made it a great night out at the movies. And he had vision of a very particular kind:  who else would have chosen Tommy Howell to play Young Toscanini? Or Robert Powell to play Jesus of Nazareth, the goodest good guy of them all?  He was a devoted son of Florence, making several movies and shorts there, recalling his own complicated upbringing in Tea With Mussolini, a tribute to the marvellous women of the ex-pat community who reared him following the death of his mother when he was 6. He was the result of an extra-marital liaison and named for the ‘little breezes’ in Mozart’s Idomeneo which set him on a path in that very idiom – starting as an assistant to Luchino Visconti in the theatre where he became an outstanding production designer (perhaps partly thanks to his da Vinci lineage) and director. He was one of eight Italians to be nominated as Best Director at the Academy Awards but his outstanding gift to us was his talent for seeing into the heart of things. Grazie e addio, Franco.

The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018)

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You left no autobiography but you left this. Writer and filmmaker Mark Cousins was given access to hundreds of paintings and drawings by Orson Welles and he uses these as a prism to gain entry into how the man’s mind worked and discusses how this level of visual creativity was fused with narrative to create his films. This is an intensely personal work:  Cousins addresses Welles in the voiceover, doing away with any sense of chronology, making a mosaic of thoughts, inflections, inferences and putting together a narrative that deals with his films, his politics, his acting, his working methods and his extensive romantic life. This is filmic storytelling of a superior type, stressing the way in which Welles’ designs actively structured his cinematic approach, garnering detailed insights from these previously undiscovered and unsung artistic outpourings to make an intimate free-associating portrait of a fascinating man. This is an utterly unique take on a larger than life character whose indelible performances as an actor (with their king or king-like personae) form a parallel or diptych with his directing work. Welles has never seemed more attractive, more interesting, more Shakespearean in scope, more mysterious and dreamlike or yet more relevant. A seer. Featuring his daughter Beatrice Welles, this is executive produced by Michael Moore. You thought in lines and shapes

A Double Life (1947)

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I wanted to be something better than I was – an actor, a real actor. Highly regarded middle-aged Broadway stage actor Anthony ‘Tony’ John (Ronald Colman) has a violent temper, which leads his actress wife, Brita (Signe Hasso), to leave him.  He can never escape the roles he plays and lives with them night and day and whether they’re comic or dramatic, he’s tough to be around. It’s a living nightmare not a holiday John’s producer Max Lasker (Philip Loeb) wants them to play in Othello together and it’s hugely successful, running for two years, but the strain drives John insane, to the point of killing his mistress, Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters). John does not remember the incident, but is forced to face his actions when promoter Bill Friend (Edmond O’Brien) uses the murder to publicise the play… I had to tear myself apart and put myself together againThe first of four collaborations between husband and wife writing team Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin with director George Cukor, this has the great production values typical in the post-war period, stuffed with atmospheric locations and design, all New York taxis and elevated trains, with great music by Miklós Rosza and a wonderful sense of performance inscribed in the titles sequence when the curtains are raised. Suddenly you’re startled by the sound of your own voice Theatre was a wonderful addition to the film noir genre (the following year’s The Velvet Touch is another great example) and the complexity of Shakespeare’s hero is perfect for an actor on the verge. The screenwriters were both veterans of Broadway and would become specialists in marriage dramas, famed for their notions of marriage between equals (they did the Hepburn-Tracy comedies Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike) and here Hasso is a perfectly reasonable ex-wife, unable to cope with the vicissitudes of her husband’s mental trauma. Now he’s hearing voices that nobody else does. Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight! Ronald Colman won the Academy Award for his performance, confusing Shakespeare with his daily life and almost killing Brita on stage. All the time you’re caught and there’s no time to change your mind  The stresses of preparing and rehearsing are brilliantly caught by the writers whose intimate knowledge of that arena is acutely conveyed.  Jealousy – find it – hold it – live it- Jealousy! A very young Winters is marvellous in her first big screen role as the waitress who takes his fancy and comes to a very sticky end. In their first scene together (when they meet in the restaurant) Winters did everything wrong and they did 96 takes. Colman took her for lunch and chatted to her casually, asking about her background. Afterwards she did the scene perfectly. She credited Colman with probably saving her career. You’re two men now, grappling for control. You and Othello. With Whit Bissell, Ray Collins and Millard Mitchell among the cast, this is tastily played. (Watch closely for Paddy Chayefsky in an uncredited role as a photographer and the first screen Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln plays a detective, also uncredited).  The final scenes, when reality and illusion blur so terribly, bring everything to a suitably tragic conclusion. The warring poles of the drama are figured in Milton Krasner’s luminous monochrome cinematography, the light and shade of two opposing worlds chiming their dreadful song. Edited by former child actor and future director Robert Parrish. I don’t believe in myself but I expect others to believe in me

All Night Long (1962)

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Oh, I belong to that new minority group: white American jazz musicians. They’re going to hold a mass meeting in a phone booth.  Up-and-coming jazz drummer Johnny Cousin (Patrick McGoohan) wants to start his own band, but he needs a singer. He attempts to court Delia Lane (Marti Stevens), a famous singer who’s retired now but when it’s clear that Delia won’t perform with him, he tries to convince Delia’s husband African-American band leader Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) that she is cheating on him with road  manager Cass (Keith Michell). His attempts to end their marriage may well cost Johnny his own over the course of a very eventful night … Practically the embodiment of cult, this reworking of Othello is notable not just for being a screenplay co-written by HUAC-blacklisted Paul Jarrico (under the name of Peter Achilles) with Nel King, but for its outstanding array of notable jazz figures – Dave Brubeck, Johnny Dankworth, Charlie Mingus, Tubby Hayes – in an atmospheric and melodramatic tale that features mixed-race marriage and drug-taking. There’s marvellous dockside action and tasty East End scene-setting with McGoohan giving one of his best performances pre-The Prisoner in his take on the malevolent Iago and some good support from Keith Michell, Betsy Blair and Richard Attenborough’s role as a hipster millionaire is certainly memorable. Definitely one for music fans with some sensational tunes. Look fast for Carol White. Produced by that reliable team of progressives, producer Michael Relph and director Basil Dearden. Be seeing you.

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.

Letters to Juliet (2010)

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I know what you’re going to say because you saw this and you know, it’s no good. But hey! The temperatures have plummeted to almost absolute zero, there’s driving rain and the wind is cutting through my ability to discern truth from reality TV this week, but… It’s Italy! Verona! It’s romantic! There’s food and drink and sunshine! And some very bad acting. Amanda Seyfriend wants to make her name as a journalist instead of just fact-checking at The New Yorker, her fiancé chef Gael Garcia Bernal wants to research wines for his new restaurant so they decamp to the most beautiful country in the world. And she gets involved in the team of secretaries who write back to those lovelorn gals and guys who want romantic advice from Juliet (maybe they think a) she’s real b) she’s still alive after that poisoning incident) and reunites a couple who lost each other decades earlier … The idea for the film was inspired by the 2006 non-fiction book Letters to Juliet, by Lise Friedman and Ceil Friedman, which chronicles the phenomenon of letter-writing to Shakespeare’s most famous romantic heroine. Gael gets lost in vino, Vanessa Redgrave gives one of her battiest ever performances (and that’s saying something) and she’s back together with real-life love, Django himself, the delectable Franco Nero (together for the first time since Camelot), in a sub-plot that has the distinct ring of truth from their own experience. Amanda gets to reinvent her own romantic story with Vanessa’s grandson. There’s some seriously bad production design – couldn’t they have faked a better view of the famous balcony?! I’ve been there and I know the restrictions but it’s the movies! Written by Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan, directed by Gary Winick. There were some major tricks missed here storywise. Terrible. But lovely, if you know what I mean. I know that you do!

Gonks Go Beat (1965)

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The Sixties were so wild and funky that someone thought a psychedelic pop interpretation of Romeo and Juliet set in space would be just the thing. A world in which Terry Scott is Prime Minister, Arthur Mullard the Drum Master and the Graham Bond Organisation is the house band can only be described with one word – CRAZY! The first British sci-fi musical and quite as bad as that sounds. Written by Jimmy Watson and director Robert Hartford-Davis, whom we encountered with The Fiend/Beware My Brethren.

Happy 100th Birthday Olivia de Havilland!

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“Walking through life with you, ma’am, has been a very gracious thing.” Errol Flynn’s final onscreen lines to Ms de Havilland in They Died With Their Boots On. Two-time Academy Award winner, rebel, survivor, lady and the better half of one of the most glorious screen couples. She is part of our classical Hollywood dream and we are all the better for sharing it. Thank you and Happy Birthday!