Queen of the Desert (2015)

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Who knows best about tribes? In 1902 Gertrude Bell Nicole Kidman the daughter of wealthy British parents and a recent Oxford graduate. has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions, and a life of privilege bring her only boredom. At one dance a potential suitor actually suggests fornication and alludes to her similarity to his prize herd. Aspiring to some usefulness in her life, Gertrude decides to join her uncle who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. There the young lady not only encounters the Near East but also falls in love with an embassy employee, Henry Cadogan (James Franco) who adores her for her perspicacity and teaches her Farsi. However, their romance does not last long as her parents consider the young man a poor matrimonial choice for their daughter and forbid the marriage. Desperate, Henry commits suicide, failing to reconcile himself to the enforced separation. Gertrude finds out in a letter home following her mother’s death. For the remainder of her long life Gertrude Bell completely devotes herself to exploring and writing about the Near East in the wake of his death. She encounters T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) on an archaeological expedition and turns down a request to become a spy for the British Government. She visits her beloved Bedouin tribes over the Arab lands and earns their trust. Upon going to Damascus she encounters Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) and he confesses his passion for her but he’s married. She is kidnapped by an emir who wants to marry her – she could be his mother.  And when she returns to Syria, she finds World War One has spread … I would give my life for a woman like you.  This extraordinary story, of a pioneering woman traveller, writer, archaeologist and (eventually) a politician whose views shaped the delineation of the borders in the Middle East, following the implosion of the Ottoman Empire, gets a romantic biographical treatment. Kidman brings tremendous feeling to a woman of singular self-possession whose life nonetheless is shaped by the contours of love and death. It’s a rather conventional form for Werner Herzog who wrote and directed it, but there are scenes which communicate seemingly directly with nature, music by Klaus Badelt and Mark Yeager which feeds from desert song.  It’s not the mad epic you think you might get – it’s from Bell’s own writings and from history and it’s a swooning and beautiful interpretation of a woman alone among military men who seem to suffer intolerable repression. For the first time in my life I know who I am.  My heart belongs to the desert

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The Chase (1966)

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He never stole that $50.  I did.  When “Bubber” Reeves (Robert Redford) escapes from prison, it upsets the folks in the nearby town of Tarl, Texas. A man has been killed because Bubber’s companion is dangerous and Bubber is being blamed for the death.  While he’s on the run, Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) wants to capture Bubber alive, which puts him in opposition to many of the townspeople who have resorted to mob justice. Businessman Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall) wants Calder to apprehend Bubber quickly since he fears the criminal will come after Val’s son, Jake (James Fox) who is sleeping with Reeves’ wife (Jane Fonda).  The townspeople believe that Calder is Rogers’ puppet but Calder is his own man who wants to put things right for Bubber, framed for something he didn’t do … Famously problematic production because of on-set conflicts between powerhouse producer Sam Spiegel, director Arthur Penn and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, this adaptation of Horton Foote’s play and novel remains a lesson in star power even if the overall look of the film (grey-green) disappoints. Miriam Hopkins plays Bubber’s mother as a guilt-ridden paragon;  Marshall has the town’s power but knows it is corrupting and he’s surrounded by vicious thugs, including Richard Bradford;  Angie Dickinson is the soft maternal wife to Brando’s canny sheriff but she wants children they can’t have;  Fonda is unfaithful but Bubber can’t really blame his friend Jake:  Jake is basically a good guy, the son of the terrible father. Brando has a range that extends beyond many of his roles:  good husband, put-upon lawmaker, victim of a senseless and bloody assault.  He is the film’s conscience.  Bubber’s friend Lester (Joel Fluellen) is black and that plays into the margin notes of the film’s text as a political work. The straightforward depiction of smalltown corruption, mob rule and violence is constructed against a miasma of soap operatics:  Shoot a man for sleeping with someone’s wife?  That’s silly. Half the town would be wiped out! Janice Rule has a ball as the good time girl cheating on deceitful Robert Duvall;  Martha Hyer is partied out.  Redford is a relatively minor character, imprisoned for something he didn’t do, the pivot of most people’s actions, the litmus test for their humanity. His journey through the countryside as he marvels at nature provides the thread of possibility that the rest of the narrative denies. He plays Bubber with decency and clarity;  the scene sequence of terrible violence culminating in a Jack Rubyesque conclusion still has the power to shock.  It’s a confounding work:  a terrible indictment of the United States, the Deep South and complacency, eventually a rumination on the Kennedy assassination.  I was coming to the end of me.  I don’t  know how I knew. But I knew.

The Happy Prince (2018)

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Intimacy in the sewers followed by fantasy in the gods, and then, total silence.  As he flees England to France in the wake of his release from prison, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett) tries to reestablish his life, finish his writing work and disdain his lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Colin Morgan) whose father the Marquis of Queensberry had him gaoled for his homosexuality following a libel suit.  All the while he is hounded by the press who have made his life a misery in a society  whose denizens once enjoyed being sent up by him but which are now all too happy to shun him. He is assisted in exile by his literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and loyal friend, journalist Reggie Turner (Colin Firth). But when his identity is revealed to a hotel proprietor following a fracas with bullying English tourists, he is obliged to take up residence in Paris where he slides into dissolution, corresponds with Bosie and is cut off by his wife Constance (Emily Watson) on the advice of her solicitors… There is no question that Everett achieves something rather special here:  he inhabits Wilde with the kind of comfort that can only come from someone who has long shepherded this project as well as playing him a number of times on stage;  the acknowledging that Bosie was truly Wilde’s Achilles heel – he simply cannot resist the nasty little bugger, a beauty, a nauseating irresponsible temptress in male clothing, a sop to Wilde’s vanity.  He is his downfall and he is simply irresistible. Everett doesn’t spare Wilde physically either – bloated, drugging and drinking, wearing rouge, he’s a braggart whose survival depends on his wit yet he says he found God in gaol:  in that cell there was only himself and Christ. He has lost his strength yet he musters a violent thug within to confront holidaying yobs who recognise him in France:  that their showdown occurs in a church is a nicely Wildean touch. He finishes De Profundis;  he tells the story of The Happy Prince both to his sons in flashback and to the two street boys he befriends in the Parisian underworld. The multi-faceted backwards and forwards in time structure should confuse but doesn’t because the focus is all on Oscar:  and Everett is savage as appropriate.  This is a self-inflicted theatrical exit, fuelled by lust and blind obsession, invariably leading to terrible pain which he seems unable to stop. We are watching a great writer decompose, in all the senses that that term might conjure. There are all kinds of second-tier attractions:  the mood of melancholy offset with famous bons mots and rueful self-examination;  the locations;  the portrayal of male friendship and loyalty;  the hypocrisy writ large even within Oscar’s own worldview because he tells people what they need to hear even when everyone concerned knows it’s not true (Ross truly loves him and Wilde loves him back, just not in the same way);  his thoroughly wistful longing to see his small children again which grieves him terribly;  Everett’s old pal Béatrice Dalle (from Betty Blue) turning up as the proprietress of a risqué bar;  the interweaving of onstage characters from Wilde’s plays with his real-life associates; the wondrous score by Gabriel Yared. Frisky, fruity and just a little salty – rather like the man himself. It’s a heartbreaking  and profoundly literary valentine, wise and witty and immensely good. What a debut for Rupert Everett, film writer and director.  Surely Love is a wonderful thing

Out of Africa (1985)

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I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. After a failed love affair in Denmark the aristocrat Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) sets out for the white highlands of Kenya where she marries her lover’s brother Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer).  She is intent on dairy farming, Bror instead spends their money on a coffee plantation. After discovering Bror is unfaithful when she contracts syphilis, Karen develops feelings for British hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) but he prefers a simple lifestyle compared to her upper class affectations. She separates from Bror and sets about remaking her home to his taste. The two continue their relationship until a series of events force Karen to choose between her love life and her personal growth as an individual … Like a lot of people, I imagine, I first heard of Isak Dinesen (or Karen Blixen) courtesy of The Catcher in the Rye. If it was good enough for Holden Caulfield, I figured, I’ve got to check it out. And that was my introduction to a great writer whose life is immortalised here in the form of La Streep while the less than glamorous Finch Hatton is personified by Redford. History is rewritten right there! But their chemistry is so right. Streep is wonderful as the woman who finally finds herself, Redford is great as a hunter who simultaneously deplores environmental destruction – these are fantastic star performances.  So the school, the farm, that’s what I am now Director Sydney Pollack later regretted that he didn’t shoot this in widescreen and you can see why. This is a film of big emotions in a breathtaking landscape that dwarfs the concerns of the little people, aristos or not. There are fabulous, memorable scenes:  when Denys shampoos Karen’s hair; when they play Mozart on the gramophone to monkeys and Denys remarks that it’s their first exposure to humans; when he takes her flying; when she begs for land for the Kikuyu. And when she leaves.  If you like me at all, don’t ask me to do this Altering the focus of Dinesen’s writing somewhat to the personalities rather than the issues that actually drove Dinesen and the contradictions within Finch Hatton, it’s a glorious, epic and tragic romance sensitively performed, with a meticulous score by John Barry. Kurt Luedtke’s screenplay was adapted from three sources:  Dinesen’s Out of Africa;  Judith Thurman’s biography Isak Dinesen:  The Life of a Story Teller;  and Silence Will Speak by Errol Trzebinski. He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast

 

Mouchette (1967)

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At least I can die painlessly.  Immature young teenager Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) faces hardships everywhere in her difficult and impoverished life. Her father (Paul Hébert) is a cruel drunk who neglects her. Meanwhile, her mother (Marie Cardinal) is ill, slowly dying, leaving Mouchette to deal with her newborn bother. She is ostracised at school and flings mud at her fellow pupils on the way home. In a rainstorm she encounters Arsène (Jean-Claude Guilbert), a poacher with a violent streak. He lets her take shelter in his cabin but then assaults her and blackmails her to involve her in a crime when he believes he’s killed the local gamekeeper … Robert Bresson’s adaptation of a Georges Bernanos story is staggering – a totally devastating account of a desperate, rather unlikable child in a self-interested, amoral community. Its cinematic affect is compounded by the documentary style using non-actors to expose the brutality of this rotten village as it invariably claims its young victim. A small and austere masterpiece from Bresson, achieved with his customary rigour and deceptively simple shooting style.

Week-end (1967)

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I’m here to inform these Modern Times of the Grammatical Era’s end and the beginning of Flamboyance, especially in cinema. Roland Durand (Jean Yanne) and his wife Corinne (Mireille Darc) embark on a weekend getaway to the French countryside determined to murder Corinne’s mother while her father is dying from the poison they’ve been feeding him for five years and collect an inheritance. Each is contemplating adultery as they head for the coast, but end up ensnared in a traffic jam along the way.  The ill-fated couple encounter such colorful characters as the leader of the FLSO (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and Saint-Just (Jean-Pierre Léaud) … What a rotten film, all we meet are crazy people. Jean-Luc Godard turns in a hugely enjoyable, fast-moving absurdist social satire masquerading as a road movie. It has one of the best shots in cinema (much aped, see LA LA Land for proof and Welles for inspiration) when the Parisian couple emerge into a ten-minute track of a traffic jam which proves his point that contemporary life is awash with the pointless clutter of a dying civilisation while the text itself blithely tours through the randomness of car crashes, violence and death. When their car explodes in fire Corinne cries out My Hermès handbag!  This carries on before they encounter anti-consumerist Maoists. No matter your feelings about this anarchic picaresque, you have to see it because it presages a seismic change in cinema (this was released 29th December 1967) and Godard himself was the visionary who summoned it. The shots themselves call attention to the fact that you are watching manufactured reality, an adieu to his own traditional filmmaking, fin de cinéma as the credits inform us. The horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome by more horror

Incredibles 2 (2018)

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I am using technology to make people lose faith in technology. Helen Parr/Elastigirl (voice of Holly Hunter) is in the spotlight after being hired to re-popularise superheroes for the company DevTech run by Winston Deavor (voice of Bob Odenkirk) with techo savvy provided by his genius sister Evelyn (voice of Catherine Keener).  That leaves Bob (voice of Craig T. Nelson) at home with teenage Violet (voice of Sarah Vowell) who can turn invisible and little brother Dash (voice of Huck Milner) who can move like lightning to navigate the day-to-day heroics of normal life as a house husband. It’s a tough transition for everyone, made tougher by the fact that the family is still unaware of baby Jack-Jack’s (Eli Fucile) emerging superpowers which an unfortunate raccoon discovers first. When an anonymous villain hatches a brilliant and dangerous plot enslaving the planet to the will of the Screenslaver, the family and Lucius/Frozone (voice of Samuel L. Jackson) must find a way to work together again which is easier said than done with Mom being deviated from the original plan to fight crime by the villain whose authoritarian desires are worse than anyone can imagine … They may be retro-future styled (Dementia 13 is playing at the cinema) but the Incredible family are dealing with some twenty-first century issues particularly the use of entertainment devices to divert attention away from what’s really important. They’ve been away for a long time but their return to the summer blockbuster season is welcome even if like most animations it’s probably twenty minutes too long.  It arrives in an arena vastly overpopulated by superhero movies albeit it steers its own way through different issues than those driving the Marvel universe or the dark-hearted DC line. There are some highly amusing sequences especially with Jack-Jack who has such great abilities even designer Edna Mode (voice of writer/director Brad Bird) doesn’t mind doing some babysitting. The warning about technology comes in a package that is itself the product of huge cinematic developments on small screens since the first Pixar film came out 14 years ago – how ironic! The action scenes are a blast. Very entertaining and a lot funnier than the average animated sequel. I hate superheroes and I renounce them!

 

The Verdict (1982)

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Sometimes people can surprise you.  Sometimes people have a great capacity to hear the truth.  Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is a lawyer. Or he was. He’s a washed up alcoholic ambulance chaser who’s reduced to scouring the obits for clientele. When former partner Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) puts a straightforward medical negligence case his way, he’s inclined to take the settlement from the Archdiocese of Boston whose hospital doctors anaesthetised a pregnant woman into a coma four years earlier. Her sister and brother-in-law have been devastated. Then he makes the mistake of visiting her and his humanity is reawakened … David Mamet adapted the novel by Barry Reed and it’s as much a character study as a legal thriller but it’s all that too. However it has a rare quality – elegance and even eloquence, all the while hitting the generic markers. Polanski says films are made up of moments and we have a raft of them here. The moment when Galvin’s Polaroid of his client is developing in front of her comatose vegetative body is haunting:  it’s when he rediscovers his own dignity while bearing witness to her lack of it entirely. When the biased judge (Milo O’Shea) tries to dissuade him from taking the case, clearly on the side of Ed Concannon (James Mason), the attorney for the Catholic Church of whom Mickey declares, He’s a good man?  He’s the Prince of fucking Darkness! And we know this of course because we’ve all seen Salem’s Lot. When Concannon removes his coat from the judge’s armoire we have the proof that the judiciary is corrupt. It’s subtle but keen social signalling, he’s a bagman for the boys down town, as Frank realises. Frank is tempted by a wonderfully hooded divorced woman Laura (Charlotte Rampling) who just happens to turn up in his favourite Boston watering hole. We sense she’s no good but she’s an alcoholic too and her codependency draws us in. And seventy minutes into this well-structured exposition she triggers Frank’s turnaround: I can’t invest in failure any more. Frank is loaded up on bad witnesses but one is missing and it’s his last minute journey that turns into a dark night of the soul as well as a time of enlightenment.  Mamet’s then wife Lindsay Crouse is brilliant as a nurse scorned.  Frank’s exhausted closing to the jury is riveting. We become tired of hearing more lies. We become dead. But director Sidney Lumet uses silence as brilliantly as dialogue. Look at the way he shoots the NYC street scene between Mickey and Frank when Mickey has something terrible to tell him. Masterful. Frank’s hungover mornings on the couch, his afternoons on arcade games, his evenings alone with the bottle, are as significant to this narrative as his defeatist courtroom attitude.  This is one of Newman’s greatest performances – he allows that absurdly handsome face to look tired, the rightful appearance for an old soak – but it’s also a great portrait of the Catholic Church as a corrupt corporation and a reminder to never give up on those who do not have a voice. A wonderful film about adults coping in a mire of payoffs and professional malpractice and personal failure.

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

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Talk about something cool, like food or clothes or Joan Didion!  Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) goes nuts at her friend’s wedding to which she hasn’t been invited and pepper sprays her.  Thing is, the bride isn’t her friend, she’s someone Ingrid follows on Instagram.  It lands her in a mental hospital. She idolises social media star and Instagram ‘influencer’ Taylor Sloane  (Elizabeth Olsen) to the point that she reckons all those ‘likes’ constitute an invitation to her to ingratiate herself with the LA-based narcissist and moves there with money her late mom has bequeathed and promptly kidnaps the woman’s dog so she can claim the reward and ‘friend’ her in real life. Taylor’s husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is a technophobic artist whose work Taylor gushes over but he seems nice underneath all the boho-chic So-Cal lifestyle. Ingrid makes his only sale. Ingrid’s neighbour Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a wannabe screenwriter obsessed with Batman whom she seduces in order to smooth her way socially with Taylor’s gang. Everything seems to go swimmingly until Taylor’s druggie brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) turns up and figures out Ingrid’s game.  He blackmails her and she has to come up with a superhero-inspired solution to his threat to reveal her stalking to his sister  …  Co-written by David Branson Smith with director Matt Spicer, which makes me ponder once again why it is that sometimes men are better than women at exploiting the vagaries of female friendship (read:  rivalry) even if it winds up in a rather violent and cataclysmic denouement – with a twist. Well Ingrid is mentally ill, after all and Nicky knows she has Single White Femaled Taylor. This is smart and funny and topical and gets under your skin about what it is to be popular and the nature of contemporary life while retaining a caustic perspective. Performed with gusto by the principals and produced by the unstoppable Plaza who totally gets why reality is being subverted and image is everything. (Maybe that’s why she has 1.6 million followers on Instagram.) This is what happens when your followers actually follow you. Message:  don’t live on your phone, there’s more to life than avocado and, as we are all branding our lives now, society is experiencing an existential crisis. Sheesh …

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

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When we’re young, we looks at thing very idealistically I guess. And I think Woodsworth means that… that when we’re grow-up… then, we have to… forget the ideals of youth… and find strength.  1928 Kansas. High school football star Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) and his sensitive high school sweetheart, Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood), are weighed down by their parents’ oppressive expectations, which threaten the future of their relationship. Deanie’s mother (Audrey Christie) and Bud’s oil baron father (Pat Hingle) caution their children against engaging in a sexual relationship, but for opposing reasons: Deanie’s mother thinks Bud won’t marry a girl with loose morals, while Bud’s father is afraid marriage and pregnancy would ruin Bud’s future at Yale… One of the great performances, by Wood, in one of the great movies from a Hollywood negotiating carefully between outward sexuality and the censorship mores which wouldn’t be properly thrown out for another half-dozen years. William Inge’s screenplay of adolescent yearning and learning falls plumb in the middle of his own playwriting and screenwriting run, with director Elia Kazan expertly treading the lines governing behaviour and desire in a small-minded society living in stultifying olde worlde interiors. Wood gives a total performance:  from the poetry-loving 1920s kid to the girl who falls heavily for Beatty’s rich boy and doesn’t know what to do with the burgeoning wish for sex that overwhelms her very being.  She literally goes crazy for want of him. Beatty is a superb match for Wood in his screen debut: and how beautiful are they together?  He was an important actor for Inge, having done his only stage performance in A Loss of Roses. His soft questioning hooded face seems to hold all the answers to the playwright’s questions:  Is it so terrible to have those feelings about a boy?  Barbara Loden (Kazan’s future wife) is good as Beatty’s slutty sister Ginny and Hingle is superb as his demanding father facing ruin when the stock market fails. Christie is frightening as Mrs Loomis. There are a lot of scenes set around water – it forms part of the narrative’s sensual mythology that envelops the players:  they are literally drowning in love. Kazan coaxes hysteria from an actress who was herself troubled enough to go into analysis (it was her offscreen tormentors who really needed it) and her heartbreaking expressive emotionality makes this utterly unforgettable. This is a film that takes teenagers seriously. Moving like few other films, this is a stunning and tragic evocation of repression, lust, desire and love. Wood is simply great.