The Natural (1984)

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I came here to play baseball.  In 1910s Nebraska Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) plays catch with his father who is killed by a tree hit by lightning. Roy makes a bat from the split tree and in 1923 tries out for the Chicago Cubs with girlfriend Iris (Glenn Close) in tow, meeting legendary Whammer (Joe Don Baker) and sports writer Max Mercy (Robert Duvall). He impresses the mysterious beauty Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) who had been fawning over Whammer. She is actually a celebrity stalker who turns up in Roy’s hotel room where she shoots him, apparently dead. Sixteen years later he has a chance as a rookie with bottom of the league New York Knights where he immediately becomes a star to the surprise of manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley).  He falls into the clutches of Pop’s niece Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) who is handmaiden to Gus Sands (Darren McGavin, unbilled) a ruthless bookie who loves betting against him. His form turns until a woman in white stands in the crowd and it’s Iris – who is unmarried but has a son. Mercy finally remembers where he first saw Roy who gets a chance as outfielder following the tragic death of colleague Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen) but the illness resulting from the shooting catches up with Roy and he’s on borrowed time … I used to look for you in crowds. Adapted by Roger Towne (brother of Robert) and Phil Dusenberry from Bernard Malamud’s novel, this is a play on myth and honour, with nods to mediaeval chivalry in its story of a long and arduous journey where Roy encounters the death of his father, bad and good women, resurrection, mentors and villains and lost opportunities and the chance at redemption. It’s a glorious tale, told beautifully and surprisingly economically with stunning imagery from Caleb Deschanel and a sympathetic score from Randy Newman. Redford seems too old at first but you forget about that because he inhabits Hobbs so totally and it’s so finely tuned. This allegorical take on the price you pay for success in America is expertly handled by director Barry Levinson, even if the novel’s ending is altered. I didn’t see it coming

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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I was always afraid of being found out. I can’t specifically say that I regret my actions. I don’t. In New York City 1991 biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is struggling financially and her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t get her an advance for a book about Fanny Brice so she sells off a treasured possession – a letter to her from Katharine Hepburn – to bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells).  She hatches a scheme to forge letters by famous writers and sell them to bookstores and collectors. When the dealers start to catch on and she is tipped off about being blacklisted, Lee recruits an old sometime acquaintance, drug dealer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to help her continue her self-destructive cycle of trickery and deceit but then the FBI move in You can be an asshole if you’re famous. You can’t be unknown and be such a bitch, Lee. This is the biography of a biographer (from Israel’s own autobiography…) so you can draw out many ideas and inferences about life imitating art, writers imitating genius, literary theft on a large or small scale.  Writing in their subject’s voice is just one of the outcomes of one writer inhabiting another writer’s life.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing these letters, living in the world of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, pretending I was something I am not. In other words (as it were) it is a logical extrapolation that a writer of biographical works should on some level be themselves a liberator of other people’s ideas. You might say, it’s their job.  Enough of the meta fiction. The screenplay is by the marvellous Nicole Holofcener (with Jeff Whitty) who is no mean director herself and yes, she was supposed to helm this. So what happened? Apparently Julianne Moore and Holofcener had ‘creative differences’ and both of them dropped out – both of them! But were those differences with each other?! Apparently Moore was fired by Holofcener. Something about wanting to wear a fat suit and a prosthetic nose. And so, six days before production it all stopped. And Sam Rockwell who was due to play Hock disappeared somewhere along the line. Then Marielle Heller was deployed on directing duties.  Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, stayed in the cast (as Alan Schmidt) and McCarthy joined. And her performance is towering.  I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people. She’s a lonely alcoholic middle-aged mess and utterly believable as the writer on the outs, a kind of midlife crisis on acid with huge money problems and lacking the funds to even secure veterinary assistance to care for Jersey her beloved cat. But somehow she’s a compelling, likeable figure, something real amid the poseurs (like Tom Clancy, lampooned here. Him and his $3,000,000 advance). Irony is writ large. She imitates Bette Davis in The Little Foxes on TV, watching on her couch with Jersey. Then the TV set becomes a light box to improve the fake signatures. Grant and she make a fine double act – he’s the louche lounge lizard à la Withnail (referenced here) to her fiercely bedraggled Lesbian, conniving to her inventive. They are both prone to a bit of larceny. His double betrayal is horrible, his death weirdly apposite. It’s a beautifully constructed odd couple tragicomedy and looks and feels like the real thing – entirely without sentiment, appropriately, considering that it is all about life in the literary margins, a kind of palimpsest of an overachiever who’s no longer marketable as herself. It all happens as Manhattan alters from a kind of bohemian haven into impossibly uninhabitable real estate. Really quite wonderful. I was hiding behind these people, their names. Because if I’d actually put myself out there, done my own work, then I would be opening myself up to criticism. And I’m too much of a coward for all of that  MM#2400

Slaughterhouse Rulez (2018)

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That hole is a gateway. And it leads, straight down, to hell. Now, who wants to buy some drugs? Yorkshire boy Don Wallace (Finn Cole) is sent to a strange public school by his concerned mother Kay (Isabella Laughland) where he has to share a room with the rather eccentric and bullied snuff-sniffing Willoughby (Asa Butterfield). He finds his predecessor hanged himself. He falls for ‘goddess’ Clemsie (Hermione Corfield) but is warned off and gets homesick in this weird institution run by The Bat (Michael Sheen) with a horrible house called Andromeda where students undergo strange rituals. Useless master Meredith (Simon Pegg) spends all of his downtime Skyping former love Audrey (Margot Robbie) who has clearly found a new romantic interest in South Sudan. When a company called Terrafrack run by Bat’s mate Lambert (Alex Macqueen) unearths a huge sinkhole emitting a terrible methane cloud it appears it has disturbed some strange subterranean creatures in the woods. And there’s an eco protest group nearby where Woody (Nick Frost) has a stash of drugs he wants to sell but there’s more to him than anyone suspects … We’re going to let them run our fucking country? From a screenplay by debut director Crispian Mills and Henry Fitzherbert, this is the latest Simon Pegg/Nick Frost collaboration, following their Cornetto Trilogy but they are minor characters, sidelined by attractive teens.  This is a story with the evils of fracking at its heart that traffics in charm rather than terror in episodic fashion. No more than Don’s mother, it has aspirations above its station in its references and a swipe at class difference, with a photo of Malcolm McDowell in the great If… on Willoughby’s wall. But it’s a schlock horror not a shock horror with lowbrow laughs, social commentary, some gore and a backstory that harks at myth. This may not be great but it is efficient genre cinema with oodles of good humour (and bad nature) and we might expect good things from the scion of Hayley Mills and Roy Boulting, never mind that he was also the frontman of Kula Shaker. The ecstasy of death

Red Dawn (1984)

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My father turned me in. Oh God, they do things you can’t imagine. When Soviet soldiers invade Calumet, a small Colorado town, sending Nicaraguan and Cuban paratroopers into the local high school football field, brothers Jed (Patrick Swayze) and Matt Eckert (Charlie Sheen) escape with friends (C. Thomas Howell, Darren Dalton) to the forest where they call themselves Wolverines after their school mascot. With their father Tom (Harry Dean Stanton) a prisoner of the invading army, the children decide to fight against the Soviets. As the country comes under increasing attack and bitter winter closes in, the group teams up with Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner (Powers Boothe) to take back their town but how long can they hold out as they discover they are behind battle lines in occupied America? … West Coast. East Coast. Down here is Mexico. First wave of the attack came in disguised as commercial charter flights same way they did in Afghanistan in ’80. Only they were crack Airborne outfits. Now they took these passes in the Rockies. What a film to watch in the week that Vladimir Putin declared liberalism dead. From a story by Kevin Reynolds, auteur John Milius bootkicks the US into surreality positing a Soviet landgrab when we all know they’d nuke the country to high heaven before that would happen. So far, so ridick, as what was supposed to be a small arty antiwar outing becomes a teenage Rambo with Milius toying with the original material assisted by General Alexander Haig, on MGM’s board of directors at the time, dreaming up a what-if scenario evolving from Mexico’s left wing sympathy splitting the US in half as Hitler’s plan for invasion is reworked.  It starts with a history class in Genghis Khan’s warring tactics and within 5 minutes of explaining his stratagems the Russian helicopters are on the ground.  Soon Alexander Nevsky is playing for free at the local cinema and William Smith is in town marshalling the Russkies (in reality he’d been a Russian Intercept interrogator for the CIA). When the drive-in becomes a re-education centre, it’s a nod to the potential for camp classic status as an ‘ironic’ acknowledgement of its own silliness but also reminds us a lot of WW2. Given that this was the first film to receive a PG-13 rating for its violence, it occupies a certain stratum of cultdom and not merely for an alt history:  here are some of the era’s top teen icons (half of The Outsiders!) shooting the hell out of everything in sight. What joy there is in seeing Lea Thompson manning a sub-machine gun and Swayze romancing Jennifer Grey long before Dirty Dancing. With astounding cinematography by Ric Waite and Frederick Elmes and an operatic score from the great Basil Poledouris, this is a salutary lesson in survivalism and resistance. Milius would describe it as “a Close Encounters with Cold War Russians”. Children did this

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

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Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street. In early 1970s Harlem, daughter and wife-to-be Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James), who goes by the nickname Fonny. Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together, but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman he has never met by a grudge-bearing beat cop Officer Bell (Ed Skrein). Tish’s mom Sharon (Regina King) determines to get justice for her prospective son-in-law and tracks down the rape victim who has disappeared to her home country; while her husband Joseph (Colman Domingo) and Fonny’s dad Frank (Michael Beach) have a more pragmatic approach and resort to theft to make money. Meanwhile, Tish is pregnant and Fonny is in prison …  Love brought you here. Barry Jenkins’ extraordinary success with the singular Moonlight has led him to adapting James Baldwin, a classic author who has been underrepresented insofar as screen adaptations are concerned and this shares that film’s flaws with scenes of charming and alarming domesticity alternating with slowed-down moments of expressionist beauty and entire sequences of unremitting tedium – Fonny’s conversations with Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry) are a case in point. Not content to both under- and overdramatise the story, this draws into its narration a bigger issue about police brutality, corruption and racism, overloading the slight balance which then relies in turn on terrific performances which are rather unhinged by a comic book crooked cop as stooge. Enchantingly scored by Nicholas Britell who enlivens a very uneven, occasionally wearying experience. Written and directed by Jenkins. I’ve never been more ready for anything in my whole life

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

Little Pink House (2017)

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This land is everything I have.  In New London, Connecticut at the end of the 1990s twice-divorced paramedic Susette Kelo (Catherine Keener) renovates a little waterfront cottage overlooking the River Thames with the help of new boyfriend, antiques dealer Tim Leblanc (Callum Keith Rennie).  She finds out it’s designated for demolition in a deal the city has done with the Pfizer Corporation who want to turn the beautiful location into expensive real estate suitable for their needs. She reluctantly becomes the spokeswoman for the working class neighbourhood and endures horrendous intimidation led by Walthrop College academic Charlotte Wells (Jeanne Tripplehorn) forcing a legal battle with assistance from a free legal institution that goes all the way to the Supreme Court as her friends’ homes are bulldozed to make way for a factory manufacturing Viagra… We are only here to make this city you live in a better place.  This is an eye-opening true account of a battle about eminent domain – the compulsory acquisition of private property for development by third parties whether or not the home owners approve. That sounds dull as ditchwater but thanks to a legal decision it affects everybody. It’s truly awful to hear firefighters beating off the flames in the next door house muttering in earshot, That’s one way to get rid of her. You can only feel the wonderful Catherine Keener’s terrible fear. This biographical drama is low key but good on the law – slow moving, unfair and you have to be very quick off the mark in a society that is essentially corrupt to its core with a constant eye on the bottom line, the verbal version of that being, it’s for their own good! Rennie is terrific as the unfortunate boyfriend who endures horrific injuries in a car crash leaving him mentally and physically disabled. As if enough hadn’t gone wrong already. There is nice support from Tripplehorn as the almost caricatured double dealer who wears makeup to bed, compounding the moral chasm between her and the unshowy Keener;  and Giacomo Baessato as lawyer Scott  Bullock. The Supreme Court decision of 2005 (supported by one Donald Trump) to permit the enforced possession of people’s homes for the profit of private companies is in the same domain as the swamp occupied by that bastion of civil liberties Mark Zuckerberg – it may not be ethical but it’s sure as hell legal. Preserve us all from such fine minds. The fight continues. Written and directed by Courtney Moorehead Balaker, adapting the 2009 book by Jeff Benedict, this conveys complex information in a very accessible style.  There’s a lovely set of songs by Robin Rapsys. If you even try to take my home away from me the whole world is going to hear about it

 

 

Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)

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He’s gonna give the dog fleas. Unlucky homeless guy Dave (Nick Nolte) decides to call it quits, and so sneaks into a stranger’s backyard in the posh enclave of Beverly Hills and tries to drown himself in the pool. However, Jerry’s plans are stopped by the pool’s owner, white-collar businessman Dave (Richard Dreyfuss), who pulls the tramp out of the water and into the pool house. But Dave’s hospitality and his status-obsessed wife Barbara (Bette Midler), don’t impress Jerry, who ignores them and first makes their crazy dog Matisse (Mike!) take his instructions and then pursues the family’s maid, Carmen (Elizabeth Peña) who is Jerry’s lover. Then Barbara succumbs to him during a massage. As he insinuates himself into the family they each think he’s solely devoted to them. Things finally come to a head at the New Year’s party when Dave is trying to impress potential Chinese buyers and his anorexic daughter Jenny (Tracy Nelson) reveals the reason she’s eating again … I went shopping for gratification. But it was like sex without a climax. Paul Mazursky’s remake of the 1932 Renoir film Boudu Saved From Drowning (itself adapted from a French play) is a sprightly screwball farce with some very funny performances in this story of a one-man home invasion who seduces all before him, starting with the dog, who has his own psychiatrist. Taking potshots at midlife crises, below-stairs relationships, race relations, wellness fads, consciousness raising and silly people who have more money than sense, it might not be the vicious satire you expect from Mazursky but it’s hilarious from start to finish with some really smart verbal transitions from scene to scene. Co-written with Leon Capetanos. I knew that bum was trouble

Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)

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Don’t anyone suppose that because I’m a woman, I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good. I shall be up before you’re awake, I shall be afield before you’re up, and I shall have breakfasted before you’re afield. In short, I shall astonish you all. In the late nineteenth century in England’s West Country beautiful young Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) inherits a picturesque farm from her uncle and decides to run it herself. Three very different suitors – Francis Troy (Terence Stamp), an intense soldier who has impregnated a maid; William Boldwood (Peter Finch), a prosperous middle-aged farmer; and Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), a neighbouring sheep farmer of modest means – all contend for her hand in marriage and her different attitudes to each of them cause conflict and tragedy … At home by the fire, whenever I look up, there you will be. And whenever you look up, there I shall be. Adapted by Frederic Raphael from Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, this is one of the most gloriously beautiful films of its era, starring some of the most attractive British performers, all shot in almost decadently luminous imagery by the great Nicolas Roeg, a few years from making his directing debut. However none of that would matter if it weren’t for the management of the material which clarifies the novel’s question – how is it possible for a woman to maintain her independence and property while claiming a romantic relationship for herself? The painful issues of patriarchy and community combine when Bathsheba turns down Gabriel’s offer of marriage and she inadvertently triggers a chain of horribly dramatic events in this bucolic setting. It’s director John Schlesinger’s third film with Christie and she’s at the peak of her beauty and charisma playing this passionate girl. You can understand why everybody loves her. A woman like you does more damage than she can conceivably imagine