All About Nina (2018)

All About Nina

Let me take care of you. Thirtysomething Nina Geld’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) passion and talent have made her a rising star in the NYC comedy scene, but she’s an emotional mess offstage. Her married policeman lover Joe (Chace Crawford) resorts to violence when she goes back to her apartment with a one-night stand where she finds that he’s let himself in. She takes a cab to Joe’s house  to show his wife what’s going on and gets told to leave the city. When a new professional opportunity arises in Los Angeles, she moves west and house-shares with spiritual author Lake (Kate del Castillo) who tries to get her out of her comfort zone when she sees her pain.  Nina is forced to confront her own deeply troubled past just as an unexpected romance with Rafe (Common) begins to thrive… Let’s take things one step at a time. The debut film of writer/director Eva Vives, this demands and gets a barnstorming performance from Winstead who has to go on an emotional rollercoaster – from horrific stories about her father to the unexpected delight of having a potentially successful relationship rather than a familiar series of sexual hit and runs, which just triggers more self-destructive behaviour. From its truisms about showbusiness and a possible opportunity to appear on an SNL clone whose top dog Larry Michaels (Beau Bridges) pits all contemporary female standups against each other in an audition;  dealing with the fallout of trust issues from child abuse; to what it takes to go viral and whether that makes you popular or untouchable; this treads with a sureness all the way until the very end when it ultimately fails to deliver an answer but has Nina back onstage, where she really lives. As unpredictable as watching a standup having a meltdown – which is what this is all about, and quite as thrilling. Winstead is brilliant in a frank, raw and revelatory performance.

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (2019)

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Hey that’s no way to say goodbye. Documentary maker Nick Broomfield charts the story of the enduring love affair between writer and singer Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne Ihlen, a young married woman and mother, who spent time together on the Greek island of Hydra in the Sixties, the era before mass tourism.  They made each other believe they were beautiful and she lived with him and took on the role she had previously performed for her writer husband.  It transpires Broomfield knew them both and also fell in love with Marianne who later pushed him to make his first film back in Wales. Cohen’s career is etched against the backdrop of the relationship and it is echoed in the songs he wrote in Marianne’s honour and memory including Bird on a Wire. I was possessed, obsessive about [sex], the blue movie that I threw myself into [and] blue movies are not romantic. However it’s mostly about Leonard, and even Nick. I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web/ Is fastening my ankle to a stone.  In some ways this is a bad trip in more ways than one as the film makes clear, with alterations in lyrics making over the original conditions in which they were written. Leonard earned the nickname Captain Mandrax thanks to his gargantuan appetite for drugs.  Hydra became a playground for the wealthy, awash with illicit substances and countercultural encounters structure the narrative as much as Leonard’s songs. Various interviewees agree that poets do not make great husbands.  I was always trying to get away. So what did Marianne do that made her such a significant muse, and not just to Leonard? She had a talent for spotting talents and strengths in people.  After eight years together during which Leonard went from being a penniless poet to a nervous stage performer when Judy Collins discovered him and he became a star overnight, Marianne had had enough. He had an obsessive love of sex which he dutifully indulged while she stayed on the island. When she was summoned she joined him but things did not work and her little son suffered. She endured Leonard’s constant infidelities on the road and she was replaced by Suzanne (Elrod) whose relationship with Leonard overlapped with her own, and one day spider woman Suzanne turned up on the doorstep in Hydra with their toddler son Adam, ready to move in.  So Marianne moved on. Leonard had found himself to be a born performer and she no longer had a role, this sensitive woman who didn’t draw or paint or write yet whose value as muse was frequently cited by Leonard in public, on stage, in interviews. Thereafter there were telegrams to her and invites to concerts when she returned to Norway and remarried and settled into a suburban lifestyle and their relationship fizzled into a kind of long-distance friendship which ended poignantly. Broomfield reveals that on one visit to him in Cardiff Marianne had to go away one day to abort Leonard’s baby – one of several she had by him. One friend comments that if anyone were to have had his children it should have been her. Instead it was the universally disliked Elrod. Marianne and Leonard’s relationship wasn’t the only casualty, as Broomfield finds in this picture of the early hippie lifestyle with its bohemian leanings and open marriages. There are accounts of mental illness and suicides including the sad account of the Johnstons, the friends who made his arrival in Greece so happy and easeful. Re-entering the real world following the isolation of this island adrift from the world was anything but happy. This is a complex story with many participants and audio interviews old and new are interspersed with superb archive footage (some by DA Pennebaker), numerous photographs and revealing chats with friends, bystanders and musicians who survive to tell the tale of this mysterious love.  It is about Broomfield’s own loyal friendship with Marianne. Finally, it is about people finding themselves through each other and a story almost mythical in musical history which has so nourished the world’s imagination. So long, Marianne

Lost in London (2017)

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Hollywood is almost like Royalty Without Borders. Woody Harrelson comes offstage from a dour drama in London to see he’s made headlines on a tabloid following an orgy with three women. He tries to persuade his wife Laura (Eleanor Matsuura) to leave a restaurant where she’s been dining with their small daughters before she sees the news but she returns to their hotel without him and he goes off drinking with an Arab prince, landing at a nightclub where he’s initially refused entry. Inside he meets his buddy Owen Wilson who berates him for his stupidity at not paying 30K to keep the story out of the papers and then they argue about their respective careers and get into a fistfight. The police are called and Woody gets assistance from a singer (Zrinka Cvitesic) who gives his last £50 to a wheelchair-bound beggar who Woody knocks over to retrieve the money before running off in a taxi where he breaks an ashtray. He flees the scene, only to be arrested in a playground and Irish cop Paddy (Martin McCann) seems bribable with a call to Bono of U2. Except when he talks to him he tells him he hasn’t made a good album since October … In the real world Wes Anderson is a Woody Allen wannabe. He hasn’t made a good film since Bottle Rocket. And come to that, neither have you. Presumably inspired by Birdman, this behind the scenes look at an actor’s wild night out in London was based on something that happened to debut writer/director movie star Harrelson 15 years previously  – and it’s shot in one take – and was livestreamed to a presumably gobsmacked audience in London’s Picturehouse Cinema at Piccadilly Circus and 500 cinemas around the US as it was being made! So far, so unprecedented, and it’s a little ropy to begin with, understandably, mostly due to the movement and some tricky performances from a cast of 30 actors: in reality just before they hit the streets they got the news (which we get from the top ‘n’ tail filmed segments added in post) that one of their locations, Waterloo Bridge, was closed off due to the discovery of an unexploded bomb. You have to admire the chutzpah of a crew who did it anyway! More than that, it’s witty, self-lacerating, and abounds with good energy, philosophical insights and jokes into fandom and celebrity (it might even be a mockumentary such is the extent of the mistaken identity and snide remarks about the last time Harrelson was in a good movie or even sexy). It even has a dream sequence with Willie Nelson playing to Harrelson. Except for the last part which fast forwards to morning (in name only as it’s night for day!) and the imminent trip to Neasden Studios to go to the Harry Potter set to prove Woody’s not a completely deadbeat dad, this is what it is: a live movie shot in a single (admittedly rather murky) take (by Jon Hembrough and Nigel Willoughby). And that’s pretty remarkable. What you are about to do is beyond crazy. Don’t do it!

An Actor Prepares (2018)

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Maybe it would be a good idea to do some bonding. When he suffers a heart attack, hard-living movie actor Atticus Smith (Jeremy Irons) is forced to travel across the United States to his favourite child Annabel’s (Mamie Gummer) wedding with his estranged son Adam (Jack Huston) as he’s not fit to fly before cardiac surgery. Adam is a failing film lecturer and documentary maker whose painfully sincere work is sporadic and his health is problematic hence his frequent visits to a urologist. Girlfriend Clemmie (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is in London finishing up a project and bugging him on the phone. Atticus’ studio get a Hell’s Angel to take the pair across the country in an RV to ensure he’ll be in shape for their next movie but Atticus soon dispatches the guy. The father and son go to their holiday cabin, load up his vintage car and take off, meeting friends new and old along the way, including a former lover (Colby Minifie) of Atticus who’s now married to a preacher (Frankie Faison) … I’m a documentarian. I make documentaries about women in film. This starts out in rather clichéd fashion with a trajectory somehow familiar from Absolutely Fabulous but with balls (literally and metaphorically, since one cataclysm has to do with potential testicular cancer, another with baseball). No observation is too trite, nothing too on the nose for this narrative but some lines are pretty funny and hit home:  Live in the world not in your bloody head all the time. The father-son rivalry extends from penis envy (Atticus is a little too proud of his pecker) back to 15 years earlier to the divorce when Adam gave evidence against his father in court. Huston doesn’t have too many colours in his acting palette so for the most part Irons eats up every scene, with relish. When he watches contemporary porn on Adam’s iPad he comments, Too clean. This is like basketball.  It’s quite funny to see him working on his next part (God) while his son just keeps driving. Adam finally gets a turning point after some extraordinarily irritating phonecalls with his girlfriend Clemmie (pronounced Clammie, maybe pointedly) and even quotes one of his father’s roles but never shaves what Atticus calls his Osama bin Laden nutball beard, sadly. Occasionally however his character is permitted to surprise Atticus, who is named perhaps for Finch, to remind us that deep down he’s probably an okay guy despite his penchant for whisky and women and his tales of living it large with Richard Harris. Like all road movies, this is an emotional journey (yawn) but it gets better as it goes along and – ta da! – gets there in the end. There are nice small roles for Matthew Modine and Will Patton but this is all about Irons. Written by director Steve Clark and Thomas Moffett. The studio gives me stuntman work. Do you have any fucking idea how much that pays in residuals?

First Reformed (2018)

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When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy. Forty-six year old Reverend Ernest Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor of a small Dutch Reformed church in rural New York stage.  His faith is threatened by the death of his son and he turns to Catholic teachings as well as alcohol. One of his congregation Mary (Amanda Seyfried) appeals for help for her husband, a climate change activist who has become suicidal and who wants her to abort her pregnancy. The historical church struggles in competition with Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) at a nearby megachurch to whom Ernest appeals for help … Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world. Those of us familiar with the oeuvre of writer/director Paul Schrader will know that he had a career as a critic and academic and one of his tomes deals with transcendental style and French auteur Robert Bresson is one of his subjects. And anyone who’s ever seen Diary of a Country Priest (or not) will immediately recognise the thematic reference to a man questioning his capacity and relevance for the spiritual life as he experiences decline, his own physical deterioration a measure for what is occurring in his environment. The modern twist is the monetising of the religious experience (or maybe it’s not that new after all). Schrader’s own life speaks to the background in Dutch Reform Protestantism which is confronted here with modernity while the filmmaking style reflects the austerity of the religion as well as the Bressonian template (with Bergmanesque flourishes). Hawke is brilliant in this intense exploration of man’s purpose with Schrader confidently going for it in all his tormented late life vainglory. Travis Bickle goes mediaeval? Yes, that’s it. Quite splendid.  Even a pastor needs a pastor

Mary Magdalene (2018)

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Are they willing to give up everything to follow God? A young girl (Rooney Mara) from the village of Magdala in Judaea resists the traditional roles of women in society, and takes the opportunity to rebel by following the newly famous Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) and his disciples which causes division among the men. Meanwhile, Jesus is arousing the ire of the Roman Empire in the form of Herod … It’s easy to be cynical about a film which takes a realistic approach to a two thousand-year old story about an unkempt guy with issues running around all over the shop saving people who didn’t ask for it and performing unbelievable miracles. But at a time of year when the message of peace and goodwill is what it’s all about and when Christians and Jews are being driven from their homelands by the steady vise-like grip of Islamic terror which is simultaneously spreading through white countries beset by irresponsible secularisation and uncontrolled immigration, this is a characterful and necessary representation of the old story. Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett’s feminist interpretation of a much-maligned woman might be too paradoxically reverent for some, but it’s a compelling study and director Garth Davis paces it so that the crescendo of intimidation until the Resurrection feels natural. Jesus is troubled, Mary is serene. She’s kind of a miracle all on her own, as the opening scene demonstrates, in a tale of a woman trying to break free from those men who would exorcise her demonic wish to be an individual and an apostle.  Johann Johannsson’s final score (with Hildur Guonadottir) is marvellous. You have not weakened us but you weakened Him

Solaris (2002)

Solaris 2002

It seems to be reacting:  almost like it knows it’s being observed.  Clinical psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is hired by the DBA corporation to investigate the unexplained behavior of key scientists (including Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies) on space station Prometheus orbiting the planet Solaris. They are traumatised by a phenomenon which appears to have caused the suicide of his friend Dr Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur). Once aboard he too falls victim to this unique world’s mysteries as well as to an erotic obsession with someone he thought he had left behind, his late wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) who appears beyond his dreams. Are the remaining crew crazy? Is he?... Who is it? What is it? Does it feel?  Can it touch? Does it speak? Stanislaw Lem’s classic novel was adapted for Soviet TV in 1968; and then in 1972 to acclaim by the great Andrei Tarkovsky. Therefore it would appear at first glance to be rather unnecessary for an American auteur filmmaker (Steven Soderbergh shot and edited this too) to take on an unoriginal project and remake an acknowledged classic of world cinema. The additions to Lem’s and Tarkovsky’s narratives take the form of flashbacks, creating a tapestry of memories – real and otherwise. It establishes the parameters of Chris’ beliefs, upholstering his character and clarifying the nature of his obsession, building towards a solution for his guilt and a hope of redemption via virtual reality. It’s beautifully designed and looks splendid but somehow it’s hard to care beyond the immediate attractions. Cleverly constructed to form a logical continuum between time, space and memory, it lacks the mystery of really great sci fi in which the universal and the personal become interwoven to the point of being indistinguishable so it’s ironic that despite this being the narrative’s overt theme, it never really lifts off, even if it’s half the length of Tarkovsky’s inimitable and admittedly ponderous version. Produced by James Cameron.

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.

Cries and Whispers (1972)

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It is early Monday morning and I am in pain.  At the turn of the twentieth century, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) slowly and painfully dies of cancer in the family’s country home. Her sisters are so immersed in their own problems that they can’t offer her the support she needs as she goes through a nightmare of torture. Shallow Maria (Liv Ullmann) is wracked with guilt at her husband’s suicide following his discovery of her  affair. Self-loathing, suicidal Karin (Ingrid Thulin) seems to regard her sister with revulsion. Only Anna (Kari Sylwan), the deeply religious maid who lost her young child, seems able to offer the solitary dying Agnes solace and empathy as her condition deteriorates and her sisters are helpless in their eternal feuding … Ingmar Bergman went as far as he could in Persona to explore identity:  here he holds up a mirror to the pain we cause each other even as death stares us in the face. It is so stark a confrontation and so formal a construct that it shocks. He described it simply as a chamber play in red about a dying woman and her sisters. The colour scheme devised with cinematographer Sven Nykvist seems to ooze life and threaten death and the filtered photography has a quality that niggles the brain. This is pessimistic and filled with dread, certainly, but it is also haunting and unforgettable, a master at work in a film that excited global audiences and earned multiple Academy Award nominations.

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Winter Light (1963)

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Aka The CommunicantsThe passion of Christ, his suffering… Wouldn’t you say the focus on his suffering is all wrong? Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) a pastor in a Swedish village handles his own existential crisis as he fails a fisherman Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) who is suicidal about the possibility of nuclear annihilation; and his former mistress, local schoolteacher Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin) whom he doesn’t think is as good as his late wife … Some years ago at a dinner party I was asked what I thought of Bergman. Being a smartass, I responded, Ingmar – or Andrew? That was my way of sidestepping a tough question about an auteur who can simultaneously leave me cold and move me unbearably. This is one of a loosely connected spiritual trilogy (known as Silence of God) which Bergman himself said tackled certainty. Here, it’s the pastor’s inability to understand the message of The Passion and the need for physical trials and to question the existence of God. It’s a thoughtful narrative with an unlikable protagonist and reflects on Bergman’s own relationship with his father, a Church of Sweden minister, and the position of the Church itself regarding the liturgy and its uses when a priest is unable to vocalise its virtues in a way that is meaningful to people desperate for reassurance. A serious film about major issues which are tackled and somewhat resolved in an astonishing 81 minutes by Bergman’s regular ensemble, with cinematography by the peerless Sven Nykvist whose camera traces the movement of sunlight through the church’s problematic spaces. Masterful.