Fences (2016)

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Some people build fences to keep people out and some people build fences to keep people in. Troy (Denzel Washington) is a trash collector married to Rose (Viola Davis) for eighteen years in 1950s Pittsburgh. His life is filled with regrets, particularly when it comes to his chance of playing baseball twenty years ago before the game had mixed leagues. He believes he has cheated The Grim Reaper in the past. His son Cory (Jovan Adepo) is promising at football but he squashes his ambitions. For fear of racial discrimination? Jealousy?  This is the kind of film I dread seeing never mind commenting about for fear of the thought police. It’s a draggy theatre adaptation of a famously acclaimed work which is worthy and conscious and PC and all that kinda annoying stuff. It’s all talk. Troy left an abusive home, killed a man in a robbery, went to prison, found a talent for baseball. Until one hour in, it’s hard to watch, even with Washington and Davis reprising their Broadway roles and some good sidebars with the supporting actors: Stephen Henderson as his friend, Mykelti Williamson as his ‘touched’ younger brother, his illegitimate son Russell Hornsby who arrives to collect money. They are physically placed as though everyone were still behind a proscenium. Then – when Troy confesses to Rose his mistress is about to have his bastard and it’s all about him – she lights up and grips the screen by the throat and it finally gains a life of its own – legitimate cinema, as it were. This is all about family and responsibility and the weight you attach to your experiences even at the cost to your relationships. What Troy does next – and how Rose responds – is the whole show. The original play by August Wilson (whose alterations to the proposed screenplay shortened it over the long period of development prior to his death) takes place in a yard, like a lot of American plays. Part of the reason it took so long to reach the screen was Wilson’s insistence upon a black director. Washington’s direction of the adaptation reinstates the text and once that first difficult act is done, he gets more courage and inserts a song and a montage of how life has gone. And then … So it’s not great cinema but it gives concrete proof of Davis’ brilliant stage performance. Personally I found Washington harder to take not just for his personification but his enunciation. This is a tough watch for all the above reasons. Three strikes …

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Grand Prix (1966)

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The only thing to do here is drive as fast as you know how and hope your car doesn’t brake. Have you ever been to the racetrack at Monza? It’s eerie. It has an aura of death about it. It seems to be hanging in the gloom of all those tall trees. Probably the memory of those spectators killed trackside 1961:  and the final race here in the fictional reconstruction of the 1966 season told from the perspectives of four drivers is at Monza and the death is of a driver, whose broken body is strung up on a tree as his car flies off the north ridge. It’s shocking. This is a brillant film, still the best by far of all the motor racing films, with an opening 20 minute sequence on the street circuit at Monaco that is one of the best in the history of cinema. Of course it helps to be a petrolhead, but the screenplay, by Robert Alan Arthur, is clever and artful, blending action and storytelling and characterisation as efficiently as you’ll ever see in that opening, using the TV commentary to introduce us to Pete Aron (James Garner) who causes a terrible crash sending Brit driver Scott Stoddard into hospital with appalling injuries and destroying both their Jordan-BRM cars. Pete is forced to look for a drive in Japan with Toshiro Mifune doing a take on Soichiro Honda. Twice world champion, Ferrari driver Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is looking for another title but has young team-mate Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) to contend with. If there isn’t enough drama on the track, there’s a complex of love lives off it, with Scott’s wife Pat (Jessica Walter) looking for love and finding it for a spell with Pete while her husband continues to relive his late brother’s career despite being drugged to the hilt; the married Jean-Pierre falling for American journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint); and Nino meeting Lisa (Francoise Hardy – nope, she doesn’t sing!) in a bar with an amusing exchange of perfunctory sentences before they get together and she becomes the perfect racer girlfriend, attending the races, timing the laps. This is a great sports film and one that is redolent with both danger and romance. It’s amazing looking and I only wish I could have been around for the original release in Cinerama which would do justice to the split-screen and the amazing Super Panavision 70 cinematography by Lionel Lindon with Saul Bass. It’s as tightly wound as a suspense thriller with the threat of death on every corner and it’s tough on the business side of this most unforgiving sport and the obsession of its participants. For fans there’s the joy of seeing real-life heroes like Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, oh, a whole host of legends. Adolfo Celi does a take on Enzo Ferrari aka Manetta and real-life BBC reporter Raymond Baxter interviews Nino at Brand’s Hatch. Years later, in 1996, my acting hero (Garner) met my driving hero (Jacques Villeneuve) at Monza to celebrate the film 30 years after its release:

Garner was a fine driver and after shooting this – doing all his own driving and one fire stunt with butane that nearly went fatally wrong – he founded the American International Racers team, running cars in Formula A (just below F1), driving in the Baja 100, all leading to his eventually being inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.

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The Racing Scene is a documentary following the team in 1969 when he finally broke it up because of the money and time commitment. He drove the pace car at the Indy 500 in 1975, 1977 and 1985. What a mensch. He said after making Grand Prix – thanks to his Great Escape castmate Steve McQueen dropping out! – he simply had to be involved in the sport.  This won Academy Awards for editing, sound and sound effects (none for the magnificent Maurice Jarre score) but it is so much more than the sum of its parts. Simply sensational. Directed by John Frankenheimer, whose wife, Evans Evans, has an uncredited role.

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Moneyball (2011)

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Nobody reinvents this game. Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book about the Oakland A’s during their 2002 season was initially adapted by Stan Chervin for Sony who dropped the project after going through a couple of directors. It was brought to the screen with Bennett Miller helming, and draft screenplays by Steven Zaillian then Aaron Sorkin. Brad Pitt is Billy Beane, the team’s general manager who decides to adopt a radical approach:  sabermetrics, as promulgated by super-smart Ivy League grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a composite character based on the real-life assistants. Billy trades and sacks players with impunity, ending and starting careers, buying in flawed sportsmen at low prices, confounding conventional wisdom. Against all the usual odds, the team is winning but Billy is literally Billy No Mates with his policy, killing off the scouting process as he pursues victory. He tries to maintain a good relationship with his daughter, who spends most of the time with his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn), and finds comfort in listening to the pre-teen who composes songs on the guitar he buys her. What a clever, well written drama this is:  the idea is, play the same game but with a different strategy; make a winning team out of a losing team;  make statistics real by visualising them. It uses Billy’s own backstory – with visual, narrative and musical cues – to illustrate his rationale and keep the narrative moving forward. The ongoing narration by TV baseball commentators serves both to distance us from Billy (Pitt plays an essentially unknowable, unpredictable character); and as Greek chorus, to pace the story, justify Billy’s choices (or not) and to let us know how he is succeeding with this innovative player approach. It’s a very shrewd narrative choice. And in the midst of it are Billy and Pete, a rhyming couple, teaching each other lessons. Pitt and Hill are absolutely superb in an absorbing, brilliantly constructed drama.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Nobody fucks with the Jesus. The Dude abides. Where to start with one of the most cherished films there has ever been? Not in the beginning. I may have almost had a coronary from laughing the first time I saw this at a festival screening prior to its release, but a lot of critics just did not get it. It’s the Coen Brothers in excelsis, a broad Chandler adaptation and tribute to Los Angeles,  a hymn to male friendship and the Tao of easy living with some extraordinarily surreal fantasy and dream sequences – not to mention some deadly bowling. Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey ‘Dude’ Lebowski, a guy so laid back he’s horizontal but he gets a little antsy when some thieves mistake him for The Big Lebowski and piss on his rug (it really tied the room together). Best friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is his bowling buddy, an uptight Nam vet with adoptive-Jewish issues in this hilarious offside take on director John Milius. Steve Buscemi is their sweet-natured friend Donny and John Turturro is the unforgettable sports foe, a hispanic gangsta paedo in a hairnet, Jesus Quintana. After the rug issue is handled, Dude is hired by his namesake (David Huddleston) a wheelchair-bound multimillionaire philanthropist, to exchange a ransom when his young trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is kidnapped. Naturally Dude screws it up. There’s a band of nihilists led by Peter Stormare, some porn producers (Bunny makes flesh flicks), Lebowski’s randy artist daughter (Julianne Moore) and a private eye following everyone. And there’s Sam Elliott, narrating this tale of tumbleweed and laziness.  Everyone has their signature song in one of the great movie soundtracks and Dude has not only Creedence but White Russians to really mellow his day. Just like The Big Sleep, the plot really doesn’t matter a fig. This is inspired lunacy and I love it SO much.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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

Last Cab to Darwin (2015)

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Rex (Michael Caton) is dying and his days are spent with his friends down the local boozer and his nights with his dog (Dog). Polly (Ningali Lawford) his Aboriginal neighbour across the street is the woman in his life and they enjoy some banter about his difficult ways. His pain has led him to pursue euthanasia, not legal in New South Wales. He sets off in his taxi to the Northern Territory to the one doctor who is prepared to assist his death. En route he picks up Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), an Aboriginal drifter who’s also a talented footballer;  and British nurse Julie (Emma Hamilton) who’s keen to experience life Down Under.  The three develop a very particular kind of friendship on the 2,000 mile road trip. The mordantly witty tone ensures that this never descends to bathos and when Doc Farmer turns out to be the splendid Jacki Weaver you are assured that Reg Cribb’s adaptation of his 2003 play (based on a true story) gets the treatment that it deserves:  a terrifically game cast performing this considered, humane, very contemporary subject of self-determination with great dignity. It even has a twist ending. Engaging and compelling. Directed by Jeremy Sims.

OJ: Made in America (2016)

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The white Bronco live TV chase on LA’s freeway. The wall-to-wall coverage of the trial. Mark Fuhrman. The glove. Poor Dennis Fung! I watched it all. Who didn’t?! Golly, when The People Vs OJ Simpson:  An American Crime Story was broadcast last year I thought I’d never make it through and yet it was a stunningly told tale which gripped me the same way the sorry saga itself did more than twenty years ago. So it was with a heavy heart I approached this (admittedly Oscar-winning) seven and a half hour long trawl through exactly the same territory again, with added archive. Half the time I was disappointed not to see Cuba Gooding Jr, John Travolta (wasn’t he great?!) and Connie Britton showing up – so much of this tale of celebrity is now confused in my bear-like brain. And it starts with what appears to be an excuse for bad behaviour by a lot of people – the sudden migration of blacks into Los Angeles, a 600% increase in their numbers which drove the LAPD crazy and some of them became violent. The riots in the 60s. The ethnic issues not just between black and white but black and Asian. Into this maelstrom of social division arrives the college football player from San Francisco whom everyone loves – an amazing running back who became a key figure in the advertising trade and whose race mattered to nobody:  he looked incredible and parlayed his fame into TV commentating and acting (I first heard of him when I saw Capricorn One). Talking heads who were part of the OJ story relate their own roles – friends from his days in USC, policemen who arrested him, footage of Daryl Gates, the friend accompanying him to visit his gay drag queen dad who would die of AIDS,  the meeting with Nicole Brown, a beautiful blonde 18 year old waitress at The Daisy whom OJ immediately said he would marry:  except he was already married to a black woman who had had his children. And he – or someone – ended up severing her head from her body outside her house where an unfortunate waiter called Ron Goldman was returning her mother’s spectacles from a restaurant. As one sad friend says, their relationship was a reversal of slavery – he owned her. And her family, who she said would side with him if she left because he was funding their lifestyles through his generosity – her father had a Hertz dealership and her sisters similarly benefited. The regular reports of domestic violence and the photographs of her injuries then remind us of what this is really about. The friend of many years who abandons him during the crisis after OJ says he got his finger injury three different ways. How OJ became a crucible for the issues of race, celebrity, sport, policing, justice, the law and violence is told in a grindingly tough and inexorable fashion which turns out to have a sorry logic and inevitability. As for the procession  of police cars that accompanied him on his supposed suicide mission:  “If OJ had been black that shit wouldn’t have happened,” grins a transsexual helicopter cameraman who followed it all from on high:  “OJ transcended race to celebrity.” And we duly see other heli-footage of a black man being beaten after a car chase. While all this was going on the police who were at his home watched in astonishment while his family ate from a sandwich buffet as though nothing odd were afoot. And when a policeman brought OJ in cuffs in a car through the crowds screaming Free OJ, the Xanaxed one said to him, “What are all these niggers doing in Brentwood?” The bizarre nature of the entire story seems encapsulated when Lyle Menendez walks past, imprisoned in the same correctional facility. The lining up of the downtown jury who were black and hated Marcia Clark and white people. The behaviour of Johnnie Cochran who made it a black-white thang not a double homicide charge in the wake of Rodney King and the ensuing riots, and the result, the gobsmacking shock and the resonance that lasts until today. This is a tough watch and it is worth it in the end but it’s a sad indictment amidst a litany of purported sociological causes and indicative of all those claims now finally being understood that the races simply cannot live together – read Robert Putnam’s long-suppressed report (by the Democrats) about race in the US or David Goodhart on the failure to redistribute wealth fairly in multi-racial societies. This is a very awkward film with several conflicts at its centre. At the end of the day a woman was murdered and her wealthy, famous sports star husband was not convicted of the crime. Terrible, compelling and all too unfortunately true. A film by Ezra Edelman.

Drive, He Said (1971)

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Jack Nicholson had been busy in one of the leading roles for Bob Rafaelson in Five Easy Pieces so it was 1970 before he could begin shooting on his directing debut. He had already written a number of screenplays but he was over-committed at the time he wanted to make this. He was starring in Carnal Knowledge for director Mike Nichols so he began Drive… without a complete script.  Jeremy Larner adapted his own book but Nicholson wasn’t happy with it and had begun writing a second draft himself.  He brought in Robert Towne to complete his vision on set, with the added bonus of an acting role for his screenwriter friend – that of a cuckolded, broad-minded professor. Reclusive screenwriter and director Terrence Malick also did a rewrite – prior to making Badlands (1973). The film was completed on time for Nicholson to report to the East Coast for Mike Nichols.  He edited Drive… on weekends and downtime from shooting Carnal KnowledgeDrive… is an exposé of Sixties left-liberal attitudes, set on a campus infected with radicals  and replete with ready-made mythological references which must have appealed to Robert Towne:  a leading character called Hector  (who of course  as the eldest son of the king, led the Trojans in their war against the Greeks,  fought in single combat with Achilles and stormed the wall of the camp and set it alight). And, as if we don’t ‘get it,’ Hector’s major is Greek. The radical elements were complete with the casting in the lead role of William Tepper – a dead ringer for producer Bert Schneider, whose famously radical approach to production would lead Hollywood out of the old-style studio system but would embalm him in the mid-Seventies forever. There is a romantic element that interferes with male friendship: Gabriel is the guerrilla, played by Michael Margotta. Hector is besotted with Karen Black, married to Towne’s professor in the film. Her name, Olive, signifies her role as peace-maker in the narrative.  Gabriel runs away to escape the draft.  Hector is the warrior in love – he is in touch with nature (his surname, is, after all, Bloom.) He communes with the trees in the forest, stays in a log cabin and is generally at one with everything that is not ‘the Man.’ The film was entered in Cannes and Nicholson’s efforts were the subject of scorn.  It opened in New York on 13 June 1971 where it got mixed reviews.  BBS apparently offered more money to promote it but were deflected by Nicholson himself, who was depressed at the critical reception. But its lyricism, message and sub-Godardian construction have held up considerably better than Nicholson himself believed and its countercultural theme still produces a striking effect.The film is structured around Hector’s basketball games – the opening titles are underlined in a stunning sequence by the use of cult musician Moondog’s music – later paid homage by the Coen Brothers in The Big Leboswki (1998). The filming style in slow motion corresponds with much of Visions of Eight (1973), which would itself be an influence on Towne’s own film style in his directing debut, Personal Best. For more on Nicholson’s work with Towne, you can read my book ChinaTowne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490221804&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon

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Manchester By The Sea (2016)

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I can’t beat it. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a janitor in Boston, permanently hunched and haunted and beset by half-dressed female tenants who want to have sex with him and complain to his boss when he evinces no interest whatsoever and just fixes their toilets. He barely speaks. When he gets a call that older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died suddenly he is forced back to his titular hometown where people refer to him as ‘the Lee Chandler’ and he finds out from his brother’s lawyer he’s been named guardian to his irritating, underage, sexually voracious nephew Patrick (goofy ginger Lucas Hedges). It takes us a long time and a lot of repetitive scenes to get to the reason for his devastation:  the death of his young family for which he feels incalculable guilt. Patrick has no reaction to his father’s demise and just gets on with getting it on with whatever nasty teenage girls have sex with him, plays hockey and generally acts like dumb teenagers do when confronted with intimations of mortality (I was recently at a funeral when the teenage son of the woman whose death was being commemorated left midway to smoke cigarettes with several girls. This shit happens.) So much  of this is low-key and true that when these guys eventually drop their protective masks it is both surprising and shocking and explosive in terms of the situations  in which they finally let loose as much as anything else. Michelle Williams has one wonderful scene as Lee’s ex-wife (pictured in the poster) and it is of such delicacy that it elicits pure emotions not just from Affleck but the audience, otherwise her role is mainly confined to flashbacks of their marriage and its unfortunate and tragicomic ending (that ambulance scene is literally killer). So paradoxically despite its overlength the unsentimental narrative focus is somewhat diverted to the wrong situations and some scenes are consigned to montage underscored by rather obvious and ill-chosen music when we would prefer to hear the dialogue.  The flashback structure works brilliantly however. The rarely seen Gretchen Mol (the Next Big Thing, according to Vanity Fair circa 1998  when she co-starred with this film’s producer and intended star Matt Damon in Rounders) shows up as Patrick’s alkie mom, long estranged from the family. Affleck is simply masterful as this man who desires punishment but nobody wants him to suffer any more, except for a few women who believe he killed his kids. However it’s a long time getting to the point about how people deal differently with bereavement and even if we agree, such is real life, a playwright, screenwriter (and director) as smart as Kenneth Lonergan should and could have got there quicker.

The Awful Truth (1937)

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Leo McCarey was probably the best looking, classiest, coolest director in Hollywood in his time. When smoother-than-thou Cary Grant suffered a crisis of confidence shooting this comedy of remarriage and couldn’t switch roles with Ralph Bellamy he ended up imitating McCarey and inadvertently became the hero of the screwball genre and probably the greatest comic actor of all time – and that’s saying something. And this was the role that shaped his approach to most of his other performances. He and Irene Dunne are both playing around and agree to a divorce – but argue for custody of the fabulous Mr Smith the wire fox terrier played by Skippy aka Asta from The Thin Man series – and who wouldn’t? Bellamy is the hayseed oilman she takes up with, Molly Lamont is the wealthy playgirl Cary fools around with, but they can’t avoid their attraction to each other. This ends with a notorious tease and a black cat. Truly, Leo McCarey had the Lubitsch Touch – better even than Lubitsch himself. Art Deco screwball at its most sophisticated and witty. Adapted from Arthur Richman’s play by Vina Delmar with help from Sidney Buchman and McCarey himself. Sublime.