A Cry in the Dark (1988)

A Cry in the Dark

Aka Evil Angels. You could crack walnuts on her face. Fred Schepisi’s docudrama-style retelling of John Bryson’s book is real watercooler stuff:  the appalling tale of a 9-week old baby, Azaria Chamberlain, taken from her family’s tent at a campsite beneath Ayers Rock and presumably murdered, and the prosecution and wrongful conviction of her mother Lindy (Meryl Streep). A dingo’s got my baby! was the war cry attributed to the unsympathetic woman whose every character flaw was exposed by a prurient Australian press who condemned her because of her appearance (that terrible haircut!), speaking voice and curt mannerisms. As played by Streep, she is obviously a more complex, interesting and compassionate woman in private.  Her inner strength is immensely bothersome to a public who are shown reacting variously to news reportage on TV – in their own homes, in bars, on the streets – which serves to demonstrate the horrendous arena that is the court of public opinion as well as distancing us somewhat perhaps from a more penetrating account of the couple at the centre of the tragedy. Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) is the pastor at the Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa, Queensland and it is the minority nature of their Christian sect that also works against them when the name Azaria is wrongly reported to mean ‘sacrifice in the wilderness’. His unconvincing and wavering witness testimony does for his wife, as does the sheer incompetence of the expert witnesses, many of whose claims were later discounted. The impact of her interviews and the way in which they are misreported by a baying press is very well handled and her eventual imprisonment on circumstantial as opposed to forensic evidence is still strikingly mediaeval in its stupidity (preserve us all from juries). Streep is terribly good and the portrayal of a loving marriage in all its fraying details is nicely observed:  posited against the procedural detail and the slipshod collection of evidence we are conscious of something akin to a conspiracy. This was released just about the time that the Chamberlains were finally exonerated (but it took until 2012 for the charges to be finally dropped). This isn’t creative so much as it is journalistic and in that spirit it makes up for the actions of some of those sewer rats who waited thirty years to apologise to Lindy Chamberlain for their vile lies. Her ex-husband (they divorced in 1991) died earlier this year. Adapted by Robert Caswell and director Schepisi from John Bryson’s Evil Angels.

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Altman (2014)

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Altmanesque? Life, liberty and the pursuit of truth. That’s Elliott Gould’s perception of the man with whom he collaborated on some of the key movies of the Seventies. This documentary about Robert Altman is not quite as freestyled, improvised and ensemble-driven as his most acclaimed directorial works but it comes close, using a lot of home movies to illustrate the domestic life that lay behind the man and his films. Ron Mann directs a script by Len Blum which traces his evolution from making industrial films following an early script sale to Hollywood, and a lengthy career in TV episodics which resulted in an abrupt leavetaking following a row over the portrayal of race and the equivalent of then-undiagnosed PTSD, through the astonishing innovative features. There are interviews with family members, including his third wife and some of his children (who wound up working with him, partly as a means of seeing him) as well as actors who perhaps achieved more in those films than in any other in terms of the way their skill sets were utilised. There are interview clips both new and old, film excerpts including on-location footage (expletives undeleted) and the up and down career arcs covering the fall from grace through most of the Eighties when he then reinvented how TV could do drama with Tanner ’88. Then the comeback, cocking a snook at Hollywood with The Player. When he got his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars he made a surprise admission which elicited the appropriate reaction from the star-studded crowd – another glorious directing coup. A fine piece of work (despite some odd editing decisions) doing justice to a peripatetic talent.

Did You Hear About The Morgans? (2009)

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Those two are worse then Pete the Butcher. Recently separated NYC couple realtor Meryl (Sarah Jessica Parker) and lawyer Paul (Hugh Grant) have a civilised dinner and on the way home witness a murder. They have to leave their busy lives and go in the Witness Protection Programme, winding up in rural Ray, Wyoming with wily sheriff Clay (Sam Elliott) and his gun-toting wife Emma (Mary Steenburgen). Not only do they have to sleep under the one roof with just Clint Eastwood and John Wayne dvds, they get to experience life without traffic noise, cashmere and learn about each other, all over again, in between getting to shoot and ride. Because there isn’t a lot else to do.  She’s going nuts. And Paul finds out that he wasn’t the only one to be unfaithful after they had fertility issues. But they look up at the sky and see the stars – a view you can only get in the Planetarium! And then they win at the local Bingo game. What’s not to like?! Back in NYC their assistants (Elisabeth Moss and Michael Kelly) argue about whether they should call them and the hitman who saw them do his day job has the line bugged … Comic auteur Marc Lawrence reunites with his favourite leading man and mines the heck out of this fish out of water scenario with Grant giving an enjoyably droll performance even when he’s getting bear-sprayed in the eye. Very amusing indeed with some hilarious lines.

Lost in Translation (2003)

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I would love to get some sleep. What an arresting film this is. It starts with a closeup of a woman’s behind, clad in pink panties. She’s lying in her room at the Tokyo Hyatt while her photographer husband is off doing his thing. They’re a very young married couple. She is bored. She is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), he is John (Giovanni Ribisi). When she calls home for support her mother misunderstands so she pretends she’s having a good time. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a huge film star, in the city to shoot some ads for Suntory whisky. He notices Charlotte in the elevator but later it turns out she doesn’t remember seeing him. He endures ridiculous directions on the set of his commercial and doesn’t believe the translator is telling him everything the director wants (she’s not). He encounters Charlotte at the hotel bar where a band called Sausalito performs cover versions. They sympathise with each other and then wind up spending time together. She can’t bear her husband’s acquaintances, especially the nutty movie star Kelly (Anna Faris) who masquerades under the pseudonym Evelyn Waugh: he thinks his wife is a condescending snob when she points out Evelyn Waugh was a man. Charlotte and Bob hang out, explore this alien city, so brilliantly shot by Lance Acord, who used no additional lighting in that neon landscape and a lot of the stuff in railway stations was shot minus permits so it’s loose and documentary-like.  Murray is so specific and yet relaxed and it’s one of the great film performances, awarded with a BAFTA. Johansson is no less good with her very different style, duly noted by BAFTA voters too. Coppola had spent time in Japan and the character of Bob is supposedly based on family friend Harrison Ford with Charlotte a riff (perhaps) on herself. There are some great sequences with the limpid photography sensing something – let’s call it empathy – between the two in various iconic locations:  the karaoke bar; the strip club; escaping Kelly’s terrible singing in the hotel; the hospital; lying on a bed together with Bob holding Charlotte’s injured foot (how very fitting in a country famous for the foot fetish) and finally falling asleep. His inevitable sexual encounter with the lounge singer doesn’t surprise us because when he tells his wife on the phone I feel lost she doesn’t understand. It’s a twenty-five year old marriage and Charlotte is so young and yet they both come to an understanding about their private situations with this mutual experience of incomprehension and loneliness. When he tries to explain to Charlotte how he feels about his life he says having a family is hard. She gets it but deflects it by asking him has he bought a Porsche. So much of life is lost in translation even in funny scenes such as when Bob is at the TV station with the Japanese equivalent of a lunatic Johnny Carson.  People are lost inside of marriage. An undertow of sorrow tugs at everything and threatens to unravel the subtle construction which concludes in the final shots with the famously unscripted whispered exchange, inaudible to anyone except the performers. I first saw this 24 hours after landing in LA in 2003 and was utterly jet-lagged – so a propos for a film equal parts startling and narcotic:  seeing a stripper perform to Peaches certainly wakes a person up from airline slumber. The songs are especially well chosen in an atmospheric soundtrack with a score by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. Sofia Coppola won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay and was nominated for Best Director too. This was her second film and it’s pretty awesome with a lot of the tropes now so familiar from her body of work – hotels, alienation, the unknowability of women. You can read my review of a book about her films here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood. Right after I saw this I was scared witless by the re-released Alien at the Cinerama Dome and then nearly got arrested for jaywalking on Hollywood Boulevard. But that’s another story.

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

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I’m gonna tell everyone in prison that I travelled back in time to kill my own father! Three friends are stuck in a rut in full-blown mid-life crisis: underachiever (and kicked out by his girlfriend) Adam (John Cusack), henpecked husband Nick (Craig Robinson) and party animal Lou (Rob Cordrry). Accompanied by Adam’s nephew shut-in Jacob (Clark Duke) they travel to Winterfest and after getting into the tub on the balcony and consuming Chernobly – the Russian answer to Red Bull! – they turn out on the slopes and it’s … 1986. MTV is playing music videos (of all things), Michael Jackson is still black and Poison are playing tonight.  But when they look at their youthful images in the mirror Jacob is flickering – he hasn’t been conceived yet. And weird repairman Chevy Chase hasn’t got the right equipment to whip them back to 2010. And it’s the night Adam split up with his girlfriend and she stuck a fork in his eye, Jacob’s mom got together with Lou and it’s imperative everything stay the same so that they get back to the present intact … It’s not The Terminator or Back to the Future but the parameters of the latter are called upon big time in the person of one-armed bellboy Crispin Glover and a seriously Freudian scene with the future zillionaire Lou. Director Steve Pink reminds us of another collaboration with star/producer John Cusack riffing on the fork joke from Grosse Pointe Blank. It’s a surprisingly warm film about male friendship and kind-hearted about relationships and what ifs:  in Adam’s case it’s a chance meeting with music journalist April (Lizzy Caplan) who makes him realise he can change things. And Nick bawls out his nine year old future wife on the phone! Back to the future indeed! Written by Josh Heald, Sean Anders and John Morris.

The Fisher King (1991)

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Obnoxious NYC shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is doling out advice as per and looking forward to a part in a TV sitcom when the news mentions his name – a man was inspired by his rant against yuppies to go on a shooting spree in a restaurant and then killed himself. Jack spirals into a suicidal depression and we find him three years later working in the video store owned by his girlfriend (a fiery Mercedes Ruehl) and about to kill himself when some youthful vigilantes decide to do some street cleaning – he’s rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), a Grail obsessive and homeless loner whose wife was killed in the restaurant massacre. How their lives intertwine and they both chase the objects of their affection (and each other’s obsession) while battling mental illness is the backbone of this comedy-drama-fantasy that is told in the usual robust and arresting style of Terry Gilliam, who was directing a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese. There are iconic images here – the Red Knight appearing to Parry as his hallucinations kick in, and the chase through Central Park;  the extraordinary Grand Central Station waltzing scene in which Parry meets the weird Lydia (Amanda Plummer);  Jack and Parry watching the stars. Gilliam’s own obsessions are all over this despite his not writing it, with references to the Grail (obv) and Don Quixote.  It’s all wrapped into four distinctive performances which embody oddball characters in search of a role for life in a very conventional time, with emotions riding high while personal circumstances contrive to drag them to the very pit of their being. There are some outstanding performances in small roles by Tom Waits, Michael Jeter and Kathy Najimy in a film that proves that dreams do come true.

Amazing Stories The Movie II (1987)

Amazing Stories The Movie.jpgThis anthology consists of four episodes of the 1985-87 television series which was licensed by Steven Spielberg from the original science fiction comic (with co-producers Joshua Brand and John Falsey).   In ‘Santa Claus ’85’ the man himself (Douglas Seale) gets arrested when a burglar alarm goes off as he’s delivering presents. Luckily a little boy (Gabriel Damon) comes to his aid. (Directed by Phil Joanou, story by Spielberg). In ‘The Wedding Ring’ museum thief (Danny DeVito) gives a purloined ring to his downcast waitress wife (Rhea Perlman), unaware that the previous owner’s ghost inhabits it. And that woman was a black widow. His wife becomes a sex-crazed killer wannabe and he has to get rid of the jewellery or face certain death. (Directed by Danny DeVito, story by Spielberg). Seventy-five years after he accidentally caused a train to crash, an old man (Roberts Blossom) waits for his penance in order to make amends – which turns out to be a ‘Ghost Train’ bursting through his son’s house while his grandson (Lukas Haas) is the only one who can hear the Highball Express coming (and Drew Barrymore’s on it if you look sharp!) (Directed by Steven Spielberg, story by Spielberg). In ‘The Doll,’ a lonely bachelor (John Lithgow) buys a mysterious doll for his niece (Rain Phoenix) from the lovable old dollmaker Mr Liebermacher (Albert Hague) but she hates it and he is drawn to this porcelain creature whom he christens Mary and believes she must be inspired by a real-life woman. (Directed by Phil Joanou, story by the great Richard Matheson). Beautifully made, not one of these stories outstays its welcome and it’s well-balanced between scary and funny and just a little bit magical as people meet their destinies. The star power and the performances by the kids are what stay with you, along with scores by Craig Safan, Thomas Newman, Georges Delerue and John Williams:  now that’s amazing. The original of the species. Good fun.

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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Detroit (2017)

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I’m still so 1997 I thought Kathryn Bigelow was making a film about Kent State, which I at least knew about. Instead, it appears she and writer Mark Boal teamed up again to make another political film, this time about the race riots in Detroit in July 1967 and an incident of astonishing police brutality in the Algiers Motel during which three innocent black men were murdered and a handful more were beaten to a pulp. Adapted from witness testimony, this isn’t quite biographical but attempts to be factual and realistic. When the police break up a party for returning Nam vets in an illegal after-hours venue the black community responds by firing at them, looting stores and rioting leading to a city-wide curfew. You gotta agree with the councillor who asks an assembled crowd why they feel compelled to burn down their own property. And therein lieth the problem, at least at the beginning. This is a most unreasonable riot. Out of context. Then a bunch of cracker cops led by Krauss (Will Poulter) open fire on looters and he chases one, shooting him in the back. Back at the PD, they can’t decide to prefer murder charges against him so he and his compadres Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor, looking particularly gormless, like Dougal in Father Ted) are let back on the streets where the Army and the National Guard are swarming, taking potshots at perceived sniper fire. Dismukes (John Boyega) is security at a grocery store and when he saves a black kid from the Army he earns the title Uncle Tom.  A new band in town The Dramatics are about to go onstage when their showcase is shut down and one of them, Larry (Algee Smith) takes refuge at the Algiers with Fred (Jacob Latimore) where they befriend two white girls hanging out at the pool. One of the girls’ black friends Carl (Jason Mitchell) is also holed up at the motel’s annex and he fires a starter pistol.  It brings the cracker cops down on them with Dismukes attending the scene to try to prevent any violence but Krauss has already shot Carl in the back . Their interrogation technique involves pretending to shoot the men one by one as they separate them from the group in an attempt to get them to reveal the whereabouts of the non-existent rifle and a soldier Dismukes brought coffee joins in the party … This is more impressive the longer it goes on, but it does go on. And on.  It starts problematically and the characterisation is in many ways too on-the-nose if not stereotypical but the revelation of systemic corruption, the decision of the eventual trial jury (it all seems like a preview of coming OJ attractions in reverse) and the racism inherent in society so overwhelming that even without knowing the conclusion (included in a text over real-life photographs) we figure it out for ourselves,  is finally wearying. The persona of Dismukes seems deployed to present a good – if stupid – black man:  he’s predictably identified as a perpetrator for the police in a lineup despite having protected the white girl in question. Maybe it’s true but it doesn’t ring right for this dramatic purpose. The overlength (and underwritten) sequence of mind-numbing violence in the annex doesn’t help. It feels like it’s straight out of a seventies exploitationer, particularly in the shots of Flynn, sweating out his hatred before applying the butt of his gun to another black man’s head. Perhaps it’s a story that needed to be told but it’s unbalanced. There simply isn’t enough drama to portray a story of innocent people caught up in something that – as presented here – was woefully avoidable in a context that is under-explained. This is a failure of screenwriting, with the lingering suspicion that a true depiction of a police conspiracy, social destruction and legal corruption was literally beyond the pale. What a pity.

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.