Friday, 24 November 2017

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (but some films do)

Paul McGuigan’s film is based on a memoir of the same name by Peter Turner, an actor and writer from Liverpool, about his romance with the nineteen fifties movie star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening). In the 1970s, Gloria was in her fifties, Peter (Jamie Bell) in his twenties. Her career is over but she is trying to revive it with theatre performances. Already ill, in 1981 she collapses in a Lancaster hotel and turns to Peter and his family for help.

For me this film bears all the marks of a phoney confection. How do you cover up the deficiencies of an inauthentic script? Focus on production design and wardrobe, in this case execrable wallpaper, nasty net curtains and horrible furniture to recreate the Turner household in Liverpool, plus hideous orange and brown clothing for the working class characters. 

Then the location: it’s going to be something overstated. It must have taken a scout a long time to find such dreary alleyways and streets, dimly lit of course. 

To pad out the film’s flimsy substance, there has to be a sub plot, here a comedy hearts-of-gold Liverpool Mammie played by Julie Walters with Kenneth Cranham, her silent husband, given nothing much to do but some unconvincing DIY business with a circuit board.

The biggest give-away of all is the simplistic characterisation.  There have been some touching, funny and intelligent films about what happens to famous actors, real life and fictional, as they age. The preoccupation with talent, good looks and fitness that blessed their heyday becomes a curse as they get older. These films range from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, with a star turn from Michael Keaton as an absurd and hilarious Superman-figure desperate to reinvent himself. I also enjoyed the gaudy chutzpah of Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh’s film about the last ten years of Liberace’s life.

In the kind of memoir which is the basis of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, the writer wants to elevate their own significance in the relationship, but the chances are that the star was of far more importance in the writer’s life than the writer was in the star’s. When turned into a film the result looks slight. For another example, see the similarly unimpressive My Week With Marilyn.

Phoniness becomes a particular risk when the film is a biopic. Here it is rare for a film to deal honestly with its subject: complexity is sacrificed for hagiography or else savage satire, exaggeration and melodrama. 

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The real Gloria Grahame did indeed refuse some treatment for breast cancer but she also had a great deal of plastic surgery, became obsessed by her thin upper lip which she padded with cotton wool, evidently a complication in scenes involving kissing where the co-star ended up with a mouthful of cotton wool too. 

Her fourth husband was also her stepson, a relationship that reportedly began when he was only thirteen. She battled her third husband for custody of their daughter. She had a breakdown and was treated with ECT.

All of this is a far cry from the bland, cutie-pie character that Anette Bening does her very talented and honest best to convey. As a result the film descends into schmaltz. The last twenty minutes is excruciatingly drawn out with the loveably eccentric Liverpool family in full cry and a ridiculous scene where Bening and Bell play out dialogue from Romeo and Juliet on the stage of an empty theatre. Oh please, let the woman die!

There is one scene which shows what the film might have been. The naïve Peter makes his first visit to LA. Over dinner at Gloria’s home, where her aim is to show off her handsome young lover to her mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and spiteful sister (Frances Barber), he learns something of what may lie behind the glamorous front. Here, the dialogue and acting are sharp, surprising and funny, but alas this was the only scene which woke me from torpor as the film sluggishly wound its way to its entirely predictable conclusion.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Well-meant but misleading

Jenny hardens her heart with only 2 stars for Breathe

I met my friend Bob at university. He had been unlucky enough to get polio as a child – the tail end of the epidemic just before universal vaccination banished this horrible illness in the UK. He was in a wheelchair. His way of managing the reactions of those around him was to refer to himself sardonically as Brave Bob. ‘Oh yes’, he’d say, ‘Brave Bob still has a working brain’, and woe betide anyone who patronized, asked intrusive questions, for instance about sex, what worked and what didn’t, or made comments intended to be tremendously encouraging about how amazing it was that he could manoeuvre his wheelchair in and out of lecture theatres. Bob already saw the attraction of the Supercrip to the world of able bodied people.
Image resultBreathe unfortunately follows the familiar Supercrip stereotype that we see in films about disability. The film, which is directed by Andy Serkis, is based on the real life of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) and his wife Diana (Claire Foy). Robin contracts polio as a 28-year-old in Kenya, is permanently paralysed from the neck down, can only breathe thanks to a mechanical respirator and is given months to live. Diana springs him from hospital despite the dastardly opposition of his doctors and finds a friend, Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) who can make him a wheelchair which includes the respirator. They entertain, they travel, Robin campaigns for disabled people and lives for another 36 years. Judging from his Wikipedia entry, the real life Robin was a thoroughly inspiring man see and this film is intended to commemorate his life and work, especially as the producer is his son Jonathan Cavendish.
The film will work for many people as a lovely weepie – I heard a lot of snivels from fellow audience members, but alas, I hardened my heart. Full disclosure: I lived with a severely disabled man until his death 7 years ago. He was in a wheelchair for the last five years of his life. He, too, mocked the Supercrip stereotype, refusing people’s pity. I promise you that living with disability is nothing like it is depicted in this film and I hated the way it fell into the easy stereotypes:

The disabled person is always a man.

The actor is slim, able-bodied and good looking. 

He uses a wheelchair because this is a visible symbol of disability that everyone can understand. 

The man is saintly, brave, uncomplaining and clever. 

The man needs the wisdom of a good woman to save him from a life of despair but she must sacrifice everything because her purpose in life is to serve him. 

The cost in money of disability must never be mentioned, for instance of equipment, adaptations to the home, special clothing, laundry, helpers. 

People who oppose the hero are creeps, jerks and bullies. 

The emotional costs to the rest of the family must never be mentioned. 

The disabled person ingeniously discovers ways of overcoming his physical handicaps through inventions usually involving string, bells, teeth and eye movements. 

Towards the end of the film the disabled person makes a rallying speech about prejudice. 

The disabled person must die in the film, often to prevent further exploitation of their loved ones.

Breathe falls into all of these clichés, with added heartswelling orchestral accompaniments in case we miss the point. The characters never age, except for some terrible prosthetics added to poor Andrew Garfield’s face for the film’s final sequences. A rosy glow permeates the gracious if slightly tatty home and its surrounding rural landscapes. Everyone smiles most of the time and Andrew Garfield does a lot of splendid acting with his eyebrows.

Diana appears to deal solo with Robin’s needs, but did she really? Did she manually evacuate his bowels and change the catheter? Did she dress him and feed him?  Did she do all the extra laundry? Did she, a slight woman, turn him, a heavy man, every few hours on her own and deal with the ugly threat of pressure sores every day? Did she service the respirator? Where did the money come from? How did she manage to do all of this and care for a small child? Did the child never resent the time and attention that his father necessarily absorbed?

No, I don’t think this would have been possible. There must be a good documentary to be made about the extraordinary life of Robin Cavendish which would salute his role in raising awareness and horizons for disabled people and which would not shy away from all the things most people really don’t want to know. We would all rather preserve our cosy fantasies, the most malign of which, perpetuated in every feature film as in this one, is that if disabled people try really really hard, they can overcome their handicaps.
This film is a touching tribute by a son to his father, but it is also a good argument for never being involved in a film where you are one of the real life characters.

My old friend Bob lived a distinguished life as an acerbic critic, writer and academic. His feisty wife, Marie, is nothing like the pastel-coloured character depicted by Claire Foy. In his way Bob was as much a pioneer as Robin Cavendish. You can read his Guardian obituary here

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

5 stars for Yorgos Lanthimos’s best film so far

As we left the cinema my companion asked me what I thought of the film. ‘Brilliant,’ I said. She stared at me with incomprehension. ‘How anyone can say that film is brilliant I do not know.’ Explaining, arguing or justifying was pointless on either side and we walked to our bus in virtual silence.
Image result for the killing of a sacred deer posterLanthimos divides people, he’s a Marmite director; there’s no middle way, you either think he is a genius or that he is an art-house poseur.

I thought this his best film to date. He has attracted a bigger budget, he has secured the loyalty and admiration of two distinguished actors, Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman. The narrative here is fluid, confident and, as ever with a Lanthimos film, mystifying, with much left intriguingly unexplained.

To enjoy the full horror of apprehension, you need to know the meaning of the title. In Greek myth, the king Agamemnon accidentally kills a sacred deer. To placate Artemis, the goddess of hunting, and to spare his fleet from destruction, she demands that he sacrifice his daughter Iphegenia. When you know this tale you understand that you are going to be tortured by waiting to find out if the same story will play out here.

The film starts naturalistically with Dr Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) living in a handsome house with palatial rooms, each one pristine. He is a successful cardiac surgeon, she is a successful ophthalmologist. They have two beautiful children. What could possibly be wrong? The first sign that all is not well is that they play a sex game called General Anaesthetic. Next, Steven has an oddly intimate relationship with the teenaged Martin (Barry Keoghan). Martin has a gormless, unhealthy look to him but Steven is buying him expensive presents, meeting him often and inviting him back to the family home for no discernible reason. Then there is Colin Farrell’s appearance, much of his face, including his mouth, thickly hidden behind a dishevelled black beard and moustache.

Slowly we realize that Martin’s father has died on Dr Steven’s operating table. The infallible king of surgery, the ultra-successful man, has made a mistake but it is not one he can admit to. In fact his stated opinion is that if something goes wrong, it is always the anaesthetist’s fault. Later, his anaesthetist, in the grip of another kind of corruption, insists that it is always the other way around.

Soon we are into the surreal territory of earlier Lanthimos films. Buildings become prisons where there is no escape as horror, magic and warped logic descend. The man of science, the man in control, tries all the known remedies, desperately bullying colleagues for an answer to the bizarre sickness that strikes and could kill both his children and then his wife. But science can’t help because the family has been cursed and he is being punished for his sense of entitlement, his arrogance and lack of remorse, for being a heart surgeon who lacks heart. I was reminded here of George Bernard Shaw’s opinion in the preface to his play The Doctor’s Dilemma, that all professions are ‘conspiracies against the laity’, just as true now as it was in 1906.

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Lanthimos has his own unique style but he seems to have been influenced by the work of two other directors: the icy command of Michael Haneke and the blending of gothic dream and mundane reality in the films of David Lynch. His subject matter, like theirs, is the deeply irrational nature of human thinking. He composes with geometric precision, often very long shots or using an extremely wide angle lens from a static or swooping camera, dwarfing the people. His camera is often slightly above or slightly below the actors’ eyelines, giving the film a voyeuristic quality and a feeling of unease about how far you can trust anything you are seeing.

Fine performances all round, clever use of classical music in the score, immaculate cinematography from Thimios Bakatakis, a mythical and brutal horror story deftly told that lives on in your mind: what’s not to like? 

Friday, 27 October 2017

It's absurd but are we meant to laugh?

Jenny finds it hard to enjoy The Death of Stalin

Is it a satire? Yes. Is it reasonably true to the real events? Apparently. Is it hilariously funny, like Iannucci’s previous offerings such as The Thick of It or Veep? Not really.

It’s 1953 and Stalin (Adrian McCloughlin) has had a stroke. He is alone. Although they hear him fall, his guards are too terrified to enter his room and when they do he is in a coma. His underlings are summoned and begin to manoeuvre, panic and bicker about who will succeed him. But meantime they have to haul him on to a bed, a task they find fussily distasteful since he is a heavy man, reeking of urine, and they are still uncertain whether he will live or die. They would send for medical help but unfortunately all the decent doctors have been killed or dispatched to the gulag, so a posse of trembling young and old fools is assembled in white coats only to pronounce that he cannot recover. And he cannot.

Simon Russell Beale is perfectly cast as the sinister Beria, head of the secret police; Steve Buscemi is the slyly scheming Kruschev and the wonderful Jeffrey Tambor plays Malenkov, Stalin’s fluttering deputy, with more than a touch of Maura, his transgender role in Transparent. The accents are an unapologetic jumble of New York, Californian, posh English, estuary English and Yorkshire. Thankfully, no one does fake Russian.

Iannucci is a specialist in puncturing the pretensions of petty men, fatuous tyrants who have squirmed, lied and terrorized their way into power. He skewers their frustrations as the world - objects, people and events - unaccountably fails to bend to their every whim despite their threats and their investment in spin and fake news. The comedy of his TV series, The Thick of It, arises from the surreal profanity of their language, their grandiosity, their outrageous bullying and the way the onscreen drama seems so often to predict real events. For instance, in the spin off film of the series, In The Loop, Tom Hollander plays a character who confesses to a liking for pornography. Shortly afterwards the real life British Home Secretary was discovered to have added the cost of a pornographic movie to her parliamentary expenses.  

There are some good sight gags. Tambor plays Malenkov as preening and dim-witted.  A string trails from the back of his ill- fitting but no doubt expensive jacket and this turns out to be attached to a corset. Jason Isaacs plays Zhukov, the swaggering head of the army, with an ostentatious facial scar and so many medals pinned to his already garish uniform that he clanks as he walks.

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Unlike the japes imagined with such zest in Iannucci’s previous work, the action of this film is apparently closely based on history. All this chaos, paralysis and bizarre politicking actually happened in the wake of Stalin’s death. But Stalin’s regime was not funny. People really were murdered on a whim and in their millions. Political enemies really were disappeared. Beria really did rape and torture.

The excellent ensemble cast must have enjoyed making this film. Their exuberance shows. But truly it is more like tragedy masquerading as comedy. Its tone and purpose seem uncertain. We watch the contemptuous open air cremation of Beria’s body and Stalin’s autopsy is shown in gruesome detail. On the first day of the film’s release, almost every seat in the cinema was taken. It’s safe to assume that most of us thought we would see something laugh-out-loud funny. But I heard no yelps of laughter, just a few grunts from time to time. The film was mostly watched in silence. Perhaps the election of another vain and stupid man to the pinnacle of power in the US makes it harder to laugh at lunatic tyranny. Perhaps that’s why as the lights went up we filed out silently, with sober faces.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Don't miss this party

Jenny gives Sally Potter’s political farce 5 stars

The Party is a terrifically enjoyable film. It’s a chamber piece made in pin-sharp black and white, only 71 minutes long and is very very funny.

It opens with a close-up of a brass lion’s head door knocker. Behind it is Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) eyes wild with emotion, brandishing a gun. It’s a flash forward; everything else in the film happens in real time.

Cut to Janet in her elegant kitchen in one of those tall thin North London houses with a cramped, sunless garden. Janet is a senior politician. The event is to celebrate the news that she is to become the Shadow Minister of Health for her Party and all her close friends are invited. She is giggling exuberantly, nursing her phone in her chin as she prepares the vol-au-vents. Immediately we are into surprises because Janet is obviously talking to a secret lover. Janet is also maybe channelling Margaret Thatcher and showing off a little with her pinny and housewifey insistence on doing the catering herself. Personally I thought vol-au-vents a little too obviously retro for a smart party involving the post Referendum London middle class in 2017, but that’s just a quibble. 

Meanwhile in the heavily book-lined sitting room her husband, Bill, (a gaunt Timothy Spall) a man who sacrificed his career for hers, sits motionless in what looks like a catatonic state. What’s happening to him? ‘I’m Bill’ he says lugubriously, ‘Or I think I used to be’.

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The guests arrive. They include April (Patricia Clarkson) and her boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz). Bruno is not reprising his brilliant role as Hitler in Downfall as here Gottfried is some kind of life coach with a new agey cliché for every situation, though maybe there is a sly joke within a joke here when April says, ‘Tickle an aromatherapist and you find a fascist’. April has a smart put down for everyone, but it’s a put down of the stiletto type which you don’t feel until it has slid in because it starts as a compliment, such as her comment to Janet, ‘I’m so pleased about your success – but you really must do something about your hair…’ Then there is the bickering lesbian couple (Emily Mortimer and Helen Cherry) whose shock is that IVF has been successful and that they are expecting triplets. Not just triplets but, oh dear, boys.

Everyone has secrets, including Tom (Cillian Murphy), a banker, who arrives distraught, sweaty, in need of another line or two of cocaine – and with that gun. Everyone also has life-changing announcements. Infidelity, illness, pregnancy, the compromising of publically held political principles, the post-Brexit confusion, betrayal: it’s all here.

I loved this film not least for its homage to so many predecessors. It could be a one-act early Simon Gray or Tom Stoppard play. It could be Mike Leigh when he still had a sense of humour: there is more than a nod to Abigail’s Party with its absent but critical character, in this case Marianne, Tom’s wife. There is also superb use of a MacGuffin, the term popularised by Alfred Hitchcock to describe an object or an idea with which the characters become obsessed but whose only real point is to drive the plot forward.

The stellar cast must have had enormous fun making this movie. They are all wonderful but if I had to choose I would say that Patrician Clarkson - haughty blonde mane, dramatic lipstick, exquisite timing - wins it for me.

This film is satire, written as well as directed by Sally Potter, and it is sophisticated farce. I watched it in the BFI’s excellent pop up cinema on the Victoria Embankment during the London Film Festival. There is a final twist where the huge audience erupted with laughter and applause. We absolutely could not have guessed the ending. 

I have lived in one of those tall thin North London houses where the kitchen can never be on the right floor and where catering for a party was always a nightmare. I’m not surprised that the vol-au-vents got burnt and had to be thrown out. Really, darling, another time just get Deliveroo or UberEats, even if it’s not politically correct. No one will ever know.

Joe's footnote

Kristin Scott Thomas's performance as ex-convict Juliette Philippe in Claudel’s 2008 film I’ve Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime) is superb. But she’s great whatever she’s in. I know some people consider Four Weddings and a Funeral to be the great onscreen love story of the 90s, but I could never believe that Charles, however shallow, would fall for the inadequately scripted Carrie, while KST's sharp-tongued, sardonic Fiona was pining for him. 

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

In Frantz it isn't only the hero's mustache that droops

One sniffy star is all Jenny thinks it's worth

My Persian cat is a fine sniffer-out of anything slightly ‘off’. He wrinkles his sweet but rather flat nose and I can see that a judgement is coming. My own nose was wrinkling as soon as Joe, my co-blogger pitched the idea of going to see François Ozon's Frantz. ‘This grieving German girl finds a strange young Frenchman standing at the grave of her dead soldier fiancé in 1919 and he gets to know her family.’ In a flash I correctly guessed two thirds of the allegedly Hitchcockian plot. I don’t like doing this. I don’t like watching bloopers, poor screenwriting and films that are too long because no one had the time to make them shorter. It destroys my willingness to believe that what I’m watching is not a film at all but something gripping and real.

Unfortunately there was so much of all of this in Frantz. First, it’s full of plot holes: how did Adrien (Pierre Niney), the French soldier track down the angry and bereft German family given the flimsy evidence he possessed? How did he know about Frantz’s pre war interests? Then there are all those little give-away details of a director too distracted to notice the give-away details: for instance, a supposedly full tureen of food is plonked on a table when the noise of the plonking shows clearly that it is empty. 

Then there is the scene where the hero impulsively swims in a lake, clad only in his longjohns; a stand-in might have done the swim with more elegant strokes instead of the undignified doggy paddle that we saw. After this, lounging sexily on the bank, his thick cotton underwear has seemingly dried out in seconds even though his body is still gleaming attractively with lake water. The whole scene would surely have been extremely unlikely in 1919. The extras have the awkward air of hastily recruited locals told to do a bit of walking up and down in the background. The editing seems perfunctory - so many unnecessary shots of people opening doors, coming in and out of rooms. At 20 minutes shorter it could have been a much better film.

Pierre Niney and Paula Beer in Frantz (2016)The actors do their best. Pierre Niney plays the French hero – his extraordinary nose and silly moustache deserved a credit all of their own. Paula Beer is elegant and more aristocratic than the part deserves as Anna, the bereaved fiancée.

But my real nose-twitching was about a director claiming to be an Auteur when maybe he is just a workaday storyteller. Can you make a serious film heavily freighted with symbolism and deep meaning if you are not driven by authentic passion for the subject? I don’t think so and I didn’t believe for a moment in the authentic passion. I saw a film where the director was in love with style, with his terribly sophisticated choice of colour-corrected black and white as the medium, with his cleverness in devising parallel scenes of nationalistic stupidity and prejudice, with little speeches about the futility of war. I didn’t want to see the train shots – on a journey, geddit? I was not gripped by the last two reels. These were some kind of low-energy detective story which seemed to belong in a different film. 

Slow, implausible, hastily stitched together. What’s to like?

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Russian Gothic in the North of England

Jenny gives William Olroyd's Lady Macbeth five stars

No, it’s nothing to do with Shakespeare, just the title of a Russian story written by Nikolai Leskov in 1865 where the author wanted to find a suitable name for a woman who defies convention and carries through some increasingly terrible deeds.

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Katherine (Florence Pugh) is a teenage bride who has been part of a Buy One Get One Free deal between her impoverished family and the bullying mine owner who purchases her for his weak and dislikeable son. She is a virtual prisoner, forbidden to leave the house. So far, so familiar: we’ve seen the poor downtrodden girl before, we know what to expect from the wedding night, the windy walks on the moors with hair flying, and then the inevitable transgressive sex with the handsome dark-skinned groom (Cosmo Jarvis). Oh yes, we’ve seen Wuthering Heights. We know what happens to women like Madame Bovary and Becky Sharp. It’s almost enough to make you want to shout, ‘Don’t do it Katherine! Haven’t you read your Lady Chatterley?’

So the film is apparently a bodice ripper and bodices do get ripped. It’s set in the English North East so there are appropriately gritty accents. There’s period décor and costume. Many of the scenes are visually startling with one vivid colour, for instance Katherine’s bright turquoise dress, splashed into an otherwise monochrome frame.

But what’s this? The heroine wears a crinoline cage and is laced hard into corsets but she also wears Boots Number 7 eyeliner. There is an orange pet cat as restless as she, and it’s a Cornish Rex, a breed not invented until 1950. She gets drunk in a thoroughly 21st century teenager-y way, combining smirking insolence with a little light falling over. She eats like every modern teenager I know – that is to say by holding her cutlery in an extremely peculiar way. The film was shot on location at Lambton Castle in Wearside and I could swear that the paint is straight out of the Farrow and Ball catalogue, in fact it looks very like Mouse’s Back, the same exquisitely tasteful colour that our ex-prime minister has chosen for the quaint little old-but-new ‘shepherd’s hut’ where he will be pretending to write his memoirs.

Image result for Vilhelm HammershøiWilliam Oldroyd has spoken of getting inspiration from the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi, who has often painted women facing away from the viewer, sometimes looking out of a window in an isolated landscape. The effect in the film (the production designer is Jacqueline Abrahams) is of empty stone stairways and tall rooms which have had all the air sucked out of them.

There are black and mixed race servants though no one makes the slightest comment on this; there is class prejudice and sexism; there is cruelty; there is sex; there is crime. But the director has not wasted what he learnt in his earlier career in opera where themes of Grand Guignol revenge can mix readily enough with farce. The moral corruption of the characters emerges gradually as you begin to realize that the plot displays all the conventions only to promptly upend them. This is no simpering heroine, but you will have to see the film to discover how and why. The director has borrowed from Haneke, Hardy, Andrea Arnold and most notably from Scandi Noir but has created a style that seems unique, fresh and possibly a little reckless. 

The screenplay, written by Alice Birch, has minimal dialogue and indeed one of the characters becomes mute during the course of the action. The cast are magnificent. There is almost no music. The sound designer, Ben Baird, deserves every possible award for the way he evokes the unsettling voice of the house: the austere squeak of shutters being opened, the clatter of feet on wooden floors, the scrape of knives on plates and the echo of words spoken in rooms stripped of comfort. Most amazingly of all, the film was shot in 24 days and made for under £500,000. This is the film equivalent of a fiver. Well done you guys, I look forward eagerly to your next project.