Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (UK, 2017)

Bitter sweetness

A few weeks after watching ‘Glorious Grahame’ in her filmic prime (Crossfire) it was pleasing to see this bittersweet biopic of her final days in the unlikely company of a much younger Liverpudlian actor, Peter Turner. The film’s based on Turner’s memoir and has taken 30 years to reach the screen; it was worth waiting for Annette Bening to get to the appropriate age as her performance is outstanding. Apart from Julie Walters’ and Stephen Graham’s wigs, all the performances are good. I particularly warmed to Walters’ mum.

McGuigan, whose direction in Gangster No. 1 (2000) was outstanding, has been working in television for the last 10 years; such as in the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes. Television no longer necessarily means routine direction, due to budgets, as first HBO, and now Netflix, have brought cinema’s aesthetics to the small screen. However, McGuigan seems to have been consigned to routine work so it’s great to see his imaginative visual style again. The flashbacks of how Grahame and Turner met are seamlessly integrated to the film’s present in dreamy transitions which emphasises the power of memory. The scenes in California use a stylised, and beautiful, back projection harking back to the classical Hollywood films of Grahame’s earlier career.

Remembering Grahame is not the only throwback in the film; Jamie Bell gets the opportunity for some great dance moves.

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Snowden (France-Germany-US, 2016)

Blessed are the truth tellers

At the start of Snowden, a biopic of the NSA whistleblower, I wondered whether there was any point in watching it as it was recreating scenes directly from Laura Poitras’ brilliant documentary Citizen4. However this film’s focus on a libertarian’s (he was a fan of Ayn Rand) slow realisation that the system he was part of is corrupt makes riveting viewing. Directed with restraint, by Oliver Stone (not something necessarily associated with him), and anchored by a convincing performance in the lead, Joseph Gordon Levitt, this film is a vital record of how we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society that even Orwell did not dream up. I say ‘vital’ because it acts as a warning by letting the general public know what’s being done by those in power.

But there’s a problem: Citizen4 enjoyed the high profile of winning an Oscar and although Snowden flopped at the box office, millions of people have likely seen it. Has anything changed? Snowden’s life has, he’s in de facto exile in Moscow. Whistleblowers often find their lives in ruins for doing the right thing something that is not a coincidence. Those in power do not want to be held to account. Stone’s early film, the brilliant Salvador (UK-US), showed the moral corruption of American intervention in other country’s politics but that didn’t change the way American governments behave. Snowden’s revelation of illegal mass surveillance, in the name of security, caused some embarrassment but it will still be going on. Brave are the people who do the right thing in the face of the general populace’s inertia, which is fed by the misinformation of mainstream media, and the damage it does to their lives.

MSM is often vilified by those on the right and left for its partial reporting. We are living in scary times where the right is cementing its power through propaganda, which is distinct from MSM’s partiality, disseminated through social media, newspapers like the Daily Mail and Fox News. The Overton Window, the political breadth defining what is acceptable to the mainstream, is palpably shifting to the right. The BBC included extreme right commentators Anne Coulter and Kassam Raheem in its broadcasts this week and they must have a subscription to Nigel Farage as he’s on television again tomorrow; the current leader of UKIP (now a spent political force) was on Question Time this week. The BBC claim these voices are offering ‘balance’ but I doubt we’ll hear any extreme left wing views to counter this, which shows that the centre has moved right. Indeed, and I’m trying to avoid thinking conspiracy, at least three times recently the BBC have misrepresented Jeremy Corbyn (who they probably define as ‘hard left’): yesterday they allowed Tory supporter Dylan Jones to ridicule him on the flagship Radio 4 Today.

This shift to the right, most obviously seen in America, is dangerous. My generation were brought up in the shadow of World War II and it was ridiculous to think anything like the Nazis could happen again but we are on that path. Snowden reminds us that we should do the right thing and not be scared of standing up to power in whatever form it takes.

Selma (UK-US, 2014)

On the march

I’ve written about two high profile African-American films recently (Moonlight and Hidden Figures) both of which featured in this year’s Oscars. This was based on merit, however the Academy Awards don’t necessarily deal in merit as the literally scandalous neglect of Selma last year emphasised; it did receive a Best Picture nomination but David Oyelowo’s performance was widely thought to be worthy of at least a Best Actor nomination. I was delighted to catch up with this film that revealed a key moment in recent American history that had been ‘hidden’ from me.

While the events, in 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, are enshrined in Civil Rights history it is a strength of commercial cinema that it can both inform, and remind, millions of people about key moments. I was certainly ignorant and so was enlightened having watching the film and experienced exasperated rage at the ridiculous and violent racism perpetrated against the protestors who simply wanted to be able to exercise their right to vote. Racism is not just in history, unfortunately, as the racist right returns to the fray; Marine Le Pen may be been resoundingly defeated in France but she still got 35% of the vote and in the UK the Conservative party is morphing into UKIP.

Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King is the lynchpin of the film’s success. Entirely convincing as the non violent leader in both his actions and his words. Although director Ava DuVernay (Yes! A high profile African-American female director) had to rewrite King’s speeches for copyright reasons, I still found Oyelowo’s delivery stirring. He was excellent also in A United Kingdom (Czech Republic-UK-US, 2016) that similarly unearthed an anti-racist narrative.

I don’t know about the development history of the film; British scriptwriter Paul Webb had been touting the script for some time. Cloud 8 films is the lead producer, set up by Christian Colson who used to work at Celador, who also produced. Celador made Slumdog Millionaire. Cloud 8 has (assuming Wikipedia is up to date and accurate) a ‘first look’ deal with Pathe, who also produced. Brad Pitt’s Plan B and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films represent American involvement. Winfrey appears as Annie Lee Cooper who punched Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma. Winfrey’s obviously a high profile black ‘player’ in the industry and it’s good to see Pitt using his power to get important films made; Plan B was also involved in 12 Years a Slave.

Presumably getting American finance was difficult and British actors Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth (not forgetting Oyelowo) take on the major roles of President Johnson and Governor Wallace (both excellent). If making money is really the prime driver of Hollywood we should expect more African-American films especially given the success of Hidden Figures. Whilst the Fast and Furious franchise has been immensely successful in transcending the white hegemonic audience, very few films are following. Maybe racial politics trumps money.

Hidden Figures (US, 2016)

Amazing women

I mentioned in the posting about Moonlight that the Academy’s guilt about last year’s blatant disrespect toward films focusing on African Americans has been addressed this year. Hidden Figures, and that must be the best pun in any film title from last year, uncovers (based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book) the role of African American women in NASA’s 1960s space programme. When I heard of the film I was gobsmacked that black, females had such an important role and I hadn’t heard of it. Then I woke up and remembered how discriminatory the ‘60s were.

The film’s to be celebrated in telling a great story, in a similar way to United Kingdom, uncovering historic challenges to racism that had been erased from mainstream history. The women’s fight is superbly told, easing much detail fluidly into a dynamic narrative; very Hollywood. Also Hollywood is its ‘based on a true story’ looseness with the facts. For example, the first black NASA supervisor attained the position in 1948 not the early ‘60s of the film. The ‘based on a true story’ statement during the credits is, as always, a warning we are not watching history. I’m relaxed about such ‘distortions’ as they don’t obscure an essential truth about the dual-struggle, as women and as part of an ethnic minority, these women experienced. However, although wonderfully dramatic, (spoiler ahead) the scene were the Al Harrison, essentially in charge of space travel calculations, smashes a ‘coloreds only’ toilet sign in disgust is apparently fictional. So what’s the purpose of that scene?

Hollywood has a tradition of filtering black emancipation narratives, such as Mississippi Burning (US, 1988), through a white perspective and although this film is resolutely from the women’s points of view, primarily Taraji P Henson’s Katherine G Johnson, the Harrison character offers a point of identity for those in the audience who cannot allow themselves simply to root for the women. The fact that he is charismatically played by Kevin Costner adds heft to white dispensed justice. Kirsten Dunst’s character, unremittingly polite and racist throughout, is also given a redeeming coda; as is the superbly cast Jim Parsons (of The Big Bang Theory). In the latter cases it could be argued that they represent how previously racist individuals, when they come into contact with African-Americans, learn the error of their ways.

The film occupies similar territory to The Help (US-India-UAE, 2011), which was filtered through a white protagonist, though that film was making the point that oppressed minorities need the help of majority members in their fight for justice. I’ve just noticed a viral video of straight men holding hands, in the Netherlands, as a statement against homophobia; a powerful way of marginalising hatred.

Hidden Figures, in the centrality of the black women, and the fact the story is true, is so powerful in its condemnation of racism that I’ll forgive the narrative transgression involving Harrison. It’s interesting that it was distributed via Fox 2000, the Hollywood major studio’s more ‘indie’ distributor. Clearly executives didn’t have a lot of faith in the film’s commercial prospects; I wonder if its $150m plus take in North America alone will alter their thinking about minority stories?

Lion (Aus-US-UK, 2016)

lionfilm17a

Lost

About half way through Lion, which tells the astonishing tale of how a foundling finds his mum despite being brought up in a different continent, I wondered what the film was going to say. It was brilliantly done: the direction from Garth Davis (his first feature) is highly promising and the young Saroo (who’s 5 years old ) gets an amazing performance from Sunny Pawar. But the film lacked a focus as it didn’t seem to adding anything to my understanding of the world. The last third of the film filled that absence and spoilers follow.

Davis, with the editor Alexandre de Franceschi, links the two worlds – of India and Tasmania – with great skill. Close ups of the protagonists in crowds emphasises the anonymity and massive populations of cities showing how miraculous it would be for Saroo to be reunited with his mother. When, as an adult, he is having a ‘nervous breakdown’ the editing serves to illustrate his memories with graphic (the composition in the frame) and content matches between where he is and the past he is remembering. For example, when he breaks with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara brilliant in a necessarily somewhat passive role of the female encouraging the man) Saroo walks across a bridge (a melodramatic emblem for transition in life) which is matched with a shot of the young Saroo on a bridge. It is a very effective way of dramatizing how memories, which he struggles to recover, can overwhelm  after they’d been triggered in a Proustian moment set off by food.

Although it is well done, Saroo’s breakdown did cause the narrative to sag and it struck me that this might be a consequence of the difficulties film has of dramatizing small events that encompass a lot of time. Conventionally, as it is here, montage is used to signify this however because screen time is inevitably much shorter than narrative time, it is difficult to emotionally understand the profound mental trauma Saroo, now in his late twenties, was experiencing. A paragraph in a book could convey this much better I suspect.

Despite this the film does convincingly demonstrate the strength of familial ties. Even though he’d only been five when he’d lost his family it is clear that Saroo will forever be missing a part of himself if he can’t find them again. Unsurprisingly the reunion is extremely emotional and Dev Patel and Priyanka Bose (mum) are exceptional in the scene.

Nicole Kidman must also be mentioned as she is at her brilliant best here as Saroo’s adoptive mum. It is difficult for a star with Kidman’s charisma to convincingly play an ‘ordinary person’ however she does it brilliantly and then we realise that Sue Brierley is anything but ordinary.

Walesa: Man of Hope (Walesa. Czlowiek z nadziei, Poland, 2013)

Man for the people

Man for the people

Andrzej Wajda died last year having directed some of the greatest films ever produced; Walesa: Man of Hope was the last he completed. Appropriately for his oeuvre it is historically informed: a biopic eulogising the leading force of Solidarność (Solidarity), the union that led to the downfall of the Soviet-backed government in Poland in the 1980s. It was a strange at the time to see mainstream media  celebrating a trade union instead of demonising them.

Wajda’s first four films, including the famous ‘war trilogy’ (see Ashes and Diamonds), focused on the Second World War but he didn’t always deal in history – his Innocent Sorcerers tells a charming tale of ‘first love’. In my Innocent Sorcerers post I complained about the lack of availability of Wajda’s films in the UK; I particularly would like to see Landscape After Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, Poland, 1971) again if only for its hallucinatory opening sequence. I’ll try not to bang on again about how the BBC is abnegating its Public Service responsibility by virtually ignoring film culture. Although I saw Walesa on BBC4, where’s the career retrospective and documentary on one of the great artists in cinema history!?

I really enjoyed Walesa partly because it reminded me of my introduction to Wajda’s films, Man of Marble (Czlowiek z marmuru, Poland, 1977) and its sequel – that dealt with the same events as this film – Man of Iron (Czlowiek z zelaza, Poland, 1981). It’s a sign of my age that these events, which were gripping viewing via television news at the time, are now history and no doubt part of Walesa‘s purpose is to educate young Poles about their recent past. Focusing solely on the figurehead Walesa necessarily limits the focus and it may be difficult to completely follow the story if you had no knowledge of the events of the time. However, the film brilliantly brings to life the historical moment through the fabulous performance of Robert Wieckiewicz as Walesa, an ordinary man of great strength and charisma. Wadja, however, does not neglect Walesa’s wife, Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska), who might have been simply a domestic adjunct to the hero. In fact, the last shot of the film is of her suggesting that Walesa would not have succeeded without her support.

Come on BBC, where’re the retrospectives of Wadja’s films? Although we have more films available to us, including the more obscure, than ever a curated free-to-air presentation of cinema history is required or many people will never come across the gems of the past.

American Gangster (US-UK, 2007)

Mean streets

Mean streets

It was fortuitous that I caught up with American Gangster only a week after watching The French Connection as it covers some of the same time and territory. Indeed, the latter’s protagonists are name checked and the overhead railway of the car chase makes two appearances. Clearly scriptwriter Steve Zaillian is paying homage to the earlier classic and American Gangster doesn’t do too badly in comparison. Like much of the early ’70s ‘New Hollywood’ there’s a political angle, though safely ‘buried’ in the past, regarding the racism and corruption of NYPD. The mean streets of New York, where Denzil Washington’s Frank Lucas (the film’s based on a true story) imports heroin direct from Vietnam, look shabby despite Ridley Scott’s predilection for sumptuous images. If overlong, at two and a half hours, the climax is suitably satisfying, referencing another early ’70s classic, The Godfather (1972), by inter-cutting events with the protagonist in church; there’s  also shades of another cracking film of the era, Serpico (1973), with Russell Crowe taking the incorruptible cop role that Al Pacino inhabited.

Certainly the film pays homage to the ’70s, and you have to work to keep up with the narrative exposition too, but stands on its own as an intelligent high budget, star driven Hollywood (through Scott Free Prods) vehicle. Despite a budget of $100m, the film probably just about scraped into profit with its $267m worldwide gross; a testament to Washington and Crowe’s star power.

Women are mostly absent but that’s gangster films for you and the cliche-ridden broken marriage of Crowe’s Richie Roberts probably didn’t need to be so prominent; then again, women would have been even more absent if it wasn’t. The narrative device (presumably true too) that leads Roberts to realise the black Lucas was Mr Big (his ethnicity, in the racism of the times, meant he escaped suspicion) is brilliant.