Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Girl by Samantha Geimer

Roman Polanksi is a film maker of genius, and I've always had the highest regard for his work. But obviously there is a shadow across his life and career, and anyone who is a Polanski advocate — or even an admirer — has to somehow deal with the fact that he was guilty of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13 year old girl, after plying her with the fashionable drugs of the day.

There's no shortage of books on Polanski. Along with Stanley Kubrick he is probably the most written-about film director in history. But arguably the best account of those troubling events has remained Polanski's autobiography. Until now... when Samantha Geimer — "the girl" in the case — has finally published her own autobiography.

The Girl, by Geimer and Judith Newman, is a well written and gripping book. Its disturbing,   touching and often — surprise — darkly funny. What comes across most strongly, as in almost all the other versions of the story (and particularly forcefully in Marina Zenovich's excellent documentary film on the subject) is that, as reprehensible as Polanski's behaviour unquestionably is, the real villain of the piece is the judge who tried the case. The dishonourable Laurence J. Rittenband was a sleazy fame-seeking publicity hound who threw justice in the nearest trash receptacle so he could promote his own image.

Geimer's story is full of unforgettable moments. And the most compelling thing is that however awful her experience with Polanksi, it was nothing compared to the legal process which then swallowed her life. She says, "If I had to chose between reliving the rape or the grand jury testimony, I would chose the rape."

And then there's the striking description of how she felt when the other kids at her school found out that she was the girl in the case: "You know that recurring dream we all have where we forget to put on our clothes, and go out in public naked? This felt like walking around school naked."

Or her remarks about attending the glittering bash for the HBO premiere of Zenovich's documentary, decades later. "I was uncomfortable... the thought that I was at this party with all those celebrities and other luminaries simply because I'd been raped by some old goat seemed kind of mortifying."

And, most startling of all, her reaction when Polanski won the Oscar for The Pianist. "I was quietly thrilled for his victory."

In the end, the portrait of Polanski at the time of the assault which emerges is one of a callous, arrogant and selfish man. It's quite possible to be a great film maker, and that too. Geimer's own summary of his motivation: "Roman Polanski was a man who was horny and high on March 10, 1977. That's it."

Perhaps the only unjust note in this otherwise remarkably fair and even-handed book is when Geimer denigrates the quality of the pictures that Polanksi took of her (they were supposed to be doing a fashion shoot when "the incident" occurred). It's apparently not enough that he's a rapist. He has to be a bad photographer, too. Actually the quality of the images speak for themselves. Some are reprinted in the book, and a particularly striking one is used on the cover.

(Image credits: the cover of the book is from the Hollywood Reporter. The black and white photo of Polanski is from the New York Times. The black and white photo by Polanski is from Stern. The colour photo is from the Daily Mail. The reprint edition of the book, with type over the image, is from Amazon.)

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Gone Girl by Flynn and Fincher

The time is coming to suss out the best films of the year, and it looks like Gone Girl may well be gunning for the top slot. It is tremendously gratifying to have David Fincher continue a run of great movies. After the masterpiece that was Fight Club there was a period (Panic Room, Zodiac, Benjamin Button) where the director seemed to have lost his way. But he came roaring back with The Social Network, followed it with the magnificent American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and now we have Gone Girl.

David Fincher brings to mind Stanley Kubrick in the extraordinary beauty and perfection of his filming. Yet his movies have a more organic feel; they're more human and warmer — although that's an odd word to use, considering the darkness and chilliness of his material. Maybe I simply mean they have more passion and emotion.

Fincher also seems to have more respect for his screenwriters. He chooses them with care and collaborates with them as equals. In the case of Gone Girl this has paid tremendous dividends.

Gone Girl is based on a bestselling blockbuster of a novel by Gillian Flynn ('Gillian' is pronounced with a hard 'G'). When Flynn sold the novel to the movies — for a healthy fee, I trust — part of the deal was she'd get first chance at writing the script. Then David Fincher came on board and the suits effectively said to him, "Don't worry about the girl novelist. We'll bin her attempt and hire any screenwriter you want." (I'm inventing dialogue here!) But Fincher said to wait and see what she came up with...

And Gillian Flynn has knocked it out of the ball park, as has David Fincher. Gone Girl is a superb, shocking, dark, brutal and beautifully constructed thriller. A genuine classic. And if you haven't read the book you are in for some fun surprises.

Plaudits are due to an exemplary cast led by Ben Affleck, with Neil Patrick Harris in a great screwball role, Carrie Coone wonderful as Affleck's sister, Tyler Perry jovial and sleazy as a hotshot defence lawyer and Missi Pyle memorably reprising a bit she did as an annoyingly hustling TV host in The Mentalist. Also outstanding are Lola Kirke and Boyd Holbrook as a canny white trash couple.

The movie additionally features a fine performance by a ginger cat called Boris. (While researching Boris online I discovered a mini-version of the movie performed entirely by cats. Yes, I did. Really. Here it is.)

Also on board are Fincher's A-team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on music and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth.

 I only have one criticism of the film... Affleck's sister is called Margo, which is shortened to the nickname "Go." 

Every time her name cropped up in dialogue I thought someone was being told to "go" somewhere and was momentarily baffled. The use of names in dialogue — especially odd names — is a potential minefield as far as audience confusions is concerned. Budding screenwriters make a note of that!

In the meantime, go and see Gone Girl.

 (Image credits: All from Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Get On Up by the Butterworths

You should race out and see the James Brown biopic Get On Up. It is certainly one of the finest films of the year, and it only falls short of being an all time classic because it is beset by what I think of as Barry Lyndon syndrome — it tells the story of an engaging hero's rise to success, and then proceeds to chart his decline and fall... In rather too much detail. 

Lingering on the negative stuff is always a danger in such stories — no one wants to whitewash the negative side of real life characters, or deny true tragedy. And this movie is a blast of sunshine compared to the recent Ian Dury biopic, which was an unremitting plateau of grimness.

But still, the length of Get On Up (138 minutes) and the emphasis on some of the bleaker aspects of its complex hero run the risk of making it ultimately a bit of downer for the audience. And we're in danger of leaving the cinema feeling depressed instead of uplifted.

This is despite the strikingly imaginative and often brilliant efforts of its screenwriting team, the brothers Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworh (working from an early draft of the script by Steven Baigelman). The Butterworths also recently made a superb contribution to Edge of Tomorrow. Their hilarious, incisive script — often verging on the surreal — cannily choses key moments from James Brown's life and juxtaposes them with no regard for chronology. We also have the hero directly addressing the audience (breaking the fourth wall, we call it) like Michael Caine did in Alfie.
 
It's a great approach, creating a genuine work of art, and they may well be great screenwriters. They've also done their research, and not just about the music. Check out Mr Brown's hilarious critique of the US Army's strategy in Vietnam.

Homage must also be paid to the extraordinary performances by Chadwick Boseman as James Brown and Nelsan Ellis as his righthand man, Bobby Byrd. These guys deserve the best actor and best supporting actor Oscars this year, without question. Whether they'll get them is another matter, of course. Mention should also be made of Brandon Smith, who is a scream (appropriately enough) as Little Richard.

The music in the film is also, predictably, superb. Rush out and see this movie before it's gone. It's already vanishing from cinema screens like the snow in springtime, which is a tragedy.

(Image credits: Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Homesman by Tommy Lee Jones

The Homesman is a novel by Glendon Swarthout, a fascinating and prolific American writer who also wrote The Shootist, another western which was adapted into a Don Siegel film starring John Wayne (and a recent BBC Radio 4 drama by Nick Perry). Now The Homesman has been made into a film by Tommy Lee Jones, who has directed it, stars in it and co-wrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver. 

The title refers to a homesteader or pioneer dirt farmer in the bleak frontier of the 19th century. The film tells the story of a spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (played by Hilary Swank) who ends up taking three broken women back east because they can't endure life on the prairie. The women have all gone insane. In fact, the life of the settlers as depicted is so bleak it's a wonder that anyone hasn't gone insane out there.

Transporting three mad women across the wilderness on a odyssey that will last months is a hellish task, and Cuddy is lucky enough to enlist the help of a lovable rogue called George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones). As they spar and argue and surmount hardships together, the roughneck and the old maid, we seem to be in for a classic budding romance and comedy adventure in the mould of The African Queen.

Boy, does this movie not go there. It develops in a completely unforeseen way — it's harrowing, bleak and profoundly shocking. In fact it ends with a dark, existential flourish worthy of Monte Hellman or John Huston at his most grim and anti-commercial (Fat City, say).

The ad campaign for The Homesman trumpets that it's the best western since Unforgiven. Maybe so. But that's a misleading comparison. For all its revisionist brilliance, David Peoples' script for Unforgiven followed the conventional contours of the western action movie. The Homesman is anything but that.

Well worth seeing, though.

(Image credits: The poster with the two faces close together is from Wikipedia. The rest are from Ace Show Biz as usual.)

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Fury by David Ayer

David Ayer is a writer and director who is responsible for an outstanding string of cop films, including a couple of collaborations with James Ellroy (Dark Blue and Street Kings) as well as Harsh Times, Training Day and two recent superb examples, End of Watch and Sabotage. 

Now he has delivered a superlative war movie. Indeed, Fury is the finest war picture since Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron. 

Brad Pitt as the tank commander War Daddy has never been better in this tale of the final days of World War 2, as Germany crumbles and the Nazis fight a vicious last ditch defence of the Fatherland. Unfortunately for War Daddy and his crew, the German Tiger tanks still make the American Shermans look like badly made tin toys.

War Daddy is a charismatic figure with his groovy leather jacket and boots and pin-up girls on the grips of his service revolver, which he wears in a fashionable shoulder holster. The story of Fury begins with War Daddy's assistant gunner dead in his tank (the eponymous 'Fury') and follows the arbitrary recruitment of an untrained clerk Norman (sensitively played by Logan Lerman) to take the dead man's place in the hot seat. 

The rest of the tank team consists of Ayer regular Michael Peña as Gordo ('Fatso' in Spanish), Shia LaBeouf as Bible and the memorably grungy Jon Bernthal as Coon-Ass. They are a crack team, and it's a cracking cast.

What follows is a stunning depiction of the brutal combat as the US Army rolls towards Berlin. Ayer has done his research and the script is first rate. He also does a breathtakingly good job of directing. He's particularly good at inserting moments of stillness and repose between the apocalyptic battle scenes.

There is a stunning set piece in which, after bloodily taking a German town, War Daddy drags Norman into a flat where two frightened young German women (Alicia von Rittberg and Anamaria Marinca) are living. There then ensues a remarkable film-within-a-film which explores an impressive range of emotions before the American troops roll out again to — as War Daddy says — take the next town. And the next.

Ayer's supported in fashioning this masterpiece by a formidable team of artists. His cinematographer is Roman Vasyanov who made such ravishing use of colour in Charlie Countryman (which also starred Shia LaBeouf). Here he has restricted himself to a much more grim and monochromatic palette  — grey steel, brown mud, khaki uniforms — but his polychromatic genius blazes into life for an unforgettable nighttime battle sequence.

Steven Price who composed a masterful score for Gravity provides the music here, which features brooding vocals from a chorus and appears to incorporate the ringing sound of spent cartridge cases spilling onto the metal floor of the tank during a desperate battle.

A dark, bloody, violent film full of carnage. And also a classic. If you don't think you'll find it too upsetting, you must see it. I've seen it three times and now, writing about it, I find myself wanting to see it again.
 
And, whatever you do, don't miss the marvellous end credits. The brilliant, graphically-striking use of newsreel footage once again calls to mind Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, which had a similarly splendid title sequence.

With the savage, bloody and memorable Sabotage (which was reminiscent of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), David Ayer seemed to be aspiring to the crown of Sam Peckinpah. 

With Fury he is beginning to seem worthy of it.

(Image credits: Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Horns by Keith Bunin

This film is strangely similar to The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, which I wrote about last week. Both movies are love stories combined with thrillers, and have a supernatural aspect. But whereas in Charlie Countryman the supernatural was a dispensable add-on, here in Horns it is absolutely central.

Horns (directed by Alexandre Aja and scripted by Keith Bunin) also resembles another recent favourite of mine, Gone Girl, in that it features a likable protagonist (with the crazy name of Ig Perrish, played by Daniel Radcliffe) who is accused of murdering his girlfriend — and we are made to guess initially whether he did it or not.

But Horns develops in a somewhat different way. To put it mildly. I shall now try to summarise the story. (Please don't send people after me with a strait-jacket. This actually is the plot of the movie.) As our hero wanders around, trying to piece together the fate of his girlfriend, and work out whether he killed her or not, he start to grow horns on his forehead. That's right, devil horns.

And people react strangely to these horns  — and not in the way you think. They begin to confess their deepest desires to our hero, and ask his permission to indulge them. If that sounds weird, well it is.

Horns, as well as being a murder mystery, love story, and tale of the supernatural, is also a comedy. And therein in lies the problem. These elements aren't successfully blended into a satisfying whole. Rather they're an unholy (no pun intended) mess. What is worse, the magical effects of Ig's horns keeps varying to suit the short term purposes of the script. 
Sometimes he has the power to get people to tell the truth, sometimes he brings out their hidden desires (not quite the same thing), sometimes he simply seems to exert the ability to control their behaviour. 

Oh yes, and sometimes a bunch of supernatural snakes start slithering around. And Ig has the ability to unleash them on people he doesn't like. Except when he really needs to, in the big showdown at the end. Then he can't.

This is a fatal shortcoming. If you are going to tell a fantasy story you must be absolutely clear about the fantasy element and how it operates. You have to lay down ground rules (vampires can't be exposed to sunlight, werewolves are vulnerable to silver bullets...) and resolutely stick to them. Otherwise your whole narrative unravels. Which is what happens in Horns.

What actually works best in the movie is the murder mystery aspect. The supernatural side of the story is a blithering mess. I sat there wondering how the hell (no pun intended) such an oddball movie could ever have got made. I mean, I couldn't imagine someone picking this up as an original script and saying , "Yes, we must green light this movie!" I decided it must be based on some source material...

And sure enough, when the credits rolled at the end, it turned out to be an adaptation of a novel by Joe Hill. Now, Joe Hill is a very interesting writer. He's actually the son of Stephen King, but has very honourably refused to cash in on the name of his mega-famous dad and has carved out a career on his own terms, and his own merits.

Horns the movie was a dog's breakfast, but I suspect that Horns the novel might well work. All the disparate elements which failed to gel as a film could be much more harmoniously blended in prose. I shall check out Hill's book. In fact, I'm looking forward to it.

(Image credits: all the posters are  from Ace Show Biz).

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Charlie Countryman by Matt Drake

The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman is one of the best films of the year. Under this unnecessarily unwieldy title lies a small but perfect cinematic gem — a minor masterpiece. Shia LaBeouf stars as the eponymous Charlie, and he has never been better. With his soulful, hangdog face he instantly commands the audience's sympathy.

Charlie Countryman is essentially the story of an emotionally confused young American tourist who visits Bucharest (the capital of Romania, and a fantastically photogenic city) where he becomes embroiled in an adventure of love, murder and mayhem.

But on top of that, the movie has a supernatural spin. It turns out that Charlie can see the spirits of the recently deceased. Indeed, he's gone to Bucharest because the shade of his mother has suggested it's just thing he needs to do.

I was ambivalent about this fantasy element to the film. It almost seemed expendable. Yet it also provided crucial turning points in the plot — and some of the best gags in the picture. Because Charlie Countryman is one very funny movie, utterly madcap. 

Almost as soon as he lands in Bucharest, Charlie falls in love with Gabi, a ravishing cellist. But Gabi has a dark side. Her ex (in fact, she's still married to him) is a homicidal drug dealer called Nigel, and he isn't pleased to have Charlie on the scene...

This is a lustrous, sumptuous film magnificently photographed by Roman Vasyanov (a Russian cinematographer who recently did the Brad Pitt war movie Fury).

The director is Fredrik Bond who is making his stunning feature debut here. He previously worked on a film about the musician Moby (who gets a thank you in the closing credits).

And the outstandingly fresh, engaging and wacky script was written by Matt Drake whose most recent screenwriting credit was on Project X, a memorable little picture about a teenage party which explodes into catastrophe when word of it goes viral on social media. I see hundreds of movies every year, but Project X stuck in my memory and now I wonder if that was because of Drake's contribution. He's clearly a writer to be reckoned with.

As Charlie's love interest, Evan Rachel Wood is gorgeous — positively radiant. And deeply convincing — I thought she must be Romanian until I checked her name in the credits. It's an odd, backhanded compliment to say her accent was so authentic that I found it confusing. (I thought she was saying "leave" when she was saying "live". Or was it the other way around?) Wood is a stunner. I last sighted her in a pivotal role in The Ides of March and I'm about to see her as the poisonous daughter Veda in the HBO mini series of James M. Cain's novel Mildred Pierce. I'm looking forward to it.

The heavy of the piece — and Gabi's husband — is Mads Mikkelsen, a Danish actor who was so great in A Royal Affair and The Hunt. He also played the bad guy in Casino Royale. Here he is being bad again. He's magnificent; savagely menacing even when he's wearing a shirt printed with a pattern of cartoon dachshunds. (The inventive costume design is by Jennifer Johnson who worked on Hard Candy.)
 
And Rupert Grint (best known as Harry Potter's sidekick) and James Buckley (hugely famed in England for his comedy The Inbetweeners) also appear as a couple of delightfully drug-addled young British tourists who share a hostel with Charlie and drag him along to a strip club, where things go horribly awry...

Catch Charlie Countryman on the big screen while you can. It won't be around for long. It's opening weekend's box office in America was $8,000 — compared to $34,000,000 (!) for the inept and laughable Equalizer. Charlie Countryman is an underdog blockbuster, an indie smash, a great little movie. Utterly screwball, but utterly spellbinding. 

(Image credits: The bulk of the pictures are from Ace Show Biz, as usual. The purple heart image ("pretty f***ing cool") is from Indie Wire. The neon heart image is from Cineworld, where I saw the movie. This diversity of posters seems to indicate that the suits were uncertain — baffled, actually — as to how they should market this splendidly strange film. The shot of Mads in his dachshunds shirt is from the Mads Mikkelsen site.)