Parky at the Pictures (DVD 10/5/2018)
Gay Canadian auteur Bruce LaBruce has featured regularly in this column with such arch provocations No Skin Off My Ass (1993), Super 8½ (1994) and Hustler White (1996). He returns with The Misandrists, a typically trashy satire on terrorism, patriarchy and pornography that proves to be an amusing rather than truly subversive companion to The Raspberry Reich (2004).
Set `Somewhere in Ger(wo)many’ in 1999, the action opens with schoolgirls Olivia Kunisch and Kita Updike discovering the wounded Til Schindler in a meadow close to their convent school for abused and delinquent girls. However, Big Mother Susanne Sachsse refuses to allow men within the walls of the red-tiled villa where she has organised wimpled acolytes Viva Ruiz, Kembra Pfahler, Caprice Crawford and Grete Gehrke into the Female Liberation Army in a bid to undermine the male population and establish a gynocracy.
Part of Sachsse’s plan for `asymmetrical warfare’ is to produce emasculating movies and she orders two of her minions to pick up tips by studying gay porn. However, Kunsch is so distressed by Updike’s fixation on Schindler that she betrays them to Sachsse, who is already troubled by the disclosure that she is harbouring an undercover cop. But Schindler is so inspired by the FLA agenda that he is prepared to go to drastic lengths to do his bit for the cause.
As always, LaBruce takes delight in seeking to shock. But this is one of his tamer efforts in terms of skin flashing and he almost seems to have inserted the gay segment to pander to a core audience essentially disinterested in the antics of lesbian nuns. However, he makes deft use of James Carman’s photography, Desi Santiago’s production design and Ramona Petersen’s costumes and has clearly found a muse in Sachsse, who not only headlined The Raspberry Reich, but who also plays the academic in possession of a body part belonging to Red Army Faction radical Ulrike Meinhof in Ulrike’s Brain, a 2017 featurette that should have been included on the disc as an extra.
Whether having slow-motion pillow fights or finding novel uses for hard-boiled eggs, the ensemble members enter into the campily salacious spirit of proceedings that owe debts to the softcore horrors of such 1970s exploitation merchants as José Bénazéraf and Jean Rollin. Cineastes, however, will also spot the allusions to films as different as Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933), Arch Gottler’s Three Stooges short, Woman Haters (1934), and Nagisa Oshima’s Ai No Corrida (1976), although LaBruce has revealed that his principal inspirations were Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Don Siegel’s The Beguiled (1971).
As luck would have it, Sofia Coppola’s remake of the latter also comes under scrutiny this week. Adapted from Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel, A Painted Devil, this is a peculiar project for a film-maker who has previous explored the dynamics within groups of women and young girls in The Virgin Suicides (1999) and The Bling Ring (2013). But, while Coppola views this period piece from a modern perspective, she resists the knowing anachronisms that undermined Marie Antoinette (2006) and avoids the heated melodramatics that made Clint Eastwood’s encounter with Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman and Jo Ann Harris feel, as Variety beautifully put it, like `a mediocre Tennessee Williams play staged by Sam Peckinpah as a third-wave-feminist horror film’.
At the height of the American Civil War, Nicole Kidman runs a seminary for young ladies in Virginia. However, the threat posed by the warring Union and Confederate armies means that she and assistant Kirsten Dunst are only responsible for five students, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence, Emma Howard and Addison Riecke. One day, however, Laurence finds wounded Irish mercenary Colin Farrell while picking mushrooms in the woods and Kidman reluctantly agrees to nurse him until his leg heals.
As a Christian with a rigid sense of propriety, Kidman seeks to prevent the charming Farrell from having a corrupting influence. But he is attracted to both Dunst and Fanning and, as his gradual recovery brings his departure date closer, he starts to flirt with them in the hope of staying on as a gardener. His scheme is jeopardised, however, by his decision to sleep with Fanning after informing Dunst that he loves her and he pays for his duplicity after Kidman amputates his leg after he is injured in a fall.
Asking Philippe Le Sourd to shoot in murky light to reinforce the 1860s feel captured so precisely by production designer Anne Ross and costumier Stacey Battat, Coppola strives to downplay the more sensational aspects of the storyline. But, while the cast ably responds to her request for naturalism, the simmering sexual tensions between Farrell and Kidman, Dunst and Fanning unavoidably feel like something lifted from a bodice-ripping penny dreadful. Consequently, while this has more to say about gender, power and desire than Siegel’s original and is much more subtle in its approach to the fugitive’s methods and motives, it struggles to convince that this was a picture that needed remaking.
The frontier also provides the setting for Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, a study of the US Army’s treatment of the Native American tribes that falls far short of its revisionist intentions. In its heyday, the Hollywood Western made little attempt to avoid stereotypes and Cooper plays the same dangerous game as Martin McDonagh in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by humanising a bigot who scarcely seems to earn his shot at redemption. It’s not clear, however, to what extent Cooper has amended a screenplay written in the 1980s by Donald E. Stewart, who died in 1999 after earning a BAFTA for Costa-Gavras’s Missing (1982) and contributing to the Jack Ryan trilogy that was adapted from the Tom Clancy novels, The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994).
It’s 1892 and Captain Christian Bale is close to retiring from his posting at Fort Berringer in New Mexico. However, he is given one last mission to escort dying Cheyenne chief Wes Studi to his tribal lands in Montana, along with his son Adam Beach, daughter Tanaya Beatty and daughter-in-law Q’orianka Kilcher. Faced with court-martial and the loss of his pension if he refuses, Bale selects old pals Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors and Jesse Plemons for the detail, along with rookie Timothée Chalamet. But the party comes under attack from the Comanches that butchered Rosamund Pike’s husband and three children and, when Chalamet is killed and Majors wounded in an ambush, Bale has to decide whether to forget the prejudices of a lifetime and seek Studi and Beach’s assistance in countering the threat.
Magnificently photographed by Masanobu Takayanagi to emphasise the vastness of the landscape and the insignificance of the humans trying to tame it. this is a film that trades in cliché and caricature with a disapproving. Yet, despite his unforgivable flaws, Bale is depicted as a hero and there is something almost sentimentally calculating about his victories over some rapacious fur traders, disgraced sergeant Ben Foster and the settlers who refuse to allow Studi to be buried on his ancestral land. He is even permitted to sneer when commander Peter Mullan and wife Robyn Malcolm lay out their vision of a liberal future over dinner at Fort Winslow.
But Bale gives a suitably gnarled performance and is well supported by Studi and Beach, as well as his Cavalry stalwarts. The violence is more brutal than anything in one of John Ford’s collaborations with John Wayne, however, with Cooper seeming to consider it a duty to show the savagery of the Old West in relentless close-up. Yet, nowhere does he challenge the tribal massacres sanctioned by Washington in the name of the Manifest Destiny and many will be discomfited by the supremacist arrogance that is denounced as cynically as the sin in a Cecil B. DeMille epic.
Published in 1951, My Cousin Rachel has always been seen as the poor relation to such Daphne Du Maurier gems as Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and Frenchman’s Creek, not to mention the short stories that inspired such disturbing films as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). To a degree, part of the blame can be laid at the door of Henry Koster’s misjudged 1952 adaptation, which afforded Richard Burton his Hollywood debut alongside Olivia De Havilland. But Roger Michell goes some way to giving the story a new lease of life with a studied adaptation that gives the ambiguous saga a little Gothic gloss.
Having been entrusted into the care of his cousin Ambrose (Deano Mitchison), orphaned toddler Philip Ashley grows into a strapping 1830s man (Sam Claflin), whose devotion to his protector prompts him to leave their Cornish estate for Florence, when he learns that Ambrose has hastily married his widowed cousin, Rachel (Rachel Weisz). Arriving to discover Ambrose dead and Rachel missing, Philip concludes that she has conspired with Guido Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) to murder her husband for his fortune.
Returning home, Philip is advised to have nothing to do with Rachel by guardian Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) and family lawyer Couch (Simon Russell Beale). When she shows up and presses her claim to the inheritance, Nick’s daughter, Louise (Holliday Grainger), becomes concerned that her childhood playmate is losing both his heart and his mind to a seductress who has even charmed a crotchety servant like Seecombe (Tim Barlow). However, when Philip begins behaving erratically and seems to be suffering from the effects of Rachel’s home-brewed herbal tea, the Kendalls become convinced that she has done much more than poison his mind.
Cannily delaying Rachel’s appearance until Philip has convinced himself that she’s a scheming witch, Michell exploits the potency of Rachel Weisz performance to the max. Exuding sensuality and mystery, she twists Sam Claflin around her little finger and keeps the audience guessing as to whether she is maligned or malignant. As was the case with Burton and De Havilland, Claflin sometimes struggles to keep pace with his Oscar-winning co-star, while several of the supporting cast seem unable to resist the temptation to steal scenes. But, while he sometimes struggles with the pacing of his tale, Michell keeps the truth shrouded and uses the heady blend of lust and paranoia to offer some acute observations into male fears of women with money, looks and power.
He and cinematographer Mike Eley also make the most of the spectacular scenery and the atmospheric interiors chosen by designers Alice Normington and Dinah Collin. But everything turns on the ingenuity of Du Maurier’s plotting and one wonders why film-makers have not cast the net wider by revisiting the likes of The Years Between and Hungry Hill and tackling some of the many novels and short stories that have yet to reach the screen.
Having made his name with Broadway plays like A Few Good Men (1989), reinforced his reputation with TV shows like The West Wing (1999-2006) and won an Oscar for his adapted screenplay for David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), Aaron Sorkin turns his hand to directing with Molly’s Game, which he drew from Molly Bloom’s memoir, Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World. Erudite and slick, this is very much the work of an accomplished writer. But Sorkin combines capably with editors Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham and Josh Schaeffer to ensure that this also has a visual panache to match its poise and pace.
Much to the frustration of father-coach Kevin Costner, Jessica Chastain not only misses her chance to represent the United States at the 2002 Olympics in the moguls event, but she also takes a year off from her legal studies and becomes a key figure in the underground poker game that Jeremy Strong runs for the Los Angeles elite. Among the players is Hollywood star Michael Cera, who follows Chastain when she sets up her own operation. However, they fall out when she discovers that he has conspired to destroy compulsive card sharp Bill Camp and she relocates to New York.
As she explains to lawyer Idris Elba, after her autobiography attracts the attention of the FBI, Chastain found plenty of willing clients, including Irish alcoholic Chris O’Dowd, who introduces her to wealthy members of the Russian mafia. But, despite raking in the cash by taking a percentage of big pots, Chastain begins to feel the strain and becomes hooked on drugs at the very moment that her business comes under attack from Italian mobsters. Moreover, one of her regulars betrays her to the Feds and she has to convince Elba that she is a victim rather than an avaricious predator.
Although the scenes between Chastain and Elba eventually verge on the sentimental, they crackle with a tension that Sorkin sustains throughout the 140-minute running time. Much depends on the dynamism of the writing, with the excellent Chastain enhancing her tenacious performance with a voiceover that is rooted in the best traditions of film noir. But Sorkin keeps Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s camera moving in the manner familiar from his various TV shows, while his decision to present the core narrative as a series of flashbacks increases its intensity and intrigue. Yet, despite the insights into such recurring Sorkin themes as power, success, greed and vulnerability, there’s a superficiality to proceedings that makes it difficult for the audience to invest in Chastain’s plight and it’s only when she patches things up with her psychologist father (a fine Costner cameo) that the picture approaches anything resembling emotional depth.
American audiences have now rejected two films about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. But, while Peter Berg’s Patriots Day (2016) was more of a gung-ho flagwaver depicting the manhunt for perpetrators Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, David Gordon Green’s Stronger focuses on one of the victims, Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs below the knees after being caught in the blast close to the finishing line. This could easily have been a mawkish melodrama. But Gordon and screenwriter John Pollono largely avoid dwelling on Bauman’s courageous response to agony and adversity by concentrating on his reluctance to become a media-friendly symbol of hope in the War Against Terror.
When not working at the deli counter at Costco, Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is rubbing along in a small apartment with his alcoholic mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson), or kvetching about the Boston Red Sox baseball team with his buddies at the local bar. One night, he runs into ex-girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), who admits that she still has feelings for him, but finds his reluctance to commit a serious drawback. Determined to prove that he is worthy of a second chance, Jeff pushes through the crowd to greet Erin when she finishes the Boston Marathon. But, as he strains to spot her on the course, he notices a man in dark glasses behaving furtively. Before he can process what he has seen, however, he is felled by an explosion.
Waking to learn that his legs have been amputated below the knee, Jeff struggles to remain positive during rehab. But worse follows when he returns home and Patty starts arranging interviews so that American can get to know her heroic son. She also encourages him to attend a Stanley Cup ice hockey game at the invitation of the Boston Bruins. But the prospect of being the flagbearer before the game causes a PTSD flashback in the lift and Erin tries to convince Patty that keeping Jeff in the spotlight is doing him more harm than good.
Demonstrating once again what a gifted actor Jake Gyllenhaal, eschews cheap gimmicks to convey Jeff’s physical and psychological torment, as he becomes dependent on booze and his enabling mother to keep his head above water. However, Tatiana Maslany makes a fine foil, as she deals with her own sense guilt and the renewed love she feels for a man whose fury and confusion finally find out outlet through his friendship with Carlos Arredondo (Carlos Sanz), the man who had saved his life on the street and who is suffering his own torment having lost a son in Iraq. Ill-served by the script, Miranda Richardson resists making the possessive Patty a monster mother, while Clancy Brown barely registers as Jeff’s anguished father.
As he has shown in films as different as George Washington (2000), Undertow (2004) and Prince Avalanche (2013), Green has an eye for tiny details that draw the viewer into the story. But Sean Bobbitt’s camerawork errs on the steady side, as Green allows the focus to fall on the performances and the themes of heroism, grief and guilt that speak volumes about the American mindset as a long-cocooned populace comes to terms with the spectre of attack.
Film and video artist Julian Rosefeldt had been so impressed by Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-nominated turn as Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (2008) that he always had her in mind for his multi-screen gallery installation, Manifesto. Filmed around Berlin over 12 days in December 2014, this is a witty and insightful study of the ideas that helped shape the social and artistic thinking of the 20th century and beyond. But, while the theories quoted remain provocative, it’s the combination of Rosefeldt’s imaginative staging and Blanchett’s flamboyant delivery that makes this feature variation so challenging and compelling.
As a fuse begins to burn during the Prologue, Blanchett reads passages from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto (1848), Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto (1918) and Philippe Soupault’s Literature and the Rest (1920). She then assumes the guise of a homeless man brandishing a bullhorn on a rooftop to explore such Situationist sources as Lucio Fontana’s White Manifesto (1946), the John Reed Club of New York’s Draft Manifesto (1932), Constant Nieuwenhuys’s Manifesto (1948), Alexander Rodchenko’s Manifesto of Suprematists and Non-Objective Painters (1919) and Guy Debord’s Situationist Manifesto (1960).
Blanchett then morphs into a high-powered broker keeping her eyes fixed on a computer screen as she considers Futurism through such dissertations as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism (1909), Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Gino Severini’s Manifesto of the Futurist Painters (1910), Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Futurist Antitradition (1913) and Dziga Vertov’s WE: Variant of a Manifesto (1922). The focus turns to architecture, as a stressed mother monitors the machinery at a rubbish incineration plants while pondering Bruno Taut’s Down with Seriousism! (1920) and Daybreak (1921), Antonio Sant’Elia’s Manifesto of Futurist Architecture (1914), Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Architecture Must Blaze (1980) and Robert Venturi’s Non-Straightforward Architecture: A Gentle Manifesto (1966).
In order to examine such key texts of Vorticism and Abstract Expressionism as Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc’s Preface to the Blue Rider Almanac (1912), Barnett Newman’s The Sublime is Now (1948) and Wyndham Lewis’s Manifesto (1914), Blanchett becomes a chic CEO reading off index cards, while dons a spiky black wig and covers her arms in tattoos so her snarling punk can cite such Stridentist and Creationist works as Manuel Maples Arce’s A Strident Prescription (1921), Vicente Huidobro’s We Must Create (1922). and Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner The Realist Manifesto (1920). The next chameleonic shift sees her become a scientist to proclaim the salient points of such Suprematist and Constructivist writings as Gabo and Pevsner’s The Realistic Manifesto, Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Manifesto (1916), Olga Rozanova’s Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism (1917) and Alexander Rodchenko’s Manifesto of Suprematists and Non-Objective Painters (1919).
The scene shifts to a funeral for Blanchett to hold forth on Dadaism through such seminial works as Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto (1918) and Manifesto of Monsieur Aa the Antiphilosopher, Francis Picabia’s Dada Cannibalistic Manifesto, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes’s The Pleasures of Dada and To the Public, Paul Éluard’s Five Ways to Dada Shortage or Two Words of Explanation, Louis Aragon’s Dada Manifesto (all 1920) and Richard Huelsenbeck’s First German Dada Manifesto (1918). She then turns puppeteer to interact with a miniature version of herself, as she runs through such pivotal Surrealist and Spatialist primers as André Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) and Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1929) and Lucio Fontana’s White Manifesto (1946).
In a nice touch, Blanchett is joined by playwright husband Andrew Upton and their children, Dash, Roman and Iggy, as she plays a prim matriarch basing her musings on Pop Art on Claes Oldenburg’s I Am for an Art… (1961). She then reinvents herself as a Russian choreographer teaching her troupe about Fluxus and Performance Art through Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto (1965), Emmett Williams, Philip Corner, John Cage, Dick Higgins, Allen Bukoff, Larry Miller, Eric Andersen, Tomas Schmit, Ben Vautier and George Maciunas’s Fluxus Manifesto (1963), Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Maintenance Art Manifesto (1969) and Kurt Schwitters’s The Merz Stage (1919).
Just as some might be flagging, Blanchett dazzles in a double act as a newsreader and a field reporter discussing the finer points of Conceptual Art and Minimalism through such monographs as Sol LeWitt’s Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1967) and Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969), Sturtevant’s Shifting Mental Structures (1999) and Man is Double Man is Copy Man is Clone (2004), and Adrian Piper’s Idea, Form, Context (1969). Finally, she essays a pre-school teacher making light of her class’s homework by reflecting on such cinematic tracts as Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision (1963), Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules of Filmmaking (2002), Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 (1995), Werner Herzog’s Minnesota Declaration (1999) and Lebbeus Woods’s Manifesto (1993).
As was the case with Sally Potter’s Rage (2009), this is far from an easy ride, with the torrent of ideas sometimes seeming to overwhelm the viewer. But, such is Blanchett’s brilliance, that she manages to make even the most complex concepts accessible through her nuanced readings. Changing her appearance and voice for each vignette without the transformations seeming stuntish, Blanchett is heavily indebted to make-up artist Morag Ross and hair designer Massimo Gattabrusi. However, production designer Erwin Prib, cinematographer Christoph Krauss and composers Nils Frahm and Ben Lukas Boysen also help Rosefeldt keep things fresh, as the thoughts of pioneers and subversives coerce the audience into remaining attentive and rethinking their own attitudes to the world around them.
Half a century ago, John Lennon explored his feelings for his late mother in `Julia’, a White Album track that is one of several Beatle classics to feature in the considered documentary, Looking For Lennon. As the director of Passport to Liverpool (2008) and Get Back: The Story of the City That Rocked the World (2016), Roger Appleton is no stranger to the Mersey scene and he has wisely enlisted the help of Beatleologist David Bedford, whose Liddypool and The Fab One Hundred and Four are among the best tomes on the band’s Scouse roots. Another sound inclusion is Michael Hill, the Quarry Bank classmate who wrote the amusing memoir, John Lennon: The Boy Who Became a Legend, although there are a clutch of notable absentees, including half-sisters Julia Baird and Jackie Dykins and drummer Pete Best, who might have had some interesting first-hand insights into the circumstances that forged Lennon’s personality and talent.
Nevertheless, Appleton and narrator Gary Mavers provide a solid introduction to a complex character whose rebellious nature is contextualised by academics John Belchem, Mike Benbough-Jackson, Paul Farley and Frank McDonagh in their discussion of Liverpool’s status as the Second City of Empire and its self-image as a cauldron of imported socio-cultural influences. However, Lennon’s difficult home life reinforced his sense of being an outsider, as he was raised by his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George after parents Alfred and Julia respectively prioritised a life at sea and a new romance.
School pals Stan Williams, Tim Holmes, Don Beattie, Michael Hill and Nigel Walley deliver their anecdotes with polished geniality, with the latter poignantly recalling witnessing Julia Lennon being killed by a car being driven by an off-duty policeman. Their stories will be familiar to aficionados, but it’s always nice to hear them again and the same goes for the recollections of Bill Smith, Rod Davis, Colin Hanton and Len Garry about the formation of The Quarrymen, the skiffle group whose line-up variously included Pete Shotton, Eric Griffiths, Ivan Vaughan, Ken Brown and John Duff Lowe, as well as Paul McCartney and George Harrison, who both attended Liverpool Institute.
Charles Roberts recalls taking the first photograph of the combo before the focus shifts on to Lennon’s time at Liverpool College of Art, where fellow student Helen Anderson, housemate Rod Murray and life model June Furlong (who will be familiar from David Olusoga’s A House Through Time) remember a maverick with a greater talent for trouble than painting. However, they all agree that Lennon had a way with words and a rough charm that resulted in his marriage to classmate Cynthia Powell and a meeting of minds with Stuart Sutcliffe, the Scottish artist and reluctant bass player whose death from a brain haemorrhage at the age of 21 had a profound psychological effect, as Hamburg friends Jürgen Vollmer and Astrid Kirchherr surmise.
By this time, Lennon was fronting The Beatles, whose rise through the Mersey and Hamburg club circuits is assessed by official biographer Hunter Davies, as well as promoters Dave Forshaw and Sam Leach, and fellow musicians John Hutchinson, Billy Hatton and Chas Newby, who often filled in when Sutcliffe was indisposed. In truth, even though the tale has oft been told before, Appleton rather rushes this segment, as he does a flash forward to Lennon composing `Help!’ as a cry from the heart at the height of Beatlemania. An execrable rendition of a song key to understanding Lennon’s attitude to fame by Gary Wilcox (whose name is misspelt as `Garry’ in the credits) ends the film on a low point. But it still proves a necessary corrective to such coy screen dramas as Richard Marquand’s Birth of the Beatles (1979), Iain Softley’s Backbeat (1994) and Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Nowhere Boy (2009).