William Goldman (12 August 1931 – 16 November 2018)
The man who famously said, “Nobody knows anything” – and he was right – William Goldman was a gifted storyteller (not that he would have agreed with that opinion). A screenwriter with as many unpublished scripts as ones brought to the screen, Goldman started out as a novelist, publishing his first novel, The Temple of Gold, in 1956. Further novels followed until a brush with Hollywood brought him to the attention of producer Elliot Kastner. With an agreement that Goldman would write a script based on Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer character, and Kastner would produce it, the resulting movie, Harper (1966), was a hit and Goldman’s place in the Hollywood firmament was seemingly assured, especially as his next script, for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), won him his first Oscar.
But over the next decade, and despite Goldman being in demand and winning another Oscar – for All the President’s Men (1976) – he began to discover that getting a script made into a movie wasn’t that easy. Several projects fell by the wayside, and he found himself less and less in demand, a strange circumstance for a screenwriter with two Oscars on his mantle. The Eighties were a particularly rough period for Goldman, more so after the publication of his first memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983), which contained that quote, and which was openly critical of the Hollywood machine. It wasn’t until he teamed up with Rob Reiner for an adaptation of his novel, The Princess Bride (one of only two screenplays that he could look at “without humiliation”), that Goldman found himself back in demand. He worked steadily through the Nineties, often as a script consultant, and maintained an enviable reputation.
Looking back over Goldman’s career, there are some tantalising what ifs, screenplays that were never used, from adaptations of Papillon and The Right Stuff, to a musical remake of Grand Hotel (1932), to adaptations of some of his other novels, and perhaps, most intriguing of all considering how the actual movie turned out, Mission: Impossible II (2000). And let’s not forget, these are the scripts that didn’t get produced. With such an impressive body of work, it’s no wonder that Goldman remained a highly regarded writer whose work – concise, cohesive, intelligent, entertaining – was often a guarantor of a good movie (you could argue that the bad ones were the fault of the studios or the directors etc.). But Goldman himself was always self-critical, stating once that he didn’t like his work, which is a shame as there are plenty of people who, if he were still with us, would disagree with him wholeheartedly.
Cast: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Vanessa Redgrave, Frances Barber, Leanne Best
In London in 1979, aspiring young actor Peter Turner (Bell) met Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Bening). Although theirs was an unlikely friendship (at first), the pair soon found themselves in a romantic relationship, one that saw Grahame being introduced to Turner’s family – mum Bella (Walters), dad Joe (Cranham), and brother Joe Jr (Graham) – and in turn, Turner travelling to the US and meeting Grahame’s mother, Jean (Redgrave), and her sister, Joy (Barber). But it wasn’t long before their relationship foundered, and Turner returned home to continue his acting career. Two years later, while appearing in a production of The Glass Menagerie in the UK, Grahame was taken ill, but instead of staying in hospital, she contacted Turner and asked to stay at his family’s home in Liverpool. Despite her assertions that her illness was nothing serious, Grahame was actually suffering from cancer, but she didn’t want anyone to know, and made Turner swear not to tell anyone, not even her family. In the days that followed, Grahame’s health worsened, and Turner found it increasingly difficult to look after her, and in the end, the secrecy she wanted couldn’t be maintained…
Based on Peter Turner’s memoir of the same name, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a tragic tale given muted relevance by the nature of its origins and its refusal to show just why Grahame was, during the early Fifties at least, such a big deal. Thanks to Matt Greenhalgh’s script, which focuses more on Turner than it does Grahame, the movie makes pointed comments about Grahame the woman – her four marriages (one of them to her stepson from her second marriage), her fading career, her frightened refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of having cancer – while giving audiences little in the way of examples as to why she became a star (a short clip from Naked Alibi (1954) doesn’t really cut it). Bening is superb in the role, and captures Grahame’s carefree nature and nagging insecurities with impressive precision, but there’s also a sense that she’s working extra hard to create such a telling portrayal, almost as if she’s filling in the blanks in the script. As the movie’s deus ex machina, she’s an essential component, but this is about Turner’s relationship with Grahame, not the other way round, and how her illness affects him.
The problem with this is that Turner isn’t that well-developed a character either. What’s missing is the spark that brought them together in the first place, because personable though he is, Turner remains something of a cipher, a young man swept up by the glamour surrounding Grahame and her fame, and a little too easily for comfort. Motives are missing on both sides, and again Greenhalgh’s script isn’t interested in exploring these issues, and McGuigan seems content to follow the dictates of the script. Thankfully, Bell is just as good as Bening in overcoming the drawbacks inherent in the script, and gives a nuanced, detailed performance that impresses as much as his co-star’s. Elsewhere, the movie is an odd combination of visual styles, with the scenes set in London and Liverpool having a naturalistic, somewhat dour look to them, while the scenes set in California and New York are bright, over-saturated, and almost rose-tinted in their representation. Maybe this is intended to reflect Turner’s memories of those visits, but the US scenes are jarring and feel like they should belong in another movie (or at least a different cut of this one). In the end, and no matter how much the two storylines are intriguingly intertwined, this is one tragic romance that doesn’t have the impact it should have.
Rating: 6/10 – despite two magnificent central performances, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool isn’t as persuasive or emotionally devastating as it wants to be; there’s a distance here that stops the viewer from becoming too involved, and though it’s handsomely mounted and shot, it never seems to be aiming for anything other than perfectly acceptable.
Miloš Forman once said, “It all begins in the script. If what’s happening is interesting, it doesn’t matter where you shoot from, people will be interested to watch. If you write something boring, you can film from mosquitoes’ underpants and it will still be boring.” Forman knew the value of a good script, and even a cursory look at the movies he made reveals a grasp of that essential provision. Though he was a master visualist, and an expert at creating the relevant mood for each of his projects, his affinity for the written word always made his movies stand out from the crowd. Through dialogue he could reach the emotional heart of a character and show that emotional heart to audiences around the world. From his beginnings in his native Czechoslovakia, through to the movies he made as a continual outsider within the Hollywood system, Forman was a director who pursued the projects that interested him, and through doing so, ensured that his body of work would remain fascinating and thought-provoking.
At a young age, he wanted to be a theatrical producer. He attended boarding school with the likes of future Czech president Václav Havel, and future movie makers Ivan Passer and Jerzy Skolimowski. He studied screenwriting at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and later worked for Alfréd Radok, the creator of Laterna Magika. He began making movies in the early Sixties, creating a comedic style that brought him to the attention of festival programmers around the world, and soon to much wider audiences than could be found in Czechoslovakia. The Prague Spring of 1968 pushed Forman into leaving his home country, and he wound up in the US, where after a good but inauspicious start, he was hired to direct an adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckkoo’s Nest – Forman always said that he was hired because he was within the producers’ price range. He won an Oscar for his efforts on the movie, and from there on, the future of his career was assured (he won a second Oscar for his work on Amadeus).
Forman continued to make intelligent, critically well received movies across a variety of genres. But though his movies didn’t always do well at the box office, his standing within the movie community increased with every project. Even a “lesser” Forman movie, such as Goya’s Ghosts (2006), had moments where his artistry and skill as a director helped transform the material into something better than originally envisaged. He worked particularly well with actors, and steered the likes of Jack Nicholson, Brad Dourif, Elizabeth McGovern, F. Murray Abraham, and Woody Harrelson to Oscar nominations (Nicholson and Abraham, of course, won). Forman was also a staunch advocate of individual freedoms, and was wise to the irony of fleeing one country (Czechoslovakia) where censorship was directly applied by the State, to another country (the US) where indirect censorship applied by the studios, often meant it was more difficult to make the kinds of movies he was interested in making. But what was most important to him was that he liked to have fun when making a movie, even if he was making a serious drama, and in that respect, his movies retain an engaging, sprightly quality to them, a liveliness that helps keep them feeling fresh even after repeated viewings.
Walter Lassally (18 December 1926 – 23 October 2017)
Walter Lassally’s family fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and came to England where his father made industrial and documentary movies. Following in his father’s footsteps, Lassally made his name as a cinematographer in the Fifties, working as part of the British Free Cinema movement, and alongside directors such as Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, and Lindsay Anderson. These were short movies and documentaries that reflected the mood of Britain at the time, and Lassally’s involvement in them helped forge the partnership he made with Richardson in the early Sixties, and which led to a trilogy of movies about working class British lives (past and present) that brought both of them international acclaim. Following his collaboration with Richardson, Lassally reunited with Cypriot director Michael Cacoyannis, with whom he’d worked sporadically during the late Fifties, on perhaps his most famous work, Zorba the Greek (1964). Lassally won an Oscar for his work on the movie, and when he retired he donated it to a beach front taverna located near to where Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates famously danced together in the movie (alas, the statuette was lost in a fire there in 2012).
Lassally continued to work steadily after that, and was much in demand, but in 1972 he began another working relationship that would provide him with extra plaudits in the years ahead, with James Ivory. They worked together off and on over the next twenty years, and Lassally continued to provide the movies he worked on with a thoughtful and intelligent visual approach to the material, while also doing his best to come up with new innovative ways of presenting said material. And even though he officially “retired” in the early Nineties he continued working up until his last feature, Crescent Heart (2001). While not a household name in the same sense as some of his contemporaries, Lassally was nevertheless a signifier of quality if you saw his name in the credits of a movie. Thanks to his early background in shorts and documentaries, Lassally was always able to find the truth within an image, and provide a clarity of vision that always helped to elevate the material or the narrative he was working with. An unsung hero behind the lens then, but very capable of capturing sights that could provoke an emotional and an intellectual response in the viewer.
1 – A Girl in Black (1956)
2 – A Taste of Honey (1961)
3 – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
Before he became an actor, Martin Landau was an editorial cartoonist for the New York Daily News, a job he held from the age of seventeen before the lure of the stage claimed his attention at the age of twenty-two. In 1955 he auditioned – along with five hundred others – for the Actors Studio. There were only two successful applicants, Landau, and a young actor named Steve McQueen. While there he was also best friends with another young actor, James Dean. Two years later he made his debut on Broadway, and two years after that he made an impact playing a ruthless villain in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
However, despite further roles on stage and the big screen, Landau’s career really took off thanks to the small screen. Guest spots on shows such as Bonanza, The Outer Limits, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. led to a recurring, then permanent role on Mission: Impossible (1966-69). The role of Rollin Hand gave Landau the chance to employ a variety of accents and disguises, and it brought him international recognition. But he was never able to capitalise on the show’s success and transpose it into a better big screen career. TV continued to dominate, and during the Seventies he was best known for appearing in Space: 1999 (1975-77). It wasn’t until Francis Ford Coppola offered Landau a plum role in Tucker: The Man and His Dream that he began to experience the kind of career upsurge that he was long overdue for.
In the years that followed, Landau did some of his best work, and earned very high praise indeed from Woody Allen: “Of all the actors I’ve ever worked with, he gives expression to my dialogue exactly as I hear it. His colloquialisms, his idiom, his inflection is exactly correct. So of all the people who’ve ever read my lines, he makes them correct every time…” And in 1995 he won an Oscar for his role as an aging Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s excellent biopic Ed Wood. From then on, Landau continued to work as steadily as before, but often adding a much needed lustre to some of the movies and shows he appeared in. It could be argued that Landau had to wait until he was much older before he could give the performances that were tailor-made for him, but even if that were true, he still leaves behind a tremendous body of work – from the Fifties to the current decade – that we can enjoy for many more years to come.
With Patrick McGuinness, Ann Finnell, James Williams, Michael Glover, Dwayne Darnell, Brenton Butler, Melissa Butler, James Stephens
On May 7th 2000, outside a Ramada Inn in Jacksonville, Florida, a vacationing couple, James and Mary Ann Stephens, were accosted by a black man with a gun. Within seconds he had shot Mary Ann Stephens in the face, killing her instantly. He ran off with her bag, which contained her purse (which had around $1200 inside it), and other items. The murder took place at approximately 7:30 in the morning. A description of the assailant was broadcast to police vehicles in the area, with the warning that he was likely to be armed and dangerous. Around two and a half hours later, fifteen-year-old Brenton Butler was stopped by two officers in a police cruiser; he was on his way to a local Blockbuster Video store to drop off a job application. He was taken to the Ramada Inn where James Stephens identified him as the man who had killed his wife. Butler was duly arrested, and during his questioning by the detectives assigned to the case, he signed a confession. The case went to trial later on in 2000.
An open and shut case, yes? Certainly the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department thought so. Thanks to James Stephens and the certainty he showed in identifying Butler as the killer, the police looked no further than the teenager they had in custody. Not so surprising you might say. And you’d wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But Murder on a Sunday Morning highlights the dreadful way in which the detectives on the case, James Williams and Dwayne Darnell, along with a colleague, Michael Glover, did nothing to properly investigate the case, but did all they could to coerce Butler into making a confession (which, in reality, he never did). As a miscarriage of justice, it’s frightening. As a cautionary tale about the perils of “swift justice” it’s also alarming. As a vindication of “the best legal system in the world” (a direct quote from the trial judge, Wendell Waddell III), it’s on shakier ground. This is a case that should never have gone to trial. The police knew they didn’t have a case, the State Attorney knew they didn’t have a case, but the trial went ahead anyway.
Thank heavens then, for Patrick McGuinness and Ann Finnell, two lawyers appointed by the Public Defenders Office to represent Butler at trial. It didn’t take them long to realise that the prosecution’s case was flimsy, and it didn’t take them long to work out a strategy for Butler’s defence that would be effective in exposing the police investigation for what it really was: non-existent. And thanks to Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s excellent documentary, we can see how McGuinness and Finnell took on the prosecution’s case and dismantled it piece by piece. de Lestrade and his French crew were there from the time McGuinness and Finnell were appointed, all the way through the pre-trial period as they made their own enquiries, and then at the trial itself, recording the key exchanges that highlighted the police’s laissez faire attitude and their unwillingness to mount a proper investigation.
The movie adopts a straightforward, linear approach that allows the viewer to become increasingly involved with the case and the trial, and with Butler’s family as they try to come to terms with the enormity of what’s happened to their son. The courtroom scenes are mesmerising. McGuinness is like a quietly spoken pitbull, prodding and poking at the detectives and getting them to admit to their own inadequacies as police officers. Away from the courtroom, the chain-smoking McGuinness reveals his disdain for the detectives, and points out that if he has no respect for a police officer then he won’t address him by his rank; McGuinness wants that officer to be annoyed, to become antagonistic perhaps, because then they’ll trip themselves up and make his job that much easier. He doesn’t have to worry, or put so much effort in. Williams and Darnell and Glover – they do all the work for him. Their complacency is his best weapon.
As well as its linear approach, the movie is free from any frills or unnecessary embellishments, and it’s this plain and simple way of addressing the material that makes Murder on a Sunday Morning such a compelling documentary. When the story is this good, you don’t need to make it overly dramatic or accentuate certain points to be effective, and de Lestrade is wise enough to let the story tell itself. As the depth and breadth of the police’s ineptitude is revealed, the viewer is likely to be shaking their head in disbelief and wondering how on earth Butler’s arrest and subsequent trial could have been allowed to happen in the first place. But de Lestrade and his team show you exactly how it happened, and why (hey, let’s make sure this murder doesn’t affect the number of tourists that visit each year), and they also ensure that nothing is either lost in translation or through Ragnar Van Leyden and Pascal Vernier’s rigorous editing. Each point that the defence raises in opposition to the prosecution’s case is recorded precisely and with as much impact as possible.
By the time the trial reaches its conclusion and the jury retires to consider its verdict, the movie has delivered a crushing blow to anyone who may have believed in law enforcement officers as fair-minded, dedicated, and professional (at least in the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department). In exposing the failings of a murder investigation, and the officers who put more effort into railroading a fifteen-year-old into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit than they did looking for someone else who actually fitted the description James Stephens gave them originally, the movie proves compelling, gripping and powerful. And when the trial is over and the verdict is in, the movie has one more ace up its sleeve, a postscript that provides further evidence of the incompetence of the police.
Rating: 9/10 – sincere and expertly assembled, Murder on a Sunday Morning is absorbing, meticulous, moving, and profoundly shocking (count how many times Michael Glover lies under oath); the level of access that de Lestrade and his team had throughout the time that McGuinness and Finnell were involved is phenomenal, and even though this is a case that can be looked up on the Internet in seconds, it manages to keep you guessing as to what the verdict will be – and that’s no mean feat in today’s media-saturated society. (9/31)
The sudden, and unexpected, announcement that Daniel Day-Lewis is to retire from acting has definitely come as a shock, and though there will be many who will hope he changes his mind at some point in the future, it’s unlikely that will be the case. Day-Lewis has always maintained a strict control over his career, and it’s also unlikely that he will have made this decision lightly. Whatever his reasons (which at the moment remain personal), the loss of such a highly talented actor at such a relatively young age – he’s 60 – will no doubt be heavily discussed and analysed over the coming days and weeks. But what we can rely on, and indisputably so, is the body of work he’s left us with.
With Paul Thomas Anderson’s 50’s-set fashion drama, Phantom Thread, still to come at the end of 2017, the only person to win the Best Actor Oscar three times – for My Left Foot (1989), There Will Be Blood (2007), and Lincoln (2012) – will have made just twenty-one movie appearances, from his first, uncredited role as a child vandal in Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), all the way to Anderson’s latest. It’s an incredibly impressive body of work, and one that highlights Day-Lewis’s versatility and commitment to his craft. Famed for staying in character for the duration of shooting a movie, his approach to inhabiting a character was to immerse himself as much as possible into the world that character was a part of, whether his role was that of an adopted Indian tracker called Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), the wrongly imprisoned Gerry Conlon in In the Name of the Father (1993), or the vicious gang leader Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York (2002).
Arguably the finest actor of his generation, Day-Lewis’s absence from our screens – albeit something that we’ve become used to over the last thirty years as he’s pursued other interests between projects – may potentially rob us of even greater performances. But the movies and the appearances he does leave us with will remain exceptional examples of his skills as an actor, and his willingness to give everything of himself to a role.
Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic (2013) / D: Marina Zenovich / 83m
With: Richard Pryor, Jennifer Lee, Rashon Khan, Thom Mount, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart, Patricia von Heitman, David Banks, Skip Brittenham, Paul Schrader, Stan Shaw, Robin Williams, David Steinberg, Rocco Urbisci, Lily Tomlin
Rating: 6/10 – a look back over the life and career of Richard Pryor featuring comments from the people who lived and worked with him; if you’re familiar with Pryor and his work then Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic won’t provide you with anything new, but its concise, straightforward approach is effective enough, even if there’s an accompanying lack of depth to the way the material has been assembled.
Floodtide (1949) / D: Frederick Wilson / 90m
Cast: Gordon Jackson, Rona Anderson, John Laurie, Jack Lambert, James Logan, Janet Brown, Elizabeth Sellars, Gordon McLeod, Ian McLean, Archie Duncan
Rating: 7/10 – an eager to succeed shipyard worker (Jackson) earns both the respect of the shipyard owner (Lambert) and the love of his daughter (Anderson, who Jackson married in real life), as he climbs the ladder from metal worker to ship designer; the kind of cottage industry movie that Britain made in abundance in the late Forties/early Fifties, Floodtide has a great deal of charm, and an easygoing approach to its slightly fairytale narrative.
Giuseppina (1960) / D: James Hill / 32m
Cast: Antonia Scalari, Giulio Marchetti
Rating: 9/10 – on a slow, sunny day at an Italian roadside garage, young Giuseppina (Scalari) finds that life isn’t quite as boring as she thinks; an Oscar-winning short, Giuseppina is a total delight, with minimal dialogue, some beautifully observed caricatures for customers, and a simple, unaffected approach that pays enormous dividends, and makes for an entirely rewarding experience.
The Painted Veil (2006) / D: John Curran / 125m
Cast: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg, Anthony Chau-Sang Wong
Rating: 7/10 – bacteriologist Walter Fane (Norton) takes his wife Kitty (Watts) to China as punishment for an affair, but in combatting an outbreak of cholera, discovers that she has qualities he has overlooked; previously made in 1934 with Greta Garbo, The Painted Veil (adapted from the novel by W. Somerset Maugham) is a moderately absorbing, moderately effective romantic drama that never quite takes off, but does feature some beautiful location photography courtesy of Stuart Dryburgh.
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K., David James Elliott, Roger Bart, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Dean O’Gorman, Christian Berkel, Stephen Root, Alan Tudyk, John Getz
Anyone with a passing interest in the history of Hollywood will probably have heard of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and directors who were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to state their affiliation (if any) with the Communist Party. They stood up for their First Amendment rights only to find that the government wasn’t listening; as a result they were fined and given prison sentences ranging from six months to a year. Hollywood exacted a further penalty: none of the ten would be allowed to work in the industry and their names would be added to the Blacklist, a list of actors, writers, directors and other industry professionals who were regarded as communists and traitors to the American way of life.
This ignominious period in American political and entertainment history is the backdrop for Trumbo, a look at the life and experiences of one of the Hollywood Ten, and the ways in which he managed to subvert the Blacklist. Beginning in 1947, the movie charts the attempts by the Hollywood establishment to fall into line with the political manoeuvrings of people such as stockbroker and US Representative J. Parnell Thomas, and to not appear out of step with the paranoia of the time. Against this, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) tries to marshal his “comrades” in an effort to rebut the accusations made against them, and with the likes of Edward G. Robinson (Stuhlbarg) in support, prepares to defy Congress and to refuse to cooperate at the hearings.
The movie shows how some of the Ten, including Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) – a character created to represent several of the original members – have their doubts about this course of action, but they are persuaded by Trumbo, and their time before Congress leads to the ruination of their careers. Matters are made worse when supporters such as Robinson give their names to the enquiry, and the extent of the Blacklist begins to be felt once their gaol terms are completed. Hird becomes ill, while Trumbo does his best to support him. Still needing to write, Trumbo writes a screenplay that he gives to his friend Ian McLellan Hunter (Tudyk) to sell to the studios. The script is bought by Paramount and the movie made from it, Roman Holiday (1953), goes on to win an Oscar for its screenplay.
The irony isn’t lost on Trumbo, and when he’s approached by King Brothers Productions, headed by Frank King (Goodman), to produce screenplays for them (under pseudonyms of course), he jumps at the chance. However, a combination of King’s demand for scripts and Trumbo’s own exhausting work ethic leads to an estrangement from the rest of his family: wife Cleo (Lane), eldest daughter Nikola (Fanning), son Chris, and youngest daughter Mitzi. He ropes them in to be his support team, delivering scripts and rewrites whenever needed and refusing to see that they have their own lives to lead. In time, they begin to rebel against his dictatorial attitude.
As rumours of Trumbo’s involvement with King Brothers begins to spread throughout Hollywood, efforts are made by columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren) to expose him. The release of The Brave One (1956) with a script by Robert Rich (in reality Trumbo), adds fuel to the fire, especially when it too wins an Academy Award for its screenplay. With Trumbo’s profile becoming even more pronounced than it was before the Blacklist, he finds himself working for both Kirk Douglas (O’Gorman) (on Spartacus) and Otto Preminger (Berkel) (on Exodus). Both men are willing to ignore the Blacklist and give Trumbo screen credit, but not before they have to deal with the possibility of anti-Communist boycotts of their movies and widespread industry disapproval.
In recounting Trumbo’s story, Jay Roach’s movie plays very much like every other Hollywood biopic you’ve ever seen. It moves at a steady pace, ticks all the important boxes when recounting/explaining the motives of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, shows how deeply the Blacklist affected the lives of its victims, and recounts Trumbo’s subsequent attempts to remain gainfully employed in the town that had turned its back on him. In short, it sticks to a very traditional formula and rarely strays from it, even down to the idea that Trumbo would have befriended a black fellow inmate in prison (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) (an example of his pro-egalitarian approach to people and politics). It’s only when see him at home, bashing out screenplay after screenplay, that the movie offers us something different from the standard notion of a writer struggling to maintain his career. Here, Trumbo is shown to be a bit of a monster – indifferent to his wife, dismissive of his children, and so self-absorbed he can’t see the damage he’s doing.
But like a lot of things that happen in the movie, this self-absorption and bad behaviour is easily remedied, and then it’s on to the next hurdle. For this is what Trumbo the movie is comprised of: a series of hurdles for the writer to clear. Sometimes he does so with inches of room to spare, at other times he knocks them down on his way to the finish line, and occasionally he doesn’t even realise the hurdles are even there. And he does it all with wit and panache and a fondness for the odd bon mot. For someone dealing with the issues that Trumbo had to deal with – and his pseudonym dependency issues aside – his movie incarnation never really seems to be affected by what’s happening around him. Sure he’s outraged, and sure he’s angry at the injustice of it all, but all too often the movie makes it sound like it’s all just a big intellectual challenge for him, and one that he can easily outmanoeuvre.
As the screenwriter who did some of his best work in the bathtub, Cranston gives a rasping, eloquent portrayal of a man who never loses sight of his principles, even when everyone around him is either trying to deny they exist, or castigate him for having them. It’s an award-worthy performance but one that lives or dies on Cranston’s likeability in the role, and it’s good that he is very likeable. But then so is everyone else, even the “villains” like Mirren’s vicious Hedda Hopper; there’s no one you really take exception to. In this sense, John McNamara’s screenplay becomes all surface sheen and lightweight drama, with none of the varied emotions that must have been felt by all concerned at the time.
By arriving with an air of detachment (whether deliberate or not), and an ironic detachment at that, Roach has crafted a movie that is effortlessly watchable but which falls short of being compelling. We follow Trumbo on his journey from celebrated Hollywood screenwriter to… well, celebrated Hollywood screenwriter via a couple of detours, and though we know it probably was rough, that doesn’t come across. Still the performances are a large measure of the fun to be had (Mirren, Goodman and Stuhlbarg each bring their A-game), and the period setting gives Daniel Orlandi a chance to shine in the Costume Design department. One aspect that does work? The inclusion of archival footage from the HUAC hearings, a salient reminder that people like Ronald Reagan were quick to distance themselves from their friends and colleagues under the threat of censure. What times they were, and what a shame that Trumbo isn’t quite the movie to show us just how bad they were.
Rating: 7/10 – full of unrealised potential, Trumbo is an easy watch when it should have been more engrossing and, in terms of the political witch hunt that occurred at the time, able to invoke the viewer’s ire with ease; Cranston is on fine form and he heads a more than capable cast but this has to be filed under “missed opportunity”.
During the Seventies, Vilmos Zsigmond’s work as a cinematographer was a guarantee of excellence. He lensed twenty-three movies during the decade, and won an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977 – where he faced being fired on several occasions), not bad for a cinematographer who started out (with fellow émigré Laszlo Kovács) shooting footage of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and who found fame, of sorts, as a DoP on movies such as Al Adamson’s Psycho a Go-Go (1965) and Horror of the Blood Monsters (1970) (movies where he was credited as William Zsigmond). But it was his Seventies output that brought him to a wider, international audience, and it was his use of natural light and colour that made his work stand out from that of his colleagues. His last movie was the comedy-drama Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks (2014), but he was still working at the time of his death, with one movie in pre-production and four others announced. His talent will be missed, as well as his generosity to others, but thankfully we have a tremendous body of work to remember him by.
Haskell Wexler (6 February 1922 – 27 December 2015)
An influential figure in the world of cinematography, Haskell Wexler was a true genius with the camera, a master of mood, light and colour. From his first feature, the wonderfully titled Stakeout on Dope Street (1958) (where he was credited as Mark Jeffrey, his two sons’ names), all the way through to the numerous documentaries he lensed in the last twenty years, Wexler has been an outstanding cinematographer, adding a distinct and lasting aura to the movies he worked on, including his first feature as a director, Medium Cool (1969). Along the way he picked up two Oscars, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and Bound for Glory (1976), and during the Sixties and Seventies (arguably his heyday) he worked with the likes of Milos Forman, Norman Jewison, Hal Ashby, and Francis Ford Coppola. But he kept going back to documentaries, either features or shorts, and it’s these movies, which often gave Wexler the chance to espouse his own political leanings, that form the bulk of his filmography. Watch any of the ten movies listed below and you’ll see just why he was regarded as one of the ten most influential cinematographers in cinema history.
Born in Prague in 1903, Alice Herz grew up surrounded by the intelligentsia of the day, her parents’ cultural salon frequented by the likes of Franz Kafka (who would go for walks with Aiice and her twin sister, Mariana, and tell them stories) and Gustav Mahler. She learnt to play the piano at an early age and was encouraged to take it up as a career by another friend of the family, Artur Schnabel. She studied at the prestigious Prague German Conservatory of Music (where she was the youngest pupil), and there drew the attention of cellist Leopold Sommer. They married in 1931, and in 1937 had a son, Raphael. Alice gave recitals and performed in concerts until the Nazis took control of Prague and Jewish involvement in performances was curtailed. While several of her family members and friends fled to Israel, Alice remained in Prague to care for her mother who was very ill.
In July 1943, Alice was arrested and sent to Theresienstadt where her skills as a pianist were utilised in over one hundred concert performances, including those for the visiting Red Cross, as the Nazis strove to show that conditions were not as bad as the Allies suspected. Billeted with Raphael, he and Alice were liberated in 1945 (sadly, Leopold died of typhus in Dachau six weeks before it too was liberated). Rebuilding her life, she and Raphael emigrated to Israel in 1949 and were reunited with their family, including Mariana. There, Alice worked as a teacher at the Jerusalem Academy of Music until she decided to emigrate to England in 1986. In retirement she still played the piano for three hours every day, and remained an inspiration to everyone who knew her. Remarkably, she was a hundred and ten when she died in February 2014.
The key to Alice’s life, she always said, was optimism. She unfailingly looked for the good in life, even during the terrible years when she and Raphael were incarcerated in Theresienstadt. Like so many of her fellow concentration camp survivors – two of whom are featured in the movie – Alice’s positive attitude helped her to withstand the horror that surrounded her. She saw “the beauty in life” in almost everything, but particularly in music. For Alice, “music was magic”. It could raise her spirits and bring happiness in even the most terrible of situations or circumstances. With her unwavering memory for classical pieces, Alice could always retreat into her own mind, a place where even the Nazis couldn’t follow her. It’s inspiring to think that, despite where she was, she was perhaps freer than anyone could imagine.
This remarkable woman is the focus of an equally remarkable documentary short. The Lady in No 6 is a compelling, fascinating account of one woman’s lifelong love affair with music. Alice is seen at 109, still mobile, still playing the piano with wonderful dexterity, and still enjoying life with a vitality and energy that would put most thirty-somethings to shame. She’s always smiling and laughing, and her eyes – only slightly dulled by old age – twinkle with a mixture of mirth and sincerity that is surprisingly wistful when she sits in repose. Alice’s upbeat nature and lack of pessimism is a joy to behold, and when she talks about her love of music you can see that she’s transported by it. As she’s said in the past, “I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion”.
Wisely focusing on her passion for music for the most part – with an extended but emotive sidestep into World War II – Clarke deftly avoids any hint of sentimentality (as does Alice) and paints an engaging, winning portrait of a woman whose devotion to music has the effect of making the viewer wish they had even a tenth of Alice’s ability and commitment to her art. Testimony from one of her neighbours provides an idea of how much her morning recitals are enjoyed, and a reminiscence of her time at Theresienstadt reveals the same approval from some of the guards. It’s a wonderful affirmation of Alice and her dedication to her muse, that her playing has been able to cross social and ideological divides with such incredible efficacy.
Away from Alice and her contagious love affair with classical music, the movie paints a sobering yet hope-infused account of her time at Theresienstadt, with one of her friends recounting a particularly chilling account of an encounter with Josef Mengele. The focus shifts to take into account the resilience of those inmates who could see no other outcome but their own survival, and while Alice takes a back seat during these moments, it still serves to highlight the tenacity she must have had to endure (and to be so well-balanced in the aftermath of it all).
Visually as well, The Lady in No 6 is a treat, with Clarke’s assembly of various archival materials proving both eye-catching and memorable, his blending of the historical and the modern throwing each element into sharp relief. The post-production work is highly impressive, and so is the editing by co-writer Carl Freed, both of such a high standard that the movie has a precise, almost painterly feel to it, and the scenes of Alice in her flat feel entirely welcoming, not as if the audience is eavesdropping on her, but that she’s gladly invited everyone in… and couldn’t be more pleased for the intrusion.
Rating: 9/10 – a delightful and inspiring look at the life of an absolutely exceptional woman, The Lady in No 6 fully deserves its Oscar win and is one of the best documentary short movies of recent years; it’s a shame then that we get to spend such a short amount of time in Alice’s wonderful company.
Winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, Mr Hublot. is the simple tale of a little man with OCD who spends his days checking that the pictures on his walls are aligned correctly, turning his lights on and off a proscribed number of times, while also managing to work from home. He doesn’t appear to go anywhere, or have any hobbies. He does appear to be happy though. One day he hears the screech of brakes outside his apartment. He goes to his balcony and sees that a robot dog has been abandoned on the sidewalk across the street. At first he’s only mildly concerned and returns to his daily routine. Later, when it’s raining, he hears the dog crying. He looks out again and sees the dog cowering from the storm in a cardboard box. The next morning, he looks out and is horrified to see the refuse collectors putting several cardboard boxes into the back of the truck where they are being crushed. He dashes down to the street but is too late: the boxes are all crushed and the refuse truck has moved on. But the dog is still alive. Overjoyed, Mr Hublot takes him back to his apartment.
How the robot dog settles into Mr Hublot’s life and apartment makes up for the rest of the movie, and perhaps it’s a good idea to mention that when they first meet, the dog is a puppy. As he grows it causes all sorts of problems for our bespectacled hero (not least when it comes to watching television), and it’s not long before Mr Hublot is forced to make a difficult decision about the dog’s future.
There is much to admire in Mr Hublot., from the steampunk world he lives in (inspired by the work of Belgian sculptor and artist Stéphane Halleux) to the convincing detail of the apartment he lives in. There are Victorian elements to the set design that offset beautifully the mechanical devices, and the array of implements and machinery adds a commendable layer of authenticity to the surroundings. With such a fully realised world to lose oneself in, it’s good to have Mr Hublot along as our guide, OCD and all (watch for the quandary he has to deal with when leaving the apartment in order to save the dog). With his Gru-like dome of a head, complete with thought counter(?), and aviator-style goggles, Mr Hublot is like an eccentric uncle, one your parents don’t talk about much but who charms you from the moment you meet him.
The robot dog is a great character as well, a lively, attention-seeking puppy that turns into a destructive, immovable adult (but still retains his likeability). As a grown dog a resemblance to the Iron Giant comes to the fore, and his strong metal jaw manages to give the impression that he’s smiling a lot of the time. Even without a name, this robot pet is cute, adorable, annoying, stubborn, infuriating and even more cute the longer he stays with Mr Hublot. It’s an inspired match, pairing a reclusive gentleman with a lively pet (though the effect the dog has on Mr Hublot’s OCD is less pronounced than you might expect). There’s an emotional bond there too, and an entirely credible one at that. It helps to ground some of the movie’s more whimsical moments, and provides the audience with a layer of depth that might otherwise be missing.
Co-director and writer – and first-timer – Laurent Witz has created a character and a world that is enjoyably realistic in its presentation. He’s also taken a predictable storyline – one man and his dog – and managed to include a few surprises along the way, making Mr Hublot. a rewarding experience from beginning to end. If there are to be any more adventures involving Mr Hublot, then they can’t come soon enough.
Rating: 9/10 – a beautifully realised “alternative” world that has been brought to life with amazing attention to detail; with its loveable and endearing central character, Mr Hublot. is a treat for fans of animation everywhere.