I read somewhere that Dan Gilroy’s movie, ‘Nightcrawler’ (2014) is a satire. That it sets out to illustrate how TV News sets no moral boundaries in farming its harvest of sensational, violent breaking news. And I agree – that does seem to be its purpose. The story’s protagonist, Lewis Bloom, (Jake Gyllenhaal) stumbles into the world of the stringer and becomes adept at covering accidents and crimes with bloody outcomes. Eventually he learns how to manipulate events, even cause them, so that he and his crew can be first on the scene. TV stations will pay handsomely for such footage. Because it is the stuff that drives the ratings, Get it? When you’re ordering your breakfast TV, easy on the ethics and heavy on the tomato sauce.
But where’s the satire? I’d expect equal parts grim reality and wry, dark humour. Bloom’s not caught up in events where his naivety points up the tragedies that push in on him. He is the events. And his lack of insight alienates him from seeing the tragedies as anything other than product; His psychopathy doesn’t allow him to abandon anything in order to reach that state of sublime unconcern. There is no transit from sentient to indifferent. And so it is with us, or at least, me. I couldn’t engage with Bloom or anyone around him. (Particularly Renee Russo’s grasping news editor. I could find no explanation for her appearance other than a powerful Agent) The story, then, is nothing more than a prosaic commentary. I wasn’t able to laugh and despair in equal measures. There was no anxiety about the state of main stream media that I haven’t already experienced. There was no wry, guarded laughter at the surreal but worryingly tangible future for television news. Just a shrug and a ‘So what?’ Just think for a moment what Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ might have done with this idea and you’ll get a better insight, perhaps, to my reservations. Or maybe it’s all down to Jake Gyllenhaal’s resemblance to Jason Gunn. That certainly didn’t help.
‘That was the story of Howard Beale. The first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.’
From ‘Network’ (Sidney Lumet’ 1976) A satire.
His question was impertinent
That is – it was not pertinent
But I answered it anyway, starting with a question of my own;
Maybe the question should be; Why is your hair not braided?
Do you think that what I have done is a tonsorial conceit?
Do you think that I seek admission to The Venerable Order of Hipsters?
Let me tell you that the Hipsters are not a war-like people
They will probably inherit the Earth
But my ancestors were indeed war-like. Bellicose. Martial
They were Celts, Gaels and Normans descended from Norsemen
They were Gallowglasses (Elite mercenaries. You can Google them up)
And they braided their hair for war
And my Caledonian and Hibernian forebears fought many wars
Not just, as Mel’s Wallace did, against Edward’s armies
But later against Hanover and the Campbells
And across the Irish Sea, against Henry and John Lackland
Elizabeth, Gloriana, sent her pretty Essex
Churchill sent the fucking Black and Tans
And so I told him; It has a cultural context. Historical hubris if you like
I could have said I’m a muso and there’s an expectation….
I could have said I’m losing it on top and compensating…you know?
But the poet in my Celtic heart needs a badge of some faded glory
It needs free passage along the limbic channel to collective memory
Well, that’s my story to stick to. And it’s me that’s paying, boyo.
This movie won Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at this year’s Oscar Awards. It was also nominated in four other categories. The criteria that inform the selection of Academy Award nominees and winners has often been the subject of criticism – and sometimes ridicule – the passage of time sometimes throwing in to sharp relief the seeming folly of awarding one particular movie an accolade and ignoring another more worthy contender.
I’m generally of the opinion that the Academy Awards may or may not reflect excellence in the cinematic arts, depending on many factors, most of which I don’t know about – and wouldn’t care to.
But I am interested. I usually watch the Awards Show and, like a lot of moviegoers, form opinions about what might win the big prizes.
This year, I thought it quite obvious that ‘The Revenant’ would do the business. I had seen it, thoroughly enjoyed it and, despite its flaws, given it 5 stars in a mini-review that I did for my Facebook page. Besides, it was Di Caprio’s time. Everyone was agreeing on that.
And on the night it seemed to be going that way. ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ was sweeping the technical awards but ‘The Revenant’ was picking up the heavy duty gongs; Cinematography, Director and Actor.
And so, when ‘Spotlight‘ was announced as Best Movie, mingled in with the euphoria of its connections, was the surprise and disappointment elsewhere in the audience that ‘The Revenant’ hadn’t been voted Dux of the school.
So how come ‘Spotlight’ won Best Film?
I think that restraint may be the key to answering that question. Occasionally, when watching a movie, I’m conscious not only of what’s right about the production – but also that it’s not going wrong where I could reasonably expect that it might. Telling a story about a newspaper revealing widespread and systemic child abuse by Catholic priests could be the recipe for an over-the-top, manipulative orgy of rabid polemic and prurient sensationalism wrapped in the diaphanous veil of Hollywood faux morality. But that never happens or even comes close to happening.
Director/writer Tom McCarthy instead concentrates on how his characters – the journalists, editors, victims, informants, witnesses, lawyers, priests, cardinals and other establishment figures – behave; what they do, as the story unfolds. They all, to some extent, react not just as you and I might but they also reflect the ideas of, their history amongst, the powerful institutions that are brought onto the stage by this tragedy. The Church, The Press, The Law but most tellingly of all, The Family.
The revelations are quite shocking. Deeply moving. But somehow their portrayal as quotidian – as everyday happenings; the careful presentation of facts to establish accountability rather than blame; the casual, almost careless, way in which power is used to deter and hinder investigation ; all of this serves to deliver a message that evil does not always come cloven hoofed, horned and reeking of brimstone. Sometimes it resides in the encouraging smile and talc-powdered handshake of someone you instinctively trust.
So that, I believe, is ‘Spotlight’s triumph. The story is told without rancour or blame. Many of the organs of a complex community are involved in its telling and nobody escapes unharmed.
Generally, the acting is of the highest order. Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber, in particular, are wonderfully credible in their roles as newspaper men. I had some qualms about the efforts made through the script to justify The Boston Globe’s failure at an earlier time, to follow up the same story – but that’s probably a minor misgiving which doesn’t interfere with my opinion that ‘Spotlight’ is a very good movie – one which some might claim is the best movie.
I didn’t have high expectations of George Miller’s latest take on the Mad Max series. We’ve seen so many sequels, prequels and re-makes of other classics that failed, I thought this was most likely to be a desperate but pallid attempt to réchauffé some Mel Gibson leftovers.
Well I was wrong.
Miller’s vision of a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, chase movie is brilliantly achieved. He creates a world and characters that exist before we take our seats and continue after we vacate them. The characters and places have a nomenclature that is redolent of Anthony Burgess. Nux and Imperator Furiosa join with Max to liberate the Breeders (The Five Wives) – take them from the Citadel to the Green Place aboard the War Rig. The War Boys and the Bullet Farmer try to stop them. Don’t ask me to explain – see it for yourself.
The pursuit is thrilling, compelling, hypnotising; The levels of imagination and invention creating a new paradigm for all action/adventure movies that follow. But the biggest surprise is how the narrative drive holds up and held me throughout. This is not a chatty movie by any means but the taut script is considered and at times droll. Miller’s actors play their roles, deliver their lines as if their lives depend upon it.
But the best trick of all, Miller’s real triumph, is to transcend the blokey stereotype present in nearly all other chase movies – including Fury Road’s 3 predecessors. This story is about women; Its stars are women. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) rescues the Wives and is helped by the women of her tribe, the Vuvalini. Max’s story is the back story and Miller directs Tom Hardy in a way that allows his strength – his instinct for survival – to show but never to dominate the story-telling. Good choice.
The movie’s cinematography, sound, costuming, music and editing are all first class and its technical achievements garnered 6 Oscars for its producers. But, for me, George Miller wins the plaudits. His weaving together of the biblical, survival and redemptive themes; His management of the chase sequences; His direction of the actors. To all of this, he brings a thirsty imagination allied to the knowledge of how film works.
I loved every minute.
‘Legend‘ (Brian Helgeland 2015) is successful on many levels. Go and see it. But leave any preconceptions at home. That’s a caveat that maybe assumes too much, I know, but the story of the Kray twins has been told many times and has been subsumed into popular culture in ways that could colour your thinking on what you’re about to see. So forget the Pythons’ Reg and Dinsdale Pirhana stuff , Big Vern from Viz and the Kemps as the twins in Peter Medak’s 1990 movie. Forget, also, other movies about twins. So, yeah, forget Jeremy Irons and Hayley Mills. The people who made this movie are way ahead of you.
Director/scriptwriter, Brian Helgeland, has taken the myth of the Kray twins – a myth first imagined by the twins themselves and planished over the next 50 years by celebrities, the media, you and me – and placed his protagonists inside that myth. All the better to tell their story. And who better to tell that story than Frances Shea – Reggie’s dead wife – telling us from beyond the grave as the movie opens; ‘London in the 1960s, everyone had a story about the Krays. They were twins. Reggie was a gangster prince of the East End, Ronnie Kray was a one-man mob.’ And so the myth begins.
The expedient thing about narrating a myth is that the characters can arrive fully formed at any point along the time line. No need for an organic exposition about why or how they are who they are. They just are. And so it is here. We meet the parents briefly; older brother Charlie hardly merits a mention. But we get to see much of the milieu – the rival Richardson gang, the violence, the clubs, the pubs and the celebrities who lubricated the myth – gave it traction. And the eerie brotherly love. There’s a lot of that. There’s also some manipulation of the idea that Reggie was the ‘good’ evil twin and Ron was the ‘bad’ evil twin. Helgeland lets that theme play out as the myth unfolds. Reggie courting Frances; Reggie tolerating Ron’s excesses. Reggie smiling benignly at his mother, Violet. But as the myth crumbles near to the story’s conclusion, the fact of both men’s psychopathy is frighteningly real because such people are fearless. Not courageous. Fearless. Ron shooting a rival gangster in a pub; The twins fighting each other in a fevered frenzy; Reggie killing an errant henchman at a party, Frances committing suicide. Nothing you could associate with a Robin Hood.
Tom Hardy invests both men with distinct behaviours and characteristics. Necessary for narrative purposes, yes – but as the myth shatters, the atoms collide and his genius is in revealing that outcome. When we first meet Ronald Kray, he has the same horrific/comedic demeanour that Ralph Fiennes lent to his portrayal of Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. There’s something of Peter Cook’s Clive in the voice, the delivery. Similarly, Reggie Kray, he informs with the charisma of a Ben Siegel, as played by Warren Beatty in Bugsy. But as the conclusion draws near, the twins are truly indistinguishable. Their domination, their violence, their indifference to all else other than ‘ruling London’ has made them a single entity. And that entity has sucked the life, the energy, any decency from anything and anyone around it. We feel that – and our exhaustion at the end is a very perverse triumph for Hardy and his director.
I must also give credit to Emily Browning as Frances Shea. Her detailed portrayal of the vulnerable Frances lends authenticity to the time and place of the Kray’s story. She perfectly evokes the look and mood of the East End in the mid 60s. There’s something of Sandie Shaw about her. I half expected her to burst into ‘There’s Always Something There To Remind Me’ at any moment.
‘Legend’ is, for the most part, a fine movie containing a compelling, brilliant central performance by Tom Hardy. My principal reservation is that Helgeland’s script too often wants to tell us rather than show us and maybe he needs to develop a little more trust in his audience. That aside, this is a convincing and involving retelling and outing of the Kray myth.
Johnny Stomp wants to hit Lana. But the bar is busy. Mickey Cohen’s goons in the next booth. He bites his lip. She smiles.
‘Joe Kaufmann wants me to do this movie in England, Johnny’
‘Yeah. So you gotta go, huh?’
‘Yeah. Cheryl will be fine at boarding school.‘
‘Cheryl! Cheryl! Cheryl! What about me, Lana?’
She reaches over. Cups his chin in her hands. Smiles again.
Stomp wants to kill her.
Stomp fidgeting in a wingback chair in Mickey’s hotel room. LA heat working on him. Italians working for Jews. But Mickey was smart. Dangerous too.
‘Sinatra shoo you off Ava G, Johnny?’
Stomp looks at his shoes. Colours up.
‘Broad’s a lush, Johnny. And Lana’s working.’
Mickey’s dry, death rattle laugh, throwing Daily Variety to Stomp in the chair.
Front page. Lana and the Limey. She’s fucking him.
Johnny Stompanato flying the Atlantic. He flew the Pacific. Beat the Japs at Okinawa. Now he’d beat the Limey. Show Lana.
Lana’s at the Hampstead house and loves Stomp. Gives him everything. Takes his blows.
Morning. The reporter outside asks who he is. Asks if Mr Connery knows about him. Laughs. The death rattle again.
Stomp in a taxi, flying the Pacific to Borehamwood. The Studio. Cracks the old man at the gate in the head. Finds the soundstage. Another Time, Another Place above the door. Running in. There’s Lana. And Barry Sullivan. Stomp shouting.
‘Bitch! You bitch!’
Lana crying. People shouting. Then him. The Limey. Sean. Walking toward Stomp. The gun. Stomp has the gun pointed at the Limey. Screaming. Running. Chairs tipping.
‘You keep away from her!. You keep away from Lana! I’ll kill you!’
Then his hand bending Stomp’s hand back. Searing pain. The gun is gone. The Limey’s death-rattle smile and then only the cold studio floor to embrace him.
A year later. 1958. Mr Connery in Tinseltown. At the Roosevelt. Receiving guests. His star ascending. Mickey Cohen comes to settle up.
‘We know you killed Johnny.’
Mickey holds his hand up. Palm outward. Toward Sean’s mask.
‘We know Lana’s got her crazy bitch daughter to confess. But we know you did it. There’s a contract on you.’
Sean on the lam. Staying at the Buena Vista up the coast. Grows a beard. Waiting for Mickey to find someone else to kill. Waiting for 1962. Waiting for when Johnny Stomp and Mickey Cohen would be old newsreel. Waiting for fame.
On April 4th, 1958, Lana Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed Johnny Stompanato, Lana Turner’s lover, to death in her mother’s Beverly Hill’s home. The court reached a decision of justifiable homicide and Cheryl was made a Ward of State until 1961.
Stompanato was an enforcer for gangster, Mickey Cohen, and had complained to Cohen about Sean Connery’s affair with Lana Turner when the two were working together on a movie in England. Connery did go into hiding briefly when Cohen let it be known that he felt Connery was the cause of Stompanato’s death.
The Wellington writer and critic, Simon Sweetman, recently asked his readers a couple of questions that inadvertently led to my recalling some scenes from the past. He asked if we’d ever seen a great busker. And he asked if we’d ever known anyone decent who went by the name of Travis.
In 1968, I was living in London and becoming hip. Not cool, you understand, but hip. Mods had come and gone; Psychedelia, Hippiedom and Timothy Leary were the thing. Except I could only embrace some of it. I dug the counter-culture stuff, some occasional weed and most of the West Coast Music (Specifically not The Beach Boys though, whose very name brings on horrific psychosomatic symptoms if spoken, written or seen. Imagine what it cost me to print it here) but the residual mod in me demanded some attention to sartorial sufficiency.
So here I am in a longish queue outside the Carlton Theatre in the Haymarket. I’m waiting to get in to see Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If’. Grey leather shoes with patterned toe caps, by Raoul; sharply creased, black mohair trousers and a tailored, black leather jacket with a sewn-in half belt. My concessions to the zeitgeist are a button-down paisley shirt and a conservative afro. The Gauloises cigarettes are situated precisely halfway between hip and cool.
And here’s Don Partridge, singing while we wait. Known as ‘The King of the Buskers’, he’s a familiar sight around the pubs, clubs and theatres of the West End and Soho. He sings some Dylan and his own ‘Rosie’ which he’s recorded and been on the tele with. It’s a pleasant, early summer evening and we’re pleased to have Don entertain us while we wait. The shrewdly chosen pretty young woman takes the hat round and I add some coins to the many notes. Don’s doing okay thanks.
The movie ‘If‘ is pure, anarchic counter-culture. It marked Malcolm McDowell’s debut – in the role of Mick Travis (Yes, a tenuous connection, I know. But sometimes any idea is a good idea) – a role he was to reprise in two further films for Anderson; ‘O Lucky Man’ and ‘Britannia Hospital’. The structure and surreal nature of the film are much influenced by Jean Vigo’s ‘Zéro de conduit‘ (1933) but the plot of a student revolution, led by Travis, in an English Public School is an expression of Anderson’s belief that the British cinema needed to put aside its fixation with class and be more representative of the broader community.
We discussed that in the pub later and I managed to upset a few friends with an observation that Anderson was perfectly placed to attack privilege in that way, having been educated at Cheltenham and Oxford.
What neither I nor my friends properly realised at that time though, was that I was about to resolve the vexed choice between cool and hip by moving into the more considered role of rugged left-wing intellectual. Already my frequent use of irony, a newly grown beard and the recent acquisition of a houndstooth flat cap were pointing me toward a classless society and women called Cordelia and Vanessa.