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.
Guy Pearce is an actor whose name, face, presence immediately conveys, for me, one particular role. He is, always will be, Detective Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley in L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson 1997) His cool, careerist counterpoint to Russell Crowe’s terrifying Officer Bud White is a thing of beauty and brought him to the attention of moviegoers everywhere.
So. How does he fare as grieving Melbourne lawyer turned gumshoe/fixer, Jack Irish, in ABC’s telefilm adaptation of Peter Temple’s novel Bad Debts? Bloody well mate, I’d say. In Pearce’s hands, Jack’s battle with the bottle following his wife’s murder becomes a necessary rite of passage rather than just self-pitying indulgence. And when, a few years later, one of his former clients is murdered, Jack feels responsible, shakes off his lethargy and sets out to track down the killers.
I’ve read a couple of Temple’s novels, Truth and The Broken Shore, both about policemen and criminality. The central characters in those stories are men who, to some extent, live in the shadow of their fathers but eventually emerge to become their own men. Jack Irish is similarly cast. His father was a hard case Australian Rules player, fondly remembered by the old boys – characters – who Jack drinks and talks horses with at his local, The Prince of Prussia. And as Jack moves laconically around the race tracks, pubs and dark places of Melbourne’s underworld, he reveals not only an awareness of his debt to the memory of that version of Australian manliness but also a steadfast, self-deprecating attachment to principle and loyalty that evokes a different Australia. It’s entirely to Pearce’s credit that he is able to convey these complexities of his character and never allow them to get in the way of the story-telling.
I liked this movie a lot. It has a good feel for black humour, evocative locations, credible plotting and a smashing central performance. It was also great to see Roy Billing again, this time as Jack’s shady, sometime employer, Harry Strang.
There are at least 2 other Jack Irish telefilms starring Guy Pearce. Of these, I’ve seen Black Tide which is also well worth seeing.
The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie 1979/80) provided Bob Hoskins with his breakthrough role. His character, Harold Shand, is a villain from London’s East End who has a grip on organised crime in England’s capital and an obsessive ambition to create lasting wealth and legitimacy by obtaining abandoned docklands property and on-selling it as a site for an 80s Olympics. To help him do this, he courts an American Mafia boss (Eddie Constantine) presenting him with a promissory corsage of ‘hands across the ocean’.
The story, and therefore the film, has a touch of genius about it. As the events of Good Friday unfold, many things are revealed. When Harold’s empire is threatened by unknown assailants, Harold reverts to type; his ’10 years of peace’ in the London underworld, of which he is so boastful, is roughly put aside in favour of torture and threats. Harold is desperate to find out who is bombing his buildings and killing his lieutenants. And although what we see is brutal, it is also very funny. Barrie Keeffe’s screenplay and John Mackenzie’s direction enable Hoskins to invest Harold with elements of both Bertolt Brecht’s Arturo Ui and Johnny Speight’s Alf Garnett. So at once, the manner of Harold’s protestation that ‘you can’t crucify people on Good Friday’ serves to destroy the notion that great killers may command respect through the device of having him complain about the car bomb in a way that a disgruntled West Ham fan might when the referee disallows a goal.
But Keeffe and Mackenzie are shrewd enough to realise that there has to be more to Harold than just a vengeful cockney vulgarian. His scenes with his lover, Victoria (Helen Mirren) are tender and their beauty and the beast relationship is complex. Her radiance and intelligence are at odds with everything that Harold is, or ever will be. But these fine actors make it work, make it credible, infuse the characters with emotional depth. Toward the film’s conclusion, the two are parted as Harold’s world collapses around him. At that moment of realisation, the shared anguish is palpable. It jolts us back into our own sometime world of unplanned consequences.
But the film’s ultimate triumph – what sets it apart – is how it resonates down the decades. Not just in the way that other characters such as Arturo Ui and Alf Garnett are invoked but in how Harold’s ambitions to make Britain great once more through exploitation and corruption so perfectly coincide with the arrival of Margaret Thatcher, Reaganomics and the greedy eighties. The metaphors abound and, planned or not, lend the film a preternatural quality, ensure its greatness. An enduring masterpiece.
On the subject of resonance, I do believe that Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is the perfect companion piece to The Long Good Friday. Made 10 years later, in 1989, this black comedy’s central character, Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), is a violent criminal who has gourmet pretensions. Helen Mirren’s presence amongst the cast lends further symmetry.