And on they go, this succession of films for which I booked tickets more than a month ago. I can't claim credit for this one. Having picked a list of five I wanted to see from the Jan-Feb programme, my daughter when through it and then said "I want to go to that." It's at Ludlow and she doesn't drive, so I do the decent thing and books for her and me to see it. Just wonderful. It's Mexican, and funny and touching and beautifully shot, but never sentimental or settling for easy answers in the Hollywood rut. You just never quite know where it'll go next, but you want to find out, and gradually get drawn into knowing and caring about a scrambled mix of characters. the basic plot summary says it's about a boy in the country whose Mum can't handle him, so she sends him toff to live with his older brother in the city. Older brother is a student, but his college is on strike, so he's sitting at home not doing very much. Together with a friend, they wander around town, look in on the student sit-in, and try to track down an aging musician, whose records their dad used to play. It may not sound much, but as usual it's all about the way you tell -em, and in this case it's magic.
A really pleasant surprise. I'd booked to see the Steve Jobs movie on the strength of a decent review, but a bit worried about the Aaron Sorkin script - not a big West Wing fan, with all these smart people charging down corridors, delivering smug one-liners. It was a lot better than that. Danny Boyle is hardly ever just dull, and the device of fixing on three particular incidents - each a launch of a different product, at a key point in Jobs' career - worked really well. They covered a lot of ground, but within a clearly marked structure. At the heart of it is Jobs himself, a real mixture - brilliant and insightful, but a total pain - with Michael Fassbender covering all those bases with total conviction. Neat portraits of the various people with whom he worked, and whom he invariably drove to distraction. Not world-shaking, but a good professional job, which leaves you with a lot to think about as you come out.
It sounds horrific. A girl is raped and imprisoned by a man, who keeps her in an underground cell, with the boy who's a result of the rape. How could this possibly be a moving and intelligent film? But it's brilliant. Everything I've read from the director, Lenny Abramson, and the writer, Emma Donohoe (adapting her own book - not an easy job, in this case) suggested that they'd gone about this in a careful, sober way, without any attempt to shock or titillate.
And so it proves. The central relationship, between the mother and the boy, is brilliantly acted, and the second half of the film - after they escape, moving into the outside world, in a very different setting - is equally rivetting, and not the anti-climax that it might have been. Parents and children, from all sorts of angles (the mother goes back to stay with her mother), and not just the quirky "locked up by a madman" scenario. It's varied, convincing, always worth watching - don't be put off. It's terrific.
All the reviews suggested that Todd Haynes's movie would be a luscious treat, and so it proved. We were two of the handful of people in a large cineworld screening, and there was the usual smell and sound of popcorn, but it was still a delight. Gorgeous sense of period, established in seconds through costume, set design, caerful attention to detail. totalyl riveting performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, often not talking, simply being in front of the camera and putting stuff across - how do they do that? And a sensitive, literate script - e.g.
A: I see.
Bonkers, but absolutely spot on.
No cars are crashed or people killed, but it's a terrific film.
After a bit of a lull, I've got back into moviegoing, and have managed two in the past week.
Spectre is the latest Bond, very slick and effective, if a bit long. tons of different locations, lots of explosions and brilliant effects, and some really good actors adding a conviction which wasn't always there. but still, for me, too contrived and bulky. too many people involved, trying to cram in too much to attract different kinds of audience, so I come out feeling a bit flat.
99 Homes is different. Written and directed by someone I've never heard of, with real intelligence and passion. It's a tough contemporary parable, about a carpenter whose home is repossessed, who is desperate to look after his family. So desperate that he ends up working for the guy who kicked him out of his house. He's immoral, ruthless and very persuasive - as the devil should be when offering Faustian deals. It's gripping, convincing, often surprising, focussing on a small but developing situation with wonderful intensity. I'm so glad i saw it.
Oh yes. We saw Spectre in a packed multiplex, with hundreds of other people wanting to see the latest thing. We saw 99 homes in a deserted auditorium, with a handful of others.
Not much on TV last week, so I caught up on some old movies. I had a hunch that Kramer vs. Kramer wasn't really for me, but I'd never watched it all the way through. And, as they used to say, good reason for why. It was dire. Hyperactive Dustin Hoffman, as insensitive workaholic hotshot, neglecting his wife and kid. Very reasonably, she leaves him. Magically, he turns into a caring single parent, despite losing his job but suffering no financial pressure of any kind. She wins the custody battle, but in the course of it recognises what a wondrous father he's become, so maybe the kid should stay with him. Unrealistic, woolly at the edges, and utterly one-sided - Meryl Streep has very little do, since the reality of her life doesn't interest the writer/director at all. And this junk won Oscars, for the film, for Hoffman and - incredibly - for Streep. Some things have got better.
By coincidence, the same week I watched It's Complicated, also starring Streep. and Alec Baldwin. smart, well-acted, much more evenly balanced. I didn't cringe at all.
Double helping of dementia, catching up on stuff I've recorded this week. First the film Iris, and then the third episode of the channel 4 documentary Dementiaville, which I think has been brilliant. My wife Linda's been less excited, but she's familiar with the territory, regularly running two Singing for the Brain groups. For me, looking in from the outside, it's been fascinating. OK. It's out there, and it's growing, and most of us are going to meet it sooner or later. It can hit anyone, and as it happens many of the examples here had been fit, intelligent active people, doing all the stuff you're supposed to do to keep you healthy in old age. Then it starts and eats away, at accelerating speed, and although there's caring and clever stuff you can do to reduce the impact, to prolong memories and positive times, this isn't a Hollywood movie where you'll turn it around in the end. It'll get worse, often bitter and sordid, and as one doctor says it's a mercy you don't know what you're in for when you start, because you wouldn't be able to cope. Grim warning, but so much love and thought going into how we might respond. Watch and learn.
How do you find out about serious artists? Easy. You watch someone interview them on TV. not so easy. the art of asking the right questions, of getting people to talk and then actually to listen to what they say, so as to guide further questions, is really difficult. As people get used to it - Wark, Lawson, Yentob - they slip into a self-important ease, an assumption that actually they're on a par with these people, are just as interesting as these people, and maybe they deserve the same amount of time..But then someone gives the amateurs a go, and you realise why the professionals have a job. Cillian Murphy talking to Ken Loach should have been brilliant. Mates, who've done good work together, and clearly have a mutula affection and respect. Deeply embarrasisng. Murphy smiles and stutters, searches for the right words to say, oozes relaxation and obviously, like so many actors, wishes to be loved - but hasn't actually put much thought into which questions he's going to ask. Locah manages to say some interesting things nonetheless, but it's a massive wasted opportunity.
Finally caught up with the Selma movie last night.It’s magnificent. You’d expect it to do the story, the crowd scenes, the motion, and it does, with total conviction. But what really impressed me was how well it does the politics. That’s politics at different levels, from President Johnson down to the two guys from SNCC, split as to whether or not to support King’s march. Who’d have guessed when this was happening, that fifty years later we’d be watching an American movie about it, with English actors playing Johnson, Governor Wallace and King himself – all of them terrific. Oyelowo is amazing. Sure, he can do the grandstanding oratory, but he can also do the cunning dealing, the guilt, the deep uncertainty at the moment when he’s winning – fabulous, versatile performance. All he needs is lighter skin and a public school background and he’d be in contention for an Oscar.
So it’s back again to Birmingham, for our second visit to the amazing Flatpack Festival (yeah, OK, so my son runs it. But it is terrific). We get a golden ninety minutes of chat, featuring Peggy Seeger talking to Peter Cox (who’s written a book about the Radio Ballads). On her own admission, she’s a fluent talker – “I’m not getting off the subject. I’m just embroidering the edges.” She’s also knowledgeable, witty, warm and totally honest. No pretension or vanity, but a ton of lively detail about her own upbringing, her relationship with MacColl, and the process of making the programmes. Cox also had some terrific photos, and brief clips from the ballads, culminating in a duet between Seeger and MacColl which I’ve never heard before but have to own, even if it means buying the whole set. A great afternoon. Yet again, thank you, Flatpack.
Another of those rare days where I think I’m living the rock star life. Set the alarm to drive to Radio Shropshire, where winning second prize in the Guernsey Poetry comp allows me a ten minute slot in which I can read the poem, and plug my book launch (March 27), the election show (April 14) and reading with Michael Rosen at the Wenlock poetry festival. Can’t be bad.
And that’s before 9.00 am. Then it’s off to Birmingham for a fuill day at the Flatpack Festival. A weird film about slime mould, featuring all sorts of strange intellectuals (artists, biologists, computer nerds), and a screening of Battleship Potemkin at Birmingham Cathedral with stunning live piano accompaniment. But sandwiched in between those is a gorgeous taste of luxury – Lubitsch’s stunning comedy Trouble in Paradise (why isn’t this better known?), followed by a classy two-course meal at the Opus restaurant. This is the life.
The second film in a week, and the quality keeps being maintained. I was a bit worried about seeing Testament of Youth – could be slushy, might be an anti-climax after the brilliant TV series – but it was fine.
It was, though, very strange to see Emily Watson in her second ‘Mum’ role in five days. She was fine, but even so – tiny part, nothing much to work with. That’s Emily Watson, bright, hot, rising hope – that used to be. If she’s now seen as middle-aged, what does that make me? I know the answer to that. As a student I watch the teenage Judi Dench being stunning in Talking to a Stranger, and ever since then we’ve aged together, her rather more gracefully than me. Ah well.
Yet, again, the prizes hoopla gets it wrong. today, I finally caught up with The Theory of Everything, at a totally sold-out Assembly Rooms (quite a lot of seats). You know the one – amazing impersonation of famous scientist, hotly tipped for Oscar canonisation. but it isn’t. It’s a portrait of a marriage, based on her account rather than his, and Felicity Jones is just as important and just as good. I hadn’t realised the equal balance of the various other relationships. I had heard about him ditching her but not about her fancying someone else, with whom she finally ends up, and – if the closing statements are to be believed – they all remain good friends. It’s so much subtler and more complicated than the hype, but well worth seeing.
I was really chuffed last year, to look through the Guardian list of the year’s best films, and see that I’d seen 9 of them. and now I complete the set, with Leviathan. Wow. Nobody does gloom like the Russians. a small and vulnerable family, under pressure from a local gangster and unsympathetic officials, trying to hang on to their vulnerable home, which would make an idea site for a new marina…Everything that could go wrong does go wrong. these scenery is bleak, the weather usually grim, and the acting totally convincing. Very few laughs, but a really powerful film. Towards the end the house is taken, and then demolished, and we are the camera, inside, watching the machinery crash into building and tear it apart. Brilliant.
As the New Year drought of decent telly continues, I’ve been driven back to my dvd shelves to fill in the gap. and what a joy that’s been. I don’t have to sink in the treacle of Miranda, Downton Abbey and various versions of Dustin Hoffman aging with charm. The one TV movie I did try was The Help, which wore its heart on its sleeve, backed up with a full string orchestra, but was so full of virtue I almost fell asleep. black women will be lively, heroic and passionate; white women – except the rebellious heroine – will be shallow, racist and narrow-minded. Oh dear. I was a relief to get back to Silver Linings Playbook, Secretary and the Lives of Others (that’s on successive nights; not a bad little package). Intelligence, vitality and a bit of wit – such a pleasure. Maybe I should get used to it. Is this the shape of things to come?
A little quiz for telly-watchers. Who’d be the best person to interview (a) the German artist Anselm Kiefer? (b) the English film director Mike Leigh? (c) the Irish writer Colm Toibin? The answer, apparently, is Alan Yentob. Yes, that’s Alan Yentob, every time. That’s who we get on our screens, every time we want to sample any culture. (These three examples are all from the last three weeks) Maybe there are people out there who are crazy about him, but for those of us who aren’t it’s a bit mystifying. and when we see the heavy-handed jokes – Yentob cycling around Kiefer’s yard, Yentob knocking on Mike Leigh’s door and being told to go away – it’s very hard to resist the suspicion that the person who decides we need to keep seeing Yentob all the time is…Yentob himself. Please tell me it’s not true.
Back to Ludlow again; another night, another film. This time it was Pride, which was gorgeous. “Listen, children, and I’ll tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a group of gays and lesbians, who wanted to support the strking miners. so they set up a link with a Welsh pit village, and all lived happily ever after…” Well, not quite. Just as it seemed to be getting slushy and too good to be true, the story would darken. It helped that there is a terrific cast, with Bill Nighy superb in a part where for once he’s not relying on roguish charm. Dominic West also had a good time, and does a dancing turn some way removed from his role as Nulty in The Wire. I reckon to be fairly aware of this history, but at the end was astonished by the extent to which this was rooted in real events. The central activist, Mark Ashton, seems to have been very, very special, doing more with his 26 year life than many people manage in 70. The atmosphere of the whole film is warm and generous, and at the end the audience burst into applause. that’s not something that happens every week.
Terrific film at Ludlow (yet again). A woman suffering from depression has been laid off at work, and her colleagues have been promised a bonus because they’re going to manage without her. After a union rep intervenes, the management agree to take a vote of ther workers involved on Monday morning, so she has the weekend to persuade them to vote for reinstating her, depriving themselves of a bonus in the process. Twenty years ago we’d have said this was an unrealitsic scenario; now, it seems all too believable. And especially with Marion Cotillard, one of the few world-class actresses who could actually convince you that she’s not only working class, but a bit of a shambles a lot of the time. the set up gives it a kind of classic intensity, not quite he Aristotelian unities but close, and it held me all the way through.
First it’s Robin Williams, then it’s Lauren Bacall. Very different figures, and very different reactions, but undeniably events with an impact. Williams, even without the revelations that followed his death, was strange. for me, nothing quite matched the shock of Good Morning Vietnam – who is this guy? I’ve never got on with charismatic teachers, in life or on film, and although he had energy and magnetism, there was also a needy vibe throbbing away: “you do love me, don’t you?”
Bacall was something else. This amazing kid who simmers in To Have and Have Not, is unforgettable in The Big Sleep…and it’s all downhill from there. A formidable, independent character, no question, with little bits of stardust sprinkled through some of the later films, but so sad to have done your best work before you’re 25. The bit of Bacall I remember is her being the loyal housewife on the set of African Queen, asking Katharine Hepburn to help her dish out the food. No way, says Hepburn. She’s off with the boys to shoot game.
It’s nice to see the Daily Mail getting out of its depth. They published, as they would, a story about George Clooney’s prospective mother in law being unhappy about the impending marriage. Clooney objected that this was totally untrue, and the Mail quickly backtracked, trying to justify the story because it came from “senior members of the Lebanese community.” The original story was quoted as being from “a family friend”. Make up your mind, says Clooney. Were you lying then, or are you lying now? And in any case, stuff your apology. they are, he said, “the worst kind of tabloid. One that makes up its facts to the detriment of its readers and to all the publications that blindly reprint them.” No comment from the Mail. Thank you, George. We are in your debt.