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Is it time to address the elephant in the room? Probably.  The lack of glossy images will tell you this is a little more serious than my usual fair.  Can we appreciate the art and overlook the artist? This was a question Charles McGrath asked five years ago in his New York Times article Good Art, Bad People. I this he concentrated mainly on painters and writers but the same is true of any art, or is it? The article predates the current scandals that are engulfing the entertainment industry. This BBC article outlines the unfolding to the accusations against producer Harvey Weinstein. But this is where things get complicated. McGrath’s article talks of many artists including Hemingway, Degas and Picasso, these were visionary individuals famed for their art. But where a painter, sculptor or writer works largely alone on their creative process, film-making is collaborative.

Take The English Patient, winner of nine Academy Awards including Best Picture credited to producer Saul Zaentz; Harvey Weinstein is credited as executive producer. My understanding of the process: director Anthony Minghella, producer Saul Zaentz and Michael Ondaatje, on whose book it is based, worked together on adapting the story for the screen. Studio 20th Century Fox wanted big Hollywood names for the lead roles and wouldn’t fund the film without their choice of stars, I believe Demi Moore was suggested for the Kristin Scott Thomas role. Miramax Films (still at this time owned and run by Bob and Harvey Weinstein) stepped in to help fund, and to distribute the film. In short, one of my favourite films of the 1990’s would not have been made if not for Harvey Weinstein.

But it isn’t just a case of saying that Weinstein has been accused of bad things but he was behind a great film. If it were that simple and redemption came with great art we would be knighting him having been credited as executive producer on many beloved movies including Paddington, Good Will Hunting, Pulp Fiction and the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, to name just a few. My argument is more complicated than that. There are over four-hundred names on the credits to The English Patient. While we can not and should not forgive peoples misdeeds because we like their art, we must remember that they are just one cog in a very machine.

Then we look back at the golden age of cinema. It is filled with stars who were less than appropriate in their treatment of their leading ladies. We have the draconian seven year contracts. Starlets forced to have cosmetic surgery. Legendary directors bullying their stars. Studio fixers breaking the law and covering up the crimes of others to protect the studio investment. Exploitative working hours in the trades behind the scenes. It would be impossible to work out which films had been ethically made.

The cog in the wheel argument may be harder to accept when the accused is on screen in front of us and not a producer in the background. I understand there is a film about sexual misconduct within the film industry that has been pulled from release because its star (who is also writer, producer and director) has been accused of misconduct himself.  As the situation snowballs, there may well be false accusations made along with all the real ones and we must to a certain degree give people their right to presumed innocence. This isn’t always easy but I am prepared to go forward with an open mind, I make no accusations, or assumptions about those people named in the article, I am simply commenting on what has already been reported. There are no simple answers, and there are sure to be more questions.

 

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Molly’s Game

I read an article about Molly Bloom a couple of years ago when her book Molly’s Game was first released.  A truly interesting story, I would have been keen to see a film based on it; but then things got interesting, it was announced that it was to be Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut. Molly's Game poster

After a freak accident caused the end of her dreams of becoming an Olympic Skier, Molly Bloom decided to take a year out somewhere warm.  Finding herself working in LA as a PA.  Her boss orders her to help run his poker game that features a few celebrities.  Before long, thanks to intellect, drive and organisation she took over the game and transformed it from a relatively friendly high stakes game into the biggest game in town.  Things go really well, until they don’t.     molly's game jessica chastain

It has been reported the real life game featured A list Hollywood stats, hedge fund managers, politicians and wealthy businessmen.  The names have been changed to protect the (not so) innocent.  Even West Hollywood’s infamous Viper Room (the venue for the original game) has been rebranded for the movie.  This anonymity becomes a far more important element of the story later on.  The most notable of the players known as Player X (Michael Cera) is portrayed as a grade one asshole, he clearly based on a real Hollywood star, do your own research if you are interested in finding out who he is, it isn’t difficult. molly's game michael cera

As you would expect in a movie written by Aaron Sorkin, the dialogue is intelligent, snappy and extremely fast paced.  It is an absolute joy to hear it spoken by supremely talented actors Jessica Chastain in the title role as Molly Bloom, Idris Elba as her lawyer Charlie Jaffey and Kevin Costner in a small but memorable part as her farther Larry Bloom.  What I didn’t expect was the structure.  Told with that rarest of things, a voiceover that works.  at first the flashbacks seemed a little disjointed, as the film found its feet at became clear that it was telling a story at three different points in time, not just flashbacks.  This was easy to follow and well balanced, as a viewer, I never wanted to be in a different part of the story. MOLLY'S GAME

I was amazed to learn that it clocks in at 2 hours 20, it felt more like 100 minutes.  With the dialogue coming at million miles an hour it packs a lot in this time.  The best of the story comes with the interactions between Chastain and Elba.  Elba even gets the obligatory grandstand Lawyers speech, this is far measured than you would expect, but no less satisfying.  It is helps that it is shot with a reasonable amount of visual flair without being overly showy.  Aaron Sorkin’s script is based on Bloom’s book so is understandably sympathetic to her.  It is also a product of its time; wrapped before the recent scandals, there is little mention of the players attitude towards women, something Bloom has mentioned in the past.  It does however have an interesting and not particularly favourable comment on how the American justice system works.

Not without problems, but all things considered a classy and impressive film elevated by fantastic dialogue and brilliant acting.  It is also great fun to watch, with some great comic moments.  On the evidence of this I am keen to see what Aaron Sorkin comes up with next and hope it is also in the director’s chair. 

This month’s contenders are:

Murder on the Orient Express – Kenneth Branagh’s lavish and glossy take on the classic Agatha Christie murder mystery.  All the A-list cast are outstanding especially Michelle Pfeiffer.  Is it better than the revered 1970’s Sidney Lumet version? Probably not, however, it offers enough new gloss to make it worth seeing especially for those who haven’t seen any of the many other versions.Murder on the Orient Express

The Killing of a Sacred Deer – As with director Yorgos Lanthimos previous movie, The Lobster, it may be hard to decide if it is a masterpiece or an esoteric rant. I would go with the former on both counts.The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women – The unusual origins of the Wonder Woman Comic book are explored in what is either a tender love story, or the most vanilla BDSM movie depending on your point of view.  The performances are excellent, particularly the always brilliant Rebecca Hall.  Not the best Wonder Woman movie of the year, but by far the best of the month!Professor Marston & the Wonder Women

The Florida Project – Poignant drama set on the edge of society just outside Disney World in Florida.  There is little in the way of plot, this doesn’t matter as the cast of newcomers and unknowns (along with an excellent as always Willem Dafoe) tell the powerful story of the shame of our generation, the so called hidden homeless.The Florida Project

Paddington 2 – The first Paddington movie was so much better than expected.  This sequel doesn’t disappoint.  Hugh Grant and Brendan Gleeson are excellent additions to the cast.Paddington 2

Justice League – The Avengers (2012) was the sixth film of the MCU after introducing all its main characters.  It did a great job of bringing this disparate group together.  Justice League was the DCEU’s chance to do the same, they really screwed it up.  The film spends the first half a movie introducing characters, the second half battling a the worst, most uninteresting villain in the history of comic book movies.Justice League

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool – True story of the romance between a young British actor and fading movie star Gloria Grahame.  I am a big fan of both Gloria Grahame and Annette Bening who plays her here, so the stakes were high, it doesn’t disappoint.Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Battle of the Sexes – Billed as the story of the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, reportedly the most watched televised sports event of all time.  The film is so much more; a love story, the story of King’s coming out, and most notably the origin of the WTA.  The biggest surprise, the story isn’t just about King, Riggs’ story is sympathetically told and interesting.  Emma Stone and Steve Carell are both brilliant.Battle of the Sexes

Ingrid Goes West – obsession and stalking in the cyber generation.  I didn’t exactly like or enjoy this movie, probably because I hated most of the characters, Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) being the exception. However, it was strangely compelling.  The end is perfect anchors the films context.  You expect Elizabeth Olsen to be good, and she is in what a supporting role, Aubrey Plaza is brilliant in the lead.Ingrid Goes West

Molly’s Game – Shown as a secret screening a month before its UK release.  Writer Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut tells the true story of Molly Bloom, the woman who ran a high-stakes poker game for the rich and famous until the mob and the FBI got in the way.  The snappy dialogue that you would expect from Sorkin comes to life thanks to the brilliant Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba.Molly_s Game

Before I started writing this, I didn’t know what the movie of the month would be,  It suddenly became clear it had to be: The Florida ProjectThe Florida Project movie poster

This year saw sequels to John Wick and Kingsman.  Writer, director Matthew Vaughn has already suggested that he intends Kingsman to be a trilogy.  Director David Leitch has explained that he always intended Atomic Blonde to have a sequel, something that is clear from the ending of the first film. Below are five films that were either intended to be part of a series, a sequel was muted but never made, or like Atomic Blonde, finished in a way that teased a follow-up.  As yet the all stand alone without a sequel or franchise. 

Sahara (2005)

We have seen Dirk Pitt before, that was a commercial disaster too.  The Clive Cussler character was played by Richard Jordan in Raise the Titanic (1980).  Unlike Raise the Titanic, which is terrible, Sahara is brilliant.  An underrated and fun action adventure, the closest anyone has ever come to emulating Indiana Jones. The right blend of hero and comedian Matthew McConaughey was perfectly cast and had great chemistry with co-stars Penélope Cruz and Steve Zahn. Sadly the film “underperformed” at the box-office and was beset with legal issues mainly involving author Clive Cussler making a sequel unlikely, the character is sure to be resurrected in future.

Why does it deserve a franchise?

The character is a great, the film is fun and Matthew McConaughey was perfectly cast.  Too much time has passed to make a sequel likely but I have no doubt the charater will make it to the big screen again.  Chris Pratt is the obvious choice of current actors to play the part.  Sahara was based on the eleventh of twenty-four novels to date, so there is plenty of material to go at.Sahara

Miami Vice (2006)

The idea for a film version of Miami Vice came from Jamie Foxx whist filming Ali. The story he tells is of him pitching the idea of a really slick and cool undercover team, he did so describing scenes.  Although Michael Mann has confirmed the idea of making a film based on the 80’s TV show (produced by Mann) came from Foxx his ideas didn’t make it into the final film.  Foxx however did get to play Ricardo Tubbs one of the lead roles.  The other Sonny Crockett is played by Colin Farrell on the recommendation of original Crockett, Don Johnson.  The role of Castillo went to Barry Shabaka Henley after Edward James Olmos who played the part on TV turned it down.  The film really delivers on the ultra slick, ultra stylish film just like the main characters.  A truly underrated gem that didn’t find an audience when released, but is starting to develop a loyal following.

Why does it deserve a franchise?

Firstly because it is brilliant.  Foxx and Farrell are great together and the plots their characters could be placed in are endless. Miami Vice

Mr. Brooks (2007)

Kevin Costner plays the eponymous Mr. Brooks, a successful businessman who also happens to be a serial killer. Brooks wants to give up killing but is encouraged by his alter ego, portrayed on screen by William Hurt. His life becomes more complicated when he has to deal with family issues involving his daughter (Danielle Panabaker) and when a careless action forces him to take on a protégé (Dane Cook). A the time trying to stay one step ahead of an unusually driven detctive (Demi Moore)

Why does it deserve a franchise?

First and foremost, it was intended as a the first of a trilogy. It performed well enough at the box-office. There is also mileage in the premise: Despite the somewhat macabre nature of the film the scenes between Costner and Hurt are a blast. There are also interesting places the farther daughter relationship could go.Mr Brooks

Doomsday (2008)

Nobody makes high quality genre B movies like Neil Marshall, Doomsday is a perfect example of this type of film.   Rhona Mitra plays Eden Sinclair, a cynical and wisecracking, hardcore but emotionally detached soldier. Essentially she is a female Snake Plissken.  The plot owes a debt to  Snake Plissken as it sees Sinclair enter a walled off Scotland to find a cure for a plague threatening to wipe out the population of England.  The film is bonkers but total fun.

Why does it deserve a franchise?

The film ended in a interesting place that could be further explored.  The character could also be used in many different scenarios.  Had a follow-up been made within a year or two, a prequel would have been a good idea. Rhona Mitra Doomsday

Wanted (2008)

Loosely based on the comic book miniseries of the same name by Mark Millar and J. G. Jones, Wanted is the story of Wesley (James McAvoy), an ordinary guy in a dead end job until Fox (Angelina Jolie) tells him that his farther was a professional assassin and the people who killed him are after Wesley.  Directed with great visual flair by Timur Bekmambetov (The man responsible for Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006)), in a time before John Wick, it was a groundbreaking action film, made all the better by the unlikely casting of McAvoy.

Why does it deserve a franchise?

The idea of a sequel keeps cropping up but never happens. It has been suggested that McAvoy and Bekmambetov have been interested in a returning.  Other actors are less likely to return and would need new characters to drive the plot.  It could work. Wanted

Between 9 and 12 years old, it is unlikely any of these films will ever have a sequel.  Some of them by be remade or rebooted.  Some may even have the same fate as The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013).  Part of a hugely successful YA book series, it underperformed on the big screen but found a new home on TV as Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments (2016) that will be going into its third season next spring. 

This weekend I will be visiting my local cinema to see Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.  The true story of Oscar winning actress (Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Bad and the Beautiful,1952) Gloria Grahame and her relationship with young actor Peter Turner.  Based on a book by Turner, he is played by BAFTA winning actor (Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, Billy Elliot 2000) Jamie Bell; Grahame is played by four time Oscar nominee (how has she never won?) Annette Bening. Quad-Main-AW_31162-Film-Stars-Dont-Die-in-Liverpool-1068x801

Gloria Grahame was about thirty years older than Peter Turner and working in English theatre, her movie star days behind her.  If you have seen the trailer, you will understand the films title.  Listening to the press for the film a few things came out.  Neither the age difference or the different worlds they were from was never an issue between Grahame and Turner.  There was also a suggestion that Grahame, who had been married four times, had not been treated well by the men in her life before meeting turner. This made me think of my favourite of Gloria Grahame’s movies; In a Lonely Place. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is the prime suspect in the murder of a young girl who had visited his apartment shortly before being killed.  His only alibi comes from his neighbour, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) who saw the girl leaving.  Bogart gives an amazing performance as the volatile but vulnerable writer; Grahame is perfect playing opposite him.  The pair have amazing onscreen chemistry resulting in a totally believable relationship. in a lonely place

The film is all about timing, not always good timing; timing is the reason Dixon Steele becomes a suspect, the reason Laurel Gray becomes his alibi but most importantly in the films conclusion Gray spells it out “Yesterday, this would’ve meant so much to us. Now it doesn’t matter… it doesn’t matter at all.” Even the making of the film was a matter of timing; Grahame was married to director Nicholas Ray, a tumultuous relationship filled with separations and reconciliations, they didn’t last long after the film, divorcing within two years.  Perfectly constructed the film gives purpose, direction and a glint of happiness to its characters but never lets you forget it can all be pulled away at any moment.  This in itself is far from unique, but it manages to do it in such a subtle way that it is more disturbing than any bombast could have achieved. Gloria Grahame

Firmly pigeonholed as a film noir, it is very different to, but strangely darker than any detective thriller.  It is for this reason that I wasn’t that impressed when I first saw the film as an 18 year old.  It is also the reason I loved it so much when I watched it again twenty years later.  Director Nicholas Ray went on to make Born to Be Bad, Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause but never committed anything to film as devastating, as heartbreaking as In a Lonely Place.  Grahame and Bogart both went on to win Oscars but if either gave a better performance during their careers, I didn’t see it.

I am unsure of what to expect from Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, I have avoided reviews, but with Annette Bening involved it is sure to be worth seeing. 

Justice lugues posterI drove past a billboard displaying a massive Justice League poster the other day.  The notable thing about, only one woman.  But given the fact the one woman was Gal Gadot, who with Wonder Woman is the only person on the poster to have a decent movie in DC’s current run of super heroes.  Not to say all the recent DC movies were disaster: The various Batman and Superman movies have made good money.  The Suicide Squad was a mess but it had some good elements (Margot Robbie and Will Smith).  My first thought was the big topic this year, not only have DC given a female character her own story, but it’s the best film they have made so far in the series that appears to be trying emulate the recent success of the MCU.  Marvel are seventeen movies in and still haven’t given a woman her own movie.  As it stands that will come in 2019 with Captain Marvel.  That will appear somewhere between the two Infinity war movies, the second of which will mark the end of Phase Three.  What will Phase Four bring us?  many have speculated that it will be a re-boot; others believe it will be a continuation of the franchise, but without the main characters from the earlier phases (Iron Man, Thor, Hulk).  This suggest suggests an end to fan hopes of a Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow standalone movie.

 

wonder woman

However there is one film series that has had something approaching equality in its characters, the X-Men.  Despite being called Men, the movies and the comics feature a healthy mix of both genders as well as a subtext of equality.  As with the comic books on which they are based, Logan/Wolverine became an instant fans favourite, thanks in no small part to the brilliant casting of Hugh Jackman. Rogue (Anna Paquin), was introduced to the X-Men at the same time as Logan and in many ways was the main character of the first film in 2000.  Of the existing team, outside of Patrick Stewart’s Professor Charles Xavier, the most memorable characters were Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Ororo Munroe / Storm (Halle Berry).  In fairness depending on your point of view Halle Berry was either miscast or misunderstood.  I’m not convinced director Bryan Singer knew what to do with the character.  Of Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) villains, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) was by far the most interesting and became a mainstay of the series.  When Matthew Vaughn rebooted the franchise in 2011 with X-Men: First Class he cast Jennifer Lawrence just as she was about to become one of the biggest stars in the world, ensuring the already interesting character a higher profile.  She continues to be one of the most interesting characters in the franchise.X-Women

 

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) was a disaster and made a mess of another fan favourite character Psylocke, I couldn’t tell you how good or bad Olivia Munn was in the part, as she wasn’t given much of a chance to do anything.  The film did however introduce Alexandra Shipp and Sophie Turner (best known for Game of Thrones) as Jean Grey and Ororo Munroe / Storm respectively.  They were far better handled, and have led to the next film X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2018).  Dark Phoenix, is one of the big story arcs in the comic books and a theme that was touched upon on the second and third installments of the movie franchise.

Finally we have the best comic book movie of the year, Logan.  Including an uncredited cameo in X-Men: First Class, Hugh Jackman has appeared in every X-Men movie to date.  His tenth and final appearance came earlier this year, in the brilliant Logan.   His co-star was eleven year old Dafne Keen as Laura / X-23 a child cloned from Logan.  The character was as much the star of the film as Jackman’s Logan, and seminal to the plot.  There have been suggestions of bringing the character into the X-Men movie (who gave up on continuity long ago).  There have also been a far more interesting suggestion of her own stand alone movie following on from Logan.  It isn’t clear if this would be involve recasting to portray a grown up version of the character or continue with Keen who would be a young teenager by that time.  Either option has merit, the inclusion of Logan director James Mangold would be a welcome addition.Logan

So while we are bemoaning the lack of a female lead in Marvel movies or celebrating the success of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (and its announced sequel), just remember that X-Men have been around on the big screen since the turn of the millennium and aren’t doing a bad job, some of the films even pass the (flawed) The Bechdel test!

Ten movies, most good, a couple are great, here are the contenders:

Home Again – Enjoyable but lightweight rom-com.  Pairing a forty year old woman with a twentysomething man is a welcome reversal of the cinematic norm.  Reese Witherspoon is always a likeable screen presence. Home Again

Goodbye Christopher Robin – The story of author A.A. Milne and the creation of the Winnie the Pooh stories is a deeper and darker one than you would expect.  Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie are both excellent, Kelly Macdonald is better. Goodbye Christopher Robin

Blade Runner 2049 – My love of the original Blade Runner is no secret, it is therefore no surprise that I was apprehensive about a sequel.  If anyone was going to make it work, it is Denis Villeneuve, and he really does make it work.  Truly a sequel picking up the story of the original film and taking it in an interesting direction. Blade+Runner+2049-1

The Snowman – A first rate cast does a great job in a stunning looking adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s novel.  Unfortunately the Tomas Alfredson directed movie is a mess with disjointed plot.  Not even three time Oscar wining editor Thelma Schoonmaker could save it. The Snowman

Double Date – A young man desperate to lose his virginity is pushed into approaching two women by his cocky friend.  Unfortunately for them, the two sisters are serial killers looking for a virgin.  Comedy horror is so hard to get right, but this low budget British offering really gets it right. Double Date

The Death of Stalin – Armando Iannucci made an interesting choice with his cast using a mix of British and American accents in this story of the power struggle in the days that followed the titular death of Starlin.  Farce and satire in equal parts, with a really dark undercurrent, the risk pays off, it is brilliant and hilarious. Andrea Riseborough

The Party – One location, a 71 minute running time, and a small cast (Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall), The Party is essentially a filmed play. The cast are all excellent mainly playing unlikeable people.  Sure to divide opinion, I was unsure to begin with, but loved it by the end.  The Party

Happy Death Day – You can imagine the pitch “its Groundhog Day, meets Scream”.  That is essentially what it is, a college student is murdered but has to re-live the day over and over until she solves the crime and survives the day.  Disposable but surprisingly enjoyable. Happy Death Day

Thor: Ragnarok – Taika Waititi movies are bonkers, given a major franchise movie you would expect him to tow the line and make a generic sequel or find himself out of a job (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller!!!), fortunately that isn’t the case.  Ragnarok is as barmy and as funny as you would expect.  In Hela, played brilliantly by Cate Blanchett Marvel have found their best villain since Loki.Thor Ragnarok

Breathe – Andy Serkis’ first movie as a director.  Remarkable true story of a couple’s life together after one contracts polio and isn’t expected to survive for long.  A little jolly and lightweight but well shot with great performances and likeable characters. Screen-Shot-2017-06-29-at-6.47.39-PM

The two funniest films of the year; The Death of Stalin and Thor: Ragnarok came close, but the movie of the month is the monumental Blade Runner 2049Blade runner 2049 poster