Tag: Annette Bening

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Questions of family, up-bringing and sexuality are explored with tenderness and a great deal of wit in this thought-provoking family drama

Director: Lisa Cholodenko

Cast: Annette Bening (Nic Allgood), Julianne Moore (Jules Allgood), Mark Ruffalo (Paul Hatfield), Mia Wasikowska (Joni Algood), Josh Hutcherson (Laser Allgood), Yaya DaCosta (Tanya), Eddie Hassell (Clay), Zosia Mamet (Sasha)

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) Allgood are just like any other married couple after years of living together and raising two children: seemingly contented, settled in their ways and routines, missing some of the passion they had in the beginning, locked into their designated roles in the marriage. Nic is the dedicated doctor (with a slight drink problem) whose alpha personality dictates much of how the household is run; Jules is the more relaxed, more bohemian figure, who has rotated through several possible careers while raising their children.

Those children are inadvertently about to shake things up. Both mothers have each given birth to one of the children, using sperm from the same anonymous donor. Older daughter – straight A high-school graduating Joni (Mia Wasikowska) – is Nic’s child; slightly slacker, sports-fixated son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is Jules’. But both children are curious about who their father is: and, with Joni now old enough to request the information, they discover him to be local bohemian restauranteur Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Meeting Paul – and bringing him into their family life – opens up cracks in their parents’ marriage which will have far-reaching consequences.

Some from the LGBTQ community criticised Lisa Cholodenko’ film on its release for presenting a lesbian marriage in such a largely conventional way. In many ways though that is in fact its strength. This engaging dramady doesn’t see anything unusual or unworldly about a lesbian marriage: in fact it shows that the problems that can beset long-term heterosexual marriages are just as likely to happen in homosexual ones. Nic and Jules are essentially – even if they don’t realise it at first – stuck in a rut. The passion has largely gone after years, the knowledge that you need to make an effort has evaporated, too many conversations are about household and parental duties. Jules quietly, almost unknowingly, resents what she sees as Nic’s dominance in their lives, while Nic privately feels she pulls much more weight in keeping things running. Not that they consciously realise this at first, in conversations that drip with in-jokes and a very casual familiarity (both Bening and Moore are superb at embodying a relationship that has become so long-term it has developed its own language).

But into this drops a bombshell in Paul. Wonderfully played by Mark Ruffalo, Paul is relaxed, playful, optimistic and upbeat. To some in the family – in particular Jules and Joni – he is everything that the more uptight and regimented Nic is not. No wonder these two both find themselves drawn to him. Unfortunately, nice guy that he is, Paul is also superbly unruffled by consequences. Events roll off his back. At first this seems like a great thing. He’s patient, understanding and thoughtful when talking to the kids. He helps the uptight Joni to relax. He gives helpful advice to Laser about his unpleasant friend Clay. But his lack of thought about his actions is there from the start (Laser, astutely, is disappointed in his first impression of Paul as self-obsessed). His advice for Joni openly encourages her to defy Nic’s boundaries. He accompanies Laser to watch Clay attempt a dangerous skating stunt like he’s a bro not a dad. And then there is Jules.

The film also drew fire from the LGBTQ community for presenting one half of its normalised lesbian couple entering into an affair with a man. But for Jules, it’s clear, the relationship is really about getting the sort of attention, focus and (to be honest) sexual interest that Nic seemed to stop giving her a long time ago (at one point, Nic prepares a luxurious bath for Jules – but then takes a phone call from work and abandons the promised massage for work). Paul is flirty, sensual and horny: sure he’s a man, but he can give her the sort of sexual pleasure that absent-minded fondlings with Nic late at night no longer even begin to give.

But that’s all it really is to Jules – a sudden, unexpected craving. There is no doubt that her heart belongs to Nic – just as there is no doubt that both she and Nic will be devastated when the affair comes out. (Cholodenko shoots Nic’s realisation beautifully. During a “family dinner” with Paul, the sound drains out during a fixed shot on Bening’s face which pained, heartbroken realisation and anger crosses across. It’s a tour-de-force for Bening that probably went a long way to securing her Oscar nomination). Paul, conversely, seems supremely unaware of the likely impact of his actions – during that family dinner he shows no compunction about bonding for the first time with Nic (who relaxes as we have never seen before until the truth is revealed) over a mutual love for Joni Mitchell.

Paul is, unknowingly, the serpent in the garden that will unbalance the careful equilibrium in the family. Nic is hostile to him from the start, his presence seeming to play into deep rooted insecurities and a fear of being supplanted. For Jules he presents an exotic alternative chance – a relationship with someone who feels accommodating and deferential to her. It blows open the comfortable but familiar rut the two of them are in. In the cracks, Jules becomes distracted and selfish, Nic doubles down on drinking and demands for obedience to her family rules.

If it sounds heavy going, it surprisingly isn’t. Cholodenko (sharing script writing with Stuart Blomberg) throws in plenty of jokes and moments of sweetness. Bening and Moore are both incredibly good in the lead roles: Moore is bubbly, relaxed, sexy but sad deep down dissatisfied and surprisingly selfish. Bening seems at first merely a domineering control freak with a drink problem, but she is revealed as deeply fragile, loving and devoted, a woman whose love is expressed in ways the objects can find overbearing, however well meaning they are. (Wasikowska and Hutcherson are both also great as their kids.)

The Kids Are All Right bubbles with some well judged moments of comedy, drama and tragedy. This is a film, eventually, about the strength of family. Paul may tempt with his care-free optimism and consequence-free thinking. But this film sides, overwhelmingly, with people like Nic who may sometimes make you want to tear your hair out, but will be there time and again, day-after-day, offering love in a way people like Paul never can. Laser and Joni may tease her, may bridle at her rules – but they love her unconditionally, in a way the film shows us with gestures small and large time and again. So, for that matter, does Jules: her actions grow from wanting a more overt return on the affection she more naturally gives.

It’s a film that wears its heart firmly and shamelessly on its sleeve, as it urges us to both recognise and empathise with this fundamentally loving marriage going through a rough patch. And by normalising families like this, it sends a strong message of inclusivity: after all, if we all share the same problems, doesn’t that all help us realise we are the same?

Bugsy (1991)

Bugsy (1991)

Old school glamour is the order-of-the-day in this luscious but slightly empty gangster film

Director: Barry Levinson

Cast: Warren Beatty (Ben “Bugsy” Siegel), Annette Bening (Virginia Hill), Harvey Keitel (Mickey Cohen), Ben Kingsley (Meyer Lansky), Elliot Gould (Harry Greenberg), Joe Mantegna (George Raft), Bebe Neuwirth (Countess Dorothy de Frasso), Bill Graham (Charlie Luciano), Lewis van Bergen (Joe Adonis), Wendy Phillip (Esta Siegel), Richard C Sarafian (Jack Dragna)

Las Vegas: the city of dreams for gangsters. As Ben (“Bugsy” – but don’t call him that) Siegel (Warren Beatty) tells a room full of gangsters when he’s pitching for their investment, like a hyper-violent Dragon’s Den: build the largest city in a state, you own the state, own the state and you own a slice of America. Imagine how the money can come rolling in then. It’s fair to say the mobsters aren’t so certain – and maybe Las Vegas would never have been a huge success if Bugsy had run it rather than being whacked – but God knows their investment paid out millions of times over.

The dream of building Las Vegas is at the centre of Beatty’s passion project (in this one he just played the lead and produced, dropping a couple of hyphens compared to Reds), a Golden-hued, romantic biopic of notorious gangster (and killer) “Bugsy” Siegel. Siegel sees what no-one else could see: how a city in a law-lax desert could become a mecca for gamblers, and crime could reap the profits. But the project goes millions over budget – not helped by girlfriend Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) creaming millions off the top. Trouble is Bugsy’s investors aren’t the sort of guys who shrug their shoulders at failed investments.

You can see what attracted Beatty to Bugsy. For all it’s about gangsters, I couldn’t escape the feeling Beatty sees Bugsy as something akin to a fast-talking movie producer. Bugsy spins elaborate stories for his backers of how their investment will pay-off, builds fantasies on a huge scale, won’t accept any compromise (a load-bearing wall should be knocked down if it’s blocking the view of the pool!), pouring his heart-and-soul into every detail of his vision. It doesn’t feel a world away from the same control-freak energy Beatty poured into Reds (Bugsy is basically financier, manager, backseat architect and marketing man for his dream).

Bugsy feeds a lot off the fascinating two-way admiration street between Hollywood and gangsters. Beatty’s Bugsy is enamoured with Hollywood, even shooting a (terrible) test reel to try and break into the movies. He’s thrilled to be hanging around with old pal George Raft (a muted Joe Mantegna), who seems equally jazzed to hook up with notorious criminals. Hollywood laps up the notoriety of criminals, both on-screen and off. For his Flamingo launch, Bugsy wants to stuff the place with stars (to his fury, bad weather prevents them arriving), and schmoozing celebrities is at least part of what is going to make the City of Sin such a fun place.

Levinson’s film is shot with a romantic lusciousness, a sepia-tinged nostalgia that wants you to soak up the glory of the costumes, sets and the cool of being a quick-witted gangster who gets all the best girls. It’s very different from the real Bugsy, a brutal killer with a huge capacity for violence. The film tries its best to match this, but can’t escape the fact that Beatty is way more suave and charming than Bugsy deserves. For all we’re introduced to him gunning down a cheating underling – and we see him brutally beat others for bad-mouthing Virginia or using his loathed nickname – he never feels like a brutal criminal, but more like a flawed, romantic dreamer with a temper.

It’s hard not to compare Bugsy with the best works of Scorsese from the same era. Goodfellas knew that, under the surface glamour, this was a dog-eat-dog world and that there was no romance at the end of a bullet. Casino (which followed a few years later, a sort of semi-sequel) sees the true vicious sadism and greed at the heart of this city-building operation, while Bugsy sees it more as a lavish dream and a tribute to a sort of visionary integrity. Even seeing Bugsy gunned down in his own home by a sniper, doesn’t carry  with it the sort of inevitability it needs. As Scorsese understands, this way of life is like playing Russian roulette forever – eventually the chamber is going to be full. For all Bugsy literally plays roulette, it never feels like he’s playing with fire, more that he’s reaching slightly beyond his grasp.

Perhaps Levinson doesn’t quite have the vision to make the film come to life or stamp a personality on it. It feels like a film that has been carefully produced and stage-managed to the screen – and Levinson deserves credit for marshalling such an array of commanding personalities together to create such a lavish picture. But it’s muddled in its message. Is Bugsy actually worth making a film about? What are we supposed to understand from this: was he a killer out of his depth, or an unlucky dreamer? Bugsy wants him to be both, but fails to make a compelling argument for either.

Beatty is impressive in his charisma though, for all he never quite seems to have the edgy capacity for instant violence the part needs. He does capture Bugsy’s desire for self-improvement, from the Hollywood dreams to the eternal elocution lessons he repeats over-and-over like a mantra. His desire for glory even manifests as a bizarre fantasy that he is destined to assassinate Mussolini. It also perhaps explains why he’s drawn to Virginia, a would-be starlet. Annette Bening gives arguably the most impressive performance (but, inexplicably, was practically the only major figure involved in the film not to pick up an Oscar nomination) as a woman who is an unreadable mix of devoted lover and selfish opportunist, leaving us guessing as to her real intentions and feelings.

There is good support from Keitel (hardly stretching himself as Bugsy’s number two Mickey Cohen), Kingsley (an ice-cool but loyal Meyer Lansky, unable to stop Bugsy destroying himself) and, above all, Elliott Gould as Bugsy’s hopeless, pathetic best friend. Bugsy though, for all it’s entertaining, feels like a mispackaged biopic that wants to turn its subject into a romantic figure, unlucky enough to be rubbed out before he could be proved spectacularly right. This soft-soap vision doesn’t ring true and misses the opportunity the film had to present a more complex and nuanced view of the era and its crimes.

Death on the Nile (2022)

Death on the Nile (2022)

Another all-star cast saddles up for one of Branagh’s overblown Christie adaptations

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot), Tom Bateman (Bouc), Annette Bening (Euphemia Bouc), Russell Brand (Linus Windlesham), Ali Fazal (Andrew Katchadurian), Dawn French (Mrs Bowers), Gal Gadot (Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle), Armie Hammer (Simon Doyle), Rose Leslie (Louise Bourget), Emma Mackey (Jacqueline de Bellefort), Sophie Okonedo (Salome Otterbourne), Jennifer Saunders (Marie van Schuyler), Letitia Wright (Rosalie Otterbourne)

The tradition of luscious, all-star Agatha Christie adaptations continues. Following his successful 2017 Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh’s Poirot follow-up Death on the Nile finally makes it to the screen. I say finally, because this film has been sitting on a Covid-related shelf for so long that Branagh conceived, wrote, shot, edited, released and won awards for Belfast in the meantime. Death on the Nile is a much less personal film than that one, but is still an interesting (if flawed) re-imagining of Christie’s Belgian detective.

Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) are getting married and honeymooning in Egypt. Problem is, six weeks earlier Simon was engaged to Linnet’s old friend Jacqueline de Belfort (Emma Mackey), who has not taken being jilted well and is stalking the couple throughout their honeymoon. Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is invited to join the bash by old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), one of a host of wedding guests on a private cruise down the Nile on luxury steamer The Karnak. But Jacqueline gatecrashes the cruise and murder strikes. With almost every passenger having a motive, will Poirot manage to unpick a case that becomes a painfully personal one?

Branagh’s Death on the Nile film has many of the same flaws and strengths of his previous Poirot epic. Shot on 70mm, it’s almost excessively beautiful. In fact, the film has such a chocolate box, Sunday-afternoon feel it frequently looks almost too perfect in its blisteringly blue skies and CGI Egyptian backdrop. It’s very clear that we’re expected to wallow as much in the costumes, sightseeing and 30s glamour as the mystery. In that way at least it’s pretty close to the 1978 Ustinov version.

Fortunately, the mystery is one of Christie’s finest and its execution is handled fairly deftly. The plot is pretty faithful, although most of the character traits of the passengers are reshuffled and reassigned to create interesting new set-ups. (For example, a rich kleptomaniac takes on instead the socialist passions of a secret nobleman who instead takes the medical qualifications of a third character. Elsewhere a character is split in two into Okonedo’s jazz singer and Bening’s rich amateur painter). The insertion of the Bouc character from Murder on the Orient Express carries across an relationship that the film richly develops to give the case a greater personal impact for Poirot.

But the film, like the first, is as much a Poirot-centric character study as it is a murder mystery. It’s easy to snigger at an opening sequence which, while handsomely done and including an impressively digitally de-aged Branagh, serves as a “moustache origins” story (Poirot grew it to hide his physical and emotional scars from WW1). But it’s a launching point for an interesting exploration of Poirot’s emotional hinterland and monk-like abstinence from attachment. A particularly rich opportunity, considering the murder’s roots are in exactly the sort of all-consuming love Poirot has denied himself. It also pays off in the film’s final sequence, with clear evidence that events have led to Poirot permanently re-evaluating and changing his character.

As in the previous film, Branagh plays this with a winning mix of comedy and larger-than-life prissiness but also manages to utilise his eyes very effectively to suggest the emotion and pain his Poirot keeps firmly under the surface. The later sections of the film see Branagh play a level of overt pain that we’ve not really seen other Poirots display in the past. Expanding the character still further beyond the focused, retentive, distanced detective of Christie’s original, this is also a Poirot who expresses shame, regret and (bashfully) a schoolboy-style crush.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is a more mixed bag – who would have thought Russell Brand would be not only one of the more restrained, but also one of the most quietly affecting? Tom Bateman is excellent as Bouc, full of joie de vivre and later wounded, pained innocence. Brit audiences can enjoy the joke of French and Saunders playing a pair of closeted ageing lesbians. Letitia Wright is fairly good as a headstrong young woman in love. Other members of the cast engage in a scenery chewing competition, roundly won by Sophie Okonedo as a rollingly accented blues singer with most of the best lines, while Bening and Fazal struggle to bring life to their characters.

For the principal love triangle, the film suffers under the unfortunate issue of Armie Hammer’s fall-from-grace (guess he’s never going to become that star I wrote once he was destined to become). Even without that, Hammer seems oddly constrained by his British accent and fails to bring any life or passion to the role, not helped by a complete lack of chemistry with Gal Gadot who seems hopelessly at sea, trapped in flat line readings and odd bits of business. Emma Mackey by far-and-away comes out best as a young woman dripping with danger and obsession.

It’s a shame Branagh’s film constantly seems to shoot itself in the foot. Must be easy to do, since the boat is awash with guns (everyone seems to have one!) – so much so the final reveal is bungled into a three-way Mexican stand-off that completely robs the book’s brilliant denouement of its impact. The whole film is a little like this at times: as a director Branagh can be a flashy show-off whose ambition isn’t always married with the sort of effortless grace great directors bring to cinema. So, the film is crammed with tricksy, attention-grabbing shots and loud, brash moments of drama that are as likely to raise sniggers as sighs of awe.

It’s a shame as, in many ways, this is actually a little better than Murder on the Orient Express. It’s tighter (even though it’s longer!) and it creates an emotional backstory for Poirot that not only feels much less forced but actually adds something to the original story. Many of the changes in the characters actually help to make something interesting and new. If only Branagh’s films could shake the idea that we need guns, fights and sweeping CGI to invest in a Poirot story. Because, despite some weaker performances, when the film focuses on emotion and story it’s actually a fairly engaging adaptation that, while never the best, is very far from the worst.

American Beauty (1999)

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening excel in the dated Best Picture winner American Beauty

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Kevin Spacey (Lester Burnham), Annette Bening (Carolyn Burnham), Chris Cooper (Colonel Frank Fitts), Thora Birch (Jane Burnham), Wes Bentley (Ricky Fitts), Mena Suvari (Angela Hayes), Peter Gallagher (Buddy Kane), Allison Janney (Barbara Fitts)

Time has not been kind to American Beauty – and I’m not just talking about Kevin Spacey. In 1999, what felt like a timely exploration of male-angst has, over time, looked less prescient and more like the last embers of a generation that thought they were The Graduate’s Benjamin but actually became his parents. Many of the sympathies of American Beauty now feel dated and slightly misguided, or obscure some genuine reflections on its characters. Its satire of consumerism feels trapped in the 90s. But it’s also very skilfully made, often funny, beautifully shot and you can see why it seemed like the next landmark masterpiece of American cinema, an Apartment for the modern age.

In suburbia, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a middle-aged, middle-ranking magazine executive, tired of his life, unhappy in his marriage to Carolyn (Annette Bening), a fiercely ambitious real estate agent, and drifting away from daughter Jane (Thora Birch). He is snapped out of his ennui by his infatuation with Jane’s friend and fellow-cheerleader Angela (Mena Suvari). Next thing we know, Lester realises he hates his life, quits his job (blackmailing his boss on the way), buys the car of his dreams and takes a job flipping burgers – to the bewildered frustration of Carolyn, who starts an affair. Meanwhile Jane becomes intrigued by Ricky (Wes Bentley), the film-obsessed and drug-dealing son of their next-door neighbour, homophobic army colonel Frank (Chris Cooper). Oh, and it’s all narrated from beyond the grave by Lester – so we know it won’t end well.

“There is nothing worse than being ordinary” says Ricky at one point. It’s an attitude that underlies the film. American Beauty has that very showbiz attitude that the lives most ordinary people lead must be rather shallow and empty. That there can be no meaning in the life of suburbia, family and 9-to-5 that so many of us lead. A sharper film would have added depth and contrast to this – but American Beauty is a film that, for all its quality, is also very pleased with itself.

American Beauty’s debt to Billy Wilder is central to its DNA. It plays often as a mix of The Apartment and Sunset Boulevard, with Spacey skilfully channelling a twist of Lemmon as Burnham. Saying that, I can’t believe Wilder would have been as easy on Lester as Ball and Mendes are. Surely Wilder would have seen through the self-serving selfishness and sad delusion that underlie Burnham’s mid-life crisis, fuelled by his fears of emasculation.

It’s that fear running through American Beauty and – for all it looks at first like a satire on suburbia – what came out to me on rewatching is that parallel narrative of two men suffering familiar masculine crises. Burnham, the office drone, ignored at work, playing second fiddle to his wife at home. He doesn’t wear the pants anywhere – his wife chooses the music they listen to, the events they go to, she doesn’t even let him drive the car. Teenage dreams of rebelling disappeared. He’s forgotten what it feels like to be a man. Then there’s Colonel Fitts, the man’s man struggling with self-loathing due to his deeply repressed homosexuality. These are fairly conventional stories.

Lester’s story takes centre stage (even the name Lester Burnham is wimpy). Outstandingly played by Kevin Spacey, who was never better or more humane, Burnham is endearing, rather sweet, clutzy but still has that sharp-tongued Spacey sense of wit. The opening sequences perfectly capture Burnham’s Jack-Lemmonish awkwardness, repression, inadequacy and depression. But  if anything, Spacey is almost too sympathetic in the role, masking the selfishness and self-serving nature of Burnham’s mid-life crisis (which is what it is), urging us to celebrate his rules-bucking independence.  The film never gets to grips with the spark for all this being a sexual obsession with a teenage girl.

American Beauty never questions the sleazy corruption of Lester’s fantasy – and is perfectly happy with using his crush as a positive motivation for getting his mojo back, as well as frequently presenting Angela as a Lolita-esque fantasy. He holds back from sex with her when she confesses she is a virgin – but the film offers no “what am I doing” epiphany from Lester (or a realisation that he is about to sleep with someone literally young enough to be his daughter), instead turning this exploitative moment into an expression of some decency in Lester. Sure, it’s great that Lester realises his responsibilities eventually – but even in 1999, we all knew it was wrong for middle aged men to sleep with impressionable school-children.

The fact is that Election, released the year before, had more to say about exactly the sort of underperforming, thinks-of-himself-as-a-failure resentment of men of Burnham’s ilk – the difference being that Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister in that film is exposed as a bitter self-serving fantasist, which is what Burnham really is. Burnham’s dying moments may be full of reflections on his wife and daughter – but he ignores them or treats them with scorn throughout the film.

And there isn’t, I feel, a satirical note to this. Instead, the film roots for Burnham strongly, asking us to admire his late life rebellion. Maybe it’s the conservative in me – maybe it’s because I don’t much like The Graduate either – but I don’t feel it. Spacey is great – but Burnham is selfish and embodies a concern in certain men that career-minded women and suburbia were turning them from hunter-gatherers into hen-pecked losers. American Beauty is a direct development of the masculinity crisis films Michael Douglas specialised in throughout the 80s and 90s, of men lost in a world that isn’t 100% about them and what they want any more.

The film’s parallel plot of Fitt’s homosexuality crisis is even more familiar than Burnham’s and hits many expected bases – there are no real surprises here for anyone who has ever seen a film before. It largely works as it is so outstandingly sold by Chris Cooper, who gives a brilliantly rich and raw performance as Fitts.

But its faint whiff of predictability fits alongside a script that is often very rich on dialogue, but has a vein of pretention to it that makes the film feel it’s striving to be important. Ball’s dialogue too often undermines its own points with the stench of pretension. The teenagers in the film fall into broadly predictable cliché. The arty, dreamy ones are profound; the pretty one is shallow and flighty (although, to be fair, is shown to also be vulnerable and scared). Bentley’s character’s faux-artiste musings on the movements of a plastic bag are exactly the sort of pretentious ramblings Ball would later puncture so effectively with the college art classes in Six Feet Under. These scenes have dated terribly and ache with self-importance (and are ripe for parody).

But there is quality here, don’t get me wrong. Spacey is superb, Cooper brilliant. Annette Bening is pitch-perfect as a career-focused woman who lives her life through self-help mantras but is only just holding it together. It’s a shame that, just like Mrs Robinson, the film is so full of sympathy for its male protagonist that it has no time to empathise fully with its female lead.  Mendes directs with a stunning confidence for a first-timer, drawing brilliant performances from the actors as well as bringing a startling originality to the filming (in partnership with Conrad Hall as photographer).

But American Beauty never turns its “look closer” message on itself. It uncritically examines a particular masculine crisis and often makes points that are witty but simple. The final act becomes weighted down with a tiresome “whodunnit?” mystery. The acting, direction and much of the writing is frequently brilliant. But the film itself, as a whole, has not aged as well as we thought it might.

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (2017)

film stars dont die in liverpool
Annette Bening and Jamie Bell as an unconventional couple in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Director: Paul McGuigan

Cast: Annette Bening (Gloria Grahame), Jamie Bell (Peter Turner), Julie Walters (Bella Turner), Kenneth Cranham (Joe Turner), Stephen Graham (Joe Turner Jnr), Vanessa Redgrave (Jeanne McDougall), Frances Barber (Joy Hallward), Leanne Best (Eileen)

In 1981, Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) is performing The Glass Menagerie in Lancaster as part of a UK tour. When she collapses backstage seriously ill, she asks her former lover, young Liverpudlian actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), to come to her aid. Peter takes her back to his parents (Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham) in Liverpool. The two had met a couple of years ago – Grahame the fading star, Turner the would-be actor – and age hadn’t prevented their relationship flourishing into a passionate romance. The film cuts between what pulled them apart in the past, and the present day, where Turner discovers Grahame has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has at best a few months to live.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is based on Turner’s book and is directed with just the right stylistic flourish by Paul McGuigan. Fundamentally a straight-forward (even rather conventional) narrative, McGuigan doesn’t crowd out the action and emotion, but skilfully intercuts past and present together (for instance, characters walk through doors in 1981 and emerge in their memories of 1979). This is pretty subtly done throughout (although the glorious, sun-kissed past and the rain drenched Liverpool present isn’t particularly subtle!) and allows the film to focus on its main strengths – the acting.

The success of the film rests on the chemistry – and skill – of the two leads who both give wonderful performances. Annette Bening excels in nearly a career-best role, as a star clinging to the remnants of her career. Outwardly displaying glamour and confidence – complete with a soft-toned movie star voice – it’s a brilliant study of inner fragility and uncertainty. She carefully reveals a Gloria Grahame who is deeply insecure and fragile.

Bening brings a lot of empathy to the role of a slightly lonely woman who has spent years avoiding questions around her own health, terrified that it could make her unemployable. It’s a fear that has a tendency to make her brittle and defensive. And of course, that’s only added to by her knowing that she is ageing in a young person’s profession. Even jokes about age expose her self-doubt and fear. (Peter drops an early clanger when she tells him after their first date she dreams of playing Juliet with the RSC: “You mean the Nurse?” he says without thinking. She throws him out.)

It’s one of the nice things about the film that the only person who really has a concern about age – or ever seems to mention it as an issue – is the older woman. Nobody else in the film questions the relationship between these two on age grounds (all the doubts raised are based on background and, above all, Grahame’s track record with marriage – four and counting). It’s purely an obsession of Grahame’s – because she doesn’t want to be reminded of her own mortality and, unconsciously, the far younger Turner is a constant reminder of this. And Grahame isn’t really that old anyway: certainly not at heart, her vibrancy being one of the first things that attracts Peter to her.

Peter’s feelings though are heart-breakingly genuine, shown in Bell’s wonderfully compassionate performance. McGuigan frequently allows long reaction shots to study the emotional impact of events on the characters, and no-one benefits from this more than Bell whose face is frequently a picture of conflicted, tortured emotion, of grief that he’s only just managing to hold in. Bell is terrific.

The film charts a romance that starts with a blissful freedom, but ends with a very true and heartfelt declaration of love. The past – saturated with cleanliness and colour as it is – is full of fun, romance and semi-surreal early encounters stuffed with expressive dancing (a great reminder that Bell can really move!) and watching Alien. The time the two spend in New York is similarly golden tinged. What draws it to a close is illness – and Grahame’s fears of how it will affect Turner as well as not wanting to live her last few months being nursed by her lover like an invalid.

It’s an involving romance and relationship piece, and it also gives time to how important families can be. Turner’s parents (lovely work from Walters and Cranham) are supportive and caring of Grahame – and his brother (edgy work from Graham) is only frustrated that they put her before their own interests. It makes quite a contrast with Grahame’s family, a mother who seems more interested in herself (Redgrave at her grand damest, showily quoting Shakespeare) and bitchy, jealous sister (a prickly Frances Barber).

But it’s mainly a film about the two leads and while it doesn’t reinvent anything about biopics or romances (or tragic stories of loss), it tells its story neatly and cleanly and allows scope for the acting to do a lot of the work. Bening and Bell more than rise to the challenge.

The American President (1995)

The buck stops with Michael Douglas in Aaron Sorkin’s dress rehearsal for TV, The American President

Director: Rob Reiner

Cast: Michael Douglas (President Andrew Shepherd), Annette Bening (Sydney Ellen Wade), Martin Sheen (AJ MacInerney), Michael J Fox (Lewis Rothschild), Richard Dreyfuss (Seantor Bob Rumson), David Paymer (Leon Kodak), Samantha Mathis (Janie Basdin), John Mahoney (Leo Solomon), Anna Deavere Smith (Robin McCall), Nina Siemaszko (Beth Wade), Wendie Malick (Susan Sloan), Shawna Waldron (Lucy Shepherd), Anne Haney (Mrs Chapil)

Taken solely on its own merits, The American President is a charming, witty romantic comedy which makes some shrewd (liberal-tinged) comments about American politics. But no-one is ever going to take The American President on its own merits. Because this Sorkin-scripted bundle of joy is so clearly a dry-run for The West Wing, it’s hard to watch it without spotting the roots of it here: everything from shared characters to scraps of dialogue. Perhaps only M*A*S*H stands with this film as so dwarfed by its spin-off.

President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is a widower, raising his daughter Lucy (Shawna Waldron). Heading into the third year of his first term, he’s got a domestic agenda dominated by his new crime bill (although Shepherd won’t risk increasing gun controls). Charming, articulate and passionate – he’s also lonely. But his life changes when he falls for environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), their courtship seeing them fumble through “boy-meets-girl” when boy just happens to be the most powerful man in the world. Will the President’s popularity survive him dating someone outspoken and passionate? Or will it be a tool for his Republican rival Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) to hit him on everything from family values to patriotism?

It’s impossible not to enjoy The American President. Sorkin’s playful, articulate and smart dialogue is of course an absolute triumph. The cast are extremely well-chosen. Few actors look as damn Presidential as Michael Douglas, not to mention carrying with them an air of impassioned authority and commanding bonhomie. Annette Bening is spot-on as exactly the sort of feisty and intelligent woman that would attract a liberal minded President, but turn off pundits and regular people. Martin Sheen was obviously so comfortable with Sorkin’s dialogue style that promotion to the President seemed inevitable (seriously it’s very odd watching the film and seeing Sheen not being treated like the President!). Michael J Fox’s entire career was revitalised by Sorkin tapping into the frantic, fast-paced comic energy that is the actor’s forte.

Rob Reiner’s direction is fresh, relaxed and perfectly complements the dialogue. We get a few West Wing style walk-and-talks (does this make Reiner the inventor of it?). The film superbly balances romantic comedy with serious political discussion on military intervention and proportional response (“the least Presidential thing I do”), the environment and gun control. It also gets a neat idea of the shady, and dirty, business of generating votes in the House – and the deals that need to be done to secure legislation. Reiner gets great stuff from the actors (Sorkin didn’t question his casting, since so many of them ended up in The West Wing) and keeps the momentum up beautifully.

The film has a lovely Capra-esque feel to it. Sorkin is even witty enough to lean on this by having Sydney discuss Capra openly with a White House security guard – also a lovely moment to establish Sydney’s genuineness and openness, as compared to the jaded I-don’t-care attitude of her colleague. There is a real feel in it – and of course this optimism carries across to The West Wing – that good people in the right place can change the world. That decency and compassion can trump (so to speak) the cynicism of Washington insiders. (The idea appeals to everyone – what is Donald Trump but a nightmare version of a plain-speaking man in Washington who says what he thinks?).

Balanced with some lovely comedy, it works extremely well. Along with the debate, Sorkin has a great feeling for the absurdity of the Leader of the Free World trying to work out how he can behave like a regular Joe and ask a girl out on a date. Simple ideas, from sending flowers to the etiquette of having someone stay over, are laced with difficulties. The film gets a wonderful sense of how the public eye can unjustly tear people apart – all drummed up by Dreyfuss’ eminently hissable villain.

There is some great chemistry between Douglas and Bening. Douglas is at possibly his most charming and authoritative here, effortlessly selling the lightness but also the powerfully effective speeches Sorkin crafts for him (his final press conference speech that effectively closes the film is a barnstormer). Bening, as well as being perfectly cast, walks a neat line between serious professional and girlish crush, that comes across extremely well.

It’s hard though, for all the film’s romantic charm, not to look at it through the filter of The West Wing. It’s both a first pass, and a historical curiosity. Sorkin recycled many of the ideas touched upon here (most noticeably Sheen’s President would spend an entire episode discussing proportional responses) and also expanded several characters. Douglas’ teacher turned President, widely read and with a liberal outlook, is a clear forerunner of Bartlett. Sheen himself plays a character who is all but Leo. Fox plays a character combining elements of Josh and Toby. Anna Deavere Smith is a CJ without those distinctive touches Allison Janney bought to the role. Names, plot developments, concepts are all recycled. Stylistic flourishes in the writing match.

The American President isn’t as good as The West Wing of course – few things are. But as a boiled down, Hollywood version with a romantic twist, it’s still pretty damn good.

Captain Marvel (2019)

Brie Larsen is Captain Marvel – yah boo sucks Trolls!

Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Cast: Brie Larson (Carol Danvers/Veers), Samuel L Jackson (Nick Fury), Jude Law (Yon-Rogg), Ben Mendelsohn (Talos/Keller), Djimon Hounsou (Korath), Lee Pace (Ronan the Accuser), Lashana Lynch (Maria Rambeau), Gemma Chan (Minn-Evra), Annette Bening (Supreme Intelligence/Mar-Vell/Dr Wendy Lawson), Clark Gregg (Phil Coulsen)

After almost 11 years, the big criticism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been that it had never made a film with a woman as the lead. Sure, we’d had various strong female characters, but never had one been trusted with headlining a movie. Well the studio has put that right with Captain Marvel, a hugely enjoyable, if not exactly groundbreaking, superhero origins story that can stand up with some of the best origin movies the studio has produced.

In the Kree civilisation, Veers (Brie Larson) is in training to take her proper place in the Star Force, under the tutelage of her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). But she’s struggling to control her immense powers, with her dreams plagued by strange visions and half memories of a planet that looks to us viewers a lot like Earth. After a Star Force mission goes wrong, Veers is captured by the shape-shifting Skrulls and their leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), her memory being searched for a time on Earth that she doesn’t remember. Escaping, she finds herself on Earth in 1995, and quickly allies with SHIELD operative Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, impressively digitally de-aged) to find out what the Skrulls want. But is everything as it appears? And what will happen as Veers starts to remember her true identity, as long-missing air-force test pilot Carol Danvers?

Captain Marvel I guess you could say is not an ambitious film. It largely sits pretty close to the well-established Marvel formula for introducing a new character, and it presents a series of visuals, fights and general tone mixing light-jokes with action beats extremely well. It’s a very professionally assembled product. However, what makes it work is the strain of emotional truth, and an interest in character as the driving force for events, that runs right through the centre of the film. It’s a testament to the imaginative and original direction from Boden and Fleck that at the centre of each clash we see, not the action and the pyrotechnics, but the emotion and character that give these things meaning.

They are also helped by an interesting plot, with some very decent twists, that throws the viewers into the deep end and carefully drip-feeds us information at the same pace as Carol picks it up. This also helps hugely for investing in Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers, a character who doesn’t know who she is and where she came from. Brie Larson does a terrific job, crafting a character “strong and determined”, but also witty, impulsive, brave, caring, decent and rather sweet with a strong moral compass that clearly, from the start, governs all her actions. It’s a fine performance and Larson is equally convincing in the film’s lighter, funnier moments as she is when banging heads together.

That helps keep the tone of the film pretty consistent as it heads through various twists and turns and rugpulls. Now I am sure some of these twists would be seen coming by anyone immersed in Marvel comicbook lore, but for us Muggles I appreciated the reveals about several characters defying expectations. The film also avoids false tension – a character is so obviously a shape-shifted replacement, it’s a relief that the film confirms this in minutes and the characters work it out shortly after. It’s a smart way for the film to fool you into thinking where it is going, while building towards more interesting reveals later on – particularly as it throws our expectations for several characters into the air.

And the action when it takes place is great fun, primary-coloured and accompanied by a great selection of 90s tracks. Because Boden and Fleck have spent so much time carefully developing the characters at its heart, these become action moments you can genuinely invest in, where people you care about are in peril, rather than the bangs and crashes without consequence that plague other films.

It’s also mixed extremely well with comedy. Samuel L Jackson in particular gets some great comic mileage out of a young Nick Fury, a man on his way to becoming the hard-as-nails guy we’ve seen in countless movies, but here still young, playful and (hilariously) besotted with a cat rather wittily called “Goose”. Ben Mendelsohn also gets some good moments from his mysterious shape shifter and Jude Law has a sort of put-upon charm as Carol’s mentor. There are also some lovely moments as Carol rediscovers her memories and rebuilds a relationship with her former best friend and fellow test pilot Maria Rambeau, well played by Lashana Lynch.

Captain Marvel is such good fun, such good old fashioned entertainment, that it seems to have defeated the efforts of the internet trolls to consign it to oblivion. It’s sad to say that, following in the footsteps of Black Panther, The Last Jedi, Star Trek: Discovery and Doctor Who, another “fan boy” franchise entry has seen its opening overshadowed by a bunch of sad wankers with key boards hammering into the internet (and whining into YouTube) about Disney and “the suits” forcing fans to watch stories about people who aren’t white males. Larsen and Captain Marvel got it in the neck for being sexist (it’s not about a man and Larsen dared to say she thought film critics were overwhelmingly white and male – guilty in this case), pushing a feminist agenda (because, like, it had a woman in it that wasn’t a damsel-in-distress or hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold) and not representing what the fans wanted to see in comic films (muscular men saving ladies and hitting things basically). Never mind that social commentary in the old days used to be what these fans bragged about their passions being so full of. Now any character who doesn’t fit a narrow set of racial and sexual criteria is an attempt by the PC brigade to push these pricks out of the fandom. Well to be honest we are better off without this turgid slime polluting fandom with their putrid stench. Put frankly, if films like Captain Marvel make some idiots decide they are going to boycott Marvel for ever more, well good – please fuck off and let the door slam you on your arse on the way out.

Anyway, rant over. Captain Marvel is great fun, Brie Larsen is great, the action is well done, the jokes are funny, the story is engaging and it’s all done and dusted in two hours. Go and see it.