Tag: Films about film

The Player (1992)

Tim Robbins is the ultimate heartless Hollywood exec in Altman’s vicious satire The Player

Director: Robert Altman

Cast: Tim Robbins (Griffin Mill), Greta Scacchi (June Gudmundsdottir), Fred Ward (Walter Stuckel), Whoopi Goldberg (Detective Susan Avery), Peter Gallagher (Larry Levy), Brion James (Joel Levison), Cynthia Stevenson (Bonnie Sherow), Vincent D’Onofrio (David Kahane), Dean Stockwell (Andy Sivella), Richard E. Grant (Tom Oakley), Sydney Pollack (Dick Mellon), Lyle Lovett (Detective Paul DeLongpre), Gina Gershon (Whitney Gersh), Jeremy Piven (Steve Reeves)

Hollywood: it’s a hell of a place. Sharks ain’t got nothing on studio power-brokers, hunting product to sell. After all, not a single letter of “Art” appears in “Hollywood”. Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) hears 50,000 pitches a year and gives the green light to ten or twelve. Mill is plagued with death threats. Confronting the writer (Vincent D’Onofrio) he believes responsible, he kills him in a fight. Can he get away with murder and successfully romance the writer’s artist girlfriend June (Greta Scacchi)? And, even more importantly, can he protect his job from hotshot executive Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher)?

Robert Altman had been working outside of the studios for well over two decades after negative experiences creating his critically acclaimed but hard-to-digest masterpieces (including McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye, the sort of films only Altman could make). His career had drifted during the 1980s, as his edgy, ‘disciplined ill-discipline’ approach (with overlapping sound and roving cameras) moved out of fashion. The Player was not only his payback expose on the studio system, with the exec a sociopath, but also his triumphant comeback to the frontline of film-making (he earned several awards, including a nomination for Best Director).

The Player is nominally a comedy, but in the way of Altman it also fits half a dozen other labels: from film noir to corporate satire. Above all it’s a maverick’s view of a system designed to produce product (Mill constantly speak of his films like this – he would love our modern age of “content”). The studio’s offices are lined with posters from classic Hollywood – but the studio produces the most crowd-pleasing cookie cutter movies you can imagine. It’s all about squeezing in all the ideal elements a film must have: “Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.” (In a neat subversive twist, these are of course all present in The Player – but then it’s to be expected when what we are seeing might actually be a film within a film).

Film pitches all have an air of desperation, every idea boiled down to simple, easily digestible slogans. It’s nearly always a combination of two other films – “Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman!” – or involves the biggest stars (“Julia” and “Bruce” were those two stars – and both actors hilariously spoof themselves in the film’s climactic sequence). Ahead of its time, the film even features a pitch (from a cameoing Buck Henry) for The Graduate 2, a nostalgia tinted exploitation of the IP with all the original cast, that basically sounds like the sort of thing they’d actually make today.

There is no place for film-making as an art – any idea that can’t be compressed into 30 seconds is worthless. Mill’s knowledge of film is patchy at best, his attempt to make small talk about Bicycle Thieves boiling down to “Perhaps we should remake it?”. The film (possibly the film within a film within a film), Habeas Corpus, pitched by Richard E Grant’s pretentious writer (“No stars! No pat Hollywood endings!”) is only attractive because it has the wisp of Oscar about it (and Oscars mean Big Bucks). Even then, Mill plans to rework the whole film into exactly the sort of pat-Hollywood romantic thriller Grant’s character claims to hate (no character will support this decision more than Grant’s sellout writer). The only person who seems to actually watch films is Fred Ward’s studio head-of-security – and at least half of his references are met with blank incomprehension. When Griffin makes a speech donating the studio’s old films to a cultural library, his words about art and culture are incredibly hollow.

This vicious satire of the shallow culture of Hollywood – Larry Levy’s up and coming executive attends AA solely to network, not because he has a drink problem – is wrapped up in a beautiful noir framework, that’s brilliantly a few degrees off reality (for reasons that later become clear). Deluged by death threats from (he surmises) a disgruntled writer, Griffin meets the man he suspects – a pretentious holier-than-thou wannabe, played with chippy fury by Vincent D’Onofrio – who he beats to death in a neon-lit carpark, after a dig too far about Mill’s job security (as nothing threatens these guys more than the prospect of being drummed out of town).

Altman’s film wonderfully echoes the neon lit shadows of classic noir, while building a homage filled trap around Mill, desperate to escape punishment. Mill of course has killed the wrong man – and his stalker knows it – and his own heartless-but-effortlessly-cool business dealings are contrasted with his efforts to avoid the dogged pursuit of a police department (led, in a curious but just-about-effective piece of casting, by Whoopi Goldberg) correctly convinced he is guilty. The film asks, how much does morality intrude on Mill, when he’s led his whole life trampling people: isn’t literally killing someone only the next step up from all that metaphorical killing he’s been doing?

His one weakness is falling in love with his victim’s girlfriend, an artist played with a breezy sexiness by Greta Scacchi. Scacchi’s June is intriguingly unknowable – how much does she suspect Mill, and how much does she even care? – and the dance of seduction and suspicion between them is highly effective, culminating in a tastefully, imaginatively but highly sensually shot sex scene (built from Scacchi’s refusal to do a nude scene – instead the nudity comes from a full frontal of Robbins emerging from a mud bath).

Scacchi’s June feels like halfway between a real person and a movie construct – and that’s a deliberate effect in a film which, the ending suggests, may well have been a movie within a movie. Mill takes a pitch in the final moments from his actual blackmailer, who outlines the very film we have been watching, a pitch Mill accepts on condition the film (he?) gets a happy ending: cue Mill arriving home to June and the two of them using the same pat Hollywood pay-off lines to greet each other, we just saw Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts mouth in Mill’s happy-ending for Habeas Corpus. Apply the logic of a film to all the action and it suddenly makes sense on a whole new level, as a beautifully judged exploration of the very crowd-pleasing elements Mills praises, repackaged in a sharp and bitter satire.

Tim Robbins performance of restrained amorality is vital to the film’s success. In his career, any weakness is deadly – a mantra he applies to his interactions with the police and with June. Mill is so eerily controlled – fear is the only emotion he categorically shows, guilt never crosses his mind – you start to wonder if he even has a real personality. But, in the movie’s structure, he’s both a real person and also a construct whose life echoes scenes from the movies whose posters fill his office.

Altman balances these ideas of truth and reality perfectly within the studio satire. The film is astonishingly well-made, all Altman’s trademarks of overlapping dialogue and roving camera present and correct. It opens with a hugely confident seven-minute tracking shot around the studio, which feels like a real “I’m back!” statement – and is beautifully and wittily done. The film is crammed with dozens of celebrities playing themselves (they were given no dialogue and encouraged to improvise scenes), all of them keen to show they were in on the joke.

The Player is dark, witty and very clever, one of Altman’s sharpest and most enjoyable films. Crammed with echoes of film noir and a brutal expose of Hollywood business practice, it’s very well performed and keeps just enough lightness and humanity (it encourages to empathise, but not sympathise, with Mill, for all his amorality) to also be entertaining. One of the great films about Hollywood.

The Artist (2011)

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo delight in the light, frothy, charming Best Picture winner The Artist

Director: Michel Hazanavicius

Cast: Jean Dujardin (George Valentin), Bérénice Bejo (Peppy Miller), John Goodman (Al Zimmer), James Cromwell (Clifton), Missi Pyle (Constance), Penelope Ann Miller (Doris Valentin), Malcolm McDowell (Butler)

In 1920s Hollywood George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is King of the Silver Screen. Why would he want anything to change? Surely these ‘Talkies’ are just a passing fad, right? Ooops. Before he knows what has happened, Valentin has gone from top of the world to the very bottom, left behind (like so many real-life silent stars) by change. Meanwhile, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), the young extra from his glory days whom Valentin briefly mentored, become a star of the Talkies. But Peppy still loves Valentin – and maybe he loves her – even while Hollywood pulls them apart.

Plot-wise, The Artist is pretty conventional. What really makes it stand out is that it’s a silent film about silent film. Perhaps that’s why the whole world went gaga for it (gifting it five Oscars, including wins for Hazanavicius, Dujardin and the Big One) – it was a genuine burst of nostalgia-tinged novelty. Everything old is eventually new again: I remember the novelty myself – sitting in a cinema and suddenly, after the music stops, hearing nothing but silence. Match that with the undeniable charm and energy the story is told with and, boom, you had a hit.

Does The Artist survive repeated viewings? Just about – though it looks increasingly like a slight film, that raises warm feelings but makes little lasting impact (I was surprised how much of it I had forgotten). Hazanvicius’ study of silent cinema has clearly been thorough, and this is undeniably a wonderful love letter to Hollywood’s history. Every technical detail is carefully reproduced, and the pastiche Fairbanks-style adventure stories Valentin stars in is spot on. The actors fully embrace the slightly exaggerated mannerisms of silent acting, telegraphing emotions with urgency.

Hazanvicius uses sound, when it comes, brilliantly. The opening of the film is bathed in music as we watch the premiere of one of Valentin’s films – only for all the sound to drop out the second the film-within-a-film ends. (We even see a “Silence behind the screen” sign before it does). We only hear everyday sounds twice – once in a hilariously haunting dream of Valentin’s where objects make noise but he cannot – and at the end of the film as Valentin finally finds a place in Talking Hollywood. Other than that, it’s scores, speaking cards (some of them witty, like Valentin’s wife’s question “Why do you refuse to talk?”) and all the style of silent cinema.

It’s a sweet and gentle film. There is no trace of the ruthless business Hollywood is, and not a trace of the darkness that touched many of this era. There is never any prospect of Valentin turning into, say, Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond or any of the other washed-up waxworks in her house of broken dreams. Valentin loses everything, but remains a generous and decent guy, firing the loyal chauffer he hasn’t paid in a year (and giving him his car for free!) because otherwise he’ll never leave him. And of course, his dog loves him, so he must be a great guy. (The dog by the way was the break-out star, this charming, brave canine even getting a campaign for best supporting actor).

The film centres a love story between Valentin and Peppy. The two of them have an instant connection – but Valentin is the star, with Peppy the ingenue. This bond can survive nearly everything, even while Valentin resents her success. Hazanavicius manages to make this very sweet, even though Peppy is sometimes tediously saintly in her devotion. Valentin may have mixed feelings about his protégé – but in a housefire, the only thing he saves is footage of the two of them messing around in outtakes from one of his old films.

The film seems unbothered as well by the fact that Valentin is married. The wife (a thankless role for Penelope Ann Miller) doesn’t get a name, let alone any sense of a personality other than (it seems) being some sort of shrew.

You could also see Peppy, if you wanted to be uncharitable, as a bit of a stalker. She buys up (by proxy) all of Valentin’s goods when he goes broke, practically abducts him from the hospital after he is caught in a fire, hires his staff. Tip your head to one side and you can see her boiling a few bunnies. The Artist though sees her as more of a “Guardian Angel” (as per the title of one of Peppy’s movies) – and you can argue that there is something old-fashioned (not always in a good way) about a film where the female lead defines her success only by how it can help the man she loves.

The tinge of creepy to the Valentin-Peppy relationship isn’t helped by using a huge chunk of the Bernard Herrmann Vertigo score to underscore the film’s conclusion, not to mention the left-field melodrama of Peppy racing across town to prevent Valentin from committing suicide (motivated it seems by realising Peppy is his Guardian Angel). It’s an odd mis-step – and the sequence not only feels radically different from the rest of the film, it also seems to heavy for such a light confection.

But, negatives aside, it’s a decent little film. Jean Dujardin is the epitome of charm and old-school Hollywood wit as Valentin – it’s a master-class in physicality and he oozes matinee idol cool, and a certain boyishness. Bejo is very good as the well-meaning, kindly Peppy. The film is a puff of air, and once you get over the novelty, you’ll be amazed how little there is to it. But it’s told with such energy, charm and nostalgic wit (and ends with a lovely dance routine) as well as affectionate nods to old-school Hollywood, you won’t mind too much, even if you’re surprised it won as many awards as it did.

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Humphrey Bogart struggles with a dark capacity for rage In a Lonely Place

Director: Nicholas Ray

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Dixon Steele), Gloria Grahame (Laurel Gray), Frank Lovejoy (Sergeant Brub Nicolai), Carl Benton Reid (Captain Lochner), Art Smith (Mel Lippman), Martha Stewart (Mildred Atkinson), Jeff Donnell (Sylvia Nicholai), Robert Warwick (Charlie Waterman)

Hollywood: it’s a dark town. When movie makers turn their lens on themselves you’ve just as likely to see the dark underside of showbusiness, as you have a celebration. In a Lonely Place was made in the same year as Sunset Boulevard, and it’s even darker and less hopeful than that movie. It focuses on a person with a certain level of kudos, that has led others to overlook his deep personal flaws. In a Lonely Place reveals itself as a quite ahead of its time in its unflinching look at why people find themselves drawn into potentially abusive, controlling relationships with people who talk endlessly about how much they love you even while they try and control every aspect of your life. Overlooked at the time, it’s seen more and more as a classic.

Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a successful screenwriter but has gone a few years since his list hit. Hired to adapt a plot-boiler he’s so contemptuous of the synopsis he invites a waitress at his favourite restaurant, Mildred (Martha Atkinson), to his flat one night to describe the story to him. Becoming as bored with her as he is with the cliched plot, he sends her home. When she is murdered later that night, Dixon is number 1 suspect. He’s alibied by his neighbour, aspiring actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) and the two start a relationship. But the pressure from the investigation and his writing assignments bring Dixon’s barely controlled rage more and more to the surface – with Laurel slowly fearing that he could be capable of anything if pushed to it.

It would be expected for a movie of this period – say something like Suspicion where of course Cary Grant is just misunderstood not a would-be killer – for all this to simmer and then resolve itself as a terrible series of errors (mostly of course from the woman). In a Lonely Place doesn’t do this. Instead, from the start we are given no reason to doubt Dixon’s capacity for near-murderous rage. Practically the first thing we see him do is assault a producer – albeit avenging an insult to an alcoholic actor friend. His first resort is violence. It’s something he’ll resort to time and time again, his capacity for anger joined with a self-pity that makes preemptive violence more likely.

It bleeds into the relationship with Laurel, which at first is all goodness and light. The two of them are well-suited, and an excellent tonic for each other: she’s a combination of muse and amanuensis, helping Dixon turn out his script; he opens doors in Hollywood she has spent years pushing against. But Dixon’s possessiveness, resentment and suspicion become clearer, accentuated by Laurel’s reserve and caution to emotional commitment. The relationship becomes tortured as Dixon resents any trace of suspicion against him, alternating with desperately possessive pleading for love. Any deviation from his idea of their relationship is seen by him as an act of betrayal.

Then there’s that temper. It’s there all the time, a sadistic streak that suggests a damaging lack of empathy. Dixon – while vaguely sorry for Martha’s death – is also perfectly happy discussing her demise with a clinical academic interest. He’s unphased by crime scene photos. He feels no guilt about not driving her home. Later, at the house of his friend (one of the detectives) he theorises how the crime was committed with an animation that turns into unsettling excitement. After a row with Laurel he drives a car (with both of them in it) with reckless fury and then nearly beats to death someone whose car he clips. Dixon follows these moments with futile half-apologies – anonymous flowers for Martha’s family, anonymous cheques to pay for car damages. But he never addresses his deep psychological problems.

This relationship becomes one ripe with the unspoken capacity for violence. Gloria Grahame is excellent as a careful, guarded woman who opens herself romantically, only to become terrified that the man in her life could just as easily kill her as kiss her. It’s a tension we feel too. Making breakfast, Dixon may talk about how they will be together always– but his vulnerable voice underlines his own doubts, and his furious insistence that they marry ASAP carries the capacity for fury if denied.

As Dixon, Humphrey Bogart gives one of (if not the) greatest performances of his career. Playing a character who, with his dark rages, allegedly had similarities with himself, his Dixon is a bleak figure. Capable of wit and charm, Bogart also makes him a cruel, seedy and sinister in his excitement at murder, while never preventing us finding him vulnerable and weak in his fear at being abandoned. But not sympathetic enough for us to worry he may end things by murdering Laurel. He’s never sympathetic – his late, motiveless, slapping around of his decent agent ends our chance of finding him that for good – but he’s understandable.

And he lives in a dysfunctional town. Where Hollywood intrudes on the action, Ray makes clear it is dark, unsettling, alien and unfriendly town – a truly lonely place. There are no confidantes or friends: only colleagues and potential rivals. You are only as good as your last credit: when your last few credits are poor, you’re no-one. On the other hand, rage and misbehaviour will be tolerated if you can produce the goods. It’s not a place for humanity or goodness.

Ray’s overlooked classic is a beautiful fusion of film noir and Hollywood insider movie. With superb performances from the two leads, it also feels way ahead of its time in looking at abusive relationships. Abusive partners don’t arrive twirling moustaches. They seem decent, loving and passionate – its only when you start to disappoint them they start to turn angry, controlling and abusive. By the time the film’s end come – and it’s a bleak one – you’ll be hard pressed to find some hope in it. But you will certainly find some great film-making.

The Aviator (2004)

Leonardo DiCaprio excels as Howard Hughes in The Aviator

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Howard Hughes), Cate Blanchett (Katharine Hepburn), John C Reilly (Noah Dietrich), Kate Beckinsale (Ava Gardner), Alec Baldwin (Juan Trippe), Alan Alda (Senator Owen Brewster), Ian Holm (Professor Fitz), Danny Huston (Jack Frye), Gwen Stefani (Jean Harlow), Jude Law (Errol Flynn), Willem Dafoe (Roland Sweet), Adam Scott (Johnny Meyer), Matt Ross (Glen Odekrik), Kevin O’Rourke (Spencer Tracy), Kelli Garner (Faith Domergue), Frances Conroy (Katharine Houghton), Brent Spiner (Robert E Gross), Edward Herrmann (Joseph Breen)

Howard Hughes grew up wanting to make the biggest movies in the world, fly the greatest plans and be the richest man in the world. He achieved all of this. He ended his life a wild-haired long-nailed recluse, terrified of stepping outside his controlled zone, a victim to crippling OCD. Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is a triumphant, brilliantly engrossing, sumptuous exploration of Hughes’ years of triumph, where everything seemed to go right publicly – even while everything was beginning to go wrong internally.

It’s Scorsese’s second teaming with Leonardo DiCaprio – and while DiCaprio’s boyish good looks don’t really relate to what the real Hughes looked like, his charismatic enthusiasm, passion and determination brings Hughes triumphantly to life. It’s a brilliant performance, which dominates the movie. DiCaprio seems to completely understand power of driving ambition, who will mortgage everything he has time and time again to achieve his dream – and also the force of personality needed to turn those dreams into success. But obsession drives both success and eventual personal disaster. There is always something slightly fragile about DiCaprio – maybe its those boyish good looks – and here he brilliantly captures the tragedy of a man clinging to his sense of self, struggling with the demons within him.

Scorsese’s film gloriously balances the epic with the personal. It so brilliantly relates to the irrational but very convincing fears of those suffering from OCD, that scenes featuring Hughes obsessively plucking tissues from boxes, or stuck in restrooms scared of touching the door carry a real sense of threat. The grandness of much of the rest of the film – and the sense we get have how much more Hughes could have achieved – means the demons he carries are even more affecting. Imagine what he could have done, if he wasn’t terrified of even the smallest germ, or was able to put aside his destructive urge to control every inch of his environment and the people in it.

All this tragedy works because the grandness is so impressive. Scorsese’s film looks beautiful. The filming was inspired by replicating the visual and colour styles of contemporary Hollywood. The early 1930s-set section of the film apes the toned look of early-colour (green appears blue, most strikingly at a golf course) with full colour only appearing when the film hits the years of technicolour. The 1940s sequences are inspired by touches of film noir, leaning into the early days of epic technicolour by the end. It looks striking and also amazing. The production design is similarly breathtaking, while the film is shot and assembled with a wonderfully vibrant energy.

It’s also got plenty of wit. John Logan’s fast-paced script captures the sense of a fun of a man who was determined to turn his dreams into reality. John C Reilly is a lot of a fun as the weary number 2, constantly performing financial gymnastics to keep his bosses dreams afloat. Compulsion and obsession makes Hughes the sort of guy who will rebuild an aeroplane from scratch because of a minor flaw, or will reshoot a film because it will work better with sound. During the shooting of Hell’s Angels he keeps a private fleet of planes on the ground while waiting for clouds that will make the scene work. Frequently thousands of dollars a day are spent keeping projects ticking over, while Hughes waits for perfection. He’s not a man to compromise – and you can see why an artist like Scorsese would relate to that. While the film never lets you forget this obsessive perfectionism cuts both ways – and is as much a symptom of OCD as obsessive handwashing.

Scorsese’s passion for classic Hollywood clearly informs much of the first half of the film, that covers the shooting of Hell’s Angels and Hughes’ relationship with Katharine Hepburn. There are delightful cameos from Hollywood icons like Errol Flynn and Louis B Mayer. Playful references abound. The film’s emotional heart is the bond between the two larger-than-life ambitious figures Hughes and Hepburn. Cate Blanchett (Oscar-winning) is fantastic as Hepburn, a pitch-perfect impersonation that also captures her gsharp, uncompromising intelligence and no-nonsense energy. The chemistry between the two is spot-on.

The film’s second half covers more the aviation of the title, with Hughes’ struggle to break the near-monopoly of the skies owned by PanAm, with his own airline TWA. With Hughes starting to teeter on the edge of OCD collapse, even while energetically setting records in the air and fighting battles in the senate, its perhaps even stronger. It also introduces nemesis in Alec Baldwin’s smoothly manipulative Pan Am chairman Juan Trippe and, most delightfully, an Oscar-nominated Alan Alda as a hypocritically corrupt Senator Brewster. The dinner and senate clashes between Alda and DiCaprio provide glorious energy to power the film’s final act.

It also serves as a last hurrah for Hughes. It’s DiCaprio that really makes the film work as this star burns itself out, finally succumbing to the compulsions that we know will see him end his days locked into a room at the top of a Las Vegas hotel. Moments carry a suggestion of fantasy – is Hughes imagining some of the shady figures he sees at the edges of frames? Are oddly toned late meetings with Ava Gardner (an underpowered Kate Beckinsale) an illusion? It’s all part of the the powerful sense of tragedy of seeing him end, wild-haired, peeing into milk bottles and stuck into loops of repeating phrases over and over again. Scorsese’s film superbly captures the immense sense of lost opportunities.

The Aviator is undeniably grand and triumphant film-making, that looks a million dollars. But it also manages – in thanks to a superb performance from DiCaprio – to capture a tragic sense of a man who burnt himself out at the height of fame and success. It tells two parallel stories without us realising it: a man achieving his dreams, even while his nightmares consume him. With Scorsese’s perfectly judged direction and some wonderful performances, this is both a sprawling epic and a very personal story of loss. While it seems very different from the films we might expect from the master, I think it might be one of his finest works.

Mank (2020)

Mank header
Gary Oldman excels as Herman J Mankiewicz in David Fincher’s bitter Hollywood epic Mank

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Gary Oldman (Herman J Mankiewicz), Amanda Seyfried (Marion Davies), Lily Collins (Rita Alexander), Arliss Howard (Louis B Mayer), Tom Pelphrey (Joseph L Mankiewicz), Charles Dance (William Randolph Hearst), Sam Troughton (John Houseman), Ferdinand Kingsley (Louis B Mayer), Tuppence Middleton (Sara Mankiewicz), Tom Burke (Orson Welles), Joseph Cross (Charles Lederer), Jamie McShane (Shelly Metcalfe), Toby Leonard Moore (David O Selznick)

It’s 80 years old, but age has not withered Citizen Kane’s mystique, still one of the greatest films ever made. The story of its creation has intrigued generations, a fascination only increased by the larger-than-life personalities involved, from Orson Welles down. David Fincher’s lovingly made, but bitingly shrewd deconstruction of classic Hollywood, explores the creation of the film by focusing on its credited co-writer Herman J Mankiewicz, the film neatly intercutting between the alcoholic Mankiewicz drafting the screenplay while in enforced retreat and his prime years as a writer-for-hire to the major Hollywood studios of the 1930s.

Mankiewicz is played by Gary Oldman (at 62, already seven years older than Mankiewicz was when he died). A noted wit, Mankiewicz makes an excellent living running the writers’ room at Louis B Mayer’s (Arliss Howard) MGM. Mankiewicz views the work of writing films as slightly beneath him, easy money (“Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots” he cables Ben Hecht). Mankiewicz’s sociability eventually finds him an informal role as “court jester” to newspaper tycoon (and MGM bank roller) William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and he builds a warm friendship with Heart’s shrewd mistress, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). The relationship sours as Mankiewicz grows disgusted by the dirty tricks campaign MGM and Hearst launch against the left-wing candidate for governor in 1936. In 1939 Mankiewicz works on the script for Citizen Kane, hired by Orson Welles (Tom Burke) with the support of an assistant Rita (Lily Collins) who helps him craft the words and stay sober long enough to type them.

Fincher’s film can easily be seen as a loving homage to old-school Hollywood. Certainly, Fincher fully embraces 30s filming style. From the carefully crafted period credits to the slightly distorted sound that apes the echoey on-set recording of classic Hollywood, this is a technical masterpiece. Beautifully shot in a series of sultry black-and-white images, with several visual references to Citizen Kane, it looks simply marvellous. The musical score is a brilliant mixture of Herrmannesque and classic Hollywood symphonic music with an edge. Even the casting has a slight old-school Hollywood unreality about it, from Oldman being at least 30 years too old to Amanda Seyfried being too young. Fincher embraces every flourish and stylistic tic from the Golden Era of Hollywood.

But the film is about as far as you can get from rose-tinted glasses. Instead this is a vicious, angry, look at Hollywood’s corruption, that owes as much to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Hollywood is a carnival of greed and abuse of power, where art takes a second seat to cold hard cash (“This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies!” Louis B Mayer exclaims). Power is abused, lies are peddled to the public (Upton Sinclair, the Democratic candidate for governor, is subtly savaged by MGM-propaganda films) and the rich shamelessly steal from the rest.

The film doesn’t give a pass to the “talent” either. Mankiewicz and his writers’ room – a who’s who of greats, from Ben Hecht to George S Kaufman, SJ Perelman and Charles MacArthur – are blasé and spend as much time playing cards and seducing broads as they do scribbling ideas. Mankiewicz sets the tone, a super-smart wordsmith who thinks the movies are a joke and never invests himself in any of his work, happy to simply pick up a pay cheque. Mankiewicz doesn’t care about the quality and completely misses (or doesn’t even understand or care about) the power of movies. Anyway, his judgement is terrible, denouncing The Wizard of Oz as an epic disaster in waiting and never bothering to ensure he receives credit.

Oldman perfectly captures the shambling, slightly rotund and scruffy disdain of Mankiewicz, as well as brilliantly suggesting that the booze and cigarettes are an aid to forget his own disgust and self-loathing. With Oldman’s verbal dexterity triumphant (Mankiewicz actually carries more than a few echoes of his Winston Churchill), Mankiewicz’s real gift (and reason for living) is clubability and a skill at getting on with everyone. He’s the ultimate insider in a profession he thinks is an unworthy joke. It’s what gives him the ability to drop perfectly formed, biting bon mots at the drop of the hat – and this devil-may-care attitude amuses William Randolph Hearst (a chillingly still and powerful Charles Dance who can turn from congenial to menacing in a moment).

It’s also what wins the friendship of Marion Davies, who Mankiewicz recognises as a kindred spirit, a woman of intelligence and sensitivity, playing a role in an industry she holds in uncertain affection. This is career best work from Amanda Seyfried, giving Marion intelligence and a touching vulnerability. However, unlike Mankiewicz, she is happy in the role she has been ‘cast in’. It would never occur to her to launch the sort of scathing attack on this gilded set that Mankiewicz’s script for Citizen Kane becomes.

The film is in fact less interested in the writing of Kane than you might expect.Kan, even with Tom Burke making a wonderfully detailed Orson Welles. It does however make sure to give most of the credit for story and dialogue with Mankiewicz, with Welles reduced to a petulant tantrum (the inspiration for Kane’s room wrecking) when Mankiewicz demands credit. (The film is in effect a dramatisation of Pauline Kael’s Raising Kane essay, which attempted to shift the key creative contribution from Welles to Mankiewicz). But then perhaps Mankiewicz finally realised films can be a vehicle for respectable, worthy work.

That is surely the lesson Mankiewicz learnt from the 1936 Gubernatorial campaign. His offhand remark inspires MGM to refashion its news reel department into a propaganda machine. Mankiewicz is plagued by guilt, self-loathing and disgust for his employers over this cynical and destructive abuse of power – but also his own failure to exploit his skills and talent to really make a difference (in a way his brother Joseph manages to do). Again, Fincher’s intelligent and beautifully crafted film leaves all this lingering in the mind, its initial impact only growing over time as you digest its complexities.

However, it is a film perhaps a little too absorbed in its detail to keep an eye on the heart. There are several scenes that feel missing. The film needs more of Mankiewicz as the court jester at Hearst’s. It needs more space to allow us to understand where Mankiewicz’s rage and bitterness really comes from. It needs more time to tackle his mixed feelings about his work. More exploration of the foundations of Citizen Kane. The pace sometimes flags and it’s a cold and admirable film rather than one that can be love, occasionally feeling a little pleased with itself (with its deliberately scuff-marked film and burned reel marks). I can well imagine some people using the dreaded word “boring” and it’s really a film for the cine-buff rather than the casual viewer.

The main flaw – and it might well be a big one – is that there isn’t enough focus given to what motivates Mankiewicz to turn so completely against the gilded in-crowd. Even when haggling over credit with Welles, Mankiewicz still points out he (unlike Welles) is a Hollywood insider and will win any arbitration. But the motivations of the film are hard to find amongst the skilful recreation of its design. The characters at times seem a little to artificial and lifeless.

But it has a host of other positives, all superbly marshalled by Fincher’s pitch perfect direction. The cast is superbly led by Oldman. Among the rest, Arliss Howard is terrific as the venal and hypocritical Louis B Mayer, Tuppence Middleton very affecting as Mankiewicz’s put-upon wife and Lily Collins charming as Mankiewicz’s assistant Rita Alexander. With its evocation of Hollywood style spot on, Fincher’s film also brilliantly deconstructs the dark, corrupt heart of Hollywood where powerful producers and money men are focused on their own ends. Shown through the eyes of one disaffected insider, it makes for a film-buffs delight and an intriguing if sometimes cold viewing.

Trumbo (2015)

Bryan Cranston is the put-upon idealist Trumbo under the scornful eye of Helen Mirren

Director: Jay Roach

Cast: Bryan Cranston (Dalton Trumbo), Diane Lane (Cleo Trumbo), Helen Mirren (Hedda Hopper), Louis CK (Arlen Hird), Elle Fanning (Nikola Trumbo), John Goodman (Frank King), Michael Stuhlbarg (Edward G Robinson), Alan Tudyk (Ian McLellan Hunter), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Virgil Brooks), Dean O’Gorman (Kirk Douglas), Stephen Root (Hymie King), Roger Bart (Buddy Ross), David James Elliott (John Wayne), Christian Berkel (Otto Preminger)

Hollywood loves to make movies about itself. It particularly loves to make movies where Hollywood is seen to be working on a higher moral plane. Trumbo is a film about the Hollywood Ten – the ten major screenwriters, directors and actors in Hollywood whom the industry blacklisted in the 1940s because of their sympathy for communism. Their leading light was Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), a rich screenwriter who finds himself imprisoned and unemployable. Trumbo encourages the writers to group together and write under pseudonyms for cheap film studios – although the right-wing in Hollywood continues to persecute them. Trumbo cannot reveal his identity as a writer – even after winning two Oscars – until 1960 when Kirk Douglas gives him a credit for Spartacus.

Trumbo is a very earnest, straightforward and rather bland re-tread of a key moment in Hollywood. It’s made with very little imagination, and remixes the world of 1940s politics into something that bears more resemblance to the political situation now than it does to the time. That’s not to defend the House Committee on Un American Activities (HUAC), the Congress Committee that led the campaign against communist subversion in Hollywood. Their persecution of communists flew in the face of American ideals of free speech, and their ruin of the lives of innumerable actors, writers and directors not found to be ideological pure is appalling.

But this is a film that simplifies its politics into a world of good and bad. It also works hard to try and whitewash Hollywood. Watch this film and you would believe it was Congress that had worked overtime in order to ban certain Hollywood creatives from working. Not so: the black list was put forward by the movie studios themselves and endorsed by the various guilds. Famous actors and directors, such as Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, furiously dropped their support for the Hollywood Ten after feeling they had been deceived by the Ten about their Communist associations. The film mentions none of this of course, running with a Hollywood-vs-Congress story line and crowbarring in people like McCarthy and Nixon who had very little to do with HUAC.

The main Hollywood figures campaigning against the Black List are either faceless Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals types, or lip-smacking, practically mustachio-twirling gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played with ludicrous OTT camp wickedness by Helen Mirren). John Wayne is the only recognisable Hollywood “legend” shown on the side of these guys – and, while he does get mocked for his non-war-record early on by Trumbo, he is quickly shown to be a moderate pushing for forgiveness for those who repent (and is noticeably absent from the villainy of the organisation later in the film) – Hollywood doesn’t want to be too harsh on one of its own.

Roach’s political simplicity also affects the actors who found themselves in an impossible position. As Michael Stuhlbarg’s Edward G Robinson points out, writers can work under a pseudonym, actors can’t. I was reminded of when Elia Kazan won an honorary Oscar and several famous Hollywood actors refused to applaud him, as Kazan had “named names” (or rather confirmed names HUAC already knew) when pulled before the committee. Robinson here is rammed into the same position, denounced as a snitch and a traitor for confirming the names of the Hollywood Ten when many of them are already in prison. As at the Oscars, I’m not sure it’s our place to judge. It’s cosy to assume “I would have told them no” but who can say if we would have or not? And can we really judge those who decided they didn’t want to go to the wall for a communist cause they didn’t believe in (as Kazan and Robinson didn’t, being more left-wing sympathisers than Stalinists like Trumbo)?

It’s another part of the film’s simplicity that Communism is not of course interrogated any further. Watch this film and the political views of Trumbo and his colleagues come across as nothing more than a more idealistic version of Obama-ism. In reality, Trumbo was a Stalinist who pushed for non-intervention in World War II until Russia was attacked by Hitler. This is not mentioned or explored in the film at all. In fact, the complexity of these idealists climbing into bed with a regime soaked red with blood that was suppressing freedom across large chunks of the globe isn’t even raised. Roach wants to tell a story about good-old-fashioned-Hollywood-democrats being persecuted by nasty right-wingers.

Away from the film’s simplicity it’s nothing special. Roach does competent work and there is the odd good scene. Trumbo himself is basically a rather selfish arsehole, who judges everyone around him and frequently ignores his put-upon family. Cranston does a decent job as Trumbo – but you can’t help but feel his generous Oscar nomination was in part a recognition for his work on Breaking Bad. Dean O’Gorman and Christian Berkel get some of the best scenes as Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger working with Trumbo on Spartacus and Exodus. Bizarrely, the film totally avoids diving into the themes of Spartacus– or exploring what Trumbo was thinking about when he wrote “I’m Spartacus”, that paen to unity from the pen of a man abandoned by everyone, surely a hugely personal line not in the original source material – and instead skirts only on the surface, ticking off events. It kinda sums the film up: a solid enough to watch, but basically forgettable, that never engages with the inner lives of the men it claims to understand.

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Gene Kelly goes Singin’ in the Rain

Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

Cast: Gene Kelly (Don Lockwood), Debbie Reynolds (Kathy Selden), Donald O’Connor (Cosmo Brown), Jean Hagen (Lina Lamont), Millard Mitchell (RF Simpson), Cyd Charisse (Woman in the green dress), Douglas Fawley (Roscoe Dexter), Rita Moreno (Zelda Zanders)

Is there a more loved musical than Singin’ in the Rain? Is there a more famous musical from Hollywood’s golden age? That second point is particularly interesting, as this was possibly the last of the big Hollywood song-and-dance films – most of the rest that followed were film versions of Broadway hits. Singin’ in the Rain also has that “late discovery” quality: inexplicably not nominated for Best Picture (or hardly any other Oscars), it was for many years considered a second tier musical behind works like An American in Paris. Now it stands tall over the lot of them.

Singin’ is a film assembled from a collection of songs MGM held the rights to. The songs were given to Kelly, Donen and the screenwriters with the instruction to “come up with a movie”. What they came up with was this delightful film-about-films. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are the biggest stars of the silent screen in Hollywood, whose careers are in trouble overnight when sound is introduced. He can’t really act and she has a voice like nails on a blackboard. But Lockwood can sing and dance – so why not make their latest film a musical? Especially since the talented Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who Lockwood has fallen in love with, can sing and act and can dub Lina’s voice. What could go wrong?

There are few more purely enjoyable films than SIngin’ in the Rain. Nearly every scene has a moment designed to make you burst out in a smile, be it a cracking line of dialogue, a piece of prodigious dancing skill or the simple warmth and joy of the leading actors. Every second something delightful seems to happen. The entire film is an explosion of gleeful joy in the sheer exuberance of singing and dancing. Kelly’s choreography brilliantly uses everyday props and pieces of furniture to give the numbers an exciting everyday charm. It gives the songs an immediate “gotta dance” energy. How could you not like it?

Threading these songs around a structure of Hollywood taking on sound for the first time was a brilliant idea. The recreation of the acting styles and technology of Hollywood is brilliant. Lockwood is a hopelessly stagy actor, hideously artificial in his gestures, while poor old Lina Lamont is horrendously wooden with an awful voice, and a complete lack of any talent. Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont is in many ways the butt – but she’s so demanding, bullying and selfish we don’t mind that most of the jokes are on her. 

The shift towards sound in Hollywood is actually interesting as well as hilarious. Where do we place the mikes? How should the actors get used to speaking into a mike? How do we cancel out the background sound? What do we do with loud props? One of the highlights is the screening of this film-within-a-film to an audience for the first time. All the terribleness Lockwood and Lamont gets revealed. In a particularly genius moment, the sound of the picture gets out sync with the picture, with the voices seeming to come out of the young actors’ mouths to hilarious effect.

Alongside this we get some of the finest song-and-dance routines in the history of the movies. Donald O’Connor is electric as Cosmo and his dance routine for “Make ‘em Laugh” is an astounding early pace-setter in the film: how does he do what he does here? O’Connor goes bouncing off walls, swirling in circles on the floor, springing from place to place without a single pause for breath. Most of this number (like many of the others) is done in one take with electric pace. And that’s the film just warming up.

Debbie Reynolds famously described doing Singin’ as being (along with childbirth) one of the hardest things she’d ever done in her life. You can see that in Good Morning, another electric three-way number with herself, Kelly and O’Connor – she is pounding the floor to keep up with these two masters (and does a brilliant job). She was pushed to the extremes by Kelly who considered her not strong enough of a dancer. Kelly even dropped her from Broadway Ballet Medley,a complex ballet-heavy sequence that I must confess I find a little dull. She’s still excellent – charming, sprightly, light, glorious fun – but it did mean Kelly re-worked the main number to showcase just himself.

Ah yes. Singin’ in the Rain. This sequence of the film is probably wedged in everyone’s mind. Even if they’ve never seen the film, people are familiar with Gene Kelly, soaked to the skin, dancing through puddles and swinging around lampposts. Kelly is of course marvellous in this sequence (hard to believe he was apparently suffering from the flu at the time) and the number has complete charm to it – that carefree vibrancy of realising you are falling in love. Especially as Lockwood’s ego is finally being put to one side in order to celebrate feelings he’s having for another person. But the whole scene is just sheer cinematic magic. And for something so famous, you never get tired of it. 

But then Kelly has pure star-quality here. Lockwood is a charming, handsome and smooth film star – but the film is happy to puncture his pomposity, or demonstrate in its opening sequence the self-aggrandising version of his early career (“Always dignity!”) with the reality of faintly embarrassing and dignity-free stage and stuntman work. Kelly is so charming you don’t mind that the film gives him an easy ride, considering Lockwood is actually quite selfish.

Singin’ in the Rainis pretty close to perfect. Even though I find some of the ballet stuff a little boring myself, it’s still filmed and shot with skill. It’s a pet discussion between film experts to ask how much of the film was directed by Kelly and how much of it was done by Donen. I guess it doesn’t really matter except to cinephiles, as the film is just beautifully directed: light, frothy, fun and with real technical expertise – the slow crane shot at the end of the famous number is justly famous. The pace is spot on, and the film is hilarious. Its understanding of filmmaking really pays off in the sequences that chronicle early film making.

So why did this film not get recognised at the time? Well to be honest, there were probably too many movies like this out at the time. It was a lot easier to miss in the crush of mega-MGM movies. It followed on the coat-tails of An American in Paris which had worn a huge number of Oscars (and was pushed back into cinemas in place of Singin’ in the Rain). Singin’ was still a big hit – but it perhaps needed film-fans to embrace it because it so perfectly married a love of Hollywood with the technicolour delight of 1950s musicals. Either way, Singin’ in the Rain is a delightful masterpiece which is guaranteed to pop a smile on your face. No matter the weather.

Hugo (2011)

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo: a kids film in name only

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret), Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle), Ben Kingsley (Papa Georges), Sacha Baron Cohen (Inspector Gustave Dasté), Ray Winstone (Claude Cabret), Emily Mortimer (Lisette), Jude Law (Mr Cabret), Helen McCrory (Mama Jeanne), Michael Stuhlbarg (René Tabard), Christopher Lee (Monsieur Labisse), Frances de la Tour (Madame Emilie), Richard Griffiths (Monsieur Frick)

Martin Scorsese isn’t exactly the first name you think of when your mind turns to directors of children’s films. So perhaps it makes sense that, in Hugo, he directed a children’s film aimed at virtually anyone except children. A huge box-office flop, Hugo was garlanded with awards and critics’ acclaim – but I’d be amazed if you find any child with a DVD of it. It’s a film made by a passionate lover of cinema, aimed at lovers of cinema, which just happens to have a child at the centre of it. 

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan, living in the Paris train station fixing the clocks, and attempting to fix a curious automaton which his late father (Jude Law) had taken from the Paris museum to repair. After being caught by Monsieur Georges (Ben Kingsley) stealing parts from his toy shop in the station, Hugo must earn back his confiscated notebook on the workings of the automaton. Hugo starts a friendship with Georges’ god-daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), and together they begin to investigate the mysterious past of Papa Georges – and his connection with the early days of cinema.

Any understanding of what makes a good film for children is missing here. It’s not exciting, it’s not engrossing, it’s not particularly fun, it doesn’t place the child (really) at the heart, and most importantly it doesn’t have a story children can relate to. The characters spend a lot of time talking about the glorious adventure they’re on – but none of the excitement translates to the screen. Instead the action creeps forward uncertainly, with the motivations of Hugo himself unclear. There are half hearted attempts to aim at a universal fear children can relate to – losing your parents and searching for new ones – but the film doesn’t run with it. 

Its real interest is the power of the movies. So Hugo’s story gets lost halfway through the film, as Scorsese focuses in on the redemption of famed cinema auteur and pioneer Georges Méliès. The children’s adventure is nothing more than visiting a library to find out who Méliès was – after that, they are effectively superfluous to the story. Details about Hugo’s relationship with his father, or with his distant uncle, are completely dropped – and the automaton that seemed like it held the key to Hugo’s purpose, becomes a MacGuffin. It’s a film about a giant of cinema, made by a giant of cinema.

So let’s put aside the marketing of this film as children’s film. The only element of the film that feels remotely like it is part of some sort of kids’ flick is Sacha Baron Cohen’s slapstick, funny-accented railway inspector – and as such Cohen’s hammy mugging sticks out like a tiresome sore thumb. The rest of the film is what you would expect from a cinema enthusiast making a film about the movies – a glorious, loving recreation of old silent movies and the methods of making them, shot and told with a sprinkling of movie magic. 

The film looks wonderful. The cinematography is gorgeous, the production design astounding. It’s beautifully made and has a light and enchanting score. Scorsese goes all out to homage the shots and set-ups of old silent movies. In fact the film only really comes to life in its second half, where flashbacks show the methods Méliès used to make his films. The recreation of scenes from these old classics is brilliantly done – and Scorsese’s designers delight in filling the screen with the sort of colour that you couldn’t find in the original. The photography also goes out of its way to give these scenes the sort of colour tinted look that the hand-painted prints of old movies had. Even the editing is designed as much as possible to replicate these old films.

Truly, these sequences are delightful – and Scorsese’s joy in making them is evident in the camerawork, and the emotional force he gives to Méliès’ story (helped as well by Ben Kingsley’s sensitive underplaying as the depressed genius). It’s just a shame that he couldn’t get as engaged with the first part of the film. Hugo’s story is largely dramatically inert – in fact the whole plotline around Hugo feels like a hook on which to hang the second half of the film. As if Scorsese couldn’t make the second part of the film without making the first. 

That’s why this film doesn’t work for children, but works better for film-loving adults. The ins and outs of Hugo’s early story just aren’t that interesting – and we aren’t given any real reason to relate to Hugo or to feel any empathy for his journey (whatever that might be). In fact the film stretches this plot line long past any actual content – already I’m struggling to remember exactly what happened in the first hour of the film. This is no comment on the performances of Butterfield or Moritz, who are both very good (even if Moritz is saddled with sub-Hermione Grainger character traits). While it always looks great, it never really finds the heart to get us engaged with Hugo.

So Hugo is a film for cinema-fanatics. Scorsese directs with great invention – but it’s all too clear where his heart is: and that’s why the film failed so spectacularly as a kids’ film. Compare this to Toy Story 3say, and it’s clear which one most children are going to want to watch. However, if you want to see Scorsese make a charming film about his passions, one that is overlong but looks gorgeous, that playfully recreates the silent cinema era, even while its narrative is basically pretty dramatically inert, you’ll love it. There are moments in this film to treasure – it’s just not really for kids. Just because Scorsese made a film without someone’s head in a vice or zipped into a bodybag, doesn’t suddenly mean he’s going to find a new audience.

My Week with Marilyn (2011)

Michelle Williams navigates the world of fame as Marilyn Monroe, escorted by Eddie Redmayne

Director: Simon Curtis

Cast: Michelle Williams (Marilyn Monroe), Eddie Redmayne (Colin Clark), Kenneth Branagh (Laurence Olivier), Judi Dench (Sybil Thorndike), Emma Watson (Lucy), Dominic Cooper (Milton H. Greene), Derek Jacobi (Owen Morshead), Dougray Scott (Arthur Miller), Toby Jones (Arthur P Jacobs), Julia Ormond (Vivien Leigh), Zoë Wanamaker (Paula Strasberg), Michael Kitchen (Hugh Perceval), Philip Jackson (Roger Smith), Simon Russell Beale (Cotes-Preedy), Robert Portal (David Orton), Jim Carter (Barry), Richard Clifford (Richard Wattis), Gerard Horan (Trevor)

In 1956 Laurence Olivier was the greatest actor in the world; Marilyn Monroe was the biggest star (and sex-symbol) in the world. Surely when they came together to make a movie, it would be cinema gold. It wasn’t. Olivier directed and starred with Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl, an almost impossibly slight puff piece, partly assembled (so rumour goes) so Olivier could sleep with Monroe. But it turned out Monroe’s fragile psyche and Stanislavkian approach to acting was incompatible with Olivier’s well-honed craft. The two did not get on.

Simon Curtis’ gentle, at times charming, but basically very lightweight film follows the making of the film through the eyes of Colin Clark. Clark, son of the famous art critic Kenneth Clark, was a naïve, romantic young man keen for a career in the movies through his father’s contacts. Hired by Olivier’s production company, Clark is tasked to take care of Monroe throughout the film. He becomes increasingly fascinated and infatuated with her as they spend more and more time together.

The film is based on Clark’s diaries, and he is played by Eddie Redmayne at his most fresh-faced. The problem with Clark is that, to be honest, rather than a young man on a journey of self-discovery, he comes across a little like a social-climbing creep and borderline stalker. Clark recounts a short-lived friendship that obviously had huge importance to him – but the film doesn’t want to deal with the fact it probably meant virtually nothing to Monroe, beyond some company during a lonely time. 

It’s not helped by the fact Clark comes across slightly like a pushy groupie, the self-proclaimed guardian of Monroe’s needs – qualifications barely justified by his actions. The film wants us to think he got closer to the magic of celebrity than anyone, but he feels like a stranger with his nose a little closer to the portcullis. Quite frankly, Colin is the least interesting character in his own story, and Redmayne fails to really give him much depth for us to engage with. Instead he remains a slightly unsettling inverted snob, manipulated by Monroe. The film, you feel, just doesn’t get this. At the end someone tells Colin he is “standing taller” than when he first met him (the implication being the relationship has made a man of him – as if spending a bit of downtime with a celebrity was the only route to emotional maturity). But rather than being part of a sweet star-crossed romance, Colin feels like someone creepily attaching himself to someone vulnerable. 

However, Michelle Williams is very good as Marilyn, capturing a real sense of her emptiness and insecurity. She perfectly captures Monroe’s physicality and vocal mannerisms. She is very good at capturing Monroe’s sense of permanent performance, of her glamour, kindness and innocence, mixed with her maddening vulnerability and (inadvertent?) selfishness. It’s a fine performance – better than the film deserves. 

Because the film is afraid of remotely criticising Monroe at all – or really engaging with the deep psychological reasons for her depression, or addressing the possibility that part of her appeal was her slight blankness that any desires could be projected onto. Instead, the film suggests, she’s sad because men just use her. Apart from Colin of course. His kissing, skinny-dipping and sharing a bed with her are entirely unmotivated by any lustful yearnings.

The film is in love with Monroe, presenting her just as Colin saw her – perfection. In fact, just as Dougray Scott’s put-upon Arthur Miller says, she was probably exhausting and all-consuming. She certainly sucks the naïve Colin into her orbit, in a way he (or the film) hardly notices or understands. It wants us to think of this as a romance – in fact, Monroe’s fragility created a neediness that meant she didn’t feel she needed to consider other people, so overwhelmingly concerned was she with her own brittleness. The film essentially believes she was a star, so is basically allowed to do what she wants. The fact that she did so with an air of gentle vulnerability means the film gives everything she does a pass.

So it’s rather hard not to sympathise with Olivier’s growing frustration with Monroe’s unreliability. Kenneth Branagh triumphs as Olivier, surely the role he was born to play: very funny, but also with a patrician charm and all-consuming arrogance. Branagh taps into Olivier’s vulnerability, his sense that he may not be able to communicate his acting strength into movie stardom, that he is yesterday’s man. For all her difficulty, Monroe had that “star quality” that makes her the centre of your attention. I’d argue Olivier almost certainly had the same – but the film is so in love with Monroe, it needs to slightly bring Olivier down. Branagh, however, is so good that he constantly punctures the film’s attempt to force Olivier into a less sympathetic role than the one it indulges Monroe with.

My Week with Marilynis far from terrible – it’s just a rather empty film. It has a terrific cast with these British star actors all offering fine pen portraits of assorted actors, producers and agents. The film however is slight, and so in love with its fairy-tale elements, it doesn’t notice that Clark’s story is slightly more creepy and certainly a lot more emotionally empty than the film wants it to be. It wants to take us behind the curtain of a 20th-century icon – instead it accidentally shows how impenetrable their screens are, and how easy it is for ordinary people to persuade themselves that the most fleeting of contacts was something special.

Hail Caesar! (2016)

George Clooney is a kidnapped actor in the Coen brothers 1950’s Hollywood spoof

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

Cast: Josh Brolin (Eddie Mannix), George Clooney (Baird Whitlock), Alden Ehrenreich (Hobie Doyle), Ralph Fiennes (Laurence Laurentz), Scarlett Johansson (DeeAnna Moran), Frances McDormand (CC Calhoun), Tilda Swinton (Thora Thacker/Thessaly Thacker), Channing Tatum (Burt Gurney), Alison Pill (Connie Mannix), Jonah Hill (Joseph Silverman), Emily Beecham (Diedre), Clancy Brown (Co-star Hail Caesar!), Michael Gambon (Narrator)

The Coen brothers’ CV is a bit of a strange thing. It’s one part thriller, one part engagingly brilliant comedy – and then there are a collection of screwball-style entertainments, off-the-wall lightweight comedies (usually about dummies or sharp-talking professionals), as if every so often they needed a palate cleanser. Hail Caesar! falls very much into that final camp. 

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a studio manager and fixer in 1950s Hollywood, whose job is to keep the stars in line and the films running smoothly. The latest fly-in-his-ointment is the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s prestigious sword-and-sandals-and-Christianity epic Hail Caesar!. Mannix has to settle the ransom demand, while struggling to keep the news quiet – and manage the production of several other problems including a secretly pregnant Hollywood sweetheart (Scarlett Johansson) and a cowboy-turned-actor (Alden Ehrenreich) struggling with his latest movie requiring him to speak and act rather than just sing and ride a horse.

Hail Caesar! is a mixed bag. There are some wonderful comic sketches in here, the sort of brilliant highlights you could quite happily watch again and again. The problem is these sketches are part of a narrative framework that never really catches fire, that can’t seem to decide how much it is a surrealist comedy and how much it is a genuine Hollywood “behind-the-scenes” slice of life. So I found I delighted in the sketches, and the hilarious reconstructions of some of the studio fodder of the 1950s – while drifting through the general plot of the movie. The laughs are very tightly focused on the stand-alone sketches, and rarely develop from the plot of the movie itself.

Those sketches, though, are brilliant – and the Coens have secured what are effectively a series of stand-out cameos to deliver them. The highlight is certainly a hilarious sequence featuring Ralph Fiennes as a superior English director and Alden Ehrenreich as a cowboy-turned-actor crammed into a period drama in order to “change his image”. It’s a brilliant idea, that revolves around Fiennes’ barely concealed frustration Ehrenreich’s awkwardness in front of the camera, eagerness to please and most of all his accent which so badly affects his elocution that he simply cannot pronounce the line “Would that it were so simple”. The sequence is brilliantly funny – take a look at it down here. In fact it’s so good, it might be too good. Nothing else in the film really touches it.

There are some other good sketches in here as well. Most of them revolve around the loving recreation of Hollywood movies. The movie-within-the-movie Hail Caesar! is a perfect recreation of the Quo Vadis style of movies: large sets, hilariously over-blown dialogue, heavy-handed Christian messages (“Squint at the grandeur!” Clooney’s character is directed in one reaction shot to The Christ – as the filmmakers persist in calling him) and gaudy colour and sets. Clooney himself does a pitch perfect parody of the style and delivery of Robert Taylor.

We also get some spot-on parodies of Hollywood musical styles of the time. Scarlett Johansson plays a Esther Williams-style actress who stars in a series of swimming pool musicals (a bizarre fad of the time). Fiennes is directing a creakingly glacial Broadway-adaptation. Channing Tatum plays an actor in a Minnelli style musical. The tap-dancing sequence we see being filmed is, by the way, another brilliant sketch – a toe-tapping parody song, which also showcases Tatum’s grace and style as a dancer. It’s such a good parody that it actually sort of crosses over into being a genuinely enjoyable slice of song and dance.

I also struggled, as I tend to sometimes, with the artificiality of the Coens’ comedy – there is always an air of them (and their actors) wanting the audience to know that they are far smarter than the dummies in the film. I get this feeling a lot from Clooney in particular – while his film-within-a-film sequences are brilliant, it feels like he never feels much affection for the character outside these sequences. He wants us to know that Clooney is not as dumb or vain as Whitlock is. It’s this lack of empathy that doesn’t quite make the performance work. Empathy is why Eldenreich is the stand-out performer of the film. He plays Hobie Doyle with a real affection and warmth – he makes the character feel like a sweet and genuine person. While Hobie is always a comic spoof, he also feels like he could be a real person – making him so much easier to relate to for the audience.

Hail Caesar! is a film that works in fits and starts, not all the way through. Josh Brolin is fine as Mannix, and his fast-talking, plate juggling, problem solving throws up some funny lines – but his story never really engages the audience as much as it should, and the Catholic guilt Mannix balances in his life never really becomes clear. The Coens are reaching for some point about art and faith – of how film makers may tell themselves they are making something for art, when they actually work for faceless businessmen interested only in making money – but it never really brings this art vs. money argument into place. Does a picture have worth if we talk about worth enough? It’s a question we may as well ask about Hail Caesar itself.

Because the parodies and sketches of old Hollywood movies are so brilliantly done, whenever we drift away from them to the actual plot you find yourself losing interest. It’s a film that actually works better as a few sketches extracted from YouTube – I could happily watch Fiennes and Eldenreich’s scene, or Tatum’s dance sequence, or Clooney’s Taylor spoof in isolation – I don’t really feel the need to watch the entire movie again.