Movie of the Week: Doctor Zhivago (1965)

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David Lean directs Julie Christie, Omar Sharif and Geraldine Chaplin in this truly epic adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel about love and individuality struggling against the backdrop of the Soviet revolution.

Watching this on the big screen for the first time confirmed its greatness to me. The simple love story and almost soapy sub-plots which sprout out from it prove to be mere long game set-up for the devastating finale. All those complex lives we grow to care for suddenly vanish under the anonymous might of the state… and indeed the inevitable constantly rolling waves of history. The achingly beautiful people who dominate the first three hours with red lacy dresses, ice palaces and revered poetry get lost against concrete walls, overcrowded orphanages and the unmarked graves of the postscript. Passion and connection give way to mechanics and power. Whether freezing us in warring wastelands or churning through endless rail travel, Lean always focuses on humans trying to be free. At three-hours-plus it somehow feels like his most intimate movie since Brief Encounter. Packed with iconic shots and a haunting score, mood and romance takeover until all is lost. I also love the scenes where Alec Guinness’ narrator disagrees with his own onscreen interactions. They have a touching bitterness to them, watching the narrator lie to himself.

10

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Molly’s Game (2017)

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Aaron Sorkin directs Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba and Michael Cera in this true tale of a weekly high roller poker game that ended in FBI investigations and tabloid gossip.

Slick for sure. It almost gets away with it. This has all that pleasurable well educated, well read rat-a-tat-tat bickering you’d expect from Sorkin. And with court cases, million dollar pots and skyscraper set contract negotiations dominating the runtime it certainly appears to be a story worth telling right. Sad then that as the distastefully triumphant happy ending hovers into sight you have that niggling feeling you’ve been bluffed. I’m not entirely sure Ms Molly Poker Host is anything more than a corrupt clothes horse who got caught with her hand in a very dangerous cookie jar. The movie tries to tell me she did her illegal book with integrity and intelligence… but reading between the lines, thinking about the nasty elements that are swiftly glossed over here, I get the feeling this is hero worship revisionism, done only to give the solid Chastain another meaty yet sympathetic lead role. At the very least The Wolf of Wall Street had no qualms letting us know the scumbag whose awful excess we were revelling in was indeed an absolute, unforgivable scumbag. There’s also the perfume of faux feminism about the neat narrative. That we are meant to celebrate a sister taking on the billionaire boy’s club. But the final scenes all present father figures hauling her repenting ass out of the fire. Kindly judge. Straight laced middle aged lawyer. Bench chat, tough love, Kevin Costner actual daddy. What kind of feminist message is that? We are left with not a film about how a powerful woman took on a male dominated world and won… but a tale of a silly craven girl who got too greedy, and all because her father didn’t cuddle her enough and stay true to Mommy. Luckily she was pretty and well spoken enough for the patriarchy to forgive her. Blurghhh! A less intelligent filmmaker at the helm and you might forgive Molly’s Game, wit and good acting trumping its moral superficiality. But surely Sorkin of all people should be held to a higher standard.

5

 

Hostiles (2017)

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Scott Cooper directs Christian Bale, Wes Studi and Rosamund Pike in this western epic where a violent Army captain, infamous for suppressing rebellious indigenous tribes, finds himself escorting a former adversary across country back to his spiritual land. 

With ragged and effecting performances from the leads, bursts of disturbing conflict and a true love of genre and historical accuracy, this is a fine western. A bit more in love with character than plot, this charts the course of two white outsiders, who have both been brutalised in past clashes with Native Americans, as they come to a new understanding of the people they saw as demonic savages. It happens in an episodic and measured pace, with little regard for narrative. At the mid point of their quest, the initially brutal and openly racist protagonist that Bale powerfully essays comes face to face with Ben Foster. Foster is playing a soldier sentenced to death for exactly the same actions and attitudes that defined Bale before prolonged interaction with the family he escorts moved him. It is that type of movie, happy to put its main goal on hold for 20 minutes, just to put a mirror up next to a character we have seen soften and evolve, to mark the change. Not massively dissimilar to American History X in many regards. It is not a movie that attempts to look at racism from the victim’s viewpoint, rather explore how proximity, cooperation and inevitable mutual respect destroys racist attitudes in individuals. Some reviews have criticised Cooper for not giving equal voice to the Cheyenne family being protected. While that would be more balanced superficially, I think the criticism misses the story’s most vivid point. Different races, whether oppressors or victims, will never truly understand or be able to have an equal dialogue with the people they have mistreated or have been attacked by. Talk won’t heal these deep wounds. It isn’t a difference of opinion, where giving everyone an equal platform will somehow solve complex hatred. But by subsisting and interacting together regularly they can grow beyond those hostilities. For a white filmmaker to put reams of fake white liberal words into a 100 years passed Cheyenne chief’s mouth would be more harmful than admitting we’ll never now grasp how these people truly felt. When we close the movie’s journey with the sole Cheyenne survivor dressed in European garb and gifted with a Latin text, it is a tragic compromise rather than a victory. Sure, he’ll be raised and cared for by people duty bound and full of guilt… but with no continuing connection to his people’s history or own language. That tragic compromise was a reality. Any other ending would be fairytale. And the admirable message of Hostiles is clear, if everyone keeps drawing up racial dividing lines between each other based on past transgressions, no matter how raw and wounding, rather than working and living together towards a common goal, we are doomed repeat these mistakes. While that is a more nuanced take on race relations than is currently fashionable, Hostiles shows a bravery in presenting it within a successful and rousing period adventure.

8

 

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

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Martin McDonagh directs Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken in this meta-comedy about a screenwriter who becomes involved in a violent farce with the sort of horrific yet ironic characters he is struggling to write about.

Both times I’ve watched this it has rubbed me up the wrong way, when it should be exactly my kinda mashed potatoes and gravy. A very cold variation on the superior Adaptation. The script being written takes over the film we are watching as if being written by the constructs the genre demands. It allows for a couple of showy moments (Walken’s cravat scene is a genuine stand out), and gives its ridiculously great ensemble some tailored monologues and barbed exchanges to wink their way easily through. But it is an obvious self aware exercise, lacking In Bruges’ emotional stickiness, lacking any kind of realistic heft, and sadly going along with a pedestrian gait to exactly where you expect it to. Very much like a very, very smart artist has knowingly made a Tarantino rip-off that isn’t anywhere near as ambitious as most Tarantino rip-offs were in their 90s heyday. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead did this all far better. You get the feeling that foul mouthed gem wasn’t expecting any plaudits afterwards either. This seems to want all the smiley faces and gold stars going for having its hand up through the entire lesson but then saying nothing particularly exciting or revelatory. And to me that’s off-putting rather than outstanding.

4

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)

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Noah Baumbach directs Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman in this New York dysfunctional family comedy drama. 

A lively likeable ensemble piece that is boosted infinitely whenever Sandler and Hoffman (this is going to be his last great performance, isn’t it?) are together, chafing against each other. It is essentially ‘Woody Allen Light’ but seeing as Woody rarely delivers light anymore, and appears less and less likely to do so, this did nicely as a place holder.

6

 

 

Gone Girl (2014)

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David Fincher directs Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike and Neil Patrick Harris in this thriller adaptation of the best selling “He Said, She Said” spiteful marriage mystery. 

If any other director had turned in Gone Girl you’d be praising them for delivering a ballsy, adult, gripping, twisty treat. For Fincher, our current genius in residence for killer suspense and disturbing images, it feels like gun for hire work. Beautiful, vivid, steady, shocking expert work. But, like say Panic Room, not a project he has a true passion for. Still his name has attracted the perfect cast for the material – with Rosamund Pike finally being given a big dirty role that matches her expansive acting talent. Amazing Amy is the absolute, over organised, vindictive treat of a manipulative bitch. The initially taut plot gets bored with itself at the midway point but I assume that’s an issue inherited from the popular novel. A supermarket checkout potboiler given Oscar worthy sheen, the nasty and the gloss chime nicely together, thanks to these over qualified hands.

7

Basil: The Great Mouse Detective (1985)

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Ron Clements, Burny Mattinso, Dave Michener and John Musker direct Vincent Price, Barrie Ingham and Candy Candido in this Disney animation where the mouse below Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street floorboards is also an eccentric, conspiracy busting sleuth. 

Made in a period of studio takeover confusion and cynicism, this will be no-one’s favourite animated classic. I remember collecting the stickers but never being taken to the ABC to see it, and we were a Disney loyal family even in the 80s. Landing nowhere near the long deceased Walt gold standard, this is often cheap looking, lacking the expected songs and imagination. It is passable enough for kids and fans, but only Candy Candido‘s gibberish grunting bat henchman shows any true spark of fun and fancy beyond the high concept spec.

5

 

The Greatest Showman (2017)

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Michael Gracey directs Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron and Michelle Williams in this musical biography of PT Barnum.

You love Hugh Jackman. You love big showy numbers. Then you’ll pretty much like this. It is endearingly old fashioned, spirited and a veritable kaleidoscope of silk and pageantry. Jackman is in his top hatted element. There are at least three belters in the songbook. Conversely though, there’s also four too many songs that repetitively fixate on the word ‘Dreams’, the fascinating circus cast of freaks and talents are way too often mere background dressing, and the middle act loses Barnum and those eclectic wonders for a drippy across the tracks romance between a kid and Zac Efron’s fictional character. You’d rather be hanging out with the sparkling Jackman or stunning bearded lady (played by Keala Settle) rather than wondering whether the relationship is frowned upon for racial reasons or the fact that Efron is playing the twice her (under)age boss? That is sniping though, in the main, this is a shameless entertainer with plenty of heart… which is appropriate.

7

 

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

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Lewis Gilbert direct Roger Moore, Barbara Bach and Richard Kiel in this 007 adventure where Bond teams up with a Russian Spy to stop a marine life obsessed megalomaniac from starting a nuclear war to force humanity’s survivors into his undersea citadel. 

This, for as long as I can remember, has been my go to best Bond. The Union Jack parachute cliff jump. The underwater Lotus Esprit car. The suspenseful supertanker war sequence. Barbara Bach’s classy gorgeousness. Roger relaxing into his tenure. The brilliant Carly Simon theme song. The greatest henchman ever. But on this watch it revealed itself as a very baggy, indulgent movie. Was there a contractual obligation to spend quite so long in Egypt? The middle section is filler. The jokes not quite as memorable as other Bond zingers. Still a great Bank Holiday blockbuster but essentially, noticing its flaws, this viewing leaves Goldfinger without a rival for the top spot. I’m not sure I want to live in a world where my darling Roger isn’t the star of my favourite Fleming actioner.

8

Bad Santa (2003)

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Terry Zwigoff directs Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox and Brett Kelly about a drunk, perverted, anti-social safe cracker who gains seasonal employment as a mall Santa every year to rip-off the Christmas Eve take. 

A misanthropic festive diamond. There’s an independent spirit to it (visually Zwigoff is no bland sitcom helmer, the script originated with the Coen Brothers) that compliments and even elevates the dirty, gag heavy proceedings. Full of loose, unnecessary diversions that nudge it from funny to perfection. An attempted car park Santa buggery, the grandma’s obsession with sandwiches, Willie’s predilection for ladies from the “Big & Tall” section. All this extraneous detail, disconnected from the plot, paints a rich, if world weary, mini-universe for our antagonists to populate. And what a gleefully grubby set of antagonists they are! Lauren Tom’s craven, consumerist, sour-faced wife, truly the most heartless of these clowns. Tony Cox as a foul mouthed midget who has found his niche, exasperatedly keeping the scam on the rails despite his partner’s self-inflicted free-fall. Bernie Mac and John Ritter essentially sharing a role. Sure there is a clunkiness in the hastily edited together baton hand over, the feel that coverage or rehearsal footage of Ritter (who passed away mid-production) is being recycled to bring Mac into the narrative. But even these compromised scenes have a morbidly amusing energy, two dead men who probably never shared a set together having stronger comedic heat than most marquee headliners generate. Ritter’s mall boss is distastefully repressed, Mac a self assured, sabotaging force of nature as the mall security chief. Lauren Graham’s keen bartender is also a filthy delight. That’s already a ton of strong comedy acting. Then we get to the absolute gold. Brett Kelly gives one of the best child performances ever – a dumpy, inscrutable kid who wants to be this ramshackle Father Christmas’ friend. Like Kevin Spacey’s Keyser Söze or Kevin Spacey’s John Doe, it is a complete head scratching enigma of a supporting turn. Does he know the frustrating game he is playing to subtly get his own way or is Thurman Murman really that unaware? The blank, snot nosed kid runs rings around Billy Bob Thornton’s failed human. A man who had seen all the angles and can’t even be bothered to play them anymore. A man so unmotivated that suicide would be too much effort. Watching him learn the true meaning of Christmas, shrug his shoulders and search his pockets for a pint of scotch, is watching Billy Bob Thornton do what he was born to do. Just like Trading Places is the It’s a Wonderful Life for the jaded, Bad Santa is The Shawshank Redemption for the permanently hungover. Redemption tastes different when you throw up on yourself on a weekly basis. Thank the Talking Walnut, they never cashed-in and made a cheap sequel… Oh shit! Oh well…

10