Four docs, four books, an old favourite and a big disappointment...
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (Eleanor Coppola, 1991) - There's nothing worse than a pretentious movie, Francis Ford Coppola says in this film, which is a shame, as his wife's just made one. WILL PEOPLE STOP COMPARING THE MAKING OF APOCALYPSE NOW TO A WAR? Thanks. Now onto the movie.
This near-mythic doc comes a lot closer than the unilluminating Burden of Dreams, which dealt with the making of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, to achieving its objectives: painting a vivid if disjointed portrait of the obsession, ambition, brilliance, idiocy and atrocious luck that lay behind the extraordinary accomplishment of Coppola's 1979 masterpiece, Apocalypse Now.
There's an ailing Martin Sheen confronting his demons, absolutely pissed off his face, as he shoots the opening scene of the film; a very fat Marlon Brando neglecting his background reading and insisting on improvising all of his scenes; and Dennis Hopper, who seems to have actually toned down his drug-addled madness to play one of the most spaced out characters in movie history.
In between that often remarkable footage - I should mention also that the Filipino government kept taking their helicopters back from Coppola to quell a rebellion and that the 14-year-old Laurence Fishburne says the Vietnam War was "cool" because people could just smoke weed all day - Eleanor Coppola reads from her diary in voiceover, and talking heads like George Lucas, a mythmaking John Milius and the cast and crew turn up to dissect the project in retrospect.
It's an incomplete but completely fascinating and immersive film that makes one thing very clear: the making of Apocalypse Now was an incredible experience: addled, ragged and saturated with drugs (Sam Bottoms did the famous acid dancing scene whilst off his face on weed and speed, saving the LSD for other sequences), BUT IT WAS NOT LIKE A WAR, NOTHING LIKE A WAR, SHUT UP. (3)
Kate and Anna McGarrigle (Caroline Leaf, 1981) - A charming documentary, funded by the National Film Board of Canada (who also bankrolled Buster Keaton's The Railrodder!), about Quebecois treasures Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the ethereal close-harmony duo who created some of the best folk music of their generation - and in Kate's case raised two of the most distinctive voices of the next, in her children Rufus and Martha Wainwright.
Created by animator Caroline Leaf, whom the McGarrigles had hoped to recruit to design some of their videos, this 28-minute film focuses on their debut appearance at New York's Carnegie Hall (JOB BOAST CLANG: from my day job at the Royal Albert Hall, I know what a big deal those career landmark concerts are), as well as meeting their mum, chatting to the pair about their songwriting and home lives, and trying to ascertain exactly why they're not the biggest musical sensation that the world has ever seen - a distracting and rather adolescent editorial angle that somewhat distracts and detracts from the piece.
It's largely a delight, though, and stuffed with the most incredible music, including heart-stopping clips from the Carnegie Hall show, a stunning version of Johnny's Gone to Hilo (later recorded for The McGarrigle Hour) featuring their sister and business manager Jane, and apparently shot in a train station, and an extraordinary demo that's wasted on a rather unimpressed radio host and - to the best of my knowledge - has never appeared anywhere else.
The rest of it is a real ragbag of treasures and debris: insightful murmured quotes, charming behind-the-scenes studio clips, lots of Leaf's slightly crap animations that make Anna look like a wizened old fairytale witch, and cameos from an eight-year-old Rufus in short shorts and a tiny Martha interrupting an interview with her nan shouting something about a pen, along with much footage that utterly validates my insane crush on the young Anna McGarrigle. So job done, really. You can watch it here. (3)
The Age of Love (Steven Loring, 2014) - A charming, low-budget documentary about a speed dating event for senior citizens, some of them widowed, others divorced and one – perhaps most poignantly – who didn’t win the love of her life, and never found another. Director Steven Loring spent three years working on this movie (his degree thesis), exploring the backgrounds of all 30 people taking part in the event, and then sharing the most valuable, touching and funny stories. Shuffling between the past, present and future, we see the characters open up to him about their lives, fleetingly and often hesitatingly interact with one another, then sometimes pair off, as others face the pain of rejection, the emotional bruising all the worse for coming in their twilight years.
The Age of Love’s strong suit is perhaps in other ways its slight shortcoming: namely a lack of editorialising and an eschewing of formula. There are sweet moments and triumphant ones, but the facts aren’t shoehorned into some pre-determined narrative, and the result – while entertaining, ordered and intelligently edited – reflects the scrappy, difficult, often unsatisfying nature of life. That means that it lacks a real finish, and a couple of the storylines seem to simply peter out, but that’s probably more real than a big Hollywood ending.
What Loring does do superbly is juggle our emotions: one minute we’re laughing at Fran’s absurd reminiscences of catastrophic dates, and at 85-year-old bodybuilder Lou telling a prospective partner: “You’re 70? I would have put you at probably… 71, 72. Yeah, 72”, the next you’re floored by Jan’s devastatingly sad worldview: her life coloured by an unhappy, abusive marriage, her reaction to finding that two of the speed daters would like to see her again being simply that she was rejected by the other 13. In listening to voices that are usually silent not just in the movies but in the wider world, The Age of Love does something very valuable, insightful and important. That it does so whilst making you laugh and think and feel is better still. (3)
(T)ERROR (Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, 2015) - This documentary, which purports to be the first to ever chronicle an ongoing FBI investigation from the inside, manages to take that access and create something that's often bafflingly boring.
Shown as part of the BBC's Storyville strand, under the title 'FBI Undercover', it tells the story of informant - sorry, "surveillance operative ... working for the people" - Saeed Torres, a Muslim and former Black Panther used by the Feds to entrap potential domestic terrorists. The POI (Person of Interest) this time is Khalifah Al-Akili, a keyboard warrior and former Protestant who appears to be all mouth and no trousers save for the traditional Islamic dress that he's adopted.
Considering how much has happened in Torres's life, from his free-scoring days as Atletico Madrid's youngest ever captain to his incredible first season at Liver- sorry, wrong Torres. Considering how much has happened in Torres's life, from his roots in black activism (blacktivism?) to his part as the principal incriminating witness in the trial of a former friend, to his later activities as a surveillance operative working for the people - motivated by a desire to stay solvent and stay out of jail - you'd think this has all the potential to be a Eugene Jarecki-style triumph.
But no, having given his consent to be filmed, Torres is an obstructive, taciturn and ultimately infuriating interviewee, the movie is unfocused and maddeningly incomplete, with numerous shots of Saeed sitting around, moaning, and it's only when the director takes an extremely dubious editorial decision that his film sparks into life, raising some very serious questions about the FBI - and so the procedures of the American government itself - if failing to interrogate the issues as precisely or completely as it might.
Despite that late rally, and the promise of its premise, it's ultimately too bitty and frustrating to unequivocally recommend. Also the original title is awful. (2)
Little Women (Mervyn LeRoy, 1949) - There are three great versions of Louisa May Alcott's immortal 19th century novel, made in 1933 (with Katharine Hepburn as Jo), 1949 (June Allyson) and 1994 (Winona Ryder - that's the one where Christian Bale slobbers spit all over her face and they left it in the film); this is the least faithful and literate, but also perhaps my favourite, and certainly the one I've watched most often.
The cast is like one of those Tumblr posts where people imagine the casting of a modern film with classic actors, and just put all their favourite people in it: the sisters are Allyson, Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret O'Brien (the ages of the younger two swapped so O'Brien could take the role), the parents - as in Meet Me in St Louis - are Mary Astor and Leon Ames, and there are supporting parts for Peter Lawford (as Laurie), Rossano Brazzi (the professor), Harry Davenport, Lucile Watson, Elizabeth Patterson and that twinkly-eyed old British rascal, C. Aubrey Smith. It's directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who made punchy Pre-Code movies at Warner Bros, before specialising in slushy melodramas over at MGM.
This film is a little episodic in places, and it takes a while to adjust to Allyson's slightly folksy, sometimes too broadly comedic characterisation, but that is ultimately the film's great attraction: a vibrant, intense and intelligent performance - Jo's emotions ever pressed to the surface - that leads to a succession of irresistible, extraordinarily moving sequences: especially her chat with Lawford under the tree, and the devastatingly restrained heart-to-heart with her mother, which has always stayed with me. She is, simply, exquisite.
Margaret O'Brien isn't far behind. Though she's maligned in some quarters today - particularly for the producers' propensity to get her to cry, an O'Brien party piece - she was one of the greatest child actors that cinema has seen; no less an authority than Lionel Barrymore once opined (possible prompted by the studio publicity machine) that "if she had been born in the Middle Ages, they'd have burned her as a witch". She made just one more film - The Secret Garden - before MGM put her out to pasture, but she shows here what a staggering and unteachable sincerity she possessed, and how painlessly she might have graduated to adolescent roles, had she been given the right ones. The scene on the stairs... the scene with the piano… the scene when Allyson returns: she is magnificent, and might another five years have made her the perfect candidate to play Mansfield Park's Fanny Price? Taylor, meanwhile, shows her comic smarts in a performance that has really grown on me over the years, and Astor is superb as the immortal Marmee, that idealised portrait of motherhood. In real life she was basically a nymphomaniac, so she really is doing good acting here.
Critics have derided this MGM version for looking like a chocolate box, but its gorgeous Technicolor cinematography and handsome sets never stunt the emotion of the piece: if anything they bring the periodic harshness of the material into sharp relief, whilst enrapturing the senses. Better still is Adolph Deutsch's stunning, sensitive score, which is never overused nor tips over into schmaltz, being used simply to augment the movie's towering peaks.
It doesn't all work: there are flat scenes (like Taylor arguing tediously with her schoolmates) and dud lines, Leigh is completely nondescript as Meg, and Watson turns a cleverly-written part into a parody of MGM period excess, but at its best it's a bewitching, exceptionally rewarding adaptation lit by Allyson's warm characterisation, O'Brien's lump-to-the-throat emoting and cinematography and music that - at least to me - seems perfectly pitched. (3.5)
House of Strangers (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949) - The problem with this melonoirma from the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz - who went on to make All About Eve, for anyone interested in staggering genius - is that it isn't The Little Foxes. I'll tell you what is The Little Foxes: The Little Foxes. So if you want a devastating familial drama with a banking background that's about sickening greed and severed ties, just watch that. It's the second best 'first watch' I've seen this year (after Secrets & Lies).
This one, which also laid the template for the 1954 Western, Broken Lance (also a much better film), is a spirited, sometimes compelling muddle, with Richard Conte excellent in a rare good(ish)-guy role as an ex-con who blunders into a bank one day to tell the board - his brothers - that he's back and they better watch out.
In flashback, we get the full story, and it's about what you'd expect, except that the extremely underrated, often brilliant Edward G. Robinson screws up his role as Conte's all-powerful, up-by-the-bootstraps father, by affecting an absolutely ridiculous Italian accent. It's a big, big performance, kind of commanding, but also extremely silly, and it does serious damage to the film. As does a minor reveal that essentially negates the opening scene.
It's worth a look, though: for Mankiewicz's sharp dialogue, a punchy ending, Conte's slick, angry turn, and a strong supporting performance from an actress on the cusp of stardom: Susan Hayward, whose smart, unashamed and deceptively selfless character gives the movie most of its heart. (2.5)
Ten Wanted Men (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1955) - A terrible Western about very bad man Richard Boone stirring up trouble over a woman, much to the chagrin of local rancher Randolph Scott. Scott's production company, Ranown, went on to make a series of classic oaters directed by the brilliant Budd Boetticher, including The Tall T, which pitched the star against the same adversary. But without Boetticher's sure hand (the man behind the camera is former Charlie Chan director H. Bruce Humberstone) and a writer of the talent of Burt Kennedy, even leathery, charismatic old Boone can't make this one seem credible or in any way interesting. I didn't finish it, life is famously short. (1)
The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell (2002) - A thoroughly-researched but rather curiously prioritised biography of the Mitford sisters - two Nazis, a commie, an author, a Duchess and the boring rural one - that seems unable to differentiate between important things (Unity being a witness to the prelude of WWII through her intense personal relationship with Hitler) and things that aren't important (like someone buying an Aga). The fact remains that four of the Mitfords were fascinating and two of them weren't really, and an attempt to even that out is never going to quite work. Still, the conflicting characters of the sisters come through admirably and Lovell does a fine job of bringing each of them to life whilst focusing on their interrelationships: an approach more likely to fascinate those especially preoccupied with the family than more casual fans of modern history. The same goes for the extensive detail about coming-out balls and interior decorating, which might have perhaps have been excised to examine, say, Decca's dealing with the House Un-American Activities Committee in more detail. (3)
Slapstick or Lonesome No More! by Kurt Vonnegut (1975) - This slight, wilfully bleak and aggressively weird book begins with an extraordinarily powerful fragment of memoir about Vonnegut's family, before dropping us into an extremely silly, extraordinarily clever story about a physically repugnant, two-metre quasi-Neanderthal who is 100 years old, the former president of the United States of America, and when formerly placed in contact with his twin sister, possessed a rare and uncontrollable genius. It's a short book and less ambitious than many of his others: despite its scope in terms of time, it's largely interested in the ideas of "alternative families" - or "granfalloons" as the author termed them in Cat's Cradle - here, his hero attempts to alleviate loneliness with his sole presidential innovation: giving everyone a new middle name that identified them as part of a larger group. It was successful, but the fuel ran out, the shrinking Chinese found a way to tinker with gravity, and so most people are now dead. It's ridiculous, inspired and barely finished, the low-key ending coming out of nowhere to take the breath away. (3.5)
The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson (2004) - Wow, they really did a fucking number on this, Ronson's most well-known book. The subsequent Hollywood film is a piece of detestably broad whimsy that accuses the American military of being nothing but a bit wacky. Ronson's source book takes a different tack: showing how the hippy counterculture was commandeered by the armed forces, leading to the sickening treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay. Some of it, almost by definition, is reported rumour, and it's not always a coherent thesis, but it is a hilarious, chilling, righteously angry book that casts great light on a barely reported subject. Not that you'd know it from the movie, or the book blurb. (3.5)
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814) is a quiet, restrained book that explores new themes within Austen's familiar world, as the painfully shy, relentlessly self-critical Fanny Price grows up in her wealthy uncle's home, becoming a woman while being buffeted by the winds of prejudice, immorality, and thwarted love. It stumbles in terms of execution when Fanny returns home near the close, the aloof wrap-up is again frustrating and it's a lot more judgemental than Austen's other works, with reams of puritanical, almost impenetrable material about self-denial, humility and the evils of putting on a play in your house (by contrast, Fanny's adversary, Mary Crawford, is actually a bit of a laugh), but it is also devilishly witty, extremely heartfelt and full of stunning ruminations on everything from memory to the problems with banter. Now that's one opinion we can all get behind. (3.5)
London Spy (2015) - I'm actually angry about how crap this turned out to be, because for a while it had something. A real something. It was a jumble, definitely: mixing novelty with big honking clichés, offering insight one minute, appallingly mannered speeches the next, and seeming alternatively sympathetic to, and repulsed by, a gay lifestyle. But at times this strange, confused series about a reformed hedonist (Ben Whishaw) being dragged into a conspiracy by his romance with a spy (Edward Holcroft) could be brilliant. Mainly, I think, because of Whishaw, one of the most exciting, unbelievably talented actors working today. The chance to watch him, almost unbroken, for a solid hour at a time, was worth any amount of terrible dialogue, because with his subtlety, his urgency, his latent dynamism and stage-hewn fondness for a killer gesture - all allied to those unmistakable line-readings - you could barely drag yourself away.
Then that bombshell fell near the end of Episode 4 and you realised that even he wasn't enough, and that the series had just fallen off the extremely high, structurally unsafe cliff on which you'd been wandering for well over three hours. I don't lament the time spent watching it, because at times it awoke emotions I wasn't expected, hit me in places I couldn't have anticipated, and - as ludicrous as the plot development was, as ostentatiously showy as the presentation - the one-take in which Whishaw has an HIV test is an absolutely stunning, emotionally overwhelming set-piece. A shame, then, that his performance couldn't have served a programme that was less completely stupid. (2)
Thanks for reading.