NOW THAT WE’RE all home bound, and a few select movies have come out on early streaming, here area few I caught up with:

LE MANS 66
THE PLOT
Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and ace driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale) are contracted by the Ford Motor Company, eager to inject some spunk into its boring brand. Their no-expenses spared mission is to rebuild both the brand and the Mustang into a lean, mean super-fast machine that can take on and beat Ferrari’s mastery on the track.

THE BIG DEAL
It’s a wildly entertaining, ahem, ride, driven by director James Mangold (Logan), written by Jez Butterworth (Spectre) and John Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) and piloted by his two top gun stars, Matt and Christian. The nub of the story pits the pure, macho, literally death-defying competitive mania of the Shelby Team (of Shelby and Miles and their crew) against Enzo Ferrari’s unbeatables. This sporting ‘purity’ is contrasted with the Ford world of compromise, commercialism and committees. The real challenge Shelby and Miles face isn’t just outracing Ferrari, but retaining their integrity in the grubby world of Ford marketing.

They want to race the perfect lap. Ford just wants to sell more cars.

And beneath the sweat and the speed is a movie about the endurance of friendship (or what Hollywood prefers to macho-up with the term, “Buddy movie”). Here are two life-long friends, whose entire, and entirely meaningful, and unwittingly hilarious, conversation is ALL about cars, chassis, gear boxes and RPM’s.

Gear up for a delightful ride

THE INVISIBLE MAN
THE PLOT
Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss) is the emotionally and physically battered wife of a maniacally controlling Optics genius husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). After escaping, her fear of being tracked by him is alleviated by news of his suicide. Of course he’s not dead. Just invisible. And he’s found out where she lives

THE BIG DEAL
There’s a great new trend in (low budget) high concept horror (Us, Get Out etc). They combine all the chills you’d expect rom the horror genre while delivering equally chilling insights into society and human behaviour. The focus of the hold-your-breath shivers of The Invisible Man is the all too common reality that battered wives/women is a crime invisible to society.

Despite being ‘dead’, Cecilia knows he’s there. Initially she can feel his presence…that strange, hair-raising tingle you get when you feel the presence of another (There’s a wonderful moment when we can see his frosty breath next to her). And then this presence gets (much) more heavy-handed. And no one believes her. She must be mad. She’s depressed. She’s on drugs etc.

Just how much does a woman need to get beaten up for someone to believe her?
The answer: when men start to get beaten up too.

Elisabeth Moss is the hugely impressive centre of the story. Her multiple levels of expressiveness focus and channel our anxiety, our nervousness, our blind terror and finally the “fuck you” determination to get even

Leigh Whannell’s directing (and writing) avoids the usual clichés of the horror genre (even if he did direct Insidious: Chapter 3). He lets the terror of an invisible stalker speak for itself.

And there’s a wonderfully clever ending.

 

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE*****The Face of Excellence


THIS IS BY far one of the year’s best movies.

Set sometime in the early eighteenth century on a remote island in Brittany, the story follows the brief encounter (a scant two weeks or so) between and artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her subject, Héloise (Adele Haenel).

Marianne has been commissioned – by Héloise’s mother (Valerie Golino) – to paint her daughter’s wedding portrait, she having been promised to a wealthy Milanese bachelor. The simple enough task is fraught with problems: Her mother fears that Heloise, who refuses to be painted, will yield to the same fate as her sister (who had been promised to the Milanese bachelor) and kill herself. Marianne’s task therefore is to complete the commission covertly under the pretence of being a “walking companion”.

The mission begins auspiciously when, as she approaches the island on a small boat, in choppy waters, Marianne’s crated canvases fall overboard. The artist immediately leaps into the dark sea to rescue them (And the sea as symbol of death and survival is an image that threads the movie). Having struggled with them up to the vast, dark, suffocating house of her patron and subject, we next see Marianne naked in front of a fire drying out herself and her canvases. The symbolism is clear: the artist and her canvases are co-joined. So that what’s on the canvas is never just a record of an external world; it’s always an expression of a deeper internal reality.

As she begins to forge a relationship with Heloise, secretly sketching fragments of her – her hands, her ears, her turned face etc.- she begins her wedding portrait in the privacy of her room. It’s finished soon enough. And it’s of a beautiful woman for sure; and is clearly a likeness of Heloise. But, a likeness to a subject does not a portrait make. It looks only tangentially like her, having entirely failed to capture her spirit.

Art that is based on dishonesty and pretence will always be lacking.

Slowly as a relationship develops, dishonesty is replaced with a growing trust. Marianne ‘fesses up that she’s there, not as a paid companion but as a paid artist. And with honesty comes a growing bond and a growing intimacy between the two women. Their romance evolves outside the prison-like house and blossoms in the new-found freedom (from her convent, her mother, society) that Heloise begins to experience.

And we, the audience, experience the emergence of their affection through the gaze of the camera, just as they begin to pay close attention to each other. Marianne’s observing artist’s eye begins to notice every tic and nuance of the other’s emotions. It is a loving, almost symbiotic, gaze that is mirrored by Heloise, who also begins to observe with equal acuteness, the hidden ‘tells’ of her portraitist. The parallel observing eye of the director’s camera frames the increasing tenderness with which each of the two women gaze upon the other. There are long close-ups of each of the two protagonists as they listen and talk and simply look at each other.

It’s as though the movie were staking out its claim that close observation – of the face…of the soul – is at the heart of love. And as the bond between the two women grows richer and more intense, the quality of Heloise’s portrait, reflecting the artist’s honest emotional truth, grows in both physical and psychological accuracy. At the beginning of the process, Marianne noted to Heloise that she never smiled (There is a long history of the potency of the smile in portraiture). By the time their love is acknowledged, Heloise can barely stop smiling.

Their love is directly contrasted with the ‘love’ of their maid (Luana Bajrama), whose relationship has left her pregnant and in need of an abortion. Will such loveless-ness be the plight of the soon to be married Heloise?

Writer/director Céline Sciamma (Girlhood) punctuates her story through a series of portraits of Heloise, each signifying an emotional milestone. This is a love story signalled through art. The first portrait we see is one, executed by a previous artist, with the face scrubbed out. This, from an artist who simply couldn’t come to terms with the passions of her subject. But as Marianne grows more fondly familiar with Heloise and her portraits grow more aesthetically and emotionally accurate, she is moved to sketch a more intimate scene of her recumbent lover. This one, their shared secret, is the ultimate portrait…where the subject is not just that of Heloise, but of their tremendous love. There is one last portrait, obviously painted at a later date, and kept private for the gaze only of the artist. It is set on a dark background; Heloise is standing gazing out at the viewer. Her dress is on fire. Is she unaware that it’s on fire? Or is the symbolism of passion only apparent to her enamoured painter?

This is such a refreshingly well-done movie; as the style – honest, gentle, un-rushed, erotically but never exploitatively charged – so well synchronises with the story of the movie. The French seem to have mastered the storytelling of love so well. No apologies. No mawkishness. No embarrassment. No irony.

Just love

 

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE Dir/Writer: Céline Sciamma. With Noémie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino. Cinematographer: Claire Mathon. Production Designer: Thomas Grézaud. Costume Designer: Dorothée Guiraud. Composers: Jean-Baptiste de Laubier and Arthur Simonini

 

 

 

JORDAN***** Magical


ON THE SURFACE, Jordan, surrounded by zones of danger and threat, seems to be a sea of even -tempered tranquility. It’s the Switzerland of the Middle East, which squeezes it this way and that. As we (there were a scant four persons) sat on the deck of a small tourist vessel in Aqaba, calmly gliding into the sunset, we could see Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and, with a dollop of imagination, Saudi Arabia. Three hundred miles to our north, on the country’s northernmost border, you could stumble into Syria.

Zones of danger, all.

That’s Egypt we’re looking at

No wonder, along the endless stretches of near empty highways, police and army outposts punctuate the beat of produce-heavy trucks. Theirs is a reassuring presence.

And not unexpectedly, three million of Jordan’s ten million inhabitants are refugees. About a million are Syrian and Just under two million of them are Palestinian, hoping any day to return to a land, their land, free from the boot of Israel on their necks.

Some hope.

Sometimes the mountains in Jordan seem a painted backdrop

The land is stunningly beautiful. It changes colour, from the pale rust-streaked ochres of the dry South, where the silent deserts drift into infinity, to the more verdant, fecund greens of the North fed by the River Jordan. And both extremes share the drama of their mountains: vertical cliffs that seem, only yesterday, to have punched their way up out of the soil.

The ever-changing colours of the magical mountains

They’re show-offy these naked cliffs. No demure covering of trees or lamb-nibbled grassland for them. Not them: they flaunt their waves of embedded minerals, the ores and phosphates that daub them with painterly exuberance. Some are polished smooth with soft undulating curves, as if to invite caresses. They look otherworldly. But perhaps that’s because I’ve seen them in The Martian and Star Wars. The faces of many display distinct cuneiform shapes; their personal biographies etched by nature. Geology as writing instructor.

These are the faces of an ancient land.

This is the land of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here walked Moses in his search of a promised land. And John the Baptist, in search of a promised saviour. And Elijah, in his chariot ascending to heaven.

Of course these humble events (duh…the birth of Christianity!) representing no grand conquest, have left no marks. There’s a spot at Mount Nebo, where Moses supposedly saw the Promised Land and there’s still the rough stone floor of a church built where Christ was supposedly baptised. Imagination, or faith, is required. Both places are graced with understatedly attractive memorial places of worship. All this Christian eschatology in a Muslim land!

The area where the famous baptism took place

No such physical reticence was shown by the all-conquering Romans. The presence of Zeus (and his daughter Artemis) in this ancient land is strong, especially in the incredibly well preserved city of Jerash (or Antioch). The highly prosperous city was destroyed by an earthquake two thousand years ago and rediscovered, almost untouched at the end of the nineteenth century. In its awesome colonnaded avenues and reverential temples, the might of Rome still forces visitors’ eyes downward to the elaborate, well preserved mosaics with their lovingly patterned flora and fauna and upwards to the flora of the commanding corinthians.

Jerash

Hadrian’s gate at Jerash

Before the Romans, you’ll find the Greeks. And before the Greeks, the Nabataeans. And all those old Biblical names of the Ammonites and the Edomites and the Moabites (who did battle with the Biblical King David and later King Solomon). The early religions that celebrated Dushara turned into the worship of Zeus that, with Constantine, evolved into early Christianity. Though the sword of Mohammed brought Allah, here Islam coexists peacefully – it seems – with Christianity.

They are not enemies. The enemies lie to the West: Israel (not Judaism) and to the East: the Saudi Wahabi zealots.

A submerged tank. (A good place for them all)

Here history is far from academic. the past is the present. It’s not a little unsettling to be presented with an ontology of events that denies the mythos of King David’s all-conquering Israelites. That, we were told, is our Western version. Even pride in Nabatean hydraulic engineering skills – And remember this was two thousand three hundred years ago – is still strong. To us, Petra is a place of breathtaking beauty. To the Jordanian (a country of barely one hundred years) it’s their living legacy; a physical embodiment of identity.

Justifiably.

Petra is breath taking. And worthy of its accolade as one of the Modern Seven Wonders of the world. You approach it via the Siq, a long winding passageway that snakes through a narrow high-cliffed chasm, created, it would appear as if sundered by an angry god. Its colours – reds and golds and slashes of black on exposed white seams – vary continuously with the ever changing light. The Siq itself is worth the journey

The canyon leading to the Valley of the tombs

It is when, wearied with the long walk, you suddenly glimpse the first, partially obscured sight of the vast, imposing, multi-tiered Treasury building, deftly built into the rock, that all weariness evaporates. “Look on my works ye mighty and despair” Indeed. This is a sight to lift any spirit. And here begins your experience of this extraordinary place. There are, on either side of the wide flat ‘avenue’ that separates the towering cliffs of this ancient necropolis, hundreds of tombs, some simple, others more elaborate, gouged into the rock face; caves where some Bedouin still live; the vast hemisphere of a stone stadium built for seven thousand; and stairways carved into the hill (for maintenance of the channels and sluices that guide the flow of water to underground cisterns).

Te iconic image of The Treasury (so called because of Pharaonic treasures hidden there)

The hills house the living and the dead

Here the living and the dead co-existed. No place of the dead feels so filled with the spirit of life.

Here the Nabateans lived and died and withstood armies…until Rome (whose strong imperial presence is an acknowledge part of history – and great for Tourism – but not a part of identity…it seems to me, the casual observer)

The past is the present.

Balfour’s broken promises of 1918 (when King Faisal’s promised reward for ousting the Ottomans – with the help of Lawrence of Arabia – was banishment) still rankle. The multiple crusader forts remain reminders of brutal conquest and brutish iconoclasm. And just to the West across the River Jordan (diverted after the Six Days War to Israeli ruled Jericho) lies the ongoing anger of Israel’s colonisation of Palestine (The collective memory forgets the inconvenient fact that the Jordanians had themselves occupied and colonised Palestine)… and of the West’s continued intransigence and of Trump’s inflammatory ignorance.

The dangers are without, not within. Here there is great tribal pride…and harmony. The present and revered Royal family are Hashemites. The terms trips off the tongue in a way “Windsor’s” never can. For this is a society seemingly proud to be monarchical. We saw (and broke bread with) the Bedouin. They remain nomadic, herding sheep and goat and living in tents and, with their camels, shifting their locations seasonally to beat the weather. Just as they’ve done since the beginning of time. And even those who have settled into brick homes still have carpeted tents outside for guests and entertainment.

Bedouin with his camel

Our guide was from the Farmer, northern tribe. Some of the women wear veils, many don’t. The masking hijab is nowhere to be seen.

“I am large. I contain multitudes”

Of course, in Jordan you’ll find the beaches and the beach chairs and the infinity pools and spas and tanned bodies and snorkelling and a splendid Yellow Submarine and what have you. And we sure enjoyed all of those decadent pleasures.

decadent pleasures

But if that’s all you’re after, go to Barbados. Jordan offers you a reorientation of the Middle East where you begin to appreciate just how closely clustered these countries are; where the present still burns with the insults of the past and where the future reality of the Middle East remains a cuneiform as yet unwritten

 

DARK WATERS**** A Clear Winner


THIS JUST IN: 99% of us have Teflon, that easy to clean, non-stick, quasi magical substance of so many sauce pans. It’s all inside us. Oh, by the way, Teflon is a carcinogenic. Teflon is made of a chemical compound known as PFOA or C8. It has been conclusively proven as a cause of multiple cancers, as well as kidney, liver and thyroid diseases. Not only will it kill you, it can lead to horrible newborn deformities.

And this miracle of science was all brought to you by Dupont. That uber powerful, uber profitable company knew about this decades ago. Their own people were dying. Other companies who had done the research (The Dow corporation) had warned them of the problem. And their senior executives had recognized the danger. What did they do about it? Fuck all. They kept on manufacturing their miracle frying pans. They dumped their killer chemicals into nearby rivers. They put waste material into drums and buried them, where they stayed buried…until the drums began to leach into the water supplies. And children’s teeth began to fall out; and their kidneys began to fail; and the cattle on their ranches began to die in spasms of pain.

Dark Waters is the tremendous, angry movie that lays bare the moral vacuum at the heart of the company (A stand in for so many others, from the cigarette companies to big oil to those multiple others that hide behind their corporate lawyers, their lobbyists, their PR spinners, their bought politicians). It follows the personal crusade of Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) as he grows more involved, more alarmed and more obsessed by the rancid criminal rot at the heart of the corporation.

Rob’s a young, nerdy, rising corporate defence attorney at a major legal corporation. It was his grandmother who recommended him to Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp: Joker) one of her neighbours. Wilbur’s an old farmer whose land abuts that of a Dupont dumping ground and whose herd is being poisoned.

In a sense the plight of the farmer and his ailing community poisons Rob’s own conscience. He grows increasingly obsessed and blindly committed to a seemingly quixotic crusade (of taking on the power and money of corporate America). It is a poisonous obsession that impoverishes him, destabilizes his marriage and ruins his health. And all the while the company layers legal stonewalling, with bribery and payoffs and physical attacks on his clients, to intimidate him and close him down.

Dark Waters suggests we’re all shaped by two fundamentally different kinds of forces. On the one hand there’s the force of the immense strength of the big corporation, fuelled by the shared and amoral conviction that making money is its own justification. And there’s a deeper strength: that of the individual, unbowed in the face of enormous odds and armed with an unbeatable moral force. This is more than Dupont v Rob the crusading attorney. It’s the clash of the faceless corporation v the faces of the very people it presumes to serve. Profit v people.

The idea that’s twice repeated in the story and initially voiced by the ailing farmer and then reiterated by Rob is a simple one. He says, “The system is rigged. They want us to believe that it’ll protect us. But that’s a lie. We protect us. We do. Nobody else. Not the companies. Not the scientists. Not the government. Us”

And you wonder why the Americans have such a deep-seated need to arm themselves against the state?

As he has done in all his movies, director Todd Haynes (Carol, Mildred Pierce, Far From Heaven) engages you with the compellingly credible humanity of his protagonists to illuminate and involve you with the issues he’s seeking to investigate; in this case, that of corporate malfeasance. He structures his story via a series of discoveries as seen through the naive eyes of his protagonist, Rob, who, like his audience, aren’t familiar with the nuances of chemistry. With Rob, we learn of and discover what PFOA is; we’re taught to understand how carbon molecules bond; how they repel water; and how that destroys us. We’re with Rob as he wades through a smokescreen of documents to unearth proof upon proof of the company’s prior knowledge of harm. Haynes doesn’t so much tell us a story as involve us as his ally; his co-conspirators.

As Rob, the always dependable Mark Ruffalo – who is on screen for almost the entire movie which he co-produced – is tremendous. He manages to skilfully convey the mania of being myopically obsessed and sleeplessly driven without ever losing his audience by seeming crazed. Ruffalo put on the pounds for the role to become an awkward, schlubby everyman. (And almost as it to put behind him his Hulk alter-ego by offering us a new-look kind of superhero).

As his long-suffering, increasingly fraught wife, Anne Hathaway is – after the disasters of the unwatchable The Last Thing He Wanted, Oceans Eight and Serenity- surprisingly convincing. She’s a low-keyed but powerful presence; a woman torn between her loyalty and love and the existential terror of facing the abyss at the heart her errant husband’s impossible mission.

This is a movie that leaves you “mad as hell” (And certainly for me personally as I was involved in the con of re-crafting the company’s image away from its -compromised- promise of “better living through chemistry” to the ennobling idea of “miracles of science”. We shifted the attention away from Teflon to Lycra. Fool me once…)

So to the good news: As a result of the heroism of Rob Bilott, the carcinogenic substance PFOA has been removed from all Teflon coatings at the mandate of the US EPA (environmental protection agency)

So now we’re all safe.

And you believe that, do you?

 

DARK WATERS. Dir: Todd Haynes. Writers: Matthew Carnahan (21 Bridges) and Mario Correa, based on Nathaniel Rich’s New Your Times article. With: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Bill Camp, Victor Garber. Cinematographer: Edward Lachman (Carol)