7 Mar 2018

At The Movies

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 7 March 2018

Simon Morris looks reviews movies with an Oscar connection: Chile’s A Fantastic Woman, Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool and Jennifer Lawrence’s thriller Red Sparrow.

A Fantastic Woman

Chilean film A Fantastic Woman won Best Foreign Film in the Academy Awards and stars transgender actor/ singer Daniela Vega.

The story opens with successful middle-aged  businessman Orlando relaxing in a sauna, being massaged, and getting ready for an important date with his girlfriend, Marina, on her birthday. Within five minutes of the start of the film, Orlando has died in Marina’s arms.

A Fantastic Woman puts transgender Marina at the front of the story.

Films like The Crying Game embraced the exotic nature of their trans characters – with an emphasis on the straight man falling for the mysterious “other”.

But A Fantastic Woman, by telling the story from the point of view of Marina herself, is as much about respect as it is about love.

From the moment she brings the dying Orlando to the hospital, Marina is treated with hostility and suspicion.  What are these mysterious wounds on Orlando’s body?  How abusive was this relationship?   And even more insulting, was Orlando paying for Marina’s services? Would a so-called “normal” woman have been bombarded with such intrusive questions?

To make matters worse for Marina – still in shock –Orlando’s former family arrive on the scene, with no intention of making life easier for the “monster” who broke up their home.

Orlando’s ex-wife demands Marina vacate the flat she shared with Orlando and forbids her from coming to the funeral.

The film is deftly constructed – not as a ‘cause’ movie, angrily wagging its finger at conservative Chile, but as a very human one.  It’s a romance, a mystery, a fantasy, a detective story (what is the mysterious locker key found on Orlando’s body? ) and even allows itself some comedy, as Marina’s dispute with the family comes to a head when she discovers they have stolen the couple’s pet.

A Fantastic Woman stands and falls on how accurately it treats its central character.

Writer-director Sebastian Lelio brought in Vega as an adviser at first - then eventually the star of the film.

Vega is a revelation, not just for the range of her acting, but because of her extraordinary countertenor voice.  At the end of the film she sings a Handel aria which is quite simply breath-taking.  

The test of our newly-found, or newly-trumpeted, enthusiasm for interesting, unconventional and diverse characters will be what happens to the talented Vega after this. 

Her predecessor Jaye Davidson made just one movie immediately after The Crying Game. Let’s see if today’s film-makers can do a little better.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

The Bafta-nominated Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, on an unlikely affair between a young Liverpool actor and Hollywood legend and Oscar-winner Gloria Grahame, stars Annette Bening and Jamie Bell.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Gloria Grahame was one of Hollywood’s favourite bad girls, along with Ava Gardiner, Lana Turner and early Marilyn Monroe.

She made an indelible impression in films like It’s a Wonderful Life, Crossfire and The Bad and The Beautiful before going the way of most Hollywood ‘It girls’ – replaced by newer models.

In 1979 Gloria found herself playing theatre in Liverpool, England, where she meets the much younger Peter Turner, played by Bell, who is sharing the same actors’ boarding house.

The casting is almost perfect; Bening had already modelled her performance in The Grifters on Gloria Grahame, and Bell started his career as another young dancer, Billy Elliott.

The unlikely couple hit it off – partly because they’re both serious about acting, and partly because, despite the apparent differences between a Hollywood star and a jobbing Liverpool actor, they come from similar working class backgrounds and had strong mothers.

The film is about events some time after the affair ends. Gloria Grahame returns to England, and collapses backstage. The one person she wants to see is Turner.

So Turner takes her back home to Liverpool.  Clearly when the two were a couple, Gloria got on as well with Turner’s family as she did with Turner himself – especially his mother, played by Billy Elliott’s Julie Walters.

The story alternates between Grahame recuperating in the grimy Liverpool of 1981, and the sunny romance with Turner two years earlier.

The fact that the story is so unlikely is a pretty solid indication that it’s all – or mostly – true.

Bening isn’t the only Hollywood royalty attached to the film. Producer Barbara Broccoli –of the James Bond films – knew Grahame from her days growing up in Hollywood.

She was fascinated by Gloria’s memories of the dying days of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the film regularly touches on these memories; the locket inscribed by Humphrey Bogart, the Hollywood restaurant with lampshades decorated with film-star cartoons including one of Gloria Grahame.

The story of the last days of a legend, even a minor legend, is always touching.  But when Turner gives Grahame the greatest gift he can think of – the chance to play Shakespeare on an English stage  - it reminded me of the bittersweet sendoff of Coronation Street’s beloved transgender character Hayley Cropper, when she danced with husband Roy in Blackpool.

The fact that movie star Gloria Grahame can inhabit the same world as a Northern England soap opera is a reminder that diversity wasn’t invented this year.

Red Sparrow

Playing a glamorous Russian spy seems to be a rite of passage for movie stars at the moment.  Scarlett Johanssen has done it in The Avengers series and Angelina Jolie has done it several times.

Former Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence is the latest, and least likely, actress to come From Russia with Love.

Red Sparrow is a new code name for an old-fashioned Russian seductress, skilled in the art of twisting hapless Westerners round their little fingers for the benefit of Mother Russia.

Lest you think the “Red” part of the title implies this is taking place during the Cold War with the Soviets, think again.

Actually, not a lot of thinking is going on, at the start of the story at any rate.  Apart from trying to work out whose story is being told.

Red Sparrow opens by intercutting between two scenes - ballerina Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) about to go on stage and there’s an American spy Nate (Joel Edgerton) meeting a Russian contact.

Both go terribly wrong – Nate gets busted and Dominika breaks her leg.

But at least director Francis Lawrence now makes a decision - to go with Dominika’s story.

Sidelined for the foreseeable future, she can no longer look after her ailing mother.  Fortunately her dodgy uncle may have a job for her.

It turns out Uncle Vanya – that really is his name – is a bigwig in whatever we’re calling the KGB these days.   After Dominika’s crash course in the art of assassination, Vanya sees potential in her and sends her off to a special section of the intelligence service.

You’ve guessed it, the Red Sparrow section.

Charlotte Rampling gives the aspiring sparrows their induction which Dominika later, rather scathingly, refers to as “whore school”. 

Dominika seems to spend most of her time cutting classes and cheeking the teachers, but she’s soon sent on another assignment.

Yes, it’s Nate the CIA spy, who we’d rather forgotten about until now.  He and Dominika start foxtrotting around each other in the time-honoured, Russian-spy movie way.

The big question, as always, is who’s fooling who?  Is Dominika planning to join the American good guys?  Or is she happy to remain part of the evil empire?

You can tell that the book Red Sparrow is based on was written by another retired CIA operative.   Jason Matthews’ airport thriller is a standard example of the genre – all tortuous plot and wafer-thin characters generally not who they claim to be.

But with a book you can always stop and leaf back to remind yourself who’s who and what’s what.

Without that helpful facility, by halfway through the film I was starting to lose my way – confusing “sparrows” with “swans”, which are something else apparently, and constantly being reminded of an elusive sum of $150,000 that I never completely got my head around. 

So when the final revelation occurred two and half hours later – accompanied by the mandatory recap of plot points from a different, explanatory angle – I was frankly too bewildered to be surprised.

Coming off the back of the pretentious misfire Mother, Red sparrow is being used as proof  Jennifer Lawrence isn’t infallible any more.

Personally, I think a couple of flops are good for the soul, and I’m sure this one won’t do Jennifer any lasting damage.  But no more Russian spies please.  You’re too down-home to be playing Mata Hari, Jen.

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