The peril of Meryl and the political film

When starting a new job, a popular piece of advice is to avoid two topics of conversation; religion and politics. That’s because those subjects tend to divide more than they create bonds. It can be very easy for political films to suffer that first-day-faux-pas fate. When Oliver Stone had the reigns of a George W. Bush feature, even The View ladies fully expected a left-screeching education piece (or at least Elisabeth did). Instead, he delivered a rather watered-down portrait that didn’t really seem to say anything in particular.

More than other genres, the added danger with politics on screen is balance while staying on message. With The Iron Lady, we’re dealing with a figure just old enough to reach mythical status, but still recent enough to remain relatively fresh in memories. Margaret Thatcher was the UK’s longest serving Prime Minister since the late 1800s (and only female). Her years in office were defined by a no-nonsense approach to negotiations and a perceived iron-fist when it came to tough decisions. Rightly or wrongly, there is as much praise for Thatcher as there is criticism.

The paradox for some with the film, however, will be the very same thing that will likely bring them to the cinema in the first place. Saint or demon, Thatcher is an intriguing character. This is a film about the intricacies of human behaviour when our foundations inevitably begin to give way as age encroaches. In my mind, I found it difficult to reconcile a woman who oversaw the implementation of Section 28 with the frail lady presented to us. But isn’t that theme of contradiction rife throughout all our lives?

As a politician, Margaret Thatcher was unshakeable and impenetrable. Yet none of her political prowess could prepare her for the isolation that age and grief brought. For a lady so used to having things a certain way – her way – this became her private war. At least that’s how it is presented to us by director Phyllida Lloyd, reuniting with Meryl Streep after the radically different Mamma Mia!. Granted, the fact that this is an emotionally driven film means that there is little basis for much of the content in reality. But the film isn’t trying to push that angle.

Meryl Streep has developed an odd ability to create Oscar buzz simply for waking up in the morning. Personally, I can understand why. While I’m certainly not a fan of stuff like Mamma Mia! (the film equivalent of a jager-bomb), no matter what role she’s in, Streep has a god-given talent for relating to an audience and making them understand exactly what her character is feeling – and she does it without any hint of having to try. She may have the annoying habit of turning down important and serious arty films in favour of Julie & Julia, but you know what? The world loves her. And with a very large thanks to her breakdown in the kitchen in The Hours, so do I.

As Thatcher, Meryl Streep delivers yet again. She’ll probably be Oscar-nominated again, and I’d say deservedly so. Some moments do tend to get a little campy (especially a scene opposite the US Secretary of State), but just watch some clips of the real Thatcher. When she’s riled, she does slip slightly into angry drag queen mode (see below clip). From someone who’s tastes tend to lean towards quieter, more subtle films, I would have appreciated some more smaller moments in place of the at times blaring heart-string tugging and emotional cue cards, but that’s all in retrospect. As an experience, the film won’t have you discussing religion and politics at work. Unlike Thatcherism, it won’t divide audiences or incite tidal opinions. And that’s because it’s a human story, and we all relate to that. I was slightly sceptical about this film, but it lured me in and made me feel for a lady whose human side I otherwise probably wouldn’t have given much thought.

 

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Kim Jong-Ill, Hollywood’s biggest fan

The death of Kim Jong-Ill has sent the people of North Korea into a frenzy of mourning, but outside this bizarre dictatorship, the majority of the world is busy contemplating what the almost anonymous 27 year old new ruler will do with his nuclear-armed toy-box. It brings to mind scenes of the HBO series Game of Thrones where, mere hours after being armed with the crown, King Joffrey sets about ordering beheadings as though he’s on the phone to Pizza Hut.

Team America: World Police turned him into an official punchline, but the real terror behind Kim Jong-Ill’s reign is less hilarious. Up to 3.5 million people have perished as a result of famine, with much of the country’s limited resources devoted to maintaining armed forces, including its nuclear program.

A few months ago, Free North Korea Radio apparently reported that two lesbians had been publicly executed due to “being tinged with capitalism”. The government allegedly went on to state that “they were badly influenced by capitalism from Japan and brought corruption of public morals”. According to various reports, the women were captured after it was discovered that they shared a sexual relationship in their house.

Officially, homosexuality is not against the law in North Korea, however there is clearly no acceptance or tolerance. Rather, its mere existence is suppressed. With the media being state controlled, no public mention is ever allowed, and it is apparently on a list of forbidden topics of discussion for anyone. One official government statement did refer to homosexuality, aligning it with capitalist values of the west; “…the DPRK rejects many characteristics of the popular gay culture in the West, which many perceive to embrace consumerism, classism and promiscuity”.

Shin-Sang-ok with his wife, Choi Eun-hee

Despite the rejection of all things western and capitalist, Kim Jong-Ill was apparently a big fan of Hollywood movies, with a reported collection of more 20,000 videos and DVDs. Some favourites included Friday the 13th and Rambo, as well as anything starring Elizabeth Taylor (Suddenly Last Summer…?). In 1978, he ordered the kidnapping of Shin Sang-ok, a South Korean director and Choi Eun-hee, his actress ex-wife with the intention of creating a film industry in his beloved north. They were kept separately in comfortable accommodation at first, however after an attempted escape, they were moved to a prison. Only after being brought to a dinner party did the pair learn of their mutual capture, and they were soon remarried at the suggestion of Kim Jong-Ill.

Eight years and seven films later, the couple escaped to Vienna for a film festival, seeking asylum at the American embassy. Kim Jong-Ill would remain convinced that the US had kidnapped the pair.

In addition to his “filmmaking” pursuits, the crazy dictator also apparently wrote a book, On the Art of the Cinema, though considering he also claimed to have invented the hamburger, the jury will likely remain out on that one.

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The Seasonal Loneliness

There was a girl sitting on a step one rainy night in Iverstown. She was on her way back home, carrying nothing but a suitcase and a lot of reluctance. Then a stranger appeared, and in a small, brief moment, her lonesomeness lifted.

Around this time of year, a few films are released and others recycled on the telly to cash-in on that popular consensus that we should all be practicing togetherness. Yet the most popular Christmas films often feature a barely disguised theme of utter despair. Frank Capra’s quintessential It’s a Wonderful Life is an obvious example.

Meet Me in St Louis is another one. Vincente Minnelli’s beautiful tapestry of a family in the early 1900s doesn’t aim for a melodrama or heartstrings. Instead, the drama is rather restrained, with the detail of family dynamics providing more than enough fare. Judy Garland introduced the world to the popular Christmas song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas with a scene in which no Christmas song has ever been more pertinent.

While essentially not a Christmas film, Douglas Sirk’s All The Heaven Allows used Christmas as a method to illustrate Cary Scott’s (Jane Wyman) growing isolation. In a pivotal scene, Cary stares into the blank screen of her new television, which merely stares back at her with her own reflection.

Now, while all of these films do an excellent job at reminding us all of what should be important, something I always go back to at Christmas without fail isn’t actually a film at all, but rather a couple of episodes of a favourite television series. In an early Christmas special, Bewitched featured a story in which Darin and Samantha visit an orphanage to take care of a young boy during the holidays. Cynical and restless, he’s almost a portrait of Scrooge’s Christmas-past.

In a funny and heartwarming departure from the usual theme of the series, Samantha decides in quite a small minute to reveal her witch identity to the boy, and take him flying on a broomstick to visit the real Santa and discover for himself what Christmas is all about. The episode is spot-on perfect and really shows everything that this show is remembered for.

Again, much later in the series, Bewitched delivered another amazing special. But this time, things got political. Using a story written by a class of school kids, this episode dealt with some friends of the Stephens who happen to be black. Tabitha likes to refer to her friend Lisa as her sister, but as girl at the playground points out, she can’t be her sister because she’s a different colour. Worse, a client of Darin’s decides he’s too “unstable” to take care of his account when he mistakenly believes Darin to be in an interracial relationship.

In a scene that would undoubtedly have caused a stir in 1970, Samantha uses a twitch of her nose to make Darin’s racist client see everyone in the room as black – even himself. Later of-course, he sees the errors of his ways and makes a heartfelt apology, even joining them all for Christmas dinner.

Redemption, forgiveness, appreciation and generosity all culminate to counteract the enduring theme of loneliness that permeates all of the most loved Christmas stories. Is feeling all alone at this time of year one of our biggest fears? Do we respond to stories like these because they remind us of what’s important? It all seems rather schmaltzy when you think about it literally, but somehow, in all those months either side of December, we do seem to find it difficult to black out the distractions and hone in on what we’d like to be most enduring.

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Happy 89th Birthday Lizabeth Scott

There have been many times while driving along a country road somewhere that I’ll look out the window at an old abandoned house. Usually sitting in what appears to be just another paddock nowadays, I’m always struck with the same wonderment; people work their whole lives to own a house. How is it that so often, something we seem to strive so hard for can be simply dropped?

Lizabeth Scott was 23 when she made her first film, the war-time romance You Came Along. By 1957, she’d made 21 films. After starring with some of cinema’s most magnificent such as Kirk Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart and Elvis Presley, Lizabeth Scott turned off her spotlight and walked away. At just 35, she decided that was quite enough.

Molly Ringwald, Demi Moore, Phoebe Cates; they all had their days as leading ladies. Scott’s story is different. She entered showbiz a star – her name on the poster, prominently credited in the film. Undoubtedly, every one of her films was a “Lizabeth Scott film”. Even her last star effort, opposite Elvis Presley, gave her the leading role. So with her career seemingly just as alive as it ever had been, what could have caused Lizabeth Scott to switch it all off?

Unfortunately speculation is all we’re ever like to have. Though by most standards she’s still a rather obscure actress, there are few others who attract the kind of cult like following that Scott has. It is perhaps Scott’s reluctance to explain her departure that is at least partly responsible for her enduring appeal to so many. Aside from her many remarkable screen performances, Scott is also a rare example of a star who really couldn’t care less for that drug they call “fame” that so many others find addictive.

Turning 89 today, I think it’s unlikely that Lizabeth Scott will ever shine a light on what really happened back then. Instead, I think I’ll just watch Desert Fury for the millionth time and bask in the wonderful production design, bizarre gay subtext, excellent performances, and all-round unique film-going experience.

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A suburban social pitfall

Suburbia is a remarkable thing. In spite of its vending machine sameness, its hideousness seems to be the very same thing that provokes the timeless wonderment that prevails endlessly. It’s easy to see why; a thing that bases its appeal on surface-pretty begs people to question what happens behind closed doors. Films like American Beauty, All That Heaven Allows, The Chumscrubber, and the TV series Desperate Housewives take plenty from this curiosity.

On the cusp of the fabulous 1950s that turned suburbia into everyone’s idea of the perfect life, floundering musical star Dick Powel made one of the most brilliantly biting films noirs of all. In Pitfall, Powell stars opposite reigning queen of the genre Lizabeth Scott. He’s Jo! hn Forbes, an insurance investigator sent by his employer to visit the home of Mona Stevens (Scott). Apparently she’s in possession of some expensive gifts from her ex which may help bring about an embezzlement case.

Like all brilliant films, it’s not really about the literal subject matter at all. When John, married with children, lays eyes on Mona – a single model living alone – we know we’re in for something more. It could be another one of those “the other woman” type dramas, but the presence of Scott wouldn’t allow it. Something has to go bang. And it does.

It would be a shame to ruin this for anyone, so I won’t delve any further into the plot. The idea of the suburban gentleman betraying his family for a sexy model type is often explored, but Pitfall’s treatment is dif! ferent. It doesn’t preach, nor does it wrap things up in pretty paper at the end. Instead, we’re left with a bitter taste and a conclusion that even today forces the question of why our social values play out the way they do. That question of what happens behind the closed doors of those pretty houses is answered in a way that makes you wish you’d never asked. While holding up a mirror to the lives of every-people, Pitfall uses the femme fatale character to brilliant effect, playing with trust as if it were a kitten with string.

As we continue to become more apprehensive about John’s dealings Mona, we soon start to suspect that, in this particular situation, there may not actually be a bad guy. Maybe these are just two genuine people, trapped by circumstance and desire. And maybe the one headed for the pitfall isn’t who we all thought.

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Louie the Fly: 1957 – 2011

Wow. Just… wow. It’s not often that a television commercial changing its formula upsets me, but today shall be remembered as an exception. Louie the Fly, the insect star of gazillions of Mortein fly-spray commercials for over 50 years here in Australia, seems to have finally succumbed to the deadly aerosol he spent his life selling. Reports today have confirmed the death, with Mortein marketing man Chris Tedesco claiming the company has “…moved on in terms of the technological advancement of our products” (I assume that means they killed him?).

Having travelled to various places throughout the USA, Asia and Europe, I can say with reasonable confidence that Australian television ads are, well, not the worst, but in most cases, certainly millions of light-years away from being among the best. Recent years especially seem to have seen a big drop in quality; when was the last time we had anything as memorable as the old Vegemite ads, as terrifying as the Grim Reaper warning us of the danger of AIDS, or simply hilarious as “not happy Jan”? It seems the number of ads with next-to-no production value has skyrocketed, along with the loss of volume control (hello mute button) and, sadly, talent and wit.

With the success of the Aussie TV program The Gruen Transfer (a panel show dedicated to discussing advertising issues and dissecting the crap), and the US cable series Mad Men, I would argue that more than ever, people are interested in this craft that so many of us think we’re immune to. Every now and then, Mad Men allows Don Draper to step forward and show exactly why he’s the star of his show. Part of the genius behind this writing is that when real advertising techniques are used (as they often are), we’re allowed behind the image to see exactly why it works. It’s a fitting theme for a show with a backdrop of the manufactured society of the 1960s.

One stand-out moment in the first season featured a comparison between the advertising campaigns of two presidents; Kennedy and Nixon. Kennedy, in spite of all his political pow-wow, had gone with a catchy jingle that, while revealing nothing about his policies or plans, kept the viewer watching and prompted interest. Nixon, meanwhile, simply stared at a camera in his office and addressed the viewer; “I’d like to talk to you about taxes”. Hmm.

Sadly, it seems a lot of Aussie ad-makers could learn a lot from any given episode of Mad Men. Sure it’s fiction, but the idea of trying to understand the dynamics behind what makes a human do what it does certainly sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? A hell of a lot more interesting than a Harvey Norman commercial.

Farewell Louie, I always thought you were a stand-out amongst the boring majority of your peers. Your creator, Bryce Courtenay, and original voice, Ross ”Ted Bullpitt” Higgins, will surely miss you (as may Mortein). No doubt you’ll be replaced soon though, likely with an all-knowing and attractive mother who is concerned over the effects fly-spray may have on her 8 year old, while her husband of-course does something in the background that proves he is not very clever with truly hilarious results. Oh telly, you and your wacky ways.

This does of-course free up space for some of our newer ad creation, i.e. Rivers, that yoghurt ad where they fight over whether it’s “yoh-gert” or “yog-art”, and that new Channel Seven promo featuring one of the most lyrically sublime jingles of all time. Pay attention now: “are you, are you, are you, are you ready, get set, are you ready, get set, are you ready?”.

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The Luminous Mata Hari

You can’t frighten Mata Hari. She is her own master. But there is always one way such a strong and domineering femme fatale can unravel; falling in love.

The 1931 film Mata Hari is not a historically accurate biopic, let’s just get that out of the way right now. But it does happen to be one of the most visually mesmerising and emotionally brilliant films you are ever likely to see. Mata Hari (real and fictional) rose to fame as an exotic dancer in Paris during World War I. While many would criticise her appeal for being borderline pornographic, there was scarcely a soul on the planet who couldn’t be drawn in by her seductive performances and poison-ivy-like aura. But fittingly enough, behind her beautiful exterior lay a rebellious streak. Mata Hari was a German spy.

Whether the real Mata Hari was in fact stealing secrets for the Germans is the subject of eternal debate. In any case, she was prosecuted for it in 1917.

Beyond the incredible real life Mata Hari, the film exists as something entirely different. As Mata, Greta Garbo floats through every scene like a distant apparition, letting only a select few even remotely close.

I will never understand why Ramon Novarro didn’t have a longer film career. For a while, during the cross-over from silent to talkies, Novarro was A-list gold. He was the star of the original Ben-Hur, and of-course had equal billing in Mata Hari alongside Garbo – arguably the most famous woman in the world during her time. Novarro’s performance in this film is a testament to why he was so popular at least for a while. His every line, every movement, even every small expression is so precisely in character. It’s impossible not to fall in love with him, as Garbo’s Mata Hari does.

Late in the story, as Mata is visiting a hospital, we get to see a snippet of her contradictions. Despite her insistence on doing everything her own way, regardless of the consequences, she can’t help but feel her own pain expressed through the face of a blind man. She leaves him her flowers, yet no sooner has she walked out the door that it becomes painfully clear that her “friends” may not be as close as she thought. Like many a worshipped celebrity, Mata Hari has made the fatal error of confusing friends with fans. Fans don’t know loyalty.

Often when watching films of generations gone, things must be taken with a grain of salt, understood in their context. Mata Hari isn’t like that; it’s a hypnotic vision all of its own. Ridiculously dramatic. Incomparable.

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