Dir/Wri: Hagai Levi, Amy Herzog | 5 episode mini series
Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac are the stars of this elliptical potboiler that offers plenty of talky têtes a têtes and raunchy sex. Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1974 screen classic it may make the average couple wonder why parents of one, Mira and Jonathan, are filing for divorce. Communication lines are open and flowing with candid confessions and compromises, and that’s not the only thing that flows between these lustful Jewish forty somethings who lose no opportunity in sharing their bodily juices between the sheets or on a plastic wrapped sofa waiting for the removal man.
Set in New York, Scenes is a surprisingly mature and engrossing five parter from acclaimed Israeli born director Hagai Levi best known for his standout mini series Be’Tipul that also ran on HBO (from 2005-9). Hagai and his co-writer Amy Herzog promise “love, hatred, desire, monogamy, marriage and divorce” and certainly deliver it in spades providing immersive bitesize viewing, each of the eps running for a well-judged 60 minutes. Just enough time for you to question your own relationship and fall out with your partner before bedtime. MT
Dir: Frank Marshall | Wri: Mark Monroe | Musical Biopic | HBO Documentary Films
In this new biopic on HBO Frank Marshall takes on a mammoth task in charting the rise to fame and fortune of the legendary brothers Gibb. The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart shows how three guys from Manchester via the Isle of Man and Australia went from crooning popular ballads to the pulsating falsetto phenomenon that was Saturday Night Fever, as the ‘Kings of Disco’. The band were active for several decades generating one hit after another – over a thousand, including 20 No. One Hit singles – across a wide variety of genres.
In all started when brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb made up the trio taking over from The Beatles. The Bee Gees were Britain’s answer to the Osmonds and the Jackson 5, writing, harmonising and performing their own repertoire of songs and folksy ballads that included: Massachusetts, Words, and I’ve Just Gotta Get a Message to You. They had big hair and big teeth to match, and megawatt smiles.
A simple low budget disco hit of 1978 was the turning point of the ‘boys’ career. Masterminded by their producer Robert Stigwood and starring a snake hipped John Travolta, it captured the imagination of the New York press and set fire to a sizzling string of chart-topping, best-selling hits that had everyone jiving. Suddenly we were all rocking a Kevin Keegan haircut, and wincingly tight Satin trousers (the girls drawing the line at hairy chests). The Bee Gees music was percussive and dance-worthy but always deeply tuneful and their harmonies were made in heaven.
After a brief sashay through the 1960s and early 1970s, the film dedicates most of its running time to how band’s music achieved its famous sound after the producers arrived in the wake of the disco fever. We hear from Eric Clapton whose input proved vital in moving the brothers to America in the mid 1970s and whose band Cream was also managed by Stigwood. Stateside they discovered a revitalising vein of creativity. Producing gurus Karl Richardson, Arif Marden (Atlantic Records), and Albhy Galuten emerge as the major musical facilitators behind the scenes providing engaging insight, particularly for those unfamiliar with their talents, and that included the lesser known band member Blue Weaver.
Barry Gibb is now the sole survivor of the Bee Gees and provides a thoughtful spokesman for the family’s eventful trajectory. From his home in Miami he comes across as a sensitive soul seemingly unaffected by superstardom, and reflecting poignantly on a past touched by the bitter rivalry of his younger (twin) brothers Maurice and Robin. Another clan member in the shape of Andy enabled the band to generate teenage fans with his own material, but he sadly lost his battle with addiction at only 30 (in 1988).
Enriched by interviews and archive footage, the only missing element is the romantic counterpoint so familiar in musical biopics (where were the groupies, the wives and the lovers? only Maurice’s first wife Lulu appears in interviews). The only surviver Barry Gibb emerges a unexpected musical hero who is still musically active and was awarded a Knights Batchelor for his services to the industry in 2018.
Surprisingly The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart is the first feature length doc about the band. An intensely enjoyable experience the film contains some cracking musical performances, and there’s much to discover about the brothers’ tremendous output even before they sang one falsetto note in their disco days and beyond. An ideal collectors item, then – to be revisited time and time again for the sheer dynamism of this musical archive. MT
NOW ON SKY DOCUMENTARIES | 13 December 2020 | DVD and DIGITAL DOWNLOAD | 14 December 2020
Dir.: Minkie Spiro, Thomas Schlamme; Winona Ryder, Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan, John Turturro, Caleb Malis, Azhy Robertson, Anthony Boyle, Jacob Laval, Kristen Sieh, Eleanor Reissa, Michael Kostroff, Caroline Kaplan, Ben Cole, Graydon Josowitz); USA 2020, 360 min.
This ground breaking six-part HBO TV series is outstanding. Written by David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire) and based on Philip Roth’s 2004 alternative history novel of the same name, it shows how Fascism came to America in 1940. A brilliant cast, imposing re-creation by PDs Dina Goldman and Richard Hoover, who, like the directors Minkie Spiro (Jessica Jones) and Thomas Schlamme (Westwing) share the six episodes of this staggering production of alternative US history: “It Could Happen Here”.
Many will remember the theme tune “The Road is open Again”, an old Warner Brother’s short film score promoting Roosevelt’s New Deal episodes. This ushers in the Levin family in their home in Weequahic, Newark/New Jersey in the summer of 1940, a few months before the Presidential Election in the autumn of the year. ‘Its a done thing’, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt will be elected, at least for his staunch supports Hermann Levin (Spector), selling life insurance for a living, and his wife Bess (Kazan), who keeps the family tightly organised. Their oldest son, teenager Sandy (Malis) has a talent for drawing but disagrees with his father’s outlook on life, that only Jewish affairs matter. The youngest, Philip (born like the author in 1933), is much more interested in his friends than in politics. Hermann has just given up the idea of a promotion which would enable the family to move into a bigger house, having seen beer-slurping members of the Fascist “German-American Bund” in what would have been his new neighbourhood.
Opposing Roosevelt in the election is the pilot-hero “Lindy” Lindbergh (Ben Cole) of ‘Spirit of St. Louis’ fame, who is a believer in eugenics, a supporter of ‘America First’ and a vicious Anti-Semite. The real Lindbergh, who shared the political outlook of his fictional double, was not selected as candidate of the Republican Party. Lindbergh put a simple phrase forward and repeated it at nauseam: “This is between Lindbergh and War”, implying that President Roosevelt would ‘drag’ the USA into the European War. Lindbergh won in a landslide.
Meanwhile Bess’s sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder back and better than ever) is looking after their mother (Reissa), and has fallen for conservative Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (Turturro), an avid supporter of Lindbergh. A grateful president gives Bengelsdorf the leadership of the “Office of American Absorption”, a scheme designed to evict Jewish families from their homes on the East Coast, to the American “Heartland” of the South, where the KKK and other racist organisations hold sway supported by the authorities. This brings about another conflict between Sandy and his father, the teenager claiming to not having seen KKK members when he spent six weeks in Kentucky with a farmer. Cousin Alvin (Krumholtz) is a small-time gangster and clashes with Hermann, but gets the thumbs up from Sandy. Alvin finally flees to Canada, where he joins the Army, losing a part of his leg. In a bid to bury their differences Hermann invites Alvin (“family is family”) to live with them again.Alvin is able to gain the attention of his boss’s daughter, helping her father to fight off a gang robbing his arcade machines, and setting up a lucrative future and marriage, thanks to his skills as radar operator acquired in the in the war.
But Lindbergh has changed the political climate: with slogans such as “the USA will not be part of the war in Europe, because it was caused by Jews”, theJewish minority is victimised, Anti-Semitic attacks having become common. Hermann is hassled by FBI agents for offering a home to a ‘criminal’ like Alvin: the young man has contravened the American Neutrality Act which forbids any involvement in the War.
Philip is ‘introduced’ by his wealthy friend Earl Axman (Yosowitz) to the world of female underwear. Meanwhile the father of his friend Seldon (Laval), the Levin’s next door neighbour suddenly dies. Jews start to emigrate to Canada, including Hermann’s best friend Shepsie (Kostroff), the projectionist of the newsreel cinema in Weequahic, where the two watched Hitler’s rise in Europe. The Levins are now put on a list for a new “home”, Hermann has been “transferred” to Kentucky by his company. He resigns and works for a greengrocer. Bess insists on emigrating to Canada, after begging her sister Evelyn in vain to be taken off the list for the ‘exile’ in Kentucky. Seldon and his mother Selma (Sieh) are not so lucky, they have been put on the list for Kentucky, because Philip told his aunt Evelyn that he would miss Seldon, if only the Levins would have to move. One day, the troubles rising, Bess gets a phone call from Seldon: his mother is missing. Hermann and his two sons drive to Kentucky, only to learn that Selma has been burned alive in her car by the KKK. Even though the roads in the South are full of patrolling KKK members, Hermann brings Seldon ‘home’. Then, in the midst of a looming civil war in the country, President Lindbergh, flying his own plane, is reported missing.
There is so much to enjoy and admire in this series: Turturro’s operatic appeaser; Evelyn’s social climbing – she even dances with Nazi Foreign Secretary Joachim von Rippentrop at the White House during his visit; history unfolding as Hermann and Shepsie watch from the projection room at the cinema; the entire social dynamic of the Levin family.
Put at its simplest, The Plot Against America is an eye opener: the ‘America First’ and White Supremacist movement has always been virulent – but it takes a populist president to give them credence and light the fire. Never has history been so cleverly and affectively foretold. AS
Dir.: Lucas Moodysson; Cast: Vilhelm Blomgren, Mattias Silvell, Clara Christiansson Drake, Amy Deassismont, Nidhal Fares, Elisabet Carlsson; Sweden 2019, 120′.
This cinema version of four episodes of twelve-parter for Nordic HBO is a satirical look at modern life and its ups and downs. Written and directed by Swedish cult star Lucas Moodysson who describes it as “a mix of comedy and Dostoevsky” it explores the existential angst of Gösta, a rather insecure 28 year old child psychologist, who is always trying to prove to himself that he’s a better person than anybody else. His ideas collide with real life and real people, and the outcome is usually chaotic.
Gösta (Blomgren) has moved from Stockholm to rural Smaland (where Moodysson grew up), and lives in a rather dilapidated hut with an outdoor shower. He is sheltering Hussein (Fares) who is seeking asylum. But their modest abode soon becomes rather crowded: Gösta’s father (Silvell), a loafer, whose hippy days are long over, has been thrown out by his current girlfriend, and then there is Saga (Christiansson Drake), Gösta’s former patient, who at 18, is not eligible for his support any more. Gösta is always in competition with himself to be a goody-two-shoes, has invited her to live with him. Later a talentless but enthusiastic young composer, along with Gösta’s artist mother, will crowd the place even more. Hussein moves into the attic, unable to bear the noisy arguments any more.
Gösta’a main problem is his love life: girlfriend Melissa Deasismont) is so overwhelmed by his understanding nature (he is foremost a psychologist and not a human being), she keeps called off the relationship. Needless to say Gösta makes an understanding bedfellow, and when Melissa asks him to be harsher, he puts on two old socks. Then there is Lotta (Carlsson), his co-worker, who is so distraught Gösta ends up in bed with her to keep the peace – although he desperately wants to be faithful to Melissa. But when ‘Papa’ gets a huge German shepherd dog, even the patient Gösta protests.
For Gösta life is psychological journey undertaken with a series of apposite random quotes. But he is unable to help anybody – let alone himself, because he approaches every problem with a textbook. When asks one of his patients to spray can an offensive order on a wall, he reveals his own emotionally immaturity – his adjustment to life is regulated by what he has read and memorised. But he has no feeling for real love, people are just objects he wants to make happy – often make others miserable in the meantime.
DoP Ellinor Hallin has caught the world of this regressive crew in wonderful images, which show a deep nostalgia for the Sixties; and her close-ups are heart-breaking. With Gösta, Moodysson has created a human fossil, which feels uncomfortable in the contemporary, and whose pseudo-altruism is just a cover for indecision and cowardice, camouflaged as learned suffering. But he is only in love with the idea of love – not a real person. Entertaining and provocative. AS
LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | 2-13 OCTOBER 2019 | NORDIC HBO
Erik Nelson has unearthed a treasure trove of recently discovered colour footage shot in 1943 by Hollywood director William Wyler for his WWII classic The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944). The result is a quietly moving audio memoir of those surviving members of the Eighth Air Force who calmly talk us through their unique experiences transporting us back to the final years of the war. Set to Richard Thompson’s tuneful musical score the 16mm footage has the added advantage of being in colour, making it all the more extraordinary in its immediacy. Wyler risked life and limb to make his documentary, flying on more than 25 B-17 bombing missions during 1943, and one of the cameramen, Harold J. Tannenbaum, was actually shot down and killed over France. Surviving veterans take us back to the trauma with a calm dignity and pride. Clearly this was a daunting experience but they share their sense of excitement, even 75 years later. Many of them died serving their country, and in the Eighth Air Force the fatalities were particularly heavy, one man is driven to tears as he remembers losing a friend. Another recalls the mixed blessing of real eggs for breakfast -rather than the powdered variety. This usually meant they were in for a particularly perilous mission. But they never regretted killing the enemy, as one remembers “Never gave it a thought, they were just Germans….They’re gonna do it to us, we’re better off doing it to them first”. Fascinating stuff!. MT
ON RELEASE AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS on 4 July 2019