Cinema Retro was invited to the special preview screening
of the new documentary film My Generation, which is to be screened with a
Q&A with narrator Sir Michael Caine in selected cinemas throughout the UK on
March 14th 2018.
Lt. Gonville Bromhead, Harry Palmer, Jack
Carter, Charlie Croker and simply Alfie: these key names in British cinemaall have one thing in common- they all share
the iconic characteristics of one man and, bar Carter, all come from the latter
part of the era that defined him as one of the
“Faces” of the 60s, Sir Michael Caine. From A-Z, Alfie to Zulu, this is an
actor whose roles literally cover all the bases when it comes to memorable 60s cinema,
although, as Caine himself points out, “The 60s didn’t really end till 1971” so
that being the release date of Get Carter, we’ll happily include it in that
iconic “role call”.
There’s no better star to take us through a
documentary of what made the 60s the 60s than Caine. This is the era that
defined him and he knows all the other people who could easily have fronted
such an undertaking, many of whom feature in revealing conversations with the
once Maurice Micklewhite. Incidentally, he famously changed his name to Caine
after speaking to his agent from a phone box in Piccadilly and when asked for a
stage name, saw a sign for The Caine Mutiny starring his favourite actor Humphrey
Bogart and the rest is history- just like the documentary itself. “It’s a good
job I didn’t look up the other way” he says “As I don’t think Michael 101
Dalmatians has the same ring to it”.
The colleagues and friends I referred to whose
stories bring many of the still photographs of the time to life include David
Bailey, Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithfull, Roger Daltrey, Sandi Shaw, Donovan,
Penelope Tree and Terry O’Neill to name just a few. The title of the film, once
vocalized so memorably by Daltrey when he fronted The Who, now takes on a
greater meaning; one of reflection rather than the youthful disdain it once did
when Daltrey sang “Hope I die before I get old”. The lyric took on a different
meaning to me after seeing this documentary. I’d always wondered if its writer,
Pete Townshend, had ever regretted singing it so often, especially when he got
into his sixties, but now I see it very differently. The fact that the talking
heads aren’t seen as they are now in 2018 but simply vocalize images of their
younger selves is a master stroke by director David Batty. The wiser words of
hindsight of those featured stars, looking back at themselves as well as the
era as a whole, gives the piece genuine pathos. What I gleaned from this is
that fact that they may have aged but none of them really did get old. There’s
still a fire and a sense of amusement as they divulge their stories over the
footage of their younger selves. They now look upon this time and its seismic
changes with the same wonder and disbelief as the viewer does in 2018. As Caine
himself re iterates “The 60s was and is a mindset, not just a number”.
Michael Caine was and is the face of 1996
rather than just 1966 to me. This is because he was seen by this next
generation of “lads” as the ultimate symbol of Cool Britannia, the granddaddy
of hip. His face adorned just as many magazines as it had 30 years earlier and
the reason for that is that these pictures, like the decade they were taken
from, were seen as iconic; the time when Britain was the epicenter of fashion,
film and music. Simon Fuller, the man behind the Spice Girls in those Cool
Britannia days, kept pushing the idea of this documentary film to Caine. It
took three years to complete due to Caine’s still incredibly busy acting
There were so many fine films released last year that it's difficult to call any clear cut favorite for the Oscars. Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water" seems to have the momentum, but one should not underestimate "Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri", a British film that perfectly captures the look and feel of a small town American community. Like Guillermo's movie, "Billboards" presents a superlative role for a mature actress, this time in the form of Frances McDormand, who gives the performance of her career as Mildred, a no-nonsense independent woman who has recently divorced her philandering husband, who is carrying on with an air-headed beauty young enough to be his daughter. Mildred is trying to juggle her threadbare financial existence by working in a charity shop and scrounging to put food on the table for her teenage son. However, she is obsessed with a family tragedy that permeates every moment of her day. We learn that she had another teenage child, a daughter, who was killed seven months ago when she was accosted on a remote road, raped and horribly murdered. When we first meet Mildred, she is all-to-apparently carrying the weight of that incident on her broad shoulders and she is obsessed with finding her daughter's killer. She's fed up with what she feels is lack of progress on the part of local police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who she suspects has let the case go cold. Willoughby maintains he and his small department are doing all they can but there are few clues to follow up on. Mildred decides to take drastic, if unorthodox, action by renting out three billboards that sit abandoned on a road rarely traveled by locals since a highway rendered it superfluous. She puts up insulting messages to the chief in the hope it might shame him into being more assertive in solving the case. The tactic unleashes a backlash of bad will in her direction. Willoughby is a popular figure in the town and any sympathy Mildred's tragic situation has elicited from her neighbors vanishes overnight. She becomes the object of everyone's anger and she can find solace only among a couple of loyal friends. Her main antagonist is Dixon (Sam Rockwell), one of Willoughby's deputies. He's an uncouth hard ass who is determined to defend the department's honor by taking on Mildred personally through harassment and insults. The end result is to bring the simmering tensions to a boil in a spectacular, if misguided, act of violence on the part of Mildred.
I don't want to divulge too much more about the plot because the main strength of writer/director Martin McDonagh's screenplay is its sheer unpredictability. Every time you think you know where the plot is heading, McDonagh takes you in a different direction. Friends become enemies, enemies become allies. McDormand is a cinematic force of nature in the leading role. She's not entirely sympathetic, as she uses her barbed-wire wit to attack friend and foe alike. We later learn there is an additional emotional burden on her that can never be resolved: she feels a sense of personal responsibility for her daughter's fate. Refreshingly, the three main characters are not presented as stereotypes. If Mildred is the protagonist we are rooting for, she is also a flawed human being who seems at times to be devoid of any feeling of rapprochement even when Willoughby offers her every imaginable olive branch. He's a decent man with his own family and he's also carrying his own secret burden. Dixon, however, is initially presented as a bumbling Deputy Barney Fife-like character but with a sadistic streak. The interactions between these characters make for some fascinating scenarios that are brought to life by three actors who give the performances of their careers. (McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell are all up for Oscars.) The film is also peppered with some truly remarkable performances by a supporting cast that seems cherry-picked to perfection. Among them is Peter Dinklage, who provides some much-needed humanity and gentleness.
I don't know how Three Billboards will fare at the Oscars, but it's my choice for Best Picture. Martin McDonagh has provided us with a highly original and compelling work (and it has a great soundtrack, too).
The year 2017 was a particularly gratifying one in terms of watching a virtual tidal wave of impressive young talent emerge both on screen and behind the cameras. It was also a year in which the major studios finally afforded a good number of talented females plum leading roles. The one constant, however, is that while the major studios became even more obsessed with tentpole franchise films based on comic book characters, it fell to the smaller, more creative independent films to remind us of just how wondrous cinema can still be. Case in point: "Lady Bird", which has received numerous major Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress. If you think the movie is the biography of President Lyndon Johnson's wife, known affectionately by one and all as "Lady Bird", you're in for a rude awakening. The film marks the directorial debut of 34 year-old actress/writer Greta Gerwig, and she has come through with flying colors. The film is a bittersweet comedy/drama set in the early 2000s and centering on Christina McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a senior in a Catholic high school who dreams of grand achievements that include leaving her hometown of Sacramento, California and heading east to the Big Apple where she wants to attend college and begin making her mark on society. She is fiercely independent, self-confidant (a bit too self-confidant), highly intelligent and in possession of a sarcastic wit that all too often strays into the realm of outright cynicism. So desperate is Christina to establish her own unique identity that she insists upon being called "Lady Bird", although the name doesn't seem to have any significant meaning beyond Christina thinking it has some sort of profound impact.
When we first meet Lady Bird, she is grappling with the challenges that senior year presents to most kids her age. She is eager to move into adulthood but not quite as well-equipped to do so as she might imagine. She's likeable, funny but also somewhat narcissistic. She is trying unsuccessfully to cope with the fractious relationship she has with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), a hardworking nurse who often seems tone deaf to her daughter's dreams and ambitions. At a time when a teenager's quests in life are usually encouraged by their family, Lady Bird gets a daily dose of reality tossed in her face. Her mother eschews her plans to apply to notable universities on the east coast, reminding her that they are literally living on the other side of the tracks from most of Lady Bird's more affluent friends. Indeed, the family is barely clinging to vestiges of the lower middle class. Lady Bird has a hands-off relationship with her brother (Jordan Rodrigues) and his girlfriend (Marielle Scott), who was invited to live with the family when she fell on hard times. Both indulge in the goth look that would make them seem at home in the Addams Family mansion. It puts a chasm between them and Lady Bird, who argues often with them and her mother. The only respite or sympathy she finds in the household is from her adoring dad, Larry (wonderfully portrayed by acclaimed playwright Tracy Letts). They share a gentle, humorous relationship that masks over the fact that he's got a world of trouble of his own, having just been fired from his job. (In one of the film's most disturbing scenes, the ever-desperate Larry goes on a long-shot job interview only to find himself competing with his own son). However, the core of the film focuses on the mother/daughter relationship and captures it in a way most mothers and daughters can relate to. They are both fundamentally decent people who care for and love each other but neither is particularly open to seeing life from the other's viewpoint. They spend most of their time caught up in emotionally-shattering debates and verbal duels. Lady Bird needs her dreams to be nurtured. Her mom understandably wants some recognition that she is working herself to death just to keep a roof over everyone's heads. At school, Lady Bird finds more frustrations. Her school adviser seems immune to reading her desires for higher education. Her frumpy but sweet girlfriend Jule (a marvelous Beanie Feldstein) is someone who has already thrown in the towel in terms of achieving her life's ambitions. Lady Bird angles for a good role in the senior class stage musical but finds nothing but irritants. She's determined to have sex before she graduates but her hunky first boyfriend turns out to be too good to be true. She latches on to a creepy intellectual (Timothee Chalamet, an Oscar nominee this year for "Call Me By Your Name") and ends up losing her virginity on the basis of his deception.
Greta Gerwig's script and direction are pitch perfect. One assumes the only logical reason that the film is set in the early 2000s is because that's when she attended high school. If that's the inspirational motive for the setting, fine with me. It allows us to revisit the last time period in which people still conversed with one another instead of gazed endlessly into a cell phone. Gerwig also gets a star-making performance from Saoirse Ronan, who won acclaim for her performance in "Brooklyn" a few years ago. However, it is this role at the tender age of 23 that stands to make her a major player in the film industry. She is matched by Laurie Metcalf, who has justifiably snared a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Even the minor roles are wonderful enacted. The film bristles with domestic tensions but ends on a beautiful and poignant note. "Lady Bird" is a film by women and about women, but it's appeal extends to anyone who appreciates great movie making.