Let Them All Talk

Meryl Streep in spectacles



Meryl Streep, Candice Bergman and Dianne Wiest star in Let Them All Talk and even before it’s started the names alone seem to suggest two possible outcomes.

It’s either going to be an American version of one of those British Dame Dramas, in which various theatrical Maggies or Judis are arranged fragrantly and tastefully, with the odd “fuck” thrown in to show the noble ladies are still down to earth.

Or it’s going to be a female version of one of those Four Old Dudes Go to Vegas comedies, in which the once hip gracefully accept they’re now in the hip-replacement demographic, with the odd “fuck” thrown, possibly of the physical sort, just to show the guys have still got some sort of it.

Streep plays the grand dame writer Alice Hughes, heading across the ocean on a liner even grander than herself, the Queen Mary 2, a modern Cunard ship of the old school, accompanied by two old friends from university days, Roberta (Bergen) and Susan (Wiest), her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) and her agent, Karen (Gemma Chan).

It’s not quite as easy as that though. The crossing is paid for by the publisher, hoping that Alice’s current book is going to be a sequel to a monster seller, though Alice is keeping her cards very close to her chest on that front and these days rather favours difficult, challenging work, which doesn’t sell. Karen is on board entirely unbeknown to Alice, more as a spy than an agent, especially once she starts connecting with nephew Tyler on the downlow, who can’t believe his luck, him being a bit dweebie and all. And the friends – who in fact have barely seen each other in decades – aren’t entirely sure why they’ve been invited, especially Roberta, who has an ancient beef with Alice.

Add to that a mystery man who is regularly glimpsed leaving Alice’s suite in the morning and the presence of another author on board, a massively popular Robert Ludlum type (Dan Algrant), and the bones of a farce start to appear, with aspects of both the British Dame Drama and the Four Old Dudes comedy.

Note to self: if you ever for some reason are invited to take a trip on an ocean-going liner, please buy some new clothes before you go. There is opulence and quite a lot of formality on display here. Director Steven Soderbergh shot the bulk of the film on board the actual Queen Mary 2, some guerrilla style, some carefully staged, the paying passengers acting as extras and adding ocean-going authenticity.

A jaunty thriller, Agatha Christie meets Woody Allen in his Manhattan Murder Mystery years, is the result, with most of the characters play-acting a version of themselves while pursuing their own hidden agenda, particularly Bergen’s Roberta and Chan’s Karen, though everyone is at it to some extent, except for Algrant’s Kelvin Kranz, the writer of whodunit mysteries really the only straight shooter on board.

Diane Wiest and Candice Bergen
Diane Wiest and Candice Bergen



The needle between Roberta and Alice – when is that iceberg going to be struck? – is enough to keep the whole thing afloat while we watch exquisite technicians at work. Not just the actors but also Soderbergh, who gives everything that high Soderbergh sheen, Ocean’s 11 style, on an actual ocean, with the chill-lounge soundtrack adding plump luxuriousness. The camerawork and editing (both also Soderbergh, using pseudonyms) – little drop-in sequences of life on board a vast liner – also open up what could just as easily have been staged in a couple of rooms, and would translate fairly easily to the theatre.

Wiest comes into her own more as things go on but is mostly there as a sounding board for Bergen’s bitter Roberta, and as a buffer between the two other women, Bergen unfazed by Streep as a character and as an actor. Lovely to watch, particularly as everyone is improvising their lines as they go. Chan and Hedges must have been sweating bullets against this formidable threesome, but they’re both excellent in tricky roles that demand finesse and downstage playing.

It’s an examination of friendship, blah blah, in the way that all artistic product has to be something deeper than it appears on the surface. But in fact the joy of Let Them All Talk isn’t to be found in any “deep” meaning at all. That’s all left in the realm of the speculative.

In the same way that a Swiss watch, or an ocean-going liner is entirely unnecessary, there is no real need for this film to exist, though it is at the same time a stately example of precision craftsmanship of the highest order.




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The Devil Wears Prada

Women in black: Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt

 

The sort of film that has an inbuilt media audience – women’s magazines – who will receive it with the same lack of scrutiny as they treat each launch of a new beauty product, The Devil Wears Prada is a clever title halfway towards being a clever film. It’s adapted by Aline Brosh McKenna from Lauren Weisberger’s chick-lit novel, and since Weisberger’s spent some time working at American Vogue as editor Anna Wintour’s assistant we don’t have to look too far for its inspiration. Anne Hathaway plays the simpering Weisberger avatar, an intern/newbie at a fashion magazine not unadjacent to Vogue. And Meryl Streep is also clearly styled on the fashion bible’s redoubtable editor, who isn’t nicknamed “Nuclear” Wintour for nothing, a woman whose helmet-haired pronouncements make and break careers both inside the magazine and out in the big designer-y world.

So far, so frightening. Getting the best of it is Emily Blunt, playing the posh English cow who guards the boss (and her own job) like a hound at the gates of hell. Stanley Tucci, meanwhile, puts in another of those amazingly camp performance he seems to be able to pull out of nowhere and provides an otherwise slightly absent beating heart as the magazine’s fashion stylist. The plot? Hathaway cowed, gulled, at bay, crossing fashionista swords with Blunt, shrinking in awe at Streep’s every utterance, consoled by Tucci, rinse and repeat. There’s more meat on a supermodel, but – as with the fashion world – what is on offer looks tasty enough. Structured like a fashion mag, it’s a case of one page of substance followed by ten pages of name-dropping, product placement and status-shaming. In the old-media world these are called advertisements. However, as readers of fashion magazines will tell you, the advertisements are every bit as much part of the experience as the editorial. And in among all this glossy stuff is a nub of something delicious, a drama that teases us about which way it’s going to go. Is this Cinderella (Hathaway blossoming and going to the ball)? Or a slo-mo Faust (Hathaway selling her soul for a gaudy bauble)? Not quite sharp or angry enough to be a satire, it’s clearly aimed at people who know their Jimmy Choo from their Dolce and Gabbana (yes, that’s an easy one) and don’t, unlike me, tend to buy their clothes on eBay.

 

The Devil Wears Prada – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

Adaptation.

Nicolas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

21 February

 

 

The New Yorker launches, 1925

On this day in 1925, The New Yorker magazine was launched by Harold Ross and Jane Grant. Intended as a cosmopolitan magazine for the urban sophisticate – and those who aspired so to be – it started out as a broadly humorous publication, though quickly shifted its focus towards quality fiction and long-form journalism, though its cartoons have remained a key feature. Unafraid to be thought of as intelligent, educated and interested in a magazine world that largely pretends to the opposite, it could take its pick of a certain type of writer – Hannah Arendt wrote her long-form piece on the trial of Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker, James Thurber contributed cartoons, Salinger, Nabokov and Hemingway sent in short stories.

 

 

 

Adaptation (2002, dir: Spike Jonze)

Adapted from a piece for The New Yorker by Susan Orlean called The Orchid Thief, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s film takes a distinctly New Yorker approach – intelligent and entertaining – to tell the story of… what exactly? At one level it is Orlean’s story, of a thief (Chris Cooper) so driven by his thirst for the rare exotic plant that he’ll pay anything, go anywhere, even kill to get hold of what he wants. On another level it’s the story of writer Charlie Kaufman struggling to adapt the New Yorker piece he has read into the film we are watching. And sitting side-by-side with that story we have Charlie’s brother, Donald, also a writer, but a pen-for-hire keen to bolt together a Hollywood blockbuster by following the screenwriting edicts of Robert McKee (played as a stiletto to the McKee system by Brian Cox). Both Kaufmans are played by Nicolas Cage and in real life Kaufman doesn’t have a brother called Donald, so we can kind of guess that Charlie is pulling a “two sides of the same coin” number here – sure he writes for pleasure, but he also wants to get paid. There is more plot than this, notably featuring Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean – with whom fictional Charlie has developed an obsession – plus John Cusack and Catherine Keener as themselves, sort of. The whole thing takes that reality/fiction/actor/character shtick worked so well by Jonze and Kaufman in Being John Malkovich (in which JM played a version of himself) about two levels further. It’s a virtuoso plate-spinning exercise, with Cage admirably suited by virtue of his independently swivelling eyes to play a man who is losing sleep, weight and neurons trying to work out where to go next. Personally, I don’t think Kaufman (the screenwriter) quite manages to extract himself (the character) from the tangle he eventually winds up in, though plenty think the ridiculous, funny guns-ablazing finale to the film is entirely appropriate. Robert McKee would probably love it.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Surely the Charlie Kaufman film par excellence
  • One in the eye for auteur theorists
  • Donald Kaufman gets a screen credit, even though he doesn’t exist
  • Look out for an uncredited John Malkovich

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Adaptation – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Prime

Bryan Greenberg and Uma Thurman in Prime

 

 

Uma Thurman’s had a strange career. In between wondrous hits like Baron Munchausen, Dangerous Liaisons, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill there have been total duds like… where do we start?… The Truth About Cats and Dogs, The Avengers and Be Cool, to pick just three from many. Prime falls definitely into the latter camp. It’s a toyboy rom-com with Uma Thurman (37) falling for Bryan Greenberg (23) and confiding all the bedroom secrets (“his penis is so beautiful, I just want to knit it a hat”) to her therapist, who unbeknown to Uma is the younger man’s mother. Writer/director is Ben Younger who was responsible for the intense money-man drama Boiler Room and is way off his turf here. I can imagine a pitch meeting where the very notion of an older woman and a younger man has come up and been found so amazingly exciting by all concerned that no one has actually gone away and done any work on the characters (“What’s this older woman like?” “Whaddya mean ‘like?’ – she’s older. Older.”) Same with the plot, which runs thus: there’s a scene in which Uma’s age becomes an issue, then a scene in which Greenberg’s youth does, then they put their differences aside, then there’s a scene with the therapist, repeat till closing credits (almost). The therapist-who-is-also-the-parent is played by Meryl Streep and if you’ve ever wanted to see an actress’s forehead semaphoring “Help, I’ve signed up for a dog”, this is the place to see it. Still, it is a lovely advert for Uma, who must have been spitting kittens that she was playing a character older than she actually is (about 34 when this was made). But she compensates with a succession of “I’m still hot” outfits.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Prime – at Amazon

 

 

Five Films about Margaret Thatcher

Andrea Riseborough as young Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley

 

 

Margaret Thatcher, Mrs T, The Iron Lady, is dead. 31 years ago she was the most unpopular UK Prime Minister in history. Then, after winning the Falklands War she was re-elected in 1983. She was elected again in 1987 before being defenestrated by her party in 1990, a defeat she never quite came to terms with. Politically she was deeply divisive but on one point everyone is agreed – she recast British politics, and to a certain extent global politics, with her doctrine of open markets, privatisation, financial deregulation and tax cuts. Thatcher made the world we live in now. To some she was the greatest prime minister who ever lived, to others a devil in a blue dress. Here are five films either about her or in which she featured prominently.

 

 

Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley (2008, dir: Niall MacCormick)

The breakthrough for the astonishingly versatile Andrea Riseborough who plays young Margaret Thatcher, a woman determined to make it in a man’s world. The decision to show Mrs T (even before she was Mrs T, in fact) as a plucky striver – is a brilliant one. Regardless of politics we’re on Thatcher’s side as a grim cavalcade of awful chauvinists, misogynists and old duffers spend ten years knocking our heroine back as a prospective parliamentary candidate. For those who think Meryl Streep is great as Mrs T, watch Riseborough do something similarly brilliant.

The Long Walk to Finchley – at Amazon

 

The Iron Lady (2011, dir: Phyllida Lloyd)

The amazing Meryl Streep plays Baroness Thatcher in old age, looking back through a haze of dementia at the handbagging Mrs T in her prime. It’s a tender portrait of a human being that has little to say about Mrs Thatcher as a political beast, or of the era she lived through. Best scene: Mrs T is haranguing Alexander Haig, President Reagan’s Secretary of State, for trying to talk her out of the invasion of the Falklands. Having torn him off a strip, she jumps up and says, “Now, shall I be mother?” Bewilderment from Al Haig. “… Tea, Al, how do you like it, black or white?” Beautiful observed, and Meryl Streep’s comic timing is exquisite.

The Iron Lady – at Amazon

 

The Hunt for Tony Blair (2011, dir: Peter Richardson)

Stephen Mangan plays fugitive prime minister Tony Blair in a cod 1950s detective thriller from UK jokesters The Comic Strip. Dropped by all his political allies because of his increasingly unhinged behaviour and now a murderer on the run, Blair takes refuge with Baroness Thatcher (Jennifer Saunders), who now lives in Norma Desmond delusional obscurity with her manservant, Tebbit (John Sessions). Between them Sessions and Saunders manage to squeeze some of the better laughs out of a script that is as stop-go as the UK economy.

Not available at Amazon – not yet

 

Elizabeth (1998, dir: Shekhar Kapur)

The film is about Queen Elizabeth I of England, but Cate Blanchett plays her very much as an iron lady of four centuries later, the voice swooping low, the eyes blazing with fire, all intransigence and feminine wile (when it suits her). It says something about Margaret Thatcher that she’s become a resource, an archive reference for actresses to go to when reaching out for something tough, possibly something unholy. Imelda Staunton did something similar in 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, playing Ministry of Magic apparatchik Dolores Umbridge as at least 50 per cent Mrs T. How that would have made the former prime minister’s blood boil – being presented as a bureaucrat, I mean.

Elizabeth – at Amazon

 

Margaret (2009, dir: James Kent)

A “last days of Thatcher” drama starring Lindsay Duncan as the prime minister hemmed in on all sides, not quite grasping that it is the party that made her leader, not the electorate, and that those who live by the sword are expected, when the time comes, to fall on it. And it is this failure to self-immolate that Richard Cottan’s screenplay is about. Duncan presents what is probably the iciest and most furious of the many portrayals of Thatcher, but then it was widely believed, by friend and foe alike, that by 1990 the country’s first female prime minister had slightly lost the plot. Incidentally, John Sessions turns up as Cabinet minister Geoffrey Howe. He played former Conservative party leader Edward Heath in The Iron Lady and minister Norman Tebbit in The Hunt for Tony Blair.

Margaret – at Amazon

 

 

Noble mentions: Lesley Manville in The Queen (2009), Anna Massey in Pinochet in Suburbia (2006), Patricia Hodge in The Falklands Play (2002), Steve Nallon as Thatcher’s voice in the Spitting Image TV series, Angela Thorne in Anyone for Denis? (1982). Highly effective Thatchers one and all.