Still: A Michael J Fox Movie (15) ****
Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (18) ***
Book Club: The Next Chapter (12A) **
The new documentary Still: A Michael J Fox Movie opens in uncanny fashion with the Back to the Future star recounting the moment his Parkinson’s disease first manifested itself. After a bender in Florida, aged 29, he wakes up hungover, unsure of what happened the night before, but all too aware that his pinky appears to be moving independently of his body. Director Davis Guggenheim puts us right there in the moment with woozy camera work, a body double and flash cuts to scenes from various Michael J Fox movies to maintain the time-travelling illusion. As Fox pulls the covers back over his head, his voice-over tells us “the trembling was a message from the future” and in the very next shot we see him pull the covers off again, only this time we’re suddenly in the present day, watching Fox as he is now, carefully getting himself out of bed and shakily attending to his morning routine – three decades traversed in an instant.
Though it sounds tricksy, Guggenheim’s approach is a valid way of immersing us in Fox’s story. The extreme fame he experienced in his 20s wasn’t real to him; it was a bubble, a dream, a movie, so it makes sense to see his past presented this way. The movie clips are also a great reminder of his physicality on screen. He was always in motion, something echoed off-screen too, not least during the insane production schedule he had to commit to in order to make Back to the Future while fulfilling his shooting commitments to Family Ties, the US sitcom that made him a star. But if his life felt like a dream, Parkinson’s was the reality that, he says, shook him awake. And the simple shock of seeing him fall over on the street as he acknowledges a fan is a rude awakening for us too.
The film is at its rawest and most profound in the contemporary interview scenes. Fox’s natural inclination is to joke around, yet in downplaying his pain, we also get an insight into how he negotiated Parkinson’s in the early years of his diagnosis: masking his symptoms on screen, necking pills to get through scenes and escaping from himself and his family by drowning in work and alcohol until his wife, Tracey Pollan, made him see what he was doing to himself and he turned things around. It’s a remarkable portrait of a remarkable life.
Part seminar, part video essay, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power finds filmmaker Nina Menkes examining the shot designs of dozens of movies to bring attention to the way the male gaze has adversely affected the history of cinema, gender relations, employment practices and the normalisation of sexual harassment and assault. It’s a provocative thesis, backed up with some real-world examples that demonstrate the correlation between female objectification on screen and the lack of opportunities for women (an interview with Rosanna Arquette is particularly enraging). But while there’s doubtless some crossover in the way audiences are subconsciously trained from a young age to objectify women, Menkes frequently undercuts her own arguments by eschewing context and treating all movies as equal offenders simply because the visual grammar of the filmmaking she’s exploring is so pervasive.
It’s one thing, for instance, to draw attention to the way Martin Scorsese's shot design in Raging Bull objectifies and silences Cathy Moriarty’s character when she’s first introduced in the film, but it’s another to blame it for creating a culture in which male executives don’t listen to female filmmakers pitching projects, which is quite the leap, especially when Menkes hasn’t bothered to consider why the scene is designed this way in the first place. She similarly cherry-picks voyeuristic scenes from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread to illustrate vague points without acknowledging how male/female power dynamics are specifically interrogated and reversed in that film. More surprisingly, she’s quick to hurl Sofia Coppola, Katherine Bigelow, Julia Ducournau and Patty Jenkins under the bus for appropriating what she sees as specifically male modes of filmmaking. When it comes to presenting examples of more progressive shot designs, however, she doesn’t deem the work of the numerous female filmmakers she interviews worthy enough for inclusion, preferring to cite her own somewhat obscure films instead. As a basic film studies primer, Brainwashed has some value, but combatting one form of myopia with another isn’t the most helpful way forward.
Then again, mainstream cinema’s lack of interest in female characters is perhaps the reason we get movies like Book Club: The Next Chapter, a depressingly limp, that’ll-do-style sequel to 2018’s already condescending showcase for Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen and Candice Bergen. The first film cast them as a group of lifelong friends whose book club reading of 50 Shades of Grey propelled them on a quest to reignite their sex lives. The new one uses Paolo Coehlo’s The Alchemist as a springboard for taking control of their own destinies post lockdown by finally making a long-delayed trip to Italy. Fonda’s character Vivian’s impending nuptials to long-lost love Arthur (Don Johnson) is the excuse they use, treating it as a bachelorette party, something the film uses to crowbar in lots of very lame gags and comic misunderstandings that mostly fall flat because director Bill Holderman constructs scenes like an old-school sitcom awaiting a laugh track. There are occasional moments when the cast transcend the material, but they deserve better. So do we.
Still: A Michael J Fox Movie is on select release in cinemas and streaming on AppleTV+ from 12 May; Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power and Bookclub: The Next Chapter are in cinemas from 12 May.