Knight of Cups (2015)

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For optimal sound reproduction the producers of this film recommend that you play it loud. Screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) tries to make sense of life in Hollywood. We follow him on an odyssey through Los Angeles and Las Vegas as he undertakes a series of adventures with colorful figures, identified by eight tarot cards, with Rick as the Knight of Cups who sleeps with a half dozen women, leaves his own wife and impregnates another man’s…  Or as I like to call it, another episode in an occasional series known as When Good Auteurs Go Bad. See also:  Phantom Thread. Terrence Malick disappeared up his own fundament a while back:  if anyone thought To the Wonder was anything other than nonsense then they never saw real art house films.  This latest version of Hollywood Eats Itself functions as allegory:  of what, we don’t know, because it’s unnecessary.  All those years of living the life of someone I didn’t even know These movies have been around almost as long as Hollywood itself – but this is the experimental version. Cate Blanchett is Judgment, Natalie Portman is Death, Antonio Banderas is the Hermit, Brian Dennehy is the Hanged Man, and oh, for goodness’ sake, it looks wonderful. There are situations that almost approach coherence, particularly in the (only developed?) scenes with Portman;  an excursion to that simulacrum of plasticity in the desert, Vegas, in the company of a stripper; and the apartment burglary when the thieves bemoan Rick’s lack of possessions. Rick is haunted by the death of his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) who brings him on a tour of LA’s homeless. There are some insights amid the dissociative witterings and fragmentary musings and overheard bites of conversation inspired by The Pilgrim’s Progess but for the most part you won’t believe your ears as Christian’s character thinks he’s Christ wandering through his midlife crisis. Pity the actors, who had no script. Peter Mathiessen tells Rick that a man living in a cave eating nettles doesn’t concern himself with this sort of thing. Those desert monks had a point. This was in an edit suite for two years. After a cold compress go watch Sunset Blvd. Or 8 1/2. Whatever happened to visionary filmmaker Terrence Malick? We are too media-savvy not to understand the metaphors. We know that not all narratives are ordered or complete. But it’s a filmmaker’s job to get us at least some of the way there. And why squander the talents of these marvellous actors?  Presumably their best work wound up on the cutting room floor, as is Malick’s wont. Just to, you know, show them. As Forster would counsel, Only connect.  Woulda coulda shoulda. Begin

 

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On Chesil Beach (2017)

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We’re not two old queers living in secret on Beaumont Street. We’re man and wife!  It’s 1962.  New graduates historian Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and musician Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are nervously about to consummate their marriage in a seaside hotel in Dorset.  The waiters bring a roast dinner to their suite and make fun of them, practically sniffing the virginity in the ether. As the couple prepare to disrobe and attempt foreplay they recall the moments that brought them to this situation:  his chaotic home where his headmaster father (Adrian Scarborough) has to deal with a brain injured wife (Ann Marie Duff) and two twin girls;  her engineering company owner father (Samuel West) and academic mother (Emily Watson) who are on the one hand consumed with matters of class and on the other distracted, the wife looking down on her husband rather! Edward and Florence recall their first meeting at Oxford, when he had nobody to tell about his first in History from UCL and she’s the stranger at the CND gathering who lets him know she got a First too, but in music;  when she walked seven miles from the train to meet him at the cricket club where he works; when she got his mother to paint a ‘forgery’ of her favourite painter, Uccello. The memories come rushing in as she lies on the bed issuing instructions and he fumbles and then she rejects him and rushes to the beach … Ian McEwan’s novella was never going to be simple to adapt.  Part of its bittersweet sting lies in the acute choice of words which cannot be replicated on screen.  It’s a romance lacking in passion and the flashback structure literally interrupts the non-coitus. The suggestion that Florence has endured abuse at the hands of her nasty father on a boating trip is skilfully and subtly worked into the story but still doesn’t fully explain her frigidity. (The tennis match she observes between Edward and her father clues us in a little more.)  Her disgust at the contents of a sex manual suggests that of a child not a grown woman and isn’t sufficiently elaborated considering the company she and her family keep (her mother is a friend of Iris Murdoch) and her deep emotionality performing music in a quartet is surely not that of someone who doesn’t understand desire. The book does something extraordinary in demonstrating in just a few pages how Edward’s life pans out and it is utterly devastating, elaborating directly how this single night has sabotaged his life. This melancholy adaptation works on some levels:  for one,  the production design whose attention to period detail gives us an innate sense of the era’s propriety and indicators of class and behaviour.  There are brave performances too:  Ann Marie Duff spends half of hers topless, brain damaged from being hit by a train door on the local platform;  Ronan and Howle do very well in suggesting the naivete that seemingly plagued newlyweds of the era. In essence the relationship fails because of Edward’s pride and Florence’s prejudice and it’s hard to dramatise although his taste in music (jazz, rock and roll) versus hers (strictly classical) sums it up – together however they lack erotic obsession or straightforward lust and this tentative attempt flounders for the same reason as their wedding night:  nobody just goes for it and Florence just won’t shut up. But unsatisfying as this is there’s a porno shot you won’t forget in a hurry. Adapted by McEwan and directed by Dominic Cooke.

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

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Talk about something cool, like food or clothes or Joan Didion!  Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) goes nuts at her friend’s wedding to which she hasn’t been invited and pepper sprays her.  Thing is, the bride isn’t her friend, she’s someone Ingrid follows on Instagram.  It lands her in a mental hospital. She idolises social media star and Instagram ‘influencer’ Taylor Sloane  (Elizabeth Olsen) to the point that she reckons all those ‘likes’ constitute an invitation to her to ingratiate herself with the LA-based narcissist and moves there with money her late mom has bequeathed and promptly kidnaps the woman’s dog so she can claim the reward and ‘friend’ her in real life. Taylor’s husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is a technophobic artist whose work Taylor gushes over but he seems nice underneath all the boho-chic So-Cal lifestyle. Ingrid makes his only sale. Ingrid’s neighbour Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a wannabe screenwriter obsessed with Batman whom she seduces in order to smooth her way socially with Taylor’s gang. Everything seems to go swimmingly until Taylor’s druggie brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) turns up and figures out Ingrid’s game.  He blackmails her and she has to come up with a superhero-inspired solution to his threat to reveal her stalking to his sister  …  Co-written by David Branson Smith with director Matt Spicer, which makes me ponder once again why it is that sometimes men are better than women at exploiting the vagaries of female friendship (read:  rivalry) even if it winds up in a rather violent and cataclysmic denouement – with a twist. Well Ingrid is mentally ill, after all and Nicky knows she has Single White Femaled Taylor. This is smart and funny and topical and gets under your skin about what it is to be popular and the nature of contemporary life while retaining a caustic perspective. Performed with gusto by the principals and produced by the unstoppable Plaza who totally gets why reality is being subverted and image is everything. (Maybe that’s why she has 1.6 million followers on Instagram.) This is what happens when your followers actually follow you. Message:  don’t live on your phone, there’s more to life than avocado and, as we are all branding our lives now, society is experiencing an existential crisis. Sheesh …

She Played With Fire (1957)

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Aka Fortune is a Woman.  I don’t suppose she’ll stay a widow very long.  Insurance detective Oliver Branwell (Jack Hawkins) uncovers a shifty art dealer’s ingenious scheme but is unable to do anything about it because the crook Tracey Moreton (Dennis Price) has married the investigator’s ex-girlfriend Sarah (Arlene Dahl) and he fears that she may be involved. The detective’s dilemma continues until the dealer gets careless one day and Branwell wonders if Sarah has anything to do with a series of arson attacks when he starts being blackmailed …  With a screenplay by director Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder and Val Valentine, working from a novel by Winston (Poldark) Graham, a splendid cast (including Greta Gynt, Bernard Miles, Ian Hunter and Christopher Lee!) and a great setting, you know you’re in for a good if complex noirish melodrama. Why let a little fraud get in the way of romance? Would you believe the preternaturally beautiful Arlene Dahl capable of murder? She’d been quite naughty in the previous year’s colour noir Slightly Scarlet, so you never know. Watch and wait … with a terrific score by William Alwyn.

Let the Sunshine In (2017)

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Aka Un Beau Soleil Intérieur.  Live what you have to live.  Divorced fiftysomething artist and mother Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) navigates a series of unsatisfying relationships with men during a week when her daughter is staying with her ex-husband François (Laurent Grévill) and afterwards, following a brief sojourn at an art exposition in the Lot.  She discusses her relationships with a female friend (Sandrine Dumas) who brags about her own happiness and a male friend Fabrice (Bruno Podalydès) who cautions her to stick with someone from her milieu. She finally consults a psychic (Gerard Depardieu) to see whom she will end up with …  The film opens on a graphic sex scene which certainly perked up my cats. Watching a beautiful woman have a horrible experience with a nasty old fat banker (Xavier Beauvois) is not an edifying experience. You are charming. But my wife is extraordinary, he declares.  Her response to his rudeness in a bar is to be super nice to everyone she encounters in the service industry. She is squirming when she feels compelled to ask her new gallerist Maxime (Josiane Balasko) if it’s true what the banker told her – that she’d had a relationship with Isabelle’s ex-husband. Then she has a one-night stand with an unpleasant actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) with whom she’s considering doing a project – she’s in love, he regrets it. She dances to At Last with Sylvain (Paul Blain) a strange guy in the Lot and sleeps with her ex who tries out a porno move. He appears to be using their daughter as a weapon and keeps the keys to the apartment so he can come and go as he pleases. We are stunned to learn that she is convinced she loves the weirdo from the Lot and another uncomfortable conversation occurs. She is unhappy and cries a lot and pleads with men to stay with her. She produces little art. She wants to be in love but is needy and demanding, but unlike all women deploying their feminine guiles to reel them in, the men are using this older woman and she is getting nothing back. This film by Claire Denis is constructed on the slimmest of threads – what does a woman of a certain age want when the men she attracts are so horrifying? (And why is she wearing thigh-high hooker boots?)  If she’s such a great artist why don’t we see any of her paintings? That’s not the point, of course.  Supposedly adapted by Denis and Christine Angot from Roland Barthes’ 1977 A Lover’s Discourse, this attempts to penetrate the female psyche but what are we to say when Isabelle herself winds up consulting a fortune teller? Only Freud claimed to know what women want but we know he was a fraud. The final twist is that we enter the fortune teller’s storyline before he meets Isabelle. Out of nowhere the narrative is disrupted. Binoche is extraordinary but the psychodrama is as unsatisfying and fascinating as the men are unpromising. Such, alas, is life for women who will of course never be emotionally satisfied by one or any man.  All talk and no trousers, this is also about all the talk about the talking and the not talking. It positions itself as an awkward comedy of manners but plays like a horribly relatable documentary about how awful it is to be female.  Hey, she slept with three men in a week.  C’est la vie, malheuruesement. Customarily rigorous cinematography by Agnès Godard. Open.

Woman on the Run (1950)

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It’s no use honey once they’re gone, they’re gone.  When he witnesses a gangland murder whilst out walking his dog at night in San Francisco, artist Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) goes on the run to avoid being killed himself. His wife, Eleanor (Ann Sheridan) seems almost apathetic about finding him when questioned by police detective Harris (Robert Keith), due to their marital problems. However, after learning from his doctor that Frank has a grave heart condition, Eleanor teams up with persistent reporter Dan Leggett (Dennis O’Keefe) to help track down her husband with only a cryptic letter to go on. She tries to evade the police’s surveillance team and in the course of her search she finds she has new love for Frank but is unaware that the killer may be closer than she knows… Fantastically nifty and smart post-war noir, with wonderful location shooting (Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, the Art Gallery, Telegraph Hill) and a gripping performance by the leading lady who delivers great barbs and has a grabby sidekick in the scene-stealing Rembrandt the dog.  Sylvia Tate’s short story was adapted by Alan Campbell and director Norman Foster (an associate of Orson Welles), with a dialogue assist by Ross Hunter and its sharpness immeasurably assists a pacy genre entry. The impressive roller coaster finale was shot at Santa Monica Pier. Underrated

Their Finest (2016)

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Why do you think that people like films? It’s because stories are structured; have a shape, a purpose, a meaning; and when things gone bad they’re still a part of a plan; there’s a point to them. Unlike life. In 1940 London former secretary and comic strip writer Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired by the Ministry of Information to insert more realistic female banter in propaganda films. She’s shacked up with failing war artist Ellis Cole (Jack Huston) who becomes jealous of her job while he can’t get an exhibition of his work. She starts working on a story from the newspapers about identical twin sisters who supposedly rescued soldiers at Dunkirk but discovers it was exaggerated. While she is struggling with the screenplay she falls for screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and rows with self-centred actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) whose career is basically at an end.  All the while the German bombs rain down on London and they’ve got to use an American war hero (Jake Lacy) who’s never acted before , turning journalistic fiction into a movie to entertain the masses and get America into the war … There’s a great idea buried here under a mound of rubble caused by the German bombs. Gaby Chiappe’s adaptation of Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half can’t decide whether it’s a comedy or a drama and at its heart is an issue of research – and the lack of it. There are some good insights into the kind of wartime propaganda inserted into films of the era and nice pastiches but they’re overly obvious. The second (major) death is quite laughable which is presumably not what was intended. Rachael Stirling offers some terrific oppositional feminism as Phyl from the Minstry and Nighy steals every scene as the actor who turns out to be human after all. Jeremy Irons enjoys himself as the Secretary of War.  Another somewhat tentative tragicomic British film from Danish director Lone Scherfig (after An Education and One Day) with Arterton more or less delightful in a performance which attempts depth but drops the Welsh accent PDQ and Nighy gives his best Leslie Howard, sort of.  Harmless and inoffensive irony which I suppose is a kind of propaganda in itself.

The Square (2017)

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The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.  Christian (Claes Bang) the curator of a Swedish museum hires a PR team to create hype for a challenging new exhibition with explosive results after he responds with a poorly thought-out social media post when his smartphone is stolen … Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, this part-satire, part-horror utilises its international cast well in what is an overlong and episodic narrative:  Elisabeth Moss plays Anne, the journalist who winds up having a complicated one-night stand with Christian; while Dominic West essays a PJ-clad parody of Julian Schnabel; and Terry Notary is Oleg, after Oleg Kulik, a performance artist who reputedly acted like a dog and attacked people at an exhibition in Stockholm (Notary does an ape impression here). Bang is terrific in quite a complex and contradictory role in which all his pretensions are challenged. There is a dinner party from hell which is a film in and of itself.  This is a largely successful tract using issues of class, race, sex and society in a witty treatise on what could be summed up in two words:  culture shock. Like most modern art, better seen and experienced than read about. Winner of the 2017 Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Hereditary (2018)

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All I do is worry and slave and defend you, and all I get back is that fucking face on your face! Miniaturist artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) lives with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and their strange looking 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Charlie Shapiro). At the funeral of her mother, Ellen, Annie’s eulogy explains their fraught relationship. When Steve is informed that the grave has been desecrated, he keeps it secret, while Annie thinks she sees Ellen in her workshop. At a bereavement support group she reveals that, growing up, the rest of her family including Ellen suffered from mental illness. Daughter Charlie, who likes decapitating birds, sees Ellen, to whom she was especially close, several times.  Ellen’s miniatures reveal that Ellen wanted to breastfeed the girl herself.  Following a terrible accident and another family death Ellen’s difficult relationship with Peter is revealed. She is approached by support group member Joan (Ann Dowd) who persuades her to join her in trying to contact lost loved ones. When Annie attempts to do so at the house she unleashes powerful forces which she knows signify a malign connection only she can stop but her husband just thinks she’s mentally ill …  Ari Aster’s debut feature as writer/director has given Toni Collette a return to the genre that made her world famous nineteen years ago in The Sixth Sense. That was another film about failing families and strange relations and her art works have a prophetic and odd quality which pervades the film itself using the family home as a kind of dollhouse where female power is entrapped.  (Feel free to add your own theatrical metaphor).  Collette doesn’t have all the operatic colours in her performance one is led to expect (although her weird trousers assist in her levitating) considering the importance attached to Greek mythology. At its heart this is about the mother from hell, trying to protect her family from terrible self-knowledge. It could have gone in another more troubling direction. Things are left unsaid, and that’s a good confident script, but it also means certain elements are simply not clarified:  is Steve a psychiatrist? Why is Charlie’s disfigurement not mentioned?  The trail towards the mystery’s solution is cleverly laid even if it’s a particularly slow burn. This is a film which has a split identity:  on the one hand it’s a maternal melo or psychodrama, crossing generations;  on the other it’s a horror homage owing a very large debt to Rosemary’s Baby in particular and therein lieth a problem for this viewer at least. When I finally figured out the plot hook – which actually made me laugh but also made me remember to always trust my prejudices – once the quiet stuff ended about 90 minutes in, I took umbrage at the slight at Roman Polanski which is tasteless if oblique, considering the weight one attaches to certain rumours spread about him in the wake of his wife’s murder. Meta? Yes. Clever? Not especially. But the admonition to Get Out obviously calls up another satirical family horror. This one doesn’t have that film’s sociopolitical critique but it does remind us that true horror resides right there in your family if you look hard enough. Right inside the dollhouse.

Odd Man Out (1947)

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If you get back to your friends, you’ll tell ’em I helped you. Me, Gin Jimmy. But if the police get you, you won’t mention my name, huh?  Johnny McQueen (James Mason) has been in hiding in Kathleen Sullivan’s (Kathleen Ryan) home for the past six months since his escape from prison. He’s the leader of a political group (the Organisation, code for the IRA) that needs funds although his compatriots think he’s not up to the task:  he believes negotiating with the other side might get them further than attacking them.  Nonetheless he takes part in a raid on a bank but it goes wrong and he’s shot as he kills a cashier. Pat (Cyril Cusack) drives off before Johnny can get into the getaway car and the gang are the subject of a manhunt while Johnny is left to struggle on his own relying on help from passing strangers …  R.C. Sheriff adapted F.L. Green’s novel and while it’s not named, this is clearly set in Belfast. Mason is rivetting as the terrorist who’s experiencing his delirious last long night of the soul in a film that is equal parts documentary and pretentious psychological thriller, with wonderfully atmospheric canted angles and shadows from Robert Krasker’s cinematography. The supporting players are largely drawn from the ranks of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre – including Robert Beatty, W.G. Fay, Joseph Tomelty, Noel Purcell, Eddie Byrne and Dan O’Herlihy. Albert Sharpe (presumably fresh off Finian’s Rainbow on Broadway, where he made his fortune) plays a bus conductor. Robert Newton impresses as the wild philosophising artist painting Johnny. While some exteriors were shot in Belfast it would appear a great many scenes were done in London including a reproduction of the famous Crown Bar, which was actually a set at D&P Studios. A powerful and gripping drama, this remains one of the great British films, an unconventional, potent and poetic treatise on compromise, brutality, daring and death centering on a passive protagonist around whom much of the plot revolves. Out of the ordinary. Directed by Carol Reed. MM #1800.