Downhill (2020)

It wasn’t nothing – at all. It was something. Pete Stanton (Will Ferrell) and his lawyer wife Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are holidaying in Ischgl, Austria with their young sons Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford) when a close call with an avalanche brings all the pre-existing tensions in their relationship to the fore after Pete runs with his mobile phone instead of ensuring his family’s safety. Publicly, Billie says it’s because Pete is mourning his father, dead eight months earlier. Their sexually forthright tour guide Lady Bobo (Miranda Otto) makes them uncomfortable but Billie starts to feel the seven year itch. Pete is in contact with his colleague Zach (Zach Woods) who’s on a whistlestop, country-a-day trip to Europe with girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao) and he invites them both to visit without informing Billie who promptly tells them about how he left the family in the lurch when he thought the avalanche was going to kill them. Then she has an assignation with a very forward ski instructor … Dad ran away. The American remake of Swedish filmmaker’s Ruben Ostlund’s fantastic 2014 black comedy Force Majeure is that rare thing – it works of itself, it’s subtle, funny, striking and just the right duration. If its sketchiness occasionally lacks the dark dynamism of the original and doesn’t capitalise on Ferrell in particular, it replaces it with some obvious sexual jokes but never loses the central conceit – the total failure of communications between two grown ups who cannot face the truth of their relationship. We’re in a stock image right now. Louis-Dreyfus’ outburst in front of Zach and Rosie is astonishing – and using the kids to back her up is a step even she eventually concedes is a bit de trop. Ferrell’s riposte – going apeshit in a nightclub off his head – doesn’t play the same but he’s a simpler, selfish beast. This is real battle of the sexes territory. The conclusion – when Billie tries to make Pete look good in front of their sons – suggests that this icy marriage might not even last to the end of the credits. Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash who co-wrote the screenplay with Jesse Armstrong. Every day is all we have

Pixie (2020)

She won’t just break you she’ll take a Kalashnikov to your heart. Sligo, Ireland. Wannabe photographer Pixie O’Brien (Olivia Cooke) uses her ex-boyfriends Fergus (Fra Fee) and Colin (Rory Fleck Byrne ) to stage an elaborate drug heist on gangster priests which winds up with the men of the cloth murdered, and Colin kills Fergus with a bullet to the head. Two smitten local boys Frank (Ben Hardy) and Harland (Daryl McCormack) join her on the run from the hit man Seamus (Ned Dennehy) her gangster stepfather (Colm Meaney) has set on them when they try to sell 15kg of MDMA back to the priest Father Hector McGrath (Alec Baldwin) who runs the drug scene on the west coast. It turns out Pixie has a very personal motivation beyond money – revenge for the death of her mother who was helped along by her psycho step brother Mickey (Turlough Convery) … These guns won’t shoot themselves. Father and son team Barnaby and Preston Thompson direct and write respectively and this road trip down Ireland’s west coast (rechristened the Wild Atlantic Way to attract tourists) is bloody and violent and very funny, played by a well cast ensemble who revel in the opportunity to get up to Tarntino-esque antics in a picturesque setting shot rather niftily by John de Borman. There are some zingers but they’re often let down by the sound which prioritises a crazily effective set of songs curated by David Holmes and punch lines get lost in the mix (which does not include any songs by Pixies …). Cooke is fantastic in what is likely her best role to date as the amoral (not manic) pixie dream girl but there is also effective characterisation by Meaney and Baldwin as well as her companions Hardy and McCormack whom she seduces into a homoerotic scene that definitely was not on their cards. It’s got references from all over the shop, it’s rackety and fun with a very spirited tone. Dylan Moran appears as a very nasty piece of work indeed. You’ll cheer when you see what Pixie does to him. Naturally there’s a shootout that features nuns with guns. A great bit of craic altogether. I’m sorry we didn’t fucking cover body disposal in our economics course

Life With Music (2020)

Aka Coda. People enjoy the show but really it’s the looming disaster that makes it special. Acclaimed pianist Henry Cole (Patrick Stewart) is suffering repeatedly from stage fright and his assistant Paul (Giancarlo Esposito) is having trouble keeping him psyched up for his performances. Henry is still grieving the tragic loss of his wife. Journalist Helen Morrison (Katie Holmes) wants to do a story on him and comes to his aid when he is beset by fellow journos following a show and then she travels to make sure he gets on stage. Their friendship grows incrementally but Henry is still preoccupied by the death of his wife who it turns out committed suicide. It becomes Helen;s inadvertent mission to bring Henry back to life … I even tried to be a pianist for a while until I realised how fragile piano playing is – especially in front of two thousand people. A seemingly simple story that has deep psychological tentacles with a beautiful soundtrack and wonderful landscapes as the narrative moves us from concert to concert, country to country. It’s anchored by Helen’s voiceover but at a certain point she is removed from the story and we are moved to wonder if her presence isn’t that of a ministering angel given the apparently chaste nature of this May-December romance. But, it’s all about the magazine piece she’s writing and these two characters end up belonging in two different if perhaps parallel places. Beethoven’s sonatas provide the commentary. Written by Louis Godbout and directed by Claude Lalonde. There is nothing arbitrary about what you do

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

I’m not in love with you any more. Ex-litigator Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) leaves his three gifted children in their adolescent years and winds up in prison for fraud then returns to them after they have grown, falsely claiming he has a terminal illness when he’s thrown out of the hotel whose bills he cannot meet. He insinuates himself back into the family home where his archaeologist wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) is dating accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). Maths whiz and business genius Chas (Ben Stiller) is a widower who survived the plane crash that killed his wife the previous year and moves his sons Ari (Grant Rosenmeyer) and Uzi (Jonah Meyerson) back to the family home convinced their apartment is too dangerous. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a depressive playwright who hasn’t had a play produced in seven years. She is married to older neurologist Raleigh St Clair (Bill Murray) who doesn’t know any of her secrets. Formerly successful tennis player Richie (Luke Wilson) is on a neverending world cruise following a disaster on court. When he realises he’s in love with Margot, his adopted sister he contacts their neighbour Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) a lecturer and popular novelist who himself starts romancing Margot but dabbles in drugs. Royal’s arrival coincides with each family member enduring a crisis that seems insurmountable and living together again brings things to a head …  This illness, this closeness to death… it’s had a profound affect on me. I feel like a different person, I really do. Flat symmetrical compositions with intricate production design and little camera movement. Ironic soundtracks. Blunt wit. At first glance Wes Anderson’s films might feel too contrived:  highly stylised yet with an inimitable tone, destined forever for the shelf labelled Quirk. This is reminiscent of Salinger with its NYC setting, big brownstones, a dysfunctional family full of supposed eccentrics and is openly influenced by Le feu follet and The Magnificent Ambersons. At first glance it’s rambling and lacking construction. But at the centre of it is a performance of paternal dysfunction by Gene Hackman that’s genuinely great – but even that appears to deflect from the roles played by his children.  They are a prism by which this deceitful man’s life is viewed. Hence the title.  It was written for him against his wishes, says Anderson. There is an undertow of sadness reflected by the repetition of Vince Guaraldi’s theme from TV’s Charlie Brown series (and what an extraordinary soundtrack underpins this bittersweet comic drama, with everyone from The Clash to Elliott Smith busy expressing those sentiments the characters refuse). It’s a determinedly literary experience with Alec Baldwin’s voiceover ensuring that even if we miss the beautiful Chapter Titles (because this is based on a non-existent book…) we are always anchored in a sprawling narrative with its endearing cast of characters. In truth these are people who are unsuccessful adults, mired in grief, lost in unrequited love (inspiring two suicide attempts), depression and psychological problems, constantly beset by memories of childhood achievements they cannot reproduce in the real world.  Faking it. It is a work of profound sadness and understanding. Just look at the pictures. Written by Anderson and Owen Wilson. I wish you’d’ve done this for me when I was a kid

A Man and a Woman (1966)


Aka Un homme et une femme. If I had to go through this again what would I do? Widowed script girl Anne Gauthier (Anouk Aimee) travels from her home in Paris to Deauville to visit her little girl Francoise (Souad Amidou) at boarding school in Deauville. She accepts a lift back with racing driver Jean-Louis Duroc who is a widower visiting his little boy Antoine (Antoine Sire). A friendship blossoms into romance but she can’t tell him her husband Pierre (Pierre Barouh) is dead and speaks of Pierre in the present tense, confusing their perceptions of each other. His wife Valerie (Valerie Lagrange) committed suicide when she saw him in a near-fatal accident and believed he died. But he survived. Now when he races in icy conditions on the Riviera in the Monte Carlo rally Anne watches the coverage on the radio (voiced by presenter Gerard Sire, father of Antoine) and sends him a telegram saying she loves him and he drives back north in his Mustang to see her  …  Why? Just your everyday story of a widowed script girl meeting cute with a widowed racing driver. From this slim premise evolved a glorious melodrama. Two of the most beautiful people to ever grace the earth in a romantic movie about movie-making and romance: this is how the Nouvelle Vague was repackaged and commercialised by writer/director Claude Lelouch and it was a cultural phenomenon in its day, a Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, an Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film and Original Screenplay as well as a huge box office success on both sides of the Atlantic. Shot quickly with just seven crew on a low budget, the flashy techniques were born of necessity. Different black and white film stocks were used until an American distributor contributed more money upfront enabling Lelouch to buy colour film. The old cameras used had to be covered in blankets to protect them from wintry damp – there was a lot of rain on those supposedly exotic resort locations: the antithesis of glamour. Yet did any actors ever wear sheepskin coats so well?! Trintignant was on board first and it was he who suggested Aimee as his co-star when Lelouch asked him who would be his ideal woman. They were old friends. When she closes her eyes during their scenes of radiant intimacy she paradoxically creates an even more empathetic heroine, this woman who can’t come to terms with her husband’s death.  This is always about how the mind works to permit people to fall in love in the aftermath of unspeakable tragedy. Danger underlines everything – these men who love Anne dally with it in their daily occupations. Hope is a little beyond her, the future unthinkable.  Isn’t death the ultimate subject of all art? The film’s conclusion was kept secret from Aimee:  that’s real surprise registering on her gravely luminous face. The score by Francis Lai is simply unforgettable. It was written before the production commenced and Lelouch used playback during the scenes to inspire the performers who where encouraged to improvise their dialogue. Lelouch said of working with Trintignant: I think Jean-Louis is the actor who taught me how to direct actors. We really brought each other a lot. He changed his method of acting while working with me, and I began to truly understand what directing actors was all about, working with him. I think the relationship between a director and actor is the same relationship as in a love story between two people. One cannot direct an actor if you do not love him or her. And he cannot be good if he or she does not love you in turn.  How astonishing has Trintignant been in the evolution of contemporary romantic dramas? Starting with And God Created Woman, A Man and A Woman, through Amour, he is the cornerstone of how we perceive the male psyche from the 1950s onwards. He will celebrate his 90th birthday December 2020. Co-written with Pierre Uytterhoeven. Not just a film, this is a landmark in cinema. If you ever find yourself in Deauville you can book into the suite named for the film at the Hotel Barriere Le Normandy. Some Sundays start well and end badly

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019)

I hope you know that you made today a very special day by just your being you. There’s no one in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are. 1990s New York. Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is an investigative journalist for Esquire magazine who receives an assignment to profile beloved children’s educational TV host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood . He approaches the interview with typical hard-nosed scepticism, as he finds it hard to believe that anyone can have such a good nature. But Roger’s empathy, kindness and decency chips away at Vogel’s jaded outlook on life. He’s happily married to Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) with a young baby but the encounter with this unique celebrity forces the reporter to reconcile with his painful past, starting with his sister’s wedding which is attended by the father Jerry (Chris Cooper) he utterly loathes and they have a violent fight ... I don’t eat anything that had a mother. The general truth about Tom Hanks is, he’s a saint (even with that early, uh, brush with a cocaine habit). And Rogers’ saintliness is put to the test in this construction. The overall effect is to render Hanks’ patented sincerity inauthentic. The melding of the real with toytown is creepy as … whatever you’re having yourself. Much of this rings false and frankly sinister. The point where Lloyd is miniaturised to enter the TV world is like a bad trip and cheap psychology as if Screenwriting 101 and Self-Help got scrambled in the manipulation blender.  You have to care about Lloyd’s problem to empathise with this concept. I didn’t.  Adapted from Tom Junod’s article Can You Say … Hero? by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harper. Directed by Marielle Heller. Anything mentionable is manageable

Ordinary Love (2019)

How do you say to someone, Don’t die? Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson) Thompson are a happy, long-married couple who enjoy a quiet life until she discovers a mass in her breast and makes an appointment to see a doctor who confirms she has a lump. When it is removed along with many lymph nodes she then proceeds to have chemotherapy. Her recovery is difficult and painful and she befriends the terminally ill teacher Peter (David Wilmot) of her late daughter. Her hair falls out, her temper frays and she and Tom have a major argument when she is at a low point and taunt each other.  They have a nice night together and make love before her double mastectomy. After Peter’s death they prepare for Christmas and decide to invite Peter’s boyfriend to join them … Putting sick people together:  how is that going to make anybody feel better? Even a marriage of kindness and vulnerability can hit a rocky patch. Facing up to a cancer diagnosis can bring out the worst in anyone, even briefly. Asking tough questions of a doctor when it’s not your illness makes you the rude guy; likening your bystander role to that of the person being mutilated and burned in operating theatres and treatment rooms makes you intolerable. For a while. This is also a story about bereavement and a Sixties Modernist house empty of personal touches because a child died, we’re not sure when. Even the goldfish dies. Death is contagious, it seems. And in the midst of that atmosphere somehow a marriage of true friends carries on, through hospital appointments, surgeries, horrific medical solutions and the deaths of other people in the ward. Manville and Neeson are tremendous in a subtle piece of writing by Owen McCafferty. Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn and filmed in Northern Ireland, with a score co-written by producer David Holmes.  A triumph of intimacy, in the best sense. You’d rather be worse than better

Midsommar (2019)

Midsommar

Welcome home. When her sister kills their parents in a murder-suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, psychology student Dani (Florence Pugh) tries to repair her relationship with cultural anthropology student Christian (Jack Reynor) who’s been trying to break up with her and is taking off to Sweden with classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren. He has invited Christian and their colleagues Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) for a traditional pagan festival held just once every 90 years. Dani decides to guilt trip Christian into asking her along. When they get there they are disoriented by the permanent daylight, drugged, separated from one another and gradually start to disappear, leaving just Dani to be made May Queen and Christian to perform a very special service… All of our oracles are deliberate products of inbreeding. Writer/director Ari (Hereditary) Aster was offered the opportunity to do a Swedish slasher film but chose to make this instead, a variation on The Wicker Man but with a gang of stupid students instead of one innocent policeman, succumbing to the lure of ancient rituals which are just a cover for sex, incest and murder. As in all horror movies, when people go missing nobody thinks of going for help or contacting the police. They hang around until they are murdered and disembowelled, their body parts reassembled with flowers stuck in their eye sockets. Pugh holds it together in yet another unflattering wardrobe (will someone please dress her properly in one of her films?!); while Reynor is the dumb selfish schmuck ignoring all rational ideas in favour of writing up a thesis. Undoubtedly stylish, this is pretentious and absurdly overlong at 140 minutes and an exploitation film in all but name if the nudists crowing over a copulating couple of ginger mingers are anything to go by. If this doesn’t put you off group activities, religion or Scandinavians, nothing will. I can see you possibly doing that

The Beach Bum (2019)

The Beach Bum

He may be a jerk, but he’s a great man. Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) is a fun-loving, pot-smoking, beer-drinking writer who lives life on his own terms in Key West, Florida. Luckily, his wealthy wife Minnie (Isla Fisher) loves him for exactly those qualities. She lives further up the coast in Miami and cavorts about with Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) courtesy of their open marriage. Following his daughter Heather’s (Stefania LaVie Owen) wedding, a tragic accident brings unexpected changes to Moondog’s relaxed lifestyle. Suddenly, putting his literary talent to good use and finishing his next great book is a more pressing matter than he would have liked it to be and he embarks upon a life-changing quest, encountering all kinds of freaks en route including a dolphin tour guide Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence), a sociopathic roomie Flicker (Zac Efron) in rehab and Southern friend and good ol’ boy Lewis (Jonah Hill) I gotta go low to get high. An extraordinary looking piece of auteur work from Harmony Korine, courtesy of the inventive and beautiful shooting of cinematographer Benoît Debie, this is a nod to McConaughey’s arch stoner credentials and the persona he established back in Dazed and Confused. And what about this for an example of his poetry:  Look down at my penis./ Knowing it was inside you twice today/Makes me feel beautiful.  He is convinced the world is conspiring to make him happy no matter what happens. There’s little plot to speak of once the main action is established in the first thirty minutes but what unspools is so genial and unforced and funny that you can’t help but wish you were part of the woozy hedonistic bonhomie. Jimmy Buffett appears as … Jimmy Buffett in a film that’s so Zen it’s horizontal. Bliss. We can do anything we want or nothing at all

Road to Perdition (2002)

Road to Perdition

Where would this town be without Mr John Rooney? In 1931 Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hitman and enforcer for Irish-American mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) in the Rock Island area. His son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) hides in the car one night after the wake for one of Rooney’s henchmen and sees his Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) administer a shot in the head to the dead man’s brother Finn (Ciarán Hinds) who talked too much at the event; while he understands for the first time what his father does for a living when he witnesses the bloodshed. Rooney sends Connor to kill Michael and the boy but Connor instead kills his wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and other son Peter (Liam Aiken) in cold blood and Michael goes on the run with Michael Jr in an attempt to gain revenge for his family’s murder. He finds that he has no friends and no protection and is advised by Mafia man Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to give up. He reckons without a freelance corpse photographer Maguire (Jude Law) following him and thinks that by uncovering Connor’s theft that Rooney will accept him as the son he never had … A man of honour always pays his debts and keeps his word. I like this far better now that years have passed, Newman is gone and what I originally thought of as directorial heavy-handedness is more readily recognisable as a comfort with the excessive expressionistic qualities of the source material. Hanks’ doughy face with its deep-set eyes seems peculiarly unsuited for this kind of role but paradoxically lends the performance an unexpected quality. His six-week road trip with his son gives him an opportunity to impart lessons and learn about the boy for the first time. He makes us know that Michael Jr is not to follow him into this deadly business. His scenes with Newman are marvellous – a kind of trading off in acting styles, one legend passing on lessons to the next, borne out in the storytelling. What Michael doesn’t know is that blood means more than sympathy, no matter the horrors involved in being part of the Rooney family. Of course Connor would betray his father;  and of course his father knows. It’s a hard thing to watch Michael learn the truth. Loyalty sucks. This is a gallery of masculine roles – Craig as the ever-smiling psychotic son, Law as the rotten-toothed shooter masquerading as the photographer of death – a correlative of the film’s own morbidity; Hoechlin as the boy learning at his father’s elbow as the guns go off. Hinds impresses in those early scenes, quietly seething then mouthing off at his brother’s wake, a crime which will  not go unpunished. Dylan Baker’s accountant Alexander Rance has a decidedly old-fashioned homosexual taint of prissiness. This is a linear story of fathers and sons, cause and effect, crime, punishment and revenge in an Oedipal setting dictated by the rules of inevitability that can be traced to Greek tragedy. There are no surprises but the pleasures of the production design by Dennis Gassner, the cinematography by Conrad Hall (who earned a posthumous Academy Award) and the performances make this worth a re-viewing. Screenplay by David Self from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers