Bel Canto (2018)

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How did you sing like that? Acclaimed American soprano Roxane Coss (Moore) travels to an unnamed South American country to give a private concert at the birthday party of rich Japanese industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe) who’s allegedly building a factory in the vicinity. Just as an élite gathering of local dignitaries convenes at Vice-President Ruben Ochoa’s mansion, including French Ambassador Simon Thibault (Christopher Lambert) and his wife (Elsa Zylberstein), Hosokawa’s faithful translator Gen Watanabe (Ryo Kase), and Russian trade delegate Fyorodov (Olek Krupa), the house is taken over by guerrillas led by Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta) who believe the President is in attendance (he’s at home watching TV) demanding the release of their imprisoned comrades. Their only contact with the outside world is through Red Cross negotiator Joachim Messner (Sebastian Koch). A month-long standoff ensues in which hostages and captors must overcome their differences and find their shared humanity and hope in the face of impending disaster. Roxanne and Katsumi consummate their rapidly escalating love for each other while Gen falls for rebel Carmen (Maria Mercedes Coroy) as the military gather outside the building … He is always moved by your music. Adapted from Ann Patchett’s novel by director Paul Weitz and Anthony Weintraub, this might be another instance of be careful when tackling literary fiction:  three mentions of telenovelas remind us that when you strip out the elevated language sometimes what you’re left with is a soap opera. And how unlikely much of this is, these people holed up in this nice residence, all getting along in this unreal idyll, even having sex, you just wonder where the butler is hiding the silver salver with the stacks of Ferrero Rocher and why it never occurs to anyone to escape not even when they’re wandering about that lovely tree-filled garden. Nonetheless Moore and Watanabe are both splendid and the underlying message that music is that other universal language is well made in this fantasy take on Stockholm Syndrome before it concludes in the inevitable bloodbath. What are the takeaways? Don’t adapt posh novels, stay out of South America where the natives are always revolting and for goodness’ sake don’t sleep with your kidnapper – or your biggest fan. It never ends well. Moore lip syncs to Renée Fleming.  Are you sure they won’t shoot you? Not everbody likes opera

Happy 58th Birthday Meg Ryan 19th November 2019!

Happy birthday to the extraordinary Meg Ryan. She spent a decade and a half at the top of her game – not only was she America’s romcom queen, she had impact in serious dramatic roles, bookending that period with Flesh and Bone and then the heavy hitting twofer of In The Cut and On the Ropes, some of the best female screen performances of the past few decades. In between she was Nora Ephron’s muse and Tom Hanks’ best romantic partner – but mostly she was Sally. And isn’t that enough for one career?  She’s been producing for years and is now directing but wouldn’t it be nice to see her toplining a movie again? What a glorious run and what a great American woman. Many happy returns.

Happy 75th Birthday Danny DeVito 17th November 2019!

That pocket-sized dynamo Danny DeVito turns 75 years old today. He first became properly famous with TV comedy Taxi as loudmouth Louis but in fact had been plugging away for several years, making short films, appearing in his great friend Michael Douglas’ production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and then reuniting for the brilliant comedy action adventure Romancing the Stone and its sequel. As a director he turned his comic shtick into an unexpected and rather demented and nasty signature with Throw Momma From the Train and The War of the Roses. Latterly he made a rather brilliant version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda:  he found an ingenious way to turn those words into pictures and understands children perfectly. We could say that as a director he is a master of black comedy.  He is a legendary Penguin in the macabre Batman Returns for Tim Burton for whom he made a recent reappearance in Disney’s live action Dumbo and he continues to be a TV presence in the beloved It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as well as maintaining screen couplings with real-life wife Rhea Perlman. That core of anger can materialise in fantastically complex characterisations such as he essayed in LA Confidential. Paradoxically his greatest aesthetic achievement as director is also his greatest commercial failure, Hoffa, starring himself and Jack Nicholson, an astounding look at the corruption besetting America, in a collaboration with David Mamet, a part of history recently revisited by Martin Scorsese with The Irishman. He’s always at hand to lend his voice to animations, environmental spots and appear in music videos and we can look forward to his re-teaming with Arnold Schwarzenwegger in the sequel to TwinsTriplets, which will of course co-star Eddie Murphy. Hilarious, constantly surprising and always a joy, Mr DeVito, we salute you on your day of days!

The Sentinel (1977)

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I find that New Yorkers have no sense for anything but sex and money. Troubled New York City model Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) decides to make some changes in her life. She breaks up with her boyfriend Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) and after being advised by realtor Miss Logan (Ava Gardner) of an apartment in Brooklyn Heights moves into a brownstone with a great view of the city where the only other tenant is a withdrawn blind priest Father Halliran (John Carradine). Then she meets another neighbour Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) who invites her to his delightfully devilish cat’s birthday party and encounters there a lot of other neighbours not supposed to be in residence. After experiencing several strange occurrences she informs the slippery Michael who works with NYC police detectives Gatz (Eli Wallach) and Rizzo (Christopher Walken) to uncover the origins of these people.  Alison begins to realise why the holy man is there – the building has an evil presence that must be kept in check at all costs and it’s somebody else’s turn to keep the devils out ... It’s all right. Listen, listen. I know everything now. The Latin you saw in that book was an ancient warning from the angel Gabriel to the angel Uriel. Personally I always thought my old apartment was the gateway to Hell but that’s another story. All I can say is I wasn’t expecting Gerde’s (Sylvia Miles) galpal Sandra (Beverly D’Angelo) to masturbate fully clothed in front of her houseguest while awaiting afternoon tea. Not exactly good etiquette. Some Lesbians do ‘ave ’em, eh?! There’s a birthday party for a cat (hip hip hooray!), crazed Catholics,  demons, induced suicides – just your usual sociocultural cross-section in a city apartment block, all helpfully revealed by creepy Perry (William Hickey) who says, I just open doors. This is filled with those lovely women that seemed to be everywhere at a certain point in the late Seventies/early Eighties – Raffin, Raines, Miles and the stunning Gardner and it effectively rips off all the Satanic horrors to date, from Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist under the guise of property porn. And there’s Arthur Kennedy as Monsignor Franchino, an unholy priest and Jerry Orbach as a horrible director. And look out for Jeff Goldblum while even Richard Dreyfuss shows up on the sidewalk. SighNutty, derivative, terrible and horrible, a travesty, an insult to the God-fearing, a twist ending you could see coming – I couldn’t take my eyes off it. And no matter what, I am never asking Ava Gardner to be my realtor. Peak Seventies cult. Fabulous. Adapted from his novel by Jeffrey Konvitz with director Michael Winner. All killers, all dead. She went to a party with eight dead murderers

Damascus Cover (2017)

 

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When missions go bad, there’s only one rule – protect your partner.  Following the murder of his colleague in Damascus by Syrian Secret Police Chief Sarraj (Navid Negahban) Israeli agent Ari Ben-Sion aka Hans Hoffman (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is deployed to Syria by his overseer Miki (John Hurt) to exfiltrate a spy and his family and runs into American photographer Kim (Olivia Thirlby) with whom he becomes involved before realising she is part of a much bigger plot and the real target of his mission is an entirely different individual in deep cover but hiding in plain sight … It’s a real maze. Adapted by director Daniel Zelik Berk and Samantha Newton from Howard Kaplan’s 1977 bestseller this is updated to 1989, the year of revolutions, so that the action happens in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall (although they’re not exactly celebrating Christmas here). The characterisation is undercooked and the storytelling is a little clunky – you feel that Hans/Ari should have figured out a lot quicker that something bigger is going on than his purported task. It’s the textural matters that are more interesting – the maze-like construction of a city where Jews are only permitted to leave their quarter one at a time, where streets lead you to dead ends like a rat; the depicting of the secret police under the original Assad; the post-war Nazis doing business in an Islamic haven (the role of Moslems in the Holocaust has yet to be dramatised); the issue of identity in a region where anti-semitism is writ large: when Ari enters Syria he is asked, Have you ever visited Occupied Palestine? He is already displaced in Israel after moving from Germany as a child and is suffering the bereavement any father would following the breakdown of his marriage in the wake of the death of his young son (although we don’t know how that happened, there are several shots of children at play as well as his haunting nightmares about the boy).  He doesn’t exhibit true emotion until he’s engaged with Kim who herself has issues with being distanced from her young son and who has a father whose actions for his Syrian overlords has resulted in his death.  She appears to be repaying a debt to the intelligence service, willingly or not. Berk is the former talent agent who introduced John Travolta to Quentin Tarantino for which we are all truly grateful and this has a slick look and a trim running time. It’s beautifully shot by Chloë Thomson.  Despite the welcome complexities in Ari and his mistakes, and the issue of Syria versus Israel, it doesn’t plumb the resonant depths of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the echo casting of John Hurt in the perfunctory but dramatically significant role of Miki has a sorrowfulness because it is that great actor’s final part. It is fitting therefore that he should have the last word in the film’s signing off, Goodbye my friend

Happy 85th Birthday Ronald Harwood 9th November 2019!

Birthday greetings to that prolific and gifted playwright and screenwriter Ronald Harwood whose interest in the stage and World War 2 as well as the wider political world has gifted us with such profound work over the past six decades. A brilliant adapter of other people’s work also, his majestic achievement with The Pianist reminds us that he always gets to the heart of the matter. Happy birthday Mr Harwood!

Happy 84th Birthday Alain Delon 8th November 2019!

That glorious icon of French cinema Alain Delon celebrates his 84th year. Still working today, few actors have the run of stone-cold classics that decorated his career from his earliest days on the silver screen:  Plein Soleil, Rocco and his Brothers, The Leopard, L’Eclisse, Le Samouraï, La piscine, Monsieur Klein. His grave beauty, his chill reserve, his resonant voice, his movement, all contribute to an inimitable cool that has seen him work with all the great European auteurs and co-star in Hollywood films then return to France, ever-popular, starring in a lot of popular cop films, some comedies and romances, enjoying lengthy collaborations particularly with Jacques Deray, turning his hand to directing some crime thrillers (with Robin Davis) and teaming up now and again with old pal Jean-Paul Belmondo, whom he worked with on his first film. The callow enigma he has essayed in several roles was complicated when news of his underworld activities became rumour and then news in the late Sixties, an air of danger now seemingly permanently affecting his cinematic career, dominated by those gangster roles which had their echo in his offscreen life, but as he always says,  film is only a quarter of his business interests. Always fascinating, ever handsome and with great reserves of charm and mystery, this extraordinary actor is one of the greats. Joyeux anniversaire, M. Delon! Et merci.

Happy 80th Birthday John Cleese 27th October 2019!

And now for something completely different. The multi-talented man born John Cheese celebrates 80 years on the planet today. Fresh from Cambridge Footlights he started to work with the greatest generation of comics Britain has produced, and soon became a household name on BBC TV writing and performing sketches, later gaining infamy with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and then becoming legend with Fawlty Towers. With the Python crew he made hilarious and occasionally controversial big-screen comedies and then wrote and (co-)directed himself in A Fish Called Wanda. He’s a regular in Hollywood productions – doing comic bits, TV appearances, voicing animated characters, becoming part of the James Bond and Harry Potter franchises – and reunited with the Pythons on stage to pay his latest alimony bills. Absurdly talented, extremely funny and very, very tall, it’s time to pay homage to a genius of British comedy. Happy birthday John Cleese!

Fay Spain Born 6th October 1932

One of the original cool cult girls from Fifties exploitationers was born on this day 87 years ago. Despite an early screen test opposite James Garner after which she was deemed unphotogenic, Fay Spain made her debut on TV’s You Bet Your Life hosted by Groucho Marx and had a lengthy career. She had roles in high profile films like God’s Little Acre and Al Capone. She worked with Monte Hellman and Jack Nicholson in the Sixties and did a lot of TV work outside the B-movie genre. Her final appearance on the big screen was for Francis Coppola in The Godfather Part II where she played Hyman Roth’s wife. She died far too young, aged just 50, in 1983.

Happy 96th Birthday Glynis Johns 5th October 2019!

The daughter of Welsh actor Mervyn Johns with whom she appeared in Halfway House, Glynis Johns came into her own in the mid-Forties and then did some wonderful historical films for Disney in the next decade as she moved to the US. Interspersed with gritty dramatic roles and a lot of TV she did great work in The Chapman Report. For some she will always be Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins, for others the delightful mermaid Miranda, for even more perhaps she is the great guest villain Lady Penelope Peasoup in TV’s Batman but for me she will always be Mary Katherine Gallagher’s Grandma in Superstar. And then there’s the little matter of her work with Sondheim. Whatever, the glorious Girl With the Upside-Down Eyes celebrates her 96th year among us. We are blessed. Happy birthday!