Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth

Could you do without me? Northern England 1865.  Newly sold into marriage to an older man, rich industrialist Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton), Katherine (Florence Pugh) finds herself confined to the house and starved of companionship. Her husband can’t or won’t have sex with her but makes her strip and masturbates while she faces a wall. Forced to spend her days in endless tedium, dining with his bullying father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), when her husband is called away to one of his collieries she starts to spend more time with maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and begins a passionate and fiery relationship with a young groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) from the estate, beginning a conflict that will end in violence. Following her husband’s demise at her hands and after hiding his body, a surprise arrives on her doorstep in the form of her husband’s illegitimate son Teddy (Anton Palmer) accompanied by his grandmother Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel) throwing Katherine’s plans into disarray .You’ve got fatter. Adapted by Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, this austere treatment of a rural tragedy is as contained as anti-heroine Pugh by corsetry and decency until sensuality spills forth and all hell breaks loose.  This is the distinctive Pugh’s breakout performance following The Falling and TV’s Marcella and her polarising character anchors a narrative which is ostensibly feminist but ultimately offers a critique of female power and how it is achieved and sustained. Perhaps the casting of black actors in the story complicates the issue of power by raising another issue, that of of race, in what is otherwise a melodrama of sex and class. Ultimately what happens when people are undone by desire can be murderous. It is a drama entirely without ornament. Directed by William Oldroyd. She is a disease

Bombshell (2019)

Bombshell

I’m not a feminist, I’m a lawyer. When Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired following her on-air revelation that she supports an assault weapons ban, she slaps conservative TV channel Fox News founder and CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) with a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment.  But nobody comes forward to provide evidence of similar experiences, not even her protegée, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) who migrates to the Bill O’Reilly show, is fired her first day and takes the back elevator to Ailes’ office in her quest for advancement. Eventually Gretchen’s decision leads to Presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s bête noire, Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) coming forward with her own story, as well as multiple other women, eventually bringing the channel’s owners, the Murdoch family, into the fray... He handed me the power to hurt him. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when it comes to explaining the way the world turns, it has fallen to America’s comedy auteurs to Show and Tell. And here it’s director Jay Roach invading the body politic once more after the TV dramas Recount, Game Change and All the Way as well as the feature Trumbo. Humour helps but doesn’t really feature in this tawdry tale of three contrasting women who have oddly similar looks in the Barbie-style legs-out fashion cultivated by Ailes – and one scene where all the on-air women presenters are Spanxing it up and shoving five-inch heels onto their calloused feet shows the compromises intelligent gutsy women make visually to make it professionally on US TV, at least on Fox News. Theron’s transformation into Kelly is really something – she wears her work look as if she’s armed for war and her decision to finally take it to the bosses, with the backing of her husband Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass) at the same time as having to battle Trump mania in Summer 2016, tacks sharply when she allows the Presidential hopeful to get away with his menstruation Tweet, to her husband’s disgust. But, as she reminds him, she has to pay the bills. Kidman is good as the woman who has had the sense to record her meetings with Ailes, but is then sidelined with money and an NDA (maybe); and Robbie is impressively touching as the amalgamated character ‘Kayla’ who succumbs to Ailes, believing everyone else must have done it to get ahead (To get ahead, you have to give a little head, as Gretchen regales her lawyers). When Kayla crumbles at the truth, it’s devastating. The fact that these women believe in the political piffle they peddle is what makes the film hold its fire because Kate McKinnon is cast as a secret Lesbian Hillary-supporter in their midst making the politics of it weaker in every sense; and there’s a pretty ludicrous scene when Ailes’ wife, newspaper editor Beth (Connie Britton) has her assistant ask if her sushi lunch is too liberal. (Perhaps it is this very daftness that makes the film’s point). And while the women’s histories shares similar contours, they do not support one another and Kelly’s producer Gil (Rob Delaney) reminds her that all the production team’s jobs are on the line. However Charles Randolph’s screenplay is fast-moving and literate, and there is great use of archive footage.  The female cast are just outstanding, with Lithgow quite horrifying as the disgusting old man who once hobnobbed with Nixon but now intimidates ambitious young women into hoicking up their skirts and a lot worse. The biggest irony? Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) gets to save the day. Sigh. Inspired by the accounts of the women who reported their experiences of harassment. Rule number one, Corporate America:  You don’t sue your boss

Elephant (2003)

Elephant

Get the fuck out of here, shit is going to happen. John (John McFarland) is being driven through the suburbs to school by his drunken father (Timothy Bottoms). Alex (Alex Frost) is a talented pianist being bullied at Watt High School, Oregon. He and his best friend slacker Eric (Eric Deulen) play video games, watch a documentary about Nazis, have sex in the shower and load up on guns. On their way into the building wearing camo gear and carrying black bags, Alex warns John not to go in. Elias (Elias McConnell) goes round the hallways photographing other students before going to the school newspaper office to develop his pictures. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) leaves the football field with girlfriend Carrie. Bespectacled outcast Michelle (Kristen Hicks) runs through the corridors and escapes to the library to avoid sports. Three bulimic girls gossip and end up in the Ladies’ Room. When the boys fail to explode propane bombs and prowl the corridors and library shooting everyone on sight, Acadia (Alicia Miles) freezes and Benny (Bennie Dixon) helps her escape through a window … Damn, they shot him. Gus Van Sant’s meditative exploration of the moments leading up to a Columbine high school-like massacre looks and feels less assured than it did upon release. Perhaps because unlike its source material (Alan Clarke’s BBC film Elephant, which was about sectarian politics in Northern Ireland) it is politically rootless unless you regard teenage alienation as justification for genocide and the inclusion of a TV documentary about Nazism adequate as rationale for unleashing senseless violence upon your contemporaries. Perhaps that is the point – that children and guns are just not a good mix, teenagers are unknowable and basically ungovernable, allowing them too much time on their own is a really bad idea because literally anything could happen in those burgeoning adults. The over the shoulder tracking shots down the school corridors and their repetitive nature bring us back to the same moments again and again giving the narrative a poetic rhythm and spatial familiarity, as does the auditory track which occasionally lapses into silence and then white noise, particularly when Alex is sitting in the cafeteria and we get a hint of the killings to come. There is no doubt that the very boring nature of the scenario and the real-time pacing lends an incremental tension to the situation. The biggest problem here is that the affectlessness of the protagonists means a conventional drama cannot be constructed and a moral is hard to discern while the filmmaker is attempting to get into these boys’ brains. That is the core of the story: there are things that people simply cannot get to grips with. The moment when a teacher approaches a student who’s just been shot dead at a classroom door and treats it as if it’s normal is simply staggering. Screenplay by Van Sant with controversial ‘memoirist’ JT LeRoy and Diane Keaton credited as producers on a project that started life as a documentary. Most importantly, have fun

Another Woman (1988)

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She can’t allow herself to feel. The second wife of professor Ken (Ian Holm) with whom she had an adulterous affair while his wife Kathy (Betty Buckley) was suffering from ovarian cancer, when fiftysomething philosophy professor Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) rents an apartment to work on a new book, she soon realises that she can hear what’s going on in a neighbouring apartment, which houses a psychiatrist’s office. She becomes captivated by the sessions of a pregnant patient named Hope (Mia Farrow) whom she follows and eventually encounters in an antiques store. As Hope talks about her emotional issues over a long lunch, not only does Marion begin to reevaluate her life and recall the bullying her estranged brother Paul (Harris Yulin) was subjected to by their late father (David Ogden Stiers), she sees her husband lunching with their mutual friend Lydia (Blythe Danner) with whom he is clearly having an intimate relationship. She comes to realise that her coldness has shut her off from friends and family, and she has missed a chance for true love with writer Larry Lewis (Gene Hackman) who apparently made her the subject of his novel after she turned him down for Ken If someone had asked me when I reached my fifties to assess my life, I would have said that I had achieved a decent measure of fulfillment, both personally and professionally. Beyond that, I would say I don’t choose to delve. A remarkably perceptive work from Woody Allen on mid-life femininity and the things women have to do to protect themselves and their sense of self while also making men feel good about themselves. Fully belonging to that part of his oeuvre labelled Bergmanesque and not just because it’s shot by Sven Nykvist, this is sharp, funny, acidly realistic and gimlet-eyed when it comes to the inequality between the sexes:  while a husband plays at adultery (repeatedly), a woman tries to justify her very existence; a man celebrates his fifty years while a woman wonders what she has done with her life; an ex-wife shows up at the house with the detritus of their marriage to find herself socially condemned because she expresses her distress at betrayal. How Rowlands learns about her foibles through other people’s observations is psychologically devastating. The narrative is fearless and pointed in its target – structural misogyny. The peerless Rowlands is great in one of the best women’s roles of the Eighties and Farrow is no less good in a minor key, providing an oppositional image of possibility, with an ensemble of men having it all. I just don’t want to look up when I’m her age and find my life is empty

Zelig (1983)

Zelig

All the themes of our culture were there. In this fictional documentary set during the 1920s and 1930s a non-descript American called Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) achieves notoriety for his ability to look, act and sound like anyone he meets. He ingratiates himself with everyone from the lower echelons of society to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Pope becoming famous as The Changing Man. Even Hollywood comes calling and makes a film about him. His chameleon-like skill catches the eye of Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), a psychiatrist who thinks Zelig is in need of serious cognitive analysis as someone who goes to extremes to make himself fit into society. Their relationship moves in a direction that’s not often covered in medical textbooks as she hypnotises him I’m certain it’s something he picked up from eating Mexican food. A formally and technically brilliant and absolutely hilarious spoof documentary that integrates real and manipulated newsreel footage with faked home movies, a film within a film, period photographs of the leads and interviews with contemporary personalities, real and imagined, from Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow to ‘Eudora Fletcher’ (Ellen Garrison) in the present day. Even Bruno Bettelheim shows up to declare the subject the ultimate conformist. The sequence on the anti-semitism Zelig experiences as a child (his parents sided with the anti-semites, narrator Patrick Horgan informs us mournfully) is laugh out loud funny. Of course it has a payoff – in Nazi Germany. The editing alone is breathtaking, there is not a false moment and the music is superlative, forming a backdrop and a commentary as well as instilling in the audience a realistic feel for the time in which this is set. There are moments where you will not believe your eyes as Allen transforms into everyone he meets – regardless of race, shape or colour. An original and funny mockumentary that’s actually about the world we live in, an extreme response to childhood bullying and what we do to make ourselves fit in and where that could lead. You just told the truth and it sold papers – it never happened before!

 

Ma (2019)

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Sometimes you want something so badly and suddenly you don’t. Newly divorced Erica (Juliette Lewis) returns to her hometown in Mississippi and works in a casino while her 16-year old daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) starts hanging out with the cool kids at high school led by Haley (McKaley Miller). Middle-aged veterinary assistant Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) befriends them when they’re trying to score liquor at the store and decides to let them party in the basement of her home. But there are some house rules: One of the kids has to stay sober, don’t curse, and never go upstairs. They must also refer to her as Ma. But as her hospitality starts to curdle into obsession, Ma starts stalking the kids on social media and her place goes from the best place in town to the worst place on Earth as it is revealed that these are the offspring of the high school bullies who subjected her to terrible sexual humiliation and she has decided upon a path of bloody revenge decades later ...  How is it on the outside looking in? Director Tate Taylor established a kinship with acting (and producing) powerhouse Spencer on The Help so it’s logical that they would follow through on another collaboration. But a horror? Definitely not what one might anticipate and in spite of that mouthwatering prospect in an era which has upended that genre in many recent outings (with comments on race which are touched upon here), this is twisted in all the wrong ways and is poorly paced. It gives Allison Janney a cursory role as the veterinarian who gets hers; Luke Evans is the sex god from high school; and Taylor himself plays an unfortunate cop. Torture is the order of the day in this high school revenge story gone awry that never properly capitalises on its themes. A bizarre tale that takes a decided left turn for camp which surely means it is destined for that shelf designated Cult. Written by Scotty Landes. I am not weak.  I am not my mother!

 

 

Shazam! (2019)

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Gentlemen, why use guns when we can handle this like real men? All 14-year-old Billy Batson’s (Asher Angel)has to do is shout out one word to transform into the adult superhero Shazam (Zachary Levi). Still a kid at heart, Shazam revels in the new version of himself by doing what any other teen would do – have fun while testing out his newfound powers even as he searches for his birth mother while living in a new foster home where he is befriended by Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). But he’ll need to master those powers quickly before the evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) can get his hands on Shazam’s magical abilities because Sivana was rejected by Wizar Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) long before Billy entered superhero terrain... Heroes fly. And who doesn’t want people to think they’re a hero, right? But invisibility, no way. That’s pervy. Spying around on people who don’t even know you’re there. Sneaking around everywhere. It’s a total villain power, right? Signs that all is not altogether lost in the DC Universe following some Batman-related disappointment, with a family-oriented fantasy outing that has to wait until the conclusion to give our hero a name because in the klutzy nomenclature of caped crusaders he was originally called Captain Marvel. Oh yes. And yet that’s okay because this is all about finding your identity and this rites of passage origins tale is finally all about a superhero’s journey – to his mother and to himself. Relatively lo-fi it might be in comparison with some of the heavy hitters of its type but it has a kind of Saturday morning TV quality to it – likeable, easy on the eye, relatable (!) fun even if it seems in some scenes that Strong is in a different film. There’s a nice Rocky homage in a story basically straight from the Big playbook whose message is that your true family is not necessarily the one you’re born into. Written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke based on characters created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck. Directed by David F. Sandberg.  You have been transformed to your full potential, Billy Batson. With your heart, unlock your greatest power MM#2550

Joker (2019)

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Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?  Former psych hospital inmate, children’s party clown and wannabe standup Arthur ‘Happy’ Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his sick mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of appearing on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) cheesy nightly TV show which they watch together. Gotham City is rife with crime and unemployment, leaving segments of the population disenfranchised and impoverished with billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in the running for Mayor. Penny was a former employee in the Wayne household and repeatedly writes him letters asking for money. Arthur suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and depends on social services for medication and weekly meetings with a social worker. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives him a gun for self-defence. Arthur invites his neighbour, cynical single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz), to his stand-up comedy show, and they begin dating. When he witnesses three Wall Street guys harassing a woman on the subway train he opens fire and kills them and the city is suddenly awash in a movement of men in clown masks that threatens violent disorder in copycat clown costumes  … I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realise, it’s a comedy. A perverse DC origins story written by director Todd Phillips with Scott Silver, this owes much to its setting – 1981, a city on its haunches, with human filth and institutional grime, and cinematic influences: Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and of course Taxi Driver (Paul Schrader’s real-life inspiration was Arthur Bremer) which is interesting in the light of the maestro’s recent (highly derogatory) comments on superhero movies. And there’s Travis Bickle/Rupert Pupkin himself, De Niro, as the Jerry Lewis-type prism for Arthur’s fantasies of celebrity. And it’s modelled on classic psychodrama, up to a point. It hedges its bets by flailing determinedly in all directions ticking the usual boxes – sociological, pathological, neurological, daddy issues, a mad mother, illegitimacy, until its second hour descends into predictable ultraviolence (after that first exhibition at 30 minutes) albeit with this raft of reasons the wind at his back, you can’t blame Arthur, which is of course the whole point of this graphic novel brought to life. He’s a product of everything around him as well as the noises in his head so there’s no mystery left unturned. That neurological condition that makes him laugh long and loud and inappropriately turns into an unwelcome noise in the audience’s collective head too because we can see as he cannot that his talent lies not in comedy but in killing. Gotham City is no longer a pretend New York because the first three victims of Arthur’s vigilanteism are Wall Street employees of his all-powerful putative father, which is how the Wayne story is woven into this tapestry of excuses as if someone had written an elaborate series of backstories and decided to use every single one of them:  Oedipus writ large in a realist portrait of Bernhard Goetz-era NYC. There is literally nothing left to chance or ponder about this ugly individual and as we all know, bastards always blame other people and seek revenge for their no-name status. In this amorality tale he murders his mother to attempt to get close to his alleged father. And we all know what happens to Thomas Wayne because the Batman universe is ours.  It’s difficult to fault Phoenix’s bravura performance but much hinges on his harelip and innate ugliness which he just accentuates into unpleasant anorectic thinness to manufacture an urban monster. This Joker isn’t funny any more. How bizarre that the wonderful River Phoenix died 26 years ago today and it’s his brother Leaf who’s making the headlines. I feel like I know you – I’ve been watching you forever

 

Boy Erased (2018)

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I wish this had never happened but I thank God that it did. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the only son of a car dealer and small-town Baptist pastor Marshall (Russell Crowe), must overcome the fallout after being outed as gay to his parents following a violent sexual encounter at college, the truth of which he doesn’t wish to reveal. His father and mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) struggle to reconcile their love for their son with their beliefs and Marshall approaches fellow pastors for advice. Fearing a loss of family, friends and community as Marshall is attempting to becoming a full-time preacher at his church, Jared is pressured into attending a conversion therapy programme called The Source. He comes into conflict with its leader Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) and begins his journey to finding his own voice and accepting his true self but not before a session of abject bullying perpetrated against fellow inmate Cameron (Britton Sear) has a devastating outcome …  Our family is so normal. The note of dreariness inbuilt from the first shot in actor Joel Edgerton’s sophomore directing outing after the superb home invasion horror The Gift is misleading and thankfully almost immediately dispatched.  Earnestness swiftly and happily becomes a victim of a suspenseful writing and directing style, Garrard Conley’s tangled memoir of evangelism and gay conversion camps transformed into something like a psychological thriller.  The performances, the hot-button topic and the treatment conspire to elevate this into a work pervaded by fear – from the militaristic therapy style (by Flea!); the horrible gay rape by student Henry (Joe Alwyn) immediately followed by its perpetrator’s desire to confess; and the prospect of a life under the guidance of a subliterate evangelical programme leader who replaces great literature like Lolita and teens’ diaries with misspelled handbooks (Almighty Dog) and gene-o-grams that seek to out family members (A for Alcohol, Ab for Abortion … etc) in an atmosphere where the word ‘intellectual’ is rhymed with ‘sexual’.  And it becomes a battle of the sexes with an angry mother finally strong enough to put a halt to the misguided form of masculinity threatened by difference. Enough said. But it’s never often enough, in this depiction of a perverted  and sinister take on Christianity which has its coda in the end credits with tension dissipated and history overtaking the story. Edgerton is proving a highly interesting filmmaker, isn’t he? I’m gay, and I’m your son. And neither of those things are going to change. Okay? So let’s deal with that!

Motherhood (2018)

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Aka Egg. A woman gives up her rights as an adult when she gets pregnant. When NYC artist Tina (Alysia Reinder) and her layabout husband Wayne (Gbenga Akinnabe) are visited by her eight-months pregnant art school rival Karen (Christina Hendricks), now a trophy wife to property-dealer husband Don (David Alan Bache), the politics of pregnancy are discussed to a disturbing degree. Wayne demonstrates an extraordinary sympathy with Karen’s condition. Tina is doing an exhibit on pregnancy and motherhood (it’s going to be a lifetime’s work) instead of actually bearing a child herself, considering it a worthy topic for an art installation. She and Wayne reveal they are having a child by surrogate Kiki (Anna Camp), a secretary at an agency where Wayne was temping.  When the men go out, Tina and Karen have a heart to heart and Tina reveals she has had an abortion following an accidental pregnancy, while Karen reveals she got pregnant on purpose despite Don’s wishes and now she thinks he’s sleeping around. The very lovely and apparently ditsy young Kiki comes back to the loft with the men and while distressed with her married lover running out on her now she’s pregnant, expounds on her philosophy of the stages of a woman’s life during which some hard truths are exchanged … Having a baby the old way is a total fetish at this stage. Risa Mickenberg’s satirical chamberpiece treads a minefield of preconceptions (!), truisms, old wive’s tales (daughters steal your beauty when you’re pregnant), gender politics, jealousy, marriage, money, misunderstandings, the right to choose, sexism and contemporary mores with great wit and empathy in a film which might remind one of Carnage before the kids are actually born. Art appreciates even if I don’t appreciate art. Kiki’s four phases of women – girlhood, boobs, 20s to early 30s running after men and then mother, when nobody wants to look directly at you, is so discomfiting because it carries home the final indisputable truth about gender and loss of desire and elicits very different responses from everyone concerned, changing the dynamics of the group and exploding the future of three of them.  Talk about setting it off. These are relationships which are based on socially accepted lies. Sometimes only long-term friends can say such terrible things to one another and sometimes these conversations are life-changing, and not in a good way with a third act shift that totally alters the mood but boasting a happy coda. You’re like this giant beach ball of bliss. You’re like a living monument of sexism. A devastating exposition of male and female behaviour and a smart showcase for the talents of the actors (particularly Hendricks), very well handled by director Marianna Palka. If she’s the mother what are you?