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

Metal Heart (2018)

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Just because you’re miserable doesn’t make you interesting. The summer they finish school fraternal twins and rivals Goth muso Emma (Jordanne Jones) and social media maven Chantal (Leah McNamara) are left to themselves when their parents (Dylan Moran and Yasmine Akram) go on a six-week trip to the jungle. Chantal immediately starts having loud sex sessions in her bedroom with her dumb supertanned boyfriend Alan (Aaron Heffernan) while Emma wants to start a band called Yeast Infections with her best friend Gary (Sean Doyle) who’s secretly in love with her but bullied by his overachiever dad Steve (Jason O’Mara). When a mysterious man called Dan (Moe Dunford) shows up to look after the sick old woman next door it transpires he’s her son and the former member of a cult band.  Both girls fall for him, setting a financial disaster in motion after Chantal gets injured in a minor car prang and suddenly Emma is the popular one … A pie chart is not written in stone! Written by that lauded chronicler of suburban Dublin angst, Paul (Skippy Dies) Murray, this takes the American high school/coming of age template and gives it an Irish re-fit (graduation means picking up your results and getting langered), with zingers aplenty, some great side-eye and caustic lessons in relationships. It’s lightly satirical about South Dublin, beautifully captured by cinematographer Eoin McLoughlin – we’re far from the brutal grey skies that typically blight Irish films and into the leafy cosy middle class neighbourhoods where colours pop amid the tasteful midcentury furnishings (kudos to Neill Treacy for the production design). Similarly, the blackly comic elements are balanced with rites of passage/romcom tropes, giving each sister just the right amount of sympathy and mockery in this well-evoked portrait of those last weeks of experience on the cusp of college and adulthood, dramatising how even in a world where you can monetise your makeup tips on social media or conjure Spiders & Cream treats at the ice cream parlour in the local mall, you still crave the approval of the nearest inappropriate adult who’s really after your stash of cash. Warm, witty and attractively performed in a tale which underneath all the comic fuzz and deceptive charm is a sinister story of a twentysomething man grooming kids for underage sex while robbing them blind, this never hits the wrong notes which makes it a kind of miracle of filmmaking. Think:  Home Alone meets Clueless. Directed by actor Hugh O’Conor, who has a gift for making the most of moments in his first feature. I was never going to be her but I would always be her sister

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Late Night (2019)

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Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. Talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is the Queen of Late Night. Her world is turned upside down when she hires her first and only female staff writer Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) because the head of the network Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) is threatening to replace Katherine with a younger more provocative standup Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz). Originally intended to smooth over diversity concerns because Molly ticks the boxes of gender and colour, and Katherine is determined to disprove her colleague Brad’s (Denis O’Hare) accusation that she’s a woman who hates women. Katherine’s decision brings about unexpected consequences as the two women separated by culture and generation become united by their love of a biting punchline despite the fact that Molly’s previous experience is Quality Controller in a chemical plant and they’re in a sea of unsympathetic men … Don’t take this the wrong way but your earnestness can be very hard to be around. Kaling wrote this with Thompson in mind and it shows:  she plays the heck out of it, a diva on the outs who hires and fires without breathing. It’s a setting that has yielded a lot of US comedy and it’s a smart satire with remarkable timing, in more ways than one: a battle of the sexes comedy set in the notorious boys’ club environment that is comedy (and the writers’ room) and it recognises that the system is longstanding and women have never been the beneficiaries and that’s okay because that’s fertile ground for discursive, subversive dramedy. Kaling turns this into something of a dramatic strut we might call Truth to Power as Thompson’s character is forced to defend the entire raison d’être of her career – in so doing she threatens to wreck her long marriage to her sick husband Walter (John Lithgow). Kaling’s own role is that of disrupter, although ironically it’s not as significant to the story as it might have been despite hitting the right millennial notes such as needing to make enough money to finally move out of home – think Devil Wears Prada with a race slant.  She incorporates just enough rom into this com to fit to genre expectations without untethering the narrative although it’s warm rather than vicious. Thompson and Kaling are fantastic as they try to navigate the problem of being mentor-mentee-friends-colleagues in a hostile workplace. Sharp stuff at times though, a sociocultural comedy that takes jabs at a slew of subjects including #MeToo, but with a gender twist. That’s what I call a punchline. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, who has worked with Kaling on TV’s The Mindy Project and a very good job she does too. You’re a writer, so write

Borg Vs McEnroe (2017)

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Aka Borg McEnroe.  You can’t be serious! You can not be serious! The ball was on the line! The greatest tennis match of all time is played in July 1980 at Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final, a gladiatorial destination for the biggest figures in the sport – the cool and enigmatic 24-year old Swede Bjorn Borg who is the ranking World No. 1 and reigns supreme on Centre Court with four titles under his belt; and the angry rude 21-year old New Yorker John McEnroe. Or so the British journalists of the era would have us think. Their rivalry transforms into a friendship – but only after they’ve played the match of their lives. Flashbacks take us back to Borg’s working class upbringing as a child and teen terror (played by Borg’s own son Leo) in which he encounters the snobbery of the Swedish tennis élite and meets the man who changes his life, Lennart Berglin (Stellan Skarsgård), manipulating him into making his volcanic temper work for him rather than against him. This is a Swedish production and the drama is tilted in Borg’s favour. Middle class McEnroe is under pressure from a tricky father-son relationship as well as his own volatility. In contrast to the match itself, which is played from an hour into the running time, this is then a rather one-sided drama. While Gudnason bears an uncanny resemblance to Borg, the psychodrama that constitutes his early years is muted in favour of an adult whose morose expressions amount to sullen indifference rather than the charming mystery presumably intended. His relationship and forthcoming marriage to fellow player Mariana Simionescu (Tuva Novotny) are handled in a financial framework where his sponsors seem to dictate his every move. We are watching the way in which media and advertising encroached on the old gentlemanly sport, making Borg a very isolated and lonely figure, running from autograph hunters in his Monaco tax haven home to get a coffee only to discover he has no cash and the barista has no idea who he is and makes him clean up to pay for the drink. LaBeouf on the other hand is genuinely attractive as a young man who feels unjustly maligned by the British press and finds himself at the centre of a media storm, constantly being asked to justify his existence never mind his magical way with a racquet. So, one conceals, the other reveals, while McEnroe becomes obsessed with Borg. The psychology is fascinating but the flashback structure and the poor cutting of the match (a thrilling ordeal in reality) combine to congeal. There is a marvellous scene between McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis (Robert Emms) at a London nightclub on the eve of the encounter where Borg is explained to his opponent (Gerulaits was very close to Borg and lost to him at Wimbledon in 1977). This is a story about two very similar characters who are different only in their public behaviour. If you don’t know the result of the match, well, the rather unfulfilling coda is a meeting between the two men afterwards at the airport in which they have a rudimentary exchange followed by titles helpfully informing us that they became close friends. An opportunity missed and a frustrating experience. Directed by Danish documentary-maker Janus Metz Pedersen from a screenplay by Ronnie Sandahl. They say he’s an iceberg, but he’s really a volcano keeping it all in, until . . . boom!

Kalifornia (1993)

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What the hell did I know about California? For some people it was still a place of hopes and dreams, a chance to start over. Graduate journalism student Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) has published an article about serial killers that secures an offer for a book deal. He and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), an avant garde photographer, decide to relocate to California in hopes of enriching their careers. The two plot their journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles,planning to visit infamous murder sites along the way which Carrie can photograph for Brian’s book. Trouble is, they’re short of money so Brian posts a ride-share ad on campus. Psychopathic recent parolee Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) has just lost his job. His parole officer learns of this and comes to the trailer where Early lives with his naïve girlfriend waitress Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). Early refuses the officer’s offer of a job as a janitor at the university, saying he wants to leave the state, but the officer pressures him into keeping his appointment for the job interview. When Early arrives at the campus, he sees the ride-share ad and calls Brian, who agrees to meet him the following day and the mismatched foursome take off cross-country one hour after Early has murdered his landlord. Carrie has immediate misgivings when she sees the white trash pair and becomes very scared when Early and Brian start drinking together and Brian becomes infatuated with guns … Tell me, big shot, how you gonna write a book about something you know nothing about? It’s a neat concept:  a guy obsessed with serial killers ends up sharing a ride with a serial killer and then becomes inured to the effects of that violent experience when it’s finally him or – him. It’s constructed as though this were the rite of passage for a writer of such true crimes giving him a taste for murder albeit the closing voiceover indicates he has learnt nothing because he feels nothing. So maybe we’re in the realm of unfulfilled masculinity – so much of this narrative is tied into sex and instinct. Perhaps it’s too self-satisfied, perhaps Pitt’s performance as the kinky white trailer trash is too eccentric, Lewis too retarded, Forbes too knowing, Duchovny too withdrawn. These are people whose paths would never ordinarily cross however they’re in a car together having to deal with each other. On the other hand it’s a cool piece of work with a kind of sociocultural commentary about how we are bumping up against people we disagree with on a daily basis, how some elitists have a kind of fascination for the going-nowhere working classes, how pure intellect is rarely a match for feral intuition and how serial killers can attain a celebrity that transcends mere notoriety into a form of acceptability because it is no longer possible to move us in a world where so much is abandoned and empty. It’s no accident that the finale takes place at Dreamland, the old nuclear testing site and fake town on the California-Nevada border. Originally written by Tim Metcalfe with Stephen Levy, this appears to have changed substantially in tone in development. Directed like a stylishly cool breeze by Dominic Sena in his feature debut. I’ll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don’t know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing

Wild Rose (2018)

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I’m not a criminal though, I’m an outlaw. Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), an aspiring country singer and single mother of two from Glasgow is released from prison after a twelve-month sentence for attempted drug smuggling. She goes to her boyfriend’s council flat and has sex with him before reuniting with her mother Marion (Julie Walters) who’s been taking care of her young daughter Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield) and son Lyle (Adam Mitchell). She learns that she has lost her job in the house band at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry, as a result of her stint away. Marion encourages her to give up her dream of becoming a musician to focus on more practical matters and take responsibility for her family:  Rose-Lynn has never stuck at anything, can’t play an instrument and has never written a song. She takes a job as a cleaner to wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okenedo) who hears her singing and promises to sponsor her to get Rose-Lynn’s hero BBC DJ Bob Harris to listen to her and fulfil her fantasy en route to the real Grand Ole Opry in Nashville … That’s the end of cleaning floors for you.  From a screenplay by Nicole Taylor, this is implausible, irritating and overly generous to its protagonist. In other words, it’s a lot like a country song (not a country and western song, as she has to keep reminding people in her thick Glaswegian accent) and the minutes occasionally drag like hours.  It’s hard to watch a woman be so cruel to small children who she had as a promiscuous teenager and proceeds to ignore even after a year in the slammer. In a film that can’t make up its mind whether it’s a social realist drama (her bed is even shot to look like it’s in a prison cell) or the biopic of a music legend (like all country movies to date) who actually isn’t one, even in her own house, it mints a jawdropping black saviour trope, although Susannah’s streetwise hubby sees through Rose’s act (literally) and hearing some home truths snaps her out of her daydreaming. This feckless girl is such a screwup she even gets pissed on the potentially life-changing train journey to see ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris at the BBC in London and has her bag and money stolen. Perhaps it’s meant to be colouring in her shady character but it’s a damning indictment of people who put themselves ahead of their kids despite the logic. Dramatically and emotionally this is deeply troublesome. Even basketcase Juliet Barnes in TV’s Nashville is better to her daughter. Buckley just looks morose when the script is giving her nothing to play. There are some nice moments towards the end when Walters cracks and a kind of rapprochement is achieved but it’s thin gruel. I blame reality TV:  in an extraordinary admission a few years ago one of these ‘talent’ show’s producers in the UK let slip the astonishing statistic that “80 per cent of our applicants are illegitimate.” Attention-seeking is a way of life for the working classes, innit. Saints preserve us all from delusional aggressive karaoke queens but this has the narrative shape of those bios, which makes the country angle feel tacked on. Herself a reality show graduate, Buckley has an easy charm, a lopsided mouth and can sing the bejesus out of anything but the narrative falls far short of what it should have been and the fantasy ending is built on air, the fish out of water premise turned on its head, back in Glasgow.  She didn’t earn it, actually. Beats mopping floors, I suppose. The score is by Jack Arnold and the songs covered include everyone from Primal Scream, actress/singer Mary Steenburgen and Anna McGarrigle. Directed by Tom Harper who previously directed Buckley in BBC’s adaptation of War and PeaceYou never stick at anything

Old Boys (2018)

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Model yourself on me and you won’t go wrong. Awkward but imaginative scholarship boy (Alex Lawther) helps the handsome but spectacularly dim school head boy and hero of their boarding school Henry Winchester aka The Mighty Winch (Jonah Hauer-King) pursue the fiery French Agnès (Pauline Étienne), daughter of a visiting teacher Babinot (Denis Ménochet) who is struggling for the past 18 years to produce his second novel … I’ll blast her with my charm bazooka! This Eighties-set comic drama starts with a very witty titles sequence, the typically upper class British schoolboys on a supposedly unique sports tradition which is really an outward bound torture session tramping through the mud, an experience likened to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in a low angle shot of the institution (resembling my own frightening alma mater), a piece of stripey uniform caught on the barbed wire demarcating it from the rest of civilisation (which appears to be Norfolk). I’m just not good at all this word shit, declares The Mighty Winch, a nice but thick joker who can do no wrong in the eyes of the school or indeed himself, so the truly smitten Amberson gets him to pose as a romantic à la Cyrano de Bergerac in a film which wears its French influences very happily with several songs dispersed on the soundtrack. This is about proving you are more than a labrador in trousers. That’s a line that could come from the mouth of comedian/actor Jack Whitehall which is interesting given that this is co-written by Freddy Syborn, his co-writer on TV show Bounty Hunters following their collaboration on Bad Education:  this guy has a recognisable writing voice combining tender observation with sleight of hand comments on the class system as well as a fondness for slapstick. The story gets emotional heft not just from Amberson’s helpless infatuation and his desire to make Agnès happy; but also from the to-and-fro of the French father-daughter as the novelist manqué depends on her to approve of his narrative choices (something that culminates in a bad romantic scene with Papa’s non-French speaking romantic interest). Let me show you what Planet Earth looks like. As for Agnès, she’s not just a romantic but a pragmatic wannabe set designer and knows that Berlin is where it’s happening (another amusing European narrative strand nodding to WW2, juxtaposed with a school screening of The Dambusters) which gives rise to a series of beautiful mini-theatres and greeting cards being unfolded to push the story further as the romantic correspondence and deception is pursued. So if this is as lightweight as those delicate messages’ construction it gains trenchancy from the ideas of multi-lingual co-operation. Someone, somewhere, behind these theatrical scenes is trying to tell us something. The screenplay is by Syborn and Luke Ponte; while it’s well directed by Toby MacDonald. They teach you all the ways you can die but only you can learn how to live

The Weaker Sex (1948)

The Weaker Sex

I wish I didn’t feel so cut off.   Widowed Martha Dacre (Ursula Jeans) tries to keep house and home together for her two serving daughters Helen (Joan Hopkins) who’s involved with radio officer Nigel (Derek Bond) and Lolly (Lana Morris) who’s going out with sailor Roddy (John Stone);  and servicemen billeted on her in Portsmouth, a naval base during WW2. While son Benjie (Digby Wolfe) is away in the Navy she has chosen to stay at home as a housewife, but when she learns that his ship has been damaged during the D Day landings, she regrets not taking a more active role in the war and works in a canteen and as a fire watcher. The family story moves forward from D-Day to VE-Day, the 1945 general election and on to 1948. Martha eventually re-marries to her late husband’s colleague, naval officer Geoffrey (Cecil Parker) who was one of those billeted on her and has become a father-figure to her son and daughters…  Oh dear, who’d be a mother? This British homefront drama was released three years following the conclusion of hostilities so it has the benefit of victorious hindsight as well as expressing the postwar era when everyone was completely obsessed with the lack of food. Adapted from actress Esther McCracken’s 1944 stage play No Medals by Paul Soskin with additional scenes created by Val Valentine to bring it up to the year of shooting, it’s a witty drama filled with resigned Keep Calm and Carry On messages underscored by dissatisfaction at the dreariness of housework and the plight of women whose life is dictated by the unavailability of food which becomes a thoroughly good running joke:  The housewives’ battle cry – the fishmonger’s got fish! cackles housekeeper Mrs Gaye (Thora Hird). Intended as post-war propaganda, a kind of decent British take on Hollywood’s Mrs Miniver (minus the Nazi in the garden) with added politics, it’s smart, unfussy and fair, yet trenchant and involving.  Jeans is terrific as the middle class woman finding herself rather (class) envious of Harriet Lessing (Marian Spencer) living in a serviced flat and volunteering:  there’s humour to be had in a lovely payoff when Harriet gets her public comeuppance after the war as rationing motivates her to head the local Militant Housewives League and she gets caught up in an unholy scrimmage which fetches up on the front page of the papers. Parker is a great casting choice – the guy not ashamed of being seen decked out in his uniform doing the vacuuming who can say unabashed to Jeans, I never had a genuinely platonic friendship with a woman before. Of course we know where that leads. He digs in and gets creative when he’s sick of being starved of regular food – and milks a goat. I slept and dreamed that life was beauty, I woke and found that life is duty. There is a great sense of warmth in the family relationships and a scene of remarkable tension when Helen and Martha play a card game awaiting a phonecall to find out whether Nigel has survived a bombing.  Jeans tells herself when awaiting more bad news, I mustn’t back down. I must try to be of some use. Parker responds, This language of ours is so completely inadequate. They are expressing the weariness of a nation almost done in yet somehow dragging itself up to cope with the inevitability of ongoing loss. There are occasional dips into newsreel montages to bring a context to the experiences as the story commences in the run up to D Day, through VE Day, the 1945 General Election, Hiroshima and after, but the footage is smoothly integrated and doesn’t disrupt the narrative flow. Hugely successful in its day it’s a really rather spiffing reminder of how and why Britain came through the war, the importance of family and sadly that tragic deaths don’t just occur in wartime. Crisply shot by Erwin Hillier amid exquisite sets by Alex Vetchinsky and this raft of wonderful performances are very well directed by Roy [Ward] Baker. Shabby perhaps, but not yet shoddy

Josephine and Men (1955)

Josephine and Men 1955

She had a weakness for the weakness in men! Suave bachelor Charles Luton (Jack Buchanan) tells Henry the Barman (Victor Maddern) the story of his niece Josephine’s (Glynis Johns) romantic escapades. She rejects her wealthy fiancé Alan (Donald Sinden) in favour of his friend David (Peter Finch), an unsuccessful playwright. But when their situations are reversed, Josephine’s interest in David starts to wane because she can’t help but be drawn to underdogs and the police are on Alan’s tail when he turns up at their rural idyll while David struggles to write a new play and Charles is overnighting… As a child she was alarmingly soft-hearted. You might imagine from the poster that this is a British answer to Moulin Rouge but relatively low-powered as this is in narrative impetus it manages to coast on a battery of real charm and a surprising element of jeopardy. Johns is as usual a bewitching delight and Finch enjoys himself immensely. Strangest of all is perhaps the screenwriting team behind this drawing room comedy:  thriller writer Nigel Balchin, Frank Harvey (who would go on to write the brilliant satire It’s All Right Jack) and the director, Roy Boulting. It’s a welcome opportunity to see the great Buchanan and it’s also wonderful to see William (Doctor Who) Hartnell, Sam Kydd and Wally Patch in the supporting ensemble. Gilbert Taylor shoots in colour in a lovely variety of interiors while John Addison provides his typically witty score. A Boulting Brothers production. There is no deadlier creature on earth than a one-woman Salvation Army

A Taste of Honey (1961)

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We’re bloody marvellous!  Manchester teenager Jo (Rita Tushingham) struggles to find love in her bleak day-to-day life, which is dominated by her alcoholic mother, Helen (Dora Bryan). When Jo has a brief fling with black sailor Jimmy (Paul Danquah_ and Helen takes up with a new younger lover Peter Smith  (Robert Stephens) who offers to marry her, their already tense relationship is further strained. Jo faces more complications as she discovers she is pregnant, but finds support when she moves in with an odd but thoughtful gay textile student named Geoffrey (Murray Melvin)…  I dreamt about you last night – fell out of bed twice! Tushingham gives a breathtaking performance – mischievous, doleful, ambitious, resigned, thoughtful, in this adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s play which portrays so many taboos of the era – interracial sex, illegitimate motherhood, homosexuality. It’s a classic of kitchen sink realism and director Tony Richardson (who had directed it on stage) handles it with just the right amount of playfulness balanced with seriousness, rewarded with splendid,  occasionally even startling performances in a gritty, funny, memorable production. Do you like me more than you don’t like me or do you not like me more than you do?