Bad Education (2019)

Bad Education

You were always the guy in the suits. Long Island, New York, 2002. Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is the superintendent of Roslyn School District which oversees Roslyn High School. Frank, along with his assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) have overseen major improvements in the district, with Roslyn becoming the 4th ranked public school in the country under their watch. This in turn stimulates the local economy, reaping rewards for school board head and real estate broker Bob Spicer (Ray Romano). Frank is beloved by students and parents alike, and sought after by women; Frank claims to have lost his wife several years ago, but is in fact gay, living with Tom Tuggiero (Stephen Spinella) in NYC. While attending a conference in Las Vegas, Frank begins an affair with former student Kyle Contreras (Rafeal Casal) who has given up his dream of writing sci fi for waiting tables and dancing. While writing an article for the Roslyn school paper about an $8m sky bridge the school is planning to construct, student reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) begins to discover discrepancies in the district’s finances. Unbeknownst to anyone at the school, Frank and Pam are co-conspirators in a massive embezzlement scheme that has cost millions of taxpayer dollars and her steady research leads all the way to the top and when Frank gives up Pam there will be hell to pay ... We come in here at the crack of dawn because we’re good people.  We want you to have a good life. Adapted from Bad Superintendent, a story by Robert Kolker in New York magazine by Mike Makowsky, who was a middle school student in that school district when Tassone was arrested for grand larceny.  Viswanathan isn’t a particularly interesting performer but she does what all journalists have done since watching All the President’s Men – she follows the money. It’s dogged old-school reporting stuff, looking at purchase orders, not finding receipts and then questioning everyone concerned.  It’s fun to see those moments with her doubtful student paper editor Nick Fleischman (Alex Wolff) doing a junior Ben Bradlee. The moment one hour in where she finds the so-called offices of the school’s pamphlet producer and realises it’s Tassone’s plush apartment where he’s co-habiting with a man is brilliantly done – capped when Tassone arrives and sees her desperate to leave the building. Jackman is superb as a charismatic man with many secrets, utilising his ability to psychoanalyse everyone around him to get the better of them since he seems to care so much about them. For the longest time we don’t even know the extent of his involvement as information is drip fed slowly through the narrative. His vanity is reflected in the scenes with him attending to his cosmetic routine, culminating in surgery. Jackman finds ways to plumb the breadth of the character and elicit empathy, stealing our hearts as easily as expensing first class flights to London with his boyfriend and deflecting come-ons from women in the parents’ association book club. Janney is superb in a chewy role – able to talk her way out of trouble, trying to buy her children’s affections even when her son is a total loser and ultimately choosing the path of revenge. Erring more on the dramatic rather than the comedic side of genre, this gives a rare insight into white collar crime – the quotidian corruption that afflicts cosy cartels running public bodies leading to those occasional stupefying headlines when you see something has gone bust yet all the admin people are living high on the hog while their workplaces are falling apart with damp. The sidebars about food intake, digestive issues, cosmetics, clothes, jewellery, pushy parenting and spoiling wrong ‘uns are well judged subplots amplifying the drudgery of the teaching environment and the desire to rise above the mere plebs. It’s wordy, it’s smart, it’s filled with people covering their asses and it’s called the ring of truth. Directed by Cory Finley. I am not the sociopath here

The Kitchen (2019)

The Kitchen

You’re way worse than we ever were. Between 8th Avenue and the Hudson River, the Irish mafia runs 20 blocks of a tough New York City neighbourhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. In the 1970s Irish-American gang wives Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss), things are about to take a dramatic and radical turn. When the FBI’s agent Gary Silvers (Common) sends their husbands to prison after a robbery, the three women take business into their own hands by taking the rackets out of the hands of Little Jimmy Quinn (Myk Watford) and taking out the competition. Kathy’s husband Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James) is low on the totem pole but she’s a take charge kind of woman and her own dad Larry (Wayne Duvall) ends up realising she’s Queen of the Micks. For Ruby, a black woman married to Kevin (James Badge Dale) whose mother Helen (Margo Martindale) pulls the strings while he’s away, it’s never going to be easy in an Irish neighbourhood. Claire is downtrodden after years of beatings by her husband. They agree to an alliance with Mob boss Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp) but their diverging ambitions create tensions and when their husbands get out of jail months earlier than anticipated things go off I never felt safe. No woman does. And now I do. I put me first. Writer/directorAndrea Berloff makes a fantastically impressive debut with this atmospheric picture of low-level Irish-American crims in 70s NYC. Each of the women has a personal issue – with Kathy it’s a weak husband; Ruby, who gives new meaning to the term Black Irish, has a secret that is revealed in a satisfying twist three quarters of the way through;  Claire’s victimhood is writ so large even a homeless stranger attacks her when she’s volunteering at the convent. Each goes through a revolution and hers is through ultraviolence via a mentoring relationship with her new boyfriend, psychotic ‘Nam vet Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson) who teaches her not just to kill but to strip corpses and dump them in the right part of the river. Unfairly compared with the sleek slick big screen adaptation of Widows whose broad contours it limns, this is down and dirty and relatable, and there’s a trio of powerhouse performances leading the way, tramping the streets of the city, getting to know everyone and taking their money. Or shooting them on the front stoop when they don’t pay up. You go girls!! Isn’t it nice to see Annabella Sciorra again in the role of Coretti’s kind wife. Based on the DC Vertigo comic series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle. We’re doing good in the community

Europa (1991)

Europa theatrical

Aka Zentropa. I thought the war was over. Just after World War II Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American of German descent takes a job on the Zentropa train line in US-occupied Germany to help the country rebuild. He becomes a sleeping-car conductor under the tutelage of his drunken uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård). He falls under the spell of the mysterious Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa) daughter of Zentropa railway magnate Max (Jørgen Reenberg) whose friendship with US Colonel Harris (Eddie Constantine) has raised hackles. Her gay brother Lawrence (Udo Kier) is the family embarrassment because like Leopold he didn’t serve his country. Leopold inadvertently becomes embroiled with a pro-Nazi fascist organisation known as the Werewolves who are conspiring to overthrow the state. Simultaneously being used by the US Army, Leopold finds neutrality an impossible position … I understand unemployment in Germany a lot better now. It costs too much to work here. Danish auteur Lars von Trier made this great train thriller long before he became a trying controversialist down the Dogma 95 rabbit hole. It plugs into that febrile post-war atmosphere which we already know from films of the late 40s like Berlin Express as well as sensational character-driven pre-war comedy thrillers like The Lady Vanishes. It’s the final part of the director’s first trilogy (following The Element of Crime and The Epidemic) and it gained a lot of kudos upon release, particularly for its visual style, principally shot in black and white with rear projections in colour (photographed by Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski and Jean-Paul Meurisse) lending an eerie aspect to what is already an innovative production, shifting tone as surely as it shifts pigments. The hypnotic (literally) narration by Max von Sydow lulls you into submission like the mesmerising shuffle of the carriages along the tracks; while the charm of the leading man on his journey which is physical, emotional and political, all at once, carries you through a sensitive yet experimental scenario.The miraculous editing achievement is by Hervé Schneid. It feels like a new kind of film is being born, reformulating the grammar of the language with its surrealist nods and noir references. A cult item from the casting of Kier and Constantine alone, with Sukowa’s role harking back to her Fassbinder films, this is a classic of modern European cinema. Written by von Trier (who appears as a Jew) & Niels Vørsel with a shooting script by von Trier & Tómas Gislason. You have carried out your orders. Now relax

 

 

The 39 Steps (1959)

The 39 Steps 1959

If you’re looking for Richard Hannay this is the man you want. Freshly returned to London, British diplomat Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) goes to the aid of a nanny ‘Nannie’ (Faith Brook) in a park only to discover there is no baby in the pram and follows her to a music hall where he watches Mr Memory (James Hayter). She goes back to his flat and reveals that she is a spy working for British intelligence looking for the organisation The Thirty-Nine Steps who are after information on the British ballistic missiles project. When she is murdered in his flat he goes on the run, encountering a bevy of schoolgirls on a train with their teacher Miss Fisher (Taina Elg) who reports him to the police but he jumps off the vehicle on the Forth Bridge and hitches a ride on a truck driven by ex-con Percy Baker (Sidney James) who advises him to stay at The Gallows Inn run by occultist Nellie Lumsden (Brenda De Banzie) and her husband who help him escape during a cycling race.  He approaches Professor Logan (Barry Jones) only to find the man is in fact the leader of the spy ring and he must keep running … I’m not having a Sagittarius in the house tonight! Hitchcock was responsible for the first adaptation of John Buchan’s classic spy-chase thriller and this is a more or less straight remake, with the romance-chase narrative lines crisscrossing pleasingly as per the generic template established by The Master. More may be a slightly ridiculous hero but this is played for comic effect and its Hitchcockian homage continues in the casting of De Banzie who essays a knowing spiritualist in her crofting cottage. It has the advantage of location shooting, a winning plot, doubtful romantic interest, a deal of suspense and a collective tongue planted firmly in cheek. Directed by Ralph Thomas, written by Frank Harvey and produced by Betty Box. Keep out of the woods. Especially in August!

Barnacle Bill (1957)

Barnacle Bill theatrical

Aka All At Sea. From the dawn of time we have always mixed in nautical circles. Royal Navy Captain William Horatio Ambrose (Alec Guinness) has an unfortunate problem – seasickness. It’s particularly embarrassing given his family’s 400-year history in the profession. He spent WW2 teaching in training schools and wasn’t exactly a success. He decides to invest in an amusement pier in the seaside town of Sandcastle but encounters opposition from the local Councillors when he attempts to establish the Victorian structure as a centre for entertainment for the young instead of the old codgers so decides upon a radical course – to have it registered as a foreign sailing vessel (the Arabella, in honour of his former foe now ally, beach hut proprietress Mrs Barringon, played by Irene Browne). He advertises cruises, to which the public flock in droves. When the councillors decide to charge him berthing fees he cuts off their land connection and his enemies plot a course of sabotage … For the price of my modest savings at last a command of my own. T.E.B. Clarke’s script might have a little too much quirk for modern tastes but it’s a lot of fun, with a couple of sequences featuring Bill’s ancestors that tip the nod to Guinness’ eight roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets – because Guinness plays them all. There are lots of other familiar faces including Percy Herbert as his first officer; Eric Pohlmann as the Ambassador from Liberama, happy to give his pier a boat number; Richard Wattis as a civil servant; and Victor Maddern as a treacherous dredge boater. There is a great sense of sly rather than vicious satire, backed up with lots of fun visual jokes – an escape artist rolling about stuck in a sack; a bunch of uniforms waging war in pedalos!; Bill and Mrs Barrington getting drunk and sliding up and down the floors of Crazy Cottage in wonderfully canted shots – and several good scenes mocking petty conspiracies and the backhanders people have to pay to councils, profiting off their situation. Ultimately cut off from the rest of his ‘ship,’ Bill arrives in France, to the delight of the locals. One might call it his Dunkirk. John Addison has a lot of fun pastiching seafaring tunes and shanties. Watch out for Jackie Collins as a beat girl. A massively underrated late Ealing feature, ripe for rediscovery. Directed by Charles Frend, also responsible for The Cruel Sea. What larks! What goes down must come up!

Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters

You’re flushing your career down the toilet for a cowhand. Corporate defence lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is approached by his grandmother’s farmer neighbour Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) to investigate the deaths of hundreds of his cattle in Parkersburg, West Virginia, probably due to a poisoning incident by manufacturer DuPont. The company’s lawyer Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) promises to help Robert but stalls so Robert files suit to get discovery and with nothing useful in an Environmental Protection Agency report he finds information about an unregulated chemical called PFOA which turns out to be Teflon – and it’s on and in everything including the water supply, poisoning with a substance the body cannot tolerate or absorb and causing six cancers and facial deformities. It transpires that DuPont carried out tests and did not make the findings public. The case drives Robert’s behaviour to cause his former lawyer wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) to worry for him and he eventually collapses from ill-health as the years wind on, with Wilbur and his wife Sandra (Denise Dal Vera) getting cancer from the infected water they’ve been consuming. They refuse DuPont’s offer of settlement – they want justice. Robert finds that Medical Monitoring is permitted in West Virginia and undertakes a class action lawsuit with the biggest sample of epidemiological data in history but after seven years there are still no results, his marriage is in difficulty and he’s taking yet another paycut  … Better living through chemistry. Adapted by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael  Carnahan from three articles in The New York Times and The Intercept, this is a grimy looking drama about corporate malfeasance that’s paced as slowly and deliberately as Bilott’s lawsuits, with some touches of conventional genre paranoia in one thriller sequence (in a car park, surprise surprise).  It unfurls chronologically, a decade-and-a-half-long story of terrible, destructive deceit – a toxic pollution arrangement covertly blessed by Government agencies, yet another searing indictment of structural inequality and the impunity with which big companies abuse power and kill people, no questions asked. It’s a David and Goliath procedural tale that has global ramifications and despite its desperately dull appearance and some flawed and oddly impersonal directing choices there are some great moments especially for Tim Robbins as Ruffalo’s boss; and Bill Camp, who exudes his usual authenticity beneath some truly eccentric eyebrows. Hathaway’s stay-at-home wife gradually gets a better arc than at first appears; while Ruffalo is shuffling and in pain, dressed in too-big clothes in a whistleblowing role that clearly is a labour of love, a wannabe Hulk gravitationally pulled to earth, feeling the hurt of all his sick, suffering and dying clients as he does his due diligence with dignity and perseverance. Stick with it. Like the Teflon on your frying pan that’s killing you every day. Directed by Todd Haynes. The system is rigged

Dolittle (2020)

Dolittle

The doctor is back. Eccentric Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) lives in self-imposed solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. Devastated by the death of his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak), his only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when little Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), accompanied by young orphan Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), asks him to assist young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) who has become gravely ill, the eccentric doctor and his furry friends embark with Stubbins, now his new apprentice, on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure. He is pursued by Dr Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), a jealous medical school rival who is conspiring with evil courtier Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent) to kill the monarch. However he must don a disguise to fool his former father-in-law, the wild brigand King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) who still resents Dolittle for taking away his beloved late daughter. And to obtain the cure for the Queen of England, Dolittle must do battle with the mythical dragons that lie in his way but Müdfly gets there before himI’m too beautiful to die. A remake of the legendary 1967 musical flop (and Eddie Murphy’s 1998 dissociative iteration) based on Hugh Lofting’s Victorian friend of the animal world, from a screen story by Thomas Shepherd, this is written by director Stephen Gaghan & Dan Gregor & Dan Mand & Chris McKay. From squid and stick inset spies, to a parrot narrator (Emma Thompson), a gorilla answering the door and Downey essaying every accent in the British Isles while attempting to alight occasionally in Wales, this is a creature feature of a different variety. Unfairly maligned, this is mild entertainment determinedly pitched at a kiddie audience. It skips through a vaguely sketched plot that even has an Innermost Cave taken from the Hero’s Journey story model, giving Sheen mugging opportunities in another Blair-ite role; while Frances de la Tour has her impacted CGI dragon colon relieved in a leek-induced surgery clearly meant for bottom-obsessed children. This is wonky but it has a good heart and some inappropriately contemporary linguistic efforts to befriend an ethnic audience using a big-name voice cast for the CGI animals (including Ralph Fiennes as a troubled tiger called Barry, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Selena Gomez, Kumail Nanjiani), plus some of that toilet humour to ruffle the feathers. It’s far from a masterpiece but you know that already and Downey is, well, Downey. For some of us that’s plenty, even when his charm is severely tested talking down to the youngsters. Team work is dream work

The Wrong Box (1966)

The Wrong Box

He who Fate sees fit to favour. The Finsbury brothers, Masterman (John Mills) and Joseph (Ralph Richardson), are the last two surviving members of a sixty-two year old tontine [a pool of money/investment scheme] that will pay a huge sum to whomever lives longest. Hoping to bankroll his perpetually bewildered grandson Michael (Michael Caine), Masterman asks Joseph to visit with the intention of killing him. However Joseph’s two scheming nephews John (Dudley Moore) and Morris (Peter Cook) also want the money. and mean to keep Joseph alive long enough to stake their claim. When they think Joseph has died en route to seeing his brother, they attempt to cover it up but they reckon without the complicating factor of Masterman’s apparent death, the intervention of Michael when he realises that Masterman has killed Joseph and the arrival of the Salvation Army led by Mrs Hackett (Irene Handl) who assume Masterman has attempted suicide in the Thames and return him to his home. Then there are questions about the whereabouts of the notorious Bournemouth Strangler …  One should always broaden one’s horizons. Adapted from the 1889 novel by Robert Louis Stevenson co-written with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, the screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove is a frequently hysterical and witty black comedy filled with incredible lines and boasting great performances – Peter Sellers has a marvellous couple of scenes as an aiurophile doctor, concluding with him blotting his signature using the bottom of a cute kitten called Mervyn. I specialise in rare marine diseases of the spleen. Mills and Richardson play the brothers to the hilt – an eccentric and a drag – Shut up, you pedantic boring old poop! It’s dotted with hilarious incidents including a chase involving horse-drawn hearses but the butler Peacock (Wilfrid Lawson, brilliant) has the best bits and Nanette Newman’s (Julia) romance with handsome Caine is choreographed to a gorgeous romantic theme composed by John Barry. Extremely funny with a superlative titles sequence – just watch what happens when Queen Victoria (Avis Bunnage) knights someone. Look out for Nicholas Parsons and Valentine Dyall among the first victims in a cast that represents most of the best comic performers of the era including Tony Hancock who turns up as a detective and that’s Juliet Mills as the cross-dressing Lesbian on a train. Directed by Bryan Forbes (in the third of his four films with Caine) and shot at Pinewood and in Bath with some very funny camera setups from cinematographer Gerry Turpin. Lawson sadly died aged 66 five months after this was released. He’s just extraordinary here and steals every scene he’s in. There are in certain parts of this city men – unscrupulous men! – who will perform unsavoury tasks

UFO (2019)

UFO

The guy on TV was lying.  College student Derek (Alex Sharp) tries to use his exceptional mathematical skills to interpret messages that appear to have been sent around a UFO sighting at a local airport, suggesting extra-terrestrial attempts at contact. Accompanied by his room mate Lee (Benjamin Beatty) and girlfriend Natalie (Ella Purnell) he is rebuffed by the airport staff and Government officials including FBI Agent Franklin Ahls (David Strathairn) and suspects a cover up. He requests the assistance of his professor Dr. Hendricks (Gillian Anderson) who thinks he is brilliant along the lines of a Thomas Edison but doesn’t really want anything to do with a gifted guy prepared to risk his scholarship by flunking her class. But he is haunted by memories of a childhood sighting which his mother refused to acknowledge … Do you know how many threats the airport gets every day? It’s not quite correct to describe this as suspenseful because it doesn’t conform to the usual tenets of dramatic pitch:  rather it settles for a flat realist line mirroring the landscape, leaving the maths to do the talking.  What’s marvellous is the lo-fi approach of paper, pencils and calculators to try and decrypt the probability and navigate the universe. Anderson is cannily cast, linking her meta-fashion to The X-Files, a shortcut to the idea dominating the story: We Are Not Alone. An intriguing exercise of singular focus utilising real-life information and TV newscasts about a 2006 incident at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Written and directed by Ryan Eslinger with a smart score by West Dylan Thordson. They put the Fine Structure Constant in their message. The mathematical equations and graphs are a thing of beauty, no matter how impenetrable. Practically a Hipster PDA exercise in astrophysics. That’s Warren Beatty and Annette Bening’s son as Lee. The wavelength is the unit of the measurement – it IS co-ordinates

Venetian Bird (1952)

Venetian Bird

Aka The Assassin. A thousand lira should take care of your ethics. English private detective Charles Mercer (Richard Todd) is deployed by a French insurance company to find a brave Italian war hero who is to be rewarded for his assisting of the Allies in WW2. But from the moment Mercer arrives in Venice his first contact is murdered in a shop and he finds himself on the wrong side of the law – he’s the prime suspect. After enquiring about the mysterious Boldesca (Sydney Tafler) at a museum where the art department  is run by the lovely Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok) the trail leads to a glassblowing factory at Murano where he discovers he has wandered into the plot of a coup d’état run by Count Boria (Wolf Rilla) and Lieutenant Longo (John Bailey) and it turns out that the supposedly dead mystery man Uccello (John Gregson) is very much alive and well and ready for action with an important figure visiting the city the following day … There is nothing for you in Venice. Adapted by Victor Canning from his novel, this has the impression of a Third Man-lite and if it doesn’t have that film’s canted chiaroscuro angles or shooting expertise it has an interesting location and an engrossing if initially confusing scenario. Todd (who was Ian Fleming’s preferred choice to play James Bond) acquits himself well in a narrative which involves a lot of running and jumping and standing still behind statues;  Bartok is suitably enigmatic as the woman with a secret;  and Margot Grahame gets some fantastically dry lines in her role as Rosa, a woman of a certain age:  I have never kept a man under my bed in my life. There are sly laughs to be had at the wholly incongruous casting of Gregson and Sid James, of all people, as native Italians. Directed by Ralph Thomas, but one is left wondering how a film of this ambition would have turned out if a master stylist like Carol Reed had taken hold of such promising material:  instead of a nighttime chase in the sewers of Vienna, we have a daytime chase across the rooftops of Venice; and there is another political theme that was groundbreaking. The score is by Nino Rota. Produced by Betty Box. Out of weakness and confusion we shall create division and strength