Frida (2002)

I like you this way – you’re easier to keep up with. Young Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) is a rambunctious teenager who lives riotously and has an active sex life with her teenage boyfriend Alejandro (Diego Luna). When a tram accident lays her up with potentially life-threatening and crippling injuries she fights back and during all the months encased in plaster discovers a talent for painting, beginning with self-portraits. When she tries to interest people in her paintings she seeks out Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) whom she taunted as a student. Despite his womanising ways she falls for him and they begin an affair which his wife knows about. They end up living in an apartment above hers. Rivera continues to sleep with his models and Frida paints and her surrealist work attracts attention. In New York in 1934 where Diego has been commissioned to create a mural for Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton) his work is censored and both he and Frida have affairs with Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd) and Frida suffers a heartbreaking miscarriage. Back in Mexico her sister Cristina (Mia Maestro) becomes his assistant and Frida finds them in bed together. She returns to her parents’ home and descends into alcoholism. After meeting Diego again at a Day of the Dead celebration he introduces her to Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) who falls for her when he moves into her house when he is granted political asylum and Frida leaves for Paris when Trotksy’s wife finds out. She returns to Mexico and Diego asks for a divorce then Trotsky is murdered … I should never have put you in a room with him. Adapted by Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava & Anna Thomas (and Antonio Banderas and Edward Norton, uncredited) from the 1983 book Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera, this is a beautiful, reverential and somewhat stolid biopic despite the talents, the artistry and the protagonist herself, memorably played by Hayek (who shepherded the production) especially as a teenager. However the episodic nature contrives to mitigate against momentum in this cosmopolitan tale, despite the wonderful aesthetic embellishments – with scenes melting out of Kahlo’s paintings, animations bringing still lifes to fast-moving existence and the use of costume as signifier. As is so often the case in these historical stories, it seems the people around the main character are more interesting and the circumstances more stimulating – and here it’s Diego Rivera who controls the narrative: Frida’s life and fate are basically a reaction to him and that both unbalances the characters and tilts the story in a different direction than it wants to go. It really succeeds as a portrait of a country in a kind of turmoil and exercising fascination for artists, bohemians and the international left. It’s not a failure but more a near miss that ironically really comes to life in the music scenes when Hayek is singing those mournful Mexican songs that make the hairs stand up in thrall to the passions this woman conjures. Beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto and there’s a wonderful score by Elliot Goldenthal. Directed by theatre great Julie Taymor. A communist generous enough to pay off our mortgage

Miss Juneteenth (2020)

A crown don’t make some magical life where all your dreams come true. Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) former beauty queen and single mom prepares her rebellious fourteen-year old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) for the Miss Juneteenth pageant a scholarship programme for black girls in Fort Worth, Texas to commemorate the day in 1865 when slaves found out they had actually been freed two years earlier. She has an on-off relationship with her mechanic husband Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) who lives apart from the family but occasionally hooks up with Turq despite the efforts of local funeral director Bacon (Akron Watson) to woo her as he’s been attempting since their teens; her pastor mother (Lori Hayes) is an alcoholic from whom she’s mostly estranged; and her life serving rowdy locals in a bar-restaurant seems hopeless. She is pinning everything on Kai making it through the pageant process to ensure her future – the future she herself messed up. Kai however is only interested in dancing and wants to do it competitively and take the alternate route through life and her mother’s destiny is one she wants to avoid then Ronnie gets put in jail after a fishing expedition goes wrong, money is short and Turq has to dream differently … Not only will you represent your beautiful selves but our history as well. Written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples, this takes a cliched setting – single mother, deadbeat dad, endless money troubles – and upends all expectations by subtle writing and performing, especially by Beharie. This isn’t just about a stage mother – it’s about race and society and changing your destiny. It also has an historical basis which is easily threaded through the story in which disappointments seem interminable and family seem to permanently let you down. The upbeat twist ending suggests that sometimes daughters know best, the very antithesis of Mildred Pierce in this uplifting tale of empowerment and sisterhood. Executive produced by David Lowery. Was I a good mother?

The High Note (2020)

You’re not a producer. You’re not an artist. You’re not a manager. Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a music superstar whose talent, and ego, have reached unbelievable heights even if she hasn’t released new work for a decade. Her overworked personal assistant Margaret Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson) is stuck running errands, but still aspires to her childhood dream of becoming a music producer after a composing course at college and being reared in a musical household. When Grace’s manager Jack (Ice Cube) presents her with a choice that could alter the course of her career, Maggie steps in with her own production of one of Grace’s songs inadvertently triggering problems for Grace who is a forty-something artist on a male-run record label that just wants her to retire to a steady gig and income stream in Vegas. Meanwhile Grace has met a talented singer songwriter, similarly motherless David (Kelvin Harrison Jr) and she pretends to be an accomplished producer, dreaming up a plan that could change all their lives forever … I am a very big draw. Make sure he’s with you for you. Casting the (admittedly) very accomplished daughters of two Hollywood stars in these roles is almost an own goal; however the screenplay by Flora Greeson sidesteps the obvious references and (most of) the music biz cliches in favour of something more inner-directed and ultimately familial (in a different way). Frankly no PA would get away with Margaret’s behaviour – she’s both too nice and too audacious – so the plot needed some more tuning. If the territory for women looks like it’s also being tackled it also sadly sidesteps much of that quagmire – when Grace emotionally admits that only four women over forty every had number one hits (actually it’s five now) and one is black, she lays out the stakes she’s facing: We could pretend we live in a magical world where age and race are not a thing. There are nice moments of acknowledgment at other levels, like when Margaret’s room mate Katie (Zoe Chao) shows her a picture from her work doing heart surgery and declares it’s not like it’s real work, like art. Ross has several moments that might strike ironic recognition from Diana Ross’ playbook not least when she appears on stage with that hair and those dresses. It’s her expressivity that controls the film’s success, she never goes full blown diva, there’s always another beat to play than the obvious. Her permanent house guest/housekeeper/moocher Gail (June Diane Raphael) has some amusing moments but she’s hardly Thelma Ritter (can I help it if I think about All About Eve or even Working Girl?). But the setup never gets vicious in the way you might expect: Margaret seems too nice for words after a few years working in this environment but after she’s fired her trip home to her DJ dad (Bill Pullman) offers us a change of both scene and pace on glorious Catalina Island, a sequence which reunites parents and children Shakespeare-style without the storm of professional ties being unchained. This is a story that’s so relaxed it’s practically horizontal. So it’s a fairy tale without true jeopardy, bringing broken families back together via romance. Not such a bad idea, as it happens but there’s a remix waiting to break loose, somewhere, dealing with midlife crises in female singers and the male-run music business. Oh, wait, this is it. There’s a stunning duet to conclude a film that’s all about performance. Directed by Nisha Ganatra. Ever since I was a little girl I dreamed of giving you an enema in Toronto

Carrie (1952)

Everybody’s a stranger until you meet ’em. Beautiful young Carrie Meeber (Jennifer Jones) travels from her small hometown to live with her married sister Minnie (Jacqueline de Witt) in Chicago in the 1890s, On the train she meets well-off travelling salesman Charles Drouet (Eddie Albert). When she loses her job in a sweatshop, she reconnects with the charming and smitten Drouet because she needs a new job to pay $5 board to her Swedish brother-in-law Sven (Robert Foulk – uncredited) but she becomes Drouet’s mistress and is now a kept woman. When Drouet’s friend middle-aged restaurant manager George Hurstwood (Laurence Olivier) falls in love with her, complications ensue. He hasn’t told her he’s married albeit unhappily to a controlling social-climbing wife Julie (Miriam Hopkins) and to escape his marriage (and two children making their way in society) he has to commit grand larceny in his office. As he and Carrie make a life together in New York his circumstances worsen and she is none the wiser as to why he cannot work. Then she tells him she’s pregnant and their financial problems threaten to overwhelm them when he reads in the newspaper that his newly married son is arriving from his honeymoon and Carrie sees an opportunity to improve their situation leaving him to his own devices while she blags her way to an acting career … You’ve got to pay the fiddler in this world. Theodore Dreiser’s realist novel Sister Carrie is adapted by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz for the screen and becomes a typically beautiful William Wyler production – grave, melancholy and immensely moving. Not least because Olivier gives a truly magnificent performance as a man undone by desire and love, brought low by a woman so much younger and more naive. When he declares, This much happiness I’m going to have, you know his sacrifice will bring him down. He is enormously sympathetic, his acting horns drawn right in, probably because with Wyler he was never going to be able to indulge the grand theatrics of old: they had already worked together on Wuthering Heights and the mannered actor in him had been brought to book then by a director who knew just how much he needed from him, and how much storytelling he could do with the camera. And here the camerawork by Victor Milner is supreme, framing every emotional beat with just the right amount of distance and shot size, emphasising different perspectives and roles, juxtaposing possibility with imminent disaster, not least in those wonderful train scenes. Jones’s lack of technique somehow works to the advantage of the story: as her professional acumen improves, so does her control of the narrative: when she sees her ill and bedraggled husband again, and asks, Did I do this? it is simply heartbreaking. Their mismatched yet overwhelming love for one another contrives to make this one of the great unsung melodramas. The casting of Hopkins, who had also worked with Wyler (These Three), and Albert, is perfect, their character notes bringing solidity to an otherwise unbearable tragedy. It’s a sad story but I’ll keep it strictly commercial

The Rainmaker (1956)

I need a name that’s as whole as the sky with the power of a man. During the Great Depression, a drought is wreaking havoc on a small, destitute Kansas town. Bill Starbuck (Burt Lancaster) a slick con artist arrives in town, promising he can make it rain in exchange for $100. His offer is accepted by H. C. Curry (Cameron Prudhomme), a rancher whose middle-aged spinster daughter Lizzie (Katharine Hepburn) is desperate for a suitor. Her brothers Noah (Lloyd Bridges) and Jim (Earl Holliman) are more concerned about her marital status than the state of their thirsty cattle. Lizzie finally finds confidence when Starbuck, ever the smooth talker, convinces her she’s beautiful but the Deputy Sheriff J.S. File (Wendell Corey) for whom she has an unrequited love discovers Starbuck’s true identity and purpose and arrives at the ranch to put him away … You don’t know what’s plain and what’s beautiful. A stagy adaptation by N. Richard Nash of his own play that really struggles to breathe until the last third when Hepburn comes into her own and blossoms under the gaze of antagonist Lancaster, who gives his barnstorming character a touch of magic. It would have been better if Bridges’ role had been bigger as the meaner, more pragmatic brother but Holliman is really fun as the younger supportive one. It’s a studio-bound production which doesn’t even attempt realism but the photography by Charles Lang is rather lovely and the twist ending gives it a nice sendoff. Worth seeing purely for the starry performances. Directed by Joseph Anthony. Is it me? Is it really me?

Capricorn One (1978)

A funny thing happened on the way to Mars. Three astronauts Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Peter Willis (Sam Waterston) and John Walker (O.J. Simpson) are about to launch into space on the first mission to Mars. But when a mechanical failure surfaces that would kill the three men, NASA chief Dr James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) removes them from the Capricorn One capsule otherwise their funding will be pulled by Washington. To prevent a public outcry, NASA secretly launches the capsule unmanned and requires the astronauts to film fake mission footage in a studio in the middle of the desert. They do so under fear of their families being killed on a plane bringing them back home. However, the plan is compromised when ambitious TV journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) starts reading deeply into a message Brubaker has broadcast to his wife Kay (Brenda Vaccaro) after his friend at NASA Elliot Whitter (Robert Walden) suddenly disappears when he detected the TV signals ahead of the capsule transmissions. When Caulfield’s brakes are tampered with he visits Mrs Brubaker at home to watch some innocuous home movies which confirm his suspicions that the mission is faked then finds the FBI in his apartment framing him for drug possession … With that kind of technology you can convince people of almost anything. Conspiracy theories ahoy! Director Peter Hyams’ screenplay exploits the story that won’t go away about the televised Apollo moon landing and extrapolates a juicy suspenser with an amiable cast. Not in the same league as the major paranoid thrillers of the era, it’s still bright and breezy and pretty plausible given the deniability factors and the political mood. Of cult value for the (non-)performance of Simpson with Karen Black along to help the wonderfully ironic Gould (whose dialogue is superior to the rest of the cast’s) get his man. And then there’s a crop dusting scene that of course recalls North by Northwest – in reverse! With Kojak at the helm! Godalmighty this is a lot of fun but there’s one horrifying scene in the noonday sun that will make you weep. It’ll keep something alive that shouldn’t die

Scarlet Thread (1951)

An East End spiv. A 1950s wide boy with cinema accent. Petty thief Freddie(Laurence Harvey) likes to talk jive in an American accent in London’s Soho where he hangs out trying to impress the ladies. He joins forces with suave gangster Marcon (Sydney Tafler) to commit a jewel heist in the University town of Cambridge with (Harry Fowler) driving their getaway car. But loses his never, fires his gun and the victim, an elderly man gets dragged away in the car. When the men are chased through the streets of Cambridge by students they take refuge in the garden of the Master’s house and are greeted by his daughter Josephine (Kathleen Byron) who takes them for graduates and invites them in. Marcon introduces himself as an old student – Aubrey Bellingham – and passes himself off to a visiting vicar but Josephine’s romantic interest Shaw (Arthur Hill) is suspicious and then her aunt (Renee Kelly ) arrives – the woman the men ran into as they escaped their pursuers. And womanising Freddie then takes a fancy to Josephine, then it transpires the man he shot was her father – and the radio news reports the man has died … This university is packed with young men who talk in inverted commas. Lewis Gilbert’s early noirish film provides a great opportunity to see a callow pulpy youthful Laurence Harvey, learning which side of his face was more photogenic and doing the old cheap romance thing with (bizarrely enough) charismatic Byron, she of Black Narcissus with the crazy lipsticked mouth – and the clue to his real British identity recalls that film. How bizarre it is to see these gangsters come a cropper in the rarefied setting of Cambridge University, chased by students in flapping gowns. There’s some genuinely interesting cinematography by Geoffrey Faithfull – over the shoulder tracking behind Tafler (Gilbert’s brother-in-law) and Harvey after the heist goes wrong; point of view shots in the getaway car piloted by Harry Fowler alongside a policeman on a motorbike making good use of the rear view mirror as he sweats at the wheel. The contrast between these surprising crims and the fish out of water setting is jarring but also pleasing, the early Soho scenes with Dora Bryan and the presentation of Harvey as spiv quite fascinating. Not great but it is has its moments, not least when Harvey’s mask (and fake American accent) slips and Tafler’s act as the ancient graduate is very convincing. Adapted by A.R. Rawlinson and Moie Charles from their play. You dance too well. It makes me think of all the women you’ve danced with

Evil Under the Sun (1982)

Even in those days, she could always throw her legs up in the air higher than any of us… and wider. Private detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) goes to an exclusive island that is frequented by the rich and famous. Fabulous actress Arlena Stuart (Diana Rigg) has alienated her latest husband Kenneth Marshall’s (Denis Quilley) young daughter (Emily Hone); is in an adulterous relationship with married gadfly Patrick Redfern (Nicolas Clay) whose jealous wife Christine (Jane Birkin) doesn’t even want to go out in the sun; and she is probably the culprit over a very valuable jewel stolen from her former husband Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakeley) that Poirot was hired to locate by the insurance company when he presented them with a fake. Gossip columnist Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall) can’t get Arlena to sign off on a tell-all biography; while theatre producers Odell Gardener (James Mason) and his wife Myra (Sylvia Miles) lost their shirts when Arlena walked off their last stage show with a fake medical cert. The hotel’s proprietress, failed actress and former rival Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith) meanwhile is still brooding over their comparative successes and her isolation from the world of showbiz. When Arlena is found murdered everyone has an alibi. Except Poirot … I have a big fat motive but no alibi. Adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel by Anthony Shaffer (with uncredited work by Barry Sandler) this takes a decidedly camp approach to the material, aided and abetted by wonderfully playful costuming, classic Cole Porter songs (arranged by John Lanchbery) and an exotic location in the Adriatic in contrast with the original’s island off Devon. It plays fast and loose with the content replacing the original’s dialogue with some very amusing wisecracks and barbed exchanges, viz. Rigg’s comment about her awkward teenage stepdaughter, She runs like a dromedary with dropsy. It’s not Christie but it is funny. Ustinov had replaced Albert Finney (from Murder on the Orient Express) in the preceding adaptation Death on the Nile and delivers a different variety of flamboyance with all kinds of nice touches and humour. It gathers itself back into the author’s original mode for the last half hour with everything accounted for in a very pleasing conclusion. Great fun. Directed by Guy Hamilton in Majorca and shot beautifully by Christopher Challis. You mean nobody did it. MM #3100

Downhill (2020)

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

Like a Boss (2020)

My head isn’t little. It’s just that my breasts are humongous. Mia Carter (Tiffany Haddish) and Mel Paige (Rose Byrne) are friends since they were teenagers and manage a small cosmetics business despite their conflicting ideals. When they run into financial difficulties and need an investor they are persuaded by industry magnate Claire Luna (Salma Hayek) to allow her take a large stake but it involves firing their employee and chief cheerleader Barret (Billy Porter) and his colleague Sydney (Jennifer Coolidge) is rightfully angry on his behalf. Mia and Mel’s friendship is tested to the limit and they realise their ambitions and their relationship are about to rupture when they regroup … You’re not fierced! This light comedy wastes the grand talents of its ostensible leads who are mired in a drama about their unequal friendship while Hayek wins the day with a set of enviable buck teeth and a penchant for golf – unlike most people in business she doesn’t waste time going to the course, she tees off on her desk with predictable breakages. Sentimental, silly and feel good with some nice bursts of song from Mia and Mel this is barely passable as entertainment but you’ll not forget those dentures in a hurry and Lisa Kudrow makes a welcome entrance at the eleventh hour. Written by Sam Pittman & Adam Cole-Kelly from a story by them and Danielle Sanchez-Witzel. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Thank God I’m not alone. I’m glad you’re here