Queen of the Desert (2015)

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Who knows best about tribes? In 1902 Gertrude Bell Nicole Kidman the daughter of wealthy British parents and a recent Oxford graduate. has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions, and a life of privilege bring her only boredom. At one dance a potential suitor actually suggests fornication and alludes to her similarity to his prize herd. Aspiring to some usefulness in her life, Gertrude decides to join her uncle who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. There the young lady not only encounters the Near East but also falls in love with an embassy employee, Henry Cadogan (James Franco) who adores her for her perspicacity and teaches her Farsi. However, their romance does not last long as her parents consider the young man a poor matrimonial choice for their daughter and forbid the marriage. Desperate, Henry commits suicide, failing to reconcile himself to the enforced separation. Gertrude finds out in a letter home following her mother’s death. For the remainder of her long life Gertrude Bell completely devotes herself to exploring and writing about the Near East in the wake of his death. She encounters T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) on an archaeological expedition and turns down a request to become a spy for the British Government. She visits her beloved Bedouin tribes over the Arab lands and earns their trust. Upon going to Damascus she encounters Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) and he confesses his passion for her but he’s married. She is kidnapped by an emir who wants to marry her – she could be his mother.  And when she returns to Syria, she finds World War One has spread … I would give my life for a woman like you.  This extraordinary story, of a pioneering woman traveller, writer, archaeologist and (eventually) a politician whose views shaped the delineation of the borders in the Middle East, following the implosion of the Ottoman Empire, gets a romantic biographical treatment. Kidman brings tremendous feeling to a woman of singular self-possession whose life nonetheless is shaped by the contours of love and death. It’s a rather conventional form for Werner Herzog who wrote and directed it, but there are scenes which communicate seemingly directly with nature, music by Klaus Badelt and Mark Yeager which feeds from desert song.  It’s not the mad epic you think you might get – it’s from Bell’s own writings and from history and it’s a swooning and beautiful interpretation of a woman alone among military men who seem to suffer intolerable repression. For the first time in my life I know who I am.  My heart belongs to the desert

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The Heat (2013)

If you’re not in trouble you’re not doing your job.  Ambitious NYC-based FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is a methodical investigator with a long-standing reputation for excellence and arrogance. She’s better at finding drugs than sniffer dogs and is far superior to her male colleagues so they don’t like her, putting her desired promotion in jeopardy. She can’t even keep a relationship going with a cat so she borrows her neighbour’s.  In contrast, foul-mouthed, hot-tempered Boston Irish detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) goes with her gut instincts and street smarts to remove criminals from the locale, including her brother Jason (Michael Rapaport) which has alienated her family. Her own mother (Jane Curtin) gives her the finger in a drive by.  Sparks fly when these mismatched polar opposites are forced to work together to capture a drug lord, the unseen Larkin, but in the process, they become the last thing anyone expected – buddies. When they discover there’s a mole in the investigation everything is put into jeopardy … My fear is that I’m gonna put you in a bikini and you’ll still look like a fucking bank teller. Screenwriter Katie Dippold has put so many zingers into this you’ll have to watch it twice because you’re laughing so much you miss half of them. This subversion of the odd couple cop/buddy actioner is screamingly funny as it works through the genre’s tropes with zest and two fingers. Bullock’s buttoned-up uptight PC perfectionist priss Ashburn is wonderfully set off against McCarthy’s unkempt foul-mouthed vicious bully Mullins. Ashburn can’t get a date, Mullins has a mystifying physical allure. Thrown together, they are mutually united in their disgust for the albino inflicted on them from the Drug Enforcement Agency – a wonderfully offensive running joke in homage to the film with a film, Goldie Hawn’s brilliant Foul Play (a regular spin here at Mondo Towers). The anticipated painful seam of piss-taking at Boston accents is disposed of in one neat exchange over the Mullins family dinner when Ashburn tells them they’ve dropped the ‘r’ in Narc. Mullins’ realisation her brother is in a coma because of her actions leads to the only transient episode of sentiment as Ashburn’s attitude is transformed hearing the sexist comments made by their male colleagues – she turns into a gibbering expletive-laden mini-Mullins – and triggers the final act when the women’s solidarity becomes ninja-strong. God, you guys are just – what is the matter with you? You’re such… you’re just such jerks! You’re just such… shit jerk! You’re just a shit jerk dick… fucker! You’re a shit jerk dick fucker assholer. And you can all just go fuck yourselves!  With Marlon Wayans as a thick drug dealer and Demian Bechir as the boss who can’t help laughing,  this is lightning fast, hilarious, rude and brilliantly directed by Paul Feig. Truly funny. The cat got one look at your shitty life and said “no fucking thanks, man. I am outta here.”

I Feel Pretty (2018)

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I am brave. I am blonde. I can handle this.  Renee Bennett (Amy Schumer) runs the website for cosmetics firm Leclair from a dank basement with a vile co-worker and struggles with feelings of insecurity and inadequacy on a daily basis.  After watching Big on TV she wakes from a fall at Soul Cycle believing she is suddenly the most beautiful and capable woman on the planet and aims to do what gym bunny Mallory (Emily Ratajkowski) does, charming the pants off men with nary a second thought. With newfound confidence, she applies to be receptionist at Leclair’s HQ on Fifth Avenue, getting taken on by the Minnie Mouse-voiced CEO Avery (Michelle Williams) who has self-esteem issues and a nitpicking grandmother Lily (Lauren Hutton) who doesn’t believe she’s good enough to run the company she founded. Renee might just be the person to tell them how to sell their diffusion line (ie cheap range) to the common people. She picks up a guy called Ethan (Rory Scovel) at the dry cleaners and calls him up but abandons her friends Jane (Busy Phillips) and Vivian (Aidy Bryant) who were trying to get Liked on a group dating website. What will happen when Renee realises her appearance never changed and that it’s her newfound self-confidence that wins people over and Ethan likes her as she is? The company needs her to sell their product to Target  and she hits her head in the shower and she is shocked to find she never changed at all … The trouble with this Amy Schumer film is that Amy Schumer is in it. It was clearly written to highlight her strengths as a sketch performer – potato-faced, potty-mouthed, not afraid to show us her Spanx – but that merely accentuates her limitations. She is no actress. Nor is she the female Will Ferrell (I wish she’d try harder). The other joke (sort of) is that Williams can act Schumer’s socks off and is relegated to the high-pitched second banana role – and she’s brilliant as the daffy character;  while a really gifted comic actress, Busy Phillips, is in the Sad Normal Best Friend category with brunette hair and minimal makeup.  In a Nora Ephron film she’d be getting the zingers and giving the advice. Here, nope, nada, not a chance. Minimal funny.  And the Really Fat Friend in Colourful Clothes played by Bryant? Well, she gets the Fascinating Hobbies. That said, a story about female self-empowerment which resolves in a cosmetics firm maximising their profits from the little (ugly) people who don’t want stick insects humiliating them in posh shops by having the hapless deluded Schumer shilling the products, which, um, really wasn’t the message of Big at all … What’s wrong with THIS picture? Um, everything. We were here before, in Shallow Hal, and we didn’t like it any better then. This is a movie taking on the wretched self-hatred that plagues women yet coasts on body image jokes about people being overweight. Ethan has his own self-esteem problems – he doesn’t go to Zumba to pick up women, he beats up on himself for not being in the ‘boys’ club’ at work.  Renee thinks she is beautiful and her really stunning friend Jane is not. Yeah, right. Problem is, this is a movie and we can see. And yes, this is a film that is having it both ways trying to tell us that if we only persuaded ourselves that we were worth it… oh there I go, quoting a cosmetics firm. What kind of intelligent woman dreams about taking a paycut to be a receptionist anyway?! This is a fundamentally illogical story. And, instead of going for the vicious jugular, at which Schumer excels, with cynicism and humiliation as side dishes, this aims for sentiment, hypocrisy and happy ever after. Like the kids say, Get Real. Me too! Written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein who clearly do not advocate for women’s rights or eloquence and as for laughs … Feminism how are ye.

 

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

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I could lay under you, eat fried chicken and do a crossword puzzle at the same time; that’s how much you bother me. When her abusive husband dies, single mom Alice (Ellen Burstyn) and her wiseass 12-year old son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter) leave their small New Mexico town of Socorro for California, where Alice hopes to make it as a singer despite not being particularly good.  She dreams of returning to Monterey where she grew up. Money problems force them to settle in Tucson, Arizona instead, where Alice takes a job as waitress in a small diner owned by Mel (Vic Tayback). She intends to stay there long enough to make the money needed to head back out on the road, but her plans change when she begins to fall for David, a rancher (Kris Kristofferson). Tommy befriends Audrey (Jodie Foster), a slightly older girl who encourages bad behaviour and whose own mother is a prostitute.  When David quarrels with Tommy, Alice leaves him until they come crawling back to one another …  Martin Scorsese (handpicked by Burstyn) entered mainstream Hollywood with this genre piece, a woman’s picture written by Robert Getchell (who died 2017) that announces itself with a parodic rose-tinted dream sequence and titles on crushed satin, 1930s-style. But it’s a woman’s picture with an underlying and sometimes overt threat of violence, despite its sunsplashed settings. So we travel with Alice as she makes her way through life as an adult who has it tough but still dreams of being what she wanted as a small child, reality notwithstanding, lurching from one bad relationship to another in the American Southwest. As this 35-year old woman’s life is unpicked, sometimes with humour and sometimes with pain, the crushing of her ambitions is hard to watch even as she maintains a certain optimism necessary just to make it through her day.  Making the decision to settle for less is something she works on every day. Burstyn’s performance is nuanced and moving, but she is matched by Lutter as her bratty son (who seems more like an argumentative friend) and Foster as his troublesome friend, and particularly by Ladd as Flo the fellow waitress with whom Alice shares home truths. Burstyn won the Academy Award, Ladd was nominated, and Getchell lost out in the Best Screenplay category to Robert Towne for Chinatown. Scorsese was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. That’s how good a year this was for movies.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

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Are you normal?  What is normal?  Harvard psychologist and inventor Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) has the good fortune of having two women in his life – his eventual wife and colleague Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) who is denied her PhD because of her gender and their mutual lover, student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) the niece of the birth control activist, Margaret Sanger, whose feminist mother Ethel, Sanger’s sister, abandoned her to the care of nuns. Marston creates the DISC theory of Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance which he lectures on to besotted female students.  In addition to helping him perfect the lie detector test, they form a ménage à trois which leads to the academics being fired from their University jobs and moving to the burbs where the two women inspire him to create one of the greatest female superheroes of all time, beloved comic book character Wonder Woman as their unconventional lifestyle and penchant for S&M causes problems for the legitimate and illegitimate children they raise together…  This sly old dissertation on American values is told in a series of flashbacks as Marston is forced to defend his comic book’s content to Josette Frank (Connie Britton) inquisitor in chief at the Child Study Association of America in the post-war era as comic books were literally burned, Hitler style, in the streets. No fool she as she knows all the moves, BDSM or no.  It’s amusing to see the trio’s relationship revealed first with the lie detector machine and then in the den of iniquity lorded over by Charles Guyette, the G-string king (JJ Feild) while outwardly life in the burbs goes on as per usual. This is an origins story with a difference and if it plays rather fast and loose (or restrained, whichever you’d prefer) with the lasso of truth, then it’s fun and imaginative and very well performed – interpreted, written and directed by Angela Robinson. Produced by Amy Redford.

Elle (2016)

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Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all. Believe me. Perverse, funny, strange, blackly comic and at times surreal, this is a film like few others. It opens on a black screen as Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped by a masked man. She gets up, cleans herself and bathes and carries on as though nothing has happened. At work she is the one in control – it’s her company and she deals in the hyper-real, trying to make video games more experiential, the storytelling sharper, the visuals more tactile. She is attacked in a cafe by a woman who recognises her as her father’s lure – as a child she her dad murdered a slew of people and he’s an infamous serial killer, turned down for release yet again at the age of 76 and it’s all over the news:  there’s a photo taken of her as a blank-eyed ten year old which haunts people. Her mother is a plastic surgery junkie shacked up with another young lover. Her ex-husband (Charles Berling) is broke and tries to pitch her an idea for a game. Her loser son has supposedly knocked up a lunatic girlfriend (the eventual baby is not white) and needs money for a home. Elle is sleeping with the husband of her partner Anna (Anne Consigny). She likes to ogle her neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). Now as she gets text messages about her body she tries to figure out who among her circle of acquaintances could have raped her – and then when it happens again she unmasks him and starts a relationship of sorts following a car crash (a deer crosses the road, not for the first time in a 2016 film).  This is where the edges of making stories, power, control, reality, games and the desire for revenge become blurred. Adapted from Patrick Dijan’s novel Oh by David Birke and translated into French by Harold Manning, this is Paul Verhoeven’s stunning return to form, with Huppert giving a towering performance as a wily, strong, vulnerable, tested woman – she owns her own company and handles unruly employees using a sympathetic snitch but cannot control her family members and their nuttiness. You can’t take your eyes off her, nor can the camera.  While she tries to figure out how to regain her composure (she rarely loses it, even while she’s getting punched in the face) she also sees a way in which she might obtain pleasure.  In some senses we might see a relationship with Belle de Jour: Michèle is the still centre of a world in which crazy is normal. It’s shot to reflect this, with the video game and the animation of her made illicitly by one employee the only visual extremes:  the assaults (there’s more than the first, when she gets the taste for it) are conventionally staged. She has turned the tables on her rapist – he is undone by her desire for sex. This is all about role play.  When Michèle finally decides to cut the cord on all the loose ends in her life it brings everything to a satisfying conclusion as she regains her balance – her role as CEO assists her manage her own narrative minus any generic tropes. Now that’s clever. Oh! The audacity! What a great film for women in a very contemporary take on noir and the notion of the femme fatale. Big wow.  I killed you by coming here.

Their Finest (2016)

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Why do you think that people like films? It’s because stories are structured; have a shape, a purpose, a meaning; and when things gone bad they’re still a part of a plan; there’s a point to them. Unlike life. In 1940 London former secretary and comic strip writer Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired by the Ministry of Information to insert more realistic female banter in propaganda films. She’s shacked up with failing war artist Ellis Cole (Jack Huston) who becomes jealous of her job while he can’t get an exhibition of his work. She starts working on a story from the newspapers about identical twin sisters who supposedly rescued soldiers at Dunkirk but discovers it was exaggerated. While she is struggling with the screenplay she falls for screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and rows with self-centred actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) whose career is basically at an end.  All the while the German bombs rain down on London and they’ve got to use an American war hero (Jake Lacy) who’s never acted before , turning journalistic fiction into a movie to entertain the masses and get America into the war … There’s a great idea buried here under a mound of rubble caused by the German bombs. Gaby Chiappe’s adaptation of Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half can’t decide whether it’s a comedy or a drama and at its heart is an issue of research – and the lack of it. There are some good insights into the kind of wartime propaganda inserted into films of the era and nice pastiches but they’re overly obvious. The second (major) death is quite laughable which is presumably not what was intended. Rachael Stirling offers some terrific oppositional feminism as Phyl from the Minstry and Nighy steals every scene as the actor who turns out to be human after all. Jeremy Irons enjoys himself as the Secretary of War.  Another somewhat tentative tragicomic British film from Danish director Lone Scherfig (after An Education and One Day) with Arterton more or less delightful in a performance which attempts depth but drops the Welsh accent PDQ and Nighy gives his best Leslie Howard, sort of.  Harmless and inoffensive irony which I suppose is a kind of propaganda in itself.

9 to 5 (1980)

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Okay, I’m gonna leave, but let me tell you one thing before I go: don’t you ever refer to me as ‘your girl’ again.  Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda) is forced into the workplace after her divorce from husband Dick (Lawrence Pressman). She is introduced around Consolidated Companies by supervisor and widowed mom Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin) who is routinely put down by boss Franklin Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman) who steals her ideas for updating office practice. His married secretary Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton) is presumed by everyone to be his mistress – because that’s what he tells them.  The three women spend a night together having drug-induced fantasies of killing him. Doralee panics the following day when she suspects she really has poisoned the tyrant but it’s all a misunderstanding and they then swear revenge on the sexist liar by kidnapping him and running the company themselves… This has a really great premise:  three women take on a male chauvinist sex-harassing idea-stealing embezzling pig and…  forty minutes in it descends into a drug-fuelled fantasy and absurdist farce and everything falls apart. With one of the most charismatic casts you’ll ever encounter and singing star Parton making a fantastic screen debut you’ll wonder how this was so poorly conceived.  It was all Fonda’s idea and Patricia Resnick did the first draft before production and it evolved from a labour drama into a straightforward comedy. We are literally taken away from the scene of the action – the office – and back to Hart’s house where he swings from the ceiling in an apparatus that looks like it’s from an S&M store. Writer-director Colin (Foul Play) Higgins (who rewrote it) wrecks his own movie as he loses the plot but it’s still good-natured and did bonzo box office and even led to a TV series, due in no small part to the amazing title song which Parton composed during filming as she tapped her acrylic nails along to the rhythm of the typewriters.  Higgins said the cast were a joy and he went on to do The Best Little Whore House in Texas with Dolly. All’s well that ends well!

Mermaids (1990)

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Weird things happen. It’s 1963. Fifteen-year-old Charlotte Flax (Winona Ryder) is tired of her wacky mom (Cher) moving their family any time she feels it is necessary. When they move to a small Massachusetts town Mrs. Flax begins dating kindly shopkeeper Lou (Bob Hoskins) whose wife has run away. Charlotte and her 9-year-old swimming enthusiast sister, Kate (Christina Ricci), hope that they can finally settle down. But when Charlotte’s attraction to an older man Joe (Michael Schoeffling) the convent’s caretaker gets in the way, the family must learn to accept each other for who they truly are just as the President is assassinated and the nation mourns…  June Roberts’ adaptation of Patty Dann’s book is adept and appropriate, giving Winona Ryder one of her best roles and she plays it beautifully. Funny, warm and engaging, this works on so many levels but it doesn’t dodge the effect of maternal neglect – which is also a case of overpowering personality:  Charlotte’s fantasy fugue to New Haven is a sharp reminder that mother-daughter relationships are a minefield and when the daughter starts imitating the mother’s promiscuous behaviour (in between attempts to live like a Catholic saint) Mom doesn’t like it and there’s collateral damage. The girls are not products of marriages – just a teen romance and a one-night stand with an Olympic athlete (maybe) and when things get tough, Mom always gets going.  It’s Charlotte who wants to settle down. There’s a wonderful running joke about Mom’s inability to prepare any food other than hors d’oeuvres or sandwiches served with star-shaped cookie cutters. With great dialogue, lovely scene-setting and on the button performances (Cher giving one of her best), there’s nothing in this well-judged comedy drama you can’t like even though it unexpectedly swerves directions, more than once.  The characters are still sympathetic despite being curiously narcissistic:  that’s good writing. Cher tops it off with The Shoop Shoop Song! Directed by Richard Benjamin.

20th Century Women (2016)

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Wondering if you’re happy is a shortcut to being depressed. It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California.  Architect Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a sprawling 1905 fixer-upper boarding house at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion.  William (Billy Crudup) the contractor renting a room doesn’t seem like an appropriate father figure so Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women – Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the house and neighbour Julie (Elle Fanning) a savvy and provocative teenage neighbour who often spends the night sleeping there – to help with Jamie’s upbringing. Trouble is, she doesn’t really like what’s happening to him and finds it difficult to reconcile the female-centric education with the man she wants him to be … Mike Mills’ autobiographical film has something of an arm’s length feel which you can surmise from the title. In creating this portrait of his mother he is keen to contextualise her in terms of her time and the opportunities open to her. Jamie often excuses the attitudes of this quasi-androgynous high-achieving divorcee with the line, Don’t worry about Mom, she’s from the Depression. Framing his semi-biographical comic drama in the terms of feminist and punk politics sometimes seems like a microscope powered by sociology is being applied in a film essay style instead of a dramatic eye when you want these lives to intersect more. However the drama is triggered by the opening scene when the family car spontaneously combusts in a parking lot.  It’s a good catalyst for the series of events to follow as Jamie’s adolescence progresses and Dorothea says in a moment of truth to Abbie, You get to see him out in the world and I never will. It’s a startling admission and something in these lines fuels a powerful drama that’s concealed between the smarts and upfront sex talk. Look at Bening’s face when her son tells her he thinks it’s good for him to be informed about clitoral stimulation. She’s the one who wanted him to learn how to be a man after all – she just didn’t know how it would make her feel when he goes out of his way to learn how to be a good man. There’s a lot to like here in an ironic mode and in a sense it’s crystallised by the cultural references – culminating in the clips from Koyaanisqatsi and Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech when he says the country is at a turning point:  they serve to illuminate the theme of the personal as political.  We are all living in the fallout from what was going on in northern Cali in the late 70s and Mills captures this in an uncanny fashion, fixing on a time that has birthed where we are now (albeit now it’s monetised). The production design is just right – the mix of the early 70s vogue for Art Nouveau with the well-placed mushroom lamp, the battle between Talking Heads and Black Flag fans which has a visual result on the doors of Dorothea’s Bug. There are a lot of good aesthetic and narrative choices here coupled with some very sympathetic performances amid a raft of generational and gendered experiences, Abbie and Julie’s mother issues being succinctly handled in parallel stories within medical and therapeutic settings. There is of course a nostalgic air but it’s cut through with intellectual argument bathed in California sun. Sensitive, seductive, suprising and satisfying.