Charlie Says (2018)

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We just be. We just let things happen. Years after the shocking murders that made the name Charles Manson (Matt Smith) synonymous with pure evil, the three women who killed for him – Leslie ‘Lulu’ Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins (Marianne Rendon) remain under his spell. Confined to an isolated cellblock away from the rest of the prison population, the trio seem destined to live out the rest of their lives under the delusion that their crimes were part of a cosmic plan, until empathetic graduate student Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever) attempts to rehabilitate them ... We all belong to Charlie. If you’re lucky he’ll pick you next. Every girl should have a daddy like Charlie. There are two issues of cinematic representation that come into play in this particular film:  the question of charisma; and that of empathy. The peculiarly horrific episode that was the slaying of nine-months pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends exhibited none of the latter; while the questionable personality of Charles Manson only reinforces our impression of the blind stupidity of people who permit themselves to be manipulated into performing mindless and heinous acts of murder in the first place. But what we know and see of them is that it’s mostly about sex. So far, so bad:  you’ve lost your audience right away. Writer/director Mary Harron has been here before with American Psycho, an ingenious work of satire by Bret Easton Ellis: it needed someone funny and sexy, it got Christian Bale. It’s hard to make a humorous film if you as a filmmaker are devoid of that sense. Here the figure of the grad student stands in for the audience but people on this side of the pond are only too aware that in the last couple of weeks two such individuals were murdered by the Moslem terrorist they were attempting to rehabilitate. I digress. It’s structured as a series of flashbacks in a perverse take on the rites of passage story. The ongoing cultural mystery (maybe) is why a slew of teenage girls became feral monsters living in drug-addled sexual squalor and why communes attract people. Perhaps there’s no real mystery:  starve people, ply them with drugs and nonsense and perform sex acts on them and you’ve got a Grow Your Own Perverted Killer scheme in progress. The film’s first half addresses this through the governing flashback structure of Van Houten’s experience:  we see how Charlie reels people in. (How on earth did he persuade grown women that they were going to turn into winged elves? Years later, this is what they tell Faith in prison. They still believe it.) The film pivots at its midpoint when in a flashback record producer Terry Melcher (Bryan Adrian) visits Spahn Ranch and the freaks strip to Charlie’s dreadful wailing which passes for his big showbiz audition. They’re like Dracula with his succubi. Awkward. We don’t hear Melcher’s discreet dismissal of Charlie’s woeful effort but he hands him money and speeds off with his sidekick. This is the real Helter Skelter moment.  It segues into Karlene’s realising in conversation with Virginia Carlson (Annabeth Gish) that as long as the women are sequestered together they are just repeating Manson’s brainwashing;  as soon as she starts educating them about their crimes they will be forced to confront the horror of what they have done. Thus the second half of the film dramatises with bloody fervour the ensuing murders which are Manson’s supposed revenge following their group sex idyll BC (or Before the Crimes, the girls say, when they were all about love!). You can practically taste the stench of gristle when it hits the noses of the protein-deprived vegetarians as they stab their victims indiscriminately. Interestingly, and like Tarantino’s Hawksian fairy tale swerve on the same material, Charlie is shown at Melcher’s house where he is greeted by the lovely and heavily pregnant Sharon Tate (Grace Van Dien), clarifying step by step the trajectory of Mason’s bloody mission. It’s as if we were taken to the the art dealers that rejected Hitler (oh, I think we saw that one actually). Smith just has to shrink his shoulders, sing dreadful songs (Cease To Exist, indeed) and perform cunnilingus in an unenlightening impersonation;  it’s the girls and Tex Watson (Chace Crawford) who do the heavy lifting here. Guinevere Turner adapted Ed Sanders’ book The Family and Faith’s memoir. There is a twist ending, but even if it had panned out there’s no indication that it would have changed anything for anyone except Van Houten in this coda of wish fulfillment. The story to know is that of Linda Kasabian (India Ennenga) who ran away from the Tate murders and has lived her life in witness protection in exchange for informing on the dreadful cult. Perhaps not. How many more films do we need to see about these credulous disgusting hippies? The new iteration of their type are now running the world from Northern California through their tech cult.  Preserve us all from people who want to be loved. We didn’t have to do any of it

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas (2011)

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You have a good job, you make good money, and you don’t beat your wife. What more could a Latino father-in-law ask for? Wall Street broker Harold (John Cho) is asked to look after a Christmas tree by his father-in-law (Danny Trejo) who objects to the faux monstrosity in his suburban villa,  but he and his ex-roommate Kumar (Kal Penn) end up destroying it with a giant spliff from a mysterious benefactor.  The two then set out to find a replacement for the damaged tree and embark on a chaotic journey around New York City with their BFFs Todd  (Thomas Lennon plus his infant daughter) and Adrian (Amir Blumenfeld) while scoring drugs, having sex, trying to avoid being murdered by a Ukrainian ganglord and making babies … The tree is a cancer, Harold. We have to get rid of it before it kills Christmas. The stoner dudes are back apparently unscathed after a sojourn in Gitmo, rampaging and raunching about NYC in as tasteless a fashion as humanly possible. With a toddler off her trolley, a claymation sequence, a song and dance feature starring Neil Patrick Harris who isn’t really gay, every ethnicity and creed mocked and a penile homage to A Christmas Story, this is the very opposite of woke. A laugh riot intended to be seen in 3D but we’ll take an egg in the face whatever way it falls. Almost heartwarming! Screenplay by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson. Oh, great. Now we’re getting tinkled on

A Christmas Carol (1938)

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Keep Christmas in your own way and let me keep it in mine. On Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen) is visited by the spirit of his former partner, Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carroll). The deceased partner was as mean and miserly as Scrooge is now and he warns him to change his ways or face the consequences in the afterlife… Humbug, I tell you. Humbug! Charles Dickens’ sentimental novella gets a fine adaptation by Hugo Butler and a delicate, sprightly production by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and director Edwin Marin. Everything is beautifully staged and nicely played by a very apposite cast. There is a deal of magic with the ghosts (Lionel Brabham, Ann Rutherford and D’Arcy Corrigan) and some excellent scene-setting and romance between Fred (Barry MacKay) and Bess (Lynne Carver). The atmosphere is well sustained and it’s a very enjoyable rendition that tugs at the heartstrings even if the 1951 British adaptation is a personal favourite. The countdown begins… It’s the only time when human beings open their hearts freely

Knives Out (2019)

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I suspect foul play. I have eliminated no suspects.  When crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies just after his 85th birthday, inquisitive Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives at his estate to investigate despite the presence of police officers (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan). He sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind the writer’s untimely demise as each of the family members and the immigrant nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) who cared for Harlan is questioned in turn. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a successful businesswoman with a an unfaithful husband Richard (Don Johnson) and a layabout son Ransom (Chris Evans). Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the publishing company his father founded for his writing output, but they’ve been fighting. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is an advocate of self-help and has been helping herself to the old man’s money. His ancient mother (K Callan) never seems to die. Harlan’s devoted nurse Marta then becomes Harlan’s most trusted confidante but who hired him in the first place? … This is a twisted web, and we are not finished untangling it, not yet. The closed-room murder mystery is a staple of crime fiction and it’s not necessarily where you’d expect writer/director Rian Johnson to turn after a Star Wars episode (The Last Jedi) although it harks back to his debut, Brick, a take on Chandler/Hammett with teenagers. The touchstones are pretty clear:  Agatha Christie; the game (and film) of Clue(do); Peter Sellers and Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark; and some of the grasping familial mendacity we recognise from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If truth be told, it’s not very mysterious and barely suspenseful with two big twists a regular filmgoer or mystery reader will see through easily which means that they of course are not the point. It’s the dismantling of those hoary old tropes that provides the narrative motor. Much of the entertainment value derives from game comic playing by an established cast with a soupçon of political commentary provided by the nurse’s immigrant status which leads to a good line featuring Broadway hit Hamilton and everyone gets her native country wrong, one of the running jokes. Another is her need to vomit when telling a lie. The other one is stretching out the syllables in Benoit’s name so it sounds like Ben wa although personally I find Craig more prophylactic than sex toy and his ‘tec is Poirot X Columbo with an affected drawl. It looks quite sober and already feels like Sunday evening TV. For the undemanding viewer. CSI KFC!

Destroyer (2018)

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Silas is back. As a young cop, Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) went under cover with colleague Chris (Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate a gang in the California desert – with tragic results. Sixteen years later, a prematurely aged, alcoholic and divorced Bell continues to work as a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department, but feelings of anger and remorse leave her worn-down and consumed by guilt. She has to deal with her trampy truanting 16-year old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) shacked up with a hoodlum (Beau Knapp) while in the custody of her ex-husband Ethan (Scott McNairy). When Silas (Toby Kebbell) the leader of the old gang suddenly re-emerges, Erin embarks on a quest to find his former associates, bring him to justice and make peace with her tortured past but the implications for everyone connected with her could prove terminal ... I’ve got good news and bad news. There’s nobody fucking watching. But I see who you are. Kidman is absolutely rivetting in a narrative that is all about backstory and how it plays into the present – great writing by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi with a marvellous reversal of the usual gender expectations, Kidman giving us her version of Bad Lieutenant. This is relentlessly tense but also touching – who couldn’t feel desperately sad when Shelby shows up for an attempt at conciliation by her mother – accompanied by the twentysomething junkie gangster who’s having sex with her? Dreadful. Emma’s demons are internal but they’re also familial, professional, external. It’s probably Kidman’s greatest performance but it’s brilliantly conceived and executed in terms of how it looks (shot by Julie Kirkwood), how it feels and how it plays, with a raft of detailed, memorable character performances by a cast that includes James Jordan, Bradley Whitford and Tatiana Maslany. A tour de force by director Karyn Kusama, and all who sailed with her. Outstanding. What if I know who did it?

 

The Irishman (2019)

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It is what it is. In 1975 mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and his boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives are on an east-west roadtrip, their ultimate destination Detroit for the wedding of Russell’s niece. An elderly Sheeran tells the story of their association as a meet-cute when he was driving a meat truck in the 1950s and his rise through the ranks, his appointment to a Teamster position under Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) the union supremo with deep Mafia ties. It becomes apparent that there is an ulterior motive to the journey and their role in America’s evolution particularly with regard to the Kennedy family is traced against a series of hits Sheeran carries out that reverberate through US history… What kind of man makes a call like that. Not so much Goodfellas as Oldfellas, a ruminative journey through midcentury America via the prism of a violent hitman who allegedly befriended and later murdered infamous Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. This is toned-down Scorsese, with muted colours to match the readjusted and very mature framing of Mafia doings in terms of the impact it has on family, chiefly Sheeran’s sensitive daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin as an adult) whose mostly silent presence functions as the story’s moral centre:  her horror of Bufalino is a constant reprimand. Steven (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) Zaillian’s adaptation of Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses is not for the fainthearted:  its overlength is sustained mainly by performance with a powerhouse set of principals (plus Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale et al) battling against a lot of unmemorable and somewhat repetitive dialogue (but when it’s good, it’s great), under-dramatised setpieces and a fatally bloated midsection (as in life, so in narrative), much of which is spent in courtrooms. Every time there’s a lull in the action someone needs Frank to off the source of their discontent and sometimes this is handled with straightforward exposition, sometimes in a montage of Frank disposing gun after gun off a bridge. That’s the story punctuation. Mostly however the issue is with DeNiro’s dull and wearying voiceover. This is not the funny jive kick of Ray Liotta in the aforementioned 1990 classic, it’s a man utterly comfortable in his killer’s skin who doesn’t defend himself because it’s who he is and he is not given to introspection, a flaw in the anchoring perspective. If we’re seeing it, we don’t need to be told too. The de-ageing effect is jarring because we don’t see the DeNiro of Mean Streets, rather a jowly preternaturally middle-aged man who shuffles in an old man’s gait. While Pesci is calm and chillingly content in his own position as a capo, it’s Pacino (in his first collaboration with Scorsese) who lifts the mood and fills the air with punchy, positive ions, giving the movie a much-needed burst of energy. But even he seems to be circling the wagons around his own self-satisfied persona as the same story/work-life issues repeatedly arise. It’s a big movie about nasty men who (perhaps) played a huge role in the shaping of their country and the hierarchies of cultures and ethnicities are regularly invoked in a tale which may or may not be true. There are some potentially amusing gatherings of men in black suits at family events. But funny they ain’t.  It’s sad perhaps that Scorsese didn’t make this for cinema and after three weeks on limited release it is fated for eternity on a streaming service:  a sign of the times and perhaps the swansong of a major filmmaker at the end of the 2010s. The nail in the coffin of an era? After this we might be asking not just who killed Jimmy Hoffa but who killed the mob movie. Late Scorsese, in more ways than one. They can whack the President, they can whack the president of the union

Captain Marvel (2019)

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You call me ‘young lady’ again, I’ll shove my foot up somewhere it’s not supposed to be. Captain Marvel aka Carol Danvers or Vers (Brie Larson) is an extraterrestrial Kree warrior who finds herself caught in the middle of an intergalactic battle between her people and the Skrulls. After crashing an experimental aircraft, Air Force pilot Carol Danvers was discovered by the Kree and trained as a member of the elite Starforce Military under the command of her mentor Yon-Rogg. Back on Earth in 1995, she keeps having recurring memories of another life as U.S. Air Force pilot Carol Danvers. With help from S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) Captain Marvel tries to uncover the secrets of her past while harnessing her special superpowers to end the war with the evil Skrulls… We have no idea what other intergalactic threats are out there. And our one woman security force had a prior commitment on the other side of the universe. S.H.I.E.L.D. alone can’t protect us. We need to find more. The first twenty minutes are wildly confusing – flashbacks? dreams? reality? WTF? Etc. Then when Vers hits 1995 we’re back in familiar earthbound territory – Blockbuster Video, slow bandwidth, familiar clothes, Laser Tag references, and aliens arriving to sort stuff out under cover of human identities. And a killer soundtrack of songs by mostly girl bands(Garbage, Elastica, TLC et al). So far, so expected. Digital de-ageing assists the older crew including Annette Bening (she’s not just Dr Wendy Lawson! she’s Supreme Intelligence, natch) but the colourless Brie Larson (well, she is named after a cheese) doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the otherwise tolerable female-oriented end of the action adventure. There is however a rather marvellous ginger cat called Goose happily reminding us of both Alien and Top GunWritten and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. I have nothing to prove to you

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!

Boy Erased (2018)

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

Josephine and Men (1955)

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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