A Little Something for Your Birthday (2017)

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Picasso didn’t have two decades of credit card debt to pay. Designer Senna Berges (Sharon Stone) is desperate to find her soulmate.  As she attempts to pursue her passion for fashion, she changes jobs and has occasional relationships and hookups with younger men. Everything seems to be unsettled for the supposedly ditzy Senna until her 46th birthday party where she meets Adam (Tony Goldwyn):  has the free spirit found her match?… Isn’t it the unnecessary things in life that make the human experience so fascinating? We meet Senna in bed with a guy she picked up the night before and as she’s kicking him out the door he’s inviting her to see his band play at the Whisky on Saturday. Good! Writer/director Susan Walter’s screenplay was on the Hollywood Blacklist a decade back – screenplays that were liked by development executives but not produced (yet). This finally occasioned a debut for Walter and how happy for the viewer she’s cast some great women in her film – Ellen Burstyn and the underrated Famke Janssen, with Caitlin FitzGerald who some of us know fondly from Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated. Ah, romcoms. In which women who have a great existence still need that Special One to trim their corners and calm them down and make them Find Meaning tethered to a kitchen sink and a pram, as though one man could ever satisfy a woman. How on this good earth could one man ever be enough for the great Sharon Stone?! And why?! Remember what Katharine Hepburn said about marriage:  Why exchange the admiration of many for the criticism of one? So we have the meet sorta cute, the romance (years later), the parting, the re-evaluation, the pukerama of piece to camera interviews (Harry, Sally-ish) with women ruing their mistakes, and the finale with someone closer in age to our heroine than those attentive one-night stands. We meet Senna every year, on her birthday, in a nice structural touch, for seven years, and the relationship hits different beats as she matures and her expectations and work situations alter. Whatever: despite the midlife crisis craziness it still explores a kind of desperation that links Senna’s lack of business acumen with relationship non-savvy. Why is it wrong to have multiple relationships with guys twenty years younger? This certainly doesn’t tell us! Maybe that’s a good thing:  we can find out for ourselves, thank you. Burstyn has some stingers in a salty mother-daughter relationship:  Darla never told me you were dating a foetus; Janssen is the monster upon whom Senna exercises a nice bit of payback;  while Fitzgerald is the romantic competition. It’s pleasant entertainment with a hint of revenge, success and, what a woman wants, a woman eventually gets. Men don’t fall in love with women who don’t take themselves seriously.  Really?

 

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Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

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Every weapon is a tool if you hold it the right way. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is set in the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system. Denzel Washington stars as a driven, idealistic defence attorney whose life is upended when his mentor, civil rights icon William Jackson, dies after being in a permanent vegetative state following a heart attack.  Roman has been the backroom boy, a kind of savant talent unaccustomed to the rough and tumble of the courtroom where he immediately gets cited for contempt. He desperately needs money having no recourse to compensation for job loss.  He is recruited to join a firm led by one of the legendary man’s former students – the ambitious George Pierce (Colin Farrell) – and begins a friendship with Maya (Carmen Ejogo) a young champion of equal rights at a community centre but his old-fashioned views drive him out of an activists’ meeting. He is assigned to a case to defend a young black man who apparently assisted a man in the murder of a store worker. Roman receives privileged information about the shooter. What he does with that information turns his life upside down, triggering a turbulent series of events that put the activism that has defined his career to the test... What a freak. Admittedly while being a fan of the hugely talented Dan Gilroy this was a project I was half-dreading. The prospect of the great Denzel in a Black Panther  ‘fro, doing a quasi-autistic act put me right off:  it seemed like an actual throwback, the good guy against The Man. Indeed, his former employer is a hero to the civil rights movement which places this neatly in a time warp. However, from the Gil Scott-Heron soundtrack, literally permitting us entry into Roman’s brain, iPod permanently clamped to his head, this (eventually) sidesteps neatly around expectations in an LA-style shuffle.  It shifts at the midpoint sequence, when Roman takes his newly acquired money and treats himself first to maple turkey donuts (OMG) at the beach and buys some decent suits and Italian shoes to fit into the sleek new workplace. And then he gets a case that turns everything around and that buzzing in his ears isn’t interference, it’s the sound of justifiable paranoia due to inexplicable ethical failure. This is a different kind of LA-based alienation (and conscience) than that explored by Gilroy in Nightcrawler but when it ultimately gains traction (and it takes its sweet time) it’s hard not to like. The bigger plot point is one that is barely dealt with:  his lifelong class action project to defeat the plea bargaining scam that sees disproportionate numbers of black men in prison. Good construction, subtly pitting Roman Vs. George in the final third (and then against himself, in a neat legal argument) makes this a compelling protagonist-antagonist drama with a rather pleasing twist to a story that questions how far idealism can last in a world driven by the need to survive and the guilt that sometimes follows the money, no matter how badly it’s needed. How Roman changes George is the whole point in a strange character study that has echoes of the terrific Michael Tolkin screenplay for Changing Lanes;  how George’s bad guy persona infiltrates Roman’s value system is a sinister aspect defeated by the film’s conclusion which has it both ways.  I am the defendant and the plaintiff simultaneously. I know you get it!

A Woman’s Secret (1949)

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I’ll admit mister that I’ve heard stories that make less sense than that. Popular singer Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) suddenly and inexplicably loses her voice, causing a shake-up at the nightclub where she performs. Her worried but loyal piano playe Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas) helps to promote a new, younger singer Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame) to temporarily replace Marian. Susan finds some early acclaim after being coached and improved, expanding her very limited range, but decides to leave the club after a few performances. Soon after Susan quits, she is shot and Marian becomes a suspect, telling the police that she shot Susan in a fury when she told her she was giving up singing, forfeiting the future she herself could have had. Luke counts on Detective Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) being able to prove Marian’s innocence Mrs. Fowler never seems to realise that crime goes on twenty-four hours a day.  Adapted from Vicki Baum’s Mortgage on Life by producer and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, this was Nicholas Ray’s debut feature, although They Live By Night was released first. The constant flashbacks make more of a mystery than there really is, with O’Hara particularly good as the woman who is basically scorned – by another woman. Their contrasting performing styles carry the film. There are some nice visual touches but hardly of the variety that mark out Ray’s later work and this is rather a perverse noir rendered more straight backstage melodrama by virtue of the presence of Douglas who never lets things get too strange. Mary Philips – the first Mrs Humphrey Bogart – is terrific as Mrs Fowler, the person who gets to the bottom of it all in a story that throws up some bright dialogue.  I’ve told you we’re going to keep talking about this until we stumble on something or other that will clear it up

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

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Our two children are dying in the other room, but yes, I can make you mashed potatoes tomorrow. Cardiothoracic surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) secretly befriends a teenage boy Martin Lang (Barry Keoghan) with a connection to his past. He introduces the boy to his family, his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and son Bob (Sunny Suljic) and daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) who begin to fall mysteriously ill… Something to put an end to all of this. That’s what I want. Can you do that? You do realize Steven, we’re in this situation because of you Those ancient Greeks knew how to plot a good play:  Euripides might be turning in his grave but Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos likes to upend expectations and in this interpretation of Iphigenia which we have seen a couple of times in the work of Taylor Sheridan in the Sicario films we are in the realm of the family romance in the Freudian sense. Those guys are great screenwriters! Adapted by the director with Efthymis Filippou, we are transported into a world like our own but slightly off, flatter and affectless with performances that have narrowed to the point of dramatic device. There are disturbing moments:  the opening, during a failed open heart surgery;  when Anna plays as though under anaesthetic to turn on Steven; Martin’s mother (Alicia Silverstone) coming on to Steven;  the revenge that Martin exerts on Steven and what Steven does to carry it through.  Keoghan’s entire presence is disturbing, only hinted at by his odd appearance.  The whole narrative is probably a joke about doctors playing God. Lanthimos’ films are an acquired taste and it is probably through the well-judged performances that the psychological horror shines through the black comedy and vice versa – despite its origins, this is drama without history, backstory or future.  A surgeon never kills a patient. An anaesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon never can

A Simple Favour (2018)

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Are you going to Diabolique me?  Perky smalltown single mom and vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is swept away by her new friendship with the glorious Emily (Blake Lively) PR director to obnoxious NYC fashion maven Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend), too busy in her professional life to do anything but show up occasionally to collect her little son from school. While fellow moms inform Stephanie that she’s just a free babysitter she’s convinced she and Emily are best friends because they bond over a daily martini at Emily’s fabulous glass modernist house until one day she gets a call from Emily to look after her kid and Emily doesn’t return. Stephanie’s daily vlogs get increasingly desperate as the days wear on. After five days she can’t take it any more. She gets embroiled in a search along with Emily’s husband, the blocked author Sean Townsend (Henry Golding) for whom she has a bit of a thing until she decides to dress up and play Nancy Drew when she discovers Emily had a very good life insurance policy… She’s an enigma my wife. You can get close to her, but you never quite reach her. She’s like a beautiful ghost.  While the world gets its knickers in a twist about female representation along comes Paul Feig once again with an astonishing showcase for two of the least understood actresses in American cinema and lets them rip in complex roles that are wildly funny, smart and pretty damned vicious.  This adaptation by Jessica Sharzer of Darcey Bell’s novel has more twists and turns than a corkscrew and from the incredible jangly French pop soundtrack – which includes everyone from Bardot & Gainsbourg and Dutronc to Zaz – to the cataclysmic meeting between these two pathological liars this is bound to end up in … murder! Deceit! Treachery! Nutty betrayals! Incredible clothes! Lady parts! Revelations of incest! Everything works here – from jibes about competitive parenting and volunteering, to the fashion business, family, film noir, Gone Girl (a variant of which is tucked in as a sub-plot), heavy drinking, wonderful food, electric cars.  And again, the clothes! Kudos to designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus who understands how to convey personality and story. Never wear a vintage Hermès scarf with a Gap T-shirt. If you were truly Emily’s friend, you would know that It’s wonderfully lensed by John Schwartzman, one of my favourite cinematographers and the production design and juxtapositions sing. This is an amazing tour of genres which comes together in two performances that are totally persuasive – in another kind of film Kendrick and Lively might have to tell each other You complete me:  the shocking flashbacks to their pasts (which are both truthful and deceitful) illuminate their true characters. This is that utter rarity – a brilliantly complicated, nasty and humorous tale of female friendship that doesn’t fear to tread where few films venture. It’s an epic battle of the moms. Film of the year? I’ll say! I am so glad that this is the basis of my 2,000th post. Brotherfucker!  MM#2000

 

Daddy’s Home 2 (2017)

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You know, I’m just getting the feeling maybe you guys would like some privacy. Father Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) and stepfather Brad (Will Ferrell) join forces to make Christmas perfect for the children. Their newfound tolerant partnership soon gets put to the test when Dusty’s old-school, macho dad Kurt (Mel Gibson) and Brad’s gentle father Don (John Lithgow) arrive to turn the holiday upside down. After a sudden change in plans, the four men decide to take the kids to a luxury resort for a fun-filled getaway that turns into a hilariously chaotic adventure with Kurt’s competitiveness creating domestic chaos and Don concealing a terrible secret that unravels everyone’s idea of him … His total lack of masculinity, I mean his weak chin and soft underbelly bothers you not a bit? Written by director Sean Anders and John Morris from characters by Brian Burns, this sequel is an advert for toxic masculinity, shoplifting and avoiding the in-laws. Kurt’s enthusiasm for hunting inadvertently turns little Megan into a demon shot while Brad’s wife’s (Linda Cardellini) paranoia about Dusty’s wife’s (Alessandra Ambrosio) books is leavened by learning about her penchant for shoplifting. A funny sequence is a film-within-a-film starring Liam Neeson, sending himself up rather neatly (albeit he’s done it on every chat show he’s been on since the first Taken movie). This sequel has two wonderful actors (Gibson and Lithgow) and a modern day fool (Ferrell) and they do rather well with pretty thin gruel. I blame the parents.

Magnolia (1999)

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What am I doing? I’m quietly judging you.  In the San Fernando Valley, a dying father, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), his guilty young wife Linda (Julianne Moore), his male nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his famous estranged son the sex guru Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), Jim, a police officer (John C. Reilly) in love, Stanley Spector (Neil Flynn) a boy genius on TV’s What Do Kids Know? who’s bullied by his thug father (Michael Bowen), an ex-boy genius Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) whose parents robbed his winnings in 1968, the dying game show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) and his estranged cokehead daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), each becomes part of a dazzling multiplicity of plots, but one story, over the course of one day when it’s raining cats and dogs… Respect the cock! Paul Thomas Anderson was inspired to create this mosaic of intersecting lives by the songs of Aimee Mann and they dominate the audio to the point (occasionally) of overwhelming the dialogue. It commences with a documentary prologue of chance and coincidence, a kind of Ripley’s about life and gosh-darns that hints at an epic concluding event (and boy does it deliver). At its core this is an analysis of the father-son relationship and the trade-offs that are made throughout life until finally … you just gotta let it go. There is a raft of immense performances in a story which has an epic quality but thrives on the specificity of character in a plot revolving around child abuse in various iterations. We may be through with the past, but the past is never through with us.  The double helix structure finds natural convergence at the point where the protagonists each sings a line from one of Mann’s songs, It’s Not Going to Stop (Until You Wise Up):  this astonishing directing flourish starts with Claudia which is logical because here is a narrative about being generous to damaged people and as we find out, she’s the most damaged of all. Hence her gargantuan cocaine consumption. It’s about what fathers do to their children and sometimes their spouses too. And how mothers can raise children back up, even from their own terrible depths. In the aftermath of Burt Reynolds’ death it’s appropriate to consider that the role for Robards was conceived for Reynolds:  his troubled relationship with Anderson and his dislike of the content of Boogie Nights (for which he received the Golden Globe) led him to decline the part. Which is ironic because he had joked that he would wind up playing Tom Cruise’s father one day (and Cruise is absolutely tremendous here as the fraudulent motivational leader, a lying Tony Robbins for sexist brutes). Anderson saw in Reynolds a kind of darkness and humanity to add to his array of multiply-talented actors – most of the people here were the repertory from Boogie Nights and it’s such a conscious re-assembling of types it still surprises. It’s a shame because when one looks at the totality of Reynolds’ career it’s clear that his loyalty to friends led him to make oddly destructive choices:  while Redford had Pollack and De Niro had Scorsese, Reynolds had … Hal Needham, the stuntman living in his pool house for 11 years. If he had spent those few necessary days on this set and well away from Thomas Jane, who knows what way his career might have swerved in the Noughties?! Goodness knows what made him turn down Taxi Driver, a film that has sway here. Perhaps Anderson is paying tribute to Reynolds by giving Claudia the debilitating condition that he got on City Heat when a stunt went wrong – the excruciating jaw injury TMJ that crippled him for over a decade. This may have started as a series of overlapping urban legends, an operatic disquisition on the damage that men do; it concludes with some tweaked endings and a Biblical purging of shame. How apt that it should be Claudia to break the fourth wall. With a smile. But it did happen

Experiment Perilous (1944)

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If any man had one moment of sanity, in that one moment, he would take himself out of this world. When psychiatrist Hunt Bailey (George Brent) encounters elderly Clarissa ‘Cissie’ Bedereaux (Olive Blakeney) during a violent storm on a cross-country train trip in 1903, his unusual relationship with the strange Bedereaux family begins with an introduction by his friend on arrival in New York. Suspicious of Cissie’s sudden death by heart attack at her brother’s house just hours after they parted and entranced by a painting he sees of Allida (Hedy Lamarr), the gorgeous but troubled wife of Nick Bedereaux (Paul Lukas), Hunt sets out to discover if Allida is really insane, as her husband claims – or if Nick is the disturbed one. He finds a he said-she said scenario but starts to believe Nick is gaslighting Allida when he overhears a suspicious conversation between Nick and their young son whom the man appears to have imprisoned at the top of a spiral staircase.  He now believes Nick is mad and Allida is in danger … Life is short and the art long. Decision difficult, experiment perilous.  Warren B. Duff’s screenplay (adapting a novel by Margaret Carpenter) is an efficient entry in the Gothic genre that took off during WW2. Director Jacques Tourneur handles it well enough but it doesn’t have the kind of tension that marks out the classics. Lukas is never as threatening as you would hope and Brent is as usual the classy caring handsome gent we all know and love but the action has no compelling line. It’s worth seeing for Lamarr, that stunning and poorly deployed actress who takes on a type of role made famous by Ingrid Bergman and applies her own particularly distanced interpretation, with the maternal focus lending it a poignancy.  That Lukas is the older husband who groomed a much younger wife for society has its echoes in Lamarr’s own biography. The strangers on a train inciting incident is well constructed and the social scene nicely established but the cod-psychiatry might irritate.

Tully (2018)

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I’m here to take care of you.  Suburban New Yorker Marlo (Charlie Theron)Marlo is about to give birth to her third child. Her husband and best friend, Ron (Ron Livingston) is loving and works hard, but remains clueless about the demands that motherhood puts on her. Their son is autistic and is thrown out of kindergarten because he’s such a freak nobody can handle him. Their daughter is… ugly. When the baby is born, Marlo’s wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) hires a nighttime nanny named Tully to help his sister handle the workload. She resists initially and succumbs to the horrendous 24/7 grind of feeding, nappy-changing, washing, feeding, nappy-changing-, washing… and looking after the other problem children. And her husband. Who comes home at night and after cursory contact with his family retreats to the bedroom to play videogames. Hesitant at first to hire someone else have contact with her newborn daughter, Marlo soon learns to appreciate all that Tully (Mackenzie Davis) does – forming a special bond with her new, lifesaving friend, a free-spirited 26-year old … Mom what happened your body? In director Jason Reitman’s fourth collaboration with screenwriter Diablo Cody and their second together with Theron after the superb Young Adult, the grisly subject of motherhood and post-partum depression is confronted head-on. Sort of. There is (eventually) a spectacular reversal which doesn’t completely undo the point of the story but it contributes to negating its effect.  Marlo is a capable woman who is mortified by meeting someone in a cafe that she used to know from way back – because right now she’s a huge, grotesque looking, shuffling, sweaty lump in her ninth month and her friend is clearly the same as before:  unmarried, svelte, pleasant but rather disturbed to meet a woman she regarded as her equal in her worst possible situation. The friend runs away, embarrassed. The loneliness of motherhood, the disgusting physical aspects and the sheer mind-numbing boredom of being at home with a puking screaming crapping baby are well caught while her body turns into a milking machine. Her brother asks if she is going to go the same way as she did following her son’s birth, which hints at the story outcome. He’s married to a tiny Asian and their children are … perfect. And they used a night nanny. Like all parents, Marlo and Ron are in denial about their son’s psychological peculiarity which they and everyone else insist on calling quirky rather than the blooming obvious. The torture of childbirth is pretty much avoided, which is surprising given how much skin is on display.  On the other hand, motherhood is pathologised as a mental illness – and with good reason:  I can’t remember the last time I slept like that.  I can see colour now, muses Marlo the first time after the night nanny has been in the house. As she explains to Tully about how women the world over are, We’re covered in concealer. On the one hand this is about saying goodbye to your youth and realising that a marriage going for the long haul is hard, thankless work that drains body and soul and is the end of everything you ever enjoyed about your husband particularly one who is literally blind to what is wife is going through all day.  And all night. When he’s asleep. On the other it’s about the sheer misery of having children which is not a message you’ll see or hear from too many in real or reel life. Its entire message can be encapsulated in one image: a gross, stained, unwashed, filthy, sleepless, brain-dead and dishevelled Theron sitting at the dining table with a salad she’s emptied from a bag to accompany store pizza and ignoring the two awful children playing with mobile phones opposite her. Ron comes in after a wonderful day at the office and asks, So you’re letting them have screen time now? As good an ad for contraception as you will ever see. Yes, there’s a trick played on the audience which some find unforgivable and in common with the rather disappointing endings to Cody’s other screenplays, it’s to do with succumbing to female biology, pathology and psychology whether you want to or not. But motherhood (and the lies surrounding it) is the biggest trick of all and it’s very clear about that subject. It’s a hell from which there is no return:  kiss your twenties goodbye, permanently. And a lot more besides. Needless to say, Theron is just great. My body looks like a relief map for a war-torn country

Once a Jolly Swagman (1949)

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Aka Maniacs on WheelsNow listen, you little flash boy, I’m getting tired of you and your attitude. In late 30s Britain Bill Fox (Dirk Bogarde) is a bored factory worker who loses his job and starts winning speedway competitions. He meets glamorous society woman Dorothy (Moira Lister) who introduces him to a new and exciting social circle and Bill quickly forgets his working class roots, changing his image and his loyalties. But when his brother is off fighting in Spain, distressing his mother (Thora Hird), he finally comes to his senses and eventually becomes disillusioned with the Mayfair scene.  He marries Pat (Renee Asherson) the sister of his Aussie team mate, Lag Gibbon (Bill Owen). He tries to form a riders union to ensure families are financially secure should an accident occur on the track, which angers his sponsor Rowton (Sid James). Pat tries to get Bill to pack up racing and open a garage, but Bill refuses and she leaves him. WW2 arrives and Bill enlists as a motorcycle despatch rider but after the years of conflict, Bill is left with a dilemma, should he make a racing comeback or go straight and get back together with his one true love? When they meet at a solicitor’s office it’s to discuss a divorce  …. They want to see you swept up into little piceces. Bogarde was in just his second film and was already creating a unique screen persona in the realm of British cinema if he doesn’t have quite the technique yet to make this work.  This unusual melodrama has a gritty feel in the motorcycle sequences (director Jack Lee was a documentary maker) but it doesn’t hold up as a class analysis, which is the other side of the narrative.  Adapted by William Rose (with contributions from Lee and additional dialogue by Jack Clifford) from the novel by Montagu Slater, it becomes a kind of study of masculinity, before, during and after World War 2 and Bogarde’s Bill Fox evolves, becoming a vector for a kind of political consciousness. The sight of Bogarde with a dodgy spiv-like moustache when he’s mingling with the upper classes and decked out in a trenchcoat is something to behold, but so too is his wedding breakfast later, when he makes a pro-union speech, ensuring alienation from Rowton. His physicality is probably the most fascinating aspect of this early star performance although his well-educated accent doesn’t add up. The business side of this sport does not come off well in the story nor does it flinch from the dangers of track racing, with a nasty accident filmed with as much detail was was possible (or permissible) and the effects on Lag’s mental health held to account when he winds up brain-damaged and ‘nervous’ at a psychiatric hospital. Fox’s attempts to find gainful employment after the war must have struck a chord with many men returning from combat. There are interesting performances here with Hird doing a great job as Ma Fox, even if she’s decades too young, Cyril Cusack playing fellow soldier Duggie Lewis and Bonar Colleano as the decent American on the scene (that accent!). An intriguing entry in British cinema and a must for Bogarde completionists.  The title of course comes from Waltzing Matilda, which is used as a cue in Bernard Stevens’ score. Produced by Ian Dalrymple. How do you like it out there in the rain?