Bel Canto (2018)

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How did you sing like that? Acclaimed American soprano Roxane Coss (Moore) travels to an unnamed South American country to give a private concert at the birthday party of rich Japanese industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe) who’s allegedly building a factory in the vicinity. Just as an élite gathering of local dignitaries convenes at Vice-President Ruben Ochoa’s mansion, including French Ambassador Simon Thibault (Christopher Lambert) and his wife (Elsa Zylberstein), Hosokawa’s faithful translator Gen Watanabe (Ryo Kase), and Russian trade delegate Fyorodov (Olek Krupa), the house is taken over by guerrillas led by Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta) who believe the President is in attendance (he’s at home watching TV) demanding the release of their imprisoned comrades. Their only contact with the outside world is through Red Cross negotiator Joachim Messner (Sebastian Koch). A month-long standoff ensues in which hostages and captors must overcome their differences and find their shared humanity and hope in the face of impending disaster. Roxanne and Katsumi consummate their rapidly escalating love for each other while Gen falls for rebel Carmen (Maria Mercedes Coroy) as the military gather outside the building … He is always moved by your music. Adapted from Ann Patchett’s novel by director Paul Weitz and Anthony Weintraub, this might be another instance of be careful when tackling literary fiction:  three mentions of telenovelas remind us that when you strip out the elevated language sometimes what you’re left with is a soap opera. And how unlikely much of this is, these people holed up in this nice residence, all getting along in this unreal idyll, even having sex, you just wonder where the butler is hiding the silver salver with the stacks of Ferrero Rocher and why it never occurs to anyone to escape not even when they’re wandering about that lovely tree-filled garden. Nonetheless Moore and Watanabe are both splendid and the underlying message that music is that other universal language is well made in this fantasy take on Stockholm Syndrome before it concludes in the inevitable bloodbath. What are the takeaways? Don’t adapt posh novels, stay out of South America where the natives are always revolting and for goodness’ sake don’t sleep with your kidnapper – or your biggest fan. It never ends well. Moore lip syncs to Renée Fleming.  Are you sure they won’t shoot you? Not everbody likes opera

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

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

Le Mans ’66 (2019)

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Aka Ford V Ferrari. You’re gonna build a car to beat Ferrari with… a Ford. American automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and fearless British race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary vehicle for the Ford Motor Company under the guidance of Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) taking orders from Henry Ford 2 aka The Deuce (Tracy Letts) in a fit of pique when Ferrari use Ford to up a bid from Fiat to in a corporate buyout. Together, the maverick drivers plan to compete against the race cars of Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in 1966 but Miles’ difficult reputation as a ‘pure racer’ is not what the traditional carmaker wants … Suppose Henry Ford II wanted to build the greatest race car the world’s ever seen, to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. What’s it take? The US title is somewhat misleading because this is much more about Ford and its internal politics, business model and sales than it is about the legendary red cars – but for all that, it’s Enzo Ferrari that gives Miles the approving nod at the film’s conclusion when the appalling politicking engineered by Ford exec Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) creates a result that literally nobody wants. Damon is an almost good ol’ boy, camped out half cut in his trailer, Miles is the happy go lucky Brit with an understanding wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and a dazzled son Petey (Noah Jupe) and his accent zips along up and down the M1 between Ringo Starr and Ozzy Osbourne and back again while he Method-fidgets his way through his appealing character. Damon is the reactive agent to his stinging chemistry, the peacemaker to his troubling perfectionist, the admiring and trusting innovator to his speed demon. This is a stunningly beautiful film, shot by Phedon Papamichael in burnished yellows and oranges allowing the vintage metals and icons to shine. The supporting cast is superlative, doing exactly what is required when sometimes only a mere hint of a glance speaks a thousand words and the moment 96 minutes in when Henry Ford 2 finally gets to ride in his $9 million racing car and express everything the film is about is worth the price of admission:  he has never felt anything like it and he gets it. Because this film is all about feeling. What it’s like to drive when a car is at 7000 RPM. What it’s like to barely be able to see in the horizontal rain, when another car collides with you, when dust fills the screen, when someone hits a barrier in front of you, when the brakes fail, when the bloody door won’t shut. It’s a Zen state that the film revisits, over and over, until finally a body doesn’t get out. There’s a lot of funny dialogue, good scenes in the garage, brilliant ideas about replacing whole braking systems mid-race, immaculate recreations of Daytona and the titular competition, some telling remarks about WW2 – Miles got a broken down tank over the Channel and all the way to Berlin and does not want to drive for Porsche.  It’s also about friendship and trust and betrayal and fathers and sons. And the coda is superb. Someone turns on a car engine and the revs increase and he can feel again. There has rarely been a film to so directly express the chemical practically mystical connection between man and machine and the sense of infinite well-being it induces. Quite literally sensational. Written by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, this is directed by James Mangold.   It isn’t about speed

Oh … Rosalinda!! (1955)

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Once the music is started we can’t talk.  You see the place will be crowded with foreigners. In 1955 Occupied Vienna, black-market dealer Dr. Falke aka The Bat/Die Fledermaus (Anton Walbrook) moves freely through the French, British, American and Russian sectors, dealing in champagne and caviar among the highest echelons of the allied powers. After a costume party, French Colonel Gabriel Eisenstein (Michael Redgrave) plays a practical joke on a drunken Falke, depositing him, asleep and dressed as a bat, in the lap of a patriotic Russian statue, to be discovered the following morning by irate Russian soldiers. Falke is nearly arrested until his friend party-giver General Orlofsky (Anthony Quayle) of the USSR intervenes. A vengeful Falke plans an elaborate practical joke on his friend, involving Orlofsky,  British Army major (Dennis Price), Eisenstein’s beautiful wife Rosalinda (Ludmilla Tchérina), her maid (Anneliese Rothenberger) and a masked ball where no one is what they seem. Complicating matters is American Captain Alfred Westerman (Mel Ferrer), an old flame of Rosalinda’s who is determined to take advantage of her husband’s absence and become her lover once again … Just watch how I get out of my own troubles. One of Powell and Pressburger’s odder productions which elicited little more than critical ire upon release (it was exhibited on a double bill with The Big Combo), it can now be seen as a deliriously eccentric and audacious comic account of the post-war occupied city of Vienna, through the updated lens of Die Fledermaus (The Bat), Strauss’ 1874 operetta, with new lyrics in English by Dennis Arundell. Densely coloured, beautifully designed by Hein Heckroth and performed with gusto by some of the best actors of the era representing the different occupying powers in their nationality and personification while a husband and wife renew their acquaintance in this romantic catch-chase quartet. Quayle is excellent but Walbrook is supreme as the kind of characterful ringmaster he had already essayed in Ophüls’ La Ronde, keen that the occupying powers swiftly depart.  With every component of this indulgent avant garde take on a genre type more or less moribund since the Thirties concluding in a gorgeous masked ball, it’s a beautiful resolutely studio-bound theatrical spectacle. Considered part of a loose trilogy from Powell and Pressburger along with The Red Shoes/Tales of Hoffman even if Redgrave winds up dancing more than prima ballerina Tchérina, at  one point introduced to her own husband as Olga Volga, a star from behind the Iron Curtain. Redgrave, Rothenberger and Quayle sing while all other cast members’ singing voices are dubbed. Look quickly for Arthur Mullard as a Russian guard and future director John Schlesinger in a Jeep. Come a bit closer. Is there anything I can do for you – or you – or you?

Late Night (2019)

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Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. Talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is the Queen of Late Night. Her world is turned upside down when she hires her first and only female staff writer Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) because the head of the network Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) is threatening to replace Katherine with a younger more provocative standup Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz). Originally intended to smooth over diversity concerns because Molly ticks the boxes of gender and colour, and Katherine is determined to disprove her colleague Brad’s (Denis O’Hare) accusation that she’s a woman who hates women. Katherine’s decision brings about unexpected consequences as the two women separated by culture and generation become united by their love of a biting punchline despite the fact that Molly’s previous experience is Quality Controller in a chemical plant and they’re in a sea of unsympathetic men … Don’t take this the wrong way but your earnestness can be very hard to be around. Kaling wrote this with Thompson in mind and it shows:  she plays the heck out of it, a diva on the outs who hires and fires without breathing. It’s a setting that has yielded a lot of US comedy and it’s a smart satire with remarkable timing, in more ways than one: a battle of the sexes comedy set in the notorious boys’ club environment that is comedy (and the writers’ room) and it recognises that the system is longstanding and women have never been the beneficiaries and that’s okay because that’s fertile ground for discursive, subversive dramedy. Kaling turns this into something of a dramatic strut we might call Truth to Power as Thompson’s character is forced to defend the entire raison d’être of her career – in so doing she threatens to wreck her long marriage to her sick husband Walter (John Lithgow). Kaling’s own role is that of disrupter, although ironically it’s not as significant to the story as it might have been despite hitting the right millennial notes such as needing to make enough money to finally move out of home – think Devil Wears Prada with a race slant.  She incorporates just enough rom into this com to fit to genre expectations without untethering the narrative although it’s warm rather than vicious. Thompson and Kaling are fantastic as they try to navigate the problem of being mentor-mentee-friends-colleagues in a hostile workplace. Sharp stuff at times though, a sociocultural comedy that takes jabs at a slew of subjects including #MeToo, but with a gender twist. That’s what I call a punchline. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, who has worked with Kaling on TV’s The Mindy Project and a very good job she does too. You’re a writer, so write

6 Black Horses (1962)

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A man needs a purpose to ride this country. Ben Lane (Audie Murphy) is breaking a horse in the desert that he believes to be stray. He is caught by farmers who believe he is a horse thief when he is saved from hanging by Frank Jesse (Dan Duryea). Lane and Jesse are hired by Kelly (Joan O’Brien) who pays them to take her to a town to be with her husband. Ben is dreaming of buying a ranch and the $1,000 Kelly promises would help him achieve his goal. In reality, Kelly has an ulterior motive:  she is setting up Jesse because he killed her husband in a shootout. En route to their destination they have to deal with the Apaches and Frank is thinking of a different conclusion to proceedings … I’ve been waiting for someone like you for a long time. Burt Kennedy’s original script is typically lean, angular, witty and expressive and Murphy proves his usual scrupulous right-doing protagonist. It’s a straightforward revenge narrative with nice shooting (in Utah’s Snow Canyon, St George and Leeds), good performances, a neat backstory and a great collie who gets to ride with Murphy on a pack horse of his own. Directed by Harry Keller. There are some things a man can’t ride around

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

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Aka Die Ehe der Maria Braun. I don’t know a thing about business. But I do know what German women want. You might even say I’m an expert on it. Near the end of World War II, Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries Hermann (Klaus Lowitsch), who is immediately sent off to battle at the Russian front before the marriage can be consummated. When the war concludes, Maria believes that Hermann is dead. The new widow tries to make a go of life on her own and she starts working at an Allied bar, where she meets black American GI Bill (George Byrd). They start a relationship that is interrupted when Hermann returns unexpectedlyyy. During a scuffle between the men, in the heat of the moment Maria accidentally kills Bill. Hermann takes the blame and goes to jail, while Maria begins a hard new life and builds an empire of her own … He kept me warm on those cold nights after the war. Practically a German take on Mildred Pierce with the miraculous Schygulla giving Joan Crawford a run for her money (Fassbinder had intended the role for Romy Schneider) in the post-war noir-ish businesswoman stakes, this is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fiercely sardonic take on marriage and money set in a new kind of Germany with a nod to Brecht. Life for women involves transactional sex which is justified as the ultimate practicality: I don’t care what people think. I do care what you think. And you’re not having an affair with me. I’m having an affair with you. The entire text bleeds fascism – how politics is funneled through culture to create a political landscape, whether we like it or not, infecting everyone who inhabits it.  This is the first of Fassbinder’s three Wirtschaftswunder films and is a key work of the New German Cinema with an ending that literally detonates before your eyes. Eva describes herself as the Mata Hari of the Economic Miracle and this dissects desire in all its forms. The screenplay is by Pea Fröhlich and Peter Mörthesheimer who also wrote the dialogue with director Fassbinder, based on his outline (and he plays a small role in the drama).  It’s a perfect blend of subject matter, realisation and performance, graced with stunning cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. Reality lags behind my consciousness