Downhill (2020)

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

Sirocco (1951)

Sirocco

We want Syria for ourselves.  Damascus, 1925. American Harry Smith (Humphrey Bogart) is selling guns to Emir Hassan (Onslow Stevens), whose Syrian rebels are battling the occupying French troops. Hoping to stem the fighting, French Colonel Feroud (Lee J. Cobb) asks Harry to introduce him to Hassan. Meanwhile, Feroud’s girlfriend, Violette (Märta Torén), is increasingly drawn to Harry. While she wants Harry to ferry her out of the dangerous country on one of his regular trips to Cairo, he stays and tries to make a profit from his dealings with both Hassan and Feroud... Who cares whose guns are firing as long as they’re not shooting at you?  This promisingly Hemingwayesque riff on the premise of Casablanca lacks its diamond-sharp characters and dialogue but boasts a few good performances, particularly from Cobb, even if Toren is no Ingrid Bergman. One of the best scenes is between them when he responds horribly violently to her question,  What kind of man are you? It also supplies the tragic ending but in a very different manner as you might imagine from the war-torn streets of Syria, the Twenties or not because Bogie’s gun-running character (the name is a nod to his role in To Have and Have Not) has a change of heart and he makes a calculated decision in which only he can be the loser when he persists in playing both ends against the middle. Screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides (whose novel The Long Haul was the basis for Bogart’s film They Drive By Night) and Hans Jacoby from Joseph Kessel’s 1936 novel Coup de Grace and directed by Curtis Bernhardt. You’re a man entirely without moral scruples

Manhunter (1986)

Manhunter

You want the scent? Smell yourself! Former FBI Agent Will Graham (William Petersen) is called out of early retirement by his boss Jack Crawford (Denis Farina) to catch a serial killer.  The media have dubbed him The Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan) because he kills random families in their homes. Will is a profiler whose speciality is psychic empathy, getting inside the minds of his prey. The horror of the murders takes its toll on him. He asks for the help of his imprisoned arch-nemesis, Dr Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) who gets to him like nobody else and nearly murdered him years earlier yet has insights into the methodology of the killer that could unlock the case… He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks. The mindbending antics of Thomas Harris’ narcissistic creation Lecktor were first espied here but it’s really Will Graham’s story and what a surprise casting choice the introspective pigeon-toed Petersen seemed.  He carries this oppressively chilling thriller where he is the masochist to his targets’ sadistic mechanisms. The dispassionate style, the modernist interiors, the internal machinations of the protagonist’s obsessive inner voice while he inhabits the minds of his relentlessly morbid prey, lend this a hypnotic mood. As the action increases in intensity the colours and style of cinematographer Dante Spinotti become cooler and more distancing. The diegetic score by bands including Shriekback and The Reds is an immersive trip into the nightmarish vision. An extraordinary spin on terror that is as far from the camp baroque theatrics of The Silence of the Lambs as it is possible to imagine, this masterpiece has yet to be equalled in the genre and feels like a worm has infected your brain and is burrowing through it, out of your control, colouring your dreams, imprinting you with a thought pattern that may never depart. A dazzling exercise in perspective and perception, this is a stunning work of art. Adapted from Red Dragon by director Michael Mann. Does this kind of understanding make you uncomfortable?

Veronika Voss (1982)

Veronika Voss

Aka Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss. Light and shadow; the two secrets of motion pictures. Munich 1955. Ageing Third Reich film star Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) who is rumoured to have slept with Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda Josef Goebbels, becomes a drug addict at the mercy of corrupt Lesbian neurologist Marianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer), who keeps her supplied with morphine, draining her of her money. Veronika attends at the clinic where Katz cohabits with her lover and a black American GI (Günther Kaufmann) who is also a drug dealer. After meeting impressionable sports writer Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) in a nightclub, Veronika begins to dream of a return to the silver screen. As the couple’s relationship escalates in intensity and Krohn sees the possibility of a story, Veronika begins seriously planning her return to the cinema – only to realise how debilitated she has become through her drug habit as things don’t go according to plan … Artists are different from ordinary people. They are wrapped up in themselves, or simply forgetful. The prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s penultimate film and one of his greatest, its predictive theme would have horrible resonance as he died just a few months after its release. Conceived as the third part of his economic trilogy including The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola, this reworking of or homage to Sunset Blvd., whose ideas it broadly limns, has many of his usual tropes and characters and even features his sometime lover Kaufmann who could also be seen in Maria Braun; while Krohn tells his fellow journalist girlfriend Henriette (Cornelia Froboess) of his experience and potential scoop but Veronika’s hoped-for return is not what he anticipates with a Billy Wilder-like figure despairing of her problem. Its message about life in 1950s Germany is told through the style of movies themselves without offering the kind of escapist narratives Veronika seems to have acted in during her heyday.  She’ll be your downfall. There’s nothing you can do about it. She’ll destroy you, because she’s a pitiful creature. Fassbinder was hugely influenced not just by Douglas Sirk but Carl Dreyer and this story is also inspired by the tragic life of gifted actress Sybille Schmitz, who performed in Vampyr.  She died in 1955 in a suicide apparently facilitated by a corrupt Lesbian doctor.  The unusually characterful Zech is tremendous in the role. She would later play the lead in Percy Adlon’s Alaska-set Salmonberries as well as having a long career in TV. She died in 2011. It’s an extraordinary looking film with all the possibilities of cinematography deployed by Xaver Schwarzenberger to achieve a classical Hollywood effect for a story that has no redemption, no gain, no safety, no love.  Fassbinder himself appears briefly at the beginning of the film, seated behind Zech in a cinema. This is where movie dreams become a country’s nightmare. All that lustrous whiteness dazzles the eye and covers so much. Screenplay by Fassbinder with regular collaborators Peter Märtesheimer and Pea Fröhlich.  Let me tell you, it was a joy for me that someone should take care of me without knowing I’m Veronika Voss, and how famous I am. I felt like a human being again. A human being!

The Arrangement (1969)

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What happened to you, Eddie? Must kill you to think what you might have been. Eddie Anderson born Evangelos Arness (Kirk Douglas) is a Greek-American advertising executive who drives off the LA freeway in the morning traffic and into a tunnel and ducks his head as he goes straight under a truck. He is suicidally unhappy in his work, his marriage to Florence (Deborah Kerr) and his affair with a liberated woman ad exec Gwen (Faye Dunaway) who seems to be involved with someone else. His colleagues led by Arthur (Hume Cronyn) try to figure out how to lure him back to work using a psychiatrist (Harold Gould)  to help him work through his issues while his ageing father Sam (Richard Boone) manipulates him from a distance. However a spell in a mental hospital looms when he shows up with a gunshot wound and refuses to say how it happened … I want you to sell that house. And sell that place in the desert. Sell the cars, the paintings, that Bulgarian statue in the garden. Sell the books, the records, deep freezer, everything! Look, I’m the head of the house, that’s an order: sell it!  An adman in late Sixties Los Angeles letting it all hang out and going off the rails as he comes to terms with his double life and his obscure origins. Sounds familiar? Yes, it reeks of the themes and especially the concluding season of Mad Men, that astonishing TV portrait of midcentury masculinity. It will take some brain power without benefit of prior knowledge to work out that this muddled mor(t)ality tale is the work of Elia Kazan, that unparalleled interpreter of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge on both stage and screen.  Not only is he the director, he wrote the (supposedly quasi autobiographical) novel on which it is based so you can’t even blame someone else for confused writing. You may then prefer the electively mute Douglas post-car wreck to the one that actively engages with his alter ego – the sight of Kirk lounging atop an upright piano while his other self blithely tinkles the keys may just make you bust a gut. Michelle Pfeiffer he ain’t. Kerr has a thankless role but ironically comes out of this respectably – a concerned wife finally sick of the arrangement that lets her free loving husband do exactly as he pleases with his mistress. Dunaway smirks her way through the film with funny tinted spectacles so goodness only knows what’s going on there. Maybe she knew she was playing Barbara Loden, Kazan’s second wife, an actress whom she had understudied for the Marilyn Monroe role in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. Unlike Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road which expertly keeps the sense of mixed up timelines clear with a dramatic and emotional logic, this is a mishmash of cod psychology, family history and Freudian sex soup which does nobody’s reputation any favours but for all that … it’s fascinating, a good story, dreadfully told. The screwing I’m getting is not worth the screwing I’m getting

They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969)

They Shoot Horses Dont They

Don’t forget your poor old mother. Yowza yowza yowza! In the midst of the Great Depression in 1932 wannabe film director Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) encounters manipulative MC Rocky (Gig Young) when he wanders into a dance marathon on the Santa Monica Pier.  Rocky enlists contestants offering a $1,500 cash prize. Among them are a failed actress Gloria (Jane Fonda) whom he induces Robert to partner; a middle-aged sailor Harry Kline (Red Buttons); delusional blonde Alice (Susannah York); impoverished farm worker James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia). Days turn into weeks as the competition drags on and people either drop out or die. Rocky will do anything for publicity and initiates a series of gruelling derbies and nerves fray as exhaustion sets in … That soap’s a little hard. James Poe and Robert E. Thompson’s adaptation of the 1935 Horace McCoy novel plugs straight into its melodramatic core – a musical drama about economic despair. And the air of desperation hanging over these lost souls is like a fug, admirably sustained by director Sydney Pollack. Fonda is superb in a complex performance as the brittle cynic whose psychology is gradually broken while all around her succumb to the physical pressure. Her fear drives the story. How extraordinary to think that Charlie Chaplin had acquired the rights to the property eighteen years earlier, intending to cast his son Sydney opposite Marilyn Monroe in the roles played by Sarrazin and Fonda. It fell apart when Chaplin was refused re-entry to the US on foot of his political sympathies. When Fonda was approached by Pollack he asked her what she thought of the material and the character and she writes about it as a turning point in her career:  This was the first time in my life as an actor that I was working on a film about larger societal issues, and instead of my professional work feeling peripheral to life, it felt relevant. It also marked the beginning of Sarrazin’s years as a leading man – somehow he fell out of fashion in the late Seventies. He would die in 2011. There are some wonderful contrivances like the flash forwards that certain critics found irritating but it all works to build a mythic aspect. This is a stunning, disturbing indictment of social artifice and possesses a haunting quality, with its title becoming a catchphrase (and inspiring a hit song) and Gig Young’s fraudulent host inducing a kind of existential dread of showbiz ‘characters’. Maybe the whole world is like Central Casting – they got it all rigged before you ever show up

 

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

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I may well be dead – just not typed.  IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a pernickety type who lives by the time on his wristwatch. When he hears the voice of author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) in his head  he thinks he’s going crazy but then discovers that he is the ill-fated protagonist of her latest novel.  While Eiffel’s assistant Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) tries to cure the author’s case of writer’s block, Harold and a professor of literary theory Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) set out to find the woman and make her change her story from tragedy to comedy.  Meanwhile, Harold falls for one of his delinquent auditees, baker and Harvard Law dropout Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and wants to do something meaningful with his life. It’s essential to ensure that Eiffel doesn’t let him die but when Hilbert reads the book he declares it’s her masterpiece and Harold simply must succumb to her ending … Quirky, funny rumination on protagonists, motivation, narration, literary theory and (accidents of) fate – with Ferrell playing low-key to the point of diffidence and Thompson practically persecuted when she realises she is writing about a real living person and has the power to control him – the problem is, all her subjects die.  Great jokes about academia and storytelling (‘little did he know’ is the omniscient phrase that gives away to Hilbert that Harold is sane!). This may come off as a lesser iteration of Charlie Kaufman or even Woody Allen but it’s charming and funny – and cleverer than thou.  Written by Zach Helm and directed by Marc Forster.

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.

I, Tonya (2017)

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There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants! In 1991, talented figure skater Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) becomes the first American woman to complete a triple axel during a competition. We first see her as a three year old in 1970s Portland Oregon where her monstrous multiply-married mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) insists that she be mentored by Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) at the local rink.  In 1994, her world comes crashing down when her violent ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) conspires with her moronic and delusional bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to injure Harding’s friend  and fellow Olympic hopeful and biggest rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in a poorly conceived attack that forces the young woman to withdraw from the national championship. Harding’s life and legacy instantly become tarnished as she’s forever associated with one of the most infamous scandals in sports history…  When producer and star Robbie read Steven Rogers’s pitch black comedy she didn’t realise it was based on a true story (sort of). Her determination to bring this radical post-modern interpretation of one of the most notorious sporting crimes in the last quarter of a century to the big screen is testament to both her good taste and her chutzpah – this after all is her first starring role and she produced the film. She gives a powerhouse performance in a difficult role, delineating Harding’s evolution from white trash teen to triple axel-crushing rink monster routinely routed by snobby judges who want someone more ‘family’-friendly as their poster child and create the conditions for unconscious revenge against the powers that be. You were as graceless as a bull dyke. It was embarrassing! Janney’s performance has won all the awards (never forget she was everyone’s fave woman in the world in The West Wing) however she plays this crushing creature for a couple too many laughs.  It’s Robbie who has the tough job here – convincing us in this self-reflexive narrative that she really did deserve plaudits and not the horrifying level of domestic abuse which she came to expect after being reared by a veritable dragon in human form. Having each of the characters variously interviewed and breaking the fourth wall occasionally to ask why their contribution isn’t being featured at different points in the story reminds you that there are competing testimonies here.  The end credits, complete with real-life cringe-inducing footage of the ghastly individuals (this is really a documentary!) interspersed with Harding’s uplifting, magical performances makes you wonder how the poor girl ever survived the rank and file awfulness of her dreary Pacific north-west background. The interview with Hard Copy journalist Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) and the juxtaposition with the breaking news of OJ Simpson as the drama concludes in 1994 reinforces the underlying story of newsmaking in the 90s and how these two stories changed TV journalism forever. Brilliantly constructed and performed and well executed by Craig Gillespie. 6.0! Go Tonya!

Belle de Jour (1967)

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A quoi penses-tu? Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve), belle ménagère parisienne ennuyée et frigide, ne parvient pas à réconcilier ses fantasmes masochistes avec sa vie de tous les jours aux côtés de son mari Pierre (Jean Sorel), chirurgien couronné de succès. Lorsque son copain Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli) mentionne un bordel secret de haut niveau dirigé par Madame Anais (Geneviève Page), Séverine commence à travailler dans la journée sous le nom de Belle de Jour: elle ne travaille qu’entre 1400 et 1700 heures. Elle perd son instinct frigide avec son mari et commence à avoir des relations sexuelles avec lui. Mais quand un de ses clients, un gangster nommé Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), devient possessif et tire sur son mari dans un accès de pique, elle doit essayer de retrouver sa vie normale mais Henri est déterminé à lui faire part de ses soupçons … La satire magistrale de Luis Bunuel est une adaptation du roman de Joseph Kessel de 1928 et l’interprétation de Jean-Claude Carrière et Bunuel n’est rien moins qu’ingénieux – à parts égales la comédie noire et la fantaisie surréaliste. La performance de Deneuve est tendue et évasive, terne et autosatisfaite, la bourgeoise ultime – juste regarder sa réaction à l’assistante du tenanciere de la maison close qui compatit à devoir satisfaire le grand Chinois avec une boîte mystérieuse: Deneuve savoure le sexe avec lui et le sourire de son chat tout. Il y a tant de choses à recommander sur ce travail audacieux d’un auteur dans son apogée: la cinématographie de Sacha Vierny vient d’être créée; les costumes d’Yves Saint-Laurent en font l’ultime film de mode; le terme «belle de jour» est maintenant un jargon commun de son incarnation précédente comme un jeu de mots sur le terme français «belle de nuit» ou prostituée. C’est tout simplement magnifique. Voyez-le avant de mourir.