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

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!

Highlander (1986)

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There can be only one! Swordsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) from the Scottish Highlands known as the Highlander is one of a number of immortal warriors who can be killed only by decapitation. After initial training by another highly skilled immortal swordsman and metallurgist, Ramirez (Sean Connery), MacLeod lives on for several centuries, eventually settling in New York City, managing an antiques shop. After watching his first wife Heather (Beatie Edney) grow old he is unable to fall in love again however in 1985, he encounters police forensic scientist Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart). He also finds out that he must face his greatest enemy, the brutal barbarian Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who wants to kill MacLeod and obtain ‘the Prize’ – a special ability given to the last living immortal warrior: vast knowledge and the ability to enslave the entire human race. They play cat and mouse through the centuries until destiny arrives in a fight played out on NYC’s Silvercup Studios’ neon sign  … You won’t drown, you fool. You’re immortal! Music video director Russell Mulcahy made the transition to features with this deliriously nutty actioner, a time travel fantasy that seamlessly moves through the ages, imbued with the tropes of Arthurian myth, a beautiful woman handy in each of the three main centuries/locations, a supposedly Spanish-Egyptian Connery speaking in his usual cod accent, brilliant one-on-one combat and wonderfully cartoony car chases. Then there’s the odd brilliant visual transition (Lambert’s face morphing into an NYC Mona Lisa mural) and a mini-pop video to soundtrack band Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever telling the story of Lambert’s relationship with Scots wife Edney until her demise, in a film that references everything from Citizen Kane to The Duellists and Star Wars. There are incidental pleasures, like spotting familiar faces such as James Cosmo and Celia Imrie. Some head shearings plus a sex scene put this out of reach of the kids but it’s fabulous fun and spawned any number of sequels and spinoffs. Written by Gregory Widen as a class project at UCLA, this had a rewrite by Peter Bellwood & Larry Ferguson. You only have one life

Hustlers (2019)

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Doesn’t money make you horny? Working as a stripper to help her grandmother get out of debt and to make ends meet, Dorothy aka Destiny’s (Constance Wu) life changes forever when she becomes friends with Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) the Moves club’s top money earner who mentors her. Ramona soon shows Destiny how to finagle her way around the wealthy Wall Street clientele who frequent the club, teaching her about ‘fishing’. But the 2008 economic crash cuts into their profits. Three years later Destiny has retired to have a baby and her relationship has broken up and she’s broke.  She returns to Moves to find that Russian whores have moved in and the game has changed. She reunites with Ramona and they and two other dancers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and find that Russian whores have moved into Moves, and they devise a daring scheme to take their lives back… This city, this whole country is a strip club. You got people tossing the money. And you got people doing the dance. Money really does make the world go round – and it’s a man’s world. And the men are creeps. Adapted by director Lorene Scafaria from Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York Magazine article The Hustlers at Scores, an account of a true crime, with its diverse cast boosting a tale of female empowerment, this is a storming feminist movie perfect for the #MeToo era. For the first half. Then in the second half a flashback structure kicks in – Dorothy regales a journalist called Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) with her story – giving impetus to the idea that there is a moral to this tale which emphasises the issues facing young single mothers in a society falling apart.  But the pace slackens and it’s a more serious study. There are nice performances all round but Lopez simply bulldozes the material with sass and verve, making this caper a zesty exercise in revenge where Lopez can describe motherhood as a kind of mental illness. Think Widows, but with fewer clothes. Lopez’s pole dancing is just amazing. Produced by Lopez with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who dealt with the Crash in that very different caper, The Big Short. Serious entertainment. I really hope it’s not a story about all strippers being thieves

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

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That’s poetry, not proof. It’s 1927. The Magical Congress of the USA is transferring Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) to be tried for his crimes but he escapes with the aid of his associate Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie). In London, Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) encounters Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) an old pure-blood classmate from Hogwarts who has always been somewhat disturbed and is now engaged to Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who works in the Auror office at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Newt turns down the request to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) in Paris but Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) persuades him to change his mind because Grindelwald is searching for Credence in order to help him implement a New World Wizarding Order … She has eyes just like a salamander. The JK Rowling franchise trundles on and it gets off to a speedy start, with Grindelwald assuming someone else’s identity and making good his escape. This triumph of production design and effects has lots of things to recommend it, not least big plot moves in a heavily stuffed story that’s laced with humour and irony. It’s based on the pull of family ties – brothers, sisters, the need to know your true identity – and that’s what balances a fun adventure that has a lot of good moments, a more rounded and sympathetic Newt and a great sense of jeopardy from Depp as the deranged proto-fascist albino seeking to elevate wizards above muggles. Familiar faces, well developed characters, a lot of narrative threads and a lot more to come. Adapted by Rowling and directed by David Yates. We were closer than brothers

The Natural (1984)

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I came here to play baseball.  In 1910s Nebraska Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) plays catch with his father who is killed by a tree hit by lightning. Roy makes a bat from the split tree and in 1923 tries out for the Chicago Cubs with girlfriend Iris (Glenn Close) in tow, meeting legendary Whammer (Joe Don Baker) and sports writer Max Mercy (Robert Duvall). He impresses the mysterious beauty Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) who had been fawning over Whammer. She is actually a celebrity stalker who turns up in Roy’s hotel room where she shoots him, apparently dead. Sixteen years later he has a chance as a rookie with bottom of the league New York Knights where he immediately becomes a star to the surprise of manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley).  He falls into the clutches of Pop’s niece Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) who is handmaiden to Gus Sands (Darren McGavin, unbilled) a ruthless bookie who loves betting against him. His form turns until a woman in white stands in the crowd and it’s Iris – who is unmarried but has a son. Mercy finally remembers where he first saw Roy who gets a chance as outfielder following the tragic death of colleague Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen) but the illness resulting from the shooting catches up with Roy and he’s on borrowed time … I used to look for you in crowds. Adapted by Roger Towne (brother of Robert) and Phil Dusenberry from Bernard Malamud’s novel, this is a play on myth and honour, with nods to mediaeval chivalry in its story of a long and arduous journey where Roy encounters the death of his father, bad and good women, resurrection, mentors and villains and lost opportunities and the chance at redemption. It’s a glorious tale, told beautifully and surprisingly economically with stunning imagery from Caleb Deschanel and a sympathetic score from Randy Newman. Redford seems too old at first but you forget about that because he inhabits Hobbs so totally and it’s so finely tuned. This allegorical take on the price you pay for success in America is expertly handled by director Barry Levinson, even if the novel’s ending is altered. I didn’t see it coming

Colette (2018)

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You’ve done something important. You’ve invented a type. After moving to Paris from the rural idyll of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye to marry her much older critic/publisher lover Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) known as ‘Willy’, young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) agrees to ghostwrite a semi-autobiographical novel for him. Its success soon ultimately inspires her to fight for creative ownership while working in his writing factory and overcome the societal constraints of the early 20th century as they share their lover duplicitous Louisiana debutante Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson), making them jealous of each other’s sexual escapades.  Colette has to write more and more to make ends meet as Willy fritters away the earnings made in his name alone. Colette begins a relationship with Missy (Denise Gough), a wealthy Lesbian who cross-dresses and this new lover accompanies Colette on a music hall tour as she attempts to assert her power away from Willy, performing controversial shows as an actress. Her life with Willy is fatally compromised when he sells the rights to her fictional character, ‘Claudine,’ the heroine of the bestselling series of books bearing his name but which are her life and thoughts entirely… You still need a headmaster. An attractive rites of passage narrative evoking a gauzy rural France and the late nineteenth century café society where men and women live radically different lives. That is, until Colette decides she wants what her philandering husband has and rails against the accepted norms even as he smooths and polishes her writing and adds the prurience that the pulp market requires. He is revealed as an increasingly tawdry, jealous type despite having an abundance of charm and social success. Her creative growth is calibrated against their mutual infidelity – interestingly with the same woman and then sated by different people.  The idea of identity and authorship and Willy’s liberal education of his innocent but yearning wife is portrayed as a drama of exploitation that has both profit and loss at its heart. This battle of the sexes biography plays out against the trials of the (re-)writing life and it elicits good performances but never really sparks the kind of emotional notes you would expect considering the astonishing story of this racy belle époque heroine, not to mention the sheer sensual joy of Colette’s body of work which came of age as the world embraced modernity. Written by director Wash Westmoreland and Rebecca Lenkiewica and the late Richard Glatzer to whom the film is dedicated. The one who wields the pen writes history

 

 

 

Little Big Man (1970)

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I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers. My name is Jack Crabb. And I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, uh, uh, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand. When a curious oral historian (William Hickey) turns up to hear the life story of 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), he can scarcely believe his ears. Crabb tells of having been rescued and raised by the Cheyenne, of working as a snake-oil salesman, as a gunslinger, and as a mule skinner under General Custer (Richard Mulligan). He learned the way of the Indian and the Creation story at the foot of Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) who ponders the difference between Custer and Human Beings.  He also claims to be the only white survivor of the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn but is he telling the truth or is he the biggest liar ever?… Am I still in this world? Calder Willingham’s adaptation of Thomas Berger’s novel is a superb, caustic, funny, shocking and humane saga of the West as you have never seen it before. Told in a circular structure through this self-proclaimed adopted son of Cheyenne, it debunks myths, casting an acerbic eye over the rationale of the genocides carried out by so-called American heroes and how they have previously been dramatised. Inevitably the awful violence calls up parallels with the Vietnam War. Hoffman is quite brilliant as the ridiculously old guy who claims to have been there and done that with Faye Dunaway lending terrific support.  This grand, flavourful shaggy dog epic is beautifully crafted by director Arthur Penn making it an insidiously charming, educational entertainment that is virtually a masterpiece of Seventies cinema. I was afraid it would turn out this way

Fighting With My Family (2019)

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Paige, I myself have come from a wrestling family too. I know exactly what it means to you. But don’t worry about being the next me. Be the first you.  Born into a tight-knit wrestling family, Paige Knight (Florence Pugh) and her brother Zak ‘Zodiak’ (Jack Lowden) are ecstatic when they get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try out for the WWE which would take them out of their low-achieving background with loving former thief father (Nick Frost) and ex-addict mum (Lena Headey) and an elder half-brother currently in prison. But when only Paige earns a spot in the competitive training programme led by Hutch (Vince Vaughn), she must leave her loved ones behind and face this new cutthroat world alone in Florida at the NXT training camp. Paige’s journey pushes her to dig deep and ultimately prove to the world that what makes her different is the very thing that can make her a star but back in smalltown England Zak spirals into a depression, confined to drab domesticity with a pregnant girlfriend and left to train local kids …  Dick me dead and bury me pregnant. As everyone knows, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson saw a documentary on British TV about a family of wrestlers from Norwich and thought it would be a good idea for a film so he produced this (and appears briefly) with actor/writer (The Office) Stephen Merchant on directing duties. There are no real insights into this faux sport – only an early argument over what fake versus fixed might mean. There is a certain rackety warmth and the central roles are underwritten yet any power the film might possess derives from the performances by Lowden and particularly Pugh, whose star continues to steadily rise. Pugh obviously has the meatier role as the character who gets the transformational arc, trying to be American and finally reverting to Gothic type (she’s inspired by a Charmed character);  Lowden has to man up to the consequences of extra-marital sex with his rather better class of girlfriend while his sister takes his dream away. It is their considerable charisma and the occasional humour that lifts this story above the fairly squalid origins – and the grim freakshows known as Reality TV whose ’emotional journey’ it apes. Quite why clips from the source documentary were shown during the end credits is anyone’s guess – rather undoing the whole point of the film.  You want some advice? Here’s The Rock’s advice: Shut your mouth! What you want? What you want? How about what The Rock wants? The Rock wants you to go out there, take no prisoners, have no regrets, have no fear! Lay it all out on the line! 

The Games (1970)

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How will it end?/I’ll get to the top./How will you know?  American Scott Reynolds (Ryan O’Neal), Briton Harry Hayes (Michael Crawford), a Czech Army man Pavel Vendek (Charles Aznavour) and an Australian Aborigine Sunny Pintubi (Athol Compton) train for the Rome Olympics marathon and their paths cross at various international meets before the big event which ends up taking place in gruelling heat … That boy’s gonna be our Silver Cloud. Starring Ryan O’Neal, with a screenplay by Erich Segal and a score by Francis Lai. It’s got to be Love Story, right? And yet, wrong. For Michael Winner helmed this paean to distance running and endurance before that classic and this adaptation of a novel by Hugh Atkinson sadly fails to entirely rise to the momentous occasion amid evident effort. Presumably a budgetary problem prevented better cinematography and editing – so much of what could have been a beautiful travelogue looks dreary because a lot is shot in England.  Issues of personal relationships, nationality and race (!) rear their heads, as one might expect. Crawford is the central character – a milkman with an unbelievable running time and he’s fairly unbelievable in the part (his later TV gurning as Frank Spencer is hinted at) but the other roles are more satellites to his story.  However it’s interesting that O’Neal’s character is a Yalie with a heart problem! (See above).  The mentoring relationships are central to the narrative and it’s Crawford’s with the inimitable tough-as-old-boots Stanley Baker that works best although Jeremy Kemp’s with Compton’s is fascinating, given the issues involved. The actual race is quite thrilling and the outcome is hugely satisfying. The crowds are mostly cardboard cut-outs, believe it or not.  Nice to see the real Kent Smith, Sam Elliott and Leigh Taylor-Young (Mrs O’Neal, as an uncredited co-ed) in the cast.  There’s an interesting sidebar about TV coverage and how US scheduling influences sporting events. Notable for a Lai-Hal Shaper song From Denver to LA performed by one Elton John who became famous later that year and had the record (s)quashed. Isn’t the poster rather cool? You run against yourself