Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth poster

Could you do without me? Northern England 1865.  Newly sold into marriage to an older man, rich industrialist Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton), Katherine (Florence Pugh) finds herself confined to the house and starved of companionship. Her husband can’t or won’t have sex with her but makes her strip and masturbates while she faces a wall. Forced to spend her days in endless tedium, dining with his bullying father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), when her husband is called away to one of his collieries she starts to spend more time with maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and begins a passionate and fiery relationship with a young groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) from the estate, beginning a conflict that will end in violence. Following her husband’s demise at her hands and after hiding his body, a surprise arrives on her doorstep in the form of her husband’s illegitimate son Teddy (Anton Palmer) accompanied by his grandmother Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel) throwing Katherine’s plans into disarray .You’ve got fatter. Adapted by Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, this austere treatment of a rural tragedy is as contained as anti-heroine Pugh by corsetry and decency until sensuality spills forth and all hell breaks loose.  This is the distinctive Pugh’s breakout performance following The Falling and TV’s Marcella and her polarising character anchors a narrative which is ostensibly feminist but ultimately offers a critique of female power and how it is achieved and sustained. Perhaps the casting of black actors in the story complicates the issue of power by raising another issue, that of of race, in what is otherwise a melodrama of sex and class. Ultimately what happens when people are undone by desire can be murderous. It is a drama entirely without ornament. Directed by William Oldroyd. She is a disease

Bombshell (2019)

Bombshell

I’m not a feminist, I’m a lawyer. When Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired following her on-air revelation that she supports an assault weapons ban, she slaps conservative TV channel Fox News founder and CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) with a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment.  But nobody comes forward to provide evidence of similar experiences, not even her protegée, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) who migrates to the Bill O’Reilly show, is fired her first day and takes the back elevator to Ailes’ office in her quest for advancement. Eventually Gretchen’s decision leads to Presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s bête noire, Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) coming forward with her own story, as well as multiple other women, eventually bringing the channel’s owners, the Murdoch family, into the fray... He handed me the power to hurt him. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when it comes to explaining the way the world turns, it has fallen to America’s comedy auteurs to Show and Tell. And here it’s director Jay Roach invading the body politic once more after the TV dramas Recount, Game Change and All the Way as well as the feature Trumbo. Humour helps but doesn’t really feature in this tawdry tale of three contrasting women who have oddly similar looks in the Barbie-style legs-out fashion cultivated by Ailes – and one scene where all the on-air women presenters are Spanxing it up and shoving five-inch heels onto their calloused feet shows the compromises intelligent gutsy women make visually to make it professionally on US TV, at least on Fox News. Theron’s transformation into Kelly is really something – she wears her work look as if she’s armed for war and her decision to finally take it to the bosses, with the backing of her husband Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass) at the same time as having to battle Trump mania in Summer 2016, tacks sharply when she allows the Presidential hopeful to get away with his menstruation Tweet, to her husband’s disgust. But, as she reminds him, she has to pay the bills. Kidman is good as the woman who has had the sense to record her meetings with Ailes, but is then sidelined with money and an NDA (maybe); and Robbie is impressively touching as the amalgamated character ‘Kayla’ who succumbs to Ailes, believing everyone else must have done it to get ahead (To get ahead, you have to give a little head, as Gretchen regales her lawyers). When Kayla crumbles at the truth, it’s devastating. The fact that these women believe in the political piffle they peddle is what makes the film hold its fire because Kate McKinnon is cast as a secret Lesbian Hillary-supporter in their midst making the politics of it weaker in every sense; and there’s a pretty ludicrous scene when Ailes’ wife, newspaper editor Beth (Connie Britton) has her assistant ask if her sushi lunch is too liberal. (Perhaps it is this very daftness that makes the film’s point). And while the women’s histories shares similar contours, they do not support one another and Kelly’s producer Gil (Rob Delaney) reminds her that all the production team’s jobs are on the line. However Charles Randolph’s screenplay is fast-moving and literate, and there is great use of archive footage.  The female cast are just outstanding, with Lithgow quite horrifying as the disgusting old man who once hobnobbed with Nixon but now intimidates ambitious young women into hoicking up their skirts and a lot worse. The biggest irony? Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) gets to save the day. Sigh. Inspired by the accounts of the women who reported their experiences of harassment. Rule number one, Corporate America:  You don’t sue your boss

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen

Another Woman (1988)

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She can’t allow herself to feel. The second wife of professor Ken (Ian Holm) with whom she had an adulterous affair while his wife Kathy (Betty Buckley) was suffering from ovarian cancer, when fiftysomething philosophy professor Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) rents an apartment to work on a new book, she soon realises that she can hear what’s going on in a neighbouring apartment, which houses a psychiatrist’s office. She becomes captivated by the sessions of a pregnant patient named Hope (Mia Farrow) whom she follows and eventually encounters in an antiques store. As Hope talks about her emotional issues over a long lunch, not only does Marion begin to reevaluate her life and recall the bullying her estranged brother Paul (Harris Yulin) was subjected to by their late father (David Ogden Stiers), she sees her husband lunching with their mutual friend Lydia (Blythe Danner) with whom he is clearly having an intimate relationship. She comes to realise that her coldness has shut her off from friends and family, and she has missed a chance for true love with writer Larry Lewis (Gene Hackman) who apparently made her the subject of his novel after she turned him down for Ken If someone had asked me when I reached my fifties to assess my life, I would have said that I had achieved a decent measure of fulfillment, both personally and professionally. Beyond that, I would say I don’t choose to delve. A remarkably perceptive work from Woody Allen on mid-life femininity and the things women have to do to protect themselves and their sense of self while also making men feel good about themselves. Fully belonging to that part of his oeuvre labelled Bergmanesque and not just because it’s shot by Sven Nykvist, this is sharp, funny, acidly realistic and gimlet-eyed when it comes to the inequality between the sexes:  while a husband plays at adultery (repeatedly), a woman tries to justify her very existence; a man celebrates his fifty years while a woman wonders what she has done with her life; an ex-wife shows up at the house with the detritus of their marriage to find herself socially condemned because she expresses her distress at betrayal. How Rowlands learns about her foibles through other people’s observations is psychologically devastating. The narrative is fearless and pointed in its target – structural misogyny. The peerless Rowlands is great in one of the best women’s roles of the Eighties and Farrow is no less good in a minor key, providing an oppositional image of possibility, with an ensemble of men having it all. I just don’t want to look up when I’m her age and find my life is empty

J.T. LeRoy (2019)

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You’re as much a part of JT as me.  When Laura Albert (Laura Dern) finally meets her musician husband Geoff Knoop’s (Jim Sturgess) androgynous younger sister Savannah (Kristen Stewart) she sees the embodiment of her pseudonymous author’s identity ‘JT LeRoy,’ an acclaimed memoirist who is supposedly the gifted and abused 19-year old gender fluid prostitute offspring of a truckstop hooker, the subject of her bestselling book Sarah. Journalists and celebrities are keen to meet ‘J.T.’ after prolonged phonecalls and emails from Laura (an accomplished phone sex operator) adopting a Southern accent. Savannah reluctantly agrees to be photographed in disguise for an interview that has already been done over the phone by Laura, but the hunger for publicity grows and Hollywood, in the form of producer Sasha (Courtney Love), comes calling with an offer. Laura decides to masquerade as ‘Speedy,’ JT’s agent and adopts an outrageous faux English accent. Then European actress Eva (Diane Kruger) decides to adapt the book The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things for the screen. What could possibly go wrong? … Just because you played a writer doesn’t mean you are one. What if an author’s fantasy identity is actually a character (or avatar, as Laura Albert prefers) for someone entirely different? The perfect physical representation of an idealised misery memoirist who doesn’t actually exist? An author’s identity becomes the focus of celebrity and publishing interest in one of the literary hoaxes of the 2000s with Dern and Stewart being given ample room to create empathetic characters, both women taking succour from the temporary expeditious ruse. This version of events is from the perspective of Savannah Knoop whose own recollection of events Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy is adapted here by director Justin Kelly who has form with films about sexual identity.  It’s like a Russian doll of meta-ness but Albert comes across better here than in the documentary about her (Author) where she seemed far closer to psychopath than Dern’s rather more sympathetic figure, a formerly fat child who’d been sent to a group mental home for adults and developed the survival methods and identity issues that led to her creating JT in the first place. You can understand the incremental jealousy she experiences over the six-year long impersonation as Savannah lives out her invented persona in the public eye. Eva is the pseudonym for Italian actress Asia Argento, who claimed latterly not to realise that JT was a woman and denied their sexual encounter. She is portrayed ruthlessly close to the raccoon penis bone by Kruger as something of a scheming wannabe auteur who would (as Albert says) do anything to get the rights to the film property. Stewart is literally the site of misrecognition – a bisexual who is co-habiting with a good guy Sean (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) yet she is confused by the public roleplay because she actually falls for ‘Eva’ and has sex with her. Laura ironically never keeps Savannah up to Speed(y) with the latest email exchanges between JT and Eva, leading to increasing embarrassment when ‘JT’ is set loose upon the fawning credulous public and privately, with Eva. Argento was the real-life subject of a sex assault case to do with the film in question when this was originally released, which took the shine off this (much to Laura Albert’s fury, we are sure). Argento is also the daughter of a famous Italian auteur so one might surmise she was also trying to create another kind of persona for herself in a fiercely misogynistic environment. JT is a complex part, more akin to what Stewart has achieved in her French films, and it’s well played as far as it goes but the performance centres on a kind of passivity which makes for a lack of dramatic energy. The film ends on a Hole song, Don’t Make Me Over, proving that Frankenstein’s monster really does have a life of its own in a film which never completely decides what it wants to be – echoing the subject at hand. There are a few narrative tricks missed in the telling of this web of deceit spun by an arch fantasist whose dreams literally came to life and ran away from her. You could have written a different ending

Captain Marvel (2019)

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

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)

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It’s how they are. They have always been like this. When word arrives that Apache warrior Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) has assembled a war party and left the San Carlos Indian Reservation, the United States Army assigns veteran tracker John McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and Apache scout Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) to lead a young, prejudiced lieutenant Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) and his troops from Fort Lowell to find Ulzana. Outmanoeuvered and unfamiliar with the terrain, the cavalry struggles to stop the long-mistreated and raging Apaches from destroying everything in their path in what initially seem like senseless acts of violence upon homesteads and families … The only thing that won’t slow them down is how much killing they do. Alan Sharp’s screenplay is about a devastating period in American history, that quarter of the nineteenth century when a brutal ethnic cleansing was carried out in the name of white conquest;  equally, it is about the astonishing violence of the Native Americans and this is a film that always has an eye on the war in Vietnam:  draw your own conclusions.  This narrative is hewed from a real attack in Arizona in 1885. Davison is good as the naïf who gains an education in the harshest possible conditions, Lancaster is superb as the ageing man who mentors him in the ways of the west. Between them is the compromised Ke-Ni-Tay who has insider information on Ulzana because their wives are sisters. Never an easy watch, despite the ostensibly beautiful camera setups, it’s one of the key westerns of its era and is an underrated work from director Robert Aldrich. Man give up his power when he die

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

Motherhood (2018)

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Aka Egg. A woman gives up her rights as an adult when she gets pregnant. When NYC artist Tina (Alysia Reinder) and her layabout husband Wayne (Gbenga Akinnabe) are visited by her eight-months pregnant art school rival Karen (Christina Hendricks), now a trophy wife to property-dealer husband Don (David Alan Bache), the politics of pregnancy are discussed to a disturbing degree. Wayne demonstrates an extraordinary sympathy with Karen’s condition. Tina is doing an exhibit on pregnancy and motherhood (it’s going to be a lifetime’s work) instead of actually bearing a child herself, considering it a worthy topic for an art installation. She and Wayne reveal they are having a child by surrogate Kiki (Anna Camp), a secretary at an agency where Wayne was temping.  When the men go out, Tina and Karen have a heart to heart and Tina reveals she has had an abortion following an accidental pregnancy, while Karen reveals she got pregnant on purpose despite Don’s wishes and now she thinks he’s sleeping around. The very lovely and apparently ditsy young Kiki comes back to the loft with the men and while distressed with her married lover running out on her now she’s pregnant, expounds on her philosophy of the stages of a woman’s life during which some hard truths are exchanged … Having a baby the old way is a total fetish at this stage. Risa Mickenberg’s satirical chamberpiece treads a minefield of preconceptions (!), truisms, old wive’s tales (daughters steal your beauty when you’re pregnant), gender politics, jealousy, marriage, money, misunderstandings, the right to choose, sexism and contemporary mores with great wit and empathy in a film which might remind one of Carnage before the kids are actually born. Art appreciates even if I don’t appreciate art. Kiki’s four phases of women – girlhood, boobs, 20s to early 30s running after men and then mother, when nobody wants to look directly at you, is so discomfiting because it carries home the final indisputable truth about gender and loss of desire and elicits very different responses from everyone concerned, changing the dynamics of the group and exploding the future of three of them.  Talk about setting it off. These are relationships which are based on socially accepted lies. Sometimes only long-term friends can say such terrible things to one another and sometimes these conversations are life-changing, and not in a good way with a third act shift that totally alters the mood but boasting a happy coda. You’re like this giant beach ball of bliss. You’re like a living monument of sexism. A devastating exposition of male and female behaviour and a smart showcase for the talents of the actors (particularly Hendricks), very well handled by director Marianna Palka. If she’s the mother what are you?

The Front Runner (2018)

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Now they know who we are.  It’s 1987. Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) former senator of Colorado and one-time campaign manager for McGovern, becomes the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hart’s intelligence, alleged charisma and idealism make him popular with young voters, leaving a seemingly clear path to the White House with a strong team led by Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons). All that comes crashing down when allegations of an extramarital affair with a woman called Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) surface in the media after he’s goaded journalists to follow him in an interview with Washington Post reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), forcing the candidate to address a scandal that threatens to derail his campaign and personal life: his guarded wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) has stood by him but when the TV cameras fetch up at their house and their daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) is followed there’s some hard talking in public and in private ... I did all the things I was supposed to do to make that men wouldn’t look at me the way you’re looking at me right now. It was a great story and it ran for three weeks way back then. The good looking Democrat with great hair taunted journos to come looking for trouble and they did and they found it and the philandering politico was found on a boat called Monkey Business with a young woman who was then hung out to dry by the very people who said they’d protect her. Sound familiar? The coarsening of politics began right there, in the pages of the tabloids who found the idea of a Presidential contender openly carrying on an adulterous affair irresistible:  these are the kind of guys who sniggered about JFK’s women and let him away with everything – until he was murdered and it was open season on his legacy. Jason Reitman’s film is a serious look at an issue that has just got worse over the years (with rather paradoxical outcomes, considering the state of state surveillance and paparazzi and the interweb as we know) but it’s loud and busy for the first 45 minutes and hard to hear and hard to follow.  Only then does it settle, away from the hubbub of campaign offices and the rustle of burger lunches to focus on the man at the centre of the story who disproves his team’s views about what he should be doing – turns out he’s darn good at ax throwing. Trouble is, he’s not that interesting. Why on earth would he be a good President? He could win it – he’s got the hair. The superficial elements of campaigning are all over this (one advisor suggests that if Dukakis added a K to his name he’d take the South). The philosophical argument here which Hart is given in dialogue is that the public don’t care and he should have his privacy – and the public wouldn’t care if the journalists didn’t and Hart had never thrown down the gauntlet to them. That’s the point. So the story isn’t about a man carrying on behind the back of his wife or how Democrats are always found out in the same tedious way, it’s about grubby low journalistic standards and the free press and the dangers that poses to true political expression:  this in itself is a very conflicted narrative stance (not to Vladimir Putin, of course). Jackman does a very low-key characteristation and that compounds the narrative problems. He is a charm vacuum. We are left asking at the end of this, as Walter Mondale asked Hart (and the clip is included), Where’s the beef? Adapted from Matt Bai’s book All the Truth is Out:  The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Bai, (former Hilary Clinton press secretary) Jay Carson and Reitman, who has left his satirical knives in the drawer on this occasion. Pity.