The High Note (2020)

You’re not a producer. You’re not an artist. You’re not a manager. Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a music superstar whose talent, and ego, have reached unbelievable heights even if she hasn’t released new work for a decade. Her overworked personal assistant Margaret Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson) is stuck running errands, but still aspires to her childhood dream of becoming a music producer after a composing course at college and being reared in a musical household. When Grace’s manager Jack (Ice Cube) presents her with a choice that could alter the course of her career, Maggie steps in with her own production of one of Grace’s songs inadvertently triggering problems for Grace who is a forty-something artist on a male-run record label that just wants her to retire to a steady gig and income stream in Vegas. Meanwhile Grace has met a talented singer songwriter, similarly motherless David (Kelvin Harrison Jr) and she pretends to be an accomplished producer, dreaming up a plan that could change all their lives forever … I am a very big draw. Make sure he’s with you for you. Casting the (admittedly) very accomplished daughters of two Hollywood stars in these roles is almost an own goal; however the screenplay by Flora Greeson sidesteps the obvious references and (most of) the music biz cliches in favour of something more inner-directed and ultimately familial (in a different way). Frankly no PA would get away with Margaret’s behaviour – she’s both too nice and too audacious – so the plot needed some more tuning. If the territory for women looks like it’s also being tackled it also sadly sidesteps much of that quagmire – when Grace emotionally admits that only four women over forty every had number one hits (actually it’s five now) and one is black, she lays out the stakes she’s facing: We could pretend we live in a magical world where age and race are not a thing. There are nice moments of acknowledgment at other levels, like when Margaret’s room mate Katie (Zoe Chao) shows her a picture from her work doing heart surgery and declares it’s not like it’s real work, like art. Ross has several moments that might strike ironic recognition from Diana Ross’ playbook not least when she appears on stage with that hair and those dresses. It’s her expressivity that controls the film’s success, she never goes full blown diva, there’s always another beat to play than the obvious. Her permanent house guest/housekeeper/moocher Gail (June Diane Raphael) has some amusing moments but she’s hardly Thelma Ritter (can I help it if I think about All About Eve or even Working Girl?). But the setup never gets vicious in the way you might expect: Margaret seems too nice for words after a few years working in this environment but after she’s fired her trip home to her DJ dad (Bill Pullman) offers us a change of both scene and pace on glorious Catalina Island, a sequence which reunites parents and children Shakespeare-style without the storm of professional ties being unchained. This is a story that’s so relaxed it’s practically horizontal. So it’s a fairy tale without true jeopardy, bringing broken families back together via romance. Not such a bad idea, as it happens but there’s a remix waiting to break loose, somewhere, dealing with midlife crises in female singers and the male-run music business. Oh, wait, this is it. There’s a stunning duet to conclude a film that’s all about performance. Directed by Nisha Ganatra. Ever since I was a little girl I dreamed of giving you an enema in Toronto

Carrie (1952)

Everybody’s a stranger until you meet ’em. Beautiful young Carrie Meeber (Jennifer Jones) travels from her small hometown to live with her married sister Minnie (Jacqueline de Witt) in Chicago in the 1890s, On the train she meets well-off travelling salesman Charles Drouet (Eddie Albert). When she loses her job in a sweatshop, she reconnects with the charming and smitten Drouet because she needs a new job to pay $5 board to her Swedish brother-in-law Sven (Robert Foulk – uncredited) but she becomes Drouet’s mistress and is now a kept woman. When Drouet’s friend middle-aged restaurant manager George Hurstwood (Laurence Olivier) falls in love with her, complications ensue. He hasn’t told her he’s married albeit unhappily to a controlling social-climbing wife Julie (Miriam Hopkins) and to escape his marriage (and two children making their way in society) he has to commit grand larceny in his office. As he and Carrie make a life together in New York his circumstances worsen and she is none the wiser as to why he cannot work. Then she tells him she’s pregnant and their financial problems threaten to overwhelm them when he reads in the newspaper that his newly married son is arriving from his honeymoon and Carrie sees an opportunity to improve their situation leaving him to his own devices while she blags her way to an acting career … You’ve got to pay the fiddler in this world. Theodore Dreiser’s realist novel Sister Carrie is adapted by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz for the screen and becomes a typically beautiful William Wyler production – grave, melancholy and immensely moving. Not least because Olivier gives a truly magnificent performance as a man undone by desire and love, brought low by a woman so much younger and more naive. When he declares, This much happiness I’m going to have, you know his sacrifice will bring him down. He is enormously sympathetic, his acting horns drawn right in, probably because with Wyler he was never going to be able to indulge the grand theatrics of old: they had already worked together on Wuthering Heights and the mannered actor in him had been brought to book then by a director who knew just how much he needed from him, and how much storytelling he could do with the camera. And here the camerawork by Victor Milner is supreme, framing every emotional beat with just the right amount of distance and shot size, emphasising different perspectives and roles, juxtaposing possibility with imminent disaster, not least in those wonderful train scenes. Jones’s lack of technique somehow works to the advantage of the story: as her professional acumen improves, so does her control of the narrative: when she sees her ill and bedraggled husband again, and asks, Did I do this? it is simply heartbreaking. Their mismatched yet overwhelming love for one another contrives to make this one of the great unsung melodramas. The casting of Hopkins, who had also worked with Wyler (These Three), and Albert, is perfect, their character notes bringing solidity to an otherwise unbearable tragedy. It’s a sad story but I’ll keep it strictly commercial

Evil Under the Sun (1982)

Even in those days, she could always throw her legs up in the air higher than any of us… and wider. Private detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) goes to an exclusive island that is frequented by the rich and famous. Fabulous actress Arlena Stuart (Diana Rigg) has alienated her latest husband Kenneth Marshall’s (Denis Quilley) young daughter (Emily Hone); is in an adulterous relationship with married gadfly Patrick Redfern (Nicolas Clay) whose jealous wife Christine (Jane Birkin) doesn’t even want to go out in the sun; and she is probably the culprit over a very valuable jewel stolen from her former husband Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakeley) that Poirot was hired to locate by the insurance company when he presented them with a fake. Gossip columnist Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall) can’t get Arlena to sign off on a tell-all biography; while theatre producers Odell Gardener (James Mason) and his wife Myra (Sylvia Miles) lost their shirts when Arlena walked off their last stage show with a fake medical cert. The hotel’s proprietress, failed actress and former rival Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith) meanwhile is still brooding over their comparative successes and her isolation from the world of showbiz. When Arlena is found murdered everyone has an alibi. Except Poirot … I have a big fat motive but no alibi. Adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel by Anthony Shaffer (with uncredited work by Barry Sandler) this takes a decidedly camp approach to the material, aided and abetted by wonderfully playful costuming, classic Cole Porter songs (arranged by John Lanchbery) and an exotic location in the Adriatic in contrast with the original’s island off Devon. It plays fast and loose with the content replacing the original’s dialogue with some very amusing wisecracks and barbed exchanges, viz. Rigg’s comment about her awkward teenage stepdaughter, She runs like a dromedary with dropsy. It’s not Christie but it is funny. Ustinov had replaced Albert Finney (from Murder on the Orient Express) in the preceding adaptation Death on the Nile and delivers a different variety of flamboyance with all kinds of nice touches and humour. It gathers itself back into the author’s original mode for the last half hour with everything accounted for in a very pleasing conclusion. Great fun. Directed by Guy Hamilton in Majorca and shot beautifully by Christopher Challis. You mean nobody did it. MM #3100

Like a Boss (2020)

My head isn’t little. It’s just that my breasts are humongous. Mia Carter (Tiffany Haddish) and Mel Paige (Rose Byrne) are friends since they were teenagers and manage a small cosmetics business despite their conflicting ideals. When they run into financial difficulties and need an investor they are persuaded by industry magnate Claire Luna (Salma Hayek) to allow her take a large stake but it involves firing their employee and chief cheerleader Barret (Billy Porter) and his colleague Sydney (Jennifer Coolidge) is rightfully angry on his behalf. Mia and Mel’s friendship is tested to the limit and they realise their ambitions and their relationship are about to rupture when they regroup … You’re not fierced! This light comedy wastes the grand talents of its ostensible leads who are mired in a drama about their unequal friendship while Hayek wins the day with a set of enviable buck teeth and a penchant for golf – unlike most people in business she doesn’t waste time going to the course, she tees off on her desk with predictable breakages. Sentimental, silly and feel good with some nice bursts of song from Mia and Mel this is barely passable as entertainment but you’ll not forget those dentures in a hurry and Lisa Kudrow makes a welcome entrance at the eleventh hour. Written by Sam Pittman & Adam Cole-Kelly from a story by them and Danielle Sanchez-Witzel. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Thank God I’m not alone. I’m glad you’re here

The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (2020)

Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in. As Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) ages and has a place of respect in society having divested himself of his casinos, he finds that being the head of the Corleone crime family isn’t getting any easier. He wants out of the Mafia and buys his way into the Vatican Bank but NYC mob kingpin Altobello (Eli Wallach) isn’t eager to let one of the most powerful and wealthy families go legit. Making matters even worse is Michael’s nephew, Vincent (Andy Garcia) the illegitimate son of his late brother, hothead Sonny. Not only does Vincent want out from under smalltime mobster Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) who’s now got the Corleones’ New York business, he wants a piece of the Corleone family’s criminal empire, as well as Michael’s teenage daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola) who’s crushing on him. Ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton) appeals to Michael to allow their son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) quit law school to pursue a career as an opera singer.  A trip to Sicily looms as all the threads of the Corleone family start to be pieced together after a massacre in Atlantic City and scores need to be settled … Why did they fear me so much and love you so much? Francis Ford Coppola revisited the scene of arguably his greatest triumph, The Godfather Saga, with writer Mario Puzo and yet he viewed it as a separate entity to that two-headed masterpiece. That was thirty years ago. Now he’s felt the need to re-edit it and it holds together better than the original release. The beginning is altered and it’s all the better to direct the material towards the theme of faith. Pacino is doing it all for his children and it’s his legacy he cares about more than money or respect: the symbolism writ large in the concluding sequence, a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana in which the weakness of our own central Christ figure is punished with the greatest violence – the death of close family.  This story then mutates from a pastiche of its previous triumphs to a a pastiche of an opera. The shocking and intentional contrast with the Cuban sex show in Part II couldn’t be starker yet it’s there for the comparison as Michael does penance for the death of Fredo, his dumb older brother who betrayed the family. He is physically weak from diabetes and the accompanying stroke;  his efforts to go totally legitimate have angered his Mafia rivals from whose ties he cannot fully break and they want in on the deal with the Vatican where Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly) is the contact with Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti) who has a strange way of getting to everyone in the manner of old school Sicilians.  The Christ analogy is also about family sacrifice as his brother Sonny’s bastard son Vincent is nipping at his heels while sleeping with his own besotted daughter; he finds he is still in love with a remarried Kay, whom he finally introduces to Sicily when Tony is set to make his opera debut;  he is in bed with God’s own gangsters and the one good man Lamberto (Raf Vallone) is revealed as the short-lived Pope John Paul I. The references to the cinema of Luchino Visconti (and The Leopard) are rendered ever clearer while Carmine Coppola’s musical phrasing even drops in a bit of a spaghetti western music. It’s a sweeping canvas which gradually reveals itself even if the setup is awkward:  we no longer open on the windows at the Lake Tahoe house with their inlaid spider webs, instead we’re straight into the Vatican deal. It takes us out of the world of Godfather II. But we still see that sister Connie (Talia Shire) is the wicked crone behind the throne in her widow’s weeds, her flightiness long behind her but her song at the family celebration echoes her mother’s song at the wedding in the earlier film. The same acting problems remain in this cut. Like Wallach, her performance is cut from the finest prosciutto as she encourages Vincent in his ruthless ride to the top of the crime world. Mantegna isn’t a lot better as Joey Zasa. The Atlantic City massacre at the Trump Casino isn’t particularly well done – we’re reminded of a cut price Scarface. Wrapped into real life events at the Vatican in the late 70s/early 80s which give Donnelly, Raf Vallone and Helmut Berger (another nod to Visconti) some fine supporting roles, with an almost wordless John Savage as Tom Hagen’s priest son Andrew, this has the ring of truth but not quite the touch of classicism even with that marvellous cast reunited, something of a miracle in itself:  it feels like the gang’s almost all here. I cheered when I saw Richard Bright back as Al Neri! So sue me! And good grief Enzo the Baker is back too! Duvall’s salary wouldn’t be met by Paramount sadly and he is replaced by George Hamilton as consigliere. Even Martin Scorsese’s mother shows up! That’s Little Italy for ya! Pacino is filled with regret in this unspooling tragedy. And there we have it: the coda to a form of Italian American storytelling, the parallels with the earlier films expressed in flashbacks, as if to say, This was a life. Scorsese’s work is acknowledged but the narrative is forced forward to the inevitable tragedy. Life as opera – filled with crazy melodrama, betrayals, love, violence and murderous death. Garcia’s role makes far more sense in this version – we meet him quicker, his relationship clearly cultivated by Connie to ensure a passing of the guard. Yet what this cut also reinforces is that Coppola’s filmmaking wasn’t as confident, there are too many close ups – where is that surefooted widescreen composition? There are some awkward transitions and frankly bad writing. It’s long but it’s a farewell to a kind of cinema. And the death of Sofia Coppola as Mary was the price she had to pay for being her father’s daughter, non e vero? Now she’s the film world’s godmother. Gangster wrap. Finance is the gun, politics is the trigger.

Misbehaviour (2020)

So this is the eye of the revolution – up close it sure is revolting. As the 1970 Miss World competition looms, divorced mother of a little daughter Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) encounters sexism as she is interviewed for a place as a mature History student at University College London. She encounters Women’s Liberation activist Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) painting slogans on a poster and warns her about bobbies patrolling the street. She joins her group which lives as a commune and advises them to engage with the media – they’re so shabby and disorganised and they don’t even have TV but another group in Peckham disagrees with their tactics. Meanwhile Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and his wife Julia (Keeley Hawes) are busy trying to secure Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) as host of Miss World against his wife Dolores’ (Lesley Manville) wishes because when he last did it in 1961 he took the winner home. Pressured by London-based South African apartheid activist Peter Hain (Luke Thompson), Eric Morley decides to parachute in an extra contestant, black Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) who along with Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is one of the few coloured contestants in the beauty contest. Then a wilder element of Libbers blows up a BBC van on the eve of the competition and the Grosvenor Road commune has to go through with a proper protest under cover of normal clothing during the live show … You think you can have the same freedoms as a man but you can’t. The screenplay by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe from Frayn’s story is rooted in reality: this is a group biography but done as a comedy drama in the style of a heist story. It’s a conscientious and entertaining if mild intervention into the evolution of women’s rights. A touch more of zany might have helped this become a genre entry which it’s straining to do but respect for the (still living) heroines obviously hampers wilder moments. And perhaps the truth. It’s a political tale of unbelievable misogyny and inequality. The display of the beauty queens’ behinds for rating is truly shocking: how on earth did this outrageous cattle mart go on as long as it did?! However the lovely irony, that the protest (which occurs in the midst of infamous philanderer Hope’s outrageously sexist monologue) engenders a feminist movement is well played and the meeting between arrested Sally and newly-crowned winner Hosten nicely encapsulates the complex theme and issues which today’s feminists would call intersectional. Fun fact: Sally’s daughter Abigail (Maya Kelly) was the daughter from her marriage to legendary actor John Thaw. Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe. Turns out my seat at the table is actually a high chair

Life With Music (2020)

Aka Coda. People enjoy the show but really it’s the looming disaster that makes it special. Acclaimed pianist Henry Cole (Patrick Stewart) is suffering repeatedly from stage fright and his assistant Paul (Giancarlo Esposito) is having trouble keeping him psyched up for his performances. Henry is still grieving the tragic loss of his wife. Journalist Helen Morrison (Katie Holmes) wants to do a story on him and comes to his aid when he is beset by fellow journos following a show and then she travels to make sure he gets on stage. Their friendship grows incrementally but Henry is still preoccupied by the death of his wife who it turns out committed suicide. It becomes Helen;s inadvertent mission to bring Henry back to life … I even tried to be a pianist for a while until I realised how fragile piano playing is – especially in front of two thousand people. A seemingly simple story that has deep psychological tentacles with a beautiful soundtrack and wonderful landscapes as the narrative moves us from concert to concert, country to country. It’s anchored by Helen’s voiceover but at a certain point she is removed from the story and we are moved to wonder if her presence isn’t that of a ministering angel given the apparently chaste nature of this May-December romance. But, it’s all about the magazine piece she’s writing and these two characters end up belonging in two different if perhaps parallel places. Beethoven’s sonatas provide the commentary. Written by Louis Godbout and directed by Claude Lalonde. There is nothing arbitrary about what you do