Entebbe (2018)

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How many Israelis?  How many hijackers?  Where are they going?  In July 1976 an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris is hijacked by Islamic terrorists (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) including two Baader-Meinhof supporting Germans Wilfred Böse aka Boni (Daniel Brühl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike) who find out that Ulrike Meinhof has hanged herself in prison (it is rather more likely that she was murdered) and want to take their anti-fascist beliefs out on some innocent Israelis in exchange for the release of Palestinian terrorists.  They take over the plane in Athens and the Palestinians order the French pilots to land in Entebbe, Uganda, where they believe murderous maniac Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie) will influence negotiations with the Israeli government. In Israel, the tensions between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) and Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan in a hilarious wig) are played out during stalled negotiations (the Israelis do not negotiate with terrorists) while a commando unit prepares for an assault on the African airport … Germans killing Jews. Have you thought how this looks?  Playwright Gregory Burke’s screenplay teases out all the issues with on-the-nose dialogue in this historical reconstruction which perhaps does too many things at once – the dance motif which threads through the narrative because one of the commandos Zeev Hirsch (Ben Schnetzer) has a girlfriend preparing for a difficult performance of Echad Mi Yodea is perhaps a trope too far – and ends up straddled between one too many stools. The Germans are not exactly naive – their ideological struggle against their parents’ generation has itself a rather sickly unironic anti-semitic root (let’s call him Adolf Hitler or Martin Luther, whomsoever you prefer, they call it anti-fascist). However they are out of their depth with the Islamists who quickly put the Jewish hostages in one room and prepare to kill them first. French pilot Jacques Le Moine (Denis Ménochet) is the voice of reason in Boni’s ear – an engineer is worth fifty revolutionaries, he tells him. And what about dignity?  Drinking water gives people dignity, he cautions as he fixes the dirty water supply at the rear end of Entebbe Airport while the regular business goes on at the public end. It is his subtle finger wagging that gets Boni to desist from a genocidal spree. There are nice supporting performances – including Peter Sullivan as Amos Eran, Rabin’s right-hand man – and a real clunker from Pike whose conversation into a dead telephone after she’s run out of uppers gives new meaning to the term phoning it in.  The hostages’ terror is more or less ignored even when one French-Israeli is returned to the group by the Palestinians in a shambolic state after they have tortured him. Everything is defused by cutting back to the dancer girlfriend and her psychological issues with her job (boo bloody hoo). The one man killed in Operation Thunderbolt was Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yonathan (played here by Angel Bonanni) which precipitated the young man’s return from the United States and his elevation to PM for the first time in 1996, as the end credits remind us over another dance performance (why?). Rabin was eventually murdered by a Jewish extremist who didn’t want him to carry on dialogue with the Palestinians. And so it goes on. This was a fabulously daring rescue mission but you wouldn’t know it from watching this film.  It’s loose enough with the truth but one story that isn’t included is a woman hostage who choked on a bone and was sent to hospital. After the raid, Amin had her murdered. Directed by José Padilha. There are three other films on this subject and I’ll bet anything they’re all better than this. Shalom.

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That’s Not Me (2017)

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I don’t want to be half of something. Polly Cuthbert (Alice Foulcher) dreams of making it as an actor but she’s very picky and when her agent advises her to take the role of an albino on a popular soap opera she turns it down because ‘it would be like blacking up.’ She’s holding out for an audition on an HBO show with Jared Leto. She keeps on working as a checkout girl at a cinema. Her less talented but commercially minded (literally!) identical twin Amy takes the soap role instead and gets the audition with Leto and becomes famous. Polly’s dreams are shattered and she’s mistaken for her famous sister at every turn, and she scrambles to catch up – juggling terrible auditions (where she’s mistaken for Amy), painfully awkward dates and her underwhelming job. Running out of options, she takes an ill-advised trip to the coalface of celebrity dreams: Los Angeles, California where she’s months late for pilot season and rooms with an old drama school friend who had a tiny role in a David Lynch film.  There Polly begins to realise that maybe there’s no such thing as ‘making it’ after all and she comes back to Oz after two terrible days and takes advantage of people who believe she’s Amy – until she gets found out and winds up on the front of a scandal mag … Terrific comedy dealing with a quarter-life crisis in a brilliantly conceived twins psychodrama – why does Polly even want to act, asks a clearly impoverished Zoe Cooper (Isabel Lucas) when she turns up at her doorstep in LA and reveals her own spiralling madness as she empties fish heads on a studio desk in an attempt to get a role in an all-female remake of Jaws? Because her parents told her she could, whimpers Polly. It’s just not good enough:  she hasn’t even acted in anything since 2011. Her sister Amy exacts a wonderful revenge which turns on her ability to act – and it’s ideal. Wonderfully judged script by Foulcher and debut feature director Gregory Erdstein in a story that’s tonally right at every turn. It’s no accident that Polly’s favourite film is It’s a Wonderful Life:  let’s not forget (as she she has) that it’s all about someone giving up on their dreams to live a suicidally depressing utterly humdrum life. Foulcher is fantastic.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)

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Gorgeous mouth. You knew you’d get sore lips walking her home.  Wannabe actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) is rooming in Primrose Hill in 1978 when he’s introduced to the girl next door who just happens to be former movie star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening). He teaches her disco dancing and they swiftly embark on an affair that takes him to New York and California where she lives in a trailer overlooking the ocean. They split up when her absences raise his suspicions but a couple of years later he receives a call that she’s collapsed while performing in a play and Gloria ends up living in his family’s Liverpool home with himself and his parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) and it appears she is now desperately ill … Turner’s memoir was published many years ago in the aftermath of Grahame’s death and the almost too good to be true story receives a very sympathetic adaptation to the screen, erotic and poignant, wistful and revealing. Artfully told backwards and forwards with inventive visual transitions, Bening and Bell give marvellously empathetic performances in a film that revels in its theatre and movie references, with particular homage paid to Bogey (Grahame’s co-star in In a Lonely Place) and Romeo and Juliet, which she so wanted to play on stage and whose romantic tragedy proves appropriate for the penultimate scene. Turner knew so little about Grahame he had to wait to see her onscreen at a retrospective watching Naked Alibi as Grahame sat beside him. Their first date is at Alien during which he nearly barfs with fear and she screams with laughter. Twenty-nine years and a lifetime of cinema and marriages (four, plus four children) separate them and their arguments (spurred by her discovery of cancer which she conceals from him) split them up and somehow she wants to spend her final days in the bosom of his loud Liverpudlian family. His parents put off their trip to Australia to see their oldest offspring, while brother Joe (Stephen Graham) objects to her monopolising of the family home. Bening captures her tics – some very good use of her famous mouth in particular scenes, some adept and brittle posing, and great attitude. Her own mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is a true thespian while her sister Joy (Frances Barber) tells Peter the reality of Gloria’s much-married past (he had no idea she’d scandalously married her stepson). That triggers mutual revelations of bisexuality. Both the leads have to play the gamut of emotions, till near death do they part as they are driven by their desire for each other and their fractious situation. Adapted by Matt Greenhalgh and directed by Paul McGuigan, this is a rather splendid look at what could happen to Hollywood stars when the machine spat them out and they were the unemployed victims of rancid rumours spread by way of explanation; but it’s also a deeply felt account of an unlikely relationship which was a true friendship at its core between a vulnerable woman who wanted to be treated decently and the first man to treat her with respect. Elegant.

The Big Sick (2017)

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What’s my stance on 9/11? Oh um, anti. It was a tragedy, I mean we lost 19 of our best guys. In present day Chicago, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a Pakistani comic who meets an American graduate student in psychology named Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his stand-up shows. They have sex on the first date and as their relationship blossoms, he soon becomes worried about what his traditional Moslem parents will think of her. His mother brings prospective brides (for an expected arranged marriage) to their weekly family dinner, something Kumail doesn’t admit until Emily finds a tin box filled with the women’s photos called The Ex-Files, in homage to his favourite TV show. Then she admits she was married as an undergraduate. They break up. When Emily suddenly comes down with an illness that means she must be placed in an induced coma, which Kumail has to approve, he finds himself developing a bond with her deeply concerned mother (Holly Hunter) and father (Ray Romano) who travel from South Carolina to keep a bedside vigil and know all about him, but his parents know nothing about her. And he’s got to get a spot in the Montreal Comedy Festival …. A culture clash romcom that feels plugged into a political charger, taking place in reverse:  have sexual relations, get to know each other, split up, meet the parents. While Emily lies in a coma the difficult intercultural exchanges take place:  a kind of discourse over Sleeping Beauty (although she has a complex about her looks stemming from high school bullying) that presumably has some deeper significance about white women.  A romantic comedy in which one of the protagonists is mainly unconscious is daring if not foolhardy except that this is all about him, you see, the Pakistani navigating his ethnicity in America. The culture wars that take place end up being defused in a comedy club and are stimulating because they then wind up being resolved through common humanity involving putting down ignorant white frat boys wearing baseball caps making jokes about Islamic terrorists.  A plea for understanding? Probably, but mainly for Kumail. Quelle surprise. This autobiographical work was written by Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon (who presumably has Stockholm Syndrome), directed by Michael Showalter.

Nothing Like a Dame (2018)

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When in doubt – don’t. Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright gather in the country home Plowright shared with the late Laurence Olivier and reminisce, laugh and excoriate their various experiences on stage and in films in careers that began in the mid-fifties and in three of their cases (Plowright is now blind) continue in the present day. Their friendship and camaraderie is enhanced by their mutual laughter and ribbing and encouragement, with memories of Olivier (good and bad) looming large especially for Smith who was his frequent leading lady and whom he hit nightly onstage as Desdemona when she refused to do a Thornton Wilder play.  “It was the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre.” She is damning. Yet there is an extraordinary interview with her from the Sixties when she admits she steals everything from Kenneth Williams. At her side, Dench corpses frequently. Working with their various husbands, nailing kippers to the underside of dining tables at unpleasant boarding houses while touring in rep, being terrified daily on film sets, these dames have seen and done it all and love to have a good old gossip. I could watch them forever, breaking the fourth wall and mocking the crew ‘n’ all. The clips and photos are gold. Directed by Roger Michell, when he’s permitted.

Anastasia (1956)

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You are an excellent actress, Madame. My compliments. You were very well trained.Paris 1928.  A suicidal amnesiac (Ingrid Bergman) whose resemblance to the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, widely rumoured to have survived the family’s execution in 1918 –  is drawn into a plot devised by the former Russian White General Bounine  (Yul Brynner) and his associates to swindle from the Grand Duchess an inheritance of £10 million. However, the ultimate hurdle to their plan is the exiled Russian aristocracy — in particular the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna (Helen Hayes) who is of course the grandmother of the royal family and whom their handpicked claimant must convince of her legitimacy if they wish for their scheme to succeed. After ingratiating herself with the Dowager Empress, Anastasia aka Anna Anderson (the name Bounine invents for her) is preyed upon by the fortune-hunting Prince Paul (Ivan Desny) and Bounine becomes jealous … Director Anatole Litvak would only agree to making this film if Bergman was cast and she’s ideal in a role that is all about impersonation and performance. It marked her triumphant return to Hollywood following her association with Roberto Rossellini which had her denounced from pulpits. Arthur Laurents adapted Marcelle Maurette’s stageplay (Prince Paul is an invented character) and it’s immaculately constructed with the scenes between this pretender and her grandmother a standout at the film’s centre, the masterful ladies of the cinema facing off in a film that is all about acting. Martita Hunt is a standout in the supporting cast as the Dowager’s lady in waiting, Baroness Elena. Bergman picked up the Academy Award and her place in American cinema was secure. The play is over. Go home.

Subway in the Sky (1959)

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Baxter Grant (Van Johnson) an American military doctor in West Berlin, deserts and goes on the run from the Military Police when faced with false drug trafficking and murder charges. He takes shelter in the apartment his wife rented not realising it’s been sublet – so he finds himself hold up with cabaret singer Lilli Hoffman (Hildegarde Knef) who he manages to persuade to help prove his innocence. He is being hunted down by the military, his wife (Katharine Kath) is the sole person to be able to help but he suspects her of black market involvement while his estranged son (a soldier) wants to hang him out to dry … Directed by the estimable Muriel Box this is of interest principally as a Cold War tale but it’s hamstrung by the lack of location filming (it was shot in Shepperton and the only exteriors look like North Kensington). Essentially it’s a chase movie that mostly takes place in the apartment. Knef comes off best here and while she’s no Dietrich she’s no slouch either in her nightclub singer role with that gravelly voice coming into its own.  There’s a nice supporting performance by Albert Lieven as Carl, her lawyer. Adapted from Bruce Birch’s book and Ian Main’s play by Jack Andrews.

The Tin Drum (1979)

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There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eat to much fish. There was once a credulous people… who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really… the gas man! There was once a toy merchant. His name was Sigismund Markus… and he sold tin drums lacquered red and white. There was once a drummer. His name was Oskar. There was once a toy merchant… whose name was Markus… and he took all the toys in the world away with him. Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is a very unusual boy born in Danzig in 1924, after the city has been separated from Germany following WW1. Refusing to leave the womb until promised a tin drum by his mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), Oskar is reluctant to enter a world he sees as filled with hypocrisy and injustice, and vows on his third birthday to never grow up as he watches his mother take her cousin Jan for a lover and she becomes pregnant – but by who? Miraculously Oskar gets his wish when he throws himself down a staircase.  His talent for breaking glass when he screams garners him attention. As the Nazis rise to power in Danzig, Oskar wills himself to remain a child, beating his tin drum incessantly and screaming in protest at the chaos surrounding him as his mother dies, his father takes a new wife who has a baby Oskar is convinced he has fathered and Hitler takes over while Oskar decides to join a travelling circus and entertain the Nazi troops in Paris … Günter Grass’ stunning 1959 novel was adapted by Volker Schlöndorff (and Jean-Claude Carriére and Frank Seitz Jr.) and he became the first German director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this transgressive, arresting and surreal impression of Nazism and the breakup of Europe. It’s mesmerising, brilliantly conceived and performed – Bennent is one of a kind – and once seen can never be forgotten. It is the blackest of comedies about the darkness in Germany and the way in which Polish people handled the transition to Nazism. The coda in real life – that Grass was found to have been in the Waffen-SS as a teenager after a lifetime of denial –  somehow just gives this greater heft. Amazing.