Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

Somebody Up There Likes Me

Maybe Chicago’s got a heart but I ain’t found one.  Young Italian-American Rocky Barbella (Paul Newman) endures abuse from his father (Harold J. Stone) and despite his mother (Eileen Heckart) and her constant efforts to intervene he messes with small-time crime with his streetwise friend Romolo (Sal Mineo).  His consequent run-ins with the law lead him in and out of detention centers and prisons. When it seems he has it together, Rocky is drafted into the wartime Army but can’t stick the regime and goes AWOL. He takes up boxing to earn quick money with coach Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane), but when he discovers he has a natural talent in the ring, he builds the confidence to pursue his love interest, Norma (Pier Angeli), and fulfill his potential as a middleweight fighter. Pressured to take a bribe, his reputation takes a major hit.  He doesn’t know how to redeem himself except by fighting …  Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Rocky Graziano’s autobiography is full of clichés – but they’re good ones because they’re true. Filled with big, dramatic performances and great action which is what you want from a gutsy story of an abused child through his spells in juvie and prison and the Army, this is a wonderful portrait of NYC and its denizens and the final bout is heart-stopping. The right hooks aren’t confined to Rocky, Lehman’s dialogue is ripe with zingers:  The trouble with reading the phonebook is you always know how it’s going to come out.  Gleaming monochrome cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and a song by Perry Como add to a magnificent movie bio experience but one is forced to ask what Paul Newman’s career would have looked like if its intended lead James Dean hadn’t died before this went into production:  his Rebel co-star Mineo (who looks altogether lustrous) bolsters the teen crim story and the beautiful Angeli was engaged to Dean for a while (as well as doing The Silver Chalice with Newman). His ghost is everywhere. Look for Robert Loggia and Dean Jones down the cast list.  Directed by Robert Wise.

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Love Means Zero (2017)

Love Means Zero

Nick loves the buildup. When things crash or don’t go the way he wants, Nick moves on.  A startling insight into famed – and infamous – tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, whose Florida tennis academy is associated mostly with Andre Agassi, who refused to have anything to do with this film. Interviewed on camera and frequently referring to himself in the third person, Bollettieri created his persona out of necessity, primarily financial, when he needed money for some of his eight wives and families and already in his forties. Intense, volatile, passionate and driven, he managed what seems to have been a mix of juvenile detention centre and luxury hotel, with his favoured students living in the nice bit, the other kids in cramped dorms and doing menial work to earn their keep. It became a kind of feeder for the tennis tour and he did everything to encourage students to attend. Some of them appear in staggeringly revealing interviews. Agassi was part of a Vegas contingent and Jim Courier was a contemporary they despised who worked harder and they eventually faced each other in the 1989 French Open where Bollettieri sided with Agassi which just made Courier determined to win. At the break for rain Bollettieri was doing a TV interview instead of helping his charge. When Courier got the victory, he split with his coach.  The hurt he experienced when Bollettieri was cheering Agassi and staying silent on his own points is clear. When Agassi won at Wimbledon in 1992, Bollettieri split with him after years of using him to gain publicity. Agassi found out in USA Today. He had asked Bollettieri never to coach his rivals but when Boris Becker approached Bollettieri he took him on and Becker faced Agassi at Wimbledon in the 1995 semi-finals and beat him. Bollettieri is remarkably unconscious of his behaviour on camera and claims to remember very little. However Kathy Horvath, a teen prodigy whom he sidelined in favour of pretty Carling Bassett (of the brewing dynasty), remains bitter to this day, while Bassett acknowledges it and suffered herself when her egomaniac father took over from Bollettieri:  she got an eating disorder, which she admits on camera.  Her father died in 1986 and her career disappeared.  She’s been yesterday’s news for a long time and I last read about her after she got pregnant by another player while still a teenager and a story ran that she was cutting coupons for groceries. She believes if she had been allowed to stick with Bollettieri she would have been a great player. Becker maintains that Bollettieri is a life coach whose chosen communication vehicle is tennis:  Nick Bollettieri never won a game of tennis in his life. Courier made his peace with the man years ago. He sold the academy to IMG sports agency and became incredibly wealthy, not that he shared it with his co-workers as they make clear yet they claim they’d do it all over given half a chance. This is a fascinating piece of work, rather like its subject and a very timely screening mid-Wimbledon with wonderful footage and some truly shocking stories of what he inflicted on kids rich and poor alike. Directed by Jason Kohn.

The Disaster Artist (2017)

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Just because you want it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.  In mid-1990s San Francisco acting wannabe Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) encounters the wild and unusual Tommy Wiseau in improv class.  Wiseau has an impenetrable accent, wads of cash and looks like a vampire.  When Greg screens Rebel Without a Cause for Tommy he’s blown away and immediately drives them down to Cholame to the scene of James Dean’s fatal crash.They throw in their lot to move to LA where he owns another property and Greg gets an agent while Tommy alienates the rich and famous. He decides to write his own movie for them to make together and funds it from his account ‘literally a bottomless pit’ as a teller regales producer Seth Rogen who plays the film’s script supervisor. He does everything but learn his lines and throws hissy fits lasting days particularly when Greg moves out to live with his actress girlfriend Amber (Alison Brie) who gets him a guest role on Malcolm in the Middle after they run into Bryan Cranston at Canter’s but Tommy makes him turn it down.  Tommy fires crew and he and Greg have a monster argument.  Months later Greg is back in theatre and the premier of The Room beckons. It promises to be horrendous so will Greg even attend? … The true story (adapted from Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book) of how a vaguely paranoid European immigrant to the US made a terrible vanity project film starring himself with his best friend Greg Sestero and unintentionally became a cult hero.  The genetically gifted Franco brothers (James played James Dean in the 2001 biopic, Dave looks more like Montgomery Clift with the passing years) have some serious bromance moments here. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the major irony here is perhaps that just as Tommy needed to take a step back and learn his lines, perhaps this production was just a tad hamstrung by his approval of the film in the first place so director/star James Franco never goes totally mediaeval on us although he gives it the old college try. The credits sequence is like a blooper reel – with a split screen showing us just how precise the film within the film is including the anatomically incorrect sex scene. Maybe it’s not the crazy fest you expect but it’s a charming tribute to the madness that is required to get movies made particularly when you’re paying for them yourself.

Their Finest (2016)

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Why do you think that people like films? It’s because stories are structured; have a shape, a purpose, a meaning; and when things gone bad they’re still a part of a plan; there’s a point to them. Unlike life. In 1940 London former secretary and comic strip writer Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired by the Ministry of Information to insert more realistic female banter in propaganda films. She’s shacked up with failing war artist Ellis Cole (Jack Huston) who becomes jealous of her job while he can’t get an exhibition of his work. She starts working on a story from the newspapers about identical twin sisters who supposedly rescued soldiers at Dunkirk but discovers it was exaggerated. While she is struggling with the screenplay she falls for screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and rows with self-centred actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) whose career is basically at an end.  All the while the German bombs rain down on London and they’ve got to use an American war hero (Jake Lacy) who’s never acted before , turning journalistic fiction into a movie to entertain the masses and get America into the war … There’s a great idea buried here under a mound of rubble caused by the German bombs. Gaby Chiappe’s adaptation of Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half can’t decide whether it’s a comedy or a drama and at its heart is an issue of research – and the lack of it. There are some good insights into the kind of wartime propaganda inserted into films of the era and nice pastiches but they’re overly obvious. The second (major) death is quite laughable which is presumably not what was intended. Rachael Stirling offers some terrific oppositional feminism as Phyl from the Minstry and Nighy steals every scene as the actor who turns out to be human after all. Jeremy Irons enjoys himself as the Secretary of War.  Another somewhat tentative tragicomic British film from Danish director Lone Scherfig (after An Education and One Day) with Arterton more or less delightful in a performance which attempts depth but drops the Welsh accent PDQ and Nighy gives his best Leslie Howard, sort of.  Harmless and inoffensive irony which I suppose is a kind of propaganda in itself.

The Square (2017)

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The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.  Christian (Claes Bang) the curator of a Swedish museum hires a PR team to create hype for a challenging new exhibition with explosive results after he responds with a poorly thought-out social media post when his smartphone is stolen … Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, this part-satire, part-horror utilises its international cast well in what is an overlong and episodic narrative:  Elisabeth Moss plays Anne, the journalist who winds up having a complicated one-night stand with Christian; while Dominic West essays a PJ-clad parody of Julian Schnabel; and Terry Notary is Oleg, after Oleg Kulik, a performance artist who reputedly acted like a dog and attacked people at an exhibition in Stockholm (Notary does an ape impression here). Bang is terrific in quite a complex and contradictory role in which all his pretensions are challenged. There is a dinner party from hell which is a film in and of itself.  This is a largely successful tract using issues of class, race, sex and society in a witty treatise on what could be summed up in two words:  culture shock. Like most modern art, better seen and experienced than read about. Winner of the 2017 Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Girls Trip (2017)

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How the fuck could I compete with pillow talk? Best friends lifestyle guru (the new Oprah) Ryan (Regina Hall), gossip journalist Sasha (Queen Latifah), divorced nurse Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) and party animal Dina (Tiffany Haddish) are in for the adventure of a lifetime when they travel to New Orleans for the annual Essence Music Festival years after graduation. Along the way, they rekindle their sisterhood and rediscover their wild side by doing enough dancing, drinking, brawling and romancing to make the Big Easy blush.  The ladies discover that Ryan’s husband Stewart (Mike Colter) is cheating on her and he turns up at their hotel but she already knows because they’re in counselling and her brand would be hurt blah blah blah …  Dull, Dumb, Dim and Trite, as I like to call them, are otherwise talented, funny, intelligent fortysomething women but hey this is the movies and they have to renegotiate their friendships in the context of social media, jealousy, money, failed pregnancy, drink, drugs, sex, pissing on people from a height or whatever you’re having yourself. They’re black so portraying them as utterly idiotic sleaze merchants is okay then. It’s equal opportunities for all. Yawn. Is that the time? Yup, time’s up. I’ll say.  A besmirchment upon one of my favourite towns. The absinthe that makes the women hallucinate should be handed out with the movie. Unbearable. Written by Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver from a story by them with Erica Rivinoja. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee.

Tamara Drewe (2010)

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Life sure comes easy for the beautiful.  Famous twentysomething journalist Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) returns to the small Dorset town she grew up in and causes a stir. Once an unattractive teenager known as Beaky due to her big nose, she’s had a rhinoplasty and transformed herself into a beautiful girl. She is the object of attention for three different men: Andy (Luke Evans) a local handyman and her former boyfriend who she hires to do up her late mother’s home which he believes was stolen from his family; Ben (Dominic Cooper), a drummer in a rock band she interviews whose girlfriend has left him for the singer; and Nicholas (Roger Allam), the lauded crime writer who along with his long-suffering wife Beth (Tamsin Greig) runs the local writers’ retreat hosting several wannabes and crime writing weekends.  Bored teenagers Jody (Jessica Barden) and Casey (Charlotte Christie)  decide to break into Tamara’s fixer-upper and start sending emails in an attempt to make Jody’s idol Ben fall in love with her instead and their interference triggers a disastrous series of events … At once satire, romcom and farce, this sly social comedy works on every level due to fantastic writing and performances. Posy Simmonds’ comic strip (turned graphic novel) reworks Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd in a contemporary setting and tilts its particular irony (and mockery) at several targets. Visiting writer Glen (Bill Camp) has spent a decade writing a book about Hardy and his findings are a commentary on the goings-on as well as providing inspiration for his romantic aspirations leading to a tragicomic conclusion his subject couldn’t have bettered. Well adapted by Moira Buffini, this is smart adult entertainment. Directed by Stephen Frears.

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

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Who knows what men are really capable of?  We all wear pantomime masks.  It’s 1880 and Victorian London is gripped with fear as a serial killer is on the loose leaving cryptic messages written in the blood of his victims who appear to have no connection with each other. As the body count mounts the mystery becomes increasingly outlandish and blame falls on the mythical creature of Jewish lore – the golem. With few leads and increasing public pressure, Scotland Yard assigns the case to Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy), a seasoned detective whose homosexual inclinations prevent his promotion and who suspects that he’s being set up to fail. Faced with a long list of suspects, Kildare must rely on help from a witness to stop the murders and bring the maniac to justice… Peter Ackroyd’s wonderful Victorian novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem gets a suitably OTT workout here but Jane Goldman’s adaptation misses a trick or three and doesn’t entirely sustain the plot (you’ll guess the killer very quickly). There’s a lot to like, particularly in the interplay between Nighy and Daniel Mays as Constable George Flood which is put to the forefront of this interpretation but the rivalry with Inspector Roberts (Peter Sullivan) is badly underwritten. A game cast including Douglas Booth as the legendary Leno, Eddie Marsan as Uncle, Sam Reid as failed playwright John Cree, Olivia Cooke as his wife and surprisingly literate former music hall performer Lizzie and even Paul Ritter bringing up the rear as a librarian, do a lot in a good-looking production. It’s not often Karl Marx and George Gissing are suspected of serial murders! And Nighy deepens his usual bonhomie with barely concealed emotion. However the misguided construction means that this never really comes over the way you’d expect given the powerful origins of the tale and ultimately it fails to reconcile the male and female stories in this multifaceted portrait of sex and violence.  Directed by Juan Carlos Medina.

Miss Sloane (2017)

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Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. And plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them. And they don’t surprise you.  Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) remains one of the most sought-after lobbyists in Washington, D.C. She will do or say anything to get ahead of the competition. When asked to help oppose a bill that imposes regulations on firearms, she instead joins a scrappy boutique firm led by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) that represents the backers of the law. Her defiant stance and determination to win now makes her the target of powerful new enemies who threaten her career. We find her facing a congressional hearing headed up by Senator Ronald Sperling (John Lithgow) where the needling gets to her and she breaks legal advice to plead the Fifth to respond to a petty point about Indonesia and opens the door to an onslaught of past crimes in the name of getting ahead on Capitol Hill … This wordy worthy drama is hard to take:  Chastain is as we have come to expect – technically adept, capable of delivering very prolix speeches but essentially unsympathetic (not that she cares) in spite of this being about a very current hot button topic – gun control and the powerful lobby that comes out to vote no matter what. Written by Jonathan Perera and directed by John Madden, this is literate, middle of the road social consciousness drama only rendered tolerable by performance and ultimately some finessed construction and screw-tightening towards the conclusion. But like Chastain’s other film this year, Molly’s Game, the stakes aren’t high enough to make us do anything more than yawn at these horrible people.

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!