Zelig (1983)

Zelig

All the themes of our culture were there. In this fictional documentary set during the 1920s and 1930s a non-descript American called Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) achieves notoriety for his ability to look, act and sound like anyone he meets. He ingratiates himself with everyone from the lower echelons of society to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Pope becoming famous as The Changing Man. Even Hollywood comes calling and makes a film about him. His chameleon-like skill catches the eye of Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), a psychiatrist who thinks Zelig is in need of serious cognitive analysis as someone who goes to extremes to make himself fit into society. Their relationship moves in a direction that’s not often covered in medical textbooks as she hypnotises him I’m certain it’s something he picked up from eating Mexican food. A formally and technically brilliant and absolutely hilarious spoof documentary that integrates real and manipulated newsreel footage with faked home movies, a film within a film, period photographs of the leads and interviews with contemporary personalities, real and imagined, from Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow to ‘Eudora Fletcher’ (Ellen Garrison) in the present day. Even Bruno Bettelheim shows up to declare the subject the ultimate conformist. The sequence on the anti-semitism Zelig experiences as a child (his parents sided with the anti-semites, narrator Patrick Horgan informs us mournfully) is laugh out loud funny. Of course it has a payoff – in Nazi Germany. The editing alone is breathtaking, there is not a false moment and the music is superlative, forming a backdrop and a commentary as well as instilling in the audience a realistic feel for the time in which this is set. There are moments where you will not believe your eyes as Allen transforms into everyone he meets – regardless of race, shape or colour. An original and funny mockumentary that’s actually about the world we live in, an extreme response to childhood bullying and what we do to make ourselves fit in and where that could lead. You just told the truth and it sold papers – it never happened before!

 

Instant Family (2018)

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Is it a problem, the whole white saviour thing? Building contractor Pete Wagner (Mark Wahlberg) and his interior designer wife Ellie (Rose Byrne) have a perfect life, flipping houses and making money. However their child-free status is starting to get to Ellie and she persuades Mark to think about fostering. They train under the supervision of social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) and get overwhelmed when they encounter wisecracking 15-year old Lizzie (Isabela Moner) but she has a little brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz) and the couple don’t want to break up the family, whose crack addict mom is in jail.  The honeymoon period is followed by serious tantrums and disruption … If I chatted to a random kid in the park I could get arrested.  A film constructed on such a hideously sentimental premise you might not look beyond the awesome shabby chic interiors and hear some very shrewd and witty observations about race, parenting and family.  But what the hell were they thinking to deploy the great Joan Cusack as the weirdo in the last scene? Cringe! Must be the flu meds. Ahem. Written by John Morris and director Sean Anders. I never get tired of watching white people fight

What Men Want (2019)

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That’s just Jasmine tea. If you don’t count the weed, and the peyote, and the crack. Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson) doesn’t get promoted at her sports agency because she doesn’t connect well with men. She immediately goes out and has a one night stand with bartender Will (Aldis Hodge) and turns up dishevelled at a photoshoot the next day and screws up signing the next basketball star Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie) whose dad Joe ‘Dolla’ (Tracy Morgan) makes her life very difficult. She is read by a psychic called Sister (Erykah Badu) at her friend’s bachelorette party and is given a foul-smelling tea to drink. When the gang goes to a nightclub she falls over and hits her head and awakens in hospital to find she can read her doctor’s thoughts and en route to the office she realises she can hear what every man is thinking. Jamal doesn’t want to sign with a woman who doesn’t have a family so she passes off Will and his son as her own … I thought all black people stopped drinking tea after Get Out.  A film that must have been dreamed off in a moment of heightened wokeness, this remake of Nancy Meyers’ 2000 hit supplants wit with crassness, ingenuity with cliché, Mel Gibson with Henson. The original screenplay credited here to Cathy Yuspa & Josh Goldsmith and Diane Drake (and adapted for this production by Tina Gordon, Alex Gregory, Peter Huyck and Jas Waters) was actually wholly rewritten by Meyers who was uncredited for her page one rewrite in exchange for her taking over the reins on the project that starred the wonderfully charismatic Gibson.  You can read about all that in my book https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=pathways+of+desire+elaine+lennon&qid=1577703336&s=books&sr=1-1. This however replaces the point of view and flips gender in what was originally a clever battle of the sexes-mind swap comedy and is now an exercise lacking almost entirely in insights either into advertising, sport psychology or anything else. In this iteration, Henson tries too hard. Ali jumps out of her box and winds up being put back in it quite conclusively. At least Richard Roundtree graces us with his presence as Ali’s dad. Quite mystifying. I doubt Meyers would want to be associated with it after all. Directed by Adam Shankman. The only voices I heard were Joan Rivers and Tupac. And they did not get along

Ma (2019)

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Sometimes you want something so badly and suddenly you don’t. Newly divorced Erica (Juliette Lewis) returns to her hometown in Mississippi and works in a casino while her 16-year old daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) starts hanging out with the cool kids at high school led by Haley (McKaley Miller). Middle-aged veterinary assistant Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) befriends them when they’re trying to score liquor at the store and decides to let them party in the basement of her home. But there are some house rules: One of the kids has to stay sober, don’t curse, and never go upstairs. They must also refer to her as Ma. But as her hospitality starts to curdle into obsession, Ma starts stalking the kids on social media and her place goes from the best place in town to the worst place on Earth as it is revealed that these are the offspring of the high school bullies who subjected her to terrible sexual humiliation and she has decided upon a path of bloody revenge decades later ...  How is it on the outside looking in? Director Tate Taylor established a kinship with acting (and producing) powerhouse Spencer on The Help so it’s logical that they would follow through on another collaboration. But a horror? Definitely not what one might anticipate and in spite of that mouthwatering prospect in an era which has upended that genre in many recent outings (with comments on race which are touched upon here), this is twisted in all the wrong ways and is poorly paced. It gives Allison Janney a cursory role as the veterinarian who gets hers; Luke Evans is the sex god from high school; and Taylor himself plays an unfortunate cop. Torture is the order of the day in this high school revenge story gone awry that never properly capitalises on its themes. A bizarre tale that takes a decided left turn for camp which surely means it is destined for that shelf designated Cult. Written by Scotty Landes. I am not weak.  I am not my mother!

 

 

Charlie Says (2018)

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We just be. We just let things happen. Years after the shocking murders that made the name Charles Manson (Matt Smith) synonymous with pure evil, the three women who killed for him – Leslie ‘Lulu’ Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins (Marianne Rendon) remain under his spell. Confined to an isolated cellblock away from the rest of the prison population, the trio seem destined to live out the rest of their lives under the delusion that their crimes were part of a cosmic plan, until empathetic graduate student Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever) attempts to rehabilitate them ... We all belong to Charlie. If you’re lucky he’ll pick you next. Every girl should have a daddy like Charlie. There are two issues of cinematic representation that come into play in this particular film:  the question of charisma; and that of empathy. The peculiarly horrific episode that was the slaying of nine-months pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends exhibited none of the latter; while the questionable personality of Charles Manson only reinforces our impression of the blind stupidity of people who permit themselves to be manipulated into performing mindless and heinous acts of murder in the first place. But what we know and see of them is that it’s mostly about sex. So far, so bad:  you’ve lost your audience right away. Writer/director Mary Harron has been here before with American Psycho, an ingenious work of satire by Bret Easton Ellis: it needed someone funny and sexy, it got Christian Bale. It’s hard to make a humorous film if you as a filmmaker are devoid of that sense. Here the figure of the grad student stands in for the audience but people on this side of the pond are only too aware that in the last couple of weeks two such individuals were murdered by the Moslem terrorist they were attempting to rehabilitate. I digress. It’s structured as a series of flashbacks in a perverse take on the rites of passage story. The ongoing cultural mystery (maybe) is why a slew of teenage girls became feral monsters living in drug-addled sexual squalor and why communes attract people. Perhaps there’s no real mystery:  starve people, ply them with drugs and nonsense and perform sex acts on them and you’ve got a Grow Your Own Perverted Killer scheme in progress. The film’s first half addresses this through the governing flashback structure of Van Houten’s experience:  we see how Charlie reels people in. (How on earth did he persuade grown women that they were going to turn into winged elves? Years later, this is what they tell Faith in prison. They still believe it.) The film pivots at its midpoint when in a flashback record producer Terry Melcher (Bryan Adrian) visits Spahn Ranch and the freaks strip to Charlie’s dreadful wailing which passes for his big showbiz audition. They’re like Dracula with his succubi. Awkward. We don’t hear Melcher’s discreet dismissal of Charlie’s woeful effort but he hands him money and speeds off with his sidekick. This is the real Helter Skelter moment.  It segues into Karlene’s realising in conversation with Virginia Carlson (Annabeth Gish) that as long as the women are sequestered together they are just repeating Manson’s brainwashing;  as soon as she starts educating them about their crimes they will be forced to confront the horror of what they have done. Thus the second half of the film dramatises with bloody fervour the ensuing murders which are Manson’s supposed revenge following their group sex idyll BC (or Before the Crimes, the girls say, when they were all about love!). You can practically taste the stench of gristle when it hits the noses of the protein-deprived vegetarians as they stab their victims indiscriminately. Interestingly, and like Tarantino’s Hawksian fairy tale swerve on the same material, Charlie is shown at Melcher’s house where he is greeted by the lovely and heavily pregnant Sharon Tate (Grace Van Dien), clarifying step by step the trajectory of Mason’s bloody mission. It’s as if we were taken to the the art dealers that rejected Hitler (oh, I think we saw that one actually). Smith just has to shrink his shoulders, sing dreadful songs (Cease To Exist, indeed) and perform cunnilingus in an unenlightening impersonation;  it’s the girls and Tex Watson (Chace Crawford) who do the heavy lifting here. Guinevere Turner adapted Ed Sanders’ book The Family and Faith’s memoir. There is a twist ending, but even if it had panned out there’s no indication that it would have changed anything for anyone except Van Houten in this coda of wish fulfillment. The story to know is that of Linda Kasabian (India Ennenga) who ran away from the Tate murders and has lived her life in witness protection in exchange for informing on the dreadful cult. Perhaps not. How many more films do we need to see about these credulous disgusting hippies? The new iteration of their type are now running the world from Northern California through their tech cult.  Preserve us all from people who want to be loved. We didn’t have to do any of it

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas (2011)

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You have a good job, you make good money, and you don’t beat your wife. What more could a Latino father-in-law ask for? Wall Street broker Harold (John Cho) is asked to look after a Christmas tree by his father-in-law (Danny Trejo) who objects to the faux monstrosity in his suburban villa,  but he and his ex-roommate Kumar (Kal Penn) end up destroying it with a giant spliff from a mysterious benefactor.  The two then set out to find a replacement for the damaged tree and embark on a chaotic journey around New York City with their BFFs Todd  (Thomas Lennon plus his infant daughter) and Adrian (Amir Blumenfeld) while scoring drugs, having sex, trying to avoid being murdered by a Ukrainian ganglord and making babies … The tree is a cancer, Harold. We have to get rid of it before it kills Christmas. The stoner dudes are back apparently unscathed after a sojourn in Gitmo, rampaging and raunching about NYC in as tasteless a fashion as humanly possible. With a toddler off her trolley, a claymation sequence, a song and dance feature starring Neil Patrick Harris who isn’t really gay, every ethnicity and creed mocked and a penile homage to A Christmas Story, this is the very opposite of woke. A laugh riot intended to be seen in 3D but we’ll take an egg in the face whatever way it falls. Almost heartwarming! Screenplay by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson. Oh, great. Now we’re getting tinkled on

The Irishman (2019)

The Irishman

It is what it is. In 1975 mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and his boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives are on an east-west roadtrip, their ultimate destination Detroit for the wedding of Russell’s niece. An elderly Sheeran tells the story of their association as a meet-cute when he was driving a meat truck in the 1950s and his rise through the ranks, his appointment to a Teamster position under Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) the union supremo with deep Mafia ties. It becomes apparent that there is an ulterior motive to the journey and their role in America’s evolution particularly with regard to the Kennedy family is traced against a series of hits Sheeran carries out that reverberate through US history… What kind of man makes a call like that. Not so much Goodfellas as Oldfellas, a ruminative journey through midcentury America via the prism of a violent hitman who allegedly befriended and later murdered infamous Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. This is toned-down Scorsese, with muted colours to match the readjusted and very mature framing of Mafia doings in terms of the impact it has on family, chiefly Sheeran’s sensitive daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin as an adult) whose mostly silent presence functions as the story’s moral centre:  her horror of Bufalino is a constant reprimand. Steven (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) Zaillian’s adaptation of Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses is not for the fainthearted:  its overlength is sustained mainly by performance with a powerhouse set of principals (plus Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale et al) battling against a lot of unmemorable and somewhat repetitive dialogue (but when it’s good, it’s great), under-dramatised setpieces and a fatally bloated midsection (as in life, so in narrative), much of which is spent in courtrooms. Every time there’s a lull in the action someone needs Frank to off the source of their discontent and sometimes this is handled with straightforward exposition, sometimes in a montage of Frank disposing gun after gun off a bridge. That’s the story punctuation in this flashback within a flashback. Mostly however the issue is DeNiro’s dull and wearying voiceover. This is not the funny jive kick of Ray Liotta in the aforementioned 1990 classic, it’s a man utterly comfortable in his killer’s skin who doesn’t defend himself because it’s who he is and he is not given to introspection, a flaw in the amoral anchoring perspective. If we’re seeing it, we don’t need to be told too. The de-ageing effect is jarring because we don’t see the DeNiro of Mean Streets, rather a jowly preternaturally middle-aged man who shuffles in an old man’s gait with no visible difference between how he looks in 1950 and 1975. While Pesci is calm and chillingly content in his own position as a capo, it’s Pacino (in his first collaboration with Scorsese) who lifts the mood and fills the air with punchy, positive ions, giving the movie a much-needed burst of energy. But even he seems to be circling the wagons around his own self-satisfied persona as the same story/work-life issues repeatedly arise. It’s a big movie about nasty men who (perhaps) played a huge role in the shaping of their country and the hierarchies of cultures and ethnicities are regularly invoked in a tale which may or may not be true. There are some potentially amusing gatherings of men in black suits at family events. But funny they ain’t.  It’s sad perhaps that Scorsese didn’t make this for cinema and after three weeks on limited release it is fated for eternity on a streaming service:  a sign of the times and perhaps the swansong of a major filmmaker at the end of the 2010s. The nail in the coffin of an era? After this we might be asking not just who killed Jimmy Hoffa but who killed the mob movie. Late Scorsese, in more ways than one. They can whack the President, they can whack the president of the union

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

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

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Aka Die Ehe der Maria Braun. I don’t know a thing about business. But I do know what German women want. You might even say I’m an expert on it. Near the end of World War II, Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries Hermann (Klaus Lowitsch), who is immediately sent off to battle at the Russian front before the marriage can be consummated. When the war concludes, Maria believes that Hermann is dead. The new widow tries to make a go of life on her own and she starts working at an Allied bar, where she meets black American GI Bill (George Byrd). They start a relationship that is interrupted when Hermann returns unexpectedlyyy. During a scuffle between the men, in the heat of the moment Maria accidentally kills Bill. Hermann takes the blame and goes to jail, while Maria begins a hard new life and builds an empire of her own … He kept me warm on those cold nights after the war. Practically a German take on Mildred Pierce with the miraculous Schygulla giving Joan Crawford a run for her money (Fassbinder had intended the role for Romy Schneider) in the post-war noir-ish businesswoman stakes, this is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fiercely sardonic take on marriage and money set in a new kind of Germany with a nod to Brecht. Life for women involves transactional sex which is justified as the ultimate practicality: I don’t care what people think. I do care what you think. And you’re not having an affair with me. I’m having an affair with you. The entire text bleeds fascism – how politics is funneled through culture to create a political landscape, whether we like it or not, infecting everyone who inhabits it.  This is the first of Fassbinder’s three Wirtschaftswunder films and is a key work of the New German Cinema with an ending that literally detonates before your eyes. Eva describes herself as the Mata Hari of the Economic Miracle and this dissects desire in all its forms. The screenplay is by Pea Fröhlich and Peter Mörthesheimer who also wrote the dialogue with director Fassbinder, based on his outline (and he plays a small role in the drama).  It’s a perfect blend of subject matter, realisation and performance, graced with stunning cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. Reality lags behind my consciousness

A Taste of Honey (1961)

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We’re bloody marvellous!  Manchester teenager Jo (Rita Tushingham) struggles to find love in her bleak day-to-day life, which is dominated by her alcoholic mother, Helen (Dora Bryan). When Jo has a brief fling with black sailor Jimmy (Paul Danquah_ and Helen takes up with a new younger lover Peter Smith  (Robert Stephens) who offers to marry her, their already tense relationship is further strained. Jo faces more complications as she discovers she is pregnant, but finds support when she moves in with an odd but thoughtful gay textile student named Geoffrey (Murray Melvin)…  I dreamt about you last night – fell out of bed twice! Tushingham gives a breathtaking performance – mischievous, doleful, ambitious, resigned, thoughtful, in this adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s play which portrays so many taboos of the era – interracial sex, illegitimate motherhood, homosexuality. It’s a classic of kitchen sink realism and director Tony Richardson (who had directed it on stage) handles it with just the right amount of playfulness balanced with seriousness, rewarded with splendid,  occasionally even startling performances in a gritty, funny, memorable production. Do you like me more than you don’t like me or do you not like me more than you do?