Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Behind the Candelabra poster

I have an eye for new and refreshing talent. In 1977 world-famous pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) takes much-younger animal trainer Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) as a lover, but the relationship deteriorates when Liberace gets Scott cosmetic surgery to remake him as his younger self and eventually takes other bedmates and a disillusioned Thorson becomes addicted to drugs… What a story. It’s got everything but a fire at the orphanage. This premiered on HBO which disqualified it from all the awards it was surely due. Adapted from Scott Thorson’s memoir Behind the Candelabra:  My Life with Liberace, this is a corrosively funny account of the mega-famous flamboyant bachelor pianist’s last ten years, four of which he spent with the younger bisexual who would of course betray him in a palimony lawsuit. Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay hits all the right notes and boy does Douglas totally get the tone. Damon is no less good, sparking life into a rather passive role – this really is all about performance, on and offstage and screen. Rob Lowe as the wonderfully enhanced plastic surgeon is a role for the ages and he relishes the part:  he’s totally hilarious.  And it could only be Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother. The whole shebang is over the top, crazy, deadly serious and more or less true. The film is dedicated to composer Marvin Hamlisch who died a year before it was released. Directed by Steven Soderbergh with admirable verve.  I love you not only for what you are, But for what I am when I’m with you 

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There Was a Little Boy (1993) (TVM)

There Was a Little Boy

Hey! She doesn’t want me! Fifteen years after their baby boy was stolen from their apartment, English teacher Julie (Cybill Shepherd) is expecting her second child with wealthy husband Gregg (John Heard). He has never given up on finding Robbie, she accepts his guilt despite it happening on her watch while she was taking a bath. She is teaching in a downtown high school and finds herself forced to deal with a difficult transfer student Jesse (Scott Bairstow) who appears functionally illiterate but is actually gifted and they form an uneasy connection. His own mother Esperanza (Elaine Kagan) is on welfare and ill with a lung condition and they get by with his thieving from the store. When Julie tries to sell off  Robbie’s baby cot, Gregg objects and finds in the base a necklace with a religious medal attached which doesn’t belong to either of them and which they trace to a local Catholic priest who is now gaga and cannot positively identify the owner. However Jesse’s own actions lead Julie in the right direction to find her long-lost son …  I am your worst nightmare:  a politically incorrect teacher who dares to flunk your ass. Adapted by Wesley Bishop from the novel by Claire R. Jacobs, this operates somewhere between Teacher in the Hood and Maternal Melo, The action scenes are well handled, the irony of Jesse’s identity well flagged (it’s not really the point), the trade-off in guilt between husband and wife completely believable, the acting good, and it’s directed by the admirable Mimi Leder who of course proceeded to make those terrific actioners Deep Impact and The Peacemaker before the wheels came off her cinema career for a long time after Pay It Forward. She returned to the fray late last year with the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex. Hurray for that. And if that doesn’t suffice, how about all those early 90s chintzy couches. I lost a son and a husband. I won’t let that happen again

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

Bad Times at the El Royale

Alright, yeah, I think it’s some kind of pervert hotel. It’s 1969. The El Royale is a run-down hotel that sits on Lake Tahoe on the border between California and Nevada. It soon becomes a seedy battleground when seven strangers – cleric Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Ervio), a travelling vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), the Summerspring sisters, Emily (Dakota Johnson) and Rose (Cailee Spaeny), the sole staff member on site, manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) and the mysterious Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) – all converge on the hotel one fateful night for one last shot at redemption before everything goes wrong… I can’t do it. I can’t kill no more people. Doesn’t your heart go out to actors nowadays? Either they starve themselves on chicken breasts and broccoli to appear as ludicrous superheroes looking deranged from hanger and bodybuilding steroids on the subsequent publicity tour, or they wind up in something like this (or in Hemsworth’s case, both), a kind of Tarantinoesque closed-room Agatha Christie mystery trading on well-worn tropes. It’s really not right, is it? Seven strangers. Seven secrets. All roads lead here. However this pastiche is cleverly staged (with an actual state border running through the building), impeccably designed (by Martin Whist) and shot (by Seamus McGarvey) and well performed outside that narrow generic style that such material demands.  It’s overlong but florid and rather fruity with nods to Hitchcock and Lynch and the big reveal is worth waiting for. Written, produced and directed by Drew Goddard. Well, it looks like the Lord hasn’t forsaken you yet

The Hate U Give (2018)

The Hate U Give

Reasons to live give reasons to die.  Teenager Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is constantly switching between two worlds – the poor, mostly black neighborhood of Garden Heights where she lives with her parents and brothers and the wealthy, mostly white private school Williamson Prep that she attends with her half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson). They are in an extreme minority and she has a white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa) and a white best friend, Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter). The uneasy balance between these worlds is soon shattered when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil (Algee Smith) at the hands of a police officer despite his having done nothing except driving while black. Facing pressure from all sides of the community, Starr must find her own voice and decide to stand up for what’s right while her father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) fears that speaking out will bring down the wrath of local drug dealer King (Anthony Mackie) his former gang leader; and mom Lisa (Regina Hall) tries to keep everyone on the right path ... If you don’t see my blackness you don’t see me. Sadly that terrific screenwriter Audrey Wells succumbed to cancer on the eve of this film’s release, an adaptation of a Young Adult novel (by Angie Thomas) which despite some structural flaws and a somewhat aphoristic and preachy line in virtue-signalling dialogue is a triumph of performance and to a lesser extent, presentation. Stenberg is very good as the protagonist, a girl who struggles with her identity living between two communities but who cannot leave her past behind because she can’t forget that’s her family, her race, her true self. You can see in this the traces of Boyz in the Hood and the legacy of that film lies in a story twist here: a father who actually sticks with his family following a spell in jail for the drug lord but who tries to change the course of his children’s experience by quoting from the Black Power handbook while the kids relate to Tupac (hence the title, from THUG LIFE).  It’s also about hypocrisy, peer pressure, racism and (dread the term) cultural appropriation. More than anything, it’s about doing the right thing. There are some very good narrative bumps – when Starr’s policeman uncle Carlos (Common) tells her precisely what goes through a cop’s head when he is alone on a traffic stop;  when Starr shows Hailey what happens when a hairbrush is mistaken for a gun; and when Tupac’s lyrical prediction comes true. The location is not specified but it’s stunningly shot by Mihai Mâlaimare Jr and well directed by George Tillman Jr.  Violence. Brutality. It’s the same story, just a different name

Hand in Hand (1960)

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Aka The Star and the Cross. She seems like a nice girl. You’d never know she was Jewish. Nine-year old Michael O’Malley (Philip Needs) attends with his local priest Father Timothy (John Gregson) and tells him he’s killed his best friend … He is an Irish Catholic boy who has formed a close friendship with school pal Rachel Mathias (Loretta Parry), a younger Jewish girl. At first, the two are ignorant of their religious differences until schoolmates raise the issue to Michael and their respective parents keep their own issues with the friendship to themselves. The kids become blood brothers and Michael attends synagogue and Rachel goes to Mass and they realise they have a lot in common. They both want to go to London to meet the Queen and Michael dreams of going big game hunting in Africa and when they have an adventure rafting on a river after crashing into a overhanging branch downstream, Michael thinks Rachel is dead … He’s a Jewish mouse. He’s mine. This kindly sermon on post-war anti-semitism in Britain is nicely handled by director Philip Leacock from a screenplay by Diana Morgan and Sidney Harmo (based on a story by Leopold Atlas), working with a talented young cast. Leacock had done the race drama Take a Giant Step so had a proven interest in social issues and he also previously worked with kids on The Little Kidnappers and The Spanish Gardener and he gets engaging performances here. The problematic scene when Michael is teased that Jews killed Christ and is then told by the boy that his father doesn’t like Catholics either defuses audience tension. Perhaps it’s played too innocent, but it’s about kids and it has a certain charm. God is love

 

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

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Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street. In early 1970s Harlem, daughter and wife-to-be Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James), who goes by the nickname Fonny. Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together, but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman he has never met by a grudge-bearing beat cop Officer Bell (Ed Skrein). Tish’s mom Sharon (Regina King) determines to get justice for her prospective son-in-law and tracks down the rape victim who has disappeared to her home country; while her husband Joseph (Colman Domingo) and Fonny’s dad Frank (Michael Beach) have a more pragmatic approach and resort to theft to make money. Meanwhile, Tish is pregnant and Fonny is in prison …  Love brought you here. Barry Jenkins’ extraordinary success with the singular Moonlight has led him to adapting James Baldwin, a classic author who has been underrepresented insofar as screen adaptations are concerned and this shares that film’s flaws with scenes of charming and alarming domesticity alternating with slowed-down moments of expressionist beauty and entire sequences of unremitting tedium – Fonny’s conversations with Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry) are a case in point. Not content to both under- and overdramatise the story, this draws into its narration a bigger issue about police brutality, corruption and racism, overloading the slight balance which then relies in turn on terrific performances which are rather unhinged by a comic book crooked cop as stooge. Enchantingly scored by Nicholas Britell who enlivens a very uneven, occasionally wearying experience. Written and directed by Jenkins. I’ve never been more ready for anything in my whole life

Night School (2018)

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What’s happening?/Pubes and racism. High school dropout Teddy Walker (Kevin Hart) is a successful BBQ salesman whose life takes an unexpected turn when he accidentally blows up the store where he works just when he’s on the verge of inheriting it and marrying his sweetheart Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Forced to attend night school to get his GED so that he can become an investment adviser alongside his friend Marvin (Ben Schwartz), Teddy soon finds himself dealing with a group of misfit adult students of losers and flakes, his former high school nemesis (Taran Killam) who is the school principal and feisty teacher Carrie (Tiffany Haddish) who doesn’t think he’s all that bright and has no time for troublemakers in a classroom. Teddy starts working behind the counter at fast food Christian Chicken outlet and everyone is flunking. There’s nothing for it but to steal the practice test. … This is a minor setback for a major comeback. Little Kevin Hart’s efforts to emulate Eddie Murphy’s loudmouth hustler shtick continue apace while tumbleweed blows across the screen every time someone opens their mouth. There’s a good prison fight on Skype, though. Written by Hart, Nicholas Stoller, J’Dub (is that a name?), Harry Ratchford, John Hamburg and Matthew Kellard, clearly a group for whom attendance ranks above excellence. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. There’s no cure for what you have

All Is True (2018)

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I’ve just bought a pension. I can’t die for at least 10 years or I’ll be ruined. It’s 1613, and Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age. But disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre in London burns to the ground and he decides he will never write again. Devastated, he returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Haunted by the death 17 years earlier of his only son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis) he struggles to mend the broken relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and daughters, Hamnet’s twin sister, spirited spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and unhappy Susanna (Lydia Wilson) who is married to a noxiously stern Puritan, John Hall (Hadley Fraser). He is forced to examine his failings as an absent husband and father when 28-year old Judith finally gets involved with a suitor alleged to have impregnated another woman and Susanna is accused of adultery … A garden ain’t a play. Screenwriter Ben Elton has been wowing on the small screen with his very clever parody of Shakespeare in Upstart Crow but this is only occasionally in the same pantomimic vein albeit its nod/wink title (the original title for The Life of Henry VIII) toys with the idea that this is anything other than a confection of falsehoods and assumptions.  And it is a bit of a joke to start with – an old conqueror finally comes home and gets in the way of his wife and has the temerity to mess up the garden she has so carefully cultivated for the last 20 years. And then there are all those long country evenings when all you have is a candle for company. Irony is writ large here. At its heart a melancholy meditation on age, family and what you leave behind, Shakespeare is confronted with the long-hidden truth of his young son’s death, a boy whom he believed to have been greatly talented but who had actually been presenting the work of his twin, who was left unable to read and write, being but a girl. The discovery is poignant indeed. There’s a sonnet-off  (# 29) when Will is confronted with another truth – that the now elderly object of his affection Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen) is not interested in him but appreciates his art. How wonderfully odd that two of the great contemporary exponents of the Bard are quoting him at each other. Anne’s feelings are nothing – when the poems were published (illegally, without Will’s consent), he never thought about her reputation or what people might say. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The bedrock of his entire life it seems has been other people and what they say – what was said of his father, what was said of him, and now, what is said about his daughters, both caught up in scandals of their own. He is a man for whom all truth is literally relative. Retirement is not easy and revelations about what happened at home when he was enjoying fame and adulation come as a shock to someone for whom all the world’s a stage and now his daughters are ruining the name he literally wrote out of disgrace to redeem his father’s blackguarding. Branagh is very good, prosthetics and all, capable of being hurt and amusing and rueful. The motifs are striking in a beautifully shot production – two fires dominate the visuals: the opening conflagration at the Globe caused by a misfiring cannon in a production co-written with John Fletcher; and the smaller one in the grate when Judith attempts to destroy what Hamnet transcribed – because Will needs to believe it was his dead son who wrote the poetry and she is guilty at being a gifted woman because he has such a low opinion of her. And Will loves the word on the page – when he sees his son’s name written in the funeral record in the local church his face comes to life. Anne chides him that when Hamnet died he was busy writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dench is wise and moving in the role of the much older wife protecting him from terrible knowledge. However the slow pace and ruminative setting, autumnal and somewhat bucolic, hide the sad drama within. It’s stunningly shot by Zac Nicholson, not just allowing us to see the wide open spaces juxtaposed with interestingly shot and lit interiors – so many dimpled with pure candlelight as the sole source – but telling us that there is always a bigger story and hinting where to look. There are funny scenes with the ridiculously ingratiating local MP Sir Thomas Lucey (Alex Macqueen) and some wild put-downs. There’s even a jibe about authorship and how it was that a man who owns up to having lived such a little life could have ended up knowing everything. Lest we forget, Elton is the best Elizabethan historian we have, when you think about Blackadder. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is very lovely. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Nothing is ever true

Harper (1966)

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Why so fast, Harper? You trying to impress me? Struggling private eye Lew Harper (Paul Newman) takes a simple missing-person case that quickly spirals into something much more complex. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), recently paralysed in a horse-riding accident, wants Harper to find her missing oil baron husband Ralph, but her tempestuous teenage stepdaughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) thinks Mrs. Sampson knows more than she’s letting on… The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise. Brilliantly adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald’s 1949 mystery The Moving Target featuring private eye Archer, renamed here because Newman believed the letter ‘H’ to be lucky following Hud and The Hustler. With that team you know it’s filled with zingers, like, Kinky is British for weird. Macdonald’s roots in the post-war noir world are called up in the casting of Bacall, who reminds us that it was The Big Sleep, among other films based on books by the great Raymond Chandler, that brought this style into being. Of course Macdonald’s own interpretation is consciously more mythical than the prototypical Chandler’s, with allusions to Greek tragedy in its familial iterations but it continues in that vein of a ferociously stylish, ironic, delightfully cool appraisal of California’s upper class denizens and their intractable problems. Newman is perfectly cast as a kind of wandering conscience with problems of his own, while Janet Leigh as his ex-wife, Robert Wagner as a playboy, Julie Harris as a junkie musician, Shelley Winters as a faded movie star, Robert Webber as her criminal husband and Albert Hill as a lovelorn lawyer, all add wonderful details to this portrait of a social clique. A flavoursome, perfectly pitched entertainment with lovely widescreen cinematography by Conrad Hall and oh so wittily and precisely staged by director Jack Smight, underscored by the smooth Sixties jazz orchestrations of Johnny Mandel with an original song by Dory and Andre Previn. I used to be a sheriff ’til I passed my literacy test

St Agatha (2018)

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Your name is … Agatha! In October 1957 pregnant con woman Mary (Sabrina Kern) leaves her boyfriend Jimmy (Justin Miles) when a scam goes wrong and takes refuge at an isolated Georgia convent but soon finds out that things are not quite as they seem and has to escape before Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennessy) and her cohorts harm her and her baby … Get your hands off me you bitches! This hopped-up interpretation of what Catholic nuns do to single mothers starts with a claustrophobe’s nightmare – being locked in a coffin: so as someone who baled on my last MRI scan, I was duly entrapped in a story which is a very twisted take on Christian origins. Shot beautifully by Joseph White with gauzy filters lending the convent’s surrounding forest an air of supernature and the entire production an atmosphere which sustains the suspense with the backstory dropped in to illustrate Mary’s family issues. These bewitching scary nuns sure know how to welcome strangers – Mother Superior declares that she too was an unwed mother (the Senator dumped her!) and the scratching sounds in the attics and the bizarre bird-feed vomit in the coffin treatment just confirm Mary’s suspicions that all is not quite right. With its dense flock wallpaper and red lights in the basement this place resembles a brothel. Soon Mary aka Agatha recognises a fellow con in Mother Superior. When Jimmy shows up to try to get Mary back she finds the nuns have guns and they won’t stop short of murder to save the babies to sell them to donors! The books must be balanced and the story takes off. There is quite literally a twist ending when you can take succour from the uses to which you can put a freshly cut umbilical cord:  a logical conclusion to the mediaeval torture that is childbirth. All hail virgin martyrs! Written by Andy Demetrio, Shaun Michaels, Sara Sometti Michaels and Clint Sears.  Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. You’ve seen what I’m capable of. What kind of mother would I be?