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

Little Women (2019)

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If the main character’s a girl she has to be married at the end. Or dead. In 1860s New England after the Civil War, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) lives in New York and makes her living as a writer and teacher, sending money home, while her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) studies painting in Paris under the aegis of her wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Amy has a chance encounter with Theodore Laurence aka Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), a childhood crush from the upper class family next door who proposed to Jo but was ultimately rejected. Their oldest sibling, Meg (Emma Watson) is married to impoverished tutor John Brooke (James Norton) ,while shy sister Beth (Emma Scanlen) develops a devastating illness that brings the family back together under the leadership of their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) who is sad about her husband (Bob Odenkirk) being away in the War as a volunteer for the Union Army. As Jo recalls their experiences coming of age, she has to learn the hard way from a newspaper editor Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts) and a fellow schoolteacher Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) that her writing needs a lot of work if it’s to authentically represent her talentI will always be disappointed at being a girl. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved American classic jumps around pivotal episodes and reorders them from present to past and back again, back and forth, to create a coherent, rising and falling set of emotions. Each sister has a distinct personality and aspirations;  each is valid, according to their wants and needs and desires; and each is bestowed a dignity. Ronan shines as Jo but all four are carefully delineated and Pugh as selfish Amy has the greatest emotional arc but she should sue the costumier for failing to tailor her clothes to her stocky figure. Watson isn’t quite right for Meg and her lack of technique is plain. Somehow though it’s always poor Beth who doesn’t get what she deserves:  charity does not begin at home in her case. Some things never change. Despite the liberties taken structurally the story feels rather padded and at 135 minutes it could do with at least 20 minutes being cut because the screenplay keeps retreading the same territory and spoonfeeds the audience in issues of equality and womanhood with whole dialogue exchanges that sound as though they’ve come from a contemporary novel. Even Marmee confesses to being angry all the time. The issue of copyright introduces an aspect of authorship in the last section which has a few different endings. Being a creative writer is one thing;  being an editor is quite different. Each serves a purpose and that is to serve the story well. A film that ultimately has as little faith in its audience as publisher Mr Dashwood has in his readership, this is undoubtedly of its time and it can stand the tinkering that has introduced Alcott’s own story into the mix with the ultimate fairytale ending for any writer – holding her first book in her hands.  Produced by Amy Pascal, who also worked on the 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong. Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for

 

 

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

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 These are you final steps, Rey. Rise and take them. The surviving Resistance faces the First Order once more as Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron’s (Oscar Isaac) journey continues led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). They discover that the Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is alive and unwell and living on Exegol where he’s been discovered by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). With the power and knowledge of generations behind them, the final battle commences between good and evil and Rey makes a surprising discovery about her origins that leads to a confrontation that could have devastating consequences for future generations …  Every Jedi who ever lived, lives in you. How to finish a beloved trilogy? Perhaps it’s fitting that the concluding days of a decade that ends a 42-year long saga is one that commenced with James Cameron’s Avatar a film that was purportedly about to change cinema; that film’s impact then became dissipated with the sheer proliferating superheroism of Marvel Comics; so now we have something that seems somehow less tainted than either of those (non-) series. J.J. Abrams may not be the ideal filmmaker to bring things to a conclusion, ending things not being his forte (I give you Lost). The first trilogy is so beloved;  the second so critically reviled (albeit kids love it); so how would it tie up so many apparently disparate loose ends? Well, it does, if rather haphazardly. It brings together the Sith story with the Jedi story and allows the characters of both Rey and Ben/Kylo Ren to assert their position in the pantheon. The original characters play an active role, albeit in unexpected fashion;  a favourite returns;  and there is more than one kind of rebirth. In other words all the Jungian and mythical tropes that inspired George Lucas via Joseph Campbell are invoked. Even the Ewoks (the honours appropriately taken by Warwick Davis and his son) make a very brief appearance, in case anyone would think they’d been overlooked. There is some dreadfully portentous dialogue; there is some bad acting (I’m sorry to say I mean you, Richard E. Grant); there is a brief Lesbian kiss (the Force definitely woke up); there are some deaths and sacrifices. The film that made my entire generation go to the movies ends the 2010s and it’s not a cliffhanger, it’s a proper ending. What else do you want? It all sits, more or less, on the elegant shoulders of Ridley and she’s very good as the feistiest woman since, well, Princess Leia. Happy New Year. Screenplay by Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams from a story by Derek Connolly & Colin Treverrow and Terrio & Abrams. We are not alone

Radio Days (1987)

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Who is Pearl Harbour? Narrator Joe (Woody Allen) tells the story of two burglars in his childhood neighbourhood of Rockaway Beach, NY, who get caught when they answer the phone to participate in a live radio competition back in the medium’s golden age. The songs trigger childhood memories and we are taken back to his life as a child as Young Joe (Seth Green) immediately prior to and during World War 2 where his mother (Julie Kavner) served breakfast listening to Breakfast With Irene and Roger and his father Martin (Michael Tucker) keeps his occupation a secret from the family until Joe finds out he’s a taxi driver when he hails a cab.  Joe’s favourite show is The Masked Avenger so he has a healthy fantasy life but when he spots a Nazi submarine on the shoreline he fails to alert anyone because he thinks they won’t believe him. Unmarried Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) lives with them and is constantly going out with losers. Joe has heard stories about radio stars and we learn about Sally White (Mia Farrow) a hatcheck girl with acting dreams and a bad accent who sleeps with big names including Roger to get ahead but always gets left behind until she gets her big break when she witnesses a murder … He’s a ventriloquist on the radio! How can you tell he’s not moving his lips? As any fule kno, Rockaway Beach is one of the most inspiring spots in New York. Winning, winsome and witty, this series of vignettes is stitched together with what can only be described as love with nods to famous radio stories including Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, here interrupting a fogbound assignation. One of the funniest tales involves a sportscaster prone to melodrama regaling his audience with the story of a blind one-legged baseball star. Farrow and Wiest get two of the best character arcs, the former’s Singin’ in the Rain-ish storyline turning her from squeaky-voiced trampy wannabe actress to Louella Parsons-type gossip columnist via a run-in with a sympathetic mob hitman Rocco (Danny Aiello) from the old ‘hood; while the latter is terminally disappointed in love including a necessarily brief romance with a white-suited Tom Wolfe lookalike bemoaning the loss of his fiancée who turns out to have been a man called Leonard. Music and songs churn and curdle the endless embarrassment and kind hearted acts as friends, family and neighbours get on with their daily lives when war breaks out. Memories of Annie Hall abound in the voyeuristic kids whose new teacher Miss Gordon (Sydney Blake) turns out to be the exhibitionist they’ve been watching surreptitiously when they were out spotting German aircraft. Brimful of nostalgia and told with fond humour, this concludes on a bittersweet note as these little lives filled with crazy incidents and relatable attitudes acknowledge that they exist vicariously through what is the soundtrack of their lives, driven by the music of all the era’s greats with everyone from Artie Shaw to Duke Ellington and Xavier Cugat featured in the world of this kaleidoscopic narrative, like a lovingly reproduced living postcard. A beautiful, intensely funny and deeply affectionate work of art. I wonder if future generations will ever even hear about us

Kansas Raiders (1950)

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He’s a real man is all I know. In Missouri after their parents are killed by Union soldiers, Jesse James (Audie Murphy) and his brother Frank (Richard Long) with the rest of their gang Cole Younger (James Best), James Younger (Dewey Martin) and Kit Dalton (Tony Curtis) ride into Kansas looking for William Clarke Quantrill (Brian Donlevy). Seeking revenge against the Union, Jesse wants to join Quantrill’s Raiders, who are plotting to claim Kansas for the Confederacy. The more time Jesse spends with Quantrill, however, the more he realises Quantrill isn’t a hero fighting for the South, but a murderous madman and the boys earn their stripes the hard way during a raid on Lawrence … In border country you’re either a Union man or a spy. Perhaps there’s a certain inevitability to America’s greatest WWII hero playing its greatest anti-hero but as well as being a Civil War story this is also a kind of rites of passage tale. The emphasis is on colourful fast-moving ride and revenge action and it’s hardly history even though it’s inspired by the Kansas-Missouri Border War:  the raid on Lawrence wasn’t so much a gun battle as a straight up massacre.  Donlevy is too old but is certainly vicious enough in his role as the notoriously maniacal Quantrill. However the sentiments are true and Audie’s neophyte acting fits the part neatly in his fifth film. This is all about youthfulness and finding your place in the world, albeit with a knife in one hand and a gun in the other. An early highlight is a ‘handkerchief fight’ between him and Quantrill’s third in command Tate (David Wolfe); and Marguerite Chapman has an apposite role as a woman in a man’s world. And as for Curtis’ accent! Written by Robert L. Richards and directed by Ray Enright in locations that do not suggest their setting. More recruits for the butcher brigade

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

Shazam! (2019)

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Gentlemen, why use guns when we can handle this like real men? All 14-year-old Billy Batson’s (Asher Angel)has to do is shout out one word to transform into the adult superhero Shazam (Zachary Levi). Still a kid at heart, Shazam revels in the new version of himself by doing what any other teen would do – have fun while testing out his newfound powers even as he searches for his birth mother while living in a new foster home where he is befriended by Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). But he’ll need to master those powers quickly before the evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) can get his hands on Shazam’s magical abilities because Sivana was rejected by Wizar Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) long before Billy entered superhero terrain... Heroes fly. And who doesn’t want people to think they’re a hero, right? But invisibility, no way. That’s pervy. Spying around on people who don’t even know you’re there. Sneaking around everywhere. It’s a total villain power, right? Signs that all is not altogether lost in the DC Universe following some Batman-related disappointment, with a family-oriented fantasy outing that has to wait until the conclusion to give our hero a name because in the klutzy nomenclature of caped crusaders he was originally called Captain Marvel. Oh yes. And yet that’s okay because this is all about finding your identity and this rites of passage origins tale is finally all about a superhero’s journey – to his mother and to himself. Relatively lo-fi it might be in comparison with some of the heavy hitters of its type but it has a kind of Saturday morning TV quality to it – likeable, easy on the eye, relatable (!) fun even if it seems in some scenes that Strong is in a different film. There’s a nice Rocky homage in a story basically straight from the Big playbook whose message is that your true family is not necessarily the one you’re born into. Written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke based on characters created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck. Directed by David F. Sandberg.  You have been transformed to your full potential, Billy Batson. With your heart, unlock your greatest power MM#2550

Metal Heart (2018)

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Just because you’re miserable doesn’t make you interesting. The summer they finish school fraternal twins and rivals Goth muso Emma (Jordanne Jones) and social media maven Chantal (Leah McNamara) are left to themselves when their parents (Dylan Moran and Yasmine Akram) go on a six-week trip to the jungle. Chantal immediately starts having loud sex sessions in her bedroom with her dumb supertanned boyfriend Alan (Aaron Heffernan) while Emma wants to start a band called Yeast Infections with her best friend Gary (Sean Doyle) who’s secretly in love with her but bullied by his overachiever dad Steve (Jason O’Mara). When a mysterious man called Dan (Moe Dunford) shows up to look after the sick old woman next door it transpires he’s her son and the former member of a cult band.  Both girls fall for him, setting a financial disaster in motion after Chantal gets injured in a minor car prang and suddenly Emma is the popular one … A pie chart is not written in stone! Written by that lauded chronicler of suburban Dublin angst, Paul (Skippy Dies) Murray, this takes the American high school/coming of age template and gives it an Irish re-fit (graduation means picking up your results and getting langered), with zingers aplenty, some great side-eye and caustic lessons in relationships. It’s lightly satirical about South Dublin, beautifully captured by cinematographer Eoin McLoughlin – we’re far from the brutal grey skies that typically blight Irish films and into the leafy cosy middle class neighbourhoods where colours pop amid the tasteful midcentury furnishings (kudos to Neill Treacy for the production design). Similarly, the blackly comic elements are balanced with rites of passage/romcom tropes, giving each sister just the right amount of sympathy and mockery in this well-evoked portrait of those last weeks of experience on the cusp of college and adulthood, dramatising how even in a world where you can monetise your makeup tips on social media or conjure Spiders & Cream treats at the ice cream parlour in the local mall, you still crave the approval of the nearest inappropriate adult who’s really after your stash of cash. Warm, witty and attractively performed in a tale which underneath all the comic fuzz and deceptive charm is a sinister story of a twentysomething man grooming kids for underage sex while robbing them blind, this never hits the wrong notes which makes it a kind of miracle of filmmaking. Think:  Home Alone meets Clueless. Directed by actor Hugh O’Conor, who has a gift for making the most of moments in his first feature. I was never going to be her but I would always be her sister

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Ulzana’s Raid (1972)

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It’s how they are. They have always been like this. When word arrives that Apache warrior Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) has assembled a war party and left the San Carlos Indian Reservation, the United States Army assigns veteran tracker John McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and Apache scout Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) to lead a young, prejudiced lieutenant Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) and his troops from Fort Lowell to find Ulzana. Outmanoeuvered and unfamiliar with the terrain, the cavalry struggles to stop the long-mistreated and raging Apaches from destroying everything in their path in what initially seem like senseless acts of violence upon homesteads and families … The only thing that won’t slow them down is how much killing they do. Alan Sharp’s screenplay is about a devastating period in American history, that quarter of the nineteenth century when a brutal ethnic cleansing was carried out in the name of white conquest;  equally, it is about the astonishing violence of the Native Americans and this is a film that always has an eye on the war in Vietnam:  draw your own conclusions.  This narrative is hewed from a real attack in Arizona in 1885. Davison is good as the naïf who gains an education in the harshest possible conditions, Lancaster is superb as the ageing man who mentors him in the ways of the west. Between them is the compromised Ke-Ni-Tay who has insider information on Ulzana because their wives are sisters. Never an easy watch, despite the ostensibly beautiful camera setups, it’s one of the key westerns of its era and is an underrated work from director Robert Aldrich. Man give up his power when he die

Old Boys (2018)

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Model yourself on me and you won’t go wrong. Awkward but imaginative scholarship boy (Alex Lawther) helps the handsome but spectacularly dim school head boy and hero of their boarding school Henry Winchester aka The Mighty Winch (Jonah Hauer-King) pursue the fiery French Agnès (Pauline Étienne), daughter of a visiting teacher Babinot (Denis Ménochet) who is struggling for the past 18 years to produce his second novel … I’ll blast her with my charm bazooka! This Eighties-set comic drama starts with a very witty titles sequence, the typically upper class British schoolboys on a supposedly unique sports tradition which is really an outward bound torture session tramping through the mud, an experience likened to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in a low angle shot of the institution (resembling my own frightening alma mater), a piece of stripey uniform caught on the barbed wire demarcating it from the rest of civilisation (which appears to be Norfolk). I’m just not good at all this word shit, declares The Mighty Winch, a nice but thick joker who can do no wrong in the eyes of the school or indeed himself, so the truly smitten Amberson gets him to pose as a romantic à la Cyrano de Bergerac in a film which wears its French influences very happily with several songs dispersed on the soundtrack. This is about proving you are more than a labrador in trousers. That’s a line that could come from the mouth of comedian/actor Jack Whitehall which is interesting given that this is co-written by Freddy Syborn, his co-writer on TV show Bounty Hunters following their collaboration on Bad Education:  this guy has a recognisable writing voice combining tender observation with sleight of hand comments on the class system as well as a fondness for slapstick. The story gets emotional heft not just from Amberson’s helpless infatuation and his desire to make Agnès happy; but also from the to-and-fro of the French father-daughter as the novelist manqué depends on her to approve of his narrative choices (something that culminates in a bad romantic scene with Papa’s non-French speaking romantic interest). Let me show you what Planet Earth looks like. As for Agnès, she’s not just a romantic but a pragmatic wannabe set designer and knows that Berlin is where it’s happening (another amusing European narrative strand nodding to WW2, juxtaposed with a school screening of The Dambusters) which gives rise to a series of beautiful mini-theatres and greeting cards being unfolded to push the story further as the romantic correspondence and deception is pursued. So if this is as lightweight as those delicate messages’ construction it gains trenchancy from the ideas of multi-lingual co-operation. Someone, somewhere, behind these theatrical scenes is trying to tell us something. The screenplay is by Syborn and Luke Ponte; while it’s well directed by Toby MacDonald. They teach you all the ways you can die but only you can learn how to live