Climax (2018)

Climax

I’m so happy. I couldn’t be happier. Winter 1996. A French street dance troupe led by Selva (Sofia Boutella) and Lou (Souheila Yacoub) is rehearsing at an empty boarding school in the middle of a forest on the eve of a tour.  LSD-laced sangria apparently made by their manager Emmanuelle (Claudia Gajan Maull) causes their jubilant after-party to descend into a dark and explosive nightmare as they try to survive the night – and find out who’s responsible – before it’s too late and they become even more animalistic… No need to do it all right now.  Argentinian-French controversialist Gaspar Noé’s dance film straddles wild and violent horror and thriller tropes, more or less riffing on ideas about creation (followed by swift destruction), while also indulging his largely unprofessional acting cast in improvisational techniques that devolve into highly sexualised discussions.  This is a low-budget production made quickly and chronologically and without scripted dialogue, located in one set.  There are several uninterrupted takes, the lengthiest of which lasts 42 minutes, strikingly shot by Benoît Debie who also worked on Enter the Void. The opening scene – blood on snow – is fantastically drawn, a painterly portent of what’s to come in three chapters, Birth is a Unique Opportunity, Life is a Collective Impossibility and Death is an Extraordinary Experience, split more or less between the performing first half to the after effects and the horrendous comedown. Based on an incident that actually befell a group of French dancers in the 90s, the excesses are all the director’s own blend of hysteria and provocation in an immersive trip to Acid Hell – with a techno soundtrack. Probably the oddest musical ever made, welcome to the crazy, pulsating, sensory inferno that is other people and their micro-dosing, graphically illustrating the very thin veneer of civility that protects us from each other. I don’t want to end up like Christiane F, you know?

November Criminals (2017)

November Criminals

I guess I’ve gotten pretty good at pretending to be okay. High school student Addison Schach (Ansel Elgort) is the only guy in class trusted by his friend Phoebe Zeleny (Chloë Grace Moretz) to take her virginity before they leave high school. While they’re engaging in sex for the first time classmate Kevin Broadus (Jared Kemp) is shot dead in the bakery where they’ve just left him.  Addison is still dealing with the trauma of his mother’s sudden death six months earlier but his father Theo (David Strathairn) doesn’t grasp the extent of his emotional problems. When the police treat the boy’s death as part of gang activity Addison can’t accept it and undertakes his own investigation with Phoebe reluctantly tagging along, knowing that her well-connected mother Fiona (Catherine Keener) is already wary of the association with Addison. They soon discover that there is more to the case than meets the eye…  I don’t want you to get involved with something that will most definitely hurt you. Adapted by Steven Knight and director Sacha Gervasi from the novel by Sam Munson this is a strangely restrained piece of work, clearly bursting with a fast-extinguished passion that doesn’t actually go anywhere, rather like the thwarted protagonist. Elgort and Moretz are sympathetic and engaging (and were previously paired in the remake of Carrie) but are not given enough with the script which already has a short running time at 85 minutes. It’s a combination of family drama and crime thriller but its generic ambitions don’t fully mesh in a story which is essentially about a naive approach to bereavement:  this boy is no private eye. There are nice scenes with the respective parents, Strathairn and Keener, and the lo-fi approach to technology (pagers, colour VHS recording) makes a nice alternative to the social media used in most contemporary teen movies, but it’s an unfulfilled premise. That’s how life is: it provides these accidental answers. Or it seems to. You have to judge by results

Whitney (2018)

Whitney 2018

Her parents were preparing her for legacy music. Kevin Macdonald’s documentary about Whitney Houston was made with the co-operation of her family and is executive produced by her agent Nicole David, one of several associates interviewed here, and he has access to the music, so it’s a different creature to Nick Broomfield’s film on the subject, Whitney:  Can I Be Me. Macdonald admirably makes this a story of a time and place by dint of regular montages placing us in a year – culturally, socially, politically – with news and current affairs footage and symbols giving a firm context. And it’s jarring to hear Houston’s brother tell us how she got her name – their mother, the famous backing singer Cissy Houston, liked ‘a white sitcom’ on TV so named her for the actress Whitney Blake. Racism of all kinds looms large in this story. Newsreel footage of the Newark riots and the bodies of black men killed by the police remind us of what life was like for black people in New Jersey in the Sixties. Her father John is called both a dealmaker and a hustler, a man who gained powerful status in local circles, and he nicknamed their light-skinned daughter ‘Nippy’ because she was a beautiful but tricky child, and she was bullied in the neighbourhood. She sang in the church choir and sometimes sang backup for her mother who was trying to launch a solo career that didn’t take off. When her parents divorced following her mother’s affair with their church pastor, Whitney left home as soon as possible and moved in with her friend Robyn Crawford who she had met aged 16. Her brothers were aware that Robyn was a Lesbian. One interviewee says that these days Whitney’s sexuality would be designated ‘fluid’ while her longtime hairdresser and friend Ellin Lavar says Houston loved sex, with both men and women and discussed it with her to an embarrassing degree. Whitney modelled but soon sang on her own and two big labels courted her and she signed with Arista’s Clive Davis. He announced her to the world on the Merv Griffin Show and the footage of her singing Home from The Wiz is spinetingling. It is used on the audio track later in a different context in the film, to chilling effect. One contributor talks about the issue of ‘double consciousness’ – the problem that a black entertainer has in having to satisfy a white country and a black world, but in this context it could also refer to Houston’s sexuality and the difference between being Nippy and being Whitney, a stage character. Macdonald does not shirk from the role of the black community – divided on colour lines of its own – and the pressure it exerted on Houston directly or otherwise. In the Eighties, Rev. Al Sharpton appeared in front of her venues with signs calling her ‘Whitey’ Houston (ironically his TV condolences are aired when her death is announced); and of course there is the infamous incident at the 1989  Soul Train awards when the audience booed her – presumably for not being black enough, for having sold out, for singing pop and being brilliant at it. She was asked in an interview why she thought it might have happened – and she claimed she didn’t know. It was the kind of bullying that had provoked her parents into sending her to a private Catholic school in the first place. That was the night she met bad boy (and acceptably black soul singer) Bobby Brown – the ghetto type the Houstons had wanted to keep her away from – and the conclusion is that the couple who would marry and have a child were mutually co-dependent. As her star rose with The Bodyguard, his could never hope to meet it, a year after she had performed The Star-Spangled Banner at the Superbowl, an appearance that still stuns the viewer and nailed her ability and popularity simultaneously when the US was at peak patriotism following the Gulf War. Her Bodyguard co-star, Kevin Costner, was proud of the fact that their interracial kiss was such a significant shot in the film – pointing out the 180 degree camera move, replayed here. (How odd that thirty-plus years after Island in the Sun this should still be a contentious point [and odder still that when he gave a eulogy at her funeral his entrance was greeted with booing by the black attendees – not something mentioned here]. Odder still to a white viewer is Lavar saying that she and Houston were afraid of making the film because they were so outnumbered in the middle of ‘all these white people’:  racism is a beat constantly underpinning the narrative.) She was a good actress. I always used to tell them, Whitney’s in there somewhere. But she’s trapped. That film and the theme song I Will Always Love You (written by Dolly Parton) made her a global superstar:  she is shown being comforted by Nelson Mandela when she gave the first concerts in South Africa after he came to power.  She could find nuance in songs that even the writers didn’t know was there. That record got a British woman gaoled for a week when she drove her neighbours nuts playing it 24/7. An Arab version played endlessly on his campaign trail propelled Saddam Hussein to power. When Brown is asked directly by Macdonald about Houston’s drug use he refuses to discuss it – and perhaps given that it was her own brothers (two full, more half-) who admit introducing her to drugs when she was still a child, he has a point, despite the tabloid headlines about their married lifestyle and on-camera evidence produced here about their home lives (which they eagerly broadcast in their horrifying reality TV show). About two-thirds of the way through the film is the big revelation: her brother Michael volunteers the idea that it’s something in a person’s childhood that drives them to drug use and declares that as a boy he was abused by a female relative. Then Whitney’s aunt says the singer revealed her own experience to her of abuse by the same woman when they were discussing their daughters – this is supposedly why Whitney was afraid to leave Bobbi Kristina (called Krissie) at home while she toured:  the same female relative was her cousin Dee Dee Warwick (Dionne’s sister, another singer). Dee Dee is shown in TV clips from the Sixties, a dour-looking heavy-browed character. Bizarrely, Houston is pictured in one home movie lying on a bed under a huge photo of the sinister woman. For all her concerns about her own daughter, Krissie was an unstable cocaine addict by 18 and in and out of rehab, unsurprisingly given what family and friends say she was growing up around [and her own dreadful death, replicating her mother’s, is recounted here]. Houston made a lot of magazine headlines (the National Enquirer alone was running almost weekly updates for a decade) for her drug use; and many more complications arose from 1999 onwards when she signed a $100 million contract for new recordings. By that point she knew her father and accountant had been robbing her blind and her father then sued her – for $100 million. Once her father had taken over managing her there were many members of her family riding the gravy train, other than her mother and Robyn, who was invited to tender her resignation, a decision Whitney endorsed, despite the fact that Robyn had been doing her best to protect her from the sharks throughout her career. I don’t think she knew the layers being created by others. After an excruciating performance in honour of fellow fame victim Michael Jackson, a car crash interview with Diane Sawyer did not help. She had to quit rehab after 8 months because the money ran out. Then there was appalling evidence of her drug-ravaged singing voice in mobile phone footage of one of her last concerts, with one concert goer offering that a dead rat would have performed better. Years were spent pointlessly attempting to record new music, recalled with tragic diplomacy by the producer Joseph Arbagey, who remembers her disappearing for weeks at a time behind her hotel room door and returning emaciated.  Many millions of dollars were expended on the fruitless project. No longer fit to perform, she was given a lifeline in a remake of the movie Sparkle, a lodestone film from her childhood that had starred Irene Cara. She played the mother. Her agent says that Whitney had been clean throughout the production and didn’t go home for three or four days after the job was done but at the time she wasn’t aware of it until her driver told her Whitney simply didn’t board the flight and eventually asked him to drive her cross-country to her home. Her agent refers to it as ‘that hole’ in Atlanta.  We don’t need to be told what followed. Despite the access, the film still feels curiously incomplete, as if the dots have not been joined: sex abuse, parental ambition and divorce, drugs, Lesbianism, being a light-skinned black in a community divided, being a black singer performing pop songs better than anyone ever had. Cause and effect are not entirely or convincingly linked. Perhaps because this is the official version, unlike Broomfield’s, who talked to Robyn. Or perhaps because the person at its centre had stopped doing what she was good at long before her incredible demise in a bathtub in a Hollywood hotel while her aunt went out to get her donuts with sprinkles and found her dead when she returned just thirty minutes later, as she tells us. The camera enters the hotel room and tracks into the bathroom where Houston was discovered face down in the water. Graced with the voice of an angel in the body of a beautiful black woman exploited by all the people she trusted most in a divided industry produced in a divided country, this biography is a tale of total tragedy, something that regularly occurs in the music business but it’s a story that shows absolutely nobody in a good light, not even Houston herself. It was in every sense a life half-lived. Whitney Houston died 11 February 2012. I’m pissed off. And people think that it’s so damn easy

3 Generations (2017)

Three Generations

I’m a boy with tits. I can appropriate whatever I want. Hoping to get support from his single artist mother Maggie (Naomi Watts) and Lesbian jazz club proprietor grandmother Dolly (Susan Sarandon) (and her live-in girlfriend Frances, played by Linda Emond), 16-year old Ray born Ramona (Elle Fanning) prepares to transition from female to male. When Maggie dithers over signing her permission due to Ray’s age, she then finds out that Ray’s father Craig’s (Tate Donovan) signature is also required but he hasn’t been in the picture for a very long time. An encounter between the teen’s parents turns into a confrontation with Ray finally taking matters into her own hands …  Just because you’re the parent doesn’t mean you get to decide when we talk about this.  In an era characterised by intense identity politics perhaps there is none so troubling a topic as the idea that children can choose their own gender despite their given genitalia. This lays out the argument inside this unusual family setup – cool Lesbian grandmother plus her girlfriend, an unmarried mother, an androgynous daughter living as a boy. Then it takes a melodramatic skew that leads one to the unexpected conclusion that this situation is the result of precisely this boho unconventionality – who’s the daddy? A narrative turn that seems to upend the entire raison d’être avoiding the very premise it proposes to address. However it’s well played – very well, particularly by Sarandon who gets the lion’s share of biting dialogue; and Fanning in a very difficult and paradoxically limited role – by a seasoned cast grappling with a very millennial issue. Ultimately a film that suggests that in a world of parents who cannot make up their minds, tell the truth or act responsibly, it falls upon the unfortunate confused kids to make adult decisions, promising a reckoning in the years to come following this contemporary experiment in biology. Written by Nikole Beckwith with director Gaby Dellal. I get to stop feeling like someone else

High Life (2018)

High Life

Nothing can grow inside us. Monte (Robert Pattinson) and a baby girl called Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) are the last survivors of a dangerous mission on the edge of the solar system. He dumps bodies in astronaut suits into space and rears the child as he continues his work. Flashbacks reveal that it is a spaceship filled with prisoners, chief among them mad scientist Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche) who wants to breed a new generation of humans and gives the male criminals (André Benjamin, Ewan Mitchell) drugs in exchange for their semen on a trip that will not end in survival. Captain (Lars Eidinger) appears ineffectual while the women (Mia Goth, Claire Tran, Agata Buzek) resist male attention and don’t want to be forcibly impregnated. As the reproductive experiment takes shape a storm of cosmic rays hits the ship and tempers run high … You’ve become a shaman of sperm. Filmmakers can take a funny turn when they start making films in a language not their own. This screenplay by that singular director Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau with collaboration by Geoff Cox and additional writing credited to Andrew Litvack (and an uncredited contribution by Nick Laird) is a case in point as her first excursion into English is deeply strange and a reworking of many tropes and themes in the genre. For the first half hour you have to really like the sound of a baby crying;  the rest of the film is mostly about bodily fluids – their source, their harvesting, their destination – interspersed with acts of violence. Pattinson lends it his intensity but to what end? Well, a black hole, if you must know. Not so much a space mission as emission, this is really a hymn to onanism:  truly a mystery, all coming and no going in an exploration of sci-fi as inner space, in and out of hand. She is perfection

Eighth Grade (2018)

Eighth Grade

The topic of today’s video is being yourself. With weeks left before entering high school, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) realises the upbeat motivational videos she is posting online do not reflect who she truly is – an insecure 14-year old daughter of an overly concerned divorced father Mark (Josh Hamilton) who has to be invited to the cool kids’ parties by their parents. She falls head over heels for Aiden (Luke Prael) but gets turned off by his desire for a blow job and freaks out when high schooler Riley (Daniel Zolghadri) offers to give her some real life sexual experience.  She settles for friendship with nerdy Gabe (Jake Ryan) … The topic of today’s video which is supercool is how to be confident. Yet another film that proves the hoary old adage that only occurs to you when this period of your life is past:  youth is entirely wasted on the young. Writer/director Bo Burnham mines the dreadful narcissism (medicalised as ‘anxiety’) that plagues a generation seemingly terminally unable to function without nailing the most fleeting of silly thoughts to the interweb where their shadow haunts them to the death. If I had a social media channel I’d use it to advise this kid, See an orthodontist.  And, as she figures out, Fake it till you make it, which is the ironic lesson here but it doesn’t come from the wussy dad (I mean…). There is a fantastic film about a girl adopting a contrary personality and sex history to suit the gossip mongers winging her way through the peer pressure Hell that is school and it’s not this humourless navel-gaze of misery, it’s Easy A, a hilarious satirical exercise that also critiques Hawthorne with an upturned finger. Watch that instead. What is it, when society has come to this? Goodness only knows. Millennials suck. Whatever happened to homework? Exams? Like. Etc. Growing up is really scary and weird

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth poster

Could you do without me? Northern England 1865.  Newly sold into marriage to an older man, rich industrialist Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton), Katherine (Florence Pugh) finds herself confined to the house and starved of companionship. Her husband can’t or won’t have sex with her but makes her strip and masturbates while she faces a wall. Forced to spend her days in endless tedium, dining with his bullying father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), when her husband is called away to one of his collieries she starts to spend more time with maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and begins a passionate and fiery relationship with a young groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) from the estate, beginning a conflict that will end in violence. Following her husband’s demise at her hands and after hiding his body, a surprise arrives on her doorstep in the form of her husband’s illegitimate son Teddy (Anton Palmer) accompanied by his grandmother Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel) throwing Katherine’s plans into disarray .You’ve got fatter. Adapted by Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, this austere treatment of a rural tragedy is as contained as anti-heroine Pugh by corsetry and decency until sensuality spills forth and all hell breaks loose.  This is the distinctive Pugh’s breakout performance following The Falling and TV’s Marcella and her polarising character anchors a narrative which is ostensibly feminist but ultimately offers a critique of female power and how it is achieved and sustained. Perhaps the casting of black actors in the story complicates the issue of power by raising another issue, that of of race, in what is otherwise a melodrama of sex and class. Ultimately what happens when people are undone by desire can be murderous. It is a drama entirely without ornament. Directed by William Oldroyd. She is a disease

Bombshell (2019)

Bombshell

I’m not a feminist, I’m a lawyer. When Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired following her on-air revelation that she supports an assault weapons ban, she slaps conservative TV channel Fox News founder and CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) with a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment.  But nobody comes forward to provide evidence of similar experiences, not even her protegée, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) who migrates to the Bill O’Reilly show, is fired her first day and takes the back elevator to Ailes’ office in her quest for advancement. Eventually Gretchen’s decision leads to Presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s bête noire, Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) coming forward with her own story, as well as multiple other women, ultimately bringing the channel’s owners, the Murdoch family, into the fray... He handed me the power to hurt him. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when it comes to explaining the way the world turns, it has fallen to America’s comedy auteurs to Show and Tell. And here it’s director Jay Roach invading the body politic once more after the TV dramas Recount, Game Change and All the Way as well as the feature Trumbo. Humour helps but doesn’t really feature in this tawdry tale of three contrasting women who have oddly similar looks in the Barbie-style legs-out fashion cultivated by Ailes – and one scene where all the on-air women presenters are Spanxing it up and shoving five-inch heels onto their calloused feet shows the compromises intelligent gutsy women make visually to make it professionally on US TV, at least on Fox News. Theron’s transformation into Kelly is really something – she wears her work look as if she’s armed for war and her decision to finally take it to the bosses, with the backing of her husband Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass) at the same time as having to battle Trump mania in Summer 2016, tacks sharply when she allows the Presidential hopeful to get away with his menstruation Tweet, to her husband’s disgust. But, as she reminds him, she has to pay the bills. Kidman is good as the woman who has had the sense to record her meetings with Ailes, but is then sidelined with money and an NDA (maybe); and Robbie is impressively touching as the amalgamated character ‘Kayla’ who succumbs to Ailes, believing everyone else must have done it to get ahead (To get ahead, you have to give a little head, as Gretchen regales her lawyers). When Kayla crumbles at the truth, it’s devastating. The fact that these women believe in the political piffle they peddle is what makes the film hold its fire because Kate McKinnon is cast as a secret Lesbian Hillary-supporter in their midst making the politics of it weaker in every sense; and there’s a pretty ludicrous scene when Ailes’ wife, newspaper editor Beth (Connie Britton) has her assistant ask if her sushi lunch is too liberal. (Perhaps it is this very daftness that makes the film’s point). And while the women’s histories shares similar contours, they do not support one another and Kelly’s producer Gil (Rob Delaney) reminds her that all the production team’s jobs are on the line. However Charles Randolph’s screenplay is fast-moving and literate, and there is great use of archive footage.  The female cast are just outstanding, with Lithgow quite horrifying as the disgusting old man who once hobnobbed with Nixon but now intimidates ambitious young women into hoicking up their skirts and a lot worse. The biggest irony? Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) gets to save the day. Sigh. Inspired by the accounts of the women who reported their experiences of harassment. Rule number one, Corporate America:  You don’t sue your boss

Bananas (1971)

Bananas

And now, as is our annual custom, each citizen of San Marcos will come up here and present his Excellency with his weight in horse manure. Hapless New York product tester Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) desperately attempts to impress attractive social activist  Nancy (Louise Lasser). He travels to the turbulent Latin American country of San Marcos where he falls in with resistance fighters and, before long, accidentally becomes drafted as their leader replacing the crazed Castro-esque Esposito (Jacobo Morales) after foiling an assassination attempt by General Vargas (Carlos Montalbán). While Mellish’s position of authority wins Nancy over, he has to deal with the many burdens of being a dictator but being President just might impress Nancy ... Can you believe that? She says I’m not leader enough for her. Who was she looking for… Hitler? A hoot from glorious start to ridiculous finish, Allen’s hilarious homage to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup has everything: silent musicians (they have no instruments); Swedish deemed the only suitably non-decadent language appropriate for a post-revolutionary society; and a very young Marvin Hamlisch’s first ever score (funny in and of itself). A freewheeling mix of parody, satire, one-liners, sight gags and slapstick, this loose adaptation of Richard B. Powell’s novel Don Quixote USA is co-written with Allen’s longtime close friend, Mickey Rose, who also collaborated on Take the Money and Run. Featuring Howard Cosell, Roger Grimsby and Don Dunphy as themselves. Gleefully bonkers fun in the worst possible taste. Power has driven him mad!

The Accused (1988)

The Accused

There’s a whole crowd. Twenty-four year old Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) hangs out at The Mill bar where her friend Sally Fraser (Ann Hearn) is waiting tables. She is gang-raped on a pinball machine by three men who are egged on by a gathering of onlookers, one of whom Ken Joyce (Bernie Coulson) runs out to a phone booth to call the police. In hospital Sarah meets Assistant DA Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) who prosecutes the case but agrees to a deal which will ensure they serve time because she fears Sarah’s history and her drinking on the night in question will make her a poor witness. However Sarah is angry and rams the car of one of the men who led the cheerleading during her rape and Kathryn feels guilty, deciding to go after the men who encouraged the crime … She put on a show, pure and simple. Inspired by the notorious 1983 gang rape perpetrated upon Cheryl Araujo, this controversial film has lost none of its power. Foster is stunning as the ornery, spiky, confrontational yet eager to please working class girl while McGillis is solid as the prosecutor who feels guilt at betraying her client and then pushes for a fresh trial of the men who cheered on the violent crime. Screenwriter Tom Topor was hired by producer Dawn Steel when the Araujo trial became a national talking point and he interviewed dozens of victims, rapists, prosecutors and doctors to hear their stories and point of view. The inclusion of the reenactment is the difficult issue that remains – and it’s a tough one to decide whether it is necessary:  perhaps the depiction proves the point that nobody ever believes the woman and those who do are never going to admit it much less say they are the guilty parties. It is playing this card that actually gives the film its authority and resonance not least because a point of view camera is involved and Foster’s vulnerability is paradoxically exploited. More than that, the film tackles the immediate and impersonal aftermath of reporting a rape, the portrayal of rape in the press, the acceptance by women (it’s truly terrible when the friend turns a blind eye and runs out of the bar), the inevitability of victim blaming and shaming and the overwhelming stench of testosterone in the male-controlled world that sees women as lucky receptacles whether they like it or not. This collision of plain pictures and words speaks truth to power. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, who has such empathy for young people and such a gift for establishing time and place:  after all, this is the guy who made Over the Edge, probably the greatest film about teenagers. It was Foster’s first film after graduating Yale and if it hadn’t been a success she intended retiring from acting. She won the Academy Award for her magnificent performance. I kept saying No