Hustlers (2019)

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Doesn’t money make you horny? Working as a stripper to help her grandmother get out of debt and to make ends meet, Dorothy aka Destiny’s (Constance Wu) life changes forever when she becomes friends with Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) the Moves club’s top money earner who mentors her. Ramona soon shows Destiny how to finagle her way around the wealthy Wall Street clientele who frequent the club, teaching her about ‘fishing’. But the 2008 economic crash cuts into their profits. Three years later Destiny has retired to have a baby and her relationship has broken up and she’s broke.  She returns to Moves to find that Russian whores have moved in and the game has changed. She reunites with Ramona and they and two other dancers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and find that Russian whores have moved into Moves, and they devise a daring scheme to take their lives back… This city, this whole country is a strip club. You got people tossing the money. And you got people doing the dance. Money really does make the world go round – and it’s a man’s world. And the men are creeps. Adapted by director Lorene Scafaria from Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York Magazine article The Hustlers at Scores, an account of a true crime, with its diverse cast boosting a tale of female empowerment, this is a storming feminist movie perfect for the #MeToo era. For the first half. Then in the second half a flashback structure kicks in – Dorothy regales a journalist called Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) with her story – giving impetus to the idea that there is a moral to this tale which emphasises the issues facing young single mothers in a society falling apart.  But the pace slackens and it’s a more serious study. There are nice performances all round but Lopez simply bulldozes the material with sass and verve, making this caper a zesty exercise in revenge where Lopez can describe motherhood as a kind of mental illness. Think Widows, but with fewer clothes. Lopez’s pole dancing is just amazing. Produced by Lopez with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who dealt with the Crash in that very different caper, The Big Short. Serious entertainment. I really hope it’s not a story about all strippers being thieves

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Hotel Mumbai (2019)

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The whole world is watching. In 2008 terror strikes in the heart of Mumbai, India, as members of the Islamic terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba storm the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, one in a series of 12 coordinated attacks throughout the city by the jihadists. Amid the gunfire and mayhem, a brave chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and Sikh kitchen worker Arjun (Dev Patel) decide to risk their own lives to try and protect the frightened guests in a place where the credo is the guest is god. As the militants continue their assault on the hotel, a British Moslem heiress Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and her American architect husband David (Armie Hammer) and their nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) must do whatever they can to protect their newborn baby, even while circumstances conspire to separate them; while shady Russian businessman Vasili (Jason Isaacs) steps up to see how he can protect himself and others. Meanwhile the under-resourced local police force are completely overwhelmed by the military-grade assault and the terrorists make sporadic appearances, executing more and more guests as they make their way through the building taking orders from Brother Bull ...  From Mumbai to Washington, their screams will be heard. The temptation to describe this as a disaster movie is overwhelming, because that’s how this account of a terror attack is presented and packaged. It’s a technically proficient exercise in docudrama with little time to get to know the real heroes who make incredible sacrifices to save strangers. In reality 174 people were murdered in an act of racial hatred that lasted four long days. This was no sinking ship or fiery skyscraper, it was a meticulously planned carnival of cold-blooded mass murder carried out against supposed infidels by Moslems with some stupid complicity by news media giving away the escapees’ location (something repeated during the factory siege following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris). The conventions of genre are efficiently deployed by debut director Anthony Maras and co-writer John Collee to very discomfiting effect with gruesome brutality. A frankly misjudged piece of work which might lure more terrorists into the fray in the belief that their actions will be dramatised unquestioningly, even with a degree of entirely inappropriate sympathy for gullible subliterate peasants whose first experience of flush toilets this was. Or: it’s a timely warning to western and westernising countries to get a grip and stop permitting Islam to flourish.  If any of you want to back out now, no hard feelings

Welcome to Marwen (2018)

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Sorry, I don’t speak Nazi. No one expects Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) to recover from a devastating assault by Neo-Nazis that has wiped away all of his memories. In his free time from the diner where he works he creates art installations using photographs of dolls enacting a story. Putting together pieces from the past and present, Mark meticulously creates a Belgian town called Marwen and becomes Captain Hogie, a heroic World War II fighter pilot. His installation soon comes to life with breathtakingly realistic dolls – a testament to the most powerful women he knows including Nicol (Leslie Mann) the woman who moved in across the street to get away from abusive ex Kurt (Neil Jackson) who becomes his fantasy nemesis, Major Meyer. Through this fantasy world, which becomes a kind of therapy, Hogancamp finds the strength to face his attackers who are due to be sentenced …   Like the wise man said, “Our pain is our rocket fuel.” It reminds us of our strength. Written by Caroline Thompson and director Robert Zemeckis, this man-child fantasy drama treads schmaltzy territory to rather indifferent effect despite its roots in the attack perpetrated on the real-life subject and Catskills resident in 2000 who admitted to his penchant for wearing women’s shoes and was almost killed by his assailants. The strength he obtains here derives not just from the fantasy but from his real-world friendships with the women who surround him (played by Janelle Monae, Merritt Weaver, Eiza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Stefanie von Pfetten, Leslie Zemeckis and Diane Kruger). Part of its lax storytelling arises from the lack of engagement with the five violent hoodlums who brutally assaulted Mark in the first place and how he has displaced his fears onto this animated iteration making his Neo-Nazis into the ‘real’ thing seventy years earlier enacting retribution in his own back garden. Perhaps less fantasy and more reality could have balanced this difficult narrative ploy. A flawed but interesting work about healing from devastation, high heels intact. I was beaten up because I was different, so I’ve built a place where I can heal

Death Goes to School (1953)

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The children must always come first. The body of Miss Cooper a teacher is discovered by a pupil behind the sports ground at Abbotsham all-girls school with another teacher’s scarf cinched around her throat. Scotland Yard dispatches detective Campbell (Gordon Jackson) to lead the investigation along with his assistant Sergeant Harvey (Sam Kydd). Campbell interviews the teachers and pupils, but encounters one major issue: Everybody hated this teacher. This makes narrowing down the suspects rather difficult. But music teacher Miss Shepherd (Barbara Murray) has a very strong suspicion that the killer is a member of the staff and carries out her own investigation in parallel, bringing her to the home of the dead woman’s brother-in-law Mr Lawley (Robert Long) … You’re not like a woman at all. You have a mind like a man. This minor British murder mystery is lent an air of Gothic tension by the protagonist’s voiceover narration, a handsome dark-haired love interest and the use of fetish objects (scarves, shoes, matchbooks). But it’s hardly Shadow of a Doubt. Instead it’s a story of woman crushes, jealousy, suspicion and decidedly unsportsmanlike murder. The mini-drama comes from the grudging admiration between Jackson and Murray, who attributes the Scotsman’s language issues to his not being English. She’s a really good amateur sleuth and the clash is nicely done. She’s always streets ahead, of course. The girls’ school setting with its seething resentments in the staff room (where everyone calls each other Miss) is well established. A fine little suspenser with good performances and great hairdos, shot at Merton Park. Adapted by Maisie Sharman (aka Stratford Davis) from her novel Death in Seven Hours (Miss Shepherd’s alibi!) with director Stephen Clarkson.

Redoubtable (2017)

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Aka Le redoutable/Godard mon amour. You have to choose – either it’s politics or cinema. In 1967 during the making of his film, La chinoise, French film director Jean-Luc Godard (Louis Garrel) falls in love with 17-year-old ingenue actress Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) the granddaughter of François Mauriac, and later marries her. The 1968 protests lead Godard to adopt a revolutionary stance setting up the Dziga Vertov Group with critic Jean-Pierre Gorin (Félix Kysyl) and retreating from his celebrity while Anne continues to make films for other directors and his didactic attitude creates an irretrievable schism with other directors following his call for the cancelling of the Cannes Film Festival …  The future belonged to him and I loved him. Michel Hazanavicius’ biopic of Godard falls between two stools:  on the one hand it’s a knowing wink to a fiercely committed and politicised prankster who eventually became too serious for his own good or his audience’s enjoyment;  on the other it’s a partly serious examination of the evolution of the most significant filmmaker in Europe in the Sixties which invariably vibrates with politics and the issue of celebrity and how it drove him to make incendiary statements which reverberated badly. This is adapted from Un an après the memoir of Wiazemsky (who died in 2017) so the story of the director’s post-’68  retreat into the radical takes its lacerating prism from his resentment at her attempts to escape his stifling grip and gain a mainstream career as he becomes immersed in communal filmmaking. He abuses her co-workers, evinces contempt for his own films and their admirers and renounces his friendships in order to produce films without an audience. He pronounces on the necessity to consign the work of Renoir, Ford and Lang to the dustbin of history and insists only the subversive comedy of Jerry Lewis and the Marx Brothers be kept. He tells us that this is the beauty of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric – any old rubbish can make sense.  I’m not Godard. I’m an actor playing Godard. And not even a very good actor. It’s part pastiche too, indulging in many visual references to Godard’s work, leading to a lot of amusing moments as well as beautifully crafted design that can be appreciated in this multi-referential marital saga/romcom.  Every time JLG goes to a protest he gets trampled by riot police and his glasses are broken (see:  Take the Money and Run). He decides he needs different shoes and becomes obsessed with them, literally another running joke.  He attends a student rally at a university and makes anti-semitic declarations which embarrass everybody not just because he calls Jews Nazis but because he is stunningly inarticulate. He is invited by Bertolucci to a conference in Rome and ends up telling him his films are shit so Bertolucci tells him exactly what he thinks of him. The Situationists despised Jean-Luc. And he agreed with them. Garrel is brilliant as the lisping narcissistic self-absorbed pedant who is humorously unaware of the plethora of contradictions, ironies and paradoxes besetting his every statement. He flounces out of the Cannes festival and complains about having to stay in the luxurious beachside home of Pierre Lazareff, the Gaullist proprietor of France-Soir but lies back and enjoys the man’s library, bitching about the lack of petrol to get him back to Paris – despite avowing support for a general strike. He belittles the generous farmer who volunteers to drive him and the gang, plus former friend Cournot (Grégory Gadebois) whose film didn’t get screened at Cannes due to JLG’s antics, all 500 miles back to Paris:  this scene is laugh out loud funny, embodying the ridiculous idea of a filmmaker becoming a revolutionary by wanting to make films that nobody will ever want to see, above the common man whose cause he claims to espouse. The bore is now a boor. The irreverent approach sends up Godard but it also somewhat downplays his achievements and the deterioration of the marriage, the first casualty in his argumentative retreat from commercial cinema as friends and values are abandoned without care.  Martin makes the most of a part that puts her on the receiving end of both withering condescension and nasty put-downs from a man twice her age basically holding her hostage while trying to be a teenage activist and flailing for filmmaking inspiration. You make films. You’re not the Foreign Secretary. There is a sense in which Hazanavicius’ Woody Allen references (the early, funny ones,  see:  Stardust Memories) function in two ways, leaving us to wonder if this isn’t just about Godard but also about Hazanavicius himself, following a drubbing for his last serious drama set in war-torn Chechnya (also starring his own wife/muse Bérénice Bejo who features here as fashion designer and journalist Michèle Lazareff Rosier – who wound up becoming a filmmaker! And who also died in 2017) having made his own name with comedies and overt Hollywood homages (The Artist). Not altogether unlike Godard. So we see Godard enjoying pulp fiction and musicals but suffering through La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc while disavowing sentiment of all kinds.  Following his suicide attempt, the last sequence occurs during the making of Vent d’est, Godard’s Maoist western and his last collaboration with Anne before she left him. The voiceover is now his, just as he is outvoted by his automanaged bunch of commie cast and crew. He is no longer the auteur of note in this ménage à con.  Finally, he manages a smile. Perhaps even this arch ironist now understands the grave he’s dug for himself. We like him, but it’s too late. His gift is gone. With Jean-Pierre Mocky as an outraged diner at a restaurant, we realise we are in the realm of satire and this is a wonderfully clever lampooning of an anarchic cynic much in the mould of Godard himself, keen to distance himself from a decade of success, now in utter contempt of his audience. He clearly never saw Sullivan’s Travels. Or if he did, misunderstood it complètement. This is hilarious – a postmodern film about the cinematic revolutionary who invented the form that manages to be both serious and incredibly witty, all at once. Kudos to cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman for replicating Raoul Coutard’s beautiful work in Godard’s Sixties masterpieces. Definitely one for the bourgeois cinéaste. We’ll love each other later. Now it’s the revolution!

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The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

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On the screen you get ’em all, what about off? It’s pouring rain at the funeral of Hollywood screen star, the Spanish sex symbol Maria Vargas, and we learn about her life from the men who became beguiled by her … Washed-up film director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) is on the outs but gets a second chance at stardom when he discovers stunning peasant Vargas (Ava Gardner) dancing in a nightclub in Madrid. Goaded by his megalomaniac producer, strong-arming Wall Street financier Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), Harry convinces Maria to screen test for, and then star in, the next film he will write and direct. Publicist Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) makes sure she’s a sensation. But as Edwards’ possessive nature and the realities of stardom weigh on Maria, she seeks a genuine lover with whom she can escape and takes refuge with a wastrel playboy Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring) before true love rescues her arriving in a white automobile … I waste my money with pleasure but yours is just a waste. Writer/director (and producer) Joseph Mankiewicz joined the ranks of those filmmakers (Wilder, Minnelli) who turned on Hollywood for this baroque exploration of directors looking for inspiration:  when all else fails, eat yourself, as Sunset Blvd. and The Bad and the Beautiful demonstrated. Despite the casting and the setting (the cinematography doesn’t come across well at this juncture) this doesn’t quite click in the first part: it isn’t as sharply attractive as those productions, with Bogart perhaps a little too laconic as the narrator of this introductory section which is all exposition and caricature. But Mankiewicz made Letter to Three Wives so he knows how to make things interesting and he plays with the narration. The entire mood lifts with the shift to the voice of brash publicist Muldoon explaining life in Hollywood, before moving back and forth to Harry; and then to the lover and husband Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi),  the Italian count who is last in his line and fails to declare a terrible secret, dooming their union. The overlapping and conflicting accounts combine to create a clever, arresting portrait of the industry and stardom after the first few story missteps, with Gardner ultimately endearing as her enigmatic character develops, desperate to find her true love when the fairytale disintegrates and her humanity destroys her. Naturally she looks utterly stunning in this vague take on the career of Rita Hayworth with touches of King Farouk, the Duke of Windsor and Howard Hughes figuring amongst the male ensemble. How much more like a dream can a dream be?

See No Evil (1971)

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Aka Blind TerrorHelp! Sarah Rexton (Mia Farrow) has recently been blinded in a horse riding accident.  She  moves in with her uncle George (Robin Alison), his wife Betty (Dorothy Alison) and her cousin Sandy (Diane Grayson), who live in a big house in the English countryside.  She adjusts to her new condition, unaware that a killer stalks the family. After her former boyfriend Steve (Norman Eshley) presents her with a new horse and suggests they resume their romance, she returns home after their date and doesn’t realise that her family’s bodies are left in various locations around the house. She gradually discovers her murdered relatives. A cat and mouse game commences as the sightless woman evades the killer while trying to learn his identity and she flees the house on her chestnut horse, the man’s bracelet in her grasp… Brian Clemens’ screenplay was written on spec and once Farrow liked it, it got the greenlight. It’s an enormously effective psychological thriller because the dice are so loaded against the heroine and we can see what she cannot – albeit the killer isn’t revealed until the last possible moment:  we just see low angle shots of his distinctive boots. Confining our knowledge of the scene evens up the odds somewhat for Farrow’s performing of her role which is relentlessly realistic and you might even find yourself squirming as Sarah deals so ably with the limitations of her new life and outmanoeuvres the killer in the one way she knows how – using a horse. Farrow is vastly impressive as the part requires her to be both visually impaired and physically resourceful and doing both without seeking pity.  Director Richard Fleischer paradoxically creates an uncanny physical and narrative structure which requires that we remember which door leads where in the house – compensating for Sarah’s lack of vision. We are also restricted in what we are shown and how the gruesome situation is revealed in the middle third is particularly impressive. We were here before to an extent in Wait Until Dark but the setting, the use of landscape and the relentless grip of the pacy storytelling all combine to make this a compelling suspenser.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969)

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Don’t forget your poor old mother. Yowza yowza yowza! In the midst of the Great Depression in 1932 wannabe film director Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) encounters manipulative MC Rocky (Gig Young) when he wanders into a dance marathon on the Santa Monica Pier.  Rocky enlists contestants offering a $1,500 cash prize. Among them are a failed actress Gloria (Jane Fonda) whom he induces Robert to partner; a middle-aged sailor Harry Kline (Red Buttons); delusional blonde Alice (Susannah York); impoverished farm worker James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia). Days turn into weeks as the competition drags on and people either drop out or die. Rocky will do anything for publicity and initiates a series of gruelling derbies and nerves fray as exhaustion sets in … That soap’s a little hard. James Poe and Robert E. Thompson’s adaptation of the 1935 Horace McCoy novel plugs straight into its melodramatic core – a musical drama about economic despair. And the air of desperation hanging over these lost souls is like a fug, admirably sustained by director Sydney Pollack. Fonda is superb in a complex performance as the brittle cynic whose psychology is gradually broken while all around her succumb to the physical pressure. Her fear drives the story. How extraordinary to think that Charlie Chaplin had acquired the rights to the property eighteen years earlier, intending to cast his son Sydney opposite Marilyn Monroe in the roles played by Sarrazin and Fonda. It fell apart when Chaplin was refused re-entry to the US on foot of his political sympathies. When Fonda was approached by Pollack he asked her what she thought of the material and the character and she writes about it as a turning point in her career:  This was the first time in my life as an actor that I was working on a film about larger societal issues, and instead of my professional work feeling peripheral to life, it felt relevant. It also marked the beginning of Sarrazin’s years as a leading man – somehow he fell out of fashion in the late Seventies. He would die in 2011. There are some wonderful contrivances like the flash forwards that certain critics found irritating but it all works to build a mythic aspect. This is a stunning, disturbing indictment of social artifice and possesses a haunting quality, with its title becoming a catchphrase (and inspiring a hit song) and Gig Young’s fraudulent host inducing a kind of existential dread of showbiz ‘characters’. Maybe the whole world is like Central Casting – they got it all rigged before you ever show up

 

Boogie Nights (1997)

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We’re going to make film history right here on videotape. In LA’s San Fernando Valley in 1977, teenage busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) gets discovered by porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who’s on the lookout for new talent.  He transforms him into adult-film sensation Dirk Diggler. Brought into a supportive circle of friends, including fellow actors Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Dirk fulfills all his ambitions, but a toxic combination of drugs and egotism threatens to take him back down to earth.  As 1979 rolls into 1980 the business is changing and Horner is under pressure to switch to video despite his ambitions to be an auteur and he has to make a tough decision when financier The Colonel James (Robert Ridgely, who died shortly after production and to whom the film is dedicated) is caught with an underage girl who’s OD’d …  Diggler delivers a performance worth a thousand hard-ons. Bravura filmmaking from Paul Thomas Anderson which takes lurid content and spins it into a surprisingly sweet morality tale about the lowlifes behind pornos. The leading men are a study in contrasts:  Horner is a clever but kind director who doesn’t flinch from hardcore; while Diggler is the dumb box of rocks who has an enormous penis that dazzles. The running joke about Little Bill (William H. Macy) and his insatiable wife has an unbelievable climax; the revenge Rollergirl takes on a boy from high school is horrifying; and the wrap up sequence of redemption and closure for this makeshift family is fine drama. The final reveal is the money shot that we’ve all been waiting for. Reynolds won the Golden Globe and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Clever, amusing and humane, this is one of the best films of the Nineties.

On Chesil Beach (2017)

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We’re not two old queers living in secret on Beaumont Street. We’re man and wife!  It’s 1962.  New graduates historian Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and musician Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are nervously about to consummate their marriage in a seaside hotel in Dorset.  The waiters bring a roast dinner to their suite and make fun of them, practically sniffing the virginity in the ether. As the couple prepare to disrobe and attempt foreplay they recall the moments that brought them to this situation:  his chaotic home where his headmaster father (Adrian Scarborough) has to deal with a brain injured wife (Ann Marie Duff) and two twin girls;  her engineering company owner father (Samuel West) and academic mother (Emily Watson) who are on the one hand consumed with matters of class and on the other distracted, the wife looking down on her husband rather! Edward and Florence recall their first meeting at Oxford, when he had nobody to tell about his first in History from UCL and she’s the stranger at the CND gathering who lets him know she got a First too, but in music;  when she walked seven miles from the train to meet him at the cricket club where he works; when she got his mother to paint a ‘forgery’ of her favourite painter, Uccello. The memories come rushing in as she lies on the bed issuing instructions and he fumbles and then she rejects him and rushes to the beach … Ian McEwan’s novella was never going to be simple to adapt.  Part of its bittersweet sting lies in the acute choice of words which cannot be replicated on screen.  It’s a romance lacking in passion and the flashback structure literally interrupts the non-coitus. The suggestion that Florence has endured abuse at the hands of her nasty father on a boating trip is skilfully and subtly worked into the story but still doesn’t fully explain her frigidity. (The tennis match she observes between Edward and her father clues us in a little more.)  Her disgust at the contents of a sex manual suggests that of a child not a grown woman and isn’t sufficiently elaborated considering the company she and her family keep (her mother is a friend of Iris Murdoch) and her deep emotionality performing music in a quartet is surely not that of someone who doesn’t understand desire. The book does something extraordinary in demonstrating in just a few pages how Edward’s life pans out and it is utterly devastating, elaborating directly how this single night has sabotaged his life. This melancholy adaptation works on some levels:  for one,  the production design whose attention to period detail gives us an innate sense of the era’s propriety and indicators of class and behaviour.  There are brave performances too:  Ann Marie Duff spends half of hers topless, brain damaged from being hit by a train door on the local platform;  Ronan and Howle do very well in suggesting the naivete that seemingly plagued newlyweds of the era. In essence the relationship fails because of Edward’s pride and Florence’s prejudice and it’s hard to dramatise although his taste in music (jazz, rock and roll) versus hers (strictly classical) sums it up – together however they lack erotic obsession or straightforward lust and this tentative attempt flounders for the same reason as their wedding night:  nobody just goes for it and Florence just won’t shut up. But unsatisfying as this is there’s a porno shot you won’t forget in a hurry. Adapted by McEwan and directed by Dominic Cooke.