Charlie Says (2018)

Charlie Says.jpg

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

Bel Canto (2018)

Bel Canto.jpeg

How did you sing like that? Acclaimed American soprano Roxane Coss (Moore) travels to an unnamed South American country to give a private concert at the birthday party of rich Japanese industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe) who’s allegedly building a factory in the vicinity. Just as an élite gathering of local dignitaries convenes at Vice-President Ruben Ochoa’s mansion, including French Ambassador Simon Thibault (Christopher Lambert) and his wife (Elsa Zylberstein), Hosokawa’s faithful translator Gen Watanabe (Ryo Kase), and Russian trade delegate Fyorodov (Olek Krupa), the house is taken over by guerrillas led by Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta) who believe the President is in attendance (he’s at home watching TV) demanding the release of their imprisoned comrades. Their only contact with the outside world is through Red Cross negotiator Joachim Messner (Sebastian Koch). A month-long standoff ensues in which hostages and captors must overcome their differences and find their shared humanity and hope in the face of impending disaster. Roxanne and Katsumi consummate their rapidly escalating love for each other while Gen falls for rebel Carmen (Maria Mercedes Coroy) as the military gather outside the building … He is always moved by your music. Adapted from Ann Patchett’s novel by director Paul Weitz and Anthony Weintraub, this might be another instance of be careful when tackling literary fiction:  three mentions of telenovelas remind us that when you strip out the elevated language sometimes what you’re left with is a soap opera. And how unlikely much of this is, these people holed up in this nice residence, all getting along in this unreal idyll, even having sex, you just wonder where the butler is hiding the silver salver with the stacks of Ferrero Rocher and why it never occurs to anyone to escape not even when they’re wandering about that lovely tree-filled garden. Nonetheless Moore and Watanabe are both splendid and the underlying message that music is that other universal language is well made in this fantasy take on Stockholm Syndrome before it concludes in the inevitable bloodbath. What are the takeaways? Don’t adapt posh novels, stay out of South America where the natives are always revolting and for goodness’ sake don’t sleep with your kidnapper – or your biggest fan. It never ends well. Moore lip syncs to Renée Fleming.  Are you sure they won’t shoot you? Not everbody likes opera

A Christmas Carol (1938)

A Christmas Carol 1938.jpg

Keep Christmas in your own way and let me keep it in mine. On Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen) is visited by the spirit of his former partner, Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carroll). The deceased partner was as mean and miserly as Scrooge is now and he warns him to change his ways or face the consequences in the afterlife… Humbug, I tell you. Humbug! Charles Dickens’ sentimental novella gets a fine adaptation by Hugo Butler and a delicate, sprightly production by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and director Edwin Marin. Everything is beautifully staged and nicely played by a very apposite cast. There is a deal of magic with the ghosts (Lionel Brabham, Ann Rutherford and D’Arcy Corrigan) and some excellent scene-setting and romance between Fred (Barry MacKay) and Bess (Lynne Carver). The atmosphere is well sustained and it’s a very enjoyable rendition that tugs at the heartstrings even if the 1951 British adaptation is a personal favourite. The countdown begins… It’s the only time when human beings open their hearts freely

Knives Out (2019)

Knives Out.jpeg

I suspect foul play. I have eliminated no suspects.  When crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies just after his 85th birthday, inquisitive Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives at his estate to investigate despite the presence of police officers (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan). He sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind the writer’s untimely demise as each of the family members and the immigrant nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) who cared for Harlan is questioned in turn. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a successful businesswoman with a an unfaithful husband Richard (Don Johnson) and a layabout son Ransom (Chris Evans). Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the publishing company his father founded for his writing output, but they’ve been fighting. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is an advocate of self-help and has been helping herself to the old man’s money. His ancient mother (K Callan) never seems to die. Harlan’s devoted nurse Marta then becomes Harlan’s most trusted confidante but who hired him in the first place? … This is a twisted web, and we are not finished untangling it, not yet. The closed-room murder mystery is a staple of crime fiction and it’s not necessarily where you’d expect writer/director Rian Johnson to turn after a Star Wars episode (The Last Jedi) although it harks back to his debut, Brick, a take on Chandler/Hammett with teenagers. The touchstones are pretty clear:  Agatha Christie; the game (and film) of Clue(do); Peter Sellers and Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark; and some of the grasping familial mendacity we recognise from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If truth be told, it’s not very mysterious and barely suspenseful with two big twists a regular filmgoer or mystery reader will see through easily which means that they of course are not the point. It’s the dismantling of those hoary old tropes that provides the narrative motor. Much of the entertainment value derives from game comic playing by an established cast with a soupçon of political commentary provided by the nurse’s immigrant status which leads to a good line featuring Broadway hit Hamilton and everyone gets her native country wrong, one of the running jokes. Another is her need to vomit when telling a lie. The other one is stretching out the syllables in Benoit’s name so it sounds like Ben wa although personally I find Craig more prophylactic than sex toy and his ‘tec is Poirot X Columbo with an affected drawl. It looks quite sober and already feels like Sunday evening TV. For the undemanding viewer. CSI KFC!

The Irishman (2019)

The Irishman

It is what it is. In 1975 mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and his boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives are on an east-west roadtrip, their ultimate destination Detroit for the wedding of Russell’s niece. An elderly Sheeran tells the story of their association as a meet-cute when he was driving a meat truck in the 1950s and his rise through the ranks, his appointment to a Teamster position under Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) the union supremo with deep Mafia ties. It becomes apparent that there is an ulterior motive to the journey and their role in America’s evolution particularly with regard to the Kennedy family is traced against a series of hits Sheeran carries out that reverberate through US history… What kind of man makes a call like that. Not so much Goodfellas as Oldfellas, a ruminative journey through midcentury America via the prism of a violent hitman who allegedly befriended and later murdered infamous Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. This is toned-down Scorsese, with muted colours to match the readjusted and very mature framing of Mafia doings in terms of the impact it has on family, chiefly Sheeran’s sensitive daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin as an adult) whose mostly silent presence functions as the story’s moral centre:  her horror of Bufalino is a constant reprimand. Steven (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) Zaillian’s adaptation of Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses is not for the fainthearted:  its overlength is sustained mainly by performance with a powerhouse set of principals (plus Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale et al) battling against a lot of unmemorable and somewhat repetitive dialogue (but when it’s good, it’s great), under-dramatised setpieces and a fatally bloated midsection (as in life, so in narrative), much of which is spent in courtrooms. Every time there’s a lull in the action someone needs Frank to off the source of their discontent and sometimes this is handled with straightforward exposition, sometimes in a montage of Frank disposing gun after gun off a bridge. That’s the story punctuation. Mostly however the issue is with DeNiro’s dull and wearying voiceover. This is not the funny jive kick of Ray Liotta in the aforementioned 1990 classic, it’s a man utterly comfortable in his killer’s skin who doesn’t defend himself because it’s who he is and he is not given to introspection, a flaw in the anchoring perspective. If we’re seeing it, we don’t need to be told too. The de-ageing effect is jarring because we don’t see the DeNiro of Mean Streets, rather a jowly preternaturally middle-aged man who shuffles in an old man’s gait. While Pesci is calm and chillingly content in his own position as a capo, it’s Pacino (in his first collaboration with Scorsese) who lifts the mood and fills the air with punchy, positive ions, giving the movie a much-needed burst of energy. But even he seems to be circling the wagons around his own self-satisfied persona as the same story/work-life issues repeatedly arise. It’s a big movie about nasty men who (perhaps) played a huge role in the shaping of their country and the hierarchies of cultures and ethnicities are regularly invoked in a tale which may or may not be true. There are some potentially amusing gatherings of men in black suits at family events. But funny they ain’t.  It’s sad perhaps that Scorsese didn’t make this for cinema and after three weeks on limited release it is fated for eternity on a streaming service:  a sign of the times and perhaps the swansong of a major filmmaker at the end of the 2010s. The nail in the coffin of an era? After this we might be asking not just who killed Jimmy Hoffa but who killed the mob movie. Late Scorsese, in more ways than one. They can whack the President, they can whack the president of the union

The Tenant (1976)

The Tenant.jpg

Aka Le locataire. If you cut off my head, what would I say… Me and my head, or me and my body? What right has my head to call itself me? Shy bureaucrat Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is a Polish-born French citizen who moves into an apartment whose previous female tenant an Egyptologist called Simone Choule threw herself out a window and is dying in hospital, never to return. As his neighbours view him suspiciously, he becomes obsessed with the idea of the beautiful young woman and believes that her friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani) is planning to kill him … These days, relationships with neighbors can be… quite complicated. You know, little things that get blown up out of all proportion? You know what I mean? We know how claustrophobic apartments can be from Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. This apartment is in Paris and it is the centre of the neighbours’ gossip and pass-remarkery, those objects of fear for someone who doesn’t wish to be found out, Gérard Brach and Polanski’s adaptation of Roland Topor’s novel Le Locataire Chimérique, turning a suggestive thriller into a paranoid fantasy with a sort of macabre chalky undertaste. Trelkovsky’s introduction to the apartment and view of the lavatory opposite is brilliant and the meet-cute with Stella over the gaping Munchian maw of a moaning mummified Simone is unforgettable. It may not be as beautiful as his other apartment movies but Polanski’s intent is quite clear with the regular reminders of toilet functions and the running gag about cigarettes.The casting is superb: Melvyn Douglas is great as Monsieur Zy, Lila Kedrova as Madame Gaderian with her crippled daughter are spooky while Shelley Winters excels as the concierge. On the one hand, it’s a dance of death bristling with atmosphere and Polanski is its fulcrum, revealing Trevolsky’s gender slippage as surely as he sheds his masculine outerwear while simultaneously descending into the brutal, funny depths of psychological disintegration.  On the other, it’s a perfect film about how lonely it can be a foreigner in the big city and how easy it is to lose oneself while others are watching you. For total trivia fans, the continuity here is done by Sylvette Baudrot who did that job for that other master of apartment movies Alfred Hitchcock on To Catch a Thief.  It’s a wonderful, scary funny Kafkaesque nightmare portrait of Paris and the ending is awesome:  talk about an identity crisis. I am not Simone Choule! 

Oh … Rosalinda!! (1955)

Oh Roslaninda alt.jpg

Once the music is started we can’t talk.  You see the place will be crowded with foreigners. In 1955 Occupied Vienna, black-market dealer Dr. Falke aka The Bat/Die Fledermaus (Anton Walbrook) moves freely through the French, British, American and Russian sectors, dealing in champagne and caviar among the highest echelons of the allied powers. After a costume party, French Colonel Gabriel Eisenstein (Michael Redgrave) plays a practical joke on a drunken Falke, depositing him, asleep and dressed as a bat, in the lap of a patriotic Russian statue, to be discovered the following morning by irate Russian soldiers. Falke is nearly arrested until his friend party-giver General Orlofsky (Anthony Quayle) of the USSR intervenes. A vengeful Falke plans an elaborate practical joke on his friend, involving Orlofsky,  British Army major (Dennis Price), Eisenstein’s beautiful wife Rosalinda (Ludmilla Tchérina), her maid (Anneliese Rothenberger) and a masked ball where no one is what they seem. Complicating matters is American Captain Alfred Westerman (Mel Ferrer), an old flame of Rosalinda’s who is determined to take advantage of her husband’s absence and become her lover once again … Just watch how I get out of my own troubles. One of Powell and Pressburger’s odder productions which elicited little more than critical ire upon release (it was exhibited on a double bill with The Big Combo), it can now be seen as a deliriously eccentric and audacious comic account of the post-war occupied city of Vienna, through the updated lens of Die Fledermaus (The Bat), Strauss’ 1874 operetta, with new lyrics in English by Dennis Arundell. Densely coloured, beautifully designed by Hein Heckroth and performed with gusto by some of the best actors of the era representing the different occupying powers in their nationality and personification while a husband and wife renew their acquaintance in this romantic catch-chase quartet. Quayle is excellent but Walbrook is supreme as the kind of characterful ringmaster he had already essayed in Ophüls’ La Ronde, keen that the occupying powers swiftly depart.  With every component of this indulgent avant garde take on a genre type more or less moribund since the Thirties concluding in a gorgeous masked ball, it’s a beautiful resolutely studio-bound theatrical spectacle. Considered part of a loose trilogy from Powell and Pressburger along with The Red Shoes/Tales of Hoffman even if Redgrave winds up dancing more than prima ballerina Tchérina, at  one point introduced to her own husband as Olga Volga, a star from behind the Iron Curtain. Redgrave, Rothenberger and Quayle sing while all other cast members’ singing voices are dubbed. Look quickly for Arthur Mullard as a Russian guard and future director John Schlesinger in a Jeep. Come a bit closer. Is there anything I can do for you – or you – or you?

Late Night (2019)

Late Night.jpeg

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. Talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is the Queen of Late Night. Her world is turned upside down when she hires her first and only female staff writer Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) because the head of the network Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) is threatening to replace Katherine with a younger more provocative standup Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz). Originally intended to smooth over diversity concerns because Molly ticks the boxes of gender and colour, and Katherine is determined to disprove her colleague Brad’s (Denis O’Hare) accusation that she’s a woman who hates women. Katherine’s decision brings about unexpected consequences as the two women separated by culture and generation become united by their love of a biting punchline despite the fact that Molly’s previous experience is Quality Controller in a chemical plant and they’re in a sea of unsympathetic men … Don’t take this the wrong way but your earnestness can be very hard to be around. Kaling wrote this with Thompson in mind and it shows:  she plays the heck out of it, a diva on the outs who hires and fires without breathing. It’s a setting that has yielded a lot of US comedy and it’s a smart satire with remarkable timing, in more ways than one: a battle of the sexes comedy set in the notorious boys’ club environment that is comedy (and the writers’ room) and it recognises that the system is longstanding and women have never been the beneficiaries and that’s okay because that’s fertile ground for discursive, subversive dramedy. Kaling turns this into something of a dramatic strut we might call Truth to Power as Thompson’s character is forced to defend the entire raison d’être of her career – in so doing she threatens to wreck her long marriage to her sick husband Walter (John Lithgow). Kaling’s own role is that of disrupter, although ironically it’s not as significant to the story as it might have been despite hitting the right millennial notes such as needing to make enough money to finally move out of home – think Devil Wears Prada with a race slant.  She incorporates just enough rom into this com to fit to genre expectations without untethering the narrative although it’s warm rather than vicious. Thompson and Kaling are fantastic as they try to navigate the problem of being mentor-mentee-friends-colleagues in a hostile workplace. Sharp stuff at times though, a sociocultural comedy that takes jabs at a slew of subjects including #MeToo, but with a gender twist. That’s what I call a punchline. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, who has worked with Kaling on TV’s The Mindy Project and a very good job she does too. You’re a writer, so write

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

The Marriage of Maria Braun.jpg

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

Address Unknown (1944)

Address Unknown film.jpg

The quicksand of despair – and just before we died a man pulled us out. When Martin Schultz (Paul Lukas), a German expatriate art dealer living in the US, visits his homeland, he begins to get attracted by the Nazi propaganda and breaks ties with his close Jewish friend, Max Eisenstein (Morris Carnovsky) whose daughter Griselle (K.T. Stevens) an aspiring actress is engaged to marry his son Heinrich (Peter Van Eyck) and she has accompanied Martin to Munich to pursue her career for a year. But Martin is swiftly recruited by Baron von Friesche (Carl Esmond) to work in the Culture Ministry with devastating repercussions … You can’t sit on two stools at once. At least not here in Germany. Kressmann Taylor’s 1938 novella sounded a gunshot over the ramparts about the dangers of Nazism and the screenplay by Herbert Dalmas does it justice – and then some. Director William Cameron Menzies deploys the style of German Expressionism (shot by Rudolf Maté) in the service of all that is decent and the escalating tension is brilliantly paced. The near-lynching of Griselle at the theatre is shocking and concludes in the tragic manner you know to expect. The atmosphere of intimidation and dread is expertly sustained while Lukas’ encroaching guilt over his role in the desperate developments in Germany grinds to a logical conclusion in the form of coded communication as the visuals veer from film noir shadows to straightforward horror mise en scène. A superb evocation of how two intertwined families suffer in the murderous Nazi terror. The old Juncker spirit and German arrogance are gone