Palm Beach (2019)

Palm Beach

It’s what they’ve dreamed of for themselves is not what they’ve turned out to be. Frank (Bryan Brown) is flying in his lifelong friends for his big birthday at his beautiful home overlooking the bay at Palm Beach, north of Sydney. Now retired from his tee-shirt business which made him very wealthy, he and his wife Charlotte (Greta Scacchi), feckless son Dan (Charlie Vickers) and medical student daughter Ella (Matilda Brown), are hosting the remaining members of The Pacific Sideburns, the band he managed in the Seventies who made the cover of Rolling Stone back in 1977 when they had their one big hit song. Now Leo (Sam Neill) is a journalist based in New Zealand, married to teacher Bridget (Jacqueline MacKenzie) and stepfather to her teenage daughter Caitlyn (Frances Berry). Billy (Richard E. Grant) is an ad man married to actress Eva (Heather Mitchell) who thinks at 60 she’s too young to be cast as Nicole Kidman’s mother. Holly (Claire van der Boom) is the daughter of their late lead singer Roxy and she arrives with her lover, an older man called Doug (Aaron Jeffery) in tow. Tensions erupt over money, career, cars and homes and then there’s a secret which has been niggling at someone’s conscience … The Pacific Sideburns go down as the voice of adult incontinence. Directed by that lovely actress Rachel Ward (who is of course married to leading man Brown), who co-wrote the screenplay with Joanna Murray-Smith, in her second theatrical outing behind the camera, this is a kind of Big Chill for a different generation and at a different stage of their lives. Fans of Australian cinema will be thrilled with the cast (which also includes blow-ins Grant and Scacchi), with Neill and Brown co-starring for the fifth time. This time out they’re in a production about rites of passage among friends (and frenemies) which isn’t afraid to be tough on its characters, none of whom is without baggage or post-60 year old issues. There are all kinds of relatable tensions over ageing, health and money with the added frisson of questionable DNA. The issue of whether Dan might be fathered by Leo becomes the main plank of the narrative particularly since Frank and Dan are permanently at daggers drawn. But Billy – who has made an ad for adult diapers in France using the band’s big hit – is envious of Frank’s money and taunts him about the chimneys on a neighbouring property blocking the view so often that Frank does something about it, leading to the film’s comic high point:  retirement is not for chickens, as his anti-depressants prove. Bonding over building a pizza oven is no picnic. It’s pretty hard to bond with the Gestapo, growls Sam Neill. The women have their own problems but try to get them out of their system with some therapeutic white wine-assisted yoga by the pool and tough conversations with their terminally self-obsessed men. The father-son relationship between Frank and Dan results in a terrible accident and it finally brings them all to their senses in a well managed conclusion to the comedy drama. This family affair also involves Brown and Ward’s real-life daughter as Frank’s daughter; while the film within a film is Ward’s 2001 short, The Big House. The songs are by the band The Teskey Brothers in a soundtrack peppered with great tunes. An extremely winning production with fantastic performances and smart writing, this is an amazing showcase for New South Wales in a location familiar to viewers of TV’s Home and Away. Very easy watching indeed. I’m on my way ASAP, especially if I can stay in that magnificent beach house. I call it uninvited clarity

 

Bad Therapy (2020)

Bad Therapy

Aka Judy Small. I want a break from all the drudgery. I want my life to expand. Nature TV editor Bob Howard (Rob Corddry) and his realtor wife Susan (Alicia Silverstone) are enduring some financial issues. It’s her second marriage and she has a daughter Louise (Anna Pniowsky) from her first marriage which ended with her husband’s accidental death. They see marriage counselor, Judy Small (Michaela Watkins) to improve their relationship. However, Judy’s insistence that all three of the family see her separately reveals dark impulses that will bring Bob and Susan’s marriage to the breaking point as she manipulates them into losing trust in each other. And Judy’s former colleagues have discovered that she is practising two years after being barred due to the suicide of a client and what’s that mannequin she talks to in a back room?…  It was an unfortunate instance of counter-transference enactment. Nancy Doyne adapts her novel Judy Small with the tone shifting unevenly from comedy to thriller and back, an unsettling portrait of what therapists can do to their clients and a worrying insight into how the industry is governed (David Paymer ends up at the bottom of a staircase and not in a good way). Ironically while this film enjoys pushing its protagonists’ buttons it doesn’t sensibly explain the reason for the chaos caused by this disturbed psycho(therapist) and the fact that the couple continues seeing her makes it a little silly. The women are terrific in this throwback yuppies in peril-style thriller. Directed by William Teitler. Let me help you now

Harlow (1965)

Harlow

Everything about me is real.  Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) arrives in Los Angeles as a teenager, pushed into showbiz by her sex-mad mother Mama Jean (Angela Lansbury) and grasping stepfather Marino Bello (Raf Vallone). Kindhearted agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons) becomes Jean’s mentor and rescues her from glamour shots and the casting couch, while a devious Howard Hughes-like mogul Richard Manley (Leslie Nielsen) grows infatuated with the beautiful young actress. Harlow herself falls for writer/producer Paul Bern (Peter Lawford) before tragedy strikes right after their marriage and her efforts to get together with fellow studio star Jack Harrison (Mike Connors) come to nothing …  You have the body of a woman and the emotions of a child!  The big-budget version of the screen icon’s life was beaten to it by a cheaper experimental film starring Carol Lynley that barely scraped into theatres so this is the one that people remember, if at all. Adapted in part from Landau and Irving Shulman’s pulpy biography of the sex goddess by John Michael Hayes, this skips and jumps through Harlow’s life, eliminating altogether any direct reference to her relationship with William Powell (Connors plays a variation on him) or her co-star Clark Gable, more or less fabricating whole sequences and introducing an element of wantonness involving her stepfather that seems excessive even in this version of events. It’s rather lurid and seems to deviate from what is known of Harlow’s true character but it’s rather interesting to see an interpretation of the platinum blonde in vivid Technicolor with Edith Head making the most of the opportunity to create some stunning gowns. Baker had featured in the controversial Hayes adaptation of Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers a year earlier and shot a famous nude scene in the role of Rina, a thinly veiled version of Harlow – so her casting here is no surprise given that Paramount produced both pictures. Effectively, then, this is a remake in part of part of a year-old film. Baker is a decade older than Harlow at the time of her death but her performance is tender and appealing, capturing some of the spirit of Harlow’s great characters against a melodramatic backdrop that nonetheless plays fast and loose with the facts including the circumstances of her demise. Lansbury and Vallone are extremely impressive as the lusty parental figures while Buttons is very good as the kind man who remains her one true friend. A fascinating insight into how Hollywood saw itself at one time. Welcome to the velvet prison. Hayes deserves his reputation as a great writer of dialogue and he manages to invest showbiz clichés with the ring of truth especially when uttered venomously by Connors; Julie Parrish appears uncredited as Connors’ wife and would make a couple of appearances opposite him on Mannix five years later. The production design by Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira and James W. Payne is jaw dropping. The theme song Lonely Girl is sung by Bobby Vinton. Directed by Gordon Douglas. There’s nobody deader than I am right now. Oh, I guarantee all of you I won’t be by tomorrow

September (1987)

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I have no reason to get up tomorrow. Following a suicide attempt, Lane (Mia Farrow) retreats to her summerhouse in Vermont to rest but it’s not the peaceful haven it should be when her visitors disrupt the healing process and everyone present seems to be in love with the wrong person. Lane has difficulty dealing with her obnoxious tactless former actress mother Diane (Elaine Stritch), who is visiting with her stepfather Lloyd (Jack Warden). Lane lusts after struggling writer Peter (Sam Waterston) who is actually interested in her best friend Stephanie (Dianne Wiest) and a friendly neighbour, French teacher Howard (Denholm Elliott) carries a torch for Lane… It’s hell gettin’ older. Especially when you feel 21 inside. One of my fondest moviegoing memories is of watching this in a cinema on W. 57th Street NYC filled with the kind of people I was seeing onscreen – how better to view a Woody Allen film than surrounded by an audience that resembled the actors. I was among his people! It was irresistible and I spent most of my time people-watching, more engaged with the Allen-types, not the drama unspooling in front of me. Allen’s films at this point were apparently split between those aiming for a Fellini-esque feeling (Radio Days) or Bergman-esque interiority, like here, and Autumn Sonata is directly referenced in its plot, its central relationship and even costuming. Owing a lot to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, it’s a theatrical piece and Stritch makes a meal of her part as the attention-seeking star who wants someone to write a book about her against Lane’s wishes – because Lane supposedly shot her mother’s lover when she was a kid (just like Lana Turner’s daughter …).This was famously shot twice (kinda like the lover!) with Farrow’s own mother Maureen O’Sullivan in the role taken by Stritch, with Charles Durning in the great Jack Warden’s role and Christopher Walken AND Sam Shepard replaced by Waterston. Truly a film that is the sum of its parts, it somehow contrives to look better than it feels. Is there anything more terrifying than the destruction of the world?

Rocketman (2019)

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You have to kill the person you were meant to be in order to become the person you want to be. A troubled Elton John (Taron Egerton) flounces offstage in full costume to attend an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting in 1990 to finally tackle his prodigious appetite for drink, drugs, sex, food and shopping. We revisit his life in flashbacks to his lonely childhood in post-war suburban Middlesex as Reggie Dwight with a desperately mismatched mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and a grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who encourages the young prodigy. He plays with a band called Bluesology supporting visiting US acts and gets picked up by A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) to write for producer Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is teamed with teenage lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) whose words spark an astonishing array of songs in the young composer. They are sent to premiere the renamed ‘Elton John’ to perform at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles where he literally takes off overnight but the pressures of performing and an encounter with personal manager John Reid (Richard Madden) leads to a life of unhappiness and addiction … Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother? The Elton John biopic that has been in the work for decades finally hits the ground running trailing tantrums, tiaras and all the sequinned flamboyance that the man has on his rider. It’s more than a jukebox musical – it’s a freewheeling fantasy that uses some of the best songs John and Taupin have written to explore the astronomical fame that exploded when they went to the US as soon as they created Your Song. Lee Hall’s script is sometimes too on the nose (if you show you don’t also tell, natch) but for the most part director Dexter Fletcher’s approach is wildly inventive, epic and oddly appropriate even when the time-travelling back and forth is anachronistic in terms of the songs themselves so it might confuse those expecting a more logical biography. It bucks convention and Fletcher has clearly watched the oeuvre of Ken Russell (appropriately enough considering John’s role in Tommy, referenced here), understanding fundamentally the possibilities of narrative playfulness, the sung-through sub-genre and of course the necessities of the backstage form. As brilliantly evoked as the concerts are, the high points take place in a livingroom in Pinner. The monstrousness of his parents is to the fore even if we don’t get into the horrors of his mother hiring an Elton John tribute act to appear at her 90th birthday party since the 1990 addiction therapy is as far as it goes chronologically.  The children who play the young Reggie should get a big shoutout because they are quite extraordinary – Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor – and there is a nice touch for Irish viewers with The Stripes (the band that got away from John’s record company and split last year, sob) appearing as members of Bluesology, the group he had before his breakthrough. Egerton lacks the nuance for tragedy but he has some fantastic moments principally as the beloved stage performer:  perhaps that’s enough – those lows are sequenced well in montages and anything resembling the sordid reality might be too tough for this high wire act to bear. Dramatically though it’s the relationships John has with Taupin and his grandmother that make the emotions land. Tate Donovan revels in his outrageousness as Doug Weston, the proprietor of LA’s Troubadour;  while Madden is a horror as the man who took John to the cleaners and stole his heart. Quite the morality tale in terms of his excesses (we never get to see him actually enjoy all those drugs) but the sheer wit and imagination on display is peculiarly apt when it comes to amplifying the content of all those great songs. A delightful evening at the cinema that simply bursts with all the zest a musical can muster and much better than Fletcher’s job on Bohemian Rhapsody but somehow it’s a tad less enjoyable. Go figure. Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!

Jeune et Jolie (2013)

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You have an adventure but ultimately you’re alone. Seventeen-year old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) decides to lose her virginity to Felix (Lucas Prisor) while on summer holiday. But she wants more sex and takes up a secret life as a prostitute, having encounters in hotels with older men, some more sordid and cruel than others. She meets elderly Georges (Johan Leysen) regularly but he dies during one bout and the police inform her mother (Géraldine Pailhas) about her underage daughter’s dangerous lifestyle …  She’s bad to the bone. This frank exploration of female sexuality by auteur François Ozon pulls its punches somewhat – being on the one hand an erotic drama; the other, a piquant coming of age story with an especially feminine twist albeit through the male gaze, until the tables turn. It lacks the acerbic wit of the mordant thrillers Ozon makes but there is a marvellous change in the bourgeois family dynamic when this beautiful girl asserts her female power. Who knows why a lovely girl would do this? Does she know herself? We are left with no clear idea but this boasts a kindness towards the protagonist, emblemised by the use of the poem No One’s Serious at Seventeen by Rimbaud and a soundtrack dominated by the songs of Françoise Hardy. The film ends on a mysterious smile worthy of the Mona Lisa herself. You know what they say – once a whore, always a whore

Serenity (2019)

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Reel him in.  Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fishing boat captain who leads tours off the tranquil enclave of Plymouth Island in the Florida Keys with assistant Duke (Djimon Hounsou) motivated by eventually catching a big tuna he calls Justice. He enjoys sex for money with Constance (Diane Lane) but his life is disturbed by inexplicable visions that seem to connect him with the son he hasn’t seen since his time in Iraq. His routine is soon shattered when his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) tracks him down. Desperate for help, Karen begs Baker to save her and their son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) from her abusive husband, criminal Frank Zariakas (Jason Clarke). She wants Baker to take the violent brute out for a fishing excursion – then throw him overboard to the sharks. But a late night visit from a mysterious company representative Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong) throws a spanner into the works … A hooker that can’t afford hooks. I like a boat thriller. Something about the infinite dramatic possibilities played out on the finite dimensions of a floating vehicle, all at sea. Like Knife in the Water. Masquerade. Dead Calm. There are enough clues in this gorgeous looking melodrama that things are off – the World’s Greatest Dad mug; the seemingly telepathic connection with Patrick; the inter-cutting with Patrick creating a world in which he is catching fish on his computer; and the frankly hysterical sex scene with McConaughey and Hathaway, a ludicrous interplanetary femme fatale, on a boat lurching in a rainstorm:  she promptly gets up and puts on her trenchcoat and hat and trots off up the pier. Bonkers. McConaughey strips off regularly evoking quite a different take on the inspirational Moby Dick: Mobile Dick, perhaps. Sex with your ex, indeed. Lane out-acts everyone by being discreet; Hounsou mutters incomprehensibly bizarre aphorisms like he’s read them off a matchbook, everyone else speaks in similarly random non sequiturs. I would have laughed out loud but I struggled to hear much of the unintentionally hilarious dialogue.  I get the meta stuff and video games but like I said, I also like a boat thriller. This ain’t it. Bad and utterly irrational, like you would not believe. Written and directed by Steven Knight. If someone invented me, how come I know who I am?

Blockers (2018)

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What would Vin Diesel do?  Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) are high school seniors who make a pact to lose their virginity on prom night. Julie’s mom Lisa (Leslie Mann), Kayla’s sports-obsessed dad Mitchell (John Cena) and Sam’s father, the narcissistic Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), are three overprotective parents who flip out when they find out about their daughters’ plans. They soon join forces for a wild and chaotic quest to stop the girls from sealing the deal – no matter what the cost ... I’m gonna cock block those motherfuckers! An unexpected pleasure, this, as paranoid parenting meets teen rites of passage head-on in an enlightened sex comedy written by Brian Kehoe and Jim Kehoe – with the parents learning life lessons and having some very raunchy full frontal sexcapades of their own while the kids try to navigate complicated levels of awareness of their own needs. The quest/chase narrative by the parents carrying out surveillance on their kids while getting to grips with their own obvious shortcomings is clever. Produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, this is directed by Kay Cannon with some very well managed performances. Literally. Just watch Gary Cole and Gina Gershon going for it blindfold!  A rare generation gap movie that gets so much so right. Your greatest friendships are based on shared experiences

Toni Erdmann (2016)

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You have to do this or that, but meanwhile life is just passing by.  Corporate strategist Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) is busy at her job in Bucharest and reluctantly has to spend time with her estranged father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher divorced from her mother, who apparently returns to Germany but instead adopts an outrageous disguise and poses as her CEO’s life coach, Toni Erdmann …  How are you supposed to hang on to moments? A rip-roaring German comedy? Surely you jest! In a way. This comedy drama slayed all comers a couple of years back and despite overlength (you wonder at times what Billy Wilder would have done with his rapier wit, wisdom and speed with such material) this hits so many truths with such mortifying behaviour and courage that you forgive writer/director Maren Ade’s liberties and go with the mad dad – as, eventually, Ines decides to do. This after all is a guy who didn’t even tell her his beloved dog died – and we find out about it when he lies on the dog’s bed in the garden. He gatecrashes her business functions and regales assorted bigwigs with tall and taller tales in a toupee and false teeth. When she lets go of her own inhibitions (not too many of them, to be fair, as the sex and drugs scenes prove) and goes with her father’s adopted persona, unleashing the beast within, you’d cheer if it wasn’t all done in such a low key, realistic fashion. Truly the difference between business and personal in this mansplaining environment is don’t show, don’t tell the truth. The naked team building scene is jaw dropping. And the performance of a Whitney Schnuck (sorry, Houston) favourite is a high point. For some. Intriguing stuff, with an undertow of loneliness rarely explored in cinema and so relatable to anyone who’s ever been embarrassed by their parents.   I don’t want to lose my bite

Palo Alto (2013)

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Live a dangerous life. Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and his best friend Fred (Nat Wolff), are California teens who like to drive around and get stoned. Shy virginal April (Emma Roberts) is at soccer practice when her friends laugh about their coach Mr. B (James Franco) having a crush on her. Mr. B asks April if she can babysit his son and he then offers her the position of striker on the school team. Fred and Teddy walk back to their car talking about what they would do if they got in a drunk driving accident. Teddy says he would drive away even if it was his crush, April. He crashes into a woman and drives off, with Fred demanding he be dropped off. When Teddy reaches home he’s arrested and winds up doing community service in a library where Fred gets him into trouble by drawing a penis on a children’s book. Fred has sex with Emily (Zoe Levin) who is infamous for giving blowjobs to boys. Mr B. confesses to April that he loves her. After a soccer game he asks her to his house but his son is at his ex-wife’s and they have sex… I wish I didn’t care about anything. But I do care. I care about everything too much.  Gia Coppola’s writing and directing debut, adapting a set of short stories by James Franco, is disturbing in terms of its content but not its presentation. It’s as though these teens’ experiences were being told through a fuzz of weed and alcohol to which they all have easy access, presumably courtesy of the extraordinarily lax parents and step-parents at arm’s length from them (Val Kilmer plays Roberts’ stepfather as a wacked out stoner. Her mother isn’t much better). When Fred’s father (Chris Messina) almost comes on to Teddy, sharing a joint with this troubled kid, we know we’re in melodramatic territory, even if it’s slowed down. That leads to Fred’s own questioning of his homosexuality when he reasons that getting a blow job from a boy isn’t any different. Roberts as the girl who is fooled by the high school sports coach is terribly good, registering every shift in her circumstance with precision. The sex scene with Franco is very sensitively shot:  this is basically a rape after all. Wolff is fine as the boy as spinning top, unsure of who he is but convinced he needs to set everything fizzing, a hormone wrapped up in dangerous levels of immaturity and sociopathy. Young Kilmer (son of Val and Joanne Whalley) is as unsure of his character as his character is of his purpose, constantly being led astray. The film has its most impressionistic performance as this boy struggles to do the right thing. His single mom just gives him love if hardly any guidance never mind issuing deterrents – this we learn is his second rap and adults are keen to keep giving him chances, just like he allows Fred to get him into jams. These kids are testing everyone’e limits with no indication of what might be permissible beyond their marijuana fume-filled homes.  It’s no surprise when the film ends on the road to nowhere:  this is not a narrative of punctuation. Peer pressure is an eternal problem, but amoral parenting sucks the big one as this amply demonstrates it in its many shades of hypocrisy, corruption and cynicism in adult behaviour. A fascinating showcase for several second- (and in the case of Coppola, third-) generation Hollywood talent in a film which literally blames the parents. I’m older and I know that there aren’t a lot of good things around, and I know that you are really good