Entebbe (2018)

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How many Israelis?  How many hijackers?  Where are they going?  In July 1976 an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris is hijacked by Islamic terrorists (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) including two Baader-Meinhof supporting Germans Wilfred Böse aka Boni (Daniel Brühl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike) who find out that Ulrike Meinhof has hanged herself in prison (it is rather more likely that she was murdered) and want to take their anti-fascist beliefs out on some innocent Israelis in exchange for the release of Palestinian terrorists.  They take over the plane in Athens and the Palestinians order the French pilots to land in Entebbe, Uganda, where they believe murderous maniac Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie) will influence negotiations with the Israeli government. In Israel, the tensions between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) and Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan in a hilarious wig) are played out during stalled negotiations (the Israelis do not negotiate with terrorists) while a commando unit prepares for an assault on the African airport … Germans killing Jews. Have you thought how this looks?  Playwright Gregory Burke’s screenplay teases out all the issues with on-the-nose dialogue in this historical reconstruction which perhaps does too many things at once – the dance motif which threads through the narrative because one of the commandos Zeev Hirsch (Ben Schnetzer) has a girlfriend preparing for a difficult performance of Echad Mi Yodea is perhaps a trope too far – and ends up straddled between one too many stools. The Germans are not exactly naive – their ideological struggle against their parents’ generation has itself a rather sickly unironic anti-semitic root (let’s call him Adolf Hitler or Martin Luther, whomsoever you prefer, they call it anti-fascist). However they are out of their depth with the Islamists who quickly put the Jewish hostages in one room and prepare to kill them first. French pilot Jacques Le Moine (Denis Ménochet) is the voice of reason in Boni’s ear – an engineer is worth fifty revolutionaries, he tells him. And what about dignity?  Drinking water gives people dignity, he cautions as he fixes the dirty water supply at the rear end of Entebbe Airport while the regular business goes on at the public end. It is his subtle finger wagging that gets Boni to desist from a genocidal spree. There are nice supporting performances – including Peter Sullivan as Amos Eran, Rabin’s right-hand man – and a real clunker from Pike whose conversation into a dead telephone after she’s run out of uppers gives new meaning to the term phoning it in.  The hostages’ terror is more or less ignored even when one French-Israeli is returned to the group by the Palestinians in a shambolic state after they have tortured him. Everything is defused by cutting back to the dancer girlfriend and her psychological issues with her job (boo bloody hoo). The one man killed in Operation Thunderbolt was Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yonathan (played here by Angel Bonanni) which precipitated the young man’s return from the United States and his elevation to PM for the first time in 1996, as the end credits remind us over another dance performance (why?). Rabin was eventually murdered by a Jewish extremist who didn’t want him to carry on dialogue with the Palestinians. And so it goes on. This was a fabulously daring rescue mission but you wouldn’t know it from watching this film.  It’s loose enough with the truth but one story that isn’t included is a woman hostage who choked on a bone and was sent to hospital. After the raid, Amin had her murdered. Directed by José Padilha. There are three other films on this subject and I’ll bet anything they’re all better than this. Shalom.

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Strokes of Genius: Federer v Nadal (2018)

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The true story lying behind the epic battle of the Wimbledon Men’s Final in 2008 between the sport’s titanic champion, grass court genius Roger Federer, and his recent rival, clay court overlord Rafa Nadal. It took place over five hours under darkening skies with lightning strikes and two rain breaks. Nadal took the first two sets, Federer the next two. Nadal says one of Federer’s passing shots in the fourth was the worst feeling he had ever experienced in tennis. The narration spins us back to their upbringing, born five years apart. You wouldn’t think it now but Federer had a vicious temper and frequently broke racquets on court. He had to learn to control his mind and co-ordinate his actions. He says he became surprised by his own creativity. You would think it was the Spaniard who had the fiery nature but he is sweetness itself. Nadal and Federer both became pro at 16 but Nadal needed to build up his strength. His vulnerability inadvertently gave him his greatest weapon – he returned late with a raised arm. It’s the greatest return since Jimmy Connors was playing. Both men come from close-knit families:  Nadal is most at home on the island of his birth, Mallorca, cooking, sailing, fishing; Federer has a happy home life in Switzerland with wife and fellow tennis player Miroslava (or Mirka), and now, their four children. Their coaches and parents and that match’s umpire stress both men’s humanity and their desire to evolve:  they make each other better. They also work hard.  While Federer seems to look effortless he trains relentlessly. One amusing shot prior to their entering the court for one French Open final shows Nadal warming up like a prize fighter while Federer looks on, hands in pockets. It’s a misleading image. One commentator suggests that it was as though the tennis gods got together and made Nadal to compete with Federer – their games are utterly opposite, yet complementary. Federer is an artist who fights;  Nadal is a fighter who also happens to be an artist.  They are two strands of tennis DNA. The one is right-handed, the other a leftie. Nadal had lost the Wimbledon final the previous 2 years;  Federer had been thrashed by him in Paris a month earlier, in three, the last set to love. Devastating.  Home movies and interviews with both men and those around them and other players makes this illuminating and the footage of the 2008 match and others compel all over again as the differences between the merely brilliant players and the champions are teased out.  Other great tennis rivalries are explored in passing:  Evert/Navratilova, Borg/McEnroe – remember 1980?!  When Borg retired McEnroe was not the same, Borg made him better. Navratilova makes the observation that those two guys are happiest in each other’s company;  Evert says she and Navratilova made each other greater players. The true greats of the sport enjoy rarefied air and are the only other people on the planet to understand what it’s like up there. We are now living in what is probably the twilight of the greatest tennis era:  this documentary shows us why.  Directed by Andrew Douglas and based on material from Jon Wertheim’s book.

Love Means Zero (2017)

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Nick loves the buildup. When things crash or don’t go the way he wants, Nick moves on.  A startling insight into famed – and infamous – tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, whose Florida tennis academy is associated mostly with Andre Agassi, who refused to have anything to do with this film. Interviewed on camera and frequently referring to himself in the third person, Bollettieri created his persona out of necessity, primarily financial, when he needed money for some of his eight wives and families and already in his forties. Intense, volatile, passionate and driven, he managed what seems to have been a mix of juvenile detention centre and luxury hotel, with his favoured students living in the nice bit, the other kids in cramped dorms and doing menial work to earn their keep. It became a kind of feeder for the tennis tour and he did everything to encourage students to attend. Some of them appear in staggeringly revealing interviews. Agassi was part of a Vegas contingent and Jim Courier was a contemporary they despised who worked harder and they eventually faced each other in the 1989 French Open where Bollettieri sided with Agassi which just made Courier determined to win. At the break for rain Bollettieri was doing a TV interview instead of helping his charge. When Courier got the victory, he split with his coach.  The hurt he experienced when Bollettieri was cheering Agassi and staying silent on his own points is clear. When Agassi won at Wimbledon in 1992, Bollettieri split with him after years of using him to gain publicity. Agassi found out in USA Today. He had asked Bollettieri never to coach his rivals but when Boris Becker approached Bollettieri he took him on and Becker faced Agassi at Wimbledon in the 1995 semi-finals and beat him. Bollettieri is remarkably unconscious of his behaviour on camera and claims to remember very little. However Kathy Horvath, a teen prodigy whom he sidelined in favour of pretty Carling Bassett (of the brewing dynasty), remains bitter to this day, while Bassett acknowledges it and suffered herself when her egomaniac father took over from Bollettieri:  she got an eating disorder, which she admits on camera.  Her father died in 1986 and her career disappeared.  She’s been yesterday’s news for a long time and I last read about her after she got pregnant by another player while still a teenager and a story ran that she was cutting coupons for groceries. She believes if she had been allowed to stick with Bollettieri she would have been a great player. Becker maintains that Bollettieri is a life coach whose chosen communication vehicle is tennis:  Nick Bollettieri never won a game of tennis in his life. Courier made his peace with the man years ago. He sold the academy to IMG sports agency and became incredibly wealthy, not that he shared it with his co-workers as they make clear yet they claim they’d do it all over given half a chance. This is a fascinating piece of work, rather like its subject and a very timely screening mid-Wimbledon with wonderful footage and some truly shocking stories of what he inflicted on kids rich and poor alike. Directed by Jason Kohn.

Sicario 2: Soldado (2018)

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I could throw a stick across the river and hit fifty grieving fathers.  Following an Isis suicide bombing in a Kansas supermarket FBI agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) calls on undercover operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) as Mexican drug cartels are starting to smuggle terrorists across the U.S. border. The war escalates when Matt and Alejandro kidnap a drug kingpin’s thirteen-year old daughter Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) to deliberately increase the tensions. When the young girl is seen as collateral damage, the two men will determine her fate as they question everything that they are fighting for, with Alejandro and the girl left on the wrong side of the border when the corrupt Mexican police upset the staged return of Isabel.  At the same time a teenaged Mexican in Texas Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is recruited to move people illegally and the Government drop Alejandro in it  … Sicario was my top film of 2015 and I was pretty surprised that it would become a victim of sequelitis. This is  a far more conventional action outing but steadily winds itself around you with a vise-like grip even if it entirely lacks the deep pulsating strangeness of the original and its fabulously formal widescreen compositions by director Denis Villeneuve and DoP Roger Deakins and the amazing, visceral score of the late great Jóhann Jóhansson, to whom this is dedicated. Crucially it also lacks Emily Blunt’s character, something of a passive protagonist who also functioned as moral compass. What an unusual setup that was! It punched you in the solar plexus, kicked you in the abdomen and grabbed you by the throat. And all the time you wondered who everyone really was. The formerly silent and mysterious Alejandro has achieved his revenge so why does this even exist? Better ask Taylor Sheridan, who is revisiting the border territory he seems to have made his own, writing some of the best screenplays of recent years. There has been a lot of guff about the timing of this and the fact that there’s a girl ‘separated’ from her (lovely!) family here but this is a film that shows us exactly why the US or the POTUS at least wants a wall:  it’s a portrait of ruthless people trafficking poor people with the resultant evolution of drug lords, gangs and murderers. You can leave the pity party at the door especially when you look at the murder rates in Mexico last year alone. Chaos streams from that part of the world, lest we forget. And the answer is a slew of dirty tricks and disavowed ops.  Alejandro is almost forced to question his actions, with Isabel figuring out his relationship with her father:  he’s the attorney whose wife and kids Daddy had murdered. Moner is fantastic, a real find. She is extraordinarily self-possessed as the narco whore! administering beatings in the school yard where the principal is shit-scared of expelling her for fear of reprisals. Brolin returns to the fray dealing out fear in Somalia trying to trace the Isis loonies but back on US soil he’s dealing with the Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) and his immediate superior Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) who wants everything off the books when two dozen Mexican cops are killed (they unleash the firepower first) and the Oval Office can no longer be officially seen to sanction any cross-border activities. The clever aspect is parallel teenage stories – the Tex-Mex boy killer and the kingpin’s girl even if they are rather replete with clichés, no matter the shock value. The conclusion has been set up to deliver another movie with del Toro – a long way from the money laundering (literally) in Licence to Kill – still in the druggie violent territory to which he so frequently returns. Directed by Stefano Sollima. 

Elle (2016)

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Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all. Believe me. Perverse, funny, strange, blackly comic and at times surreal, this is a film like few others. It opens on a black screen as Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped by a masked man. She gets up, cleans herself and bathes and carries on as though nothing has happened. At work she is the one in control – it’s her company and she deals in the hyper-real, trying to make video games more experiential, the storytelling sharper, the visuals more tactile. She is attacked in a cafe by a woman who recognises her as her father’s lure – as a child she her dad murdered a slew of people and he’s an infamous serial killer, turned down for release yet again at the age of 76 and it’s all over the news:  there’s a photo taken of her as a blank-eyed ten year old which haunts people. Her mother is a plastic surgery junkie shacked up with another young lover. Her ex-husband (Charles Berling) is broke and tries to pitch her an idea for a game. Her loser son has supposedly knocked up a lunatic girlfriend (the eventual baby is not white) and needs money for a home. Elle is sleeping with the husband of her partner Anna (Anne Consigny). She likes to ogle her neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). Now as she gets text messages about her body she tries to figure out who among her circle of acquaintances could have raped her – and then when it happens again she unmasks him and starts a relationship of sorts following a car crash (a deer crosses the road, not for the first time in a 2016 film).  This is where the edges of making stories, power, control, reality, games and the desire for revenge become blurred. Adapted from Patrick Dijan’s novel Oh by David Birke and translated into French by Harold Manning, this is Paul Verhoeven’s stunning return to form, with Huppert giving a towering performance as a wily, strong, vulnerable, tested woman – she owns her own company and handles unruly employees using a sympathetic snitch but cannot control her family members and their nuttiness. You can’t take your eyes off her, nor can the camera.  While she tries to figure out how to regain her composure (she rarely loses it, even while she’s getting punched in the face) she also sees a way in which she might obtain pleasure.  In some senses we might see a relationship with Belle de Jour: Michèle is the still centre of a world in which crazy is normal. It’s shot to reflect this, with the video game and the animation of her made illicitly by one employee the only visual extremes:  the assaults (there’s more than the first, when she gets the taste for it) are conventionally staged. She has turned the tables on her rapist – he is undone by her desire for sex. This is all about role play.  When Michèle finally decides to cut the cord on all the loose ends in her life it brings everything to a satisfying conclusion as she regains her balance – her role as CEO assists her manage her own narrative minus any generic tropes. Now that’s clever. Oh! The audacity! What a great film for women in a very contemporary take on noir and the notion of the femme fatale. Big wow.  I killed you by coming here.

That’s Not Me (2017)

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I don’t want to be half of something. Polly Cuthbert (Alice Foulcher) dreams of making it as an actor but she’s very picky and when her agent advises her to take the role of an albino on a popular soap opera she turns it down because ‘it would be like blacking up.’ She’s holding out for an audition on an HBO show with Jared Leto. She keeps on working as a checkout girl at a cinema. Her less talented but commercially minded (literally!) identical twin Amy takes the soap role instead and gets the audition with Leto and becomes famous. Polly’s dreams are shattered and she’s mistaken for her famous sister at every turn, and she scrambles to catch up – juggling terrible auditions (where she’s mistaken for Amy), painfully awkward dates and her underwhelming job. Running out of options, she takes an ill-advised trip to the coalface of celebrity dreams: Los Angeles, California where she’s months late for pilot season and rooms with an old drama school friend who had a tiny role in a David Lynch film.  There Polly begins to realise that maybe there’s no such thing as ‘making it’ after all and she comes back to Oz after two terrible days and takes advantage of people who believe she’s Amy – until she gets found out and winds up on the front of a scandal mag … Terrific comedy dealing with a quarter-life crisis in a brilliantly conceived twins psychodrama – why does Polly even want to act, asks a clearly impoverished Zoe Cooper (Isabel Lucas) when she turns up at her doorstep in LA and reveals her own spiralling madness as she empties fish heads on a studio desk in an attempt to get a role in an all-female remake of Jaws? Because her parents told her she could, whimpers Polly. It’s just not good enough:  she hasn’t even acted in anything since 2011. Her sister Amy exacts a wonderful revenge which turns on her ability to act – and it’s ideal. Wonderfully judged script by Foulcher and debut feature director Gregory Erdstein in a story that’s tonally right at every turn. It’s no accident that Polly’s favourite film is It’s a Wonderful Life:  let’s not forget (as she she has) that it’s all about someone giving up on their dreams to live a suicidally depressing utterly humdrum life. Foulcher is fantastic.

Pardon Mon Affaire (1976)

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Aka Un Eléphant Ca Trompe Enormément. Quatre Parisiens subissent une sorte de crise de la quarantaine. Bouly (Victor Lanoux) l’homme de la dame, tombe en morceaux quand sa femme le quitte. Etienne (Jean Rochefort) sérieux et marié dans un scénario typiquement bourgeois, tombe amoureux d’une autre femme Charlotte (Anny Duperey) qu’il voit dans son garage quand une brise lui souffle sa jupe à la Monroe. Tout cela concerne grandement Simon (Guy Bedos) le cynique résident qui est cependant un ‘mama’s boy’ qui n’est pas grandi . Enfin il y a Daniel (Claude Brasseur) le fanfaron. Les adultes qui refusent de grandir, les quatre ont tous quelque chose à cacher. Ils discutent de leurs problèmes et entreprennent plusieurs sorties imprudentes. Alors que sa femme Marthe (Danièle Delorme) rebute son poursuivant adolescent précoce, Etienne décide d’avoir un recontre érotique avec la femme de ses rêves finissant se retrouver sur une corniche au huitième étage, en robe de chambre devant la foule, un public grandissant regarde … La comédie sexuelle classique d’Yves Robert annonçait une série de collaborations avec Rochefort, victorieux et cadavérique, et ce fut un énorme succès international. C’est une belle combinaison d’écriture, d’interprètes et de slapstick rempli de vignettes satiriques avec la thèse de la masculinité en crise particulièrement actuelle et la narration de Rochefort amusante et cannibale. Écrit par Robert et Jean-Loup Dabadie.  Suivi par Nous Irons Tous au Paradis et refait en Amérique comme The Woman in Red.

The Layover (2017)

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Old friends and roommates blowsy promiscuous blonde cosmetics importer Meg (Kate Upton) and uptight pain in the ass brunette high school teacher Kate (Alexandra Daddario) go on a trip they can’t afford when they become unemployed. Their flight to Florida is diverted to St Louis and they both fancy the firefighter Ryan (Matt Barr) sitting between them on the plane who gets deposited at the same hotel. They fight for his affections and go on a road trip to get closer to him… There are some films that are so bad you question your sanity. And then there are those whose origins are such that you question the very meaning of life. There is one funny scene in a hot air balloon when Upton pops a champagne cork into a blind man’s one eye. Side splitting. This pointless drivel was directed by the apparently serious-minded actor William H. Macy.  Written by Lance Krall and David Hornsby. Witless and inexplicable. OMG. Kill me now.

A Kind of Loving (1962)

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It’s a funny thing. Some days I really fancy her. And the next day I can’t stand the sight of her.  Manchester Draughtsman Vic Brown (Alan Bates) starts going out with secretary Ingrid Rothwell (June Ritchie), who works at his firm. They enjoy regular dates but he likes to keep up his life with the lads, drinking and going to football matches. After he has sex with Ingrid, she gets pregnant. Vic feels a sense of responsibility – although he’s not in love with her – and proposes marriage. The couple is forced to live with Ingrid’s bullying mother (Thora Hird), who treats Vic with contempt because of his working-class background. When Ingrid falls down the stairs and loses the baby (accidentally or not?!) Vic must decide what his new wife means to him … Stan Barstow’s novel gets an adaptation by Willis Hall & Keith Waterhouse, who specialise in this Northern kitchen sink realism, where this truly belongs. It’s a cautionary tale about the utter tedium of marriage and the perils of small mindedness.  A warning to all prospective relationships, it lacks the dazzling style of some of the films of this era but has terrific performances with Ritchie’s brain dead drudge making a convincing case for divorce. There’s a good score by Ron Grainer and nice support from James Bolam who celebrated his 83rd birthday yesterday! Directed by John Schlesinger and produced by Joseph Janni.

The Apartment (1960)

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Normally, it takes years to work your way up to the twenty-seventh floor. But it only takes thirty seconds to be out on the street again. You dig?  Ambitious insurance clerk C. C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) permits his bosses to use his NYC apartment to conduct extramarital affairs in hope of gaining a promotion. He pursues a relationship with the office building’s elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) unaware that she is having an affair with one of the apartment’s users, the head of personnel, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) who lies to her that he’s leaving his wife. Bud comes home after the office Christmas party to find Fran has taken an overdose following a disappointing assignation with Sheldrake … Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were fresh off the success of Some Like It Hot when they came up with this gem:  a sympathetic romantic comedy-drama that plays like sly satire – and vice versa. Reuniting one of that film’s stars (and a nasty jab at Marilyn Monroe using lookalike Joyce Jameson) with his Double Indemnity star (MacMurray, cast as a heel, for once) and adding MacLaine to the mix, they created one of the great American classics with performances of a lifetime. Bud can keep on keeping on as a slavering nebbish destined to be the ultimate slimy organisation man or become a mensch but he can’t do it alone, not now he’s in love. This is a sharp, adult, stunningly assured portrait of the battle of the sexes, cruelty, compromise and deception intact. With the glistening monochrome cinematography of Joseph LaShelle memorializing that paean to midcentury modernism, the architecture of the late Fifties office (designed by Alexandre Trauner), and an all-time great closing line (how apposite for a Wilder film), this is prime cut movie.  The best Christmas movie of all time? Probably, if you can take that holiday celebration on a knife edge of suicidal sadness and bleakly realistic optimism. Rarely has a home’s shape taken on such meaning.