A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas (2011)

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You have a good job, you make good money, and you don’t beat your wife. What more could a Latino father-in-law ask for? Wall Street broker Harold (John Cho) is asked to look after a Christmas tree by his father-in-law (Danny Trejo) who objects to the faux monstrosity in his suburban villa,  but he and his ex-roommate Kumar (Kal Penn) end up destroying it with a giant spliff from a mysterious benefactor.  The two then set out to find a replacement for the damaged tree and embark on a chaotic journey around New York City with their BFFs Todd  (Thomas Lennon plus his infant daughter) and Adrian (Amir Blumenfeld) while scoring drugs, having sex, trying to avoid being murdered by a Ukrainian ganglord and making babies … The tree is a cancer, Harold. We have to get rid of it before it kills Christmas. The stoner dudes are back apparently unscathed after a sojourn in Gitmo, rampaging and raunching about NYC in as tasteless a fashion as humanly possible. With a toddler off her trolley, a claymation sequence, a song and dance feature starring Neil Patrick Harris who isn’t really gay, every ethnicity and creed mocked and a penile homage to A Christmas Story, this is the very opposite of woke. A laugh riot intended to be seen in 3D but we’ll take an egg in the face whatever way it falls. Almost heartwarming! Screenplay by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson. Oh, great. Now we’re getting tinkled on

Knives Out (2019)

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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!

Clive James 7th October 1939 – 24th November 2019

“Clive James rapidly established himself as one of the most influential metropolitan critics of his generation … The Observer hired him as a television reviewer in 1972, and for 10 years his weekly column was one of the most famous regular features in Fleet Street journalism, setting a style that was later widely copied.” So says Clive James’ obituary for himself. His death was announced today. One of the key cultural figures of my lifetime, I grew up reading, listening to and watching Clive James, the self-described larrikin who made it in England, the Australian intellectual who brought the public with him as he cast a wicked glance at celebrities, other nations, ridiculous TV, Formula One racing and general idiocy. From his TV column in The Observer where he wrote hilarious, eye-watering criticism, the first I ever read, to his Saturday night shows which lampooned everyone and anything with aplomb, he was a witty man whose way with words had an acid but jocular tone which was immensely appealing to wide audiences and yet came from a deeply learned core. He wrote beautiful poetry and marvellous memoirs (starting back in 1979) and following diagnosis of terminal illness a decade ago maintained a writing and journalistic regime that frequently ended up in caustic self-mockery that he was still alive. His poem Japanese Maple went viral when The New Yorker‘s paywall was down and he was embarrassed that said tree outlived him. Latterly he conducted a series of hugely informative interviews with writers, Talking in the Library. Now he is gone and I am filled with sorrow but also with gratitude that such a mind was permitted to broadcast when entertainment meant something, when you could make audiences howl with laughter about sadistic Japanese game shows on Saturday night and read Pushkin for relaxation, a keen brain equally at home with the esoteric and the profane. What a brilliant, lovely man.

Back at the gate, I turn to face the hill,
Your headstone lost again among the rest.
I have no time to waste, much less to kill.
My life is yours; my curse, to be so blessed.

Jonathan Miller 21st July 1934 – 27th November 2019

I’ve got this, I think, unjustified reputation for being grumpy. I’m angry or disappointed at the condescension which I encounter from people who are 30 years younger than I am and know 100 per cent less than I do. That’s all. The death has taken place of the sensationally gifted Jonathan Miller – writer, actor, humorist, director, who first came to prominence in that gifted generation who reinvented British comedy with the musical revue Beyond the Fringe. As a young director he was responsible for what remain two of the best films ever made by the BBC – an astonishing adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (probably the best ever) and Whistle And I’ll Come to You, a spooky tale by M.R. James regularly televised at Christmas. The star of that film would contribute years later to Miller’s groundbreaking medical series, The Body in Question. Another adaptation, this time of Kingsley Amis’s novel,  Take a Girl Like You, provided the material for his cinema debut, a sardonic take on romance. His theatre interests (the National, the Old Vic, Broadway) materialised on the small screen with the BBC Television Shakespeare project starting with King Lear and continuing with The Taming of the Shrew and Timon of Athens. His acclaimed stage productions garnered him several opportunities to direct opera including rocker Roger Daltrey in The Beggar’s Opera and he wrote many books particularly on neuropsychology. Supremely erudite, unbelievably witty and incredibly tall, this genial gentleman scholar belonged to an age sadly fast disappearing from view when the notion of the public intellectual recedes in significance. This giant of the culture shall be missed, never mind Private Eye. RIP. I have a simple formula as a director. It’s nothing more really than reminding singers of what they know already and have forgotten

The Irishman (2019)

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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

Little Monsters (2019)

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We’re all gonna die! Dave Anderson (Alexander England) is a foul-mouthed, washed-up musician who breaks up with his girlfriend and is forced to stay with his sister Tess (Kat Stewart) a single mother and her five-year old son, Felix (Diesel La Torraca) whom he introduces to violent video games and inadvertently has him see his ex and her new boyfriend have sex. While dropping Felix off at school, Dave meets Miss Caroline (Lupita NYong’o), Felix’s kindergarten teacher, and is attracted to her. After a parent drops out from an upcoming field trip to a farm, Dave volunteers to chaperone, mostly to be near Miss Caroline. Dave is upset to learn that children’s television personality, Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad) is filming his show at the farm and that Miss Caroline is engaged to someone else. However zombies break out of a U.S. testing facility nearby and head straight for the farm. During a tractor ride, the class is attacked by zombies and tries to escape only to find the place is overrun with zombies… You realise that you’re only doing it because you’re dead inside. And it’s the only thing that keeps you from killing yourself. A zippy soundtrack, nudity, sex and a bunch of small children playing a game devised by designated adults to keep them from being eaten by zombies – textbook zomromcom! – but not for the kids. Hardly. The men are vile with Gad a sociopath in Pee Wee Herman’s clothing (one gets a shot at redemption, the other gets eaten – you choose), there are references both to Star Wars and Children of the Corn while Nyong’o gets to be the happy clappy teach trying to avoid predatory dads. There’s a funny bus chase – slow, obviously – and a siege situation in the farm shop and all the while the kiddywinks are kept safe by virtue of those silly songs and mantras the do-gooding teacher trained them to learn, proving very helpful in a zombie attack as it turns out. Ingenious, in its own way. Written and directed by Abe Forsythe. I can’t kill kids – again

Le Mans ’66 (2019)

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Aka Ford V Ferrari. You’re gonna build a car to beat Ferrari with… a Ford. American automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and fearless British race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary vehicle for the Ford Motor Company under the guidance of Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) taking orders from Henry Ford 2 aka The Deuce (Tracy Letts) in a fit of pique when Ferrari use Ford to up a bid from Fiat to in a corporate buyout. Together, the maverick drivers plan to compete against the race cars of Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in 1966 but Miles’ difficult reputation as a ‘pure racer’ is not what the traditional carmaker wants … Suppose Henry Ford II wanted to build the greatest race car the world’s ever seen, to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. What’s it take? The US title is somewhat misleading because this is much more about Ford and its internal politics, business model and sales than it is about the legendary red cars – but for all that, it’s Enzo Ferrari that gives Miles the approving nod at the film’s conclusion when the appalling politicking engineered by Ford exec Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) creates a result that literally nobody wants. Damon is an almost good ol’ boy, camped out half cut in his trailer, Miles is the happy go lucky Brit with an understanding wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and a dazzled son Petey (Noah Jupe) and his accent zips along up and down the M1 between Ringo Starr and Ozzy Osbourne and back again while he Method-fidgets his way through his appealing character. Damon is the reactive agent to his stinging chemistry, the peacemaker to his troubling perfectionist, the admiring and trusting innovator to his speed demon. This is a stunningly beautiful film, shot by Phedon Papamichael in burnished yellows and oranges allowing the vintage metals and icons to shine. The supporting cast is superlative, doing exactly what is required when sometimes only a mere hint of a glance speaks a thousand words and the moment 96 minutes in when Henry Ford 2 finally gets to ride in his $9 million racing car and express everything the film is about is worth the price of admission:  he has never felt anything like it and he gets it. Because this film is all about feeling. What it’s like to drive when a car is at 7000 RPM. What it’s like to barely be able to see in the horizontal rain, when another car collides with you, when dust fills the screen, when someone hits a barrier in front of you, when the brakes fail, when the bloody door won’t shut. It’s a Zen state that the film revisits, over and over, until finally a body doesn’t get out. There’s a lot of funny dialogue, good scenes in the garage, brilliant ideas about replacing whole braking systems mid-race, immaculate recreations of Daytona and the titular competition, some telling remarks about WW2 – Miles got a broken down tank over the Channel and all the way to Berlin and does not want to drive for Porsche.  It’s also about friendship and trust and betrayal and fathers and sons. And the coda is superb. Someone turns on a car engine and the revs increase and he can feel again. There has rarely been a film to so directly express the chemical practically mystical connection between man and machine and the sense of infinite well-being it induces. Quite literally sensational. Written by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, this is directed by James Mangold.   It isn’t about speed

Late Night (2019)

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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

Happy 75th Birthday Danny DeVito 17th November 2019!

That pocket-sized dynamo Danny DeVito turns 75 years old today. He first became properly famous with TV comedy Taxi as loudmouth Louis but in fact had been plugging away for several years, making short films, appearing in his great friend Michael Douglas’ production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and then reuniting for the brilliant comedy action adventure Romancing the Stone and its sequel. As a director he turned his comic shtick into an unexpected and rather demented and nasty signature with Throw Momma From the Train and The War of the Roses. Latterly he made a rather brilliant version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda:  he found an ingenious way to turn those words into pictures and understands children perfectly. We could say that as a director he is a master of black comedy.  He is a legendary Penguin in the macabre Batman Returns for Tim Burton for whom he made a recent reappearance in Disney’s live action Dumbo and he continues to be a TV presence in the beloved It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as well as maintaining screen couplings with real-life wife Rhea Perlman. That core of anger can materialise in fantastically complex characterisations such as he essayed in LA Confidential. Paradoxically his greatest aesthetic achievement as director is also his greatest commercial failure, Hoffa, starring himself and Jack Nicholson, an astounding look at the corruption besetting America, in a collaboration with David Mamet, a part of history recently revisited by Martin Scorsese with The Irishman. He’s always at hand to lend his voice to animations, environmental spots and appear in music videos and we can look forward to his re-teaming with Arnold Schwarzenwegger in the sequel to TwinsTriplets, which will of course co-star Eddie Murphy. Hilarious, constantly surprising and always a joy, Mr DeVito, we salute you on your day of days!

Borg Vs McEnroe (2017)

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Aka Borg McEnroe.  You can’t be serious! You can not be serious! The ball was on the line! The greatest tennis match of all time is played in July 1980 at Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final, a gladiatorial destination for the biggest figures in the sport – the cool and enigmatic 24-year old Swede Bjorn Borg who is the ranking World No. 1 and reigns supreme on Centre Court with four titles under his belt; and the angry rude 21-year old New Yorker John McEnroe. Or so the British journalists of the era would have us think. Their rivalry transforms into a friendship – but only after they’ve played the match of their lives. Flashbacks take us back to Borg’s working class upbringing as a child and teen terror (played by Borg’s own son Leo) in which he encounters the snobbery of the Swedish tennis élite and meets the man who changes his life, Lennart Berglin (Stellan Skarsgård), manipulating him into making his volcanic temper work for him rather than against him. This is a Swedish production and the drama is tilted in Borg’s favour. Middle class McEnroe is under pressure from a tricky father-son relationship as well as his own volatility. In contrast to the match itself, which is played from an hour into the running time, this is then a rather one-sided drama. While Gudnason bears an uncanny resemblance to Borg, the psychodrama that constitutes his early years is muted in favour of an adult whose morose expressions amount to sullen indifference rather than the charming mystery presumably intended. His relationship and forthcoming marriage to fellow player Mariana Simionescu (Tuva Novotny) are handled in a financial framework where his sponsors seem to dictate his every move. We are watching the way in which media and advertising encroached on the old gentlemanly sport, making Borg a very isolated and lonely figure, running from autograph hunters in his Monaco tax haven home to get a coffee only to discover he has no cash and the barista has no idea who he is and makes him clean up to pay for the drink. LaBeouf on the other hand is genuinely attractive as a young man who feels unjustly maligned by the British press and finds himself at the centre of a media storm, constantly being asked to justify his existence never mind his magical way with a racquet. So, one conceals, the other reveals, while McEnroe becomes obsessed with Borg. The psychology is fascinating but the flashback structure and the poor cutting of the match (a thrilling ordeal in reality) combine to congeal. There is a marvellous scene between McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis (Robert Emms) at a London nightclub on the eve of the encounter where Borg is explained to his opponent (Gerulaits was very close to Borg and lost to him at Wimbledon in 1977). This is a story about two very similar characters who are different only in their public behaviour. If you don’t know the result of the match, well, the rather unfulfilling coda is a meeting between the two men afterwards at the airport in which they have a rudimentary exchange followed by titles helpfully informing us that they became close friends. An opportunity missed and a frustrating experience. Directed by Danish documentary-maker Janus Metz Pedersen from a screenplay by Ronnie Sandahl. They say he’s an iceberg, but he’s really a volcano keeping it all in, until . . . boom!