Play It As It Lays (1972)

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I’ll tell you what I do. I try to live in the now. Burned-out B-movie actress Maria (Tuesday Weld), depressed and frustrated with her loveless marriage to an ambitious film director, Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) who would rather work on his career than on his relationship with her, numbs herself with drugs and sex with strangers. Only her friendship with a sensitive gay movie producer, B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), offers a semblance of solace. But even that relationship proves to be fleeting amidst the empty decadence of Hollywood as they both start to crack up ... How do you get to the desert? You drive there. Husband and wife screenwriting team Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne adapted Didion’s sensational novel of alienation and its transposition to the screen by director Frank Perry captures its existential sense of crisis. Weld is perfect as the model turned actress whose flashbacks are a faux-documentary and some biker movies she has made with her husband (and Roarke starred in some himself, of course). Her narrative is determined by movie business ghouls and Sidney Katz’s editing plays into her disjointed sense that she is losing control in a chilling world where her retarded daughter is locked away and she undergoes an illegal abortion.  Weld is teamed up again with Perkins after Pretty Poison and they work beautifully together – you really believe in their tender friendship. An overlooked gem which reminds us what a fine performer Weld is and also the fact that Charles Bukowski wrote about her in the poem the best way to get famous is to run away.  A cult classic. The fact is, when an actress walks off a picture people get the idea she doesn’t want to work

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Becoming Cary Grant (2017)

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Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant. Born in 1904 as Archie Leach, Cary Grant was the greatest star ever produced in Hollywood. Before he went there he was the younger survivor of two sons with the older dying following an accident for which his mother blamed herself. Then one day aged eleven he came home to be told by his father that his mother had died. Twenty years later he discovered she had been institutionalised on the man’s say-so in order that he could shack up with another woman. The reinvention Archie conjured across the Atlantic having literally run away with the circus to become an acrobat was accompanied by a lifelong mistrust of women and a name change. After two dozen films where he played a piece of jewellery for his leading ladies as contributor Mark Glancy puts it, he found himself working with George Cukor in Sylvia Scarlett and played a character I know, as Jonathan Pryce relates from Grant’s unpublished autobiography: he was finally acting and he was good. When he worked with director Leo McCarey on The Awful Truth nerves got the better of him and he took his lead from his director – McCarey was a suave, urbane, debonair, handsome, beautifully dressed and well-spoken ladykiller, and Grant copied him. That character became key to his screen persona. At the age of 31 he was reunited with the mother he had thought dead for twenty years and when they met, she asked him, Archie, is that really you?  His identity is at the centre of this film by Mark Kidel, as it penetrates the mystery of  his spectacular stardom and his acting technique.  Yet critic David Thomson says Grant’s persona is very democratic,  you can still sense the working class Archie Leach in him, something you can aspire to.  Howard Hawks would further the development of his screen image, locating in Grant something insecure and strange. Their many collaborations would reveal these layers of oddness, some of which was inhabited by Grant’s sexuality. He appealed equally to men and women. The film interrogates his relationships with women (he married among others actress Virginia Cherrill, heiress Barbara Hutton and actress Betsy Drake) but never mentions his long living arrangement with fellow actor Randolph Scott in the Thirties. Thomson claims, This is a man who is exploring gender safeguards as we see a clip of Bringing Up Baby, in which Grant’s character exclaims, I just went gay all of a sudden! wearing a woman’s dressing gown. Grant was well aware of his dichotomy and much of the film explores pictorially what Grant expresses in his unpublished writing, the experience of using LSD in controlled experiments in the late Fifties, an idea pushed by his then wife Drake, a woman who made him feel young again and who was an avid proponent of the therapeutic treatment herself.  It is clear that Grant believed it helped him make psychological breakthroughs. Home movies show him dressing up and acting the clown and in late life when he would do a theatre tour about his career he particularly liked to show those film clips which showed him doing backflips. When he worked with Hitchcock, Thomson declares that the director saw a different level of darkness than other collaborators and excerpts from Suspicion and Notorious accompany the narration. (But the viewer will note that Hitchcock also did the same for James Stewart, albeit he had already exploited a kind of psychopathic edge in the westerns he made with Anthony Mann). You never quite know where you are, Thomson says of this degree of sadism on display. It doesn’t ruin the likability but it qualifies it. Grant went independent so that he could control the roles he played and in the Forties persuaded RKO to buy the rights to the novel None But the Lonely Heart in which he essays the role of the kind of man he might have been had he remained in Britain, as one commentator notes.  Following a period of near-retirement he would work again happily with Hitchcock on To Catch a Thief of whom he said, Hitch and I had a rapport deeper than words.  He was incredibly well prepared.  Nothing ever went wrong. He is similarly complimentary about co-star Grace Kelly of whom he was in awe and he says, There are very few actresses who really listen to you. He could throw any line at her and she had a comeback. They were fast friends. He would team up with Hitchcock again for North By Northwest, and Thomson says of the great Cold War comic thriller, It’s about a man who has to grow up emotionally. He aged better than any other actor and in Father Goose despite its apparent un-Cary Grant-ness he always maintained the louche mariner was the one most similar to himself. He loved children and would finally find personal happiness when wife Dyan Cannon gave birth to their daughter Jennifer. He adored her and would have loved a huge family.  Despite a divorce a couple of years later he and Jennifer would remain close. She says what he really liked to do was stay home and watch TV – He loved television! she smiles to camera as home movie footage shows father and daughter sitting up on a huge bed with snack trays in front of them. His last wife Barbara Jaynes recalls him with love but says of his early perceived abandonment, Somewhere in the back of his mind was the idea that women were not always going to be there. She still lives in his Hollywood house with the panoramic views of the city he loved. In 1986 he had a massive stroke during a rehearsal for his one-man show and he died shortly afterwards. Kirk Kerkorian choppered Barbara and Jennifer over his home and out to sea, to spread the ashes of Archie Leach who insisted there be no funeral or memorial. A film about the best Hollywood star ends scattered in the air, skirting the surface of a fascinating man who was all transatlantic speaking voice and great clothes and beautiful movement, an actor who was never quite there.  Written by Kidel and Nick Ware. I feel fine. Alone. But fine

Chasing Bullitt (2019)

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Without my career there’s nothing else. Movie star Steve McQueen (Andre Brooks) is at a crossroads in his career after he’s had his pet project European racing film Le Mans taken from him by the studio. He owes money, his marriage is in trouble, he doesn’t know if he will hit big with the public again. He appeals to Freddie (Dennis W. Hall) his agent to help him locate the iconic Ford Mustang GT 390 he drove in Bullitt after the studio gifted him with a fake and goes on a road trip where he reflects on his life and the mistakes and relationships that have led him to this point … You’re a movie star. Surely that comes with its own set of burdens. It’s not just a road trip. It never is. It’s a psychological journey. And in the case of McQueen that means traversing the rocky road of his marriage to Neile (Augie), an encounter with Batista (Anthony Dilio) in Cuba back in 1956 and in sessions with his therapist (Ed Zajac) ponders his good fortune at not being slaughtered on Cielo Drive August 8, 1969. (And in this cultural echo chamber of movies we of course think of Damian Lewis’ McQueen unrequited longing for Sharon Tate in Tarantino’s recent Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood). Brooks has occasionally eerie moments embodying the star such is their resemblance, his chats with hitch hiker Sula (Alysha Young) clearly designed to trigger emotional insights; there’s a very amusing exchange with Dustin Hoffman (Jason Slavkin) about the prospects of working together on Papillon; and it all concludes with a final ironic gesture regarding the car he wants to find so badly. It’s not a perfect biopic but it’s better structured than most with an incredible look courtesy of cinematographer Daniel Stilling that harks back to precisely the era it’s set – 1971. It’s a mood piece about a yearning for control. And it’s about the filmmaker’s own nostalgia. I know just how he feels. Is it the truth? Hardly. It takes dramatic licence and still skims the surface. But I’ll take McQueen however I can get him. Written and directed by Joe Eddy. They took the film away from me

A Bad Moms Christmas (2017)

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I can’t do this shit sober. Under-appreciated and overburdened suburban moms Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell) and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) rebel against the challenges and expectations of the biggest day of the year: Christmas. As if creating the perfect holiday for their families isn’t hard enough, they’ll have to do it while hosting and entertaining their own respective mothers (Christine Baranski, Cheryl Hines and Susan Sarandon) when they come to visit early, unwanted and uninvited, thwarting all the ladies’ plans for a laidback break from all of this as they start redecorating, competing and bitching about their useless daughters …  Please God no more pussies. The ladies are back – with a vengeance. And their moms are here too, bringing a psycho(logical) dimension to the antics which are more scatological, bittersweet and episodic this time round as the mother-daughter dynamics are explored in their varying levels of possessiveness, competitiveness and sluttiness. It’s not particularly focused and falls between the three stools of the individual dramas but the cast are excellent. Instead of a PTA election we have a carolling competition; instead of a celebrity cameo from Martha Stewart we have Kenny G the godfather of soulful jazz, as Baranski intones; and Wanda Sykes makes a welcome return as the seen-it-all therapist. Other than the innuendo and the work-related seasonal sexploitation (courtesy of the very picturesque Justin Hartley), it’s fairly anodyne entertainment but a spinoff with the Bad Grandmas seems likely courtesy of some very shrewd casting.  Written and directed again by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. You shouldn’t have to see your mom kiss your boyfriend’s nipples

 

 

From Jon Lucas and Scott Moore.

Bad Moms (2016)

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As a therapist, I’m not allowed to tell you what do to. But, uh, as a human being with two fucking eyes in my head, yeah I think you should get divorced as soon as possible. This is some catastrophic shit.Amy (Mila Kunis) has a great husband, overachieving children, beautiful home and  a successful career working for an infantile coffee entrepreneur. Unfortunately, she’s also overworked, exhausted and ready to snap. Fed up, she joins forces with two other stressed-out mothers Kiki (Kristen Bell)  and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) that she meets on the school run to get away from daily life and conventional responsibilities. As the gals go wild with their newfound freedom, they set themselves up for the ultimate showdown with PTA queen bee Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) and her clique of seemingly perfect moms (Jada Pinkett Smith, Annie Mumolo) …  Quitting is for dads! Few films engage with the sheer drudgery and awfulness of domesticity, housekeeping and small children (Tully being an honourable exception) and having to go to kids’ sports events and feed them regularly and all that crap and holding down a job too and this is in your face with the sheer impossibility of ‘having it all’:  Helen Gurley Brown’s appellation even gets a visual nod. It’s genuinely enjoyable when Kunis simply refuses to make breakfast for her kids and leaves them to deal with it while she slobs out with a bag of Doritos; and when Bell strands her husband with their horrifically misbehaving offspring. Hahn has long been a comic star in waiting (Afternoon Delight didn’t quite do it) and she gets a big rollicking character here; Bell still hasn’t had a big screen role to match the TV genius of Veronica Mars (that film’s adaptation notwithstanding) but the arc from mouse to motherf**** suits her; while Kunis has been ploughing this sort of furrow for a while now, and she does it very well. It’s hardly classic comedy given some of the worn-out caricatures occasionally deployed but it’s well cast (including a good cameo from Wanda Sykes as the therapist) and a highly amusing and rowdy diversion in the dog days of summer. Written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who were responsible for The HangoverI’m pretty sure my brother-in-law just joined ISIS and he’s a Jew

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

Tag (2018)

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There are no winners. Only not losers.  Hogan ‘Hoagie’ Malloy (Ed Helms), Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), Randy ‘Chili’ Cilliano (Jake Johnson), Kevin Sable (Hannibal Buress) and Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner) have been playing a game of tag every May for 30 years  – but Jerry’s never been It and his upcoming wedding (to which none of his friends have invited) provides the perfect setting to finally land the big fish. Or does it? He’s planning on retiring now and Hoagie tags Bob at his insurance company where he’s CEO and collars Chili mid-toke and Kevin at his psychiatrist’s in order to make one last attempt in their hometown of Spokane where Jerry runs a successful fitness business and his ninja-like agility still threatens to make it impossible … I will be so pissed if she didn’t have a miscarriage. Adapted from the Wall Street Journal story It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being It by Russell Adams, this has an iron-clad concept that doesn’t quite work – somehow the innate madness and anger that occasionally surfaces in Helms’ character (and which is ultimately put down to illness – such sentiment has no place here!) doesn’t get ridden the way it ought. First-time director Jeff Tomsic has fun with the action sequences but the screenplay by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen needed something extra – at one point I kinda hoped it would be Preston Sturges, because the kind of antic frantic lunacy that this story suggests needs that sort of old-school zany style. The final twist turns into something else with Hoagie’s crazed tagalong wife Anna (Isla Fisher) letting loose – at last. Too late, I fear! You’re it. Poor planning. Poor execution

L’Amant Double (2017)

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Aka Double Lover. I often imagined I had a sister. Yes. A twin. A double who would protect me. Chloé (Marine Vacth) a 25-year old model with a fragile mental state now working in a museum, falls for her psychoanalyst, Paul (Jérémie Renier). When she moves in with him a few months later, she discovers a part of his identity that he has been concealing, his identical twin Louis, also a therapist but with a startlingly different approach that involves having sex in the office with his clients …  Lying to seduce is common among pretty women. Especially the frigid ones. The films of Franςois Ozon (who has just won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale) usually come in one of two varieties:  cool, psychological thrillers or gleefully funny, parodic comedy dramas. The screenplay by Ozon and Philip Piazzo is freely adapted from the 1987 Joyce Carol Oates novel The Lives of the Twins, written pseudonymously as Rosamond Smith. It fuses the two strands of Ozon’s filmmaking (appropriately, in the womb) in an erotically charged Hitchcockian homage that also calls to mind that epic Cronenberg masterpiece of twin gynaecologists, Dead Ringers but goes straightforwardly beyond that tragic body horror work to become a spin on duality and sex and narcissistic obsession. Vacth is adequate rather than compelling, reprising her confused temptress act from Jeune et jolie and enjoying the dated trashy silliness of it all. Rather wonderfully, Jacqueline Bisset turns up in (what else) a dual role. Utilising every visual opportunity to exploit and express the possibilities, this is fluid in the language of cinema and sure-footed in each dramatic step yet also threatens to tip rather pleasingly into the realm of camp at every juncture without boasting the serious nuttiness of a De Palma outing. Tongue in cheek psychosexual kink with graphic sex scenes and a really great cat (or two) but ultimately seems to be in two minds about what it is. When it comes to twins we assume that if we know one we know the other

Mad To Be Normal (2017)

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I’ve seen what families do to each other. During the 1960s, renegade Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing (David Tennant) courts controversy within his profession for his approach to the field, and for the unique community he creates for his patients to inhabit at Kingsley Hall, the ‘anti-asylum’ Laing established in the east of London where group therapy replaces mind-deadening medicine. He carries out experiments using LSD to repair the trauma endured by Sydney Kotok (Michael Gambon) and believes in the self-healing practice of metanoia, which arouses the ire of his colleagues, while in his private life he engages in a relationship with American student Angie Wood (Elisabeth Moss)…  You can’t even tell me how it works. A psychedelic psychodrama about psychiatry? I’m in! Sort of. The charismatic Scot was a controversial and cult-ish figure at the best of times, latterly better known for his drunken TV appearances than the significance of his work in the community. The issues that always proliferate in biographical drama are important here – his romance with a student is a fiction and his daughter’s death from leukaemia is brought forward by ten years, contracting a lot of drama into a five year period, perhaps questionable decisions amplified by the importance of someone who wanted to demystify psychological illness as well as be kind to patients. What this lacks in budget (those cheap Sixties tropes!) is compensated for in big performances not least by Tennant, declaiming in his natural accent. Gambon and Moss are their usual reliable selves, with some nice character colours, while it’s good to see Byrne as shambling old Anglo-Irish gent Jim, on the other side of the psychiatrist’s couch for a change after his years playing a TV shrink. Whatever the shortcomings on the directing front, this is a fascinating portrait of a counterculture hero and a sympathetic insight into people who desperately need to be allowed to live independently, without all the noise. Written by first-time director (and Laing biographer) Robert Mullan and Tracy Moreton. She felt her true self was murdered