Zelig (1983)

Zelig

All the themes of our culture were there. In this fictional documentary set during the 1920s and 1930s a non-descript American called Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) achieves notoriety for his ability to look, act and sound like anyone he meets. He ingratiates himself with everyone from the lower echelons of society to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Pope becoming famous as The Changing Man. Even Hollywood comes calling and makes a film about him. His chameleon-like skill catches the eye of Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), a psychiatrist who thinks Zelig is in need of serious cognitive analysis as someone who goes to extremes to make himself fit into society. Their relationship moves in a direction that’s not often covered in medical textbooks as she hypnotises him I’m certain it’s something he picked up from eating Mexican food. A formally and technically brilliant and absolutely hilarious spoof documentary that integrates real and manipulated newsreel footage with faked home movies, a film within a film, period photographs of the leads and interviews with contemporary personalities, real and imagined, from Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow to ‘Eudora Fletcher’ (Ellen Garrison) in the present day. Even Bruno Bettelheim shows up to declare the subject the ultimate conformist. The sequence on the anti-semitism Zelig experiences as a child (his parents sided with the anti-semites, narrator Patrick Horgan informs us mournfully) is laugh out loud funny. Of course it has a payoff – in Nazi Germany. The editing alone is breathtaking, there is not a false moment and the music is superlative, forming a backdrop and a commentary as well as instilling in the audience a realistic feel for the time in which this is set. There are moments where you will not believe your eyes as Allen transforms into everyone he meets – regardless of race, shape or colour. An original and funny mockumentary that’s actually about the world we live in, an extreme response to childhood bullying and what we do to make ourselves fit in and where that could lead. You just told the truth and it sold papers – it never happened before!

 

A Christmas Carol (1938)

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

Shazam! (2019)

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Gentlemen, why use guns when we can handle this like real men? All 14-year-old Billy Batson’s (Asher Angel)has to do is shout out one word to transform into the adult superhero Shazam (Zachary Levi). Still a kid at heart, Shazam revels in the new version of himself by doing what any other teen would do – have fun while testing out his newfound powers even as he searches for his birth mother while living in a new foster home where he is befriended by Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). But he’ll need to master those powers quickly before the evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) can get his hands on Shazam’s magical abilities because Sivana was rejected by Wizar Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) long before Billy entered superhero terrain... Heroes fly. And who doesn’t want people to think they’re a hero, right? But invisibility, no way. That’s pervy. Spying around on people who don’t even know you’re there. Sneaking around everywhere. It’s a total villain power, right? Signs that all is not altogether lost in the DC Universe following some Batman-related disappointment, with a family-oriented fantasy outing that has to wait until the conclusion to give our hero a name because in the klutzy nomenclature of caped crusaders he was originally called Captain Marvel. Oh yes. And yet that’s okay because this is all about finding your identity and this rites of passage origins tale is finally all about a superhero’s journey – to his mother and to himself. Relatively lo-fi it might be in comparison with some of the heavy hitters of its type but it has a kind of Saturday morning TV quality to it – likeable, easy on the eye, relatable (!) fun even if it seems in some scenes that Strong is in a different film. There’s a nice Rocky homage in a story basically straight from the Big playbook whose message is that your true family is not necessarily the one you’re born into. Written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke based on characters created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck. Directed by David F. Sandberg.  You have been transformed to your full potential, Billy Batson. With your heart, unlock your greatest power MM#2550

Metal Heart (2018)

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Just because you’re miserable doesn’t make you interesting. The summer they finish school fraternal twins and rivals Goth muso Emma (Jordanne Jones) and social media maven Chantal (Leah McNamara) are left to themselves when their parents (Dylan Moran and Yasmine Akram) go on a six-week trip to the jungle. Chantal immediately starts having loud sex sessions in her bedroom with her dumb supertanned boyfriend Alan (Aaron Heffernan) while Emma wants to start a band called Yeast Infections with her best friend Gary (Sean Doyle) who’s secretly in love with her but bullied by his overachiever dad Steve (Jason O’Mara). When a mysterious man called Dan (Moe Dunford) shows up to look after the sick old woman next door it transpires he’s her son and the former member of a cult band.  Both girls fall for him, setting a financial disaster in motion after Chantal gets injured in a minor car prang and suddenly Emma is the popular one … A pie chart is not written in stone! Written by that lauded chronicler of suburban Dublin angst, Paul (Skippy Dies) Murray, this takes the American high school/coming of age template and gives it an Irish re-fit (graduation means picking up your results and getting langered), with zingers aplenty, some great side-eye and caustic lessons in relationships. It’s lightly satirical about South Dublin, beautifully captured by cinematographer Eoin McLoughlin – we’re far from the brutal grey skies that typically blight Irish films and into the leafy cosy middle class neighbourhoods where colours pop amid the tasteful midcentury furnishings (kudos to Neill Treacy for the production design). Similarly, the blackly comic elements are balanced with rites of passage/romcom tropes, giving each sister just the right amount of sympathy and mockery in this well-evoked portrait of those last weeks of experience on the cusp of college and adulthood, dramatising how even in a world where you can monetise your makeup tips on social media or conjure Spiders & Cream treats at the ice cream parlour in the local mall, you still crave the approval of the nearest inappropriate adult who’s really after your stash of cash. Warm, witty and attractively performed in a tale which underneath all the comic fuzz and deceptive charm is a sinister story of a twentysomething man grooming kids for underage sex while robbing them blind, this never hits the wrong notes which makes it a kind of miracle of filmmaking. Think:  Home Alone meets Clueless. Directed by actor Hugh O’Conor, who has a gift for making the most of moments in his first feature. I was never going to be her but I would always be her sister

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The Witches (1990)

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You can never be sure if it’s a witch you’re looking at or a kind lady. Little American boy Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) is holidaying with his Norwegian grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) who regales him with stories of witches, female demons masquerading as normal women but possessing undending hatred of children.  Helga’s best friend in childhood was entrapped by one of them in a painting and eventually faded from view. When Luke’s parents die his grandmother becomes his guardian and sends him to boarding school where he evades the attention of one such witch (Anne Lambton) and during the holidays at a seaside resort Luke become aware that witches are holding their annual British convention as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston).  When he and another boy Bruno (Charlie Potter) are in their midst they encounter a life-changing transformation into mice and have to avoid all sorts of predators as they try to escape to safety experiencing an actual cat and mouse chase … Real witches hate children! Adapted by Allan Scott from Roald Dahl’s darkly comic book, the biggest surprise to fans of Nicolas Roeg is that he directed it (perhaps not when you consider he had young sons at the time) but it has some of his recognisable tropes as well as a crew of his regular collaborators, including Scott, costumier Marit Allen and editor Tony Lawson in a production from Henson Studios with all that firm’s puppeteering and effects skills to the fore. The trick of balancing realism with fantasy, humour with horror, and scares for children (Roeg edited out more morbid material after seeing one of his children’s reactions) with jokes for adults, is perfectly achieved in this ambitious comic drama with Huston camping it up appositely to Zetterling’s caring grandmother. How is the room service here?/Diabolical./ Good! A third of the film is the adventure the boys have as mice, attempting to avoid becoming part of the hotel’s dinner menu, and there’s a marvellous payoff with formerly fat Bruno achieving his mother’s (Brenda Blethyn) ambition that he lose weight. The (happy) ending is different from that in the book and Dahl hated it and threatened to publicly campaign against it (Jim Henson dissuaded him) but overall it retains his casual cruelty and wit. Stanley Myers’ score is amped up with excerpts from Dies irae here and there to sound like Berlioz’ The Witches’ Sabbath. Shot in Bergen, Newquay and at Bray Studios, this was the last feature to involve the great Henson and the final one of Dahl’s books to be adapted prior to his own demise. A foolish witch without a brain, must sizzle into fire and flame! A witch who dares to say I’m wrong, will not be with us… VERY LONG!

 

 

Joker (2019)

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Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?  Former psych hospital inmate, children’s party clown and wannabe standup Arthur ‘Happy’ Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his sick mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of appearing on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) cheesy nightly TV show which they watch together. Gotham City is rife with crime and unemployment, leaving segments of the population disenfranchised and impoverished with billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in the running for Mayor. Penny was a former employee in the Wayne household and repeatedly writes him letters asking for money. Arthur suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and depends on social services for medication and weekly meetings with a social worker. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives him a gun for self-defence. Arthur invites his neighbour, cynical single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz), to his stand-up comedy show, and they begin dating. When he witnesses three Wall Street guys harassing a woman on the subway train he opens fire and kills them and the city is suddenly awash in a movement of men in clown masks that threatens violent disorder in copycat clown costumes  … I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realise, it’s a comedy. A perverse DC origins story written by director Todd Phillips with Scott Silver, this owes much to its setting – 1981, a city on its haunches, with human filth and institutional grime, and cinematic influences: Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and of course Taxi Driver (Paul Schrader’s real-life inspiration was Arthur Bremer) which is interesting in the light of the maestro’s recent (highly derogatory) comments on superhero movies. And there’s Travis Bickle/Rupert Pupkin himself, De Niro, as the Jerry Lewis-type prism for Arthur’s fantasies of celebrity. And it’s modelled on classic psychodrama, up to a point. It hedges its bets by flailing determinedly in all directions ticking the usual boxes – sociological, pathological, neurological, daddy issues, a mad mother, illegitimacy, until its second hour descends into predictable ultraviolence (after that first exhibition at 30 minutes) albeit with this raft of reasons the wind at his back, you can’t blame Arthur, which is of course the whole point of this graphic novel brought to life. He’s a product of everything around him as well as the noises in his head so there’s no mystery left unturned. That neurological condition that makes him laugh long and loud and inappropriately turns into an unwelcome noise in the audience’s collective head too because we can see as he cannot that his talent lies not in comedy but in killing. Gotham City is no longer a pretend New York because the first three victims of Arthur’s vigilanteism are Wall Street employees of his all-powerful putative father, which is how the Wayne story is woven into this tapestry of excuses as if someone had written an elaborate series of backstories and decided to use every single one of them:  Oedipus writ large in a realist portrait of Bernhard Goetz-era NYC. There is literally nothing left to chance or ponder about this ugly individual and as we all know, bastards always blame other people and seek revenge for their no-name status. In this amorality tale he murders his mother to attempt to get close to his alleged father. And we all know what happens to Thomas Wayne because the Batman universe is ours.  It’s difficult to fault Phoenix’s bravura performance but much hinges on his harelip and innate ugliness which he just accentuates into unpleasant anorectic thinness to manufacture an urban monster. This Joker isn’t funny any more. How bizarre that the wonderful River Phoenix died 26 years ago today and it’s his brother Leaf who’s making the headlines. I feel like I know you – I’ve been watching you forever

 

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

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Aka Nosferatu:  Phantom der Nacht. Ready my horse. I have much to do. Jonathan Harker(Bruno Ganz) is sent away to Count Dracula’s (Klaus Kinski) castle to sell him a house in Virna, where he lives. But Count Dracula is a vampire, an undead ghoul living off men’s blood. Inspired by a photograph of Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani), Jonathan’s wife, Dracula moves to Virna, bringing with him death and plague… Death is not the worst. There are things more horrible than death. Werner Herzog’s adaptation of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent classic Nosferatu, a haunting interpretation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 character (that became subject of a lawsuit), functions all at once as tribute, homage, pastiche, anti-horror, sombre literary work and a travelogue that treats seriously this Mitteleuropäischer world of vampires, dallying with Freud around the time Sigmund was developing his own ecstatic fantasy narratives. Kinski is a perfect Count, grotesque, funny and sympathetic and done up to resemble Max Schreck’s animalistic version, Ganz is great as the idiot husband prey to his client, while Adjani’s luminous beauty is put to perfect use and she gets a great payoff at sunrise in a transcendent scene. No less notable is Roland Topor as the maniacal Bremen realtor Renfield.  It’s not really a horror, in fact it feels in its elongated melancholy macabre mood closer to fairytale, but it is really Herzog at his most morbidly and poetically effective, with one of the best music scores you will ever hear (from Florian Fricke aka Popol Vuh) and unforgettable work by production designer Henning Von Gierke’s, costumier Gisela Storch and cinematographer Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein. A haunting and spectacular dance of death. Listen. The children of the night make their music

My Reputation (1946)

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You have to start being yourself. Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) is a newly widowed upper class mother to two boys Kim (Scotty Beckett) and Keith (Bobby Cooper) with a domineering mother (Lucile Watson). Her estate lawyer Frank Everett (Warner Anderson) dates her casually while her society friend George Van Orman (Jerome Cowan) decides she’d be the ideal mistress. Her friend Ginna (Eve Arden) whisks her away to Tahoe with her husband Cary (John Ridgely) where she meets Major Scott Landis (George Brent) when she’s lost skiing in the mountains. They become close very quickly part badly when he thinks she’s ready to be kissed but then he shows up in her hometown of Chicago where he’s temporarily stationed and she finally allows herself to think of another romantic relationship despite the gossips… The world allows considerable liberty to wives it has never allowed to widows. I notice, for instance, you’re no longer wearing black. One of Stanwyck’s greatest roles, she excels as the rather innocent widow who finally embarks on a relationship with a bluff man who won’t stand for any nonsense from the naysayers in her midst. And who better than Gorgeous George to save her from social suffocation?! Watson is great as the vicious old bat of a mother and Leona Maricle and Nancy Evans are good as the bitchy so-called friends. Arden is in good form as the real friend who does the necessary when Jess needs it. Expertly adapted by the estimable Catherine Turney from Claire Jaynes’ wartime novel Instruct My Sorrows, this plays to all of Warner Brothers’ strengths in female transformation stories – a woman who finds herself again despite a domineering mother, problem sons, pawsy males, social exile and doubt. A gloriously romantic drama with a wondrous score by Max Steiner. Directed by Curtis Bernhardt. I’ll never be lonely again

Venom (2018)

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You know for a smart guy you really are a dumbass. TV investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is trying to take down Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the notorious and brilliant founder of the Life Foundation who is constantly announcing new supposedly life-enhancing initiatives.  Eddie opens up confidential files belonging to his district attorney fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) which causes her to lose her job and leave him. He is fired by his TV station for his impropriety. While investigating one of Drake’s experiments in symbiotes (aliens merging with humans), Eddie’s body merges with the alien Venom – leaving him with superhuman strength and power. Twisted, dark and fuelled by rage, Venom tries to control the new and dangerous abilities that Eddie finds so puzzling and yet so intoxicating but Drake sends out his team to ensnare him… Do you ever feel like your life is one monumental screwup? How bad is this? Perhaps it should have been called Contempt if that misnomer wasn’t already the title of a classic of French cinema. Dreadful acting (Hardy is no movie star, just a terrific actor prone to insane levels of idiot savant mugging way too early here, tipping us off about the high comedy to come), terrible writing, stupid plotting and lazy presumptions. It takes about forty minutes or so for this film to finally find its feet as a satirical fantasy by which time I had found myself wondering how many more superhero movies can deal with silly sloppy seconds, bizarre virtue signalling in diversity casting (this year’s Elon Musk avatar is played by a Pakistani) and dumb allusive socio-cultural commentary including a leading lady dressing like Britney circa Baby One More Time. However once Eddie is hilariously taken over by The Host I was moved to think about the magnificently bad Saoirse Ronan movie of that name; the fourth level of jihad (‘feast upon the infidel as would a parasite upon a host’) which of course is all about the Islamic takeover of the white world; and the edicts of mindfulness (proto-neo-liberal zealotry extolled by Google’s Jolly Good Fellow along with all other Big Tech surveillance monsters); and it was then that I realised that this is in fact an expertly crafted warning about all sorts of contemporary ills:  mass immigration, uncontrolled technology, globalisation, narcissism, unsupervised pharmaceutical experiments and endless superhero movies. Obviously it’s set in Northern California, the boomer and millennial nightmare running the world. It’s dark and Blade Runner-y, as if we needed reminding that Philip K. Dick was telling us all about fifty shades of surveillance for at least forty years in the last millennium. This, then, is what happens to the universe when you’re busy buying Starbucks coffee and checking your iPhone and doping yourself with anti-depressants that persuade you that totalitarianism is okay while disinhibiting your urge to protest, and scarfing medical marijuana which is the real cure for your paranoia about the internet, and, you know, there’s nothing wrong with anything, it’s your attitude to it that needs to be corrected because you’re pathological and everything Mark Zuckerberg does may not be ethical but by crikey it’s legal! Be afraid, suckers. Make the new the primary focus of your life. Jeff Pinker & Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel adapted the Marvel characters created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie and it was directed by Ruben Fleischer, responsible for an outing called Gangster Squad, a production that was so hypnotically awful I forgot what it was about while I was watching it (mission accomplished) to the point that I lost the plot and practically lost the will to live. Is it me? Even Jesus Christ himself would say, Enough. Get it over withCrucify me, guys. Instead we have expertly crafted lines like, God has abandoned us… I won’t. And the voice inside Eddie’s head that tells him, Your world is not so ugly after all.  And Anne finds that power is indeed a bit of a sneaky thrill: Oh  no! I just bit that guy’s head off!  Sheesh. Maybe this works after all, Spider-Man in reverse. Like civilisation, this is poisoned.

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!