Miss Bala (2019)

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They’re all dirty. And they’re coming after me. Los Angeles makeup artist and Mexican emigrée Gloria Fuentes (Gina Rodriguez) asks the police for help when cartel hit men kidnap her friend Suzu Ramos (Cristina Rodio) from a nightclub in Tijuana, Mexico. She soon finds herself in big trouble when a corrupt cop hands her over to the same goons who shot up the place in an attempted hit on Police Chief Saucedo (Damian Alcazar). Gang leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) decides to use Gloria for his dirty work to avoid detection from the Drug Enforcement Administration one of whom Brian Reich (Matt Lauria) puts a tracking device on her to entrap the gang who get her to transport drugs across the border to San Diego where she’s met by gangster Jimmy (Anthony Mackie) who is actually an undercover CIA agent. Determined to get away, Gloria must now play a dangerous game to outwit not only the cartel but the DEA agents who now suspect her of complicity and she winds up finding out the hard way that she’s been sold out – in the middle of a shootout – and has to choose sides …  You thought I was a bad guy?  I’m just playing their game. This action thriller remake of a 2011 Spanish-language film from director Catherine Hardwicke has everything going for it except characterisation:  sometime, someone, somewhere will remember that character is also action, it’s not enough in the #MeToo era to just put a woman in the protagonist’s role and have her run from bullets (and that’s what ‘bala’ means, not that you’d know it) and sell it as a female-oriented film. And, in yet another ad for Mexico’s tourism industry – drugs, guns, cross-border crime, female intimidation, endless non-stop murders – the best thing you could possibly do on that front is to keep well away. And what on earth has that poster got to do with anything? Oh, when the plot finally kicks in after 70 minutes our heroine has to take part in a beauty pageant (Miss Baja) which leads to a rather good twist ending but it’s all too little, rather late. There is some interesting architecture however. Yawn. Written by Garrett Dunnet-Alcocer. Everyone works for us now. Play your part

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

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Aka Cemetery Girls. Remember – this is the desert and out here the sun can be destructive. Nice guy Lee Ritter (Michael Blodgett) and his pretty wife, Susan (Sherry Miles) are introduced by friend Carl Stoker (Gene Shane) to mysterious vixen Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall) to visit her in her secluded desert estate. She lives with Juan (Jerry Daniels) whom she says her family raised when his died on their reservation. However when she takes them to a graveyard where she claims her husband is buried tensions arise – trouble is Mr LeFanu was buried in 1875.  The couple, unaware at first that Diane is in reality a centuries-old vampire, realise that they are both objects of the pale temptress’ desire but that doesn’t really stop them lying in the way of her systematic seduction… Diane, I think I want to drive your buggy. This homage to Irish horror maestros Bram Stoker, Sheridan LeFanu and the recent Euro-Gothic erotic vampire genre, is the kind of cult exploitationer that should be seen more regularly but still belongs firmly in that realm despite its contemporary dayglo modern California setting, dune buggies and post-hippie glam.  While played straight, the lines aerate the daft premise with humour:  There is no life without blood, says the marvellous diaphonously clad Yarnall, a veteran of TV’s Ozzie and Harriet who died one year ago this week. You’ll recognise her from Live a Little, Love a Little as the beautiful girl who inspires Elvis to sing A Little Less Conversation. Miles is a lovably clueless ditsy blonde, barely clad in a bikini but topless more often than not. Blodgett (Lance in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) is perfectly engaging as the good guy who just can’t help himself. The low budget is put to one side by the clever setting – that Spanish Revival house in the desert where the sunlight plays havoc with those pale of skin who prefer to socialise at night but also gives costumier Keith Hodges some fun opportunities and Daniel LaCambre shoots it beautifully. There’s a well conceived climax at LA’s bus terminal and a rather appetising coda. Blues musician Johnny Shines performs his song Evil-Hearted Woman. Directed by cult fave Stephanie Rothman and co-written by her (with her producer husband Charles S. Swartz and Maurice Jules, who also co-wrote that voodoo vampire outing Scream Blacula Scream), this gives you a good idea why her point of view as a feminist filmmaker was so significant in the drive-in era and it’s a real shame her women’s movies aren’t more widely known. Roger Corman was somewhat disappointed with the finished result and released it on a double bill with the Italian horror Scream of the Demon LoverI was having the same dream

Hustlers (2019)

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Doesn’t money make you horny? Working as a stripper to help her grandmother get out of debt and to make ends meet, Dorothy aka Destiny’s (Constance Wu) life changes forever when she becomes friends with Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) the Moves club’s top money earner who mentors her. Ramona soon shows Destiny how to finagle her way around the wealthy Wall Street clientele who frequent the club, teaching her about ‘fishing’. But the 2008 economic crash cuts into their profits. Three years later Destiny has retired to have a baby and her relationship has broken up and she’s broke.  She returns to Moves to find that Russian whores have moved in and the game has changed. She reunites with Ramona and they and two other dancers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and find that Russian whores have moved into Moves, and they devise a daring scheme to take their lives back… This city, this whole country is a strip club. You got people tossing the money. And you got people doing the dance. Money really does make the world go round – and it’s a man’s world. And the men are creeps. Adapted by director Lorene Scafaria from Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York Magazine article The Hustlers at Scores, an account of a true crime, with its diverse cast boosting a tale of female empowerment, this is a storming feminist movie perfect for the #MeToo era. For the first half. Then in the second half a flashback structure kicks in – Dorothy regales a journalist called Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) with her story – giving impetus to the idea that there is a moral to this tale which emphasises the issues facing young single mothers in a society falling apart.  But the pace slackens and it’s a more serious study. There are nice performances all round but Lopez simply bulldozes the material with sass and verve, making this caper a zesty exercise in revenge where Lopez can describe motherhood as a kind of mental illness. Think Widows, but with fewer clothes. Lopez’s pole dancing is just amazing. Produced by Lopez with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who dealt with the Crash in that very different caper, The Big Short. Serious entertainment. I really hope it’s not a story about all strippers being thieves

Motherhood (2018)

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Aka Egg. A woman gives up her rights as an adult when she gets pregnant. When NYC artist Tina (Alysia Reinder) and her layabout husband Wayne (Gbenga Akinnabe) are visited by her eight-months pregnant art school rival Karen (Christina Hendricks), now a trophy wife to property-dealer husband Don (David Alan Bache), the politics of pregnancy are discussed to a disturbing degree. Wayne demonstrates an extraordinary sympathy with Karen’s condition. Tina is doing an exhibit on pregnancy and motherhood (it’s going to be a lifetime’s work) instead of actually bearing a child herself, considering it a worthy topic for an art installation. She and Wayne reveal they are having a child by surrogate Kiki (Anna Camp), a secretary at an agency where Wayne was temping.  When the men go out, Tina and Karen have a heart to heart and Tina reveals she has had an abortion following an accidental pregnancy, while Karen reveals she got pregnant on purpose despite Don’s wishes and now she thinks he’s sleeping around. The very lovely and apparently ditsy young Kiki comes back to the loft with the men and while distressed with her married lover running out on her now she’s pregnant, expounds on her philosophy of the stages of a woman’s life during which some hard truths are exchanged … Having a baby the old way is a total fetish at this stage. Risa Mickenberg’s satirical chamberpiece treads a minefield of preconceptions (!), truisms, old wive’s tales (daughters steal your beauty when you’re pregnant), gender politics, jealousy, marriage, money, misunderstandings, the right to choose, sexism and contemporary mores with great wit and empathy in a film which might remind one of Carnage before the kids are actually born. Art appreciates even if I don’t appreciate art. Kiki’s four phases of women – girlhood, boobs, 20s to early 30s running after men and then mother, when nobody wants to look directly at you, is so discomfiting because it carries home the final indisputable truth about gender and loss of desire and elicits very different responses from everyone concerned, changing the dynamics of the group and exploding the future of three of them.  Talk about setting it off. These are relationships which are based on socially accepted lies. Sometimes only long-term friends can say such terrible things to one another and sometimes these conversations are life-changing, and not in a good way with a third act shift that totally alters the mood but boasting a happy coda. You’re like this giant beach ball of bliss. You’re like a living monument of sexism. A devastating exposition of male and female behaviour and a smart showcase for the talents of the actors (particularly Hendricks), very well handled by director Marianna Palka. If she’s the mother what are you?

All About Nina (2018)

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Let me take care of you. Thirtysomething Nina Geld’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) passion and talent have made her a rising star in the NYC comedy scene, but she’s an emotional mess offstage. Her married policeman lover Joe (Chace Crawford) resorts to violence when she goes back to her apartment with a one-night stand where she finds that he’s let himself in. She takes a cab to Joe’s house  to show his wife what’s going on and gets told to leave the city. When a new professional opportunity arises in Los Angeles, she moves west and house-shares with spiritual author Lake (Kate del Castillo) who tries to get her out of her comfort zone when she sees her pain.  Nina is forced to confront her own deeply troubled past just as an unexpected romance with Rafe (Common) begins to thrive… Let’s take things one step at a time. The debut film of writer/director Eva Vives, this demands and gets a barnstorming performance from Winstead who has to go on an emotional rollercoaster – from horrific stories about her father to the unexpected delight of having a potentially successful relationship rather than a familiar series of sexual hit and runs, which just triggers more self-destructive behaviour. From its truisms about showbusiness and a possible opportunity to appear on an SNL clone whose top dog Larry Michaels (Beau Bridges) pits all contemporary female standups against each other in an audition;  dealing with the fallout of trust issues from child abuse; to what it takes to go viral and whether that makes you popular or untouchable; this treads with a sureness all the way until the very end when it ultimately fails to deliver an answer but has Nina back onstage, where she really lives. As unpredictable as watching a standup having a meltdown – which is what this is all about, and quite as thrilling. Winstead is brilliant in a frank, raw and revelatory performance.

Death Defying Acts (2007)

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We had a real double act, my mam and me.  It’s 1926. Upon arriving in Edinburgh, Scotland for a series of mind-boggling performances, master illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) offers an impressive cash reward of $10,000 to any supposed psychic who can accurately tell him his beloved late mother’s exact last words. Gorgeous local swindler Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) rises to the challenge and together with her streetwise daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) leads Houdini on in a dangerous flirtation that blurs the line between reality and paranoia –  but she has reckoned without the machinations of his canny manager Sugarman (Timothy Spall) who knows a con when he sees it but has his own reasons to let this Oedipal obsession play out in the world of spiritualists, fake or not … Nothing in this world’s free. It’s an engaging premise and well staged but this drama of who’s-fooling-who sadly won’t hoodwink the audience. Pearce is hardly Houdini although he’s a charmer whether tied up underwater or on the surface, and Jones’ and Ronan’s lively performances as grifters are marvellous but can’t conceal the dramatic deficit at the centre of the narrative. It looks wonderful and is beautifully staged but never really takes off, the mystery of Houdini’s personality is never convincingly exposed and of course as we know it ends in tragedy. Written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, directed by Gillian Armstrong. I used to be a nice man you know. Do you believe me?

 

There Was a Little Boy (1993) (TVM)

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Hey! She doesn’t want me! Fifteen years after their baby boy was stolen from their apartment, English teacher Julie (Cybill Shepherd) is expecting her second child with wealthy husband Gregg (John Heard). He has never given up on finding Robbie, she accepts his guilt despite it happening on her watch while she was taking a bath. She is teaching in a downtown high school and finds herself forced to deal with a difficult transfer student Jesse (Scott Bairstow) who appears functionally illiterate but is actually gifted and they form an uneasy connection. His own mother Esperanza (Elaine Kagan) is on welfare and ill with a lung condition and they get by with his thieving from the store. When Julie tries to sell off  Robbie’s baby cot, Gregg objects and finds in the base a necklace with a religious medal attached which doesn’t belong to either of them and which they trace to a local Catholic priest who is now gaga and cannot positively identify the owner. However Jesse’s own actions lead Julie in the right direction to find her long-lost son …  I am your worst nightmare:  a politically incorrect teacher who dares to flunk your ass. Adapted by Wesley Bishop from the novel by Claire R. Jacobs, this operates somewhere between Teacher in the Hood and Maternal Melo, The action scenes are well handled, the irony of Jesse’s identity well flagged (it’s not really the point), the trade-off in guilt between husband and wife completely believable, the acting good, and it’s directed by the admirable Mimi Leder who of course proceeded to make those terrific actioners Deep Impact and The Peacemaker before the wheels came off her cinema career for a long time after Pay It Forward. She returned to the fray late last year with the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex. Hurray for that. And if that doesn’t suffice, how about all those early 90s chintzy couches. I lost a son and a husband. I won’t let that happen again

Eyewitness (1956)

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Did you see her buried?  After an argument with her husband Jay (Michael Craig) about his spending habits when he brings home a TV set on hire purchase, Lucy Church (Muriel Pavlow) storms out of her house and goes to see a film at the local cinema. While coming back from making a phone call, she stumbles across the office where she witnesses the murder of the cinema manager by two criminals Wade (Donald Sinden) and his soft-minded associate Barney (Nigel Stock) who are in the process of robbing the cinema’s safe. When they pursue her, she is hit by a bus and is taken to hospital. Unable to leave the town until they know what has happened to her, the two robbers head to the hospital to observe her. Meanwhile, her husband has grown concerned and scours the town searching for her. An older woman patient’s cries for help each time she sees two men skulking in the hospital garden are ignored while Wade and Barney enter the hospital to make sure Lucy is never able to bear witness … She’s a pretty little thing. Wouldn’t mind claiming her myself.  Low on both suspense and thrills, this Sydney Box production is based on the premise that Donald Sinden is a dangerous criminal – surely an in-joke at the expense of the audience and the story. What’s of infinitely more interest is the performance of tragic starlet and socialite Lee as the sexy bleached blonde nurse Penny Marston who has (inevitably) an American airman fiancé (David Knight).  The screenplay is by Janet Green, a playwright (including the work that would provide the basis for Doris Day’s Midnight Lace) and screenwriter who had many good films on her resumé like Sapphire and Victim and John Ford’s final film, 7 Women. This is mild stuff indeed, with the opening scene of domestic dissatisfaction soon sliding into an under-dramatised crime outing, enlivened only by the constant put-downs of the eagle-eyed patients by the bitchy nursing staff while Pavlow enjoys a very long beauty sleep.  Keen viewers will enjoy appearances  by Richard Wattis as an anaesthetist and Nicholas Parsons as a surgeon. Directed by Muriel Box.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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I was always afraid of being found out. I can’t specifically say that I regret my actions. I don’t. In New York City 1991 biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is struggling financially and her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t get her an advance for a book about Fanny Brice so she sells off a treasured possession – a letter to her from Katharine Hepburn – to bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells).  She hatches a scheme to forge letters by famous writers and sell them to bookstores and collectors. When the dealers start to catch on and she is tipped off about being blacklisted, Lee recruits an old sometime acquaintance, drug dealer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to help her continue her self-destructive cycle of trickery and deceit but then the FBI move in You can be an asshole if you’re famous. You can’t be unknown and be such a bitch, Lee. This is the biography of a biographer (from Israel’s own autobiography…) so you can draw out many ideas and inferences about life imitating art, writers imitating genius, literary theft on a large or small scale.  Writing in their subject’s voice is just one of the outcomes of one writer inhabiting another writer’s life.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing these letters, living in the world of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, pretending I was something I am not. In other words (as it were) it is a logical extrapolation that a writer of biographical works should on some level be themselves a liberator of other people’s ideas. You might say, it’s their job.  Enough of the meta fiction. The screenplay is by the marvellous Nicole Holofcener (with Jeff Whitty) who is no mean director herself and yes, she was supposed to helm this. So what happened? Apparently Julianne Moore and Holofcener had ‘creative differences’ and both of them dropped out – both of them! But were those differences with each other?! Apparently Moore was fired by Holofcener. Something about wanting to wear a fat suit and a prosthetic nose. And so, six days before production it all stopped. And Sam Rockwell who was due to play Hock disappeared somewhere along the line. Then Marielle Heller was deployed on directing duties.  Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, stayed in the cast (as Alan Schmidt) and McCarthy joined. And her performance is towering.  I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people. She’s a lonely alcoholic middle-aged mess and utterly believable as the writer on the outs, a kind of midlife crisis on acid with huge money problems and lacking the funds to even secure veterinary assistance to care for Jersey her beloved cat. But somehow she’s a compelling, likeable figure, something real amid the poseurs (like Tom Clancy, lampooned here. Him and his $3,000,000 advance). Irony is writ large. She imitates Bette Davis in The Little Foxes on TV, watching on her couch with Jersey. Then the TV set becomes a light box to improve the fake signatures. Grant and she make a fine double act – he’s the louche lounge lizard à la Withnail (referenced here) to her fiercely bedraggled Lesbian, conniving to her inventive. They are both prone to a bit of larceny. His double betrayal is horrible, his death weirdly apposite. It’s a beautifully constructed odd couple tragicomedy and looks and feels like the real thing – entirely without sentiment, appropriately, considering that it is all about life in the literary margins, a kind of palimpsest of an overachiever who’s no longer marketable as herself. It all happens as Manhattan alters from a kind of bohemian haven into impossibly uninhabitable real estate. Really quite wonderful. I was hiding behind these people, their names. Because if I’d actually put myself out there, done my own work, then I would be opening myself up to criticism. And I’m too much of a coward for all of that  MM#2400

You, Me & Him (2017)

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A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, and all that. Forty year old lawyer Olivia (Lucy Punch) is in a relationship with younger lazy pot-smoking artist Alex (Faye Marsay) and she desperately wants to have a baby so has fertility treatment and undergoes artificial insemination without consulting Alex, who really doesn’t want children. Then Alex gets mad drunk at party held by their freshly divorced womanising next door neighbour John (David Tennant) and has sex with him.  When Olivia does a pregnancy test Alex finds she is pregnant too. John wants to play a role in the baby’s life and their lives become incredibly complicated … You have just put my entire life into a salad spinner of fuck! This is a pot pourri of British acting talent. Actress Daisy Aitkens makes her directing debut with her own screenplay, produced by Georgia Moffett (Mrs Tennant) who appears briefly in a horrifying birthing class conducted by Sally Phillips, while another Doctor Who, Moffett’s father Peter Davison, plays a small role as a teacher trainer and her mother Sandra Dickinson appears as part of a jury. Familiar faces pop up everywhere – Sarah Parish is Alex’s friend, Simon Bird is Olivia’s brother while David Warner and Gemma Jones are her parents.  There are some truly squirmy moments as Olivia’s experience of pregnancy evinces all the worst problems – in public. Comedy lurches into tragedy 70 minutes into the running time and there is no signposting. The return to comic drama is slow but not completely unhappy, with a few scenes necessary to recalibrate the shrunken family relationship. Punch is fantastic – she’s such a fine comedienne and she gets more to play here, even if she and Marsay appear to be from very different even incompatible worlds while Tennant raises the stakes of every exchange, trying to figure out how to be the hipster daddy in a couple that has no place for him. Pain is being fisted by a 300lb rich white guy because you haven’t enough money to pay the rent