OFFICIAL SECRETS****Secret’s out: It’s Excellent


IT IS A testament to the brilliance of the writing (Gregory and Sara Bernstein based on the book by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell), the directing (Gavin Hood) and the acting (Keira Knightley) in this wonderfully exciting movie that an old, known story can retain so much of its tension and drama. The story is that of one of the early whistleblowers, Katherine Gun (back in those days when we were all shocked that governments would manufacture evidence and simply lie to its people).

Katherine worked as an eavesdropper for GCHQ (The British Intelligence agency), and is startled to open up a memo sent to her and her colleagues, requesting them, on behalf of the (US) NSA, to spy on and blackmail a number of UN Security Council countries. The intent was to strong-arm them into approving the US/UK’s intemperate dash into Iraq.

Through her covert work, she is well aware that there is no evidence of WMD’s in Iraq and is shocked at the ease with which Blair and Bush simply lie to the public about anything that can hinder their thirst for war. While the public marches, she rails privately at the TV. But when the memo is sent to her – which will now make her complicit in the lies – her conscience gets the better of her instinct for self preservation and she reluctantly sends the memo to The Observer via a friend.

And then all life turns upside down.

The movie is energized by a central question: What sort of person risks all – her marriage, her freedom, her good name – for a matter of principle? In order to answer this, Official Secrets is essentially a study in character; and as such the entire enterprise rests upon Ms. Knightley’s slender shoulders. She (who gets better with every movie) carries it off with incredible skill. She’s entirely believable (physically dressed down to appear almost like a ‘normal’ person and less startlingly attractive) as the steely, fragile, determined, scared, confident, youthful whistleblower. She has at her heart an unshakable moral core; a clear perspective of the line that separates right from wrong, no matter if the wrong is premised as the “wisdom of the government”.

There’s a telling exchange toward the end of the movie when Ms. Gun reassures one of her colleagues at GCHQ. “You did nothing wrong” she tells her. The colleague replies, “But I also did nothing right”. And therein lies the difference between the likes of Katherine Gun and most of us. We are mainly happy to do nothing wrong. Her principled need was to do something right.

The movie is also a tender love story. Katherine is not some abstract avenging angel of truth. She’s a wife and a lover and a friend…a real person, whose life is upended not merely for herself but also for her Kurdish husband (Adam Bakri): an easy target for a cornered government. Her unflinching battle for her husband’s human rights are paralleled with her own battle for the truth to stop a war based on lies. The suggestion is that the fight for love and the fight for truth perhaps stem from the same root.

Her ‘support” team (A who’s who of British drama) are equally compelling. Ralph Fiennes is Ben Emmerson, her lead lawyer from Liberty, the human rights organization regularly rubbished by the right wing tabloids. Like her, he’s a principled person…a dour, unsmiling, courageous soul whose clever defense strategy turns Katherine’s small revelation of government duplicity into the massive cover up that built the case for war.

Matt Smith (better recognized as Phillip from The Crown…or Dr. Who) is the journalist Martin Bright who broke the story. He’s perhaps the weakest character, easily outshone by Rhys Ifans as Ed Vulliamy, his counterpart based in the US: a profane, unkempt, extrovert wild-man.

And herein lies the showdown of the movie: two rotten leaders surrounded by a series of shadowy, duplicitous government ‘hench-men’ (Scotland Yard, the DPP, NSA and various thuggish ‘tails’) happy with their amoral cover of “just following orders” v Liberty as the strong arm of the law, the Fifth Estate (a truth seeking press) and of course the truth itself. Politics at its most corrupt v Principle at its most profound.

There’s no doubt that the timing of the movie’s release is strategically clear. As always the past illuminates the present. Blair and Bush (the latter shockingly being rehabilitated as a nice guy painter holding hands with Ellen De Generis) may be the centre of this story. But hovering in the background is the shadow of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, those other persons of moral outrage and courage whose fates were less fortunate than that of Katherine’s.

The other shadow is the larger more dangerous one cast by the likes of Trump and Johnson, two equally morally bankrupt leaders who, supported by an army of self-seeking lackeys and a gullible electorate no longer feel it even necessary to hide their lies.
Official Secrets masks its outrage intelligently. It’s (mainly) never preachy. It allows its characters and the truth of the story to illuminate the morality of its tale. It makes it all for must-see, compelling viewing.

Officially, that’s no secret

 

OFFICIAL SECRETS. Dir: Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky, X-Men Origins: Wolverine); With: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode (A Discovery of Witches), Matt Smith, Ralf Feinnes, Rhys Ifans, Monica Dolan (W1A), Adam Bakri Writers: Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood (Enders Game). Cinematography: Florian Hoffmeister (Johnny English Strikes Again). Production Design: Simon Rogers (Doctor Foster)

 

JOKER*****Wild


WELCOME TO TWO hours of intense, unrelenting madness in this compellingly engaging movie. Todd Phillip’s confident directing places us, mainly, in the mind of the very disturbed Arthur Fleck – the man who would become Joker- and forces us to be both voyeur and unwitting witness to a descent into madness. A skeletal Joaquin Phoenix, his body all harsh angles, is centre stage for almost the entire movie… in what must be his crowing achievement. His is as compelling a performance I’ve seen so far this year. You want to look away, but simply can’t. Phoenix’s Joker mesmerizes.

This is of course the prequel to Batman’s most evil criminal.

It’s a movie about delusion. Joker is delusional, born of a delusional mum, and a part of a body public deluded in its expectations of some sort of salvation.

From the perspective of storyline and plot, the movie tracks the path of a lonely, pathetic, put-upon weirdo (Arthur Fleck) who works as a professional clown and lives with his ageing mum (Frances Conroy) and who morphs into Joker: the un-leasher of violence and anarchy.
His is an Oedipal relationship not unlike that of Norman Bates’ in Psycho. He has dreams of becoming a professional comedian, but is handicapped by a neurological illness: a sort of laughing Tourette’s that forces involuntary cackles of hysterical laughter mainly when he’s either nervous or scared. It’s a problem that frightens people and further alienates him from them.

All the ingredients are there, festering and simmering for the explosion that’s bound to happen: a battered childhood, an incel inability to form friendships with women coupled with the wider anomie of big city isolation, repeated instances of physical abuse, with no one to offer succour and advice. All that’s needed is a gun.

For a moment, as things go downhill for him you think there may be a silver lining on the horizon when Sophie, a pretty neighbour (Zazie Beetz) falls head over heels for him. She becomes his lover, she accompanies him to his mother’s hospital bed, she comforts him.

One small problem: it’s all in his head.

And all the while, the story’s journey tracks Fleck’s psychological evolution from clown to Joker

The movie begins with Fleck applying his clown make up. He’s applying the face, the mask, the grinning expressions he needs to face his day. This mask of the happy clown is the shield he initially uses to protect his vulnerable wretched life; it’s the image of his own forced narrative of wanting to make people happy. Eventually the mask warps into the person. And Fleck becomes Joker, the demon prince of anarchy and destruction; the bringer of death not happiness.

His ally and co-conspirator in chaos is the city itself. This is a Gotham that’s falling apart: the dark, infernal subways are dirty and graffiti stained, social services have all been cut, the populace is restive and on edge. There is a building polarisation between the decadent rich and the angry poor, who are contemptuously referred to by wannabe mayor, Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s father) as “a bunch of clowns”

As Fleck descends into his own private world of anarchy and murder his relationship with the city becomes almost a symbiotic one. Gotham becomes an externalisation of his internal anguish. In a sense he IS Gotham. And as his clown face becomes his face, the angry residents of the city adopt their own clown faces, not so much to mask their identities but to identify with this, unlikely, newly risen hero. To these (deluded) citizens, theirs is the choice between the madman as existential rebel or the entitled rich (Wayne) that sneer at them.

The Gotham of the 70’s is the gestalt of today.

Or maybe, like his neighbour/lover, this may only be what he thinks or hopes is happening. We’re in a world of madness here. This is the world that the newly orphaned Bruce Wayne (parents gunned down by a clown) must confront when he matures and dons his own mask.

Bravo for DC comics. Even if their boldness in launching the first real superhero woman (Wonder Woman) floundered in the crappy Avengers wannabe follow ups, this dark, psychologically intense direction is a brave new detour in wresting superhero fluff into societal mirror.

What next? Stay tuned

 

JOKER. Dir./writer: Todd Phillips (War Dogs. The Hangover’s) With: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert de Niro, Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2), Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under), Brett Cullen (Narcos). Screenplay: Scott Silver (The Fighter). Cinematographer: Lawrence Sher (Godzilla: King of the Monsters). Production Design: Mark Frieberg (If Beale Street Could Talk). Composer: Hildur Guonadottir (Chernobyl, Sicario 2)

 

 

 

AD ASTRA** In The Cinema, No One can hear you Shout


THIS IS A richly atmospheric movie (great kudos to production designer Kevin Thompson and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema) that reaches for the stars of profundity.

It’s a space parable about self-discovery that tells the story of a highly decorated pilot (Brad Pitt in one of his expression-free modes) who is sent on a mission to find his (he thought) long dead father (Tommy Lee Jones). But Pops has become a Kurtz-like madman; a murderous recluse on a ship bound for Jupiter. He’s a man for whom the need to find extra-terrestrial life is more important than the desire to co-exist with real people. The hunger for the unknown has trumped the reality of the known. It has also trumped the reality of a son and wife way back in space time.

For Junior, the search for dad is the catalyst for his own drama of exploration; one that drives him beyond the discipline and protocols of his training and forces him to confront his own unfeeling self (he boasts that his pulse never rises above 80…never rises to a level of feeling and passion in other words). And the further he voyages away from the earth and humanity, the nearer his inner journey leads him to understand himself; a self he’s spent his life avoiding… one’s that’s perilously close to the anarchy of his father.

I’m not sure all this adds up to very much. It’s full of sound and fury…The effects certainly reach for the stars. It’s the storytelling that remains earth-bound.

It’s deadly dull. Moments of shock are punctuated with loooong periods of soporific languor.
Terrence Malik comes to mind. There are some cinema claims, such as “roller coaster ride” or “Harvey Weinstein” that are as clear a pointer to “avoid at all cost” as restaurants boasts such as “Family style” or “All You Can Eat”. One of these statements is “Terrence Malik”

Ad Astra doesn’t come near his oeuvre of abstract ponderous drivel.
But it’s not exactly light years away.

 

AD ASTRA . Dir/Writer: James Gray (The Lost City of Z). With: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D). Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema (Dunkirk, Spectre). Production Designer: Kevin Thompson (The Girl on the Train. Birdman)

 

HUSTLERS** Don’t be hustled


SO HERE’S THE oh so believable scenario: Four exotic dancers walk into a bar. One is Black, one White, one Asian and one Hispanic. They represent the four dominant races of the US. They’re a great group of sassy, sexy sisters in arms who look out for each other, earn money for their families (cute kids and a cute Asian granny) and have managed to survive the usual cast of weak, leering men.

All men are weak and leering and generally incredibly stupid.

They throw lots of money at the gyrating women and are led like lambs to the slaughter to this group of sassy sisters who hit upon a fool proof hustle: seduce men into having drinks with them (See above… “four exotic dancers walk into a bar…”), drug them and then fleece them for all they’re worth. And all the time the sassy sisters remain oh so sexy and sassy.

Who can resist?

Well clearly not a lot of movie reviewers or audiences for that matter, who have given this B movie hustle A movie reviews. Certainly J Lo’s bod and her amazing pole dancing deserves an A+ review. But despite a few catchy slogan type remarks (“there are two types of people in the world: those who throw the money and those who dance for it”) and a yearning to cast itself as a profound paean to female empowerment in a powerful patriarchy, it’s not much more than a semi stripper movie, but with better publicity and far greater coyness.

Like much of the ensemble, Ms. Lopez’ acting is all head-shaking, finger wagging, tear spouting pantomime corny (though Constance Wu does introduce a measure of restraint). The plot is that of a heist movie, but without the fun of the heist and with an aching need to take itself as seriously as the New Yorker article on which it’s based. And once the story leaves the North pole of its dancer’s pole, its compass goes haywire.

But, to (at least) give credit where it’s due, all praise must be given to Jennifer Lopez, who, like Reese Witherspoon has started her own production company, Nuyorican Productions, to do what she feels right for her (Much needed after an opus which includes ‘hits’ such as “Limitless”, “Second Act”, “Ain’t Your Mama” and that masterpiece, “Gigli”). It was a good decision based on the warm praise she’s garnered (including –unbelievably- Oscar buzz) and its second placed $34M opening.

But if you’re looking for sassy, sexy and serious, stick to Beyoncé. Skip this movie, spin a disc instead

 

 

HUSTLERS. Dir/screenplay: Lorene Scafaria. From an article by Jessica pressler. With: Constance Wu (Crazy, Rich Asians). Jennifer Lopex. Julia Stiles. Cinematographer: Todd Banhazi. Johanna Sapakie (Pole dance choreographer)

PAIN AND GLORY***** All Glory


WOW. WHAT A movie!

In this (apparently) quasi-biographical tale, Almodóvar offers us a story about a studious young boy (himself?), Salvador Malto, an only child (to a single mother, played by Penélope Cruz). His intellect and imagination become the stepping stones away from poverty toward fame, drugs and loneliness.

An invitation to Salvador – now a famous, if tired, aching and solitary film director- is the catalyst to the story that unfolds. Salvador is invited to be the guest of honour at an event celebrating one of his earliest movies…along with the star of the movie, Asier (Alberto Crespo) with whom he had a major bust up.

Having seen the movie again, after a twenty-year lapse, Salvador finds it better than he’d remembered; the acting is more profound than he’d credited it with (A complaint that was the cause of the bust up). As one of his – few- friends points out, it’s not that the movie has changed, it’s that he has.

And so begins this long remembrance of things past, in all its pain and its glory…not so much a look at how the past never leaves us, more an investigation into how the past and present co-exist and the extent to which the present helps re-evaluate the past. For the past only ever exists as one’s memory of it.

The tale unfolds with a series of encounters with the past: first his re-acquaintance with Asier, the star of the movie; then with an old lover, Leonardo (Federico Delgado from that marvellous movie, “Relatos Salvajes”), who had been inspired by Asier’s dramatisation of one of Salvador’s stories and who, on a whim, turns up at Salvador’s door. And finally the rediscovery of a portrait of him as that studious boy.

The story suggests we are the person(s) we were; who we become all depends on how we come to terms with this realisation. Thus, the ageing Salvador, battered by memories of his fractious and guilt-ridden adult relationship with a distant mother (Julietta Serrano) has become creatively dry. His inner emptiness is mirrored by his physical debilitation. And for a while, only the false joy of freebasing can lift him away from himself. But it is the memory of his first jolting, erotic thrill at seeing a naked man (Cesar Vincente) that triggers his renaissance; his re-engagement with his art (through a new script appropriately called, “The Desire”) and his re-engagement with a life free from drugs.

There are stories within stories. The old lover, Leonardo rediscovers Salvador after seeing Asier’s dramatisation of his life from from one of Salvador’s stories (about addiction). Leonardo’s presence coupled with the discovery of a portrait of the young studious Salvador (by that naked man, Cesar Vincente) resulted in the renaissance of his desire (not only of a sexual nature, but the desire to live again). And as Almodóvar, the ever sly artist indicates, all that we have seen may not be a story of a life, but a movie about a story; all culled together from memories.

It’s a film about a film about a film-maker

This is Banderas’ movie. He’s spot on, Oscar worthy perfect. He manages to balance frailty and exhaustion with enough passion to keep us on his side, willing him to do well; to convey that his agedness is as much a mental as a physical condition. But then, this is Antonio Banderas who can never really persuade us that he’s an old decrepit.

Almodóvar also excels in constantly shifting tones, from comedy to tragedy to pathos. Just like life…so much pain; so much glory

 

PAIN AND GLORY (Dolor y Gloria); Dir/Writer: Pedro Almodóvar. With: Antonio Banderas, Alberto Crespo, Federico Delgado, Penélope Cruz, Cesar Vincente. Cinematographer: José Luis Alcaine (Everybody Knows)

 

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD***** Masterpiece


Without any doubt, this has got to be seen as Tarantino’s masterpiece (aided and abetted by a barnstorming performance by Leonardo Di Caprio). It’s his loving homage to the Hollywood when TV hits such as Rawhide evolved into the Spaghetti Westerns, when Bruce Lee was Kato in the Green Hornet, and Steve McQueen mesmerised the world in The Great Escape.

Tarantino decorates his story with every neon-flashing icon of that past era to give the film an almost documentary feel. These are the touches of reality, there to coax our suspension of disbelief; to suggest that what we’re seeing is a bio pic of a famous – and real- star, while at the same time reminding us that it’s just a story; just a piece of fiction that all happened ”once upon a time…”

The story – a buddy movie at its heart – centres around the symbiotic relationship between Rick Dalton (Di Caprio as a famous TV star on the verge of a nervous breakdown) and his stunt double and alter ego, Cliff (a laconic Brad Pitt), a man who, as he admits, carries Dalton’s “[emotional] load”. It’s a juxtaposition of calm reserve (Pitt) and burning emotion (Di Caprio).

It’s a relationship that, on its most obvious level, allows Tarantino the freedom to explore the tension between pretence (Di Caprio is pretending to be Rick Dalton who pretends to be the typical Hollywood tough guy) and reality (Chris is an actual tough guy; tough enough to beat Bruce Lee).

The reality that is facing Rick is that his star is dimming, his confidence rapidly ebbing away and he’s drinking too much. As is pointed out to him by a sleazy producer (Al Pacino), Rick Dalton, the hero, is being replaced by Rick Dalton the bad guy; not the guy who wins the fights, but the one who loses them. Soon, he’s told, the good guy Rick turned bad guy Rick will become the has been Rick. Just who then is the real Rick Dalton?

The movie’s emotional high point comes as Rick, tutored about authenticity in performance by an innocent child actor (a wonderful Julia Butters, of whom I’m sure we’ll be hearing more), suffers a breakdown and confronts himself in his trailer. The confrontation yields the movie’s central truth: in the same way that art shapes its own reality, Rick must shape his. The actor needs to define himself and be defined by the integrity of his performance and not by the characters he’s pretending to be.

This, in Tarantino’s telling, is the real tragedy of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), here seen as an almost unreal person. She’s a glassy-eyed, ever happy, ditsy blonde who exists, even in her own eyes, only as a projection of a character in a B movie. “Stand next to the poster of your movie” she’s requested by a fan with a camera, “That way people will know who you are”

And the Rick Dalton people will come to remember blossoms in the typical bloody Tarantino catharsis at the end, when Dalton the man channels his tough guy performances in an exorcism of flaming savagery.

Pretence, reality, truth, fiction…Tarantino knits them all together cleverly, delightfully. The themes are serious and ‘heavy’ but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, fun movie. There is genuine chemistry between Pitt and Di Caprio; there are moments of real tension and menace and the director clearly had great fun ‘gossiping’ about the Hollywood of his invention. Cool guy Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) is seen as a bitchy, spurned (by Tate) lover. Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) is positioned as just another self obsessed, faux tough guy. Dalton’s break out moment comes in a movie being directed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond), the director whose drive gave London its Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. And the story niftily splices in Di Caprio as McQueen into The Great Escape and Robbie into a scene with Dean Martin (in The Wrecking Ball).

It could have been shorter. Some of the scenes of Rick Dalton’s movies drag on unnecessarily long; and the first fifteen minutes seem to drift.

But if anyone has earned to right to a bit of movie magic self indulgence, its Quentin Tarantino. So, for this masterpiece, he certainly deserves to be indulged.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Dir/Writer: Quentin Tarantino. With: Brad Pitt, Leonardo Di Caprio, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley (Novitiate) Julia Butters (Transparent) Mike Moh (Inhumans). Cinematographer: Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight, World War Z, Django Unchanged), Production designer: Barbara Ling (Batman and Robin)

 

FAST & FURIOUS: HOBBS & SHAW*** Faster, Furiouser, Foolisher


Count them well. Not simply your blessings (if you’ve been lucky enough to have avoided squandering multiple hours viewing this movie), but the number of heavy thudded blows given and received. I counted just over 2 billion, or the same number of £ our impoverished government will squander on preparing for October’s Brexit self harm.

This count is important as the F&F gang (Stratham, Johnson, Diesel et al) all have contracts that stipulate just how many blows they’re contractually allowed to give and receive No kidding! You see, none of these big bad men are allowed to be seen to have lost a fight to any of the other big bad men (even to Iris Elba who’s a cyborg).

They are after all mega-brands, like Coke. And brands never lose. So while Coke promises its unique kind of burpy happiness, the Diesel/Johnson/Stratham brand promise uber tough guyness. You’ll never be allowed to ever see any of them out for the count. On that you can count.
Just don’t count on this sub brand version of mega brand F&F to be anything less loud and awesomely dumb.

That said, it takes a lot of gutsy coordination (all those big trucks in one place), daredevil stunt-work and really pretty damn never-stopping kinetic directing (from David Leitch) to deliver this much firepower. That has to be admired.

The plot centres on the…do you really care?

If you do, go see it, you’ll love it. Let me count the ways.

If you don’t, then at least it also has Vanessa Kirby, who, once she stopped being Princess Margaret (from The Crown) has whupped Ethan Hunt and who’s emerged as the sexiest badass since Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel and Gabriel Union (the feisty mom from Breaking In) and Daisy Ridley and of so many others.

But who’s counting?

 

FAST 7 FURIOUS: HOBBS & SHAW. Dir: David Leitch (Deadpool 2; Atomic Blonde). With: Jason Stratham, Dwayne Johnson, Idris Elba, Vanessa Kirby, Helen Mirren, Eddie Marsden, Ryan Reynolds (uncredited). Writers (really? It took two of them?): Chris Morgan (Fast and Furious. The whole lot of them), Drew Pearce (Iron Man 3). Cinematographer: Jonathan Sela (Transformers: the Last Knight). Production designer: David Scheunemann (Deadpool 2, Atomic Blonde)