LATE NIGHT***Satire + Treacle


LATE NIGHT TELLS the story of Katherine Newbury, an English female late night TV host (Emma Thompson) whose ten year slide in ratings threaten her show, her job, and for that matter, her (haughty, self-obsessed) sense of self. The Katherine Newbury show is accused of hosting boring guests, with a dull lead-in joke routine and, worse, she’s accused of hating women. The heart of the problem is that Katherine and her program have lost touch with its audience. She has simply not moved with her audience’s times.

High drama for an often sharp comedy!

And because it’s a comedy (written by the increasingly popular Mindy Kaling), it’s allowed the plot device of introducing Molly Patel (Kaling) into the all-male, generally misogynistic, sycophantic writers bull-pen.

The introduction of a woman of colour (and an inexperienced one at that) into an all white, male writer’s team, is almost as fanciful as the idea of a female late night host on American TV. No matter, it allows the writer a wonderful opportunity to skewer the status quo (that’s killing the show): that of the entitled White male, their casual racism and their outright hostility toward any woman taking a ‘man’s job’… led by a management style (Katherine’s) based on insult and intimidation (see The Devil Wears Prada for a primer)

These are the attitudes that feed and form the show’s (or for that, read, ‘any company that resembles this profile’) increasing irrelevance.

Nothing a little “diversity” can’t solve. Apart from a healthy dollop of naïveté and chutzpah, it’s Molly’s common touch that helps re-acquaint Katherine and the writers with the daring and the authenticity that once honed their relevance and wooed their audience.

Emma Thompson is, as usual, superb. With minimum words and with the barest of expressions, she allows us in to her character’s vulnerability despite the hard protective shell of her cold-hearted bitchiness. John Lithgow is compelling as her quiet, ailing husband. He’s the solid anchor, the forgiving counterpoint to help steady his younger wife’s hard edges and career implosion.

It’s often a well-written, enjoyable movie; often funny; often sharply insightful and snappily directed by TV director Nisha Ganatra (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Dear White People).

But about half-way through, in a need to tie things up neatly, the movie looses its self confidence. The writer shies away from the truth of her, cynical, insights, to force a Hollywood gloss on things. The introductory scenes of hard-edged satire veers into emotional mawkishness. There’s a treacly rom-com-esque silliness that suggests a writer as desperate as her lead character to do anything for the approbation of her audience.

And that’s a pity. Mindy Kaling (writer: The Office; actor: Oceans Eight) is a fine up-and-coming talent. She needs a few more lessons from the likes of Armando Iannucci or even Neil Simon to add a little spicy pepper to neutralize the cloying sweetness.

 

LATE NIGHT. Dir: Nisha Ganatra. Written by: Mindy Kaling. With: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgoe, Reid Scott (Veep), Dennis O’Hare (The Good Fight). Cinematographer: Matthew Clark

 

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ROCKETMAN*** From sinner to saint in two hours


ROCKETMAN IS A well-made, delightfully enjoyable minor movie. After all, how bad can any movie be that features so many tunes that were the sound tracks of so many lives. Elton John’s music, like that of Bohemian Rhapsody’s (another movie buoyed up by the music) remains brilliantly evergreen.

The movie, that genuflects at every turn to Mr. John, veers maddeningly from the brilliant to the boorish, as it tracks the singer’s journey from unloved child through years of drug and alcohol abuse to glorious redemption.

We first meet Elton John (Taron Egerton) dressed as a glittering rhinestone devil. And we leave his story with the unambiguously hagiographic worship of his philanthropic generosity, his limitless love for David Furnish his partner and Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and of course his beautiful blonde kids.

The sinner has turned saint.

When it’s not in the puppet-master hands of the Elton John PR machine, director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) pulls of the remarkable feat of cleverly balancing campy melodrama with an old fashioned song and dance musical (Some of the numbers seem directly lifted from The West Side Story) made with a stage version squarely in mind.

And, at this level of mindless entertainment, it works.

Elton John’s ability to conjure music out of nowhere (with Bernie Taupin’s extraordinary lyrics as the catalyst) remains a joy. And I wish more were made of the sheer magic of these moments of creation. The music, and especially Taupin’s lyrics, drives the story forward. They underline and interpret the ever-varying phases of John’s emotional pulse (And now I finally understand what “Yellow Brick Road” is all about). Apart from a plot-structuring device, Taupin’s lyrics are an intelligent way of showcasing how you can never really separate the artist from his creation. (Though I missed the pleasure of simply sinking into the music…allowing it to breath and live its own life without the need to peg it to a storyline)

The story itself is woven around the theme of the life enhancing centrality of love (Having been denied the love from his parents as a child, Elton must (re) learn how to love himself before he can find the true love of others. The fabricated persona, Elton John, must embrace the real person, Reginald Kenneth Dwight as part of his healing process).

We learn of the singer’s life-journey through a series of extended flashbacks during his AA sessions (after he’d finally hit his drug addled, alcohol deranged bottom)

As the singer, Taron Egerton (Robin Hood, Kingsman), who did his own singing, is, like his imitation of John’s voice, credible. But (since the comparison must be made) he has none of that X-factor magnetism that Rami Malek brought to his interpretation of Freddie Mercury. In that story, producer Brian May wanted a feel good movie that celebrated the self destructive tragedy of Freddie Mercury…by avoiding too many of the gay, nasty bits. Rocketman wallows in the nasty bits in order to deliver its feel good value with the reassurance that “It all ends happily after”

I’m not sure I quite believe either.

The movie pretends to be a psychological study of the singer…how his demons and his fears shaped his descent into ‘madness’. It’s not. The use of John’s confessions during his AA sessions is a lovely structural device. But it’s not much more than that: a device.

The stand out presence on the film though, is that of Richard Madden (Bodyguard, GOT) who up until now has been pretty much no more than a handsome one-note star. However Madden’s John Reid (Elton John’s manager and lover) is seductive, charming, devious, underhand and Machiavellian. It feels as though with him (and what seems like real bad blood with Elton John) the writer (Lee Hall: Billy Elliot) was given a much freer hand.

So, in summary. Rocketman is a mixed bag. This is a movie with none of the five star gravitas of some of those great movies about musicians (Jamie Foxx’ Ray for instance). But it’s a well done, reasonably serious, joyous romp.

 

ROCKETMAN. Dir: Dexter Fletcher. With: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Stephen Graham. Writer: Lee Hall. Costume Designer: Julian Day (Bohemian Rhapsody. Robin Hood). Cinematographer: George Richmond (Tomb Raider, Kingsman)

 

 

THE SISTERS BROTHERS** Turgid


SOMETIMES, IN ORDER to appreciate how effective a good director is, it’s helpful to be reminded of how dreadful a bad director can be. The Sisters Brothers is a fine example of this. It’s a gripping enough story: the brothers, Eli and Charlie (badass gunslingers both, stunningly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix as the wild one and John C. Reilly as the slow, steady one) are sent on a mission by the shadowy Commodore (Rutger Hauer) – perhaps representing the spirit of lawlessness – to kill someone (played by the always outstanding Riz Ahmed). He’s being tracked by an ace tracker (Jake Glyllenhaal…compelling as usual).

But the hunters are themselves being hunted (for complicated reasons) by a posse of other gunslingers. There are gunfights, shadowy killers emerging suddenly in the night to finish off our sleeping protagonists, amputations, sibling rivalry, showdown gunfights, honky-tonk saloon bars; even a nicely scripted idea about the emergence of law in a place of lawlessness.
And it is all as dull as dishwater.

There’s not for even a moment, a quiver of dramatic tension; never for a second do we feel the tremor of threat. It’s as though French director Jacques Audiard (of the equally boring Rust and Bone) deliberately set out to either neutralize the excitement and thrill inherent in these Western tropes or to reinterpret them through the lense of French ennui. It’s a work of dramatic castration.

He certainly works hard at fleshing out the idiosyncrasies of his two main characters. We see them riding in the night (all very poorly lit by cinematographer Benoit Debie) talking, talking, talking. But they never for a moment feel like anything other than someone’s artistic idea. The Fargo Brothers, or Tarantino have the nous to seduce us into accepting that there might be decency and humanity beneath the rough exterior of killers. Not so Audiard. His rough killers are shoehorned by his theme (of redemption and the taming of the wild wild West) into retch-worthy cutesy-ness.

That is, if you stay awake long enough to reach the end

 

THE SISTERS BROTHERS. Dir/Writer: Jacques Audiard. Screenplay: Thomas Bidegain (Rust and Bone) from a book by Patrick DeWitt. With: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed. Cinematography: Benoit Debie

 

US**** “The horror. The horror”


THE MAYHEM HAVING ensued, there’s a moment when Kitty’s doppelganger (Elisabeth Moss), smeared in blood, looks up to the screen and seems to howl in agony. The howl turns into a riotous laugh. And so it is with this masterful movie. Jordan Peele (Get Out), who wrote, directed and produced, has managed to find a tone (which he has made distinctly his) that balances fear and horror with outrageous black comedy; all as an expression of a cleverly written examination of the US’ divided soul.

The story is that of a typical Black middle class family, the Wilsons (Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) on holiday in their well-appointed holiday home in Santa Cruz. It’s a place they’d not visited in years. Mom (Lupita) we know, had suffered a trauma in her childhood. She’d wandered off in a nearby fairground and, seeking shelter from the rain, found herself in a hall of mirrors; a place that promised to help you “find yourself”. What she found there scarred her for life.

This disturbing past would return with a vengeance on this first night of their holiday when a family, eerily like theirs, all dressed in (blood) red boiler suits and brandishing scissors show up outside their front door.

Here the terror begins. These people are of course the family’s darker – evil – selves. And they come not in peace. Director Peele throws all the tropes of terror at us: the usual silly people tip-toeing into dark cellars while their shadowy selves wait to do them harm; bloodied, battered bodies that disappear only to reappear at very inconvenient moments; and large scissors that snip, snip, snip.

Somehow, it’s not nearly as terrifying as it sounds…partly because Peele has such a devilish sense of humor that he always finds a laugh-out-loud moment to lighten the tension. There’s a marvelous moment just as the doppelgängers storm the home of an embattled Kitty (Moss as a bored, entitled, alcoholic lady of leisure). She commands her voice activated Alexa to call the police, but Alexa misunderstands and out booms the NWA’s hip hop Fuck tha Police.

And these evil doppelgängers are everywhere. It’s as though the entire nation has been taken over by their darker selves. Walt Whitman’s famous summation of America: “I am large, I contain multitudes” has been perverted to “I am large, I contain evil”. As the director makes clear, this evil is “from sea to shining sea”

This is a vision of an America divided unto itself…a vision of a nation co-opted by the most dangerous side of its character; by a side long buried under layers of decency and ‘middle class values’, but which have now been unleashed. And once unleashed can never be bottled up again. Welcome to the post Trump, post Brexit, post Bolsonaro world.

It’s the new Us.

Lupita Nyong’o is tremendous; a force-field holding the movie together. She’s compellingly watchable as the image of a person torn between fear, incomprehension and the resolute determination to protect her family (I am reminded of Gabrielle Union in Breaking In). She’s the one you know you can depend on to protect you.

Or can you?

Peele textures his vision with a series of absurdist images and symbols (A room with an infinity of caged rabbits; a preacher offering a Biblical warning; the repetition of the numbers 11-11; a news report from 1986 about Hands Around America) and manages a last frame twist that M. Night Shyamalan would eat his hand off for.

All good fun; and though there certainly are a few heart stopping moments (ably abetted by Mike Abels’ tremendous sound track) this isn’t by any means a horror movie. Rather it’s a deadly serious comedy about where we now find ourselves.

Therein lies the horror.

US. Dir/Writer: Jordan Peele. With: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss. Composer: Michael Abels (Get Out). Cinematography: Mike Gioulakis (Glass). Production Design: Ruth De Jong

#movies1 #us-movie

 

 

 

CAPTAIN MARVEL*** Marvel-lous


I HAVE TO take my hat off (were I wearing one) to Marvel Studios. In the last twelve months, they’ve broken through glass ceilings of race (with Black Panther) and now gender (with the once male, now rebooted as female, Captain Marvel). OK DC Comics pipped them on the latter with Wonder Woman. But who’s quibbling. The investment in what is already a hugely profitable Black and now female led superhero franchise is some achievement. Corporate America is recognizing Black people and women…in positions of authority…worth looking up to. What will they think of next?

The movie is absolute fun. And this in no small part due to the infectious charm of Brie Larson (heartily forgiven for Kong: Skull Island) as its eponymous hero (heroine?). She’s probably the first superhero who talks, laughs, drinks, and gets pissed off like a real person. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was a magnetic presence…but always larger than life; always Amazonia. Not so Brie aka Captain Carol Danvers of Earth, aka Vers from the planet Hala, aka Captain Marvel. She’s the uber ideal of the girl next door (some neighborhood!), who looks like someone you’d like to chat up. But who just happens to be a goddess.

And that adjective is not applied lightly. Captain Marvel can not only shoot photons of energy from her fists, she can slice through most things with her laser beam eyes, fly at supersonic speeds and disable battalions of soldiers with a twirl of her arms. Eat your heart out Superman.

The story charts her rise from trainee soldier on her planet (under the tutelage of the dodgy Yon-Rogg, otherwise recognized as Jude Law) to goddess on ours via a series of vaguely understood flash-backs. Think of her journey as The Bourne Identity in Space. She crashes on earth in a Blockbuster store…in that time of very slow dial up, brick sized cell phones and a youthful Agent Fury (The, sadly, inescapable Samuel L Jackson). The earth, she is told, is being overrun by the Skrulls – a shape-shifting race (from whom she was escaping when she crashed here) who must be eradicated.

And here’s where co-writers/directors Anna Boden’s and Ryan Flack’s plot differs from the usual (militaristic, quasi fascist) super hero trope where some implacable existential evil has to be defeated at all cost. Danvers/Vers/Marvel finds herself called upon to champion the needs of an endangered group of refugees. They’re desperate people fleeing persecution at home and simply seeking a safe haven. Husbands are being separated from wives and children from parents. They’re beaten up, imprisoned, demonized as terrorists and shot.

Sound familiar?

Vers must figure out how to separate victim from perpetrator, friend from enemy. She must recognize that in a world of shape shifters and shiftier friends, looks can be deceiving.

Only then she can unleash all those photons, laser beam eyes, and energy blasts.

And she does it all with the help of Maria (English actress Lashana Lynch) her BFF, who sadly thought she’d been killed six years ago (And who is remarkedly unphased by her rebirth as a goddess). Said friend is an ace pilot, a single mother AND Black.

So imaginative, these Hollywood writers!

It’s a visually sumptuous movie as well. Production designer Andy Nicholson (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) and costume designer Sanja Milkovic Hays (Star Trek Beyond) fill the screen with wonderfully imaginative space craft and sexy Wakanda-esque body suits.

Now let’s hope Brie Larson doesn’t succumb to the curse of the Marvel universe where once lauded acting talent (Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, Elisabeth Olsen, Robert Downey Jr. Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo et al) strut and flex and pose and slowly die.

 

CAPTAIN MARVEL. Writer/Director: Anna Boden and Ryan Flack. Writers: Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Screenplay; Tomb Raider). With: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Djimon Hounsou. Cinematograher: Ben Davis (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Production designer: Andy Nicholson (Gravity). Costume designer: Sanja Milkovic Hays (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor)

 

 

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK***Admirable and Flawed


IT’S A STORY of sweet, innocent love brought down by systemic racism and judicial corruption. In the bigoted US, hate easily defeats love and at the end of Barry Jenkins’s very tender, moving (if unduly leisurely) adaptation of James Baldwin’s book, you’re torn between tears and tearing things down.

The book (and the movie) shows us a world circa 1974. After forty years and a Black President, precious little has changed; with Trump in power, things have moved backward, hate has risen and guilty of living while Black is an even more entrenched ‘crime’

Tish (Kiki Lane in her first major movie role) and Fonny (Stephan James: Selma) have known each other since childhood. They live in a bubble of each other’s love with a chemistry between the two actors that feels authentic and heartfelt. Fonny is a craftsman in wood (He can’t bring himself to be called an artist) and like all artists, he must create something out of nothing…a life, a family, a future. Like the empty loft space they plan to rent, they must both imagine the walls, imagine the furniture, imagine the home for their family idyll.

What they couldn’t imagine is that Fonny would get Liam Neeson-ed (the need to find any Black man guilty for an individual Black man’s crime) by a racist cop (Ed Skrein: Deadpool) and sent down just as Tish becomes pregnant with his child.

Jenkins (Moonlight) tells his story through a series of flash backs, alternating between the innocent sweetness of their naive love and the terrible tragedy of a system stacked against the likes of a young Black man who’d pissed off a cop. He intercuts the story with actual news photos of Black men being beaten up, harassed and chain-ganged. It’s a means of paralleling the actual with its fiction, the facelessness of institutionalised racism with the more moving reality of people we get to know.

This of course was Baldwin’s brilliance: his ability to make tangible the Black experience through seducing us into their lives, not as political exemplars, but as real people.

And here’s my problem with this film. Though Jenkins’ directing impressively brings the audience very up-close with his characters, as though we’re there in the room with them, only the mother (a wonderful Regina King) and the father (Colman Domingo: The Butler) feel real.

Tish and Fonny are bland, cutesy lovers who never rise above an idea, above their thematic intent. Jenkins’ use of newsreel ups the anger. But it’s also a cop out…as though he lacked the self-confidence of his (or Baldwin’s) creations to illustrate the idea and the anger driving the story. They’re a charming couple, but they feel inauthentic; the story offers us no pathways to their inner lives, to the ways circumstances are shaping their world-views. They remain mere figureheads in service of a polemic.

Of course as our coarsened world regresses, any popular entertainment, from Black Panther to Get Out to …Beal Street, that celebrates that Black lives do matter, is worth celebrating. There was a time not long ago when it was anathema to show Black people kissing on the screen. In …Beal Street, they’re actually screwing (clumsily, awkwardly).

Progress I suppose

 

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. Dir/Writer: Barry Jenkins (from the book by James Baldwin). With: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo. Cinematographer: James Laxton (Moonlight). Production designer: Mark Friedberg (The Amazing Spider-Man 2)

 

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME***** Yes


“All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?”

THIS IS A well told, fascinating story (in the “watching a car crash” type of fascination) of Lee Israel, a cranky, friendless alcoholic biographer, fallen on hard times (MeIissa McCarthy in her most compelling role to date). In order to pay the rent, she turns the sale of a letter to her from Katherine Hepburn and the chance discovery (and petty theft) of one from Fanny Bryce into the full-blown business of literary forgeries. She basically invents convincingly ‘real’ letters from famous (and dead) authors, forges their signatures and flogs them to any one of a swath of mainly dodgy dealers.

Along the way, she hooks up – “befriends” is too strong a word – with an old acquaintance and fellow drunk, Jack (Richard E Grant as a charismatically engaging loser)

Two unlikeable reprobates, on the wrong side of the law, sharing their booze and their misery.

She, in particular, is the kind of person you try hard to avoid. She’s selfish, abusive, and hostile to any attempt at friendship or empathy (other than to her dying cat). Even her many years as a modestly successful biographer – immersing herself into and channeling the lives of others – was really just a way of escaping herself, her own life.

Even Lee didn’t like being around Lee.

Jack, who bumps into her in a bar (naturally), is more naturally charming: a homeless, ageing, gay libertine with a shady past and no future, still clinging to his fading looks to seduce whoever’s within reach.

This isn’t a feel-good movie. There is no hidden inner core of decency just waiting to be unveiled in a moment of heart-warming redemption. The (brilliantly constructed) movie, based on Ms. Israel’s autobiography is too honest to fall for that Hollywood con.

And perhaps this is what makes it such compelling viewing. There’s an authenticity to it; it pulls no punches, offers no sermonising, arrives at no artificially shaped, life-ennobling moral. It simply leads us into this sordid world of personal dishonesties, and lets us come to our own conclusions. Lee -honestly- feels no regrets for her dishonesty; for having bamboozled collectors (seen as a generally shifty bunch of underhand wheeler-dealers anyway). And she’s never anything but honest in owning up to her dishonesty…to pay for her crime.

In its own idiosyncratic way, this honesty about her dishonesty opens up the pathway to the discovery of her authentic voice. Instead of hiding herself in the lives of others, she finally finds her own life one worth living and writing about. In a sense, crime does pay.

Both actors are riveting. Both are deserving of their Oscar nominations. (It’s impossible to imagine the roles in any other hands. Apparently Julianne Moore was initially considered for the lead role. Terrible thought. ). And they both deliver such fully convincing portraits that it’s impossible not to be hooked…not to be one with the director (Marielle Heller in her first major movie) and fall in love with her subjects, disreputable though they may be.

Heller’s movie is as brilliant a piece of portrait ‘painting’ as any Rembrandt. The portrait may be of two sad, depressing people. It’s far from a sad, depressing portrait.

Such a miss on the part of the Oscar’s that this heralded movie was not nominated for Best Movie

 

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? DIR: Marielle Heller. Writer: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty. With: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E Grant (Logan, Jackie), Jane Curtin (The Spy Who Dumped Me). Cinematographer: Brandon Trost (Bad Neighbours)