Monday, February 20, 2023


A millennial trendy antiquarian bookdealer meets cute a pretty young girl and starts a love affair unreasonably quickly.  So begins a tricksy, slippery, addictive, knowingly post-modern thriller. 

Sadly, reader, I'm not here to tell you about Netflix' smash hit TV serial killer show You.  Rather, I am here to tell you about Benjamin Caron's distinctly mediocre crime "thriller", SHARPER.

The bookseller is an earnest trust fund kid called Tom (Justice Smith) and the girl is Sandy (Briana Middleton).  She needs a bunch of money to get rid of a personal entanglement, he hands it over, she leaves, he falls into a broken-hearted depression.  So ends the first act of this film. We then move back to Sandy's story, and this is a film about con artists so you get the play here. She is being groomed to the con by Sebastian Stan's charming psychopath Max, and he's apparently into another, bigger con, as his mother (Julianne Moore) is handily dating a billionaire (John Lithgow).

It's hard to say much about how and why this film doesn't work without ruining the plot. That said, if you watch a lot of thrillers or read a lot of detective fiction, you'll probably figure it out half way through as I did. Once that happens, it's just tab A into slot B to the end.

My issue with the film is that it doesn't have the ambition to do anything visually interesting or to make any social commentary or to interrogate the concept of the con. This is a very basic film once you get beyond the four part character-led structure. With all that plutocratic wealth on show, and all the sheen, one might expect more satire, or more wit. But no. This is rather basic. And the sum is less than its parts. 

SHARPER is rated R and has a running time of 116 minutes. It is available to stream on Apple TV.


Writer-director-actor Sarah Polley returns to our screens with the critically-acclaimed WOMEN TALKING.  It is based on a book by Miriam Toews which is in turn based on the true story of mass sexual assault in a Mennonite community in Bolivia in 2011.  Hundreds of women were gassed into unconsciousness in their own homes and raped.  When they complained to the Elders they were gaslit. Finally they caught a man in the act and had to decide whether to forgive, leave or stay and fight. 

This is the decision portrayed in this film. The men have gone to bail the attackers leaving the women home with the schoolteacher (Ben Whishaw).  They convene a secret vote, and when that is tied, nominate a handful of women to debate the issue and make a decision for them all, with the schoolteacher taking minutes.  The stakes could not be higher - earthly safety from attack versus expulsion from the community and therefore from the kingdom of heaven.

The range of female experience and reaction is circumscribed by the womens' subjugation. They tell us that they barely have the language to articulate what has been done to their bodies. They cannot read or write and do not possess a map with which to leave. Their religious belief and in-grained misogyny complicates their decision. But even within the limited scope of their intellectual freedom there is disagreement. Jessie Buckley's character is married to an abusive husband but sees no possibility of escape, having been told explicitly and implicitly to forgive and endure all her life.  On the other end of the spectrum, Claire Foy's character wants to fight and kill and be avenged. When we learn why she is so particularly angry it is a blow upon a bruise. 

I suspect that how far viewers respond to this film will depend on how far they are willing to accept that it is a "wild act of female imagination".  An opening title card tells us that it is, of necessity, incredible and an on-the-nose allegory of the Me Too movement.  The women are therefore incredibly articulate, despite their lack of formal education, and the dialogue and blocking can come across like a university debate on a theatre stage.  

I was willing to grant the film my suspension of disbelief, and indeed was given no choice in the matter because the power of the subject matter and performances carried me forward into this strange, anachronistic, hermetically-sealed world. It seems wrong to single out a particular player in a very strong ensemble cast, but Sheila McCarthy as Greta had a devastatingly quiet power that cut me off at the knees. 

But the visionary mind here is that of Sarah Polley, which is why it feels so bizarre that this film should be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, but Polley should be overlooked for Best Director. 

It is her vision that centres the film on the female experience, and never shows us one of the attackers, and barely lets Ben Whishaw speak except in response to what the women need. It is Polley who decides to show the attacks in flashback and from above, making us feel the horror without ever being exploitative or pandering to the male gaze. It is Polley who has the confidence to sentence us to "merely" watch women talking - women who have hitherto been forbidden from having a voice, or thoughts, or liberty. It is Polley who creates a vision of a dark, claustrophobic, colour-drained world that feels so anachronistic that even a pop song by The Monkees seems shockingly new. 

The result is a film that feels urgent, and relevant, and shocking but also sadly not so. A film that shows female anger and resignation, and challenges us to ask what kind of world we have created that these women might escape to, and what consequence their male ally will face. 

WOMEN TALKING does what all great films do - it makes us ask questions of ourselves and our society while at the same time impacting us emotionally. I felt deeply invested in the fate of these women, and heartbroken at the choice presented to them.

WOMEN TALKING is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 104 minutes. It played Telluride, Toronto and London 2022. It was released in the USA on December 23rd and in the UK last week.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

YOUR PLACE OR MINE (zero stars)

Aline Brosh McKenna, the screenwriter of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA and 27 DRESSES, returns to our screens with her debut directorial rom-com, YOUR PLACE OR MINE. I say rom-com, but this parlous excuse for a film is neither romantic nor comedic. There is no chemistry between the leads, Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher, and no laugh out loud moments. Even Tig Notaro can't save it. What's worse, the way in which this film deals with the real problems of school bullying and recovery from addiction, are borderline insulting.  No-one actually does any work on themselves in this film. All of life's problems can be fixed by throwing money at mean kids, and having good connections to influential businesspeople.  Maybe this is indeed Aline Brosh McKenna's experience of life. It doesn't fly with normal people.

Witherspoon plays a single mum in Los Angeles who complains about her kid's' medical costs but can apparently afford a beautiful quirky pretty house unlike anything I've ever seen in LA. She works as an accountant but is a book lover. Her best friend is Ashton Kutcher's recovering addict who lives a sleek, rich batchelor life in New York.  They house swap for a week when she needs to take some accountancy exams in New York and her babysitter bails.  He tries to fix her life by making her kid popular at school by pandering to the superficial demands of the bullies. She tries to fix his life by handing in a manuscript to a cute influential publisher she just happens to meet in a bar. It all ends happily ever after. 

The whole thing just hangs on the screen like a damp squib.  One cannot imagine Kutcher and Witherspoon actually having a relationship. They don't seem to be enjoying their time together at all. It's utterly predictable throughout.  The only reason to watch this is to hate watch it, and that's no good for anyone.

YOUR PLACE OR MINE is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 109 minutes. It's streaming on Netflix.


The 1980s were a dark time in England - strikes, recession, homophobic scares over AIDS and then, as a direct consequence of fear of the "gay plague", the introduction of Section 28, preventing local governments from "promoting" the gay lifestyle. Overnight a bunch of schoolteachers, who were probably closeted anyway because society was homophobic, found themselves at genuine risk of losing their jobs if outed. Never mind if they were good at their jobs and really cared about the kids they taught.  The fact that they were "deviants" precluded them from being teachers.

Georgia Oakley's assured debut feature, BLUE JEAN, is an attempt to dramatise the moral quandary Section 28 put teachers in, as 'don't ask don't tell' forced them back into the closet. It centres on a dedicated and charismatic sports teacher called Jean, played by Rosy McEwan. She is out to her family but not to her school, and in a relationship with the more comfortably out Viv (Kerrie Hayes).  The fact that Jean is more guarded is already a source of tension in their relationship, even before Section 28 announces its presence on news reports.  When it comes, it's a heavy bludgeon of prejudice on top of a deep layer of heteronormative pop culture, as symbolised here by the iconic 80s dating show, Blind Date.  Matters are brought to a head when new girl Lois (Lucy Halliday) sees Jean in a gay social club and clearly looks to her for support as she's bullied at school. The question is whether Jean will compromise her secrecy to stand up for Lois and what is right. 

What I like about this film is that it's willing to show its lead character as morally compromised but not judge her harshly for that. At the end of the film there's a wonderfully joyous gay social and one of the activist members of the group explains to Lois that the people in the closet who are in professional jobs help in their own way, by donating money to the cause. The viewer may or may not find peace with that, but given the clearly depicted nastiness of the environment I have a lot of sympathy with it. 

I also love that this is one of the few films that I can remember that centres the lesbian experience, and Northern lesbians at that!  Moreover, it depicts a vibrant, supportive, wonderfully vital lesbian culture through the social club and squat. Even more rare, the film shows a lesbian couple enjoying sex and intimacy in a way that feels authentic and does not pander to the male or straight gaze. In so many ways, this film is unique and wonderfully unapologetic. 

Finally, I really love writer-director Georgie Oakley's colour palette and framing, and the lead performances. I defy anyone not to cheer with joy when Jean finally tells a misogynistic suburban divorcee that she's gay. But for the most part her character is more slippery, subtle and nuanced and all the better for that. 

BLUE JEAN has a running time of 97 minutes and is rated 15. It played Venice and London 2022 and is currently on release in the UK.

Tuesday, February 07, 2023


I said pretty much everything I wanted to say about Whitney Houston in my review of the two documentaries that came out after her death, Kevin MacDonald's WHITNEY and Nick Broomfield’s WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME? I felt the latter was particularly insightful about the problems Whitney faced due to her sexuality in a homophobic world; her persona as a post-racial artist in a highly racially charged world; and the less that ideal family life that certainly included drugs from the start, and potentially also sexual abuse. The docs were both good but both helped and hindered by lack of co-operation with the family.  By contrast, this new fictionalised biopic is both helped and hindered by the reverse.

Clive Davis, Whitney's record label CEO, is one of the producers on the film, and as played by Stanley Tucci is an avuncular witty and caring presence. No shit. The villains of the piece are her controlling and exploitative father (Clarke Peters), and the burden of expectations of an ever-greater entourage and family and public.  Bobby Brown is unlikeable as an abusive adulterer but Whitney's drug use is conveniently enabled by an anonymous white - natch - drug peddler. The film mostly proceeds as a series of set-piece performances that we are already intimately aware of, and while Naomie Ackie does a really great job imitating Whitney's facial expressions, it's just not the same as watching the old footage. The problem is that when you devote tens of minutes to music montages, there's very little space left for actual explorative dramatic writing, and even if there was, I'm not sure writer Anthony McCarten would be the man for the job, given his hackneyed  work here and on BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY.

I think anyone embarking on a project like this - or any artist interpreting a subject that has already been treated many times -  should ask themselves what they can bring to the table. What is their particular take - their particular insight? Or failing that, what is it that the medium of fiction film can bring that documentary can't? Well, clearly if we're just imitating Whitney's videos and concert performances that's low value add, if not value negative to watching the real footage. What a dramatic treatment COULD have brought is real insight into her state of mind, and the emotional toll of being closeted, hated by her own black peers, and exploited by her own family. I wanted less music and more drama. Still, you shouldn't review the film that wasn't made, just the one in front of you. And it's fine. Really fine. But the docs are better.

WHITNEY HOUSTON: I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY has a running time of 144 minutes and is rated PG-13. It was released last December. 


As easy as it is to be cynical about awards season hoopla, it is a marvel that such a nakedly commercial enterprise still manages to shine a light on small independent films like this.  One gasps at the assured storytelling of first time feature director-writer Colm Bairead.  This isn't the only similarity THE QUIET GIRL shares with another astonishing and Oscar-nominated first feature, AFTERSUN.  Both films have a willingness to tell a profound emotional story in which nothing and everything happens - films in which love and grief and melancholy suffuse the atmosphere, and in which we focus on an earnest story about fathers and daughters.

THE QUIET GIRL is based upon a short story by Claire Keegan, whose Small Things Like These was my pick of the Booker Prize longlist last year.  That title would as well fit this story.  As it opens, we see a young, sensitive, quiet girl called Cait stuck in a noisy, violent, dark, chaotic, cramped house full of unwanted children, a pregnant mother and an alcoholic father. Seemingly arbitrarily, Cait is chosen to go and live with the mother's childless and older relatives who live in a modest but well-ordered working farm. The contrast is stark.  Eibhlín and Sean are emotionally worn but kind and caring, even if it takes Sean a while to learn how to warm up.  They are nurturing and proud and appreciate her quiet self-restraint.  Over the course of the film we come to find out the reason for their melancholy and see the sparks of hope and love that this relationship gives them and Cait. By the end of the film I felt utterly invested in their future and profoundly moved. 

All this is testament to the restrained and nuanced performances from the three leads - newcomer Catherine Clinch as Cait and Carrie Crowley and Andrew Bennett as her foster parents. It's also testament to the way in which Bairead and DP Kate McCullough choose to frame action within early 80s Ireland's cramped rooms that seem to contain a thousand emotions.  The choice of Academy ratio really works here. 

THE QUIET GIRL is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 94 minutes. It played Berlin 2022 and was released last year in the USA and UK. It is nominated for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar. 

Sunday, February 05, 2023


Kenya Barris (BLACKISH) and Jonah Hill team up to write and then respectively direct and star in this new politically charged rom-com YOU PEOPLE.  Jonah Hill plays a Jewish broker called Ezra who feels lost in life and pressured to get married. He hates his office job and has an affinity for black hip-hop culture, which he expresses in a podcast with his best - black - friend Mo (Sam Jay).  He falls in love with a black girl called Amira (Lauren London) and it all goes swimmingly until they have to meet each other's respective parents.  

Ezra's parents (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny) are embarrassingly but unintentionally racist. Their racism is the kind that comes out of a lack of experience of inter-racial friendship, cultural ignorance, but an awkward desire to be woker-than-woke. It is no less demeaning to its target despite its lack of intentionality.   Amira's parents (Nia Long and a very subdued Eddie Murphy) are political activists inspired  by the deeply anti-semitic Louis Farrakhan, but after an early skirmish we never actually get into that.  Their racism seems intentional and well-considered, born of experience and ideology.  They simply do not trust or want their daughter in a non-black relationship.  

Things come to a head and then resolve in true rom-com style.  That is achieved through Ezra's mum apologising to Amira for her behaviour and - natch - on behalf of all Jewish people. Amira's dad apologises for his prejudiced behaviour toward Ezra, period. We never actually interrogate the anti-semitisim inherent in Farrakhan's teaching. Clearly there's an asymmetry here that David Baddiel has rightly called out, especially as it so clearly demonstrated in his superb and polemical essay Jews Don't Count

The thing is, I really agree with David Baddiel and I know I should mark this film down on account of it, but honestly, I just had a lot of fun with this film. It may be flawed but I think it made an earnest and honest attempt to deal with the reality of inter-racial dating in contemporary so-called liberal America. The conversations between Ezra and his friend Mo were fascinating, provocative and frankly entertaining. I would legit listen to that podcast if it existed. I believed in Jonah Hill's confused, frustrated and then touchingly sweet boyfriend. I believed in Amira's smart, strong, creative, supportive girlfriend. I rooted for them. And if the end was hokey, well that's just the genre, and if the apologies were imperfect, even that felt like a wish-fulfilment fantasy that wouldn't have happened IRL. So yeah, I really enjoyed YOU PEOPLE and I admired the relatively restrained deeply felt performance from Jonah Hill. More of this, please.

YOU PEOPLE has a running time of 117 minutes and is rated R. It is streaming on Netflix.


PLANE ain't nothing but a good, stupid time.  It's just an honest silly action film, and feels no shame in that.  Gerard Butler stars as Brodie Torrance which should tell you everything you need to know about the film. He's ex-RAF, a widower, proudly Scottish, and now flies commercial jets. He just needs to get the final bunch of passengers to Tokyo and get home to his teenage daughter, COMMANDO style.  But bad weather forces an emergency landing on an island that happens to be run by TROPIC THUNDER style armed-to-the-nuts ransoming rebels.  The good news is that Brodie, while ageing and out of breath, still has moves, and he's also transporting a French Foreign legion soldier wanted for murder - Mike Colter aka Luke Cage aka the predictable action hero with a heart.  So the two of them set about keeping the passengers safe until Tony Goldwyn's airline exec's private rescue mercenaries show up.

The action set pieces are great fun as is Butler's brand of low-key smarmy humour. I like that they acknowledge he's human.  He gets puffed out after fighting off a rebel in a telephone exchange.  When he's succeeded in landing the plane at the end he takes a moment just to let the adrenaline run down and to have a bit of a manly cry.  I also love  how they film the plane. There's a really great shot at the end where they frame it from the perspective of the top of the fin, perfectly symmetrical. And I'm not going to lie. Under direction from Jean Froicois Richet (MESRINE), I was seriously stressed out in the final set-piece, totally involved in whether the plane would make it.  So mock it all you like, this film may be hokey, but it works!

PLANE has a running time of 107 minutes and is rated R. It is on global release.

Friday, February 03, 2023


PAMELA: A LOVE STORY is a fascinating documentary in which Pamela Anderson tells her life story in her own terms. This is of renewed fascination given the recent miniseries Pam & Tommy, which Pamela obviously resents and is triggered by - correct use of phrase there.  

We begin with Pamela as a young girl in Canada, with really haunting revelations of her being abused by her babysitter and then raped as schoolgirl. She gets on a bus to America and finds herself being photographed nude for Playboy and apparently loving it - feeling in control and baring all on her terms. She then famously meets and marries the rock drummer Tommy Lee, gets pregnant and is living in newlywed bliss when some schmuck steals and sells their home videos cut for all the dirty bits.  This is so evidently a violation as to be shocking decades later and it clearly radically impacted Pamela - from her losing her first child, to fearing the loss of her second, to being verbally abused on the stand when she tries to sue for exploitation.  Effectively the defense argues she's a slut so she doesn't deserve protection. She settles just to protect her health and that of her unborn child.

This is the end of Pamela as we knew her.  She becomes a joke and unemployable beyond schlock self-pastiching cameos. She largely disappears from public view and into a series of marriages to unsuitable men, but always searching for romance and true love. What's amazing is seeing how apparently well-adjusted her kids are, and how close and loving they all are, and apparently how well she has co-parented with Tommy Lee.  It's also shocking to see how naive she seems about money and just the nature of being in a business as exploitative as show. There's something almost wonderful and admirable in her ability to just keep on getting back up and putting herself out there, most recently as a guest star in Chicago on Broadway.  Overall, I was just really thankful to get this time with her, and have the real story behind the miniseries, which I now view in an entirely different light.

PAMELA: A LOVE STORY has a running time of 112 minutes.


is a harmless and likeable bit of rom-com slash socialist agitation. Naturally, its ham-fisted politics aren't entirely sympathetic to those of us at the Blog formerly known as Movie Reviews for Greedy Capitalist Bastards. But the film managed to tap into my nostalgia for Def Leppard so it's all good.  The two stars here are for each of the hit songs I found myself joyously singing along to at the end of the film.

Roy Kinnear plays Dave - a real-life successful Northern businessman who decides to step in and make small loans to his local community with the Global Financial Crisis sees credit tighten up.  He's such a good egg that he donates all the profits to charity.  The endeavour is so successful at boosting his local community that he decides to become a proper bank - the Bank of Dave - and hires a young lawyer (Joel Fry) to help him make the application.  But here's where it gets pantomime-y - because every folk hero needs a big bad nasty evil overlord. Think Robin of Sherwood and King John.

So we have Hugh Bonneville and various others play heartless profit-hungry oligarchs trying to keep humble Dave out of the banking industry by trumping up charges of loan sharking against him and then demanding an outsized cash deposit before he can go into business. Which is where the inevitable BLUES BROTHERS- style  final concert comes in featuring our favourite Northern metal band. There's also an entirely tacked on and inevitable romance between the lawyer and Bridgerton's Phoebe Dynever.

The dialogue is painful, the characters drawn with a blunt pencil, the story is hokey and this is really just pisspoor except for the fact that I did rather enjoy the courtroom scene and of course, the aforementioned Leppard reunion.  So fair play.  

BANK OF DAVE is streaming on Netflix and has a running time of 107 minutes.


Actor Mary Nighy (MARIE ANTOINETTE) makes her feature debut with the beautifully observed, urgent drama ALICE DARLING.  The film, written by Alanna Francis, stars Anna Kendrick (PITCH PERFECT) as a woman trapped in a coercive control relationship. The problem is she's been making compromises and adjustments and catering to her partner's fragile ego for so long that she doesn't even realise she's being abused.  When we meet her, the normally ebullient smart Kendrick seems to small and quiet and numb it's a shock to audiences familiar with her presence.  

The good news for Alice is that she has two amazing friends, played by Wunmi Mosaku (Lovecraft Country) and Kaniehttio Horn.  They persuade Alice to join them on a special birthday weekend in the country, not realising that she lied to her partner to manage to get away. As the weekend unfolds they realise how controlling he is, and how lost their friend is, and miracle of miracles, they actually manage to get through to her too.  It's a wonderful and little seen testament to the power of female friendship.  Of course, in the real world we know that it takes abused women  many attempts to leave their abusers, so horrific is the damage done to their self-esteem and so claustrophobic the feelings of shame. As with TO LESLIE I found the ending a little.....American....and easy. But I loved the journey, the central performances, and the centring of the female experience of coercive control.  Mary Nighy may be a nepo baby but she is an assured director with a sensitive and authentic approach to difficult subject matter. Kudos.

ALICE DARLING is rated R and has a running time of 89 minutes. It played Toronto 2022 and is currently on release in cinemas and on the internet.


I first tried to watch this film last year and gave up after 20 minutes. When it won a bunch of Golden Globes I tried again and it made it through an hour twenty.  I wasn't going to go back but a friend said there was this amazing speech by Ke Huy Quan that was SO moving so I watched again to the end. Alls I can say is that I'm really happy Ke Huy Quan is finally getting work again and that Michelle Yeoh is finally getting recognition as a serious actress. And I'm super glad the "two Dans" - who directed and wrote this movie really love sci-fi and meta verse films and Kubrick. But this film is a mess. A really boring, bullshit mess and I do NOT get the hype.  

Somewhere in it's bloated running time there is  touching story about a middle-aged woman who runs a laundrette and is trying to file her taxes. She is trying to reconcile herself to her life choices, and trying to rescue her daughter from depression, and trying to rediscover her love for her husband, and indeed herself.  THAT would be a worthwhile film. We rarely see such stories of middle-aged women, let alone Asian women.  But this film is so crowded with juvenile humour and what-if scenarios in alternative universes that the actual deep emotion is undercut.  I can't FEEL if I'm being distracted by Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis with hot dog fingers. Maybe that's on me. 

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE has a running time of 139 minutes and is rated R. It played SXSW 2022 and is on release globally.


Now contrast the hackneyed, obvious, hokey TO LESLIE with the delicate, slippery, intentional and unique AFTERSUN.  Both films are the works of debut feature directors, and both are based on childhood memories of the writers. But Charlotte Wells' film is one that contains a real directorial vision, precise and affecting visual style, and two lead performances that cut to the bone.  There is nothing predictable or easy or samey here.  When we leave the film we feel that we know two real human beings deeply and care immensely, even if we are still struggling to piece together what happens when the film ends.

The main narrative is concerned with a package holiday that father and daughter Callum and Sophie take to Turkey in the early 1990s. Callum is a young father, evidently broken up from Sophie's mum. They have a warm and open relationship, speaking about her first kiss and gentle discovery of adolescence. They clearly love each other deeply.  But Sophie cannot know what we see - that Callum is struggling with depression and taking risky decisions.  The framing device of the film sees an adult Sophie in her flat watching old camcorder footage of the holiday. We don't know what happened to the father between the holiday and now, but there's a melancholy nostalgic feeling, and an implication that he is no longer in her life.  

What I love about this film is Wells' resistance to cheap plot or big set pieces.  We just get an accumulation of detail and feeling until the sense of love and loss is overwhelming.  I also love the way the film is shot and styled: the way so much of it is mediated though screens - camcorders, TVs, karaoke machines - placing a  distorting lens between reality and memory.  Wells is a writer-director who reminds me of Joanna Hogg in these respects.  Paul Mescal gives his best performance to date and Frankie Corio is incredibly impressive as the daughter.   

Overall, this has to be one of the most deeply affecting and profound films I have seen in a while. I am so delighted that it has received an Oscar nomination. It deserves all the recognition it is getting.

AFTERSUN is rated R and has a running time of 102 minutes. It played Cannes and London 2022 and was released in the UK and USA last year.


is an underwritten hokey film about addiction and redemption that is almost insultingly simplistic about how easy it is to quit years of heavy drinking.  One can forgive its broad strokes as it's the debut feature of director Michael Morris and writer Ryan Binaco.  It has come to fame for the social media campaign run by feted actors to get its star, Andrea Riseborough, an Oscar nomination.  Her performance is committed and big - very big - in the films early scenes. Indeed it veers into that well-known Oscar-bait trope of getting fucked up and ugly for a nomination.  But Riseborough is a good actor, and while this isn't her best performance, I'm happy she's getting some overdue notice. But let's not get carried away about the merits of this film.

Riseborough stars in the titular role as a working class single mother who wins the lottery, blows the money, and ends up drunk and homeless.  In the film's opening scenes she reconnects with her now grown son (Owen Teague) and immediately betrays his trust by stealing money and getting high.  He kicks her out and she heads back to a home town full of people who either mock or detest her.  But she's held out a lifeline by Marc Maron and Andre Royo's motel bosses who give her a job as a maid. She cleans up and finds acceptance. The end.

There are better, more heartbreaking, and more complex depictions of addiction on screen, most notably by Andre Royo as Bubbles in TV's The Wire. Riseborough and Maron do the best they can with the script they're given.  Janney is too good for the kind of schmaltz we get in the final scene.  This is not a film of note. But it's great Riseborough is getting recognised.

TO LESLIE is rated R and has a running time of 119 minutes. It played by SXSW 2022 and was released last year in the USA.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

A spoiler-filled essay on BABYLON***** but also Zero - it's an alpha gamma film

It pains me to say that Damien Chazelle hasn't made a wholly decent film since WHIPLASH and it's clear where he's gone wrong. WHIPLASH was tight as a drum, taut with tension, constructed with precision and escalated from a whisper to a bravura climax. It centred on a single story and a single relationship that captured us and spat us out at the end, exhausted and exhilarated. By contrast, BABYLON starts at eleven and keeps on going, throwing everything at the screen in bravura set piece after bravura set piece. Some of it works. In fact the first 100 minutes or so is some of the most impressive cinema I've ever watched. But it all goes wrong when Tobey Maguire appears on screen. No disrespect to Maguire but his performance is clearly a misdirected misfire of epic proportions that jumps the shark, or leaps over the alligator, or whatever. And the film never gets back on track. After that it's just overlong repetitive unnecessary coda after coda culminating in one of the most patronising epilogues of all time. Yes, Chazelle, we get that you're telling the story of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN as tragedy rather than comedy. We. Get. It. We are clever. Stop trying to hammer it home. Stop trying to big yourself up.  Stop trying to place yourself at the heart of the unending unspooling of cinematic history because you are doing yourself no fucking favours.

Anyways. Long pause for breath. Let's talk about the stuff that is absolutely amazing in this film. Let's talk about a film that is in love with what film means to its audience, and the madcap pioneers who made it all happen, but is also under no illusions about the cruelty and crassness and exploitation of the industry itself, as depicted in its earliest scene where an elephant shits over the audience. 

We open with a 30 minute bacchanalia at a movie producer's house in proto-Bel Air, surrounded by desert scrub and bristling in saturated dry heat.  Everyone is part-naked, coked-up and fucking. Jean Smart's thinly veiled Hedda Hopper-style gossip columnist wants to see the secret room upstairs where the producer keeps the underage girls. A thinly veiled Fatty Arbuckle is getting pissed on by a wannabe starlet who is soon to OD, and will be smuggled out by cover of elephant. 

Lest we think Hollywood has corrupted these people, Chazelle shows us they started out corrupt.  Margot Robbie's wannabe starlet and Clara Boy cipher Nellie LaRoy arrives at the party wearing nothing and looking for drugs, and when she gets her big break she decides to bear her iced nipples: she's no naive innocent and no-one is forcing her to be lewd.  As a result, it comes as something of a surprise in the film's second act when she seems shocked and saddened at being called "low" - so saddened that she acts out by trying to wrestle a snake, leading to perhaps the coolest, crudest and sexiest meet-cutes of all time. Thankfully Nellie's attempts at reformation are short-lived. She doesn't progress or learn or grow. Maybe a drug and gambling addict can't - at least not in an environment of enablement where every set has a friendly dope-pedlar. In her fragile vulnerability and incapacity to escape herself I found myself thinking of Elizabeth Short, now known as the Black Dahlia, another vulnerable woman who came to Hollywood for stardom.  There but for the grace of God.  When LaRoy disappears into the night, high as a kite, dancing to the music in her head, was any other ending ever possible? Or maybe the other ending is that ascribed to LaRoy's mother, institutionalised. Maybe Hollywood is to be lauded for at least allowing a "wild child" to be wild?

Similarly, Chazelle has cast newcomer Diego Calva for his dreamy eyes, but his Manny Tores is shrewd from the start. It's his idea to use the elephant as cover and he will literally do anything for access to a movie set including disavow his own family and racial heritage. So it comes as no surprise that an hour later into the film he will cruelly decommission Nellie's lover and Anna May Wong cipher Lady Fay (Li Jun Li) as inconveniently gay at a time when the wild west of Hollywood is about to be self-policed by the prurient Code.  I was happy when Manny came a cropper and didn't buy into the importance of his epilogue redemption. Do I give a shit that Manny now sees the magic of film? Or understands his former colleagues' place in its history? No.  And his casual dismissal of Lady Fay echoes Chazelle's inability to give Li Jun Li the story she deserves because of the constraints of the story he is telling. She has to escape to Europe for a career when the Code cuts her short. And so she disappears from BABYLON much to its loss. The same holds for Olivia Hamilton who plays an early female silent film director. This film cannot say much about her because Hollywood did not allow her to thrive. But it was wonderful to see  the early female directors recognised. 

In fact, the irony is that the least corrupt characters are arguably the old-hands: Jean Smart's gossip columnist and Brad Pitt's kind-hearted old-fashioned silent star, loosely based on John Gilbert. They love the movies for what they are - honest working class entertainment providing an escape for the lonely and poor.  Pitt's Jack Conrad gets one of the best scenes in the film when he tells his thespian fifth wife that the audiences a Broadway show pulls would be considered a flop in Hollywood. And it's heartbreaking to see him fail to make the transition to sound, and the toll this takes on him in his final scene.  It's even more heartbreaking because we know that while Jean Smart offers him immortality in exchange for heartbreak, those early nitrate films barely survive and are rarely seen. It was a bum deal, and somehow Jack Conrad always knew it. 

But Jack Conrad's self-managed exit from the stage isn't the films most heart-breaking moment. That is reserved for Jovan Adepo's jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer. He starts the film at the aforementioned bacchanal and ends up benefiting from the move to sound films, earning vast amounts of money but at the cost of enduring patronising white folks at a fancy country club dinner where Nellie, perhaps viscerally expressing what Sidney is feeling, ends up projectile vomiting over the pretentious cunts who act as gatekeepers. Later, he will be asked by Manny (a fellow minority presence in Hollywood but in full denial of his ethnicity) to black up so that his face doesn't look too white on screen.  No cinema in the South will show an integrated band.  Manny, by this time fully a tool of the system, emotionally blackmails Sidney and tells him the whole band will be out of a job if he doesn't comply and you can see every calculation - emotional and logical - that Sidney goes through - and what it costs him - with no words but etched on his face as he plays the trumpet.  It's a brutal scene that will stay with me for a long time. Thank Christ Sidney escaped to Harlem and got back his self-respect. But again, how sad for us and the film that he has to perforce leave our screens, yet another reason why its final hour is  - with the exception of Jack Conrad's exit - woeful.

So this isn't a terrible film, as many reviewers would have you believe. It's a brave bold beautiful disgusting chronicle of a brave bold beautiful disgusting set of people who wanted to create art, make money and make us laugh and often exploited people - and themselves - in order to do so.  Their aim, Chazelle's aim in highlighting what they endured, is noble. And if the film makes just one person pick up an autobiography of Clara Bow, or find an old clip of a silent film on BFI Player, then it's all worth it.

BABYLON is rated R and has a running time of 189 minutes. 

A spoiler-filled essay on ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED*****

Laura Poitras (CITIZENFOUR) returns to our screens with the beautifully constructed, deeply affecting and passionately argued ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED.  The movie plays as a multi-layered narrative centred on the incredibly talented, ground-breaking and straightforward photographer Nan Goldin.

The kernel of the film is Goldin's activism against the Sackler family, pedlars of Oxycontin as made famous most recently in the superb miniseries and book Dopesick. Goldin became addicted to Oxy having being medically prescribed, and now clean has founded a group called PAIN to agitate for the Sacklers to be brought to justice AND for their artwashing to be unpicked.  This is incredibly effective because Goldin is in the permanent collections of so many of the art institutions that the Sacklers have funded.  The Met, the National Portrait Gallery, the Louvre et al, then have an awkward decision: have Goldin withdraw her art OR take the Sackler name down from their marble halls. When we finally see the actual Sackler heirs being forced to listen to Goldin and other victims' testimony, it's a brutal and provocative moment. What are they really thinking?  Is their guilt sinking in? And does this really provide justice and closure for the survivors? Can anything?

Wrapped around this kernel is the story of Goldin's adult life - a life that seems to have been in permanent agitation and activism on behalf of the marginalised and despised. As a young photographer she falls into the 1970s and 1980s art scene in New York, living a financially perilous but artistically meaningful life.  She lives and chronicles the ballroom scene, whorehouses on The Deuce, and the cruel refusal of government to fund anti-AIDS research. Her indie artshow in support of AIDS victims contains an essay so controversial - an indictment of the Mayor of New York, the Federal Government and the Catholic Church - that it's debated on the Senate floor. So maybe - without wanting to wish chronic pain and addiction on her - Goldin was EXACTLY the artist-activist we needed to fight the opioid epidemic - an artist particularly attuned to institutional failure and the sacrifice of an entire generation of people for profit.

The final, outer layer of this film is perhaps the most tragic and the most revealing - and it is that of Goldin's childhood in conservative suburban hell.  Her big sister was a brilliant, gay woman whose family were utterly unprepared to handle her, and so was shipped off to successive mental institutions until she killed herself.  It's this story that brackets the film and it's shocking to see Goldin's immaculately dressed polite parents at the end of the film contrasted with the emotional turmoil we've seen for much of its running time. Perhaps Goldin seeks accountability, or understanding for her sister's treatment?  We hear her joke and laugh with them, so maybe she has found some kind of peace. And perhaps we have to just chalk it up to a different time, and that hurt people hurt. But the "different time" canard is exploded by Goldin's life and art. In each generation we need people like Goldin to explode the safe so-called morality of settled beliefs and rocket us into a more evolved progressive era. We all owe Goldin a debt for being part of that - and this film is an incredible chronicle of the toll it took and the battles still being fought.

ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED has a running time of 122 minutes. It played Toronto and Venice 2022 where it won the Golden Lion. It went on release in the USA last year and goes on release in the UK on January 27th.

Sunday, January 08, 2023


Scott Cooper (CRAZY HEART, HOSTILES) returns to our screens with a gothic crime story starring Christian Bale as a jaded, grief-stricken detective called in to solve a gruesome murder at West Point in the 1830s. He is assisted by the young Edgar Alan Poe who really did attend West Point briefly.  Harry Melling gives the stand out performance of the film as the strange, mournful but intelligent young writer. The murder involves some strange, apparently ritualistic mutilations that allow for spooky slash Dickensian cameos from Robert Duvall and Gillian Anderson respectively. In fact the latter made me think of her turn in the wonderful BBC adaptation of Bleak House as this film matches a lot of that show's colour palette and elegiac tone. 

The problem with the film is that it lacks any real drive or propulsive impact either as a detective puzzle or as a horror story. I think it maybe wants to be an emotional investigation of grief instead? Even that didn't really work for me. It just felt dull and overlong. The only reason to watch it is for Masanobu Takayanagi's (HOSTILES) stunningly wintry colour-drained photography. 

THE PALE BLUE EYE is rated R, has a running time of 127 minutes and is streaming on Netflix.


My cousin announced she was getting married in Lisbon and as my husband and I hadn't been to Portugal for decades we thought we would make an extended holiday out of it, planning a road trip by picking every single Michelin one and two star restaurant along the way for dinner every night bar the wedding, starting in Faro and ending in Porto.  We are the greedy capitalist bastards, where the dishes become a blur, that have apparently sucked the joy out of cooking and life for celebrity chefs like the fictional Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes).

As a result, he lures a privileged few diners to his remote island restaurant for an epic tasting menu that will fully express his nihilism and totalitarian control of both staff and diners.  If you have the audacity to ask for mere bread, his maitre d, Elsa (Hong Shau) simply says "no".  Every course is exquisitely described and reveals yet more about the contempt in which the diners are held. And so we come to the inevitable horror-comedy conclusion.

For me, this is a superb social satire cum black comedy that takes the piss out of people like me. It comes as no surprise that it was written by two late night comedy writers - Will Tracy (Last Week Tonight With John Oliver) and Seth Reiss (Late Night With Seth Myers). There is a spareness to the comedy that is devastating. And the over-fussiness of the menu seems absolutely spot on.  Mark Mylod (Succession) directs with a cool deadpan tone and kudos to all involved in the production design.  The performances are uniformly good BUT Hong Chau is the stand-out in expressing the cult-like status of these chefs and the rigidity of their approach to actually enjoying food. It's kind of nuts to me that Anya Taylor-Joy has been nominated for a Golden Globe rather than Chau, who deserves awards not just for this but also her performance in THE WHALE. What a year she had in 2022.

However, while I do think the film is worth watching, well-made, and funny, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was a really good 60-minute episode of Black Mirror rather than a feature film: a high concept comedy that couldn't sustain its runtime. 

THE MENU has a running time of 107 minutes, is rated R, played Toronto 2022, and is available to stream.