Downhill 2020 ***

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Swimming against the tide is one thing, but I’ve not found many takers for my opinion of Force Majeure, critical darling and Golden Globe nominee; I hated it. A humourless, one-note, sneering portrait of an unsympathetic couple of a skiing holiday, Ruben Osland’s film struck me as a load of pretentious, self-satisfied twaddle with only cinematography to commend it.

So it’s fair to say that I wasn’t champing at the bit for an American remake, but here is comes, directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, and starring two comedy greats in Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Ferrell’s cinematic work is a mixed bag, for every Anchorman, there’s a Get Hard, but he’s shown signs of the dramatic chops required to make a restrained comedy drama like this work; Louis-Dreyfus is a US national treasure on the back of Seinfeld, but while her filmography is far more selective, her excellent performance in Enough Said demonstrated that she could create a complex and empathetic character on the big screen. The downside of casting these two beloved performers as unsympathetic twonks is something of a dissonance that led Downhill to slide off the piste at the box office, but it’s far from the catastrophe that many critics suggested.

Billie and Peter arrive in Austria with their two kids, and immediately get into a drama when an unexpected wave of snow engulfs the open-air seating area at their resort. Sitting on one side of the table, Billie hugs the kids until the dangers has passed, but Peter disgraces himself by grabbing his phone and stepping away; because he drops behind the camera position, we’re left to imagine how far this might be. This was something of a flaw in the original film, and isn’t resolved here; it’s not physically possible for Peter to protect his children, and the consequent judgemental ramifications feel schematic and contrived in both versions. Billie is disillusioned in her husband, humiliates him in front of their kids and his friends, and has an illicit trust with a hunky ski-instructor. Meanwhile Peter nurses his damaged self-image with some abortive flirting, a drunken scuffle with an alpha male, and some self-pitying monologues. Neither of their plotlines could be described as feel-good, and the chipper finale doesn’t quite alleviate the sour, cynical feel of the original film.

But as an upgrade on American abroad comedy, Downhill offers some laughs that the original doesn’t, a National Lampoon’s Skiing Vacation with trash-talking sexed-up locals, toilet mishaps, and enough low-shots to offer some entertainment value. These antics punctuate the pretentions of Force Majeure, and render the story watchable; if anything, it’s an improvement that offers a little more humanity and self-deprecating soul that the self-regarding film it imitates.

 

Inside Moves 1980 ****

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One of the better Hollywood movies on the subject of disability, Richard Donner’s Inside Moves doesn’t limit its scope to physical impairment; mental illness is taken seriously too, so don’t be surprised that you’ve not heard much about it. Coming off the back of Superman, Donner was a sought-after director, and with a script by Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin adapted from Todd Walton’s novel, Inside Moves feels like an attempt to break fresh ground in terms of challenging pubic perceptions of health issues.

Taking place against a rather dingy-looking Los Angeles, Inside Moves it as much about a place as a person; Max’s bar, a run-down bar where various types congregate. David Morse is Jerry, an athlete who requires an operation if he’s ever going to pursue his basketball dream. His occasional girlfriend Louise (Diana Scarwid) turns tricks to make some money, and is often in need for Jerry to rescue her. Wings (Harold Russell) has hooks for hands, but cheer-leads a group of card-sharps who provide an abrasive commentary on what’s going on. And Roary (John Savage) is recovering from a suicide attempt, having thrown himself out of a building. Roary is adopted by the denizens of the bar, and their friendship inspires Jerry to reach new heights which test their bonds.

Russell hadn’t made a film since his Oscar-winning turn in 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives, and casting the presidential advisor on issues to do with the ‘handicapped’ was a coup, yet it’s Scarwid’s Oscar-nominated turn which pulls most effectively at the heart-strings. Inside Moves doesn’t do enough to consider Louise’s plight, but the actress imbues the tired street-walker clichés with something genuine and heart-felt. Otherwise, Inside Moves does a good job in capturing a group of men who fear they’re put out to grass, and are trying to find their place in a world that ostracizes them. It’s interesting that in 1980, the place for this kind of interaction to happen was a commercial bar; there’s no self-help, drop-in centres or social work interventions here, just macho-banter and gruff philosophy.

Inside Moves is a melancholy, tough little drama that moves quickly beyond be-all-you-can-be platitudes and expands to consider the nature of alienation. Savage and Morse are both terrific here, giving the kind of powerhouse performances that the material needs; we feel that we’re watching good people battle real life crises, and while that’s not a promise that lured many to the theatres, it’s worth seeking out as a period piece that says a lot about US health-care circa 1980.

 

Sorry We Missed You 2019 ****

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Let’s take a look at a blackly-comic film that wowed audiences at Cannes 2019 with a vivid, no-hold-barred portrait of a family who’ll do anything to survive in an economic tsunami fuelled by self-interest. No, not Parasite, but Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, a film whose title might represent a note left by awards committees worldwide.

Sorry We Missed You is the story of a family who fall foul of the devilishly detailed rules and regulations which govern the zero-hours workplace. Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and his partner Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) have two kids to feed, and putting bread on the table is increasingly hard. In an entrepreneurial spirit, Ricky sells the family car to buy a van, from which he can deliver packages around Northern Britain. Every move he makes is clocked by the GPS-connected device that regulates the deliveries; a mechanical grass or snitch, it records wasted time. Missed deliveries happen, family emergencies occur, and Ricky finds himself bent out of shape, physically, mentally, as his van moves ever faster and yet his problems mount up.

Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty score regular break-outs hits from their social-realist niche, with I Daniel Blake showcasing a personable rage against the capitalist machine. This time, there’s only resistance, no speeches, no feel-good twists, no burst of sentiment; all of these things might have made Ricky’s story easier to watch, but at the price of having sold out on the key message; that the dehumanisation of the workforce is now ingrained in the legal make-up of our world. Ricky can fight his corner, but the system is built to use his best efforts and spit him out once he’s done. No sick leave, no pensions, no holidays, a boot grinding into a face forever.

So, perhaps such worthy messages are not in fashion right now; they should be. There’s a current willingness to turn away from the present, to look to the past, or to fantasy, or both. Dreamy reveries like Once Upon A Time…in Quentin Tarantino’s Imagination, while deeply pleasing, should be leavened by a dose of a non-alternate reality, and so Sorry We Missed You is worth championing long after the awards glitz has been safely vacuumed. Ideally, it needs a prime-time slot on television to wake up a casual audience to the emotional horrors of poverty.

Although I’d already seen it, this film arrived by disk back in November. As the amateur courier sped away to his next drop-off, I wondered if he had any awareness of what he’d delivered, or would he care? Awards are one way to raise awareness; word of mouth is another, and maybe there’s time for audiences to take a little medicinal injection of modern life being worse than rubbish.

Streaming on Prime from March 1st.

The Collection 1976 ****

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Harold Pinter’s 1962 play is one of his best, a subtle yet dramatic slice of adultery in the upper-middle classes, observed with the playwright’s usual ear of language and fascination for discomfort. This 1976 filming was part of ITV’s big push to rival the BBC, and was created under the grand-sounding label Laurence Olivier Presents for Granada television. The Beeb’s Play for Today was something of an institution at the time, but The Collection was a heavy-hitter, bringing together top talent for a run-through of one of Pinter’s tightest efforts, with Michael Apted directing.

Harry (Olivier) and Bill (Malcolm McDowell) live together in an ambiguous relationship; Bill is something of a ladies man, and may or may not have had a hotel-room tryst with Stella (Helen Mirren), much to the chagrin of her husband James (Alan Bates). But when James confronts Bill, the accusation doesn’t land easily, and Bill seems defiant. Is there an attraction between the two men, or is Bill just deliberately confusing the issue? And did anything actually happen at all? (this is Pinter, after all, so don’t expect a big reveal).

The Collection is firmly made for TV; despite the big names, the canvas is small. But as a record of some great acting, Apted’s adaptation really works, with Olivier enjoying a small but weighty role, and McDowell really laying it on thick as the preening, aggressive Bill, taunting James and forcing him into a confrontation without the information he needs to be confident.

The Collection has been released as part of a boxed-set on DVD, but isn’t one that’s been repeated on tv, and remains something of a collector’s item. But at 63 minutes in length, it gives a flavour of Pinter in a darkly playful mode, without the slick gimmick of Betrayal, but with the same relentless probing of the characters and their motives. And yes, there are silences; Pinter says more with a suppressed line than most writers can do with a twenty page monologue.

Queen & Slim 2019 ****

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Landing something between Thelma & Louise and Badlands, Queen and Slim is an American road odyssey featuring two characters who have no desire to run away; both Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) are thinking of other things when they go on a tentative Tinder date in an Ohio restaurant. The date itself is inconclusive, and yet Queen and Slim’s paths are now firmly and forever interlocked by fate, or at least the attentions of an overzealous lawman.

Recent features like The Hate U Give have attempted to bring BlackLivesMatter issues to the fore with a heavy hand; Queen & Slim, written by Lena Waithe, and directed by Melina Matsoukas, makes a clear statement about how flashpoints of violence emerge from distrust, then steps nimbly aside to focus on the human cost as Queen and Slim try to register their new predicament. He has a family, but she is a lawyer, and it says something about the growing chasm between races that her immediate plan is to go on the run. Justice, in court, in the media, of any kind is the preserve of a monied elite and if you’re black, it’s hard to trust that the authorities will deal with you fairly, so Queen surmises. Changing cars, haircuts and clothes, Queen and Slim set off in the hope of finding new lives and identities far from their Ohio home.

Their journey has echoes of the Underground Railroad, and Queen and Slim’s story gains power from the ease with which the two characters drop into a criminal world. The resolution is less powerful than the set-up, but Queen & Slim is bolstered by some great character work by Turner-Smith and Kaluuya in particular, building on his electrifying turns in Get Out and Widows.

As a voting Academy member, I’ve yet to meet another voting member who has seen Queen and Slim, despite plenty of public and critical raves. Before suggesting overt racism, it’s worth pointing out that watching 140 films in a solitary month is a impossible task in terms of viewing every film. But Queen & Slim’s failure to gain mainstream recognition confirms the film’s underdog status; like Just Mercy and Waves, it’s a nominee from a year in which carelessly built and outdated voting platforms accidentally squeezed out all but the front-runners.

 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood 2019 ****

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For once, comparisons are useless; no one outside the US has ever heard of Fred Rogers, and even a popular documentary didn’t change much about that. Children’s tv presenters of the past are remembered with great passion and enthusiasm, but the medium of nursery rhymes and bedtime stories is not a subject that’s troubled the cinematic world much until recently. Those left cold with the idea of bringing Mr Rogers back to life may feel more enthusiasm for another outing from Tom Hanks, the James Stewart of his generation, a loved, respected and treasured star. Hanks has twice as much screen-time here as Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, which won him a best actor Oscar; it probably seemed like a good steer to nominated Hanks as supporting actor here, although that category seems locked for Brad Pitt at the time of writing.

Nevertheless, this is a supporting performance, and a good one; those who don’t recognise the style of Mr Rogers may, in fact, find it easier to get into Hanks here. Marielle Heller’s slight yet profound drama is about a journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who is struggling with his own family life, and specifically with his father (Chris Cooper). A chance to write a profile piece on Rogers develops into a tentative friendship, but Vogel doesn’t find is easy to heed the star’s advice until tragedy appears on the horizon.

A Beautiful Day In the Neighbourhood is a film in a minor key; the evocations of childhood are warm and fuzzy, the interaction between Vogel’s problematic life and Rogers’ homespun philosophy runs smoothly; there’s a stand-out moment when Vogel is requested to enjoy a moment of silence in a busy restaurant. In fact, given the happiest of centres featured here in terms of Hanks, it’s perhaps frustrating that A Beautiful Day doesn’t go any deeper into Vogel’s issues.

Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe-voters alike have indicated that films directed by women can only be recognised for their performances, with the cast presumably directing themselves. So Hanks is the only name from the production to feature on ballot-papers; a ridiculous state of affairs given the need to recognise on an equal plateau the best work by all sexes, creeds and colours. One wonders what the main character would have said about this kind of failure; half holy-fool, half Jedi-mentor, Rogers is an amusing character who glues this gentle, controlled drama tightly to a heartfelt, feel-good task.

 

Waves 2019 ****

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“I will not be taken down, I am a new machine!’ says aspiring athlete Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr) in this brutal yet lyrical drama from Trey Edward Shults for the A24 imprint. The writer/director’s follow-up to It Comes At Night is not typical of the A24 label, a sprawling but tightly conceived film that has lineage to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People or even the witness/victim dynamic of Amores Perros, but successfully finds its own intense voice. A curious broken-backed structure to the narrative makes it a tricky one to review, but spoilers should not be required to gain appreciation.

Waves deals with family life; Tyler is a young man with a big future, and he’s a big name on his school wrestling team. But Tyler gets bad news when he finds out he has a potentially life-changing sports injury, and simultaneously finds out that his girlfriend has missed her period. Tyler’s father (Sterling K Brown) and sister Emily (Taylor Russell) try to reach out to him, but drink, drugs, peer-pressure and depression all take a toll until a moment of violence turns their lives apart and sends Tyler’s life in a different direction. a key visual motif frames Tyler looking in mirrors; the reflection never seems to match up, indicating the disconnect between how the teen sees himself and how he is.

Waves takes place amongst the well-monied set of South Florida, and although Tyler and his family appear well-off, it’s clear that they’ve had to fight for what they have. That resilience makes a difference in the film’s final act, but until then, there’s a powerful willingness to dance with the darkness of Tyler’s rage which gives it the feel of a suburban Full Metal Jacket. Brown and Harrison are both compelling as father and son out of sync, while Russell deserves her Independent Spirit nomination in a difficult role. Waves features fluent, nimble camerawork, wild, striking, hallucinogenic visuals, and also a score with Trent Reznor’s broken-fridge fingerprints all over it; the whole film pulses with light and noise.

A white man’s view of black family life is a hard sell in 2019/20, and Waves seems to have fallen between two stools as a potential awards darling. But despite the presence of the permanently shaggy Harmony Korine, Shults pulls off a film that is anything but a quirky indie, but a pumped-up evocation of modern life as a living hell. That Waves travels further than that, and attempts to look at what happens after the chickens come home to roost, is admirable, and even if awards voters didn’t fancy it, last year’s Beale Street crowd really should give Waves a look.

Bombshell 2019 ****

bombAmerican politics looks different at home from abroad; European media has a liberal outlook, and tends to play up an unconscious bias that’s permanently pro Democrat and con Republican. Thus when Donald Trump talks about the world’s media being against him, he’s got a point. Every Republican president in recent memory has been hailed as the worst thing ever, whether Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr or Jr, they all get the same treatment, characterised as power-mad imbeciles.

Jay Roach’s Bombshell’s subject is Fox News, and the goal is to dramatise well-documented sexual harassment issues. These are comparatively recent history, so recent that two of the characters featured are Donald Trump and Rudi Guiliani, the former evoked using actual footage, the latter by an actor. Both are, at the time of writing, still active and involved in the American political scene, but are casually described here as a passing demagogue and his above-the-law fixer. With US politics in a somewhat explosive mode in 2020 election year, it feels like a shame that Roach didn’t feel the time was right to address the Trump-Giuliani axis in more detail, since their contribution to American life is still a hot issue.

Instead, we’re introduced to a selection of big tv names who are completely unknown outside of America; Host Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), departing matriarch Gretchen Karlson (Nicole Kidman) and composite ingénue Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Karlson is heading out the door, but willing to bring down the Fox News channel behind her; Kayla is the audience surrogate, a young woman being rapidly brought up to date on Fox News’s style, which is described in Charles Randolph’s script as pure sensation; news deliberately described in a way that would involve an aging parent. Kayla is also brought up to date on the way her boss Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) operates, and accepts that being a victim of sexual harassment may get her what she wants. But as Kayla and Gretchen begin to understand that their experiences are similar, it’s left to Megyn Kelly to confront her own past, connect the dots and uncover a systematic cover-up of loose morals and male domination.

Bombshell works as an expose of what happens when men call the shots; these women all look and sound like ball-breakers, but they’re denied anything but the illusion of agency by slavering men. Roach has a rep for this kind of work, with Recount and Game Change both managing a similar ripped-from-the-headlines approach. As an awards contender, Bombshell is pretty much hobbled by being a film written and directed by men about the importance of listening to women’s voices; one of the best lines mentions a Fox News harassment hotline, which is described as being as useful as a complaints-box in Nazi occupied France. But even if the punches are muted, there’s tonnes going on here and most of it is interesting, from Kate McKinnon’s suppressed lesbian to Malcolm MacDowell’s Rupert Murdoch, channelling late period Mick Travis as a journeyman who has travelled too far from his comfort zone.

Bombshell isn’t boring, but neither is it as explosive as yesterday’s news; the asides are more stimulating than the main plot, which is too schematic to fully land. A gross of nearly $30 million domestic proves that the public are interested, although whether minds are changes is a different matter. There will be better films about sexual-harassment, Fox News, Trump and Giuliani, but Bombshell is salacious enough to be going on with for now.

Marriage Story 2019 ****

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It’s always concerning when people are queuing up to tell you how good a movie is; despite the roar of the critics, a 137 minute analysis of a marriage breakdown really does need some pull quotes to sell it. ‘See the star of Avengers in a custody dispute with the star of Star Wars’ doesn’t sound like it’ll put bums on seats, but then again, this is a Netflix production, so the bums don’t have to be enticed from their sofas. Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film has genuine star power in the form of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as functional click-bait, and although it’s the kind of self-conscious art movie that uses to pack indie cinemas, it should find quite a few takers with a contentious he-said/she-said narrative that engages and chills at the same time.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is a NYC theatre director, Nicole (Johansson) is his wife, and they have a son to take care of. Their decade-long relationship seems to be fizzling out; she’s got work in LA that expands and contracts, he’s locked into the creative lottery of Broadway and off-Broadway. Both of them get to sing a song to illustrate their theatrical backgrounds, although his rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive is far superior to her family pastiche. Indeed, Marriage Story isn’t as balanced as has been suggested; like Robert Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer, this is divorce from a man’s POV, with Nicole’s hard-nosed career aspirations making her an antagonist to Charlie’s soft-headed sentiment.

It soon becomes obvious that Charlie’s hang-dog charms have led him to infidelity, although Baumbach is more interested in the cold aftermath than the passion, and Nicole’s coldness is not without justification. But the weight of sympathetic set-pieces falls heavily in Charlie’s favour; there’s a sensational late scene involving a knife that’s so fiercely, blackly comic that it could only have come from real experience, and draws gasps and groans of empathy.

Marriage Story promises lots of shouting and angst, but the grounded, realistic expansion of Charlie and Nicole’s feud to include lawyers, families and passing strangers provides opportunities for weapons-grade acting from Driver and Johansson, neither of whom have bettered the performances they give here. Driver nails Charlie’s addiction to lost causes, and suggests a deep, lonely soul desperate to fulfil the coveted role of father. Johansson softens the bitter edge of Nicole’s desire for escape and reveals something more tender; her desire to be the best mother she can necessitates taking care of herself, and Nicole comes across far more genuine that Meryl Streep did in Kramer.

Perhaps 137 minutes is a run-time which lacks discipline, but there are long, compelling stretches of old-school drama here. And as a bonus, there’s a wealth of star-studded turns here, all highly enjoyable, from Ray Liotta and Laura Dern as expensive lawyers, to Alan Alda as a not so expensive lawyer. Marriage Story is the most mature work from Baumbach so far, a complex view of good people who find that goodness isn’t enough to immunise them against the insidious viruses of past-vanity and domestic over-reach. It’s a parable for our time; the blue skies and clear vistas of LA are contrasted with the cold and dirty feelings of the human heart, and there’s no winners here other than the audience, who should marvel at the strength of self-analysis contained in Marriage Story for years to come.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire 2019 ****

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The spirit of Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse finds a specific echo in Céline Sciamma’s rapturous period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which arrives box-fresh for awards season as a thoroughbred contender; this is art-house fare, but no worse for that, a sumptuous, haunting love story with moments of dynamism and an attitude that’s catnip to the chattering classes.

Rivette, of course, deconstructed the process of creating art in his celebrated four-hour study of sculptor and model; Sciamma takes a similar subject, although in this instance questions of the male gaze are subverted because men are barely seen. Instead, we have the love between two women; Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter on a secret mission, to capture the likeness of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in a remote location (Brittany). But the subject is reluctant; the portrait is to celebrate a prospective marriage, and that marriage is unwanted. Marianne artfully betrays and then gains the trust of her subject by stealing glances and looks to complete her portrait, and then destroying it when Héloïse complains. The relationship between the women blossoms into a lesbian affair, but society intrudes, and the big question is how their love might survive or endure these obstacles?

A subtitled film about portraiture might sound like hard tack, although the surprising presence of Valerie (Hot Shots!) Golinio offers some respite, and there is in fact a literal lady on fire to justify the film’s quirky title. This is a film driven by the luminous performances of the leads, who capture the intensity of a forbidden but natural relationship, and who evoke passion with the smallest movements. The landscapes also spark memories of Jane Campion’s The Piano, but without the sense of melodrama; Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not for sensation seekers, but a meditative, visually calculated piece that finds visual metaphors for the inner workings of the two women depicted.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire has been, alongside Parasite, a clear front runner in the Foreign Picture stakes  since Cannes 2019; despite the adulation of the highbrow critics, it’s a love story that could attract the romantic at heart, and those who have the patience for the genteel pace will be rewarded with a beautifully told story of verboten love.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be on wide release in the UK and US in 2020.