Lullaby 2019 ****


The late eighties/early nineties saw a slew of woman-in-peril movies (Sleeping with the Enemy, The Hand that Rocks The Cradle, The Stepfather) riffing on the sexual politics of Fatal Attraction to create threats, male and female, to the American family unit. Usually written and directed by men, they formed a classier, better-dressed variation on the slasher movie for an audience growing up to relish such stabby exploitation. Big hits at the time, they’re not so fondly remembered now; in the 21st century, sisters are doing it for themselves when it comes to exploring rather than exploiting feminine fears on the big screen

Based on a real life murder case, dramatized and embellished in Leila Slimani’s award-winning book, Lullaby was retitled The Perfect Nanny in the US, presumably to hark back to previous genre entries. But Lucie Borleteau’s film has no intentions to thrill, or to exploit; it’s a rare film that attempts to get inside the head of the covert interloper in question, Louise. Played by Karen Viard, we see her polishing her shoes and briskly walking to work early in the morning. She has an air of sadness, but also a professional demeanour that impresses Myriam (Leïla Bekhti) and Paul (Antoine Reinartz); a Shallow Grave-style introduction reveals the comically obvious flaws of other candidates for the job.

But while the couple’s motives are clear and obvious, Louise has hidden depths; she overdoes the protective act when Myriam’s little boy gets into a sandpit argument, her finances are questionable, and she also seems to have issues about being afraid of the water. A hallucinogenic scene involving octopuses adds a sexual frisson, an air of alienation developed when we see Louise lying naked, listening to a news report about Parisian riots. Louise suffers from a detachment which intensifies her connections to the family, and Lullaby is a character study, not a thriller; we don’t have or needs cats leaping through shattering glass windows for cheap jump scares here.

Lullaby is an excellent film, well worth Viard’s Ceasar nomination for best actress; the horrific ending manages to shock without revelling in gratuitous detail. Middle-aged white male critics won’t understand why, but The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is about as relevant as Mary Poppins Returns here; Lullaby looks with supple skill at the relationship between two women, and lazy men seeking the demonization of rogue, crazy females need not apply.


The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin 1981 ***

amin2018’s rather drab Entebbe casts minds back to fondly reminisce about mass –murderer Idi Amin, whose genocide made exploitation fodder for this lurid 1980 feature. Played by Alien star Yaphet Kotto, Amin is a mischievous, brutal presence, seen at one point casually opening a fridge to take a bite of human flesh cooling within. There’s no whitewash here, just the dramatization of tabloid headlines. And yet, a plotline about Amin’s relationship with a British journalist, arrested and imprisoned by Amin’s regime in defiance of the UK, feels authentic, not least because the character is played by the journalist in real life. Such a Paul Greengrass-style verisimilitude adds a certain vividness to the proceedings, but there’s also an admirable directness to the way Amin’s hubris and downfall are captured. Whether this happened or not, it’s compelling to watch a film so contemporaneous as a primary source.


When They See Us 2019 ****

The influence of the Paradise Lost documentaries about the West Memphis Three is immense; with digital film-making making it possible for true-life court cases to be examined, dramatized and even influenced through the media, it’s no surprise that true crime is almost as important to Netflix as a genre as rom-coms. Ava DuVernay’s When they See Us is a prestigious example of the form; a dramatization of events concerning the Central Park Five, it’s a glossy and compelling drama split into four sections, each roughly the length of a feature film. The first considers the night a white female jogger was raped in Central Park, and the forced confessions elicited from youths in the area that night. The second concerns itself with the court-case, with Vera Famiga contributing an awesome turn as a prosecution lawyer. The third focuses on the men trying to adjust when they get released from jail, and the fourth on the experience of Corey Wise, played with great power as both a boy and a man by Jharrel Jerome.  This is probably DuVernay’s best work to date, rarely hitting a false note and delivering a sobering account of how hidden but inherent racial prejudice can rob innocent people of their lives.  White audiences who like to imagine that race is a problem already solved may want to focus on how easily both law and media are bent out of shape by the rush to judgement here, a feeding frenzy fuelled by newspaper ads paid for by Donald Trump. But the big question is; why tell this story, and why now? Documentaries like Paradise Lost have influenced actual outcomes of court cases; the Central Park 5 were released some time ago, but the motivation behind When They See Us seems political; it’s surely no accident the June 2019 release coincides with the start of Donald Trump’s presidential re-election bid, and efforts to mobilise both black and white votes against him start here.

Sully 2016 ****

220856-sully-movieThe story of the Miracle on the Hudson is the kind of material that could make a great tv movie; in the hands of Clint Eastwood, it makes for a great cinema experience. Following a similar structure to Flight, Sully opens with Tom Hank’s airline pilot having nightmares about the successful emergency landing he just carried out over NYC. In a fabricated bit of business that drives the story, the airline authorities somehow take a dim view of his heroic behavior, causing a series of flashbacks from various points of view that unravel exactly why Sully’s actions were so extraordinary. Eastwood avoids bloating the material and takes a sober, factual approach to the near-disaster, aided by a perfectly understated performance from hanks and good support from Aaron Eckhart, whose moustache is worth the price of admission. A model of economy, Sully is a meaty drama that contrives to use a dramatic lie to get at an astonishing truth.


Bridge of Spies 2016 ***

bridgespies1044A well-upholstered thriller from Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies deals with a real-life Cold War drama as James B Donovan (Tom Hanks) gets lured into the murky business of spy exchanges. After a successful courtroom defence of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), Donovan tries to broker a deal in East Germany to exchange the enigmatic Abel for two other spies. Bridge of Spies is packed with absorbing details, and the atmosphere of East Germany is well caught. But it’s the acting that elevates the material; Rylance is electric in a showy role, but Hanks’ contribution should not be overlooked; he brings an everyman quality to his well-spoken lawyer, and provides a happy and empathetic centre even when the diplomatic and espionage twists get very complex indeed.

Deepwater Horizon 2016 ***

deepwater-horizon-filmLike most true stories, Deepwater Horizon takes liberties with a true life story; BP are painted blackly as baddies here, mainly though John Malkovich’s sneering exec, and the oil-workers are all blue-collar cannon fodder, braving the deadly mistakes foisted on them from upstairs. A quick check of the facts reveals a different story, but it’s hard to blame director Peter Berg for playing to the gallery. Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell are ideally cast as the rig-workers who find the pressure mounting as a drill-operation goes wrong, and the intensity is well developed until the explosive finale. As with The 33, a far more upbeat story, the public stayed away in droves; a shame, because the film’s sympathy with the plight of ordinary people, risking their lives to make a living, shows that it’s heart is in the right place, even if the facts are slightly askew.

Masterminds 2016 ***


masterminds-movie-2016-reviewsSomewhat erratically released due to the misfortunes of Relativity Media, Masterminds in a return to the ancient comic staple of the idiot bank-heist. From Palookaville to Welcome to Collinwood, it’s a tried and tested route, and Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite)’s film is aided by being based on true events. Reuniting most of the key players from the Ghostbusters reboot (SNL’s Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon and Kristen Wiig), it gives center-stage to Zack Gilifianakis as David Ghantt, a hirsute security-detail employee who is lured into being a stooge by comely ex-employee Kelly (Wiig). The details of the heist are presumably much exaggerated, since they fall on the side of slapstick, and there’s extra life due to support from Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis as a hit man. While not exactly polished due to some cringe-worthy fart-jokes and caricatures, Masterminds may yet find an audience due to some full-blooded pratfalls and a willingness to find humour in some rather dark corners of US life.

Black Mass 2015 ***


Johnny Depp managed to briefly put his finger in the dam of recent bad publicity by pulling off a surprisingly sinister performance as gangster Whitey Bulger in this effective police drama set in Boston. Based on a high-profile case, Bulger is essentially the nemesis to Joel Edgerton’s cop, who discovers that Bulger’s connection to his politician brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) has given him a free pass to build and defend a criminal empire. Adam Scott, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard and Dakota Johnson are along for the ride, and director Scott Cooper never lets the violent proceedings fall into Scorsese-by-numbers territory. And although he’s got less screen-time that the trailers and posters might have you expect, Depp is mesmerizing as Bulger, exuding a genuine malevolence that’s hard to shake off.

Diplomacy 2014 ***


Veteran Director Volker Schlondorff returns to the history books with a stagy but fascinating drama about two men caught in a key moment of world history; the German withdrawal from Paris in 1944. General von Chorltitz (Nils Aerstrup) is commanding the German forces, with orders to destroy Paris in his wake. Raoul Nording (Andre Dussolier) is sent to remonstrate with him, and when his initial advances are unsuccessful, Nording sets about using more philosophical methods to achieve his goal. With the action largely set in one room, Diplomacy is deliberately intense in scope, but two stunning performances and a studied understanding on the issues involves make Diplomacy a history lesson for anyone interested in a thoughtful war drama with a serious historical bent.

Star 80 1980 ***


Bob Fosse’s name is synonymous with music and dance, from Cabaret to All That Jazz, so Star 80, a look at the final days of murdered Playboy model Dorothy R Stratten, was something of a departure. Fosse’s other films have a certain caustic cynicism beneath the glitz, and Star 80 sees him taking potshots at the Playboy empire and Hugh Hefner specifically, as well as director Peter Bogdanovich, here recreated as a character called Aram Nichols and played by Roger Rees. Mariel Hemingway plays Stratten, with Eric Roberts as disturbed Svengali turned stalker Paul Snider, and Cliff Robertson plays Hefner himself. Stratten’s death was a tragic one, and while Fosse’s film never quite makes up its mind what it wants to say other than reconstructing events, both Hemingway and Roberts are excellent in their roles.