Meet Joe Black 1998 ***

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If Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt find themselves in the same line for a wheatgrass juice at Ralph’s on the day before the 2020 Oscar ceremony, it would be interesting to know what these nominees might think of their second pairing in Meet Joe Black. Pretty much everyone agrees that Brad Pitt will fully deserve his mooted Oscar for Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood; not only is he pretty much playing a leading role, but he was also excellent in Ad Astra. In truth, Pitt has generally been a great movie star since his debut in Thelma and Louise; Meet Joe Black was one of his few misfires, but it was a significant one. Director Martin Brest was coming off the back of helping Al Pacino to awards from his Scent of a Woman performance as an older man explaining the pleasures of life to a younger, less experienced figure. Brest reunited Pitt with his Legends of the Fall co-star Anthony Hopkins for a remake of Death Takes a Holiday, a venerable property. So what could go wrong?

Or indeed, did anything go wrong? Meet Joe Black pretty much doubled its budget with it’s $150 million worldwide box-office take. And Hopkins got great notices for his role as Bill Parrish, a multi-millionaire businessman who is awakened at night by a premonition of Death, who soon turns up at his New York State mansion in the form of Joe (Pitt). Death wants a holiday, or at least a mini-break, and postpones taking Parrish’s soul so he can spend a weekend eating peanut-butter and cookies, speaking patois, looking good in suits and tuxes, and lusting after Parrish’s daughter Susan (Claire Forlani). Parrish demands that Joe will only come to collect on his own soul, not Susan’s, but Joe is as much a sap for Susan’s sweetness as he is for all other confectionary, while Parrish’s business interests threaten the legacy he was hoping to leave.

The languid, glacial pace has put passing viewers off Meet Joe Black, but the last hour of the film is pretty compelling. The detail of Parrish’s life, dinner parties, dinner tables, board-rooms and waiting helicopters, is convincingly done. But the mystery at the heart of this film is Pitt, who dials back all the things we’d later come to love about him as a star. He plays Joe as blank and distant, and yet when he crosses Parrish, there’s a sense of otherworldly malevolence that’s very much at odds with the film’s conventional romance. Playing a personification of death isn’t easy, but Pitt leans into the darkest aspects; his Death is banal, but no less deadly.

Some of the mechanics of Death Takes a Holiday, or the play on which it was based, seem to be lost in translation; it seems odd that Susan will accept either Death or a guy from the coffee shop as her suitor; anyone will do for Susan, as long as they look like Brad Pitt. Maybe that’s not so strange after all, but it doesn’t quite chime with the otherwise thoughtful and melancholy nature of the film. Meet Joe Black was savaged by critics at the time, but looks a more interesting prospect today, not least because we know how just how far outside his comfort zone Pitt’s deeply strange, yet memorable performance is.

 

Driven 2018 *****

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History has probably judged John DeLorean harshly; by 2019’s standards of corrupt behaviour, he looks like he had an integrity that today’s business leaders lack. Most industrialists, faced with a loss-making plant going bankrupt, automatically drain the pension fund into their personal accounts and set sail on the nearest yacht with a bevy of idiot models. DeLorean’s response was to try and save his Northern Ireland plant, and the workers’ jobs, by engineering a massive cocaine deal; not good behaviour, but it’s hard to argue that the great man didn’t put himself on the line big time to keep the dream alive. The delayed release of Nick Hamm’s drama on the subject doesn’t suggest good things, but it’s more likely that that comedy/drama tone has flummoxed bean-counters; Jason Sudeikis plays Jim Hoffman, a dubious character who finds himself living next-door to DeLorean, played with charisma levels set to overload by Lee Pace. DeLorean dreams of making a wonder car; ‘Your flying car doesn’t fly,’ someone unhelpfully points out, and Hamm’s film makes a point of exposing DeLorean as a fraud, but also refashions him as a hero. This is a Great Gatsby for the 1980’s, with Jim as a venal Nick Carraway, swept to the side-lines in the wake of DeLorean’s passage. ‘You’re not a bad man, you’re just an idiot,’ says Jim’s wife Ellen (Judy Greer), and Sudeikis correctly plays Jim broadly as a buffoon. Meanwhile, Pace does a phenomenal job of bringing DeLorean to life, railing about the detail of business copyrights, sulking about losing Ping Pong matches and generally being the man-child that most men aspire to be. The famous car is largely left off-screen, apart for a perfect, wry coda; Driven is a very entertaining film that should find a big audience on streaming; Back to The Future fans, petrol-heads and true-crime aficionados will find plenty here to draw them in, not lead Pace’s mesmerising performance.

https://www.amazon.com/Driven-Jason-Sudeikis/dp/B07VY9VY1T/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=driven&qid=1566234502&s=gateway&sr=8-1

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times 1972 ****

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‘Even the police know I’m an incredible nymphomaniac!’ is a good sample line from Emilio Miraglia’s wonderfully overcooked giallo, which keeps one guessing by being so nutty that placing a bet on who-dunnit is all but impossible. Barbara Bouchet is Kitty, one of two sisters (Marina Malfatti is the other, Franziska) who have been brought up to fear a family curse that may lead to murder; a flashback reveals that Kitty already has reasons to feel guilt. The death of their grandfather promises a liquidation of finances and potential windfalls for all of the Wildenbrück family, but his will proves inconclusive. The action shifts to a successful fashion house which seems to be called Springe; Kitty is having an affair with the company’s boss Martin (Ugo Pagliali) whose wife is mentally ill. With various murders taking place, could the supernatural Red Queen be taking her revenge on the family, or is the solution something more practical? The real solution is so complicated that even several readings of the Wikipedia page fail to clarify exactly what happened, but it’s fun getting there; the costumes and décor are super-stylish, as are the Bavarian locations. This is a lively giallo, full of twists and turns, never boring and often intriguing; the great Sybill Danning also appears as a windfall bonus.

Sorry to Bother You 2018 ****

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Satire may have closed many a theatre show, but there is evidence that good cinematic offerings can find an audience. Sorry to Bother You is the first film by writer and director Boots Reilly, and follows in the tradition of Get Out’s brainy social critique. Business is under the microscope as Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield), an ambitious young man gets a call-centre job, but his skill in impersonating white voices leads him to a promotion that reveals uncomfortable truths about the company itself. Armie Hammer gives a nice turn as our chief villain, Worrycore’s Steve Lift, and the arc of the story is worthy of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!, as are the grotesque physical embodiments that are discovered in his scabrous, angry take on modern mores. The way Reilly imagines his scenes so vividly, notably when each telephone call crashes Cassius through the ceiling of each house he calls, is refreshing and revitalising, and promises a fresh, original voice in our cinema’s future.

The Hummingbird Project 2018

The Hummingbird Project is all about the competitive world of fibre optic tunnel cable-drilling. And not just tangentially; the entire film is about fibre-optic tunnel cable-drilling, it’s literally in every scene. The camera does not pan shyly away when the drilling starts; there are massive close-ups of drill apparatus, ideal for people who love tractors, industrial diggers and any kind of industrial machinery. Jesse Eisenberg plays Vincent, a young trader who teams up with cousin Anton (Alexander Skarsgard) to build a fibre-optic line from NYC to Kansas, giving them an edge over other traders. But their boss Eva Torres (Salma Hayek) wants to thwart them, so a battle of wills results, complicated when Eisenberg’s character discovers needs urgent medical assistance for an unforeseen issue.  This is a cyber-crime business drama, well-mounted and well-played. Eisenberg brings a little of his Social Network obsessiveness, while the usually hunky Skarsgard is very much against type as hulking baldy Anton. They’re a modern George and Lennie combo straight out of Of Mice and Men, and although Kim Nguyen’s film is a bit dry in places, it’s a worthwhile, grown up fable about how greed trips up the unwary.