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.

 

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 a 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.

Uncut Gems 2019 ****

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We seem to be living through a surfeit of Scorsese right now. As if it’s not enough that he delivers a film longer than most tv shows at the three-and-a-half hour The Irishman, there’s also Joker, a film which he developed. Joker is a greatest hits of Scorsese covers, mimics plot lines and specific scenes from King of Comedy, Taxi Driver and more. So it’s with a weary heart that we turn to Uncut Gems, another Scorsese-produced slice of awards fodder from Netflix, entered into competition with The Irishman, Joker and any other Scorsese wannabes in the 2020 awards stakes.

And yet, Uncut Gems is the work of Josh and Benny Sadfie, whose blistering Good Time seemed to be a blast of fresh air in the urban thriller stakes. They coaxed a career best performance from Robert Pattinson for that film, and it’s no surprise that Adam Sandler would seem them as a way out of the comedy inanity that he’s found himself yoked into. Sandler is an accomplished comic, and his hand-dog charm has worked well in films like The Wedding Singer. Attempts to re-launch him in a more serious context (Spanglish, Reign Over Me) have been less successful, but Uncut Gems will be something of a revelation for fans and detractors alike. Sandler is electrifying as an amoral NYV gems hawker, pin-balling between clients, gangsters and marks as he attempts to steady his financial ship while exposing himself to potential dangers.

Howard Ratner (Sandler) is a family man, but he’s also a duplicitous scumbag who seems to be daring fate to take everything away from him. He imports a rare opal, lines up a buyer in the form of a rich basketball player, and borrows money against his own success; he’s constructing a house of cards with unstable foundations. Ratner’s home-life is equally turbulent, and it seems like only a matter of time before clients and family members will realise that he’s scamming them all.

Although Uncut Gems is a good-looking movie thanks to cinematographer Darius Khondji, it’s never in thrall to the environment in the way that the Irishman is, side-stepping clichés and coming up fresh; the way Ratner’s bluster is sidelined by the casual use of a security cordon feels real in the way that hit-men don’t. Like Good Time, the environments is drawn in a realistic way, and the way low-key story-elements are knitted together as the walls close in on Ratner, literally in the final scenes, is striking and impressive.

Downbeat and scuzzy, Uncut Gems may draw audiences keen to see more of Sandler, but this isn’t a feel-good movie in any way. It’s a character study of a man whose lies have been out of control for some time; a scene in which he fails to sweet-talk an auction house employee is particularly painful. Uncut Gems is a triumph for the Sadfies, and for Sandler, who should expect serious awards consideration for his transformative performance. Just don’t expect a good time here; Uncut Gems is as rough, uneven and tricky as the central character portrayed here.

Motherless Brooklyn 2019 ****

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It’s a good twenty years since Jonathan Lethem’s novel was published; based on the public and critical reaction, writer/director Edward Norton needn’t have bothered adapting the text from prose to screen. And yet there’s plenty to enjoy in Motherless Brooklyn, which, like The Goldfinch, is far from the dud that the box office might suggest; certainly, films about urban planning are rarely big news, but although it’s 144 minutes long, Norton’s film is idiosyncratic and often engaging.

Bruce Willis gets near-top billing, but is pretty much out of the film before the credits go up. Willis plays Frank Minna, a local gangster with a penchant for rescuing children; it’s through this method that he’s a mentor to Lionel Essrog, a bright young man with Tourette’s syndrome. Essrog also has a perfect memory, and listens in on one of Minna’s meetings shortly before his father-figure is shot. Piecing together various abstract clues, Hamlet-style, Essrog starts to investigate Trump-ian property baron Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and also the businessman’s brother Paul (Willem Dafoe). Randolph has designs of the New York property market, but his methods are underhand, and Essrog is quickly out of his depth…

A film like this stands and falls on its villain, and Baldwin relishes the opportunity to play Randolph with saturnine charm. Whether he’s directly responsible for the violent killings that beset Essrog isn’t exactly clear, but it is obvious that Randolph has an evolved philosophy that penalises the poor. Motherless Brooklyn has a Chinatown-lite view of city corruption, and anyone interested in New York will enjoy the various allusions gathered here, as well as some eye-opening chat about Central Park

Norton is also an actor’s director, getting good work from his cast, and he also provides a happy centre as Essrog. Playing a character with a disability isn’t a great look in 2019, and yet there’s obvious reasons why it wouldn’t be easy to cast the role. Norton does well not to play Essrog’s verbal infelicities for laughs, and pulls off something rare and unexpected by having a disabled protagonist whose disability is not central to the narrative.

Motherless Brooklyn takes a few wrong turns; the background to Essrog’s detective agency is inadequately sketched in, and Minna leaves far too early to get a sense of who he was. But there’s a clear gap between the quality of Norton’s film and the public’s appreciation of what he’s done, and Motherless Brooklyn is worth recommending to the discerning viewer.

Brittany Runs A Marathon 2018 ****

_109489079_brittany118rBrittany Runs A Marathon gives Jillian Bell the big leading role that every actress craves; one that should see her break out from a notable supporting player to a genuine high-wattage star. Although writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s film deals with serious issues including depression, self-image, obesity and substance abuse, it’s also a sunny, satisfying crowd-pleaser that gets a huge lift from Bell’s winning performance.

The title says it all; Brittany Forglar is a 28 year old woman living in NYC who decides to run in the New York Marathon. A doctor, ‘cheap and good’ so Brittany has heard, is enlisted in the hope of scoring some Adderall, but instead informs Brittany that she’s technically obese. Initially suspicious of his diagnosis, Brittany is befriended by a neighbour Catherine (In A World’s excellent Micheala Watkins) who encourages her to run off the extraneous body-fat, but there are other lifestyle choices required. Brittany’s sense of herself is entwined with her party-animal life-choices, and giving up drink, drugs, sexual-abasement and other vices won’t happen easily. Meanwhile a search for employment takes Brittany far from advertising, and into the orbit of a maverick house-sitter called Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar) who shakes up Brittany’s ideas even further…

‘This was never about running a marathon’ one of the other characters notes, and Colaizzo’s film is much more than just a be-all-you-can-be sports movie. Forglar is introduced improvising a storm of one-liners while working in the foyer of a theatre; Bell shows that she can not just hold the spotlight, but bend it to her will. Bell makes Brittany Forglar a memorable character, someone who has potential, but bends and buckles into bitterness when that potential isn’t realised; there’s a vicious scene late on when she lashes out at another woman that’s raw and uncomfortable.

Without getting into spoiler territory, it’s no surprise when Brittany breaks down while running the marathon; what is surprising is how intensely involving it is to see her bent double by the side of the road, while a race marshal calmly attempts to ascertain her state-of wellbeing. This is a story about judgement; about fearing and evading judgement, and about how we judge and label ourselves. It’s a message that doesn’t quite make it into the credits; a character is described as ‘overweight woman’ where ‘woman running for subway’ would be a little less judge-y.

Brittany Runs a Marathon’s sudden appearance on Amazon Prime offers an alternative route to success; the Netflix bug for using cinema only as a showcase has clearly had an influence on the streaming channel. That may slow down the recognition factor here; Jillian Bell gives the kind of big-hearted performance that could well have made her an awards contender, and she’ll probably have to settle for great word-of mouth; either way, she and her movie are outright winners, and not just making up the numbers.

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Leon: The Director’s Cut **** 1994

leonThe director does indeed seem to have been cut from the package accompanying this blu-ray release of Luc Besson’s celebrated film; there’s barely a glimpse of the French auteur, while star Jean Reno and musician Eric Serra are front and centre of the extras provided here. Given the general obloquy surrounding Besson’s reputation at the time of this new release, perhaps that’s understandable, but it would be a shame to consign Leon to the dustbin of history; it takes more than one person to make a film, and Leon is notable for a trio of iconic performances from Reno, Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman, the latter setting a gold standard for manic villainy that’s rarely been bettered.

The rangy-looking, punkish Reno plays the title role; Leon, pronounced more like Sergio Leone that Leon the pig farmer. He’s a hit-man of remarkable effectiveness, introduced in a generic but effective series of track-downs. Operating in a sunny New York, Leon retires to his apartment between jobs, only to find himself drawn into a violent stramash when he takes pity on precocious kid Mathilda, played by Portman. When her family are eliminated by Norman Stansfield (Oldman), Mathilda’s last hope is to knock on Leon’s door; he lets her in, not only to his apartment, but to an array of weapons and a philosophy that would befit a samurai; the knife comes last. Of course, Leon and Mathilda’s relationship is frowned on, not least by Stansfield’s government colleagues, who want them both eliminated.

Those who seek to psychoanalyse Besson, to prove him innocent or guilty of actions elsewhere, will find plenty of evidence to consider in Leon; this director’s cut, some 23 minutes longer than the original, makes explicit that Mathilda sees Leon in a sexual way, and also makes explicit that he does not share her view. That was implied in the version originally released as The Professional in the US, but it’s probably worthwhile to have this spelled out. Either way, the film retains an uncomfortable edge that adds to the plotting; given how effectively Leon’s story plays out, it’s strange that Besson has never taken an espionage/assassin story so seriously in the many films that followed.

If Besson’s reputation is problematic at the time of this blu-ray’s release, Leon: The Professional is, like the central character, beyond reproach. Reno was never better than this, silent, dexterous, unexpectedly comical and a consistent, powerful presence. Portman makes Natalie seem both grounded and real, while Oldman gives the kind of huge, villainous performance that makes a great movie flow; snaffling drugs like sweets, playing an invisible piano, his manic energy is balanced by Reno’s absorbent hero. And Leon has never looked as good as it does here, the blu-ray fully capturing the canyon streets of NYC, a breath-taking, outsiders view of a dark and dangerous city hidden by shafts on sunlight.

Angel Heart 1987 *****

I was still a teenager when I saw Alan Parker’s 1986 genre-bending horror/detective story; just old enough to beat the 18 certificate. The film ran for several months at my local Odeon; I returned over and over again to watch the print turn ragged on the screen. While friends waxed lyrical on Scorsese and Godard, it was Alan Parker’s film that caught my imagination, so to see a restored blu-ray pressed decades later is a welcome opportunity to revisit a well-thumbed, well-loved text.

The story is simple in synopsis but surprising in execution. Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is a down-at-heel private eye hired by Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to investigate a missing singer by the name of Johnny Favourite. Those unlucky enough to cross Angel’s path end up dead; Angel senses he’s being set up, but it’s only when he travels to New Orleans that the gumshoe begins to realise that supernatural forces are at work, and he’s little more than a pawn in the game.

Michael Seresin’s photography is the first thing to notice here; poor DVD prints haven’t helped the film’s reputation, but this blu-ray looks as good as if not better than the original; it’s hard to think of another film that looks as moist as this, which detailed textures to snow, paper, clothes, sweat and blood. The result is a film that’s vivid and atmospheric, with dream-like interruptions scored to the sound of a beating heart, telling a story with an outrageous twist ending that’s tricky to fully explain in detail.

Based on William Hjortsberg’s book Falling Angel, Parker shifted the action largely from NYC to New Orleans, and also changed the time-period and a few crucial details; elements from the book like the magic show are dropped, despite being remarkably cinematic in their own right. Parker’s use of mirrors, fans and blood is very much his own pictorial style, and while audiences weren’t sure of Angel Heart at the time, it’s clearly a misunderstood work that had a huge influence on Christopher Nolan

Parker’s wry commentary starts by discussing the problems of directing cats; it’s also implied that herding De Niro and Rourke through a number of scenes together wasn’t much easier. De Niro makes something iconic of his devilish character, but it’s Rourke that’s the revelation here. It’s not surprising to hear that Rourke couldn’t act the same scene the same way twice; his work feels spontaneous, and there’s an edge that makes Angel feel both larger than life and vulnerable.

Some of the other extras on this fresh re-issue suggest that Parker was prepared to bend the rules of voodoo in order to get what he wanted from his New Orleans shoot; such comments are interesting, but don’t detract from the film’s power. In the classic notion of drama, Angel’s investigation of his case is a search for himself, and a discovery of an unpleasant truth about human nature. Parker’s film may have been better known for its sex scene than it’s dramatic content at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, Angel Heart is an essential purchase for fans of all the considerable talents involved, and for horror aficionados in general.