Film Reviews: David O Russell’s New Film Amsterdam Is All Set Up And Brings In Nothing; also reviewed Sinéad O’Connor doc Nothing Compares, Catherine Called Birdy and Vicky Phelan doc

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“A lot of things really happened.” So begins David O Russell’s awkward and convoluted murder mystery about a trio of fictional war buddies fighting for their lives against a crazy historical backdrop.

it seems weird to lead with amsterdam‘s big reveal – that our goofy protagonists find themselves right in the middle of the so-called White House putsch of 1933. But listen, that’s all anyone involved in this case is talking about.

For the uninitiated, the ‘Putsch’, also known as the ‘Business Plot’, involved a twisted allegiance of American businessmen who – inspired by the fascistic rumblings in Germany – concocted a plan to overthrow their government and replace President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a dictator.

They never got past the planning stage, obviously, but amsterdamThe central conceit of – that the Fascists had hoped to employ an esteemed American general as their leader – wonders what might have happened if they had.

It’s the only aspect worthy of a movie that takes an age to get going. In effect, amsterdamAcclaimed, Oscar-nominated writer and director Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, american hustle) would have you believe this is the coolest gathering in Tinseltown. And, in some ways, it is (check out this sensational cast sheet).

Alas, a star-studded guest list is one thing, a memorable party another, and Russell’s tired, boring display is all put together and earns nothing.

We start in the 1930s in New York. Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) is in a terrible state. Burt served his country in the Great War, but came out with a glass eye, a debilitating back injury and a broken marriage.

He is, shall we say, a little eccentric, but he is a good egg and our unfortunate protagonist spends most of his time caring for other veterans who have risked their lives and lost their limbs fighting for the freedom.

One day, Burt is called by his lawyer friend Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), with whom he served during the war. Harold needs Burt to perform an autopsy on their former wartime general turned US senator, Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr).

You see, Bill’s daughter, Elizabeth (Taylor Swift, doing her best) believes her father died under suspicious circumstances and, after examining the body, so do Burt and Harold. Alas, someone then pushes poor Elizabeth under a moving car and the doctor and his lawyer friend are wrongfully accused of her murder.

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Russell’s clever, wide-screen puzzle then takes us back to 1918 France where the guys first meet the seductive Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). Valerie is the nurse who removes the shrapnel from the backs of the guys.

Then they become best friends, and together our handsome trio flock to Amsterdam for a merry round of post-war festivities. Obviously the party ends eventually (it always does), but could it be that, all these years later, when Burt and Harold need her most, the fabulous Mrs. Voze is coming back to help? his clumsy boys to clear their names? Kind of.

To be fair, I probably did amsterdam looks more fun than it is. Truth be told, I spent most of my time watching this boring and frustratingly disorganized company, struggling to figure out what was going on.

Is it slippery historical satire with a twist or is it The Emperor’s New Clothes for one of Hollywood’s most controversial authors? It could be the latter.

Amsterdam is never silent. It wouldn’t be a problem if Russell gave his characters some interesting things to say. Instead, that undeniably beautiful but spectacularly lackluster display constantly explains itself. Bale’s exhausting narration doesn’t help much.

It’s too wacky for his own good and not as smart as he thinks. It is overloaded and overcrowded. At a numbing 134 minutes, it’s way too long and there are no actionable punchlines. Some of our top players (Robert De Niro, Chris Rock, Zoe Saldana) are doing better than others (Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Rami Malek).

Bale is committed to the cause but is perhaps misinterpreted as an eccentric GP with a heart of gold. Harold is supposed to be Burt’s yin to yang, but in the hands of David Washington, he seems cold and distant.

Meanwhile, Robbie does what she can with Mrs. Voze, but what’s the point? There’s no hint of chemistry between our leads, and I suspect they know it. A wasted opportunity.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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Sinead O’Connor in “Nothing Compares”

Sinead O’Connor in “Nothing Compares”

Nothing compares
In cinemas; 15A certificate
Four stars

It says a lot about Kathryn Ferguson’s brilliantly put together Sinéad O’Connor documentary that even when we listen to stories we’ve heard before or watch clips we’ve seen a dozen times before, it never gets lost. .

That’s the power of a good music doc. That’s undoubtedly the power of O’Connor, whose turbulent rise to global stardom – and the cascading controversies that followed – form the basis of this compelling portrait of a national treasure.

Ferguson’s film digs deep and charts O’Connor’s unlikely path from abusive childhood to international icon, culminating in the singer’s widely derided stint on Saturday Night Live on October 3, 1992, when O’Connor tore a photo of Pope John Paul II. Commercially speaking, his career will never recover.

The industry would change; so would Ireland and Nothing Compares (made with O’Connor’s approval) which change with both compassion and delicacy. It follows Asif Kapadia’s school of documentary filmmaking (all stock footage, with fresh, no-talking-head narration).
It offers a thrilling snapshot of a brave and inimitable talent. It’s a bit of a triumph. Chris Wasser

Catherine called Birdy
First video; Certified to be confirmed
Three stars

It’s 13th century England, and Bella Ramsey’s Lady Catherine, aka “Birdy”, is in a bit of a rut. A teenage aristocrat with an eye for mischief and a head full of questions, Birdy is in no mood to be married off by her incompetent, one-on-one father, Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott).

Yes, dad wants her gone (he needs the money). Mom (Billie Piper’s Lady Aislinn) is a sweeter, kinder soul, but they still need the money. So a long line of hideous, hairy, insufferable suitors arrives, and Birdy – who would much rather run away with her handsome Uncle George (Joe Alwyn) – hatches a plan to scare them off.

Written and directed by Girls creator Lena Dunham, and based on a 1994 children’s novel by Karen Cushman, this scenic yet lively comedy is loaded with clever ideas, witty exchanges and precious themes.

Obviously, medieval England sucks, especially for women, but Ramsey illuminates it with a playful, irreverent twist as a heartbreaking teenager determined to rewrite the rulebook. It’s a little rough around the edges, but Dunham’s film grows inside you, and she’s lucky to have Scott (excellent) and Piper (incandescent) on her team. Chris Wasser

vicky
In cinemas; 12A certificate
Three stars

Vicky Phelan’s story was always going to end on screen. With Sasha King’s admirable and well-intentioned documentary, we have a moving examination and, indeed, a celebration of an extraordinary Irish woman and resilient campaigner whose courage knows no bounds.

Phelan was diagnosed with cervical cancer three years after a Pap test showed no abnormalities. She was not alone. In Vicky, the Limerick native recalls, in heartbreaking detail, the daily struggles of a life-changing diagnosis and the ensuing battle to ensure accountability and survival.

Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, Phelan is able to tell his own story. Four years in the making, this laudable exhibit invites us into his home and behind the scenes of his investigation into the CervicalCheck cancer scandal. So the subject matter is stunning – but the resulting film is a little messy in places.

Vicky is somewhat disappointed by a messy edit and a rushed final third. Still, its heart is in the right place, and this insightful and important documentary does what it’s meant to do. Chris Wasser

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