“A lot of it really happened.” Thus begins David O. Russell’s clunky, convoluted mysteries about a trio of fictional war comrades fighting for their lives against a lousy historical backdrop.
It seems odd to lead with that Amsterdambig revelation – that our insane protagonists end up in the middle of the so-called 1933 White House coup. But listen, that’s all everyone involved in this is talking about.
For the uninitiated, the “coup,” also known as the “business plot,” involved an evil alliance of American businessmen who—inspired by fascist rumors in Germany—hatched a plan to overthrow their government and replace President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a dictator.
They obviously never got past the planning stage, though Amsterdams central claim – that the fascists hoped to hire a respected US general as their leader – begs what would have happened if they had.
That’s the only worthy aspect of a film that takes an age to get going. As a matter of fact, Amsterdam‘s acclaimed, Oscar-nominated writer and director Russell (silver linings Playbook, American hustle) would have you believe this is the coolest gathering in Tinseltown. And in a way it is (check out this sensational cast sheet).
Unfortunately, a starry guest list is one thing, a memorable party is another, and Russell’s weary and tedious performance is all set and fails to pay off.
We begin in New York in the 1930s. 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 crippling back injury and a broken marriage.
He’s, shall we say, a bit quirky, but he’s a good egg and our hapless protagonist spends most of his time treating other veterans who risked their lives and lost their limbs fighting for freedom.
One day, Burt is called in by his wartime legal buddy, Harold Woodsman (John David Washington). Harold needs Burt to perform an autopsy on their old war general and US Senator, Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.).
You see, Bill’s daughter Elizabeth (Taylor Swift is trying her best) believes her father died under suspicious circumstances, and after examining the body, so do Burt and Harold. Unfortunately, someone then pushes poor Elizabeth under a moving car and the doctor and his lawyer friend are wrongly accused of her murder.
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Russell’s tricky widescreen puzzle then takes us back to 1918 France, where the boys meet the seductive Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie) for the first time. Valerie is the nurse who removes pieces of shrapnel from the boys’ backs.
After that, they become best buds and together our beautiful trio flock to Amsterdam for a hilarious round of post-war celebrations. 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 Ms Voze returns to help her clumsy boys clear their names? Type of.
To be fair, I probably did Amsterdam sounds funnier than it is. To be honest, I spent most of my time watching this annoyingly noisy and frustratingly disorganized endeavor struggling to figure out what the heck was going on.
Is this raunchy historical satire with a twist, or is it a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes for one of Hollywood’s most controversial authors? It could be the latter.
Amsterdam never shuts up. That wouldn’t be a problem if Russell gave his characters interesting things to say. Instead, this undeniably beautiful but spectacularly dull display constantly explains itself. Bale’s exhausting narration does little to help.
It’s too crazy for its own good and not nearly as smart as it thinks it is. It’s crowded and crowded. At a spine-numbing 134 minutes, it’s way too long and there aren’t any viable punchlines. Some of our A-list 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 may be miscast as an eccentric GP with a heart of gold. Harold is meant to be the yin to Burt’s yang, but in David Washington’s hands he comes across as cold and aloof.
Meanwhile, Robbie does what she can with Ms. Voze, but what’s the point? There’s hardly a hint of chemistry between our tracks, and I’m guessing they know it. A missed opportunity
In the cinema; Certificate 15A
It says a lot about Kathryn Ferguson’s brilliantly put together Sinéad O’Connor documentary that it never loses us, even when we’re listening to stories we’ve already heard or watching clips we’ve seen a dozen times.
That is the strength of a good music document. It’s also undoubtedly the power of O’Connor whose turbulent rise to global superstardom – and the controversies that followed – form the basis of this compelling portrait of a national treasure.
Ferguson’s film goes deep into the depths, tracing O’Connor’s unlikely journey from an abusive childhood to an international icon, culminating in the singer’s much-ridiculed appearance on Saturday Night Live on October 3, 1992, when O’Connor shared a picture of Pope John Paul II Torn. Commercially, her career would never recover.
The industry would change; The same goes for Maps of Ireland and Nothing Compares (produced with the permission of O’Connor), which change with both compassion and delicacy. It follows the Asif Kapadia school of documentary film (all archive footage, with fresh narration and no talking heads).
It offers an exciting snapshot of a courageous, inimitable talent. It’s a small triumph. Chris Wasser
Catherine named Birdy
Prime Video; Certificate TBC
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 mind full of questions, Birdy is in no mood to be married off by her incompetent, intellectual father, Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott).
Yes, dad wants her gone (he needs the money). Mum (Billie Piper’s Lady Aislinn) is a gentler, kinder soul, but they still need the money. So summons a long line of obnoxious, hairy, and obnoxious suitors, 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 staged yet spirited comedy armed with clever ideas, witty exchanges and valuable themes.
Obviously medieval England sucks, especially for women, but Ramsey lights it up with a playful, irreverent twist as a teenager determined to rewrite the rule book. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but Dunham’s film grows on you, and she’s lucky to have Scott (excellent) and Piper (red-hot) on her roster. Chris Wasser
In the cinema; Certificate 12A
Vicky Phelan’s story would always end up on screens. In Sasha King’s admirable, well-intentioned documentary, we have a moving investigation, and indeed a celebration, of an extraordinary Irish woman and resilient activist whose courage knows no bounds.
Phelan was diagnosed with cervical cancer three years after a smear showed no abnormalities. She wasn’t alone. In Vicky, the Limerick native recalls in harrowing detail the day-to-day hardships of a life-changing diagnosis and the ensuing struggle for accountability and survival.
Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, Phelan is able to tell her own story. This commendable exhibit, four years in the making, invites us into her home and behind the scenes of her investigation into the CervicalCheck cancer scandal. So the subject matter is intriguing – but the resulting film is a bit messy in places.
Vicky is a bit let down by the fragmented editing and a rushed final third. Still, his heart is in the right place, and this insightful and important documentary does what it’s supposed to. Chris Wasser