Skyscraper (2018)

Skyscraper.png

Will Sawyer (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) is a former FBI agent and U.S. war veteran who lost his leg in active service and who now assesses security for skyscrapers. While he’s on assignment in Hong Kong, the world’s tallest and safest building catches on fire and Will gets framed for it. Now a wanted man and on the run, he must find those responsible, clear his name and somehow rescue his family members (Navy surgeon wife Neve Campbell and two kids) when they become trapped inside the inferno... A film whose matchbook pitch must have read, The Rock climbs up a burning building. Or, more concisely, a family-Oriented disaster film. Because this is a shameless attempt at the transnational market ie China wherein dialogue matters not a jot and the film doesn’t have a cast so much as cardboard cutouts. Villains? No need for characterisation, just give them faces only a mother could love: Pablo Schreiber, Roland Møller, Noah Taylor.  Job done.  Forty-five years ago critics laughed at The Towering Inferno, a thorough scrutiny of building safety with the biggest movie stars on the planet. They’re not laughing now. Keep scraping that barrel, Hollywood. This is what China deserves. Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber who I don’t imagine could be related to James. Simply disgraceful.

The Wife (2017)

The Wife.png

Without this woman I am nothing. Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) has been the supportive wife to charismatic Jewish novelist Joe (Jonathan Pryce) for forty years when they get the call that he’s won the Nobel Prize. Her resentment at his behaviour and success boil over in Stockholm where his wannabe biographer Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater) teases  her that he knows who really wrote all of Joe’s books and goes drinking with their surly son David (Max Irons) tipping the author’s son over the edge and leaving Joan to wonder at the wisdom of allowing her husband his moment of glory while she continues to play the role of dutiful wife … All the ideas are there. I can fix it. Do you want me to fix it? Jane Anderson adapted the novel by Meg Wolitzer, one of the best writers working today. She is shrewd, witty, incisive, brutal, parodic and smart, observing human antics with a gimlet eye and a knowing glance at contemporary society. Behind every great man is, what, a great woman? A pudding of hatred? A long-simmering resentment waiting it out? All of the above. The great masquerade of the Great American Novel is excavated with exquisite viciousness. When Joe doesn’t even recognise the name of one of his most famous characters we know something’s up. A trip to the past clarifies his third-rate writing but when Joan  works at a publisher they dismiss women’s output and wonder where they’ll find the next Jewish man. A brilliant cameo by Elizabeth McGovern makes the situation of women writers clear:  The public can’t stand bold prose from a woman. Don’t ever think you can get their attention. It’s the late 50s and this gal has hitched her star to a wannbe who isn’t a good writer – but he has fantastic ideas. And she can write. It’s a great gag to have a student be better than the master and to have a biographer figure it out – son David describes Bone as ‘Andy Warhol’ reminding us of the midcentury origins of American over-writers. No wonder Plath put her head in an oven. Close is a revelation as her distaste steadily grows into something she can no longer control and she can’t accept Joe’s philandering (she was his mistress before she was his wife) and playing dogsbody, finally deciding on terminating the arrangement born of youthful ambition during the most public of ceremonies, where she declares to the King of Sweden:  I am a kingmaker. It’s a great moment. There are a lot of pleasures to be had in this quiet assault of a narrative:  seeing Close’s daughter Annie Starke play her in flashback;  Slater’s insidious turn as the pivot that turns this family inside out; the horrible spectacle of the famous writer father belittling his son’s efforts as an author; Stockholm in winter, the setting for another Nobel-themed novel that was filmed, The Prize, which had a very different text but, well, kind of a similar body count.  Directed by Bjorn Runge. This is my life God help me

Le Bonheur (1965)

Le Bonheur

Aka Happiness. Happiness is perhaps submission to the natural order. In suburban Paris, young joiner François (Jean-Claude Drouot) lives a very contented life with his dressmaker wife Thérèse (Claire Drouot) and their two small children. Despite his apparent satisfaction, François takes a mistress named Emilie (Marie-France Boyer) who works at the post office and he doesn’t feel the least bit of remorse for his philandering. He tells his wife and is astonished that she’s upset. While he is able to justify loving both women, the infidelity results in tragic real-life consequences I have enough joy for both of you. There is so much joy in this film with the flowers and food and babies and general air of happiness, intimate displays of sex (the central couple were married in real life) and sensuality abounding in this working class family. The juxtaposition of the romantic with the daily grind amid the bucolic – even idyllic – setting (ravishingly shot by Jean Rabier and Claude Beausoleil) and the crummy reality of a marriage betrayed, the ease with which one wife can be replaced with another, these are the stuff of life, the nasty realities with which Agnès Varda engaged and discoursed upon so supply and clearly. A cunning exploration of the callousness of men, designed to appear observational and non-judgmental in a blaze of beautiful colours and Mozart. A wolf in sheep’s clothing with an ending that made me gasp the first time I saw it. I am happy and free and you’re not my first man

Agnes Varda 30th May 1928 – 29th March 2019

The heroine of the Nouvelle Vague has died. Agnès Varda wasn’t just a director, she was a master of a medium she knew little about when she made her brilliant debut, La Pointe Courte in 1955. She infused all her work – mainly in documentary – with a finessed sensibility that transcends the time in which it is made and her major features, Cleo de 5 à 7 and Le Bonheur are devastating portraits of contemporary womanhood. The later Vagabond was as shocking as her earlier work and made Sandrine Bonnaire a star. Her marriage to Jacques Demy was complex and yielded a wonderful homage, Jacquot de Nantes, a combination of essay with cinephilia that is utterly unique. Documentaries and art installations proved her humanity, flooded with an interest in the marginalised, the unheralded and the quotidian.  She seemed to take great pleasure in finding everyday faces and places. She was making films until quite recently and was a regular visitor to film festivals where I was privileged to hear her speak on occasion. Varda seemed to be able to access her inner child, eternally youthful, questioning and interested, an impression assisted by that French bob she wore until the end. Some critics would claim her films have outlasted those of her male peers:  I wouldn’t entirely disagree. Merci, Agnès.

Us (2019)

Us.png

Once upon a time, there was a girl and the girl had a shadow. The two were connected, tethered together. Accompanied by her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), son Jason (Evan Alex) and daughter Zora (Venus Williams lookalike Shahadi Wright Joseph), Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) returns to the lakeside home at Santa Cruz CA where she grew up. Haunted by a traumatic experience from 1986 when she entered the funhouse at the pier and encountered her doppelganger, subsequently becoming electively mute,  Addie grows increasingly concerned that something bad is going to happen but agrees to go to the beach where they meet their friends Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) and his wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their twin daughters. They have a better house, car and boat than the Wilsons. Jason wanders off at the beach and Addie grows frantic. Her fears soon become a reality when four masked strangers descend upon the house, forcing the Wilsons into a fight for survival. When the masks come off, the family is horrified to learn that each attacker takes the appearance of one of them and they have to fight to the death with Addie finally facing up to what happened thirty years ago … Who are you people?/ We’re Americans. Dontcha just hate it when the people who break into your home look exactly like you? This second outing for Jordan (Get Out) Peele gives the game away when it enters comedic territory for its second hour. And in the penultimate sequence, when Gabe says to the children Leave it to your mother, she’ll know what to do, we get a hint as to the final twist – and precisely what he may have known about his wife all along. You’ll probably figure it out from the poster. This take on – what? impostor syndrome? race relations? slavery? the Other? the base versus the superstructure? people who live underground in tunnels?! rich versus poor? Mexico?! –  wants to be so much more than it is. On the other hand, it nods towards horror tropes quite cleverly with Nyong’o being a very modern Final Girl – of a sort. It’s not remotely scary despite its publicity campaign. There are a lot of rabbits:  breeding like … I don’t know, people who want to make the US great again?! The tilt towards pantomime brings out some spectacularly bad acting – thank you, Ms Moss! – and rather rubs our faces in some crude rap to make a point about society and Reagan-era politics with a telling mention of South of the Border and then goes and robs the ending from the great Mad Men. What a cheek! It’s well set up and crafted but has some diffuse ideas about things that remain stubbornly unresolved so ultimately isn’t about anything at all, if you ask me. Sigh. Too many twins around here

La Strada (1954)

La Strada

What a funny face! Are you a woman, really? Or an artichoke? Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is a simple-minded young woman whose mother accepts 10,000 lire from brutish itinerant strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) to take her on the road after her older sister Rosa has died doing the same job. He bullies her and she takes up with high-wire performer Il Matto/Fool (Richard Basehart) who is with a travelling circus which she then joins with Zampanò when he finds her. The men’s rivalry culminates in a death … Here we have a piece of chain that is a quarter of an inch thick. It is made of crude iron, stronger than steel. With the simple expansion of my pectoral muscles, or chest, that is, I’ll break the hook.Written by Fellini and Tulio Pinelli with Ennio Flaiano, this is the first of the maestro’s world hits and one of the classics of cinema. It is a tragedy told with immense humanity and vivid melancholy and is a tribute to the performing brilliance of Masina, Fellini’s wife and the inspiration for the central character, a waif of Chaplinesque attractiveness. Much of the film was shot around dawn, imbuing this picaresque of poverty with its unique tone of fatality. This marks a break with the director’s neorealist cinematic roots,  yet it is an unvarnished picture of post-war Italy, a stark contrast with the American Technicolor tourist romcoms being produced on location. However it embraces the vitality and symbolism of the circus and brings a distinctive worldview to global attention. Quinn seems unbearably tough while Basehart does well as a kind of trickster in this allegorical play on the fairytale.  Nino Rota provides the evocative score and the song which is repeated to such urgent effect. A devastating portrait of the destruction of innocence with the overwhelming power of melodrama. Once you lose your eyes, you are finished. If there’s any delicate person in the audience, I would advise him to look away ’cause there could be blood

The Looking Glass War (1970)

The Looking Glass War.jpg

I’ve never been a spy before. It will be a new experience for me.  Polish defector Leiser (Christopher Jones) is lured into the world of espionage by a shadowy adjunct to MI6 run by Leclerc (Ralph Richardson) and Haldane (Paul Rogers) with the promise of British residency so that he can see his pregnant girlfriend (Susan George). Trouble is she’s aborted the baby and he drowns his sorrows with his training operative John Avery (Anthony Hopkins) before entering East Germany to clarify if blurred photographs from Hamburg are proof of a missile site. He pairs up with Anna (Pia Degermark) who wants out from the Iron Curtain and together they embark on a treacherous undertaking with high risks and mixed results … Never lean on your opponent.  Never lose your temper.  And why fight over a knife when there’s a gun under your arm? This adaptation of John le Carré’s novel by writer/director Frank Pierson starts with an intriguing encounter at an airport which winds up with a roadside death. Accident? This downbeat deconstruction of the spy’s life continues in the vein of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and its satirical intent is conveyed in that first sequence – the spy can’t get taxi expenses and loses the film he’s paid a pilot to smuggle, killed by a camper van sliding along the snowy road. The author claimed it’s the most accurate depiction of his own experiences in espionage – including a misplaced longing for the glory days of WW2, utter incompetence and the futility of much intelligence activity. However the tone of anti-nostalgia in this story of The Department’s ineptitude is sacrificed for a more straightforward (and duller) exposition. The classic character of George Smiley is dropped from the source novel. There are plenty of incidental pleasures however, not least the cinematography by Austin Dempster; Jones’ gear (like a forerunner of Robert Redford’s getup in Three Days of the Condor), all peacoat and steel-rimmed mirror shades; a rare performance by Elvira Madigan herself, Degermark; and a score that is both modish and interesting from Wally Stott (responsible for arranging Scott Walker’s first three solo albums) who changed sex two years later and became Angela Morley. Morals are a bitch on heat

Scott Walker 9th January 1943 – 25th March 2019

Child actor. Guitarist. Singer. Walker Brother. Teen idol. Avant garde performer. Soundtrack composer. One of the great voices of the twentieth century (although he was 30 Century Man.) Noah Scott Engel aka Scott Walker was born in the United States but chose to make the UK his base from the mid-Sixties where the Walker Brothers group had their biggest success. He made a radical turnaround in his performing and songwriting style, once described as though Andy Williams had turned into Stockhausen. Eclectic, driven, singular, endlessly influential. Genius. RIP.

Lure of the Wilderness (1952)

Lure of the Wilderness.jpg

I was in here six years afore I found my way out. In the early 1900s, Zack Tyler (Tom Tully) and his son Ben (Jeffrey Hunter) are fur trappers living near Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. In the course of searching for their dog in the swamp they discover Jim Harper (Walter Brennan), a fugitive who has been unjustly accused of a killing, and his daughter, Laurie (Jean Peters), who has developed very few social skills due to her 8 years spent living in the wild. Zack becomes convinced of Jim’s innocence and attempts to set up a proper criminal defence, while Ben and Laurie begin to fall in love. But Dave Longden (Jack Elam) smells a rat and starts to think like the lynch mob that drove out the Harpers all those years ago…  What did we ever do to you ones on the outside to get this?Adapted by Louis Lantz from Vereen Bell’s 1941 novel Swamp Water (previously adapted by Jean Renoir and also starring Brennan, Walter Huston, Dana Andrews and Anne Baxter), this is a colourful, lyrical action-adventure tale, getting the full-blooded Twentieth Century-Fox treatment including an OTT score by Franz Waxman. Director Jean Negulesco always had an eye for the worthy visual (even if the Technicolor might mute the Southern Gothic sensibility) but he was not noted for his interaction with performers.  However Brennan is always worth watching and hearing him perform a song and witnessing him wrestle a ‘gator is worth the price of admission. Irish actress Constance Smith has a small but meaty role as Zack’s feisty jilted girlfriend and the fight she inspires between Hunter and her new beau helps the film attain the kind of liveliness this material demands. The midpoint sequence is the best – the murk of the swamp comes to wild life as Hunter and the darkly enchanting Peters get to know each other a little better. Just like coming back to life

 

Tag (2018)

Tag

There are no winners. Only not losers.  Hogan ‘Hoagie’ Malloy (Ed Helms), Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), Randy ‘Chili’ Cilliano (Jake Johnson), Kevin Sable (Hannibal Buress) and Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner) have been playing a game of tag every May for 30 years  – but Jerry’s never been It and his upcoming wedding (to which none of his friends have invited) provides the perfect setting to finally land the big fish. Or does it? He’s planning on retiring now and Hoagie tags Bob at his insurance company where he’s CEO and collars Chili mid-toke and Kevin at his psychiatrist’s in order to make one last attempt in their hometown of Spokane where Jerry runs a successful fitness business and his ninja-like agility still threatens to make it impossible … I will be so pissed if she didn’t have a miscarriage. Adapted from the Wall Street Journal story It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being It by Russell Adams, this has an iron-clad concept that doesn’t quite work – somehow the innate madness and anger that occasionally surfaces in Helms’ character (and which is ultimately put down to illness – such sentiment has no place here!) doesn’t get ridden the way it ought. First-time director Jeff Tomsic has fun with the action sequences but the screenplay by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen needed something extra – at one point I kinda hoped it would be Preston Sturges, because the kind of antic frantic lunacy that this story suggests needs that sort of old-school zany style. The final twist turns into something else with Hoagie’s crazed tagalong wife Anna (Isla Fisher) letting loose – at last. Too late, I fear! You’re it. Poor planning. Poor execution