Runaway Jury (2003)

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Trials are too important to be left to juries! Nothing like the element of surprise to heat up a legal drama and this has it in spades. After a workplace shooting in New Orleans that kills married broker Jacob (Dylan McDermott), lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) takes up the case against the gun manufacturer for the man’s widow Celeste (Joanna Going) but has to deal with a ‘jury consultant’, Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman). When Nicholas Easter (John Cusack), a man without an apparent past, gets on the jury he seems to be able to exert influence on the outcome – with the assistance of his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) who’s operating at the end of a telephone. Both sides are approached to make them an offer to sway the decision – a situation rendered immensely complicated when they are sequestered in a motel on the East Texas border … John Grisham’s thriller was in development for half a dozen years and its original topic – big tobacco – was altered after The Insider (coincidentally featuring Bruce McGill, the judge here) but taps into the very emotive theme of gun rights, the Second Amendment and – in the big reveal – a school shooting. The setting of N’Oleans heaps atmosphere into this very effectively plotted thriller and you’ll recognise a lot of landmarks. The playing – that cast! – is exceptional with Hackman making his return to Grisham territory 9 years after The Firm in which he also essayed a very shady character. Really well managed even if the coda errs on the side of sentiment. Adapted by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman. Directed by Gary Fleder.

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Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

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Learn it.  Know it.   Live it. Stacey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the 15 year old girl who wants to date and takes tips from the more experienced Linda (Phoebe Cates) who teaches her how to give blow jobs using carrots at lunch in the school cafeteria. Stacey has her virginity taken by a 26 year old in a football field dugout and never hears from him again. Her older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) is a senior working a MacJob at a fast food joint and is in a going-nowhere relationship for two years with Lisa (Amanda Wyss) who works there too. Stacey’s classmate Mark ‘Rat’ Ratner (Brian Backer) falls for her but she winds up knocked up by his mentor Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) who welshes on paying for the necessary abortion. Stacey’s classmate Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) is a stoner slacker who is the bane of history teacher Mr Hand (Ray Walston) but they wind up coming to a detente just in time for the end of the school year. Adapted from Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe’s undercover observational book about a year in the life at a California high school, Amy Heckerling’s feature debut is a sweet and funny if episodic look at some very relatable kids. She helped Crowe rewrite the original screenplay.  Not as raucous as Porky’s or as insightful as The Breakfast Club, it’s notable for not making a big deal about abortion (or topless shots of its female stars) but mainly for being a breakout film for so many future stars and Academy Award winners – including that legendary turn by Penn as the ultimate stoner surf dude. Totally rad!

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

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Who wouldn’t want to be the preternaturally gifted Tom Ford? A Single Man was such a wonderful piece of work and the real reason Colin Firth was recognized by the Academy for The King’s Speech (these things happen a lot). I was positively salivating over the prospect of seeing this. It’s tantalising isn’t it, given the talent involved? And the source novel, Tony & Susan, by Austin Wright, is stunning. And I like the poster. And the trailer. So then I saw it and thought, meh. Which isn’t what you want from an adaptation of what is a very fine postmodern literary thriller which sucks you in as you follow Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) progress through the eviscerating novel her ex-husband Edward Sheffield has sent her after a divorce, oh, years ago (in the book it’s 25) which is dramatised as a film within the film. She is now in the marriage for which she left him, to a more successful man and not a failing novelist, and Armie Hammer plays Hutton, the philandering art dealer, while she stays at their gallery and plays snark with fellow professionals and feels her life hollow out as Edward’s avatar Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal plays him as well in the film within a film) infects her brain. Episodes from her life with Edward and their breakup play as respite from her reading of the novel, in intermissions from the violent deaths of Tony’s wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber), redheads just like Susan, raped and murdered in West Texas by a crew of rednecks led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson or whatever he’s calling himself nowadays. (Their destination in the novel is their summer home in Maine;  here it’s Marfa, Texas, the location for the great James Dean film, Giant – I wonder why?).  Michael Shannon turns up to help Tony identify the killers (a much more cursory treatment than the novel). Meanwhile Susan deals with her ridiculous friends and the scene with Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough at an opening is actually risible. It’s astonishingly badly directed. The point of the book within the book, Nocturnal Animals, is that it’s Edward’s revenge, his way of letting his LA-living bourgeois-loving ex, whom he christened a nocturnal animal, This is what you did to me. You left me on the side of the road to be ravaged and tortured. But it’s a literary device and in the novel it becomes truly postmodern when Wright allows Susan enter the story for the horrendous denouement – which can’t happen here since Isla Fisher plays her avatar in the film/novel within the film. There are changes, notably to Susan’s occupation and that of her husband but they don’t necessarily damage the text per se …  But the juxtaposition of the smooth LA gallerist with the awful Texan thugs doesn’t really elicit the emotions required to make the movie’s engine work. Adams does what she can in the present-day setup but the scenes are mostly DOA. She doesn’t even get angry when she hears her husband’s mistress on the phone. And the payoff doesn’t work as well as in the book for all sorts of reasons. A principal one is not just Ford’s own adaptation but – ironically – the aesthetics. For a great designer who transitioned to cinema with a magnificent looking debut that revelled in the California light beautifully shot by Edward Grau, here it’s Grimm and grimmer, sad to say since it’s talented Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey who’s responsible for the filthy palette presumably chosen by Ford. Imagine this master of colour, light, movement, fabric, shape, surfaces, tone, texture and what he’s capable of dreaming into life on the catwalk, and then look at this and ask, Why Tom, why? When you can do so much better? I’ll wait for the next collection. Disappointing.

Grandma (2015)

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We enter this film in the middle of a breakup that is sharp and swift as poet and unemployed academic Lily Tomlin disposes of her much younger Lesbian lover of four months, Judy Greer. She describes her as a footnote. Then she breaks down in the shower. No sooner is she wearing her mortar board and gown than teenaged granddaughter Julia Garner shows up pregnant needing $630 for an abortion at five forty-five that evening. Grandma only has $43. Her longtime companion died 18 months earlier and hospital bills left her broke and she cut up her credit cards. They spend the day hitting on people she knows looking to make up the difference. This is an exercise in writing craft:  give interesting people a problem and solve it. Because it’s about a writer it’s told in six chapters. Grandma has cool friends but when they hit the feminist bookstore run by Elizabeth Pena (late, lamented, what a loss), Greer is unexpectedly there working and they have the mother of a quarrel. Laverne Cox owes her but hasn’t any money on her so gives her a tattoo and petty cash. Julia introduces Grandma to the moron who knocked her up – and she beats him up. They roll up to the fabulous modernist home of Sam Elliott – and Grandma’s surprising and hidden sexual past is opened up in an incredible scene-sequence, beautifully played by both parties. Push comes to shove and they have to go to the office of her daughter Marcia Gay Harden, a powerful businesswoman, and look for the money there. This is a very smart, well-told tale, of people who make families in unusual ways, about the perils of love, marriage, illness, parenthood, mother-daughter relationships, reconciliations and how hard it can be to get an abortion. (Just wait for the scene outside the clinic to see what happens to Tomlin!). Written and directed by Paul Weitz, who had worked with Tomlin on Admission:  this is her first starring role since Big Business with Bette Midler in 1988. She’s fantastic in this sharp story of septugenarian life,spiky, witty, wise, decent above all and occasionally sad. All the exposition is done succinctly and inventively and the running time is just 79 minutes. Politically correct – in a good way and extremely funny to boot. Who knew that ‘writer in residence’ could be a term of abuse? !

Detective Story (1951)

 

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This adaptation of Sidney Kingsley’s controversial hit play concerning 24 hours in the life of a NYPD precinct got the semi-doc makeover in an adaptation by Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler, director William’s brother. An impressive set contributes to the sense of theatre, in this slice of life drama that gives a lot of young actors a chance to ham it up as petty crims straight from the Actors’ Studio, or so it seems. That number includes Lee Grant, making her debut as a shoplifter, and whose last film it would be for a very long time because she was blacklisted. The main story however is Kirk Douglas, hellbent on going after a backstreet abortionist but things get nasty and personal when his colleagues discover his own wife (Eleanor Parker) availed of his services prior to their (childless) marriage. Douglas’ short temper and vigilante tactics rebound on him in every way in this febrile drama and he’s terrific in a demanding if contrived role, with William Bendix memorable as his colleague and Craig Hill (sigh!) rather good as Cathy O’Donnell’s boyfriend.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

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An utterly compelling sequel? Yes, it’s possible.  In fact for many people this is better than the original. But then it’s a prequel as well as a sequel and has an absorbing richness deriving from the fabled origins of the Mob back in Sicily and its growth during the Prohibition era. Robert De Niro plays the young Vito Corleone and his life is juxtaposed with that of his son the current Don, Michael (Al Pacino), as a Senate Committee closes in on the Mafia and his rivals start wiping out everyone in sight while he tries to expand his casino interests in Las Vegas. An immensely fulfilling narrative experience with stunning performances including legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth and Troy Donahue playing Connie’s latest squeeze, Merle Johnson – Donahue’s birth name.

The Survivalist (2015)

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Paintball was never like this. Or maybe if Samuel Beckett set Godot in Norn Iron after the oil supplies dried up …it would be. Ah, that’s it. Martin McCann is burying someone. He’s a paranoid hermit whose veggie forager lifestyle in this post-apocalyptic world is upset by the arrival of a feral old woman (Olwen Fouere) and her daughter (Mia Goth) and after the girl exchanges sexual favours they agree a grudging truce and hang around longer than one night. The women are planning on killing him but an assailant captures the girl and shoots him. He knifes the stranger and the women remove the bullet and cauterise the wound which needs maggots to heal. Then with an attack by 6 men on the garden they revert to Plan A while the girl tries to perform an abortion on herself … This triangular relationship based on uneasy silences, danger and treachery has a constant shifting centre and revolves around two shells and a bullet. There is minimal dialogue but the performances and Damien Elliott’s photography contribute texture to an atmospheric drama that is probably science fiction, but with added cannibalism. Yum. Written and directed by Stephen Fingleton, who  originally made this as a short called Magpie with more or less the same cast.

Roe Vs. Wade (1989)

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In a week in which Donald Trump found another way to kill women in a spectacular series of U-turns, this timely screening of the 27-year old TV movie deserves a viewing. Holly Hunter is the carnival barker trying to get an abortion in Texas (where it was illegal at the time) and Amy Madigan is the lawyer fighting the unjust forces that make women have children they don’t want – no matter the circumstances. Written by Alison Cross, responsible for one of my favourite 90s films, Blood and Wine, and directed by Texan Gregory Hoblit (a TV producer who went on to do films like Frequency and Primal Fear), this is still tough stuff with great performances – as you’d expect with that lineup. Why do people hate women so much? Maybe Sharon Stone had it right when she said something along the lines of ‘I have a vagina AND a brain…’

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

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A charmless folk singer in Greenwich Village can’t get a break. His married girlfriend is knocked up  by him – maybe. Even his musical partner has topped himself. He tries to strike a deal and is accompanied on his quest by a benefactor’s cat – maybe. He gets caught in a heroin OD nightmare – not his own. He has no overcoat and his sister has thrown out his union card that he needs to go back working on a boat. This antithesis of the hero’s journey could be read as a Coen Bros riposte to the Blake Snyder screenwriting manual that was in vogue for a while, Save the Cat. And it’s a rough film a clef about a real life denizen of that scene. In the meantime, while the cat (or cats) was wonderful, my own ginger companion, Gilbert, was having none of it. He prefers wolf documentaries.