The Gauntlet (1977)

The Gauntlet

On a scale of one to ten, I’d have to give her a two, and that’s because I haven’t seen a one before. Hard-living ageing cop Ben Shockley (Clint Eastwood) is recruited to escort Augustina ‘Gus’ Mally (Sondra Locke), a key witness in a Mob trial, from Las Vegas to Phoenix. But far from being a nothing witness in a nothing trial as Commissioner Blakelock (William Prince) insists, Gus is a lovely, well-educated if coarse call girl who claims to have explosive information on a significant figure that makes the two highly expendable targets. Ben starts to believe her story after numerous attempts are made to kill them and they have to travel across the unforgiving desert without official protection, pursued by angry bikers and corrupt police officers and he contacts his direct boss Josephson (Pat Hingle) to try to rearrange the outcome  ... Now, the next turkey who tries that, I’m gonna shoot him, stuff him, and stick an apple in his ass. Chris Petit remarks elsewhere that this in its own way is as significant to the Eastwood screen persona as Annie Hall is to Woody Allen’s – and that’s true, insofar as it examines masculinity (and it’s shown up in elemental form), quasi-feminist principles and gut-busting hardcore action and thrills based on the first formal rule of movie making – people chasing people. Written by Michael Butler and David Shryack, they were working on a screenplay originally intended for Brando and Streisand (can you imagine?) and Brando withdrew in favour of Steve McQueen and Streisand then walked – leading to Eastwood coming on board to direct and star so the self-deprecating humour took on a new edge as he challenges institutional corruption and general stupidity (mostly his own) once again. Locke is great as the prostitute with a planet-sized brain, a heart of gold and a mine of information and she’s every bit as resourceful as you’d expect when the two hit the road running. Fast, funny and occasionally quite furious, this is a key film in both of the stars’ careers. Shryack would go on to write Pale Rider (1985) for Eastwood and it was that decade’s biggest grossing western. There are some marvellous jazz solos from Art Pepper and Jon Faddis. Smart, rip roaring fun, a pursuit western in all but name. I can go anywhere I please if I have reasonable suspicion. Now if I have suspicion a felony’s been committed, I can just walk right in here anytime I feel like it, ’cause I got this badge, I got this gun, and I got the love of Jesus right here in my pretty green eyes

Ray & Liz (2018)

Ray and Liz

They can do anything nowadays. In England’s Black Country in the Thatcher era, Ray (Justin Salinger) and Liz (Ella Smith) raise their two sons Richard (Jacob Tuton/Sam Jacobs) and his younger brother Jason (Callum Slater/Joshua Millard-Lyon) on the margins of society in a Dudley council flat… A horrifying and virtually unwatchable portrait of the underclass with gruelling depictions of heavy drinking, parental neglect and familial dysfunction on a fathomless scale, told over a period of eight years as Richard becomes a teenager.  It’s framed within a flashback when Ray (Patrick Romer) is now an alcoholic separated from Liz (Deirdre Kelly) and neighbour Sid (Richard Ashton) is vying for his welfare benefits by keeping him drunk. Made by photographer and artist Richard Billingham about his impoverished upbringing and developed from a short film, this unsentimental fragmentary narrative is not without the odd millisecond of humour – perhaps when Jason runs away and meets his mother the following day wheeling a rabbit in a pram in a local park we are in the realm of Lewis Carroll. Her maintenance of a menagerie in their squalid surroundings is given a correlative in a visit to a zoo. Spot the difference between that and council accommodation. Then the social workers intervene, as you might expect but only Jason gets to go to a foster family: Richard is told he is almost old enough to leave and his coping mechanism to record and photograph his family throughout his childhood is the key to his freedom. It’s his recording that proved the nasty lodger Will (Sam Gittins) forced drink down the throat of retarded Uncle Lol (Tony Way) but tattooed drinker and smoker Liz destroys the evidence after she’s inflicted mindless violence. And returns to her jigsaw puzzles. Stylistically it’s slow, disconnected, anti-dramatic for the most part and pitiless and may remind you of Terence Davies’ work but other than feeling gutted for feral children born into such gob smacking fecklessness, when you look away from a work that refuses all possibility of empathy you’ll wind up thinking perhaps eugenics isn’t such a rotten idea after all – because bad people do bad things to the children they should never be permitted to have. Perhaps not the appropriate reaction. Kitchen sink realism for a new era, it’s a staggering if emotionless indictment of the kind of Britain that still exists for millions of people. This is what happens when you enact official policies of social isolation, austerity and poverty. It really is Grim Up North. Brutal.

Dark Shadows (2012)

Dark Shadows

I killed your parents, and every one of your lovers. They kept us apart. AD 1972.  Two hundred years after he’s been condemned to a living death as a vampire by Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) a spurned servant who happens to be a witch, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is accidentally exhumed and vows to help his impoverished dysfunctional descendants while falling for his reincarnated lost love Victoria/Josette (Bella Heathcote). He returns to Collinwood where he hypnotises caretaker Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) into being his servant, introduces matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) to the family’s treasure trove, ordering her to keep it secret from her nee’er do well brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his eccentric little boy David (Gully McGrath) and her own rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz). They have a permanent houseguest in Dr Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), David’s hard-drinking psychiatrist. They also have a rival in the local fishing business in Angel Bay Cannery run by Angie Bouchard (Green) who is still alive and well and determined to finally win Barnabas for herself but he is still in love with Josette… She has the most fertile birthing hips I have ever laid eyes upon. Just your everyday story of immigrants to the New World who turn into vampires because of an ancestral curse, this is one of those Tim Burton films that seems to fall between two stools:  homage and nostalgia, in this earnest adaptation/pastiche of a TV daytime drama hitherto unknown to me but certainly filed nowadays under the heading of Cult. The screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith is from a story credited to him and John August and adapted from Dan Curtis’ original show and was reportedly being regularly rewritten on set which is not unusual. It might account for the strangely disconnected feel of the production, which however looks incredible thanks to the designer Rick Heinrichs. At its heart it’s a morality tale about family:  Family is the only real wealth. While the plot’s construction is of the laborious join the dots variety, there are some cute generation gap and proto feminist threads, good time shift moments, like Barnabas’ shocked reaction to television (What sorcery is this?), rock star Alice Cooper (who else?!) performing a concert and of course Depp, who gives a superbly physical Max Schreck-like performance and has very amusing sparring exchanges with all concerned. Not really sure if it wants to be a straight-up horror or a campy comedy and falls between both stools. Luckily Christopher Lee shows up as the king of the fishermen. Green would go on to replace Bonham Carter as Burton’s long term companion. Okay. If you wanna get with her, you’re gonna have to change your approach. Drop the whole weird Swinging London thing and hang out with a few normal people

The Sun Also Rises (1957)

The Sun Also Rises

I don’t have a problem with Americans. In 1920s Paris American news correspondent Jake Barnes (Tyrone Power) has ended up injured, impotent and disillusioned from World War 1. He mingles with an aimless group of bohemian expatriates including hangers on, the wealthy and aimless Robert Cohn (Mel Ferrer) and Bill Gorton (Eddie Albert). His ex-fiancée, the seductive nymphomaniacal Lady Brett Ashley (Ava Gardner) who nursed him back to health in Italy returns to Paris and after Jake and Bill go on a fishing trip in Bayonne, she introduces him to her fiancé, the reckless alcoholic Mike Campbell (Errol Flynn) when they all converge in Pamplona for the bull run, where Robert turns up. Together, they pursue a hedonistic, directionless lifestyle until Brett’s affection for Jake complicates mattersBeing away from you is worse than being here. Adapted by Peter Viertel from Ernest Hemingway’s classic 1926 Lost Generation novel, this somewhat static rendition is truly enlivened by performance (ironically, given the theme) by a cast several years too old for their roles. Ironically, that seems to play into the book’s ideas of the relentless passing of time, never to be regained. Power looks aged, and would be dead within a year; Flynn would die two years later; and Gardner was shortly to be facially scarred – during a bullfight in Spain. Naturally much is lost in adaptation – the density of feeling, for starters – but it’s an attractive proposition with beautiful people suffering in lovely locations. The dissipated Flynn, his beauty long lost to drink, is ideally cast as the soused larger than life Scot and in fact his performance was the only thing Hemingway thought decent about the film; rather wonderfully, Pancho Villa’s son was Flynn’s stand-in. This is the production that launched movie mogul Robert Evans upon the world, playing the sexy young matador Pedro Romero giving Gardner the attention she craves (cleaving rather closely to Gardner’s real life). Everyone on the cast and crew wanted him gone but this mutiny triggered Darryl F. Zanuck’s infamous line, The kids stays in the picture, providing Evans with the title of his legendary memoir. Gardner of course had a habit of driving her lovers crazy for her and that creeps into her role, as well as the fact that she had already essayed Hemingway as a sizzling femme fatale in The Killers, to unforgettable effect. And there’s Juliette Gréco in the first part of the story, set in Paris, not singing but exuding blackly comic and blunt sensuality. Ferrer and his then wife Audrey Hepburn had spotted her performing at a nightclub and recommended her to DFZ, who started a relationship with her. It’s a true exploration of nostalgia, a term that arose to recognise a phenomenon among soldiers returning home from war for whom life was never the same; but it also has a metafiction, about the stars themselves, on the precipice of their celebrity, facing the end of everything. If nothing else, the louche life looks rather picturesque and gorgeously romantic, as does everything directed by Henry King. Everyone behaves badly given the proper chance

Everybody Knows (2018)

Everybody Knows

Aka Todos lo saben. It’s for our daughter. Laura (Penélope Cruz) and her two children travel from Argentina to her home town outside Madrid to attend her younger sister’s wedding, an old-style village party. The joyful family reunion soon turns tragic when her impulsive teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) gets kidnapped that night and a ransom is demanded without police involvement in order to guarantee the girl’s safety. Laura’s brother-in-law Fernando (Eduard Fernández) who is married to Laura’s older sister Anna (Elvira Minguez) and whose daughter Rocio (Sara Sálamo) has split from her husband, asks retired police officer Jorge (José Ángel Egido) for advice and he tells Laura she should suspect family members. Laura’s husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) arrives from Argentina: not only is he not wealthy, he is bankrupt and unemployed, a recovering alcoholic who invokes God all the time. Her former lover Paco (Javier Bardem) who acquired some of her family’s land where he grows vines assists Laura and then she make a request of him which has the ultimate effect of revealing a dark web of hidden secrets that could have triggered the kidnapping in the first place … Why is she telling you now? Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi’s drama winds inexorably tighter until it has the viewer in a vise, quite unexpectedly, in a melodrama driven by suspicion. It starts as a conventional family gathering, devolves into a crime scenario and finally pivots on a revelation that supposedly nobody knew. It is that scintilla of knowledge, a closely guarded secret, which has brought about a reckoning. Real-life husband and wife stars Bardem and Cruz are as committed as you’d expect in an observational narrative which has a different kind of focus from the standard thriller setup – it’s shaped from ongoing family issues, unexpressed bitterness about money and who knows what kinds of resentments that have developed over the years. Only Paco, the outsider, whose roots are deep in the family circle, has the finances to secure Irene’s release but it will destroy him if he gives it up. This is a story that refuses the usual genre stylings and focuses on the familial – scrabbling for money in an impoverished if scenic setting, pushing people to make admissions they’d rather not, ending in a kind of fug of denial despite the crushingly obvious:  all families are built on secrets and lies and it takes just one expertly aimed splinter at the heart to rip them apart and yet people persist in acting as though nothing has happened. There is a sense of paralysis here that makes this frighteningly true to life. Everybody knows

Picnic (1955)

Picnic

Why should anyone be interested in him? Former college football star and failed Hollywood actor Hal Carter (William Holden) is drifting through Kansas and stops in Neewollah where his old fraternity buddy Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) is dating beauty queen Madge Owens (Kim Novak) whom Hal meets when he’s doing chores for her elderly neighbour Mrs Potts (Verna Felton) who immediately sees he’s hungry and has fallen on hard times. Alan’s father owns the grain elevators in the town and Alan promises Hal a job but it’s Labor Day and Alan says his date at the town picnic can be Madge’s little sister Millie (Susan Strasberg). The Owens’ boarder, unmarried teacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell) gets drunk on the whisky that store owner Howard Bevens (Arthur O’Connell) brings and her violent jealousy of Madge and Hal’s obvious romantic attraction causes a commotion and disrupts Alan and Madge’s relationship to Mrs Owens’ (Betty Field) horror, who wants Madge to marry well, unlike her …  I liked you from the first time I saw you. This lushly romantic if rather heavy-handed adaptation of William Inge’s play by Daniel Taradash retains its power principally through the expressive masculinity of Holden as the overgrown hunk and the several phases of womanhood represented by the female cast. Russell is shocking as the put-out spinster and O’Connell impresses as her trapped bird of a suitor. Strasberg is fantastic as beautiful Madge’s pigtailed little sister. Novak is Novak – a smalltown girl with a future due to her exquisite looks. What is stunning still is the big scene between Novak and Holden – that dance, to Moonglow, one of the most sensual ever captured on film. It’s simply breathtaking. What a perfect mid-century moment in a film of such feeling, capturing the difference between night and day like few other movies. Directed by Josh Logan, scored by George Duning with Robertson in his debut. You love me. You love me!

Out of Blue (2019)

Out of Blue

Can you explain your place in the universe? When well-connected black hole expert and astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) is found shot at a New Orleans Observatory, police detective Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson) is put in charge of the investigation and questions her co-worker, observatory manager Professor Ian Strammi (Toby Jones) and her teaching colleague boyfriend Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors). When she encounters Jennifer’s father Colonel Tom Rockwell (James Caan) she finds an intimidating figure, a well-known local businessman, famous soldier and POW who walks on a cane. His wife Miriam (Jacki Weaver) is a fidgeting fusspot, the twin sons Walt and Bray (Brad and Todd Mann) argumentative and odd. Their office is dominated by a family portrait. Similarities are noted by her colleague Aaron Tevit (Tony Silvero) and reporter Stella Honey (Devyn A. Tyler) with the unsolved murders of other blonde thirtysomething women from decades earlier where items were exchanged with the victims. Mike pursues the idea that Tom might have been responsible but then it becomes clear that Jennifer killed herself. When Mike finds a familiar brooch among Jennifer’s collection of vintage clothes and costume jewellery questions of the cosmos start to inform the solution … The catastrophic death of a star brings new life to the universe. We are all stardust.  This adaptation of Martin Amis’ 1997 genre novel Night Train has some changes but mostly it bears the marks of writer/director Carol Morley, a singular talent who likes to compose a flat frame with just enough textural detail to suggest complexity, a taste that lends itself perfectly to this atmospheric thriller which shows a less travelled side of New Orleans. Mike is a troubled former alcoholic with a spare lifestyle; while Jennifer’s home is filled with nick nacks and her recorded talks anchor the narrative:  We spend our lives trying to get to the heart of this dark energy. It’s other people who point to the clues in the past – a TV journalist and another police officer. The similarities to the .38 caliber gun murders are inescapable – the victims are all blonde and of a certain age and the killings stopped when Jennifer was born. The intriguing use of imagery – not just fetish objects like blue marbles, a pot of handcream, but the confusion as to whether Mike is fantasising, dreaming or even remembering – is conjoined with the theme of the stars and their influence. And with a hint of Chinatown hanging over a story about family and power, there’s a cute reference when Miriam leaps into Mike’s police car and pulls her nose: You know what happens to very nosy people?  They lose their noses! We are reminded of Polanski. The narrative raises questions about how society deals with war – just what kind of man walks out of three years’ imprisonment a hero? Clarkson is great as this unconventional woman who lets loose in a strip club:  There’s many ways to be a woman. There are black holes in the story itself with a wry running joke about cats in boxes (and not just Schrödinger’s). In my experience usually what’s in a sealed box is dead. In the end, this is not just about the murder mystery, it’s about where we come from, who we are, what formed us and what happened to us. In that sense, the final sequence is truly a revelation of personal history in a unique procedural narrative which grapples with a bigger cosmic picture. Produced by Luc Roeg with a score by Clint Mansell. The past is messy

Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997)

Smillas Sense of Snow.jpg

Aka Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.  The devil assumes many forms. Copenhagen police say otherwise, but amateur scientist Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond) who studies ice crystals in a university lab thinks her young Inuit neighbour Isaiah (Clipper Miano) was chased by an adult before he fell to his death from the roof of their apartment block. The daughter of an Inuit who spent her childhood in Greenland, Smilla learns that the boy’s father died while working for Dr. Andreas Tork (Richard Harris) in Greenland who heads a mining company and she is directed by former accountant Elsa (Vanessa Redgrave) to get an Expedition Report from the firm’s archive.  She asks her father Moritz (Robert Loggia) for help interpreting the information but has to deal with his young girlfriend who resents her interference in their life. After sharing her murder theory with a mysterious neighbour called The Mechanic (Gabriel Byrne) who never seems to go to work, she pursues her suspicions and her life is endangered as the impact of a meteorite hitting Greenland in 1859 is revealed in a reanimated prehistoric worm which proves toxic to human organs Why does such a nice woman have such a rough mouth? Peter Høeg’s novel was very fashionable in the Nineties and encompasses so many issues – identity, language, snow and ice, ecology and exploitation, friendship and bereavement, medical issues, astronomy, being far away from home, being motherless … that you can quite see how difficult it would be to fillet from this a straightforward thriller which is what the cinema machine demands. Ann (Ray Donovan) Biderman does a good job streamlining the narrative threads which form an orbit around Ormond who has a tremendous role here but director Bille August doesn’t really heighten the tensions  sufficiently quickly that they materialise as proper threats. What works as a literary novel seems rather far-fetched on screen when stripped of all those beautiful words. Nonetheless it’s a fascinating story and it’s a shame Ormond’s feature career never had the momentum it once seemed to possess. Costuming by Marit Allen. The way you have a sense of God I have a sense of snow

Destroyer (2018)

Destroyer.jpeg

Silas is back. As a young cop, Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) went under cover with colleague Chris (Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate a gang in the California desert – with tragic results. Sixteen years later, a prematurely aged, alcoholic and divorced Bell continues to work as a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department, but feelings of anger and remorse leave her worn-down and consumed by guilt. She has to deal with her trampy truanting 16-year old daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) shacked up with a hoodlum (Beau Knapp) while in the custody of her ex-husband Ethan (Scott McNairy). When Silas (Toby Kebbell) the leader of the old gang suddenly re-emerges, Erin embarks on a quest to find his former associates, bring him to justice and make peace with her tortured past but the implications for everyone connected with her could prove terminal ... I’ve got good news and bad news. There’s nobody fucking watching. But I see who you are. Kidman is absolutely rivetting in a narrative that is all about backstory and how it plays into the present – great writing by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi with a marvellous reversal of the usual gender expectations, Kidman giving us her version of Bad Lieutenant. This is relentlessly tense but also touching – who couldn’t feel desperately sad when Shelby shows up for an attempt at conciliation by her mother – accompanied by the twentysomething junkie gangster who’s having sex with her? Dreadful. Emma’s demons are internal but they’re also familial, professional, external. It’s probably Kidman’s greatest performance but it’s brilliantly conceived and executed in terms of how it looks (shot by Julie Kirkwood), how it feels and how it plays, with a raft of detailed, memorable character performances by a cast that includes James Jordan, Bradley Whitford and Tatiana Maslany. A tour de force by director Karyn Kusama, and all who sailed with her. Outstanding. What if I know who did it?

 

Little Monsters (2019)

Little Monsters theatrical.jpg

We’re all gonna die! Dave Anderson (Alexander England) is a foul-mouthed, washed-up musician who breaks up with his girlfriend and is forced to stay with his sister Tess (Kat Stewart) a single mother and her five-year old son, Felix (Diesel La Torraca) whom he introduces to violent video games and inadvertently has him see his ex and her new boyfriend have sex. While dropping Felix off at school, Dave meets Miss Caroline (Lupita NYong’o), Felix’s kindergarten teacher, and is attracted to her. After a parent drops out from an upcoming field trip to a farm, Dave volunteers to chaperone, mostly to be near Miss Caroline. Dave is upset to learn that children’s television personality, Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad) is filming his show at the farm and that Miss Caroline is engaged to someone else. However zombies break out of a U.S. testing facility nearby and head straight for the farm. During a tractor ride, the class is attacked by zombies and tries to escape only to find the place is overrun with zombies… You realise that you’re only doing it because you’re dead inside. And it’s the only thing that keeps you from killing yourself. A zippy soundtrack, nudity, sex and a bunch of small children playing a game devised by designated adults to keep them from being eaten by zombies – textbook zomromcom! – but not for the kids. Hardly. The men are vile with Gad a sociopath in Pee Wee Herman’s clothing (one gets a shot at redemption, the other gets eaten – you choose), there are references both to Star Wars and Children of the Corn while Nyong’o gets to be the happy clappy teach trying to avoid predatory dads. There’s a funny bus chase – slow, obviously – and a siege situation in the farm shop and all the while the kiddywinks are kept safe by virtue of those silly songs and mantras the do-gooding teacher trained them to learn, proving very helpful in a zombie attack as it turns out. Ingenious, in its own way. Written and directed by Abe Forsythe. I can’t kill kids – again