Queen of the Desert (2015)

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Who knows best about tribes? In 1902 Gertrude Bell Nicole Kidman the daughter of wealthy British parents and a recent Oxford graduate. has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions, and a life of privilege bring her only boredom. At one dance a potential suitor actually suggests fornication and alludes to her similarity to his prize herd. Aspiring to some usefulness in her life, Gertrude decides to join her uncle who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. There the young lady not only encounters the Near East but also falls in love with an embassy employee, Henry Cadogan (James Franco) who adores her for her perspicacity and teaches her Farsi. However, their romance does not last long as her parents consider the young man a poor matrimonial choice for their daughter and forbid the marriage. Desperate, Henry commits suicide, failing to reconcile himself to the enforced separation. Gertrude finds out in a letter home following her mother’s death. For the remainder of her long life Gertrude Bell completely devotes herself to exploring and writing about the Near East in the wake of his death. She encounters T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) on an archaeological expedition and turns down a request to become a spy for the British Government. She visits her beloved Bedouin tribes over the Arab lands and earns their trust. Upon going to Damascus she encounters Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) and he confesses his passion for her but he’s married. She is kidnapped by an emir who wants to marry her – she could be his mother.  And when she returns to Syria, she finds World War One has spread … I would give my life for a woman like you.  This extraordinary story, of a pioneering woman traveller, writer, archaeologist and (eventually) a politician whose views shaped the delineation of the borders in the Middle East, following the implosion of the Ottoman Empire, gets a romantic biographical treatment. Kidman brings tremendous feeling to a woman of singular self-possession whose life nonetheless is shaped by the contours of love and death. It’s a rather conventional form for Werner Herzog who wrote and directed it, but there are scenes which communicate seemingly directly with nature, music by Klaus Badelt and Mark Yeager which feeds from desert song.  It’s not the mad epic you think you might get – it’s from Bell’s own writings and from history and it’s a swooning and beautiful interpretation of a woman alone among military men who seem to suffer intolerable repression. For the first time in my life I know who I am.  My heart belongs to the desert

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The Heat (2013)

If you’re not in trouble you’re not doing your job.  Ambitious NYC-based FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is a methodical investigator with a long-standing reputation for excellence and arrogance. She’s better at finding drugs than sniffer dogs and is far superior to her male colleagues so they don’t like her, putting her desired promotion in jeopardy. She can’t even keep a relationship going with a cat so she borrows her neighbour’s.  In contrast, foul-mouthed, hot-tempered Boston Irish detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) goes with her gut instincts and street smarts to remove criminals from the locale, including her brother Jason (Michael Rapaport) which has alienated her family. Her own mother (Jane Curtin) gives her the finger in a drive by.  Sparks fly when these mismatched polar opposites are forced to work together to capture a drug lord, the unseen Larkin, but in the process, they become the last thing anyone expected – buddies. When they discover there’s a mole in the investigation everything is put into jeopardy … My fear is that I’m gonna put you in a bikini and you’ll still look like a fucking bank teller. Screenwriter Katie Dippold has put so many zingers into this you’ll have to watch it twice because you’re laughing so much you miss half of them. This subversion of the odd couple cop/buddy actioner is screamingly funny as it works through the genre’s tropes with zest and two fingers. Bullock’s buttoned-up uptight PC perfectionist priss Ashburn is wonderfully set off against McCarthy’s unkempt foul-mouthed vicious bully Mullins. Ashburn can’t get a date, Mullins has a mystifying physical allure. Thrown together, they are mutually united in their disgust for the albino inflicted on them from the Drug Enforcement Agency – a wonderfully offensive running joke in homage to the film with a film, Goldie Hawn’s brilliant Foul Play (a regular spin here at Mondo Towers). The anticipated painful seam of piss-taking at Boston accents is disposed of in one neat exchange over the Mullins family dinner when Ashburn tells them they’ve dropped the ‘r’ in Narc. Mullins’ realisation her brother is in a coma because of her actions leads to the only transient episode of sentiment as Ashburn’s attitude is transformed hearing the sexist comments made by their male colleagues – she turns into a gibbering expletive-laden mini-Mullins – and triggers the final act when the women’s solidarity becomes ninja-strong. God, you guys are just – what is the matter with you? You’re such… you’re just such jerks! You’re just such… shit jerk! You’re just a shit jerk dick… fucker! You’re a shit jerk dick fucker assholer. And you can all just go fuck yourselves!  With Marlon Wayans as a thick drug dealer and Demian Bechir as the boss who can’t help laughing,  this is lightning fast, hilarious, rude and brilliantly directed by Paul Feig. Truly funny. The cat got one look at your shitty life and said “no fucking thanks, man. I am outta here.”

Knight of Cups (2015)

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For optimal sound reproduction the producers of this film recommend that you play it loud. Screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) tries to make sense of life in Hollywood. We follow him on an odyssey through Los Angeles and Las Vegas as he undertakes a series of adventures with colorful figures, identified by eight tarot cards, with Rick as the Knight of Cups who sleeps with a half dozen women, leaves his own wife and impregnates another man’s…  Or as I like to call it, another episode in an occasional series known as When Good Auteurs Go Bad. See also:  Phantom Thread. Terrence Malick disappeared up his own fundament a while back:  if anyone thought To the Wonder was anything other than nonsense then they never saw real art house films.  This latest version of Hollywood Eats Itself functions as allegory:  of what, we don’t know, because it’s unnecessary.  All those years of living the life of someone I didn’t even know These movies have been around almost as long as Hollywood itself – but this is the experimental version. Cate Blanchett is Judgment, Natalie Portman is Death, Antonio Banderas is the Hermit, Brian Dennehy is the Hanged Man, and oh, for goodness’ sake, it looks wonderful. There are situations that almost approach coherence, particularly in the (only developed?) scenes with Portman;  an excursion to that simulacrum of plasticity in the desert, Vegas, in the company of a stripper; and the apartment burglary when the thieves bemoan Rick’s lack of possessions. Rick is haunted by the death of his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) who brings him on a tour of LA’s homeless. There are some insights amid the dissociative witterings and fragmentary musings and overheard bites of conversation inspired by The Pilgrim’s Progess but for the most part you won’t believe your ears as Christian’s character thinks he’s Christ wandering through his midlife crisis. Pity the actors, who had no script. Peter Mathiessen tells Rick that a man living in a cave eating nettles doesn’t concern himself with this sort of thing. Those desert monks had a point. This was in an edit suite for two years. After a cold compress go watch Sunset Blvd. Or 8 1/2. Whatever happened to visionary filmmaker Terrence Malick? We are too media-savvy not to understand the metaphors. We know that not all narratives are ordered or complete. But it’s a filmmaker’s job to get us at least some of the way there. And why squander the talents of these marvellous actors?  Presumably their best work wound up on the cutting room floor, as is Malick’s wont. Just to, you know, show them. As Forster would counsel, Only connect.  Woulda coulda shoulda. Begin

 

Cujo (1983)

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There’s no such thing as a real monster. Only in stories. On the outskirts of Castle Rock, Maine, sweet family dog, the St. Bernard known as Cujo (Moe) is bitten by a bat when he’s out rabbiting.  He starts behaving oddly and becomes very aggressive in front of his owner, little Brett Camber (Billy Jacoby). As Cujo morphs into a dangerous beast, he goes on a rampage at the Camber family home and kills abusive mechanic dad Joe (Ed Lauter) after Brett and his mom Charity (Kaiulani Lee) make a run for it. Meanwhile, stay-at-home mom Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) has been carrying on with the town stud, her ex-high school boyfriend Steve (Christopher Stone) while her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) is working on advertising campaigns in the city. She swears to him that the adulterous relationship is over. When her car needs repairs she and young asthmatic son Tad (Danny Pintauro) get caught in Cujo’s crosshairs at the Camber garage where Cujo has now killed a visitor, Gary Pervier (Mills Watson). Stuck in their tiny car with a dead battery Donna and Tad have a frightening showdown with the crazed animal hoping he will be distracted every time the telephone rings but he’s tasted blood and wants fresh meat … Adapted by Don Carlos Dunaway and Barbara Turner (writing as Lauren Currier) from Stephen King’s novel, this is a rare horror – one that has to do entirely with the everyday and is completely plausible. As someone who was mauled by a dog when I was three years old and am still scarred physically and mentally from that incident, I find this film all too relatable. Sympathy for Donna and Tad is established in the carefully staged domestic scenes:  the distance from the light switch to his bed makes us empathise with this small boy and his fear of night monsters;  while Donna is a good woman bored in a big house all day long. And when she finally rejects Steve and she’s gone on her errand, he does what a scorned woman might – he takes a knife and tears up all the pillows so that the house is filled with downy feathers. We’re on her side. By the time the day’s pressures have built up, Donna and Tad’s imprisonment in the car when the battery runs down is positively sweat-inducing. As they suffer the effects of dehydration and the child becomes ill, the dog bounces off the car, bloodied from his kills. And when he finally gets a chunk of Donna, it’s truly terrifying. Her dismay when she sees the dog tackle the body of the policeman he’s savaged is completely convincing. Wallace is a marvel as the woman in jeopardy and this is fantastically efficient genre storytelling. Me? Been there, done that. I particularly enjoyed the cop’s death. So sue me. Directed by Lewis Teague.

The Duellists (1977)

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Keep away from him. Keep ahead of him. Put your trust in Napoleon.  Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) and Gabriel Féraud (Harvey Keitel) are French soldiers under Napoleon in 1800. A trivial quarrel between the two men becomes a lifelong grudge, and as war rages on across the continent, the officers repeatedly challenge one another to violent sword and pistol duels:  in Augsburg and later in Russia, when they are isolated in the frozen wastes united against their mutual enemy. After 15 years, they have both distinguished themselves through military service and become generals and d’Hubert is happily married to Adèle (Cristina Raines); however, the rivals’ mutual hatred never ceases, even when the initial cause is long forgotten and now a final opportunity to kill each other arises …  Gerald Vaughan-Hughes adapted the Joseph Conrad story The Duel and it became Ridley Scott’s directing debut, more acclaimed for how it looks than how it moves and clearly in debt to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon even if it lacks that masterpiece’s disguised intensity. Frank Tidy’s luscious cinematography, shrouded now in fog, now in sunrise, is of the sumptuous variety and frankly once I saw the geese in the first frames, this had me at Hello. A terrific ensemble of British supporting actors rounds out the cast and for some critics this highlights the deficits in the characterising and performing of the leads – but in a sense, it merely underlines how separate they are from the crowd in their mutual obsession. They are angry, driven, and, in Féraud’s case, essentially and unfathomably vicious in his quest for superiority. As their colleagues freeze to death into statuesque stalactites in that disastrous excursion to Russia, there’s a brilliant moment when d’Hubert turns to Féraud and declares, Pistols next! Diana Quick makes a wonderful impression as Laura, a camp follower, Tom Conti is wry as Dr. Jacquin and Robert Stephens is lively as General Teillard. Alun Armstrong, Maurice Colbourne, Meg Wynn Owen (Hazel Bellamy in TV’s Upstairs, Downstairs) and Jenny Runacre all make the most of their roles. This is an old-fashioned tale of a gentleman’s honour, a concept now so outmoded and mystifying as to be from another dimension entirely. The ending is perfect. Narrated by Stacy Keach.  The duellist demands satisfaction. Honour, for him, is an appetite. This story is about an eccentric kind of hunger

Out of Africa (1985)

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I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. After a failed love affair in Denmark the aristocrat Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) sets out for the white highlands of Kenya where she marries her lover’s brother Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer).  She is intent on dairy farming, Bror instead spends their money on a coffee plantation. After discovering Bror is unfaithful when she contracts syphilis, Karen develops feelings for British hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) but he prefers a simple lifestyle compared to her upper class affectations. She separates from Bror and sets about remaking her home to his taste. The two continue their relationship until a series of events force Karen to choose between her love life and her personal growth as an individual … Like a lot of people, I imagine, I first heard of Isak Dinesen (or Karen Blixen) courtesy of The Catcher in the Rye. If it was good enough for Holden Caulfield, I figured, I’ve got to check it out. And that was my introduction to a great writer whose life is immortalised here in the form of La Streep while the less than glamorous Finch Hatton is personified by Redford. History is rewritten right there! But their chemistry is so right. Streep is wonderful as the woman who finally finds herself, Redford is great as a hunter who simultaneously deplores environmental destruction – these are fantastic star performances.  So the school, the farm, that’s what I am now Director Sydney Pollack later regretted that he didn’t shoot this in widescreen and you can see why. This is a film of big emotions in a breathtaking landscape that dwarfs the concerns of the little people, aristos or not. There are fabulous, memorable scenes:  when Denys shampoos Karen’s hair; when they play Mozart on the gramophone to monkeys and Denys remarks that it’s their first exposure to humans; when he takes her flying; when she begs for land for the Kikuyu. And when she leaves.  If you like me at all, don’t ask me to do this Altering the focus of Dinesen’s writing somewhat to the personalities rather than the issues that actually drove Dinesen and the contradictions within Finch Hatton, it’s a glorious, epic and tragic romance sensitively performed, with a meticulous score by John Barry. Kurt Luedtke’s screenplay was adapted from three sources:  Dinesen’s Out of Africa;  Judith Thurman’s biography Isak Dinesen:  The Life of a Story Teller;  and Silence Will Speak by Errol Trzebinski. He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast

 

The Wild Bunch (1969)

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If they move… kill ’em! In 1913, ageing outlaw Pike Bishop (William Holden) prepares to retire after one final botched robbery on the Mexican border. Joined by his gang, including Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) and brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), Bishop discovers the heist is a setup orchestrated in part by his old partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) now a ruthless mercenary. They’ve wound up with washers, not silver. As the remaining gang cross the Rio Grande and take refuge in Mexican territory, Thornton trails them, resulting in their taking on a suicide mission if ever there were one – as they are engaged by double-crossing Mexican General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to hijack a stash of guns from a train while he fights Pancho Villa under the military guidance of a German Commander (Fernando Wagner) on the eve of WW1 … This was going to be my last.  Sublime filmmaking from one of the iconoclasts of American cinema, Sam Peckinpah, who wrote the screenplay with Walon Green, the writer of the original story with Roy N. Sickner.  The titles sequence with scorpions tells us that this will be so much more than your regular western:  it’s a meditation on masculinity, ageing, violence, warfare and revenge.  Like all of Peckinpah’s genre work its focus is on the male in a hostile environment and it abounds in visual style with Peckinpah and cinematographer Lucien Ballard using multiple camera setups and different film speeds to accentuate the conflict between the old and the new, mythology and modernity. They demonstrate that there can be honour among thieves, if it is of a singularly macho variety. There is also friendship, pragmatism, humour and resignation.  The final shootout is glorious. This is one of the crowning achievements in cinema. Walk softly, boys

Week-end (1967)

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I’m here to inform these Modern Times of the Grammatical Era’s end and the beginning of Flamboyance, especially in cinema. Roland Durand (Jean Yanne) and his wife Corinne (Mireille Darc) embark on a weekend getaway to the French countryside determined to murder Corinne’s mother while her father is dying from the poison they’ve been feeding him for five years and collect an inheritance. Each is contemplating adultery as they head for the coast, but end up ensnared in a traffic jam along the way.  The ill-fated couple encounter such colorful characters as the leader of the FLSO (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and Saint-Just (Jean-Pierre Léaud) … What a rotten film, all we meet are crazy people. Jean-Luc Godard turns in a hugely enjoyable, fast-moving absurdist social satire masquerading as a road movie. It has one of the best shots in cinema (much aped, see LA LA Land for proof and Welles for inspiration) when the Parisian couple emerge into a ten-minute track of a traffic jam which proves his point that contemporary life is awash with the pointless clutter of a dying civilisation while the text itself blithely tours through the randomness of car crashes, violence and death. When their car explodes in fire Corinne cries out My Hermès handbag!  This carries on before they encounter anti-consumerist Maoists. No matter your feelings about this anarchic picaresque, you have to see it because it presages a seismic change in cinema (this was released 29th December 1967) and Godard himself was the visionary who summoned it. The shots themselves call attention to the fact that you are watching manufactured reality, an adieu to his own traditional filmmaking, fin de cinéma as the credits inform us. The horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome by more horror

Incredibles 2 (2018)

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I am using technology to make people lose faith in technology. Helen Parr/Elastigirl (voice of Holly Hunter) is in the spotlight after being hired to re-popularise superheroes for the company DevTech run by Winston Deavor (voice of Bob Odenkirk) with techo savvy provided by his genius sister Evelyn (voice of Catherine Keener).  That leaves Bob (voice of Craig T. Nelson) at home with teenage Violet (voice of Sarah Vowell) who can turn invisible and little brother Dash (voice of Huck Milner) who can move like lightning to navigate the day-to-day heroics of normal life as a house husband. It’s a tough transition for everyone, made tougher by the fact that the family is still unaware of baby Jack-Jack’s (Eli Fucile) emerging superpowers which an unfortunate raccoon discovers first. When an anonymous villain hatches a brilliant and dangerous plot enslaving the planet to the will of the Screenslaver, the family and Lucius/Frozone (voice of Samuel L. Jackson) must find a way to work together again which is easier said than done with Mom being deviated from the original plan to fight crime by the villain whose authoritarian desires are worse than anyone can imagine … They may be retro-future styled (Dementia 13 is playing at the cinema) but the Incredible family are dealing with some twenty-first century issues particularly the use of entertainment devices to divert attention away from what’s really important. They’ve been away for a long time but their return to the summer blockbuster season is welcome even if like most animations it’s probably twenty minutes too long.  It arrives in an arena vastly overpopulated by superhero movies albeit it steers its own way through different issues than those driving the Marvel universe or the dark-hearted DC line. There are some highly amusing sequences especially with Jack-Jack who has such great abilities even designer Edna Mode (voice of writer/director Brad Bird) doesn’t mind doing some babysitting. The warning about technology comes in a package that is itself the product of huge cinematic developments on small screens since the first Pixar film came out 14 years ago – how ironic! The action scenes are a blast. Very entertaining and a lot funnier than the average animated sequel. I hate superheroes and I renounce them!

 

The Square (2017)

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The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.  Christian (Claes Bang) the curator of a Swedish museum hires a PR team to create hype for a challenging new exhibition with explosive results after he responds with a poorly thought-out social media post when his smartphone is stolen … Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, this part-satire, part-horror utilises its international cast well in what is an overlong and episodic narrative:  Elisabeth Moss plays Anne, the journalist who winds up having a complicated one-night stand with Christian; while Dominic West essays a PJ-clad parody of Julian Schnabel; and Terry Notary is Oleg, after Oleg Kulik, a performance artist who reputedly acted like a dog and attacked people at an exhibition in Stockholm (Notary does an ape impression here). Bang is terrific in quite a complex and contradictory role in which all his pretensions are challenged. There is a dinner party from hell which is a film in and of itself.  This is a largely successful tract using issues of class, race, sex and society in a witty treatise on what could be summed up in two words:  culture shock. Like most modern art, better seen and experienced than read about. Winner of the 2017 Palme d’Or at Cannes.