The Call of the Wild (2020)

The Call of the Wild 2020

He was beaten but he was not broken. It’s the 1890s. Buck is a big-hearted St Bernard/collie mix whose blissful domestic life in Santa Clara, California, at the home of an indulgent small town judge (Bradley Whitford) gets turned upside down when he is suddenly uprooted by a thief and transplanted to the exotic wilds of the Alaskan Yukon during the Gold Rush. As the newest addition to a mail-delivery dog sled team led by Perrault (Omar Sy) and his wife Françoise (Cara Gee), Buck has to learn to toe the line behind alpha male Spitz but then he bests him and becomes leader of the pack, heeding the call of the wild that intervenes to periodically remind him of his canine forebears. When the team is sold with the advent of the telegraph the team is acquired by nasty adventurer Hal (Dan Stevens) who is about to kill Buck when the dog is rescued by grizzled old John Thornton (Harrison Ford). John is drinking heavily to get away from his own family home – he has left his wife following the death of their son and decided to follow the boy’s dream to depart from chartered territory and find his heart’s desire where X marks the spot. Buck and his new master are true friends and battle the natural elements where Buck becomes his true self in the wild until Hal seeks revenge … This is not the south lands. Michael Green’s adaptation of the 1903 Jack London wilderness classic takes some liberties and makes some changes, presumably for reasons of political correctness, ensuring a direct hit on kids’ sensibilities without the fear factor or the race aspect. The shortcuts and alterations minimise the human cruelty, probably a good thing. The first five minutes are hard to watch, as though shot at double speed and played back fractionally slower (Hobbit-like), but then the physicality of the film slows down to set up the story, again a little differently from the book. Tactile Buck may be but his actions were laid down by renowned actor and gymnast Terry Notary and then he was magicked into life by CGI:  in an interview Ford said the scale and scope of the film could not have been achieved otherwise. And who would want any animal put through their paces as these sled dogs are? The titular call is actualised in the image of an ancient black dog who appears ghostlike every so often but it is a clear representation of Buck’s personal growth, a sign that he is becoming his true wild self. And as he does,  John and Buck save each other. The end is of course tragic in part but Buck reaches his destiny, in the wild. It’s a rather brilliant fable and very well told. That lump in your throat is definitely not a special effect. Directed by Chris Sanders.

Lost (1956)

Lost film

Aka Tears for Simon. I didn’t neglect my baby. U.S. Embassy employee Lee Cochrane (David Knight) and his wife Sue (Julia Arnall), receive a shock when they discover that their 18-month-old son, Simon, has disappeared in London from Kensington Gardens. He was last seen with their nanny, and the couple seemingly have no leads that might help police Detective Inspector Craig (David Farrar) in his investigation but the pages of a popular novel might provide a useful lead that involves several staff members to look for a clue. The media sensationalises the incident, causing an unnecessary distraction as the couple prepares to confront the culprit face-to-face when they get a series of phonecalls despite warnings not to give a ransom as time is running out … Can a career woman be a mother as well? That’s the tabloid headline screaming from a newspaper article that Sue agrees to be interviewed for in order to secure publicity for her missing son – and that’s what a woman journalist writes about her. The screenplay by the estimable Janet Green never ignores the gender-baiting of the era in this punchy thriller which allows ample time for Sue to shed tears and do anything she can to save her child while she loses it psychologically too. Farrar is his usual tough and brusque character but there are some good jibes about his bachelorhood in an office boasting a female Sergeant (Meredith Edwards). Everley Gregg (a favourite actress of Noël Coward) has a great bit as a Lady who likes cars; while Thora Hird, Mona Washbourne, Joan Sims, Joan Hickson, Barbara Windsor and Shirley Anne Field all make appearances. The parallel investigation narratives – by the police and the parents – are well intertwined and converge in literally a cliff-hanging ending. Shot by Harry Waxman, edited by Anne V. Coates and directed by Guy Green. You have a genius for the obvious

November Criminals (2017)

November Criminals

I guess I’ve gotten pretty good at pretending to be okay. High school student Addison Schach (Ansel Elgort) is the only guy in class trusted by his friend Phoebe Zeleny (Chloë Grace Moretz) to take her virginity before they leave high school. While they’re engaging in sex for the first time classmate Kevin Broadus (Jared Kemp) is shot dead in the bakery where they’ve just left him.  Addison is still dealing with the trauma of his mother’s sudden death six months earlier but his father Theo (David Strathairn) doesn’t grasp the extent of his emotional problems. When the police treat the boy’s death as part of gang activity Addison can’t accept it and undertakes his own investigation with Phoebe reluctantly tagging along, knowing that her well-connected mother Fiona (Catherine Keener) is already wary of the association with Addison. They soon discover that there is more to the case than meets the eye…  I don’t want you to get involved with something that will most definitely hurt you. Adapted by Steven Knight and director Sacha Gervasi from the novel by Sam Munson this is a strangely restrained piece of work, clearly bursting with a fast-extinguished passion that doesn’t actually go anywhere, rather like the thwarted protagonist. Elgort and Moretz are sympathetic and engaging (and were previously paired in the remake of Carrie) but are not given enough with the script which already has a short running time at 85 minutes. It’s a combination of family drama and crime thriller but its generic ambitions don’t fully mesh in a story which is essentially about a naive approach to bereavement:  this boy is no private eye. There are nice scenes with the respective parents, Strathairn and Keener, and the lo-fi approach to technology (pagers, colour VHS recording) makes a nice alternative to the social media used in most contemporary teen movies, but it’s an unfulfilled premise. That’s how life is: it provides these accidental answers. Or it seems to. You have to judge by results

Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997)

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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

The Aftermath (2019)

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There may not be an actual show of hatred but it’s there beneath the surface. Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives in rubble-strewn Hamburg in 1946 with her husband Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) of British Forces Germany, charged with helping to rebuild the city shattered from aerial firestorms. They also need to rebuild their own marriage following the death of their young son and are billeted in the home of architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) who Lewis allows to remain on the premises against Rachael’s wishes. She is initially suspicious that Stefan is an unreconstructed Nazi and Lewis confirms Stefan has yet to be cleared. They blame each other for their son’s death and Rachael starts to warm to Stefan and makes efforts to befriend Freda. Freda consorts with Bertie (Jannik Schümann) a member of the Werewolves, the violent Nazi insurgents who want the Allies out of Germany. When Lewis is obliged to travel for work Rachael and Stefan commence an affair and she agrees to leave Lewis. Meanwhile, Freda gives Bertie information about Lewis’ whereabouts and upon his return he is informed by his cynical colleague intelligence officer Burnham (Martin Compston) that Rachael has been advocating for Stefan and things come to a head… Do you really need a philosophy to make something comfortable? That’s what Rachael asks when architect Stefan is trying to explain a chair in the moderne style designed by Mies Van Der Rohe:  it sums up the issues wrought from this adaptation of the source material by Rhidian Brook, dealing with the difficulties of making the peace in post-war Germany but we still ask, who really won the peace and what does the future hold for peoples and societies so broken by war and its legacy? Stunde Null, Year Zero, everything can start again.  Grappling with bereavement and the unsettling transposing of emotions and the desire to be a parent, Knightley gives a good account of a lonely woman in trauma while Clarke is as good as he has ever been. It lacks complexity and real passion, however, and the post-war scene is as difficult to explain as it has ever been: everyone takes sides, that’s the point. It’s how and why this is resolved that matters. Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse & Brook wrote the screenplay and it’s directed by David Kent.  We’re leaving the city in better shape than we found it

Greta (2018)

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It’s not harassment if it’s in a public place. Young waitress Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) finds a handbag on the New York subway and promptly returns it to its Brooklyn owner Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert) an eccentric French piano teacher and former nurse who loves tea and classical music. Having recently lost her mother and with her Boston-based father (Colm Feore) consumed by his work, Frances strikes up a seemingly harmless friendship with the lonely and kind widow who enjoys her company, her own daughter seemingly away studying in Paris. But when Greta’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and obsessive, Frances does whatever it takes to end the toxic relationship before things spirals out of control and attempts to get the police involved. She reckons without Greta’s persistence… The crazier they are the harder they cling! Ray Wright and director Neil Jordan wrote the screenplay from Wright’s original story and it’s a pulpy thriller whose plot twists are signalled from the get-go.  Pure stalker territory it might be but by simple expedient of voicemail messages the sinister nature of Greta’s pursuit of Frances is soundtracked as surely as a spider spins a web around its prey. Nonetheless Huppert and Moretz give highly committed performances with Greta’s room mate Erica (Maika Monroe) offering wonderfully comic sidelong observations all the while, and Stephen Rea playing a private eye on nutty Greta’s trail. What Huppert does when she loses a finger has to be seen. Although set in a scary NYC a lot of shooting took place in Toronto and Dublin, Ireland and the fakery adds to the camp fun. Everything has its end even company

Damascus Cover (2017)

 

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When missions go bad, there’s only one rule – protect your partner.  Following the murder of his colleague in Damascus by Syrian Secret Police Chief Sarraj (Navid Negahban) Israeli agent Ari Ben-Sion aka Hans Hoffman (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is deployed to Syria by his overseer Miki (John Hurt) to exfiltrate a spy and his family and runs into American photographer Kim (Olivia Thirlby) with whom he becomes involved before realising she is part of a much bigger plot and the real target of his mission is an entirely different individual in deep cover but hiding in plain sight … It’s a real maze. Adapted by director Daniel Zelik Berk and Samantha Newton from Howard Kaplan’s 1977 bestseller this is updated to 1989, the year of revolutions, so that the action happens in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall (although they’re not exactly celebrating Christmas here). The characterisation is undercooked and the storytelling is a little clunky – you feel that Hans/Ari should have figured out a lot quicker that something bigger is going on than his purported task. It’s the textural matters that are more interesting – the maze-like construction of a city where Jews are only permitted to leave their quarter one at a time, where streets lead you to dead ends like a rat; the depicting of the secret police under the original Assad; the post-war Nazis doing business in an Islamic haven (the role of Moslems in the Holocaust has yet to be dramatised); the issue of identity in a region where anti-semitism is writ large: when Ari enters Syria he is asked, Have you ever visited Occupied Palestine? He is already displaced in Israel after moving from Germany as a child and is suffering the bereavement any father would following the breakdown of his marriage in the wake of the death of his young son (although we don’t know how that happened, there are several shots of children at play as well as his haunting nightmares about the boy).  He doesn’t exhibit true emotion until he’s engaged with Kim who herself has issues with being distanced from her young son and who has a father whose actions for his Syrian overlords has resulted in his death.  She appears to be repaying a debt to the intelligence service, willingly or not. Berk is the former talent agent who introduced John Travolta to Quentin Tarantino for which we are all truly grateful and this has a slick look and a trim running time. It’s beautifully shot by Chloë Thomson.  Despite the welcome complexities in Ari and his mistakes, and the issue of Syria versus Israel, it doesn’t plumb the resonant depths of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the echo casting of John Hurt in the perfunctory but dramatically significant role of Miki has a sorrowfulness because it is that great actor’s final part. It is fitting therefore that he should have the last word in the film’s signing off, Goodbye my friend

Steel Country (2018)

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Aka A Dark Place. With a dead kid there’s almost always abuse first. In smalltown rural Pennsylvania garbage truck driver Donny Devlin (Andrew Scott) becomes obsessed with the death of local boy Tyler Ziegler when the police don’t want to investigate how he is found in a river and he is buried without an autopsy. Donny takes it upon himself to investigate, irritating his initially sympathetic co-worker Donna (Bronagh Waugh), getting an admission of suspicion of abuse from Mrs Ziegler (Kate Forbes), confronting a local police officer Max Himmler (Griff Furst), tackling the sheriff (Michael Rose), the paediatrician Dr Pomorowski (Andrew Masset) whose office has taken a lot of calls from Tyler’s mom and finally suspecting the boy’s father Jerry (Jason Davies). His own disordered personality almost puts him in the frame, until he digs up Tyler’s corpse and brings it to a coroner to prove his suspicions … Nothing ever happens around here. Brendan Higgins’ screenplay is equal parts character study and mystery. The noises in Donny’s head and his frankly unusual disposition are never truly explained, the grounds for his obsession left untapped other than a presumed autistic problem hence a rather narrow field of enquiry. The circumstances of how he conceived his beloved 11-year old daughter Wendy (Christa Beth Campbell) with Linda (Denise Gough) are rather seedy;  his living situation with his disabled mother (Sandra Ellis Lafferty) kindly depicted. Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography peers into the American darklands but other than corruption, the kind of easy institutional conspiracy that seems ten-a-penny in child abuse cases and the interesting positing of a paediatrician as a paedophile (one is reminded of a case in the UK when subliterate vigilantes targetted a doctor’s office, presumably believing that child abusers advertise their predilections on their doors), it doesn’t really ring the narrative cause-effect that is required. However it is tonally interesting and Scott delivers a committed if distracting performance in this ironically titled story where industry has long departed leaving predators free to exploit their working class targets. The ending is jaw-dropping – just not necessarily in a good way. Directed by Simon Fellows. What are you trying to do? You trying to give your shitty life some meaning?

The Goldfinch (2019)

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We don’t say fake. It’s reproduction. Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley/ Ansel Elgort) was 13 years old when his mother Audrey (Hailey Wist) was killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He is taken in by the Upper East Side Barbour family whose mother Samantha (Nicole Kidman) understands his fragility while his estranged friendship with her younger son Andy (Ryan Houst) is rekindled.  She discovers an engraved ring in Theo’s possession and he returns it to Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) at the antiques and restoration store Hobart & Blackwell where he recognises the lovely redheaded girl Pippa (Aimee Laurence/Ashleigh Cummings) who was standing beside him just before the bomb exploded and they become fast friends. She is the niece of Welty Blackwell (Robert Joy) whose dying words to Theo were to take his mom’s favourite painting the 1654 masterpiece The Goldfinch from the bomb site and a dazed Theo puts it in his backpack and stores it at his home.  All seems on an even keel until his freshly detoxed loser father Larry (Luke Wilson) reappears and abruptly takes him to Nevada to set up house with live-in cocktail waitress girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson). Life in the desert has an alien quality and he is befriended by sun-hating Ukrainian Goth Boris (Finn Wolfhard/Aneurian Barnard) who introduces him to a supply of mind-numbing drugs and alcohol while he himself has to deal with a violent father. Theo realises his own father is trying to rip him off and use his private school funds to gamble so escapes back to NYC where we find him as a young man working for Hobie selling upscaled faux antiques and reunited with the Barbour family:  Andy and Mr Barbour (Boyd Gaines) have died in a sailing accident and Samantha is unhinged by depression but delighted to see him again.  He gets engaged to her daughter Kitsey (Willa Fitzgerald) but before long finds out he is not her true love, while Pippa remains out of reach.  After a bad sale to vicious art collector Lucius Reeve (Denis O’Hare) Theo discovers that The Goldfinch has been used as collateral in a criminal deal in Miami. When he runs into the grownup Boris in a bar he finds the beloved painting is not in the safe place where he stored it after all… In Amsterdam I dreamt I saw my mother again.  Adapted by Peter Straughan from Donna Tartt’s bestselling Bildungsroman, I arrive unburdened by reading the 880-page behemoth, an overlength only deserving of Tolstoy or someone of that order. Even without that experience, this has clear affinities with Dickens and allusions to Salinger, carrying with it an understanding of the difficulties of childhood and the intensity of friendship in a narrative dominated by the symbolic qualities of guilt. This is the opposite of a fast-moving art heist movie. It has an endearing shaggy dog style only broken by the fragmented nature of the storytelling and a late slackening in pace followed by the sudden violence of the ending in Amsterdam where the titular painting is eventually located and subject of a wild shootout. Much of the pleasure is in the juxtaposing of alienating landscapes of arid desert and rinky dink city locales. Kidman and Wolfhard are rivetting, Fegley is quite impenetrable but that’s not a bad thing given the story and how it is revealed, while Elgort is rather problematic as usual. Some of these performances might have been more effective had the story been told in sequence. There’s a wonderful, sonorous score by Trevor Gureckis and, if you allow it, much of this film will bring you into a world of childhood and loss rarely portrayed on screen. This, after all, is about the look of love and the love of looking and their complementary rewards and the only mystery is why this particular painting elicits such desire.

The Vanishing (2018)

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Aka Keepers. In 1900, three lighthouse keepers, James (Gerard Butler), Thomas (Peter Mullan) and the newcomer Donald (Connor Swindells) depart for their six-week long sojourn at the remote Flannan Isles lighthouse. After a storm, they find a boat with an apparently dead man who’s been flung out of it. But when Donald tries to winch up a heavy trunk that’s fallen out, the man rises out of the water and tries to kill the youngster – before he defends himself. Thomas is the first one to open the trunk and finds it filled with gold ingots. Then the dead man’s friends Locke (Søren Malling) and Boor (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) turn up … Written by Joe Bone and Celyn Jones, and adapted from a true-ish story of the disappearance of three men from Eilean Mor Lighthouse, this admirably dour outing has a surprisingly effective psychological mechanism, one that was used to similar effect by John Huston decades earlier in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, itself a masterpiece of greed, guilt and amoral behaviour. It has that and old-school brutal violence going for it in a narrative stripped to the bone. The landscape may be different but the murderousness is of a highly vicious quality. Shot around the Mull of Galloway, Port Logan harbour, Killantringan Lighthouse near Portpatrick and Corsewall Lighthouse  near Stranraer.  Directed by Kristoffer Nyholm.