Elephant (2003)

Elephant

Get the fuck out of here, shit is going to happen. John (John McFarland) is being driven through the suburbs to school by his drunken father (Timothy Bottoms). Alex (Alex Frost) is a talented pianist being bullied at Watt High School, Oregon. He and his best friend slacker Eric (Eric Deulen) play video games, watch a documentary about Nazis, have sex in the shower and load up on guns. On their way into the building wearing camo gear and carrying black bags, Alex warns John not to go in. Elias (Elias McConnell) goes round the hallways photographing other students before going to the school newspaper office to develop his pictures. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) leaves the football field with girlfriend Carrie. Bespectacled outcast Michelle (Kristen Hicks) runs through the corridors and escapes to the library to avoid sports. Three bulimic girls gossip and end up in the Ladies’ Room. When the boys fail to explode propane bombs and prowl the corridors and library shooting everyone on sight, Acadia (Alicia Miles) freezes and Benny (Bennie Dixon) helps her escape through a window … Damn, they shot him. Gus Van Sant’s meditative exploration of the moments leading up to a Columbine high school-like massacre looks and feels less assured than it did upon release. Perhaps because unlike its source material (Alan Clarke’s BBC film Elephant, which was about sectarian politics in Northern Ireland) it is politically rootless unless you regard teenage alienation as justification for genocide and the inclusion of a TV documentary about Nazism adequate as rationale for unleashing senseless violence upon your contemporaries. Perhaps that is the point – that children and guns are just not a good mix, teenagers are unknowable and basically ungovernable, allowing them too much time on their own is a really bad idea because literally anything could happen in those burgeoning adults. The over the shoulder tracking shots down the school corridors and their repetitive nature bring us back to the same moments again and again giving the narrative a poetic rhythm and spatial familiarity, as does the auditory track which occasionally lapses into silence and then white noise, particularly when Alex is sitting in the cafeteria and we get a hint of the killings to come. There is no doubt that the very boring nature of the scenario and the real-time pacing lends an incremental tension to the situation. The biggest problem here is that the affectlessness of the protagonists means a conventional drama cannot be constructed and a moral is hard to discern while the filmmaker is attempting to get into these boys’ brains. That is the core of the story: there are things that people simply cannot get to grips with. The moment when a teacher approaches a student who’s just been shot dead at a classroom door and treats it as if it’s normal is simply staggering. Screenplay by Van Sant with controversial ‘memoirist’ JT LeRoy and Diane Keaton credited as producers on a project that started life as a documentary. Most importantly, have fun

Deep Impact (1998)

Deep Impact.jpg

This is not a videogame, son. One year after teenage astronomer Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) spots a comet the size of Mount Everest heading for Earth, journalist Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) mistakes the scoop of a lifetime for a story about the mistress of the US President Beck (Morgan Freeman). Once she’s allowed into the loop of the Extinction Level Event with the rest of the press pack she finds that with one year to go before it could hit the planet there’s a plan to build a system of caves while a joint US/Russian spacecraft nicknamed Messiah being led by veteran astronaut Captain Sturgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall) is going to try to intercept its path with nuclear weapons … People know you. They trust you. A disaster movie par excellence, this mixes up men on a mission and race against time tropes with ideas about God, friendship, family and the all-pervasive sense of doom that settles upon people learning of an entire planet’s imminent destruction and how they deal with it. Leoni doesn’t quite have the expressivity to offer a mature performance although her particular role is buttressed by the subplot of her unhappiness at her father Jason’s (Maximilian Schell) new marriage while her beloved mother Robin (Vanessa Redgrave) suffers. However the entire drama is well structured and tautly managed. Written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin (as a vague remake of When Worlds Collide, 1951) and expertly handled by Mimi Leder, better known for TV’s ER, some of whose alumni feature here. Let’s go home

Catch-22 (1970)

Catch 22.jpg

Help the bombardier. Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) an American pilot stationed in the Mediterranean who flies bombing missions during World War II attempts to cope with the madness of armed conflict. Convinced that everyone is trying to murder him, he decides to try to become certified insane but that is merely proof that he’s fully competent. Surrounded by eccentric military officers, such as the opportunistic 1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), Yossarian has to resort to extreme measures to escape his dire and increasingly absurd situation... All great countries are destroyed, why not yours? Not being a fan of the rather repetitive and circular source novel aids one’s enjoyment of this adaptation by director Mike Nichols who was coasting on the stunning success of his first two movies (also adaptations), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, which was also adapted by Buck HenryThe critical reception for this resisted adulation instead focusing on a flawed construction which really goes back to Joseph Heller’s book and does not conform to the rules of a combat picture as well as contracting the action and removing and substituting characters. But aside from the overall absurdity which is literally cut in an act of stunning violence which shears through one character in shocking fashion, there is dialogue of the machine gun variety which you’d expect from a services satire and there are good jokes about communication, following orders, profiteering and stealing parachutes to sell silk on the black market.  There are interesting visual and auditory ways of conveying Yossarian’s inner life – in the first scene we can’t hear him over the noise of the bombings, because his superiors are literally deaf to what he’s saying, a useful metaphor. The impressionistic approach of Henry’s adaptation is one used consistently, preparing the audience for the culmination of the action in a surreal episode worthy of Fellini. I like it a lot, certainly more than the recent TV adaptation and the cast are just incredible:  Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen and Orson Welles among a large ensemble. Even novelist Philip Roth plays a doctor. It’s shot by David Watkin, edited by Sam O’Steen and the production is designed by Richard Sylbert. Where the hell’s my parachute?

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

The World is not Enough.jpg

There’s no point in living if you can’t feel alive. Britains’ top agent James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is entrusted with the responsibility of protecting Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) the daughter of M’s (Judi Dench) college friend, an oil tycoon murdered while collecting money at MI6 in London. While on his mission in Kazakhstan, he learns about an even more dangerous plot involving psychotic villain Renard (Robert Carlyle) and teams up with nuclear physicist Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) while enjoying a romance with the woman he’s been sent to protect … This is a game I can’t afford to play. Brosnan is back and he’s a charmingly effective Bond in a literally explosive set of action sequences packed with non-stop quips, assaults and well-choreographed kinetic adventures commencing with a bomb in MI6 HQ. Marceau is lovely as his marvellously outfitted female foil, Carlyle is a useful if underexploited villain and Richards is perfect as the preposterously beautiful nuclear physicist whose name gives rise to some great puns in the climactic scene. The only inconsistency is M being made a dupe but you can’t fault the transition from Q to R (John Cleese as a Fawlty-ish successor) or the casting of Robbie Coltrane as a bumptious Russian casino proprietor. The screenplay is credited to Bond regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade from a story devised with Bruce Feirstein but weirdly somebody forgot to mention spy mastermind Ian Fleming. The title song performed by Garbage is composed by David Arnold and the legendary lyricist Don Black. The endless fun is directed by Michael Apted. You can’t kill me – I’m already dead

 

The Irishman (2019)

The Irishman

It is what it is. In 1975 mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and his boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives are on an east-west roadtrip, their ultimate destination Detroit for the wedding of Russell’s niece. An elderly Sheeran tells the story of their association as a meet-cute when he was driving a meat truck in the 1950s and his rise through the ranks, his appointment to a Teamster position under Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) the union supremo with deep Mafia ties. It becomes apparent that there is an ulterior motive to the journey and their role in America’s evolution particularly with regard to the Kennedy family is traced against a series of hits Sheeran carries out that reverberate through US history… What kind of man makes a call like that. Not so much Goodfellas as Oldfellas, a ruminative journey through midcentury America via the prism of a violent hitman who allegedly befriended and later murdered infamous Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. This is toned-down Scorsese, with muted colours to match the readjusted and very mature framing of Mafia doings in terms of the impact it has on family, chiefly Sheeran’s sensitive daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin as an adult) whose mostly silent presence functions as the story’s moral centre:  her horror of Bufalino is a constant reprimand. Steven (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) Zaillian’s adaptation of Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses is not for the fainthearted:  its overlength is sustained mainly by performance with a powerhouse set of principals (plus Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale et al) battling against a lot of unmemorable and somewhat repetitive dialogue (but when it’s good, it’s great), under-dramatised setpieces and a fatally bloated midsection (as in life, so in narrative), much of which is spent in courtrooms. Every time there’s a lull in the action someone needs Frank to off the source of their discontent and sometimes this is handled with straightforward exposition, sometimes in a montage of Frank disposing gun after gun off a bridge. That’s the story punctuation in this flashback within a flashback. Mostly however the issue is DeNiro’s dull and wearying voiceover. This is not the funny jive kick of Ray Liotta in the aforementioned 1990 classic, it’s a man utterly comfortable in his killer’s skin who doesn’t defend himself because it’s who he is and he is not given to introspection, a flaw in the amoral anchoring perspective. If we’re seeing it, we don’t need to be told too. The de-ageing effect is jarring because we don’t see the DeNiro of Mean Streets, rather a jowly preternaturally middle-aged man who shuffles in an old man’s gait with no visible difference between how he looks in 1950 and 1975. While Pesci is calm and chillingly content in his own position as a capo, it’s Pacino (in his first collaboration with Scorsese) who lifts the mood and fills the air with punchy, positive ions, giving the movie a much-needed burst of energy. But even he seems to be circling the wagons around his own self-satisfied persona as the same story/work-life issues repeatedly arise. It’s a big movie about nasty men who (perhaps) played a huge role in the shaping of their country and the hierarchies of cultures and ethnicities are regularly invoked in a tale which may or may not be true. There are some potentially amusing gatherings of men in black suits at family events. But funny they ain’t.  It’s sad perhaps that Scorsese didn’t make this for cinema and after three weeks on limited release it is fated for eternity on a streaming service:  a sign of the times and perhaps the swansong of a major filmmaker at the end of the 2010s. The nail in the coffin of an era? After this we might be asking not just who killed Jimmy Hoffa but who killed the mob movie. Late Scorsese, in more ways than one. They can whack the President, they can whack the president of the union

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

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

The Marriage of Maria Braun.jpg

Aka Die Ehe der Maria Braun. I don’t know a thing about business. But I do know what German women want. You might even say I’m an expert on it. Near the end of World War II, Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries Hermann (Klaus Lowitsch), who is immediately sent off to battle at the Russian front before the marriage can be consummated. When the war concludes, Maria believes that Hermann is dead. The new widow tries to make a go of life on her own and she starts working at an Allied bar, where she meets black American GI Bill (George Byrd). They start a relationship that is interrupted when Hermann returns unexpectedlyyy. During a scuffle between the men, in the heat of the moment Maria accidentally kills Bill. Hermann takes the blame and goes to jail, while Maria begins a hard new life and builds an empire of her own … He kept me warm on those cold nights after the war. Practically a German take on Mildred Pierce with the miraculous Schygulla giving Joan Crawford a run for her money (Fassbinder had intended the role for Romy Schneider) in the post-war noir-ish businesswoman stakes, this is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fiercely sardonic take on marriage and money set in a new kind of Germany with a nod to Brecht. Life for women involves transactional sex which is justified as the ultimate practicality: I don’t care what people think. I do care what you think. And you’re not having an affair with me. I’m having an affair with you. The entire text bleeds fascism – how politics is funneled through culture to create a political landscape, whether we like it or not, infecting everyone who inhabits it.  This is the first of Fassbinder’s three Wirtschaftswunder films and is a key work of the New German Cinema with an ending that literally detonates before your eyes. Eva describes herself as the Mata Hari of the Economic Miracle and this dissects desire in all its forms. The screenplay is by Pea Fröhlich and Peter Mörthesheimer who also wrote the dialogue with director Fassbinder, based on his outline (and he plays a small role in the drama).  It’s a perfect blend of subject matter, realisation and performance, graced with stunning cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. Reality lags behind my consciousness

The Thing From Another World (1951)

The Thing from Another World.jpg

Do you suppose the Pentagon could send us a revolving door?  Scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) reports a UFO near his North Pole research base, the US Air Force sends in a team under Capt. Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) to investigate. They uncover a wrecked spaceship and a humanoid creature (James Arness) frozen in the ice. They bring their discovery back to the base, but Carrington and Hendry disagree over what to do with it. Meanwhile, the creature is accidentally thawed and begins wreaking havoc... That’s what I like about the Army – smart all the way to the top! Produced and closely supervised by Howard Hawks, although this is credited to editor Christian Nyby as director, it is usually categorised as a Hawks film (Tobey said Hawks directed all but one scene) and it has his usual tropes – a community of professional men on a mission, quick wit and a feisty woman (and Margaret Sheridan gets most of the best lines as Tobey’s useful love interest). I’m not your enemy – I’m a scientist! Add to this an alien accidentally defrosted and a journalist desperate to share a scoop, together with a philosophical difference between soldiers and scientists raging as a blizzard whirls outside and you have a thriller perfectly modulated in tense phases culminating in a dynamic fight that emblemises the Cold War (that setting’s no accident). Part of the narrative’s psychology derives from the horrors of Hiroshima and contemporary public scepticism about the supposed advances of science. This is a fun, smart, well-written and staged entertainment – it could only be Hawks, not that it really matters. Adapted from John W. Campbell Jr’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? by Charles Lederer with uncredited work by Ben Hecht and Hawks. Watch the skies!

The Weaker Sex (1948)

The Weaker Sex

I wish I didn’t feel so cut off.   Widowed Martha Dacre (Ursula Jeans) tries to keep house and home together for her two serving daughters Helen (Joan Hopkins) who’s involved with radio officer Nigel (Derek Bond) and Lolly (Lana Morris) who’s going out with sailor Roddy (John Stone);  and servicemen billeted on her in Portsmouth, a naval base during WW2. While son Benjie (Digby Wolfe) is away in the Navy she has chosen to stay at home as a housewife, but when she learns that his ship has been damaged during the D Day landings, she regrets not taking a more active role in the war and works in a canteen and as a fire watcher. The family story moves forward from D-Day to VE-Day, the 1945 general election and on to 1948. Martha eventually re-marries to her late husband’s colleague, naval officer Geoffrey (Cecil Parker) who was one of those billeted on her and has become a father-figure to her son and daughters…  Oh dear, who’d be a mother? This British homefront drama was released three years following the conclusion of hostilities so it has the benefit of victorious hindsight as well as expressing the postwar era when everyone was completely obsessed with the lack of food. Adapted from actress Esther McCracken’s 1944 stage play No Medals by Paul Soskin with additional scenes created by Val Valentine to bring it up to the year of shooting, it’s a witty drama filled with resigned Keep Calm and Carry On messages underscored by dissatisfaction at the dreariness of housework and the plight of women whose life is dictated by the unavailability of food which becomes a thoroughly good running joke:  The housewives’ battle cry – the fishmonger’s got fish! cackles housekeeper Mrs Gaye (Thora Hird). Intended as post-war propaganda, a kind of decent British take on Hollywood’s Mrs Miniver (minus the Nazi in the garden) with added politics, it’s smart, unfussy and fair, yet trenchant and involving.  Jeans is terrific as the middle class woman finding herself rather (class) envious of Harriet Lessing (Marian Spencer) living in a serviced flat and volunteering:  there’s humour to be had in a lovely payoff when Harriet gets her public comeuppance after the war as rationing motivates her to head the local Militant Housewives League and she gets caught up in an unholy scrimmage which fetches up on the front page of the papers. Parker is a great casting choice – the guy not ashamed of being seen decked out in his uniform doing the vacuuming who can say unabashed to Jeans, I never had a genuinely platonic friendship with a woman before. Of course we know where that leads. He digs in and gets creative when he’s sick of being starved of regular food – and milks a goat. I slept and dreamed that life was beauty, I woke and found that life is duty. There is a great sense of warmth in the family relationships and a scene of remarkable tension when Helen and Martha play a card game awaiting a phonecall to find out whether Nigel has survived a bombing.  Jeans tells herself when awaiting more bad news, I mustn’t back down. I must try to be of some use. Parker responds, This language of ours is so completely inadequate. They are expressing the weariness of a nation almost done in yet somehow dragging itself up to cope with the inevitability of ongoing loss. There are occasional dips into newsreel montages to bring a context to the experiences as the story commences in the run up to D Day, through VE Day, the 1945 General Election, Hiroshima and after, but the footage is smoothly integrated and doesn’t disrupt the narrative flow. Hugely successful in its day it’s a really rather spiffing reminder of how and why Britain came through the war, the importance of family and sadly that tragic deaths don’t just occur in wartime. Crisply shot by Erwin Hillier amid exquisite sets by Alex Vetchinsky and this raft of wonderful performances are very well directed by Roy [Ward] Baker. Shabby perhaps, but not yet shoddy

Backstabbing for Beginners (2018)

Backstabbing_for_Beginners_poster.png

Information is everything  – the currency, the power. Young United Nations employee Michael Soussan (Theo James) has left his lucrative job at a bank because he wants to follow in his late diplomat father’s footsteps and travels to Iraq with his mentor Under-Secretary-General Costa ‘Pasha’ Passaris (Ben Kingsley), who is going to show him how successful the UN’s Oil-for-Food Programme has been. When Michael gets a deeper look at the organisation on the ground he listens to the concerns of local UN diplomat Christina Dupre (Jacqueline Bisset) and unveils a corruption conspiracy in which officials both inside and outside of the UN are skimming billions off the top of the aid meant for the Iraqi people. When he meets UN worker (and secret Kurdish activist) Nashim (Bilçim Bilgin) and she informs him his predecessor was murdered, he finds his head being turned yet he wants to do the right thing … There was nobody left who knew how to run the countryPitched as a political thriller, this reeks of the great Seventies paranoid conspiracy stories that Pakula and Pollack made so much their own – and even concludes in a visit to the Wall Street Journal, conjuring images of Robert Redford in his own cat and mouse chase. However this whistleblower drama is a bigger story with the bad guys less easy to identify simply because there are so many of them – thousands of global companies, some household brands, bribing Saddam Hussein, and, as we might recall from the news of 15 years ago, revolved around the United Nations. So basically everything we know is right – they’re all at it, as the overly truthful title indicates. Graft is good. Our shoulder-shrugging dismay is sealed by intermittent montages of newsreel, reminding us that we are watching, as it were, a true story, while some of the ensemble get killed in car bombs as Iraq is carved up by vested interests. Kingsley, unsurprisingly, gets all the best lines and this performance is meat and drink to him. James is more diffuse as the good guy constantly stunned into submission by the realisation that corruption is a way of life and he still scrabbles to do whatever is right, whatever that might be, at any given time as the tables are constantly turned on him in this story of a naïf’s progress.  Adapted from Soussan’s memoir by director Per Fly (isn’t that the best name ever?!) and Daniel Pyne. Admirable but not wholly effective.  What you call corruption is simply the growing pains of a new democracy